Tag Archives: marlowe

Vampires, Dicks and Scouts: 3 Heroes

dracula_bela_lugosi_103Marlowescout

 

 

 

 

 

Dracula, Marlowe and Scout. Oh my. A bloodsucker, an SOB and a kid. A true range of characters, that is. Proof that when it comes to heroes, anything goes.

I’m talking about traditional narrative, as I see it. I see it from a lifetime of learning outside the classroom. From movies and comic books and television and comic strips and books. Following the teachings of everything from The Brothers Karamazov to The Brothers Warner, there are three standard molds from which our fictional heroes are stamped.

You, Me, the Girl Next Door
Look down in the street. It’s a worm. It’s a pain. It’s everyman.

Think Scout, Dorothy, Huck, George Bailey. Characters you’re drawn to rooting for because they are you. Sure, you can relate to their ups and downs, their dreams, their conflicts. You want them to make out just like you want yourself to make out.

Here I Come to Save the Day
Look at the way he saves the poor damsel from being flattened by the oncoming train. Dig the way she stands up to authority and sticks it to the establishment. You have to admire the way he seeks truth, justice, etcetera.

Some heroes are truly heroic. Mythic, even. You admire their ethics and principles, their honesty and grit, their pretty costumes and cleft chins. We’re talking knights that slay dragons and bring civilization to heathens. We’re talking renegades who rob from the rich and give to the poor. We’re talking tough hombres whose reason for living is to find justice where none exists, whether its the wild frontier of the Old West or the boulevards of post-World War II Los Angeles. A bigger than life story calls for a bigger than life protagonist, right?

Fascinating Rhythmmightymouse
Then there’s that Dracula bit. Not exactly the man in the street. Not your go-to guy when the planet’s being threatened by some intergalactic hoodoo. He’s just so damn fascinating. I mean, he’s the undead, for chrissake. He drinks human blood and turns into a bat and can’t use mirrors. Hannibal Lecter’s pure evil and purely intriguing. Even more everyday monsters like the Corleones are riveting stuff.

Most of us regular folk don’t relate to these kinds of heroes. We can’t root for them, either. But we’ll follow their adventures because they make us so damn curious.

Hybrids
John and Jane Doe, Superman and Mike Hammer, Raskolnikov and Jordan Belfort represent the old guard. The basics. The tried and true stuff of narrative heroes. If you can truly create any of these, you’ve got it knocked. But what if you mix and match? Can you summon up a hero who’s part monster, part everyone? Pull that one off and maybe you’ll find you’ve got a Travis Bickle or a Humbert Humbert. Maybe even King Kong.

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Real Life Detective Story

The funny thing is, see, I’ve been writing detective stories. That project is another yarn in itself, but my point is that I’ve been walking around for awhile now with hard-boiled notions racing through my head.

So imagine walking out to my car, on my way to a coffee date, when a bright, blue object in the street catches my eye. Sure enough it’s a wallet. It’s a bloated wallet. It’s a wallet thick with masses of credit cards and receipts and coupons and club cards and business cards. I’d say the damn thing was thicker than a corned beef sandwich at Manny’s.

So now I’m stuck. I can’t leave the thing in the street and I can’t turn it into anybody–believe me, I’ve got all the respect in the world for the boys in blue, but I was always told to avoid coppers just like you avoid hospitals and the military. So I was stuck.

I took the exploding billfold with me to the cafe. I started rifling through its contents as I explained the situation to my coffee-mate. Sure, I could’ve contacted one of the bank card companies, but that’s just opening up another can of worms. All I wanted to find was a phone number, one lousy phone number.

Needless to say, buried in the depths of the purse’s crevices and pockets, among all those slips of cards and papers and scraps, I came up blanksville. Zippo. No phone, no way, no how. But my deductive powers were sharpening, a circumstance I attribute to those P.I. tales I’ve been penning.

See, I found this business card. Some kind of nutrition center. And it was located less than two miles from where I sat at that very moment. And it was on the way home. Ain’t that swell? All I had to do was pop in, ask the receptionist to give their client list a look-see, place a call, and pass on my number. Easy, right? In a pig’s eye. I found the joint easy enough, a big office in this ritzy complex just off of Clark and Diversey. And the dump is closed, locked up tighter than an embezzler’s safety deposit box.

