Moving, Non-Publication…and Dada?

I rarely break the fourth wall here: personal stories I tell are usually contextualized within some larger theme, like interrogating memory.

Today, however, I speak directly to you – to explain why, after 16 posts in 3½ months, I have not posted since June 25. I will not, however, explain why I did not post at all between November 17, 2020 and March 8, 2021 – other than to say I was burned out from the 2020 elections, finishing my book (see below) and dealing with some serious family health issues.

On March 14, 2021, meanwhile, the owners of the two floors of a Brookline house we had called home since August 2018 – informed us they were selling the unit and we had to vacate by June 30. My wife Nell, who had skillfully located our prior two apartments, put her mind to the task of finding a new apartment. She succeeded brilliantly: our new home, two floors in Brookline much closer to our daughters’ middle school, is a little bit of very spectacular. We both feel liberated by the move for reasons we are still deciphering.

My task, meanwhile, was to start another purge. Nell’s mother moved to Memory Care at her senior living center in March 2020, precipitating the cleaning out of her small apartment. Moreover, Nell had moved her from a packed brownstone in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC nearly seven years earlier. A rented storage unit helped us manage this influx of stuff – a combination of high-value antiques and the normal detritus of 70+ years of living.

Still, unneeded stuff was strewn throughout our spacious half of the basement, so that is where I began to make things disappear, after which I proceeded to the apartment itself. Some disappearance was via normal trash pickup, some via these kind folks, and some…suffice to say I know where the nearest industrial-sized trash bins are. In the end, we removed at least 40 large green trash bags filled with stuff from our home. At the same time, large piles of books, clothes and dishes made their way to stores and Red Cross bins. And Nell contacted purchasers of antique silver and furniture, who seized upon much of it, some of which we transported in a rented U-Haul van with poor shock absorbers – our eldest daughter has vowed never to travel this way again – on a particularly hot and sunny June Saturday. Not all of it, but enough to make our actual move a little bit easier.

To wit, we cannot sing the praises of Gentle Giant movers enough. After a few weeks of packing, four strong handsome men arrived at our apartment with TWO trucks early on the morning of July 1. It took them nearly 10 hours to pack some final things, load their trucks, then unload them in our new apartment, but not once did they lose their sense of humor, their good nature or their camaraderie. They politely placed anything where we requested – including up and down numerous flights of stairs. They were professionals in the very best sense of the term, and they did not charge us nearly as much as we had feared.

Our younger daughter – who gets very anxious with substantive change – stayed with a cousin for a few nights, while Nell, older daughter and I set to work constructing our new home. The three ladies (our beloved golden retriever Ruby died from lymphoma at the end of April, a few weeks before her seventh birthday) then departed for the family home on Martha’s Vineyard on July 6. Over the next 10 days, meanwhile, I finished the last 90% of the “construction,” loudly singing to iPod playlists blasted through computer speakers as I unpacked – then deconstructed before tossing them into a special bin in Brookline – box after box after box. I repositioned bookcases, ordered and shelved a few thousand books, washed glasses, rearranged the kitchen multiple times, collected like items into one place…and so forth. I essentially completed the job two days ago, with only a few old bins of clothing left to explore – or not.

There is absolutely no rush at this point. And I will leave most of our artwork – including eight pieces we never unpacked in our last apartment – for Nell and her stud finder to hang. The piece we most missed the last three years is this self-portrait of my cousin, the artist Lois Lane. Yes, Ervin and Celia Lane named their only daughter Lois back in the 1940s; her husband’s last name, Bark, improves matters only slightly.

But having finally constructed our apartment, it is time for me to get back to my regular job – writing.

**********

The other thing I have done this year is query literary agents about publishing my book Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own. A well-worn copy of WRITER’S MARKET 2019 (“WM2019”) informed me most mass-market publishers no longer accept submissions directly from authors. Instead, prospective authors contract with an agent to do that work for them. Why this changed, I do not know, but Christopher Vyce of the Brattle Agency pithily summed up what this new “rule” has done to literary agencies.

Thank you for your interest in the Brattle Agency. Since the founding of the agency in 2008, the Brattle Agency has prided itself on accepting unsolicited submissions for consideration. The industry is founded on discoveries. There are many great writers out there who have never had an agent or somehow escaped an agent’s radar and that was why we were always interested in hearing from prospective clients. Unfortunately, the industry has changed in that nearly no publisher will accept a manuscript unless it is submitted to them by an agent. This institutional change has meant that nearly every hopeful writer has had to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to secure an agent to start (or in a few cases further) their career. That has led to a tsunami of submissions to the pool of agents who are willing to read and evaluate unsolicited proposals. That tsunami has engulfed the Brattle Agency. On any given day our inbox of submissions numbers in the hundreds. It is untenable. It has to change.

Between February 5 and May 12, I submitted 100 queries, using the list in WM2019 –members of the Association of Author Representatives (i.e., do not charge “reading fees”) who represent non-fiction writers and are open to new submissions. As Mr. Vyce predicted, I spent an inordinate amount of time drafting these queries – there is little-to-no query uniformity across literary agencies.

As of this writing, I have been formally turned down by 22 of them – including Brattle; Mr. Vyce, as did nearly all of the other rejecting agents, wrote an encouraging note emphasizing the extreme subjectivity of the process. One agent, though, was remarkably rude, writing “Hi, Matt, normally when I read a proposal I have a lot of ideas about where to take the project. In your case, I have none.” Ouch!

Nonetheless, these were the “polite” agencies, those that took the time to e-mail even a form-letter rejection. I have passed the “if you don’t hear from us by…” date for an additional 68 agencies. A further four allow you to follow-up or contact a new agent after a certain date; I will do so shortly. That leaves only six other agencies who are still “in the running,” one of which has apparently not yet made a decision about my query after 151 days. Like every reputable literary agency, they are trying to dig themselves out of an avalanche of queries – and so it is still possible those deadlines are extremely loose, and I will finally hear something positive from one or more agents soon.

I am not holding my breath, however. In fact, I am already brainstorming how to get this book published – I believe that strongly in it – without a traditional literary agent. Assuming that is possible; I may eventually have to accept the fact it is not.

Back in early April, when I could first sense finding a literary agent was going to be challenging, I began to write a post in which I ruminated on the nature of failure. In this still-unfinished post, I primarily critiqued the absurd, particularly American notion that if you somehow keep trying just a little harder, you can achieve anything.

Horse manure.

There are often profound structural barriers that prevent even the most talented and “deserving” persons from achieving their goals. Reading dozens of loose descriptions of what agents – the vast majority of whom are female, interestingly – seek to represent, few were a good fit for me: an Ivy-League-educated cisgender white heterosexual male in his 50s raised in the suburbs of a northeastern American city.

Bor-ing! I can hear them cry.

Now, given the deliberate vagueness of the 22 formal rejections, I do not know with any certainty why any given agent declined to represent me. The most direct answer is a nicer version of “I have no idea where to take this book”: s/he simply could not figure out a way to market a 400-page book about Jewish immigrants to West Philadelphia, the backstory of my adoption and genetic families, film noir and my suburban childhood – complete with dozens of illustrations, three appendices and 30 pages of endnotes – to a mass-market publisher. I had not realized, for example, going into this process that having a large, preexisting platform from which to promote your book is apparently a prerequisite for publication. It sort of strikes me that is the job of publishing house Marketing Departments – and is yet one more example of the rich getting richer.

As an aside, the formal proposal question with which I struggled the most related to “similar works published in the last few years.” Huh? When I began to write Interrogating Memory in July 2017, I was simply telling a related set of cool stories, stories illustrating what an epistemically-sound critical thinking approach to one’s own life can yield. Because, wow, did I learn some stuff – both new stories and debunked old stories. But I did not set out to write another “XXX” book, I set out to write the first “Matthew Berger” book. Now, I was certainly heavily influenced by a wide range of books – some relatively recent, some dating back to the 1970s. I discussed those books, of course, none of which were massive sellers – but the clear subtext of the question was not lost on me: we only want books guaranteed to sell a certain number of copies.

The point is, I did not start with a marketing strategy, I started with an idea: turn this essay about why I love film noir into a full-length book. I then wrote the book that resulted from that process. It is, if I may say so, an excellent book. But it was not designed with readers in mind, not sales. And, to be fair, I do see a market for this book, as I summarized in many of my query letters:

Interrogating Memory is both objective history and deeply personal, informed by a meticulous curiosity and rigorous academic training. It is a love letter to investigation, film noir, Philadelphia, Judaism, true crime, the immigrant American experience and, of course, my families. While fans of these specific topics–and presumably of my families–will enjoy it, so will a wider audience, drawn to its core conceit: every life is fascinating when framed properly and investigated thoroughly. 

I do not want to sound bitter; I am not. Rather I feel frustrated and let down by a broken system. I recognize that traditional publishing – hardbound books sold in brick-and-mortar bookstores or online – is being challenged on many sides. I also recognize we live in a time when diversity is being actively sought; this is an excellent thing. I represent the very opposite of that diversity – simply put, my timing stinks. I could also argue – as I may do in a later post – that fiction and what I might term “coffee table non-fiction” (celebrity memoirs, cookbooks, pop psychology, self-help, etc.) is vastly more popular with mass market publishers than more serious non-fiction. Not that Interrogating Memory is especially academic or ponderous. Quite the opposite: it is eminently readable, despite its emphasis on careful research and critical thinking. If anything, it may not be rigorous enough for the university presses who typically publish this type of non-fiction. To be fair, I do not know that my book is not right for these presses, as I do not know if the literary agents I have thus far queried typically interact with those presses.

Still, for now, I appear to be caught betwixt and between – too non-diverse for literary agents, too academic for mass-market publishers, not academic enough for the university presses and unwilling to self-publish. Having devoted 3½ years of my life to this book, I want the full backing of a reputable publisher, even if that publisher is relatively small.

Well, and it is now a matter of pride – this has become personal.

**********

So…what does ANY of this have to with the early-20th-century artistic movement known as Dadaism? Perhaps nothing at all, which would please the original Dadaists.

