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Monday, December 31, 2012

VINTERY, MINTERY, CUTERY, CORN

   
   Ah, to be a criminal now that winter has come.
   I remember watching One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) for the first time. I was sitting cross-legged on the floor of the house where Sandy Hatten lived. The movie was being aired uncut and commercial free on a local affiliate network. This happened, I believe it was, in 1979, which would make it four years following its theatrical release. Anyway, Sandy had seen the movie at the cinema, where it properly belonged, and I had not seen it at all. Once R.P. McMurphy strutted into the Oregon State Mental Hospital and the patients there started watching him and reacting to his manner, I started laughing. I mean, the inmates in the nut house were so obviously funny. Then I noticed that Sandy wasn't laughing. Her face was more akin to exploring the screen, studying the faces of the men in the group, thinking about the nature of power. Sandy was a year older than me and far more sophisticated, so I immediately reconsidered my own response to the early parts of the film. Clearly, I had been a fool.
    That is true and yet it is not true. Yes, I had been a fool and yes, I should not have necessarily laughed at the antics of Danny Devito, Christopher Lloyd, and the others. Yet their behavior made one of the other characters, played by Jack Nicholson, laugh. If it was good enough for Jack to laugh, it should have been okay for me. 
   The problem is that it's not nice to laugh at crazy people. Crazy folks cannot really help themselves. Their illnesses are the psychological equivalent of pancreatic cancer, stomach ulcers, or pneumonia, and what the hell's so funny about those things? 
    Of course, the real problem is that with physical maladies, it's fairly easy to tell who is the sick person in the room, whereas with mental patients, you cannot always be certain that the patient is the fruit cake. The same thing is true of people locked up in criminal prisons. Maybe they're the prisoners and just maybe the real convicts are the guards, the warden, and the lovely taxpayers who foot the bill in relative safety. And who is more free: a Marine with a machine gun or the villager he blows away? 
    One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is one of the rare cinematic delights that came from the so-called independent film world. Fantasy Records and Films was helmed by a man named Saul Zaentz, although in 1975 the company was a lot better known for having been the record label of Creedence Clearwater Revival than of being in the movie business. In any case, Fantasy was located in Berkeley, California, not far from the streets of San Francisco where a young Michael Douglas was filming a TV called "The Streets of San Francisco." Somewhere along the line the two men met and decided to make a film of the Ken Kesey novel. Casting alone took them six months, especially since so many people kept turning down the plum roles. Gene Hackman, for instance, was offered the role of McMurphy and passed on it, later claiming his manager had advised him against it. Louise Fletcher, who played Nurse Ratched, says that four other well-known actresses passed on her part because they were not comfortable playing someone so self-assuredly evil. The producers didn't have a ton of money, but all the actors except Nicholson were asked to work for scale wages and agreed to do so. That suited director Milos Forman just fine because, as something like the tenth director Zaentz and Douglas interviewed for the job, he wanted Nicholson's character to be the only one recognizable to a movie audience because he figured we would see the patients as unknown entities just the way McMurphy would see them. It worked. 
    To think of this movie as being specifically about mental illness is shortsighted. It's also not necessarily an anti-establishment movie, although it works well enough on that basis. But I suspect there was something else going on, something in particular about Kesey's novel and Dale Wasserman's play that intrigued the two producers. If you listen to the commentary track of the DVD edition of the film, as I did this evening, one of the things you may pick up on is Douglas making a point, twice, of not being sexist. He says it in relation to Nurse Ratched being the powerhouse road block in every institution. He says it again in reference to the women who turned down the Ratched role (those women reportedly including Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn and Faye Dunaway). Douglas has, in the ensuing years, attached himself to a number of films that suggest a kind of suave sexism, be it as the victimized family man in Fatal Attraction, the misogynist Everyman in Falling Down, or the sexually harassed underling in Disclosure. Look, I don't know the guy. However, if we judge a person by his or her work, it would not be unfair to suggest that there might be a bit of chauvinism going on here. 
   In the Kesey novel, when McMurphy explodes at the destruction of Billy, he rapes the Big Nurse as a means of imparting justice. I've always been uneasy with that idea because it fits so well with much of the male-dominated leftism of the period, where, as Eldridge Cleaver is reputed to have said, "The woman's position in the Movement is supine." It's not much of a surprise, in retrospect, that Cleaver would turn out to be a Christian fundamentalist and belligerent right winger. 
    The way the book and the movie are set up, the female roles are either authoritarian freaks or hookers. The nurses exist only to chip away at the testicles of the men, leaving only the prostitutes to "understand" what men really need. Well, I can only take so much horse shit before I start to puke. 
    You could argue that sexism has nothing to do with the story and that in order to make several cogent points about the evils of power and the powers of evil, the writer and later the filmmaker decided that the gender-segregated mental institution was the perfect scene. Okay, then how come when the men are escaping to go fishing and their bus passes a store that sells televisions, the sets in the store window feature the image of Gloria Steinem even though the setting of the movie is 1963 and back then almost no one had ever heard of her and she sure didn't appear on television. 
   I realize we're not supposed to say things like that because Cuckoo's Nest is such a great movie. Taken strictly at face value, that's exactly correct. It's a masterpiece. But then again, as Pauline Kael said of Dirty Harry, it's a fascist masterpiece. It's not you that's sick. It's society. You're not the one with the problem, buddy. The problem is with those uppity women and those black boys who do her bidding for her. Oh, yeah, you could say that Kesey and Forman intended all that ironically. But that's bullshit. Kesey, for his part, was suggesting that when those who have been oppressed get into a position of authority, they become just as despicable as the former masters. But this movie is not just another Raisin in the Sun ready to explode.  The men in this movie are being controlled, but in most cases their emasculation is voluntary, suggesting that, unlike McMurphy, these momma boys actually prefer to stay infantile rather than accept the responsibility of manhood, a condition women such as Ratched are all too ready to exploit. 
    Wow. That's some kind of wicked.
    The truth is that I like this movie very much and feel as if it deserved the five big time Academy Awards it received. Nicholson and Louise Fletcher are amazing adversaries and Forman's decision to keep the actors in character while the cameras moved around them in the group therapy sessions was brilliant. But I also have some insight into what it may have been that my friend Sandy was thinking as she stared intensely at the screen, never once cracking a smile. 

