Sunday 28 December 2014

Straight Cut by Madison Smartt Bell

I'd never heard of Madison Smartt Bell, but two things drew me to this novel. Firstly, it was published by Charles Aradai's Hard Case Crime. As I've discussed before, this has long been one of my favourite publishers. Recently I have been even more favourably disposed towards this imprint because my brilliant editor Miranda Jewess at Titan Books is also the UK editor of Hard Case Crime.

The second factor which compelled me to read Straight Cut was a quote on the cover by Walker Percy, a novelist I admire hugely. So I promptly obtained a copy of Bell's book, and I'm very pleased that I did.

Straight Cut begins with an affecting and involving sequence in which the hero Tracy Bateman has to kill his (terminally ill) dog on his farm near Nashville — like Walker Percy, the author is a southerner. 

This touching, disturbing scene establishes the character of Tracy and sets the dark tone for what is to follow. When he is summoned to New York, it turns out that Tracy is a film editor — the details of his work are superbly described and are one of the great strengths of the book.

Tracy's business partner in film making is a distinctly dubious character who has ensnared him more than once before in some very dodgy — and dangerous — drug deals and when it looks like this might be happening again and, what's more, involving Tracy's ex-wife (whom he still loves) the plot is up and running.

The characters and situation exert considerable attraction, but what is really notable about the book is the quality of the writing. Here is an assessment of Kevin, the dodgy partner: "this innocence of his was simply a vacancy, a vacuum. And the winds which whirled around it could do all sorts of damage to anyone in the near vicinity."

When Tracy flies to Rome he tells us, "the stewards pulled up all the blinds and startled the drowsy passengers with the sudden light of  Italian morning... with the Rome airport floating up under the wings." And here is the description of a deeply stoned Roman junkie, a girl with a "bright empty" smile: "The smile ended abruptly, like a light bulb burning out." Elsewhere we have the forger whose "hands made spidery shadows under the high intensity lamp."

Moving back and forth across Europe and the USA in the 1980s, Straight Cut it is a little far-fetched at times, with some deeply convenient happenstance (the hero's old friend turns out to be an expert sniper), and a silly sequence involving a block and tackle, but that doesn't seriously affect the novel. 

Bell's novel reminds me of Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers, though I think it is even better. Straight Cut is an intelligent, sardonic, beautifully written, engrossing thriller and I commend it to you. 

Meanwhile, I am going to start a serious campaign of exploring Madison Smartt Bell's other novels. And I'm pleased to say there's quite a few of them...

(Image credits: All the covers are from Good Reads.)

Sunday 21 December 2014

The Girl by Samantha Geimer

Roman Polanksi is a film maker of genius, and I've always had the highest regard for his work. But obviously there is a shadow across his life and career, and anyone who is a Polanski advocate — or even an admirer — has to somehow deal with the fact that he was guilty of unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13 year old girl, after plying her with the fashionable drugs of the day.

There's no shortage of books on Polanski. Along with Stanley Kubrick he is probably the most written-about film director in history. But arguably the best account of those troubling events has remained Polanski's autobiography. Until now... when Samantha Geimer — "the girl" in the case — has finally published her own autobiography.

The Girl, by Geimer and Judith Newman, is a well written and gripping book. Its disturbing,   touching and often — surprise — darkly funny. What comes across most strongly, as in almost all the other versions of the story (and particularly forcefully in Marina Zenovich's excellent documentary film on the subject) is that, as reprehensible as Polanski's behaviour unquestionably is, the real villain of the piece is the judge who tried the case. The dishonourable Laurence J. Rittenband was a sleazy fame-seeking publicity hound who threw justice in the nearest trash receptacle so he could promote his own image.

Geimer's story is full of unforgettable moments. And the most compelling thing is that however awful her experience with Polanksi, it was nothing compared to the legal process which then swallowed her life. She says, "If I had to chose between reliving the rape or the grand jury testimony, I would chose the rape."

And then there's the striking description of how she felt when the other kids at her school found out that she was the girl in the case: "You know that recurring dream we all have where we forget to put on our clothes, and go out in public naked? This felt like walking around school naked."

Or her remarks about attending the glittering bash for the HBO premiere of Zenovich's documentary, decades later. "I was uncomfortable... the thought that I was at this party with all those celebrities and other luminaries simply because I'd been raped by some old goat seemed kind of mortifying."

And, most startling of all, her reaction when Polanski won the Oscar for The Pianist. "I was quietly thrilled for his victory."

In the end, the portrait of Polanski at the time of the assault which emerges is one of a callous, arrogant and selfish man. It's quite possible to be a great film maker, and that too. Geimer's own summary of his motivation: "Roman Polanski was a man who was horny and high on March 10, 1977. That's it."

Perhaps the only unjust note in this otherwise remarkably fair and even-handed book is when Geimer denigrates the quality of the pictures that Polanksi took of her (they were supposed to be doing a fashion shoot when "the incident" occurred). It's apparently not enough that he's a rapist. He has to be a bad photographer, too. Actually the quality of the images speak for themselves. Some are reprinted in the book, and a particularly striking one is used on the cover.

