Thursday, May 22, 2008


Richard Price has long been on my TBR (To Be Read) pile. I've been hearing about him forever - former screenwriter, coke addict, staff writer for The Wire, a "literary" Elmore Leonard - but I never got around to giving him a try. I don't know why his latest, entitled Lush Life, was the one that finally brought me to him, but now I'm stuck. I can't read anything else but Price.

Okay, so I actually do know why I finally read Price's latest and it definitely had something to do with his TV work. I am not alone when I say that The Wire the smartest show ever broadcast and this final season had me worried: now that this amazing story is over, where else do I go for this kind of writing? I had read everything available written by both Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos - the other two novelists on the show's writing staff - and found them to be the two of the most consistent writers in popular crime fiction today.

Everybody knows Lehane is the man and for proof you don't even need to read anything by him. You can just check out the two great movies that have been made from his books - Mystic River and Gone, Baby Gone (with a MARTIN SCORSESE adaptation on the way of his book Shutter Island) and there is no question: The guy can tell a noir story like none other.

In regards to Pelecanos, let me just say that two years ago I had the REAL "summer of George" and read nothing but Pelecanos novels for three months straight, wrapping up with his last book, The Night Gardener and found that everything from King Suckerman on was pure gold (the five preceding Suckerman are certainly good, but not The Sweet Forever good, not Soul Circus good).

Because I am The Nerd, I was aware that both Lehane and Pelecanos had books coming out later in the year, but that seemed like decades ahead from where I was sitting.

So I had to venture out and try the "literary" Elmore Leonard. I think that that was the main reason I resisted him, that perception of him as the hoidy-toidy version of the master. Leonard is God and a big reason why he is God is because he is so spare, so stripped down. His books are hardly anything but action and dialogue and yet you still feel full at the end of the book, still feel like you were told a story in the most efficient yet beautiful way possible. A Leonard book is like a Budd Boetticher western: It is short and sweet and definitely has a formula, but handled in such an effortlessly smart and exciting way that you didn't know it was a B-movie/crime novel. Who did this douchebag Price think he was that he could try and improve upon Elmore fucking Leonard?

Well, I had it all wrong. The main resemblance Price has to Leonard is that he tells crime stories and that he kicks ass at dialogue. In fact, Price even occasionally surpasses Leonard at dialogue. It's sacrilege, I know, but he does. And it's not just the dialogue of low-lifes that he has down, but everybody on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The street kids, the street cops, the detectives, the service industry employees, the Asians packed into apartments, the out-of-towners, they all have their own voice and all talk with one another in that heightened way of Price's that is pitched somewhere between the greatest "Movie movie" you've ever seen ("Movie movie" is my term for films like The Departed or Collateral where things are too perfectly cinematic in a way but also just awesome in terms of being an old-fashioned movie) and the recognizable, reality, authenticity.

And it's that authenticity that makes Price who he is. This book is sort of like Price just walked around the neighborhood the book is set in following all kinds of different people and then tossing them all into a book, giving everybody their day. Yes, it has a police procedural structure but that is simply a device used to get at hanging out in this neighborhood in a compelling way. And it is compelling.

The action is set off by the murder of a hipster in what appears to be a botched mugging attempt. We know who actually murdred him a third of the way into the book and from there it is simply about waiting on Matty the homicide cop to catch up with us the reader? Sounds kind of terrible, right? But it is ridiculously entertaining. Price makes us give a shit about everyone in this book from the cops to the perpetrators to the people on the sidelines. And that sense of community is what it all comes down to. Price operates in sort of a Dickensian way in that he has a strong central narrative, the police procedural being his favorite mode, but he constantly branches off from that to show us the society, the people on the periphery. Also like Dickens, he manages not only to make this not boring, but actually really exciting to read.

So while he may have a lot more pages in his book than Leonard would and a lot more attention to little details and things other than the direct story, Price really doesn't waste your time at any point, keeps things moving all the time. It is simply in a different way. And though this may not be a strict "noir" book like something the other writers mentioned might have written, it is certainly just as good as any of them and just as exciting.

Now I sort of have blinders on. I'm blocking out all the other writing coming my way and only reading Price. I've gone through Clockers, Freedomland, and Samaritan already and they are all great. Clockers was turned into a decent enough movie by Spike Lee with Harvey Keitel a decade or so back, but seeing how it was a major influence on The Wire, I can't help but imagine what it would be like as an HBO miniseries by the same producers of The Wire. I'd also like to see a re-do of Freedomland, too but that's never going to happen. Though it only took a few years for the studios to give The Incredible Hulk another shot so who knows anymore....

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


If you still think comics are all about capes, masks and superpowers I urge you to check out Jason Aaron and R.M. Guera's series Scalped, published by DC Vertigo.

Scalped is the story of Dash Bad Horse, the violent son of Lakota activist who returns to his birthplace after being away many years: The Rez. After getting drunk and generally fucking shit up around town, the owner of the new casino (and practically everything legal and illegal on the reservation), Chief Red Crow, gives him a job on his extremely corrupt tribal police force. From there we soon learn that Bad Horse is actually working with the FBI to bring down Red Crow from the inside, but even then nothing is what it seems.

Aaron's storytelling is what comics should strive for. His plot moves swiftly and opens up a world seldom seen in any form: the modern Indian Reservation. Guera depicts this world with drawings so gritty that sometimes you can't even look at the despair plastered across the page. But Aaron's down and dirty story keeps you trucking on through the nastiness with his vulgar dialogue, graphic violence and sex, and a constantly twisting (yet seemingly authentic) plot. There are meth labs, racist cops, corrupt cops, evil Hmong gangsters, murdered kids, torture scenes, police brutality, shootouts, bloody brawls, and even a crazy Indian on a horse. This stuff goes all the way and doesn't look back.

