31 March 2009

Public Enemies: The Book

Public Enemies: American’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933–34 (2005)
By Bryan Burrough

This is the longest post I’ve ever made on my blog. But I feel justified in the length: consider this book review an historical overview designed to benefit anyone who wants a primer on the “public enemies” era in U.S. crime-fighting as prep for this summer’s upcoming movie Public Enemies.

My brother Reed, currently a medical student at Emory University, is the serious fan of True Crime in our family. But I’m a History major from my college days, so a serious book on the history of crime can grab my attention without much effort. Especially when a film version from Michael Mann will come out in July. And so I read this book and its narrative of the “public enemy” phase in U.S. crime that shocked the nation and saw the FBI under its über-god J. Edgar Hoover come to maturity. All this, and John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, the Barker Brood, and those sneering adolescents Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.

Burrough covers the events in a strict chronology, and my overview follows the same path. I don’t review nonfiction often (or often enough), and it requires a different approach, as “spoilers” no longer apply. Since I read this book partially to prepare for the movie, I’ll provide the names of the actors who will play some of the notable parts in brackets.

Maurice Jarre, 1924–2009

The Old Guard of the Film Music World, the Silver Age Artists, are slipping off into Valhalla. Maurice Jarre, one the major forces of film composition in the Silver Age, died on Sunday in Los Angeles, age 84.

The French composer made his name with two enormously popular scores from the 1960s to David Lean films, Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia. Both scores gained such popularity that they became part of the popular music landscape. Jarre composed work in a variety of genres, doing films as far apart as Top Secret!, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, the Western The Professionals, and Ryan’s Daughter.

Although Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia remain his best-known work, my personal favorite Jarre scores in my collection are a curious trio: Mohammad—Messenger of God, The Man Who Would Be King, and Grand Prix. The first two center on ethnic melodies—Jarre’s musicology background gave him exposure to the music of many cultures—and evoke a moving and strange sense of place and time. The balance between Indian tonal structures and British marches in The Man Who Would Be King makes for astonishing listening, and the plaintive end title music sounds like an elegy for the British Empire. The music from Mohammad—Messenger of God (also known as The Message) creates the most wondrous ancient Arabian desert sweep, and considering my background in Middle Eastern history, it’s an impossible sweep to resist. Finally, Grand Prix is a great salute to ‘60s cool and has a thrilling march the captures the world of Formula One racing better than any piece of music ever could. Try driving down a fast-moving freeway with “Theme from Grand Prix” playing. It’s a great sensation.

Goodbye, Maurice. Thanks for the melodies in the darkened theater. (And on LP. And CD.)

30 March 2009

Movie review: Monsters vs Aliens

Today on Black Gate, I present some 1950s science-fiction 3D insanity. Or a CGI-animated 2009 version of one. With parody. And celebrity voices. And IMAX. It’s Monsters vs Aliens: An IMAX 3D Experience. Which would make the acronym MvA:I3DE. So I’ll stick to MvA.

And I’m kind of disappointed.

I love the new RealD process, and I like seeing films that use it. Coraline shows the great possibilities of the format, and Monsters vs Aliens continues the trend of using 3D for depth and composition instead of gimmicks.

As for everything else about the film . . . read the rest here.

My footage didn’t end up in Dancing with the Stars

Darn. According to my father, who watched and recorded Dancing with the Stars, none of my footage from LindyGroove showed up. The LindyGroove sequence apparently stayed mostly on David Alan Grier and Kim Johnson, and my father—on the watch for a guy with a red shirt, white braces, and who looks like his son—said nothing showed up.

Oh well. They have my phone number, they saw the footage, maybe they’ll give me a call if they need some background dancers. Sorry if I made people watch this when I wasn’t actually in it. I don’t control the editing. (Yet! [Cue evil laugh])

26 March 2009

Classic IF: Transylvania

I’ve loved interactive fiction games (a.k.a. “adventure games”) since I first started using computers in 1979 as a little kid. By junior high school, my friends and I were hooked on Infocom’s increasingly intricate text-based games, and I was already interested in writing my own using the commercial adventure game-writing tools of the time—most of them pretty awful as far as tookits go. To this day, I still have an interest in classic text interactive fiction, and intermittently use the free programming language Inform to experiment with writing my own—but much of this is meat for another post, which will likely end up on Black Gate in a discussion of interesting fiction writing outlets aside from standard prose short stories and novels.

