Friday, November 22, 2013

Film Friday: Recording and Re-presenting JFK

On the 50th anniversary of his assassination, I wanted to reflect a bit on the many different ways we have seen John F. Kennedy on the screen, in his lifetime, his assassination, and in countless fiction films and documentaries ever since.  It's not especially a comprehensive discussion; if you want an interesting book on the subject of the assassination, you can check out a copy of my friend Art Simon's Dangerous Knowledge: The JFK Assassination in Art and Film. But this is more or less just what has come to mind as this anniversary has approached. 

"We all killed Kennedy."

"I shouted out 'who killed the Kennedys?'
 when after all, it was you and me."

The first quote comes from Doug Hall of Ant Farm, a radical art/media group that created a series of challenging independent video art works about media culture.  The line comes near the end of a video collaboration with T.R. Uthco (get it?), called The Eternal Frame.  The video involves the group recreating the motorcade that went through Dallas -- except with only one car, carrying the President and Mrs. Kennedy, and Texas Governor Connolly and his wife. After the final recreation is completed, with people watching the car go by and crying as they conflated present and past, an obviously fake reproduction with the real thing, Doug Hall, who played Kennedy -- referred to as "the Artist-President" because he's not the real thing and because he seems very aware of his and Kennedy's own existence now only as an image -- is being asked to reflect on the exercise, and also on Kennedy's death.  When asked if he knew who killed the President, he responds: I don't care anymore.  It doesn't matter.  We all killed Kennedy.

The second quote you probably know very well; it's sung by Mick Jagger, in one of his most notorious guises, in the Rolling Stones classic "Sympathy for the Devil." (Jagger said the phrase came from a line from French symbolist poet Baudelaire.)   I don't think I'd fully appreciated the implications of the line until after Princess Diana's tragic death: it was the obsessive desire the public had for images of the Princess that led to the circumstances that put her in that car being chased by tabloids, leading to a terrible accident that left her dead.  And that, I think, is what Jagger meant by those lines.  Because Kennedy and become a media icon, the first Television President, and because the public had such a strong desire to see him and be close to him, Kennedy was more exposed in Dallas than he should have been.  (His increased visibility also was likely a source of anger for his enemies, inspiring at the very least the contemplation of killing him -- I'm no conspiracy buff, but let's face it, most leaders draw the ire of people who wish to kill them.)

Kennedy began to make a name for himself in the midfifties, even challenging Adlai Stevenson for the Democratic party nomination in 1956.  The media love affair with Kennedy began even before the famous tv debates against Richard Nixon (who had been pretty good at using media prior to these debates).  In 1960, a crew from Time-Life began following around the two main candidates seeking to win the Wisconsin primary election for the Democrats, Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey.   What made this crew different was that the equipment was innovative, having created the ability to record images with synchronous sound but still using lightweight cameras.  The result: Primary, a film that not only helped Kennedy, but helped put a new group on the map: Drew Associates, led by Robert Drew and with camera work by some of the legends of the American Direct Cinema movement.   (Go here for a short clip that helps situate the film in its specific context.) Drew and his team -- Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker -- made numerous films, broadcast either on ABC or on local stations that Time-Life owned, after Kennedy entered the White House.  The most notable one was Crisis: Behind a Presidential Committment , which concerned the integration of the University of Alabama.  (JFK is not the real star in the film; his brother Bobby, as Attorney General, is, along with his aide working in Birmingham, Nick Katzenbach.) Kennedy admitted, "we would be nowhere without [television]." 

 It was JFK's enormous popularity, created in no small measure by television, that allowed him to be put in the cross-hairs in Dallas.  And his death at a young age has led him to become even more of an icon of the tragedy of youth, alongside Marilyn Monroe, James Dean,  and others who leave us to fill in the blanks as to what their lives could have been.  The eternal frame, indeed.

Obviously, the most famous images of the assassination came from the camera of Abraham Zapruder, because it gives us the horrific shot that Kennedy took to the head that without question killed him. (You can click here to see what comes up if you put a search of "Zapruder film" at YouTube.)  As Simon observes in his discussion of the film and its use by Time-Life, by the Warren Commission, the New Orleans trial of Clay Shaw (dramatized in Oliver Stone's controversial film), and in other contexts, that these few frames were once thought to be an "unimpeachable" witness to the murder, but ultimately, we are unable really to come to any conclusions about what happened.  This film became the most famous home movie ever made. (Yes, even more famous than Justin Bieber's early videos.) And in a sense because of that, the images of the assassination don't lead us to the truth. We project too much of what we want to see in them.  The irony of Stone's film is that he very carefully manipulates the viewer even as he shows how the public could be manipulated in 1963. 

Kennedy's assassination generated many historic images, as did his funeral.  It was covered nationwide, and in a sense paved the way for the ways that the networks covered the funerals of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy in 1968.  The funeral gave us young JFK junior in that legendary pose, saluting as his father's casket passed him. 

Since 1963 there have been numerous considerations of the assassination.  Obviously, there have been numerous news stories about possible conspiracies leading to Kennedy's death.  The publishing world is loaded (as it were) with books about the assassination, and the internet has been a boon to the buffs, who can connect to one another much more easily now than ever before.  Oliver Stone's JFK is probably the most notorious film from Hollywood, but the assassination also was used by the avant-garde.  I mentioned Ant Farm; also, noted avant-garde film-maker Bruce Conner presented images of Kennedy for his film Report. In this film, Conner intersperses images of Kennedy arriving at Love Field with other images of that day with a sound track of a news broadcast covering Kennedy's assassination.  The film ends with an earlier report of what happened with Kennedy at Love Field, including an eerie moment when Kennedy has, impromptu, gone over to a crowd of supporters to shake their hands, much to the surprise and dismay of the Secret Service. The word "report" does not just refer to news reports but also to the sound of gunfire, a clever pun. 

Why so many images of Kennedy, of his death? I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that so much of the information collected by the authorities over two separate investigations -- the Warren Commission and the House Select Committee on Assassinations in the late seventies -- is sealed up, and no plans have been made to release them.  When you keep things in secret, invoking whatever excuses governments use, you just play right into the hands of Conspiracy Theory Guy. We can never know the truth of those events because too many people question everyone's evidence.  There's no real trust established.  The assassination ushered in a new era -- no, not just "THE Sixties," as many aging boomers like to tell ya -- but one in which average citizens were able to try producing a counter-narrative to the Official Story.  As marginalized as the assassination buffs may have been, they are the early wave of those interpreting mass mediated images critically, especially those that support an assessment of a crime that the critics deem improbable.  Nowadays, everyone has a forum to share unsolicited opinions, and everyone can break down other discourses to try to seize the ole talking stick, but such a practice existed in crude form fifty years ago. 

Like I said, this is no definitive consideration.  But amid the saturation of anniversary specials all over mass media, it's worth understanding what all these images really mean.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Film Friday: Who You Gonna Call?

About a  month ago (or was it yesterday?) I finally got to show my kids Ghostbusters.  Now they understand half of what I say. 

The movie came out in what for me was the Summer of Movies.  I don't think I've ever been to movie theaters as much in one season as I was then. I wasn't working much, and I had enough allowance money to pay for what was then probably about three or four bucks a ticket.   A lot of pretty awesome movies came out that summer, and a few crappy ones, but Ghostbusters is the one we all go back to, the one we quote obsessively.

It was one of many projects Dan Ackroyd had conceived for himself and John Belushi before Belushi died.  (Another one was Spies Like Us.)  Once Bill Murray was signed on, Ackroyd and Harold Ramis (who'd directed Murray in Caddyshack and co-starred with him in Stripes) re-worked the script, with probably a little help from director-producer Ivan Reitman.  It was one of the first comedies to use bigger-budget special effects, which were pretty cool in 1984 (and impressive enough for my kids nearly 30 years later).

