I’ve been on a bit of a mystery kick lately with several friends. We’ve read through some classic American tough-guy fiction—Dashiel Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye—and contrasted the books with the movies of the same name, all with an eye toward Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice and its representation in the most recent PT Anderson movie.
(To date I’ve read Pynchon but have yet to watch the movie. For what it’s worth, I dug the book. For once I think I understood what the hell was going on in a Pynchon story: it’s about girls, right??)
I won’t dwell long comparing the first two above—Chandler was a punchier writer than Hammett, with lines that cut clean and tight as a fillet knife, but to my mind his plots were far messier and less convincing. Most people credit Hammett with setting the standard, and it seems to me that with varying degrees of success Chandler hit it and even occasionally pushed it further along (though I’d likely argue that Chandler’s peer Ross MacDonald really knocked things out of the park; his language is comparable to Chandler’s, but his plots are far tighter and his psychological analysis opens up all sorts of interesting avenues.) Lastly, and this may be a minor detail, but of all the detective/mystery writers of note, Hammett was cool looking dude. If you’re not familiar with Hammett’s style, just imagine if Colonel Sanders had been a Navy Seal. That’s a man with some serious badass potential.
The movie versions of both stories hew pretty true to the books, the main argument for film being that in each Bogart plays the seamus, and any time you’re given the chance to watch Humphrey speed-slurring his way through some snappy lines you should take it. By our current standards Bogie might not be the greatest actor ever, but man is he fun to watch. And when he barks that, “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it!”, you do as he says. The movies also feature some great turns from Mary Astor, the perfectly sleazy-gay Peter Lorre, and the sex-bomb Lauren Bacall.
The most fun movie of all the ones we watched—probably because it’s the messiest—has to be Robert Altman’s 1973 version of The Long Goodbye, starring Elliott Gould. If you’ve never seen the movie, simply imagine a young Gould, handsome in his swarthy and unkempt manner, mumbling his way through a very debaucherous and duplicitous early 70’s Los Angeles. Because this was the new wave of American movies and directors were being given great new freedoms (the Hayes Code, which had kept sex and violence quite tame in Hollywood, had only been lifted in 1968), the first ten minutes of the movie feature Gould wandering about attempting to buy food for his cat—try to imagine that opening sustaining interest in the new Whatever-Comic-Hero-BS Hollywood will release this summer.
The movie’s absurd and wonderful, and even though the plot is almost nothing like the book and is full of ridiculous holes (not the least of which is Gould/Marlowe becoming a killer—What??), it’s just great fun to watch. Plus, Sterling Hayden’s in it, and if ever there were an actor with enough stick to keep the channel stuck, there’s your man. (Possibly this is because, as he insisted in Dr. Strangelove, he never gives us his essence.)
Throughout the movie version of The Long Goodbye, no matter what befalls Gould his response is always the same, captured in his oft-muttered mantra: It’s okay with me. The way Gould mumbles the phrase it’s slack-jawed and digressive, uncaring and disassociating, removed and sidestepping, non-judgmental to the point of near passivity, and after watching the movie I decided to give the phrase a whirl in my own day-to-day.
And so on Saturday I walked down to a nearby library to pick up a CD (The Flaming Lips cover of Sgt Peppers—more on that another time, except to note that if you like The Beatles, or The Lips, or just weird psychedelic shit with guest vocals by Miley Cyrus, then you should totally check it out). I don’t normally use this library and so was unfamiliar with the check-out procedure; when I arrived at the front there was a self-check-out kiosk with a librarian hovering nearÂ it. I asked her if I should check out the disc on my own or if she would do it. She told me she could do it for me.
She asked for my library card, which I lost a while ago, so I explained that I didn’t have a card but could tell her my library number. She said No, No, that wouldn’t do—I shouldn’t say it out loud, it’d be “safer” if I wrote it down. Safer, she repeated, and eyed me somberly as she pushed a pen and paper my direction.
I stopped and for the first time really looked at this woman. She was very short, very overweight, and very nerdy looking. She was wearing a horribly shabby dress cut from rejected curtain patterns whose design was based upon a housewife from Oklahoma’s idea of Hawaiian style, thick plastic glasses, and there were traces of what appeared to be custard in one corner of her lip. Likely she had an entire herd of cats waiting to watch some captivating PBS documentaries with her once she returned home. She was exactly one of the two types of women God manufactures to become librarians (the other ones are hipsters, equally geeky though more visually presentable). And as I was about to find out, this woman took her job very, very seriously.
I asked her what would happen if I were to say my number out loud. She nodded seriously toward the room behind me and said that if I were to do so anyone listening could copy it down. I looked behind me: there was nobody within a fifteen foot radius. I looked back at her face, which was set serious as stone.
But even if they copied my number they’d still have to know my PIN in order to use my account, right?
Yes, she replied sternly, but your PIN is only four numbers. That’sÂ not a very secure system.
I did some quick math in my head. Unless I’m mistaken, a four-digit code allows for 10,000 different variations. That’s a lot of combinations, and of course this entire undertaking is predicated upon the supposition that a mysterious and unseeable “someone” would first be attempting to steal my account number.
I attempted to imagine things from this woman’s perspective: it’s a dangerous world, what with Islamic terrorists rising up in the Middle East and Ted Cruz recently announcing his candidacy for an even more important elected position; in such a bleak landscape it’s conceivable that the otherwise staunch and redoubtable Library Security forces had been breached and some mastermind ninja-thief had holed up in a nearby cupboard with a recording device; after he managed to obtain my account number he could then stand at the self-check-out kiosk and steadily tap in all 10,000 possible variations until he finally, FINALLY!, broke into my account, at which point he could check out all the Paulo Coelho books his heard desired, and keep them for an indeterminate amount of time.
GOOD GOD NO!!!!!
I told her that I was going to use the self-check-out instead. She glowered at me. I stepped over to the machine and typed in my numbers while she hate-faced me. I looked at her and smiled.
It’s just a CD from the library, lady, not confident files from the NSA.
Well you don’t have to be rude! she replied with a reddening face.
She was right—I didn’t have to be rude, but then I didn’t really think that I was. The snarky teen that lives somewhere inside my spleen wanted to reply, “Would you like to hear me be rude?” But one uptick of age is that I’ve mostly managed to shut that little bugger up.
Instead I looked at her and smiled. Held the CD up beside my face and tipped it toward her as if doffing an imaginary cap.
It’s okay with me, lady, I said, and walked slowly out the door.