Kaminsky knows how to survive in the business: start a magazine that almost nobody can understand, and become the darling of the academy
By David Lehman
June 18, 2012
Kaminsky got on the noir bandwagon early on.
At Wesleyan he majored in French, spent his junior year in Paris, went to the Cinémathèque Française at the Palais de Chaillot, and watched American movies with French subtitles as a way to learn the language. Many of the films were classic noir efforts of the 1940s and early ’50s. He saw Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer, and Double Indemnity with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, and Dark Passage with Bogart and Bacall, and The Killing with Sterling Hayden organizing a racetrack heist, and The Lady from Shanghai with Anita Ellis’s voice coming out of Rita Hayworth’s mouth singing “Please Don’t Kiss Me” and meaning the exact opposite, and Pickup on South Street with Richard Widmark as an experienced pickpocket who lifts a woman’s wallet in the subway and the wallet happens to have strips of microfilm that the Communists crave, and Widmark lives on a houseboat under the Brooklyn Bridge and Thelma Ritter gets offed and Jean Peters gets beaten up like you wouldn’t believe, and Cry Danger and The Woman in the Window and Laura and The Asphalt Jungle and the dozens of other notable movies that feature fatal females, mixed-up males with mixed motives, robberies and insurance scams that go wrong, greed that turns lusty, lust that turns deadly.
The dialogue is snappy, witty in the hard-boiled manner. Even cabdrivers crack wise. The fare is a private eye, and the cabbie says sympathetically, “Tough racket.” “Maybe so,” the dick replies, “but cabdrivers don’t live forever.” “Maybe not,” the cabbie concedes. “All the same it’ll come as a surprise to me if I don’t.” In another part of town, Ann Sheridan of the magnificent mane kills a burglar in self-defense, or so she claims. The dame-in-distress sobs to the police: “I’ve told you all I know.” Husband Zachary Scott of the mustachioed sneer knits his brows, but can’t help looking bitchy: “There’s nothing for you to be ashamed of.” Both are lying. But the true noir note is sounded by Eve Arden as Paula, a secondary character, officiating at a party for the suspects, witnesses, and extras. When she has everyone’s attention, she admits to having committed a crime against society some years ago. I “married a man,” she announces. Later the busty broad deadpans that “practically everything” she has is real. “It’s a shame to waste two perfectly good mouths on you,” she remarks when a pair of gossiping girlfriends get on her nerves. Later, still: “Don’t show me out, I know the way. I always look for an exit in case of a raid.”
“Some things that happen for the first time / seem to be happening again”: Lorenz Hart’s definition of déjà vu (from his lyric for “Where or When”) applies with a vengeance to noir. Accidents seem predetermined; events occur as if repetitions of themselves. The gang leader has a heart-to-heart with his dead Ma in the back yard after dark, and the brains of the operation feeds nickels into the jukebox so he can watch a nubile girl jitterbug with a boy her own age. Exhibitionists in gaudy undergarments perform for laid-up photographers across the courtyard. The surgeon with a cigarette dangling from his lips gives the escaped con a new face, and if there’s a knock on the door, the chances are that a man with a gun will enter the room and shoot first, ask questions later. What do you want me to do, count to three like they do in the movies? A thug throws a pot of hot coffee at a moll’s face or, giggling, rolls an old lady’s wheelchair down a flight of stairs and the wrong man is arrested. The prizefighter refuses to throw the bout and gets beaten in the alley. The pampered invalid has a panic attack, picks up the phone, and dials the emergency number she has been given. A voice answers, “City Morgue.” The dead return to life. A beautiful murder victim walks into her own living room wondering what the hell the gumshoe asleep in an armchair is doing there. A small-town notary goes to San Francisco, has a drink, feels funny, and spends the next week—that is, the rest of his life—trying to solve the mystery of his own murder before he expires of a slow-working poison. In one scene at a club, a girl singer does a swinging version of “Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are.” We go to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Reno, Mexico, the state penitentiary, a lost highway or two, but for some reason we keep returning to San Francisco. There is also a valise stuffed with $20 bills, a crooked cop, a cuckolded husband, a pair of lethal scissors on the desk, a sensitive black man played by James Edwards, a stick-up in the parking lot, a confusing plot, a lot of rain, and a lot of cigarettes.
