Thursday, January 29, 2009

Strong Coffy

Last night the Independent Film Channel showed a couple of '70s blaxploitation movies with Pam Grier: Foxy Brown and Coffy. When I watched them, in 2009, in Obama's America, I found both of them to be the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. They are racist, sexist movies, but I got caught up in them.

They are low budget movies made by American-International, a company not known for making art films, but films to be produced cheap that played on drive-in movie screens. What the producers didn't know was that with Foxy Brown and Coffy, despite eyebrow-raising views of black people, drug use and criminal activities, they were making feminist movies about strong black women. Pam Grier is statuesque and beautiful. When she made these movies she was in her mid-twenties (born in 1949). There are nude shots of her, and yes, they are gratuitous. Coffy is a pretty simple movie with a simple plot. With a sawed-off shotgun she wreaks revenge on drug dealers and corrupt politicians. She uses sex as a tool to get the bad guys in her sights. Not a role model for young girls, by any means, but someone using her wits in a dangerous business in a world of violent men.

What the filmmakers were trying to do was play to a low common denominator: people who like violence and sex; white people who think black people are all pimps, prostitutes, or heroin junkies. Prejudices are reinforced with these movies. In the early 1970s even distinguished actors like Lou Gossett and Robert DoQui were playing pimps in outrageous costumes. They were ridiculous caricatures, and while pandering to white racism, the producers manipulated black audiences, a whole demographic until then uncatered to, eager to see their own people on movie screens. For every noble African-American character played by Sidney Poitier, Brock Peters, James Earl Jones or Ossie Davis, the audience for black movies also had heroes like Richard Roundtree as Shaft, a "black private dick who's a sex machine with all the chicks," or Ron O'Neal as Super Fly, a drug dealer-hero, and then they had heroines like Coffy and Foxy Brown, both played by Pam Grier.

There is a lot wrong with these movies. They are embarrassing in their production values, their racial viewpoints, both black and white. In order to appeal to black audiences the white characters are even more corrupt and rotten than the black characters. But the movies were written, directed, produced and distributed by white people. It was a cynical tactic.

Despite all that there was Pam Grier. Looking at her then, and even now in her mature years, there is a beauty and intelligence that transcends the material she was given to work with. In 1997 she starred in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown, chosen for the part because of his fondness for movies like Coffy and Foxy Brown. She showed in Jackie Brown she was an A-list talent, not just a pretty face and great body, but a genuinely fine actress.

As motion pictures, Coffy and Foxy Brown are sleazy, violent, and exploitative. In other words, all of those things that we want in a drive-in movie. But they had one thing that raised them up above their material, and that was Pam Grier.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Making it real

Click on my cancer to make it a bigger cancer

It’s funny where profundities come from, those things that people say or do that suddenly, in a bit of synchronicity, attach themselves to us with personal meaning. In my case it was an episode of a TV show I watched. A psychiatrist character is talking to the heroine about changes. He says to her, “Sometimes when we make major changes, it takes time for us to make them real.”

Time is both a luxury and an enemy, twins joined at the hip. We breathe easier when we have time to make a decision. We go into a panic during an emergency. We have time only to react, no time to think.

Last week I had a biopsy of a suspicious node on my prostate gland and the test results came back as cancerous. Unlike a stroke or heart attack where I wouldn’t have any time to think about it, with prostate cancer I have time to think. I was referred to a urologist by my family doctor. During my annual visit just before Christmas she felt the node and said time was of the essence. She immediately referred me. Because of the holidays the time needed to deal with the problem was elongated. It took a week to get in to see the urologist, and when he confirmed the node, it took another two weeks before a biopsy. It gave me time for a lot of thinking. Too much time, and much of my thinking was negative. Last Wednesday morning I got the urologist’s call: “You have cancer on one side of your prostate, but I believe we’ve caught it early enough, and it’s curable.”

Later in the day my wife, Sally, and I sat across from him and discussed my options. Even before left his office I knew what I’d do, have surgery to remove the prostate. But he wanted me to “think it over,” then let him know. He gave me the time to really fret about it and have a couple of good old anxiety attacks. Sally and I talked and on Friday arranged for the surgery, which will be on February 12.

