Sunday, April 10, 2016


  If you were born between 1981 and 1988, inclusive, you are de facto a child of a treacherous regime, one which to some extent brainwashed you into believing things that were untrue. To an extent, all U.S. Presidents practice deception. But Ronald Reagan changed American culture in ways that to this day have been damn near impossible to put right. This situation remains relevant for two reasons. First, the President in question perverted the notion of democracy in America. Second, a lot of people in the American Nazi--I mean, the Republican Party--get their jollies by claiming sainthood for this demon. 
   Reagan is heralded as a patriarch of freedom, a monarch of a fair marketplace, a symbol for goodness and no-beef hot dogs. Most of his detractors prefer to shrug and consider him a vaguely incompetent buffoon. He was none of these things. He was pure evil and a lot of the people who were born during his reign have been conned into believing all sorts of mythology with about as much credibility as Prometheus. It is therefore time for a corrective history lesson. 
   The subterfuge began with what George H. W. Bush referred to as the October Surprise. The American Embassy in Tehran, Iran had been taken hostage in November 1979 and the Reagan team intended to ride that tragedy into global power. Spearheading the journalistic investigation into the Reaganites' efforts to delay the release of U.S. hostages was Robert Parry, who wrote:
Jamshid Hashemi, who had been a mid-level official in Iran’s new revolutionary government, had been recruited by the CIA in early 1980 to assist in resolving the hostage crisis. His younger brother Cyrus was another recruit of the CIA. But Jamshid claimed that the two of them began working behind the scenes to help Republicans make contact with key Iranians to delay the hostage release.
   Had the release of the hostages not been postponed until the day of Reagan's inauguration, Jimmy Carter would have been reelected and we would have been spared much of what followed. Yep, the Iranians were the bad guys, at least until a couple years later when Reagan wanted to use them to help get around the legal prohibition against waging war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. 
   Reagan fired the striking members of PATCO, the air traffic control workers union, an action that put unions on notice that evil was back in town and he was pissed. 
   Supply side economics came on the heels of this debacle. Supply side, heralded by corporatist Milton Friedman, declared that businesses should be free to pump whatever nonsense they wanted into the glorious marketplace and that demand would catch up and make everyone rich. This was absurd on its face and its ass didn't look much better. 
   And then there was Osama bin Laden. The Carter Administration had already begun helping the anti-Soviet Afghans in their fight against the USSR. But once Reagan was in power, the military industrial complex shifted to overload status, allowing Pakistan to give sophisticated weapons to certain jihadists, including a Saudi named Osama bin Laden. The rationale was to force a Vietnam-style war on the Russians, but the reality was that the Afghan rebels evolved into the Taliban and without this September 11, 2001 would have been just another day. 
   Before his term was out, Reagan  vetoed renewal of The Fairness Doctrine, a policy that required broadcasters to present opposing views on the airwaves. This veto opened the gates for all sorts of nonsense, including right wing talk radio and Fox News. So while the old style Cold War psychos were fond of claiming that seizing the means of communication was the first thing the commies would do once they took power, the head of the GOP facilitated that very thing. As a direct result, the psychological and tangible merger of news with entertainment was complete. There is no difference between CNN Headline news and TMZ.
   Twenty-one members of the Reagan Administration were convicted of crimes or plead guilty to crimes. 
   Reagan opposed ending apartheid in South Africa. 
   He nominated Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy for the Supreme Court, three of the five hoodlums who would give Reagan's vice-president's son the presidential election in 2000. 
   Reagan even stole from Social Security's trust fund to pay down the deficits his out-of-control military spending made necessary. 
   So please spare all of us comparisons to Reagan, unless you recognize this as an inherently bad thing, which it is. 

Sunday, April 3, 2016


   One day I felt the grass blades between my toes as I strained to divert my attention from the girl in the halter on a bicycle while I painted the garden fence in our big backyard. The sun danced along my shirtless torso while the music on the portable AM radio drummed out the summer soundtrack. I swished the brush and lobbed white paint on the rungs, wondering if this was as good as my life would get.
  That was the summer after high school. College came next. Book, classes, chemical equations, languages, lusting, languishing, learning to take the pain with the joy--all in the best interests of my mind. I wouldn't have missed it for the world. The world may have had other thoughts on the matter.
   A liberal arts education helps in the evolution of being able to think. That is a fact. The world, as I have implied, does not always care about thinking. Sometimes the world goes for eons without expressing the slightest concern for human antics. The city--which I assume was built by humans--reflects that thing we often call civilization. One human's civilization is another human's jungle (I think The Rutles said that). Flashing headlights blind us. Industry deafens us. Pollution plugs our nostrils. Entertainment deadens our feelings (I think Robert Heinlein said that). And sometimes we grow older (I said that).
   For myself, I prefer to avoid the Luddite method of going back to digging with sticks and smashing machines, even though some days I could get more accomplished that way. I like to work, as long as I can convince myself that my work serves some purpose beyond self-gratification. I like to rub my girlfriend's hands before bedtime and rub her back before morning. I like listening to Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan and John Coltrane and Phil Ochs and Charlie Mingus. I like reading books by Harlan Ellison and Philip Roth and Hannah Arendt. I like cheese crackers and unusual pizza and super food protein shakes. 
   But I still like painting outside in the summer. As long as I can hold onto that, I will never grow as old as my choices in diversion and engagement suggest I already have. Give me a bucket of Behr and a Purty brush, along with something to splash the paint onto, and I will live into the next century. If you could throw in some grass to feel between my toes, I would consider that a bonus.

Thursday, March 10, 2016


   Many different themes obsessed director Alfred Hitchcock. A person could make a paltry living just compiling them all. Hitchcock movies with train sequences, Hitchcock movies with a MacGuffin, Hitchcock movies with famous monuments, Hitchcock movies where the musical score makes sly commentary on the story, Hitchcock movies involving mistaken identity and espionage, dream sequences, or Hitchcock movies where the director makes a cameo appearance (which, while not technically a theme, probably suggests something thematic)--all of these must take a step backwards and bow to the theme of mental illness. Perhaps the most famous is Psycho, followed closely by Vertigo and the underrated Marnie. A degree of incarceration is inherent in mental illness, whether it be the slavery of addiction, the inability to resolve complex issues, the struggle with identity, a stifling of creativity, or the ability to recall traumatic events. To that end, there is only a superficial difference between the captivity we witness in a movie such as Lifeboat and the psychological imprisonment of Spellbound (1945). 
   This movie conjoins most of Hitchcock's favorite ideas. From the opening Shakespearean quotation ("The Fault is not in Our Stars, but in Ourselves") to the conclusion with a gun firing into the camera, the director grabs our shoulders and shakes us, practically screaming about how important this movie is. That, of course, is the fatal flaw of the film.
   Written by Ben Hecht and starring Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman, based on everything the director thought movies should be about, one would think the bloody thing could hardly miss. 
   Well, it missed, despite its popularity in the film-maker's England. 
   The biggest problem with the movie is also its most visually intriguing element: the Salvador Dali animated dream. Running two minutes, the uncut sequence ran to nearly twenty before the producer sliced it. The importance of free association is paramount to the success of psychoanalysis, a science from which the movie borrows liberally. The segment is indulgent, convoluted, and irrelevant, despite being somewhat beautiful.
   The second element that lets down the viewer is psychoanalysis itself. In spite of getting most of the details correct and implementing their discussion with considerable confidence, Hitchcock simply allows the science to overwhelm the story without having developed the characters enough for the audience to care enough to overlook the extended digressions. 
   In most Hitchcock movies, even minor characters permit the audience to project themselves into the drama. Spellbound plays so hard to the nonexistent sexual tension between Peck and Bergman that by the end of the film we hope the bullet will put us out of our misery. This motion picture would not even qualify for a footnote if it were not for the names attached to it. Ben Hecht was certainly not well represented by this. Other than for Hitchcock fanatics, this is one spell best left to the witches. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016


