Books: Pictures at a Revolution, The Postman Always Rings Twice
Pictures at a Revolution by Mark Harris
This is entertainment journalist Mark Harris's nonfiction book about the production history of the five contenders for the Best Picture Oscar in 1968.
Of course, one look at the roster for that year -- Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, and Doctor Doolittle -- and you start to get a notion of what the book is *really* about. Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate seemed to come out of nowhere, auterist cinema drawing on all the exhiliration of European art films, and confusing to no end a studio machine that was still churning out fusty, bland product like Doctor Doolittle. (You haven't heard of the 1968 film because it's not very good.) By 1968, the sixties were becoming the 60s in full force, and the studio system's attempt to keep doing business as usual would become something like closing a screen door against a hurricane.
It's a hell of a story. All but the safest films seem to only get made by a series of wild, lucky breaks, but Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate seemed especially improbable -- film projects that were about as far-removed as possible from the bloated "road show" musicals that were the centerpieces of each studio's slate. And Harris is a hell of a writer, expertly sketching all the outsized personalities of 1960s Hollywood, and clearly connecting these production histories to the social maelstrom of the time. It's never just about getting this movie made, it's about young Hollywood versus new Hollywood, or it's about finally *saying something* about race in the middle of the civil rights movement, or it's about using the trappings of outré European culture to rebel against the gray lingering conformity of the 1950s. On top of that, he makes the business angles exciting, whether it's the desperate misery of realizing that The Sound of Music was not, in fact, a useful template for moneymaking films, or the sea change in the industry that came when a bunch of New-York-trained TV directors arrived on the scene.
So, yes, I liked this book. I think all of us who make art in some way dream about being at that place and time when that art *matters* -- to the history of the form, to the culture at large, or even just to a passionate community involved in making it. I'm a sucker for depictions of those inflection points.
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
This is the classic James M. Cain crime novel about a drifter who conspires with a young newlywed to murder her well-off husband.
It's fast, it's violent, it's dirty, and it was one of the linchpins of the hard-boiled crime-fiction genre that would form the basis of film noir. I'd forgotten just how lean and spare this genre is -- with some books, the way in which things are phrased is sort of its own layer of meaning; you're not just reading the story, you're reading how the writer has chosen to get that story across, a method that might be deliberately hard-to-understand. Not so with James M. Cain and his cohort. Cain writes like he's annoyed he can't implant the sensory experiences directly into your brain. It's little wonder the book's been made into a movie on seven separate occasions, because it practically reads like a screenplay: dialog and action, with only scraps of internal monolog where necessary.
It's a fun and twisty plot. Unlike a more internal novel, it spends no particular time exploring *why* the two are bent on murder, so that they can quickly skip ahead to the how, and then the desperate attempts to stay out of prison. And even with its lean, action-and-dialog style, it conveys some interesting psychological complexity -- to me, the most interesting thing about the novel is how Frank and Cora are perfectly well suited to commit a crime together, a bit less well-suited to get through a police investigation, and then utterly useless at quietly living day-to-day life together.
And of course, circumstances catch up with the bad guys at the end. It's the 30s, after all -- can't depict a world where horrible people get off scot-free. (The book was scandalous enough as-is.) But the way the trap finally snaps shut is plausible and cutely ironic.
But all of this is to pile more on the book than perhaps its author consciously put into it -- first and foremost (and perhaps only) this is a page-turner. It's about the dizzying feelings of committing a heinous crime, and then all the desperate escapes of staying ahead of the law. If Postman has anything to say about anything, that's almost by accident.
For next week: I'm watching season 6 of Good Eats and season 2 of Last Week Tonight while exercising. I'm reading a book of philosophical essays about Coen Brothers films (it's not great). And I'm finally watching True Grit -- and with that, I'll have seen all the films the Coens have directed. I'm listening to an audiocourse about creativity (it, too, is not great), and I still need to catch up on the history-of-Japan one I listened to.
 The Coen Brothers are also huge fans of this literary genre -- this served as further research for Fiasco.
 And IIRC, Hammett writes like Cain was a starting point, and his mission statement was "write using only half of the details that Cain would use".
Mood: contemplative · Music: none