James Jones is not an author often characterized as a leader in radical thought. An American author working from the early ’50s to the mid-’70s, Jones is best known for novels like From Here to Eternity (1951), Some Came Running (1957), and The Thin Red Line (1962), all of which saw major motion picture adaptations and deal with soldiers facing life during or after wartime. For this reason, he is popularly understood to be a “war novelist:” a writer whose oeuvre deals primarily with the battlefield and the lives of veterans. Jones himself spent time in the US Army during World War II, where he witnessed the bombing of Pearl Harbor firsthand and served in the brutal Guadalcanal campaign, experiences that indeed influenced much of his writing. But James Jones: The Limits of Eternity (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), the latest from Southern Illinois University professor Tony J. Williams, challenges to its core the strict categorization of Jones as a writer of war fiction. In fact, Williams implies that this phrase does a disservice to the mission of Jones’ work, which sought to address a corruption eating away at the American psyche. War is just one of many symptoms of this corruption in Jones’ work, which taken as a whole is more so a comprehensive meditation on American life than a reactionary reflection on war specifically. As Williams writes, “The value of his fiction lies in the fact that no real difference exists between civilian and American life. They are both parts of the same oppressive American structure.”
Limits of Eternity provides as well-rounded and thorough an examination of Jones’ corpus as the author’s work did for his contemporary national condition. Williams works through each of Jones’ publications and provides a strong case for viewing the author outside of specific genre codification, and moreover seeks to hold the author’s work up to that of his contemporaries to place him in something like the American literary canon (though Williams is reasonably resistant to this phrase). Jones attacks conformity with blunt force, and his puncturing of mid-century sexual mores situates him in the conversation around a national heritage of sexually marginalized voices. The conflicts in his novels very often pit an individual against oppressively mundane societal structures and provide testimony to the destructive power enabled by desperately clinging to a specifically mandated way of living. Jones’ personal writings and comments in interviews point to an author who spotlights these flaws not out of some sense of empty bitterness, but as the kind of constructive criticism born from love of country that one would expect from a person who served in the military during wartime. For this reason, Williams describes Jones as a “literary winter soldier,” a veteran who recognizes his complicity in a degraded American dream and who hopes to help see the public to a better way forward in service of its country’s ideals.
Tony J. Williams has, at times, found himself to be an individual pitted against hegemonic institutional conformity, but he remains prolific. While his work is primarily in film scholarship (his book Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Film remains a staple in horror film genre study, and saw a reissue in 2014), he has also engaged with the American literary tradition at length. Limits of Eternity is the culmination of an affinity for James Jones that spans decades. Recently, I spoke with Williams about Jones, film, the election, and his career as an academic.
Starting on pretty general terms here, I was wondering what drew you to James Jones initially?
I had been teaching classes on the Vietnam War and American war film, was involved with the Viet Nam Generation group associated with the Popular Culture Association in the late 1980s, and one of its founding members Kalí Tal who wrote that excellent book, Worlds of Hurt, dealing with trauma in the cases of Vietnam War veterans, rape, and incest survivors, mentioned the case of James Jones, who she said suffered from PTSD. While I was in Arizona, visiting my wife’s grandmother, I picked up a paperback copy of From Here to Eternity and began reading it. I only knew the film version, and was really surprised at how interesting this book was in terms of its very perceptive view of American society in wartime and beyond. Jones was a very interesting critic in terms of looking at movies and how they misrepresented human aspirations and ideals in the American 20th century. So I went on from that to read the rest of his novels and came to the conclusion that he was badly categorized as a war novelist. He was really dealing with the American individual dilemma going back to Poe and Hawthorne and expanding those ideas into the 20th century.
Another aspect I was wondering about is whether or not place, his sense of place or his place in an American geographic sense, drew your interest at all given that you towards the beginning of the book express this pretty intimate knowledge of his home state of Illinois. And knowing the institution where you were I was wondering if that had drawn you in at all as well.
The location of Southern Illinois University and Robinson was sheer accident. But to answer your question, Jones always looked on himself as a Midwestern writer. He identified with small-town Illinois, but at the same time was very critical of its institutions and how it basically wrought havoc on the American personality. And the reason that I had to begin the book with “The Ice Cream Headache” was to show these very things about how basically the sense of space and place, the rural economy, sexual repression, and false values wreaked havoc on the human personality well before many of these males ended up in the Army. The job had been mostly done before they arrived in the Army in terms of conformity and following the status quo both socially and psychologically, which really ruined them and made them all, men and women, victims of the dominant ideological status quo of America in the mid- 20th century.
