Wednesday, April 30, 2008

That ship has sunk

After a long career in journalism, I'm back in the job market. For a limited time only. All I require are a company car, a five-figure signing bonus and a six-figure salary. If somebody could swing by and clean the house once a week, that would be great too. Until then, guess who's going to be blogging like there's no tomorrow.

I've worked at various newspapers for the better part of three decades. I've been a reporter and an editor and there was a time in the mid '90s when I thought I was being very clever by learning HTML. I was thinking: Job security, baby; every newspaper will be on the Internet in a few years. I was right about the last part. But it turns out most people eventually questioned the wisdom of paying for what they could get free. Who knew? Then circulation and ad revenue headed south, and corporate boards figured they could maintain profits by shrinking the product and letting people go. Now circulation and ad revenue are Thelma and Louise: straight over a cliff, holding hands. The daily newspaper is coming apart like a '66 T-bird impacting at terminal velocity. Hope you enjoy catching up on current events via snide and bitter blogs. That's what most journalists are doing these days -- when they're not fashioning nooses from their mouse cords.

It's not pretty, but it's nobody's fault. That's just the way it is. OK, maybe it is somebody's fault. Let's blame the Bush administration, which should really cut this jaded newsman a stimulus check to make up for mental anguish, wear and tear. Oh wait, they've already done that. So maybe I'll just blame myself. It's not like this hasn't been unfolding for awhile. A smart journalist would have jumped on Careerbuilder.com three years ago and landed a nice gig writing copy about bathroom fixtures.

You've got to hand it to bathroom fixtures. Without them, we'd be shoveling shit with our bare hands. And that's one of those jobs, like working for a newspaper in 2008, that just doesn't allow much dignity.

From now on, the world is my oyster

I've decided to changed the focus of the blog. Which is to say, I've decided that the whole focus thing is overrated. The crime-fiction theme went well when I was reading a lot of crime fiction, but now that I'm not, whole fortnights go by when I can't think of anything pertinent to say. Clearly, this cannot continue.

Henceforth I'll be writing about whatever I feel like: Politics, the economy, those stupid Mac commercials, Paula Abdul. You name it. And yeah, if I pick up a book worth talking about, I'll hold forth on that too. I've got tepid opinions on most everything, so why hold back? Last time I checked, blogger.com was not charging by the word.

For those of you have purchased lifetime subscriptions, drop me an e-mail and I'll immediately refund your money, at least that portion I've not blown on whores and whiskey. Ha ha. Look, it's not like anybody's reading this anyway. For me, the blog started out as just a way to write something every day, and sort of prime the pump for my fiction writing. This is the easy part; the fiction is hard. But I have to have something to get me tapping on these keys.

So, who's ready for a whole lot of rollicking irrelevence? Think of a cross between gasbag Andy Rooney and giant iguana Robert Novak: in short, just plain fun. Leave a comment and you'll be entered into a drawing for the crappy TV I took downstairs when we bought the flat screen.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

We're not in Montana any more

Here's the headline you don't want to see when you live where I do: "Much of Kansas at risk for tornadoes, large hail." I don't think they're kidding. This morning the sky was gray and the air was forbodingly still. I wouldn't have been surprised to see Miss Gulch peddling by on her bike with my dog's head protruding from the basket.

I've yet to see a real tornado during my 30 months in the heartland, but I do have some experience with large hail. A couple of years ago a series of storms swept through, one of them raining quarter-sized projectiles on my almost-new roof and breaching it in a dozen places. Then it rained and rained. That's how I became aware of the leaks: The next morning pregnant bubbles had formed in the ceiling and water was dripping on the family room carpet.

Much of Wichita had the same experience. An army of Mexican roofing crews seized the opportunity and spent months working from dawn to dusk. To this day, when I imagine a summer evening in this city it is punctuated by staccato bursts of staple-gun fire and mariachi music played at top volume from rooftop radios. My Spanish is unworkably rusty so I communicated with the crew primarily with amiable gestures. I don't know; maybe it's one reason the finished roof was not the color I had intended.

