Contrappasso Archives: Noir Issue

cp noir front cover raw

From the archives: Here is the introduction to our special 2013 issue on Noir in film, fiction, and other arts. It has never previously appeared online.

The issue was edited by Noel King and Matthew Asprey Gear. Contributors include Luc Sante, Suzanne Lummis, Nicholas Christopher, Barry Gifford, Morris Lurie, Dahlia Schweitzer & Toby Miller, Andrew Nette, and Matthew Asprey Gear. We also feature interviews with Dennis McMillan and Adrian Wootton.

The Noir Issue remains available in print form at, for Kindle, and in other ebook formats at Smashwords.



When we decided to do this special Contrappasso noir issue—a grab bag of essays, interviews, and new and classic poetry—we were aware that some time ago two critics whose work we greatly admired, Luc Sante and James Naremore, had expressed fatigue with the term. In 2004 Sante told our colleague Peter Doyle, “noir is a category badly in need of a twenty- or thirty-year moratorium, at least in films.”

Naremore’s wonderful More than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts (1998/2008) ends by saying:

Given the current situation, debates over whether specific films are “truly” noir, or over the problem of what makes up a film genre, have become tiresome. There is, in fact, no transcendent reason why we should have a noir category at all. Whenever we list any movie under the noir rubric, we do little more than invoke a network of ideas as a makeshift organizing principle, in place of an author, a studio, a time period, or a national cinema. By such means, we can discuss an otherwise miscellaneous string of pictures, establishing similarities and differences among them. As I argue throughout this book, every category in criticism or in the film industry works in this fashion, usually in support of the critic’s or the culture’s particular obsessions. If we abandoned the word noir, we would need to find another, no less problematic, means of organizing what we see.

Naremore’s book is now widely accepted as a canonical text; Tom Gunning described it as “the first study of film noir that achieves the sort of intellectual seriousness, depth of research, degree of critical insight, and level of writing that this group of films deserves.” Gunning continues:

The basic paradox of film noir lies in the fact that no one who made the original series of films ever heard the term; it has always been applied ex post facto, in contrast to the way other genres (such as the musical or the western) were used by Hollywood to plan production schedules and distribution strategies. Instead film noir is, as Naremore puts it, a discourse, a way of processing and thinking about films as much as a pattern for their production.

While Gilles Deleuze referred to film noir unproblematically as a “great genre” in Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, and the late actor-director Dennis Hopper felt able to call it “everyone’s favourite genre” while he was directing The Hot Spot (1980), film critics have spent the last forty years debating whether film noir is a genre, a sub-genre, a film style, or a film movement.


Whatever the case, if film noir was not a genre at the time of its first appearance—if by genre we mean a film industry-recognised way of producing and marketing films—it has certainly become one, in the industry and the academy, in our time. International mainstream movie makers, makers of art cinema, and independent filmmakers alike have their work defined as “neo-noir” or “noir-influenced,” which no longer has to imply corny pastiche; convincing recent Hollywood examples include Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011) and Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik, 2012). Noir, when it rises above a series of clichéd filmic gestures (trenchcoats, fedoras, cigarettes, lipstick), seems to be the language to express the darkness at the heart of our troubled times.

Meanwhile film courses around the world have devoted themselves to the film noir, accompanying the surge of scholarship since the late 1990s. On the film-critical front there has been since that period a deluge of books on classic film noir (roughly 1941-58) and on whatever we call the films noir that emerged from the sixties onwards.

In 2001 Foster Hirsch both published Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir and updated his 1981 account of classic noir Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen. There are many other important new books: a few include those by Edward Dimendberg (Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity, 2004), Wheeler Winston Dixon (Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia, 2009), Vincent Brook (Driven to Darkness: Jewish Émigré directors and the Rise of Film Noir, 2009), Alistair Rolls and Deborah Walker (French and American Noir: Dark Crossings), Dennis Broe (Film Noir, American Workers, and Postwar Hollywood, 2010), Gene D. Philips (Out of the Shadows: Expanding the Canon of Classic Film Noir, 2011), and Mark Osteen (Nightmare Alley: Film Noir and the American Dream, 2012).

Some excellent material was gathered in a special issue of Iris (no. 21, Spring 1996) devoted to “European Precursors of Film Noir”. Fine anthologies of essays include Alain Silver and James Ursini’s Film Noir Readers (1996-2004) and Eddie Muller and Donald Malcolm’s ongoing Noir City Annual (collecting the best of the Film Noir Foundation’s quarterly e-magazine, formerly the Noir City Sentinel). And as the British Film Institute series of Film Classics and Modern Classics (now combined into one series) trundles along it delivers new forays into the world of noir and neo-noir.

Film noir is seemingly everywhere—on our screens, in the academy, and in the hearts of movie lovers. But we’re also interested in looking at how the notion of noir is travelling in other cultural contexts.

We looked, for example, at Lars Nittve and Helle Crenzien’s Sunshine & Noir: Art In LA 1960-1997 (1997), which contained Mike Davis’s essay ‘A Double Funeral’ on the race rivalries and gangs of Latinos, Koreans, and African Americans inside and outside LA jails. Catherine Corman’s photographic book Daylight Noir: Raymond Chandler’s Imagined City (based on her photographic exhibition at the 2009 Venice Biennale) might have had trouble spelling Fredric Jameson’s name correctly but it came in a clear line of descent from Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward’s photographic rendering of the world of Philip Marlowe’s LA, Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles: A Photographic Odyssey Accompanied by Passages from Chandler’s Greatest Works (1989).


In her introduction to Manila Noir, Jessica Hagedorn said, “it made perfect sense to include a graphic noir since one of the many ways I learned to become a writer was through the Filipino horror komiks of my childhood.” In 2013 we are abundantly aware of Hollywood’s enthusiasm for graphic novels, especially those with a noir slant (Sin City, V For Vendetta). Darwyn Cooke’s recent graphic novel adaptations of the Parker novels deserve a mention, too, because they’re more faithful to the mood of the classic noir novels of Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake) than anything Hollywood has yet come up with. John Boorman’s classic film Point Blank (1967) creates a rather different noir mood—as Adrian Wootton informs us in this issue, Boorman never actually read its inspiration, Stark’s The Hunter (1962)—and Taylor Hackford’s Parker (2013) is perhaps best skipped over entirely.

Recent generations of Batman comics are practically synonymous with noir. Frank Miller steered the comic franchise in this dark direction in the 1980s; the latest collection illustrated by Eduardo Risso, Batman Noir (2013), is a another fine example. We also looked at anthologies such as Dark Horse Books’ Noir: A Collection of Crime Comics (2009). We could have easily devoted an issue to the subject of comic book noir, which attracts many of the best contemporary illustrators and has an enormous fan base.

The noir sensibility has found expression in video games. An Australian contribution was Team Bondi’s hugely successful L. A. Noire (2011), the first video game officially selected for the Tribeca Film Festival. The game inspired a spin-off ebook anthology of noir short stories edited by Jonathan Santlofer.

In noir matters literary and poetic we felt on secure ground.

Noir fiction is now a distinct category within the crime genre. It wasn’t always that way, at least in the United States. Paperback publisher Black Lizard, founded and edited by Barry Gifford in the 1980s, played a crucial role by reviving mostly forgotten mid-century American hardboiled crime novels (which were much more enduringly popular in France, published in translation through Marcel Duhamel’s Série noire from 1945). Moreover, Gifford focused on republishing crime writers with a distinct noir sensibility. Noir fiction turned out to be something slightly different from the masterful hardboiled detective tales of Chandler and Hammett. The prose of James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, and David Goodis was certainly hardboiled, but their narratives focused less on tarnished heroes and more relentlessly on the self-destructive, the hopeless, and the insane.

Luc Sante—who examines a series of haunting New York City police photographs in this issue, revisiting the terrain of his book Evidence, an inspiration for Australian writer-researchers Peter Doyle and Ross Gibson—once wrote in the New York Review of Books of how

[James M.] Cain spawned a genre. The ingredients of compulsion, self-destruction, revenge, and blind chance awakened a kind of poetry in pulp writing, and in the movies adapted from it.


In 1997 the Library of America, under the guidance of then-Executive Editor (now Editor-in-Chief) Geoffrey O’Brien, published a two-volume anthology of Crime Novels: American Noir, attempting to establish a canon of the subgenre. The first volume (The 1930s & 40s) collected authors James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, Edward Anderson, Kenneth Fearing, William Lindsay Gresham, and Cornell Woolrich; the second volume (The 1950s) featured Goodis, Willeford, Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, and Chester Himes.

To this tradition of American noir fiction should be added writers such as Paul Cain, W. R. Burnett, Richard Hallas, James Ross, Peter Rabe, John D. Macdonald, Gil Brewer, Elmore Leonard, Richard Stark, Lawrence Block, Leonard Gardner, Floyd Salas, James Ellroy, Kent Anderson, Walter Mosley, Andrew Vachss, Ed Gorman, Denis Johnson, Christa Faust, James Sallis, Duane Swierczynski, and Megan Abbott.

Many new noir stories have found a home in independent ebook and print-on-demand journals such as Beat to a Pulp, Thuglit, Noir Nation, and Melbourne’s Crime Factory. Independent publishers New Pulp Press and Stark House Press are doing important work publishing new and vintage noir, respectively. And we decided the work of independent crime publishers Dennis McMillan and Matthew Moring deserves attention; interviews with each appear in this issue and point the way to unjustly-neglected writers in the noir tradition.

We were aware of early American poetic noir offerings, from Kenneth Fearing’s Dead Reckoning (1938) and Stranger at Coney Island and Other Poems (1948) to Joseph Moncure March’s The Set-Up and The Wild Party, both from 1928, which were jointly republished in 1968 in a revised form that removed “ethnic references” thought to give possible offence to a 1960s reader. Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel rendering of The Wild Party (1994) restored those excised textual elements.

We had long admired Nicholas Christopher’s poetry. Two of his early poems, ‘Film Noir’ and ‘John Garfield’, appear herein with his kind permission. Noir has long been an animating influence on Christopher’s work. His verse novella, Desperate Characters (1989) was nicely blurbed as “The Lady from Shanghai as rewritten by Proust,” and his novel Veronica (1996) is in many ways neo-noir. Christopher’s Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City (1997) is his account of noir and the fascination it holds for him, from the initial moment of encountering the great Out of the Past (1947) in a small Parisian cinema off the Rue de Rennes after he had taken some opium, through to his long New York years which saw him diligently work through all 317 films listed in the Film Noir Encyclopedia (1988). In fact, he added extra titles, based on his own viewing, which he felt deserved inclusion.

We had hoped to set alongside Christopher’s ‘Film Noir’ another poem of that title found in Lourd Ernest H. De Veyra’s collection, Insectissimo! (2011) but couldn’t run him to ground in time for this issue to obtain reprint rights (i.e., your editors failed as gumshoes). We also liked Michael Atkinson’s lovely poem about John Garfield in his collection One Hundred Children Waiting For A Train (2002) and enjoyed Kevin Young’s long poem Black Maria (2005). Young’s noir poem series tells us it is “produced and directed” by him and it contains all the right noir props—ashtrays, gunsels, femme fatale, the set-up, the sucker, the speak-easy, the grift, the frame, the dive, the payback, and so on.

LA-based Suzanne Lummis has been running a noir poetry workshop for years; we are delighted to reprint two of her noir-themed poems in Contrappasso.

In short, we have to agree with James Naremore when he says that we now inhabit a “noir mediascape” (he borrows the term ‘mediascape’ from Arjun Appadurai). This is apparent from a casual encounter with the world of book publicity. Recent crime writing is referred to variously as “casino noir” (James Swain’s series of books beginning with Grift Sense) or “surf noir” (Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source and later books). When he was reviewing a Joe Lansdale book, the great Daniel Woodrell described it as “backwoods noir”; both that descriptor and Woodrell’s self-applied “country noir” fit his own work (Tomato Red, Give us a Kiss, the excellent Winter’s Bone). We have feminist writers describing their works as “tart noir” and lesbian writers self-describing as “dyke noir.” And while we were completing this issue Jim Kitses urged us to read James Salter’s 1956 Korean War novel The Hunters as an instance of “military noir” (he urged us to read it in any case).

So settled is the term in publicity usage that we have noir by national location—”tartan noir” to describe some Scottish crime fiction, even “Australian noir” (see the essays in this issue by Andrew Nette and Mick Counihan). There is noir by US state, as in “Florida noir.” The vibrant series of city-focused noir anthologies from Akashic Books, an independent Brooklyn-based press founded by musician Johnny Temple, has now expanded beyond the US to focus on cities from New Delhi to Havana (Los Angeles Noir and Manila Noir are reviewed in this issue). In each anthology, noir stories and sometimes bits of graphic novels emerge from specific neighbourhoods. The noir sensibility is truly international.

As we finish up this introduction, news comes that Lou Reed has died. The venue seems appropriate for us to remember him for one of his many great songs, ‘Femme Fatale’.

We hope readers of this special issue of Contrappasso enjoy our explorations of noir in its many guises.


Contrappasso Extra: ‘Literary Prizes and Reviews’ by Noel King



This text is based on a presentation given by Noel King at the Sixth International Philippine Literature Conference held in Davao, Mindanao, on September 20-21, 2015. This version includes some material added after that presentation.


The Australian dollar currently is worth around 75 cents of a US dollar, and the average income for a writer in Australia is $12,900 a year, which is why so many writers and creatives, in Australia as elsewhere, drive cabs, work in restaurants, or teach. That amount of around $13,000 is not a living wage (Steger, 2015). Accordingly, winning a literary prize can be a windfall for a writer, permitting him or her to devote themselves undiverted to their craft for a certain measure of time.

On the general matter of writing and money, and using film adaptation as an example, however complicated critical discussions can get concerning the relation of a literary work to its film adaptation, one thing is certain: if the budget for the film is sufficiently large then the author’s percentage after first day of principal photography will permit him or her to feel secure about a comfortable short-to-mid-term future for their writing. Much as William Faulkner’s literary career benefited from the money thrown his way by Hollywood and Howard Hawks, allowing him to stay home in Oxford, Mississippi, to write his celebrated novels and stories, so Daniel Woodrell benefited from the $35 million budget attached to Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil (1999), based on Woodrell’s 1987 book, Woe to Live On. Woodrell’s portion of that money funded his next five years of writing, giving him the time to try different things and directions, one of which was Winter’s Bone, which sold better than all his previous work and also was adapted into film.

In The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circle of Cultural Value, James F. English cites the Nobel Prize for Literature’s beginning in 1901 as the start of literary prize culture. Australia’s only Nobel Prize winner, Patrick White, was privately wealthy and so took the $80,000 dynamite money he received in 1973, tossed in an additional $20,000 of his own, and established the Patrick White Award. Given annually to an Australian writer who is regarded as having made a significant contribution to Australian literature across the body of their work, the prize brings with it $23,000. It is given to an oeuvre rather than a one-off work. The 2015 recipient was Joan London, a writer based in Fremantle, Western Australian. Previous recipients have included Amanda Lohrey, Christina Stead, Randolph Stow, and Elizabeth Harrower. London’s most recent novel, The Golden Age, also won the 2015 Australian Prime Minister’s award with its tax-free amount of $80,000. So, together with her Patrick White award, London will have $103,000 to fund her writing over the next few years, independently of whatever royalties she earns.


John Berger

We should recognise up front that one sideshow aspect to literary awards concerns scandals, as English notes. Scandals can be a lot of fun. In 1972 John Berger presented the BBC’s Ways of Seeing series, which was accompanied by a little book that must have sold vastly well across decades, being course-adopted in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, into great numbers of undergraduate degrees in art history, visual arts, and media studies. Berger favoured blue shirts but for reasons of television film cameras and the use of blue screen, that wouldn’t work, so he had to duck outside the studio and buy some shirts without blue in them, as producer Mike Dibbs explains: “He arrived back with what has provoked much comment over the years, a pair of identical cream and reed ‘chain-mail’ shirts, circa 1971. We didn’t give them a second thought then, and now they’re iconic!”. At the height of this paisley-shirt-wearing fame Berger won the 1972 Booker Prize for his novel G. He refused it, saying he would donate half the money to the Black Panthers and use the other half to fund his writing of A Seventh Man, his and Jean Mohr’s study of migrant workers in Europe. In 2015, Verso put up on its website the text of Berger’s speech, and the following quotations come from there:

The competitiveness of prizes I find distasteful. And in the case of this prize the publication of the shortlist, the deliberately publicised suspense, the speculation of the writers concerned as though they were horses, the whole emphasis on winners and losers is false and out of place in the context of literature.

Nevertheless prizes act as a stimulus – not to writers themselves but to publishers, readers and booksellers. And so the basic cultural value of a prize depends upon what it is a stimulus to. To the conformity of the market and the consensus of average opinion; or to imaginative independence on the part of both reader and writer. If a prize only stimulates conformity, it merely underwrites success as it is conventionally understood. It constitutes no more than any other chapter in a success story. If it stimulates imaginative independence, it encourages the will to seek alternatives. Or, to put it very simply, it encourages people to question…

One does not have to be a novelist seeking very subtle connections to trace the five thousand pounds of this prize back to the economic activities from which they came. Booker McConnell have had extensive trading interests in the Caribbean for over 130 years. The modern poverty of the Caribbean is the direct result of this and similar exploitation. One of the consequences of this Caribbean poverty is that hundreds of thousands of West Indians have been forced to come to Britain as migrant workers. Thus my book about migrant workers would be financed from the profits made directly out of them or their relatives and ancestors.

It’s similar to those Hollywood Academy Award moments of refusal of best Acting Oscars: from George C. Scott, who in 1971 refused his Best Acting Oscar for the Francis Coppola-scripted Patton and called the Awards a “goddamn meat parade”, and Marlon Brando’s declining of his 1972 Best Actor award for his role as the titular character in Coppola’s The Godfather, sending in his place a beautiful Native American woman, Sacheen Littlefeather.

If we broaden the notion of “scandal” to include “hoax,” then Australia has a distinguished record in this regard, from the 1940s ‘Ern Malley’ hoax where two Australian writers, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, concocted sixteen poems meant to ridicule then-current trends in modernist poetry, and submitted them to Max Harris in Adelaide who edited a journal devoted to new currents in modernist writing, Angry Penguins. The fake poems appeared in the Autumn 1944 issue of that journal. Inevitably, once the hoax played itself out, Harris’s reputation suffered for a while, but the poems became celebrated and continued to be published, a line from one of the fraudulent poems even giving Australian cultural critic Humphrey McQueen the title for his book on Australian modernist painting, The Black Swan of Trespass: The Emergence of Modernist Painting in Australia to 1944. It’s a bit like a literary version of the ‘Sokal Affair’ visited on the Duke University Press journal, Social Text, in 1996 when a physicist submitted an article to the highly regarded US cultural studies journal in order to demonstrate that C. P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” were no closer to getting together.

In Australia in 1994 the ‘Helen Demidenko Affair’ occurred in which the fraud concerned a University of Queensland student named Helen Darville, whose parents were English immigrants. Darville won the Vogel Prize, the Gold Medal of the Australian Literature Society, and the Miles Franklin Award for a novel whose authorial name was ‘Helen Demidenko’ and whose father allegedly was an illiterate Ukrainian cab driver who had emigrated to northern Queensland. This novel, The Hand That Signed the Paper, purported to be an account of the treatment of Ukrainians by neighbouring Jews during the Ukrainian famine of WWII, and also an account of Ukrainian participation in the Holocaust. Demidenko later went on to postgraduate study at Oxford University.