Dadaism – a kind of anti-art – emerged in February 1916 when five artists from France, Germany and Romania, all fleeing the horrors of World War I, converged in Zurich, in neutral Switzerland. Disgusted both by the unprecedented carnage of the war and by the establishment “rules” that led to it, they designed an art that was in opposition to war, to traditional rules – in many ways to art itself. In a world where suddenly nothing made sense, where traditional ways of thinking had led to millions of pointless deaths, the idea of “making sense” seemed pointless. These five artists opened the Cabaret Voltaire, where – among other things – they dressed in paper outfits, read absurdist poetry and engaged in Dadaist soirees. “Dada” is itself a nonsense word whose origins are obscure.

It is one of the great personal ironies that I, a highly-trained researcher who just wrote a paean to critical thinking and who revels in a kind of ritualized order and structure, have always been particularly drawn to art influenced by Dadaism and its immediate successor, surrealism – art that defies rational, conscious structure and meaning. To begin with, my cousin Lois’s work is clearly Dadaist-influenced. From a young age, meanwhile, I was drawn to Salvador Dali (“borrowing” a book about him from my maternal grandmother) then to Man Ray. I have long loved the comedy of the Marx Brothers and Monty Python – heavily reliant on non-sequiturs, bizarre juxtapositions and joyous anarchy – and, more recently, anything directed by David Lynch. Animator Terry Gilliam, the lone American-born member of the Python troupe, is clearly influenced by the photomontage style pioneered by the Dadaists. As for Lynch, easily my favorite director not named Alfred Hitchcock, his work explores the buried, the hidden – the unconscious, as the surrealists would call it – within the everyday. And his penchant for letting ideas lead where they will is extremely Dadaist, as we shall see. Finally, one of the best books we ever bought for our children reflected the surrealist art of Rene Magritte.

I myself have mastered a kind of Dadaist sense of humor.  I love to intentionally mishear things, replacing the banal with the absurd – even going so far as to say, “Nah, my version is funnier.” I sometimes vocalize a series of ululations of varying volume, pitch and tone and call it “opera;” one such opera apparently glorifies the Treaty of Ghent. And, in December 2019, I constructed what I called “a surrealist epic” poem: a sampling of lyrics from every track on that year’s Thanksgiving clean-up playlist. In retrospect, given that it repurposed existing art into a new piece of art, it is actually Dadaist, not surrealist.

The point is that I am drawn to art that challenges my ordered, button-down nature, ignoring and even disdaining artistic “rules.” I did not even mention the avant-garde music of Robert Fripp and Brian Eno and cinema of Koyaanisqatsi. I love all of it.

One could also point out that I am…dissatisfied…with the “rules” and processes surrounding contemporary publishing. While I am not yet prepared to tear down the process and publish my book in some yet-to-be-determined non-traditional way, I am determined to get Interrogating Memory into the hands of anyone willing to pay a reasonable cost.

**********

All of which brings me to my late-night viewing habits.

Writing Interrogating Memory, I got into the habit of starting to work around 10 or 11 pm, once the rest of the family had gone to sleep. After working a few hours, I would crash on the sofa in front of YouTube – on our big screen HD television – to watch informative videos. Even my relaxation is somewhat educational.

Recently, I have been delving deeper into film history beyond film noir, which is how I discovered excellent channels like Cinema Cartography, 100 Years of Cinema…and Crash Course Film History. Meanwhile, when I was unpacking my books, I rediscovered Mel Gordon’s terrific history of the Grand Guignol theatre in Paris. This led me to videos about the Grand Guignol – this one is particularly good – and to Crash Course Theater; Episode 35 is about the Grand Guignol.

It was only a matter of time until I watched the episode (#37) about Dadaism, Surrealism and Structuralism – and here we are. One thing I learned is that in 1920, Tristan Tzara wrote his rules for constructing Dadaist poetry.

TO MAKE A DADAIST POEM
Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are—an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

For the record, I do not thing anyone who reads my posts is in any way part of “the vulgar herd.”

Having finally constructed our apartment, I decided to entertain myself by applying Tzara’s rules to song lyrics, replacing the hat with a random number generator – this is still a data-driven website. Likely because it has been one of my favorite songs for more than 40 years, I chose “Him” by Rupert Holmes (excerpt from Chapter 10: Night Driving):

“Between my window and the walkway was a small outdoor patio bounded by a rough semi-circle of five walls, alternating brick wood brick wood brick, each about six feet high. Female-first-cousin and I clambered over these walls one night before we moved in. In my memory, Rupert Holmes’ “Him”—still a favorite—plays in the background; one year later, on March 28, 1981, male-first-cousin and I sat near the stage during his performance at the Host Farm Cabaret—my second-ever concert.”[1]

You may find the actual lyrics here. And let me make clear I mean no disrespect to Mr. Holmes, one of my artistic heroes.

To construct the poem, I copied the lyrics into Word then made sure there was only one word per line. Next, I copied the 288 words into Excel. Using the random number generator on my iPhone calculator – dividing each number by 3.47222 to scale values from 0.001 to 0.288, I selected each word below. If I repeated a number, I chose the nearest word – going down one for the first 144 words and up one for the last 144 words when given the choice.

This is what I created – my first Dadaist poem, although the punctuation and line breaks may be verboten:

Leaves about or stays without

Have she?

Ooh!

Let know, for I don’t…it’s…is…it…

Not forgets…don’t do…let about who, for to time

Don’t!

By can, it’s gonna

Girl, how…what’s to him, say him, do, make.

I, with.

Not free, it free, me have her time.

Him gonna, it’s she one, him…him…him wants to.

The…what’s, or do, of to, with her, we get, or do

Goodbye is left – both get without

Hide ways – the?

Me, him, him wants, she once – sometimes him, him do

Of me, a window stays or gonna do the…free him!

It’s gonna…and…and me – it, three?

It can’t, without there’s…without over

Pack cigarettes, many

His have, she without too, me me

To mine, it get she those blind

Who thought – like – she’s without us, him

For him, gonna me, him to, to he, him…or gonna him!

Gets – or gonna – NO!

She’s me, them one, it’s…it’s…him?

Gets do my without back – what’s do?

She’s were…ooh…OOH!

One, the…I…him…free

It’s about do me – I is brand

You, but I’ll understand…to know

Ooh…him…HIM!

To…what’s gets him for

Ooh…I’m me

Want forgets see have…if one

Ooh…she – and smokes him – she want, get, have

Would to…to own her?

Ooh…friend do!

I, I, me…behind him

Ooh…that why know looks?

Just he…oh!

Ooh…me, what’s me without, exactly?

What she’ll know don’t me for…or…or say

For to he, she gonna him or/and do to me…me!

Gets? No to one…no girl, see it’s she

Me, a…me, ah…do about him?

She’s me without – have just, he’s…no

To make girl, it’s me.

Until next time, please by safe and healthy…and get vaccinated if you have not already done so!


[1] Lancaster New Era (Lancaster, PA), March 13, 1981, pg. 17

Finding The Worst Character In Neo-Noir: And The Winner Is…

At 2:44 am on May 8, 2021, I tweeted the following using the handle @drnoir33:

Finding the worst character in #neonoir begins with this Corrupt Power matchup:

Noah Cross from CHINATOWN

Harry Angel from ANGEL HEART

#filmnoir #cinema #film

Attached to the tweet was a poll allowing a Twitter user to choose either Cross or Angel.

Realizing voting was a bit sluggish, at 6:21 pm I tweeted…

            For context:

…adding a link to this post and attaching this:

After 36 hours, the poll ended. Cross had beaten Angel, 72% to 28%, with 13 votes for Cross and five for Angel. Had I voted (see below), it would have been 14-5.

**********

Five days earlier, I published this post explaining the origins of my “search for the worst character in neo-noir.” Once voting began, a friend who tweets under the handle @disquiet sought clarification for “worst character,” wondering if it meant “poorly-written” as opposed to “villainous.” I assured him it was the latter, though I had hesitated to use the word because some bad characters like Angel are the nominal protagonists of their film.

Over the next two posts – the second of which is here – I described my character selection process, delineated four broad categories (Corrupt Power, Crime Boss, Cunning Manipulator, Psychotic Loner/Hired Assassin), explained how I “seeded” characters within each category, and reduced 64 characters to 16.

Shortly after publishing the third post, I tweeted the first poll, pitting Cross against Angel. Once voting ended, I tweeted the next Corrupt Power match-up: Dr. Hannibal Lecter vs. Dudley Smith.

While the first matchup was live, a fellow film enthusiast had opined that Smith, the corrupt Los Angeles homicide Captain from L.A. Confidential, was his choice to win the competition. I am now free to say he was my choice as well…but I had not realized that you cannot vote in your own Twitter poll. And my wife Nell voted for Lecter, arguing cannibalism trumps even Smith’s level of corruption.

It did not occur to me until after this match to create a different Twitter account solely to vote in my polls. Had I done so earlier, the Lecter-Smith matchup would have ended in an 8-8 tie. However, the public-facing results showed Lecter winning 8-7.

Which meant I faced a conundrum.

Do I announce my vote for Smith, then go to the tiebreaker – one I had not yet explained? Or do I leave the results as they were? My fear was that Smith would win the tiebreaker, and it would appear I had put my thumb on the scale – leading potential voters to deem the process “rigged.”

The tiebreaker itself was simple: generating a random number on my iPhone. If the number was below 0.500, the lower seed – in this case Smith (2) – advanced. If the number was above 0.500, the higher seed advanced. If the number was 0.500 exactly, I generated a new random number.

Mostly as an experiment, I mentally voted for Smith – then pushed “Rand”…and saw “0.972,” meaning Lecter advanced. As much as I wanted Smith to win, I was relieved. I tweeted none of this, opting simply to move on to the first Crime Boss matchup: Frank Booth vs. The Joker. For the purposes of this post, though, Lecter won 9-8.

**********

The remaining six Not-So-Sweet Sixteen matchups went smoothly.

Crime Boss

Booth beat Joker 77% to 23% (10-3).

In my first vote as “NeoNoirLover30” (@NLover30), I selected The Joker.

Keyser Soze beat Marsellus Wallace 75% to 25% (12-4).

