All that Glitters Is Not Green

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Say what you will about urban woes, there is an American City — let’s call it the Emerald City — where everything appears to be swell, all the time. Just think: even among its lowly municipal employees there are 10,600 who make over $100,000 a year. That’s $1.3 billion a year, total.

This city employs a commissioner of aviation — I suppose to fend off flying monkeys and witches on broomsticks. The commissioner must do a good job, because last year she earned a $100,000 bonus, on top of her $300,000 salary.

Emerald City’s Water Management Department employs none but the finest: more than 700 of its people merit and receive over $100,000 a year, each.

This city employs a commissioner of aviation — I suppose to fend off flying monkeys and witches on broomsticks.

To keep the streets all green and shiny, Emerald City pays at least 160 of its Streets and Sanitation employees more than $100,000 a year. And to keep those streets safe, the city fields 5,007 Police Department employees who work so hard, what with overtime and all, that they too make more than $100,000.

Their salaries are especially well merited, considering the extreme and demoralizing difficulty of solving the city’s crimes. In this capital of clever criminals, more than 71% of murders go unsolved, despite the efforts of 4,800 police detectives, some of whom are paid more than $120,000 in overtime alone.

Only a happy and wealthy populace can afford to employ civil servants at prices like these. The willingness — nay, the eagerness — of Emerald City’s citizens to employ no one but the best is indicated by the fact that during the past five years, the average family’s tax contribution has increased by $1,700. That’s city taxes alone, mind you. But the citizens go farther: as of three years ago, they were willing to go into debt to the tune of $63 billion, an average of $61,000 per household — more than enough to move into a brand-new house almost anywhere on the Yellow Brick Road. And those figures have risen since.

But here’s a curious thing. The median household income of the United States is something like $56,000, but in only 16 of Emerald City’s 50 most populous statistical neighborhoods is the median household income $56,000 or greater. The bottom 16 neighborhoods have incomes of less than $37,000. Isn’t that interesting?

In this capital of clever criminals, more than 71% of murders go unsolved, despite the efforts of 4,800 police detectives, some of whom are paid more than $120,000 in overtime alone.

Another interesting statistic: In 2016, there were 762 homicides in Emerald City, a number that a police spokesman called “unacceptable.” Yet by mid-August of this year, the figure for 2017 already stood at 463.

And if report be true, Emerald City is not the spotless land of delight that Dorothy Gale reported visiting. Recent visitors speak of filthy streets, ridiculous traffic, ugly social customs, and a general sense that if you are not very rich in Emerald City, then you are very poor.

Yet, according to statistics, not many of the very rich actually live in Emerald City. None of the city’s 50 neighborhoods has a median household income of $100,000. In the wealthiest one, median incomes are in the low 90s, less than the incomes just cited for the 10,600 civil servants. And since the median income of the entire city is only $47,000, it seems likely that a sociologist would analyze the situation as one in which a comparatively small number of city employees ruthlessly exploit the great majority of their employers, giving them practically nothing in return.

The sociologist might then turn to the political scientist and ask, “How long can this go on?” The political scientist might answer, “Who knows? Somehow, the voters of Emerald City have empowered the same political party, the same political customs, the same political regime, for more than three generations, no matter what happened as a result. This looks like a job for a psychologist.”

Recent visitors speak of filthy streets, ridiculous traffic, ugly social customs, and a general sense that if you are not very rich in Emerald City, then you are very poor.

Thus consulted, the psychologist would probably say, “The citizens of Emerald City are like almost everyone else in the United States. They all do things like this. Who am I to judge? Statistically, people in Emerald City are sane and normal.”

I think there’s a chapter in one of the Oz books where this problem comes up. Having discovered what is actually going on in the Emerald City, a crowd rushes to the palace, shouting, “To the Wizard! To the Wizard! The Wizard will explain it!” Sure enough, the door of the palace opens, and out comes the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. He’s carrying a book, and he says, “Back where I come from, we have people who are called theo . . . theologo . . . theologians! They spend all day thinking about the human soul. And they have nothing more to say about it than they can find in this old book.”

The Wizard opens it and reads:

A wonderful and horrible thing is committed in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and my people love to have it so: and what will ye do in the end thereof?

“So,” said the Wizard, “you can all go home. Get out of here now — go on! Go on home.”




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Music Hath Charms

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“What is the soundtrack of your life?”

Shedrick “B,” an inmate presenter at the TEDx Sing Sing I helped organize a few years ago, asked that question of the audience of 100 or so civilians and inmates. He went on to explain that music has the power to transport him back to certain moments in his life: holding hands with his first girlfriend, ice skating at Rockefeller Center, Christmas Eve with his family, being booked for the crime that landed him in prison. When he hears the songs he remembers, he returns to those moments, good and bad.

With the invention of the MP3 player and iPhone, music could indeed become the soundtrack of our lives. Suddenly we had instant access to thousands of songs that used to be piled in a shoebox or stored in the wrong jewel case in a closet back home. And with music-streaming platforms like Pandora, we have access to thousands more songs that we haven’t even purchased. We can listen to music when we’re walking, driving, biking, talking, waiting, even sleeping. When I go hiking, the station I select — sometimes upbeat ’60s, sometimes a mellow Coldplay, sometimes classical or Broadway or hymns — controls my mood and thus my experience. It was inevitable that a movie would take that ubiquity and turn it into a giant of a movie. That movie is Baby Driver.

Baby isn’t just skilled; he’s a veritable savant, and we barely hang onto our seats as he hightails the robbers through the streets of Atlanta.

Other films have toyed with the concept; Woody Allen is known for the jazz pieces he selects for his soundtracks. Music stands out in Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014). Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), the protagonist in Guardians of the Galaxy (also 2014), listens to an ’80s mix tape his mother made for him as he gathers the energy to save the universe. The soundtrack was the best part of Guardians, and fans couldn’t wait to hear the selections for Guardians Vol. 2. Even calling it “Volume 2,” like an album, instead of “Part 2,” like a movie, acknowledges the importance of the music as a main ingredient of the franchise’s popularity.

But music isn’t just the soundtrack of Baby Driver; it’s the driving force. Baby (Ansel Elgort) can’t function unless his earbuds are delivering exactly the right playlist of high-octane music to his brain, even when his life depends on getting the hell out of there now. Baby is the highly skilled getaway driver for the mastermind, called Doc (Kevin Spacey), behind a series of bank and post office heists. He isn’t just skilled; he’s a veritable savant, and we barely hang onto our seats as he hightails the robbers through the streets of Atlanta while dodging cars, cops, and bullets. The music is perfectly synchronized with the actions and gestures of the characters, even when they’re sitting around a table having a conversation. It all creates the sense that we’re watching a choreographed concert as much as a movie.

Despite his childlike name, Baby is cooler than cool. No matter how many times he loses his sunglasses (or someone takes them) he has another pair in his pocket to replace them. He carries multiple iPods loaded with music for any occasion, and he doesn’t flinch when his life is endangered. When he isn’t driving like a stunt man, he’s running through streets and leaping over benches and stairs like a parkour expert.

Director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) heightens the fun with unexpected edits and background details. As Baby leaps through the streets to a chorus of “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,” the word “Yeah” is seen spray-painted on three successive trees, exactly in time to the music. In the window of the bank that’s being robbed, we see a poster advertising college loans — a kind of bank robbery itself, and a life sentence for many students who get in over their heads. When Baby is at a laundromat, the clothes cycling around in the dryer become a 45 record spinning us into the next scene. Baby uses sign language to communicate with his rheumy-eyed foster father Joseph (CJ Jones) who looks blind, not deaf.

When he isn’t driving like a stunt man, he’s running through streets and leaping over benches and stairs like a parkour expert.

