Monthly Archives: February 2011

Reading Keeler II: Behind That Mask

Last month I finished my second full novel by Harry Stephen Keeler, Chicago’s original genius of massively complex, rhetorically twisted thriller novels. It was called Behind That Mask, and it is in every particular absolutely superb.

Of course, a brief recap may be necessary if you missed my earlier Keeler entries: “superb” here means “unreasonably entertaining in an inimitably bizarre fashion which too-serious people might call ‘bad’.” Harry Stephen Keeler writes with a vast, off-kilter imagination and doesn’t bother to filter it, and Behind That Mask presents his gleeful art at its very best.

The plot, as always with Keeler, is a pleasure to summarize because it is also a challenge. A young man named David Rand is in love with his co-worker, who’s referred to as “Winsome One,” but she is also beloved by their boss. All three work at a legal con operation which sells fake magazines. Meanwhile, in New York City the Chinese government is about to recover the last of the Thirteen Coins of Confucius, a magical set of tokens which, when united, will bring China good luck. Japanese secret agents conspire to steal the last coin, but it ends up in the pocket of a mysterious stranger. Said mysterious stranger is much more interested in a golden ring bearing an inscription in ancient Phoenician which will lead him to sunken treasure. Meanwhile, a Chinese wax worker decides to consummate his affair with the wife of a professional sword-swallower, a common criminal poses as an Egyptologist to crack a safe, and David and Winsome One’s boss, Jack Kenwood, is found with a gigantic hatchet buried in his skull. Of course, he’s not really Jack Kenwood…

You get the idea. Eventually, Kenwood’s murder, the lost Coin of Confucius, the ring leading to treasure, the Chinese man’s tryst, and David Rand’s love for the Winsome One will all be tied together into a surprisingly satisfying solution. But Keeler, that wily old genius, has a special shock in store: on the last pages of the book, he reveals that that solution, though completely logical and no more than usually improbable, is in fact wrong, and he then proceeds to unveil the real explanation for the whole book, in a plot twist so astoundingly bizarre that I actually stared at the book, jaw open, for several minutes, feeling betrayed and utterly perplexed. I tried sputtering “But…but…” –and yet it does make sense, even if it does involve rubber molds of fingerprints, blatant racism, and a circus Fat Lady.

I think that was when I realized I was a hopeless Keeler fan. Up until then, his novels had been mere entertainment, a source of immense pleasure. But now it was personal.

Behind That Mask does, of course, include a lot of really spectacular prose and dialogue. If you’re a believer in judging a novel by its first sentence, here’s this book’s: “Yin Yi, expert wax worker, gazed reflectively over the waxen head he had just completed for Captain Barraby’s Dime Museum and Chamber of Horrors, of Davenport, Iowa.” It’s Yin Yi, by the way, who’s having the affair with the sword-swallower’s wife. He is a supremely educated man with a love of big words and a veritable encyclopedia of passions and knowledges; she appears to have been plucked from the 1930s equivalent of a trailer park. Here is how they part ways on the telephone:

“One full and entire day together, the while the late fall sun rises–flows across the sky outside our arbor, seeing us not, nor seen by us–and sinks into Chicago’s smoke again. Rare viands to eat. Wine to speed the blood through our veins. Love, to make the heart beat faster. Very well, fair Nordic, with hair of a corntossel hue, matched only by skin of the softness of a baby’s, I will await your five taps the morning after tomorrow.”

“Bye, Yinnie-bunny!”

The cast of supporting characters are no less interesting. Here’s Professor Wellington Hinchcliffe: “I hadn’t started in yet with my late afternoon work period. A friend of mine – a professor Alcibiades Brown – was just here, and we had a spirited session in rhythm and music, he on his tuba, and I on my snare drum.” A police detective: “Hold your horses, sonnie-boy. Hold your horses. I’ll try to take your queries in chromatic order!” And try this introduction on for size: “Brofessor Emil Wunderlich, sir, bresident of der sdringed insdrumend depardment at der Eendianahbolis Musikal Konservadory.”

