Monday, December 23, 2013

Film History Student Final Paper #3 - Federico Fellini

I am fortunate to teach Film/Video Production History in the Motion Picture/TV Department at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. At the end of each semester, the students (who range from ages 18 - 21, usually) are required to write a paper about an auteur filmmaker of their choice. They are to provide an overview of the filmmaker's career and identify specific stylistic and/or thematic traits in his/her work that are "signatures," i.e. the things that make the filmmaker an auteur. I ask the students to write the paper in an informal, conversational tone, as if they are telling a story to a young person who knows nothing about the subject.  

I have picked three papers out of the bunch that I feel are worthy to be published here on my blog.

Third Paper:  FEDERICO FELLINI, written by JOSH MACNEAL

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Fellini: The Life of Cinema
Federico Fellini, my favorite director (tied with Kubrick) once said in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine that “Talking about dreams is like talking about movies, since the cinema uses the language of dreams; years can pass in a second and you can hop from one place to another. It’s a language made of image. And in the real cinema, every object and every light means something, as in a dream” (Rolling Stone, no.421, 1984). Fellini solidifies an aesthetic I appreciate in my work and others, which is the blur between reality and whimsical fantasy.

He was a film director and screenwriter known specifically for his unique style that blended baroque visuals with fantastical imagery. He is considered one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century. I would absolutely agree, considering his influence over my own cinematic work. Over his career, he won five Academy Awards (four Best Foreign Language Film, one Lifetime Achievement Award).  This was the most Best Foreign Language Film Oscars anyone has ever won (oscars.org).

Fellini was born on January 20th 1920 from Italian descent in the small town of Rimini (that would partially inspire one of his masterpieces, Amarcord). He left Rimini at the age of eighteen to move to Rome.

Fellini discovered in 1926 the world of Grand Guignol, the circus with Pierino the Clown. This discovery would eventually create a motif of the circus that would carry throughout his cinematic career.

While in Rome, Fellini achieved success writing regularly under his column for Marc’ Aurelio titled: Will You Listen to What I Have to Say? The magazine gave him consistent employment allowing him to meet future collaborates and get his foot into the movie industry.

In 1950 Fellini co-produced and co-directed with Alberto Lattuada Variety Lights, his first feature film. The film features Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina and Lattuada’s wife, Carla del Poggio as characters set in a world of travelling performers (the origins of the circus motif). Variety Lights received poor reviews and limited distribution, resulting in failure for everyone involved with the project (leaving Fellini and Lattuada in debt for over a decade).

Regardless of such an early disastrous fate, Fellini would go on to write and direct over twenty-five films, but I am going to discuss his three most important films (three of the four films that he won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film).

My second favorite Fellini film, La Strada, won him his second Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. La Strada is Fellini’s last neo-realist movie that hints toward his future embarkation into fantastical narrative, characters, and filmmaking techniques. The film portrays the journey of a brutish strongman, Zampano and a naïve young woman, Gelsomina, whom he buys from her mother and takes with him on the road; their encounters with his old rival, the Fool, cause their destruction. The film is highly symbolic. The metaphor of the road is the journey of life that would lead to their entire end. Each main character is an archetype of humanity: the Fool is always pushing buttons, even if it may lead to his own demise; Zampano who loves but does not know how to express it, therefore it manifests into brutality; and Gelsomina, who is absolutely innocent to the point of not being able to help herself. La Strada has become "one of the most influential films ever made," according to the American Film Institute (afi.com). It was placed fourth in the 1992 British Film Institute directors' list of cinema's top 10 films (http://old.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/). In my opinion, La Strada has one of the most powerful endings, and it truly shook me emotionally, of Zampano on the beach coming to terms with his brutality that destroyed the one thing that would ever love him.

Amarcord is my third favorite Fellini film, which won him his fourth and last Best Foreign Language film Oscar. Over a period of six months between January and June 1973, Fellini shot the movie. The film depicts the adolescent, Titta, and his friends, working out their sexual frustrations against the religious and Fascist backdrop of a provincial town in Italy during the 1930s. Circular in form, Amarcord avoids plot and linear narrative. I was mesmerized by its structure and style (characters consistently breaking of the fourth wall), which is presented as if the audience is a guest visiting and exploring the memories and adventures of this small Italian town. It is a mosaic, a collage of the imaginational memory of Fellini’s childhood.

And finally, 8 ½, my favorite film of all time, and it is considered Fellini’s magnum opus. It won him his third Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. To epitomize the moving image and the study of film, Fellini’s 8 ½ triumphed to let me see what can be done with a camera and lighting. Fellini’s flamboyant, magical tracking shots were elaborately blocked, allowing reality and fantasy to move interchangeably within the frame of the camera, creating a new cinematic dialogue and artistic perspective of viewing life. It is a narrative of the creative process brought to reality. The story is of Guido, a filmmaker, who is suffering with the creative process of producing his new film. As he struggles to make his film, the movie blurs reality with a series of flashbacks and dreams of Guido’s life and what he wants to portray within his film. 8 ½, honored as one of the greatest films of created and the best movie ever made about filmmaking, reflects to me the process and struggle that all artists have to endure and how we confront the issue. Guido’s struggle to create art is universal. Fellini understood his medium and was a master of it. Reviewing 8 ½, Roger Ebert states, “The printed word is ideal for ideas; film is made for images, and images are best when they are free to evoke many associations and are not linked to narrowly-defined purposes.” Fellini’s unique style and mastering of his medium allowed him to create the unimaginable that I long to create. Fellini’s inspired among others: Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore, Truffaut’s Day for Night, and Fosse’s All That Jazz.

Fellini in my eyes is the ultimate auteur director internationally and my favorite. His personal and highly idiosyncratic visions of society are a unique combination of memory, dreams, fantasy and desire. A film is now coined “Fellinian” or “Felliniesque” if it resembles Fellini’s iconic extravagant, flamboyant cinematic style. He has created a new cinematic language for filmmakers to go forward with. Before any film project I create, I always watch a Fellini picture.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Film History Student Final Paper #2 - Billy Wilder

I am fortunate to teach Film/Video Production History in the Motion Picture/TV Department at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. At the end of each semester, the students (who range from ages 18 - 21, usually) are required to write a paper about an auteur filmmaker of their choice. They are to provide an overview of the filmmaker's career and identify specific stylistic and/or thematic traits in his/her work that are "signatures," i.e. the things that make the filmmaker an auteur. I ask the students to write the paper in an informal, conversational tone, as if they are telling a story to a young person who knows nothing about the subject.  

I have picked three papers out of the bunch that I feel are worthy to be published here on my blog.

