Tuesday, 28 October 2008
Monday, 27 October 2008
If you read IT you can tell the Guardian 'we told you so'...just see August's post linking Ryan and Alan Hollinghurst, which pointed out 'there is far more homo-eroticism in Ryan's descriptions of SAS men at war than in all Hollinghurst's oeuvre'. You can shortcut to it here.
Sadly, I can't reprint the Guardian's photo, but the stylist who provided the dust for Ryan's designer stubble, cracked leather jacket, topsiders (surely some mistake?) and hands must have seen one too many Indiana Jones movies...instead, check out the sensitive chappie above....
Orion/BBC 2006, £17.99 ISBN075876104
Note: With the latest series of Spooks launching on BBC tonight, it seemed time for Crime Time to finally run this essay prompted by the BBC's Spooks compendium published two years ago! You will find it at Crime Time, but in the meantime, here it is, somewhat updated...
Spooks is one of the few television shows I watch regularly (though the last series was a distinct step downward), and I do so because it’s a reasonably inventive spy series featuring some very good scripts, which are particularly sharp in tweaking the deep politics of the security services, as well as providing some good takes on the corruption of that world. It’s generally well acted by the leads, though the younger agents tend to be about as believable as spies as your local estate agent might be (the Alsopp sisters, double 0 zero!). In fact, its biggest and most interesting battles tend to be those along the corridors of Whitehall, and the dramatic highlights are usually the confrontations between Peter Firth as Harry Pearce and Tim McInnerny (actual quote from this book: ’can this guy do serious? Can he ever.’) as his MI6 counterpart Oliver Mace, who does a nice job with smug self-satisfied bullying. But that's because the story in espionage hasn't changed, even though the BBC's target audience has.
But of course the biggest thing that makes Spooks work is that it follows the old American formula of creating a family ensemble to enact its dramas. This goes back to series like 77 Sunset Strip in the 1950s, but began to reach its paradigm with programmes like The Waltons, Hill Street Blues, and St Elsewhere. They learned to combine their action, presented ever more realistically with each new variation on the theme (and remember, in this country, for all the chest-puffing over shows or comedians gone to the States, there would be no Bill without Hill Street, no Casualty without ER, no This Life without Friends). The formula was upgraded when first ER, and then West Wing, added long takes with hand-held cameras to the mix, but even the best of American ensemble drama retains the family set-up: The Sopranos, of course, because it is THE family, as well as a family, a la The Godfather, and best of all The Wire, whose brilliance lies in part by treating each of the institutions or groups it dissects as families. But at the base, soap opera needs family conflict to make the romantic dynamic beneath work, to give it an anchor to the bigger plot. The problem with that, as far as Spooks goes, is that the soap opera has actually tailed off as the series has progressed.
Despite that, this book, produced just in time for series five and Christmas 2006 (not necessarily in that order), assumes its target audience is made up exclusively of people who trudge to Tesco to buy their soap mags every week. This is particularly irritating when the book adopts the soap opera broadcasters' convention that the audience is too feeble to figure out that the characters are actually, wait for it, ACTORS! Have I spoiled this for you? Granted, actors are a lizard-brained lot who can’t help falling in love and marrying each of their co-stars in succession, but even so, they aren’t really the characters they play! I mentioned that the soap element has been toned down in the most recent series; even Adam’s affair with the exotic nanny who wandered around in shorts and wife-beater T shirts all day was finally, to my dismay, down-played. I was totally convinced she was an agent of some organisation more dangerous than Agent Provocateur, but as you know if you watched, I was wrong, and she was cruelly written out. I say cruelly not simply from self-interest as an interested observer in the career of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, but realistically speaking, because if Olga Sosnowska dies in your arms, would you really want to rebound into the arms of Hermione Morris, whose Ros resembles the suspicious desk-clerk checking you in at some seedy suburban resort hotel. Or am I confusing the actors and the characters they play? But if one considers that most of Spooks Series 3 revolved around Zoë’s (Keeley Hawkes) affairs, and constant opportunities to present her in sexy evening wear as she played honey trap roles (remember Tipping The Velvet?), the lack of such opportunities in the past season were a serious deficiency.
