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Friday, November 30, 2012

MAKING AN AMERICAN SQUIRM

   
   We at Philropost are not fanatics about "this day in history" or any of that foofooraw. Usually, the alleged historians get the dates or the facts wrong. Worse yet, the various emphases of certain items often get shifted to things that really no longer pertain, such as the independence of Barbados from Great Britain, something that took place on this date back in 1966 but which, I feel safe in saying, means very little these days, even to the citizens of Barbados. Or, to Great Britain, for that matter. 
   Once in a while things of continued significance deserve commemoration, or at least some acknowledgement, and so it is with something that happened on this date a few years ago. One of those things might be the discovery in 1974 by Maurice Taieb of the human remains of the person who came to be known as Lucy, a hominid partially pieced together from fossils located in Ethiopia's Afar Depression. At 3.2 million years of age, these remains were the oldest found evidence that linked to the evolution of human beings and their discovery would be more than worth recalling except that I've found no less than three different certified dates of the occurrence, those dates being October 1, November 24, and November 30. You would think that a society with the skills required to carbon date those remains would also be able to keep accurate records about the date of discovery. But perhaps I quibble. 
    One anniversary that is certain is that it was on this date in 1993 that then-President Bill Clinton signed what was officially called The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, a set of rules that came to be known as The Brady Law. 
   Certain events in American history resonate with people of a minimum age. Attempted or successful assassinations of our Presidents are among such events. I was five on the day John Kennedy was publicly executed in Dallas. My kindergarten class received the news and we were summarily dismissed early. I was attending a writers conference in Huntington when on March 30, 1981, we received the first reports that a man named John Hinckley had shot and wounded newly-elected President Ronald Reagan in Washington D.C. , just outside Ford's Theater, the location where, back in 1865, President Lincoln had been shot and killed. Also wounded in the Hinckley shooting were DC police officer Thomas Delahonty, Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy, and White House Press Secretary James Brady. Brady's shot was to the head. Although he and the other victims survived, Brady himself was permanently paralyzed from his injuries. 
    The gun used in  the shootings was a six-shot double action revolver that Hinckley had purchased in Dallas. During the act of purchasing the weapon, Hinckley lied to the gun salesman about his address and used for identification an expired Texas driver's license. Jim Brady and his wife Sarah lobbied and campaigned for the enactment of federal regulations requiring criminal background checks on those persons who attempt to buy firearms. For the first five years of the existence of the Brady Bill, people wanting to buy guns were required to wait as long as five days in order to allow the licensed gun dealer to contact the FBI, who would then initiate a criminal background check. By 1998, the Feds had put together something called the National Instant Crime Background Check System, a computerized background check that almost always gave the gun dealer the yes or no within just a few minutes. Since its inception, this law has prevented the selling of almost two million guns to people with dangerous criminal backgrounds.
   The problem then as now is that not all purchases of firearms take place between a consumer and a licensed firearms dealer. There is such a thing as an unlicensed firearm dealer. These are typically folks who have their operations at so-called gun shows. Unlicensed sellers are allowed to sell firearms without conducting background checks or documenting the transaction in any way. In addition, because federal law does not require private sellers to inspect a buyer’s driver’s license or any other identification, there is no obligation for such sellers to confirm that a buyer is of legal age to purchase a firearm. As a result, convicted felons, minors and other prohibited purchasers can easily buy guns from unlicensed sellers. Five states--California, Connecticut, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island--along with the District of Columbia--override the federal permissiveness and require universal background checks on all firearms purchases, whether by a licensed or unlicensed dealer. 
    What kind of person does the Brady Law prevent from purchasing firearms weaponry? Banned from buying guns are convicted felons and fugitives from justice, people deemed addicted to illegal drugs, people the various courts refer to as dangerously mentally ill, undocumented immigrants, soldiers who have dishonorably discharged, people who have renounced their U.S. citizenship, and spousal abusers. These are the same types of people who are able to buy guns from unlicensed dealers outside the aforementioned states and D.C. But those unlicensed dealers probably don't account for many of the purchases, right?
   Actually, unlicensed dealers sell forty percent of all guns purchased in the United States. 
   Guess which states lead the nation in gun deaths? If you think they are any of the five states with mandatory background checks, you may be surprised to learn that in reality they are the great states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alaska, Alabama and Nevada. All five of these states have extremely permissive laws regarding the public carrying of open or concealed weapons. As far as the five states that require background checks even by unlicensed dealers, two of those states--Rhode Island and Connecticut--are in the top five states when it comes to the smallest number of gun deaths, the other three being Hawaii, Massachusetts and New York, all of which have what the Violence Policy Center terms "strong" gun laws. According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, requiring a background check for handgun sales by private sellers as well as by licensed gun dealers helps reduce illegal gun trafficking within a state
by as much as 48%. Meanwhile, California has seen  a twenty percent reduction in gun-related deaths since 1993. This is the state with the toughest guns laws in the country. (In fairness, it must be admitted that in 2010, California led the nation in firearms murders, even though that year saw an eight percent reduction from 2009. Then again, it is the most heavily populated state. Likewise, the District of Columbia has the highest firearms murder rate in the nation with 16 gun-related murders per 100,000 residents.)

    Personally, I do not feel comfortable with a mental defective or violent criminal having access to a gun. Most of the time I feel that I should not be allowed to have a gun, even though, according to public records, I am neither psychotic nor criminally inclined, which only goes to show how incomplete public records can often be. Where I live, we hear gun shots two or three times a week, usually in the dead of night, usually unanswered. After a while you get tired of calling the police and you just roll over and go back to sleep. (When we first moved here, our neighbors looked at us with amusement as we would diligently report every shooting we heard. After a while, the police stopped checking in with us and we began to suspect that we were being perceived as public nuisances.) But even a presumably reasonable person can flip out and shoot somebody. 
    While the number of accidental shootings in the United States has been on the decline in recent years, there were 680 accidental gun deaths in 2008 and 15,500 gun-related injuries, most of these involving children who had found loaded guns in their own homes. Not to dazzle you with statistics, but of the nearly 13,000 murders in the United States in 2010, 8,775 were committed with guns. Of those, more than 6,000 were committed with handguns. 
    Prohibition of guns would be about as successful as our earlier experiment with outlawing liquor, something else that kills a lot of people. However, the problem with gun control's effectiveness has always been the attempt to prohibit in a vacuum. Telling Americans they cannot buy guns is a lot like telling boiled water that it is not allowed to turn to steam while refusing to add ice cubes to the pot. Better yet, we might think about turning down the flames. The pressures experienced by many people in this country are staggering. I am not referring to the unimaginable pressures that plague a person such as the shooter in the Tuscon massacre. I am thinking here about the day-to-day frustrations of a man or woman--although it's usually a man we hear about--laid off from work, held in contempt at home, made to feel diminished or inadequate because he or she cannot buy the kids the latest nonsensical gadgetry, hounded by a bureaucracy that spends more money trying to catch thievery than the amount of thievery itself, and ignored by just about everyone else except for the friendly and sympathetic unlicensed gun salesman down the street. Add to that a carefully cultivated paranoia from the psychotic producers of alarmist news programs and sensation seeking anchor persons, and you have the makings for a lot more "accidental" shootings, right along with the annual massacres. 
    It was also on this date in 1994 that Tupac was shot five times in a Times Square recording studio. 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

