To Protect Us from Ourselves

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When the AIDS epidemic began in the late 1970s, contracting the virus was a virtual death sentence. No one had a cure. In fact, at first, there wasn't even a diagnosis. People just weakened and wasted away until they died, usually of pneumonia. I don't know anyone who didn't know someone who died from the mysterious illness during the 1980s.

Once it was diagnosed, finding a cure became a top priority, and pharmaceutical researchers who had promising results in lab experiments were fast-tracked to human trials in an effort to out-pace the death toll. But people were dying faster than the cure could be found. Moreover, only half the people participating in the tests were given the medications that might cure them; the other half were given a placebo, and even their doctors did not know who was getting the real thing. The FDA controlled the game, and while they were fast-tracking the research, they weren't fast enough for the patients who were dying at alarming rates, and alarmingly fast.

Meanwhile, researchers in other countries were working just as hard to find a cure. AIDS sufferers desperate for medicine went abroad for treatment. Many treatments consisted of high doses of vitamin and mineral supplements that would boost the compromised immune system, giving the body the strength to fight the virus. These supplements and medications were not illegal, but they were not approved either. Consequently, individuals could use them, but they could not sell them. To circumvent this technicality, "buyers clubs" were born. By purchasing a monthly membership, people could have all the supplements they needed for free. The FDA didn't like these buyers clubs, but they couldn't stop them unless the specific supplements were declared illegal to use. Buyers clubs flourished around the country as thousands of terminally ill patients lined up for treatment.

He shouts at his doctor, "Screw the FDA! I'm going to be DOA!" Then he drives to Mexico to find his own treatment.

Dallas Buyers Club tells the story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), an electrical engineer and rodeo rider who contracted the AIDS virus in 1985. Given just 30 days to live, he begs to get into the clinical trials or to buy AZT, the only drug that was showing any promise. When he can't get into the clinical trials or buy the drug outright, he shouts at his doctor (Jennifer Garner), "Screw the FDA! I'm going to be DOA!" Then he drives to Mexico to find his own treatment from Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), an American who has lost his license to practice medicine in the US. The Dallas Buyers Club is born, and Woodroof lives another seven years, along with hundreds of other survivors who purchase memberships from him. The film documents his fight with the FDA as he struggles to keep his supplements from being actively banned instead of simply "not approved."

Ron Woodroof is about as unlikely a hero as you will ever find in a film. A disgusting man with disgusting habits, he's a foul-mouthed, homophobic, alcoholic, coke-snorting, porn-viewing womanizer without an ounce of the milk of human kindness. Both F words — “fuckin'” and “faggot” — regularly spew from his mouth. "Fifty bucks?" he says incredulously to a desperate young man who has come to join the buyers club. Then he strides to the door of his motel-room-turned-"club"-office and shouts to the men lined up in the parking lot, "Membership is four hundred bucks. You got that? Four hundred bucks. I'm not running no goddam charity!" He turns to the frightened young man: "Don't you come back here till you got $350 more." He's in it for the money. Saving lives is just a byproduct.

Ron learns what prejudice feels like when his friends turn against him. They call him "faggot" because they assume that's how he acquired the disease, yet they avoid him because they are afraid of catching it by standing too close. In anger Woodroof spits at them, knowing that his body fluids have become a deadly weapon. Early research demonstrated that AIDS mostly occurred among the "4H" group: homosexuals, heroin users, Haitians, and hemophiliacs. I remember the dark joke that used to circulate in the 80s: "What's the worst thing about getting AIDS? Convincing your parents that you're Haitian." But it was also a danger among promiscuous heterosexuals who engaged in indiscriminate, unprotected sex. And that was the way Ron Woodroof lived his life. He practically shouts "Hallelujah" when a woman who is HIV-positive joins the Buyers Club, because now he can have sex again without worrying about transmitting the disease.

The film portrays the FDA as the bad guys, in cahoots with the pharmaceutical companies and preventing sick people from getting the treatment they want and need. Like most libertarians, I am convinced that the FDA does as much harm in delaying the approval of effective treatments or approving the use of harmful treatments as it does good in its stated purpose of protecting the public. Dr. Vass tells Woodroof that the high dose of AZT used in the FDA-approved trials was toxic, poisoning the body along with the virus. Woodroof gets better when he stops taking his black-market AZT and starts taking Vass' supplements (as well as experimental Interferon he eventually buys in Japan).

However, I have to suggest that the patients involved in the clinical trials bear some of the blame for the skewed results of the early tests of AZT. Many of them were sharing or selling their meds in order to help friends who were also infected but could not get into the trials. For example, Rayon (Jared Leto) a transvestite whom Ron reluctantly befriends in the hospital, is selling half his AZT to his partner, who also has AIDS. This would have skewed Rayon's results. When Rayon got better, researchers naturally assumed that the dosage they prescribed was correct, when actually he was taking half as much as they thought he was taking. Future patients would be prescribed more than they needed, and they would not get better. These trials were flawed, because the patients were not being honest.

Of course, the whole system was flawed because the market was not allowed to operate in the open. As one almost-wise judge says in the movie, "Someone who is terminally ill ought to be allowed to take whatever he wants. But that is not the law." I would go one step further: we are all terminal. We are all going to die. We ought to be able to decide what we put into our bodies, as long as we accept the consequences of our actions — which includes getting sick and having to pay for treatment from our own pockets or the private insurance we pay for (which might not be available to us if our willful actions have caused the problem.) We don't need government watchdogs. Private organizations such as Consumer Reports, the Better Business Bureau, PCGS (Professional Coin Grading Service), and even Good Housekeeping, with its Seal of Approval, work just fine, thank you very much. But if someone agrees to participate in a clinical trial, whether publicly or privately funded, that person is obligated to be honest and diligent in maintaining the integrity of the tests.

We are all terminal. We are all going to die. We ought to be able to decide what we put into our bodies, as long as we accept the consequences of our actions.

Matthew McConaughey lost 38 pounds for this role, and he looks terrible. His cheeks are sunken, his eyes dull, his skin sallow. Other actors have undergone massive weight loss for particular roles; Christian Bale and Tom Hanks come immediately to mind, as well as Jared Leto, who lost 30 pounds for his role as Rayon in this film. But McConaughey does not seem to be bouncing back from this extreme weight loss as well as others have. In more recent roles this year his skin still looks sallow, and his eyes still have that dark, almost vacant brightness. While I admire his dedication to his craft, and I'm not surprised that so many critics are predicting Oscar nominations for McConaughey and Leto, I hope that this fine actor has not inflicted permanent damage on his liver or other organs in order to make this film, especially because it is not a great film. It's an important topic, but the movie drags in places, and I caught myself looking at my watch several times.

Moreover, it is borderline pornographic, from the opening scene when Woodroof is having a threesome at a rodeo and continuing through his voyeuristic visits to strip clubs, to the porn adorning his walls, to additional threesomes — or maybe it was foursomes; I had to stop looking — even after he finds out he has AIDS. I realize that director Jean-Marc Vallee was developing Woodroof's seedy character with these scenes, but I think the audience could have gotten the point without the scenes being so graphic. As a result, this important movie with its strong libertarian theme is making the rounds of the art houses instead of the major theaters, where it could (and should) have been seen by hundreds of thousands more viewers, viewers whose minds might have been changed about the FDA and other government agencies created to "protect us from ourselves." These scenes might not bother you, but I will be recommending that my friends read the article written by Bill Minutaglio for the Dallas Morning News on which this story is based. Here is a link: http://www.buyersclubdallas.com/.


Editor's Note: Review of "Dallas Buyers Club," directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Voltage Pictures, 2013, 117 minutes.