The story is engaging if completely silly.  It probably is of a piece with Reagan-era entertainment, as the left-leaning critics of the old British film magazine Movie maintained, with interdimensional apocalypse standing in for the nuclear one that pop bands were writing about, and a pretty crude, boyish sexism to boot.  But of course what matters is the personality of Bill Murray, and the way his cohorts feed off him.   After that, it's all about the classic lines:

(i know some of these are from the inferior sequel, but what the hey.) 

And of course the most important advice anyone has ever given anyone in the movies:

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Oh, How, I Miss Him: Lou Reed (1942-2013)

So this is what I have to write about after nearly three months away.  That Lou Reed is dead and that that fact totally sucks.  

I mentioned in my last blog post that I was in quite some agony, thanks to a badly pulled back, followed by not properly taking care of it, followed by an acupuncture treatment that eased the muscle pain by touched the sciatic nerve and left it impossible for me to sit for more than five minutes at a time.  (More about all that some other time.)  I had figured that, when I got better, I’d tell the whole saga, you know, write about a movie or two, etc.  But the pain has subsided enough only recently, and then this old bastard dies on us.  

Okay, let’s be fair: for someone like Lou, 71 is a pretty good run.  And also to be fair: I feel kinda crappy that he had a liver transplant in the same way that it was probably crappy that Mickey Mantle got one near the end of his life.  Not only did they do much of the liver damage to themselves, but they were probably on the outside age range of liver transplant recipients, and I wonder might someone else have benefitted from the donated organs.  (I am fully aware that organ transplants are complicated because of tissue matches and all that, and it’s probably true that the recipient lists were not rigged, but still.  I understand the feeling that somehow guys who damage their livers are less deserving of a new one than those who have lead cleaner lives.)  

But enough about the messiness of death and the efforts to prolong life.  I’m trying to explain here why Lou Reed matters.  At least to me, if not to any other soul.

That was always part of the point of Lou’s recordings: it’s not always the kind of music you play at parties, but rather the kind you take home and listen to privately, connecting to it (or not) the way one relates to reading a novel.  It was the immediacy that Lou was always after, the one-to-one effect on his audience. (That’s why he mixed the third Velvet Underground LP in such a way that made it seem like you were listening in a closet -- that mix was rejected by Verve, but in the box set from the nineties, it’s Reed’s “closet mix” you hear.)   His best stuff was not something to be glossed over quickly, like the disposable songs he wrote for Pickwick Records in the early sixties. You took the record home and played it, over and over.  

Though I was a kid in New York in the Seventies, I hadn’t heard much of Lou’s music; much of my musical taste was shaped by my dad’s record collection -- a collection Lou probably would have approved, with its emphasis on doo-wop.  I was too young to fully comprehend the punk scene itself, let alone realize who the “Godfather of punk” (and glam) (and electronica) (and metallica) (and grunge) (and New Wave) (and who knows what else) was. In my teen years, the radio it doth play one of the greatest triumphs in the history of the charts: a song where a character stays cool even during oral sex, a song that somehow gets into the top twenty.  (I’m still trying to figure that one out.) Lou was about to embark on a pretty successful run during his final years at RCA: The Blue Mask, Legendary Hearts, New Sensations, and the import Live in Italy. And subscribing to the usual magazines of the day, I knew all those records got four- and five-stars and A-minuses and B+’s.  What made me pick these records up was hearing that rapid minimalist beat that begins by quoting from the Contours’ “Do You Love Me” and proceeds to  tell the same basic point: you do what you wanna do, but I loves ya, Suzanne, which was a staple on college radio stations.  

While New Sensations , featuring a video-game console cover and a user-friendly sonic interface (“My Red Joystick” perhaps overdoing things), was another attempt by Lou to make the charts (cf Sally Can’t Dance), the fact is he made his records the way he wanted to. No compromises.  Take no prisoners.  Once, feeling quite arrogant in conversation with (I believe) the legendary critic Lester Bangs, Lou said, “my shit is better than most people’s diamonds.”   He was not all that off the mark, really, though it does depend on your definition of shit.  If  you’re like most people, who can’t stand the noise of Metal Machine Music (and lots of fans can’t), then there are a lot of diamonds out there for you to point out.  (I’ve listened to MMM straight through only once; it’s not for the faint of heart.)  Was it a joke on RCA?  Or his fans, the way that Dylan deliberately made Self-Portrait? Who knows.  But Lou was never one to care all that much about what anyone thought.  

And Lou was so fucking cool that in the middle of the 1980s, when critics were bashing rock stars for selling their songs to be in soda and beer commercials (and Neil Young got in on the act, too, mocking everyone with his hilarious “This Note’s For You”), Lou did an ad for Honda scooters that used “Walk on the Wild Side” and was the coolest commercial by a long shot.  There he is, at the end of a montage of streetlife scenes, telling us, “hey -- don’t settle for walking,” in that Noo Yawk accent of his.   We might have bashed Clapton and Brian Wilson and Steve Winwood for being whores, but Lou could do whatever fuck he wanted and that was okay by us.  And this weekend, visiting my parents’ house, I found this in a box of my old stuff: the print Honda ad, with Lou standing so cool next to the scooter, the tag line printed below as a caption.  Lou is standing near the docks in Brooklyn, and behind him is another New York legend no longer with is: the World Trade Center’s twin towers.  

I was in college when i bought the Velvet Underground catalog, playing them with a passion normally reserved for my Stones records. They were more cohesive than most of Lou’s solo work, and even Lou came to understand that, that being in a band -- even when you’re its leader -- is really magical.  something special happened When Lou, John, Sterl, and Moe laid down those first two records. I hate to repeat old truisms, but dammit: what makes the VU’s career so amazing is that each of their four studio albums was brilliant on completely different terms.  The Nico album is a stunning mix of gorgeous but weird pop songs and arty epic noise/poems.  It should have been a hit, but no one got it.  the west coast scene called the band “the virus from new york.” (Never trust a hippie! Even Frank Zappa -- fellow doowop fan -- told us that.)  White Light/White Heat is the prototype for all metal machine music to come. Then that third record, with Doug Yule: god, what beautiful ballads, softly sung.  “Pale Blue Eyes.” nuf said, except there’s that great experiment “the murder mystery” and Moe’s first vocal, “after hours.” and Lou’s rhythm guitar on “What Goes On.” And the poetry of “Some Kinda Love.”  You get the idea. And then the last album, made when the group was fragmented, without Moe on drums (unofficial maternity leave), but songs that are rock and roll standards.  “Rock and Roll” is about me, Lou famously said.  and for a lot of us, too.  
So it’s no dishonor if Lou could rarely match the glory of the Velvets.  He certainly had a more productive solo career than John Fogerty, who was even more dominant in Credence than Lou was in the Velvets. And except for Plastic Ono Band and maybe All things must pass, the Beatles’ solo work was rarely compelling. Entertaining, yes, but necessary? Not really. The Blue Mask is necessary.  Transformer is necessary. “Street Hassle” is totally fucking necessary.   And New York is vital. And the live records are pretty damn awesome too. Everyone knows the raucousness of Rock and Roll Animal, but the Lou-Quine exchange on Live in Italy may be the closest Velvets sound Lou ever made after  1970. And Perfect Night, with Lou using a beautiful sounding acoustic guitar amped up and so clean that it sounds electric, contains devastating versions of a range of hits, esp. “New Sensations” and “Dirty Blvd.”

