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All Things Thriller

A Celebration of Thrillers, Noire and Black Comedy by Pamela Lowe Saldana

Jerry Lee Lewis, “the Killer” of Rock N Roll

It was just your average hot and sticky July evening in Nesbit, Mississippi. Nesbit’s usually pretty quiet–and it especially was back then, in 1981–though it’s only about twenty miles from Memphis. But of course nobody knows what goes on behind closed doors–average small town or big city, for that matter.

Behind closed doors at 1595 Malone Road, the Killer stumbled down the long hallway of his rambling ranch style home. He clutched his stomach and slid down a wall. Searing pain engulfed his abdomen. “K.K.!” he called to his then girlfriend. The Killer was lucky she heard him. His voice was little more than a harsh raspy whisper.

Mary Kathy Jones stopped dead in her tracks when she saw him. He was white as a sheet and coughing up blood.

Jones and long time road manager J.W. Whitten carried the Killer to his El Dorado Cadillac. Whitten floor boarded it all the way Methodist Hospital in Memphis while the Killer leaned against Jones, drifting in and out of consciousness, constantly moaning and thrashing. All three of them were in the front seat. Jones had wanted to call an ambulance but there was no time. Jerry Lee Lewis, one of the founding fathers of Rock and Roll, was dying from a ruptured stomach brought on by years of knocking back fistfuls of pills with countless shots of whiskey and, yes, even shooting dope into his gut.

Nine days later singer songwriter Kris Kristofferson sat at the bedside of his long time friend and mentor. Myra Brown Lewis, the Killer’s third wife and cousin–he married her when she thirteen years old, setting off international outrage while simultaneously (and temporarily, as it turned out) destroying his career–had called him in. The Killer was on a respirator but he was alert. His eyes were wide and blazingly intense. Kristofferson clasped Jerry Lee’s hand. “I’ve never seen someone so terrified,” the singer recalled. “That man willed himself to stay alive.”

The Killer had good reason to be afraid. He was deathly afraid of going to hell.

Jerry Lee Lewis was born in the small farming community of Ferriday, Louisiana to a good hearted, but hard-drinking, brawling father and a deeply religious–Assembly of God–mother. Inspired by the lively charismatic music of the Pentecostal church, Jerry Lee began playing the piano when he was five years old. His parents mortgaged their farm to buy him a used Stark upright.

Not much for school, Jerry Lee would rather slip away to Haney’s Big House, a juke joint frequented by African Americans where he would sit on the piano bench with famed blind bluesman Paul Whitehead.

 “Paul Whitehead done a lot. His lesson was worth a billion dollars to me…He taught me. I’d sit beside him, and say, ‘Mr. Paul, can you show me exactly how you do that?’ Mr. Paul was good to me.”

Mamie Lewis didn’t like her son listening to or playing the “devil’s music” so she sent him away to the Southwest Bible Institute of Waxahatchie, Texas with hopes that he would become a preacher. His sabbatical lasted all of three months. Jerry Lee got kicked out of the school for revving up a gospel song with R&B and country blues.

Back in Ferriday Jerry Lee’s mind was made up. Music was his calling, not gospel but the electric howling mashup of styles that he was on the cusp of. This was the music that drove teenagers to riot and their parents to despair. It was his music. He was a savant. A genius. His long fingers worked magic, flying up and down the keyboard with manic ferocity. There was nothing he couldn’t play. Hear it once and he could spin it, twist it, turn it inside out and make it his own.

On the Louisiana and Mississippi backroads Jerry Lee dove headlong into juke joints and night clubs where he passed the hat for dollars, honed his skills and developed his wildman stage antics. He grew his hair long on the top so that it flopped down into his eyes when he worked himself into a frenzy. He wore sports coats and slacks–and fancy shoes. He kicked over his bench, learned to hammer the keys with the heel of his foot and even set his piano on fire.

“I’m a stylist on songs. I do them my style, my way. And make them into whatever I want them to be. And that’s talent. Raw talent. It’s God-given talent.”

That talent took him to the mecca of the burgeoning rock and roll scene–Memphis Tennessee’s Sun Records and to producer Sam Philips. Philips had a stable of talented recording artists at Sun comprised of Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Milton, BB King and Elvis Presley among others.

Cowboy Jack Clement–a successful singer and prolific songwriter in Country music before his death in 2013–was a studio engineer at Sun back in the 50s. He was at the front desk when Jerry Lee strutted into the studio asking for an audition. Philips was out of the country at the time but Clement decided to hear the cocky singer and pianist anyway. He was impressed and recorded the audition.

When Philips returned he agreed to give the tape a listen. Clement turned up the volume and the speakers came alive with Jerry Lee’s improvised intro to Ray Price’s Crazy Arms. Clement remembered Philips eyes being closed–as was his custom when listening to prospective talent–suddenly opening wide. A thin smile creased the producer’s lips. Philips reached across the console and switched off the recording listening to less than thirty seconds of the audition.

“I can sale that,” he told Clements.

Sam Philips tried to warn him. He knew it was going to be a disaster. It was a no brainer. But the kid wouldn’t listen. Jerry Lee was determined to take Myra to England. Myra was Jerry Lee’s second cousin.

She was also his wife. His third wife.

In 1958, nowhere–not even in the U.S. of A.–was Rock and Roll a hotter commodity than in Great Britain. Teenagers there stood in long lines to buy, clamor for and even fight over American records with that distinctive turbulent beat. And no recording artist rocked harder, played faster or shrieked louder than Jerry Lee Lewis. Only Elvis Presley caused more pandemonium– and he got drafted in ’58.

With Elvis in the Army, Jerry Lee was at the top of the heap with his huge singles Whole Lot a Shakin’ Going On and Great Balls of Fire. His twenty-seven confirmed concert dates in England was the biggest tour of any Rock and Roll artist of the time. Naturally the first stop on the tour was London.

Paul Tanfield of London’s The Daily Mail was just one of the many reporters and fans that awaited the plane carrying Jerry Lee Lewis at Heathrow airport. As Lewis and his entourage exited the plane, Tanfield noticed the exceptionally young looking woman on Jerry Lee’s arm. “Who do we have here?” he asked.

The young woman spoke right up. “I’m Myra. Jerry’s wife.”

Intrigued, Tanfield asked the most logical follow up question. “How old are you, Myra?”

This time Jerry Lee answered. “She’s fifteen,” he blurted out.

He lied. She was thirteen.

Other reporters began to shout out questions. One asked if fifteen wasn’t a little young to be married.

Again Myra piped up. “Oh, no, not at all. Age doesn’t matter back home. You can marry at ten if you can find a husband.”

Suffice to say the tour didn’t go well. Jerry Lee performed all of three concert dates where he was heckled and booed. Bottles and rotting fruit were thrown onto the stage. “Cradle robber!” “Baby Snatcher!” “Pervert!” When he ran a sparkling silver comb through his long, wavy blond locks, a move that usually drove the girls wild and piqued the guys admiration, the crowd was repulsed. “Sissy!” “Poof!” “Nancy!”  

The rest of the tour was abruptly canceled. Reporters and jeering protesters camped out at The Westbury Hotel where Jerry Lee and his entourage had reservations. The Westbury management asked them to leave.

They did. Then they left England.

“Get on the @#@#$$# phone,” a drunk-out-of-his-mind Jerry Lee hollered at Harold Lloyd who was on guard duty. “Call up there and tell Elvis I wanna visit with him. Who the hell does he think he is? Tell him the Killer’s here to see him.” 

Unbeknownst to Jerry Lee, Elvis was watching on his security monitor. “He crashed his car into the gates,” Lloyd said over the phone to his boss who also happened to be his cousin. “He’s waving a gun around.”

“Call the cops,” Elvis said.

When the cops got there Jerry Lee put up a fight. He swung, kicked and yelled, calling them all sorts names. They managed to get the cuffs on him. “What do you want us to do with him?”

“Lock him up,” Elvis said.

It was three o’clock in the morning, November 23, 1976. Eight months later Elvis Presley was dead of heart failure at age forty-two.

Two months before his arrest outside of Graceland, on September 29th, Jerry Lee had been celebrating his forty-first birthday with his bassist Butch Owens. He was drinking heavily and fooling around with his .357 Magnum.

“Look down the barrel of this. I’m gonna shoot that Coca-Cola bottle over there or my name ain’t Jerry Lee Lewis,” he boasted to Owens.

