Friday, January 30, 2015

The Worst Men or the Best? 4 Films

J. Edgar.  I was surprised how excellent this was. It was  skipped for the awards and the reviews weren't all that good. In general, I've discovered that Leonardo DiCaprio gets trashed a lot as an actor. I can only assume it is because he has so much going for him.

"J. Edgar" is thus the consummate biography as filmed by Clint Eastwood from a marvelous screenplay. It is as good as any of his best work. DiCaprio plays the title role magnificently. Arnie Hammer plays his number two at the bureau wonderfully as well. I can't imagine what else anyone could want in a biography of this man.

Eastwood does not hit us over the head with some of the present day allegations about Hoover. He presents them in the film and lets you draw your own conclusions. So as to his being gay and a cross dresser, that is quite likely. However, we don't get bogged down with this lurid material. The best part of the movie may be the deep and abiding love between Hoover and Colson, his number two man at the FBI.

Most of the film is spent with J. Edgar building the FBI from the ground up. He also was almost solely responsible for bringing forensic science into the FBI. Everyone thought he was a nut talking about fingerprints and such in the early 1900s. We also discover that Hoover used the Lindbergh baby kidnapping to force Congress into giving the FBI much broader jurisdiction over cases. This enabled it to take control of a case instead of the police. We also see him with his infamous files on prominent people, which enables him to stay at the helm until his death.

J. Edgar's hatred of the Kennedys is handled with lovely understatement. When JFK is shot in Dallas, Hoover gets the call immediately from Dallas. He then calls RFK and simply tells him his brother has been shot and hangs up the phone.

W.  This is a complex portrait of the shaping of a man and a president over many years. I won't go as far as to say I am now sympathetic to Bush but I understand him and his choices better now. First, I was surprised to see how poorly W fit within the Bush family. It was clear that everything W did was less than his father or grandfather or brother Jeb or any other Bush had done. He couldn't fail to miss this as his parents told him this constantly. 

What Bush senior failed to see though was that W could get in touch with the common man yet hold onto the elitist ones with some very conflicting personality traits. He became a born again Christian as a way of coping with his substance abuse problems. Somehow he managed to blend being born again with being a guy who had been to all the right schools, joined all the right clubs and gravitated to all the right people for his time in history. His parents were repelled by some of his choice. His being born again set up their Episcopalian backs plus his use of the death penalty repeatedly as governor of Texas was not something they'd want sitting in their own personal biographies. Clearly, Phi Beta Kappa Jeb who behaved like a true Yale man was more the Bush son they liked to embrace. Yet the very way W talks in his down home voice, loves baseball and follows it religiously, is a guy anyone would "like to share a beer with" and is the life of the party at any frat party or down home barbeque. These personality traits serve W very, very well with the voters. He is not off putting like the rest of the elitist Bushes. W seems to genuinely love his country and wants to restore it to bigness. He goes about this more like a guy who owns a baseball team than a President, which is actually what he did for a living and what he loved doing. Thus, by the end of the movie when he is in the outfield with his mitt, eternally ready to catch that long baseball hit, the look on his face is one of total bewilderment. He is also entirely alone out in the outfield. This is W by the end of his presidency in a nutshell. Actually, W's underlings come off a lot worse than he does in this film. Right at the top of the heap of awfulness is Richard Dreyfus playing Cheney.

Josh Brolin does a heck of a job as W. He has become an incredibly fine actor and I am looking forward to each and every performance of his. I liked this movie the first time but I thought it was terrific the second time. Oliver Stone rarely disappoints as a film director. A lot of people detest him but they fail to view him solely as a film director, rather than as an obnoxious personality in real life. He shoots himself in the foot every time he opens his mouth off set and would do himself a big favor if he stopped giving interviews. 

Reversal of Fortune. Sunny von Bülow died finally after 28 years in a nursing home. She never emerged from her coma. Her husband Clause was charged with her attempted murder. He supposedly did it by injecting her with insulin. Clause knew he needed first rate legal help and ended up with Alan Dershowitz turning things around for him. Interesting as the law is in this film, the characters of Sunny and Clause are even better.

