Monday, September 20, 2010

“REAL” CHARACTERS AS OPPOSED TO “HOLLYWOOD” CHARACTERS: NOIR RULES


Hi folks,
An edited version of this came out today at www.mulhollandbooks.com (Little, Brown's website for their new imprint, headed up by John Schoenfelder), and I thought you might be interested in the unexpurgated version.

I count it as an honor that they asked me to submit an essay to them--the leading thriller and noir writers in the country are who usually grace this site, and this was heady company for me.

Mulholland Books is also one of the places considering my latest novel, THE BITCH, and it would be really cool to be published by them.

Anyway... hope you enjoy this.


  
            As writers, each of us comes to our choice of this craft from different avenues and all of us have different motivations and agendas, based on any number of factors. Our life experience is perhaps the largest factor and that involves not only our childhood experiences and relationships, but that English teacher in the fourth grade who encouraged us (or discouraged us—as psychology students learn, there are two possible ways to get the rat to run the maze—punishment or reward). Writing, to my mind, is one endeavor that doesn’t fall under the genetics/environment argument. I don’t believe in something called “the born writer.” If there were such a thing, why didn’t Native Americans and other similar cultures ever produce a single writer before the white man took over the real estate? Story-tellers, yes, absolutely. But, no writers.
            In fact, as a writer, accuracy is important to me, and it’s why I walked out of the movie Dances With Wolves. A third of the way through, a group of Indian boys have stolen Kevin Costner’s horse (obviously not aware of his iconic Hollywood status) and are riding back to their camp. Subtitles inform us of what they’re shouting. One boy yelled, “They’ll write songs about us!” (Italics mine.) Well, not one single North American Indian tribe had the word “write” in their vocabulary; indeed, the concept of writing didn’t exist prior to the white man becoming the landlord. From that moment forward, my disbelief became unsuspended, and I couldn’t buy any of the rest of the movie.
            I looked up the original screenplay and the writer had it right. He’d written: “They’ll sing songs about us.” The writer got it right and the director or editor or whoever changed it. Happens to us writer-types all the time.
            The point I’m trying to make is that writing isn’t a result of genetics. It’s something created by environment. The additional point is that a writer should watch editors very carefully…
            In my case, I’m just following the dictum, “Write what you know.”
            Well… Les knows crime. I spent a considerable portion of my life doing crime stuff. Even spent two-plus years in prison, in one of Indiana’s then-two maximum security prisons, Pendleton, back in the sixties on a 2-5 for second-degree burglary. Did other things afterward, including dealing drugs, using drugs, working as an escort for wealthy women, was shot at and shot back, was involved in high-speed chases with the cops, lived with a call girl whose clientele involved people you’d recognize from People Magazine, was homeless, was involved in stabbings, check-kiting, strong-armed robberies, and some other tricks and stratagems of the hustling trade.
            I also have this weird desire to write true accounts of the criminal mind in novels, something I’ve seen very little of. In fact, the only accurate depiction of the criminal mind I’ve ever seen in a movie was the Woody Harrelson character in Natural Born Killers. Although, it seems that movie turned off a lot of folks, who prefer their criminals depicted in a more romantic and Hollywoodish fashion. In Glitter Town, most filmmakers would have Harrelson love cats or something equally insipid. And, yes, I know—it was a Hollywood movie, but an aberration. Very few novels, other than true noir, ever come close. One of the best novels that gave us a true account of how people become criminals was Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan.
            To be honest, most novels and films don’t seem to come even remotely close to a realistic interpretation of the criminal mind. That’s changing these days as noir makes a comeback.
            What’s the reason most miss the true nature of the criminal mind? That’s easy. Most who write have never been criminals. And, there’s no one to call them out on the inaccuracies as very few criminals read all that much for several reasons. One, limited access to books. When I was in Pendleton, our “library” consisted mostly of Zane Grey paperbacks and was housed in an oversized closet. Two, most inmates are poorly-educated. Again, when I was in Pendleton, the average educational level was third-grade. Therefore, the only people with critical acumen in the subject, don’t have much of a voice or easy entre to the NY Times Book Review.