Second Paper:  BILLY WILDER, written by DIANA PETERS

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Billy Wilder: An Auteur Filmmaker
Billy Wilder is among the greatest filmmakers of all time. He isn’t always recognized for the great contributions he made to cinema as a whole. He lacked the recognizability and distinctness that directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles had, and never quite became a face of pop culture like they did.  The man himself once said, “The best director is the one you don't see.” It’s unfortunate that Billy Wilder isn’t exactly a household name considering the films that he made, his most popular being Some Like it Hot, Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, and The Apartment, just to name a few. Billy Wilder is definitely remembered as an auteur filmmaker. Many of his films reflect similar ideas, themes, and traits. Few directors were as dedicated to their craft. Every film of his is just that—his. Wilder was not just a director, but also a writer. He wrote/co-wrote many of his films. He also wrote screenplays for films he didn’t direct. Wilder considered himself more of a writer than a director throughout his life. He has 78 writing credits on IMDB, and 27 directing credits. His headstone even says, “I’m a writer, but then, nobody’s perfect.” Billy Wilder was an auteur who should be celebrated for his work, which has made a big impact on cinema.
“Wilder is often called a cynic by movie critics because his protagonists are all antiheroes - men or women with grave character flaws. While he never hit his audience over the head with moralizing, his movies are profoundly moral nonetheless” (Mason, M.S.  Christian Science Monitor. January 30th, 1998.) Billy Wilder’s cynicism can be traced back to his days living in Europe. He was born with the name Samuel Wilder, on June 22, 1906  in Austria-Hungary, and his family later moved to Vienna. Being Jewish, he made the decision to leave Germany and move to Paris when Hitler had risen to power. Until recently, it was believed that his mother, stepfather (his biological father died young), and grandmother had died at Auschwitz. Regrettably, what really happened was not any better at all. They had all been killed at concentration camps, except for his grandmother, who was murdered in a ghetto. Billy Wilder was so disturbed by concentration camps and what the Nazis had done that he made a short documentary called Todesmuehlen or Death Camps, to expose these atrocities many people in the U.S. didn’t even realize were happening. It’s amazing that Wilder wasn’t more cynical. It’s also amazing that he not only made comedies, but some of the greatest and most influential comedies of all time. But he could switch between being dark and cynical to wickedly funny. Not many writers or directors are capable of that. He was perceived as a very cynical man though, regardless of his comedic capabilities.
Wilder was indeed defined by his cynicism. No film demonstrates that better than Ace in the Hole. From 1951, Ace in the Hole is the story of a ruthless journalist who pursues a story about a man who has fallen into a hole and can’t get out. It should also be noted that I’ve never heard a more clever film title in my life. Billy Wilder was extremely critical of the industry that he worked. This was very much a part of his ever-present cynicism. Sunset Boulevard, which is one of his most well known films, is a very cynical look at Hollywood. But cynicism isn’t enough to make a film great. I could name endless films that are dark and cynical and fail because they come from such a dark, unpleasant place. But Wilder’s films are still very enjoyable in spite of the heavily cynical tone so many of them take. He had a cynical outlook on life, and that was reflected in his films in an artful way. For example, there’s a scene in Ace in the Hole, in which the main protagonist/antihero Chuck Tatum, played by Kirk Douglas, has to deliver the news that Leo, the man stuck in the hole, has died. This is in the middle of a big “Leo-fest” as I’d call it, where people are mindlessly celebrating Leo as some kind of hero. There are many problems with this. Leo is not a hero, he is a man trapped in a hole. They are paying more attention to the fun party for Leo than to Leo himself. A terrible person by all accounts, Chuck becomes more dependable and kind to Leo than all of those people, to the point that they don’t even know he’s dead, they’re all too busy having a good time.
Billy Wilder was extremely ahead of his time. He was very critical of Hollywood. It’s incredible that what we see in Sunset Boulevard is still so relevant today. The idea that we take actors and actresses, make them larger-than-life celebrities who are admired by millions of people one moment, and then forget them the next. In fact, this happens even more now than it did in 1950, when Sunset Boulevard came out. I’d like to think that maybe it went over people’s heads a bit back then, maybe because Hollywood was relatively new and this was the first time it was happening in cinema history, where actors were being chucked to the side when they got old so a crop of new, talented, pretty people could replace them. I think it’s possible that people just weren’t truly aware of how being a film star works, unlike today. The film wasn’t unsuccessful then, but it was controversial. It was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, but lost to All About Eve. Sunset Boulevard probably should have won, because many regard it to be the better film, however I’m sure that the Academy was less than thrilled by this very obvious criticism of the Hollywood system.
Fedora was Billy Wilder’s tragically underrated, penultimate film. Fedora, is very much like Sunset Boulevard. Both films star William Holden. Both films are narrated by Holden in voiceovers. Both films are about a retired, reclusive, and aging actress. It doesn’t reach the level of greatness compared to that of Sunset Boulevard, though. Not even close. But it’s still worth checking out if you can find it. Why do I bring it up? Well, I’ve heard that Billy Wilder and William Holden wanted this movie to be made to prove that they were both still relevant. His previous film, The Front Page, was underwhelming and unmemorable, and I think he lost some credibility because of it. But Fedora is never given enough credit; it is his most interesting movie from his later career. It’s more interesting than The Front Page or The Fortune Cookie (I cannot personally vouch for Avanti! or Buddy Buddy as I have not seen them). But Fedora is very, very...weird. It’s just a downright weird movie. It sometimes doesn’t feel like a Billy Wilder movie. It feels like a relatively low-budget European film from the late 1970s because, at its core, that’s what it is. Sure, Wilder’s sharp and witty dialogue comes through. And Wilder is excellent at directing actors, so unsurprisingly, the performances are excellent. A review from The Passionate Movie Goer’s blog sums it up well, “Fedora is an atmospheric, chilly affair, not quite as companionable as Sunset Blvd., and while Wilder opted for color cinematography (courtesy of Gerry Fisher's painterly hues) rather than black-&-white, he conjures up dreamy shadow imagery that efficiently distills his film's disturbing themes. (A French-German co-production, Fedora is essentially the European sibling of Sunset Blvd.)” (Joe Baltake, review of Fedora. February 15th, 2012.) The film is not bad at all and it wasn’t critically panned either. It was just...kind of a weird movie. The kind of weird movie that didn’t have much of an audience. Which is why I find it so charming. But the thing about Fedora that links back to what I was saying before is that I think, even in 1978 when Fedora came out, it went over a lot of people’s heads. Just as Sunset Boulevard went over people’s heads in 1950. Maybe the reason that it wasn’t loved was because it was just so darn cynical. It’s nowhere near as cynical as Sunset Boulevard, but  in 1978 people wanted to go to the theater to see Grease and Superman. People didn’t want to see a mystery film about a disturbed, reclusive actress, or a film about why the film industry is problematic. This film was a pretty big risk for Billy Wilder. He hadn’t made a picture in four years before Fedora and, to reiterate, his more recent films were met with underwhelming response, critically and commercially. I don’t know if he thought that Fedora would be successful, but I’d like to think he wanted to make this movie badly enough that he didn’t care. I’m sure that that isn’t true, because it was reported that he was very disappointed by the lack of interest among film distributors; he was also subsequently disappointed in the film’s limited run in theaters. But this was the film he wanted to make, and he made it, like a true auteur; not existing to make films just to please the masses.
Billy Wilder was also excellent at blending genres before that had even become common. He wasn’t the first one to do this, of course, but he started doing this early on and, in my opinion, really perfected it. Very few of his films can be easily defined by a single genre. The Apartment is a great example of this. Is it a comedy? There are some very darkly comedic moments, like when Fran, played by Shirley MacLaine, hears the cork pop and thinks it’s a gunshot. But overall, I think it’s too dark and unhappy to be a full-on comedy. Is it a drama? Kind of...but Jack Lemmon is cracking jokes throughout and maintaining a positive attitude despite his obvious disgust for what the people around him are doing. It could be called a romance, but it doesn’t get ‘romantic’ until the very end. It’s a satire, but unlike many satires, it doesn’t go over the top with its message and no one behaves too ridiculously. Many of his films are like this. Fedora is not just a drama; not just a thriller. It’s not a comedy for sure, but William Holden gets some funny moments. It’s everything and it’s nothing. Wilder’s movies are completely original pieces of cinema that are not defined simply by their genre. 

