Saturday, November 26, 2022

When a Movie Stays the Same But You’ve Changed

By

Scott D. Parker

For six years now, my family of three have watched “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” the night before Thanksgiving. And yeah, it is still a funny and heartfelt as it as always been. Heck, minutes before any given scene or line of dialogue shows up on screen, I’ll find myself laughing at it. Case in point: when that pickup truck driver arrives to drive Steve Martin and John Candy to the train station.

The other movie tradition is “Home for the Holidays,” the 1995 film directed by Jodie Foster. Holly Hunter stars as Claudia, a forty-year-old single mom who travels from Chicago back home to Baltimore for Thanksgiving. She’s just lost her job, her sixteen-year-old daughter matter-of-factory announced that she’s planning on sleeping with her boyfriend at her boyfriend’s family house, and she’s just counting the hours until she can get back on the plane and fly home. In between, she has to survive being with her empty nest, retired parents (Anne Bancroft and Charles Durning), her straight-laced, bitter older sister (Cynthia Stevenson), and her hyper, over-the-top, gay younger brother (Robert Downey, Jr.). Tagging along with her brother is Leo (Dylan McDermott) who Claudia assumes is with her brother but is actually there to meet her.

The family is dysfunctional and the first time I saw it, that dysfunctionality bothered me. You see, I’m not from that kind of family. I’m an only child of only child parents so growing up, if all the grandparents showed up, there was only seven people in the room. But even when I think about my extended family, I can’t think of any member who doesn’t get along with everyone else.

As the years have gone on and I’ve watched some truly wonderful acting, many of the film’s little moments stand out. It could be an off-hand remark Claudia says to her brother or Downey Jr.’s eyebrow raised to say more than words could say or Durning’s chance answering of the phone and hearing his son’s husband on the other end of the line and this straight-laced, old fashioned man summon up the words to congratulate him while softly touching his son’s face.

But on Thursday night, another scene just walloped me and I should have saw it coming. Late in the movie, on the morning after Thanksgiving when Claudia has to fly home, she walks down to the basement. There she finds her dad, sitting alone, watching his home movies. There, flickering on the white screen, are the images of his past, his children as kids, and he and his wife as they used to be. The film is made to look like it was shot in the Sixties, with slightly overexposed colors.

Her dad, having just experienced the latest in a probably long line of difficult Thanksgiving dinners with his adult children and their families, starts to give his daughter life advice. He recounts a day that he considers one of his best memories. It took place back in 1969 when his family watched as a 727 took off and he and Claudia watched with eyes wide open. They were fearless and that’s his advice to his adult daughter: be fearless and go after Leo.

The subtext of that scene is bookended by the home movies and the last words he says that ends the scene: “I wish I had it [that 727 moment] on tape.” Durning is a retired empty nester whose family has grown up, moved away, and changed. He can’t get back what he had, so he’s comforted with memories and home movies.

Last year when my family of three watched this movie, my son still lived with us. This year, he returned home from his own apartment to stay with us these few days. My wife and I are empty nesters now, and while that scene of this wonderful movie has not changed, we have. We all three have. Life always moves on.

So cherish each and every moment of your life for it won’t ever happen again. And take as many pictures and videos as possible to help you remember. Because one day, we’re all going to find ourselves watching home movies or flipping through a photo album (physical or digital) and remembering our favorite moments of life.

And always be fearless.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Thankful

Everyone I know has Thanksgiving horror stories. 

Family who turn the table into the goddamn Marketplace of Ideas. Insensitive Uncles. Small personal gripes that spill over like so much gravy from the pourer. Cousins fresh from their first semester at college who think they have the whole world figured out (who also think you're too stupid to smell the reek of ditchweed when they come back form "going for a walk"). 

This is a stressful time of year for a lot of people. There are expectations everywhere. Do we have Gluten Free options? How long does that Turkey really need to de-thaw (add two hours, at least, just to be sure)? Will everyone get along? Will everyone get along if we don't have booze? Or maybe we should have more?

