What Have I Done to Deserve This?

It’s Saturday, and how lovely that feeling is. I am going to try to avoid social media as well as email interactions this weekend, as I want to be productive and I really don’t need any help with getting distracted. I was a condom packing machine yesterday, and Scooter was happily cuddled up to my feet as I had my lap desk and was working. I finally came up with the working system for maximum efficiency, and ultimately I was able to double my productivity in the same amount of time, which was quite impressive. It had been bothering me that I wasn’t as fast at home as I was at the office–or rather, in my old office on Frenchmen Street–but I also didn’t have the proper set-up until yesterday. I also had taken some time on Thursday to fold inserts, which also sped up my time yesterday. I also watched this week’s Real Housewives episodes, rewatched “The Bells” episode of Game of Thrones season eight (it’s quite a spectacle; more on that later) and then Dangerous Liaisons and The Maltese Falcon on the TCM menu on HBO MAX (which I love; there’s so much excellent film on that menu–things I want to rewatch and things I’ve always wanted to see). After dinner we finished off watching Into the Night, which had a lovely cliffhanger, and then started a Mexican Netflix drama, Control Z, which is quite intense. I do have to run an errand today, and I do have to spend some time cleaning out my email inbox–it’s ridiculously out of control again (doesn’t take long!)–and then I am going to reread Bury Me in Shadows and make notes on what to keep and what has to change. I’d also like to spend some time with “A Holler Full of Kudzu,” but there’s only so much time in one day and I only have so much attention span, really.

It’s gloomy and overcast out there this morning; we’re expecting rain off and on for most of the weekend because of now-Hurricane Hannah. I slept fairly decently most of the night, but still woke up feeling a little tired this morning. As much as I would like to be lazy for the day–and really, rereading a manuscript is the epitome of lazy, since I’ll be doing it in my easy chair–but it’s quite interesting and sort of amazing how much of a difference a good night’s sleep makes in my productivity when it comes to writing. The more tired I am, the more snappish I become–so it’s always a good idea to not be on social media or answer emails, as little things really get under my skin when I’m in that condition–but hopefully that won’t be an issue this evening. We shall see, I suppose.

I’m not really sure why I got the bug in my ear to rewatch that episode of Game of Thrones–it’s really amazing, given what a cultural phenomenon the show was while it was airing, how little anyone talks about it anymore. I think this is primarily due to the enormous disappointment the majority of viewers felt with its conclusion, and I certainly can’t disagree with those disappointed feelings. I, too, wasn’t terribly pleased with how the show ended, but at the same time, I wasn’t expected this world–which mirrored actual history with all its gore and good-doesn’t-always-win and evil-sometimes-goes-unpunished reality–to come to a happy ending; although Sansa did wind up as Queen of the North, so at least there’s some sense of justice in that, after everything she went through. And with her red hair, and all the suffering she endured, an argument could be made that she was sort of based on Queen Elizabeth I–who against incredible odds and twenty-five years of living in the shadow of the executioner–finally climbed to the throne. But I want to talk more about “The Bells” and the sack of King’s Landing–which was another episode that had fans disappointed and outraged. I was one of the few fans who was all about the city being destroyed; and I was also really pleased that they showed it from the ground for the most part–with Daenarys and Drogon only seen from below as the city burns and people die. It was exactly how I imagined the sacking of cities throughout history to look–rape and murder, blood in the streets, pillaging, hysterical terrified crowds running for their lives and praying for sanctuary as their world collapses around them. Conquerers never showed mercy; the concept everyone was hoping for that to happen once the bells were rung is very modern. Cities have historically been subject to such sackings throughout history; maybe not with a dragon involved, but read accounts of the many times Rome fell, or the fall of Constantinople–this wasn’t a modern world by any means, and modern concepts of justice and mercy weren’t in play. Cersei herself said it in Season One: “when you play the game of thrones, you either win or you die.” She played, she died, and she took her capital city with her. Power politics in medieval history–the closest proximation to the world of Game of Thrones–were bloody and cruel and merciless, and the Popes and the Church were just as involved and as ruthless as any king or emperor. Arya even alluded to this when she was wearing the face of Walder Frey and wiping out his entire house: “You didn’t kill all of the Starks. You should have ripped them out, root and stem. Leave one wolf alive and the sheep are never safe.” Ergo–if you don’t kill all of your enemies, you have no one but yourself to blame when they kill you.