In the case of the allegedly Aboriginal writing of ‘Banumbir (or Birimbir) Wongar,’ whose 1977 collection of twelve short stories, The Track to Bralgu, gained international attention from Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and was published in the US in 1978 by Boston’s Little, Brown & Co, the author was found to be Sreten Bozic, a Serbian anthropologist who lived in Melbourne, and who at one point said criticism of his literary-authorial deception should be tempered by the fact that he had been treated as an Aborigine throughout his life, i.e. treated badly. By the way, has anyone ever traced the “real” identity of B. Traven?

And last – but only in terms of random examples from Australia – in 1980 Paul Radley won the inaugural Vogel Award (for an unpublished manuscript by writers under the age of 35) with his book, Jack Rivers and Me, which sixteen years later he said had been written not by him but by his great uncle, Jack Radley. In one sense we should probably align scandals such as these with those routine media stories whereby the work of a canonised author (Patrick White, Henry James, Jane Austen) is sent off to a contemporary publisher and inevitably declined for not being quite what the publishing house is after. I think these instances and the Sokal incident indicate that some people have too much time on their hands, whereas the other scandals are more intriguing.

The US has seen instances of plagiarised or invented pieces of writing succeed in winning prizes, such as Stephen Glass’s journalism, only then to be exposed and shamed, only for that moment of humiliation to generate a further confessional publication in a mea culpa vein which sees even more books sold, this time by a penitent, disgraced author. This puts us awfully close to the stunts used by P. T. Barnum, as reported in Daniel Boorstin’s 1962 book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. Boorstin says, “Barnum was perhaps the first modern master of pseudo-events, of contrived occurrences which lent themselves to being widely and vividly reported.” In 1835 Barnum “exhibited Joice Heth, an aged negress whom he advertised as the 161 year old former nurse of George Washington. For a while he made fifteen hundred dollars a week from her.” Heth later died at the age of eighty but not before Barnum had shown “his mastery of the art of compounding pseudo-events” by writing to newspapers denouncing his own exhibition as a hoax and claiming that Joice Heth was not a human being but “simply a curiously constructed automaton, made up of whalebone, india-rubber, and numerous springs ingeniously put together and made to move at the slightest touch, according to the will of the operator. The operator is a ventriloquist.” Boorstin’s interpretation of Barnum’s exercises in early publicity is to say, “Contrary to popular belief, Barnum’s great discovery was not how easy it was to deceive the public, but rather, how much the public enjoyed being deceived.”

The United States also has tossed up some instances of fictional works masquerading as non-fictional works, simply because non-fiction was deemed a better-selling genre, again leading to shaming and exposure, but of course the book sales had already happened. In 2008 Pete Ayrton, publisher of Serpent’s Tail Press (see short history below) commented on this trend: “Like that woman, Margaret Jones, who wrote about her life with a Chicago gang. It would have been a good novel but it would have got nowhere and she felt she had to re-cast it as non-fiction. And the same thing happened with that life of a boy soldier. Nowadays everybody has to make their story non-fiction and true.” Around that same time Ayrton wrote a piece for the April issue of Author in which he said:

Fiction writers are forced by the pressure of publishers and agents to present their work as non-fiction and are discredited when the truth comes out – Margaret Jones’s Love and Consequences about Chicago gangs would have made a great novel. Unfortunately, she felt the need to present it as fact and was exposed by her sister! Because it is the author that is fêted and not the book, today’s readers are in danger of losing the ability to read fiction.

A rather different, more solemn example of a scandal or controversy concerns the fact that Michel Houellebecq’s most recent novel, Soumission (Submission), was released in 2015 on the day of the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris. The utter coincidence of this overlap of an already controversial writer whose latest novel seemed to share a ‘content’ with ongoing anxieties and debates about Islam, ISIS and terrorism, generated much critical-cultural debate. And this controversy can only have been exacerbated by the tragedy of the recent acts of terrorism in Paris and Brussels.


In this next section I will act as a conduit for opinions expressed on some of the topics we have addressed in some of our Davao conference sessions, by quoting some opinions from several of the publishers I have interviewed over the last twenty years. This way you get to hear the opinions of professionals working in the field. One of the questions I asked each of the small-independent presses with whom I was fortunate enough to speak was whether a particular literary prize and/or a favourable book review had led to a spike in their sales. As they gave their various answers they sometimes mentioned other things that had benefited their commercial enterprises, and I mention some of these below.

In 2006 Ray Coffey of Fremantle Arts Centre Press in Perth, Western Australia, four to five hours by plane from east coast Australia, pondered whether the seemingly ever-increasing Australian literary prize culture had helped FACP secure more sales, and concluded:

Prizes have been very important, particularly in the early days. Operating from Western Australia, working away from the centres of Melbourne and Sydney, has always had its difficulties, but there has been some advantage to that. In the early days, particularly, for our size and the small number of books we did, we were really very successful in the number of reviews we got from around Australia. Maybe it was novelty value.

We found with literary prizes, from the outset, that unless it costs a fortune to enter, you enter! Because opinion-makers judge prizes and even if you don’t win, if you are attempting to draw attention to your list and key people are reading for this poetry prize, or that fiction or history prize, then they’re seeing your books regularly. And they talk to other people. And then when you win one every now and then, it helps the editors of the literary pages of journals and newspapers, dailies, weeklies to start looking more closely at your titles. And with some prizes there are advantages in terms of direct sales. Some more than others. In our experience the Miles Franklin is the one that leads to the biggest number of sales. After that it would be the NSW Premier’s and the Victorian Premier’s awards on about a par. In terms of the response from readers, with most prizes sales drop away pretty quickly but you do see an initial little sales-spike here and there. In Western Australia we have the WA Literary Awards and we’ve had several winners of these. While that doesn’t affect Australia-wide sales, it certainly affects the local market. Because, let’s face it, when you walk into a bookshop, you can be overwhelmed by the choice. I’m in the trade and I’m overwhelmed! They’re all saying ‘buy me!’, but it can be the Tower of Babel with so many voices of relatively equal pitch, so you can be drawn to whatever little badge or stripe is on a book, or a to a quotation from someone famous.

The other big prizes are the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Awards. Even being short-listed there is good because children’s librarians, teachers, parents buy off those gold and silver badges. So even short-listing can lead to a significant jump in sales. And to win means a very big jump. Yes, prizes are important.

In London I have been very lucky, across a couple of decades, to interview Pete Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail Press on a regular basis, getting his changing assessments of how these things factored in to his press at a given moment in its publishing history.

Serpent’s Tail Press was established in August 1986 when Peter Ayrton and John Hampson got together to set up a publishing press based on the models of late 1960s radical political presses in France, Holland, Germany, and Italy. Ayrton was the publisher and Hampson the sales manager. They had met while working at Al Saqi, a leftist press specialising in books on the Middle East and each had experience with other left-leaning presses, Ayrton at Pluto and Hampson at Verso. In the beginning, the press was based at Ayrton’s house and they worked with a team of freelance translators, designers and illustrators, producing their first books in August 1987.

In 1987 Marsha Rowe left her co-editor position at Spare Rib to become Serpent’s Tail’s fiction editor. In 1989 Serpent’s Tail won the Sunday Times Small Press Publisher of the Year award, edging out Verso Books, Bloodaxe Books, and Element Books. By 1992 Serpent’s Tail was publishing about thirty books a year in print runs of up to 5,000, seeking to represent marginal, dissenting voices of various kinds. For example, in the wake of the notorious Section 28 of the Local Government Act (which prohibited local authorities from “promoting homosexuality”) Serpent’s Tail strengthened its list of gay and lesbian writing, publishing Ian Bartlett’s Who Was That Man?, a mixed-genre discussion of cultural shifts from Oscar Wilde in the 1880s to late 1980s British gay culture, and the Simon Watney et al non-fiction anthology, Taking Liberties, a book which showed how various institutions discriminate against people with AIDS.

Serpent’s Tail Press very soon was sufficiently successful to be able to move from Ayrton’s house to a small renovated terrace in Blackstock Mews, a short walk from Finsbury Park tube station. In their first seven years of publishing, they translated innovative fiction from Spain, Germany, and Argentina, instituted a cultural studies list, and experimented with the publication of some books of political photo-journalism. This was the Serpent’s Tail context when I first interviewed Pete Ayrton back in 1992, asking him how he was managing to survive as an independent publisher. He said:

It’s a very exciting business to be in because it must be the only business left in which minnows like us can take on multinationals and have more or less the same chance of getting a lead review in a national newspaper. Whereas, with the other cultural industries, like music or films, you need millions of pound or dollars to start. You can start in publishing by doing one book. For instance, recently there’s been a self-publishing of a Jamaican thriller called Yardie, which has sold 10,000 in a month. They just put it in the bookshops and it goes. That’s what makes it an exciting business to be in at the moment.

The success of that book by Victor Headley, detailing a Jamaican subculture of gangs and drugs, saw its author go on to publish another four novels with larger presses. It is a moment that seems to have come full circle and wound up in New York, where, thirty years on, authors like K’wan Foye and Vickie Stringer have replicated the success of Yardie. As Neil Munshi explains, Foye’s self-published novel Gangsta was sold “out of the trunks of cars, through street vendors, beauty salons and barbershops in Harlem and black neighbourhoods on the east coast” and had sold 80,000 copies “before it saw the inside of a Barnes and Noble.”

Foye hooked up with Stringer by way of the email address she had on the back of her self-published book, Let That Be The Reason, written while she was “serving a seven year sentence for selling a kilo of cocaine to an undercover cop.” Stringer had an imprint named after her former drug crew, Triple Crown Publications, and offered to publish Gangsta. Foye accepted and his next book, Road Dawgz, came out with St Martin’s Press. This sub-genre is called “street lit” and “urban fiction,” and it makes a lot of money, selling in the 100,000s for those who get to the top of this particular pulp pile. But Munshi says that mainstream publishing avoids it. If the success of Yardie recalled the moment of Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972), then Gangsta and its world might recall Spike Lee’s early hour-length film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (1983).



No doubt you are all aware of the most lucrative international literary awards, such as Dublin’s IMPAC Award, worth 100,000 euros. In their 2013 piece for The Sunday Telegraph, “Top 25 Literary Prizes,” Jon Stock and Kealey Rigden list a host of UK prizes that range from £60,000 (the Man Booker International, offered every two years) to £50,000 (the annual Man Booker) to £40,000 (the David Cohen Prize for Lifetime Achievement, the Folio Award) to £35,000 (the Costa Award) to £30,000 (The Women’s Prize, formerly known as the Orange Prize), and so on. In 2012 Hilary Mantel scooped several of these awards, winning the Man Booker and Costa Book Award for her novel, Bring Up the Bodies, as well as £40,000 from the David Cohen, taking her total winnings to £125,000. In 2015 the BBC adapted Mantel’s first book in this series, Wolf Hall, into a six-part drama series and no doubt more will follow.

Australia has a great many literary awards. Each state has its own set of Premier’s awards with prize money ranging from $10,000 to $100,000. In the case of these state literary awards, the categories are usually the familiar ones of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, young adult, children’s, and a supervening Book of the Year award which can go to any of the winning entries in the sub-categories to give that title a further $10,000. There is also a Prime Minister’s Book Award, alluded to earlier, which carries a tax-free prize of $80,000.

A la the UK’s Women’s Prize, Australia offers special awards for female writers, and an award for writing by women which offers a positive depiction of women and/or girls. These prizes bring with them $23,000. In 2016 the Stella Prize, given to a book written by an Australian female writer that is deemed “original, excellent, and engaging,” was worth $50,000. Writers short-listed for this award received $2,000 and a two-week paid Writer’s Retreat to help them develop their fiction.

In her piece, “On Literary Awards,” for Inside Story website, Susan Lever says:

This plethora of prizes may be overwhelming to readers, but for writers in Australia, an English-speaking country with access to the literary publishing of the rest of the world, they offer a little financial support and, sometimes, help in building a reputation and boosting sales. It remains difficult for a literary writer to make any kind of living from publishing in Australia.

But the relation of prize-author-press-money still requires some teasing out. Courtesy of some national and state autobiography awards, a friend of mine, John Hughes, won $40,000 for his memoir, The Idea of Home. He was also invited across from Sydney to Perth and hosted to some lovely food and wine by Janet Holmes à Court down at Western Australia’s Margaret River region.

It is also true that on some occasions the press which has published an award-winning writer might not see much increase in book sales as a result of the award. We know that it is not always the case that winning the Booker Prize – an award established by Jonathan Cape Press – will generate sales. Famously, in 1994 James Kelman won the Booker with How Late it Was, How Late, written in a Scots dialect, and his book sold scarcely any copies in the wake of his award success. That is, some prizes benefit the writer a great deal and the press scarcely at all, while some other prizes benefit both.

Fiction translated into English is always helped by winning a major award. When Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek became a Nobel Prize winner, Serpent’s Tail sold 100,000 of The Piano Teacher and 25,000 of the other books of hers they had in their list. Prior to that they had sold 4,000 copies of all of her works on which they held English translation rights. So it seems to depend on which prize you win. I remember the year of the Academy Awards when Phil Kauffman’s excellent film of Tom Wolfe’s book about Chuck Yeager and co, The Right Stuff (1983) was up for seven awards. The studio was desperate to win some awards and generate more financial life for the film. But the four awards given were in the technical areas (Film Editing, Tom Conti’s Music Score, Best Sound, and Best Sound Effects) as opposed to gaining awards for acting, cinematography, director and best film. In 2016 we might now see 1983 as a watershed year in Academy Award prize culture. Receiving those awards had a negligible impact on The Right Stuff’s box-office whereas there now seems a much greater general interest among filmgoers in the technical, geeky aspects of filmmaking. As the latest embrace of 3-D by filmmakers and film viewers indicates, most viewers of James Cameron’s Avatar were deeply involved in analysing and appreciating its technical features, as opposed to earlier ineffective, sporadic experiments with forms of 3-D that had accompanied cinema from its birth through to the 1950s.


In Australia two things usually follow on from a book winning a major award or even from being short-listed. First, a host of local state municipal libraries acquire it, as do university libraries. The absence of any strong library system at municipal or university level in the Philippines means that this flow-on factor wouldn’t work here.

Second, in Australia, such prize-winning works sometimes find themselves adopted onto state-based secondary education curricula and when this happens many private secondary schools – Australia’s equivalent of the English “public school” – invite the author to address their students who are studying this text. The text in question is thus humanised and personalised for this elite cohort of student-readers, and the author is healthily remunerated.

A different perspective on these issues of literary celebrity, prize cultures, and book sales comes from a long-time friend and wonderful Australian writer of fiction and non-fiction, Amanda Lohrey (cited earlier as a recent winner of the Patrick White award) who said, in an email:

A few Australian writers have succeeded in constructing themselves as a brand – Tim Winton, Peter Carey, Helen Garner – but for most other Australian writers it’s tough. Buyers of literary fiction are one of the demographics most adversely affected by economic trends over the past two decades – ask librarians who are the real trackers of who reads what and why, and who used to buy and now borrows. Publishing literary fiction continues to be a form of high-class gambling, and you can pass this along to any aspiring young writers you know.


In March 2002, when Michiko Kakutani gave a rave review in the New York Times to the Hobart, Tasmania-based Australian author Richard Flanagan for his novel Gould’s Book of Fish, Flanagan was, in very quick succession, interviewed by a Los Angeles radio programme and hurried by his publisher across to the US for a whistle-stop coast-to-coast tour of book readings and book signings – all to capitalise on one review. London-based publisher François von Hurter, one-third of Bitter Lemon Press, which specialises mainly in translated crime fiction, said that a single review in The New York Times had great impact on sales, much more so than any single review in any English newspaper.

Pete Ayrton’s take on this question was:

I think this is more true in the States where a full sized review in the New York Times will cause something to really take off. I don’t think there is one place in the UK so I don’t think that is so much the case here. The thing about the New York Times is that it’s the only national newspaper in the US, apart from USA Today, which is unimportant for books. Whereas here we have the Guardian, the Independent, the Times, the Telegraph, and so on. I think what’s important in Britain is if you can get five or six or seven reviews. Joe Boyd’s White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s, upon publication, was reviewed more or less everywhere, and that causes people to notice. But I don’t think there’s any one place in the UK where one review or interview will crack it.

In the UK and Australia the increasing prominence of TV book shows is another factor granting visibility and prestige to literary works. Everyone remembers that Oprah had enormous impact on book sales in the US, guaranteeing an additional million copies sold for each title selected, and allowing for the scandal in 2001 that accompanied Jonathan Franzen’s baulking at Oprah’s endorsement of his The Corrections, and his reluctance to have Oprah’s stamp on his book.

When mulling over the impact that UK book shows had exerted on Serpent’s Tail titles, Pete Ayrton said that it was the televising of these awards that was having the greatest influence and then added that readers’ groups had become very important to book sales:

Richard and Judy is pretty mainstream. They select good books but they’re not going for ‘edgy.’ Of our books they possibly would have selected Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin but they didn’t. And Richard and Judy are probably the sort of people who don’t like the maternal ambivalence in the book, the fact that a mother could be questioning her role and her love of her children. TV programmes like these have grown enormously in importance, and literary prizes have as well: the Booker Prize, the Orange Prize, the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, they now all have much greater visibility because they’re televised, and they can really push sales. The other thing which has developed on a very large scale since we last spoke is readers’ groups. This is a big, big phenomenon.

People meet in bookshops, libraries, peoples’ homes. It’s almost 95% women and obviously that means certain books will meet the demands of that particular market very well. A book like Kevin is absolutely ideal for readers’ groups. I’ve been with Lionel Shriver to groups of 80 and 90 people, most of whom haven’t read the book, and they are saying, ‘I have a Kevin,’ ‘my son’s like Kevin,’ ‘the mother was quite right, I’ve sometimes felt like that,’ ‘was it nurture, was it nature?’ Any kind of book that poses these kinds of questions is ideal for readers’ groups, and they are a very fast-growing phenomenon.

In the US that is called “the water cooler debate.” At one point Kevin had sold 600,000 copies in two editions and was selling 1,000 copies a week. US writer Shriver has been a long-term London resident and reviews books regularly in the London press. In 2011 Kevin became a film starring Tilda Swinton and no doubt further sales piggy-backed on the circulation of the film.

The most recent big selling success for Serpent’s Tail is their importing of the US book, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves which, as of November 2015, had sold 750,000 copies in print and ebook. Earlier in its career Serpent’s Tail had experienced great success with what Ayrton referred to as “posh porn,” by which he meant English language translations of French author Catherine Millet’s The Sexual Life of Catherine M, which sold 50,000 in trade paperback and 150,000 in mass market. Serpent’s Tail followed this with the translation of another sexual confession, this time by a very young Italian woman, Melissa P’s 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed, and that also did very well, selling 35,000 in trade paperback for Serpent’s Tail, and eventually selling 2 million worldwide.

