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Talking Christmas With Shane Black


Shane Black makes a good cup of coffee. It’s December 21st, 2015, the holiday season, a perfect time to meet Shane Black. I’m watching Black work his coffee maker in his kitchen. He finds me cream. I find it disarmingly sweet, charming that we’re in his enormous, beautiful 1920's-era mansion, and he’s making me coffee. He’s wearing socks, no shoes. His two handsome dogs are running all over the kitchen. They jump on me, and he nicely tells them to stop. He loves his dogs and we watch one dive into the pool. Later we’ll walk around his house, check out a secret room with a delicious past and look at his libraries which includes lots of great vintage pulps with fantastic covers and countless original issues of “Doc Savage” and “The Shadow” as well as modern and classic mysteries and thrillers (some he calls “shitty” but likes reading them anyway, which is refreshing) and more and more. We talk for a long time about numerous topics and he's candid and unexpected. Endlessly fascinating, the boyish, but wise Black is honest, opinionated, pensive, incredibly intelligent, funny and self-effacing in a unique way. He’s unlike anyone I’ve ever met.


My interview with Black is for a much larger piece I will publish later. But, for now, I’m only sharing an excerpt, one that befits the holiday. Because there’s a consistent, the singular and often brilliant screenwriter and director (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man Three, the Amazon pilot Edge, and the upcoming and The Nice Guys, as well as the recently announced Doc Savage and Predator), is famous for: setting his movies during Christmas. I've written about Black's Christmas before and asked, within the piece, for him to further illuminate his Christmas fixation. When I finally met him during this holiday season, he did. And he did so beautifully.


Kim Morgan: I am going to ask you a question that everyone asks you because all of your movies take place during Christmas. What happened? Are you obsessed with Christmas?

Shane Black: I’m not obsessed with Christmas, I’m only obsessed with Christmas in movies. It grounds me, it makes me comfortable and happy to escape wherever I am into a movie that’s set at Christmas because you recognize that the hush that comes and the sort of rarified arena that it provides at that time of year [is good] for drama to take place. And also I think, the isolation people feel at Christmas is important (and also being in a blizzard is wonderful). The homecoming feel of people striving to come back to something at Christmas is important and also, just in Los Angeles, the way you have to dig for it. How, just tiny bits of Christmas exist here but they are things you have to unearth. Like, I remember walking at Christmas and seeing a little Mexican lunch truck with a broken Madonna and a candle in it. And I thought, that is as much, that is as powerful, as talismanic a bit of Christmas as the 40-foot tree at the White House. It’s like little guiding beacons to something we all recognize as a time to put things aside and focus momentarily on the retrospective of our lives; a spiritual kind of reckoning where we’ve been and where we’re all going to. All these things, I just love it in movies.


KM: And again, it can also be so incredibly lonely…

SB: Don’t make me cry [Laughs] Look around. I’ve got two dogs and a big house.

KM: Christmas in Los Angeles is very strange. When it’s absurdly hot, the decorations on Hollywood Blvd. are just sagging there, all depressed and dejected looking. It seems cliché, but it’s like all those with sagging hope and dreams, trudging around the city, trying to keep it cheery. It can be so depressing and touching. And so dark, in the light.


SB: If you like noir -- the idea of little glowy bits, striving for some kind of attention in the middle of a non-snowy downtown L.A. landscape, the iconic nature of Christmas, that’s sort of blotted-out or hidden, but that still informs everything around it. Noir is about awakening from paranoia, hatred and depression to latch onto the one true thing that you have and inkling of. And that inkling sustains your faith throughout. And by the end, hopefully by the end: “I believe that one thing; everything else is falling apart, I’m shot and I’m dying but it’s for a reason because I believe one thing.” And so, to embody that as Christmas in L.A. I don’t know that it means any specific thing to believe in but it just means something.

KM: And that trying to believe, and during Christmas in Los Angeles… I mean, there’s that Scientology Santa siting there, adding to the surrealism and even darkness. That feels noir and almost Lynchian. You can feel so lost…

SB: Yes.

KM: But, then, in my neighborhood Koreatown, I’ll hear Mexican families singing and holding candles. It’s so haunting and lovely and far more beautiful than pristine decorations in Beverly Hills.