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A Slave Narrative, and More

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12 Years a Slave is one of those must-see films that you’re glad you’ve seen, even though you can’t say you enjoyed it. It simply isn’t that kind of film. Like Schindler’s List (1993), it’s an important film historically, but it’s difficult to watch, as characters are torn from their families, forced to work at hard labor, and savagely whipped — backs torn open, bleeding profusely. In one agonizingly slow scene a man hangs by the neck for what appears to be several hours as others go about their business in the background. His toes are barely able to reach the mud beneath his feet and he shuffles awkwardly as he struggles to keep his neck above choking. The scene is unbearably long and utterly silent except for the soft buzzing of insects and the mutter of unconcerned conversation in the background as he slowly dances in a circle.

Yet, for all that, this is an exquisitely beautiful film. The camera work by Sean Bobbitt often focuses tightly on unexpected closeups — the backlit hands of a store clerk wrapping a package, or a caterpillar munching on a sunlit leaf. These artistic touches are typical of Steve McQueen’s directorial style, and they provide a vivid contrast to the dark theme of slavery in this film.

In 1841, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a cultured, educated free black man living with his wife Anne (Kelsey Scott) and their two children in Sarasota, New York, when he was drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery by treacherous men masquerading as his friends. Bewildered and frightened, he is whipped into submission and then sold from farm to farm into increasingly harsher conditions. He quickly learns to hide his literacy and his background as a freeman in order to survive, as it is impossible for him to contact friends and family in the north, and masters feel suspicious of and threatened by slaves who can read and write.

This film chronicles the 12 years that Northup spent as a slave. It is horrifying because he was a freeman kidnapped and unfairly sold into slavery, but the plight of the other slaves is no less horrifying. In fact, all slaves are kidnapped in one way or another — either directly, or by birth into slavery. It is horrifying because slavery was practiced by otherwise liberty-minded American colonists who somehow found a way to justify their “peculiar institution,” often by reading from the Bible. And it is horrifying because it was legal. As abolitionist Bass (Brad Pitt) says to a southerner who defends his legal right to own Northup, “Law don’t make it right. What if they passed a law making it legal to buy and sell you?”

Another horrifying aspect of this story of a free man sold into captivity is that it still happens today. So many young men today are wrongfully accused and convicted of crimes they did not commit. Many of them are beaten or terrorized in the interrogation room until they are so frightened and confused that they confess to crimes they did not commit, just as Northup is beaten into a confused stupor in this film when he claims to be freeborn. They languish in prison for 20 years or more, unable even to apply for parole because the parole board requires a declaration of remorse for one’s crime — and how can a man express remorse for a crime he did not commit? I teach in the college program at Sing Sing, a maximum security prison, and while most of the men are indeed guilty of their crimes, several do not belong there. Tears water their pillows at night, just as Northup’s tears water his pillow in the film, because their lives are destroyed by false arrest, false witness, and false judgment. There is a rush to put them away with the justification that “if he isn’t guilty of this, he must be guilty of something.” Incarceration of young black men is the new version of “crime prevention.” It is our new “peculiar institution.”

Incarceration of young black men is the new version of “crime prevention.” It is our new “peculiar institution.”

Films are like myths. They often reveal the values, beliefs, and fears of a culture. A few seasons back we saw multiple films about reluctant superheroes alienated from the society they have sworn to protect and weary of their isolating roles. This has been a season of films about the struggle to survive in an unfamiliar environment — an astronaut stranded in space (Gravity), a ship’s captain kidnapped at sea (Captain Phillips), a socialite demoted to her sister’s tiny apartment (Blue Jasmine), and an “everyman” stranded in the ocean (All is Lost), to name just a few. In many ways these films reflect the concerns of our current culture as we struggle to survive in what is an increasingly hostile and estranged America, where instead of being appreciated, individual people (including some of the most successful producers) are beaten down and denigrated.

Although 12 Years a Slave is based on a true story, it is impossible to know what is factually true, and what is substantially true. Some of the vignettes simply don’t ring true, as when the lecherous and sadistic slave owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) whips Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) almost to death because she has spoken back to him. Patsey is his most productive slave. She picks twice as much cotton every day as any of the men do. She is a valuable, unblemished piece of property, even if he doesn’t acknowledge her humanity. It does not make sense that he would destroy such a valuable capital good in a fit of pique.

It also does not make sense that all the black characters in the film have perfect diction and lofty vocabulary — so lofty that Lupita Nyong’o sometimes stumbles over the uncomfortable sentence patterns. Yes, Northup was highly educated, and many other blacks were educated too. But not in Louisiana. And not field slaves. It would have been more realistic to have written a script that was truer to the vernacular used by slaves in the mid-19th century. But I suppose that would have given rise to accusations of stereotyping.

In his recent article for the Atlantic Noah Berlatsky quotes UNC professor William Andrews’ view in To Tell a Free Story (1988): Solomon Northup’s story was actually written by his attorney, David Wilson. Andrews argued that most, if not all, slave narratives were merely dictated to white writers, who “cleaned up” the diction and made the works presentable in style and language for white audiences. However, Berlatsky would have been wise to read a more recent commentary on slave narratives. Later scholarship presents compelling evidence that many of them were indeed written by the former slaves themselves.

I studied slave narratives as the focus of my masters thesis, “To Tell a True Story” (1993), in which I discuss the purpose, themes, and genres of slave narratives as well as their truthfulness and the difficulty of claiming the authors’ own voices. All these narratives were framed by authenticating documents written by reputable white people who lent a stamp of credibility to the narrators. Of course, many of these supporters were abolitionists with a cause, so for more than a century it was whispered that these white benefactors did the actual writing. “How could an illiterate slave write something as elegant as this?” critics asked. Evidence is rising that the narrators did indeed read — and write. They learned to write well by reading good books and learning from the patterns they found there. But we can never know for sure who put pen to paper, the teller or the auditor. The important thing is that the stories have been told.

12 Years a Slave is a profound film that tells a profound story. It is difficult to watch, not only because of its intense emotion and brutality but because of the guilt it engenders in those who are not black, simply because they are white. Right or wrong, we tend to identify with those of our own race, and it is difficult to identify with character after character who has not a single redeeming quality until Brad Pitt finally appears on the screen as a reasonable white abolitionist. But Schindler’s List was difficult to watch too, for many of the same reasons. Both are brutal, both use nudity to demonstrate the humiliation of their characters, and both are overwhelmingly respectful of their subjects. Both are films you ought to see.


Editor's Note: Review of "12 Years a Slave," directed by Steve McQueen (no — not the blue-eyed blond of Great Escape fame). Plan B Productions, 2013, 135 minutes.



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Critics Rave — Audience Stays Home

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“Thrilling!” “Magnificent!” “Dazzling!” “Spectacular!” “Off the Scale Brilliant!” “Epic!” “Landmark!” “A Tour de Force Performance!”

Advance critics are falling all over themselves in praise of All Is Lost, Robert Redford’s new film about a man lost at sea who must battle the elements in a lifeboat for a few days after his 39-foot sailing yacht collides with a shipping container (just the container, not the ship) in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

“Our Man,” as Redford is called in the credits, assesses the situation, repairs the hole with some fiberglass and epoxy, and then settles in for a meal of pasta and scotch. (That Redford — he chews better than anyone I know, whether he’s munching a hot dog on his way to a speech in The Candidate, dining al fresco with Jane Fonda in Barefoot in the Park, or scraping beans out of a can in Jeremiah Johnson, Butch Cassidy, or All Is Lost. In fact, scraping the beans seems to be what he does best — such a fine contrast between what his character does and who his character is. His chewing manners have always been impeccable.) And that smile — the face has become craggy and lined, but those teeth are still gorgeous. His character wants to maintain what’s left of those good looks too: when Our Man is facing a thunderous storm, he lathers up and shaves! And when his boat is sinking and he’s up to his armpits in water, he takes the time to tidy up a gash on his forehead with some well placed butterfly bandages.

