Wednesday, May 17, 2017

BIGGER THAN LIFE AND TWICE AS MEAN

(This is just a story, so don't get so upset.)   

 "I'd say you have asthma."
    He was right, at least according to the five other doctors I'd visited. I offered up my best hang dog expression, one that I hoped would convey a sense of personal failure.
   He moved the  stethoscope to my back and I inhaled and exhaled on his command.
   "Do you use any type of rescue inhaler?"
   "No."
   "They make one called Advair Diskus. You have prescription insurance?"
   "I have a large deductible."
   Doctor Smidgeon sighed. "The Diskus is pricey. Three to four hundred dollars a month."
   "Hokey smokes."
   "It's a corticosteroid."
   "Wow, you mean like the athletes use?"
   He grinned. "You're thinking of anabolic steroids. Corticosteroids stimulate the adrenal gland, reduce inflammation. In your case, they will relieve your asthmatic symptoms."
   I pretended all this was news to me. "Just no way I can afford something that expensive. Don't they make a pill or something?"
   He tossed the stethoscope aside and pulled up a chair. He wouldn't have been out of place smoking a Pall Mall, except that he was a contemporary physician and this was not a 1950s television show. "The problem with oral medications is that where you need the treatment is in your lungs. When you take a pill for this, it goes to your whole body. Maybe only ten percent gets to your breathing."
   I made with a weak smile. "Still, if they're cheaper. . ."
   "Oh, they are." He looked for his prescription pad. I tried to not look relieved.
   "We could try you out on Decadron."
   I shook my head. "I've heard of that. My sister Kathy took that for a few weeks. She said it irritated her throat." (I had no sister, neither Kathy nor otherwise.) "Is there any other kind of pill?"
   He did not look up from his pad. "I am going to have you take five milligrams of Prednisone six times daily. You take two in the morning, two at lunch, and two early evening. Don't take them too late in the day or they will keep you awake."
   He was talking about the euphoria. I knew it well. Given  the choice between a plate of cocaine and thirty milligrams  of Prednisone, I would take the latter every time. 
   "You come back and see me in a month. Schedule that with Gladys on your way out."
   I tucked the script into my breast pocket and resisted the urge to dance.
   They call it drug shopping. I call it peace of mind. Most people, I will grant you, shop for opioids, narcotics, pain pills. I have a high tolerance for pain. I also have mild asthma that got a bit more than mild a few months ago.  It was only a fast flare up, but the first doctor I saw gave me the same dosage Doctor Smidgeon was giving me now. He was the fifth one of the day. Five doctors. Five pharmacies. Five times the fun.
   I hadn't started out looking for fun. Last December I had been in bad shape. I almost passed out driving to the doctor's office because not enough oxygen was getting to my brain. Within twenty-four hours of the first dose of Prednisone, I felt like a new man. 
   I learned right away to be careful. The first month I gained thirty pounds, most of it in my face. The condition is so common that doctors call it "moon face." I had to change my diet a bit and soon enough the weight gain faded. 
   This guy, Smidgeon, had wanted to do a blood test. I suggested that my condition might not allow for the time that would take. If he had ordered a blood work up, he would have seen that my white cell count was insanely high and there would have been no script for me. One thing about it: Prednisone keeps you on your toes. Always thinking. Always.

   I developed the idea for the mural shortly after our dog Salamander knocked over my bowl of Cocoa Krispies. Sal needed to go out, a 911 emergency, and Cynthia was still in the shower, so I hooked up his leash and the golden shepherd and I bounded out the door and toward the park. We had to jaywalk across Lincoln Drive to get to the Free Poop Zone and while we waited with some impatience for the traffic to clear, I observed something which I had vaguely ignored hundreds of times before: lying across the metal slab at the covered bus stop was a man of about twenty, his clothes thin as notebook paper, his expression wiped clean from the inside out. He used folded hands for a pillow and his legs were pulled up like those of a fetus. Even the dead could not ignore the noise and hostilities buzzing around him as trucks belched their fumes, as small cars taunted with their horns and black men on bicycles looked for whistling repositories for their smack and crack. The man slept on, his racial features beyond meaning from the sun-beating years on the street had delivered. How many times had my eyes skimmed over people such as this man? It was even possible I had made a point of ignoring this specific person many others times. But Salamander liked to urinate near the indigent. I think it made him feel superior. As I tried to pay heed to a break in the gridlock, I could not quite look away from that man. He mesmerized me with the weakness with which his chest expanded and contracted with each raspy breath. The wind rattled his pants legs while flies circled like buzzards over the trash can at his feet. He was in the worst of all worlds and was sleeping right through it. 
   The hateful sound glare of the passing world did not stir him. But something far more primordial--that sensation we get when we realize someone uninvited is staring at us--rousted him like a big cop with a night stick. He sprang to his feet and held out his arms like an instant windmill. The face of each arm carried wide swaths of midnight red. His self-injections had begun to cannibalize their host. A quarter of each arm had rotted out. His eyes percolated like smoldering geysers. 
   The traffic broke and Sal and I ran across the street. When we returned, the bus stop was so empty it was possible to believe the man had never been there at all.
   Cynthia loved the idea of the mural: a young man wearing a fine suit, expensive necktie and Italian shoes sleeping across the slab at the bus stop while all the visual sounds tried in vain to disrupt him--all of it bigger than life and twice as mean.
   I admitted I had my doubts as to anyone commissioning such subversion. Cynthia disagreed. "I'm sure some anti-drug organization will. Or maybe an anti-poverty group."
   I felt a smile coming on. "You don't think Chase Bank would go for it?"

   Grind up your Prednisone and stir in a moderate amount of zinc oxide with just a pinch of baking soda. Cook the batch in the microwave for five minutes or until the compound hardens. When you retrieve the goods, you will have high quality fake cocaine. When the person you sell it to puts a bump on his gums, the numbness will hit just like with the real thing. If he snorts a short line, he'll feel a soothing rush that will fade after he has danced away from you. And if he happens to be a careful sort who wants chemical confirmation, he can drop a bit into some vinegar and the acetic acid will turn a blushing blue, just as it will with the real McCoy.
   After a week of steroid shopping, Cynthia and I baked a kilogram of the stuff and talked some bicycling drug slingers into selling it for us. Less than a week later we took our net of $17,220 to a real estate agent and made a down payment on a broken down quarter-acre half a mile west of where the sleeping junkie had once rested. Part of what we were renting was an ugly concrete wall which we immediately painted with an eggshell latex. Two days later I used charcoal for the outlines while Cynthia handled acrylics for the details. Eight days later our modest statement about the current state of affairs was nearly completed. 
   We couldn't decide what was missing. The sleeping businessman lay on his side just as the junkie had days earlier. Beneath the bench we sketched in the tiny bodies of tiny people holding the bench from falling. If you stood close enough, you could even make out the drops of sweat from the strain of their exertions. 
   We didn't know what was missing until we stood close to the wall in dazzled and immodest admiration of our creation when a nondescript car paused on the street and the passenger leaned out his side to unload a barrage of rifle fire at us. His drug use--or fake drug use--had rendered his aim a pathetic excuse for marksmanship and while we hit the dirt, all he hit was the wall. 
   The scattered chunks his shooting chipped out of our mural gave the piece just the touch it needed. 
  If only my asthma hadn't returned. . .
    

Friday, May 5, 2017

NAIVE

Because Brutus had been naive, he had been unaware that the house he and his wife moved into that December had previously been used as a shooting gallery for heroin addicts and that the same man who rented the small abode to them had previous permitted upwards of seven pusillanimous people to reside in the home that was cramped for two. Had Brutus known this, he and Jane might have moved in anyway because the rent was a seemingly fair price and, after all, the bank had bought their previous home from their landlady and they had had little time to find someplace new. It was even possible, Brutus and Jane reasoned together, that had they known that the local folks referred to the city-owned play area across the street as "Needle Park," they might still have at least considered taking a chance on the house if the landlord would have agreed to a six-month lease, which, of course, he would not. Ivan the Landlord said the lease was to be twelve months and being a man of the Lord, his word was final.

Brutus Creighton and Jane Alexander had seen a lot in their forty-nine years of life, the last seven of which they had seen together: flying palmetto bugs, panhandlers, port wine guzzlers, sunken-faced architects of their own destruction, as well as things far less poetic. But they had also experienced a great deal of love--love, not only for and from one another, but also from like-minded souls who had been disenfranchised from an indifferent economy and self-perpetuating programs that recycled human beings like pizza boxes. On the morning the landlady came by to collect the key from their house (which was to be torn down in a matter of hours), more than twenty of their neighbors came by for the expressed purpose of casting hostile stares at the sour-faced toad and a couple of the more charming people threw tomatoes at her car as she drove off. Those neighbors--being less naive than Jane and Brutus--knew the same thing would be happening to them one of these days. Their solidarity had evoked quite a pool of tears.

