Archive for January, 2012

Few actors have ever done cool like Steve McQueen. And no, I don’t say that simply because he was a Marine (but it no doubt helped). He’s far more famous for his far more famous movies like Bullitt and The Great Escape, but I got a chance to watch my personal favorite today: Tom Horn.

Tom Horn was McQueen’s — to use Ginna Parson’s favorite word — penultimate film (hey, the woman can sure pick a word), and one of his finest performances, if you ask me. It’s the story of, well, Tom Horn, legendary cowboy, tracker, interpreter, hired gun (he was hell with a Winchester .45-60 rifle) and Geronimo catcher. Yes, there really was a Tom Horn and, yes, the movie fairly accurately portrays the latter part of his life.

Though Horn was a cowboy, and the movie takes place in Wyoming in 1901, I hesitate to call it a Western, even though it evokes Sam Peckinpah and Walter Hill. It’s really more of a character study than anything else. It just happens to look like a Western. And full disclosure up front: it’s not a happy story.

In 1901, Horn took a job as a hired gun for a cattle “association” in Wyoming, one that was having a huge problem with rustling. The association hired Horn to fix the problem, by “whatever means” he saw fit. Horn saw fit to shoot the rustlers. All of them. One at a time, if need be. This methodology, while enormously effective, did not sit well with the city folks, who in 1901 were far more city than cattle ranch. Tom’s methods eventually caused some consternation with the association, who set him up for the murder of a 14-year-old boy.

Like I said, not a happy story. The above really happened, more or less.

McQueen makes no apology for the kind of man Horn was: brutal but principled, honest but stubborn. And no actor has ever conveyed so much with the most common of gestures — a facial expression, picking up a cup of coffee, snapping a loaded shotgun shut. McQueen does it with such ease, such insouciance, that it’s easy to forget that you’re watching an actor. You are, in effect, watching the real Tom Horn. And while you may not understand his reasoning, you certainly understand where he’s coming from.

For you old-timers out there, the movie also stars Slim Pickens in a rare serious role and a gorgeously fresh-faced Linda Evans as the girl who steals Horn’s heart and attention (and understandably so).

Don’t forget: A Simple Murder, on sale now for 99 cents. Download it here.

I was talking with my son the other day about the upcoming summer and job possibilities, and we got on the subject of minimum wage. Which is about, what, $7.25 these days?

Yeah, I can hear all the pissing and moaning from here about “kids these days” and how “Minimum wage is pretty good money” and ” You think you got it hard on $7.25 an hour?? When I was making minimum wage … ” You know, back in them good ol’ days when ‘Murica was full of hard-working ‘Muricans who pulled themselves up by their boot straps and made something of their lives and didn’t ask nobody for nothing.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Stow it, gramps.

You’d think I’d done the parently thing and said the above or “when I started working I was making minimum wage, and I was happy to get it!” But I didn’t. Because that’s a big fat lie. I never liked earning minimum wage. And that’s when I told him that when I first started working at the age of 14, minimum wage hovered around $2.00.

I looked up, just to be sure. In 1976, it was $2.30. Now, for all you harumphers out there who think we were all damn happy and considered ourselves fortunate to “have a job any job,” let’s take a look at that. Yeah, I know, things were cheaper back then.

For example, a gallon of gas cost you 59 cents. So, your $2.30 bought you a little less than  4 gallons of gas. Of course it took all four gallons to drive to work and back in that bigass Mercury, but that’s beside the point. A dozen eggs set you back 84 cents, so you could get a couple dozen with your minimum wage. Movies were about $2. A Coke, 15 cents, bag of Golden Flake potato chips, a dime. So you could go to the show with your $2.30. Barely. A 45 record at the Woolco was 99 cents. So you could get two gallons of gas and a 45, then coast home and listen to them on your record player — without a Coke and chips.

Hell yeah, that’s good living, ain’t it? I remember not ever having a full tank because I couldn’t afford it. Hell, I remember I couldn’t afford anything on minimum wage. Mostly I remember minimum wage sucked.

But what about now? With this “luxurious” minimum wage? Today’s minimum wage buys you about 2 gallons of gas. Even in that Hyundai, that’s not much. You can buy more eggs, though, at about $1.80 a dozen. Movie? Forget it, unless you work another hour. And if you want that Coke and chips, add another hour if you buy it at the concession stand. Otherwise, that Coke will cost you $1.25 in the vending machine. The machine next to it will demand another dollar for the chips. Yep, from 25 cents for both to $2.25. But you can still get a single song for 99 cents. So, you can get a gallon of gas, a Coke and chips, then coast home and download one song to listen to.

