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. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015


   Homophobia may be one of the more pathetic symptoms of creeping bigotry exploited by politicians here and abroad. Whether the source comes from propagandists such as Michael Douglas or from presidential candidates such as Ben Carson (with his "orientation is a choice" remarks), the fear of same-sex togetherness has been unfairly linked with everything from animal husbandry to child abuse. That Dan White could walk into the Mayor's office and blow away George Moscone and then stroll down the hall and do the same thing to Harvey Milk, and receive for his offenses a seven year sentence--and serve less than that--in, of all places, San Francisco, says something about how far we have not come in meting out equitable degrees of justice in our society. 
   Harvey Milk understood political power, which is why he tried to recruit everyone he met. 
   It takes guts to address injustice. If it didn't take guts, then the problem would not be injustice. The issue, comedian Mort Sahl once said, is always fascism. I have always translated that word to mean the exploitation of those without power by those with it. That condition leaves the victims of prejudice with few choices. A person being suffocated will tend to resist. A person with attitude being suffocated always resists. 
   Sean Penn (Milk) and Josh Brolin (White) are so authentic in Milk (2008) that knowing the storyline in advance can be somewhat terrifying to relive. 
   This movie has nothing to do with entertainment, nor should it. Milk is about getting an education. I was in college when the story broke about Mr. Dan Law and Order White gunning down Milk and Moscone when neither man would endorse the ex-cop's efforts to be reinstated to his position in city government. My first thought was "I'll bet Dan White is secretly gay and that's what set him off." You know, the old Shakespeare line, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks" comes to mind. Apparently the same idea came to the director Gus van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black because the implication of that theory pervades Brolin's characterization. 
   Harvey Milk, we are shown, is a maze of complexities, a lonely man with a heart as big as the sky, full of needs and desires, with imperfections, a man exploding with a need to unite the community he helped build. This movie is as good a presentation of that man as anyone is likely to create. 

Monday, October 26, 2015


    If one cogitates on the most obnoxious elements of the late 1970s, some of the images that slither across the mind will include the assimilation of all the most reactive responses to the women's movement, a fixation with the insolent parts of Elvis Presley's persona, a division of labor between men and women, extremely bad popular music, singles bars, pick-up trucks, mechanical bulls, constant drunkenness, and the state of Texas becoming its own sovereign nation. Could any one motion picture possibly encapsulate all of these components without putting its audience into a condition of extreme catatonia?
   Of course not. That is why it was presumably necessary for Irving Azoff to finance the making of Urban Cowboy (1980). After all, if the public would swallow the scam of disco, surely Azoff could convince a similar sty of idiots that ultra-slick country music (without the western) was worth working oil rigs to raise the money to buy. So he gave us John Travolta in tight cowboy clothes, Debra Winger as a tomboy turned tart, and a soundtrack of some of the most horrible ear-swill ever foisted onto the tape decks of the American public. While Bud Davis (Travolta) holds his long neck beer bottle like the phallic symbol it is, we get to suffer through the most bathetic songs ever to infect the human ear tubes: Jimmy Buffett--"Hello Texas," Dan Fogelberg--"Times Like These," Bob Seger--"Nine Tonight," Mickey Gilley--"Stand By Me," and Johnny Lee--"Lookin for Love" all resonate with an agonizing twitch that neither years nor whiskey can erase. 
   Few movies have been so instantly offensive as Urban Cowboy. None outside the horror genre have ever led to as much in-theatre regurgitation. Once we come to accept the film as nothing more than a 132-minute commercial for Gilley's nightclub (you may remember Mickey Gilley as the least talented of the cousin-hood of Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart), we then settle in for a bull ride competition between Bud and Wes, the latter being an ex-con who enjoys beating women even more than does Bud. 
   Wes is played by Scott Glenn and it must be admitted that Glenn actually does something with the role. While Travolta sulks and Winger struts, Glenn at least affects some type of personality. When Bud inadvertently whacks him in the back of the head with a hamburger, we know that Wes is going to seriously mess him up. In fact, that would have made a decent movie in and of itself: two hours of Scott Glenn beating snot and mucus out of Travolta, screaming "There's more to acting, boy, than curling your upper lip!" 
   Travolta went on to better roles which revealed that he actually had tremendous skill. But after this dreck and Saturday Night Fever, he came close to presenting himself as a parody of fake style. 
   Addendum: God help us all. The Fox network is releasing a pilot for television of a remake of this movie, which means that with Jim Belushi's help, a whole nation of young whelps are liable to be convinced that large numbers of people actually behaved like these morons. And Azoff will laugh all the way to the laundromat.

Sunday, October 25, 2015


   "You got a gift, Roy. But that's not enough. It takes confidence and concentration."
   There's this old story told by Jack Kerouac. This young guy goes searching for the meaning of life. He looks high, low, in between. Finally he finds this mountain on the top of which stands a house that serves as home for the Great Wise Man. The young guy crawls up the side of the mountain, the rains come and batter against him, but his question about the meaning of life is a big question and so the young guy simply will not be deterred. He falls against the front door. The Great Wise Man uncrosses his legs and hobbles over to let the young guy in. They chat for a while about this and that and at last the young guy asks the Great Wise Man, "What's it all about, dude, this thing called life?"
   The Great Wise Man walks over to the window and stares out at the rain, pondering the moment because, after all, this is a heavy question. At long last, the Great Wise Man turns, smiles and says to the young guy, "You know, there sure are a lot of bastards out there."
   Which brings us to The Natural (1984) and the Robert Redford character of Roy Hobbs. Roy has the gift of potentially being the greatest baseball player who ever lived. Unfortunately, there sure are a lot of bastards out there. 
    Roy comes up against a Babe Ruth slab of an oaf on a train ride to Chicago. During a break on the ride, Joe Don Baker, the oaf in question, accepts a challenge from Roy's manager. The bet? My boy can strike out the Babe with three pitches. He does. The onlooking female (Barbara Hershey) has found her man and in short order shoots him in the stomach with a silver bullet. If you're a star athlete on the way up and you want to get sidetracked for more than a decade, this woman will shoot you with a silver bullet. It's what she does. 
   Sixteen years later, Roy returns to the game. He's signed a contract with the Judge, a corrupt pseudo-intellectual who just wants to stay out of working night court and who cares nothing for the game. He's betting on Hobbs to be a loser. The Eye Man Bookie (Darren McGavin) tells Hobbs he's a loser and to insure it, he employs Kim Basinger to seduce him into losing his concentration. Roy Hobbs is twice the age of most of the guys playing and more than one of his teammates calls him "Grandpa." When Basinger feeds Roy a poisoned eclair, his stomach lining ruptures and the doctors finally remove the remains of the silver bullet. The doctor tells Roy he will never play baseball again. That news comes at a bad time because his team, The New York Knights, are in the playoffs and they need one more game to clinch it. Wilford Brimley, the manager, would very much like to win the pennant. About the World Series, he could give a shit. But the pennant is something he would truly enjoy winning. If he does, he gets to keep his interest in the team, sell it to some Wrigley Field line painter, and retire to the quiet life of a modern day farmer. We also have to contend with the Glenn Close character, Iris, a true angel if such things exist. She used to be Roy's girl before he left home and found out, to his temporary display, that there sure are a lot of bastards out there. So Roy gets out of his hospital bed in the maternity ward and plays what will be his final game. 
   You may be tempted to resist the instant charm of this movie because the plot, as I have described it, may feel a bit predictable. If so, I have no sympathy for you. People watch movies they have seen dozens of times over and over again, even though they clearly know how things will work out far in advance, which is one definition of corniness, and yet if those movies were directed by Jean-Luc Godard or Stanley Kubrick, people would insist they were watching them because of the art and skill of the director. But just let poor old Barry Levinson take a shot at art and because the movie is one in which much of what happens can be anticipated, we're supposed to reject it? That, my friends, is a lot of crap. The Natural is not only Levinson's best movie by several light years, it also stands head and shoulders above most other baseball films because the basic plot has almost nothing to do with the excellence of the experience.
   One thing that makes it work with the magic of a grand slam on opening day is the beauty of Redford's acting--nobody, certainly not even Kevin Costner, could have embodied the role with more relaxed panache. The other thing is the first rate script by Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry, based on the novel by Barnard Malamud. The theatrically released version of the film has not one wasted frame. You have to catch each instant of the movement because this movie is all about concentration, confidence and talent and if you blink you will miss something that comes back later. Background dialog--noise on the initial train ride--holds meaning here. That combination of perfect acting and complex writing--makes The Natural--superficially as pastoral as the game it celebrates--that most unlikely of genre films: the suspense/thriller. 
   On a personal level, I happen to agree with the unspoken theme this movie evokes: there certainly are a lot of bastards out there. Most of the time, those villains have some kind of backstory that encourages us to care a bit about them. The Basinger character hints at some of this, but Kim's acting here is so horribly stilted and unerringly manikin-like that we could not possibly care. All but one of the other villains are rotten to the core, their only motivations being their inherent avarice and general contempt for anything decent. 
   The Barbara Hershey character--the woman who shoots Hobbs early on--is the sole exception. Why has she been gunning down these aspiring stars? Why does she use a silver bullet, an instrument usually reserved for destroying werewolves and vampires? How does the end to which she comes actually transpire? Who the hell is she? Is she pure evil or has she been warped by a succession of abusive relationships? What exactly is her story?
   I believe the silver bullet woman represents the great counter-balance to the banality of the main villains. On the one side, we have Eichmann, Goebbels, Himmler and the others. On the other side, we have--what? The collaborators? The isolationists? The profiteers? Perhaps the saboteurs come closest to nailing the comparison. 
    The mere fact that a movie about baseball could lead to such a question is itself a fine recommendation. Combine that with Redford and the script and you'll be on your feet, screaming for some hot roasted peanuts. 


