Monday, March 07, 2005

I was flipping the channels last night and saw the saddest thing: this WB "American Idol"-wannabe thing called The Starlet. Sad because one of the judges was Faye Dunaway. The woman's a legend -- Bonnie Parker, Evelyn Mulway, the TV network executive: all roles that are burned forever in the movie-going brain, and here she is doing Simon Cowell's act. You don't see Meryl Streep doing this kinda thing, do you? Well, that's the life of an actress, I guess. You gotta keep working somehow. Still strikingly beautiful, though, I'll say that.

Sam Spade at 75

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Vintage Crime/Black Lizard. 224 pages. $11.95

If Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, which recently celebrated its 75th anniversary, isn't the greatest detective novel ever written, it sets the standard. One of the key modern novels of the early 20th Century, it's a tightly-plotted caper about fate and moral responsibility; genre fiction with meat on its bones. It also introduced one of the great lasting archetypes of the American anti-hero: Sam Spade, private eye, a cool "blond satan" who lets nothing, not even his partner's sudden murder, disturb his unruffled demeanor.

Like every good detective story, this one starts with a beautiful client who can't tell the truth. Her name is Miss Wonderly, and she arrives at San Francisco's Spade and Archer detective agency in hopes of recovering her younger sister, who has apparently run off with a thug named Floyd Thursby. Archer follows Thursby that evening, and winds up dead. A half-hour later, so is Thursby.

Spade soon learns that Miss Wonderly is really named Brigid O'Shaugnessey, that the sister story was made up, and that she and Thursby were linked with a couple of others who show up on the scene: a small, dandyish homosexual named Joel Cairo and a silver-tongued black-marketeer named Kasper Gutman. The murders, whoever did them and for whatever reason, have something to do with the search for a centuries-old statuette of a black falcon that is apparently worth a fortune.

Spade's involvement in the case quickly becomes less professional than personal. First, it's a matter of saving his own hide. Spade has been having an affair with Archer's clingy wife, Iva, which makes him a suspect. Then -- women being something of an occupational hazard where Spade is concerned -- he soon finds himself sleeping with Brigid, compromising him further. He's also tempted to get his own slice of the pie from this falcon everyone wants and no one can find.

Sam is an an amoral, largely out-for-himself man in a world where the only playbook is the one you write yourself, and life can turn on a dime. In an aside, Spade recalls a former case where a businessman suddenly deserted his family after he narrowly missed getting killed by a falling beam.

"The life he knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things. He, the good citizen-husband-father, could be wiped out between office and restaurant by the accident of a falling beam. He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them."

That paragraph has Sartre and Camus written all over, and indeed the French Existentialists eagerly embraced Hammett as one of their own. In a world where life can be snuffed out just like that, Sam Spade lives according to his own sense of integrity -- which he actually has more of than he likes to let on. "Don't be too sure I'm as crooked as I'm supposed to be," as he says in the end, where Archer's murderer learns that Spade, for all his shrugging ambivalance, isn't nearly as morally challenged as he lets on.

"Sam Spade had no original," Hammett, a former Pinkerton detective, wrote in the 1934 introduction to the Modern Library edition of the book. "He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and what quite a few of them in their cockier moments thought they approached." A private eye doesn't want to be Sherlock Holmes, he said; "he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander, or client."

This is the same template TV cops have either been working from or working against ever since. He survives in a hard world by making himself a little harder, a little cannier, and a little more decent -- and by keeping an eye out for falling beams.

The Real Life of Gordon Hall

Edward Ball's Peninsula of Lies is such a riveting real-life mystery that I resist saying much for fear of spoiling it. It's the kind of story where you find yourself, from the beginning, as absorbed as the author, and as you tag along with him for the search, you learn what he does as he learns it.

