‘Made It Ma! Top of the World!’

Deplorable movie moms: A brief tribute on this most maternal of days.

Ma Jarrett (“White Heat“)

Margaret White (Carrie’s mom in “Carrie“)

Elizabeth Stroud (“Birdman of Alcatraz“)

Kate “Ma” Barker (“Bloody Mama“)

Lady Macbeth (“Macbeth,” especially the Roman Polanski version)

“Ma” Alien (“Aliens,” especially)

Zinnia Wormwood (“Matilda“)

Petal Bear (“The Shipping News“)

Ma Vicious (“Sid and Nancy“)

‘Beyond Vietnam’ … and Beyond Iraq

Kevin Morrison, an old softball teammate of mine, just put together a four-minute montage of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech at the Riverside Church in New York. He juxtaposes images of Iraq over King’s words to devastating effect. Kevin also did a Q and A on the historical context of King’s speech, available at a blog called Pop + Politics.

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Today’s Reading

Kate pointed this story out in today’s New York Times, and read it aloud:

He Confirmed It, Yes He Did: The Wicked Witch Was Dead

“Like any coroner, he has seen some things. But one case stays with him nearly 70 years after the fact, like some old song he can’t get out of his head.

“He couldn’t shake this case even if he wanted to, what with all the videotapes, the DVDs, the television broadcasts replaying the gruesome aftermath over and over, in vivid Technicolor. Those striped socks, curling back like a pair of deflating noisemakers. …

“The coroner’s name is Meinhardt Raabe, and he lives in a retirement community tucked between here and there. He can’t see or hear too well, and his short legs need the assistance of a three-wheeled walker with hand brakes. But none of this means that at 91 he has forgotten much, because he hasn’t — especially about that case.”

It might be hard to believe a profile on one of the bit players in “The Wizard of Oz” might make compelling fare, but the story’s worth reading just for the writer’s touch; the story he tells is touching, too. There’s a catch, though: For a reason that escapes me–probably because this is the work of a highlighted national columnist, Dan Barry–the story is only available online as part of the Times Select service (we get Times select because we shell out for a daily subscription to the paper). It’s hard to see how this really helps the Times much. It’s one thing to put op-ed columnists and older-than-two-week archives under wraps and make people pay to see them, though I wonder if even that’s a winning proposition in the long term. This is just a lovely slice of life, and it comes as something of a rude surprise that it can’t be shared (unless, I suppose, people want to make do with email copies).

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“… And I mean, I just don’t know how anybody could enjoy anything more than I enjoy reading Charlton Heston’s autobiography and, you know, getting up in the morning and having the cup of cold coffee that’s been waiting for me all night still there for me to drink in the morning, and no cockroach or fly has died in it overnight–I’m just so thrilled when I get up, and I see that coffee there, just the way I want it, I just can’t imagine enjoying something else any more than that. I mean, obviously if the cockroach–if there is a dead cockroach in it, then I just have a feeling of disappointment, and I’m sad. …”

–Wallace Shawn, “My Dinner with Andre,” 1981

Flying Back

There will be plenty of East Coast trip postscripts to come, but for now: We’re sitting in a terminal at Kennedy airport; outside, it’s about 100, and even people who have been working inside all day are complainng about the heat. Outside, one big difference between city dwellers and suburban folk shows itself. The urban types are out on the streets, walking to the subway, shopping, whatever they have to do. It’s not like the sidewalks were packed in my brother’s neighborhood, but people were out and about, even if lots of us looked a little wilted. Out in the suburbs: No one on the street, anywere; people out there — and "out there" is probably any suburb you can think of — live strictly a doorway to doorway existence during the worst weather. Glad the power grid is holding up for everyone so far.

This morning, getting ready to leave John and Dawn’s place, we were talking about the latest bicycle fatality in the Oakland Hills. A guy out for a ride was hit head on up there on Skyline Boulevard, within a half mile or so of where I crashed in June, by a motorcyclist; the cyclist died of his injuries, the motorcyclist apparently walked away from the wreck. Not to place blame without knowing what really happened, but one of the risks bicyclists take riding up in the hills, a risk that’s increased a lot in the last 20 years, is that we share the road with motorcycle riders and motorists who treat the twisting roads like a raceway challenge. I’ve often worried about getting hit up there.