After five weeks of painting the outside of their new home, of plugging leaks, rewiring electric circuits, tightening hinges and replacing faucets, Brutus and Jane laid back, tossed up their feet onto a shared ottoman and sighed together. They looked at one another and laughed--out loud, for how else can one laugh? Brutus loved the full-throated laugh Jane let loose because it was the kind of laugh that told you this woman was unselfconscious, that she was comfortable being herself with him, just as he had learned to be with her. Both of them had spent years alone with other people and perhaps it was their shared naivete that had in part bound them after years of being unbound with others.

"I love you," she told him as he leaned forward and rubbed her feet. "This may be where we spend the rest of our lives, you know?"

He did know. There was no telling whether Ivan would renew the lease in December. Being a religious sort, he might find it in his heart to throw them both out into the street after they paid their final month's rent. Jane and Brutus never said this kind of thing to one another, but each one knew the other well enough to see that the possibility had crossed both their minds. What he did say to her was "I love you, too."

But for the moment, they experienced a sense of tranquility at having survived the stress of the relocation. They felt the kind of peace that comes from working the body so hard that the muscles plead for mercy. They felt good and as Brutus looked over at Jane he smiled even though she was looking out the freshly-washed living room window and he knew from the lines at the corners of her mouth that she did not much care for whatever it was that she saw.

"Trouble?"

She  didn't say a word as she kicked aside the footstool and threw open the door. Brutus got up too, although the muscles in his back begged him to go slow about it. He stood behind Jane in the doorway and together they saw a large purple SUV humming right in front of their house--their rented house. A skinny white woman crawled out the passenger side while a black man held onto the steering wheel and stared straight ahead. He let the car idle as the painfully thin woman--she looked to be about forty--took short rapid steps that led her disappearing down the alley beside their house. 

"A drug deal, I guarantee you," Jane said. "You know that, right?"

"I don't know what it is," he said without much enthusiasm.

"It's  a drug deal. You know what they call that park across the street over there?"

"Yes, I've been hearing about that."

"Needle Park. Just like in that old Dustin Hoffman movie."

"Al Pacino."

"What?"

"It's not Dustin Hoffman. Needle Park was the movie with Al Pacino."

"Doesn't matter. That's what they call that park over there. That skank who just got out of the car--You see how low her jeans were? They should call her Butt Crack. Drug deal. Absolutely."

As it happened, Jane was correct. Butt Crack lived in a dilapidated drain-pipe of a hole halfway down the alley. She advertised her drugs on the dark web. Her arrangement was to meet people in front of the newly-occupied house, which served to block the driver's view of where Butt Crack lived. Someone would drive up, park in front of Brutus and Jane's house, type out a text message, wait for Butt Crack to come up the alley. She'd get in the vehicle, take the money, then disappear down the alley and reappear ten minutes later with the crack or meth or heroin (she did not specialize; she was an all-purpose dealer), lean inside the driver's side window, deliver the goods, then hightail it back down the alley while the driver licked his lips in anticipation of the false glory that awaited him. Then he would drive off. 

That was just what happened with the man in the purple SUV. Jane watched him waiting for Butt Crack to return. Jane called the police. By the time the officers arrived, the man was gone and Butt Crack was counting her spare change back in her drain pipe of a hobble. Brutus watched Jane grow more and more angry as each day these transactions occurred with greater frequency. He did not much like the idea of his wife being made uncomfortable by people who had no regard or respect for themselves or much of anyone else, so one afternoon he returned from Home Depot with a metal sign that announced that these premises were under electronic video surveillance. Jane held the ladder while Brutus hung the sign over their front door.

The next day the sign was gone. During the night, someone had stolen it.

Jane made a call to the city Drug Enforcement Watch and they explained how they were doing the best they could but that they needed probable cause to stop and search these deal-makers, and though they presently lacked such cause, they would definitely arrange for more patrols to pass by their house. 

Two months after Jane and Brutus moved in, they dumped a bag of roofing nails right where the buyers liked to park. Twenty minutes later, Butt Crack came by with a small broom and a garbage bag and swept up the nails, then threw the bag into the dumpster that was designated for Jane and Brutus' house. 

Jane was chain-smoking all the time now and spent as much of her days and nights as possible parked in front of the picture window just waiting for Butt Crack and her customers. "We know what you're doing, you whore!" Jane screamed through the open door. "We're calling the police! Hey, Mister Drug Buyer! You're going to jail!"

Butt Crack would then whisper something to her customer and they would both laugh.

Because he did not want to have his wife be unhappy and because he held a low opinion of drug addicts and especially because these people had laughed at Jane, Brutus did something a little out of the ordinary. He purchased a Glock 17 9 millimeter handgun and loaded it with the appropriate ammunition. The number 17 referred to the round capacity. He had never fired a gun in his life and he had needed Jane to show him how to release the safety.

Less than half an hour after loading the gun, Brutus groaned at what he saw was about to happen. It was early afternoon and Butt Crack's latest customer was just pulling up. Brutus instructed Jane to not say one damned word and she uncharacteristically bit her lip as she stood close behind him. Brutus threw open their front door, aimed at the passenger side front tire and fired his weapon. The wheel cover spun off into the air and landed on the hood of the car just as the last of the air gushed out of the tire. Butt Crack ran as fast as she was ever going to and the driver wheeled out onto the street, limping his pathetic vehicle out of sight on three tires. 

Brutus walked around Jane as she stood in the doorway holding onto her chin as if the thought of letting go would result in her brains spilling out her mouth. After a few minutes she joined him on the sofa and in an instant they brayed laughter like excited children who had gotten away with stealing candy bars from a grocer store.

Just as abruptly, Jane took hold of Brutus' wrists and said, "The police. What do we tell them?"

"If they come, I'm not admitting anything. I hope you won't either."

"But they'll know what you did!"

He tried to smile but her look of terror held him back. "I've never been arrested for anything in my life."

"Neither have I!

"That's right."

"Nothing! Ever!"

"I know that. The police will know that, too. There's a couple thousand dollars in the lock box on my desk if I need bail money."

"Bail money! Oh God! This is terrible. What are we going to do, Brute?"

The police did not come. After a few days, Brutus and Jane felt their fear subside.

A couple days after that, Butt Crack was back in business. Or at least, she tried to be.

An old avocado-green Pontiac GTO with temporary plates pulled up and in a few minutes Butt Crack appeared, acting as if she was the only one safe in this otherwise rotten world. She leaned in the driver's side window and just as the cash cradled from the driver's hand into hers, Brutus swung open the front door, pulled his Glock from the front of his belt and blasted out the muscle car's windshield. Being an old car, the windshield had been  made of real glass and the shards cut into the driver's face, neck and arms. Butt Crack ran as if Satan himself was on her tail. 

This time the police did come and so did the paramedics. But the only thing the two law enforcement officers said to Brutus was to ask if he had seen what happened. Brutus said he had heard the blast of the window shattering, but that was about all. A lot of drug dealing went on around here, Brutus confided. The two officers grinned at one another, took Brutus' name, advised him that if he thought of anything else later to please give them a call and then they left. The paramedics took the driver to the nearest hospital.

The very next morning Brutus returned from a medical supply store with a box of twenty-four pairs of surgical gloves. "Gun shot residue," he explained when Jane asked why. 

"You're not thinking of doing this again?"

"I'm hoping Butt Crack will have died of heart failure."

"And if she hasn't?"

"I'm going to blow her fucking head off."

Certain words, when strung together like film on lines in a dark room, leave the listener incapable of response. "I'm going to blow her fucking head off" were words of such an arrangement.

No one looking for a dope score parked in front of their house again. But Butt Crack was not going to let a little thing like gunfire get between her and her trade. She simply relocated her business to the other end of the alley. Her customers parked in front of some other naive person's house and terrorized that man's wife instead of terrorizing Jane. Brutus observed this as he made his morning rounds down the alley. A sense of outrage at this indecency was something he shared with Jane and they were in agreement that it simply was not right, neither proper nor appropriate that just because the two of them were no longer inconvenienced by the illegal activities of Butt Crack and Friends that they could turn their back on the rest of society as if nothing had ever happened. "Are we our brother's keepers?" Jane asked without a touch of sarcasm.

