Propaganda of the deed : The Baader Meinhof complex (2008)

baader poster 2The Baader Meinhof complex [videorecording (DVD)]. 2 discs. Presented by Constantin Film and Bernd Eichinger; directed by Uli Edel; written and produced by Bernd Eichinger; co-writer, Uli Edel; director of photography, Rainer Klausmann; executive producer, Martin Moszkowicz; a production of Constantin Film in co-production with Nouvelles Éditions de Films and G.T. Film Production and NDR … [et al.]. Based on the book by Stefan Aust.
Performers: Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu, Johanna Wokalek, Nadja Uhl, Stipe Erceg, Niels Bruno Schmidt, Vinzenz Kiefer, Simon Licht, Alexandra Maria Lara, Daniel Lommatzsch, Sebastian Blomberg, Heino Ferch, Jan Josef Liefers, Hannah Herzsprung, Tom Schilling, Bruno Ganz.
Summary: Germany 1967. Murderous bomb attacks, the threat of terrorism, and the fear of the enemy inside are rocking the very foundations of the still-fragile German democracy. The radicalized children of the Nazi generation, led by Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof, and Gudrun Ensslin, are fighting a violent war against what they perceive as the new face of fascism.

style ****
substance ****

If you throw one stone it’s a crime. If you throw a thousand stones, that’s a political action.
- Ulrike Meinhof

I’m ashamed to admit that prior to watching this film I didn’t know much about the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF), aka the Baader Meinhof group, a terrorist faction active in Germany in the 1960s and 1970s. I’d only heard about it vaguely and seen a few snippets of present film.

baader photo 2Though relatively little known in the U.S., the activities of the RAF are still a subject of great interest and fascination, if not quite nostalgia, in Germany. Revolution was in the air in 1967-68, and Baader Meinhof’s principal targets were American militarist expansionism and interventionism, especially in the Middle East and Southeast Asia; the creeping authoritarianism in their own country; and the excesses of capitalist greed everywhere. The RAF’s rampage peaked in the 1970s, when their swath of terror included bombings, murder, kidnapping and hijacking.

Those of us of certain years are old enough to remember similar movements, protests and riots of the late 60s and early 70s in this country, and Baader Meinhof Complex does a nice job of capturing the flavor of the times both from the standpoint of the passionate revolutionaries and the beleaguered forces of established order. It’s to the filmmakers’ credit that the story walks such a fine line of not taking sides, presenting events objectively and portraying each side in a neutral, faintly sympathetic light.

baader photo 3
is a brilliantly edited and well-paced piece of work, albeit with a few slow patches. The film is done in a semi-documentary style in the manner of much better known movies like Day of the Jackal, though in this case the message is presented in far more visceral fashion. To wit, amongst the best scenes is one of the earliest: a virtuoso recreation of the demonstration against the Shah of Iran’s visit, the subsequent riot, and, most important, the excessive police response.

Kudos to the relentlessly edgy performances by the principals who play the historical figures, and who incidentally bear uncanny resemblances to the originals. The male leads all do a fine job, but even with the presence of such a heavyweight as the great Bruno Ganz, it’s the women who walk away with top acting honors. The always compelling Martina Gedeck gives another finely nuanced performance, here as journalist turned revolutionary Ulricke Meinhof. Likewise for Nadja Uhl as Brigitte Mannhaupt, the leader of the RAF’s ‘second generation.’ But the real standout is the steely faced, unbending Johanna Wokalek as Baader’s girlfriend and the group’s motivator-on-chief, Gudrun Ensslin.

baader_meinhof_complex image 1

Regardless of one’s ideological bent, BMC will inspire an emotional roller coaster of anger, bewilderment, and, for some viewers, grudging admiration. More than just a formidable technical accomplishment, this is one terrific movie that ranks right up there with the best political films ever, in spite of, or just maybe because, it plays it down the middle. My only complaint is that at an intense 144 minutes it goes on a bit too long.

Further reading: Christopher Hitchens, Once Upon a Time in Germany, Vanity Fair, August 17, 2009; J. Smith, Andre Moncourt, The Red Army Faction: A Documentary History, Vol.1: Projectiles for the People, PM Press, 2009.

