The Process of Empathy

The Process of Empathy

Steve Morris from the Cine-Files podcast made a really great observation during their discussion of the movie Psycho: for a while, you’re on Norman Bates’s side. It’s after the scene when he discovers Marion, dead, in the shower (“Mother! Oh God, Mother! Blood! Blood!“) and before the scene of the car sinking into the bog (while Bates chews candies, nervously, before expressing a smug satisfaction when the car’s fully swallowed). Both of those scenes show Bates’s arrested development (the candy, the way he cries “mother” over and again…) but what happens in between (and I couldn’t find a clip for this to my shame. DAMMIT PIERRE!) is the meticulous cleaning Norman Bates performs on the murder scene. Without knowing the ending (as I somehow didn’t on my first watch all those years ago, through some miracle), we assume Bates feels compelled to protect his mother. But it’s being alongside him as he washes away the blood and carries the body to the car that we actually root for the villain, ending reveal notwithstanding. As Morris puts it, “Whenever we watch somebody in a process, we end up on their side.”

I think there’s a lot to that.

Watching somebody work gives you a different, occasionally more insightful, look into their personality than simply talking to them. You ever hire somebody? Or be involved in the hiring process? You can talk to a person and get a performance highlighting all of their best attributes but the day they show up to work, they’re a shitshow. Watching someone wash their hands before handling food is ultimately more important than them saying “I’m a good cook.”

Which throws us back to the old writing adage, “show don’t tell.” With which, I’ll refry this down into two questions: why is it effective to show a process in narrative and why does that gain audience sympathy?

The immediate answer is that work is common. On the grand scale, few people have actually cleaned blood in any real sense (side note: I interviewed some folks who worked in some bath houses and found that cum, piss and vomit were no issue. Blood, however…) but they have had to deal with mess. Few people have actually carried a body and shoved it into a car but, most people have carried an awkward TV, couch, or bed frame and have tried to make it work spatially in a van. Not everyone cleans, but everyone works. That alone makes you empathize, on a dark level, with Norman Bates.

There’s an oft mentioned study about how reading fiction makes people more empathetic. The casual explanation is that by reading with someone else’s brain for 300 pages, one tends to carry that perspective along with them back into the real world– or at least, the learned ability to entertain notions that are not their own. I’d agree with that assessment, but I also think there’s something to be said about any and all media that challenges the audience to ask themselves, “what would I do in this situation?” or perhaps, “what would I ideally to do in this situation?”

See, if I was Lewellyn Moss in No Country for Old Men, I would probably spend the entire book not hunting and eating chips on the couch as a seedy world of intrigue and carnage obliviously passes me by. Luckily, for art’s sake, I’m not Lewellyn. Cormac McCarthy (and the Coen’s faithful film adaptation) does something simple and brilliant: we’re shown characters of few words and inner reflection simply work through solving problems step by step without us being told what the problem is.

Moss is carrying a bag filled with two million dollars. He rents a motel room and stashes the money in a vent. He suspects (correctly) that the cartel is waiting to murder him and reclaim the money. So he rents another motel room behind his current one. Then he buys tent poles, leaving the audience going “buh-why?” It’s only when he tapes a bunch of coat hangers to the end of it that we realize that he intends to snake the bag of money through the vent and reclaim it in the new, parallel room. Similarly, we see Anton Chigurh use a bag of gas station sundries to blow up a car, only to find that that it’s a ruse to steal anesthetic drugs so he can perform self-surgery.

Scenes like these build tension because you have to wonder “the hell does he need a lid to a box of cotton swabs for?” Once you’ve been shown the reason, or the problem solved, you like it for a different reason: the characters’ intelligence is fully illustrated. Whether it’s Moss blowing water out of the chamber of a gun so it’ll ignite a bullet when he shoots a dog in the face or Chigurh turning off the light in the hallway so his feet won’t shadow under the door, we see something being worked out during the action of the story and we double-down on our admiration/respect for these characters because we’re either thinking, “I wish I had thought of that,” or “Yes. That is what I would ideally have done in the same scenario.”

The reason why heist movies like Oceans 11 (or Hereditary, a heist movie) are so engaging is because it’s 90% process. We like seeing a plan come together even if we don’t know what the plan is. Ocean’s 11 is primarily about a bunch of criminals, doing crimes. Or, rather, a bunch of criminals executing a convoluted strategy to pull off one crime. The actors are charming, which helps, but robbery usually isn’t that sexy of a crime (see: Raising Arizona, Reservoir Dogs). But if you add a sequential series of fancy pranks, some glib banter shared between 13 Hollywood stars, and a grand revealing of a few red-herrings, you get a competent, satisfying story– but only because you watched the characters earn it step by step.

Ocean’s 11 is an oddly apt example because, just as you don’t know what the plan really looks like, you also don’t know what Danny Ocean’s true motivation is as it could be revenge against the man who’s dating his wife, an attempt to get back with his wife, or pure greed. Surprise! It’s all three! But that only comes together in the very end when the audience is led to believe that he would betray one motivation for another. It’s not high-cerebral storytelling here, but it does work, and it is clever in its own right (for a movie I watched with my mom while my brother was at a youth group superbowl party 18 years ago that I wasn’t invited to).

The obfuscation of motivation is important when showing a process. In Psycho, no matter what we’re led to believe, we want Bates to succeed in hiding that body. In No Country, we want Chigurh to heal his leg because we suffered through watching him tweeze buckshot from the meat of his thigh. What a character wants is an integral part of writing but it’s something that drives a character throughout an entire arc and is only understood in retrospect. In fiction and cinema, we’re only exposed to these characters scene by scene and those characters have very immediate needs despite their longterm desires. Hey, kinda like life, ya know?

Showing a process of action is not unlike showing a thought process, brought to you by this new-fangled technology of first person narrative, where the reader is up against the grain of a character’s decision making. It’s a more intimate relationship, to be sure, as the reader might stop thinking “that’s what I would do,” and instead entertain, “this is what I did,” but the story itself shouldn’t be too different. And the reason, with, you know, good fiction, is a certain with-holding of motivation.

It’s noir time.

