What Makes a “Heist” Story, Anyway?

One of my semi-regular podcast listenings is The Rewatchables from the folks over at The Ringer. In each episode they take a deep dive (sometimes too deep – the episodes can tend to sprawl) into a movie that they can watch over and over again. It’s good fun if they’re talking about a movie you’re familiar with.

Recently, they did an episode on the 2006 film Inside Man. Directed by Spike Lee and starring Clive Owen, Denzel Washington, and Jodie Foster (among others), it’s about an elaborate bank robbery that’s about much more than money.

What really got me thinking, though, was the introduction to this episode, where they talked about “heist” movies and how great they were. No argument from me – but is Inside Man really about a heist? What makes a heist, and therefore a heist story, anyway?

Maybe Inside Man fits, if we’re just going by dictionary definitions. The Oxford English Dictionary defines heist as “a hold-up, a robbery.” Far be it from me to disagree with the OED, but at least when it comes to storytelling, “heist” means something quite different than “robbery.”

I should say here that when I think of robbery I’m thinking of it in the legal sense that I deal with everyday – that is, the taking of property from the person of another by use or threatened use of force. Other thieving is something different. Think of it this way – if I go into a bank and point a gun at the teller, I’m committing a robbery; but if, as an employee, I secretly steal money without anybody noticing, I’m committing embezzlement. Both felonies, but quite different from one another.

The distinction, for me at least, comes down to brute force. A robbery can be elaborate and kinetic and exciting – think the beginning of The Dark Knight – but, at the end of the day, it’s “your money or your life.” It’s simple, effective, and brutal. “Heist” conjures up something more clever, more deeply thought out. It’s about getting the object of the robbery without the violence. It’s a better, more elevated, kind of crime, if you will.

I’m thinking of things like The Thomas Crown Affair or Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels. Those movies are about the scheming to pull off the job, not just rolling up with guns and forcing people to do your bidding. To be sure, sometimes the scheme goes sour and the heist goes bad, so I suppose it’s a question of intent. If the thieves are trying to get away with it without using violence, it’s a heist. Otherwise, it’s not.

There are also things that don’t fit in either category. There’s a new(ish) Neflix documentary called This Is a Robbery about the 1990 theft of the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum in Boston in which over $500 million worth of art was taken. On the one hand, it involved a clever ruse – the thieves posed as Boston cops and got in by saying they were responding the report of a break in. On the other hand, they tied up the two night security guys pretty violently, so there’s that. Is that a heist story or not? Honestly, I’m not sure.

As I’m writing this I’m watching/listening to a 2017 in-studio performance by Monobody, a band whose music is really hard to classify. In one of the interview breaks the guitar player talks about genre labels as a necessary label, since they help people talk about things like art. But, ultimately, they’re meaningless when considering whether any piece of art is enjoyable or not. So whether I think a story is a heist story or not is irrelevant.

And I’m completely will to admit I’m full of shit about this. Such is life.

Weekly Read: The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War – A Tragedy In Three Acts

What if the CIA hasn’t been a bad idea all along? That’s the theory underpinning The Quiet Americans, a look at the early days of the agency and its roots in World War II. Fascinating and detailed as the book is, I’m not sure I completely buy Scott Anderson’s thesis that if the guys on the ground would have been allowed to do it their way things might have worked out better.

Telling even part of the history of the CIA is a sprawling affair, which Anderson does by focusing on four early agency operatives, all of whom came out of the hastily assembled intelligence groups the United States used during the war. This Washington Post review summarizes them well:

Frank Wisner, the first chief of the CIA’s covert-operations unit, provides a top-down view of the early Cold War, while Michael Burke, a jack-of-all-trades charmer, delivers an agent’s experience from the ground up. The German émigré Peter Sichel, the most intriguing and least known of Anderson’s characters, spends most of his time in Berlin and Eastern Europe, while Edward Lansdale, the best known of the four, traipses through the Philippines. Lansdale gives the book its title, borrowed from Graham Greene’s novel “The Quiet American,” rumored to be based on Lansdale’s misadventures in Southeast Asia. An early adopter in the emerging field of “psychological warfare,” Lansdale would become best known for his clandestine scheming in Vietnam, but Anderson captures him at an earlier moment, as a young man grappling with the moral and logistical complexities of foreign intervention — more “Lawrence of Asia,” as his nickname suggested, than Dr. Strangelove.