Speaking of “Dirty Blvd,” I was in college in Pittsburgh when New York came out.  I was already accepted into grad school back in Brooklyn when I bought the record.  The sound of course is classic Lou -- like he says on the back of the jacket -- you can’t beat two guitars, bass, drum. But those great images, starting with the first song: “a diamond crucifix in his ear/is used to help ward off the fear/that he has left his soul in someone’s rented car.”  The moving tribute to the Village characters of the “Halloween Parade,” and how AIDS has created such bittersweetness. (When I did move to New York, friends of friends were having parties when their tests came back negative. It was a scary decade or two.)  Some of the lyrics betray what one critic called Bono-itis -- a little social consciousness stuff that’s less cohesive, no doubt an influence of being on the Amnesty International tour with U2 in 86 -- but he nails his targets hard. “There’s no such things as human rights/when you walk the new york streets.”  The multiple references to “the Statue of Bigotry” still resonate the age of stop and frisk laws and stand your ground laws and a War on Poverty turned-War on Poor People.  Do The Right Thing was released that summer; things got ugly.  But I was thrilled to come home.  (studying with a famous poet who’d bared his brains to heaven under the El was a nice deal, too.)

As I said, the records carry personal meanings for each of us, like a great novel or poem. “Dirty Blvd.” -- in its live version from Perfect Night -- was a song I played relentlessly loud, in my headphones, the night that the cops who shot West African immigrant Amadou Diallo in front of his apartment building were acquitted in  Albany.   “Did you ever have RAGE in your heart?” Lou asks us.  Goddamn I did. Diallo was just another Black man whose life was not worth shit.  Defenders of the cops -- who fired 41 shots at Diallo -- point out that it was a split-second reaction, since Diallo (they say) was reaching into his jacket pocket for his ID but of course might have been going for a gun.  But the problem was far worse than this: the cops thought he resembled a rape suspect -- which he did not, except that both had dark skin.  it pointed to an underling assumption of many cops in new york -- and the carte blanche they felt they had under Mayor Rudy Giuliani. (Ironic, perhaps, since he fought tooth and nail with the cops over contracts every year.  I taught cops at John Jay College, and they often were pissed that Rudy exploited the cops for his Law and Order tough-guy rhetoric but didn’t want to pay them what they deserved.)  and this is why I believed that Giuliani was the one really responsible for Diallo’s death.   But all I could do, after listening to Lou over and over and over, was write a poem, out there somewhere on the web if you hunt for it.  

I could blather for hours about Lou, and probably should.  But I’ll finish with one last personal story.  When I was tutoring at the Writing Center, a fellow tutor was trying to explain to another student she was assisting about the idea that New York City is sometimes spoken about as another kind of Rome-in-decline.  I wasn’t working with anyone, so I listened in, and not being able to help myself, I just quoted: “Manhattan’s sinking like a rock.” And she heard me and finished the line: “into the filthy Hudson what a shock.”  (“They wrote a book about it, said it was like ancient Rome…”)  And that’s how a dear friendship began and has continued for over 20 years, over lots of drinks and smokes and a few tears over loves gone sour but many more joys over families -- she’s got a great son, and I’ve got two great kids, and facebook and Lou keep us all close. I haven’t stopped thinking about Lou Reed since I heard he died.  But maybe that’s all right. Despite all the amputations.

I’m not linking anything: he’s everywhere right now.  Just google him your damn self.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Film Friday: postponed due to back injury!

Yes, I pulled a muscle the other day, I think cleaning my toilet. (Last time I do that, for sure.) been basically only able to be upright and prone. Anything in between? Ouch. 

I should NOT have tossed out the oral surgeon's scrip for Vicodin. Didn't need it then...

Saw the chiropractor, now wearing back brace, the official start of Old Age...

If I get any real relief, I will post later. 

Monday, August 5, 2013

Pete Rose Should Thank A-Rod

It looks like Pete Rose has found the best way he can get into the Hall of Fame: shake your head while talking about the steroid guys because it makes your crime seem less reprehensible. 

I saw a picture posted on Facebook, from a page that is demanding Rose be put into the Hall of Fame.  It's a signed baseball by Rose, wherein he writes the number of hits he got playing baseball (4256) and the number of steroids he took (0).  I've heard his name come up a buncha times in connection with the finally-announced suspensions by Baseball in the Biogenesis investigations, including a ban of 214 games for Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez aka A-Rod aka A-Roid.  ESPN's Colin Cowherd certainly thinks it's silly that A-Rod is playing baseball tonight while Rose can't get a phone call from anyone about getting reinstated. 

This is a very old trick.  Readjust the standards of justice to fit your argument.  See -- these guys are bigtime cheaters breaking sacred records and they're still getting to play! You got regular users in the NFL and nobody gives a shit! (You also have guys who have killed people driving drunk, and one guy at least who killed dogs, playing in the NFL.)  How can we compare their sins to mine?  Outrageous!!!!

Sorry, Pete.  Let's keep the issues separate, and keep your story simple.

Since the Black Sox scandal of 1919, the most prominent offense in baseball has concerned gambling, so much so that every clubhouse has it right there: DO NOT BET ON BASEBALL. It is the only "death penalty" on the books in the sport for a first offense.  Baseball was so shamed by the scandal that it vowed never to ever let it happen again.  And every person associated with Major League Baseball knows it:  you bet on baseball, you're toast. 

Pete Rose bet on baseball. 

Not only that: he denied that he did for years.  He accepted the lifetime ban as part of an agreement that baseball would not officially release a formal finding based on the infamous Dowd Report (which had documented seven volumes' worth of evidence that Rose bet on the sport).   He insisted that he never bet on baseball, even as he admitted to having a gambling problem, even as he admitted he bet on other sporting events (complaining along the way that what he did was legal in Nevada but not in Ohio), even as he had to deal with tax evasion troubles.  Then finally fifteen years after the Dowd Report, he admits he bet on his team (to win, not to lose; the Dowd Report never found evidence he bet against his club).   

It doesn't get any more complicated than that.  Like A-Rod and a lot of other steroid-ers, Pete Rose deludes himself into thinking that what he did was no big deal, that "they" are out to "get" him, and that he's special and deserves to be considered as such anyway.  But let me stop comparing the juicers to Rose, because it should make no difference what penalties are applied to these cretins on the Biogenesis list (especially the fraud named Braun) in relation to the cretin who bet on the sport and denied it.   You bet on baseball, you're done. 

Is steroid use a real problem? Hell yes.  I'm all for really stiff penalties.  First offense, either 100 games or 50 and a lifetime ban from the Hall of Fame.  Second office, you're gone. Out of the game forever.   Part of the reason why these guys have hung around is because the waters were murky and no one wanted to change how things were going after Baseball's great return with the McGwire/Sosa home run chase.  So steroid users weren't caught, and weren't sent into total exile.  The situation is clearer now, and we will see some juicers booted permanently.  But the failures of one set of rules should not be used as a justification of loosening up the rules on a separate situation. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Keeping the campus secure...?

So, where I'm teaching this summer, the Office of Security has implemented a new procedure:  all of the classrooms are locked and can only be unlocked by someone with a faculty I.D. (No, I have not checked out if I can open up any other classroom besides mine, but I assume so, since setting up this thing any other way would be a pretty arduous task.)  I kept wondering why they are doing this.  In the classrooms where there is AV equipment, that equipment is locked up either in a cabinet or a full-sized closet, and the video projectors are bolted and locked securely into the ceiling.  (When one of the new buildings first opened up, three projectors were stolen in a week!)  It's not like furniture is going to be taken; who wants a classroom chair and desk?

Then it dawned on me.  Virginia Tech and other campus shootings. 

I suppose the theory is that a would-be-rampaging assassin won't bother wasting bullets trying to shoot through a locked door.  But of course, if you were running away from such a madman and wanted to hide in a classroom and could not actually get inside...

