Books

The Dark Page by Kevin Johnson

David Sterritt

Offering a scrupulous listing of the novels, plays, and other literary sources that inspired great noir productions of the 1940s, this is bibliophilia with heart and cinephilia with brains.


The Dark Page

Publisher: Oak Knoll Press
Subtitle: Books That Inspired American Film Noir [1940-1949]
Author: Kevin Johnson
Price: $95.00
Length: 380
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9781584562184
US publication date: 2007-12
Amazon

I’ve always been more interested in reading books than collecting them, and I don’t have much patience with hardcore bibliophiles who care less about what’s in a volume (i.e., words) than what’s on it in the way of nicks, marks, coffee stains, and jacket rips. This is why I don’t share the general admiration for the 2002 documentary Stone Reader, wherein filmmaker Mark Moskowitz sets out to find the reclusive author of an out-of-print novel he read 30 years earlier; it’s a potentially great subject, but apart from the novel that touches off his quest, Moskowitz seems to regard books as so many baseball cards -- agreeable objects, maybe even cherished ones, but fungible all the same.

This said, I had an enjoyable time reading The Dark Page: Books That Inspired American Film Noir [1940-1949] by Kevin Johnson, a dealer in rare tomes and the proprietor of Royal Books in Baltimore, the city I call home. Clearly a labor of love, the very big volume offers a scrupulous listing of the novels, plays, and other literary sources that inspired great noir productions of the 1940s. Every left-hand page holds information about such a book and the movie based on it, and every facing page displays a large photograph of the pertinent volume, always in a first edition. Each book commentary includes a brief discussion of its content and a summary of the “points” to look for -- color of binding, placement of blurbs, numbers on copyright page, and so on -- when determining whether it’s a first edition; the material on each film includes a listing of the major credits, a quick précis of the plot, and often a quote or anecdote that captures the tone and texture of the production. Three appendices fill in some gaps. No slave to consistency, Johnson follows his interests and instincts wherever they lead, giving the volume a pleasantly meandering mood despite the rigor of its format. This is bibliophilia with heart.

It’s also cinephilia with brains. Johnson begins the introduction by correcting three misconceptions about film noir that are all too common among professional movie critics, not to mention casual moviegoers. Noir is not a genre but a cycle, Johnson accurately notes, carrying a set of stylistic traits into actual genres as diverse as melodrama, western, and horror. Although crooks and cops are common in noir, he continues, the cycle’s plotlines and character types are enormously varied. Nor is noir an inclusive term for any and all dark-toned pictures -- it refers only to movies of the '40s and '50s that trace their lineage to German expressionism of the '20s, hard-boiled fiction of the '20s and '30s, and the unease felt by Americans during the war-torn '40s and commie-fearing '50s. Noir-like movies made before 1940 are antecedents of the cycle; those made after the mid-'60s are neo-noir spinoffs. While exceptions can be found to all of the above, a grasp of these parameters can enrich moviegoers’ appreciation of true noirs and near-noirs alike.

Johnson put amazing energy into tracking down the first editions pictured in his book, and I wish he recounted more of his adventures in the text. Some came from booksellers, others from libraries like the fabled Bodleian at Oxford, and others from who knows where. As he approached his final deadline with one elusive volume still unfound, an online database pointed the way to a copy in a New Zealand library, which obligingly scanned the cover and e-mailed it to him. You can see it in on page 334: The Mills of God by Ernst Lothar, filmed by Universal as An Act of Murder, starring Fredric March and Edmond O’Brien, in 1948. If a storybook ending like this can happen, I’m almost tempted to join the collecting game myself.

So much conscientious work went into The Dark Page that it’s no fun reporting a few flaws. For a book about books, it has a surprising number of typos. The title may confuse people a bit, since it’s also the title of a 1944 novel by Samuel Fuller, himself the writer-director of some towering noirs. Nearly all of the commentary material is drawn from other books and essays, and while many of these were written by such admirable experts as William Luhr and Chris Fujiwara, it’s too bad Johnson hasn’t taken this opportunity to extend noir historiography beyond its existing boundaries. Newcomers to bibliophilia may have to look up terms like “topstain” and “presentation edition” and “Haycraft Queen Cornerstone,” which a small glossary could have illuminated. Although the photos are often marvelous, Johnson’s goal of displaying “perfect” copies led to an unspecified amount of digital manipulation, combining of elements from multiple sources, and the like, which -- to my eye, at least -- lends a slightly unreal quality to some shots; and giving each one a full page precludes supplementary close-ups of details scouted for by first-edition hunters.

Don’t get me wrong, though. The photos are the backbone of the book, and they’re stunningly diversified, influenced by everything from “graphic design trends, deco, dada, [and] futurism” to the no-nonsense demands of the book-buying public, as filmmaker Paul Schrader notes in his foreword to the volume. And there’s more to come: Johnson is compiling two follow-up tomes, one about American noirs released between 1950 and 1965, the other covering British and European noirs. So pack your rod, put on your trenchcoat, and lower the lights. The Dark Page has a bright future.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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