In respect of television literary chat shows and their place in all of this, from 1975 until 1990, France had Apostrophes as a weekly ninety minute television literary talk show, hosted by Bernard Pivot. The viewing audience was between 3 to 6 million and the show helped generate considerable sales for the books and authors it discussed. According to the New York Times, Roland Barthes sold 80,000 copies of one of his many books after appearing on the programme. Australia currently has Jennifer Byrne’s hosting of the ABC’s Book Club. The format sees Byrne moderate a discussion with two regular guests, Marieke Hardy, granddaughter of celebrated Australian Communist writer, Frank Hardy, and Jason Steger, Books Editor for Melbourne’s The Age and Sunday Age newspapers. Each week these three are joined by writers who might be Australian or might be overseas writers visiting as guests at one or other of Australia’s literary festivals. So it’s a celebrity book chat show and there are clear limitations to the terms in which books can be discussed. Even so, it was from watching this programme that I discovered how brilliant Colm Tóibín, David Malouf, and Richard Flanagan are at explaining a book, contextualising a piece of writing and making a serious case for it, so at its best The Book Show exhibits a flexible format.


To take the notion of “awards culture” in a slightly different direction, in the case of Australia we must mention the widespread adoption over the last twenty-five years of postgraduate degrees in the creative arts, along the lines of the US’s MFA and Doctorates in Creative Writing, and of opportunities for funded Creative Writing postgraduate study in the UK at places like University of East Anglia, set up more than four decades ago by Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson. Now such degrees are available all over the UK. The flourishing in Australian tertiary education of the Doctorate of Creative Arts (sometimes called PhD by Unconventional Format) has permitted many creative writers, across all media (fiction and non-fiction writing, graphic novels, poetry, drama, radio-sonic, film-TV, digital), so long as they are Australian residents, to receive three and one-half years funding at $25,000 a year plus whatever additional funds are available at a given university for assistance with the candidate’s general research needs and occasional need for conference attendance.

When I was pitching this avenue of funding to various writer friends, from the mid-1990s to around 2010 or so, trying to persuade them to come on down, I always characterised it as an “alternative arts council grant,” and this often proved persuasive. This was a perfect storm of institutional and individual self-interest whereby many people who might otherwise have stomped around banging on about “the school of hard knocks,” denouncing the privileged safety of “the groves of academe” while saying “those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach” suddenly were very happy to come in and be funded for three and one-half years. Since the average income of a writer in Australia, as indicated at the start of this presentation, is $12,900 a year, the creative writing doctoral scholarship money was both substantially more than that – almost double – and also more than any book advance the writer was likely to receive. The result was a large number of postgraduate completions in this new area of Creative Studies across all media forms, one of whom was the Filipino Miguel Syjuco who did his doctoral study at the University of Adelaide. And under the Australian system these scholarship holders would have no academic fee debt because that was looked after by the host institution.

International Postgraduate Awards and Vice Chancellor Awards are funded generously at Australia’s “Group of Eight” universities (e.g. Sydney University, Melbourne University, ANU, UNSW, UWA etc.) but of late the Humanities is far less likely to receive this money than are the hard science departments. So this little industry has been complicated by issues of residency/visas, and punitively high tuition costs for overseas students that increasingly cash-strapped Humanities areas of Australian universities are most unlikely to fund. Add in rising costs of medical coverage for overseas students and we have reached a point where this formerly safe harbour now finds itself being ravaged by the rapacious idiocy of neoliberalism that everywhere blights the Australian tertiary education sector, as it does the UK tertiary educational system. The US system is hugely competitive in terms of being able to receive fully funded places in Creative Writing at eminent institutions (only six places available at Johns Hopkins University and so on) but their system, now definitely straitened, always had many other cards to play in this context of funding postgraduate study: from full scholarship to tuition waiver or offering in-state tuition to an out-of-state student, to undergraduate teaching contracts for the duration of the higher degree being undertaken, and so on.

In the wake of Mark McGurl’s book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (2009) – reviewed twice in the London Review of Books – a conversation has started on the history of tertiary education creative writing courses in the US. Chad Harbach’s edited collection MFA vs NYC (2014) introduces the topic of whether being in a major US city (New York, Chicago, L.A., San Francisco) and attending writing classes and literary events might be as worthwhile as incurring a considerable debt to have university letters after one’s name. Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s Los Angeles Review of Books article, “The Program Era and the Mainly White Room,” tells us that one of the article’s authors incurred a debt of $27,000 to undertake her MFA, and has repaid $30,000 so far with $13,000 still to go. Her co-author had, the year earlier and twenty years after graduation, made her final payment on a debt of more than $70,000 required to acquit her original loan of $30,000. As they explain:

Creative writing programs really started to take off in the 1990s. Prior to the 1990s, many writers taught in higher education and this shaped the aesthetics of American literature, as the scholar Mark McGurl has shown in his The Program Era. But it is not until the 1990s that the idea that one should necessarily turn to higher education if one wants to become a writer becomes an idea that more than 6,000 people have each year.

They argue that “prior to the 1990s and the intensifying financial pressures that brought about the corporatization of the university, English departments tended to have a studious lack of interest that bordered on disdain about the teaching of creative writing.” This is very similar to the circumstances that obtained in Australia at the same time, when creative writing began to consolidate itself at postgraduate level at most Australian universities. Their meticulous description of the university management practise of shaving margins that sees predominantly adjunct teaching staff used to teach increased numbers in courses like these that are deemed “cheap to run (no studio space or lab space required, low technology needs, very deep adjunct pool) and tuition generating” applies equally to the Australian university context. And the fact that D. G. Myers’s 2006 second edition of his The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880 finds him debating points made by Asian-Australian Paul Dawson in his Creative Writing and the New Humanities (2004), results in a brief, informative sketch of the differences and overlaps between these two national university systems’ embrace of creative writing as a tertiary education money-spinner.

To conclude, an anecdote concerning one person I persuaded to come into PhD study at the University of Technology, Sydney – John Hughes, whose book, The Idea of Home, published by Sydney independent press Giramondo, won $40,000 in literary awards. That was done as his doctoral thesis on full scholarship across three and one-half years (exactly like Miguel Syjuco’s doctorate undertaken at the University of Adelaide). Earlier in his career John had received the Shell Scholarship in the Arts – only one is awarded in all of Australia – to undertake postgraduate study at either Oxford or Cambridge. He chose Cambridge, stayed four years working on his doctoral topic, “Tropes in Literary Criticism from Coleridge to Derrida,” but did not submit his thesis. His supervisor urged him to stay on at Cambridge and work as a postman but he declined and returned to Australia, working as a rural fireman and tutoring in Humanities courses at a polytechnic in my home town, Newcastle, where he had done his Honours degree in English prior to winning the Shell Scholarship. It was in Newcastle that I got to know him and very gradually, over several years, I persuaded him to re-enter the academic world by way of a doctoral scholarship at UTS. He agreed and after a very easy supervision – his prose was perfect – in which I suggested some books and articles, he won the UTS Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Best Dissertation in the Humanities, and that became the book Giramondo published. For a few years after that I tried to lure John from his job teaching English at an all-boys’ school, Sydney Grammar, into a University post. That dance continued a while until John and his wife unexpectedly and late in life had a baby, and his deal at Sydney Grammar meant that so long as he taught there his son would receive a private school education for a tenth of the usual price. He then became the school’s Librarian and his only teaching duty involved running two special tutorials, one on European Literature for a small group of very intelligent boys most of whom would go on to do Law and Medicine at University.

One day, as we were catching up over a beer in a local pub, I asked how much Sydney Grammar paid him as a Librarian and Senior Teacher in order to compare it with my salary as a Senior Lecturer, and see how plausible was my attempt to lure him into the world of Australian tertiary education. He told me his salary and I told him it was what a full Professor in the Humanities would receive at an Australian university. He already knew his work conditions were far better than anything that would obtain in our neo-liberal tertiary education system.

So I left John Hughes to his Librarian duties at Sydney Grammar School, a job which allows him plenty of time to read the work of other librarians- such as Philip Larkin and Jorge Luis Borges – whenever the mood takes him.


Texts Cited

Peter Ayrton, “We Need To Talk About Fiction,” Author (UK) (April 2008).

John Berger, “’I have to turn this prize against itself’ — John Berger on accepting the Booker Prize for Fiction, 23 November 1972,” reprinted in a blog by Sarah Shin (November 5th, 2015).

John Berger, Let Seven Men Write Your Poem: A Season in London (London: artevents, 2005).

Daniel Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo Events in America (1962) (New York: Vintage, 2012).

Paul Dawson, Creative Writing and the New Humanities (London: Routledge, 2004).

‘Helen Demidenko’/Helen Darville, The Hand that Signed the Paper (Sydney: Allan & Unwin, 1993).

Mike Dibbs, “On Documentary: Re-Seeing Ways of Seeing,” in John Berger, Let Seven Men Write Your Poem: A Season in London (London: artevents, 2005): 26-30.

James F. English, The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circle of Cultural Value (Harvard UP, 2005).

Chad Harbach (ed.), MFA vs NYC (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014).

Michael Heyward, The Ern Malley Affair (Brisbane: Univ. of Queensland Press, 1993).

John Hughes, The Idea of Home (Sydney: Giramondo Press, 2004).

Michel Houellebecq, Submission trans. Loren Stein (London: William Heinemann, 2015).

Noel King, ‘’The Main Thing We Book Publishers have Going for us is the books themselves: An Interview with Pete Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail Press, Islington, London 12 July 2006,” Critical Quarterly 49, 3 (Autumn 2007): 104-119.

Noel King, “A bridge between all these literatures that we love: Interview with Francois von Hurter, Bitter Lemon Press, London 10 July 2006,” Critical Quarterly 49, 1-2 (Summer 2007): 62-80.

Noel King, “’I Can’t Go on, I’ll Go On’: Interview with Ray Coffey of Fremantle Arts Centre Press” Westerly, 51 (November 2006): 31-54.

Noel King, “An Exciting Business to be in at the Moment”: Interview with Peter Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail Press, Euphoria Cafe Bar, Blackstock Road, London, 25 September 1992.

Susan Lever, “On Literary Awards,” Inside Story, 13 May 2016.

Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Univ. Press, 2009)

Humphrey McQueen, The Black Swan of Trespass: The Emergence of Modernist Painting in Australia to 1944 (Sydney: Alternative Publishing, 1979).

Neil Munshi, “We gonna make books our hustle,” The Weekend Financial Times (14-15 November, 2015): 1-2.

G. Myers, The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880 Second Edition (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2006).

Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, “The Program Era an the Mainly White Room,” Los Angeles Review of Books (September 2015).

Paul Radley (Jack Radley), Jack Rivers and Me (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1981).

Jason Steger, “At $12,900 a year literary fiction does not pay: study,” The Sydney Morning Herald (Thursday, October 8th, 2015): 29.

Jon Stock and Kealey Rigden, “Top 25 Literary Prizes,” The Sunday Telegraph (15 October 2013).

“French TV Show on Book’s Ending,” New York Times (September 5, 1989).

“Banumbir/Birimbir Wongar”/Sretin Bozic, The Track to Bralgu (Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 1978).



NOEL KING has worked in many Australian universities, in a variety of media and cultural studies contexts: at Griffith University (1977-1980), the South Australian College of Advanced Education (now the University of SA, 1980-1986), Curtin University (1986-1989), UTS (1989-2001), the University of Tasmania (2002-2003), and Macquarie University (2003-2012). He has co-edited two special issues of Contrappasso on Noir and Writers at the Movies.

[Header image: Book by Jan Murin @Flickr. Used under this CC licence.]

from Long Distance: The Whale Ghosts by Elias Greig



An essay by ELIAS GREIG

SOME TIME AGO, under the influence of the twin stars of employment and achievable rent, we came to live in Mosman, and it was here I first thought of the whale ghosts. I was working, then, as a salesman, helping wealthy people into worthless shoes, the kind designed to do nothing but proudly state their incapacity to the world. Mosman was and is a fine place to sell useless things, as it is full of money—so much so that, thanks to a small commission on each useless pair, and the aforementioned achievable rent, we found ourselves living fairly comfortably in Sydney’s richest suburb, our shared minimum wage allowing us a harbour view, and a vantage on the baffling behaviour of the rich. We were, we felt, living the life of fleas on a pampered but erratic dog.

Though it is the confluence of great wealth and extraordinary power, Mosman is also a fearful place, full of the listening and the overstrung. On quiet nights, walking home under the suddenly visible stars, my back to Spit Junction and my eyes on the moon rising over Middle Head, I noticed myself noticed, saw the twitching curtains and the frowns; the kempt mothers in their music-box porticos falling still, ushering children inside; a final stab of the hand holding the car keys, the jeep locking, the door slamming shut. Shut out with the currawongs, I walked on at the same pace, benign and bemused. The old couple in the apartment beneath us wrote us a letter within a few days of our moving in, complaining of our footsteps and the sounds we made when washing up—rattling cutlery, the note confided, was particularly upsetting. We brought them beer and flowers, those two sure-fire sweeteners of the post-war generation, flashed our wedding rings, and smiled. After a brief grace, the letters started again.

At first I wrote off these strange episodes of fear and complaint as the effects of Mosman’s seclusion, its isolation from all the regular chafes and strains of city life helped along by its geography, and its extraordinary wealth. It seemed anxious to repel boarders. It reminded me, sometimes, of the seaside towns I’d grown up in, with their suspicious, mad-eyed elderly; where a tight-jawed man in sunglasses might ask if you were local, and show you his teeth. But as time passed, I heard something else in the fraught confidences of my customers, a common theme of anxiousness and annoy, about “people round here”, “people”, who’d complain endlessly, or, conversely, were deaf to complaint, overly precious or brazenly profane. Beach towns menaced strangers with the odd bit of theft or violence under the coral trees on hot afternoons—crimes of envy and defence. Mosman watched its neighbours. It judged, and felt judged. It compared, it juxtaposed. It felt loftily superior and queasily insecure. The glances I drew on the way home were not reserved for strange men passing by on foot at dusk—these same eyes took in their neighbours, before the brittle exchange of hellos. Mosman was most frightened of itself.

I looked closer. First to my notice were the signs, some slickly professional, others hand-written and lavishly insane. I was instructed to keep off lawns, to smile for cameras, to get my own newspaper, to beware dogs, to never, ever, under any circumstances, park here, to drive slowly, or not to drive at all: “Do Not Turn Around In This Driveway—IT IS PRIVATE PROPERTY!!!” I was reminded, in tedious detail, that it was my responsibility to pick up after my dog, I was warned that trespassing was an offense, that this was a private path, that there was no point informing the council, because this garden was watered with tank or reclaimed water, and that “if you park in front of this house again, you will be towed.” Suburban grievances about stolen newspapers and dog shit, parking spots and water restrictions, were here backed up with threats of litigation and deadly force. I witnessed a long argument between two fat-faced men in polo shirts about the mowing of a nature strip. Both were shouting and, absurdly, watering their lawns, gesticulating furiously while their hoses gushed—two angry fountain cherubs gone to seed.

Approaching a house at night, it is possible to tell, from a distance, if the television is on. Even if the program is inaudible, the night walker, passing by, can discern beneath the sounds of wind and foliage, of cooling roof iron and cars ticking in their mechanical sleep, a kind of hum—a high and eerie keening, a dog whistle set to the human ear. The ghost in the television is electricity, pulsing at high frequency, causing the metal parts of the appliance to vibrate minutely, shaking its tiny ferrite bones. As I became more convinced of Mosman’s affliction, I began to think I could hear the suburb producing a comparable sound, a common chord of anxiousness, the ringing in the ears brought on by a collectively held breath. And so, gradually, I fell into listening, too. In our apartment over Mosman Bay, lying awake after the ferries had stopped, I heard the stealthy motions of the water and the small talk of the gulls. And, on some nights, when the southerly dropped and the bay was scaled over with moonlight, I had my first inklings of the whale ghosts—strange, rhythmic swells and puffing exhalations that set the yachts rocking on their moorings, as if vast bodies passed beneath them, the chiming of their masts like the tinkling of a nervous flock on a black hill.

The old couple beneath us stepped up their campaign. More letters, laboriously typed on an old word processor, appeared in our mailbox or were pushed under our door. (I knew they were typed—with my newly sensitised hearing, I could hear the machine working directly beneath the spot I’d chosen for my own desk). The notes were sometimes circumspect and sometimes personal, inflamed with capital letters and aggressive pronouns: “We” was brandished over our heads like a spear. More ominously, the building itself was personified, its two redbrick wings suddenly teeming with feeling—“the building feels”; “this building has always valued quiet”—a composite organism, like a coral. Finally, on a night when I was out, the old man himself appeared, provoked beyond endurance by the sound of my wife igniting the pilot light on the gas hot water system in the kitchen, his face puffy and red as a baby’s knee, his teeth askew from shouting. When she apologised, and suggested that he might be kinder, he promised consequences.

Our real estate agent rang the next day. The old man had been in touch. Rather than describe the actual encounter, he focussed on our original offence: the demoniacal racket of utensils as we washed up. In his volcanic imaginings, this was by far our most egregious act, and we did it every night. “What’s going on down there?” the agent asked, genuinely baffled. “We’re having midnight dishwashing parties,” I said, but hastily explained. The agent told the old man that if it happened again, we’d call the police on him—our very first Mosman threat of force, issued by an intermediary, but ours all the same. (It was satisfying imagining the old man arrested, his tortoise face crushed into the patterned carpet on the stairs, the cuffs snapping shut while he bawled). Past tenants, we discovered, had had similar problems; some had even moved out, pushed past endurance by carping letters and unpredictable knocks on the door. What part the old woman played in all this we never discovered. Her moon-eyed silence whenever we met her on the stairs invited construal—she looked equal parts addled and afraid, shrinking behind her laundry basket, never saying a word.

These episodes were absurd, but took their toll. While he never confronted us directly again, the old man was, we knew, working quietly on our removal, sending letters to the body corporate and the building as a whole. From the window of my shop on Spit Junction, I’d see him, wheeling a tartan trolley, sometimes with his wife, sometimes alone, waiting at the lights, taking the steps up to the office of our agent one at a time, unaffected by my best efforts to strike him dead with my mind from across the street. At home, we were increasingly constrained. We kept any music we played low, never washed up after dark, and took to walking on tiptoe. If either of us dropped something, we’d both leap like cartoon cats. In making entirely ordinary actions the grounds of their complaint, the old couple had made it impossible for us to live unconsciously—even the simplest action was measured for its potential to disturb. Worse, constantly listening to myself made me hypersensitive to the noises of others, almost preternaturally aware of ambient noise. Unable to sleep, I would stand in our lounge room after midnight listening to the neighbours, or, in a kind of despair, imagine the old man doing the same—we two listeners, with only the floor separating us, each listening madly for the other.

Mosman was taking hold. We were, we realised, crouching—two rabbits hunkered down in a field while the hawk circled—waiting for a letter or a knock on the door; waiting for the suburb to assert itself, to shake us like a cold; sure we had no business living here with no money to defend ourselves, and that we would, in time, be dispatched by the old men, or the nervous mothers, or the nature strip hose cherubs. It took effort, conscious effort, to remind ourselves of the suburb’s madness; not to take it personally. At the same time, feeling myself surveilled, I naturally began to surveil, became a window-watcher and a snoop, a garbage bin wowser and a picker-through of other people’s misdelivered mail. The old man, I noticed, played his kitchen radio early in the morning, and, shockingly, sometimes transgressed to putting green waste in the wrong bin. I would note these tiny infractions with a petty, fascistical relish, plot the writing of my own letters, either to him or the body corporate, and curl up like a salted slug in self-disgust.

