Back in 1995, the reviews for To Die For were full of phrases like "black comedy," "sharp satire," and "witty parody." I was spellbound by this movie, but I didn't find much to laugh about.
The plot is lifted from James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice. A woman is frustrated by her boring or boorish husband so she seduces some fool and persuades him to kill the husband.
But, in the screenplay by Buck Henry, based on a story by Joyce Maynard, there is a variation. The wife isn't bored as in Cain's iconic novel; she is ambitious. She wants to be a television personality, and she's willing to start her career by doing the weather on a local cable channel.
When the film was released, critics focused on the satire of America's obsession with celebrity, and there is some of that. But, in my humble opinion, they overlooked the film's chilling rendition of the archetypal noir plot.
For one thing, the fool is a teenager played by Joaquin Phoenix with heartbreaking vulnerability. And two other teenagers, brilliantly played by Casey Affleck and Alison Folland also fall under the wife's spell. That makes the noir a bit darker.
But most of all there is Nicole Kidman's performance. She compels belief as her character progresses from cute "little lady," to driven career woman, to ruthless exploiter, to deluded psychopath. This role should be studied and taught as an example of finding the arc of a character.
To be fair, back in 1995, critics recognized the high quality of the acting and writing, and of the direction by Gus Van Sant. Perhaps they came away laughing, because a woman with career ambitions was not taken so seriously then. After #MeToo, we're not laughing any more.
If you don't look too hard at this building, you might think it is one of those left behind in the Presidio by the U. S. Army. But in fact it is part of the Letterman Digital Arts Center, completed in 2005.
This complex of buildings is home to Lucasfilm Ltd. though you would never know it unless you wander into the lobby full of Star Wars memorabilia or notice the bronze statue of Yoda tucked away under an arbor.
The name of the complex is taken from the building it replaced, the Letterman Army Hospital. Both with its name and its architecture this creative powerhouse flies under the radar on the former army base turned national park.
Readers of the Nicole Tang Noonan mysteries will recall that in Dark Exhibit Nicole calls her childhood friend, Irene Gonzalo, and finds out that an acquaintance from her college days now works for Industrial Light and Magic in the Presidio. This would be his workplace.
On a hill near the southern border of the Presidio stands a sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy called Spire. It is about ninety feet tall, and can be seen reaching above the surrounding trees. It is a bundle of trunks from Monterey Cypress trees that reached the end of their lives.
Goldsworthy visited the Presidio in 2006 and found the forestry crew replacing cypress planted by the U. S. Army in the 1880s with seedlings. Struck by this moment, new trees replacing old, he created Spire to memorialize the old forest, which can be seen in the background.
In about ten years, the project will be complete. By then the newly planted trees in the foreground will have grown nearly as tall as Spire. This remnant of the old forest will disappear into the new one. It will become a secret sculpture, discoverable only by walking to it.
The spire Goldsworthy created will not change, but, since the growth of the seedlings was part of the concept, Spire is a kinetic sculpture. It's moving very slowly, but it is moving.
This picture is not crooked. The house is standing up straight. The street is steep. That's why the cars look funny. This is the northern part of Fillmore Street, descending into Cow Hollow on the way to the Marina District.
In a city built mostly on hills, parking gets interesting. In general, turn you wheels toward the curb when you parallel park. That means, turn them as if making a left turn if your car is pointed uphill; turn them as if making a right turn when your car is pointed downhill.
If you don't, the parking authority will write you a ticket. Putting the transmission in park and setting the emergency brake won't always keep a car from rolling down hill. If your wheels are turned to the curb, apparently the car will stop before it can get rolling. I've never tried it.
But on really steep streets like Fillmore, parallel parking with wheels turned to the curb won't do the job, so we park perpendicular to the curb. On the signs it actually says, "90-degree parking only."
This way you can be sure the car won't roll down the hill on its wheels, but if you open the passenger-side door suddenly, it feels as if the car is going to roll over on top of you.
You know something is wrong, right from the beginning.
When Louis meets his bride-to-be, fresh off the boat on a remote island, she doesn't look like the picture she sent. Julie says she sent a picture of her sister in case she changed her mind about getting married.