One of Billy Wilder’s greatest contributions to cinema was Double Indemnity, considered by many to be one of the greatest film noirs of all time. Like so many of Wilder’s films, the main character, Walter Neff, is an anti-hero. The film is an amazing achievement, not only for the genre of film noir, but film in general. Adapted from James M. Cain’s book of the same name, Double Indemnity follows an insurance salesman who finds himself committing an unthinkable crime. The film escalates brilliantly, and it’s a very clever psychological study of a man who makes a very bad decision, and comes to regret it. It’s not just the story of a crime, it’s the way these people are affected by this crime. Glenn Kenny wrote an entire article about the importance of Phyllis Dietrichson’s anklet, “And the anklet—the equipment of a woman, you know, that is married to this kind of man.’ It is curious that Wilder, reflecting on a film he made 53 years prior, was considering these in terms of the significance they had in the character's marriage to a man she eventually helped murder. An insight into how creative artists, the great ones, maintain ‘the whole equation’ in themselves. Because relative to the film's momentum, the person most affected by the anklet is Neff. It's brought up four times within seven minutes. Observing it, Neff says, ‘That's a honey of an anklet you're wearing, Mrs. Dietrichson. As I was saying, I'd hate to see the policies lapse.’ And after a bit more innocuous chit-chat, Neff's eye goes for the glint once more: ‘Wish you'd tell me what's engraved on that anklet.’”(Kenny, Glenn. Woman’s Equipment: Barbara Stanwyck's Anklet in "Double Indemnity". Rogerebert.com. October 14th, 2013).This is proof that Wilder had extreme attention to detail. He clearly paid attention to every aspect of his films, and even the little, seemingly insignificant things were meticulously planned, and had meaning to them. Wilder also called it his best film on a technical level. He had this to say about the film,  “I never heard that expression, film noir, when I made Double Indemnity... I just made pictures I would have liked to see. When I was lucky, it coincided with the taste of the audience. With Double Indemnity, I was lucky." And how great is it to make such a large contribution to such a highly regarded and important genre...without even knowing it.

It would be unfair of me to talk about Billy Wilder as an auteur without mentioning the contributions he made to comedy. His best comedies are, in my opinion, Some Like it Hot and One, Two, Three. Some Like it Hot starts out with two musicians that are witnesses to the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre and are on the run from the gangsters who committed the crime they had seen. It seems, at first, like it’s going to be a very dark gangster film or something of the sort. The scene where the massacre happens is serious and nothing is played for laughs. But as the men dress in drag and join a travelling women’s band, the film stays consistently funny. To just call it funny is a disservice to the brilliant writing of Billy Wilder and his co-writer, I.A.L. Diamond, as well as the comedic timing of Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, and Marilyn Monroe. It has been voted the #1 comedy according to the American Film Institute’s list “America’s Funniest Movies.” That is really saying something, as it is listed above Blazing Saddles, Duck Soup, The General, and City Lights. Some Like it Hot should be noted because with it Billy Wilder really pushed the boundaries of The Production Code. Many of his films pushed boundaries with overt sexual innuendo and raciness, but Some Like it Hot had men dressed in drag, which was unheard of at the time. It had sexually explicit dialogue, like the scene where Joe is trying to woo Sugar by suggesting that he’s impotent, to encourage her to have her way with him. And even a little bit of nudity: Marilyn Monroe’s breasts are in plain view...almost. She didn’t want to wear her dress and just wore the mesh part. So she was covered only by mesh and strategic lighting. I think that Billy Wilder enjoyed controversy, and enjoyed working slight risqué content into his films. One, Two, Three is another one of his great comedies. The controversy comes from the film taking place during the Cold War, before the construction of the Berlin Wall. Many jokes about the Soviets are made. Finland even banned the film, in hopes of not hurting their relations with the Soviet Union. The film has (again) a main character anti-hero, who cheats on his wife, struggles with his job and his boss, and constantly gets angry at everyone around him. The best comedic moments come at the end of the film, when Mac and his friends are transforming Otto into an upstanding aristocrat. The comedy is fast paced and begs for repeated viewings, and the satire remains interesting with every re-watch.
Billy Wilder had a plaque in his office that read “How would Ernst Lubitsch do it?” I can only hope that there are modern-day directors with a plaque that says “How would Billy Wilder do it?” My hope is that Billy Wilder will be remembered for his enormous contributions to film, as a form of art and entertainment. He deserves to be remembered for his witty and smart writing, as well as his brilliant style of directing. And maybe he is being remembered, after all, who was it that Michel Hazanavicius thanked in his acceptance speech at the 2012 Oscars for The Artist? Oh yes, “I want to thank Billy Wilder, I want to thank Billy Wilder and I want to thank Billy Wilder.” Maybe Michel Hazanavicius has one of those plaques.
Works Cited
Baltake, Joe. "Cinema Obscura: Billy Wilder's Fedora (1978)." Thepassionatemoviegoer.com. N.p., 15 Feb. 2012. Web. 09 Dec. 2013.