We soon learn that Baby isn’t really a bad guy at heart. He’s gentle and thoughtful with Joseph. He’s in love with a sweet young waitress (Lily James), who is just as anxious to blow this town and start a new life as he is. But he owes a debt to Doc, the cool and sadistic mastermind, and he has to do one last job to be free of the debt. If you know anything at all about film scripts, you know that the words “one last job” can be deadly.

So Baby is enlisted for one last heist, driving Doc’s newly organized team (John Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Elza Gonzalez); as expected, things begin to go deliciously, suspensefully wrong. Baby takes a few wrong turns and a few right ones as he tries to extricate himself from Doc’s employ while protecting the two people he loves — and always with exactly the right music and the right pair of sunglasses to motivate him for the job. In my opinion the film jumps the shark toward the end, when a glaring red haze demonizes a particular character and culminates in the virtual fires of hell, but I can forgive that over-the-top indulgence. The entire film is over the top, and that’s what’s keeping it at the top of the box office. Baby Driver is a winner from the word “Go.”




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Welcome to My Neighborhood

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The first time we saw Connie she was packing a snub-nosed .38. It was strapped snugly to her narrow hips, which were wrapped in skin-tight jeans — knee-high black leather boots and matching jacket rounding out her outfit.

She didn’t look around as she mounted her Harley — or put on a helmet. Her dirty blonde mane was blowing in the breeze. Connie was hot, albeit a bit rough around the edges — what some people might call “rough trade.”

We’d just moved in across the street from her house, a plain, white block bungalow without frippery or landscaping, other than a lawn, doubtless maintained because of the nearly free irrigation water available — and her job.

Connie was hot, albeit a bit rough around the edges — what some people might call “rough trade.”

Parts of the Phoenix metro area are serviced by the Salt River Project (SRP) irrigation district, organized in the 1800s to exploit the flows of that perennial river for the benefit of the surrounding desert farms. Today, much of the farmland has been turned to housing, and the irrigation water, delivered by canals, to lawns bordered by berms to retain the water.

The schedules for lawn flooding are on a rotating continuous timescale, with no lawn receiving its share at the same time each irrigation period. Floodgates may be opened or shut at any time of the day or night, according to SRP’s schedule. Most homeowners, people who work regular jobs and value their sleep, prefer to hire out this task. Enter Connie, who, for a small fee, was available to take care of your irrigation responsibilities.

Within days after our move into the neighborhood, Connie came over to introduce herself, scope us out, and proffer her services. It didn’t take long for her to feel comfortable and express her relief that we weren’t black or Mexican. Before she got too carried away, ranting and raving against those two groups, I told her I was Cuban-American and my wife was Mexican-American.

She said she’d been married to a founder of the Aryan Nation, a white prison gang. I’ll let that sink in for a minute.

She said that was of no consequence. She was prejudiced against these people as a group, not against particular individuals, and she added that one of her best friends was black.

Yeah, right, I thought. To allay our doubts, she explained.

She said she’d been married to a founder of the Aryan Nation, a white prison gang. I’ll let that sink in for a minute. We had needed at least as long to absorb it. (What sort of neighborhood had we moved into?) She continued, explaining that the gang had been formed for protection and that racial and ethnic affinities were the simplest methods for organization. The gangs — black, white, and Chicano — set behavioral rules and enforced them. Compliance led to respect, and respect to incipient friendships — the tortuous path that had led her to a friendship with a black.

Whether Connie was a racist might be debatable, but her opinion of men was definitely single-minded. Glancing at Tina, my wife, and then locking eyeballs with me she declared in no uncertain terms that all men were after the same thing. Sex — no exceptions.

We signed up for her irrigation services.

Connie never answered her door. She figured only bad news would come calling. All visits had to be prearranged. Her house was ringed by security cameras, footage from which was usually available to neighbors to figure out neighborhood mysteries. On at least one occasion, she helped resolve a vandalism incident. Her boyfriend, a muscle-bound, tattooed skinhead in a permanent tank-top, was surprisingly modest and self-effacing. He would often wait hours in front of her door for a response.

Connie, however, was a meth head and occasionally went on binges. Once past the high, she’d get nasty and combative but then, when coming down, would sink into maudlin depression. Her solace was Frannie, our octogenarian neighbor. Frannie was a talented oil-on-canvas painter, fluent in Mandarin and Swahili, and a horny old woman. She and Tina would often share a glass of wine in the afternoon under the carport and talk men. I think it was Frannie’s affinity for Tina that facilitated Connie’s trust in us.

Connie never answered her door. She figured only bad news would come calling. All visits had to be prearranged.

Connie once invited Tina to a shooting range. She’d always wanted to try some shooting, so she enthusiastically accepted. Connie provided Tina with what Tina called a “complicated” handgun, while Connie took a semi-automatic rifle (Tina, knowing little about guns, called it a machine gun).

The female bonding experience was going well until Tina became friendly with the cops who were sharpening their skills in the adjacent gallery. Connie turned combative and abruptly cancelled the date.

Her immediate neighbors were of two minds about her. The family due west was reminiscent of the Gallaghers, the family depicted in the TV series Shameless — dissolute, disorganized, undisciplined, and possessed of a passel of kids. Connie pirated her TV cable off their cable and, I believe (I didn’t pry), shared the monthly fee. The family due east was a couple of editors for the Arizona Republic, the state’s leading newspaper. They and Connie were feuding — something having to do with a tree growing over the cyclone fence separating their back yards.

When Connie found out I was a mason, she asked that I build a block wall between her property and these neighbors’. Except for those lots, most properties in the old subdivision were separated by four-inch-thick block walls supported every ten feet by eight-inch-thick block pillars. I agreed, but I needed to look at her back yard to estimate the extent of the job. She took us over for a look.

Her home was neat and clean. She’d remodeled the tract house to carve out a tiny control room where she monitored the surveillance cameras, and a gun closet where her arsenal was stored. But her bedroom took the cake. A four-poster, crinolined, oversized bed dominated the room, together with a four-by-eight mirror on the ceiling. We didn’t ask.

Frannie was a talented oil-on-canvas painter, fluent in Mandarin and Swahili, and a horny old woman.

Connie didn’t depend for her income on just being the irrigator. When a neighbor discovered her call-girl website, the place went ballistic. (Meanwhile, of course, all the men surreptitiously peeked at her website.) Two doors down from Connie and one door down from the Gallagher-like family lived a cop. He knew all about Connie. He refused to get involved. His philosophy was, if Connie didn’t disrupt the neighborhood, he left well enough alone.

One midday our house was broken into. Purely by happenstance, Tina showed up while the burglar was inside. Tina didn’t hesitate; although small in stature, she was fearless, a rock climber, and built like a female Schwarzenegger. She opened the door and bee-lined toward the hubbub. Catching the thief as she was attempting to climb out the window, Tina wrestled her to the ground and was about to begin pounding when the woman yelled that she was pregnant.

Having been brought up by drug-addled parents in dodgy environments and shuttled between foster homes, Tina had street smarts and could spot a line of BS instantly. “That jewelry that you stole was given to me by my husband just before he was killed in a shoot-out,” she responded, giving the thief pause.

Tina dragged her to the phone and called 911. The operator told her not to attempt to apprehend the thief. While Tina was on the phone, the thief slipped her grip, ran across the street, and jumped up on the four-inch block wall separating Connie’s house from her cable-sharing neighbors. Then, incredibly, she ran atop its length to the next street, where her car was parked. For all her athletic abilities, Tina couldn’t catch up, though she did provide a description of the car.

Catching the thief as she was attempting to climb out the window, Tina wrestled her to the ground.