Sunny von Bülow is a hard woman to like. Glen Close's depiction doesn't make that task any easier. Ironically, Sunny in a coma isn't all that different from Sunny in regular life. Basically, Sunny took up space. She was neurotic, spoiled, used to getting her own way and never did anything worthwhile. If she hadn't been rich, no one would have noticed her. She spent a great deal of time asleep--actually, a huge amount of time asleep. And when she was awake, she was more like still half asleep. I think she could easily be described as someone who was sleepwalking through her life.

Which doesn't excuse Clause if he did try to kill her but it presents an interesting dichotomy. For Clause von Bülow is potentially very likable and Jeremy Irons captures that perfectly. He is self deprecating, humorous, a wonderful raconteur. People love dining out with Clause if for no other reason than they feel better because he is such a wit and so much fun. Clause is even very witty with Dershowitz, which takes some doing when you are battling attempted murder charges. He can be totally deadpan which makes him even funnier. Dershowitz is played beautifully by the late Ron Silver.

Jeremy Irons won the Oscar deservedly for this role. Another marvelous aspect to his performance is that you are never sure if he did try to murder her or not. And despite not being sure, you'd still go out to dinner with him because he's such an interesting guy. This is faithful to the real guy too as the media reports that to this day people still clamor to have Clause at their parties and to meet him for dinner.

The Right Stuff. This is a film which compares and contrasts two different types of American heroes. One is the test pilot type for the armed forces. No greater test pilot existed than Chuck Yeager and Sam Shepard does a wonderful job playing him. Barbara Hershey as his wife is also excellent. The test pilots died at a fairly high rate too. This was extremely high risk work. A huge factor in whether you emerged alive was how good your split second timing was. Yeager's was the best. These guys had tremendous individual control over their destiny. It was entirely up to them whether they emerged alive at the end of the day.

The second group is the NASA astronauts, who all came out of the test pilot grouping of the armed forces. We are used to thinking of them as huge heroes. But as one sees them preparing for their orbits, the lack of control they had is stunning to behold. They were micromanaged on every level. They were an enormous PR effort so had to do as much posing work as a Hollywood starlet. Plus the control over their ship was scarcely theirs. They had to put up a huge fight just to get a window. If the test pilots were rugged individualists, almost carved out of the Old West, these guys got the full Mad Men treatment of being primarily developed as a hot commodity. The frustration of being at everyone's beck and call 24/7 must have been enormous. Yet they hung in there because the enormity of being the first in space was too much to ever turn down. I really liked the way the two stories played off one another. It is based on Tom Wolfe's excellent book.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Pt. II Sherlock Holmes & the Real World

Read Part I of this entry first here.

Detective Caminada encountered Elizabeth Burch, a middle-aged dressmaker. She'd supposedly inherited £150,000 after helping a rich, old gentleman who’d collapsed in the street. She wrote extremely emotional letters on behalf of needy charities. The truth was there was no inheritance and she kept the donations. When she moved to Manchester she began calling herself Lady Russell and tried the same scams. Caminada caught on at once and soon found tons of documents in her home showing her scams. She ending up spending six months in prison after her arrest and conviction. 

In 1889 a young man took a ride in a Manchester cab with an older fellow. When the cabbie stopped to let them out, the younger man was gone and the older one, John Fletcher, was dead. Fletcher was known to be a drinker. That day he had been imbibing. It looked as if he’d died of natural causes but Caminada was suspicious. He had the man autopsied and chloral hydrate was found in his stomach. His killer could have put chloral hydrate into one of his many drinks and poisoned him. Caminada had an encyclopedic knowledge of poisons and chemicals and he knew of the locals who used such chemicals. One such fellow had a son who matched the younger man’s description, Charles Parton. Caminada tracked him down and built a murder case against him. Parton had poisoned Fletcher for his money. Parton had also foolishly been spending Fletcher’s money everywhere. after the murder. Caminada eventually found a witness who described how he’d seen Parton pouring a strange liquid into the businessman’s beer. Parton went to prison for life.
The Rev. E.J. Silverton, working out of Nottingham, claimed he could cure all diseases, even deafness. He made his own medicine. He had pamphlets and slick ads to sell his potion. He ran into Caminada in 1884 at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall where Silverton was huckstering. Caminada later limped into his office for medical help. His foot was ignored as he was diagnosed with rheumatism and charged 35 shillings for a bottle of medicine. He analyzed the “medicines” and found them to be common household foodstuffs like lentils, bran, and flour. He got Silverton to leave Manchester but periodically pursued him elsewhere to get him to stop bilking the ill. Caminada also sent other police in disguise after him. Soon Silverton tried to “practice” well away from Caminada.
There is a fourth influence and that is the author himself. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a British writer and physician, most noted for his fictional stories about the detective Sherlock Holmes. From 1876 to 1881 he studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh Medical School and became a doctor. He admitted Holmes was partially modeled on his former medical school teacher Joseph Bell. Doyle wrote to him, "It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes ... round the centre of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate I have tried to build up a man." Doyle was at the leading edge university for medicine and for criminology in the world so was ideally situated for absorbing all he the knowledge he would need for his state of the art detective.