Sunday, December 30, 2012

LAST RESURRECTION SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

    The term "independent film" is as meaningless as the expression "alternative music." Neither phrase says what it implies and neither implication is remotely accurate. United Artists is as close as we have come in this country to having a legitimate outlet for movies outside the realm of what used to be called the Hollywood studio system. Nowadays, that system is based on the early U/A model of providing financial backing and distribution to a film idea while (often) leasing the studio facilities to the filmmakers. In the days and years of the original studio system, there was something called five and three. The five were the biggest studios (Fox, MGM, Paramount, RKO and Warner Bros). The three were lesser majors (Universal, Columbia, and United Artists). Today there's still a Big Five, and the names are familiar: Columbia (owned by Sony), Warner Bros (Time-Warner), Paramount (Viacom), Fox (News Corporation), and Universal (Comcast/NBC). You can even throw Disney into the mix, if that helps, despite the stench that company continues to exude. 
   Under the studio system, the majors had things locked up. They owned the studios. They had the directors, writers and actors under contract. They owned the means of distribution. And they owned most of the theater chains where the films were shown. From the release of the first all "live" talking movie Lights of New York in 1928 until an anti-trust Supreme Court decision in 1954, the majors ruled and while you might think that this would mean that a lot of garbage dictated the tastes of the American public, funny enough the exact opposite is true. During this first phase of the Hollywood invasion, we were treated to something known as the Golden Age of Film, yielding such wondrous gems as All Quite on the Western Front, Duck Soup, The Thin Man, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, The Big Sleep, High Noon, Sunset Boulevard, An Affair to Remember, Seven Samurai, On the Waterfront, Rear Window, Rashomon, Singin' in the Rain, A Streetcar Named Desire, Strangers on a Train, From Here to Eternity, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Roman Holiday, An American in Paris, The Big Heat, Othello, The Wild One, My Darling Clementine, The Maltese Falcon, and Casablanca
    The second Hollywood period ran from roughly 1955 through 1967. Those were rough times for the industry, with a certain audience rejection of the pre-blockbuster mentality and the ascent of the New Wave, where the director became very much the guiding hand of the film, which he'd always been anyway, only now the conception of the film as totally the purview of the filmmaker became entranced with the director himself. So with the dawning, as it were, of killer foreign directors such as Truffaut, Godard, Kurusawa and Kubrick, we began to be treated to an absorption or assimilation into the new mainstream with American filmmakers, some carrying over from the Golden Age, others being new faces. The Man with the Golden Arm, Lust for Life, The Defiant Ones, Shadows, Witness for the Prosecution, East of Eden, Anatomy of a Murder, The Night of the Hunter, Kansas City Confidential, Touch of Evil, Bridge on the River Kwai, Knife in the Water, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Breathless, The 400 Blows, Contempt, Cape Fear, Long Day's Journey into Night, Jules and Jim, Hud, A Raisin in the Sun, Judgment at Nuremberg, Blow-Up, Spartacus, Alphaville, A Hard Day's Night, Doctor Strangelove, and the film that kicked down all the doors, Bonnie and Clyde: these movies changed the way audiences came to understand the idea of going to the movies. As with the best movies of the Golden Age, the process of enjoying the movies was helped by an intelligence on the part of the filmgoer. But what mattered the most was sophistication, an understanding of movies as an art form that could actually change the lives of the people who watched them.
    Over the last two evenings, my roommate and I have spent some time in the Golden Age. While I favor the period 1967 through 1975 (approximately Bonnie and Clyde through Jaws), I've also come to recognize that without the two periods that preceded The Revolution, there could have been no revolution to celebrate. My roommate, on the other hand, has the advantage of not being bogged down in all the cerebral history and simply gets to watch movies for the thrill they quite organically offer. The two movies we selected were The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca
    The first time I watched The Maltese Falcon was in 1980 with Ruth Ann Hendrickson and Julia Keller, two friends at college. Marshall University was showing it as part of a retrospective of Golden Age films. Trying to make a good impression on the two women, I had read the Dashiell Hammett novel the night before, found in it a mild satisfaction, and loved the movie. Then I pretty much forgot about it. Such is the attention span of a college student. 
    Then a couple years ago I was diddling around in the local video store and there that 1941 movie was, staring back at me from its perch on the shelf as if to say, "I remember you, buddy. The question is: Do you remember me?" The cost was, I think, five dollars. I couldn't resist. I rushed home, watched it again, and fell asleep somewhere near the middle. Then came the Christmas/New Year's season and Lisa Ann, the roommate in question, had her son Gerrit over for a visit. We were trying to think up something to do to enhance our collective entertainment needs and Lisa Ann suggested we watch The Maltese Falcon. It is one indication of Lisa Ann's intelligence trumping mine that we watched it again this holiday season. I have no idea why I zoned out when I watched it alone unless possibly this is a movie that works better when you have someone you like in the room with you. This film is one of the best indications that the aforementioned studio system had some things going for it. Directed and written by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Ward Bond and Sidney Greenstreet, the Maltese Falcon is, as Sam Spade himself said, "the stuff that dreams are made of." Like the book that spawned it, the movie is all plot and the plot is driven almost entirely by dialogue, a facet that might have hindered a less gifted director. But Huston knew exactly what he was doing. So we get scenes where the camera holds on a door that Sam Spade bursts through rather than having the camera follow him from one spot to another. When our protagonist gets a late night phone call informing him of the murder of his partner Miles Archer, the camera hangs rigidly on the telephone itself for the entire scene. The phone rings, a hand reaches up to take the receiver, Bogart's voice handles his half of the conversation, the hand replaces the receiver, and Bogart rises into the frame to dress himself. This "economy" of style forces the story along better than any half-assed car chase ever could. Speaking of Bogart, throughout the scenes in his apartment, Houston has him with his back to us much of the time so that we, the audience, are watching the characters around him as he himself would watch them. And they are a fascinating lot. Mary Astor plays a woman with more names than costume changes, eventually settling on Bridgit O'Shaughnessy, essentially a bad actress who Spade sees through and falls for simultaneously. She's lethal in the way that only people driven by greed can be, something she shares with Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, a sniveling shark who is one of the people looking for the black bird, a statuette from the days of Charles I of Spain, encrusted with jewels varnished over with black shoe polish. Rounding out the cast of villains is Kasper Gutman, played by Sidney Greenstreet. The Fat Man, as he's known, is the intellectual in the pack. He's been searching for the bird for seventeen years. Whatever he has to do to get it, he'll do, including selling out his hired killer Wilmer, a kid who may even be the son he'd always wanted. "One can always acquire a new son," says the Fat Man. "But there is only one Maltese falcon."
   The movie is jam packed with snappy patter just like that, including one like that uses the word patter itself: "The cheaper the hood, the gaudier the patter." 
    So well received was this movie in our home that Lisa Ann suggested we watch another "old" movie the following night. She gave me a list of about twenty possibles. I went back to the video store and pretended to have a hard time. I knew all along I'd bring home Casablanca, a movie that featured many of the same cast members as the previous night's film because those actors were under contract to Warner Bros. Talk about a movie jam packed with memorable lines! 
   I came to Casablanca for my health.
    Why?
    The healing waters.
    This is the desert. There's no water here.
    I was misinformed
Or:
Major Strasser has been shot. Round up the usual suspects. 
Or:
You know, Rick, I have many a friend in Casablanca, but somehow, just because you despise me, you are the only one I trust. 
Or: 
What kind of man is Captain Renault?
Oh, just like any other man, only more so.
   Indeed, there is not one wasted line in the whole movie, nor one wasted shot, nor even a wasted frame. Everything that's there needs to be and upon each frame depends all the frames that follow. While Lisa Ann and I watched the movie--her first time, my tenth--we stopped the movie a few times so that I could give her the historical context and if you want to fault the film for anything, you can't even use that as a reason because the failing is less with the movie than our history classes. The truth is that Lisa Ann would have loved the movie for the dialogue alone, or for the acting alone, or for the cinematography all by itself, or for the way Bogart single-handedly redefined what it means to be attractive, just as Ingrid Bergman redefined what it means to be beautiful. 
   "I feel changed," the roommate admitted as we decompressed following the film. 
   I knew what she meant. Great movies like the two we watched over the weekend can do that to you. They can change the way you experience the world. Sure, the affect is most intense in the hours immediately following the closing credits, it lingers into the next day, and it usually dissipates by nightfall. But it's never gone entirely. You cannot watch The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca without having new standards for what it takes to be watching a great film. Those may be the watchwords of the Golden Age: "I feel changed."





Friday, December 28, 2012

SOME THAT YOU RECOGNIZE

    Everybody's a dreamer
   Everybody's a star
   And everybody's in showbiz
   It doesn't matter who you are.
   But those who are successful
   Be always on your guard
   Success walks hand in hand with failure
   Along Hollywood Boulevard.
   You can see all the stars
   as you walk down Hollywood Boulevard
   Some that you recognize
   Some that you hardly even heard of.
   People who worked and struggled
   and suffered for fame.
   Some who succeeded
   Some who suffered in vain.
        --Ray Davies, "Celluloid Heroes"

   A lot of people died in 2012. I hope you were not one of them. The futility of trying to sum up a person's life in a few words is obvious. Some people who were famous died. Some less famous, or not nearly as much, also passed away. It is good to think of them, wouldn't you say?