But our expectations, for ourselves and for others, are borne out of love. We want the people we gather with to have a pleasant time. We want to enjoy ourselves. We want the ability to sit down and soak in a quiet moment. We want a chance to reflect and be thankful. 

Some of us, if we're lucky, will get that. That moment where the table falls to a lull and everyone is content and satisfied and happy. For others, the whole thing will spill into chaos. Shouting and messes and conversations so brittle they may snap like the hardtack Aunt Doris proudly calls butter rolls.

This doesn't have anything to do with crime fiction. With reading or writing. I could make a lame post about how inspiration is everywhere and you should kill your annoying family members in your work. I could make an overly sentimental post about how, no matter what, at the end of the night you'll be able to sit down with your book and catch a few minutes of silence. But that would both undercut the genuine stress so many people are going for, and also not live up to the quiet joy that others will feel. 

So, for now, I'll just say this: I hope your Thanksgiving is something you can actually be thankful for. I hope it is as easy as possible and that everyone has a wonderful time. And I hope, if things do fall into the maw of chaos, you can laugh about it. If not now, then later. 

I have a lot to be thankful for this year. I'm going to do my best to enjoy it. I hope you do too.


Tuesday, November 22, 2022

A Great Thanksgiving Film

Thanksgiving with time has essentially become an excuse to cook, drink wine, eat, and stay in comfortable clothes all day, except for the times I may have to go out and buy something for the cooking or drinking.  And later in the day, what else to do in a lazy mood but binge-watch a series or see a movie or two? When I think about it, I guess I could say that Thanksgiving has become something of a template for what retirement days, if ever reached, might be, though I wouldn't eat as much every day in retirement as I do on Thanksgiving.  But exercise (which I do early in the day on Thanksgiving), cook, eat, watch something enjoyable -- and write certainly -- wouldn't make for the least pleasurable old age.  But anyway, I'm getting off track, because what I really wanted to talk about here is a movie that just popped into my mind as one I might watch this year to mark the occasion. Why it hasn't occurred to me in years past as a  fitting Thanksgiving film I don't know, but regardless...I'm talking about Terrence Malick's The New World.


I haven't seen it since it played in theaters, for not all that long, back in 2005.  But it is, without doubt, the most memorable, and unusual, depiction of the Jamestown, Pocahontas, John Smith and John Rolfe story I've ever come across.

Somehow the film is both majestic and otherworldly, not to mention, in the Terrence Malick way, astonishingly beautiful.  Yet it also has an immediacy that makes it feel as if history is actually unfolding, in all its weirdness and horror and moments of grace, before you. A lot of that is because, as I recall it, the film unfolds with virtually no exposition. The film feels like something both mythical and historically grounded, though it also seems as if Malick has only incomplete information to work with, which, of course, considering all the romance and exaggeration and downright nonsense that have come down to us about these events, he has.  Roger Ebert's review from the time sums up this quality well, saying "what distinguishes Malick's film is how he firmly refuses to know more than he should...The events in his film, including the tragic battles between the Indians [his usage] and the settlers, seem to be happening for the first time."

As he points out, tragic, in the end, is what much of it is.  We all understand that now.  Or should.  When civilizations meet, with conflicting values and belief systems, one eager to expand at all costs, no matter what destruction it will wreak, you get, well, what we've gotten. But The New World somehow conveys the essential mysteriousness of all these events, defamiliarizing them, making a story we've heard too many times to remember something strange and new.  

And what does any of this have to do with crime, here on a crime-themed blog? Nothing, I suppose, other than the obvious -- that you could say that the whole country (like most countries I've ever read about) was founded on a crime. Or multiple crimes. "How much better if Plymouth Rock had landed on the Pilgrims than the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock" and all that.  Still, nothing I've seen captures what might have been, what was pristine, what was there at the start, when anything was possible, as this film does. And the final sections, following Pocahantas to England, where she died, dressed in English finery, are extremely moving.

