Monday, November 15, 2010

Patricia Highsmith part three - RIPLEY'S GAME

RIPLEY'S GAME was Patricia Highsmith's third book about ex-pat American Tom Ripley, who now lives the life of a gentleman at Belle Ombre (which translates as Beautiful Shadow), a small estate in France that was given to Tom and his beautiful wife Heloise by her wealthy French parents.

This third book differs from the previous Ripley books in two ways: one is the start. Highsmith puts the reader into the action on the first page, where the other Ripley books have a meandering (but effective) opening. Tom learns from his friend Reeves Minot that Reeves needs to have an assassination performed, perhaps two. It's to do with the Mafia in Hamburg, where Reeves lives. His plan is to kill two opposing Mafiosi and start a war between the gangs. This war will prevent the Mafia from penetrating Reeves's interests in the Hamburg nightclub scene.

Ripley turns him down because he's not a hired killer; rather, Ripley has killed only three times in the course of the first two books. In the first book, he kills to gain Dickie Greenleaf's fortune and – for a while – his identity. Ripley longs to live the life of gentleman. Once the police close in, Ripley must go back to being himself, so Ripley reinvents himself. In the second book he's married and has a wonderful home and beautiful wife. The second book deals with art forgery, and Ripley kills to protect the interests of his friends and, to a much lesser degree, himself.

In this third book, Ripley tells Reeves he ought to try Jonathan Trevanny, an Englishman who lives nearby with his French wife and son. Treavanny has cancer, with only a few years to live. Ripley suggests he start a rumor that Trevanny's demise is much more imminent, and then Reeves can approach Trevanny with his proposition: kill two men and earn $96,000.

Why does Ripley put Trevanny in the crosshairs? At a party Trevanny sneered at Ripley when they met, saying, "I've heard of you." Ripley is sensitive about his shadey reputation, resents Trevanny, and thinks this would be an excellent payback.

The second way RIPLEY'S GAME is different from the first two books is that Highsmith, starting in the second chapter, takes Trevanny's point of view. We don't even see Ripley again until the book is a third of the way through. But his hand is present in the events that dog Trevanny – going to Germany, getting a second opinion from a specialist that his condition is worse (Ripley's idea), and eventually agreeing to kill the first man on a crowded train platform with a gun. Trevanny thinks this will provide a better life for his wife and small son after he is dead.

Trevanny collects about $30,000 and heads home. But Reeves needs the other man killed as well. He pressures Trevanny to see another doctor, with the hopes that Trevanny will agree to the second kill and collect the rest of his money. The problem is the second killing must take place on a train, using a garrote. This is much harder than simply shooting a crook in the back on a crowded platform.

Yet Trevanny agrees. The third doctor's report is, at this point, irrelevant. Trevanny wants the money to provide for his wife and boy. So Trevanny waits in the space between cars on the moving train, knowing that whether he succeeds or not, he will be killed by the mafioso's two bodyguards. All is lost.

Then Ripley appears. Trevanny is surprised as Ripley asks him for the garrote, then has him stand guard as Ripley kills the Mafia capo Marcangelo in the restroom:

Just in front of Tom, Marcangelo opened the door of the w.c., and Tom sprang forward like a person who was determined to get into the toilet first, but at the

same time he flipped the garrote over the head of Marcangelo whose cry Tom hoped he stifled as he dragged him, with a jerk of the garrote like a boxer’s right cross, into the little room and closed the door. Tom yanked the garrote viciously — one of Marcangelo’s own weapons in his prime, Tom supposed — and Tom saw the nylon disappear in the flesh of his neck. Tom gave it another whirl behind the man’s head and pulled still tighter. With his left hand Tom flicked the lever that locked the door. Marcangelo’s gurgle stopped, his tongue began to protrude from the awful wet mouth, his eyes closed in misery, then opened in horror, and began to have the blank, what’s-happening-to-me stare of the dying. Lower false teeth clattered to the tiles.