Then he fired. Twice.

The bullets plowed into Butch Owens chest. In shock, the bassist stumbled into the living room where Jerry Lee’s forth wife, Jaren Gunn Pate, was watching TV. The chest wound was pumping blood all over the place. Jaren screamed at him for bleeding on the carpet. It was brand new. And white.

Then on June, 8th, 1982 Jaren Gunn Pate was found at the bottom of her friend’s pool, mysteriously drown only weeks before divorce proceedings were to be finalized. It was an especially contentious divorce. Jaren and her attorneys were intent on taking Jerry Lee to the cleaners.

Your Plaintiff would further show that the Defendant has an extremely violent temper, especially when he becomes intoxicated on alcohol and/or drugs, and he has choked your Plaintiff on numerous occasions, has beaten her up, knocked her down the stairs, and threatened her very life.

Your Plaintiff would further show that approximately one (1) month ago when your Plaintiff called the Defendant for financial assistance for herself and the parties’ minor child, Defendant went into a rage and stated that she should not worry about any support because “you are not going to be around very long anyway, and if you don’t get off my back and leave me alone, you will end up in the bottom of the lake at the farm with chains on you.”

The following year, almost to the day of Jaren’s death, Jerry Lee married again. This time to a twenty-five year old beauty from Dearborn Michigan named Shawn Michelle Stephens. Shawn was a feisty young woman who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind to Jerry Lee or anyone else. Her friends and family described her as kind and loyal. The marriage lasted seventy-seven days.

On August 24, 1983 paramedics were called to 1595 Malone Road, not entirely unusual; they knew the address well. In one of the home’s bedrooms they found Shawn Michelle unresponsive under heavy blankets. There was blood in the web of her hand and bruises on her forearm. She was dead.

Lottie Jackson, Jerry Lee’s housekeeper of many years, knocked on Jerry Lee’s bedroom door. When he came into the room where Shawn lay, the paramedics noticed there were flecks of blood on his robe and deep scratches across his hand.

Shawn Michelle Stephens death was ruled a suicide by methadone overdose.

Jerry Lee began seeing Shawn Michele Stephens on the side in February of 1981. He was still married to Jaren Gunn Pate, but they had lived apart for years. He complained to Shawn about Jaren constantly. He told her he wanted to marry her as soon as he got Jaren out of the way.

Jerry Lee flew Shawn down to Nesbit Mississippi. Before long Shawn’s sister Shelly, their brother Thomas and friend Dave Lipke joined her at the Malone Road address.

Jerry Lee was consuming copious amounts of cocaine and amphetamines. At one point he stayed up for twelve days straight. Naturally he was paranoid. He thought Shelly had brought Dave down for Shawn to mess around with. And incredibly he still had the urge. Big time. He wanted Shawn and Shelly to participate in a threesome with him.

Shawn refused. She and her friends high tailed it out of Mississippi.

Though Shawn never thought too much of Jerry Lee, she was rather fond of his money. A few months went by and she called him. She told Shelly that the phone call didn’t go so well. Jerry Lee was pissed. He sounded like he was sick. That he was complaining about his stomach. A few weeks later he was in Memphis Methodist hospital with a ruptured stomach and a less than fifty percent chance of survival.

But Jerry Lee did survive. He promised the Lord that this time he would do better. That this time he really meant it.

It has been said that Jerry Lee Lewis earned his nickname the Killer with his onstage bravado and knock ’em dead piano style. It has also been said that “killer” is a term of camaraderie that boys from Northern Louisiana used back in the days of Jerry Lee’s youth. That he got the nickname from calling his friends and acquaintances “killer”.

In October, 2014 GQ reporter Chris Heath asked then seventy-eight year-old Jerry Lee if he thought the name suited him.

“I don’t know. Really don’t know. I couldn’t answer that. I’m scared to say yes and I’m scared to say no,” he said.

Shelly Stephens recalled Jerry Lee’s version of where the nickname came from. He and her sister were newly married and already having trouble. Jerry Lee didn’t like Shawn’s family hanging around. He wanted Shawn all to himself.

“You scared of me?” he once asked Shelly. “You should be. Why do you think they call me the Killer?”

Two months later Shawn Michelle Stephens was dead. She was the Killer’s fifth wife.

The Best Jerry Lee Lewis Albums

***** Live at the Star Club, Hamburg (with the Nashville Teens), Phillips (1964)

***** All Killer, No Filler, Rhino (1993)

***** Another Place Another Time, Smash (1968)

***** Jerry Lee Lewis’ Original Golden Hits Vol. 1 & 2, Sun (1969)

***** Jerry Lee Lewis’ Original Golden Hits Vol. 3, Sun (1971)

***** Jerry Lewis’ Ole Tyme Country Music, Sun (1970)

***** Killer Country, Elektra (1980)

 

 

 

Night Moves, a film directed by Arthur Penn, June, 1975 (the same year and month that Jaws came out); Mystery/Film Noir

The year was 1975, I was ten years old and my Mom and my cousin Charlotte were taking me to see Jaws. This was huge for me. Jaws was all the rage.

Everywhere you went you heard about Jaws, saw posters and T-shirts of Jaws. The commercials. The music. “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Quint getting chewed in half and blood spurting out of his mouth. It was wonderful.

And nowhere was Jaws a bigger phenomenon then at school. It was like Christmas. Our teachers were constantly having to settle us down, threatening us with, “…If I hear another word about Jaws everybody’s staying after school.”

So on that pivotal, transformative day we had to first drop my brother off at my aunt and uncle’s because he was too young to see Jaws. I wanted to wait in the station wagon because I was on pins and needles–I could barely contain my excitement– but my mother would hear nothing of it.

“No. We’re going in and have some coffee and cake with you aunt and uncle. Then we’ll go to the movie.”

It was at the table while we were eating cherries jubilee over sponge cake that my uncle suddenly raised his fork in the air and lobed a grenade my way. I remember it like it was yesterday. “I don’t think you should take Pam to see Jaws. It’s too violent,” he declared.

Well that’s when my world blew apart, right then and there. (My mother valued my uncle’s opinion. He was an elder of the church.) It wasn’t the first time it blew apart. There had been bad things that had happened like my parents getting divorced and my Mom undergoing a very rare and serious surgery from which she narrowly survived. So, yes, I had experienced worse things–but not too many.

Thank goodness my mother over ruled my uncle. (She had a habit of doing that. He didn’t pay any of our bills.) “Your probably right. She probably shouldn’t see it, but I’ve already told her she could. I think she can handle it.”

That was that. I got to go. And it was terrifying. And traumatic. I was afraid to take a bath or go swimming for months afterward…And I loved it. It gave me lots of street cred at school. (We went to a private Christian school so street cred was extremely rare and those that had it–no matter how fleeting–were held in high esteem.) It’s one of my most treasured memories.

My Mom was a warrior. God bless her.

Jaws premiered June 20, 1975. The director, Steven Spielberg, was a shaggy headed twenty-six year old, who had made a name for himself within the Hollywood film community by calming the notoriously difficult diva Joan Crawford when he directed her in an episode of Night Gallery. Then he directed the critically acclaimed television movie Duel and the well received full length feature film The Sugarland Express.

These endeavors earned him the right to direct Jaws after producers had second thoughts about director Dick Richards (Farewell My Lovely). Jaws was an unprecedented cinematic phenomena, breaking all previous box office records and propelling Steven Spielberg into upper most hemisphere of hallowed film directors where he resides to this day.

Nine days before Jaws opened another film by veteran and one time famed director Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, The Miracle Worker, Little Big Man) debuted. A smart neo noir in which the ocean, coincidentally, played a pivotal role, it starred one of the eras most prolific leading men.

Gene Hackman was on a roll having won the academy award for best actor four years before for his performance as Popeye Doyle in The French Connection and being nominated for the same award in 1974 for his role in The Conversation. In Night Moves, he re-teamed with Penn having played Buck Barrow in the director’s groundbreaking Bonnie and Clyde. But with everyone’s attention on a great white shark chewing up the scenery–and practically everything else–nobody noticed.

The opening musical theme of Night Moves alerts you right away that something is amiss. It begins with a gentle, yet ominous musical progression on the xylophone. The keys are struck ever so lightly so that the run is pleasant but cold with anharmonic suspended overtones.