Dangerous Liaisons is a great movie, and a great story as well. When the film came out, I bought a copy of the novel and was enthralled by the petty games of seduction and revenge that played out in its pages. (I didn’t see the film until years later, when I rented the video; I’ve seen both the Glenn Close version and the Annette Bening, Valmont; and of course the modern day remake with Ryan Philippe and Sarah Michelle Gellar, Cruel Intentions. There was an earlier, modern day version made in the 1960’s I’ve not seen; it’s in French and I’ve always wanted to see it.) The novel is exceptional; originally published (and banned) in France in 1782, it was quite a cause celebre at the time; depicting the immorality and debauchery of the aristocratic class, it has sometimes been described as being one of the initial steps on the road to revolution in 1789. It’s an epistolary novel; you are reading the letters the characters all write to one another, so you see how the Marquise and the Vicomte are playing with their innocent, naive friends and relatives quite well. They are only honest with each other–although, of course, in this modern age the lesson I took from it was never put anything in writing, which is just as true today as it was then–and I had always wanted to do a modern, gay version. I eventually did, with Wicked Frat Boy Ways, but while I am proud of the book I also wish I could redo it some, revise and add to it more.

The film is extraordinary, and Glenn Close was certainly robbed–as she has been many times–of the Oscar for Best Actress.

As for The Maltese Falcon, it’s still a great movie, but I didn’t finish watching–and would prefer to rewatch when I can give it my full attention. It really is marvelously written, acted, directed, and filmed. I should probably reread the novel someday.

And on that note, I am going to dive back into the spice mines. The kitchen and living room are both a mess; I have errands to run, and of course, that manuscript to read. Have a lovely, safe Saturday, Constant Reader, and I will see you tomorrow.

Do What You Do

Ah, it’s only midweek and I’ve not made much progress on anything; the kitchen is a mess, and time is just slipping through my fingers on a daily basis. It’s a frustrating feeling, made even all the more frustrating because I know, even as I procrastinate, that I am going to deeply regret the procrastination the following day; and yet, I do it. I suppose this would be fodder for my therapist; why do I defeat myself all the time, or set myself up to fail? Is it a fear of failure, so if I do it to myself it won’t feel like failure?

These are the mysteries of Greg that I ponder on a daily basis.

I did work on a story yesterday, rather than the Scotty book or the website writing I’d promised to do, which I need to do, both of which I should just fucking do and get out of the way. Eye roll.  The story isn’t one I am sure about; it’s one that I originally wrote back in the late 1980s during one of my I’m going to take this writing thing seriously even though I have no idea what I’m actually doing periods when I used to write piles of short stories (rather like I have done this year already), and it’s one that I’ve always thought would work. I’ve taken a run at it again several times over the years, but at last I think I have it in a place where it will actually work. The voice is the key to this story, and I think I’m getting it right; the story itself is working itself out, but once I am finished with it this time around I need to go back and make sure I’ve got the voice right. This is, of course, not one of the stories I’m including in the collection, or the one I need to get the edits done on (of course, see what I mean about being self-defeating?), and the irony, of course, is that the edits aren’t that involved; and yet somehow I just can’t make myself do them.

Idiot.

But so it goes, and how it goes every day of my life. I am often called prolific, which always amuses me to a degree; I think of myself as lazy, because I know how much more I could get–or should be getting–done. I also know about all the time I waste, and how that time could have been used ever so much more productively.

In my own defense, however, I will say that I like this story I am working on–“Fireflies”–and I’ve always liked the story, and am glad that I am finally getting to it. I have so many story partials; so many stories that have been dancing around elusively in my brain for so long, yet whenever I try to finish them they dance away just out of the reach of my fingertips; “Fireflies” is one of those stories. It’s nice to finally be getting it finished, even though I should be working on other things. But I’ve diagnosed what’s wrong with both “Don’t Look Down” and “My Brother’s Keeper” this week; I’ve also figured out what’s wrong with “Once a Tiger” and how I can move forward with it. These are good things, really; and I am getting somewhere with the Scotty book as well with my brainstorming.

I just need to get past this feeling that Chapter Eleven is such a sloppy mess that I don’t want to even look at it again. I either need to go fix it, or move on to Chapter Twelve instead of agonizing over it like an idiot.

We started watching Shooter, a really terrific Ryan Philippe series last night; I think it was a limited series–a one-off, because I don’t really see how it could go another season. He plays one of the top Marine sharpshooter/snipers, who has retired; he is dragged back into the business by an old Marine buddy who now works for the Secret Service to figure out how someone is going to try to assassinate the president. He doesn’t realize he is being set up to take the fall for the assassination, and the conspiracy runs pretty fricking deep; but he manages to get away from the authorities and has to prove his innocence. It’s pretty good–and Ryan Philippe never disappoints. I’ve been a fan since his days as gay teenager Billy Douglas on One Life to Live back in the early nineties; and I am glad to see him keeping his career going on television now that he’s no longer in demand for film roles. He really makes a hot dad.