Yes, the boat does eventually sink. After the hole is patched, Our Man encounters a storm described by critics as “Scarier than anything in A Perfect Storm!” And Our Man does indeed get tossed around as his ship rolls completely upside down and rights itself again. And again. (Kudos to Fred Astaire for coming up with the rolling room trick for his “Dancing on the Ceiling” routine in — when was that? 1951? Not exactly “landmark” cinematography.) It is rather thrilling when he is swept overboard and has to fight has way back to the boat (good thing he remembered to tie a rope around himself), but the underwater scenes of Naomi Watts nearly drowning during a tsunami in The Impossible were more stunning and realistic. Landmark? Hardly.

He’s probably smart, since he reads and drinks scotch and eats with impeccable chewing. But the movie doesn’t give the audience much to chew on.

Eventually Redford abandons ship and enters a lifeboat, where he battles the elements and discouragements for a few more days. Don’t get me wrong — being adrift in a lifeboat in the Indian Ocean for even one day would be enough to make me panic. But the film is entirely too Zen for me. The problem is that Our Man never panics. He just methodically faces whatever comes. He’s resourceful and hardworking, and he has forearms the size of Popeye’s. He never gives up. Yet we know none of his backstory. He’s probably wealthy (who else could afford to sail around the world in a 39-foot yacht?) and he probably has a family, since he is writing a farewell note to someone as the film begins. He’s probably smart, since he reads and drinks scotch and eats with impeccable chewing. But the movie doesn’t give the audience much to chew on — because the hero never says anything.

It’s almost as though he took a vow of silence along with that Zen-like patience. He doesn’t shout as he is flung overboard; he doesn’t curse when he sees that his boat has been rammed; he doesn’t talk to himself the way most people do when they are trying not to panic while they are figuring out what to do. The only apprehension we ever feel occurs when he is inside the hull of his boat, gathering supplies just before it goes down. The boat creaks and shudders, and the music strikes a spooky tone. Our Man glances forebodingly over his shoulder. But even that seems out of place. He looks as though he were expecting to see a bogeyman jump out of the closet.

With a moniker like “Our Man” for the film’s only character, we have to assume that the director was going for a deep philosophical connection of some sort. We are supposed to understand that Our Man represents our culture, awash in a sea of — what? Storms that wipe out our savings? Sharks that eat the food right out of our hands? Blatant consumerism (the shipping container contained athletic shoes) that rams our peaceful dreams? Corporations (two gigantic ships glide past Our Man without seeing him) that ignore the needs of the little guy? OK. I always appreciate a good metaphor, and the sea is a good place to find one. But Our Man Stephen Cox says it much more succinctly and clearly in a recent article for Liberty: “The realm of intelligent discourse is an island of sanity, washed by hot seas of nonsense.”

If anything in this film is “landmark,” it is the idea of filming an entire movie without dialogue. It’s almost like watching the old Name That Tune television show: “I can name that tune in one note!” All Is Lost gets away with the laconic approach because it stars Robert Redford, but Redford isn’t the kind of actor who can pull off a stunt like this. Moreover, All Is Lost is awash in a sea of “spectacular” survival films, and it just doesn’t measure up to such truly “magnificent” films as The Life of Pi, with its “dazzling” cinematography and storytelling; Gravity, with its “landmark” special effects; and Captain Phillips, with Tom Hanks’s “tour de force performance.” All Is Lost is “off the scale,” all right, but it’s sliding in the wrong direction. And with an opening-weekend box office of just $93,000, “all is lost” could be an oh-too-appropriate metaphor for this film after all.

rdquo; as Redford is called in the credits, assesses the situation, repairs the hole with some fiberglass and epoxy, and then settles in for a meal of pasta and scotch. (That Redford rdquo; All Is Lost

rdquo; All Is Lost


Editor's Note: Review of "All Is Lost," directed by J.C. Chandor. Lionsgate, 2013; 106 dopey minutes.



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Pirates, Dead Ahead

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After the collapse of the Somali government in 1991, a reign of piracy ensued that terrorized the shipping lanes along the east coast of Africa for nearly two decades. Anyone who idealizes anarchy should take note: in the absence of leadership, leaders emerged — and these virtual warlords were at least as tyrannical as their predecessors, and certainly more volatile. (I didn't see any of my anarchist friends moving to Somalia during the 20 years between governments.)

Captain Phillips tells the harrowing story of Richard Phillips and the crew of the Maersk Alabama, an American cargo ship that was hijacked by a band of young Somalis in the spring of 2011. Incredibly, the Maersk Alabama was unescorted and her crew was armed with nothing but firehoses, despite ample knowledge that Somali pirates roamed the waters.

In the early days of American westward expansion, wagon trains and stagecoaches were similarly threatened by local bands as they transported people and commodities through unsafe territories. But their drivers and passengers carried rifles (leading later generations to call out "Shotgun!" when requesting the front passenger seat). They could also count on the protection of federal troops, who set up forts and patrolled the emigration areas. (I know — some might call this trespassing. And they might be right. But here we are.)

The Alabama had no such protection, and it carried no weapons. And it was alone in the water, away from the other cargo ships. Using radar to hunt their prey, the Somalis selected the Alabama in the way that a pride of lions might select a zebra. It was a single blip on the outskirts of the shipping lanes, away from the safety of the herd; it was the proverbial sitting duck.

These young pirates are no different from the street dealers in America, who take the risks of the Drug War and receive very little of the profits.

Despite its tense theme, the film begins slowly, almost boringly, with Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) getting ready to go to work. He and his wife (Catherine Keener) make small talk about family and safety as she drives him to work. Then we watch Captain Phillips go through his usual routine on the ship. If this had been a film festival submission with unrecognized actors and no advance publicity, the screener probably would have popped it out of the DVD player ten minutes into the viewing and dropped it into the discard pile.

And that would have been a shame, because Captain Phillips is a nonstop suspense thriller, on a par with the original Die Hard movie. After that first tedious ten minutes, the tension doesn’t let up until the last frame of the film — despite a moment of unintended comic relief when the government agency that is called for help doesn’t pick up the phone. "Government shutdown!" someone called out in the audience.

Captain Phillips controls the rising panic he naturally feels and uses a calm, soothing voice as he tries to reason with the overwrought hijackers.The tension between what he feels and what he does is visible throughout the film. His men's lives are in his hands, but he is not a trained military man or intelligence agent. He couldn’t land a punch or aim a kick any better than you or I could; he's just a boat driver who probably wouldn't know what to do with an automatic rifle even if he managed to get one. Instead he uses his wits, planning diversions on the fly, weighing risks against potential outcomes, all the time trying to placate and calm his attackers. This heightens the emotional tension more than a physical fight would do, and it gives the film a strong tone of realism, more in the manner of United 93 (2006) than of the Bourne movies (2004, 2007), which were also directed by Paul Greengrass.

Captain Phillips gets additional depth from the backstory it provides for the hijackers. While never excusing them, it allows us to see the despair of poverty that leads young men like these to turn to piracy for their livelihood. At one point Phillips says to the ringleader, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), "You have $30,000. That's enough. Take it and go."Muse scoffs at the amount. "I got six million last year," he says of an earlier kidnapping. Phillips is incredulous, and so are we. Six million? He had six million American dollars, and he is still living in ragged, barefoot poverty? Muse shrugs in response. "You got bosses. I got bosses," he says.