Anyway. At one point, John said, "Hey, did you hear about that Wired editor who died during the marathon?" I hadn’t. I looked up "wired editor marathon" onlne, and found a story on Wired News. The editor who died during the marathon was a guy named Bill Goggins. I knew him from my stint at the magazine in 1998 and from my days freelancing for the magazine. Bill was 43, and the news accounts say that he collapsed at mile 24 of the San Francisco Marathon last weekend and couldn’t be revived. A friend who saw him at mile 21 said he was smiling and running strong, and a mutual friend had seen him twice in recent days and said he seemed fine. The thing about Bill, whom I never got to know well enough, was that he was brilliant and funny and charming and had a big heart that was right there for anyone to see. Forty-three. Hard to believe. See you, Bill, wherever you are.

Continue reading “Flying Back”

Heroes and Hoopleheads

Deadwood” begins its third season tonight, a cause for division in our household. I love the show, with all its profanity and violence; for the same reasons, Kate can’t tolerate it.

It has become commonplace to equate the show’s fine scriptwriting with the work of Shakespeare (just Google shakespeare deadwood and you’ll see what I mean). We create cliches because there’s some truth in them, and that one’s no exception. I’ve been tempted to stop episodes and transcribe characters’ speeches just for the language. There’s more to the show than the writing, though: It’s beautifully acted. It’s beautifully filmed. It’s violent and tense as hell.

It’s also conventional wisdom to think of “Deadwood” and the post-modern westerns dating back to “The Wild Bunch” as a new and better breed of drama: More frank about the blood and injustice and cynicism that older westerns soft-peddled. If you think so — and I incline to that way of thinking myself — check out A.O. Scott’s long, long piece in today’s New York Times on the DVD re-release of some of the John Wayne/John Ford westerns. He touches on how thoroughly Ford’s visual sense, especially in “The Searchers,” affected later filmmakers and films. But the heart of Scott’s essay has to do with Ford’s vision of the West and its settlement:

“The Indian wars of the post-Civil War era form a tragic backdrop in most of Ford’s post-World War II westerns, much as the earlier conflicts between settlers and natives did in the novels of James Fenimore Cooper. That the Indians are defending their land, and enacting their own vengeance for earlier attacks, is widely acknowledged, even insisted upon. The real subject, though, is not how the West was conquered, but how — according to what codes, values and customs — it will be governed. The real battles are internal, and they turn on the character of the society being forged, in violence, by the settlers. Where, in this new society, will the frontier be drawn between vengeance and justice? Between loyalty to one’s kind and the more abstract obligations of human decency? Between the rule of law and the law of the jungle? Between virtue and power? Between — to paraphrase one of Ford’s best-known and most controversial formulations — truth and legend?

“Ford’s way of posing these questions seems more urgent — and more subtle — now than it may have at the time, precisely because his films are so overtly concerned with the kind of moral argument that is, or should be, at the center of American political discourse at a time of war and terrorism. He is concerned not as much with the conflict between good and evil as with contradictory notions of right, with the contradictory tensions that bedevil people who are, in the larger scheme, on the same side. When should we fight? How should we conduct ourselves when we must? In ‘Fort Apache,’ for example, the elaborate codes of military duty, without which the intricate and closely observed society of the isolated fort would fall apart, are exactly what lead it toward catastrophe. Wayne, as a savvy and moderate-tempered officer, has no choice but to obey his headstrong and vainglorious commander, played by Henry Fonda, who provokes an unnecessary and disastrous confrontation with the Apaches. In the end, Wayne, smiling mysteriously, tells a group of eager journalists that Fonda’s character was a brave and brilliant military tactician. It’s a lie, but apparently the public does not require — or can’t handle — the truth.

“In telling it, Wayne is writing himself out of history, which is also his fate in ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ (not, unfortunately, one of the discs in the Warner box). That film — which contains the famous line ‘When legend becomes fact, print the legend!’ —throws Wayne’s man of action and James Stewart’s man of principle into a wary, rivalrous alliance. Their common enemy is an almost cartoonish thug played by Lee Marvin, but the real conflict is between Stewart’s lawyer and Wayne’s mysterious gunman, one of whom will be remembered as the man who shot Liberty Valance.