Among the odd things addressed in this compendium is the reality that the police can’t actually (yet) tap into to security cameras (most are recording onto tape or chip, not broadcasting--but that's a problem that has plagued scriptwriters ever since Didion and Dunne had Michelle Pfeiffer broadcasting live inside a prison with an ENG camera with no RF or cabled output, ie recording to a cassette) for live, intercut tracking, and they can't actually depend on weeks-old security VCRs from old peoples' homes to fight terrorism. But let's not get technical...among the other odd things unaddressed by Spooks is why MI5 appear to employ only about five agents, plus a lot of rent-a-cops to man the front desk and the corridors. If you say it‘s because Adam‘s group are the elite: well, they include a girl he recruited straight from uni who, about three weeks later, was suddenly qualified with firearms and breaking into the London Library threatening to shoot people in the stacks. And BTW, if BBC is paying the London Library a facilities fee, how come my subscription there just doubled?
And then there is the aforementioned Ros, daughter of the right wing newspaper tycoon, who walked right into MI5 after betraying MI5, and within days seemed to be running the place. Kind of like Alistair Campbell in drag, but more honest, a cross between Ruth Kelly and Maggie Thatcher. The book doesn’t tell you what they pay in MI5, but in the early shows, agent Tom had a massive house in what seemed to be St John’s Wood, while agents Danny and Zoe appeared to be sharing a bedsit in Bethnal Green, eating off a baby Belling, and putting shillings into the meter for electricity. I suppose MI5 are exempt from unions or the national minimum wage. But this is exactly the sort of question that might engage the serious fan. Perhaps this is meant as a serious comment on the changing nature of Britain's intelligence services. Gone are the days when honourable school boys were still enslaved by the days they'd spent bent over in school, when betrayal meant something on a whole different level. As I say, Spooks is usually at its most interesting (absent Ms. Mbatha-Raw in underwear) when it is dealing with the feuds of those at the top, exactly the sort of people Le Carre wrote about. It's when it gets down to field work it needs to spice things up, which is something Ian Fleming understood.
But I'm afraid this volume, like the show itself, signals the same kind of paradigm shift in audience expectations and BBC aesthetics as the presence of Daniel Craig as James Bond as John Terry of Chelsea does. It is what it is. On the practical side, this volume does supply plot synopses of all episodes from the first four series, (but without cast or other credits), some actor information (of the soap magazine kind), and the sort of background in spying tradecraft info you could glean off Wikipedia or the back of some children's cereal box in about ten minutes. Which is probably what those young Spooks do while rushing to catch the number 73 bus to save the nation.
Friday, 24 October 2008
by Gil Kane (with Archie Goodwin)
Fantagraphics 180pp £ 13.99
At the risk of sounding like an old fogey, I remember reading the late Gil Kane’s BLACKMARK when it first came out, in 1971, in a mass-market format Bantam paperback. At the time, I was a massive sword & sorcery fan: Robert E Howard’s Conan, Bran Mak Morn, and Solomon Kane, Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and John Jakes’ Brak the Barbarian in particular. I had read Kane’s HIS NAME IS SAVAGE, a magazine-format graphic novel that was part Richard Stark and part Donald (Matt Helm) Hamilton, and knew Kane was trying to push the envelope in terms of comic book story-telling.
But even at the time, I knew there were limitations. Kane’s artwork is extremely fluid, and, at its best, elegant, as seen in his work on Green Lantern. But the geometrical nature of his faces meant the emotional range was strong at the ends but somewhat weak in the middle—his characters spoke better through action than in portrait. And although Kane was always an outspoken proponent of more literary content in comics, the quality of the prose and the use of it within the layout, more illustrated book than graphic novel, didn’t necessarily break new ground. Even within the limited literary bounds of the sword & sorcery universe, Kane (despite the talented Archie Goodwin doing the actual scripting) came a lot closer to Gardner Fox than Fritz Leiber.
Given those limitations, when the original BLACKMARK came out, the small paperback book format worked against Kane’s greatest strength as a comic book artist, his sense of movement. The panels were cramped into tiny pages, the flow was disrupted severely. That’s why it’s such a pleasure to see the book reprinted in a larger format, with spacious clean page layouts. This volume also includes what would have been the second BLACKMARK book, had not Bantam pulled the plug, and this brings the story to a better finish. The package is completed by an informative afterword by Gary Groth, tracing the history of the project.
