Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Truth as Evil (Or: Fritz Lang, Polly Platt, and Peter Bogdanovich)

So here's a story that has made me think.  It comes from Karina Longworth's great podcast You Must Remember This, the second episode of the recently-ended season devoted to the life and career of Polly Platt, the still underappreciated "invisible woman" of film from the 1960's until her death in 2011.

Here's what happened: In the late 1960's, in Hollywood, Platt and her then-husband, the filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, became friendly with director Fritz Lang.  Lang was old, retired, and nearly blind at this time, living, despite the long list of remarkable films he'd made, in anything but luxury.  He lived alone essentially and liked to drink martinis.  Platt, of course, knew his films well, and in the unfinished memoir she wrote that Longworth takes passages from, Platt says that she thought his films were brilliant for the most part.  But she also says, "they were so evil that I hated them even as I admired them".  She goes on to say, "He was an evil man."

Evil? Why?  

Platt tells us she found this about Lang when Lang invited Peter and her to "his place" in Palm Springs.  She and Peter were very excited to receive the invitation and drove to Palm Springs, only to find that "his place" was a "decidedly decrepit motel surrounding a kidney-shaped pool".  Lang was a good friend of the motel's owner, and presumably, she gave Lang a deal.  In any event, one day Polly and Peter found themselves having breakfast in a pancake house with Lang, and they discussed the "international news in America".  Polly and Lang got into an argument about Vietnam.  Lang was a dove about Vietnam, Lang a hawk.  At one point, in the heat of the argument, Lang accidentally forgot Polly's name and called her Patty.  Polly immediately corrected him about her name, but the argument itself and Lang's forgetting her name so upset that she got up from the table and went back to the room she and Peter had in the motel.  Bogdanovich, though, stayed with Lang.

In her room, Polly thought Peter would be angry with her for having argued with the great man.  Polly says that she felt sorry too, but she felt that Lang was wrong about what they'd been discussing.  Later in the day, Polly went by herself to Lang's room to apologize, and as she says, "He was very gracious about it and we became friends again."

Weeks later, Lang, "very hush hush", called Polly and asked her to come alone to his house to have breakfast.  He told her not to tell Peter about this, but she did tell him, and with amusement between them, they wondered what Lang could possibly be inviting her over for.

After breakfast, Lang, as Katrina Longworth puts it, "dropped the bomb".

"Polly, I don't want to talk to you about how much your husband loves you or not, but you must remember, when you and I had an argument and you ran out, that Peter stayed with the great director, me, rather than side with you, his wife.  This is something for you to think about, no?"

Polly says that she never told Peter what Lang said because she knew it would hurt Peter.  And she admits that what Lang said was true.  But, as she explains, "That is why it was so evil.  It put a strange barrier between Peter and me."

She concludes by saying that years later, when she told Orson Welles this story, Welles said, "Lang was Iago."

I won't go on with much more about Polly Platt and Peter Bogdanovich's marriage because if you don't know the story about Peter and Cybill Shepherd and the making of The Last Picture Show and how Peter and Polly's marriage ended, you can easily look it up.  And even if you do know something about it, you'll learn more -- I guarantee you -- by listening to the podcast I'm talking about.

But my question: Putting aside the question of whether Fritz Lang's movies are evil, who thinks what he did here, making his "unwelcome intervention" into the Platt-Bogdanovich marriage, was evil? I understand why Polly Platt used the word, and she was someone who used words very precisely.  But it's a fascinating word to employ here, I think.  Fritz Lang made an astute observation (which would bear fruit in how Peter conducted himself later).  Is telling the truth like that, being ruthlessly candid like he was, even though nobody asked him to do that -- does that qualify as evil?



Sunday, August 9, 2020

The Dead Files

By Claire Booth

I took a road trip yesterday to another city in California’s Central Valley to film an appearance on a TV show called The Dead Files. I’ve done quite a few crime shows, and this one definitely will turn out to be the most unique.

It’s a long-running Travel Channel show that features a former NYPD homicide detective who looks into locations that could be haunted. Yep. Steve DiSchiavi investigates past incidents, usually crimes, that might factor into what’s going on at the building. The other half of the show (which I didn’t do) features medium Amy Allan, who examines the physical location.

