BOOK ‘EM: ALIX LAMBERT EXPOSES “CRIME”

“Crime,” a fascinating collection of interviews and photographs by Alix Lambert, resembles a blood-soaked brick. The pulp fiction drawing of a femme fatale’s pistol-toting hand screams “noir” from its crimson-red cover. Lambert’s 349-page hardback, released by FUEL Publishing, wouldn’t be out of place on a Clue game board… or surrounded by unsolved case files on a gumshoe’s cluttered desk.
There’s something seedy, musty, and altogether unsettling about “Crime,” with its blunt black and white photos, bold fonts, and jarring quotes. Take actor Michael Rooker, whose boogeyman from “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” remains the screen’s most disturbing criminal persona of all time. “I’m going to play a killer who’s fucking straight up,” he proclaims in the book. “I’m going to come up close to you and rip your guts out.”
“Crime” advertises itself as “a series of extraordinary interviews exposing the world of crime – real and imagined.” That’s it in a nutshell. Those interested in crime films will salivate over Lambert’s unique conversations with David Cronenberg (“Eastern Promises”), Patty Jenkins (“Monster”), Takeshi Kitano (“Brother”), Mike Hodges (Get Carter”), Ben Affleck (“Gone Baby Gone”), and other movie mavericks.

As a filmmaker, artist, and writer, Lambert has made her way around the entertainment industry, meeting both celebrated luminaries and obscure, independent talents. Yet, many of her interview subjects – including ex-bank robbers, private investigators, and personal friends – have no direct ties to the entertainment industry. There’s often a strange, ironic connection between the film personas and the non-film entries – maybe a chance connection or stranger-than-fiction linkage.
Take “The Mark of Cain,” Lambert’s own 2000 documentary of Russian criminal tattoos, which crammed viewers into penitentiaries filled with undernourished, overcrowded felony offenders. Inside rat-infested holding cells, Lambert’s surprisingly compliant subjects doffed shirts and explained the ink-stained canvasses of flesh beneath. Her resonant, emotional film acts as testimony to the power of art to flourish in even the most dire of circumstances.
Later, the film was referenced by Cronenberg for 2007’s “Eastern Promises,” a fictional exploration of the same tattoo culture revealed in “Cain.” In “Crime,” Lambert juxtaposes interviews with Cronenberg and “Eastern Promises” lead man Viggo Mortensen with bona fide tattoo-wearing Russian felons Semyon Dyachenko and Anatoly Mikhalchenko. This and other eerie linkages between real and imagined crime weave a hypnotic spell.

It’s important to keep in mind that Lambert’s brushes with better-known celebrities in “Crime” were organic extensions of personal projects. Just as “Mark of Cain” resulted in contacts with Cronenberg, Lambert’s interview with “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” director John McNaughton was the byproduct of a past collaboration. Both had worked on the short-lived television series, “John from Cincinnati.” McNaughton, in turn, referred Lambert to his “Henry” leading man, Michael Rooker.
In this sense, “Crime” has the feel of an intimate, personal journey. A sense of friendly mutual history accents the interviews. The book’s film-related material will be the initial bait to lure in cineastes. After peeling away this cinematic veneer, however, readers will likely surrender to a more compelling, personal layer of the book. Those willing to explore Lambert’s conversations with non-film subjects will find themselves rewarded – and maybe even transformed.
Take Bill Bass, for example, a Forensic anthropologist who founded the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Research Facility, AKA the Body Farm. Bass’ one-of-a-kind cadaver pasture allows law enforcers, medical examiners, and other experts to study the decomposition of human bodies in various states of breakdown. Despite being surrounded by these deteriorating remains, however, Bass insists that he hates death, and doesn’t watch forensic television shows.

Readers also meet Joanna Hughes, the first individual to receive a Bachelor’s degree in forensic art. While Hughes’ day job – reconstructing facial features from skulls – proves fascinating, her own personal brushes with crime lend a horrifying irony to the interview. “He was a bastard from the day he was born,” Hughes says of her younger brother, who would go on to murder both parents.
In the paragraphs that follow, Lambert describes the creation of “Crime,” including her conversations with actors, directors, stunt coordinators, and writers who vicariously create lawbreakers and crime-stoppers for the big screen.