These young pirates do all the work and take all the risks for a pittance, while a boss somewhere is living fat, collecting the ransoms and booty and doling out a tiny commission to the workers. They are no different from the street dealers in America, who take the risks of the Drug War and receive very little of the profits. In his research for Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt discovered that most drug dealers experience this same tyranny of the warlord. Street dealers earn little more than minimum wage, and they live in poverty. As with the Somali pirates, or the lioness who goes in for the kill, the "lion's share" goes to the ones sitting safely under a tree.

Despite his two Oscars and his stellar reputation, Tom Hanks' work has been a bit uneven of late, with such forgettable films as The Terminal (2004), The Ladykillers (2004), Elvis Has Left the Building (also 2004) and a slew of others leading up to Larry Crowne (2011). (Don't look for my reviews because I didn't even bother.) Captain Phillips is his best work in over a decade. The constant tension between the panic his character feels and the calm he must present to his captors is always present. And when that tension breaks — well, it's simply an unforgettable moment, which makes up for ten years of forgettable films.

But as good as Hanks is in this film, it isn't as good as the amazing work performed by the four Somalis (Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali) who will convince you that they were discovered on the deck of a pirate ship, not in a casting studio. They are beyond scary. They are seething with rage, as volatile as a sprung grenade, overwrought and underfed and starving for vengeance against anyone. Anyone. But of course, they aren't really pirates. All four are immigrants living in the growing Somali community of Minneapolis, and all four are remarkable in their debut roles. Director Greengrass has to be given tremendous credit, first for deciding to use untrained Somalis instead of Hollywood actors, and second for being able to elicit such realistic work from these first-time actors.

The only disappointment in terms of acting is Catherine Keener as Captain Phillips' wife. She disappears after those first dull ten minutes, and she never returns. What a waste of a fine, skilled actress. I suspect, however, that she had a larger role, possibly as her character waited at home worrying about her husband's fate, but that it ended up on the cutting room floor in the interest of time or emotional arc. This would have been a wise decision, I might add, since any interruption to the gripping, fast-paced suspense would have been a mistake. In fact, as much as I admire her work, I would have cut her part entirely and started the film after Phillips is onboard the ship. But this is a minor quibble about a superbly acted film.

September-October is usually considered the dumping ground between the summer blockbusters and the end-of-year Oscar contenders; we usually wallow through fall with movies that were considered good enough to pick up for distribution but not good enough to give them holiday box office slots. But we are three-for-three in this month with Prisoners, Gravity, and Captain Phillips. Go easy on the popcorn!


Editor's Note: Review of "Captain Phillips," directed by Paul Greengrass. Columbia Pictures, 2013; 134 white-knuckle minutes.



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The Big One

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Gravity, the new sci-fi space thriller, is a stunning piece of filmmaking that gives new meaning to the phrase "cutting edge." The technology used to create the sensation of astronauts floating weightlessly in space is so new that director Alfonso Cuarón had to wait over a year for the marionette-like equipment to be designed and manufactured that would allow him to simulate weightlessness without the aid of the "Vomit Comet" airplane used in such movies as Ron Howard's Apollo 13 (1995). The result is uncanny. Star Sandra Bullock pushes off from walls and slithers through air as though she were swimming under water. James Cameron, known for his own cutting-edge animation in such films as Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009) said of Gravity, "I think it's the best space photography ever done, I think it's the best space film ever done, and it's the movie I've been hungry to see for an awful long time."

According to interviews, Cuarón spent a year creating the initial computer animation for the film, a year filming the live actors, and another year coordinating the live footage with the computer animation, in addition to the year and a half wait for the puppetry equipment. Gravity was worth the wait. The lighting, the graphics, the cinematography, and the physical movement of the actors work seamlessly together to create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Visual effects supervisor Tim Webber realized that the filmmakers could not use traditional green-screen technology if they wanted to create the sensation of astronauts tumbling through space and banging into space stations or dodging debris. Instead, they shot the actors' faces and did everything else digitally.

This introduced a whole new challenge for the lighting team, who would have to match the lighting of the faces with the lighting of the all-digital setting. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki explained the difficulty they faced when he discussed the fact that the believability of the lighting “can break if the light is not moving at the speed that it has to move, if the position of the light is not right, if the contrast or density on the faces is wrong, et cetera." To prevent that from happening, the film crew built a box in which they could move the light around the actors instead of moving the actors around the set. The actors had to be precise in the position of their bodies and in moving to their marks in order to match the animation. In essence, Cuarón became as much a choreographer as a director of his actors. The result is a stunning, seamless collaboration of live action and computer generated animation.

Alfonso Cuarón nurtured the project through two studios, multiple stars, myriad technical obstacles, and several rejections, but he never gave up.

Whatever they did, it works. There is never a break in believability, never a sense of "this is live and this is animated." Cuarón and his team have created a work that will be held up for decades as a turning point in cinematic science. You must see it the way it was intended, in 3D, in order to experience the full effect. I don't typically like 3D movies, but this is one film that deserves and requires the technology, especially when space debris is hurtling straight at you or papers are floating around in the cockpit, or when a tear floats away from a cheek.

But enough about the technology; what about the story? Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer making repairs to the Hubble Telescope while seasoned astronaut Max Kowalski (George Clooney) provides technical support. Max, acting more like Buzz Lightyear than Buzz Aldrin, plays with his power thrusters, listens to country music, and tells shaggy dog stories while Ryan struggles with air sickness and wrestles an errant motherboard out of its casing in the telescope. Warned that debris from an exploded Russian anti-satellite test is hurtling toward them, Max and Ryan can't get into the space station fast enough. Then Ryan panics and can't disconnect her tether. Debris knocks her loose and she tumbles end-over-end away from the shuttle. Max uses his jet pack to go after her, risking his own chance at survival to rescue the young maiden.

Here I have to interject how annoyed I was to hear Bullock's panicked "What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?" and her almost orgasmic hyperventilation, contrasted with Clooney's calm, soothing reassurance. Sure, I would probably be panicking in such a situation. (Well, maybe not. I'm known for my problem-solving skills in an emergency.) But I'm not an astronaut. I have met a few astronauts, however (OK, two), and they both talked about the psychological testing that precedes an astronaut’s physical training. Anyone who does not demonstrate the ability to remain calm and focused in an emergency would not be selected for the program, no matter how skilled a medical engineer she or he might be.

Still, for carrying the story forward and creating fearful empathy with the audience, Bullock's panicky hyperventilating certainly does the trick. It also creates a tremendous contrast as we watch her character grow in courage, innovation, and determination throughout the film. And isn't that what disaster films are all about? They allow us to walk around in the hero's moon boots and test our own mettle. What would you or I do if we found ourselves in the darkness and utter isolation of outer space? Or swirling around in an ocean or marooned on a mountainside or trapped in a building that had been hit by a jet airplane? Would we accept the inevitable, turn off the oxygen, and make the end quick and sweet, or would we sally forth with indefatigable determination until our last ounce of courage had been expended?

The rest of the film is a tense and exciting race against time and improbability as the survivors of the crash struggle to find a way back to safety. One interesting metaphor that appears throughout the film is the connection between hope and survival. If the astronauts somehow manage to get back to the space station and into a landing pod, they will still need help from someone on the earth in order to return safely. But they hear nothing from Houston; communication with ground control was severed when the space debris damaged the satellites. What's the point, then, of trying? The astronauts have no reason to believe (or have faith) that Houston can hear them, but they proceed with the hope that their transmitters will work, even if their receivers do not.

