“The Nonfiction Novel”

FINALLY, I finished In Cold Blood. I write “finally” because I realized my reading pace changed dramatically after the second half. By the last quarter, I found myself moving through very slowly — but in the way one might when visiting some location for the first time and you want it all to imprint. I was struck by how much information, facts, figures etc — the layers of it — Truman Capote wove with great precision into this specimen: something he called nonfiction novel: the judicial system, psychological screenings, geography, sociology. It’s now humming inside. The voices, the wheat bending in the wind. Always, as I step off into a big writing project, I crave one fine, sturdy example of a writer tackling something that seems impossible and watch them lay it down with (seeming) ease and elegance.

I ran across the trailer for the film on YouTube and thought it was an interesting approach at teasing the story — that instead of an overview that solely plucks dramatic scenes from the film to preview the feature, this is more the meta-story about what it was like to land in Kansas and make a film about the Clutter family murder and the legal proceedings that followed, it’s showcasing the verisimilitude.

And because it’s really worth watching, I’m posting this link again to Truman Capote talking about how he got the idea for the nonfiction novel.
photo of Truman Capote by Irving Penn

Rampart Noir

I’D BEEN curious about Rampart. It came and went so quickly that I missed it during its eye-blink of a run. That didn’t dissuade me. But to my mind, this film does what the much lauded Crash didn’t do, that is recreate the very tense, very real pins-and-needles mood that was (and still is) a part of living in Los Angeles.The vantage of L.A. through the driver’s-side window is particularly well-done — fitting. It felt real in a way that L.A. seldom does on film — not idealized at all. Bright yellows, blues, reds, stark whites. Only at night, does the city look truly beautiful — and again, only from up high in a lonely spot looking down, the lights fanning out like sequins.

During this period, the late 90s, I lived in Echo Park and my across-the-hall-neighbor was a Rampart Division LAPD officer who worked undercover in MacArthur Park. He was on a drug detail. I watched the scruff grow on his chin, his hair trail, to and then, beyond his collar. The stories he wore on his face alone suggested a post-1992 Riots city not healed but hemorrhaging.

If not talkative, he was affable. He was a far cry from the Woody Harrelson character in this film — the “I hate everyone” sociopath/loner. He didn’t like my working hours — made that clear from the beginning. I often would return late from either reporting a story or covering some event. Eventually, he began instructing me how to approach my car, my front door — my world — in the safest way possible. He appeared aloof — some of the other neighbors thought that. But that’s wasn’t what I was struck by — I sensed also wound-up, taut. I once accidentally startled him. He was walking, slowly, to his door with a canvass gym bag. I was moving quietly, as it was late. He heard something, perhaps the jangle of my keys — and he stood stock still. He lifted the bag away from his body. His face wore an expression that I couldn’t quite read. He told me later that in that bag was his gun and showed me the safe where he locked it away at night. “Always let me know you’re behind me.” He said it in the tone not of warning but as an apology.

As the Rampart scandal became prominent in the press — particularly in the paper I worked for — I noted his fatigue evolved into something else. Shortly thereafter, and in quick succession, he married and promised his wife that he’d leave the force. He did. They moved to Monrovia. We kept in touch for awhile, but in that way that distance does particularly in L.A., our contact lessened then evaporated.

This film fills in some of the blanks of those conversations — of what it really means to have “seen it all” — a world of the worn out, worn down, rubbed raw — of desperation falling in on itself.

It’s as noir as noir gets — the sense of anxiety, uncertainty, duplicity — nothing is as it seems. Nothing.

Rampart scandal timeline from Frontline here.

Criss Cross 1949

WE JUST watched this in my L.A. class the other night.

The opening sequence with the herky-jerky flight over downtown Los Angeles always sends me.

And this line: “Hello, baby,” Slim Dundee says to his wife, Anna, while Steve stands nearby in his undershirt. “You know it don’t look right,” he tells her, “you can’t exactly say it looks right, now can you?”

“The Game Hasn’t Changed It’s Just Different People Playing The Parts”

I FINALLY was able to sit down and really watch this closely last night and was very moved by the story and the storytellers. They all spoke so frankly and we learn so much not just about the men who “played the game” but the environment around them and the impetus to step into the ring. So very well done. Here’s the intro here. And this part too — wrecked me.

