Letting things ruin your life: My favorite Anne Carson poems, astrology, and a shaky self-assessment of a mediocre banjoist
by Ashley Margolis
“Anne Carson is a Gemini. Because, of f****** course she’s a Gemini.”
The above text is one of many I sent to my Gemini coworker over the course of the summer of 2022; it also encapsulates the two major occurrences of that summer, which were that:
Example 1: The book title. What do glass, irony, and God have in common? Why has Anne strung them together with flimsy commas and a brazen “and,” and slapped them on the front cover as if those subjects relate to each other at all? It’s not entirely about the contents of the book, either. It’s true that there’s a section called “The Glass Essay” and another called “The Truth About God,” but none of the section titles breathe a word about irony. And, to that end, there are a bunch of sections that are not referenced in the title. Why isn’t the book called “Glass, TV Men, and God” or “Isiah, Glass, and Sound?” Not that those titles make any more sense to the blind viewer who is too afraid to crack the book open in the middle of the store to skim the section titles than Glass, Irony, and God does, but you get my point. Why does it feel like Anne is teasing us before we’ve even committed to buying the damn book. What do glass, irony, and God have to do with each other? Why has Anne forced them into close proximity, and why is she daring us to join them? What the fuck has Anne’s confusing title got to do with me? Why am I handing the cashier $17 and walking out of the bookstore with a lightness behind my eyes?
Here’s a fun fact for you: Anne Carson is a classicist. She studies ancient Greek and Latin, and it is damn near impossible to forget that when you’re reading her books. Alternative fact: I was deeply and stupidly in love with a 20 year old philosopher who taught me how to play clawhammer banjo when I was 18. She would not let me forget she was a philosopher when we were together. Mostly it was in her eyes. That and she was always talking about Descartes’ epistemology. It probably would have been more productive to hang a “do not disturb” sign up in those eyes than to even attempt to decipher what she was thinking about at any given moment.
She also absolutely detested poetry. She said that she hated things that she didn’t understand. I found that especially rich coming from someone who studied philosophy and played clawhammer banjo, but, you know. We kissed once and then never again. I didn't quite understand that. She told me I kissed very fast. Frantically, like I was waiting for someone to pull the rug out from under me. Obviously she didn’t actually say that last part, she hated similes. I stopped writing poems for a while after we stopped being in each other’s lives; I didn’t have anyone to try and prove wrong anymore.
Example 2: Anne is talking to you and you should probably listen. Reading an Anne Carson book is like holding something up to the light and trying to figure out what’s shining through the other side. She as the author makes you as the reader do half of the work at any given moment, she’s clever like that. Anne writes in an inherently confusing manner. It is easy enough to follow when the poem’s subject is alone, but the whole thing gets tangled up when other characters are introduced. Her dialogue generally abandons quotation marks or any other reliable notation of separation between subjects. The proximity goes all out of whack. It seems a little itchy and unpleasant at first; we don’t like the things we don’t understand.
Personally, though, I adore it. I feel that reading Anne isn’t about comprehension, the work she asks of you is almost entirely emotional. She throws you directly into the weeds in her depiction of relationships, forcing you to start untangling fast or admit you don’t like poetry and put the book down. She’s teasing you again. You really thought you could make it through the book passively? Not a chance, Anne won’t stop talking to you in the second person. Right when you start to feel like you’ve got her, right when you’ve become the bouncer outside the club who just held up your friend’s very fake Connecticut driver’s license to reveal that it has no microperforation on the back, you realize that Anne got your ass. She was the one holding you up to the light the entire time and you didn’t even notice. Anne Carson writes narratively, not autobiographical. It was around the third readthrough of Glass, Irony, and God that I realized I was just as much a narrative device as the TV men were. When I annotate her books, I write to her in the second person. She’s talking to me, it only seems fair that I talk back.
I told the Gemini coworker about Glass, Irony, and God sometime before we kissed for the first time on a night before I was scheduled for a 5am shift at the coffee place we both worked at. I made sure I kissed slowly this time. I don’t think I ever saw her show up to another shift on time after that night. I don’t quite get that part, either. I helped her move into a room of an ancient house near a loud intersection and a bar that definitely wouldn’t clock a fake Connecticut driver’s license if it slapped them in the face, microperforation be damned.
She gave me a bookshelf that she didn’t have the space for anymore. I keep my Anne Carson books in there now when I’m not loaning them out to my friends. I never knew who to be when the two of us hung out. I felt like the wrong answer, not that she ever gave any indication that she comprehended either one of us as conscious and tangible human beings, but I thought maybe that’s just what it was like to be 24 so I tried to be 24. She bought me vegan thai food the day she gave me the bookshelf, I would say that was the most romantic thing that ever went down between us. I presume that was probably by design. I spent a few months in the summer listening to obscure indie music she sent me and reading Anne Carson’s poems and trying not to look at my phone and then it just stopped one day and we never spoke about it again. I was better at making coffee when I wasn’t trying to be 24, I think.
Example 3: Why do you keep putting yourself in the path of things you know are going to absolutely body you? This is the thought that runs through my head every time I’m buying a new Anne Carson book. I want to say that I own seven of them these days, although two are currently lost to the ether of friends’ apartments. The biggest danger of Anne’s books is that you will probably finish them in one sitting when you really shouldn’t. You also probably shouldn’t go over to a philosopher’s house for a clawhammer banjo lesson two days after she said you kiss too fast and one day after she said she would really rather not kiss you ever again, actually. You also shouldn’t go to a brewery in Alameda when you’re underage without a fake Connecticut driver’s license that says otherwise just to try and impress your Gemini coworker who kisses you when she’s bored, mostly.
I like to think that I don’t jump the gun quite as severely as I used to. Getting older is such a funny thing, I fear. I don’t get paid to make coffee anymore, I play Scruggs style banjo instead of clawhammer now, and I tattooed a star on my ankle like I said I would forever ago. There’s a beautiful satisfaction that comes with keeping a promise to yourself. You have to go slow with Anne, but I swear that it’s worth it. She's taking a lot of time out of her busy schedule of being my favorite contemporary poet to sit and talk with you between the pages of “The Glass Essay,” after all. We owe her the respect of a few pencil annotations in the margins to let her know that we hear her and we can feel her holding us up to the light.
by Colbie Mahaffey
She woke up, and groggily walked to the bathroom, splashing water on her face before looking up in the mirror. She drew back, then leaned in closer, squinting slightly at the sight of the dark circles under her eyes. They looked unnaturally dark, like she had a bruise, or dirt under her eyes. She rubbed them, and it didn’t hurt like a bruise, or rub away like dirt. Confused, she decided she must just be really tired- after all, she had been working late recently. She would go to bed early tonight and look better in the morning. When her husband woke up, she mentioned the dark circles to him, but he stared through her eyes and shook his head, “You look the same to me!”
The next morning, she was horrified to see her eyes looked even worse. The bags under her eyes were so dark that her once bright green eyes now looked sunken and her skin seemed droopy. But still, no one else seemed to notice.
Over the next few weeks, she began buying eye creams and following home remedies, but no matter what she did, the circles under her eyes only got longer and darker.
Until one morning, she was pulling at the circles in the mirror, and her fingers sunk straight through her skin, as if ripping through wet paper. And she kept pulling down, until her entire face was falling off, and under it, her skin hung raw and bloody. Moaning through her lack of a mouth, she walked to her husband, who glanced up without batting an eye, and said “Morning sweetie”. She looked the same to him.
by Bibi Koenig
I'm talking about that one building on campus that constantly spews out opaque white gas. Old, dilapidated, missing windows, strangely art deco-y with pilasters at the corners. Looks like a child or two may have died in it when labor regulations weren't as strict. You know the one.
Due to a lack of a better term, my friend Elisa calls this structure the "Toxicology Building." I too will refer to it as such.
I cannot remember my first encounter with the Toxicology Building. But, I can say that every time I see it, I have the same distant yet completely apparent thought that something seems very off and potentially dangerous. There was once an entire week in which I passed by the Toxicology Building and smelled the stench of gas, persistently. And while this did concern me, I didn't do anything about it. I'm not a chemtrail conspiracist, but I feel like I should care more about mysterious gasses. Maybe I, like many other college students, secretly hope for a disaster so I can sue the school and get free tuition. But I already get free tuition because my dad busted his knee while playing soccer for the U.S. Navy. So I really don't know why I think this.
Maybe it would be kind of cool to be part of a generation of slightly genetically-damaged UCB students. Like an X-Men situation, but instead of doing cool things I just hope that somebody gives me a job for my art history degree.
