Found-Again Friday: Barton Fink

It’s got to be better than Beyond Therapy, right?

Why Found-Again? In the words of The Golden Girls’ Sophia Petrillo, picture it: creative writing class, 1993.

There are people in these classes who are, bluntly stated, unreasonably up themselves. The ones who think they need to drink like the Beats to write well. The ones who never seem to depart from a certain subset of “literary, but ‘edgy'” authors in their inspirations. The walking prototypes for the main character in Valerie on the Stairs.

In this class, I managed to get sandwiched between two of these guys, who spent the first half of the semester talking literally over my head about movies and beer and Carver and Updike (Palahniuk wasn’t a thing yet) until I thought I’d pull a Bertha Mason and run mad.

They were obsessed with Barton Fink, and I was soon sick of not knowing why, so on my next trip home I grabbed my friend K. and set up a movie night. My first indication that my movie nights are cursed was my decision to watch The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Barton Fink in the same night. I remember it only as a long night of shared art-film pain (well, that and the revelation that John Goodman is an amazing actor), and I haven’t touched either movie since.

By now, of course, I know there are Coen Brothers movies I like—and even love—so perhaps I was a little hard on Mr. Fink. Let’s find out.

The Premise:  In 1941, playwright Barton Fink (John Turturro) is lured to Hollywood to be a screenwriter, and it goes spectacularly badly. He has writer’s block, he has a neighbor from hell—perhaps literally?—and he tries to get advice from a washed-up author who is a fictional analogue of William Faulkner, all while slowly slipping into the writers’ version of the Hollywood studio meat grinder. And then there’s the murder.

I was right about one thing all those years ago: the movie can sometimes be a little slow. That said, this quickly shot up from my previous estimation (sort of a dull groan) through “quite bearable” to “good.” It’s a fascinating combination of noir, psychological study, and to some degree a meditation on religion and ideals: Barton’s idea of serving his fellow man doesn’t long survive actually meeting his fellow man, and this drives most of the plot.  Barton Fink is one of those films Found-Again Friday was made for, and I am happy to relieve it of that other word I used to put in the middle of the title.

"She finally gets it! Drink!"
“She finally gets it! Drink!”

The Verdict: Twofold. One, this was a fun rewatching of something I thought might be agony (remember Beyond Therapy?) and provides some interesting backstory and comparisons to the Coens’ most recent release, Hail, Caesar!, since the same fictional movie studio appears in each. The second thing? After having a similar experience watching and rewatching  Mister Frost, I’m starting to suspect I can’t watch a certain kind of film too late at night—art films.  And here I’d always assumed it would be zombie movies…

Might go well with: The Shining, Miller’s Crossing, an explanation of why 90% of typewriters in movies and television are Underwoods. Really, what did Olivetti do to Hollywood?

Next time: The Quests take Hadji for a ride.

Apropos Of Nothing: Tearjerkers

Recently, on the strength of the news of Alan Rickman’s death, I attempted something I hadn’t done for years and started watching Truly Madly Deeply. I used to own it, but that was a few broken relationships and one or two deaths ago, so this time I had to stop after 25 minutes because my nose was completely blocked and the tears were starting to soak my shirt collar.

Most of the time, I know better.

I dislike saying it, because it makes me feel shallow, but I hate depressing movies. Part of this is just the way I’m made, I suspect, and the other part is the perception that a lot of these tearjerkers are “women’s movies”—or worse, “date movies”—and so people think I will enjoy them. I vividly remember watching some complete painfests with my high-school sweetheart as a result of this idea: I’d pick comedies (Splitting Heirs was bad, but not so bad I cried about it), and he’d pick things like Steel Magnolias and the Stella Dallas remake with Bette Middler. By the time I realized he was watching the big-screen equivalent of Lifetime movies for my sake, we’d already broken up, and I’ve made sure to be clearer about my preferences since then.