Tom was nearly cutting his own thumb and the side of his forefinger because of the force he was exerting on the string, but he felt it a pain worth enduring. Marcangelo had slumped to the floor, but the garrote, or rather Tom, was holding him in more or less a seated position. Marcangelo was now unconscious, Tom thought, and it was impossible for him to be breathing at all. Tom picked up the teeth, dropped them into the toilet, and managed to step on the pedal which dumped the pan. He wiped his fingers with disgust on Marcangelo’s padded shoulder.

Then Tom enlists Trevanny's help in cracking the skull of a bodyguard and tossing both bodies off the moving train. They succeed in this second murder, but their troubles are far from over.

This book has been made into a movie twice: the first time in 1977 by Wim Wenders, starring Dennis Hoppper as Ripley; and again in 2002, by Liliana Cavani, with John Malkovich as Ripley. Both films are well worth seeing, and it's fascinating to see how these two actors tackle the role of Tom Ripley.

One of things that strikes me about the Ripley character is how polite he is, and concerned for the welfare of those around him. Highsmith goes to great lengths to give us a close view of Ripley. In many ways, he's like us. This makes for a compelling read, and in this third book, a suspenseful one.

Highsmith also gives Ripley a dark sense of humor. I think this is one of her great achievements in what may be considered noir literature – the dark sense of humor, almost running like a pulse, throughout the Ripley books. Here's a passage after the killing on the train:

Tom found what he was looking for at the bottom of page one, a short item about three inches long. Italian garroted. Another gravely wounded. The garroted man was identified as Vito Marcangelo, fifty-two, of Milan. Tom was more interested in the gravely wounded Filippo Turoli, thirty-one, who had also been pushed from the train and suffered multiple concussions, broken ribs and a damaged arm that might require amputation in a hospital of Strasburg. Turoli was said to be in a coma and in critical condition. The report went on to say that a passenger had seen one body on the train embankment and alerted a train official,’ but not before kilometers had been covered by the luxurious Mozart Express, which had been going towards Strasburg. Then two bodies had been discovered by the rescue team. It was estimated that four minutes had elapsed between the fall of each body, and police were actively pursuing their inquiries.

Obviously there would be more on the subject, with photographs probably, in later editions, Tom thought. That was a nice Gallic touch of detection, the four minutes, like a problem in arithmetic for children also, Tom thought. If a train is going at one hundred kilometers per hour, and one Mafioso is tossed out, and a second Mafioso is found tossed out six and two-thirds of a kilometer distant from the first Mafioso, how much time has elapsed between the tossing out of each Mafioso? Answer: four minutes.

With a mind like this, Tom Ripley seems likable, as well as unstoppable.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Patricia Highsmith part two - RIPLEY UNDERGROUND

Ripley Under Ground

A theme that resurfaces in Highsmith's books is that of a double, a doppelganger. In STRANGERS ON A TRAIN we have Guy and Bruno. In the first Ripley book we had Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf. They look enough alike that Ripley can impersonate Dickie. In this second book, Tom's double is a painter, Bernard Tufts.

This second Ripley book takes place six years after Tom Ripley has killed Dickie Greenleaf (and Dickie's friend Freddie Miles), impersonated Dickie, then forged a will which allows him to live off Dickie's trust fund.

The book begins with Tom at Belle Ombre, his home in France. Tom has married a beautiful French woman from a wealthy family. He still has money coming in from Dickie's trust fund, but also supplements that income with money from a scheme only Ripley could've conceived: forging the work of the painter Derwatt.

Ripley's cover story is that Derwatt is producing more paintings than ever from a tiny unnamed village in Mexico. In reality Derwatt has been dead for five years and his paintings are created by Bernard Tufts, an English painter and idolizer of Derwatt. The crisis of this book occurs when Murchison, a wealthy American suspects – and to his own satisfaction can prove – that the recent Derwatts are phonies.

So Tom flies to London and impersonates Derwatt to have a talk with Murchison. But even this doesn't satisfy Murchison. Tom, now back in his Ripley persona, invites Murchison to Belle Ombre. When he finds he cannot dissuade Murchison from his theory, Tom reveals everything. He appeals to Murchison, who has met and likes Bernard Tufts, and tells Murchison that Tufts has been doing the forgeries.