Meanwhile, the suburb waxed madder. I woke up past midnight to oafish laughter and a strange wet gushing sound: two teenage boys from a nearby mansion were using the building’s extinguisher to cover a neighbour’s motorcycle in fire-retarding foam. They ran away as the lights came on, even though everyone knew where they lived. We borrowed my wife’s parents’ aging Subaru, parked it under our building, and woke up the next morning to find someone had tried to hotwire it. The old man, always on duty, had called the police, who’d caught whoever it was in the act. Three streets east a woman was beaten, almost to death, by her drunken spouse. Walking home, we cut through a little park, disturbing a teen couple getting to grips on a bench, the girl arching while the boy, his knees in the dust, his short hair twinkling in the bright suburban dusk, pressed his face between her legs: public cunnilingus at ten past eight on a school night. I watched a mob of artfully dressed teens from the local high school stream across the road (crowding a mother with a pram off the curb into Spit Junction traffic) and corner a classmate against the front window of my shop. When I waded through the ranks to break up the fight, a kid half my age and a third my weight threatened to hurt me, pushing at me and stumbling backwards when my weight didn’t shift. Flat-footed, baffled and incredulous, I asked him how he’d manage that—did he have a knife, a gun, a grenade? A fearsome, curly girl beside him intervened: “If you touch him, it’s child abuse, and he’ll fucking sue you!” Confronted with this apparition of the suburb’s mad logic, I hustled the kid they were lynching inside and shut the shop. The mob beat and spat on the glass, but subsided when I came out with a spray-bottle and a cloth to buff away the palm prints and the phlegm. That weekend, the curly girl and her mother bought shoes.

When the anticipated bad news finally arrived, it came as a phone call from our agent. The owner had decided to sell, and we took it as a kind of reprieve. Caught as we were—between an apartment from which the weather was so miraculously visible; where the refracted light of the afternoon sun flashed and shifted on the high ceilings like a school of fish; where you could watch the southerly sweep into the bay on great white wings, churning the water green, then grey, then white; where every storm had a sense of moral grandeur, and the spires of the city erupted over the green arm of Cremorne point like an onrushing future; and a suburb whose aged and relentless emissary lived beneath us and gnawed at our sleep; whose warlike offspring, with shield-bearing, venture-capitalist names like Angus, Hudson, Saxon and Max, an unholy but compatible mating of skaldic epic and Atlas Shrugged, wrought havoc with our modest goods and livelihoods; where vast silver Range Rovers ploughed through pedestrian crossings like tanks, horns blaring as an afterthought; where anxiety and dysmorphia thrived symbiotically with the serried ranks of beauticians, cosmeticians, chemists, and the nail salons, whose bright windows presented a kind of colonialist tableau: small, deft Asian women working tirelessly on the long white feet of their blonde customers, painting and burnishing their pink toenails up to a violent and barbarous red—caught as we were, it was a relief to be forced out.

As the lease ran down, we watched the real estate websites, and thought about where we’d live next. My job was still good (for what it was), and we were in love with the water, but worn down by all the rest. And so we looked around, turned up with the crowds for Saturday inspections in Glebe, Chippendale, and further west: forty grumpy people struggling up and down narrow terrace stairs, resigning themselves to a converted garage, imagining their furniture into a squalid little flat. After the chalky blue skies of Mosman, the steep sandstone plunging into the bay, the terraced mansions sleeping on the hills, their gardens breathing sultrily, the gentle susurrus of the tall palms, and the sweet coastal rain, these metropolitan suburbs, fed by train lines and great roaring thoroughfares, felt stuffy and landlocked. And they cost more. The workers’ cottages were full of cool young couples driving up the prices, and the air was sulphuric with fumes. I thought back to our first house inspection in Mosman. We’d taken the ferry from Circular Quay and set out across the harbour under an ultramarine sky. At South Mosman, while the ferry pulled away, we stopped, astonished, to watch little penguins wing past beneath the waves.

And so we stayed. Once we’d decided, the suburb seemed to welcome us back. We found another beautiful flat in a rambling white house divided into four, with a private entry and a spectacular purple bougainvillea climbing up one side. It was even cheaper than our first place, and it was closer to the water—the lawn gave way to a break wall and a set of steps that lead into the bay. From the tall windows of the sunroom, we could watch the gulls fly past at eye level, or follow the flight of the terns, tracing the sickle shape of their wings as they swooped and plunged for fish. In the afternoon the bay turned glassy, a mirror to the sunset—only the shoulder of Cremorne point, a hill of windows in the dusk, broke the water from the sky. Coming home after dark, I’d follow Raglan Street, and pick my way down one of the many sets of covert public stairs that led to the ferry, the great spiral of Scorpio visible overhead, with red Antares held like a sting in its tail.

From the windows at night we could see the ferry wharf, where the fishermen argued and smoked long past midnight, and the floodlights reached down into the water, as if to draw up something finned and massive, to lure some ghastly, cloud-vast fish from obscene depths, its eye bigger than the wave-riding moon. And one windless night when there was no moon, I woke up to the groaning of the wharf, moving with a great surge of water, rising and falling on its pylons, the pontoon bridge shrieking softly where it needed oil. I walked to the window and looked out. The bay was like black glass, but the yachts, like the wharf, were rocking wildly with a sourceless swell. And suddenly the water bulged up, the lights from the far shore writhing out across its mirrored surface like white scars across a great black back. As I watched, transfixed, the bay seemed to furrow, to push up into dunes, and finally I thought of the whale ghosts, huge travellers, passing into the bay in pods, their silent breaths pluming invisibly between the harbour lights and the faint encircling stars.

Told this way the whales seem unheralded, appearing out of nowhere, the suggestion of a moment that might happen anywhere, water being what it is, and darkness doing what it does. But Mosman was full of their loomings. I’d first noticed them as charming peripherals, of a piece with the turrets and crenulations of the federation houses, part of what made Mosman improbable and baroque. Over the municipal buildings hard by Spit Junction a whale rode the air, a sperm whale, its blunt head and upraised flukes the finial flourish at the apex of the council chamber’s many-gabled roof. When the local sports teams played, they played as the whale, and in the whale’s colour—the Mosman Whales always wore blue. Best of all, the white community minibus that picked up and dropped off seniors to the bowling club (its mascot: a killer whale) or library was called the Whale Rider, or, simply, The Whale, with the jaunty slogan, “Hail the Whale!” emblazoned on its flank. This suburban Moby Dick cruised the backstreets of Mosman, swallowing the elderly and disgorging them on distant shores—I was pleased one day to see the old man get on—as fit an allegory for onrushing death as you could wish for. In Mosman, when you got old, you’d someday ride the whale.

After my first sighting of the whale ghosts, Mosman’s allegorical mascots took on a darker aspect. I looked into the suburb’s origin, and found it was built, figuratively at least, on whales, as if the story of Sinbad had been rewritten, and those unwise merchants who kindled a fire on the back of leviathan had somehow subdued it and set up shop. Archibald Mosman and his twin brother, George, Lanarkshire Scots, lately of the West Indies, decorously termed ‘planters’ by local historians, sold up their interests in sugar and arrived in Sydney in 1828, six shrewd years ahead of the commencement of the Abolition Act. Perhaps it was luck, or a sharp weather sense; perhaps they’d been tipped off—I was diving only shallowly into their affairs, reading between the websites and the pamphlets distributed by the library. In 1831, Archibald Mosman won a grant for a piece of what was then Great Sirius Cove, with the intention of setting up a whaling depot. The Government, eager to shift the reek of the whaling industry from Darling Harbour further afield, gave him money and convicts. Their free labour pulled timber and stone from what would soon be called Mosman’s Bay to build a storehouse, depot, outfitters, and ‘The Nest’, a grand home and Archibald Mosman’s seat, from which he could oversee his flourishing business without having to smell it.

Like so many extractive industries, like sugar, like slavery, like coal, the profits were vast. Mosman soon bought out his rival, John Bell, and acquired more ships, profiting meanwhile from the outfitting and careening of the ships of others. The men who crewed the ships, who risked the waves in thin boats, who hurled harpoons and did huge murder, were often payed a pittance, reduced, through a system of shares and tariffs for provisions, to something like indentured servitude. From ‘The Nest’, Mosman trafficked in the largest sentient bodies ever known, whose masses of blubber yielded up oil to light streets and grease machinery, whose subtler fluids anointed faces in cosmetics, while pet food, fertilizer and dresses were fashioned from their cathedral bones. The whales were hunted and killed, stripped and atomised, became blood, oil, and bone, and Archibald Mosman, like Rumpelstiltskin, transmuted these gargantuan piles of offal into gold.

To my eyes then Mosman Bay became a scene of unimaginable carnage, a great, weltering charnel house, an abattoir for god-sized bodies. I envisioned lines of ships pouring through the great jaws of the Heads, each one bearing with it a dead or dying whale, snug against their sides in gruesome parody of an escorted calf. Ignorant of the way whalers rendered down their prey at sea, I conceived a production line in Mosman Bay, a red mirror to the ships’ outfitters nearby, a place where whales where stripped down, and sweating men heaved chunks of blubber into giant cauldrons boiling with profit, or crabbed for ambergris through tortuous swathes of bowel. And in that epic butchery, what airs and fluids where released to seep into the land and water of that place? What sobbed from those lungs in which a man could fit, whose breath had weight and could move matter, its voice like a vast limb? What burst from those cuts, those lurid curtains of flesh parted by knives, the skin peeled back in spirals by the flensing spades? I thought of a sea made treacly with blood, and the creatures drawn by such a rich spill, the bull sharks with their brawny necks, the leech-like hagfish roiling into knots, and sleeper sharks up from abyssal depths, their eyes black and staring, their skin a pouched and putrid shade of grey. Or the creatures from inside the whale, itself an ecosystem, twining, hook-nosed intestinal worms as long and fat as eels, spilling out from their punctured atmosphere and finding new food in this strange external sea. I thought of the bay turned all red, the fish moving in it like maggots in a wound.

Archibald Mosman, shrewd as ever, did not stay long. His profits were enough that he sold his share in the business for a steady annuity. The bottom dropped out of whaling soon after: the whales were harder to find, their numbers drastically reduced, and anyway there were new fuels from organisms long dead—whales lost out to oil. Archibald Mosman moved inland, but the suburb remained. Its sea views and dramatic sandstone heights made it attractive to artists and wealth; property was already prohibitively expensive. Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts set up a bohemian artist’s camp around the point from Mosman Bay at Sirius Cove. Shedding its industry, Mosman bloomed. Mansions appeared on its hills, with tennis courts and flowering trees—bowers maintained for the courtship displays of the rich. Whaling was quickly reduced to a romantic aspect of the past. Henry Lawson wrote a clumsy poem about it. What was left of the whales in Mosman bay was silted over, the depot gone, the storehouse now a community hall with an arched door fashioned from a whale’s rib, through which couples passed to dance.

But maybe they still lingered. It seemed impossible that so little trace of so many enormous lives should be left, that such an atrocity should be attended by no marker, no consequence, nothing. The bodies of the whales had vanished into profit, into so much organic material and economic activity, an immeasurable blood sacrifice offered up to prosperity, rich red gallons poured into Mosman Bay. Maybe the waters were rippling with their ghosts. The studies I read about whales had a spectral aspect—a kind of reverence for what was still unknown, and awe of what was. Sperm whales, I learned, used their bulky heads as sonic projectors, pulsing sounds that stunned their prey like an invisible fist; caused haemorrhaging in the tissues of squid. Bowhead whales, it was posited, lived for up to three centuries. Many whales navigated by listening, their ears attuned over hemispheric distances to the breakers on strange shores. Humpbacks learned new songs, and sang them. Blue whales communicated with each other by infrasound, a call so deep and low it was inaudible to the human ear. Killer whales had distinct dialects, and taught each other skills of such complexity they were said to have culture. One hypothesis stated that many whales were capable of religion. Their brains and lives were complex enough to warrant a cosmology and a sense of self. Above all animals, they seemed capable of ghostly returns, swimming in and out of memory, recalled always by the sea.

And so I fell to thinking, half-seriously, that what I’d witnessed were whale ghosts, intent on pilgrimage to the place of their slaughter. And maybe the whale ghosts, with their ocean-traversing voices, were singing of their sorrow, a titanic song of mourning for themselves and for their dead. And this song, rippling through the suburb’s many waters, passing unheard into the ears of its sleepers, was the source of Mosman’s madness, its hostility and dread. Perhaps the suburb’s making, Archibald Mosman’s great enterprise of death, had called up this doom on the place, blighted it with unquenchable grief.

It was a deeply seductive idea. It gave to my sense of paranoia and grievance against a suburb I barely knew an attractive aptness, as if I was on the side of the whales, riding in the bow waves of their ghosts. I felt sorrowful and righteous: brooding over man’s wrongs, seeing what was unseen. But if at times I swerved into seriousness, I was also amused—my eldritch speculations let the pressure off the real unpleasantness of Mosman, restored irony, humour and equipoise. Over time the whale ghosts settled into a useful idea, a coverall term for what was rotten in the suburb, a lens through which to view its freaks and starts. Still, though, on those nights when the wind dropped, and I woke to the groaning of the wharf, I always got up and watched for the strange travellers, whose saintly procession made the inky water boil.

Still, too, the suburb waxed strange—fishermen drowned in calm seas under a full moon, a woman was strangled by her partner in the west wing of our former building, and a cruel, stupid man strapped a fake collar bomb to someone’s daughter as a convoluted form of revenge. He’d left behind a series of obvious clues, sent his ransom note from a library computer on the Central Coast, and used references from James Clavell’s Shogun—an arduous philistinism that seemed to me the perfect emblem of Mosman’s rich. Finally, the interior of our first apartment caught fire—a freak accident caused by a shorting wire. The new owner’s face was in the paper as part of an appeal—we’d met her previously when she tried desperately to involve us in a lawsuit she hoped to pursue against the old man who was now making her life hell. Narrating all this to the barista at the café around from the shop, I laughed, and blamed it on the whale ghosts. When he asked, I gleefully explained—I had high hopes for them as an urban legend, a new aspect of Mosman’s grim mythology, a complicating element in the stories of its many high-profile tragedies, like the murder of Victor Chang, or John Wayne Glover the ‘Granny Killer’, who’d stalked the backstreets despatching old women with a hammer. But still they appeared.

On my days off I took long walks, following the water, past Camp Curlew, where Streeton and Roberts had painted; the treatment plant, its electric fence ticking in the wind; the musky lower reaches of Taronga Zoo. And then on, the land tending upwards, whipbirds calling, the harbour and the city at my right shoulder, out along the curve of Athol Bay with white boats winking on its brim. Each step more haunted than the last, each landmark brimming with portent, Bradley’s Head and HMAS Sydney, the keep-like stones, the hulking, gunmetal crucifix of the mast, and a lonely faux-Grecian column, suggesting all the rest had been eaten by the sea. North to Taylors Bay where yachts rode at anchor, and a tarnished sign told of more ghosts locked in the water: Japanese sailors caught in the submarine net. A grand mansion, bristling with chimneys and scaled like a dragon, loomed over the path to Chowder Head, once the meeting place for theosophists and quacks, now empty of everything but books and the molten gleam of copper that lined the walls (in their séances and circles, channelling saints, philosophers, and sometimes Napoleon, had they heard the whales?). Then Clifton Gardens rising up in perpetual sun; Chowder Bay, with swimmers, a shark net, and sometimes an oil tanker; and on, up great stairs in the footsteps of Bungaree, friend of Flinders and Governor Macquarie, to George’s Heights where kookaburras hunted on old fortifications stamped Victoria Regina. Past abandoned barracks shedding paint, past lightning rods courting the clouds, past tennis courts, ovals, and the path to Whiting Beach, where sun-cured, leathery naturists stalked up through the trees, out onto the bulwark of Middle Head, Mosman’s terminus, sandstone cliffs washed by an elegiac blue-green sea.

On the brink of Middle Head I’d rest, on sandstone warm as a biscuit, or on the rounded sward of grass beneath the ruins of the fort, the pillboxes giving way to weeds and concrete rot, the great gun emplacement like an alchemist’s circle washed out by the rain. Lying on the earth, I’d listen for things moving beneath, the passage of air in the abandoned military tunnels that honeycombed the cliffs, their entrances barred or covert. Somewhere in this subterranean network were the Tiger Cages, barred enclosures too small to stand up in or sit down, where intelligence recruits were taken and incarcerated in preparation for possible capture in Vietnam. Here, too, was the Well of Truth, a round shaft of unremitting darkness in which men were interred and, at times, driven past breaking by the constant roar of water seeking them through the cliff. I thought of these tunnels, worming through the rock, as capillaries, great circulatory systems, but also points of ingress, where the waters and the whale ghosts could pass into the rock, into the marrow of Mosman’s bones. But then the light would change, or the weather would draw in, and I’d look up to the swallows snapping and arrowing over the fort, or out over the harbour, at the seabirds commuting home in the lanes between the smooth lines of swell, and walk on.

In the end, the whale ghosts were solved for me by accident. There was no real pattern to their appearance, save a preference for the smaller hours and mild weather. All my attempts to anticipate them failed and anyway my motives were unclear. I was captivated with their aptness, their usefulness as metaphor, and so warded off my own scepticism, watching with a closed or winking eye. Until one night, to avoid a sharp-nosed neighbour, I walked down to the wharf for a smoke.

We’d returned, that day, from Hobart, another place of whales. From Hobart we’d driven down to Recherche Bay, where I’d learned whalers processed their huge catch at sea, or in small camps near their cruising grounds—and so my lurid vision of a red-dyed Mosman’s Bay was dispelled with one swift flick of contingent fact. Recherche Bay was one such camp, and great butchery had been done in its sheltered waters. It had once been a nursery ground for Southern Right Whales, and men had killed them in great numbers, wounding the young first so their mothers would not flee. On the point of the now empty bay stood a lonely memorial—a statue of a Right Whale pointed mournfully at the sea. The overwhelming air of the place was one of peace—a vast, sorrowful quiet, an ocean empty of whales and their ghosts.

I thought about this as I smoked, and looked down into the obscured waters where the wharf lights met the dark. A light fog passed over the harbour, and the wind stilled. On Cremorne Point, the lighthouse winked its Gatsby-green light. I began to listen carefully. What I was looking to see I did not know—a milky apparition passing beneath the surface of the waves, or great shapes, black on black, visible only by their profound absence—peering through the water, hoping, perhaps, to be pushed back into credulity by some marvel. But out of the dark came a vast luxury craft, high-storied with a prow part fist, part sword, not black or blue but tooth-white, with a soft, deep-throbbing engine, and a man in a white shirt drinking from a can at its helm. From where I stood the craft looked like the scrimshawed remainder of a whale, its dorsal fin pointing down, its body riding, against its nature, above the surface, become its opposite. As it passed into the bay, it was pursued at distance by its wake, and the bay heaved in its familiar, eerie way. And I realised then what Mosman’s whales became; what their killing left behind. Here was no nemesis, no cosmic doom drawn by sundering crimes. Countless whales had been killed, carved, pulled, and boiled into their sundry useful parts: some rich men grew richer, some fat men fatter. Mosman’s whales were gone, and even their ghosts had long since been turned into money.



