Indelible Film Memories

The creative partnership between Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro has produced some of the most memorable cinema of the last half-century. From Mean Streets (1973) to Raging Bull (1980) to The Irishman (2019), their movies “can be hard to watch and hard to shake off,” said film historian Max Alvarez. Alvarez presented his survey “DeNiro and Scorsese: An Intense Collaboration” last week as part of New Plaza Cinema’s highly entertaining lecture series.

Scorsese, a born New Yorker, grew up in Little Italy in a family where all four of his grandparents were immigrants from near Palermo, Sicily. Scorsese wasn’t a particularly good student, but he was fascinated by the movies. He has said the only college he could get into was NYU, where he eventually attended the Tisch School of the Arts. There, he started making short films, and his first feature-length film—1967’s Who’s That Knocking on My Door—signaled the start of another long-time collaboration, this one with Harvey Keitel.

Robert DeNiro, also a lifelong New Yorker, has a more ethnically diverse background. He was the only child of two artists, who separated when he was two. He grew up in the Greenwich Village and Little Italy neighborhoods, in what Alvarez called a “cultured and cultivated household.” He was sent to private schools and knew many artists of all types, who were friends of his parents, including Anaïs Nin, Tennessee Williams, and Henry Miller. He began studying acting in high school and went on to study at the Stella Adler school.

Interestingly, despite the cultural touchstones many of their movies have become, few of them actually made money. The exceptions were Taxi Driver (1976)and Goodfellas (1989). By the time that was made, DeNiro had already won his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Godfather Part II fifteen years earlier.

Scorsese’s films pioneered many techniques common today; the pop music soundtracks, the profanity that was uncommon previously, the film noir touches, especially in lighting, through the introduction of fast editing and CGI (used to de-age DeNiro in the early scenes of The Irishman, for example).

But even as he tried different projects—a musical, a comedy or two, a religious drama, a couple of psychological thrillers, a costume drama—and even though he’s worked with many other top stars—including Daniel Day-Lewis, Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Paul Newman—he keeps coming back to DeNiro. Maybe it’s that trust that allows the frequent use of improvised (or improvised, then polished) dialog that you sometimes see, as in Goodfellas. Scorsese says that DeNiro is gifted at bringing humanity to “characters who ordinarily would be villains.”

For a treat: Watch this YouTube video of Scorsese and DeNiro have dinner with Don Rickles (who played a straight role in Scorsese’s movie Casino, shown in the photo alongside).This filmed dinner was Rickles’s last performance.

Where Crime Goes, Fiction May Follow

Photo: Vasanth Rajkumar

A recent lecture on the country’s dramatic drop in crime rates and “the next war on violence” dovetailed nicely with a Mystery Writers of America discussion on where crime-writing is headed.

Patrick Sharkey, author of Uneasy Peace, is a Princeton Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs. As you undoubtedly know, from the early 1990s to the mid-2010s or so, all across the country, in urban and rural areas, in large communities and small ones, crime rates—especially violent crime rates—dropped dramatically, with the greatest drops in the most disadvantaged communities.

Much as this decline was a cause for celebration, Sharkey says, this progress was always precarious because the go-to policies used to respond to crime—more prisons and police, more aggressive policing, and increased surveillance—weaken communities and build resentment and unrest in the population as a whole, especially in the populations most affected. These feelings boiled over most dramatically after the 2020 murder of George Floyd. Unfortunately, punitive strategies, Sharkey believes, are an ineffective response to the core problems.

Now, as we’ve read, the murder rate is increasing again (see the stats) from its low-points of a few years ago. What can be done to avoid the Bad Old Days? A different body of research that Sharkey has examined in detail shows that community-based organizations that focus on building stronger neighborhoods make a big difference in local rates of murder and crime of all types. He believes ample evidence exists to support a new model of crime prevention emphasizing community investment rather than individual punishment.

But will that happen? The covid epidemic has intensified the difficulty. It caused people to withdraw from public spaces and to return to them uneasily. It contributed to a notable rise in incivility. Also during the pandemic, gun sales exceeded any preceding levels (stats here). Confrontations and angry flare-ups happen; firearms make them more lethal. Covid and the associated isolation is also linked to unaddressed mental health problems in children, teens, and adults, some of which play out violently.

When author-members of MWA-New York met online last week to talk about where we think crime fiction is headed over the next decade, Sharkey’s assessment of the shifts in society were a useful backdrop for me. The discussion, led by Gary E. Ross, raised a number of issues that seem on the cusp of breakout. Clearly, crime fiction authors may want to take into account the increase in number of guns and unaddressed mental health problems.

In the background are other worsening problems that fiction might explore, like electronic crimes, unwanted surveillance, implementation of artificial intelligence models, the downside of Big Data (just don’t make me try to understand Bitcoin).

On the science side, our authors foresaw the increased capacity to bioengineer viruses and produce chemical weapons as likely to appear in fiction. The military’s cautious acceptance of what we used to call Unidentified Flying Objects and now call Unidentified Aerial Phenomena opens a lot of intriguing story directions. But, here on earth, the persistent and growing political divisions, domestically and internationally, create social instability where crimes can occur. All these will affect what authors may want to write about and (we hope) readers may want to read.