As a film fan, I was initially excited about reading the movie stuff in “Crime.” Upon reading the book, however, I found the real-life counterparts to be even more fascinating. For example, Bill Bass and the Body Farm come to mind. How do you bump into someone like that? ^ It’s funny you should mention that, because I just came back from Tennessee, where I co-directed (with Ben Fasman) a short documentary on the Body Farm for an online channel. I’m also writing a piece for Vice Magazine about this. About nine years ago, I heard about the Body Farm from an artist friend of mine. A lot of people who work there don’t like that nickname. To me, the initial fascination with it was that it was kind of like a sculpture garden. I majored in sculpture, and this idea of taking these bodies and putting them into different scenarios and studying their rates of decomposition was interesting to me. I remember pitching it to Court TV as a potential series, about eight years ago. I could be wrong, but my memory was that they told me it was too gruesome. Then a year later, they put out a show on autopsies (laughter).

In your book, there are several interesting connections, in terms of two people who share a similar line of work, or collaborated on a project. After the Bill Bass interview is the story of Joanna Hughes, the forensic artist whose family was impacted directly with crime. ^ What really fascinated me about that story was that she was working at that facility for ten years before the crime happened. She remembers a teacher saying, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” She said, “I want to put faces on skulls.” And she did it for years, before her brother killed her parents. I thought it was fascinating that the murder didn’t make her change her career. She did say that from the minute her parents brought her adopted brother home (she was adopted, as well), there was something wrong with him. She said she saw that coming from a mile away. Then, he killed himself on death row. It became completely full circle, that she would be the only surviving family member, and eventually donate his body to the farm. She felt like he could be in service in death in a way that he never was in life. If you wrote that in fiction, people would say that it tied up too nicely. People would say it was a little too much. As far as a “life is stranger than fiction” story, I think that one came out on top.

Another example of truth being stranger than fiction is the Steve Hodel interview, where he discusses what he felt was a connection between his father George and the Hollywood Black Dahlia murder of the 1940’s. He eventually became convinced that his father was, in fact, the killer. You had a sense that this guy had been agonizing over the case for years, and that it had devoured his life. ^ He was retired before he started looking into that. The case had so predated his time as a homicide detective that he never really looked into it until his father died.

There are big-name celebrities in your book, like Ben Affleck, but also more obscure actors like Matthew Maher (“Gone Baby Gone”). He speaks of getting typecast as weirdoes and murderers, partially because of his cleft palate. There was a feeling of not fitting into the fabric of society and always being on the outside periphery. There’s a real sense that he identifies with these character roles in this way. ^ I love talking with him. He’s a friend. He is so lacking in any criminal characteristics. He is the kindest, most nonviolent, charming person. He said that growing up, his cleft palate was traumatic. I don’t think it’s noticeable, now. But he had surgery in his youth, and he came out with a brace on his face. His mother fainted. I think that gave him an outsider’s perspective. As an actor, that’s enough to portray that emotion. You might not know what it’s like to be a pedophile, but you know what it is like not to be part of main society.
As artists and filmmakers, people generally want to cast physically recognizable villains. But if you look at pedophiles, they’re not. They are the guy next door, the pastor, or the teacher. I think that’s a very scary thing for the film-going public. They don’t want to think that the pedophile might be your good-looking cousin, or something. They want to think, “Oh, there’s a mark. There’s some kind of physical recognition that makes this person different.” And for him to be typecast as murderers and pedophiles all the time, I think that upholds this argument (laughter).

Michael Rooker has also played some potent villain roles. When you listen to Matthew’s interview, he seems like the nicest, down-to-earth guy. But in the Rooker interview, there’s a palpable sense of dread. There was a sense of a guy with his fists up, ready to fight. Onscreen, he’s always scared the hell out of me. Is there a real sense of physicality when you’re in the room with him? ^ He’s not a scary guy at all. But yes, there is a sense… he’s very big. I don’t mean physically, although he is a tall guy. But yeah, there’s a sense of physicality in the way he talks. He’s very jovial. But he does come up with these comments, and you’re like, “Woah!” (laughter). He definitely came from a scrappy childhood where he was always getting in fights, and getting beaten up. He found out that his uncle was in the KKK. He was very friendly to me.