Anyways, it actually wasn't very hard to discover the true purpose of the Toxicology Building at all. While there was a part of me that expected a long, sordid past of dark deals and chemical warfare stuff, maybe some MK-Ultra shadiness, it turned out all I needed to do to find out more was go on Google Maps, identify the name of the building, and then look it up.
So, the Toxicology Building isn't the Toxicology Building it all. It's known as both the "Central Heating Plant" and the "Cogeneration Plant." Right beside it is the "Hazardous Materials Facility," but ironically I have no interest in investigating this adjacent building further, so I simply will not.
The Central Heating Plant/Cogeneration Plant, or "Toxentral CoHeauilding Blant" as I would now like to christen it (there's no official pronunciation; choose one) has been spoken of a few times by various sources.
Berkeley Facilities Services claims that the Toxentral CoHeauilding Blant provides 100% of UC Berkeley's steam needs and 90% of the campus's electricity needs. Where it loses me is that it doesn't state where the other 10% is from. Very suspicious. I assume there are goblins in a basement somewhere on stationary bikes coughing up the rest of the energy. Also, a website straight from the institution would never tell us if a child died in the building, so I don't really trust it as a source. BFS also claims the Blant operates 24/7/365, which makes me curious as to what would happen if it stopped. The obvious answer is Lucas would die, but what one may not realize is the campus very well might lose power!
Tobin Fricke provides the earliest account of the Toxentral CoHeauilding Blant that I could find. Published in 2001, his blog post offers detailed insight into the workings of the Blant, including several images of '90s computers. While Tobin claims "any of the information here could very well be wrong" because he had "written it all from my memory," I'd like to counter this by saying a man so honest could never be incorrect. Tobin says the interior of the building is hard to take pictures of because it is tightly packed with ducts, pipes, and equipment. He also did not have access to an overall plan of the Blant. So it seems like you could maybe hide a small body in there somewhere.
Jeana Lee of the Daily Californian immediately loses me because she claims the building goes unnoticed and unquestioned by most students. However, I begrudgingly reference her because she does seem to know what she's talking about. She says the Toxentral CoHeauilding Blant was built in the '30s (child labor?), but did not become a cogeneration plant until 1987. The Blant burns 150 pounds of coal a minute and is responsible for 71% of Cal's CO2 emissions, so it will have to be replaced or shut down in order to reach UC Berkeley's carbon neutral goal by 2025.
Despite all the information I uncovered about the Blant, I am more concerned with what I could not find: an explicit statement that no child has died in the building.
Anybody else with the misfortune of being from San Diego is likely familiar with the Nuclear Boobs, (officially the San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant) a power plant between San Diego and L.A. that looks like, you guessed it, some boobs. And I still remember the deep, shared sorrow I and my brave contemporaries (the other people at my high school) felt when we found out that the Nuclear Boobs were being shut down permanently. This sorrow is similar to what I feel for the Toxentral CoHeauilding Blant–uncertainty, nostalgia, and the sentiment that I am face-to-face with a relic of the past that can no longer do what needs to be done for the people.
Fly high, Toxentral CoHeauilding Blant. Although I'm not really sure if it's actually going to stop spitting out gas all the time, or if they’re ever going to admit that a child died in the building, this surely is the end of an era.
Just remember, if that beloved dame of a building decides to go Chernobyl on us, you know where to find me: at Strawberry Creek. Drinking the water.
a piece of narration from the upcoming film noir by famed filmmaker and professional alcoholic Hugh Wonderbang
a spoof by Magellan Reyes
“I slammed my fist on the table, mad that she wouldn’t share with me all her dirty little
secrets. I knew she was there when Bobby met his untimely demise, but the dame just
wouldn’t crack. The putrid musk generated by all these dirty little lies gets caught in your
nostrils and layered on your skin like grease, and no amount of baths’ll clean ‘em out. I was
sick of what she had to say, sick of dames giving me the run around, sick of the whole damn
thing. I grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her good, tell me what you know I said.
I didn’t mean to be so rough, but it didn’t seem to work anyhow. The dame just sat there,
laughing like a wicked witch damning me to hell. Well she can damn me to hell as much as
she wants, I thought, what do I care—I’m already there. She cursed at me as I made my way
over to the bar. She told me I was just a lousy drunk, that I didn’t know nothing and never
would. But I didn’t care. I was tired. This life has a way of wearing a man down, of turning all
he loves against him. She cursed at me again as I downed my glass of whiskey. But I ignored
her, and just poured another drink…”
by Natalia Macias
shades of melancholia
i let my clock fall three minutes behind
then four and with the changing of the season
it becomes 56 minutes ahead
i let it because it doesn’t mean much to me
my body never really observed it’s rigid lines
likes more of the mental gymnastics it takes for me
to calculate the difference
between the bedside clock and the number on my phone,
the one in my mom’s car and the one above the stove,
i calculate my age for the day
even by the hour it changes
traveling from 17 to 21 to 54
my body would expand to create years
in the span of a couple of hours
when i close my eyes
time looks like my stretch marks
breathes in and out
since the last time i’ve seen it
my body says see how i’ve grown
look at the new space i’ve created
our connection to time isn’t new love but ancient recognition
it isn’t shivers and goosebumps,
it’s reverence and sustained power just below the surface of your skin
sometimes i feel like a stone in a zen garden
the sand moves like water around me
making serene landscapes
i calculate the amount of grief i’ll carry with me today
i often underestimate, but it’s okay
the weight of the many versions of myself that i’ve lost
tug at the hem of my jeans
who i could’ve been, the lives i promised myself
forced to slow down
i realize i live in shades of melancholia
and not wanting it any other way
i do wish i could separate the two realities
jump from one to the next
all at my convenience
but for now i live in them both simultaneously
and with any empathy i can spare
feeding a new found fascination with dichotomies
and the painfully bright way they merge
my body often forgets it’s own language
the different regions have new slang
and their accents make it hard to understand
and when my body forgets it’s own language
it only knows how to scream
my body has made the space in between my home
standing on the cusp of overwhelming sound and complete silence
familiarizing myself with uncertainty
and many people only pass through
but i’ve been trying to make it my home
building upon shifting land
i wonder what my body would say
if you asked it what it feels like
to live in the space in between
~ a reflection on crip time by ellen samuels
by Lucas Fink
What is it to be gentle? What makes someone, something, or some act gentle? I think gentleness could be said to entail an exploratory hesitance, a tentative curiosity, a desire to know the object tempered by a hyperawareness of the object’s rich affective life-world. A desire to approach and wrap around and feel without disturbing. I might have been wrong to say “know the object”, at least insofar as knowing/looking are extractive operations and are therefore operations that always disturb, that always condemn the object to legibility. Moten and Harney on hapticality might be helpful here. For them, hapticality is not merely a more capacious account of common feeling, and is therefore not a brutal liberal appeal to the universality of human affects and experiences. Hapticality does not designate any one emotion or collective emotional circumstance; rather, hapticality is the act of feeling someone else feel you (Moten & Harney 98), a feeling through the other. Hapticality is love, then. Gentleness is a mechanism of love, for the hyperawareness of the object’s rich affective life-world prompted in and by the caring apprehension of gentleness is the condition of possibility for hapticality/love in the first place. The awareness that the object has/is a life-world, that I also have/am a life-world, that I am also an object (for you), and that finally the boundary between our two life-worlds is porous at best and phantasmatic more likely. Gentleness, finally, is this slow, sensitive movement through the world of things, a movement motivated by the desire to caress and to be-with always already contextualized by an awareness of the multiplicity of desires out there in the world of things blossoming beyond you. A sub-genre of empathy, a desire to experience alterity without rocking the boat, without violently imposing the Self over and above it.
