Archive for July, 2011


July 30, 2011

There are entire areas of ordinary human conduct which the movies rarely seem to touch, which is only Reason #313 for us to hope for better ones. A lot of those areas involve sex—duh!—and on that score Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End from 1970 is just superb. A 15-year old kid (John Moulder-Brown, who was like a British Jesse Eisenberg with manageable hair) takes his first job as an attendant in a public bathhouse; one of his coworkers is an exquisite red-haired goddess (Jane Asher, Paul McCartney’s one-time fiancée) who begins pulling on his gonads like they’re taffy. He falls in love with her, partly because of the mind-games she plays with him, and his growing obsession with her causes his sense of reality, and the movie’s, to become extremely porous. Like Skolimowski’s Moonlighting, Deep End is slightly absurdist, completely unpredictable, and very, very funny—until it suddenly isn’t funny at all. Bits of the strangest, and sometimes bleakest, beauty come out of nowhere, and its way of testing Mike’s sexual boundaries in different dreamlike situations reminded me of Eyes Wide Shut, though it’s a livelier, less intellectualized journey than the forced march through Kubrick’s sex-maze. Whatever you do, don’t confuse it with The Deep End, Tilda Swinton’s dire remake of The Reckless Moment. A new restoration of Skolimowski’s film has just been issued, and the damn thing looks so good I had to rewind a couple times because I’d stopped listening to the dialog.

Another area that could use more exploration is our attitude towards work, especially in America where people are crazy enough not to mind spending a third of their waking hours handling manila folders with a bunch of strangers. In Irvin Kershner’s The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1964) we can tell from the opening shot what kind of man the protagonist is just from the dutiful way he does his morning push-ups. Ginger is a go-getter who’s moved his wife and daughter from Dublin to Montreal believing he’ll get his big break in the New World, but he can’t get ahead because he keeps walking off from the meager positions he’s qualified for. He’s like a cross between Walter Mitty and J.P. Donleavy’s Sebastian Dangerfield: a dreamer, but an aggressive one, with a fixed idea of the type of job that’s good enough for him. He talks his way into a post as a proofreader for a daily paper, clinging to the hope of a fast promotion to reporter; in the meantime, his wife, fed up with his empty promises, is in the process of leaving him. What Ginger really wants is the recognition accorded to great artists, but he doesn’t understand that he must take up an art to even begin the journey. Like Mike in Deep End, his desire winds up taking him to some unexpectedly dark places: the “luck” in the title refers to the opportunities we open up or, in Ginger’s case, close off through our own actions. Robert Shaw stars as Ginger, and unless I’m forgetting something it’s the one bit of full-on dramatic acting I’ve ever seen him do. The man didn’t let me down. Shaw’s real-life wife, Mary Ure, plays Vera Coffey, and their scenes together are vivid and lived-in.

“The jakes is occupied!”

July 25, 2011

My old friend Glenn Smith has posted a sterling piece of writing at his site about True Grit. It’s a movie which keeps looking better and better to me, and I’m glad Glenn put his appreciation into words.

Hard Time

July 22, 2011

An online friend of mine just suffered a right royal fucking at the hands of some Florida cops, and his story reminded me of the only time I ever went to jail. It was for public intoxication, even though I was actually behind the wheel of a car at the time and they should’ve thrown the book at me.

In 1978 I was living with a woman named—ah, hell, let’s call her Clarice Starling. The whole notion of living with Tom Block had lost its charm for Miss Clarice, and around Thanksgiving of that year she summarily dumped me. I had to save up enough money before I could move out, though, so for a month we shared the same bed without having sex and often (on her end) holding very little affection for the other. I was desperate to keep her, though, because I was just that pathetic, and I was frantically searching for some way of getting back in her good graces. One Friday around this time I got my paycheck from my regular job, and that night I had a toothache which, in my infinite wisdom, I decided would be best treated with a fifth of Bacardi. At the time I was driving a ’76 blue Ford Galaxie, a great big ol’ Panzer-looking thing, so I started tooling around Houston, drinking out of the bottle with the radio turned up loud.

At some point I began steering my way towards Galveston because I knew a fast drive would blow my thoughts away, which is what the Bacardi was really there for, too, and along the way I picked up two Mexican guys hitching on I-45. We shot the bull for a while before they told me they wanted to boost a Coca-Cola bottling plant on the island, but they weren’t even after money, I don’t think—just mischief. They asked me if I wanted anything, and remembering that Clarice liked Dr. Pepper, I told ’em to get me as much of it as they could. They directed me to a point outside a chain-link fence and had me park there, after which they clambered over the fence and disappeared into the darkness, heading towards a huge warehouse. It seemed like forever before they reappeared, and then they made two or three return trips back into the darkness, before they came back for good and started throwing case after case of soft drinks over the fence. When they started chucking all the cans into my back seat, there were so many of them that they filled the well to nearly the top of the front seat—I mean, it was really a lot of soda pop. The only problem was that Coca-Cola doesn’t bottle Dr. Pepper, of course, so my new friends had improvised and brought me 300 cans of Mr. Pibb, which was Coke’s Dr. Pepper knock-off. It didn’t matter. I was sure Clarice would see me in a whole new light.