That said, there are a few things I like even though they cause me to wail like the very cranky baby Mom assures me I was. Some highlights:

  • “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar,” an episode of Night Gallery about a man whose life is unraveling between his wife’s sudden death and the machinations of a business rival.
  • The part right before the end of The Last Unicorn. The part right before the end of Young Sherlock Holmes. The part right before the end of The Secret of NIMH. Kids’ movies reserve the right to stomp on your heart, but will generally dust it off and return what’s left of it in the last ten minutes.
  • The end of Hellboy. That’s when I try to explain to anyone else watching that it’s one of the most romantic movies ever. Even though that should be self-evident.

Readers (if any), what about you? Tearjerkers? Nonstandard tearjerkers? Outright refusal? If anyone has a rousing defense of the Stella movie, I’d especially like to hear that.

Found-Again Friday: The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook Chapter 1: Undercover Work

This one’s going to be a multi-parter every other week until it’s all done.

Why Found-Again: When I finally saved up enough allowance to buy this, sometime around 1983 or ’84, it immediately became my bible.

Not the one I had back in my youth. You can tell by the lack of Cup-O-Noodle stains.
Not the copy I had in my youth. You can tell by the lack of Cup-O-Noodle stains.

Readers of this site have no doubt noticed I can be insufferable about things I’m interested in—why, yes, I am still yelling at the end of Highlander whenever I watch it as though expecting a different result, how did you know?—and one thing I have always been interested in is a detective story. My parents, who I have to assume thought they were getting one of those kids who would tell them what happened at school that day, suddenly found themselves saddled with a would-be miniature Magnum, P.I. blathering on about various kinds of surveillance while not eating her vegetables.

Mysteriously, regaling my family with the details of detective work in no way caused Dad to hurry up and build that network of Three-Investigator-style hidden offices I wanted. Maybe I should have picked up How To Win Friends And Influence People first?

The Premise (Entire Book): Written in conjunction with a retired FBI agent, this book uses fictional teen detectives Frank and Joe Hardy in various scenarios to teach young readers sleuthing skills. (I have the revised 1972 edition.) It essentially works out as  half guidebook, half story collection.

The Premise (Chapter 1—Undercover Work): When a plastics factory suffers a series of thefts, the owner enlists the help of the Hardy Boys’ father, who sends Frank and Joe undercover as delinquents in need of jobs.

They do kind of look the part.
They do kind of look the part.

The boys manage to infiltrate the group responsible for the thefts, only to be inadvertently ratted out by the factory owner, who obviously should’ve been in the briefing pictured above.

The Verdict: Above all, I remember this book as being hilariously dated, even at the time I was first reading it. This chapter was less Starsky & Hutch than Dragnet, though, heavy on common sense and following procedures. There were, however,  a few odd moments:

Even without taking this willfully out of context, Frank Hardy really looks like he's up to no good.
Even without taking this willfully out of context, Frank Hardy really looks like he’s up to no good. I think it’s the sideburns.
Typewriter banter among thieves! What has the march of progress cost us?
Typewriter banter among thieves! What has the march of progress cost us?

Not bad at all so far.


Next time: Jonny Quest eludes yet another attempt to destroy his globetrotting family. Doesn’t narrow it down much, does it?


Apropos of Nothing: A List of Titles, Should There Ever Be A Biography Of Me

…And Five Hours Later, Her Hair Was Still Wet

Needs More Hot Sauce: The J.A. Story

[age] Years of Not Beating People To Death With a Dictionary (While Making Them Feel As If I Did)

Reading While Walking

Gourmet Cold Cuts, Wine, and Highlander: The Gentle Art of Leisure Time

Cold Hairball Underfoot: The Perils of Getting Out of Bed While Owning Pets

I Love the Buckaroo Banzai Movie More Than You Love Some of Your Relatives

A Lighter Shade of Noir

Writing Mysteries For Fun Profit Personal Satisfaction Some Damn Reason

There should also be one about barbecue, but I've got nothin'.
There should also be one about barbecue, but I’ve got nothin’.




Unexpected Replacement Found-Again Friday: The Critic

I’ve occasionally suspected, but am now convinced, that there’s some deranged Netflix subscriber who only returns old movies after hitting the DVDs with a mallet. So while I await a non-cracked replacement for our originally scheduled Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, I turn to an old favorite.