   Houston McCoy died. He was the policeman who shot and killed University of Texas sniper Charles Joseph Whitman in 1966.
   Fontella Bass died. She had a very good Aretha-soundalike hit with "Rescue Me."
   Rescue Me was also the name of a movie starring Charles Durning, who also died this year. 
    Mariam Amash died. She was 124. 
   Jack Klugman died. I first saw him in the original 12 Angry Men. You saw him in "The Odd Couple" and "Quincy."
    Bob Brunner, who wrote many episodes of "The Odd Couple," also died this year. 
   Jimmy McCracklin, the blues musician, died of hypertension. 
   Willie Ackerman, who played drums for Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn and even Louis Armstrong, died this year. 
   Ravi Shankar died. He was possibly the most accomplished musician of the twentieth century. 
   One of the two men who invented the bar code died. His name was Norman Joseph Woodland.
   Dave Brubeck died. He was often underrated because of the accessibility of his style and compositions. It's a mistake to disdain someone just because they do the job well.
   T.S. Eliot's widow, Valerie Eliot, died this year. 
   Yao Defen, the world's tallest woman, died, although not from a bump on the head, as was originally reported.
   Viter Juste, the man who coined the term "Little Haiti," died of dementia. 
   Concert promoter Frank Barsalona, who brought us the Rolling Stones in 1972, died this year. 
   Actor Larry Hagman died. He was one of the major Hollywood anti-smoking advocates. He died of throat cancer.
   Chris Stamp was one of the first people to manage The Who. He died of cancer this year. 
   Mickey Baker, one of the twangiest guitar players ever and half of Mickey and Sylvia ("Love is Strange") died. God said, "How do you call your lover boy?"
   Buddy Roberts was one of the greatest--most terrifying--wrestling teams, The Fabulous Freebirds. He died in November.
   The fellow who invented the slogan "Virginia is for Lovers," David N. Martin, passed on.
   Paddy Roy Bates, one of the first and best British pirate radio broadcasters, died this year.
   Alex Karras died at the age of 77. He was one of the nicest former football players-turned actors you'd ever want to meet. 
   Marc Swayze used to illustrate the Captain Marvel comic books. He died in October. 
   John McConnell designed the Earth Day flag. He died. 
   At 108, Antoni Dobrowolski was the oldest known survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp. He died in October of this year. 
   Russell Means died. In addition to being an AIM activist, he was also an accomplished actor. 
   Bill Dees wrote several hits for Roy Orbison, including "It's Over" and "Oh, Pretty Woman." He died. 
   Brooke Shields' mother Teri Shields died of dementia. 
   Michael Clarke Duncan was only fifty-four when he was slain by a heart attack. He was the only reason to enjoy The Green Mile
   Also dying of heart problems this year was Joe South, one of the best songwriters of the late-sixties and early-seventies. He wrote "Hush," "Games People Play," "Walk a Mile in My Shoes," and "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden," among many others.
   John Severin was ninety when he died. He helped create both Mad and Cracked magazines. 
   R. B. Greaves, one of two people to attempt a hit with "Take a Letter Maria," died this year. 
   Alexander Cockburn, the brains and muscle behind Counterpunch, succumbed. He is missed very much. 
   Barry Commoner, 95, founded the Citizen's Party and ran for President in 1980. He shudda won. 
   
Joe Severin

Monday, December 24, 2012

WATERLOO EXPECTATIONS

   
   Some people call them resolutions, while other, more formalized types think of them as goals. I have always opted for the more optimistic term "Waterloo expectations." Here come a few of mine for the next year looming ahead.
    I intend to spend a lot more time with the people I love. Yeah, sure. Everyone says that, don't they? Right. But I'm really going to do it. Forewarned. 
   Also in store during the next twelve months is what I trust will be the astronomical growth of our already burgeoning business, Return On Initiative. We expect to branch out into eBook publishing while doing all the other hundreds of things we do already. 
   I'm also going to slavishly continue with PhilroPost, much to the horror of some and the evident delight of others. If you were hoping I'd gotten all the movie talk out of my system, well, better luck next time, fella. I'm just getting warmed up, baby! In 2012 I watched a little more than three hundred movies, writing about roughly half of those, the ones I neglected being such a colossal waste of my time that I saw no reason to waste yours as well. 
    A wonderful friend from Ohio told me that reading these pieces is like being able to talk with me in person. That really moved me. There's no way I would neglect a kind sentiment such as that. So those of you inclined toward bomb threats, hate mail, public displays of contempt and other nasty manners can just turn the channel, as it were. I ain't going away. 
    That said, the big story on Action News is my intent to pull together enough money--in only the most honorable of ways, mind you--to allow a move to the city of my dreams, that being San Francisco, California. I've been there a few times before, most recently about ten years back when I worked in the Bay area for a month. Even though I will always--always--think of myself as an Ohio boy, the other side of things is that from the first few minutes I spent in San Francisco, I felt as if I were home. Only a few moments off the plane I was met by a charming lady unknown to me who handed me a flyer and invited me to a concert at a blues bar. Walking along the piers and the hilly downtown area, driving near Hearst Castle, checking out different recent historic landmarks and sniffing in all the amazing fish smells, hearing the bark of the otters and the slap of the water against the sides of the ships--I was transported back to a time and place that I never knew in the first place but nevertheless one in which I found myself instantly comfortable. Grown men sit in bars and restaurants wearing Greek fisherman caps. You can ride a boat out to the island of Alcatraz. You can sit on the dock of the bay watching the tide roll away. There's no place I've ever been quite like it and I love it a lot. So, with a bit of luck and a lot of hard effort, I plan to be living there by this time in 2013. 
   But I like to live in the past as much as the future. So I'm going to keep playing Charles Mingus and Kinks albums and Nick Lowe CDs. I'm going to keep watching old movies I've either never seen or forgotten about (if I can find a copy of an old drive-in favorite called Aloha, Bobby & Rose, I will faint dead away). And I'm going to continue to reach back into the dispersing fog of time and pull into the present certain wonderful people who have been such a part of my life for such a long time. Whether a young woman named Deb who was kind enough to mention me the other day on Facebook, or a friend in Ohio who I talk with on the phone almost every Friday night, or another friend--one I have yet to meet--who lives out in east Mesa and who I've been intending to get together with for far too long and intend to at last meet, or a life-saving lady of immense charm from Columbus, or a childhood pal who last I heard was headed for Costa Rico, or a friend from college who often reads these pages and often praises them even when they don't warrant it. 
   And funny enough, I expect to try--pardon the expression--to get in touch with the more Christian elements of my personality, in the Beatitudinal sense of the word. I'm still agnostic as the next guy. I do, however, feel a weird need to amplify a more tolerant and compassionate understanding of those who typically and chronically annoy me from the mountains to the deserts. None of this will require me to abandon my commitment to a loud contempt for corporate pillaging. I'm just going to try to remember that systems, rather than people, are the problem. Wish me luck with that one. 
    Ultimately, it is to you, Dear Reader, that I surrender my dreams and aspirations. We all have to decide form moment to moment who it is we will trust. I know I'm always in good hands with you. Until next time, close cover before striking. 
    With all the love in the world, I remain
    Your Humble Servant,
     Phil Mershon