The vine next to my bed has been growing steadily for the past 3-ish years. At some point in those last three years, I tucked the vine under a wooden plank in my bed frame and let it continue growing over and on top of the frame. It has now arrived at the other end. The plant’s other vine drapes lazily down over my reading light and tissue box. What interests me most about the modality of movement these vines instantiate is the interplay (I’m sorry but I like that buzzword better than dichotomy) between their exploratory eagerness and receptivity to my guiding their exploration. Wherever I let them hang, whatever I wrap them around, the vines will – with a Mediterranean lethargy – happily come to know the room’s spatial specificities (as long as they get light). Am I circumscribing their exploration more than merely guiding it? Maybe. Am I harvesting from this plant the earthen eco vitalist aesthetic its appearance lends? Or is it enlivening my apartment bedroom pro bono, imposing on me a debt I can never hope to repay? Anyway, unanswerable questions. What is in fact certain at this point is that the vines are gentle. Does a thing have to be alive to be gentle? Does it have to move (so it can move slowly)? More unanswerables. Obviously this picture fails to capture the vines’ gentleness because pictures cannot capture movement (absenting maybe time-lapse photography and such). You can see the history of its movement, though, the trail it took to get where it is now, the little gap between boards where I notched it, the suggestion of an infinite vine produced by the visual omission of the vine’s terminus at the other edge of my bed. I guess its movement is there, then, as a trace. Again, though, does gentleness necessarily imply (slow) movement? If a thing moves, does it need to move slowly for it to be called gentle? Life-saving CPR isn't very slow, nor would most of us call it gentle. It's life-saving, though. Odd. Lots of things move, though. Architecture moves: a pillar moves into a cornice moves into a cupola moves into a weather vein. Movement need not bear any easily legible, linear temporal orientation. This is why I love this plant: it goes, just not forward. It goes around and loops and dives and extends, but never goes forward, nor backwards. A movement without a telos. It just wants to feel. I love the way the sunlight plays with the leaves and their shadows. Were the shadows already there, hiding under the leaves, waiting for the sunlight to arrive?
by Henry Donald
It's fine. If you came to House of the Dragon hoping to be delivered to the heights of Game of Thrones season 4, you will be sorely disappointed. Or for that matter seasons 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6. There are plenty of visually stunning battles, Lannisters, Targaryans, and Dragons, but the show lacks what made its predecessor and sequel so enthralling, the dialogue and structure that endeared (or detested) us from its characters and their fates. Hampered by an extravagant budget, House of the Dragon is too quick to depict incredible battles and majestic dragons, missing what made them so enjoyable. Additionally, a focus on female empowerment and its ostensibly more progressive outlook than Game of Thrones is undercut by the obviously self-aggrandizing tone and propensity to depict violence for shock value.
One of the most striking differences between the opening episodes of Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon is the dialogue. Characters in Game of Thrones speak cleverly and often with distinction, but their lexicon is not unfamiliar to the viewer. Undoubtedly aided by the superior acting of Game of Thrones, communication has subtext upon subtext: Tyrion and Cersei and even Ned weaving witty remarks, parental advice and threats together seamlessly, often in the same words. Monologues, when they do occur, feel truly menacing or inspiring: Tyrion’s pleas at his trial and Baelish’s pronouncement that chaos is a ladder still ring in my ears. Conversations feel natural and dramatic, each line further characterizing the characters as containing complex and contradictory motives to country or house or family. In House of the Dragon, conversation feels coerced in search of drama, concocted by writers who preferred consulting a thesaurus of old English to literature. Written in a terrible replication of Shakespearian language with none of the complexity or heart that made Shakespeare Shakespeare, you can practically hear the writers’ room when any character speaks, awkwardly mixing antiquated sentence structure with more modern speak. Aesthetically this pulls the viewer from their engagement, but hurts the characterization of the show on a deeper level. When writers resort to platitudes rather than wits, preferring to proffer contrived dramatization to genuine moments of connection found all throughout Game of Thrones, they deprived the viewer of an opportunity to learn more about the characters, what motivates them, who they love, why they are fighting. Relationships aren’t given a chance to evolve, and viewers aren’t enabled to connect with the characters but instead marvel at them.
The structure of the beginning of Game of Thrones is brilliantly paced. Battles come rarely, and when they do are epic and memorable, dragons take seasons between their introduction and destruction. Blackwater and The Battle of the Bastards remain as memorable as the day I viewed them. The time skipping of house of the Dragon absolutely demolishes its own structure. To engage with a climax, there must be a rising action. When you jump right into fire and pageantry you offer nowhere for the viewers’ expectations to go but down. Without a proper build up, the writers of the House of the Dragon have cornered themselves into delivering on impossible promises, to one up themselves eternally when their budget will only stretch so far. Additionally, the time jumps break the continuity of the show. We don’t care about the triarchy or the Crabfeeder, as he is only a villain for three episodes. Even if he is not a main antagonist, the failure to even attempt to portray him and his motivations fails the wider purposes of the characterization of Daemon and Rhaenyra. We are told the war has lasted three years and caused great harm to the seven kingdoms, but how are we supposed to emotionally connect with exposition? House of the Dragon attempts to claim the exalted status of prestige drama entirely offscreen, fast forwarding through the character growth, and aftermath of conflict, and catastrophe that would make the audience care about the show. The pacing of Game of Thrones built up to the epic heights of Hardhome and the Red Wedding like a methodical chess game, each player playing the long game, trying to outsmart their opponent, moves taking seasons to pay off, building suspension for that eventuality. House of the Dragon simply has Paddty Considine exclaim it’s been however many years at the beginning of each episode. You can’t have the payoff of epic battles without the care put into constructing the participants so that you care about the outcome.
Finally, and potentially most egregiously, House of the Dragon attempts to claim its spot amongst the best of HBO by blatantly appealing to the current political climate rather than the more essential and timeless humanistic themes of literature. While certainly not perfect, mainly in terms of later character arcs and depictions of sexual violence, Game of Thrones portrayed powerful female characters. Dany, Arya, Cersei, and Sansa amongst others had competing loyalties to friends, lovers, children, power, bannermen, common people, religions, and trades. They had rich histories and growth marked by self-empowerment. By appealing to the classical themes of literature, love, obligation, duty, honor, greed, but recontextualizing them in the hands of women protagonists, too often ignored in high fantasy, Game of Thrones successfully incorporated feminist ideals. By granting female characters autonomy and depth because they were characters equally as worthy of attention as male characters, they were able to help bridge the gender gap in prestige television and media as a whole. House of the Dragon is proud of its female protagonists. It puts them front and center in the marketing, producers talk openly about how childbirth is the real battlefield and every other character in the show reminds the audience that a woman should never ascend to the Iron Throne. While women in Game of Thrones were constrained by the patriarchy, their struggle was encapsulated in implicit systems of control, dehumanizing acts of obedience, and derogatory dialogue. While Game of Thrones could have reined in the obscenity, this more subtle approach to depicting the patriarchy proved to be more effective at demonstrating its ubiquity and strength. When characters in the House of the Dragon make reference to it, there is not nearly as widespread a depiction of the struggles women in Westeros face, the show preferring to skip over the more mundane but potentially overbearing and brutal methods of control to the girlboss moment of defiance. Sansa’s ascent to power was impactful because the viewer understood the forces she was up against, personally and politically. When House of the Dragon shows the victory without the struggle, it cheapens the fight, breaks the immersion of the show, and undermines its messaging. The showrunners also show their priorities clearly even in the first episode with over the top violence not even seen in Game of Thrones, most noticeably in an excruciatingly prolonged childbirth scene. Watching the scene felt like gore, festishing the struggle for the sake of purely shocking the viewer. Instead of spending her short lived screen time fleshing out her character, we watch her suffer and bleed out on her childbearing bed. The showrunners preference for shock over nuance is just as apparent in their continual use of child marriages. Suggesting marriages between adults and infants, a king decades older than a prepubescent child is a pastime of the small council. They are introduced with such fervor you are made to consider not the destructive nature of child marriage but rather question how far the writers will go. This scenes are handled without delicacy, and while central characters act disgusted at the prospect, there is no wider examination of the culture that encourages it. Showrunners can’t claim to aspire to feminist messaging when they would so easily undercut those messages to shock the viewer in a misguided belief that simply showing the brutal effects of oppression is acceptable instead of depicting how those oppressive systems function and can be demolished.
House of the Dragon’s main draw is the emotional attachment viewers have to the original show. I watch it because even if it isn’t as good as its predecessor, I get lost in intricately crafted fantasies, and House of the Dragon provides more depth to the works of George RR Martin. I admit I am entranced by dragons, battles, and admittedly simplistic and obviously set up drama. Even every once in a while I’ll appreciate a snappy back and forth. I worry that by continuing to engage with House of the Dragon, I am supporting a model increasingly dependent on intellectual property and drawing in viewers by spinning off ridiculous numbers of projects from an initially enjoyable franchise. I critique it because I want it to be better, to not only exist in the same world as Game of Thrones but to live up to it.
totally sober musings from a first time blogger
by Ian Kammerer
This year, we lost a filmmaker who grew into one of cinema’s all-time greats, Jean-Luc Godard. Godard, like directors like Leos Carax, Ozu, and Fellini, is one of my favorite directors that makes movies that are self-aware, self-reflexive, and above all, about lived experience and reality, bringing us affectively into the “here and now” of the film. And Godard’s Breathless is no exception to this. The Roxie Theater in SF has been paying tribute to Godard by screening his films in 16mm or 35mm this month.