Tangentially related here, and this is more sort of a production aspect question: what kind of institutional support did you have?
(laughs) I’m laughing because I had none whatsoever from my university. When I began the entire project my department was merging into another college, and that department was very anti-intellectual. I transferred to English in 1994, then other book projects came around and in 2006 we had the awful ethics test foisted on us by the Illinois governor who eventually went to jail for unethical conduct. I was threatened with deportation unless I signed a document that most of the faculty willingly signed saying that I’d committed a criminal act by answering an ethics test in under 10 minutes. Nobody knew that the second time this test was going to be instituted there was a time deadline and I knew very well as I was on a Green Card at the time in post 9/11 America, if I’d signed such a document I would never be able to get American citizenship. Also, I was very angry at the fact that it was very much a McCarthyite ploy and because the whole test involved snitching and ”naming names” I certainly wasn’t going to do that at all. So I fought a battle with my university and at the 11th hour they backed off. It was only about 5 years ago that I was able to return to the project and complete it to my satisfaction. So in terms of institutional support I had absolutely none whatsoever.
Good Lord, that was a hornet’s nest of a question!
It certainly was, and you got a hornet’s nest of an answer.
So speaking of naming names, and we can strike this from the record but our readers will probably draw the conclusion, we’re talking Blagojevich here, right?
Yes, please don’t strike it from the record because it is an official record!
I did not know about the, as you said, McCarthyite paranoia at the root of that administration. I knew he was a crook, I didn’t know he was a tyrant.
What he wanted the second time he instituted the ethics test was more guilty people to be eventually accused than he was finally in the state of Illinois. It was also a way to bring academics to heel, very much a tactic used in the McCarthy era.
Is there something particularly cinematic about Jones’s work that maybe eases the transition for you between literature and film scholarship?
I’ve always been interested in both fields because when I studied for my MA in Warwick University in England under Robin Wood (and Andrew Britton was there as a graduate student at the time), we also did classes with the American literature people on the Western. Andrew was very keen on how Hollywood cinema linked to the classical American tradition in the writings of Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville. Robin once said the classical Hollywood cinema is indebted to the American literary tradition in one way or another. They both complement each other.
That sort of calls to mind for me Beneath the American Renaissance by David Reynolds and this idea of the layers of subversion underneath the layers of veneer in American literature.
There’s one American scholar whose work I’m deeply indebted to, and that’s David Greven at the University of South Carolina, a very good colleague. A lot of his ideas I used in my book, with acknowledgement of course!
Continuing on this topic of translation between literature and film: I’m sort of obsessed with the Stanley Kubrick/Stephen King feud over The Shining. So I’m wondering what your thoughts are regarding authors weighing in on film adaptations of their work. Jones does that a little bit in his letters it seems.
A director has a right to go in whatever artistic direction he wants. Stephen King should’ve taken the advice of Graham Greene, who said that once he sold the book for a film version, that he had no other rights to it. The Shining is a good novel. It belongs to the American literary naturalist tradition, which is indebted to Emile Zola as I’ve written elsewhere. Kubrick has gone into his own type of artistic, cinematic direction. So I see the feud as being absolutely futile and going nowhere. King really should’ve respected what Kubrick was doing, and you do remember that awful miniseries of The Shining on television. It was absolutely dreadful.
You touched on exactly how I feel about it. Especially this idea of once the transaction happens, once you bow to a sort of capitalistic use of art...
Don’t forget Stephen King’s only film as a director. Maximum Overdrive, wasn’t it? By any stretch of the imagination, it was really awful.
Yeah I have fond memories of watching replays of that film on TV on Saturday afternoons but nothing else really beyond that. I mean, it was a really cool movie when you’re six years old right?
Your project, aside from ensuring that Jones doesn’t slip into obscurity, is in part a push against strictly codifying him as a war novelist. I’m wondering what you think the limitations of categorizing an author like that are?
