Saturday, January 31, 2015

Rough Trade (1995)

Dominique Manotti's debut crime novel, Rough Trade (1995, Trans. 2001) is astonishingly assured. A police procedural set in the Sentier district of Paris in 1980, the novel has an almost impossibly complicated plot that, remarkably, does not spoil the book at all, for two reasons: 1. the complexity feels absolutely natural as the police uncover an international plot revolving around drug and arms smuggling that starts with their investigation of the murder of a 12-year-old Thai child prostitute; 2. the pace of the novel never flags. The reader keeps track of the course of the investigation by the way the novel is organized according to calendar entries (stipulating the time, date, and place of each chapter) and this gives us the feeling of moving inexorably through time and space at such a rate that we are content not to have mastery over all the details (after all, the police don't have such mastery!) and instead we hang on and see where the ride will take us. Despite the fact that there is so much going on in the book (there is also a major sub-plot involving the attempts of illegal Turkish garment workers to achieve legal status) Rough never feels too crowded; rather, we feel that the complexity of real life is being honored and represented accurately. The other striking thing about the novel is its complete lack of sentimentality--the police officers are not heroes in the conventional sense (some of them being just as, if not more, flawed than the villains) but the best of them earn our respect for their commitment to the idea of retribution, if not justice. Not surprisingly, the results of their efforts are mixed--some are punished, some get away; some questions are answered, but many are not. But that incompleteness feels just as satisfying as every other part of this novel.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Power of the Dog (2005)

Don Winslow’s 2005 novel The Power of the Dog is an ambitious and sprawling account of America’s involvement in the Drug Wars from the 1980s to the early 2000s. The product of years of research by Winslow, the novel charts with painstaking detail both the structure and the operating procedures of the drug trade, as well as its multiple points of contact with corrupt members of law enforcement and politics in both Mexico and the United States, from the lowest to the very highest levels. In doing so, Winslow of necessity also recaps American foreign policy in Central America over the same period, including the arming of the Contras in Nicaragua, its involvement in Guatemala’s brutal civil war, and its attempts to limit the influence of FARC in Colombia, all of which Winslow portrays as parts of a larger American effort to control the spread of Communism during this period. If this sounds overwhelming, it is, not only because Winslow is trying to cover so much ground in Power, but also because his descriptions of the brutality with which the Drug Wars were fought on both sides are explicit and unrelenting. Winslow does a couple of things to make the impact of the novel a little more manageable for his readers. First, through using a core group of protagonists, he attempts to personalize/put a human face on the complex geopolitics of this time and place. In some ways, this inevitably oversimplifies his subject matter, but it may be necessary to keep his readers with him. Second, and on a related point, Winslow finishes the novel with some sense of closure, and even of hope. Although, on the one hand, Winslow’s DEA protagonist, Art Keller, admits that the drug trade has not even been dented by his career-defining efforts, on the other hand, the main villain is in jail, other villains are dead, and some of the ‘good’ have even survived and may be happy. To Winslow’s credit, this resolution feels deliberately contrived. After all, one of the distinctions that has been most comprehensively destroyed by this novel is that between ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ between ‘innocent’ and ‘guilty’; given this fact, bare life may seem like a victory, but it’s inevitably a hollow one. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Black Rock (2012)

The last two movies I saw, Starry Eyes (2014) and Borgman (2013) were both quite disappointing. The former, despite an outstanding performance from lead actress Alex Essoe, failed to deliver on its potential to say something interesting about contemporary celebrity culture, while the latter, despite some superficial resemblances to Michael Haneke's classic Funny Games, had neither Haneke's inventiveness nor his film's daring. I fared much better with Katie Aselton's 2012 horror-thriller Black Rock, which was partially funded through a Kickstarter project. The initial set-up is quite simple: three old friends (two of whom have been estranged from each other for some time) have a reunion on a remote Maine island where they used to vacation as children. While there, they meet three men who are hunting on the island. One of the women flirts with and kisses one of the men but when he becomes aggressive, she tells him to stop. He refuses and attempts to rape her. While defending herself, she accidentally kills him. The remainder of the film concerns the women's attempts to stay alive while the remaining men hunt them down to avenge their slain friend. So far, so predictable, one might think. But there are a couple of things that separate this film and make it memorable. The first is the fact that the three men are all Iraq/Afghanistan veterans who have been dishonorably discharged from the US Army and have recently come home. They use the skills they acquired in the military to hunt the women down, but more importantly, their depersonalization and hatred of the women is strongly connected by the film to their experiences with hunting 'Haji.' The film has important things to say, in other words, about male violence on both the domestic and international level, at times of both war and peace. Ironically, considering that the actions of the two remaining men are superficially motivated by their friendship with the man who's been killed, the other distinctive feature of the film is the friendship that bonds the three women. It's this bond that enables some of them to survive their ordeal, but only after  the two survivors come to terms with the past and overcome their estrangement, which was caused, not incidentally, by a disagreement over a man. Friendship, then, can serve as an alibi for violence and as a source of strength. All this, and a reaffirmation of the never-to-be-forgotten fact that 'No Means No,' no matter when the word 'no' gets spoken. Aselton does more in the 83 minutes of Black Rock than most films of twice its length.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Fall, Season Two (2014)