TWO HOOKERS AND AN EIGHT BALL

    
   A mere two years following the release and universal acclaim of the movie Nashville (1975), director Robert Altman told an audience of movie critics and presumed aficionados that we as a society had only scratched the surface of the imaginative possibilities of motion pictures. I have only one other time been so simultaneously floored and elevated by a remark spoken by someone in the movie business and that was when Sean Penn said that movies were too important to be mere "entertainment" and that if people wanted entertainment they should get two hookers and an eight ball. 
    Rarely do people integrally involved in any given business demonstrate such remarkable insight into their own enterprise. Altman had the right idea and Penn had the right sense of indignation.
    Here were the preeminent director and the finest actor of their respective generations telling us that we needn't be all that impressed with what we were seeing because the players in question would one day be exposed for all their evident limitations once the system evolved a bit.
   I cannot completely agree with the presumed modesty of either assertion, however conceited the wording. But about the validity of the sentiments I have not the slightest doubt.
   Just think about Altman's prediction in its context. He had released Nashville two years earlier, a movie with a twenty-four person cast that existed as a true ensemble, where some of the cameo performances were performed either for free or for scale because the actors were just that honored to be involved in the project, where people such as Henry Gibson and Karen Black wrote the lyrics and music for the songs they would be performing, where Lily Tomlin was tasked with playing the mother of two deaf children, where Jeff Goldblum's character was forbidden to speak--in short, where everyone had to create their roles in the most extreme and literal sense of that term--and here's Altman saying that his medium was still in its infancy, that with the proper stoking of imagination we would one day witness movies that would make his feel trivial by comparison.
    We certainly have not evolved far since the time of his remark. Even with a brief flirtation with "independent" film production, the fact remains that most filmmakers are constrained to go for the artistic line drive rather than risk striking out while aiming for a creative home run. Some people still try, as the recent critical success of 7 Psychopaths bears out. Yet there are one thousand Breaking Dawn/Red Dawn/Dawn Go Away I'm No Good For You vomit festivals to every work of genuine merit. 
   And that's strange because I think it would be much easier to make something good than something so typical.
   There's a fascinating exchange in Altman's movie The Player where the vunderkind offers the opinion that the studios can save money by not hiring writers. All they have to do is apply newspaper headlines to the process and the scripts will write themselves. Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) quips, "I was just thinking, if we could get rid of the actors and directors, you really might have something." 
   Even though Mill intends that as a devastating rejoinder to the pompous idiot he is addressing, in a way that is kind of what Altman does do in his movies. Sure, he litters them with stars, but when you have twenty to thirty stars in a movie, there are no stars because no one can upstage anyone else. 
    Executing that working philosophy exemplifies taking movies where they had heretofore never gone. So what's the next step? It's been forty odd years. You'd think we'd have something better to show for it than that fucking Avatar. Is it possible to make a "real" movie--meaning one that people like that is smart and imaginatively innovative?
   It used to happen all the time. That period of time was called the first half of the 1970s. I'll go far out on a fragile limb here and even opine that very little of significance has happened cinematically since the release of Jaws in 1975. The crystallization of the blockbuster drove a stake through the heart of creativity in contemporary filmmaking. Obviously, some exceptions have presented themselves, but those exceptions were almost exclusively committed by directors who had established their cache prior to 1975. Kurosawa, Coppola, Kubrick, Godard, Woody Allen and Robert Altman: those are the fellows who exhibited the most post-Jaws imagination and each of them had made a well-deserved reputation for doing what he does best before 1975. You can even throw Scorsese into that mix if that makes things more palpable. 
    Technology has played the largest role in the de-emphasis of creative imagination--just as it always has. When movie production evolved from silent to talkies, everyone thought that the quality of films would de facto rocket through the stratosphere and yet it was years before any "new" movie surpassed Birth of a Nation, City Lights, or Metropolis
   This same working philosophy applies in endeavors unrelated to movie making. I had an interesting conversation this very day with a man quite knowledgeable about various aspects of internet marketing. This tremendously nice person was able to bandy about all the terminology in a pleasant and cogent manner, making his business needs quite clear to me in a brief period of time. At first I sort of rolled back in my seat, marveling at his mastery of some fairly complex concepts. And then I was struck out of the blue sky by how he had not managed to integrate what he knew into anything useful, much less enjoyable. While I am not interested in picking on my new friend, I have to admit that in the end I was nonplussed. He has the same goals that most people have: he wants to use the internet to make a lot of money or to at least make a reasoned shot at it. To accomplish this, he has obviously attended his share of webinars and consulted with all manner of charlatan and scalawag. And while he dazzled me with his fluency in the usage of Search Engine Optimization,  keyword niches and anchor text, I have to confess that what I would have preferred to have heard him say was: "I'd like you to build a website that accomplishes its purpose in a way that no other website has ever been used before. I'd like it to be aesthetically appealing, yet persuasive through its use of the medium itself, rather than with an emphasis on simulating organic processes." That would have been a fun conversation.
   There's nothing inherently stultifying about technological changes. The problem arises when we enter an Alvin Toffler type of fascination with gadgetry and lose sight of what it is that people actually want. Some folks in the ironically titled entertainment industry are too busy generating false needs for the audiences to suffer than to put effort into using their real imaginations to tell a story or stories in a way that is fresh. Sequels, pre-quels, remakes, franchises: these are the money words that Hollywood loves. Why bother thinking when all we have to do is throw Bruce Willis into a movie and give him a bazooka? 
    Even two directors I like--Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino--often take the hard-easy way out by wallowing their audiences in ponds of violence rather than considering that there are things more ghastly than the reality of physical pain or more glorious than the reflection of an exposed breast in the gleam of a sword. 
    So, yes, we are still waiting for Altman's prediction. Despite all the evidence of the last forty years to the contrary, we remain optimistic. With all the great minds around, how can we fail?
   

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

CORPORATE WAR ON CIVILITY

    Let us speak of civility. I imagine that this quality has always eluded most people, so I won't begin by railing about how our current malaise is responsible for the absence of polite decency in the world around us. The Reader may even be surprised to discover that today presented Your Humble Narrator with a very mixed bag of both civility and rudeness. The contents of the bag were enormous. The bag itself was fairly petite.
   I had occasion today to initiate some complex dealings with our credit union. I reckoned those matters would take something near two hours. To my pleasure and amazement, the gifted representative at our financial institution had prepared herself for our meeting and even returned early from her lunch in order to more quickly accommodate. All the paperwork had been worked out before I arrived. She knew the fine points of her job, made all kinds of eye contact, helped me with a few technical issues, and on the whole was able to think on her feet even though we were both sitting down. There was nothing scripted about the job she was doing. She had simply reasoned out ahead of time what would need to be accomplished and rather than putting the onus on me, the customer, took it upon herself and now we have what I anticipate will be a long term relationship with her credit union. 
    I also needed to get some documents from the Secretary of State's office downtown. I figured that would be a nightmare full of lengthy lines, impatient signatories, and bored civil servants. I had never been to this office before and inadvertently parked in the lot reserved for the House of Representatives members. Fortunately the House was not in session, so no one cared where I parked. Anyway, everyone at the state house was terrific, from the retired volunteer who told me how to get to the trade name bureau to the people in that division who had me in and out of there in less than five minutes. Everybody there knew their job, understood that I didn't have the rest of my life to spend waiting, and treated me with courtesy. 
    Neither of these two examples would bear mentioning were it not for the horrible experience that I somehow endured once I returned home, an experience that I think exemplifies the worst aspects of the business community. The cell phone carrier we used for business had deactivated our phone in error. This originally occurred three days ago. I called them up and explained that they had neglected to charge my credit card, assuring them that if they would do so they would get paid and would therefore feel happy to reactivate the phone service. The woman with the company said she would take care of it.
    She did not.
    The roommate called them back the next day. She gave them holy hell. They said they would resolve the problem. They did, but only over night. The next morning the phone had been deactivated yet again. By this time the company had received my credit card information twice. 
    When the phone did not work again this morning, the roommate went wild, calling them and explaining that the genital licking feces gulpers had darned well better get the problem fixed. After a while I took the phone and found that the "manager" we were talking to was laughing about our problem. I said that we owned five phones from their company and that if they did not give us a free month of service on the one phone in question that I would take all five wireless devices to the nearest river and drop them in. After another brief discussion with the roomie, the bastards again reactivated the phone. Time will tell if this will last until the morning.
    My point here is not merely the lack of service provided by the cell phone people. More to the point is that throughout each and every contact with Net10--There, I named them!--the customer service person was using a horribly annoying script. I would explain the problem and the CSR would reply, "I am very sorry to hear that, sir. Thank you for explaining the problem to me." I finally insisted that I did not want politeness so much as I wanted service. The scripted nature of the process was more than a little maddening because it quickly revealed that the company with which we were doing business did not want its employees to think. Forget "outside the box." These poor bastards weren't even allowed to know where the box is being kept. 
    A lot of people talk about the effects of off-shoring call center jobs so that they only have to pay the employees a few dollars a day. Indeed, that is a horrible thing and if I worked in one of those companies in Guatemala, I'd probably do an even worse job than the people with whom I spoke. I should make it clear that I have nothing against Guatemala specifically. What I do resent is that the manufacturers of that country do not export call center jobs to the United States. It would be kind of cool to think that someone from Central America called about his cell phone and got a recording that said, "For Spanish, press one." and then had to yak it up with a Yankee with an accent that made it difficult for the customer to comprehend. Of course, that will not happen any time soon because wages in this country--lousy as they are--remain far better than those in Latin American call centers. 
   The interesting thing about all this is that the two people with whom I spoke face to face today--one at the credit union and the other in the Secretary of State's office--were both Hispanic. In the case of the financial institution, everyone who worked at that branch was Hispanic. The difference was that they had accountability. Whoever runs that particular branch wants to maintain good relations, so they do not hire zombies. Instead they hire real people who really show a concern for their clients. 
    Going on the cheap with a lousy phone carrier is no different from shopping at Walmart, another company with amazingly lousy service and one that boasts of its job exporting. Well, fuck 'em. I refuse to shop at Walmart and after today I will not do business with any company that treats its employees with some wanton disregard. That means I have to stay away from nearly all fast food emporiums, liquor stores, and Home Depots. Thinking about it, I believe I can live with that.

