Walker Percy was a big Elmore Leonard fan. Way back in 1987, during the high noon of a career that has now reached its rich and plummy twilight, Percy asked: “Why is Elmore Leonard so good?” Percy answered: “He doesn’t stick to the same guy in the same place.” And: “You begin to notice his prose, the way he moves people around. People get shot in dependent clauses.” And: “The snap and crackle of the dialogue is something to hear.” To wit: “(Leonard) often drops the word ‘if’ in dialogue – and uses hardly any conjunctions. ‘I had a tire iron we could find out in ten minutes.’ This sentence could use an ‘if’ and a comma and would be worse for it. Yes, Mr. Leonard knows what he’s doing.”
Indeed he does. And he proves it yet again with his new novel, Djibouti, which takes us from more familiar Leonard haunts – Detroit, Miami, Las Vegas, Hollywood, Atlantic City, New Orleans – all the way to that charming open sewer of a city on the Gulf of Aden that gives the book its title. Leonard’s two heroes, film-maker Dara Barr and her 6-foot-6, 72-year-old black cameraman Xavier LeBo, have come here for a little change of pace. After winning major awards, including an Oscar, for documentaries about Bosnia, white supremacists and post-Katrina New Orleans, Dara wants to try her hand at filming some Somali pirates doing what they do so well – hijacking humongous freighters and holding them for humongous ransoms.
Xavier, a street-smart former merchant seaman, has sailed these treacherous waters many times, and he wastes no time giving Dara the lay of the land and introducing her to a cast of characters who, in time-honored Leonard style, are rarely what they appear to be. There’s a loose cannon of a Texas billionaire named Billy Wynn, who may or may not be CIA but who is definitely sailing around the world with a knockout named Helene, a Paris runway model who will become Mrs. Wynn if she can make the trip without whining or getting seasick. There’s Idris Mohammed, an American-educated Somali pirate who drives a Mercedes and doesn’t see himself or his crew as villains: “I think of us as the Coast Guard giving out fines to ships that contaminate our seas, thousands of them leaving their waste in the waters we once fished.”
Then there’s Ari Ahmed Sheikh Bakar, “known as Harry in England,” one of the “good” guys who tries to dissuade pirates from being pirates but isn’t above selling them AK-47s so they can sell them at double the price to local gangsters and warlords. And finally there’s Jama Raisuli, born James Russell, a black Al Qaeda terrorist from Miami who has come here looking to blow up something big. Like maybe that tanker full of Liquid Natural Gas parked offshore.
All of the virtues listed by Walker Percy are on display here, along with several he neglected to mention, most notably the moral ambiguity of all the characters and all their causes, which is the tool Leonard uses to make his points while he makes us laugh. Billy sums up this pervasive moral ambiguity: “There’s no way to tell who’s good and who’s bad in this fucked-up Mohammedan world.” This is neither politically incorrect nor insensitive because Leonard is an equal-opportunity satirist; he skewers not only religious zealots but the CIA, pirates, rich Republicans, Hollywood phonies and jihadists, in no particular order.
And when Billy gets wound up on his beverage of choice, $150 bottles of champagne, and starts waxing patriotic, Helene, the funniest character in the book, thinks to herself: “He was the guy Sterling Hayden played in Dr. Strangelove, General Jack D. Ripper. How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the subtitle. Sterling Hayden was so serious he was weird. Calm, talking about the Communist conspiracy to put fluoridation in our drinking water to fuck up our precious bodily fluids.”
When Helene confides to Dara that Billy wants to blow up the LNG tanker here so that Al Qaeda won’t be able to blow it up once it reaches Louisiana, Dara muses: “I’m guessing. He’d like to be known as a war hero who got the Medal of Honor posthumously without dying.”
After shooting a lot of footage of pirates, Dara and Xavier begin to wonder if they should be making a feature film instead of a documentary. While this allows Leonard to do some clever riffing on the inanity of Hollywood, it also points up the book’s main flaw, and it’s not a small one. For a hundred pages or so, Dara and Xavier sit in her hotel room in Djibouti watching the footage they shot while at sea, reliving adventures that have already happened. It makes for a choppy narrative. Only when Jama Raisula takes center stage and the dead bodies start piling up does the story take flight. Sometimes it’s good for a crime novel when the bad guys are just plain bad.
And Jama’s the goods. In a single scene he shoots five men, including his Al Qaeda mentor. In another he shoots a lovely prostitute through the brain. He shoots a former Navy SEAL hired by Billy. And when Dara and Xavier finish shooting their movie, Jama goes to New Orleans looking to shoot them.
As is the case with the dozen other Elmore Leonard novels I’ve read, Djibouti succeeds largely because of the things that got left out. Back story, exposition, physical descriptions of characters and scenery, weather, exclamation points, adverbs – all are in short supply here. And Leonard always stays behind the scenes, where he belongs.
“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,” he once said. Elsewhere he has said that when he was learning to write fiction he became a great admirer of Hemingway. “You study him closely,” Leonard said, “and you realize all the stuff he leaves out that you think is in the story. That’s always interested me.”
It still interests him. And that may be the main reason why, at the ripe age of 85, Elmore Leonard is still so good.
The Oscars, for as long as I can remember watching them, have been a tangle of thorns. The bramble invariably bears fruit, but the berries are often difficult to reach, or worse yet, unripe. Last year’s Slumdog Millionaire was not the worst movie to win Best Picture—let us not forget Crash, Return of the King, and Million Dollar Baby, just to name three from this decade—but it was still green: a simple film in the basest sense, one that glanced at big themes like poverty and class warfare, but refused, ultimately, to scrutinize them. As I wrote in a review of a much better film last year (Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre):
Slumdog was a financial success for the same reason that it was an artistic failure: it skimmed, both cinematographically and emotionally, over its subjects. It purported to be about class struggle in India, and the requisite horrors of poverty. But instead it was a shiny, loud, and clean fairytale. Slumdog overcame tragedy, but the adversity dramatized was so disingenuous that the triumph seemed saccharine at worst, and shallow at best. A lot of people, though, must have seen Boyle’s allegory as fresh and optimistic, and the film rode that sentiment to the Oscars.
