Monday, May 27, 2013

BOSTON LEGAL

    

   During its four-year, five-season run, the television program "Boston Legal" carried the all-time highest viewership of what Nielson Media Research considered as the richest youth segment in America, referring to those members of the home audience aged eighteen to forty-nine with incomes exceeding $100,000 per year. 
   The characters in this program certainly do dress well. Perhaps that explains the appeal. 
    Or it might be that "Boston Legal" was, is, and forever will be the funniest drama or most intense comedy that television has ever produced.
    I'm probably not the right person to ask, at least as far as comparisons are concerned. I have not watched a prime-time network TV program since 1982, except in syndication, something that producer David E. Kelley smartly made possible by holding the show to precisely one hundred episodes, the minimum required to assure syndication. 
    All those rich people watching my favorite program? Perhaps the educational basis upon which the program depended explains the connection. After all, lots of money implies at least the access to formal education. Maybe there were just a lot of lawyers out there who loved the contribution of Sir John Mortimer, legal consultant to the program. Maybe I'm simply wealthy and haven't noticed it yet.
   "Boston Legal" had a lot working against it. First of all, it was a spin-off of "The Practice," a program that lasted eight seasons, true, but which struggled most of the time. Still, "The Practice" had been a smart show, essentially a reaction against the slickness that producer-writer David E. Kelley had disliked in his time with the frequently despicable "L.A. Law." Second, "BL" kept bleeding out cast members, some of them rather integral to each season's success. Here again, though, the core constituents--James Spader as Alan Shore, William Shatner as Denny Crane--served as the friendship glue that held the viewers in their united fight to miss zero episodes. Third, throughout the show's five seasons, it appeared on five different nights of the week, although always at ten pm EST.  
    The program didn't so much as flinch at these presumed handicaps. Often enough Shatner and Spade would make subtle on-air quips about the program's inability to hold an audience. Characters would leave the series, return for guest spots, leave again, join the other side, disappear, return with a case of Aspergers, don a wig and become a transvestite, introduce Betty White as a serial killer, bring in various heavies such as Candice Bergen to keep control over the office full of loonies, discover that the new boss had joined the brigade of scofflaws. There was no consistency at all save for Denny Crane and Alan Shore. And that was all that was needed.
    Well, okay, they also needed some great writers and they had plenty: in addition to Kelley himself (think of any smart TV show from the 1990s or early 2000s and his name will be there somewhere), the show boasted Lawrence Broch, Janet Leahy, Susan Dickes, and Micheal Reisz, among several other wild talents. Anyone who doubts the supreme value of good writing on a TV show should try to explain the brilliance of some of the following.

Brad: I outrank you.Alan: And I'm such a slut for authority.

Denny Crane: You hear the one about the fella who died, went to the pearly gates? St. Peter let him in. Sees a guy in a suit making a closing argument. Says, "Who's that?" St. Peter says, "Oh, that's God. Thinks he's Denny Crane."

Alan Shore: You have a job to do, and so do I. Yours is to sell socks and suspenders. Mine is to crush people. 

   If you have seen the show, these lines are talismans to your sanity. If they are not familiar to you and you are not attempting to find the program on TV Land, Netflix or at your local DVD emporium, then you have wandered into the wrong website by mistake.
   The loyal and long-suffering roommate bought me a bunch of discs of this program as an early birthday present. Had I had the choice between these programs and a year's worth of carnality with every lipstick lesbian in Los Angeles, I would have stuck firmly with "Boston Legal." As that choice appears to not be forthcoming, I am delighted with my lot in life, even if I am still waiting for that day when I fit into the program's economic demographic.


Sunday, May 26, 2013

WHAT'S SO FUNNY?

    

   You and I know how precious life is. We know. But not everyone accepts this treasure as true. Some people listen to hateful and self-destructive music at maximum volume through headphones because there's some real and genuine comfort contained in having one's most poignant dreads verbalized and put to a violent tune. Some people drive their vehicles with purposeful abandon, caring not one bit about who gets maimed or killed, maybe hoping the victim is them, roaring down highways with windows down, screaming along with whatever dissonance surrounds them, until they recognize, a few miles later, that a reality lies moaning along the footpath, quite possibly a consequence of their oblivion. 
    For some people, the prospect of sunshine, a cool breeze, the harmony of childish laughter, the rhythms of excited dogs, the odors of fresh cut lawns--these become weights on the fragility of a welcome disease. The mere hint of happiness stings like an injection in the skull. How dare those bastards enjoy themselves, the tortured souls bellow, while we lie here in our own dung, shivering and sweating, waiting out the glorious apocalypse?
   I suppose that sounds a bit over the top to those of us who just want to fill our lungs with life at every opportunity. It may even sound like adolescent hyperbole to me. I haven't written anything that emotionally charged since I was a high school freshman, probably because I haven't personally experienced that confluence of rage since those lonely days. I got out alive; therefore I become cocky and assume that everyone else should find the light, which is impossible. But the pain of middle age involves a lot more than waking up one day to discover that life has moved on while you were shouting at the devil. Things are actually a lot worse than they seem, just as they are better than they seem. For every bunch of morons in a band who co-opt teenage pain in order to buy cocaine for themselves, there's also a man or woman with childlike awareness of just how great it is to be alive, even when things hurt, even when loneliness gets heavy, even when no one answers the telephone. Dammit, being alive is the only chance any of us has for happiness so it remains an occasionally unwelcome responsibility to be very, very good to one another on this madly spinning orb, not because some Deity says to do so but because treating one another with love and respect is the one and only true UNIVERSAL ABSOLUTE THING that exists here, unmuddied and clear as an azure sky of deepest summer. You cannot love yourself without loving others, just as vice versa. So let's try, just try, to remember what a snide heathen once wrote in a fit of sarcasm--something that turned out to be truer than he knew:
What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding?