SB: Well, to me, when I was a kid it’s something that had a heavy impact, I was walking downtown Pittsburgh on a street, and it was late at night, the wind was blowing, and it was very dark, and all of a sudden down the street, for some reason the streetlight went out and there was just a woman, a fat woman, who was just sort of standing in the window looking out and there was just this one little thing of light, it was chiaroscuro, everything else was dark, and the idea of beacons, and the candles in the woods. I talk about the Robert Frost poem, being lost in a dark wood, and the idea of the secret light in the window, also seeing a light in a window and knowing that there’s a destination that’s vaguely seen or even sensed but not quite seen, and just so far off the path you can go to, and the lights that could steer you back onto the path; it’s vague and if you put those images in a movie one in a thousand people will say “Yeah, it was about being taken off the path and finding your beacon.”  But, there is that element of me that’s just… the magic underneath Christmas we are briefly, almost fleetingly, aware of a magic that could be there. If we just stopped long enough to pay attention. And the perfect expression of this, more than anything else I could ever tell you is, "The Cricket in Time’s Square." Christmas in Time’s Square with that little cricket, that’s what we’re talking about. That’s noir.


Merry Christmas. Now go watch some Shane Black. Or read The Cricket in Time's Square. And stay tuned for my longer interview with Black.

Milk Blood Bone: Patricia Highsmith

From my essay at the Daily Beast, on the oddity, allure and brilliance of Patricia Highsmith: The critically acclaimed film "Carol," based on one of her books, has helped introduce a new generation to this most puzzling, contradictory, but indispensable novelist.

Patricia Highsmith disliked food. Or, rather, she had a deeply problematic relationship with food that produced fascinating, unsettling musings, vividly intertwined with digestion and eating. Her short story, “The Terrapin,” in which a disturbed boy murders his mother with a kitchen knife after she boils a tortoise alive, Highsmith merged food issues with her own mother issues to a magnificently bent level of hysteria and horror: The dark side of domesticity. An anorexic in adolescence, and a slight woman her whole life, one who stocked liquor in her kitchen and nothing else, she found food tedious, frequently disgusting and even disturbing, blaming some of societal ills and politics on the results of food. She wrote once: “the USA [is] suffering a prolonged attack of acid stomach, an irrepressible urge to throw up.”


She pondered further, at another time, about how food affects us: “We live on the thin ice of unexplained phenomena. Suppose our food suddenly did not digest in our stomachs. Suppose it lay like a lump of dough inside us and poisoned us.”

That’s not a crazy supposition, really.

And yet, she loved a comforting warm glass of milk, something that would show up in The Price of Salt (now the movie Carol) with a dreamy strangeness and a corporal sensuality. As she writes it, milk is a bit gross, but, romantic and powerful:

“Therese was propped on one elbow. The milk was so hot, she could barely let her lip touch it at first. The tiny sips spread inside her mouth and released a melange of organic flavors. The milk seemed to taste of bone and blood, of warm flesh, or hair, saltless as chalk yet alive as a growing embryo. It was hot through and through to the bottom of the cup, and Therese drank it down, as people in fairy tales drink the potion that will transform, or the unsuspecting warrior the cup that will kill. Then Carol came and took the cup, and Therese was drowsily aware that Carol asked her three questions, one that had to do with happiness, one about the store, and one about the future. Therese heard herself answering. She heard her voice rise suddenly in a babble, like a spring that she had no control over, and she realized she was in tears.”


This is just one aspect to the woman who was the oddity and sometimes genius named Patricia Highsmith, a cookie full of arsenic (if she heard it, she had to have appreciated the Odets/Lehman line of poisoned confection) who is full of so many contradictions that she is endlessly fascinating and frequently baffling. The preoccupation with the disgust for food shows a need for control, the drinking shows a need to let go—the push and pull of a hard heart and a woman full of passion—someone who ran from and ran towards the voluptuous and often icky aspects of life.