It puts him into a very convenient slot, beyond which his diverse mode of thought and artistic creativity cannot really extend. Jones first and foremost critiqued the American society of his own day, the political and sexual conformity, in the same way that Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville did in their era in the 19th century. There is so much rich material in James Jones that goes beyond the battlefield. Jones of course would remain a war novelist, he suffered from PTSD, but his works extend beyond the battlefield into the broader reaches of society: the dehumanization of the ordinary soldier, the oppressive officer classes very similar to CEOs today (and university administrators). There’s a lot of relevance in his writing that I feel has not been understood, even by those in the academic community who’ve focused on him in one narrowly focused degree or another.
On the topic of him resonating, there’s an air to his work of him as this author that’s seeking empathy in age of espionage and intrigue, and I’m wondering how we can extrapolate or learn those lessons today?
Jones was very sympathetic to the outcast elements of society, I would say, in particular gays and lesbians. He had a very deep relationship with his sensitive and troubled young sister Mary Ann. In one of the early letters he says to her, “I don’t care if you’re a lesbian or not. I value you as my sister.” He took Montgomery Clift with him on a visit to the writer’s colony in Marshall, Illinois, which he was mostly funding out of his royalties from From Here to Eternity. He very much sympathized with the dilemma of Montgomery Clift. When somebody asked, “Why didn’t you sleep with him?” Jones said, “Well, he didn’t ask me.” Looking at the so-called restored version of From Here to Eternity and the edited version, there is a sympathy with gays who are basically being used by some of these soldiers. Many of them are treated as creative individuals and victims of an FBI roundup which happened some 8-10 years after From Here to Eternity was written. The novel was written against the background of the Cold War, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and of course the oppression of gays and lesbians in that very dark era of American society.
I hate how pressing all of these topics feel post-November 8th. And I’m wondering if you think there’s any chance of the spirit of Jones surviving after January 21st.
You have to think about resistance. There’s been other dark periods of American history before. The Know-Nothing movement of the 19th century. The Southern support of slavery with Northern complicity. The Cold War era of McCarthyism. J. Edgar Hoover. There’ve been other negative eras in American history, but there’s always been that spirit of resilience and resistance. I make a joke about November the 8th in terms of certain groups having PDTSD: Post Donald Traumatic Stress Disorder. I think it’s unnecessary because now is the time to mobilize against these dark forces, in the same way people had to mobilize against Thatcher in the 1980s (and I was a refugee from Thatcher in 1984). Even today in England you have, let’s say, a possibility with Jeremy Corbyn and people really angry at the way in which the Tory party is refusing benefits to disabled people, even wanting to get mentally ill people back to work on the ideological grounds “Arbeit macht frei,” the sign outside Auschwitz: “Work makes you free.” There’s growing resentment at the moment. So even with Donald and his cabinet appointees so far, the odious Jeff Sessions and others, this is a time to stand up and resist, not break down emotionally. It’s a testing time. I think in James Jones, as a writer, there is support for resistance, because he was writing his first two novels From Here to Eternity and Some Came Running in a period of very bleak ideological and political reaction, much worse than what we’re seeing today.
That makes me feel a little better. And I agree, I’ve never felt more energized to think about resistance.
That’s right, organize. As Lenin and Trotsky would say, “Now is the time.” Remember, the Bolshevik revolution was totally unforeseen at the time it actually happened. This is no time for pessimism or capitulation.
On the point of rescuing James Jones from obscurity, I’m wondering why Jones doesn’t have the cult of personality surrounding contemporaries like Capote and Kerouac, even though I see some parallels between their work and his work. So as you were working on this book, did you get a sense for how Jones was perceived in the public eye or what his popular image-creation was like?
If you look at the first dust jacket cover of From Here to Eternity, Jones appears like a young tough guy wearing a striped t-shirt. And this was the image he used to sell his work. So Jones would be regarded in his heyday as a vulgar novelist, using the “f-word” in literature for the first time (Norman Mailer was really mad at him for that), and exuding a macho type persona which supposedly infected his writings. But when you go into the writings, you see he is as far from the macho ideal as possible. Jones’ works were works of sensitivity more than anything else. He was also a very modest person. He didn’t want to project himself in the way that other writers did. He was never into a cult of personality. He was somebody who let his writings speak for themselves. This was the way in which he operated, and because he wasn’t, let’s say, a celebrity. That’s why his works have suffered, and of course it was due to the fact that people did not read them with the seriousness they deserved.