Yes, after the cooking and eating this year, I think I'm going to settle in and watch The New World again, thankful that Malick made it.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Review: Deep Cover: Mob Land, Taking on the Chicago Mob

 

By Claire Booth

I recently listened to Season Two of Deep Cover, a podcast that deconstructs the story of one undercover operative. This time it’s Bob Cooley, a Chicago lawyer who becomes a fixer for the mob. He’s completely amoral, until he decides he doesn’t like the way he’s being treated. So he walks into a federal prosecutor’s office and offers to start wearing a wire.

That ultimately leads to arrests, indictments, and a serious dent in the mob’s power. The facts make for a good story, but it’s Cooley’s psychology that’s the really fascinating part of this 10-episode season. He’s full of contradictions and inconsistencies and his ability to rationalize his law-breaking is jaw-dropping. And it makes for excellent listening.

If you haven’t listened to Season One, you can find my take on it here.

 

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Mary Robinette Kowal and the Five Words That Sold Me a Novel

by

Scott D. Parker

She had me with five words: The Thin Man in space.

Still, I hadn’t read the book yet so I honestly waffled over whether or no to attend Mary Robinette Kowal’s author event promoting her new novel, The Spare Man, at Houston’s Murder by the Book. I ended up saying ‘yes’ and I’m so glad I did. Not only was the event one of the more entertaining I’ve been to, but the writing advice—and the personal advice—was more than I could have expected.

Knowing next to nothing about Kowal other than she wrote The Calculating Stars (a book I’ve not read but know it won multiple awards), one of the questions I was going to ask if I got the chance was how she came to be the narrator of her own books. Well, that question never needed asking because soon after her event began, she did a reading. Or, rather, she performed a passage from her new book. She had a narrator voice, a female voice as her main character, and then a good male voice as that character’s husband. Not only was she reading, she acted as well as she could holding up her laptop. Moreover, unlike some narrators who are challenged when speaking for the opposite gender, Kowal does a great male voice. Now that I've started listening to The Spare Man, I can say that not only does she do good male voice, she does multiple ones. I know I'll have a lot of great listening time as I consume her audiobooks.

(Speaking of the audiobook of The Spare Man, literally as I'm typing this post (on Thursday), Kowal just posted on Instagram that Audible has named the book one of the Best of the Year.)

The folks in the audience were clearly existing fans of Kowal because they asked specific questions almost as if it was a continuation from an earlier speaking event. A curious one was about her cat, Elsie, who, evidentially, can communicate with her. At the live event, Kowal described a panel of buttons in which a word (spoken by Kowal) is activated when Elsie presses the button. It is a fascinating idea and I had to see for myself. There are multiple videos on her Instagram page (MaryRobinetteKowal) and it's so fun and cool to watch. The funniest story she told to those of us gathered at the bookstore was a time when Elsie pressed the buttons to say "lie down, sleep" and Kowal interpreted that as Elsie wanted a nap. When her cat hadn't joined her on the bed after a few minutes, Kowal investigated and discovered Elsie eating Kowal's sandwich.

But this is an author event and the focus turned back to books, the writing of books, and how her experience as a puppeteer helps her create good prose. Using a small stuffed dog--to represent Gimlet, the little dog the two main characters in The Spare Man own (modeled after Nick and Nora Charles's dog Asta in the Thin Man movies)--she explained how puppeteers create emotion with only movement. Her ingrained knowledge of that craft permeates into her fiction as she breaks down the body language her characters show and reassembles them into words.

When I rose my hand, I asked her how she came up with the concept of The Spare Man. After all, I told her, she sold me the book in five words. She revealed she often has an elevator pitch to describe her current writing projects because it gives her more focus on what the story's DNA is. Too often, we writers, when asked about a book we've written, start to blather on and on about this character or that setup. It happened to me just a few weeks ago. Having the story's idea condensed to a few sentences at the beginning of a project can sure streamline the writing. I've actually got that in mind on my current work in progress and I'll admit, it's a great idea.

If these pleasantries were all that Kowal offered, it would have been worth the trip. But what I wasn't expecting was some excellent writing insight, and it was prompted by a question about NaNoWriMo.

