Canadian Culture: Special Delivery

Although this isn’t free culture, it’s Canadian culture. I can’t watch videos on the NFB site because it uses a proprietary player. Fortunately for me (and all free software users), NFB makes its video available on YouTube as well. Video on YouTube is accessible with free software, and although it doesn’t license to share it is possible to embed the video here.

This is one of my all time favourite Canadian winter films. It was commissioned by Canada Post, and dates back to the time Canada Post was invested in Canada and had a sense of humour. Although it is a cartoon, it does contain mature subject matter Viewer discretion is advised.

Enjoy this 1978 Oscar Winning NFB short directed by Eunice Macaulay & John Weldon.

@lessig postscript

Probably what bothered me most, and prompted my earlier post @lessig: unfollow? was what I perceived to be a summary order issued by Lawrence Lessig to those of us who subscribe to his Identi.ca feed or follow him on Twitter. It seems I’m not the only one to become upset with his microblog comment. But he really didn’t mean it in the way it sounded, and today @lessig let some of us noisier microbloggers know that he’d meant no offense.

follow-up micro blog

Lawrence Lessig is an Internet luminary. He’s a legendary copyfighter, one of the founders of Creative Commons as well as founding Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society . He’s on the board of The Software Freedom Law Center as well as a former Electronic Frontier Foundation board member.

And Lessig has done a great deal already to make the world a better place for me and my family, and you and yours, with his iwork on copyright and Internet governance. He didn’t have to justify himself to us, but he cleared the air just the same. If anything I’m more impressed with Mr. Lessig than ever for taking the time to correct a total stranger’s misunderstanding. After all, some of my radical copyright notions have been informed by reading or listening to his words. So I’m glad I was wrong.

Of course, this doesn’t stop me from having issues around the “Pledge” promo, particularly with respect of privacy but also with the Paramount promo and profit from the film.

@lessig took the time to explain that he is not happy with the very same privacy issue, but his goal is to get the film made and out there. And Paramount can provide wide distribution to do it.

So I think I understand where he’s coming from, but I continue to be concerned. So I will reiterate my main concerns here:

Privacy

To make the pledge, you must surrender your email address, your zip code and your Date of Birth…. Hmmm… Isn’t it the EFF that cautions people about giving out personal identifiers, because it only takes three identifiers and it’s hasta la vista privacy?

The personal Information submitted there will be shared by Paramount Pictures, Participant Media, TakePart and Walden Media

You agree to the TakePart website’s terms of use and TakePart Privacy Policy , and if you have any stamina left you can see the Paramount Pictures Privacy Policy and the Walden Media Privacy Policy to know what you are agreeing to.

There are three, count them THREE privacy policies as well as a website “Terms of Use” agreement that you are committing to if you make the pledge. You pretty much need a lawyer to protect yourself before signing this thing. What is this? Data mining?

education funding?

Fund raising for Paramount Pictures is a backward way of funding education.

People in the documentary business don’t get rich. I don’t know what a major movie studio like Paramount budgets for a feature film documentary but if it’s a million dollars I’d be very surprised. Even before digital cameras and Internet distribution brought the costs down enormously, I suspect that $100,000 would have been considered big budget for most documentaries.

So although I don’t have numbers or contracts, I do know that no matter how good this film is, the cost to make it will not come anywhere close to what a feature film would cost. If Paramount was making this documentary as a good deed, after costs are recouped all of the income from it should rightly go to help the cause: the failing American education system. But I doubt very much that Paramount has any intention to walk away without also making a profit.

In which case Paramount Pictures stands to gain from the plight of the American school children in this film.

Particularly at a time when the MPAA, which certainly includes Paramount in its membership, is spending vast amounts of industry funding lobbying for A.C.T.A. around the world. In fact, right now many Canadians are anxiously waiting to find out of our government is going to try to foist a Canadian DMCA on our legislature.

If the only a fraction of what the MPAA spends lobbying for A.C.T.A. was spent on schools, every American public school could be a charter school.

I’m not sure how it works in the United States, but a lot of the erosion in Canadian public services– like education– over the past few decades seems a direct result of the fact that these days big businesses pays little or no tax.