‘Bernard Tufts — You saw what kind of fellow he is. He’d

commit suicide if it came out he was forging his dead

friend’s paintings. He told you not to buy any more. Isn’t

that enough? The gallery asked Bernard to paint a couple of

pictures in Derwatt's style, you see —' Torn realized he had

suggested that, but no matter. Tom also realized that he was arguing

hopelessly, not only because Murchison was adamant,

but because there was a split in Tom’s own reasoning,

a split he was well acquainted with. He saw the right and the

wrong. Yet both sides of himself were equally sincere: save

Bernard, save the forgeries, save even Derwatt, was what

Tom was arguing. Murchison would never understand.

This is not enough to mollify Murchison, so Ripley kills him, then buries him in the woods near his house.

So how has Ripley changed from the first book? For one thing, he is much more decisive. For another, he is stronger, his has convictions which could only be his own. The Tom Ripley in book #1 seems almost like a baby in comparison. This early version of Ripley gets physically ill by things you and I might take for granted. The later Ripley is tougher, more resourceful, and refuses to let himself worry.

For example, take this passage where Tom must dispose of Murchison's body:

Downstairs, he pushed aside the mat before the front

door, then went down to the cellar. Murchison went up half

the steps very nicely, but Tom had spent a lot of energy on

it, and had to pause. The rope was cutting his hands a bit,

and he was too impatient to run to the toolshed for his

gardening gloves. He took another grip and made it to the

top. It was easier going across the marble floor. He varied

his task by rolling the wheelbarrow round to the front and

tipping it on its side. He would have preferred to get

Murchison out via the french windows, but he couldn’t

cross the living-room with him without taking up the rug.

Now Tom pulled the elongated lump down the four or five

outside steps. He tried to put the thing sufficiently into the

wheelbarrow, so that if he lifted one side of the wheel-

barrow, he could right it. He did this, but the wheelbarrow

tipped all the way over and spilled Murchison out the other

side onto the ground again. It was almost funny.

That Ripley sees the humor in this is great character depiction, but also foreshadows what's coming. Soon the police come around asking questions. Tom must move the body. He get help from Tufts, who is visiting, and together they exhume the dead man and sink him in a nearby river.

But Tufts is out of sorts, and after hanging an effigy of himself in Ripley's cellar, tries to kill Ripley by hitting him with a stone and burying him in Murchison 's grave. Ripley is literally buried alive – and the reader is there every step of the way. One can't finish this chapter without admiring Ripley for his determination, audacity, and humor.

In a later section, he must tell Ed and Jeff, his two co-conspirators in the Derwatt scam, about killing Murchison:

‘Gosh,’ Ed said. ‘My God. Can you face his wife?’

‘Sh-h,’ said Jeff quickly, with a nervous smile.

‘Of course,’ Tom said. ‘I had to do it, because Murchison

got onto me — down in the cellar, matter of fact. He realized

that I’d been playing Derwatt in London. So it was all up if

I didn’t get rid of him. You see?’ Tom walked about trying

to feel less sleepy. They did see, and they were impressed.

At the same time, Tom could sense their brains grinding:

Tom Ripley had killed before. Dickie Greenleaf, no? And

maybe the other fellow named Freddie something. That was a suspicion

merely, but wasn’t it true? How seriously was Tom taking

this killing, and in fact how much gratitude was he going to

expect from Derwatt Ltd? Gratitude, loyalty, money? Did

it all come down to the same thing? Tom was idealistic

enough to think not, to hope not. Toni hoped for a higher

calibre in Jeff Constant and Ed Banbury.

Later, explaining that Bernard Tufts is mentally unbalanced,

Tom said, "I am speculating. No use getting upset before

it’s happened. But you see —" Tom got up. He started to

say, the important thing is that Bernard thinks he has killed me.

But Tom wondered, was it important? If so, how? Tom

realized he had been glad no journalists had been on band to

write, tomorrow, ‘Derwatt is back’, because if Bernard saw

it in any newspaper, be would know that Tom was out of

the grave, somehow, alive. That, in a sense, might be good

for Bernard, because Bernard might be less inclined to kill

himself, if he thought he had not killed Tom Ripley. Or

would this really count, in Bernard’s confused thinking just

now? What was right and what was wrong?