Having said all that, BLACKMARK still doesn’t really work. Goodwin’s prose is made to seem more hokey than it is, because it’s too often left out on its own, marooned in a sea of empty page. And Kane’s art, though dynamic, and given space to breathe, simply can’t provide enough richness to fill the static moments. Rather than transforming the rather static beauty of Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant into something with the dynamic flow of his Green Lantern, Kane appeared to have instead wound up with the weaker points of each.
Since Gil Kane’s experiments, the graphic novel has come a long way. Writers like Alan Moore and Neal Gaiman have found ways to integrate quality pulp prose with art work that provides both depth and movement. They, of course, were helped by a different atmosphere in the comics world. Perhaps Kane was simply ahead of his time, and was let down by the way the system treated his trailblazing ideas. Or perhaps he didn’t set his sights quite high enough. Either way, BLACKMARK remains more than a curiosity, and it’s nice to have it back in print in a quality format at last.
Tuesday, 21 October 2008
A few years ago, during one of America’s periodic re-evaluations of Richard Nixon, cartoonist Gary Trudeau showed Mike Doonesbury’s young son watching the ex-president on television. After a panel’s worth of contemplation, the boy asks ‘he’s lying now, isn’t he?‘ His parents beam with pride. ‘A new generation recoils!‘ says Doonesbury.
Perhaps David Greenberg needed to recoil just a little too. Pinning down Tricky Dick is as easy as nailing mercury to a wall; it is even more difficult to bring his image into focus if one approaches the past with assumptions borrowed from the present. In fact, it is the very distance between image and reality which proves the stumbling block for this book. Since his death, Nixon has been shifted to the political middle-ground; by shifting along with this and adopting the template of today’s neo-conservative America, Greenberg mitigates, if not accepts wholeheartedly, the decades of pervasive lies from which Nixon benefits. Concluding convincingly that Nixon did change our approach to politicians, Greenberg analyses the man with the assumption that such change must have been, by definition, positive, given that he accepts as healthy the state of America's current American malaise. The result is an unchallenged litany of the received wisdom of blandness that reflects the American media’s avoidance of substantive issues, particularly during election campaigns.
The cartoonists were always way ahead of the political pundits on Nixon anyway. Paul Conrad drew the President's gravestone, sporting the ambiguous epitaph, ’here lies Richard Nixon’. In fact, it's easy to see Nixon as America’s Dracula, rising repeatedly from his grave to suck blood from the collective polis. This would make Greenberg his Renfrew, wanting to raise him from the coffin one last time, while simultaneously criticising Bram Stoker for lack of balance as a biographer.
Is neutrality a sufficient approach to Nixon’s early political years? Can one discuss Nixon’s image while dismissing the influence of Murray Chotiner, the godfather of negative campaigning? Greenberg chooses to portray Nixon as an honest battling candidate during his red-smearing races against Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas. Presumably, since both were ‘liberals,’ they deserved whatever they got. Even the Checkers speech, for most of us the litmus paper of Nixon’s insincerity, becomes to Greenberg a public success, since he sees the 1952 Presidential election as Nixon’s triumph over ‘egghead’ Adlai Stevenson. This is a position tenable only if you somehow manage to disregard the immense popularity of Dwight Eisenhower. If ’most’ Americans really 'embraced' Nixon the man, as Greenberg claims, why would his 1972 re-election committee consciously reject using his name, instead calling themselves the Committee to Re-Elect ‘the President’? They would have avoided the subconsciously inevitable acronym CREEP.
But through deft use of the locutions of mainstream punditry, like the unsubstantiated ‘most’, or the assumptive 'embrace', Greenberg attempts to redefine history, dismissing as conspiracy paranoia a wide spectrum of analysis which to him lies well outside the mainstream and thus doesn't fit his thesis. He makes scant mention of Nixon's shady pal Bebe Rebozo, and none at all of Howard Hughes, whose bribes to Nixon handled by Rebozo may have been the ultimate explanation of Watergate. There is no discussion of the original ‘October Surprise’, Nixon and Kissinger’s deliberate sabotaging of the 1968 Paris peace talks before the election. Respected reporters like Seymour Hersh get lumped in with student radicals, as people who abused the system every bit as badly as Nixon himself. Authors like Jim Hougan are marginalized completely. It’s as if Greenberg is desperate to avoid being labelled a ‘nattering nabob of negativism’ by Spiro Agnew.