I voted for Soze, as did another Twitter friend, who noted that as bad as Wallace was, Soze operated at an entirely different level of evil.

Cunning Manipulator

Leonard Shelby beat Catherine (Black Widow) 62% to 38% (8-5).

Tom Ripley beat Catherine Tramell 73% to 27% (11-4).

I voted for Shelby and Tramell. I was mildly surprised neither woman advanced to the Less-Than-Great Eight.

Psychotic Loner/Hired Assassin

Vincent (Collateral) beat Kevin (Sin City) 74% to 26% (17-6)

So much for cannibalism.

Anton Chigurh beat John Doe 53% to 47% (10-9)

I voted for Kevin and Doe, meaning I was on the winning side of only three of the first eight matchups; this pattern would continue, for better or for worse. A total of 135 votes were cast in these eight match-ups, an average of only 17 votes per matchup, a somewhat embarrassing number. The votes were divvied up thus:

Character1st Round2nd Round3rd Round4th RoundTotal
Harry Angel5   5
Frank Booth10    
Catherine5   5
Anton Chigurh10    
Noah Cross14    
John Doe9   9
The Joker3   3
Kevin6   6
Hannibal Lecter9    
Tom Ripley11    
Leonard Shelby8    
Dudley Smith8   8
Keyser Soze12    
Catherine Tramell4   4
Vincent17    
Marsellus Wallace4   4
TOTAL135   135

**********

With the Less-Than-Great Eight set, I began to “market” these matchups more aggressively, retweeting multiple exhortations to vote and to an expanding set of fellow film enthusiasts, and using photographs to remind potential voters of the characters.

It seemed to work, as the first match-up garnered 46 votes:

Corrupt Power: Cross beats Lecter 72% to 28% (33-13).

I was surprised Cross won so easily, even though I voted for Cross. One reason lies in what one voter argued: The Silence of the Lambs is not actually neo-noir, because Clarice (misspelled in the tweet) Starling was not a flawed protagonist. That latter point is debatable – I could counter Starling’s rookie “irrational exuberance” nearly gets her killed by Buffalo Bill – but instead pointed out the agnosticism of my selection method. Eight publicly-available lists included Silence, so it passes muster.

Crime Boss: Booth beats Soze 58% to 42% (15-11).

This was a very tight vote – tied at 11 late – until Booth finally pulled away; I voted for Soze. One voter simply noted how terrifying she recalled Booth being; having recently rewatched Blue Velvet, it is difficult to argue with her. Moreover, so much of what we think we know about Soze comes from one of most unreliable narrators in cinema.

Cunning Manipulator: Ripley beats Shelby 71% to 29% (24-10).

After voting for Shelby – who literally uses his anterograde amnesia to manipulate himself into becoming a serial killer – I was shocked how easily the talented Mr. Ripley won. But, Nell – who voted for Ripley – spoke for the majority when articulating how truly despicable she thinks Ripley is.

These kinds of surprises were part of what made this process so much fun.

Psychotic Loner/Hired Assassin: Chigurh beats Vincent 83% to 17% (24-5).

Once again, the lopsided vote surprised me. One reason may be that as much as I tried to make clear “Vincent” was the Tom Cruise character in Collateral, at least one voter thought it was “Vincent Vega” from Pulp Fiction; he was incredulous he had made it this deep into the voting. I myself voted for Vincent because while Chigurh occasionally uses a coin flip to spare his victims, Vincent never spared anyone.

Overall, 135 votes were cast in the second round, meaning the average vote exactly doubled to a somewhat-less-humiliating 34 per matchup.

Character1st Round2nd Round3rd Round4th RoundTotal
Harry Angel5   5
Frank Booth1015  25
Catherine5   5
Anton Chigurh1024  34
Noah Cross1433  47
John Doe9   9
The Joker3   3
Kevin6   6
Hannibal Lecter913  22
Tom Ripley1124  35
Leonard Shelby810  18
Dudley Smith8   8
Keyser Soze1211  23
Catherine Tramell4   4
Vincent175  22
Marsellus Wallace4   4
TOTAL135135  270

And with that, the Villainy Four was set.

**********

Despite lacking gender diversity, the Villainy Four covered a wide range of times and places: one character each from the 1970s (Cross), 1980s (Booth), 1990s (Ripley) and 2000s (Chigurh). Moreover, Cross operated in 1930s Los Angeles, Ripley in 1950s Italy, Chigurh in 1980 New Mexico, and Booth in an all-American town called Lumberton in a 1980s that felt like the 1950s.

To shake things up – and because the original category quadrants were simply arranged counter-clockwise alphabetically – I used initial seeds to determine the third-round matchups. Thus, Corrupt Power faced off against Cunning Manipulator, while Crime Boss faced off against Psychotic Loner/Hired Assassin.

Cross beats Ripley 89% to 11% (17-2).

This was an absolute beat-down, which would have been worse had one voter not admitted she voted for Ripley just to be contrarian. Meanwhile, @disquiet now bluntly stated his assumption Cross would win the entire competition. I demurred, anticipating a barn-burner championship vote.

Chigurh ties Booth 50%-50% (15-15); higher-seeded Chigurh wins tie-breaker (0.925)

This was a genuinely tough choice – for me and for everyone. I ultimately voted for Chigurh solely because Chigurh appears to survive at the end of No Country For Old Men, while Booth is killed in a shootout.

I was only mildly upset 50 (counting the tie-breaker) votes – an average of 25 per matchup – were cast in the third round; it may not have helped that, after seeing voting plummet on a previous Sunday, I waited until after the three-day Memorial Day weekend to post the first third-round matchup. After 14 matchups and 320 total votes, it all came down to Chinatown and No Country For Old Men, the two post-1966 films most often cited as film noir by my Opportunity-Adjusted POINTS metric.

Perfect.

Character1st Round2nd Round3rd Round4th RoundTotal
Harry Angel5   5
Frank Booth101515 40
Catherine5   5
Anton Chigurh102416 50
Noah Cross143317 64
John Doe9   9
The Joker3   3
Kevin6   6
Hannibal Lecter913  22
Tom Ripley11242 37
Leonard Shelby810  18
Dudley Smith8   8
Keyser Soze1211  23
Catherine Tramell4   4
Vincent175  22
Marsellus Wallace4   4
TOTAL13513550 320

**********

At 3:02 pm EST on June 7, 2021, I tweeted:

After 16 possibilities and 14 pairings…

…the search for the worst character in #neonoir concludes with this epic matchup!

Who will be crowned?

You decide!

#FilmNoir #film #FilmTwitter #Cinema #movies #villains #Chinatown #NoCountryForOldMen

By now, a small pool of Twitter users anticipated these matchups, and voting was brisk early. Nonetheless, as had happened in previous matchups, nearly all of the votes were cast in the first eight hours of voting – little changed over the final 28 hours. Still, a tournament-high 53 votes were cast.

I found this my toughest vote by far, but I finally voted for Chigurh, reasoning his willingness to kill people – many people – himself and his almost-robotic persistence made him worse than Cross, who – other than raping his own daughter and trying to kidnap their daughter – did almost no dirty work himself. It was not necessarily a good argument, but there it is.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I was again on the wrong side (and @disquiet nailed it):

Cross beats Chigurh 66% to 34% (35-18).

Character1st Round2nd Round3rd Round4th RoundTotal
Harry Angel5   5
Frank Booth101515 40
Catherine5   5
Anton Chigurh1024161868
Noah Cross1433173498
John Doe9   9
The Joker3   3
Kevin6   6
Hannibal Lecter913  22
Tom Ripley11242 37
Leonard Shelby810  18
Dudley Smith8   8
Keyser Soze1211  23
Catherine Tramell4   4
Vincent175  22
Marsellus Wallace4   4
TOTAL1351355053373

Cross was the heavy favorite going into the voting phase of the competition (and perhaps from the very beginning): for one thing, he was the only 1-seed to make it to the Not-So-Sweet Sixteen. Moreover, Chinatown is the only film not released between 1940 and 1959 to make the overall Top 100 by film noir POINTS; its 20 LISTS and 32.0 POINTS rank it #81. For the primary villain of THE neo-noir film to be named “Worst Character in Neo-Noir” suggest the wisdom of the crowd worked brilliantly this time.

Still, I was genuinely surprised how easily Cross won. He won his four matchups by an average of 3-1. Overall, he earned 26% of the 373 total votes cast – had he won his four votes 13-12 (using the average number of votes over 15 matchups), he would have won only 14% of total votes cast. Chigurh was 2nd at 18%, with Booth and Ripley garnering 11% and 10%, respectively. In total, the Villainy Four earned nearly two-thirds of all votes cast.

**********

Having been inspired to create this tournament by the Noir Alley March Badness competition on Twitter – which Phyllis Dietrichson of Double Indemnity won handily – I decided to hold a bonus vote: Cross vs. Dietrichson to crown the “Worst Character in ALL of #NOIR.”

The vote went live at 5 pm EST on June 9; I only kept it open 24 hours. Almost immediately, a mutual-Twitter follow woman tweeted: “This is my personal Sophie’s choice.” I suspect many votes were effectively mental coin flips. After my vote for Dietrichson – reasoning her doing all she did as a woman in 1944 gave her the villainy edge AND she has survived as a renowned villainess for more than 75 years – she took an early lead. But then Cross began to pull away, and within a few hours it was clear who was going to win. I still urged people to vote, and 41 did (42 if Nell – a Cross voter – had not had Twitter login issues), but when it was over:

Cross beats Dietrichson 69% to 31% (29-13)

That is what you call dominance – and it fits the man who embodies powerful white entitlement at its – he acquires everything he wants and expects to do so. Moreover, after I tweeted “You called it, @disquiet,” he responded, “This result gives me faith in humanity,” to which I responded, “It gives me faith in aggregation.”

Of course, we both simply could have said: forget it, Twitter, it’s Chinatown.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…and get vaccinated against COVID-19 if you have not already done so!

Finding The Worst Character In Neo-Noir: Let The Voting Begin!

WARNING: Spoilers ahead!!