It's this type of interior monologue that makes the Ripley character so interesting. In his way, Tom believes in right and wrong, and deplores the fact that they are often indistinguishable.

Towards the end of the book, Ripley finds Bernard in Salzburg. At this point the reader sees that Bernard is the only person in this story Tom actually cares about. Bernard is a genius, a great painter whose talent was subverted by Tom. So when Tom tries to show he's alive, that Bernard didn't succeed, Bernard thinks he's gone mad, that Tom is a ghost, and hurries away:

Bernard was walking briskly, not looking behind him.

There was a madness in the way Bernard walked, with

nervous but regular strides that Tom felt he could keep up

for hours until he simply dropped. Or would Bernard ever

simply drop? It was curious, Tom thought, that he felt

Bernard was as much a kind of ghost as Bernard apparently

thought he was.

Again we see the idea of a double, a doppelganger. Except this time, they are both ghosts. But only one of them will survive.

RIPLEY UNDER GROUND gives us a more capable, audacious Tom Ripley, but inside we see he is as confused as ever. He makes for a great noir character.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Talented Ms Highsmith

Part Two of the my blog about Patricia Highsmith's five novels featuring Tom Ripley begins with her first Ripley book – "The Talented Mr. Ripley."

At the beginning of this book, Tom Ripley is unformed, a con man who can't quite fully execute his con. He's been bilking people out of thousands of dollars by pretending to be an IRS agent, but all the checks to the IRS he's collected remain uncashed, even though Tom needs money. He has the beginnings of a con man, but no confidence in himself. So he starts as a small-time confidence man, between jobs, living hand-to-mouth, engaging in cons that only make trouble for himself. In fact, before Dickie's father asks for Tom's help, Tom thinks the father is a cop out to get him.

Also, Highsmith chooses to portray Tom not as a devil-may-care smoothie, but as the person least suited to do the things he must do. Time after time, Tom just barely survives, and unintentionally makes as much trouble for himself as his antagonists.

Tom is acutely sensitive other people. So throughout the book Tom has violent reactions to people, places, and events. He gets physically ill, he makes mistakes, he blunders, he forgets, he lets things slip. All of this creates tension for the reader as we wonder if Tom will make it to the end?

This first Ripley concerns identity theft, of Tom Ripley stealing the identity of Dickie Greenleaf. And yet, it's not as pre-meditated as it sounds. Tom's action are improvisational. When he and Dickie go out in a boat, Tom doesn't yet have a plan. It's while he's in the boat he decides to kill Dickie, it just comes to him. He improvises, like a jazz musician taking a solo. He kills Dickie to luxuriate in the possession of Dickie's clothes, his rings, his shoes. Access to Dickie's fortune doesn't even enter the picture at first. It isn't until later that Tom realizes he could forge Dickie's will, leaving everything to Tom.

It's Highsmith's superb writing that keeps the reader in the game. By allowing the reader to understand Ripley, she gives us the opportunity of identifying with him without condoning his actions. And the tension she creates is palpable.

There's also an enormous amount of detail: for instance, Tom's study of Italian makes him realize that Dickie could never properly conjugate certain verbs. So in his portrayal of Dickie, Tom mis-conjugates the same verbs. He does things left-handed, like Dickie. He practices Dickie's expressions in front of a mirror. I doubt any method actor has ever gone so far in learning to "be" someone else, the way Tom learns to "be" Dickie. Here's an example of how Ripley becomes Dickie:

He felt alone, yet not at all lonely. It was very much like the

feeling on Christmas Eve in Paris, a feeling that everyone was

watching him, as if he had an audience made up of the entire

world, a feeling that kept him on his mettle, because to make a

mistake would be catastrophic. Yet he felt absolute1y confident

he would not make a mistake. It gave his existence a peculiar,

delicious atmosphere of purity, like that, Tom thought, which a

fine actor probably feels when he plays an important role on a

stage with the conviction that the role he is playing could not

be played better by anyone else. He was himself and yet not

himself. He felt blameless and free, despite the fact that he

consciously controlled every move he made. But he no longer

felt tired after several hours of it, as he had at first. He had no

need to relax when he was alone. Now, from the moment

when he got out of bed and went to brush his teeth, he was

Dickie, brushing his teeth with his right elbow jutted

out, Dickie rotating the eggshell on his spoon for the last bite.