Nixon’s defining moments, the Watergate scandal, his impeachment and resignation, exist sui generis for Greenberg in a similarly conspiracy-free light. No matter how much evidence he himself provides to the contrary, he continues to cite with approval those reporters who admit to having been fooled repeatedly by Tricky Dick. They remembered his ’you won’t have Nixon to kick around’ speech after losing the 1962 California gubernatorial election, and their sympathy, if not guilt, led them to accept Nixon at face value in 1968. Even after giving Nixon another free ride in 1972, against the ‘unelectable’ McGovern, Watergate remained a non-issue until the lies became too blatant to dismiss. Right-wing pundit James Kilpatrick is quoted, but not when he opined absurdly on 60 Minutes' Point-Counterpoint segment that the Watergate tapes showed only Nixon’s refreshing sense of humour. Greenberg, who worked on Bob Woodward’s Clinton book, THE AGENDA, never even wonders about the identity or motivation of Deep Throat.
After Nixon quit the White House, he was reborn as an elder statesman, hailed for his realpolitik with the Soviet Union and China. Greenberg is more comfortable here, and traces deftly Nixon’s academic re-evaluation as a ’liberal’, the last Republican President not committed to destroying the New Deal outright. The motivations behind Nixon’s ’liberalism’ can be guessed at; he did, after all, grow up poor during the Depression, but Greenberg is dismissive of most of the ‘psycho-biographers’ who were attracted to Nixon as an early case-study. His analysis of them is cogent, but although he quotes Gary Wills a number of times, he never actually discusses Wills’ NIXON AGONISTES, by far the best of the bunch. More a literary exegesis than psychobiography, it did far better thirty years ago what Greenberg attempts to do now.
Nixon’s campaign manager and attorney general, John Mitchell, said, on his way to jail, ‘this country is going so far to the right you won’t recognise it.’ The next group of California businessmen backing a political candidate chose someone you would buy a used car from, Ronald Reagan, the ‘Teflon’ president. Greenberg says Nixon’s legacy is that Americans now ‘routinely believe all Presidents manipulate images’. But the reality goes far deeper. Nixon’s true legacy is the way ‘character’ has become the bullfighter’s cape of political analysis, used by spin doctors and media to distract the audience while they, or the candidates, get gored.
In the 2000 Presidential election, the mainstream media cast Al Gore as the Nixonian ‘liar’, while George Bush, sporting the American flag lapel pin introduced by Nixon himself as self-conscious refuge in patriotism, proved himself presidential by not stumbling a la Gerry Ford. Not surprisingly, Bush’s Chotiner, Karl Rove, was a young Nixon supporter during the Watergate era. And it’s interesting to note that Bush’s ability to generate visceral protest is positively Nixonian. Shrub’s lip-licking smirk is the most revealing ‘tell’ identifying mendacity since Tricky Dick’s phony smile, and his chimp-like visage is the greatest boon to cartoonists since Nixon’s jowls, five o’clock shadow, and ski-jump nose.
Greenberg also gives short-shrift to the rich catalogue of Nixon portrayals in fiction and film. He is particularly dismissive of Oliver Stone’s NIXON, which, for all its horror-film iconography (America‘s Dracula?), is both more sympathetic to Nixon and closer to Greenberg’s own thesis than he would like to admit. Greenberg at one point quotes Nixon exhibiting a what he calls a Freudian bent, noting that those who lie or cover up tend to over-react. That is less Freudian than Jungian, namely Marie-Louise Von Franz's theory of the Shadow, whereby we hate in others what we fear in ourselves. In a key moment of Stone’s NIXON, Anthony Hopkins talks to a portrait of John Kennedy. ‘When they look at you, they see what they want to be; when they look at me they see what they are.‘ That is the essence of Nixon’s image; it is crystal clear, what you see is what you got. The shadow is not Nixon’s but America's. And behind it is somewhere Greenberg refuses to look.