Phillip Marlowe is a pretty damn good chess player. He strategizes, he thinks, he mulls, he makes decisions. Even still, he bumbles into situations making him a hapless sap that often leaves him bloody and bruised with yet another body laying in the next room. Homeboy once smoked a laced cigarette and spent three hours on a floor. Sometimes he has a theory about how everything shakes out only to find that all of his instincts were wrong. Then he makes some plays against the antagonist and the truth finally outs. There’s a disconnect there, yeah? Even though he’s telegraphing his story to you, he isn’t going to tell you how he brought everything together until the very end, because it’s very likely that Marlowe is flying without a map until all the pieces are aligned and even then you’re still taken aback that the bastard fit it all together. It’s a bit of a motherfucker to know the narrator’s opinion about a secretary’s dress and not know the plan. That’s part of how story works, sure, but it’s also an example of how the narration itself is a strategic process– the narrator decides what to tell you and when, despite the narrator living in your brain.

It’s the whole principle behind Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest, wherein our Continental Op is dropped into a corrupt town, expected to pick sides between the corrupt cops and the criminals. The Op plays off of ALL of those expectations and nets so, so many bodies. Only it turns out, The Op’s motivation was to simply stir chaos on both sides, not necessarily knowing that they would murder each other– he had no plan, he’s just a drunk fucking psychopath. Still, he tells us every decision he makes as he systematically destroys the institutions and crooks, but he never tells us why, likely because he doesn’t know or doesn’t remember. He’s driven, in his own words, “blood simple.”

And we’re in their corner, despite them being monsters or virtuous, if occasionally inept, troublemakers. What people respond to are decisions, whether that’s shown through cleaning blood from a bathroom or scheduling a massacre of the police force with a phone call.

Still.

With the advent of reality television and video games, I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that we find routine processes humanizing. We watch entire blocks of entertainment dedicated to showing us the machines that make taffy, step by step. We follow Alaskan fishermen into the waves, cops into the streets, chefs into the kitchens. We come home from work to watch someone else do their job. We’ve attached so much personality to an Italian plumber because of the personal satisfaction of bringing him from the left side of a screen to the right (and we’ve apparently made so much goddamn pornography from a blue hedgehog, simply because he had to go fast).

It’s not surprising, but it’s something that I consider often when writing. I utilize “showing the process” of a character regularly, for the reasons I’ve explained: it illustrates intelligence, it creates tension, and it can exist outside of the over-arching motivation and focus on the immediate’s scene’s needs. There’s a delicate balance at stake here, as a reader’s attention-span is only so thick, and I sometimes worry that I’m tugging the boat a little too far. Truth be told, sometimes I think tugging the boat is pretty funny. Sometimes you need to “yada-yada” the reader along. But in writing The Fish Fox Boys Part Three: Ballad of the Badger Knights (which is free for Kindle until 3/15), I found that exploring the process in how someone builds or grows things provides several opportunities to further explore setting (In FFBIII, we get a better sense of the geographical landscape when Anne puts her mind to mutating corn. We get inside the old dilapidated schools, twice, when Fred and Adam go scavenging for parts, once in a rural school and again in an inner city one and there should be a difference felt between the two). I found that there’s an opportunity for characterization when the process frustrates the hero and we get to see how they handle that frustration. And while I tried to keep the flow of information economical, hints of motivation are indeed present, although mostly through subtext. Anne’s obsession with winning the Corn Festival had less to do with her justification of philanthropy and more to do with vain ambition just as Adam’s willingness to scavenge has more to say about his need to please a new friend, instead of serving his old friend’s needs.

And then there’s the logic itself: the simple satisfaction one receives from solving a problem, even if the character was responsible for the problem in the first place. It doesn’t matter if the reader themselves never invented a Zamboodlator, they’ll still listen to how you made it. I know this, because every time I pop the hood of my 1984 Volvo, there’s suddenly six dudes from no-where, peering over my shoulder, examining something that they do not understand yet have advice anyway.

Makes me think if I ever discover a body in my shower, the same audience will appear and one would say, “Clean the bathroom.” Another, “Put it in the trunk of a car.”

And another would agree, saying, “That’s what I would do.”

I just officially released The Fish Fox Boys Part Three yesterday. If you catch this blog before 3/15/2019, you can get a free copy of the book here. If paperback’s your game, as is mine, get that shit here. It’s a fairy-tale about the end of the world, what’s not to like?

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A Game of Thrones: Genre Smashing

A Game of Thrones: Genre Smashing

How the fuck did George R.R. Martin fool the general public into a near crack-addictive obsession with his Song of Ice and Fire?

Fantasy had always been this niche enterprise, an interest in which could get your ass kicked around a schoolyard. Even with the popularity of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, your dedication to the series determined how big of an ugly nerd you’d be judged as: “Oh, you read the books? Us cool kids only saw the movies! And, yeah, and, and we were necking! Ask Gracie if I wasn’t ploughing that neck like some sex god!”

Fantasy was so niche that the other end of the spectrum held similar defense mechanisms if you weren’t into it enough: “Oh, you haven’t even read the Similarion? Nice try, n00b. Me and Gracie were necking while discussing Idril’s lineage, like, twenty minutes ago before you showed up with your Aragorn-loving ass.”

Yet everyone gets into Game of Thrones. My dad’s read the entire series and I’m pretty sure he has a religious allergy to chocolate milk. My friends are fiends for the latest episodes and they all have theories. The nicest, old, old, ladies that ride the bus with me are holding Fire & Blood.

I wanna know why this polarized genre has found such a universal audience. So let’s start with the aforementioned properties that brought fantasy into the mainstream, shall we?

Twenty two years ago, a down-on-her-luck gal named Joanne Murray (JK Rowling to most) published a little book known as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (translated to the Sorcerer’s Stone for dumb American children). I myself read it in fifth grade and had a grand old talking-to with my teacher about the temptation of dark magic and its road to Satanism. Lutheran school. The book, and its subsequent six sequels, became a hit and a filmic phenomenon.

So why did Harry Potter break?