Sunday, October 4, 2015


   In the interest of not only full disclosure but also as a means of boasting my own good taste, I admit that I would spend money to watch actor Tim Robbins breathe hard. As far back as 1984 when I first saw him appear as Officer Swann in the television program "Hill Street Blues," I knew Robbins was a man with a future in the dramatic arts. His character in the episode in question suffered from a stutter, as well as a predisposition toward clean living. He played a rookie who gets raped by a prostitute at a party in the back room of a bar. Unable to live with the shame, he commits suicide. Surrounded by tremendous talent both in front of the camera and behind it, Robbins had a shine that dwarfed everyone else involved in the episode.
   His cinematic accomplishments since then have been inspiring, whether as Nuke in Bull Durham, as Griffin in Robert Altman's The Player, as Andy in The Shawshank Redemption, or as Dave in Mystic River. Tim Robbins grew from strength to strength while evoking a curious sense that he knew just exactly how good he really was. Nothing wrong with that. Ego is the essential juice that flows in and out of the vitals of any artist worth his or her screen time. If on occasion he came perilously close to giving away the fact that he believed himself as talented as we suspected him to be, well, that was just part of his charm. 
   Robbins' father Gilbert had been a singer with the folk group The Highwaymen. The senior Robbins had even managed the folk mecca venue The Gaslight in the village. With those kinds of influences, it felt like not that much of a stretch for Tim to dip his own toe in the musical waters for the Bob Roberts character he introduced on "Saturday Night Live." 
   That last bit of trivia strikes me as ironic because (a) I love the film Bob Roberts (1992) while loathing "Saturday Night Live," and (b) the movie goes out of its way to ridicule the program where the lead character made his name. 
   We could, I suppose, address the inventive way Tim Robbins (and his brother David) utilize elements of the Bob Dylan biopic Don't Look Back, with its cinema verite. We could, beyond doubt, salute the actor-writer-director for the brilliant plot twists within the documentary style. We could, I am certain, stand up and cheer for the way Robbins bites the ass of the news media for its callous approach to leading with what bleeds. We could talk about all those things and others and sway you with wit and erudition. But it will be more enjoyable to convince you that "SNL" is a batch of counter-revolutionary pig swill and that Robbins nails those cretins who slave beneath producer Lorne Michaels and the NBC network.
   In a clear parody of the aforementioned TV program, "The Cutting Edge" gives Bob Roberts a stint as the musical entertainment for the week's show. John Cusack plays the guest host. Here is what the host says:
In the beginning, our great company provided appliances for the neighborhood. We heated your home, we refrigerated your food, and improved the quality of your life. We prospered, and you loved us. And we grew into a large multinational corporation. In fact, we own this very network. Our chief source of income, however, is... the arms industry! Yes, we rely heavily on those fat government contracts, to make these useless weapons of mass destruction. And even though we have been indicted and convicted for fraud several times, you don't hear too much about our bad side, because, well, we own our own news division. Chances are pretty slim that you'll hear reports of our environmental mishaps, or the way we bust those unions. We even have a highly-rated Saturday night show that the public buys as entertainment with a leftist slant.

   Most of the other cast members object that the monologue isn't funny. Well, satire isn't necessarily funny, in the gut-busting sense of the word. Sometimes we smile on the inside. Sometimes we cry. 
    And pathos makes its presence known in this movie. While we may smile at the idea of a Bob Dylan style character becoming a right wing Senatorial candidate, the references to the bard of Greenwich Village do not lead to fits of laughter. At the same time, Robbins gives away his influences--This is Spinal Tap, Don't Look Back, Mad Magazine, the early days of National Lampoon and The Firesign Theater--which were, for want of a better word, occasionally obvious, often insane, and not without some challenging wit and hilarity. 
   The few people who have dealt harsh blows to this film have objected that its subject matter feels dated. After all, the first war against Iraq was such a long time ago and was, they say, a topical matter. What those critics choose to ignore is that we're still dealing with the issues from that time. And besides, folk music is often topical, which does not mean it cannot transcend the time in which it is germinated. Far more to the point, the mechanisms that induced people into falling for the lies of our time are still effective. Be it the oligarchical nature of the global news media with its vested interests in brainwashing the masses, be it the insatiable appetite for sub-sentient entertainment on the part of those among the great unwashed, be it the domination of the education system's a-historical approach to programming young people in the name of "core" principles, or be it the rationalizations of so-called prosperity churches to grab as much gold as you can get--these devices still affect the day to day lives of all the people on this fragile planet. Bob Roberts drops a slippery banana peel in the path of each of these trudging drones. 
   It must also be said that Robbins brought together a formidable cast, most of whom had what amounted to little more than cameo appearances, yet who collectively breathed life into every second they were on screen. Giancarlo Esposito as the "paranoid but correct" reporter Bugs Raplin, Gore Vidal improvising most of his lines as Senator Paiste, James Spader as a local news reporter, Fred Ward and Susan Sarandon as a team of disconnected media stooges, and most especially David Strathairn as the ex-CIA campaign manager who at one point excuses himself from reporters so that he can go pray--these players and the thousands of others overlap one another with such dexterity that the movie literally requires repeated viewings to catch all the dialogue and deeper meanings.
   A great film, well executed. 