“What we learn, in the course of the film’s long flashbacks, is that the triumph of civilization over barbarism is founded on a necessary lie, and that underneath its polished procedures and high-minded institutions is a buried legacy of bloodshed. The idea that virtue can exist without violence is as untenable, as unrealistic, as the belief — central to the revisionist tradition, and advanced with particular fervor in HBO’s ‘Deadwood’ — that human society is defined by gradations of brutality, raw power, cynicism and greed.

“If only things were that simple. But everywhere you look in Ford’s world — certainly in ‘Fort Apache,’ in ‘The Searchers,’ in ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ — you see truth shading into lie, righteousness into brutality, high honor into blind obedience. You also see, in the boisterous emoting of the secondary characters, the society that these confused ideals and complicated heroes exist to preserve: a place where people can dance (frequently), drink (constantly), flirt (occasionally) and act silly.

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‘Army Issues Warning About Iraq Documentary’

Someone recently told me in passing — someone who should know, since he’s there now — that what’s been happening in Iraq the last 38 months “doesn’t really rate the word ‘war.’ ” I think I understand the sentiment. We shouldn’t raise the significance of a battle with a bunch of murderous thugs (“primitive screwheads” is the term my acquaintance used) with such an important appellation. But to me, even sheltered as I am from the reality of what’s really happening over there, the suggestion this isn’t a war just doesn’t ring true. Call it what you want: People are dying by the thousands — by the tens of thousands — in a sustained siege of organized violence. Call it a picnic or a police action or the latest beachhead for democracy, the dead and wounded and the shattered pile up just the same, whether we’re paying attention or not.

HBO is about to air a documentary on one of the remarkable stories of the war: the work of the frontline U.S. military trauma hospitals in Iraq. It is not an untold story: many big media organizations have dipped their toe into it already. The HBO movie, “Baghdad ER,” is a little different, though, in that it’s the product of a longer-term immersion into the world of combat medicine. The makers spent two months filming in a combat trauma hospital in Baghdad’s Green Zone. And the movie’s 63-minute length represents more than the usual gnat’s-attention-span treatment that TV news accords such stories.

“Baghdad ER” is scheduled to air on May 21. It’s graphic. The filmmakers say so, and the Army is backing them up, with the service’s surgeon general issuing a memo advising the film may provoke flashbacks or nightmares among those who have served in Iraq.

(The New York Times had a different spin on the story over the weekend. Quoting Army sources, a Saturday article says the Army is backing away from the documentary over concerns “that its grim medical scenes could demoralize soldiers and their families and negatively affect public opinion about the war.”)

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The 11th


Here in the Bay Area, I left work early and went with Kate, who is off school this week, to see a late-afternoon matinee of “Inside Man.” It holds up as an entertainment. The show was at the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland, recently pictured for its marquee broadside on fascism. It’s one of the Bay Area’s great old movie houses, subdivided, as they all are, a couple decades ago. But still beautiful in a way the old movie palaces are and still impressive for its outsize scale. We caught sight of it in the rain after parking on a hillside a couple short blocks away: its magnificent (and still operational) old sign backwards and stark. Afterwards, we thought about where we might be able to eat dinner and look out on the Bay while the rain fell. Kate came up with a true inspiration: The Dead Fish, a place in Crockett, about 20 miles north of Oakland overlooking the Carquinez Strait, the place where all the water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, and all the tributaries and reservoirs and mountains beyond, spills out into the Bay. We couldn’t get a window table in the restaurant, but we found one in the lounge and had dinner gazing out on the channel and on the bridges that carry Interstate 80 across the water. Then we drove back to Berkeley.

