The Bitter Tears of Portland Stone

Larry Hoover is a living statue.

– Kanye West

John Wayne is great because he is a statue.

– Howard Hawks

To the contemporary eye, the photos in Phil Stanford’s terrific new Portland Confidential might look like period sets for the infamous ‘crisis actors’ of avant-conspiracy theory. The clothes, the edges of the frame and the wild street exteriors are rendered in a gauzy gray-black spectra with a depth current medieval HiDef cannot hope to match. Crystalline image resolution is the final evolution of worldly Fame, which is why the faces of the past are always clearer than its geography. Cities seem lodged between epoch and fashion – a strange immateriality common to times of monsters, of the mirages of monsters. In contrast, even a gangster’s name is harder than stone.

City zoning is also time zoning. This ‘time’ runs at various speeds on the merchant avenues, punctuated by Greek fire, central business relocation, and timelessfaux-finish facades. Powerful people resemble their cities; they adapt, which is the debt pastiche owes to built-in obsolescence. When the ornate corruption of the railroad barons passed down to bourgeois thugs and cops, the nouveau richesmanaged a rigid self-confidence perfect for the pictorial exposé. This flash of genuine invention in the Late Style gangster strain and intimate ease with malaprop or parody showed that the signature American scam is at heart a modern improvisation.

There seems to be a lag in the middle of a decade or a century, a blind-spot where unfinished business is conducted. Like many US cities, Atomic Portland kept cutpurse versions of its first Gilded Age well into its second, a purgatorial Fools’ Gold ‘50s which acted the farce-part in the historical-reflex circuit. Brut Art Deco in Monroe and LeMay’s ‘50s lingered like the ‘50s lingered in the Reagan era, bleeding over in used car lots, bungalow rows, and a fetish Coup de Ville. Signs and monikers are especially telling, atoms of advertised desire conspicuous in every direction. But back to Portand proper.

From its picture, Al Winter’s Pago Pago Club recalls the old sub-Kong serials (now running forever via satellite?). It closed in 1951 so Al could open the Vegas Sahara – which was closer to Françafrique,colonially. Bugsy Siegel’s headshot is a cut-up of Jimmy Dean and George Raft (melodramatic and watery eyes, a near-sneer nearly tragic). The Rackets Commission photo is purely mannerist: Kennedys arranged around the blurred back of a guilty foreground figure, shot straight-on rather than over the shoulder. Like Hitchcock’s Rope, it’s a cynic’s ‘naturalism’ in posturing B&W. This two-page spread is near the end of the book, and it shows chronologically that the last vestiges of Weegie and Mann had given way to bleak Rossellini by the time Portland’s greaser crime age ended.

The orgy of violence and fraud that was Portland made for the best stuff in the Kennedys’ Senate Rackets Committee – the very name of which sounds like a sequel to Phil Karlson’s film Phenix City Story (1955), which in turn recalls Phil Stanford’s new book, another conscious docudrama. Even Joe McCarthy was allowed a last role in the procedural, a favor from his old young protégée, Bobby. Sick crooks in search of an offer? 1956 was a la conformista winter of collisions “blistering in the newspaper headlines!” People got sloppy with their payoffs, long days’ frost by the City Hall fountain… a last vigor expended in lonely places by lonely men whose memories were more like senility and bad credit mortgage. Above and below the double-entry ledger, capitalism plays in time.

Looking back from our present freeze-frame gives you the eerie sense that America manufactures its nostalgia at the same time as the event. Portland Confidential reprints an extraordinary shot of mobster Nippy Constantano’s death scene in the Sky Room bar in 1944, a kind of overture to the coming frenzy of bald and gleaming graft the delirious kingpins worked in the city. It is more Gunsmoke than Liberty Valance, but perhaps the photo has been cropped at medium-level which registers as ‘far’ on a small screen. Black-blood mouthed Nippy is wearing an oddly western-looking plaid shirt. Wardrobe as destiny? Voyeur voyant.

