Monday, October 23, 2017

Noir Reviews: The Big Sleep, August 1946

I've been stalling in my rain-soaked, smoke-stained traipse through film noir because I've gotten to what's probably the second most well-known noir (after The Maltese Falcon, of course): The Big Sleep. In short, The Big Sleep is simply too big for me to cover. I mean, it's a Chandler adaptation, written by Leigh Brackett (!) and William Faulkner (!!), directed by Howard Hawks, and starring Bogart & Bacall! So, instead of "reviewing" it, I'll just pontificate on what's struck me about the movie down through the years.

The Big Sleep was one of the first noirs I ever saw. This was long before I read the novel, which I've now read many times. Reading the book has, unfortunately, diminished my enjoyment of the movie considerably, but I'll come back to that in a moment. Back when I first saw The Big Sleep I became obsessed with it. I watched it numerous times, trying to capture something that eluded me. That something was an understanding of the plot. To put it simply, I loved the movie, but found it incomprehensible at the same time.

Now, I can be a little slow on the uptake when it comes to the humans and their motivations, but I've come gradually to realize that my lack of comprehension wasn't altogether my fault. This is for two related reasons:
  1. The Big Sleep speaks in what we might call "Hays code," a language I didn't understand at the time.
  2. The Big Sleep does not, in fact, make a great deal of sense.
Let's look at each in turn.

I remember reading the description of The Big Sleep on the back of the box before watching it for the first time. Pornographers were mentioned. Pornographers! Imagine my disappointment when I got to the Bogie-and-Bacall cigarettes smoldering in their shared ashtray at the end with nary a hint of these sleazy, soulless pornographers having passed before my eyes. I watched and rewatched the movie. I even asked third parties. Nothing. In the end (I'm embarrassed to admit this now) I concluded that the "pornographers" were just a figment of marketing hyperbole.

And then I read the novel, and I was like, O-o-o-o-oh.

But listen. I grew up in the eighties and nineties. If a director wanted to show us something, they showed it. None of this implicit stuff. But so much that goes on in noir isn't stated explicitly. It has to be inferred. I can think of a reference to abortion in They Live by Night, for instance, or to make-up sex in Criss Cross. In a way, movies these days, with all their box-checking and point-counting for MPAA ratings, might go far beyond Hays code films in isolated F-bombs and nipples, but never come near the alienation, the raw cynicism, and the savage moralism of film noir.

All that said, The Big Sleep leaves so much to inference that the plot suffers. Carmen Sternwood, instead of being stark naked when Geiger is killed, is fully clothed, as she is when Marlowe finds her in his apartment. If the games Geiger plays with Carmen amount to taking pictures with a weird Buddha head while she's high on laudanum, it's hard to see what all the fuss is about. There's the whole play with the books, of course, but so much is removed from the narrative that there's hardly even a hint left. (Though perhaps a part of the problem is that I've grown up in an era when porn is a lot easier to come by.)

A few other plot elements that get washed out for one reason or another include Carol Lundgren's characterization as Geiger's young male lover, the transformation of the novel's Vivian Regan (the wife of the man whose murder Marlowe is unwittingly investigating) into the Vivian Rutledge of the movie, and Carmen's almost terrifying depravity.

The film's incoherence doesn't end with all that, however. The dialogue goes in circles from scene to scene. Clues mysteriously appear and disappear. For instance, in one scene, Vivian brings up Eddie Mars voluntarily, telling Marlowe that Shawn Regan ran off with Mars's wife. Later, during that famous horse-race sexytalk scene (which is delightful), Marlowe asks Vivian whether she knows that Shawn Regan ran off with Eddie Mars's wife. "Who doesn't?" she nervously replies, apparently forgetting that she's the one who told him.

Immediately after that conversation ends, Marlowe telephones Mars from the restaurant and makes plans to meet him at his gambling house. Mars tells him to come on up at once, and he does. When he arrrives, he finds that Vivian has somehow beaten him there, despite (apparently) having stopped somewhere to change into a completely new outfit, and is now ensconced with the band as though she's been there all night. (It's a little sad that the gambling house is everything Chandler mocks in Hollywood gambling houses.) And then he goes and talks to Mars and starts making perceptive guesses about...Mrs. Mars and Shawn Regan! After which a scene is staged to convince Marlowe that Mars and Vivian have no connection, although she's the one who told him about the "bond between Eddie Mars and the Sternwoods" in the first place!