Why Found-Again? Ten years ago, I watched this animated show almost constantly. I was out on my own for the first time after my separation from the Future Ex-Husband and badly in need of coping strategies; though I’ve never been sure what “watch The Critic and Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow daily” was supposed to accomplish in this regard, that is certainly what I did for four months straight. The Critic is probably Found-Again because I need it less than I used to, and that is probably a good thing.

The Premise: Jay Sherman (voiced by Jon Lovitz) is a snooty TV film critic and perpetual underdog. His ex-wife can’t stand to look at him. His makeup lady is against him. His adoptive family, except for his sister Margo, treats him like a second-class citizen. His boss, Ted Turner-alike magnate Duke Phillips, wants him to stop giving blockbusters bad reviews. His best friend is a beloved action-movie heartthrob. And his dating life runs the gamut from Misery to Barney the Dinosaur, which you have to admit is an unusual damn gamut.

Some of my favorite episodes:

“Marty’s First Date”—Jay’s son starts out awkward, but ends up… er, smuggling himself to Cuba in a cello case.

Not a great plan.
Not a great plan.

“Miserable”—In which Jay has even worse luck with women than his kid does.

“Dr. Jay”—Jay’s boss Duke is given four years to live and Jay decides to cure him, while having the same sort of luck Jay always has.

“All The Duke’s Men”—if only for this part:

The Verdict: Judging by the way I quote along with it, I’m still very attached to The Critic. Some of the contemporary celebrity/movie jokes the show made are a bit outdated, but surprisingly—depressingly?—few. Smart, funny, and underrated.

The episode "Siskel & Ebert & Jay & Alice" is also good, but these days it tends to make me sad.
The episode “Siskel & Ebert & Jay & Alice” is also good, but these days it tends to make me sad.

Might go well with: Eat a cheesecake. Take a nap. You never know.

Apropos of Nothing: December Reading And Attendant Guilt

…A look at what I’ve been doing in my free time this month, as compared to the vision in my head of some perfected J.A.:

The Thing I Read: Don’t Dare a Dame by M. Ruth Myers

This is the third book in a hard-boiled detective series starring young Maggie Sullivan, a P.I. trying to make her way in 1930s Dayton (at some point, Ohio seems to have become the new Chicago as far as the detective novels I read are concerned). Maggie and her friends and helpers are beautifully written, the historical setting is interesting, the mysteries are excellent, and if she doesn’t give her possible love interest a break I am going to explode from frustration. The man can play a penny whistle and catch bad guys, for god’s sake.

What I Should Have Been Reading: I just bought a three-in-one volume of Philip Marlowe novels after seeing The Big Sleep for the first time this summer. Until then, I’d just assumed there were Hammett people and Chandler people in the world and I was clearly Team Dashiell; if I can ever stop reading about Maggie Sullivan, I’m going to put that hypothesis to the test.

Chandler even seems to be looking at me reproachfully from the book jacket.
Chandler even seems to be watching me reproachfully from the book jacket.

(On a side note, any fellow mystery/movie buffs who are reading this: isn’t The Big Sleep odd? I can’t think of any other movie I enjoyed so much that seemed so much longer than its actual runtime.)

The Thing I Read: Weird Romance: A Sparrow & Crowe Anthology by various authors, including the creators of the Wormwood podcast that originated the characters

I came late to podcasted dramas after a few years of subscribing to the driest “Boring Fact of the Day”-type podcasts you could imagine.  I was therefore probably the last to know about Wormwood, a sort of supernatural(…er) Twin Peaks in which a vision leads booze-swilling former psychologist/current sorcerer Dr. Xander Crowe and his technomancer assistant Sparrow to the titular town. When I did find the 2007 series, I promptly put off listening to the last season for months on end because I didn’t want Wormwood to stop. Fortunately, there’s also a comic book series and two short-story anthologies to keep fans of Crowe and Sparrow from languishing. The book badly needed more proofreading, but the stories are often excellent as two of the most entertaining misanthropes in fiction take on demons, mythical creatures, themselves and each other.

What I Should Have Been Reading: I’ve been on a weird-fiction kick of late and took a chance on a book of Thomas Ligotti stories. I’ve paused halfway through, but the man is a master of elegant prose about horrible things, and I can’t believe I’d never heard of him before this year. I suspect this is how I’m supposed to feel about Raymond Carver but don’t.