I have to interject how annoyed I was to hear Bullock's panicked "What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?" and her almost orgasmic hyperventilation.

Hope is the power that allows us to overcome fear. It leads to action. Without hope, without faith, the astronauts would simply give up. "Houston in the blind" they begin every transmission as they report their location, their movements, and their plans. “Houston in the blind" is a technical phrase that nevertheless suggests something more — a reference to blind faith.

It has been said that there are no atheists in a foxhole, and that may be true; three of my most Objectivist atheist friends admitted to praying as their prop plane took a nosedive toward an African jungle many years ago. (Their survival when the plane leveled out at the last minute did not lead to any lasting conversions; when they told the story, they all laughed at themselves for their weakness.) While no one actually prays in this film, they do discuss the existence of God and the power of prayer. Ryan laments that no one ever taught her how to pray. But she does learn the power of hope, and the faith required to call out to "Houston in the blind" when Houston is the only means of arriving safely home. She also learns that the simplest and grandest of prayers consists of just two words: "Thank You."

Of course, those readers of this review who are not currently cowering in foxholes may prefer a more Randian interpretation of the hero, and that is just as legitimate a message to draw from the film. Gravity celebrates the human mind's ability to draw on its inventory of knowledge and make connections to solve problems. As the seasoned astronaut, Max is able to use his experience, training, and reason to figure out what to do, even though he has not been in this exact situation before. As a rookie, Ryan has no experience and very little training. Nevertheless, she, too, has the ability to tap into her experience when she lets her intuition guide her (in this context, see my review of Jonah Lehrer's book How We Decide, http://libertyunbound.com/node/815). Despite her weak and cowering beginning, she develops into a strong, self-reliant hero.

The greatest hero of this film, however, is its maker. Alfonso Cuarón nurtured the project through two studios, multiple stars, myriad technical obstacles, and several rejections, but he never gave up. Gravity grossed over $55 million in its first weekend alone, and is likely to become the biggest film of the year.


Editor's Note: "Gravity," directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Warner Brothers, 2013; 90 weighty, weightless minutes.



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Think Twice

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Prisoners is an aptly named film filled with characters who are all imprisoned in one way or another. The central story involves the search for two little girls, Anna (Erin Gerisamovich) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons), who have gone missing on Thanksgiving Day as their families celebrate together. The prime suspect is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a mentally deficient young man whose camper was seen parked in the girls' neighborhood earlier that day. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the lone-wolf police detective who is determined to find the girls.

Subtle hints suggest that Loki is a prisoner of some childhood trauma. He blinks a little too deeply and a little too long, especially when he is stressed. He works alone and is normally calm, determined, and controlled, but he bristles at his captain's authoritarian attitude and is prone to sudden violent outbursts when he is frustrated. Loki has numerous small tattoos on his fingers and hands, the kind that appear to be self-applied. While investigating the disappearance of the girls, he interviews known sex offenders and hints that he knows the pain of their victims. And he wears on his pinky a small silver ring with the Freemason symbol on it, suggesting metaphorically that he has built a wall around himself. Even his name, Loki, suggests that he is a flawed god.

Even more determined to find the girls is Anna's father, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman). Dover is drawn initially as a stereotypical right-wing Bible-thumping survivalist. He "prays for the best but prepares for the worst." He has a basement full of survival supplies, sings the Star Spangled Banner in the shower, and recites the Lord's Prayer as he is teaching his son to shoot his first deer. His truck radio is set to a Christian station and a cross hangs from his rear view mirror. But he swears a blue streak and he has a sadistic side that comes from somewhere deep inside his past. He is so certain of Alex's guilt that when the police let Alex go for lack of evidence, he grabs the young man and holds him hostage in an abandoned building where he resolves to beat the truth out of him. For days.

Well, what would you do? the film seems to ask. Wouldn't you break every law, risk every punishment, to rescue your sweet little child? Echoing last year's Zero Dark Thirty, in which torture was used to uncover terror plots, he tells Joy's parents, "We hurt him until he talks. Or they're gonna die."

The scenes of torture are not easy to watch. The rest of the film is. Full of suspense but not of gore, the plot is superbly written and tensely developed. The film is as much about the many prisoners of their past as it is about finding the missing young girls. It exists in the closed universe that is essential for this kind of thriller, and also essential for the central metaphor of prisoners; the characters can hide behind their emotional walls, but they can't escape their setting. There are no good guys or bad guys in this film, just prisoners who do good things and bad things as they try to escape their own private hells.

Prisoners is the kind of film that keeps the viewer engaged long after the credits have rolled and the lights have come up. So much is left unsaid and unexplained about the characters and what makes them tick, yet the clues are all there. Director Denis Villeneuve trusts his audience to figure it out, even if it takes a day or two to exit the maze. It's not the kind of film for lone-wolf reviewers like me, so take someone with you so you can talk about it later. The complexity of the characters will keep you guessing what has happened and what will happen next, even after you learn who done it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Prisoners," directed by Denis Villeneuve. Alcon Entertainment, 2013, 153 minutes. (Use the bathroom before you go in — you won't want to miss a minute!)



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Woody Allen: He’s Still Good

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When Cate Blanchett walks up to the podium to accept her Best Actress accolades next spring for her stunning performance in Blue Jasmine (and she most certainly will be winning them all, from Golden Globe to Oscar), she will be sharing the award with the ghost of a white Chanel jacket tastefully trimmed in black. That jacket says more about her character, Jasmine Francis, than any piece of costume since Superman's cape. It is Jasmine’s connection with the world she once inhabited, and she wears the expensive jacket casually, as you or I might toss a windbreaker over our shoulders.

Jasmine Francis is a woman beyond the verge of a nervous breakdown; she has already gone over the edge, and is desperately trying to hang on. She not only lives in the past, she talks to people in her past, rehashing old conversations right out loud, while standing on the sidewalk or sitting at a party. We see this as flashbacks triggered by key words or images that remind her of her old life. Through this process we see the juxtaposition of Jasmine’s old life as a glamorous socialite and wife of a multibillionaire, and her new life as the poverty-stricken widow forced to live with her sister, a spunky San Francisco grocery clerk.

The story is a thinly veiled roman à clef that imagines the post-scandal life of Bernie Madoff's wife, Ruth. Madoff, of course, was the investment banker who swindled $65 billion from friends, relatives, and charitable organizations in the largest financial fraud in history. After the Ponzi scheme came to light, Ruth Madoff complained that she couldn't go anywhere without being vilified. Shunned by her former friends, she couldn't go to her gym, her favorite restaurants, or even shopping because everyone stared at her and made disparaging remarks. Well duh! It's one thing for a legitimate money manager to misjudge the markets and suffer losses once in a while. But Madoff never even tried to be a wise money manager for his clients. He just kept raking in the dough and spending it on yachts and homes and cars, while sending out phony statements to keep his clients happy. How could anyone feel anything but contempt for such shysters?

Like Ruth Madoff, Jasmine goes to live with a sister. Ginger (Sally Hawkins) lives in a tiny, frowsy San Francisco apartment with her two young sons. Ginger's marriage has also collapsed, partly because Jasmine's husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) had convinced her and her husband to invest their $200,000 lottery prize in his "real estate fund" instead of supporting their goal to start a business of their own. Of course, there was no investment fund; Hal had been funneling everyone's money into his own personal accounts. The big question is: how much did Jasmine know? An even bigger question: how can a person deliberately defraud a family member or friend? Simply shocking.