The music accompanies Harry Moseby, (Gene Hackman) a Los Angeles private detective and ex pro football player, who likes to play solo chess on stakeouts in his vintage Mustang. Harry thinks of himself as a rugged Renaissance man. He’s not adverse to a nice glass of wine and fondue while lying bed but that begs the question: is it really smart to play chess on a stakeout? Might one miss something?

It is ever so easy to miss something in Night Moves. The plot is very complicated. And it all begins with a missing persons case. (Yeah I know. Who would’a thunk it?)

Harry gets called to aging sweater girl Arlene Grastner’s house. Her sixteen year old daughter has run off. She’s a real sleazebucket–the mother, that is. Her biggest assets are her pendulous breasts and–unfortunately for us–she lets them fly, unencumbered, in true 70s style.

The girl’s name is Delly and she is the recipient of a trust fund from her late father. Her slut of a mother won’t see a dime of the money if they don’t reside together, so mommie dearest hires Harry to track her down.

The trail leads Harry all the way to the Florida Keys where he finds Delly (Melanie Griffith) hiding out with Tom Iverson (John Crawford) one of her mother’s ex husbands and his fiance Paula (Jennifer Warrens). Harry finds out that Delly has been passed around by a group of stuntmen and show biz hangers-on all of whom have had trysts with Arlene. Tom Iverson is no different in this regard. He carries on a sexual relationship with Delly right under his fiance Paula’s nose. And she doesn’t care.

Harry, who is in his own unhappy marriage, has eyes for Paula. Before long they bed down in a pathetic one night stand in which there has never been a more obvious patsy besides Lee Harvey Oswald. Disgusted with what his investigation has turned up and with himself (when Paula rejects him the next day) Harry decides that Delly–who he has become protective of–would be better off with her mother. He also wants to give his marriage a second shot so he talks Delly into going back home.

Back in Los Angeles Harry reunites with his wife and things seem to be on the upswing when he hears that Delly–who had run away again–has been killed in a movie stunt. Devastated and demoralized, he can’t let her death go. Sensing something is wrong about the accident he begins to circle back through the scummy world of Delly and her mother’s Hollywood Lotharios and sugardaddies. This nasty bathtub ring encircles a familiar group of stunt drivers, mechanics and pilots and an amorous couple who live on an otherwise uninhabited island off the southern Florida coast.

Meanwhile poor Harry keeps going around and around and around. So many things have escaped his notice. And now he’s back at square one. I guess that’s what happens when you play solo chess on a stakeout.

 

 

 

The Battler, a “Nick Adams” short story by Ernest Hemingway; Abridgment and Analysis

Abridgment:

Nick Adams is a recurrent character and alter-ego in and of Ernest Hemingway’s famed short story serials chronicling the author’s coming of age in northern and upper peninsula Michigan. In The Battler, (1925) Nick has hopped a freight train, mainly, for fun and, supposedly, to make his way to and from some isolated villages doting the region.

He is caught and thrown off the train by the brakeman. During the scuffling and fall, Nick suffers a banged up knee and a black eye. He limps several miles down the tracks and spies a fire. Scrambling down the embankment he makes his way through the forest  following the inviting glow. It is getting dark and the air is crisp.

In a clearing there is a small man in a wool hunter’s cap standing in front of the fire. Nick announces himself and walks into the camp. They exchange hellos and Nick is taken aback by the man’s flattened nose, crooked mouth; his eyes narrowed by edema and sunken into blotchy lumps. Nick tries to play off his surprise but the man is sensitive to the reaction.

“Don’t you like my pan?” the man asked.
Nick was embarrassed.
“Sure,” he said.
“Look here!” the man took off his cap.
He had only one ear. It was thickened and tight against the side of his head. Where the other ear
should have been there was a stump.
“Ever see one like that?”
“No,” said Nick. It made him a little sick.
“I could take it,” the man said. “Don’t you think I could take it, kid?”
“You bet!”
“They all bust their hands on me,” the little man said. “They couldn’t hurt me.”

It turns out that the man is washed up boxer who at one time was quite famous. His name is Adolf Francis, “call me Ad,” he says. Ad prods Nick about whether or not he recognizes his name. Nick acts like he does, but he’s never heard the name before and Ad senses it.

Although Ad is friendly enough there are undertones in their exchanges that make Nick uncomfortable. Then Ad confides that he is mentally ill. He comes right out and says so.

“Listen,” the little man said. “I’m not quite right.”
“What’s the matter?”
“I’m crazy.”
He put on his cap. Nick felt like laughing.
“You’re all right,” he said.
“No, I’m not. I’m crazy. Listen, you ever been crazy?”
“No,” Nick said. “How does it get you?”
“I don’t know,” Ad said. “When you got it you don’t know about it…”

Nick is relieved when an African American man enters the campsite. His name is Bugs and he has brought ham and eggs for dinner. Unlike the small squat boxer, Bugs is a tall man. He is soothing and polite; his voice, gentle and soft.

Bugs puts Nick at ease while at the same time taking command of the situation. He is the leader. The caretaker. He calls Nick Mr. Adams and Ad Mr. Francis.

Ad and Bugs invite Nick to eat dinner with them. Nick is ravished and readily accepts. Bugs begins to cook up the meal. But things turn sour when Bugs asks Nick to slice the bread. Ad spies Nick’s knife and asks to handle it. Bugs tells Nick to keep hold of his knife. This offends Ad, but he is not mad at Bugs. He takes out his frustration and embarrassment on Nick.

“Who the hell do you think you are? You’re a snotty bastard. You come in here where nobody asks you and eat a man’s food and when he asks to borrow a knife you get snotty.”
He glared at Nick, his face was white and his eyes almost out of sight under the cap.

Nick stepped back. The little man came toward him slowly, stepping flat-footed forward, his left foot stepping forward, his right dragging up to it.
“Hit me,” he moved his head. “Try and hit me.”
“I don’t want to hit you.”
“You won’t get out of it that way. You’re going to take a beating, see? Come on and lead at me.”
“Cut it out,” Nick said.
“All right, then, you bastard.”

Unbeknownst to Ad, Bugs has stepped behind him wielding a blackjack–a small hand held bludgeon made of a lead weight and a leather strap. He strikes Ad in the head with it and the little man falls to the ground, out cold.

As Bugs tenderly cares for Ad, placing a folded jacket under his head and then bathing his face, he assures Nick that little man will be okay. He hates to have to resort to such harshness but sometimes that’s the only recourse when Ad gets out of control.

Then he goes on to tell Nick Ad’s story: Yes, Ad was a great boxer at one time; a handsome man who made a lot of money with his fists. He was extremely strong for his size and stubborn–he took too many beatings. It messed up his mind. Then, on top of that, his beloved wife and manager, who looked so much like Ad that she could have been his sister (in fact there were those who thought she was his sister) up and left him. All of this was too much for Ad to bear and he went off the deep end.

Bugs makes Nick a ham and egg sandwich and then asks him to leave the campsite.

“I can wake him up any time now, Mister Adams. If you don’t mind I wish you’d sort of pull out. I don’t like to not be hospitable, but it might disturb him back again to see you. I hate to have to thump him and it’s the only thing to do when he gets started. I have to sort of keep him away from people. You don’t mind, do you, Mister Adams?”

Nick walked away from the fire across the clearing to the railway tracks. Out of the range of the fire he listened. The low soft voice of the negro was talking. Nick could not hear the words. Then he heard the little man say, “I got an awful headache, Bugs.”
“You’ll feel better. Mister Francis,” the negro’s voice soothed. “Just you drink a cup of this hot coffee.”

Analysis:

The backdrop of The Battler is 1920’s America. Rugged individualism as a recognized philosophy had not been manifested but would be soon ratified by Herbert Hoover on the eve of an economic melt down known as The Great Depression. Yet, Hoover did not invent this concept, he merely put it into words: the individual is completely self reliant and therefore independent of any governmental assistance and or interference.

Ad and Bugs are the inconvenient residue of this uniquely American philosophy and way of life. Ad is mentally ill and disabled. Today we recognize his condition as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). It is prevalent in athletes that participate in sports such as football, soccer, boxing and hockey and those in the military who endure repeated blows to the head. People suffering from CTE have a myriad of neurological symptoms including poor impulse control, marked impulsivity, aggression, depression and paranoia.

Bugs is an African American making his way above the Mason-Dixon line (the demarcation between Northern and Southern United States.) On the surface things are significantly better for Blacks like Bugs who are not ensnared in the Jim Crow South. But their reality is actually quite similar to their down South brethren.