Friday, May 24, 2013

SIDE EFFECTS

   

   Because I do not require that movies make sense in order to get enjoyment from them, I find that I liked Side Effects (2013), Steven Soderbergh's release from earlier this year, recently made available on DVD. As a matter of fact, trying to force rationalism upon this fine product would do not only the film but the viewer a monumental disservice, in large part because--to the extent that the movie reflects what's going on in behavioral health today--everyone we meet in the picture is crazy. 
    In a motion picture, crazy can be fascinating. Unbelievable is not nearly as much fun.
    Take for instance, the character of Emily Taylor, as played by Rooney Mara. Her rather nondescript husband Martin, played by Ken Doll of the Week Channing Tatum, gets out of prison after serving four years on an insider trading offense. Rather than being approximately happy about this reunited family affair, poor Emily sinks into a cancerous quagmire of depression. You might rightly suspect that getting back together with anyone as plaid and boring as Martin Taylor would be enough to lead a person to suicide, but that would be unfair to the people who staged the lighting in the party scene so that we could take it in the artificial glitz-amid-gloom dichotomy. Imagine looking at a person through those old orange negatives that used to accompany processed Kodak film and you'll get the flavor. 
   Emily decides she simply cannot withstand the struggle of rebuilding her life with this man and so straps herself into a nice shiny car and rams into the wall of a parking garage. Enter Dr. Jonathan Banks, otherwise known as Jude Law. He's a smart psychiatrist, working multiple hospital shifts while holding onto his practice with two senior partners in a Manhattan office. As the shrink on duty the evening of Emily's attempted suicide, he decides that Emily suffered a lapse in judgment and probably will not constitute a potential harm to herself or others and so releases her on the promise that she will visit his office within the next few days.
    After an initial evaluation, Dr. Banks prescribes some Select Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors for his new patient. She suffers the not uncommon side effects of decreased sexual arousal, sleep walking, insomnia, and nausea. Or at least she appears to have these reactions. Eventually Emily "talks to her doctor" about a new medication called Ablixa, a controlled substance that is the most authentic element of the movie. Martin Taylor comes home from looking for work, sees the table set for three, finds his wife chopping tomatoes, and receives a rather fatal chop in the midsection. To borrow a line from Macbeth, nothing so became this character's life as his leaving it. 
   We never really get a clear picture as to why Emily had set the table for three, just as we never get an explanation as to why she felt the need to snatch a line from William Styron or why we keep hearing about a friend of Emily's named Julia or whether that friend actually exists. Answering these and many other pressing questions would risk jamming Side Effects into that nasty jar of Reason and that, ladies and germs, Soderbergh steadfastly refuses to do. Please do not misunderstand my sarcasm for total disapproval. This is an occasionally highly intelligent movie, one with twists and turns that are marvelously formulated, if not convincingly executed. It's just that all four main characters here are wackadoos and not especially sympathetic wackadoos, either. These people all exhibit symptoms that would get them their own section of Axis II disorders in the DSM-V and the director wasn't about to take chances with the integrity of his production.
    Never mind that Catherine Zeta-Jones takes Buck Owens suggestion to "Act Naturally" to unprecedented depths or that every woman in this movie (except for a clerk in the hospital, and even then you never can tell) is set up to be either a shrew or a swindler. Never mind that when Dr. Banks apparently sleeps with Emily, it is Emily and her earlier shrink, Dr. Seibert (Zeta-Jones), who are made to look conspiratorial, whereas one might suspect that some ethical brouhaha would result from a doctor conjugating his patient with such a dangling participle. "But that's just the way things work these days," you say and of course you are correct. All Soderbergh was doing was satirizing the lousy morals of his audience by giving it just what it wanted. 
   Unless he actually does think that all women are either sadistic dominatrices or fawning housewives. I wouldn't want to suggest that possibility, despite reports that he looked upon Fatal Attraction as one of his big influences in making this film. After all, the auteur director here is doing a public service by showing us the cold world of modern pharmaceuticals. Certainly he would never exploit the genuine agony of mere mortals just to turn a lousy buck. The very suggestion is, I guess, irrational.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

LONG DROP

    

    Who is Harry Kellerman and Why is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971) often aspires to greatness. Unfortunately, the only time it approximates greatness is during the scenes with Barbara Harris.
    It also attempts to answer the musical question: Are you really a paranoiac if you are out to get yourself?
    Dustin Hoffman plays an unlikely popular songwriter named Georgie Soloway. At the beginning of the film we find him constructing a suicide note from atop a tall city building. Once he falls, we begin to get the idea that he just may be crazy. 
    Soloway being crazy makes it possible for the stream of consciousness thoughts that we get to see on his way down to be funny. Unless the idea of actor Jack Warden as the psychiatrist miming a tune by Ray Charles is your idea of humor, chances are you will be  disappointed. 
   Hoffman brings nothing to the performance. He comes across sounding like a mix of his roles in The Graduate and Little Big Man. But Barbara Harris--now that is another story entirely.
   She plays Allison, a struggling actress. Indeed, Allison is a struggling human being. She tells Georgie that he will tell her he loves her, that he'll promise to call and never do so. She accepts her own fatalism with a resigned good-natured humor that breaks our hearts, something that cannot necessarily be said for Georgie's ultimate demise as he flies his plane into buildings and winds up snow skiing in the afterlife with his shrink.
    Hoffman was very active around the time of this film's release: Midnight Cowboy, Little Big Man and Lenny were all major hits. Who is Harry Kellerman showed us the first crack in the armor. It would not be the last. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

JE T'AIME

   