Here's another section describing how Ripley becomes Dickie:

He had done so little artificially to change his appearance,

but his very expression, Tom thought, was like Dickie’s now.

He wore a smile that was dangerously welcoming to a stranger,

a smile more fit to greet an old friend or a lover. It was Dickie’s

best and most typical smile when he was in a good humour.

Tom was in a good humour. It was Paris. Wonderfu1 to sit in a

famous café, and to think of tomorrow and tomorrow and

tomorrow being Dickie Greenleaf! The cufflinks, the white

silk shirts, even the old clothes — the worn brown belt with the

brass buckle, the old brown grain-leather shoes, the kind

advertised in Punch as lasting a life-time, the old mustard—

coloured coat sweater with the sagging pockets, they were all

his and he loved them all. And the black fountain pen with little

gold initials. And the wallet, a well-worn alligator wallet from

Gucci’s. And there was plenty of money to go in it.

Ripley's talent for impersonation helps him to become Dickie Greenleaf, but also it makes Ripley a more capable person, in the sense that killing Dickie and Freddie gives Ripley a grounding he needs, in order to continue his successful journey.

Finally, Tom has to stop being Dickie and become Tom Ripley again. Except he doesn't. At this point, after spending weeks and months impersonating Dickie, Tom is now "being" Tom Ripley. That is, Tom is playing the role of Tom Ripley. Since he is about to be questioned by the same Italian cop who interrogated Ripley playing Dickie, Ripley decides to play himself more broadly, to heighten the contrast between Ripley and Dickie. Tom takes his own mannerisms and refines them, to draw the distinctions between who he is and Dickie. It's a marvelous and frightening bit of writing.

He might play up Tom a little more, he thought. He could

stoop a little more, he could be shyer than ever, he could even

wear horn-rimmed glasses and hold his mouth in an

even sadder, droopier manner to contrast with Dickie’s

tenseness. Because some of the police he might talk to might

be the ones who had seen him as Dickie Greenleaf. What was

the name of that one in Rome? Rovassini? Tom decided to

rinse his hair again in a stronger solution of henna, so that it

would be even darker than his normal hair.

Part of the undercurrent of this first Ripley book is the sense of pressure, of being a successful American male. The need to strive, to persevere, to succeed, is something implicit in this story. When Tom tells Dickie that Dickie's father gave Tom a tour of the family shipyards, Dickie replies, " I suppose he offered you a job, too. Always on the lookout for bright young


Tom Ripley is driven. And his eventual success seems perversely triumphant, like a Horatio Alger story as viewed through a fun house mirror.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Five Ripleys

The Five Ripleys

To prepare for a Noircon panel in Philadelphia this November 6th, I'm reading the five novels about Tom Ripley, penned by Patricia Highsmith.

Highsmith made quite a name for herself with her first book, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. So much so, that Alfred Hitchcock directed the film, and Raymond Chandler worked on the screenplay.

I thought it might be interesting to read the five books in the order they were written. By today's standards, the books came out at a leisurely pace – it took Highsmith 36 years, from 1955 for her first Ripley book to the last in 1991. In between the Ripley books, Highsmith kept busy with other novels.

As a mystery writer, I want to find out how the character of Tom Ripley changes over time. It's been years since I've read these books, but I'm pleased to say the first book in the series – THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY – is still a grabber. I'll be writing about this book in detail very soon, but I recommend it to anyone interested in a great character-driven story.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

On the road again...and again...and again

Folks, I've been on the road since March 6th. My family doesn't recognize my voice when I call. Dogs bark at me. I'm an outcast.

Yet quite comfortable in the Hampton Inn in Towanda, PA. Finishing up a job filming, then over to New Hope, PA, and the Saturday afternoon book signing at Moravian Book Shop.

So…there are a lot of CITGO stations around this middle part of Pennsylvania. I don't to mention any names, but isn't CITGO owned by a certain socialist state? A real one, I mean.