Breathless follows hopeless romantic and drifter Michel Poiccard a.k.a. Laszlo Kovacs as he evades law enforcement (and true love), leading to an unforgettable final sequence that, if it doesn’t make you break down in tears, warrants a visit to the nearest therapist. Godard makes you fall in love with citizen so-and-so Kovacs despite the gaping holes in his character (which seem somewhat irrelevant by the final scene — new wounds have opened up). A film full of pseudo-intellectual musings, existentialist pipe-dreams, and genuine reconciling with love, the spectator becomes entranced by the story as they seamlessly stroll down the Champs with Laszlo. Breathless scratches that trial and error, start / stop, always bounding forwards itch of some of my favorite films, but takes it a step farther than films like Umberto D or The 400 Blows. The sing-song dialogue of Laszlo and Patricia, which like the actual sing-song lovebirds Genevieve and Guy from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, end this fateful tale in heartstring-plucking resolutions.
What stuck out to me was the underlying theme of the dangers of the ego in the modern era. Laszlo is constantly interacting with performance, from speaking to a headshot of “Bogey” and proclaiming the famous “a Cinecittà!” to making faces in the mirror to Patricia and himself. The stress of the dangers one encounters when overly-indulging in themselves and their ego, paired with technology comes through in the film strongly. Now, even more than in 1960 when the film came out, do humans have the technology that can do almost everything we used to do for ourselves but have not a clue or hair of moral forthrightness and fortitude to know how to use it responsibility. This fear looms over us in Breathless, adding to the general doom and agony of the film’s emotional superstructure
Similar to my favorite film of 2021, The Worst Person in the World, Breathless uses the cinema as a quasi-theatrical, quasi-personal monologue yet liminal space where once self-indulgent diaries seemed pretentious and egotistical, now seem interested, genuine, and necessary. Breathless does something that precious-few films of late do, which is to tell the truth. Godard tells it to us straight. Shit happens. Love fails. Truth evades honesty. “Informers inform. Burglars burgle. Murderers murder. Lovers love.” And above all else, “There’s no need to lie. Truth is best.” Thank you Godard, for having the power to tell the truth. You have become immortal to us through your films, which will live on in our minds like the last touch of a lover lingers on our lips. Until next time.
by Phil Segal
1. Crime in General
Lately I’ve been thinking about crime. It’s a genre I always find myself drawn to. And, I’ll admit, something that makes writers and artists interesting to me, hence the Jean Genet biography sitting on my desk as I type this. I’m not remotely above considering tabloid interest in criminality, strange deaths, or otherwise unusual life stories of the people involved when making decisions about what to read or watch. But this is not about Sartre’s saint, although reading Querelle a couple months ago was a revelatory experience. I want to focus on crime writers here, not criminal writers.
A number of times, often for months, I’ve lost the ability to read, or more accurately what I’ve lost is the ability to compel myself to pick up a book that I don’t specifically have to read even though I desperately want to read. I’ll stare at books, maybe get a page or two in, but be completely unable to commit to actually reading a book. Trying to find my way into books and failing, hitting walls. I’m still interested in books, I can read articles about them, posts about them, book reviews, Wikipedia pages about books. And I do. And I continue to look for books and pick up books I want to read, hoping to find the one that breaks my reader’s block. And often that book is an old crime novel. Recently, in fact, I’ve been alternating crime novels and heavier stuff to keep my reading momentum up successfully.
It’s partly that old crime novels are written to be quick, easy reads. It’s a genre full of books that are around 200 pages or less with short chapters and a lot of stuff happening. Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel Red Harvest, a foundational text in the modern American strain of crime writing that the French that would dub roman noir, has something like twenty deaths in its 225 pages (and probably a dozen double crosses). That invocation of the French displays another part of the appeal: reading crime novels isn’t just fun; if you’re so inclined, you can make your habit sound downright respectable with reference to European intellectual appreciators, or Fredric Jameson. I certainly plan to in this essay.
But more importantly, it’s a genre full of writers with distinct personalities and styles. As with the film noirs frequently adapted from their writings, if the authors could work within the standard, formulaic plots then the editors and publishers didn’t mind them using those plots as a framework from which to hang personal quirks, stylistic tics, satire, and social criticism. Of course, most people were just writing to pay the bills (which can still produce enjoyable writing), but there are plenty of those writers who brought something extra to the table. I’d like to tell you about two of those writers, Dashiell Hammett and Jean-Patrick Manchette. I didn’t originally mean for this to go on so long; whenever I try to think of an explanation, all that comes up in my mind is a phrase repeated throughout Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion: “I’m telling you stories. Trust me.” I found a subject I’m passionate about. I want to tell you some stories. Trust me.
2. Hammett: The Basic Story
V.S. Naipaul once wrote that, “A writer is in the end not his books, but his myth.” Dashiell Hammett is more of a myth than most. He was famously a Pinkerton operative from 1915-1922 (with a break to serve in WWI, during which time he caught Spanish Flu and tuberculosis, from which he would never fully recover) who drew on those experiences to transform crime writing in the twenties and thirties with short stories in the influential early pulp magazine Black Mask, where he started publishing stories in 1923. Between 1929 and 1934, he published five books, which were initially published as serials in Black Mask before being collected and partially rewritten to make them work as novels. The one exception was his last novel, 1934’s The Thin Man, initially published in Redbook of all places (apparently at the time Redbook was also publishing writing by Fitzgerald and Tarkington). After The Thin Man, he didn’t publish any more books, though he lived until 1961, and though there was definitely an audience for sequels to The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man (as shown by the five(!) sequels to the 1934 film version of The Thin Man, beginning with 1936’s After the Thin Man).
The ex-Pinkerton and possible strikebreaker — a story long circulated that Hammett was one of the Pinkertons employed by the Anaconda Copper Mining Company to take on strikers in Butte, Montana in 1917, where International Workers of the World organizer Frank Little was lynched (the story, relayed by Lillian Hellman in one of her memoirs, is most likely false) — became involved in the mid-30s with left-wing playwright Lillian Hellman (his partner for the rest of his life), turned radical, and joined the American Communist Party in 1937. He served in WWII, but after the war, during the blacklist era, wound up in prison on contempt charges in 1951 when he was called in front of HUAC and refused to name names of contributors to a bail fund for arrested radicals. In 1953 he was again called in front of HUAC and again refused to name names. He wasn’t sent to prison a second time, but he couldn’t get work and the IRS was hounding him for $175,000. He had failed to file his taxes while he was in the Army during WWII, that only accounted for a small part of the money owed. It was primarily a form of economic sanctions. He died impoverished, his books out of print in America, but Lillian Hellman secured the rights to his writing and worked to get it back in print and tell his story. His books were reissued, rediscovered, and eventually even collected in a Library of America edition. His rehabilitation and reintegration into American culture is at this point complete.
2.5. McCarthyisms or The More Complicated and Accurate Story
There's an important follow-up sentence to the previously quoted Naipaul line: “And that myth is in the keeping of others.” Lillian Hellman was the keeper of Hammett’s myth until her own death in 1984, and she’s an important part of how Hammett has been understood. As I alluded to before, some of the stories she circulated about Hammett, like his presence at the crushing of the Butte strike, are almost certainly false. Her plays The Children’s Hour and Little Foxes are probably her best remembered works now since both were turned into well-regarded films. What’s pertinent here, though, are her entertaining memoirs, 1969’s An Unfinished Woman, 1973’s Pentimento, and especially her recounting of the Blacklist era, 1976’s Scoundrel Time, where she presented an image of Hammett and herself as political mavericks, Hammett a Communist party member and herself more of a “fellow traveler” but both willing to push back on the party line when they disagreed. Events in her memoirs were challenged by Martha Gellhorn (she thoroughly debunked Hellman’s account of her time in the Spanish Civil War and meetings with Hemingway in An Unfinished Woman) and, most famously, Mary McCarthy (no relation to Joe), who said on a 1980 episode of The Dick Cavett Show that, “every word [Hellman] writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.” It’s a line so good that it inspired Nora Ephron to write a play, Imaginary Friends, about Hellman and McCarthy continuing their conflict in Hell.