In Chicago, I hear it was the kind of April day that belies the lack of greenery on the Wrigley Field vines (saw them on a baseball highlights reel this evening). It was 53 years ago today that Mom and Dad were married down at St. Kilian’s, 87th and May streets, just four blocks from where Mom grew up. Not everyone in the Irish Catholic parish — notably its pastor — was too thrilled at the idea of one of the children who’d grown up coming to his church and school marrying an outsider — that is, a Norwegian Lutheran. But there’s no accounting for affairs of the heart, and everyone got over the mixed marriage they bore witness to that day. Today, Dad drove down from his place on the Northwest Side to Mom’s grave and left a spring bouquet — artificial flowers, but they’ll last (I’ve never seen Mom’s place down there without something, something she would have liked, to mark the spot). He stopped for a couple of White Castle hamburgers on the way back north.

Later, we talked on the phone about the cemetery and White Castle a little and a lot more about old movie houses, which Mom loved. The Cosmo, which I’m guessing was short for Cosmopolitan, in particular. I know it was air-conditioned in the summer and that the double bills changed twice a week. I don’t know whether it had much of a sign, but Dad’s guess is that the its gone now.

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Tom Hanks’s Oscar Dos and Don’ts

Item 1: Hanks Hand Out Oscar Speech Tips

“Tom Hanks has been enlisted to give Oscar nominees expert advice on how to deliver the perfect acceptance speech.

“Hanks, who has made the trip to the Academy Awards podium twice, presents a video that has been given to all 150 of this year’s contenders.

“If they win, they should address the audience with ‘wit, flair, creativity – or at least with brevity,’ he says.”

Item 2: Hanks Drops F-Bomb on Oscars

I’ve looked for posts on Technorati and Google News, and other people saw the same thing Kate and I did: Tom Hanks walked on the stage to present the best director award, his face twisted in anger as he looked in the direction of Jon Stewart. Amateur lip readers, including me, think that among other expletetives, he said “f—ing moron.”

Well, he observed the brevity part of his advice. We’ll probably get the story of his discomposure tomorrow. And Stewart will probably have some fun with it on “The Daily Show” tonight.

Later: The Defamer today links to a video of the moment in question.

And still later: The Defamer appears to be the only media entity stepping up and doing its duty in getting to the bottom of the Tom Hanks Cursing Crisis. The latest story/theory is that Hanks was upset that the orchestra was playing the “Forrest Gump” theme when he walked on stage. Meantime, Defamer commenters engage in a spirited give and take about whether Hanks was play-acting or really P.O.’d. From what I saw on my tee-vee set, he was actually angry.

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‘Citizen King’

After that football game, of which for reasons disclosed elsewhere I saw only the last quarter, Kate came home and our ensuing channel surfing fetched up on “Citizen King,” an episode of “The American Experience” on Martin Luther King, Jr. Probably because you know the way the story is going to come out, or at least his part of it, it has the feeling of a tragedy alongside which the made-up kind pale (sorry, Will). The tragedy resounds the more deeply because of the aftermath of King’s death. One can hardly argue that we’ve reached that moment he talked about the night before he died that his people — the black, the poor, and the oppressed, would reach the promised land. It wasn’t a promised land just for those whose cause he made his own; it was a destination for the United States, too. I wonder, with the pictures of the mid-60s, and 1968 especially, fresh again, whether the nation suffered a blow, a spiritual injury, that was too big to be overcome in our lifetimes. That may be the still-impressionable spectator of the events talking; the sizable portion of the population born since then might ask what’s the big deal. But it’s true, too, that as a nation we’re swept along by the silent currents of events that predate us, predate our families’ arrival in the United States.

And speaking of family connections, there was a moment in the film when my Uncle Bill appeared on the screen. He spent a lot of time in his career as a Catholic priest in Chicago working on movement issues, and joined some of King’s campaigns in the South (the Selma-Montgomery march in 1965, for instance; amazingly, the route of the march is now a National Park Service National Historic Trail). Anyway, Bill: The documentary included an extensive section on King’s campaign in Chicago, including his marches in Cicero and the segregated neighborhoods of Gage Park and Marquette Park. Suddenly, there was film of marchers filing down the sidewalk, and for two seconds, maybe, there’s Bill. I went back and looked again (on Tivo — well, there’s one thing about the world you can say is better than the ’60s). No doubt — it was him, caught just for an instant doing what he did.