I wonder if some of the locals – the ones grumbling about creeping socialism in our country -- know that they're helping the real thing down south?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Wow, just back in from Charlottesville and the Virginia Festival of the book! It's been a jam-packed two weeks and, while I'm not sorry to be getting back to my regular life, I have enjoyed a lot of going around the country and visiting indie book stores.

I plan to profile some of these stores over the next few weeks, but for now, I'm gonna enjoy some nice weather and go jogging in the park.

Friday, March 12, 2010

New York Part 2

On Wednesday night I had a fun time at Mysterious Bookshop. This is a great store, with a huge selection of books, and I feel jealous of the New York writers who get to hang out there. They have a large room, floor-to-ceiling books, and a smart and helpful staff. Ian and Dan ran the event, and also shot a video that's on their site. We had a nice group of folks, and I hope to return someday with a new book.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

New York part 1

I had a blast, last night at Partners & Crime. A lot of friends, family, and good vibes all around. Kiz, one of the owners, worked hard alongside Dan to make sure the event went well. Kiz also gave good advice. ("Don't talk too long.")

Partners & Crime is what I love about indie book stores - open, friendly, a real neighborhood place. And they have great music on their sound system! Come visit them at 44 Greenwich Ave., New York, NY 10011

Tonight I'll be at Mysterious Bookshop, come on by!

Monday, March 8, 2010

I spent the weekend in Ohio, land of my birth, to sign copies of DRINK THE TEA and hook up with old friends.

My first stop was Foulplay Books in Westerville, Ohio. Toni and John were the perfect hosts in a splendid store -- the kind where I'd like to spend a few days, looking for treasure. Toni is a school teacher and John a retired nuclear engineer. They are ably assisted by two and sometimes three cats. We had a wonderful group of people, including my brother Pete, also a novelist, who drove from Cincinnati. And Tom Hayes, a filmmaker and comrade-in-arms showed up as well.

Then north to Cleveland, the best location in the nation, or so we were taught in public school. Jane Kessler owns Appletree Books in Cleveland Heights. She's also an old family friend and neighbor. We held the event down the street at Nighttown, a fantastic restaurant and jazz club. In fact, just a week ago John Pizzarelli, son of guitar legend Bucky Pizzarelli, performed there. And we have the same agent --Doug Grad! How strange is that?

But I digress.

The Cleveland event held between 50 and 60 people, all friends of my mom's. You know, when she started her blackmail business, I never realized how much help it could be for a debut author.

Jen Forbus came, it was great to meet her in person. Some favorite high school friends as well. And many family friends I hadn't seen in 15 or 20 years. Who knew writing a mystery novel would be the wing nut that kept our family and friends together?

I'm home for today, then off to New York tomorrow to sign at Partners & Crime on Tuesday and Mysterious Bookshop on Wednesday.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Publication. Going from a first draft to a finished book.

It's been a wild ride. And all leading up to this past Tuesday, March 2nd.

For the last year I've been getting ready for that day, for when my book comes out.

The stuff I had to learn to promote it, well, it's valuable but somehow, as a writer, I didn't think I would be doing it.

For instance, Borders has brick and mortar stores that are selling more romance novels than mysteries, so Borders nationally chose not to carry DRINK THE TEA.

Keith Gilman, a Philadelphia cop and a great writer, told me to go to individual Borders stores in my area, and get them to order the book on their own. Once it's in the system, any Borders store can get copies.

So here I am, working as a cameraman, meeting folks about films they want to make. Then, when the meeting is over, using my GPS to see if there's a Borders nearby where I can flog my book.

Ah, the glamor of it all.

Now, I have to say that, back when I started this racket, I was thinking how I would spend my millions. What type of car I'd drive. The width of my new swimming pool. What I hadn't thought about: standing a few feet in from the entrance of a Crystal City, Virginia Borders and greeting people as they walked in -- in fact, accosting them with my book. But that's just what I'll be doing in 10 days.

In this age of social media and mystery sites and blogs, some publicists advised me against going on a traditional book tour. "You could travel to a distant city and have only 2 people show up. Or no one at all."

True. But, as Steve Hamilton reminded me, the bookseller would be there. And that's the person I need to meet most. So as I plan my trip, and look forward to seeing old friends in familiar cities, I'm most looking forward to the folks who own the stores. Some of them I've met before, but this will be the first time I'll see them in their native habitat.