The thief didn’t get away. Two female officers had already been dispatched and caught her attempting to flee. Tina ID’d the woman and, expecting a lecture about taking the law into her own hands, apologized to the officers for not following the dispatcher’s orders concerning the thief’s apprehension. Instead, the cops congratulated her and expressed a wish that more citizens would get more involved. They added that the woman had done time and was under suspicion and surveillance for similar burglaries in the area — one reason they’d been able to respond so quickly.

When we related these events to Connie, she said the woman was lucky she hadn’t broken into her house.

I never built a wall for Connie; she was too unpredictable. Instead of improving, Connie’s situation deteriorated. She took more drugs, got more combative, and alienated more neighbors. We sold our house at the top of the market bubble (the one that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner didn’t spot), made a tidy profit, and moved away. Frannie told us that Connie ended up in prison for, I think, owning a firearm — a no-no for a convicted felon.

I love a diverse neighborhood: academic editors, polyglot artists, cops, Aryan Brotherhood meth heads, Cuban & Mexican-Americans, housing bubble speculators, handy call girls, classic car collectors, and other unique personalities we never got a chance to meet.

Our new neighborhood in a small town, anarchic in a completely different way, is calmer. While the characters aren't quite so extremely colorful, the property mix — along winding and hilly streets that change names seemingly without logic, and irregular land parcels — contains multimillion-dollar homes on acreage next to mobile homes and modest DIY homes on small lots, and even a nearly perennial creek called Miller Creek. We don’t even lock our doors.




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There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Reverse Mortgage

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Hell or High Water is a classic film about down-on-their-luck bank robbers and the gruff-but-tenderhearted sheriff who doggedly chases them. The bank robbers are brothers Tanner (Ben Foster), an ex-con recently released from prison, and Toby (Chris Pine), a rancher trying to save the family home from foreclosure because the recently deceased mother had tied it up with a reverse mortgage. Come “hell or high water,” they are determined to pay off the debt before the bank gets the ranch.

There isn’t a bad guy in this film. The robbers are bumbling and likeable, with a noble if misguided motive. “We ain’t stealing from you, we’re stealing from the bank,” Tanner tells one bank manager as he points a gun at him. They’re smart enough to garner our admiration for their home-saving plan, dumb enough to make us laugh, and kind enough to tellers and waitresses to engage our sympathy. The bank managers and tellers are also just ordinary folks doing their jobs, and a little bit dumb as well. Their video cameras aren’t working, and they seem to have no security plan in place. If anyone could be considered a villain in this film, it would be faceless bank presidents and real-life folks such as Alex Trebek and Tom Selleck, the television hucksters who promote reverse mortgages as the financial saviors of old age — but they don’t actually appear in the movie.

It’s a brilliant piece of acting from a brilliant and underappreciated actor.

As inept as they seem, Toby and Tanner leave no clues behind — largely because the bankers are so inept themselves. Sheriff Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is determined to catch these thieves through cunning instead of force. He would rather figure out their next move and wait for them at the next bank than chase them down with forensics and SWAT teams. He’s an old codger of the proverbial “dying breed,” and the true thief in this film — Jeff Bridges steals the show. Bridges has long been one of my favorite actors, as skilled as Tom Hanks but without the pizazz and notoriety. He just gets the job done, quietly and without fanfare, much as his character, Marcus Hamilton, does in the script.

Underlying the bank heists and chase scenes and good-ol’-boy ribbing is a poignant story about how difficult it can be for men to express deep affection for one another. Tanner and Toby clearly love each other, yet they can’t put that love into words. Instead, they undertake a risky scheme to demonstrate their loyalty to each other. Similarly, Toby is estranged from his sons, who want nothing to do with him, yet he is willing to risk death or prison in order to give them a better life.

If anyone could be considered a villain in this film, it would be faceless bank presidents and real-life folks such as Alex Trebek and Tom Selleck, the television hucksters who promote reverse mortgages.

The relationship between the sheriff and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) is even more striking. Marcus is an old-fashioned “man’s man” who can’t express his appreciation or affection in words. Instead, he peppers his Native American partner with an incessant barrage of racist jokes and stereotypes that cause the audience to cringe and laugh at the same time. But we catch a glimpse of his true emotion in a particular moment when Marcus first laughs in exultation over something he has just accomplished, then strangles that laugh into a sob, and then lifts his head with stoic calmness and moves on. It’s a brilliant piece of acting from a brilliant and underappreciated actor.

Hell or High Water is a character-driven film with an engaging story and topnotch acting. I’ve come to expect the best from Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges, who tend to abandon themselves in their acting and let the character take over with gestures and expressions that are simply and unexpectedly perfect. But Chris Pine, who is known mostly as an action figure with a pretty face (Star Trek, Jack Ryan), delivers a surprisingly nuanced performance as well. Come hell or high water, you should see this film while it’s in theaters this month.


Editor's Note: Review of "Hell or High Water," directed by David Mackenzie. Film 44 / Odd Lot Entertainment (that’s right — not a big studio; they’re all busy making superhero movies), 2016, 102 minutes.



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Riddles, Wrapped in Mysteries

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How in the world did this happen?

That’s a question I often ask myself when I read the news. When I ask it, I’m seldom reacting to the events reported. One can easily imagine what makes drunk drivers crash into trees, or political parties disgrace themselves before their constituents. But how in the world did the report end up that way?

On July 11, an inmate in the Berrien County, Michigan jail snatched a gun from an officer and began shooting people. Reporting on this event as it developed, the Washington Post went for some local color:

Video footage posted online that appeared to be from outside the courthouse in southwestern Michigan showed a litany of police vehicles with their lights flashing parked outside the building. . . .

The courthouse is located about 50 miles west of Kalamazoo, where an Uber driver killed six people in a shooting spree earlier this year.

It isn’t hard to see what went wrong with that first sentence. Somebody wanted to jazz it up, and he or she remembered that there was, somewhere in the dictionary, perhaps under the letter “l,” the word litany. Why not use that word? The reason not to use it was merely that it doesn’t mean a line of vehicles, or a line of any kind of objects. It means a series of things one says in church. Its use was, therefore, ludicrous in the extreme.

Oh well, bad guess. A couple of hours later, the sentence was revised to read: “Video footage posted online that appeared to be from outside the courthouse in southwestern Michigan showed numerous police vehicles, their lights flashing. . . .” In some dark cavern of the Washpo building, a graybeard had been found who actually knew what is the meaning of litany.

Did the Washington Post mean to suggest that Uber drivers from Kalamazoo infest the grounds of the Berrien County courthouse, waiting a chance at murder and mayhem?

But what about the second sentence? It was changed, too; the word located was excised: “The courthouse is about 50 miles west of Kalamazoo, where an Uber driver killed six people in a shooting spree earlier this year.” Well, that’s fussy, isn’t it? And it was a fussiness triumphant over meaning. No one addressed the issue of the strange, unfinished quality of the sentence as a whole.

What does it mean to say that the courthouse where an inmate tried to escape is 50 miles west of a town where an Uber driver started killing people at random because, according to him, his app told him to do it? What are we supposed to make of this peculiar lesson in geography? Did the Washington Post mean to hint that there was some hidden connection between events that happened 50 miles, 264,000 feet, away? Did it mean to suggest that Uber drivers from Kalamazoo infest the grounds of the Berrien County courthouse, waiting a chance at murder and mayhem? Or that the Berrien County inmate was an Uber driver in disguise? Or that southwestern Michigan is not, as it appears to be, a lovely champaign country of farms and woodlands — that it is instead a focus of violence in our modern world? Or are we simply to assume that the august editors of America’s second-ranking “intellectual” paper are unable to spot and remove a silly factoid extracted from Google Maps?

We will never know. On this point we must remain as ignorant as MSNBC alleged itself to be when it ran this headline during the terrorist episode in Dhaka on July 1:

Was the Bangla Desh attack premeditated?