We went to some Mexican dance club they knew about, and that’s where I lost them. I was already reeling drunk, but I was tapping 100 mph on the trip back to Houston. (I-45 is a long straight shot and there was barely any traffic—it was well past midnight by then.) I drove to a friend’s house in West University, about a mile from the apartment Clarice and I were sharing, and woke him up at four in the morning, barging into his livingroom, drunk and full of bullshit. All of this only irritated him, naturally, so I split, rebuffed by the world but still in possession of one hell of a lot of Mr. Pibb. I started driving back to my house, but when I was still about a mile away from it, a West University squad car started tailing me. It followed me for a couple blocks, right on my ass, and when we stopped for the red light at Bissonnet, it felt like the cops were sitting inside my car with me.

When the light turned green and I made the turn, my left rear wheel just managed to graze the island, and they instantly popped their lights on. They were two young cops, and they acted like they were going to let me off with a warning when I pointed out how close my house was to us—you could see it just across an empty field from where we were standing. But something—maybe it was the backseat filled with obviously stolen soft drinks—queered the deal. They started putting the cuffs on me, at which point I lost my shit and started calling them pigs. That was a mistake, but they took it surprisingly well; looking back on it, I don’t think I could’ve resisted taking a swipe at me for some of the things I said to them that night. I yelled at them all through the ride to their rinky-dink jailhouse, and I yelled at them all through the booking process, and when they threw me in a cell (I was their only guest that night), I started singing whatever songs came to mind at the top of my lungs—the big one I remember was “Camptown Races”. I kept it up for an hour or more, and though every once in a while somebody would come tell me to shut up, that was all they did. Nobody laid a hand on me, and eventually I passed out on the bunk.

When I woke up the next morning I had a miserable hangover (I’d all but killed the Bacardi by the time they pulled me over) and I stank to high heaven. I was finished. They let me call Clarice, and she and my sister showed up within an hour. But at the front desk I could see the sergeant telling them something that made them tighten their jaws, and then they began talking to each other. It turned out the West U. cops had just gotten around to calling my name in to the Houston Police Department, an organization with whom I happened to have—oh, I don’t know—three or four outstanding traffic tickets. So now I had to visit the HPD station downtown and take care of that.

The upshot was eight raucous, rancid hours in the Houston drunk-tank, and I tell you this much, those Houston cops had no sense of humor. The sergeant who picked me up—a barrel-chested redneck son of a bitch—announced his presence in my West U. cell by slamming the door all the way flat against the wall and roaring in my face, “I heard what you said to those officers last night, an’ if you use that word with me, I’ll beat the living shit out of you. You understan’ me?” It seemed like both of us were swaying back and forth a little, and I could feel him about to blow, so I started turning the flame down: “Look, I understand, officer. I understand. I just want to go home.” Which was true.

They gave me more of the same downtown, with each and every cop in turn telling me how he wanted to kick my ass right then and there, and this lasted until I was sitting on a bench back downstairs again, on the verge of being released. The woman who processed the discharges wasn’t a cop, just a city clerk of some kind, but she was a heartless bitch with a piercing Southern accent. I could see the release form with my name on it in her hand, but every time she got close to it, another clerk would hand her the forms for a new bunch of guys coming down the elevator and she’d bury mine under all of them, with each pass-over like that meaning another half hour of me sitting on the bench. At one point I got up and cautiously tried to point out this oversight to her, only to see her whip her head around on her neck like a monster out of Greek mythology. “Set your ass back down or I’m gettin’ the officer!” she screamed, so I beat a retreat. It took her another hour before she finally took mercy and called my name. The last words that passed between us—“You’ll be back!”—she spit out with genuine hatred. Of course I didn’t dare say a word back to her, and to this day I sometimes get the vibe that she was right, and I’ll someday be standing before her again.

Clarice was waiting for me outside, and we drove back to the West U. lockup to get my car out of impound. It turned out that if the Texas cops stopped you for a DUI back then, they had the choice of either hitting you with just that one charge, or they could total up the fines for all your moving violations and hit you with that amount instead. A DUI fine in those pre-MADD times was only $100 or so, so the West U. cops had talked it over and decided to charge me with public intoxication and tack on another $250 or $300 for scraping their precious traffic island; on top of that, I had the Houston fines as well. I’d lost the entire paycheck I’d gotten just a day before, plus I owed Clarice and my sister for the balance they covered.

So it was a pretty sad scene when Clarice and I finally got back to the apartment. And yet, ever the optimist, I hopefully led her out to the carport and opened up the backseat door of my car. A bunch of warm Mr. Pibbs came tumbling out onto the asphalt, and I beamed at her and said, “Honey, look there! They’re all for you!” At which point she just shook her head and said, “I don’t like Mr. Pibb”, then walked back inside the house. I’m pretty sure she was lying about that last part, though. Have you ever tasted Mr. Pibb? It tastes just like Dr. Pepper.

Question Time

July 19, 2011

Spent the morning listening to the Parliament questioning. The tone was much less adversarial than I expected but the two Murdochs still made surprisingly bad fencers. (God, that James is a lummox. Without his dad around he’d be asking someone “You want mayonnaise or mustard with that?”) On the other hand I suspect Rebekah Brooks could make D’Artagnan her pin-cushion if she wanted to, but she knows—they all know—the one thing they can’t do right now is look high-handed. The most striking thing, though, after years of watching American Republicans stonewall even the simplest challenges to their right to destroy the solar system, was seeing Brooks actually engage her questioners and provide answers that actually bore information related to their questions. When one of them said “This is a simple yes or no question” she immediately obliged them with a simple “No”, which is just where Condi Rice would have talked for 10 solid minutes by way of providing the “necessary context” before finally concluding that the question can’t be answered yes or no…and, in any case, is classified.

John Alton Does Tom Blog

July 5, 2011

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