Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Better In Your Head?--THE DA VINCI CODE

2003
Dan Brown


"So dark the con of man."

Secret societies! Murder mystery in the Louvre!

Jacques Sauniére--museum curator and world's foremost "goddess iconographer"--is fatally shot on by an albino monk named Silas, acting on behalf of the Opus Dei, a Catholic institution comprised of lay persons and priests who believe everyone is capable of reaching sanctity. The group seeks the location of a keystone of the Priory of Sion that, once found, will allow them to accomplish their ultimate goal of destroying the Holy Grail.

A single shot to the stomach left Sauniére with sufficient time to draw a bloody pentacle on his chest, leave a cryptic message in invisible ink on the parquet floor and contort himself in a pose reminiscent of Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man. Jacques Sauniére was more than the custodian of the world's most celebrated art collection; he was the last guardian of a powerful secret.

Police identify a man of interest: Robert Langdon, Harvard professor of religious iconography (a real thing) and symbology (not a real thing), in town on business…which had included a meeting with Mr. Sauniére, that the latter failed to show up for. Captain Bezu Fache brings Langdon to the scene of the crime and tries to get him to say that the curator's death is connected to devil worship. Police cryptographer Sophie Neveu shows up and informs Langdon he's a suspect in the death of her estranged grandfather, and the escape from the Louvre is on.

After obtaining a cryptex from a safe deposit box, the pair visit Holy Grail historian Leigh Teabing. He reveals that the Grail is not, as widely believed, a cup. It is a the tomb of Mary Magdalene. The Priory was formed to protect the descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Oh yes, Jesus was a father as well as a son. Mary birthed a daughter named Sarah after the crucifixion. This is information known to all POS members, including Leonardo da Vinci, whose most legendary piece, The Last Supper, depicts Mary Magdalene at the right hand of Christ. The absence of a chalice indicates that he knew Mary was the bearer of his blood. Meaning the Holy Grail is what remains of the wife of Christ. Fear of the "sacred feminine"--the belief that women are closer to divinity than men, and that a truly enlightened man embraces his femininity as fervently as his masculinity--has led the Catholic Church to hide the true identity of the Grail while plotting to locate and destroy it, since the revelation would destroy Christianity.

Codes! Chases! Crooked cops! Convolution! Contrivance! The Da Vinci Code is an over-salted pretzel of a plot that's best experienced first-hand. For all the braininess and suspense, the prose is straightforward and even clumsy at times; picturing the pen fumbling from between Dan Brown's fingers a couple of times per page isn't hard, until I remind myself that The Da Vinci Code is a classic case of a novel that was typed, and not written.

As the rare sort of bestseller that shakes the status quo rather than strokes it, The Da Vinci Code received a critical slack that James Patterson (or whoever's actually writing his books now) could only dream of. Further, it became the book to read (or at least, be seen with), providing curious eyes with facts (and "facts") while denying minds the pizzaz of insight.

But, wow, Jesus had sex! And then a baby! Sure, it's a book full of distortions, speculations and prevarications, but we are talking about religion! The "pick a hoax and run with it" school of writing ensures a passionate audience. This cloth-bound bogosity has sold in excess of eighty million copies, and the film rights sold for six million dollars, so at night's dawn, does it really matter that Dan Brown is basically Michael Crichton from an alternate universe?

Great for reading on the beach, with frequent breaks to watch seagulls peck at the inch of uneaten chicken cheesesteak inside the deli wrap sitting precariously atop the mountain of trash in the open bin next to the umbrella rental.




2006
Director-Ron Howard
Writer-Akiva Goldsman


"I have to get to a library, fast."

The Da Vinci Code didn't need a super-director attached in order to be successful. When the announcement came that Ron Howard signed on, any suspicions that it wouldn't bust blocks were squashed faster than a pie under a fat guy's butt.

A big-time actor in the lead role would only sweeten the profit pot. Enter Tom Hanks (with a quite un-Hanksian 'do) as Robert Langdon. The alleged reincarnation of Jimmy Stewart comes off as Indiana Jones sans cool accoutrements. Audrey Tautou approaches the relatively diminished role of Sophie Neveu with the vim and vigor her co-star left in the trailer, easy to root for and lust after, but not even as much as Sir Ian McKellan, who (as Leigh Teabing) shines like a ruby set in the center of a day-old horse frisbee.

Homicidal albino monk Silas is the closest thing to a villain here, and whether we're watching Paul Bettany play him as an adult, or Hugh Mitchell play him as a child, Silas's scenes fabricate a bonafide creepiness and are thus impossible to turn away from.