  You have to willingly suspend a bit more than your disbelief to enjoy this movie, but if you are ready to do so, you are in for one of the best rides of your life.
  First, you must forget that you remember Fred MacMurry from the TV show "My Three Sons."
  Second, you must forget that you have never found Barbara Stanwyck attractive.
  Third, you must forget that you tend to think of Edward G. Robinson as always playing a bad guy.
   Finally, you should try to put the anachronistic voice-over narration out of your mind altogether and just focus on the dialogue.
  If you can handle all of that, you will certainly love this motion picture.
   Fred plays an insurance man named Neff, which fits, since screenwriter Raymond Chandler (the Shakespeare of detective fiction) was once in the insurance racket. (The original novel, of course, was written by James M. Cain.) All he cares about are sales. Sign them up on the line that is dotted and you'll keep the bosses off your jacket and out of your late model car. Unfortunately for him, he runs into Babs, who plays Phyllis Dietrichson, a spoiled wife of a cynical businessman who just doesn't appreciate all the perks of being wealthy. Phyllis would like to have the old boy murdered and lures Neff into a scheme to off the crotchety coot. If the police can be convinced that the death was by suicide, then the price goes up to $100,000 and Fred and Barbara can retire down Mexico way, playing the banjo and slugging back gin fizzes all the live long day. A pretty sweet deal, figures Neff, even though he doesn't actually cotton to a cold blooded murder. But what the hey? A toasty broad like Phyllis doesn't come down the tracks every day, although the midnight train to Croakville just might and the two schemers carrying out their plan with some sophistication.
  Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944), as with most everything else written by Chandler, relies less on plot than character ambiance. This is not merely film noir; this is insurance noir, or California noir, or even locust noir. California is, you will see, just a hotbed of soulless souls trying to find their way home beneath the desperadoes under the eaves, many of whom look like crucified thieves (and pardon the lift, Warren). A body grows numb from the palm trees, sunshine and baked freeways. A mind grows blind from the easy living. The heart turns hard and the money looks as fresh as Ellie Mae Clampett sunning herself down by the cement pond. Shadows box with the moonlight while bloodless humans take the elevator to the penthouse to confess their sins on the way out the window. 
   Edward G. Robinson takes the movie and runs with it, leaving the viewer wishing for more. He's brought in to ravel a series of plot twists that never go anywhere and it does not matter one bit because just watching that man stand there waiting for a telephone conversation to wrap up is more exciting than real life outside southern California could ever be. Here he is, as Barton Keyes, lecturing his idiot boss on the facts of life and death in the insurance business:
Come now, you've never read an actuarial table in your life, have you? Why, they've got ten volumes on suicide alone. Suicide by race, by color, by occupation, by sex, by seasons of the year, by time of day. Suicide, how committed: by poison, by firearms, by drowning, by leaps. Suicide by poison, subdivided by *types* of poison, such as corrosive, irritant, systemic, gaseous, narcotic, alkaloid, protein, and so forth; suicide by leaps, subdivided by leaps from high places, under the wheels of trains, under the wheels of trucks, under the feet of horses, from *steamboats*. But, Mr. Norton, of all the cases on record, there's not one single case of suicide by leap from the rear end of a moving train. And you know how fast that train was going at the point where the body was found? Fifteen miles an hour. Now how can anybody jump off a slow-moving train like that with any kind of expectation that he would kill himself? No. No soap, Mr. Norton. We're sunk, and we'll have to pay through the nose, and you know it.

   That bit of monologue should tell you all you need to hook you through the lip with this movie. Then go sit down and read the collected works of Raymond Chandler and Nathaniel West. You'll want to move to Los Angeles immediately just to see if it's all true, which it is. Frank Zappa's house can be yours for nine million.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016


  Hemingway has never translated well to the screen, so it is just as well that scenarist Jules Furthman, co-writer William Faulkner and director Howard Hawks decided to pay little attention to the inspiration for To Have and Have Not (1944) and instead simply focused on telling a great story well. 
   It would be reasonable for people my own age and younger to do a polite roll of the eyes about the nostalgia component that has been attached to this movie for decades. This was the motion picture that brought Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall together for the first time, both on film and in real life. Bacall was all of nineteen and Bogart was, well, not nineteen. The original story took place in Cuba, but Hawks caved into to the FDR administration and moved the plot to Martinique, in what was then German-controlled Vichy France. It's quaint that Harry calls Marie "Slim" and that Slim calls Harry "Steve." Then, of course, we have the hipster dialogue, as when Slim says, "You know you don't have to act with me, Steve. You don't have to say anything, and you don't have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and... blow."
   People do not talk that way much nowadays and if memory serves they never have. Nothing about that matters at all. No one has asked me if I've ever been stung by a dead bee, either, but it works great when Walter Brennan asks it repeatedly in this movie. 
   So the tendency is to roll the eyes politely. But once that impulse has been placated, the viewer is in store for the treat of a lifetime. Oh, the movie may lack the intensity of Casablanca, with which it is often compared. The ending may feel a bit unresolved, especially since the real wrap up ended up in another Bogart and Bacall spectacle called Key Largo. None of that will matter much if at all to a contemporary watcher because the damned majesty of the two leads together (and the remarkable sexual tension) as well as the commaraderie between Bogart and Brennan, and the sweetness between Brennan and Bacall, snaps your eyes forward and leaves your mouth agape. 
   It should also be pointed out that, give or take the propaganda impact of an anti-Nazi movie during World War Two, we were after all fighting fascism and this movie makes it clear that Harry Morgan (Bogart) has nothing but contempt for the Fascist regimes. We don't make all that many great films with that subject matter these days, probably because the war has been over a while and there's a tendency to assume that it cannot happen here despite the fact that is has happened here. It is not a gun or a bullet or a grenade that forces innocents into a gas chamber. It is a hard heart that kills. And we as a nation have been slipping into that hard-hearted stance for a long time now, ossifying just a little more with every real or imagined injustice. Whether it's a bum crawling across an alley on his way to the dumpster or an immigrant crawling across Sonora looking for a community, some of us yield to the temptation to perceive these folks as aggressors. All it takes is some small band of psychopaths in foreign garb blowing up buildings in the name of their own private deity and the fear of the unknown, a xenophobia of genesis, sets in. I can't speak for everyone, but I've felt that temptation myself. I have even given into it on occasion, and I should know better. To get myself back in shape, I reminisce with old movies such as this one, and I strain to regain the insight that once came so effortlessly. 
   I confer the same blessings onto you.