Was it? Let’s see. . . . On the evening of July 1, five terrorists attacked a café frequented by foreigners, took hostages, and executed people who were unable to recite passages from the Quran. Twenty-nine people died. Might this event have been premeditated? Gosh, how could MSNBC, or anyone else, for that matter, possibly divine the answer to a question like that? You have to see how these things play out, wait for the investigation, call in the experts. Even then, you may never reach the definitive explanation. When you hear that a bunch of people have invaded a café and taken hostages, you shouldn’t rush to judgment about the way it happened. Even long afterward, you may still be asking, with Mrs. Clinton, "Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night and decided they’d go kill some foreigners? What difference — at this point, what difference does it make?"

But you can bet that if a bunch of Baptists, en route to some fundamentalist conclave, were stopped for speeding with an unlicensed gun in their trunk, not a minute would pass before MSNBC and all the rest of them would be talking about nothing except the vast rightwing conspiracy.

Of course, there are many things that American journalists neither know nor care about, even while feeling obliged to “report” them. One is the sickening number of murders, mainly of young black and Hispanic people, in America’s inner cities (i.e., cities that are completely dominated by Democrats). The statistics are sometimes given, the deaths are pronounced unfortunate, but no explanations are provided. May these terrible events have something to do with the War on Drugs and the War on Poverty, which were succeeded by a civil war within the young male populations most affected by them? Just a thought, which is one more thought than the Washington Post and the New York Times are willing to come out with. I don’t believe that calling these murders “gun deaths” qualifies as an explanatory thought. It qualifies only as willful ignorance.

This type of ignorance actually deepens when we turn to news reports on foreign people. I recently read a report on the tribal wars in South Sudan, a story that waited until paragraph 19 to indicate that the violence was occurring between members of different tribes. Readers were left to guess that tribal rivalry might conceivably be the cause of the terror that had been described in lavish detail by the first 18 paragraphs. No interest was expressed in exploring the idea.

May these terrible events have something to do with the War on Drugs and the War on Poverty, which were succeeded by a civil war within the young male populations most affected by them?

All right, you say, reporting on Africa has never been very interested, except when white people have been concerned. That’s a fact, although it’s not a fact to be proud of. But even big reports on big events in Europe are full of real or constructed ignorance.

A funny example was Christiane Amanpour’s alleged reporting on the Brexit vote for CNN. How this woman with the empty head and the foghorn voice ever got a job, much less managed to hold it for generations, is beyond me. But as the Brexit returns came in, she gave the most amusing of her many unconsciously amusing performances. Clearly shocked by results she did not desire and had not imagined, she mourned, she spluttered, she pontificated, she asked the hapless people she “interviewed” how it was possible that the voters should have ignored “all the experts”? Well, as demonstrated by the results of her “interviews,” if you don’t already know a thing like that, no one can explain it to you. And since she couldn’t understand the obvious answers to her endlessly repeated “experts” question, it would clearly have been hopeless for anyone to bring up the next point, which was why people like her should be regarded as experts in the first place, if they can’t conceive of anyone disagreeing with them.

A less amusing example of ignorance came from the Washington Post (which, I see, has emerged as the chief villain of this month’s column). The Post ran a long “report” on the sexual attacks perpetrated by men from Islamic countries, many or most of them “refugees,” during the 2015–16 New Year’s festivities in Germany. The events themselves were scandalous; even more scandalous was the subsequent cover-up by police and political authorities. At length, the terrible information came to light: hundreds of women had been attacked. And now, a still more terrible thing has been revealed: more than 1,200 women were attacked, by more than 2,000 men.

Even big reports on big events in Europe are full of real or constructed ignorance.

Somewhere, a sufficient explanation must exist for the fact that liberal media and public figures do everything they can to deflect blame from people (i.e., radical Muslims) who violently oppose the liberals’ most cherished values, people who persecute gays, victimize women, and systematically deny the rights of everyone who does not profess their religion. The fact is notorious, and since I do not have an adequate explanation myself, I will merely state that fact and comment on one of its worst effects, which is to obscure the distinction between barbarian fanatics, who commit horrible crimes, and modern, progressive, enlightened Muslims, who would not dream of doing so. To treat the members of a white supremacist church with the same sweet condescension that one extends to the nice ladies in the altar guild at St. Anne’s would be to demoralize the latter while inciting the former. This is obvious. It is something that everyone knows, or ought to know.

But here is the intellectual payoff (if you want to call it that) of the Washington Post’s report on the German liberals’ attempted cover-up of the events of New Year’s Eve:

The delay in communicating the extent of the New Year's Eve crimes [“delay in communicating” = “cover-up,” a word that appears nowhere in the report] is most likely due to a balancing act between the determination of the Cologne police force to not fuel tensions against refugees and the public expectation to fully reveal what happened that night.

That wad of words, so complicated, so self-conscious, so faux-judicious, virtually cries out, “How clever I am!” But again: how did it happen? Did anyone at the Post actually read that sentence? I mean, did anyone spend the 30 seconds necessary to determine whether it made sense? Not whether it was true, or even whether it employed good grammar — which it doesn’t — but simply whether it made any sense. The answer appears to be No.

What does the sentence say? It says that there were two things being balanced. One was the cops’ politically motivated determination (not just desire, but determination) to cover something up. The other was the public’s desire to know. And the result was that the cops covered something up. Where’s the balance in that? There isn’t any; the whole business about a “balancing act” is meaningless.

I hope I am right in suggesting that nobody read that sentence to see whether it had any meaning. The alternative — that somebody read it and thought it was right in every way and looked forward to readers’ being influenced by it — is almost too shocking to consider.




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We Are All Victims Now

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On April 30 a 19-year-old Arizona man was arrested on 70 criminal charges after it was discovered that, in a picture taken last August of his high-school football team, the tip of his penis was protruding from the top of his pants. Although the photo, joke included, appeared in his high school yearbook and in programs distributed at sports events, it took all this time for someone to notice the little flash of penis. Nevertheless, “Mesa [Arizona] police booked Osborn [that’s the kid] on one count of furnishing obscene material to minors, a felony, and 69 counts of indecent exposure. Ten faculty members and 59 students were present when Osborn exposed himself and are considered victims, according to police and court documents.”

This happened in a country in which Prince, a musician who appeared on stage and in videos with his naked butt protruding from his costume, while dancers mimicked sex acts, was mourned as a national hero after his death from an apparent drug overdose; a country in which the most profitable music lyrics are so obscene and violent that journals not labeled “adult” never quote them; a country in which, over two decades ago, the Surgeon General suggested that young people be taught to masturbate; a country in which hundreds of thousands of young women are exploited as “baby mamas” by irresponsible men; a country in which major corporations boycott a state because it does not stipulate that people can enter any restroom that matches their own idea of their gender; a country in which . . . Add your own examples. This is the country in which 70 people became sexual victims without even knowing that anything happened to them.

By the way, the charges against the young man have now been dropped. There was a public outcry, thank God. Now I hope we can all focus our attention on our national schizophrenia about sex.




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And the Winner Is . . .

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Who would ever have thought that a Mad Max film would earn a nomination for Best Picture from the staid and serious Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences? “Oh what a day — what a lovely day!” was my reaction when I heard the news (quoting a character from the film).

I wrote in my review last spring: “The characters aren’t nuanced, the storyline is one unending chase scene, and the dialogue is almost nonexistent. Still, it’s the craziest, wildest, most badass thrill ride to come to a theater since — well, since Mad Max: Road Warrior premiered in 1981.” Do I think it will win? Not a chance. But as I wrote in that review, “for pure, nonstop thrills with an undercurrent of resonant mythology and a libertarian hero just looking out for himself, Fury Road can’t be beat.”