Jasmine is tasteful and smart and elegant, but she has absolutely no idea how to exist in the real world. She has no income and virtually no money, yet she gives her taxi driver a $100 tip and flies across country first class because she cannot imagine any other way to act. (When Ginger asks, "How did you pay for a first class ticket?" Jasmine responds with a dismissive wave of her hand, "I don't know. I just did.")

Popping Xanax like breath mints and washing it down with Stoli vodka, Jasmine lives in a daze of denial. She knows she has to reinvent and redefine herself, but she can't let go of the past that was so comfortable, nor can she come to terms with how it all happened. Meanwhile Ginger and her friends try in vain to welcome Jasmine into their world of pizza, beer, and cheap dates. The disconnection provides for many comic moments, but the undercurrent of tragedy is always present.

Woody Allen is one of the most prolific directors in Hollywood. He has been making films for nearly half a century, but (in my opinion) he has done his best work in the past decade, at an age when other people are retired and chasing golf balls. Last year's Midnight in Paris, about a frustrated writer who mysteriously finds himself hobnobbing with the likes of Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds in 1920s Paris, was brilliant. So is Blue Jasmine. It is one of Allen's finest films. The story is at once contemporary and timeless and true. Cate Blanchett gives an utterly fearless and totally vulnerable performance as Jasmine, and the rest of the cast rise to her level of abandon, forgetting themselves in the characters. And kudos to Suzy Benzinger as costume designer . . . I hope that Chanel jacket shows up at the Oscars.


Editor's Note: Review of "Blue Jasmine," written and directed by Woody Allen. Perdido Productions, 2013, 98 minutes.



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Film and the Fight for Freedom

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In many works of fiction, the protagonist is an "outsider," either one who literally comes from outside the community or one who resides within the community but nevertheless is an outsider in terms of personal values and behavior. This character allows the reader or the audience to identify with the community and at the same time view the beliefs and values of the community through fresh eyes — often, in so doing, reevaluating ideas and practices that we once took for granted as self-evident and unalienable.

In Wadjda the title character (Waad Mohammed) is this kind of protagonist. She is a 10-year-old girl living within the orthodox community of Saudi Arabia, but she has very unorthodox desires. She does not openly defy the values and practices of her community; indeed, she wears her scarves and abaya as though they were as natural as her hair, and she nods nonchalantly when her mother tells her she is old enough to start covering her face with her ayallah when she goes outside. She attends a religious girls' school and works hard to learn her lessons, which are replete with the acknowledgement that everything is controlled by the goodness of Allah. When one of her pre-pubescent classmates is married over the weekend, Wadjda giggles but is not concerned. These are givens in her community.

But Wadjda has her own values as well. She wears sneakers under her abaya, and inside those shoes her toenails are painted candy-apple blue. She listens to western music on an ancient cassette tape player in her room, and she often wears a t-shirt emblazoned with "I am a great catch" in English (although we never know for sure whether she understands what the words mean). She is attracted to the culture of the West, even though she is immersed in the culture of the Middle East.

Most of all, Wadjda wants to own a bike. She wants to know the freedom of riding faster than she can run, and the satisfaction of racing against her best friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), who happens to be a boy. All the boys have bikes. But nice girls don't ride bicycles. A fall could be dangerous to their virginity — and we know how important that is in Middle Eastern culture. So no one encourages or helps Wadjda in her goal.

"Wadjda" does not ascend a soapbox to make its case; it is a film with a message, but it is not a message film.

Nevertheless, Wadjda is determined to buy the shiny green bike on display at the local sundries store. She becomes an entrepreneur by making bracelets to sell to her friends. She charges acquaintances for running errands and with a determined voice and a winning smile convinces them to pay her extra. She forgoes instant gratification in order to save for her big purchase when she no longer buys treats and trinkets from the corner store when her friends go shopping. Eventually she realizes that she will never save enough money by doing menial tasks, especially when the local store begins selling Chinese-made bracelets at a fraction of the former price.

So she does what every good entrepreneur must do: she uses her savings as seed money to capitalize a larger business venture. Lured by the prize money of 1,000 riyals, she decides to enter the school's Quran recitation contest (sort of like a spelling bee or Geography Bowl). But since she has never been a good student of the Quran, she invests all her savings to purchase "capital goods": an expensive electronic study aid. It is a big risk, but it is the only way that she can turn her 80 riyals into the 800 riyals she needs to purchase the bike.

Wadja's mother (Reem Abdullah) is also an entrepreneur of sorts who understands that success requires taking risks. (Significantly, she has no name in the film except "Mother.") Her mother-in-law is shopping for a second wife for her husband, and she is determined to thwart that plan by showing everyone in the community that she is beautiful and desirable so that no other woman would be willing to become a second wife to her. To do this, she decides to invest her money in a stunning red dress to wear to a relative's upcoming wedding. This will remind everyone, including her husband, that she is not an old woman to be set aside and replaced. She is still beautiful, sexy, and valuable — not the kind of woman that another woman would want to compete with as second wife. She also makes it clear to her husband that she will no longer live with him connubially if he takes another wife. Like Wadjda, she risks everything to accomplish her goal.

As with the best of outsider fiction, Wadjda does not ascend a soapbox to make its case; it is a film with a message, but it is not a message film. In fact, it is more about following one's dreams and making things happen than it is about the evils of a particular culture. Writer-director Haifaa Al-Mansour presents the Saudi culture respectfully and matter-of-factly, without exaggeration or overt criticism. The film is subtly nuanced and carefully crafted not to offend; in fact, a true believer in the Saudi way of life could view this film as an example of what happens to women who rebel. No men ever step in to exert authority over the women. No overt abuse occurs. No legal authorities step in to limit these women's rights.

In fact, most of the rules are applied by other women. They simply accept the cultural mores regarding gender and enforce the rules themselves. The bike shop owner (a man) has no problem selling a bike to a girl; the men who see Wadjda and the other girls in public do not tell them to withdraw. In fact, it does not even seem to be against the law for girls to ride a bike; it simply isn't done, and it is the women, not the men, who enforce this cultural taboo. Moreover, Wadjda's father seems to be a very loving and affectionate man who is somewhat trapped by the culture himself.

Nevertheless, it took great courage to make this film in Saudi Arabia. There is no doubt that Al-Mansour expects her audience to open their eyes and see the hypocrisy and injustice that the characters themselves seem to overlook. Nineteenth-century writers and dramatists such as Jane Austen and Henrik Ibsen opened the eyes of their audiences in similar ways. They presented the current culture as it was, creating a setting in which the audience felt comfortable and at home. Then they skillfully allowed an outsider protagonist to lead the audience into discovering the hypocrisy and injustice of the culture in which they felt so comfortable. Why should Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) and Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility), two of Jane Austen's most beloved characters, have fewer opportunities for happiness in marriage simply because their fathers did not inherit the family wealth? Why should Nora (Ibsen's proactive protagonist in A Doll's House), be forced to hide in the attic, earning money by copying documents, simply because she is a married woman and doesn't have her husband's consent to work?(Writers today take it another step and challenge the Victorian idea that marriage is the key to happiness.)

Works of fiction still have the power to influence their culture by shining subtle lights back upon itself. They have more power to change a cultural mindset than all the "pinprick" assaults and direct attacks of war will ever have. Film has the power to change minds and hearts, and Wadjda is an instance. It presents one of the spunkiest and most charming protagonists to come along in quite a while. Instinctively, without even knowing it, she is a libertarian through and through. Wadjda is a film that will warm your heart even as it breaks it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Wadjda," written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour. Highlook Communications and Razor Film Produktion (2012), 98 minutes. (In Arabic with English subtitles. But don't let that hold you back.)