Racial violence sporadically erupts into deadly riots in cities like Chicago, Saint Louis, Baltimore and Tulsa as an illiterate white underclass competes with black laborers migrating from the oppression of the former Confederate states. Even in the best circumstances African Americans are marginalized, scapegoated and victimized. Above all they are expected to be subservient to whites.

Hemingway explores these mores in The Battler. It is written from Nick Adams’ perspective. Nick displays typical male teenage bravado when he grapples with himself after being kicked off the freight train. He curses the brakeman and vows vengeance on him. But when he meets Ad, he immediately defers to the little man and tries to placate him with agreeableness.

Nick is relieved when Bugs comes on the scene and though he is very cooperative deferential, his inner voice displays his prejudice. When he hears Bugs shout out hello and sees the big man moving in the shadows he thinks to himself only a “negro” sounds and moves like that.

Moreover as he observes the interaction between Ad and Bugs, Nick sometimes refers to Bugs within his inner voice with a racial slur, though he has no overt animosity to the man. This is especially evident when Bugs must take the upper hand with Ad. These are the attitudes and belief systems about white privilege and black subservience prevalent in 1920’s America, above and below the physical and overt line of racial demarcation into the psychological response of an ordinary young man who owes a black man, perhaps, his very life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Making the case for the film 8mm in our Orwellian Landscape and for Nicolas Cage as an Actor, past and future

For me watching the movie 8mm is kind of like eating gas station nachos. (Okay. I’m sure you know exactly where I’m going here, but if you’ve read a few of my blogs then you also know I can’t resist this stuff. So…) I actually like gas station nachos. I don’t live on them by any means but, yeah, every now and then I get the urge for some florescent orange goopy cheese and super vinegary canned  jalapeno peppers over stale tortilla rounds. What can I say? Call me crazy. What I don’t like is admitting to it. It’s a little embarrassing. And sad.

Likewise, nowadays, it’s a little embarrassing to admit to liking a Nicolas Cage movie. I know I don’t have to expound on this, any discerning cinema lover has been dismayed, chagrined or amused–sometimes all three at the same time–by Cage’s performances and the movies he has chosen to perform in over the last decade. Here’s a bit of a rundown just to belabor the point: (Refer to the rather lengthy aside in the introductory paragraph here.) Ghost Rider. The Wicker Man. National Treasure. Left Behind. 

And yes, I’ve seen it. Hasn’t Everybody? (I’m referring the YouTube film clip mashup entitled Nicolas Cage Losing his Shit.) “NOT THE BEES!!! THEY’RE IN MY EYES!! MY EYES!! AAAHHH!!!” (Ha ha ha!…Whew!…Hilarious…And sad.)

There’s just one problem with my whole analogy though: I’m not embarrassed about liking 8mm. Nope. Not in the least. In fact, I think 8mm is a good–albeit it significantly flawed–film that has gotten a bad rap. But even more than that, I think it is a culturally significant film, especially in our current environment.

Yep. You read that right.

And Nicolas Cage? Well, he’s always been weird. Even back in the day when he was a hot commodity in Moonstruck, Raising Arizona, Leaving Las Vegas and Adaption–all of which he was great in, by the way–he was weird. Back then people called him quirky and adorable.

He even won an Oscar being weird. Remember that? And then he was nominated for another one being even weirder.

That said, there’s a difference between being weird, i.e., quirky and adorable and going off the rails, i.e., The Wicker Man. Of late the Nicolas Cage train has derailed and is in perpetual crash and burn. No doubt.

Still, that shouldn’t diminish his prior quality contributions to acting and cinema. I think not. Like so many of us, personally and professionally, Nicolas Cage is a mixed bag.

Plus his most recent film, the yet to be released Panos Cosmatos directed Mandy, is supposed to be superb. There is talk that this is the film to resurrect Nicolas Cage’s career. I, for one, am rooting for him.

Now here’s my case for 8mm:

Tom Wells (Nicolas Cage) is a family man. His wife, Amy, (Catherine Keener) is smart, lovely and loyal. His six months’ old daughter, Cindy, is adorable. Tom works in the yard and helps Amy with the baby when he’s not traveling around the country as a surveillance expert/private investigator. He’s good at what he does, dutiful and discreet. His clientele is high profile.

One day Tom is summoned to a sprawling steel magnate’s estate in Cleveland. The magnate is recently deceased and his widow, Mrs. Christian, has made a disturbing discovery in her late husband’s safe–an 8mm film that depicts the brutal murder of a teenage girl. But is it real?

Tom watches the film privately. It’s a grainy low budget affair set in a squalid room encased with plastic sheeting. Sure enough there is a teenage girl–not an actress pretending to be a teenage girl–and if she’s pretending to be terrified, she’s doing a damn good job. She is not screaming. No. Her face is composed in abject resignation to her fate. A burly man dressed in S&M bondage gear whose face is sheathed in one of those terrifying leather masks menaces her with a knife.

Here we become the apex voyeur–we simultaneously watch the film and Tom, while he watches the film. We see no thrusting knife, no spurting, splattering blood but we see Tom as he see’s those things. We watch him cringe impotently in his seat, grimacing, recoiling; a big man shrinking in every sense of the word. Similarly there are no ear shattering screams but we do hear the girl’s anguished cries—and whir of the film running through the projector. It is a powerful, gut wrenching cinematic sequence. Not just the visual, visceral aspect of it but what it says about us and our place in an increasingly voyeuristic, surveillance, camera crazy society.

Keep in mind that Joel Schumacher directed 8mm in 1999. When Tom is asked why he chose surveillance instead of law like his brothers did, he answers that he chose it because he believes it’s the future. How eerily prophetic that proves to be eighteen years later.

In our current society, it is appallingly easy to witness murder. All you have to do is hop on YouTube or Live Leaks where you can watch hours of actual murder caught on camera if you so desire. We are constantly surveilling; constantly filming;  constantly watching. But at what cost?

Tom plunges himself into a horrific, wretched underworld in order to defend the teenage girl in the film. He senses the film is most likely real. It is. That the girl is dead. She is. But still his outrage, his humanity demands that he risk everything–even his own family–to find out who she is–was, to resurrect her existence, defend her identity and protect her personhood. He does. But the cost is almost more than he bear.

The cost is what he sees. And what he will never be able to forget.

 

 

 

 

Indian Camp, a “Nick Adams” short story by Ernest Hemingway; Abridgment and Analysis

Like Hemingway’s own father, Nick Adams’ father is a physician. This is just one of the many similarities between the recurrent fictional character Adams and Hemingway himself.

There are so many parallels, in fact, that Nick Adams acts as Hemingway’s alter-ego in a series of short stories that Hemingway penned between 1924 and 1933, roughly. The series, beginning with Indian Camp, is a fascinating glimpse into the psyche, upbringing and young adulthood of one of America’s most storied and influential authors.

Abridgment:

In Indian Camp, (1924) Dr. Adams is summoned to an isolated Native American settlement–most likely Ojibwe–in Michigan to attend a woman who has been in labor for two days. Dr. Adams takes his young son, Nick, and his brother, Uncle George with him. Two Ojibwe men from the settlement row the doctor, Uncle George and Nick across the lake bay.

It is predawn. Little is said on the boat ride. Nothing between the Native Americans and Anglo threesome. As they near the bank, Uncle George gives the Native American men some cigars.

They make the trek to the settlement and, along the way, are met by a pack of dogs. The Native Americans yell and scold, sending the curs scurrying toward the settlement. Finally they approach a row of shanties and are alerted to one by a light in the window and an elderly woman standing with a lamp outside the door.

Inside is a young woman in obvious labor and agony, writhing and screaming under a heavy quilt on a rough hewn lower bunk;  her husband, badly wounded from a mishap with an ax, lies in the bunk above her. Dr. Adams examines her and determines that it is a breech birth and it will require a cesarean which he will perform with a hunting knife and catgut sutures. He carefully washes his hands and sterilizes the primitive instruments.

Young Nick holds a basin of steaming water while his father operates. He looks away from the spectacle, staring over his shoulder. “Can’t you give her anything, daddy?” he asks, disturbed by the woman’s screams and struggling.

“No. I haven’t any anesthetic,” his father said. “But her screams are not important. I don’t hear them because they are not important.” The husband in the upper bunk rolled over against the wall.