Monday, March 7, 2016


  Imagine Alfred Hitchcock pitching this movie to some executive at Universal. The exec says, "Give it to me, Hitch, baby, in twenty-five words or less."
  The grand man leans forward, oozing contempt for this schmuck, and says, "A young girl finds that her Uncle Charlie, her namesake, is not the man she believes him to be."
   Taglines for movies have a history of being somewhat lame. Casablanca is a war time love story. The Godfather is about a family having trouble with the law. Citizen Kane is a tale of yellow journalism. Sure. And tonight's movie, Shadow of a Doubt (1943), is about a young girl who discovers.. . 
  Thornton Wilder wrote the script with a little help from Mrs. Hitchcock. You may know Wilder. He also wrote Our Town, By The Skin of Our Teeth, and The Bridge of San Luis Rey, among other gems. The theme, somewhat predictable in hindsight, is the facade of the suburbs as an idyllic place where white people can hide from urban confusion, but a place that has its own ugly secrets bubbling like the brew of the three weird sisters, a place where fate is predetermined and gruesome, a place where nothing is quite what it seems.
   I am one of the few people I have ever met who will admit with some cheer that he loves the suburbs. To me they symbolize garage bands sweating in the summertime, bicycles racing through dangerous construction zones, stalled trains begging to be investigated by tiny hands, and, yes, places from which escape often feels insurmountable. Wilder, for what it may be worth, grew up in a literary family and may well have longed to escape the humiliation of being smart around classmates he feared were idiots. The connection between this and the suburbs seems obvious. Growing up in the 1970s, I dare say that everyone I knew who was even vaguely interesting yearned to be anywhere except where he was and felt the need to be anyone other than who he was. As much as I loved my little town (as Paul Simon, in a rare moment of lucidity, said it, "After it rains there's a rainbow and all of the colors are black; it's not that the colors aren't there--it's just imagination they lack"), I couldn't wait to get out of there. Where did not matter. Where I went does not matter either. 
   Young Charlie (Teresa Wright) worships the Uncle about whom she has heard so much. Yet no sooner does Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) arrive than little clues of oddness materialize: items are clipped from the newspaper, the name of a certain familiar song cannot be spoken, and the like. 
   Part of the genius of this film lies in the realization that until the very end we cannot be certain if Uncle Charlie is as bad as we suspect him to be. It is as if in memory we have decided that our own childhood--especially the teenage years--were actually worthy of repeated reliving rather than being banished down the cesspool from whence they no doubt originated. If you really want to see evil, mediocrity, passive hostility, desecration of the scared and downright meanness, just revisit the years of your life from twelve to eighteen. It is like reading a history book of your own country only to discover that you were the Indian and everyone you knew was a settler. You may have had to resolve some cognitive dissonance to survive those putrid years, but there is no need for the delusion to continue into adulthood. 
   Shadow of a Doubt has no split screen window treatments, no Salvador Dali nonsense sequences, no elucidations on the repressed sexual desires of transsexuals. The pace is reasoned and reasonable, the acting chilling in its commonplace attitude. The only riddle that is not overtly answered is the name of the song no one quite can remember ("The Merry Widow"). And yet I will bet that once you see this movie you will list it on your paper under the Gideon as one of your favorite Hitchcock films. Once you've seen Psycho or The Birds, you really have no need to see them again. You'll gain no new insight into anything there. But I double dog dare you to watch Shadow of a Doubt only once. 
  I'll expect to see the For Sale sign in your yard the next day.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016


If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars. --Sam Phillips, 1954, weeks before discovering Elvis Presley
In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw a line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say, segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.--George Wallace, 1963
 George C. Wallace gained the support of about one-third of the black voters in Tuesday's primary election, according to various analyses today.--NY Times, 1982
  The first thing to get through your head is that nothing much changes. When things do change, they change big, but that does not happen often. Immediately following the Civil War for the Emancipation of African Americans, the United States government enacted something called Reconstruction from 1865 through 1877, the intent of which was to make certain the southern states and their governments treated black people as human beings. During those brief years, more than 2000 African Americans were elected to public office in the South, from local offices all the way to the U.S. Senate. (Hiram Revels became the first black U.S. Senator in 1870.) Not everyone thought that was peachy and so resistance grew. Even now you can find t-shirts in Tennessee souvenir shops with an image of an old Confederate soldier bearing the caption "Hell no I ain't forgot!"

  Something else that has not changed is that the winners still write the history books. One of the best ways I know to determine who won a battle or war is to look at what the victors were fighting and then compare that to what is written about those victors, which is why I suspect the Axis Powers may have won World War II. Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain: today these are all allies. 64,000,000 people murdered because of these regimes and within a few months they were among our dearest friends. If the United States can get along with foreign countries who attempted global domination through conquest and extermination, it would seem reasonable that black people could go through their days without fearing state and local police, much less getting beaten at Trump rallies. 

   My brilliant and beautiful and long-suffering girlfriend Lisa Ann screamed at the TV news tonight, "We're having another Civil War!" I would not be surprised at all if Rachel Maddow were to break in with just such a story one of these evenings.

   But we are not supposed to accuse the great unwashed out there of racism. We are supposed to be tolerant of what is clear and present bigotry because some grizzly redneck shit-kicker would get his silk panties in a bind if someone were to deny his right to guzzle cheap whiskey while staggering down MLK Boulevard waving a sawed-off .410 at passersby, anyone of whom he suspects of wanting to deny him the privilege of shooting down same-sex marriage advocates while he himself not so secretly faces domestic assault charges for his actions against both his wives, one of whom made this month's centerfold in Ammunition Guide Magazine. We are urged by these skinheads and their brethren to display tolerance because all men and women are endowed by their Creator with certain rights, including, it would seem, the right to hate and destroy whomever gets in their way.

   As a wiser man than I once said, "Fuck that shit."

   Let me be clear: I do not know shit about Donald Trump. Also, I do not care shit about Donald Trump. 

   What I do know is that in the 2012 Presidential election, of the ten states with the lowest white support for Obama, seven of them were in the south.  Mississippi had the lowest, with only ten percent of white people voting for Barack Obama. The other six southern states were Louisiana (10.5), Alabama (13), Georgia (14), South Carolina (19), Arkansas (21) and Texas (23). Is it just a series of coincidences that Obama's lowest popularity is in the same states that used to utilize slavery? Not on your life. 

   In the 1968 Presidential election, George Wallace won 13.5% of the popular vote, carried five states (all in the South) and won forty-five electors. He also won eight percent of the vote in the North.

   Regardless of the choice of the Republican Party for their Presidential nominee, the above serves as a predictor for the eventual outcome of the upcoming election. Since the federal election in 1980, the Republican Party has consciously endeavored to court the most extreme elements of the American populace. In the same way that the best answer to the question of defeating Isis is to attack their source of income, so is the best way to wipe out the danger represented by the GOP to attack their financing. This is crucial because in 2016 someone such as Trump or Cruz or Rubio may only get ten to fifteen percent of the popular vote (assuming there are no Middle Eastern attacks on the United States or its satellites), but within four years I would not be surprised if racial and gender tension had transmogrified to the point where a Wallace wannabe could mobilize a more substantial base. Knowing that thirteen percent of the people around you can be bought and sold by the likes of the wealthy into supporting a candidate who works against fairness--that is frightening enough. But when those numbers hit twenty-five percent, it will be time for some of us to look downward and tell our feet to do their stuff. But this is my home, too, just as it is yours. So we should not have to flee to Canada just to get away from the scourge of the wealthy industrialists who determine our choices by channeling the bigotry they help foment. Nothing much may change, but as our blood pressures rise with every attack on the civil rights of our fellow Americans, solutions that lie outside the voting booth gain popularity.


Sunday, January 31, 2016


   The rain is coming down pretty hard here in Phoenix tonight. When it does, the homeless scatter like the shards of a shattered light bulb. Welcome nowhere, they are tolerated at overcrowded shelters where green bologna and flat Kool-Aid are coveted items. Bony fingers that once clutched pipes or syringes or even the neck of a bottle of chilled Moet White Star now strain to clutch into the roar of the warning of the downpour. Flash of lightning, crack of thunder, sizzle of rain cooking into their unholy shoes: it will be a long night and those who already have their beds won't be sharing with those who do not. They gather in the park, although not in the romantic way one reads about when a crisis befalls unconnected individuals who somehow work together to get through the malaise. No, these poor bastards do not resemble an army of ants or a platoon of survivalists. They more suggest escapees from a concentration camp where brutality weighed so heavy and constant that even the wardens went mad. Yelling into something that would be dignified by the word "abyss," they stand there, alone together, with everything they have owned for years bundled into large garbage bags over one shoulder and the little they have been given hanging in a backpack over the other. Not a one of them wants to die, despite the words that croak from their throats. Each one wants a break because if he or she had that break, that person could turn around, could get back together what was once had, could even make amends, could become something useful to someone besides a social worker, unless of course that pipe or syringe or bottle of chilled Moet were to come calling, in which case, redemption might have to wait a little longer. But a nice, simple, merciful break is really all that is necessary and that, as you may have guessed, is part of the problem because that rain is not letting up anytime soon and more people arrive at the park every few minutes and the other part of the problem is just how very big the problem itself has become. It is so big that people who do not know the lives of these people avoid them, step over them, close their windows and doors to them, smile with relief at them, cast them aside and turn up the volume on their big screen televisions because tonight it's Christmas Eve and New Years and Valentine's Day and the Fiftieth Super Bowl and the Phoenix Open and Spring Break and who needs a reason anyway when there's so goddamn much much fun to be had?
   The other night Lisa Ann and I were walking the dogs when we saw a cripple in a wheelchair fall backwards off the sidewalk curb. We live in an historic district that has some very nice homes. One of the city's largest homeless shelters is also nearby. Being downtown, one gets a mix of the artistic, the nouveau, the slick, the old, and the obsolete. We rushed the dogs inside and ran back out to help the fellow. He was already leaning against his wheelchair, straining to not fall, to not lose even more of his dignity. We asked if he was okay, if he was alright, if he needed anything, if he was headed somewhere. He shook his head and said, "Thanks for caring." Lisa Ann went back inside and returned with some money and a can of Vienna sausages. "These dropped out of your pocket when you fell," she said. He knew better than that but admitted he liked Vienna sausages. 
   These people lack visibility. Indeed, for most of us, they lack existence. Every small town, so they say, has a bum or an idiot or a wino, and because it is a small town, that person cannot be invisible. He or she may be shunned, but unless social skills are completely off-putting, that person will often be embraced by some part of the community--or at least tolerated. But put that same unfortunate son or daughter in a bubbling metropolis along with thousands more and the bystander effect kicks in fast. 
   How many dreams of redemption will drown out there tonight? 
   Midnight Cowboy (1969) is all about redemption. The message comes through a story of unlikely friendship. But guilt is at the core and redemption is sought in every scene. The movie's construction blends harsh beauty with cartoonish recollections. Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman embody their characters Joe Buck and Rico Rizzo. Chances are excellent that you have already seen this movie and nothing I could write in a traditional review would much illuminate the film's majesty. So my advice is to go wait near the park the next time it rains. See if you recognize anyone. 

