How real is real?

September 28, 2012

Bart: … It’s just that everything’s going so fast. It’s all in such high gear, and sometimes it doesn’t feel like me. Does that make sense?
Laurie:  When do you think all this?
Nights. I wake up sometimes. It’s as if none of it really happened, as if nothing were real anymore.
Next time you wake up, Bart, look over at me lying there beside you. I’m yours, and I’m real.
Yes, but you’re the only thing that is, Laurie. The rest is a nightmare.

Those crazy kids from Gun Crazy (1949).

She only shoots people when she gets really scared, but I think she likes it more than she says.

Family Gig

June 10, 2012

Hawaii Five-O continues to surprise.  Every character actor who ever was appears on the show, and here we see James Hong, frequently cast, and Melody Patterson, wife of Danno!, engaging in some interesting low-life, trans-racial, sex play – not at all the norm for 1969 TV.  Besides the nice legs, she was interesting in this role as a girl who is pleased as can be to be in the thick of racketeering and money laundering.

(The Devil and Mr. Frog – Season 2).

Great Expectations Dashed

February 26, 2012

I read Great Expectations with great pleasure in junior high school, and in high school, I watched the David Lean adaptation of it – only the first part stayed with me.  I just finished the novel for the second or third time, and started to watch the film again, but lost interest after Pip goes to London.  The early part of the film does a wonderful job at representing the weirdness of Miss Havisham, the marsh country, the terror of the escaped convicts, the tortured soul of a simple boy.

Should we like Pip?  He berates himself for his ingratitude to Joe, his adopted father, and Biddy, the simple girl he could love.  He kicks himself for longing for the ice-queen, Estella.  He excoriates himself for his desire to climb socially, and for being ashamed of his humble origins.  I can’t fault him too much – he is too aware of his failings, and they are all portrayed in retrospect.  What can we say but that he was a young boy, immature, and sometimes thoughtless.  Would that we were all so wise about our limitations.

The book is called dark, and so it is.  Even the happier ending that was substituted for the original one is not all that happy:  there is a hope of emotional fulfillment for Pip and Estella, but it is melancholy too.  And the thunderbolt that falls on Pip when he returns home, his great expectations in ruins, hoping to turn over a new leaf and propose marriage to Biddy, completely destroys any prideful self-delusions he has left.

Lets say, at least, that Pip learns from his mistakes.

A Swell-Looking Babe

May 2, 2011

This vintage cover of Jim Thompson’s novel changes one of the striking details of the story – the babe had lustrous gray hair.  Was it real, or was it dyed to match the color of his mothers’?  That’s just one question that lingers after finishing this not-so-hot story by the great JT:   definitely my least favorite so far.

Dusty is an exceptionally handsome young man working as a bell hop in a high-class low-class hotel, and supporting his father, a broken man.  Of course, Dusty is twisted, and not surprisingly, he is twisted in an oedipal way too.  The babe, Marcia Hillis, seamlessly takes the place of his dead mother in his mind, the All Woman.

I found the plot too intricate and contrived for my taste, and the exact role of Marcia in the inevitable botched heist was not clear to me at the end.  The story seemed to move backwards, like the wonderful film, Memento, even as it moved forward.  The characters weren’t as thrillingly awful as in other Thompson novels, although Tug, the gangster, has a few good turns, and the lawyer, Kossmeyer, is a wonderful and original bit part player.

The most interesting thing about the novel was the point of view employed.  Unlike The Killer Inside Me and A Hell of a Woman, which have first-person narration by the main character, both of whom are mentally deranged, this one is told by an omniscient speaker.  (Incidentally, the first-person narration raises some problems at the end of A Hell of a Woman, similar to quandary in the film Sunset Boulevard, which is related by a man floating dead in a swimming pool.  And while we are at it, some suggest that the entire film Point Blank, is the imagining of the dying main character.)

This omniscient storyteller focuses mostly on the workings of Dusty’s mind, so we get most of the tale from his point of view, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that his version of events is not very reliable.  So, we have an all-knowing narrator who mostly gives us the thoughts of one character who thinks he has it all figured out, but who is actually pretty clueless.  It’s a nice trick.

The Town

March 21, 2011

Ben Affleck’s film, The Town, was hailed as his return to his talent, after many dismal productions.  I cannot quite understand why this movie has been rated so highly – it seems as if people are bending over backwards to give him a break.  In the positive reviews, one reads things such as:  “…this has all been done before,” “…solid action scenes,” “…a story with some real weaknesses, but the supporting cast is great..” etc.   I thought this film was so bad, I just have to weigh in:

The action scenes were just okay.  Frequently dull.  As for realism, don’t ask…The bad guys do everything just right, the cops always foul up.  The car chase through narrow streets in Boston was nice, but again, not believable at all.  (The Town looks pretty nice – not like a gritty, impoverished incubator for hoods.)  Nor is the fact that bystanders never seem to die in the hail of automatic gunfire let loose by the crooks.

