Friday, December 4, 2009

Christmas Noir: The Ice Harvest

“As Wichita Falls, so falls Wichita Falls ... “

Someone has been writing those words on the walls of men’s rooms in bars, restaurants and strip joints all over the town of Wichita Falls. We don’t know who until the end of The Ice Harvest (2005), but those words are a thread that leads us through this melancholy, darkly comic story of corruption, murder, and quiet desperation at Christmas time. It touches on the ultimate meaninglessness of our existence even as it addresses the importance of self-assessment and personal responsibility.

When we meet Charlie Arglist (John Cusack) on Christmas Eve, he has just stolen over two million dollars from his boss, a local gangster named Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid), with the help of his friend Vic Cavanaugh (Billy Bob Thornton). Vic decides to hold the money until they can get out of town. In the brief exchange during which this decision is made, we quickly learn that Charlie is a hesitant, reluctant thief who’s not sure he’s done the right thing, while Vic is a cold, hard-as-nails man who feels entitled to the money and possesses not a shred of doubt about the deed, a man who merely tolerates Charlie’s presence in this deal. We know all of this because the scene – the entire movie, in fact – is so brilliantly written and acted that even though everything on the surface is spare and minimal, it reveals volumes of information.

Charlie is a lawyer. A mob lawyer, as his friend Pete Van Heuten (Oliver Platt) is so fond of pointing out loudly and drunkenly when they meet in a bar later that evening. Pete is married to Sarabeth, Charlie’s ex-wife and the mother of Charlie’s two children. It turns out that Pete is no happier with Sarabeth than Charlie apparently was. Charlie drives the drunken Pete to Sarabeth’s parents’ house for Christmas Eve dinner and Pete makes a confession outside the house.

Pete says, “Back when you and Sarabeth were still married that last year ...“


“She and I were fucking.”

“No kidding,” Charlie says.

“Like minks. Everywhere. Kitchen table, your bed, garage.”


“Jesus, Charlie we were friends. It doesn’t make you angry?”

“Actually, it makes me curious. Makes me wonder who she’s fucking now.”

There’s genuine affection between these two men, and it’s the most interesting relationship in the film. The scene in the house that follows the one described above is among my favorites, but it’s hard to pick favorites in a movie so full of one memorable, standout scene after another. All movies tell a story of some sort (well ... theoretically), but great movies are made up of outstanding moments. These are the scenes you remember most vividly afterward, scenes that capture a mood, an emotion, or the essence of the entire movie. The Ice Harvest is rich with such moments.

The entire film takes place on Christmas Eve. We follow Charlie Arglist around town as the web in which he finds himself entangled – by his own doing, of course – wraps around him more and more tightly. There’s a great story here. The Ice Harvest is the best crime film to come along in years. But as always with the best film noir – and this is pure, unadulterated noir – it’s not the story that stays with us after the movie ends. It’s the overall mood, the emotions expressed, the things the movie made us feel. For a movie with such a high body count, it’s in the feelings where The Ice Harvest hits us the hardest. And they are not the warm, cuddly feelings we’ve come to expect from a Christmas movie.

Early in the film, Charlie and Pete sit in Charlie’s car at a traffic light and have a conversation about regrets. Charlie says he doesn’t believe in them. He talks about his father and his father’s twin brother.

“Fraternal,” he says. “Looked a lot alike, though, him and my uncle. Different temperaments completely. My father, he's a cop. By-the-book guy. Believed in the law, wanted his only son to be a lawyer. Drank in moderation, didn't smoke. Kept up his life insurance premiums. Voted in every election, not just for president.”

“Lemme guess,” Pete says. “Uncle didn’t vote.”

“He said he didn't want to encourage the bastards,” Charlie says. “In and out of jail from the time he was 16 ... drunk all the time, fucked everything that walked. Won a fortune playing poker, lost it all the same way. Lost an eye in a fight. My father was 54 when he died of a massive embolism, right here in Wichita. My uncle died the very next day in a car wreck in California. So the point is ... it is futile to regret. You do one thing, you do another ... I mean, so what? What's the difference? Same result.”