Well, Rowling was able to make the fantastical element of sorcery almost livable, enriching all of the daily elements of being a student, teacher, government employee, etcetera, with the pizazz of mysticism. Her tactic was to bring down magic to the ordinary, the familiar–  all of which would seem magical to the focal character who hadn’t experienced anything of the sort, just like the book’s readership. For young readers, going to school then became more exciting with a magical analogue, knowing that chemistry was potion making, soccer was Quidditch, and email was a bajillion electronic owls throwing messages back and forth.

She broke fantasy into a common tongue. While she didn’t invent Urban Fantasy as a genre, she made it accessible for young readers to grab onto in an empathetic way.

Aight.

In the earlier part of the 20th century, Tolkien managed the same feat. He followed up a fun, happy-go-lucky-go-wrong-go-lucky-again little romp called The Hobbit (ever heard of it?) and then followed it up with the masterwork earned from a life spent in academic research through mythology, Olde English, history, and the horrors he’d witnessed in World War One. And he needed to make it accessible.

Perhaps it’s his skill as an orator– much like the Velvet Underground leading to punk music, his reading of Beowulf apparently sparked a surge of interest into re-investigating the works in the olde tongue. Tolkien put his performative skills to the page knowing that his writing style needed to establish a mythos and lore similar to that of England’s storied history and mythology, while also remaining serviceable to the everyday reader. While he wrote in an archaic format, Tolkien would generally keep his prose fairly modern, allowing the uneducated masses (especially in America, which enabled his success) to finally access that sweet, sweet burgeoning Fantasy genre.

Which brings us back to George Rawr Rawr Martin. How’d he make Fantasy a universal genre? Martin, like Tolkien, was also guided by the possibilities of mythology, European history, and Catholicism (“lapsed” in Martin’s case) and brought the genre once again into the mainstream. Why so popular? Could it have been the more lenient censors? The blood? The violence? The big ole Red Witch titties? Igh…the incest? Sex and violence is nothing new, and while it certainly sells, it’s no guarantee of success. I think the motherfucker had the same instincts Rowling and Tolkien relied upon, updated with a life devoted to pop-cultural nerd shit.

He knew he needed to show us something familiar, whether we realized it or not. Instead of having us draw comparisons between the fantastical and the ordinary, Martin instead draws us into the fantasy by showing us a story we already find exciting:

Game of Thrones doesn’t start off in the Fantasy genre. It begins as Horror. A snowy glen, a doll-like corpse pinned to a tree comes back to life with blue fire in its eyes. It’s after the grisly aftermath of the White Walkers, when the deserter/survivor’s message gets cut short, doth the fantasy begin with a dark promise. The king visits, giving us a personae dramatis for the non-Stark players, and provides a launching pad for several story arcs, each with their own blurred genres. A political thriller foments when the alarming message that John Arryn has been murdered arrives. The forbidden romance between the Lannister twins is discovered. Jon Snow’s hero journey from Bastard to Badass begins by getting hammered. Sansa’s maturation story from a naïve believer in fairy-tales towards a well-versed decoder of deception is well set, as is Arya’s road from misfit to assassin. Tyrion gets his end wet.

All of these threads we are willing to follow. The bulk of the first book, however, is devoted to Ned Stark, who serves as the primary protagonist. And although his character is embroiled in political chaos and familial complexity, his narrative drive is identical to a hardboiled detective’s.

That’s right, bitches. I’m making this about noir. NED DETECTIVE.

Once he reaches King’s Landing, Ned’s arc falls into the classic structure of a steel-jawed man interviewing a sequence of people looking for the truth. His self-appointed charge is to prove that Cersei’s children ain’t his buddy Bobby Baratheon’s. Ned’s story is based in inquisition in search of the truth, for truth’s sake. Hence, he pokes around the government, he pokes around the common folk, pokes Gendry in the shoulder, he pokes around the ledgers. And he uncovers the scandal and confronts the Femme Fatale. Unlike your average noir thriller, the protagonist is beheaded in front of his daughters.

Which serves as the inciting incident for all of the other plot lines, each one a mishmash of genre regardless of the fantasy setting. A broken-man with a soft-spot for protecting naïve children? With a vendetta against his brother who injured him in their youth? Who finds the value of life through working with common, defenseless people? But still likes killing people? Without context, I’d say with 70% certainty, that I was describing a Kurosawa film. You know who I’m referring to.

Genre-smashing isn’t new.

The aforementioned Akira Kurosawa defined a generation of Japanese cinema by imbuing traditional samurai legends with the genre-specific elements of the western. You can follow this thread for awhile:  Blade Runner is pure noir slammed into a complete science-fiction setting. True Detective: Season One is noir, sure, but injected with the DNA of a buddy cop film, TV police procedural, and cosmic horror. Robert Brockway’s The Vicious Circuit series mixes punk-rock and some of the vilest horror I’ve ever put in my brain (and you should too). Evil Dead II mixes horror with slapstick comedy, while Slaughterhouse V mixes a horrifying account of World War II with quirky science fiction.

It comes down to the same science of making a good mixtape. The advice that my brother gave me on mixtape compilation: “You want to balance novelty with nostalgia.”

The reason is digestibility. You’re more willing to eat your first oyster if you spritz some lemon on it. The familiar makes the unknown easier to handle. The dark complexity of Blade Runner makes more sense if you’re slumming through the streets along with Rickard. True Detective: The turn from existential pessimism towards existential optimism would be way too heady and pedantic unless you had both Cohle and Hart find their Yellow King. The the reality of war in Slaughterhouse V would burden the reader with too much emotional weight unless it was delivered in a way that let the reader escape and put things in perspective just as the narrator describes the horrific events.

Taking one thing and smashing it into another thing is the basis of innovation. It’s the proverbial “you got my peanut butter in your chocolate.” It’s the reason pizzas are sold on bagels, the reason your fridge has a freezer attached to it. It needs to happen at a certain point and it happens on a near instinctual level– ask anyone who’s ever had to write music reviews of local artists: “They’re like Modest Mouse meets The Ramones– if Joey had range.” Science Fiction, at a certain point, was essentially a bunch of pulp drivel until pioneers such as Phillip K Dick and Stanislaw Lem came along and embedded a deep sense of meaning into it, reflecting our own lives, views, and the philosophies they were enchanted by. Hardboiled pulp detective fiction was wrangled by Hammet and Chandler until Ellroy elevated it to literary standards. Hell, you look at the progression of comic books, a medium nearly entirely written off because of its fringe appeal– and now those characters are currently dominating the box offices. The success and/or legacy of which comes down to the fact that the creators held the format of one thing in one hand and enmeshed it into the social topics of gender roles, race, sexuality, or insecurity– it stays relevant.