Monday, November 26, 2012

THIRTY DAYS AND NIGHTS

   
   An impressionist masterpiece. That's the first superlative that comes to mind when revisiting The Night of the Hunter (1955). The screen credits say the film was written by James Agee (Let Us Now Praise Famous Men), but that seems unlikely since Agee had boozed himself into oblivion by that time and probably couldn't have written his name on a royalty check. More likely the screenplay came to us from the film's director Charles Laughton, the man who most people know as an actor. Indeed, this was Laughton's only spin at directing and what a spin it is. 
   We also have to give vast credit to cinematographer Stanley Cortez, who was responsible for some of the spookiest and strangely lovely images in American film. The shot of Shelley Winters at the bottom of the river is enough to make you wonder if they hang nightmares on the walls of art museums. Cortez also worked successfully at giving the viewer sudden clues as to the appearance of villain and reverend Harry Powell. Whenever he's outside a house, we see the silhouette of his hat or the outline of his knuckles. On those knuckles are tattooed the words HATE (Left) and LOVE (right) ["Love and hate tattooed on the fingers of his hands, hands that slap his kids around cause they don't understand how death or glory becomes just another story," sang the Clash.] 
    The Reverend is played by Robert Mitchum and if Mitchum's reputation as a purveyor of criminal illusions hangs on any one film, The Night of the Hunter is that film. The star of Rachel and the Stranger and Cape Fear had been busted back in 1949 for possession of marijuana and ended up spending two months in the Los Angeles Country prison farm. His rep as a mysterious tough guy was based in a certain amount of fact since the only people who blew weed in those days were black jazz musicians and the precursors of the beats. In The Night of the Hunter, Mitchum comes at us driving down the road in a jalopy while talking to the Lord. The Lord has always provided a good living for Powell and he appreciates it. He knows the Lord will point him in the right direction and help him steer clear of strip clubs and women with curly hair. Unfortunately, that is where fate takes him. He is watching a comely young thing undressed as the cops burst in, asking if he owns the jalopy parked outside. They were just in time since Powell's switchblade had moments earlier popped out of his pants like a bladed erection. 
   It turns out the car was stolen, so Powell goes to jail for thirty days--as in the Chuck Berry tune of that title, wherein the singer growls: "If I don't get no satisfaction from the judge, I'm gonna take it to the FBI and voice my grudge. If they don't give me no consolation I'm gonna take it to the United Nations, I'm gonna see that you be back home in thirty days."
    Peter Graves has just robbed a bank so that he can keep Shelley Winters in make up and jewelry. He has stolen the hearty amount of ten thousand dollars. When he gets home, his son John and daughter Pearl are happy to see him. Peter Graves says to not be so happy because those cops up the road will be here in a few seconds so please don't tell your ma where I hid the money 'cause she ain't got no sense at all. 
   The cops fall on Graves and as he's being carted off we learn that he croaked someone getting the loot. He ends up sharing a cell with Mitchum. The Reverend hears abou the cash and wants it, so after the state offs Graves, Mitchum gets released and decides to marry Shelley Winters so that she'll convince the kids to tell him where the money is. You see, he wants to build a tabernacle.
    Watching Mitchum coerce marriage but not sex--simply won't have anything to do with Shelley unless procreation is the goal--is a thing of wonder. So is the way he navigates through the children. It's also extremely worrisome.
   The first time I ever saw Robert Mitchum was on a television screen back in the early 1970s. He was a guest--the guest--on the Dick Cavett program. I had no idea who the man was but you could tell during the build-up that Cavett liked the guy, so I settled in for a teenage thrill.
    I was not disappointed. To say the man had style is to say that the bombing of Nagasaki was a mild explosion. His tory about getting thrown by a horse alone was enough to convince me that I wanted to grow up to write movies with Mitchum in them. That never happened, but even now whenever I write any type of fiction, there's always one character in the plot who I've imagined Robert playing.
    Here's part of that Cavett clip, if you're interested.
    Back to the movie, though, I cannot overstate what a masterpiece this film remains. Even the very weird introduction of Lillian Gish as the old woman who takes in the two orphaned children goes beyond impressionist into expressionist and almost into something surreal, living as she does in a house that has an exterior that appears to change with the seasons. Even the town she lives in--somewhere between Cincinnati, Ohio and Parkersburg, West Virginia--feels like a set cut-out of an old Gary Cooper western. None of these deliberate incongruities or even the brilliant lighting effects take away from the grim story itself because Mitchum remains the terrifying paste throughout this movie. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

WHERE REALITY COMES TO DIE

   
   Rather than attempt a redundant scene-by-scene analysis of Robert Altman's The Player (1992) here on Hollywood Eats Its Children Night at Philropost, it might be better to talk about the relevance of this motion picture outside the motion picture industry. Granted, there are not usually quite as many celebrities in the day-to-day world in which most of us move--and having encountered several celebrities myself, I can assure you that your daily existence is usually enhanced without their presences. Still, as Ray Davies of The Kinks once opined, "Everybody's a dreamer, everybody's a star, and everybody's in movies, it doesn't matter who you are." To the extent that we all play some series of roles throughout our walks and runs across this madly spinning orb, we really are all actors, as well as agents, lawyers, writers, directors, editors, cinematographers, golf cart drivers, mail delivery boys and so on. 
   The difference, to the extent that there is a difference, is probably in the pace. After all, we may only accomplish two hours and four minutes of work in an eight hour work day, but the rapidity of the action comes a bit slower than in any filmmaker's dreams. Yet the confusion we often experience, especially as the new kid in the office, or the industry, is perfectly replicated in many Altman movies--and especially in the deservingly-celebrated opening eight minute sequence that kicks off this brilliant film. Telephones ring, one-sided conversations are heard, some essential personnel quickly chastise novices on the inadequacies of their training, conversations wind in and out of doorways about names that are spoken with such reverence that we simply know the persons referenced are vital, identities are mistaken, big shots are approached unceremoniously by would-be up-and-comers, underlings get run over by nonentities, and we come into the most important meeting of the day only to discover that our pen is out of ink and the battery on our laptop didn't get recharged over night. 
Quiet on the set.
Scene one. Take ten. Marker.
and action!
Joel Levinson's office.
I'm sorry. He's not in yet.
May I take a message?
Mr. Levy, I'll tell him you called.
Never say that.
He's either in conference, in a meeting.
He's always in.
Who was that?
Larry Levy.
Was there anything in the trades this morning?
I don't know. The mail's late.
Go get them. Now!
I want them back here before he arrives.
Griffin, hi. Adam Simon.
We weren't supposed to meet until next week.
I didn't know we were.
I wanted to plant a seed in your head.
I'm booked up.
Picture this.
It's a planet in the far future with two suns.
Who plays the sons?
No, suns. Large solar discs.
Run this idea by Bonnie Sherow.
The pictures they make these days are all MTV. Cut cut cut cut.
The opening shot of Touch of Evil was six and a half minutes long.
Six and a half minutes?
Three or four, anyway.
He set up the whole picture with that one tracking shot.
My father was key grip on that shot.
What about Absolute Beginners? That was an extraordinary shot.
Never heard of it.
It's an English film.
   It doesn't really matter that this dialogue, taken from the opening sequence of The Player, was spoken by no less than six different actors. What does matter is that we do not know who Larry Levy is or why he is calling Joel Levinson. We may never have seen or even heard of either A Touch of Evil or Absolute Beginners. We may not know what a tracking shot is or if we are actually watching one now--we aren't, at least not specifically, although it is one long uncut sequence that goes on for another seven minutes. What we do know is something about the apparent importance of some of the speakers. We know that this guy Griffin--played by Tim Robbins--is a big deal. We know that because a fellow dressed not nearly as well approaches Griffin before the latter even gets out of his Range Rover. We know that Levinson must be someone important because he has an office to which he has evidently not yet arrived and that he has a secretary or assistant or someone who answers his phone calls, plus he also has someone else standing by in case the person who answers his calls says something inappropriate. 
   We also know that our sense of confusion is only matched by our sense of intrigue. This is, after all, Hollywood. And Hollywood is where reality comes to die. 
   It is also a town with its share of vampires. I'm convinced that the real reason we keep getting all these Breaking Wind Vampire Movies is because the company town that makes them is telling a little inside joke on itself. Matter of fact, if you're a wannabe screenwriter who hopes to make it big in Hollywood, you should create a scenario with a soulless villain who charms all his victims specifically because he is so lacking in humanity. Think of Tony Montana in the remake of Scarface. Think of John Belushi in Animal House. Think of the Michael Douglas character in Fatal Attraction. Now, just for fun, image all three of these films overlapping. Hey, I think you've got something there--as long as your script has heart in the right places.
   The vampire in The Player is June Gudmundsdottir (pronounced, approximately, "Good man's daughter"), played by Greta Scacchi. She is the girlfriend of the screenwriter Griffin kills. She is also an artist who deliberately never finishes any of her paintings, who doesn't go to movies ("Life's too short"), and who likes words but not "complete sentences." 
   If you've been paying attention to your life, you have met this particular vampire before, although I believe that technically the appropriate term is succubus. June is a dreamlike character, nonetheless real, who feels nothing substantial as she lures Griffin into becoming even more of an asshole than he is when we first meet him. She's the kind of person who never has any particular ideas of her own, doesn't actually contribute to a conversation but instead asks all sorts of questions that get you to reveal far too much about yourself, never overtly draws conclusions, and ultimately leads you to your doom--a doom dressed up as salvation--while you scratch your head trying to figure out what the hell you really see in her. 