Nixon's Shadow by David Greenberg, WW Norton, 2003
Monday, 20 October 2008
Checkmark $19.95 ISBN 081604578X
Lee Server's definition of 'pulp fiction', at least for the purposes of this book, extends all the way from the dime novels of the 19th century to contemporary best-sellers as diverse as Jackie Collins, Mario Puzo, and Pauline Reage. What links them has nothing to do with pulp magazines, or even the pulp magazine ethos. Rather, Server here seems to be defining 'pulp' as an attempt to reach the mass market with material pounded out with the suitably hackish intent of making money.
It's not that this approach couldn't work, but that once you get beyond the realm of the actual pulps themselves, even allowing for their dime-novel precursors and paperback successors, it does become pretty damn arbitrary, far too arbitrary to fit any definition of an 'encyclopedia'. This may seem picky of me, but it's one thing to define 'pulp fiction' casually, if at all; it can be whatever the marketeers want to call it, but we all know what an encyclopedia ought to be, and that's complete.
Server serves up some anomalies. Elinor Glyn for example, whose short story in Cosmopolitan created the 'It Girl,' was a lot closer to Margaret Dumont than Margaret Brundage, and would been horrified to have her name even mentioned in a pulp context. Having said that, the linkage Server makes between writers not generally grouped together is interesting, and sometimes provokes some unique reappraisals. As when Paul Cain shares the page with Barbara Cartland. Or Mickey Spillane gets followed by Ted Sturgeon. And it's worth the price of admission to catch up with such once-major figures as Arthur Guy Empey or Richard Sale, and forgotten minor modern stars like Don Tracy. But why Don Tracy, say, and not Dan Sherman? Why Richard E Geis but not his own favorite pulpster, Charles Runyon? One assumes that some of these people are Server's own favourites, or that occasionally he is doing some well-thought out slumming. And why is Dick Francis here at all? To appeal to the British market? Or just because he fits that most general definition up above? Why why why? My advice is, don't worry about answering such questions, just read, enjoy, and follow the linkage.
Saturday, 11 October 2008
Thursday, 2 October 2008
Simenon And The Surreal: Bertrand Tavernier talks to Michael Carlson
Bertrand Tavernier was in London to accept the first Master award as guest of honour at TCM Crime Scene, which also mounted a retrospective of (mostly) his crime films at the ICA. After we met at the ICA, we were led through a kitchen, up a tiny works elevator, and through a maze of narrow corridors that made me feel like Eddie Constantine navigating Alphaville, before we finally arrived in a very traditional looking English office — no wonder the ICA keep it so hidden — overlooking St James Park and Big Ben. But once we sat down to talk, the setting disappeared and the time flew past: much as I wanted to inquire about the specifics of his career, Tavenier's is a life spent within film: as critic, publicist, director, producer, and his enthusiasm for his calling remains undiminished by the vagaries of the business. Thus one idea flows into another, and you can't discuss his films without discussing dozens of others. Because we digressed so much, we didn't cover all the bases, so to fill some gaps I've interspersed a few quotes taken from Adrian Wooten's public Crime Scene interview. We also talked more about IN THE ELECTRIC MIST, but that will be the subject of a separate interview later, after I've been to New Orleans. So I began by asking about Tavernier's early embrace of American crime movies...
BT: Well, I was interested in all kinds of film in those days, but perhaps because everyone wanted to write about Visconti and no one was writing about westerns, or musicals, or film noir, I was drawn to that. I was attracted by style; these crime films were saying much more than what they were supposed to say; they were full of information about the American way of life, there was lots of social context, and they were written or directed largely by progressive people, or people forced to leave their own country...
MC: SO MANY OF THE GREAT NOIR DIRECTORS ARE IMMIGRANTS
Yes, they brought things that were not existing, so much, a sense of doubt or skepticism...well, this is too simple but American cinema tends to be about affirmation, and the European was more about doubt. Directors like Siodmak, Preminger, Lubitsch, Wilder, bring this with them.
YOU COULD ARGUE FILM NOIR WAS EUROPEAN SENSIBILITY MEETING THE AMERICAN GANGSTER FILM
Oh yes, but even in France at the end of the 1930s, you had Carne, and films written by Prevert
QUAI DES BRUMES?