In your chapter on Whistle, you express a hope that more critics will engage with 20th Century authors. I’m wondering if you think we’re on the verge of seeing more postwar texts entering the American literary canon?
I hope that is the case, but there’s been other writers who are marginalized like Jones. Irwin Shaw’s been virtually forgotten since he died. But I think there’s a need for understanding the context in which they were writing and how the issue within those contexts speaks to us even today. There’s a need for a greater recognition, and this recognition will only come when the post-modernist critical school is overthrown and the master narratives dealing with history, politics, and individual survival are again restored to the place they once had within the literary tradition.
So canonization, does that come with the restoration?
Well, my attitude is, ‘screw the canon.’ It’s a completely useless, obnoxious distraction. You’ve got to see each work on its particular merits and demerits. Evaluate it for what it says, both to its era and to us today. If a work speaks beyond its era, it’s not archaic, it’s not redundant, it’s still relevant. But it’s amazing how many institutional voices are afraid of recognizing the relevance in these very, very different authors. There’s the idea of “don’t rock the boat.” Take the monster going into the White House now, very much like the Omen thesis coming alive, and the fear of independence which has always perversely occupied the American spirit. The conformity which came in with the “man in the gray flannel suit” movement and the Greatest Generation in the postwar era, as well as the suppression of alternative politics within the IWW in the 1930s and Trotskyism in America in the postwar era, the hideous nature of Stalinist Communism, the Hitler-Stalin pact, the Moscow Trials, played havoc in terms of any real great forms of literary, and to an extent cinematic, expression.
As you note, both in the book and earlier in our conversation, Jones prefigures in some way modern considerations of PTSD.
Oh yes he does, because he suffered from it himself. In his first unpublished novel They Shall Inherit the Laughter, if you read it in the form he wrote it not the edited rewritten version by the James Jones Literary Society, you’ll see it’s a common thread running throughout the entire early raw novel that he produced. Of course he recognized that. In WWII and Whistle were concepts of the evolution of the soldier into a dehumanized fighting machine and then devolution back to some form of normality. The victims in Whistle in one way or another are affected by PTSD from their wartime experiences, as well as the dehumanizing conditioning of the military machine. You see it definitely present.
And veterans’ health affairs and mental health in veterans, these things are in some way part of a national conversation fairly recently, maybe post-Vietnam when talking about the correlation between veterans of Vietnam and heroin addiction. So I think this issue of PTSD has in some way come into the limelight, but I also think it’s been perverted.
Yes I very much agree with you, because if you go way back into American history there’s a book called Embattled Courage dealing with oral, transcribed narratives of Civil War veterans. There’s WWI “shell-shock,” as it was defined then. If an officer had it, like Wilfred Owen, it was fine; if it was an ordinary soldier they were marched straight to the firing squad. And of course John Huston’s Let There Be Light (1946) and the tendency to resort to alcohol with veterans in Some Came Running. Christa Fuller, the widow of Samuel Fuller, told me her late husband suffered from PTSD. So did Jones.
So can reading Jones or drawing an audience towards Jones, can that translate into helping us have a more honest conversation about PTSD?
It depends how Jones is read, and whether his work is taken seriously in terms of the recognition that war is dehumanizing in all its aspects. It wreaks havoc on the human personality in the same way that any type of conformity, whether in McCarthyite America or Stalinist Russia, does to the individual men and women and children who are victims of this type of conditioning. Those go together, I believe.
In your chapter on From Here to Eternity, you touched on the way that Jones can help us to unpack this sense of creeping militarization in society. Do you think that a message like that resonates more urgently when it comes from someone who’s been embedded in military culture?
It does but unfortunately it’s not listened to. One of the greatest talents to have emerged from the Vietnam War is not Tim O’Brien, but W.D. Ehrhart, the veteran poet/writer in his trilogy of novels and poetry, and he’s still writing today in terms of civilized and wartime issues. He has a very important manner of articulation and protest. But he is marginalized and often ignored in the same way that people who are critical of American culture get marginalized. Today I discovered that Sara Paretsky, the author of the V.I. Warshawski novels, had written a book critical of the Patriot Act and George Bush in 2007 (Writing in the Age of Silence) and it was published in Verso Press in London, not in an American press. The later works of Gore Vidal were published by independent presses. They were all banned from the mainstream.
You know, not a thing you really hear about. Censorship seems like such a thing of the past.