ELIAS GREIG is a part-time retail worker, and a full-time PhD candidate at the University of Sydney. His research focusses on the link between poetic and political representation in the early work of William Wordsworth. He still lives in Mosman.

[Header Image: Currawong by Virtual Wolf @ Flickr. Reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.]


Writers at the Movies Extra: ‘The Café Lumière at the Hotel Scribe’ by Clive Sinclair


Place de la Concorde, Paris. Photo CC Roger @ Flickr.

[While we’re on the subject of Writers at the Movies, the theme of our new special issue, here’s a bonus internet exclusive to Contrappasso from Clive Sinclair, one of the issue’s contributors (see Custer of the West). It’s a brief reminiscence of Paris and a place central to the earliest days of cinema.]


I first experienced Paris in 1963, when I was fifteen, and more plain gauche than Rive Gauche. But I was crazy about Toulouse-Lautrec. So my parents booked a tour to the Moulin Rouge. What they didn’t know was that the tour also included three strip clubs: the Gay Zodiac, La Boule Blanche, and Le Caveau des Oubliettes. In the first a woman undressed behind a back-lit blind, revealing nothing but her silhouette, until she stepped out from behind it stark naked; in the second women disrobed while the band played ‘Blues in the Night’; the third I mention only because of its name. Proust represented one sort of Parisian, but Paris is also a city dedicated to forgetting, to hanging the self on a hat-stand, be it in a nightclub, or that other caveau des oubliettes, the cinema. It so happens that the hotel in which we stayed, the Scribe, was where the whole business began, where the Lumière Brothers first demonstrated their new machine, the Cinematograph, on December 28, 1895. Back in 1963 the Scribe still handed out those oval labels for steamer trunks, and its fin-de-siècle corridors had about them an air of intrigue, even espionage; today the atmosphere is more spa than spy. And its Salon Indien, the room chosen by the brothers to premiere La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon, is now a café named in their honour. The room’s former bombast has been lightened by the ace interior designer, Jacques Grange, and a glass roof. A handsome double portrait of the café’s honourees hangs above a sleek mantlepiece, but it has to compete for attention – at least in the après-midi – with pâtisserie displayed like crown jewels. Beneath a glass bell are brioches and madeleines, and in a glazed cabinet are pink and red mousses, and golden tartlets. Then there is the chocolate. The ganache comes like some sort of sacrament: dark chocolate, warm and molten, fills one-third of a glass; frothy milk sits in a silver jug; and pastries invite dipping and consumption. Popcorn will never do after tea at the Café Lumière. [see The Hotel Scribe, Paris]



CLIVE SINCLAIR began his career as a writer in 1973. In 1983 he was one of the original Twenty Best of Young British Novelists. So far he has produced fourteen books, which have earned him the Somerset Maugham Award, the PEN Silver Pen for Fiction, and the Jewish Quarterly Award. His latest book of stories, Death & Texas, was published in 2014. He lives in London, with the painter Haidee Becker. His son, a film-maker, lives in Los Angeles. Matthew Asprey Gear’s interview with Clive Sinclair appeared in print in issue 2 of Contrappasso and is online at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Writers at the Movies: Sarah Berry on Jean Negulesco


JEAN NEGULESCO: Every Woman Has A Backstory


BY THE END of his filmmaking career in 1970, Jean Negulesco was best known for his glossy, widescreen dramas of the fifties like How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), Woman’s World (1954), Daddy Long Legs (1955), Boy on a Dolphin (1957), and The Best of Everything (1959). While these films give depth to female characters who might otherwise occupy the muted space of a stereotyped babe, Negulesco’s earlier films like Humoresque (1946), Deep Valley (1947), Johnny Belinda (1948), and Road House (1948) are specifically concerned to give a voice to heroines with roots in 1930s melodramas and working-girl films.

Hollywood was built on close-ups of beautiful women, but Negulesco’s women talk a lot in close up. And they talk about themselves. An almost comical instance is the film Phone Call From a Stranger (1952), which features Shelly Winters as the person you never want to sit next to on an airplane: she tells her poor fellow passenger the entire story of her life. My recent survey of all the Negulesco films I could find shows that his choice to make Johnny Belinda, a film about a woman who couldn’t tell her own story—was hardly random.

Johnny Belinda is about a woman who works on her father’s farm and mill, and is both deaf and mute (played by Jane Wyman, who won an Oscar for her performance). It’s an excellent film, as well as a bonanza of Lacanian clichés. Belinda’s inability to speak keeps her from being recognized as human—she’s called “The Dummy” and her father and aunt speak to her like one of the farm animals she tends. She’s taught sign language by a local doctor (Lew Ayres, then popular for his portrayal of the kindly patriarch Dr. Kildare), but having been given language, Belinda winds up in a court of law—on trial for shooting a man who raped her and tried to kidnap her son (Johnny).

The film’s title oddly combines the first names of Belinda and her son, as though her new subjectivity is inextricable from her identity as mother of this boy-child. (The film’s German title, by contrast, is “Silent Lips”). Like the otherwise silent Belinda, many of the women in Jean Negulesco’s films are given a fairly powerful voice under his benign directorship.

Negulesco was born the first boy of a wealthy Romanian family in 1900. In his memoir he humorously recounts his father’s rage and despair at first having four girls, who were treated as annoying interlopers in the quest for a male heir. After eight children the father finally had two boys, and as Negulesco writes,

To father, my brother and I were different. ‘My Johnny, our George’—we were the chosen ones, the sons of the richest man on the street. The others were the ‘girls’; he never mentioned them by name. ‘The girls will carry the baskets, the girls will clean the place; the girls should write to Grandma to thank her for the Sunday lunch. Johnny and George will ride with me to the vineyard.’

Negulesco studied painting in Paris in the ‘20s at the height of classic modernism’s popularity. His film career began as a sketch artist at Paramount where his European visual sensibility gave him an eye for “unusual” camera angles. His first significant project at Paramount was to design a “rape with a foreign touch” for The Story of Temple Drake. This 1933 film stared Miriam Hopkins, and, like Baby Face (1933) tells the story of a woman who is raped and forced into prostitution.

Paramount’s goal was to get Temple Drake’s rape scene past censors, and Negulesco’s shot design emphasized the heroine’s vulnerability with a dramatic high angle of her body and close-up on Hopkins’s face but concluded with a discrete fade to black punctuated by her scream.

What’s interesting about Negulesco’s introduction to filmmaking in this context is that the victimized-but-resilient pre-code heroine remains at the core of his characterization of women throughout his career. She emerges in backstories like Helen Wright’s in Humoresque in the course of a matter-of-fact, martini-fueled monologue:

There’s nothing very strange about me. I was married twice before, once at sixteen, once at twenty-one. One was a crybaby and the other was a cave man. Between the two of them I said goodbye to girlhood.

The trauma of being “married” at sixteen is underscored in the film’s climax as Helen prepares to drown herself in the ocean. Taking her final drink, she raises the glass and says “Here’s to love. And here’s to the time when we were little girls no one asks to marry.” Helen’s toughness is both typical of Negulesco’s female characters and resonant with the history of Joan Crawford’s proletarian women’s films of the 1930s.




“I don’t know how you men get that way, but every time you meet an attractive woman you begin to plan on how and where you can club her wings down.”—Helen Wright in Humoresque

Negulesco included sexual assault scenes in three films among those I’ve seen: Johnny Belinda, Road House, and Three Came Home (1950). In Johnny Belinda the rape is reminiscent of Temple Drake, with noir-esque compositions showing the rapist’s looming figure, followed by a close up of Belinda’s face as his shadow covers it. Belinda’s point-of-view of his leering face is lingered on, however, and the scene is resolutely un-eroticized – unlike that in The Story of Temple Drake.

Johnny Belinda

Johnny Belinda

In Temple Drake, Hopkins recoils but is displayed in all her sensuousness—even licking her lips ambivalently in close up. Negulesco recounts that during the shoot Hopkins teasingly asked him, “Do I scream? And are my eyes opened in terror of what I see? Or do I close my eyes and let things happen? Jean, do I enjoy it?”

The Story of Temple Drake

The Story of Temple Drake

Throughout Johnny Belinda, Negulesco’s camera often lingers on Belinda’s face, giving Jane Wyman’s expressions time to express subtle shifts in feeling. Shorter than almost everyone on screen, Belinda is nevertheless presented either from eye level or below.

Johnny Belinda

Johnny Belinda

Johnny Belinda

Johnny Belinda

Even in the scene where she’s raped, she’s found by her attacker kneeling beside bags of flour and the camera angle is from her height as he looks down at her.

Johnny Belinda

Johnny Belinda

Between 1946 and 1948 Negulesco made four films for Warner Bros.—Humoresque, Deep Valley, Johnny Belinda, and Road House. Each of them shows Negulesco’s background in European silent-film aesthetics (abundant location shooting and graphic or pictorial composition) as well as a jaundiced social perspective reminiscent of Fritz Lang, particularly in relation to small-town collective bigotry and the oppression and isolation of women.



Belinda’s isolation is underscored by the town’s condemnation when she becomes pregnant by her attacker. Rural isolation and the inability to communicate are also central to Deep Valley, made just before Johnny Belinda. Written in part by Salka Viertel, Deep Valley, like Johnny Belinda, features cinematography by Ted McCord with extensive location shooting in Northern California. Ida Lupino plays Libby Saul, a young woman whose parents haven’t spoken in seven years, and who herself speaks only haltingly, with a stutter.

The film introduces Libby as she’s woken by her mother rudely yelling for her from a bedroom in their falling-apart house that lies deep in an isolated valley (the mother claims to be an invalid in order to avoid her husband). Libby’s father also treats her as a servant, and as soon as no one is watching Libby slips out to walk through the woods with her dog, which is how she spends most of her time. When Libby comes over a ridge she discovers a work crew from San Quentin blasting the route of a new highway along the coast and through the valley.

Deep Valley

Deep Valley

The metaphorical nature of this violent disruption of Libby’s isolation is played out in relation to human connections and communication. Just as the highway promises to free Libby from the confines of her broken family, the presence of the workmen disrupts the family’s dysfunction and forces confrontations with past trauma.

The trauma at the root of the parents’ silence and Libby’s speech impediment is domestic violence: having witnessed her father hitting her mother, Libby began stuttering while also acting as the only conduit between her parents. In the course of the film Libby loses her stutter by discovering her own desires when she falls in love with one of the convicts in the work crew.

The work crew is first seen from Libby’s point of view, high on a ridge looking down. Several tracking shots feature the glistening upper bodies of the sweating workmen as they labor with pickaxes. Libby lies down on the ridge and watches the men thoughtfully while eating from a bucket of berries she’s picked. One of the men comments that she’s been watching them for the last four miles of their progress along the cliff. She’s particularly interested in Barry (Dane Clark), who stops while drinking some water in order to share it with Libby’s dog, who has wandered down the hill.

Deep Valley

Deep Valley

Libby’s intense interest in the sudden appearance of men in her isolated world plays out in a sequence of point-of-view shots that are clearly libidinal. Like Belinda and several other Negulesco women, Libby is aligned with nature, which is romanticized in the scenes of her enjoying the woods. But unlike the usual silent-melodrama-contrast between nature/female innocence and culture/dangerous female sexuality, Negulesco gives license to Libby’s desires and resolutely refuses to punish her for them. Her presumptive marriage to the “good man” at the end of the film is presented as a logical compromise, a vision of marriage I’ll return to in relation to Negulesco’s 1950s films.


Class and marriage

Lupino gave one of her finest performances in her next film with Negulesco, Road House. In it she plays Lily Stevens, and is introduced as a femme fatale who will disrupt the fragile “family” triangle of Celeste Holm as the good sidekick Susie, Cornell Wilde as the hero Pete, and Richard Widmark as a spoiled, maniacal rich kid. Pete tries to reestablish order by getting rid of Lily as quickly as possible, but she refuses to be bossed around or typecast by Pete as a sexual temptress.

What’s brilliant about Road House is how Negulesco revels in the stylistic excesses of noir and lovingly composes each shot of Lily (she refuses to dress down and fit into the rural scene). The film’s fantastic art direction features a modernist nightclub with rustic styling that unfolds improbably like a Busby Berkeley set.

Lily’s backstory arrives after she is assaulted by a drunk while performing as a singer in the road house bar.

Road House

Road House


Road House

Road House

Later, with Pete, she turns on the radio to the sound of a plaintive, operatic soprano. Lily tells Pete that her working-class father won a foot-organ in a poker game and wanted Lily to sing opera. She worked days in a factory and practised singing at night while he accompanied her on the organ.

This brief scene completes Lily’s shift from the generic register of femme fatale to that of the Depression heroine, whose primary goals are to survive and to have (in Lily’s case quite literally) a voice of her own that can shape her narrative going forward.

In later Negulesco films, women’s class struggle may be seemingly resolved by marriage. The films he’s best known for from the 1950s reflect that decade’s emphasis on repressing the tensions of film noir and channeling women’s desire in the direction of home, marriage, and motherhood.

Negulesco’s characterization of marriage is interesting in three ways, however. Firstly, he retains a Depression-era sympathy for women’s economic struggles and the practical necessity of marriage in a world of very limited options. Secondly, he presents women’s desire for a companionate marriage of equals in an entirely sympathetic light. Thirdly, women’s sexual desires are never condemned or presented as whorish by contrast with a virginal ideal (one could claim that Sophia Loren’s breasts are the star of Boy on a Dolphin, but she is also a three-dimensional character fighting for her impoverished village, as she points out to her “rich American” love interest).

Wifehood is also presented as work in Negulesco’s films, whether it’s the hard labor of rural women (Deep Valley, Johnny Belinda), or the work of conforming to middle-class social norms in Woman’s World (1954) – a film whose title is simply descriptive, unlike the theme song’s misleading claim that “It’s a woman’s world.” Married or not, Negulesco’s women are always most vulnerable when isolated from other women. While there is often conflict among women, they inevitably join forces in the face of male oppression.

The comedic version of Negulesco’s interest in women’s solidarity is How to Marry a Millionaire (1953, 20th Century Fox’s second CinemaScope film). It’s a remake of the 1932 film The Greeks Had a Word for Them, and retains a Depression-era sympathy for gold-diggers. Lauren Bacall’s character Schatze Page has a hilarious marriage backstory, which she explains to her fellow-diggers Pola (Marilyn Monroe) and Loco (Betty Grable) on the terrace of their sublet penthouse:

She just got back from Reno

Oh, then you must be loaded!

No, mine was one of those divorces you don’t read about. The wife finished second.

But that’s against the law, isn’t it?

I was absolutely nuts about that guy. You know what he did to me? First off he gives me a phony name. Second, it turns out he was already married! Third, from the minute the preacher said amen, he never did another tap of work. The next thing I knew he’d stolen my television set and given it to a car hop. And when I asked him how about that he hits me with a chicken!

A live chicken?

No, a baked chicken! Stuffed!

He sounds incompatible to me.

Well, last time I saw him, I stepped out of the car for a minute at a gas station and had to walk home.

Well, I’m surprised you’d ever want to get married again.

But that’s the point about this whole set-up! Of course I want to get married again. Who doesn’t? It’s the biggest thing you can do in life.

Schatze gazes at a male nude sculpture decorating the terrace, pointedly glances between its legs and turns, raising an eyebrow dismissively.

But the way most people go about it they use more brains picking a horse at Belmont than they do picking a husband.

Do they really?

It’s your head you’ve got to use, not your heart.

The scene plays out with the three women distributed across the CinemaScope frame, drinking champagne on their penthouse terrace with the Manhattan skyline in the background as if to illustrate the wealth they have every right to partake in. Schatze’s anti-romantic approach to marriage is presented as Jane Austen-like pragmatism, and Bacall’s appearance is all business. She wears a pencil-skirted grey suit, and her self-determined image resonates with Bacall’s previous films, in which she’d played savvy women who call their own shots and know “how to whistle.”

How to Marry a Millionaire

How to Marry a Millionaire

Men’s status as the owners and controllers of wealth is never presented by Negulesco as deserved or “natural.” Instead, it’s often ridiculed. The best example of this is in Daddy Long Legs (1955), a musical staring Leslie Caron as the French orphan Julie Andre. Fred Astaire plays her anonymous benefactor Jervis Pendleton III, who Julie only knows to be a rich American. Pendleton is a spoiled, self-centered man whose support for Julie comes about coincidentally. He completely ignores her attempts to communicate and foster a friendship with him throughout the film.

In a fantasy musical sequence, Julie imagines him as a grotesquely grinning caricature of wealth dressed as a cowboy with a hat full of gold coins. During her fantasy, Pendleton struts arrogantly across a stage in front of oil derricks and a huge, million-dollar banknote.

Daddy Long Legs

Daddy Long Legs

Julie is one of several orphans in the films of Negulesco: Scandal at Scourie (1953) is about adoption, and the heroines of both Johnny Belinda and Lure of the Wilderness (1952) lost their mothers as children. Negulesco himself adopted two daughters after his wife Dusty suffered repeated late miscarriages, the first during production of Johnny Belinda. In Daddy Long Legs, the fact that orphaned Julie winds up marrying her wealthy benefactor is presented as entirely justified, if not-at-all convincingly romantic.


Marriage and sexuality

Schatze’s assessment of the nude statue’s manhood in How to Marry a Millionaire underscores the down-side of marital pragmatism, however. Part of the pleasure of Negulesco’s 1950s films is that they accept the apparent necessity of marriage for women, but always with a wink or sigh at the inevitable sacrifices involved—including sexual freedom.

One can easily ascribe a queer subtext to Negulesco’s ensemble women’s films like How to Marry a Millionaire and Three Came Home. The latter film, based on Agnes Newton Keith’s memoir of surviving a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Borneo, features an ensemble cast of women who, separated from men, bond with and support each other. Agnes’s close relationship to fellow inmate Betty is particularly emphasized, and when Agnes is attacked by a would-be rapist, Negulesco has her successfully fight him off (kicking and screaming for Betty even as she’s dragged by the legs and thrown in the bushes) until Betty arrives, prompting the attacker to run away.

Negulesco’s own heterosexuality was ambiguous in spite of his reputation as a playboy. Clearly many women loved his company (including, famously, Marilyn Monroe), but when Negulesco cites Harry Cohn calling him a homosexual, his playboy reputation is overtly used in self-defense. Negulesco also made four films with Clifton Webb and two with Agnes Moorhead, both of whom were widely known in Hollywood to be queer, so regardless of his own orientation he was well-exposed to non-hetero-normative perspectives on life and marriage.

The Negulesco films that strike me as the most ambivalent about marriage are Three Coins in the Fountain and The Best of Everything. Unlike the women in How to Marry a Millionaire, those in Three Coins are looking for love, not just financial security. They are professional secretaries with enough independence to sign up with an agency and ship out to Italy on their own. Anita (Jean Peters) lusts after Giorgio (Rossano Brazzi) while the prim but equally desiring Maria (Maggie McNamara) takes a more calculated approach to getting what she wants (Prince Dino di Cessi, played by Louis Jourdan).