YOU WERE A CRITIC BEFORE STARTED AS AN ASSISTANT DIRECTOR WITH JEAN-PIERRE MELVILLE
I never considered myself a critic; I did it merely out of passion because I wanted to be a film director. But I was not a good AD working with Melville; it was a bad experience, and he was not an easy man to work with, very intimidating to people on the set. But he knew I was not suited, so he suggested I might be better as a press agent, and that proved perfect: I could learn about films without the problems of being an AD, sit in on every stage of the process, and as I became more successful in PR it was special because I could work only on films I liked: so I did PR for Ford, Walsh, Henry Hathaway, and also for Godard, Chabrol, Jacques Demy, Agnes Varda...the second thing I did as a press agent was to make a trailer for the Godard film.
AND FOR YOUR FIRST FEATURE, YOU ADAPTED SIMENON
Because I loved him. I had already written one screenplay, based on Robert Louis Stevenson's 'The Beach Of Falesa', and I'd got James Mason and Jacques Brel to agree to be in it, but I couldn't get the finance. I tried to write another screenplay, about the French Gestapo, but when I showed it to (the screenwriter) Pierre Bost he said 'these people were scumbags, to make them into heroes is dangerous', well, not heroes, he meant they become interesting by being the main characters.
WHICH IS INTERESTING, BECAUSE THAT'S ONE OF THE THEMES OF LAISSEZ-PASSE (SAFE CONDUCT)
Yes, and the French critics called that picture an attack on the New Wave, and they didn't know I'd worked on pictures like Pierrot Le Fou or fought for him on Le Mepris. I saw Godard at his tribute at the Institute Lumiere, and he was very nice to me. But Laissez-Passe is about the spirit of resistence, and the behaviour of people under occupation.
I THINK OF SOMEONE LIKE SODERBERGH TODAY, AND WONDER IF THE CRIME FILM HELPS PROVIDE A STRUCTURE FOR FILM MAKERS
Yes, it does, and it's a structure that you can break or destroy—but you must have a basis. Dexter Gordon said to me once 'before trying to break all the barriers, learn how to play 'Laura'.
When you know 'Laura' in the right mood, then you can expand.' John Boorman once said he only needed the shot of someone putting a rifle in a suitcase. After that, you can go in a lot of innovative ways, because you have that moment of danger and conflict. And in film noir they found thousands of ways, flashbacks, false flashbacks, flashbacks within flashbacks
YES, I JUST SAW 'THE LOCKET' AGAIN
Exactly. Resnais called film noir the best school for telling a story in the most modern way, and it's amazing how they are still very much alive and not dated. Pitfall, The Big Clock, as interesting as they were, maybe moreso. They give the opportunity for the writer to write different dialogue, always interesting. Out Of The Past has wonderful dialogue, it's not one note, and you have the literary, very sparse, like The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle, Crime Wave. The people doing the writing knew they could smuggle ideas in.
WHICH BRINGS US BACK TO THE WATCHMAKER OF ST PAUL
Yes, because Simenon is on of the most important writers in France—at least thirty masterpieces, plus all the great Maigrets. He's often reduced to atmosphere, but suddenly he gets the essence of something, the naked man: we had this wonderful scene, when Noiret lies down on his son's bed, after learning he's a killer, and he's a man deprived of what society has made of him.
NOIRET CONVEYS AN AMAZINGLY LONELY MAN, WHICH I ASSOCIATE WITH SIMENON'S CHARACTERS
Yes, he is alone. My early films are always broken families, people are always lonely. Perhaps because my parents never got along, so I was raised that way.
AND IT'S ODD TO SEE SIMENON SET IN THE SUMMER, IN LYON
He's always done in fog and rain, but I wanted to shoot the film in summer, in great light, because the foggy atmosphere is merely superficial. In fact, about 80% of the screenplay is original, but when you add, when it's good, it's what Jean Aurenche called a gift inspired by the love you have for the book.
