little jolts of pleasure

(This post has a lot of links, mostly to videos which — I hope — help make my points, but they’re all optional, so I put some of them at the end. I’m hoping I make the argument clear in what I’m writing.)

I’ve been planning for a while to write a blog post called “Little Jolts of Pleasure,” about how movies and television shows please audiences on a moment-to-moment basis, and then it made me think of the big kerfuffle a couple of years back when Martin Scorsese said that “Marvel movies aren’t cinema.”

I thought at the time that there was probably a case to be made, but that Scorsese did a lousy job of making it. He’s operating within a fixed set of assumptions, and he made an “argument” that seemed mostly designed to get nods and Likes from people who already share those assumptions.

But, since I really don’t care about what’s “cinema” and what isn’t in the first place, I dropped the idea of writing about it. “High art,” “low art,” “literary” vs. “genre” writing, “cinema,” “film,” “movies” — whatever. Seek out the good and avoid the crap.

But then I read this: “Kevin Feige Says Marvel Makes Movies Specifically for Packed Theaters

I thought about the classic movie moment when, in some form or other, the cavalry arrives to save the day. Audiences yell and cheer and pump their fists and share a moment. I haven’t seen every Marvel movie, but there are certainly a bunch of those moments in the movies I have seen. And that’s fine — everybody loves the arrival of the Big Damn Heroes (not from a Marvel movie).

But then I started dipping into videos of people watching episodes from Game of Thrones at a place called the Burlington Bar. And some of it is people really enjoying Sansa Stark finally getting the better of master manipulator Littlefinger, and Arya Stark leaping in at the last possible moment to save her brother Bran, and also the rest of humanity (spoiler).

But then there’s the “Loot Train Attack,” where everybody cheers the fact that Daenerys and her huge Dothraki army and her giant fire-breathing dragon are attacking the (evil) Lannisters, and in the process burning soldiers to death (cooking them inside their armor, in essence) and destroying a year’s worth of grain for the entire region, and you can see the people in the bar gradually quiet down as they see how brutal this all is. Dragons, if they existed, would be a horrible weapon to use against soldiers armed with swords and spears and arrows.

Even apart from the fact that, before the entire series is over (spoiler), Daenerys will burn an entire city to the ground (after the city surrendered to her), this is terrible to watch. The music brings this out wonderfully, too. I particularly love a shot of two horses galloping away while pulling a burning wagon, obviously trying desperately to escape the fire that’s attached to them.

Marvel movies don’t do that. When the cavalry arrives, in whatever form, you get the big rush of “Yeah!” and you can sit happily with that feeling for as long as you want.

Even Captain America: Winter Soldier and Captain Marvel, which dealt a lot with “who can you trust?” and “who should you follow?” ended up with the main character definitely on the side of right, and the bad guys established as obviously and completely evil.

To bring this back to mystery stories, because everything relates to mystery stories, this was one thing I really liked about the Ellery Queen mysteries (the good ones). As I’ve talked about before, they occasionally examined and played with the general “mystery –> solution = triumph!” formula. Sometimes Ellery solved a mystery but held back the solution because of the harm it would cause, or he had trouble figuring out the best way to deal with what he (and nobody else) knew:

A man is haunted by nightmares that he killed his mother when he was young, though it was generally held that she had committed suicide. Ellery investigated, and he discovered that, in reality, the boy had (accidentally) poisoned his mother. So, Ellery constructed another explanation to try to help relieve the man’s torment, rather than reveal the truth.

A man — a husband and father, an apparently nice guy — is accused of murder. After he is convicted, mostly due to circumstantial evidence, Ellery is called in to try to save him from the electric chair. Ellery “fails,” but he later reveals to one person that he had solved the case, and the nice family man was indeed a nice family man, and he was also a murderer. Ellery, who was obviously still somewhat conflicted, had decided it was better to let everybody think that he (Ellery) had failed, rather than to have him explain that their beloved husband and father was guilty.

If you do this on a regular basis, then it becomes another gimmick, another cliche, but if an audience goes into a movie knowing there’s absolutely no chance this will ever happen, then it really is an amusement park ride.

And so I think Scorsese’s argument is specifically about Marvel movies, which are all centrally planned out and controlled by Disney, rather than “superhero” movies or “action” movies or “genre” movies in general. In Alien, only Ripley survives, and there was no guarantee that she would. In the Marvel world, she’d be guaranteed to survive because Sigourney Weaver would already be under contract for three sequels.

By the way, I’m not holding up Game of Thrones as great art (for one thing, there are still some seasons I haven’t even watched, and the last few episodes definitely suck), and certainly it delivered a lot of great, unambiguous “the cavalry is here!” moments, but in GoT you can’t always rely on the fact that 1) the cavalry will show up in time, 2) the cavalry will win, or 3) the cavalry actually represents anything good.


