Monday, March 29, 2010

The dignity of the faux dead

This is an addendum to my earlier post on P.F. Kluge's novel Eddie and the Cruisers. And I swear it's true.

In the late 1980s I worked in Florence, Alabama for the Olan Mills Portrait Studio chain. The studio manager was a woman then in her mid-forties, and one night just after closing our conversation turned to how much I liked the music from Eddie and the Cruisers.

"You know," she said fervently, "I wish they'd leave him alone."

I said, "I beg your pardon?"

"I wish they'd just let him rest in peace."


"Eddie. They're treating him like Elvis."

"Eddie from Eddie and the Cruisers."


"Eddie Wilson."


This woman, old enough to have lived through the period when the fictional band ruled the charts, believed Eddie Wilson was real. Somehow the presence of the film on cable and the music on the radio had placed this fictional character alongside Elvis and the Beatles in her memories.

I didn't disavow her of her delusion. It seemed pointless. Her sympathy, however misplaced, was certainly real. But at that moment I realized the power of pop culture: much like the Force, it can have a strong influence on the weak-minded.

And wherever she is now, I hope she takes some comfort in this:

Has anyone else ever encountered someone who believes a patently fictional character was/is real?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Found movies: Posse (the one from 1975)

The 1975 western Posse poses a fascinating set of ethical and moral dilemmas. Released just after President Nixon's resignation, it speaks in the standard western vocabulary: tough marshal (Kirk Douglas), wily outlaw (Bruce Dern), a posse on the criminal's trail, shoot outs and train chases. But its purpose is to show the stained truth behind these pure symbols, both within the story and for the audiences of its time. Thirty-five years later, those truths are, if anything, more vivid.

Marshal Howard Nightingale (Douglas) wants to be a US Senator. He has the railroad's money backing him, and plans to use the capture of train robber Jack Strawhorn (Dern) as the stepping stone he needs. Nightingale has a highly trained posse, and eventually does capture Strawhorn after a mountain gunfight. He returns to a small Texas town for a public celebration of his bravery, prior to taking Strawhorn to the state capital for trial. But Strawhorn is more clever (and perceptive) than Nightingale realizes.

Throughout the scenes of Strawhorn's pursuit and capture the film is essentially standard fare for a western of its time. Even with its widescreen cinematography, it has the same high-key lighting used on Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Big Valley and so forth. I could find nothing to corroborate this, but in retrospect it feels like a deliberate ploy to lull the audience into a sense of complacency.

And in a sense it does. Plot isn't the issue here, nor action, nor a showdown on main street. Rather it's the dissection of motivations that makes Posse so extraordinary.

Nightingale's elite posse is fully aware they'll be out of work when he goes to Washington. Further, the posse use their uniforms and notoriety to take advantage of the locals, particularly the women. The newspaper editor is played by James Stacy, an actor who lost his left arm and leg in a motorcycle accident; with those injuries now attributed to the Civil War under the command of a similarly ambitious general, he sees through Nightingale's speeches and posturing. When he asks Nightingale flat out, "How will you vote if the interests of the railroad are different than those of the people?" Nightingale avoids giving a straight answer just like all politicians from Julius Caesar to Barack Obama.

Douglas, who also directed the film, hits just the right note as Nightingale. When he makes a speech, he sounds simultaneously sincere and somehow false, so that the reactions of both the hero-worshipping townsfolk and the skeptical newsman seem valid. But the real protagonist is Strawhorn, who proves himself the most perceptive and resourceful character in the film. Not only does he outsmart Nightingale, he proves his cynical world view to be the right one. I won't give away the ending, but it's brilliant in its minimal, absolutely right sarcasm.

As another reviewer pointed out, Posse has fallen through the critical cracks, which is a shame. Like classic revisionist westerns such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Wild Bunch and Unforgiven, it uses the mythology of history to make a point about its own time. The sad fact that the films' "railroads" have become the "special interests" of today with no appreciable change in their self-interested influence (thanks, Supreme Court) means that Posse's central point is in no danger of losing its relevance.

What movies have surprised you with their contemporary relevance?

(Those with Netflix can watch a streaming version of the Posse.)

Monday, March 15, 2010

Giants of West Tennessee: the brown recluse

Okay, it isn't a person. It hasn't done anything historic, although it has made the news on occasion. But for me, the brown recluse spider (in Latin loxosceles reclusa) is one of the most influential residents of West Tennessee.