Hello. Is David Kahane there?
David! I'm sorry. I forgot. He's gone out. Who's this?
This is Griffin Mill.
Oh, the dead man.
What did you say?
Oh, nothing.
About me being a dead man?
Just a nickname David has for you.
I see. That's a funny nickname. I suppose your husband doesn't like me very much.
I don't have a husband.
I suppose David doesn't like me very much.
David's gone to the cinema.
When will he be back?
When the film's over, I presume. 
   I could tell you a million other things about The Player, including the fact that it operates on multiple levels which include a movie within a movie within a movie. What you need to know, however, is that this is satire of a high order, satire less about the movie industry than about the life industry. No other Hollywood eats its own picture, including Swimming With Sharks, trains its guns on life--Your Life--with as much contrived precision as The Player. Hell, it even has a happy ending. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

NICOLA and BARTOLOMEO

   
   Politicians and economists can save their breath yakking about financial crises as long as people continue to mass together in fist fights over obsolete junk at Walmart the day after Thanksgiving. When no one shows up at China Junior to do their mindless bargain safaris on what some idiot savant decided to call Black Friday, then and only then will I be interested in how previously spoiled Americans are having a hard time making ends meet. 
   There actually have been times in this country when survival was a daily struggle for millions of people. Those were the years immediately preceding World War I and throughout much of World War II and including the so-called roaring twenties when the only things that kept the U.S. economy from being permanently dead were war, public works, more war and other conservative uses of liberal reform. The very nature of democratic politics and a capitalist economy requires that the illusion of pluralism be maintained while resources get gobbled up by a self-described elite (and genuinely small) segment of the populace at the expense of the ever-growing majority into which pours an immigrant class that is lured here with the promise of mercy and freedom only to discover that mercy means slave labor and freedom means a nightstick across the teeth. 
   In the early years of the first world war, a lot of European immigrants came to the United States because in their home countries the economies were receding into a strange type of class feudalism. With hatred and barbarism the only way up at home, the United States with its promises of advancement looked pretty appealing. Just as a few years later in America, the absence of mass communication would make it possible for the propertied class to entice the displayed and ruined farm workers to flock from the dust bowl to California while each family remained unaware that everyone else was heading in the same direction, so did the placards and scuttlebutt of the day encourage the mass migration from countries such as Italy and Ireland into the land of milk and honey, even though the milk was sour and the honey caked with flies. 
    Into this quagmire strolled a shoemaker and fish salesmen, both from Italy and both evidently fans of  an Italian anarchist named Luigi Galleani. Many anarchists of the 1910s were nothing more than glorified bomb-throwers with a political agenda. However, some of the more thoughtful in their midst sought an economic and political system freed from the tyranny of both large government and large business. These thinkers agreed with the syndicalists that what was needed was a world divided into small and interdependent enclaves that would provide sufficiency for everyone. These men and women were not Bolsheviks, although by the time of the Red Scare of 1918 and 1919, they would be lumped into that particular pot along with liberals, progressives, and socialists. 
    The Galleanists did utilize bomb attacks against what they believed to be holders of inherently corrupt positions in the U.S. government, including an attempted bombing of the notorious Red Scare leader, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. One such attack went haywire and ended up killing the perpetrator instead. An associate of the Italian anarchists, a man named Andrea Salsedo, was picked up by the Justice Department. He met his end after falling from a fourteenth floor window in the building from which he was in all likelihood pushed. 
    Salsedo had been arrested by the Bureau of Investigations (the precursor to the FBI) on suspicion of involvement in the April 15, 1920 robbery of the payroll at the Slater-Morrill Shoe Company in Braintree, Massachusetts. A security guard and paymaster were both murdered by the perpetrators of this robbery. 
   Nicola Sacco and Bertolomeo Vanzetti were arrested on May 5, 1920. When picked up by the cops, they were found carrying guns and anarchist literature. 
   An ambitious judge and even more ambitious prosecutor thrust themselves into the case. The prosecutor, Frederick Katzmann, secured a conviction against Vanzetti in Judge Webster Thayer's court on a charge of an attempted robbery that had occurred the previous Christmas Eve. But the real trial was yet to come.
    In 1971, an Italian filmmaker named Giuliano Montaldo made a film that focused heavily on the second trial. In a fresh and exciting documentary fashion, Sacco & Vanzetti opens in stark black and white, giving a fast recap of the events leading up to the robbery and murders. Watching the movie today, it is easy to see the influence of this filmmaker on a young Oliver Stone when the latter created JFK twenty years later. We witness actions by the players in this real life drama from the point of view of the director, as well as from other participants, the narrative running ahead and slamming brakes, hopping back and spinning wildly, yet holding together through the nearly exhausting talent of the actors on the screen. Riccardo Cucciolla plays Sacco. Since that name probably means nothing to you, perhaps think of a young Tony Shalhoub. His character's timidity and outrage make him simultaneously sympathetic and dangerous without the raving sentimentality or melodrama those terms normally imply. The closest we get to cheap emotion is when Sacco's wife is looking for their son Dante while Nicola is being herded into a paddy wagon. We perceive his helplessness and feel his relief when the boy turns up wandering through the crowd. 
   It is, however, the fierceness of actor Gian Maria Volonte who, as Vanzetti, draws in the camera on every scene in which he appears. Tall, with a lecherous mustache, he also exhibits a sophistication that his character apparently did indeed possess. This is a man who would frighten people like Palmer and Edgar Hoover just by walking down the street on a sunny day. 
   Montaldo's film does an amazing job of recreating the flamboyant racism of Katzmann's prosecution of the two Italians as defense witness after witness is discredited due to a language barrier or nationality. 
    The components of the actual evidence were hardly demonstrative in and of themselves to warrant the conviction and subsequent death sentences handed down by the incompetent judge. But matters went far beyond mere incompetence. The firearms evidence was consistently tampered with and the only way this kind of nonsense could happen in America today would be if we were in the midst of some type of war on terrorism that resulted in American lives being at risk overseas, or with special renditions, or with the accused being denied proper legal representation. That, of course, is the source of the continuing relevance and downright popular fascination with this case. 
   In 2006, director Peter Miller released a real documentary about the case. This film, Sacco and Vanzetti (without the ampersand), gives us moving voice-overs by Tony Shalhoub and John Turturro reading letters written by the title characters from their prison cells. But the real force of this presentation comes from the historians, of all people. These folks, especially Howard Zinn and Mary Anne Trasciatti, tell the story in a way that makes contemporary the grief of the travesty of justice that resulted in the execution of these two men. The audience is also struck by the courage of Sacco and especially Vanzetti as they face a future they cannot help but understand all too well. 
    One of the most ironic elements in the film comes near the end when the daughter of one of the robbery victims recalls how she was in a college English class when the professor handed out poems for the members of the class to read aloud. She was given--apparently by accident--a poem written by Edna St. Vincent Mallay called "Justice Denied in Massachusetts." After class, one of the daughter's classmates told the instructor who the young lady was. His horror can only be imagined. 

Let us abandon then our gardens and go home
And sit in the sitting-room
Shall the larkspur blossom or the corn grow under this cloud?
Sour to the fruitful seed
Is the cold earth under this cloud,
Fostering quack and weed, we have marched upon but cannot
conquer;
We have bent the blades of our hoes against the stalks of them.