Saturday, October 3, 2015


  I wonder why it is that every time I watch a Martin Scorsese film I am filled with such an overabundance of testosterone that by the time the movie is over I have grown a full beard. When I say "beard," I mean more than gray stubble. I mean a yank of steel wool that reaches to the floor. I mean facial hair laced with cross bones, onyx rings and virgin blood; hair growing from my baby face, curling like a Chinaman's heart valves, lacerated with battle scars and the tint of revenge. Perhaps the reason is the running time, something that with a Scorsese film borders on a full evening, which is fine. I like getting my money's worth. But I suspect that's not the reason for my hormonal surge. The real reason probably lies with the presence, the omnipresence, of machismo surrogates, men such as Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Robert Mitchum, Joe Don Baker--guys who can melt women such as Juliette Lewis with a mere shrug of their hips, leaving those dames in the twitching throes of pre-orgasmic depression. Yeah. Yeah! That's it.
   The other reason--the honest to God reason--is because of guilt. Ah, guilt: that five-letter curse word known to fallen Jesuits and Bible students everywhere. Guilt remains the earthly consequence of sin. And all men have sinned and thus have come short of the grace and the glory of God. Men can come lock you away, deprive you of the company of friends and family, whip you until your flesh wilts and dies. But none of that can break you with the same smiling vengeance as guilt. Guilt will bury you up to your nose and eyeballs, drop a bucket over your head and bang you with a club.
   From what I've read, Scorsese grew up watching gangsters. Doubtless he learned a bit from their presumed style. How does one go about justifying an admiration for their self-possessed glow? I suppose a person with prodigious talent might make movies that deal with guilt while at the same time glamorizing the power those gangsters demonstrate. The director's most ardent fans would likely bray that I am oversimplifying this, or that by engaging in amateurish psychoanalysis, I am diminishing gifts greater than my own. To that I can only reply, "You bet I am, sweetie."
   Having had the insides kicked out of me from time to time, I am in the happy position to assure you that those beatings we have come to expect in movies actually hurt. In my case, they didn't build character or teach me a lesson or toughen me up. They simply hurt. 
   I remember one time, decades ago, I got into a verbal altercation with some mountain of a man inside a bowling alley, said argument culminating in my suggestion that he might enjoy doing something inappropriate with a close relative and so should give it a try since everyone else with the means (and a few without) had done so. To this very day I can still recall how slowly time moved as he lifted me by my neck, high up from the thin carpet where moments earlier my feet had been safely perched, his right hand curling into a tentacled fist, his broken teeth pulling back against his gums as he fired off the cannon at the end of his wrist and knocked me across the room where a friend of his was nice enough to pick me up and then punched me in the chest with an unbroken soda bottle.
   So, yes, beatings hurt. I suspect it hurt when the Martin Sheen character in The Departed (2006) was lifted up by Nicholson's goon squad and hurled off the roof of the building where he broke into pieces on the pavement. Probably it hurt when Leonardo DiCaprio smashed a wiseguy in the head with a beer glass. It appeared to hurt when Mr. French shot a deadbeat in the head and then set his house on fire. 
   Lot of pain. 
   Because pain is notorious for hurting, we have developed a tendency in this country to identify with those who dole out the pain rather than with those who receive it. The cost for the reward of that identification is supposed to be guilt. When we say to ourselves, "Better him than me," we are expected to kick ourselves for such sociopathy. But that is not the way one typically approaches a Martin Scorsese movie. We approach movies such as The Departed, Goodfellas, Casino, and some others, with the expectation--and because the director is an artist, that expectation is reasonable--of feeling as if we are right there in the midst of the action, hanging out with killers, coke heads, arsonists, mutilators, and wise guys. If you find that morally reprehensible, you are not alone.
   So it pains me like a beating in a bowling alley that I must confess that The Departed is brilliant. 
   "Just as every cop is a criminal and all the sinners saints" could be the theme. The fog, blur, translucent overlay of motives of the characters here function as an ode to street confusion. This is not the world where some urban hood breaks into your house because he needs money to feed his habit. This is Boston, baby, and Boston, we are led to believe, ain't for small timers. This world is about power. This is the world where the Local Gun steals micro processors that can launch nuclear warheads and sells them to the Chinese. This crime lord has brains and balls and can smell a cheese-eater a mile away. We have DiCaprio playing a cop who infiltrates the mob and Matt Damon playing a criminal who infiltrates the police. Neither man is what he appears to be, just as neither is necessarily what he wants to be. When DiCaprio screams, "All I want is my identity back!" he means it. 
   None of that should be taken to mean that the director understands women any better than he ever did. We have here the usual assortment of whores and waitresses. Somewhat predictably, Scorsese gives us a female police shrink who exists to (a) create an anticipation for the cop and criminal to unexpectedly discover one another, and (b) to take the offense off the constant menstruation jokes. 
   The Departed is more than merely being there with your wazoo hanging out amidst the fray and fracas. Nicholson has never been more complex, Mark Wahlberg more convincing, Martin Sheen more expendable, DiCaprio more sympathetic, Damon more reprehensible. In short, the acting itself slams you like a slug from a .44. And this is important because these key players' characters all have the intellect and even charisma to make different choices. But their version of morality denies them those choices. To that end, this film comes close to being as cathartic as a Greek tragedy. 

