About this course
This is Freshman Seminar on U.S. Detective Fiction taught by Jim Groom at the University of Mary Washington during the Fall 2012 semester. For more information take a look at the syllabus.
Hardboiled class in 2012 or the True Crime course in 2013 (both co-taught with Paul Bond) were two recent highlights along those lines. That said, my mind has been relatively far away from the classroom over the last year, a break I’ve truly appreciated. While clocking far more than 40 hours a week at Reclaim Hosting, it hasn’t felt like a job. Between working at home, being constantly surrounded by my family, traveling less (and when I do with Antonella and the kids), and having the fresh context of living abroad, the last 10 months has felt like the sabbatical I would never have gotten from higher ed. What’s even better is that it doesn’t seem to be temporary. Reclaim turns three years old this week, and it has never been greater! So while at some point in the future I’d like to return to the classroom, it’s not in the cards anytime soon. That being the case, I need to find my reading groove independently because nothing is more generative for the imagination than good books, except maybe good movies. I’ve been toying with Martin Weller’s book-a-week run in 2015, but given how hot and cold my reading can be I’m afraid I’ll miserably fail and then resent the idea of meeting a quota. So, I don’t have a plan other than saying I need to read more, and hopefully as a result I’ll blog about what I’ve read and the virtuous cycle of the bava will continue. Also, I want to publicly commit to reading as little nonfiction as humanly possibleI’ve been trying to catch up on my reading list this summer. Like with all things for me (expect for maybe watching films), reading is often all or nothing. I tend to read most when preparing a course. In fact, I have come to rely on imagining new courses to inspire my reading lists. Few things are more enjoyable than imagining a series of books and/or films that create a discursive arc around a topic or genre. The
A shot Paul Bond captured from episode 4 of The Wire, “Old Cases,” highlights the corporate institutional spaces much of the police work revolves around in this season. In his commentary for episode 1 of the season, David Simon refers to the office furniture as more akin to an insurance office than an old school police department. Unlike the reassuring heavy wood furniture reminiscent of Barney Miller, the furniture in police headquarters is alienating and impersonal (although the detail’s basement office begins to take on the feel of another era, when they actually did police work?). The set design reinforces a broader shift in the culture. Thinking about Simon’s comment about insurance agencies reminded me of Billy Wilder’s classic noir Double Indemnity (1944).
The murder in Double Indemnity was investigated by an insurance agency, rather than a police department. It’s as if the vision Wilder had in the 1940s had become a reality fifty years later. Police departments being run by numbers and margins much like insurance agencies, and Keyes discussion of statistics in the following scene of Double Indemnity might be a sign of things to come for police work with CompStat:
The alienation at the heart of one of Double Indemnity is everywhere apparent in the design of the modern institutional spaces, not unlike The Wire. James Naremore’s book More than Night isolates the offices and locations of this film to discuss the “industrialized dehumanization” at work in the culture at large:
Wilder frames the dehumanizing design of industrial capitalism in 1940s Los Angeles through bowling alleys and grocery stores—massification of the moment.
The Wire similarly explores the dehumanizing design of post-industrial capitalism in contemporary Baltimore through a sterile police department. But what’s also striking in this series are the cuts from the pit and the project towers to the power elite. The show constantly reinforces how deeply divided the haves and have-nots are in the city, and the following shot is an excellent example of just that from episode 4. The following scene takes you from the pit directly into Judge Phelan’s office by way of a nice angle that shows you, as the episode epigraph notes, there’s a thin line between heaven and here.
