Thursday, August 22, 2013

Dutch and Me

Elmore Leonard died on Tuesday. Stories and memorials have been appearing everywhere since. This one is mine.

It would’ve been 1988. Which would’ve made me sixteen years old at the time. I was on a family holiday in Florida and, as usual, no matter how many books I’d packed to cover the duration, I’d managed to get through them all long before the end of the holiday.

I found myself in the hotel lobby, prodding at a spinner rack of largely uninspiring paperbacks. But there was one book that stood out from the slabs of Tom Clancy and Jackie Collins. This was the cover:

So I bought it. I found a quiet corner, cracked open the cover, and this is what I found on the first page:

Chris Mankowski’s last day on the job, two in the afternoon, two hours to go, he got a call to dispose of a bomb.

What happened, a guy by the name of Booker, a twenty-five-year-old super-dude twice-convicted felon, was in his Jacuzzi when the phone rang. He yelled for his bodyguard Juicy Mouth to take it. “Hey, Juicy?” His bodyguard, his driver and his houseman were around somewhere. “Will somebody get the phone?” The phone kept ringing. The phone must have rung fifteen times before Booker got out of the Jacuzzi, put on his green satin robe that matched the emerald pinned to his left earlobe and picked up the phone. Booker said, “Who’s this?” A woman’s voice said, “You sitting down?” The phone was on a table next to a green leather wingback chair. Booker loved green. He said, “Baby, is that you?” It sounded like his woman, Moselle. Her voice said, “Are you sitting down? You have to be sitting down for when I tell you something.” Booker said, “Baby, you sound different. What’s wrong?” He sat down in the green leather chair, frowning, working his butt around to get comfortable. The woman’s voice said, “Are you sitting down?” Booker said, “I am. I have sat the fuck down. Now you gonna talk to me, what?” Moselle’s voice said, “I’m suppose to tell you that when you get up, honey, what’s left of your ass is gonna go clear through the ceiling."

And that was it. I was in love. I tore through that sucker in a day.

Sometimes, you find a book or an author who re-wires the way you think about stories and language. Elmore Leonard was the one that did it for me. It read like the work of a man who enjoyed writing, and wanted you to enjoy reading it just as much.

Once I got back to London, I went on the hunt for his previous books. Fortunately for me, 1988 was also the year that Murder One opened on Charing Cross Road. I’d buy as many as I could afford whenever I went in there and began to scarf them down on the Tube journey home.

And when I’d exhausted his backlog of crime stories, I started in on the westerns. Then the short stories. I was a little bereft when I’d finally got through them all. But I knew that a new one was never very far away.

I continued picking up new volumes whenever they came out. Then, life got in the way and I’ve realised that the last Elmore Leonard book I read is Up in Honey’s Room, and that was back in 2009. The upside to that is I’ve still got some books to read. (Top of my To-Do List: get hold of copies of Road Dogs, Djibouti and Raylan). The downside...well, you know the downside.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Justice Is What I Seek - Avenging The Lone Ranger

The narrative trajectory of Gore Verbinski’s embattled The Lone Ranger goes a little something like this: Years of news about production shutdowns and budgetary concerns. Fast forward to a slew of largely terrible reviews in the US. “Underperforming” or “a bomb” at the box office, depending on the argot of your media outlet of choice. Hell, even Disney couldn't wait to throw clods of dirt on the still-warm corpse, burying it in the same grave as the wormy remains of it’s similarly-neglected sibling John Carter.

Well, I’m here to say: Forget all of that. None of it matters. The only thing that matters is the 149 minutes of film on the screen. And what I saw was exhilarating, smart, funny, strange, ambitious, beautiful, joyous, poetic and hugely satisfying. Don't believe the bad hype for a second. Instead, here are just some of the reasons why The Lone Ranger is much, much better than you've been (mis)led to believe:

The Lone Ranger is a timely, savage indictment of the lengths America will go to in the name of “progress” (without being portentous or heavy-handed about it). Laws are trifling inconveniences that can be neatly side-stepped with the right pay-off, the right threat or the right bullet. Genocide is an acceptable cost for the acquisition of more power, more money, more more more. The film is populated with lawmen, politicians, power-brokers and soldiers who fall into two camps: the tiny subset of honest ones that need to be eliminated and the larger group that can be bought and corrupted with the promise of riches. At last! A big bold blockbuster that’s actually about something! The Lone Ranger, which has understandably been described in some quarters as un-American, is one of the finest American films of the year. And yet I assure you, it isn't preachy or tub-thumping in the slightest. It’s a helluva lot of fun.

