keeping track

The Vulture Diaries: George Pelecanos’s Week in Culture

For years, our sister site Daily Intel’s “Sex Diarieshas published the weekly logs of an eclectic group of people’s every sexual thought and act. Here at Vulture, we get off on entertainment, so we’ve taken a different, less graphic tack: For our new recurring feature “The Vulture Diaries,” we will be asking prominent creative types (authors, directors, actors, musicians, etc.) to keep time-stamped track of their own cultural consumption in a given week, along with their perspective on whatever they’re watching, reading, or listening to. We kick off the series with George Pelecanos — author of more than a dozen Washington, D.C.–set detective novels and a writer on the HBO series The Wire and Treme. (And here’s an entry for your own pop-culture log: Tonight you can see Pelecanos reading from and signing copies of his latest novels, The Cut and What It Was, at 7 p.m. at the Half King in New York City.)

Friday, May 25
1 a.m.
I’m up late, watching John Carpenter’s The Thing on one of the Encore channels. Had intended to go to bed after the Philly-Boston game, but when this movie runs unedited, I always check it out. Carpenter’s remake of the Howard Hawks–Christian Nyby Cold War parable is a frightening suspense film and balls-out actioner. The director’s framing enhances the claustrophobia and sense of dread, and when the money shots come, trust me — they are truly shocking. The all-male cast, headed by a fully bearded Kurt Russell (at his most badass, playing the aptly named MacReady), also includes T.K. Carter, Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart, David Clennon, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat, and one of my favorite actors, Keith David, in the role of Childs. The startling makeup and special effects are by Rob Bottin (The Howling, RoboCop). The minimalist, pulsing score is from Morricone. The final scene, a quiet conversation between MacReady and Childs, hits like a punch in the gut: “Why don’t we just wait here for a little while … see what happens.” Admittedly, I am not a horror aficionado, but for my money, this is the best film of its kind ever made.

12:30 p.m. Got my weekly New Yorker in the mail today and settled into it. I came relatively late to the New Yorker experience and it has become somewhat of an obsession of mine over the past few years. In terms of fine, thoughtful writing and consistency, I know of no better reading experience. Occasionally the magazine even manages to entertain me in ways that I suspect were unintended. To wit, the January 2 issue ran a piece on the TV series Portlandia, in which the following passage appeared: “For the second season, Bill Oakley, a former head writer for The Simpsons, who had moved to Portland, has helped out on the show. He says, ‘I’ve spent a lot of time in writers’ rooms. They’re pressure cookers. They’re heavily male. You work long hours and many of the people in them have negative views about themselves and life’.” 

Down in the Treme writers’ room, in Louisiana, we had a good laugh over that one, and then some introspection. It must be so positive and progressive out in Portland, unlike in New Orleans, Baltimore, and the other cities where we’ve made television. We could learn so much from those well-adjusted, enlightened scribes in the Portlandia writers’ room. For one, we could learn to have a less negative view about life. But I do like their show. Also, I saw Carrie Brownstein at an awards ceremony in Manhattan a couple of days ago, and she was super hot. Is that too male of me, Bill?         

Saturday May 26
9:30 a.m.
Was out driving my Mustang this morning and turned on the stereo. The Lost Bayou Ramblers’ Pilette Breakdown was in the CD player and I let it run. Having spent the last seven months living in New Orleans, my musical horizons have expanded considerably. In NOLA, my FM dial was set on 90.7, WWOZ, the best radio station in the country (wherever you live, you can stream it on your laptop or smartphone, and I highly recommend you do). OZ plays a variety of southern soul, blues, and jazz, and has set hours devoted to Cajun and zydeco music. I caught the Lost Bayou Ramblers, who play an amped-up blend of modern and trad Cajun music, at One Eyed Jacks, a club in the Quarter, and at Jazz Fest, and they tore it up. Pilette Breakdown, their 2003 release, is a fine testament to what they’re about and a great record to play in your car or your next backyard throwdown. I also recommend The Balfa Brothers Play Traditional Cajun Music, a single-CD reissue of classic sets from 1965 and 1974. It’s the one with the yellow cover. Good times, guaranteed.    

9 p.m. There’s a room in my house where my stereo, records, CDs, and books are housed. I spend a lot of time in that room, sitting in my chair beside the fireplace, reading and listening to music. Sometimes I just stand before the shelves and look at my books, because every single one of them means something to me. And sometimes I’ll take a book out and rub my hand across the cover, because it feels good to hold and touch a work of art (if the day comes when there are no more books, and reading is solely done on a screen, I’m out of the game).