To be fair, the horse-race scene, and, to some extent, the resulting incoherence, is the result of a re-shoot aimed at emphasizing the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall. And some confusion comes straight from a plot hole in Chandler's novel. But I think that what really mixes the movie up is the fact that someone, somewhere, decided that Vivian Regan Rutledge had to be the damsel in distress, whereas the novel makes it clear that Carmen is the princess who must be rescued – Carmen, the vicious, unintelligent little-girl-in-a-woman's-body who poses for high-class smut and pulls the wings off of flies. In contriving to have Vivian become central to the plot, the script is forced to minimize Carmen's role and have Vivian continually pop up where she doesn't belong. I mean, why on earth would she be hanging out at a hot car drop with Mona Mars?

Obligatory Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid reference. Carl Reiner gets it.
So the displacement of Carmen spoils the plot's dark irony and violates Chandler's maxim that the private investigator loses his integrity by settling down with a love interest. Somehow, though, the ending remains undeniably cool, comparable in a way to the dynamic and uncertain ending of Blade Runner (in the director's and "final" cuts, of course).

* * *

I give The Big Sleep a grade of A for awesome on the following scale:
  • A: awesome noir film, to be owned and watched a zillion times or until you have it memorized
  • B: good (bueno) noir film with excellent passages but significant flaws, to be watched on occasion
  • C: fairly commonplace noir film, to be watched once or twice
  • D: dud of a noir film, to be avoided if possible
Yes, it's nonsensical, which just goes to show you that movies don't have to make sense to be awesome. High points include pretty much every moment of dialogue, but perhaps especially the hothouse scene, the horse-race sexytalk scene, and the tough-guy scene with Elisha Cook, Jr., plus the two cigarettes at the end.

Takeaway quote from The Big Sleep:

"Get up, angel, you look like a Pekingese."

*** If you've enjoyed this review, maybe you'd enjoy my reviews of other noir films: IntroductionPhantom LadyDouble IndemnityMurder, My SweetDetourScarlet Street The Blue DahliaThe Lost WeekendGilda and The Lady from ShanghaiThe Stranger ***

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Blade Runner 2049

The original Blade Runner is what first got me into film noir. It evokes noir's guilty heart where other attempts at "future noir" only get the trappings right. Rick Deckard isn't what you'd call a hero: compelled by self-interest, he's hunting down escaped replicant-slaves whose only crime (so far as he's concerned) is their presence on earth. Though he tries to hide it from himself, he's fully conscious of their humanity and fear as he blows them away, as in that slow, sad scene where he shoots a terrified female replicant in the back as she flees into a department store. It's Roy who "earns" his soul at the end, who, with his crucified hand, saves Deckard's life and possibly his soul; we're never quite sure whether Deckard is even really human.

Blade Runner also has a poignant but seriously messed-up love affair, another noir element ratcheted up almost to the intensity of myth. The vast dark urban abysses (reminiscent of night scenes in Phantom Lady and others) and mountainous decayed buildings (like the Bradbury, where the classic noir D.O.A. also ends) meld seamlessly with the iconic score and the plot's moral grayness and lack of resolution.

And, as with noir, I've somehow also found Blade Runner a solace when going through bad times. I can remember one period in my life when I watched it once or twice a week. I think a lot of people would say something similar. And there's not all that much to the plot. It's more of an immersive audiovisual mood experience than a movie. So there's probably a lot of other people who think it's okay but kind of dull. They're mystified by people like me, to whom it means so much.

All of which is to say, Blade Runner 2049 has a lot to live up to. Well, I went and saw it at the $4.00 matinee this weekend, and I...think it kind of succeeds. For me, at any rate. Not quite, of course. How could it? But it continues the story, adds to the background, and deepens the world without doing any violence to the thrust of the original, all while maintaining its own narrative independence.

I have to say, I went into it with pretty low expectations. I've been less than impressed with Ridley Scott's attempts to rekindle the Alien magic, and as for Harrison Ford's reprising the roles that made him famous, well, um, yeah, same thing. So I'm very excited that Blade Runner 2049 proved so much better than I'd expected.

I don't want to say too much, because it's got a good plot with plenty to spoil. But I will say that it's another true noir, with a written-off protagonist, a bizarre love story, and an ambiguous ending. What we see of Deckard (not much, thankfully) does little to explain or humanize him. Like the original, it's elliptical and rather sad. The city is the same, down to the now-retro-futuristic Atari signs. The texture is as rich, too, though perhaps a bit contrived in places, and not quite as authentic feeling. We get to see the world outside L.A., including a protein farm and a humongous waste dump, and it's a beautifully unlovely place. The CGI is some of the best I've seen, though, for me, nothing could ever quite equal the practical effects of the original.