Game of Thrones is rooted in the fantasy world specific to Martin’s brain. What Martin has that other fantasy writers lack, is a cool understanding of the genres around him. He’s the über nerd who understands everything under the banner of geekdom, inside and out. It’s so complete that I’d wager you could remove the fantasy element entirely and you’d still be left with a competent and enjoyable series. Which gets close to answering my initial question:

Because there’s something that anyone could recognize as their favorite genre, everybody can get into it.

 

Pierre Manchot blends Fantasy with Science Fiction and Dystopia in his humorous series The Fish Fox Boys, the third book of which is soon to be published. Get caught up starting with the first novel here 

 

Biographical details lifted from Wizard and the Bruiser episodes of JRR Tolkien and G.RR. Martin:

(https://soundcloud.com/wizbru/jrr-tolkiens-the-lord-of-the-rings-pt-i)

(https://soundcloud.com/wizbru/game-of-thrones)

Case For (and Against) True Detective Season 2

Case For (and Against) True Detective Season 2

Season 3 of True Detective is rolling out some premium episodes, oozing with mysterious juices while drawing up another intricate web of deceit and dark psychology. The third take in the miniseries is more grounded than it’s predecessors–  the set designs, shooting locations and wardrobe are more understated than ever before and feel worn and degraded or otherwise perfectly tacky in that chintzy 80s kind of way. They absolutely nail what it feels like to be inside a civic building in the south with the 1990 police interview shots– claustrophobic, ancient, with bare, tan brick walls. The season’s coming into its own, keeping the story as simple as possible but unraveling it in a convoluted way. Like the old mystery-writing adage goes, “Write the ending first, then work backwards,” or in Season 3’s case, “Write the ending first, then jump all over the place.”

Pizzolatto must have learned from the Sophomore season’s mistakes, which utilized the narrative strategy of “make a story as impossibly convoluted as possible, make all of the convolutions essentially worthless to the story, but make it look cool as hell.” Despite all that, I’m not a hater on Season 2. It looks cool as hell and delivered several wonderful TV moments and surprisingly subtle touches in a season otherwise over-rife with crying, moody staring, and balls-to-the-wall violence.

There many reasons people thought Season 2 didn’t work. In my estimate, about half of it fell on the production. Part of what made Season 1 so powerful was its directorial tone with Cary Fukunaga eking out harrowing shots from the Louisiana landscape. Whether or not that could’ve been replicated is besides the point, the first season felt complete. Season 2 had 5 directors for 8 episodes. They do a good job in making the LA landscape seem like a futile wasteland as well as transforming the woodland areas into something unspeakably sinister. Still, with that many directors, there’s gonna be some jank between episodes, and the stylistic flourishes of each director combat that of the others. And you can feel it.

A lot of people flared their anger towards the casting director and Vince Vaughn caught the brunt of the hate. I enjoyed Vince Vaughn as Frank Semyon. While some couldn’t get over his filmography of being a wedding crasher or the hippie dipshit that causes all the grief in Jurassic Park: Lost World, I’ll never disparage an actor for trying something different in their career– hell, travel back in time to the 1980’s and tell audiences Bill fucken’ Murray will have a resurgence as a dramatic actor in the early 2000’s and you’d be beaten to death with a Ghost-Busters lunchbox. I enjoyed the little flourishes that made Frank Semyon a subtle character: he was a low-class hood and now that he’s the boss of a casino, he only drinks Johnny Walker Blue which is a scotch that your annoying-as-hell whiskey nerd friend (Hi!) will tell you is basically Johnny Walker Green in a nicer bottle and a 250 dollar price disparity. It’s a perfect emblem of Semyon– a cheap thug in an expensive suit. That shit? Works. 

A finely-dressed thug who uses 20-dollar words like “apoplectic?” It… uh. Sounds awkward and comes off as shitty but it… works? Or at least, I get what Pizzolatto is trying to get across. That Semyon’s word-choice, just like his brand of whiskey, are examples of his overcompensation for his meager circumstances when he was younger.

But the awkward way that that the “apoplectic” line hits the screen gets to the heart of why Season 2 is the Schröedinger’s cat of True Detective– in that it works and yet doesn’t work at the same time. To figure out the paradox, let’s look at Pizzolatto’s writing method, his inspirations, temperament, and the politics of Hollywood.

First, let’s start with the writing method. Pizzolatto is a one man band (previous to Season 3) and whether or not that’s born from an impulse to protect your intellectual property (an impulse I wholeheartedly understand) or a self-serving genius-complex that “I’m the only one who understands this story,” (an impulse, I also, kinda, understand) the man demanded to write the season alone.

Here’s what an HBO exec has to say:

I’ll tell you something. Our biggest failures — and I don’t know if I would consider True Detective 2 — but when we tell somebody to hit an air date as opposed to allowing the writing to find its own natural resting place, when it’s ready, when it’s baked — we’ve failed. And I think in this particular case, the first season of True Detective was something that Nic Pizzolatto had been thinking about, gestating, for a long period of time. He’s a soulful writer. I think what we did was go, ‘Great.’ And I take the blame. I became too much of a network executive at that point. We had huge success. ‘Gee, I’d love to repeat that next year.’

More established writers have already pointed out that a yearly production schedule is generally necessary when writing a series. Hell, Game of Thrones has been flying without the captain hand of Martin’s novels for two seasons now and it still manages to be coherent, entertaining, and generally great (a few caveats, maybe) year after year. The difference is Thrones has a writing team instead of a one man show– just like every other show on television. The exec quoted above is certainly not wrong when he said that Pizzolatto had been cooking up Rust Cohle’s and Marty Hart’s existential trip into horror for a while. 

