Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Better In Your Head?--THE GREAT SANTINI


"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.

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.

"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.

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