McCarthy, a writer and public intellectual who had been a Communist-sympathetic “fellow traveler” until the Soviet Union’s show trials and purges during the 30’s, and some American Communists’ defenses and denials of them, pushed her to become part of the anti-Communist left centered around the magazine Partisan Review, contended that Hellman had been a Communist Party member and not just a “fellow traveler,” had in fact had been a hardline Stalinist, a prominent defender of the show trials and purges, and was just generally a fabricator (on a semi-related note, I read McCarthy’s novel The Group last year and highly recommend it). She particularly took issue with Hellman’s claims that anti-Communist leftists and liberals such as the Partisan Review group had failed to take a stand against (Joseph) McCarthyism, while a review of the historical record showed that while their legacy was certainly mixed, anti-Communist leftists and liberals like the Partisan Review, Mary McCarthy, and Hellman’s own lawyer during the HUAC hearings, to cite a few examples, all took public stands against the HUAC hearings as they were happening in spite of reservations about the Communists. Hellman sued McCarthy for her libel, which turned out to be a mistake, because as soon as people began fact-checking her memoirs to prepare for the trial they turned out to be full of fabrications and distortions. The biggest deal was the “Julia” section of Pentimento, a story about Hellman risking her life to smuggle aid to anti-Nazi resistance efforts in German territory in the late 30s, which had been adapted into the 1977 film Julia, which was nominated for eleven Oscars and won three. It turned out that the events were substantially true, but that they’d happened to someone else and Hellman had stolen them to present as part of her own life. Hellman’s death brought the suit to a halt. (Ruth Franklin’s review of Alice Kessler-Harris’s biography of Hellman is a relatively quick way to get a useful, sympathetic but frank account of Hellman’s life and her side of the conflict. It concedes that Mary McCarthy’s charges were true, but makes a fair attempt to understand her motives and legacy).
As regards Hammett, the “maverick” portrait she’d painted had required the writing out of regrettable instances like his switching briefly from anti-fascist advocacy in the beginning of WWII to isolationism following the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact as part of his general sticking to the Soviet party line, and exaggerated stories like his presence at the Butte battle. In fact, in her telling not only had he been sent there by the Pinkertons to put down the strike, while there he’d been approached by men offering money for the killing of Frank Little, which he’d turned down only to see Little lynched anyway. His resulting disgust, in this telling, wasn’t necessarily a full Road to Damascus moment, but it was when his journey towards the political left began. It’s a very dramatic, compelling story, but, again, it almost certainly never happened. From after his death until her own, though, she controlled access to Hammet’s books and papers and so on, so any biographer had to go through her, resulting in inaccuracies in a number of Hammett biographies. In spite of the untruths, Hammett’s reputation came out mostly unscathed. It helped that by the time of the lawsuit and attendant scandal his books had already been reprinted and reembraced, and any lapses could be explained away as well-meaning but misguided idealism by anyone inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt or overlooked entirely since his Communist Party membership began after the novels stopped, and we as a culture tend to be willing to excuse and overlook much worse than that from a white guy who’s written well-liked books. It also helped that he’d been dead for years by the time Hellman’s memoirs started coming out, so no one held him responsible for any of the falsehoods about his life. He had also been a serial exaggerator during his life, and some of the falsehoods Hellman wrote down had definitely come from him, but his name wasn’t on the memoirs and he wasn’t part of the lawsuit, so Hellman ended up taking the fall for all of it. Still, even if things weren’t as dramatic and consistently admirable as Hellman had portrayed them, that didn’t mean Hammett’s life lacked for dramatic or admirable moments. He really had been a Pinkerton that later become radicalized, although it seems it was the Spanish Civil War that did it more than his Pinkerton experiences. And the regrettable WWII isolationism only lasted until America entered the war, at which point he switched back to anti-fascism and enlisted in the army. This took some maneuvering because he was almost 50, had never fully recovered from the tuberculosis he’d caught during WWI, and was an active member of the Communist Party, but he managed to enlist and serve. And during the Red Scare he really was willing to take a principled stand in front of HUAC and serve time in prison and suffer financially for it.
I prefer Mary McCarthy as a writer and person, and I find the way Hellman rewrote political history ethically questionable at best, but Hellman was a great literary mythmaker. Hammett’s reputation and legacy owe a lot to her, for better and worse.
3. The Op
However one feels about Hammett’s life, and however fascinating his life was, the reason anyone bothers to learn about his life is because of the writing he produced during it. So far, I’ve read his first two novels, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, both of which star the Continental Op, an unnamed agent employed a Pinkerton-style outfit who starred in many of Hammett’s short stories. He’s described as a short, stocky middle-aged man, cynical and tough and willing to use dirty tricks if need be but with a sense of duty to his job and a genuine interest in sorting things out. I’ve been picturing Bob Hoskins.
In Red Harvest, he’s sent to Personville, referred to as “Poisonville” by everybody who knows the place, and sets about cleaning things up. The way he cleans up the town will be familiar, in broad strokes, to anyone who’s seen Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, or Sergio Leone’s uncredited remake of Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars. Our unnamed mercenary rides into a town run by rival gangs and works on turning everybody against everybody else, shattering every fragile alliance in hopes that all the town’s problems will wipe each other out. Kurosawa credited Hammett as an inspiration but somewhat confusingly claimed it was Hammett’s fourth novel, The Glass Key, and its 1942 film version that he based Yojimbo on in spite of the much closer resemblance between Yojimbo and Red Harvest. The Coen brothers’ first film, Blood Simple, gets its title from a line in Red Harvest, and they’ve claimed that Miller’s Crossing is an adaptation in spirit of Red Harvest and The Glass Key (it borrows more from the latter). Throughout the 70’s into the early 80’s Bernardo Bertolucci tried to get an adaptation off the ground starring Jack Nicholson as the Op but it never ended up happening.
I had a great time reading Red Harvest. As I previously mentioned, it’s a fast-paced story full of frequent murder and double-crosses; there is ostensibly a mystery for the Op to solve, of a newspaperman’s murder, but it reads as an action novel, not a detective one. Too many plot developments and characters are introduced too quickly for the Op or the reader to do anything but roll with punches. There’s not a lot of time to consider clues when rival gangs are launching drive-by shootings on each other’s speakeasies and tossing pipe bombs, when our hero will suddenly get the idea to using blackmail to fix a boxing match just to see what kind of chaos he can cause. It’s a book that gets so out of control that the only way to end it is calling in the National Guard. Every page has lines like this, from a scene where the Op and a man who knows that the Op knows incriminating things about him are simultaneously contemplating how to get the upper hand as soon as one of them inevitably makes a move: “He stood at the foot of the bed and looked at me with solemn eyes. I sat on the side of the bed and looked at him with whatever kind of eyes I had at the time. We did this for nearly three minutes.” It’s a story of venality, vice, and violence delivered with a pretty deadpan, matter-of-fact style and plenty of black comedy. You can see why he’s a favorite of the Coens.
Some Hammett scholars have argued pretty convincingly that Personville is probably based on Butte, Montana in the aftermath of the mining company crushing the strike (see J.A. Zumoff for a good summary). Even though the stories of Hammett’s direct involvement are almost certainly false, he would have been familiar with the Butte strike. The story of Personville’s descent into Poisonville is relayed to the Op on his arrival by a “wobbly” (that’s an IWW organizer) who explains that Elihu Wilsson, town bigshot, hired goons to take care of a strike using whatever force they felt necessary. Unfortunately, “old Elihu didn’t know his Italian history” and once the goons had taken care of the strikers, they took over the town, blackmailing Elihu with his complicity in what happened during the strike-breaking and terrorizing everyone else. Some Hammett scholars have also argued, based on this, that the seeds of Hammett’s later turn to Marxism are evident in Red Harvest (see Zumoff again for a consideration of that claim, which he doesn’t find very convincing). I think it’s more amusingly cynical than coherently political, and my primary reason for recommending it is pure enjoyment. The characters are one dimensional, the escapes are frequently implausible, and plot developments prioritize excitement over sense, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Trying to “improve” the book would just slow it down.
The Dain Curse, published a few months after Red Harvest in 1929, is generally considered the weakest of Hammett’s novels. Having only read the two, all I can say for sure is that it’s not as good as Red Harvest. It wasn’t exactly serialized in Black Mask initially, instead it was what’s known as a “fix-up,” a reworking of pre-existing short stories that weren’t originally conceived as a continuous story into a novel, done fairly quickly to keep up the momentum from Red Harvest’s success while he worked on The Maltese Falcon. In this case, four short stories became a novel with three sections, each focusing on a separate case that somehow involves one Gabrielle Leggett. Leggett is convinced that the curse of the title is responsible for the run of bad luck surrounding her, while the Op is sure that there’s no such thing as a curse and, in spite of the apparent solutions he finds at the end of each section, believes that there must be some angle he’s missing. Things get really outlandish, with a story that begins with a simple diamond theft soon escalating to include daring escapes from Devil’s Island, a San Francisco cult, ghostly visions, kidnappings, bombings, and a few dozen characters, all in just over 200 pages. Hammett does seem to be trying something here, because he has the Op consult and argue with Owen Fitzstephan, a novelist who insists that all this melodrama is exactly how a crime story should go, much to the Op’s chagrin. It often seems like it might tip over into parody, and maybe parody is the best way to justify the not very persuasive or satisfying conclusion. Hammett himself agreed with the general consensus and later dismissed the book as “a silly story.” It’s not entirely without defenders; Isabelle Boof-Vermesse, for example, sees it as an illustration of chaotic systems in a logical sense (the article, by necessity, spoils the plot of The Dain Curse early and often). I’d call it a very flawed book, not a failure but a book it’s unlikely anyone would pick up today if it weren’t for Hammett’s other books.