"The answer to that question is supposed to be yes."

Jane nodded. She even permitted herself a thin smile. "Then do it."

So Brutus did it.  

With his gun shoved into his pants and his gloves strapped onto his hands, he strolled down the alley, a little nervous but not enough to make himself unsteady. By the time he reached the end of the alley, he saw the driver of a BMW saying something to Butt Crack. The dealer shot a fast look over her shoulder, moaned in pain and did not quite have time to get out of the way as Brutus planted two rounds in her left calf. The BMW flew into reverse and was gone before the engine roar could even be heard.

Butt Crack lay on her back screaming obscenities. Brutus kicked her in the ribs. "You cause all this misery," he said, pointing with his gun at the unpainted houses with laundry on the porches, dogs running loose in the yards, broken chairs turned on their sides and diapered children laughing with insane glee. "You did all of this yourself, lady. Not society. You are society, bitch. Not some corporation or some politician. You trade in agony. Now you feel it yourself. Fuck you. I ever see you again anywhere, I hope you're not working because then when I blow out your fucking brains, it'll just be for fun."

Brutus ended his speech with the punctuation of another kick to her ribs. On his way back up the alley, he tore off the gloves and threw them in a neighbor's dumpster. What was the bitch going to do? Call the cops? Fuck her.

The drug trade in the alley dried up. The addicts reclining across the street in Needle Park howled sporadically, flailed their arms and cursed at their deprivation. A few days of this frustration was more than they cared to endure, so the junkies found more accommodating environs. Things were nice and quiet at the home of Jane and Brutus.

The day after a hard rain washed all the trash and works out of the street, a suited detective from the Narcotics Bureau came to their door. He asked Jane if he could come in. Jane looked to Brutus who shrugged his shoulders and told the man to come in and sit down.

Detective Fielding sat on the love seat while the married couple shared the sofa. 

Fielding appeared to be trying for politeness, but his message allowed only for dispassion. "We know what's been going on around here, okay?"

Jane leaned forward even as Brutus tried to hold her back. She said, "Brute didn't do anything. We've had nothing but trouble ever since--"

"Ms Alexander, spare me the stories, okay? Me, personally, I don't care if you waste every crack head in this city, all right? I'm not here to make an arrest. I already know what it's been like for you two. I sympathize, okay?" He sniffed the air, evaluated the odor and asked,  "Mind if I smoke?"

Jane offered the detective a Marlboro, but he pulled a box of red Dunhills from his jacket pocket. "Do you two have any idea who that woman was? The woman who got shot a while back down the alley? Huh? Do you?"

Jane said, "We call her Butt Crack."

Detective Fielding seemed to consider that for a moment. "I get it. The low-rider jeans. Right. She goes by another name. Allyona Popov, okay?"

"Okay," Brutus said. 

"She's Russian. Didn't know that, huh?"

They had never heard her speak. They'd only heard her moan and laugh.

"She rents from the same guy you rent from. He's Russian, too. Ivan Sokolov. They're from Georgia. Known each other since before the fall of the USSR. Ah, who gives a shit, am I right? Right. So when I say they're Russian, that mean anything to either of you?"

Jane did not look at Brutus because she was afraid that if she saw recognition in his eyes, she would start screaming and never bring herself to stop.

Fielding continued. "He has a woman bring in the drugs from Lagos, Nigeria. We've been watching that shit for years now. That's the DEA's headache. Our headache--my headache--your headache--is that because of what somebody has been doing to curtail the dope slinging along this corridor--"

"It's a scourge!" Brutus said with genuine anger. He was frightened now, certain of what the cop was going to tell him, yet too furious to let his fear take control.

Fielding watched his own smoke rise with what looked like a studied admiration. Without looking at his hosts, he said, "It's a thing that's bigger than the two of you. Bigger than our force. Bigger than this whole country. You think Exxon-Mobile runs the world? I ask because I know you two were like activists or something when you were in college, right? Some people might say you were radical left. Who gives a shit, okay? Now you're in the real world. Time somebody wised you up to what's going on. Oil companies are international, right? Defense companies sell weapons, blow foreign countries into smithereens. Nobody says a word. Why? Because the soul of this planet--you two need to get this clear--is dope. Dope funds armies. It pays for guns, ammunition, food, supplies, housing. It s the real currency. And you two naive little pups have screwed with the order of things."

"What the hell are you saying?"

"I'll tell you what I am saying, sir. I am telling you that the men who Ivan works for have given an order. Ivan will carry out that order. Maybe it'll be tonight. Maybe next week. I don't know. But if you stay here, Ivan will make sure you die. Simple as that and nothing anybody can or will do to stop it. There's no witness protection because you won't be testifying to anything. If you move, that'll buy you time. But you two have cost these people money. Plus you set a bad example. So maybe a couple years from now, you're all snuggled in your bed, living here was just a bad memory, in spite of this little conversation. Then Ivan'll come through your window one night and garrote the both of you. That's his preferred method of execution. The wire through the neck."

Jane knocked the cigarette from Fielding's hand. "If you know all this, then arrest him! That's your job, right?"

She was mocking the detective now and he seemed to pick up on it.

"No profit in that," he said. He picked the cigarette off the floor, ground it in the marble ashtray, and left without another word. 

Brutus and Jane used the money in the lock box to move to Ohio. They found a rental house just a few miles south of Columbus. The expressed emotion between them was never quite the same. Without saying it in real words, the fact was that both of them were afraid of getting too close in case one of them got murdered and the other survived. They still shared the occasional joke, they still fixed up their new  house, they still kept an eye out for scumbags. And they still loved each other more than anything in the world. But neither of them made much of a point of saying it, especially after they learned that the nice couple who just moved in across the street were from the Ukraine. 


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

PHIL REMEMBERS LISA ANN

 Q. Let's begin with how you met Lisa Ann.
A. All right. It was sometime in early 1986. I had been working at American Express for a few years and had become some type of trainer for the authorizations department. I dressed pretty wild in those days and I stood out from most of the other trainers. A friend of mine, Karen Noeding, was one of the trainers, a very good one. And she brought her class of new hires into the department. They were all very ordinary except for this one young woman. She walked passed me without being put off by my garishness and my eyes sort of involuntarily followed her across the room. I wanted very much to get some attention from her because we didn't get a lot of genuine knock-outs in that department. She and Karen were sitting on opposite sides of a table in the cafeteria, where I had followed them, and I pushed myself right up next to her and did my best to convince her that I considered myself to be a big deal. Kind of "Stick with me baby and I'll make you a star." The only thing missing was a shot glass and a cheap cigar. Anyway, she wasn't fooled for a moment, but I could see that I intrigued her almost as much as she was intriguing me.  

Q. What as it about her?
A. Because I am occasionally superficial, I was taken by her appearance. No question. But I also observed a real sweetness about her, something you don't find in many people. A brave honesty, no pretensions whatsoever. "I'm only nineteen and I've run away from Iowa and I'm going to do a great job here." Plus she was very intelligent. 

Q. Did she take to you right away?
A. Again, I intrigued her but I did not persuade her. Evenings she was singing with some horrible band. I think they were called the Village Idiots or something. Lisa Ann was quite good but the band themselves weren't what you would call tuneful. But I would show up and cheer them on and I noticed that more and more she was developing a cautious interest in me. But there was one big problem.

Q. She was living with someone else?
A. She was living with a very dangerous man named Brian. I'm not going to say his other name. He was a little on the short side, but he was very tough. Some degree of black belt in karate and it turned out he was physically abusive and of course it followed that he would be a raving jealous type. One afternoon Lisa Ann asked me if I would help her move out of their apartment. She said Brian would probably be there and I would probably get hurt by him.

Q. Did you?
A. Yes. Quite badly. But a guy doesn't get to play at being a hero that often in life, so a few punches here and there were worth it. The damnedest part of the thing though was once we were sitting in the car, nice and safe and ready to drive off, she turns to me and says that she left her cassette tapes back in the apartment and had to go back for them. I told her that was crazy. I would get her new tapes. No, she wanted her tapes and ran back in after them. She was gone about twenty minutes and because it had been twenty minutes since my last ass-whooping, I went back to look for her. Brian had attacked her and shoved her into a clothes hamper. He didn't lay a had on me that time. I got her out of there and we went to my apartment.

Q. How had she hooked up with this Brian fellow?
A. I don't remember. I guess he pretended to be sane the same way some people pretend to be crazy. With a couple exceptions, Lisa Ann made some pretty unfortunate choices with men.