Robert Louis Stevenson is pictured left during his time at university with Doyle. He became as famous an author as Doyle with his "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and "Treasure Island." He was able, even while in faraway Samoa, to recognize the strong similarity between Joseph Bell and Sherlock Holmes. He wrote to Doyle, "My compliments on your very ingenious and very interesting adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Can this be my old friend Joe Bell?” Stevenson and Doyle were students and friends at Edinburgh together. Stevenson's wealthy father had forced Stevenson to study law there and become a lawyer, although he never practiced. He was a writer from the time he was a child.

The University of Edinburgh, above, is ranked 17th in the world by the 2013–14 and 2014–15 QS rankings. It was founded in 1583 and is the sixth-oldest university in the English-speaking world. The university led Edinburgh to its reputation as an intellectual centre during the Age of Enlightenment. It gave the city the nickname of the "Athens of the North". Charles Darwin and a huge roster of other notables in the arts and sciences also were educated at this top tier university in Scotland. Its medical school has always been at the forefront of medical education in the world. This was the perfect place for the birth of Sherlock Holmes.

However, Doyle was not happy about his greatest creation. In November 1891 he wrote to his mother: "I think of slaying Holmes ... and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things." His mother dissuaded him. In December 1893, to dedicate more of his time to his historical novels, Doyle had Holmes and Professor Moriarty plunge to their deaths. Public outcry, however, led him to pick up Holmes in subsequent years. Doyle was also a fervent advocate of justice and personally investigated two closed cases, which led to two men being exonerated of the crimes of which they were accused. This shows Bell was correct in stating that Holmes had a good deal of Doyle in him. One of these cold cases was a murder. These took place in 1906 and 1907, right as Doyle was about to embrace the spiritualist movement. Spiritualism was a belief and religious practice based on supposed communication with the spirits of the dead, especially through mediums. It reached its highest level of popularity in England and the US from the late 1800s until about 1920. It is not popular in either country today but there are still some people in the movement.

Doyle in the early twentieth century was surrounded by familial death. He lost his wife, his son Kingsley, his brother and four other family members. Doyle sank into a deep depression. He found solace supporting spiritualism and its attempts to find proof of existence beyond the grave. Here is where he parted company with the teachings and beliefs of all of the people who had inspired Holmes. One cannot picture Bell, Littlejohn or Caminada having anything to do with spiritualism. They would have taken the practices apart with their abilities. The only thing they would have liked about spiritualism would have been in exposing it as a fraud. Bell died in 1911; Littlejohn in 1914; Caminada in 1914. They had all lived to be old men. Doyle was the youngest of them so his spiritualist belief continued until his death in 1930 at age 71. He had fallings out with numerous people over these beliefs. Harry Houdini was his close friend until he exposed one spiritualist after another. Houdini did this until his own death. Houdini had wanted spiritualism to be true so as to contact his own late mother but he could always find the trick. He told the spiritualists that he would come back when he died, if it were really possible to do so. But to their disappointment, Houdini never appeared before them and he died first. Houdini is shown to the left and Conan Doyle is to the right, with one of his alleged spirit manifestations. 
Doyle never budged on his belief in spiritualism. He believed Houdini had supernatural powers even though Houdini himself said all he did was tricks and illusions. Doyle was also into fairies when the photographs of fairies appeared in England. They were later proved to be bogus but this had no effect upon him. He is pictured below with one of their supposed appearances. Doyle also participated in seances and wrote books about the spiritualist movement. It is no wonder he wanted to get rid of Holmes as Holmes would have been his biggest critic, right after Bell, Littlejohn and Caminada. Although he had been a man of science, his grief and depression needed a spiritual outlet instead of science, deduction and logic.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Pt. I Sherlock Holmes & the Real World