It's the story of an Englishman named Gordon Hall who arrived in Charleston in 1962, schmoozed his way into old money society, and committed three cardinal sins that led to his total banishment and local immortality: he became a woman who named herself Dawn Langley Simmons, married a black man and, bafflingly, claimed to give birth to a daughter. Although there have been books about transexuals before, Dawn's claim for motherhood obviously makes her unique. Ball takes up the story shortly after Dawn's death in 2000 and traces both the mystery of both her and the possibilities of human conception.

From the beginning, all Ball really has to go on are conflicting accounts. There is Dawn's own unpublished story that describes her life, and the testimony of lingering friends, associates, and elderly members of Charleston homosexual society who have their doubts.

Is it possible for someone at least nominally born a man -- and Dawn insisted she never really was a man -- to conceive a child? Ball's search takes him into recorded history, where there does turn out to be a slim precedent that seems to have come out of a Monty Python movie: a blacksmith, in the seventeenth century, who gave birth to a child.

Ball enters the transexual world, finding out various types of both transexualism and hermaphroditism. He compares it against Dawn's own recorded history and Gordon's story, as he pieces it together from the people who knew Gordon and/or Dawn in England, New York, Charleston, and points in between.

He also ultimately tracks down the most compelling cues: Dawn's husband Jean Paul, who had been missing for years, as well as past lovers, friends and medical personnel.

What emerges is a story that has less to do with the wonders of medical science and the mysteries of sex and more to do with the somewhat shifting nature of reality. Trailing the circuitous journey of Gordon Hall, the social butterfly who blossomed into Dawn Simmons, the story takes on an almost Nabokovian luster, as Ball is on a search to find the real life of a character who, whatever his failings as a writer, is very much the artist of his (or her) own life.
Some movies:

Lilja 4-Ever

Lukas Moodyson's Lilja 4-Ever is the story of a young woman whose life goes from black to blackest.

We know this virtually from the beginning, when the title character is running madly through the streets of a city as insistent heavy-metal music pounds away on the soundtrack. She stops at a bridge -- does she jump or not?

How she got to this point is, of course, a sad tale. We backtrack to the beginning. Lilja is a bright-faced teenager who is as happy-go-lucky as you can be in the bleak landscape of post-Soviet Russia, where the factories are shut down, no jobs are available, the amusements are slim, and you only get ahead by getting out. There is a bright star on the horizon: Lilja announces to her best friend Anna that she will be moving with her mom and Mom's new boyfriend to America. Unfortunately, it doesn't happen. Lilja's mom suddenly announces that she'll have to come along later; until then, Lilja is left to the care of a mean, ugly old aunt whose first step is to move Lilja out of her Mom's apartment (which she takes over herself) and into a nasty little flat.

That's when she meets a seemingly nice guy who promises to take her to America. and who winds up selling her into sexual slavery.

This is a grim film with an oddly spiritual dimension that runs throughout it; Lilja kneels nightly before an old framed print of an angel leading a child, says the Lord's Prayer, and Moodyson takes a daring narrative leap by seeing his character from one world into the next -- the next one being, basically, the only one she has going for her.

Vera Drake

The first time I ever heard of the English director Mike Leigh was in a great New Yorker article by Terrence Rafferty, published some time in the early 1990s. I remember precious little about what it said but I knew just from reading it -- before I had seen a single Leigh film -- that I liked him. He was my idea of a filmmaker: productive, worked with a small company, made intimate dramas about life at the domestic level. Seeing his work did not disappoint, even when it seemed a little "too English," when his people started yammering about in their rural idioms and I had to rewind scenes and listen carefully just to get the jokes.

One thing that came clear to me after seeing Leigh's latest, Vera Drake, is that Leigh is especially skilled at what might be called "family films," a phrase in need of expansion. Instead of meaning "suitable for the kids," let it mean something similar to "family novel," which accomodates both the generous vision of Tolstoy and the tight focus of Flaubert or Anne Tyler. Mike Leigh makes films about a lot of things, but families are his natural subject. This may have something to do with his preferred method of working, which involves shaping the material in rehearsal, sometimes involving members of a loose repertory group who reappear from film to film. He has a feel for the character of a family, like a silent visitor who is curious, interested and sympathetic.