Q. She moved in with you then?
A. Only a little. That first night she and I slept in the same bed but there was no way I was going to move on her because of what she'd been  through. Plus she was wearing red long johns, which in my experience is a way a woman has of telling you she's not in the mood. I found out recently that my behavior--or lack of it--that night had led her to tell her mother I was gay. 

Q. Your reward for gallantry? 
A. I suppose so. Anyway, she was making decent money at Amex so pretty soon she took her own apartment and I thought, shoot, I guess this isn't going to work out. Then this very good man from Iowa named Greg Klein came to town and they became pregnant--technically, she did--and they got married shortly after. I tried very hard to not like Greg, but he was always very gracious to me. He knew about my history with Lisa Ann and rather than being put off by that, he would invite me to go places with them. It was damned good of him. I wouldn't have been that considerate myself. 

Q. You liked him?
A. I thought she had married the right person for herself, you know. I thought, well, if she isn't going to be with me, at least he's a good provider and a decent person. And after a while she and I sort of drifted apart. I stopped accepting the invitations because it hurt me to see them happy together. Then one afternoon, Greg was working, and she invited me to pizza at some restaurant. She brought her daughter Lauren with her. Lauren would have been two or three at the time. She was very charming for a child, you know. And I fell in love with Lisa Ann all over again, in large part because I could see visions of a younger Lisa Ann in her daughter. And their love for each other was just the most incredible thing I'd ever seen. A few days later the whole family moved out of state. I forget if it was to Michigan or Minnesota, but it was because of her husband's job and I figured, here we go again. Thanks for the disappointment.

Q. Did you stay in touch?
A. Not that I recall. A couple years went by and she did call me and I got the impression that her marriage was not perfect. They were moving back to Phoenix and wouldn't that be wonderful? I convinced myself that it just might be but that if anything happened, it was going to be her initiating it. I stayed in the gentleman role.

Q. She also worked with you somewhere else, right?
A. I had unceremoniously been discharged from Amex and was working as the credit manager for Globe Furniture Rentals, a miserable job. Just horrible. I had one employee and she was an unpleasant person, to say the least. Then Lisa Ann told me she was looking for a job. So I decided I wanted her to be my employee instead of this other person and convinced the unpleasant person to quit. Today we would call that creating an uncomfortable work environment.

Q. Lisa Ann took the job?
A. And the nature of the job changed instantly. Suddenly there was real joy in my life. She could get along with the employees on the sales floor and so I didn't have to have anything to do with them. Lisa Ann could seriously get along with anybody. She had this contagious vibrancy that made other people want to be around her. Plus she was capable of great silliness. We played bumper chairs right in our office. Made crank phone calls to former customers. In fact, one night after work, she and I concocted this amazing series of calls to someone we didn't much like who was still at Amex. It was a real sour woman who was a supervisor. I called her desk and asked to speak with Bubbles. Of course there was no such person. This woman says, "Is there a Bubbles here?" It was like Bart Simpson calling Moe's bar. Well, there was no Bubbles so I hung up and called back in an hour and asked to speak with Bubbles again. Another hour goes by and  I called again. This lady was getting seriously upset. So, after three of these calls, Lisa Ann calls back with a thick Hungarian accent and says, "Hello, this is Bubbles. Have there been any calls for me?"
   This supervisor is freaking out. "Yes there have. Quite a few. Do you work here?"
   And Lisa Ann says, "Work? Me? I don't have to work."
   Then we hung up and laughed for two hours. 

Q. I gather her marriage was having problems at that time?
A. Yeah. I never learned the specifics, except that one night she threw a poker at him and the police objected to that. Look, I know what Lisa Ann's throwing things were. She would do it very half-heartedly and never hit you with whatever it might be. It was just something she did. Anyway, I guess that was the beginning of the end. Then she started spending time with Sal, who was her husband's boss. Greg said to her, when he found out, "Why do you want to be with Sal? You have a Phil!" I appreciated that.

Q. Did you meet Sal?
A. No, not for many years. I was unceremoniously discharged from the furniture store--a habit of mine--and didn't see Lisa Ann for a year or so. Then one afternoon she brought Lauren and her son Gerrit over to go swimming. It was a spontaneous thing and once again I was taken by just how beautiful her kids were. They were full of smiles and laughter and it's a marvelous feeling being liked by someone else's children. I loved them a lot. I always will feel that way. 
   Sal was a very jealous type and he was well off financially, which gave Lisa Ann a lot of freedom in one sense, a kind she had not known as an adult. She didn't have to worry about whether she could afford this and that and again she had these two brilliant children, so even though I sensed that I could probably seduce her, it just didn't feel right. I'm no saint, believe me. But I loved her so much that I was not going to complicate her life. Plus there was always that chance that I was wrong and I didn't care to have my heart kicked around any more than absolutely necessary. 

Q. Was it around this time that your parents passed away?
A. A few years later. And I went nuts for quite a while. I would call her at her new job, where she was a very important person, and I would ramble and babble about stupid things and after a while I was getting on her nerves. I didn't realize--because I never shut up long enough--that she was having serious problems with Sal. I won't go into those specifics here. But they were having problems. 
   I traveled around a bit and landed back here in Phoenix. Got an apartment. Spent a lot of time alone. Hated it. Got a job teaching English at Ottawa University. Liked it. Found Lisa Ann on Facebook. 

Q. Seriously? Social media?
A. Yep. Of all things. She thought I had died! Apparently she was relieved. But she was living with a guy named Dale. 

Q. How was he treating her?
A. That's hard for me to say. Again, there are certain parts of this that don't need to be on record. But I got the sense that something was missing in her life, so I invited her to move in with me. My place was far too small for the two of us and her dog, Cody and two parrots, so Lauren found a place for us and we moved in in July 2010. Best thing I've ever done. The first couple nights we slept on the floor because the furniture hadn't arrived. We felt like teenagers. It was very life-affirming.

Q. Everything was perfect?
A. No. We had known each other for a quarter century, but we didn't really know everything. There were some quarrels, of course. But I was still happy. I used to drive her crazy because for years every morning when I woke up I would literally dance my way down the stairs in the morning singing some crazy song I'd just made up because she was there and seeing her sitting there just lifted me to a level of happiness I had never known. I think it must be one of life's gifts when you are with someone who accepts you for being your real and honest self, even if it doesn't necessarily make sense.

Q. Was she happy too?
A. Years of bad relationships had scarred her. No question about it. So some of that girl who had played bumper chairs years before had gone away. But it wasn't gone completely. We became like an old married couple, even though she was still legally married to Sal. He steadfastly refused to even consider getting divorced. To answer your question, though, I think she was mostly happy. The other greatest day of my life was the day she said to me, totally out of the blue, that she intended to spend the rest of her life with me. And she did.

Q. Do you want to talk about her drinking?
A. Not too much, because there was so much more to her than that. I will say that we almost lost her three other times because she was determined to quit drinking and she did it abruptly and got very bad DTs from the withdrawal. The hospitals proved to be inadequate, to put it nicely. This was a period that was very hard on her family. Her mother Betty and stepfather Jerry and her sister Paula obviously loved her very much and of course they wanted to see her, to spend time with her. But Lisa was embarrassed by her drinking and deterioration and didn't visit as often as she might have. In fact, she never let them come to either house we lived in. 

Q. You were supplying the beer?
A. I was an enabler. I was also in a weird situation because I could see that if she stopped drinking she would die, yet if she continued drinking it would be like aiding and abetting a suicide. So she  checked in--she wasn't very happy about it--into a rehab center for three days and never drank again. That has to have been incredibly difficult for her. But that was a big deal and she accomplished it. I am going to say here that too often I have been given undue credit for saving her life. I may have played some role in that. But she saved her own life. Her kids were supportive and so were her mom and stepdad. They were all terrific. But I will say that her real dad proved to be a huge disappointment. He never believed she would stay sober. And he made his feelings about that clear. This is a guy who is educated and apparently very successful. I only met him one time and he was nice to me, but he said something that hit me later and if I'd realized what he'd meant at the time I would have hit him, but it was so outrageous that I didn't get it right away. He said, "So you're the patron saint of lost causes." 