Dorothy McGuire gives a fascinating performance as Frances, the expatriate personal secretary of author John Shadwell (Clifton Webb), and in many ways their relationship is already like a marriage. He relies on her completely, but is also emotionally aloof and sees no reason she should want anything more in life than what they already have together. The most intriguing thing about this sexless marriage (which, of course, becomes an actual marriage at the end of the film) is that Frances is presented in every scene as an elegant, well-dressed and desirable woman.

Anita, Maria, and Frances in Three Coins in a Fountain

Anita, Maria, and Frances in Three Coins in the Fountain

Anita is, like the man she falls in love with, sensuous but less classy than Frances; Maria, as her name indicates, dresses like a convent girl; Frances, seemingly the old maid of the trio, is also the most elegant and it’s not at all clear why she loves a man who just wants her to continue being his secretary. The lack of any desire on his part couldn’t possibly be more apparent, and the only compensation seems to be their similar tastes and education.

The redeeming aspect of this relationship, however, is their longstanding friendship. Seen meta-textually as an example of the marriages made by queer men and women to avoid social stigma, the pairing makes perfect sense. What’s missing is a clearer perspective on Frances’s romantic longing: she has no backstory. She’s also given no last name and is listed in the credits as “Miss Frances,” a strange absence that suggests permanent maidenhood.

The trio’s friendship in Three Coins doesn’t imply, as it does in How to Marry a Millionaire, that “the girls” are more important than their men (who will simply deliver a meal-ticket for sexual services rendered). Similarly, female friendships are important in The Best of Everything, but take a back seat to work and men. The Best of Everything is based on Rona Jaffe’s memoir of working-women’s hardships in 1950s corporate Manhattan, a milieu whose male-centric power structure and sexism has more recently been richly detailed in the television series Mad Men (2007-present, AMC).

The three main female characters share a small apartment: Caroline (Hope Lange), April (Diane Baker) and Gregg (Suzy Parker). They work at a mass-market publishing firm under Amanda (Joan Crawford), playing a dragon-lady-executive. The story’s title is definitively ironic by the end of the film, given the following outcomes: Caroline has given up a hard-won executive position in order to marry an alcoholic, April loses her pregnancy after being jilted, and Gregg goes mad and falls to her death after her lover refuses to marry her. Even boss-lady Amanda seems emotionally doomed, having given up all hope of companionship in order to stay in the job she loves.

The Best of Everything

The Best of Everything

 The Best of Everything, with its muted Mondrian-themed corporate office cubes, moves its characters through various confined spaces and social roles, none of which offers much pleasure or freedom, particularly when compared to the Rome of Three Coins in the Fountain. The most inviting space in the film is the cocktail bar on the ground floor of the office tower, and, given the narrative, this seems a likely refuge for most of the characters.

After the happy-go-lucky How to Marry a Millionaire, Negulesco’s colorful wide-screen films are emotionally darker than his 1940s black-and-white ones—an exception being Boy on a Dolphin (1957), which is notably not set in the U.S. The Best of Everything and Woman’s World are so bleak they even take pity on the men of corporate America. Scenes of therapeutic backstory sharing fade away, as though there is hardly any point. Self-determination and fulfillment, in Negulesco’s 1950s America, seem illusory.

Mad Men, season 1, episode 6, “Babylon.”

Mad Men, season 1, episode 6, “Babylon.”


Works Cited

Jean Negulesco, Things I Did and Things I Think I Did. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.



SARAH BERRY writes on film, media, and cultural studies, and designs interactive multimedia projects. She is the author of Screen Style: Fashion and Femininity in 1930s Hollywood (2002).

Writers at the Movies: ‘Custer of the West’ by Clive Sinclair


(Originally for the Custer Association of Great Britain, 2012)

REVIEWING Custer of the West upon its release in 1968, Showguide (a precursor of Time Out) informed its readers that: “The script of the film— based on several years of research—has been splendidly written by Bernard Gordon and Julian Halevy, who delved into a private library of more than a thousand books, folios and letters to find their facts.”

The review is quoted in Bernard Gordon’s memoir—Hollywood Exile: or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist—which admits a less scholarly genesis. Walking along Madrid’s “main drag” with Philip Yordan—boss of the European script factory in which he toiled—Gordon was informed that his next task would be to write a motion picture about George Armstrong Custer. The news was not well received.

“Custer?” said Gordon. “My God. All I know about him is that he was an Indian killer, and the Indians finally killed him at Little Big Horn!” Yordan shrugged, and Gordon continued: “Who in this day and age would want to make a film hero out of someone who did his best to butcher Indians?” “I don’t give a damn about Custer or the Indians,” said Yordan. All he was interested in was the fact that he had been paid to produce a film about Custer.

Gordon died in 2007, but his writing partner Julian Zimet (who—also being blacklisted—used the pseudonym Halevy), lives on in Rome, in an apartment he shares with his wife Anna Maria (Primo Levi’s sister). At 93 some of his senses are failing, but not his memory. And his tongue could still run a marathon. Nor has it lost its sting. “The first thing you should know,” he said, “is that Gene Autry was a prick. A prick and a shit both.”

Raised on the east coast, Zimet had ventured to Hollywood early, and then, by dint of perseverance and native talent had risen from script reader to script writer. Among his early sales was Sierra Sue, a vehicle for Gene Autry. Not only did he write it, he also found himself advising the director how best to shoot it, at least until its star noted his presence. “I don’t want any Jew spies on my set,” said Autry.

On the other hand the government thought him patriotic enough to be drafted (though prompted by Joseph McCarthy the powers-that-be eventually came to share Autry’s opinion). When the witchfinders decided to dignify prejudice with judicial authority, Zimet elected to quit America: he had no intention of naming names, as other quasi or real communists had done, but he had no wish for martyrdom either. First he went to Mexico, then Italy.

It was from Rome—many years later—that he travelled to Madrid to work with his old comrade, Bernard Gordon, on the Custer project. By 1966, the year in question, Vietnam was beginning to dominate the political agenda. One major side-effect was that it overturned the authorized version of America’s past, in particular the conquest and colonisation of the West. The few Westerns that went into production were made with reversed polarities; the Indians were now freedom fighters—the Viet Cong in warpaint—and the US Cavalry the militant arm of colonial oppression.

It was these changing times that prompted Gordon to say to Yordan: “Fine. Let’s do a film about Custer, a really modern film that tells the truth about him and the whole American policy at the time.” Policy which—it went without saying—found its modern equivalent in Vietnam. But Yordan had no interest in contemporary relevance: “It’s people like you with your antihero ideas who are ruining Hollywood! We’ll just figure a way to turn Custer into a hero!”

Even so, the finished movie is far from innocent. Robert Shaw was cast as Custer, and Mary Ure—his wife—as Libbie. According to Zimet, the actor was even more determined than the script writers to view Custer through modern eyes. “The original brief was to turn out a typical Western sainted hero martyr script, which Gordon and I duly delivered,” he told me. “But Robert Shaw figured he would make it over to suit himself. Which he did. He turned Custer into a sadist of Shakespearean depth.”


Gordon, in his memoir, implies that he retained some of his original scepticism, and gives the leading man only a secondary role in shaping Custer’s character: “Production stumbled along on Custer as Julian and I tried to give the Indians a fair shake. Robert Shaw was helpful. A bright man and a fine writer, he approved of our point of view of that the Indians were victims right to the end. He even wrote one speech for Custer… that made this point sharply.”

Either way, Shaw had no time for either Gordon or Zimet. According to the latter, he regarded the pair as “American philistines,” to be treated with contempt. As far as Shaw was concerned movie-making Hollywood-style was little better than a criminal enterprise. This disdain was extended to the director hired by Yordan. As a matter of fact both scriptwriters were also unimpressed by the appointment of Robert Siodmak, a former Hollywood insider, now involuntarily retired, and so eager to work that he would (in Zimet’s words) “have agreed to direct the telephone book.” “Why are you hiring Siodmak?” he protested to the producer. “Why do you want a broken down, dying man, when you could have a splendid new director such as Lindsay Anderson?” “You jerk,” said Yordan, “Siodmak is a name I can take to the bank.”

In Hollywood Exile, Gordon elucidates this terse response: “We need a star or we have no deal,” said Yordan. “We have no script to show to a star, so what do I do? I go to Robert Shaw and ask him to do the picture. He wants to be helpful. But without a script, how can he agree? I tell him I’ll get him an experienced director. How do I get a respectable director to take the job? I still have no script. I find out Siodmak is hungry. He has an impressive track record, but he’s out of work in Switzerland. The phone isn’t ringing. He’s dying to do another picture and pick up another fee. So I get Siodmak and I’ve got Shaw—and I get the four million bucks to make a picture.”

Similar considerations lay behind the casting of Sgt Mulligan, a character who appears out of nowhere, has a couple of big scenes (in the second of which he pleads with Custer for his life, forfeit on account of desertion), and then vanishes as if he had never been. Mulligan owed his brief existence—was enlisted—because Yordan felt it necessary to attract another star name, to put on the marquee and in advertising. Enter Robert Ryan, who took the money, said the lines crafted for him by Zimet, and ran.

“Shaw took care of the battle scenes himself,” recalls Zimet. “Siodmak preferred directing ballroom scenes, which he had done so often in his long career they required no invention. What he didn’t anticipate, as he choreographed fifty couples, was that the actor—whose intervention was designed to give coherence to the scene—would go crazy, punch him in the chops, and walk off the set. I was already working on another project, but Yordan insisted that I write some lines for a minor actor, which would account for the miscreant’s absence. This would allow the ballroom scene to continue, save having to locate the crazy or drunk actor, and save having to reshoot. While Siodmak kept the dancers in motion, I rehearsed the new actor in his role, and tailors stitched together a bespoke uniform. Within minutes he burst upon the scene, apologised on behalf of the government minister for his absence—due to a crisis in Washington—and announced an impending honour for Custer. It was a weak solution, but it saved a lot of money. That’s show business for you.”

In short, the producer, having cooked up a deal to sell a Custer movie (with profits assured in advance), had no real interest in whether the end product was any good, let alone historically accurate.

When John Ford made My Darling Clementine he boasted that his friendship with Wyatt Earp guaranteed authenticity, then went on to set the film in the wrong year, and kill off both Doc Holliday and Ike Clanton before their time. No such claims were ever made for Custer of the West—pace Showguide—so scholarly analysis would be as useful as using a tomahawk to scalp Yul Brunner.

Even so there is one howler that cannot pass unremarked. The movie contains no reference to either Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse, and the entire Lakota nation is only mentioned en passant. Instead the uneducated viewer is led to believe that Custer’s nemesis was Chief Dull Knife (who, in reality, thought it more politic to sit out the conflict), and his primary antagonists the Cheyenne. At one point Custer confronts Dull Knife with the following piece of realpolitik: “I’ll make it very simple for you. The fact that we seem to be pushing you clear off the earth is not my responsibility. The problem is precisely the same as when you Cheyenne decided to take another tribe’s hunting ground. You didn’t ask them about their rights. You didn’t care if they had been there a thousand years. You just had more men and more horses. You destroyed them in battle. You took what you wanted, and right or wrong, for better or worse, that is the way things seem to get done. That’s history. I’m talking about history. You are a militarily defeated people. You are paying the price for being backward. And whatever my personal feelings, and I don’t say I have, there’s nothing I can do to change all this. Do you understand?” In fact, of course, it was the Cheyenne who were driven from their ancestral lands—including the Black Hills—by the Lakota.


If the movie has no place in the lecture hall, how well does it fare in the movie theatre? Like the 7th Cavalry it stands or falls on the performance of its star. At least Robert Shaw’s hair is the right colour. And he looks sufficiently like the ‘boy general’ who sat for Matthew Brady that the portrait hanging on the wall of his quarters does not appear out of place. Moreover the sadistic impulses that Shaw sought to emphasise are only apparent in a few scenes, all of them early; for example, he orders his new command to run in circles until—one by one—the men drop. But as Shaw’s performance progresses sadism becomes less and less Custer’s defining characteristic; he becomes more complex, and his impersonator more beguiled, as though a dybbuk—the General’s—had taken up residence within.

This internal conflict becomes manifest in his behaviour: natural justice, personal liberty, and romanticism versus manifest destiny, military discipline, and patriotism. It is best expressed during a scene in which a representative of the military-industrial complex demonstrates the efficacy of a new weapon: a gatling gun mounted upon an armoured railway carriage. Custer—a chivalrous man—recoils in horror: “War isn’t just killing, you know. It’s a contest. It’s a man against a man.” Later he has the following exchange with Libbie: “If this is the future, I don’t want any part of it!” “Where does that leave you?” “With the Indians!”

In which case the final battle represents the psychological struggle made flesh and blood, as the irreconcilable positions take up arms against each other. The movie began with a montage of Civil War charges, and it ends with a civil war made personal. This dualism finds further expression in the contrasting characters of Custer’s two fellow officers; Benteen and Reno. Jeffrey Hunter plays Benteen as a “bleeding heart” liberal, forever expressing the other side’s point of view, whereas Reno is presented as a gung-ho racist.

The pivotal moment—when Custer is most himself—occurs when he is summoned to Washington to appear before a congressional committee. Obviously the scene could not be shot in situ, and budgetary constraints ruled out reconstruction. “It was inconceivable that we should build a replica of the real chamber and people it with the dozens of representatives and senators in period dress,” wrote Gordon. “Yordan solved the problem economically by having Shaw, as Custer, pose in front of a painting of the crowded congressional chamber. I thought it looked fake but few other people noticed or cared.” Obviously Gordon had not viewed the movie for some time when he wrote those sentences: the backdrop is not the chamber, crowded or otherwise, but the dome itself.

In any event, the important feature is the speech, and Shaw’s delivery of it. “There is no Indian problem,” he says. “There is only a White problem.” The problematic issues par excellence being hypocrisy—treaties broken even as they are signed—and corruption. It is not officers in the field who are growing fat, Custer says, only politicians. “The American people have the right to know who is responsible…” thunders Shaw. “The guilty parties… You are going to have to look right here in Washington. And you are going to have to look in high places. I know the men who are responsible and I am going to give you their names.” I can well imagine the secret smiles of satisfaction on the faces of Zimet and Gordon, for whom (in a different context) the naming of names would have been abhorrent, as Shaw concludes the accusatory speech, the sort of speech they must have dreamed of throwing back in the faces of their persecutors at HUAC.

A curious postscript to the movie suggests that the Committee might have been better advised to look in a different direction for un-American activities. It turned out that Ty Hardin, who played Reno, was typecast. He could have been Clint Eastwood, but instead of directing Unforgiven and being elected Mayor of Carmel, his career went nowhere, and four years after playing Reno, he became the guiding light of the Arizona Patriots, a quasi-fascist militia, and editor of their in-house magazine, which urged Christian patriots to band together, and reprinted antisemitic diatribes. Its members stockpiled weapons and ammo in anticipation of Armageddon. Eventually even the FBI reckoned that these self-styled “freedom fighters” were anything but, and raided their HQ, scattering their members to the four corners.

Like all movies about the Frontier, Custer of the West is a palimpsest, in that it uses the past to comment upon the present. Gordon’s wry joke about how “a couple of blacklisted writers did succeed in smuggling a bit of red propaganda into a Hollywood film… well, redskin propaganda anyway,” is both funny and true. It seems that Custer’s dybbuk—or ghost—is doomed to shuttle between left and right, between martyrdom and villainy, depending upon contemporary circumstances, notwithstanding the best efforts of the Custer Association of Great Britain to stick to the facts.



CLIVE SINCLAIR began his career as a writer in 1973. In 1983 he was one of the original Twenty Best of Young British Novelists. So far he has produced fourteen books, which have earned him the Somerset Maugham Award, the PEN Silver Pen for Fiction, and the Jewish Quarterly Award. His latest book of stories, Death & Texas, was published in 2014. He lives in London, with the painter Haidee Becker. His son, a film-maker, lives in Los Angeles.

Matthew Asprey Gear’s interview with Clive Sinclair appeared in print in issue 2 of Contrappasso and is online at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

[The title picture is a detail from the original movie program as reproduced at In Cinerama]

Writers at the Movies: An Introduction

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[This is the introduction to our new special issue Writers at the Movies. It contains essays by Luc Sante, Sarah Berry, Richard Lowenstein, Richard Hugo, Clive Sinclair, Michael Eaton, Jon Lewis, and Anthony May; fiction by Barry Gifford; poetry by Michael Atkinson, R. Zamora Linmark, and James Franco; and interviews with Jonathan Rosenbaum, Emmanuel Mouret, Scott Simmon, and Richard Misek. The issue is for sale at]

I: Literary Cinéphilia

This special issue of Contrappasso on ‘Writers at the Movies’ follows our special ‘Noir’ issue of late 2013. Once again we’ve assembled a collection of poems, essays, fiction, and interviews—some republished, some appearing for the first time. In this instance, the common theme is ‘literary cinéphilia.’

Over the last couple of decades the notion of cinéphilia has taken flight, with many articles, academic books, and trade collections exploring this concept from the beginnings of cinema to the digital age[1].

But the version of cinéphilia on offer here in Contrappasso is a little different. Our take is probably closer to what was featured in Granta’s special film issue (#86, 2004). Highlights of that volume were Andrew O’Hagan’s memoir of his short stint as a film critic (“Two Years in the Dark”) and Ian Jack’s loving recollection of the cinemas of his youth (“The Best Picture He Ever Saw”). Jack’s essay tells of returning with his elder brother to Farnworth to seek out the sites of its vanished cinemas—the Ritz, the Savoy, the Empire, the Hippodrome, the Palace. For Jack and his young friends:

Cinema names seemed independent of any history. They may have been intended to suggest luxury, romance, good birth and breeding, foreign parts, ancient history and therefore to be fitting vehicles for the films showed inside them; escapist images inside escapist architecture. But how many among their audiences could have connected the Hippodrome to horse racing in Ancient Greece, or the Rialto to Venice, the Alhambra, Granada, and Toledo to Spain, the Lido to Mediterranean bathing, the Colosseum to Rome, the Savoy to the Strand, the Odeon to Paris, the Regal to majestic behaviour? Not me, certainly.

We also feel kinship with Parnassus’s special issue on ‘Poetry and Movies’ (#22, Nos. 1 & 2, 1997) with its poems inspired by Godard’s Le Mépris, and Antonioni’s L’Avventura, and the collaboration between Positif and Projections that generated Projections 4½ (1995), from which we republish Richard Lowenstein’s essay, “Elvis and the Aboriginals.” As it turns out, Lowenstein, a well-known Australian filmmaker, is almost an exception in our line-up of literary cinéphiles; most of the selections in this Contrappasso are by people whose principal creative focus is not cinematic at all but in the areas of essays, poetry, and fiction. You will find writings on film by literary practitioners not usually identified as film critics, and also examples of more recognisably academic-scholarly film writing. We think it’s a happy mixture of some of the best movie writing around.

Some of the pieces collected here focus on a single film: Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder! (1930), Orson Welles’s rediscovered Too Much Johnson (1938), Elia Kazan’s Man On A Tight Rope (1952), Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1955), and Robert Siodmak’s Custer of the West (1968). The approaches vary. Other pieces zoom in on an individual: Eric Rohmer, Jean Negulesco, Claire Danes, the Black Dahlia, Sal Mineo, Montgomery Clift, Elmore Leonard, and Emmanuel Mouret. We also explore the kind of cinéphilia that escapes the page and becomes filmmaking itself—see our interview with Richard Misek on his film essay Rohmer in Paris.

