Tuesday, May 23, 2017
"You can't eat books, sweetheart."
Proving that nothing rivets the imagination more dependably than the end of life, one of the best (and best-selling) novels of 2005 was a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of World War II, narrated by Death.
The end is the beginning, as well as the end. In the middle of collecting souls strewn along a recently-bombed street in a small German town, Death picks up a book dropped by one very fortunate girl, who somehow avoided having her thirteenth year on Earth be her last. The book is a journal of her four years with a foster family, a story that so enraptures the grim guy that he decides to share it decades later.
The Meminger family--Mom, son Werner, daughter Liesel--are on a train for Molching, Germany, where the children will be handed over to new, middle-aged parents. Werner dies en route, but the show must continue. Liesel is slow to warm up to the Hubermanns: sharp-tongued washer-woman Rosa and amiable painter/accordionist Hans. The nightmares that plague little Liesel do not escape Hans' notice. After one visit, he notices the book she's clutching: The Gravediggers Handbook. Liesel had snatched it up at the site of her brother's burial, and it represents her sole tangible connection to the family that was. Hans reads the handbook to her, kicking off what will become a series of late night "classes" for Liesel.
Away from home, Liesel strikes up a quick friendship with Rudy Steiner, an underfed blond boy who loves to footrace and could probably give an ailing pronghorn antelope a good go. He challenges Liesel to a quick dash shortly after meeting her, with the promise of a kiss if he wins. Cue a running gag that will end in devastating fashion. Rudy's dad is a tailor and member of the Nazi Party; not because he hates Jews so much, but because he's fearful of them coming into the neighborhood and taking away customers/food from his dinner table.
Liesel steals her next readable at a book burning held in the town square on Hitler's birthday. She's unable to hide the steaming tome from her father's notice, but he promises to keep it their secret. Truly, he is the "awesome" half of the parental unit. Mama Rosa orders Liesel to take over the laundry route, which includes a stop by the opulent residence of Bürgermeister Hermman und Frau. On one such stop, Mrs. Mayor does not extend a bag of dirtied fabrics but rather an invitation. Fearing the worst, Liesel follows the woman into her library. She is too awed to perform any action beyond caressing book spines. Subsequent stops embolden Liesel to treat books how they're meant to be treated, damnit, and the simple act of sitting and reading seems to do the older woman some relative good as well ("relative" in that it alters her demeanor from crestfallen to melancholy).
A pre-teen girl is still a pre-teen girl, however, no matter how voracious her appetite for knowledge. A secret is a terrible burden to bear. If not for her solemn promise to her Papa, Liesel probably would have blabbed about the Jew in the Hubermann basement.
Promises, promises. Max Vandenburg, son of the man who saved Hans' hintern in the First World War, hauled ass during the helter skelter of Kristallnacht, with only a slip of paper bearing the name and numbers of a savior. His shame nearly equals his fright. He spends day after day in the frigid basement, waiting to die.
Liesel decides to remind Max that things such as hope and beauty persist. The silent child and the scared Jew. With the world at war, both find solace in words.
Rudy doesn't care about words, though. Hitler Youth is as full of shit as the uniforms imply, and he's on the verge of eating his own fingers. The trees and fields aren't exactly bursting with fresh fruits and vegetables for the picking (legal or otherwise) so Liesel suggests the house on the hill. Earlier, the Hubermann laundry "business" lost its most prominent client when Mrs. Master of Citizens handed over a book rather than clothes. A clumsy parting gift that Liesel refused to take. Still seething at the memory, Liesel slips in through an open library window and finds the very book she refused.
The books help. Max is felled by a dreadful malady. The books help. Nazis drop by to inspect basement fitness. The books help. Air raid sirens wail. The books help. Jews are marched through the street on their way to Dachau. Hans, forgetting that no good deed goes unpublished, offers one a bite of bread. The books do not help. Max has to scram. The books do not help. Hans is drafted into the army, albeit as a member of a special unit that rescues survivors of air raids and accumulate corpses. The blessing of a broken leg allows Herr Hubermann to return home just in time for another air strike.
Liesel, hunkered in the basement filling a diary, escapes death. She emerges from the rubble to utter her bewildered goodbyes. Mama, Papa, Rudy. Horrific, harrowing, heartbreaking.
Yet ultimately, happy.
Ah, another tale of a young girl enduring the trials and tribulations of one of the world's darkest periods with the unerring help of the written word! Isn't reading great, guys? I know, I know. The Book Thief beautifully dodges the cliches. What could have been cloying claptrap coalesced instead into an earnest epic.
All thanks to Death.
Wordwise, Thanatos is possessed of an eloquence he hasn't quite tamed. His humor tends towards self-deprecation. Metaphors and similes are plentiful and unorthodox. Death prioritizes color. Death does not respect spoiler alerts, since the mysteries hovering above the path are suffused with much more intrigue and value than the end itself could ever contain.
"I am haunted by humans."
"Touching" is one word fit to describe The Book Thief. "Touchy," another. A young German girl and her foster family hiding a Jewish man during the reign of the Reich? That the box office turned out decent didn't surprise me. That it underwhelmed artistically didn't require more than a single take for me to comprehend.
Who dares wins…or loses, as well, spectacularly either way. Who doesn't dare, made this movie.
Death (Roger Allem) pops up via voice-over to remind the viewer of life's one immutable fact. Then it's time to meet little Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), huddled with her mother and little brother on the most symbolic train ride since Anna Karenina.
Hans Hubermann (Geoffrey Rush) and his wife Rosa (Emily Watson) are anticipating the arrival of both young children to brighten their lives, but receive only Liesel. As Rosa berates cruel fate, her husband gently cajoles the wary girl from the car and into their not-exactly dream house.
Illiterate and shy, Liesel deals with school bullies the old-fashioned way, which impresses a boy named Rudy Steiner (Milo Leirsch), whose irrepressible energy is upstaged only by his flaxen hair. She's quite taken, but what can compare with a father who reads to you?
Books become an obsession for Liesel. How else to explain braving a pile of burnt books to save one that has been merely singed, even as a woman is looking right at you? But not just some woman; she's Mayor Hermann's wife, as Liesel discovers when her Mama sends her to the mayor's house to collect laundry. Rather than upbraid the child for thievery, Mrs. Hermann invites her into a library so dreamy she can't stay long for fear her teeth will clatter onto the floor. She returns the next day, and many days after, until the Mayor himself puts the kibosh on.
We should all have such problems. During Kristallnacht, the Vandenburg family is presented with a choice no one should ever have to make. Escape is possible, but for only one of them. Mrs. Vandenburg insists her twenty-something son Max (Ben Schnetzer) take the opportunity, and gives him the information he needs to wind up in the care of Hans and Rosa Hubermann.
Max bonds with Liesel over how much fascism sucks and how much literature rules. When living nearly every second in a frigid basement begins having deleterious effects on Max's health, Liesel reads to him. No one tells her to; she simply knows.
Max recovers, and all is back to what was settled upon as normal. Until Hans speaks up on behalf for a neighbor. A brazen act of decency that forces Max out of the Hubermann home and earns Hans a spot in the German army. His ladies aren't sad for long, though, as Hans seems to be one of those guys who could fall face first into a vat of swine guts only to emerge with a sheepish grin and a sudden idea for an invention that could change the world. Except actually he injured his leg and was shipped back home. In time for the neighborhood to get bombed while everyone's asleep.
Location, location, location saves Liesel's life, although for many minutes it must seem to her a pointless stroke of luck. Her parents are dead, as is her best friend. Max is…well, if he isn't dead he probably should be. She has no one. Until Mayor Herrmann and his wife appear to survey the damage and bear witness to the sole miracle on the scene.
The Book Thief sure is pretty. Luminous sets and gorgeous shots that pretty much make sure any despondency any character or viewer may feel is short-lived. The script runs the pathos through a hand-wash cycle before tossing it in for a delicate spin. And oh look, it's John Williams to put everything up on plastic hangers.
The actors sure are pretty. Sophie Nélisse has a face ideal for selling people crap they can live comfortably without. She's quite good throughout, with her shining moment coming as Liesel explores the library for the first time. Geoffrey Rush makes for a thoroughly lovable Papa Hans even if his German accent isn't quite as bangin' as Emily Watson's. She makes Rosa sounds like a woman who does everything with a wooden spoon: beat children, brush teeth, stir ingredients, clitoral stimulation.
Film Max isn't followed by the "about to croak" cloud that followed his original version around or the yappy "this family is risking everything to keep me alive" dog that nipped at his heels, but Ben Schnetzer does have the "swampy" eyes that the book obsessed over.
Then there's the middling matter of Death and his infrequent, inconsequential voice-overs. If the Reaper does indeed sound like a man one desperate phone call away from narrating a retrospective on The Vicar of Dibley, what exactly are all of us so scared of?
BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
Markus Zusak's work left me halved. Bad things befall good people, but that's only part of the story. Scrutinize "the whole truth" and you'll see several dividing lines. There are moments than can frost a jungle. There are moments that can make a glacier spontaneously combust. The ease with which a dictator can assume power can cause a lethal electrical short, to say nothing of the price paid to maintain their stature.
Brian Percival's film treads light, wary of leaving traces. This results in an experience that is much less fatiguing--and practically unmemorable.
Liesel isn't haunted by nightmares, since those would be extra money to shoot, and hey aren't her waking hours full of enough terrors? Keeping the main characters likable means no Liesel temper tantrum in the Bürgermeister's library, meaning no letter from Liesel to the mayor's wife explaining herself, and no follow-up face-to-face that inspires Liesel to embrace words which leads the girl to keeping a diary that winds up saving her life.
Keep Liesel's public abnegation of the Chancellor (what's more endearing than a child speaking out against fascism?) followed by Papa's pragmatic pointing out that feigning fealty is a survival skill, but don't include the punitive slap. (A slap's the same as a punch in some minds.)
Only one death march is shown, so haphazardly directed it has all the impact of a rubber band landing in a bubble bath.
When the air raid sirens pierce the sky, the Hubermanns join over a dozen others in a neighbors basement. During one such gathering, Liesel begins reading aloud from the book she just couldn't bear to abandon. Everyone hangs on the words, grateful for the distraction. The movie changes this, showing an empty-handed Liesel improvise a story while Funkmaster Flex exposes DJ Clue outside. And I'm supposed to believe this was met with encouragement rather than a smack?
Every good novel-made-film has at least one quality character backstory that couldn't make the transition. In The Book Thief, we get a peek at Max's past as a feisty street pugilist, which manifests in present fantasies of boxing Adolf himself in front of a rabid crowd. The sight of Hitler in a boxing robe, Goebbels rubbing his shoulders as he whispers sourly in his ear, would only really work in a Mel Brooks movie, so I can't fault Pervical and co. much.
The most regrettable exclusion concerns The Word Shaker. In the book, Rosa hands Liesel the final gift Max left for her: a makeshift book he'd created from the painted-over pages carefully tore from his copy of Mein Kampf. Within are stories and drawings with captions of Max's brief time with the Hubermanns, followed by the fable of a bad man who ascended to macabre glory on the back of some "lovely ugly words"--and the good girl who used words to battle back.
More than just a means of creative release, or a way to sublimate his guilt, The Word Shaker also served as a "thank you" to a young girl of boundless curiosity and compassion. Without it, the script must stuff cliches in Max's mouth: "You're my family," "You kept me alive."