I also read two short stories for the Short Story Project. First up was “A Bus Ticket to Phoenix” by Willy Vlautin, from Jim Fusilli’s Crime Plus Music:

Otis woke that morning to Lenny in the bathroom yelling on the phone. It was past 11 a.m. at Winner’s Casino in Winnemucca, Nevada. Under the covers he shivered in the cold and could his breath fall out and disappear into the room. He got up to find the window open and the heat off.

He set the thermostat to high, shut the sliding glass window, and looked out to see some snow falling. It covered the van and trailer and the houses behind the motel. He stood seventy-seven years old, tall and thin with greasy brown hair. He found his clothes on the floor, dressed, and walked across the street to the casino. He used the toilet, lost five dollars on video poker, and went to the casino restaurant for breakfast.

Vlautin, the author, is a seasoned professional musician, which explains why this story rings so true and authentic, I suspect. Some old guys, professional musicians who are now getting old and have never made it big, just always managed to find work and have spent almost their entire lives on the road, are now touring with some musclebound young up and comer in country music. The crime is that their stuff keeps disappearing, with something being stolen at every stop on this tour. The singer is kind of a dick, and so is his manager…and while the crime aspect of the story isn’t it’s strength, the depiction of the lonely, melancholy life on the road–and coming to the end of your lives without ever having made it big while continuing on because you can’t do anything else, is the most poignant and powerful part of this story.

I then moved back to Ross Macdonald’s The Archer Files, for another Lew Archer story, “Wild Goose Chase.”

The plane turned in towards the shoreline and began to lose altitude. Mountains detached themselves from the blue distance. Then there was a city between the sea and the mountains, a little city made of sugar cubes. The cubes increased in size. Cars crawled like colored beetles between the buildings, and matchstick figures hustled jerkily along the white morning pavements. A few minutes later I was one of them.

The woman who had telephoned me was waiting at the airport, as she had promised. She climbed out of her Cadillac when I appeared at the entrance to the waiting room, and took a few tentative steps towards me. In spite of her height and her blondness, the dark harlequin glasses she wore have her an oddly Oriental look.

“You must be Mr. Archer.”

A man is on trial in this unnamed northern or central California city for the murder of his much older, much wealthier wife. He clearly killed her for her money, or so the prosecution would have you believe. His only defense is at the time of the murder, he was with another woman–another woman whom he will not name, despite her being his only real chance at acquittal since everyone thinks he’s guilty. It is this woman who has hired Archer, and she has her own reasons for not wanting to be named…and so as Archer goes about his investigation, another murder is committed and he finally solves the case by finding the real killer…and yet everyone involved is guilty to some degree; perhaps not legally, but at least morally. This is the kind of case where the detective needs a long hot shower after to wash the stink off; which is of course, for me as a reader, the best kind of story. (Oh, yes, all that time period racism and misogyny is on display in this story; which kind of, as always, put me off–as you can see in the above opening paragraphs of the story.)

And now, to stop procrastinating and get back to the spice mines.

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Bella Donna

I’ve been, over the course of the last week, rereading Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos; originally published in 1782 as the sun set on the absolute Bourbon monarchy. My interest and curiosity in the novel had been piqued by watching the two competing film versions of the same story that had come out in the same time period; the more famous Dangerous Liaisons and the overshadowed Valmont. The book had been adapted into a quite successful play; the play was the basis for the former film while the book served as the template for the latter–the director, Milos Forman, had been intrigued by the play but the rights had already gone; the book, however was in the public domain and he was determined to film his story. Even now, I wonder about the wisdom of his decision and his financial backers. Dangerous Liaisons wound up being an enormous hit and was nominated for a boatload of Oscars; his film came out second and was mostly overlooked. I preferred Valmont at the time, for reasons I shall explain; but on reviewing the films it is clearly the inferior of the two.