Although the text games offered better stories and parsers during the early personal computing days, the games with graphics still grabbed the attention of us kids because, hey, pictures! We wanted the most out of the Apple //e, so even though the graphic-based games could barely understand the slightest variation in our wording and force us to spend three-quarters of our time just trying to get the damn game to understand what we wanted to do, we still loved them.

One of my favorites from this era is Transylvania from Penguin Software. Transylvania plays like the early Sierra On-Line games, such as Wizard and the Princess (the first graphic adventure game I played) and Cranston Manor. The scene illustration appears on the top of the screen, with a few text lines at the bottom and a space for a two-word command. The commands are limited and often nonsensical, like LOOK DOOR and GO CASTLE. (Go, Castle, Go!) The text description are usually basal reader-lite, since the author figured that the picture was worth a thousands words. (Not in a green-screen, pal.) But Transylvania offers a step up in graphic quality from the Sierra games, generates some good atmosphere, and feels like a genuine “Halloween Fantasy” story with some intriguing puzzles. I have fond memories of the weeks it took me to complete it. Once all the head-slapping frustrations were finished, and with the help of a friend who completed the game giving me occasional hints, I felt I had enjoyed the puzzle-solving experience.

23 March 2009

Book Review: The Heckler

The Heckler (1960)
Evan Hunter writing as Ed McBai

No, that isn’t the cover of the edition I read. I have the standard in-print mass-market paperback from Pocket Books. But I love this UK cover, so I had to use it.

This is the twelfth book in “Ed McBain”’s long-running series of novels about the cops of the 87th Precinct, and it introduced the series’ most famous running antagonist. It’s only the second one I’ve read, following up on the first of the 87th Precinct mysteries, Cop Hater.

Evan Hunter felt comfortable with his role as a dual-identity writer. As Hunter (a name he legally adopted in 1952, changing it from Salvatore Lombino), he wrote mainstream fiction, most famously The Blackboard Jungle. Under the Ed McBain name, he wrote crime fiction, but admitted his real identity in 1958. He continued using both names, enjoying the freedom of a literary split personality which would alert his fans to what kind of novel they were about to read. Eventually, Hunter and “McBain” collaborated on a novel, Candyland, certainly one of the most interesting cases of an author colliding with his pseudonym.

Conan and the Treasure of Python

. . . and back to reviewing Conan pastiche novels for Black Gate. Last time it was Conan the Raider by Leonard Carpenter. This time it’s Conan and the Treasure of Python by John Maddox Roberts. Roberts is one of best of the authors who wrote for the Tor series of Conan novels, and with one exception (Conan and the Amazon) I have enjoyed all his adventure of the Cimmerian fantasy hero. He writes in a very “invisible” style that makes no attempt to copy Robert E. Howard’s prose, and that works well for him.

But what I find most interesting about Conan and the Treasure of Python is that it is almost a scene-for-scene re-write of King Solomon’s Mines, the classic 1885 novel by H. Rider Haggard, in the Hyborian age setting, with Conan as Alan Quatermain. And it works! If you’ve read King Solomon’s Mines—and you should, it’s a wonderful adventure novel—I think you’ll enjoy Roberts’s “Conan-ization” of it.

Read the review here.

22 March 2009

Crazy dance action photos

My favorite dance partner, the amazing Laurel Marlantes, has gotten back from New York, and she’s finally posted a bunch of photos from our show last year. These are some of the best action-photos I’ve seen of my dancing—and it’s hard to get good photos when you’re moving so so fast, believe me.
And for those of your who are curious, we were dancing to the Led Zeppelin song “Black Dog” from the Fourth Album in its awesome Fletcher Henderson-styled arrangement for the ten-piece Johnny Favourite Swing Orchestra. Henderson was the most famous of Benny Goodman’s arrangers, bringing a true Harlem feel to the music (Henderson had led a very popular Harlem swing bang that ruled at the Roseland Ballroom in the early 1930s), the this arrangement captures the Henderson style in technicolor. If “Black Dog” were a popular song in 1936, it would have sounded exactly like this. And at 190 bpm, it’s a fast song to Lindy Hop to.

Movie Review: The Original Scarface

Scarface (1932)
Directed by Howard Hawks. Starring Paul Muni, George Raft, Ann Dvorak, Karen Morley, Osgood Perkins, Boris Karloff

Before you shout “Say hello to my liddle friend!”, let’s go back and look at that date, director, and cast. Yeah, this is the other Scarface. You know, “the original.” Don’t worry: although there’s no Little Friend, the World Is Still Yours.