One of Behind That Mask’s joys is that it offers a truly ridiculous play on the “hard-boiled detective” figure. Terry O’Rourke isn’t even a detective. He is an alibi-checker. His entire job consists in calling people and verifying alibis. We are therefore, in a gratifyingly weird spectacle, asked to romanticize the heroic figure of this embittered Irish “alibi-checker” sitting in an office, on the phone with 6 people at once.

O’Rourke has a few chips on his shoulder. He doesn’t like riddles. “Put on your lid. And ride down to the Bureau with me. … It’s not me, b’God, who intends to worry another eleven years about a striped tom cat and a banana.” And he is gleefully racist: “For crying out loud, Kelvy–do you think I’m going to waste my time with a lot of Chinks’ lies about Chinks? Why don’t you put some white people on the wire?”

Unfortunately, O’Rourke finds himself all too entangled with “Chinks,” and with a puzzle to solve, too. Eventually Rand solves the cryptic Phoenician (and Egyptian) clues after an intense cryptology session which requires so much writing-out it consumes all the paper in his apartment, then all the toilet paper in his apartment, then, somehow, all the toilet paper in his entire building. That’s nothing, however, compared to what happens next: the clue reveals the location of buried treasure, which is found with the use of a half-mile-long tape measure.

In other words, there are manifold joys in Behind That Mask. It’s about as fun as can be legally had in a library. Harry Keeler’s dialogue is at its improbable, dialect-ridden best, his descriptions are filled with the childlike awe of a man who thinks he is dreaming big but really is dreaming madness, and the plot is just insidiously crazy. But my favorite element of the novel comes near the end, when Terry O’Rourke decides that the whole story is so weird it really needs to be written down. So he contacts a professional writer: none other than Keeler himself. Keeler agrees to write the story but refuses to meet O’Rourke because to do so would crimp on his imagination.

At this point O’Rourke explodes with anger. “These authors are all the same. They think they’re some kind of artist, an’ can portray a waterfront better when they’re on a desert.” Isn’t that fantastic? Better yet is his description of Harry Keeler’s work process: “His man reports he’s very busy sittin’ in a tub of cold water, with a half-dozen bottles of coca-cola and a straw, plottin’.”

If you’re into this kind of thing, Behind That Mask gives its reader a mighty good time. If you don’t know whether you’re into this kind of thing, well: how can you not trust an author who writes his books sittin’ in a tub of cold water, with a half-dozen bottles of coca-cola and a straw, plottin’?

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Black Swan

I saw Black Swan on Friday night. For those of you who don’t know, Black Swan is a Gothic horror movie. It is in the creepy, surreal style of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories about beating hearts, casks of amontillado, and houses of Usher.

Some people have said that Black Swan is about psychology, about a performer getting too much in character, about how performance can drive you mad. That’s just not true. Nina (Natalie Portman), the hero of Black Swan, starts going crazy before she even auditions for the part of the Swan Queen in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. She’s a ballet dancer, has been doing this all her life, and is about to reach the pinnacle of her career. But ballet is her obsessive focus, her monomania, abetted by her mother (Barbara Hershey), who gave up a career in ballet to raise her. I think what’s really happening is that a lifetime of pressure to succeed at one thing, of work at one thing, is finally tipping Nina past the breaking point.

Then what happens is terrific Gothic horror material. Hallucinations where Nina sees transformed versions of herself. Various dreams and nightmares in a tortured life which culminates in those two old standbys, sex and murder. It’s all very well done, intense and shocking and hard to stop watching. The ending, in particular, is just phenomenal, a fitting climax during which I had to remind myself to blink.

All this isn’t to say the movie is deep. It’s not really interested in human psychology at all, in fact. It dives down to a certain level, and then just stops going. There are tired cliches about sexual dominance, favoritism, and liberation, which made it easy to see why one friend tells me it’s a “very masculine” film despite the female lead characters. It is masculine. It’s also not really interested in anything as difficult as insight or wisdom.