Kowal was diagnosed with ADHD at age 49. Like many folks with ADHD--I likely have it although not formally diagnosed--there are moments of hyper focus and then there are other moments when you just can't get things done. One of the reasons why Kowal mentioned she enjoyed NaNoWriMo so much was of four factors: Novel, Interesting, Challenging, and Urgent.

In this case, Novel is both the literal novel someone is writing as well as the other meaning of the word, 'new.' Typically, writers who do NaNoWriMo start a brand-new novel in November. Thus, we're all excited. Interesting is self-explanatory. You have to be interested in your story for you to actually write it. Challenging is also self-evident. It is challenging to write a book, but it is even more challenging to do NaNoWriMo which is 50,000 in the 30 days of November (that's 1,667 words per day). I've done it numerous times but I have also failed so I know what it's like to be on both sides. But when you hit the groove, boy is it something. And Urgent. Again, with the 1,667 words-per-day threshold hanging over your head, if you miss a day or two, it can be daunting to catch up. Thus the urgency embedded in NaNoWriMo is a motivating factor.

When Kowal mentioned these four things, a light bulb went off in my head. It helped to explain, in part, why I've been so challenged this year in regards to writing. There are other major factors as well, but her short list helped me see myself in a different light.

It also made me wish I'd have started NaNoWriMo this year. But there's always next year.

In my research on Kowal, I found two immensely helpful posts. One is an interview on the Strange Horizons website entitled "Writing While Disabled" (2021). In this lengthy interview, Kowal uses her own experiences and diagnoses to explain how she works through her challenges and produces the award-winning works she does. I ended up printing it out and highlighting multiple passages.

The second is from her own website (and it's referenced in the interview). In a 2015 post called "Sometimes Writers Block is Really Depression," Kowal describes how her depression knocked her away from writing and the tools (both tech as well as interpersonal) she uses to overcome her challenges. The links she provides might be helpful to some writers who might be struggling.

To top off this wonderful author event, in each chair were the best handouts I've ever seen. Here's what she provided.



That's a "brochure" for the inter-planetery cruise liner the characters in The Spare Man are in. That's Gimlet, by the way. The laminated card on the left is a "baggage tag" while the center one is a "boarding pass" (the number on which was used for a drawing to give away the plush of Gimlet). And, of course, an actual "do not disturb" door hanger (with "service requested" on the back). Seriously, how cool is that? Plus check out the design. It is so 1930s.

Mary Robinette Kowal has been on the peripheral of my radar for a few years now, but with The Spare Man, she is firmly in my sights. In fact, I already have my next selection for my science fiction book club already picked. Have a look at her website. I bet there is something there that you'd like to read. For mystery fans, I'd recommend starting with The Spare Man.

I mean, why not. She sold me in five words.

How about you?

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Can I Get a WITNESS?

Scott's note: This week Richie Narvaez guest blogs here.  Richie has a story in the new collection Witnesses for the Dead, and he's here to tell us the background behind this most compelling story, one I read and enjoyed quite a bit, both for the excellence of the story itself and for the fascinating history I learned about from it involving the island of Puerto Rico.

Here's Richie...

Can I Get a WITNESS?

by Richie Narvaez

My story, "The Gardener of Roses", in the newly released anthology Witnesses for the Dead (Soho Crime, edited by Gary Phillips and Gar Anthony Haywood) starts with a news flash:

“FBI agents shot and killed the dangerous terrorist Edilberto Santos de la Mar today after he opened fire on them in front of his home in Hormigueros.”

And then we enter the POV of the protagonist: 

“Except that wasn’t how it happened.”

Indeed, that was not how it happened. My story is based on the U.S. government’s assassination of Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, an activist fighting for the independence of Puerto Rico. The FBI laid siege to his property in Hormigueros. Ríos fought against their M4 carbines with his pistol. He was shot by a sniper and then left to bleed to death.

A 237-page report by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General claimed that Ríos posed an imminent threat to the agents, but the report was dismissed by many Puerto Ricans as a cover-up. His death sparked protests all over the island and he became a folk hero.