I’ve found that many people who adore the 1983 Brian De Palma Scarface—those same folks who have the poster on their walls, dress like Tony Montana, listen to Scarface-influenced rap, and own all seventeen DVD versions—have no idea that the film is a re-make. I can understand this, since the De Palma version seems to exist so solidly in the early ‘80s Miami culture of the “cocaine cowboys” that it could hardly have originated fifty years earlier.

But substitute Miami and cocaine with Chicago and bootleg whiskey, and you have the same package, only with better fashions. (Please take into account the way that I occasionally like to dress when you judge this statement.)

17 March 2009

Movie Review: Appaloosa

Appaloosa (2008)
Directed by Ed Harris. Starring Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris, Jeremy Irons, Renée Zellweger, Lance Henriksen, James Gammon, Timothy Spall, Ariadna Gil

I’m trying to make up for my recent Western-review deficiency in a fury. Following on The Last Sunset, I’m turning my Winchester sites toward this new Western from 2008. It’s the second film from Ed Harris as a director. His first was Pollock in 2000, and that Harris followed that art-house indie biopic with a traditional Western just makes me love the guy.

And I stress traditional. In a crowded film marketplace, Westerns often strive for a sort of “gimmick” or a heavy irony to make them somehow more than a Western. Fine, sometimes that works. But the same way that many horror fans have cheered the turn toward slasher films content to act like slasher films, like My Bloody Valentine 3D and the new Friday the Thirteenth, I cheer Westerns that want to do nothing more than set great stories out in the American frontier, where the movie needs no excuse to exist other than because guns, horses, and incredible landscapes are so damned cool.

16 March 2009

Kill the first chapter

Today’s post at Black Gate is a short (for me, anyway) discussion on why writers often end up throwing out the first chapter of their novel when they do a second draft. Throw it out, or move it, or revise it into something entirely different. First chapters rarely survive to the end the way they were first conceived. I’m speaking from personal experience here, and from my current working on revising Orphans of Fenris for National Novel Editing Month.

Anyway, enjoy.

14 March 2009

Movie review: The Last Sunset

The Last Sunset (1961)
Directed by Robert Aldrich. Starring Rock Hudson, Kirk Douglas, Dorothy Malone, Joseph Cotten, Carol Lynley, Neville Brand, Jack Elam.

I haven’t reviewed a Western in a spell. This is morally wrong, and I apologize.

The Last Sunset, like director Aldrich’s Vera Cruz, had an immense affect on the Italian Western filmmakers of the next decade. Specifically, it guided Sergio Leone in creating the legendary showdown between Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West, which is perhaps the greatest Western duel ever filmed.

But The Last Sunset comes with its own powerful pedigree: a famous director, a big-name cast, and future black-list hero Dalton Trumbo on the screenplay. Plus, it has a dark sexual angle that’s daring for its day.

Bren O’Malley (Kirk Douglas) has fled from an ambitious lawman, Dana Stribling (Rock Hudson), into Mexico. Stribling wants to see O’Malley hang because he shot his brother-in-law, leading his sister to hang herself. O’Malley chooses to stay with Belle Breckenridge (Dorothy Malone), whom he loved years ago, and agrees to serve as a gunman on a cattle drive for her sodden husband John (Joseph Cotten, who appears to be actually drunk). Stribling joins the cattle drive to keep a watch over O’Malley, since he has no power to enforce his warrant until they cross into the U.S.

O’Malley still loves Belle, but during the cattle drive she begins to fall for the aggressive advances of Stribling. Her sixteen-year-old daughter Melissa (Carol Lynley) gets it bad for O’Malley, and as it becomes clearer that he will never have his old love back, O’Malley begins to reciprocate toward the beautiful teenager girl.

You can probably guess where this is going.

11 March 2009

Caspar David Friedrich Paints Childhood Horrors

I first read Frankenstein and Dracula in late elementary school, during the early ‘80s. I still remember vividly the the Signet Classics editions of the novels that I owned—in fact, I still have my Frankenstein edition. Both had oil painting illustrations on the covers, and even as a fifth grader I knew that neither work was commissioned for the book. They obviously were works of art from the time period of the books, hanging in a museum somewhere in Europe. I probably glanced at the artist and painting name in the bibliographic information for the book, but I didn’t remember the names years later. But the two images stayed in my head, and I would often see them reproduced on other book covers.