Why does the movie let Rudy discover the existence of Max? Nothing comes of that. Surprised they showed Rudy's "Jesse Owens Tribute Run," complete with charcoal. A child mimicking a hero without appreciating that he can wash the black off at day's end is probably more sobering than scandalous.
Liesel's understated reaction to seeing the corpses of her adoptive parents and close-to-corpse of her best buddy is believable enough--no such thing as an "incorrect" reaction in that situation--but I much prefer her near-hysteria in the novel as shock took harsh possession of her flesh and bone.
Yes, the movie really had to scale back Death. The modicum of relief the End Boss provided every two pages or so with a sharp observation, unique description or weighty reflection was a massive part of the book's appeal. Death is the ish. Death knows every word to Big Boi's verse on "Poppin' Tags." Remove Death, and the story of the girl who swiped readable loses loads of luster. (Think what Geoffrey Rush's Oscar for Shine looked like the night he won it compared to what the award likely looks like nowadays.)
Death's final words hit harder after 500+ pages than after 120+ minutes.
MIND THE GAP
Death is not a thief. A thief, per definition, steals what does not belong to them. The first cry of life is a binding verbal agreement that when the body is no longer of any use, the soul shall be collected and taken for reassignment. Do I believe that? Today I do. Might not tomorrow.
Competence really is attractive. Hence, death's allure.
Death's writing style is pretty distinctive given the demands made on his time. The similes are mostly novel and occasionally amusing ("His teeth were like a soccer crowd, crammed in" being my favorite). I confess, I'm not sure what "a breakfast colored sun" would look like in the sky--or anywhere else. But "smells like friendship," while incredibly awkward is also quite engaging, if you allow yourself to think about what odors you would personally associate with friendship. Anything could apply, which is half the fun had right there.
Why do authors still see "ejaculated" in the list of "Alternative Words For 'Said'" and go, "Oooh, I'll use that one! Definitely not going to take a reader out of the moment whatsoever!"
Works based on or around the Holocaust can be good or bad, but they can never be unwelcome.
Nothing makes me want to punch a froggy fuckboy quite like seeing books engulfed in flames.
The film adaptation was worthwhile just to let us all see what Ian Fleming and Natalie Merchant would look like as grizzled Germans.
Earth apple, earth apple. Will you be mine?
So there I am, relaxing my body on whatever, turning pages with dry fingers and damning the Nazi Party all book long. Seething over "blood and soil" between bites of jam-blessed toast, cursing the day of reckoning that never came for the worst of the worst, insisting that when it comes to moral apathy and moral turpitude there cannot possibly be a "better than." Coulda bitten clean through titanium, I tell you. Then I finally finish and realize: the Hubermanns were good people. Rudy was a real decent kid with a wealth of athletic promise. Along with Liesel, they privately, personally defied the Führer and every nonsense he gestured for. Many of their neighbors did not feel the same. They displayed their swastikas with pride. They believed in the superiority of the white Christian and the wickedness of Jews. And almost every single one of them perished at the hand of the Allies. Whatever they held to be true did not matter.
Wars are about money, ideas, places. Wars are never about people. Any powerful country on Earth has always been willing to have a certain percentage of bodies residing within its borders wiped out.
German really is the language of imminent death.
Tuesday, May 16, 2017
Hubert Selby, Jr.
"It was just black."
SPOILER ALERT, there is a light that never turns on.
I respect the memory of Hubert Selby, Jr. He pecked out the stories that would become Last Exit To Brooklyn while struggling to support a family and a drug addiction. It took him over two years to write the story "Tralala," which along with one-half of the story "Strike," gives ya the beginnings of a real good novel.
Promises are made to be broken.
Last Exit is comprised of six tales, each prefaced with a Bible verse, written in the stream of conscious style. Page after page, the reader is inundated with New Yorkers addicted to pain, some of them devoid of redeeming qualities, others sympathetic until the moment of truth that reveals just how richly they deserve their grotesque fates.
The first story, "Another Day, Another Dollar," is an appetizer. Selby's prose bites down with discolored approximations of teeth. The relentless musicality of his style I won't deny. The assertion that this is well-written I will deny. Compared to the works of Irvine Welsh (who penned an introduction for the 2011 Penguin Classics edition of Last Exit), I find this too naked ham-on-white to seize my interest. Honestly, the fuck I was prepared to give shriveled up on page two.
Drunk sailors get their ass beat by greasy Brooklynites. If only the text hit so hard. Face-first in a puke-pool, ho hum.
Next up is "The Queen Is Dead," where Selby introduces us to Georgette, "a hip queer" whose contemptuous treatment of the women she seeks to mimic is counterbalanced with a heartbreaking home life. Seeking solace with drugs and buzz-killing baboons go as well as you'd guess.
"And Baby Makes Three" is the worst. A baby, a wedding, a fistfight. If the author really wanted to do an ace job of shocking me, he woulda had the infant catching a right to the kisser and flying into the cake.
Story four is "Tralala." Ah shit. Now we're talking. Audibly and articulately. Just don't step too close. Tralala is a young, big-tittied hooker not above robbing and/or battering johns. She's so sad and needy that her submission to the miasma is the closest thing to a real tragedy in the whole book.
"Strike" up next. Harry Black is a factory worker who's far more comfortable behind a wall of BS than in front of a lathe. At home a wife and baby boy await, but none of this--employment, matrimony, fatherhood--truly make Harry happy. Sex with the missus is only tolerable if he imagines that each thrust shreds her cunt to pieces. Work is only tolerable as long as the strike he's leading continues.
But then he goes to bed with a fairy named Ginger. What is limb-twisting anguish duty with a woman becomes heart-swelling joy with a man pretending to be a woman. Harry moves on to Regina, another fairy, and is able to treat her to nights on the town with union funds.
Then the strike ends. The extra cash is no longer available; Regina soon follows. Crestfallen and directionless, Harry winds up beaten by the dregs of the neighborhood after trying to forcefully fellate an underage boy.
"Landsend" is the coda, a kaleidoscopic peek at the lives crammed into a Brooklyn housing project: the vicious, the avaricious, the melancholy outlier, it's dysfunction a go-go. Behold the hardscrabble dreamchasers as they sleep (or don't), work (or don't) and fuck (or don't). Seriously, big shouts to Ada, the woman is an emerald in a bucket of filled with every disgusting substance that begins with the letter "s." Selby teases me with an averted disaster involving an infant.
Yeah, I imagine people in the Sixties felt like they'd just walked in on their grandmothers stubbing cigarettes on their labia after reading Last Exit To Brooklyn. Fifty years on, and it still possesses the power to unsettle.
But man, it just isn't that good.
At the time the novel was viewed as incendiary and obscene, but the language isn't all that harsh and the sex isn't particularly prurient. The highs are scattered and subterranean. Selby puts readers among the poor and tired, smashed and stinking, the people who remind you that post-war prosperity didn't spread nationwide. The ones vilipended by their country, their state, their city, their families, their friends, themselves.
Yeah, it's a fine line between poetry and doggerel.
Before even considering the content, there's the matter of construction: Selby eschewed quotation marks and apostrophes in contractions. Sentences run on and on, and further on. Such a style is a logical reaction to the environment--howls, wails and curses that curve in mid-air. Why use standard techniques to tell stories so unconventional? Like so many Beat scribes, Hubert Selby had a great point to make, but neglected adding flour to the mix.
Last Exit To Brooklyn almost made the jump in the mid-Seventies, with renowned animation director Ralph Bakshi in the directors chair and Robert De Niro in the role of Harry Black, only to have the trampoline pulled away by what Bakshi refers to as "past business."
Hubert Selby must have been thrilled to have a European direct the adaptation, since the denizens of that continent showered him with the huzzahs he didn't quite receive in his homeland. (When they weren't banning it for being obscene, anyway.)
Any fan of the book will wince in recognition at the sneering, smirking men pulling their noisome antics. The hoods, the fairies, the hair grease--it's all here. Stephen Baldwin's sleeveless numbskullery stands out, but only because it's Stephen Baldwin, an actor not only incapable of subtlety, but also incapable of correctly spelling or pronouncing the word "subtlety."
The action centers around two characters. Harry Black (Stephen Lang), steel worker and strike leader par excellence. He and his wife fuck with all the tenderness of ducks, and there are few bets surer than the life of repression and aggression that awaits their infant son. Soon, Harry's spending less time at home and more time with a "fairy" named Regina, a wise-ass he meets at a party where he also learns the proper way to smoke a joint. Following his queer urges doesn't make Harry any less of a jerk, though, and when the neighborhood goons turned him into a bloody pretzel for trying to blow a little boy, well, I wished I had pom-poms.
The other "main" character is Tralala (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a hooker with a heart of burnt tinfoil. She has squat to offer--so she thinks, so she knows?--other than her body. Her competitive spirit rises in tandem with her blood alcohol level in a bar full of seaman and the women trying to bang them. She tears off her top and stumbles around the joint, not much minding the groping and leering. The men become animals--a transformation completed with distressing quickness.
Interspersed is the comic relief. Donna (Ricki Lake) has been knocked up by her boyfriend, but she was already so fat that her father (Burt Young) didn't even notice until she was on the verge of bursting. Hilarious! All I took from it was too many people, too little living space, too many curlers in a woman's hair and not enough cotton stretched over a man's upper body.
This is a film too shot through with hysteria to take seriously. I'd say this is down more on the director than the writer, but then again I would. Jennifer Jason Leigh received considerable critical acclaim, but Alexis Arquette pretty much steals the show as the doomed queen Georgette. Her appearance is short, yet heart-shattering.
BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
Director Uli Edel nails the bleak and barren landscape, but no one familiar with the book (or really, anyone who's seen more than twenty R-rated movies) is likely to be impressed. Sunset Park, Brooklyn in the 1950s, stomping grounds for the type of guys who only feel at home within prison walls and the women who depend upon them.
Since Harry's story took up the most space in the book, of course it's featured most prominently in the movie. The script doesn't care much about the actual factory strike, save for Jerry Orbach cursing at a sweaty room. Nor does the script care about Harry's joy at having fallen in love. Only so far as that love is taboo (and ergo wicked) and will lead to his comeuppance at the hands and feet of avenging demons.
Still, good luck to any filmmaker bringing post-coital self-disgust that haunts all planes of a person's consciousness to life. The slime, the blood, the spit, that's the easy stuff. Recreating spiritual desolation is near-impossible. A close-up of a twitchy, pale face drenched in sweat is sack-lunch stuff.
Tralala's tragedy is harrowing in moving pictures as well as static words. Turns out, the script rode caboose. Apparently believing that the sight of a thoroughly abused woman supplied insufficient pathos, the filmmakers have a young boy approach her trashed body. His innocence shattered at such a scandalous sight, he needs solace. Who better than the broken, battered girl who was kind to him that one time when those goons she hangs out with were tormenting him?
Tralala lifts herself up and begins consoling the child. Selby approved of this addition, but damned if it doesn't ring false. One thing I took away from the novel (other than confirmation that an absurdist is just a nihilist with a sense of humor) is that comfort does not exist for any of these shiftless souls. Was I supposed to feel bad for Tralala? I felt bad for the whole situation, the chain of events that led a young woman to relinquish her humanity and become an all-you-can-eat mashed potato buffet. Georgette's story is less tawdry, but more affecting. Her ambivalence over her lifestyle, the grossly hirsute brother who heaps verbal and physical abuse, the taxi cab driver whose alcohol intake will surely increase by six ounces a day…Georgette's death feels like a true loss.