When he drives her to his stately home, he confesses he lied to her too. He doesn't work in a factory. He owns the factory. He didn't want her to marry him just for his money.
This is the opening of Waltz Into Darkness, the 1947 novel by Cornell Woolrich, published under his pseudonym, William Irish. It plays beautifully in Francois Truffaut's 1969 film adaptation, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve.
With minimal changes to the novel's plot, the movie tells this classic noir tale of two people, doomed by their personal histories to play out a downward spiral of crime. The many lessons Truffaut learned from Alfred Hitchcock are on full display here.
The movie falls short of Woolrich's dark vision in only one way. Belmondo and Deneuve are just too attractive. In the novel, Louis is an aging bachelor, which helps justify his obsession with holding onto Julie. It's hard to imagine Belmondo being desperate to meet women.
In the novel, Julie falls in love with Louis, but cannot stop being the psychopath her circumstances in life have made her. It's hard to imagine Deneuve as anything but an angel.
I've written several times about The Presidio, a former army base turned into a National Park. I have featured the view of San Francisco Bay from the Main Post and The Walt Disney Family Museum.
I've been volunteering there to introduce people to the four sculptures in the park by Andy Goldsworthy. I've featured two of them here, Tree Fall and Earth Wall.
But I haven't written about the neighborhood along the southern border of the park, Presidio Heights. These hillside homes are highly desirable because they look over the treetops of the forest planted by the U. S. Army and have a view of San Francisco Bay.
But it's not all sweetness and light. You can't walk more than a block or two among the mansions without coming upon a scene like this. Indeed sometimes you'll find two houses in the same block with a tool shed and a dumpster parked in front.
You should not conclude from this that the neighborhood became run down and has to be rehabilitated. I doubt Presidio Heights has ever been anything but splendid.
No, the orgy of remodeling is driven by the boom times in the city's economy. People with big houses have big bucks to spend swapping out the oak flooring for cherry, adding a roof garden, and doubling the size of the kitchen.
No one seems to mind the cluttered streetscape. I wonder how they would react if someone parked an RV at the curb.
As you can see, compared to yesterday's post, the lists of scenes for the second, third, and fourth quarters are growing. Partly that's the result of asking what must logically follow from the scene before.
But much of this growth depends on the new list of notes on the right. I learned some years ago from a book by James N. Frey that the story of a murder mystery starts with the murderer. The book may start with the sleuth's investigation, but the story starts earlier.
So, the extra set of notes on the right outlines what happens between the victim and the killer leading up to the murder. These are the events the sleuth, Nicole, will discover in the course of her investigation.
At this stage I need to spend some more hours thinking through cause-and-effect to fill out those four columns. Then I'll expand each of these sticky notes into a short paragraph, creating a step-by-step outline. Then I'll start a first draft.
There are plenty of great writers who do not outline. Instead they just start typing and keep going until they get to an ending. Most of them cheerfuly admit they write perhaps 500 pages to get a 300-page book.
I'm not one of them. Isn't it great we can all do this the way we want.
In yesterday's blog post about outlining the fourth Nicole Tang Noonan mystery, I showed four columns, representing the four quarters of a story according to Matt Bird in The Secrets of Story.
The gray notes in the first column, represent scenes. This list of scenes outlines the plot for the first quarter of the story. But without some structure, the plot might be a monotonous list of events. Things would happen but we might not be getting anywhere.
Those small gold sticky notes remind me of Bird's notes on the structure of the story. For instance, the third gold note by the first column says, "The hero discovers an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem." That's a good structural point to aim for early in the first quarter of the story.
I like being reminded that a story needs both a plot and a structure.
Bird developed his lists of points relating to concept, structure, characters, etc. by analyzing over a hundred successful films to see what they have in common. In his book, he arranges these into "The Ultimate Story Checklist," a way of testing the integrity of your story.
I'm using the points related to structure in planning this book. I'll use the other lists of points after I've written a first draft to diagnose problems to fix in the second draft.
At least, that's the plan for now.