   It feels presumptuous and even a bit pretentious to recommend Elevator to the Gallows (1958), given that virtually every critic of note and individual enlightened movie-goers everywhere already know for themselves what a sad delight director Louis Malle's elegant tragedy remains even after so many years. It also feels altogether bewildering deciding where to begin discussing the lauds and accolades this bizarre and brilliant picture continues to earn. Liberated somewhere between film noir and European art cinema, Elevator to the Gallows has been burdened with the New Wave or Nouvelle Vague label, an unfair weight to the extent that this film may well deserve a category unto itself. 
   Louis Malle was twenty-four when he filmed this movie, using street lights and other natural forms, as well as a baby carriage to hold the camera during the semi-famous string of scenes where Jeanne Moreau as Florence Carala walks the late night streets in somnambulist semi-paralysis in search of her beloved, Julien Tavernier, played with understated flair by Maurice Ronet. Twenty-four years old--and there are life-times within this movie. Moreau had been a big deal stage actress prior to this, her first feature appearance, yet she moves from worry to disappointment, denial to acceptance, rejection to commitment and finally dissipation, all constructed around the simple phrase "Je t'aime" because her strikingly lovely face transmogrifies with each crack in the sidewalk as she staggers with dignity from one locale to another in search of Julien, the man who has murdered her husband and whom she erroneously suspects of deserting her for a younger woman. 
   In point of fact, Julien works for Mr. Carala, a big time arms dealer who has made a fortune in the Indochina war and more recently in Algiers. Tavernier has served Carala's interests in both wars as a paratrooper, somewhere along the way falling in love with his boss's wife. After shooting Carala with the victim's own gun and staging the scene to look like a suicide, Julien--who has many traits of a secret agent (from the Maxwell Smart school of spying)--discovers that he has left behind a clue that will blow his cover. Intending to make a quick return to the crime scene, he leaves his car running and double parked, then gets stuck in the elevator over night after the building's power is cut off. His car is stolen, of course. The two thieves are a young couple, Veronique (the kind of fool who's afraid of everything, yet loves the excitement of being bad) and Louis (a good-bad-but-not-evil lad who would have turned the heads of the girls in the Shangri-Las). They encounter a German couple at an out-of-the-way hotel and decide to have Louis impersonate Julien. A rather ugly crime transpires, and the police suspect Tavernier of a double murder, one which he did not commit. The former paratrooper finds himself in the unhappy position of having as his only alibi that he did not kill the German couple because he was stuck in an elevator after murdering his employer so that he and the widow could live happily ever after. 
   It spoils nothing to share the plot here because the exquisite majesty of this movie carries the plot on its own shoulders. The aforementioned sequences of Moreau along the night streets of Paris, the smoke ring chains of Mile Davis' improvised soundtrack, the lovesick stupidity of Louis and Veronique bungling their own suicides, and the general decadence of the upper class and their immediate underlings who have to stay schnockered to live through the evil banality of their daytime existences, the crumbling confidence and malignant hostility that Julien Tavernier uses to mask what turns out to be about as substantial as an expensive paint job over a rusted out jalopy: these are the visual elements that keep our eyes focused on the screen as the story unwraps in front of us. 
   Because of the perfect use of natural light and shadow, as well as the moral darkness of the characters, Elevator may remind the viewer of the film noir movement, while more erudite viewers than myself have suggested that this film is a contender for the first ever French New Wave cinema production. That sort of information may be nice for those who build lists. For the rest of us, however, what matters is that Louis Malle had never made a feature-length movie before this one [he would later direct Pretty Baby (yawn), Atlantic City (hooray!) and My Dinner with Andre (double secret yay!), among others], yet somehow managed to convey generations of experience and knowledge that decades of revisiting still struggle to fathom. 

Friday, May 17, 2013

THE LONGEST DAY OF THE YEAR

   

   Summer time has almost arrived and the living's easy. We may be a month away from the official start, but tonight's feature will ignore that because we are talking about Agnes Varda's new wave classic Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962). I hope you folks haven't grown tired of the recent emphasis on the French New Wave. One of my problems with life is a tendency to fixate my focus, as it were, and Varda's film remains worthy of obsession. 
   The movie begins June 21, as the sun--so we are told--passes from Gemini into Cancer, a fact that does not endear the fretting Cleo much to reality because hers is a world that only mimics such illusions as pain and grief. She is a pop singer, crooning out tunes written for her by a pianist composer and lyricist. Not even a chanteuse may avoid death, or its antecedents, and as the movie begins we learn that Cleo (Corrine Marchand) believes herself to have stomach cancer. The fortune teller's tarot cards don't quite confirm this suspicion, but they certainly fail to rule it out. 
    This startlingly well-framed and vibrant movie runs in the real time between five and seven, the hours when, as French legend holds, lovers come together. But Cleo hasn't interest in things as potentially tragic as real love. She hides within the safety of a sterile flat with a maid and two kittens, plus the frequent drop-in of assorted visitors, including a boyfriend who can't be bothered with drawing close, a girlfriend who works as a nude figure model for struggling sculptors, and the girlfriend's beau, a film projectionist who treats them and us to a clever short film within the film, one starring director Jean-Luc Godard and actor Anna Karina.
    I began the previous paragraph with the statement that this movie is well-framed. Agnes Varda was originally a still photographer. Perhaps nothing in still photography bores a viewer as much as a well-composed image. In a moving picture, however, especially one that moves along with the click of the clock, the composition of extended shots is nothing short of unnerving. The overwhelming documentary feel of Cleo From 5 to 7 transforms the audience's center of gravity with the colliding poetry of visuals that dance along like iambic pentameter. Whether the frame holds a man's face as he proceeds to swallow live frogs or the countenances of Cleo and Antoine punctuated with the visage of an old woman waiting to board the street car they are standing upon, every twenty-fourth of a second of this movie--each frame of film--declares itself an unselfconscious portrait of Parisian mischief. Try as she might, Cleo cannot escape the impending harshness she imagines around every corner, upon every cobblestone, within each line of transient dialogue. Walking through a cafe, she drops a coin in the jukebox slot to fill the room with one of her own recordings, only to be met with a remark from a woman to a man about not being able to hear because of the "noise." 
    Things really happen in this movie, just as things really happen in Breathless and The 400 Blows. It is not how things happen but how what happens is told that distinguishes much of French new wave from other movements. It certainly distinguishes Varda and her work from the rest of the new wave. Despite the nearly androgynous sensibilities of Godard and Truffaut in, respectively, Masculin Feminin and Jules et Jim, they yearn for balance, whereas Agnes makes no such concession. This movie is about a woman, by a woman, and for the feminine part of both men and women. Femininity is not a glandular condition. It is a reflection of the pre-existing ideas that other people possess about a given person in a particular place and time. That reflection--and it's no coincidence that so many mirrors populate this movie--comes in large part from pop culture, the very culture that created the character Cleo purports to be. She uses and gets used in turn. What she cannot do, somehow, is hurt others, even though she remains convinced--at least until she meets Antoine--that the world exists to do her in. The doctor she meets at the film's conclusion delivers his prognosis with the detachment a biology freshman might bring to a dissected frog. 
    Yet Cleo still has Antoine. She has him for another hour. Then his train leaves for Algiers. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