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Vampire chic: Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

Dracula's Daughter (poster)Dracula’s Daughter. Universal Pictures. Originally released as a motion picture in 1936. Directed by Lambert Hillyer. Director of photography: George Robinson. Performers: Gloria Holden, Otto Kruger, Nan Gray, Margueritte Churchill, Edward Van Sloan. Summary: A hypnotic woman steals the body of Count Dracula and bloodless corpses start appearing in London again.

style ***1/2
substance ***1/2

I’m a little early for the party as Halloween is a couple of months away. However, I’ve been on a bit of a vampire movies kick lately, one of the results being postings here and here. But I also felt inspired to pen some thoughts on my favorite vampire film from the classic era, Dracula’s Daughter.

Daughter is a kind of sequel to the Bela Lugosi 1931 original, and just about everything in it hits the mark, especially the shadowy look. But for me the highlight is Gloria Holden in the title role. She’s maybe the most stylish female vampire in cinema history. What a wardrobe! Louise Brymer’s gowns really outdo themselves and Miss Holden seems to be wearing something more spectacular in every scene. It all looms just right on her scrumptious, statuesque frame.

BTW did anyone ever notice that: all movie vampires are rich, good looking, dress stylishly, speak with smoothly mellifluous accents, and have a thing for classical music?

I simply have nothing to wear!

I simply have nothing to wear!

That uncertain feeling

Of course much has been made of the two lesbian scenes in Daughter and the title character’s preference for female victims. Daughter was also the first vampire film which portrayed the undead in, relatively speaking, more sympathetic terms while managing to sneak in a good bit of sensuality and psychoanalysis. Our heroine seeks release from her vampiric urges, which she refers to as an obsession, and it’s tempting to view said urges as a metaphor for her ‘unnatural’ desires which are the true source of her angst. Thus the title character in Daughter is both cinema’s first lesbian vampire as well as and the first neurotic vampire. Similarly, Dracula’s Daughter can also been seen as the first vampire film which more or less equates vampirism with drug addiction.

Gloria Holden and Nan Grey

Commentators have focused on the notorious scene in which the Countess seduces the young model. However, an arguably more overt context occurs later in the film at Castle Dracula, where the sinister Countess has whisked away Dr. Garth’s Gal Friday Janet. In this brilliantly edited sequence, the Countess longingly and gradually bends over the helpless girl, coming ever closer as she’s about to put the (vampiric or otherwise) moves on her. However – the good doctor may get there just in the nick of time to intervene.

gloria holden marguerite churchill

Dracula’s Daughter is a most stylish entry in Universal’s formidable canon of monster movies from the 1930s and can be highly recommended, largely for its elegant sense of atmosphere and Miss Holden’s hauntingly haunted performance.

Further reading: Paige A. Willson, et al., “Alienation, Essentialism and Existentialism Through Technique: An Analysis of  Set Design, Lighting, Costume and Music in Dracula’s Daughter and Nadja.” In: Douglas Brode, Leah Deynaka, Dracula’s Daughter’s: The Female Vampire on Film, Scarecrow, 2013, pp. 45-67; Liz Kingsley, Dracula’s Daughter (review).

Gloria Holden and Bela Lugosi on the set of Dracula's Daughter.

Gloria Holden and Bela Lugosi on the set of Dracula’s Daughter.


gloria holden photo (eyes)

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Was Agatha Christie a closet liberal?

About a year ago I penned a piece suggesting Agatha Christie was a misanthrope. Some commentators have also noticed a xenophobic and (maybe) racist bent in her work. If indeed she was a liberal in her political views, Agatha wouldn’t have been so out of step with any number of British writers and intellectuals in the 20s and 30s of a more progressive ilk: Shaw, Orwell, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Circle, to cite just a few examples.

In any event the conventional wisdom suggests that, as a product of the British upper middle class, Agatha was a conservative, which is a not illogical conclusion. It’s true that at least superficially her stories abound in references to conservative British elitism. Moreover, the very cozy formula itself is status-quo biased and thus slanted toward the upper classes: the rarified, benevolent world is insulted by a terrible crime, and the job of the brilliant sleuth is to bring about justice and restore order to the world. This contrasts with the classic American detective story, which has a proletarian, leftist bent.

Fellow traveler?

Fellow traveler?

But I suspect the reality is something more subtle and complex. The murderer in an Agatha Christie mystery is usually of the upper crust, and the well-tended characters who dominate the novels are not very likable. They have this snooty sense of entitlement and superiority, and are oh, so British. It’s tempting to read into the writing a subtle criticism of such excesses and insensitivities. In contrast, the foreigners, Poirot, for example, and the lower classes – police, domestics – are often treated in an affectionate manner. There may or may not be a political message in all this but it’s interesting to observe.