More than six months ago I finished reading Georges Simenon‘s novel Dirty Snow. It still haunts me regularly. There’s only one other book that I’ve read over the last decade that has had the same, harrowing effect on me: Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian. But unlike Simenon’s novel, you can actually argue that McCarthy’s novel has some vision of violence as regenerative, a space for interrogating history, literature and our culture more generally. I’m not sure any such value can be found in Dirty Snow, it’s a thoroughly horrific vision of a completely desensitized and frozen world in the midst of an occupational war. A deep-freeze of humanity that highlights a series of horrific, unnecessary acts of violence that only add to the base condition of depravity and brutality on the ground. I started reading this novel after having taught the Hardboiled literature course last Fall, and it was interesting to read a hardboiled novel from the European perspective ostensibly inspired by the German occupation of France or Belgium during World War II. And while Dirty Snow is published in 1948, just six years after The Stranger, it makes Camus’s masterpiece seem almost light-hearted and hopeful. It’s as if Simenon introduces a new vision of existential atomization and dehumanization that completely empties out the possibilities for meaning that seem to buoy that philosophy in a sort of individualized hope after reason. Reading this novel after working through texts by Hammett, Chandler, Fante, Caine, Highsmith, etc. makes them all seem like quaint onlookers of the horrific void at the center of the existential crisis in the Western World. At the point when hardboiled fiction and film had become almost formulaic in the U.S. during the late 1940s and early 1950s, Simenon’s Dirty Snow blows up the genre, not unlike Kiss Me, Deadly—though with none of its humanity. Interestingly enough, Simenon wrote this novel while an expatriate in Tuscson, Arizona, of all places. He left Europe soon after the end of Wordl War II under the pale of accusations he had cooperated with the Nazis. I’ve been a fan of William T. Vollmann‘s for a while, and part of the reason I bought Dirty Snow more than eight years ago was because he wrote the afterword which you can find in it’s entirety here. In his essay on the novel he echoes an idea James Ellroy mentioned about Raymond Chandler‘s Marlowe, something I wrote about last Fall as the Hardboiled class was ending. Vollman argues, like Ellroy, that Chandler’s protagonist Marlowe is soft:
Raymond Chandler’s protagonist, the private eye Marlowe, to whom the word “hardboiled” has been so often attached that it’s now stuck like chewing gum, is actually a softy: compassionate, even ethical in the bourgeois sense. He doesn’t mind being nasty to stuck-up rich bitches or hiding the occasional dead body; all the same, he preserves what strikes the reader as a comically dated horror of drugs and pornography, he avoids sexual gratification on the job, and, above all, he’ll never betray a client, much less a friend. Loyalty! Decency! As technology and corporatism impel us more and more to treat each other like things, those two words approach irrelevance, except between intimates, and sometimes even then. This is why with each passing decade, Marlowe’s corpse decomposes ever more rapidly into a skeleton of outright sentimentality. To some readers he already seems as quaint as Fenimore Cooper‘s Deerslayer.Wow, Ellroy has nothing on Vollmann when it comes to gonzo critique! This is how I felt about Chandler’s novels but couldn’t even begin to frame it so brilliantly—simply put Marlowe doesn’t age well. On the other hand, Simenon’s Dirty Snow makes Cormac McCarthy’s The Road seem like a bedtime story. Vollmann goes on to make the comparison between Chandler and Simenon that much more powerfully:
Chandler’s novels are noir shot through with wistful luminescence; Simenon has concentrated noir into a darkness as solid and heavy as the interior of a dwarf star.Makes me think I should put Dirty Snow on the syllabus if I were to ever teach the Hardboiled course again, but I’m just not sure I want to, or even can. Reading this book the first time took something out of me. I can only swallow so much unrelenting brutality and inhumanity in a novel. That said, nothing approximates the cultural sense of horror and inhumanity that has come to represent the post-war era wherein there can be no poetry, as Adorno told us. Having written all this I haven’t even told you anything about the novel, alas, I goes you must find out for yourself. Just consider yourself warned, there are no rainbows and unicorns to be found anywhere, ever.
A few weeks ago I watched Fernando Di Leo’s Milan caliber 9 (1972) and loved it. Unfortunately I’ve been too crazy to write about it sooner, so not all the details are fresh with me. That said, there are a number of things that stick with me from this 1970s Poliziotteschi that I can’t stop thinking about, so this is my attempt to get it out. Milan Caliber 9 is the first part of a trilogy—I still need to see the other two: Manhunt (1972) and The Boss (1973)—and it focuses in on the extreme violence that was a reality in Milan during the early 70s between a variety of forces, namely the mafia, left-wing radical groups, right-wing fascist groups, and the police. It was a time of political insanity in Italy, a period nick-named “The Years of Lead” for the number of bullets that flew. To get a sense of how entrenched these extreme, paramilitary forces were in street violence, check out this chronology.
There are two things I particularly liked about Milan Calber 9 in this regard. The first was that the “hero” of the film, Ugo Piazza ,is a small-time criminal that comes in the form of a middle-aged, stocky, and balding tough guy. Given my own lot in life currently, it’s encouraging to see that this type had some play in Italy during the 70s. The part was played brilliantly by Gastone Moschin whose probably most famous in the U.S. for his role as Don Fanucci in Coppola’s Godfather Part II.