Anyone who’s read Pizzolatto’s virgin novel, Galveston, knows that he cannibalized several traits from the protagonist to bolster Cohle’s eccentric vibe. I don’t fault him for that, as it made Cohle a more magnetic character. Reading Galveston in its entirety, however, is a disappointment. Its written as if Cormac McCarthy wrote a Texan Modern Noir and then it just kind of falls apart after the first half. (I’ve tried my own hand at this exact genre with my free novelette, Crimson Stain. Reviews are mixed, to say the least, so I can’t fault the man.)

While taking full custody of the writing rights sounds like a good thing in a contract to protect your baby, know that a year ain’t quite a year in Hollywood’s calendar. Scripts have deadlines and 480+ minutes of entertainment must be written and shown to producers. With a room of writers, you have a spectrum of people telling you what does and doesn’t work with a story. Without that feedback, you might dig yourself into a hole. Hemingway said, “Develop a built-in bullshit detector.” If the writing sucks, someone will tell you. Hard to do when you’re penning a show yourself. It’s represented nearly perfectly in the “apoplectic” scene: Velcoro doesn’t foil Semyon in the way that would make that scene–that word– work, by telling him to shove his fancy language up his zoot-suit, the same way no one was there to edit Pizzolatto’s more fanciful dialogue. But hey, sometimes, you’re George Lucas. Sometimes you’re an English professor who impressed his way into Hollywood with a perfect show and was then forced under a gun to write another season.

Now, I’m going to take some time to discuss The Big Nowhere, a novel by James Ellroy and the second entry in his La Quartet. Nearly everyone can, on some level, remember LA Confidential (a pretty good film featuring Guy Pierce, Russell Crowe, and, igh, Kevin Spacey) and yet it is forgotten that it’s part of a four-part series. The reason being, other than the disaster of the 2006 film Black Dahlia, his other books have been in film production purgatory– especially The Big Nowhere, a project that George Clooney had tried to push through the pipes for 15 years. The problem is film copy-write law. And it’s as convoluted as a murder mystery, so keep with me, folks.

So. Names of characters in a movie where one film company holds the rights cannot be used by another film company who holds rights of a different entry in the series. Sounds like a small deal? Imagine if the film rights to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was purchased by Paramount while The Chamber of Secrets was purchased by TriStar. Tristar would be legally obligated to rename the seriesall of the main characters and potentially the main fucking conflict itself, since it corresponded to the first novel! And that’s what happened to the  LA Quartet (and thousands of stories, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry one of them.) Thus the script of The Big Nowhere had so many names replaced and its plot-points altered, that it no longer resembled the initial story, whatsoever. Hence, it died in Hollywood utero.

While we’re on this tear, let’s talk about how the film LA Confidential fucked up two major things. One, the gregarious and Irish Homicide Captain, Dudley Smith,  gets clipped at the end of the movie. Given that he’s the through-line villain of the entire fuckin’ series, making the sequel, White Jazz, an impossibility. Two, they re-write the character of Buzz Meeks to serve as a pathetic, fat, corrupt cop who gets shot in the first fucking act.

If you’ve read LA Confidential, you’ll recognize Buzz Meeks as the poor fucker whom Dudley shoots in the prologue. If you’ve read The Big Nowhere, you’ll recognize that he’s the baddest motherfucker in the entire Quartet. He’s ex-police, a romantic, white trash, serves the mob, and holds a heart of gold, as pure as it can be in the 50’s, who tries to pull a heist on the biggest corrupt cop of all time.

Pizzolatto wanted his Buzz and Meeks it too. Thus he split him into two characters: Ray Velcoro and Frank Semyon. Velcoro: the corrupt cop, boosting drugs and working with known criminals, doing extra-curricular brutality to provide for his son. Semyon: the low-class thug whose violence gave him a ticket to a higher societal standing, whose bid for a better standing signs his death warrant.

You might notice that having the same character talk to each other doesn’t exactly equal a dialectic foil like Marty Hart vs Rust Cohle. Velcoro talking to Semyon is interesting, but there’s less of a didactical back and forth in terms of personality and more of an ironic power exchange in that the mob boss is directing (and sometimes fathering) the cop. There’s some cool shit there, but it’s barely explored.

Taylor Kitsch’s character, Paul Woodrough, is almost damn near unnecessary. He’s interesting, despite the revelation that he’s gay was a decade late on social-progressivism. It’s my belief that he was inserted to mime the story of Danny Upshaw in The Big Nowhere, a detective who nearly solved a brutal psycho-sexual string of murders but was ultimately manipulated into committing suicide because the threat of revealing his homosexuality. Woodrough’s character has some redeeming qualities and serves to give the team tactical leverage when they get caught in a colossal fire-fight in Episode 4, but his personal hangups don’t lead to much thematically.

Rick Springfield plays a ghoul of a plastic surgeon and I’m sure that everyone watching was pretty satisfied when Colin Farrel knocked his teeth out. It’s the mirror image of yet another Ellroy character, one who performs plastic surgery on sex-workers to make them appear like celebrities (in Season 2, it’s “8 to 10s!”).

There’s more to corroborate my theory, but my take on True Detective Season 2, is that Nic Pizzolatto was attempting to finally bring to screen The Big Nowhere in a ham-fisted way that was set in his own world. And in that way, he kind of succeeded. Given that we’re never going to see The Big Nowhere hit the screen anytime soon, there is a part of me that champions Pizzolatto’s attempts as somewhat heroic. It’s agreeable to the namesake of the series in a philosophical sense– True Detective was once a magazine that offered a wide variety of pulp hard-boiled noir that served as inspiration for the noir film movement. Noir-God Raymond Chandler has gone on record saying that Phillip Marlowe was a product of “the pulps,” combining elements from other writers and characters to forge his own. It then makes sense to me that you’d want the television series to draw upon all sorts of influences and have direct nods to the works that defined the genre, old and new alike. The fact that Star Wars is Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress mashed up with Flash Gordon doesn’t diminish my love for A New Hope. 

So does True Detective Season 2 work?

Again, yes and no.

Narratively, I think it comes down to the fact that Pizzolatto was trying to tell one story while also trying to transcribe another in the same story. It destabilizes the bones. Not that you can’t tell two stories at once with the noir format– Chandler’s The Long Goodbye pulls this off and that’s generally accepted as the best Marlowe novel.