This wonderful ambivalence is perhaps best represented in the character of James Ferguson in Death on the Nile. Ferguson is an uncompromising radical who turned communist during his days at Oxford. But in reality he’s a titled lord (Lord Dawlish), and Poirot correctly describes him as rolling in wealth. But in best Ahatha-esque fashion, the issue is not back and white as Ferguson himself is a rather unpleasant fellow despite his modish, noble leanings.

An initial Google search on Agatha’s political sympathies was predictably inconclusive. The same for more scholarly sources, including the standard biographies. It seems whatever the great lady’s political views, she kept them to herself. Only appropriately so, the clues must be found in her novels and short stories. And like many great works of fiction they can be interpreted in various and mysterious ways.

Short version: we don’t really know if Agatha Christie was a liberal or a conservative. And, one might argue, it doesn’t matter.

Further reading : A.S. Knepper, “Agatha Christie – Feminist,” Armchair Detective, v16 n4, Winter, 1983, pp. 398-406; José Rodrigues dos Santos, Can Agatha Christie be Political?

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Melodies and melancholy : Homoresque (1946)

Humoresque main titleHumoresque. Warner Bros.-First National. Produced by Jerry Wald; screenplay by Clifford Odets and Zachary Gold; directed by Jean Negulesco. Based on a story by Fannie Hurst. Originally released as a motion picture in 1946. With: Joan Crawford, John Garfield, Oscar Levant, J. Carrol Naish, Joan Chandler. Summary: a glamorous socialite takes an interest in an aspiring violinist.

style ****
substance ****

“Bad manners, Mr. Boray … the infallible sign of talent.”
 – Helen Wright (Joan Crawford)

We’ve had plenty of movies about classical music and musicians, and even more movies with a classical score as a backdrop. They range from good to not so good to awful, but for me the ne plus ultra has to be Humoresque, largely because it firmly places the music front and center. Indeed if the leads weren’t so compelling and the film’s look not so magical I’d be tempted to say music is the real star here. One of the great things about Humoresque is that it’s a kind of equal opportunity movie, insofar as what music is presented. There’s something for every taste: Chopin, Wagner, von Suppé, Malagueña, Tchaikovsky, Carmen, Gershwin, Cole Porter, and much more.

“I don’t like to play the piano. It makes me too attractive.”

“I don’t like to play the piano. It makes me too attractive.”

Humoresque also scores with its still resonant, subtly leftist message about the business, and social, aspects of classical music and, somewhat related, class divide, which are all handled in a more or less realistic way. For all the high tech razzle-dazzle at our command today in the production and transmission of music – both serious and otherwise – the facts of life for a classical musician haven’t changed all that much in the seven decades that have passed since Humoresque first appeared. Oscar Levant’s truisms which he spouts in the course of the film remain very much to the point.

But whatever its political or philosophical underpinnings, Humoreque is at heart a quintessentially Forties-style melodrama, an offbeat love story, if you will, executed with the ultimate in polish and atmosphere. Much deserving kudos to director Jean Negulesco and cinematographer Ernest Haller. Also to Clifford Odets and Zachary Gold for their spot-on, still fresh script.

John Garfield delivers an energetic, typically intense performance as the willful, talented violin virtuoso with more than a touch of the self-destructive. Alas he tends to be upstaged in every scene he’s in with nominal supporting star Oscar Levant. Fortyish and in his peak years, Levant is simply terrific, delivering his wisdomly pearls with customary effortless panache. He pretty much steals every scene he’s in. Levant was of course also a world class pianist and he’s given plenty of chances to show his stuff. Too bad his neuroses and chemical dependencies resulted in an abbreviated, artistically unfulfilled career.

joan crawford 2

‘It’s a woman’s privilege to be vague’

Then there’s Joan Crawford in arguably her finest hour. The character she plays is socialite and purveyor of la vie boheme Helen Wright, truly the dream Joan Crawford role: Helen is nearsighted (love those glasses!), dominating, bored, a compulsive smoker, chronically unhappy, and very alcoholic. She has a predilection for surrounding herself with rather fey looking male admirers. She’s also quick with the witticism. It’s no surprise that she takes an immediate interest in the John Garfield character. She makes her entrance in Humoresque thirty minutes on, and it’s only then that the film’s emotional juice really kicks in.

joan crawford beach sceneJoan never looked, or acted, better, those thick pouting lips and large eyes so compelling, the face and the voice of a thousand nuances and shadows. Did the camera ever love an actress so much, before or since? And those fabulous Adrian gowns – padded shoulders were never so sexy. Only Joan could get away with wearing black sequin evening dress and high heels while walking on the beach in the moonlight. Speaking of the beach scene, Humoresque is worth watching if only for its haunting, brilliantly edited, deliriously over-the-top finale.