MIND THE GAP
I don't think I'm superior to Hubert Selby's work or the characters he created. I simply find the squalor unspectacular at day's end. The sense-free violence, the casual drug use, the loveless sex, all slide off of me like my skin's been rubbed down with udon broth.
Near the start of the review, I stated my belief that Last Exit To Brooklyn is basically the beginnings of a quality novel surrounded by so-so short stories. "Tralala" is devastating, "The Queen Is Dead" is unsettling, but no one's journey has a more stubborn aftertaste than that of Harry Black. He loathes his wife; "hate-fuck" does not begin to cover the night of coital duty the reader is made privy to. He is a lazy worker, a superficial friend. He is also a closeted queer longing to make a meaningful connection. After meeting a drag queen named Alberta, Harry goes from bull to dolphin. Sex with Alberta is satisfying a need, not fulfilling a duty. Powered along by novelty and lust, his pistons begin moving: Harry realizes, to his supreme shock, that he's happy. Around Alberta, and later Regina, he's more relaxed, eager to touch and be touched. Around his wife, he's brooding and brutal.
He would be, in the hands of a more cautious writer, a redemptive character. In the hands of Hubert Selby, he goes from touching an infant's penis in wonder to begging a pre-teen boy for a BJ. That such a spiritually fatigued man winds up in a Jesus Christ pose amusing; Harry Black ain't a martyr. He died for his sins and his alone. As do we all, one day. (Selby put in all those Bible verses for a reason: one apple doomed us all.)
Last Exit To Brooklyn shows us a world that is distasteful, disgusting, disloyal and disinterested in any other world. But is that world unfair? Life is a game. A game has winners and losers. More players lose than win. The rules demand it be so. What separates us, what distinguishes "success" from "failure" is luck. Good, bad, and dumb. Most people will experience all three, but a preponderance of one type dictates whether or not someone will be considered a "winner" or a "loser."
Was she asking for it?
I'm fond of making my own personal lists, some of which you would never find the mate of on Buzzfeed. Top 5 Places I'd Like To Feel a Bullet Penetrate, Top 3 Cancers I Want To Be Diagnosed With, Top 10 Ways To Integrate Dog Meat Into My Diet. Nothing is etched in stone, of course, but most of my rankings stay put. My Top 5 Most Depressing Things I've Ever Sat Through had remained unchanged since 2007. Then this past year I read Requiem For a Dream and not only did I have to make room for a new entry, it shot all the way up to the top spot! Take that, my dad's funeral.* Also take that, my plans to have a second Hubert Selby adaptation in this review series.
The "Baby Makes Three" story which weaves in and out as a sort of comic massage works slightly better here than in the novel, since the movie has Burt "The Human Goomba" Young as the oblivious grandpa-to-be.
Nothing from the coda made the jump. Real life has given me more than enough exposure to tit-slapping, pussy-grabbing, caps-locking cretins.
Pressure does not always create diamonds. Reading Last Exit To Brooklyn is not a matchless experience, but an unforgettable one nonetheless. The movie is a well-intentioned failure.
So take yer pick--a mouthful of sand or a mouthful of excretum. Neither is desirable, but one is really undesirable. "Better" is relative, here.
*For any family members reading--I am kidding.
Tuesday, May 9, 2017
"It ain't time to worry yet. I'll let you know when."
SPOILER ALERT #1, everyone on the planet has been, is currently, or will be problematic.
Oh Christ on crutches, the days when Harper Lee was English literature's most celebrated one hit wonder!
Scintillating summary: a woman with a story to tell. Jean Louise Finch is the woman, but as a young girl folks called her "Scout." She takes us through three years of her girlhood, spent with her older brother Jeremy (better known as "Jem") and their widowed father Atticus, a well-respected attorney, in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. The two siblings bicker and spit and, come summer, whittle away the days with their pal Dill. They run hither and yon with the finesse of three baby elephants, but no distraction proves as compelling as that of "the Radley place." Choked and battered by the elements, the structure stands as a monument to communal paranoia. The head of the house comes out to do only what must be done, and no more. The only other occupant is his adult son Boo, whom neither of the Finches have ever laid eye one on. None of the kids in the area have, in fact. They'll stand outside on the sidewalk, staring and shuddering at the wild thoughts of who or what lies behind the shut doors and shuttered windows. Boo is more myth than man, "a malevolent phantom," a deformed pervert who subsists on stray animals.
Dill's instant obsession with the local spook story leads he, Scout and Jem to dream up ways of luring old Boo into the open. The Finch children try to keep their machinations secret, but being children, they are unsuccessful.
Atticus has much to say to them about pestering hermits. His children call him by his first name; no "Dad," no "Daddy," and certainly not the ever-cringey "father." Despite this, they hold Atticus in high regard, and dread ever disappointing him. Scout's struggles with temper control only increase when she begins school. Atticus advises his daughter to "climb into someone's skin and walk around in it" before she passes judgment on their decisions. There's two types of folk in Maycomb: poor and poorer. It's a place where food and flowers can easily substitute for cash and change. And if Walter Cunningham wants to drown his beans in maple syrup, let him. It'll form a protective glaze around his heart.
Maycomb is also a town of yarn-spinners and confabulators, so when their neighbors start referring to Atticus as a "nigger-lover," Jem and Scout react violently. Neither of them really understands why the term is so bad, only that it is so bad. Atticus explains that he's been assigned to defend a black man by the name of Tom Robinson, a hard-working husband and father accused of rape by Mayella Ewell. The Ewells are a backwoods clan--unwashed, uneducated, and unconcerned with the expectations of those more fortunate. (Poverty's no indicator of moral fiber, of course.) None of whom really like the Ewells much, but well, they are white. And at least they know their place.
The trial is a huge to-do; even Jem and Scout attend (unbeknownst to Atticus), sitting with the Negroes in the balcony. Atticus does such a magnificent job establishing the likelihood that Mayella Ewell was in fact abused by her own father after he caught her trying to seduce Tom Robinson, that the verdict is no less enraging for its inevitability.
Unsatisfied with having condemned an innocent man, Bob Ewell goes up to Atticus on the street, spits in his face and vows revenge for the grievous sin of daring to save a scapegoat. Bob does indeed make a malicious move; not on Atticus, but on his children, who escape death thanks only to the intervention of none other than Boo Radley.
Harper Lee drew on her own childhood in Alabama to craft her first--and, for 55 glorious years, her only--novel.* To Kill A Mockingbird was an immediate sensation, and while winning a Pulitzer Prize is certainly impressive, I consider that a lesser accomplishment to being one of the few books on school "required reading" lists actually worth re-reading.
Forty million people can be wrong, but in this case they are not. Scout's remembrances swim in warmth and charm, even as they describe man at his worst. Scenes melt into each other with mesmerizing fluidity. "For a children's book, it does all right." Oh, Mary Flannery, I love you beyond all reason, I aspire to be an eighth of the scribbler you were, but you were wrong as well. To Kill A Mockingbird is not some mere tome of tolerance. It is the Deep South, deep down, and I can say without equivocation or shame that it is one of my favorite books. Harper Lee thought up and jotted down one a magnificent story, one of the few titles worthy of crowning "The Great American Novel."
Wildly popular book made into movie? No shock.
Forget the kid stuff. This is the story of Atticus Finch (the redoubtable Gregory Peck), an attorney in humble Maycomb, Alabama. Jem (Phillip Alford) and Scout (Mary Badham) are around, of course, and with their goofy-faced buddy Dill they find a myriad of ways to pass the summertime. Once Dill finds out about the legend of the Radley home, well, you'd sooner stop a tank with a casserole dish. He becomes obsessed with spying Boo Radley, who lives with the same father he apparently tried to kill some time ago.
Atticus does his best to show his children how to be a good neighbor to his fellow man, rather than simply telling them. One way is kissing up to an elderly white woman with a stick so far up her ass it tickles her throat. Another way to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman who is in fact the victim of her dirt merchant bigot of a daddy. The indignity of a trial is too much for the real rapist, who despite his undeserved victory in a court of law goes after Atticus's most vulnerable spot: his children. Befitting a man of such physical and moral squalor, the would-be kiddy-killer winds up with a knife in his gut courtesy of the ghostly "Boo" Radley (Robert Duvall, in his film debut)
Adapting a beloved bestseller is usually easy money, but hardly art. Oftentimes this is due to the fact that literary fiction rarely moves like flashier, simpler volumes. To Kill A Mockingbird proved a potent exception. It notched eight Oscar noms, grabbing golden guys for Best Actor and Adapted Screenplay (losing Best Picture to Lawrence of Arabia). The American Film Institute named Atticus Finch the "greatest movie hero" of the 20th century and Peck considered the role his personal favorite in a career that spanned six decades.
How could anyone hold a prejudiced view after hearing the smooth, sonorous voice of Gregory Peck, is all I want to know.
BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
How could I ever truly hate on a film for failing to replicate the little things that make a time and a place so special? The sounds and sights are no big deal--the sounds and sights are what make a film, after all. Capturing odors, "oppressive" and otherwise, is downright impossible in both mediums, but a talented writer puts germs in heads. To Kill A Mockingbird places me square in a world of screened porches and tree houses, of sipping so much warm milk and chewing so much cold meat you couldn't pass concussion protocol. Few movies can afford such leisure.
Sparse and superfluous--the best and worst of voice-over narration. Surely superimposing "Maycomb, Alabama 1935" over the opening scene could have sufficed?
Scout's coming-of-age is basically a non-issue in the hands of Hollywood. Her frustrations at school were excised from the narrative, and fussy Aunt Alexandra does not move in to help raise the children while Atticus is tending to the Tom Robinson case. Aunt Alexandra does squat, since the script omits her entirely. Given that the film is more concerned with being a courtroom drama, augmentations like Alexandra and Mrs. Dubose are rendered useless. The constraints of time force events are to shrink and smash together in service of a linear narrative.
Ah God, it's like when you and a friend polish off six slices of a pizza one night, and the final two for lunch the following day. You're not going to complain, since it's pizza, but you won't pretend the experiences were equal.
Goddamn Aunt Alexandra is one of those that could have benefited greatly from a near-death experience. From step one, she tries to force Scout into feminine frills. She must refrain from cussing and indulge in gossip, since such behavior is unbecoming of a lady. (Atticus doesn't seem to mind his daughter's uncouth ways much; Scout gets an air rifle for Christmas just like her big brother; and the book gets a title to boot.)
Scout refuses and resists like any proud tomboy; I'd argue that TKAM's treatment of gender roles deserves scrutiny than it's thus far received. The mentally lazy need the so-called common wisdom to lean back upon, lest their knees buckle. Change might be overdue…but it tends to be uncomfortable…and human beings like feeling comfortable.
Oh to have read the book before viewing the film. Gregory Peck is Atticus Finch, Atticus Finch is Gregory Peck, and that's the end of it. Harper Lee knew it, I know it, you know it, some chucklefuck in Iowa knows it. Atticus represents more than the ideal man of law, he is the ideal father, caring and considerate, fair and unflustered. In other words, you will rarely find his like in real life.
Mary Badham, entrusted to express Scout's confusion and anxiety, does her very best. But Scout will always be a little rougher, a little coarser, in my mind.
Jem's role was expanded to be more equal with Scout's. Which may have provoked a strong reaction from me had Phillip Alford been given any other direction besides, "Furrow your brow."
While the film is a riveting watch, I nevertheless proclaim: anyone who regards it as superior to the source should fall through a hole and face the wrath of the phantom shadow beast Wrongo Bongo.
When's the last time a movie gave you "a sleepy old shark"? When was the first time? Precisely.
