Sunday, April 26, 2009

City of Angels, City of Books

I love L.A.

I know as a San Francisco resident I'm not supposed to express my deep enthusiasm for our warm, sunny, and friendly neighbor to the south, but really ... the Bay Area needs to get over it.

I enjoy driving here--California's bounty of beauty is showcased by the venerable and bell-lined Highway 101, extra hour of driving be damned. I enjoy staying here, particularly in one of my favorite hotels in the world, the historic Culver Hotel overlooking Culver Studios (formerly Desilu, formerly RKO, formerly Selznick).

Hollywood history doesn't get richer than that, and hospitality doesn't come better than what you find at the family-owned Culver Hotel (neither does the scrumptious food, prepared in house by a supremely creative chef).

I've been here since Friday-- we drove down for the LA Times Festival of Books, ready to celebrate the sale of Italian rights for NOX DORMIENDA this week (coming soon in a mass market paperback edition in Italia!).

Friday night brought a fabulous party at one of the best bookstores in the world, The Mystery Bookstore in Westwood. I saw friends, met new ones, ran into the wonderful San Francisco PI writer, Chandler fan and Richard Avedon of the crime writing community, Mark Coggins, whom it's a honor to be snapped by, and partied with pals Susan Arnout Smith, Cornelia Read, Jeri Westerson, Louise Ure, Sue Ann Jaffarian, and a lot of other colleagues--here's the complete list, courtesy of the Mystery Bookstore:

Shilpa Agarwal, Brett Battles, James Scott Bell, Cara Black, Marc Blatte, Carol Higgins Clark, Mary Higgins Clark, Dianne Emley, Tom Epperson, Christa Faust, David Fuller, Michelle Gagnon, Victor Gischler, Lee Goldberg, Chris Grabenstein, Robert Greer, Denise Hamilton, Naomi Hirahara, Gregg Hurwitz, Sue Ann Jaffarian, Craig Johnson, Leslie Klinger, John Lescroart, Paul Levine, Sheila Lowe, Lisa Lutz, Robert Masello, George Mastras, T. Jefferson Parker, Gary Phillips, William Rabkin, Cornelia Read, Patricia Smiley, Susan Arnout Smith, Mark Haskell Smith, Eric Stone, Kelli Stanley, Louise Ure, Sarah Weinman, Jeri Westerson, John Morgan Wilson and Edward Wright!

Saturday we visited two of the outstanding stores in the area, Book 'Em Mysteries in South Pasadena and Vroman's in Pasadena, found some gorgeous vintage jewelry at a thrift shop, and played tourist on Hollywood Boulvard at Grauman's Chinese Theater, where I literally stood in Humphrey Bogart's footsteps.

Today was Festival day ... and it was overwhelming. First, the UCLA campus is breathtaking. And then ... Booths! Tents! Pavilions! Sugar-coated almonds! Flyers shoved at you from all directions! And, most importantly ... books. Books, books, everywhere. Hardcovers, softcovers, first editions, antiquarian, brand-spanking new. LA must be one of the most literate places in America, judging from the amount of people flocking to this incredible and amazing festival.

I visited with my Sisters in Crime, where I ran into friends and chatted with other authors; I dropped by the wonderful Mysterious Galaxy, San Diego's superlative specialty bookstore; and I signed at The Mystery Bookstore with Edgar nominees Tom Epperson and David Fuller, Lefty nominee, funny lady and friend Sue Ann Jaffarian, and as-sweet-as-her-books Joanne Fluke, who brought cream puffs for all.

All in all, an amazing adventure, one I can't wait to repeat next year when RICE BOWL launches. I love fog, but sunshine, blue skies, and good books make for a true Dream Factory.

Back soon with photos from the Festival and the road, as well as the promised review of Dick Powell's Cornered.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

State of What?

So what do you do when you need to get your brakes fixed, and you don't want to rent a car?

You go to the movies.

Yesterday, we faced the choice of: 1) watching sitcoms that should never have seen the light of day, let alone syndication, while sitting in a dismal waiting room on hard, puce colored plastic chairs and breathing in the smell of rubber; or 2), going to Century Theater in the mall (despite moral objections to the idea of movies in malls) and trying to find something worth seeing.

Fortunately, there was an offering without either Zac Efron or Miley Cyrus (or Billy Ray) ...
And that's how I came to see State of Play on its opening weekend.

What did I think? Well, know going in that I adore Russell Crowe. I think he's the finest actor of his generation. I like Ben Affleck--I thought he was actually quite good in Hollywoodland. Robin Wright Penn was affecting and fine in a small role. And I worship at the altar of Helen Mirren, who has more sex appeal in her little toe than the twenty-somethings haunting the paparazzi rags.

I found the acting terrific--particularly a turn by Jason Bateman that should net him a Best Supporting Actor nod. I thought the direction riveting and superbly paced, the editing quintessentially suspenseful. And the overall plot--which focuses on why we need honest to God newspaper people, journalists with ink under their fingersnails and Scotch in their desk drawers--to be provocative, timely and important.

Themes like journalism, dying newspapers, political hypocrisy (especially about sex, infidelity and any other issue that used to be considered private back in the day when privacy actually existed--i.e. before other people's mobile phone conversations became commuter entertainment) ... and the very real and very scary use of private companies to fight wars, companies that make war to make a profit ... well, all of this was intelligent and plausibly presented.