Q. That's cold.
A. So he's not on my Christmas card list. But the rest of her family are beautiful and just amazing all the time. In fact, Lisa Ann made life-long relationships with so many great people. She started a Facebook group called United Fairy Works and she used to have these extended night time chat conversations with women from all over the country and the rest of the world. More than a month after the tragedy, these people still ache from the loss. 
   And  I'm just going to end this here, if you don't mind, by saying that a part of the rest of us died that horrible morning. But we really do--all of us--keep that flame burning in our hearts. There's this song from Jackson Browne that speaks to it:
"Keep a fire burning in your eyes
Pay attention to the open skies
You never know what will be coming  down...
I don't know what happens when people die
Can't seem to grasp it as hard as I try
Like a song that I hear
Playing right in my ear
But I can't sing it
And I can't help listening."


Thursday, March 23, 2017

EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS

   Through a series of odd events, I was in attendance at a Christmas party in the Hollywood Hills stretch of the Santa Monica Mountains in the year 2000. Knowing full well I was making a mistake by doing so, I couldn't resist the opportunity to theoretically schmooze with writers, directors, actors, composers and possibly a gaggle of moguls. The woman who invited me earned her living repping a variety of hotshot musicians who provided smarmy soundtracks to medium budget romantic comedies. She had encountered me winning a game of eight ball at a star bar on Vine and thought my impression of Fred C. Dobbs was hilarious. (Note: Fred C. Dobbs was a character played by Humphrey Bogart in the movie Treasure of the Sierra Madre.) The young man I was slaughtering at pool did not share her admiration and she thought it best that we get away before he carried out his threat to do to me what the bandits did to Dobbs in the movie.
   The valet took the keys to her Lexus and together we strolled by the lush garden up the wine-colored walkway to what I suppose was the front door. She pressed the intercom button and the door tilted open, revealing a room bathed in dark orange. It looked like a magnificent dark room where photographers might work, but it was actually just the entryway to the rest of the house, possibly the largest house ever to permit my humble entrance. Once we felt our way through this room, another door swung open and the brightness off the outdoor pool glared through the glass walls and I found myself temporarily separated from the agent. In such a situation--not that I have been in that many such situations--I did what I always do: I adopted a false persona. 
   I pretended to be the Warren Beatty character in the movie Mickey One. Please understand that I am no Warren Beatty. But I had seen the movie for the second time recently and it was weighing on my mind and the suit I had fallen into resembled the one Mickey wore, so that was what I did. And so no sooner did a horde of unemployed actors swoop up the agent woman than a couple young guys positioned themselves on either side of me and continued their conversation as if I was not standing between them. You know the type. Right. I introduced myself to the one on my left. "I'm Mickey," I said. "I'm the king of the silent pictures. I'm hiding out until the talkies blow over. Will you leave me alone?"
   The two bozos exchanged a nervous glance and wandered away. 
   The agent returned immediately with an older woman on her arm. "Gladys, my deah," she said. "I'd like you to meet--My goodness, I never did get your name?"
   Sticking with the Warren Beatty concept, I switched movies. "Clyde Barrow. This here's Bonnie Parker. We rob banks. Now you might as well know, I ain't much of a lover boy." 
   Gladys didn't seem to know quite what was going on, but to her credit the agent picked right up on it and asked Gladys if she had a cigar, which, strangely, she did not.
   It should be noted at this point that my memory is somewhat selective. Half the time I could not tell you my own middle name, but I can remember the words to any song I've ever heard and most of the lines in any movie I've ever seen. It's a curse. The curse, for me, is that the rest of the known universe does not possess this ability and so I often recede into my own social hole, which is fine by me, at least most of the time. In this case, however, I should have been projecting my own personality. Being vastly out of my element, I pulled the chicken switch instead and remained in various characters throughout most of the evening, much to the dismay of the people who were trying harder than they should have to be nice to me. 
   Word got around and I found myself standing at the poolside bar trying to teach my gin and tonic to stay cold. After a few minutes of watching the ice swirl in the glass, I realized a man standing next to me was looking at me as if I might be a science experiment. 
   I spun to face him. He smiled. "You like the women here?" he asked.
  I wasn't about to let the Beatty fixation get away just yet. "You ever listen to women talk, man? Do you? Because I do, till it's running outta my ears! I mean I'm on my feet all day long listening to women talk and they only talk about one thing: how some guy fucked 'em over, that's all that's on their minds, that's all I ever hear about! Don't you know that?"
   The man took me by the hands and said, "I'm Arthur Penn. There's someone I'd like you to meet."
   If the name means nothing to you, I will explain. Arthur Penn was an amazing movie director. His credits happened to include Mickey One, Bonnie and Clyde, and--inexplicably--Penn & Teller Get Killed
  For a moment I thought that maybe this person holding onto me was as much a loon as myself and perhaps had deluded himself, or, on second thought, that he was some aging hipster who was playing the same kind of game I was. I studied his face a few moments longer and realized that I was in the hands of greatness and therefore allowed him to spin me around where I stood face to face with the man whose characters I had been embalming all evening.
   He did not introduce himself, for there was no need. He just said, "I was listening to you earlier. You're good. I mean, I think you're good. He is good, isn't he, Arthur?"
   Let me say this: Warren Beatty is and was one fine looking fellow. He looks just like he does in the movies. And he really has perfect hair. He is so good looking that even men want to sleep with him. I can't imagine what women feel.
   Before Arthur had a chance to confirm or deny my goodness, I jumped into my own personality and revealed for all to see just why it is often more wise to pretend to be someone else. What I said to Warren Beatty--Warren Fucking Beatty!!!--was: "It all started with you and Arthur Penn. You guys completely changed the way people understand motion pictures. Without you guys, sure, I know, Godard, Truffaut, all that French New Wave stuff, yes, but they were just giving us back movies from the Forties. You guys took what they were doing and Americanized it and made movies real in ways they never had been before, at least before fucking Spielberg and Lucas ruined it for everyone with goddamned blockbusters."
   Beatty smiled at me. He smiled the gracious smile one delivers to an orphan on Christmas. He said, "Arthur, do you have that phone number for me?"
   And with that they were gone. I never did reconnect with the agent woman. I had the valet call a taxi for me. 
  Why the hell is he telling us this?
  I am telling you this true story because I want you to watch the documentary film Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (2003). The lovely and irreplaceable Lisa Ann bought a copy for me a few Christmases ago. This is not quite as good as A Decade Under the Influence, which came out the same year. But Lisa Ann bought me the former and not the latter and now that she has passed away, I may very well watch that movie at least once a month and so should you, at least until you come to believe that Warren Beatty, Arthur Penn, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Robert Altman, Paul Schrader and others between 1967 and 1980 made the best movies ever made. You may even get a sense as to how the blockbuster crippled Hollywood. 
   And if you ever run into the agent woman, tell her she owes me cab fare.
  P.S.: I love you, Lisa Ann, with all the love in the world.