I eventually learned that the two paintings came from the brush of the same artist, German painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840), considered the greatest Romantic landscape painter in the history of the form. Not only that, but the painting I remembered so strongly from the Signet Frankenstein of my childhood, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, is practically the Official Poster of Romanticism. Go to the Wikipedia page for “Romanticism,” and there it is, right at the top.

The painting has a date of 1818, a year before the publication of Frankenstein, but more than just the proximity of the date makes this the perfect illustration for the novel. I would almost imagine that the novel inspired the painting:This is Victor Frankenstein, among the mountains of Switzerland, contemplating where down in the fog might lurk the monster he created. Dwarfed and insignificant, the creator of this new life contemplates his fate.

The painting from the Dracula edition is Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon. Painted in the early 1830s, this predates Stoker’s novel by around six decades, and the couple wear clothing from the eighteenth century. Nonetheless, the atmospheric match to Stoker’s tale of vampirism and its own Romantic sweep is a powerful one. I can imagine these people are standing near the Borgo Pass in the Carpathian Mountains, watching the Moon and wondering if the bloodsucking undead will crawl from his castle tonight: I have seen both these paintings adorning book covers today. I recently saw Wanderer on the cover of the AD Classic edition of Journey to the Center of the Earth. Which is a complete mis-match from my perspective, but oh well. I later spotted it on a dictionary of philosophy, reproduced with a weird orange tint. Oh look, here’s another one.

Another of my posts has an amazing “ice landscape” by Herr Friedrich adorning it.

10 March 2009

Book review: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus
By Mary Shelley (1819; rev. 1831)

As with my recent look at Pride and Prejudice, this isn’t so much a review of a book everybody knows as much as it is me watching myself read the book for the first time in a monster’s age.

A few events prompted me to re-read Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus after so many years. (I’m proud the say that the copy I have is the same one I first read in fifth grade, and it’s in excellent condition.) One event was the aforementioned reading of Pride and Prejudice. After finishing Austen’s novel, I wanted to experience the other side of Regency writing, the dark side far away from the Austen Realism, the one hidden in the shadows of the Gothic novel and Romanticism and fiery Miltonian passions. Never a fan of Realism (I get too much of that at work), I needed the Romantic to get back the proper balance. And Frankenstein is one of the most Romantic of all novels, a height in the original liteary and artistic movement. It is also the fullest flowering of the classic period of the Gothic novel. Most early Gothic novels are pretty dreadful reads today, such as The Castle Otranto by Horace Walpole, and only students and dedicated enthusiasts bother to seek them out. But everyone knows about Frankenstein, and people still read it with as much thrill and wonder as anyone who snatched up one of the first five hundred copies from the small print run of 1819.

Another event was speaking to my uncle after he had finished watching Shadow of the Vampire for the first time. Our conversation drifted to that famous “dark and stormy night” in 1816 Switzerland that led to Mary Shelley authoring Frankenstein. He wanted to know if any of the other three participants in that experiment in writing horror had completed their works. I pointed him the direction of the other product, Polidori’s “The Vampyre,” also published in 1819. My uncle then mentioned how much he loves Frankenstein, and his enthusiasm made me want to go back to it.

Finally, I’ve enjoyed reading Frankensteinia: The Frankenstein Blog so much that I wanted to get into some of the Frankenstein feeling. I’ve done a lot of reading and research on vampires, werewolves (my favorite of the “classic” monsters), and mummies, but not enough time on the Frankenstein Monster and his creator. So I decided to go back to pitted well, the original novel.

The version I have is the 1831 revision with Shelley’s famous introduction about the novel’s creation. In particular, this passage always strikes me as one of the best descriptions about the writing of horror:
I busied myself to think of a story,—a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name.
I would lie if I told you that Shelley 100% accomplished this task, at least from the perspective of 2009. No, Frankenstein doesn’t curdle my blood or awaken thrilling horror, although I imagine it probably did in the early 19th century. But Shelley still gets the majority of tasks right: the novel speaks to the “mysterious fears of our nature” and quickens “the beatings of the heart”—mostly because it’s still so damn good.