I’ve already reviewed half of the nominees for Best Picture, including The Martian ; The Revenant; The Big Short; and Bridge of Spies, in which Tom Hanks once again heads a Best Picture cast without being nominated for Best Actor. Go figure. Here I round out the category by reviewing Spotlight, Room, andBrooklyn.

In 2002 the Boston Globe presented a story that was shocking not only in its subject but in its scope: over the course of several decades, Catholic priests had molested hundreds of children in the Boston area, and the church’s response had been to cover it up by quietly paying settlements and transferring the priests to other areas, where many of them molested other children. “Spotlight” was the name of the investigative team that uncovered the scandal, and it is the name of the film that has been nominated for Best Picture.

"Spotlight" adopts a didactic tone more appropriate to a documentary than a fictional narrative and just as dry.

There’s a risk inherent in focusing on the reporters who told the story rather than on the story itself. While we admire the reporters’ diligence, tenacity, and determination to get it right, writing — even when it entails researching and interviewing — is mostly a static pursuit. The actors do their best to make their scenes dynamic and interesting, and the writers did their best to introduce some action for the reporters: Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) jogs to work and attends a baseball game, William Robinson (Michael Keaton) plays golf, Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) does a walk-and-chat through a park with a molestation survivor (Michael Cyril Creighton), and Matt Carol (Brian D’Arcy James) runs up the street to look at a neighboring house. But that’s about it in the action department.

To me, the movie is mostly a script for talking heads. To be sure, it is a well-written script filled with the kind of loaded, eloquent dialogue that writers tend to write, and the subject is clearly important. The actors have been praised for mimicking the real reporters so well, and indeed they gesture skillfully, squint concernedly, touch their faces absently, and adopt careful postures and stances that they have observed by studying the actual reporters. But it looks staged, more artifice than art.

Spotlight also adopts a didactic tone more appropriate to a documentary than a fictional narrative and strangely (for a film with this topic) just as dry. We learn statistics about the “recognizable psychiatric phenomenon” of abusive priests and the cult of secrecy caused by forced celibacy that isn’t really enforced. We hear important opinions about how such heinous crimes could be committed against so many children without anyone stopping it, thoughts such as “if it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to abuse one,” and “lawyers turned child abuse into a cottage industry” by quietly brokering secret settlements. We also hear moments of bitter irony, as when one survivor says, “the priests preyed on us instead of praying for us,” and when Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), who represented the church in covering up the crimes, says after the attacks on the World Trade Center, “Pray for the victims, pray for the injured, pray for those who survived.” The same could be said, of course, for the children who were molested. But this didacticism is hardly original; it was all in the articles we read when the stories broke.

Even worse, the men who had been molested as children — all of them — are portrayed as broken, stunted, and socially inept, not survivors at all, but victims. Sadly, I know many people who were molested as children, most of them by family members or neighbors. They have scars and sorrows, but they are neither broken nor socially inept. Most of them are strong, active, and successful. You simply would not know what they have endured. It isn’t right to portray all of these survivors in this way.

If nothing exists on the other side of the door, then there is no reason to grieve or long for release.

Spotlight tells an important story, but despite the protagonists’ success, it isn’t one of those films that makes you cheer their success. Yes, the reporters broke the story and forced the church to do something about the abusive priests. Yes, the film demonstrates journalism at its best in terms of the diligent digging, insistence on accuracy, and compassion toward the survivors interviewed. Yes, it allows hundreds of victims to tell their stories. But despite all this, it is a tedious film, and all I could feel was relief when it was over.

Room addresses a similarly horrifying topic. It’s every parent’s greatest fear: a child goes off to school and doesn’t return. Simply vanishes. Hours go by, then days. Then weeks. Has she been kidnapped? Murdered? Did she run away? Then years. Life is never the same, because you can’t even grieve — you have to keep hope alive, and that means telling yourself that your child isn’t dead, that someday she will walk back through that door, and everything will be the same again. Anything less is betrayal. To “move on” would be like killing her yourself. So you wait. Or maybe you do move on. Either one is agony.

Room tells the story of such a young woman. Joy (Brie Larson) has been kidnapped at the age of 17 and held hostage for seven years in a small shed, where she is abused by her captor every night and has no hope of escape. But if you are looking for (or have been avoiding) a lurid, prurient tale of sexual abuse, you won’t find it here. Instead, the story is told through the innocent eyes of Joy’s five-year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who, because he has never known any other world than “Room,” is content with his life and the characters who populate it: Sink, Bed, Wardrobe, Chair, Bathtub. The world he sees on the screen of a small television set is just a nice fantasy.

Like the whimsical father (Roberto Benigni) in Life is Beautiful (1997), who shields his little boy from the truth of their captivity in a concentration camp by making a game of it, Joy has determined to create the semblance of a normal life in an abnormal world by acting as though Room is the entire world. If nothing exists on the other side of the door, then there is no reason to grieve or long for release. Jack is content, and his presence makes her life endurable.

Nevertheless, when Joy thinks of a way for Jack to escape, she forces him to take it, no matter what the consequences might be for her. Jack’s terror as he tries to get away from a world that seemed normal to him creates the most harrowing scenes in the film. My heart was racing the whole time.

That’s about it: just a simple love triangle, the kind you might find in a Harlequin romance.

One would expect that escape from the shed would mark the climax, but it’s really just the middle. Room is told in two solid acts, and in the second we learn that there is more than one way to be imprisoned. Joy’s parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy) have also been held hostage by Joy’s kidnapping, unable to move forward, unable even to change the room where Joy grew up. They are trapped by their expectations, trapped by their imaginations, trapped by their blaming and their guilt. Jack becomes trapped as well, in a world so gigantic he doesn’t know how to process it. Even more poignantly, Joy has to escape the confining expectations she has nurtured about what it would be like to leave Room and go home. The film asks us to consider what makes a woman a mother, what makes a man a father, and what makes a place a home.

Brooklyn is another Best Picture nominee that asks us to consider what “home” means. Beautifully filmed in Ireland and Brooklyn, as they were in 1951, the sweeping landscapes and nostalgic cityscapes are full of soft blues and greens that highlight the blue-green eyes of the movie’s protagonist, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan). Eilis loves Ireland and her family, but like so many Irish citizens of the period, she is a bright young woman with a drab future as a part-time shopkeeper. When a family friend arranges for an invitation and a job in America, she takes it.

There she lives in a modest boardinghouse run by a motherly woman who watches over the morals of the girls who live with her, even as she pushes them into social situations where they can find a nice Irish immigrant to marry. Eilis finds Tony (Emery Cohen), a nice Italian immigrant, instead. Tony eases Eilis’ homesickness, and they fall sweetly in love. However, when Eilis returns to Ireland for a visit, the familiarity of home wraps itself comfortingly around her. Eventually she must choose between two men who love her: the comfortable Irishman (Domhnall Gleeson) and the New World Italian.

Her choice is not so much about the man who will be her husband as it is about the style of life that goes with the man.

That’s about it: just a simple love triangle, the kind you might find in a Harlequin romance. Not your usual Best Picture fare. But the production values lift it to award-winning possibilities. The cinematography is lovely, as are the costumes and set pieces. The music is evocative, and the acting is superb, especially Eilis’ controlled, reserved passion and Tony’s Brandoesque tender exuberance.

Moreover, Brooklyn is more than a romance; it’s a classic journey tale. Eilis journeys not just from Ireland to Brooklyn but from childhood to adulthood. Her choice is not so much about the man who will be her husband as it is about the style of life that goes with the man. At one point Eilis says, “I’m not sure I have a home anymore.” She learns in the end that “Home is where your life is.” And when she chooses the life, she embraces the man.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Spotlight," directed by Tom McCarthy. Open Road Films, 2015, 128 minutes; "Room," directed by Lenny Abrahamson. A24, 2015, 118 minutes; and "Brooklyn," directed by John Crowley. Wildgaze Films, 2015, 111 minutes.