I should also start re-listening to Wormwood, for that matter.

The Thing I (Re)Read: Various portions of the Addison Holmes mysteries by Liliana Hart

These books have a special place in my heart—extra-special, considering I’ve read four of them and can’t decide if I like them, and I’ll probably buy the next one and feel the same way. It might be more accurate to say they have a special place in my wallet. But the Addison Holmes books are the story of one woman, not particularly suited for the job, becoming a private investigator—a subject I’m currently trying to write about myself. Watching Addison train and deal with an increasingly demanding vocation when she starts out as a schoolteacher is, dare I say it, educational.

What I Should Have Been Reading: Oh, maybe something from this nice collection of mystery-writing books I have?

Is there a group called "People Who Haven't Worked Out Which Gun Their Fictional P.I. Carries Anonymous"?
Is there a group called “People Who Haven’t Worked Out Which Gun Their Fictional P.I. Carries Anonymous”?

Additional Warning About The Dangerous Ease of Buying E-books: I own Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead on Nook? When the hell did that happen? You should pick it up, though; it’s really good.


Next time: What anybody who was all Frankensteined out for the year would do: watch Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein for the first time since the oughts.


Apropos of Nothing: My Writing Tics

A list of things I’ve noticed in my stories and should probably shake up:

  • The use of “…well” in the same way movies use a fade to black to indicate a sex scene. I see I’ve even managed to put this one in a story I started specifically to practice sex scenes. That’s …welled up, as it were.
  • At some point a character will glare at someone and say “Oh, good” in tones of doom.
  • My main characters are very considerate: after they bop someone in the head, they always check to make sure they’re still breathing, even if running the hell for safety would be a smarter option.
  • The furniture’s usually pretty good.
  • So’s the food.
  • Someone will get a main character’s name wrong in what I hope to god isn’t a Bewitched-level event.

There are probably a lot more, sad to say.

Apropos of Our Cynical Omelet: Admin Note

Just a quick note in case anything I do turns out to affect any RSS feeds, etc.: I will be making some changes over the next few days here at the site. Mostly, I will be adding links to all the Highlander posts so they can more easily be read sequentially (if only by me—hey, I enjoyed those) and adding a brief episode synopsis to each Jonny Quest post, for anyone who wants a less…interpretive idea of what’s going on in those.


In thanks for your attention, here is some of the currency of the internet: a cat picture.

Incubus thanks you too.
Incubus thanks you too.

Found-Again Friday: Dead Again

Writing my post last week sent me off on a tangent, so this time I’m changing the plan slightly and going back to what, in 1993, was one of my favorite movies.

Why Found-Again? Honestly, talking about my love for Kenneth Branagh/Emma Thompson makes me feel like I’m about a thousand years old. (Imagine the Highlander posts I could have written if I were! Speaking of tangents….)

I was fifteen when Siskel & Ebert reviewed Branagh’s Henry V and vividly remember the discussion about how Branagh might be the next Olivier and was otherwise an up-and-coming cinematic Big Thing. For some reason—I’m not a huge fan of the play even after several Shakespeare classes, so it wasn’t Henry as such—I found this very exciting. Two years later, I was also watching Siskel & Ebert when Dead Again, Branagh’s new movie with his then-wife Emma Thompson, got worse reviews.

I didn’t see it till I was nineteen, but once I did, I was hooked. The apparent king and queen of movies in a noirish supernatural thriller—how could I be anything but smitten?

The Premise: A mute, traumatized woman (Thompson) shows up at an orphanage with no apparent memory of who she is;  the nuns turn to one of their former charges, hard-boiled PI Mike Church (Branagh), for help. The further Mike digs into the case, however, the more it seems the trauma might have its roots in a famous murder from 1948, linked to the woman’s past life…or his own. But will forgotten crimes be reincarnated as well?


From a stylistic perspective (which readers have probably deduced I have little ability to analyze, but onward!), Dead Again hits all the classic noir beats: the LA setting, the Old Hollywood glamor of the flashback sequences, the dark corners and plot twists and dramatic camera angles.