In two previous posts, I…

  1. Introduced two metrics, POINTS and Opportunity-Adjusted POINTS (“OAP”), to rank films by how often they are cited as “neo-noir,” allowing for how many reputable authors on film noir could have listed them.
  2. Selected 64 characters as contenders for “worst character in neo-noir.”

These 64 characters are evenly distributed across four loosely-defined categories: Corrupt Power, Crime Boss, Cunning Manipulator, Psychotic Loner/Hired Assassin.

Corrupt Power

Harry Angel (Angel Heart), Harry Callahan (Dirty Harry), Noah Cross (Chinatown), Tyler Derden (Fight Club), Judge Doom (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), Tom Farrell (No Way Out), Lou Ford (The Killer Inside Me), Ras Al Ghul/Henri Ducard (Batman Begins) Alonzo Harris (Training Day), Mr. Hand (Dark City), Paul Kersey (Death Wish), Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Manhunter, The Silence of the Lambs), Charlie Meadows (Barton Fink), Captain Dudley Smith (L.A. Confidential), Stansfield (Leon: The Professional), Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias (Watchmen)

Crime Boss

Frank (Thief), Marv (Sin City), Frank Booth (Blue Velvet), Jack Carter (Get Carter), Alain Charnier (The French Connection), Francis Costello (The Departed), Lenny “Pluto” Franklyn (One False Move), Don Logan (Sexy Beast), Rick Masters (To Live and Die in L.A.), Neil McCauley (Heat), Liam “Leo” O’Bannon (Miller’s Crossing), Keyser Soze (The Usual Suspects), Tom Stall/Joey Cusack (A History of Violence), Marsellus Wallace (Pulp Fiction), The Joker (The Dark Knight), The Pin (Brick)

Cunning Manipulator

Catherine (Black Widow) Mike (House of Games), Jackie Brown (Jackie Brown), Suzanne Brown/Ann McCord (Red Rock West), Peter Cable (Klute), Lilly Dillon (The Grifters), Bridget Gregory (The Last Seduction), Andy Hanson (Before the Devil Knows Your Dead) Woo-Jin Lee (Oldeuboi), Terry Lennox (The Long Goodbye), Tom Ripley (The Talented Mr. Ripley, et al.), Leonard Shelby (Memento), Suzie Toller (Wild Things), Catherine Tramell (Basic Instinct), Mavis Wald (Marlowe), Matty Walker (Body Heat)

Psychotic Loner/Hired Assassin

Kevin (Sin City), Vincent (Collateral), Walker (Point Blank), Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver), Louis Bloom (Nightcrawler), Max Cady (Cape Fear), Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men), Jef Costello (Le Samourai), John Doe (Se7en), Alex Forrest (Fatal Attraction), Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill (The Silence of the Lambs), Loren Visser (Blood Simple), Jules Winnfield (Pulp Fiction), Mr. Blonde/Vic Vega (Reservoir Dogs), The Driver (Drive, The Driver), Rorschach (Watchmen)

This is a (relatively) diverse and fascinating group. Ten of the 64 are women, though nine of them are in the Cunning Manipulator category, which speaks volume about gender roles (in both senses of the word) in neo-noir films. The one woman not so categorized, Alex Forrest, is killed off at the end of Fatal Attraction, even though her initial “crime” was asserting her own sexuality. Setting aside the ethnically-uncertain Ras Al Ghul, literal cartoon Judge Doom, non-terrestrial Mr. Hand and possibly-supernatural Charlie Meadows, there are six people of color, excluding Anton Chigurh, portrayed by Javier Bardem. Jack Carter and Don Logan are British, Alain Charnier and Jef Costello are French, Keyser Soze is…Hungarian, I believe…and Woo-Jin Lee is South Korean. The Pin and Suzie Toller are high school students—while Elijah Wood was just 24 when Sin City was released. Tom Ripley and Catherine Tramell are both LGBTQI+; Lilly Dillon has a very unusual relationship with her son, though not the one Noah Cross has with his daughter.

There are two characters each from Pulp Fiction, The Silence of the Lambs, Sin City and Watchmen. Robert DeNiro portrays three characters—Travis Bickle, Max Cady, Neil McCauley—while Mickey Rourke (Harry Angel, Marv) and Kevin Spacey (John Doe, Keyser Soze/Verbal Kint) each play two; Bickle and Cady both appear in films directed by Martin Scorsese. If you count the version of Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter, director Michael Mann is represented by four characters (Lecter, McCauley, Frank and Vincent), as are Ethan and Joel Coen (Chigurh, Meadows, Leo O’Bannon, Loren Visser) and Quentin Tarantino (Jackie Brown, Mr. Blonde/Vic Vega, Marsellus Wallace, Jules Winnfield). Christopher Nolan (Ras Al Ghul, The Joker, Leonard Shelby) and Scorsese (Bickle, Cady and Francis Costello) have three characters each; six other directors—John Dahl, Jonathan Demme, William Friedkin, David Fincher, Robert Rodriguez (with an assist from Tarantino and Frank Miller) and Zack Snyder have two characters each.

**********

To mimic the ordering used by NCAA Basketball brackets, I used the product of POINTS and OAP to “seed” characters within each category from 1-16. Do not take these seeds too literally, as they reflect awareness of the film as a whole rather than the darkness of any specific character.

Figure 1: Worst Character in Neo-Noir, Initial Field of 64

I used the following rough criteria to determine “winners” in the first two rounds:

  • Whether the character gets away with her/his scheme—not necessarily the same as surviving, as John Doe shows.
  • The number of people that die at the character’s own hands
  • The number of despicable actions besides murder—raping your own daughter, as Noah Cross does, being the classic example
  • Intelligence: Suzie Toller may be a high school student but her IQ is well over genius level–and she is willing to pull out her own teeth to make her scheme work. This distinguishes characters who are “merely” brutal, like Marv or Mr. Blonde/Vic Vega.
  • What is the scope of the character’s villainy? Is it global—like Adrian Veidt’s plan to end the Cold War or Ras Al Ghul’s desire to “save” Gotham City—or is it more personal and banal—like Walker wanting his share of $93,000?
  • Does the character have a redemption arc?
  • Similarly, do we root for the character in some way? Motivation matters: Walker has no grand design beyond revenge and getting his money, Carter wants to avenge his brother, Brown wants to be free from Ordell Robbie, Tom Stall wants to forget his past life, Frank wants to settle down and have a family, and The Driver (in the 2011 film) wants to protect his new friends.
  • Is the character the nominal “hero” of the film? I discussed this in the previous post in reference to Harry Callahan, Paul Kersey, Frank, Walker and others.

With these very rough criteria in mind, we commence Round 1 of elimination.

Round 1

Corrupt Power

Noah Cross over Adrian Veidt. This was surprisingly tough. Cross is a brilliant and power-crazed man who rapes his own daughter—and walks away with his daughter/granddaughter after his daughter is shot by police officers. And Chinatown is the definitive neo-noir film. But “Ozymandias” murders people with his bare hands, is one of the most intelligent characters in cinema history and is willing to destroy New York City to end the alternate-timeline Cold War. And therein lies the rub…his motivation, however twisted, is just other-serving enough to eliminate him here.

Ras Al Ghul over Mr. Hand. The latter is an alien, full stop.

Alonzo Harris over Judge Doom. The latter is a cartoon character, full stop.

Harry Angel over Tyler Derden. Yes, the latter blows up entire buildings and convinces men to beat each other to a pulp—and sort of gets away with it. But Johnny Liebling literally sacrificed a random stranger to make a deal with the devil—and there is a reason the source novel was called Fallen Angel: Harry Angel is pure evil, with or without “Louis Cyphre” guiding him. Derden is also, you know, only a figment of The Narrator’s imagination.

Dr. Hannibal Lecter over Paul Kersey. As despicable as I think Kersey’s actions are, he is the nominal “hero” of Death Wish (and its many sequels), and he acts out of grief. Lecter is a sociopathic genius cannibal locked in a maximum security prison.

Stansfield over Harry Callahan. This is an upset, a 14 seed beating a 3 seed. But while Callahan may be “Dirty,” he is not a pill-popping DEA agent who would gleefully murder a 12-year-old girl in cold blood.

Tom Farrell over Lou Ford. Ford’s sociopathy is local, Farrell’s criminality is global.

Dudley Smith over Charlie Meadows. There is enough uncertainty over Meadows’ true nature—or how much of Barton Fink is in the title character’s mind—to eliminate him. Plus, L.A. Confidential is one of the premier neo-noirs—and the cruelly calculating Smith makes my skin crawl; his casual shooting of Jack Vincennes remains my greatest shock watching a film in the theater.

Crime Boss

Don Logan over Marv. This is the supreme upset—a 16 seed toppling a 1 seed—yet it was not a close decision. After re-watching Sin City, I realized that as criminal and violent as Marv is, he reserves his most extreme viciousness for the truly evil characters in Basin City: Kevin, in particular. We genuinely root for Marv; motivations matter. Logan, by contrast, terrifies even the most hardened criminals in Sexy Beast.

The Joker over Alain Charnier. Everyone remembers Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance in The Dark Knight. I had to look up Charnier’s character’s name.

Frank Booth over Rick Masters. Masters is essentially an artist-turned counterfeiter who uses violence to protect himself in a mediocre movie. Booth is a drug-addled sociopathic sadist in a brilliant film who is among the worst movie villains ever.

Neil McCauley over Lenny “Pluto” Franklyn. This was a tough choice. I had forgotten about Pluto—the leader of the Los Angeles drug gang in the oft-overlooked One False Move. He is brilliant, patient and legitimately frightening. But McCauley simply operates at a completely different level. He plans intricate, massive-haul heists in broad daylight, and he is willing to abandon anyone at any time to save himself.

Jack Carter over Francis Costello. Two of the best gangster films ever made in Get Carter and The Departed. Two of the greatest actors of the last 75 years in Michael Caine and Jack Nicholson. Carter is someone we root for—he wants to avenge his brother—even as his violent depravity shocks us. Costello rules a vast criminal empire, untouched by the law, for decades. However, for all of Nicholson’s talent, Caine imbues Carter with an icy resolve that chills viewers…and, as I pointed out before, Costello is loosely based on “Whitey” Bulger.