Saturday, January 23, 2016


  When I first watched the movie Deliverance (1972), I found myself uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons. I felt the representation of the backwoods people of Georgia carried with it a weighty load of bigotry and that given what the James Dickey novel and the film made out to be the devastation that awaited their primitive community, it was unnecessary to offer those people up as inbred genetic mutations, one of whom happened to be quite handy with a banjo. The whole idea of the movie bugged me and as I went into the next series of director John Boorman's films I was predisposed to dislike them with some intensity. 
   Well, The Exorcist II and Excalibur were pretty dreadful and while my own prejudice against all things Boorman did not improve my opinions of those movies, it would not have mattered much if I had believed JB to be the cousin of the Second Coming. 
   And that's funny because his first two films, Catch Us If You Can and Point Blank were just fine little pictures, the former being sort of a rip off of A Hard Day's Night (featuring the Dave Clark Five) and the latter being more or less about the decay of Alcatraz and the ascendance of hippie. 
   But back to Deliverance, I will admit that the celebration of machismo as an alternative to mechanistic society irritated me during my first viewing. In short, I considered the whole thing to be a sexist load of pig swill. It didn't matter to me that Burt Reynolds gave the performance of a life time and years later admitted that this was his personal favorite of all the movies in which he had appeared. It made no difference that Jon Voight climbed that ragged cliff himself because the producers didn't want to spend the money on stunt doubles, much less on insurance for their stars, so if he had fallen and broken something, it would have been bad news all around; and that does not even get into the magnificence of his measured performance. After all, it is Voight's eyes through which we witness this terrifying and beautiful narrative and so his reactions and expressions had to be more than convincing--they had to exorcise demons, something they certainly did. I did not care that this was the first film appearance of Ned Beatty, a man who would go on to perform in more than one hundred movies, every time out getting so deep into the character that he went beyond mere acting and into some kind of nether world where one metamorphoses into something bigger than the role itself, hell, bigger than the movie, grander than the studio. I did not care much one way or another that Ronny Cox was in the movie and while everything I have heard in the years since then suggests him to have been a very nice fellow, I never could get the image out of my head of him as the patriarch in the TV show "The Appletons." I cared not at all that the James Dickey novel would be listed by dozens of magazines and journals as one of the best books of the twentieth century. Nope, I just did not give one good old fashioned damn about any of that. 
   I can be quite hard headed at times.
   Yet something about Deliverance kept pulling at me. I kept thinking of Lewis (Burt Reynolds) asking Ed (Jon Voight), "Why do you keep going on these adventures with me?"
   "I wonder about that myself sometimes, Lewis."
   Why did I continue to make myself watch a movie such as this every so often, knowing full well that the story itself represented all the things I believed I had outgrown or abandoned?
   Because my opinion of this movie has changed so dramatically, I now believe that it is a very good thing to be able to claim for oneself a degree of flexibility in one's assessment of an example of a major art form, whereas earlier I might have considered such alterations to be waffling or indecision. 
   It turns out, to my delight, that Deliverance transcends whatever wrongheadedness may be its lot in life, or mine, for that matter. It transcends its own internal logic in the sense that this is not specifically, or perhaps merely, a movie about four guys taking a canoe trip down a river and encountering some adversities they must conquer. So the accouterments about incest and rotten teeth don't matter one bit because they could just as easily have been about anacondas taking over the temples of Tibet. The villains in the movie were forces rather than people. They were obstacles placed in the way of the urban suburban golfers on their way through a survivalist paradise. Everything safe and reassuring in their establishment lives gets distorted, then perverted, then banished from their consciousness. Truth, justice, democracy--it's all irrelevant when you are part of an organism that holds its own survival as the paramount creed. 
   The last thing I want is to come off sounding like some sort of militia type. I have nothing whatsoever good to say about tax-dodging secessionists who believe in the government only when its male, white and local. Industry and government may have come down on our heads, blown a waft of cannabis in our faces to fool us into believing we are free while assassinating our few honest inspirations. In short, the bad guys may  indeed have the good guys surrounded and supplies might just be running out, but my idea of utopia has nothing to do with spearing fish, stockpiling dry goods and taking on multiple wives while the fumes of the apocalypse dance by on a rusty merry-go-round. I like what we have come to call civilization, even its jungle aspects. I like a certain amount of hustle and bustle, a certain opposing stagnation, a degree of bureaucracy. I like even the conflict that comes from cooperation and vice versa. I sure as hell do not want to revert to digging with a stick. But I cannot deny the simultaneous appeal of the harshest elements of nature: be it a monstrous tornado, a blizzard, a rocky river, or an old tin shed that contains who knows what kind of abomination. These, for me, are all things to appreciate from a certain safe perspective, such as the comfort of a movie theatre. 
   That brings us to the fact of the raw beauty of this movie. When I say "raw," I mean that by the time the four men get through the first white rapids, you check your own face to see if you got all the water off. The majesty of the scenery, which, we are reminded, will be under water--"drowning a river" is how they put it--in a few weeks, is not only breathtaking, it is heartbreaking. Nature just does not care about the alpha male and his friends. All it cares about is surviving. Nature's very indifference creates an uncredited silent actor. There is never any doubt about who is in charge. 
   So my initial lack of comfort with this movie turns out to have been ill-advised. And while my disapproval of most films by John Boorman remains valid, if all he had ever done was to direct this one movie, he would have earned whatever accolades one might care to bestow. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016