Saturday, September 19, 2015


   Ah, to be uncool now that Death stands outside the bedroom window rattling his chains, a disappointed grin glowing yellow beneath the self-created smog.
   A plot-line can be dependent on conflict between us and them. That approach legitimizes any number of trashy squirm flicks, most of such dribble indicating a lot less imagination and guts than Blackboard Jungle. Glenn Ford plays the prototypical square, the war vet with wounded pride, yet the whore with a heart of gold. Because his wife Ann (Anne Francis) suffered a miscarriage before the story began, ole Glenn wants to reach the souls and minds of troubled high school kids who might otherwise be denied the divinity of his presence. (If that sounds a bit far-fetched, I guarantee you it plays out with more honesty here than the sniveling cynics who have populated the majority of teen movies by the likes of, say, John Hughes, a hack if ever such existed and whose ability to retain fame after death mystifies me more than the properties of enhanced uranium.) The juvenile delinquents--as the written warning at the top of the movie terms them--have other ideas, as befits the members of a crowded urban data factory where the institutional goal appears to be to warehouse the young folks until (and if) they reach the age of maturity. These kids do not obsess over Halloween, Christmas, New Year's Eve, Graduation Day, or any other conventional celebration. What they care about is using rebellion as a means. What Glenn Ford, as Richard Dadier (Daddy-o), cares about is proving to himself that he possesses what it takes to motivate the students' interest in getting an education. It will not surprise you to learn that he teaches English. 
   What sets this movie apart from a hundred other films about what a bunch of little monsters the kids are and how impotent the educational system is to combat them lies in its inspirational yearning to connect sympathy from even the worst of the kids without vomiting up phony sentiment. Daddy-o may be ex-military, but he isn't a Michelle Pfeiffer or a Jim Belushi looking to beat sense into these kids. On the contrary, Ford takes several unwarranted beatings with better grace than any "cool" teacher could muster. 
   The worst of the kids, Artie West (Vic Morrow), comes across with complete believability, so much so that when he tries to con Ford into believing his innocent act, we cringe a bit when the teacher sees through his malarkey. A very young Sidney Poitier earns every good word ever written about him as a complex student named Miller, part antagonist, part future Temptations singer, part leader, part friend. 
   The one thing that unites every character here is that none of them give a warm glass of spit about being cool. These folks struggle to survive, usually in spite of one another. Cool doesn't enter into it. Naturally enough, that lack of concern and effort paradoxically makes even the worst of them hip, which is always better than cool. Hip waltzes with passion, while cool skips to a superficial dance. Hip implies an unspoken knowledge, an awareness of how the game is rigged. Cool comes from the asshole who rigged the game in the first place. Hip can be tasted. Cool can be worn. 
   Glenn Ford, for all his infernal squareness, develops a type of hipness. It comes to him when he shows the class a cartoon movie of "Jack and the Beanstalk," a device he uses to get the kids to identify with various fictional characters. Vic Morrow, for all his murderous inclinations, spells hipness out to Daddy-o that a stint in reform school or prison will be a swell way to beat the draft. Poitier is hip to what his future probably holds, but he refuses to knuckle beneath the artificial pressures of ghetto life, so he has taught himself both piano and auto repair. He also exudes a smart kind of fearlessness that falls just short of bravado. We know from the second we meet him smoking in the boys room that he is the one kid on school who can back up the bullshit. 
   The tension that director and screenwriter Richard Brooks works out of Ford and Poitier together threatens to snap at any moment, so watching those two relatively young men at what may have been their respective primes shakes the viewer out of any somnambulance he or she may be stifling. At the outset, Ford tries to play Poitier by enlisting him as a type of narc. Poitier does not care to be anyone's Mod Squad stooge, yet he feels antagonized by the racial tension coming from the Irish students against the Latinos and the Blacks. Meanwhile, Ford has to put up with the misguided efforts of his fellow faculty member caricatures (cynic, lush, debutante, etc) while hoping that his wife doesn't blame herself if the child they are expecting does not come to term. 
   In short, the movie that no less than John Lennon claimed as an inspiration to him when he saw it way back in 1955 holds up better today than craven crapola such as Dangerous Minds or The Principal. It may not be cool, but it sure do be hip, satchmo. 

Friday, September 18, 2015


   Somehow I had it in my head that a woman wrote and directed Mud (2012). That would have been impossible and I should have known better. No woman could have written and directed this movie. That observation conveys no misogyny. If anything, it reflects a general state of misanthropy. No woman ever interpreted herself as having anything in common with the character Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) in this excellent motion picture. To have the necessary degree of self-awareness to construct that character in a way that is not unsympathetic would have made the character impossible. Juniper is a loser who elevates her own sense of self by attracting, for the most part, men who want to do her harm. She finally (and, we suspect, by accident) found one man, Mud, who actually wants to do well by her, so of course she does not stop until she has completely pauperized him, or allows him to pauperize himself, depending on your point of view. Juniper is not an evil person. She lacks the personal charm of someone inherently bad. She is simply a vessel of vacuity, a bottle that appears to need to be filled, a universe lacking lifeforms. And because of that, she exudes a type of vulnerability appealing to men who view themselves as heroes. 
   And make no mistake: Mud is a genuine hero. Everyone else in the movie takes considerable time telling the two kids that Mud is a pathological liar--a statement which the title character does not deny--when in fact he is the only person in the movie who invariably tells the truth. When the two fourteen-year-old boys, Ellis and Neckbone, ask Mud (Matthew McConaughey) why he is hiding out on a small island near the Mississippi River, he explains with neither pride nor shame that he shot and killed a guy. The guy he murdered messed over Juniper, the woman for whom he is waiting to reunite. The dead guy did a bit more than merely injure her pride. He impregnated her, raped her, beat her, caused her to lose the child. He deserved to be shot and shot repeatedly. Mud accomplished this and the two boys find nothing inappropriate in it.
   Ellis, the stronger of the two boys, believes in love. His parents are breaking up, his girlfriend does not think of herself as his girlfriend, and he does not understand the things that motivate most of the adults he encounters. But he thinks he understands Mud because Mud believes in love. 
   McConaughey's character really does believe in it. His life has known no shortage of excitement, no lack of superstition and folklore magic. He has made his own life far more challenging than it needed to be. And when we meet him, he is living in a boat in a tree. I suspect he would have resisted having things any other way.
   If all the movie accomplished was the type of running commentary on the dismal state of relationships recited above, it would be something of a drag and I would be nothing more than the misanthropic drudge I claim to be for loving it. Fortunately, the movie uses these intriguing scenarios to say something about friendship and faith in the same. I will digress here (he said mechanically) to declare that nothing we value on this madly spinning orb is more important than friendship. Food comes a close second. Sex hardly even makes the list and if it were not for our ridiculous compulsion to over-propagate the species, it wouldn't be on the list at all. Sex is nothing more or less than that thing we use to distract ourselves from how bitterly hopeless we feel when friendship looks elusive, which is no doubt why Mud keeps a stack of old Penthouse magazines shoved into a drawer in his boat. What he really wants out of life is for Juniper to love him for the man he is, which I suspect is a pretty good definition of friendship. I will go out on a slender limb here and guess that if you have the courage to recognize it, most of the people you tell yourself are your friends are distractions you use to disguise the emptiness you feel when your mind gets tired of fighting off the acknowledgement of just how superficial and stupid most other people behave.
   Take for instance the dead guy's family. Led by the father, King (Joe Don Baker), the avenging family can't get their friends in law enforcement to kill Mud, so they set out to do it themselves. They see themselves as better than everyone else, certainly more righteous, as befits a family of entitled, bullying thugs. What they do is right simply because they are the ones doing it, not unlike neighbors who take a shortcut through your yard, or the old guy at the grocery store who cuts ahead of you in line, or the state trooper who shoots first and never gets around to asking questions later. 
   Most of us contain a bit of that, just as the two boys exhibit when they steal a boat motor from a junk man. Their beliefs are superior to the need of the man who owns the junkyard, their cause (love) trumps his need to make a living, so they steal it. Mud stole the life of the bullies' family member, so that family figures whatever they choose to do about it is justified in the name of the Lord. 
   All this sounds bitter and it would be a mistake to envision Mud as a stupid feel good movie. It is, on the contrary, an intelligent feel bad movie. Like the title character himself, this movie tells the truth. It tells that truth in a way that is simultaneously bitter, confused, desperate and even funny, but one of the things we may discover is that there comes a certain enlightenment from finally letting go of our own delusions, however fleetingly gratifying those delusions may be. John 8:32 says: "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make ye free."  In Latin, it sounds even better: "Veritas vos liberabit." Those words serve as the motto for several universities, including one where I used to teach. It has also been used as a motto for the Central Intelligence Agency. 
   Jesus was not referring to intellectual honesty. He was talking about faith in Himself, which some might say is a form of superstition. There is a Christ-like quality glowing off Mud throughout this film. He must confront his temptations, he must prove his courage, he must forsake a normal life and transition into whatever awaits him after the movie ends. His freedom, however, is never once in doubt.