Yeah, kids today don’t know how easy they got it, right?

Mondays can be weird, sometimes in a good way. Because it rained here last night, the weather guessers were besides themselves racing to beat each other to the “BEWARE THE WINTRY MIX” warnings, which of course caused the Federal Gubmint to delay its arrival to work this morning (like the gubmint actually works, much less gets there on time).

But while the hellacious blizzard raged  rain fell, I did get a chance to load up my iPod with part of one of my favorite Christmas gifts — the U2 boxed anniversary set of “Achtung! Baby” — and as I type this, an ad is on the teevee for same. So, this morning I got the chance to hear one of the six discs in the set — the “alternative” AchtungBaby album, called “Kindergarten” (get it? German?). The song list is exactly the same, but different — each cut is prefaced by the word, “Baby.” Because it’s the “baby version” of each song. The demos, in other words. Very cool. Very few songs remained intact lyrically or musically from the demo version, but you can still hear the basic structure. And it’s pretty interesting listening to a band — already huge at the time — grope for a sound. It reminded me of Elvis’ “Sun Studio Sessions,” where you can hear an 18-year-old Mr. Presley struggle desperately to figure out what his own voice is supposed to sound like.

And, weirdly, I had an hour this evening with not a lot to do, so I stopped by a shop to visit a tattoo artist recommended by a couple of friends — who just happened to be in the shop when I got there. The artist had just finished some color work, and it was impressive. I’ve been looking for a badass artist for a while now, and I think I found one for my next ink session.

And if all this excitement wasn’t enough, what’s showing on the magic box tonight, on IFC? Well, Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty, of course. Rene Russo in all her long-legged glory. Almost makes Travolta tolerable. Almost.

But, in all this excitement, don’t forget to check out A Simple Murder. Only 99 cents. Calm down.

Earlier this month, I posted about the movie Night of the Hunter, which was recommended by a friend as a candidate for the movie category of the continuing discussion of redneck noir.

I haven’t yet had a chance to watch the movie (other than a spellbinding black-and-white trailer). But — because I’m lucky enough to have friends who read — I have a copy of the novel from which the movie was drawn sitting by my bed. It’s next on my “to read” list.

The floor is still open for other nominations for great redneck noir movies. Here’s a few to get you started.

 

 

 

 

Slingblade. Good luck knocking this one out of my top spot. I’ve written plenty about it before, so suffice it to say that Billy Bob Thornton’s masterpiece of story telling reigns supreme. There’s none better for dialect and the unique culture of Thornton’s rural South. Plus, you have a hard time believing that really is Billy Bob as the movie unfolds. The late John Ritter (who was a close friend of Thornton’s) almost steals the movie with his finest performance.

 

 

 

Deliverance. Burt Reynolds is going to show up in this list a lot, especially when you look at the earlier parts of his career. Deliverance was pre-mustache Reynolds and full-on intensity. Once of the best novel-to-movie adaptations ever, James Dickey’s ultimate redneck noir story is one of the best. Of course, if you want to know the total story behind this ill-fated trip into the heart of rural Georgia, the book is where you’ll find it.

 

 

 

 

The Accountant. This short film (only about 40 minutes or so) won an Oscar, and you’ve probably never heard of it. The team of Ray McKinnon and Walton Goggins (Ginny Mule Productions) tell a powerful story about hard times, hard people and hard decisions. McKinnon and Goggins haven’t put together an awful lot of movies since  this one, but when they do, I’m sure they’ll be impressive.

 

 

 

White Lightning. Of course it’s about moonshine. Way back in 1973, Burt Reynolds was giving rednecks a good name. And this movie has been copied many times in many version (with little success), most notoriously, The Dukes of Hazzard. This movie was also the first time I’d ever heard the term “shaky puddin.'” Apparently, it’s not a phrase you use in polite company.

 

 

 

Gator. In case you didn’t get enough of Gator McClusky in White Lightning, Burt Reynolds brought him back in 1976 with this sequel, with the tagline: “Come and get him.” Not quite as fun as the first — you can’t always catch white lightning in a bottle, after all — but still a solid redneck noir movie.

Got others? Put them in the Comments section below and I’ll add them to the list.

Meanwhile, work on “Deep Blood” continues (check out the Deep Blood link at the top of the page for more info). And still on sale for 99 cents — A Simple Murder and Enemy Within. Download them instantly here.

Writers are always talking about muses, those mythical goddesses who lurk and inspire. Yeah, me, too. They can be tricky, because you never know when they’ll come calling. So you have to wait. Trying to stir them up does no good, but you can try.