Andy Garcia, noiring even harder than Alec Baldwin.
…and Andy Garcia, noiring even harder than Alec Baldwin.

The cast is likewise great, with the two leads joined by Derek Jacobi as a chiseling antique dealer/hypnotist, Wayne Knight as Church’s friend, Andy Garcia as a 1940s reporter who gets too involved,  and a great turn by Robin Williams as a cantankerous ex-shrink who works in a grocery store. You shouldn’t have slept with that patient, pal.

That said, rewatching Dead Again is a little like rewatching Highlander for me: once there’s enough distance from the initial adrenaline rush, doubts begin to creep in. Some of the events seem a little disconnected from each other, in that way where the story makes more sense when you describe it aloud than when you’re watching it on the screen. And then there’s the plot twist, which is not quite as twisty in 2015 as it was in the early 1990s.

The Verdict: Be aware that it comes from someone who fretted over the Branagh-Thompson divorce in a way I’ve never cared about famous people before or since when I say that Dead Again is… just a little goofy. It seems to have moved into that category of movie that I don’t mind watching alone, but am slightly embarrassed to show to other people; the very things I love about it are all a bit embarrassing to explain, and the whole thing seems so dependent on mood.

Parts of this movie are none too subtle on the symbolism, either.
Parts of this movie are none too subtle on the symbolism, either.

I’d hoped a re-viewing after several years’ abstinence would put me back in touch with everything I adored about the film, but it didn’t quite happen.

On the other hand, the movie and even the trailer still give me chills. I suppose for a movie about reincarnation, hope really might spring eternal.


Might go well with: Little hors d’oeuvres. You thought I was going to make a twice-baked potato joke, didn’t you?

Next time: Curses!







Found-Again Friday: Be Buried in the Rain by Barbara Michaels

Why Found-Again? As usual, darned if I know. I’ve read a lot of Barbara Michaels novels and I own my favorites, but this 1986 book is the only one that doesn’t get a yearly re-read, even though it’s set in the general area where I grew up and is in other ways relevant to my interests.

The Premise: Broadly, the premise of most Barbara Michaels books: a heroine finds herself in a creepy old house that is filled with danger from forces both spectral and human. The genre is gothic/romantic suspense, which can definitely stray too far into its own silly conventions: then again, which genre doesn’t from time to time?

In Be Buried in the Rain, our heroine Julie has a lot to be cynical about: the moment medical school isn’t keeping her busy, she’s asked to spend the summer taking care of her (evil) grandmother at a run-down farmhouse somewhere near Tidewater. Julie finally agrees, which brings her into contact with a former lover, a smarmy politician who happens to be her cousin, and an assortment of zealots, religious and New Age alike—all of whom are very interested when two skeletons turn up on the road. What secret from the past is hidden in those bones?

My hardcover. Not sure what that well-landscaped mansion is supposed to be, but I bet our main character would've had a much nicer time there.
My hardcover. Not sure what that well-landscaped mansion is supposed to be, but I bet our main character would’ve had a much nicer time there.

I’ll say this for our protagonist: faced with ailing and nutty relatives, she does not start watching Highlander obsessively. I’ve heard that can happen.

"I'm pretty sure that's just a myth."
“I’m pretty sure that’s just a myth.”

Instead Julie takes matters into her own hands, reading to her grandmother by day—if you break it down into real time, this is probably a book about a woman reading Bleak House aloud—and looking into the mystery in her precious free time. This is a mystery story, but it is also a book about family and…well, how family can screw you up.

The Verdict: Only this year have I come to realize how much these books, which I first read as a young teenager, have influenced both the way I write and what my concept of “a novel for grownups” should resemble in general shape and tone. That said, I think in this case the similarities to my own experiences are working against it, making it less interesting than the Michaels books set in Georgetown or farther abroad.

(…And while I was writing this, I  remembered that somewhere in my hometown, there may still be video of me doing a book talk for this in the eighth grade. Talk about horrors from the past…)

Might go well with: Country ham biscuits, Dickens, a nice nightgown.


Next time: The hiatus will come to an end and we’ll catch up with the Quest family. I will also be doing something fun here next weekend—by which I mean the weekend after the approaching one.