The truth of the matter is that this situation is particularly annoying for those of us who teach film classes.  We have to keep our doors closed so that the sound from our classrooms does not bother neighbors.  This makes it inconvenient for latecomers, who have to be let into the room.  Of course, this kind of dictatorial control is something I loved having ages ago, when my office key also locked all the classrooms in a specific campus building, because back then I really really hated latecomers.  But I'm a bit mellower now, and even for me this is frustrating.  Also, because I do have to monitor sound, in one of my classrooms I have to stand near the soundboard, and that is close to the sensor that sets off the door lock, and it makes an annoying clicking noise. 

This is hardly a matter of a few inconveniences for the matter of safety, since I'm not really sure if safety is the issue here.  Students don't like this set up either because it means they have to wait for their instructor to let them into the classroom, unless someone has left the door open.  (Easy to do for some doors, not so easy for others. We will see a lot of bent plastic garbage pails propping open doors in the coming months.)   I wonder if the convenience is for Security, who will no longer have to walk around campus locking and unlocking doors.  But if the system can lock all the doors at a remote location, then can't it unlock  those doors, too? And wouldn't it make sense for security then to lock all the doors at night?  I mean, after all, don't they have to go around to make sure everyone has left most of the buildings with classrooms anyway?  Or is that responsibility now going to the faculty, who must make sure that there are no sleeping students left in their classrooms? 

It's no accident that this system was implemented in the summer, when there are fewer faculty and students around.  Betcha this does not last into the fall term.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Film Friday: I am the Beach

Yes, thanks to the recent Disney tv-movie Teen Beach Movie, the narrative structures of the Beach series of films in the sixties are in the critical consciousness.  (My youngest of course loved it, but she's been addicted to all this sugar since the first High School Musical.)  It was coincidence that Disney film was shown the night before I was showing Beach Party (William Asher, 1963) to my Rock and Roll Films class.  And here are my "program notes" for the screening, which explains references to Gary Morris's journal article on the series of films.

Gary Morris’s essay “Beyond the Beach” is a very good study of the entire “Beach” series from American International Pictures, one of the most famous independent, “B” movie studios to emerge in the fifties. They specialized in exploitation pictures in that era: some juvee delinquent pix, some crime drama, some horror and sci fi as well. Anything to bring the teen market they wanted. 

But as Morris points out, AIP was looking for a little more legitimacy, a little more respectability (as long as profits were not hurt, anyway). Hence the series of adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories usually featuring Vincent Price (The Fall of the House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, etc.). This also led to efforts to make “clean teen” pictures, of which Beach Party  is the first. Instead of monsters and gangs, it was just “normal, healthy kids” having fun on the beach. These kids lived in a very idyllic world: in the transition from high school to college, with no income troubles, and no fear of nuclear holocaust (or the draft), they could indulge in the pleasures of surfing all day and swinging all night.

The narratives focus on pretty much the same thing: boys chasing girls. Yes, sometimes there are outside threats to their paradise, but they are clearly comical threats like the motorcycle gang led by Erich Von Zipper. Racial tensions? Forget it. Just like in most of the fifties movies, there are no people of color on the beach, except for the occasional Motown performer like Stevie Wonder or the Supremes. Violence? Nothing serious – these are “good teens” who will have no trouble carrying on their function in a postwar consumer-driven economy. The plots themselves are not all that important to the overall themes of “good times.” Indeed, as Morris notes, the films themselves are rather chaotic on a formal level (see 9-10). Stock footage of surfers, recycled images from earlier entries in the series appearing in later ones, and so on, frequently threaten to tear the narratives to shreds. Yet no one pays attention to the “messiness” – the films even flaunt their own incoherence at times, having characters directly address the camera/audience. (Frankie Avalon does this at least once in Beach Party). Just because the films participate in a minor act or two of deconstruction does not assure viewers of a critical perspective on the apparatus of the movie industry (or of capitalism, as several of the French New Wave film makers of this period wanted to believe). In that respect they are more like the musicals of a generation before than at first glance.

In Beach Party, the use of the explorer/anthropologist Robert Sutwell provides a representation of the outsider perspective, but of course that perspective is completely mocked and ridiculed. He is seen as a voyeur as much as he is a scientist. And his participant-encounters with the teens suggest some rather questionable anthropological methods. (I’m discussing this partly to remind you of Doherty’s arguments regarding the attitude that filmmakers had concerning teens: as you recall, some films clearly took an outsider position while others were more sympathetic to the kids.) But eventually he comes around to accept them from their point of view, even as he prepares to move on to his next project, apparently having learned a few pointers about romance/sex from the teens!

As for the music, the beach movies often had some decent pop and rock acts that often provided more entertainment than the plots. Beach Party features the King of the Surf Guitar, Dick Dale, and his group, the Del-Tones. If you’ve never surfed before, Dale’s music is about the closest thing to what it sounds like without actually being on the waves. You don’t really get a sense of that in this film, but his guitar work here is pretty impressive. Some of the other songs are moderately interesting pre-Beatles sixties pop. “ Treat Him Nicely” was a pretty sizable hit for Annette Funicello, who was, as you may know, a former Mouseketeer. (In fact, she was still under contract to Disney and was asked not to wear too revealing a bathing suit when she appeared in this film. Eventually, she got with the program and wore bikinis like the other girls.) 

AIP made several beach movies but also a few variants, like Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, which stars Avalon as a junior spy who stumbles upon a plot of the aforementioned Doctor (played by Vincent Price, of course) to rob millions by creating female robots who marry and kill wealthy young sons of millionaires. The film is not set at the beach but in San Francisco, and there are no musical sequences with guest stars (though there are two amusing cameos in the film). It was one of the last movies AIP made with Avalon, and represents a drying up of the old formula. (But man, I love the title song, sung by the Supremes and almost impossible to find!)

And here's the trailer.  Surf's up. 


Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Art of the Brick: Nathan Sawaya, Lego Artist

Okay, so, if you go to Discovery Times Square, you can shell out a pretty steep sum of cash to see a couple of different types of exhibits, which might take you about an hour to go through.  We're talking 25 bucks, basically, more than a movie, but less than a Broadway show. 

We went to see the artwork of Nathan Sawaya, a corporate lawyer who eventually quit his day job and began to create interesting works of art, from Lego bricks. 

The self-congratulatory video introduction to the exhibit impresses with his fame: he's been on lots of tv shows and met many a big shot.  His theme is that we all need creativity in our lives; it is essential for our happiness.   (His message is so very bourgeois, with the kind of platitudes you find watching pre-school television.) 

The exhibit itself is actually pretty cool. The first room you enter is his "history of art" room.  He's got a bunch of noted works of art from a diverse range of history and culture.  While the selections are obvious: -- Munch's scream, Rodin's thinker, Michelangelo's David, Grant Wood's farmers, Whistler's mother, Vermeer's girl with the Lego pearl earring -- it's still pretty damn impressive that he could create this stuff with the same pieces of plastic my kids have in their basement.  (Okay, but in the video, it looks like he coats some of the pieces with glue.  If I'm right, isn't that cheating?)

As we get to a room of his original pieces, we get these little messages in them.  "Overcome" shows a man climbing to the top of a wall, having succeeded with much effort.  The placard explaining the work really hits the reader over the head with its message about attaining success.  I found those explanations incredibly obvious and either condescending or really child-ish, in the sense that they could have been said by a child.  I'd have rather just had the art and gone, cool, and then go home. 

The final room was what we came for:  the room exhibiting contest winners.  My oldest made a really cool piece that I would not dare describe for fear of getting it wrong, but she was chosen months ago to have the Lego art in the exhibit, and it was really fun seeing her work on display.  the other kids' stuff was pretty cool, but I'm partial. 