I, naturally, talked about a crime. I can’t say much about it yet, but I met with DiSchiavi to discuss something that happened in 1910. That was another change for me. I usually talk about current crimes. To delve into the past was a different kind of interesting and it was great.

The episode should air early next year, and I share more as it gets closer. 


Saturday, August 8, 2020

Routines Gives Covid Days Structure and Builds Anticipation

Scott D. Parker

It’s not often when the day job and the fiction job intersect, but they did this week.

On the day job front, we had our weekly team meeting yesterday. We’ve got a team of about 25 folks and, ever since 16 March, we’ve been working from home. Fridays are our Zoom calls and we get to see each other’s faces and enjoy an hour of camaraderie.

Yesterday, the grandboss asked how we were doing. And not in a flippant way, but an honest deep dive into how we were coping with the new paradigm of remote working. How were we feeling? How are we getting along with our families? The discussion was good with a few of my team members relating the sameness of our day-to-day lives. One of us commented that she sometimes realized that she needed to just get up out of her chair and walk outside to break up the monotony of her home office.

On the internet and Facebook this week, a few of my fellow writers voiced their frustration with the inability to write ever since the Coronavirus descended over all of us. When we’re all stuck at home with few prospects of getting out to typical places like movie theaters, theme parks, or seemingly every other summer tradition, how the heck can we harness the creativity to write?

I can’t answer these questions, but I can answer them with techniques I use that gets me through each day and each week.

Routine and Built-in Anticipation

Some of y’all will read this and chuckle. You may even give me a hard time. Don’t worry about it: my family gives me a hard time about it, too, but I still carry on.

Maybe it’s a sign of my age (51) but I seek out routine and thrive in it.

On the creative side of things, I hold one rule steadfast: write first thing in the morning. No internet. No email. Nothing other than a cup of coffee, a Bible reading, and the immediate opening of the laptop to work on a story. For the past month, it’s been edits and revision to my next book. Soon it’ll be a return to new stories, but, above all else, I carve out the time to be creative when the world is still dark and I’m the only one in the house awake. It was a routine I needed to create, but now that I have, it’s one of my favorite parts of the day.

This routine paid for itself on Monday of this week when, after I had a productive session, I logged into my bank to pay bills and discovered one of our checks had been stolen and forged. Yes, money had also been stolen. It’s resolved now, but the point is this: had I not already done my creative work, I did not have the mindset to be creative after that discovery. So, write in the morning before the day gets to you.

Building Anticipation

How good is a tuna fish sandwich? How valuable is movie night? How do these things relate to each other?

I love tuna fish sandwiches. It’s one of my favorite things to each for lunch. I branch out and try different recipes, often with salads, but the good, old-fashioned tuna fish sandwich is one of my favorite comfort foods.

But ever since I started working from home, I limit the traditional tuna fish sandwich to my Friday lunches. Why? To build anticipation. I’ll admit I look forward to lunches everyday because not only does my entire family of three eat together, but my wife and I play three games each of backgammon and Yahtzee. But I only eat tuna fish sandwiches on Fridays. Now, my family gently ribs me about this, but I can’t tell you how good that tuna sandwich tastes after a week of anticipation. Yesterday’s sandwich was particularly good. It’s something I look forward to all week long.

Ditto the Friday Night Movies. In the summer of 2020 when Covid has robbed us of a typical summer movie blockbuster season, I invented one. I’ve been revisiting summer movies from the past with even-numbered anniversaries (i.e., years ending in 0 or 5) and it’s been fun. But my point is that Fridays are movie nights. The other six days, sure we can watch a movie (we rarely do; the wife and I watch TV shows every night), but the special day is Friday.

Just like the tuna fish sandwich, I look forward to movie nights all week long. I build the anticipation, and that makes the sometimes monotonous days go by faster. And it makes Fridays all the more special.

Saturday mornings are do-nuts from Shipley’s, a cartoon (currently Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated) and every episode of The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. Saturday nights feature the Texas Music Scene TV show. Sunday mornings are online church. Every night at 9pm is our TV show time (about to start season 6 of Bosch). Friday night (lots of Friday things) is also cocktail night. Thursday is often take-out food night.

Yes, there are times when the wife makes tuna fish on a Tuesday and I’ll opt out. Yeah, really. It’s to keep those Friday lunches special. It’s to build anticipation.