In sum, an almost perfect movie, and still the gold standard for a story which integrates a serious musician’s personal and professional life. It also serves as a reminder of how good an actress Joan Crawford really was. If one could cite a weakness it’s that, at a leisurely two hours and five minutes the film goes on a bit too long. Another minus, of a sort: judged by today’s standards, a curious bit of un-pc is that never is it suggested that Helen’s life would improve if she gave up drinking.

Further reading: Humoresque and the Apotheosis of Joan Crawford.

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Chronicling the other good war

Hotel Florida coverVaill, Amanda. Hotel Florida : truth, love, and death in the Spanish Civil War. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

style ***1/2
substance ***1/2

It is very dangerous to write the truth in war, and the truth is very dangerous to come by. – Ernest Hemingway

Three quarters of a century on the Spanish Civil War exerts a considerable pull. The deluge of novels, movies, histories, plays, biographies and other forms of creative expression shows no sign of diminishing, and the war itself continues to resonate with idealists, leftists and students of history as a great moment for humanity, a symbol of resistance to totalitarian fascism.

But, as with all wars, the Spanish Civil War was far from black and white: historians debate whether the right side won and cite terrible crimes committed by both sides. In any event what was strictly an internal conflict in 1936 quickly became something more complex. The Soviets backed the legitimately elected Loyalist (Republican) government. Italy and Germany sided with Franco’s right-wing (Nationalist) insurgents, with Hitler rehearsing air power strategies he later employed in the invasion of Poland. And, for better or worse, the great Western powers – the U.S., France and Britain – chose not to intervene directly. The war raged for nearly three years with estimated casualties of between 500,000 and 1,000,000 killed.

Franco and the Nationalists won, but for the vanquished Loyalists there was a silver lining: it’s been said that the Spanish Civil War is the exception among wars in that the losing side got to write the history, and write it they did, solemnly cautioning that even in good wars good doesn’t always prevail. Certainly the writerly characters who clustered ‘round the Hotel Florida and environs were overwhelmingly partial to the Loyalist side, and much the same could be said of author Vaill’s vaguely Loyalist-sympathetic account.

Sometimes moving, all too frequently horrifying, Hotel Florida tells its story in a popular prose style but maintains a quasi-scholarly patina with the photos, historical maps, and substantial bibliography and endnotes. And in the end, like the Spanish Civil War itself, the book’s message has implications for our own, even more complicated era.

But Hotel Florida’s content is personal rather than political or philosophical, and Vaill’s chatty, pointillistic telling presents the war through the experiences of an unlikely collection of writers, actors, intellectuals, prostitutes, Russian generals, war profiteers and other hangers-on who collected at or passed through Madrid’s Hotel Florida. Actually the hotel itself maintains a rather low profile in the narrative.

The war is told primarily through the prism of three couples: the writers Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, documentary photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, and the Republic’s chief censor Arturo Barea and his Austrian assistant Ilsa Kulcsar.

Other, unexpected characters breeze in and out of the Florida’s lobby: the spy Kim Philby; Hollywood actor Errol Flynn; British poet Stephen Spender; American novelist and Hemingway bête noir John Dos Passos; French writer-aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; and American poet and wit Dorothy Parker. Spain was the place to be, and all who were there claimed to have come to find the bare facts of what was happening in the civil war [1]. However, many were far more comfortable with falsehood and misinformation. An exception was George Orwell, who was actually involved in the war itself, fighting for a time on the Loyalist side.

Indeed, per Hemingway’s aforementioned quote [2] and the book’s revealing subtitle, we might say that the central conceit of Hotel Florida is the question of truth versus propaganda, and for the six principals within truth and accuracy were slippery commodities: the truth that mattered to them was the one that would win hearts and minds outside Spain, in particular the U.S. and Britain. We shouldn’t forget, however, that, whatever their artistic and personal failings, these individuals did risk their lives to influence mass opinion and political will for what they saw as a just cause in those isolationist times.