Anyway, this evening I pulled down The Big Sky, by A.B. Guthrie, Jr., published in 1947. It is the first in his series of Western novels, and it details the lives of mountain men and trappers in the years before the Civil War. The book is essentially about the quest for freedom via adventure in the wild, and also an elegy for a time that would soon end. It’s a beautifully written and, at times, disturbing novel, as Guthrie refuses to romanticize his characters, and allows them to speak and act as they would, without regard for the reader’s expectations. I read this book a few months ago, and it has stuck with me. Guthrie won the Pulitzer for The Way West, the second novel in the series, but this is his strongest work. The Big Sky is an American classic.         

Sunday, May 27
9:30 p.m
. Listening to Richmond Fontaine’s latest CD, The High Country. Richmond Fontaine, headed by Willy Vlautin, have a stellar reputation in Europe (I saw them at a venue in London a couple of years ago with a packed house of raucous Brits) but are less well known here. It’s hard to describe their music, which makes it hard to market I guess, but I’d go for cinematic Americana, Great Northwest country-rock, or song craft with a literary bent. The High Country is a concept record, and at first a bit inaccessible, but among the oddities, instrumental interludes, and spoken-word moments, tracks like “The Chainsaw Sea,” “Lost in the Trees,” “On a Spree,” and “The Escape” achieve a kind of epic grandeur. The ace guitar work is from Dan Eccles. Newcomers might opt for a more traditional trip and try the record Post to Wire, which boasts many fine songs, like “Barely Losing,” a sublime we-took-a-road-trip-and-we’re in-love tune (“And we’re walking along the railroad tracks / At five in the morning / Wishing we could always be like this / That we’d never have to go back”), or download the track “Incident at Conklin Creek,” from The Fitzgerald, which is akin to a spare, perfectly realized Raymond Carver short story. By the way, Willy Vlautin is also a novelist who wrote Northline, one of my favorite books of the past ten years. Yeah, the dude’s some kind of genius.                                                     

Monday, May 28
11:15 p.m.
Just finished watching Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid (1972), running this month on the Encore Western channel. When an Apache leader leaves the reservation to rape, pillage, and commit general mayhem, a U.S. Cavalry officer, DeBuin (Bruce Davison); a veteran scout, McIntosh (Burt Lancaster); a Sergeant (Richard Jaekel); and Apache tracker Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke) are charged with bringing him to justice. DeBuin’s Christian ideals will soon clash with the reality of man’s basest instincts. At the time of its release, Ulzana’s Raid was seen as an allegorical comment on the futility of our involvement in the Vietnam War. The Apache here aren’t simply bloodthirsty savages, nor are they the peace-loving neo-hippies portrayed in such drivel as Dances With Wolves. Atrocities abound on both sides. Robert Aldrich directs with characteristic intelligence and care, but the bedrock is the screenplay by Alan Sharp (he also wrote Arthur Penn’s superb Night Moves), who contributes several stunning scenes of dialogue that shine a light on the dark side of the human condition. Don’t expect to be whistling “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” as the credits roll. This is a grim, brutal piece of work.

Thursday, May 31
8:30 a.m
. Sitting in my office at home, listening to Mavis Staples’s latest CD, You Are Not Alone, produced by Jeff Tweedy. Age has stolen some of her range, but the soul and spirituality in Miss Mavis’s voice has never been deeper. I should be writing, but instead I’m looking around at the clutter, memorabilia, and materials I’ve accumulated over the years. In the bookshelf behind me are comic books, dead-in-the-water screenplays I have written, foreign editions of my novels, and odd research materials that today would be obtained over the web but at the time were only available in published form: Maledicta 9 (“The International Journal of Verbal Aggression”), Pig Keeping, Guns Digest, Shooters Bible, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (3rd Edition), Joel Whitburn’s Top R&B Singles, 1942-1999 (indispensible), Musclecar Mania, and Son of Musclecar Mania. Plus, a copy of Jive magazine from 1983 (sample article: “Never Enough: I Needed More Than My Husband Could Give Me”).

Also on the shelf is The Movies, by Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer, a pictorial history of film from the silent era to the early sixties. It was inscribed to me long ago by Estelle Petrulakis, a family friend who taught Sunday school with my mom for 25 years and was a longtime public school teacher in some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in D.C. Among many other books, The Movies was her gift to me, and I studied every page of it when I was a kid, fascinated by the text and stills. That book, and her steady words of encouragement, gave me the crazy idea that I could become a writer and filmmaker someday. Thank you, Mrs. Pet.                  

George Pelecanos’s Week in Culture