There are some interesting allusions. The protagonist, a replicant Blade Runner, is called K, seemingly a reference to Kafka's bewildered protagonists. One of the short "prequel" films that came out in advance (Blade Runner 2048: Nowhere to Run) centers on a copy of Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, a novel about a hunted priest – a broken "whisky" priest – in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution. The parallel is obvious, and, given the film's preoccupation with the nature of the soul, fitting. Other religious and mythological allusions abound.

In the end, I think it's movie that I'll have to rewatch once or twice to decide what to make of it, but it's passed the first test so far.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Warbles and Bots: Out of the Hive

SHE WAS A CYBORG: PART-ORGANIC WHALE, PART-MECHANIZED SHIP


What happens to humanity when it "adjusts" to hive living? 


Some writers write to earn a living. Others write because they've got to get something out of their system. When it comes to science fiction, I've learned to be leery of successful commercial writers. Not because they're bad, necessarily, but because I'm almost sure to be bored by them. My favorite authors tend to be the ones who wrote themselves out fairly quickly, expending their visions in an explosive spurt, leaving behind rich mines for more conventional writers to exploit. Their work might be naive or outre, but to me that's just part of their charm.

It was a different time. A time when sci-fi
still brought terror, wonder, and arresting
strangeness to the reader. A time when a
publishing company could proudly decorate
its books with Magritte-esque parades of

schlubby naked nebishes, and people would,
apparently, still buy them.
I'd say that Thomas J. Bassler, M.D., who wrote under the pen name T. J. Bass, sits squarely in that category. I was recently reminded of his work by Fletcher Vredenburgh's review of Half Past Human over at Black Gate. I'd never that novel before, but I had enjoyed The Godwhale a long time ago.

Bass's career spanned only six years, lasting from 1968, when he sold his first story, until 1974, when The Godwhale was published. He wrote only the two novels I've mentioned. Both take place in a far-future earth in which the vast majority of humankind's teeming trillions live in a global subterranean society called the Hive. I can't really compete with Fletcher's review, which I think captures the spirit of the books perfectly, and I urge the reader to go take a look at that if interested. Instead, as usual, I'll just natter on about what strikes me about them.

Part of what makes Bass unique / bizarre is his habit of describing everything, from sex to warfare, in medical terms.
When he flashed his helmet light down, vertigo gripped his cardio-esophageal junction. (Half Past Human, p. 96)
Perhaps this is just a reflection of his day job, but it has the effect of making his characters seem like rats in a gigantic, not-very-ethical experiment. Overall, Bass writes with the air of a physician conducting the examination of a patient, gently squeezing pustules and prodding necrotic tissues with a cool detachment. His outlook isn't grim or moralistic, and the weird, disgusting scenes he describes are often quietly amusing as well. In general, Bass isn't so much sounding an alarm as saying, more or less cheerfully, "Hey! Let's see what happens if we extrapolate this trend in our society!" Which, in a way, ends up being much more disturbing than the hysteria of other entries in eco-science fiction.