What the CIA eventually becomes – a black hole out of which clandestine operations toppled governments and propped up dictators – has an origin story in Anderson’s telling. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the Soviets treated the areas of Eastern Europe they liberated less as newly freed lands than as conquered territories. They installed puppet regimes, stripped resources, and even hauled people away to work in the Soviet Union in scenes reminiscent of the transport of Jews to concentration camps during the Holocaust. This was evil, without a doubt, but it was also a kind of fait accompli and there wasn’t anything short of another war that the US and its allies could do about it.

With Eastern Europe locked up, US foreign policy eyes turned toward what was now being called the Third World. The problem was that the thing that gave the Soviets such leverage in Europe – geographical proximity and boots on the ground – didn’t apply in Asia, Africa, or Central and South America. More to the point, populations in these areas often had legitimate grievances arising from generations of colonial rule. Instead of recognizing and working with that anger, the US saw everyone who didn’t toe their line as communists and battled against them accordingly.

A large part of Anderson’s story is about how the four titular quiet Americans came to become disillusioned with the CIA’s work. Part of that came from the abandonment of two American ideals in the name of fighting communists. The first was rejecting the anti-colonial position of the Roosevelt administration in favor of helping Cold War allies prop up their failing empires. This was always a bit hypocritical – we’ve got our empire, too – but siding with, say, the French in Southeast Asia over local independence movements only proved to the locals that if they wanted outside support it wasn’t coming from the Americans. Most spectacularly, this led to the morass that was the Vietnam War.

The other guiding principle that the US let slide in the name of fighting communism was a commitment to democracy. Two of the early CIA’s successes were orchestrating coups in Iran and Guatemala that deposed popularly elected leaders that were perceived as problematic. In Iran it was more down to British oil interests than anything else, while in Guatemala the CIA managed to turn an elected president who was, at most, a little left leaning into a communist scourge who had to be stopped at all costs (though Moscow didn’t even know who he was).

If ditching those principles were strike one and two, then the third was the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. For most of the Cold War up to that point CIA operatives had staged operations behind the Iron Curtain, flying in expat agents (many of whom were captured or killed – or both) and generally trying to lay the groundwork to aid in a popular uprising, should it come. When it did, in Hungary, the US didn’t do anything. Part of this was due to the specter of a nuclear war which everyone figured would arise from conflict in Europe. That led to the CIA guys, as one of them put it, not knowing what to do if they “won.”

Of course, there was no “winning” the games they were playing. I followed up this book with The Jakarta Method by Vincent Bevins, which focuses on the CIA’s role in overthrowing the Indonesian government in 1965. What’s interesting is that, in laying the background, Bevins provides some more detail on things like the Iranian and Guatemalan coups, making their unsavorinous clear, while pointing out the long-term consequences for those countries. In other words, even the successes of the early CIA really weren’t, in the long run.

This comes out sounding a little harsh on The Quiet Americans, which isn’t really fair. It’s a very compelling book, with lots of interesting details about not just some of the overseas operations, but also the political context back in the US. Indeed, one running thread was how J. Edgar Hoover pretty much had it in for the CIA from the beginning, since he wanted to run the intelligence show from the FBI. But there’s a definite theme that the CIA itself wasn’t a failure, but that it was failed by higher ups, in much the same way that, for years, the debacle in Vietnam was framed as what happens when the politicians don’t just get out of the way and let the military run the show.

But, overall, this is a very worthy read. Just remember to take it with just a few grains of salt.

On Leaving Things Unsaid

Twice in the past couple of weeks, while channel surfing, I’ve come across Fargo, the 1996 Coen Brothers classic right at that point where there’s enough left to make it worth watching the rest, even if it’s not the beginning. For what it’s worth, that point – both times! – was after Jerry’s unsuccessful parking lot pitch to his father in law, after which he has a little freak out in the parking lot.

Fargo is one of my favorite movies and I’ve seen it over and over, but I still get new things out of it. These two times around one thing jumped out at my writer brain that hadn’t registered before. It has to do not with what was on screen, but what wasn’t.

What drives the plot of Fargo is that hapless car salesman Jerry Lundegaard needs money and is willing to do just about anything to do it. He tries to scam his wealthy father-in-law to “investing” in a parking lot development deal. He’s running some kind of game with the GMAC finance people, too. And, of course, there’s the eventual plot he hatches to have two goons kidnap his wife (who’s wealthy father will then pay an inflated ransom to get back) that ends with a lot of dead bodies.