During the operation three Native American men and Uncle George hold the woman down. She bites Uncle George on the arm. “Damn squaw bitch,” he yells. One of Ojibwe men laughs.

The operation goes well enough, though afterwards the young woman is white as a ghost and so weak that she is delirious. Still, Dr. Adams is especially pleased with himself. The baby is in good shape.

He was feeling exalted and talkative as football players are in the dressing room after a game. “That’s one for the medical journal, George,’ he said. “Doing a cesarean with a jack-knife and sewing it up with nine-foot, tapered gut leaders.”

The good doctor’s exuberance is diminished when he decides to check on the husband in the upper bunk.

“Ought to have a look at the proud father. They’re usually the worst sufferers in these little affairs,” the doctor said. “I must say he took it all pretty quietly.”

The man is dead. It’s suicide in the most awful way: he has cut his own neck from ear to ear with a straight razor.

Dr. Adams orders Uncle George to take Nick out of the shanty, but it’s of little use. Nick has seen everything.

Unceremoniously Dr. Adams and Nick walk back down the logging trail towards the lake. Uncle George has disappeared. Dr. Adams apologizes to his son for bringing him along, saying that the trip turned out to be a terrible mess with the suicide.

Nick asks about the woman.

‘”Do ladies always have such a hard time having babies?'” 
Nick asked.

“No, that was very, very exceptional.'”

“Why did he kill himself, Daddy?”

“I don’t know, Nick. He couldn’t stand things, I guess.”

”Do many men kill themselves, Daddy?”

”Not very many, Nick.”

”Do many women?”

“Hardly ever.”

Nick and his father board the boat alone and row themselves across the bay. With the sun on the rise and the fish jumping Nick feels relieved and content. He is confident that he will never die.

Analysis:

Ernest Hemingway’s famed economical prose is at its most sparse in Indian Camp. It is told simply and straightforwardly from young Nick’s point of view.

While we do not know Nick’s exact age there are clues that he is very young. Perhaps seven or eight years old since he is ostensibly old enough to accompany his father but young enough to still call him daddy; he reclines against his father on the boat ride to the settlement. Dr. Adams tells his son that they are going to help and “Indian” woman who is very sick.

That there is no conversation between the Ojibwe men and Nick, his father and Uncle George is telling. This is an arrangement of necessity. There are entrenched boundaries that will not be crossed. The alliance is strained and transient. The Anglos have the upper hand from years of delving out and befitting from institutional racism, oppression and forced subjugation.

The Ojibwe have waited until they have exhausted all of their means of delivering the child. The old woman waiting outside the shanty signifies this. She and the other mature women of the settlement have been tending to the laboring woman for two days. They have given up in order to save the mother. This action represents Native Americans finally relinquishing their land and freedom to the interloping Anglos and the Native peoples retreating to squalid reservations in order to preserve their lives and a fraction of their heritage.

Dr. Adams represents 20th century WASP male entitlement and privilege. He has little regard for the Native American woman. There is no sensitivity for her modesty, he barges into her home with his son and brother and has them observe and assist him without her or her husband’s consent. He has no sympathy for her suffering. He does not bring anesthetic, though he may not have access to it; he does not comfort her in anyway. He is purely clinical with her in his manner. He never speaks to her.

Although Dr. Adams undoubtedly knows that the woman has been in labor for days, which is reason for him to suspect a breech birth, he does not bring  surgical instruments. He wants to test his skills on her. Can he pull off surgery on this woman in a primitive setting and with ordinary layman’s tools?  She is a mere guinea pig to him. He admits as much when he tells his son that he is immune to the woman’s screams because they mean nothing to him. Upon hearing this the husband turns away from the scene and faces the wall where he will commit suicide stealthily.

Later when Dr. Adams and Nick walk back to the boat, Nick first asks about the woman. He feels guilty–he is thinking of his mother and what she must have gone through laboring with him. His father assures him that this was an extraordinary case. But even here he has signaled to his son that a woman’s birthing travails are of little consequence when he decides to check on the woman’s husband, saying that men usually suffer more “in these little affairs.”

When Nick asks why the husband killed himself, the doctor intimates to his son that he couldn’t stand his wife’s suffering. But that is only partly true. The doctor’s disrespect of his wife and their home is more than the man can take. It is the tip–albeit a huge one–of the iceberg of an entire peoples suffering at the insolent, arrogant hands of American Anglo Saxons in general. It is the final indignation, one that he cannot abide.

Once Nick and his father are in the boat and rowing across the lake bay, Nick is calmed and reassured by the distance between himself and the Ojibwe settlement. He is back within his cocoon of WASP male privilege. He feels that nothing, not even death, can touch him there, but the ramifications of what he has seen loom in the recesses of his mind.

Ten Underseen or Forgotten Films That Every Movie Buff Should Watch at Least Once

Obviously I love to write about cinema. In fact there are few things I enjoy more. I can expound all day long on the intricate artistry of The Godfather, (yes, I prefer the original) Bad Lands, Blow Out and Night of the Hunter. I can go on ad nauseam about There Will Be Blood, The Third Man and Strangers on a Train. But, really, what self respecting movie buff can’t?

The following are ten really good movies, that most people–movie buff or not–haven’t seen. They are small films, mostly independent, made without extravagant budgets and A-list star power, that still manage to enthrall, provoke and entertain impressively. Two are masterpieces.

10. A Blast of Silence (1961) directed by Allen Baron – Existentialist film noir; an emotionally destitute hitman (Allen Baron) from Cleveland makes a business trip to the Big Apple at Christmas  and gets a life altering hankering for human connection. Ultra realistic depiction of depravity and soullessness against a non glam NYC backdrop. Fantastic opening sequence and voice over from veteran character actor Lionel Stander. A precursor to Taxi Driver.

9. Bad Company (1971); directed by Robert Benton – Revisionist Western; in the vein of McCabe & Mrs. Miller and The Unforgiven, humorous deconstruction in a story of  two shiftless young men (Jeff Bridges, Barry Brown) dodging the Union Army draft and each other’s treachery during the Civil War. Witty screenplay and stunning cinematography complement a great follow up to then newcomer Jeff Bridges Oscar nominated performance in The Last Picture Show.

8. Blue Ruin (2013); directed by Jeremy Saulnier – Thriller/Crime Drama; bloody revenge yarn about a drifter, living out of his broken down car, who exacts vengeance on behalf of his murdered parents while seeking self respect. Winner of the International Film Critics Award of the Cannes Film Festival 2013, made on a shoestring budget with a no name cast (except for Eve Plumb of The Brady Bunch). Director Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room) is one to watch.

7. Cold In July (2014); directed by Jim Mickle – Thriller; a mashup of genres and influential films culminating in a story of intrigue, sex trafficking, serial murder, the Dixie Mafia, regret and retribution. Starring Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard and Don Johnson. Convoluted, action packed, thought provoking and far-fetched–a flawed but sparkling gem.

6. No Way to Treat a Lady (1968); directed by Jack Smight – Black Comedy/Thriller; a tour-de-force performance by Academy Award winning actor Rod Steiger playing a serial killer who is bitten by the theater bug while suffering from a bad case of mommie issues. Skillful mining of familiar tropes and good acting all around, (George Siegel, Lee Remick) but it is Steiger that elevates this to a must see.

5. Runaway Train (1985); directed by Andrei Konchalovsky – Thriller/Action; an ambitious, masterfully directed film with fantastic special effects and stunt work and especially, outstanding editing on a modest budget of $9 million. Jon Voight and Eric Roberts (both nominated for an Academy Award, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor respectively) star as escaped convicts on a train, sans a conductor, headed for a suicidal curve and a nearby chemical plant. Rebecca De Mornay co-stars as an apprentice engineer hurtling toward death with two murderous men and no access to the engine room. Riveting.

4. Transsiberian (2008); directed by Brad Anderson – Thriller; yet another “train movie”. This one’s about a straight laced, American couple on the Trans-Siberian Railway who befriend  another couple–friendly, but there’s something a little off about them– who are transporting a collection of  rare dolls. The funny thing is the straight laced couple keeps seeing high quality (identical, really) knockoffs of the dolls in souvenir shops. Starring Woody Harrelson, Emily Mortimer, Kate Mara and Ben Kinglsley. A Taunt, yet intricately plotted, movie that keeps you guessing.