It’s not surprising that biographers (chiefly the great Joan Schenkar, whose gorgeously written and elucidating The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith informed this piece) compared her to her most famous creation: Tom Ripley. Schenkar wrote, “Pat was back in the United States making her credo of ‘quality’ the central obsession of the character who was to become, crudely speaking, her own fictional Alter Ego: Tom Ripley. (Pat was never ‘the woman who was Ripley,’ but she did give Ripley many of the traits she wished she had, as well as quite a few of her obsessive little habits.) Like Pat, Ripley began as a flunker of job interviews and a failure at self-respect. Like Pat, Ripley found his ‘quality’ of life in Europe.”

After studying Highsmith’s life, you come away impressed, shocked, amused, and wondering if you could ever like this person. But liking her doesn’t matter; she’s not Willy Loman (Highsmith wrote in her diary of Arthur Miller’s character, “I find I have no sympathy for the individual whose spirit has not led him to seek higher goals … at a much younger age.”). She was a woman so intricate and so her own self (she couldn’t help but be her own self) that even she may not have understood how modern she was, or even fancied that idea (she loathed being pigeonholed).

Even by today’s standards, she’s still modern. Though she certainly wouldn’t have bandied a term like “feminist” around, she lived a progressive life, falling in love with women, never marrying to suit convention (though she did toy with the idea of marriage and with therapy for her homosexuality and, blessedly, that didn’t take), striving for both her own art and making good money while uttering some perfectly awful prejudices and then turning around and contradicting them. One of her best friends in high school was the young Judy Holliday (then, Judy Tuvim) and for decades Highsmith kept a photo of the Born Yesterday actress dressed in a man’s suit.

There’s much discussion of Highsmith of late, all interesting, from Margaret Talbot’s excellent New Yorker piece about the real life back story of Carol to a New York Post headline screaming, “The drunk bisexual racist behind Cate Blanchett’s new movie.” All these years later, Highsmith is still pissing people off.


Todd Haynes’s superb, beautiful and moving Carol, adapted from Highsmith’s second novel, The Price of Salt, has created the buzz and for good reason—it’s one of the best reviewed movies of the year, a much needed woman’s picture, and a gorgeous universal story about two women falling in love, with each other. Though Carol features an aggrieved husband, this is a movie about women, one could say (to Highsmith’s likely cringing) a feminist picture about females finding themselves, their work, their sexuality, and mutual adoration in the less permissive time of ’50s New York City, subverting the rules society has placed on them. There’s something of Highsmith, who published The Price of Salt in 1952 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, in both older Carol and younger Therese, in her often highly dramatic relationships and yearning. For although she was a woman who wrote brilliantly about murder and sociopaths, and though she was a woman frequently remembered as grumpy, bizarre, and downright caustic, she confessed of a swooning heartache and dream that’s so stirring it makes you want to cry:

“Persistently, I have the vision of a house in the country with the blond wife whom I love, with the children whom I adore, on the land and with the trees I adore. I know this will never be, yet will be partially that tantalizing measure (of a man) leads me on. My God and my beloved, it can never be! And yet I love, in flesh and bone and clothes in love, as all mankind.”

Her compulsions and contradictions were encyclopedic: food hater, snail lover, drinker, thinker, bigot, progressive, lover of women and younger women—much younger women in many cases (rumor has it that The Price of Salt inspired Nabokov’s Lolita). And yet, while she was the very definition of independent (never married, never put down roots, and in her 40s permanently abandoned America for Europe), she was also ruled by an intensely close and corrosive relationship with her mother.

According to Schenkar, Highsmith’s mother, Mary, was a chronic and histrionic creator of domestic scenes “so dreadful that Pat had to call in Dr. Auld, the local physician, to sedate them both. Pat reported that Mary had threatened her with a coat hanger—and each woman said things the other never forgot. Four years earlier, Mary Highsmith had written to her daughter: ‘I believe you would gladly put me in Dachau if it were possible without a minute’s thought.’”

Both a sensualist and an obsessive compulsive ascetic, Highsmith was a revolutionary: she lived a problematic, fascinating life as a man would: complicated and sometimes unfathomable. But then many women are like this, we just don’t hear or read about them as much. For all of her compelling complexities and provocative strangeness, the world and women need more Patricia Highsmiths.

Read the piece at The Daily Beast.