Sunday, September 13, 2015


  The two best parts of Alfred Hitchcock's movie The Birds (1963) remains the final scene as the car full of survivors creep off into the doom, followed closely by the exercise of keeping track of how many days Tippi Hedren wears that infernal green outfit. Oh, sure, waiting for the toss-pot in the diner to bemoan the fact that it's "the end of the world" has its kicks. But the real reason that Brian DePalma didn't pretend homage to this particular Hitchcock installment is that, on the whole, it simply isn't very good. Loyal viewers of big Al's pantheon have learned to endure the great man's tendency to drag his heroines through every conceivable mud hole on the planet. But it's one thing to humiliate Kim Novak by putting her in a slummy apartment, or to diminish Barbara Bel Geddes by having Jimmy Stewart reject her advances, or by slashing up Vivian Leigh. It is another thing altogether to take the free-spirited goddess of the Sixties in the form of Ms. Hedren and have her wild side bring about the end of the world as we  know it. Heck, it was bad enough that Hitch killed off Suzanne Pleshette--the only sympathetic character in the movie--even after she had to listen to those rotten school kids sing that bloody awful song over and over. Go putting the blame for human extinction by bird-dinosaurs on the crazed mane of Tippi is simply more than we want to experience. 
   By all reports, actor Rod Taylor hated the movie. Probably he didn't understand it. Playing his mother, Jessica Tandy evokes a bit of commiseration, but for all the wrong reasons. And Veronica Cartwright, as Cathy, the younger sister, whines more than any child in the history of cinema. Worst of all, what at the time was hailed as Larry Hampton's amazing visual effects have not held up well. There's a lesson there, I suspect. When a movie's appeal is dependent on technology, the acting had better be more impressive than this if you want people to not laugh at you later in life.


Friday, September 11, 2015


   The day I began my stint as a professional student at Marshall University, way back in 1976, the shock waves from the crash of Southern Airways Flight 932 still rippled the morale of the local Huntington population. Six years earlier, on the evening on November 14, 1970, the chartered plane that carried seventy-five football players, boosters, coaches and crew, drew bad weather, tried to avoid it, and crashed just one mile short of the Tri-State runway, killing all the passengers. I knew nothing of this tragedy the day I wandered around the campus, looking for Harris Hall, where my Intro Psych class had already started. But I could discern that something crippling had happened. Anyone could have detected it. The tired shoulders of the short-skirted girls, the sunken eyes of the wizened faculty, the dazed expressions on the maintenance crew's faces: everywhere you looked, people with no acting experience whatsoever tried to compensate for their own personal destruction by trying to behave as if nothing was wrong. This was Huntington, West Virginia. Something was always wrong. If it wasn't the snide condescension of outsiders mocking John Denver's tribute song, it was the industrial exploiters ravaging the once-pristine landscape. Even more than one hundred miles from the nearest active coal mine, black soil hung in the air on the sunniest of days. When you opened the door to a grocery store, you were met with the rattle of an old air conditioner tempered by a silent wave of human despair. People may no longer have worked their personal feelings of the plane crash into every conceivable conversation, but that was only because there was no longer a need to do so. Everyone who had lived in the area either knew someone who had died that horrible night, or knew someone who knew someone who had. Like the rust of an old jalopy, grief was much of what was holding Huntington together in those days. 
   In a lot of schools, Marshall among them, the community that built up around the university was tie to athletics. This is no coincidence. Ivory academicians and their pencil-clutching administrators learned a long time ago that the best way to prevent the townsfolk from resenting the hell out of the college students is to unite the two sides (working class and middle class) through sports, and especially through football. For all intents and purposes, after the plane crash that destroyed the Thundering Herd, Marshall no longer had a football team. Because of regulations preventing freshmen from playing Varsity ball, talk had been widespread that the university might suspend the program altogether. 
   By the time I graduated in 1982, the football team had amassed a miserable record. Indeed, during the 1970s, Marshall had the worst record in all of college football. It may therefore surprise you to learn that morale had soared in some quarters in those days, and not only because I was at long last leaving the institution.
   A beautiful fountain rises up out of the center of the entryway to Marshall's student union. Created by sculptor Harry Bertoia, the Memorial Student Center Fountain stretches over thirteen feet overhead and through the years has been used by some students for not altogether sacred purposes, a fact that I like to think would have slyly amused those who perished in the wreckage. We see a bit of the sculpture in We Are Marshall (2006), along with much of the local community. 
   I cannot with certainty tell you the exact purpose of this movie. As a biopic, it does not need to justify itself. I can, however, tell you what it does not aspire to do. It makes no effort to evoke cheap sentimentality. It does not grind grief in your face. It does not create heroes where they do not exist. And it certainly is not the football equivalent of Lassie Come Home. Rather than focus on the plane crash, director McG (whose previous film credits gave no indication of his abilities to touch the heart with such humanity) sharpens his camera on the rebuilding processes--both the emotional and the real. Coach Jack Lengyel, played to the edge of amazement by Matthew McConaughey, comes from a nowhere town to a college surrounded by people with minds paralyzed by shock--by a town that actually seethes with the need to exist--enlists a defeated administration, exploits the naive dreams of the few surviving players (those who did not attend the away game), and gains his own inspiration from the bare bones yearning of the town and school to resist death. 
   As great as McConaughey's supporting actors are (among them Matthew Fox as Red Dawson and David Strathairn as the University president), the real support comes from the football practice sessions and the game itself. A lot of movies have tried to replicate the sense of being involved on the field during the big game. Few have come close. We Are Marshall rebuilds the sense of that conflux of sensations not only from the perspective of the fans but, far more to the point, from the awareness of being right there in the middle of the fifty-yard line, with all the actions and reactions snapping in a ballet of military-style combat. 
   It is, in the final analysis, more than an inspiring film. Rather, it is the sports equivalent of high art, something whose aim is irrelevant, and its results inescapable. True beauty has nothing to do with the eye of the beholder. True art, as with beauty, presses its objectivity right up against you and dares you to blink. When you cannot look away, you know you have met something of genuine value. We Are Marshall is just such a movie. 