Hemingway’s bravado and undoubted charisma notwithstanding, and for all the other colorful characters who inhabit Hotel Florida, it’s Martha Gellhorn who emerges most vividly in these pages. She eventually married Hemingway, but the marriage lasted only five years. Her journalistic career included covering D-Day, the Russo-Finnish war, Vietnam, the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, and the guerilla uprisings in Central America. In the 1950s she settled in England where she became a kind of mentor to a younger generation of writers and journalists. Diagnosed with cancer, she committed suicide in 1998.

A far from perfect human being and a writer who had her own issues with accuracy and truth, Martha Gellhorn nonetheless ultimately came to represent the prototype of a modern, independent woman and relentlessly probing journalist, qualities not always fashionable even in the Twenty-First century.

martha gellhorn photoIn 2001, a prize was established in her name, to be given to journalists who tell ‘an unpalatable truth, validated by powerful facts’. The list of the winners is indeed impressive, but one name stands out: the 2011 winner, none other than the founder of WikiLeaks himself and our own era’s symbol of the shifting nature of journalistic ethics and accuracy, Julian Assange. Martha must have been turning in her grave. Then again maybe she was smiling.

[1] I kept waiting for Somerset Maugham, another ubiquitous character in those times, to turn up, but no. Perhaps his Tory tastes were not simpatico with the leftist leanings of most of the Florida’s clientele. Or more likely his high maintenance lifestyle was simply averse to the untidy realities of war.

[2] Hemingway’s above quote assumes a bitter irony: the great man himself didn’t always seek out the truth, especially if doing so might be dangerous, a much-cited example being his unwillingness to cover the bombing of Guernica.

Further reading: George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, Mariner, 1980.

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My writing process blog relay

I’m continuing the Internet phenomenon of My Writing Process Blog Relay. Diana Stevan tagged me last week. I’m excited to report her first book, A CRY FROM THE DEEP, is set for publication in October 2014. HOORAY!!! Way to go, Diana! I’ll be hitting the buy-with-one-click button the day it comes out. Thanks for the tag, Diana.

So … ready or not …

1) What am I working on?

Kay Francis photo 2 (revised)I’m currently working on Peril in Paradise, the third in the Kay Francis mystery series. More about it, including a couple of sample chapters, can be found here. It’s set in 1932, has the film industry as a backdrop, and it focuses on what’s considered her finest film, Trouble in Paradise. It’s been a lot of fun to work on, and I’m sad to see the writing part coming to completion. But now I’m fussing with the cover design, which is (maybe) more fun than writing the novel – don’t tell anyone I said so!


2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

My novels are more or less traditional as they follow the basic formula of crime and mystery fiction. They tend to the cozy mystery in style and structure, though I flatter myself that the new novel has more of a Chandler-esque feeling to it. I think of my stories as pretty reader-friendly: lean prose and modest length (usually two hundred pages or less). What I think is different is that the sleuth of my main mystery series is the 1930s actress Kay Francis, very famous in her day but alas largely forgotten today. It’s not unheard of to have a movie star as a sleuth but it’s not that frequent either.

As for my blog it’s fairly conventional, mostly a pan-cultural blog with an emphasis on writing, book and movie reviews. My subtitle says ‘writing and related matters’ though basically it’s whatever I’m interested in at the time and need to vent an opinion on, in that sense not so different from most bloggers.

3) Why do I write what I do?

The best question of all, I suppose. Not so long go I did a more philosophical think piece on why writers write, which is dominated by Orwell’s take on the subject. He says it so well if in slightly wordy fashion, so I’ll quote only this short excerpt:

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

And while this passage is a little overwrought, to my way of thinking it’s still very much to the point and I’ll only add: hear, hear!

As for the specific material I write, I’ve always been a fan of old movies, films noirs in particular and so that preference must have metamorphosed into a love of the American hardboiled mystery story. More recently I’ve developed a fondness for the classic British detective mystery, often referred to as the cozy. 

4)  How does my writing process work?

For my blog I pretty much leave it up to inspiration. Writing a novel is a bit more complex  :-) I’m a pantster at heart. I don’t outline, but begin with a general idea and usually work outward from the middle, often starting with a set piece like a garden party or gala reception where there can be lots of suspects. Being a classic movie buff I tend to see – and hear – my scenes as movies, and try to structure my dialogue with a rhythm which suggests 1930s movies: fast paced, slangy, not a lot of fat.