Just as we quickly learn a lot from the first scene between Charlie and Vic, there’s a lot of information revealed about Charlie here. Is he telling this story to Pete alone? Or is he telling it to himself as well, trying to convince himself that he really doesn’t believe in regrets, that he has none? Throughout the movie, Cusack’s weary, quiet performance is loaded with regret. Even though it’s obvious that Sarabeth is a stone-cold bitch, Charlie seems to regret that he couldn’t make their marriage work. He regrets walking away from his children. He certainly regrets the fact that his son now hates him, and fully understands why. He even regrets being unable to talk his friend Pete out of marrying Sarabeth and knows all too well what Pete is going through now. And he regrets ever stealing that money from Bill Guerrard. This whole movie screams regrets. The only person with no regrets is Vic -- and that says a lot about people who have no regrets.

There is more sterling talent in and behind The Ice Harvest than we usually find in a single movie these days. The script, based on Scott Phillips’s novel, is cowritten by the great Robert Benton, whose writing, producing and directing resume includes such titles as The Late Show, Superman (screenplay only), Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart, Billy Bathgate, Nobody’s Fool, and another wonderful film noir from 1998, Twilight (not the one about sparkly vampires). The other cowriter is Richard Russo, one of the best novelists working today, who has worked on two film adaptations of his books, Nobody’s Fool and Empire Falls, and also cowrote Twilight and the delightful dark comedy Keeping Mum, among other things. The Ice Harvest is directed by writer, producer, director, actor and comedy god Harold Ramis, whose fingerprints are all over some of the greatest comedies ever made, including Caddyshack, Stripes, Vacation, Ghostbusters, Back to School, Groundhog Day, Analyze This – the list goes on.

From the stars to the supporting actors, the cast is impeccable. John Cusack gives one of his best performances here – wistful, sad, funny. Billy Bob Thornton is, in my opinion, one of the greatest movie actors alive today. He is able to convey so much with so little and is a quiet but powerful screen presence who demands your attention at all times. Equally adept at comedy, menace and even tenderness, I can’t imagine any role that Thornton could not successfully tackle. Here, he is colder than the snow and ice that permeate the film. The counterpoint to Thornton’s bitingly cold performance is the seductive Connie Nielsen. If the act of sexual intercourse could be transformed into a single living, breathing human being, it would be Nielsen in The Ice Harvest. Her smoldering, sexual turn as strip club manager Renata harks back to the steamy femme fatales that were common on movie screens back in the forties and fifties but are so sadly rare today.

As Bill Guerrard, Randy Quaid is big, ugly and menacing. He appears only briefly, but he’s a presence throughout the film, and when he finally steps onscreen, he is everything he has been built up to be. Ned Bellamy is gut-bustingly funny as the angry, violent bartender who says the most obscene things you’ve ever heard anyone say about his own mother (“Shut up, you toothless old whore!”). But even in the midst of all these glowing performances, there is one actor who stands out explosively and steals the spotlight every time he’s onscreen. Oliver Platt doesn’t seem to get a lot of attention, but in the future I think he will be recognized as one of the finest character actors of his generation. As Pete Van Hueten, he’s as angry as he is depressed, as hilarious as he is sad, and he will make you laugh hard.

Be sure to watch the DVD extras. They include two alternate endings. While I understand why the existing ending was chosen – it’s far more commercial, for one thing – I personally prefer either of the two alternates, because both are consistent with the film’s tone throughout, and both – to me, anyway – are more honest and satisfying. There’s also an interesting conversation between Benton, Russo and novelist Scott Phillips about adapting the book for the screen.

The Ice Harvest is more a movie that takes place at Christmas than an actual Christmas movie, but frankly, it’s the kind of Christmas movie I prefer. There is a mood during the holiday season that exists at no other time of the year, and contrary to what the media usually tells us, it is not necessarily a pleasant one. Writer Kate L. Bosher said, “Isn't it funny that at Christmas something in you gets so lonely for – I don't know what exactly, but it's something that you don't mind so much not having at other times.” I like that quote. It captures something most of us feel at Christmas that is so elusive, even Bosher can’t pinpoint it while describing it. The Ice Harvest is a movie that is, in part, about regrets. Wrong decisions. Mistakes made. Because Christmas comes at the end of the year, it’s a time when we tend to take personal inventory. For that reason, I think it’s a very appropriate movie.

