Easy as Breathing

Out of sightHeresy: As much as I love books, as long as I’ve been reading, and even considering the degree to which I extol the importance of literature to anyone who will listen, I love movies more.

It’s true.

If I were forced to make a choice between the two, movies would win, every day of the week.  Don’t get me wrong: I love savoring authors’ language, diving deeply into story, and making personal relationships with characters, and it’s no joke that reading is a more complex intellectual task than passively watching a film for two hours.  As a teacher (and teacher educator), I can’t underscore enough the importance of being a regular reader, and of challenging ourselves to read things that force us to grow in ability and humanity.  But I’d be lying if I said I haven’t always found movies more immediate, more affecting, more visceral.  And maybe most importantly, I find myself becoming more emotionally invested in movie characters than I do in most book characters.

To top it off, some of the authors I currently love might never have popped up on my radar without the benefit of smart, talented directors (whereas I can rarely say a book has turned me on to a good movie).  Elmore Leonard is Exhibit A and probably the best example I can use.  I’d heard the name growing up but always associated it with boring genre fiction – hackneyed potboilers written to make a buck, just a step up from the Harlequin romance novels whose covers I giggled at as a kid.  It wasn’t until the solid-gold mid-90s triptych of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (based on Leonard’s Rum Punch), Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty, and especially Steven Soderbergh’s masterful adaptation of Out of Sight that I sat up and took notice.  There was clearly more going on here that I originally thought, and after poking around a little I suddenly realized the esteem attached to Leonard’s name: the master of the modern American crime novel and quite likely the best writer of dialogue in the game.

Now, after reading fifteen of his books, I find myself in the unenviable position of having to review Out of Sight, a book based on a movie I adore which I’ve seen probably a dozen times.  In other words, this will be short, because the movie is so indelibly scrawled in my mind.  The book isn’t lacking (it’s Elmore Leonard, after all), but I’ve lost the ability to take it as its own entity.  As I read, it was impossible not to see George Clooney as master thief Jack Foley or Jennifer Lopez as U.S. marshal Karen Sisco (even though in the book she’s blonde) or Ving Rhames as Foley’s good hearted accomplice Buddy (even though in the book he’s a white Southern redneck).  I heard their cadences in Leonard’s typically whip-smart dialogue and saw their faces as each scene played out.  It ceased, in other words, to be a pure reading experience and became a weird amalgam of movie and book, which is something I’ve never experienced to this degree.

One thing I’ll say is that Out of Sight is (along with Get Shorty, maybe) the best entry point to Leonard’s work.  Leonard plays with his usual tropes – especially his tendency to people his books with con men who aren’t nearly as clever as they think they are and brassy dames who are the smartest people in the room – in ways that are so original that they cease being tropes.  Jack and Karen’s halting romance – they’re thrown together when he breaks out of jail and she’s an unwitting witness to the escape – seems inevitable despite its unlikeliness.  They Meet Cute™ in a way that’s typically Leonardian – crammed together in Buddy’s trunk as he speeds away from the jail – and the two characters’ spiky banter (about Three Days of the Condor and Jack’s bank robbing CV) betrays their tentative attraction to each other, despite being at opposite ends of the career spectrum.  The job of the rest of the book is to keep them apart – while Jack and Buddy plan one last huge job in Detroit and Karen tries to track them down.  We know they’re  going to meet up eventually, and the romantic promise of that first claustrophobic encounter hangs over everything.

The problem, as I’ve mentioned earlier, is that my familiarity with the movie means I don’t really know how effective this situation is for those who come to the story cold.  It feels like it works – Leonard’s characters and dialogue are as sharply-drawn as ever, and the plot is lacking some of the overly complex twists I’ve occasionally found distracting  in his other books – but there’s just no good way for me to judge.  I know too much.

*****

Current listening:

Television marquee

Television – Marquee Moon (1977)

 

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Fragments of a Former Moon

Clive coldheartWhile I appreciate a good epic as much as the next movie nerd, I’ve always sort of felt like there are few good reasons for a director to take more than 120 minutes to tell a story.  I’m thinking here of people like Judd Apatow (whom I love) and Michael Bay (whom I don’t).  As much as I like Funny People, 146 minutes is about 30 too many, and anyone who has the patience for a 150-minute Transformers movie has a greater tolerance for watching cars fall from the sky than I do.  Ditto Peter Jackson’s three Hobbit movies, which are entertaining enough but seem to exist for little reason other than finding new and inventive ways to feature CGI orc slaughter.  It’s okay in moderation, but nine hours’ worth?