Sunday, December 23, 2012

WHERE HELL IS BOUGHT AND SOLD

   
   While I have never made a study of consumer behavior, I have made a few observations over the years. Let me share these with you.
   To begin with, an enormous block of fleeting power accompanies the shopping experience, especially if one is among the few and proud who carry a credit or charge card that is not linked to a checking or savings account. Once the shopper has unloaded the gifts and sundries onto the unsanitary conveyor belt, he or she can slap that bad boy plastic down hard, smile and say, "Here ya go" before the clerk can flap an eyelash. Of course, these days we're expected to swipe the damn thing ourselves "for added security," blah blah blah. But, yes, power is the drug that consuming is primarily about in the sense that we get to experience some extremely temporary thrill out of buying various crapola and lavishing it on ungrateful friends and family. We may hate our jobs, loathe our neighborhoods, despise our children and want to eat our friends, but by God we can still can a rush out of buying shit we can't afford. 
    Another thing I've noticed is the way many of the stores construct their aisles like a maze one might see in a psychology laboratory. This really is more than a little psychological and typically insidious as you notice that the power strips are located near the hunting rifles while the light bulbs are way across the store next to the nylon panties, which is a little creepy, not to mention inconvenient. But that way the shopper who only wants to grab and dash has the opportunity to get caught up in the merriment and delusions of the total experience rather than limit himself by only buying what he wants. 
    I've also observed a callous selfishness that walks side by side with any major purchasing holiday. Whenever we see someone heading toward a particular item in the store, there's a tendency to stretch up on the toes and gawk at whatever the other guy is considering. "Oh, look!" we say to ourselves. "An underwater barbeque grill. And there's only one left!" 
    I've also caught on that--except in the higher income stores--you are left pretty much on your own as far as figuring out if you're really getting what you think you are. Personally, I can't even buy the right light bulbs without having to go back for an exchange. 
   If only I could talk Zia Records into broadening their stock just a wee bit, I'd never shop anywhere else. Currently they feature CDs, DVDs and books, my own version of paradise. Oh, they also have a few other things, such as Bob Marley sniff boxes, a few scratchy LPs, coffee cups with band logos and ugly posters. When they start stocking groceries and clothing, I'll never shop anywhere else. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

FUN, FUN, FUN (Til Daddy Takes Her Assault Gun Away)!

   You would have to go back to the reign of Richard Nixon to find a period of time when a person could command national media attention to advocate armed security guards in every public school. "The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun." 
   At the risk of sounding like some hokey new age sensi freak, I can only respond, "No. The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is to take away his gun."

    Now because I like movies a great deal, even stupid ones, I felt my ears perk up when LaPierre in his address to the planet sited what he claimed everybody knew as violent and destructive motion pictures as a prime causal agent in creating the ideas that get into the minds of killers. Well, well, well. Imagine the insight! I thought the idea that got into the minds of crazy people was that it would be a good thing to acquire a bunch of guns and go on a shooting spree. If movies actually had the power to plant those ideas, then every gun manufacturer in the world would be putting out movies that encourage the acquisition of guns and they could save all that money they invest in the NRA. 
    It may surprise you reading this to learn that I have on occasion owned a few guns. Invariably these weapons were left to me in the wills of dead relatives who apparently felt the greatest posthumous favor they could do for me was to make certain I was well armed. I've owned a shot gun, a rifle and a .22 caliber revolver. No big deal. I actually fired each of these weapons a couple times, always into the ground and always immediately after shouting the word "fore!" The only two guns I ever bought myself were a starter pistol and a Daisy BB gun. Those were the two I liked the most. The starter pistol made a huge noise that I would use to frighten away midnight callers with by firing it behind my closed door immediately after pronouncing a sinister little laugh. The air pistol I used to shoot pellets into old Linda Ronstadt vinyl albums. These days I have no guns or any other types of weapons, other than my own somewhat twisted imagination, something that serves me well enough and which, if it could be registered with a government agency it most likely would have already been, if that's a sentence.
    Guns? Guns in the hallways, guns outside the schoolhouse doors, guns in the holsters of security guards? Wow.
    You know that old poster that has the pictures of Castro, Mao, Hitler and Stalin that says "The experts agree. Gun control works"? That poster, like much of the other pro-gun propaganda, is a bunch of nonsense. The countries with the strictest gun control laws are Britain, Japan, Sweden, Singapore, Malaysia, and Greece. Not Cuba, not China, not Russia, not Germany. The idea the propagandists hope to implant is that gun control regulations equate with a totalitarian regime kicking down your door and taking your guns away by force so that you cannot defend yourself against further encroachments on your sacred liberties. 
    Still it would be a mistake to totally reject the argument LaPierre made in his incendiary sermon. He suggested, very carefully, that we (meaning the media) are consciously fostering a culture that glorifies "pornographic" violence. He mentioned the movie Natural Born Killers as one such film, thereby proving his lunatic credentials. NBK is one of the most anti-gun movies ever made! All the violence--and there's a lot of it--is cartoon-like in its display and the point of the movie, oddly enough, is one very much in keeping with LaPierre's own: that our culture glorifies psychos with guns in exchange for profits and mind control. 
    If you want to assert that America loves violence, you'll get no argument from me. However, if you believe that adding the presence and potential for additional violence is any type of cure, well, I'm afraid my own fascination with incipient cretinism can only hold so much malarkey before I need to vomit. 
    I'm going to make the point here very clear: People with guns kill other people. If LaPierre really believes that we as a country are endangering our children by propagating a violent culture, it hardly makes sense to "protect" those kids by subjecting them to the ugly sight of the friendly neighborhood security guard with an assault rifle tucked under his arm. 

I'D LOVE TO CHANGE THE WORLD

   We cannot fault director Sidney Lumet for the movie Serpico (1973). The exterior shots show a genuinely artful man against society style conflict, with the title character dwarfed by a system a lot bigger than himself. Lumet wasn't even the producer's first choice for the project, but he did his job and then some.
    We cannot fault the actors, either. Al Pacino and Tony Roberts are arguably at their respective peaks here, the former using method acting precisely as Strasberg intended and the latter creating the serious-boyish foil to Pacino's wild-eyed and wide-eyed enthusiasm. 

    The editing is slick, the script decent enough, and the original source, a book by Peter Maas, worked well. 
    Even the real life Frank Serpico--today living a monastic life in upstate New York--was every bit as vain, idiosyncratic and courageous as the story made him out to be, so we can't reject the film because of factual distortions, even though there were a few, such as the delivery of Serpico's detective badge ("They handed it to me like a pack of cigarettes," the real McCoy lamented). 
Al Pacino and Sidney Lumet

    The problem--and it is a very real one--is that no one walking the streets in America today knows anyone like this guy. That may seem an unfair criticism. After all, we don't know any Hamlets, either, but that doesn't lead us to reject Shakespeare's play. But here the movie is stacked upon the notion that Serpico, as an honest cop among bribe-takers, actually accomplished something of consequence. After all, that's the feeling the movie tries to give. This police drama is evidence that one can get the facts correct and still miss the truth by a mile. 
    I've had a couple friends who were police officers. I've also been kicked around by a couple and helped tremendously by a couple others. Even among the men who I felt were decent law enforcement officers, there was a kind of raw cynicism that irritates me. One of those friends, a retired cop named Jerry, told me a story that illustrates what I'm saying. "These two patrolmen, they picked up this Indian for drunk and disorderly. He was a big bastard. Drunk and mean as hell. One of the patrols, the bigger one, jumped up and punched the Indian, cold cocked him right out. So he's in the back of the cruiser, right? They get to the jail and the duty officer tells the patrols to unload the Indian. They open the door and the younger patrol tells the Indian to get out. He doesn't move. The officer grabs him by the arm and starts pulling him. The Indian doesn't budge. Finally, both patrols and the duty officer yank on the guy's arm trying to get him out. The Indian's hollering and screaming and he still won't get out. Finally the sergeant hears the racket. He marches over to the back of the car, looks inside, leans back out and says that somebody ought to uncuff the Indian's other arm from the mesh screen."
    If you're a policeman or anyone else who has had to do an unpleasant and even dangerous job that involved people who appeared different from you, that story may sound pretty funny. If you've ever been kicked awake by a cop on Christmas morning, you may still be waiting for the punchline. 
    That difference of perspective is what's wrong with Serpico. No one thinks of himself as a bad guy. The cop who kicked me in the head, the two guys in Jerry's story, the guy who shoots up a school full of kids and then himself--nobody really thinks his actions are unjustified. As Jean Renoir said it, "Everyone has his reasons." This otherwise decent enough movie does not provide any rationalization for the corrupt behavior other than that the cops have bills to pay and besides, everybody's doing it. If you're going to make a convincing movie about an heroic officer who speaks out against evil, then you'd better have at least one of the bad guys be sympathetic rather than just plain pathetic. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