When Gary and Gar asked me to contribute to this anthology, I said yes right away because I teach G and G in class! They’re stars to me. But also the subject matter was close to my heart. Evil happens in the world, thriving in secret and in shadow. When there is a witness, and the witness is brave enough to come forward, that witness must be protected and supported. 

For this story, I invented a witness as a way to enter the story, and I changed names and the time frame to give me more leeway with the plot: a Puerto Rican student journalist witnesses an assassination and has to find a way off the island before the FBI gets her. (In real life, Ríos’s wife, Elma Beatriz Rosado, survived to give an account of the siege. The report contradicted her testimony.) 

What I hope is that through my story, and this blog post, I can draw attention to the struggle of Puerto Rican freedom fighters like Filiberto Ojeda Ríos (who was, by the way, known for his rose gardening). Many people do not realize how much Puerto Rico has been trying to pry off the yoke of its colonial status. The U.S. treats the island like a poor relation maintained by handouts, and that is a wrong that must be brought to light.

Do get yourself a copy of this important anthology. I am lucky to share pages with Scott Adlerberg, Cara Black, Christopher Chambers, Sarah M. Chen, Aaron Philip Clark, Teresa Dovalpage, Tod Goldberg, Gar Anthony Haywood, Darrell James, Gary Phillips, S.J. Rozan, Alex Segura, and Pamela Samuels Young.

All royalites from the sales of the anthology will be donated to the Alliance for Safe Traffic Stops, which provides compliance solutions in the form of training, education, awareness, and strategic partnerships between law enforcement and the community.


You can find the book at your local bookstores and online here:

https://bookshop.org/p/books/witnesses-for-the-dead-stories-gary-phillips/18249011



Monday, November 14, 2022

Quick chills

By Marietta Miles

I am always up for something scary. No matter the season. However, there is something perfect about settling in for a good fright when the chilly winds of Winter rattle and knock upon the door. As a scare enthusiast I have read, watched and visited a plethora of imaginative terrors. So, in order to keep on keeping on, I’ve expanded my dread-inducing diet.

Super spooky shorts are great when you need a thrill but haven’t the time to truly commit. You need a quick chill, not a long and looming tale. Plus, I believe it is a true challenge to create, develop, and wrap-up a memorable fright fest in less than 30 minutes and I love watching how creatives work around the challenge.

For the creepy cause I have consumed a myriad of shorts films and video. There are plenty to choose from and there are those that I would not watch again to those that I emphatically suggest. Here are my favorite spooky shorts for your viewing pleasure.



Suckablood

Suckablood is the 5th film in the Bloody Cuts Horror anthology, a project created by participants of the British 48hr Film Challenge. Suckablood is a dark, gothic bedtime story directed and narrated by Ben Tillett. The visuals are like a macabre layer cake, beautiful and terrifying. With rhyming narration, a familiar sense of childhood fear, and shocking but gorgeous gore Suckablood reminds the viewer of the dark side of our beloved fairytales.


Curve


Curve is a short film written by Tim Egan and starring Laura Jane Turner. From the very beginning of this short there are questions. Concerns and terrifying mysteries. Laura, her character name is never given, awakens injured and trapped on a smooth, curved surface set above a “sentient abyss.” The entire film is her attempt to swallow her suffering and inch closer to safety while the true and horrifying nature of her reality is expertly revealed.


Attic Panic

Attic Panic tells of a woman tidying an attic, distracted by her chore until she notices a movement nearby. And so, begins the simple and terrifying story. With no score to rely upon, the film uses natural noises and sounds to amplify the growing terror. The not so special setting and the smarts of our protagonist makes the twist all the more scary. David F. Sandberg made his debut with the highly acclaimed Lights Out film. He also directed The Conjuring Universe spin-off film Annabelle: Creation and Shazam!, the seventh installment in the
DC Extended Universe.


Lights Out

And speaking of Lights Out, this short also takes a position on my list. The three minute film tells the story of a woman, home alone, and the creature stalking her. A lean tale with no background or backstory, watching the hunt is terrifying enough, only what happens in the moment.