Vera Drake is the story of an English maid in the early 1950s who is arrested and tried for performing abortions on the side, and it too is centered on the idea of family. It's also a first-class example of his particular brand of working-class realism, for which he has a democratic knack, like Ken Loach; a neo-Realist knack, you might say, personal and political.

Well before we get to Vera's story, we meet her family, and Leigh takes his time letting us settle into it. Vera, played to perfection by Imelda Staunton, is a hearty soul; a domestic who looks after several homes, as well as her own, and also cares for her dying mother. Hers isn't a grim life, or at least she doesn't see it that way; her day to day disposition suggests no problem can't be settled by a good cup of tea. She and her husband, George (Richard Graham) who operates a garage with his brother, are the picture of middle-class content: they both work hard, enjoy what they do, and they're still happily in love after decades together. (The same could just as easily be said of the family in my favorite Leigh films, Life is Sweet). The Drakes have two children; a shy and homely daughter who doesn't seem likely to ever find a boyfriend (and -- in a sweet and funny subplot -- does) and a gregarious, obnoxious son.

Among her other tasks, Vera also performs abortions for poor girls, the ones without money or connections. She's the opposite of what we think of as a "back street abortionist." She offers her services for free, and in the place of sharp instruments she uses a carbolic soap solution that induces miscarriage and, so far as she knows, is perfectly safe. She's also naive. She doesn't know that the greedy go-between for her troubled clients has been charging a fee, or that her abortion method is actually borderline lethal. After the near-death of one of her clients, Vera is arrested, her life and family -- who don't know about her work as an abortionist -- come crashing down.

She is also, as far as the film is concerned, less the villain than society, and while that may sound like a lame, socially conscious point, the film makes it with powerful conviction. Leigh has a distinct feel for how the subtle repressiveness of 1950s culture seeps into the lives and the language of everyone. When Vera applies her treatment to her clients, she never uses words like abortion or baby or pregnancy; she talks about "taking it away." After her arrest -- in the single most powerful scene of the movie -- she can only describe what she does to her husband in a hushed, pained whisper. He in turn can barely find the words to broach the subject with his brother. Graham is superb in this role of a man who finds himself completely conflicted in his feelings about his wife.

The politics of a film like this are fairly obvious before you walk in the door; pro-choice and pro-family, which is exactly what Vera is. She loves her own children deeply, she's thrilled for her daughter's marriage and later for her sister-in-law, who on the eve of Vera's arrest announces she's pregnant.

But there is, also, something a little strange, maybe, about the movie's politics, particularly when compared with Leigh's 1990 Life is Sweet. One of the wonderfully unsettling facets of that great film -- about the workaday life of a Middlesex family who could have been the Drake's neighbors in another time -- is that it seemed almost anti-abortion, especially in an overwhelmingly powerful scene near the end, when the chirpy working-class mother played by Alison Steadman talks about why she chose not to have an abortion in her early marriage -- despite being poor and broke -- and even says, with the director's seeming approval, that she doesn't believe in it. There was a startling reality to the moment, regardless of your position on the issue; it seemed true to this character. I was less convinced by the money quote in Vera Drake, tenderly uttered bythe daughter's new boyfriend: "If you can't feed them, you can't love them."

Besides being a glaringly untrue statement -- utterly destitute women love their children all the time -- it sounded forced, and the way the movie addressed the complexities of the issue seemed to me like a lot of preaching to the choir. The family rallies `round Vera, eventually, and the only reluctant one is the rapist son, who naturally spouts a lot of hypocritical nonsense about the cruelty of it all. The movie has a genuinely loving and gritty feel to it, but near the end you get the feeling Leigh is playing with a stacked deck.

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