The Op does more detective work in The Dain Curse, but the continuous introduction of new characters and plot elements again means that the reader just has to go along with the story and not try to solve it. He gets in some good lines, but not nearly as many as in Red Harvest, and for most of the book is less charming as a consequence. His interactions with non-white characters, mainly the Leggetts’ African-American maid, are, considering it’s 1929, not awful, but they’re hardly great and they’re definitely not going to endear the Op to modern readers. Still, in spite of its many flaws, The Dain Curse isn’t devoid of enjoyable parts. Two sections in particular, the San Francisco cult and the Op’s efforts to help Gabrielle Leggett beat her heroin addiction, stood out to me. While the Op has fewer good lines this time around, he does get in a solid one about the cult, the Temple of the Holy Grail, which is a new age mystical thing attended largely by the fashionable rich: “They brought their cult to California because everybody does, and picked San Francisco because it held less competition than Los Angeles.” But there’s a lot of dialogue like this: “Gabrielle was always, even before she became addicted to drugs, a child of, one might say, limited mentality; and so, by the time the London police had found us, we had succeeded in quite emptying her mind of memory, that is, of this particular memory.” The comma abuse makes it read more like one of my sentences than Red Harvest, and it also provides an idea of the kind of convoluted and very silly plotting, which requires large portions of the book to be people explaining things that have happened to each other (again, more like my writing than Red Harvest).
In spite of the minor letdown of The Dain Curse, which I wasn’t expecting a ton from anyway given its reputation, I’m looking forward to continuing with Hammett, because for the most part people agree that The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key are his best, and even The Dain Curse, which is supposed to be his worst, was an okay time.
4. Manchette: The Basic Story
What led me to finally get around to reading Hammett was a recent addiction to French crime writer Jean-Patrick Manchette, a Hammett devotee. Manchette was born in Marseille in December of 1942, a month after German and Italian forces had occupied the city. He studied English literature at the Sorbonne and contributed to the left-wing paper La Voie Communiste in opposition to the Algerian War. In the 60s, he and his wife Melissa began translating American crime novels for Gallimard’s Serie Noire imprint. During this same period Manchette embraced the “libertarian Communism,” as an authorial stand-in in one of his books refers to it, of the Situationists and Guy Debord. France had an active Communist Party that stuck to the Soviet party line, and in the late 60s Maoism enjoyed a brief vogue and this caused a lot of internecine sparring in addition to sparring with the Socialist party. Manchette and Situationists like Debord that informed his thinking opposed the repressive “state socialism” of the Soviets and the Chinese, but still considered the Socialists too moderate, making them something of a fringe within a fringe. I wouldn’t quote me on the factions of the French left, I don’t speak French, it’s all highly complicated, and I have classes I’m supposed to be doing work for right now which has limited the amount of research I can do for this essay, but this is what I’ve picked up. Like many French of his generation, he was profoundly affected by the events of the May 68 uprising and the failure of the left to convert all the energy and momentum into a political victory. The internecine sparring among the left didn’t help, but more important was the failure to sustain and further build the alliance between the radicals and the workers that briefly emerged during the mass strikes (again, I wouldn’t quote me on this).
Manchette seized on crime writing, and, in particular, what he dubbed Hammett’s “behaviorist” style of crime fiction, a focus on the purely external, visible elements of the world and the characters in it, to channel his disillusionment. He noted the similarities between Hammett’s prose and Hemingway’s, which emerged around the same time, but dismissed Hemingway as “inferior because pretentious.” Between 1971 and 1981 he wrote ten books published by Serie Noire that reinvigorated French crime writing. After the tenth, The Prone Gunman (La Position du Tireur Couché in its original French), he took a break, feeling there was nothing more he could do with the crime novel except repeat himself. He also wrote essays on noir and politics, screenplays (primarily pure “for-hire” work), and film reviews, although little of this writing has been translated. His journals have also been released posthumously in France. The few essays that are translated are hosted on the Marxists.org database. At the time of his death from cancer in 1995 he was preparing to launch a new cycle of novels, a series of globe spanning adventures covering the second half of the twentieth century decade by decade, with a focus on Cold War intrigue, but only part of the first novel, which involved characters mixed up in events in Cuba in 1956, was completed. Translator Donald Nicholson-Smith has been working on making Manchette’s writing available in English with the aid of fellow translators Alyson Waters and James Brook (you can read an interview with him about his decades-long effort here). Two of the translations were published by City Lights and the rest have been taken up by the New York Review of Books, in really wonderful editions with helpful forewords and/or afterwords that provide all the necessary French social and political context.
4.5 Serie Noire or What Do the French Have to Do With All This?
Before I get more into Manchette, it’s worth explaining more about Serie Noire, the French publishing imprint I mentioned, founded in 1945 by Marcel Duhamel. What I know about Duhamel is vague, due to there not being much on him in English (the most useful source I’ve found on him, which provides a foundation for this section, is James Naremore’s “American Film Noir: The History of an Idea”), but intriguing: Duhamel had been connected to the surrealists in the 20s, the house in Montparnasse he shared with screenwriter Jacques Prevert, novelist Raymond Queneau, and artist Yves Tanguy being one of the movement’s main hangouts. As the 30s rolled around, he translated two American crime novels, W.R. Burnett’s Little Caesar and Raoul Whitfield’s Green Ice, which got him work in the film industry, translating dialogue of American films into French and appearing in character parts, including in Jean Renoir’s The Crime of Monsieur Lange from 1936. In 1944 he encountered two novels by the British pulp writer Peter Cheyney, starring Cheyney’s character Lemmy Caution. Duhamel talked to the head of Gallimard and proposed a line of crime fiction, primarily translations of Anglo-American pulp novels. That takes us back to September 1945 and the founding of Serie Noire, five months after the German surrender. Starting with the two Lemmy Caution adventures.
Now, while I mentioned that at the time of Hammett’s death his books were out of print in America, in France they were available, translated by Duhamel himself and issued through Serie Noire. The French kept a number of American crime novelists in print and circulating when they’d been largely forgotten in America; read them, wrote about them, and continued adapting them into notable movies after Hollywood had moved on. David Goodis’ Down There, published by Serie Noire as Tirez sur le pianiste! in 1957, became a Truffaut film in 1960. Godard turned to Serie Noire frequently, adapting Dolores Hitchens (Fools’ Gold, published by Serie Noire in 1959, became 1963’s Bande à part), Lionel White (Obsession, published by Serie Noire in 1963, provides the basis for 1965’s Pierrot Le Fou), using Donald Westlake as a jumping off point for Made in USA (The Jugger, one of Westlake’s Parker novels under his Richard Stark pseudonym, published by Serie Noire in 1966, the same year Made in USA came out. Godard was working fast then, too fast to bother with clearing the rights to the book. Technically only the opening and closing scenes of the movie have anything to do with the book, but that was enough to keep it unavailable (legally) in the USA until 2009 outside of its showings at the 1967 New York Film Festival. Last year, I watched it streaming on the Criterion Channel app), and Peter Cheyney. The Cheyney “adaptation,” 1965’s Alphaville, was a strange case. It starred Eddie Constantine, who’d played Cheyney’s character Lemmy Caution in a number of French b-movies adapted from Cheyney’s novels in the fifties, and had him reprise his role in an avant-garde sci-fi noir adventure. It’s not actually adapted from any of Cheyney’s books but it is an “official” use of the Lemmy Caution character; if I’m remembering the account of events from Richard Brody’s Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard correctly, it was pitched to producers as an adaptation of actual Cheyney books and Godard even had an assistant write up a script based on two Cheyney books to show the investors in order to secure the money and the rights to the character, and then just went and made the movie he wanted to make. Jim Thompson was adapted by Alain Corneau for 1979’s Serie Noire, based on A Hell of a Woman, which had been published in France by Serie Noire in 1967 (for my money, it's the best film version of Thompson in any language. Experimental novelist Georges Perec wrote the screenplay(!)) and by Bertrand Tavernier in 1981’s Oscar-nominated Coup de Torchon, based on Thompson’s Pop. 1280, published in France by Serie Noire in 1966 as 1275 âmes with no accounting for where those five souls got lost in translation. Pop. 1280 was given a place of pride as the 1000th title published by Serie Noire. That they had amassed a catalog of a thousand titles in the 21 years between those first Lemmy Caution novels and Pop. 1280 seems a clear indication that there was an audience for Serie Noire.