PUNISHMENT PARK

    Harry Truman had many faults, but one thing must be acknowledged and that is that he feared the rise and presence of a police state in America. He expressed this concern when he signed into authorization the National Security Act of 1948. Two years later he had quite properly learned to distrust the paranoid tendencies of many of those in Congress who sought to wage an internal war against dissent in the name of national security. On September 22, 1950, he vetoed the proposed Internal Security Act, also known as the McCarran Act, named after Senator Pat McCarran of Nevada, the guy with the airport named after him. Because Congress overrode his veto by a wide margin and because filmmaker Peter Watkins used the existence of the McCarran Act as an impetus for his 1971 pseudo-documentary Punishment Park, it behooves us to take a couple moments and look at Truman's response to the Act that he sought to prevent becoming law.
   Here are excerpts from this important speech.
   It has been claimed over and over that this is an "anticommunist" bill—a "Communist control" bill. But in actual operation the bill would have results exactly the opposite of those intended…It would help the Communists in their efforts to create dissension and confusion within our borders. It would help the Communist propagandists throughout the world who are trying to undermine freedom by discrediting as hypocrisy the efforts of the United States on behalf of freedom.
    Specifically, some of the principal objections to the bill are as follows:It would aid potential enemies by requiring the publication of a complete list of vital defense plants, laboratories, and other installations.
  • It would require the Department of Justice and its Federal Bureau of Investigation to waste immense amounts of time and energy attempting to carry out its unworkable registration provisions.
  • It would deprive us of the great assistance of many aliens in intelligence matters.
  • It would antagonize friendly governments.
  • It would put the Government of the United States in the thought-control business.
  • It would make it easier for subversive aliens to become naturalized as U.S. citizens.
  • It would give Government officials vast powers to harass all of our citizens in the exercise of their right of free speech.
    Legislation with these consequences is not necessary to meet the real dangers which communism presents to our free society. Those dangers are serious and must be met. But this bill would hinder us, not help us, in meeting them. Fortunately, we already have on the books strong laws which give us most of the protection we need from the real dangers of treason, espionage, sabotage, and actions looking to the overthrow of our Government by force and violence. Most of the provisions of this bill have no relation to these real dangers…The idea of requiring Communist organizations to divulge information about themselves is a simple and attractive one. But it is about as practical as requiring thieves to register with the sheriff. Obviously, no such organization as the Communist Party is likely to register itself voluntarily…There is no more fundamental axiom of American freedom than the familiar statement: In a free country, we punish men for the crimes they commit, but never for the opinions they have. [Emphasis added] And the reason this is so fundamental to freedom is not, as many suppose, that it protects the few unorthodox from suppression by the majority. To permit freedom of expression is primarily for the benefit of the majority because it protects criticism, and criticism leads to progress.
    We can and we will prevent espionage, sabotage, or other actions endangering our national security. But we would betray our finest traditions if we attempted, as this bill would attempt, to curb the simple expression of opinion. This we should never do, no matter how distasteful the opinion may be to the vast majority of our people. The course proposed by this bill would delight the Communists, for it would make a mockery of the Bill of Rights and of our claims to stand for freedom in the world…We need not fear the expression of ideas—we do need to fear their suppression.
    Our position in the vanguard of freedom rests largely on our demonstration that the free expression of opinion, coupled with government by popular consent, leads to national strength and human advancement. Let us not, in cowering and foolish fear, throw away the ideals which are the fundamental basis of our free society…I do not undertake lightly the responsibility of differing with the majority in both Houses of Congress who have voted for this bill. We are all Americans; we all wish to safeguard and preserve our constitutional liberties against internal and external enemies. But I cannot approve this legislation, which instead of accomplishing its avowed purpose would actually interfere with our liberties and help the Communists against whom the bill was aimed.

    It is not easy to imagine a politician today addressing the nation with that plain-spoken eloquence. It would have been nice if someone in a leadership capacity had made similar remarks about the so-called Patriot Act. Then again, almost no one in Congress bothered to read it before they overwhelmingly voted to pass it.
     This is one of several reasons why Watkins' movie is still important.
    Another major reason is that the movie works well, lo these many years later. The story is of a documentary being filmed in a joint venture between NBC and a German television network. They are tasked with filming for public dissemination the legal and actual process of the provision of the McCarran Act that allows the President to "apprehend and detain each person as to whom there is a reasonable ground to believe that such person probably will engage in, or probably will conspire with others to engage in, acts of espionage or sabotage." 
    The filmmakers of the documentary--whom we do not see but occasionally hear--play a key role in the movie. As one group of prisoners is being set out to cross a fifty-three mile section of desert to reach an American flag and their own consequent freedom, another group of prisoners is being detained at a nearby tribunal. They are all brought up on various charges of sedition. One is a fiery folksinger, another a pissed off Panther, another a foul-mouthed Yippie, one a soft-spoken pacifist, et cetera. They are eventually found guilty and now face a choice: they can accept a lengthy federal prison term or endure four days in Punishment Park. 
    The goal of the Park is that the prisoners will have a two-hour head start on the police in their quest across the desert. If the police catch them, they must surrender or die. If they can make it across the desert to the flag, they will be set free. Naturally they are permitted no provisions and it gets hot in the desert in the daytime and cold at night. They are told there will be water at the halfway point and that turns out to be a lie. Fifty-three miles. Let's see the Ironman competitors handle this. 
     Near the end of the movie, the news crews stop being objective. Oh, they try to maintain, in that they won't give the prisoners water and they ask all sorts of stupid questions, but by the end they are so outraged at some of the atrocities that have occurred that they begin to break down that objective fourth wall. This is yet another reason this movie is so crucial. As Watkins himself would later say, everyday the media presents snippets of real life within a context that by its very nature makes those real-life events fictitious. This fictionalization of real events does not even have to be implemented consciously to happen. In fact, I suspect it's usually quite unconscious. I'm not referring to the commentary that often accompanies a news story. I mean that, for instance, when a network presents coverage, say, of the horrible shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, they are inadvertently fictionalizing what happened in the sense that nothing they show can approximate the real horror of the sequence of events, in that the reactions of onlookers are influenced by the presence of television cameras, in that the people asking the questions or doing the news work are inescapably impacted by the nature of what they are reporting as well as by whatever may be going on in their personal lives at the time, and in the most important sense of all that, as psychologist Theodor Adorno pointed out, everything loses its context once the anchorman says, "And in other news today. . . "
    People who have been raised on the specter of idiotic reality TV programs will in no way be prepared for this, although they might stop finding much pleasure in such mindless swill as "Survivor," although programs such as that one do sort of unintentionally remind us that television inherently distorts and often does so on purpose.
    Punishment Park would be a vital movie even if there had been no Vietnam War, no dissent against it, and even if there had been no McCarran Act (the provision allowing for detainment was overthrown in 1971 and the law as a whole was ruled un-Constitutional by the Supreme Court in 1993). This movie plays everything real in a way and to a degree that you are not prepared to expect. Credit for this goes to the amazing cinematography of Joan Churchill and Peter Smokler. These two were carrying very heavy and awkward sixteen millimeter cameras around with them during chase scenes through the desert and had the added burden of keeping the cameras from shaking all over the place and yet providing enough unsteadiness to give this movie its terrifying realism. Director and writer Peter Watkins made the crucial decision to have the actors largely script themselves. In the case of the tribunal defendants and militants, the actors responded to questions by developing their own personas. These actors were mostly espousing political positions that they themselves held. In the case of the tribunal members, cops and National Guardsmen, some of the actors were very much the right wing bootlickers they portrayed themselves as being while others held the same views as the militants but took on a role of a character with the exact opposite worldview. It is a credit to everyone involved in this movie that we cannot tell which of the reactionaries were faking it and which were not. I will tell you that the coldest, most realistic and hence terrifying person I have seen in a movie in a very long time was Jim Bohan, the Captain of the Sheriff's Department. 
    So I hope you will see this movie. Anyone in sympathy with or participating in the OWS movement out to get a training lesson here. Anyone out to stop them might want to consider what this "reality" film has to say. You can order it through Netflix (the disc only at this point; they won't stream this one) or through Fandor. If you can pick this up at your local DVD depository, I'd be surprised. But it can't hurt to ask. Just be sure to watch the eyes of the guy or gal behind the counter when you mention the name. You never know for whom he or she might really be working.