Let us go home, and sit in the sitting room.
Not in our day
Shall the cloud go over and the sun rise as before,
Beneficent upon us
Out of the glittering bay,
And the warm winds be blown inward from the sea
Moving the blades of corn
With a peaceful sound.

Forlorn, forlorn,
Stands the blue hay-rack by the empty mow.
And the petals drop to the ground,
Leaving the tree unfruited.
The sun that warmed our stooping backs and withered the weed
uprooted—
We shall not feel it again.
We shall die in darkness, and be buried in the rain.

What from the splendid dead
We have inherited —
Furrows sweet to the grain, and the weed subdued —
See now the slug and the mildew plunder.
Evil does overwhelm
The larkspur and the corn;
We have seen them go under.

Let us sit here, sit still,
Here in the sitting-room until we die;
At the step of Death on the walk, rise and go;
Leaving to our children's children the beautiful doorway,
And this elm,
And a blighted earth to till
With a broken hoe.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

LEANING AGAINST CONSTRICTED FREEDOM

   
   We had better learn to get along with him because, at age sixty-seven, writer Greil Marcus will be around for quite a while. The best year to be born an American was 1945, right at the end of the war or at the beginning of the baby boom. Those born in that noble year found themselves blessed with a freedom that can only exist as one's national character or facade stands atop a mound of rotting fascist corpses, half the victors snarling with machine guns around their necks, the other half with electric guitars erect at their waists. That freedom unlocked a maze of puzzled psychological crates. Inside each box would reside another container, sometimes smaller, sometimes larger than its originator. Peel off Oedipus and there was Starkweather. Scrape away his mental detritus and you found Eisenhower. Beneath those bald layers rested Malcolm. Inside him screamed  unwritten pages from a Melville manuscript. From each crate wafted a scent and within the molecules of that odor emerged a group of thinking adults spinning into the street unencumbered by the somnambulism of previous generations. These folks were free, some of them, anyway. And a lot of them liked rock and roll music. 
  Only a few of them stayed with it, of course. Writing about any type of post-WWII culture is often a labor without child birth. If you look through the Contents page of the adventurous book Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island (1979), you'll see that very few of the contributors' names still regularly appear accompanying music criticism. You will also find from that page a list of some of the best writers in any genre, of whom only a few still write about music and a couple of whom are dead. Greil Marcus edited that book. Among the contributors were Dave Marsh, Robert Christgau, Simon Frith and Lester Bangs. When you can make a living writing about rock and roll, you are either on the take or very damned good. These guys are just that good. But only Marcus was born in 1945. 
   His first book came out when he was at the wizened age of thirty: Mystery Train. As of 2008, the book was on its fifth edition. Subtitled Images of America in Rock n Roll Music, the book is all that and more. The reader becomes (at last) an American as he or she stands atop a heap of fascist corpses alongside Sly Stone, Elvis Presley, Randy Newman and The Band, all of you waving your guitars and drum sticks like the flags they are. Many a complex decade later came Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, my personal all-time favorite book and one I hope some day to finish. I didn't care that much for his book Dead Elvis, but In the Fascist Bathroom, a collection of his writings which was published in 1993, which I was lucky enough to have found at the local Zia Records Exchange, has not left my sight since I first purchased it four days ago. Nominally a book that collects Greil's writings about punk or post-punk from 1977 through 1992, the subject matter is far more interesting than that. What Marcus really writes about--or talks about; you can hear the occasional professor sounding, well, quite casually professorial on every page--is freedom. Opening his book at random, my finger falls to a passage about Joe Strummer of The Clash:
Meeting Strummer, it's not hard to imagine him ripping down a fence separating his band from its audience. A joyful loathing of such elitism is part of what kicked off the English punk revolt in the first place, and no band has tried harder, or more self-consciously, to live up to that revolt, to keep its spirit whole, than The Clash.
Here's an excerpt from a piece about John Cale:
From the way Cale took and held the stage, you would have thought war had been declared and the purpose of his concert to choose sides and get down to basic emotional and philosophical training.
And finally, here he is talking about criticism, or perhaps about himself:
Criticism is the bringing of the terms of x to bear on y: it is an analytical juxtaposition that forces a certain tension, a certain friction, and the result is up for grabs. But what if the object of criticism is at once a shark and a jellyfish, transparent and opaque, an object that for all its obvious falsity, contrivance, and insincerity is still the emblem of an age, simultaneously empowered by the age and empowering the age itself?
   This is the point. America, that is, the Big America, with capital letters, stared into its own stomach back in 1980 and vomited out a replica of itself in the form of Ronald Reagan. The abomination of his presidency was not the man himself. Evil men have always existed amid freedom-loving people. The horror that shook its fists in our faces was that there were lots and lots of other people who actually revered the man. Some, like the political idiot Neil Young, felt the time had come for the weak to either get strong or die. Others, such as my grandmother, admired his phony style, his cowpoke patriotism, his arrogant Christian manners. Evil is and always has been constriction that feels like liberation. So when Reagan fired the striking members of the air traffic controllers union, his hideous behavior was applauded by many as a march for freedom from the imagined tyranny of brotherhood. When he gave his tacit approval to a glorified thug like Oliver North to trade arms to Iran in exchange for prisoner releases that never happened, his good intentions were presumed to be a given, despite the illegality of the actions. When his administration, in the form of murderer Jeanne Kirkpatrick, declared that democracy could be on the side of authoritarian governments in Latin America because they were preferable to totalitarian governments elsewhere, few people outside International Relations courses understood the distinction and by that time, a lot of Americans were getting very sleepy with the concept of foreign affairs, what with the fantasy of the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars) being in the works, even though it never really was. 
   Those were horrible times and the worst part of that period is that it still has not ended. 
   Then again, Greil Marcus remains with us and as long as he does, and as long as his writings find their audience, as this one found me--I am not vain enough to believe that I found it--we have a chance, a slim chance, of escaping the illusions that brought the king of Cowards in the form of the fortieth president into a legitimate position in this country. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

THE CYCLE OF SACRIFICE

    
   Damn this neighborhood!
    Four little girls ranging in age from three to eleven were abandoned to the people next door by their mother because she was tired of being brutalized by one or more of her children's fathers. Naturally, the family where the sisters are temporarily staying isn't much better: there's no father, mom works all day, and the three kids who really live there  are teenagers and have lives full of video games and volleyball. So these four young girls are making the best of it in the same clothing all weekend long and with nothing to eat except hot dogs without buns. 
    My roommate, being a mother herself, went to Savers and bought the kids some clothing so she could wash the things they were already wearing. She has also been entertaining the girls with "silly walks" and such.
   Wait. Since I am writing this in "real time," I have just learned that the girls in fact do have a home to go to tonight, which is good news. It's good news because by morning I was going to feel obligated to contact Child Protective Services, an agency that would most likely have found itself needing to split up that family, something I would have hated to see.
    Our slight misunderstanding of the facts notwithstanding, I must tell you that the looks on the faces of those kids when the roommate approached them seemed to speak the words, "Hooray! Someone who likes us!" 
    Even if today represented only one day of neglect, that is still one day too many. The reason we became involved in this mess in the first place was because we had observed a young girl on a Big Wheel outside in the courtyard for several hours, attended by no one. When we didn't hear the kid playing any longer we went looking for her and found these four sisters instead. Being a child is a lonely business in this neighborhood. I'm getting sick of it.
    What happens to the eleven year old in about two years when she discovers that she has alternatives to being ignored by her parents? You know exactly what I'm talking about. She may find that the arms and legs of an older boy feel pretty reassuring. And since ma and pa never bothered with contraception, there's a good chance she won't bother either. And the cycle of sacrifice unwinds. 
    What happens to the eight-year-old who will be ten in two years, around the same time that her older sister starts spending time away? Then she'll be the big sister to the younger two, assuming the family is still together. Lots of MTV, lots of commercials for drugs, lots of ads for sex, lots of smiling white guys with death in their eyes. 
    What happens to the five year old who will be seven in two years? Will her time in the second grade be marked with perfect attendance rewards and spelling bee championships? Will she be on the honor roll? Or will she be lain out on a slab in the morgue after crossing away from the intersection at midnight because all she wanted from the Circle K was a piece of candy and the driver didn't see her?
    What happens to the three year old who will be five? She'll watch her mother getting slapped around, brutalized and beaten down into a hole that only floats her back up on the suds of beer or cheap wine. She'll grow up--if she does--understanding what her mother taught her by example: it's okay to get beaten if you deserve it, honey. 
   Damn this neighborhood.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

