Category Archives: Movies

Where the Western Meets Crime Fiction

John Larison argues that despite the different tropes they use and the different worlds they occupy, crime and Western stories share many structural similarities:

Both are about the triumph of good over evil. Early in a novel of either genre, we will see our protagonist encounter an injustice, usually the victim of crime (who may or may not still be breathing). Both novels will end when the scales of justice have finally been righted; the perpetrators of evil have met their due punishment. In a crime novel, justice usually comes in the form of a court of law. In the western, justice tends to be delivered by a bullet through the heart.

That’s a good start, but there’s more substance, nuance, and grit in both genres. Crime fiction includes many sub-genres, including cozies (Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple tales) and classic whodunits (Ellery Queen). The reader can settle down with one of these books knowing that justice will inevitably prevail, just like in the Westerns. But then there are hardboiled and noir crime stories. While both feature violence in gritty, naturalistic settings, only hardboiled tales come close to the worldview of classic Western adventures.

In hardboiled crime tales, the protagonist shoots it out with the bad guys to protect the innocent and restore justice. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer is an updated John Wayne battling the bad hombres of New York City. However, in noir tales, traditional justice is just as hard to find as an innocent victim. For example, Raymond Chandler paints a bleak view of human nature in his novels, with both the criminal underworld and the “respectable” upper class up to no good. In such a world, the protagonist has to settle for upholding his personal code of honor, justice for the innocent proving too elusive, if not illusory.

Some of the “crime-westerns” Larison cites in his article certainly don’t end with the good guy riding into the sunset after protecting the righteous and punishing the wicked. Just to name one example, Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country For Old Men” ends with the bad guy, a sociopathic hit man, virtually unscathed and free, leaving behind the corpses of almost all the sympathetic characters. The sheriff who failed to catch the killer or protect the innocent acknowledges his uselessness at the end, and dreads the evil that’s spreading across the land he once loved and knew. Not exactly “Shane.” But, as Larison says, still wildly entertaining.

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A Quiet Place

As my wife and I settled into our dollar-movie-theatre seats, I was pleased to recall that yet another sci-fi film had received glowing audience and critical acclaim. Minutes after it started, I realized the reviews don’t give a clue about how good, how intelligent, and how soul-stirring this movie is.

Yes, it’s entertaining, and yes, it breaks conventions. Some of the breaks worked for me. Making it a (mostly) silent movie transformed it into much more that a “scary” movie. And scary it is, with plenty of white-knuckle scenes as a rural family cowers from a blind but ruthless predator that locates and attacks its victims when they make the faintest sound. The scant dialogue revved up the power of the visual tension to nearly unbearable levels. (At one point, a lady a few seats behind me whispered to her husband that she couldn’t take any more, and scampered out of the theatre.) Some of the conventions it broke left me feeling a bit cheated and shocked. Think a tale about a loving family struggling to survive will end without any casualties? The movie breaks that one in the first scene.

So it’s a hard film to watch at times. But “A Quiet Place” is a masterpiece of cinematic storytelling. Also, it tackles some themes head on in ways I found deeply moving and agreeable. It’s a pro-natalist, pro-sociobiology adventure; both the mother and father courageously do what they must to preserve the family. Despite the danger and the sacrifice, the husband and wife decide to have another baby. (And remember – babies cry!) At one point, the mother asks her husband, “Who are we if we can’t protect our children?”

That’s the key question of our age – just as it is in any age.

“The Endless” – A Lovecraftian masterpiece

Last night, my wife and I attended the Charlotte Film Society’s screening of “The Endless,” the latest project from indie filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. When the closing credits rolled, we quickly agreed that in an age of sternum-rattling surround sound and blinding special effects, this film was truly something different: It pulled us in and held us with first-class writing and acting.

Think that filmmaking approach will catch on? We can only hope.