 





Tuesday, December 18, 2012

TYPHOON HIGH SCHOOL

    I've accomplished almost everything I've ever wanted. Let's see, some of those foolish things include that I played drums in four-piece band called The Trio. I published my own music magazine for a few years. A couple books have my names on their covers. I have traveled all over the United States. I once owned a sports car. I've met brilliant and beautiful women. Once I even ran a 5K just to see if it would kill me. But the one thing I've yet to chalk up is that I have never been interviewed by Dick Cavett.

    This may sound odd, especially if you are wondering for what reason Mr. Cavett might feel inclined to ask me questions and consider my answers. There's really no good reason, of course. All the same, many nights I have sifted and drifted to sleep playing over in my mind a favorite fantasy where I am booked on the show because I have a novel on the NY Times Bestsellers list. Aside from a little bit of money and the future opportunities the listing would provide, I'm not all that concerned with getting a book of mine on that particular list. Oh, it'd be nice, sure, but that isn't my fantasy. My fantasy, if that's what it is, is to have Cavett at least somewhat interested in what I might have to say.
    Here's how I would look: I'd have a decent tan from a fast week in the tanning bed (for this appearance I'm happy to shun the health warnings). I'd be wearing a light brown shirt beneath an unbuttoned dark jacket, with gabardine slacks and shiny black shoes. I doubt I'd be wearing socks. Cavett would be dressed similarly. I picture him with a good tan. 
   The audience would be a bit nervous because the content of the book in question would have suggested to the crowd that I might be the sort who would say outrageous things about sacred notions many people hold dear. Because I've seen tapes of Dick with Norman Mailer, I know better than to crack wise with this guy.
    After a brief and surprisingly dry introduction, I appear from the wings, shake hands with Dick, and take a seat.
DC: I know you've been asked the question about your age before so let me try to put it in a way that will at least be fresh. Had you been writing novels all your life or did you just wait until you were fifty-four to decide to begin a new career?
PM: I've been writing a long time. Like most people, good and bad, I got better as time went on and with a lot of practice at writing things that would later embarrass me, I finally learned how to do it properly and the book is one result of that.
DC: The book is called Typhoon High School
PM: Yes. That is the name of it.
DC: I read it over the weekend. It's a very funny novel. There are places where the reader--or this reader--literally laughs out loud.
PM: Thank you.
DC: I couldn't help notice though that I never did come across any mention of either typhoons or high schools. Was that something you're saving for a sequel?
PM: High school is such a stupid time. You have to go through it because there's really nothing the grown-ups can do with you so they make you basically repeat everything you've already learned.
DC: They just throw in French and Algebra so no one catches onto the trick?
PM: That's my theory. Anyway, I was trying to think up the most idiotic type school system but there was so much competition in the real world, so I just called it Typhoon High. If I had to go back, that's where I'd want to go. Right in the middle of Indiana with the Klan on one side and the Brotherhood on the other while some deranged teacher taps her books and tries to explain isosceles triangles. In French.
DC:  It's a great title. One reviewer said your novel reminded her of a cross between Tom Robbins and Patti Smith.
PM: No kidding? I'll have to remember that for the blurb when we do paperback. 
DC: The protagonist, Larry Mantooth, is quite the joker, isn't he?
PM: He gets around. 
DC: You told a writer for the New York Post that this Mantooth fellow was based on yourself, is that right?
PM: I said it, yes, but I was lying. I hate the Post. Larry--I call him Larry because we're close--is actually "based" on a cross between Patti Smith and Tom Robbins.
DC: I have a feeling you may be putting me on.
PM: Yes, but for a completely different reason. I really like your show. 
DC: Thank you. Now Larry comes across a certain fellow. This fellow always ingratiates himself, or tries to, into conversations where he has nothing to contribute.
PM: Oh, yes. Right. 
DC: So Larry decides to teach him a lesson. 
PM: Larry's sitting at a table with some of his friends and he sees this guy you're talking about approaching from across the room. We've all been in that kind of situation where you're having a good time and because this person is coming over you know the party's over. Well, he tells the people at the table who's coming and he says for them to laugh wildly at what he's about to say, even though it won't make any sense. So just as this guy gets to their table, Larry says, "So then the guy from Turkey says, 'What? Me? Smoke Camel Lights?'" And everybody at the table laughs like crazy and because he wants to join them, this guy starts laughing as if he'd heard the joke before and was happily reminded of it even though there was no joke to go with the punchline.
DC: I wonder what the set-up for that joke would be if it did exist.

    And in my dream Dick and I spend the rest of the show trying to come up with a solution. 
    Dick Cavett has interviewed some of the most fascinating people in the world, including John and Yoko, Sly Stone, Janis Joplin, George Harrison, Jean Luc-Godard, Orson Wells, Jonathon Miller, Robert Mitchum, Woody Allen, Groucho Marx, to name only a few. Because I want to be interviewed by him, I'll have to accomplish two more things rather than one. First, I'll need to write a novel called Typhoon High School. Then I'll need to find a way to get Cavett back on the air. That shouldn't be a problem. He's better at what he does than anyone who ever lived and my silly imaginary exchange doesn't do him justice. So in my spare time that's what I'll be doing. I'll try to work it in between movie reviews and political rants. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

BEATS

    When street hustler Herbert Huncke arrived in Times Square in 1940, he stumbled upon a bunch of people who thought of themselves as intellectual misfits. Two of these oddities were William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. 
I remember thinking Jack was green, but he was taking everything in and making little comments to Bill--mostly about the scene in general. His eyes were flashing around. Kerouac was a typical clean-cut American type. He looked to me like the Arrow-collar man. They always had these clean-cut progressive American businessmen in their ads with the hair cut neatly and a twinkle in the eye. That was Jack.
    A bit later on John Clellon Holmes was talking with Kerouac and offered a quip about their group being the "Beats," which he apparently intended in the sense of a bunch of creative people being beaten down. Kerouac seized upon the term and evolved it into Beat Generation, later claiming that the key word also and especially was "as in Beatitude." 

