pseudopodium
. . . The Long Goodbye

. . .

John Williams did good with the background music for The Long Goodbye, though, supplying a dozen or so genre workouts of a single dopey song: cool blues to grocery store muzak to bad piano bar to doorbell chimes to Mexican funeral band.... It wasn't so much the song's ubiquity as the way the ubiquity went uncommented on that skewed the movie's reality in the appropriate direction: only a (more) thoroughly notice-nothing version of 1970s Los Angeles could have Philip Marlowe living in it.

Ironic hardboiled updates must be therapeutic for bombastic composers. The only thing I've ever enjoyed by Andrew Lloyd Webber was his blast-on-and-off-like-a-motel-shower over-the-top melodramatic foreground music for Gumshoe....

. . .

There's no denying the mythic catchiness of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. And there's no admitting his possibility. Just where would a glib dumb prissy pushy tall dark handsome breast-beating alcoholic intellectual low-brow heterosexual urban nostalgic two-fisted prose stylist idealist spring from? Los Angeles? Regretfully, no. And how would he make a living? As a private detective? I think not. Marlowe can only be explained as a self-loathing writer's pastless futureless power fantasy, who springs only from a book and makes a living only in books.

Which entices moviemakers into a dried river bank surrounded by giant ants, n'est-ce pas, cherie? Movies are supposed to be able to handle detectives; it says so right here in my Popular Culture Handbook. But how can the movies straightfacedly present such an unjustifiable character? ("With Cary Grant" is the best answer, but Chandler didn't manage to talk the studio into it.)

The first successful Chandler adaptations saved themselves by keeping some snappy lines and imagery and ditching the leading man: Edward Dmytryk's "Marlowe" reverts to sleazy Hammett-style professionalism and Howard Hawks's "Marlowe" anticipates James Bond's irresistable aplomb.

Less successful as film but more interesting as critique, two later adaptations tossed out the easy stuff like Chandler's dialog in favor of Chandler's essential oddity. Proving again that hostility towards one's source material is the healthiest stance for a director, Robert Altman's attempt to destroy Marlowe is cinema's first real tribute to the character. The Elliott Gould "Marlowe" could be an aging trust-fund kid who's retreated into fantasy, but there's no way of knowing for sure; the movie preserves his inexplicability while giving it a believable presentation (this Marlowe is as passive, inarticulate, threadbare, and isolated as most self-deluded personalities) and environment (this Los Angeles is too universally self-absorbed to take notice of any particular citizen's delusions). And Sterling Hayden's towering and toppling "Roger Wade" is just the self-loathing powerful writer to shove the Chandler subtext explicitly into our face and down our throats where it belongs.

The only movie ever influenced by The Long Goodbye was The Big Lebowski, a hoot-and-a-half in which Altman's ego-gored hostility is replaced by the Coen Bros.' aimless playing around. Since Jeff Bridges' character pretty much shares their attitude, the result is the most warm-heartedly engaged take on "Philip Marlowe" yet, even if there's not much Brotherly affection left over for any of the other characters....

For a long time -- like, a really long time, let's not even go there -- I've dreamt about my own fully explicated version of a Chandler detective: he's a paranoid schizophrenic who's assigned cases by the voices in his head and whose secretary / leg-man is his pet parakeet. But I have a hard time writing fiction so I've never committed this dream to print. Probably just as well.

Perhaps a similar dream prodded at young Jonathan Lethem, who came up with an admirably tailored science-fiction-y explanation for the Chandleresque narrator of Motherless Brooklyn: Tourette's syndrome. The gap between the narrator's careful prose style and his hit-me-harder banter? Tourette's syndrome affects speech and not writing. The narrator's weirdly monastic dedication to the case? Tourette's syndrome is associated with obsessive-compulsive behavior. His inability to sustain a sexual relationship? Say no more. If anything, it's too well-tailored: even the narrator eventually notices the snug fit, but, of course, is able to explain that explaining his every trait as a symptom of Tourette's syndrome is actually just another symptom of Tourette's syndrome. Clothes make the man if you're selling clothes, syndromes make the character if you're selling pop psychology, but a novel's air gets kind of stuffy by the end....

Which also counts as a Chandleresque effect: Chandler's The Long Goodbye was more like The Long Squirm in a Pinching Suit (but in an interesting way, if you know what I mean), and I could never spend more than a couple of minutes in Playback without rushing back outside for a breather....

. . .

WAS HE MAN ENOUGH FOR HIS JOB? WAS HE MAN ENOUGH FOR HIS WOMAN?\

Close Traduction

A plot only tells so much about its telling. And where better to exhibit the gap between narrative line and narrative effect than the cinema, at twenty-four gaps a second?

The most horrifying such exhibitions are start-to-finish misreadings like Adrian Lyne's Lolita and Joseph Strick's Ulysses. The most satisfying are burlesques like Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, Altman's The Long Goodbye, Fields's Fatal Glass of Beer, Rohmer's Dangerous Liaisons (AKA Claire's Knee), and Gilligan's Island's Hamlet. Most alienating are the mob actions.