Such is my reverie today, as the sky lowers and the warnings echo about violent weather on the way. There are few things we take for granted more than the roof over our heads. But like everything else in life, composition shingles are tenuous, held in place mostly by the forbearance of an indifferent Mother Nature. Especially in Kansas in the spring. Ask the folks in Greensburg. These are the days I miss Montana.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

There will be second-guessing

Finally catching up on all the movies I meant to see in 2007, I just finished back-to-back viewings of There Will Be Blood and Into the Wild. One movie is about a completely self-absorbed man whose solipsism and hubris take priority over everything else. The other ... well, ditto.

I suppose Into the Wild was the more entertaining of the two, since the peripheral characters were more artfully drawn and recognizable. It's also beautifully photographed. I do think Sean Penn was easier on Christopher McCandless, the kid who starves to death in the Alaskan wilderness, than John Krakauer was in the book. In the film, McCandless takes on an almost Christ-like aura as he wanders the West, bringing vague epiphanies to all who cross his path. Sort of like "Route 66" without the Vette or Martin Milner. In the book, which I admired, he was a far more complex and troubled figure. Also kind of a petulant one, bent on punishing his parents for the crime causing him certain discomforts as a kid.

Krakauer made the story compelling without romanticizing McCandless, and this is the only complaint I have with the film. Sean Penn clearly sees his protagonist as heroic when there is ample evidence that he was simply breathtakingly foolish, as young men are wont to be. Burning your money in the desert may seem like the ultimate defiance against a soulless society, but it's also telling that we know he burned the money, even though no one was around to see it. This was a grandiose gesture young Chris wanted people to find out about. A bit more dramatic than, say, giving it to a soup kitchen. And a bit less convincing because of the ensuing publicity.

That said, it's a movie I'd see again. I just wish it hadn't left me with the feeling that I was being preached to by a callow kid with stars in his eyes.

There Will Be Blood
is a very watchable movie, but it's also a very strange one. Daniel Day-Lewis creates a character not a lot different from Butcher Bill in Gangs of New York -- a greedy, sadistic jerk, but one who speaks with the measured, theatrical cadence of John Huston. You wouldn't call Daniel Plainview a complex character, but his cruelties are defined all the more sharply by the rare little kindnesses he bestows. He's just very interesting to watch. I wasn't surprised to learn that Paul Thomas Anderson wrote the original screenplay with Daniel Day-Lewis in mind. It's hard to imagine anybody else in the role.

I suppose There Will Be Blood owes something to Citizen Kane, with its theme of a man who grasps for the world and reaps only ruin, but there's no Rosebud here. There's nothing to redeem Daniel Plainview, and precious little to explain him. His final line -- "I'm finished" -- has a gamut of meanings, none of which are particularly edifying. I think they love that kind of thing Park City. (And if somebody gets beaten to death with a bowling pin -- well, it's just gravy.)

So many of these critically acclaimed movies send you out of theater (or in this case, my family room) scratching your head and wondering what it all meant. Yes, men and almost-men are occasionally driven by demons or angels, and that alone can be enough for a story. It is with these two films. Both, though, fall short of being the masterpieces they were supposed to be. Dave Bob says check them out anyway.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The talent show that never ends

American Idol manages to get rid of a contestant every week, but the other big national talent show, the Democratic debates, just keeps chugging along with the same two faces. No mystery why Idol does a little better in the ratings. Since they were on last night at roughly the same time, it was interesting to compare the two.

Because it's all theater, isn't it? Clinton and Obama weren't trying to cover something from Mariah Carey's wretched songbook -- thank God --but they were performing just the same, singing a sappy ballad they hope might resonate with you, the home viewer. All the debates really need are better judges. Charlie Gibson tried mightily, staring over his spectacles like the ghost of journalism past, but he is no Simon Cowell. Also, maybe it would move things along if we voted after each debate, stabbing repeatedly at our cell phones the way certain dumb-asses do for that Archuleta kid. America voted, Hillary, and how'd you like to be secretary of nothing?