   You may have heard that Sean Penn is the greatest actor of his generation. Even though we witness most of the movie through the senses of Timothy Hutton's character, nothing you see in The Falcon and the Snowman (1985) will undermine that assessment of Mr. Penn.
   Penn plays Daulton Lee, an upper-middle class drug dealer (cocaine and heroin are the substances of choice), former altar boy, and best friend of Christopher Boyce (Hutton), a recent escapee from the seminary, bird-of-prey fancier, and malcontent regarding matters of popular politics. Nixon is facing impeachment proceedings, driving Chris' retired FBI father crazy, and the junior Boyce finds himself more than a little disgusted with the treachery of the President and what he represents. 
   In short, The Falcon and the Snowman is a buddy film of a particular type, the most obvious comparison being director John Schlesinger's earlier film, Midnight Cowboy
   Chris and Daulton share a past that should be wider than their future. But being the King of the Cosmos, the Future does not care how things are supposed to be. 
  Somewhere along the line, Daulton began to disappoint his family. Eventually he breaks their hearts, calcified as those hearts have become. Chris, of course, has always been the golden boy, and when his father gets him a job with a defense security company that occasionally receives misdirected telex messages from the CIA, no one is terribly surprised, despite his pet falcon being named after Guy Fawkes. 
   The world of defense security takes Chris by surprise. Margaritas are the drink of the day, no one takes their job with high degrees of seriousness, and after-work debauchery is the order of the day. Cynical and detached, Boyce acclimates without much effort, until one day a pesky telex message alerts him to CIA influence in Australian elections. "Here we go again," Hutton's face says, and in a flash we recall Salvador Allende, The Shah of Iran, Guatemala, The Bay of Pigs, and hundreds of other Central Intelligence leisure activities. Rather than allow himself to implode from apathy, Boyce shares what he has learned with his old pal Daulton. The drug dealer has run afoul of federal agencies and has no interest in serving serious prison time. The idea gets floated to sell the secrets Chris has unearthed to the Soviets. Daulton thinks of himself as a world-class negotiator, someone who can push the Russians around, as the need should arise, so he offers to go to the Soviet embassy in Mexico City to make the deal.
   The Russians immediately suspect Daulton of being too sloppy to be the brains behind the operation. But Penn's character has learned to survive in spite of his own deficiencies and we find ourselves impressed with his bumbling savoir faire. Schlesinger gives us a marvelous scene where Penn sits with two Soviet spy-coordinators with whom the "negotiator" is growing increasingly impatient as the latter two fret over minor details. Frustrated with their old-world ways, Daulton interrupts to inquire if the two men would be interested in expanding the operation to include some heroin trafficking. 
   The Russians' response, if there was one, went unreported.
   After a few successful exchanges of cash for intelligence, Chris and Daulton decide to shoot for a big pay-off. The Russians, exhausted with the amateurish nature of the boys' behavior, allow Daulton to get arrested by Mexican authorities who, after a rather unpleasant interrogation, offer to transport the young man to either the Soviet Union or the United States. "I'm an American," the self-proclaimed Republican spy replies. 
   Penn's performance moves beyond believability into something far more important to the artistic success of a motion picture. He sits right next to you in the theater, chomping popcorn, slurping your soda, and tapping your shoulder to find out what you think of every performance in the movie except his own. Almost anyone with the proper amount of good training, work experience and self confidence can become a competent actor. Sean Penn, on the contrary, gives every indication of being consumed with self-doubt every step of the way. And this is all to his benefit. If you remember the scene of W. Bush sitting in the classroom reading the goat book to school kids when his aid whispers into his ear that the United States is under attack, the muted reaction on the President's face comes as close as anything I have ever seen to matching the credibility of Penn's performance in this movie. This man really is as good as it gets.
      To tell further details of the story is to wreck more than the plot line. If you want more information than the movie itself reveals, you can also read the excellent book by Robert Lindsey. Boyce himself (released in 2000) wrote a memoir called American Sons. While perhaps not as well-written as Lindsey's story, it still makes for a fascinating look into the minds of two kids who, for very different reasons, descended into a madness not entirely of their own making. 
   It remains a minor ironic footnote that upon his release from prison in 1998, the real-life Daulton Lee accepted an offer to work for Penn as the latter's personal assistant. 


   By the time Steven Spielberg's of first theatrical release, Goldie Hawn had already established herself as a first rate movie actor in Cactus Flower, There's a Girl in My Soup, and Butterflies Are Free. What she had yet to achieve was finding a role in which the people around her being satirized could simultaneously identify with her character. With The Sugarland Express (1974), she broke through to the other side.
   Satire, at least the way I'm thinking of it here, is least dependent for its success on its humorous components. The exaggeration may lead to guffaws. It may not. In this case, the laughs ring of superficiality, unless your idea of a hearty belly laugh involves gun-popping highway patrolmen blowing into caravans of other law enforcement officers and their heavy metal machinery. 
   As well it might. Director Spielberg reveals himself for the first time as the great isolationist--unless you count the made-for-TV-movie The Duel, which only reinforces the point. The behavior of the masses in Sugarland gets repeated in almost every movie the director would make over the next two decades. Think of the Okies who come to the aid of the town early on in Jaws--the folks who try to capture the deadly shark by throwing dynamite into the ocean. Or the skeptics in Close Encounters. The townspeople in E.T. The Nazis in Indiana Jones. In all cases, the misunderstood social misfits must contend with the even more pronounced ignorance of the majority. In the case of The Sugarland Express, this soon-to-be accelerate of the "Spielberg glow" manifests in the plot and explodes in the execution. 
   Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie) breaks her husband Clovis (William Atherton) out of an early-release prison four months before he would walk away free because she needs his help in getting back their two-year-old son Baby Langston from the evil well-heeled foster family that clearly does not love the child the way his real parents do. Clovis isn't initially married to the idea, but Lou Jean does have her persuasive ways, and besides, these two are outlaws more than they are criminals. They have always lived outside of society (in the Patti Smith sense of the expression) and so hijacking a highway patrol car and the officer who drives it (Michael Sacks) is just business as usual. Naturally, the forces of order can't allow their foot soldiers to be kidnapped, even if the outlaws end up as local folk heroes, so a monster car chase ensues. And ensues. And ensues some more. Despite the relative visual success of the extended chase scenes (and this is by no means the original Mad Max, much less The French Connection), what we end up with is wanting very much to make a join with the two main characters, as well as with the patrolman, and perhaps even more so with Ben Johnson's character, Captain Harlan Tanner. The boss law enforcer damn near steals every scene in which he appears and not only because of the actor's considerable skills. The writing of his character remains to this day one of the most fascinating in the Spielberg pantheon. He has been on the job for eighteen years and has never killed anyone himself and has never issued the order that anyone be killed, two facts of which he is quietly proud. He admires the panache with which these two twenty-five-year-olds are able to outsmart hundreds of patrol officers. He relishes arresting a pair of vigilantes who try to murder the young couple. And he surveys with mounting dread what he correctly perceives to be the danger inherent in their futile mission. 
   And then there's Goldie Hawn, leaning out the back of the patrol car window as they pull up to a gas station, asking if she can have Gold Stamps because she is collecting them so she can use them to buy presents for Baby Langston once they get him back. 
   Based on the true story of Bobby and Ila Fae Dent, the movie was not quite as funny as the real events, although the ending--which is anything but funny--rings true. Check out the gasoline prices and genuine Texas landscape beauty. And be prepared to be amazed at just how Hawn works every ounce of brilliance out of every scene.