(Image credits: the cover of the book is from the Hollywood Reporter. The black and white photo of Polanski is from the New York Times. The black and white photo by Polanski is from Stern. The colour photo is from the Daily Mail. The reprint edition of the book, with type over the image, is from Amazon.)

Sunday 14 December 2014

Gone Girl by Flynn and Fincher

The time is coming to suss out the best films of the year, and it looks like Gone Girl may well be gunning for the top slot. It is tremendously gratifying to have David Fincher continue a run of great movies. After the masterpiece that was Fight Club there was a period (Panic Room, Zodiac, Benjamin Button) where the director seemed to have lost his way. But he came roaring back with The Social Network, followed it with the magnificent American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and now we have Gone Girl.

David Fincher brings to mind Stanley Kubrick in the extraordinary beauty and perfection of his filming. Yet his movies have a more organic feel; they're more human and warmer — although that's an odd word to use, considering the darkness and chilliness of his material. Maybe I simply mean they have more passion and emotion.

Fincher also seems to have more respect for his screenwriters. He chooses them with care and collaborates with them as equals. In the case of Gone Girl this has paid tremendous dividends.

Gone Girl is based on a bestselling blockbuster of a novel by Gillian Flynn ('Gillian' is pronounced with a hard 'G'). When Flynn sold the novel to the movies — for a healthy fee, I trust — part of the deal was she'd get first chance at writing the script. Then David Fincher came on board and the suits effectively said to him, "Don't worry about the girl novelist. We'll bin her attempt and hire any screenwriter you want." (I'm inventing dialogue here!) But Fincher said to wait and see what she came up with...

And Gillian Flynn has knocked it out of the ball park, as has David Fincher. Gone Girl is a superb, shocking, dark, brutal and beautifully constructed thriller. A genuine classic. And if you haven't read the book you are in for some fun surprises.

Plaudits are due to an exemplary cast led by Ben Affleck, with Neil Patrick Harris in a great screwball role, Carrie Coone wonderful as Affleck's sister, Tyler Perry jovial and sleazy as a hotshot defence lawyer and Missi Pyle memorably reprising a bit she did as an annoyingly hustling TV host in The Mentalist. Also outstanding are Lola Kirke and Boyd Holbrook as a canny white trash couple.

The movie additionally features a fine performance by a ginger cat called Boris. (While researching Boris online I discovered a mini-version of the movie performed entirely by cats. Yes, I did. Really. Here it is.)

Also on board are Fincher's A-team of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on music and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth.

 I only have one criticism of the film... Affleck's sister is called Margo, which is shortened to the nickname "Go." 

Every time her name cropped up in dialogue I thought someone was being told to "go" somewhere and was momentarily baffled. The use of names in dialogue — especially odd names — is a potential minefield as far as audience confusions is concerned. Budding screenwriters make a note of that!

In the meantime, go and see Gone Girl.

 (Image credits: All from Ace Show Biz.)

Sunday 7 December 2014

Get On Up by the Butterworths

You should race out and see the James Brown biopic Get On Up. It is certainly one of the finest films of the year, and it only falls short of being an all time classic because it is beset by what I think of as Barry Lyndon syndrome — it tells the story of an engaging hero's rise to success, and then proceeds to chart his decline and fall... In rather too much detail. 

Lingering on the negative stuff is always a danger in such stories — no one wants to whitewash the negative side of real life characters, or deny true tragedy. And this movie is a blast of sunshine compared to the recent Ian Dury biopic, which was an unremitting plateau of grimness.

But still, the length of Get On Up (138 minutes) and the emphasis on some of the bleaker aspects of its complex hero run the risk of making it ultimately a bit of downer for the audience. And we're in danger of leaving the cinema feeling depressed instead of uplifted.

This is despite the strikingly imaginative and often brilliant efforts of its screenwriting team, the brothers Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworh (working from an early draft of the script by Steven Baigelman). The Butterworths also recently made a superb contribution to Edge of Tomorrow. Their hilarious, incisive script — often verging on the surreal — cannily choses key moments from James Brown's life and juxtaposes them with no regard for chronology. We also have the hero directly addressing the audience (breaking the fourth wall, we call it) like Michael Caine did in Alfie.
It's a great approach, creating a genuine work of art, and they may well be great screenwriters. They've also done their research, and not just about the music. Check out Mr Brown's hilarious critique of the US Army's strategy in Vietnam.

Homage must also be paid to the extraordinary performances by Chadwick Boseman as James Brown and Nelsan Ellis as his righthand man, Bobby Byrd. These guys deserve the best actor and best supporting actor Oscars this year, without question. Whether they'll get them is another matter, of course. Mention should also be made of Brandon Smith, who is a scream (appropriately enough) as Little Richard.

The music in the film is also, predictably, superb. Rush out and see this movie before it's gone. It's already vanishing from cinema screens like the snow in springtime, which is a tragedy.

(Image credits: Ace Show Biz.)