Of course there are exceptions.  For my tastes, three hours of Quentin Tarantino is rarely enough, and a sun-blasted epic like Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West earns every second of its 165-minute running time.  I also admit to a soft spot for admittedly self-indulgent monsters like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and There Will Be Blood.  Sure, they could be trimmed, but when what we’re seeing is so good, who’s complaining?  The point is: If you can’t tell your story in two hours, you’d better have a damn good reason for taking up more time.

The same holds true for novels.  Give me 400 pages or less, and I’m yours for the duration, usually without question.  The higher above 400 you go, the more pushback you’re going to get.  600 or more pages and it needs to be a cracking good story that moves, or it better be something that justifies the length, something that needs to be woven in an epic tapestry.  I usually don’t mind an 800-page Stephen King novel because I know the kind of momentum he gathers – it’s going to be a quick read regardless of length.  And it’s folly to think a novel as rich as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas can be told in anything less than 500 pages.  Both authors earn the length through style and content.  And that’s really the key with both movies and books: I’m giving you my time, so earn it.

Therein lies the problem with Clive Barker’s 800-page Coldheart Canyon, a book seemingly tailor-made for the expression spinning its wheels.  It’s intermittently fascinating, but it’s also tedious, long-winded, and masturbatory, with lengthy sequences that could be excised without losing much of anything other than bulk.

And that really pains me.

When I name the authors who were influential to my development as a reader (and writer), I immediately name the usual suspects: King, Kurt Vonnegut, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury.  But Clive Barker would absolutely be a little further down the list.  His short story cycle The Books of Blood was hugely important to me in high school.  Its graphic depiction of violence and frank handling of sexuality was new to me, and the way Barker suffused each of the stories – even the most sensational ones – with a sense of creeping dread haunted my waking and sleeping moments alike.  And I don’t remember many of the details of his lengthy novels Imajica, Weaveworld, and The Great and Secret Show, but I devoured them whole, regardless of length.  The latter book made an especially big impression, so much so that I remember reading it aloud to my college girlfriend, savoring again the chance to immerse myself in its story and characters.

But I knew Coldheart Canyon was going to be trouble from the get-go.  It begins with a lengthy prologue where Zeffer, an actress’ assistant, buys a tiled room from an alcoholic Romanian priest in the 1920s.  The room is important, the tiles are important, the actress is important, the assistant is important, and, yes, foreshadowing – but the execution is soporific.  It’s a meandering start that features none of the atmosphere I always appreciated in Barker’s work, and the effect I think he’s after with this section – to set the stage for the gruesome details to come – is dulled because the sequence itself doesn’t really work.  It’s hard to build tension with fifty pages of tedium.

Fast-forward seventyish years, and we’re introduced to Todd Pickett, an actor of the pretty but vacuous variety; an empty head who’s nonetheless on top of the world thanks to starring in a series of popular action movies where things blow up real good.  He’s at the point in his career where his looks are starting to fade, his career is starting to falter, and insecurity is setting in.  At this especially susceptible point, Todd is told by his manager and a Hollywood producer that he could benefit from a little plastic surgery.  This procedure goes horribly wrong, and he’s ferreted away to heal in a dilapidated mansion in a hidden canyon in the Hollywood Hills.

In this house in the titular canyon, Todd meets the actress from the 1920s prologue who has miraculously been kept young by the tiled room shipped back from Romania and installed in the mansion.  As it turns out, though (because this is a Clive Barker book), the actress and the tiled room and the mansion all harbor a secret that proves to be disastrous to Todd (hint: it rhymes with “Rates of Bell”).

There’s a good novel in here, but Barker buries it in byzantine digressions: passages on Todd’s career and the destructive nature of Hollywood; a long section on the death of his dog; the introduction to the president of Todd’s fan club (who comes to play a major role in the story); some late-book chapters focusing on an ex-cop writing a book; and more gratuitous sex scenes between the dead and the living than you can shake a tumescent stick at.  I experienced a moment of pure despondence at the point when the book seemed to be at a climax yet still had 200 pages to go.  This isn’t something I’m accustomed to feeling with Barker’s work, which I always recalled as being streamlined and relentless.  Coldheart Canyon, by contrast, seemed like a flabby houseguest who overstayed his welcome by a week and a half.