    You can look to Allen Ginsberg and his long poem "Howl. " You can go to Bill Burroughs and his novels Junky and Naked Lunch. You may read the most prolific of all the Beats, Kerouac himself (author of endless reams of paper, including On the Road, The Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans, Doctor Sax, Visions of Cody and others). Or you can save yourself a lot of trouble and get a book called Empty Phantoms: Interviews and Encounters with Jack Kerouac, edited by Paul Maher Jr. Published, as one might expect, by Thunder's Mouth Press, this book hits a personal chord with me because unlike the novels mentioned above, I have been able to finish reading Maher's book and have enjoyed it very much.
   Getting through the works of Kerouac in particular has always been impossible for me because invariably I have been repulsed--hurled across the room--by what I have interpreted as a reckless hedonism that works at the expense of other people, an attitude I've decided is vaguely and unfortunately fascist. Any time we decide that the pursuit of our own enlightenment is justification for ripping off other people who aren't similarly motivated or aware, we're finding ourselves in the arena of different levels of human value. Where I come from, that's the bedrock of fascism, exactly the same kind that Kerouac spoke out against in an appearance on "Firing Line" with William Buckley, the transcript of said appearance being one of the highlights of the book.
    One of the things that comes across in Empty Phantoms is the religious intensity of the exuberance for life, particularly of a life that allows for reflection, sensation and experience while essentially rejecting material possessions. This also comes across in Kerouac's books and in a lot of cases--especially in Doctor Sax and Visions--that exuberance is expressed in a then-new poetics that has influenced and inspired an awful lot of people, many of whom are more accessible than the Beats themselves. I'm thinking of Ken Kesey and Patti Smith, two of the more obvious examples, even though you could probably apply it to Jim Morrison, Lou Reed, Lester Bangs, and even Hunter Thompson. There is a kind of spiritual value in capturing and conveying the brain wave rhythms in the creative process. It's a lot more useful than the explicit subject matter as well, unless you actually believe there is something somehow holy about marijuana, peyote and LSD, in which case the drugs are the focus and the creativity is just a hobby, which I personally reject. 
    What's fascinating about Kerouac after all these years is the strange dichotomy between being the Arrow-collar guy that Huncke pegged him as (and which he certainly was--he and his mom voted Republican their whole lives, or so Jack claimed) and being a champion of expressive freedom and experimentation in both process and product. Kerouac was the farthest thing from a radical and it's pretty evident that the so-called hippie sensibility eluded him right up to the end, despite being heralded by a lot of washed out people with far less talent. What we are left with then is sort of a right wing hippie. You can't be fair and apply that label to all of the Beats (it certainly doesn't affix to Ginsberg). It definitely is fair to apply it to Kerouac. 
  It would be a mistake to reject his writings out of hand. Even though I like a bit more plot in the novels I read--and if that makes me a simpleton, please contact Jim Thompson immediately--I also admittedly enjoy the road rhythms of Kerouac when he was really trying and if you want to get an idea of what America was really like right after World War II, nobody ever drew the maps better. Yet if you're seeking something interesting, I'm afraid this biography in the form of interviews and tales is likely to provide more insight than any of the man's novels. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

BITCH SLAPPIN' TIME!*

    We watched a collection of Bill Hicks stand-up performances last night, so it feels right that in the light of day and all the cold that comes with it that I proceed to slap some sense into those among us upon whom a gentle, reasoned argument would be wasted.

   Because a bunch of children were shot down in a Sandy Hook elementary school recently, all the crackpots who in any fair society would be added to the "possible suspects" file are chiming in with their ideas for solutions. One of the more emphatic--i.e., idiotic--remarks I've seen was from a guy named Barry who reckoned that if only one or more teachers had been carrying a concealed firearm, things would not have gotten so "out of hand" in Connecticut. The implication is that one of the book-thumping third grade teachers would have dropped her copy of  Popular Math for Kiddies, reached inside her purse, yanked out a police department issued Glock, positioned herself in front of thirty students all quivering behind her back, squared her shoulders, positioned her legs, taken aim at a guy dressed in a black battle jacket with a chest covered in ammunition, steadied her hand and taken him out with one shot just as slick as snake shit. 
    Let me make a suggestion of my own:  Barry, my man, I think what you may have neglected to consider in your highly articulate computations is the altogether indisputable fact that you are a flaming fair-haired fuck wad! The NRA needs people like you, Barry, so that they can continue to make even the dumbest among the rest of us feel intelligent by comparison, you feces-eating, bullet-farting, Bible Belt-fastening moron. 
    It's really a pity that all the six-year-olds didn't have guns too, what with them being smaller and less easy targets. Matter of fact, let's not bother with any nonviolent form of preparedness at all. What kind of fun would that be? Instead let's issue death ray devices to that drunken school janitor Mr Jenkins. He looks like he'd be a hoot to have armed to the teeth--or in his case, tooth--in the event of a terrorist attack. Or there's Mrs. Dilldick, the vice-principal, she with the giant-sized framed photograph of Rambo dripping blood on her office desk and the enormous vibrating egg sitting on her mantel. 
    Gee, Phil, everyone has a right to their opinion, man
   Oh, I was waiting for that objection. Why, yes, Barry boy, you do have the right to your opinion. You even have the absolute right to express that opinion, just as you have the absolute right to wake up in the morning, unwrap yourself from your Confederate flag, eat a plateful of raw bacon, walk outside your trailer, drop your pants and fill the parking lot with an enormous pile of your own shit, but I don't see you doing that--at least not every day, at least not since the cops busted you for public nudity which I hear was dismissed for insufficient evidence, if you take my meaning and I suspect you do. Having the right and exercising the good sense to refrain from using it: that's called responsibility, Barry. Try waking up.
    Okay, now let's get political. Let's talk about Susan Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations. I think it's weird the way all those militant Republicans were going after her. I mean, her credentials with that party should have been sewed up, what with her being a black woman with the last name of Rice. You know what their problem with her may have been? Unlike the previous Ms. Rice, Susan did not have a history of working with the oil conglomerates. Can you imagine a Secretary of State--which has apparently become a woman's job of late--without ties to the energy industry? What the hell is she going to talk about with our enemies in the Middle East? What's she going to say to the Russians? "How about those nuclear warheads?" No way! The Reps want a gal in there who can get down and wrestle in the oil fields and holler like a greased pig: "Aramco can kiss my black ass, fucker!" 
    So now Susan Rice has withdrawn her name from consideration, which puts President Obama in an odd situation. He can hire John Kerry. That would send the obstruction party into fits of orgasmic jelly joy because then they could push their clown back into the Senate in Massachusetts, the guy who hired his staff to chant and do war whoops when Elizabeth Warren turned out to be one-twenty-fourth Native American. Personally, I think Obama should nominate Bill Clinton just to piss off the other side. "Hey, you didn't object to Hillary. Now you've got her husband, whom you always wanted to get out of this country anyway. Well, you get your wish. Vote against that, you party of racist, Wonder Bread-loving sociopathic degenerates. Oops? Did I say that?"
    I could go on but it would be wasted. Besides, gonna watch even more Bill Hicks tonight just to stay fired up. 

*This article, it should be noted, is an attempt at replicating the style of the late Mr. Bill Hicks, someone whom the writer of this piece likes very much. This regrettably necessary explanation is intended for the benefit of anyone who may not be familiar with the comedian's approach to his art. The content of this article aims to neither denigrate the memory of those lost in this tragedy nor to promote outrage as a response to it. Rather, the purpose is to provoke a critical thinking that is essential to any rational populace seeking self-government. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

OPEN LETTER TO MY PARENTS

   Dear Mom and Dad,

   I thought you should know that a terrible thing happened yesterday. There was this hamlet in Connecticut, it's called Sandy Hook. Well, a young man named Ryan went in and shot a bunch of people at a school. Eighteen kindergarten kids died.  Yes, eighteen of them. And a bunch of grown ups. The stories run from eight to ten. You reach a certain point where it kind of blurs, which is scary. Nobody really knows why he did it,only that his mom was one of the teachers who got shot. My roommate was looking at his Facebook page--that's a computer thing; I'm afraid you two had passed away before it had caught on. They call it a social network--and while she was looking at it the people who own this Facebook thing, they took down his account. But we took a look at the guy. He was young in his photograph. The news people said he was just twenty-four. You have to wonder what kind of pressure he must have been feeling that would lead him to get into some kind of battle fatigues, pack pounds of ammunition in his pockets, pick up those guns and walk to school, smiling just as crazy as Charles Whitman. 

