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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (3/7/11) 11:42pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Oog.  Missing a week on the WMU is always a bad, bad idea.]

Movies:  Kansas City Confidential [spoilers], The Killing [spoilers]
TV:  <none>
Books:  Sex at Dawn, Breakfast at Twilight

Kansas City Confidential [spoilers]
This is the 1952 film noir by Phil Karson, in which a deliveryman accused of a bank robbery tracks down the real thieves in Tijuana.  This was, in part, preparation for the Hideout's film noir show.  My notes from the film are here.

Kansas City Confidential is much more of a puzzle-box than the other noirs I've seen.  And what's odd about it is, it's not a puzzle of "How is the heist going to come together?", nor is it really a of "Will the good guys be able to uncover the criminals?"  Instead, the bulk of the movie takes place after a heist in which all the participants wore masks (à la The Dark Knight).  They meet in Tijuana to divvy the loot, but an impostor (that wrongly-accused deliveryman) is in their midst.

So it quickly becomes the sort of story where you're thinking very hard about who knows what about whom.  "Okay, he knows that this guy isn't who he says he is; but he can't say anything, because then he'd reveal his own identities to this third guy; but he doesn't know that this third guy already *knows* that the first guy isn't who he says he is, but the third guy is keeping secret about that, too."

On top of that, the deliveryman falls in love with the daughter of the guy in charge of the job, and soon it's a real mess.  Switch the key from minor to major and double the tempo, and you'd have yourself a comic farce.  But instead, it plays out slow, and tense, and everyone has to think very hard about how to navigate this bizarre social network without getting killed.

Most of them get killed.

The other thing that intrigued me was its happy ending.  The deliveryman gets the girl, and gets a fair amount of money -- but to do so, he has to lie to the girl about her father, saying that the old man was an honest cop instead of the heist's mastermind.  It feels like they gave the studio the *form* of an upbeat closing scene, but just under the surface, it makes one feel very uneasy.  These lovebirds are building their new lives on a substantial lie, and that tends to undermine things in the long run.

Maybe you can escape the bad guys, but nobody escapes the corruption.  Not in noir, anyway.

The Killing [spoilers]
This is the 1956 Kubrick noir about an intricate heist at a racetrack.  Again, this served as preparation for the Hideout's noir show -- my notes are here.

This was an interesting film to watch right after Kansas City Confidential.  The first film was a puzzle-box composed of five guys playing an elaborate game of WerewolfThe Killing is ostensibly a more straightforward puzzle-box, where we retread the same afternoon in the city, watching one participant after another play his part in a carefully-orchestrated heist.

Kubrick gets across this elaborate storyline very clearly.  The nonchronological narration even allows for cute little setups and payoffs, like when an 'employees only' door mysteriously opens at just the right time -- only later do we see George the teller sneak down a hallway to open it.

The movie is equally elegant in how the plan falls apart.  A few simple problems -- Sherry finding out about the heist; unexpected traffic in the city; a bad latch on an old suitcase -- undoes everyone in turn.  It's almost like one of those Final Destination movies, how this runaway Rube Goldberg takes out one person after another.  And, in proper horror-movie sequence, we pick off the minor supporting characters, then the major supporting characters, then finally the protagonist.[1]

Yet for all that, The Killing *felt* like more of a character piece.  It takes its time getting started with scenes.  We linger on Maurice, kibitzing on a match in his chess club, before we get down to the business of hiring him on to cause a distraction.  We relax with Nikki out in the boonies before the conversation about high-powered rifles.  And in the end, the film's most indelible moments aren't all the plot moves that add up to the heist, but the character moments:  Sherry's acid put-downs to her husband, or Nikki's final racist diatribe at the friendly parking-lot attendant.

It's strange how emotional these beats are, given that Kubrick's works are known for quiet, detached observation, like they were put together by an alien robot dispatched to earth to gather data.

In any case, The Killing feels like the strongest support yet for museofchaos's repeated claim that a noir doesn't have to be about plot.  The plot can happen, but the movie itself can be about these characters, and their weaknesses, and their frustrations.

Sex at Dawn:  The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá
This is the book from two anthropologists about the nature of sexuality in primitive man.

Cavemen are so agreeable.

I can remember, growing up in Kentucky, other kids would talk about how society worked the way it did because of basic human biology.  If you looked back at these cave-dwellers, they said, you'd see that the man went out and hunted; the woman stayed in and... foraged? cleaned?  (I was never clear on this.)  And their claims implied that these were basic, nuclear-family units, fairly isolated, who stayed rooted in one spot.

After this argument dragged on for a while, you could easily imagine the caveman putting on his gray flannel suit, getting into his Studebaker, and driving downtown to his job in the advertising business.  Apparently, 10,000 B. C. and 1950 A. D. were roughly equivalent.

In any case, the caveman was a great guy to have on your side in any argument about sociology.  You could establish that the caveman did... well, anything you needed him to, for purposes of the argument, and the caveman would oblige.  You could say that of course, this activity showed the natural state of man, and the caveman would stand proudly in everyone's imaginations, looking the paragon of natural-ness.  And you could finish by saying that society should follow human nature, and the imaginary caveman would brilliantly wingman your argument to victory.

