Life, Movies

The End of the West, The End of the Western

03.07.11 | Permalink | Comment?

This past weekend I watched a really good movie called Ride The High Country. An old lawman and gunfighter takes a job protecting a shipment of gold. As he arrives in town he meets an old friend, and asks him if he wants a job helping out. So they, and the friend’s young partner, head off to the remote mining camp to pick up the gold.

Two old cowboy actors, Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, star as the two old cowboys, and the movie is really about getting old. Are you the same man you used to be if you can’t do the things you once did? It’s an old-fashioned Western, with just enough melodrama and just enough gunplay, but it got me thinking about another Western – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

That movie debuted just seven years after Ride, and despite the huge differences in style and perspective, they do have some similarities. Both have a sort of sad, elegiac tone. In Ride it’s because these two old men have reached the end of their line. In Butch Cassidy it’s because the new West has no place for outlaws. They will be driven out, hunted to extinction.

I had to wonder, watching these two movies only a month or six weeks apart, if a little of the lament in Butch Cassidy wasn’t for the kind of people who watch the old Westerns. Society was changing, and fast, and even sophisticated cowboy flicks such as Shane semed simple-minded in the world of M*A*S*H.

It’s not too surprising, I guess. Into the middle decades of the 20th century there were lots of people in this country who lived in ways not too different from the cowboys they watched on the screen, and not too different from others throughout the world. But just since 1970 or so, many of the old certanties of life have changed. (Many for the better, let’s not forget.) Out with the old, in with the new.

Now I don’t believe that America ever really loses its innocence – each generation, and each person, loses that on their own – but I do wish we were still a country that could go see a movie about heroes on horseback wearing white hats, and the black-hatted baddies who were bound to lose in the end.

Well, there’s still Rango. That’s something.

Short Stories, Writing

Scarry Night: The Tale of the Tape

02.27.11 | Permalink | 5 Comments

So a few weeks ago Patti Abbott issued a new flash fiction challenge: incorporate the sentence “I really don’t mind the scars” into a story of 800 or so words. An idea came to me in a (heh) flash. So without furher ado, I present:

The Tale of the Tape

by Graham Powell

“I really don’t mind the scars.”

He turned the shuttle wheel and jogged back ten seconds, pressed pause, and noted the time on his pad. A smile as he played it forward again, scribbling down her words. That would make the cut for sure.

The woman was saying, “I tell myself it was a trade – yes, I got this” – she waved a hand at the mottled blotches that ran from under her collar, across her cheek, and to the side of her head, covering a ruined ear – “but I also saved a child’s life. I mean, who wouldn’t take that deal?”

She was good, really good, modest but not shy. She didn’t acknowledge the scars again, but you couldn’t look away from them, the plain evidence of what she’d done.

He sipped his coffee and squinted at his pad. The editing booth was dark except for the light from the monitor. Aside from the scars, the woman was cute in an 80s sort of way, hair teased and hairsprayed, cheeks with just a hint of baby fat. She looked like Markie Post on Night Court, circa 1988.

No one remembers Markie Post, he thought.

Now she was looking down at her hands in her lap as they twisted round each other. When she looked up her eyes were wet. Her voice cracked as she said, “I only wish I could have saved them both.”

Gold, that was pure fucking gold. There was an award out there somewhere for this. He could see it on his desk already.

The dipshit host nearly let her off the hook then, taking a break to let her regain her composure. It was his first interview, he was young, inexperienced, didn’t know when to step on the gas. A twist of the wheel and footage of the woman smiling ruefully as she wiped away tears, sipping water, a PA fixing her hair and makeup, all flashed by at the speed of a Keystone Kops movie.

As she settled back in her chair and began speaking, he slowed the tape to normal speed. “…so I was out jogging, like I do every morning,” she said. “I’d seen the new family there, seen the kids playing there in the street, so when I saw the fire…” She shrugged. “I knew I had to do something.”