Perhaps then, it is a matter of focus. I can see that Pizzolatto and his co-writers are determined to deliver something we haven’t seen before. They aren’t going for razzle and dazzle spectacle, which I appreciate– they’re not simply trying to up the ante after last season’s bloodbath– but instead work on torquing personal relationships and complicated regional politics. So far, Season 3 makes the promise that this story is nothing but focused… even if the main protagonist isn’t.

 

Black Box: The Art of Restraint

Black Box: The Art of Restraint

There’s a concept in illustration called artistic restraint– at least, that’s what I call it. It’s knowing when to stop adding texture and detail before you over-complicate the image and make it harder for the eye to engage with it. The idea is that the viewer will fill in the missing pieces subconsciously. The full image is implied by the artist’s “incomplete” rendering.

This applies to fiction and I’m not talking about brevity, either. I’m talking about the pacing of information, because in a lot of ways, the best examples are those that are technically “overly-complete,” in its exposition, while burying the lead– the grander narrative, so to speak– under layers of storytelling .

The classic example of this is Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” wherein a couple has an intense conversation without ever directly acknowledging the subject of debate. One of my professors once told me that this story was a failure, in that no one understood what the story was actually about until Hemingway gave it away in an interview. I kind of agree to an extent (anyone who tells you what that story is about was 99% likely to have been told themselves. It’s not exactly evident in the writing.) but I also appreciate that all readers understand that something bigger is going on in this little exchange.

Easier discussed examples are found in the horror genre. I’ve mentioned before that H.P. Lovecraft loves to obfuscate the true horrors of his stories with psychosis, doubt, and scientific reasoning, while only allowing a mere, vague glimpse of the monster before the story ends. His contemporaries, such as John Carpenter, do likewise– you never see what the Thing actually looks like, just the perversion of its replicated host. The doubt and conflict is born out of the fact that anybody could be the Thing.

A modern novel that understands informational control well is Bird Box by Josh Malerman. The premise is this: there are “somethings” floating around outside and if you see one of them, you go insane and kill yourself and those around you. The entire book is therefor written, essentially, blind whenever the characters are not inside of a boarded up house– which also creates a sense of blindness to the outside world, despite the sensory details of a home. The amount of information as to what the hell is happening is minimal, and experienced minimally. As such, there’s a pervading sense of paranoia and claustrophobia throughout the entire book, expressed through these sensory limitations. Also, the climax contains one of the most appalling things that has ever entered my brain.

It Follows takes this concept and makes it one of its primary themes. The horror is only experienced by the protagonist as they’re the only person who can see the monster in pursuit. Furthermore, it’s relevant only to their life, taking on the image of someone they know personally. Essentially, the cursed person’s experience of the horror is filled in by their own subconscious– generally with the broad strokes of Freudian of sexual formation (Jay first sees an elderly naked woman, possibly her grandmother; Greg sees his own mom in a night gown; Hugh claims to see a girl in a yellow dress). The horror experienced is a black box that no other character can access. What’s excellent about It Follows is that it spends just as much time with its secondary characters, usually slasher-fodder, and actually develops them into a unit of friends concerned about the protagonist undergoing a difficult time that they don’t understand– because they don’t have the information that the protagonist has. As much as you sympathize with the main character’s isolation, because you’ve been there, you also empathize with the others’, because you’ve been there today.

Information becomes currency in stories. Look at Silence of the Lambs and pay attention to what information does. The main storyline unfolds like a procedural tracking down Buffalo Bill until Hannibal Lector comes onto the scene. He understands that information is powerful. He delivers information about Jame Gumb to thread the narrative along for what? Information about Clarice Starling. Specifically, personal, traumatizing information about Clarice Starling’s childhood. Quid quo pro. It does something to a reader, having to face a character’s darkest memories. The reader, along with Clarice, has to access their own personal account of darkness and attach the weight of their own traumas to hers. But the character of Hannibal Lector does something even more insidious– he gets the reader to goddamn like him. You do what Crawford always warned Clarice about: you forget what he is. So when he finally bursts out of his cell via the grisliest means necessary, you’re suddenly stuck between cheering him on and personal betrayal accompanied with self-disgust.

It’s called a psychological thriller for a reason.

The thing that you carry away isn’t necessarily the way that the story ends, but how it affected you. Silence of the Lambs is effective because it’s main plot line is almost a red herring for the more subtle horror of Lector accessing Starling’s/your mind. Buffalo Bill is disturbing. Hannibal Lector is seductive. Silence does this by foiling Lector with Crawford, both manipulative men. The story controls its flow of information so carefully, that while you, along with Starling, are wary of Crawford who remains stoic, vague and unyielding of his intentions, you buy into Lector, who’s smart, polite and generous with his knowledge. It makes Starling, and you by extension, despite everything in her power to remain at the head of the curve, naive. 

The Black Mirror episodes, “Shut Up and Dance” and “White Bear” execute this perfectly by stringing along an increasingly cruel set of circumstances for the main character, encouraging our sympathy the entire time, before dropping the curtain and revealing who the main characters really are–a simple revelation that makes us question whether or not our sympathy was deserved. It puts the entire narrative we were just told into another light with a single line of information. That’s the power of limited perspective.

In the batshit crazy House of Leaves the information we are given is… a lot to take in. The worst but only way I can describe it: this is a book about a guy who’s writing about a book he found written by a different guy about a film a third guy made about his house that doesn’t make sense. And that’s just scratching the surface.  I think I’ve mentioned before that reading this book in public makes you look crazy– you have to turn it around to read all of the annotations, flipping through several pages, back and forth, as there are annotations to annotations, forcing you to reference the index in the back and you journey through the narrative only to find that it folds into itself endlessly. And then, if you’ve done the homework, solved the puzzles, educated yourself about architecture, documentary film-making, and cryptology… the real story emerges like a 3D painting.

And it happens weeks later after finishing the fucking thing. It’s a study in forming broad strokes via intricate design.