It’s not a total loss.  The central conceit – basically a tiled mosaic that comes to life to possess and obsess the living – is certainly cool (especially once Barker reveals the mosaic’s specific history), and there are haunting passages galore, especially the sections that focus on the half-animal/half-human creatures that dwell in the mansion’s overgrown garden.  But man: Coldheart Canyon is unnecessarily long and unpleasantly loquacious.  After twenty years of not reading Barker, this was an unfortunate way to get reacquainted.

*****

Current listening:

Algiers st

Algiers – Self-titled (2015)

Don’t Let Me Bring You Down

Subtitle this one,Elmore gold “The Time One of My Favorite Authors Wrote a Book I Didn’t Like Very Much.”

It happens.  R.E.M. gives us Around the Sun, Quentin Tarantino writes and directs Death Proof,  Michael Fassbender appears in Jonah Hex.  Even our most reliable artists stumble from time to time – it would be unreasonable to expect otherwise – and with any luck, they recover. That’s largely how I feel about Gold Coast, a book that seems to have something on its mind but doesn’t execute very well.

The problem (and I’ll try to keep this short) is that in this book Leonard fails where he usually succeeds: his characters are, as the French would say, total merde.  The book revolves around a spectacularly uninteresting trio consisting of widow Karen, cowboy-hat-wearing villain Roland, and wannabe good guy Maguire.  And that’s unfortunate, because Gold Coast actually sports a killer premise. Karen’s ultra-possessive, mobbed-up husband Frank dies and leave her his estate in trust: a monthly payment of $20,000 which will eventually total $4 million.  The catch is that his possessiveness stays behind to haunt her.  If Karen dates anyone else – ever – she forfeits the money, and Frank facilitates the deal from beyond the grave by arranging for Roland to tap her phones and scare off any would-be suitors.  This is where Maguire, a petty thief who decided to go straight by working at a low-rent Sea World knock-off, enters the picture.  He falls for Karen – and she for him, sorta – and, after Karen learns of Frank’s scheme, the two of them cook up a plan by which they can get Roland out of the picture.

It’s good, right?  I mean, I don’t pretend to have enough legal savvy to know if Frank’s deal is plausible, but Leonard sells it.  After the first couple chapters I was prepared for a typically entertaining ride from the master of this sort of thing.  But, as I mentioned above, the three main characters are just … dull.  Where Leonard’s characters are usually sharply and incisively drawn, here we get broad strokes that are supposed to pass for personality.  Roland is a backwoods hick who wears a blue suit; Maguire is brash and idealistic; and Karen is, well, sort of a blank slate.  In her defense (and Leonard’s, by extension), we learn at the very end of Gold Coast that that’s very much by design.  But the problem is that the revelation in question (which I obviously won’t spoil here) doesn’t turn the book on its head like it should, so Karen just sort of remains a void.  It’s unclear, then, why these two men are fighting over her other than the fact that she’s a 44-year-old woman with the body of a 25-year-old.  On one hand that reveals some troubling gender politics; on the other hand, it’s not totally implausible that that would be enough for some men to drop everything and take up fisticuffs.

Without well-defined characters on which to hang his trademark dialogue, Leonard’s plot spins its wheels aimlessly.  Things gradually become more and more convoluted to the point where the book’s relatively scant 218 pages actually felt too long.  I usually breeze through Leonard’s stuff in a day or two; this one I struggled with.  As I’ve written in multiple reviews, I don’t need to relate to characters to enjoy a book, but I do need characters.  To crib shamelessly from Luigi PirandelloGold Coast is a story in search of three characters.

I know enough of Elmore Leonard’s career to know he recovers from this uncharacteristic lull (when Gold Coast was published, Out of Sight, Get Shorty, and Rum Punch were still out of there on the horizon ten or more years in the future), but this is easily the first of his books I can’t enthusiastically recommend.

*****

Current listening:

Radiohead bends

Radiohead – The Bends (1995)