GETTING ALONG

   

   Theories arise because facts cannot speak for themselves.
   Here are some facts, juxtaposed for emphasis. 
   The first set represents the 2012 military expenditures of the top fifteen military powers on earth. The list is courtesy the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
   United States           $682,000,000,000
   China                       $166,000,000,000
   Russia                      $90,000,000,000
   United Kingdom    $60,000,000,000
   Japan                       $59,000,000,000
   France                      $58,000,000,000
   Saudi Arabia           $56,700,000,000
   India                         $46,100,000,000
   Germany                  $45,800,000,000
   Italy                          $34,000,000,000
   Brazil                        $33,100,000,000
   South Korea            $31,700,000,000
   Australia                  $26,200,000,000
   Canada                     $22,500,000,000
   Turkey                      $18,200,000,000
   
    
   Perhaps the second list may tie this together. Which countries have the largest per capita active military personnel? The top ten are, in descending order, as follows:
North Korea, South Ossetia, Eritrea, Israel, Iraq, Brunei, Greece, Jordan, Armenia, and Singapore    The United States ranks 57th on the list of per capita active military personnel. Every country on the list of those above regarding military spending ranks higher than the USA. So even though all other countries spend less on warfare than the United States, we have less personal investment in our official armed forces. 
   
   However, our final list, courtesy of the Global Militarization Index, is perhaps the most fascinating of all. The GMI ranks nations by the relative weight and importance of the military compared to other significant aspects of a country's culture. In other words, it gives a pretty fair assessment as to how the people in a given country feel the presence of their military. The top ten here, in descending order, are:
Israel, Singapore, Syria, Russia, Jordan, Cyprus, Kuwait, South Korea, Greece and Saudi Arabia. Visit or live in any of these countries and you will sense a very real military/police presence all around you. How then does the United States, with the largest global expenditures rank on this list? The USA comes in 31st, right below Portugal and above Iran. 
   One might assume that our need for military is connected to the amount we spend. One might also conclude that the spending would correlate with visibility. In the case of the United States, this is simply not the case.  

Countries on GMI list that also appear on military expenditures list:
Russia
South Korea
Saudi Arabia
Countries on GMI list that also appear per capita active military list:
Israel
Singapore
Jordan
Greece

   It might be argued that the prospects of terrorism have made such concepts as perception irrelevant. That would be incorrect. According to an intense study conducted by Britain's Aon Risk Solutions, the United states--which spends more than any other country on military and which does not have much individualized awareness of a need for or presence of armaments, is at a low risk for terrorist attacks in the coming year. The rankings are negligible, low, medium, high and severe. Countries with severe rankings include Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, and about half the continent of Africa. Only Uruguay, Greenland, Finland, Japan and Australia are ranked as less likely than the United States to suffer a terrorist attack. 
    So why then does the United States spend so much more money than all other countries on so-called defense? Could it have anything to do with the propensity for going to war?
   One final list, then. A group known as the Global Peace Index ranked 153 for the year 2011 in terms of its inclinations toward peacefulness. The GPI used twenty-three indicators of the existence or absence of peace, including ongoing domestic and international conflicts, safety and security in society, and militarization. The ten most peaceful countries, according to GPI, are Iceland, New Zealand, Japan, Denmark, Czech Republic, Austria, Finland, Canada, Norway and Slovenia. Where did the United states rank? We came in eighty-second, just one notch above Bangladesh. The worst of the countries was Somalia. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

WILD OATS

   

   It's not every night of the week that I find myself engaged in wondering about what movies actress Angie Dickinson favors, but last night I made an exception. The mate and I were scrolling through the channels when we caught the tail-end of Dog Day Afternoon. The remote guide said the next movie up on Turner Classic might be an uncharacteristic joy, so we decided to stick around. After a bit of self-promotion, the channel returned to "host" Robert Osbourne. Seated across from him was the aforementioned former star of TV's "Police Woman," as well as featured performer in Dressed to Kill and Pay It Forward. To my admitted amazement, Dickinson explained to the host that she had first seen the object of tonight's review when it had come out in 1959 and had been impressed with how this movie had substantially differed from the Hollywood-style movies to which she was accustomed. 
    That quite succinctly sums up the unending appealing for which the movie The 400 Blows holds for its legend of fans. 
   This movie and Godard's Breathless virtually birthed the French new wave of film-making. Personally, I find that Jean-Luc's sensibilities suit the shattered shards of glass that are my nervous system more neatly than do Francois Truffaut's. Still, it would be a wasted life to go on for one hundred years without having at least seen this beautiful movie about the travails of young Antoine Doinel, played by Jean-Pierre Leaud. But in case you miss him as a child, you can catch him later in Antoine and Colette, Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board, and Love on the Run. Each film follows the non-exploits of our young Antoine at various stages of his development. You could drop a feather on any of these movies and knock them completely out of kilter, a fact which speaks less of the fragility of the movies than of the carelessness of those who would drop feathers. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

