Archive for the ‘Crime and Punishment’ Category

Farm Life

March 13, 2014

I have no real point to make here except, perhaps, that it’s an abomination to bind a man—any man—to a pickaxe handle and leave him to lie in the midday sun. In any case it doesn’t hurt to remember that these men, and these places, and these situations, all came before us. (Click on the pics for full resolution.)

1895 GA

Georgia 1895


South Carolina 1898

1903 - Juvenile Convicts

1903 (juvenile convicts, location unknown)


North Carolina 1910 (wagons used to transport and house convicts during road work assignments)

1941 GA

Georgia 1941

Guard at the new Louisiana State Peniten

Louisiana 1955


Early 1900s

1907 Delaware

Delaware 1907

1930s Man_tied_to_pickaxes

Early 1930s (location unknonw)

Bartow County State Highway prisoners sm

Bartow County, Georgia


Sing Sing, NY


Art is Our Friend, Part 399

February 2, 2012

Last night I stumbled across something I forgot I even had, a copy of the color version of Jacques Tati’s Jour de Fête, so I popped it in the ol’ player. I’d only seen the black and white version, which was the only version available for decades because the lab in ’49 couldn’t process the color negative correctly, and I’d wondered if I was going to find it half as funny as I did when I saw it back in ’91. At least I think it was ’91; anyway, whenever the hell it was, I remember the circumstances well enough because the night before I’d been assaulted by some jackasses in North Beach. They roughed me up pretty good—broke my schnozz and knocked four teeth out, just for the sweet hell of it. The good news, if you could see it that way, is that I was so drunk when it happened that afterward I kept cracking jokes for the E.M.T. who happened to be on the scene, and who kept glumly shaking his head while he checked out my shredded gums. Because that was the other angle to it all. I’d spent the previous two years in A.A. and had just a week earlier decided to try drinking again; and, since this night represented my first trip back into the bars, it certainly felt like the universe was sending me a message reading YOU ARE A DOLT in big block letters.

So between falling off the wagon and having my ass handed to me, I definitely wasn’t cracking any jokes when I woke up the next morning. In fact my first conscious action of the day, even before opening my eyes, was to burst into tears. It was the most surprising, most spontaneous outburst of grief I’ve ever experienced; one moment I wasn’t crying, and suddenly I was sobbing my guts out. It was a perfect little squall of emotions that was blistering while it lasted—but it lasted only a minute or so, and then I was ready to start the day. At some point that morning I talked to my friends M. and D., who offered solace in the form of soup and company. I did not say no to this offer, and they showed up around noon bearing a quart of miso, a couple of joints, no moral judgments, and a copy of Jour de Fête.

I’d never seen any Tati, and when the movie started I was thinking Jesus, some old French movie, played largely in pantomime, about a mailman out in the provinces…Man, I don’t think so…But about 20 minutes into it Tati, while pedaling his bike down a country lane, is attacked by an invisible bumblebee. By much frantic waving of the arms and whipping his legs in circles, he drives the bee away, and one perfectly timed moment later a farmer standing on a nearby hilltop begins waving his arms, and when the farmer’s waving drives the bee off, Tati—who in the meantime has ridden his bicycle to the opposite corner of the frame from whence he entered—again begins waving like a madman.

I would’ve said you were crazy if you’d told me five minutes earlier that I’d be laughing hysterically that morning, but I was laughing so hard by the end of that bee scene that I thought I was having a stroke. There are a lot of good reasons to love Jacques Tati, but I’ll always owe him for the flood of endorphins that spilled through me on one of the shittiest days of my life. As for Jour de Fête, it’s still a wonderful movie.

And since I’m getting stuff off my chest here…I’ve always been a morbid sonofabitch, and I long wondered if my fascination with certain true crimes wouldn’t someday come back to bite me—and then one day it did. I’m not detailing the murders of the musician Bryan Harvey and his family here because they don’t bear thinking about—which was exactly my problem. The two killers had, to use Colin Wilson’s phrase, made a decision to be out of control, leading them to commit crimes so brutal that even the lead killer, in his police confession, seemed stunned by his own actions. I had a harder time processing the Harvey murders than I did Columbine, and it was only when I chanced upon the Drive-By Truckers’ loving and intelligent tribute to them that I got a handle on what went down. As a container and an organizer for a lot of raw emotion, this song is unbeatable.