The actual plot didn't make sense. Mick LaSalle, SF Chronicle critic, loved the film up until the end, then lambasted the filmmakers and the writers for leaving us with a nonsensical "thrilling" ending that violated logic and characterization left and right. And ya know ... I gotta agree with him. I disagree, though, that it was All the President's Men up until that point. Despite some wit in the dialog, I thought there were too many Evel Knieval leaps of faith and logic, too many loose ends, too many undeveloped character threads that were never answered (even badly).

Part of the problem is that the film was a condensation of a six-hour BBC mini-series. Part of the problem was that it looked like the filmmakers changed their minds about a particular character half-way through the movie. Part of the problem is that we're supposed to believe that Ben and Russell were roommates (and the same age as Robin Wright Penn), when Russell and Robin are clearly much older than Affleck, despite some grey added to his temples.

All in all, the film really was a thrill ride in terms of edge-of-your-seat direction, and expressed the best intentions in the world. But as a writer, I felt like it was also a three shell trick to hide a faulty plot. And I still don't understand the title.

But hallelujah for one thing--it sang the praises of newspapers. Watch the end credits--which brillantly illustrate the path from the reporter's computer to your neighborhood delivery of The Times, The Post, The Chronicle. And making journalists heroic--no matter how imperfect the vehicle--is always, always a worthy endeavor.

Next week: a look at a terrific noir with Dick Powell at his most hard-boiled: Cornered. Plus, I'll be in Los Angeles for the Los Angeles Times Festival of the Book, signing on Sunday at 1 PM with The Mystery Book Store. Come by Booth #411 and say hi!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Of Stamps and Stars

The US Post Office is an embarrassment of riches these days. Edgar Allen Poe (finally, a genre writer gets respect!) and the next in the classic actor series (subtitled "Turner Classic Movies--the Reason I Subscribe to Cable"). I rushed right out and bought my Bette Davis stamp. The one sheet is young Bette from Jezebel, the stamp itself the more mature Bette as Margo Channing (arguably her greatest role).

Thinking about Bette, of course, made me think about Joan Crawford. The two were serious rivals, on and off the screen. Both superb actresses--though, in my opinion, Joan was the more naturalistic of the two, more suited to film, and far less mannered. I like both. You can, you know ... this isn't a "John or Paul" kind of thing.

Anyway, in the few minutes I carve out every week for thinking about absolutely nothing important (crucial for a writer--it's like clearing the cache on your browser), it occurred to me that Joan will probably never get a stamp. And that's tragic. If Bette gets one, Joan should get one, Mommie Dearest be damned. The world needs to get over Faye Dunaway's wire hangers.

Case in point ... a bizarre film called Johnny Guitar (1954). Two fifths western, one fifth Douglas Sirk melodrama, and two fifths noir, it's what's known as a camp classic, but deserves to be taken seriously. Hey, anything directed by Nicholas Ray, the man who gave us one of the greatest noirs of all time--In a Lonely Place--and helped define the genre with They Live by Night--and was married to the indisputable Queen of Noir, Gloria Grahame--well, let's just say he's the Black Amex of noir cred.

Gender is the main theme of Johnny Guitar, though apparently Ray was also trying to create a metaphor for the lynch mob mentality of the Witch Hunt (best evoked in the noir film The Sound of Fury, aka Try and Get Me). The final shoot-out--and really, all the enmity in the movie--is between two women, the saloon-owning bad girl with the heart of gold, Vienna, who only wants to hold on to her palace long enough for the railroad to come through and make her rich (so she can forget all the men she had to bed in order to pay for the building) -- and Emma Small, played with demonic glee by Mercedes McCambridge (best known for voicing Satan in The Exorcist).

Joan wears pants and guns and early on is described by one of her male hirelings (and this was before The Catwoman and her male hirelings on Batman) as making him feel like she was more of a man than he was, or words to that effect. But when former gunslinger/lover and now musician, Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) shows up, flames rekindle, and Joan starts wearing dresses ... at least until she has to face down Mercedes, who is out to string her up.

There are some juicy lines in this amazing mish-mash ... when Emma leads a gang of men (including the usually virile Ward Bond), trying to get them to attack Vienna, Joan faces them down on a stairway ... just her and a revolver.
Emma (shrill): "You're nothing but a railroad tramp! ... You can't kill us all."
Vienna (Crawford raises an eyebrow, smirks as her lips turn downward): "Two will do."

Mercedes is waaay over the top here, and leaves no doubt as to the sexual basis of her animosity. Whenever she gets a chance to do Joan wrong, she gets as orgasmic as it was possible to be in 1954. The script suggests that it is jealousy over a rather lacklustre ne'er do well, named the Dancing Kid (yeah, no one had real names in the Wild West), who's got the hots for Vienna and not the shrimpy Emma Small.

But really ... everything about her performance and the film suggests that it is Vienna she loves/hates, not the Dancing Kid. And interestingly, Mercedes went on to co-star in Giant, where she played Luz, a decidedly epicene character (Adarene Clinch: Why Luz, everybody in this county knows you'd rather herd cattle than make love. Luz: Well, there's one thing you got to say for cattle... boy, you put your brand on one of them, you're gonna know where it's at!), and later gave a memorable turn as another androgynous threat to womenkind in Touch of Evil, where she menaces Janet Leigh.

I'm sure there have been dissertations written about Johnny Guitar, but above all, it's entertainment ... with John Carradine and Ernest Borgnine in memorable roles, what's not to like? And though apparently Joan was going through rough times when she made this movie--and literally fought with Mercedes behind the scenes--her performance in this, one of the strangest films of a strange decade, is but one example of why she should get her own stamp.

Hey USPS ... you listening?

I'm getting ready for the Los Angeles Times Festival of the Book at the end of the month ... but will be back next week with more noir ... in between deadlines. :)