MIND THE GAP
True art, art which dares, art which exposes, art which revels in its truth, cannot avoid controversy. For millions, To Kill A Mockingbird resonates as a fiercely progressive book that centers on the single lesson most worth learning: respect yourself and others. By eschewing prolixity, Harper Lee reached an audience the size of which most authors can only drunkenly dream. The number of children named after characters alone is evidence to its massive influence.
Other readers grimace at the mention of the mere title. More than just a tidy target for contrarians peeved that more refined works of literature haven't met with similar acclaim, TKAM has come under attack as a perpetrator of white liberal self-congratulation. Not everyone is inspired to name their small housemates after Atticus Finch, believe it or not. Some are repulsed by his moral relativism, which allows him to: deliberately badger and shame an assault fame to keep a man from being railroaded; insist that people refrain from judging one another outside of a courthouse; articulate the unfair treatment faced by blacks in America in one breath, crack wise on the idea of women jurors in the next.
(Hell, not even the heroics of "the reasonable recluse" escapes harsh appraisal. Is "Boo" Radley a sexual predator with a predilection for prepubescents? I've seen someone claim so, earnestly.)
"We live in a post-racial society!"--the instinctual riposte of any and all unable to grasp the apparent compulsion of minorities to "re-open old wounds." These people do not, perhaps truly cannot, realizes that those traumas are still quite fresh. The system still fails. Sunbonnets and chifforobes notwithstanding, the citizens of Maycomb are recognizable in this century. There are whites who struggle with the consequences of their advantages, and others who believe it is their birthright. There are blacks resentful that they must depend on "enlightened" white folk for justice. For life. For life.
Rhapsodize though I might, never will I claim To Kill A Mockingbird to be the antidote to the poison of prejudice. Atticus Finch is a marvelous character, compassionate and wise, but he doesn't allow for the fluid nature of "right" and "wrong." Why would I want or need to "step into the skin" of some despicable sub-human like Howard Unruh or Omar Mateen? Would I somehow discover some facet that justified their horrendous crimes? SPOILER ALERT #2, nah son. Atticus Finch values the conscience of the individual. What of the man whose conscience tells him to support systemic oppression as the proper way of things? What of the woman whose conscience tells her that gay marriage signifies the ruination of civilization?
I insist that To Kill A Mockingbird is defensible as both an enjoyable read and a well-written parable. If and when some peanut-brain cites TKAM as proof that we currently live in a "post-racial America," how is that the fault of the author? Anyone unable or willing to view a book, or a song, or a film in the context of the era in which it was produced deserves to have their opinion should be discarded like so much ratty underwear.
Scout's face as Dill prattles on about his father is the face I'm always making, whether or not it's the face I'm actually making.
Of course his full name is Robert E. Lee Ewell. Having been born into a Southern family transplanted to western Maryland, I aver that no other group of people feels such pride at having lost something.
X Billups gon' give it to ya! The Tim Johnson incident must've made young Earl Simmons weep into his hands for a solid hour.
What divides us will forever prove more resolute than what unites us. Check the trees, you don't believe. Too many blue jays, not enough mockingbirds.
*In addition to basing Atticus Finch on her own attorney father, Harper Lee fictionalized her childhood friend Truman Capote as Dill. To this very day, people with their own peculiar agenda (women can't create masterpieces) believe that Capote wrote the majority or the entirety of To Kill A Mockingbird. Never mind that the writing style is unlike his, never mind that his own friends maintain that the man's Brobdingnagian ego would not have allowed him to remain silent if he had indeed written one of the most celebrated novels of the century.
Tuesday, May 2, 2017
"One of the greatest gifts you can get as a writer is to be born into an unhappy family."
SPOILER ALERT, I have some issues I should really let go.
In addition to the gift of life, Donald Conroy gave his son Pat the gift of himself: a highly-decorated, hard-nosed Marine fighter pilot, a veteran of three wars, who found it easier to kill strangers abroad than love his family at home. Pat turned his father into Lt. Col. Wllbur "Bull" Meecham, a strict and steely man's man who calls himself "The Great Santini*," his children "hogs" and everyone in general "sports fans." He and his doting wife Lillian have four children. The oldest, 18-year-old Ben, is not a boy not yet a man. He has designs on the Air Force despite his Dad's insistence that no son of his will wear a military uniform that doesn't include all three of the greatest colors in the spectrum, goddamnit.
Ben inherited his father's strength and drive, but also his mother's sensitivity. Lillian Meecham is a lovely, sanguine Southern belle who barely smudges her lipstick while endeavoring to keep the peace while dealing with the fact that "peace" is antithetical to a military man's idea of a "good life." (Peace is also relative, in a house with four children. Ben and 16-year-old Mary Anne bicker as easily as they breathe. The youngest two are indistinct and irrelevant, as are most children born after the first two.)
The Meechams settle in Beaufort, South Carolina, site of the Ravenel Marine Air Base, where Bull will be assuming command of Squad 367. They hire a black maid named Arrabelle, whose son Toomer goes around the small town in a mule-drawn cart selling food and flowers. At Lillian's behest, Ben befriends Toomer, and the two have some Huck 'n' Tom style adventures together.
Ben tries his best to win the old man's approval. He earns a spot on the high school basketball team and does well; still the Bull is hyper-critical, pushing and pushing until Ben snaps and loses his spot.
There's still the hoop out back, though. Father and son have a tense one-on-one match in front of the family. Ben's hard-fought victory is tarnished by his father's abysmally poor sportsmanship. He viciously insults Mary Anne before redirecting his ire towards the son who embarrassed him, bouncing the ball off his head, snarling out puerile insults, hoping to break the spirit of his own child.
Since the story takes place in the South during the early 1960s, a racist bully kid named Red Pettus is able to walk up to Toomer at the general store and toss out slurs while damaging the young man's merchandise. Toomer takes a bit of physical revenge, but nowhere near what the no-soul deserves. Red vows revenge. Arrabelle calls the Meecham home, worried that her boy's gotten himself in over his head. Ben calls his dad at the air base and is promptly ordered to stay out of matters concerning any family that isn't his.
Red approaches Toomer's home--which is actually a bus with no wheels. His roomies go nuts. His roomies happen to be 26 dogs, of varying breeds. Red begins firing at Toomer's beloved pack. The proud young man steps in front of a bullet for his beloved "Gray," a German Shepard/Great Dane mix that hated whitey. Toomer's last act before succumbing to his wound is to release the hounds. When Ben arrives, he is only able to identify Red by the color of his hair.
After seeing two dead bodies (one of the very few friends he's made since the move), Ben's tolerance for his father's booze-fuelled nonsense is lower than ever. When he hears the argument between his parents turn violent, he rushes down from his bedroom, followed by his three younger siblings. Ben gets there first and best, but even with poisoned blood the old man gets the upper hand. The rest of the family keep Bull from doing much damage, though, and he rushes out of the house.
Later, Ben locates his father, prostate and smoldering like a tree trunk in the aftermath of a lightning strike. As good a time as any to say "I love you."
(Of course Bull doesn't reciprocate the sentiment. This might be a novel, but it ain't a fairy tale.)
The mercurial despot can only achieve fulfillment in the air, behind the controls of his F-8, and that is also where he meets his death.
Ben prayed for a war to come and take his father away again, for good. With peace having fulfilled his wish, Ben struggles to reconcile relief with grief. The man he loved is gone. The man he hated is gone. Ben Meecham, son of the The Great Santini, is now free to forge his own path and become the man he was truly meant to be. A better man than his father? Stronger in ways that weights can't make blatant?
The Irish (and Irish-American) tend to be total motherfuckers when it comes to the art of storytelling. Pat Conroy's writing regularly causes me to break pens and bruise fingers from frustration. Reading his work takes longer than it should, simply due to the amount of sentences and paragraphs I re-run my eyes over, rendered inert by their sumptuous mastery.
The late Mr. Conroy made an incredible career publishing stories limned with the
shadow of familial dysfunction. Millions of readers were moved by his books. One in particular, after reading The Great Santini, threw the book across the room and raged that the book would only be purchased by "psychiatrist, homosexuals, extreme liberals and women."
That reader was Donald Conroy.
With time, the elder man reconsidered, and decided that the novel was purely fictional. To prove it, he began a "second act" of life, 180'ing into a charming and solicitous gentleman. ("Good job, son! Now take this!") He even joined Pat at book signings, adding "The Great Santini" to his signature.
None of which kept locals from branding Pat a "bad son," a shame to his family name. (Hell, his own mother even entered the book as evidence during divorce proceedings.) Still and yet, two other Conroy children struggled with mental illness (one, son Tom, took his own life at the age of 33). So who was the real bad guy? I'd say Pat Conroy showed rare kindness in writing The Great Santini; the author is basically proclaiming that his father--abusive, abrasive, audacious--was a man deserving of such eloquence.
Director-Lewis John Carlino
Writer-Lewis John Carlino
"I like being an enigma, like a Chink. Now scram."
A look at Mr. Carlino's credentials suggests that rather than director/writer, I should refer to him here as the writer/director. His high comfort level with words shows with The Great Santini. He doesn't mess much at all with Pat Conroy's world. Bull Meechum**(Robert Duvall, born to be a jarhead) moves his family to South Carolina, set on becoming the greatest squad commander in the history of the Marines. Away from the cockpit, his life centers around wife Lillian (Blythe Danner, somewhere between the peach and the pit) and uptight teen son Ben (Michael O'Keefe), who plays high school basketball despite looking for all the world like the stereotypical star quarterback of a team that plays below the Mason-Dixon Line.
When he's not shooting hoops or bickering with little sister Mary Anne, Ben's enjoying nature with Toomer, a stuttering black fella who sells goods from the back of a mule-drawn wagon, and the son of the Meechum family maid. Toomer is in perpetual good spirits, save for whenever Red Pettus (the hillbilly Scut Farkus) shows up.
Every single major plot point is from the book: the father/son one-on-one hoops game that ends in jeers and tears; Red accidentally killing Toomer; the kitchen battle; the big "I love you!"; the Bull's last stand.
The Great Santini was initially released direct-to-cable as The Ace. A positive review in The New York Times got the movie off of TV and into the theaters. B.O. was less than boffo, but the fine folks at the Academy were impressed enough to give nominations for Bobby Duvall as Best Actor (losing out to Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull) and Michael O'Keefe as Best Supporting Actor. I would argue their performances provide sufficient reason for anyone to watch the film. Love or hate, I can't say how you will feel, only you will feel.
BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
The Great Santini is the type of tale that stands up, stretches its arms and bellows, "I am a movie! Make me!" The title character is a pilot, so break out the jets! Nice footage, but nothing in those first four minutes (or any of the 86 to follow, really) steals my breath away with the potency of Pat Conroy's writing. How does a pen use more of the colors in the regional palette than a lens?
Robert Duvall is unsurprisingly stellar as the abominable no-man. He plays a man who indulges in insupportable behavior but is beloved and feared in equal measure by his families, both on the ground and in the air. Bull is an aggressive asshole who avoids alienating audiences simply because he's being portrayed by Robert Duvall--an actor whose face is perhaps more recognizable than his name. But our imaginations can make us wince. Bull in my mind was a beefy, jowly, snarling SOB. A sour-faced dream-crusher whose unchecked hubris buries whatever of him is truly lovable beneath a sickening layer of macho cheese. A tyrant. But the movie lets him slide by as nothing worse than a warrior in search of a war.