The story was profoundly unbelievable.  Affleck plays a born-to-the-trade bank robber who just wants to lead a normal decent life.  He meets cute with a pretty bank manager and realizes what he’s been missing.  That first meeting was while he was wearing a mask, and being nice to her while she opens a safe at gunpoint.  “Just take your time,” he says.  What a gentleman!  We are supposed to believe that he then forms a romantic relationship with this woman – who doesn’t know his connection to the robbery (a bit of dramatic irony that rarely works) – magically submerging his years of acculturation in crime and just being a regular charming Joe.  I won’t go into the fact that as soon as he approached the woman he would have been caught because the not-dumb FBI would have staked out her house, since the crooks threatened to rape and kill her.

Oh, yes, there’s that other town, Stockholm, as in Stockholm Syndrome.  Even after the bank manager realizes who this man is, and with the clear memory of her colleague having his skull bashed in, she still, sigh…loves him.  He’s so nice.  So she tips him off that the FBI is waiting to get him at her place.  He knew that anyway so we don’t hold it against her that she was helping a murderous criminal escape.  Are we to believe that he left her all the money and started anew down in Florida?  I guess they’ll get together there.  And that she used the money to buy a hockey rink for the neighborhood kids?  “Uh, where did you say this charitable donation came from, Miss?..”  Yep, this guy is a real knight.  When she tells of being harassed by local thugs in The Projects, he just goes up and beats the pulp out of them.

It wasn’t all bad.  The local Irish Godfather was frighteningly cool, but he has little screen time.  The scene when the robber, his nutso-sadist sidekick, and the bank manager are brought together at a chi-chi café is a nicely done bit of suspense:  will she notice the tatoo on the back of the neck and end the entire charade?  And the scene in which Gem struggles to take a sip of coke before committing ‘suicide by cop’ was a nice touch, but that’s it for a film that dragged on for two hours.

Man found dead…

March 9, 2011

…shot in his basement, and then the house was set on fire to cover it. I knew this man: a very intelligent and humorous guy who shared my interest in philosophy. I had tried to become better friends with him years ago, but he had a lot going on. Last spoke to him four years or so ago. And this is where it was all headed? I feel as if I am inhabiting one of those books or films I am always reading and watching. I feel sick…

Land of the Free Redux

October 23, 2010

iStock_000002975766XSmall1Well, what do you know?  Sometimes a little bit of truth creeps into the pages of our respectable media!  Today’s  column by Charles Blow on arrest rates for marijuana use was an example of truth-by-the-numbers.  It brought to mind an old post of mine on the prison-industrial complex in America, prompted by the graph that is shown above.

Here are a few excerpts from the article:

Attorney General Eric Holder Jr.’s recent chest-thumping against the California ballot initiative that seeks to legalize marijuana underscores how the war on drugs in this country has become a war focused on marijuana, one being waged primarily against minorities and promoted, fueled and financed primarily by Democratic politicians.

According to a report released Friday … “In the last 20 years, California made 850,000 arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana, and half-a-million arrests in the last 10 years. The people arrested were disproportionately African-Americans and Latinos, overwhelmingly young people, especially men.”

For instance, the report says that the City of Los Angeles “arrested blacks for marijuana possession at seven times the rate of whites.”

This imbalance is not specific to California; it exists across the country.

One could justify this on some level if, in fact, young blacks and Hispanics were using marijuana more than young whites, but that isn’t the case. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, young white people consistently report higher marijuana use than blacks or Hispanics.

How can such a grotesquely race-biased pattern of arrests exist? Professor Levine paints a sordid picture: young police officers are funneled into low-income black and Hispanic neighborhoods where they are encouraged to aggressively stop and frisk young men. And if you look for something, you’ll find it. So they find some of these young people with small amounts of drugs. Then these young people are arrested. The officers will get experience processing arrests and will likely get to file overtime, he says, and the police chiefs will get a measure of productivity from their officers. The young men who were arrested are simply pawns.

…  No one knows all the repercussions of legalizing marijuana, but it is clear that criminalizing it has made it a life-ruining racial weapon. As Ms. Alexander told me, “Our failed war on drugs has done incalculable damage.”