Saturday, September 5, 2015


  The justification implied by the title of this 1996 film raises a challenging point about the employment of the death penalty in America. Set in the new Old South, i.e., Mississippi, Matthew the Defense Lawyer McConaughey reckons how he is not only in favor of capital punishment, he admits with some fervor that we should hang "them" on the court house lawn. Sandra Bullock finds that suggestion rather disgusting and storms out of the restaurant. Meanwhile, Sam Jackson sits in a cell in Canton accused of the murder of the two rednecks who raped his daughter while the KKK uses violence to intimidate the defense. Kevin Spacey, the prosecutor, plans to use the conviction by an all-white jury to work his way into the Governor's mansion. Donald Sutherland plays the defense lawyer's mentor. Keifer Sutherland plays the aspiring Klansman. Both are disturbingly convincing. Ashley Judd comes and goes at the will of the plot contrivances and despite her unquestioned abilities as an actress, we may get the feeling that her function in A Time to Kill is simply to tell the audience about McConaughey's character development, since without her there to do so, we might not be aware that any such thing was happening.
   But we were talking about the death penalty, or at least I was. Chances look good that you will do the same after you watch this movie, which I hope you will, not because it's what I would call a good movie, but rather because it's a fair movie that involves characters who can be cared about (a little) while simultaneously being a rare thing in that it is actually about something--in this case, capital punishment.
   I don't want to pretend to know what settled into the hearts of either novelist John Grisham or director Joel Schumacher. I will tell you that one of the resonant chords goes something like this: The state has no business executing people for crimes that would be better avenged through the rage of the victim's family. 
   That idea has legs. Those legs may be crooked and stumpy, warped by disease and vice, but they remain legs all the same. By giving over power to the state to execute people in the name of justice, we hire officious bureaucrats to act out our own blood lust rather than taking matters into our own trembling hands. Or so the theory goes.
   Many years ago I sat in a Criminal Justice Administration class, studying the merits and procedures of various case laws. Perhaps because the class was packed with sophomores, an argument broke out when the subject of state-sanctioned executions came up. I knew what was going to happen, and it did, just as you would have expected had you been sitting there yourself. Some guy slammed his fist on a desk after someone else voiced moral opposition to the death penalty. The desk-slammer threw down what I'm sure he believed to be a hand full of trumps and said, "What if somebody murdered your whole family? Wouldn't you want to kill that person?"
   Since my words had been the ones this desk-slammer had seen fit to criticize, I paused for effect and responded, "And that is one reason why we have government: to prevent people like me from doing things like that."
    Thirty-odd years later, I still stand by that retort. The rights of the accused to a fair trial notwithstanding, the defendant maintains a right to see himself as he is on the inside every day for the rest of his life, be it guilty or innocent. If he is guilty, he holds a further obligation to look in the mirror as he shaves in the mornings, seeing that what looks back at him is the glare of an impassioned society, a society that despises the sin, but not the sinner. If the state assumes the role of executioner, the defendant is ultimately denied the same justice sought by the victim--that the truth be understood by all involved, no matter how unvarnished, warped and nauseating that truth may be. 
   To the extent that A Time to Kill works--and it does some of the time--you may find yourself thinking about issues of this sort. You may also discover that you recognize some of the polarizations in this film that engulf race relations in your city. You will certainly visualize the provocations of black outrage in this country. Yet by downplaying how the Klan actually voices the feelings of a lot of people who lack the leisure time to be full-time terrorists themselves, the movie often patronizes black people, or at least the black people presented in the movie. 
   So if you find it enjoyable to get angry at white trash who display Confederate flags on the backs on their pick-ups, then you will experience some sense of catharsis. The sensation won't last long, but you will experience it. On the other hand, if you are looking to reexamine your instincts regarding the ultimate punishment, you may find this film to be just what the judge ordered. 