A year and a half ago, I discovered The Secrets of Story by Matt Bird. At that time, I used his "Ultimate Story Checklist" as a tool for content editing, evaluating a draft of Dark Mural for further revisions.
Now I'm using Bird's book as I begin outlining the fourth Nicole Tang Noonan mystery. Each of those gray sticky notes represents a scene: Nicole goes somewhere, meets someone, tries to accomplish something, and fails (or only partly succeeds). She must therefore proceed to the next scene to take the next step toward her ultimate goal, solving the crime.
The column of gray notes represents the first quarter of the story, which Bird calls, "The Challenge." Next to it are place-holder sticky notes for three more columns, representing the second, third, and fourth quarters of the story. Bird calls these "The Easy Way," "The Hard Way," and "The Climax."
By itself, the plot could be represented by one long list of events. Breaking it into four quarters is Bird's way of helping the writer hit certain marks along the way.
When I used this idea to evaluate a draft of Dark Mural I found I had mostly hit those marks without thinking about them because I had read a lot of murder mysteries had a feel for how they unfold. Still, I had to make adjustments.
I hope outlining with these four quarters in mind will let me write a first draft that is closer to being an entertaining story. As the outlining proceeds, I'll post new photos.
By the way, that circular object in the lower left corner is the thing you put your fingers into when you want to slide the closet door open.
I visited San Francisco's Old Mint over the weekend for the annual SF History Days, a chance for every organization in town to pass out brochures about how they preserve the city's history.
Walking by, it's easy to think this building is just another old court house, but it's architecture and history are extraordinary. To begin with, it's not the oldest mint in town. The first one, built in 1854 for turning gold from the Gold Rush into coins, occupied a modest brick building which still stands on Commercial street.
This grand building replaced it in 1874, when the amount of money in the city was much greater. At a time when gold was used in everyday transactions, this was the U. S. Government's factory for stamping out coins. It once held one third of the Treasury's gold reserves.
Those front steps are steep and hard to climb, the harder for robbers to run in and out. The foundation is built of granite and concrete to prevent tunneling into the vaults. It has its own water supply, accessible in a central courtyard.
But my favorite feature is the gallery that graces the old counting room.
It looks like a decorative feature, but it had a practical purpose. Back when people brought gold dust, bullion or coins to the mint, this room was set up for weighing and counting the precious metal as it changed hands. Men with rifles were stationed on the gallery high above to discourage any attempts to rob the mint.
In 2003, the federal government sold the building to the City of San Francisco for one dollar. There's been talk of converting it to a museum of the city's history, but at the moment it opens only once a year for San Franciscans to gather and trade information on that subject. It seems a shame to have it sitting empty.
No Man of Her Own (1950), directed by William Leisen, starring Barbara Stanwyck, is a rare instance of a movie that is as good as the book its based on.
I enjoyed the book, I Married a Dead Man by Cornell Woolrich. The opening chapters set up a tall tale: a pregnant woman meets another pregnant woman on a train; the train crashes and one of them dies; the one who lives is mistaken for the one who died.
The rest of the book plays out this premise. The survivor reluctantly accepts the new identity thrust upon her because her own prospects as an unmarried mother are grim, whereas the other woman was a newlywed mother on her way to meet her husband's wealthy family.
Once past this unlikely premise, the suspense mounts steadily as the mother lives a lie for the sake of providing a better life for her child. It's a classic noir dilemma: doing a bad thing for a good reason.
The film makes the premise easier to believe thanks to Leisen's efficient visual style. The director's craft is evident throughout the rest of the film as well. He frequently lets Stanwyck's face tell the story in long close-ups.
If you go looking for this film, don't confuse it with another film of the same title made in 1932, starring Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Also, don't be mislead by the film's credits, which say it is based on the book by William Irish. Woolrich originally published I Married a Dead Man under a pseudonym.
Scanning the swap shelves in the laundry room, I couldn't help noticing the similarities of these titles and covers. Both books were first published by William Morrow in 2015.
The similarity of the titles is not an accident. It's a formula: (pronoun) She (cognition). We could make up many more: When She Remembered, All She Wanted, Why She Chose, etc.