It's hard to select a favorite passage. Many stand out in one way or another. So let's just look at the scene quoted above, in which a Hive inhabitant goes "ratting" in the dark, dusty world of 'tween walls, hoping to score some extra "flavored calories."
He dust-waded along the top of a large pipe. It was hollow. Voices and and shuffling vibrated. It was a crawlway. The larger rats became more numerous – and bolder. They remained stubbornly in his path until he nudged them with his toe. They wouldn't be too tasty. The sweet stink of the nests hit him. Moist and dripping, the huge cool sphere of the membrane filters loomed ahead. The city's sweat condensed and trickled down the sphere's outer sphere – providing drops of drinking water for the rodents. [...]
Selecting a large nest he thrust in his hand. Expecting mother-with-food, the soft young rats swarmed onto the glove. He pulled out three handfulls and squeezed them through the sphincter of the anoxic bag. Their squirming and squeaking ceased. (Half Past Human, p. 97)
The hunter goes on to have his catch pressed into moist wafers. He shares them with a friend, who savors "the salty fluids, tangy viscera, and iron-rich muscle and blood" (HPH, p. 99). They go on to discuss his friend's devotion to Dabbing ("'Dirt, adobe, and bamboo – DAB'"), a stress-reducing quasi-religious practice.
"The most important thing [...] DAB protects you from is suicide. That is the number one killer. Inappropriate Activity – old I.A. Without DAB your ectodermal debris sensitizes you. All your skin scales, hair and skin oils get into the house dust and feed the mite, Dermatophagoides. The mite acquires ectodermal protein antigens. As you live with the mite and breath [sic] in dust – mite fragments – you build up antibodies against them. Antibodies against your own ectodermal antigens. When the titre gets high enough the antibody cross reacts with your own neuroectoderm – your brain. Hence the logarithmic correlation between crowding and I.A. Between house dust sensitivity and suicide. Humans who nest with rugs, drapes and stuffed furniture have the highest suicide rate. Humans who live with dirt, adobe and bamboo the lowest." (Half Past Human, p. 97)
The "erotic" scenes retain a certain tenderness, despite being described in the same oddly technical terms.
"I am going to enjoy living with a man who is good with his hands," she said. Taking his wrists she moved his trembling hands over her tunic. Her soft erogenous zones radiated warmly. His autonomic synapses struggled with the increasing excitement. Passion flared somewhat erratically, and then, abruptly, faded. While he stood there, the heat in his loins faded away – leaving fatigue. [...]
"You have just recently polarized," she consoled. "Your meld reflexes need time to synchronize. We will work on it, and it will improve." (Half Past Human, p. 18)
Half Past Human takes place in and above the Hive's vast subterranean network of shafts, tubes, and cubicles, following the intersecting lives of large class of characters: artificially prepubescent nebishes, polarized males and females, paleolithic warriors and wizards, ageless wanderers, earnest mecks, and, of course, G.I.T.A.R. and Olga. The Godwhale, on the other hand, takes place mostly in the ocean. The main character, if it has one, is Rorqual Maru, a lone cyborg whale-ship plankton harvester bent on aiding humanity.


But the story begins much earlier in time, following the adventures of the hapless hemihuman Larry Dever, who starts his career by getting cut in half in a singularly stupid accident. Thanks to medical advances, he doesn't die, but his quality of life isn't what it was.
Larry turned on his refresher and grasped a ceiling rung of his horizontal ladder. The mannequin walked away slowly, pulling flexible tubing out of his various surgical stoma. Sucking  sounds. Drops of urine and feces soiled the meck's breastplates with yellow and granular brown. Larry progressed across the monkey bars to the hot shower, where he emptied his visceral sacs down the drain. (The Godwhale, p. 23)
Life isn't so pleasant for Larry without his lower half, despite his talking prosthesis.
"This is great! It feels like I am really running. It's the lactate you're putting in my Blood Scrubber. Now if you can just give me back my sex life."
Mannequin shared and updated with distant Library. "That too can be arranged; a mechanical penis for me and midbrain electrodes for you. Meck sex can be pleasant with a wired reticular system."
Larry grinned, assuming that he was the object of a very funny robot joke. (The Godwhale, p. 16)
Larry eventually enters suspended animation, hoping for a future "cure" that doesn't involve raising and harvesting a clone of himself. He awakens instead in the decidedly unpleasant world of the Hive. He escapes, coming into contact with Rorqual Maru, a spunky little meck named Trilobite, and a race of humans adapted to life underwater, teaming up with his latter-day genetic progeny: a gargoyle Tweenwaller named Big Har, and a bio-engineered superman known as A.R.N.O.L.D. (Augmented Renal Nucleus Of Larry Dever) who becomes King of the ocean and sometimes thinks of himself as a chicken.
"BACK OFF!!" shouted ARNOLD, riled to the point of hearing "cluck, cluck" in his subconscious. (The Godwhale, p. 167)
I read The Godwhale back when I was in college. Then I went to grad school and purged my shelves of such oddities. But now it's back. Rereading it has been a bit strange, because I'm realizing that I must have internalized more of it than I'd thought. Taken together, Half Past Human and The Godwhale amount to the most bizarre, disgusting, wonderful stuff I've read in quite a while.
A hundred miles up-sump the sewer conduits sang with pneumatic belches of dead city gases: incoles, skatoles, methane, ozone, and carbon monoxide. [...] 
Their mold-flecked dinghy drifted sideways, its bow wedged into a raft of nondescript, floating debris. Hemihuman Larry hunkered down, swatting flies. The blackness and echoes told them nothing. Their progress was marked by aerial mycelia which swept across the boat's wet ribs and snagged in their hair. Persistent swarms of sucking botflies hovered over them. Their throbbing backs sponged-out with bots and warbles – the cutaneous abscesses that contained the vigorous fly larvae. 
"The damned itching is getting worse," complained Larry. "A new crop must be maturing." He wiped his hand across his scaly, lumpy back, breaking open pus pockets and catching the wriggling, bristly maggots as they emerged. "Damn!" He rubbed at the pasty crusts of pupa cases, wings, legs, and dermal scales. (The Godwhale, p. 78)
They're both a bit hard to follow, partly because they bristle (sorry, bad word choice) with technical terms, but partly also because the action jumps around a lot, leaping across years in fits and starts, hopping from character to character without any kind of clear direction. But, that comes with the territory. And they certainly don't shy away from questions of human sexuality, bioethics, philosophy, and religion, posing quandaries without providing solutions. What is humanity? What is the individual's meaning and worth? You could say that the books are a prolonged and poignant evocation of the anxiety of anonymous, post-religious Man and the terrifying, faceless masses that surround him.