Kenny, Glenn. "A Woman's Equipment: Barbara Stanwyck's Anklet In "Double Indemnity"" All Content. Rogerebert.com, 14 Oct. 2013. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.

Mason, M.S. "Billy Wilder's Sophisticated Touch." Christiansciencemonitor. N.p., 30 Jan. 1998. Web. 
            09 Dec. 2013. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Film History Student Final Paper #1 - Oscar Micheaux

I am fortunate to teach Film/Video Production History in the Motion Picture/TV Department at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. At the end of each semester, the students (who range from ages 18 - 21, usually) are required to write a paper about an auteur filmmaker of their choice. They are to provide an overview of the filmmaker's career and identify specific stylistic and/or thematic traits in his/her work that are "signatures," i.e. the things that make the filmmaker an auteur. I ask the students to write the paper in an informal, conversational tone, as if they are telling a story to a young person who knows nothing about the subject.  

I have picked three papers out of the bunch that I feel are worthy to be published here on my blog.  I'll be presenting the other two in the coming days.

First up--OSCAR MICHEAUX, written by LAWRENCE DENHAM

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Oscar Micheaux: Auteur Filmmaker

Try to imagine a time when racism was okay to most people, when there were black and white water fountains and bathrooms, and when even movie theaters could be segregated. So, can you picture it? Probably not, and neither can I, honestly. It’s hard to imagine, but this stuff was a reality less than a hundred years ago in America. Isn’t that pretty crazy? Luckily for you and me today, we don’t have to deal with that kind of stuff like most people did back then. But men like Oscar Micheaux had to face those problems every day, for pretty much his entire life. And even though he faced all of those issues, he is known today as the first major African American filmmaker in history. Oscar was a director, screenwriter, and producer all wrapped into one dude. He’d definitely be a guy that I’d want to meet. So, are you interested in learning some cool stuff about Oscar Micheaux? I’m going to tell you about his life and career, his importance to the history of film, three of his movies, and why he’s considered an auteur. Are you more interested now? I hope so! So, let’s get started.

I mentioned earlier that Oscar Micheaux lived during a time when America was extremely racist and many places were segregated. Oscar was born on January 2, 1884 in Metropolis, Illinois. This was only about twenty years after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. Oscar’s parents were actually former slaves, which was pretty common at the time. Micheaux spent most of his time as a kid in Great Bend, Kansas, and then he moved to Chicago when he was seventeen because he needed a job. He found one there as a Pullman Porter, which is basically where you help passengers on trains. But by 1906, Oscar got bored with that job and decided to go West and buy some land in South Dakota. Oscar lived in South Dakota for eight years, and while he was there he wrote stories about his white neighbors. I guess they must have been pretty interesting people, because his stories eventually became his first novel, called, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer. He published that book in 1913, but then there was a drought so he had to move to Sioux City, Iowa. In 1917 he rewrote his book and rereleased it as the novel, The Homesteader. (http://www.biography.com/people/oscar-micheaux-9407584)

Oscar’s new and improved novel was really popular, and an African American film company asked him if they could make it into a movie. But Oscar and the film company couldn’t agree to a deal, so Oscar decided to start his own company, which he called Micheaux Film and Book Company. He sold stock in the company to raise money to produce the movie on his own. When he finished the film, it was eight reels long.  It was a huge moment because Oscar Micheaux became the first African American to make a feature length film. So, The Homesteader premiered in Chicago in 1919, and it was a big hit. Oscar Micheaux’s second movie was called Within Our Gates, and it came out in 1920. That movie was a response to The Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith, which was the most popular film at that time and probably the most racist movie in history. Over the next thirty years, Oscar continued to make films. He wrote, produced, and directed over forty-five of them from 1919 to 1948, which was unheard of for African Americans at the time. In 1931, Oscar made history again when his movie, The Exile was the first full-length sound film by an African American. His last film, Betrayal in 1948 also made history because it was the first movie made by a black person to be shown in a white movie theater. A few years later, Oscar Micheaux died on March 25, 1951 in Charlotte, North Carolina. After he died, The Directors Guild of America awarded him the Golden Jubilee Special Directional Award in 1986. In 1987, he received a star on the Walk of Fame. (http://www.biography.com/people/oscar-micheaux-9407584)

If you’ve been following this essay, you now know why Oscar Micheaux is an important filmmaker in the history of film. As I mentioned he was the first black filmmaker to make a feature length film in 1919, the first black filmmaker to make a feature length sound film in 1931, and was the first black filmmaker to have his movie shown in a white theater in 1948! Oscar was part of a film movement called race films. These were motion pictures made by black people with an all black cast, made for black audiences. Most race films were made from the early 1920s to the 1950s. Race films were meant to challenge segregation and to address other social problems and stereotypes that black people faced back then. (http://www.biography.com/people/oscar-micheaux-9407584) (http://blogs.bgsu.edu/thfm2620group3/a-quick-overview-of-the-race-films-movement/beginnings-of-the-race-film-movement-from-blackface-to-black-cinema/)

Oscar Micheaux is considered an auteur filmmaker. He is an auteur because all of his movies feature a non-stereotyped black cast, made for a black audience, and challenged segregation, racism, racial violence, the education system, and poverty. His movies were meant to erase the popular racist stereotypes of black people back then. To explain how Oscar Micheaux is an auteur, I’m going to discuss three of his films, which are Within Our Gates, Murder in Harlem, and Body and Soul. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oscar_Micheaux#Filmography)

Within Our Gates came out in 1920. It was a response to the very racist The Birth of a Nation,” made by D.W. Griffith. Instead of the black people being evil and the bad guys as in Griffith’s movie, Oscar’s movie told his side of the story and portrayed black people as the good guys. His film took place in the present and was meant to show people the real problems that African Americans faced during that time, which included poverty, the Jim Crow laws, lack of education opportunities, and lynching. Oscar used a cast of real black people in this movie, unlike Griffith who used white people in black face in his. In all of Micheaux’s films, he wanted to show America that black people were just as intelligent and respectable as white people. This movie contains racial violence, too, because towards the end of the movie the main character Sylvia’s adoptive parents are lynched for a murder to which they have no connection. They are murdered just for the fact that they are black. The film contains struggles with poverty and the education system because the main character’s goal is to raise money to support African American students in the Deep South. These are examples of signature traits that Oscar Micheaux incorporated in his movies.