We know all this. We see the machinations, see the wheels turning. One of the best scenes in the movie is after the kidnapping when we hear Jerry on the phone calling his father-in-law to tell him his wife has been kidnapped. Only he’s not on the phone (the shot starts with him off screen) – he’s rehearing the call he’s going to make, getting his scheme down pat. We hear him fend off the GMAC guy on the phone. And we see him deal with the two goons.

What occurred to me rewatching recently is what we don’t see, what we don’t learn. For a start, we have no idea how much money Jerry needs. It must be substantial, as he’s only going to pay the goons $40k initially on the kidnapping, while setting the ransom at $1 million and that’s only one of his many ongoing schemes. Still, we don’t know a number. Nor do we know to whom Jerry owes a substantial debt. It could be a bank, the result of a failed legit investment or business, or it could be gambling debts that he owes to the mob. Again, we just don’t know.

I think this is a pretty brilliant bit of storytelling. Typically, story gurus will say, you should give your main character a clear goal that they struggle to achieve through the course of your story. But sometimes the rule needs to be broken and I think Fargo is one of those places. If we know how much Jerry needs, the story shifts from being one about a scheme spiraling out of control to one about whether Jerry is going to succeed. If we know why he needs the money it shifts our perception a bit and we’ll be more invested in Jerry’s success. We probably don’t want the mob to break his legs, right?

What all this does is keep us as viewers from getting too close to Jerry, from caring about him succeeding. I think it’s a conscious choice by the Coens to keep us from empathizing with him, as you normally do with a main character. You could certainly try to produce a story where the readers or viewers try to empathize with a guy who gets his own wife, not to mention half-dozen other people, killed as his scheme goes off the rails, but that would be a different story than Fargo. This also allows the moral center of the film to be Marge, who doesn’t even show up until about a third of the way in (coincidentally right after I found the movie on TV these past times).

This isn’t the way to go for most stories. Certainly if you want your main character to be viewed as a hero, even a flawed one, you need to let readers know why they’re doing what they’re doing. But sometimes that’s not what you want. Sometimes you want the guy who sets in motion the disposal of a dead body in a woodchipper to just be a bastard through and through. Who needs to get on board with that?

Some New Music: In the Year of the Plague

I will not lie – there’s been one thing I’ve really enjoyed about the past year of pandemic fucked life. I’m lucky in that I’ve been able to keep working from home during the whole thing without any real impact on my daily work. One side effect of that is that without commuting time on workdays, I had a lot more time on my hands.

What a boon that must have been for creativity! So much more time to write!

Yeah, well, about that. Whether it was the constant creeping doom around the world or just the fact that Widows of the Empire and Heroes of the Empire are being difficult, I didn’t turn all that extra time into a new books. Not yet, at least.

What I did do was make some music.

And here it is. All of these songs were started or finished (in most cases both) during 2020. Not many are actually pandemic related, but just being able to use the extra time to quickly follow up on ideas and moods definitely played a role. With a couple of exceptions, none of them have been uploaded until now.

Not all of these songs fit the Pandemic Year mold. “Shadow Weaver” and “A Vulgar Surplus” both developed out of ideas I had sketched out in 2014 and rediscovered last year after I moved some old projects into my newer DAW. Ironically enough, “In the Year of the Plague” itself went through several fits and starts, with the final version only taking shape this spring. Maybe that says something about the long tendrils of our COVID year. Or not.

A couple of other notes. “The Laminated Llama” arose from an experiment with the SynthOne app on my iPad. “Please Scream Inside Your Heart” is my first experiment with sound collage, with a nod toward “The Waiting Room” from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. It was inspired by news reports about a reopening Japanese theme park’s advice for having COVID-preventative fun. The samples are taken from various loop libraries and the BBC’s sound effect archive, along with some insect sounds recorded by me at Babcock State Park on a hike.

This isn’t a collection of doom and gloom. That’s lurking in a lot of the sonic crevices, but I hope that it’s also about finding some fun and beauty in the face of a world in crisis. I had fun putting these tunes together. Hope you get some enjoyment listening to them.

The artwork here is by frank_to_artist on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license. Modified by yours truly.

On Horror . . . IN SPAAACCCEEE!!!

I love a good dust up over genre boundaries. Whether it’s sci-fi versus fantasy or prog rock versus anything, I get sucked into these things. Part of it’s a genuine curiosity about where the lines are drawn. Part of it, honestly, is see what can be some spectacularly wrong takes.

So it was that, last week, I was drawn to a Twitter dust up of an interesting opinion – can you have horror is space?