odds & ends

December 9, 2010

First, a toss-up between what’s more unbelievable, evil aliens pitching camp in Dodge City or that even after 40 years in the business Harrison Ford can’t make the words “Or I’m gonna take him” sound half-human:

Elsewhere, this true crime piece by Mark Bowden is well worth reading—some really ingenious detective work at play here. Be sure to watch the video afterward…

And finally, the thing that made me laugh the hardest in the past couple weeks:


October 8, 2010

That’s how I felt about five minutes ago. On Wednesday night I was (mostly) knocked out by Blue Sky, Tony Richardson’s drama about an Army major (Tommy Lee Jones) and his sexual loose cannon of a wife. Jessica Lange plays the woman, who, in a script today, would be carefully labeled “bipolar” to make her behavior comprehensible to modern audiences. In Richardson’s movie, though, she’s a jack-of-all-nutcases: about equal parts nympho, nonconformist, mad housewife, and brainwashed by the media. (She keeps taking on the look of movie stars—Gardner, Monroe, Taylor—as she gleans them from womens’ fan mags, and the opening scene pays tribute to Bardot’s oh-my-god sunbaths in …And God Created Women and Contempt.) The movie’s last half hour gets lost in an uninvolving subplot about an Army scandal, but until then it’s just a killer portrait of a decent and intelligent man’s devotion to a helplessly carnal and unstable woman.

Jones and Lange are practically a perfect matchup, but I was really drawn to the handful of scenes between the couple’s two young teenage daughters, Amy Locane and Anna Klemp. Their mother’s very public antics and their father’s consternation have forced the girls to grow wise beyond their years, and the result is a sardonic but palpably loving attitude towards their parents. (“She’s crazy and he’s blind,” offers one of them. The other agrees: “They’re perfect for each other.”) Locane, who was 23 at the time but playing about 16, is just ridiculously watchable here; she even brought to mind Dana Hill’s incredible turn as the oldest daughter of another stormy couple, Diane Keaton and Albert Finney, in Alan Parker’s Shoot the Moon. Not being a big Melrose Place fan I wasn’t sure what else I might’ve seen her in, and it was while I was checking out her filmography that I stumbled across this news story. (Note the recent date). I know, I know, I should probably be getting all MADD on her ass, but there’s always a waiting-list of people eager to take that chore on. Coming so soon after Blue Sky, I’ll simply note what a waste it all is.

Reach for the Sky

August 20, 2010

It was four or five obsessions ago—before film noir, before the Iraq War, before Enron and the Italian neorealists and vegetarian cooking the Army-McCarthy hearings—that I really plunged into the gunmen of the Old West. It lasted a while, a year or two in any case, and in that time I bored certain people silly (Gary, Kathy, Cay—are you still out there?) with the exploits of such forgotten men as John Selman, King Fisher, and Outlaw Bass. For instance, there was the handsome train robber Tom “Black Jack” Ketchum,

who caused some excitement when his head popped off during his hanging,

and “Deacon” Jim Miller, the religious nut and hired killer who asked permission to keep his hat on before getting strung up in an Oklahoma barn,

and Henry Brown, the popular but poorly paid marshal of Caldwell, Kansas, who decided to improve his lot in life by robbing the bank one town over from his own. It was a bad move: a couple of citizens were killed in the robbery, then Brown and his friends managed to trap themselves in a box canyon that was filling up with rainwater. They surrendered and spent the day in the Medicine Lodge lockup, waiting for the mob to reach its boiling point; while not posing for photographs at gunpoint, Brown used the time to write a letter to his wife which ended: “It was all for you. I did not think this would happen.” When the mob finally came that night, Brown made a break for it and was shot down in the street. That’s Henry, second from the left there, in shackles:

