Crumbtown by Joe Connelly

James Oliphant

There's bad luck, rotten luck and then there's 'crumbluck' -- the brand of luck that seems something less than random, something closer to fate.


Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Length: 259
Price: $22.95
Author: Joe Connelly
US publication date: 2003-03

There's bad luck, rotten luck and then there's "crumbluck" -- the brand of luck that seems something less than random, something closer to fate. It's the cloud of despair and desperation that envelops Don Reedy, career criminal and recovering romantic, and every other resident, it seems, of Crumbtown, the decaying town-that-never-was that serves as the setting for Joe Connelly's novel of the same name.

Crumbtown feels like a familiar place. It carries the vibe of a Northeastern American city on the skids, a cousin of New England factory towns like New Bedford and Fall River, places where its fatalistic denizens realize prosperity isn't returning anytime soon. The streets have names like Felony and Lemmings. The rich live on Padlocked Hill and drive cars called Eldiablos and Bollingers. Don, the hero of Connelly's big-hearted, if somewhat slight, satirical novel, turns to crime out of a pure absence of alternatives. But his Crumbtown-infected nature even rebels against the idea of making a success out of theft. Instead, he steals cars, sabotages them in almost undetectable ways, and returns them to their unsuspecting owners. Eventually, his so-called life of crime lands him in prison for a 15-year stretch.

When Don is sprung, he comes home to a seemingly healthier, higher-rent Crumbtown. New storefronts. Freshly painted barber poles. But this isn't a case of another Massachusetts Miracle. Instead, in Don's absence, Crumbtown's sheer seediness has made it the location of choice for television cop shows searching for that gritty edge. The entire town has been handed over to actors and producers, including desperate Hollywood director Rob Landetta. Rob's high concept is to adapt Don's criminal career to the small screen, altering small parts of his history (meaning everything) in order to transform Don into a modern-day Robin Hood. Rob's producer isn't quite on board. It's a crime show without cops, he complains. "Crumbtown is post law enforcement, post Bill of Rights," Rob pitches.

Don, in the midst of falling in love with a Russian bartender, never warms to the idea of having his life absorbed into television. And his former criminal partners, the dim-witted "half-twins" Tim and Tom don't like it much either once they find out that their roles have been rewritten as Hispanic and African-American to make them more demographically correct. Don becomes even less enthusiastic after Little Eddy, the former child star of a popular sitcom that sounds like Diff'rent Strokes reversed (a black cop adopts a white kid) is cast as him. Eddy is a megalomaniac cokehead who slowly comes to believe that he is, in fact, a real criminal -- and later an authentic police officer.

Connelly, whose first novel was the darker Bringing Out the Dead, is attempting to script an affectionate satire concerning the blurring of television and reality. The problem -- and it is a formidable one -- is that we have all been here before. The marriage of television and "reality" now surrounds us. A crime show without cops? That would be, of course, the most celebrated TV program in the land, The Sopranos. That there is, at the end of the day, little distinction between working in Hollywood and a life of crime? Try instead Elmore Leonard's superior Get Shorty, which played it straight. A town that serves as the subject of a perpetual television show was done (with admittedly mixed results) in the movie The Truman Show. And then there remains the granddaddy of works about fictional media manipulation, the stunningly prescient film Network, in which TV execs allow a delusional anchorman to host an evening variety show and partner with a terrorist cell to air a weekly hour of leftist violence.

This isn't to say Connelly's message doesn't contain some merit. Using a light touch that never comes close to preaching or patronizing, he illustrates how it won't be long before television, once content with exhibiting the reactions of real people placed in awkward situations (e.g., The Real World, Survivor, Joe Millionaire, et al.), will soon move on to exploiting real-life social conditions. It isn't the people of Crumbtown who are being used by Big TV in Connelly's novel as much as it is the beleaguered state of Crumbtown itself, with the viewer given a voyeuristic look at how the other half -- the poverty-stricken and hopeless half -- lives. (Indeed, we are not far away from this, as evidenced by CBS' plans for a real-life Beverly Hillbillies.)

Connelly also insightfully notes how television and film images merge with our own memories to create an unreliable record of our lives. When Rita, the Russian bartender who becomes Don's lover, tries to recall the face of an old boyfriend in Odessa, she finds that she cannot:

Now that she had time to think about it, [Victor] looked more like that actor whose name she'd forgotten. That's why she was so confused, because for the last few years whenever she would think about Victor, she would always see this actor's face. But now she knew he didn't look like the actor. She had to admit; she couldn't remember what Victor looked like.

As Connelly's story nears its resolution, reality and television become so intertwined that his characters and their TV counterparts seem to lose track of their identities. Is a robbery pulled by Don real or fake? Are any of the police officers chasing him actually real -- or are they actors? The narrative stands at right angles to itself, with multiple points of view describing the same scene from different perspectives, not unlike the functions of multiple cameras on a movie set. The novel itself is written in highly cinematic form, with sections marked off as "scenes." And a character like Rita isn't so much a "real" romantic interest for Don as she is a cartoon sexpot given a silly-but-identifiable "Russian" accent.

The result is a work that is resolutely anti-realistic and overly dramatic -- like a movie -- another course in the now neverending meal that is postmodernism. The irony (or perhaps the it was the intent all along) is that the book would work splendidly as a film. Considering that Connelly's first novel later was made into a movie by Martin Scorsese, a cinematic version of Crumbtown surely is a possibility -- and something that will further muddy the demarcation in the book between reality and fiction and art and commerce. Who will play Don and Rita? And who will play the actors in the book who play Don and Rita?

The only question remaining will be the film's scale. Does it go big, a major summer popcorn blockbuster with, let's say, Colin Farrell as Don and Jennifer Connelly as Rita, with the satirical elements kept to a less confusing minimum? Or maybe it would work better on some culturally minded backchannel cable station -- a movie more faithful to the book -- with some integrity-projecting actors at the ready, maybe Stanley Tucci and Lili Taylor. Or maybe we'll go with a straight crime drama on the USA Network. Keep the bullets and car chases and jettison the social commentary. Get Billy Baldwin on the phone. Is Shannen Doherty available?

The possibilities are endless. And in Crumbtown, so is television.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

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Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

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The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

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When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

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(Available from Warner Bros.)

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(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

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