Except for one in the bug exhibit at the Nashville Zoo, I've never seen one alive. As the name implies, they're shy and nonaggressive. They're also tiny, as the picture below shows. They have a mark on their thorax in the shape of a violin, hence their other name: the fiddleback spider.

In 1983, I helped a friend clean out an old shed. It was summer in Tennessee, so I wore shorts. When I got home, I felt a burning ache in the back of my upper left leg, but I thought nothing about it. I couldn't see the actual spot, and I figured I'd just pulled a muscle. When my girlfriend saw it, though, she insisted I go immediately to the doctor.

I was able to get in to see my regular family physician, the one who'd treated me since childhood, and through a cloud of cigarette smoke he immediately pronounced it a spider bite. He said it would have to be lanced and drained, so I was told to lay on my stomach, in just my underwear, while the nurse--who I'd also known since I was a little kid--shot the area full of novocaine.

"Guess this is kind of embarrassing for you, too," I said.

"Oh, no, not at all," she said with professional cool. "It's much worse when it's closer to the rectum."

It took a week for whatever was in there to drain out; I had to walk with a cane, because the big muscle on the back of my leg couldn't really flex with a necrotic hole and plastic pipe stuck in it. A year later the same place flared back up, and I endured another week's discomfort ("discomfort" being the medical term; mine would be much pithier). And believe it or not, just two years ago (more than twenty years after the original bite) the scar tissue developed an abscess and had to be cut open and drained again.

This may be more about my upper thigh than you ever wanted to know, but if there's one thing about Wisconsin I wholeheartedly support, it's the absence of the brown recluse. At least black widows have the decency to be out in the open where you can see them.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Review: Albert Pyun's Bulletface

One of the first interviews I did for this blog was with cult director Albert Pyun about his upcoming film Road to Hell (you can read it here).

Now he's released Bulletface, part of the grand tradition of films created in a ridiculously short period of time, in this case five and a half days (twice as long as Corman's original Little Shop of Horrors, for a frame of reference). Written by Randall Fontana, it's a revenge tale of a corrupt DEA agent (Victoria Maurette) furloughed from a hellish Mexican prison to take down her old crew before they unleash a new, lethal street drug, and in the process avenge her brother's death. Low budget, digitally shot, it embraces its status rather than trying to deny it, and finds its power in its least likely places.

Dara Maren (Maurette), the "Bulletface" of the title after she's scarred, is a deceptively quiet creature, small and chain-smoking, perpetually greasy even when dressed up for a rave. You'd be quiet, too, if you'd endured what Dara has: gang rapes by both men and women in prison, brutal and bloody encounters that are definitely not titillating. Yet she retains her own brutality and willingness to kill, letting it out when provoked.

Maurette's performance is a gem of understatement in a role that could easily swing into parody, and that's the biggest surprise here: what works best are not the action scenes, but the quiet ones between Dara and the other characters. Maurette finds the reality in Dara's damaged psyche: her eyes dart, she fidgets, and the way she slaps away an intended tender touch has the vivid truth of an abuse victim.

The other actors contribute the same understated seriousness. Lydia Castro, as a heart-of-gold prostitute neighbor, finds a core of strength and depth in that cliche'd character. Morgan Weisser and Scott Paulin, as Dara's onetime friends, convey both real affection and the coldness of killers. Most interesting is Jenny Dare Paulin as Dara's former girlfriend; she and Maurette create a convincing edgy chemistry. Steven Bauer (Scarface, Thief of Hearts) is the name actor on hand, and he's adequate; it's easy to see how he'd feel unmotivated to try very hard, but as a result he's blown away by the other performers.

Fontana's script hits some disturbingly gratutious notes that Pyun's execution manages to almost redeem. For example, every woman who crosses Dara's path makes a play for her, a male-centric view of lesbian relationships, to say the least. Diminutive Dara also physically overpowers professional criminals double her size, often incapacitating them with one blow. But where Bulletface really suffers is in the editing: freeze-frames, color bleeds and split-screens take you out of the reality the actors and director create, and the constant bombardment of names and places, rather than clarifying things, just makes you feel the need to take notes.

If you can get past that, there's a lot that's good in Bulletface. This is exploitation, certainly, but it's made with care, heart and a serious effort to do good work. Pyun gets performances far above the call of duty from his cast, and Victoria Maurette takes fearless risks to bring Dara to twitchy life.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The soul of rock and roll: Eddie & the Cruisers, the novel

There haven't been very many good novels about popular music. It could be due to the inherent contradictory nature of writing in concrete terms about something so ephemeral, even when the writers are also musicians. Music is such an individual experience that it can be daunting to find the absolutes in it. I know, because I've tried: my novel The Hum and the Shiver, coming from Tor in 2011, is about music, among other things.