Second—Murder in Harlem, which came out in 1935.  This movie is basically about a black night watchman who finds a dead young woman in the basement of the chemical factory where he works. After he reports the dead woman to the police, he is falsely accused of the murder because he is black. But it turns out that a white man committed the murder. This movie is important to Micheaux’s career as an auteur because it contains one of his signature film traits, which is racism and violence. It is a classic example of a black person being punished for something that he didn’t do, which was a very common racist thing at that time. Like Within Our Gates, this film had black main characters that are very intelligent and are not racist stereotypes.

My last example is the movie Body and Soul, which came out in 1925. In a nutshell, this movie is about a shady preacher that steals money from his church congregation and from a young woman and her mother. The mother doesn’t realize that the preacher is bad and tries to arrange a marriage between him and her daughter. The daughter sees that the preacher is a bad guy and ends up exposing him. But before she gets the chance to expose him, she dies. The mom is sad, but then she realizes that she had dreamt the whole story all along. The daughter ends up marrying a good man. Pretty complex plot, right? As in the other two films, this movie contains traits that prove Oscar Micheaux is an auteur. The mother and daughter are victims of the poverty that black people faced during Oscar’s time. The movie features an all black cast, and the main characters, the mother and daughter, are non-stereotypical black people.

To me, Oscar Micheaux is probably the most important African American filmmaker in history. Just think about all of those milestones that he set, such as being the first black person to make a feature length film, or the first black filmmaker to have their film shown in a white theater. Those accomplishments can never be repeated! Not to mention that his movies are quite good and unique, in my opinion. In fact, since this paper is finished, why don’t you go and watch one of his movies right now? Who knows, it might inspire you to change society like Oscar Micheaux did.


Works Cited

Within Our Gates. Prod. Oscar Micheaux. Dir. Oscar Micheaux. By Oscar Micheaux.
Perf. Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux Film Co., Quality Amusement Corp., 1920.
Youtube.

Body and Soul. Dir. Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux Film Co., Quality Amusement Corp.,
1925. Youtube.

Murder in Harlem. Dir. Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux Film Co., Quality Amusement
Corp., 1935. Youtube.

"Oscar Micheaux." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Nov. 2013. Web. 07 Dec.
2013.

"Mystery History Theatre." Mystery History Theatre RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2013.

"Oscar Micheaux Biography." Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 07 Dec.
2013. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

From a View to a Museum

NOTE:  The following article appears in Volume 29:3 of the MYSTERY READERS JOURNAL, edited by Janet Rudolph. Janet has kindly allowed me to re-print the article here. For more info on Mystery Readers Journal and how to subscribe, see Mystery Readers-- RB)

Most readers probably know me as the third continuation author of the James Bond novels.  I was the first American to be commissioned by the Ian Fleming Estate and the publishing arm, Ian Fleming Publications Ltd., to write new adventures, which I did between 1996 and 2002.  During those seven years, I traveled the world.  Since Bond novels are known not only for a bit of action/adventure, they also contain some “travelogue” aspects.  It was essential that I walk in 007’s footsteps, so to speak, and visit the  places I was writing about. 

In the spring of 2001, my friend and guide, James McMahon, and I flew to Japan in order for me to research my sixth and final Bond novel, The Man With the Red Tattoo.  James could speak the language and knew his way around, so his presence was vital.  We spent a lot of time in Tokyo, but also traveled to more remote parts of the country, including the cities of Kamakura, Hakone, and Aomori, as well as to the northern island of Hokkaido and its cities of Sapporo, Noboribetsu and Shiraoi. 

But the most significant place we visited was the island of Naoshima, located in the Inland Sea in Kagawa Prefecture (a prefecture is the equivalent of a state in America). 

It was James who had called my attention to the place.  It’s a rather sleepy little island and would otherwise not be on anyone’s radar except that it hosts one of the country’s most spectacular art museums.  When I first viewed pictures of Benesse House—a combination art museum and hotel—I knew I had to use it as a setting in my novel.  Its designer was the great Tadao Ando, perhaps Japan’s leading architect, and it looked as if it belonged in a James Bond film.  The building, with its unusual angles and curves, reminded me of the work of Ken Adam, the designer who had brought a similar, singular look to the early 007 pictures.  Benesse House  is also full of wonderful artwork by contemporary artists from all over the world. 

To get there, James and I took the bullet train from Tokyo to Okayama (four hours) on the southwest portion of the main island of Honshu, passing Mount Fuji on the way.  We changed to a smaller train to Uno, and then walked to the ferry port.  A press interview I had done a couple days earlier in Tokyo had hit the newspapers, and I had said I would be going to Naoshima Island over the weekend.  Well, my picture was in the paper along with the story.  When we arrived at the ferry station, the ticket lady was expecting us and had the newspaper open to the page with my photograph.  She was excited and asked for my autograph.  As we waited for the ferry, several other people ran up to me and asked for an autograph.  (One person even wanted James’ autograph!)

Eventually we boarded the ferry and it took us to Naoshima, about a twenty-minute ride from the Uno port.  When we got to the island, a crowd of about fifty people stood on the dock, waiting for me!  I had to sign autographs, pose for pictures… it was unbelievable.  I had never received that kind of attention.  Two young female guides from Benesse House, Kayo and Yukiko, were there to meet us and take us by car to our lodgings.  Benesse Corporation had purchased a portion of the island and renamed that section Benesse Island.  The president and CEO of Benesse Corporation, Soichiro Fukutake, has a kind of Richard Branson-style mystique in Japan.  He is very wealthy, owns several islands, yachts, and art museums.  He is also President of Berlitz Corporation. 

When we arrived in Naoshima Cultural Village, we were met by reps from their city government, including the mayor, and were treated to a traditional Tsutsuji Daiko drum performance by local elementary and junior high school students, performed in my honor.  After that bit of flattering pomp and circumstance, we were rushed to Benesse House.  Our rooms were in the “Annex,” which was another Bond-like building up the hill from the main museum, accessible by cable car.  My room was the largest, with a huge glass wall overlooking the sea.  With a push of a button, the entire wall descended into the floor, opening up onto the terrace!  Simply amazing, and very Bondian. 

Koya and Yukiko gave us a tour of the island, showing us several ongoing art projects in Naoshima Cultural Village.  We saw the City Hall and other sites, but the main attraction, naturally, was Benesse House.  That night, we had a special kaiseki dinner thrown by Mr. Fukutake himself.  He couldn’t have been friendlier.  We even met Tadao Ando, who was on the island appearing in a documentary being filmed at the time, Mrs. Fukutake, and other reps from the museum.  Ando-san presented me with an autographed catalogue of his works.  We had something in common in that he also knew I. M. Pei, the architect for whom I worked in the late 1980s in Manhattan. 