The figures Conan Doyle used to make his character Sherlock Holmes were the great minds of their age in criminology. They were Dr. Joseph Bell, Sir (Dr.) Henry Littlejohn and Jerome Caminada who was a great detective and became head of the Manchester Police Department. Every one of these people was a powerhouse in solving criminal cases in the later 1800s through all of the abilities which would materialize in the fictional Holmes. 
Bell studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh Medical School and received an MD in 1859. He attended Queen Victoria as her surgeon. Incredibly, Bell dressed the way Sherlock Holmes would dress. He was famous for striding around campus in his long coat and hat. Bell was from the same class as Sherlock. Robert Louis Stevenson, who also went to the University with Doyle, recognized Bell upon reading the Holmes’ first story. The students adored Bell. He was a fascinating and gripping lecturer. Doyle credits Bell with being the main influence for Sherlock. Bell was enormously proud of being credited for Sherlock although he also thought that Doyle had based Sherlock upon himself. Most authors do embody themselves in their fiction and all fiction is to some extent autobiographical. 

Dr. Bell stated, "In teaching the treatment of disease and accident, all careful teachers have first to show the student how to recognize accurately the case.  The recognition depends in great measure on the accurate and rapid appreciation of small points in which the diseased differs from the healthy state.  In fact, the student must be taught to observe.  To interest him in this kind of work we teachers find it useful to show the student how much a trained use of the observation can discover in ordinary matters such as the previous history, nationality and occupation of a patient.” In his instruction, Bell used close observation in making a diagnosis. He would pick a stranger, observe him, then deduce his occupation and recent activities. This skill made him a pioneer in forensic science, especially forensic pathology. He could tell a person’s occupation by studying his hands. He could diagnose a medical condition by observing the patient before the patient ever opened his mouth. He liked watching people move and could tell a great deal about the person from that. He listened for small differences in his patient's speech patterns. It was all relevant to Bell. 
Serving as Edinburgh's Police Surgeon and as Medical Advisor to the Crown in Scotland in criminal cases, he was often called upon as an expert witness. He was a forensic expert involved in police investigations. Sir Henry taught Arthur Conan Doyle forensic medicine when Doyle was studying at the medical school of the University of Edinburgh. He was appointed to the Chair of Medical Jurisprudence at the University of Edinburgh in 1897. Sir Henry was also was from the same class as Sherlock. Sir Henry was a formidable expert witness in criminal cases. He gave gruesome evidence, in which he dissected in intricate detail his postmortem findings. If it was part of his exam, he would describe the smell from the victim’s stomach which he opened or his shattered skull. No detail was too small for him. 

One of his most sensational trials was known as the Ardlamont case. His evidence should have convicted Alfred Monson, a “gentleman’s tutor”, but the jury returned a not guilty verdict. Manson had gone shooting on the Ardlamont estate with a friend, Edward Scott, and Cecil Hambrough in August 1893. They claimed Hambrough accidentally shot himself. Their story was accepted until Monson tried to use two life insurance policies in Hambrough’s name, taken out a few weeks earlier, benefiting Monson’s wife. Littlejohn gave two hours of gripping testimony about every detail of the shooting and why it was not accidental. But this time he did not prevail. One in which he did though was the Chantrelle case. Eugene Chantrelle’s wife Elizabeth fell ill and died, overcome by escaping gas. Littlejohn attended her. His keen knowledge of poisons alerted him to probable opium poisoning. Chantrelle was charged and convicted of her murder. Littlejohn’s ability to dissect a crime scene and a victim’s remains were considered formidable by all.
He was born in Manchester, England in 1844, growing up in a slum known as “Devil’s Gate,” which was filled with brothels, saloons, and criminals. Caminada joined the Police Force in 1868. He became famous in the mid 1880s. This was when Holmes made his debut, in 1887 in A Study in Scarlet. Caminada has the cases. Caminada was responsible for imprisoning about 1,225 criminals during his long career. He came from the same class as the criminals but chose to work for law and order instead. He was a master of disguises and had fooled even his own police captain as to who he was. He could fraternize with the criminal underclass easily and he gleaned information from these fellows constantly. He was a keen observer and could identify criminals by their mannerisms. Upon his retirement from the force, he worked as a consulting detective, just like Holmes. His main difference from Holmes was that he was not from the gentleman class and Holmes was.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of course, was from the same class as Holmes and could only “flesh out” a hero who was from his own class. 