YOUR THIRD FILM , THE JUDGE AND THE ASSASSIN, COMBINED CRIME, LIKE YOUR FIRST ONE, WITH A PERIOD PIECE, LIKE YOUR SECOND, QUE LA FETE COMMENCE
I was doing a trilogy with Noiret, dealing with issues of justice, and this was based on a very famous case at the time. I was looking for the texture behind the crime story; the time of Dreyfus, the battle between religion and the state. It's set between the death of Van Gogh and the birth of Freud. It's never been released in Britain, and I don't understand why. (Note: As Adrian Wooten pointed out, it is now available here on DVD). As the killer, we cast an actor. Michel Galabru, who'd done only low class bad comedy films, but he was very good, and brought the uncertainty to the role.
IT'S IN CINEMASCOPE
We shot in the Ardeche, and tried to integrate the landscape. I was influenced by Delmer Daves and he saw that and loved the film. The early films I loved, of John Ford especially, rooted the heroes in their environment, and with wide screen you can show them close up with the landscape still there behind them. I love Anthony Mann, how he gets the landscape into the film, and cinemascope lets me do that.
YOU MENTION DAVES; WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THE REMAKE OF 3:10 TO YUMA?
Oh I hated it! Hated it! They take a shortcut through the Apaches and discover a town full of Chinese the sheriff had no idea existed there! Really. In the original, two men are killed in the opening, and those deaths mean something; the first reverberates throughout the picture.
HIS FUNERAL IN CONTENTION THAT MORNING...
Exactly. But in the remake, they kill dozens, randomly. The town, everyone is shooting. It makes no sense.
IT SEEMED TO ME THEY DELIBERATELY INVERTED THE MOST CRUCIAL THINGS ABOUT THE FILM. THE SON IS NOW THE HERO, NOT THE FATHER...
Yes, perhaps because of the audience. They make films for children, so the big choices in this film are made by a child. And the father must die, not triumph.
THEN WE MOVE TO 1981, AND COUP DE TORCHON (CLEAN SLATE), WHICH IS MANY PEOPLE'S FAVOURITE OF YOUR FILMS AND FAVOURITE JIM THOMPSON ADAPTATION
It took me five years to adapt. At first I wanted to set it in Lyon, my native city, but it didn't work. You can't kill someone in France without someone else noticing, the body turning up. I asked Perec, Blier, to help, but nothing worked. Then I was re-reading Celine, and I thought Ah ha! I wanted to ask Jean Aurenche to write it, because he had lived in Africa, and he brought that surreal sense of irony—his sister was married to Max Ernst, by the way— the paying of the workers in cinema tickets for example. Though the scene of the pigs and the dead bodies, that we took from Gide.
BUT THE SURREAL IS THERE IN THE ORIGINAL TOO
Oh yes. But when the Americans adapt Jim they wipe that out, they lose the metaphysical. There is always something strange going on, you're not walking on solid ground, that's why I used the stedicam so much; things are not stable, you can suddenly fall into a pit, that's what Jim's books are about. It leaves no way out for the audience, and I decided to keep that. There is no character who the audience can embrace at the end.
WHICH IS TRUE OF THE GRIFTERS, TO AN EXTENT, AS WELL
Donald Westlake, who wrote the screenplay for The Grifters, said he thought Coup de Torchon was the best Jim Thompson, and Westlake is a very very great writer.
IT WOULD BE ANOTHER DECADE BEFORE L627, WHICH WAS VERY DIFFERENT FOR YOU
It's a story about someone trying to do what he's been asked to do, in this case a cop on the drug squad, but he becomes a pain in the ass because he tries, and he's told not to think about results.
I worked with a real detective in his office, his boss left me completely free, he showed me people dealing, explained the situation. But I made that film out of anger, because I'd had lunch with Laurent Fabius, who was minister of the interior, and he asked me for an example of something he could work on. So I told him my son had been a drug addict, and had taken me in the Metro, at Chatelet, where you could walk through an open drug market, to schools where people were selling, so I said, you could do something about that. And he said he wanted something important! I was speechless! The film created a big controversy in France, the minister of interior was angry, and said their policy was against drug dealing, but they actually did nothing, so the film was supported by the cops who understood. And it became a racial issue, because many, if not most, of the dealers were black. That was simply a fact. But by avoiding a crackdown, they opened the door for the likes of LePen, because it allowed him to then damn all blacks as dealers.