We spent the next morning exploring Benesse House as I planned the logistics of my story.  A climactic scene would take place inside the main art gallery and I had to make sure that what I wanted to do was feasible.  A fictional G-7 summit meeting was to take place there, and the bad guys unleash a swarm of deadly genetically-engineered mosquitoes in the room.  Typical 007 stuff.  Of course, the building worked like a charm for my purposes. 

The book was published in 2002, completing my contract with the Fleming company.  My tenure as the Bond author had ended, but that wasn’t the finish of my involvement with Naoshima and Kagawa Prefecture.

In 2004, the prefectural government contacted me and the Fleming company with a request for permission to erect on the island a museum dedicated to my novel.  The necessary legal hoops were leaped through, and in 2005, “The 007 Man With the Red Tattoo Museum” officially opened on Naoshima Island.  The organizers had commissioned art students to create paintings and sculptures that illustrated the story of the novel.  These were displayed so that visitors would get a sense of the tale as they walked through.  The museum also included Bond memorabilia from the films and novels, and a glass case containing ephemera about me and my work.  I had donated my research materials to the museum. 

On top of that, the prefectural government appointed me an official Ambassador of Kagawa Prefecture, and I remain in the position to this day.

In short, this was the biggest perk and honor I received when I was the Bond author.  Nothing else has come close.  After all, I suppose there aren’t many writers who can claim to have a permanent museum dedicated to their work! 

I’m still pinching myself.

                                                            #

Some interesting links about the museum, Naoshima, and Kagawa Prefecture—

·         An information page on The 007 Man With the Red Tattoo Museum:  Click Here
 
·         The official Benesse House website:  Click Here 

·         Another page about the museum:  Click Here

·         The official museum site (in Japanese):  Click Here
 
·         A Time Magazine article about Naoshima, mentioning the museum: Click Here
 
·         And, finally, the official Kagawa Prefecture site: Click Here
 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

On Discovering New Music

The people that know me are well aware that I appreciate and support all kinds of music. Being a composer and musician myself automatically directs me toward the sounds that appeal to me--and my tastes are very eclectic. Being a child of the 50s and 60s, I grew up with rock 'n' roll, but I also had a love of movie soundtrack music.

The Big Bang in music for me, though, happened when I went to college in the early 70s. There I was exposed to different kinds of music that, up to that point, I was not accustomed to. I had started getting into jazz during high school with the advent of jazz fusion (Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, Return to Forever, etc.), and once I was in college I explored the genre further. I became deeply entrenched in what we now call progressive rock, and I especially was attracted to the more experimental, underground acts (Soft Machine, Gentle Giant, Hatfield and the North, Henry Cow) along with the more popular, commercial ones (Jethro Tull, Yes, Pink Floyd). Those years solidified my love of the unusual. To this day I seek out not the current Flavor of the Month that appears on "Saturday Night Live" and wins Grammies, but rather the hard-working, under-the-radar, extremely talented artists that attempt something new and exciting within the Progressive, jazz, or experimental genres.

Today I'd like to endorse two recent discoveries.

The first one comprises just about everything that can be found on the Moonjune label. Run by Leonardo Pavkovic out of New York, the label releases mostly world music in progressive and jazz veins; for example, the great jazz fusion guitarist Allan Holdsworth is on Moonjune, as well as the Soft Machine Legacy and other members from the so-called "Canterbury" school of prog.

But the most impressive stuff on Leonardo's brand is the music coming out of Indonesia. That country has become a hot bed of tremendous jazz, jazz-fusion, and prog rock.


I was recently asked to write liner notes to the new album by the jazz fusion band, simakDialog. Their sixth CD, The Sixth Story, will be released by Moonjune very soon, and the band is embarking on their first U.S. tour at the end of August/early September 2013. They'll be playing dates on the East Coast (Prog Day in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and dates in New York and elsewhere). Led by Riza Arshad on keyboards, the band might be described as "Return to Forever meets East Asia." The music is extremely complex but very accessible. Here are some YouTube samplings of their stuff:
simakDialog Live in Nepal
Kata Hari


The talented guitarist of simakDialog is Tohpati, who is rapidly becoming the Jimi Hendrix of Indonesia. He has his own albums, including the above pictured power trio, and a more cultural fusion experiment called Tohpati Ethnomission. This guy is unbelievably good.
Tohpati Bertiga
Tohpati Ethnomission


Finally, there's the brilliant Dewa Budjana, another virtuoso guitarist, who gives us a world music that transports the listener to foreign and exotic places.
Dewa Budjana Live
Dewa Budjana and Tohpati together

There are, of course, other Indonesian acts besides these, and you can find most of them at Moonjune. In fact, the label's online store is having a big sale. Check out these great acts!

* * *

 

The second discovery I very recently made was also through Leonardo, who recommended the works of guitarist Nicolas Meier. He hails from Switzerland but resides in England. Another virtuoso who experiments with world music influences, Meier has recorded many albums of his own, as well as spin-off side projects with various jazz and pop musicians. I particularly like Eclectica, which delivers a more traditional jazz sound, specially augmented by the exquisite Lizzie Ball on violin and vocals (fantastic!). Meier's first big release was an album of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" performed on electric and acoustic guitars--superb. He even does heavy metal in band called seven7, for those who like that stuff.
Nicolas Meier
Nicolas Meier Trio
Eclectica


Right now I'm moving through nearly a dozen Nic Meier CDs, as I'm still uncovering the treasures within. Once again... highly recommended.

So, with that, enjoy your summer. Keep your ears wax-free and your mind open... buy some new music and explore new worlds. You won't regret it.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A Vote for American Political Films

In honor of Independence Day, I thought I'd say something about American Political Films, of which there are quite a number, and many of them are pretty good! 

My partner-in-crime at Dann & Raymond's Movie Club, Dann Gire (film critic of Chicago's Daily Herald) did a show on political films during our first season, back in 2007. We picked our favorite fifteen political films, listed chronologically below. Some of the runners-up (in no particular order) were: "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," "Young Mr. Lincoln," "Gabriel Over the White House," "Sullivan's Travels," "Citizen Kane" (really more of a character study than a political film), "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (really more of a musical than a political film), "State of the Union," "Wilson," "Henry V," "On the Beach," "A Face in the Crowd," "Fail-Safe," "One, Two, Three," "Advise and Consent," "Seven Days in May," "The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming," "The Parallax View," "The Front," "Missing," "Red Dawn," "Born on the 4th of July," "The Milagro Beanfield War," "Mississippi Burning," "Talk Radio," "Nixon," "Primary Colors," "Dave," "The American President," "Bulworth," "Bob Roberts," "Malcolm X," "Munich," "The Constant Gardener," "Thank You for Smoking," and many more.