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Alive! It’s Still Alive!

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In 1823 Hugh Glass, a fur trapper and explorer, was mauled by a bear and left for dead by the soldiers who were ordered to remain with him until he either recovered or died naturally. One of these guardians was 19-year-old Jim Bridger (yes, that Jim Bridger, who would become a significant explorer of the American West). Alone and without any weapons or supplies, Glass managed to set his own broken leg, dress his own wounds, and drag himself 200 miles to Fort Kiowa, where he vowed revenge against those who had abandoned him. His story became the stuff of wilderness lore for nearly two centuries, and provided material for numerous articles, books, and movies, including Man in the Wilderness (1971) with Richard Harris in the title role.

In the hands of director Alejandro González Iñárritu, and actor Leonardo DiCaprio as Glass, this story outshines them all. A 19th-century romantic sensibility runs through the film, beginning with the cinematography that mimics the Hudson River School of art with its soaring landscapes overshadowing the humans; at one point Glass is a mere speck in an ocean of snow, barely visible between two towering mountains. Romanticism also appears in the film’s reverence for nature and the “noble savage,” its presentation of spiritualism and the occult, and its celebration of rugged individualism. The film is an exquisitely beautiful paean to nature. All this occurs through the artistry of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who could be experiencing a hat trick at the Oscars, after taking home the award for cinematography (Gravity, Birdman) the past two years. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s musical score, with its deep somber strings resonating with sorrow and grief, is also masterly.

Most of all, though, it’s a thrilling story with many heartstopping moments. I heard myself shouting, “Oh no oh no oh no!” as I felt myself plunging headfirst over a cliff. I also hurtled down rivers and over waterfalls, endured bloody hand-to-hand combat (including a fight with that bear), encountered stunning dream sequences, and could swear the overhead fans swirled icy air through the theater whenever Glass was nearly freezing to death.

At one point Glass is a mere speck in an ocean of snow, barely visible between two towering mountains.

Three main storylines intertwine to develop the plot. First, a group of fur trappers must make its way to safety at Fort Kiowa, after being attacked by Indians and losing most of its men. The group is led by Glass and his Indian son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) until Glass is mauled by a grizzly protecting her cubs. It’s one of the most terrifyingly realistic animal encounters I’ve ever seen on film. I don’t know how DiCaprio had the courage to make this scene, and I don’t even want to know how they did it; I just want to believe it. Second, in a reverse allusion to John Wayne’s The Searchers (1956), the Indians are searching for their leader’s daughter, who has been kidnapped by a group of white men. Finally, a group of French fur traders contributes to the problems encountered by both of the other groups.

At the center of the conflict is Glass’ personal vendetta against John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), the man who has killed his son and then abandoned Glass to a premature grave. Fitzgerald is an illiterate adventurer whose backwoods accent is so thick it’s sometimes hard to understand his words. But there’s no misunderstanding his pragmatic survivalism. When Bridger (Will Poulter) reminds him to think of his life, Fitzgerald responds, “Life? I ain’t got no life. All I got is livin’.” With no hope for a life beyond trapping, he is motivated only by his animalistic need for protection, food, and shelter. But Glass does have a life, or at least he did; he had a son. His desire for revenge motivates him to keep moving when others would have given up and died. He emerges from his grave as a man emerging from the womb of the earth. Wrapped in the skin of the bear that mauled him, he becomes the bear, avenging the cub he could not protect.

As did the romantic artists and writers of the era in which this film is set, The Revenant champions rugged individuality. Iñárritu does this by contrasting pack mentality with the personal choice and actions of individuals on their own. For example, an early scene shows the fur trappers skinning hundreds of animals and leaving behind stacks of bloody carcasses to demonstrate the wanton waste and brutality of their trade. Soon after this scene we see Glass and his son Hawk stalking and killing a moose that they intend to eat, and we feel respect for their skill and their reverence for nature. Indeed, the men of all three groups are kept alive in the frigid winterland by wearing bearskin coats and hats. Later, a pack of wolves chases down a bison calf and kills it, and we feel horror for the calf. But when Glass catches a fish barehanded and bites its head off, straight out of the water, we feel how famished he is and again respect his skill. Similarly, when whites or Indians are in groups, they massacre each other’s villages viciously. But when Bridger sees a lone Indian woman in one of those massacred villages, he leaves behind a packet of food for her, and when a Pawnee Indian comes upon Glass in the wilderness, he shares his food, dresses Glass’ wounds, and gives him a ride. In short, groups are tyrannical, individuals are kind. I don’t know whether it was Iñárritu’s intent to demonstrate the tyranny of the masses vs. the nobility of the individual, but I found this aspect of the film quite satisfying.

Iñárritu gets the kind of budgetary green lights other directors can only dream of, and for good reason: he knows what to do with it. He is one of the most visionary directors in Hollywood today and will settle for nothing less than what he envisions a film to be. He has a reputation for being demanding and uncaring toward his actors and his crew; to make The Revenant they froze, they starved, and they froze some more. You can see the exhaustion and desperation in the actors’ eyes, and it’s perfect for the film. Reportedly some crew walked off the set, saying it was too dangerous and too hard. I can’t blame them. Yet those who stayed behind had the opportunity to make something remarkable. The Revenant is a film you will discuss on many levels for a very long time. It’s long, but oh my goodness, is it gorgeous!

The Revenant champions rugged individuality by contrasting pack mentality with the personal choice and actions of individuals on their own.

Another director known for his visionary style, engaging stories and brutal scenes is Quentin Tarantino, who has lately developed a tradition of releasing a new film on Christmas Day. Now, I would never choose a bloody Tarantino film to celebrate the joy of Christmas, especially one with the title The Hateful Eight. But movies are the “gifts that keep on giving,” so I waited to see his latest offering until two weeks later.

The two films have several other characteristics in common, in addition to the distinctiveness of their directors. Both are westerns that begin with expansive snowy landscapes reminiscent of the Romantic era, with characters appearing as mere specks in the frame. Both contain gorgeous musical scores that establish the mood of each scene and carry the story forward. Both tell intense stories that lead to graphic, bloody battles. Both plots are driven by the capture of a woman, and characters in each film are driven by a desire for revenge. Both even contain characters who whimsically stick out fat tongues on which to catch snowflakes, and both have characters who lose their testicles. So what sets them apart?

Let’s turn to The Hateful Eight. This is Tarantino’s eighth feature film (if you don’t count his segments in Four Rooms and Sin City, but you do count his half of Grindhouse, and you count Kill Bill as one film, even though it was released as two separate films . . .) Maybe you get the idea. Tarantino loves to create homages and echoes and allusions, and calling this one The Hateful Eight (which he arrives at by not counting the stagecoach driver, who would be the ninth character in the film) is important to him because it allows an allusion to Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), the title of which was chosen because Fellini had then made eight and a half films. Tarantino seems determined to make his homage fit, even if it means cutting off his toe to cram his size 10 foot into Fellini’s size 8 ½ glass slipper.

Tarantino waits a long time before the bloodbath begins, and even when it finally does, it isn’t at all what you expect.

As you can see, the homages and allusions and traditions can become a bit too precious and overbearing, but at the same time they create a certain resonance in Tarantino’s works that his fans have come to expect and enjoy. He also likes to include props and dialogue that astute fans will recognize from other films, and he has a stable of favorite actors who have become a veritable performance troupe with him. Fans also know to watch for his cameo appearance in his films, à la Alfred Hitchcock; in this one, which contains a closed setting similar to Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944), he voices the narrator.

