One Bite at a Time




Sunday, January 31, 2010

Traitor

Traitor was released in August of 2008 and sank like a stone. I'd never heard of it until I saw a trailer while waiting for a DVD rental to start a few months ago. The Beloved Spouse thought it looked interesting, so we put it on the NetFlix list to linger on top of one of our stereo speakers for a couple of months before we watched it Saturday night.

We would never have waited so long if we'd known how good it was.

Don Cheadle stars, and I've never seen him in anything that wasn't worth watching. He plays Samir Horn, a former American Special Forces soldier turned suspected terrorist arms dealer who's working his way to the top of the organization. There are a couple of plot twists I don't want to spoil; suffice to say everything about Samir is more complicated than it looks, right up to the end. Cheadle is, as always, wonderful. Samir is a hardass with sensitivity who could easily be a cut-out used to show the convenient emotion. Cheadle plays him as conflicted about what is right, and what levels of right there are.

Guy Pearce (LA Confidential) is an equally complex FBI agent: Jeff Daniels is a less subtle, but still effective, intelligence contractor working for the American government. All performances are uniformly excellent, and the screenplay by director Jeffrey Nachmanoff unfolds Steve Martin's story enticingly, revealing as much as you need to know to keep from being lost, but no more. (Yes, that Steve Martin.)

Traitor is an unapologetic look at terrorism, religion, and government that provides no easy answers. By the end you're sure where Martin, Nachmanoff, and Cheadle (who rescued the project in turnaround and produced it himself, with others) stand, though there's still food for discussion after it's over.

An underrated gem; I'd watch it again.

Friday, January 22, 2010

An Epiphany

I started the second draft on the work-in-progress last weekend. The first draft was allowed to ferment for a couple of months, then I read it over and made notes. This draft is to address those notes and get things reading like a unified book. Subsequent drafts will add refinements: dialog, description, polish.

Key to a successful second draft for me is to get the voice right. I suffer over voice. Plots aren’t my strength. I think I write good stories (story is not the same as plot), but it’s the voice that will keep the reader interested. This book needs a different voice than my PI stories, and a somewhat more subdued voice than my FBI-Chicago Outfit story, which had more of a Goodfellas vibe than this story can get away with. I was hacking away, tweaking, adding words, leaving words out, is it or isn’t it, and one of the voices in my head tapped me on the shoulder.

Listening to voices in your head is not prima facie evidence of insanity for a writer. (Being a writer is.) Fiction writers would never get anywhere without them, though some have listened to the voices in other peoples’ heads, which is frowned upon. This was not one of my characters’ voices; it was my internal editor, who guides all of us through writing decisions. There I was, typing, deleting, pacing, typing again, and my internal editor spoke up, clear as a bell.

“Why are you wasting your time on this bullshit? It’s not like anyone’s going to buy it.”

I was about to chastise him for his lack of confidence, but he beat me to the punch.

“How many stories of the PI series do you have in the drawer?’

“Four.”

“Plus the two you abandoned.”

“Okay, and thanks for reminding me about them.”

“Add the FBI-Outfit story no one wants because Italian mob stories are passé.”

“Okay, that’s six.”

“Seven.”

“All right, seven. Prick.”

“And you’re sweating bullets over this? It’s pretty clear you’re writing these for your own amusement. Have some fun with it. It’s not like it’ll damage your career if this one doesn’t sell.”

Being argumentative by nature, I wanted to have it out with him, but I couldn’t. When he’s right, he’s right. Pausing to think of some point to make in my own defense, it occurred to me this was a liberating experience. I know I’ll finish the book; I always do. I’ll finish it to my satisfaction this time, instead of worrying and wondering if it’s going to be good enough for someone else, which has accomplished dick in almost ten years of trying. Then I’ll go watch some hockey. Practice my trumpet. Get some exercise.

Hell, it has to work better than what I’ve been doing.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Clueless in Maryland

I read two of the novels nominated for Edgars this year; didn't like either of them.

I'm not sure what that says about me. Just putting it out there.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

Turner Classic Movies ran The Friends of Eddie Coyle over the weekend, with Robert Mitchum. I re-read the book a few months ago and had heard good things about the movie, so I made time for it.

Wish I was that smart every day.

This is an understated, well-made, well-acted, movie that captures the feel of the book perfectly. Screenwriter Paul Monash knew to leave George V. Higgins's dialog alone as much as possible and Mitchum gives one of his best performances. World weary, not sure who to trust and choosing unwisely, the pressures on Eddie are written in every line of Mitchum's face and captured in his slow, no-nonsense delivery. Eddie's a loser but he's no sap, and those below him on the food chain know he's not to be trifled with.