It started this way:

The first response seems about right:

Makes sense, right? I mean, it’s a movie where a monster – which happens to be an alien – kills victim after victim in a single locale – a spaceship – forcing the hero to pull it together and kick ass. It’s a horror flick. It’s sci-fi.

Not to the original questioner, who followed up:

I’m not sure I’m convinced, mainly because I think “horror” is both a genre unto itself and also a type of story.

Let me make an analogy to progressive rock. At its inception, prog was a descriptive term, a generic label for all kinds of music that was pushing the boundaries of what was contemporary rock at the time. When the genre’s popularity tailed off it wound up giving birth to a particular idea of music defined by a handful of stereotypical features – long songs, focus on instrumental passages, mythical/literary lyrical topics. Later on, newer bands influenced by the original wave of prog started making their own music in the style of those original bands. Thus, “prog” became both a descriptive term and a style.

Horror is kind of like that. There definitely is a genre of horror stories, but there’s also the fact that horror stories can be told in all kinds of different settings. Some may involve supernatural elements, some may not. Some may be set in modern times, other may have a historical setting. Relevant to the discussion here, you can also have horror stories set in the future and, yes, in space. They may be sci-fi (or fantasy), but that doesn’t keep them from being horror stories, too.

In the end, that’s one of the cool things about speculative fiction. Whether sci-fi or fantasy, it’s more of a setting or milieu than a story type in itself. Either genre can support stories from romance to mystery to satire to daring heist caper. Given that, it doesn’t make any sense to say that being a sci-fi story precludes that same story from being a horror story, too.

For what it’s worth, the final vote tally was like something out of one of those “dictator for life” elections somewhere:

Oof.

The Proper Calibration of Stakes

Every story – well, nearly every story – is about characters trying to accomplish something. Depending on what kind of story it is – comedy, weepy family drama, thriller – the stakes are going to be completely different. Dude, Where’s My Car? is an appropriately low set of stakes to use to move the plot along in a stoner comedy. In a serious character piece, not so much (although now I’m thinking of it as a long form commentary on existential dread and maybe?). Every story needs the right stakes.

In sci-fi and fantasy stories are often told against big, bold backdrops – starships that travel between alien worlds or weird fantasy worlds sprawling with orcs fairies and all the rest. As a result, it can sometimes be too easy to let the stakes get too big. It’s worth remembering that as the stakes spiral out of control, it can impact the story you’re trying to tell and the reactions readers or viewers are going to have. The bigger the stakes, sometimes perversely, the lower the dramatic tension.

What is generally regarded as the best of the Star Trek movies? Wrath of Khan, right?

Think about what the stakes are in that movie. It doesn’t have anything to do with saving Earth or the Federation. It starts out with Kirk not going gently into retirement and slides into a mano-a-mano (or shipo-a-shipo, I guess) fueled by revenge. Yes, there’s the whole Genesis device stuff, but even that isn’t the kind of universe shattering stuff the drives the plot in later movies (why is the Enterprise always the only Federation ship in the neighborhood?!). It works so well because it’s about a few people, doing desperate things.

Which makes a lot of sense, because lots of old Trek episodes were just like that. Most episodes revolved around getting one of the main trial – Kirk, Spock, & McCoy – out of trouble. Occasionally the entire Enterprise is at risk, but never (that I can remember, anyway) was there a “we have to save the galaxy” episode. Even the later series that had some big bads – the Borg, the Dominion – used their galaxy-spanning threat sparingly.

Lots of the other Trek movies fall into the trap of making the stakes saving the entire fucking galaxy (or Solar System, at least). Superhero movies tend to do this a lot, too. The problem is that once you’ve put the entire world/galaxy/universe at peril, how likely is it that our heroes – be they Avengers or Starfleeters – to fail?

Another example where keeping the stakes low really helps is The Wolverine, the second stand-alone flick featuring the beclawed X-man.

It takes a break from the usual huge stakes of the X-Men movies (the mid-end-credit scene sets up precisely that – the need to save the world – for the next flick) and tells a story that focuses on Wolverine’s history and demons. The action is great, the story flows, and it never really goes beyond Japan. You get the sense that all this happened without any real impact on the outside world – but it story works precisely because it’s so personal and contained.

This all came to mind while I was reading Lindsay Ellis’ Axiom’s End a little while back.

It’s a pretty good read and that’s largely due to the fact that for a long time it’s first contact story doesn’t have the hugest of stakes. What’s interesting is how the human main character and the alien she starts to help have to learn to communicate with each other and how to deal with the baggage each of them bring to the table just as members of their particular species. There’s some danger involved, naturally, but the stakes are fairly limited. That is, until about the last third of the book, where a threat to the Earth materializes. That doesn’t ruin things, but I was a bit disappointed.

