Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

Strange love of martha ivers (1946)
Directed by
Lewis Milestone
Screenplay by Robert Rossen and Robert Riskin (uncredited), based on a story by John Patrick
Starring Van Heflin, Barbara Stanwyck, Lizabeth Scott, Kirk Douglas, Judith Anderson, Roman Bohnen, Darryl Hickman, Janis Wilson
IMDB Entry

The center of the film noir genre is not lighting or mood (though black and white photography is essential), but a story that's where an ambitious and ruthless woman leads a man to a tragic end.  The template is Double Indemnity, where Barbara Stanwyck seduces Fred Macmurray into murder.  A year later, Stanwyck was at it again, in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers*, one of the landmarks of the genre.

The movie starts with a long prologue.  A young teen Martha Ivers (Janis Wilson) tries to run away from from her aunt (Judith Anderson), who keeps her under short leash as the heir of the richest family in Iverstown. Sam Masterson is helping when Martha is caught.  Her sleezy tutor, Mr. O'Neil (Roman Bohnen), clumsily tries to ingratiate himself into the aunt's good graces in order to get his son Walter into Harvard.  Martha hates her aunt; Walter and Sam both have crushes on Martha.  When the aunt brutally kills Martha's beloved cat, Martha retaliates, killing her aunt. Walter backs up her story about an intruder being the real killer.

Kirk Douglas, Van Heflin, Barabar StanwyckThe main story begins 18 years later.  Sam (Van Heflin), now a war hero and professional gambler, inadvertently stumbles into town, crashing into a tree and wrecking his car. He runs into Toni Marichek (Lizbeth Scott), a woman with a past.  He discovers that Walter (Kirk Douglas) and Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) are married.  Walter is D.A. (and a massive alcoholic), and his wife had replaced her aunt as the richest and most powerful woman in town.  When he is forced to talk to Walter in order to help out Toni, Walter and Martha fear he is in town to blackmail them, thinking he witnessed the murder.  They have to take action.

I had not seen any of Van Heflin before watching the film.  He's a great surprise as a screen presence -- part Cagney, part Bogart, tough and smart, but tender when it was called for.  Lizbeth Scott, who shares with Stanwyck the title of "Queen of Noir," makes a very good damsel in distress; it's too bad the two of them didn't have more screen time together.

Stanwyck, of course, is brilliant -- ruthless but also damaged, cold but wishing she weren't.  And Kirk Douglas is cast against type** as the meek and tormented Walter, who Sam describes as "a scared little boy." 

Director Lewis Milestone is overlooked today, despite the fact he won two Oscars.  He came to prominence with All Quiet on the Western Front, and directed a string of highly regarded films, including The Front Page*** Anything Goes, The General Died at Dawn, and Ocean's Eleven.***

The film suffers slightly from the Hayes Office, but is still a gem.

*A title that probably would have been used to hint at some sort of sexual fetish today.  Ah, the innocent days.

**Not that his type had been established yet; it was his first major role.

***Original version.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Atlanta Nights

Atlanta Nights By Travis Tea

Wikipedia Page
Free Download (pdf)
Lulu Press Version
Travis Tea Website
Atlanta Nights may be the worst novel ever written.  That was deliberate. It was a sting to prove that PublishAmerica -- who claimed to be a legitimate book publisher -- was actually a vanity press that would accept anything
Over thirty science fiction authors* wrote chapters in one crazy weekend, with only the skimpiest of outlines, with the goal to write as badly as possible.  No one knew what anyone else had written.  Characters changed hair color, description, and even race and even sex from chapter to chapter.  Cliffhangers in one chapter were never resolved.  A character wakes up in the middle of the book and realizes everything was a dream.  Another character is dead, then alive again. The sun sets in the East.  There are penguins in the Sahara.  There were two chapter 12s.  Chapters 4 and 17 were identical.  There was no chapter 21.  Chapter 34 was randomly generated by a computer.
Editor Teresa Neilsen Hayden put it best:
"The world is full of bad books written by amateurs. But why settle for the merely regrettable? Atlanta Nights is a bad book written by experts."
Then the whole mess was sent off the PublishAmerica, who wrote about their high standards and how science fiction writers couldn't write well enough to be accepted by them.
They accepted it.
Of course, word got out immediately.  PublishAmerica then suddenly withdrew their acceptance, saying they discovered one chapter (Chapter 34) was gibberish.  Which means they didn't even read it through**.
The story became an Internet sensation when it was announced in early 2005.  It led to all sorts of jokes and strangeness. 
  • The manuscript was made available for free, but there were also paperback copies at (all proceeds go to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Emergency Medical Fund).  The author is listed as "Travis Tea."***
  • The book was blurbed by some well-known authors, in on the joke, often in terms that were hilariously ambiguous.
    • "Atlanta Nights is sure to please the reader who enjoys this sort of thing" -- Raymond F. Feist
    • "I stayed upright reading it." -- Jane Yolen
    • "Don't fail to miss it if you can!" -- Jerry Pournelle
  • The book is being taught in creative writing classes as a guide of what not to do.
  • A special, ugly-purple-cover hardback edition was produced as a fundraiser, signed by most of the authors, and auctioned off as a fundraiser.
  • Science fiction conventions have had Atlanta Nights midnight readings, the goal -- like with readings of the legendary Eye of Argon -- is to get to the end of a chapter without cracking up.
  • It has its own page on TV Tropes, listing a few of the many cliche types used.
  • "Manwithoutabody" has posted an overly dramatic reading of all the chapters on Youtube.  Here's the chapter I wrote:
And now, the crowning achievement:  The book has been optioned for a film.  Rachel Saltzman, an independent filmmaker, is working on a combination of documentary/dramatization of the 21st century's worst published novel.
Of course, film options are gambles; there a good chance that there will be no film.  Saltzman is using a page on to raise a budget.  If you want to be part of film history, think about making a pledge.
It will be worth it for the Penguins.
* I was one of them.
** To be fair, very few people have managed to read it all.
***Say it out loud.  Some of the writers involved included Alan Steele (who had to get completely drunk to be able to write his chapter), Robin Hobb/Megan Lindholm, James D. Macdonald, Adam-Troy Castro, Kevin O'Donnell, and many others (see Wikipedia article).