The other really great thing about her winning was that she got six complimentary tickets to the exhibit for having her sculpture chosen! So it only cost us the price of one for seven of us.  I sure as hell would not have paid full price for this guy's stuff.  It's neat, it's cool, but indeed his homages to the great masterworks do reveal how brilliant the best of those works really are, and how limited in vision his Lego works are. 

Maybe i'm just in a bit of a cranky mood.  I keep thinking of child brides in Yemen, and I think: yes, lawyer Sawaya, children need to be creative, but they also need to be not getting married at ten.  But what the hey. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Film Friday: The Way Way Back

Fourteen sucks.

Especially if your mom is dating an asshole.  And your dad's got a new girlfriend on the other coast.

That's the situation for Duncan (Liam James), who's going to be spending the summer at the beach home of aforementioned asshole Trent (Steve Carrell) and his daughter Stephanie (Zoe Levin), as mom (Toni Collette) tries hard to make this situation work well.

But Duncan realizes that he's clearly an afterthought among all the people his mom begins to associate with: off-the-wagon neighbor Betty (Allison Janney) and friends Kip and Joan (Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet).   They drink, party, and when Betty's oldest son scores, they smoke pot.  "It's like spring break for grownups," quips Betty's lovely teen daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb).  Duncan finds an old pink bike in the garage and begins to ride around the beach town, where he happens to make friends with Owen (Sam Rockwell), who is the manager of the Water Wizz water park.  And it is when Duncan secretly begins working at the park that he finally finds himself.

Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who co-wrote the script, co-directed, and play minor but funny parts, have created a very charming anti-Beach movie, one that uses many silly references to eighties culture (almost as many as The Wedding Singer, which of course was set in 1985).  Rockwell's Owen is the wisecracking father figure Duncan needs, the right guy at the right time.  Of course, he's just as much an overgrown child as the adults back at the beach houses, as his girlfriend and fellow manager Caitlyn (Maya Rudolph, who doesn't make crappy movies, does she) points out to him after one near-crisis is averted.  But his status as a "guy" gives him the perspective Duncan craves; the other adults in Duncan's life seek to forget that they are grown-up.  This is especially the case with Trent; he tells Duncan that "there has to be trust and respect" in order for this potential blended family to work, but he deserves neither, and Duncan knows it.   When he confronts his mother and Trent with what he knows, it forces all the adults to make some tough, adult decisions.  (Mom makes a nice one, eventually, at the very end, not a melodramatic one, but one that makes you have hope as the credits come up.)

The script is generally clever and not cloying; the opening conversation with Trent and Duncan, where he tells the kid, "I think you're a 3," was based on a real conversation Rash had with his stepfather, and it feels about right.  Rockwell clearly is enjoying himself as the snarky wise one, and he has the best lines.  Of course the film gives us the usual boys-will-be-boys shenanigans, and some scenes at the park feel quite frankly not unlike the ones you could watch from those old sixties Beach movies.  The Way Way Back is not the innocent summer love of Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, nor is it as self-consciously a fairy tale like Anderson's film was. (It's also not as meticulously composed, either.)  Nor is it really a coming-of-age film, though it has some elements of it.  It's really a snapshot, showing a young man seeking happiness and overcoming his -- and his mom's -- fears.  Maybe he'll get through fourteen and it won't suck as much.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Steroid Guys and Weiner Guys: Take a Page from Dave

"you, ah, want to hear a story?"

This is how one television icon began to diffuse what could have been -- should have been -- a career-ending scandal.

And while it happened four years ago, a lot of guys seem not to have learned any lessons from him.

David Letterman was never a jock.  And was never a politician.  But he hasn't had to quit his job even though it could have happened that way.

Back in 2009, Letterman was being blackmailed into paying someone hush-up money.  The blackmailer threatened to reveal that Dave had had numerous sexual relationships with women who worked for him  -- relationships he was having while living with his longtime girlfriend and eventual wife Regina Lasko.  Now, Hollywood scandals are cheap, we know, but Letterman, who still struggles in the ratings against Leno, surely didn't need this publicity.  Not only had it been a big deal that he'd finally married Lasko -- their son Harry was almost six when the couple "went legal" -- but these days, workplace sex politics can be complicated, even for the boss.  He might have been opening himself up to possible lawsuits just by getting involved with his employees.

Had this been an episode of Matlock, Dave would have confronted the blackmailer, killed him accidentally with a hockey stick ("hit somebody!"), and tried to cover up his crime and blame it on Paul Shaffer.

Dave could have just paid the blackmailer off.  Until of course he came calling again.

He could have done nothing, let the whole thing explode, and either deny deny deny or no-comment no-comment no-comment and then finally admit the whole thing to Oprah later on.

But Dave did none of these things.  He called his lawyer as soon as the blackmailer made his initial threat.  The lawyer contacted the Manhattan D.A.'s office.   Eventually, after several direct meetings with the man, Letterman appeared before the Manhattan Grand Jury to give evidence so that the Jury could issue a warrant for the blackmailer, who was arrested.

The day of the blackmailer's arrest, Letterman taped his "confession" about the events of the previous three weeks.   If you watch it, you realize how brilliant a performance it is.  It is the best diffusing of a public relations nightmare since Tylenol managed to avoid going under after the cyanide crisis of the 1980's.  (And that, by the way, is literally the textbook on how corporations avert catastrophes, though obviously some of them haven't read it lately.)

As Ryan Braun, and before him Lance Armstrong, have stood before the microphones and emphatically denied any wrong-doing in the area of performance-enhancing drugs, and as they and so many others who have denied and denied and eventually admitted guilt, I keep thinking of Dave's confession.  As so many politicians who have come before us denying any hanky-panky only later to admit some fault, I keep thinking of Dave's confession.

The obvious first key to Letterman's success with this mess is that he got out in front of it.  Not only did he go right to the authorities, but when it came time for the truth to come out, he was the one who got to tell his story first, not the tabloids.   It's so much easier to handle the consequences that way.  A couple of baseball juicers have made admissions after getting caught, which is not quite getting out in front, but those who "confessed" -- Andy Pettitte comes to mind -- have managed to escape the sharpest scalpels of the baseball writers (who, as I have said, are a sanctimonious group to be sure.)

By telling the story first, Letterman also got to cast his blackmailer in a critical light, mocking his ambitions to turn his information into a movie script and tell-all book.   Most of the confession is spent telling of the blackmail situation; Dave reveals the substance of the blackmail near the end, and while it is surprising, the audience is behind him by this point. 

But the most important key to the genius of this confession is that Dave remains Dave.  He stays very much in the same persona that he always has had since his first morning talk show thirty-plus years ago.  He is self-deprecating, a little caustic, and full of "Lutheran Midwestern guilt."   He learned very well from his mentor, the late Johnny Carson, who had his share of private ups and downs over the years.  His use of the term "hinky" causes continued convulsions in the audience.  He's got them, and despite the seriousness of the circumstances, he knows they're his.  So by the time we get to the sex, he's already been forgiven, and when he tells them the allegations are true, they are applauding.  You'd think he'd done some kind of jedi mind trick.  Here is a man who has cheated on the mother of his child, a woman whom he'd finally married, a man who is having sex with his employees (according to what I've read, there is no specific policy at Letteman's company that prohibits sexual relationships between managers and employees, though CBS supposedly requires that "suppliers" like Letterman's company are supposed to follow protocols of the network, which Dave surely did not do). And they are cheering him.