Movie-going, our favourite ritual since childhood, is undoubtedly changing. We assembled this collection at a time when viewing a movie via a 35mm print became a sudden novelty. The Deutsches Filmmuseum in Frankfurt, which has an impressive collection of vintage nickelodeons and magic lanterns, now also displays a 35mm projector as a historical artefact. In 2014 Quentin Tarantino called digital projection, now a fait accompli, the very “death of cinema as I know it.” And he’s not alone in the sentiment. The prevailing nostalgia among cinéphiles is not just for the end of 35mm as an exhibition technology, the disappearance of that comforting flicker of scratchy celluloid through a projector. It’s just another change that has followed the passing of the movie theatre from a space of spectacle, even wonder, into the mundane functionality of the multiplex.

Stephen Barber’s Abandoned Images: Film and Film’s End (2010) powerfully outlines the history of cinema as a social space, in particular the slow fade from the grandeur of the early movie palace to ruin and dilapidation. Barber cites twelve cinemas built in Los Angeles between 1910 and 1931, how their facades, “often constructed with premium-quality stone imported from Italian quarries, and intricately carved and decorated with figures drawn from European or Mayan mythologies, both exclaimed the titles of current films on colossal marquees and hoardings, and intimated that the film-going experience was to be a lavish, cultured one.”

Barber says that Broadway in downtown Los Angeles “holds the greatest concentration worldwide of abandoned, but intact, cinemas.” These “once-lavish and luxurious cinemas represented the zenith of technological innovation in their respective moments of construction.” These buildings present “an astonishing litany of names emblazoned on dilapidated but still prominent marquees and signs: the Million Dollar Theater, the Roxie, the Cameo, the Arcade, the Los Angeles Theater, the Palace, the State, the Globe, the Orpheum, and the United Artists Theater.”

As he charts the shift in the social function of the movie palace from its time screening mainstream films to showing “specialist, cult or martial arts films, and finally, pornography,” Barber argues that these changes place a double temporality on the cinema theatre as a distinctive social space, such that “the moment at which it served as a riotous all-night site for cult-mania or pornography becomes inseparable from that of its prestigious moment of ascendancy as the venue for searchlight-illuminated star-premieres.” For Barber, “abandoned cinemas form landscapes of disintegration.”

That 35mm projector at the Frankfurt museum was appropriately surrounded by an exhibition of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s stunning large-scale photographs of the United States’ abandoned picture palaces. Annie Baker’s recent Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Flick (2014), is set in a “falling-apart movie theatre in Worcester County, MA.” Its four characters work, watch movies, scam, endlessly toss out film references and play (in this case) three degrees of separation games linking film actors across recondite films. This ‘smallest picture show on earth’ operates in the full recognition that the days of celluloid and analogue video have been replaced by a (fallen) digital world.

Iain Sinclair’s 70 x 70: Unlicensed Preaching: A Life Unpacked in 70 Films (2014), also bears personal witness to the vanished spaces of cinema. The book is a record of a unique film festival in which sometimes unlikely corners of contemporary London—a city suffering ongoing authoritarian usurpation of public space—become ad hoc exhibition spaces for seventy films that have mattered most to the seventy year old author. As ever, Sinclair’s psychogeographical prowl of London provokes memories, in this case of former exhibition sites where his younger self first encountered particular movies.

We hope some of the pieces we have gathered here resonate in a similar way.

Nevertheless, we also acknowledge there is much for the cinéphile to celebrate in the digital era. Access to obscure films is now easier than ever. One of the most ardent surveyors of international DVD and Bluray releases is the writer Jonathan Rosenbaum. We caught up with him to talk about his recent activities.

II: Novelists and Poets

We find no shortage of fiction writers obsessed by cinema. In his introduction to Writers at the Movies: Twenty-Six Contemporary Authors Celebrate Twenty-Six Memorable Movies (2000), Jim Shepard makes the case that writers “write about movies… not only because we love them but because their cultural power obligates our response.” In Shepard’s anthology we discover that the late, great Robert Stone liked The Krays (1990), Lorrie Moore likes Titanic (1997) and J. M. Coetzee likes The Misfits (1961).

We like Gore Vidal’s engaging book-length essay Screening History (1992), in which he recalls being spellbound as a boy by Mickey Rooney as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) and await an English translation of Carlos Fuentes’s posthumously published Pantallas de plata (2014), a personal study of Buñuel and others. James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work (1976) offers a powerful commentary on the movies, on black spectatorship and the representation of race in cinema. It begins by recalling

Joan Crawford’s straight, narrow, and lonely back. We are following her through the corridors of a moving train. She is looking for someone, or she is trying to escape from someone. She is eventually intercepted by, I think, Clark Gable.

I am fascinated by the movement on, and of, the screen, that movement which is something like the heaving and swelling of the sea (though I have not yet been to the sea): and is also something like the light which moves on, and especially beneath, the water.

I am about seven. I am with my mother, or my aunt. The movie is Dance, Fools, Dance.

Don DeLillo is a committed literary cinéphile. His fiction is crowded with movie and television references. In one interview he described his cinematic conception when he starts writing: “I think the scene comes first, an idea of a character in a place. It’s visual, it’s Technicolor…” In 1971, when Nelson Algren reviewed DeLillo’s first novel, Americana, for Rolling Stone, he connected it explicitly to the New Hollywood cinema: “Don DeLillo’s swift, ironic, and witty cross-country American nightmare, as seen through a Scoopic 16mm news camera, doesn’t have a dull or unoriginal line. If you dug Jack Nicholson’s role in Five Easy Pieces, or the fables of Donald Barthelme, Don DeLillo is your man.”

DeLillo has said in several interviews that he was most excited by the movies of the late 1960s when he was first trying to make a living from writing. Some of his earliest stories are in fact literary responses to movies. “The Numbers” was provoked by Godard’s Weekend (1967). DeLillo explained, “I consider this piece of work a movie as much as anything else. Not my movie, however. No, the work is an attempt to hammer and nail my own frame around somebody else’s movie.” Another early short story, “Coming Sun.Mon.Tues.,” done in a kind of 1960s European art-cinema shorthand, is now available at The Kenyon Review website[2].

Fiction aside, by now DeLillo has published enough essays on film to constitute a short book. His essay “Woman in the Distance” is a brilliant poetic exploration of Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970), a film also greatly admired by Marguerite Duras (see her 1980 interview collection Green Eyes). In the manner of DeLillo’s novels, the Wanda essay has a great opening:

Early in the film a woman in the shape of a white shadow moves in long shot across the bitter gray landscape of slag heaps and mining equipment. It is a scene of phantom beauty: a spacious moment seemingly displaced in a movie that levels every energy at small and local matters. But the scene is only the first component of an equation in the making. That chalky figure in the distance will appear in powerful close-up at the end of the film, face and heart revealed.

DeLillo wrote a short New Yorker piece on star spotting in Rome—its subtitle ‘Movies and Memory’ could be an alternate title for this issue of Contrappasso—and another long essay in Brick, ‘Counterpoint: Three Movies, a Book, and an Old Photograph,’ which throws together The Fast Runner, Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould, Thomas Bernhard’s novel, The Loser, and a documentary, Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser. He penned elegant capsule descriptions for the three films he selected and introduced as Guest Director of the 2005 Telluride Film Festival. He chose Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) (“A beautiful and disturbing movie of remote landscapes, dreamy scenes of childhood and the advancing shadow of the state… Shot in deceptively serene tones, paced in the rhythms of rural isolation, Spirit of the Beehive exemplifies what Erice calls poetic cinema”), Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) (“With its dangling flashbacks, long takes, deep spaces, and hovering sense of violence, The Passenger is one of the strongest films in Antonioni’s enduring study of identity and apartness”), and Loden’s Wanda (“It might be regarded as the unsung herald of the American surge that sent many fine and famous movies coursing through [the 1970s]”). There was a “lost” aspect to all three films. It was the first time in twenty-five years Spirit of the Beehive had been screened in the US. The Passenger had not been screened for a similar time owing to a bizarre legal situation that required either Antonioni or actor Jack Nicholson to be present at any screening. Wanda, shot on 16mm for a mere $160,000, the only film directed by Loden, only found visibility in recent years when released on DVD.


OF COURSE, literary cinéphilia does not automatically denote the composition of fiction or an essay. Pablo Neruda’s poem “Ode to a Village Movie Theatre,” opens with the invitation: “Come, my love/let’s go to the movies/in the village/ … Old movies/are/secondhand dreams.” The American Frank O’Hara wrote poems about James Dean and penned the marvellous “To the Film Industry in Crisis,” in which the speaker reveals that his main love is not for “lean quarterlies and swarthy periodicals,” nor the Catholic Church, nor for “the American Legion” but rather for “you, Motion Picture Industry.” It is for “glorious Silver Screen, tragic Technicolor, amorous Cinemascope, stretching Vistavision and startling Stereophonic Sound.” The poem lists many Hollywood stars and describes scenes from unnamed films. The speaker refuses to “prefer Johnny Weissmuller to Lex Barker” in Tarzan movies, and ends by saying, “Roll on, reels of celluloid, as the great earth rolls on.”

Readers of our Noir Issue will recall several distinguished poetic responses to the cinema: Nicholas Christopher on film noir and the HUAC-destroyed career of John Garfield; Barry Gifford’s short evocation of actress Terry Moore (a poem dedicated to, and admired by, Elmore Leonard); Suzanne Loomis’s noir poems; and Jonathan Aaron’s response to Out of the Past.

In this issue we reprint James Franco’s poem in honour of Sal Mineo, two poems by R. Zamora Linmark on Montgomery Clift and Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind, and two by Michael Atkinson.

III: The Movie Theatre as Social Space

The British Film Institute’s series of ‘Film Classics’ (soon followed by another on ‘Modern Classics’), began a trend in English language film writing: small books, normally between 65 and 150 pages, on individual films. The ‘short takes’ idea was the brainchild of Edward Buscombe, then head of BFI publishing. The concept now exists in many articulations: series of small books on films that fall into the categories of Classic Canadian Cinema (University of Toronto Press), Australian Film Classics (Currency Press), Queer Film Classics (Arsenal Pulp Press), Pop Classics (ECW Press), and Controversies (Palgrave Macmillan). There are also Bloomsbury Film Guides (now discontinued), Wallflower Press’s Cultographies, Soft Skull Press’s Deep Focus series, and the Cinetek line from Flicks Books. Certain films appear on more than one of these lists. We also find monographs on individual films outside any publishing series: two notable recent books are Geoff Dyer’s Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room (2012) (on Tarkovsky’s Stalker) and Adam Mars-Jones’s Noriko Smiling (2011) (on Ozu’s Late Spring).

With this type of book came a greater emphasis on where and when the authors first encountered the film in question. One example is Geoffrey Nowell-Smith on Antonioni’s L’avventura for BFI Film Classics. His first viewing took place in

Paris, in November 1960. I was a language assistant in a lycée in a small town in eastern France. One weekend I drove with friends to Paris—250 kilometres in a Citroen 2 c.v., maximum speed 90k.p.h.—intending to see Truffaut’s Shoot the Pianist, Chabrol’s Les Bonnes femmes, and other new French films. First, however, I decided to take a look at the Italian film which had caused all that uproar at Cannes the previous spring: Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura. For two and a half hours I sat spellbound in the cinema. I was captivated by the film’s lingering rhythms, its decentered images, its listless characters, and especially by Monica Vitti, the star of the film and incarnation of the director’s vision. No film before or since has made such an impression on me as L’avventura did on that occasion. I saw the film again the following day, and went back to Paris three weeks later to see it again—this time with the intention of writing about it.

Similarly, Nicholas Christopher’s Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City (1997/2006), a very different film book which surveys not one but hundreds of films, orientates the reader with a wonderful description of the author’s first encounter with film noir in a Paris cinema in 1973:

This was a tumultuous time, not just in the Unites States, but also in France, where massive student and labor unrest had emerged that spring. Barricades blocked the steep streets near the Sorbonne, tear gas bit the air, and at particularly explosive city arteries, rubber bullets were being fired into crowds of demonstrators. Still, people were going to work, eating, drinking, making love, and attending the cinema. The theater was located in a narrow side street off the Rue de Rennes in a working class district. Surrounded by tire shops, garages, and a sausage factory, it was improbably named The New Yorker, the letters glowing in indigo neon on the small crooked marquee. So I found myself alone on a hard seat in the rear of a packed smoky theater (with posters of the Manhattan skyline in the lobby) where one could hear a pin drop—so reverential, so congregational was this chain-smoking French audience—and watched Out of the Past.

Jessica Hagedorn’s novel, Dogeaters (1990), features her Filipino characters watching Douglas Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows (1955) in a Manila cinema. In an email Jessica Hagedorn told us, “The Avenue Theatre, which appears in Dogeaters, actually existed when I was growing up in Manila. My description of it in the novel is inspired by the ‘real’ Avenue and other old-school movie theatres in Manila, like the Odeon.” The narrator of Hagedorn’s novel tells us that her group of friends “affect the casual teenage glamour of Gloria Talbott” in All That Heaven Allows. These characters offer an intriguing take on one aspect of Sirk’s great melodrama: why would someone so evidently wealthy as Jane Wyman’s character bother to drive her own car when she could afford a chauffeur?

Hagedorn’s characters watch a great many other films but avoid the cinemas infested by rats. One character, Romeo, a waiter at “the exclusive Monte Vista Country Club,” goes to the movies “as often as his modest salary” allows. Romeo “would see anything: comedies, Tagalog melodramas, westerns, musicals, and religious extravaganzas like The Ten Commandments, which played to packed houses in Manila for what seemed an eternity. Audiences never failed to clap and cheer each time the Red Sea parted on the giant screen.” Mabuhay Studios is cited along with Lolita Luna’s softcore ‘bomba’ movies (A Candle in Burma, The Agony of Love). Romeo also learns from the movies insofar as he models his hair on “Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause. Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock. Or that decadent Nestor Noraliz in Tormented.” As the Hollywood titles suggest, American movies appropriately align with the modernity represented by US pop culture, and in 1960, when a character returns from the US with a batch of the latest rock ‘n’ roll records—”45s, 78s, 33LPs. Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Richie Valens, Chubby Checker, Joey Dee and the Starliters”—the female narrator studiously learns how to do The Madison and The Twist.

Other writers remember other movies and other cinemas. Michael Barker remembers watching Executive Action (1973) “at the Texas Theater in Dallas, a savvy booking if ever there was one—this was the theater where Lee Harvey Oswald was apprehended. The marquee proclaimed NOW PLAYING EXECUTIVE ACTION and underneath in big, bold letters OSWALD CAUGHT HERE. I remember kids taking turns sitting in his seat.” Greil Marcus feels a movie theatre “creates an atmosphere of anticipation, it sparks the feeling that, whatever might be on the bill, something extraordinary is about to take place.” Marcus remembers first seeing The Manchurian Candidate “alone when it came out in 1962, at the Varsity Theatre in Palo Alto, California, a Moorish wonderland of a movie house.” He saw it again in 2001 “in the Castro Theatre, an ornately baroque movie palace with a steep balcony and an organ that emerges from a pit in front of the stage.” Leonard Michaels’s terrific essay on being overwhelmed by Gilda (1946) on first viewing, initially published in the Berkeley broadsheet The Threepenny Review[3], is very precise about where his life-changing act of film spectatorship occurred: “I saw this movie in the Loew’s Theater on Canal Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.”

DeLillo gives a lovely description of his 1960s and early 1970s moviegoing habits:

I went to the movies on weekday afternoons, a movie on a dead afternoon, the merest scatter of people in attendance, always someone reading the Voice in the half murk before the house lights died. In many cases I can recall today where I saw certain movies back then, drifting from The New Yorker Theater one day to the Bleecker Street the next, alert and ever expectant, ready to be taken out of the day, the week, the plodding writer’s one-room life, and into a fold of discontinuous space and time.

In conversation with Lorena Cancela for Otrocampo 7 in November 2002, Jonathan Rosenbaum said that “where and when one is viewing a movie has an inextricable relation to what that movie means, and consequently, no meanings should be regarded as universal or eternal… Movie-going—and therefore film criticism—is a social act.” This is precisely what art critic Lawrence Alloway says in his 1971 book, Violent America: The Movies 1946-1964: “The routine of movie-going is the basis of any criticism of popular movies.”

We think what is happening in our different examples is a merging of two perspectives: the first linked to the long tradition of academic-scholarly and amateur accounts of the history of movie-going and of the cinema theatre as a distinctive social space, and the second which exhibits a very localized, one-off-film-specific cinéphilia. To the extent that some contributors write about a time when going to the movies—the flicks, the pictures—was a weekly or twice-weekly routine, they often remember a specific cinema. In so doing they confirm the adage attributed to Marcus Loew (whose US theatre chain played MGM’s pictures), “We sell tickets to theaters, not movies.” Of course Loew and his viewers knew, as we know, that it is always both.

In an 2003 online interview with Identity Theory, David Thomson spoke of the loss of the tradition of large cinema theaters as distinctive social spaces—or what once were called ‘picture palaces’ in an era when, as the publicity phrase had it, “the show starts on the sidewalk”—in contemporary San Francisco. Thomson doubted whether San Francisco now had more than four cinemas capable of seating 600 or 700 people, and felt that it was important to convey to young people “that feeling I grew up with… that you had to get there early—you might not get in—it would be packed. You would be in the middle of a row of strangers and for me those things are still vital.”

Patrick McGilligan uses the phrase “film craziness” to describe the cinéphilia that, he says, “was endemic around the country, indeed around the globe, in the late 1960s and early 1970s,” and adds that “the mutant strain found at the University of Wisconsin in Madison had something to do with the unique combination of the long, subarctic winters—from which escape was desirable—coupled with the inviting central location of the film archives in the State Historical Society building.” For McGilligan the film archives were “a treasure trove,” the result of the fact that some “unsung archivist had managed to obtain the United Artists collection, which included… 16mm prints of every Warner brothers, RKO, and Republic motion picture dating back from the early 1930s through to the early 1950s.” He describes this particular viewing venue:

Mornings at the archives, the film crazies would gather to watch whatever some graybeard (i.e. graduate student) had put on the schedule—say, three or four William Wellman films, the earliest, most obscure, most topical titles from his Warner Brothers period.

The room set aside on the top floor of the State Historical Society building was a long, narrow concrete bunker with utilitarian chairs scattered around… Once started, the only interruptions were for reel changes, and we often squeezed in several films, back to back, before lunch. Some of us slurped coffee or chewed gum. Some made loud comments about the film in progress, others watched silently, scribbling notes, gazing intently at the rectangle of light dancing on the wall.

Juan Goytisolo’s wonderful essay, “Cinema Eden,”[4] from a book of the same name (Peter Bush’s 2004 translation is subtitled Essays from the Muslim Mediterranean), begins by saying:

There exists an almost extinct species of cinema whose auditorium, dense atmosphere and original setting stand out more strongly, more glowingly in memory than the meandering plot of their films. My childhood experience was decisive in this respect and casts light on my future fondness for flea-pits that recall those first cinemas I patronized in the neighbourhood of the district of Barcelona where I was born.