The movie nails most of the emotional moments. There are two notable exceptions. The first is the climactic kitchen fight between Bull and Ben, which loses impact thanks to awkward editing. The second, and most disappointing, is during the heart-to-heart between mother and son. Oh, Lillian is still full of excuses for her husband, insisting he's never raised a hand to her, until Ben walks to his dresser drawer and produces a shirt stained with dried blood. Her shirt, stained with her blood, from the time when her husband punched her on the nose. Lillian cracks then, and admits to her oldest that she couldn't bear the thought of her children growing up in a broken home, as he had.
A violent man is preferable to no man, after all.
As huge a fan I am of Conroy's abilities, his novel is bogged down somewhat by the inclusion of Sammy Wertzberger. Ben becomes friends with Sammy after saving him from a beatdown by Red Pettus. They hang out, go on an aborted double date, trespass, and then Conroy feels the need to give Sammy his own time in the spotlight. He drives his girlfriend out to some secluded spot for makey-outey, when a black guy forces Sammy out at knifepoint and orders him to scram or else he'll start slicing the bitch to ribbons. Sammy, who clearly eats only creamy peanut butter, runs. His girlfriend isn't cut, but rather raped and beaten. By the next day, the town of Beaufort is buzzing. Every black citizen is wary of where they walk, and Sammy's family has sent their son away for his own safety.
What comes of this subplot? What insights do we glean from the terrible crime committed that night? Dunno. Dunno. Why did Conroy include it? Dunno.
So what the novel isn't perfect. Perfection is arguably unattainable and inarguably undesirable. The book provides greater insights into Bull the military man, and how he attempts to connect with the citizenry. Mary Anne Meecham is pretty much Daria Morgendorffer as a military brat, and the movie only hints at how slickly she wields her tongue.
As well-made as the film version is, as outstanding as the two male leads are…something lacks. It's a serviceable story about an apparently extraordinary man.
MIND THE GAP
"I love my dad. I don't like him."
Some viewers will root for The Great Santini, but some of them are really rooting for Robert Duvall. The chests of certain men swell with pride at seeing and hearing their value system represented so dynamically. The husband and father, disposed to dominate, to lead and support the family unit. His wife is a good woman: loyal, docile, graceful, tolerant. She loves what others try to convince her is unlovable. She forgives what others insist is unforgivable. His children listen and obey, and if they do not, punishment shall arrive harshly, swiftly and unconcerned with the judgments of those outside of the unit.
(How much of "good parenting" is really just blatant disrespect? Parents know the right way, the best way. Their word is to be obeyed, lest the home collapse. Lest society collapse.)
The rock-assed, brick-brained military dad has a built-in excuse: his job, scratch, his duty, demands more of his mind body and soul than the average. He is one of the relative few entrusted with protecting America and its myriad of freedoms. He is a killer, not a murderer. He takes orders. One day, he may give orders. He cannot afford to act independently, only bravely. He is a reflection of all he has seen and done.
What of the man who didn't serve his country, or never saw combat? What are the excuses for his unsettling acerbity, his deleterious obstinacy, his infuriating insensitivity? My father was such a man. His work took him and his family around the Southern states, but always with the expectation to build rather than destroy. He was not unique.
My father struggled with mental illness and substance abuse. He was stingy with money and stingier with emotions. He was not special.
He spoke in a western Kentucky accent as torpid as his movements. In it I heard the click of a padlock, or the chunk of a shovel blade. His words, when they failed, gave way to violence lacking in technique and creativity. He was not rare.
But he was Dad. Frightening and fascinating. His presence changed the shape of a room. He was not peculiar.
The children of The Great Santini yearned for a love properly expressed, needed it, in incomprehensible ways. They are not extraordinary.
"You're either gonna hack it or pack it."
*Donald Conroy got the sobriquet from a trapeze artist he saw as a young boy. I maintain: unless you are Shaquille O'Neal, giving yourself a nickname is the apex of asininity.
**Spelling altered for some undoubtedly stupid reason.
Tuesday, April 25, 2017
SPOILER ALERT, writing about a book that's basically a bunch of short chapters without a centering plot is harder than graduating high school.
Cameron Crowe started writing for Rolling Stone at the tender age of 15, not long after graduating from the University of San Diego High School, a Catholic prep school that didn't really count as the high school experience. But what did Crowe care? The Seventies had just basically started, he had four years left of adolescence, and as a representative of America's premiere music magazines, he was out on the road spending quality time with rock royalty.
The editors of these magazines were obsessed with appealing to, selling to and being accepted by one demographic above all others: "the kids." Not the snot-noses who watched Sesame Street; the ones who bought records and attended shows, who wore the shirts and spread the word. Teenagers. The Powers That Were (and Are) didn't care about the parents. Go for the kids.
With a new decade looming, the 22-year-old Crowe decided to finally have the real high school experience--and write about it. With everyone all enthralled by the kids (not to mention his resume), Crowe wouldn't need to twist any arms to get published. He convinced the principal of Clairemont High School in Redondo Beach, CA to let him spend a year undercover as a senior and the result was Fast Times At Ridgemont High.
The book is "a true story," albeit one that has been fictionalized to avoid lawsuits and hurt feelings. Names were changed to protect the adolescent and poetic license was probably taken since we are after all dealing with something in excess of 200 pages.* How much did Crowe himself actually witness? How much is exaggerated, and by how much?
Decent questions; and like all questions, ultimately pointless.
Crowe wisely removed himself from the teenage wasteland, focusing instead on six students: self-styled ladies man (and Philly transplant) Mike Damone; Damone's best friend, the reticent Mark "Rat" Ratner; blonde and curvy sophomore Stacy Hamilton, with whom the Rat is smitten; Linda Barrett, a worldly senior with a fiance, the mentor to many younger female students, but she considers Stacy her dearest protege; Brad Hamilton, Stacy's big brother, a Super Senior with the choicest fast food gig in town, flipping and dunking for Carl's Jr.; and Jeff Spicoli, a blonde surf-rat whose immaturity and insolence is impressive even by 15-year-old standards.
Throw in a wealth of minor characters and voila! High school in all its dick-measuring, sex-haunted, semi-glazed glory. Crowe jumps foam one coarse vignette to the next, everything from yearbooks and class rings to overdoses and abortions. The threads are sparse, but two stand out.
Stacy is the first character we hear from, and in many ways hers is the most interesting year. She lies about her age to lose her virginity to a 25-year-old veterinarian, then consents to a date with mild Mark. She invites him to her bedroom to pore over photos, but when push comes to shove he can only manage a meek cheek-kiss. She gives up the goods to Mike Damone and winds up having an abortion on her mother's birthday. Mark finds out, but the drama is brief, and we sense that the sensitive pair might have a future together.
Then there's brother Brad, whose journey from fake tragic hero to actual hero is so great. I hope that guy grew up to manage at least two In-N-Outs.
The longest chapter is dedicated to the events of Grad Nite. From 10 pm to 5 am, juniors and seniors in formal dress descend upon Disneyland to have some a good time free of sluggables, smokeables, or snortables. Nothing spectacular happens. I can't deny the disappointment the chapter left me feeling, but then again, I have to credit the writer for clearly resisting the urge to fabricate. (Although, if Crowe had acted on his great idea just a year earlier…)
Do I recommend this book? Sure, if you've got $85 to drop on a used paperback. Used hardcover, close to double that. Or you can be like me and download the EPUB file. You can tell someone has more money than they deserve when they refuse to put their book--a book that birthed a wildly popular film, a book that would doubtlessly sell millions--back into print. It's admirable and dickish in equal measure.
Fast Times At Ridgemont High hadn't even hit shelves when it was optioned for a film. Universal Studios didn't flex much promotional muscle, resulting in mediocre box office. The critical notices were mostly positive, however, and when Fast Times began airing on TV and appearing in video rental stores, the plotless, raucous comedy found the audience it deserved.
"We Got the Beat"! (Fuck Elvis Costello, y'know? Watch this, dick.) A montage is only as good as its music, and the opening montage of Fast Times At Ridgemont High is killer. New Wave crashin' against the classic rock. The pizza cheese bubbles, the arcade beeps and bops, and everyone wonders what's tightest--the jeans or the asses? Teeming with energy and feathered hair, this is our introduction to all the king shits and pot scrubbers who populate the classrooms and corridors of Ridgemont.
Ah man, the early Eighties. Innocent times. Quick sex, soft drugs and classic rock 'n' roll. The days before Silence of the Lambs took "American Girl" on the last ride of her life.
There's Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold, 25), a senior merrily serving up trans fats to help pay off his sweet ride. There's little sister Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh, 20) and her friend Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates, 19). How Stacy can be so eager to give up the goods to a dude when Linda's right there is beyond at least me. Girl's got a stomach to dye your pubic hair for.
Stacy's so goddamn hopped to have it popped that she lies about her age just to score with a stereo salesman who stops in at the mall pie parlor where she works. Meanwhile theater usher Mark Ratner (Brian Backer, 26) pines from afar, the blend of sweetness and sweatiness emanating from his pores, creating an odor of year-old dashboard. He seeks the counsel of Mike Damone (Robert Romanus, 26), a ticket scalper and scene-scanner who if he were to suddenly turn into a pizza, would be greasy and oversauced. Poor "Rat" opens his heart to that sleazeball and in return is blessed with the knowledge: the five secrets to picking up a girl. A fistful of tactics and techniques guaranteed to have any chick eating out of the palm of your hands, the tops of your feet, whatever your thing happens to be.
Last but not close to least is Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn, 22), the stoner-surfer nemesis of martinet history teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston) and the breakaway star of the show, thanks in no small part to Penn's surprising sustained tolerability.
Statutory rape, interrupted candle waxing, unplanned pregnancy, car crashes. Citizen Kane had only one of those things! The 1980s had a glut of vulgar, picayune teen comedies ("romps," for fuck's sake) whose heart existed solely to send blood to its crotch. Directors and writers like Crowe and John Hughes showed a rare understanding of, and empathy for, that time in a person's life. The flaws in their films were forgivable as emblematic of the era or as misdemeanors of passion. Their movies also tended to be uproariously funny, keeping them from being classified as true nostalgia.
I went to high school on the East Coast from 1991-1995. When I run my fingers over it, bend an ear to it, and give one final deep breath, Fast Times At Ridgemont High feels familiar. Sociological revelations are best left to sociologists. High school is a shape-shifting organism. The Perks of Being a Wallflower keyed in on the triangles and octagons. Fast Times At Ridgemont High is content to feature the circles and squares we can all draw whilst slumbering.
BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
Most faithful page-to-screen adaptation ever? Because pretty much every little thing so magic about the film…came from the book. Damone's "five-point plan" for scoring with chicks, "100% Guaranteed Breakfast," Debbie Harry cardboard cutout, Linda barging in on Brad, crashing the Camaro. Tell me your favorite line of dialogue from the movie and I promise you it is in the book. The only changes of real note are the banana being replaced by a carrot for BJs 101, and Mark taking Stacy out to German instead of seafood (since anyone DTF knows wurst is superior to any fish dish).
Cameron Crowe proved less a screenwriter, more a sous chef. The Big Six from the book all make the trip over, while the majority of the minor players were left on the curb. (The movie didn't need the casual misogyny of Steve Shasta atop the general casual homophobia.) The biggest difference is the focus on Jeff Spicoli, who's little more than a pitiable figure in the book--he's not even the student who ordered a pizza during class!-- but presented in the movie as a gnarly rebel who couldn't spell "cause" if you spotted him the c, a, u, s and e.