EVEN WITHOUT THE MAPS

   
   I haven't paid much attention to National Geographic magazine since I was fifteen and getting minor jollies from the bare-chested women in the Aborigine photographs. Then the other day at the newsstand I spied a picture of a cheetah jumping over the nation of Cuba on the cover of a magazine. In reality the scene was just a curious juxtaposition. All the same I knew without thinking twice that I had to be gazing upon the cover of NatGeo. My heart soared like a hawk--at least for a few moments.
    Prices have increased since my teenage years. This copy cost a sweet six dollars. 
    On the other hand, I have to admit that the photography in the November 2012 issue deserves to be the envy of anything on or off line. And the article titles actually possessed a bit of punch: (1) Cuba's New Now; (2) It's All in the Bubbles; (3) Vikings and Native Americans; (4) Sailing the Dunes; (5) Cheetahs on the Edge; (6) Arkansas Delta, 40 Years Later. These are in addition to the regular monthly columns of Letters to the Editor, Visions, Next and Comment. And, naturally, there's a slew of adverts. (And even those nasty ads have a quality that makes them specifically appropriate to this beautiful journal: just the kind of things one might expect, such as a moose responding to Accord headlights, a Swiss Army watch, the adventurous Chase Sapphire card, and Canon cameras.) 
   One of the great features of National Geographic has always been the fold-outs and this issue did my memory proud with one on solar power, one on emperor penguins, one on shifting sand dunes, and the most beautiful display of a cheetah in flight that I've ever seen. 
   The other highlight from the old days was the free maps. This issue did not have free maps. 
    The centerpiece of this particular issue, of course, is Cuba. That's significant, I think, because Cuba is very much in the news. If one goes to Google, for instance, and types the name of that Latin American country in the search field, as of today 637 million results will display. Why is Cuba so popular with the media? One reason is that the United States never has quite gotten over that ugly business with the brink of nuclear annihilation that elbowed us in the ribs during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the fiftieth anniversary of which just recently passed. The main attraction, however, has been the evident demise of Fidel Castro and the ascension of brother Raul. Even the arsenic-breathed Council on Foreign Relations asserts that the time has come to normalize relations with the happy island off the coast of Key West. 
    So what does NatGeo's issue talk about? How lousy everything is in Cuba these days. Consider some of the photo captions: "A window reflects an image of Fidel Castro in a working-class Havana neighborhood few tourists see"; "A passenger rides shotgun in a Havana taxi--not the kind used by tourists, but one of the geriatric American cars that carry only Cubans, who pay a fraction of the tourist fare"; "Hunting down groceries in poorly stocked markets. . . "; "Cockfighting is a long-standing tradition. . . " Still, the article runs to more than twenty pages, considerably more than one is likely to get in any foreign affairs journals. 
     All the same, the writer is careful to link the poverty in Cuba to the trade embargo as well as to the cliches about the so-called failed ideology of its dying prince. 
   Politics has never really been the purview of this magazine anyway. The best article in this particular issue was the one about penguins. However awkward the little buggers are on land they more than compensate for in the chilly waters of Antarctica. I for one did not know that emperor penguins have a thick forest of feathers that trap air in an under-layer that helps propel the birds through the aythc two oh. I also did not know that the birds were so massed together that site of them is routinely picked up from satellites. 
    I'm not going to continue with a page-by-page breakdown of the magazine. What I will do is suggest that you may find yourself bored with the gloomy nonsense of the fictionalized holiday season and as your mind trails off in pursuit of something useful to do, you could do far worse than to gaze into the shining stucco home of the National Geographic folks. Your mind will soon become poisoned with the ignorance of people like Bret Michaels--sure would love to set fire to that stupid bandana--Justin whatever and Pariah Carey. Why not get a little education for the price of a breakfast meal at McDonald's Toadburgers? It's the most cost-effective tuition you'll pay this season. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

SLIPPING INTO DARKNESS

   We are slipping into that troubling time of the year that many people insist on calling The Holidays. The whole thing runs from roughly Halloween until sometime after New Year's Day. The stench of this celebratory somnambulance leaves me cold. After all, far too much merriment shoved into far too small a period of time can be off-putting. In addition to the aforementioned Halloween, we must also suffer through Samhain, otherwise known as the Celtic New Year's Day. Overlapping this we have Dewali, the Festival of Lights, one of those rare occasions where henna tattoos come in handy. On the heels of this we have All Saints Day, followed far too soon by Thanksgiving, the day that most people in America agree kicks off the bloody season. 

    Hey, we're just getting started.
    Once December falls on our faces, we have the privilege of coping with Advent, then the Day of Enlightenment (or Bodhi Day), followed by Saint Lucy's Day. This year Hannukah runs from December 8 through the 16th. The Winter Soltice, or Yalda, celebrates the longest night of the year on December 21. Some groups call this the Modraniht or the Saturnalia. Then there's Christmas Eve. Right after that we get Christmas Day, sometimes thought of as the Day of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun, while others think of it as Feast Day. The 26th is Boxing Day in Britain, while Pan-Africa calls it the first day of Kwanzaa. Others prefer to celebrate this as Saint Stephen's Day. Two days later we get to party on with the Holy Innocents Day. Then of course there's the dreaded New Year's Eve, or Hogmanay, capped off by the abominable New Year's Day itself. (Somewhere in there, my friend Ruth Ann has a birthday which I can never seem to remember the date of until it's too late.) Then at long last, everyone can stop pretending to get along and return to various acts of contempt until Valentine's Day comes along to remind us that we have a fiscal responsibility to maintain the solvency of the greeting card industry. 
    I have to admit that the whole thing leaves me badly depressed. Most of the really rotten things that have happened to me have happened in or around December, meaning that, for the most part, I find the entirety of this extended Pepsi commercial to be lacking in humanity. That being the case, this year I'm going to do something just a wee bit different from years past. At some point during the month of December--probably right around Christmas--I'm going to find a homeless person. I'm going to show that person a good time. Here in Phoenix the weather isn't too awful during the winter, but even with decent temperatures, not having a home while others are locked in the droughts of drunken revelry can be downright suicide-inducing. One person--or small family, whichever--is going to get a little surprise. I'm thinking of a tidy care package that includes a bit of cash, some comfortable clothing, perhaps a warm sleeping bag, and a gift card for a restaurant. 
   I know one person who took in a homeless fellow for a few days. I have known others who will buy those unfortunates bags of groceries. Taking someone in is a fine thing to do. But the grocery bag is actually a waste of resources because homeless people rarely have the ability to lug around heavy sacks and almost never have access to can openers, knives and forks, or any place to eat outside of the underneath of a bridge. 
    None of my plans are going to change the world. That's a sad fact. They may, however, give a fellow enough personal strength and hope to get through these Holidays without impaling himself on a harpoon. 
    Please do not infer from all this that I am a curmudgeon. I am, of course, but that is hardly the point. I'm a curmudgeon all year long. There's nothing special about December. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

FEED THE EGO

    What with all the crystal worshiping banana smokers raving about the death of the ego, you might get the idea that the second apparatus in the Freudian triad was somehow nasty. Pshaw, y'all. 'Tain't no such thing. In its most elementary existence, the ego is the reality principle being forced upon the id. Because we as a species tend to be a narcissistic bunch, we often suffer from pangs of inadequacy. Sure enough, along comes some self-described sensi to tell us that those pangs are just the natural course of the death of the ego, as if that is somehow a good thing. Friends, that sentiment, in a hyphenated word, is flap-doodle. 