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Why Is Arms Control for Civilians Only?

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In the early morning hours of New Year's Day, 2009, Oscar Grant III was killed by an overzealous transit cop in Oakland’s Fruitvale BART Station. He was 22 years old, the father of a four-year-old daughter. Grant and his friends were returning from watching the New Year's Eve fireworks when an altercation started among the revelers on the train. The fight had already ended before the cops arrived, but they still wanted to assert their thuggish authority. Grant was lying face down on the platform when he was shot. Several bystanders caught the arrest and shooting on their cellphones, and these grainy images of the actual event are seen at the beginning of "Fruitvale Station," which tells the story of Oscar Grant's final day of life.

The film is a lot like Gabriel Garcia Márquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold in that we know from the beginning that Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) is going to be shot, just as we know from the first sentence of Chronicle that this is the day when Santiago Nasar is going to be killed. Nevertheless, both stories are taut and suspenseful because they focus on the "who" and the "why" of the stories rather than the end result. Fruitvale Station is a moving character study of the young man, and of the socioeconomic conditions that influenced his life and death. It is an important film for today, when stories appear of a 95-year-old man who refused medical attention being killed by cops with a beanbag round propelled from a shotgun, and an 18-year-old skateboarder being killed by another taser-happy cop after spraypainting an abandoned building. What ever happened to due process?

Oscar is presented as a generous-hearted young man, the kind who notices others and goes out of his way to help them in simple ways — he's that guy who will reach something from the top shelf of the grocery store for a stranger, or pick up something you need on the way home from work and not let you pay him back. He likes being a nice guy.

But we see a darker side to Oscar, too. He wears a mask of easygoing generosity, but behind that mask he is worried, and he is lying. He has lost his job at the grocery store, and he doesn't want anyone in his family to know it because he doesn't want to disappoint them. He has already disappointed them enough; we soon discover that he has done time in prison for various offenses, including drug dealing. The sad fact is that 40% of black males aged 18–26 are unemployed today, and a large proportion will spend time in prison. When they get out, their chance of finding employment drops even more. Dealing drugs is the fastest and surest way to make some quick cash. But it's also the fastest and surest way of ending up back in prison. Oscar doesn't want to go back.

Without the cellphone record, Oscar's death would likely have been reported as just one more former felon "shot while resisting arrest."

The conflict between the good man Oscar seems innately to be and the outlaw he is struggling to leave behind makes this film much more than a diatribe against police brutality. One of the most powerful moments in the film occurs when Oscar suddenly dons his "prison mask" during a visit with his mother (Octavia Spencer). Another inmate challenges him in the visiting room, and Oscar immediately becomes vicious and challenging in return. In the next moment he is a little boy again, desperate for his mother's understanding and affection. He is like the small dog who bares his teeth and growls menacingly when a larger dog enters his territory. It is a defensive stance, intentionally aggressive and defiant in order to avoid an escalation to physical violence. We see that mask once more during the film, and both times it is a stunning piece of acting.

There are many heroes in this film, but Oscar is not one of them. The film honors his memory, but he is a victim — a victim of poor education, of cultural poverty, and ultimately of random circumstances that put him on that train car in that station at that moment with a scared young cop who didn't know his taser from his service revolver. The true heroes are the ordinary citizens who pulled out their cellphones and began filming the event, even as cops yelled at them to put the phones down. Without that record, Oscar's death would likely have been reported as just one more former felon "shot while resisting arrest." Good riddance. And his friends who were on the platform with him would likely have ended up in jail instead of being released hastily when the police realized they were in deep trouble.

As the late Andrew Breitbart maintained, we have become a militia of journalists, armed with our cellphone cameras and ready at a moment's notice to protect the strangers around us by documenting many kinds of abuse.

Recently when I was picking my son up at the airport, I dutifully circled the terminal at least half a dozen times while waiting for him to arrive. Finally he called to say that he had his luggage and was ready to be picked up. As I pulled to the curb, however, the airport cop yelled at me, "Move along! This area is only for active loading!" I pointed toward my son and opened my door to get out. "Stay in your car and move along!" he yelled again. I pointed again at my son. "I could have you arrested,” he threatened.

"For what?" I demanded. "For picking up my son who is standing right there?"

The cop's arm twitched backward toward his holster. Seriously. For an alleged parking offense. (Maybe that's where he kept his citation pad . . .) At that point the officer noticed that my daughter was filming the whole event on her cellphone. And suddenly his whole demeanor changed. "I'm sorry Ma'am," he said. "It's been a long day. I'm at the end of a double shift." Smile, copper. You're on candid camera.

The film is NR (not rated) because of pervasive ethnic street language that would have garnered an X (filmmakers will opt for NR to avoid the deadly X rating) but for the fact that the language is realistic and appropriate to the cultural environment. Frankly, I'm amazed that the word "nigger" blaring from the hip-hop songs on Oscar's radio would be considered worse than the gore and nudity that earns an R rating, but hey — I don't let the Hollywood police tell me what to watch anyway.

Fruitvale Station won both the Drama Grand Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance this year. It is a powerful film, well worth seeing.


Editor's Note: Review of "Fruitvale Station," directed by Ryan Coogler. The Weinstein Company, 2013, 85 minutes.



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The Forgotten Gibbs

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Wolcott Gibbs contributed more words to The New Yorker than any of his better-remembered contemporaries — Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, E.B. White, to name a few. And unlike them, he contributed pieces of every kind. His boss, founding editor Harold Ross, called him “the best goddam editor in the world.” Yet, as Thomas Vinciguerra reminds us, Gibbs is hardly thought of today. To remedy this unfortunate oversight, editor Vinciguerra has brought forth a new collection of Gibbs’ writing, which he entitles Backward Ran Sentences. With a useful introduction by the editor and a foreword by P.J. O’Rourke, the book is a literary bargain.

Gibbs wrote fact and fiction pieces — “Talk of the Town” items, so-called casuals, profiles, short stories, reviews of plays and motion pictures. His writing had an elegant bounce, when he was just trying to be funny, or when he was taking apart an unsatisfactory play or a bothersome personality. And yet, as editor Vinciguerra tells us, Gibbs was a sad man, full of self-doubt, caught up in cycles of alcoholism, and all the while a chain smoker. Like Harold Ross, A.J. Liebling, and Alexander Woollcott, Gibbs died in his fifties. His wife suspected suicide, but smoking on top of pleurisy and too many martinis may have been enough to kill him.

Backward Ran Sentences contains some fascinating cultural history. The names associated with the Gibbs era roll off the pages like gumdrops — Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Mrs. Fiske, Marlon Brando, Joan McCracken, Ethel Merman, Alfred Drake, Eva Le Gallienne, and on and on. Among his shorter pieces, Gibbs addresses the joys of getting the measles — a disease with little suffering, but still requiring a quarantine — and the sadness of leaving his beloved refuge, Fire Island, and returning to Manhattan. There is the tale of a man who leaves his car, typewriter, and golf clubs in a creek because he was “tired of fooling with it.” (I am in complete sympathy.) And consider the following lines from an item dated December 13, 1941: “War came to us with the ball in Brooklyn’s possession on the Giants’ forty-five yard line. ‘Japanese bombs have fallen on Hawaii and the Philippine Islands,’ a hurried voice broke in to announce.”

Gibbs was apparently unfazed, since he considered the subject celebrity “one of the worst writers who ever existed.”

Gibbs’ profiles describe the rise to prominence of some New York lights and contain perhaps the best writing in the book — witty, detached, and not overly personal.

