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Ocean’s Dilemma

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So here I am, almost done with this thing, which is good, because it turns out this is not going to be a truncated version of the old cold.  I’m just sick.

That said, I’m at a place where I know all my decisions are, so I’m not going to stop to take it easy.  The last thing I want is to forget how I finally decided this all fit together. 

In the meantime, I find myself in one of those dilemmas. 

I am very careful about what I read when I write and when I cut–there are some things that simply make it impossible for me to keep my mind on the project in hand.

These things are not necessarily bad.  Stephen King is one of them, and my guess is that the problem is not that he’s bad, but that he’s good.  He just has too strong a narrative voice for me to fight my way out of.

Very badly written books can go either way.  Sometimes they drive me so crazy, I can’t do anything.  Sometimes they actually affect me less than they would have if I wasn’t working. 

I have absolutely no idea whatsoever what any of this means.  I just know what works, and I go with that.

Every once in a while I have a problem that I’ve mentioned before and some of you think is just crazy–I finish a book, and I just can’t find another one that I can manage to read.

This happened yesterday, when I put down the last of the Perry Masons in the house that I hadn’t read yet and looked around for something else.

Now, here’s the thing–when I have actually finished a book, I need what I think of as a “transition” book, a book to transition into real life.

This almost always turns out to be something nonfiction and argumentative.   It also tends to be something I’ve read before, because that way I can be sure it’s the right kind of thing.

I actually have a book I would like to use as my transition book–in fact, I’ve got two.  One I don’t own yet.  The other I own two copies of but can’t find either.

So when I came out of the office yesterday, having cut as much Gregor as I could without falling over, I found myself not just with nothing to read, but with nothing I could make myself understand.

And that’s when I went for my default–the movies I watched when nothing else works right.

And that led me to think about–well, Danny Ocean.

I know I’ve talked about this before, but let me go back to the issue again, because it continues to bother me.

Caper stories–novels and movies–have cycles of popularity.  There was a positive fashion for them in the Sixties and early Seventies, with two very popular paperback series–one by Donald E. Westlake and one by Lawrence Block–getting not only decent sales but movie versions.  Hell, at one point, Dormunder, Westlake’s thief-character, got played by Robert Redford.

But any way you think about it, caper stories are an odd venture.  There are people out there who like to identify with the Dark Side and to fashion themselves as evil–consider Alastair Crowley–but most of us don’t, and even most of us who are engaged in objectively evil (or just objectively wrong) actions manage to reframe them as objectively good or neutral.

Theft is, I think, an objectively wrong action, except in those cases where there is something unusual that might excuse it–think Jean Valjean. 

Caper novels are almost never written about Jean Valjean characters, though.  They’re written about professional thieves, people who make their living stealing other people’s stuff.

Almost nobody who has ever had any of their stuff stolen sympathizes with thieves.  The first problem a caper story has, therefore, is to turn an unsympathetic character into a sympathetic one–to somehow take the mind of the audience off the thievery and onto the thieves’ personality.

Larry  Block’s series had an interesting way of doing this for a while.  His thief, Bernie Rhodenbarr (sp?), would start to rob an apartment or other venue and stumble over a body.  He would then have to solve the murder to avoid being charged with it himself.

And since murder is a lot worse than burglary, and since most people haven’t been burgled, this worked.

It worked well enough to keep the series in business for many years, and to produce at least one movie, Burglar, with Bernie Rhodenbarr transformed into the person of Whoopi Goldberg.

Sometimes a caper story works because the thief, although a professional, and the job, although a robbery, aren’t really that in this particular instance.

That’s the set up in The Italian Job, where the robbery is being executed against a man who stole what he has to begin with an in the process caused the gratuitous death of one of his partners.

With other caper stories, the issues aren’t all that clear cut–which is  how we get to my default movies, when I’m just too tired or too sick or too out of it to really want to think.

This is how we get to Danny Ocean.

Now, let me explain something about what I like about these movies.

First, I like the Eleven and the Thirteen movies more than I like the Twelve, and that is because Twelve is set in Europe, and the other two are set in Las Vegas.

And I like them because the Las Vegas of these movies is bright and shiny and–I don’t know what.

You have to understand, from off, that I do not like casinos in real life.  In real life, casinos seem to me to be sad and desperate places, with few if any of the people in them having a “good time.”

I do understand that people can gamble as a pastime without becoming habituated to it.  I have a good girlfriend from college who goes to Vegas or Atlantic City every year, takes along exactly how much money she’s willing to lose, and stops when she’s lost that.

Even so, these places always seem unhappy to me, and more than a little sordid.  I did an event at Mohegan Sun once and had to walk across the slot machine area to get to dinner.  There is just something wrong with people who sit hunched up like that for hour after hour.

Nobody sits hunched up like that in the world of Ocean’s Las Vegas.  Everybody is beautifully dressed all the time and drinking as if they’ve got somebody else to drive them home.  There is a right way and a wrong way to gamble, and everybody knows it.

But my fondness for these movies is even odder if you consider what’s actually going on in them.

In numbers Twelve and Thirteen, Ocean and the boys are ripping off either somebody who is already ripping them off and will kill them if they don’t succeed in a counterstrategy, or somebody who is himself dishonest and brutal in a way the Ocean crew is not.

In Ocean’s Eleven, however, the target is a casino owner who is admittedly a thug–but a thug in the way Lorenzo di Medici was a thug. 

What’s more, it’s clear that his success is due not to his thuggery but to his other accomplishments, which are considerable.  He works his butt off, as the saying goes. He speaks several languages and is learning more, so that he can talk to high rollers from places like Germany and Japan in their own tongue. 

I’ll admit that, as with diMedici, it’s hard to like Terry Benedict.  He certainly commits a big no-no by valuing his casino empire over his girlfriend.

But he has still earned what he’s got, not cheated it out of other people, and on several levels it’s difficult not to admire him. 

That leaves me, of course, with the question of why it doesn’t bother me when Ocean and the boys get away with $160,000,000 of his money. 

Some of it may simply be the amount of time that is spent explaining that the man is insured and will be made whole no matter what. 

I don’t usually fall for that kind of line, because I know that insurance payoffs hurt everybody in the long run.  The insurance companies will make that money back by raising premiums and doing other things to otherwise innocent parties.

And yet it just doesn’t bother me. 

What I seem to want out of these movies is a shiny world where nothing is quite real–not in the way that science fiction landscapes aren’t real, but in the way dreams are. 

The very premise of these things is just so–ridiculous is the word I think I want here.  Even the money isn’t real.

And maybe that’s what I really want from these things.

A world where the money isn’t real.

Written by janeh

April 9th, 2012 at 10:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Ocean’s Dilemma'

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  1. If you don’t have it, money is pretty much always unreal. I always thought that was the attraction of all those high-society movies made during the Great Depression. Glitter, conspicuous waste, and frivolous concerns that enable the poor folks to forget for an hour and twenty that they don’t have the money to pay the gas bill.

    About six weeks ago, we ran across the original Ocean’s Eleven with the Rat Pack, and watched it. What struck me most was how…small and tawdry Las Vegas looked back then, early 1960s. No big Strip, just a road with some overgrown motor hotels along it. The casinos themselves were filled with people drinking and smoking too much (as it always seems to us watching movies from that era) and laughing far too loudly at unfunny things. I guess it’s all the about-to-be divorcees putting in their six-weeks residence before they can get the decree.

    Moral issues of theft aside, caper movies to me are about the suspense of skating along the edge of disaster, can they do it? How will they do it? and who will get caught, or double-cross the rest, etc.

    Your need for a “transition” book is funny. My husband recently watched me finish one book and set it down, and practically in the same motion pick up the next one and start reading. I saw him looking at me funny and and he asked, “don’t you need a moment to process or something between one book and the next?”

    Nope. Rarely, for a truly awesome book, I’ll sit and think about it for 10 minutes or so. But reading time is for reading. Contemplation about what I read comes later, when I’m doing some routine task that precludes reading, like showering, or doing laundry. No transition necessary.


    9 Apr 12 at 12:46 pm

  2. I do prefer the capers–books and film–which have a more or less honest purpose, which is a fairly thin list: the original TV MISSION IMPOSSIBLES, HOW TO STEAL A MILLION, and Crusie’s FAKING IT (stretching a point). But I do enjoy Poytz Tyler’s GARDEN OF CUCUMBERS and the movie version (FITZWILLY) which haven’t much of a moral excuse. A good caper has a siilar intellectual buzz to a good fair play mystery.