I can’t say I’ve done a lot for reigning in stakes in my own work. Both The Water Road and the Unari Empire trilogies have pretty high stakes, if you consider the fate of nations to be high stakes (most would). They seemed natural for those stories, though, and since neither of them take place in our world, there’s no inherent need for any particular endings. Moore Hollow is considerably narrower and more personal, which is what I wanted from the get go, so that worked out well there.

As usual, there’s no hard and fast rule when it comes to figuring out how high the stakes should be in a story. Sometimes saving the universe is just right. Sometimes, all you need to do is have the characters make their way from Point A to Point B, having some fun and adventures along the way. Like anything else, it needs to be carefully considered to figure out what works best for the story you want to tell.

Weekly Read: One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America

I was born in 1973, so I kind of came into political puberty in the mid 1980s. As a result, the Religious Right has been a part of my political scene essentially my entire life. My impression of them then, and still today, is that they’re mostly culture warriors, fixated generally on the sexual behavior of others (to steal Mencken’s definition of Puritanism: the “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”). It seemed like a natural reaction to the “free love” of the 1960s and, so, I figured that’s where it’s all come from. I’ve also read some theories that the operatives of the Religious Right largely came out of losing side in the battle over segregation, as they searched for new wedge issues in the culture.

In One Nation Under God, historian Kevin Kruse argues differently. His thesis is right there in the subtitle: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. The Religious Right isn’t an organic outgrowth of grassroots fervor. Rather, it’s the result of some careful calculation of big business interests searching for foot soldiers in their fight against the regulative state. What’s funny is that while they got the movement, it just never delivered on the goal they really wanted it for.

In Kruse’s telling, the Religious Right got its start in the 1930s as business leaders sought to combat Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. This was all prompted by the Great Depression. More directly, it was that Roosevelt dared to use the Federal government to try and lift the nation out of poverty, ushering in an expansion of power at a national level. It really was the birth of the modern regulatory state, which is something big business couldn’t deal with. But simply making their case – to the impoverished masses to whom some government regulation of the industry that drove the country into the ditch in the first place was a good thing – wasn’t really working.

Nor was it enough to fall back on paeans to the Founding Fathers and the American way which, to be fair up to that point, had involved a lot of lightly regulated capitalism. Again, it couldn’t really cut through the economic reality. That’s when religion appeared and alliance formed between politically minded preachers and leaders of industry to turn capitalism not just into the American way, but God’s way, too.

One of those preachers was Billy Graham. While not involved at the very start in the 1930s, he quickly became part of the new religion/business alliance. He was particularly important to bringing Eisenhower around on the whole idea, going to far as to write bits for some of Ike’s speeches (he’d do the same for Nixon later). The idea, floated somewhat when Graham died a few years ago, that he wasn’t part of the Religious Right as a political entity is, thus, complete bullshit. He wasn’t the only one, of course, but he was part of the cadre of religious leaders who turned the White House into a kind of religious bully pulpit.

As skeevy as the entire operation was, it does have a huge sense of irony about it, thanks to Eisenhower. He was the first President (and presidential candidate) to really embrace the idea of “ceremonial deism” and the canard that Christianity is the foundation of the Constitution. So, when he was in office and running things (and becoming the first President baptized while in office), the money men who put him there expected to finally be able to cash in on all their work and get the New Deal dismantled. Ike, however, balked, recognizing that dismantling popular New Deal programs would be political suicide, noting that the party that got rid of Social Security and unemployment insurance would shortly cease to exist. All that work and no reward!

Nevertheless, the movement these guys had birthed shuffled on into the culture war crusaders we know them as today (the first big fights were over school prayer). There is definitely a certain feel from the story Kruse is telling that the Frankenstein’s monster got loose and beyond its masters’ control, but one thing he doesn’t address is whether these guys were true believers in the first place. My natural cynical inclination makes me think they were doing whatever they thought was necessary to bolster the bottom line (co-opting eager religious leaders in the process), but I’m not beyond thinking they were getting high on their own holy supply, too.

“Ceremonial deism” – the idea that there’s no First Amendment issue with public officials invoking the name of God so long as it’s in a squishy non-sectarian (within limits) way – certainly has taken on a life of its own. As Kruse lays out, a lot of what we consider foundational parts of this – “In God We Trust” on money, “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance – are fairly recent inventions based on spurious readings of history pushed by these early crusaders. It didn’t take even a generation, though, for them to be evidence to prove the very “ceremonial deism” they were created to birth in the first place.