Another reason the French are so associated with American crime fiction is the name of the imprint, Serie Noire, a title suggested by Jacques Prevert. Literally translated, it means “black series,” and the books were printed with black covers and the titles printed in yellow, a design choice also suggested by Prevert that became iconic, but the phrase “serie noire” also means something like “a run of bad luck.” In 1946, French critic Nino Frank wrote an article about some recent trends in American crime films, often adapted from writers that were being translated and published in France by Serie Noire, and offered “films ‘noirs’” as a potential term for the trend. It wasn’t until the mid-50’s, though, that the term “film noir” really began to catch on following the publication of the first book-length study, Panorama du film noir américain, in 1955 by the French critics (and second-generation surrealists) Raymonde Borde and Etienne Chaumenton. Marcel Duhamel wrote the introduction.
5. Getting Back on Track: Manchette’s Novels
If you’re still with me, I’ll return to Manchette, whose involvement with Serie Noire gave him a great familiarity with American crime writing, a familiarity that was filtered through surrealists, Situationists, and nouvelle vague films. The result is crime novels where the narrator will slip in declarations like this one, which closes the opening chapter of 1976’s 3 to Kill: “The reason why Georges is barreling along the outer ring road, with diminished reflexes, listening to this particular music, must be sought first and foremost in the position occupied by Georges in the social relations of production. The fact that Georges has killed at least two men in the course of the last year is not germane. What is happening now used to happen from time to time in the past.”
Manchette, like the Hammett of Red Harvest, is a crime writer, not really a mystery writer, with an exception I’ll come to in a bit. Often, as in the above quote from 3 to Kill, he jumps ahead in his narration to reveal outcomes ahead of time and let the reader know that fates are already sealed. In 1973’s Nada, which I’d recommend as a starting point, the outcome is given to the reader in the opening chapter, presented as a letter home from a semi-literate cop to his mother describing his pride at the job done killing the Nada Gang, a left-wing terror cell made up of a motley crew of despairing radicals that kidnapped the American ambassador. The rest of the book takes us back through the Nada Gang’s clumsy but surprisingly (even to them) successful kidnapping plot and the subsequent crackdown by the state. When the terrorists comment on their futures, the narrator reminds the reader that they don’t have one, that their deaths are rapidly approaching. It’s clear that Manchette is more sympathetic to the terrorists than the state, but both sides come in for mockery, and ultimately he warns that “leftist terrorism and State terrorism, even if their motivations cannot be compared, are the two jaws of the same mug’s game.” In a move that may prove troubling to some readers, he doesn’t rule out violence entirely, but argues that “terrorism is only justified when revolutionaries have no other means of expressing themselves and when the masses support them.” In post-68 Europe, he believed letting despair become violence was a mistake, although in an introduction to a later edition of Nada he would later chastise himself for failing to consider that the state may, through provocateurs, create a spectacle of violence if the left refused to provide it. In Nada the spectacle of terrorism ends up serving the state, who use the ambassador’s kidnapping for all kinds of inter-departmental bargaining; in the scenes where we follow the police closing in on the gang, the biggest obstacle isn’t any measures the gang have taken but various factions within the police and intelligence agencies withholding information from each other to use as leverage (a group within the police force loyal to an official with OAS ties who was pushed out in the aftermath of Algeria, for example, sees an opportunity to restore him to power. If acronyms like OAS are meaningless to you, don’t worry, the NYRB edition will fill you in).
Lest these books sound like dry political lectures that happen to include crime, I want to emphasize that, like his American models, Manchette wisely keeps his books under 200 pages, with a lot of the chapters running two to three pages, and packs them with precisely dictated and thrilling action. Outside of Nada and The N’Gustro Affair, the politics are mostly implicit and only articulated in throwaway lines. The N’Gustro Affair, from 1971, was Manchette’s solo debut under his own name, following pseudonymous work for hire gigs writing stuff like erotica and film novelizations and a novel, Laissez bronzer les Cadavres, co-authored with Jean-Pierre Bastid; it’s the most overtly political, a fictionalization of the life and violent death of Georges Figon, a minor character in the real life 1965 Ben Barka Affair, the kidnapping and assassination of a Moroccan opposition leader on French soil with the complicity of the French police; Gary Indiana’s introduction to The N’Gustro Affair does a good job laying out the known parts of a still murky historical episode. I probably enjoyed it more than the actual book it was introducing. Its shallow, smug primary narrator, an amoral middle class petty criminal with ubermensch delusions from taking a few philosophy classes before dropping out and enlisting in the army to avoid prison time for one of his violent, antisocial outbursts, is hard to spend a whole book with, even a pretty short one, even with some amusing lines like, “I’m not queer and I’m not a masochist but I must admit, to be frank, that there is pleasure to be derived from rough manhandling by powerful brutes, particularly when they are one’s intellectual inferiors.” I know I said I wasn’t going to make this about Jean Genet, and I won’t, but that’s the sort of sentiment that feels pulled directly from stuff like Querelle. It’s pretty good for a debut, but if I’d read it first I don’t know that I would have been looking to read more Manchette right away. Outside of The N’Gustro Affair’s perhaps overly thorough study of a distinctly unpleasant character, though, even a strongly political novel like Nada puts entertainment first, working as a breathlessly paced thriller with characters that argue about politics amidst all the action.
Action is where Manchette really excels. His interest in “behaviorist” writing and experience as a screenwriter results in books that emphasize the physical and how the characters are navigating their environments. This never goes smoothly. Like fellow Hammett disciples the Coen brothers, Manchette includes an element of slapstick in his portrayals of brutal violence. Everyone is bumping into things, tripping, firing shots that end up maiming instead of killing. A highlight of his second novel, the chase narrative The Mad and the Bad, has a team of killers catching up with its unstable heroine Julie (she’s been pulled out of an asylum and given a babysitting job by a wealthy philanthropist even though she’s pretty sure she wasn’t ready to leave) in the middle of a crowded grocery store: “Coco came in through the glass doors. Suddenly he dashed forward. Julie whirled round. Tableware was on display close by, and she swept a pile of unbreakable plates onto the floor. They didn’t break.” It’s possible, from these sentences, to see the series of shots that would occur in a film version of The Mad and the Bad (one was made, but I haven’t seen it). Things quickly escalate from there, as the killers start firing wildly into the grocery store while Julie makes use of whatever she can grab off of shelves and display tables to fight back and panicked shoppers run in every direction. The outbreak of public violence is at once horrifying and, thanks to descriptions of unbreakable plates not breaking and “fragments of plastic toys spraying into the air along the path of [a] bullet” while “above the hullaballoo [float] the sweet yet cannonading tones of an old Joan Baez hit, piped in through the speakers,” pretty funny. It’s also pretty surreal, in the sense of Andre Breton’s declaration in The Second Surrealist Manifesto from 1929 that “the simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd. Anyone who, at least once in his life, has not dreamed of thus putting an end to the petty system of debasement and cretinization in effect has a well-defined place in that crowd with his belly at barrel-level.” As Thompson, a hitman with a stomach ailment, spits bile on the tile floor and doubles over with laughter in between gunshots that take out “commodities” and unlucky bystanders, it seems like a dramatization of Breton’s provocation. (It should be kept in mind that a key inspiration for the surrealists was the Comte de Lautremont’s celebration of evil and vileness, Les Chants de Maldoror, and that Breton was kind of a misanthropic asshole and petty tyrant.) The book’s final set piece is another piece of unnervingly violent comedy, a shootout occurring on a grassy hillside shortly after a rain so everyone is slipping and sliding across the landscape while desperately fighting for their lives.