Now that the surgery is scheduled I have more comfort, the luxury of some time: “The surgery is three weeks from now. I have time to get used to the idea.”

I had more than enough time to get used to the idea of retirement, because I put in my paperwork in October, 2008, and as of January 1, 2009, I’ve been officially retired from my school district job. I’ve had occasion to visit the District Office since then—to discuss my post-retirement medical benefits—but I still have a feeling that the vacation I went on December 15, 2008, from which I didn’t return, is just that, a vacation. I still feel that one morning I’ll have to get up and put on my clothes and go to work.

When I see old friends they ask, “How does it feel to be retired?” and all I can say is, “I’ll tell you when I feel I am retired.” It’s why the line in the TV show, “…it takes time for us to make [changes] real,” had so much meaning for me.

In my deepest thoughts I still think I have all the time in the world. If I pick out something I’d like to do there’s no need to hurry it up. Like the Rolling Stones song, time is on my side. In reality time is not on my side. Inside me, just like all of us, there is a ticking clock. Sometimes we stop and listen to the tick-tick-tick. We’re reminded that clocks, at some point, do stop. The question is when.

I’d like to live long enough to have the feeling that I’m retired, that the labor I did for over 40 years is finally being rewarded with the freedom to do what I want to do. My retirement, my cancer, are both things that are taking time for me to make real. In three weeks the surgeon will cut into me. That will be real. The retirement, the feeling I have every morning that I should get up and get dressed because I need to go to work, may take a little longer to become real.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

To smile or not to smile...

Click on the picture to see it full-size.

On Tuesday, January 20, I opened my newspaper to this picture of all 44 U.S. presidents. What struck me, as it did when I first saw the portrait, is that President Obama's official White House portrait is unsmiling. It isn't that he looks dour, displeased or dyspeptic, but he looks serious.

In the early years of our republic some of the presidents looked downright grumpy. William Henry Harrison, #9, or #12, Zachary Taylor, have expressions that look like they've been sucking lemons. The newspaper spread shows that up until Richard Nixon--Nixon! of all people--presidents kept a straight face in their portraits. Nixon's picture has him grinning like a loon. I don't know that I ever actually saw Richard Nixon smile, and when I saw him I didn't do any smiling. From Nixon, #37, through George W. Bush, #43, all of the portraits are of smiling men. Jimmy Carter has a good and toothsome smile. Bill Clinton looks like he's thinking of sharing a cigar in the Oval Office with Monica Lewinsky. Ronald Reagan was an actor, easy for him to put on a mood. George H. W. Bush looks like he's laughing, Gerald Ford like he just heard a joke he didn't quite get, and George W. Bush looks like Alfred E. Neuman.

If you look at old pictures you hardly ever see anyone smiling. Some of the presidential portraits were painted, and some were from tintypes, both of which depended on the subject sitting still for a long period of time. No wonder they looked so straight-faced. I also think it had something to do with a public perception of the presidency as being a serious job. I'm sure there's time for joy, but also a lot of stress and periods where you wouldn't find a bunch of people sitting around swapping jokes and laughing it up.

When I watched the Inaugural ceremonies yesterday I saw President Obama smile many times, and he has a wonderful and incandescent smile. But I think he knew at the time of his official portrait that he had some serious business ahead of him. Perhaps that was why he broke the tradition of his predecessors going back over 40 years, and put on his serious face.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story

"...Deep in my heart I do believe, we shall overcome some day."

Comic book version, late 1950s-early 1960s. Click on pages to make them full-size.

Monday, January 12, 2009


I don't intend to turn my blog into a movie review blog. I don't watch that many movies, and the movies I watch are usually older and have already been covered. But, I watched Cloverfield today and have a couple of things to say about it.

Cloverfield, benign-sounding title notwithstanding, is a Godzilla movie. It's got computer generated images and a very hip cinema verité technique, but it's a Godzilla movie.