The events of Grad Nite comprise the longest chapter in the book--and also take place, mostly, on the grounds of Disneyland. So scratch all that. Doesn't make for a lesser film, but rather for a better book.
As cool as the Linda/Stacy relationship is onscreen, the text gives both girls additional depth. And still, I wanted to learn more. That's one reaction that I didn't get from the film, which is, lest you believe me contrarian, wonderful.
Brad's hilarious fall down the fast food hierarchy is somehow just funnier when read. I blame the face of Judge Reinhold.
Relegating Charles Jefferson to "angry black athlete" is almost a kindness when one considers his fate in the book.
Stacy's mom (she does not, incidentally) is a brief, unforgettable presence in the book. I cannot believe Crowe passed on the chance to graft "smelling like a marijuana factory" onto Mr. Hand's dialogue.
The filmmakers failed to secure the rights to any music from Led Zeppelin IV, but were able to use a song from another LZ LP (in this case, "Kashmir" from Physical Graffiti), thereby creating one of the movie's best jokes accidentally: Mark is so mush-brained and jittery over a date with Stacy that he sticks the wrong album in his car's tape deck.
Few issues are stickier or trickier to write about than abortion. Crowe manages to show the proper respect for the profound effect that even agreeing to undergo the procedure can have on a young girl. Only the book illuminates how the sights, the sounds, the pains and the shames touch Stacy (all of 15 years old, mind). She doesn't collapse into a heap of misery and self-recrimination, disavowing fleshly pleasures and decrying the carefree debauchery of her peers, but nor does she proceed in life exactly as before.
(The book also gifts Stacy with some magnificent get-back, sniping and swiping at meatball Mike's character flaws in a Public Speaking class.)
Crowe clearly loved going back to school (for the first time). His words treat everyone--student or faculty--with fairness and even affection. That fondness is a gigantic part of what makes a coming-of-age story successful.
Wow, this is close.
Hmm. Lemme think.
The movie flows smoother. Hearing teenagers speak is still the less-hellish option.
The book did not subject me to a crappy prom band.
10-9 to the source, good buddy.
MIND THE GAP
Back-to-back reviews of books featuring dudes with more eyes than legs.
"I like sex" is the stupidest three word sentence in the English language.
My parents were never collectively seized by the longing to make more than one annual car trip in excess of five hours, meaning that while I visited the city of Hodgenville, Kentucky five times between ages 7 and 12, I never stepped foot one in the Happiest Place on Earth. (Adventureland had nothing on my dad's dad spitting chaw juice in a semi-circle around his feet as wood slivers fell on the legs of his faded coveralls, I'm sure.)
What's worse? First sex or first job?
"Girls decide how far to let you go in the first five minutes." Two, actually.
How many men of a certain age still get dick twitches upon hearing the first notes of "Moving In Stereo"?
Oh, Phoebe Cates gave you the stiffest boner ever when you were only 11? Nice. She ruined Santa Claus for me when I was only 7.
Every high school, regardless of size, will have minimum six legendary figures every school year. You wanna know how old I am? I brought a weapon to class my freshman year, got busted, and was back at school five days later.
The girls at Ridgemont High aren't shrinking violets, though some of the guys are shirking skunk cabbages. Abortion is "no big deal," Damone insists--and, speaking for himself and his day-to-day, he's right on. Doesn't make him any less of a prick. Consider: he apologizes to his buddy Rat for rocking the boat when Damone himself is prone to seasickness, but doesn't apologize to Stacy for his failure to man up on multiple levels.
Mark Ratner was based largely on Andy Rathbone, future author of several volumes in the "For Dummies" series of books.
For all the whiz-bang about Cameron's Gordie Howe jersey in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, where's the ruckus concerning the (road!) Canadiens jersey won by nameless ticket seeker in Fast Times?
"I think I came" is up there for four word sentences. Let's don't talk about sex, baby.
Don't think Fast Times At Ridgemont High is the American Graffiti of the Eighties? Count the Best Actor Oscar winners: Penn, Whitaker, and Nicolas Coppola.
The phallocentric mindset pervades. That's the way things be. But Linda and Stacy don't have time for penis envy. They have so much to learn, but are still mature enough to recognize the folly in mooning over those poor "high school boys" who think they know it all (sure, if by "all" they mean "fuck-all"). They want to enjoy having sex, every bit as much as any guy does. That means, no misusing sex as a bargaining chip, a game piece or a weapon. Linda and Stacy are cool chicks, and if you doubt that? As late as the Fifties, they'd have been abducted, chloroformed, and thrown into a basement for "domestication" by a saucer-eyed, acetone-reeking cadre.
*"If she can't smell your qualifications, forget her!" is attributed to Mike Damone in the book. That's actually a slight alteration of advice young Cameron Crowe received from Eagles guitarist Glenn Frey. Any writer knows: a great line is a great line and obeys no rules.
Thursday, April 20, 2017
"Let me say this: bein an idiot is no box of chocolates."
SPOILER ALERT, it ain't a bouquet of roses either.
Likelier yay than nay, when I ask if you've heard of Forrest Gump. The mental deficient from way down yonder (Mobile, AL, more precisely) with a proper heart and a knack for succeeding and failing on a grand scale. He's just trying to get along, maybe make his mama stop crying over him so much. Skies brighten when his 6'6" 242-lb. frame land him a spot on his high school football squad. Gump doesn't possess the brainpower to learn plays, but so long as he stops the other 'un's when Coach asks him, and run past the other 'un's when Coach asks him, it really ain't a big deal.
The Army won't take Forrest on account of his low IQ, but the University of Alabama have a spot on the gridiron waiting for the thickly-built simpleton. Gump takes the Crimson Tide to within one busted play of a national championship before being let go for poor grades. The Army comes calling once again, suddenly not so picky, and Forrest is flown out to Vietnam to follow orders. He does so to the tune of a Congressional Medal of Honor for exceptional battlefield bravery.
Back in America, the likable lunkhead hunts down Jenny Curran, the girl who he's crushed mega on since elementary school, in Boston. While he's been off fighting the war, Jenny's been protesting it, compiling a formidable rap sheet along the way. She and Forrest become an item and he joins her rock band, accompanying them on the distinctly un-rock harmonica. A studio in New York beckons…but then the drummer introduces Forrest to weed and the poor bastard gets caught in the middle of a spontaneous threesome.
In order to avoid a prison stint for braining the Clerk of the U.S. Senate with his Medal of Honor, Forrest is sent to NASA, who link him up with a female astronaut and a male orangutan named "Sue" and blast them into space. Their shuttle crashes in South America, where the crew co-exists uneasily alongside cannibals for four years.
While at the University of Alabama, Forrest made the acquaintance of a fella called Bubba, who turned him to not only the joys of harmonica, but also the dream of making it big in the "srimp" business. Bubba died in Vietnam, Forrest right next to him playing the blower, and for all his faults Gump never forgot his friend or his friends ambition. As the book comes near the close, Forrest--with the assistance of virtually every other character he met in the preceding pages--makes Gump Shrimp Company a multi-million dollar enterprise.
Winston Groom had published three unsung novels before Forrest Gump came out and…continued the trend. (Groom's non-fiction did a bit better, with 1982's Conversations With the Enemy garnering attention from the Pulitzer people.) Riddled with misspellings and grammatical errors to indicate the narrator's lack of education (ala Flowers For Algernon), the text moseys along, forcing the reader's inner voice to slow down--or else.
Forrest Gump is not a great novel, but it is a hilariously blunt tale that doubles as a tidy palate cleanser if the resultant film left you feeling as if a mouse took a crap in your mouth while you were napping on the couch.*
"My mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get."
The wacky adventures of the world's luckiest moron proved irresistible to moviegoers? The hell you tell!
As portrayed by Tom "Jimmy Stewart Lite" Hanks, Forrest Gump is a skinny, crew-cut rocking mama's boy, defender of women, friend to a black guy, business partner with a double amputee, shrimp baron and, above all, a sucka for love-ass honky. He can't do much special other than run like a dumb gazelle. Bullies keep trying, and never do catch up. When Forrest inadvertently streaks across a football field during scrimmage, he passes everyone wearing a uniform. Legendary college coach Bear Bryant is among the spectators, and procures a scholarship for Forrest to play at the University of Alabama.
The Army comes calling, and with the advice of his childhood crush Jenny (the great Robin Wright) stirring the oatmeal between his ears, Forrest runs his way into a butt-bullet and a Congressional Medal of Honor. Although he saves the life of his Lieutenant, and many others in his platoon, his good friend Bubba dies on the battlefield. "Lt. Dan" is far from gracious, having resigned himself to continuing the honorable family tradition of dying in an American war. Instead, he winds up with no legs and no future outside of collecting disability pension. Forrest moves in with Dan, telling him all about Bubba's dream of buying a boat and bodying the shrimp business.
Dan doesn't give a damn if the world blows up, so he's definitely not about to encourage the bird-brain. So Forrest goes back to Alabama and makes enough money playing ping pong to buy a shrimping boat. Dan has a change of heart, and the two makes millions operating as "Bubba Gump Shrimp Corp."
Forrest returns home. His mother's passed and he's inherited her old home. One day, Jenny returns. She's been off living in a way that Forrest certainly would never. He doesn't care where she's been or what she's done, hell, the fact that she's only with him because she can't think anywhere else to go doesn't even bother Forrest. His Jennaaayyy is back. She refuses his marriage proposal, but not his penis, and when she leaves again the next morning, Forrest takes off for a cross-country run that lasts three years.
He becomes an inspiration, simply for trying to forget his broken heart. And then, one day, he just stops.
A letter from Jenny brought him to where we saw him first, on the bench, drawling out his life story a succession of perfect strangers waiting for the bus to take him to her. In true Gump fashion, she lives only six blocks away from where he's been seated this whole time.
Jenny seems more settled. She has a five-year-old son named Forrest…and a terminal illness (probably AIDS, the go-to disease to give a character when you want to solidify them as "bad"). She marries her son's father, and the pair live happily up until her death. Then we see Forrest crying over graves and smiling at his son getting on a bus. Circle of life.
It's a hell of a story, well-assembled: mental no-wit witnesses and influences numerous defining events of the latter half of the 20th century, all with a child-like single-mindedness and absence of glibness that captured the hearts of millions of Americans.
And then it played out in real life.
Despite of and because of the whitewash job it does on American history, Forrest Gump became a cultural phenomenon with its unmistakable message of "dumb=good." Too harsh? Okay, "dumb=preferred." Better? That so many people who identify as politically conservative embraced the film as ideal entertainment speaks for itself, but the appeal of Forrest Gump extended beyond a single group, becoming a legitimate phenomenon whose choicest quotes persist like superstitions. Liberal Hollywood loved it, too, awarding it Oscars for Best Picture (over Pulp Fiction, famously), Actor, Director and Adapted Screenplay.
BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
In the name of John, Paul, Mike and Micky, I confidently undertake to repulse the attacks and deceits of Hollywood picture painters. Although I find that both book and film rely too heavily on the magic of coincidence to keep the action chugging, only one of them manages to keep it (mostly) real.
Despite the similarities, there really are two separate Forrest Gumps. One is a curious man. The other carries around a copy of Curious George. To comprehend the gap between the two Gumps, look no further than the two lines quoted at the beginning of each review.
Tom Hanks isn't really Forrest Gump; he's the actor Tom Hanks playing Forrest Gump. He's the actor Tom Hanks with an alleged Southern accent that never fails to start my brain to deliquescing. The film gives us Gump as a synthesis of unavoidable imbecility and accidental genius.