The closing scene of the first season of The Fall set things up for the second season to revolve around a confrontation between Paul Spector and Stella Gibson and to some extent that’s exactly what happened. When they sit down across from each other in the interrogation room after Spector’s arrest, it feels like the climax of the entire show and it’s a very suspenseful and dramatic moment. Both Jamie Dornan and Gillian Anderson are at the top of their game in this key scene and their long discussion gives the viewer an opportunity to process and try to make sense of everything that happened in the previous episodes and in particular to answer the question ‘Who is Paul Spector?’ So why would I have a problem with it? Mostly because I felt that organizing the drama around the relationship between the show’s two protagonists risked narrowing the focus on The Fall as a whole. After all, one of the things that stood out about the first season was the way in which Spector’s murders and sexual assaults were connected to other forms of male violence in a way that problematized any attempt to see Spector as an aberration with no relation to other ‘normal’ men. I was concerned that we might lose this broader scope through overemphasizing the Spector/Gibson antagonism. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried about this as The Fall’s second season worked hard to maintain this aspect of the show. When Stella’s boss tried to force himself on her, when Jimmy Tyler tracked down his estranged wife at a women’s refuge and threatened to kill everyone there, when the paedophile priest who knew Spector as a boy was interviewed, and even when Spector’s ability to be a loving father was mentioned—all of these things made The Fall’s exploration of violence much more nuanced and complex than that of the vast majority of television crime series, even though it still comes nowhere near The Wire in this respect. With this context in mind, the fact that this season continued to show Stella Gibson as a sexually active professional woman reads somewhat differently than it might otherwise do. While I still have reservations about this aspect of Gibson’s character receiving so much attention, and while some examples of it came very close to pandering to the audience (for example, the scenes with Gibson and Reed Smith), I think it is important and commendable for a number of reasons. For example, in the context of a show where male hatred and fear of women play such a large role, it is crucial for Gibson’s character to be assertively sexual precisely because it tempts the audience to judge her in the same way some of the show’s characters do. Moreover, Gibson’s need for these types of physical and emotional connections tells the viewer something important about this character, and this is especially valuable information about a character that is usually rigidly controlled and gives very little away (indeed, if I have any criticism of Anderson’s amazing performance in this role, it’s that she sometimes comes close to emptying this character of all emotion in a way that makes her seem practically unresponsive). This is not to say that The Fall’s second season was perfect—far from it! To start off with, there are major parts of the plot left unresolved, most glaringly featuring the character of Katie Benedetto, who is problematically stereotypical character in all kinds of ways. Even though some of this lack of resolution can be explained away by the possibility of a third season, the fact is that the whole plotline of Benedetto becoming Spector’s disciple and partner in crime basically went nowhere and that was extremely frustrating. Then there’s the way in which the season ended. Trust me, I have no problem with cliffhangers, and I actually very much liked the fact that the show did not end with what would seem like the natural resolution of the action, i.e., Spector’s arrest. My problem was with the fact that Jimmy Tyler could walk right into the middle of an area that had supposedly been cordoned off by the police and apparently shoot Spector to death. I know, being annoyed by implausibility is the most conservative and banal reaction one could possibly have to a scene like this, but this is a police procedural and so generically speaking, plausibility matters and this was so egregiously implausible a development (upon which so much hinged) that it really bothered me. Anderson is reportedly keen for a third season to happen and I don’t blame her. Not only are there a lot of loose ends to tie up but one also feels that the surface of her character has only been scratched. For all its flaws, The Fall is still one of the most interesting shows on television today.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Peeping Tom (1960)

I’ve always thought it’s a little disingenuous when today’s critics say that they can’t imagine why Michael Powell’s 1960 film Peeping Tom caused such an uproar when it was first released. Granted, the critical reaction was excessive (Powell’s career was basically destroyed by it) but it’s anything but incomprehensible. In the first place, this was easily the most explicit film (in terms of both sex and violence) to have received mainstream distribution in Great Britain up to that point, and this aspect of the film is intensified by the fact that it shows its audience a glimpse of the seamy underbelly of London that exists cheek by jowl with the ordinary city (the studio where pornographic photos are taken is both right above and supported by the local newsagent’s shop, after all). But then there are all the other aspects of the film that make it both so powerful and so difficult to forget. For example, Powell goes out of his way to make his protagonist, Mark Lewis, a sympathetic figure, despite his horrific crimes. He has clearly been traumatized and victimized by his sadistic scientist father, and the film reminds us of this fact repeatedly (rather than just mentioning it quickly as a backstory), right up until the film’s closing words. In this respect, casting Carl Boehm as Lewis, although he wasn’t Powell’s first choice, turned out to be a brilliant decision. Not only does Boehm give an amazing performance, but his accent subtly sets him apart from the other characters, heightening our impression of how isolated this character is from everyone else around him. And then there’s the aspect of the film that personally I find most challenging, interesting, and (not incidentally) still relevant, namely, all the ways in which the film makes the viewer self-conscious about the act of viewing. In other words, what we unavoidably share with Mark Lewis is the compulsive desire to watch, a voyeuristic desire to be entertained by the pain and suffering of others. Hitchcock touches on this same theme in his portrayal of Norman Bates in Psycho (also released in 1960) of course, but Powell’s exploration of this subject is infinitely more complex and daring. It’s this aspect of Peeping Tom that contemporaneous reviewers could not forgive Powell for; no one who watches this film, even today, can remain untouched by the experience of being placed firmly, even relentlessly, in Mark’s position. But we can still learn as much from this experience today as the film’s original viewers over 50 years ago.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Time Machine (1960)