The main characters are twenty-somethings, and the action begins at a surprise party for Rob, who is being sent to Japan (Japan? Get it? An inside reference to Godzilla!) for his job. We have a clue--based on a video he made of the encounter--that at an earlier time he and his longtime friend, Beth, had broken through the fourth wall of their relationship and become intimate. As the story progresses, cleverly, in bits and pieces, we find that Rob didn't know how to handle the intimacy, so afterwards didn't call Beth. Tsk tsk. Isn't that just like a guy? Afraid of commitment. There's no explanation as to why she didn't call him.

Beth and Rob's relationship is the subplot that propels the action of the main characters. As everyone is running away from the attack of the monster, Rob and his friends make their way against the tide of evacuees to find Beth, who is trapped in her apartment. The suspense comes from the group of four encountering junior size monsters (parasites) in a subway tunnel, the rampaging 350-foot Godzilla-monster, and getting into Beth's building. She lives on the 39th floor, and her apartment building is leaning over, Tower of Pisa style, against another building.

All of this is told in a POV video style, as Rob's friend Hud handles the camera to "document" the attack. I think the video style of the movie may have hurt the box office--that and its awful title, Cloverfield--because in some of the reviews I read people left the theater with motion sickness. That didn't bother me with the DVD on my regular TV screen. It could be because the screen was a size that was manageable for my brain, not overwhelmed by hugeness and herky-jerky activity. I'm sure my wife and I would both need to take Dramamine before seeing this movie in a theater. (Hmmm. That could've been a gimmick. Free Dramamine to everyone who buys a ticket!)

The video simulation gave the special effects guys problems because they had to match their effects to a hand held camera. I'm amazed that they did it so well. I was also surprised that it was filmed in Los Angeles and not New York, because the special effects were so good I was convinced the movie was filmed in Manhattan.

The trailer for the movie that had everyone excited showed the Stature of Liberty being beheaded and the head ending up on the street. That was an extremely well-done and dramatic bit of business. Some of the damage in the movie was directly inspired by the attack of 9/11. The images seem very familiar to us all: people running in front of a fast-moving dust cloud, people who couldn't get out of the way covered in dust. Collapsing buildings. It is just 9/11 intensified. After all, after the incredible and horrifying events of that day, how could a filmmaker hope to compete except to make it bigger?

The young people in the movie are an attractive and talented cast, who are all unknown to me.

I can recommend Cloverfield if you accept it as a very slick production made to look non-slick, and that at its heart it's a remake of an old Japanese monster movie. The monster in Cloverfield isn't a guy in a rubber suit stomping through a miniature city like in the original, but that's what I thought of while I watched the movie.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Goodbye Larry

My old friend Larry died last week, age 86.

When I met Larry he was in his mid-50s, and as cantankerous and curmudgeonly as a man years older. Larry, although raised near a city, was country clear through. He was a cowboy who owned horse property. Years before I met him Larry had gotten a job as a schoolbus driver, then worked his way into the electronics shop, where he fixed televisions, working on the school district's technology, which even in the 1970s was more from the 1950s. During that whole time his primary interest was in his horses, the job something to support him and his family.

Larry retired about 20 years ago, before computers became part of our daily lives. I just can't see Larry having anything to do with "those ornery cusses", as he liked to call devices he mistrusted.

Larry was a WWII Navy vet. After the Philippines were liberated from Japanese occupation Larry was stationed there and had plenty to say about his time there. I'm sure his family didn't know his Philippine stories.

Larry was a solid Roosevelt Democrat. He was a strong union man, serving as the president of our local in the early 1980s. Union meetings could get raucous when Larry was president, with lots of shouting. One time when we, as a group, questioned the union tactics in negotiations with our employer, Larry called us a "bunch of ungrateful sons of bitches!" and added, "I'm quittin'. This is the most thankless fuckin' job I've ever had!"

But he came back because it was Larry's job to be our union rep and he loved the contentiousness, the dust-ups and telling our employers where to stick it.