Groom's text is colder, crueler and more cynical. His Gump is an idiot savant with the body of an Adonis. He blows trees, spews obscenities and participates in the sexual Olympics with the love of his life. He saves Chairman Mao as unthinkingly as he saves a wounded platoon mate. He repeatedly states the emperor is not merely naked, but also smeared in shit. And yes, he uses the word "shit."
Hanks's Gump has no peculiar mental acuity and would lose to Spud from Trainspotting at any known test of physical strength. He is the all-American boy whose ability to obey orders more than makes up for his intellectual shortcomings. He doesn't know shit about shit, but he can play a sport, so here's your degree, son! The odds are staggering, yet the Gump prevails, armed with a "can-do" attitude and an actual inability to ever overthink a situation. U-S-A! U-S-A! Lighten up, black nurse, how can your feet hurt when a retard wishes he had your shoes? Perspective, lady!
What's the harm? Look no further than the film's depiction of Jennaaayyyy. She endures an abusive childhood to become a smart, aware young woman who gets mixed up in the era's burgeoning counterculture, embracing her sexuality and experimenting with drugs before dropping a kid, marrying a burdensome idiot and dying young. Her fault for all the mixed messages! What decent woman would turn down the opportunity to be married to such a great guy? The movie brings out the worst in many viewers, the ones quick to discredit and shame women. Is it possible that Jenny pushed Forrest away time after time due to feeling that she was unworthy of unconditional love? I mean, her dad gets drunk and fucks his daughters and Jenny's just supposed to trust a man off the rip? Critical thinking, it is real and it is recommended.
(The book treats Jenny more sympathetically. She doesn't have all the baggage, but she's still an aware young woman with a lust for life. She's also solicitous and supportive, and both times she ends her relationship with Forrest, her reasons are sensible and clear.)
So what to take away? That we should all try to be more like Forrest Gump? Again go you there, shit no. Hell, don't even try to be like the book version, that asshole makes drinks with socks. At least, it must be said then repeated then written in the sky, that he isn't sick with the naivete of the film. Charming hearts, churning stomachs, it's your body: the KKK is a "club," Elvis sang himself to death, Jenny's dad is extremely affectionate, and golly, why would anyone want to shoot that nice young President?
I am grateful more days than not that I do not struggle to retain information and glean insights. I like knowing the myriad reasons why JFK was worth more to this country dead than alive. I enjoy being able to fathom that there was more than one shooter. It tickles me to recognize that the Warren Commission is the only group more full of shit than Air Supply.
So here's what to take away. Discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality, nationality or any type of handicap is foul. Discrimination based on personality or moral code, though, is often an indication of a discerning mind.
Huh, what? Aw, just grab a donut and read the book. While listening to the soundtrack. Because holy rucksack of creme eggs is that one of the most amazing compilations of songs for any purpose. Curated by gilded gods and gracious goddesses.
MIND THE GAP
The novel moved 30,000 copies before the adaptation. Currently, sales are in excess of 1.5 million copies.
The film rights netted Winston Groom $350K, with an additional 3% of "net profits" to be forthcoming. When he called Paramount to inquire as to the ETA of his check, they explained that the fastest film to reach the $100 million mark in the history of the studio was in fact losing money thanks to Hollywood's unique accounting practices. Groom would later receive a further quarter-million dollars. For a film that brought in over half a billion worldwide.
Further, since the movie industry is all about ignoring writers when not screwing them over, the name "Winston Groom" was not uttered during any of the six acceptance speeches given on Oscar night by people being honored for their work on the Forrest Gump film. Nope, not even super-duper guy Tom Hanks, who made 30 million dollars bringing Groom's creation to life.
The film would not have done a third of its box office without Hanks, though. Amazing to think John Travolta and Chevy Chase were each approached before him. (Winston Groom envisioned John Goodman, a choice which, had the orangutan or wrestler subplots been saved, would have made for a much less financially successful but probably more artistically fulfilling film.)
Never forget: only pot-smoking, sign-toting, march-attending, commie-loving, cop-hating long-haired freakazoids hit women.
"I am 'Temporarily Deferred,' on accounts of I am a numbnuts." Not one mention in six speeches!
Losing the NASA plot to keep the hero's feet firmly planted is sad only if one considers how much funnier it would have made Apollo 13.
Losing the chess plot is the height of merciful action. Fuck me insensate, like chess ain't dull enough to sit down and play, much less sit down and read about.
Losing the wrestling plot makes me angry at Tom Hanks for weighing only 75 pounds.
In reality, Forrest Gump would be using that bench as a bed and the chocolates box as a pillow.
When Forrest taught young Elvis the salacious moves that would soon set America on fire, I smirked. When he inadvertently exposes Watergate, I rolled one eye and sent the other to the side. When the hurricane wrecked every boat but his? My sigh registered 90db.
It offers up moments of outstanding visual power (including some fresh-for-then effects) which prettify the plot. Not all of it holds up well. Particularly, the overdubbed voices heard on the archival footage are hideous. The John Lennon one, especially, is something you'd expect to hear in a movie where the main character is an animal.
"Forrest, I want you to fuck me." 0 for 6? Ungrateful pricks!
When Groom's work lost its grip on reality, it lots its grip on my imagination. The dip is brief, but undeniable. Scriptwriter Eric Roth made that brief diversion into the film, without actually using any moments from it. Which is kind of brilliant.
I will answer to either "Jenn" or "Jennifer." I will question the desire to maintain a high quality of life in anyone who dares calls me "Jenny." The reason for my aversion? YUP. Thankfully, I still (somehow) love shrimp.
*Be in no rush to check out 1995's sequel, Gump & Co., in which the author commits the unforgivable sin of compromising his own character to reflect the version in the film. I'll never write a book that'll sell as much, but boy howdy I won't sell out that much, either.
Tuesday, April 18, 2017
"What difference does it make what you call it?"
Spoiler Alert, people tend to ruin everything.
An author's inspiration can come from anywhere. E.B. White wanted to write a novel about saving a pig's life, but didn't have a hero in mind. Then he remembered the intricate web spun in his house. A dinner debate birthed The Handmaid's Tale. Walking a wooden bridge in cowboy boots, Stephen King half-expected to hear a troll call out. Three years later, he began work on It.
Brian Garfield didn't respond well when seldom-do-well's slashed the top of his convertible. He stewed, and wondered what it would be like to find those pricks and release some righteous rage. Then, his wife had her purse snatched. Again, Garfield entered a world of red-hot revenge. He would never act out; truthfully, his own bloodthirst repulsed him. Also he was able to separate his emotional response from his intellectual one, realizing that jeopardizing his freedom (at best) and his soul (at worst) would be foolish.
A year later, Garfield wrote a novel about a man with no such compunction. Middle-aged CPA Paul Benjamin is a liberal citizen with thinning red hair and thickening pale paunch. Problems that go from major to minuscule when his son-in-law Jack calls with damn near the worst imaginable news: his wife and daughter are in the hospital, having been assaulted during a break-in at the Benjamin apartment in Manhattan by a trio of drug-addled youths. The wait is interminable; at last, a doctor appears, with the actual worst imaginable news: Paul's wife has succumbed to her injuries.
Paul stays a spell with his daughter and her husband in their apartment, although more accurately it's time spent with the husband, since the poor young woman is still in the first phase of her descent into a trauma-induced depression that will end with her institutionalization. Paul and Jack talk about the dangers of city life and the promise of country life. Jack's all for relocation, but Paul thinks that's quitter talk. They talk about drugs and druggies, and Paul makes a lubeless point about military spending.
Other people pop up to make various points. Friends, co-workers and complete strangers bemoan the radical uprising in the country, the residue of the previous decade, the long-hairs and commies decrying the Establishment, the welfare state turning America into a shadow of its formerly great self. Decent people are under siege. The cops aren't doing enough. The politicians aren't doing enough. "Somebody's got to give a damn."
Paul starts paying attention to the people on the streets. He decides maybe 5% of them deserve life. (He then chastises himself.) So many of them are young. So many of them obviously under the influence of illicit drugs. Paul et uxorem would have looked at those kids and felt that all they needed to right their course was quality time in the community--volunteering for soup kitchens, signing up for sports leagues, joining library book clubs. Widower Paul notices his liberal ideals aren't holding up so well under harsh light.
He sees a convertible with the roof slashed and mentally upbraids the owner for parking his vehicle there and expecting no repercussions. Then, again, he calls himself to task--repercussions for what? Parking? What's a guy supposed to do, attach hot air balloons to his car? You know the most ardent thief would have a BB gun at the ready to bring that bitch down, anyway.
The streets are overrun with junkies and thieves blowing raspberries at the law-abiding. What can the decent folks do? Depend on the justice system? Submit to the fear? Must every worst-case what-if be given greater weight than the more likely scenarios?
Paul loads a sock with a roll of quarters and actually gets to use it walking home from a bar. The makeshift weapon fails to connect, but succeeds in scaring the kid off. The next day, Paul feels Tony. He can't wipe the silly smile off his freckled face. It's as if he got laid the night before, but rather than burying himself over and over in a breathtaking woman with firm breasts and firmer thighs, he swung a sock full of coins at a baby robber.
The bliss dissipates. Life in the city is gutting harder--nightmares, insomnia. Paul vacillates--move (run) or stay (fight)? The cops have no leads. His daughter's condition is steadily declining. So when the firm sends Paul out to Arizona for a huge job, he welcomes the temporary change of scenery. He drinks, he fucks, he buys a gun. He returns to the city determined to prevent a repeat. His worst fears and prejudices are no longer drowned out by a sensible voice reminding him that other prisoners will fight for the right to make him their bitch.
Paranoia becomes the new normal. Reveries of revenge poison his mind, sending him out into the streets at night, where he takes out a twitchy would-be mugger clearly more eager to contaminate his own blood than spill anyone else's. The Daily News reports on the death of a 24-year-old parolee fresh off a stint in prison for grand larceny. A bad egg, a crap apple.
The next night, Paul's in Times Square. Hookers, looky-loos, fruits, basket cases--death chasers one and all. Cops are present, yet absent. That's fine. Paul doesn't need them. Two aspiring car thieves find that out. Then, a home invader.
The police begin taking notice. The media dubs him "The Vigilante Killer." Paul is mildly perturbed at some things he reads. He's no psycho; he's got a good mind. A righteous man of action in a city of gum-bumpers and thumb-suckers. The public, hell even some cops, are saluting the guy for a job well done.
I worried about a twist where the cops arrest Paul while remaining utterly clueless as to the identities of the real bad guys who murdered his wife. Sure enough, Paul runs into a cop just after executing three destructive teenagers. He says nothing, just awaits arrest. But the cop merely turns around.
When I saw the first page contained both "bibulous" and "torpid," my nose hairs tingled. False alarm. Garfield's writing isn't lurid. Only the first kill is graphically depicted. No blood gushing, no guts protruding. The prose is rather detached--like Paul himself. While in the crapper at a party, Paul reads a magazine article about his killing spree. Quoted at length is a big-deal psychiatrist from Columbia Medical, who provides insights about the make-up and motivations of the shooter. Unsatisfied to summarize, Garfield gives us the whole thing, and while the piece is over-long, it avoids being over-written. No brainless straw men, no heartless witches, but plenty of impotent gestures.