  The first time I saw him in a movie was while watching The Scent of a Woman (1992), a movie for which I never developed much fondness. Chris O'Donnell didn't quite break through in the picture, and while Al Pacino gave his all for his art, somehow I never believed a blind man could drive a Ferrari. What I did like about the film was the performance of a young man billed as Philip S. Hoffman. He played a complex character named George Willis Jr., a kind of big mouth EverySlob who wants to do the right thing but has too many options before him, none of them especially pleasant. For most other actors--indeed, for most actors who had yet to establish anything close to a personal style--this role would have represented a banal diversion from summer stock. But Hoffman invested such life in his character that I made a point of wondering if he would use his appearance as a springboard.
   Neither When a Man Loves a Woman nor Twister did much for me other than induce yawns and unintended laughter, respectively. Then I watched Boogie Nights (1997), a movie about which I still cannot decide if I think it was brilliant or despicable. Whatever else it was, it certainly was accurate, not that that is an excuse. The most accurate character in the film was Scotty J., a heavyset, timid boom operator who has a crush on Mark Wahlberg's character. His portrayal was so dead on that it physically hurt. This time out he was billed as Philip Seymour Hoffman. 
   Hoffman went on to appear in The Big Lebowski, Patch Adams, Almost Famous (where he completely stole the show as Lester Bangs), Along Came Polly, and Cold Mountain, among other treats. 
   He was almost there. He had carved out a name for himself, perhaps even earned the title bestowed on him by Jon Stewart as "the greatest actor in America." 
   In 2005 United Artists released Capote and there was no longer any doubt that Stewart had been correct. 
  Roger Ebert wrote at the time that Hoffman "channeled" Capote, rather than imitated him, a crucial distinction. Until his death in 1984, writer Truman Capote had been the butt of many idiotic impressionists who felt fine mimicking someone with far more talent than they themselves ever possessed. Watching Hoffman's Capote explain to a grieving survivor about how he had been ridiculed most of his life for the way he looked and spoke, we get a genuine sense as to how those barbs not only hurt, but were used by their target to ingratiate himself with other wannabe misfits. 
   The movie focuses on the period of time when Capote was working on his "nonfiction novel" In Cold Blood, a book which belongs right up there with other masterpieces of the 1960s, punching its way through the crowd alongside Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Dick, Ursula LeGuin, Philip Roth, William Styron, Saul Bellow and Harper Lee, the latter figuring prominently in this movie. I for one never knew that the author of To Kill a Mockingbird had been tight with Truman Capote, much less that she had based the character Dill on him. 
   From the moment we meet Capote, we get a sense of a man who tries hard to be detached from human feelings, as when he tells the sheriff that he doesn't care one way or another whether they catch the killers of the Clutter family, or when one of the killers asks if it's true that he knows Elizabeth Taylor and he replies "I know a lot of people."
   Yet this is a person who feels. He feels, you should pardon the cliche, too deeply. Every wound he has ever received, every sincere complement in which he has basked, and every lame attempt at flattery he has deflected has implanted itself in his mind and, as he likes to remind us, he has a 94% accuracy rate with recalling conversations. 
  He manipulates the killers, He manipulates the press. He uses people for his art. On some level, all of them recognize this ill-treatment. "What's the name of your book?" one of the murderers keeps asking. If the writer admits the title, the killer will know that he is being used. So Capote lies. And the killer knows he lies.
  While this is Hoffman's movie from the starting gate, he does benefit from a superb support cast, in particular from the always watchable Chris Cooper as the sheriff who is consumed with a need for justice in the case of the four murders, and from Catherine Keener as Harper Lee, the woman who not only acts as Capote's bodyguard but who is the only person we meet who understands the conflux that motivates him. 
   What motivated Philip Hoffman I cannot say. The reports of his death in February 2014 devastated me and, if you have read this far, perhaps they devastated you as well. Dead at forty-six from a mix of drugs, including heroin and cocaine. Well, that was certainly a waste. He had been sober twenty-three years, checked into rehab the previous May, then went about his business. No one with that much talent can be said to be haunted only by demons. The angels had their impact too. But sometimes the ugliness we synthesize in order to get through pockets of time in our lives enlarge the human tragedy to the point where the ugliness is all we can sense. Then we take just a little bit more on our way to the big sleep. 
   We miss you, Philip Seymour Hoffman. We wish you could rejoin us. Things have not been the same.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016


  The truth is out: I would not bother to walk across the street to vomit on Samuel P Huntington. As co-author of The Crisis of Democracies: On the Governability of Democracies, Huntington's report to and from the infamous Trilateral Commission in 1976, Samuel P put forth what he considered the necessity of what the more conspiratorially-minded among us refer to as one world government and what those with a more academic orientation speak of as globalization. The Trilateral Commission was and remains one of those nefarious groups that receives monumental criticism from both the right and the left. Barry Goldwater claimed it was a skillful attempt to consolidate political, monetary, intellectual and religious power. Noam Chomsky said that the Commission was a concerted attempt by the liberal elite to moderate democracy, to induce indoctrination, and to foster passivity.
   Both points of view have some merit.
   One need not be a kind of conspiracy buff to suspect that immigration policies, international trade agreements, the blackmailing techniques of the International Monetary Fund, the extortion by the World Bank and the intellectual rationalizations of the Trilateral Commission, all have "coincidentally" worked to bring about a global merging of brain trusts and finance which thrives spiritually, economically and politically by the creation and development of international tensions among components of the developed world and between that world and those agents who claim to represent emerging states and nations. 
   Let me be clear. I do not believe in the existence of an Illuminati (unless one is referring to a group of the Enlightenment, from which the term got its name, formed in 1776, founded by Adam Weishaupt, a society of sorts that stood opposed to most of the things the fictitious Illuminati is always being accused of promoting, such as religious influence and abuses of power). Likewise, I maintain that Alex Jones and the entirety of the Infowars empire are a bunch of turd-lickers who exploit the power of the fears that they themselves propagate. But if both the narrow-minded and the expansive of intellect can agree on the unwarranted influence of globalization, then the subject certainly deserves some consideration from the likes of the rest of us.
   Mitch McDeere, it is safe to say, never read any reports by the Trilateral Commission. Years of law school, among the top five students in his class, hard working son of a gun, snappy dresser--yet he never took the time to consider the sources of real power in American society. Yet he does not bother to invest thirty seconds of his time into looking into the client base of the Memphis law firm that has just hired him. Had he done his homework, he would have learned that the organization that pays the firm's bills is the Chicago branch of the Mafia. Try to leave The Firm (1993) and the merger of legal minds and organized criminality will see to it that you die. Sure, director Sidney Pollack gives us the typical John Grisham twists, but in this film they come off as contrived. The sad fact is that everyone working on this movie behind the camera only wanted one thing: to impress us all with the talent of star Tom Cruise. And because nothing in the movie except the conclusion does anything to convince us that his character, McDeere, could navigate a pay toilet in a diarrhea ward, the ending feels false and we are left with yet another Grisham adaptation that should have been much better than it was. This lack of translation from the written page to the big screen with John Grisham is not unique. Hemingway's novels and short stories never worked on film, Ray Bradbury never once made the leap, and Stephen King only had occasional luck in this regard. And satisfying as his novels may be, Grisham is no Hemingway, Bradbury or King. 
   Ed Harris, as the frustrated FBI agent, does everything he can to breathe some life into this film. Even Wilford Brimley stands out as a convincing sinister head of security. But otherwise, Pollack's motion picture is a masterful misuse of talent at least on a par with that of Cruise. The character played by Gene Hackman: wasted. Hal Holbrook: wasted. David Strathairn: wasted. Gary Busey: well, you get the idea. This movie was supposed to be the literary vehicle for The Star's career, much as Top Gun served as an ideological co-optation of the entertainment industry by the military industrial complex, unless you think all those MTV videos and Pepsi commercials were "coincidence." And to make sure no one watching missed the point, Pollack changed the ending from the one in the novel so that Cruise's character is a hero instead of a coward. 
   And that was one of the typically staid director's worst decisions because, for my money, the best role Tom Cruise ever played was that of Vincent in Collateral. He played a hit man. A bad guy. A killer. A not very nice dude. He played it against good guy Jamie Foxx and the dynamics between those two powerhouse performances was nothing short of engaging. Engaging is not what The Firm was about. It was about 150 minutes of tedium in the guise of harmless entertainment. It was symptomatic of corporate expectations for the producers and directors in their employ. It was no more convincing than a Samuel P Huntington treatise, although it was every bit as manipulative. 

