RARA-AVIS: Re: From David Peace to Politics in Writing

From: David Corbett (davidcorbettauthor@gmail.com)
Date: 05 Jun 2010

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    First, alert: long response to a long response. My apologies, but I thought your very detailed and thoughtful posting deserved more than a toss-off reply.

    My comments about left-versus-right in characterization and theme, as I stated I think at least once, were intended as a float balloon for comments -- and yours is exactly what I was after. I'm extremely grateful for the time you put into your response. I knew the way I put it was a cartoonish over-simplification, but I lacked examples to prove it. Seriously, thank you. I'm printing out your response so I can pore over it before the panel I'm moderating and get up to speed on a number of films I've not seen, or haven't seen recently and certainly never watched with this idea in mind.

    My remarks about HWBN came from conversations I've had with Eddie Muller. Now, I do not possess his wealth or depth of expertise, and I'm sure a great deal got lost in the translation, but his comments generally were that the grittiest crime fiction took a bit of a holiday as the US geared up for war, and then in 1944 several landmark films came out, the two I mentioned in particular. The films were stylistically and thematically sophisticated and morally nuanced -- no, Phyllis is indeed the classic femme fatale, it's the portrayal of Neff I was getting at. But after the war ended, films like FORCE OF EVIL and other Garfield films, as well as CROSSFIRE, explored the underside of heroism that many soldiers returning from the war felt in their gut, the knowledge that luck and a hardening of your own heart is what made you a survivor and mere survival hardly made you a hero. Crime was often cast (especially in Garfield's films) as an outgrowth of social injustice, not a single h
     uman's moral failings alone. (This is that inclusion of the broader social background that supposedly only occurs when one "transcends the genre" as I cited in an earlier post this week.) And Garfield was destroyed by the McCarthy witch hunts; you could say Hammett was as well but he was already well beyond his best work when they imprisoned him.

    The films Garfield and other Jewish and European writers and directors made, with a critique of America embedded in their stories, about the social injustice and bigotry that still resided in our culture, disturbed a number of people, particularly on the right, which was gearing up for its stand against Communism.

    Maybe HWBN was not conceived as a response to this movement, but it was perceived and embraced as one. There was definitely a backlash against the portrayal of the US as unjust and corrupt. Ayn Rand excoriated this type of writing, believing that businessmen in particular were being vilified in films and novels as intrinsically corrupt, something she identified with Rooseveltian socialism, and that the business community should instead be embraced and championed. Was HWBN alone in responding to this desire on the patriotic and pro-business right to portray America as less unjust and corrupt than the left-leaning writers made it out to be? Obviously not, I concede your point. It is in fact part of a long tradition. But given its timing in America, it has not just an artistic resonance but a political one. I stand by that.

    Pets are a gimmick. Always have been, always will be, but yeah, you pull out kids and pets or the long-suffering wife or the dying parent when you don't know what else to do or need to do something quickly, visually. The key to characterization is always secrets and contradictions. It's the contradiction between the sentimentality of the cat and the sadism of the killings that make the killer in HWBN interesting -- contradictions immediately pique our interest. (BTW: based on a true story means nothing from a writer's point of view: You always need to do what you always do, make the characters convincing and credible and affecting, and if the real story doesn't give you that you make it up.) But a gimmick or contradiction doesn't flesh him out. Only secrets can do that, a glimpse into what the character truly wants, or despairs for lack of having, or dreams of. We never really get the killer's secrets in HWBN, the reasons why he does what he does -- like we do with Peter Lorr
     e's character in M, or Peter Clegg (Terrence Stamp) in THE COLLECTOR, or even Thomas Harris' serial killers, especially the villain in RED DRAGON.

    That said, serial killers are a special case, because they are so clearly and irredeemably evil. But at least Fritz Lang and William Wyler/John Fowles made an effort to get under the skin of their predators -- and did so compellingly. And those two films stand out in a genre that to my mind is basically boring. (I still remember when Ellroy, sometime in the early 1980s, prayed that the serial killer fad would die and go away.) I think some tend to see all criminals as evil as serial killers, and I just consider that self-congratulatory.

    I have a cop friend in Tempe, 20 year vet, now has his own investigation and security firm. He told me that he never saw criminals as all that different from him. "They just turned one way in life while I turned another." The thing that decided who would turn which way often got down to how they perceived the future. "I had a family, and I looked ahead to what my kids would be doing as they grew up. The guys I went after sometimes only thought at most two hours ahead." I like this, but don't believe it's a universal truth. Still, it's an insight I cherish and I use when I do my own portrayals of the mutts who commit most street crime. Things get more complicated as you climb the crime food chain, where things get more professional and "businesslike." It's always a challenge to portray a criminal so we recognize his or her humanity, not just his evil. But only then do we see the true measure of evil, because we feel it within ourselves.

    David Corbett www.davidcorbett.com

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