(An example of how to do it badly is Mark Childress' 1990 novel, Tender. He takes the life of Elvis, changes all the names [i.e, Leroy Kirby] and pretends it's a novel. There are no insights, just a xerox of a famous life transcribed as fiction. His descriptions of rock and roll are as banal as Dick Clark's American Bandstand introductions. For the best Elvis novel I've read, try Stark Raving Elvis by William McCranor Henderson.)

P.F. Kluge got it right in his 1980 novel Eddie and the Cruisers. Yes, it's the source for the 1983 film, but forget that for a moment. What Kluge does is something harder, and deeper, than the film's mere missing-album mystery. Kluge shows us the limits of the music, and how real talent sees it and pushes past it. He demonstrates where Leaves of Grass and "Hound Dog" coincide.

Frank Ridgeway is a high school teacher blindsided by his past: a song he wrote twenty years earlier, for his band Eddie Wilson and the Parkway Cruisers, suddenly becomes popular again. People come out of the woodwork seeking information on the band, its mysterious leader Eddie, and the secret tapes he made deep in the woods with unknown musicians just before his death. Frank reconnects with his old bandmates and pieces together the mystery, all the while being trailed by someone willing to kill for those tapes.


In the movie the missing tapes are the first concept album, predating the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper. In Kluge's novel, it's much more complex. Eddie and the band play an Apollo-ish theater, and while they don't bomb, they also don't really connect with the black audience. This drives Eddie to find a way to cross that color line, which he does by summoning all the biggest stars of the time (by implication Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Otis Redding and so forth) to a quonset hit deep in the Jersey woods. Each is known only as "Mr. White" or "Mr. Black," and they make music as anonymous equals, with no thought of race. Then Eddie dies, and the tapes vanish.

There are two main stylistic differences between the movie and the book. First, the book plays for real stakes, life and death. People die for these tapes, and Frank's life is in genuine danger. The second is the true affection for rock and roll, for how it makes the people who hear it and play it feel. Consider this moment, in which Eddie's elderly mother talks about her son:

"So many nights, he'd sit up in the dark, listening to that radio. His father said he was like a spy, receiving secret messages." (p. 121 in the hardcover edition)

Or this, when the nearly-forty Frank Ridgeway describes digging out his old record collection:

"Those cheap little discs, scratched and dirty, with my initials on the label, sitting in the attic...they were alive!" (p. 126)

Or this, Ridgeway describing a particular Cruiser performance:

"We played for two hours, no breaks, no patter, no tuning or stalling, Eddie rushing from one song to another, and the way he pounced on the songs, the way he explored, prolonged, teased, reprised, exhausted them, you had to think--and I later confirmed this with some other people--that he was fucking the songs." (p. 150)

Or this, Eddie's former girl Joanne at the prospect that he isn't dead after all:

Every time she said his name, it came a little easier. Eddie, Eddie, Eddie, like a refrain in a song. My boyfriend's back and there's gonna be trouble. Hey, bird dog, get away from my quail. You really got a hold on me. Some hold it was. (p. 216)

There are lots of other examples, because Kluge gets one thing exactly right: music, real music, matters. It's the context for our emotions, for feelings that can't be expressed any other way. That's as true for the audience as the performers.

I enjoy the movie version of Eddie and the Cruisers, particularly its soundtrack, but the book is a whole other level of accomplishment. If you love rock and roll, if you understand why Elvis was the King, Springsteen is the Boss, Dylan is the Jester and know the smell of teen spirit, then you'll love this book. It's available here.

So what music novels get it right for you?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Interview with Liane Merciel, author of The River Kings' Road

The River Kings' Road, the first novel by Liane Merciel, introduces her world of Ithelas. It's the tale of a knight caught between conflicting desires, a poor woman struggling to save a child, and the fate of kingdoms hanging in the balance. Liane was kind enough to answer some questions about the creation of her world and her writing process.

What came to you first: your characters, their world or their dilemma?

Yesss, starting with the easy ones. Thanks. ;)

The world came first. I've been working in and on the world of Ithelas for about ten years as part of an online RPG I used to run (and still occasionally run when I have time, although that is not very often these days). It's changed enormously over that time, and the version used in the books is itself substantially different from the game version, but one way or another I've been playing in this sandbox for a while.