Monday, January 11, 2016


    The famous quote, often incorrectly attributed to Sinclair Lewis (who said something similar), goes like this: "If Fascism ever comes to America, it will come wrapped in an American flag."
   Some people hold that the speaker of those words, Huey Long, was himself an American bully. Personally, I think of famous bullies as being on a list that would include Spiro Agnew, George Wallace, Paul LePage, and Donald Trump, among many others too pompous to name. Famous bullies. Now there's an annoying concept for you. Their fans submit that these men are straight shooters who eschew stuffy political correctness for the joys of honest talk, guys who know what's really going on and who want to fix the screwed up nature of society through their own presumed personal charisma. On the other hand, some people believe it would serve the commonweal if men of this ilk were torn apart by fire-winged ravens. It doesn't matter to me whether I happen to disagree with the bully in question. Lording his own uninformed opinions over the rest of us like low clouds of dinosaur feces and calling the stench sweet is all it takes to qualify for inclusion in the bully hall of fame. 
   Sometimes a bully may not even be a person. Occasionally a bully can be a collective impulse to behave in a certain manner. Toe that line, load that barge, puncture that widget, wave that flag. It bores the mind and gives comfort to some. Those who take ease in blind conformity are particularly inclined to suck up to the purveyors of such a system of beliefs. I almost feel stupid saying something that feels so obvious to me, considering the social and political events that formed my own twisted kind of awareness. But while the common law concept of res ipsa loquitor may apply in negligence suits, it has no place in what is after all a review of a major motion picture released just short of fifty years ago. 
   I like to think that Lucas Jackson would agree with that sentiment. When Cool Hand Luke (1967) begins, he is in the process of chopping off the heads of parking meters lined up and down a night time street. For this apparent abomination, he is sentenced to two years on a work farm. As everyone beyond puberty should know, Luke is played by Paul Newman and the movie featured a cast of support actors who would go on to make their own mark on television and motion pictures, including Strother Martin as the Captain, Luke Askew as one of the Bosses (and certainly a contender if not the all-time champion of character actors who embodied the role of Stoic Yet Horribly Wicked Bad Guy), Jo Van Fleet as Luke's dying mother, George Kennedy as suck-up Dragline, plus Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton, Wayne Rogers, Ralph Waite (Papa Walton), the amazing Anthony Zerbe, a young Joe Don Baker (later of Walking Tall fame), Morgan Woodward as the man with no eyes, and about half of Hollywood. 
   Based on the novel by Donn Pearce, this movie features director Stuart Rosenberg who allows Newman's incomparable talent to set the pace as he attempts three escapes from the work crew. That's essentially the plot right there. But this movie is not about plot or car chases or the simplicity of rural living. It is about atheists in foxholes, guys who can eat fifty eggs in one hour, how some people in captivity kiss up to the authorities even when doing so works against their own self interests, and the existentialist commandment to fight only those battles one is assured of losing. While one of the popular quotes from this film remains "What we got here is failure to communicate," I have always favored Luke's line shortly after the third escape: "I never planned a thing in my life." 
   Being a natural born world-shaker invites persecution, betrayal, and the heartbreak of a million faces turning away. I can make no better case for Luke's martyrdom. Shaking up the world is, for some of us, the only reason we are here. Take that away and we will kill to get it back. When Luke takes severe body and head blows from Dragline, the men around him call for him to stay down. Drag himself yells for him to stay in the dirt. But he won't. "You're gonna hafta kill me." And we smile, just as Luke smiles back at us.
   Maybe Edward Yashinsky said it best:
Fear not your enemies, for they can only kill you.
Fear not your friends, for they can only betray you.
Fear only the indifferent, who permit the killers and betrayers to walk safely on the earth.


   Philip K Dick did drugs better than any other writer. If one simply must get messed up for the expressed purpose of using one's personal experiences as a synthesis of process and reaction, then one must be prepared to compete with the masters of the form. I am not necessarily referring to people such as Hunter S Thompson or even F Scott Fitzgerald. What I do mean is that body of writers who, let us say, had a series of prolonged personalized encounters with the darker hues of psychological manifestations emerging from dangerous levels of hazardous chemicals ingested primarily for purposes of expanding one's consciousness, rather than, say, getting off for its own sake. Dick's 1977 novel, A Scanner Darkly, hits all the highs and lows with a practitioner's expertise. It's also quite disturbing and simultaneously funny as hell.
   That statement applies to Richard Linklater's rotoscopic animation feature of the same name (2006). Staying close to the novel's storyline, director Linklater introduces us to a new world (same as the old world?) where the police state hires out Keany Reeves to infiltrate a group of hardcore druggies inhabited by Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson and Wynona Ryder. The group favors an instantly addictive intoxicant called Substance D. We don't get much of a sense as to the drug's pleasant effects (unless untrammeled paranoia is pleasant, which, in that world, it might just be), but we certainly get our eyes full of the heightened suspicion, the inducement to idiotic violence, the impulsiveness of consumerism, and the devastation of withdrawal. 
   Reeves plays an undercover cop whose interactions with the public require him to wear a special suit that alters his appearance every second or so (one of which appearances is Philip K Dick himself). Ryder plays Donna, the connection Reeves hopes will take him to the next level so he can bust the guy from whom she gets her supplies. Harrelson plays a variation of the characters for which he is best known--quiet, loud, morose, funny, righteous, evil. And Downey runs a manic streak so unsettling that I wanted to shout "Shut up!" at the screen at least three times. 
   If you have not experienced rotoscope technology in your movie-going delights, then you never saw the dance scenes in the Betty Boop cartoons, or watched The Beatles movie Yellow Submarine, or Linklater's own Waking Life (2001). Possibly you never saw Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, although a subtle reference to Walt appears in the refrigerator scene of A Scanner Darkly. (A lot of subtle references pop up here, including a strange fascination with bear imagery. Hey, getting the jokes is half the fun.) What the process ultimately involves is shooting the movie, which Linklater did in just twenty-three days, and then having the animators trace over it, which took over a year, giving the finished product the magnificent sense of being a graphic novel brought to life. 
   I can think of no better way to summarize the experience of this movie that to recall the oft-quoted observation that "even paranoids have enemies." In the near future of this film, we are the paranoiacs and the enemies have us. In other words, if you have any sense of humor at all or have ever known anyone who did, or if you have ever had an enemy but didn't quite know who it was, you will enjoy this motion picture. The fantastic becomes real.