The Best Picture award, expanded this year to ten nominees, seemed at first like an ecumenical gesture on the part of the Academy. I loved the idea that more small films, hypothetically, would get to stand beside the studio epics. And though The Hurt Locker and A Serious Man made the cut, so did Avatar, District 9 and The Blind Side, suggesting to me that the dilution of the category was more a wink and a nod to thoughtful filmmakers than a sincere unification with them. Where was A Single Man? Where was Antichrist? Why was Up nominated for Best Picture and Best Animated Feature?
The Hurt Locker is another sort of film. It follows the fate of three soldiers in Iraq charged with disarming IEDs in Baghdad. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) replaces Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) after Thompson is killed in the line of duty. James is as unconcerned with danger as James Bond is with venereal disease, and he approaches his work with the spiritual calm of a man raking a rock garden. What is immediately evident watching The Hurt Locker is that the film is existential rather than polemical. The soldiers aren’t interested in why they’re in country. The other men on James’ team—Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are concerned only with surviving until they leave. James, on the other hand, seems captivated by his work and pursues it with the Platonic conviction that all labor is ethically sound if done excellently.
Along with The Messenger, which I reviewed for The Millions, I saw The Hurt Locker as a testament to what “popular” cinema should strive to be. Just because I love Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, and feel that, stylistically and ethically, it’s one of the most important films of the decade, doesn’t mean I expect it to ever find a broad American audience (it’s in black and white, for one, and for another, the actors speak German). The Hurt Locker, on the other hand, combined with the suspense of more traditional action fare (say, The Bourne Identity) the moral quandaries of Dr. Strangelove and the chauvinistic camaraderie of The Decline of the American Empire, all without delivering a simple message. In The Hurt Locker, war is both despicable and intoxicating. Some soldiers can’t wait to get home, and others dread leaving the battlefield. And yet it was popular amongst servicemen and critics alike. Emily Colette Wilkinson, who commented on my review “The Holy Trinity: Three Iraq War Films Define a New Apolitical Aesthetic,” wrote that her sister in Afghanistan loved The Hurt Locker. “It seems to have really connected with soldiers.”
All of this is to say that, from a commercial and an artistic perspective, The Hurt Locker was a revelatory example of the kind of film that could be made near Hollywood, if not exactly inside it. If it were to beat out Avatar, somehow, the Academy Awards were no longer a circle-jerk (as a friend of mine so quaintly put it), but, if briefly, a coronation ceremony for some damned fine art.
Before the show began, I was convinced that Avatar would win, though in retrospect that conviction came from the fact that everyone else seemed convinced it would. I have friends who enjoyed it, and I even lunched with two acquaintances a month back who thought it was not only the best film of the season, but perhaps the greatest achievement in cinematographic history. But, as my roommate Ty (who was born around the time Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb’s hitting record and was named, somewhat ironically, after the great, morally bankrupt Cobb) put it, to paraphrase, the Avatar champions were confusing spectacle with good storytelling. Avatar was a miracle if you saw it stoned in 3-D IMAX and ignored the performances and the dialogue, but a disaster if you paid attention to the actors and the lines they delivered. A technological marvel does not a best picture make, one could say. Avatar deserved every special effects award it got nominated for. But how, phenomena aside, can a film that garners no writing or acting nods possibly be an appropriate candidate for Best Picture? Fundamentally, shouldn’t a great film be an amalgamation of writing, acting, photography, and direction? The Hurt Locker was nominated, in addition to sound editing and mixing, for acting, writing, photography, and directing, as well as for the overall product. Avatar, on the other hand, was up for sound, special effects, cinematography, and directing, but received no acknowledgments whatsoever for its screenplay or the actors—digitally rendered or otherwise—who brought those stale lines to half life.
This polemic (for what else could you call my assault on James Cameron?) may seem a little cruel in the wake of the awards. Avatar, as it turns out, lost to The Hurt Locker on all the narrative fronts, and some of the technical ones, too. It won for best special effects, cinematography, and art direction, but The Hurt Locker won Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture. Perhaps I’m in shock still, and expect to read in a few days that all of Kathryn Bigelow’s accolades got rescinded and heaped upon the Na’vi. But I think my unrest, or at least my disbelief in The Hurt Locker’s success, is grounded in my fear that the 82nd Academy Awards were an anomaly rather than the birth of a trend. Last night’s ceremony was, undoubtedly, an unprecedented victory for small films. The Hurt Locker cost $14 million to make, and Avatar $2 billion, if I’m misremembering my figures correctly. And James Cameron doesn’t lose many contests he’s expecting to win, especially to his ex-wife.
My hope, in the end, is that the incessant hype around Avatar didn’t simply annoy voters until they voted against it, out of nothing more than spite. My dream is that the republic of Hollywood, in its lovely dresses and tailored tuxedos, realized that a poor story poorly told papered over with handsome colors and textures is still nothing more than a poor story. Avatar has revolutionized, one suspects, the way big movies will get made in the future. But it did nothing to illuminate the human condition. The Hurt Locker, though, will haunt moviegoers long after Cameron’s virtual camera technology is commonplace on Monday Night Football broadcasts. Avatar is the new technological benchmark—which means it’s transient. Eventually something will surpass it. The Hurt Locker, conversely, like any true work of art, is permanent.