Somehow, this appeals to the documentarian in me.

So, the big question: should I take my camera and film the proceedings?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Money -- In New York, you can't give it away.

My favorite movie of all time is "Sullivan's Travels." Written and directed by the great Preston Sturges, this film traces the journeys of Sullivan, Hollywood's brightest and best director of comedies ("Hey-hey in the Hayloft," "Ants in Your Plants") as he goes underground, wearing rags, to explore the dark part of America that suffered most during the Great Depression.

Why does Sully leave his mansion, his power, his prestige? Because he wants to adapt a modern novel, "O, Brother, Where art Thou?" to the screen. (The Coen Brothers liked this title so much, they used it for their own Depression-era comedy).

I refuse to spoil the plot of "Sullivan's Travels" for those who haven't yet seen it (and do see it, as soon as you can). But there is a sequence I'd like to talk about: at then end of the second act, Sully has seen enough poverty to last a lifetime. He decides to get a stack of five dollar bills and distribute them personally to the needy. This decision has far-ranging consequences for Sully, but the thing that interests me is that the people he reaches out to – men, women, children – take the five-dollar gift with wonder and wide-eyed gratitude. Well, why not? Times were tough, and five dollars went a long way.

Last week my friend, New Yorker Joshua Krafchin, did something similar. Josh is no Hollywood director, but he is friends with Courtney Martin. Ms Martin, a writer, has her own ideas about creative philanthropy. Saturday night marked the fourth annual dance-crazed celebration of what Ms. Martin calls the Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy. The New York Times wrote about her (and Josh) yesterday:

Each year she gives a number of people $100 to give away as they see fit. Some exchanged the bills for pennies, distributing "lucky pennies" through the streets of New York. One left the entire $100 as a well-deserved tip. Another gave the stack of bills to a woman he saw who collects and recycle bottles and cans to make her way.

Josh did something different. He went on the subway, and begged people to take his money. You can see what happened here:

When I'm in New York, I ride the subway. It's fast, cheap, and gives me a certain superior feeling. (Hey, I may be an out-of-towner, but I know how to get around.) Occasionally someone will address the entire subway car. Usually this person is asking for something. The typical response: avoid eye contact, pretend the person doesn’t exist, get off at your stop as planned.

I'm not faulting New Yorkers. If this happened on a Washington, DC subway car, we'd probably all jump the person as a threat to national security.

But when Josh offers people money, very much like Sully in Preston Sturgess's film, the people avoid eye contact. They pretend Josh isn't there. They get off at their stops as planned.

Why? We're in a recession, right? Times are tough, right? Who couldn't use some extra cash?

Well, there are a couple of answers. One is, these people are so use to being accosted by strangers, they go into automatic ignore-mode when a stranger addresses the car, even though this stranger is giving away money, not asking for it.

Another reason: these people are going to work, or coming from work. They have jobs, for the most part. Perhaps they felt uneasy taking money when thee were others more needy.

Finally, they've seen con artist ply their trade before. What if taking the money obligated them to some kind of shell game where, ultimately, they'd be the losers?

"Well, I am exhausted," Josh said after getting turned down again and again. "I had no idea it was so hard to give away one hundred dollars."

Josh is a native New Yorker. "I've ridden the subways my whole life, and always wanted to do something to make them better but never did. Until now."

Have we lost something as Americans, that we can no longer see a free gift, let alone accept one? Are we that jaded, that guarded? Maybe we should take a lesson from the banks and insurance companies.

Josh adjusts his approach in the second half of the video and finally succeeds. I'm glad, because at the mid-point of the video, Josh acknowledges the only person who would take his money is the one holding the camera, whom Josh describes as a "starving novelist and fourth-rate cameraman."

Hmmm…must've been some other starving novelist fourth-rate cameraman.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Thanks to the Supreme Court's decision, corporations are now free to contribute unlimited amounts of money to American political campaigns. Even if those corporations are owned by foreign nationals.

On a 5-4 decision (extra points if you can name the four sane members), the Court ruled that corporations have the right to free speech.

That's why Murray Hill Inc has decided to run for congress.