While Kruse makes a compelling case, I do have two beefs with how he does it. First, he refers to most of these captains of industry as “Christian Libertarians,” which doesn’t seem to fit to me. For all the things “libertarian” can mean it has to at least mean freedom from the state trying to dictate religious belief, which is essentially what these guys were (and are) pushing. I think “Theocratic Capitalists” would be a better fit. Secondly, with a couple of exceptions, Kruse doesn’t bother diving into how untethered from reality most of the arguments were that these folks made. He does discus it it somewhat in the epilogue and highlights an early example of how they selectively edited part of the Declaration of Independence (which has nothing to do with the law of this nation, by the way) to make it fit their agenda better. These folks are prototypical liars for Jesus but aren’t called on it enough.

Those small quibbles aside, Kruse has done important work here. In the modern world, where a little sleuthing can easily unmask the actual source of astroturfed “grassroots” political movements, we sometimes get lulled into thinking such campaigns are a fairly recent development. They’re not and it’s worth knowing the kind of long-term impacts they can have, even if they don’t meet their initial goal.

The Real Here or Somewhere Else?

A great thing about writing fantasy and science fiction is that you can set a story wherever you like, be it a far flung future or a galaxy far, far away. It can be a place that never existed or that exists but not in the form it does for your story. The possibilities are endless. But sometimes you want to tell a story in what, for better or worse, we’ll call the “real” world – the one that exists when you’re writing your story (or sometime before). If that’s the case, should you set it in a real place or make one up?

I grappled with this when I wrote Moore Hollow. It’s set in the “real” world, to the extent that zombies exist in the real world. The main character, Ben Potter, lives in London and visits family in Leeds before and after he travels to West Virginia. He rents a car at Yeager Airport in Charleston! All real places.

But when it came time to set the main part of the book, I was caught. I originally intended to set the story in one of the real counties deep in coal country – Mingo, McDowell. I thought that would help the story by giving a real sense of place, to ground the more fantastical elements.

The problem with using real places, of course, is that it limits your story somewhat. I needed some specific locales for Moore Hollow, places that, it turned out, didn’t really match the lay of the land any particular place in southern West Virginia. Thus, Vandalia County and its county seat, Jenkinsville, were born. All of a sudden I had unlimited freedom to fit the landscape to the story I wanted to tell.

We tend to see that kind of thing a lot in TV shows, as they cobble up settings as the show goes on. The best example, probably, is The Simpsons, which has for years given Springfield all the things it needs for the stories they tell, whether they really make sense or are found in a single location in the real world. Need a nuclear power plant? No problem. An ever burning tire fire? Have one of those, too. A city with a minor league baseball team but big enough to host a thriving entertainment industry (you think all those Krusty shows beam in from Hollywood?)? It’s got everything you need!

You get the point – when you’re making up the location as you go along, you can give it whatever the story needs.

There’s a price to pay for that kind of flexibility, though. The story you’re telling might feel more divorced from reality than you’d like.

By comparison, I just finished reading another of the Dresden Files novels. In no way is that series set in the real world – unless there are wizards, spirits trapped in skulls, and all manner of fantastical beasties out there that manage to stay off social media in 2021. That said, it is set in the very real place of Chicago and benefits for it. It adds a gritty reality to the stories that helps the “he’s a PI, but a wizard” concept really take off. If they’d been set in a fictional city that was, for all intents and purposes, Chicago, I don’t think it would be the same. Not that everything is scrupulously “real,” but then, neither is the setting of any literary novel that takes place in the real world.

Ultimately, I decided to create Vandalia County in Moore Hollow because no real place had all the things I wanted the place to have for the story. For future stories in that universe (a sequel novel and sequel-to-that novella have been drafts), I’m leaning toward trying to set them in real places, whenever possible. I might not be able to hold myself to that, but I want to try. One thing’s for certain – the decision about where to set your story has consequences. Think them through and do what’s right for your story.

Weekly Watch: Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel

It’s unfair to judge a film by what you want it to be, particularly documentaries. Filmmakers are trying to do something specific and to say “I would have done it that way” doesn’t mean much as criticism. Taking the project at face value, however, and concluding that it doesn’t really work is more fair game. Those who made The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, to their credit, tried to do something other than the usual whodunit true-crime story. Unfortunately, that winds up pulling the series in so many different directions that it doesn’t really work as a whole.