A beautiful shot of ‘Black Widow’ Marjorie Smith shows a face of singular self-destruction, no epic scope here but motherless memories crossing stony inward miles. She sits in a chair next to a window, seemingly alone in a court hallway. Yet the scene resembles much more a train-car interior, the first truly modern place of strangers and mysterious pasts moving along points and lines. The next three pages show leggy chorus girls in various states of burlesque, followed by a lovely neon theater called The Star advertising ‘Bonita Secret in Manhaten (sic) Revue’. The sign’s misspell might be a secret nod to the killer misandrist in court, her past ogled and cheated and beaten before her mind’s eye; a secretarial ancestor to Eileen Wuornos, waiting for the verdict to be argued by Ironsides. These photographs are of different people of course, all germane to the tale and the times, but the temptation to look at them like they play out Lola Montésis hard to resist. The conscious and the unconscious perhaps meet in a choice of photos ‘illustrating’ neither, but showing that the Master’s hand is somewhere in every lease and sign.

Medium and close-up expressiveness in intimate murder studies look like the work of insurgent choreographers whose sense of the plastic soul is collage, close conspiracy and crystal duplication. In comparison, the atrocious depth of field in images from the Nazi camps makes for cartoons in hell. Today’s Yemen does not recall peplum or a slasher picture – the $2 billion budget is too high.

Black and white reads a statuesque cool. Color is movement, spectrum of movement, alike to heat-seeking devices and Technicolor tracking. But I suspect things aren’t really so cutter & bone when it comes to period lighting or remake or sequel. After JFK was assassinated, the newsreel look was replaced by the Matter-of-fact Octopus style of Zapruder: a series of banal details hiding secret references visible on repeat, rather than the outlines of a Delvaux-John Alton tableau in smoky light. Do we remember in color or black and white? What shade is peculiar to white heat? Has the Devil modified Memory, to borrow Alexander Grothendeick’s theory of post-Hiroshima changes in the speed of light?

The recent image of the Russian Ambassador Karlov’s death in Turkey at the hands of a fanatical spy is a major 21st Century variation (the true homage is the name of the slain official, a nod to Karloff’s bowling gangster killed in Hawks’ Scarface). Far from De Mille and Eisenstein, this striking martyrdom piece looks like Point Blankor even Saturday Night Fever. Other recent developments at the Istanbul Saudi Consulate confirm that the primitive stunt-double is still quite popular among the Method set, a classical aesthetic whose most notable apostles are Bossman Jeff Bezos and the late Saddam Hussein. The filming is pedestrian on purpose, a bit of Warhol Empirein this true game of death.

Professional historians are the only people who construct history after the fact. When they latch onto a detail, they produce aerial distortions with a sort of stuffed picaresque common to eccentric cultic art. Phil Stanford knows this very well and goes for eavesdrop rather than overarch in his books, a comic technique that combines tabloid sneakiness with a secretive media philosophizing way above its station. He creeps in and out of the crime blotter as if he were trying to escape rather than add it all up; no author can be exempt from his catalogue of evils, yet he can never be truly part of it either. The end of the book has the guts to read enervated, put-upon and plain worn out. So who wouldn’t be? Human comedy leads to exhaustion, with its own unpretentious poetry.

Most of the Confidential dramatis personae amble around until the early ‘70s. Some even lasted even later, well past Deep Throat and into the nasal depths of the Contra & Wall St. coke binge era. Today, the exotic and the staid are again aesthetically united, in the calm of treasure islands like Guernsey or in the cutting-room floor footage of a second Khashoggi who dreams of different Jeannies. At least it looks that way, if you look at it that way.

Mr. Stanford followed his city’s biggest contemporary bastards in the Portland Tribune for many years, with a good eye for medium cruel and intimate constellation. And for how uneasy it is to assume things of a past that is not really over. His latest is laid out with rich quotes from trial transcripts, wild club-ads and slick criminal promo glossies. It is all hypnotic untergangen rather than Uber Inc. Sympathy with the losers and shmucks peeks out from under a brazen thigh or an innocent’s Coptic mug, without sentimentality or the pornographer’s bent for humiliation.

Depth rises in photography as a substitute for the unseen passage of time, while digital surveillance can only produce a blur at best when it tries to alter the past. But hired extras continue to train latecomers and straw dogs, continue to add and occasionally remove a thorn, modifying time continuously like a dumb pop song refrain. In searchlight and shadow, reality and realty are immortally linked by arsenic and old lace. Cold light of a Death that, for the second time since it was made, sees itself by magic lantern. The latest optic reportage and the garb of classic snuff twist together like Roses of Jericho.

Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.