One good way for me to do that is with music. I’m not the kind of person who can listen to music while writing, though. Or working, for that matter. I end up listening to the music and losing my concentration on the task at hand. But music is great for inspiration.

Some music evokes a scene in my head. Literally. I can be listening to a song and a whole movie scene (an idea, not “Hang ‘Em High”) will pop into my head. Usually, this is in the car and I can’t exactly write it down, just hope I remember it later. But that’s the way my mind works.

What kind of music? Depends, but usually, it’s some form of stripped-down rock or hard-edged country that does it. Lately, it’s been the Black Keys. Even though they’re almost getting too trendy, this band is really worth the listen. The latest album “El Camino” is pretty good example of what I’m talking about. The first track, especially. Trust me, you want to hear this — and see the video. Every song on this album sounds like it belongs in a Tarantino soundtrack — maybe that’s why it gets my imagination going. Or maybe that says a lot about how I view the world.

In any event, it’s not so much a band as it is a style — the Black Keys, White Stripes, Neil Young, the Pixies, Five Horse Johnson. You get the idea.

My first real inspiration from music came in 1987 (yes, I’m dating myself a bit there). I was holed up in San Diego, attending a crash course version of the Marine Corps’ Sea School before deploying — a lot sooner than I had expected — to the Gulf of Oman for duty aboard the USS Missouri. I was listening to KGB one morning when I heard a song introduced as being from “Omar and The Howlers.” Never heard of them. Name of the song was “Mississippi Hoo Doo Man.” OK, now I’m interested. I turned it up and within 30 seconds I was transfixed. There was something … unfiltered about this sound. Gut-punch, no-frills rock and roll that originates about 2 inches below the belt buckle. Driven straight right down to the ground by the blues. I loved it.

Next day, my wife and I were driving around town, listening to KGB again, when Omar Dykes himself came on the radio — live on the air — and did an interview with the morning crew. He talked about growing up in Miss’ippi (McComb, I believe) and playing in Texas and “bending the neck.” Which sounded really cool, even if I had no clue what he was talking about. But he claimed to bend so much neck that he’d broken several guitars. And he and The Howlers were doing a show That Very Night in San Diego. Some club out near Miramar. And, hell yes, we went to see them. And, damn if he didn’t bend that neck. I bought the album (on cassette of course because I was on the leading edge of technology) and took it with me on deployment. And wore that mother out. And listening to “Mississippi Hoo Doo Man” one night at sea, I got the idea in my head of a scene playing in my head. So I wrote it down. I must have written 20 pages (by hand, on a legal pad) that night.

That scene changed a lot — an awful lot — over the next few years, but it eventually became Wade Stuart in Enemy Within.

Music is still one of my, well, muses. I never know exactly what that music will be, but it’s always fun to find out.

Oh, and you can download a Kindle version of Enemy Within or A Simple Murder 99 cents here.

Raylan Givens is back, starting at 10 pm tonight on FX.

And not to overlook great shows, Southland also returns. I’m late to this party, but I have to give it to FX for putting together shows and line-ups worth tuning in for. I picked upon Southland last year, after my son tipped me off. It’s nothing at all like Justified, but it’s strong.

I guess the recent post re: short stories propelled me into action. I actually managed to finish a story I’ve been tangling with for a long time now. Now the hard part is figuring out which publication to send it to.

On sale now for 99 cents: A Simple Murder. Get it here.

Well, now that my football season is officially over, it’s time to find ways to fill that space. Sure, I’ll watch the remainder of the playoffs and the Super Bowl, but not with any of the fervor I did before the Saints turned the ball over 5 times in San Francisco last weekend. But, as a 40+-year Saints fan, I’ve learned to take the wins and the victories with a certain amount of grace. And I’ll be there with them again next year.

Plus, it’s only a couple of weeks before pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training! Hope springs eternal for the Dodgers (at least until, say, mid-April).

So, now’s the perfect time finish the two short stories I’ve been … pondering. “The Booze Rumor” is finished. Still working on the other one.

It’s also the perfect time to catch up on Justified before the season premiere tomorrow night. Judging from the trailers, this is going to be a very interesting season.

It’s also a perfect time to get a great read for under a buck. On sale now for 99 cents: A Simple Murder. Get it here.

15 January: Straw Dogs

Posted: January 15, 2012 in Uncategorized

This movie came recommended to me as an example of redneck noir, so I gave it a shot over the weekend. Unfortunately, it’s heavy on the redneck, light on the noir. This Rod Lurie remake of the Sam Peckinpah original missed the mark for me, in several areas.

Here’s the set-up. Hollywood screenwriter, David, and his Mississippi wife, Amy, move back to her hometown — to give him space and solitude to  write.  Amy has become a TV star (in a show written by David, which is how they met), so she’s the local girl done good.