    The ego is the most important thing we have. Without ego--even in the loose sense of the word--we have nothing worth preserving. I'll stretch this oversimplification even farther and say that life comes down to a stupid wager between God and the Devil over how you're going to stack up in this boxing match we call life. In this match there is only one commandment: Be hit and hit back. That is the name of the game. Without ego, you haven't got a chance.
    If you watch old reels of Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali fighting in 1971, what you'll see is two men who both denied the possibility of losing. You talk about ego! Those guys were nothing but Ego in the raw. Ali: "You know you're in here with the God tonight!" Frazier: "If you're God, you're in the wrong place tonight!" Neither man suffered tremendously until the fourteenth round, and during the fifteenth, Frazier whacked Ali upside the head and knocked him on his back. Instantly swollen, Ali got back on his feet and finished the round, even though the judges awarded the match to Frazier. At our best, each one of us is one of those two men. At our worst, we're somewhere in the stands paying off our bookies.
    While I'm up this particular tree, I might as well finish sawing off the limb I'm perched upon and declare that the old remark that it's hard to like someone who doesn't like himself is a good thing to remember. Without self love, you can't be loved in return. Worse yet, without self love, you can't love the other person. I'm not talking about some type of fascist hierarchy here. What I am talking about is loving yourself as the equal of everyone else and the only way that kind of thinking becomes fascist is if you've decided the whole human race is just a smoldering pile of dung. Well, things do get fairly rancid from time to time, that's true. We still have an obligation, all the same, to ourselves and to one another, to feed our egos so that we can take the body blows that half the world throws out and at the same exact time remain ripe and open to loving and being loved in return by the other half. 
    Most of the people we admire in this life are people who find themselves locked in a death match between self-love and total self-contempt. One day they are saving the world and feeling the glow. The next they are being kicked around the backyard like a rabid mongrel and feeling the frost. The most fascinating people internalize everything. Yet the one other thing that unites the people we tend to admire is that their personal scale is tipped in favor of believing in themselves even when they are losing. It takes very little effort to be victorious these days. A person can create his own mythology and be confident that a whole slew of sycophants will feign orgasms at the scent of his anal vapors. The real test is when everyone else turns away, or worse yet, when everyone else is walking in one direction and you are headstrong determined to go the other. It doesn't matter whether you're right or wrong. You'll still end up somewhere either way. The point, the difference, is that if you can find some way to love yourself regardless of outcomes, then you'll still be a success because while God and the Devil are throwing dice, you'll be claiming the game as your own. 
   Here's a great example from the gossip pages. Alleged actor Jonah Hill and presumed news anchor Don Lemon passed one another outside the men's room at a hotel recently. Both guys got their feelings hurt because each man was unaware of the self-importance of the other. Tweets were exchanged. Wendy Williams was enraged. Ho-hum.
    Except: neither one of these guys has as much talent in his entire body as you do in your foot, even if you are an amputee. Yet they make lots of money and have the leisure time to insult one another over the internet. How can this be? Ego, mon ami! Talent has absolutely nothing to do with how successful you are. Intelligence? Forget it! What it all comes down to is your ability to believe all the good things people say about you and to disregard all the negative things those same people say. Do you really believe for an instant that some squirrelly-faced zombie on "American Idol" has any natural right to consider him/herself vital? Of course not! All it takes is the willingness to believe that despite the fact that you wear a sequin eye patch, dress like a very rich prostitute, and vocally emote like a methhead sociopath, you are still the greatest thing going on a given night. That's really all there is to it. And we can't blame it all on stupid TV shows. Think back to your youth and you will likely remember that you used to groove to some of the most disgraceful talentless panderers who ever lived. Elton John? Cher? Foreigner? REO Speedwagon? Gimme a break. The only thing that put people like that on the charts was their brazen denial of faults in the pursuit of their own aggrandizement. Better you any day of the week than a lifetime of Kelly Clarkson. Me, if I want real talent, I'll go with Alicia Keys or Nick Lowe. 
    In the meantime, however, I cannot overemphasize the importance of--not vanity but--healthy ego. Your id says you want all the cookies. Your superego says there are hungry people in the world who don't have any cookies at all. Your ego says that if you eat too many cookies you will get fat. The ego is a realist. Feed the ego.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

EXILE IN OSLO

   
    If I had decided to secede from the Union every time I didn't get my way about something important, I'd have been living overseas since about 1973. Matter of fact, I was considering launching a petition campaign to all the other Jill Stein supporters urging my comrades to move to Norway as a protest against a country that would dare to elect someone I personally choose not to endorse. I even went so far as to hop a jet over the weekend. When I landed in Oslo, the Royal Guard escorted me in to see Harald V, the present King of said country. The King was a righteous fellow who took me on a brief tour of the Akershus Castle, the Coat of Arms, and all that rot. Everywhere we went there was some weird music playing over the public address system. I asked about it and the King replied that it was an old eight-track of the first Mahogany Rush album, one that had been left--accidentally--by a deranged white hippie back in 1971. Today, the King sighed, that crap is all the locals ever want to hear. I was beginning to develop second thoughts about my mission until Harald assured me that as a third cousin to Roky Erickson, His Majesty intended to replace the current eclectic soundtrack with the debut recording from the Cocteau Twins. Hey, progress takes time.
    Once the two of us sat across from one another--separated only by an old Ouija Board--the King explained that granting asylum to all seven hundred of us Jill Stein supporters was a bit outside his domain, one should pardon the expression. For absolute permission to migrate and assimilate, I would need to speak with a whizbang smokestack jive-cat named Jens Stoltenberg. He was the Prime Minister.
    Mr. Stoltenberg turned out to be a blast of a guy. He wears these little robin egg glasses and sports a rather David Byrne style haircut, but all the same he was gracious as a cloistered monk and he and I chatted for nearly an hour. When he finally got around to inquiring after the purpose of my visit, I explained--again--that we Jill Stein supporters were seeking a safe haven away from a country that would support either a Republican or Democratic Party nominee over that of the nominee of the glorious Green Party of the United States. The PM's visage turned a bit gray. In perfect English, he said, "This is a matter for the Storting. That is the Norwegian Parliament. Let me take you to them now."
    On our way down a very long hall, I gave the fist pump to the Secretary General, slapped a high five to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and told a fast fart joke to the Minister of Finance, the latter replying between guffaws that he wished us all luck and inquired whether he might visit our commune once we were properly established.
    All 169 members of the Storting stood as the PM and I entered the room. Jens grabbed a dangling microphone, ordered the horrible music to cease, and announced, "This here character wants to bring his tribe of Greenies over because they didn't like the last American election. Anyone have a problem with that?"
    An inordinately tall woman in a brocade dress stood and motioned for the microphone. Jens sent it her way. Taking it in one long hand she replied, "That's really a matter for the King, wouldn't you say?"
    I was getting a sense of what it felt like to be a football. After some bad sushi, I re-boarded the same waiting jet and returned to Phoenix where, as it happened, they were still counting ballots and throwing dice to see if they were going to consider votes cast by anyone whose last name was Ramirez. Sheriff Arpaio was at the airport arresting anyone who would agree to wrestle him. Jeff Flake was desperately seeking a dentist to correct his over bite. And Governor Brewer was polishing her pearl-handled revolver just in case anyone brought up the subject of gun control.
    It still feels strange to be back.  

Monday, November 12, 2012

COP FLICK CHALLENGE

    
    Even in 1973 it was a challenge to make a cop film that was somehow different from the hundreds of other such films being released, seemingly, every other day. You had your Buford Pusser Redneck Against Corruption flick, your Billy Jack Indian Chief on the Rez flick, your Anti-Counterculture Dirty Harry flick, your Only Thing Worse Than A Cop is Everybody Else Onion Fields flick, your Racist Cops Mofo Blaxploitation flick, your Racist Cops Against Drug Dealers Connection flick, your What We Really Need is Less Cops and More Social Workers flicks, and all the others that were really just more of the same. The genre appeared to be played out. 
    Then director Philip D'Antoni came along and said, "We could always make a cop film about an elite squad in New York where the head elite cop grew up and stayed friends with some dago who wears nice suits and is kind of mobbed up. The cop, well, he'd be like Roy Scheider, you know, Italian without looking like it, and he could have some guys work with him in his squad who won't steal scenes, you know. Then his friend, some really major wop like Tony Lo Biano, who can actually act from what I hear, his friend could be like, you know, a hood. A well-dressed hood, am I right? The Vito, he'll be suave as all get-out and he'll be shaking down his own people 'cause you know how they are. He'll use that small talk he gets from Scheider to shake down the other hoods in some way that has something to do with a car."
    "A car? What's you mean?"
    "We gotta have a car chase, man. It's a cop movie, dig? So, I know! We'll bring in a car wash!"
    "You gots to be putting on my ass."
    "No, no, it'll play, it'll play. Like, the Vito Dago, he'll have these ugly guys working with him. They'll be in the drive-through car wash waiting to pop the trunk and steal the ransom."
    "Shit, man! What ransom?"
    "The ransom. Dude, there's always a ransom. Listen to me. Scheider, he and his boys will be hated by the regular beat cops 'cause he dresses nice just like his Vito Dago pal. The other cops'll figure him for a skell, but he ain't. He bends the rules, he don't break 'em."
    "Until--"
   "Correct! Until his friend gets offed. Then we have the car chase. And brother this chase will be the best one ever. We'll make it like ten minutes long."
    "Jeezoy!"
    "Don't you 'Jeezoy" me, cat. That was one hell of an expensive scene. Cost more'n the rest of the picture minus salaries, clown."
    "Was pretty good, huh?"
    "Yeah, cat. It was good. So anyway, what happens is that the guy back in the garage, the guy they arrested for opening the garage door, I guess that's a crime, he'll never talk, so they'll free his ass and follow him to the hideout, which is cool 'cause Vito Dago will be waiting there, or more likely his boys'll be there, them two ugly bastards, and Scheider will blow their heads off and then he'll know it was Vito who tipped them off, so what we'll have is a good old fashioned buddy cop movie that goes different because in this movie the cop only turns bad to take revenge on his friend the criminal. Slick, right?"
    "Slicker 'an ole Miss Slick and she died slick. Who's the target aud?"
   "Oh, there's your standard JD crowd, for one. There's also your standard Archie who likes law and order no matter how it comes. You got your stock car crowd who'll watch anything with a Pontiac in it--and boy this one'll have more Pontiacs than Nixon got thieves."
    "What about broads?"
    "Man, you a dumb sumbitch. First, we don't calls 'em broads no more, right? Second, there ain't no chicks in this here movie, not one, Jack. So fogetabowtit."
    "Cool. Just one question."
    "Hits me."
    "Why you talk like that?"
    "Dunno. It's in the script." 
    