One unique offering describes a lady who collects stray cats and hauls them to the SPCA.

While not an icon, “Our Lady of the Cats” — Miss Rita Ross — will live on in this footnote to New York’s history. The three-part profile of Alexander Woollcott isn’t all that insulting, though it led to a final break between Woollcott and Harold Ross. Gibbs was apparently unfazed, since he considered the subject celebrity “one of the worst writers who ever existed.” Other profiles in the present collection include those of Lucius Beebe, epicure, journalist, chronicler of “Cafe Society”; Ethel Merman, who could carry a Broadway musical “on her shoulders”; and William Sylvester Maney, famously irreverent press agent and inventor of an ersatz profanity. The not-quite-flattering description of Thomas E. Dewey led him to impound Gibbs’ bank account. According to editor Vinciguerra, Dewey thought Gibbs was employed by the Democrats. When the Gibbs article appeared, Dewey wasn’t yet Governor (here the editor errs), but still District Attorney for New York County. Thus he could sequester Gibbs’ reserves as evidence in a criminal investigation — though the necessary legal cause has eluded me. At the time (1940), Dewey was beginning his first run for the presidency after a famous tour as prosecutor of mobsters. He became the prototypical Republican losing candidate.

The Ralph Ingersoll profile contains some interesting history. Ingersoll worked at The New Yorker and then for Henry Luce at Time. While there, he split with Luce over the traditional Time cover showing the Man of the Year. The chosen man in this case was Adolf Hitler. Luce wanted to display an ordinary photograph, but Ingersoll preferred an illustration carrying an anti-Hitler message. Later, in the course of building the left-leaning PM magazine, Ingersoll scooped everyone on the burning of the French ocean liner Normandie. The US government had seized the liner and was converting it into a troop ship when it caught fire in its berth in New York Harbor. Before the fire, a PM reporter had sneaked aboard the Normandie and discovered that it was, as Gibbs put it, “a fire-bug’s dream.” And so, when the liner finally burned, the PM story was ready to run.

Placed among a cluster of Gibbs’ parodies — those of Hemingway and Noel Coward are themselves funny — is his famous portrait of Henry Luce, written in the compressed, turned-around style invented by Luce’s late partner, Briton Hadden. In it we find the words, “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind,” which provide the title for editor Vinciguerra’s collection. The parody of Time’s style later became a tit-for-tat justification for Tom Wolfe’s satirical treatment of The New Yorker as it was under William Shawn. Wolfe’s effort was rather more barbed than Gibbs’ parody, its author perhaps having failed to see the sadness of a man trying to preserve an age forever gone. Still, as the legend goes, when Luce read the Gibbs piece, he threatened to throw Harold Ross out the window. Were passages like the following all that provocative? “Very unlike novels of Pearl Buck were his early days. Under brows too beetling for a baby, Luce grew up inside compound, played with two sisters, lisped first Chinese, dreamed much of the Occident.” Or this one: “Typical perhaps of Luce methods is Fortune system of getting material. Writers in first draft put down wild gossip, any figures that occur to them. This is sent to victim who indignantly corrects errors, inadvertently supplies facts he might otherwise have withheld.” Well — perhaps.

The New Yorker “casuals” were very short stories, short fact pieces, anecdotes, and even brief parodies. In these and in his short stories, Gibbs could be unfunny when he wrote about the drinking class and its special problems. “Wit’s End” is a depressing story about a man who awakens to find his bed on fire — a situation in which Gibbs found himself more than once. On the other hand, “Ring Out, Wild Bells” is an amusing tale of his own youthful performance as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His mother had sewn little bells on his costume, and as he maneuvered on stage their ringing drowned out the other players’ lines. “The Curious Incident of Dogs in the Night-Time,” a story set in a restaurant, tells of two men, learned in Sherlock Holmes lore, who ingest an unbelievable number of martinis. Finding their way to an upstairs dining room, they think they’ve discovered a meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars. Actually, it’s a convention of roofers from Denver. The story ends with the two inebriates singing at the piano and the conventioneers filing out of the room.

As the legend goes, when Henry Luce read the Gibbs piece, he threatened to throw Harold Ross out the window.

For 18 of his New Yorker years, Gibbs was its drama critic — for some of that time, he also reviewed motion pictures, a task he disliked. As P.J. O’Rourke writes, “He was not fooled by talent.” His standards applied equally to everyone who wrote, acted in, or directed Broadway productions. Taken together, his reviews represent a theatrical history of Broadway’s great age. They address plays by, among others, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller, and musicals with words or music by Frank Loesser, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner, and Lowe. The productions had names such as Ah, Wilderness! (a mixed review from Gibbs, with praise for George M. Cohan, playing the father), The Time of Your Life (slightly favorable), Romeo and Juliet (poor, but Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh will attract an audience), Blithe Spirit (good), Oklahoma! (great, of course), South Pacific (excellent, with special praise for the players), Guys and Dolls (great, with praise for Pat Rooney, Sr.), Me and Juliet (mixed, but with praise for the fated Joan McCracken), The Glass Menagerie (excellent, with exceptional praise for Laurette Taylor), My Fair Lady (excellent), Waiting for Godot (“meager moonshine”), Long Day’s Journey into Night” (good, with reservations about the play’s “epic scale of calamity,” but with praise for director Jose Quintero), West Side Story (fair, with praise for choreographer Jerome Robbins), The Music Man (good, but “not as good as all that”).

There are bits and pieces of other reviews under the heading “Curtain Calls,” including a very good one for Kiss Me Kate and a dismantling of Shaw’s The Millionairess and Katharine Hepburn’s performance in the title role. There follow some movie reviews, including an amusing one of National Velvet, and some personal essays. Among these last is a tribute to his friend Robert Benchley, who preceded Gibbs as The New Yorker’s drama critic. Benchley was famous for such humorous essays as “The Menace of Buttered Toast” and “Carnival Week in Sunny Las Los,” as well as his appearances in movies. Like Gibbs, he was a serious drinker, and like Gibbs, he died at the age of 56.

As I emphasized, Wolcott Gibbs drank to excess and was a chain smoker. Neither of those habits met with the same disapprobation that meets them today. Writers drank — perhaps Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Sinclair Lewis set the style — and some drank too much. (The trick was to drink without being tiresome.) The quality of Gibbs’ writing doesn’t appear to have suffered from the constant bombardment of martinis. But why did he saturate himself so often? Perhaps because what he had wasn’t what he wanted, and what he wanted, he couldn’t have. When Gibbs said he should be writing novels, I think he was telling the awful truth. That was what he perceived as unattainable. But was it really? — no, not if he had been less of a defeatist. He certainly had the talent required to write novels. Perhaps he should have gotten away from New York — with all its personal and professional entanglements — found some odd corner, and started pecking away on his Royal typewriter. But that would have put at risk the only comfort and security he had ever known. So, instead, he maintained his self-deprecating attitude, and took to minimizing the importance of the writing profession and the magazine that employed him. He remained a resident outsider, which probably made him a more effective editor and critic. And he kept on drinking to ease his pain.

The final Gibbs piece in the current collection is an intra-office memo that found its way into print. It’s entitled “Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles,” and contains some worthwhile advice for writers. For example — “Writers use too damn many adverbs. On one page recently, I found eleven modifying the verb ‘said.’” The office copy of the Gibbs memo carried a note by his contemporary, the fiction editor Katharine White. It describes Gibbs as “one of the most talented and witty magazine editors of all time.” He was that good.


Editor's Note: Review of "Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from the New Yorker," edited by Thomas Vinciguerra. Bloomsbury, 2011, xix + 646 pp.



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