The characters were the next step. I took a sample of people who could give different perspectives into that world: some who were native to the region, others who were foreigners. Some men, some women. People who had special talents with magic or sharp pointy objects, and people who couldn't wield anything deadlier than a bread paddle. Your usual motley six-pack for high fantasy.

After that, of course, I was stuck trying to find something that could bring all these disparate people together and put them into motion for a plot. Then I thought: what is one concern that transcends gender, social class, and nationality? What's something that anybody could care about? A baby!

Tie a baby to the train tracks and you've got yourself a story. So there's the starting dilemma.

Tell us about your hero, Kelland. The story has him caught between two seemingly unreconcilable choices; was that always your plan?

Kelland is a Knight of the Sun, a bit like a Templar (minus the banking), who gets pulled into the plot because of his unique magical powers and social position. Of all the characters in the story, he's probably the one who has to juggle the most conflicting imperatives: he has to uphold the values of his faith but also maintain its political neutrality; he can't be seen to support one secular ruler over another, even though they're all trying to use him to bolster their own prestige and he needs their goodwill to do his job; he has to protect innocents but also bring evildoers to justice (and, oh, it can be impossible to do both those things at once!). On a personal level, he's torn between the desires of his heart and the duties of his position, with the added complication that if he makes the wrong choice, he'll lose his divinely granted magic forever.

And as if all that weren't enough, he's fairly young -- at the time of the story, he's only had a couple of previous assignments, and nothing like this -- and he's beset by self-doubt because all his life he's been subjected to the Model Minority Myth. Everyone he meets expects that he'll be super extra awesome not only because he's a Sun Knight but because of what he looks like. He knows the truth is that he's just human, but nobody cares about his truth except Bitharn. For everyone else, he has to be who they need him to be.

So he gets to navigate through all that in his early 20s. It's a wonder the poor guy can make any choices at all.

There's an infant at the heart of the story, arguably the most helpless victim of all. What inspired that?

I had to threaten something cute and squishy. It was either a baby or a puppy, and I wanted to reach the cat-lovers too.

How does your heroine, Odosse, differ from Kelland, since both are trying (from opposite sides) to achieve the same goal? And how are they similar?

They're different in that Kelland is one of the most powerful characters in the story, while Odosse is one of the least. She's an illiterate 16-year-old single mother with no money and no social standing in a country where having the wrong accent could get her killed. She doesn't even have a pretty face, which seems to be the default superpower for a lot of fantasy heroines.

Odosse was actually one of the first characters that popped into my head when I was drafting the outline for this story. At the time I'd been reading a message board thread in which a boarder expressed a desire to read a story about an ordinary person who didn't have any special talents and never developed any. It got me thinking: what would happen if an ordinary person -- not a secretly royal Child of Prophecy, not someone destined to become the most powerful sorcerer in the world -- was thrust into a situation that seemed to call for a Hero?

Let's take the archetypal RPG opening scenario: "your village has been destroyed by unknown evil! You are the sole survivor!" What does an ordinary person do in that situation? Swear vengeance and hunt down the villain who did this? Then what, attack him with a ball of bread dough? No. Probably you just try to stay alive. Probably you run away, and grieve, and pick up the pieces of your life and go on. And there's a kind of heroism in that, too -- a more realistic kind, I think -- so I wanted to write about it.

As for how she's similar to Kelland, well, Odosse and Kelland are probably the two most good-hearted characters in the story. They both place others above themselves, and they both try to do the best they can for those people. They just have vastly different ways of doing it.

Do you plan more adventures in Ithelas?

I hope so!

Heaven's Needle,, the next book in the sequence, is slated for publication in March 2011. It picks up the most obvious dangling thread from The River Kings' Road and carries it into new territory, wherein Our Heroes confront an Ancient and Insidious Evil. That one takes a darker bent; it's more fantasy-horror than pure fantasy.

After that, well, we'll see. I'm working on proposals for other ideas, but those are still in the planning stages and pretty nebulous. My plan, tentatively, is to continue the series as books that are linked by recurring characters but each tell a self-contained story. But I'm a noob to this and I hesitate to make grand predictions, so... there's at least one more, it's a lot darker, and it's coming out next year. Let's just go with that. :)

The novel hits stores on Tuesday, March 10, 2010. Leave a comment before March 8 for a chance to win a copy of The River Kings' Road signed by the author.