Further Reading:

Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, The Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence (2019) Order it here.

Social Fabric: A New Model for Public Safety and Vital Neighborhoods, March 2021. Get a copy here.

Florence and Mojo

These two short plays by pioneering Black playwright Alice Childress are now on stage in a riveting production at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, under the direction of Lindsay Smiling. Premiering October 26, the show runs through November 13.

Childress wrote, produced, and published plays for forty years. Born in Charleston, she said “Coming out of the Jim Crow experience was what I and many others had to do,” and the first of the plays (Childress’s first play), Florence (1949), addresses this experience directly. It takes place in a small-town train station waiting room in the South. The room is divided into two sections, alike except for the “Colored Only” and “Whites Only” signs and the segregated bathrooms. Oh, and the whites are offered a battered standing ashtray.

Mama (played by April Armstrong), is waiting for a train to take her to New York to check on her daughter, an aspiring actress, whom Mama fears is near destitute. Her younger daughter Marge (Billie Wyatt) tries to persuade Mama to bring her sister home. After Marge leaves, a white woman, Mrs. Carter (Carey Van Driest) appears, and the two talk. The ingrained attitudes and structures of racism are revealed, made even more painful when Mrs. Carter makes a gesture she intends as kind, which is anything but.

Mojo (1970), the longer of the two plays, takes place twenty years later, near the tail-end of the U.S. Civil Rights movement. The setting is the mid-century modern Manhattan apartment of Teddy (Chris White). He’s preparing to meet his white girlfriend and make arrangements for a poker game he feels confident he’ll win. As he’s off-stage, a woman opens the door with a key. She’s laden with a suitcase and shopping bag of gifts. Clearly, she plans to stay a while.

Irene (played brilliantly by Darlene Hope) is Teddy’s ex-wife, and through the sparring between them, their backgrounds and secrets gradually emerge. When Renie divulges how she looked for the face of her lost daughter in every child she saw, Hope’s intensity brought tears to my eyes.

Childress was raised in Harlem by her grandmother, who encouraged her to write and challenged her to focus on people struggling to get by. She does exactly that in these two plays. She creates especially complex female characters in both Mama and Irene.

It would be interesting to know how today’s Black audiences regard Irene and Teddy’s attitudes toward the Civil Rights movement. They speak as if they are indifferent to it, yet in the two decades between the stories, much had changed and much hadn’t. In the fifty years since Mojo was written, you could say the same.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online.

Halloween Countdown: We Were All Crazy Then

Cemetery

San Francisco’s Mechanics’ Institute library’s Writer’s Lunch series recently hosted a discussion perfect for the season: Writing Suspense, Fear, and Spookiness. In the wide-ranging discussion

Participants mentioned some notable books related to the season, one of which was Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s. It’s about the cultural hysteria of nearly 40 years ago, when many pop culture media were believed to be promulgating satanic notions. The twenty essays it contains illustrate how easily and how far off the beam we got. (Remember the flaps about Dungeons & Dragons?)

My only excuse for missing this cultural trend entirely is that my daughter was born in 1981, and I was otherwise occupied. For that reason, I was surprised when I encountered it in literature—in an excellent book by National Book Award finalist Dan Chaon, titled Ill Will. Crazy as satanic messaging may seem. it’s not so very different than thinking a cannibalistic pedophilia ring is operating in the lower regions of a Washington, D.C. pizzeria. In that suggestible mindset were the seeds of QAnon.

In Ill Will, a man convicted of murdering four family members—parents of his adoptive brother and two cousins—is exonerated thirty years later by DNA evidence. His trial “came to epitomize the 1980s hysteria over Satanic cults.” He proclaimed his innocence, yet, despite the lack of physical evidence, “the jury believed the outlandish accusations.” When he’s released, some serious familial reckoning is due.

As fantasy, science fiction, and horror author H.P. Lovecraft wrote, “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Satanism, hauntings, werewolves. As long as you believe living-and-breathing people are behind a phenomenon, even if you don’t know for sure who it is, the mystery at least seems knowable. The moment different forces could be at work, well . . .  No surprise, Lovecraft was greatly influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, who launched so many literary forms in his short life.

Further Reading
There’s a nice long Wikipedia essay about the Satanic Panic that is sure to stoke the fires of authors’ imaginations.
What Horror Can Teach Us” by Kelsey Allagood

Halloween Countdown: Scary Movies

As Halloween approaches, memories of the disturbing 2016 horror movie The VVitch recur. Those Puritans! Below is a shortened review of that movie and info on the most horrifying movie I ever saw. Well, it’s a tie with Psycho.

In an old-timey flourish, the opening credits for writer/director Robert Eggers’s unconventional The VVitch (trailer), use the ancient Latinate “double v.”