Tarantino is also known for his orgiastic use of blood, which is always over the top, and always more than necessary. Way more. But he is a masterful storyteller, and that makes the gore almost worth enduring. Almost. I suppose many viewers have become inured to it by now. I have not.

In this film Tarantino waits a long time before the bloodbath begins, and even when it finally does, it isn’t at all what you expect. The first half of the story is immediately engaging. A stranger stops a stagecoach in the gathering snow and asks for a ride into town. The stagecoach is occupied by a bounty hunter named “Hanging John” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his prize, the outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The stranger turns out to be another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), and after some sparring and posturing the two bounty hunters are soon making their way by stagecoach to Red Rock, Wyoming, to deliver their cargo of outlaws. Major Marquis generally chooses the “dead” option in “Wanted Dead or Alive,” and he piles his three bodies atop the stagecoach where they are as stiff and oblivious as Grandma in National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983). “Hanging John,” on the other hand, believes in bringing them in alive so he can watch them hang. He keeps his lucrative captive handcuffed to him until he can exchange her for the $10,000 bounty. A third stranger (Will Poulter) also appears along the snowy road and joins them in the stagecoach. Tarantino develops the suspense in these opening scenes subtly. Knowing looks are exchanged between characters, unexplained props are noticed, and skillfully written music plays on our emotions. It is eerie and highly effective.

When the stage and its passengers encounter a blizzard, they pull into Minnie’s Haberdashery, a way station where four other travelers are already ensconced and Minnie is nowhere to be seen. No one trusts anyone else, and Ruth is particularly nervous that someone is going to get away with Daisy and steal his $10,000 bounty. The men exchange stories to pass the time, and as more and more details around the Haberdashery make less and less sense, the story plays out not only as a western but as a who-done-it and a what-exactly-has-been-done. It’s part Agatha Christie’s Then There Were None, part 3:10 to Yuma, part Magnificent Seven, part Canterbury Tales, part Hitchcock’s Rope, and some Friday the 13ththrown in for good measure.

With its single setting and familiar ensemble of actors, The Hateful Eight often feels as much like a stage play as it does a movie, and the jumble of genres becomes tedious when we are trapped with the characters in the cabin. But Jennifer Jason Leigh is particularly good as Daisy, the outlaw on her way to a hanging. She doesn’t have much dialogue, but she appears in most of the scenes. Just as then-newcomer Steve McQueen drew attention to himself in the Magnificent Seven by quietly making movements in the background — fingering his hat, spinning his gun, pacing around and generally upstaging Yul Brynner — Daisy wipes her noise, pokes around in her teeth, drags her tongue over her lips, grins seductively at the men despite her filthy ugliness, and steals nearly every scene. By contrast, Kurt Russell provides an understated performance as he channels John Wayne in the cadence of his drawl.

The story plays out not only as a western but as a who-done-it and a what-exactly-has-been-done.

Ennio Morricone’s original score is probably the best part of The Hateful Eight. Morricone scored most of the Sergio Leone “spaghetti westerns” that made Clint Eastwood a star. Morricone’s symphonic arrangements recall a 1950s sensibility, while his music controls the emotion of the film and leads the story throughout. It is a score that stands alone and could be enjoyed even without the film. I am not surprised that he won the Golden Globe award for original score, even though Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score for The Revenant is also a powerful and essential part of that film.

In 2007 two westerns set in the 20th century, No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, competed for the top film awards. This year we have two other westerns that were aiming for a shootout at the Oscars. Both have intense, gripping stories. Both demonstrate masterly cinematic skills. Both are long. But only one is gorgeous. The other made me want to go home and wash my eyes out with soap. There are many good reasons only The Revenant was nominated for Best Picture. Sorry, QT.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "The Revenant," directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. New Regency Pictures, 2015, 156 minutes; and "The Hateful Eight," directed by Quentin Tarantino. Weinstein Brothers, 2015, 165 minutes.



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Drugs Are the Least of the Problem

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The word “sicario” means “hit man” in Spanish, or more literally “dagger man.” Its use dates back to the Jewish Zealots who carried small daggers in their cloaks and assassinated Roman guards in the streets. A note at the beginning of the film Sicario informs us that these Zealots were “killers of those who invaded their homeland.” That would make them heroes with blood on their hands. The film presents two homelands, the United States and Mexico, that are invaded in different ways, and two sets of sicarios caught up in defending two ways of life that have been forever changed by the drug trade.

Drugs are the least of the problem in this film, which focuses instead on the collateral damage of the drug war. As the film opens, an FBI SWAT team led by agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is invading a home in Chandler, Arizona, a quiet middle-class suburb of Phoenix 200 miles north of the border with Mexico. I have friends who live comfortably there. Kate’s mission is not a drug bust but a hostage rescue, and her team drives straight through the wall of the house with their Humvee in their surprise attack. They are too late for anything but cleanup duty, however, and the grisly scene they find causes many of them to vomit. This is the next step in the drug war — not just the physical effects of drug addiction, or the big-money corruption that goes with the lucrative trade, but the personal terror, torture, and murder that are used to maintain strict control. And it’s coming to middle America, the movie warns.

Naked mutilated bodies hang from overpasses. Families attending their children’s soccer matches barely flinch at the barrage of gunshots in the distance. A shootout in the middle of a crowded road is largely ignored.

“Pretty soon all of your crime scenes will be booby-trapped with explosives, and then how will you protect your team?” Kate’s superior (Victor Garber) warns her as he tries to recruit her for a riskier mission that involves tracing the violence to its source, a kingpin named Fausto (Julio Cedillo), by interrogating a lower-level henchman, Guilllermo (Edgar Arreola), in custody in Juarez, Mexico. Kate agrees to join the mission to extricate Guillermo from Juarez, although she doesn’t understand her role in the plot (and frankly, neither do we).

As the scene changes to Juarez, we see the ravages of the drug war in full force. Naked mutilated bodies hang from overpasses. Families attending their children’s soccer matches barely flinch at the barrage of gunshots in the distance. A shootout in the middle of a crowded road is largely ignored by occupants in the surrounding cars. A father eats breakfast with his son and then goes off to his job as a policeman and drug mule. This is not the Juarez I knew 45 years ago, when my mother had no qualms about driving across the border with her two teenaged daughters to shop for cactus lace and sombreros. And I hope it is not a precursor of the Chandler my friends may soon know if the war on drugs continues its relentless invasion.

Leading the hunt for Fausto is a mysterious Colombian named Alejandro (Benecio del Toro). Kate eyes him warily while they travel to Juarez and then to Nogales, and tension builds in the silence. Then, as they enter Juarez, the music begins — a downward chromatic slide in a minor key that starts softly and builds to a pulsing, crashing arpeggio of despair as they race through the city, jolting full throttle over speed bumps, surrounded by armed escorts with machine guns at the ready. The tension ebbs and flows throughout the rest of the film, accompanied by the riveting soundtrack, but it never disappears.

This is not the Juarez I knew 45 years ago, when my mother had no qualms about driving across the border with her two teenaged daughters.

This is not the kind of film you watch for entertainment value. It is appalling in its matter-of-fact portrayal of brutality. But it is an important story, led by the tour de force acting skills of Del Toro and Blunt. We’ve come to expect Del Toro’s steely-eyed reserve, his undertone of ruthlessness, and his skill at conveying character without saying a word. Blunt usually portrays her characters with kickass strength, even when they aren’t actually kicking ass. One would expect an FBI agent who has advanced to the role of team leader would have that same steely-eyed strength. But Blunt plays this character with an unexpected vulnerability and wariness. Her waif-thin slenderness contributes to the fragility of her character’s emotional state. She is a virtually powerless sicario, trying to protect her homeland from the invaders.