I create a Word file called ‘Notes’ where I put my, well, notes, and go back to them and insert in the story as necessary. I’ve heard great things about Scrivener, but haven’t used it. For cover design I use the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP), which I understand compares favorably with Photoshop without all the bells and whistles, but in any case it does everything I need in cover design software, and I sure like GIMP’s price better!

Mechanics: control freak or no I’m a firm believer in the indie route for myself. It allows me full editorial, and design, control. Also marketing – the how, why and when. I use CreateSpace to design the books, which for me is little less than a gift from the divine: I can create my own books, go back and revise as necessary and print on demand for a relatively reasonable cost as there’s very little up front financial investment.

Who’s up next week on the My Writing Process blog tour?

I’m please to say the next to writers to appear on the blog hop will be Carol Balawyder and Patricia Smith-Wood.

Mourning Has Broken coverCarol used to teach Police Technology and Corrections at a college in the north end of Montreal. She is the author of Mourning Has Broken – A Memoir on Grief and three books in the field of English as a Second Language, the first of which was published by Harper & Row (1990), Pour Être Gagnant(e) (Beauchemin; 1991), Windows on Sci-Tech (Thomson Publishing; 1997). She’s also published short stories in The Anthology of Canadian Authors Association, Room Magazine, Entre Les Lignes, and Carte Blanche.

Her novel, The Protectors, was long-listed (25 stories out of 500) in the 2014 Crime Writers Association Dagger Novel Awards and is currently seeking a publisher for it. Carol’s blog offers thoughts on writers, writing and other topics. I much recommend it.
Her website is:

Easter Egg Murder coverPatricia’s career experiences including being an executive assistant in hospital administration, managing a multi-state telecommunications network for a large company, bank security operations, and computer technology. She became president of her own computer company in 1993. She and her husband operated the company until they sold it at the end of 2006. Since then, she’s devoted her time to writing mysteries. She lives in Albuquerque, NM with her husband, Don.

Her novel The Easter Egg Murder is a fictionalized account of the notorious half-century old murder of Cricket Coogler in Las Cruces, NM, still unsolved to this day. Patricia’s turns the true life story into a terrific mystery novel which I enjoyed reading immensely.
Patricia’s blog is here:

What do you think? Comments always appreciated.


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Brief candles: Nathanael West (1903-1940)

nathanael west photoAny dream was better than no dream, and beggars couldn’t be choosers.
 – Nathanael West, Day of the Locust

Fiction about the darker side of celebrity and pop culture is not exactly new – both the satirical Hollywood novel and its sibling, the bitter Los Angeles novel, have been around at least a hundred years [1]. But few authors have matched the standard set so high by Nathanael West in his pungently brittle The Day of the Locust [2].

Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister comes close in its similarly gleeful indictment wrapped in a patina of literary elegance, but it doesn’t quite reach the Westian heights. That being said, both Chandler’s and West’s Hollywood is a place where dreams come to die. The various losers, grotesques and other outsiders that populate Locust, waiting at the stop sign of life for their one big break, are first cousins to Chandler’s more attractive if equally flawed Orfamay Quest, Mavis Weld, and Dolores Gonzales.

West himself had a love-hate relationship with the film industry that mirrored his own contradictory nature: both a romantic and cynic; a plagiarist who was also a gifted, original writer; a savage critic of the Hollywood dream who never quite gave up on the dream [3].

West knew of what he spoke: he toiled as a writer of B scripts and like Locust’s hero Tod Hackett lived in dive hotels and run-down apartments. He knew all too well the labyrinthine mechanics of the movie business and the frustrations of the extras, bit players, assistant directors, and, lowest of all, writers. But mostly he understood the ‘locusts,’ the little people who were drawn to Hollywood, and especially of their potential for violence as a result of their pent-up, barely controlled anger over lack of success in the promised land.

“Magic is what I’m selling”

Tod Hackett, Locust’s hero and arguably a West self-portrait, is one of the few haves in a world of have-nots. A rather high-minded artiste just beginning his career as a set designer, he struggles to come to terms with going Hollywood, and appropriately his opus maximus, created on the sly, is a painterly tableau titled “The Burning of Los Angeles.” Along the way Hackett encounters various seedy and colorful characters, among them an actress neighbor who catches his eye; the actress’s father, a washed-up vaudevillian turned snake oil salesman; and a certain Homer Simpson, onetime accountant convalescing in California’s balmy climate. Monosyllabic cowboys, amorous Mexicans, and a curmudgeonly midget named Abe Kusich add to the mix.