I know what you’re thinking: how does this relate to True Detective? Funny you should ask because I was just about to go there, you pidgeon-toed, gawking ratfink. Hardboiled noir fiction runs on the engine of gathering information about a crime or infidelity. Usually this is done with a progression of interviews, voyeurism, and clever deceits. Like all stories, it becomes complex and then it simplifies. Which you have in True Detective, expressed as a buddy cop procedural. Within that basic structure, you have the narrative device of flashbacks, contextual to the interviews of Cohle and Hart. It’s a simple thing to point out, but the fact that you see these guys as ruined, possibly insane old men makes you wonder what exactly the hell happened 18 years ago to warrant these changes.

 

True Detective also plays out as a horror story. There’s an encompassing feeling of dread threaded throughout the miniseries. But it’s only glanced at as reverberations in the “psychosphere,” mentioned by junkies, felt but never seen– the closest we come to seeing it is Cohle’s hallucination of the black star while he’s being choked out by Errol. Usually we see it in brief glimpses through Marty’s eyes– his daughter’s recreating a ritualistic murder scene with dolls, or the entropy of of a tasseled tiara stuck in a tree. Likewise, the protagonists never face the shadow society responsible for the historical murders in the area. They get Errol– which disappointed a lot of viewers but is thematically on point. Sticking with concrete leads brings them to a concrete, yet impotent conclusion and Cohle understands that the bigger, elusive (and allusive) culprits are still at large. Hart acknowledges their own limit of understanding by the consolation “We got our guy.” The story becomes complex in its information and then it simplifies, but the difference here is that there is still incomplete, complex, deliberately placed information that hasn’t been digested by the narrative, speaking of a much larger conspiracy that appears unconquerable.

All of this is to say that the most effective story you can tell is one that subtly asks the reader to tell themselves a story along with you. They’ll meet you halfway.

 

True Crime: An American Love Story with Real Life Noir

True Crime: An American Love Story with Real Life Noir

We live in an age of an unprecedented fascination with true crime. While I’m not obsessed, per se, I myself hold an interest in the macabre, listen to The Last Podcast on the Left religiously and regularly weird people out with my burgeoning encyclopedic knowledge of serial killers. It’s healthy. And hey, My Favorite Murder found a surprisingly large audience and ranks #22 in top podcasts as of this article’s posting. Serial still dominates the top 10 in most charts, and its good season came out over two years ago. So why the sudden wave of True Crime Entertainment? Is it that the proliferation of podcasts in the last 10 years have offered a medium to accommodate previously verboten, niche subjects? Is it because the subject has been embraced specifically by alternative comedians, making the content more easily digestible? (Comedy is 75% horror, remember?)

Yeah, probably. But that doesn’t account for the years of CSI episodes based on real crimes, or Forensic Files, or etcetera.

So maybe I misspoke earlier. I think there is a precedent.

Millenials are a generation who grew up with the OJ Simpson trial and Columbine on TV. That was the media circus that crept into our minds at an early age, when we were just trying to scam candy dollars off our parents and play Super Smash Brothers. (You could also make the case that the OJ fracas revitalized and cemented interest in The Legal Thriller, but never mind that now). How could we not be curious about this stuff when we grew up, when we were raised in an exploitive media environment that leads with whatever’s bleeding?

That’s a piece of the puzzle, but news media has been exploitative since the invention of ink. Sensationalism surrounding serial killers was already a thing, so what happened in the late 80s that reinvigorated the interest?  Other than a slew of scary murders? I guess I should say, what came out in the 80s that made murder marketable? I look at the fact that James Ellroy released the novel The Black Dahlia in 1987, a fictionalized account of the unsolved, brutal murder of Elizabeth Short in LA, 1947.

I’ve got a lot to say abut Ellroy’s LA Quartet (it’s great), but for now I just want to mention that this was the book that elevated Ellroy from mere genre writer to literary status, and along with his ascent, he brought neo-noir back from the dead. You thank James Ellroy for The Coen Brother’s 90’s films right the hell now. He also put Elizabeth Short in the back of everyone’s brains again, with all of the gory details, priming us for a decade of sticky trials and investigations.

So let’s go back to the actual murder of Elizabeth Short AKA The Black Dahlia. The papers sensationalized the living hell out of the bizarre murder and while it’s somewhat understandable as to why anyone would latch onto this (A bisected body? A victim with a sketchy, mysterious past? Infinite room for speculation? The story writes itself!), the papers are at least partially to blame for the unresolved status of the murder. They went so far as to basically torment Short’s mother for information (having placed a phone call saying that Short had won a beauty contest. Can you imagine?), flying Short’s mother out on the ruse to cooperate with the LAPD and then keeping her away from authorities.

But the real mind job is why the papers called her The Black Dahlia. Okay, so they called it The Werewolf Murder first. But then they got their shit together and called her The Black Dahlia, because Werewolves are gooooofy. One explanation is that she was wearing a fairly skanky black dress at the time of her death. (A sheer blouse? Heavens.) So she was wearing black when she was killed and was known to generally wear black, lacy clothing and some drug store clerks with whom she was friendly claimed to have coined the handle. I find that a little suspect, but no matter how the name came about, it is absolutely a reference noir flick that came out the year before Short’s murder in 1946. A little number called The Blue Dahlia.

It’s an interesting movie. It’s got a tone of misogyny to it and a character keeps on referring to Jazz as “monkey music,” but those things aside, it’s fairly enjoyable. It’s about a Navy Officer fresh from the South Pacific who returns home to his unfaithful lush of a wife. He jets when he finds out she got into a drunk driving accident, killing their son. She winds up dead (duh-doyee) and our guy lams it, trying to find the real killer. There’s some sharp dialogue, some good shots and some clever twists on archetypal characters including a “Lenny”-esque character with a plate in his head (the sound design of his auditory hallucinations might’ve been groundbreaking at the time. I was impressed), a schmoozy club owner with (pathetic) ties to the mob, and a slimy blackmailing detective. The narrative keeps coming back to a nightclub, The Blue Dahlia.