It’s 1630s New England, and William and his family have been exiled from their Puritan community and must find a new home, alone together in the wilderness. Their expulsion has dangers that are obvious from the strength of the stockade surrounding the sad village buildings, the armed Indians who look on the departing family with curiosity, the gate so firmly barred behind them. From this ominous beginning Eggers builds a horrifying tale.

William (played by Ralph Ineson), his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), their pubescent daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy, later Emma and the chess whiz in The Queen’s Gambit), and their three younger children must create a new farm, and he selects land near a stream and a dense old-growth woods.

Some time passes, and the family has a house and an outbuilding, a chicken house, a stable for the horse, and a small corral for the goats, including a suspect animal named Black Phillip. They also have failing crops and not enough food for the winter. They also have a new baby boy, who disappears while Thomasin is minding him. All the lengthy prayers and the catechism the family recites are powerless in the face of this calamitous loss. Was it a wolf? Or did a witch emerge from the woods and snatch him?

As for atmospherics, the winter sky is ever thickly clouded. The film’s color palette ranges from gray to dark gray to greige. Brilliant color is saved for the carmine of a cape, and, of course, the blood. The music, by Mark Korven, shrieks in all the right places. These new Americans’ old Yorkshire accents are sometimes hard to understand, but the emotional current is so clear that words are almost unnecessary.

Regardless of your answer to “witches—yes or no?” the film is a chilling portrayal of what all can go wrong in a family alone in the wilderness in that very particular culture and era. Though critics liked it, audiences expecting a typical horror film apparently are disappointed that it is heavy on thinking and light on exsanguinating! Available on Amazon Prime, HBO MAX, and Apple TV.

And here is one of the scariest films I ever saw: The Vanishing (1988). There are lots of movies with similar titles and a US remake of this one. If you want to be haunted by a truly nightmarish scenario (do you?), see the original Dutch film (Spoorloos)(trailer), directed by George Sluizer, adapted from the novella The Golden Egg. In the U.S., it was judged one of the top foreign films of 1991, when it was released. Says Wikipedia, “Stanley Kubrick thought The Vanishing was the most terrifying film he had seen.” So it’s not just me. According to Rotten Tomatoes, which gives it a critics’ rating of 98%, it’s available through Prime Video and Apple TV.

My Best (Genealogy) Research Tips

library, Morgan Library
Morgan Library (photo: Jim Forest, Creative Commons license)

My best tip for any kind of research is straight out of comedian Jonathan Winters’s mouth in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming! “We have GOT to get organized!” Knowing my own tendencies in the opposite directions—piles of books and papers, urgen notes that I can’t make sense of, numbers written down that mean . . . ? I have developed a number of habits—compulsions, you could say—to get past my disorder disability.

If you want to do genealogy or really any complicated or long-term, even short-term, research project, you might want to think about what “systems” (yes, I’m laughing) you can develop to make your life easier. Think of them as supports, not burdens.

A good example is maintaining a list of books you want to consult. A lot of information I need is online, but often a source lists a book or journal that isn’t. But it may be available in a library somewhere. HathiTrust lets me find out which US libraries have it (possibly even electronic copies).

I copy and paste the bibliographic information about these elusive publications into a file called “Library Searches,” organized by, naturally, library. When my genealogy club visits the New York Public Library, for example, I have a ready-made list of books that I know they have. A recent vacation in Virginia included two days in the Library of Virginia, ditto.

Another benefit of the list is that, during COVID, when I couldn’t visit to libraries, I could still request books through InterLibrary Loan. Given my flea-sized attention span, I naturally learned to write a few words in the description of each book about what to look for and which family, otherwise . . . When I’ve seen a book, I flag it in the list so that I don’t search for it again. (You hear the voice of experience.). My Library Searches list is now thirty-three pages long. Thirty-three pages! That may sound onerous, but bear in mind, it’s been built up one book at a time, over a period of years.

Creating footnotes (reference-type) is another good habit to develop. When you write down a fact, add a footnote, preferably with a link. While you can always delete excessive footnotes at some point, it is a cardinal rule of research that, if there’s a fact you neglect to document, that is the one piece of information you’ll want to double-check later. Again, I learned this the hard way. I keep a list of “facts sources” at the end of short stories when I’m working on them, for exactly that reason.

Knowing I would have time at the Library of Virginia, I copied and pasted the section of the Library Searches list into its own file and used it to query the library’s online catalog. When I showed up in Richmond, I gave the librarian my list with the call numbers, and she knew exactly what I was looking for. This advance online catalog research identified a number of promising books I hadn’t known about too.

With this next thought, you may think we’re wandering off into OCD territory, but I’ve found that libraries with family history information tend to have some books and records organized by county—early marriage records, will books, and the like. So I made a list of my ancestors who lived in each county and generally when. Again, this was something I could do in advance of my visit. And, when my bored husband turned up at the library to see whether I was ready to leave yet, I gave him that list, pointed him toward the county shelves, and he became an able research assistant.

Whatever systems work for you, they’re an antidote to the stress of trying to remember stuff. Help yourself out. Find a way to stay at least somewhat organized!