Goytisolo remembers a cinema called “the Murillo—the Primavera from the pre-war years—a name it reclaimed in the fifties before being closed down for good and replaced by an apartment block at the point where Paseo Bonanova crosses Calle Angli—and the smaller, humbler Breton, right in the heart of the still rather prim and provincial suburb of Sarria.” He mentions many other cinemas, as his essay goes on to discuss the Eden cinema—”an old down-at-heel fleapit” in Marrakesh—and reveal his fondness for Hindu melodramas and karate films.

Italo Calvino’s superb long essay, “A Cinema-Goer’s Autobiography,” written at the urging of Federico Fellini, was possibly Goytisolo’s model. In it Calvino recalls the films and stars he saw in his adolescence, a time “when the cinema engrossed me to an extent far beyond anything that came before or after.” The essay, part of The Road to San Giovanni (1990), begins:

There were years when I went to the cinema almost every day and maybe twice a day, and those were the years between ‘36 and the war, the years of my adolescence. It was a time when the cinema became the world for me…

Every day, walking up and down the main street of my small town, I’d only have eyes for the cinemas, three that showed new films and changed programmes every Monday and Thursday, and a couple of fleapits with older or trashier films that changed three times a week.

Calvino was watching dubbed US films and French poetic realist films in San Remo on the Ligurian coast in his favourite open-air theatre. On the other side of Italy, in Rimini, Fellini was watching films in “the little towns in winter,” where “the movie theatre was like a tiny galaxy, a planet under a spell, a grand passion that seems forgotten today.”

Years later, in Paris, Calvino would go to “tiny, smelly cinemas of the Latin Quarter to dig out films of the twenties and thirties” he “thought he had lost forever,” and also to encounter new films, screenings of contemporary cinema: “I go looking for old films that tell me about my own prehistory or those that are so new as perhaps to suggest what the world will be like after me.”

But of course memorable movie-going doesn’t have to occur indoors. Jean-Claude Carrière’s The Secret Language of Film (1994) opens with a description of a screening in French colonial Africa after the First World War. It deftly conveys elegant ironies of a colonialist moment: “A sheet was stretched between posts, the mysterious device was carefully set up, and suddenly, out in the dry night of the African bush, moving pictures appeared.” However, the “African notables and religious leaders,” although obliged to attend lest their absence indicate an unfriendly or rebellious attitude towards their colonisers, “were for the most part Muslims,” and obedient to the prohibitions of their religion against the depiction of the human face and form. They politely took their seats, and when “the lights went down and the first beams flickered from the curious apparatus, they shut their eyes and kept them shut” throughout the screening. Carrière “often wondered what invisible, soundless film was shown during those few short hours.”

The editors of this issue are both Australians who grew up with the presence of the drive-in. In Australia a drive-in could also be used as a ‘walk-in.’ On hot summer nights, if you didn’t yet have a driver’s license, you could sit near the refreshment building, and have a sound box at your table. You would watch children in pyjamas and dressing gowns play in the playground just under the giant screen in front of all the parked cars until the drive-in’s double-bill started. Before the fading of the drive-in as an exhibition site—when the land on which it stood became more valuable to sell off as housing—cinéphiles would often seek out a drive-in screening as the only venue at which a particular film would find release, much as some suburban/neighbourhood cinemas in Australia became the place for the first-release of Five Easy Pieces (1970), Cisco Pike (1972), and some other offerings from the New Hollywood cinema.

Memories of the drive-in also stir fond thoughts of the so-called “Drive-In Movie Critic” Joe Bob Briggs, whose flamboyant redneck critical posture celebrated movies exhibited at Texas drive-ins. We also recall J.D. Reed’s poem ‘Drive-In’, which vividly juxtaposes teenage sexual moves in a parked car while “giant caterpillars are fighting on the screen/waving monster feelers and spitting/plastic drool.” (It nicely echoes Luc Sante’s essay ‘Enormous Bodies in the Night’, which we reprint here.)

Several other pieces in this issue present readers with a similar evocation of exhibition sites, grounding their cinéphilic explorations in the experience of architectural space.

Readers of our Noir Issue will remember the late Morris Lurie’s essay on his unchaperoned visit to see The Maltese Falcon on its first release in Melbourne. He was five years old. Leaving the cinema by the wrong exit, he became confused, caught the wrong tram, and arrived home late only to be chastised his very worried parents. In this issue we republish Barry Gifford’s short story, “The Ciné,” which relates a narrative of a young boy whose father deposits him in a cinema while he does some work around town. Gifford’s poetry and fiction are filled with allusions to movies; his collection of short essays on film noir, The Devil Thumbs a Ride and Other Unforgettable Films (1998, later republished as Out of the Past) are not just about the movies but peppered with details of his original viewing context. Gifford unashamedly uses the films as launch pads for autobiographical reminiscence, as when his discussion of Robert Aldrich’s Autumn Leaves (1956) prompts the recollection of his mother’s marriage. Gifford’s ‘Author’s Note’ confesses: “Insofar as accuracy is concerned in the following, I guarantee only the veracity of the impression. I wrote these essays as I imagined many of the Cahiers du Cinéma reviews of the 1950s were written, on the café or kitchen table at one in the morning.”

Among the other contributions here that foreground a specific screening venue is Richard Lowenstein’s account of watching an Elvis Presley movie in 1969 in an outback open-air cinema with an audience of Australian Aborigines. We are also delighted to republish American poet Richard Hugo’s ‘The White Line,’ both a beautiful essay on Elia Kazan’s Man On A Tight Rope (1952) and an exercise in poetic reminiscence of a specific cinema: George Shrigley’s White Center Theatre in White Center, Washington.

Abandoned outdoor cinema in Playa Giron, Bay of Pigs, Cuba September 2014 (Photo © Matthew Asprey Gear)

Abandoned outdoor cinema in Playa Giron, Bay of Pigs, Cuba September 2014 (Photo © Matthew Asprey Gear)

IV: Learning from the Movies

Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said, “I have often learned a lesson from a silly American film.” As he sat in his preferred place, the front row, watching Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire films, other musicals, westerns, and detective films, it occurred to him that, “In one regard I must be a very modern person since the cinema has such an extraordinarily beneficial effect on me.” Victor Erice said that during his period of being a young boy watching Hollywood movies, it was always westerns he and his friends loved most. And in Neruda’s ‘Ode to a Village Movie Theatre,’ we learn, “Cowboys/make/Swiss cheese of/the dangerous Arizona/moon.”

In the special ‘Movies and Poetry’ issue of Parnassus, Susan Sontag wondered whether “cinéphilia—the name of a very specific kind of love that cinema inspired” had ended:

Until the advent of television emptied the movie theatres, it was from a weekly visit to the cinema that you learned (or tried to learn) how to walk, to smoke, to kiss, to fight, to grieve. Movies gave you tips about how to be attractive, such as… it looks good to wear a raincoat even when it isn’t raining… The strongest experience was simply to surrender to, to be transported by, what was on the screen. You wanted to be kidnapped by the movie.

In a short piece at the New York Review of Books blog, poet Charles Simic (who has a poem entitled “Double Feature”) describes one of his earliest movie-going memories, seeing a Buster Keaton film “in World War II Belgrade where I grew up… Neither Nazis nor Russian tanks could stop my mother from going to the movies, and taking me along.” And we agree with Simic when he says, “It has always seemed strange to me that writers and poets of my generation and slightly older say little about the influence of movies on their work, and yet our first knowledge of the world came from them.” Barber says that cinema going populations worldwide “learned to remember filmically, within the narrative forms and visual cadences of film.”

The Australian writer David Malouf’s essay “Growing up with Stars” recalls many hours spent in the Lyceum and Odeon cinemas. Malouf’s essay is now available in his new collection, Being There (2015), but it was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1999, as an ‘edited version’ of a talk he had given at the Seymour Centre near Sydney University. That talk was meant to inaugurate a series of talks by various people on ‘Transformations’ but, as it happened, his was the only one to take place. Malouf’s essay begins:

We grew up with the pictures, we little Australians of 50 years ago, and we grew up with the stars. When we were children Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart and Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire were still youthful, like our fresh-faced uncles and aunts. Later we grew old with them and they were like ancient cousins. In no other art do we retain this lifelong relationship with its practitioners, this close, almost family, intimacy with figures who are bonded to us in a special closeness because they belong not to our public lives of industry and duty but to that other life we live in our senses, in our imagination, which is irresponsible and free. As the members of a new and popular audience, we were educated, like all popular audiences, by the medium itself. No-one was there to guide us or tell us how it was done. We picked that up on our own; the movies themselves taught us. And we did not have, afterwards, to describe or account for what we had discovered; it was just for us. There in the dark, with just ourselves to please, and with those evocative images to tempt us and so many “situations” to slip into and identify with, we were free, off the hook; no-one was watching. We were watching. This was another sort of education, and if we learned something, it was on our own terms.

Victor Erice’s La Morte Rouge (2006) is a wonderfully poetic short film about cinema and childhood, rich with detail about a distinctive historical-national instance of movie-going, the Spanish Civil War, the bombing of Madrid, World War II, the utterly terrible real-life images encountered then by children outside their moviegoing world. Don DeLillo, presenting it at Telluride in 2013, said that it “addresses such major subjects as personal memory, the past and the present, history and fiction, and the way in which a movie can assert itself in a young mind as a scary extension of immediate household reality.”

Erice is five years old when he accompanies his twelve year old sister to see a Sherlock Holmes film, The Scarlett Claw (1944). The cinema is within a grand building that had briefly functioned as a casino until the prohibition of gambling obliged the building to find other ways of being in the world. Erice refers to his childhood self in the third person, as “the boy,” someone who is having his first ever experience of the social act of moviegoing, who immediately notices that the adults in the audience comport themselves differently from the way he comports himself. The film is affecting him much more strongly than it is these adults who surround him. He recognizes that “they knew something he didn’t.” The cinematic unknowingness of Erice’s five year old—”But what was an actor? The Boy didn’t know exactly.”—matches that of Lurie’s five year old persona wondering about his viewing of The Maltese Falcon: “Would it have been good if I had understood it?” In the extended interview included on the DVD, Erice says he didn’t see the film again for forty years. This first traumatic experience of cinema caused him to develop a dread of postmen and letters, a fear not in the least assuaged by his sister, whom we presume chose this film, taunting him at bedtime by whispering, “the postman is coming!”

Film posters figure strongly in Erice’s film, beginning with a large wall poster of The Mark of Zorro (1940). Later Erice presents posters of the other films he might have been able to see that particular first week of his filmgoing life. His research revealed what else was on release that week: Gene Tierney in Henry Hathaway’s Sundown (1941) and Hedy Lamarr in Jacques Tourneur’s Experiment Perilous (1944). But it was The Scarlett Claw that changed his life. During an interview exchange (a DVD extra), Erice alludes to the criticism of Serge Daney and the way Jean-Louis Schefer’s L’homme ordinaire du cinéma reverses the phenomenological trope of a child watching a film; instead, these are “films that watched our childhood.” Erice also reveals that the first film that prompted him to write about it was Truffaut’s The 400 Blows—once again a film about childhood and a childhood obsessed with cinema.

In several of his other comments Erice is in synch with Malouf, Sontag, Calvino and Simic on the idea of the movie theatre as a para-educational institution, one which, in Erice’s case, helped a Spanish resident of a country whose borders were closed, whose citizens daily experienced attacks on their liberty, whose experiences of political and clerical censorship were ongoing and profound, discover that moviegoing, with a nod to Casablanca, made them “citizens of the world.” These probings of cinema as an education outside school and its pedagogy suggest a cinematic spin on Bruce Springsteen’s line from “No Surrender”: “We learned more from a three minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school.”

The remarks from Calvino, Sontag, Goytisolo, Malouf, and Erice point towards nationally specific remembrances of the international act of movie-going. Similar offerings are to be found in Serpent’s Tail’s collection Seeing in the Dark.

V: Movies and their Critics

In Maria de Medeiros’s informative and amusing documentary Je t’aime… moi non Plus: Artistes et critiques (I Love You I Love You Not: Artists and Critics, 2004) a wide range of directors and critics are interviewed at the Cannes Film festival and asked what they think is the relation of the film critic to the filmmaker. We learn that in Spain film critics are paid much more than opera or art critics. At one point Gérard Lefort insists that “film criticism is a literary genre.” Inevitably many directors (from Almodovar to Cronenberg) express pugnacity and disdain for the critic, and some Spanish and Brazilian critics tell funny stories of being physically attacked (on the street, in restaurants) by directors unhappy with a review they have received. The late Alexander Walker, to whom the film is dedicated, tells of having his face slapped twice—on both sides—on UK national television by director Ken Russell. Russell used a convenient weapon for the slap, the newspaper that had carried Walker’s negative review of The Devils.

We hope that the pieces we have assembled here avoid those kinds of confrontational oppositions. To conclude by reiteration, what many of these essays seem to us to do is contribute in a positive way to two developed areas of film criticism and film history: on the one hand the concept of cinéphilia, and on the other the history of movie-going as a distinctive social practice with significant historical, regional and national variations. We like the description put forward by Lawrence Alloway in Violent America, and his take on how best to capture the compelling particularity of the act of movie-going or of a specifically memorable cinematic encounter. Alloway says that I Walk Alone and other ‘movies of the second half of the 40s’ were ‘the first movies that I saw that I still remember’. He says he hopes his film criticism will

hold onto its source in the original act of movie-going. The critical notions to be discussed are not those I had as a regular, not to say compulsive moviegoer, but I do not want to lose that early feeling, the capacity for identification, that made me see I Walk Alone several times when it was first released.


[1] See for example:

Antoine de Baecque and Christian-Marc Bosséno, “Constructing the Gaze: An Interview with Jean Douchet,” trans. Timothy Barnard Framework : The Journal of Cinema and Media 42 (2000)

Scott Balcerzak & Jason Sperb, Cinéphilia in the Age of Digital Reproduction: Film, Pleasure, and Digital Culture (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, vol. 1: 2009 & vol. 2: 2012)

Joe Bobb-Briggs, Joe Bobb-Briggs Goes to the Drive-in (New York: Delacorte Press, 1986)

Ian Breakwell and Paul Hammond, ed., Seeing in the Dark: A Compendium of Cinemagoing (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1990)

Philip French, I Found it at the Movies: Reflections of a Cinéphile (Manchester: Carcanet, 2011)

Christian Keathley, Cinéphilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2005)

Martyn de Konig and Matte Hagener, Cinéphilia: Movies, Love and Memory (Amsterdam: Amsterdam Univ. Press, 2014).

Jacques Rancière, “The Gaps of Cinema,” Necsus: European Journal of Media Studies (Spring 2012), available at:

Rasha Wadia Richards, Cinematic Flashes: Cinéphilia and Classical Hollywood (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2013)

Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin, Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinéphilia (London: BFI, 2008)

Jonathan Rosenbaum, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinéphilia (Chicago: Univ. Of Chicago Press, 2010)

[2] See

[3] It is now available at

[4] The essay is available at


Nelson Algren, “Review of Americana,” Rolling Stone (August 5, 1971)

Lawrence Alloway, Violent America: The Movies 1946-1964 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1971)

James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work (1976) (New York: Vintage International, 2011)

Michael Barker (Co-President of Sony Pictures Classics), “Guilty Pleasures,” Film Comment (July-August 2003): 8

Italo Calvino, “A Cinema-Goer’s Autobiography,” in his The Road to San Giovanni trans. Tim Parkes (New York: Vintage, 1994): 25-50

Lorena Cancela, “Jonathan Rosenbaum: A Life at the Movies: An interview,” Otrocampo 7 (November 2002)

Jean-Claude Carrière, The Secret Language of Film (New York: Pantheon, 1994)

Nicholas Christopher, Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City (New York: The Free Press, 1997) (Expanded edition from Counterpoint in 2006)

Don DeLillo, “That Day in Rome: Movies and Memory,” The New Yorker (October 20, 2003): 76-78

Don DeLillo interviewed by Adam Begley: ‘The Art of Fiction No 135’, The Paris Review (1992), available at:

Don DeLillo, “Woman in the Distance,” Black Clock 4 (2005): 56-59

Don DeLillo, “Counterpoint: Three Movies, a Book, and an Old Photograph,” Brick 74 (Winter 2004): 96-105

Don DeLillo, “The Uniforms,” Carolina Quarterly 22, (1970): 4-11

Don DeLillo, “Coming Sun.Mon.Tues.,” The Kenyon Review 28, 3 (1966)

Marguerite Duras, Green Eyes trans. Carol Barko (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1990)

Geoff Dyer, Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room (New York: Vintage, 2012)

Barry Gifford, The Devil Thumbs a Ride and other Unforgettable Films (New York: Grove Press, 1988)

Barry Gifford, Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir (Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2001)

Jose Goytisolo, Cinema Eden: Essays from the Muslim Mediterranean trans. Peter Bush (London: Eland Books, 2003)

Jessica Hagedorn, Dogeaters (New York: Penguin, 1990)

Morris Lurie, “Introduction to Adulthood,” Meanjin 59, 1 (2000): 51-53

David Malouf, “Growing up with the Stars,” The Sydney Morning Herald “Spectrum,” (March 13th, 1999) and in Being There (Sydney: Knopf Australia, 2015): 48-58

Adam Mars-Jones, Noriko Smiling (London: Nottingham Hill Editions, 2011)

Patrick McGilligan, Film Crazy: Interviews with Hollywood Legends (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000)

Leonard Michaels, “The Zipper,” in Susan Sontag, ed., Best American Essays 1992 (New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1992): 244-252

Granta 86: Film (Granta Books, 2004)

Greil Marcus, The Manchurian Candidate (London: British Film Institute, 2002): 48-49

Parnassus Poetry in Review: The Movie Issue Vol 22, 1-2 (New York: Herbert Leibowitz, 1997)

Projections 4 and ½ in Association with Positif ed. William Donohue and John Boorman (London: Faber and Faber, 1995)

Tony Maraini, “Fellini Interview,” trans. A. K. Bierman Bright Lights Film Journal 12 (1994): 33-37, and Bright Lights Film Journal 14, (nd): 33-37

Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Movie Lover,” The New Yorker (October 20, 2003): 147, 155-157, 159

David Naylor, ed., Great American Movie Theatres (Washington, D.C.: The Preservation Press, 1987): 18

Pablo Neruda, “Ode to a Village Movie Theatre,” trans. Margaret Sayers Peden

J. D. Reed, “Drive-In,” in his Expressways (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969): 12

Charles Simic, “When Movies Kept Us Awake at Night,” available at:

Charles Simic, “Poetry in Unlikely Places: Review of The Poetry of Pablo Neruda., ed. Ilan Stavans,” The New York Review of Books (September25, 2003), available at Javous Arcades Project (Monday, May 9th, 2011),

Iain Sinclair, 70 x 70: Unlicensed Preaching: A Life Unpacked in 70 Films (London: Volcano Publications, 2014)

Susan Sontag, “Century of Cinema,” in Parnassus Poetry in Review: The Movie Issue Vol 22, 1-2 (New York: Herbert Leibowitz, 1997): 23-29

32nd Telluride Film Festival Program (September 1-5, 2005)

40th Telluride Film Festival Program (August 29-September 2, 2013)

David Thomson, “Interview with Robert Birnbaum,” Identity Theory, available at: