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    Monday, October 26, 2009

    Report: Seattle Bookfest

    Seattle loves to read. Every year it takes a position near the top of the list of America’s most literate cities. Name me another major burg that turned its chief librarian into an action figure.

    But for some reason – ornery regional independence, I suppose – it has trouble sustaining an annual book festival. Northwest Bookfest went belly-up in 2003. Some enterprising locals rebooted it as Seattle Bookfest. The new version is more low-key, focusing on local authors and independent booksellers. It was held in Columbia City, one of Seattle’s funkier neighborhoods. (Most sections of town aspire to be San Francisco. Columbia City aims to be Portland.)

    I wanted to support Bookfest 2.0. Recent Bouchercon coverage by Christa Faust and Donna Moore had me jonesing for some literary action of my own. And Columbia City is also a stop on Seattle’s new light rail line. The Bookfest provided the perfect excuse for my inaugural trip on Saturday afternoon. I’m a destination-not-the-journey kind of guy.

    The venue was a former school, with the best panels held in a portable classroom. I swore when I graduated that I would never set foot in such structures again, so thanks for making a liar out of me, Bookfest! We missed some of the panel on graphic novels moderated by Fantagraphics co-founder Gary Groth, but what we did catch was interesting. What I remember:

    - The use of space is essentially a writing tool in comics.

    - Every comic should be read twice, once for the story and once for the composition.

    - If you doubt that we have become a culture that processes information visually, just look at your interaction with your phone.

    Next came the crime fiction panel. The session’s title – The Difference Between Mystery & Thriller – seemed a bit obvious, which raised concerns. As did the I’m-gonna-say indifferent moderating. I’m not going to embarrass the woman by name because she never bothered to provide hers. She sat down, asked the authors to introduce themselves, then turned to the audience and said, “OK. Any questions?” Fortunately the panelists – Robert Ferrigno, Michael Gruber and Kevin O’Brien – were pros and sustained a lively if general discussion about thrillers.

    We wrapped things up with a reading by National Book Award winner Pete Dexter. Only it wasn’t a reading, more of an alphabetical presentation of his semi-autobiographical novel Spooner. Dexter went from A to Z, offering glimpses of what’s in the book. (“A is for anthill.”) Sometimes he’d read a paragraph or two to illustrate, sometimes he’d describe the material off the cuff, sometimes he’d veer into digressions about current events or words he had trouble pronouncing. The approach worked. Whenever Dexter did quote from Spooner the crowd wanted more, and I’ll be reading the book post haste.

    Bumps and glitches aside, it was a promising start for the new iteration of Bookfest. As for light rail: smooth ride, frequent trains, decent fares. I’ll give that another shot, too.

    UPDATE: The Stranger’s postmortem of the event is far more dire - and cites this very post in a vaguely disparaging way, which I consider a moral victory. For the record, their assessment jibes with what I saw.

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    Sunday, June 28, 2009

    Sort-Of Related: McQ (1974)/Harry In Your Pocket (1973)

    At The Rap Sheet recently, J. Kingston Pierce linked to this clip, an annotated car chase from the shot-in-Seattle cop movie McQ.

    I found it fascinating, particularly because the sequence ends on the exact spot where Rosemarie’s office now stands. It got me thinking how infrequently the Emerald City turns up in movies. Sure, there’s Sleepless in Seattle, which depicts a romantic comedy burg I don’t recognize. And Singles, capturing the city during the decade it would define. But the truth is Seattle, especially the downtown core that I seldom stray from, has an innate seediness due to its hardscrabble roots and the weather. And if you want seediness on film, you’ve got to turn back the clock to the 1970s.

    McQ seems to have been spawned in a fit of municipal jealousy. It’s as if Seattle’s city fathers said, “San Francisco had Bullitt and Dirty Harry. We need a movie that showcases us a crime-infested West Coast hellhole made for tough guys, too!” John Wayne is in Eastwood mode as SPD lieutenant Lon McQ. We never learn what that’s short for, but I’m guessing McQuestionable Police Practices.

    You’ve seen McQ even if you haven’t seen McQ, and I don’t mean that as a knock. You’ve got a heroic cop kicking against the suits, police corruption, lots of talk about drugs as “junk,” a flashy pimp informant. It’s the ur-cop movie, the collective unconscious as Quinn Martin Production. Director John Sturges allows us one fleeting glimpse of the Space Needle as the Duke wakes up on his boat – of course he lives on a boat – determined not to show Seattle as a forward thinking bastion but a working-class town dealing with real-world problems. Colleen Dewhurst is great as an aging junkie waitress, managing a regal grandeur as she observes that she doesn’t do skag.

    Rosemarie’s Review: “This movie has some of the worst small talk I’ve ever heard.”

    McQ whetted my appetite for ‘70s Seattle sleaze. Harry in Your Pocket filmed here the previous year. By all accounts the production was a big deal locally; then-mayor Wes Uhlman has a cameo as one of the many people whose wallets are lifted by ace cannon James Coburn. Coburn and his partner Walter Pidgeon, dapper and addicted to cocaine, train a pair of kids (Michael Sarrazin and Trish van Devere) to become stalls, providing the distraction that allows Coburn’s Harry to work his magic. The youngsters have an extended practice session in King Street Station, currently being restored to the let’s say glory seen in the film.

    Harry is the sole feature directed by Mission: Impossible creator Bruce Geller, and it’s essentially a photo negative of that series: a team of perfectly trained individuals functions in perfect sync, not to hoodwink a Latin American dictator but relieve innocent folks of their cash. The movie presents its characters as criminals in their native habitat, and that lack of judgment is its greatest asset. Harry ultimately feels a bit insubstantial, but it possesses a breezy charm. It’s not available on DVD, but you can watch the entire film on Fancast.

    Rosemarie’s Review: “This movie also stars a woman who was married to George C. Scott?”

    I’ve lived in Seattle more than fifteen years, and my personal jury is still out about the place. Several reasons why are enumerated in this article, particularly #3.

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