But Ryan Braun stood before a microphone last year when his appeal for a suspension was awarded and declared that his victory against Baseball was a victory for all who have been falsely accused.  (Braun tested positive for PEDs, but because the collector's handling of Braun's sample did not supposedly follow protocols, the test was tossed out.)  Many came to his side and supported him. Now they all have egg on his face as he accepts a 65-game suspension because his name was linked to a designer drug lab in Florida, Biogenesis.  Lance Armstrong threatened to destroy people if they revealed his PED use, and he insisted for eons that he was clean.  And there he was on Oprah saying, yes, I did them, and he has become a symbol of all that is arrogant about today's athlete.  As some commentators have said recently, it's like they lie so much they really believe somehow it's true.  And was it a year ago that Anthony Weiner tried to claim that his cell phone was hacked as a way of explaining the pictures of his member?  Or Larry Craig talking about a wide stance in a bathroom?  You get the idea. 

I've always loved Dave, from way back in those early NBC days, but as I've got older I'm not usually watching much tv at all, and yes I've gravitated to the slightly younger generation of Stewart/Colbert (who are on a bit earlier, too).   I've spent little time watching much tv regularly anyway.  (As a parent, I'm used to not getting the first choice of viewing, and I also canned cable tv, preferring the streaming option.)  I feel pretty crappy for Harry, and for Dave's wife, and even the women who got involved with Letterman; those kinds of workplace situations are not easy to manage even for people who are not committed to other people, as Dave was.  I can't dismiss the idea that I'm not happy about what Dave did, because he was in a position of power with the women he was having sex with.  But make no mistake; Dave should have won an Emmy for this performance.  This is a model of how one handles scandal.  

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Cheerios and Kids: Black and White and Green

Okay, so you've all heard about the Cheerios ad with the biracial couple and the bigoted comments left at the video's page on YouTube.  Blah Blah Blah. 

You might have seen this video, created by Fine Bros., who specialize in producing "React" series of different demographics responding to viral videos (Kids React, Teens React, etc.).   The video is a "feel-good" one: the kids watch the Cheerios video, laugh, explain what is funny, and then they are told that some people are angry about this video.  The kids ask why.  They are told it's because the parents are biracial.  Almost all the kids are shocked, and all of them find it stupid that people would be upset by this.

Some of the comments are very perceptive: one kid mentions the "mob mentality," that when one nasty comment is left it can lead to a pile-on of nastiness.  Another suggests that if you're wasting your time reading other people's comments on YouTube and then further wasting your time posting hate-filled comments, you need to get a life.  Another makes the correlation between inter-racial and homosexual couples.  Some of the comments are also moving, when they are asked if they have ever been discriminated against, and one or two of them admit they have.  

The basic point of this video is to demonstrate that kids "get it," that we have to stop teaching prejudice, and respect everybody for who they are not for their skin color, etc.  The unseen interviewers also ask what they think of Cheerios for making this commercial, and the fact that the kids all support Cheerios and thinks the company (General Mills) is "brave" for doing this even if it made people angry.  (It's worth mentioning that the Cheerios ad is not the first major brand ad to feature a biracial couple.) 

And it's in that set of questions that my eyebrows begin to go up in that Mr. Spock way. 

Would the kids have thought Cheerios "brave" if they had not been told about the controversy?  They reacted to the video without any thought to the fact that the mom was white and the dad Black.  It didn't make a difference to them.  Had it not been pointed out, it would have never been a big deal to them.  It's a great thing  that kids seem color-blind, and it's good that they seem to understand that racism is taught.  But having introduced them to the idea of prejudice, will they see the society in a way that makes them more race-conscious?   What if we actually really meant the notion of a color-blind society and let the kids be just kids without all the burdens of centuries of prejudice? 

Yeh, I know, it's  dream world.  And when one of my liberal friends called into question the notion of celebrating various ethnic groups with weeks and months on similar grounds, I'd point out that she was living in a dream world too.  We don't have White History Month because for centuries the dominant history in Western European and American textbooks has been White History.   So I do get the point.  But watching the kids react made me think there is a modicum of truth in what my friend was saying. 

The other issue I observed with the kids concerned the celebration of Cheerios, and its maker, General Mills.  What if, instead of talking about the biracial couple, the Fine Bros. interviewers mentioned that there were comments left by viewers condemning General Mills for using genetically modified ingredients that might contradict the notion that Cheerios is heart-healthy?  What if they explained that some people believe that foods made with GMOs are unsafe to eat?  What if they  told the kids that the CEO of General Mills, believing his food is safe, opposes any labeling that would indicate that all his cereals are made with GMOs?  What if they told the kids that there are boycotts  of General Mills' cereals? Would they say Cheerios was brave, or would they call the company "chicken" for not allowing their products to be labeled? 

I am not being flip here.  (Also, in the interest of honesty: I don't formally boycott General Mills; I try to avoid non-organic food, but I'm no saint, and I still succumb to Cafe Ronald once in a while.) Race is a complicated issue in America, but if we're going to talk to kids about race -- and let me be clear, I think we have to -- we can also talk to kids about issues that affect their health.  The questions that we ask -- standardized test preparers know this, or should -- often tell us more about the questioners than the answers the kids give.  Let's also remember: the kids may not be thinking about race -- or about genetically modified foods -- but they certainly have seen enough commercials in their brief lives that they take all the underlining discourses about consumerism for as a given.  They understand the basic grammar of a tv ad, and they know that buying stuff is "normal" in our society, just as for them, a biracial couple is "normal." And while race is a complicated issue, it's "easy" for us to talk about social problems in racial terms; we may not ever ever solve the problems stemming from race, but we do have conversations about it, even if some of the conversation consists of people asking "do we have to talk about race AGAIN???"  Getting kids to see the foolishness of bigots opposing biracial couples is pretty easy; getting them to understand genetically modified foods may not be so, as it were, black and white.

And so it comes down not to those two notorious colors, but to the one we all understand: green.  Fine Bros. knows it benefits from asking kids about race, because this video gets shared by everyone. (I found it posted on Facebook.)  Cheerios gets a boost because "nice" people will want to show their support against bigotry and buy more of General Mills' GMO-laced cereals. YouTube is always happy to have more and more eyes on their pages.  One kid says, when learning about the nasty comments, that perhaps YouTube could take down those comments, or maybe even shut down the whole site, "but that would be terrible!" Because after all, the kid loves watching videos on YouTube.  And that, ultimately is the point. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Film Friday: This Gold-Plated Trophy Signifying Absolutely Nothing! Watching Brando "as" The Wild One

I showed my students one of Marlon Brando's iconic early films, The Wild One, produced by the ultimate well-meaning liberal film-maker Stanley Kramer (of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner fame).  This is Brando as Rebel Biker, the legendary image that James Dean passionately emulated -- to the point where he once went to a party dressed like Brando's Johnny from this film, knowing Brando would be there.  (He was crushed to see his hero in a tux.)  This is Brando as "saintly motorcyclist" image-inspiration for perhaps the most notorious line in Allen Ginsberg's Howl.  This is the great nihilist-youth who, when asked, what are you rebelling against, answers, "whaddaya got?"

But amid all the image that this film has constructed around Brando, it's easy to forget that he was as great an actor as ever lived.  The story itself is actually pretty mundane, and presented in a fairly typical fashion in the Kramer style (though directed by Laszlo Benedick): after Johnny's gang leaves a motocross race they'd disrupted, the cop turns to a racing official to talk about how such gang members seem to go out of their way to find trouble, and that they usually end up finding it.  (I waited for a flashing caption to say: "MORAL OF THE STORY HERE!") But even in these early moments of the film, you can see Brando providing nuance to the character.  While the rest of his gang openly mocks the races and the "cheap" trophies the winners get, you can see it in Brando's face that despite his pose of cool, he wants very much to belong.  The trophy is something he does want, to signify his desire to be a part of the society that he outwardly rejects.