Keyser Soze over The Pin. The Pin is a high school student, Keyser Soze…is Keyser Soze.

Tom Stall/Joey Cusack BARELY over Frank. A fascinating matchup between two very sympathetic—albeit violently criminal—men who just want to forget the past and be with their families. But their past won’t let them, so they must brutally destroy that past. The one difference is that we know Stall returns to his family, and his children (at least) welcome him. Frank’s ending is far more ambiguous.

Marsellus Wallace over Leo O’Bannon. Despite very little screen time, Wallace is the absolute dominant force in Pulp Fiction. Jules and Vincent work for him, the briefcase belongs to him (and, no, it is NOT his soul), Butch Coolidge is hiding from him and, well, there is that “medieval” thing. Not to take anything away from mob boss O’Bannon, but Miller’s Crossing is a long way from Los Angeles.

Cunning Manipulator

Matty Walker over Suzie Toller. I agonized the most over this decision, by far. Both of them get away with their crimes, perhaps ending up on the same tropical beach with the world thinking they are dead. Indeed, Toller does everything Walker does, with far more intelligence, dedication (she literally rips out her own tooth with a pair of pliers) and cool-headedness…and she is only a high school student. In the end, however, it boiled down to the “neo-noir” status of each character’s film. While I think Wild Things is very underrated, it simply is not the classic of neo-noir Body Heat is. For that reason, and for that reason alone, I extremely reluctantly chose Walker over Toller.

Catherine over Suzanne Brown/Ann McCord. The bottom line is this: Brown/McCord is not necessarily the worst villain in Red Rock West. Catherine is the only villain in Black Widow.

Lilly Dillon over Jackie Brown. Jackie Brown may be the most charming and delightful character on this list; I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed Jackie Brown. By contrast, Dillon is…difficult to like.

Leonard Shelby over Andy Hanson. This is not close. Hanson arranges for his hapless brother to rob their parents’ jewelry store—no muss, no fuss, until the robbery goes horribly wrong. While he is an amoral jerk, Shelby lets himself become a serial killer rather than face the fact he is responsible for his wife’s death…assuming he still actually cares. He can always forget any despicable crime he commits, charming his way through life.

Peter Cable over Mavis Wald. These are two old-school, not especially interesting characters (1971, 1969) whose murders operate within a fairly narrow sphere. Cable was effectively a coin flip.

Tom Ripley over Terry Lennox. This is only a mild upset. Like Wald, Lennox is old-school; both emerge from classic Raymond Chandler novels. Ripley is also old-school, emerging from the brilliant mind of Patricia Highsmith. But Ripley keeps appearing in films, beginning with Plein soleil (Purple Noon) in 1960, and he is the poster-boy for manipulation, effortlessly becoming other people.

Catherine Tramell over Mike. This was a tough choice, as both are among the most skilled liars in all of neo-noir. However, Mike is primarily a phenomenally gifted con artist who only kills when absolutely necessary, and he does get defeated in House of Games. If I read the ending of Basic Instinct correctly, Tramell murders incessantly and gets away with it.

Woo-Jin Lee over Bridget Gregory. I admit to being at a disadvantage here: I have seen The Last Seduction twice, but I have not (yet) seen Oldeuboi. Still, here is what I do know. Gregory is driven by fear and revenge over her abusive husband Clay, played with slimy perfection by Bill Pullman. But she is not inherently bad; she mostly just wants to be left alone…though she allows an innocent man to pay the price for her crimes. Lee, by contrast, locks a man—admittedly no saint—in a room for 15 years, then maneuvers him into sleeping with his own daughter. The yuck factor alone propels Lee forward.

Psychotic Loner/Hired Assassin

Rorschach over Walker. For the second time, a 16 seed upsets a 1 seed. While Point Blank, along with Body Heat, Chinatown, L.A. Confidential and Taxi Driver, is of the five key neo-noir films—those with 20.0 POINTS or more—Walker is far too sympathetic to be a villain. He is left for dead at the film’s start, betrayed by his partners in crime. In fact, the entire film may be a revenge fantasy Walker plays out in his mind as he dies. Meanwhile, I suspect Watchmen, like Nightcrawler, will receive more recognition as a neo-noir over time. And Rorschach will take his place alongside Callahan, Kersey and others in the vigilante pantheon—though less sympathetic and more unsettling.

Vincent over Mr. Blonde/Vic Vega. Vincent is a meticulous planner, while Vega is a screw-loose thug.

Loren Visser over The Driver. As violent as the latter is, his redemption arc and the tenderness with which he moves Irene aside in the elevator before pummeling a hit man to death keeps him from advancing to the next round. Visser, for his part, is the textbook hired assassin: deadly, ruthless and unwavering.

Kevin over Max Cady. Cady is terrifying, almost animalistic in his single-minded quest for revenge. But Scorsese’s Cape Fear is a remake of a classic-era-ish film noir. And I have never felt a cold chill go up my spine like I did when I first saw Kevin appear in the doorway to Goldie’s bedroom, eyes hidden behind shiny glasses. Learning he is panther-like quiet, strong and fast—and a sadistic cannibalistic religious zealot—was my primary takeaway from Sin City. Elijah Wood has seriously dark depths.

Jef Costello over Alex Forrest. Forrest’s character gets a raw deal, full stop.

John Doe over Jame Gumb/Buffalo Bill. These are the twin nightmares of this category. In one corner is the unnamed serial killer who haunts the unnamed city of Se7en, dispensing divine retribution for violation of the seven deadly sins—even to the point of mutilating and punishing himself. In the other corner is the serial killer of The Silence of the Lambs who kidnaps, tortures and murders women to build a new skin for himself. The one key difference is that while both men die at the end of the film, Doe remains in control of the situation even after that. In fact, he is in control for the entire movie.

Anton Chigurh over Jules Winnfield. They are the yin and yang of hired assassins. Chigurh is quiet, patient and slavishly devoted to the toss of his coin. Winnfield is loud, impulsive and given to misquoting Biblical passages. Both are extremely effective, terrifying and survive the film. But Winnfield has a legitimate redemption arc, however incomplete—and he thwarts the coffee shop robbery.

Travis Bickle over Louis Bloom. I agonized over this match-up almost as much as Matty Walker versus Suzie Toller. This process began when I marveled at Jake Gyllenhall’s emaciated performance in Nightcrawler. Coincidentally, I noted the strong resemblance between these two lonely outsiders who prowl the night city, feeding off its dark criminality—and understanding that their perception is distorted, a half-view of reality. Both men survive at the end of the film, though while Bickle, despite being hailed as a “hero,” has not grown at all, Bloom now has a thriving, expanding video news production business. Two things elevate Bickle, however: Taxi Driver’s iconic status and the number of people he kills himself (Bloom does not directly kill anybody).

**********

Moving on to Round 2

Corrupt Power

Noah Cross over Ras Al Ghul. Al Ghul genuinely thinks the League of Shadows are helping Gotham City by destroying it—and it is he who first trains Bruce Wayne. Compared to the narcissistic and greedy Cross, Al Ghul is downright sympathetic.

Harry Angel over Alonzo Harris. Harris is corrupt, but Angel borders on pure evil.

Dr. Hannibal Lecter over Stansfield. This was not as obvious as it might seem. In the context of Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter assists law enforcement in the pursuit of the Tooth Fairy and Buffalo Bill. Stansfield, by contrast, is the unequivocal villain of Leon: The Professional, ritualistically popping pills and psyching himself up with classical music. Leon, the hired assassin, is the sympathetic character. This should actually elevate Stansfield over Lecter. However, Lecter is only able to help Clarice Starling because he is locked in his cell, or masked and bound. He is a violent cannibalistic psychopath—WHO ENDS THE FILM ON THE LOOSE. Stansfield is blown up at the end of Leon.

Dudley Smith over Tom Farrell. Farrell is contemptible, a Russian spy embedded deep within the American government, but he is not the killer being sought in No Way Out. Smith is a cold-blooded killer, determined to erase anyone—allies and foes alike—who prevents him from seizing full control of organized crime in Los Angeles. Yes, he dies at the end of the film, but Farrell is captured, making it a wash.

Crime Boss

The Joker over Don Logan. Joker’s ability to strategize, his nihilism and his disinterest in material gain elevate him over the admittedly-petrifying loose cannon that is Logan.

Frank Booth over Neil McCauley. McCauley is a master criminal willing to cut social ties to save himself, but he is not inherently bad. Booth is.

Keyser Soze over Jack Carter. Carter is vicious, relentless and fear-inducing—but in the context of Get Carter, he is the hero: we want him to succeed. Soze makes other hardened criminals scared of their own shadows.

Marsellus Wallace over Tom Stall/Joey Cusack. After all of his deranged violence—violence he neither sought nor wanted—Stall has a final tender, wholly silent scene with the family he loves. When last we see Wallace, he is about to, you know, get medieval.

Cunning Manipulator

Catherine over Matty Walker. This is another upset, a 9 seed eliminating a 1 seed, though it was close. Walker goes through the machinations of killing her husband once, but Catherine does it at least three times. Walker gets away with her crimes, but Catherine is defeated. The difference is that Catherine is motivated by more than simple greed. She is a serial killer, titillated by the careful planning, and—unlike Walker—will keep being the black widow indefinitely.

Leonard Shelby over Lilly Dillon. What sets Shelby apart from Dillon, professional con artist and thief, is his willingness to “forget” all of his previous crimes. He chooses to be a serial killer because, like Catherine, some part of him enjoys it.

Tom Ripley over Peter Cable. Ripley is simply more devious and deviant—and vastly more interesting.

Catherine Tramell over Woo-Jin Lee. I nearly went the other way on this, but I know too little about Lee to be confident in my decision. And, reviewing the plot of Basic Instinct, Tramell is far more deadly and dangerous than I had recalled. Lee ruins one life—well, two—but Tramell kills early and often.

Psychotic Loner/Hired Assassin

Vincent over Rorschach. This also was not obvious. Vincent feels nothing for his fellow humans; Rorschach drips with contempt for them. Vincent kills because he is paid to do so, and his brilliance allows him to do so effectively and lucratively. Rorschach kills because he wants to clean society of its filth, and because he was severely traumatized as a child. But, despite being a nominal “superhero,” it is difficult to root for him. Yet, root for him we do—and we are genuinely upset when Dr. Manhattan kills him at the end of Watchmen. We are not remotely upset when Vincent dies at the end of Collateral.