            The same situation exists in the Mafia. Anyone who has known many Costa Nostra types personally knows that most of these guys aren’t going to cure cancer, split the atom, or invent gravity. The greater numbers are mouth-breathing mesomophs, with the I.Q. power of candles and the achieved educational level of gnats.
            When Mario Puzo wrote The Godfather, he admitted he’d never met a mafiosa. He confessed he’d made just about all the stuff in the book up. He had to. He was living in Connecticut, surrounded by life insurance executives and stock brokers and typing on a door suspended on two sawhorses in his spacious, well-appointed garage. (He said in an interview that if he’d known it was going to be a big hit, he’d have “written it better,”) The “sleeping with the fishes,” the “horsehead” stuff, the “hitting the mattresses” stuff, all came out of his imagination. What happened was the guys in the Mob liked his depiction of them—even though it was all b.s.—as it greatly romanticized them and made them look… human?—even as cool humans?—that they adopted the persona. They adopted the language in the novel (well, most didn’t read well enough to read the novel—most just saw the movie) and life imitated art. Now, until another movie comes out, most mafia guys are going to be cracking wise until they day they “sleep with the fishes” with the bon mots they observed Al Pacino uttering. It’ll have to be a different movie, though, as everything that followed The Godfather seems to have used the same casting director.
            Same thing happens with most criminals when they read a thriller. They adopt the role they see on the page or up on the screen. Most criminals look like your neighbor the accountant in the split-level down the block, but thanks to movies and thrillers, the average citizen is certain that they look either like Steve Buscemi or Samuel Jackson, and that the average warden looks like Robert Redford. Not my experience…
            Let’s look at three of the most common inaccuracies:
1. Inmates in prison hate child molesters.
            Mostly hooey. It seems to be common wisdom these days that people on the bricks (”straights”) believe that inmates in prison hate child molesters and can’t wait to kill them. I disagree… to a point. Back in my time in prison (mid-sixties in a state joint, which is vastly different than a federal prison), nobody much cared about what you were in for. Actually, there weren’t many child molesters back then-child molestations, while they’ve always been around are infinitely more common these days than back then--but as long as they minded their business no one really bothered them or cared what they’d done. I can only remember knowing of one inmate who was a convicted child molester and nobody bothered him or much cared what he was in for. To be honest, a large number of people incarcerated have drinking or drug problems and when they’re on the sauce or high, pretty routinely abuse their own kids.
2. Inmates hate convicted cops.
            Again, hooey. The few cops that were in the joint with me had more friends than anyone else, on average. The thing is, cops and outlaws interact with each other all the time on the bricks--at least the professional criminals do--and most of us like and even respect each other. There’s a very fine line between being a cop and a criminal, in my opinion. We’re both adrenaline junkies and is one of the chief reasons we become what we are in these two “career fields.” When I was “in the life” I used to hang out almost every night at a slop shop in downtown South Bend, before I went to “work,” and half the people there were off-duty cops and half were outlaws. We all got along well and if one of those guys got sent up, we were still friends.
3. Inmates claim to be innocent.
            This is probably the biggest myth of all. Nobody claims to be innocent in the joint--even those few who are. If you were innocent and said so to other inmates, they would take that as a sign of weakness and you’d be in trouble. Where that comes from is when a reporter or researcher interviews an inmate, very often they’ll sing him a sad tale of woe about being bumrapped. The reason is, no matter how guilty the person is, once you’re inside, all hope has vanished. To be interviewed, especially by a sympathetic listener, the hope rises that enough bleeding hearts will read the article or see the show and be moved to do something to get the guy liberated. That it doesn’t happen doesn’t destroy the hope--they know it’s a long shot anything like that will happen, but it’s a glimmer of a hope and so they bring their acting chops to the table--probably even claim to have one of those b.s. “jailhouse conversions” and hope somehow their “story” (and that’s usually what it is--a story)--will affect the right people’s hearts and a miracle will happen. I only knew one person when I was in who was truly innocent and there’s no way he would have claimed that to other inmates unless he really trusted they wouldn’t tell anyone else. That’d be suicide. In fact, when those who appear in documentaries and TV shows claim their innocence, the instant they’re back in the cellhouse they make sure to let everyone know they were just pulling a shuck.