One of his "boys" steals the second place trophy off the table as they are being kicked out by the local cop. ("First Place was two feet high!" he explains to another member, who had got mad that "Johnny only won second place, huh?") After Johnny's very cool, arrogant exit, putting on his shades and starting up his cycle defiantly, we cut to a shot of him leading his gang on the highway, and the trophy has been tied to the front of his bike.  Afterward, it becomes the central symbol of the film.

As he arrives in a small town, he makes conversation with Kathy, niece of the owner of Bleeker's Cafe, where the gang hangs out while one member gets fixed up at a doctor's office after an accident involving a really old man too old to drive occurs.  He offers it to her, but she tells him, no, you ought to give that to a girl if you really liked her... ohhhh...! but soon Johnny finds out her dad is the sheriff, and he gets annoyed.  The gang is about to take off when they find that a rival gang has shown up, and their leader, Chino (a brilliant, I mean brilliant performance by Lee Marvin), has gleeped the trophy.

It turns out that both gangs were part of one big club that has split up.  Chino needles Johnny, dishing out the disses, and eventually they begin to fight when Johnny tries to take the trophy back.  "Oh, no, Johnny. Don't take Chino's trophy away. Chino needs it, to make him feel like a big strong man."  Chino's mock-whining further needles Johnny, but he is right: Johnny needs that trophy to establish an identity.  Eventually, Chino takes the trophy and hands it to Kathy: in a big show, he presents the trophy, "signifying absolutely nothing," to the girl, who will watch as "her hero" gets sucker-punched by his old friend, and the two have a vicious brawl that will eventually lead to the town's near-destruction.

But Chino is wrong; that trophy, while really signifying absolutely nothing,  since it was a stolen item, is Johnny's way of communicating with a world he has fought all his life.  He has rejected any attachments to girls, and he refuses to make long-term plans. (We don't go just one place, we just go, man! he tells Kathy.)  When he gets Kathy alone in a park, she asks him if he still wanted to give the trophy to her.  He doesn't directly answer her, but at the film's end, the trophy does become an acknowledgment of her kindness in helping him out of a jam that could have led him to be charged in connection with the accidental death of the cafe's elderly barman.

And all the while, Brando slides back and forth between this confident cocky angry rebel and this confused youth who wants so desperate to be heard and accepted in a world that has already rejected him long before he had a change to rebel against whatever it has.  The film is a classic because Brando's acting makes it so. A Streetcar Named Desire is a beautifully written play, irrespective of whoever plays the leads.  Brando is the gold standard against which all other Stanley Kowalskis must be measured, but Williams' poetry surely is a key part of the play's success when adapted for Hollywood.  The Wild One was a run-of the-mill social melodrama that Brando's performance uplifts beyond the ordinary. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Same as it Ever Was

Anyone remember Latasha Harlins?

She  was a sixteen-year-old African American who was killed in Los Angeles by convenience store owner Soon Ja Doo, after an altercation in which Doo accused Harlins of trying to steal a bottle of juice.  The gun she used to kill her was licensed to her husband, but there were a couple things about this gun.  It had been stolen from the Doos, they reported it stolen, it was recovered, but before it ended up back with its legal, rightful owners, the gun had been fixed with a hairpin trigger, unbeknownst to the Doos.

This is how Doo's gun went off more or less at the mere touch of her finger on the trigger.  And  Harlins dropped immediately. 

Doo was sentenced to five years probation and a $500 fine.  Oh, and 400 hours of community service.

You might not have remembered Latasha.  Doo killed her about two weeks after the Rodney King beating.  Like that beating, Latasha's murder was caught on tape, the store's security tape.  Had this incident -- or for that matter, the King incident -- occurred in our time, we'd all be sharing it.   But she's more or less forgotten these days.

A few more of you might remember Yusef Hawkins.  He was a 16-year-old honors student from Brooklyn.  Like Harlins, he was African American.  He went with a couple of friends to look at a used car that the owner had advertised in the paper. (This was long before Craig's List.)   The neighborhood where the owner lived, Bensonhurst, is populated by a lot of Italian Americans. (My grandmother lived in that neighborhood from 1927 until her death nearly seventy years later. My mother was born in her house.)  And as it turns out, Hawkins and his friends were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

On this evening, a punk named Mondello got into a big fight with an ex-girlfriend.  (The gossip around the neighborhood had some not-so-nice things to say about her.  That's not surprising.  That's what gossip is. I have no idea if any of those things were true or not.)  She taunted Mondello by telling her that she was having a party and had invited some... I'll use a popular racist epithet among the paisans..."moolies" to come.   Mondello got really ticked off and organized a mob to go find any "niggers" coming into the neighborhood.  Hawkins and his friends stumbled upon this mob. The mob chased, them, beat them, and then one kid with a screw loose, name of Fama, shot his gun off, and it killed Hawkins.  

Of all the group that beat on these kids,  Mondello, as ringleader, and Fama, as shooter, and two others were charged in connection with Hawkins' death.  Only Fama was found guilty of second-degree murder; Mondello was found guilty of lesser counts including starting a riot.  They received the maximum sentences: Mondello was released after serving 8 years in Attica; Fama is still in prison.  

This story is better known perhaps because it garnered the attention of Al Sharpton, and it also probably swung the Democratic Party primary election for Mayor in favor of Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins, who marched with Sharpton into Bensonhurst in protest while then-Mayor Ed Koch refused.  Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing had come out that summer, and is arguably prophetic in its tone; his later film Jungle Fever is dedicated to Hawkins' memory.

This of course brings us to Treyvon Martin and George Zimmerman's acquittal of killing him.   Or perhaps it brings us back, to Emmett Till.  And how many other Black teens killed mostly because their lives are not worth anything to this society.

Yes, each case is different, and yet each case is not.  Any way you want to defend Soon Ja Doo or George Zimmerman, or the cops who beat Rodney King, or the ones who shot Amadou Diallo, or even Dr. King's assassin,  it all comes down to the same thing: the life of  person of color in this country is worth diddly squat.    The thinking behind these deaths is the same: it's only a nigger, and one who is a threat to my sense of self, my property, my agency.   And because for so long people have killed Blacks with little impunity, that thinking is allowed to continue.  This thinking is aided by the continue media-projected paranoia of the Black Criminal.

Quick: I say, welfare queen.  What image pops in your head? A Black woman, right?  Quick: I say, drug dealer? Bet you thought of a Black dude.  These images are so pervasive, they continue to perpetuate the fear of Blackness that allows shopkeepers to carefully eye the loud Black girl going to the fridge for a juice, that makes white drivers go thunk-a-thunk with their door locks when a Black man, or a group of Black men walk down the street, that allow lawmakers to cut welfare and food stamps.  And the fact that  Black man is the President hasn't changed a thing; it didn't change a thing when a Black man had the number one show on TV, nor when a Black woman became one of the wealthiest people on the planet.

When the cops who beat King were acquitted by a 1990s version of an AllWhiteJury, I showed a clip of the beating to my students and said, write me an essay that justifies this, and you get an A.  I argued with my wife about this, because, Devil's Advocate that she is, she insisted that I don't know all that happened, so I can't really know for sure. (Then she saw the tape.)    When the cops who shot Diallo were acquitted, I wrote a poem in rage.  I was much younger when King was beaten, when Harlins and Hawkins were murdered.   I don't know if I'm less angry, or less sensitive, having seen all this before.   And I do think that with the economy still in the toilet, we're gonna see more of this kind of shit.