The second thing I loved about this film was the role of the police commissioner played by Frank Wolff, an American character actor that spent more than a decade acting in a wide range of italian b-movies. He killed himself soon after completing this picture, and he gives a pretty entertaining and compelling performance as the old school, jaded police commissioner who discounts the social justice rhetoric of his deputy commissioner (played by Luigi Pistilli) who links the social problems in Italy at the time to the exploitation of labor from the South. The back and forth between the two happens at several moments in the film, and below I share them all in chronological order.
What I love about these scenes is how they frame a back and forth about the underlying social ills of Italy during these violent years. And while it’s arguably pedantic, at the same time I find the dynamic interesting given how inclined the police commissioner is to shut it all down. Rather than engaging the argument directly, he’ll reply with answers that I find funny, fascinating, and complex all at once, things like “Why do you hate the rich?” I’m not sure I am doing the whole thing justice, but I can’t help but share these clips, they aren’t representative of the numerous scenes of street violence, bombings, and sadistic murders throughout the film, but for me the following clips seem to be the pulse of the film, the struggle with a question Italian audiences most have wanted answered at the time-“what the hell is happening in Italy right now?” And the “right now” is important because this film was made during the height of the violence in Milan. For me it’s a new twist on an old standard of the hardboiled genre that hearkens back to the brutal violence and politic of Hammett in some really interesting ways.
Thanks to my special lady friend, our focus on French noir continues, this time with a quiet mediation on growing old in the 1954 film Touchez pas au grisbi (“Don’t touch the loot”) by Jacques Becker starring Jean Gabin. The Criterion Collection’s synopsis for the film on their website is as follows:
Jean Gabin is at his most wearily romantic as aging gangster Max le Menteur in the Jacques Becker gem Touchez pas au grisbi (Hands Off the Loot!). Having pulled off the heist of a lifetime, Max looks forward to spending his remaining days relaxing with his beautiful young girlfriend. But when Riton (René Dary), Max’s hapless partner and best friend, lets word of the loot slip to loose-lipped, two-timing Josy (Jeanne Moreau), Max is reluctantly drawn back into the underworld. A touchstone of the gangster-film genre, Touchez pas au grisbi is also pure Becker—understated, elegant, evocative.
What’s interesting about the film is that the trailer is completely misleading. It suggesters there is all kinds of explosions, gangsters marauding with machine guns, and high-speed chases—nothing could be further from the truth.
The action scenes highlighted in the trailer are all from the last 10-15 minutes of the film. The real brilliance of Touchez pas au grisbi lies in its first hour wherein aged gangster Max le Menteur articulates the harsh realities and limits of growing old, the very thing his friend and accomplice, Riton, refuses to come to terms with. What made this film so great were the ways in which this sens of growing old was brilliantly captured in small details on film. For example, the moment when Max and Riton are hiding out in an apartment Max keeps as an investment. Rather than this becoming a scene of the two “hitting the mattresses” in some gritty dive—a scene you might expect from a noir—these two are found eating Pâté and biscuits in a luxury apartment before putting on their silk pajamas, brushing their teeth, inspecting the bags under their eyes, and then settling in for the night. I’ve never seen anything like it in a film noir before, the focus on the domestic elements of two gangsters past their prime moves the narrative away from the expected atmosphere of hardboiled action and dialogue and towards a sense of homeboiled realities. Aged gangsters who become humanized through the camera’s lingering on such quotidian, if not outright banal, tasks as brushing their teeth.
See the entire three minute domestication scene below:
The film reminded me a lot of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), a Western about a band of aging outlaws who need to start thinking “beyond their guns.” I can’t help but think the one inspired the other. And to Becker’s credit, he’s even more insistent then Peckinpah in avoiding the urge to immortalize the outlaws, they can barely keep their eyes open after midnight. If you are looking for a meditative, understated noir about growing old and coming to term with the end through an existential frame, I’ve yet to see a better take on the theme. Now to find and watch Jacques Becker’s Le Trou (The Hole), a 1960 prison break film, I am officially a fan!
….maybe everybody does. The following scene is a classic Hollywood moment from Vincente Minnelli‘s 1952 melodrama The Bad and the Beautiful between Lana Turner and Kirk Douglas —and both prove why they are masters, though Douglas steals this one at the 3 minute mark with the classic tirade which includes the cutting: “Maybe I like to be cheap once in a while, maybe everyone does! Or don’t you remember?” Brilliant, and the “GET OUT!” at the end seals it.