MOLE MEN

    
Allen Klein with two friends

    American businessman Allen Klein died, perhaps fittingly, on July 4th, 2009, of Alzheimer's disease. If you know his name at all, you likely know it because of his actions as one-time business manager for The Rolling Stones and somewhat later for The Beatles. Klein was an amazing charlatan and ruthless adversary. He also possessed a savage, streetwise and almost Zen-like ability to charm people when he wanted, or when he sensed that certain people needed to be charmed. For instance, after buying out former manager Andrew Loog Oldham's share of the Rolling Stones, he learned that each band member held a share of a British music publishing company called Nanker Phelge. Klein set up a U.S. company with the same name and advised the Stones to sign on, which they did, unknowingly giving away the proceeds of their own recordings through 1970. Klein went on to charm no less a figure than John Lennon with his knowledge of the latter's songwriting, leading the chief Beatle to convince all but Paul McCartney to sign on with Klein. Lennon quickly changed his tune, as it were, when Klein began expressing concerns over the viability of Yoko Ono's music. 
    But on one point Lennon and Klein very much agreed. Both men loved the movie El Topo (1970), directed by and starring Chilean artist Alejandro Jodorowsky. John instructed Allen to buy the rights to the film and Klein happily obliged. The movie played in the major markets for six months, invariably at either midnight or later, becoming, in its own way, the first of the so-called Midnight Movies. 
   Some viewers found the movie vaguely obscene because of the rivers of gore, violence, sexual perversity, and exploitation of people with deformities (for instance, in one memorable scene, we are treated to a man with no legs being carried by a man with no arms). Other people thought it was a great stoner flick, while many, including critic Gene Siskel, claimed it was a big yawn. 
    There remains some validity to each of these interpretations.
    Controversy often sells, as does obscenity, perversion and even boredom, so Klein wanted Jodorowsky to direct the upcoming production of The Story of O. Alejandro was not interested and said as much. In spite, Klein withdrew El Topo from circulation for decades and it was not until 2005 that the film was legitimately available on DVD or otherwise. 
   The movie itself remains amazing, far more than an artifact of a drug-saturated era. Many people have argued over the value and sense of the film's use of symbolism--Western Christian in some regards, Eastern mystical in others--but for me that's the least interesting aspect of the movie. I don't necessarily care one way or another about the symbolism of a lamb sitting on a trap door leading to the home of one of the master gunfighters. Even the storyline--which is occasionally hilarious and somewhat more often sickening--interests me far less than the film's visual integrity, if one may use such a word. 
   Anyone who struggles with this film's symbolism is going to grow frustrated (the director himself said that only "tuned-in" people would get it, something that probably excludes me, among a few others) and anyone who clings to a need for dramatic plot is going to get sleepy right away. The long term interest in El Topo is, as I say, with the visuals. The movie is shot in the desert, in roughly the style of a spaghetti western. Yet anyone hoping for a satire of the conventions of Sergio Leone will suffer long. Rather than parody those conventions, Jodorowsky shoots them full of holes. "How will we survive here in the desert without water?" asks the woman Mara--named for bitter sweet agua. The Man in Black shoots the top off a monolith and out springs a geyser. One may find that amusing or not, but a film crammed to the gils with this kind of monkeyshines can be downright delightful, as long as you can get beyond the gruesome scenes of animal savagery committed against the monks by the colonel and his hyena-men. 
    El Topo is ultimately religious cinematic poetry. Divided into two parts, the first resembles, loosely, elements of the Old Testament, just as the second, very loosely, reflects the New. 
   Maybe the appeal of this movie is, as Pauline Kael wrote at the time, "a violent fantasy head-comics." Certainly the drive for self-discovery by the lead character comes across these days as corny, if not trite. Still, I suspect there's more than a little autobiographical insight, unless you think Alejandro was just trying to save money by casting himself in the lead role. Autobiographical psychoanalytical projection might also explain why Allen Klein felt so betrayed that he held onto the movie until his own son finally ordered its release. 
Alejandro Joborowsky as El Topo

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

THE DANGER IN FIGHTING MONSTERS

   