Sunday, December 13, 2015


   While making a point of not watching the news the other evening, I passed by the TV set and double-took the screen image of Oliver Stone speaking with some entertainment reporter. I grabbed the remote control and un-muted the sound just in time to hear the filmmaker offer the beginnings of a remark wherein he referenced the past. He said, "At the time, I was a hotshot director. . . " That was all I heard of what he said because the impact of those few words temporarily buried me. "At the time"? Granted, the nature of Stone's movies changed a bit after 1999's Any Given Sunday. For many people in the movie business. teaming Al Pacino, Cameron Diaz, Jamie Foxx and Dennis Quaid in what is arguably the most authentic football movie every made would have been a career in and of itself. Granted, in the previous twenty-one years, Oliver Stone had written the screenplays for the Turkish prison film Midnight Express, the action thriller Conan the Barbarian, and the gangster epic Scarface. He directed the political experiences Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street, JFK, Nixon, and Natural Born Killers. He exploded the Sixties with Born on the Fourth of July and The Doors. In case you may not have been copied on the memo, he also produced The People versus Larry Flynt, The Joy Luck Club and Heaven and Earth. Men with similarly impressive resumes (few as they may be) never refer to their successes in the past tense, even though the quality of their recent work would make such self-deprecation more than merely appropriate. DePalma, Spielberg, Scorsese, Burton, Coppola, Lucas--only one of whom might be considered among the most artistically viable directors of the last fifty years--and neither he nor the other five would, on penalty of death or public humiliation, whisper the suggestion that his best days just might possibly be in the past. True, Stone's demand at the box office was not served well with Alexander, W., or by his movies about Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, although I personally enjoyed these movies almost as much as I did the earlier classics. And with a new movie called Snowden being released in 2016, he is the furthest thing from being washed up. 
   One of the sources of conflict in Any Given Sunday (which my girlfriend Lisa Ann insists is her favorite Oliver Stone movie) is the strain between experienced age (in the form of Pacino) and inexperienced youth (Jamie Foxx). I could not help but think of Stone himself while watching Pacino in the role of coach Tony D'Amato, trying the explain to his third-string quarterback about the value of the game itself rather than the glorification of one sole player. The young player feels he is being condescended to, that Pacino's days of glory are over, that the game itself has changed to passes and high scores over strategies and teamwork. And because mocking the phoniness of cheap pop culture is one of the subtleties of the director's work, we suspect early on that Pacino will find a way to win out over the corporate hustlers who have corrupted the surface--rather than the essence--of the game of football. 
    Stone is our great cinematic mythologist. Like any artist, he knows his version of history may not be the same as that of those who traditionally inform the masses. But he understands the power of myth, the way stories get relayed over generations, how truth can become corrupted, of the essential nature of the counter-myth. 
  In Scarface, the counter-myth comes right out the chute when the criminals Fidel Castro kicked out of Cuba come drifting to the United States, specifically to the Miami area, celebrating their new freedom to struggle to the top of a criminal empire. The older brothers and sisters of those same Cubans worked their black magic in Stone's telling of the destruction of John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. A jagged though sturdy set of lines connect the hidden lies at the heart of America and the anti-Castro Cuban exiles form those lines, from the muscle boys who worked the mob's casinos when Cuba belonged to the United States (courtesy of the dictator Batista) through the mechanics who murdered JFK under the auspices of the CIA, right on through the burglars who violated the offices of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist, the Watergate hotel, the Brookings Institute, to those who guided the training of the Contras in Nicaragua. These unnumbered dots form invisible links bounding and bonding our collective consciousness, our Spiritus Mundi, as Yeats called it in "The Second Coming." 
   Martin Scorsese may have the market on the subjects of guilt and redemption, just as Francis Coppola may be the master of the Great Journey. Spielberg may do more with the Establishment message than many outside the Establishment have dreamed. While Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now and perhaps Schindler's List will forever serve to redefine our understanding of just how much can be done with the medium of cinema, so do movies such as JFK and Nixon redefine our understanding of how we got here as a people. The late Robert Altman did the same thing with MASH, Nashville, The Long Goodbye, 3 Women and The Player. Altman and Stone have been the great counter-mythologists of our time. These filmmakers and a few others I could mention (mostly from outside the United States) have reconstructed the nature of making movies in the same way that Method Acting and Stella Adler changed performance. That is to say, contemporary movies are unthinkable without them. 
   I have heard Stone refer to his stylistic efforts as a kind of Cubism, in the Picasso sense of the term. Quick shots interspersing present and past, color and B&W, clarity and graininess, fact and theory create the emotional rhythm of movies such as JFK, Natural Born Killers and Nixon. And if Cubism dictates the geometric conflux of a piece of art, such as a movie, then it relies on the emotional wallop for its initial success. The actor Tommy Lee Jones has referred to NBK as Art on a par with Guernica. From the point of view of substance, that's ridiculous. The former is satire, the latter expose. But from the POV of style, Jones hit the target square in the lens with his observation.
   Oliver Stone has no need for me to come to his defense. He might even resent the effort. But after the System--the Beast--launched its attack against him for his stories of Kennedy and Nixon and contemporary culture, he likely grew weary from the fight. Reading and watching interviews he granted from 1992 through 1996, you can observe how well-informed and attuned to specificity his thinking had become. This was a man who, in his youth, could have followed an easy path toward becoming an effete snob. Instead, he went to Vietnam. He could have continued scripting action adventure thrillers. He could have used his education and experiences to manufacture product that would deteriorate the gray matter of the movie-going audiences. Instead, he pounded his chest, let out a roar, and invited us to question all the lies that are our lives. Sometimes, as with The Doors, this teeters on the razor's edge between the boredom of overkill and the fascination of excess. Most of the time, however, his thumping, roaring and invitations make us obsessed with our own discomfort. 
   History is a series of overlapping stories about the uses to which great power is put. Myths are explanations for how this is possible. Cinema is the self-gazing set of eyes that merge history with mythology. How do we see ourselves up on that colossal screen? Are we some freak of nature superhero whose motivations are interesting yet murky? Or are we Barry in Talk Radio, trying to figure out why people need him and need to destroy him? Are we Jim Garrison in JFK, aware that "Something is happening but you don't know what it is"? Are we Pat Nixon, playing both wife and surrogate mother to the President of the United States? And is there not some sense of liberation in that identification with those characters? When these characters agonize from their fall from grace, our identification is called catharsis. I don't know how to get catharsis from Spider-Man (although not from lack of trying). But I feel it in the best movies by Oliver Stone. I feel it with repeated viewings. 
   Here's hoping you are the same.

Monday, November 30, 2015


   Frequent visitors to this site will have observed that the writer has what might be charitably called a fondness for New Hollywood movies, which is to say films released between 1967 and 1982 which do not hone their narrative style to a traditional storytelling approach, which borrow cinematic techniques and applications from the French New Wave, and which are often dedicated to non-resolution of various plot elements. It should be noted that I am neither a film school graduate nor a film school drop-out. I do not sleep on a bed of back issues of Cahiers du Cinema or even Cineaste. I do, however, watch a sizable quantity of motion pictures, many of which have informed my opinions of the industry, the art, and the processes of great, awful, and mediocre movies. In my pursuit of pleasurable cinema, I eschew movies which depend for their appeal on highly technical special effects at the expense of character development. To that end I try to avoid what I have long considered to be what was the death-knell for New Hollywood: the blockbuster. What was wrong with The Exorcist, the first Star Trek movie, Star Wars or most of the superhero films of the last twenty years? None of them had any human characters who displayed any reason whatsoever for the audience to care one way or another about whether they lived or died. (Note that the only characters with personality in Star Wars were robots.) 
   Some of the movies which exemplify the New Hollywood motif which may be familiar to you include progenitors such as The Graduate (which I hated) and Bonnie and Clyde (which I loved), as well as inheritors such as Rosemary's Baby, They Shoot Horses Don't They?, MASH, The Landlord, Brewster McCloud, Joe, Two-Lane Blacktop, Deliverance, American Graffiti, Dog Day Afternoon, 3 Women, Mean Streets, Annie Hall, two of the three Godfather movies and Apocalypse Now. And certainly a few post-New Hollywood directors have carried on the efforts of their elder brethren, people such as Oliver Stone, Milos Forman and Brian DePalma have all added their own sensibilities to what they learned from some of the older filmmakers. 
   For me personally, the most difficult director-writer to embrace has always been Francis Coppola. While I liked The Rain People, I loathed Patton, never for one minute accepting what was then the conventional wisdom that it had been carefully made to appeal to both anti-establishment types and conservatives. The Great Gatsby was a pile of nonsense (as have been all attempts at making the Fitzgerald book into a film). The Conversation was a mixed bag. One From The Heart, The Outsiders and Rumble Fish didn't come close to Coppola's magic, while The Rain Maker and Tucker were touching yet obvious. 
   Pardon? What's that sound? Oh, I begin to make out the words. Some of you are braying: "Hey, dick head! When are ya gonna talk about his three major classics, fuck wad?" 
   Many cliched superlatives stagger to mind: Greatest films of the century, Best movies ever made, Heir to D. W. Griffith, etc. Yet I have no idea what "best," "greatest" and "heir" mean in this context. I do know that The Godfather, The Godfather Part II and Apocalypse Now, while telling their stories in compelling and unique ways and while being easy to watch repeatedly for the sake of pure enjoyment, remain extraordinarily safe motion pictures. None of these three movies make a conscientious effort to manipulate the audience, to challenge our preconceptions, to force us to perceive the world in new ways.
   I will grant that Coppola takes us places we have never been and takes us there without mercy. We may identify with hot-headed Sonny or calculating and confused Captain Willard. We may even reel from the exposure to these and other characters' experiences. And even though the filmmaker adheres to the rule of suspense that says that anyone in the movie can die at any time, that rule does not apply to those of us in the audience because we are too busy, in one case, being wowed by the sepia tones and Italian music, and in the other because of the horror of moving up the river as we meet people with about as much verisimilitude to our daily lives as a three-headed bug-eyed monster. 
   To prevent the reader from misunderstanding my point of view, please accept my word when I say that these are three of my all-time favorite movies, despite the fact that they treat women as accessories, despite the willful disregard for contrasting the filmed version of the world with the one in which the rest of us live and thereby at least hinting at possible similarities between us and them, and despite the overwhelming public acknowledgement of these movies as "classics," even though my experience has been that most movies everyone likes are not uncommonly the cinematic equivalent of salamander feces. 
   The significance of these three movies connects with the holidays. Between Thanksgiving and New Year's, many TV networks and cable outlets will be replaying these three movies ad infinitum, and you may find yourself adhered to your favorite chair, gulping in the 24 frames per second magnificence of these motion pictures without bothering to inquire precisely why these are such hot properties. Maybe the entertainment factor will be enough, but if so, then you might as well watch The Sound of Music or The Wizard of Oz. But if you are looking for the impact of irresolution, the majesty of applying traditional stories to a madcap methodology, or subordination of narrative style to stylistic innovations that have never been surpassed, you will not be disappointed. You might even want to take a few minutes to think about why. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