   He died, too, Ryan did. They always do, don't they? We don't know yet whether it was self-inflicted or if somebody shot him. But he's dead. So tonight people will go back to sleeping safe and sound as if nothing ever happened and whatever message that man was trying to get across will have been lost--again.
   The President came on TV. He's a good guy, folks, I think you'd like him. And he said some things that really took a lot of courage and a lot of intelligence. He said that tonight he and his wife were going to hug their own kids a little bit tighter, just as the rest of the American parents would do. He said something else, too. He said that this kind of thing has happened too often in America. He said it is time to put aside petty politics and actually do something about this. 
   Yes, I know what you're going to say. You're thinking that he means gun control and he probably does. Those loons at the National Rifle Association know what he means also. They'll have some ideas of their own about how we need to enforce the laws that are on the books already, which is what they've been saying all along, every time there's a Columbine, or a Virginia Tech, or an Aurora, or a Sandy Hook. 
    I think I know part of the problem, Mom, Dad. I was driving the other day--I don't leave the house much any more because the prospects of being in the company of other people simultaneously repulses me and makes me want to slap everyone on the back and say "Howdy!" But I convinced myself to get out among them and I was waiting in a line of traffic, expecting the light to change when I saw that a couple of cars were waiting to merge into my lane. I motioned the first one on in and the driver took me up on it without any acknowledgement whatsoever. No nod of the head, wave of the hand, flip of the bird. Nothing. So I decided to let the other driver in and sure enough he went on ahead and ignored me just like the first guy did. I hadn't let those drivers in ahead of me out of any sense of politeness or manners. I did it because I was looking for some kind of human contact. I did it because I'd wanted them to wave or tip their hats or smile. And they trudged right on with an amazing sense of entitlement. 
    Well, I didn't pull out a sawed-off .410 and blast them all to hell. I just sighed and went on about my day. But not everyone just sighs and moves on. Some people have had the finger shoved in their faces one to many times, then two too many times and then far to many times. So they decide it might be a much-needed relief to take easy access to firearms and respond to the ugly overtures that society offers.
    I'm not saying this is necessarily what that guy Ryan had on his mind. It probably wasn't that. It was probably that he imagined the kids had been tormenting his mother so he shot them up and shot his mother so she wouldn't have to bear the stigma and then shot himself so he wouldn't have to bear the consciousness of this horrible and unspeakable thing he had done. But what can't be denied any longer is that we have too many psychos with guns in this country. Matter of fact, I wonder if you can't draw a correlation between how many weapons a guy has and he propensity for violence. I mean, maybe a guy has a rifle to go deer hunting. Or maybe that guy with the rifle lives in New Jersey and wouldn't know a deer if it came nibbling at his back door. 
    So last night I knew I had to get some perspective so I went to Zia Records, just like I always used to do when some ugliness like this would permeate the minds of my friends and I. Picked up a book of interviews with Jack Kerouac. Started reading it. Pretty good. And I did something else that was kind of strange under the circumstances. I bought a DVD--Oh that? It's a disc that does what a video tape used to do. Hell, nowadays, DVDs are pretty much obsolete and everyone else just downloads movies off the internet. Downloads? I'll explain about that in another letter. I bought a video of a comedian named Bill Hicks, a funny guy who passed away even before you two did. See, Bill understood. He was funny, sure, maybe even earned the title of funniest man in America despite being far more appreciated abroad than at home. In England and Canada he's still a major star even posthumously. But what Bill really was and remains is a sharp social critic who goes far beyond George Carlin or Lenny Bruce or even Richard Pryor. Let's just say he gets it. So I'm going to watch this concert video and I'm going to laugh and feel somewhat superior to all the assholes out there who don't have a clue about the shithole world we're all living in, a world where somebody like this Ryan guy can just blast the fuck out of a bunch of children and get away with it because of some stupid Second Amendment that has about as much value in today's society as the right to draft a new Declaration of Independence every nineteen years, the way Thomas Jefferson said we ought to do. 
    So I'll laugh and my roommate will not want to watch the video but she will and we will both laugh and we will go on about our business and never stop to think about this until the next time, the next time some punk or misfit or normal boy goes temporarily nuts and kills a lot of people who are just trying to get through their day. Of course, we'll always be alright. Nothing bad ever happens to us. We're free.   
    SO take care. I'm sorry it's been so long since our last talk. I miss you both.

Love,

Phil

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

HELLCATS BRIDGE CLUB

Aw momma, can this really be the end?
    
    Parents used to take an awful beating at the movies. Rebel Without a Cause was the first major film to suggest that mom and dad were out to lunch. American-International Pictures hopped on that particular wagon with a vengeance three years later with High School Hellcats (1958), a movie that might not quite be up there on the ultimate drive-in marquee with Switchblade Sisters, but it's still a good movie because of the way it identified a mood in America that the old folks were out of touch. In this scenario, dad is a big deal lawyer who knows he's loosing control over his daughter Joyce and can't quite make the connection between his fourteen hour days and the fact that his daughter wants to run around the house in her underwear. Meanwhile, mom spends her days and early evenings boozing it down with her socially upward bridge club. So who's bringing up baby?

    It's no coincidence that Joyce is an only child. Sure, that helped AIP save money on expenses. But the other reason is that mom and dad didn't want to have a financial drain on themselves and so they cut each other off after one kid, the selfish fools. They live in the recently constructed suburbs and Joyce finds the attention she's looking for in the eyes of a female gang and in the arms of a soda jerk named Mike. 
    The Hellcats are kind of a wuss gang, in my opinion. Granted, this was only 1958, but even auxiliary debs gangs of that era were scarier than this bunch. Here's what they do for fun. They smoke, drink, heist cheap watches from jewelry stores, play a very stupid party game called sardines, listen to bad instrumental records, attend club meetings in an abandoned movie house, and occasionally wear slacks to class. All of these mad acts of wild abandon are committed in moderation, mind you. Oh, and the rules are something else! No one does homework. You can't date outside the permission of Connie, the leader. And if you have to pass a course to keep the heat off at home, that's cool, but you'd better not get a grade above a D. They hate eggheads and they despise a teacher's pet. 
    As I say, along comes Joyce, the new girl. She's tired of getting slapped around the house by a father who's afraid of his own sexual impulses and being ignored by a mother who'd rather play hide the snake with the pool boy, so when a chance comes up to join the Hellcats, she goes for it, just as she goes for Mike, the father substitute boyfriend and the only halfway recognizable actor in the flick--actually, his name's Brett Halsey and he has one of the longest runs of movie work I've ever come across: 1953 to the present. The Hellcats decide to throw a party at a house where the owners are gone on vacation, another slap at the values of the generation that made its loot after World War II. During the aforementioned game of sardines, Connie takes a header down a flight and manages to die. Knowing the cops won't approve of this, the kids split, no doubt leaving the front door locked so no miscreants would vandalize the joint. 
    When the owners of the house return, they find Connie in their basement, still dead. The cops move in on the high school. Somebody there must know something!
   In the end it turns out Connie was pushed by Dolly Crane--pun most likely intended--her second in command. Dolly figures Joyce has to know what happened and decides to off her to keep the bitch quiet. The weapon of choice? You guessed it: a knife, one Dolly just loves to caress. My God! Where are these children's parents? Probably prosecuting Charles Starkweather and playing cards with Caril Fugate's mother instead of making sure their home grown cuties got their homework done. Damn that middle class.
    We don't have to worry about this kind of thing nowadays and that's one reason this film comes across so tame: there no longer is a middle class. You don't have to take my word for it. Just the fact that every American politician on the national level has been screaming about how unfair the middle class is being treated is proof positive that this group no longer exists. Besides, the conditions that allowed for an American middle class no longer reign. Corporate income tax as a share of GDP has dropped from a high in 1954 of better than six percent to a low in 2009 of one percent. The marginal tax rate for corporations in 1969 was fifty-two percent. Today it is thirty-five percent. In 2010, the top one percent of this country held forty-two percent of all financial wealth. The next nineteen percent held fifty-four percent. The remaining eighty percent of the American people shared in the remaining five percent of this nation's wealth. To put it another way, the top twenty percent in America hold ninety-five percent of the financial assets. What that means is that there still are three broad economic classes in this country: the poor, the rich, and the wealthy. 
    Bashing mom and dad about their material aggrandizement is now passe, however applicable to a given situation it may be. Chances are that mom and dad both work at jobs they don't much like. The kids are holding down jobs as soon as they hit sixteen. One of the kids is going to college and incurring the monumental debt that comes with turning financial aid into a for-profit business. And one of the other kids is reading this movie review, thinking about what to do about this mess.