Random Thoughts About HAMMETT

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Yes, yes, I’m facing another deadline, so another “random” piece, quit buggin’ me.

Movies with troubled production histories can often be identified by multiple writers, multiple producers, or multiple editors. HAMMETT, directed by Wim Wenders after the novel by Joe Gores, is guilty of these, and more. Another tell are credits for additional photography, signalling that they had to get someone new because the previous D.P. was unavailable or the director of reshoots wanted someone else. In this case: “Other Photography by Philip Lathrop.”

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HAMMETT is a post-modern tribute to pulp detective writer Dashiell Hammett, fictionalizing him as the star of his own mystery. After finishing his latest pulp story, writer Hammett (Frederick Forrest) gets involved in a blackmail scheme against some rich San Francisco power brokers. Hammett’s pal Ryan (Peter Boyle) drags him into the Chinatown crime scene. Hammett goes through incidents that echo events in his fiction, including THE MALTESE FALCON.

The plot isn’t very important, because due to the reshoots or just the approach to Joe Gores’ book, this is a very low-level detective story. Hammett doesn’t crack jaws, he just kind of shuffles through the mystery, which never crackles, it’s just an excuse for guest appearances by Jack Nance (ERASERHEAD), director Sam Fuller and Elisha Cook, Jr. (THE MALTESE FALCON), a moody John Barry score, and Dean Tavoularis’ fine art direction.

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HAMMETT was made around the same time as producer Francis Coppola’s ONE FROM THE HEART. There are credits for “Electronic Cinema,” which was Coppola’s dream, destroyed by the box office failure of several of Coppola’s movies.

Over the years the story has grown up that Coppola directed the reshoots, but Wim Wenders claims he directed everything, and the original version is now lost. The result is film noir comfort food. Like an episode of PETER GUNN, HAMMETT is about artificial but moody sets, an evocative score, and well-cast actors kind of walking around, never in much danger.

I can’t imagine this being entertaining to someone who doesn’t care for noir, or for Hammett. Forest looks remarkably like Hammett, and he is a convincing lead. But the crime story just never catches fire.

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If you go into this knowing it’s an attempt to do a post-CHINATOWN spin on hardboiled cliches–the core of the crime is about The Evils of the Powerful, and No One Is Clean–and just settle back, it’s smooth entertainment. The set for Hammett’s apartment is a film noir dream, all Venetian blind shadows and piles of stuff. There’s one of the worst back-projection screen shots I’ve ever seen. And the whole thing has a brooding, sad tone that John Barry really keys in on with his piano-led score.

This is one of those movies no one seems to like but me. It’s a good chaser for a real noir feast like TOUCH OF EVIL.

“In the final product ten shots survived from my original shoot: only exteriors. Because there wasn’t much money left, and I was too stubborn to drop it and or say, “Well then let somebody else do it.” Francis [Ford Coppola] was too stubborn to fire me so we stuck it out and we respected each other in spite of all the conflicts. So I ended up shooting the second version as well. That was entirely in one sound stage. The whole shoot never saw the light of day, except for a couple of shots from the first, maybe 5% of the film from the first version.” – Wim Wenders https://tinyurl.com/ycbhyet3

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Ursula LeGuin, R.I.P./”The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”

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I was a kid when I read Ursula LeGuin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Along with the thick hardcover of DANGEROUS VISIONS and books by Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg, it taught me that science fiction could be more than just what I saw on Creature Double Feature, or even STAR WARS, of which I was a big fan.

As is the case with many great works, “Omelas” is a story that breaks many rules. In the first place, it doesn’t really have a hero, a goal, or many of the elements we’re told go into short stories. One reason I think the story has such resonance for me after all this time is because it got to me before a lot of ideas about fiction could take root. Maybe that’s a bad thing. But it’s given me an open mind about what good writing can be. There are endless rules in art, but there are also countless artists who know when following those rules works, and when breaking those rules gives you something unique.

What’s the story about?

SPOILERS.

Seriously, if you’re intrigued, and you would like to enjoy a unique story by a writer whose death has prompted me to type this, please go find the story. Come back here if you like — I’d love to know what others think of this story — but I’d rather you read the story than read my appreciation of it, including the picture on the bottom.

Go now!

SPOILERS COMING!

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It’s the only story I’d put alongside Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” as a popular American story dealing with the concept of the scapegoat that can stand with the greats of world literature.

The summer festival is being celebrated in Omelas. What seems like the best Renaissance Faire ever is held. Children laugh, music plays, the abundance of life in Omelas is celebrated by all. There is no talk of rulers, dictators, government, but you get the sense this is one of those magical rural towns whose perfection is always spoiled by the intrusion of some dragon in fantasy literature. The narrator suggests that Omelas is more than what she can describe — the reader is encouraged to imagine a perfect place to live.

Then, in an absolutely brilliant couple of sentences, the narrator acknowledges that this all sounds like some unbelievable fantasy. She says there’s something elseshe wants to show you.

In a cell, a child is kept in a constant state of deprivation. (In my juvenile mind, he looked like one of the children shown on T.V. ads for African charities.) Not even a second of compassion can be shown the child, ever, beyond a bit of grease for food. No companionship, no life outside just existing in that cell. Nothing but just being alive, imprisoned.

When the children of Omelas become adults, they are led to the place where the child is kept and shown his pitiful state, and told that if he were freed, if he were given love for even a moment, the perfect life for those who live in Omelas would end forever.

The story has achieved greatness at this point. It then goes on to become one of the greatest I’ve ever read.

The narrator has one more thing to tell the reader, which is that sometimes, after being shown the child, a citizen of Omelas will go silent, and brood about the price of life in paradise. He or she may even get up, walk into the fields, and keep going, and never come back.