Keep on truckin’

August 28, 2010

Jules Dassin’s Thieve’s Highway (1949) focuses on the produce market of San Francisco like a little slice out of Zola’s Belly of Paris.  Lee J. Cobb plays a thoroughly hateful crook, Mike Figlia, who likes to take greenhorn truckers, and anybody else, for all they’re worth, and he has no compunctions about applying some physical force to make a deal go his way.  Richard Conte, of unshowable ecstasy renown from The Big Combo is a war vet, Nick Garcos,  out to make a killing and revenge his father, crippled by Figlia, at the same time.  Although it has a happy ending, it is quite noir-ish in the way that you sense things are only going to get worse and worse for Nick practically from the start.  There are a few surprises when ethically marginal characters choose to turn towards the good, but plenty of them just keep on a bee-line straight to corruption and thievery.

After Nick clinches his deal, he calls his girl back home to tell her to come to San Francisco.  They’re going to be married!  The proposal is made over the phone, with appropriate choruses commenting on the action at both ends of the line.  She’s a bit of a middle-class gold digger, that is, he’s nice, but only nice enough if he’s got the bucks.

Polly comes to Frisco, only to find Nick in a floozy’s room, and all beaten up.  Here he licks her handkerchief so she can dab his wounds.  She’s so snobby and aloof, getting his tongue on her hanky is probably as close as Nick has gotten to Polly’s attractive charms.  It’s a weird shot, and it hints at a lot of unsaid things about their relationship.

Nick lost all his money to thugs hired by Figlia, but he’ll get it back.  Eventually, he corners Mike in a bar and uses some direct negotiation to recoup his stolen funds.  Mike is big, and he’s always got a crooked angle to distract the marks, but when it comes to direct confrontation, he’s a pushover.  As Nick moves in on him, he pulls wads of bills out of his pockets – money always seems soiled, crushed, and scattered in this film; never neatly folded – and puts them on the bar to get Nick to stop.  “Why don’t you take your money?” he screams, but Nick is taking a break from the cash economy, and is more interested in ethical retribution, a higher, or lower?, ambition.

The cops arrive and stop Nick from pulverizing Figlia.  They are there to take him away for what he did to Nick’s father, but it’s not clear why they suddenly have evidence to put him away.  Anyway, the forces of order are back in charge, and they admonish Nick:  Figlia’s a crook, but that doesn’t mean people like you can just go beating him up.  Leave Figlia to us! I guess society is basically okay if Figlia is going to get his just desserts.

Nick has grown up a bit, learned the facts of life.  The tart who was taking care of him – partly because Figlia paid her to get him out of the way while he stole his produce – helped save him by notifying the police.  Another public courtship ensues, but with a happy ending.  Not only has society reasserted its control of economic life, but Nick has rejected bourgeois striving conventionality as the rule for his personal life.  He goes off with the shady lady, Rica, the tart with the heart of gold.  A strange duality of messages.

Point Blank

January 8, 2009

Walking, walking, walking…his name is Walker.  His wife won’t know what hit her.   I fondly recall this pedestrian passageway from the Los Angeles airport. Another weird view in a mirror.

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Driving around sun-drenched LA.  Beauty waits for the Beast.  Another view in a glass.

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The scenes from the movie trailer I remember seeing in 1967.  Bam, bam, bam…who knew he was shooting at an empty bed?  His target flew the coop long ago.  He really messed up her bed, and not with rough sex.  Is Walker shooting with blanks, as they say?

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The obligatory after-passionate-sex scene when the couple usually takes langrous drags on cigarettes.  No smoke here, no fire.  Walker dangles his empty gun limply between his legs.

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They sucumb to reverie…how they met.  “You were drunk,” she says.  She wore white.  And who are those thugs shadowing them all the while.  They sure “met cute.”

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Yeah, but things didn’t turn out so great.  Life’s no picnic in southern California suburbia…

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Wife’s dead, a suicide with pills.  Now he gets with her sister.  Nice scenery in Santa Monica.  Will she help him, he asks as he uses the scope to sight the penthouse where his prey is living?  Is it an accident that they are the same color?  A woman and a telescope, just a means to an end…getting that $93,000 he’s owed. 

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They set up Walker to be shot by a sniper, but he’s too smart for them.  The bad guys get killed.  The wonderful L.A. River is the setting.  Thanks to the US Army Corps of Engineers for this splendid WPA Deco style set doubling as a public works flood control project.

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Waiting in the hillside villa for the big guy, Chris wonders, “Does this guy feel anything?”

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While he waits, a little TV.  Part of the weird and sardonic social satire this movie contains.

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Chris collapses after pummeling him, and leaves.  But not before she sets the kitchen buzzing with multiple appliances running riot just to annoy him.  The effect is of a poltergeist loose among consumer heaven.