According to its campaign manager, William Klein, "We believe in privatizing gain and socializing risk. So if we have a problem, we want the government to keep bailing us out, so we can keep all the money. Corporations are people too, the Supreme Court proved that."

Right. Just like Reagan proved that deficits don't matter. So if a corporation has the same rights as citizens, does that extend to the right to bear arms?

"Absolutely," says Klein. "We think that corporations should be armed and dangerous."

But what about being a part of a well-regulated militia?

"Is there any militia more regulated than American corporations?"

I still have a problem with this. It seems that corporations want to eat their cake and have it too. Should the recipient of bailout money be held accountable?

"No, corporate well-being supersedes all government policy. The heavy hand of government only gets in the way."

Mr Klein elaborates on this point of view during an interview on MSNBC.

By the way, my business happens to be incorporated. And even though it's not owned by foreign nationals, I plan to channel torrents of cash into the next election cycle...

just as soon as I make some money.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Polluting the Blogosphere Since Yesterday

It's my anniversary. I've been blogging a day now.


Actually, it’s not nearly as bad as I thought it might be. Kind of like being locked out of your house in your underwear. Sure, it's embarrassing. Maybe a bit cold, it being the middle of winter. And sure, your kids are behind the picture window, point and laughing at you. But once you get used to the, uh, climate, you feel fine.

But one thing I've learned from reading about blogs (yes, there are blogs about blogs) is the importance of sharing things worthwhile. Unappreciated. Out-of-mind.

And when I think "out-of-mind," I think Peter Sellers.

Peter Sellers.

The great director Jonathan Miller says Sellers was one of the great actors of the 20th century, and compares him to Olivier, adding Sellers was "much more subversive and interesting and modern than Olivier."

Recently I was watching "Lolita," a remarkable film in so many ways.

Sellers's performance is mind-bending. He has presence you can't deny. And his ear for American dialect is uncanny. (He does a pretty good German accent too).

But he was essentially an unhappy guy. He wanted things (and to Sellers, that included women), but once he got them he hated them, they were flawed, he had to get rid of them right away to get newer, flashier things.

Also, Sellers couldn't do a number of takes the same way. Like his friend, rock drummer Keith Moon, Sellers did his part differently each time he was on camera – not as a conscious decision, but simply because he could do it no other way. And after two or three takes, Sellers went downhill. Fast.

The opposite was true of Shelley Winters, who Kubrick coached through 20 to 30 takes. Kubrick quickly saw Sellers crumble before Winters got the scene down. Kubrick's idea: keep Sellers in his trailer until everything was set, then let him out to do his own spontaneous performance.

Sellers was thrilled with Kubrick, the first -- and maybe only -- director who "got" Sellers. "Stanley Kubrick is God," Sellers proclaimed.

When the press asked Kubrick how it was to work with Sellers, Kubrick replied, "There is no such person."

Imagine being that gifted.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The start

My mystery novel DRINK THE TEA has a publication date of March 2, 2010. So it's time to get busy.

Really, really busy.

This reminds me of the two gents who wanted to plant an apple tree. Even though it was the dead of night, one of them was out on the lawn, digging an enormous hole in the dark.

His friend came up, shivering in the cold, his breath condensing into clouds as he said, "Are you mad? It's the middle of the night."

The one with the shovel paused to say, "We both want apples from the tree, right?"

"Yes, but it takes years for a tree to produce apples."

"Exactly. There's not one day to lose!"

So it is with blogging, part of the holy trinity of social networking (along with Facebook and Twitter). Sure, I could put this off indefinitely. In fact, I'm extremely good at procrastination. Did you know there's a national award given to the biggest procrastinator in the USA? I plan to enter, one of these days...

In the meantime, I'm working hard on the debut of DRINK THE TEA.

Website? Check.

Facebook page? Check.

Blog? Check.

Twitter? Well...not quite yet.

When I was writing this puppy I had no idea there would be so much to do in terms of letting folks know about my book. It's easy to see why full-time writers spend up to 80% of their time on getting the word out.

For someone like me, a full-time cinematographer, it's a bit of a stretch. Let me know if you have any suggestions about juggling my duties as cameraman, writer, husband, and father of two.

Seriously -- help!