Bob Horridge was a murderous thief.  In 1870 Caminada arrested him for stealing a watch. Horridge swore revenge. Upon his release, Horridge became a much worse criminal. He was also brilliant at escapes including making dives into water and running through connected attics. The second time he was in prison he was able to break out even though guards shot him during his escape. When Horridge shot two officers, the authorities sent Caminada after him. He tracked Horridge’s wife to Liverpool and shortly thereafter found Horridge whose walk he could recognize due to his unusual gait. They had a dramatic confrontation and the detective drew his own pistol just a fraction faster than Horridge did. He was able to shoot him first. 

Alicia Ormonde, aka Mrs. Frost, Miss Morley, or Mrs. Baird, was sometimes a married woman, other times a widow, and still other times a maiden in need of rescue. Ormonde claimed all sorts of noble ancestors and associations but never produced any. She was beautiful and seemingly well educated. Her specialty was scamming money lenders. She asked a lender for a large amount of cash and, for security, she provided a phony will and gave the lender a lien on her imaginary inheritance. Caminada caught Ormonde in 1890, made his case and Ormonde was sentenced to 12 months behind bars. Caminada was very taken with Ormonde as were virtually all men. 
Part II is here

Friday, January 23, 2015

Living In Different Realities ~ Film Gems from the Sci Fi Genre

Strange Days stars the incomparable Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Lewis as former lovers in a futuristic, bent-for-hell society. Fiennes plays Lenny, whose career is selling vicarious, virtual reality experiences to people. They experience these by putting on headsets with tapes that Lenny has culled from his underworld contacts. Things turn even uglier when a serial killer gets turned on by making his own tapes of his murders, while they are being committed, and sends them to Lenny. Lenny tries to rescue Lewis from the even darker underworld people she now lives with but it is an uphill battle. This is one of my favorite Ralph Fiennes performances plus director Katherine Bigelow at the top of her game.

Knowing  The bulk of the movie is fascinating. Cage's son opens a document from a time capsule which contains a series of numbers. Cage, an astrophysics professor at MIT, works with the numbers and discovers that they are predictions of disasters by dates and longitude and latitude settings. Cage tries to prevent these disasters from occurring. This is the surface gist of the plot but there is so much more going on, much of it metaphysical and spiritual in addition to being sci-fi. This film has some of the most gorgeous sci-fi effects imaginable. For those into action-adventure special effects, those are great too. Cage is quite good here. He has been in a fair amount of bad movies in recent years but this is not one of them. To say anymore would ruin the plot line, which is very engrossing as it unfolds.

Lathe of Heaven. I've seen both film versions and read the novel. The novel by Ursula LeGuin is fantastic if you are a reader.  There are two film versions and it is the one made decades ago that is the really good one. It was remade in 2004 and hated by just about everyone. The major difference between the two is how much more artistic the first film was. It was helped by not having a well known actor in the cast either. In the second film we have James Caan throughout as the psychiatrist.

But what was truly extraordinary was the author's idea. She was the first to come up with a main character who could dream different realities. What he dreamt became true. No one else is aware when these changes take place. In fact, many of these people simply no longer exist after George dreams them away. He can change the weather from constant rain to constant sun. He can give himself a cabin on the beach off the Pacific when no one else has such a thing. He can dream away most of the population in a plague. Add into this mix, a psychiatrist who discovers this ability and begins hypnotizing George and having him dream at his suggestions, which include making him a huge honcho with his own institute. 

Fahrenheit 451.   I first saw this film when it was released a few decades ago and loved it. I just watched it again last night and still loved it. As a HUGE book lover, I was absolutely mesmerized by this tale of a society that not only has censored all books, but also has firemen who hunt down culprits who harbor books and then burn them at 451 degrees, the heat needed to burn paper. It is French director Truffaut's only English language film, which does not hurt it in the least. This is an incredibly dull society of people who don't do much other than sit in front of tv-like screens watching approved programing put on by the state. Some of them also go to work on public transit although they do nothing that requires reading. There are no road signs, no newspapers, no menus, not a shred of visible written matter anywhere in this society.