What Shelley finally latched onto when she found her story wasn’t a ghost story at all. Using ideas of Erasmus Darwin’s, she succeeded in creating the first genuine science-fiction story. The artificial creation of life through scientific processes… and its consequences. The original Preface (which, according to Mary Shelley, is the work of her husband, poet Percy Shelley) makes the science basis clear, as opposed to a supernatural one.

This is another difference in how I approached Frankenstein this time that I read it: I paid more attention to its science-fiction premise alongside its overt Romanticism and its interaction with the wildness of human nature and the actual wilds. Damn, but I love Romanticism.

Although Victor Frankenstein, a young medical student and not a doctor as often portrayed in other media, is the nominal hero and the narrator who tells his story to the captain of a ship trapped in arctic ice, I feel little sympathy for him. Even as his friends and family die at the monster’s hands, I felt a squeamish dislike for Frankenstein because he shows such moral cowardice. It isn’t only that he backs away from his creation, refusing to take responsibility for life he created, and thus alienating it. He also refuses to step forward when the maid Justine gets unjustly accused of murdering Frankenstein’s youngest brother. Victor knows the monster did the deed, but justifies his refusal to say anything about it behind the weak excuse that “the law will take care of it.” Victor only takes action when it’s too late, and his destruction of the monster’s potential mate—based on a fear of them propagating a bunch of ugly children—really puts me on the monster’s side. I actually feel better about Peter Cushing’s cold, cruel murderer version of Victor Frankenstein in the Hammer Films; at least he stood up for what he believed in.

It’s impossible not to feel for the Frankenstein Monster; he speaks as us, people who wonder what our existence, only his tragedy is more specific, and he can find a focus for his rage:
Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred.
Another piece of Paradise Lost got in there. Shelley mentions Milton’s poem more than once in the novel.

It interested me how much the monster resembles the modern “stalker villain” seen in movies and literary thrillers: a character of relentless cunning who hunts and torments the protagonist, able to appear anywhere he chooses and inflict pain. Although Frankenstein doesn’t horrify the way it must have when it was first published, it does contain intense suspense as the monster tracks down Victor’s loved ones (“I will be with you on your wedding night!”) and then eludes him in a passionate chase to the ends of the Earth.

A teenage girl wrote all this brilliance. She changed the world of genre—horror and science fiction—with this one work.

Director Gullermo del Toro—he of Pan’s Labyrinth and the two “Hellboy” movies—has indicated a great interest in directing a new Frankenstein movie. However, he has said that he doesn’t want to do a new version of the novel, but a sort of adventure story starring the monster filled with Miltonian tragedy. While reading the novel, I noticed a few places where del Toro could graft on a dark action story into the events. The long chase into the ice has many places where the monster could turn aside and get involved in some fascinating escapades. And… what if the monster doesn’t commit suicide as he says he will at the end? Where might he have gone, and what would he have to do to find a way into human society? I really hope Guillermo del Toro gets his chance to address these ideas, and hopefully with Doug Jones in the part of the Monster. My suggestion for Victor Frankenstein, if he appears in the movie, is James McAvoy.

We might have to wait a spell for the movie, however. Del Toro is working on that Hobbit thing.

Here’s a great piece of Frankenstein Monster artwork by Dave Hitchcock recently put up at Frankensteinia; this looks close to the creature I see in my mind when I read the book.

09 March 2009

Watchmen: The Motion Picture

Okay, here it is folks: your big, fat, unwieldy review of Watchmen The Movie over at Black Gate. Yes, once again Ryan proves that only he dares post something that ridiculously long. Ah, but there is so much say!

So go over and watch me watch the Watchmen.

Meanwhile, I’m going to start preparing my Rorschach costume for Halloween. Never too early to start planning.

Update: The Director’s Cut is now on DVD. I haven’t watched this version yet, and I’ll post some thoughts when I get around to it.

07 March 2009

Who watches the Watchmen? I do!

You see the poster. You look up at the post title. So you expect a review of Watchmen, which premiered yesterday in theaters.

Sorry, I’m only deceiving you. You will get a full Watchmen review, but I will make you wait until Tuesday because I want to post it as my entry for the Black Gate blog. The movie’s exploration of comic book legendry and how the superhero archetype functions in the contemporary world seems analytical enough of the genre of the fantastic to get inclusion on the site. Plus, more people read the Black Gate blog than read my blog, so for a high-profile new movie like Watchmen, one of the year’s most anticipated films, I can grab more traffic if I place it up at a high traffic site. Besides, I’ve worked on some genuine obscura recently over at Black Gate, so its time for a touch of populism.