Formulaic titles have become common. After The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo became an international phenomenon we had The Girl on the Train, Gone Girl and many other "Girls," all of them in distress.
The similarity of the covers is also a formula. Both feature bare trees in a rural place. Therefore that have similar season, place, and mood.
Giving books similar titles and covers tells she reader, "If you liked that one, you'll like this one." That has always been true, but it's even more important now. When readers look for books online they can look at more titles and covers more quickly than in a physical bookstore.
I read somewhere that online shoppers takes three seconds to decide if the cover looks interesting and ten seconds to decide if the title looks promising. Only then will they read the description of the book.
If that's true, showing potential readers a unique cover with a unique title almost guarantees they will shrug and move on. Look-alikes are the way to sell books.
My recent post, A Visual History of San Francisco, was all about the buildings. A recent visit to Fort Point reminded me that the city's history is more a product of its natural setting than its architecture. Seen from Fort Point, the city appears miniature compared to the bay that surrounds it, even though this photo shows only a small part of the bay.
Fort Point stands at the southern side of the entrance to San Francisco Bay. Spanish explorers called this entrance "la buca," the mouth.
In 1846, an early settler, John C. Fremont, decided to call it the Golden Gate because it reminded him of the Golden Horn at the harbor of Byzantium. That name proved prophetic when gold was discovered two years later, touching off the Gold Rush.
The U. S. Army built Fort Point on this spot for the same reason the Spanish built a presidio here in 1776. Aim a few cannons at la buca, and you control the harbor and defend the city.
That fort, completed in 1861, still stands. It is now beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, completed in 1937.
I haven't read all of Jim Thompson's novels. Once I had read those recommended as his best, I stopped keeping a list titles. But when I saw this one in a bookstore, I grabbed it on a whim. I'm glad I did.
Mitch Corley, the hero of Texas by the Tail, is more relatable than many of Thompson's main characters. He's not a psychopath like Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me; he isn't an assassin like Charley Bigger in Savage Night; he isn't a thief and murderer like Doc McCoy in The Getaway.
Mitch Corley is a professional gambler who knows how to make the dice do what he wants and is always happy to separate a fool from his money. Like several of Thompson's other heroes, he's trying to make a good life for himself and the woman he loves, despite his flaws.
What makes Texas by the Tail so surprising and satisfying is the narrative voice. "Texas" is not narrated in the first person as are the Thompson novels critics like best, Also, this omniscient narrator is more authoritative than those of After Dark My Sweet, and The Grifters, for instance,
In "Texas," the narrator occasionally takes a paragraph or two to describe the social character of the places where the action is set, Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth. He also editorializes on Mitch's dubious assumptions and decisions. The reader feels the author hovering over the action more than in other novels by Thompson.
Probably this is because "Texas" was written late in Thompson's career, 1965, when he had been writing for film and television for several years. His most productive years as a novelist, 1952 to 1955, were behind him. It is as if he returns to the novel, feeling free of the requirements of the paperback originals he had turned out at an astonishing rate (twelve books in three years).
Texas by the Tail reads more like a mainstream novel than those earlier books, though the dread of watching the hero make his way in a corrupt world is just as profound. This probably shouldn't be a reader's first novel by Thompson, but it is not to be missed.
The sign for AMC Theatres will soon be gone from this grand old building on Van Ness Avenue. A few years ago AMC took over the Sundance Cinema six blocks away and we had to wonder how long they would compete with themselves.
Years before that, AMC turned this four-story building into an eighteen-screen mutiplex. We've ridden up and down the escalators many times and watched many movies here. And we may see more. Word has it another company will re-open the theaters under its name.
One sign will not be leaving the building. In the stone over that fancy entrance is carved the word "Cadillac." It may seem strange now, but this was originally an auto dealership.
Back when cars were new, Van Ness Avenue was home to many dealerships. Quite a few still operate there. As I took this photo, I stood in front of a Land Rover/Jaguar dealer in an art deco building. No sign of its original brand.
Around the corner from "Cadillac" is a building of similar vintage, though not as large. Over its door is carved the word "Packard."