So that’s a glimpse into how I’m coping with working from home and maintaining my creativity.

How are you doing?

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Zadie Smith's Intimations

I'll read Zadie Smith on any subject, and when I found out that she wrote a book of essays about the pandemic and the experience of lockdown and the anxious mood we're all living through, I bought it at once.  It's a slim volume, and as she says, the pieces in it "are above all personal essays: small by definition, short by necessity".  The Foreward is dated May 31, 2020.

From reading Marcus Aurelius' meditations, Smith writes that she "did come out with two invaluable intimations.  Talking to yourself can be useful.  And writing means being overheard".  And one gets the sense throughout these essays that you are inside Smith's mind as she explores her thoughts and ideas, asks questions of herself, observes with great acuity and humor, the people and conditions around her. We catch her in New York City, where she lives and teaches, as she is just about to leave with her family to go stay temporarily upstate before she will fly back to the city she's from, London.

In "Peonies", Smith discusses writing and its relation to the messiness of life: "Writing is routinely described as 'creative' -- this has never struck me as the correct word.  Planting tulips is creative.  To plant a bulb (I imagine, I've never done it) is to participate in some small way in the cyclic miracle of creation.  Writing is control.  The part of the university in which I teach should properly be called the Controlling Experience Department."

"Something to Do" gets into something so many have pondered and adapted to during the pandemic -- how to fill the time.  She brings up the age-old and overly asked question "Why Write" and says, at bottom and notwithstanding the "convoluted" and "self-regarding" reasons writers often give in answer to this question, it is because "it's something to do".  How utilitarian is art in a world in need of so much social and political change?  "The people sometimes demand change.  They almost never demand art." The stark difference in how writing relates to time and how work relates to time (and, in particular, work done by essential workers during the pandemic) gets a going over here.

"Suffering Like Mel Gibson" is a fascinating essay, in which Smith looks at the peculiar way people relate to suffering in a time of mass suffering. In this time when so much conversation is about "privilege", Smith points out the similarities between privilege and suffering.  "They both manifest as bubbles, containing a person and distorting their vision."  In a time when people of "privilege" often preface comments about their own discomforts and suffering by reminding others that their suffering is tiny compared to those lacking privilege and suffering greatly, Smith brings up the example of "a young woman of only seventeen who had killed herself three weeks into lockdown because she 'couldn't go out and see her friends'."  To belittle in any way this act by the young woman may be missing the point of what suffering is and actually does.  When it comes, as it does on certain days for all of us, it is as if "precisely designed to destroy you and only you".  Remembering this may be a way of being more tolerant when hearing what others consider pain.

I could go on with the quotes -- and there's a temptation to do so because they are so good -- but I won't.  Why give everything away?  I will say that I loved the "Screengrabs" section, in which Smith presents brief vignettes of people she interacted with in New York just before and during the lockdown -- the Asian guy she goes to for quick massages, the "rent-controlled' old woman from her neighborhood who surprises Smith with something she says, the young IT guy from her university who she encounters floating on his hoverboard.  And then there's "Postscript: Contempt As a Virus", which alludes to the George Floyd incident and asks whether in our discourse we should finally drop the word "hate" and replace it with something that may be more accurate: "contempt".  This is the darkest essay of the bunch, the one most anguished and pessimistic.

Zadie Smith always presents more questions than she does certitudes, one thing I love most about her writing.  She is level-headed where countless others rant.  She doesn't present a thesis or an ideology.  Dare I use what almost seems an outdated word and say she approaches things as a "humanist", drawing from a variety of sources and disciplines.  Actually, I'm pretty sure I may that word since in her book of essays, Feel Free, she describes herself as a "sentimental humanist".  With her brilliance comes open-mindedness and self-criticism and self-doubt, which all somehow seem like rarer and rarer qualities these days.  

Smith herself says there will be much written in years to come about the pandemic period, and we all know there will be much written about it, but in the meantime, above and beyond all the journalistic pieces one can read about our current predicament, Intimations is absolutely worth picking up.  And you can read it in an hour or two. 