But here's the list of Favorite Political Films--

1.  "The Birth of a Nation" (1915) directed by D. W. Griffith; shamefully racist and offensive by today's standards, this was the first blockbuster ever and pioneered many new cinematic techniques. Its importance in cinema history can't be overlooked.

 
2.  "Duck Soup" (1933) directed by Leo McCarey; arguably the best film the Marx Brothers ever made, but curiously it didn't do well on release--audiences during the Great Depression were in no mood for political satire; but today it's one of the funniest films ever made... and it has a lot to say about politics, too!

3.  "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939) directed by Frank Capra; it could be the ultimate political film, and for my money, it contains James Stewart's best performance.

4.  "The Great Dictator" (1940) directed by Charles Chaplin; Chaplin said later that he never would have made the film had he known about the horrors that Hitler had covertly unleashed (the film was made in 1938-39); nevertheless, Chaplin delivers a brilliant performance in two roles, and we also get to hear him speak for the first time.

5.  "All the King's Men" (1949) directed by Robert Rossen; another one for the history books, this was a scathing look at corruption in politics, starring Broderick Crawford in an Oscar-winning turn.

6.  "Dr. Strangelove" (1964) directed by Stanley Kubrick; arguably the best black comedy ever made; what could be more audacious than a comedy about nuclear war, released less than two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis?  Peter Sellers' finest moment.

7.  "The Candidate" (1972) directed by Michael Ritchie; Robert Redford presents one of his best performances as a guy who is talked into running for president without a clue of how he's going to do it.  Terrific stuff.

8.  "Nashville" (1975) directed by Robert Altman; yes, this is a *very* political film; the country and western music scene in Nashville served as a metaphor for American politics; and there's that assassination at the end that punched us in the gut...

9.  "All the President's Men" (1976) directed by Alan J. Pakula; in many ways, it's a detective story, clearly following Woodward and Bernstein's path of investigative reporting into the Watergate scandal. Brilliantly written and acted.

10.  "Reds" (1981) directed by Warren Beatty; an epic about the beginning of the Communist Party in America, featuring an all-star cast headed by Beatty, Diane Keaton, and Jack Nicholson; long but never boring.

11.  "The Killing Fields" (1948) directed by Roland Joffe; heartbreaking and horrific, and also a terrific buddy story about a journalist and his photographer in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge.

12.  "Cry Freedom" (1987) directed by Richard Attenborough; Kevin Kline may have been the star, but it's Denzel Washington's movie--he plays anti-Apartheid activist Steven Biko--and he should have had more screen time!

13.  "JFK" (1991) directed by Oliver Stone; another of the filmmaker's "activist cinema" entries, it's controversial to boot, but also fascinating, brilliantly shot and edited, and compelling; it throws in every conspiracy theory and asks the audience to figure it out.

14.  "Wag the Dog" (1997) directed by Barry Levinson; need a war to help political polls? No problem!--get Hollywood to create one. Dustin Hoffman shines as a producer who agrees to do that very thing for a candidate's troubleshooter, Robert De Niro.

15.  "Good Night, and Good Luck" (2005) directed by George Clooney; beautifully shot in black and white, the story of taking down Joe McCarthy could be no other way; it perfectly captures the period and paranoia.

So, if you get tired of hot dogs, marching bands, and fireworks this weekend, grab one of these flicks and watch it!

Monday, June 10, 2013

What I Learned About Writing By Writing, Part 7

The last several years have shown that no matter how long you've been at it, no matter how many books you've published, no matter how much praise (or not) you've received for your work, making a living as a writer is always a struggle. I'll be the first to admit that I'm not in the upper echelon of successful authors who always land on the New York Times Best-seller list. However, I've managed to stay in business by capitalizing on my strengths, moving forward, and watching for those wonderful doors that appear every now and then. I still believe in walking through those portals--or at least knocking on them--to see what's on the other side.

In 2006, I signed up with Agent #6, Peter Miller--actually he calls himself a "literary manager"--and I've been with him ever since. Of all my agents, I've been with him the longest. My career has been a series of original novels that readers and critics seemed to like, but the public never catapulted to big sales. No "Big Six" publisher has ever published one of my original thrillers, believe it or not, so I've gone with smaller presses. One of those is now out of business. My tie-in work, however, is always published by a Big Six publisher, and that's the area where I've made most of my income. Besides tie-in work, Peter has found ghost-writing jobs for me that has kept me in curry. For a while I had an Italian publisher that promoted the heck out of me in that country--where I became slightly popular--and I made several trips there for book tours and such--but then that publisher recently went out of business, too. I had a couple of near-calls in Hollywood earlier in the last decade, when two of my original thrillers were optioned, but nothing ever happened. 

Recently, though, the Black Stiletto series--my new endeavor on which I've spent six years--is making the rounds in Hollywood and is in development as a television show...it's in the "fingers-crossed" stage at this point.

The words "platform" and "brand" bubbled to the forefront at writers' conferences in the past several years. Authors had to think about their work and career in terms of branding themselves and establishing an identifiable platform through which they could market their books. Fashioning a platform that works is more difficult than it sounds. For example, in '08 and '09, I wrote a couple books that I called "rock 'n' roll thrillers," featuring a detective who operated in the music industry. A Hard Day's Death and Dark Side of the Morgue were humorous, tongue-in-cheek thrillers with lots of in-joke references to rock music. They were fun and readers liked them--one was nominated for a Shamus Award for Best Paperback Original P.I. Novel--but unfortunately they were published by the small publisher that went out of business. So they didn't sell. Bummer. So that "platform" didn't work (but, hey, folks, the titles are still available as e-books and are also collected with a rare short story in an anthology called The Rock 'n' Roll Detective's Greatest Hits!). So I went back to the drawing board and tried something new... the Black Stiletto... and maybe that's going to stick. The jury's still out.

What has really turned things around is the e-book revolution. Back at the beginning of the Millennium, you'll recall, I took a chance and went with a new publisher that was experimenting with e-books and print-on-demand. Ten-eleven years ago it didn't work. Today, that's where the future of publishing lies. All of my backlist titles are available for Amazon Kindle--including my James Bond novels--and I've sold more e-books than I ever did with print. When Amazon put the first Black Stiletto book on the "Deal of the Day," it shot to the top-ten Kindle best-seller list for several days.

Social media has become the main promotional tool for authors. Facebook is a god-send. Authors these days must not only know how to write a good book, but they need to be able to market themselves. Publishers don't do it for you. I spend nearly as much time on promotion and marketing as I do writing. Now there are too many social media sites, and authors must pick and choose which ones work best for them.