Behind the camera, Opie uses the viewfinder as a defibrillator. Lots of yakking broken up with car chases. The colors are pretty and the angles are desperate. While I may deride The Da Vinci Code as bloated and preposterous; I certainly cannot call it dull.

The Vatican called for a boycott, and several countries banned the film outright. Protests popped up outside movie theaters. Religion kills and controversy sells, two depressingly dependable adages that powered The Da Vinci Code to stupendous success in two realms. The number two bestseller of 2003 became the second highest-grossing film of 2006, with a worldwide box office of $758 million.


BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
The Da Vinci Code is driven along by a filmic plot, zipping and zagging and zigging on its way to an oddly underwhelming conclusion. I could tell, just from the act of reading, that the big-screen version would likely surpass the text. Needing to make the story easier to digest while not omitting one tasty morsel of Chuch-chafing controversy, Howard and Goldsman streamlined the story to the best of their capabilities, which includes making a trip to the library a matter of life and death.

Few changes were made, nearly all of them wildly insignificant. Watching The Da Vinci Code was, for me, akin to eating a Little Caesar's pizza whilst under the influence of nothing and realizing I would admit to no one else the extent of my gustatory enjoyment; indeed, I could barely admit it to myself. But you know what, at least it was pizza, instead of some crummy calzone. Nod given to the film, and don't you ever ask me to talk about this ever again.

MIND THE GAP
The light source is the love of Christ! Ah-ha!

"His sinews felt taut with exhilaration." And my novel's been refused by close to two dozen agents. Somebody get that old bitch a seeing-eye dog, please.

Dan Brown shows off a vulgar display of knowledge. Did you know it would take five days to truly appreciate every piece in the Louvre? (What constitutes proper "art appreciation," he does not explain.) Did you know that I.M. Pei's ostentatious Pyramide de Louvre contains 666 panes of glass, as per the direction of then-President Robert Mitterand? (It doesn't.) Did you realize the Mona Lisa was Da Vinci's sly reference to the "sacred feminine"? And that the very name "Mona Lisa" is in homage to the Egyptian God Amon and Egyptian Goddess Isis? (Nope, crap. Da Vinci's inspiration is pure speculation, and the painting itself wasn't even called "Mona Lisa" until well after the artist's death.)

Well, at least Brown got the etymology of the world "villain" right. (I love me some accurate etymology.)

The author maintains that the Priory of Sion was/is a real organization and that The Da Vinci Code is based on historic fact and he is totally an intrepid wordsmith. Never mind the numerous articles and books that appeared in the wake of the "Da Vinci phenomenon," calling Brown out. Tom Hanks himself said, "(T)he story we tell is loaded with all sorts of hooey."

What Dan Brown insists to be facts have been widely, intelligently, passionately disputed by historians and scholars worldwide. Some elements of his story are just outright false; for example, there are no monks in Opus Dei. Knowing simply that, prevented me from taking any of this seriously.

Why didn't Jesus ever walk on wine?

The book's observation that the Mona Lisa is smaller than expected (30" x 21") reminded me of my own "Wow, that's it?" moment in a museum. The site: MOMA. The piece: Dali's The Persistence of Memory. The size: 9.5" x 13." The thought: I couldn't even fit my breakfast on that!

Perhaps I'm a finicky reader, but when Brown describes Robert Langdon while the latter is looking in a mirror, I pressed my fingers to my forehead and asked Isis for the strength.

What's the last painting you want to see when you die? Guernica, for me.

Sophie says, "Please, pardon the interruption," and suddenly I hear Tony Kornheiser in my head judging her outfit.

"The Citreon navigated the chaos with authority...." Oh bullshit and apple butter.

I care about religious iconography about as much as cats care about people, but I like looking at pretty things. So, cats would find the Bible boring, but they'd likely be entertained by The Ten Commandments.

The Catholic Church's putrescent fear of women, and sex, as wicked and wrong is hard to argue against. The theory that the suppression of women has led to an "unchecked" male dominance which can blamed for much of the world's troubles is easy to argue for. That religion is the leading cause of death worldwide, foolish to even debate.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Better In Your Head?--THE BOOK THIEF

2005
Marcus Zusak


"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. 



2013
Director-Brian Percival
Writer-Michael Petroni


"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

Better In Your Head?--LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN

1964
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.

1989
Director-Uli Edel
Writer-Desmond Nakano


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?

RIP Hymie.

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

Better In Your Head?--TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

1960
Harper Lee


"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."




1962
Director-Richard Mulligan
Writer-Horton Foote


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

Better In Your Head?--THE GREAT SANTINI

1976
PAT CONROY


"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.


1979
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.