I’ve enjoyed all the Manchette novels I’ve read so far, which is everything that’s been translated into English at the moment except The Prone Gunman and the second half of 3 to Kill, which I’m currently in the middle of. Nada, as previously mentioned, is a good starting point, and The Mad and the Bad isn’t a bad place to start either. To finish this quick tour, I want to focus on No Room at the Morgue, Manchette’s spin on the mystery novel, and return to Hammett. The star of the book is Eugene Tarpon, private eye, the only Manchette character to get a sequel (most don’t make it out of their books alive, and the ones that do are rarely in any condition for further adventures), Que d’os!, which is currently being translated for the New York Review of Books. Alyson Waters is handling the translations for both Tarpon books. No Room at the Morgue is one of Manchette’s most direct homages to Hammett (not the only one, as the later Fatale is sort of a reworking of Red Harvest), laconically narrated in the first person by its private eye hero like the Op stories and novels. However, unlike the Op, Tarpon is really bad at being a private eye. When the book opens, he’s preparing to close his office and move back in with his mother in the countryside. He hasn’t actually had any cases, and his money has run out. He was a cop until he killed a protestor during the events of May 68. The events are murky, mostly due to Tarpon trying very hard not to think about them, but what we can gather is that he made a television appearance afterwards owning up to what happened and left the force under highly strained circumstances amid a moral crisis. Now, he drinks and plays at being a private detective and gets uncomfortable when people inevitably recognize him from television. Here he is, handling a potential client:
“What brings you to me? I mean, where’d you get my name?” I asked, thinking it was a good question. They often ask it in American movies, even though they phrase it better.
“You placed an ad in Detection.”
I held on to the edge of the table and felt like vomiting. Yes, precisely. I got a grip on myself.
When he finally does get involved in a murder case, he’s completely incompetent and it’s mostly other characters coming to his aid that enable the case to be cracked. If you’re on the book’s comic wavelength, this only adds to his charm.
No Room at the Morgue is a surprisingly hopeful novel (maybe the sequel takes a darker turn, but I won’t know until it’s translated). Tarpon, despite his unpleasant past, is a well-meaning sad sack tormented by his mistakes, and he’s very easy to root for. It’s not at all what you’d expect from a radical left author otherwise critical of the state and the police. The explanation, I think, is Hammett. After all, Hammett went from a Pinkerton, working for “an enterprise specializing in the applied class struggle” as Manchette put it in an essay on “Dash,” to a committed Communist willing to take jail time instead of naming names. Maybe among the cops who crushed the protests during May 68 there could be another Hammett. Maybe not, but without a belief that people can change in ways other than abandoning idealism as they age, it’s hard to have any hope at all, and Hammett, for all his flaws, is evidence that people can change. Tarpon hasn’t undergone any major shift by the finale of No Room at the Morgue, ending it about as oblivious as he began, but he manages to do the right thing and fights against what turn out to be, in a sense, the forces of fascism, even if he doesn’t understand that that’s what he’s doing.
One has to find hope somewhere, something to keep from sliding into the Nada Gang’s despair. Manchette seems to have found it in Hammett.
6. Crime Novels (Slight Return)
If anyone’s facing readers’ block, well, you probably stopped reading ages ago. But if, somehow, you’re still here, I hope you’ll head to the library or a bookstore and grab a crime novel, find one of those easy, pleasurable reads and also find it has a lot more to offer. And maybe you’ll pick up The Group, or The Passion, too, and rediscover what you liked about reading. If you’re not facing readers’ block but haven’t ever read Hammett or Manchette or the others I hope you’ll add them to your to-read list and give them a shot because I think they’re great writers. And if you’ve never really given the genre a shot, I hope you, too, will be inspired to think about crime.
Thank you, Elise, for the help cleaning this up (there were a lot parentheticals that went on even longer originally, among other things) and thinking through things more thoroughly, and most of all for being a friend.
by Lucas Fink
Rick Altman wrote about how Hollywood narrative cinema is basically structured around and propelled by a character with easily-understood motivations progressing through a series of events chained together causally. So, things like spectacle and pathos (musical numbers, action scenes, sobbing, screaming, bright colors, etcetera) are outside, are in excess of, this dominant Hollywood system. Altman offers a crucial nuance here, though: this excess is only conceived of as such relative to the system that asserts itself as dominant. The implications are that excess, secondary logics, minor positions, spaces of subversion, or whatever you want to call them are not in themselves excessive. In his words, “Unless we recognize the possibility that excess – defined as such because of its refusal to adhere to a system – may itself be organized as a system, then we will hear only the official language and forever miss the text’s dialect, and dialectic”(35).The rub here is that, if given the chance, that which is repressed by a given dominant system could very well organize itself into its own system. I wish ask if this has ever actually happened, if oppositional elements have ever been allowed to flower into a system of their own. The song “Brother Sport” by psychedelic pop group Animal Collective presents, I think, a decent approximation of such a system, a system in which the marginal becomes the dominant. The dominant’s status as such, then, is a product of contingency, and forever precarious.
First, we must define the dominant for pop music. Altman here is working with film, and thus defines the dominant for film: “With few exceptions they[film theorists of the past two decades] have stressed omniscient narration, linear presentation, character-centered causality, and psychological motivation … [as well as] the importance of invisible editing, verisimilitude of space, and various devices used to assure continuity”(15). It is in reference to these dominant standards of storytelling that Altman identifies the excessive: contingency/coincidences(33), parallelism/multiplicity of perspectives(20-26), overlong spectacles, and unabashed pathos. What, then, constitutes the dominant for contemporary pop music?
We can, with little research effort, determine that the vast majority of popular music adheres to the “verse A – chorus - verse B – chorus – bridge - chorus” structure, or some mild variation. It is now apparent why pop music is often said to be “hook reliant”, for the dominant structure is designed to foreground a singular catchy refrain. Everything that is not the hook/chorus then takes on a supportive role, becoming connective tissue which justifies the song’s existence as a song - as more than just one random earworm - usually via the delivery of some narrative related to the chorus’s lyrical content. Pop’s lyrical content is impressively diverse, making it difficult to explain the genre’s dominant in terms of lyrics. Whatever the song is “about” superficially, though, the lyrics almost always situate the listener comfortably in either a physical setting, interpersonal scenario, or psychological condition. Importantly, because of pop’s unswerving loyalty to its central refrain, the situation the listener finds themselves in is usually static; a given song is obligated by its structure to repeat its one refrain, and whatever lyrical content therein, multiple times. Charli XCX’s “Vroom Vroom” is about driving really fast; the listener begins the song in a fast car and ends the song in a fast car. Lorde’s “Royals” is about class resentment; the listener begins the song simultaneously fetishizing and repudiating inaccessible opulence and ends the song doing the same thing. However, just as Altman discusses the necessary presence of a counter-logic wherever there is a dominant logic(31), so too is the marginal present in pop. The verses, being the only non-repeated element of pop songs, are the marginal. More specifically, the verses’ promise of change, of a meaningful evolution throughout the song, is the marginal, even though this is a false promise. The verses exist to trick the listener into thinking the end of the song will be different from the beginning, just as unpredictable beginnings in American film exist to veil the fact that the ending will almost certainly be a happy one(Altman 32).
How does “Brother Sport” systematize elements that would otherwise be subordinate/tertiary? The track engages in a wholesale jettisoning of classic pop structure such that it becomes impossible to even locate a verse or chorus. Instead, the listener encounters three rhythmically distinct hooks woven into a lush soundscape of twinkling synths and thrumming African/Latin-inspired percussion. The second hook immediately follows the first, and the last hook is separated from the others by an unapologetically lengthy chunk of instrumental phantasmagoria. The rub here is that each hook – which, in the context of a classic pop structure, would be the centerpiece of its own singular song - is mercilessly excised from the track to make room for the next. The primacy of hooks/the revered status hooks enjoy in classic pop song structure is thus wholly undermined, indeed flatly rejected in favor of an entirely different system, an entirely different operationalization of hooks. “Brother Sport” then organizes itself not around the singular, imitable, omnipotent God-Chorus, but around a rhizomatic multiplicity of catchy lyrical nuggets, none of which are afforded more ontological significance than the others.
Furthermore, Animal Collective supplants the illusion of progression common to classic pop tracks by actual progression. In “Brother Sport”, the situation is an interpersonal scenario: the singer, whose father has just died, is giving his brother advice regarding mourning. Here’s the icing on the cake, though: the song, in virtue of its atypical structure, ends differently than it began, for the writers have the gall to conclude with a hook other than the one they began with. We begin with refusal of tragedy(“I know it sucks that daddy’s done but try to think of what you want”) and end with hopeful, future-oriented euphoria(“You’ve got a real good shot […] Keep it real; give a real shout out”). “Brother Sport” then affirms that, however naturalized the classical system may be, its position as such is perpetually tenuous and contingent on the subduing of its excess, excess which contains a world in itself, albeit unactualized. “Brother Sport” is this actualization of the worlds nestled in the crevices in the status quo.