Oh it’s still going on in very subtle ways. Not as explicit, except for the odd reactionary emergence of a deliberate type of censorship like the banning of a book in a school. But it’s going on very subtly in terms of, “This won’t make money. Let’s have this dumb superhero blockbuster,” rather than let’s say a work taking off from William Klein’s Mr. Freedom, an American artist living in Paris who in 1969 directed and wrote the most devastating critique of the American superhero phenomenon, which I’ve written on in Film International.
And that form of subterfuge censorship almost scares me more because it’s harder to spot. But much like you were saying in regards to the reaction to the election, staying aware, staying vigilant, staying organized, right?
That’s right and not having any false illusions or fantasies. Robert Aldrich, a director I very much admire, speaks in terms of staying in the ball game no matter what you have to do and realizing that the movement forward may be very limited but if you can move the ball one step further, you’ve got a chance of eventually winning the game. But it’s a long and hard process.
I like that though. Regardless of the hard work ahead there’s obviously an endgame.
Yes. And that has to be always kept in sight.
Speaking of words of warning, your book ends on this point about maintaining our critical thinking in the face of social ills. What are your thoughts on our present ability to work towards what you term “positive forms of cure”?
At the moment absolutely dire. If Hillary had gotten in we would’ve been in the middle of World War III already. The system is bankrupt. Gore Vidal defined both political parties as the same System with identical heads. So there has to be another, different form of alternative organization to really change things. And it’s going to be hard but it’s the only way forward. Forget the Democrats, the Republicans are a lost cause anyway.
What are our tools in terms of maintaining or strengthening critical thinking? You sort of hinted earlier about funding of humanities departments. Not to stand on my own soapbox here, but valuing the ability to explicate I think is something that can carry over socially and I fear that it doesn’t get the attention or import that it deserves. Would you agree there?
Yes, but I would also stress the value of self-education. Jones never went to a university except for a few courses in NYU and Hawai’i. Likewise Jack London in California who described university education as “the passionless pursuit of passionless intelligence.” These two talents engaged in self-education, representing the important way of learning and seeing critically that often institutions hinder, particularly now. They can give you the basic tools, but from there on you’ve got to go in your own direction. Always educate. Always read. Always learn.
So sort of switching gears, another production question. You really rolled up your sleeves with archival materials, especially when it comes to digging through his letters.
That’s right, because archival work, when you have the support to go to an archive, is very important. I did that with my book Jack London: The Movies (1992). It’s really important to go to those primary sources, but how many people are allowed in? And the lack of institutional support presently, and what support there is really is absolutely miserable. Many institutions don’t want certain things to come out, whether they’re in the archives or not, particularly, universities dependent on funding from the state. “Wasting the taxpayers’ money” is a term used against us now. A Board of Trustees with business people is invested in keeping the status quo rolling.
And what was the research process like? You thanked the University of Texas, where Jones’ archives are held?
Yes, the Harry Ransom Humanities archive, for the help. I believe I had a grant from my university way back in 1990 when I first began doing it, which allowed me to spend an entire month in Austin.
This question’s sort of been answered, but because of this hands-on approach, and as you’ve touched on the extenuating circumstances, would you consider this a lengthier book project for you in terms of how long you had to work on it?
Well, it could have been lengthier. I had a limited time, and when I was there the material was uncatalogued. It is now catalogued, but looking at its website I think I covered most of it. I could have written about the film versions as well, but I decided to leave that aside. I could write something on They Shall Inherit the Laughter, even though it’s a raw manuscript. I find it interesting in so many ways. So if I continue with Jones, assuming that universities are still in existence in the next five years, there’s always the possibility. But you never know what’s coming around the corner. It could be good or it could be bad.
So it sounds like you started this in 1990, but because of all of this institutional...what do we want to call it?
Crap, I would say.
Because of the institutional crap it was dragged out for much more than it needed to be.
I could do a whole interview about the crap I’ve had to deal with over the past 25 years with different departments. I can’t be a detective writer, because if I wrote it would be about universities and the equivalent of “the butler did it” would be “the administrator did it,” as the final revelation. My detective hero would enact a Mickey Spillane Mike Hammer I, the Jury/Vengeance is Mine revenge on some of those types. Isn’t it a shame Donald won the election? He would make a great Hammer in a film directed by Eli Roth, produced by Tarantino.
