Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Pelecanos' Picks

The latest email newsletter from George Pelecanos contains his picks for fall reading, listening and viewing. Here are a few of them:

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Like many readers, I resisted picking this up because of the element that seemed to dominate every review, implying that this was primarily a story about a hermaphrodite. Brother, was I wrong. Middlesex, a work of art that is more than worthy of its Pulitzer Prize, wins my personal award for novel of the year. Sure, this involves the history of a Greek family stretched out over nearly a century, so naturally I would be interested. But Eugenides makes the story so involving, so universal, that you don't have to be a Greek to appreciate it. In the end, Middlesex is more a novel about America (that is to say, it is about all of us) than one specific culture or sexual subgroup. Give the author respect for ambition and the realization of his vision.

In a Lonely Place, Directed by Nicholas Ray
"I was born when she kissed me/I died when she left me/I lived a few weeks when she loved me." These lines (later memorialized for rock fans by the Smithereens) sum up the theme of this 1950 Columbia drama, which has gradually earned a reputation as one of director Nicholas Ray's finest films and a classic of film noir. It is that rare example of artists coming together, in a quiet way, to produce a studio picture that exceeds its ambition. In a Lonely Place depicts the rise and fall of a relationship between troubled, violent-prone Hollywood screenwriter Dix Steele (Humphrey Bogart) and aspiring actress Laurel Gray (Gloria Graham). The title describes the emotional state of the protagonists, but also, as it has been noted elsewhere, the peculiar emotional "place" in which an artist, especially a writer, lives. Steele comes under suspicion for the murder of a hat-check girl who had visited his apartment on the night of her death, but he is temporarily exonerated when neighbor Gray gives him an alibi. So begins their relationship, an intense love affair that can only end one way. Bogart, whose company produced the film, allows himself to be photographed in a manner that makes him appear nearly ugly, his skin stretched tight, his gestures strained, his posture stooped. Even his smile is just a dark variation on a grimace. Graham, one of the most sexually supercharged actresses of any era, plays a woman in love as if in a dream state. Her eyes are drunk with it as she kisses Bogart. The black and white cinematography by Burnett Guffey, both on mid-century Los Angeles locations and in the sound-stage of the apartment courtyard (built to replicate Ray's first residence in LA), is evocative and framed architecturally to cage the characters who are trapped by their own psychosis. The screenplay by Andrew Solt, based on a novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, is intelligent and acidic, dead-on skewering the film business at the time. The score and main theme, by George Antheil, is haunting. This film has stuck with me since I first viewed it twenty years ago. I saw it again last night and it is exactly as powerful as I remembered it to be. See it with someone you love.

Slippage by Slobberbone
Readers of my annual music feature on [my] website will find that I plan to take two records from Slobberbone out on tour while promoting my next novel, Drama City. This 2002 release pulls back on the country instrumentation of the earlier records in favor of a more punkish, rock sound, produced by Don Smith. Tracks like "Springfield, IL.," and "Write Me Off," are fast and spirited, but past the thrash are the record's gems: a cover of the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody" and the Brent Best originals "Sister Beams," "Find the Out," "Down Town Again," "Live On In The Dark," and "Back." Best does the cigarettes-and- Jack vocals and plays guitar alongside Jess Barr, while Tony Harper pounds the skins with a Buddy Miles-like ferocity. Another phenomenal record from this Texas quintet.