The titular vanishing is that of Elisa Lam, a young Canadian woman who was on a solo vacation of the California coast. She checked into the infamous Hotel Cecil in Los Angeles – reputed to be haunted and the inspiration for the hotel in American Horror Story: Hotel and probably the Hotel Hyperion in Angel – and never left. A few days after she disappeared, her naked body was found in a water tank on the hotel’s roof (her clothes were in the tank, too). There was no sign of foul play.

That mystery would make a neat single episode, but to stretch it out to four, the filmmakers try to weave in a couple of other threads. The first is a survey of the Hotel Cecil itself and its place in the ecosystem of its Los Angeles neighborhood, the defining feature of which is Skid Row. Thousands of homeless people live on Skid Row, semi-permanently (one guy interviewed lived there for six years, IIRC), and the challenges of those who live there and how they might be helped could make an interesting documentary. It’s mostly used here for atmosphere, the home of the outcast existing next to the haunted hotel, so it doesn’t really amount to much. To their credit, there’s never any hint (from the filmmakers or police) that any of these homeless folks were the cause of Lam’s disappearance – there doesn’t appear to be a “round up the usual suspects” moment – so that’s something.

The other thread aside from the whodunit/what happened is the one that I thought would be the most interesting. Lam’s disappearance attracted a host of amateur sleuths, most working on YouTube and other social medial sites, who tried to figure out what happened to her. Perhaps not surprisingly, they lapse into baseless conspiracy theories and even publicly accuse a death metal singer of murdering Lam because, well, he writes songs about death and water (better round up the Marillion guys, too!) and stayed at the hotel. However, easy research shows that his stay at the hotel was a year before Lam’s disappearance and at the time she went missing he was in a Mexican recording studio working on an album.

All of that could have been teased out more, with an eye toward why these people all over the world felt compelled to investigate the case and then, as answers started to emerge, disregard them in favor of their already considered pet theory. It’s almost a paradigmatic case of apophenia, but the filmmakers aren’t really interested in going down that road. Whether that’s because the internet sleuths are the ones who take up most of the talking head time in the doc – and thus they’re not going to be probed to harshly – I can’t say. They still come off as, at best, people with too much time on their hands and, at worst, unhinged, so it’s hardly a flattering portrait.

So, ultimately, Vanishing isn’t a disappointment because of what it doesn’t do, but because of what it fails to do on its own terms. It’s a worth attempt at something a bit different – which should always be encouraged, even if the end result doesn’t live up to its promise.

The International Misery Film Festival

Did you ever have the kind of weekend where you fell into an impromptu film festival? Naturally a festival has to have a particular theme, right? This past weekend, the wife and I fell ass over teakettle into a series of largely depressing, but mostly good, movies about various historical horribles. An International Misery Film Festival, if you will.

First up was a recent HBO documentary, The Art of Political Murder.

It’s about a Guatemalan priest and human rights advocate, Juan José Gerardi Conedera, who was murdered in 1998, two days after he announced the release of a report on abuses during that country’s civil war that implicated the government in various atrocities. The film works through the investigation and ultimate conviction of several perpetrators (army officers and a fellow priest), although it stops before diving into why they did it or if someone higher up the authorial chain ordered them to do it. The film tries to play like a whodunit, but it wastes time on alternate theories that don’t pan out, almost like it needs to delay the inevitable conclusion. Recommended for shedding light on an incident I wasn’t familiar with, but could have been better.

From Guatemala we next travelled to Cambodia. When the wife and I honeymooned in Cambodia we stopped for a day or two in Phnom Penh between stints exploring ruins around Ankor Wat and some beach days at Kep. That gave us time to experience the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, as well as the nearby Cheung Ek “killing fields.” It was a thoroughly heart wrenching experience. At Tuol Sleng we met one of the few survivors of the prison/torture facility the Khmer Rouge ran there, which it called S-21.

Turns out, the man and another survivor were central to our next film, S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine.

Low budget (it was shot on video, I’m pretty sure), but harrowing and powerful, this doc brings those two survivors together at Tuol Sleng with a host of men who worked there for the Khmer Rouge – guards, torturers, drivers. A large part of the doc is given over to these men explaining what they did at Tuol Sleng and, in some cases, pantomiming their crimes and daily routines. What’s most amazing, to 21st century ears, is that while one of these men voices the expected “just following orders” defense, they don’t make any attempt to euphemize what they did. The word “torture” is used repeatedly, rather than, say “enhanced interrogation techniques” (the Khmer Rouge waterboarded, too!). They go to Cheung Ek and cold describe mass murder. The limitation of a doc like this is there’s very little understanding of what made people do this to one another, but on its own terms it’s very worth watching.