There’s a glorious seam of the strange and surreal threaded in and out of The Lone Ranger. Verbinski has hurled healthy servings of the inexplicable and the unusual in to his work before to varying degrees of success, from the hallucinations of Captain Jack Sparrow in Davy Jones’ Locker in the otherwise tedious and lumpen Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, to the skewed aura of discomfiting bleakness that hangs over the underrated The Weather Man and the sublime weirdness that permeates Rango. (I've struggled and failed to find a place for a Lone Rango pun in this blogpost. So I’ll just leave it here for safekeeping). 

The Lone Ranger is a film that contains a time-travelling sack of peanuts. Vampiric, carnivorous bunnies. Schrödinger's crow. If that isn't enough to pique your interest, then I’m at a loss to understand what the hell people want from a summer blockbuster these days. This isn't yet another bloated iteration of the same generic stories that you've already seen so many times before. On top of that, Verbinski has a puckish approach to chronology and narrative convention. Things sometimes happen without explanation. Well, not totally without explanation - Verbinski has enough of a mischievous sense of fun to hang a lantern on the intentional narrative inconsistencies and ellipses. 

And what of the man in the white hat himself? This year, even the red, white and blue Superman has blood on his hands, but here we get an American hero who agonises over and avoids brutality and death as much as humanly possible, spurning the wafer-thin compromises of the law and embracing his unshakeable sense of justice in order to meet his destiny. “If these men represent the law, I'd rather be an outlaw”. 

Right. Let’s tackle a common criticism of The Lone Ranger that even some of the film’s supporters level at it: that it’s too long. I hew to Roger Ebert’s maxim that “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” The Lone Ranger doesn't seem too long to me at all - it seems just as long as it needs to be. I can’t think of anything in there that I would consider padding. If anything, there are elements that could have used a little bit more room to breathe, like Helena Bonham Carter’s slightly underwritten role. I’d imagine this criticism largely stems from the fact that Verbinski shuns the quick-cutting, restless edits that renders so many contemporary action sequences incomprehensible. Thankfully, Verbinski is a director unafraid of a long take or a lingering camera. (I've come to the conclusion that, increasingly, the Michael Bay “fucking the frame” mode of How To Cut Action has become de rigeur to hide shonky digital effects work. But that’s a discussion for another time).

For a bit of context and comparison, these are the running times of my three favourite westerns:
Rio Bravo - 141 minutes
The Wild Bunch - 145 minutes
Once Upon a Time in the West - 175 minutes

Those comparisons are useful, actually, for The Lone Ranger aims to achieve a level of verisimilitude (and when I say “verisimilitude”, I don’t mean that the film strives to accurately recreate the Old West. I mean that it strives to evoke old Westerns.) Every beautifully composed shot of Monument Valley recalls John Ford. Every close-up of a leering, ravaged, sweaty face references Sergio Leone. The Lone Ranger deftly strikes just the right balance between the sun-dappled vistas and dusty prairies of Ford with the murkier moral landscape of Leone. And Leone is probably Verbinski’s most overt, deliberate touchstone here. Once Upon a Time in the West exerts the strongest influence on The Lone Ranger and, for me at least, this is A Very Good Thing Indeed. 

Think about other relatively recent attempts at a crowd-pleasing western. Shanghai Noon is fun, but lightweight. Wild Wild West is lightweight and really not very much fun at all. The Lone Ranger is not in the tradition of those films, which are essentially westerns for people who don’t like westerns. Crucially, the CGI in The Lone Ranger is at a minimum and, when there is a bit, it’s seamless and invisible, which is what all good CGI should be. It should be a minor enhancement, not a substitute. Real horses. Real trains. Stunts and chases and shoot-outs with weight and heft and consequences and honest, well-earned thrills. The Lone Ranger takes us through Death Valley without plunging us into the uncanny valley. Slap the William Tell Overture over the top of that and, goddamn, that’s a good time at the movies.

One last thing: If I've managed to persuade you to take a chance on The Lone Ranger, then make sure you stay in your seat for a truly lovely parting shot that unfolds slowly over the end credits.