In fact, all the best sequences of Black Swan have one thing in common: the real main character of the movie, Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky. The opening sequence, my favorite scene in the whole film, has Nina dreaming of dancing the lead role at the very opening of Swan Lake, set against Tchaikovsky’s spectacularly emotional music. There are a lot of fascinating quirks of this opening shot (both lead dancers change costumes!), but it’s Tchaikovsky who really “makes it.”

All the best scenes are set to Tchaikovsky, or to Clint Mansell’s soundtrack, which is just a bunch of variations on themes by Tchaikovsky. It’s amazing how many numbers from Swan Lake are used, and how skillfully they are used; notice the terrifying music which pervades some of Nina’s hallucinations, or the exuberantly happy number which overlays the murder scene. That’s what makes it extra-spooky.

Going into Black Swan, I thought it would be a Heath-Ledger-in-Batman type thing: artist gets too close to part, goes bananas. It’s not that. It’s an old-fashioned horror flick, though more gory and graphic than Hitchcock. The gore is a cheap trick; Hitchcock could do more with a single drop of blood than director Darren Aronofsky can do with open wounds. But Black Swan is trying  to freak you out rather than disgust you. It’s also not trying to depress you. My flatmate Sophie and I agreed that, even though some people told us Black Swan was depressing, it’s really not depressing at all. The ending is–well, it’s not what you want to happen, but it does feel really satisfying.

Best Picture? Black Swan is definitely not. It’s fairly shallow, really, and based on artifice. Its chief strengths are excellent visuals; excellent performances by Natalie Portman, the evil (or maybe good?) Mila Kunis, the cruel (or maybe good?) Vincent Cassel, and Barbara Hershey as Portman’s loving but perhaps domineering mother; and, most of all, the heroic performance of the main character, Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky pervades the movie. He’s in every scene, and his music both frames the story and cues us in to how we should be feeling.

And, of course, there are two more Tchaikovsky connections. First of all, symbolically, Black Swan really is just Swan Lake retold. Nina starts as the White Swan, both in the ballet and in real life: trying to court a prince in the ballet, trying to court happiness and purpose in life. Then she turns into the Black Swan, trying to court a prince and also to find release. Then–well, if you know the ending of Swan Lake, you know the ending of Black Swan.

The last Tchaikovsky connection only just came to me: remember how I compared Nina to Heath Ledger as the Joker? A better analogy would be Tchaikovsky as himself. Tchaikovsky, closeted homosexual that he was, spent his whole life playing a public role as the socially acceptable Tchaikovsky. Eventually the duplicity tore him apart. We still don’t know if he committed suicide intentionally or by careless mistake.

If you’ve seen Black Swan, that description will remind you of one of its characters. The movie doesn’t just use Swan Lake as a backdrop. Every last bit of its success is thanks to Tchaikovsky, and every last one of its failings are deviations from Tchaikovsky’s own script.

Natalie Portman as Nina in "Black Swan."

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Reading Keeler I: Stand By–London Calling!

In a previous post I introduced Harry Stephen Keeler, a true writer’s writer: an author of detective and adventure novels who violates every single rule of good writing ever set down. Keeler is, in my earlier words, a man with “an absolutely stupendous imagination coupled to a total lack of judgment.” But I am now in a better position to describe his work, having recently finished my first Keeler novel, Stand By–London Calling!

The book is one of the last published works of Keeler’s career, dating from 1953, after his American press had dropped him for more marketable writers. In appreciation to his London publisher, Ward Lock & Co., for continuing to back him, Keeler wrote this book as a fond tribute to the U.K. with a special plot twist requiring several chapters set in London, the “Chicago of the East.” In return, Ward Lock & Co. dropped Keeler from their roster.