The Ice Harvest takes us through a Christmas Eve that is dark, funny, sexy, sad and disturbing. At a time when we’re told we’re supposed to feel warm and happy and generous, this movie asks, What the hell are we doing here and what does it matter? It will make you feel quite relieved that all you have to do this holiday season is spend some time with your crazy family.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Long Road to Paperback

Two of my books have recently become available as paperbacks and ebooks after many years spent languishing in obscurity as limited edition hardcovers. Lot Lizards was published in 1991 and Sex and Violence in Hollywood in 2001.

After living in southern California for a few years in the 1980s, I ended up, due to a string of unfortunate circumstances, moving back in with my parents. Do I need to say that this was not an ideal situation? During that time, I got into the habit of going out late at night and writing in all-night coffee shops. Back then, there were a few of them around here – these days, the only things open all night are Denny’s and Walmart. One of the places I frequented was the 76 Truck Stop. That’s where I met Dawn.

She was the night manager of the travel store/gift shop and every time I went there, I walked by her counter on my way into the coffee shop. We had an occasional conversation at first, then she began to spend her breaks with me in the restaurant. She was a horror fan and was especially fond of vampires. When I mentioned that my vampire novel Live Girls had just been released, she brightened and said, “You wrote that? I loved that book?” She wasn’t being coy. She’s always been a voracious reader, but she’s never paid much attention to the name of the author on the cover of each book. She’s gotten a little better about that. A little.

One night while writing at the coffee counter, I overheard a conversation between two truckers about lot lizards. I’d never heard the term before and didn’t know what a lot lizard was. So I asked. I learned that a lot lizard is a prostitute who works the trucker's parking lot at truck stops. She goes from truck to truck, selling her wares, sometimes for money and sometimes for drugs.

“Stay away from ‘em,” the trucker advised me. “Most are diseased tweakers. And they’re all uglier than a jar of warts.”

I loved the term. Lot lizards. Once my imagination had latched onto it, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I wrote Lot Lizards over several weeks; most of it was written there at the coffee counter in a notebook, then I’d take it home and type it up.

The novel was published as a limited edition hardcover in 1991 by Mark V. Ziesing, and no other edition has ever been published. Until now. Lot Lizards is now available as an ebook –

– and as a paperback.

I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback over the years from readers who’ve enjoyed Lot Lizards. Some have said it makes a good companion piece to Live Girls. The books are unrelated and have very different settings, but they have something in common: vampires who are beautiful and seductive, but vicious. They do not sparkle. It has been optioned for a movie – that would be wonderful, but I’ve had enough experience with movie options to know that I shouldn’t get my hopes too high.

In 2000, I was itching to write something outside the horror genre. With nothing in mind except that I wanted to write about life in Los Angeles on the fringes of the movie business, I began writing about a young man named Adam Julian, who was having an affair with the wife of his obnoxious but very successful screenwriter father. I kept writing for about a thousand manuscript pages. Nothing has ever flowed out of me as smoothly or rapidly as Sex and Violence in Hollywood and it remains my most joyous writing experience. It's also my personal favorite of all my work. It follows Adam through a landscape of sex (lots of sex), movie stars, Hollywood wannabes, sleazy pornographers and elaborate murder, and ends with a rather wild, high-profile trial. Oh, and it’s a love story.

I showed it to my agent, Richard Curtis, and his boisterous enthusiasm for the book caught me completely off guard. With his guidance, I trimmed the manuscript, then he took it to the New York publishers and pushed it hard.

The response from those publishers was overwhelmingly positive. They loved it. But ... they had no idea how to market it. It was a thriller. It was erotic. It was funny. It was horrific. But it didn’t fall squarely into any particular genre. It blurred the lines between a few genres and as a result, they didn’t even know what to call it, let alone how to market it. For that reason, they all turned it down with regrets.

It was published by Subterranean Press in 2001 as a limited edition hardcover. But Subterranean is aimed primarily at readers of horror, who were very familiar with me as a writer of horror fiction – which this was not. The result was that not many copies sold, although the critical reaction was very positive.