Problem is, when they move back to her recently deceased father’s house, they run into the timeworn clash of Amy’s past (namely her old boyfriend and high school football star, Charlie — there’s even a picture of him with Amy the cheerleader hanging on the wall of the local diner). David is your standard East Coast, preppy, pretty intellectual. Charlie, and his construction crew (which has been hired to repair David and Amy’s barn) are your pretty standard beer-guzzlin,’ gun totin,’ pool shootin,’ rednecks.

So what could possibly go wrong, right? Well, lots does. Amy and David’s relationship is tense to say the least, a passive aggressive Amy alternatively lusting over her former flame and considering her husband less than man — even after Charlie and his buddy rape her in her own home (this being accomplished by an unbelievable “hunting trip” for David set up by Charlie). James Woods takes a turn as the drunken former football coach with a hair-trigger temper and medieval code of paternal instinct for his 15-year-old cheerleader daughter, who lures and tries to seduce the local mentally handicapped man, Jeremy.  When this happens — and they nearly get caught by the drunken former football coach, Jeremy accidentally kills the daughter. Through a series of unfortunate events, Jeremy is struck by the car David and Amy are in as they head home. When the ol’ ball coach and Charlie and Co. learn of this, they descend on David and Amy’s home to take Jeremy away and mete out some “justice.”

David, defending his home, bows up on these barbarians and kills them all in truly creative fashion. The end.

Now, first of all, I really admire Peckinpah’s work. Yes, he is no stranger to violence in his films, and this remake isn’t either. It’s a violent movie, but I disagree with one reviewer that claimed the movie celebrates violence. I thought it was all in context. And while the movie has its moments of true tension — almost scary moments — the story loses its momentum in several spots.

My real problem with the movie came from other areas, though. First of all, Amy (Kate Bosworth) is just a hot mess. We never get a lot of information about her, so her motives are always unclear. Thus, she comes off as bitchy, passive-aggressive, cold, horny and demanding. Sometimes all at once. Mostly, she confuses the story with her actions.

Secondly, there’s no noir here, and the Mississippi characters are all hopelessly stereotyped. “Down here, we know cars and guns,” is a line of dialogue for example. Along with the camouflage, the hunting (dead of summer, broad daylight deer hunting?? I don’t think so), the pick-up trucks, the Lynyrd Skynyrd, low morals, you name it.

And James Woods’ portrayal of the coach is cringe-worthy — if he overacted any more in this movie, he would explode. Which is really too bad, because Woods is an awesome actor.

Even the end is a little forced, because there’s no real closure to the story (and I don’t mean resolution). So, I wouldn’t put this one in the redneck noir category. I’d just put it in the Bad Remake drawer.

On sale now for 99 cents: A Simple Murder. Get it here.

“I’m a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.”
–William Faulkner

I’m not about to say that all writers are alike, but Mr. F really hit on something with that statement. I can’t speak for every novelist, but if you check out your local community college creative writing class, you’ll find it filled with “poets” and “short story writers” (which is to say, writers of short stories, not writers who are not tall). I don’t know why this is, but maybe Faulkner’s right, especially if my own experiences with the three forms have anything to do with it (which, admittedly, they probably don’t).

I never professed to be a poet, but poetry is what got me into a creative writing class at my local community college (which turned out to be a huge benefit for me, for it was there that I met Bob Bausch). I wanted to write better fiction, but kept doing the same thing over and over, and not liking it. So, I figured I’d take a poetry class and maybe learn a thing or two about descriptive writing. Awaken the muses. All that writerly stuff.

Bob’s class was poetry AND fiction — you guessed it, short stories. I figured, how hard can it be? I mean, short stories aren’t novels, right? I’d not yet learned what Mark Twain had to say on the subject. And I found it extraordinarily difficult. It’s easier for me to write an entire novel than to write a successful short story. I took Bob’s class for about two years and I think one story actually survived: it was called “Fishing” and it eventually was my ticket into the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. The hard part, for me anyway, is crafting a story that actually says something in a powerful way in, say, less than 50,000 words. When you set to write a novel, you know it’s going to take some time to get there. With a short story, you need to be there — and you usually get there a lot sooner than you anticipated. There’s no “average” length to a short story — it’s done when it’s done. I studied Flannery O’Connor and Mark Twain and I envy acquaintances like Tom Paine who really nail the form, but it’s a huge challenge for me. I can spend a year trying to write a short story.