Maybe we should be challenging the way education is financed rather than fund raising for the MPAA.
Side view of Yellow Laidlaw school bus

Personal Use Copying vs. Bootlegging

Star Wars Movie Poster

Today there is only one first run movie theatre chain in the whole of Canada, so even the most successful movies only play for a matter of weeks.

But back in the 1970’s there was still competition among Canadian movie theatres so Star Wars actually played on Canadian movie screens for over a year. When the first Star Wars movie was released I was so caught up in it that I ended up going out to see it in a variety of movie theatres thirteen times during that first year.

I am a huge Star Wars fan.

I bought all the Star Wars merchandise that I could afford. In those days there were no DVDs or downloads. VCRs had just come on the market and they were prohibitively expensive.

So at first those of us who were not indescribably wealthy had to content ourselves with purchasing vinyl record albums that ran at 33 1/3rd rpm on an old fashioned machine called a record player. I bought the music in the form of the John Williams Star Wars soundtrack album, as well as a record called “The Story of Star Wars”, a synopsis of the story narrated by C3PO with audio clips from the film. To this day any time I hear the 20th Century Fox music tag I flash on the “real” Star Wars opening.

And today the George Lucas’s Star Wars empire continues to make money in new ways. I don’t have a problem with that. It is a business after all.

I still love Star Wars, particularly the first one. And this article in no way intends any disrespect. I’m telling you about my connection with Star Wars because the incredible success that Star Wars had makes it a good example. That, and because Star Wars was the very first videotape movie I saw played on a VCR in a private home.

What I really want to do today (besides procrastinate from working on my NaNoWriMo novel) is to look at personal use copying as a copyright infringement issue.

The Copyright Lobby makes no distinction between commercial bootleggers who distribute illegal copies for profit and legal purchasers who seek to make a back-up copy or digital format shift for personal use. Because they insist it is all the same thing, the Copyright Lobby has been pressuring governments the world over in an attempt to criminalize personal use copying.

I think there is a problem with the terminology here because calling both things by the same name is horribly misleading. Both activities involve digital copying, but that is where the similarity ends. Just as apples and oranges are both fruit but they are really not the same at all.

apples and oranges

applesOne thing the Copyright Lobby calls “piracy” would be more accurately called “Bootlegging”. Bootleg music recordings have been around as long as audio recording technology has existed. People have smuggled recording devices into concerts and made copies which they have then sold around the world. There have also been professional bootleggers who have copied recorded music and repackaged it to sell illegally. These activities have resulted in lost revenue for music distributors, and in fact should be illegal.

orangesThe other thing the Copyright Lobby calls “piracy” is what I call “Personal use copying”. This covers a much wider range of activities, but the chief defining factor of personal use copying is the fact that this digital copying is not for profit. Rather than resulting in lost revenue for distributors, personal use copying relieves the burden of format shifting from the manufacturer to the consumer. When shared through p2p networks personal use copying serves as a means of promoting these commercial products in the same way that radio and television broadcasts have done under the traditional business model. This type of copying should be legal.

The Copyright Lobby’s effort to criminalize this type of copying simply alienates the customer base. Like DRM or SOC methods, it does absolutely nothing to stem the flow of bootlegging.

When did the idea of ownership change?

It used to be that when you bought something you owned it. You were free to do with it what you liked. Even if it was something covered under copyright law… like a book, you were entitled to read that book as many times as you wanted to.

  • You could loan it to a friend.
  • You could quote from it in an essay
  • You could read it aloud to your blind grandmother.

And at the end of the day it was still your book. Unless you decided you no longer wanted it, at which time you could legally sell it to a used book store.

Now lets look at what’s been happening so far in the information age. Manufacturers of recorded music and movies have their materials covered under copyright. They want us to not make copies for our own personal use, even though we have paid them the price they ask.

Personal use copying is not the same thing as bootlegging for commercial gain.

The Problem

Original Star Wars Betamax videotape
When videotape and VCRs first came on the market, it cost on the order of $100 to purchase Star Wars (I refer to the “real” Star Wars movie… back in the days of ancient history when there was only one which was simply called Star Wars… “Star Wars Episode One” did not yet exist).