(laughs) And if you wrote detective novels what do you think your pen name would be?
I don’t know I just tossed that out as a humorous little aside. I’m exploring the detective novel tradition at the moment in view of a class I’m teaching because my one on Hitchcock was poached by another department. Matt [Sorrento, Identity Theory's film editor] will tell you the whole story.
Yeah, speaking of departmental obstacles and such, I’m sure you’ve heard from him.
Oh yes, I have. It’s bad all over, particularly in England now, if you read The Guardian (UK) last Thursday about adjuncts in British universities.
No, what’s the latest?
In last Thursday’s online Guardian there’s a whole load of links about “adjunctivitis,” as I term it, affecting British universities, as there is over here.
It’s disheartening to hear that becoming a sort of global symptom.
That’s the globalization which people reacted at in protest and voted Donald in.
Well, on a lighter note let’s talk about horror films. So, if you’ll indulge me, some questions on your work as a film scholar.
Please do. I was looking at The Witch (2015) last night, I finally got around to that. A friend from New York sent it to me.
I do have a question related to that. But going down this side-path, what did you think?
I thought it was a very interesting film. Of course it’s spoken in very soft dialogue and my heating unit came on so I missed some of the dialogue and I had to watch it again in my office where the ventilation sound is not too loud. I thought it was a very interesting treatment of the Puritan tradition within the American horror film, which has been very scarcely touched upon. There’s this other film called Eyes of Fire (1983) directed by Avery Crounse which I did manage to see when it first came out, but nobody has looked into this particular element. Viewing The Witch I thought there was a very interesting ambivalence between the fact that it was supernatural, and also the alternative view was coming out of the Puritan family repressive mechanisms.
That’s a great point. I think Perry Miller has work on the sort of dark heart of America that Puritans were afraid of, and I never thought about until now how there is this rich mine of horror that could be accessed in the Puritan tradition.
I deal with it in the first chapter of Hearths of Darkness: The Family and the American Horror Film (2015).
So that actually gets to my first question on your film scholarship. Hearths of Darkness, which I believe was given an update edition not too long ago, shares a theme it seems with Limits of Eternity in that it also gets into this sense of war and violence encroaching on domestic life.
I think it’s a much broader theme than I initially thought when I wrote the horror film book, because I’m now exploring the work of Ross Macdonald, the Californian crime writer with The Galton Case, and the later novels deal not with criminals but with people being affected by dysfunctional family violent incidents in the past which affect the present. Now I don’t know if my surmise is correct, but I have a feeling that Macdonald deals with the dark elements of the Californian family dysfunctional dream. I’ll have to go further into his work.
So you touched on seeing a larger theme across your works. Domesticity and familial space, investigating those, is that something maybe up until now you hadn’t consciously molded your work around?
When I began my MA under Robin Wood, who wrote an introduction to the Modern American Horror Film which was published in Film Comment in 1977, we were all exploring the family horror film in America. And that was the basis of my dissertation with relationship to the Western, and it became the first edition of Hearths of Darkness. So I’ve always been exploring the family horror film, but I thought it was central to the 1970s and went back to the American cultural tradition. Now I believe more strongly that it may be endemic to the whole western material experience in the way of dysfunctionality in following a wrong social path, when there are alternatives out there which represent better directions, whether personally, sexually, or politically.
My next question here is in full recognition of the fact that critically lauded horror films and independent horror filmmakers are things that have both been around for quite some time, but pop culture media outlets presently seem to think we’re on the verge or in the midst of something of a horror renaissance or an indie boom. Is this something that you’ve been tracking at all?
Well they’ve been saying that for years, from the Blair Witch films going into the present day. I think that with the vitality of the independent horror film section, and people wanting to do things on a low budget, you don’t need a big budget to do a work of art. There’s things like garage rock and using a digital camera, as my writer-director friend Evans Chan is doing in his Hong Kong films, that one can explore without the necessity of a big budget.
Do you think that within these spaces then there’s definitely hope for a pushback against franchise filmmaking? And maybe specifically in the horror genre but I guess we can blow this up to a larger point about the present state of Hollywood.