Nonetheless, I do have some short notes on the film, and some pre-review commentary.

I’ve read the graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and I agree with everyone else who has read it that it represents a high water-mark for the medium. Alan Moore set out to create a work of comic book art with the same depth as classic prose literature, and I believe that he succeeded. Watchmen shows how the graphic novel can emphasize the novel part of the name. I consider Watchmen a novel, with no need to qualify it with the “graphic” part, and place it beside other favorite novels of mine.

But it still remains a “graphic” novel, and Moore and Gibbons try to use the illustrated serial art to tell the story in a way that neither a film nor a prose novel could. It is a tale ideally suited to its medium. So when Alan Moore complains that Watchmen should not and cannot be made into a film, I understand where he gets the stance.

But prose novels do much that movies can’t as well—and get adapted into fine movies all the time. So Watchmen can get the same translation to cinema screens. No one expects to see a reproduction of the graphic novel on-screen—an impossibility anyway—only an interpretation of its story, and hopefully a good one.

And is it good? Yes, extremely so. Although running about two hours and forty minutes, the silver-screen Watchmen only feels draggy in a few places; otherwise it has the same compulsive action and constant interest of the source material. I’m intrigued to learn what people who haven’t read the graphic novel will think of it. My friend who saw it with me, and who hasn’t yet read the book, told me that he thought “it was a lot to absorb.” Absolutely, and in this way it’s similar to another superhero movie redefiner, The Dark Knight.

I do have some complaints. Principally the choice and usage of source music. And Malin Ackerman’s performance. There’s also much to say about the the way the movie has to adapt its complex material, and some of the choices made, but you'll get all of this and more on Tuesday—after you’ve all had a watch the Watchmen.

Yeah, Rorschach rocks. But you knew that already, didn’t you? Hurm.

Update: And here it be.

05 March 2009

John Dillinger will die for you

One of the film releases this summer that gets me all tingling with good-movie-vibe excitement is Public Enemies, a tale about the FBI taking on John Dillinger and his crime-wave lot in the early 1930s, based on this book. With a cast like Johnny Depp as Dillinger and Christian Bale as FBI agent Purvis, and director Michael Mann behind the camera, how could I not approach filmdom Nirvana? The trailer and the poster are awesomeness enough for me.

Michael Mann is the second greatest director named “Mann” in the history of cinema. (The first is Anthony Mann, but since his death he hasn’t put out much new product.) I haven’t loved everything he’s done recently, but he has passion for cinema and a painstaking approach to period, so I think he’ll work magic with the 1930s.

And the 1930s is another reason to anticipate this film. I love films set during this decade. Everything in the 1930s looks cool. Stuff that isn’t supposed to look cool, looks cool. The fashions were stunning, the popular music astonishing, and pulp magazines were on sale at every newsstand. Fascinating era.

Finally, there’s John Dillinger. I have a personal connection to the legend of John Dillinger through my paternal grandmother, Dorothy, who died in 1995. She was a teenager during Dillinger’s reign of bank-robbery superstardom, and she loved telling me how ardently she followed his exploits and worshipped him. She said she would run home every day from school to snap on the radio to hear what Dillinger had done next. She told me it depressed her when the FBI gunned him down—and did she ever loathe that “Lady in Red” for betraying her hero. I guess that in a era like the Great Depression, following the adventures of a free-living, stylish bank robber was a special kind of escapist fantasy. Listening to my grandmother talk about Dillinger gave me a perspective on why the man continues to fascinate people, and results in events such as this one. And, of course, this movie. I know if my grandmother were still alive, she’d be one of the first in line to see this film. And she wold “boo” Christian Bale’s FBI character and shout down the Lady in Red.

Have I mentioned that my gradmother was a bartender for thirty years? Pretty cool lady.

Public Enemies premieres in July. Not on July 22, however—the date of Dillinger’s death. That would’ve been great, but the date falls on a Wednesday this year, not when new movies are released. (But they bent the rules for that awful remake of The Omen in 2006…)

Behold the trailer:

I’m not sure of the music here. (It's “Ten Million Slaves” by banjoist Otis Taylor, by the way.) If I were to select music, I would use some of the darker bluegrass of the period, or some Chicago jazz. If I used more recent rock music, I would pick the Led Zeppelin version of “When the Levee Breaks,” mainly the parts mentioning Chicago. (“Don't it make you feel bad / When you're tryin' to find your way home, / You don't know which way to go? / If you're goin' down South / They got no work to do, / If you don't know about Chicago.”) Of course, the original Memphis Minnie version would work awesome as well.

02 March 2009

Book Review: Tarzan and “The Foreign Legion”

Tarzan and “The Foreign Legion” (1947)
By Edgar Rice Burroughs

I would like to step forward at this moment to address the audience before the curtain rises on our feature book review presentation so that I may make a personal observation about Edgar Rice Burroughs. Specifically, I would like to explain why I’ve written so many posts about his work in the last few weeks.

Burroughs needs no excuse for discussion in a magazine dedicated to heroic fantasy and planetary romance. Adventure literature as we know it springs from the influence of Burroughs in the early twentieth century. Although pulp magazines existed before Burroughs published Under the Moons of Mars (later re-titled A Princess of Mars) and Tarzan of the Apes, this double-punch in 1912 changed the style of this publishing medium for the remainder of its lifetime, and the influence continued into the paperback revolution and on into our era. Burroughs looms as one of the Titans of genre literature. But the true question is: Why am I re-reading so much of his work right now, in concentrated doses that I usually reserve for no author?

01 March 2009

NaNoEdMo begins

The serious revision process has now started. After a month of writing notes in the margins, between the lines, on the back of pages, and in a battered notebook where the idea for this novel first germinated, I have started the “true” rewriting of Orphans of Fenris. I completed the first draft on November 31st, and now the second draft starts to form before my confused eyes.

I am doing this revision as part of National Novel Editing Month, a cousin of the larger National Novel Writing Month, under which I wrote the first version of Orphans of Fenris. NaNoEdMo is a far smaller operation than the drafting version of it, with a handful of participants, most of them working on their novels from NaNoWriMo—as am I. The goal: log fifty hours of revisions during March. As I explained in a post on Black Gate, I use a desktop stopwatch to keep track of my hours. I then log them into the NaNoEdMo site.

This novel presents an enormous editorial challenge for me. I feel pleased with the energy and concepts of the first draft, but it is definitely a disordered first draft. I wrote it based on an eight-page outline, a short outline for me. I didn’t do a massive chapter-by-chapter breakdown as I’ve done before, and wrote more on the fly. This means that, although I think my first draft has the core of the story I wanted to tell, it needs significant reorganization, re-focusing of its themes, changing the character relationships to reflect the different directions I started to go, and whole chapters re-written almost from scratch. Exciting and scary at the same time.

Take today, the first day…

It has so far gone extremely well. I’ve gotten almost two hours logged and I still have at least another hour left in me before I turn to other activities. But the actual writing has moved slowly, because for starters I am rewriting the first chapter in an entirely different perspective, using some pieces of writing from later in the book that relate to this event.

Originally, I planned out the first chapter (actually, “chapters”; a group of three documents presented to the reader as primary source material) to help move me fast into the writing of the novel. In a first draft, getting those first two thousands words onto the page presents one of the most arduous obstacles. I had these chapters sketched in my mind with vivid pencil strokes—I knew what they would look like. Therefore, when midnight on the 1st of November arrived and National Novel Writing Month started, I got off the block fast. Those opening chapters served an important purpose.

But upon re-reading the novel, they don’t work in terms of pace, story, and character. Too much blatant world data, no-tie in with our actual characters. So… out they go, and no regrets. They did their job. I decided to provide the same information in a more dramatic way featuring a main character who otherwise would not show up in the novel for another five chapters. I moved information from her first appearance, as well as some of the prose, to craft a new opening chapter that handles the world data in a less obvious way, and will get readers into the story and its emotional core faster.

So today has been a day of almost completely new material. However, since I’m revising, I can move at a more methodical pace—I know the raw ore is there, I don’t need to invent it anymore—and work on how the data flows, and flip back and forth in the book to see how elements can tie together in this new chapter. I keep tinkering with dialogue, swapping around paragraphs, etc. Everything you shouldn’t do in a first draft because it would stop you dead and you would never finish the damn thing.

Re-writing contains a great joy, but it’s fundamentally different than draft work. It’s equally stressful, but with a compositional, structural, and analytical stress, instead of the raw creative energy stress.

And now, back to finish the much much much better opening chapter of Orphans of Fenris.