SILENT MOVIES: Louise Brooks, The Quintessential Flapper

[Edited and reposted from my Facebook page.]

I love movies. Current releases, Hollywood classics, foreign movies, and really old, silent movies.

If you haven’t made a habit of watching pre-sound films, you might not know the name Louise Brooks.  She was one of the most beautiful women of the 20th century, intellectually brilliant, sexually uninhibited, pleasure-loving, strong-willed, non-conformist, and a marvelous dancer.  Unsurprisingly, she was a Scorpio.

Louise Brooks started a very promising career in the Hollywood studio system that might have rivaled that of Garbo or Dietrich, but just as her star began to rise, she threw it all away on a self-destructive, rebellious whim of the kind that only a young person (she was twenty-two) can muster, in order to star in a German film for the Austrian director G.W. Pabst.  As it turned out, however, the movie they made, Pandora’s Box, is widely considered one of the three best films of the silent era, and one of the greatest ever.  It also gave Brooks cinematic immortality, something for which she seemingly was destined.

Her acting style was as natural as any in today’s movies, and that in an era when the accepted technique was exaggerated and stilted in ways that seem to us almost laughable.  If you’ve never seen her performance as Lulu, the prostitute whose artless selfishness destroys the men in her life, you owe it to yourself to do so.  Pandora’s Box is available on DVD.

Oh, and if you haven’t crossed paths with her memoir, Lulu in Hollywood, try to track down a copy.  Her wit and sharp intelligence shine through every page.

Here’s a brief documentary about her from the `70s, made soon after her death, badly chopped up on YouTube but still watchable.  Other videos featuring Louise Brooks are available on YouTube as well.

The Hardest Thing About Writing…

So.  After months, or even years, spent in daily/nightly toil on your book or screenplay, you’ve gotten it all polished and spiffy and the best it possibly can be. Perhaps you’ve spent many sleepless nights writing and rewriting it, sweating every word and switching passages or scenes around to make it all come together, and now you’ve done it.  You’ve finished the damn thing.

Now what?

Well, maybe you want to try to get it published, or made into a movie.  You want some kind of representation by way of an agent or a manager. Or perhaps you want to bypass those guys altogether and go straight for indie publishing, or pitching your concept to a producer, or raising funds to make the film yourself.  No matter which path you choose, you’re going to have to market yourself in the end.  And that’s the hard part. 

Is it because that’s a particularly difficult process?  Nope.  Or perhaps because agents, publishers, producers and the like are ogres just waiting to stomp on your dreams?  Naw, most of them are nice, albeit overworked folks.   No, the Sisyphus-like ordeal of finding your way to success is due primarily to that very thing that gives you a writer’s disposition in the first place: your introversion.

That’s the paradox.  Something none of us artsy-fartsy folks can escape because it’s essential to our own natures.  All writers of fiction and/or screenplays are imaginative, inward-looking folks, which means of course that we’re much more comfortable exploring the contents of our own heads than we are schmoozing at cocktail parties, lobbying the pow’rs-that-be for attention and favors, or drafting many versions of the same letter in order to find that one perfect pitch, like a verbal dog whistle, that only an agent or producer can hear.   Heck, I’d rather spend a couple of years writing a 400-page novel than sending out the necessary query letters in a quest for representation.

But you know what?  I’ve come to realize, fairly recently at that, that not only is a willingness to put myself “out there” a necessary component of getting my stuff read, it also represents a personal challenge for me to overcome my innate shyness and reticence in pursuit of something that I believe is worthwhile. 

So although I face that part of the process with sweaty palms and teeth clenched in anticipation of a slammed door hitting my nose, it’s something I have to do.  As a motivator, I reward myself with the thought that after that’s done and I’ve either hit a dead end or taken that next step toward success, I get to re-experience the joy of writing something else. 

And after I finish it?  Well, I try not to focus on that.

My Book for a Desert Island

Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.


Way back in 1972 I found myself in a spiritual and psychological desert of sorts, at odds with everyone and everything around me and uncertain as to what direction, if any, I should take. It was at that precise moment that, like Howard Carter entering Tutankhamun’s tomb, I stumbled onto the wisdom of the East. For a young woman who had grown up in a south-Louisiana, French-Catholic family, the discovery of such arcane philosophies as Taoism and Zen marked a major shift in my life, expanding my worldview as nothing else before or since. For me, the planet and its far-ranging cultural history unexpectedly became larger than I ever had imagined. Central to this turning point was the Tao Te Ching, a little book of sparely-written, oftentimes cryptic Chinese mysticism that reads like poetry.

Over the years I have dipped into it when I’ve needed to be reminded of its lessons; ignored it when tempted to flatter myself that I’ve outgrown it; and returned to its allure when the realization has flashed into my mind, that it is much grander than my laughable inability to comprehend its challenging secrets. I have argued with it, been tempted to rip it to shreds, and literally thrown it across the room in frustration. And yet…and yet…

There are books that I enjoy, some that have taught me a lot and a few I treasure, but Lao-Tzu’s ancient, humble lessons lie within the pages of the last book I’ll ever really need.

Francois Marcantel Immigrates to America

Okay, so this isn’t strictly speaking a piece about writing and/or books, but I am a Southerner with a legacy of literary compatriots (Faulkner, Welty, O’Connor, Lee (a couple of those), Capote, etc.; and you all have read them–right?), so this puts the topic at hand in the ballpark, more or less.  You see, we folks from the steamy environs of Dixie are nothing if not obsessed with our roots and all the various branches on our family trees, probably because said origins tend to be “lost within the very bogs of time” (to quote Florence King, another Southerner).