Kevin over Loren Visser. The cannibal serial killer eliminates the hired assassin.

John Doe over Jef Costello. The zealot serial killer eliminates the hired assassin.

Anton Chigurh over Travis Bickle. Chigurh is evil at its most banal: indifferent, patient and calculating. But for his coin, he would kill many more people. Moreover, by OAP, No Country For Old Men is the post-1966 most often cited as “film noir.” Bickle, by contrast, is less evil than deeply troubled, unable to cope with his surroundings. He does not kill for money or sport, but to “cleanse” society by rescuing a single child prostitute. And he is the nominal “hero” of Taxi Driver.

And with that, the Not-So-Sweet Sixteen is set.

Figure 2: Worst Character in Neo-Noir, Not-So-Sweet 16

It is now time to vote on Twitter, so please find me there @drnoir33! I will keep early votes open longer, but not more than 36 hours or so.

Until next time…be safe and careful…and please get vaccinated!

Walter Mondale, Perry Mason and George Floyd

This is how I conclude the opening section of Chapter 1 of Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own (publication TBD):

I also learned that by 1920, Pennsylvania was the 2nd most common American state for the last name “Berger” (14%), behind only New York (23%),[i] which meant I had plenty of company for every lame “ham-Berger” joke I endured as a child. That said, one appeal of Perry Mason reruns for me was that Mason’s primary opponent, played by film noir stalwart William Talman, was District Attorney Hamilton Burger…get it?

Perry Mason, which aired from 1957 to 1966, makes multiple appearances in my book, both as a marker on my film noir “personal journey” and as a fondly-remembered part of my childhood:

My final memory of Robindale is a nasty upper respiratory ailment which kept me home multiple days in January 1979. I mostly watched my small black-and-white television in bed, at least when I was not making myself read the paperbacks—primarily In Search of… volumes—collected in a shoebox. I also listened to WIFI-92, hoping to hear one of my favorite songs at the time: Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?,” Nicolette Larson’s “Lotta Love” and The Bee Gees’ “Tragedy.” Mostly, though, I was waiting until 11:30—on weeknights—to watch Perry Mason on Channel 48, after which the station ended its broadcast day.[ii]

For some reason, my wife Nell and I did not watch the HBO Perry Mason prequel series, which debuted on June 21, 2020, when it originally aired. This past Saturday night, though, having just finished re-watching Sherlock with our younger daughter—who absolutely loved it—we queued up the first episode. We were immediately hooked—though we quickly decided its content was too mature even for our Riverdale– and Stranger-Things-obsessed daughter.

Nell and I were watching on the night of Monday, April 19, 2021 when I let out a squeal of delight when a character—a Yale-educated lawyer and aspiring district attorney—said his name was, you guessed it, “Hamilton Burger.”

A short while earlier, however, I was on the verge of tears.

Nell was scanning her iPhone, when she suddenly said, “Oh, Walter Mondale died. He was 93.”

**********

Late in 1982, I visited my best friend at his house in the Philadelphia suburb of Wynnewood. I do not know why I walked through his parents’ bedroom—to use a bathroom, maybe?—but on top of a dresser in that room was a recent copy of Time magazine, or perhaps Newsweek. I was drawn to a story featured on the cover about the emerging race for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination, then shaping up to be a battle between two liberal icons: Massachusetts United States Senator (“Senator”) Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy and former Vice President Walter “Fritz” Mondale, as well as Ohio Senator John Glenn, who possibly had the right stuff. Arguably, Kennedy had severely damaged Mondale’s chances to be reelected vice president four years earlier by unsuccessfully running against President Jimmy Carter for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination.

While I had followed the 1980 presidential campaign to some extent—jumping briefly on the bandwagon of Democratic California Governor Jerry Brown—I had not yet begun to focus on 1984. However, something about that article galvanized me toward Mondale. Perhaps I had never warmed to the idea of Ted Kennedy as president, making Mondale the obvious choice for a passionate young liberal. Perhaps it was that Mondale had recently been vice president, so it was his “turn.” Perhaps it was a vague memory of Mondale’s son Ted visiting Bala Cynwyd Middle School on April 18, 1980, during that year’s Pennsylvania presidential primary, to campaign for the Carter-Mondale ticket.[iii] As I note here, Barbara Bush, wife of the former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, had spoken to my fellow 8th graders and me the previous month.

Perhaps…I have no idea why.

At any rate, Kennedy announced in early December that he would not seek the nomination, after all. It is possible that this was the article I saw in Wynnewood that day.

At the time, our cable package had a kind of ticker-tape news channel. I began to watch—well, read—it regularly, waiting for the next Democrat to announce his candidacy. Joining Glenn and Mondale were former Florida Governor Reuben Askew, California Senator Alan Cranston, South Carolina Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson, Jr., and former South Dakota Senator George McGovern—the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee. Oh, and when I toured Yale University in late August 1983, there were signs advertising an address by a young Senator from Colorado named Gary Hart, who had worked on McGovern’s campaign. As intriguing as some of these candidates were, though, I never wavered in my support for Mondale. In fact, in my role as co-News-Editor of the Harriton High School Free Forum, I wrote the “meet the candidates” article on Mondale (and on Glenn, actually.)

I also schlepped this around senior year…

…and taped this to the cover of a school notebook, cementing me as “the Mondale guy” at the centrist-Republican-leaning Harriton.

It is not necessary to review the nomination battle beyond this: while Mondale dominated the February 20 Iowa caucuses, it was Hart—not Glenn—who finished a strong second. Nine days later, I raced home from Harriton to watch CNN’s coverage of that day’s New Hampshire primary—and the same video clip featuring ice sculptures of the candidates—only to be stunned by Hart’s 39%-29% victory over Mondale, with Glenn well back at 12% and Jackson at 6%. After two contests, it was essentially a three-person race between Mondale, Hart and Jackson—who won or tied in contests in Louisiana, Mississippi and Washington, DC.

It was a seesaw campaign, though it is possible this moment in a March 11 debate ultimately gave Mondale the nomination. For context, the original “Where’s the Beef?” ad follows.

As the April 10 Pennsylvania presidential primary approached, the Philadelphia area was dotted with Mondale and Hart lawn signs, with quite a few Jackson signs in the city itself. Mondale won solidly 45.1% to 33.3%, with Jackson earning 16.0%. About two months later, on June 5, Mondale effectively clinched the nomination by winning primaries in New Jersey and West Virginia.

By this point, I had taken a white pull-down window shade, scrawled MONDALE in large block letters on it using—something or other—and suspended it from one of the brick walls on our small patio. Naturally, I followed the chaotic selection process to be Mondale’s vice-presidential running mate, thrilling at the diversity of the choices, but concerned by the very public “audition” process. I was very excited when he chose New York member of the United States House of Representatives (“House”) Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman chosen for a major-party ticket.

If memory serves, I actually put on a coat and tie to watch the Democratic National Convention, which ran from July 16-19, 1984, in the Moscone Center in San Francisco, CA. I remembered Democrat Mario Cuomo being elected governor of New York two years earlier but, like most of the nation, I was not prepared for how electrifying his keynote address on the opening night of the convention was.

While writing this essay, I re-watched Cuomo’s speech.

Do yourself a favor, watch it yourself.

It is that good…and that prescient.

I also re-watched Mondale’s acceptance speech, which—after a slow start—was much better than I remembered. The only thing I had previously recalled from it was Mondale’s discussion of the need to raise taxes in order to bring down the massive federal budget deficits President Ronald Reagan’s fiscal policies had created.

“Mr. Reagan will raise taxes. So will I.

“He won’t tell you. I just did.”

This statement was an enormous political risk because of the “tax and spend” Democrat stereotype. And it only endeared him to me more.

Otherwise, Mondale appears resolute, experienced and clear-eyed, frequently flashing a surprisingly warm smile for a man unfairly criticized for lacking charisma.

The primary purpose of the convention was to unify a Democratic Party badly split by the months-long battle between Mondale, Hart and Jackson, one about to face a unified and well-organized Republican Party in November. It is striking that Cuomo never mentions Mondale or Ferraro by name—or any Democrat other than New Mexico House Member Mo Udall, who had spoken earlier that evening, and five former presidents, including Carter who watches in approval with his wife Roslyn—only obliquely mentioning them only at the end of his speech.

Did it work?

**********

The raison d’etre of the character first introduced by Erle Stanley Gardner in The Case of the Velvet Claws in 1933 was to defend persons whose guilt appeared obvious to the state but who were genuinely innocent: “the friendless and unjustly accused.” It is no accident Gardner founded The Court of Last Resort in 1940 to do in reality what Mason did in the fictional courtroom.

The HBO series provides an “origin story” for Mason, as well as for his indefatigable private secretary Della Street, private investigator Paul Drake (brilliantly reimagined as an African-American Los Angeles police officer) and Burger. It takes some time for all four to appear in the same scene as tenuous allies, but the wait is worth it.

What I always loved about Perry Mason, besides the actual whodunit and the brilliant courtroom scenes, was that as much as Mason and Burger are rivals, in the end both want not just to win, but to make sure the correct killer is identified. As irritated as he clearly is by Mason’s tactics, Burger is quick to realize when he has been beaten and the actual guilty party identified, who is then usually taken away by Lieutenant Tragg.

They both seek true justice, not merely fleeting victory. They are respectful opponents, not bitter enemies.

**********

The selection of Ferraro gave the Mondale campaign a much-needed jolt, but soon Ferraro was facing a barrage of questions about the finances of her husband John Zaccaro. In August, she held a marathon press conference which temporarily stemmed the tide of negative press.

A few weeks later, I began my freshman year at Yale University, where I became active in the College Democrats and other political organizations. It was through the latter I saw Ferraro speak in New Haven on September 8,[iv] despite what I later wrote on this card.