Some of the most famous gunmen were so thickly embroiled in the currents of history they seem like frontier Forrest Gumps, yet one can’t say much about them as people. These were far from self-actualized men, to put it mildly, and they had no say in how others represented them. Some of them come across as sociopaths pure and simple, others as workingmen carrying capitalism to its logical end, but in the main their personalities don’t communicate across the ages in any illuminating way, leaving us only with their violent, often nugatory experiences. Those experiences, draped as they were in law-breaking and immorality, were a tangled web to begin with, and any remaining hope of clarity was dimmed when generations of dime novelists, journalists, and slipshod historians took to heart the words of the too-slick newspaper editor in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Every field is open to information abuse, but the Old West was left to the amateurs for so long that peer reviews and other reality-checks couldn’t obtain a toehold for decades, allowing writer after writer, for generation after generation, to repeat “the legend”—the myths, tiresome the second time you read them, that Billy the Kid shot a man for every one of his 21 years, that Hardin once shot a man for snoring. Indeed, “the legend” was regurgitated so many times that the writer-bibliographer Ramon Adams felt moved to compile Burs Under the Saddle, a virtual encyclopedia of errata which painstakingly corrects, one by one, the outright myths and half-truths peppering Western histories. Beyond the weekend warriors, the field has also seen its share of warlords and empire builders, most notably the belligerent and quite possibly insane Glenn G. Boyer, whose inexplicable mindgames have hindered serious researchers for years. Nor do publishers, especially in the academic world, offer much help when they saddle their offerings with presentations trivializing their own subject matter. When the University of Oklahoma Press reissued John Wesley Hardin’s autobiography for the first time in decades, this is what it looked like:

Likewise, Joseph G. Rosa’s indispensable pictorial biography The West of Wild Bill Hickok is available only in a cheaply produced edition even though Hickok led a life richer than Picasso’s, and the man himself, an incorrigible camera hound, possessed one of the great modern gazes in 19th Century photographs.


Despite all this, certain potent snapshots still jump out from the literature that is reliable: a disconsolate Hickok sitting on his bed, surrounded by firearms, as a half-dressed prostitute putters about his room; or Henry Brown’s vest catching fire from a pistol flash and going up in flames as he ran down the street during that escape attempt. These luminous, ephemeral glimpses have no more substance than heat lightning, and they’re no help at all to, say, the grad student writing a thesis on the economics of mining towns. Anecdotal history like this doesn’t leave much more than a feeling, but it’s a feeling that’s tangled up with the texture of some rugged lives once lived, a constant shifting between the gridpoints on a wilderness, an easy familiarity with violence, and the unmistakably American flavor of all these things; if nothing else it injects some small dose of grit and authenticity into an age of designer-ripped jeans and Lady Gaga.

John Wesley Hardin, for instance, came out of the East Texas hills, the son of a Methodist circuit rider (hence the name), and his early reputation as a mankiller was based on run-ins he had with freed slaves, Union soldiers, and the hated (by Democrats and ex-Confederates) State Police. Getting himself into scrape after scrape, he was a fugitive long before he was 20; in the Taylor-Sutton feud he shotgunned a man on the deck of a riverboat even though the fellow was known to be fleeing the territory; when he subsequently murdered a deputy and lit out again, a furious mob strung up his brother.

The Texas Rangers caught up with him on a train outside Pensacola, knocked him out, and renditioned his ass back to Texas, where he was given a 25-to-life prison term. In Huntsville he taught Sunday school—par for the course for celebrity felons today, but Hardin seemed to believe his own sermons, and he went one step further and began studying law. He served 20 years before he was pardoned in 1894, and the Texas of his youth was fading away fast. He passed the Bar but few people wanted to pay John Wesley Hardin for his legal advice. He married a 15 year old girl who fled on their wedding night and refused to discuss him ever again. The children from his first marriage, grown now, were strangers to him. He moved to El Paso and hung out a shingle.

There he began work on his autobiography, a book short on insight but long on detail, with names and dates supplied for almost every killing, some 30 or 40 in all. He distributed autographed playing cards drilled by bullet holes—keepsakes which are traded to this day. But things continued to slide downhill for him: not enough clients, a messy affair with the wife of one of the few clients he did possess, a card game that so pissed him off he scooped up the pot and walked out the door, silently daring anyone to object. The local newspaper, hearing of this, began a drumbeat: the day of the gunman was over. It was just a matter of when. There was one final dispute, one final exchange of charges and countercharges, this time with a degenerate constable, and on August 19, 1895—115 years ago yesterday—Hardin was playing dice in the Acme Saloon when John Selman stepped up and shot him in the back of the head.

Now, not even with a gun to my head could I tell you why I find these details irresistible. The fact is, I just do…

Roman & the Know-It-Alls

October 12, 2009

At a key point of the movie Chinatown the main villain, Noah Cross, a man who’s raped both the land and his own daughter, gives private investigator Jake Gittes a classic piece of advice: “You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t.” That’s a humbling bit of wisdom even when it’s coming from a monster, yet the Roman Polanski case is dredging up memories of both the O.J. trial and Monicagate for the tsunami of shrill certainty that it’s generated. Every four years the Winter Olympics come along and our co-workers become overnight experts on the Triple Lutz, and whenever one of these celebrity morals cases comes down the pike, we suddenly become authorities on events we didn’t witness involving people we never met.