I think if people just stay away from big budget crap, stop paying these huge prices in these corporate-owned cinema chains and go to alternative venues, let’s say the Internet is really great for showing these things, then there may be a way forward, a type of restoration. But the fact is, as long as the crap makes money the system is going to remain. If it loses money, then as was the case with the big blockbusters in Hollywood which lost money like Star and others that I don’t remember now, there may be a way forward. It’s Trotsky’s “permanent revolution,” not just in politics but in film. Artistry has to go on evolving, going into new directions. If you’re restricted by formula, it results in stagnation and fatigue.
You used a word here that touches on my next question. You mentioned “restoration.” I read your recent review of A Thousand Cuts, about film collectors, and it got me dwelling on a topic that I haven’t really been able to shake recently: contemporary films that emulate a ’60s/’70s B movie aesthetic. I’m thinking of Tarantino’s Grindhouse. I’m thinking of The Autopsy of Jane Doe, which was produced by an IFC sub-label called IFC: Midnight, so they’re being very upfront about the fact that they’re trying to recreate this sense of “midnight movies” or the “graveyard matinee.” Do you have any kind of angle on why these films persist, or why this sense of restoration persists, and what kind of effect it might have?
The reason for this influence is the achievements of the 1970s. A French critic, David Roche, wrote a book about the difference between the ’70s horror films and their remakes. I think that era represented a potential for alternative expression but I feel one cannot now entirely follow that alternative because the era’s past. George Romero said to me once that people are always on at him about repeating aspects of his Dawn of the Dead. He can’t do it because the mall culture is now gone. The important thing is trying to move forward in as original a direction as possible. Use the heritage of the past by all means, but, never copy: develop and innovate. That’s the best way forward in my opinion.
Reading your review also made me wonder if there’s maybe been more energy behind making new movies look like old movies because we’re in an age of digitization. Is there maybe an anxiety around celluloid films, it’s such a fragile material, do you think that maybe directors are pouring an anxiety into this work about these celluloid films disappearing?
Maybe. I don’t know, I don’t go all that much these days. In fact, the number of theatrically released films in this cultural backwater I see each year can be counted on fingers with one hand. I saw Sully and Snowden and Trumbo with Bryan Cranston. I’m more interested in exploring the past, excavating what’s been neglected, and what should be developed. I’m watching Naked City at the moment, a TV series, on DVD. Amazing stories, amazing acting too, all shot on location in New York.
So I actually was thinking of maybe ending on this point of where you are now. Naked City, tell me more about that, is that a crime series?
Naked City was a very popular late 1950s, early ’60s TV series based on the film of the same name by Jules Dassin. We saw some seasons in England, and this one is shot on location, often featuring up and coming young actors like Bruce Dern, George Maharis, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, and a very young David Janssen in the episode I was looking at last night. Veterans like Luther Adler and Eli Wallach also appear as well as Walter Matthau before he became famous. The acting was absolutely superb. There was a very good tradition of television acting represented by people like the “Green Girl” Susan Oliver (I’ve written on her in Film International) that was first-class, before the formula affected television. There’s this lost direction in television which needs to be explored, and so many people dismiss it. “Oh it’s black and white. It’s creaky. It’s archaic.” It isn’t. The best examples stand up today. Another example is the Defenders TV series with E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed, the first season of which has been released on DVD.
What you’re saying about there being a prestige history in television stretching back beyond where we are now, obviously you have Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I don’t know if that communicates at all with what you’re looking at.
Yes, but there were a lot of others and they tend to have been forgotten. I found out that with William Shatner, a very good actor before Captain Kirk, not that Captain Kirk was bad, but he was so versatile before and he appears often in these early ’60s TV series. He’s in season one of The Defenders playing a veteran who’s a killer, and he did a spin-off with Howard Da Silva, the black-listed American actor, in another legal series which seems to have disappeared.
Ending on a note of looking forward, you’re looking at Macdonald?
Yes I’ve begun reading the detection fiction of Ross Macdonald, because there are a lot of gaps in my education which I must catch up on. I heard about him from my friend Mike Nevins who lives in St. Louis, a retired professor of law, friend of and expert on the late director William Witney, and the biographer of Cornell Woolrich. He’s been a friend of mine now for nearly 30 years who has written crime fiction and film, detective novels, and criticism.
So I guess I don’t know if there is anything you’d like me to plug.
No, I think you have been very thorough, and like James Jones I tend to be very modest. You might find other academics and writers who would want to plug themselves (laughs).