The supporting cast of Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan, and a handful of other character actors people of a certain age would recognize from the 70s is excellent. The only weakness is Dave Grusin's soundtrack, which aged poorly and sounds now like outtakes from a 70s TV cop show, for which Grusin did a lot of work in those days.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is testament to how gripping a "small movie" movie can be. Nothing apocalyptic happens, or is threatened. The fate of the free world is not at stake, nor an ocean liner full of passengers or skyscraper of office workers. No car chases or brawls or gunfights. Just the dreary world of a small-time hood trying to stay out of prison, and how his involvement in events beyond his control bring him down. The movie gives you the feeling there's an Eddie Coyle out there right now, in the same fix, and you're right. Every relatively large city in the country has its Eddie Coyles, and that's what makes a story like this so effective.

Where’s the Line?

Last week I came across a dilemma I've had before and have yet to find a satisfactory resolution. I read a blog, the subject of which dovetailed with a blog post of my own from the day before. I commented on the other person's blog, had to cut myself short when the length of my comment threatened to become blog-length.

Part of me wanted to post the link to my blog, but that seems tacky, wandering into the unattractive swamp of Blatant Self-Promotion. Anyone interested can click the link associated with my name in the comment on the other person's site and get to mine. Of course, they don't know that I've posted a more detailed comment already, even if they care.

I see three choices:

  1. Continue as is.
  2. Include my link in appropriate replies.
  3. Indicate I have posted on the same topic at more length than the present comment.

I'd like to drive some traffic to the blog, but not at the expense of looking like I'm a parasite on better-known blogs.

Insights and advice are appreciated.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Confusion

I'm reading a book about a narcoleptic private investigator and having a hard time staying awake.

Now I can't decide whether the book is so good I'm identifying with the main character, or if it's just a yawner.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

"Foresight" on Mysterical-E

Mysterical-E has posted my flash piece, "Foresight," as part of its Winter issue. Several good stories there. Well worth your time.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Two Surprises

Watched a couple of movies over the weekend. One was a pleasant surprise; one wasn’t.

Being John Malkovich is a trip, if you’re into surrealistic movies that keep their tongue firmly in cheek. (Yeah, it’s a bad metaphor. You get what you pay for.) It took me at least ten minutes to recognize John Cusack, and I wouldn’t have known Cameron Diaz at all if The Beloved Spouse hadn’t pointed her out. (John Malkovich I caught right away.)

Describing too much would ruin the fun. Go into it with an open mind and don’t worry if some things don’t make a lot of sense at first. Appreciate the imagination that came up with the 7 ½ floor and the portal into the mind of John Malkovich.

I’d heard great things about High Sierra for years; IMDB’s readers give it 7.6 on a scale of 10.

They’re on drugs.

I realize the movie will be 68 years old this month, so I’m forgiving a lot. Like the horribly racist portrayal of the attendant at the campsite Bogart and his crew stay at before the heist goes down. And the car chase through the mountains, obviously filmed at about half speed. (Full credit to Raoul Walsh for being way ahead of his time as far as shooting on location was concerned.) Forties audiences probably didn’t think twice about these, and some other things that dated the movie.

That doesn’t account for the acting. I thought we finished the leftover Christmas ham earlier in the day, but there was plenty to go around here. Bogart’s good, as is Arthur Kennedy. Ida Lupino is generally able to restrain herself, and Donald MacBride does well as the bedridden mobster. The rest of the cast make William Shatner look like Steve McQueen.

Movies of that period moved along differently than today’s, but still. Half a dozen scenes can be summarized by the following:

Marie: Take me with you.
Bogie: You can’t come with me, Angel. You’d just slow me down. What kind of a sap would I be, taking you and a dog the places I have to go? It’s no good, I tell ya, no good. It wouldn’t be fair to any of us.
Marie: But I got nowhere else to go.
Bogie: All right, Angel. Get in the car.

Stereotypes abound, and, yes, I’ll bet they were stereotypes even 68 years ago. Aside from the house darkie, there was the bad luck dog, the crooked doctor, the rube farmer, his pretty daughter with the club foot who likes Bogie well enough, but, gee, Pa, I just don’t love him, the hotheaded gang member, and more. You know the crew.

Maybe that’s what audiences wanted then, like they want soulful vampires and pop song montages and Judd Apatow now. It’s what sells and makes a “successful” movie. That doesn’t mean it’s any good.