THERE IS A DOCUMENTARY FEEL, LESS LYRICAL, AND YOU'VE DONE MANY DOCUMENTARIES
Maybe it reflects the change in the social situation, the generation. My films seem to take on the energies of their main characters. All the actors were unknowns, Didier Bezace, Phillipe Torreton, Milo, and my son actually plays a young cop. But I wanted to show a hero who is sometimes doing things that are wrong, beating up suspects, because he has grown so frustrated with the so-called correct way, because it doesn't work. My films are about people who are passionate, and that can lead him over the line, into doing things that are evil. In all my films people make mistakes.
WHICH THE SENSE ONE GETS FROM THE BAIT (L'APPAT, aka FRESH BAIT) THAT IT IS THE CULTURE, PERHAPS, WHICH HAS LET DOWN THESE THREE KILLERS
I felt it was an uncomfortable subject, how three people who would not harm anyone, but are ignorant, and dream of becoming rich in America, how could they kill people.
IT'S AS IF IT'S THE EASY WAY OUT?
They are lazy, too. And the pressure eventually turns them into killers. It was released in France on DVD, and I'm sorry it wasn't in cinemas. The New York Times called it a French Natural Born Killers, the same subject but opposite in treatment.
WHICH BRINGS US TO IN THE ELECTRIC MIST, WITH TOMMY LEE JONES AND BASED ON THE NOVEL BY JAMES LEE BURKE. IS THERE A CONNECTION WITH COUP DE TORCHON, WITH THE AMERICAN SOUTH, THE ORIGINAL SETTING OF THOMPSON'S POP. 1280?
Not intentionally, but as you say it, I think there is a similarity. I adore Burke, and his books present something different, and like Thompson there is a surreal element to them
ESPECIALLY IN ELECTRIC MIST...
Yes, with the dreams. So I tried to shoot the dream sequences very straight-forwardly, very very realistically, with no distorted lenses or bizarre angles. He's like Thompson too, in that his books have long sequences written in italics, because they are different from the real, and how do you film italics? In Thompson crime is explained by prejudice, intolerance, humilation. And the other element is Burke's great sensitivity to social context, his sense of place. The past is always there, it's his obsession, it explains the crimes of the present: it all goes back to slavery and the Civil War, things kept under the blanket and not dealt with.
IT'S VERY FAULKNERIAN
Faulkner was a nightmare to interview; the critics were asking all sorts of intellectual questions, and he wanted to talk story specifics. Very American. If you ask is Burke intellectual, I don't know how you answer. Raoul Walsh could quote any line from Shakespeare; Olivia de Haviland once said she walked in on him and he was reading Stendahl, and he hid the book lest she see it.
IF NOT INTELLECTUAL, ROBICHAUX IS A REFLECTIVE CHARACTER, THE THINKING MAN'S COP, AND TOMMY LEE JONES ISN'T ALWAYS SEEN THAT WAY
Oh but for me he embodies everything about Robichaux, for me he is the best American actor. In No Country For Old Men and Three Burials he showed that side. He worked on our script, he's very obsessive, even changing punctuation, and wrote some beautiful scenes, including one with Bootsie where he defines understanding by asking what salamanders understand, that won't be in the finished film. But when you say 'action' there's no fuss. He gives you the inside of Dave Robichaux, and I have never seen an actor who can express contempt for another character in such a restrained way; it couldn't be more intense. Jacques Tourneur understood this: he had his actors speak very low all the time, shot them using only real light: there's only one scream in I Walked With A Zombie, it plays like a confession.
THAT'S AN INTERESTING COMPARISON, BECAUSE THE CREOLE CULTURE IS COMMON TO NEW ORLEANS AND HAITI...
And the food! I used a lot of hot sauce there; I came back with a case of Bin Laden's Most Devilish hot sauce. There is also a very Catholic element, very religious to Burke, but very progressive, very anti-Bush, with the post-Katrina setting.
SO IT'S TOPICAL! WHEN WILL IT BE OUT?
Sometime next year. It was delayed by the writer's strike but I'm mixing the world version in Paris now, and the soundtrack is wonderful, Buddy Guy, Clifton Chenier.
LAISSEZ LES BON-TEMPS ROULEZ! THANK YOU....