That shrug. He paused the tape and looked closer, at the modest little smile that pulled at the scar tissue. She loved the attention. Loved it. This was going to make her a star.

He spent an hour logging the rest of the interview then popped out the disc and loaded the surveillance footage.

There was a convenience store on the corner, just half a block from the house, and it had caught most of the action. A digital readout in the lower right-hand corner displayed the time. He jumped ahead to 5:45am.

Even in black and white you could tell the old Victorian had seen better days. The side yard had been covered in gravel for use as a parking lot, and held an assortment of junkers, beat up old imports and big American land yachts that had been new when Kojak was on the air.

5:52am. There was a flash in a window near the back of the house, down near the ground. He knew from the police report that this was a basement window, where the water heaters were. A gas leak, maybe. The window brightened slowly, almost imperceptibly, until the flames themselves were visible, licking up the side of the house. And here came the woman, sprinting into the bottom of the frame.

She banged on the front door, wrestled it open, darted inside. At 5:56 she reappeared, and elderly woman shuffling along behind her in a gown and slippers. The grandmother, he knew. The whole downstairs was brilliantly illuminated now, but the grandmother pointed back into the house, and the woman went.

Nothing for five minutes. Then, at 6:01am exactly, the upstairs bedroom at the front of the house collapsed into the entry hall, and nine-year-old Jasmine McDonald died.

Two minutes more, and the woman managed to crawl through the wrecked front door with Jasmine’s sister Angela tucked under her arm.

He hit rewind and picked up his pad. And managed to dump hot coffee directly onto his crotch.

Cursing, he jumped up and swatted at his pants, brushing most of the coffee to the floor. Much of the rest he blotted up using his cuffs. When he saw the display still zipping back in time he slapped at the pause button. It stopped at 3:15.

His eyes narrowed. No way.

Rewind to 3:13. Play.

No fucking WAY.

A familiar figure stole up the street, keeping to the shadows. In her right hand was – what? A gas can? It looked like a gas can.

Up to the house, but this time around to the back. The figure disappeared, down a flight of stairs to the basement. She was in the house this time for three minutes and forty seconds, then up the stairs, down the street, out of the frame.

He sat back, pulling at his lip. An extreme case of Munchausen’s-by-proxy – she got to play the hero. The fire, though, wouldn’t follow the plan. A child was dead, and the woman scarred for life. But that wasn’t so bad, not if she wanted attention. She’d have all she wanted now.

More than she wanted, when this tape hit the air.

He smiled. Pulitzer, for sure.


Borders is Bankrupt. Who’s Next?

02.22.11 | Permalink | 3 Comments

So the long-anticipated Borders bankruptcy has finally come to pass. Too bad, really, because despite some of its shortcomings, Borders was a really good store. I’ve been shopping at one Borders or another since I moved to Atlanta in 1992, and began shopping at the Roswell Road store.

Back then the chain bookstores were Waldenbooks and B. Dalton’s, typically housed in the local mall, and limited in size and inventory. These quickly became obsolete as Borders and Barnes & Noble began opening the Wal-Marts of bookstores.

That’s an important note – despite its upscale presentation, with the comfy chairs and the cappuchino cafe, Borders was essentially a warehouse store that competed primarily on the size of its inventory, and to a lesser extent on price. In modern retailing you either want to be at the top, selling luxury goods, or the bottom pushing commodities, and there’s not much of a luxury market in book.

So I personally think Borders had a viable business plan, except for some extraordinary bad luck. By the late nineties, they were faced with a new rival, one that stocked every single book in print, and was a close as your home computer. Amazon, naturally.

Since becoming the major player in bookselling, Amazon has also been the prime mover in the e-book revolution. This turn of events has made it easier for authors to take their books directly to readers, threatening another segment of the book industry: publishers. Some well-established authors are electing to reject their publishers’ offer of e-book royalties and go independent. This may be a great move; it may be a terrible one. But it has to have the publisher worried.