If there’s anyone who I’m happier not to be than Polanski right now, it’s Anne Applebaum, the Washington Post columnist who’s spent much of the last two weeks taking it on the chin for her blog posts defending the director after his arrest in Switzerland. The first one, published under a headline that reads like a kick-me sign—“The Outrageous Arrest of Roman Polanski”—was greeted by a shit-storm of jeering mockery, and that was the polite response. Most of Applebaum’s readers contented themselves with draping giant Day-Glo arrows and smiley-faces around the weak points in her post (it was, as they say, a target-rich environment), but a number of them walked out to the point of wishing that Applebaum—or even her daughter—might receive some moral tutelage in the form of being raped. Applebaum fired back with a spectacularly counterproductive second post whose mealy-mouthed rationalizations of her first post only gave rise to another round of cat-calls and ill wishes. The blog Lawyers, Guns and Money, meanwhile, zeroed in on the factual shortcomings in her arguments, torching each of them in turn and burning them to the ground.

Elsewhere in the Polanski Thunderdome, Salon followed up their earlier takedown of the pro-Polanski documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired with a white-hot Kate Harding article under the unsubtle headline Reminder: Roman Polanski Raped a Child. Whoopi Goldberg unhelpfully offered the idea that Polanski hadn’t committed “rape rape,” Woody Allen unhelpfully signed the pro-Polanski petition, and the rightwing unhelpfully did what it always unhelpfully does: it tried to turn the whole issue into the Antietam of the Culture Wars, except that this time they had a point. Finally, Cokie Roberts, a woman who’s probably thought about Polanski for all of twenty seconds in the last thirty years, but who knows red meat when she sees it, reacted to the sound of his name by suggesting out loud that we “just take him out and shoot him.” Her graceless laughter after her quip didn’t make her look any less inhuman.

The folks who want to string Polanski up alternate between around-the-clock all-caps outrage and wallowing in the pornographic details of the photo shoot on Jack Nicholson’s deck, while his defenders act like frightened octopi, squirting ink in every direction as they dart backwards from the case’s central facts. One side wants to only discuss what happened on a single afternoon 32 years ago; the other side wants to talk about everything except that day. Yet both sides exhibit a breathtaking amount of moral certainty for a case that’s riddled with U-turns and unique circumstances, the most recent being a former D.A.’s astonishing announcement that he lied in the documentary about a critical discussion. The end result is that neither the straightforward nor the complicated elements of the case can give anybody pause because everyone’s having too good a time Being Right, like a dog rolling in its own crap. The Polanski haters think that yelling HE RAPED A LITTLE GIRL should trump everything, even when his victim just wants everyone to get over it already; meanwhile, his defenders never tire of reminding us that PEOPLE GET AWAY WITH MUCH, MUCH WORSE STUFF EVERY DAY. The idea that Dick Cheney—the closest thing to a living, breathing Noah Cross we’re ever likely to see—will never do the perp walk is a galling thing indeed, but that has fuck-all to do with Roman Polanski.

So much of the debate has focused on whether Polanski should have been arrested it’s obscured the fact that he has been arrested—and so where do we go from here? Do Applebaum, Goldberg & Co. really believe he should just be given a handshake and turned out on the street? I have to say, my own feelings on the subject have moved a great deal in the last week or so, largely for the same reason I think it was wrong of Bill Clinton to lie in his deposition no matter how rigged it was. It’s pretty clear that Polanski’s arrest resulted from a series of events—the documentary, the motion to dismiss—which the L.A. District Attorney’s Office looked on as nose-thumbing dares to bust him, but now that he’s in custody I don’t see a viable alternative to extraditing him. He had his reasons for fleeing, sure, but all felons have their reasons, and usually without the chance of getting off with a 90-day sentence. At this point it’s all come down to one of those baseline “What do we expect of our society?” questions, such as “Is it okay for a president to lie under oath?” It doesn’t matter how you get there; once you’re there, things have to go a certain way or you need to junk the system altogether. America’s criminal justice system is wonky precisely because its scales are so perpetually out of balance; letting a 30-year fugitive (and confessed rapist) off the hook isn’t the way to address the fact that the L.A. justice department has some shitheads in it. In fact, letting him go wouldn’t address it at all.