It was an easy genre to like. The French were crazy about it.
Kaminsky found to his delight that these understated, underfunded black-and-white movies with their generic plot twists had become the darlings of the academy, in France first and soon enough in Francophile circles in the United States. His own addiction to the genre led to a highly praised thesis—“Your Lying Eyes: Edgar Ulmer’s Unreliable Narrator in Detour”—which he did under the direction of Nancy Orsulak at Columbia, a dyed brunette with the looks of Joan Bennett in Scarlet Street and the brains of Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound, who won a MacArthur “genius award” at age 26 and had a mind “like a steel trap,” when that simile was still a fresh idiom. Nancy supervised the thesis, urging, prodding, getting the most out of Kaminsky, and as a result of her interventions he spent a lot more time than planned on Ida Lupino not only as an actress but as the director of The Bigamist and The Hitch-Hiker. But the best thing she did for her prize pupil was to introduce him to her once and future flame, Dan Burden, a fabled maverick in the magazine field. Dan Burden championed hard copy at a time when paper products with content you had to pay for were about as welcome in the executive suite as poison ivy. This was back in 2003, when Internet intoxication was high and it took either bravery or foolhardiness or both to launch a new print magazine. But that is exactly what Dan Burden did, confounding the experts with his successful launch of Cut, the magazine for circumcised men who are proud of it and want to make a statement in the face of sharp criticism from trendy types who want to abolish the ancient ritual that God’s covenant requires of Abraham and his heirs, never mind that it is a medically sound procedure that makes it less likely that you will contract AIDS.
Dan Burden took an immediate shine to Kaminsky, and the two men came up with the essence of No R in a single April afternoon.
There were other journals devoted to noir books and movies, journals with more conventional names but with the same devotion to this genre of losing, dope, alcohol, blackmail, and the lure of the easy buck. But No R would be, had to be, and was different. No R, as designed by Burden and Kaminsky, distinguished itself from the pack because its passionate intensity about “dark, edgy” movies went together with its radical linguistic adventurousness. It was Kaminsky’s brainstorm. A fan of the OuLiPo, the French organization of experimental litterateurs devoted to the development and use of constrictive literary forms, he sold Burden on the idea that the lipogram—the form in which one letter is systematically left out of the writing—was the ultimate in avant-garde chic. The French writer (and OuLiPian master) Georges Perec, the world’s foremost master of the lipogram, once wrote a novel without the letter e, and Kaminsky persuaded Burden that it would be equally heroic to omit the letter r from their entry in the noir sweepstakes. The writers and critics they commissioned for No R were to show the cineaste’s customary cool but to do so without the benefit of the sixth most common letter in the alphabet (after e, t, a, o, and n). With the use of the letter r forbidden to them, their charge was to discuss the movies of Lang and Welles and Huston and Hitchcock, Jacques Tourneur and Samuel Fuller, Nicholas Ray, Ida Lupino, Otto Preminger, Anthony Mann, Jules Dassin, Robert Wise, and early Kubrick.
The result, while a dismal failure commercially, was a huge succes d’estime. Partisans of noir grasped the beauty of No R right away. Kaminsky as editor and Burden as publisher scored extra points with the critics for systematically alienating a readership accustomed to comprehending what it read. Hailed as “uncompromising,” they made numerous converts among uptight button-down academics who hate thinking of themselves as academic. You know the type; the women are blonde anorexics, and the men look preposterous in their belted trench coats or herringbone jackets worn over black T-shirts retailing for $300 at Bergdorf’s Men’s Shop. (I am exaggerating, but not by much, maybe $80 to $90 max.) The stated content of the magazine was right up these folks’ alley, and the programmatic use of the lipogram lifted that content to the higher realms of language, poetry, and conceptual art, than which you could not be more avant-garde in the year of our lord 2004, when No R made its debut. Lacking subscribers and bleeding cash, the quarterly folded after three issues and cost Burden his position at Hearst. But it gave him highbrow cachet he had never before dreamed of enjoying, and a teaching offer (with tenure) materialized for him in the film studies program at Omaha Beach. Even better offers came Kaminsky’s way.