The World Inside a Book

ONE OF my Tumblr crew mates just posted this. I’ve paid attention to music in books and other details like retro cocktails (the Jack Rose in a Hemingway novel) but never anything quite as comprehensive as this:

I’ve sent off for a beta invite just so see how it works…an interesting way to categorize the stuff books are made of — literally.

Here’s a link to a piece in the Atlantic from yesterday about the project.

“I Won’t Forget”

WHEN I heard the news the other day about Cliff Robertson’s passing, I was in the car — edging slowly forward in heavy traffic. Preoccupied, I half-listened to the details of the radio lede but when the engineer cued the clip from the film, “Charly,” before I knew it, just hearing Robertson’s struggling stammer, “I won’t forget…” I found myself in tears.

I hadn’t thought about the movie, nor the book it was based on, Flowers for Algernon, in decades. But immediately what pierced through is where I was when I read it and the effect that it had on me. I was in junior high school, sitting in the chaos of the cafeteria — flying food and squirting ketchup packets – trying to absorb the last few pages, which I was reading through heavy tears. I remember thinking in that moment, that it was very difficult to read and cry at the same time — not the same as a movie. I kept going, wiping them away. Not afraid that anyone might see. It was that sort of walled-off moment.

It was the first time a book had affected me quite that way. The film version of the book, “Charly” had been making the TV-movie rounds for years, but I had never watched it — and after the book, I was even more reluctant.

I’m not sure what finally edged me toward the film, but Cliff Robertson’s performance touched those old corners of feeling — the slipping away of what Charly, who would have been described in present-day terms as developmentally-disabled, had gained — in this grand experiment.

Hearing Robertson’s voice brought back those final pages in the book as language breaks down for Charly and he’s thrown back to his former self. I can’t help but to think the timing — junior high with its dramatic emotional spikes and valleys — had its own messy effect, I”m sure, but this story of glimpsing a life you *could* have and then having it slip away had such resonance. So few things can sit and occupy a space in your soul like a book found in a vulnerable moment.

Robertson won an Academy Award for his performance — I’m posting a link to the film here , the NYT obit here, too.

(image via Wikipedia)

“The Time Has Come . . . to Talk of Many Things . . . .”

I JUST finished a short piece about specific children’s book I was asked to reflect on — how it has affected me as a thinker, writer, etc. More about that closer to when the piece publishes, but writing it made me think a lot about the other ways that books from my childhood got under my skin, entered my dreams.

Alice Through the Looking Glass and Alice in Wonderland were enormously influential to me — but in ways I didn’t realize until many, many decades later.

It was never, Alice per se, but the vibrant, off-kilter world that she wandered through, that I felt pulled into. As a very young child, I was drawn to the Mad Hatter, something about his exuberance, his mercurial nature. I was more enchanted by him in the books more than in the Disney film. Later, as a young adult I revisited the books and found myself head-over-heels: this time it was the music of language. Re-reading Lewis Carroll’s book was akin to rolling down a hill myself — endorphins alight!

Because the clip was buried under the Tim Burton version, sadly it took me a few tries to find this interpretation. I remember first seeing this 1933 filmed retelling of Alice on one of the local television stations of my youth — some sort of kid’s afternoon theater. It’s stuck with me. There is something haunting/unsettling about the makeup of all of the characters that Alice encounters — particularly Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. But this segment of “The Walrus and the Carpenter” is deeply affecting — to this day — for me. Something about the rough action of the “animation” coupled with the macabre trajectory of the story line works in a way that something Disney-like couldn’t quite deliver. The tale is haunting, absurd and of course, occupies the province of dream/opiate logic. I was so happy to finally look at this footage again — it sparked something old and hidden, but still very much alive. The sure-footed march of a good story.

Thinking about Carroll’s Alice and the alternate universe he created for her made understand that fantasy isn’t just wild creatures, suspended disbelief and dream logic — but more it is about connecting the fanciful or the outrageous with our humanity — fear, sadness, joy, grief — all of it is there turned up to to the fullest, but told in a language of bold and brilliant, vibrating hues.

I’m adding it to my “re-read” list this summer.