But that’s just me. Chinatown remains a great film—we still agree on that much, don’t we?—because it’s the truest, coldest picture there is about the world’s failure to live up to our ideals. No happy endings awaited Jake Gittes despite his best intentions, and the likeliest outcome facing Roman Polanski can’t help but leave a bitter taste in my mouth. My best guess is that he’s headed to prison, quite possibly for the rest of his life. You’re soft in the head if you think he didn’t bring it on himself, but if seeing a great artist come to such a tawdry end makes you want to whoop and crow, I don’t know what to tell you—it’s probably not anything good, though. Beyond that I’m not hazarding any guesses. That way lies Chinatown.

Roman Polanski Romans Circus

“A Dry Place in the Swamp with Trees”

October 11, 2007

It’s a slow-ass day today, so much so that I was a little irked when the mail trolley didn’t bring me that copy of The Crime of Monsieur Lange I’ve been pining for, and instead dropped off the latest issue of one of my company’s in-house magazines. I was flipping through the various urban renewal stories inside it when the words “Opa-Locka, Florida” caught my eye—I hadn’t known before today that we’ve been working on some revitalization projects there. Opa-Locka is, of course, the hell on Earth into which the bible drummer Paul Brennan falls during the Maysles Brothers’ and Charlotte Zwerin’s great film Salesman. It’s one of those nutty little communities that adopted a “theme” when it sprang up during the land boom that Groucho took an axe to in Cocoanuts, and its choice of motifs—the Arabian Nights—seems stranger still now that we’ve entered the 21st Century. In one of Salesman’s most memorable passages an exasperated Brennan tries to make sense of the city’s whimsically named and plotted streets, including Sinbad Avenue, Sharazad Boulevard and, yes, Sesame Street. The town’s founders, not content with laying out their city as a pack of five-year olds might, went on to line its avenues with buildings done up in a faux Moorish style, with a City Hall festooned in golden domes and pointed arches and minarets so laughably fakey that Walt Disney’s version of Mad Ludwig’s Castle looks authentically medieval by comparison. And if you thought the name “Opa-Locka” was coined by some tin-eared booster, you wouldn’t be wrong: it’s a land developer’s abbreviation for the region’s unwieldy Indian name. A true linguistic curiosity, it’s a word that physically pains the eye that takes it in.

What civic nuttiness couldn’t take care of, geopolitics would do its best to finish off. When I was a kid my family drove down Route 66 to my grandparents’ place in the Ozarks every summer, a trip that took us through the tiny burg of Cuba, Missouri, whose denizens, perhaps too aware of how much that name stood out in the early 1960s, mounted a billboard at the city limits that read WE MAY BE NAMED CUBA BUT WE DON’T LIKE CASTRO. I can’t help but think that in late 2001 Opa-Locka’s civic leaders felt even more pricklish and on the defensive, especially when it came to light that the some of the 9/11 hijackers, perhaps at home amongst the papier-mâché towers and play-tot street names, had taken their flying lessons there.

Now, you’d think that its links to Salesman—one of the most ferocious assaults on American capitalism ever put to celluloid—and the WTC attacks would create enough bad vibes for any city in the world, but Opa-Locka had yet to win the saddest prize of all. In 2003 and 2004 it led all of America’s cities in violent crime—and not by a little, but by a lot. In 2005 its murder rate dropped to second, after East St. Louis, but it was still something to behold: where the killing fields of Oakland reported 23.2 murders for every 100,000 citizens, Opa-Locka—with a population slightly south of 16,000—racked up 51, while the number of its assaults and robberies dwarfed the national averages. Most of the violence could be traced to “the Triangle,” a tiny warren of streets just a short hop up Ali Baba Avenue from where Paul Brennan got lost in 1968, and home to some truly vicious drug wars.

In Salesman’s closing shot a sere and withered Paul Brennan gazes out of his motel room, and his thousand-yard stare looks like it’s taking in the abyss rather than some choice Floridian real estate—the poor old guy was seeing his hopes and dreams evaporate before his eyes. It was the end of a long process but one that starts easily enough. This morning the mailroom guy plopped a magazine down on my desk and I happened to glance at its thirteenth page, and in less than an hour I was up to my eyes in Opa-Locka.

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