 

If you purchased Star Wars in the Sony Betamax version back then, you would have found yourself out of luck a few short years later when Sony stopped making Betamax VCRs. When your Betamax machine became inoperable, you could no longer buy a new one, which of course rendered the tape you purchased in good faith unplayable. No one warned the unfortunate consumers that invested in Betamax tapes and Betamax equipment. I never heard of anyone getting refunds from the movie companies. Or the MPAA. Or Sony. Etc.

Star Wars on VHS
So now the copy of the Star Wars movie is no longer playable. Obviously, you thought that you would be able to keep playing that movie whenever you wanted to for the rest of your life. The same way that you will be able read your paperback copy of Anne of Green Gables as many times as you like for as long as you live.

But.

Now you can’t. So what do you do if you really loved Star Wars?

You go out and buy it again. This time on VHS.

The rest of your life, eh? I know that’s what I thought. Didn’t you?

Did Twentieth Century Fox ever offer to reimburse you for the useless hunk of plastic and tape (that you have now purchased twice for your own use) that is now deteriorating? And suddenly it’s near impossible to buy a new VHS machine because there is yet another new technology– now movies are on DVD. Even if you can find a new VHS machine, we’ve all learned that a VCR will be lucky to last for five years anyway. And of course the VCRs you can find now are far more expensive than DVD players. So what’s a fan to do. Oh right.

You go out and buy Star Wars again on DVD.

Star Wars on DVD

[Of course, this particular example is extra irritating because George Lucas hasn’t stopped tinkering with the thing, and since he’s vowed to never release the REAL version (the one that actually played in theatres in 1977) on DVD, so I will never have the version I want no matter how many times I’ve paid for it. *sigh*]

But you’re a fan.

So you go out and buy the movie AGAIN on DVD.

At least you have it in a form that will last.

Now HD is gone too.

Or not.

Because then along came HD DVD.  The media manufacturers were a little surprised that we didn’t all rush out and buy HD machines.

Replacing our entire video library. AGAIN.

Oh… you were one of those suckers who got conned into converting to bought into HD? Ooooops!  Didn’t anyone tell you that the technology you were supposed to back was Blu-Ray?

I could go through the same process to look at the parallels in the music industry: piano rolls, gramophone cylinders, ’78’s, LPs, 8 track tapes, cassette tapes and CDS… all over the course of a single century.

Funny, I have a working gramophone older than I am which will play ’78’s. Yet our modern day electronic equipment will be doing well to work after a decade.

I don’t know about you but I am tired of buying the same movies over and over again.

Copyright is an agreement between the creator/manufacturer and the consumer.

The media distributors have NOT kept their part of the bargain, expecting consumers to pay for the same material over and over again. It should be legal to be able to watch the movie you have purchased in good faith as many times as we want to, for the rest of our lives.

Consumers have not been given any protection by governments the world over.

At the very minimum customers need to be given the right to copy the products they have purchased onto the piece of technology needed to play it.

We believe we own what we have purchased.
They want us to believe that we don’t.

Fortunately our government representatives are in an excellent position to look out for the Canadian consumer interests as they redraft our copyright law for the benefit of Canadians.


[At last: my copycon submission made it to the copyright consultation website.]


copycon: the continuing saga

More strolling through the Canadian Copyright Consultation Submissions…

I keep coming back to this magnificent outpouring of ideas about Canadian copyright law and all that goes with it, and I am so very impressed.

Chen Shen wrote a great one. Here are a couple of my favorite bits:

“the purpose behind copyright should be reevaluated, and reforms should achieve a truly balanced approach to protecting the interests of both content publishers and content consumers, which is based in reality as opposed to the fantasies of media conglomerates clinging onto an ancient media landscape.”

— Chen Shen, copyright consultation submission

Beautiful use of language. And this part is so simple, yet so sensible.

“Generally speaking, restrictive protections should expire soon after content ceases to generate significant revenue.”

— Chen Shen, copyright consultation submission

Google found me the blog. This tiny excerpt says SO much:

“The government’s message is clear: lying on the sex offenders registry is less harmful than sharing your favourite songs on the internet watching DVDs on Linux.”

— cshen.ca blog

Jeff Cliff programming student/composer has a lot of very interesting stuff to say, interweaving philosophical ideas with everyday practicalities.

“Digitally locking the hood of a car so that only the dealer can maintain it restricts who can learn to fix it — this is not how things happen in the future Canada that I want.”
— Jeff Cliff, copyright consultation submission

If this is a typical Canadian student, Canada could have such a bright future.