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I also thought it was interesting that publishers associated the book in print with the first film…

The story itself has always, always, fascinated me; it is incredibly dark, and rather on the noir side. Madame de Merteuil, a widow (her title is actually Marquise), is angry because her lover, the Comte de Gercourt, has left her to become affianced to her young cousin Cecile Volanges; a fifteen year old innocent who has been living and being educated in a convent. It is this innocence that Gercourt is attracted to; and as an affianced husband he no longer requires a mistress. The Marquise’ jealousy is, of course, primarily motivated by ego; men do not leave her. So she concocts a scheme to despoil the innocence of young Cecile, and wants to enlist her dear friend, the Vicomte de Valmont, to seduce the girl and turn her into a wanton so that on her wedding night Gercourt would not only be disappointed but humiliated; she also thinks Valmont will help her because in the past, Gercourt had seduced a mistress of Valmont’s. But seducing a virgin isn’t the kind of challenge a practiced roué as Valmont; his interest lies in seducing Madame de Tourvel, a deeply religious and devoted wife whose husband is away on business, nor does he particularly feel the need for revenge against Gercourt. So the Marquise instead has to find another method of having the young girl seduced, and the story goes from there.

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I love the book. It’s extraordinary; and it is an epistolary novel, told and advanced through the letters of everyone involved in this game of seduction and the corruption of innocence and virtue. The reader is thus able to engage with each player, and Laclos is able to create each character and their voice distinctly. It’s also a fascinating character study; as the Vicomte and the Marquise explain to each other each step in their game–eventually leading to a bet between the two; if Valmont is somehow able to accomplish his seduction of Tourvel, the Marquise will be his for one night. But also, we see Tourvel’s letters to the Vicomte as she tries to resist him; her letters to friends where she talks about the struggle in her own soul between virtue and sin. We see Cecile’s letters to her friend Sophie, back in the convent, as her own innocence and childhood is slowly taken away from her as she is first excited and scared at the thought of her impending marriage; her innocent, almost childlike love for her music instructor, the Chevalier Danceny (whom the Marquise, having failed at getting Valmont to seduce Cecile, targets to be Cecile’s despoiler), and then her ultimate education into sensuality by Valmont (who finally does seduce Cecile and take her as his mistress to revenge himself on her mother, who has written disparagingly about him to Tourvel and thus hindered his seduction of her). The letters between the Marquise and Valmont also reveal how they became the way they are; their own brief affair which ended when they recognized in each other another such as themselves and decided to be friends and allies instead, and the ultimate game they are actually playing with each other.

The original film, with Glenn Close and John Malkovich in the leads, with Michelle Pfeiffer as Tourvel, Uma Thurman as Cecile, Keanu Reeves as Danceny, and Swoosie Kurtz as Cecile’s mother Madame de Volanges, was very sumptuously filmed; gorgeous sets and costumes and cinematography. But I was repelled by it when I watched it; I couldn’t really believe either Close or Malkovich as these master seducers–although I readily believed them as manipulators. The film itself seemed incredibly cold and dark to me. I much preferred Valmont; with Colin Firth and Annette Bening in the roles, with Meg Tilly as Tourvel, Fairuza Balk as Cecile, Henry Thomas (from E.T. now a young man) as Danceny, and the amazing Sian Phillips as Cecile’s mother. The backstory is set up better–we see Gercourt dumping the Marquise brutally, for example, and Bening and Firth are just so luminously beautiful it was easier to believe they’d be able to seduce pretty much anyone.

tumblr_l89but6kut1qzu6rfo1_1280I read the book after seeing the films; I’ve reread it several times, and after rereading it this last time and rewatching the movies, I am not ashamed to say that I was wrong originally. <I>Dangerous Liaisons</I> is more true to the book as it was written; that coldness, the dark viciousness at the heart of the novel drives that movie far more than it does <I>Valmont</i>; the main characters aren’t quite as dark and nasty and chilling in the second version; she’s simply a woman scorned and he’s just kind of a dick. That sense of evil entitlement that Close and Malkovich embraced and played to the hilt; that seductive sleaziness just isn’t there.

And I now prefer the first film.

It was adapted yet again in the late 1990’s as Cruel Intentions and updated to the world of a modern day prep school and filthy rich kids, with beautiful Ryan Philippe and Sarah Michelle Gellar in the leads as step-siblings, Reese Witherspoon in the Tourvel role as a young girl who’s kind of became the spokesperson for modern virtue and virginity pledges, and Selma Blair as Cecile; whom Catherine’s latest boyfriend has left her for. It takes place over the summer between semesters–and the motivation for Gellar as Catherine to have Cecile seduced, and the reason her boyfriend leaves her for Cecile, doesn’t really play as well. (In an interesting aside, Swoosie Kurtz appears early in the movie as Sebastian’s–the modern day Vicomte–therapist whose daughter he seduces. The darkness at the heart of the story is there in this adaptation, making it even darker as it is about cynical teenagers/high school students. I intend to watch it again; I’ll probably talk about it here once I do.

 

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And now back to the spice mines.