   This movie proves beyond any doubt that it is both possible and desirable to transform a graphic novel into a motion picture while maintaining the integrity of both forms without turning the movie into little more than a mobius strip of special effects. V For Vendetta (2006) is that rare experience where the comic book ethics of the heroes are not compromised, yet the depth of their complex personalities are not subjugated to the glory of cows flying across the screen in the midst of a tornado. This movie has something to say, says it, then tells you what it said--all amidst some of the best acting in any film so far this century.
   When the film first appeared, everyone I knew who had seen the movie made a point of assuring me how much I would like it. Some even went so far as to insist that the movie had been specifically made "for people like" me. As a result, I resisted seeing it until just the other day. (The surest way to get me to avoid a movie is to tell me that I am somehow the exact person at which the movie was aimed.) It may be good that I waited. Had I watched this during the reign of the Bush Jr Administration, I might have been inclined to go all Guy Fawkes on the White House and therefore would not enjoy the privilege of writing these tender words of admiration. 
   At the risk of getting too autobiographical here, I should tell you that most of my contemporary values and all of my world views come from a childhood immersed in comic book lore. In particular I favored the superhero comics (although there was a short-lived run called "Pep," which came across as a hip version of Archie Andrews and crew; even the name struck me as vaguely illicit and I shuddered when it turned into a Saturday kids show called "Josie and the Pussycats"), such as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Hawkman, the Submariner (all from DC), as well as Spiderman, The Fantastic Four, Doctor Strange and The Incredible Hulk, all courtesy of Marvel. My secret treasure trove even had some old copies of gems from EC, such as "Tales From the Crypt," "Moon Girl," "Weird Science" and "Panic." Along with the jazz excursions of saxophonist Albert Ayler and bassist Charles Mingus, these stories and their musical soundtracks twisted my brain into its present triple-helix condition and no voltage of electro-convulsive therapy is likely to undo the transformation. As a pre-fallen Catholic, I was--even in my single-digit years--fascinated by the complexities and occasional paradoxes of written stories. The Bible in particular I found riddled with mysteries aplenty. For instance, the transition from the Old Testament to the New confounded my developing mind to the edges of my cranium and beyond. I remember well reading about Jesus declaring that one should forgive one's enemies and indeed go so far as to forget their transgressions insomuch as one could not truly forgive lest he forget. For a child of conscience, such as I considered myself way back then, that was a mighty tall order. 
    For instance, in one of his "The Brave and the Bold" comics, Batman tracks down a bad guy who has escaped from prison. But the bad guy is not merely some wild-eyed psychopath looking to blow banks and snort lines of soda. This bad guy had a social conscience. When we meet him, he is languishing in prison, bemoaning the injustices of solitary confinement, lousy nutrition, and brutal corrections officers. By the time he makes his escape, the reader is apt to be pulling for him. "Wait, Batman! Don't hurt him too badly! He's simply misunderstood!" Evidently Batman had not spent as much time as had I in reading Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. 
   That kind of three-dimensionality made some villains semi-heroic.
   "V," the lead character in V for Vendetta, is determined to blow up Parliament because the building represents the hodgepodge of venal corruption and all-out fascism that has overtaken Britain and much of the formerly free world. When we first meet him, he is saving Evey (Natalie Portman) from disaster at the hands of the local police. V wears a Guy Fawkes mask and Evey--who is well-educated--inquires of him his name. V is dismayed. Evey wonders why. He replies: "I'm not questioning your powers of observation; I'm merely remarking upon the paradox of asking a masked man who he is." 
   That level of great writing runs two risks. First, it may be too smart for the audience. Second, it may call too much attention to its own cleverness. Hell's bells, says me. In these days when the most common line in movies is "We gotta get outta here," having something approximating Shakespearean wit is downright refreshing, as is V's next rejoinder: "VoilĂ ! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished. However, this valorous visitation of a by-gone vexation, stands vivified and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin vanguarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition." And he is just warming up with the single-consonant alliteration. 
   We like him immediately.
   What we do not like, I trust, is the fascist state in which England has found itself as a result of a manufactured disease created by the brain trust that presently rules the Kingdom, a group of men who also developed the cure for the St. Mary's virus. V himself is a bio-metric consequence of this cure and his need for setting things right has turned him into a person who will sacrifice himself in the interests of exposing the fraud perpetrated upon the people and the execution of those wicked perpetrators. 
   The hegemonic fear-mongering and media complicity ring loud and true in this movie, as does the acting of Portman, Hugo Weaving as V, and especially Stephen Rea as Inspector Finch, the latter a sort of Everyman determined to figure out what it is that's wrong with the world. 
   Every element of this movie--acting, writing, direction, editing, music, lighting, costumes--works together to make a comic book story more believable than any conventional drama. In the process, you will smile, sob, sink in your chair, stand on your feet and shout in sympathy with V. Or else you have stumbled onto the wrong website by mistake.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


   A strange sense of joy pervades the spirit of The Contender (2000), which I suspect comes from the knowledge--shared by the viewer--that the flawed good guys will gain victory over the perverse bad guys. Jeff Bridges plays the President. His Vice-President has somehow passed away and needs to be replaced, a fact which requires the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate. Most of his advisers want Jack Hathaway (William Peterson) for the job, but the Prez wants a woman in the position, specifically Laine Hanson (Joan Allen). Complicating the situation is Congressman Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldham), who objects to Hanson because she is a woman, because she is a liberal, and because he himself is a member of the opposition party. 
   The fact that this movie was made and released prior to the 2000 Presidential election hits the viewer as somewhat amazing considering how the GOP has tried to obstruct the current administration. You could easily believe that the Republican party used the foiled plot of this film as a template for their actions against Clinton and Obama. 
   I had the resolution of this movie figured out within the first five minutes and you probably will too. But that fact does not take away from the joy I mentioned earlier. Jeff Bridges clearly loves being President almost as much as his character enjoys ordering food before every conversation. Joan Allen experiences a nearly rapturous happiness at taking on the accusatory opposition side. Sam Elliott, as the President's Chief of Staff, shows himself to be precisely the person you would want watching your back, no matter what job you have. I don't know what the hell Christian Slater is doing in this film, although he smiles nice for the camera. But the truest of joys emanates from bad guy Gary Oldham. Oldham's character is a deranged, perverse, self-assured, sociopathic, hypocritical and mild-tempered adversary who is mean for the sake of cruelty. And he loves every minute of the battle, right up to the point where he gets his comeuppance. 
   Nothing in The Contender will change your view of American politics. If you're on the left, you'll claim that everything should turn out exactly this way. If you're on the right, you'll see the movie as another example of the liberal media running the world. If you're in the center, you'll lust after the presence Joan Allen brings to her role and wonder if Sam Elliott is really as tough as he seems. What I took away from the experience was a sense of just how sophisticated the clumsiness of contemporary electioneering can be. On some days, it can even be joyous.