When I bought issue 17 this morning at St. Paul's greatest comic store The Source, the guy behind the counter said of friend his had reccomended it to him, calling it "The Sopranos on an Indian Reservation." That works just fine for me.

Right now there are two trade paperbacks - Indian Country and Casino Boogie - available along with the issues. 17 marks the end of the latest storyline.


Like Nerd God Rob Gordon from High Fidelity, I have a sad affinity for arranging my tastes into pretentious and definitive lists. But lists are good as they cause anger and disgust and outrage along the lines of posts like "Only a man-child would leave out blank" or "How could you possibly think blank is number ten while the piece of shit blank is number three?" I welcome your passion, be it negative or positive, with open arms.

Here, in chronological order, limiting myself to only one film per director, is the list of THE TOP TEN GREATEST FILM NOIRS:

1. Double Indemnity (1944) - Billy Wilder

Featuring Fred MacMurray (yes, the Mr. My Three Sons himself) as an insurance investigator helping lover Barbara Stanwyck knock off her wealthy husband for his hefty "double indemnity" life insurance policy, this film set a high standard for the great films that would follow it like The Postman Always Rings Twice and Body Heat. The dialogue is both ridiculously witty and exceptionally cool, especially MacMurray's badass voice-over narration.

2. The Big Sleep (1946) - Howard Hawks

Though many will argue that John Huston's adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's labrynthine book The Maltese Falcon is better than than Hawks' adaptation of Raymond Chandler's debut novel, this one is simply more fun. Bogart's Marlowe is much more the hard man than his Sam Spade (note that at the end of the film that Marlowe allows his dick to get in the way of his decision to let Bacall get away as opposed to his sense of honor at the end of Falcon when he sends Mary Astor to the gallows, making Marlowe a much more noir-ish, complicated hero) and the dialogue and characters are so smart and funny that you forgive the occasionally confusing plot (even Chandler himself didn't know he killed one of the characters!).

3. Out of the Past (1947) - Jacques Tourneur

With great performances from Robert Mitchum and a very young Kirk Douglas, this exceptionally dark film is one of the unsung gold standards of the genre. With too many classic lines to count, beautiful black and white cinematography, and an unforgiving "cold around the heart" plot, Out of the Past is a noir-lover's wet dream.

4. The Asphalt Jungle (1950) - John Huston

One of the first heist films, this classic beat out The Maltese Falcon as my John Huston film for the list. Huston was one of the masters of muscular storytelling and this film is one of his best. Sterling Hayden is at his most hardcore, that is at least until the release of...

5. The Killing (1956) - Stanley Kubrick

For my money, the best Kubrick's pre-Dr. Strangelove films, this film is what B-moviemaking can be. Ahead of its time in terms of on-screen violence, its strange time-shifting structure and the intensity of its action scenes, this film shows that even if the great Stanley K. had been stuck in the B-movie gallows his whole career, he still would have been a legend. Great noir author Jim Thompson paved the way for modern classics like Reservoir Dogs when he penned this extremely tight script.

6. Touch of Evil (1958) - Orson Welles

I will say it and say it proudly: Touch of Evil was the greatest of all Welles' works. It has such a amazing mix of low (Charlton Heston as a MEXICAN!) and high art (the unsurpassed cinematography) that it is impossibly endearing to even the most discriminating viewer. Fuck those who can only talk about its camera work: this movie is has great characters and a strong, pulpy plot, and no pretentious douchebag can take that away from it!

7. Chinatown (1974) - Roman Polanski

The greatest film ever made. I wish I could leave it at that but I won't. For me, not only is this a great film noir but the perfect example of "The Great American Movie." It has one of the most involving and entertaining plots ever conceived thanks to screenwriting legend Robert Towne, full of the genre expectations and delights that any moviegoer can appreciate; while offering the viewer an uncompromising ending and intriguing and challenging themes to chew on long after the film has ended. Chinatown is quite simply the masterpiece.

8. Blood Simple (1984) - Joel Coen

The Coens are obviously huge fans of noir and in their slightly off-beat way, Fargo and No Country For Old Men also qualify as two of the greatest film noirs. But Blood Simple is their most direct example of the genre and therefore the one that goes on this very straightforward list. Made on a tiny budget, this film has a storyline that is both extremely labrynthine and very simple at the same time. The real marvel of the film is that the Coens didn't completely blow their load the first time out with this wildly inventive, hilariously dark thriller.

9. The Grifters (1990) - Stephen Frears

Stephen Frears is sort of the jack of all trades of genre pictures today, he can do anything and do it well. But this adaptation of Jim Thompson's novel is far and away my favorite film. Anjelica Huston, John Cusack and Annette Benning all brought their A-game to this twisted, sick little movie about con artists, mob bosses, horsetracks, betrayal and...incest.

10. L.A. Confidential (1997) - Curtis Hanson

James Ellroy's classic novel is brilliantly stripped down to manageable size by Brian Helgeland for this film that is almost a mix-tape of everything I ever wanted to see in a film noir: old Hollywood, high-price call-girls, corrupt cops, drug deals, double-crosses, shotgun battles, tabloid journalism, and a juggernaut of a plot able to encompass all of that shit! Mainly remembered today as the film that introduced Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce to the masses, it should be remembered for what it is: what big studios can do with a smart script and a big budget if the execs have a pair of brass ones.