Littlefinger’s death:

Reaction to Littlefinger’s death:

Loot train attack:

Reaction to the Loot Train Attack:

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paul temple, and more papa

Paul Temple

As I mentioned a couple of times ago, I’ve been listening avidly to the Paul Temple radio detective series. I was trying to find a way to describe it, but then from this article I found this:

In the words of the entertainment historian Keith Howes: “All the plots were hugely convoluted, usually set in and around shady nightclubs and studded with murders and attempted murders, halting deathbed revelations, breathtaking escapes from gunfire, flooded mills or burning boats, [and] a final episode gathering of the suspects.”

That’s an interesting mixture of genre elements, since the show has all the “gentleman detective” fixtures (the sophisticated detective and spouse, the comfortable lifestyle, the banter, the cocktails, the cigarettes, and the gathering of all the suspects at the end of the story — often for cocktails) but there are also all those exploding booby traps, and cars with the brake lines cut, and snipers.

And, unlike most “gentleman detective” stories, the bad guys are almost always criminal gangs, often drug smugglers or blackmailers (or both). So, the solution at the end often has two stages: 1) Of all the characters introduced, which ones are in the gang, and 2) Which one is the head of the gang?

It makes me think of the Ellery Queen stories, where a gangster sometimes appeared as a suspect, but experienced Queen readers always knew that this was a red herring. In one story, the police had actually arrested the gangster, and at the end, when Ellery explained the whole crime, he gently pointed out that they really needed to release the crook, who was, in this case at least, completely innocent.

More Papa Hemingway

In addition to reading Across the River and Into the Trees, as I talked about before, I’ve also reread Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir, by A. E. Hotchner. So, I’m reading Across the River…, and simultaneously reading about the (mostly negative) reaction when it was published.

(By the way, I don’t think Across the River… is actually good, but it’s certainly not the worst book he ever wrote.)

The Hotchner book also brings out what Orson Welles talked about — Hemingway’s deteriorating mental condition when he killed himself. Some of that, especially the helplessness of the people who cared about him as they saw him slip further and further away from reality, is difficult to read.

That part had stuck with me from when I read the book the first time (some decades ago), but I had not remembered the amount of alcohol in the book. Up until the last portion of the book, when Hemingway’s health was bad and he was strictly limiting his drinking, everybody seems to be nearly drowning in booze. I had that in mind when I read this article in the Guardian: “Time to face the brutal truth: there’s no glamour at the bottom of a glass.”

Not that I’m against drinking in general (although I haven’t had a drink since the pandemic started), but the romanticized connection between drinking and writing (most of it by non-writers) is ridiculous.

The Guardian article starts:

When I was 21, I decided I should make a proper effort to be a writer. I knew what I needed: countless films and television shows had told me. I needed a typewriter, fags and a bottle of whisky. I acquired them, and set myself up at the kitchen table. Yep, I thought. Now I am the business. I was Dorothy Parker, Carson McCullers, Raymond Chandler. So I would die miserably – who cares? I was 21, and still immortal.

As always, I go back to my father’s words: “There is only one rule in writing: Write well.” I think Hemingway would have agreed with that.

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death in a box

I’m in the middle of reading two books which have made me think about death — and specifically death in murder mysteries (although neither book is a murder mystery).

One book is Across the River and into the Trees by Ernest Hemingway. After I wrote about “Papa” a few weeks ago, I decided to read Across the River… (although the general opinion seems to be that it’s lousy) — just because it was the only Hemingway novel I’ve never read (not counting the posthumous ones). It’s very much concerned with death — the protagonist, Colonel Richard Cantwell, has a heart condition and knows he’s going to die very soon.

The other book is The Girl in the Back, by Laura Davis-Chanon, a memoir of her days in a New Wave band called the Student Teachers. The Student Teachers were all around sixteen years old, and they were quite successful on the local New York scene, and then beyond.

At one point in the book, Laura is the drummer in an increasingly successful band, basically homeless, attending her high school classes but not always keeping up with her assignments, and seems to be surviving on a diet of White Russians and occasional lines of cocaine.

Being familiar with rock & roll and its related lifestyles, it’s easy to tell that trouble may be on the horizon. (Also, full disclosure: Laura and I are not friends, but we were acquaintances back in those days and we had friends in common, so I know that something else bad is on the horizon for her, too, not related to drugs and alcohol.)

So, both books have a certain ominous quality. They are different, of course, since Colonel Cantwell is clearly going to die, and Laura Davis is obviously going to survive since she recently wrote the book. Plus, one book is intensely concerned with being old, and the other is about being very young. But they both have a similar mood in the middle of the book — I want to find out what happens next, but I dread it a little, too.