The little I can find about T. J. Bass himself raises more questions than it answers. Who was he, really? What was he trying to do with these novels? Did he accomplish it? How did his writing fit in with the rest of his life? He died in 2011, having written nothing else but a diet and exercise book, and that was in 1979. That's a long time ago! Did he try and fail to get published again? Or did he just move on with his life? For that matter, can you imagine a scientist, mathematician, engineer, or physician in our own time, with little or no experience in fiction, penning an eccentric novel laden with precise technical knowledge and actually getting it published? Such a thing would be relegated to an online discussion board somewhere, to be skimmed by a few people and then forgotten.

Times have changed.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

"Death, Destroyer of Worlds"...Reviewed!

My most recent story, "I Am Become Death, Destroyer of Worlds," or IABDDOW for short, was favorably reviewed by Fletcher Vredenburgh over at Black Gate last week!
As can be expected from an Ordoñez story, what follows is a fusion of swords & sorcery, poetry, and mad visions. His version of the Southwest, a collision of the mythical, historical, and invented, is equally forbidding and enchanting. He is one of the truly original voices writing fantasy today, and I’m glad HFQ has provided a berth for these stories.
Charles Payseur of Quick Sip Reviews fame also gave it favorable mention.
[Carvajal] is an outsider, which means that he is an invader himself. I like how the story faces that, regardless of how benign he might seem, any foreign intrusion into these lands changes them... The action is intense, the tone a mix of horror, fantasy, and humor, and the ending a bit muted and gray. Things change, but that doesn’t mean that everything is destroyed. Another great read!
Both reviewers mention a very special Easter egg contained in this issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, which I think is more fun to discover for yourself. Mr. Vredenburgh is elliptical, but you should wait to read Mr. Payseur's review if you want to enjoy the full effects of your resultant nerd-out.

Please make sure also to check out the other HFQ offerings this month, including Evan Dicken's "Between Sea and Flame," a sequel to his Central American tale "Mouth of the Jaguar." Obviously I'm not the first one who decided that What the World Needs Now is Pre-Columbian / Mesoamerican / Spanish American sword-and-sorcery, and that's not a bad thing! Other delights in the issue include "Rakefire" by Jason Carney and three cool poems.

I'd also like to point out an excellent Black Gate interview with Scott Andrews, editor of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, which has published many of my stories. I've been working with HFQ on my Carvajal stories because I've gotten the impression that it's everyone's favorite go-to for the old-school S&S you feel kind of guilty for reading, but BCS is, I think, unique and irreplaceable, and it's interesting to learn about what goes on behind the scenes, both practically and philosophically.

And while you're at it, don't forget this interview with Adrian Simmons and David Farney of HFQ.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Arts and Crafts in Four Dimensions

She returned the smile, then looked across the room to her youngest brother, Charles Wallace, and to their father, who were deep in concentration, bent over the model they were building of a tesseract: the square squared, and squared again: a construction of the dimension of time. It was a beautiful and complicated creation of steel wires and ball bearings and Lucite, parts of it revolving, parts of it swinging like pendulums.*
Madeleine L'Engle, A Swiftly Tilting Planet
I wrote a couple of months ago about four-dimensional geometry. Today I'd like to continue our progress through transdimensional gulfs and sinister alien geometries by discussing the 120-cell in some detail, and also describing the workflow I used to print the three-dimensional sections and net shown below.


As usual when trying to understand the fourth dimension, it's easiest to proceed by way of analogy with lower dimensions. Imagine a two-dimensional creature, like A. Square of Flatland, existing in a planar universe. Such a creature would have an essentially one-dimensional field of vision, much as our field of vision is essentially two-dimensional (like a painting or a television screen). How would we describe a dodecahedron, that is, a polyhedron formed from twelve regular pentagons, to such a creature?

(Click to read more; I've got a lot going on in this post.)