So, much to my disappointment, the book I believe to be my best has gone largely unread. Now it’s available to a wider audience in a much more affordable edition. Two editions, actually. It’s now an ebook –

– and a paperback.

These are two very different books. One is most definitely a horror novel and the other is not. But after a long time spent out of the reach of most readers, both are now more readily available than ever before, and I hope you’ll give them a look.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Christmas Movies 1: The Romantic Comedy to End All Romantic Comedies

Dawn and I have a large movie collection, and at about this time every year, we start pulling Christmas movies off the shelves. Our definition of a “Christmas movie” is broader than most. It ranges from beloved holiday classics like Dickens’s A Christmas Carol or the great Irving Berlin musical White Christmas to non-traditional movies that just happen to take place during the Christmas season, like Lethal Weapon, Die Hard or the disturbing Canadian slasher flick Black Christmas. I love to write about movies, so I thought I’d cover our Christmas viewing this year.

Love Actually is a Christmas movie, but it’s also a romantic comedy, and that genre is perennial. Its popularity never seems to fade, although the same can’t be said for its quality. Right now, the romantic comedy is in a pretty dismal state. It seems we’re bludgeoned over the head with one after another these days, nearly all of them wilted by-the-numbers exercises that range from vaguely amusing (often by accident or in unintentional ways) to deadly dull to deeply insulting. Each of these movies would maim or kill to have been written by the current king of the romantic comedy genre, Richard Curtis. He’s the man who gave us Four Weddings and A Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’s Diary. He has also been a force to be reckoned with in British comedy for the last three decades. When Curtis writes a romantic comedy, he seems to know precisely what we want, but he always spins a brody on our expectations and then gives us something more that we didn’t expect at all.

In Love Actually, he seems to have decided to create a romantic comedy to end all romantic comedies. There are at least ten love stories in this movie, all happening at once, each located at different spots on the relationship spectrum, and all taking place at Christmas. The cast of characters is long, and the cast of actors is stellar.

It’s led by Hugh Grant, who gives what I believe to be his best performance. No, wait. Grant gives virtually the same performance in every movie. I’m not being critical because that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Cary Grant – with whom Hugh Grant is often compared – did the same thing, and we never tired of it because it was wonderful. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Love Actually provides Grant with his best role. He plays Britain’s new Prime Minister, a very eligible bachelor, who, on his first day, realizes he’s fallen instantly in love with Natalie, a member of his staff (charmingly played by Martine McCutcheon) and says, “Oh, no, that is so inconvenient.” The PM’s sister, Karen (Emma Thompson), is married to Harry (Alan Rickman), an attorney who might be about to cheat on her. Harry’s assistant Sarah (Laura Linney) is in love with coworker Karl (Rodrigo Santoro). She thinks this is a secret, but it’s obvious to everyone at the office. Unfortunately, Sarah’s pursuit of this relationship is hindered by the fact that she feels obligated to be at the beck and call of her institutionalized schizophrenic brother.

This is just a small sampling of the many characters who populate Love Actually, and I'm afraid my descriptions of these relationships are very brief and inadequate. They are brief because, if they weren’t, we’d be here all night and I’d spoil the movie for you. They are inadequate because they sound mundane and fail to convey the richness and depth Curtis gives them.

There’s also Jamie Bennett (Colin Firth), a British crime novelist whose relationship with his girlfriend just ended unpleasantly, who goes to a cottage in France to work in solitude and lick his wounds and falls in love with his Portuguese maid Aurelia (Lucia Moniz). And then there’s Mark (Andrew Lincoln), who’s in love with his best friend’s new wife Juliet (played by Keira Knightley, or, as I call her, Skeletor – have a few sandwiches, Keira). There’s even a visit to the Prime Minister by an obnoxious United States president (Billy Bob Thornton) who’s sort of a blend of a lecherous Bill Clinton and a bullying George W. Bush. The president hits on Natalie and inspires Grant’s PM, in a memorable scene, to stand up to him rather boldly during a press conference. Watch for the delightful cameo by Rowan Atkinson, with whom Curtis has a long working relationship.