Speaking of David Archuleta, I have only one question. He might be the next Wayne Newton, but what's he going to do about Social Security?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

In film, you can keep the classics

I admit it: I'm not particularly fond of old movies -- the term "old" in this case meaning those made before about 1958. To be more honest, I usually like them even less if they're considered "classic." While I can credit their groundbreaking moments, movies made in the 1930s and '40s rarely hold up very well today. Maybe it's the cornball acting style, all that staccato dialog and scenery-chewing that has been satirized so often since. Or maybe it's the incessant background score in every scene -- back then, filmmakers didn't trust viewers to get any emotion without tarting it up in a surge of violins.

Case in point: Double Indemnity, that classic 1944 film noir starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck. Watching the Netflix DVD the other night, I was struck by how pat and rudimentary it seems. It takes Walter Neff about five minutes to go from insurance salesman to killer, and the lust that is supposed to motivate him arises chiefly from some cringe-inducing repartee with the sultry Phyllis. I know the censorship of the day didn't allow for anything blatantly erotic, but there just isn't much carnal desire or tension communicated here -- certainly not enough to motivate murder. As to the "almost perfect crime" alluded to in ads for the film -- it's a preposterous scheme that is nowhere near perfect, since Walter's boss smells a rat from the get-go and refuses to approve the insurance claim. Look, if you want to suggest a fatal accident or suicide, dumping a corpse in the wake of train doing 15 mph is probably not the best way to go about it.

I know, Double Indemnity is considered by many to be the birth of the genre. The risks Billy Wilder took then have become the conventions of today -- or the cliches, depending on how they're deployed. I do admire the moody photography, the interesting angles, and those shadows of venetian blinds that have become such a noir trademark. And the writing, in places, isn't half bad. That's the influence of script co-writer Raymond Chandler. You have to love this line early in the film, which pretty much defines film noir as we know it:

"Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?"


You can't help comparing Double Indemnity to Body Heat, one of the many movies it inspired and without doubt about 10 times better. In Body Heat, lust as a motivator seems real and insistent and is communicated in a dozen different ways, most involving perspiration. The murder plot is clever enough to actually have a chance of working. And the protagonist sees his doom coming in shuffling little steps, long before it arrives, so the tension is unrelenting.

As a foundation for the sort of movie I love, Double Indemnity might deserve its place in the Time Magazine's 100 best movies of all time. But if I were laboring over a list of my personal favorites, I don't think I'd include it. There are some other "classics" I'll leave off the list, but I'll get to them later. How about you? Any beloved films come to mind that you just can't bear to watch?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Show me the money, and it's mine

One of my many rewarding hobbies is imagining what I'd do if I found a large amount of money in a suitcase. It's also one of the most-used MacGuffins in crime fiction, but that's because it's so effective at driving characters. Think of "A Simple Plan," or, more recently "No Country For Old Men." While those two tales don't end particularly well, I'm sure I could handle a Samsonite full of Benjamins just fine. And no, none of my scenarios involve turning it over to the authorities.

First of all, this is cash in a suitcase, right? And it's just lying there. That suggests an illegitimate origin, and since it's illegitimate anyway, it might as well be mine. Such is the rigorous moral code here at Dave's Fiction Warehouse. Naturally, I'll take care not to leave my driver's license at the scene. And I will never, ever go back for any reason. If you're familiar with the two movies mentioned above, you'll appreciate why that is rule number one for those who discover a whole lot of crooked dough.

Rule number two: Tell no one. Rule number three: Don't spend any of it for at least a year. I'm still formulating the other rules, but basically I've got this all figured out. All I need now is to find the money.

Ever wonder what you'd do if you if you stumbled onto a great load of cash? Here's one guy who recently did. Poor sap. OK, if I had reason to believe the money was lost by a legitimate owner, I'd probably give it back. But I have a feeling I'd always be kicking myself for it.