Death Wish is a hell of a story, told damn well, that zips along dragonfly-style. The New York City it describes is a gross gumbo that will taste utterly foreign to anyone who hadn't visited prior to the year 2000, but the relevance of the questions it poses has not gone anywhere. What is the proper way for a victim of violence to process their experience? Is there such a thing as a wrong reaction? When justice fails, do citizens have a responsibility to dispense the punishment due?
Fresh off a vacay with the wife-piece in Honolulu, architect Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) returns to New York City. The same day he admits to his co-worker Sam that his "heart bleeds a little for the underprivileged," three no-goodniks (Jeff Goldblum in a Jughead hat, Billy Corgan entering menopause, and Horshack in a red bandana) barge into his apartment and violate his adult daughter after mortally beating his wife.
Paul's devastation is barely containable. Walking at night does no good. He's spooked by Craig Robinson's uncle lighting a match, fer Chrissake. A would-be mugger gets a loaded sock to the noggin. Then Paul goes home and gets all dramatic. At least he didn't yell, but still, must be nice to just treat socks so impudently.
His bosses send him out to work on a project in Arizona. While out West, Paul hooks up with good ol' boy and future Paul Hewson fashion influence Ames Jainchill. The men watch a re-enactment of frontier justice doled out by a brave lone gunman, we watch a survey montage (Ack-shawn! *Alicia Bridges voice*), then Ames takes the city boy to a shooting range, since Tucson is "gun country," where citizens don't hesitate to raise arms to protect their own. Paul tells Ames about growing up with firearms, right up until his father was accidentally killed by a fellow hunter. Charmed, the cowboy gifts the architect with a .32 Colt revolver.
Boom! Down goes one mugger. Paul needs more. Three men robbing an older gentleman? Shit yeah, that hits the spot. Good riddance to bad rubbish. Frank Zappa and a Jewish greaser on the subway? Catch these bullets!
Detective Ochoa is on the case. He orders the squad to check the past three months of murders, suspecting as he does a motive of revenge. Soon, he narrows in on Paul Kersey, but funny thing; the District Attorney doesn't want the vigilante arrested. Street crime has dropped dramatically since Paul's started baiting the blob fish, but the public can't know that. The shooter must be stopped, however, lest copycats proliferate and send the city spiraling into anarchy. Still, arresting him isn't the solution either, since the NYPD isn't in the martyr-making business.
Ochoa and the D.A. agree, encouraging the killer to relocate is the only truly beneficial course of action. When Paul winds up in the hospital after another confrontation with muggers, Ochoa visits him, bearing the wounded man's Colt--and a proposition. If Paul agrees to skip town, Ochoa will give the gun a river burial. Paul indeed hauls ass to Lollapalooza (2006), where he almost instantly spots hoodlums harassing a poor lady. The film ends with the image of Charles Bronson's squinty smile as he gives the hooligans a gun finger. The message is clear: there's a new chef in the kitchen, and he's serving up hot-buttered bullets. Bon appetit, bitches.
Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott were both considered for the Paul Kersey role. Each man would have been a closer fit to the Paul presented in the novel. Director Winner wound up casting his chum Charles Bronson. It's hilarious that the choice of Bronson meant Paul's occupation needed changed. "No one will buy bad-ass Bronson as an accountant!" Truth, but he doesn't make a credible architect either! So absurd. Still, he was the right choice for a classic tough guy devoid of nuance. To keep America from eating himself, he needs simply to shuffle from one spot to the next, firing a few bullets. Return home, rinse hands, repeat.
My favorite character in the film is NYC, portrayed as all skin, no pudding, a place where crime is taken for granted and life has been devalued. My least favorite character is director Michael Winner, whose work is sloppy and rushed, featuring a wealth of overacting and empty symbolism. Brian Garfield hated the film, calling it "incendiary," and even writing a sequel (Death Sentence) in response. He never intended for vigilantism to be celebrated, yet the film's message of righteous street justice doled out by a one-man army resonated with audiences nationwide. He might be wrong, but Paul Kersey is rising up against an insidious enemy, refusing to stay scared, daring to resist. It's easy to cheer a guy like that; just shut off your brain and embrace your inner fascist.
BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
First thing--"There's one answer I intend to demand" is not in the film? Whaaaaa?
Director Michael Winner did not take Brian Garfield's criticisms well, calling the author an "idiot," and reminding everyone that the novel Death Wish didn't precisely set the bestseller lists ablaze. I wonder if there's a higher percentage of assholes among people with the last name "Winner."
The book is a faltering man's failure to healthily handle his own feelings of impotency and rage. The movie is a faltering man's failure to healthily handle his own feelings of impotency and rage. Every major incident of the novel made the script. Despite these similarities, the overarching messages of each work could not be more different. Garfield's book says what could happen. Winner's film says what should happen.
For all the grit and suspense, Death Wish on the screen is, alas, an oversimplified answer to a disturbingly complex question. Wish fulfillment at its most harmless, violence porn at its bleakest. (Even though the ER is far too bright, spotless and lacking in wounded freaks for my personal taste.)
Since subtlety is for European films, Death Wish shows us the assault on the Kersey women, indulging in graphic violence to inflame audience passions--in particular, the rape of Paul's daughter is filmed with the delicacy of an anvil crashing onto a butterfly (and can I just say how wonderful it always makes me feel, seeing a woman's vulnerability exploited). "Unsettling" doesn't suffice. The sight of spray can-wielding Horshack lazily tagging the apartment (and its occupants) is simultaneously cheesy and disturbing, and the sound of Jughead Jeff wailing about "rich cunts" threatens even the stingiest risibility.
And then they start tearing the clothes off of the daughter. Cue my overwhelming discomfort. Tonal shifts rarely come more abruptly--or honestly. Although I credit the book with not providing a play-by-play of its instigating incident (since the point is not what happened to Paul, but rather his reaction), and although I resent the proclivity of films to prey on viewers' baser instincts, I can't deny that the scenario plays out believably on screen. Doesn't mean I like it all that tough, or want to ever see it again, or that I don't feel shame at my own simplistic reactions.
The most heartbreaking aspect of the entire story probably flew over most heads: both father and daughter wind up devoid of feeling. She retreats, he reloads. The heart-rending sequence in the hospital wasn't taken from the book, but it's an effective, atypically understated summation of the agonizing guilt Paul feels in having lost both the women in his life to senseless violence.
Paul Kersey is a man struggling with deeply repressed feelings. Paul Benjamin gives the distinct impression that he could neither correctly spell the word "repression" or tell you its definition. There is no time set aside for soul-searching. The magazine article from the book may have been a few paragraphs overweight, but it was also thoughtful. As in, full of thoughts. The movie has but one thought: EAT LEAD. (I would have kept the final kill of the book, which also centers on a subway car, but makes Paul seem like less of a bad ass.)
The impression I got while reading was the Benjamins were a couple that liked one another. Theirs was not a marriage of tolerance, nor was it one of romantic ardor. You could say Paul was avenging the loss of a reliable friend/sex partner rather than the loss of his great love. Winner, wanting audiences to care, pushed to have spousal interaction in the movie, which amounted to taking photos and an aborted quickie.
Finally, Death Wish comes down to the battle of the absurd endings. Book or movie, Paul gets off. But the book gives the vibe he might go entirely off the rails. In the movie, we're blatantly told that the vigilante killer will live on. And he did! Four goddamn sequels, each steadily shittier than the last. Violence has consequences and ramifications. The police should enforce the law, judges and juries should impose the sentences. If you think both of those preceding sentences are sheer bologna, you will love most if not all of the Death Wish series.
The subway shooting (added for the film) is impossible for me to watch without remembering the Bernhard Goetz shootings in 1984. Hell, the entire film is hard to finish without thinking of the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin. Mind you, the main character in both incarnations of Death Wish is closer to the meek, glass-spined Goetz than the reprehensible murderer George Zimmerman.
I actually made it through the book without once visualizing Bronson. I am wild proud of me.
MIND THE GAP
The American legal system is a running joke. Prisons are overcrowded and police are underqualified.
So what can be done? The film offers no other alternatives to address the escalating crime rate. Nothing about increased funding to schools, or improved mental health care, or the radical idea of society as a whole deciding to not place such a premium on the act of acquisition.
The idea of vigilantism is a relatable one to most people. The sting of revenge is an acute sensation. The demands of civilization keep the yearning at bay. Understanding someone's actions does not mean excusing them, or refusing to punish them as the law dictates. Killing the person who totaled your car is basically cheating on your lovely and loving spouse of fifteen years with someone younger and shapelier. Of course it would be a fun thing to do. But the guilt would eat away at your soul. Not all people feel that way, though. People who misunderstand the First Amendment on a daily basis. People who have the Second Amendment tattooed on their body. People who consider meatless lasagna a deportable offense. They don't want to hear sob stories about systemic oppression. Or anything that challenges their assumptions.
"THE LIBERAL MEDIA HATES DEATH WISH, BUT THE COMMON EVERYDAY RED-BLOODED FREEDOM-LOVING AMERICAN LOVES IT! DEATH WISH IS A WAKE-UP CALL! STOP SHRUGGING AND START SHOOTING!"
Paul Benjamin/Kersey. Hero. American. Selfish killer misunderstood as the last bastion of the Old West gunslinger. Defender of his fellow man. His actions are drastic, but he's one of the good guys. Brutal means to reach a beautiful end. He talks softly and carries a big-enough stick. He's unmoored. He's pathetic.
Yet even in this the 21st century, imbecilic politicians evoke the film to remind us of a time when the country was well and truly great. Ignore the fact that he shoots some of these criminals in the back, either as they're running away or writhing in pain.
He's not a hero. He's a serial killer. He is America's dying soul.
In 1972, when Death Wish was published, New York City clocked 2,026 homicides. In 2015, the number had fallen to 355. The Brannan Center for Justice named the Big Apple the safest of America's thirty largest cities that same year. The reasons include exceptionally precise policing and neighborhood organizations working independently to "clean up" the city. The reasons do not include a lunatic going to the worst areas under cover of darkness, begging to be approached by desperate detritus so he has an excuse to fire his gun and feel like a macho man.
Pretty bold of those shitbags to break-in, really. How could they be certain that the women would be the only occupants? What if there'd been some big brother built like a barrel just hanging out watching TV? Greed truly narrows the focus and destroys the brain cells.
Christopher Guest looks as comfy in a cop uniform as I do in turtleneck sweaters.
Brian Garfield is the author of over sixty novels, nineteen of which have been made into films. Death Wish is the only one I ever even thought about reviewing.
Remember when "bleeding-heart liberal" was the preferred takedown? Instead of "libtard"? Relatively good times!
"What this city needs is more cops than people." Where do I even begin? Damnit, movie!
Imagine if Paul had gone straight to the bar after work. He'd have missed that bigoted crap-sack and, as a result, his own admission that the other man's rantings, while crude, had a few kernels of truth in them. Damnit, book!
Why the backstory in the movie? To explain his marksmanship?
I'd absolutely watch a movie about Alma Lee Brown.
No, that isn't Denzel Washington getting gunned down by Charles Bronson. The man himself squashed that persistent rumor last year.
One of Mayes's original screenplays ended with Paul following the thugs who took out his wife and dying at their hands. Inspector Ochoa takes Paul's revolver and contemplates assuming the vigilante role in his honor. An ending downright Wiggumian in its stupidity. A good part of what I like about the Death Wish story is that the main character doesn't get justice. Of all the baddies he blasts, none actually sat foot in his apartment. None of them terrorized his loved ones while he was in his office trying to mollify a rich jerk. No matter how many people he gunned down, how bad they were or how good it felt, justice was not truly done.