Editor's Note: Review of "Sicario," directed by Denis Villeneuve. Lionsgate, 2015, 121 minutes.



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Collateral Damage

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In Honduras, a country whose murder rate is 18 times that of the United States, citizens kill one another with impunity. In El Salvador, bodies lie in the street and get only a nervous glance from passers-by. In Guatemala, as well as Honduras, gangsters attack buses, robbing and even murdering the passengers. Throughout these three countries — they make up the Northern Triangle of Central America — members of such proliferating gangs as MS-13 and Barrio 18 do battle, leading to the death or disappearance of innumerable young people. The gangs specialize in kidnapping, extortion, and contract killing and often form alliances with the drug cartels.

In Mexico, which is supposedly peaceful, there have been deeply disturbing signs. In 2011, in Tamaulipas, a state in northeastern Mexico, police found 59 bodies in a pit near the place where, earlier, 72 bodies had been found — all of them the remains of Central American immigrants. These humble souls were forced off buses and shot when they refused to work for the Zetas, Mexico’s most pervasive drug cartel. In 2014, in Guerrero, a state in southern Mexico, members of the drug cartel Guerreros Unidos murdered 43 college students, burned their bodies, put the residues in plastic bags, and tossed them into the San Juan River. The students had commandeered buses to take them to a political rally. The police pursued and captured them and, for some reason, turned them over to the cartel.

This futile conflict has created the enormous illegal market, monopolized by sociopaths whose rewards are at least $100 billion annually.

And in 2015, along the road between the resort town of Puerto Vallarta and the city of Guadalajara, a motorized police column rode into an ambush that killed 15 of the officers and wounded five more. The incident occurred in the southwestern state of Jalisco, home of the New Generation, yet another drug cartel. This attack upon the police is a reminder of the choice given government officials by magisterial drug runners — plomo o plata, lead or silver. In other words, take a bribe or take a bullet. And to further intimidate them, the cartel hitmen have been known to place their victims before the public. Thus, in 2011, on a busy highway in Boca del Río, their agents halted traffic long enough to arrange 35 corpses for viewing by travelers.

As for the street gangs that cooperate with the cartels and practice their own style of intimidation — the biggest had their beginnings in the United States. Barrio 18 and MS-13 (properly named Mara Salvatrucha) were organized on the streets of Los Angeles. Subsequent criminal deportations sent some members back to their native El Salvador, where they found fertile ground, reorganized, and now filter back into this country. Barrio Azteca began in Texas prisons and became allies of the Juarez drug cartel. Both the Mexican Mafia and the Sureños began in prisons north of the border. Why did these gangs arise? What sustains them? Clearly, they were organized, not only for status and mutual defense, but also to gain a share of the enormous illegal drug market. And their territorial expansion and growth in membership indicate that they’ve succeeded.

Indeed, the entire network of gangs and cartels sits on the bedrock of America’s War on Drugs. This futile conflict has created the enormous illegal market, monopolized by sociopaths whose rewards are at least $100 billion annually. Their huge markups have kept street prices high in the United States, making criminals wealthy and powerful and encouraging larceny, robbery, and even murder by desperate drug users. Added to these troubles are the sufferings inflicted on the people south of the border. There, the authorities — those who have avoided corruption — have little means to face the enormous crime wave created by the drug cartels and their street allies, whose crimes include the wanton murder of innocent citizens, including women and children.

All that I’ve described leads me to the obvious question — to what extent is the “immigration problem” simply more fallout from our War on Drugs? Of course, many Latino gangsters, with their tattoos and secret hand signals, have been sneaking northward, heading for cities to get those illegal-drug dollars. And along with them have come wandering misfits and ne’er-do-wells. But I suspect that conditions in Mexico and especially in Central America have so deteriorated that the soundest citizens are fleeing, searching for safe havens for themselves and their families. Is it the lure of our welfare state that attracts them? Or is it the all too visible cynicism and violence in their own countries that repels them? I don’t have precise answers, but I do know that wars consistently produce refugees — noncombatants who flee the battlegrounds. I doubt that our War on Drugs is an exception.

 

Further Reading

Adinolfi, Joseph. “Six Things You Need to Know about America’s Illegal Drug Trade: Who’s Using What, Where, and at What Cost — ConvergEx Study.” International Business Times, 29 Oct. 2013.

AP “59 Bodies Found Buried in a Series of Pits in Northern Mexico State of Tamaulipas.” New York Daily News, 7 Apr. 2011.

Barrio Azteca.” Insight Crime: Organized Crime in the Americas.

Brecher, Edward M., and the Editors of Consumer Reports. Licit and Illicit Drugs. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.

Carroll, Rory. “Honduras: ‘We Are Burying Kids All the Time.’” The Guardian, 12 Nov. 2010.

Castillo, Mariano. “Remains Could Be Those of Missing Mexican Students.” CNN, 11 November 2014.

Costa Rica Crime and Safety Report.” Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC).

Crime in El Salvador.” Wikipedia.

Crime in Guatemala.” Ibid.

Crime in Honduras.” Ibid.

Crime in Mexico.” Ibid.

Daugherty, Arron. “MS 13, Barrio 18 Rivalry Increasing in Violence in Guatemala: President.” Insight Crime, 4 Feb. 2015.

DrugTraffickingintheUnitedStates. Washington DC: Drug Enforcement Administration, 2004.

Duke, Steven B., and Albert C. Gross. America’s Longest War: Rethinking Our Tragic Crusade Against Drugs. Fwd. Kurt L. Schmoke. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1994.

Dyer, Zach. “Costa Rica Saw ‘Important Increase in Violence,’ says OIJ Director.” The Tico Times, 17 Feb. 2015.

El Salvador.” Insight Crime.

Gagne, David. “Guerreros Unidos, The New Face of Mexico Organized Crime?Insight Crime, 9 Oct. 2014.

___. “Mexico Drug Cartels Arming Gangs in Costa Rica.” Ibid., 17 Nov. 2014.

___. “Mexico Captures Sinaloa Cartel Head in Central America.” Ibid., 13 Apr. 2015.

Grillo, Ioan. “Mexican Gangsters Send a Grisly Message in Crime.” Time, 21 Sept. 2011.

Hargrove, Dorian. “Sinaloa Drug Cartel Controls 16 Mexican States, Including Baja California.” San Diego Reader, 3 Jan 2012.

Hastings, Deborah. “In Central America, Women Killed ‘With Impunity’ Just Because They’re Women.” New York Daily News, 10 Jan. 2014.

Honduras.” Insight Crime.

How Safe Is Mexico: A Travelers Guide to Safety Over Sensationalism.

Kilmer, Beau, et al. “How Big Is the U.S. Market for Illegal Drugs?Rand Corporation. 2014.

 ____. “What America’s Users Spend on Illegal Drugs?Rand Corporation, 7 March 2014.

Nicaragua.” Insight Crime.

Pelofsky, Jeremy. “Guns from U.S. Sting Found at Mexican Crime Scenes.” Reuters, 26 July 2011.

Police Officers Die in Mexico Roadside Ambush.” Al Jazeera, 8 Apr. 2015.

Riesenfeld, Loren. “ICE Raids Suggest Mexican Organized Crime Expanding Reach into U.S.Insight Crime, 9 Apr. 2015.

Romero, Simon. “Cocaine Wars Make Port Colombia’s Deadliest City.” The New York Times, 22 May 2007.

Romo, Rafael. “Is the Case of 43 Missing Students in Mexico Closed?CNN, 28 Jan. 2015.

Stanford University. “The United States War on Drugs.”

2014 Iguala Mass Kidnapping.” Wikipedia.

World Report: 2012.” Human Rights Watch.




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