Reading the novel, it’s not hard to see why this work sealed his fate. After an initial exuberantly weird handful of chapters focusing on a crusty old circus master with a diorama of a fish being executed, the feverish descriptions, coiled sentences, and absurd rhetorical flourishes which make Keeler unforgettable fade out, the author instead charging hard across 190 pages of dry landscape trying to get all his plot squeezed in. Weirdly, the plot never really builds to anything; the events, rather than forming an arc, are just a series of things happening.

To summarize: an aging circus master named Angus MacWhorter (so old he looks like an “ancient reptile”) receives an offer to sell a diorama in his circus for $1,000. He drives the price up to $3,000, even though it’s just a little box with a small fish being hanged and a tiny diorama crowd of humans watching the fish die on the scaffold. The description of the gruesome, seemingly pointless diorama is one of the highlights of the book.

Then, in an unrelated development, we discover that a brother and sister in the circus are madly in love with each other. The brother takes some “Hindu drugs” and has a dream that he was involved in a train wreck as a child, where he was separated from his real parents. If true, they’re not brother and sister and they can get married! So off the brother (named Pell Barneyfield) goes to find his birth certificate, because his birth certificate has a tiny baby footprint on it that will match his big adult footprint. At some point, it’s necessary for Pell to call London. I’ll be honest: I can’t remember why, except that he has some sort of zodiacal soul-mate whom he’s never met, and that some random servant woman in London knows the location of his birth certificate. He contacts the woman, but never the soul-mate.

Why is the soul-mate even in the story? I’m glad you asked! He is the subject of a story-within-a-novel, a longish chapter by Hazel Goodwin Keeler. That’s right: Harry’s wife. And the really wonderful discovery of Stand By–London Calling! is that Hazel Goodwin Keeler is just as bad a writer as her husband. We get some sort of preposterous business about young people and forbidden love and a car crash and before we know it, the zodiacal soul-mate guy has accidentally married a duchess in disguise! After the chapter ends, we never hear from them again. And I love the description of the car crash:

“And then the world exploded.”

That’s the sort of thing you read in Hardy Boys novels. “Joe’s world exploded… thousands of little stars danced in front of Frank’s eyes.” Except here it’s much more blunt and kind of violent. “And then the world exploded.” For a moment I thought we were going to be treated to some post-apocalyptic science fiction.

Anyway, Pell Barneyfield continues his daft quest to find his real birth certificate and match up the footprints to prove he can marry the girl. Meanwhile, the girl is getting desperate and accepts a marriage proposal from The Bad Guy, whose name is Steve “Golden-Tongued” Octigan. Steve Octigan sabotages the road Pell is supposed to take back, so he can marry the girl before she finds out she’s not Pell’s sister. The means of sabotage is an irate country bumpkin with a gun, who is prone to saying things like this: “Tarnation–hell! D’ya think ‘at we’uns air–d’y think ‘at w’en he comes to that thar fallened tree tronk, by then half-a-rolled ’round partly ‘crost th’ road–‘ith–‘ith a skinned saplin’ lyin’ keerless-like ‘longside, like could be used as a leever–an’ he climbs out to do a little leeverin’ o’ that fallened tree off fur ‘nough to git clearance to git past it–” and “Hell–f’ar!”

Luckily, Pell avoids the trap and any delirious dialogue with the country hick by crossing the river on an underwater bridge. Octigan exits the book with the following angry last lines: “You folks will always be able to tell your grandchildren ‘at you both once knew the Wickedest Man in the Universe – old Mr Devil himself!”

Old Mr Devil himself could probably conjure up a slightly more entertaining work than Stand By–London Calling!, which for all its inventive plot has some remarkably un-loony detective work and prosaic clues. Even the “reveal” of the secret meaning behind the fish being hanged is slightly boring. But the novel certainly has its pleasures, mainly in Keeler’s uniquely tortured prose. Consider this description of an unlikely event, which is the cliffhanger at the end of a chapter: “Is the identical chance that a snowball, cooked in a nice hot oven, has of coming out browned on one side–and oozing delicious juice on the other. Figure it out yourself!”