From the 1970s in Southeast Asia we moved to something influenced by what was happening in that region at the same time, The Baader Meinhoff Complex.

??????????

This German film briskly covers the rise and fall of the first iteration of the Red Army Faction (sometimes known as the Baader Meinhoff Gang, after two of its leaders) from about 1968 to 1978. An outgrowth of the West German student protest movement, the RAF conducted a series of bank robberies, assassinations, and bombings in hopes of sparking a Marxist revolution. What was really interesting was how much motivation came from American activities in Vietnam and having military bases in West Germany. Indeed, some of the group’s bombings targeted American military installations, killing a handful of American soldiers.

There are issues that resonate with the modern world throughout the film. It begins with a demonstration by students against the visiting Shah of Iran. Once he and his wife leave the scene, the protestors are attacked by Iranian supporters, while West German police standby (they later join in, beating protestors and, in one case, shooting and killing one). It’s impossible not to watch that now and think of the police response (or lack thereof ) to various protests (and worse) in the US over the past few years. That the main RAF members wind up in solitary confinement pending their trial echoes in debates of how often that’s used in our modern penal system.

That said, the most interesting facet of the film is Horst Herold, the head of the West German police, played in a clever bit of casting by Bruno Ganz, the Hitler of Downfall fame. On the one hand, Herold does what you’d expect of a police chief chasing a band of murderous criminals and pulls out all the stops to catch them – at one point, he puts every police officer in West Germany on the street on a single say performing checkpoints, patdowns, and searches. Yet, he also recognizes that to combat terrorists you need to understand their motivations, which usually stem from legitimate concerns. That his more enlightened thoughts don’t carry the day point out a fundamental irony of the whole thing – in violently reacting to what it perceived as the West German police state, the RAF gave the state the justification it needed to really crackdown.

The film’s major problem is that it just has too much ground to cover. Intent on cramming as much action in as possible, it doesn’t spend enough time with some of the ancillary characters who drop in for an operation then disappear. It also doesn’t provide any idea of what happened to the RAF after its founding members died in prison. Still, a good watch and highly recommended.

I wish I could say the same about our sojourn in Ethiopia and London, Sweetness In the Belly.

Based on the novel of the same name, this tells the story of a British girl who is abandoned at a Sufi shrine in Morocco by her parents (who were probably killed over some kind of drug debt). She becomes devout, goes to Ethiopia just as the civil war there starts, and winds up a refugee resettling in London. There are issues of representation here – the story of African refugees told through the eyes of a white British woman – but the film’s biggest sin it that it’s just not very compelling. Lily, the main character, is a complete bore whose attractiveness to the two doctors of color she comes across (one in Ethiopia, the other in London) is completely inexplicable. The film fares better when it focuses on Lily’s bonding with another refugee in London, but that only goes so far. Not recommended.

Our final stop was the Soviet Union, via England and Wales, for Mr. Jones.

The title character is Gareth Jones, a Welsh journalist who, in the early 1930s, was also an advisor to British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George. After scoring an interview with Hitler (the result of which is alarm that wasn’t fully heeded), Jones wanted to do the same with Stalin. Cut loose from the government due to budget cuts (it was the Great Depression, after all), he makes it to Moscow. He doesn’t get to talk to Stalin, but the murder of another journalist (allegedly during a robbery) and the fact that reporters are being restricted to Moscow, make him curious. He manages to sneak to Ukraine where he bears firsthand witness to the Holodomor, the man-made famine that killed millions of people and may (depending on who you ask) been an act of genocide. The Soviets had been covering the whole thing up until Jones’ reportage came out.

The film keeps its point of view close on Jones, which is effective for the most part, but it robs the Holodomor of any real context. We see the horrors of it – even if (according to his family) the real Jones didn’t experience all of them (such as cannibalism), as he does in the film – but don’t get more than a few passing mentions about how and why it happened. There’s also a frame story with Orwell writing Animal Farm and it just doesn’t work. I get it – Orwell’s fable is a takedown of Stalinism – but it seems like it’s just stuck on to Jones’ story, particularly given that there’s a scene where the two meet and talk about what they’re writing! Flawed, but ultimately worth a watch. So, there we are. This weekend, I’m thinking some mindless comedies to balance things out.