To mark the passing of one of my favorite actors, Rod Taylor, on January 7th, I went back and watched one of my favorite films when I was a kid, The Time Machine (dir. George Pal, 1960). When I watched it for the first time many years ago, three scenes in particular seized my imagination. The first comes at the beginning of the film, when George’s friends are waiting for him to show up for dinner at his house and then the door bursts open and in he staggers, wounded and exhausted. Watching that scene again now, I think what appealed to me was the collision of two worlds and almost of two different film genres: the adventure film and the domestic Victorian drama. The second scene was when we first see the Morlocks. It’s easy for me to make fun of them now, especially bearing in mind that they resemble aggressive Smurfs who have let themselves go, but they scared the crap out of me when I was a kid, and perhaps my mocking them now is a way of diasvowing any residual discomfort I feel when I see them! The third and final scene comes right at the end of the film when Filby breaks down the door and we realize that George has dragged the time machine back to its original position and gone back to the future. Again, speaking as a cynical adult, it’s easy to mock the sentimentality of the ending, but when I was a kid I loved the romanticism of going back to help the Eloi build their civilization and I still love speculating about what three books George took back to help them on their way. In closing, I have to note how much I hate the 2002 film version of The Time Machine (directed, funnily enough, by Wells’ great-grandson). The special effects in the 1960 version are awful but the film is redeemed by excellent acting, even in the minor roles, such as the actors who play George’s friends. Exactly the opposite is true of the 2002 version: no amount of nifty special effects can compensate for the awful acting—Jeremy Irons as the ‘uber-Morlock’ is particularly cringeworthy.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Joseph Wambaugh, The Onion Field (1973/2007)

Reading Joseph Wambaugh’s 1973 book The Onion Field in the era of Ferguson and Black Lives Matter is a strange experience, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment. First off, though, let’s situate this book within the context of the true crime genre. Like any book published after the groundbreaking In Cold Blood, Wambaugh’s book inevitably shows signs of Truman Capote’s influence, especially in the opening section, where Wambaugh begins by exploring the background of each of the book’s main characters while cross-cutting between the detectives and the robbers until the moment of their fateful and deadly meeting. The differences between Wambaugh and Capote, however, are what make The Onion Field such a significant book. Even though In Cold Blood devotes a lot of attention to the police, it is clear that the murderers are not only Capote’s main protagonists but also the figures with whom he identifies most closely. This is not the case with Wambaugh. As a veteran of the LAPD, Wambaugh’s sympathies are squarely with the police and this book marks an important shift in true crime’s tendency to portray members of law enforcement as the main protagonists, and even as victims (this is a tendency that will developed even further by Ann Rule). Let me be quite clear here: I am not claiming that Wambaugh misinterprets the facts of the case by turning the police into victims; after all, one of the detectives is murdered and the survivor has to endure horrific PTSD for years. My point is that this focus represents a significant development in the genre, especially as Wambaugh’s book was originally published a few years after the turbulent 1960’s, when the police were often seen as victimizers rather than as victims. What makes The Onion Field even more significant and more nuanced than some might expect, however, is that Wambaugh’s sympathetic portrayal of humanized and victimized police officers is accompanied by a stinging critique of the insensitivity, even cruelty, of the LAPD as an institution. In other words, both criminals and the LAPD brass are victimizers according to Wambaugh, albeit of different kinds and degrees. This is where, strangely enough, the context of Ferguson and Black Lives Matter comes into play. For obvious reasons (and despite the recent murder of police officers in New York City), many would have difficulty in thinking of the police as victims today. Instead, they are more often seen as aggressors. This is why it’s so interesting that part of the LAPD’s response to the events depicted in the book was to change police policy so that officers would never surrender their weapons but instead aggressively engage criminals whenever necessary. As an excerpt from Patrol Bureau Memorandum Number 11 (written by Inspector John Powers just five days after the detective’s murder) puts it: “Just as the armed forces protect the nation from external enemies, local police departments protect their communities from internal criminals every bit as vicious as our enemies from without. The police are engaged in a hot war. There are no truces, and there is no hope of an armistice. The enemy abides by no rules of civilized warfare” (quoted on pages 236-237 of the Kindle edition of The Onion Field). It is impossible to read those words today and not be reminded of the ongoing debates about the militarization of the American police. Contemporary events, in other words, have given The Onion Field a new but perhaps not entirely unexpected significance.