But as a connoisseur of closure, my favorites reverse the end's polarity.

They do so within the small back wiggle room between fabula and reflector, that magical space in which we drop our cake and eat it too. A favorite hangout of Howard Hawks, who suffered from a morbid fear of unhappy endings for example, in Come and Get It, which has all the makings of a Greek tragedy and follows through on most of them, only to have the tragic lead decide, "Fuck this shit, I'm Edward Arnold!" It's as if Oedipus Rex closed on a shot of the retired monarch shrugging, twirling his cane, and shuffling a jaunty soft-shoe while being led down that lonesome road.

The Story of an Inadequate Man : I suddenly felt very tired and hopeless. It's odd that you think I don't try.
And while the fingers fumbled on the dread bomb, his woman waited, patiently, for Sam Rice to prove his manhood.

For conceptual purity, however, nothing beats Powell-&-Pressburger's reversal of The Small Back Room.

Midlist middlebrow mainstream novels don't win the twilit immortality of other genres, and Nigel Balchin never tipped into academic respectability. But I'm fond of this novel, and I suspect it might find fellow admirers among the Better Sort of science fiction readers it's the depressive alcoholic reclusive grandfather that Carter Scholz's Radiance never met.

You'll find it over there on the left, courtesy of Perkus Tooth's garage sale. Ah, the glory days of paperback publishing, when even impotence was titillating.

The come-on is, as always, a rip-off. Any attempted fucking in Sammy's and Susan's illicit cohabitation takes place offscreen and near-as-damn-it to unconsciousness. The come-on is understandable, though, insofar as our hero has had one foot cut off, has an aching stump, is relentlessly defeatist and drunk, and was authored by a psychologist.

So far, so midcentury mainstream. But these are just the generic handholds one sets to let oneself finish or publish a story. Try to focus past them, as you focus past the talking squids in a Margaret Atwood novel, and you find something very special: a novel about work. (The text excerpted on the paperback's front cover actually concerns career strategy.)

And not gangster work or cop work, but intellectual work, done with skill and for a good cause yes, even a better cause than Google, perhaps even better than open-source software for institutions of higher education! It's the appropriate day job that was denied to poor Denard and his poor president.

And it still sucks, because at the end of the day it's still a day job. The book's real titillation is having been published by an Army researcher during World War II, in the same year Churchill wanted to ban Powell-&-Pressburger's sentimentalized Colonel Blimp. It's a home-front geek's "Willie & Joe." If you thrill to this selected-at-random scene, you may be among the intended audience:

I was busy with the report for the progress meeting. Not that anybody would read it properly. No one ever did. But it kept things straight for me.

I said to Joe, "This colour filter thing. It's been on the books for about six months and nothing ever happens to it."

"There are four other outfits messing about with it anyhow," said Joe.

"Who?"

"Passingham. The doctors. Rea. The Staines Lab. And I think the R.A.F. are doing something themselves."

"Where did we get it?"

"God knows. The Old Man came back from a meeting full of it. The whole place was chucked on to it for about half a day, and then he got bored and it's never been touched since."

"Think we might write it off?"

Joe said, "I should think we might write off about two-thirds of the stuff you've got there."

I said, "I think I'll go through and do a grand scrap."

Till said, "That's a most extraordinary thing."

"What is?"

"According to this," said Till, peering at his figures, "the seventh round had a negative muzzle velocity."

"Oh come!" said Joe.

"Was there anything funny about the seventh round?" said Tilly to me.

"Not as funny as all that," I said.

That's weird... I thought it would work

In such fashion Balchin keeps the pages staggering downhill to a deservedly celebrated finale: Sammy somewhat arbitarily sets himself a near impossible goal which should conclusively decide his worth, most likely by erasing him utterly at the moment of failure, and then we watch him work it.

And god damn it all to hell, he doesn't quite meet his arbitrary goal and it doesn't kill him:

The facts were that Dick was dead, and Stuart was dead, and the Old Man was gone, and Waring was Deputy Director, and I was just where I had always been. The good chaps went and were killed, and the crooks got away with it. But I just stayed put. I tried to think of something concrete to do resigning and going to the Old Man, or something like that. But it wouldn't fire. I knew it really didn't make any difference where I went, or who I worked for. And I was too tired, anyway. I didn't like what I was, and couldn't be what I liked, and it would always be like that.

It'll be all right with Susan. She'll take it and make it into what she wants, just as Strang did. We shall all know, but I'm the only one who'll mind.

(Those who accuse Susan of fantastic saintliness might want to review Balchin's 1955 screenplay for Josephine and Men, which instead suggests a diagnosis of "perversity." Misery loves company, and Balchin's kind of woman loves misery.)

So how were Powell-&-Pressburger able to turn this downer into a tale of redemption and optimism? Their solution was elegant: don't include a voiceover. Because without Sammy's whine, the producer and the director and the cinematographer and the composer and the audience can, just as Susan and Strang did, take it and make it into what they want.

 

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.