The other day I watched Blazing Saddles with a friend.  Brooks' parody of the western is widely regarded as his masterpiece, and if so, one of the reasons is its frank presentation of race, and its explosion of racist stereotypes.   In an early scene, two Black  railroad workers are sent out to check out whether or not there is quicksand on the rails. (They are sent because, "we can't afford to lose no team of horses, you dummy," demands the foreman, "send over a coupla niggers.")  When the two workers and their hand cart start to sink,  the foreman and his henchman get a rope... for the hand cart.   I can find no better illustration than this one to demonstrate how little America cares about Blacks.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Film Friday: Why Going is so Awesome

Last Friday, I took my eldest once again toe BAM's Harvey theater, this time to see 2001: A Space Odyssey on the Big Screen, as part of the Big Screen Epics series, that will also feature a restored print of Lawrence of Arabia.   I'd told her a little about the film, enough that she was kind of interested, and warned her: A) it's kinda long; B) there are long stretches with no dialogue; C) I have no idea what it all means.  (Okay, the last part is not entirely true; I am a film professor, after all.)

I suspect she was one of a handful of people there seeing it for the first time, and I'm pretty sure she was one of the youngest (as she was when we went to see the silent version of Hitchcock's Blackmail the week before).  A few people around us were talking with their companions about how stunned they were that there was an intermission when they saw it back in 1968 (or in any number of revivals).  (On those few occasions when I showed the entire film in my film history class, we usually didn't take the intermission.  Usually, because I was covering a lot of ground, I'd only show the Dawn of Man sequence.)   And yes, we got an intermission this time.  (Which was good, because we wanted popcorn.)

I am happy to report that the kid -- thirteen -- was thrilled and amazed by the film.  yes, a little tired near the end, but that's as much a function of her sleep patterns -- she gets up ridiculously early -- as it was about the film's pace.  I'd described to her the key moments in the Dawn of Man sequence beforehand, including the classic graphic match of the bone becoming the spaceship, and whispered that the little girl who plays Dr. Heywood Floyd's daughter  was the director Stanley Kubrick's daughter.  But she "got" whatever one gets the first time.

 This is what is so great about going to the movies and not just sitting at home watching stuff stream on our hdtv. a beautiful widescreen film, projected at 70mm (unfortunately, not in the preferred format, Cinerama, but that's hard to find these days, with a great sound system, is still overwhelming.  Plus, when the SuperPanavasion cameras are in the hands of great cameramen like Unsworth and directors like Kubrick and David Lean, such films bring us a real sense of wonder and magic to motion pictures.  You can understand why movie theaters were so ornate and elaborate: it's like the setting had to keep up with the brilliance on the screen.

Okay, I know some of that is probably hooey.  This is America, and the theaters were so designed to justify higher ticket prices and bring in a wealthier clientele than the first generation of peepshow and nickelodeon customers.  And movies went widescreen to demonstrate their superiority over television.  But as we know, even in a commercially-driven system, artists create important stories in dramatic manners that audiences still love.   D.W. Griffith made hundreds of short films working at Biograph, and not all of them were classics, but they showed a man who grasped a fundamental understadning of motion pictures' power: "you can photograph thought."  And his best films articulate his vision in stunning fashion, even if that vision was clouded (to put it too mildly) by prejudice.  The same holds true for the great autuers of Classical Hollywood: Ford, Hawks, and Hitchcock.  Not all great directors offered a stunning visual power akin to Ford's work in Monument Valley; Billy Wilder's film's are driven by narrative, by story, and no one offered a more acerbic vision of American life than Wilder.   Yes, some movies lose less of their power on a small screen: are we missing much watching Stalag 17 on TV? Probably not.  But would I go see Some Like it Hot at a retrospective?  Absolutely.

For me, movie theaters are temples; it always hurts when one closes.  I'm lucky to live in a place where you can still see great big films on great big screens, but even here, there have been so many to shut down just in the last twenty-five years I've lived here as an adult.  Watching old movies  that show theaters -- like Woody Allen's films -- I cringe knowing that this or that theater is gone.  One must take what one can get.  And when you get a chance to see something special in a special, sacred place, you take it. and you take your kid with you.  

Friday, July 5, 2013

Film Friday: A Sequel and a Prequel!

Yes, with the kids off from school, it's movie time! On Tuesday, we saw the prequel Monsters University, and on Wednesday, we saw the sequel Despicable Me 2.  Both are fun films, with stuff the kids and the adults will enjoy, but if given a choice, I'd choose the sequel over the prequel. 

Monsters University tells the story of how James P. Sullivan and Mike Wizowski became partners, but it's really the story of Mike, explaining his desire to be a scarer at Monsters Inc as a childhood dream.  And therein lies the simplicity of the film's narrative.  Mike is inspired to work hard, hit the books, and get accepted to the scaring school of Monsters U., but no one -- including the dean of the school -- believes he is scary at all. 

Sully, meanwhile, has a natural gift for scaring, but he's too lazy to study any scare theory, and he doesn't pay attention to scenarios and kiddie files to learn what their fears are.  The top "jock frat" on campus, who wants him in their group (his family has a tradition of great scarers), pressure him to study more.

In many ways, things become very obvious.  Sully and Mike dislike each other, their fighting leads to an accident that gets them both kicked out of the scaring school  (and into the school designing scream containers, portrayed as a dull education program), and they have to learn to work together if they want to get back in. How? By joining a fraternity of misfits and winning the Scare Games competition and getting the dean to agree to readmit them if they win.

In an inspiring scene, Mike takes the group on an unauthorized field trip to Monsters Inc, and shows them that there is not one type of scarer; if they work hard both physically and intellectually (the classic montages of training show both) they can win the competition.   This is of course the movie's central theme: the Protestant Work Ethic!

I won't spoil the film's finish in this edition (I might update it in a month).  Suffice to say that such an ideological position is defeated by certain plot events related to the competition.   The film has some fun special effects, though I must confess to being unimpressed by the 3-D animation.  A few clever jokes for grownups are scattered about, but this is very much targeted at kids.  The first film has an engaging (though I suppose similarly predictable) story of a corporate culture and the dynamic between two worlds, and how Mike and Sully ultimately discover a radical truth that changes their world.   It's a film whose ideas are adult, even if they are personalized and made relatively easy for kids to comprehend.  This prequel keeps it pretty simple. 

Despicable Me 2 also has a less complicated story line, and let's face it, having already had his little orphan girls worm their way into his once-evil heart, Gru himself is not going to be quite as interesting as he once was.  But that is one aspect of the plot that's played up: his old friend Dr. Nefario leaves him because he's got an offer to do some evil work. (Gru has been preparing to sell jellies and jams and they have been working on new formulae, a deep step down from plotting to steal the moon!)

Gru is actually recruited by an anti-villain government agency to stop a mysterious terrorist who has stolen a formula to turn cute creatures like bunnies into indestructible monsters.  (I wonder if there's a message about steroids here!)  But Gru also has the personal issues to handle, as a single dad: the magic fairy princess fails to show up for little Agnes's birthday party; Gru's neighbor keeps trying to set him up on dates with her friends; and as the spy plot advances, oldest girl Margot gets wooed by the son of one of Gru's suspects.  Meanwhile, someone has been stealing the minions...

This film is a clever story about how one mixes a life of international intrigue with "ordinary" family life. (Kinda like The Sopranos, without the f-bombs and strip clubs.)  There's enough funny stuff for the grownups in this one, and scenes we all would find familiar as parents, single or not.  And a few clever allusions that go over the kids' heads too: a boy-band homage at the finale caused much convulsions in the theater, and I myself cracked up when seeing that one of the suspects, who operates a hair-replacement center, is named Floyd.  (Unfortunately, I must have been the only one in the theater old enough to get that reference.)  The 3-D effects are pretty fun, but again, I don't think all that big a deal; perhaps I'm getting used to them, since I'm usually choosing to watch the big-screen movies in 3-D?

And of course, who doesn't love the minions, who pretty much steal the show, though not the story?  Their antics are just hilarious and have to be seen to be enjoyed. 

Take the little kids to see the prequel; the older tikes (my kids are 10 and 13) will love the sequel.