Yes, Keeler wants us to figure it out ourselves. I was speechless.

I’ve recently finished my second Keeler novel, and it was far more amusing. Indeed, I frequently broke out into the kind of really painful silent laughter you have when you’re in a library and don’t want to disturb the people around you. Write-up coming soon. Here’s a teaser:

“It’s not me, b’God, who intends to worry another eleven years about a striped tom cat and a banana.”

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An Update on the Burger Wars

The English are still behind in the Burger Wars. Try as they might, there’s still nothing quite like a juicy, grilled American hamburger with all the fixings.

But it’s closer than you think.

Tonight I had an “American burger” at a little-known London joint called the Greedy Cow. The American burger was a pretty standard bacon cheeseburger, only with white cheddar. Oh, yeah, and half an avocado. Literally: they’d put little slices through it for ease of eating, but it was still very much half an avocado. The burger came out to about four inches tall – respectable even in the States.

Indeed, it’s the best burger I’ve had since leaving the USA in September. It was an absolute mess to eat, with the bun falling apart and juice/mustard running everywhere. Eventually I had to go wash my hands. That’s how you can tell serious quality.

That said, there’s still catching up to be done on other fronts. The fries were boring, unseasoned, and the cookies-and-cream milkshake was good but didn’t come with the metal canister of “bonus” shake. And the price was definitely not right: the side of fries alone (it’s not included) was $5! The total for meal and shake, after conversion, came out to about $23. Sorry, but that’s just not cool. The best burgers in America cost half that.

I suppose it was worth it just to rejoice in a gigantic, messy, stomach-punching hamburger again. It felt like home. And if you can buy a trip home for $23, that’s not such a bad deal.

Note: this didn’t feel particularly blog-post-worthy, but a couple people have been asking for an update–the last one was two weeks ago–and I figured I had to start with something!

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Good Job, Bertie

Last night I watched The King’s Speech. Expectations were high: my parents had recommended it in glowing terms, and the entire world is giving it awards. High expectations are a bad thing to have before going into a film, but even so my reaction to The King’s Speech was really, really weird.

The King’s Speech is a movie I watched for the first time as if I was watching it for the second time. What does that mean? It’s so technically perfect, so purposefully directed and acted and staged, that even though I was watching for the first time, I was enveloped in the details of the storytelling: how characters were lit, or the angles director Tom Hooper chose to deploy, or even the blocking. The King’s Speech is a film which evokes a great tradition of historical dramas, and because it is so deeply embedded in that tradition, it makes every image a symbolic cipher which both evokes our memories of earlier movies and signals our emotions with instructions on how to feel.

We get a sense of this in the first frames: the gigantic radio microphone, looming large, intimidating, cold, and alone. But the symbolism and craftsmanship are in evidence everywhere. The Duke and Duchess of York standing in a window, bathed in light, their silhouettes pitch-black against the sun. The Duke, humbled and unable to communicate before his speech therapist Lionel Logue, looking small and insignificant in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen, most of the image taken up by the plain red wall.

A shot which tells us a lot about his character.

Symbols abound. There’s Logue himself auditioning for the part of the much-mocked, disfigured castoff Richard III, who seeks the crown as passionately as the much-mocked, (vocally) disfigured castoff George VI is afraid of it. And there’s Winston Churchill’s character, permanently scowling and with a cigar surgically attached to one hand.

When the Duke walks toward a microphone, notice that we see him in close-ups, the camera claustrophobically near his face, hand-held and jittery.Thus as he grows nervous, so we too grow nervous.

When the new King must speak in his official capacity for the first time, both claustrophobia-cam and mood lighting are in effect.