In the movie, brothers Justin and Aaron (yeah, cute!) have hit rock bottom. Years earlier, they’d enjoyed notoriety after they escaped what they described to the news media as a “UFO death cult.” But now, their notoriety has faded, and they’re barely making a living in their cleaning business. Collection agencies hound them, they can’t make friends, and the young ladies they meet aren’t interested in dating ex-death cult members. When younger brother Aaron decides he can’t stomach any more normalcy and wants to visit the old commune, Justin reluctantly agrees.

What could go wrong?

The film opens with this quote from H. P. Lovecraft: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” That quote is a nod to the profound influence Lovecraft has exerted on Benson and Moorhead. (In the closing credits, they pay special tribute to Guillermo Del Toro, another Lovecraftian storyteller.)

What makes “The Endless” stand out is its unforced but relentless buildup of details that lull and mislead. When the seemingly commonplace path you’re following suddenly twists around and scares the daylights out of you, you can only wonder how you could have been so blind. “The Endless” had an effect on me similar to “Rosemary’s Baby,” with its clever presentation of clues that could be dismissed as merely odd that suddenly add up to unspeakable terror.

Now THAT’S entertainment.

Quote of the day

del Toro

“And I want to tell you, everyone that is dreaming of using the genre of fantasy to tell the stories about the things that are real in the world today – you can do it! This is a door. Kick it open and come in!” – Guillermo Del Toro, accepting an Oscar for The Shape of Water.

By GuillemMedina – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66203883

The Final Word

Obit

My wife and I caught a pre-screening of the documentary “Obit” last night. It introduces the general public to the people and the process of crafting the obituaries of both famous and significant people who have died.

Now from that lede, you’re probably thinking this must be a yawner of a movie. In fact, it’s not only one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen in years, it’s also an illuminating commentary on writing. In the picture above, New York Times reporter Margalit Fox fields questions from the audience. She’s the “baby” of the obituary staff, and gets much face time in the documentary.

She shared a few insider jokes that reveal much about writing. One involved a talented newcomer to the news business. He was not only a gifted writer, but took pride in thorough research. Despite his heroic efforts, he kept getting angry calls from readers about inaccurate statements in his stories. When he sought the advice of an old-timer, the pro sat back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, and said, “Kid, it’s real simple. Quit putting in too many facts.”

Margalit offered a useful example of what the old pro meant. In one of her first obits, she identified the deceased’s father as a “Democratic congressman from Illinois.” An irritated relative informed Margalit that her uncle had in fact been a Republican. “I assumed he was a Democrat because he was from Illinois,” confessed Margalit. “But my obit would’ve been just as good if I’d only described the deceased’s father as ‘a congressman from Illinois.'” Lesson learned: Less is better.

Another joke was about an experienced reporter whose editor told him to write a short report on a breaking story. “I can give you a 5,000-word story,” said the reporter. “I don’t have enough time to write a short report.” He had a point — short works are hard to do.

Bottom line, don’t miss this documentary. The characters (starting with the madcap manager of the New York Times’s morgue), the tension created by meeting deadlines while treating the bereaved family with respect and sympathy, and the fundamental difficulty of “getting the words right” make “Obit” a must see. Highly recommended.

John Milius, Hollywood Wildman

John Milius

John Milius was once a force of nature in Hollywood. He co-wrote the first two Dirty Harry films, received an Academy Award nomination as screenwriter of Apocalypse Now, and wrote and directed The Wind and the Lion, Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn.

Here’s an interesting anecdote about Milius, from the Castalia House blog:

My all-time favorite Milius story concerns his frequent battles with producers and other movie executives.

One day, Milius was describing the concept of a movie he was writing to a woman who was high up on the studio chain. It was a macabre tale of a soldier betraying his king, filled with murder, sex, and madness.

At the end, the female movie executive gets up and exclaims; “Mr. Milius, what you have told me is absolutely disgusting and awful! We have no interest in making any film like that, and hope you will work hard to come up with something better!” She walks off.

Milius then looks at a man who witnessed all this, shrugs his shoulders, and says “Some people just don’t dig Shakespeare.” He had described Macbeth to her.

Good thing he didn’t pitch Coriolanus.