Murder mysteries are obviously concerned with death, but they tend to have the death at or near the beginning (unless they have more than one), which means they often don’t have that same quality of dread. This is probably not an original thought, but in reading these two books it occurred to me that this is why murder mysteries can be so much fun, even though they’re centered on death. The death is contained and relatively safe, like seeing a dangerous animal in a zoo, or in a movie.

And another point is that, in murder mysteries, there is generally the expectation that the death will be explained at the end. It won’t be random or capricious or impersonal, as it often is in real life.

After all, how else is it possible that there could be “cozy” mysteries (which is sort of what I’m writing these days)? There aren’t “cozy” post-apocalyptic disaster stories, or “cozy” zombie horror stories (to mention two other death-centered genres).

It’s good to think about this now, since I’m currently tossing around ideas for the next story in the series I’m writing. In a series of stories like this, there needs to be variety, but there also seems to be some consistency in the underlying assumptions.

If you’re reading a book of Sherlock Holmes short stories, it doesn’t work if in one story he’s solving a mystery on the moon.

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story is “done” & writing is fun

Story is “done”

I think I’m done with “The Heron Island Mystery,” at least for now.

Since I posted the last part of the story, I’ve printed the whole thing out and read it through twice, and I’ve also had it read to me by my tablet (also twice). This revealed a lot of embarrassing typos and other mistakes, as it always does, and they are fixed.

There were a lot of short doubled words this time (“was was,” “the the”), plus the usual errors (“though” when I meant “through,” for example). At least nobody had their name changed suddenly halfway through the story — I was afraid that “Diana” might have slipped into being “Diane” at some point (which would be especially easy with a character who never actually appears in the story), but she was consistently Diana.

So, it’s time to let it sit for a while before I think about some possible areas for improvement (as opposed to blatant errors).

The big question with mystery stories is always how much to explain at the end, and how much to leave unsaid. Explain too little, and readers can start to wonder if it all holds together. Explain too much, and everybody dozes off. (Hitchcock always referred to the scene at the end of Psycho where everything is explained as the “hat-grabber.”)

It is always important to remember the lesson of The Big Sleep, both the book and the movie: There was never any explanation of who murdered the Sternwood chauffeur, and nobody has ever cared. Nobody even noticed the omission until the movie was in production, and someone (I’ve read that it was Bogart) asked the question. A wire was sent to Raymond Chandler, and he realized that he had no idea either.

I’m sure there are still typos in this story (I just found, and fixed, an obvious one in “The Marvel Murder Case“), but I think you never really get rid of every single typo anyway. Inherent Vice — a book by a major author, published by a major publisher — has at least three.

So, I have a tentative list of eight to ten questions to answer, but the answers will be better if I wait a bit to ask the questions.

Writing is fun

As I’ve described before, writing is a very exciting process.

Last time I talked about the question of italicizing foreign words, which is a fascinating subject (and I didn’t even cover “pied-à-terre” or “en masse”).

This week, I had to wrangle with a different question, in “The Heron Island Mystery (part two)“:

I calculated how long it would take for her to arrive, factoring in how fast she could drive, and quickly trotted across the road to the cafeteria. I bought a cup of coffee and a danish and carried them back to the car as I heard a siren approaching. I got into the car and started it up.

So, the question is the word “danish.” Capitalize, or not? Webster’s doesn’t recognize “danish” at all — they prefer “Danish pastry.” Well, for a pastry purchased in a college cafeteria, quite possibly one of those ones which are displayed on a metal rack, sealed in plastic, with absolutely no legitimate provenance which can be traced back to Denmark, that seems pompous.

(Webster’s does prefer to lower case “french fry,” though they allow for capitalizing “French” if you prefer — which I don’t.)

So, I kept it as it was (“danish”). But it was fun figuring that out.

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things i like (may 2021)

1. Office Supplies!

I completed my current story a couple of days ago, so now it’s time for reviewing and correcting mistakes (particularly punctuation).

Therefore, first thing this morning, I scooted out and bought new pens, loose leaf paper, loose leaf dividers, page tags, and paper clips. (Well, okay, I admit that paper clips really aren’t that exciting.)

Office supplies are a family tradition. Any new project, or any new stage in a project, requires new paper and pens and so on.

2. The Heron Island Mystery

I started the story on May 4, 2020, so it took over a year to finish. It’s currently around 35,000 words, which means it’s a novella. It still needs some polishing, as I indicated above (hence the urgent necessity of acquiring new office supplies).

I’ve already gone through all my printouts and made some changes in almost all of the episodes (mostly 1-3 corrections per episode, though I think one episode was clean). This is mostly just replacing a word here and changing punctuation there.