Monday, March 6, 2017

LOLITA

   The writer hereby speculates that we were not necessarily intended to like the movie Lolita (1962). That is not to say that director Stanley Kubrick (who only used twenty percent of novelist Vladimir Nabokov's adapted screenplay and wrote the rest himself) did not want us to enjoy the movie. I mean that he did not intend for us to approve of it. The only people Kubrick hoped would approve of it were the Catholic Legion of Decency and the souls behind the Hayes Code. It is fair to say that neither group had the director on their Christmas list, but the movie was released with the consent of the Production Code of America, in large part because producer James Harris and Kubrick worked with the director of the PCA, Geoffrey Shurlock. Kubrick tried his damnedest to convince Shurlock that this movie about pedophilia was no such thing. It was actually a dark and smart comedy that poked fun at a middle-aged professor's fascination with a young girl. 
   Shurlock was not immediately convinced. 
   Kubrick upped the young girl from twelve to fourteen and made sure his casting director, James Liggat, gave the title role to a relative unknown, in this case a seventeen-year-old named Sue Lyon. He also made certain that the role of the curious professor, Humbert Humbert, went to an actor whose career was in decline, in this case, to James Mason. (Granted, the other actors Kubrick wanted all turned him down--David Niven, Rex Harrison and Noel Coward among them). Casting Peter Sellers in the role of Clare Quilty was expected to take the edge off as well.
   But what really got the film into the theaters was the tone of the movie. Instead of Humbert and Lolita doing the nasty under the sheets, the sexuality was rather more implied and that is one of the reasons why, despite not approving of the movie--even after fifty-five years--we can at least like it. In fact, that is one of the reasons the genius of Lolita endures. 
   When we meet the young Dolores (Lolita), she is tanning in the backyard in a bikini. Humbert rents a room from the girl's mother, Charlotte (Shelley Winters). To be close to Lolita, Humbert pretends to care for Charlotte. But being the academic type, he cannot help but write the truth of his feelings in his diary. When Charlotte discovers how Humbert actually feels, she runs out into the street where she meets with a prompt demise. 
   The closer Humbert gets to Lolita--and her attempts at flirtation early on suggest that she has been to the movies a few times herself--the more she is compelled to manipulate him without giving him precisely what she believes he wants. He has custody of the child and when she behaves as a girl of her temptations reasonably might, Humbert writhes with visible and expressed jealousy. 
   Depending upon one's own personal chemistry, one might find Lolita's rebuffing to be exactly what the oldster has coming. One might also feel a bit of pity for the professor. It is unlikely one would feel both, at least simultaneously. 
   It is only once we recognize the danger that the long-lingering playwright Quilty presents to Lolita that we begin to reluctantly join motivation with Humbert. But even then we risk being taken in by the charm that Sellers brings to his character. When Humbert arrives at Quilty's house with the intent of murdering him, Humbert demands to know for certain if this strange fellow is in fact Quilty. Sellers replies, "No, I'm Spartacus. You come to free the slaves?" (Two years earlier Kubrick had directed the film Spartacus.)
   Our allegiances are never solid. They cannot be because the story keeps shifting us until we begin to sense that this is not a comedy--dark or otherwise. This is a classic tragedy lacking only a hero to provide catharsis. 
   Although Lolita was technically Kubrick's fifth feature-length film (preceded by Killer's Kiss, The Killing, Paths of Glory and Spartacus), this was the first time the director used his tremendous talents to affect what I have referred to elsewhere as a Stanley Milgram type of audience manipulation. By dazzling us with directorial expertise, he establishes his authority just as Milgram's instructors established theirs with white lab coats. Instead of telling us "The experiment must continue," Kubrick tells us, "You must see what happens next."
   Just as with Milgram's subjects, once we become slowly aware that this was an experiment--only a movie--we feel even more wrecked than we did when we allowed ourselves to believe it was happening. When Milgram's "teachers" believed they were shocking the "learners" with high voltage electricity, they did so because following orders gave them more comfort than refusing to do so would have. When we see that what Humbert feels for Lolita is more love than lust, we gain an insight that is every bit as disturbing as Milgram's revelations.


Sunday, March 5, 2017

A LITTLE COURAGE IS ALL WE LACK: ANOTHER REVIEW OF BONNIE AND CLYDE

A little bit of courage is all we lack
So catch me if you can, I'm goin' back

   --Carole King, "Goin' Back"

   First there was then. Now there is now.
   As usual, we begin with now.
   More than one million Americans marched on Washington D.C. on January 21, 2017, in response to the ascension of the illegitimate existence of Vladimir Trump. Those people could have spent their Saturday out watching horrible movies or listening to mindless pop music. Instead they properly allowed their outrage to channel into action and made their way to the city of lies to somewhat politely thumb their noses at the administration of insanity. A similar number, albeit, in smaller groups, marched on their cities and state houses to let the rulers know that the presumed popularity of extremism in this country is not so popular after all and that we are not going to put up with it.
   These ongoing protests have had their value: Vladimir Trump goes crazier every day, a condition which does not necessarily make the world safer but which at least tells our friends that they should not judge us by the actions of a handful of lunatics who may have voted for the "scumbag," as the beautiful Maxine Waters calls him.
   Only one thing would have made me happier. I would have been delighted if all those millions of pissed off people had taken one extra step forward and marched right into the White House, dragged that crazy bastard out of the Oval Office and done to him what the Italians did to Mussolini. 
   Do you have any idea how easy that would have been to accomplish--even metaphorically? The people were already there. All that was necessary was to move their feet one step closer. The Secret Service, the National Guard, the Armed Forces of the United States could not--and probably would not--have harmed anyone, much less everyone. I don't know how many people can fit into the Oval Office, but I imagine the room is durable for up to one or two hundred. Just walk in--don't even knock--find Il Duce hiding beneath his desk with his unsecured cell phone and his hyperactive thumbs plumbing out some moronic tweet, call the loser up top and explain that it is time for him to leave voluntarily. "Vlad, man, the joke is over. You proved to our satisfaction that a foreign power can indeed do a coup d'etat on us, and we thank you for that lesson. But now you have to go. Go back to south Florida where the idiots still love you. Go copulate with that dimwit Rick Perry and vacation in El Paso, if you like. Go do a golden shower on Stalin's tomb. But you have to leave. There are millions of us outside. Your money can't save you from an ass-whooping, if that's the way you want it. But you are going out that door, one way or another. We don't want to have to get mean."
   That is what they do in real countries. In 1968 the communist party of Czechoslovakia replaced the USSR's puppet with Alexander Dubcek. Dubcek pushed practical reforms, which would, as he put it, place “a human face” on socialism. He established “a humanistic socialist democracy which would guarantee, among other things, freedom of religion, press, assembly, speech, and travel.” Granted, the stinking Soviets crushed the rebellion, but that did not come as a surprise to the Czechs. Yet they fought anyway. They had courage.
   In 1989 Chinese students marched on Tienanmen Square in Beijing, knowing full well they would be destroyed. They did it anyway. They did it because they did not want to die as cowards. 
   But Americans, militarily, are a bunch of pathetic cowards and always have been. 
   Watching the march on Washington, I was hoping we might have evolved from the days of dropping bombs on unarmed civilians and actually mutate into passionate and reasonable humanoids. Committing genocide against indigenous natives, dragging across the ocean slaves from whom we built our economy, dropping nuclear weapons on a country that had already surrendered, massacring people in Indochina, Latin America, the Middle East--we are the punks of the world, a pack of gangland hoodlums taking over neighborhoods owned and operated by crippled old ladies. 
   So it should not have surprised me much that we didn't have the courage to throw that rancid real estate king back out into the vomit-encrusted gutter where his parents no doubt conceived him. 
   Please do not take it that I am calling for the violent overthrown of the United States Government. Such a call to action would be highly illegal. I would never suggest such a thing and neither should you. 
   I am, however, very much suggesting that people are a lot more powerful than they may believe. The realization of that real power scares us sometimes, especially when we learn how incredibly easy it is to cultivate it. When we grow disgusted by the leadership of the major political parties in this country pretending to look after our interests, it may occur to us that we are the only real caretakers of our own interests. Expecting billionaires to care about the sick and the poor is ridiculous. They don't even care about one another. Why would they care about you and me? 
   But don't take my word for it. Just think back on those fiery words of days gone by:
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