My poetry was pretty awful, but I was diligent about it, and I actually learned quite a bit. I wrote dozens of poems — thrashing blindly in the dark more than anything else. Like every American high school grad, I thought poetry had to, you know, rhyme. And I wrote some truly horrid poems. Then, Bob introduced us to the work of his late friend and brilliant poet, Roland Flint. That was a “light bulb” moment for me. I’ve never been so moved and inspired by a single poet in my life. His “What I Have Tried to Say to You” is breathtaking. And heartbreaking. And perfect.

And like several of my influences, Roland Flint profoundly changed my approach to a form of writing. Oh, the poetry was still pretty bad, but at least it was honestly bad. I did get lucky and have one poem, “Road Warrior,” published a couple of years ago, but I haven’t written much more in a while now. But I still love reading Roland Flint.

Got a Kindle? Get a book. A Simple Murder at Amazon.

13 January 2012: More war novels

Posted: January 13, 2012 in Uncategorized

Following up on my last post, here’s a few more war novels that didn’t make my all-time favorites list, but are still very good reads.

All Quiet on the Western Front: I read somewhere that Elmore Leonard became inspired to be writer after reading this one. It didn’t have quite that effect on me — I read it my junior year in college — but the story of the individual German soldier in World War I is compelling, especially since it’s told from that perspective.  It’s not a cheery story, but you can’t put it down, either. And, of course, it’s considered to be one of the classic war novels.

 

 

 

M*A*S*H: Yeah, you’ve seen the movie and the TV show. Now read the book. Much like Catch-22, the original novel seems certifiably insane compared to the on-screen interpretations (especially the TV show). It’s interesting that the three versions (book, movie, TV) are all pretty different from each other — from biting satire, to very dark humor to comedy. Who knew that doctors and war don’t really fit together all that well?

 

 

 

Team Yankee: I’d forgotten this snappy novel until a friend recently reminded me. Published in the ’80s — post-Red October and at the height of the Cold War — this story of a cav unit in Europe at the outset of WWIII is immediately engrossing. The author, Harold Coyle, was an Army major when he wrote it, and he brings a lot of the real world into it — the confusion of battle and command, the technology (the good and the bad), the machines. It’s all here. If you’re looking for a good one to read on your next long flight, this is a good pick.

 

 

Red Storm Rising: I kinda hated admitting I liked this one. Clancy’s second novel, before he became insufferable with his 1,000-page techno-dink movies (I mean, novels). One fun note is that he got a little ahead of himself in this one. Written in the mid-80s, before the U.S. admitted the Stealth fighter even existed, Clancy writes about the plane in support of U.S. forces defending Eastern Europe against the mechanized Soviet hordes. That’s fine, but his description of the plane (based on speculation and best guesses), which he called the “Flying Frisbee” turned out to be dead wrong a few years later.

 

 

Sand in the Wind: Robert Roth’s gripping tale of a Marine platoon in savage combat in Vietnam. Sounds like Fields of Fire, right? Yeah, a little bit. I can’t remember which I read first, but I remember the simlarities between the two. And I read both several times (my original copy of Sand in the Wind eventually fell apart). This one has ascene concerning a napalm attack that will make your skin crawl. It’s a bit long, but a good tale nonetheless — and it’s not for the faint of heart.

 

 

 

Nam-a-Rama: Here’s a bit of advice on this one — don’t read it on an airplane. This is another laugh-out-loud story that I ran across completely by accident. It came across my desk when I was working at the features editor for Army Times Publishing Company. If you liked The Men Who Stare at Goats, you’ll love this insane tale of the Vietnam War.

 

 

 

The Red Badge of Courage: This one didn’t make my favorites for one simple reason: I had to read it as an assignment during my sophomore year of high school. Yes, it’s a classic. Yes, it’s well-written. But when you have to read a book, it loses a little bit of its impact. Plus, the Civil War is a tough subject to fictionalize (unless you write The Killer Angels).

 

 

 

W.E.B. Griffin: Griffin is one prolific dude. He’s written about 40 novels, under his own name and several pseudonyms, but the two I liked the most were the Brotherhood of War series and The Corps series. In the former, each book (The Lieutenants, The Captains, etc.) follows a group of Army armor officers who fight in World War II and beyond. They’re all dashing, rakish, cavalier, thoroughly competent and never get assigned weekend duty. You know, they’re everything real officers aren’t. This is not profound literature, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun to read. The same is true for The Corps, though these books are based much more in actual historical events surrounding the Marine Corps’ Pacific campaign in World War II. The annoying the part of this series is that every book rewinds back to 1941, rather than pick up where the last one left off.

And speaking of books, don’t forget: The Kindle editions of A Simple Murder and Enemy Within are on sale at Amazon this month for only 99 cents. So what are you waiting for? Buy them here.