On September 30, I turned 18, meaning I was eligible to vote for the first time in the November 6 election. One week later, I watched—likely with my then-girlfriend on a common room television set—as Reagan stumbled badly in his first debate with Mondale. He appeared old, tired and very confused—and, once again, Mondale rallied in the polls. However, while Ferraro also did well against Vice President George H. W. Bush in their October 11 debate, Reagan rallied in the second and final presidential debate on October 21. In fact, the only line anyone remembers from either debate is a confident Reagan saying “I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth, and inexperience.”

Mondale laughs right along with the audience, even though he seems to know how devastating that moment is.

**********

Mondale was born in Ceylon, MN on January 5, 1928. An activist in Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and protégé of Hubert H. Humphrey, Mondale was elected state Attorney General in 1960. When Humphrey was sworn in as Vice President in January 1965, Mondale was appointed to fill his seat, serving until he himself became Vice President in January 1977.

On May 25, 2020, an unarmed African-American man named George Floyd died in Minneapolis, MN while a white police officer named Derek Chauvin kept his knee on his neck for nearly 10 minutes. This death—captured on video—inspired a summer of protests and calls for fundamental changes to our system of justice and policing. One day after Mondale—who had long since returned to his beloved Minnesota—died in Minneapolis, a jury in that city found Chauvin guilty on all three counts in the death of Floyd: manslaughter, third-degree murder and second-degree murder. It is highly unusual, to put it mildly, for a white police officer to be held accountable for the death of a civilian of color; this was a historic verdict.

In fact, just as I teared up when I heard the news of Mondale’s death, I felt a rush of emotion—relief mixed with jubilation—when I watched the verdict live on MSNBC. It is fitting it was announced while the nation mourned Mondale, a profoundly decent public servant who forcefully advocated for racial, gender and economic justice his entire career. It is also fitting Nell and I watched the final three of the eight Perry Mason episodes that same night, watching Mason complete the journey from bedraggled and cynical private investigator to indomitable fighter for justice.

**********

After casting my first-ever vote—and still one of my proudest—for the Mondale-Ferraro ticket on Tuesday, November 6, I had dinner with my then-girlfriend at a new restaurant called Audubon’s, a few blocks east of the main campus; the strike which closed down all of Yale’s dining halls for most of my first semester there was still in effect. We figured we would have plenty of time to settle into watch the returns by 8:30 pm or so, optimistic about Mondale’s chances to the very end.

But beginning around 7 pm, we watched in stunned disbelief on the television set in Audubon’s—or perhaps in windows as we hustled back to campus—as state after state after state was quickly called for Reagan. Before long the only question left was whether Mondale-Ferraro would win ANY state besides the District of Columbia. Minnesota did, finally, vote for its native son, but only by 3,761 votes. Nationally, Reagan-Bush beat Mondale-Ferraro 58.8-40.6%, winning 525 of 538 electoral votes. It was a humiliating and historic defeat.

Nell has since claimed responsibility for what happened on November 6—something about dumping beer cans she was drinking while under age in the trash bins behind Mondale’s house in Georgetown—but much larger forces were at play. Reagan had won election in 1980 by soundly defeating Carter, who himself had beaten Gerald Ford for reelection four years later. Ford only became president because he was vice president—having been appointed when Spiro Agnew resigned in October 1973—when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in August 1974. Nixon had himself beaten a Democratic Party badly divided in 1968 over President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Vietnam War policy and civil rights legislation. Johnson, finally, ascended to the presidency after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963.

That is five presidents in 20 years, after there had been only three presidents in the preceding 28 years. Voters, I think, desperately wanted continuity and stability in 1984, and with the economy seeming to recover strongly, they overwhelmingly awarded Reagan a second term.

Mondale returned to Minnesota until President William J. Clinton named him Ambassador to Japan in 1993. Nine years later, on October 25, 2002, Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash, just 11 days before he was to face election to a third term. Mondale, now 74 years old, was hastily named to run in his stead, losing to Republican Norm Coleman by 2.2 percentage points—a bittersweet end to a long and distinguished career.

As always, though, Mondale graciously shrugged off the loss and went back to private life. Six years later, Republican presidential nominee John McCain selected Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate, the first woman so named since Ferraro 24 years earlier. Eight years later, the Democratic presidential nominee was Hillary Clinton, the first woman so selected by a major party. Not of these three women became vice president or president, however.

It was only in November 2020 that a woman finally broke through: California Senator Kamala D. Harris, a Democrat, was elected Vice President to serve with President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. Mondale, happily, lived long enough to see her victory…and it is very apt that Vice President Harris was one of the last people Mondale called before his death.

Rest in peace, Mr. Mondale. You served your nation with honor, compassion and dignity, and you will always be one of my biggest heroes.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…


[i] https://www.ancestry.com/name-origin?surname=berger

[ii] e.g., “TV Today,” PI, January 16, 1979, pg. 17-D

[iii] Cusick, Frederick, “They can’t vote but can question,” Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, PA), April 19, 1980, pg. 2-B

[iv] Lender, John, “Ferraro Raps Reagan in Stop at Festival,” Hartford Courant (Hartford, CT), September 9, 1984, pg. A1

That Time We Seriously Flirted With Joining A Cult

On January 29, 2021, 3½ years after my wife Nell suggested in financial exasperation that I write a book, I put on “outside” clothes, sneakers and my protective mask, then walked down to our local FedEx office. There, I plugged my thumb drive into a printer…then watched in relief and wonder as it printed out a complete manuscript of my book Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own. You may find some of the book’s backstory here.

Manuscript in hand, I began the process of getting it published; any advice or assistance you have to offer will be greatly appreciated. This is easily the most terrifying thing I have ever done: I feel as though I am trying to hit a bullseye on a moving target while blindfoldedI have thus far queried 21 literary agencies. Five agencies sent immediate rejections, while I have yet to hear from the other 16.

While I wait, I have decided to increase public awareness of my work by publishing excerpts from Interrogating Memory on this site. This is the closest I can come to a “teaser trailer.

In Chapter 9 (The Dark City Beckons…On Television), I describe the often-difficult three years between my parents’ separation in March 1977 and my mother buying the small business where she had worked since October 1976. This was when “the dark city” started in earnest to beckon this curious child of the suburbs, a key marker on the road to becoming a film noir fan. Perhaps because it is the most difficult to articulate, it is the one element I left out of the essay which inspired my book.

After detailing a series of television shows which portrayed one version of the city, and the impact they had on me, I began to venture into the actual “night city” in 1978 and 1979. Some of these adventures were…unusual.

Still, these shows were merely televised versions of “the city.” It was not until 1979 that I began to spend significant time at night in the actual city of Philadelphia. Besides the Warwick, Barry’s and a Cheap Trick concert, my mother and I spent a lot of time in two areas of Society Hill, the neighborhood bounded to the north and south by Walnut and South Streets and to the east and west by S. Front and S. 7th Streets. First was S. 2nd Street between Pine and South Streets, near the original southeastern corner of the city laid out by William Penn. In 1745, a long narrow open-air market was constructed in this two-block stretch, its V-shaped roof supported by a parallel series of oblong brick columns. Called New Market to distinguish it from an existing market, the structure remains today—as do the brick houses built at either end in 1805 to store firefighting equipment, the oldest such structures in the United States. These buildings gave the area its current name: Head House Square.[i]

When I was born in nearby Metropolitan Hospital in 1966, Society Hill desperately needed revitalization. One step in this process was distinctly ironic: a deconstructed shopping mall within walking distance of local residents. Opening in 1973, the western edge of NewMarket overlooked the northern half of the original New Market on S. 2nd Street. Entering from S. Front or S. 2nd Streets brought you to a large courtyard with a central fountain, overlooked by glass-windowed shops and a maze of overhanging balconies and walkways.[ii] When I first entered NewMarket around 1978, I was riveted by its glass-and-chrome modernity and hidden nooks. We visited it during the day, but just as often at night, perhaps to eat in one of its six restaurants; going there at night, I felt like I was like getting away with something. Of the 44 shops located there in 1979, I best remember Paperback Booksmith.[iii] There, contemplating puberty, I bought a brown-covered paperback called Man’s Body: An Owner’s Manual, published in 1976 as part of the Wordsworth Body Series. Along the same lines, this may also be where I bought “Will I Like It?” Your first sexual experience, what to expect, what to avoid, and how both of you can get the most out of it, written in 1977 by Peter Mayle. Sadly, area residents were not as excited by NewMarket as we were; it officially closed in 1987. The original bronze sign, entryway and unusual architecture of the CVS Pharmacy at the corner of S. 2nd and Lombard Streets are nearly all that remain.

Just two blocks north on S. 2nd Street is Spruce Street—one block east from where I was born. Walk 100 feet to the east, and you arrive at the southern end of the short 38th Parallel Place. Its northern end is where cobblestoned Dock Street turns east after curving south and east from Walnut Street around the massive Society Hill Towers, home to luxury condominiums. This is where Herman Modell helped settle a strike in January 1947. Just north of where Dock Street turns sits the Philadelphia Marriott Old City. In 1979, though, a different building stood here—a hotel with a ballroom capable of comfortably seating 300 people; I cannot locate its name.

Rewinding a bit: John Paul Rosenberg was born in Philadelphia on September 5, 1935. In 1960, now a car salesman living in Bala Cynwyd, he left his wife and four children. By 1971, when he was selling encyclopedias in San Francisco, “Jack” Rosenberg had become “Werner Erhard” based on two names he read in Esquire magazine: physicist Werner Heisenberg and West German economics minister Ludwig Erhard.[iv] That year he had a revelation while driving over the Golden Gate Bridge: “I realized that I knew nothing.”[v] Building upon his own research into self-actualization, Erhard then founded Erhard Seminars Training, or est; est is also Latin for “it is.”

The first est training in Philadelphia took place at the City Line Holiday Inn—directly across Presidential Boulevard from the entrance to the Presidential Apartments—in December 1976; [vi]  both the Holiday Inn and the Presidential were developed by Villanova-based builder Martin W. Field.[vii] Over the next two years, my mother and her sister both paid $300 (over $1,200 in 2019) to take the training; at the time my mother only had $500 ($2,000 in 2019) to her name.