“Let your children, at least, be free”
— Jeff Cliff, copyright consultation submission

Dusty Phillips, freelance software developer/member of the Pirate Party of Canada

“The distribution channels are irrelevant; they know this and are lobbying for laws to make it harder and/or illegal to access content without paying them. This is like trying to pass laws that we all use typewriters instead of e-mail because typewriters and the postal system are no longer relevant. It serves a set of industries already well-known for misusing artists and consumers alike.”

— Dusty Phillips, copyright consultation submission

This submission brings up an interesting ramification that I hadn’t thought of: the privacy issue

“The privacy problem is that policing such laws would require knowing every movie I watch, every book I read, and every packet I transfer across the Internet. The authorities would have to read every e-mail to ensure I haven’t attached an “illegal” file to it. This is clearly a drastic invasion of privacy.”

— Dusty Phillips, copyright consultation submission

Which of course could be the strongest motivation for efforts to alter Bill C-27 to grant such draconian abilities to the telecom providers.

Another aspect Dusty Phillips discusses is the Canadian “desire to create”. The world of repressed Canadian culture Dusty describes here is actually the dark ages of music and art that the internet is in the process of freeing Canadian culture from.

Of course, the old guard keeps trying to claw us back into the pit because they were much happier when they controlled everything. What they are missing is absurd. If artists are allowed the freedom to find their own audiences, when they are established they will still prefer to affiliate with a distribution network. Because artists want to create, not sell.

The biggest difference in the new model would be that the artists and the distributors would be entering into a more equitable arrangement.

The deal is no longer that the artist has to sell their soul to a company that will try to make them a star. At first blush Big Media doesn’t want that shift of power. I suspect long term it would work out better for them too.   But they must have the flexibility to adapt. Instead of trying, they are trying to legislate turning back the hands of time. Not gonna happen, folks. What will happen is the little guys doing the distribution now will end up replacing the big guys who are too rigid to adapt.

During my growing up years the wailing and gnashing of teeth by Canadian politicians of all stripes was: “Canada needs an identity.” or “We don’t have a national identity.”

Even as a kid my take on it was that the Canadian identity is that we were NOT American.

So what is happening in the here and now? The digital age that has arrived has already gone so very far in allowing Canadian culture to grow freely. In the last decade, Canadians have been growing a culture by making use of these technologies. Not just to produce their art but to distribute it.

This is awesome. If allowed to flourish in the fullness of time… perhaps even already… there would no longer need to be any Canadian Content law. Canadian art and music and movies would be allowed to grow and find audiences on their merit and appeal to audience.

In my day, many really talented Canadians had to leave Canada to “make it big”.

Lets just for one moment look at a few Americon iconic characters brought to life by Canadians who couldn’t make a living at home:
Elwood Blues: Dan Ackroyd
The original ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce Donald Sutherland
Captain Kirk: William Shatner (yes, sadly he’s one of ours)
Scotty: James Doohan
King Kong’s original true love: Fay Wray
Pa Cartright: Lorne Greene
Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones: Kim Cattral
Perry Mason: Raymond Burr
Nero Wolfe: Maury Chaykin
Lois Lane: Margot Kidder
Tonto: Jay Silverheels

Which is why Canada Post keeps honoring “Canadians In Hollywood”. So many of our best and brightest have had to go below the border:

Canada Post: Canadians In Hollywood stamps
Canada Post: Canadians In Hollywood stamps

Just a few Canadians who had to leave home to develop intellectual property:
James Cameron (Titanic)
Norman Jewison (Fiddler and the Roof)
Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters)
Lorne Michaels (Saturday Night Live)

And of course some of Hollywood’s brightest stars were Christopher Plummer, Dorothy Pickford, Leslie Nielson, Lorne Greene, Michael J. Fox, Jim Carrey, Glen Ford, Robert Goulet, Raymond Massey,Meg and Jennifer Tilley, Norma Shearer, Martin Short, Kate Nelligan…. the list goes on and on and on.

Maybe if Canada were to embrace the new model, as so many of the copyright consultation submissions suggest, things will continue to change and more of our brightest stars will be able to stay home.