At any rate, on the “I am a Marcantel” page on Facebook (trust me, it does exist, closed membership and all that), there’s a Marcantels-in-America/Louisiana discussion that’s been doing the back-and-forth thing for the past few days.  The current topic focuses on whither Marcantels, Italy (Marcontelli?) or France (Marcantel?).

Here’s the story I know about my family, and every word is true.  Honest.

The first Marcantel in the New World was one François Marcantel, a French soldier who in 1752 “volunteered” to relocate to the then-colony of Louisiana as a militiaman-settler.  He came from Chambery in the foothills of the French Alps, at the time the capital of the Duchy of Savoy and now a ski resort.  Clear, clean air.  Snow-topped mountains.  Lush summer meadows.  Four distinct seasons.

I suspect that his arrival in Louisiana went something like this:

Welcome to the subtropics, François.  Let me tell you about your new home.  It features alligator-infested swamps, mosquitoes the size of your thumb, 200% year-round humidity so thick that you can see the air move, abundant wildlife, much of it carnivorous, and two lovely seasons: hot-and-wet and cold-and-wet.  And the good news is that hot-and-wet lasts twice as long as cold-and-wet.

Any questions?

At this point something along the lines of “Oh, merde!” must have belched into François’ head like one of those heavy Louisiana bullfrogs. (And if you don’t know what that word means, you need to Netflix a couple of French movies.  Or just one.)

UPDATED: I’m an inveterate editor and can’t leave anything alone.  Perfectionism is my cross to bear.

Francois Immigrates to America Part Deux, or Frankie, Jr.

Continuing the family saga from a couple of days ago:

François Marcantel stayed in Louisiana (he didn’t have much choice; see here) and married and, as usually happens, in the fullness of time had children.  The oldest son also was named François.  We in the family know him as Frankie, Jr.

Along about 1788, Frankie, Jr. became involved with his wife’s sister, and not in a brotherly-in-law kind of way either.  She was married, too, to the Worst Man in Town™, a wife-beating lush who loved to pick fights at the local tavern and owed  money far and wide, which meant of course that everybody quite naturally hated him.  Frankie, Jr., on the other hand, possessed all of the charm and bonhomie common to the Marcantels <ahem>, and so was generally well-regarded.  (I’m kind of making this up as I go along, but then, I’m a writer and all writers are fundamentally liars.  So sue me.)

Anyway, the Worst Man in Town somehow contrived to get himself murdered shortly after he forbade his wife from “walking” with Frankie, Jr., and to emphasize the seriousness of his request, beat pummeled slapped … lovingly caressed her and spoke to her with soft, reasonable words.  Although almost everyone in the surrounding area had a reason to despise him, thereby ensuring their membership on the roster of potential suspects, only one person was seriously considered for arrest in connection with his slaying.

Now, at this point I get a clear metaphorical image of the situation in my head.  Imagine that a pie goes missing, and the nearest authority figure confronts a group of angelic-looking-but-perhaps-guilty kids, one of whom has a circle of whipped cream and chocolate ringing his mouth.

“Frankie, Jr., did you take that pie?”

“Pie?  What pie?” he asks, carefully sweeping his tongue across his upper lip in a transparent attempt to hide evidence of the pie’s fate.

No doubt because they considered the community well-rid of a wife-beating, drunken, deadbeat bully, the authorities clearly didn’t much care whether the killer was Frankie, Jr., little green men from Mars, or the Easter Rabbit.   So, despite his almost certain … involvement in TWMIT’s murder, Frankie, Jr. was never charged with anything, much less hanged.   If he had been, I wouldn’t be here and you wouldn’t be reading this 100% accurate account of what happened.

On the other side of my family was a guy who certainly was a lothario and may or may not have been a pirate with Jean Lafitte.  But that’s another story.

P.S.  Details of l’affaire Frankie, Jr. can be found in this legal document, starting on p. 8.  I might have embellished the story just a tad.  (Did I mention that all writers are liars?)

Joan of Arc at 600

Joan of Arc, Philadelphia, PA – after the original at the Place des Pyramides, Paris

Today, January 6, is the officially recognized birthday of Jehanne Darc (more commonly known as Joan of Arc), the 15th century peasant girl who led the armies of Charles VII of France to a string of victories against the English and subsequently was burned at the stake after being convicted of heresy.

Born on this date in 1412 (or thereabouts), she came out of nowhere to rouse a listless Dauphin and his dejected knights to a renewed confidence in France’s national destiny, a faith that they had relinquished many years earlier after a series of defeats at the hands of the English.  Martyrdom at the age of nineteen guaranteed her an historical immortality. 

Over the past six centuries countless books, poems, operas and movies have been dedicated to telling Joan of Arc’s story, including my own An Army of Angels in 1997.  Artists, it seems, cannot get enough of her.  No doubt she would have found that unbelievable.  Even more astonishing, the notion that people in 2012, living in countries that didn’t exist when she was alive, would still remember her.  But we do.

Happy Birthday, Jehanne La Pucelle.

V-Squad in the Media

In time for Halloween, UVA Today, an in-house publication from the University of Virginia News office, will publish an article about me and my vampire novel, V-Squad, on Friday, October 28. Although the novel doesn’t fall into the horror genre per se, its denouement does take place on Halloween, so in that sense the timing is appropriate. I’ll send a link to the actual article when it’s released.

Accompanying the article will be a one-minute soundbite from UVA Today’s interview with me on WTJU, the University’s radio station, on Wednesday at 11:55 a.m. (EDT) and again on Friday at 3:55 p.m. (EDT). You can access the station’s broadcast through your computer. Quite apart from my mini-blurb, WTJU is very much worth a listen. They play a lot of great music and have interesting discussion programs.

UPDATE: Okay, the article has been published. You can find it here.

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