   A jury in Phoenix today found Jodi Arias guilty of first degree murder. A few days ago, Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight were rescued in west Cleveland after being held captive as sex slaves for almost ten years. And Karla Faye Tucker, executed by the State of Texas in 1998, remains dead.
   These three events share more than a little commonality. All three involve what might charitably be called a breakdown in inter-gender relations. All three involve the perpetration of crimes which eclipse the imagination. And as the revelations of each of these events were released, the public expressed a considerable amount of disturbing delight.
    I have been motivated to write this article because of the rampant backlash against women in the popular media. Whether it's the active aggression of a lout such as Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh, or the more passive yet real woman-haters such as actor Michael Douglas or politician Mitt Romney ("Binder? I just met her!"), the preponderance of misogynistic behavior has become chic.
    Since the Tucker story is the oldest, perhaps a few details will jog the memory. In 1983, Karla Faye Tucker, during the commission of a burglary with her boyfriend Danny Garrett, repeatedly pick-axed the heart of a woman named Deborah Thorton. Tucker later told friends that with every swing of the pick-ax, she experienced orgasms. She also assisted in the murder of Jerry Dean, the man she and her boyfriend intended to rob. While awaiting trial for murder, she became what is known as a born again Christian. After her death sentence was pronounced, many Christian organizations appealed to the state's governor, a young George W. Bush, to commute her sentence to life imprisonment based on the fact of Karla's conversion. The governor mocked these pleas by impersonating Tucker and saying, "Ooh, ooh, please don't kill me." She was executed by lethal injection on February 3, 1998, the first woman executed in Texas since 1863. 
    In the case of the three (or more) kidnapped Cleveland women, Ariel Castro (with or without the complicity of his two brothers who lived with him), allegedly abducted the women while they were in their teens. According to initial police reports, the brothers kept their victims in chains during the first several years of their captivity, eventually allowing them to move about behind locked doors. At least one child was born to one of the victims during this imprisonment.
   No one will be terribly troubled if Ariel Castro gets shot through the skull as he is being transported from one jail to another. 
    Jodi Arias today was convicted of the remarkably savage murder of her boyfriend, Travis Alexander. According to the coroner's report, Alexander was stabbed twenty-seven times, shot in the head, and his throat had been cut. Arias' conviction today of first degree murder means that the death penalty will be an option for the jury during the penalty phase of the trial. 
    It is not so much the media fascination with these three cases that amazes me. After all, because these three crimes were committed by members of one gender against members of another, there's some inherent sexual tension involved. That is, of course, the type of thing on which the media breeds itself. If the media digs its claws into a story long and deep enough, the public will usually follow along. No big surprises there. 
    What does interest me is the nature of the public reaction. Outside the Maricopa County Superior Courthouse this afternoon, at the announcement of the televised delivery of the guilty verdict, many in the crowd raised their fists in some curious spirit of unity around the concept of "justice," while others cheered and danced various jigs of delight. The victim in this case was Mormon. Mesa, Arizona, where the crime occurred, was settled by Mormons. Kill a Mormon in Mesa, expect to die. Still, I have no reason to believe that all those clinched fists of righteous indignation belonged to members of any particular religious cult. They had likely been caught up in the drama, much as an earlier generation had asked the question, "Who shot J.R.?" Of course, J.R was a fictional character played by Larry Hagman. Then again, it's no accident that the writers of the show "Dallas" decided to hang the shooting on a woman. 
    Another reason that I suspect the crowd outside and the even larger number of people watching the telecast from home were so emphatic in their support of "justice for Travis" is that Jodi Arias came across through the television cameras as a decidedly unlikable defendant. Despite a strikingly misshapen proboscis, she remains at least moderately attractive. She also comes across as remorseless and smug, which was about all the prosecution needed to exploit during her eighteen days on the witness stand. 
    Ariel Castro will not be selected to participate in a bachelor auction forthcoming on Bravo. The same holds true for his brothers. I haven't heard reports that Ariel is contrite. However, he is spilling his guts. That won't be enough to save him. The only situations in which Americans favor female slavery is when they are married to the slaves or import them from overseas. 
    Karla Faye Tucker, whatever else she may have been in the realm of the celestial, defies most definitions of classic beauty. Her probably genuine remorse for living a violent and drug-crazed life was inadequate for a terrestrial forgiveness. There is something about the suggestion of sexual gratification at the death of another which is so putrid that Tucker had no real hope of survival. 
    The only other major detail that unites these three news items is that in all three stories it has been the women to whom the media addressed the overwhelming majority of attention. It doesn't even matter whether the women were victims or perpetrators. There is a reason for that. These days, more than at any other time in my memory, the presumed sexuality of a woman is enough to garner fame or infamy. From the (to me) inexplicable popularity of Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus to the pseudo-existences of Kim Kardashian and Lindsay Lohan, the mere suggestion of sexual or especially promiscuous activity involving today's female-media focus is more than enough to surge the mass mind into hypnotic acceptance. 
    What has any of this to do with justice? Well, that's exactly the point. It has nothing to do with justice whatsoever. In the same way that semi-functional chanteuses such as Mariah Carey get far more attention than intelligent and creative singers such as Cindy Lee Berryhill and Lucinda Williams, the urge to go extreme with women as either victims or villains is far out of proportion with the events themselves. 
   Have I mentioned that I am opposed to capital punishment?
   That said, I must concede that the crimes in Cleveland really are phenomenal in the breadth of their evil. One could easily get the impression, however, that every woman in that city had been in imminent danger of falling prey to the three scumbags on the west side. The implication titillates --and in all the wrong ways. The message becomes "Don't trust anybody because your perceived sexuality will get you in trouble, unless you grow up to be a bombshell, in which case leading men to think of you only in sexual terms is beneficial." 
    Look, I don't think I'm naive. Some real monsters exist out there and I'm the last guy to give one an even break. Robert John Bardo, obsessed with and having stalked actress Rebecca Schaeffer for three years, found himself rebuffed and shot her in the head with a .357 Magnum. If you came of age in the 1980s, you've probably heard of Schaeffer. She starred in a TV show called "My Sister Sam." She was, as they say, attractive. No matter how old you are, I'll bet you have not heard of (or do not remember the name) Bardo. He was ugly, in word, thought and deed. He's still alive, serving a permanent sentence. But I will bet you've heard of the person who prosecuted Bardo. Her name is Marcia Clark. 
    Yes, monsters are out there and it behooves us to keep an eye on the open sky. It is also important to think once in a while and to perhaps remember the advice of Nietzsche who said "He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. If you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you." 
   

Monday, May 6, 2013

A THIRD WAY

   

   It reads like something out of Newspeak, but the source is actually the presumably neo-liberal Center for American Progress. Here is how it begins:


    Studies of the last large-scale legalization effort in 1986 found that legalization did not reduce wages for native-born American workers and, in some cases, actually raised wages. More recent research on the effect of increases in immigration over the past few decades find little to no wage or employment effects, providing additional confirmation for the earlier legalization studies, as well as alleviating concerns about possible harm from future immigration.   
   Further, this body of research finds that those with low levels of education, as well as Americans of color, are also likely to be unharmed by immigration, though the research does suggest that the wages of other immigrants may be reduced.   
   Contrary to common fears, immigrants are not frequently in direct competition with native-born American workers, in part because they tend to have different skill sets. Native-born American workers, for example, are likely to have much greater English language skills than new immigrants, allowing native-born workers to access more skill-intensive jobs. [Emphasis added.]