LOL: The Dortmunder Novels

"What's So Funny" Cover Art
"What's So Funny" Cover Art

“LOL” means “Laugh out Loud”.

In reality though, people aren’t really laughing out loud.
But since body language doesn’t doesn’t come across in a text message, LOL indicates that you’ve found something funny. You may in actuality be smiling or even grinning but rarely is anyone really laughing out loud.

However, in the real world whenever I am reading a Dortmunder novel, quite often I find myself actually laughing out loud.

LOL

I know this because my husband or son will interrupt my reading by demanding to know “What’s so funny?

And my answer is invariably, “Dortmunder.”

“So,” you might ask, “What exactly is a Dortmunder?”

And I’d have to tell you that a Dortmunder is a terribly funny comic crime novel written by the extremely talented comic novelist Donald E. Westlake. And the Dortmunder Novels are Westlake’s best loved comic caper series, named for the crucial common denominator as well as the closest thing the series gets to a leading man.

O.K., then who is Dortmunder?

Dortmunder's Debut
Dortmunder's Debut

In the New York City crime community, John Archibald Dortmunder is a specialist. He’s a planner, and his plans are unquestionably ingenious… brilliant even.

But John Dortmunder is certainly not by any means the typical leading man.

“Dortmunder blows his nose.”
The Hot Rock

This is the first line of The Hot Rock, the very first time we meet Dortmunder.

Talk about an unprepossessing beginning.

But with this one line Westlake made Dortmunder real.

A peek at some of the other first lines:

"Bank Shot" Cover Art
"Bank Shot" Cover Art

“Yes,” Dortmunder said, “You can reserve all of this, for yourself and your family, for simply a ten dollar deposit.”
Bank Shot

Of course the deposit will actually go straight into Dortmunder’s own pocket.

Because Dortmunder is a thief. A professional criminal.

Between big capers– just like any other independent contractor, legitimate or not — Dortmunder has to find other ways to keep body and soul together. Because he is too proud to comfortably live off his girlfriend May, he’ll turn his hand to any other criminal enterprises that come to hand.

A classic Dortmunder scam is to walk into the typing pool of a large corporation carrying a clipboard. The mark will actually GIVE him all the typewriters in need of maintenance. And anyone who has ever worked in an office knows that there is ALWAYS a backlog for equipment repairs and maintenance.

"Nobody's Perfect" Cover Art
"Nobody's Perfect" Cover Art

And for Dortmunder this is a pretty safe “filler” job. It’s brilliant because so much time will have passed in any big bureaucracy before they even notice the stuff is missing.

“Dortmunder slumped on the hard wooden chair, watching his attorney try to open a black attaché case.”
Nobody’s Perfect

Which tells us quite a lot about Dortmunder and the type of “luck” that is his lot.

If Dortmunder gets caught, this is the type of lawyer he gets.

“Hello,” said the telephone cheerfully into Dortmunder’s ear,
“this is Andy Kelp.”

“This is Dort–” Dortmunder started to say, but the telephone was still talking in his ear. It was saying:

“I’m not home right now, but –”

“Andy? Hello?”

"Why Me?" Cover Art
"Why Me?" Cover Art

“–you can leave a message on this recording machine–”

“It’s John, Andy. John Dortmunder.”

“and I’ll call you back just as soon as I can.”

“Andy! Hey! Can you hear me?”

“Leave your message after you hear the beep. And do have a nice day.”

Dortmunder held both hands cupped around the mouthpiece of the phone and roared down it’s throat:

“”HELLO!”

Why Me

"Good Behaviour Cover Art
"Good Behaviour" Cover Art

Although a brilliant innovative thinker, Dortmunder is far from the technological edge.

His best friend and associate Andy Kelp tries with little success to bring Dortmunder into the modern world.

A determined techno-philistine, Dortmunder has one black dial phone in the kitchen… and if Dortmunder is in the kitchen, chances are that his mouth is full.

“Dortmunder opened the door
and a distant burglar alarm went CLANGangangangangang…”
Good Behavior

You might even say that Dortmunder lives Murphy’s Law.