   Such a plea to return to the days of Jeffersonian democracy sounds quaint, no doubt--sincere, perhaps, yet quaint. I should know. I am the king of quaint.
   As such, I am also here to convince you to watch the movie Bonnie and Clyde (1967). 
   As this review is written, the United States is only one of several global entities hellbent on blurring the distinctions between global criminality and business as usual. Today federal and international laws exist to further that blurring so that no one is accountable for the subjugation of the poor except--legally--the poor themselves. Keep the masses doped on heroin, Scientology and the latest technology and they won't have the presence of mind to deviate. They will go along with the same tired line of nonsense that declares "Every man a king."  Horatio Alger's potential lies within us all? Well, at any rate, it certainly lies.
   Such was not always the case. 
   Bonnie Parker's mother was a seamstress. Her father was a bricklayer. Clyde Barrow's parents were sharecroppers. By the time the Great Depression officially hit in 1929, neither had the slightest prospects for survival.
   In director Arthur Penn's version of the lives of these two (using a script by David Newman and Robert Benton, doctored by Robert Towne), there is an early scene where Clyde is downing a cola with Bonnie. He tries to impress her with his toughness by admitting that he has been in the State Penitentiary for armed robbery.
   "What's it like?" she asks.
   "What? The penitentiary?"
   "No. Armed robbery."
   At this point the audience has been quite properly assured that Bonnie and Clyde is a different kind of film. Bonnie's face flashes the delight of hybristophilia. 
   When the movie was first released, audiences expressed confusion. Was it a comedy? Was it a celebration of the counterculture? Was it seditious?
   The movie had those elements. But this film shot across the seats of the cinema theater and the echo of its ricochet still resonates. The fate of these two young people (the movie legend was "They're young. They're in love. The kill people.") came ordained from the instant they met. This was not some (comparatively) silly James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson picture with an artificial morality attached to appease the public. This was real life through a camera lens and nobody gave much of a damn whether the public approved of it or not. This was a successful attempt at art. The public be damned.
   I think of Bonnie and Clyde as the movie Parker and Barrow would have made of themselves. As such it is a third person narrative where the "warts and all" attitude uses the skin flaws to show the beauty beneath. During one scene where the Barrow Gang have pulled off the side of the road for a family argument with the police in pursuit, Bonnie insults Clyde about his sexual impotence. No sooner do the words leave her mouth than she knows she has gone too far, that she has wounded him unfairly. As Bonnie, Faye Dunaway's instant facial expression conveys that realization with as much honesty as Clyde's (Warren Beatty) ultimate reaction: he just stands there, immobilized not by the truth of the statement but by the fact that his partner would actually say it. The violence to which some people took exception was simply sprinkled around such life details the director, writers and Beatty himself gently crammed into this film. 
    Bonnie and Clyde, unlike various global industrial concerns, do not claim that their crimes are on the whole good for society. These two were not the couple version of Pretty Boy Floyd, who actually was something of a Depression-era Robin Hood. They committed their crimes for the excitement, the bonding, the spoils. And if their limited class consciousness reminds them that they are "just folks" (as they assure the Gene Wilder character in the process of stealing his automobile) like everybody else, they are long in ambition and just smart enough to know that they have no other way out of the West Dallas slums that spawned them. 
   Some talk was popular at the time of this movie's release that the writers played loose with the facts. The C. W. Moss character, for instance, did not exist. He was a composite of several gang sidekicks, most notably one named Deacon Jones, who traveled with the gang for less than a year. Texas Ranger Frank Hamer was real, the only falsities in his presentation being that he was a sexist who retired from the Texas Rangers rather than work for a woman. 
   In the shooting version of the script, Clyde is impotent, although, in the only truly corny scene in the movie, he manages to pull through to fulfill his obligations and finds that he did just fine. The reality is that the original script had Clyde as inviting the C. W. Moss character to a menage with Bonnie and himself. The real world reality was that while in the state pen, Barrow was repeatedly raped by another convict. Clyde killed that man rather than suffer continued abuse. 
   But worrying over such details is as silly as arguing over which CIA operatives murdered John Kennedy or whether the real Richard III was very much like the one Shakespeare wrote about. Bonnie and Clyde, the movie, has its bona fides in place and needs to offer no apologies for inaccuracies. It is indeed the story the way the two of them would have wanted it told. That, of course, is exactly why the movie, to this day, can make us uncomfortable. 
   Unease after fifty years is remarkable. What else is remarkable is that all the people involved in the movie--except possibly Morgan Fairchild, the body double for Dunaway--came together with such integral perfection. The writers wanted Truffaut to direct. He turned them down, as did Jean-Luc Godard. Even Arthur Penn himself tried to bail out, having worked earlier with Warren on the under-appreciated Mickey One. Even the studio, Warner Bros., lacked faith in the film, possibly due to some early critical pans. Beatty threatened to sue the studio and rather than be sued, head Jack Warner demanded the movie receive a proper release. Pauline Kael wrote a lengthy and brilliant review of the movie. The film is now more of a legend than the people who made it happen.
   The artistic and commercial success of the movie is one of those rare things, like the discovery of radium or the development of the internet. It seems so obvious now that we have it.

Monday, February 27, 2017

THE BIG CHILL

   "May you live in interesting times" is said to be a seminal Chinese curse. The time--though not the curse--has eluded us of late. I would place the demise to be May 1985, but whatever the specifics, more erudite minds than mine have pegged the end of our enlightened era at the mid-1980s. Two movies that featured actor Tom Cruise hammered in the nails. Top Gun was a Pepsi commercial intended as overt propaganda in support of a President looking for a war and The Color of Money, which was intended to be nearly everything it turned out not to be, was a cooptation and slap in the mouth of Hollywood talent of years gone by, as well as of the radical dreams they inspired.
    But if directors Tony Scott and (inadvertently, one assumes) Martin Scorsese pounded the nails, it was the unfortunate Lawrence Kasdan who shot movies in the frontal lobe with the abysmal film blanc The Big Chill (1983).  
   Former idealistic teenagers from the late 1960s get together in contemporary settings to mourn the loss of their best and brightest friend Alex. The friend had the most promise and consequently didn't amount to much, whereas all the others did quite well by themselves and spend the rest of the movie (the song "You Can't Always Get What You Want" plays at the funeral) bemoaning how they are having a hard time getting over being the sell-outs they happily became. Think of it as The Breakfast Club for thirtysomethings. 
   The cast cannot be faulted for the pathetic choice of subject matter. Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Tom Berenger, Mary Kay Place, Kevin Kline and JoBeth Williams offer more than is expected of them by the Carson Company (as in Johnny Carson, who, whatever his skills at delighting late night TV viewers, was as square as a peg. Indeed, the entire film reeks of being exactly what the squares thought the people of the 1960s were all about). 
   Kasdan was completely in his element here. Before embalming the cast of this film, he had amassed a strong reputation among studios that loved blockbusters with his screenwriting of The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Body Heat, and Continental Divide (the latter his apparent attempt to embalm John Belushi pre-mortem). Kasdan went on to exploit all he could get out of his Star Wars tie-ins despite having worked on both Silverado and I Love You to Death, two movies even more lacking in soul than The Big Chill. 
   Kasdan is all about the shine. When we glimpse a coffin, we are supposed to imbue the inhabitant with unearned grace because of the number of people who attend the funeral. When Scott Glenn saddles up, we are intended to admire him because of the revolver he polishes. When Han Solo remarks something glib, we are supposed to swoon in anticipation of the shared looks of the supporting actors. It's all shine and it adds nothing to the value of movies. It does save a writer from having to do the hard work of thinking up something original, or something to which the audience can feel by way of empathy or confusion, or something that has not been accomplished in quite the same way before. 
   The Big Chill is a cynical sellout to a Reagan-era pack of salivating sheep ready to slurp up any swill the master would sling together. For those of us who spent much of our formative years in movie houses with our eyes wide in wonder of the exploits of Bonnie and Clyde, of Billy and Wyatt, of Alvy and Annie, Kasdan's movie was a below-the-belt blow that I for one still reel from thirty-four years later. 
   Thirty-four years? Seriously? 
   I watched Warren Beatty on the Oscars thing last night. Here is a man who has been more things to more people than almost anyone else in Hollywood history: actor, director, producer, stud, philosopher, historian, heartthrob and genuine talent. And yet some schmuck hands him the wrong envelope and he gets treated like garbage by a pack of ignorant loudmouths who have never seen a great movie in their rancid little lives, or if they had seen one, they wouldn't know what was so great about it. The whole idiotic affair completely overshadowed his onstage partner Faye Dunaway, who for her work in Network alone deserves to be not only worshiped but studied. Host Jimmy Kimmel (who otherwise did a fantastic job of making the four hour presentation about the show rather than himself--hint to Ellen DeGeneres) blew all the great work he had done by going for a cheap laugh at Beatty when what he should have done was to just shut up and let the actors work it out, which is what happened anyway. 
   So, yeah, thirty-four years and I'm still nursing the wounds to my presumably sturdy sensibilities. 
   What we watched last night on the Academy Awards was revelation unspoken. We saw, for one thing, people defying the present political administration in the most poetic of ways, rather than in the exploitative manner he reserves for his own enemies. We also saw black people getting nominated for their roles in contemporary films. Maybe films such as Moonlight, Fences, and Hidden Figures will inspire a much-needed renaissance in the film industry. The edginess of the subject matter won't do it, just as the superior talent of the acting won't do it, just as the excellent scripts won't do it--though all three issues helped make these three movies the deserving successes that they are. What it will take is a sensibility among directors who are able to convince decision makers at studios that movies are more than merely mirrors of the times in which we live. Sometimes, when the right combination of elements coalesce, a movie can change the way we experience those interesting times in which we live. And that is not a curse at all.

ANIMAL CRACKERS

   Wherein Captain Spaulding (Groucho Marx) is an African explorer who returns from the wild, attends a gala, and tries with his brothers to retrieve a stolen painting from the palatial Mrs Rittenhouse. 

Sample rant: "Well, art is art, isn't it? Still, on the other hand, water is water. And east is east and west is west, and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce, they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now, uh... Now you tell me what you know."