   These are three of the most fascinating paragraphs I've read in some time. Aside from the Orwellian choice of words, the writers assume they know what the reasons are for opposition to providing a basis for legalizing the documentation status of immigrants. They further assume that the only immigrants in question are from Mexico, and they even further take for granted that offering legal standing is something that the opposition opposes.
    Wrong, wrong, and wrong.
    The point with which many of us take issue is not concern over competition for wages. The issue is one of exploitation.
     By using the carrot of "Comprehensive Immigration Reform," the last several administrations have attempted to lure displaced Latinos into sticking around so as to perform types of work that are often back-breaking and death-defying, yet which are invariably lower-paid than those duties would be were they performed by a naturalized citizen. It's a great plan if you happen to own the plantation. See, back in the sixteenth century, we had to go all the way to Africa and to the Caribbean to get slaves. Now all we have to do is pluck from the other side of the border whomever will take the jobs which, presumably, native-born Americans consider themselves too good to do. Need your hotel toilets cleaned? Need somebody to climb your roof and drive nails in Phoenix in the summer? Need someone to breathe in noxious fumes from a leaf blower? Who you gonna call? 
    The writers of this article further embarrass themselves with the next paragraph.
   American workers are not harmed and may even benefit from immigration, because immigrants tend to be complementary workers who help make Americans more productive. Bussers at a restaurant, for example, help to make waiters more efficient by increasing the number of tables a waiter can cover.
   Bussers? Hey, we really are doing the people formerly known as Mexicans one hell of a favor, aren't we? We will help them connect with the American Dream by hiring them to clean tables so that the waiters can make enough money to send their own kids off to college. 

    I realize that a lot of people who oppose Comprehensive Immigration Reform take their positions as none-too-carefully-disguised platitudes of racism. And I really hate being on the same side as some idiot racist--and pardon the redundancy. In fact, for a long time now I've been on the side of the neo-liberals for no other reason than that I didn't want to be lumped in with the dragon fire cross burning contingent. Then it hit me: I'm not on either side of this argument. I'm on a third, sparsely populated side, a side that says the neo-libs at the Center for American Progress are just a happy bunch of hypocrites. First of all, what's that name supposed to mean? The center? Does that mean that all other American Progress revolves around you? Or does the term imply moderation? Who knows? American Progress? Yes, by all means, let's continue generational exploitation of other people for the betterment of America. And what of Progress? All I can say to that word is that every time I've ever heard it used, it has seemed to mean that a small number of people benefit and the majority get screwed. Therefore I would have to conclude that the CAP is an ego-maniacal and jingoistic group that yearns for the eventual enslavement of the majority of Americans. 
   Secondly, and far more to the point, the assumption that the people formerly known as Mexicans (and now known as the U.S. working class) are apparently providing essential services. After all, no restaurateur employs "bussers" just for the fun of employing people. He does it because he perceives that his restaurant will run more efficiently and ultimately be more profitable for him if he has well-motivated bus boys and bus girls to clear and wipe the tables. If that type of work, or landscaping, or home repair, really is essential, then I wonder why American business people would feel that their loyalties are to the profit motive rather than to their country and thereby hire undocumented workers at sub-poverty wages? If those jobs are essential--and I have no reason to suspect otherwise--then it would be possible to fill those positions if (a) unemployment were extremely high, or (b) if the owners would pay Americans a decent wage for performing those duties. 
    What has happened instead, of course, is that unemployment remains very high and the owners underpay undocumented workers to do the job, assisting neither the economy as a whole nor those Americans looking for work. 
    Yet people who call themselves Democrats and people who call themselves Republicans pretty much agree that we need something called Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Here's how I suspect that will eventually look: Pathway to citizenship, blah blah blah, and somewhere in the bill there will be a corollary allowing certain types of businesses to pay their employees less than the existing minimum wage, something that already exists in the restaurant business anyway. That way the business people who believe they own this country can appear to be granting largesse to their minions while keeping wages low, unemployment high, and labor unskilled. 
    Another quote, then, this time from Jeff Nielson at The Street:
Using the year 2000 as the numerical base from which to "zero" all of the numbers, real wages peaked in 1970 at around $20/hour. Today the average worker makes $8.50/hour -- more than 57% less than in 1970. And since the average wage directly determines the standard of living of our society, we can see that the average standard of living in the U.S. has plummeted by over 57% over a span of 40 years.
   A lot of things have contributed to this collapse in the standard of living in the USA: women entering the workplace in droves right around the beginning of the downturn; the advent, popularity and mass intrusion of the personal computer; the demise of the labor union as a force for advancing the cause of working people; automation--all these changes have driven wages down. Another contributing factor is the presence of a labor force from other countries, primarily from Mexico. 
   Please do not misunderstand that I hold any of the Mexican people responsible for this. I've been displaced myself and when a man has a hungry mouth to feed--or several of them--he will do what he can to fill it. However, I strongly resist the suave platitudes of our politicians who clearly do the bidding of their corporate sponsors by insinuating that only two sides exist in this apparently unending debate. One is either, like Lou Dobbs, a racist mercenary bent on purging the land of all colors but one, or else one is in favor of creating an expedited
pathway to citizenship. 

   A third way does exist. This way would recognize the horrendous suffering of many of those who have braved considerable risk to come and stay in this country. A third way would boldly de-emphasize the concept of nationalism altogether, since it is nationalism that has served as the excuse for most of our armed combats over the years. This third way would acknowledge the common bond linking domestic Hispanics with their white, black and other native-born brothers and sisters and provide a living wage for the people who actually do the work--for those who clean restrooms, for those who repair our houses and highways, for those who teach in our schools, for those who build our computers and make our clothes, for those who drive those highways at three in the morning to get to work before sun-up, for those whose very existence allows for the luxury of a handful of rich people to vacation in Acapulco. 