Children in schoolrooms do solely mass oral memorization. For written matter gives people ideas and this society decides it is better to live without ideas. Why one wants to live without ideas remains an unasked question in this culture. Oskar Werner plays the fireman who gets more and more intrigued by these books he's burning. Julie Christie plays two roles: a rebel who sides with the book harborers and Werner's wife, who is a couch potato living in front of the tv-screen most of the day. I was amazed to see that Werner's clothes and hair looked right up to the minute despite this film's being several decades old. You would think he was a young actor present day. The resolution of this film is absolutely wonderful and thus I won't say a word about it so as to spoil it for you.

The Quiet Earth.  I first saw this film when it came out in 1985 at a film festival. Bruno Lawrence, its star, quickly became the only "movie star" from New Zealand to Americans and we watched him from then on as his films came our way. Sadly, he died in 1995 of lung cancer at age 54 and that was that. This is the film for which I remember him best. He actually could have made the entire film as a one man show and this would be a five star review. For the first fifty minutes he stars in this alone, as a scientist who wakes up to an earth where he is the only one left. Everyone else has disappeared. After that fifty minutes, he discovers two other people and it is not as fascinating as him all alone. They do discover what they have in common with anyone else who might have survived in the world.  It is quite a twist and very clever.  I certainly found it very creative and would never have imagined it on my own.  The ending is quite startling and beautiful too as is the soundtrack. Lawrence was a considerable talent and you owe it to yourself to experience him. He was also well known as a drummer in the New Zealand music scene.

Hereafter.  This film has an incredible opening, one I can see again and again. A French female tv broadcaster is on vacation at a beach paradise on the Indian Ocean. While she is shopping at the stalls, the tsunami which erupted from that ocean in 2004 crashes towards her. She struggles for her life in the water but a car hits in the water and she dies and starts to cross over. This, however, is one of those deaths where she is subsequently brought back with life guard techniques. Yet she now is forever drawn back to that transition point. Hers is just one of three stories but what a bang up opening to this film.

There are two other stories. Matt Damon is a reluctant psychic located in San Francisco. He is the real deal unlike just about everyone else in the field. The reason he doesn't want to do it is that it is absolutely ruinous to one's personal life as it obliterates the distance needed to carry on personal relationships. It is hard to romance someone when you can see her entire life with just one touch. He has such an encounter with a would-be girlfriend played by Bryce Dallas Howard.

Finally, there is a boy who loses his twin brother in a fatal collision. He desperately wants to get in touch with his brother. His life is a mess because after his brother's death he is removed from his mother and put into foster care. All three of these people will ultimately come together in London. This too works very well. It is just an astonishing piece of filmmaking and I consider it at the very top of Eastwood's directing efforts.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Not the Headlines I Expected for My Future

It is a rather sobering fact that most of the terrorist events going on in the world are based on the actions of fundamentalist Islamics, or in the case of Norway, a terrorist reacting against fundamentalist Islamism. The recent event in Paris made me think it was timely to present a summation of these events. Until I sat down and compiled them, I really did not grasp how many there were. Most of the readers of this blog are like me: seniors. As a person born in 1948, brought up in Ohio in the 1950s and 1960s, it never even crossed my mind that in my 60s I would be facing constantly escalating Islamic terrorism instead of: nuclear war, a communist takeover by Russia, an international conflagration because Russia was moving missiles into Cuba, and/or "trying to prevent the domino effect of communist takeovers" (the leading theory going into Vietnam and dying there). I hate to sound truly ignorant, and maybe part of this is my going to Catholic schools all those years, but I did not even know back then what Islam was. I knew there was the new country of Israel and I knew the Arab nations produced a lot of our oil and that Israel and those countries were often enemies. That was the extent of my knowledge. It did not occur to me that this would come to affect me and that the other issues of the day I just mentioned would be deader than the proverbial doornail. We were all getting ready to compete in space after Sputnik. Science and Math were golden. I would have been less surprised to find out that we were reading in 2015 about fighting over moon station rights with the Russians than that we were all cringing, waiting for the next terrorist attack and hoping it wasn't in our city. The rest of this entry is just images of each event so that we all have a summary of what has taken place up to and including January 2015.

I recommend you view these on the Lightbox to get the maximum view. You just click on an image to be taken to the much bigger Lightbox.


Monday, January 19, 2015

Supreme Court, "You can't take a joke, can you?"