My first boss at the school district, Jim, was a staunch Republican, and a "right wingy-dingy Republican" as Larry called them. Larry got into a shouting match with my boss over politics one day while he was in our building wiring an intercom system. Jim called Larry's boss and said, "I don't want that guy in my building ever again." They must've smoothed it over because the next week Larry was back working on the system, but this time he didn't talk politics.

Larry was a needle artist and could dish out the insults. He knew my wife, who worked for the school district media center at the time. He said to me, "How'd an ugly bastard like you get such a cute one?" In a perverse way I saw it as a compliment.

Larry's "office" was a work bench in our electronics shop, where various projects were lined up, repair jobs to be done. Larry was taking a rare sick day, and his coworkers strung a 1/4" PVC hose, taping it under benches, the length of their shop. It was hooked to the water tap in the shop sink, and ended right under Larry's work space. When Larry came back to work the next day he sat at his bench and someone turned on the water. It poured onto Larry's lap. He jumped off his stool hollering, "You worthless bastards! You sonsabitches!" He told me later, "Them guys had their fun, but I'll get back at 'em." If he did I don't remember it, or probably just didn't hear about it, but I'm sure whatever revenge he thought up was good. That was Larry.

Psycho on steroids

The writer of Vacancy explained how he got the idea for the movie. When he got out of college he and his wife ran a dude ranch. It was only open four months a year which gave them eight months to travel. He traveled back roads in New Mexico and saw lonely motels without customers and wondered what went on in them. That gave him his idea for the story.

Or, more likely, he saw Psycho and thought he'd make it bigger. Vacancy is Psycho with three times the number of killers and twice the number of victims. Actually, many more than two, but for the purposes of the plot, two we care about.

David and Amy, played by Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale, are a couple in crisis. They are on the verge of divorce, after the tragedy of losing their son. They are traveling back home from Amy's family home, and ignore lessons from every horror movie they've ever seen by 1) getting off the highway onto A Lonely Back Road in the dark, and 2) by checking into A Creepy Motel after their car breaks down.

The movie seems well set up for suspense, but asks the audience to suspend disbelief with some plot contrivances. We're asked to accept that the killers, who are making snuff films for money (the motel biz is pretty slow where they are) are using a motel room which is easily identifiable in which to perform their murders. Not only that, they leave tapes of the murders next to a TV in that very room!

We know the killers aren't stupid people, or at least the chief killer isn't, because he's shown with a whole movie editing operation in his office. So why leave evidence around for anyone, especially potential victims, to find? We're not privy to such motivation, because we aren't given any information beyond the fact the killers are homicidal murder movie auteurs.

The killers inexplicably taunt David and Amy by doing dumb things like calling the room and not saying anything, then banging on the door of the room and the connecting door to the next room. Uh, yeah...and this is for what purpose? David and Amy watch parts of the tapes, and despite heavy duress instantly grasp the significance. In the tapes the killers rush in and overwhelm their victims. So why now do they toy with David and Amy? Well, because then we have a 90 minute movie and not a 10 minute movie of a couple getting ambushed.

There is some nonsense about tunnels under the motel leading into various rooms, and killers chasing David and Amy in some sort of roundabout fashion. It reminds me of old comedies where people creep through hallways, go in one door, come out another.

Clichès abound in this movie, and the logical lapses are big. But the movie is intense and the quick glimpses from the snuff films are morbid and repulsive. The DVD has "extended scenes of the snuff films." Gee, guys, thanks, but I think I'll skip that section.

Personally, I stay on the main roads, I travel during daylight, I don't go to motels on lonely stretches of road. In that respect I'm smarter than David and Amy, and avoid turning my own life into a snuff movie. My recommendation is that since you've already seen Vacancy, in several other movies which have been cannibalized to make this repellent entertainment, you're better off skipping it altogether.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Goodbye Donald Westlake and Richard Stark

Donald E. Westlake, novelist, died of a heart attack at age 75 on New Year's Eve. He was in Mexico with his wife.

Westlake, who is one of my all-time favorite writers, wrote over 100 books. I'm proud that I've read just about every one of them, and his short stories, too.