For one example, I’ve been thinking a lot about the question of italicizing foreign words. The general rule is that words which have become part of the English language to the extent that they are in the English dictionary (which is a huge number of words, after all) are no longer italicized, but foreign words which are not in the dictionary should be italic. But in this episode I used “sotto voce” and it seemed to be funnier in italics, so that’s what I did, even though it is in Webster’s. On the other hand, the final sentence in the story is in Italian (in this episode) and it seemed to be overkill to italicize it, since it’s a complete sentence, and a complete quotation, in Italian, rather than a word or two of Italian in an English sentence, so I left it in roman.

In other (other) hand, in this episode, Jan Sleet reminds Marshall to “Comporto-se” (which I hope is Portuguese for “Behave yourself” — if it’s not, then that just means that the great detective’s mastery of Portuguese is not as solid as she thinks it is), and that definitely had to be in italics.

Anyway, the next step is to make a file out of the whole thing and have my tablet read it to me. There’s nothing like a completely artificial and unforgiving electronic voice to show up awkward word choices, for example, or just plain wrong words.

3. Paul Temple

I’ve found a new (new to me) fictional detective in audio form. Quite enjoyable.

4. Miley Cyrus

I’ve been aware of Ms. Cyrus for a long time, as everybody has, and my general thought has always been: “What a voice! Call me when she figures out what it should be used for.” Well, based on this, she’s figured out a damn good answer:

5. From the New York Times: “The Punchiest Punchlines (Subway Vax Edition)

I laughed reading these jokes about the fact that now you can get a COVID vaccine shot in some New York City subway stations.

“Because if there’s one thing everybody thinks in the subway, it’s, ‘I wish I could have a medical procedure down here.’” — STEPHEN COLBERT

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the heron island mystery (conclusion)

This story started here.

Professor Frederick Drake was convicted of second-degree murder, among other charges, and the jacket was a key piece of evidence. Manfred had owned two of them, and they’d been custom-made for him, by hand, by an admirer (a lady, as she was described during the trial), and the fact that Drake had been apprehended while wearing the second one had helped to place him in Manfred’s rented room, where the evidence indicated that the murder had taken place.

Professor Drake had insisted, however, that he had only gone to Manfred’s room to confront him about his relationship with Kim Daniels, and that Manfred’s death had happened as a result of the struggle between the men, with no premeditation. Which might have been true, of course.

Kimberly Daniels was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Mary Sanders. Now that Manfred’s murder could be explained, it was pretty straightforward, since means, motive, and opportunity were established, plus there was her confession, and her attempt on Elsa’s life. Mary’s murder had clearly been premeditated. Li offered to pay for a lawyer for Kim, but she declined, using the court-appointed attorney instead.

After Elsa’s testimony in Kim’s trial, she had been annoyed to find out that one wire service report had described her as a “crippled girl.” She made several attempts to register a complaint about this.

I heard from Elsa that the financial situation at Heron House was becoming untenable, and it looked like the other homeowners on the island might finally get their wish to be rid of the college students in their midst. The four remaining women in the house couldn’t manage the rent alone, and, after two murders, it seemed unlikely that any new students would want to move in.

More importantly, the mood in the house was getting worse, too. Li was still conflicted about Kim, and Elsa, who had come close to being Kim’s second victim, was not sympathetic. Becky was stuck in the middle, and apparently Jo stayed in her room as much as she could, with her headphones on, typing away.

I told Elsa that if she needed to move that I would help her to find a new place which would suit her needs.

When my employer and I arrived home after the end of the second trial, she sat at her desk for a few minutes, looking out the window, and then she turned her chair around to face me. “We need to talk,” she said, “about the… the plan. The variation on the plan — my plan — which you and Miss Peabody apparently, from all reports, from your own report… Well?”

“We performed–“

“You performed — apparently ‘performed’ is being used here in the theatrical sense — a sexual act, or a series of sexual acts, while putting her in the position — a ‘position’ … In any case, that was not part of the plan. My plan, as you and I discussed it.”

“Elsa — Miss Peabody — felt–”

“You know, of course, that I never interfere in your personal life.” She made a heroic effort to say this with a straight face, and I graciously allowed it to pass without comment. “But I should point out that she was, at that moment, a suspect. Well, not in the attack on herself, obviously, but in two murders.”

“I think it amused her,” I said carefully, “to imagine the conversation which you and I are having at this moment.”

“You and she have discussed–“

“Of course not. But she has apparently been speculating.”

“Well, she can speculate away.” She sighed and drew her glasses down her nose, regarding me over the rims. “Moving on,” she said firmly, “the case is now closed. I think that it would be appropriate for us to have a celebratory dinner this evening, don’t you agree?”

I nodded. “I do indeed. That’s why I called and made a reservation at La Serata.”

She looked surprised, since I had always vetoed the idea of eating there before, because of the cost.

Then she smiled. “Che pensiero meraviglioso.”

The End

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