            Another thing they don’t publicize as it would destroy the common misconception. Of all those people who get freed from prison after an investigation or new trial, probably 90-some percent aren’t freed because they were found innocent. They’re freed because of a legal technicality. You can look that up.
            For points #1 and #2, what I suspect has happened to lead to the hatred for child molesters and cops inside the walls is what has happened in just about all the instances of misconceptions about convicts. I think what’s happened is that movies and the media romanticized this (inmates hating and killing child molesters) and inmates bought into this image of themselves for a variety of reasons–-a typical reason being that people in prison are just plain looking for any kind of excuse to shank someone and this is as good a reason as any and even kind of makes the guy shanking a child molester look like a good or moral guy.
            The same thing happened with the cops being in danger in the joint myth. Some individual somewhere told a reporter that and the naive reporter (there’s a lot of those folks!) reported it as gospel and just like the child molester myth, that just gave cons an excuse to shank someone and feel “moral.” Now, of course, thanks to television and the movies, convicted cops are in danger.
            Even worse is the image MSNBC-NEWS is portraying in their prison series of criminals. If a person was to believe what they see on those shows, they’d assume the average inmate is an obsessed weight-lifter or a raging psycho who spends his day fingerpainting with feces between meetings with the Aryan Nation or Black Panthers or Mexican Mafia and learning the secret handshake. And, they’re all doing life… This series is helping create the biggest misconception of criminals in the history of media--the mindset that doesn’t understand the difference between drama and melodrama, except to know that melodrama boosts ratings.
            The truth is, if you put the average cellblock population in a mall food court, nobody would look twice. You’d just see folks mostly like your neighbors. Actually, most of those in jail were your neighbors at one time.
            This is why noir rocks. We see a far greater number of realistic characters in their pages. This is also why it has suffered as a genre for so long. It’s too truthful for some. My experience is that the average person is fascinated by criminals… so long as they can appear to get close but get none of that criminality nastiness on themselves. When the criminal mind is accurately depicted, they begin to sense that these guys aren’t as different as they thought.
            That’s scary.
            And makes for great literature.
*                                                          *                                                          *
            There’s one other thing that noir has going for itself. It isn’t all that concerned with that abomination called being “politically correct.” That, in itself, is a compelling reason to read and write it.



5 comments:

Elliot Grace said...

...Natural Born Killers may have caused many to turn tail and run, but even after many years, and sadly, thousands of hours spent watching Hollywood's latest and greatest, Woody's character is one of only a handful that come to mind when considering some of the most influential dramas of our time.

Great post. Glad I stopped by.

Les Edgerton said...

I agree, Elliot! Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

Juliette Wade said...

Fascinating stuff, Les, especially to my anthropologist side!

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Juliette. Speaking of your "anthropologist side," there's a great movie I used to show my classes that illustrated that even though we reside in different countries, thousands of miles away, we're very similar in our behaviors, due to our environments. Have you seen "Once Were Warriors?" It's one of my all-time favorites and also illustrates what I think story should be about. IMO, it follows classic story structure. Powerful movie. (It's a New Zealand flick.)

Sarah said...

Hey Les, I love the picture by the door. You look like a groovy dude...wait, you are a groovy dude. How's my beloved mentor? I'm itching to chat and drink. When I saw Natural Born Killers, I drove home like they were on my tail. That movie scared the crap out of me because I know those people exist! Love ya and soon brother!