Stuck in traffic on the Williamsburg Bridge out of lower Manhattan in a stolen frozen fish truck full of stolen frozen fish at 1:30 on a bright June afternoon, with construction out

The Cover of "Don't Ask"
The Cover of "Don't Ask"

ahead of them forever on the Brooklyn Queen’s Expressway, with Stan Murch on Dortmunder’s left complaining about how there are no decent routes anymore from anywhere to anywhere in New York City — “If there ain’t snow on the road, there’s construction crews” — and with Andy Kelp on Dortmunder’s right prattling along happily about global warming and how much nicer it will be when there isn’t any winter, Dortmunder also had to contend with an air conditioner dripping on his ankles.
Don’t Ask

Any questions?

Dortmunder is undoubtedly a genius. But somehow the caper never comes out quite the way Dortmunder envisions it.

Of course there are very good reasons for this. Just having a brilliant plan go terribly wrong can be in itself terribly funny. These are comic crime novels after all. From a moral standpoint, criminals aren’t supposed to triumph. Then again, from a working writer’s point of view, if Dortmunder’s brilliant schemes are allowed to succeed, Dortmunder would most assuredly retire. Ooops… end of series! And Mr. Westlake was far too brilliant himself to allow Dortmunder to get away with any crime as heinous as that!

The Hot Rock Movie: Shades of 1972

I was a teenager when I first saw the film version of Donald E. Westlake’s The Hot Rock. It was my first exposure to Westlake and I really loved it. But since I wasn’t yet reading film credits I didn’t realize that I was a Westlake fan until several years later when I stumbled upon the novel. The Hot Rock movie was a great caper movie. Probably because amazingly enough the filmmakers actually followed Westlake’s book.
(O.K., I’m sure it didn’t hurt that William Goldman wrote the screenplay… )

Lobby Card from "The Hot Rock"
Lobby Card from "The Hot Rock"

The Hot Rock casting was quite good. In spite of having to overcome the double barreled handicap of being both too young and too handsome, Robert Redford’s comedic genius allowed him to bring Dortmunder to life. He WAS Dortmunder. He may have been young and handsome but he sure played the heck out of “hangdog”. George Segal made a good Andy Kelp, and I thought Ron Liebman created a creditable Stan Murch, although harder edged than I now see the character. After fifteen books my picture of Stan is somehow softer and… fluffier.

But then The Hot Rock was after all both the first Dortmunder novel and the first Dortmunder movie. And Dortmunder and company have in fact changed and grown a lot over the years.

So although it was the best screen version of a Dortmunder novel, the book was infinitely better.

Curious.

There have been lots of attempts at translating Westlake books to film but it rarely works. No one seems to understand why. The caper is always flawlessly planned, the action is usually quite visual and should in fact lend itself to the screen. And of course the characters are brilliantly drawn. So how can Hollywood miss?

But they do.

"Bad News" Cover Art
"Bad News" Cover Art

And I think I’ve solved the puzzle.
It’s all down to Donald E. Westlake’s prose.

How can you film funny descriptive prose?

He was slumped over his cereal bowl, looking down into it, at the sugar and the milk and the cornflakes all massing together in there, all in a soggy clump, turning gray somehow. His breakfast had never turned gray before. He held the spoon angled into the gob, as though he might use the stuff to patch a road somewhere, but not as though he had any intention of eating it.
Bad News

Westlake doesn’t just write about funny things happening.

Westlake doesn’t just write about funny characters.

Westlake just plain writes funny.

"What's The Worst That Could Happen" Cover Art
"What's The Worst That Could Happen" Cover Art

“All suburbs look like paintings from before the discovery of perspective.”
What’s the Worst That Could Happen

How do you film a funny observation?

You know what a chain link fence is? A ladder.
Don’t Ask

So even if they follow the ingenious plot to the letter, it’s inevitable that there will be no way to film most of the funny bits. So although it could be a very good movie, it can never be as funny as the book.

Sometimes Westlake’s unfilmable humour is cumulative… Say something that isn’t funny sets up an extremely funny joke. One of my favorite examples of this is from Bad News.

On page 31 (paperback version) we find Dortmunder and Kelp subcontracting a job in a cemetery:

As they grasped handfuls of daisies, Dortmunder said,
without moving his lips, “A car followed us.”
Bad News

Skipping ahead to page 197, they’re back in the cemetery again:

“It’s just a little ways along here,” Dortmunder said, moving his lips.
Bad News

Placed so far away from the set up line it’s completely unexpected, and therefore much funnier. And it’s so deliciously subtle that you might miss the joke entirely. (A compelling reason for re-reading Westlake is to find the gems I missed the first time.)