This is one of my favorite cases. I was brought up in all Catholic schools and was thus a member of organized religion until I went to college. There I parted company with organized religion in any form, never to return. I am the most tolerant of people in believing you should be able to practice whatever religion you choose, as long as you don't try and convert me to it. Jerry Falwell, as the chief religious right figure for the GOP, over many decades, made a specialty of trying to loudly and publicly convert others to his views. His views were intolerant of just about anything not espoused by the GOP or the religious right. Larry Flynt, publisher of "Hustler", thus found Falwell an ideal candidate to parody in his magazine. Most religious zealots are lacking in one key character trait: humor. This was to be Falwell's Achilles' Heel. If ever there was a time to turn the other cheek and carry on with good humor, this was it, and Falwell missed it by a country mile.
The Campari liquor ad was run in adult magazines on a regular basis as an advertisement. Falwell's parody is on the below left. Jill St. John, being paid for advertising Campari, is shown in one of the real ads, right. The idea was that Campari tastes better and better as you drink more of it, just like sex improves after the first time.
The Falwell "ad" is too difficult to read. So here is the text of that "ad" in readable print:       start of parody

Falwell: My first time was in an outhouse outside Lynchburg, Virginia.

Interviewer: Wasn't it a little cramped?

Falwell: Not after I kicked the goat out.

Interviewer: I see. You must tell me all about it.

Falwell: I never really expected to make it with Mom, but then she showed all the other guys in town such a good time, I figured, 'What the hell!'

Interviewer: But your Mom? Isn't that a bit odd?

Falwell: I don't think so. Looks don't mean that much to me in a woman.

Interviewer: Go on.

Falwell: Well, we were drunk off our godfearing asses on Campari, gingerale and soda - that's called a fire and brimstone - at the time. And Mom looked better than a Baptist whore with a $100 donation.

Interviewer: Campari in the crapper with Mom... how interesting. Well, how was it?

Falwell: The Campari was great but Mom passed out before I could come.

Interviewer: Did you ever try it again?

Falwell: Sure, lots of times, but not in the outhouse. Between Mom and the shit, the flies were too much to bear.

Interviewer: We meant the Campari.  

Falwell: Oh yeah I always get sloshed before I go out to the pulpit. You don't think I could lay down all that bullshit sober, do you?"            end of parody

Reverend Falwell brought suit based on invasion of privacy, libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress because Hustler Magazine had run a “ad” which was a parody of Falwell’s position. The Supreme Court held that the First Amendment's free-speech guarantee prohibits awarding damages to public figures to compensate for emotional distress intentionally inflicted upon them. Thus, Hustler magazine's parody of Jerry Falwell was deemed to be within the law, because the Court found that reasonable people would not have interpreted the parody to contain factual claims. The jury verdict in favor of Falwell was reversed. It had awarded him $150,000 in damages in the lower court. It was widely interpreted that the Supreme Court was telling Falwell in legal language that his problem with this case is that he couldn't take a joke and jokes about public figures are protected speech under the First Amendment. If this were not true, just think of all the lawsuits our last two Presidents could have brought. The best selling ecards online have been jokes and parodies of Bush and Obama.

The magazine’s parody was protected under the First Amendment. Parody of a public figure is not libel. Public figures must prove actual malice to receive damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress. This is just about impossible to prove which means you must learn to put up with a lot of heat if you elect to become a public figure. After Falwell's death, the ad was revived for a gay version of it. It is still for sale online in all sorts of souvenir ways. This is it:
The reason Falwell was ripe for a gay version is because of his infamous teletubbies' rant. He attacked these cartoon creatures, who appeared on a PBS children's show, as hidden gays who were trying to corrupt innocent youth. If he thought the jokesters would leave that one alone, he was sadly mistaken. 
If you are feeling sorry for Falwell, you need to keep one distinction in mind. He chose to become a public figure. Another Supreme Court case involved Mrs. Firestone who claimed that in her divorce from a wealthy man, with no other claim to public life, she did not become a public figure. So the media did not have its public figure protection. The Supreme Court agreed with her. She was not a public figure so she did not have to prove actual malice by the press to prevail in a libel suit. If we choose to become public figures, in short, all bets are off. Falwell made that choice a long time ago and now he had to live with its consequences.  If you love living in the limelight, as he did, you don't get to pick and choose when the spotlight turns on and off.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Not For Artists Only ~ Films About the Extraordinary

My Best Fiend by Werner Herzog. German film director Werner Herzog and the late international film star, Klaus Kinski, had a deep love-hate relationship with one another. As film artists, this fueled their work together and they will both be remembered primarily for their joint film efforts. Indeed, throughout the documentary made by Herzog, the one still alive, he seems to be lacking a part of himself when he is onscreen. He also seems to be as much trying to reclaim the best parts of himself as much as he is trying to come to final terms with his relationship with Kinski. Each man believed the other one was mad and a megalomaniac. Certainly neither man was like a "normal" person. In their film work together, it was all superb but also completely obsessed.