Not many of the characters who populate Locust are likable, even the ostensible good guy Tod. But that was the idea: West wanted to portray the desperate low-lifes and perpetual wannabes existing under the façade of Hollywood glitz and glamour. Unpalatable the little people may be we still feel sympathy for them and this is part of West’s genius.

Like Chandler, West was a master of pure language and Locust teems with gems that roll off his supple pen. In what’s arguably the novel’s most famous passage we get a glimpse of the beautiful but vacuous Faye Greener, B actress and perpetual object of Tod’s desire.

   Her invitation wasn’t to pleasure, but to struggle, hard and sharp, closer to murder than to love. If you threw yourself on her, it would be like throwing yourself from the parapet of a skyscraper. You would do it with a scream. You couldn’t expect to rise again. Your teeth would be driven into your skull like nails into a pine board and your back would be broken. You wouldn’t even have time to sweat or close your eyes.

   He managed to laugh at his language, but it wasn’t a real laugh and nothing was destroyed by it. If she would only let him, he would be glad to throw himself, no matter what the cost. But she wouldn’t have him. She didn’t love him and he couldn’t further her career. She wasn’t sentimental and she had no need for tenderness, even if he were capable of it.

day of the locust (cover)Nearly eight decades on West’s pithy observations and polished style still speak to us in our (post)post-modernist age that’s seen and heard it all. His pitiless description of a world where image is everything and paradise and the apocalypse exist side-by-side is stunningly spot-on. Moreover, his phantasmagoric vision of a commodified culture populated by natural food buffs, prostitution rings, shameless hucksters, quack doctors, soulless executives, aforementioned losers and castoffs, and cult religions like the Tabernacle of the Third Coming is remarkably prescient and strikes close to home [4].

Thus we have the final great set piece which concludes the novel – the mob riot at, significantly, a Hollywood première – combining as it does elements of religious frenzy and political extremism (the then-recent Nuremberg rallies may have been an inspiration). Reading The Day of the Locust makes us realize the Last Days may well be upon us, but the consolation is that they can be vastly entertaining.

Alas, West didn’t live to see his greatest novel become the cult favorite it is today. He died in 1940 at the age of thirty-seven, with his wife, in an automobile collision while returning to Los Angeles from a hunting trip in Mexico. One version is that he got careless because he was hurrying back for the funeral of his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, who had died the previous day, on Dec. 21, 1940. Other sources say that West was just a lousy driver. Whatever the explanation, in the space of two days, in the same city, America lost two of its best authors. The legend of Hollywood as a place that ate writers for breakfast was becoming all too true.

[1] Anthony Slide, The Hollywood Novel: A Critical Guide to Over 1200 Works with Film-related Themes or Characters, 1912 through 1994, McFarland, 1995; Nancy Brooker-Bowers, The Hollywood Novel and Other Novels about Film, 1912-1982 : An Annotated Bibliography, Garland, 1985.

[2] With Locust, West anticipated anti-Hollywood movies like Bad and the Beautiful, In a Lonely Place, and Sunset Boulevard which appeared a decade later.

[3] In 1939, the year West’s bitterly skeptical Locust was published, the film industry was at the peak of its cultural, economic, and creative power. Once again West’s contrarian vision was uncannily on the mark: the next decade was a downhill slide for the movie business from which the old studio system never recovered, all chronicled so deliciously in Otto Friedrich’s City of Nets.
I leave to others to sort out the political implications of West’s cultural critique. For two takes see: Jonathan Veitch, American Superrealism: Nathanael West and the Politics of Representation in the 1930s, Univ. of Wisconsin Pr., 1997; Mathew Roberts, “Bonfire of the avant-garde: cultural rage and readerly complicity in The Day of the Locust,” Modern Fiction Studies v42 n1 (Spring 1996), pp. 61-90.

[4] In its portrayal of a world gone wrong, Locust also anticipates the dystopian fiction so popular in our own time.

Further reading: Movie Tourist: The Day of the Locust; Nathanael West and the writing of The Day of the Locust; The View from the Upper Circle (review); Thomas Reed Whissen, Classic Cult Fiction, Greenwood, 1992, pp. 68-73.

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