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Alice and Jerry Books

Alice and Jerry Alice and Jerry were my best friends.  They taught me to read.
Back in the 50s, when I was first going to school, it wasn't considered proper for students to start reading actual books.  It was the day of the basal reader, and by far the best-known reader was the Dick and Jane series from the publisher Scott, Foresman.  But there were others, and my school chose Alice and Jerry, from Row, Peterson and Company.
That wasn't the name of the individual books.  As I researched this article, I realized that I had forgotten the individual titles.  I had long since called them Alice and Jerry.
Alice, Jerry, and JipLike Dick and Jane, Alice and Jerry were brother and sister, along with their dog, Jip.*  I do remember the immortal words:
"See Jip.  See Jip jump."
What impressed me about the books at the time was that they were interconnected. Of course the early ones were just a series of stories about the two,** but as things advanced, the connections were less obvious.  Toward the end, you'd be reading all year about some pioneers on the prairie, and discover that they were Alice and Jerry's great grandparents.
The books were usually written by Mabel O'Donnell, with art by Florence  and Margaret Hoopes. Obviously, they weren't great literature or art, but there was something about the first day of school when you'd find the new books there like familiar friends.
The series was discontinued in the early 60s, as the reading instruction switched away from basal readers,*** and Row, Peterson joined Harper Brothers to become Harper and Row and now HarperCollins. Alice and Jerry seem to have been overlooked while Dick and Jane became a catchword. 
* Even in first grade, I thought that "Jip" was a stupid name for a dog.  Addendum 11/6/13:  For those wondering why the dog had that name, it turns out that there was a dog in Dicken's David Copperfield named "Jip" -- short for "Gypsy."
**Typical American kids, if you assume all Americans were white and middle class.  Since I was, it seemed reasonable at the time.
***There was an uproar about US reading levels, centered around Rudolf Flesch's book Why Johnny Can't Read from 1955.  Flesch blamed the readers -- and their "see and say" method of instructions -- as being inferior to teaching phonics. Like all educational theories, the truth lies in between:  some children do better with phonics, and some do better with "see and say" (and some do better with some other method). 

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Tune in Tomorrow...

Tune in Tomorrow (1990)
Directed by
Jon Amiel
Written by William Boyd, from the novel by Mario Vargas Llosa
Starring Peter Falk, Keanu Reeves, Barbara Hershey

I never understood why so many people hated Keanu Reeves.  I saw him as a perfectly good actor, who took challenging roles.  He was not one who emoted, but I always like that:  good acting does not require histrionics or strong emotions.  But he raised a great amount of scorn.  Eventually, I discovered the reason:  few people had seen him in his best roles, since they were in small, indy films as opposed to Hollywood blockbusters.  And one of these was Tune in Tomorrow....

It's based upon the novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa.*  Naturally, it lost a lot in translation; its setting was moved to New Orleans, it was played in a more comic vein, and some of the social elements had to be changed.**

Martin Loader (Keanu Reeves) works at a small early 50s radio station that broadcasts soap operas.  They bring on the brilliant but insane scriptwriter Pedro Carmichael (Peter Falk) to write for them.  At the same time, Martin's Aunt Julia*** (Barbara Hershey) comes to town.  She and Martin start a love affair, which Carmichael sees as raw material. Soon their affair -- including dialog show up on the air in the midst of a strange soap opera world.

Reeves is quite good as the bewildered Martin, who admires what Carmichael is creating, even though it's an invasion of his life. 

But it is Falk's film.  I had taken a liking to him as Maxwell Meen, the sidekick in The Great Race, and Colombo, plus movies like Murder by Death, The Cheap Detective, The Brinks Job, and The Princess Bride cemented my opinion.  He was incapable of giving a poor performance and his Carmichael is a memorable and very funny character.  I was also a fan of Barbara Hershey for her work in The Stunt Man.***

One nice touch was the decision to dramatize the radio plays. Instead of just listening to the show, you saw actors performing it, as though they were on TV, but with some strange variations.  Reality and fantasy mixed, and actors Peter Gallagher, Dan Hedaya, John Larroquette, Hope Lange, Buck Henry, Henry Gibson, and Elizabeth McGovern played the roles in what were basically extended cameos.

Like many of Reeve's best films, this did poorly at the box office despite good reviews, but didn't hurt anyone's careers.  Jon Amiel (who directed The Singing Detective, is still going strong, too.

The result is a very odd comedy that, while complex, is amply rewarding.

*I had read the novel previously, looking for other South American authors after reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's masterpiece 100 Years of Solitude.

**One thing that didn't quite work was the change of nationality.  In the book, the scriptwriter snuck in outrageous ethnic jokes about Bolivians, which probably made some sense in Peru.  When it was changed to the US, the ethnic group became Albanians, which didn't work the same.

***By marriage.

****Come to think of it, this has similar themes as that film -- a mad artist who uses people as he creates his art.