But it is Bill Nighy who tucks this movie under his arm and effortlessly walks away with it. He plays Billy Mack, a washed up, crusty old rock star who’s trying to make a comeback with a cover of “Love is All Around,” which has been transformed into a clumsy Christmas song. Mack is hoping his song will be the Christmas Number One and beat out the favored band, a group of slick youngsters called Blue. He goes from one radio and TV guest spot to another to promote his song, always accompanied by his longtime manager, Joe (Gregor Fisher), who looks sad and worried. Joe looks sad because ... well, we don't know exactly why, but just looking at him, we can see behind him a life filled with disappointments, a life lived on the fringes of the happiness of others. He is worried because he knows Mack is beyond caring anymore and will say and do whatever pops into his head. This provides some of the movie’s funniest and most touching moments. While on a radio show, Mack says, “When I was young and successful, I was greedy and foolish, and now I'm left with no one. Wrinkled and alone.” He says it matter-of-factly, but we know he means it, we know it’s true. The DJ expresses his gratitude for Mack’s frankness, and Mack says he’ll truthfully answer any question asked. So the DJ says, “Best shag you ever had.” Mack responds, “Brittney Spears.” Then he adds, “No, only kidding. She was rubbish.” When Mack begins to act up on a TV show, the hosts remind him that children are watching, so he says, “Hiya kids. Here is an important message from your Uncle Bill. Don't buy drugs. Become a pop star, and they give you them for free!”

Love Actually is a necklace strung with one beautiful, priceless gem after another. It deftly shifts from sparkling comedy to real emotion, though the emotion is always delivered in an understated way. Since my first viewing in 2003, I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen it, but it has not lost an ounce of its effectiveness. If anything, it has become more effective. There are at least four moments in the movie that choke me up and make it necessary for me to blow my nose no matter how many times I see it, moments of such honest expressions of love and emotion that they hurt, but in a good way: When “Bye-Bye Baby” plays at Joanna’s funeral; when Karen opens her Christmas gift and realization dawns on her; when Mark reveals himself to Juliet at the front door and then tells himself, “Enough. Enough now,” as he walks away; and the scene that really knocks me out is when Billy Mack leaves Elton John’s party early to spend Christmas Eve with Joe and spills his guts to his astonished, teary-eyed manager. They aren’t the only ones, just the ones that hit me hardest. If you’ve seen the movie, you know the scenes I’m talking about. If you haven’t, what are you waiting for?

Curtis is brilliant in his use of pop songs throughout his movies, and Love Actually is no exception. After watching the movie, it’s hard to imagine it without those songs, or to imagine what other songs would have been more appropriate in the spots where they’re used. It's one of Curtis's many touches of perfection. Along with the songs, Craig Armstrong’s score is buoyant and uplifting. The whole thing is topped off by a spectacular rendition of “All I Want For Christmas is You,” beautifully performed by young Olivia Olson. Mariah Carey, eat your breast implants out.

The movie runs about two hours and ten minutes, but according to Richard Curtis on the DVD supplemental material, the original cut was three and a half hours. Some of the deleted footage is included on the DVD, and I strongly recommend watching it because it’s brilliant. I would love to see the movie restored to its full length. I guess the conventional wisdom is that it simply would not do for a romantic comedy to run that long. There are critics who slammed Love Actually for being too long at its current running time. I don’t understand this. Roger Ebert wrote, “No good movie is too long; no bad movie is short enough.” In my opinion, Love Actually is a great movie – quietly, gently great, but great nonetheless – and running for three and a half hours would not have changed that. Movies that run that long certainly aren’t unheard of, but they aren’t romantic comedies. War movies or historical epics, maybe, but never romantic comedies. Richard Curtis once said, “If you write a story about a soldier going AWOL and kidnapping a pregnant woman and finally shooting her in the head, it's called searingly realistic, even though it's never happened in the history of mankind. Whereas if you write about two people falling in love, which happens about a million times a day all over the world, for some reason or another, you're accused of writing something unrealistic and sentimental.”

Love Actually begins with a voiceover by Hugh Grant while we watch people reuniting at Heathrow airport, all of which was shot by hidden cameras placed there for a week. It sets the tone for the entire film. I think it’s beautiful:

“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion's starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don't see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it's not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it's always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I've got a sneaking suspicion love actually ... is all around.”

This Christmas, watch Love Actually with someone – or a group of someones – you love.