That’s because one of the things the Internet is great at is disintermediation – cutting out middlemen. Books are produced by writers, not publishers, and they’re sold to readers, not bookstores. Those segments are just itermediaries, and technology is making it easier to bypass them all the time.

What does this mean? For one thing, it means that now I can get books electronically that I would never have been able to get in print, because their small sales would not be profitable under the old model. I hope this trend continues; if it does I may even have to break down and buy a reader.

But as I’ve said before, I like books, the physical feel, the smell, the heft. I like bookstores, and can spend hours browsing there. And I like any publisher that can bring me the books I want. So I worry about the future of publishing. It will bring many benefits, I’m sure, but I hope it doesn’t bring along too many drawbacks with them.

Peeves, Pets

It’s A Dog’s Life

02.18.11 | Permalink | 1 Comment

So we got a new puppy, a beagle whom we have named Rose. And by “we” I mean “my wife and kids”, as I was not exactly consulted about this. Which makes it really odd that I’m the one elected to get up in the night and let her go out to pee.

This was more of a problem before the past couple of weeks, when she’s mostly been sleeping through the night, much to my relief. Waking up for half an hour at three-hour increments was taking its toll on my sanity, not to mention my sense of humor. But it looked like that phase was, finally over.

Until last night.

Last night Rose woke up at 1:30. And 2:30. And 4:00. And 5:15. I was not happy with this development, and let it be known. I even spanked her at one point, which I now sincerely regret. Really, Rose, I’m sorry.

‘Cause this morning I learned why she kept waking up. As usual, it involved someone interfering in my plans.

(Sidebar: As a certified professional geek, I make a plan for pretty much any activity. Usually not written down – who needs notes! – but I always have an idea for the order in which I want to do things. Which, of course, is the optimal order.)

The trouble started night before last, when my wife noted that Rose’s dog bed was getting pretty rank. I, man that I am, didn’t notice any particular odor, but I’ve learned to take my wife’s word on these things. Since I had some laundry of my own to do, and since we needed the dog bed for, you know, her to sleep in, I decided that:

  1. I would wash my clothes and load them in the dryer.
  2. Next morning, as soon as I got up (the puppy is always up before me), I would take her bed and load it in the washing machine.
  3. By the time I was ready to head to work, Rose’s bed would be ready for the dryer. When bedtime came, her now sweet-smelling bed would be ready.

Unfortunately my wife decided that plan was too simple and logical. So while I was in the shower she restarted the wash cycle to MAKE DAMN SURE that the bed was clean. So, though it was still washing when I had to leave, I extracted a promise from my oldest to move it over to the dryer before he had to catch the bus.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

I had a soccer game to play in, so I didn’t get home until after the dog’s bedtime. Unbeknownst to me, her bed had not made it to the dryer, much less back into her kennel. So yeah, she was a little uncomfortable sleeping on the floor, and I can’t blame her. And of course I feel like a TERRIBLE dad for getting on to her.


Books, Friends

Buy This Book: “Killing Ways”, by Steven Torres

02.10.11 | Permalink | Comment?

Another new ebook makes its debut today – Killing Ways, a collection of stories by the estimable Steven Torres, author of the “Precinct Puerto Rico” books, among others. I may have had a hand in this one, as I badgered Steven about putting together some of his short stories and even volunteered to format them for the Kindle. I’m pretty happy with the results:

And the inside is even better. Two brand new stories featuring Ray Cruz, a mob enforcer in 1970s New York City. Four stories about Russian mercenary Viktor Petrenko. And three never before seen stories of horror, urban fantasy, and science fiction (one of each, actually).

If you’ve never read Steven, check out “Padrino“, a Ray Cruz story from last summer’s Plots with Guns.

I’m chuffed beyond words at how this turned out, and you will be too, once you get off your bum and grab a copy.

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