Here’s something else I love. Most series authors– even the very best– will fall into the trap of using almost the exact same descriptions of their series characters in each of the books. And I admit, for most of the world it isn’t a big deal. But if you’re someone like me who will re-read the whole series, you notice it.

But although Westlake may re-use an adjective here and there, he seems to have a great deal of fun trying to describe the indescribable Tiny by creating completely fresh virtuoso descriptions every time. Here’s one of my favorites:

The speaker, who looked mostly like a hillside brought to life by Claymation, was a man monster– or monster man– named Tiny Bulcher by someone with a grim sense of humor, or fast legs, or both.

In the company of human beings of normal size and shape. Tiny Bulcher looked…different. He reminded most people of the thing they used to believe lived in their bedroom closet at night, when they were very small, and they would wake up, and it would be really really dark in the whole house, and they would lie in bed and know just how small they were, and the closet door was the only thing in the entire vast universe they could see, and they just knew that inside that closet right now, reaching for the doorknob on the inside there, was… Tiny Bulcher.
Don’t Ask

Sometimes the humor is in seeing the world from the point of view of one of the characters, like Guy Claverick’s take on Dortmunder and Kelp:

“Sloping, suspicious, dubious, ramshackle people, dressed as though for a long bus ride somewhere in the third world, they were about as far from the general idea of Raffles, the gentleman thief, as one could get without actually entering prison.

“Come in gentlemen. ” Guy said, which was his idea of a joke.
Don’t Ask

"Bank Shot" Author Phioto by Jerry Bauer
"Bank Shot" Author Photo by Jerry Bauer 1972

Dortmunder doesn’t belong to a gang, per se. Each plan, for each caper, requires different specialists. When creating a plan, Dortmunder recruits from the pool of available talent (also known as “known associates”). His rule of thumb is that the “string” needed for any job should include no more than a maximum of five men. Of course like most rules, there have been a few exceptions over the years. Say the lockman you want is in jail because he absentmindedly picked the locks on the lion’s cage– then Dortmunder would have to choose an alternate.

These guys are professionals. And the world they inhabit is a little different than our own.

Different Worlds

When a FedX package arrives at the apartment for Dortmunder’s lady friend May, Dortmunder is taken aback. When May gets home from her supermarket cashier’s job, it isn’t a problem for her, as she is used to functioning in both worlds. Dortmunder watches as,

“With hardly any hesitation at all, she pulled the tab along the top, reached inside, and withdrew a folded sheet of top-quality letterhead stationery and a small box, such as earrings might come in, or a kidnap victim’s finger.”
What’s the Worst That Could Happen

Westlake provides lots of subtle little humorous touches to emphasize these different worlds. Sometimes it can really sneak up on you, like:

“See John,” Andy said, happy as could be, taking somebody’s cellular phone out of his pocket, “already I’m a help.”
What’s the Worst That Could Happen

Sometimes the differences in our perspectives lead to funny bits.

“I’m sorry, May, ” Dortmunder told her, as he dropped twenty-eight thousand dollars in cash on the coffee table. “I’ve got bad news.”
What’s the Worst That Could Happen

We can believe in John Dortmunder, and his world, because Donald Westlake has done such a good job in showing it to us.

They were walking home from the movies in the rain. May liked the movies, so they went from time to time, though Dortmunder couldn’t see what they were all about, except people who didn’t need a lucky ring. When those people in movies got to a bus stop, the bus was just pulling in. When they rang a doorbell, the person they were coming to see had to have been leaning against the door on the inside, that’s how fast they opened up. When they went to rob a bank, these movie people, there was always a place to park out front. When they fell off a building, which they did frequently, they didn’t even bother to look, they just held out a hand, and somebody’d already put a flagpole sticking out of the building right there; nice to hold onto until the hay truck drives by, down below.
Dortmunder could remember a lot of falls, but no hay trucks.”
What’s the Worst That Could Happen

Beyond providing me with wonderful entertainment over the years, I’ve also learned important things about home security from Dortmunder and Westlake:

Happily, this was another place that left a light on for burglars, so they wouldn’t hurt themselves tripping over things in the dark.
What’s the Worst That Could Happen.