As far as the similarities to Liz Short, there are only a few. The silver screen murder is bloodless (I laughed when the maid finds the body and says, “Oh, brother.”) compared to the ghoulish Black Dahlia case. I think what people attached with was the wife’s loose sexuality and Short, a Hollywood actress hopeful, was known to run around LA with various men in nightclubs. At least, as far as I can figure out. The kind of sites that offer information about her case aren’t–ahem– the most reliable.

Anyway, guess who wrote the screenplay for The Blue Dahlia? That’s right, it’s Pierre’s old favorite crime fiction author, Raymond Chandler. His bastardly behavior production of this film is legendary and it’s the only produced script that he handled solo (finishing the novel completely waaaaasted for days, maybe weeks). It came out the same year as the film The Big Sleep, based off of Chandler’s novel, published seven years earlier (He didn’t work on that screen play. Faulkner did. Probably wasted.).

1944 – 1954: Hardboiled fiction is hot and Hollywood cashes in, ushering in a brief period of Film Noir, influencing media in the most profound visual and tonal movement of the 20th Century.

So there’s this strange interplay of life imitating art with The Black Dahlia. Reality had, through tragic circumstances, provided a story just as lurid as a crime novel, more graphic than a film (thanks, Hays Code) and cheaper to produce than either. So we treated The Black Dahlia murder as entertainment.

And you know what? People bought it. Of course they did.

The fascination with didn’t start with Betty Short (The Lipstick Murderer, anyone? H.H. Holmes–soon to be the subject of a movie starring Leo Dio?), but this was the possibly the widest spread reaction to a singular crime to date (barring Presidential assassinations). It could have been the severity of the violence, or the focus on the victim herself instead of the murderer (which might not’ve panned out historically if this was a solved case), or the myth like quality surrounding it, but any way you cut it, I tend to think that America read the tragedy almost allegorically to the films they were watching and the books they were reading, and not the other way around.

Which is possibly more disturbing than anything else, really.

Unveiling the Illusion: Noir Nerdin’

Unveiling the Illusion: Noir Nerdin’

Spoiler alert up top: I’m going to delve into Chinatown, LA Confidential and True Detective. If you have any interest in being surprised by those works, you might want to stop reading now.

I’ve heard it around the way that a successful Sci Fi or Fantasy book reveals its built up world gradually through the fresh eyes of the main protagonist. I got to thinking that maybe noir does the same thing, except in reverse– we’re introduced to a fantasy and then what follows is the revelation of our very own dark and gritty universe (usually) through the eyes of the protagonist who can see the true, underlying reality.

In my post on character sketching, I quoted Raymond Chandler’s bit on Phillip Marlowe. The relevant piece is this:

The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth

That’s not breaking any minds to tell you that The Detective archetype is searching for some veritas in noir detective fiction. But I want to pause first on why these guys feel the need to pursue that hidden truth, or rather, what makes them the type of character that knows something is there.

Sherlock Holmes is a good place to start. He solves crimes by deductive/inductive reasoning. He looks at something from above and in the solving of the case, elevates the crime to his own level. He’s simply smarter than the crime.

But noir heroes slum along the bottom. The Noir Detective yanks down the case to his level. Because his world is the truthful one and the illusion spun by the conspiracy of his social betters doesn’t sit well with the reasoning of the cynical world.

In the first season of True Detective, Rust Cohle has been through the hell of losing a child and living deep undercover for years, well acquainting him with the pain of living and how the criminal world operates. When he transitions into a homicide detective, he’s aware that the structures in place are illusory– he can sniff corruption on his fellow police and the investigation is being misdirected by an invisible hand. Cohle also extends this to the broader subject of the world:

“It’s all one ghetto, man, giant gutter in outer space.”

Rust works outside of the agreed upon societal norms, because he outright rejects them as an illusion. He rejects authority, he rejects human relationships, he rejects society. Which is what makes his and Marty Hart’s relationship so powerful– Marty is discovering that his suburban American dream is ultimately immaterial, realized in the bitter disintegration of his marriage and the troubling sexual pressures his daughters encounter. And he’s ultimately powerless to stop it (owing to his own sexual infidelities, alcoholism, and heavy handed parenting methods). It’s only when Marty is dragged to the bottom, to the world of harsh truths where Cohle is waiting for him, that they are able to finally solve the murders.

The mechanism of noir is the progression of interviews and interrogations. In there lies the fabric of the illusion– everyone provides deceitful information to obfuscate the truth. Let’s take a look at Chinatown in which Jake Gittes (a veteran of the harsh realities in Chinatown) is approached by Evelyn Mulwray who turns out to a be an actor. The water department covers its tracks of diverting irrigation to the orange groves. Hollis Mulwray is found drowned in freshwater, but had salt water in his lungs. Katherine Mulwray is supposedly Hollis’s mistress, before it’s revealed that she is Evelyn’s sister before [redacted]. Everything seems to be positioned in such a way that it seems normal at first glance. By the end of the film, every threaded lie is unspun and what remains is a sinister and grim reality dressed up as a caper. In other words, it’s still Chinatown where base crimes are the norm and it turns out that the rest of LA is no different. Again, normalcy is the fantasy.

Also, how good is it that Gittes gets his nose sliced up, metaphorically making him an impotent detective coinciding with him unable to decipher the pageantry in front of him? Pretty sweet.

There’s a lot to play with here and a good example of flipping this script is James Elroy’s LA Quartet. If you think about the main characters driving the novels, they are actually somewhat naive and too obsessed with outperforming their peers to realize the fallacy the of the criminal justice system they participate in. Perhaps because of this, they are often casualties of their own investigations, one way or another. Meanwhile, the common thread through all of these stories is the ever terrifying Dudley Smith, a man who understands the dark reality of crime and departmental (even federal) corruption. Instead of being a The Noir Hero, he chooses to perpetuate (and occasionally even create) the illusion to benefit himself financially and further his career. I can’t think of a better noir villain than Dudley.

At the end of the day what you have is a character interacting with the setting. Interacting is the operating word. I feel as if many books in various genres offer a passive protagonist who allows the world to happen at them. What I appreciate about noir is that the protagonist digs his hands into the guts of the setting and shows the reader its entrails and shouts, “THIS! THIS IS WHAT WE’RE MADE OF.”

Perhaps there’s a lesson in that for all of us.