Thus concluded the first phase of Kaminsky’s career in the magazine trade.
Next came his recognition—inspired by insights from American linguists and French structuralists—that the structure of any message precedes and overrides the stated content of that message. What this meant to Kaminsky in practical terms was that No R was about noir but could also serve as the model for a whole lot of other magazines that had nothing to do with noir. Forsaking a more lucrative offer from Dungeon State in Texas, he took an endowed chair at Winged Foot University on condition that he be given a staff and a budget to underwrite a series of periodical ventures that defined themselves, as No R did, by an alphabetical gambit. It was a condition that the bigwigs at the heretofore obscure university were glad to fulfill, calculating correctly that the value of controversy and “buzz” outweighs all other factors in the contemporary multiversity.
The first of Kaminsky’s new magazines was No T, for which the target audience was coffee drinkers and Fourth of July patriots. A sample issue might include the profile of a barista in Seattle, an appreciation of a Sousa march, little-known factoids about Yankee Doodle Dandy, a rhetorical analysis of Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech at Yankee Stadium, a debate between two ecologists on whether Starbucks is a force for good or for evil, photographs of the motorcycle Steve McQueen rides in The Great Escape, a satirical account of the Boston Tea Party, and a column on an unexpected hero born on the Fourth of July, such as the Columbia eminence Lionel Trilling.
One journal led to the next, as Kaminsky and his cohorts let their imaginations run wild and start-up cyberzines took the place of long-in-the-tooth print periodicals.
No L was edited by and for diehard secular humanists who nevertheless wanted to give presents to their kids and decorate a pine tree in the living room on day four after the winter solstice annually.
No P was aimed at an older demographic of gentlemen with prostate issues.
No C—in the form of downloadable attachments—aspired to be the hip journal for the sightless, advocating for the blind at the same time that it waged an unrelenting campaign to expose ascorbic acid as possibly the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on gullible vitamin consumers.
No V had a more modest ambition: to gain audience share as a trade magazine for that portion of the bagel-and-lox trade still controlled by Yiddish-speaking immigrant old-timers who favor Nava Scotia Salmon (no vee, in their parlance) over its saltier cousin lox.
In collaboration with Burden, Kaminsky launched No I, the magazine for the self-abnegating: Zen Buddhists, Keats aficionados, “negative capability” freaks, pacifists, folksingers, old-fashioned housewives, and other such martyrs. It was eclectic. A special issue of No I was devoted to Jackson Pollock’s painting No. 1. A poem written for the occasion by Matilda Hare went from the words “no eye” in the first line to “number one” in the last by the use of procedures derived from the nonpareil French surrealist Raymond Roussel.
The fellows established No U, a companion magazine, as an outlet for solipsists and sublime egoists. No U caused a ruckus when it published Keats’s odes under a pseudonym that coincided with the editor’s name.
No O appealed to dyslexics in agony.
No Q: The Magazine of Commuter Etiquette campaigned for platform reform at Penn Station and the airports of France and Italy.
Each issue of No K sponsored a so-called antithetical neologism, starting with No K itself as the antithesis of OK.
No J unabashedly lavished praise on grapefruit and lemons as the citrus fruits of choice from Florida.
No Y, a general-interest magazine composed entirely in heroic couplets and ABBA stanzas, advanced the twin propositions that “whatever is, is right” and that “ours is not to reason why.”
Gus Kaminsky was proud of all these ventures. But No R remained his greatest creation.
David Lehman is the series editor for The Best American Poetry annual anthology. He has published eight books of poetry, the most recent of which is New and Selected Poems.