In other words, A “burglar light” may be good for Dortmunder and his friends but not for the householder.

It has been said that Westlake’s Parker is the dark side of Dortmunder. But I don’t think that’s true. Parker is certainly much nastier, and the books he is in are definitely much darker, but Dortmunder could never be Parker. Because Parker is truly a lone wolf. A sociopath. The closest Dortmunder can ever get to Parker was in Jimmy The Kid, Westlakes ultimate “in joke”. If you haven’t read it you have to, because I’ll never tell.

"Jimmy the Kid", "Drowned Hopes", Road To Ruin", and "Watch Your Back"
"Jimmy the Kid", "Drowned Hopes", Road To Ruin", and "Watch Your Back"

And although Dortmunder thinks he is a lone wolf, he is in reality a man who is at a loss without his community. (Something that became very clear in Why Me.) After all, who can think of Dortmunder without Kelp? Or Murch, Or Tiny. And May is a very important part of his existence. And if Dortmunder was not a “humanitarian”, the story in Drowned Hopes wouldn’t have happened. Dortmunder is a man operating by his own code of ethics, in his own world. The fact that his world is part of our world allows Westlake to have some fun with social commentary.

Although Dortmunder is a criminal, and he’s brilliant, things go wrong for him. (I don’t know about you, but >I< can surely empathize with that!) And I especially love it when Dortmunder gets mad. Which is probably why What’s the Worst that Could Happen will always be my personal favorite. Although John Dortmunder may seem like a downtrodden sad sack, you really don’t want to get him mad at you.

[Please don’t confuse the Danny DeVito film of the same name with the Dortmunder Novel. There is NO comparison. Which is really too bad, because if they had actually followed the story instead of just pulling out the bits they liked, it might have been pretty good.]

The new Dortmunder is on the shelves.

Regrettably it is also the final Dortmunder. It’s bittersweet knowing there will be no more after this one, but that didn’t stop my smile the first time I saw the cover art online a few months ago.

Cover art for the final Dortmunder book "Get Real"
Cover art for the final Dortmunder book "Get Real"

I pre-ordered my copy from Wordsworth Books, and they called me when it came in.

I’ve already finished it. Who could stop? So I’ve read it and it was wonderful. Well of course Donald Westlake’s comic novels are so smooth they just slide on down. So now I can get back to finishing my re-read of the rest of the series.

I will not give you any spoilers (I HATE spoilers).

I’ve had so much fun reading the Dortmunder series over the years.

I loved noticing when Westlake would slip fictitious automobile names into his stories. Like the luxury car he called a “Caliber”, just so he could later make a pun by referring to Stan’s Ex-Caliber… And this one became funnier since Dodge introduced a new economy car they named the “Caliber”.

The hilarious interplay between the regulars at the OJ were always good for a LOL. Or seeing Dortmunder’s confusion the few times when May is driven to actually interfere in his life. Or watching Anne Marie attempt to civilize the guys with far out ideas like Thanksgiving Dinner. Seeing Dortmunder get a free ride in Murch’s Mom’s cab.

Then there are all the in jokes. Like the fictitious Veenbes painting “Folly Leads To Man’s Ruin” (painted by the ficticious Renaissance Master Veenbes) that Westlake created in one book getting a passing mention in another, or crossover chapters like my favorite in Drowned Hopes where a Joe Gores’ car hawk tries to reposesses the car Kelp has stolen (for which we can find the DKA version appearing in Joe Gores32 Cadillacs).

But I think that the real reason that the Dortmunder books are so much fun is that Donald Westlake had as much fun writing them as we do reading them.

I will quote one lovely bit from Get Real which rather sums up the Dortmunder philosophy:

“Money from wages,” Dortmunder said,
“is not the same as the same money from theft.
Money from theft is purer.

There’s no indentured servitude on it,
no knuckling under to whatever anybody else wants,
no obedience.

It isn’t yours because you swapped it for your own time and work,
it’s yours because you took it.”
–John Archibald Dortmunder
Get Real

"Get Real" Dust Jacket Portrait by Abby Adams
"Get Real" Dust Jacket Portrait by Abby Adams

Visit Donald E. Westlake’s Website