Saturday, May 4, 2013

CRIMINAL MENTALITY

   

    While I may not have seven women on my mind, I do often consider worldly troubles as I drive along our nation's high-and-byways. Today as I was motoring stately behind a large open-topped freighter truck hauling the latest and greatest in contemporary limestone, I spied a warning in red lettering on the back of the truck cab. The words read: NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ROAD DEBRIS. I have taken note of such warnings at other times throughout my travels, usually mere instants before the truck in question plops into a pothole and bounces a large mineral rock out onto my windshield. I gave today's driver a wide girth, but nevertheless I could not help being somewhat perplexed at the implication. A more direct and Mad Magazine-oriented caution would have gone something like: HEY, STUPID! WE DON'T GIVE A SHIT ABOUT YOU OR YOUR CAR! WE'RE JUST HERE TO DELIVER THIS CRAP AS FAST AS POSSIBLE AND ANY DAMAGE THAT HAPPENS IS YOUR TOUGH TITTY. HAVE A REAL NICE DAY. 
    "Not responsible for road debris"? Well, certainly the company that employs the driver is not responsible for all road debris. If a mattress goes flying off the top of a station wagon driven by thirteen Cubans, I wouldn't hold the limestone driver accountable for that. But it does seem reasonable that somebody somewhere might be culpable for the spillage that hops out of that truck that had been rolling along in front of me.  
    I know what some of you are saying. You're saying, "Come on, Phil! What sort of warning would you have them write? SORRY IN ADVANCE FOR ANY DAMAGE DONE TO YOUR WINDSHIELD, GRILL, FRONT TIRES OR UNDERWEAR. CALL 800 888 4242 FOR FULL REFUND. Hell, boy, the cost of reimbursing the public would just get passed right back onto the consumer in the form of higher prices for that limestone that you and I need for our lawns and that leads to higher gas prices and before long a gallon of milk costs fifty bucks a gallon, all thanks to you and your inconsiderate liberal bullshit." 
    If your response is something to that effect, I have two things to say. First, you're getting far more worked up about this thing than I am, so chill out. Second, don't be so long-windedly glib.
    Look, I realize that the warning is on there so that people won't tailgate the bastard and then complain about a cracked windshield. I also realize that it makes a nice insulation in case the company was too slipshod to invest in a tarp for the cover of the vehicle's load. Heck, they might even splurge and buy some cords to tie the tarp down. 
    That will never happen, of course, because what we are dealing with here is what I call the NRA Mentality. You know what that is? The NRA Mentality says that anything that happens to you is your own fault. If you don't want limestone bouncing out of a truck bed and smashing your windshield into bits, then, buddy, what you better do is buy yourself a truck that's even bigger than the one in front of you, something that'll block out the sunshine six states away, and by God let's just see that drunken OTR driver try to tangle with you then. 
    I hear you out there. "Now you're talking sense, boy! If you run out of money before the rent comes due, Jack, you should have been out there working a better-paying job! If some bank forecloses on your home because they lied through their teeth about the interest payments, you should have had a lawyer who cost even more than the bank's did to read that contract! If somebody shoots up your kid's elementary school, you should have had Navy Seals and Green Berets and the Guardian Angels armed to the tits in every classroom, hallway, restroom, science lab, teachers' lounge, cafeteria, gymnasium, study hall and parking lot! Goddamn, boy! You got to take responsibility!"
    Matter of fact, I hear the NRA is considering helping the gun manufacturers even more than they have been already. They're taking their cue from the limestone delivery companies. It turns out that all the USA armaments dealers are going to put a warning label on the grip of their firearms that says NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR DEATH OR INJURY CAUSED BY THIS WEAPON. That way, whenever some playground or movie house or cemetery or shopping mall gets barraged by any sociopath with papers to prove it, all the domestic gun manufacturers can call up the head of the NRA and tell him to use Excuse Number Three: IT WAS THE VICTIM'S OWN FAULT. 
    That's a lot of work because we have a lot of weapons-makers in this country, more than you may know. There's Arsenal Inc., Bushmaster, Land Warfare Resources, and a couple dozen other friendly-sounding companies, plus a whole lot of homemade firearms folks out there blowing up buckets in the desert under the moonlight. These companies have employees dependent on corporate profits to trickle down some measly wages their way, so the last thing these gun giants need is for a group of bereaved parents to initiate a class action suit accusing the weapons industry of liability where pissed off postal employees shoot up a Burger King. Thank God the Government already ruled that the gun-makers cannot be brought to trial for the harm their products inevitably cause. If that were to happen, some joker might get it into his head that aspects of the free enterprise system are somehow less than divinely inspired and we sure as hell can't have anyone wagging their middle finger at Old Glory wrapped around a Bible lying atop the coffins of our fallen murderers. 
    I have to admit that I made up that part about the warning the gun-makers will put on their products. That won't be necessary. See, back in 2005, the Senate and House of Representative sent a bill they had passed to then-"President" George W. Bush. Junior was happy to sign what was called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. The new law said that firearms manufacturers and dealers could not be held responsible for negligence if their products were used in an unlawful manner. The only narrow--very narrow--exception to this law is if a manufacturer or dealer knowingly sells a firearm to someone who fails a criminal background check. Of course, forty percent of all gun sales in this country take place at gun shows where--thanks to the bought-and-paid-for U.S. Congress--no background check is required. 
    For just an instant there we almost blinked and did something decent for a change. But the bastards in Congress voted against even having a vote on the issue of background checks. 
    There may not really be a new sheriff in town. After all, Obama is not all that different from his predecessors, although he has slammed the brakes on some of the mindless sliding. But there sure is a new criminal lurking in the shadows. This person can be male or female--although he's usually male. He may be white, black or Hispanic, although he's usually white. He may be rich or filthy rich, although he's usually the latter. In Washington they call this criminal a Senator. The word comes from the Latin, referring to the highest council of governance in Ancient Rome. The contemporary English translation is Well-Paid Stooge. 

    (The writer is not responsible for any feelings that may have been hurt as the result of reading this piece.)