I discovered Minnelli’s classic after re-watching Curtis Hanson‘s 1997 film adaptation of James Ellroy‘s L.A. Confidential over Christmas break. (So much better than DiPalma’s shit show that was an adaptation of The Black Dahlia, which Ellroy somehow finds it in himself to defend.) L.A. Confidential is one of the masterpieces of Hollywood from the 1990s in my mind, and when reading up on the film, thank you Wikipedia, it turns out Hanson had a mini-film festival of 1950s L.A. films to prepare the actors and crew for the period they would be immersing themselves in:
To give his cast and crew points and counterpoints to capture L.A. in the 1950s, he held a “mini-film festival,” showing one film a week: The Bad and the Beautiful, because it epitomized the glamorous Hollywood look; In a Lonely Place, because it revealed the ugly underbelly of Hollywood glamor; Don Siegel‘s The Lineup and Private Hell 36, “for their lean and efficient style; and Kiss Me Deadly, because it was “so rooted in the futuristic 50s: the atomic age.” Hanson and the film’s cinematographer Dante Spinotti agreed that the film would be shot widescreen, and studied two Cinemascope films from the period: Douglas Sirk‘s The Tarnished Angels and Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running.
Man, I can’t help but think this this kind of studying and history helps make great films. It’s like a syllabus, each film represents a thematic, stylistic, or aesthetic approach they are trying to incorporate into the actual thing they are creating. And more and more this is why I can’t fully understand the haters when it comes to Tarantino. I love the way he studies film with such a hardcore eye, and then creates from that inspiration. You can argue it’s a bit over-the-top, but the older I get the more I realize how hard it is to do any one thing well, no less a series of things based on your passion. I can’t help but admire his breadth and depth of knowledge and affectionate allusions. What’s more, Hanson seems to be operating in much the same vein as Tarantino in L.A. Confidential, and while the allusions aren’t as in-your-face, they’re still very much omnipresent, take the Pantages marqueee (right next to the Frolic Room) as a subtle homage to the films that inspired his vision:
What’s more, I can’t help but love the fact that Hanson had Russell Crowe study Sterling Hayden‘s performance in Kubrick‘s The Killing “for that beefy manliness that came out of World War II.” Sterling Hayden may be the coolest looking man on the silver screen outside of Terence Stamp, and given the choice between the two I would have to go Hayden because he was a 6′ 5” badass, had six kids, sailed around the world in a boat named the Wanderer and wrote books. Anyway, here’s to directors like Tarantino and Hanson that love cinema and study their artform with a cultural critics eye!
Last week I blogged a bit about the film version of The Set-Up, so I thought I should take the time to read the book. The book and the film have similarities and differences, which Jefferson Hunter detailed far better than I can. The hero of the book is a black boxer named Pansy Jones. In the movie he’s a white guy named Stoker Thompson, played by Robert Ryan. Pretty much all of the racial aspects of the poem were whitewashed by Hollywood. Apparently some of the language in the book was toned down when it was reissued in the 60s, but I found an old yellowed copy from 1931. This opening illustration sets the stage well. At first glance, we see that it’s dark, crowded and claustrophobic. Looking closer we see that the figures are unnaturally close, jammed up against each other, and there’s something twisted in the perspective: Compare the angle at which we view the main character’s face with the angle from which we see the garbage cans, and the window in the back. It’s dizzying, closed in, with no way to back out.
Here’s a couple pages. I think the yellowing adds something to it – you know you’re looking at a different era. The typography does something too, emphasizing the staccato rhythm, making it read like a boxing match full of individual blows and short flurries of punches. I wonder what it would sound like as beatnik jazz poetry.
Last semester I played along with Jim Groom’s hardboiled detective fiction course at UMW. After all the fun we had with that course, we’re looking at exploring crime reporting in America from colonial era execution sermons through classic true crime (In Cold Blood) to the modern day – from Cotton Mather to America’s Most Wanted, and also reprising the Wikipedia project from the hardboiled course. In a discussion with David Kernohan, Jim brought up the idea of using video, doing a TV show as part of the course. I think there’s something really fascinating about combining the new with the old, looking at events through different lenses. We could do colonial sermons for Ted Bundy, and give a modern media treatment to stories from Pillars of Salt, or maybe some kind of Cotton Mather as Judge Judy thing. We could work murder ballads into some kind of radio production, pairing a traditional ballad with a modern song and doing a quick two minute DJ thing to tie the two together. Some of the lessons from DS106 would apply here: start with the writing, the script; move to audio production and then go to video.
The challenge is to not overwhelm the students – to set them up to succeed. Video can be a lot of work. Is there a way to break things down, so everyone does a little and no one gets crushed? And can we do that and still maintain the high level of discussion that we achieved in Hardboiled? Or is it all too ambitious? I don’t know, but there’s time to think about it.