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Puzzling It Out

A while back I wrote about the power of rote work. I was building a brick planter in the yard and it became a meditative assignment that helped my mind to wander in directions that benefited my writing.
Lately (and by that I mean since mid-March, when—you know—stuff happened) I’ve needed something that will work twofold. First, just like before, I need a task that’s engaging enough to use part of my brain but not all. I’m still writing a book, and I still have plot points that need working out in that free space my mind get when doing the right level of task.
Second, though, I needed something to do. In the house. All the time. And since pacing the floors was starting to freak the dogs out, I turned to something I hadn’t done much in years. It’s something quite a few of you mentioned in response to my question with last year’s post.
What do you do to keep yourself occupied just enough to let your mind roam free? And use (in today’s Covid world) to keep from going crazy?
Puzzles. Lots of them. And I’m not the only one. Sales have gone through the roof since the pandemic started. I pulled out my old ones and got some new ones. An order I placed three months ago is set to arrive this week. I’m very excited. So are the dogs. They’re tired of the pacing.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

What’s Your Book About? The Challenge of Book Descriptions

Scott D. Parker

What do you think about book descriptions?

When someone asks us what our book is about, some of us are hamstrung. Having lived with the book for potentially months, we know the ins and outs of the story. Some of us launch into a massively detailed description of the book, the characters, the plots and sub-plots.

That’s not entirely helpful.

You’ve read a lot of book descriptions. I know I have. They either catch you or they don’t. Well, there’s another thing that can sometimes happen: the book description that tells too much. How irritating are those movie trailers that all but show you the entire film? We are all sophisticated viewers (and readers) so I don’t think we need every single beat of a story told in a description.

The reason I’m talking book descriptions is that I’m preparing my next book for publication. It’s called TREASON AT HANFORD: A HARRY TRUMAN MYSTERY. I’ve been re-reading it and making edits and changes most of the summer. I’ve got a cover concept (well, at least five) and I sent it to some of my fellow graphic designers to get their take. One of them came back: what’s the book about?

So I sent the description.

What’s problematic about a book featuring Harry Truman is that most folks know he was president and probably instantly jump to that conclusion when they think of Truman. But my tale takes place the year before he became vice president and then president. So I needed at least a sentence or two to lay the groundwork that I’m referring to Senator Truman and not President Truman.

After a few attempts, here’s what I wrote:

Before he became vice president in 1945, Senator Harry Truman led a congressional committee dedicated to ferreting out corruption during World War II. The investigators of the Truman Committee adhere to a simple credo: help the country win the war and bring our soldiers home.

In the spring of 1944, Truman receives a series of ominous letters from a lawyer out in Hanford, Washington. His client, a common farmer who lost his land when the government confiscated miles of territory for a secret project, has been drafted to keep him quiet about what he’s seen going on around a local warehouse with direct ties to the giant facility in the area.

Fearing the worst, Truman leads the investigation himself, bringing along Carl Hancock, a former policeman. Soon after they start poking around, Truman and Hancock witness a pair of brutally murdered corpses, a town clouded in secrecy, and the warehouse owner who is ready to pull strings and dismiss the pesky senator.

But the man from Independence, Missouri, is tenacious, and in no time, Truman and Hancock not only find themselves embroiled in the top-secret world of the Manhattan Project but also must confront the worst act of treason in American history since Benedict Arnold.


To me, paragraph one sets the stage in the reader’s mind that this is Senator Truman I’m writing about. Paragraph two features the incident that gets Truman’s attention and start the investigation. The third paragraph ups the stakes by throwing in corpses and the world of 1944. And the final paragraph—which could almost be a log line itself—tosses the phrases “Benedict Arnold” and “The Manhattan Project” into the mix, letting the reader know the just how high the stakes are.

I think it’s a good description and should tell potential readers whether or not they’d like the book.

Then there’s the elevator pitch. Maybe it’s the log line, the one-sentence version of the book. Kudos for any creative type who can sum up a work in a sentence. It’s crucial, mind you, but it’s a skill that must be learned if you don’t already have it.

Like I just wrote, the last paragraph of the description could serve as the elevator pitch, but I also have a sentence on the cover: Before Harry Truman dropped the bomb, he had to save it.

I debated whether or not to include ‘A Harry Truman Mystery’ or not as a sub-title and will likely opt not to have it and leave in the cover blurb. Not sure. Still tweaking the cover concept.

What’s the cover look like? Well, you’ll just have to watch a little bit longer.

What are  your thoughts on book descriptions? How do you structure them?