More tricks: When Logue’s wife meets the Queen, observe how subtly the cameras hide the two women from each other. When the soon-to-be King is practicing his oath at Westminster Abbey, the angle is crooked, so the floor slants. Why did they do that? Usually a slanted angle indicates a world in which all is not right: but of course, Bertie was being crowned into what would very quickly become World War II. (Another crooked shot can be seen in the first picture, above.)

Too often, I was distracted by my admiration for how the film pushed the right buttons. When the speech therapist walks into Westminster Abbey and his head is framed by the glorious windows, I thought, “Of course. They had to do that.” And the film’s triumph seems to come very easily. Of course everything will be inspiring if Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, Geoffrey Rush, Timothy Spall, Guy Pearce, Michael Gambon, and Derek Jacobi are the brilliant all-star cast of profoundly intelligent actors with decades of experience, including between them rather more than a century of Shakespearean acting. Of course the movie will be beautiful filmed on such colorful sets, with cigarette smoke wisping in front of actors’ faces. Of course the climax will be emotionally rejuvenating if it’s the king, well, giving a speech.

The filmmakers evidently were not so confident on that last point, though. For, while Colin Firth delivers the climactic King’s Speech, Tom Hooper pipes in one of the two or three most eloquent speakers in the history of mankind: Beethoven. Yes, the Seventh Symphony underlines the whole speech, and then, as the King and his wife step out onto the balcony and greet the public (this montage is really the first time we see “the public”), we get more Beethoven, the “Emperor” piano concerto easing us into the credits. Composer Alexandre Desplat had the easiest job in the whole film, for the end credits switch off Beethoven and switch on… Mozart.

So, what’s the bottom line? The King’s Speech was mostly perfect. The Churchill performance was a bit hammy, but (1) how else do you play Churchill? (2) one has to admire Spall, an actor versatile enough to portray Winston Churchill and the sniveling half-rat Harry Potter character “Wormtail” in a single year.

Also, Churchill did an absolutely HEROIC job holding in his farts.

Other than that, though, the acting is superb, the visual feel of the film is marvelous (but why does Helena Bonham Carter’s skin look like wallpaper paste?), the trio of lead actors deliver heroic performances (especially Carter, actually), and the ending of the film really is moving.

Based on all that, I should have liked The King’s Speech more. Is it not my kind of movie? Was I harmed by “seeing through” so many of the brilliant visual tricks, or by suspecting that the climax was more Beethoven than Firth? Was the effect like watching a magic trick and knowing how the trick works? Or am I immune to emotional appeals on behalf of a monarch who clearly didn’t want his job and only accepted it because an unnecessary institution had enslaved him over the course of his entire life with guilt and an overwhelming sense of duty which even he suspected was based on a fiction? I don’t know. But as much as I admired the film, I didn’t connect with it.

The King’s Speech is a “culmination movie.” It is the product of a rich tradition of a certain way – visual, auditory, theatrical – of making a film. It brings together an all-star cast of the actors and visual icons of that style, and those symbols – the use of Shakespeare, Mozart, certain camera angles, or class distinctions and titles – are our cues for how to respond to the film. Because it is a culmination film with a great story, great style, and great execution, The King’s Speech is a movie which will have a long tradition of being enjoyed and even loved, but it will rarely be enshrined by the barons of art criticism as a classic.

Of course, I could be wrong. They said the same thing about Casablanca.

P.S. In its review, The Economist noted the class dialogue in the film by pointing out that at the very climax, and not before, Aussie speech therapist Lionel Logue finally capitulates and calls the King “your majesty.” In the magazine’s words: “The message is thumpingly clear: only once the king has shown he is Logue’s equal in humanity has he earned the Australian’s reverence. Triumphantly swelling chords give the game away.”

This is, in fact, false. There are no triumphantly swelling chords. The crucial moment takes place immediately after Beethoven’s Seventh has finished, and several minutes before Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto commences, which in fact makes it all the more important that at this crucial moment the emotional cue to us, the viewers, stems not from “swelling chords” but from the fact that there is no music at all! Absence of chords can be as important a cue as presence.

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