Thanks to David Kernohan I finally got the opportunity to talk about some of the fallout of the Hardboiled class I taught last semester. It was a really fun class, and like ds106, the first time through a relatively new class like this—-I taught its proto-type at SUNY Old Westbury in 2001—is always a lot of stumbling in the dark. I’m still planning on writing about black capitalism as a theme that emerged for me in terms of research, the four Wikipedia articles the class worked on, as well as how amazing Paul Bond proved to be all semester long, but as of now the beginning of the semester has kept my pen at bay. This video is good because it begins to break that silence and remind me there is still much to write, document, and build on.
I really liked David’s interview style, four simple, hardboiled questions: What’s Hardboiled? How did social media integrate into your class? What’s next? And what advice you have for other faculty wanting to try something new?
It made the time relatively manageable at 14 minutes, and reigned in my tendency towards effusiveness and repeitition. I talked briefly about the course, which you can read more about here if you are interested. I also discussed how we used blogs, twitter, and Wikipedia over the course of the semester, and focused on the ways people like Paul Bond and Dr. Garcia made it permeable and open with their contributions. The emergence of the #emoboiled tag thanks to GNA is an excellent example of the power of an open, drive-by participant helping a class find its identity
All that said, Kernohan did catch me at a uncomfortable time when he asked me about future plans. Amongst other things, I’ve been thinking about Cotton Mather’s writing in the Magnalia Christi Americana, particularly Pillars of Salt, which features short narratives of the Puritan colony’s earliest criminals. The execution sermons were some of the earliest criminal narratives in the New World, and ministers like Cotton Mather made a career on them. The following excerpt is about the “damnable bestialities” of a farmer named Potter which ends in the execution of animals he violated. I also believe there was a discussion of cross-examining animals in Puritan courts when I first read Pillars of Salt, so I will look for that reference and make sure I am not talking out of school. (I included the clipping from “Pillars of Salt” about farmer Potter’s bestiality is below, if this sordid detour caught your interest.) This also feeds into a course on 300 years of True Crime I will be teaching with Paul Bond in Fall 2013 if it’s approved by the UMW Freshman Seminar review committee. Regardless, I now need to apologize to Kernohan for talking about such barbarity as part of a presentation. “The Horror! The Horror!” Also, I need to brush up on my Mather a bit because I was a bit fuzzy on the details during the video, let me know if you want me to reshoot that part, David
The final bit was advice I might have for faculty who want to experiment with social media. I liked this question a lot, and not only because this one was easy and has gotten a pretty consistent response from me over the last few years: pick a part of your course to experiment with, consider how social media might make it interesting, and experiment wildly on that one, focused thing. After that, revisit what you did and see what worked, what didn’t, and iterate off that. That might actually be useful to someone approaching all the hoopla for the first time. I like that. Simple is good.
As a postscript, I think edtech in general needs to move away from Google Hangouts, they might be simple, free, and easy, but they are staggeringly unwatchable. I understand the webcam aesthetic, I’ve seen the Numa Numa video, but I think for stuff like this it really kills my interest in the image, which is a shame. I’m all about producing something that you can be proud of these days, but more on that when we do the Animated GIF Variety Show, coming soon to a blog near you :).
I came to hardboiled fiction from a few different angles. I grew up reading comic books, so the jump from things like The Shadow and Robert E. Howard comics to pulp fiction to detective stories is practically inevitable. Another thing was Chandler: Red Tide, which was probably the first real hardboiled detective story I ever read. The titular shamus gets his name from Raymond Chandler, who was absent from the readings in the hardboiled class.
He wasn’t entirely missing – some students mentioned him in blog posts and in their Wikipedia articles, and he was the screenwriter for Double Indemnity and Strangers on a Train. I wondered why he wasn’t on the reading list. Was there just no time? When it comes to detective stories, I always thought of Chandler as The Man. But I haven’t read him in a long time.
My other route into hardboiled fiction was through film noir, things like The Big Sleep. The film’s hero, Marlowe, was familiar to me from childhood favorites like Play It Again, Sam and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. So maybe my opinion of Chandler is colored by things outside of his writing and formed by a younger mind.
While the course was underway, a writer for The Atlantic was grappling with Chandler, and coming up with views that differ from my memory. Then Groom dissected Ellroy’s discussion of Hammett versus Chandler. Hammett is hardboiled, Chandler is Hollywoodboiled. At some point I’ll have to reread Raymond. Probably I will see him differently, but that’s a benefit of going through this process of rereading, re-examination and reflection: deeper knowledge, more connections.