3. Mystery Road (2013); directed by Ivan Sen – Contemporary Western/Crime Drama; Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson) an Aborigines detective in the Australian Outback investigates the murder of a teenage indigenous girl amidst corruption and not so subtle racism. Quiet. Atmospheric. Seamless. And then all hell breaks loose. Director Ivan Sen wrote the screenplay, the musical score and acted as editor and cinematographer. It is a gorgeously shot film. A landmark feat of filmmaking. Aaron Pederson–charismatic, handsome and gifted–should be an international star.

2. The Proposition (2005); directed by John Hillcoat – Revisionist Western; Australian film about a marauding band of bushwhackers and rapists, The Burns Brothers Gang, who terrorize the outback. Guy Pierce stars as Charlie Burns, commissioned by the military Marshal of the territory (Ray Winstone) to track down and kill his older brother and leader of the gang, Arthur, (Danny Houston) whereupon simpleminded younger brother Mickey–who is facing the gallows–will be released. Brutal, barren and unforgettably oppressive, John Hillcoat’s film is also steeped in truth and is eerily beautiful. With the screenplay and music written by the fabulous Nick Cave and famed French cinematographer Benoit Delhomme behind the camera, The Proposition is a little known masterpiece.

1. One False Move (1992); directed by Carl Franklin – Thriller/Southern Gothic; before Sling Blade there was One False Move. Billy Bob Thornton cut his teeth on the screenplay along with Tom Epperson and co-stared. Veteran television character actor and director Carl Franklin was tagged for the project with an estimated budget of two million dollars. Accustomed to directing sitcom episodes, commercials and shorts, the shoestring budget actually gave Franklin some unfamiliar wiggle room–and boy, did he make the most of it. Rarely do I describe a film as perfect. One False Move is one of those wonderfully odd exceptions.

The story is a relatively simple one: Three ruthless drug dealers/killers (Billy Bob Thornton, Cynda Williams and Michael Beach) are on a cross country crime spree, or so it would seem. But perusing detectives get wind that the female member, Fantasia, (Cynda Williams) has a son in a spot in the road town of Star Arkansas. They alert the hick town sheriff Dale “Hurricane” Dixon (Bill Paxton), who is excited about the prospect of rubbing shoulders with big city policemen and tracking down the two male killers. But when Fantasia is caught on surveillance tape killing a Texas Ranger, a skeptical Dale is confronted with the evidence and things get complicated. Dale knows Fantasia and her family. He likes them. They’ve gotten a raw deal in life to which Dale is all too aware.

One False Move is an absolute piece of cinematic art and superb storytelling at every level. They hardly ever make them like this. Now. Then. Or ever.

 

 

 

Cabaret, a film directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse, 1972; Musical

I am a product of many components if you will. Some good. Some bad. The juxtaposition of that good and bad depends on who you talk to. But one thing I am not is a blasphemer. I do not take the Lord’s name in vain. I just don’t. Won’t.

So when I ask, Dear God, how could they do it? Or, more precisely, God how could they allow it to happen? I’m literally asking God how could the Wiemar Republic (pre Nazi Germany, 1919-1933) and, yes, especially, the German people allow the Nazis to overrun their country?

It’s a question that has been asked thousands upon thousands of times over the eighty-five years since it happened. Many–dare I say–hundreds and hundreds of books have been written on the subject. I’ve read a few myself. But, for me, the closest I’ve come to understanding how it happened is by watching Bob Fosse’s landmark 1972 musical drama Cabaret.

The film setting is 1931 Germany. The Nazis–Hitler’s fiercely devoted sycophant, Ernst Rohm’s, Brownshirts, especially–are making the big push. They are everywhere in German society, little pockets of them. They bully. They harass. They beat and kick and stab and vandalize. They rail against the press and torment homosexuals. And, of course, tragically, they have an especially purulent, cancerous hated for Jews. As a consequence of their vile behavior, most Germans have nothing but contempt for them. They snicker at the Nazis–behind their backs, of course.

Burlesque performer Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) thrives in this environment. Don’t misunderstand, she’s definitely not a Nazi. In fact she is very upfront with her sexual debauchery, something that early Nazism supposedly frowned upon. She makes a living from it day in and day out at the Kit Kat Klub where she, along side the master of ceremonies (Joel Grey), is the featured attraction.

Now the rub against Liza Minnelli has always gone something like this: She’s a try hard performer. She pours out her heart and wears it on her sleeve in a shameless display of love me…Love Me…Please! I’m begging you! LOVE ME!! 

To this criticism I say simply say..

Yes. It’s true. Liza Minnelli tried hard. Exceptionally hard. She worked her ass off. She cared. She gave the people their money’s worth. When she was onstage, she owned it. No matter how garish or stark the background, how magnificent the props and lighting or how instep the other dancers–all eyes were on her.

And, yes, she wanted to be loved. All the great one’s do. That’s why they do it. Show business is an industry of narcissism. At least Liza Minnelli gave as much as she took–that’s the distinction that made her special. She was a great singer. No doubt. But there have been better. She was an amazing dancer. Undeniably. But, even here, there have been better. Goodness knows that there have been better actors, that’s not even up for debate. No one, though, has ever been a better performer because no one has wanted it more.

That’s a noble thing. That takes guts. That’s what made Liza Minnelli and Sally Bowles one.

Let’s take a look at Sally:

She is striking, but not pretty. She knows this and isn’t entirely comfortable with it–she wants to be beautiful–so she plays the exotic to the hilt. Green sparkling fingernails. Flamboyant costumes in the club and outside of it too. Her hair is severe. Cut short over her ears with wisps that curl toward her face. She has a window’s peak chopped into her bangs. Her eyes are big and black–expressive–made even bigger and blacker with lots of mascara. Everything is big with Sally. Big laughs. Big gestures. Big tears.

Onstage she is all raunch and debauchery. No nudity, but tantalizingly close at times, her act drips with prurient fetish, greed, corruption and all manner of excess. That and talent. Oh, yes. She is talented. But does she know it? Is she desperately trying to convince herself? It would seem so.

Now let’s look at her partner in the onstage debauchery, Joel Grey as the master of ceremonies:

He is demonic. Truly, there is no better word for him. Thin, precise, he is in full blown white pancake makeup with a little red cupid’s bow of a mouth painted on just so and rouge rounds on his cheeks. His hair is immaculately plastered to his head, parted down the middle. His costumes are crisp and clean. His teeth are yellow.

Provocative. Suggestive of all manner of averice. He is unquestionably male with flourishes of vile, festering femininity. He is MC, stage manager and narrator in song and dance. He cracks the whip. If hell has a burlesque club, the Kit Kat Klub is it, and the master of ceremonies is the proprietor.

The master of ceremonies does not exist outside the Kit Kat Klub, but Sally does. She lives in a boarding house. There she befriends Brian (Michael York), her bi-sexual British next door neighbor.

Brian is repressed and decent and smart. He is working on his doctorate and is teaching English on the side. He finds relief in Sally’s free spirit although he is sometimes troubled by her irresponsibility. When she comes onto him like gangbusters he gently rebuffs her. He finds her quite seductive he assures, but he’s never had much luck with women–literally getting lucky with only three in his entire life of twenty-eight years. She accepts this and shows him around town, and, of course, she takes him to the Kit Kat Klub. Gradually, tenderly, they fall in love.

Onstage Sally proclaims her love in the uncharacteristically hopeful and beautiful song Maybe This Time. She is radiant and at peak form. Unabashed sincerity transforms her into the magnificent performer she longs to be. But the audience response is ho hum. They don’t want hope. And they damn sure don’t want Sally Bowles to be happy. Neither does the orchestra, the dancers and especially the master of ceremonies.

Sally and Brian become involved with Maximillian Von Heaune (Helmut Griem) in a collusion of sex and soul killing indifference. Like his impressive name implies, Max is aristocracy. He buys whatever his taste and predilections will allow. He buys Sally outright when she proudly displays herself on the auction block. He seduces Brian.

It’s not that Max isn’t fond of Sally and Brian, he is. But they have entered into a contract with him. There are many, many strings attached and only Max possesses the means to cut those strings, because only Max has the will–and the money.

When Brian confronts Max with the violence of the Brownshirts, he merely shrugs his shoulders. They’re are just expendable thugs he says. The Wiemar Republic will use them to control the Communist (who Max is more afraid of because they pose a greater threat, superficially anyway, to his opulent quality of life). He is unconcerned because his money insulates him. But does it really?