Animal Crackers (1930) was not the Marx Brothers' best movie (that would be either Duck Soup or A Night at the Opera), but it usually appears first alphabetically and so you owe it to yourself to at least watch it. Certainly you would not want to go through life without having heard "Hello, I Must Be Going" and "Hooray for Captain Spaulding." Groucho proves himself an amiable roustabout as well as quite the dancer. Harpo plays the harp, Chico knocks out a number on piano, and Zeppo plays the straight man. Based on the stage play by George S. Kaufman. 
   If you need another reason:

Capt. Spaulding: One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know. Then we tried to remove the tusks. The tusks. That's not so easy to say. Tusks. You try it some time.
Roscoe Chandler: Oh, simple: "tusks."
Capt. Spaulding: [shakes Chandler's hand] My name is Spaulding. I've always wanted to meet you, Mr. Chandler. As I say, we tried to remove the tusks. But they were embedded so firmly we couldn't budge them. Of course, in Alabama the Tuscaloosa, but that is entirely ir-elephant to what I was talking about.


   Directed by Victor Heerman.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

CAREGIVER

Scene 1.

[Mel, a man in his late fifties, is lying on a narrow bed gazing at a copy of The New Yorker magazine. He is gazing at it, one page at a time, his expression somewhere between a lack of comprehension and vague annoyance. Sitting on a stool near Mel is Leo, his son. Leo is studying Mel's face for some type of positive reaction. As the moments clock by, Leo struggles to control his impatience. At last, Mel puts down the magazine.]

Mel: What kind of magazine is this? A comic book?

Leo: It's The New Yorker, dad. 

Mel: I can see that. Lots of cartoons, huh?

Leo: That's my short story in there.

Mel: I see that, Leo. I see that.

Leo: Well?

Mel: They pay you to write that?

Leo: Yes, they paid me. They paid me a lot.

Mel: Good. They ought to pay you.

Leo: The New Yorker, dad, it's a big deal.

Mel: Yes. 

Leo: Somehow I thought you'd be more impressed than this.

Mel: Well, I'm not. Come here a second.

[Leo leans in. Mel whacks him on the head with the magazine. As he does, Tonya, Mel's wife and Leo's mother, enters the bedroom.]

Tonya: I guess you didn't like it.

Leo: He didn't like it.

Mel: I didn't read it.

Tonya: Then how can you say you don't like it?

Mel: Was there something you wanted?

Tonya: It's time for your medicine.

Mel: Who are you? Nurse Ratchett? I don't need any medicine.

Tonya: Leo, please explain to your father that--

Mel: The boy can speak for himself.

Leo: Do you want your medicine?

Mel: I'll let you know.

[Tonya and Leo exchange a look. She sighs and exits.]

Mel: She gone? [Leo nods.] Give me that morphine.

[Leo takes the small plastic bottle from the dresser.]

Leo: You need this or you want this?

Mel: Squirt some under my tongue and shut up.

Leo: [Administers dose.] The pain bad?

Mel: [Swallows it] No, the pain's good. Reminds me I'm still alive. Truth is I don't feel sick. I can still kick your ass.

Leo: I know.

Mel: Damn right, you know. What's that song on the box?

Leo: "Rank Strangers."

Mel: Stanley Brothers. See? I knew what it was. How much they pay you?

Leo: For the story? Twenty-five hundred.

Mel: Dollars? Give me a cigarette. They pay you that kind of money, you can spare your old man a smoke.

Leo: I can't do it. You'll have to make do with the dope.

Mel: Is it like that guy Stephen King?

Leo: The story? Not much, no.

Mel: It's not one of those horror stories?

Leo: It's a just a story about--You can read it when you feel better.

Mel: Don't you go confusing yourself into thinking this is self pity, boy. But I won't be feeling better. This is as good as it's going to get. [Tosses magazine onto the floor.] I want you to take care of Tonya for me.

Leo: We're a long way from that point.

Mel: I can't get out of this bed. I use a pan. I'm on morphine. I have lung cancer. You were there with me. You remember what the oncologist said? She said to make me comfortable. You know what that means? It means there's nothing anybody can do. You think one more cigarette is gonna kill me? 

[Leo thumbs one out of a pack, lights it for him.]

Mel: We have some money in the bank. Tomorrow you're gonna go with Tonya and she's going to give you power of attorney. You know what that means?

Leo: Mom can take care of herself just fine.

Mel: Your mother is unbalanced. You must have noticed.

Leo: She's fine.

Mel: Some guy called the other day. Told her she'd won a recreational vehicle.

Leo: When was this?

Mel: Told her she could come pick it up but first he needed her bank information for tax purposes. 


Leo: Oh no.

Mel: I was listening on the line. I cussed that bastard a blue streak. Leo, she does that kind of thing all the time. Runs in the family.

Leo: I didn't know that.

Mel: We don't tell you everything. 

Leo: I guess you don't.

Mel: Tomorrow. Don't forget.

Leo: I don't mean to beat this to death--

Mel: Then don't.

Leo: I thought you would be proud of me.

Mel: For that story? I'm glad for you. You used to write those little things for the radio, you remember?

Leo: That was a long time ago.

Mel: You were in high school. What did they call those?

Leo: Just segues between songs.

Mel: They paid you for those. 

Leo: First writings I ever had. . .published.

Mel: How's your real job going?

Leo: I quit.

Mel: Oh? Your mom's not the only psycho in the house.

Leo: I'm going to take care of you--and mom. Full time.

Mel: You go with her tomorrow. Tonya and I already talked about it. You'll pay the bills--don't overpay them. Just pay what the bills say. The car insurance comes due in two months. Property taxes won't be up until first of the year. Wait. February. I don't know why it's February. Pay the income taxes at the last minute. One other thing.

Leo: Okay. You sure mom knows about this?

Mel: If you mean do I think she'll remember, I plan to remind her tonight. And in the morning. But there's one other thing.

Leo: You just can't say you're proud of me, can you?

Mel: I could. Truth is that in a lot of ways you have been a good son. You didn't stay out late getting stoned or whoring around, as far as I know. You always were a hard worker. How long have you been--were you with the firm?

Leo: Nine years to the day.

Mel: Nine years. And you quit. Maybe you did the right thing. We could have brought somebody in.

Leo: Who? I'm your only child, remember?

Mel: I remember.

Leo: What's the other thing?

Mel: Your mom's pregnant.

Leo: What?

Mel: You got no sense of humor at all, do you? I want you to call my brothers and let them know what's going on with me. I don't want to talk to them myself. Greedy bastards'll be tripping over each other to stick it to you. Ray will be the worst. He may be my brother, but you remember this: he's a self-centered prick. Earl's almost as bad. He invented the hard luck story, the little shit. Those two don't get squat, understand?

Leo: You have a will?

Mel: It's with the lawyer. Copy in the safe. You don't worry about that. Whatever's left, you use it to take care of your mom. Whatever's left after she dies, if there's anything, that's yours. 

Leo: [Takes Mel's hand] I'll do my best, dad. Mom won't want for anything.

Mel: Here she comes.

[Tonya returns]

Tonya: Honey, it's time for your medicine.

Mel: I guess you better give it to me then.

Leo [As Tonya reaches for the morphine]: Dad just had a dose.

Mel: I think I would know, wouldn't I? Tonya, just squirt some under my tongue.

Leo: You're going to overdose.

Mel [Accepts the dose from Tonya]: Ummm. Yummy. Hey, you know Stephen King here wrote a story?

Tonya: I know. It's beautiful. So much better than those horrible things you used to write.

Leo: The music reviews?

Mel: They always stiffed you for those.

Leo: I was paid.

Mel: Couldn't quit your day job, could you?

Tonya: Did you tell your father about leaving the firm?

Mel: He told me. Whew. That last dose was a good one.

Tonya: Leo, let's leave your father to his rest.

Mel: Where's that liquid Xanex? My nerve's are shot.

Tonya: I think you've had enough for now.

Mel: You afraid I'm gonna die? Jesus! You afraid I'll be too stoned to remember my last days after I'm dead? Give me the goddamned Xanex!

[Leo opens the drawer, takes out the bottle, gives Mel a small squirt.]

Mel: You guys go on and busy yourselves. I'm going to enjoy the show. Leo? What song they playing now? 

Leo: "Bean Blossom." 

Mel: Ah, Bill Monroe. [He falls asleep.]

Tonya: Honey?

Leo: There's no music, mom. It's just a game we play.


Scene 2.

[Leo and Tonya are sitting at the kitchen table sipping coffee. The room is filled with flowers and get well cards.]

Tonya: How did the calls go with Ray and Earl?

Leo: I can see why dad doesn't want anything to do with them. Have they always been such jerks?

Tonya: Ray was very interested in me. Before I met your father, that is. When Mel came home from the war and I caught a look of him in his Air Force uniform, I forgot all about Ray. I suppose he's still bitter.

Leo: That was a long time ago.

Tonya: And Earl? I never knew him very well. He was always so shy. I would come over to visit your father and Earl would go hide in his room.