    Las Vegas seems to me–fictionally, at least: I’ve no intention of going there–a sort of moral gray zone without any innocents. The punters are there to give money to the Mob, and I don’t know why they don’t write checks and save travel costs. Stealing from a construction firm or a steel mill would bother me. Stealing from a casino or a drug pusher doesn’t. Which (a) may not be fair, and (b) may be why the movie works.

    Sidelight, and you’ll have to trust my memory on this. I have seen a paperback behind the original OCEAN’S ELEVEN. It may be by George Clayton Johnson and Jack Golden Russel, who get story credit on the first movie. It does NOT have a happy ending. Danny Ocean is a Devil/seducer figure, who goes into a drunken stupor when his 11 loses the stolen money. He and the entire team are killed by mobsters.

    I wouldn’t wait for that version to show up in the local multiplex.


    9 Apr 12 at 4:11 pm

  3. I liked the original Ocean’s Eleven movie, but couldn’t bring myself to watch the remake and its sequels. I loved “Topkapi” and Steve McQueen’s and Faye Dunnaway’s version of “The Thomas Crown Affair”, but I wouldn’t change channels, let alone cross the street to see the remake. The only current caper show that attracts me is the British TV series “Hustle” which I like very much indeed. It has a great cast, including Robert Vaughn, and is mostly about thieves stealing from thieves or other lowlives.

    I was brought up to see thieves as among the lowest forms of animal life, and it has always seemed to me to be a sign of the increasing depravity of our western societies that it more frequently seems to be condoned.


    9 Apr 12 at 10:15 pm

  4. I never forget the comment in Parkinson’s EAST AND WEST that when a civilization is in decline, there is a sharp rise in superstition and gambling–hard work and thrift, presumably, being less rewarding then they had been.

    Think about that, and contemplate those movies with thieves as heroes, the Astrology section of bookstores–which always strikes me as obscene–and how “small and tawdry” Las Vegas used to look–next to say, how it looks now. Or Atlantic City. Or all the state-sponsored lotteries and American Indian casinos.

    The commentators who tell me the country isn’t in serious trouble ought to get out more.


    10 Apr 12 at 3:08 pm

  5. I don’t like heist novels that much. I never thought much about why I don’t.

    I don’t understand the fascination of gambling. I toss a few dollars in the office pot on payday, but I wouldn’t miss it if I didn’t, and generally find gambling rather boring. But I’ve known more than one person for whom is is extremely destructive. Yesterday there was another online article in the local media about a failed lawsuit over a machine that was said to particularly addicting, and the rather predictable comments saying it’s all the gambler’s fault.

    This is why I find myself rather uneasily between individual and group responsibility. Yes, the individual gambler has to decide to stop, and find a way to make that decision stick. But it’s been clear for millenia that some of them will destroy their lives and their families’ lives and maybe kill themselves first. Whatever the moral arguments behind the restrictions on gambling, the effect was that restrictions on the number of forms of entertainment and employment for the majority reduced the chances of serious – even fatal – harm to the minority, who couldn’t handle it, and their families.

    And now, not only does this not hold, the public (or that portion of it which posts comments to news articles on the internet) doesn’t even conceive that there might be a good reason in a society as a whole for restricting the individual right to choose certain forms of entertainment! A few might point out that the various forms of assistance promised by governments when they legalized gamblings haven’t shown up in the quantities needed, but most seem to think “I want to gamble, it causes you problems, tough!’. It’s an atomistic view of society, and it bothers me.

    Another headline kind of amused me. It’s fashionable to have these massive facilities with rinks and an attached Convention Centre. I strongly opposed ours – there hadn’t been one in eastern Canada, and probably even further afield that ever broken even, and if the government is going to be spending money on entertainment, I’d prefer it to be a form of entertainment I like.

    The headline was “Mile One earned money because of St. John’s subsidy”

    The subtitle was “Centre would have lost $550,000 without it”

    Someone needs lessons on what it means to earn money.


    11 Apr 12 at 6:32 am

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