Of course Sally and Brian are expendable too. When he tires of them he leaves, dropping off a letter of affection and some money; a rather pitiful amount really, considering what Sally and Brian have squandered, but at least it’s something.

In Bob Fosse’s brilliant masterpiece, Cabaret, all four major characters represent segments within the Wiemar German society. It is one big, fat metaphor of a movie, if you will.

The Sally Bowels character represents the typical German citizenry. They are not Nazis. But they are scarily self-absorbed with the issues of the day. And, yes, they were burdened: Unemployment. A loathsome and dire Depression. The crippling ramifications of the failed Versailles Treaty. The populace were, understandably, desperate for distraction. And distracted they were. They hardly noticed when six million of their fellow citizens were starved, tortured and annihilated. That is what they said.

We didn’t know!!!

Brian represents the German intelligentsia. He should know better and he does, but instead he intertwines himself with Sally and Max. He should be the brakes of the relationship, just as the German press should have thwarted the rise of Nazism, or a least rang the hell out of the warning bell, but he is seduced into complacency and normalcy.

Max’s metaphor is an obvious one. He represents the aristocracy who are only concerned with their wealth and position of power. They rub shoulders with the common folk (Sally), and the intellectuals (Brian) and the Nazis when it suits them. Otherwise they are aloof and insulated by their money and the comforts it can buy.

But what about the most vile, repugnant and evil character of all, the master of ceremonies? Who does he represent? The SS, perhaps? Could it be Hitler?

No.

The master of ceremonies represents Fosse’s beloved community of artists. This contemptible monstrosity is: The actor. The dancer. The poet. The sculptor. The painter. The film director.

Fosse derides his community unmercifully. He holds them responsible. He makes no excuses for them. His moral indignation, his humanity, vomits all over them.

There is one other community that Bob Fosse thinks so little of that he doesn’t even include in his scathing commentary. Did he simply overlook them? Did he find their contribution to the demise of the moral compass of German society insignificant? I wonder even as, and because, first and foremost, I count myself one of this community. I ask the question that Fosse didn’t bother to.

Dear God, where were the Christians?  

 

 

 

 

Killing Eve, a television series, Season one, 2018; BBC America; Espionage/Crime Drama

I admit I’m little behind the times with pop culture. I’m pretty busy. I have two daughters and a business to run. And then there’s the gym and stuff. (Okay. My daughters are twenty-six and twenty and my husband and I operate our business out of our home. He does most of the work. But still there’s the gym…And stuff…)

Anyway, I’m sure most of you who love crime based entertainment like I do already know about BBC America’s great new series Killing Eve. As for me, I just found out about it yesterday and though I’ve only watched the first two episodes, I’m enthralled.

That’s pretty unusual. The last television series I was enthralled by was Fargo Season 2. Before that, there was Fargo Season 1 and True Detective Season 1 or whatever it was. You know, the one with Mathew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. (I’ve yet to run into the person who says “You know, the one with Vince Vaughn and Colin Farrell.” Now that would be something.)

(Oh yeah, I love Life in Pieces too but it’s about as thriller related as…a Dorthy Parker short story.)

So here’s the dealio: Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) is an underutilized M15 agent. She’s a desk jockey, but that doesn’t mean she’s not smart. She is. Really, really smart. She’s also polarized by bookoo red tape and gobs of facts that must be sifted through and stored. And then there’s the heavy handed, brow beating male bureaucracy that she has to wrestle. You get the idea.

Eve is happily married to a really cute guy named Niko. They’re an adorable couple. Compatible sense of humor. Sexy banter. He doesn’t get mad when she promises him sex and then reneges.

Everything considered, Eve’s just a cool lady, i.e., gets along with her colleagues and her nice but semi curmudgeonly, bureaucratic boss begrudgingly respects her and will go to bat for her too. But that doesn’t mean she’s happy with her work. No sir. She is not.

Then on the other hand you have her nemesis Villanelle played by Jodi Comer. (Check out the name “VILLAN-elle”. Clever huh.) She loves her work. Well, I’m being a little too loose with my emphasis here. Allow me to clarify: She loves her work as much as a psychopath can love anything. She’s a Russian assassin. And she’s pretty cool too (ice cold to be exact) aside from being totally evil. (She smiles grotesquely when she’s in the act of murder.)

Villanelle is a fascinating character if you are interested in psychopathy. She is a chameleon of emotion but she feels very little. Instead she studies peoples reactions and then mocks and or duplicates them so as to appear normal. And, of course, she’s very good looking and exceptionally fit. Her skin is so porcelain and perfect that it looks almost like a mask. (Jodie Comer’s fantastic by the way. Watch out for her. You’ll definitely be seeing more of her.)

Eve, within her limited M15 scope and expertise, connects the dots of many, many murders across the globe. Now she and Villanelle are on a collision course, though Eve doesn’t have a name to fit with the face. Villanelle, however, knows who Eve is. She’s amused and intrigued by her. There’s definitely the makings of a girl crush going on here.

So, anyway, recently I watched the movie Revenge that’s getting a lot of buzz. I wasn’t that impressed. I found it more depressing than invigorating or empowering though it is touted as a feminist revenge motif and, ostensibly, that should appeal to me, at least on a base visceral level.

Killing Eve does for me what Revenge was supposed to do. It appeals to my feminist leanings, yes, but without requiring me to take a bath in every single man on the planet’s blood. It’s provocative and fun. And Sandra Oh is oh so good. (Forgive me, I just couldn’t help it. I was inspired by Villanelle.) Her portrayal is empathetically relatable and real. I’m all in.

If you’re not watching, you should be.

Frailty, a film directed by Bill Paxton, 2002; Thriller

It takes a certain kind of faith to watch a movie. For the duration of, let’s say, an hour and thirty minutes or so we are asked to suspend skepticism and buy into an artistic vision. It is a contract, if you will, between us and the director and whether or not we keep that contract is a testament to his or her skill as storyteller.

Sometimes we have to break the contract, because the director is asking more of us than we are willing to give. For instance his or her vision might be too unbelievable, an insult to our intelligence, as it were, or there may be too many inconsistencies that we just can’t get past; the themes too abstract or too literal, too much gravitas or not enough.

Sometimes the movie just isn’t our cup of tea. And sometimes the movie just isn’t good. Either way, it comes down to a matter of perspective.

Irrespective of all that, I find it fitting that the late Bill Paxton, a prolific practitioner and disciple of the cinematic art form acting in over fifty films that spanned a forty year career, would explore faith as a motif in Frailty, his 2002 directorial debut. Why? Well, although I don’t know his opinion on religious matters, he always came across as a sincere and decent man in an industry that is typically disinterested in those values.

And while he certainly profited from his profession–his estate is valued at over forty million dollars–he was never an A list leading man, though his performances–One False Move and A Simple Plan come to mind–were always solid, often stellar and more diverse than he was credited. His reputation, he claimed, was a result of misconception and came at the expense of his artistry–“I get kind of tired of reading that,” he said of his nice guy image and everyman persona, “I’ve played a lot of people.” Yet, whether he liked it or not, some of his best work came from his portrayals of men that were similar to himself–masculine stalwarts of humility and grace.

In Frailty, Bill Paxton stays within the perimeters of his wheelhouse with a character referred to simply as Dad or as Mr. Meiks. The single parent of two boys–Fenton (Matthew O’Leary) is about twelve, his younger brother Adam (Jeremy Sumpter) is around seven or eight–Mr. Meiks works long hard hours as a mechanic and then heads straight home to a simple life of church on Sundays, prayers before supper and good natured rough housing in front of the television set.

He is a religious man but not fanatically so, there is no illusion of perfection or inappropriate propriety. He doesn’t cuss but he will have a drink and a smoke. His boys are well fed, have clean clothes and good manners. They live in a modest house behind a rose garden that is their small Texas city’s flagship attraction. It is late 70s Americana. Life is good.

Then one day, Mr. Meiks has an epiphany. He is under a car (a Mercury Cougar, actually, I’d say about a ’68 or a ’69) and the canopy of nuts and bolts, pipes and metal suddenly dissolves into a heavenly apparition. A fiery angel appears with a christening sword.