With parental permission, someone as young as 13 could take est. This is how I took the training in either October or November, at the hotel on Dock Street. The training lasted from 9 am to midnight over two consecutive weekends, with short evening seminars before, between and after the two weekends. While seated in the hotel ballroom, we were not allowed to have watches, medication (unless with a doctor’s prescription), alcohol, cigarettes or even aspirin. Bathroom and meal breaks were scheduled; there were no exceptions.[viii]

A goal of the training was to realize each of us is solely responsible for our actions, moods and thoughts: we are each God in our own universe. Deprived of our usual distractions, the trainer—a charismatic and handsome man whose name I forget—led us through a series of exercises designed to break down our mental defenses before building us back to the point where we would “get it.” “It” was simply that there was nothing to get: there is no metaphysical shortcut or externality that makes us happy or unhappy, only our own selves. British chef Robert Irvine does something very similar on his television series Restaurant: Impossible.

I had an absolute blast taking est: it allowed me to hang out in the city at night by myself—except when a group of us walked to a restaurant, where Zahav now is, for dinner one of the four nights. One of the other trainees, a youngish man whose name I forget, was my ride each morning and night; when the training was over, he wanted to take me on a vacation to the Yucatan. My mother slammed the brakes on that idea faster than a cheetah on speed; only the nocturnal city was allowed to seduce me.

One of my high school yearbook quotes is attributed to Erhard: “It is easier to ride the horse in the direction he’s going.” After our trainings, my mother, my maternal aunt and I took some “graduate seminars” at the Holiday Inn on N. 4th Street just south of Arch Street; I liked their ground floor coffee shop. There may have also been events at the Holiday Inn at S. 18th and Market Streets—at least once, my mother, one or more of her friends and I had a late-night meal at the 24-hour Midtown III Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge, a few steps south at Ranstead Street. The former Holiday Inn is now a Wyndham, the latter Holiday Inn is now a Sonesta, and the Midtown III—last of the four Midtown diners—permanently closed in August 2020.[ix] And the City Line Holiday Inn is now a Courtyard by Marriott.

Until next time…please be safe and healthy. Get vaccinated against COVID-19, and wear a mask!


[i] https://study.com/academy/lesson/history-of-head-house-square-in-philadelphia.html Accessed December 10, 2020

[ii] https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/society-hill/the-newmarket-2/ Accessed December 10, 2020

[iii] NewMarket advertisement, PI, December 9, 1979, pg. 6-L

[iv] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/29/fashion/the-return-of-werner-erhard-father-of-self-help.html Accessed December 13, 2020

[v] Dowie, Mark, “The Transformation Game,” San Francisco Examiner (San Francisco, CA), October 12, 1986, pg. IMAGE-24

[vi] Storck, Dorothy, “Introduction to the word,” PI, January 12, 1977, pg. 1-B

[vii] Cook, Bonnie L., “Martin W. Field, 87, Philly-area builder,” PDN, March 16, 2018, pg. 18

[viii] Storck, Dorothy, “We’re all OK—probably,” PI, January 14, 1977, pg. 1-B

[ix] https://www.inquirer.com/food/midtown-iii-diner-closes-center-city-philadelphia-restaurants-coronavirus-24-hour-whatll-be-hun-20200821.html Accessed December 14, 2020

That Time A Building Completely Broke My Heart

On January 29, 2021, 3½ years after my wife Nell suggested in financial exasperation that I write a book, I put on “outside” clothes, sneakers and my protective mask, then walked down to our local FedEx office. There, I plugged my thumb drive into a printer…then watched in relief and wonder as it printed out a complete manuscript of my book Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own. You may find some of the book’s backstory here.

Manuscript in hand, I began the process of getting it published; any advice or assistance you have to offer will be greatly appreciated. This is easily the most terrifying thing I have ever done: I feel as though I am trying to hit a bullseye on a moving target while blindfoldedI compiled a list of 19 literary agents I felt were the best fit for this book, sending formal queries to 11 of them, keeping nine in reserve. Three agencies sent immediate rejections, while I have yet to hear from the other eight.

In the meantime, I have decided to increase public awareness of my work by publishing excerpts from Interrogating Memory on this site. This is the closest I can come to a “teaser trailer.

One unexpected theme which emerged while writing was “what once stood proud, now stands not at all.” That applies primarily to John Rhoads Company, the West Philadelphia landmark whose “rise and fall” narrative is woven throughout the book. Forty years after it first opened in 1886, it was taken over by my paternal grandfather and his younger brother in the 1920s then passed to my father a little over three decades later. The demise of John Rhoads in the 1970s is partly discussed here. It also applies to the homes destroyed to make way for superhighways and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, or any number of storied buildings–Metropolitan Hospital, The Gladstone Hotel/Greystone Apartments, the Philadelphia Police Department 40th District station house at 28th and Oxford–torn down and replaced for various reasons.

I first wrote about childhood summers in Atlantic City here. In Chapter 8 (Fathers and Sons Are Only Black and White in the Movies), I describe those magical summers in greater detail, lovingly recreating a motel called the Strand, which once stood between Boston and Providence Avenues just off the Boardwalk. On Newspapers.com, I found these contemporary advertisements, one from the June 25, 1972 edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer

…and one from the June 10, 1973 edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

For the full story, I urge you to read Chapter 8 when Interrogating Memory is published. Until then, please enjoy this brief excerpt from that Chapter.

My happiest memory of those summers, however, is seeing Atlantic City from the Atlantic Ocean with my maternal grandfather. Beyond the northeastern end of the Boardwalk, on what was called Inlet Pier, sat the popular Capt. Starn’s; it closed five years later.[i] Besides a seafood restaurant and bar, one could charter boats or take a ride on the speedboat “Miss Atlantic City.” It also had a white double-decker tour boat which gently carried passengers round trip to Longport and back, a safe distance from the shore. I recognized buildings as they drifted by—the Ambassador Hotel, the Convention Center (home to the Miss America pageant since 1921) and, of course, the Strand and the Warwick. As we sat contentedly in one of the 10 or so rows of white plastic seats, two on either side of a narrow aisle, a man sold beverages from a large cooler. “Pop-Pop Sam” always bought a can for me. Nothing has ever tasted as delicious as I remember that Coke or Dr. Pepper tasting.

All things come to an end, though. This is how I described leaving the Strand at the end of the summer of 1975 in a high school English essay I wrote in March 1982:

’Matthew, will you hurry up!’ cried the boy’s mother. She was standing in the parking lot of the Strand motel, by a packed Ford.

“In the motel’s lobby, the boy was frantically running from adult to adult saying breathless good-byes.

“‘Ya comin’ back next summer, Matthew?’ asked an old man who sold candy and sundry goods.

“The boy, who was seven [sic–I was actually eight] years old, with messy, brown hair and a perpetual smile, shrugged his shoulders.

“I really hope so, but I don’t think we will, because my dad said money was tight and stuff like that,’ replied Matthew, the smile fading a bit.

“’Well I hope you do, Matthew. Now you’re [sic] mother is calling you, so you’d better go. Here.’

“The man jammed a Snickers into the boy’s hand. Matthew opened it, stuffed it in his mouth and, yelling good-bye over his shoulder, jumped in the car.”

We returned one last time, in the summer of 1976 or 1977. This time we stayed for a weekend, or perhaps longer, in a room overlooking Boston Avenue; this may be when Allen Hirschbaum rented a room in the motel across the street. One night, I tried to sleep on one of the deck chairs; I eventually returned inside. But once Resorts Casino Hotel opened on May 26, 1978, the Strand’s days were numbered. On June 22, Golden Nugget Inc. president Stephen Wynn announced he had bought the Strand from Solomon for $8.5 million ($34.4 million in 2019).[ii] Wynn tore down the 23-year-old motel to build the 541-room Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino, which opened on December 9, 1980.[iii]

Later in the essay, titled “Repulsion Is Golden,” I pick up the story a few years later, likely the summer of 1981. After promising my mother I would return at 6 pm, I ran the “brief block to the bus stop.” From there a bus took me to the corner of Atlantic and Boston Avenues, steps away from where the boarding house Samuel and Irene Kohn operated during WWII had stood. Sprinting the block south to Pacific Avenue:

“’What in God’s name!’ I thought to myself. I frantically checked the street signs. I was on the corner of Boston and Pacific allright [sic]. So what was that in front of me?

“I was quite confused, because where my beloved Strand had always stood was a huge, gold-and-glass horror. The sign on it read ‘Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino.’

“I crossed the street and entered the lower lobby. Surrounding me were gold columns, fine carpeting, more glass, and shining marble. I was filled with repulsion, and was rapidly approaching actual physical illness.

“Recovering from the initial shock I walked to the main desk. In answer to my question, I was told the Strand had been torn down three years [ago] so they could build this hotel. I thanked the clerk and walked away.

“I looked around a bit, the gaudiness of the place sickening me. I kept asking myself, ‘How, how, could they have done this!’ Tears welled up in my eyes, so I sat down a minute to think. I recovered, and went into the men’s room to clean myself up.”

Melodramatic flourishes aside, this succinctly sums up my feelings not only about the replacement of the Strand by the Golden Nugget—itself sold to Bally’s Organization in November 1987[iv]—but of gambling generally. Presented as a way to revive the dying city lovingly portrayed in the bittersweet 1980 film Atlantic City, it instead cleaved the storied resort. Giant lurid casinos flanking the beach draw guests who rarely venture outside the hotels and Boardwalk, while the rest of the city seems worse off than before. Given my father’s addiction, however, it is all for the best we stopped summering in Atlantic City before the first casinos were built.

Until next time…please be safe and healthy!


[i] “Capt. Starn’s pier a sunken relic amid glitter of Atlantic City casinos,” Courier-Post (Camden, NJ), May 7, 1989, pg. 6B

[ii] “Vegas firm buys piece of Boardwalk,” The Record (Hackensack, NJ), June 23, 1978, pg. A3

[iii] “Gaming agency analyzing Golden Nugget’s trial run,” Asbury Park Press (Asbury Park, NJ), December 12, 1980, pg. B19

[iv] “Farewell and tears loom for The Grand,” Asbury Park Press (Asbury Park, NJ), September 25, 1994, pg. E9