I've explored several other doors that have popped up in front of me. I got a chance to teach film history and other film-related courses at a junior college, so I grabbed it and enjoy doing that one day a week--mostly because it's fun and it's a topic I love. I've teamed up with Daily Herald (Chicago) film critic Dann Gire and formed "Dann & Raymond's Movie Club" seven years ago; we perform live shows every month at area libraries for growing audiences--we've become quite popular. I dip my toe into theatre again every now and then--I'll be directing something this fall in Chicago. I continue my music--I've given three solo piano concerts in the past year, and I play here and there and at my synagogue with a klezmer band.

And I keep writing. At this time, I'm nearly finished penning the fifth and final Black Stiletto novel. After that's done, we'll see...there could be another original thriller, or maybe some tie-in work or work-for-hire, or who knows what else on the horizon.

WHAT I LEARNED:  The e-book revolution has turned out to be a good thing. Authors need to know how it works and how to market their books in this new and exciting medium. That said, I've learned that if you want Hollywood to take you seriously, you also need to be published in print (although I know of a few exceptions!). I've also learned that Hollywood is very fickle and indecisive and cheap. Gone are the days of receiving a lot of money for an option unless you're a big name or the book is a best-seller that every studio wants.

I still rely on my Theatre degree--more and more I realize it wasn't a waste! I still use what I learned back in college in everything I do.

I taught myself how to write a novel by writing a novel, and then writing another one, and then another one. It's important to know that every writer has his/her own method of doing it and that there's no right or wrong way to write. A lot of the so-called "rules" can be broken. One story I like came from my friend Lee Child, who questioned the notion that some critics/editors/readers criticize a manuscript by saying, "You must show, not tell," which Lee says is B.S. "We're storytellers, not storyshowers," he says. Folks, authors TELL a story, not SHOW it! That's one of those silly rules you always hear that frankly makes no sense.

I've learned to live with disappointments and try my best to keep looking for doors to open. I'm confident that if "the writing thing doesn't work out" that another one of those doors will open unexpectedly--it's always happened in the past and will again. The main thing is to stay positive, don't compare yourself to other authors, take criticism with a grain of salt, and keep looking for and opening doors to go through.

You never know what's on the other side.

Monday, June 3, 2013

What I Learned About Writing By Writing, Part 6

The James Bond gig ended at the end of 2002. I'd "had my six." :)

What to do next? It had been an exciting but turbulent seven years in Bondage but I really wanted to write my own original novels. Peter Janson-Smith had served as my literary agent during the Bond years (he was Agent #3), but he handled only the Bond work. So the first order of business was finding a new agent. At that time, agents were still a necessary element of being a published author.

I quickly found that even though I had established myself in a major way as the latest Bond author, I was still starting over from scratch. The Bond credentials easily got my foot in the doors of agents and publishers, but that history also served, in a way, to pigeonhole me. For the first several years after the Bond gig, editors compared any work I did to the type of books the Bonds were and seemed to have blinders on regarding anything else I attempted. 

Agent #4 appeared and solicited me (it was kind of nice having it go the other way) so I signed up. He immediately tried to sell the second original thriller I had written, a piece entitled Face Blind. The first original thriller, Evil Hours, had actually been written during the Bond years and I had tried to sell it myself. No New York publisher was interested; however, a company experimenting in e-books and a website featuring serial novels (remember, this was the years 2000-2001, prior to the real advent of e-books as a phenomenon) approached me for material. I sold them Evil Hours, which was published as an e-book, print book, and serial novel. And then the company quickly went out of business! Luckily, I was able to retrieve the rights.

Well, no one was interested in Face Blind either, but another publisher--based in the UK--was experimenting with Print-On-Demand books as well as e-books. That was a very new concept and Agent #4 convinced me that this was a way of the future and we should do that. So both Face Blind and Evil Hours (slightly revised) were published in this manner. Needless to say, it was too early in the world of publishing for POD and e-books to be successful. They had no visibility and went nowhere.

Agent #4 and I parted ways after two years. It hadn't worked out, although there were no bad feelings. However, around the same time (it was 2004 by then), one of those magical, unexpected career-doors opened for me. The editor who had worked on my Bond books at Penguin/Putnam called and offered me the job of creating two tie-in thrillers based on the very popular videogame Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell. It had been a while since I'd been involved in the gaming industry, and while I knew of the game, I'd never played it. It was work-for-hire, and the money was good, so I accepted. There was one hitch--I had to use a pseodonym... "David Michaels"... which was created by the publisher and Clancy's agent (who happened to be the Hollywood powerhouse, Michael Ovitz). The reason for this was because the publisher wanted to do an entire line of Clancy tie-ins written by several authors, but the marketing strategy was that they would appear to be written by the same person (there have since been, I think, four "David Michaels's"). I accepted the job and wanted a new agent to broker the deal.

By then I had written my third original thriller, Sweetie's Diamonds, so through a friend's referral, I spoke to a reputable agent and said, "Here's a sweet deal--if you promise to sell Sweetie's Diamonds, you can take the 15% of the Clancy profits, which were darned good." We signed up. So, for the next two years, I was "David Michaels" and published two NY Times Top Ten best-selling books (my first to hit the list); ironically, though, they weren't under my real name. But the kicker was that Agent #5 did nothing with Sweetie's Diamonds. When all was said and done, that relationship ended after the Clancy gig (I moved on after the two books).

I ended up selling Sweetie's Diamonds myself to a small publisher after a pitch session at the "Love is Murder" writers conference that is held annually in the Chicago area. By then I was rather desperate to have one of my originals published properly and went with the first entity that expressed interest. It turned out all right, but small publishers can only do so much in marketing and sales.

It was time for a new agent, someone who could really help me establish a Raymond Benson "brand" and "platform," and I'll talk about those two vital concepts in Part 7.

WHAT I LEARNED:  My work as the Bond author established me as a reliable "tie-in writer," which opened a new series of doors that provided me with paying gigs. I learned to nurture that skill in order to get bread-and-butter work. But as for my original work, I learned to be wary of new technology and publishing models until they were tried and proven. I jumped on the e-book and Print-On-Demand wagon way too early and before these methods were considered acceptable. Secondly, I learned that a relationship with a literary agent is like a marriage. You both have to bring something to the table and there must be mutual respect and common goals. You have to find the right "fit." Too many authors sign with the first agent who will accept them, and this can often be a mistake. Thirdly, be careful when signing with a small publisher. There are pros and cons. On the one hand, sure, you're published and have a book to show for it. On the other hand, as one friend of mine put it, "It can be detrimental to be under-published." I now believe my actions at that time were tantamount to a step backwards, considering where I had been in my career. 

To be continued...