At home he describes the events of the day to his sons, if not matter-of-factly, then earnestly, and relates the reason for the visionary visit: There are demons, disguised as humans, living among us who are responsible for all the vilest acts in society. They are the child predators, the rapists and murders. The Lord has chose them–Mr. Meiks and his sons–to be the dispensers of justice. They must annihilate the demons precisely–first rendering them unconscious with a steel pipe, abducting them, and then dispatching them in a shed on their property with an axe engraved with the moniker OTIS.

Adam–the more gullible, less guileful of the two–is rapt with a sense of purpose and a little afraid. Fenton is mortified. Nevertheless he loves his dad. He hopes, at best, that it’s all a bad dream, he’ll wake up and it’ll go away; at worst, that his dad is suffering from temporary insanity, he’ll wake up and it’ll go away.

It doesn’t.

The day of reckoning mercifully doesn’t come immediately but unmercifully, for Fenton anyway, it does come finally when Mr. Meiks loads up an old cargo van with the weapons of destruction and his two sons, dispatching them to a parking lot. There they stakeout an even older immaculately preserved vehicle awaiting the owner-operator to return. Fenton clings to hope that somehow, someway–perhaps the hand of God will reach down and halt his dad–the plan will go awry.

It doesn’t.

The owner of the vintage car, an older man with a sweater vest, a paunch and a comb over, finally makes an appearance. He looks like he would be at home behind the counter of a trinket store. He is tricked by Fenton (forced to comply by his father, of course) who pretends he is looking for a misbehaving puppy under the man’s car. When the old guy bends down to help, Meiks whacks him in the head with the pipe.

Back at the family shed, Meiks confronts the man while Fenton cringes and cowers in the corner. Meanwhile Meiks recoils in near convulsions every time he has to touch the man. “Did you see it boys?” he asks all wild eyed. “Did you see the vision when I touched him?”

A terrified Fenton doesn’t see anything other than his father menacing a bludgeoned, gagged and duck-taped old man. But an impressionable Adam does see, or claims he does anyway. “I saw it Dad,” he says resolutely. “I saw what he did.” With that, and much righteous indignation, Meiks goes to work on the man with OTIS.

And, of course, this is only the beginning. Mr. Meiks has a little spiral notepad, the kind men used to keep in their shirt pockets and women kept in their purses. In it is a list of names. Meiks tells Fenton and Adam that this is a list of demons who are hiding behind the names and in the skin of ordinary looking people.

Fenton is horrified by what he sees. It’s a pretty long list.

Like the actor himself, Frailty is an underrated gem. Paxton uses a deft hand bridging the related but still distinct genres of mystery, thriller, suspense and horror with Gothic highlights and tinges of noir so that the end production is strangely beautiful, in the vein of the lush Gothic horror classic Night of the Hunter. In lesser hands, Brent Hanley’s terrific script could have become just another grindhouse mashup.

But perhaps more than anything else Frailty owes its verve and vitality to its director’s rightfully deserved reputation as an all around good guy, though he would be chagrined to consider it. Who else could have assembled a veteran cast with fellow Texans Matthew McConaughey and Powers Boothe and a virtuoso crew featuring famed cinematographer Bill Butler (The Conversation, Jaws, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) on a budget of a mere eleven million dollars?

In Hollywood it goes without saying, often times things aren’t quite what they seem. Bill Paxton was different; what you saw was what you got and that was a good thing. The same could be said of his film Frailty, but in the present tense, of course, with this caveat: Sometimes the truth is simply what the truth is…And the fastest way to get there is in a straight line.

The Nice Guys, a film directed by Shane Black, 2016; Black Comedy/Farce

Warning: The following content is a virtual ticking time bomb of literary devices. It is especially loaded with ellipses and asides. (Just so you know)

When I was a kid my brother and I would visit our dad in El Paso for about six weeks every summer. I usually looked forward to this because my dad was very permissive (we got to do all kinds of stuff like hike the Franklin Mountains without parental supervision and sunscreen) and my mom wasn’t, i.e., we had a babysitter until I was twelve and I had to take naps until I was eleven.

We stayed in a lot of hotels with my dad, and he was gone most of the day so we’d have run of the place. It was fun. We’d go swimming and check out the spa and eat in the restaurant and roam the grounds and we watched a lot of TV too, just like at home, only we had cable so I watched a lot of movies I wouldn’t have otherwise. One of those movies was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

Now that movie made a big impression on me because it was all slapstick and farcical and silly and then all of the sudden, I mean out of nowhere, there would be a horror sequence with Dracula or Frankenstein or this evil, seductive female surgeon that wants to transplant Costello’s brain into the skull of Frankenstein. See what I mean? Fiendish.

So fast forward about forty years…I’m watching The Nice Guys and I realize that Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is the template for this movie! And Wow! I’m lovin’ it! (Exclamation points because I really don’t care too much for Abbott and Costello; too vaudevillian.) It’s the best comedy I’ve seen in a long, long time! (Plus it’s got Ryan Gosling in it and I like him. He’s a very nice looking young man. And he’s a really good actor.)

Anyway, back to The nice Guys

Here’s what I mean about the Abbott and Costello comparison: The movie starts off with a gorgeous sweeping night time panorama of  Los Angeles and then the camera swoops down onto a very ordinary, middle class house and focuses on this cute little white mutt in the backyard that wants to be let in. The dog is kind of forlorn and antsy, like they get before a really bad storm’s about to hit. A kid in button up pajamas–he’s about twelve–opens the back door and obliges the mutt.

We follow the kid down the hallway of the house where he slips into his parents bedroom–they’re asleep–and crawls halfway under the bed where he snatches one of his dad’s porno magazines. (It’s the 70s. Porno was in magazines back then and only men/boys looked at it. Ahhh…the good ole’ days.)

Then–quiet as a mouse, mind you–the kid sneaks out the bedroom, shuts the door and skips back down the hall to the kitchen. He pours a glass of milk and leans against the counter next to a big picture window. As he’s leafing through the magazine ogling the centerfold, we catch a glimpse through the window of a car that runs off the road. It careens down a hill heading straight for the house. Horrifically, it crashes into it–plows right through it even–and plummets down a ravine, averting the kid and his dog by a mouse whisker.

And the driver? She’s the porn magazine centerfold. Yes, the very one the boy was ogling only forty-seven seconds before. She’s dead as a dormouse now. ( I know. I know. It’s dead as a doornail but I’m going with this mouse thing as an extended metaphor, so…)

The whole movie is like that. It’s a lighthearted, slapstick, physical comedy of errors and hijinks and then–Bang! Boom! Pow!–out of nowhere, sudden, bloody violence hijacks it D.B. Cooper style and we are charmed.

Ryan Gosling plays Holland March, a goofy, disenchanted private investigator whose wife was killed in an accident that was his fault. He has a freakishly bad sense of smell and, hence, was unable to detect gas fumes which resulted in their house blowing up. He also lacks follow through so he didn’t investigate when she complained about the smell.

Holland has a wise beyond her years but still idealistic thirteen-year-old daughter, Holly, (a terrific Angourie Rice) who saves him from being a complete failure and utter alcoholic. She is a classic case of the child parenting the parent, an unfortunate phenomenon not exclusive to the 1970’s but one that flourished in them none-the-less.

Then there’s Jackson Healy (Russel Crowe) who’s also a private investigator…Umm…Well, not really… He’s more like a leg-breaker for hire, but he’s no monosyllabic Neanderthal. In fact Healy’s actually quite smart–but he’s going to seed and he knows it. When he happens onto Holland’s operation he’s intrigued with the possibility, but his own brand of integrity and a fondness for Holly keeps his ambition in check. (He does break Holland’s arm though.) The three of them team up to investigate a convoluted conspiracy involving–get thisporn stars, the Department of Justice, the EPA and catalytic converters. (Oh well, three out of four ain’t bad.)

These tropes prove fertile ground for writer/director Shane Black who penned the scripts for Lethal Weapon and Lethal Weapon 2, The Last Boy Scout, The Last Action Hero and The Long Kiss Goodbye. He obviously likes his action/buddy films.

But similarities aside, The Nice Guys has a very different vibe than those movies. It is much more like the appallingly underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) which he also wrote and directed.

Like the traditional buddy team cliches that Black is a prominent architect of, Holland and Healy are mismatched arch-types with their own version of rouge charm. What differentiates them and the director/writer Black from the screenwriter Black is his characters refreshing, invigorating sense of humility, humanity and vulnerability…That and a rather strong, unexpected dose of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

 

 

 

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