In his earlier years he wrote under several pen-names, but whittled them down to one: Richard Stark for his stark stories of the thief, Parker. He wrote his more humorous books about hapless criminals, Dortmunder and Kelp, under his own name.

If you're not familiar with his name, you are probably familiar with some of his movies, which include the fantastically popular 1972 film, The Hot Rock, starring Robert Redford and George Segal. He also wrote the screenplay for a story that broke a lot of rules, The Stepfather, with Terry O'Quinn (John Locke in the TV series, Lost). I haven't seen The Stepfather for over 20 years--it's currently not available on DVD in the U.S.--but no one could forget the opening, as a blasè O'Quinn comes down the stairs and steps over the corpses of the family he has just murdered, only to leave the house and set up residence in another town...with another family.

The Parker novels (and it's just one name, "Parker," no first name), are set in a world of criminals and big crimes. Parker is a thief--and killer, when need be--who makes a couple of scores a year and then lives off the ill-gotten proceeds. He has no mercy, no conscience. He's a complete sociopath. The trick that "Richard Stark" pulled off so neatly is that we readers are always pulling for him to get away with it. The series was originally published as paperback originals in the 1960s*, beginning with the novel Point Blank. As the series developed a cult following it found its way into hard covers.

While Dortmunder and Kelp are criminals they have foibles that can be very funny, but there is no funniness about Parker. From Flashfire (2000):

The driver was getting out of the Cherokee. He gave Parker an incurious look, turned to lock the Cherokee, and Parker stepped rapidly toward him, taking the Sentinel out of his pocket, holding it straight-armed in from of himself, aiming as he moved. He fired once, and the .22 cartridge punched through the meat of the driver's left leg, halfway between knee and hip, then went on to crack into the door panel of the Cherokee, leaving a starred black dent.

The driver sagged, astonished, falling against the Cherokee, staring over his shoulder at Parker. "What? What?"

Parker stepped very close, showing him the Sentinel. "I shot you," he said. "The vest doesn't cover the leg. It doesn't cover the eye, either. You want one in the eye?"

"Who the fuck are you?" The driver was in shock, the blood drained from his face. He pawed at his left leg.

Parker held the Sentinel close to his face. "Answer me."

"What'd I do to you? I don't even know you!"

"I'm robbing you," Parker told him.

Whew. As you can tell, Parker isn't a very nice guy.

Amorality is a strange thing to root for, and it takes a skilled writer to bridge the gap between disgust for the character and empathy. My guess is it's a form of fantasy or wish. In some situations in life we'd all like to be Parker, in total control, who lives in a black and white world: take what you need, don't let anyone stop you, kill anyone who gets in your way. Thank god I don't know anyone like Parker, but thank god I had the series to read over the decades.

*My Parker paperbacks are stashed, but I recently found a first printing of The Jugger from 1965. When I found it I felt like I had just hit the lottery.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Goodbye, Paul Newman

Paul Newman is prominent on the list of famous people who died in 2008. He had a career that spanned decades, and made quite a name and reputation for himself as an actor, among other things (race car driver and salad dressing maker, for two).

Sally and I watched his 1982 movie, The Verdict, the other night, and were once again impressed by the depth of his skill as an actor. By coincidence this week I found a DVD that purports to be his first professional acting job. It's from Tales of Tomorrow, a half-hour science fiction series. The DVD I have is volume 1, and Newman can be found in the last episode of the season, "Ice From Space," first broadcast on August 8, 1952. It was shown on the then-fledgling ABC-TV Network live, filmed in the Kinescope process where a camera filmed the TV monitor, for showings in other areas of the country. In the episode Newman plays Sergeant Wilson, one of only five actors in the low-budget--or should I say no-budget--drama.

I did a screen capture of what may be Paul Newman's first appearance on camera of any kind. He is to the right of an actor who is just a spear-carrier, and doesn't speak. At least Newman has a few lines to say.

Everybody starts somewhere, and if the DVD information is correct, this is the very moment Paul Newman started his screen career.