There's a desperation to those claims, from those Oldham County kids from the mid-80s.  There's a sense that, in the end, you can't adduce evidence back up some of your most deeply-held beliefs about how women and men should interact, or how families ought to be constructed.  Other societies have different takes on it.  Hell, other people in your *own* society behave differently.  So, you reach for the caveman.  Without any real comprehension of paleontology or anthropology or any of the how-cavemen-actually-lived-ologies, you claim to know what prehistoric man was like.

And then:  "See, I must be right!  The caveman agrees with me!"

Sex at Dawn sets out to explode the notion of the 1950s-style caveman.  Put another way, popular culture -- along with many (if not most) evolutionary biologists -- have a set of beliefs about how early humans lived:  (1) we lived in nuclear-family units; (2) we competed for scarce resources; (3) men competed to be the women's exclusive sexual partners.

Sex at Dawn builds a meticulous argument against all of these points.  Not all human-like apes behave by "1950s rules".  Hell, not all human *societies* behave by those rules.  Instead, this book paints a picture of small, polyamorous groups of foragers.  You didn't have a nuclear family, because all the adults took care of all the kids.  You didn't compete for scarce resources because, when there were only 10,000 or so humans on earth, resources were not scarce.  And the dudes didn't worry about being cuckolded because, at least on a genetic basis, everybody in the group was related to everybody else.

They argue that 1950s rules came about largely because of the shift to an agrarian society.  We suddenly had to support lots more people, and you suddenly lived in a society where you didn't know everyone.  At the same time, human societies took a strong turn for the patriarchal.  None of this made humanity collectively happier, not least because, well, it went against basic human nature.

And so, the caveman is brought around to argue instead for polyamory. 

Ever agreeable, our caveman friend.

But the book makes convincing arguments.  That said, I'm hardly an expert in this branch (or, let's be honest, *any* branch) of biology, and I'd be interested to see some scientific rebuttals to its points.[2]

At the very least, though, Sex at Dawn tells you that there's more than one way to interpret the data.  If I connect the dots and draw a dog, and you connect the dots and draw a house, neither of us has proven what the drawing is.

But together, we've shown that the dots don't determine the picture.

The Early Work of Philip K. Dick, Volume 2:  Breakfast at Twilight and Other Stories
This volume trammels together a dozen or so PKD stories from the years 1953 and 1954 -- years when the author claims he was writing "bad science fiction".  I read it partly as preparation for the auditions for False Matters, the upcoming improv show based on the works of Philip K. Dick.

This volume was interesting because it connected many of the themes of PKD's later work -- many of his big questions about the nature of identity and perception and reality -- to the chilling-effect, gray-flannel-suit world of the Eisenhower era.  Take a story like "The Hanging Stranger".  Seen one way, you could call it a fairly standard PKD yarn where only one man knows how The Aliens Are Taking Over.  But seen in the context of 1953, it feels like a representation of what it must have felt like to believe *anything* out-of-line in "I like Ike" America.  You could scream at the top of your lungs that there was a dead man in the park, and the world would find a way to smoothly and comfortably ignore you.

And this is also the postwar era, where fear of a nuclear holocaust is perhaps at its greatest.  Stories keep showing us society in ruins after widespread bombing -- or at least the imminent threat of world destruction, which serves as the punchline of "Exhibit Piece".  If you live so keenly aware that at any moment your world could fall apart, maybe you end up writing about paranoid people.  And maybe you end up writing about all the ways that reality can fall to pieces.

That, to me, was the most interesting thing about this book.  PKD isn't the best prose stylist here, and the stories have their share of 50s sci-fi clichés, but you can already see the Big Questions rearing up in these short stories.  The museum employee in "Exhibit Piece" spends most of that story with no way to know which world is real and which is imagined.  The bewildered witness in "The Hanging Stranger" spends most of that story with no idea why everyone else has gone insane.

Sure, those stories get resolved -- there's a time gate in "Exhibit Piece" and a mind-controlling-alien takeover in "The Hanging Stranger" -- but they hint at later, more challenging stories that will never let us off the hook.

For next time:  more noir!  I'll keep watching noir movies through the rest of the Violet Underbelly run -- though at the moment I'm blowing off steam with a few episodes of Community.  On audiobook, I continue to listen to that Teaching Company course about sentence construction.  And book-wise, I've started in on The Man in the High Castle -- yes, I'm finally reading a full novel by Philip K. Dick.

[1] ... though it was a unexpected touch to see the hero give himself up to the cops at the end.  It was nice that the character stayed consistent:  clever and reasonable to the last.

[2] They smugly kick things off with an anecdote about how stupid white explorers named the Yucatán after the Indian words for "I don't know what you're asking me."  It turns out that this story is apocryphal, and the name comes from the Nahuatl for "beautiful land".  So... that doesn't bode well for the rest of the book.

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Date:Tuesday (3/8/11) 11:00am
I really appreciate your dedication to doing the research for The Violet Underbelly. Your mind is already built for genre, since you've studied screenwriting/teleplays so much, so I love seeing all the details and archetypes that you pick out of all the movies.
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Date:Tuesday (3/8/11) 2:46pm
*tips hat*
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