Saturday, November 10, 2012

MAGGOTS AND INSANITY

Diahann Carroll
    
    With America waving its flag of diversity, you might think that the anger of hatred and bigotry was no longer riding shotgun down the highways and back roads of this mighty country. Heck, we elected and re-elected a man named Barack Obama. We put Halle Berry on the cover of In Style. We even co-opted hip hop culture into Wall Street. So what's the problem?
    The problem, in case you've been distracted by survival, is that the lion and the lamb still cannot quite lie down together without the lamb needing to sleep with one eye open. I may spend far too much time in front of this computer, but I talk to more people than most folks do each and every day and brother and sister I am here to tell you that this last election has really pissed off some potentially very unpleasant people. There's a lady in Pennsylvania who called to inform me that they are taking over. A friend from Mormon country let me know in no uncertain terms that people up his way are scared about the results of the vote count. I received what I trust will be the final phone call from a  jerk in Florida who screamed for fifteen minutes that we were all going to be down on our knees worshiping false gods any day now. And I must have received twenty tweets on election night informing me that "my guy" was a terrorist who had intimidated "his people" into voting for him. 
    My guy was a woman named Jill Stein. She lost. Satisfied? 
    I would just like to say that what scares me is the possibility that this kind of race hate is still with us, just like it was when I was a kid in small town Ohio. Schoolyard bully Bill O'Reilly told his minions that the establishment is no longer white men, the implication being that like-minded people had better get their sheets and torches. All of this pressure puts those of us who disagree with the leader of the free world in the position of defending a president whose policies, in many cases, appear to be quite similar to those of his predecessors, white males all, lest some fool mistake our opposition as putting us in the same line as the bigots and reactionaries. I'm beginning to feel as if that might be perfectly acceptable for the simple reason that I would rather be on the side of peace-love-and-understanding and risk being wrong than find myself on the same side as Bill O'Reilly about anything. 
    I'm not saying that the occasionally knee-jerk endorsement of the Obama administration isn't almost as foolish as the same type of acceptance of the Ted Nugent ravings, Gordon Liddy phlegm and Rush Limbaugh snot drippings. After all, wasn't it Sly Stone who cautioned us that there's different strokes for different folks?
    Well, Sly was wrong--as he himself soon discovered. 
     Social media makes race hate feel almost acceptable in a sly and insular way. While researching this article, I came upon a site that featured "The 15 Most Racist Tweets of Election Night." The texts were all the same vile swill I used to hear on the playground when I was a kid, the same stomping ground where cretins like O'Reilly used to spit on the kids wearing dungarees. 
    Until recently, most of this cretinism steered clear of popular films. That was until something called 2016: Obama's America puked up on these shores back in August of this year. I'd be a little surprised if you haven't at least heard of this grog because to date it is the fourth highest grossing "documentary" film in U.S. history. The movie was put together by Dinesh D'Souza, a former Reagan neophyte and scrotum scratcher,  an Indian (as in east Indian) American, and the former president of King's College. D'Souza tries to draw parallels between himself and the 44th president, concluding that Obama's dad was the source of the man's communist sympathies, an inference that would make me smile if it weren't so full of maggots and insanity. 
    To wash the feel of this bile off my skin, I decided to sit back and watch Hurry Sundown (1967), a movie that is very different from the anti-Obama movie. Hurry Sundown was produced and directed by Otto Preminger, the man famous for (among other things) Laura. I have to tell you, my expectations were pretty frail because I'd read half a dozen old reviews that essentially said the movie was a floating turd that no one had gotten around to flushing. That's what makes life interesting. You get to wonder why otherwise intelligent people might greet a great movie with such open derision. At last the answer slapped me across the back of the head. Those critics actually took the film at face value, neglecting to see the characters themselves as symbols of something else. You see, much of the criticism of this movie rested on the suggestion that the characters were rather one-dimensional. I'm not necessarily willing to grant that point because it ignores the changes that come over Jane Fonda and even Michael Caine. But, okay, you can temporarily have that issue on your side of the argument. I still maintain this is a uniquely brilliant film, maybe even a masterpiece, specifically because the characters lack a certain depth. 
    But let's look at the cast. The white folks in the movie are led by the aforementioned Fonda and Caine, who play Julie Ann and Henry Warren, the former the great-grand-daughter of a slave owner, the latter the heel who married into her family for the lust of wealth. John Phillip Law and Faye Dunaway play Rad and Lou McDowell, he a returning World War II veteran, she his wife and mother of their four children. The McDowell family live across the way from the black folks, with whom we will soon become friendly. Up the road aways we have Burgess Meredith as the rancorous and hateful Judge Purcell, the man in whose court the first fake denouement will occur. And praise God, we even get Luke Askew (about whom it was my pleasure to write a few weeks ago in the review of Rolling Thunder) as the leader of a Klan-like Georgia contingent. Oh, and we can't forget George Kennedy who, as you may have guessed, plays the miscegenating yet racist sheriff. 
    The black folks are led by the pairing of Robert Hooks as Reeves Scott and Diahann Carroll as Vivian Thurlow. Reeves owns the property across the way from the McDowells. Vivian knew Reeves before the war. Now she's back from New York, having snagged a plumb job as a teacher. Her dad's a local professor. Vivian thinks Reeves' mom must be in her seventies and is surprised to learn she's only fifty-four. It's been a hard life. Years earlier she was Julie Ann's mammy. 
   Circumstances created by Caine and Fonda bring Law and Hooks together. Caine plays one evil son of a bitch; in fact, his character, Henry, is right up there with Cathy Aimes from East of Eden as one of the most despicable characters in all fiction. As was said of Cathy, Henry has a malformed soul. Julie Ann starts out as the prototypical rich liberal, telling the judge he's an idiot for spitting in the communion cup just because a black woman drank from it before it was passed to him. We can tell, though, that Julie's platitudes won't hold and that turns out to be exactly right. She can't wait to have her snake husband convince her to evict her former mammy from the house to which the old woman holds deed and title. 
    I'm not going to give away any more of the plot because the plot is as much a symbol as the characters themselves. The white people--most of them, anyway (the young reverend seems like a decent dude and Jim Backus as the attorney is a hoot and hero)--here are sick. Simple as that. The black people are noble and naive. Simple as that. Okay, so was Preminger a dolt? Hardly. What he put together, as I have said, is a symbolic movie where the images tells the story more than the dialog or plot development. Caine drips liquid contempt for everyone, even his own autistic son. To him everyone is a sucker waiting to be plucked. Askew is the right wing white trash malcontent who doesn't care who gets hurt as long as he gets his kicks. Kennedy tries to be likable, but shows his hand as he remarks that "the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice." 
    The reason this movie will work for some people is the same reason it won't for others. Some people have been on the receiving end of violent force from things that looked large. Just because there's no Richard Pryor-style character laughing with his friends about the treacheries of whitey, that doesn't make this film any less convincing. That hard fist of establishment justice carries a heavy weight. If you've felt that weight smack you around, you'll understand this movie almost immediately. But if all you've ever done is read about it, you probably will think of Hurry Sundown as superficial. Hey, different strokes. Wait. I think we disabused that notion earlier. 
    When I replay the vituperative hatred I've been hearing for almost a week now regarding the big election, I feel a genuine embarrassment. If that's just liberal guilt, well, fine, I can live with that accusation. I think it's a lot more than that, though. When I hear those hateful words about the president--words that have nothing to do with any public policy and only to do with the man as a person--I die just a bit inside. No one wants to be mistaken for an imbecile. Do they?
jane Fonda, Michael Caine