When I got home I surfed all the usual suspects looking for a lead and came up with zilch. I was resigned to calling one of the credit card companies. But, I decided to check through the volumes of flotsam contained in the billfold one last time. 

And that’s when I found it. A credit card recept that had been run through one of those old machines that uses a carbon. The thing had been folded, spindled and otherwise mutilated, but it also had handwritten notes on it. One of the handwritten notes was, hold on to your fedora, a telephone number.

So I dialed per the receipt, got the tootsie on the line, and was she ever bowled over with relief. Somehow she had dropped the two-ton wallet in the street without noticing. Go figure.

So she swung by my place that night to retrive the pocketbook, and she kept falling all over herself with thanks. She was on the run, getting ready for a trip out of town, but had one last thing to tell me before she skidaddled: “You’re my guardian angel,” she said.

That’s me all over, all right. Sam and Phil and me. We’re all guardian angels. Sometimes my line of work calls for it.

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Art & The Hard-Boiled Universe

Oz

You ever get an unsettling feeling at the end of a picture? It could be a literary work or a canvas or a 45. Sure. Maybe because you were counting on the boy getting the girl and instead he craps out? Or maybe because everything resolves into the easiest of happy endings contrary to your every expectation?

Figure 1.

Let’s suppose, just suppose, you’re nearing the end of “The Big Sleep.” Chandler’s got you all on edge as P.I. Marlowe eavesdrops on Jones and Canino. You just know something’s going to pop–it could bust wide open or implode real quiet-like, but either way you’re counting on it. And suddenly, without warning, Marlowe finds himself distracted by a vase of flowers. He stops listening to the boys next door and gets to arranging the blooms while going into a two-page dissertation on how to get baby’s breath to fall just ever so. Nuts!

Figure 2.

Or picture this one. The scene is spare, bleak.  A section of a house slants before you, the paint peeling from its wooden slats. Dotted and slashed with smears of crimson. A handful of squashed fern struggle out from between crushed floorboards and the earth. And, of course, those immobile legs, covered in starkly striped hose and capped off in wedges of lurid red. This ain’t no setting in no Prairie School of architecture.

Dorothy, a 16-1/2 year-old Judy Garland trying to pass for 12 in pigtails and rouge, stands transfixed in horror by the sight as one of the Singer Midgets steals up behind her. The overboard make-up can’t conceal his oily tan. He’s wearing an oversized fedora. He grasps Dorothy’s hand between his minuscule mitts and attempts to comfort the disturbed dame:

“Forget it, Dorothy,” he intones smooth and hard at the same time. “It’s Munchkinland.”

You know what’s wrong with these reinvented pictures, I know what’s wrong. Even my Aunt Fanny knows what’s wrong, but she probably couldn’t spell it out in so many words. So allow me.

The Universe is Out of Sync

It just doesn’t play. It’s too graphic or too silly or too violent. It’s too real or not real enough.  Too hard-boiled or too sugar-coated. Doesn’t fit, doesn’t mesh, doesn’t jive. It’s just plain wrong. It’s out of sync with the little world we’re experiencing.

Every work of art captures a universe through creation, re-creation, invention or clever combination thereof. It’s like laying down a complete set of natural laws–maybe unnatural in the case of Quentin Tarantino. But every element needs to fit and every action needs to ring true within this universe.

F’rinstance, in the noir setting of the hard-boiled detective universe, light is dark–that is to say that there ain’t a whole lot of light in the first place. No one is pure, no one is all good, no one is flawless–some are just more flawed than others. Justice doesn’t always win which means that sometimes crime pays. Everyone and their sister is born with original sin and man, how they’ll pay for it.

The hard-boiled author’s got plenty of ammo when it comes to expressing this cosmos of hard-knocks. Urban settings. Night settings. A hero constantly behind the eight ball. Murders at the drop of a hat. More subtle elements can also support the laws of this hard-nosed nature: a gumshoe who never gets paid or keeps having his gun boosted, a villain who’s presence is made known only by anecdote and reputation. The variations are only limited by the imagination and a created set of laws. As long as it fits, as long as it plays.

Creating a whole universe. Inventing a true world. It’s easier said than done and can leave you with your jaw dropping when it’s pulled off. There’s one heck of a beautiful thing to discover in the symmetry or asymmetry of artwork, but it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

 

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