Every time Kinski's face comes onto the screen in the documentary, I remembered how beautiful or ugly he could make himself appear. His face is one artists everywhere would love to paint, draw, sculpt... whatever. That people were drawn to him and repelled by him off-camera, in equal measure, should really come as no surprise. That he could embody both characteristics within seconds of one another before the camera defined his brilliance as an actor. I think Kinski got the better end of the deal. He lived life exactly under his own terms for 56 years and then died, apparently of natural causes, totally spent. It was probably like a regular person's living to be 100! 

Herzog, however, was left to go on. At this time he was a bit rudderless but then he found a new direction and it was in the documentary or docudrama film mode as opposed to fictional films, his previous sole interest. He has done some terrific work in that genre. But I still miss Kinski. This was an absolutely fascinating film and I highly recommend it.

Dominick Dunne: After the Party was released shortly before Dominick Dunne died of cancer in the summer of 2009. Dunne goes over his private life and professional life in great detail. His greatest strength and weakness was that he was utterly beguiled by the rich and famous. He made his entire career out of them. He began as a film producer but bottomed out in that profession. In his his 50s, he reinvented himself as a novelist. I've read some of his books. They are fun but I don't think his novels will be long remembered. Where he really came into his own was with his own daughter's murder, which transformed him into a true crime writer. This was Dunne's true calling and I became a huge fan from that point until his death. He was unapologetic about being on the side of the victim's family, influenced by his daughter's murder. He is best known for his coverage of the O.J. murder trial but he covered every high profile rich and famous case for decades. The last case he covered was Phil Spector's. Dunne's accounts were run in VANITY FAIR monthly. The only time he was off the mark was with Gary Gondit. Dunne admits he was totally "had" by a source who told him some far out stories about Condit and Chandra levy's murder. Dunne repeated this info on air, a defamation lawsuit followed and Dunne ended up paying damages in settlement of the case to Condit.

Watch this documentary to experience him as a character and then read his true crime book compilations. He does a brilliant job of reporting these high profile murders. You can't put them down.

Dunne was also related to some high profile others in the arts. His late daughter Dominique was a rising actress. His son Griffin is an established actor and producer. His brother was the novelist John Gregory Dunne.

I originally saw  The Life & Times of Andy Warhol - Superstar at a film festival when it first came out. Warhol's work has grown on me over the decades so that by now, I really like all of his work. What this film solidifies for me is something I already suspected, that he was an absolute genius at making art that the public would buy. The film also makes clear Warhol's tendencies as a personality, chief among them being that he was a watcher of everything and everyone. That he was so in evidence on the New York social scene was probably so that he could feed this immense desire to watch and absorb what was out there in the city where everything happens first.

The documentary also touches on his relatives who were largely bypassed for his estate in favor of creating his own museum in his Pittsburg hometown. As an artist, I'm glad he made the museum possible. I hear it is wonderful. But I'm also glad I'm not related to him! Warhol was also a genius at delegating as much of the art process as he could, which was smart commercially and also gave him more time to watch. 

If you are an artist, you are not going to discover any art techniques here because it is not that kind of film. You will spend as little time in the studio itself as Warhol did! This is a fascinating account nonetheless of an American artist who managed to stay at the forefront of art his entire life. I'd recommend seeing it. 

Thelonious Monk - Straight No Chaser captures Monk as an artist probably better than any jazz musician has ever been captured on film. Although many identify Monk with bebop, I have always identified him with his musical compositions and enjoy listening to him best when it is just he playing the piano with no other accompaniment. 

His compositions remind me of Abstract Expressionist art and he was, of course, around during that vital time. This documentary lets you see all sides of his work and also glimpses of his personal life. Like most artists and musicians, it is pretty clear that he was not the ideal living companion. Typically, the biggest thing in his life was his music and nothing else even came close to that as a consideration.