The last lines, quoted below, are among the very few that actually give me a chill.

Tonight I read some comments online from others who are marking LeGuin’s death. I’ve known for decades that LeGuin and I probably didn’t share the same politics, but this never got in the way of my enjoyment of her work of the sixties, seventies and early eighties. Her work began to get preachier, more politically correct, and I stopped reading it, but even those last works didn’t contradict the ideas and values espoused in her early works like “The Word for World is Forest” or THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS. Ideologically, her work would fit comfortably on any liberal reader’s shelves alongside the works of Octavia Butler, James Tiptree, Jr., or the 60’s stories of Harlan Ellison.

But the Tweets and Facebook posts I’ve read tonight come from people saying that to honor LeGuin, you should ‘Punch a fascist,” or give Trump voters a hard time, denounce this or that in her name.

It’s a sign of one of the things missing in discourse, and in the reading community. LeGuin’s father was an anthropologist, her mother a writer; she clearly learned much from them. I’m not sure if she believed one should call those who didn’t agree with her leftist, feminist political views fascists, which seems to be the new style. (If there were as many fascists as American liberals seem to believe, you wouldn’t be reading this — they sure wouldn’t like me.) If she did, that was her business, but it would be disappointing to me, because it wouldn’t reflect the humanism, the belief of standing up for the Other, and the simple humanity of her finest work, which for me is this story.

Rest in peace.

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Bitching About “Canon” Again

The fixation on canon and the microscopic attention to internal consistency reveals that fans of entertainment are people looking for entertainment that fulfills needs that aren’t being met. Friends, family, community, church–all of these have undergone truly seismic convulsions in recent decades–recent years. Identity itself, what it means to be a man, a woman, and American, a Christian, an atheist, a transgender person, a Democrat or Republican or independent, all of these categories have undergone significant changes from what they were just twenty years ago.

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Not THAT Cannon. But I’m trying not to obsess. 

What the hell does this have to do with movies, comic books, TV shows? What does it have to do with things dark and weird, which are my personal entertainment and writing obsessions?

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When major Hollywood movies are exclusively about comic book superheroes followed by men in their thirties, we’ve undergone an adjustment period in what is and is not something ‘childish’ and what is and is not meant for grown-up, mature sensibilities. We used to want to stick to the safe and childish entertainment, but we cut the cord, we broke away from that silly stuff, and we moved on to what was harder to consume because it was ‘good for you.’

Now we slam that sort of thing. “I just want to be entertained!” As if reading something substantial can’t be entertaining. Says the guy who writes about monsters.

We have a president who was a TV show host. Those who mocked this ONE WEEK AGO as I type this are having orgasms over running as an opponent against him…another TV show host.

Stephen Colbert and other night time talk show hosts fuel the Resistance. The Deplorables demand the one reliably liberal voice be tossed off the network that prides itself in being Balanced.

(What the hell does this have to do with…?)

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Speaking of shows with internal consistency issues

All of this is seen and considered by the creators of our entertainment. I can’t say it’s hit horror in any meaningful way because unlike science fiction I don’t think there’s a real ‘core’ to current horror fandom. Crime has so taken over pop culture that it has the opposite condition: instead of being so scattered to not have a core, it is so prevalent that to say there’s one driving idea behind crime genre material is just silly.

I’m not talking about the diversity in casting, which is both good and interesting, even if it’s so clearly done for reasons other than just telling good stories. I’m talking more about the hostility with which internal consistency of theme and detail gives the illusion that childish cultural materials are actually deep sources for thinking about complex issues of our time. In fact they are easy dodges for serious, sober consideration.

I’m going to be here all day if I detail this, so I’m going to sidestep the political and step in front of my latest picky Pet Peeve: Internal consistency obsession.

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Look at the old Tarzan movies. Light, completely off-script as far as canon is concerned, horrific in their racism. If you feel like you need a bath after watching pop on a DVD of a Oscar Micheaux movie. You’ll thank me, his stuff is amazing and often insane. Or look at Charlie Chan or Mr. Moto movies. Completely non-PC in their casting, they reveal sometimes startling levels of respect for these non-white guy heroes.

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How did I get into this? OK, an example that will strike closer to home.

I’m not a Trekkie, but I liked the original Star Trek. I haven’t watched an episode in maybe twenty years, but I enjoyed them. They violated internal consistency routinely in the spirit of telling a good story THIS episode; people didn’t lose their minds over it. Right now, people are bitching that the new Star Trek doesn’t match up in terms of holograms or technology, though it takes place before the original.

Who the fuck cares?

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I’m pretty sure I won’t.

Answer: The people to whom the internal consistency of a world depicted in a one-hour sci fi TV show matters, that’s who.

Okay, so who are these people? Evil fat white guys living in their mom’s basement. I guess, I don’t know, that’s the token stereotype for people to hate, especially people who hate stereotypes.

Are we saying those people don’t matter because they’re white males? What if everything about these people stayed the same but they were black males? Suddenly, we wonder WHY they live in mom’s basement…

I’m doing it again.

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This picayune fixation on the minutiae of trah reveals people who are too emotionally invested in things that are just meant to be fun, but now are seen as tools of cultural change. This is helping create a nation of entertainment junkies who can’t think for themselves and turn to ‘thinkers’ like Colbert and the political message behind the casting and writing in Star Wars for support for their politically-correct positions, which they may or may not actually believe, which they may or may not have come to through deliberation of issues. Or they just nodded in agreement with the guys who comment on YouTube videos about gaming and Star Wars.

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Politics, canon and internal consistency of fictional worlds are all linked. I haven’t done a good job of illustrating that here, but maybe that’s the point. YOU figure it out. It’s fun to think, really, it is. Isn’t it?

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I just like Jack Kirby and Al Williamson art, especially Williamson.