Sunday, August 30, 2015


  A highway liberates, if you find yourself receptive to such things. The rhythmic clomp of the road slabs drummed by the tires invigorates and lulls at once. Radio stations drift in and fade along the breaks of mountain foothills. Even clouds can mesmerize in the way they differ from one part of the country to another. In the southwest, thunderheads sneak up along the circle horizon, daring the sunlight to break them apart before they can launch their monsoonal attack. In the north central states the clouds hang low, like a series of cotton candy puffs dropping in from some invisible street fair. And in the mid-west those clouds, or their cousins, languish between the airplanes and the rivers, waiting to be called into duty as crop savers or devastating tornadoes, as need will dictate. 
   I had neared the first half of my midlife journey. The university still sprawled in the center of Huntington, just as it had loomed decades earlier, when I had been just another gnat drawn to the glow of wisdom and decadence. I do not imply that I learned nothing from my six years at Marshall. Rather, I state it outright. That observation declares less about the institution than it does about the student. The majority of the professors radiated a kind of celestial brilliance. The students with whom I shared classes, carafes and pitchers were, on the whole, among the most enlightened individuals it has ever been my pleasure to know. The cafeteria food tasted fine and, to the best of my knowledge, never killed anyone. The football team, known officially as the Thundering Herd (and often as not referred to as the Trembling Herd) seldom spoiled their hard-earned reputation as the most even-tempered collection of inepts ever to don a uniform. Again, the deficiencies in my education emanated not from any component of Marshall University but rather from my own lack of preparedness for higher education, be it there or anywhere else one might mention.
   As I at last found a parking space for the Audi TT Roadster, I recalled that when last here I had been driving a Ford Galaxy 500 that I had purchased from my father. That had been late summer of 1982. Today was early autumn of 2003. My passenger, Molly the Cocker Spaniel, needed a bit of a stretch and I saw nothing inappropriate about leashing my well-mannered dog and touring the old campus. I entertained the fantasy that, while most of my old classmates had likely matriculated after twenty-one years, the possibility did exist that one or more of the once-middle-aged faculty might be passing from one building to another in search of someone to listen to stories about the old days. 
   Some people say coincidence does not exist. I may have said that very thing myself. If so, I was certainly correct for it was no coincidence that I had invested quite a considerable sum on such a foolish symbol of status, a level of achievement to which I had otherwise fallen far short of earning. The twenty-one years between visits to Marshall, in my case, had been filled with a breathless vacuity. While my friends from those six years had, on the whole, done quite well for themselves, at least as regards their occupational accomplishments, I had, on the same whole, managed to alienate myself from every conceivable employer in the state of Arizona, the territory to which I had located shortly after graduation. If I am not in error, I had by this time separated from nine companies, none of which ever communicated any interest in reconnecting with me in any lawful manner. But I had come into some good fortune through severe hardship and a bit of that windfall I had seen fit to spend on the sports car. It had been part of the same whim that had encouraged me to purchase the matching leather jacket, boots and belt. I had returned, at long last, not even worthy to the metaphor of the prodigal son, yet feeling an immeasurable freedom, a lightness in my chest, an unworried countenance, a Spielberg Glow, if you will. 
   I could tell you about how the names of some of the buildings had changed, about how the thrust of the educational system had mutated from liberal arts to business, how nobody gave much of a damn about me or my handsome dog Molly, much less my leather jacket, boots and belt. What is more interesting, I believe, was a flashback I had while sitting on a cold block of matter surrounding the fountain at the student union. Nothing in particular was going on. A few students wafted in and out through the doors of the main union, but they gave off an air of self-important preoccupation, similar, I admit, to what I had spewed forth years earlier. 
   So while Molly yawned with one eye peeled for scurrying squirrels, I found myself thinking about nineteenth century American literature, or with more precision, about a certain class for which I had paid money, one called Nineteenth Century American Literature. I remembered with surprising clarity the course description. It had promised thought-provoking discussion of the best works of Melville, Twain and Poe. I had approached this class with an uncommon sense of joyful anticipation. As an English major, I had already survived thirty other literature classes, none of which, it is fair to say, I had been prepared for in the slightest. But Nineteenth Century American Literature? That was more like it. I had been breast-fed on Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, "The Tell-Tale Heart," and other classics of the period. In short, this class would emphasize material with which I had some considerable familiarity and therefore I would be predisposed to discuss with some authority, as opposed to sitting on my hands while graduate students ruminated verbosity about the chivalry of Castilione or the symbolism of Plutarch, or vice versa. 
  I hightailed myself to the student bookstore at least a week before the first day of class, deciding that this time I would spring for new books rather than ragtag used ones. I handed the course card to the kid working the cash register. He sighed. "That's gonna be eleven books, you know?"
   "Fine. Fine."
   I didn't care. Chances were I would have already read most of them.
   The kid brought the books back one at a time. With each delivery my will to live receded by another mile.
   Each of the eleven books had been stuffed to overflowing with nothing but poetry. 
   No short stories, no novels, no essays. Each of the eleven lay there on the cashier's desk, smirking his or her authorial insolence back at me without even the decency of iambic pentameter. "We are poetry," they scoffed. "And we are not even the kind of poetry you favor. No, indeed. We are the precursors of the imagistic poetics, the early voices of impenetrable cacophony about which it is fair to say that the more we make a reader feel obtuse, the more successful we have been. We are T.S. Eliot, we are Ezra Pound, we are Wallace Stevens! We haven't the good sense to be e. e. cummings or Carl Sandburg or Edwin Arlington Robinson! Pshaw! One could actually get to the bottom of those fellows. Nay, we are Emily Dickinson, hiding beneath her bed in obscurity, diddling off lines such as 'Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me. Our carriage held but just ourselves and immortality,' punctuated with pointless dashes. We are Robert Frost, but not the good Robert Frost who wrote well enough about blueberries and dark journeys on snowy evenings. No, we are the Robert Frost who occasionally lapsed into incomprehensible drivel. We are the transcendentalists--the intellectual fascists. Our only saving grace is that Walt Whitman is among us and, truth to tell, he was more of a prose stylist who just happened to find that he liked the looks of his books better if they resembled poetry. Boy, you sho is gonna hate spending the next sixteen years of yer miserable life with us, that's a damned fact, Jack."
   Sitting on that cold slab of concrete with Molly at my feet and the sputter of the fountain pricking at my spine, I observed my mind and its emotions transporting back to that classroom, one that in my recollection radiated an antiseptic whiteness along with a palpable weightiness of silence except for the lectures of William Ramsey, a fine man, if not a stirring spokesman for his subject matter. In some classes, the student must face the risk of being called into discussion about the reading assignments and so it behooves that person to be somewhat prepared. This was not such a class. Bill prattled on about the historical context in which these writers wrote, about the use of elite psychological visuals, and about the disdain under which many of them labored. My participation in the class, to the extent that such an effort existed at all, was limited to pretending to make notes in the margins of the poetry books. 
   I have never felt much tug to be fair in my recollections. They are, after all, my own, and I tend to shape them as I see fit, rather than as they might shape themselves, were they given such a chance. Nevertheless, I will confess that a very few of the poems to which we were collectively exposed--or which exposed themselves to us--have improved over the years. Just as Mark Twain once observed that he was amazed how much more intelligent his father became after Clemons himself reached eighteen years of age, so did a small number of those poems appear to have more value once the real world came yanking on my skin. So while I had, as a student, loathed the very sight of "The Emperor of Ice Cream," in the ensuing years the dastardly two-stanza dreck had morphed into something approximating genuine beauty. A similar transformation had occurred with "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock," a poem about which, many years after first falling into its pit, I claimed for it the title of Funniest Poem in the English Language. But as for infernal snobs such as Ezra Pound and the others, I have continued to harbor a grudge that lingers to this day. 
   Sometime during the sixteenth and final week of this exercise that I silently thought of as the Calisthenics of Tedium, I decided to have an ex parte discussion with Bill Ramsey. I had considered and rejected bringing up what was bothering me right in the middle of one of his class lectures, but in those days I lacked the courage to risk bringing deliberate embarrassment upon myself, although I never shied from the accidental variety, rest assured. Therefore, inside that student union I did wander one morning in search of the man and indeed I found him sitting alone, stirring instant creamer into his coffee cup. John Bonham, the drummer for Led Zeppelin, had died recently and the two of us made polite conversation on that occurrence until there was nothing left to say except for those words that had brought me to his table.
   "With all the good writing from that period, Bill, why the hell did you make us read all this poetry jive?"
   Bill appeared to take no offense at this pusillanimous statement. Indeed, his was one of the most gentle of souls ever to seek comfort on this unwelcoming earth. He dumped the contents of another non-dairy creamer into his cup, smiled, and replied, "The last two times I've taught this course, I focused on prose. This time I wanted to give myself a break. Why? You don't care for it?"
   I met his smile with one of my own. "I despise it. I also don't understand it. And I don't get why people needed to write that way."
  "What way is that?"
  "Writing about one thing when they mean something else. 'Let be be finale of seem'--What a load of rubbish."
   "How is he supposed to say it? 'The old lady died and people brought flowers and pretended to care'?"
  I could no longer force a smile, although his never faltered. I said, "The point is that there's no good reason why anyone would bother to decode the poem--"
   "Decode? I like that."
   "Thanks. Because the poem doesn't care about the old lady enough to even give her a name. The poem only cares about showing off. For a song about death, it has no passion whatsoever. I really hate that kind of thing."
   He drained his cup and wiped his mouth on a sleeve. "That's a legitimate criticism, Phil. Wish you would have brought that up in class."
   How can you get angry with such a person? He was reasonable, calm, respectful. And I was none of those things. 
   Molly broke my recollection with a warning growl at a wayward rodent that had dared dart across the union in search of shelter from the first light snowfall we had encountered on our journey. I zipped my jacket as I stood to look around. These surroundings, once so familiar that I had known them as well as they had known me, now filled me with an emptiness that bordered on pain. Nothing here would resuscitate me from the grief I was struggling to ignore. I had hoped to slip into a cozy condition of nostalgia. Instead I had wiled away the better part of an hour shivering in the cold, waiting for old scents to return on the shoes of ghosts.
  Reasonable, calm, respectful. Those had been code words for maturity, a field of endeavor I had dodged with some skill in the years between visits to Marshall University. 
   As I write this, the year is 2015. Before she retired for the evening, I mentioned to my girlfriend that I have experienced what I call true happiness during three periods of my life. The first was when I was a boy in Ohio. The second was when I attended Marshall. And the third has been the last several years that she and I have lived together. What people sometimes think of as maturity is often linked with acts of romanticizing elements of the past, either through melodrama or humor, through embellished stories or tortured recollections. 
   A few years ago I had the considerable privilege of teaching some writing classes at a nearby university. To write well, I believe, mandates that one encounter material worth reading. Some universities these days have compressed the student experience into abbreviated duration, thereby limiting opportunities for a fulfilling education. As you have probably heard, some schools offer what they call online learning, where a computer, Internet capability and tuition is all one needs for the experience. The students I taught were, for the most part, adults who sought credentials in order to keep their jobs. One may be a human resources manager one day with only a high school diploma or Associates Degree, but as competition for jobs that pay actual money intensifies, so do the educational requirements become stickier for the people hoping to keep those jobs. People who had been working as teachers themselves in Head Start programs, or in personnel departments, or as assistants of this or that, had found themselves needing that ever elusive sheep skin. And so they had enrolled in college, or returned to it, with one eye on the practical application of attaining their degrees and with a second eye somewhat better prepared for the beauty of elucidation than might have been the case when that second eye was between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. 
   Over the course of my two years at that college, none of my students had ever heard of Wallace Stevens. By the end of the eight-week course work, every last one of them had come to get some idea about what the poet had been getting at in "The Emperor of Ice Cream." 
   I guess some poetry matures better than others.