Another portion of the book was very immediate, in a physical sense. Actor Michael Buscemi talks about a terrifying attack on him at an apartment complex, where he was eventually shot in the stomach. It’s a very startling depiction, and another example of the real and imagined forms of crime merging together… ^ I worked with him on a project, maybe twelve years ago, in which I was directing and he was acting. He had never told me that story. One day, I told him I was working on this book. At the time, he was shooting a film called “Japan,” with Peter Fonda. He started telling me this story, about how he was working with Fonda and didn’t have his shirt on, per the requirements of the scene. Fonda notices Michael’s scar, after Michael tells him the story of how he got it. Fonda pulls up his own shirt, and says he “took lead” as well. It’s a funny ending.

It seemed like much of the material is interconnected. Hughes and Bass were connected by where they worked. Rooker and McNaughton both worked on “Henry.” Would you interview one person, and be referred to another person? ^ That’s exactly right. It’s a big book. So if you wanted to just read Cronenberg, fine. But I’m hoping that if you read it all the way through, you will start to see these connections and themes that were explored from different angles. If you read the whole thing, you will have a more complex picture of what I was doing, than if you just read the people whom initially interested you.

Typically, a person picks up a book like “Crime” and might assume that they will hear from the obvious people, like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino (neither of who are featured). Yet, you interviewed people like John McKenzie, who directed British gangster movies like “The Long Good Friday.” It’s less obvious than having a Scorsese in the book. Did you have a laundry list of directors you wanted to approach? ^ No. A lot of them were personal acquaintances from past projects. FUEL, Damon and Stephen, the publishers of the book, are based in London, so we wanted to include some aspect of British crime films. With John McKenzie, I felt like “The Long Good Friday” and Mike Hodges’ “Get Carter” were two seminal British crime film classics. I also wanted someone to talk about Japanese Yakuza crime films, and Takeshi Kitano was my first choice. I didn’t expect him to say yes. I didn’t have any particular kind of connection to him. I flew to Tokyo and interviewed him. Some of the obvious people, like those you named, were sent e-mails through their agents. We didn’t expect to hear from them, and we didn’t hear from them. I felt it was worth sending an email, but I didn’t feel any great loss in them not responding. I wanted the book to be predominantly a personal kind of path. I didn’t want anyone in there who didn’t want to be in there. If it was someone we didn’t know like Takeshi Kitano and they responded positively, especially if they don’t give a lot of interviews, it was exciting.

The photography really brings your book to life. It sounds like you took all of the photographs in the book. ^ I did, yeah. I would like to exhibit them all, because I do feel like they are a part of the book, and I rarely get asked about them. My background is in the fine arts, and the book was about representing crime in the arts to its total extent. They look different as photographs than they do in the book.

Opposite many of the pictures, you have a very blunt quote – one of the more startling quotes from the person being interviewed. It’s in a very no-frills font that comes at you and takes your head off when you read it. ^ Damon and Stephen chose that from old pulp crime books.

What prompted the design of the book? When you read it and look at it, “Crime” feels more like a work of art than a collection of interviews. It’s more of an experiential thing, with the cover graphics and red color. Even then inside cover, with green and purple hues that look like something you need 3-D glasses to view, give the whole book an aged, seedy quality. ^ I met Damon and Stephen, the FUEL publishers, because they published the Encyclopedias of Russian Criminal Tattoos. I don’t know if you’ve seen those, but I think they’re beautiful. I really loved what they were doing, which was making and designing books as works of art. I think (Fuel) are brilliant designers. They were looking at old pulp fiction books and the design of old crime books. Even the paper stock was chosen as an old pulp paper. I love the physicality of books, and love them to be works of art.




Posted on January 9, 2009 in Interviews by
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