ART AND POLITICS, POLITICS AND ART (And Then There Was Hollywood: Twelfth Rumination)

The Brave One (2007)
D. Neil Jordan

I’ve been to two political rallies in my life. One was for the Kent State Four (the issue–successfully mediated–was whether the parking spaces where they fell would be closed and monuments placed). The other, a year or so later, was a pro-Second Amendment rally held on the steps of the Florida capital building and sponsored by an organization a Libertarian friend helped found (she and her husband asked me to help haul amps and chairs).

I have vivid memories of both. My most vivid memory of the second was a woman I’ll call L. I won’t give her name for reasons that will become obvious.

The stage was big, the rally was small. Probably between fifty and a hundred. There were four or five featured speakers. L was dark-haired, thirty-something, attractive, articulate, rather athletic looking (accentuated by a baseball cap which went with her casual attire).

For reasons that will also become obvious, she went last.

Her story, boiled to the essence retained by my memory, was this:

She was a panhandle native, lived in an isolated, rural area, alone with her children. One night while her children were away, her home was invaded and she was beaten and gang-raped by five men.

She did all the right things afterward.

She went to the police and the hospital (I don’t recall which order), got treatment and a rape kit. She was able to identify one of her attackers. Through him, the police were able to find and arrest all five men.

She testified against each of them at separate trials. They each received jail time. She attended each sentencing.

The last man convicted, who had been the nominal “leader,” received a ten-year sentence. On his way out of the courtroom, he passed near her and said the following:

“When I get out, I’m coming back to finish the job.”

After which, being unable to sleep nights, she did all the right things.

She met with the local country sheriff and asked him what his office could to to protect her and her children.

His answer: Not much.

She should install an alarm system.

Already done.

Beyond that, they could keep her posted on the man’s whereabouts (and those of his partners). They could let her know if he or the others made parole and, assuming they checked in with their parole officers, where they were living.

They could let her know at once if any of them escaped.

If some credible threat developed, they could send a man by the house now and then, but, due to manpower limits, it was unlikely they could ever post anyone there for more than a day or two.

He asked if she had considered moving.

She had, but what good would it do? Couldn’t they still find her? She wasn’t really witness protection material.

Besides, she didn’t want to move. And she didn’t think she should have to. Even if, for her children’s sake, she was forced to, it felt like no more than an expensive and, at best, temporary solution.

It wasn’t going to help her sleep nights.

And if she couldn’t sleep now, when she knew the men were safely in jail, what would it be like when they got out?

She was left to ponder her fate. After another sleepless week or so, she went to the house of a friend who served as a local deputy.

Is there really nothing I can do? Nothing?

He gave his advice off the record.

Buy a gun and learn how to use it.

In her speech, L, still waiting, on that day near the end of the last century, for her attackers to get out of prison, went on to describe the rest of her experience (purchasing a gun, going to firing range, the scores she racked up, getting involved in the pro-Second Amendment movement, etc.) in some detail.

I’ve forgotten most of that. I may be fuzzy on some of the details I just provided as well.

I never forgot her conclusion:

“All I wanted was to know I had a chance and to sleep nights. I bought a gun. I learned how to use it. I gave myself a chance. I sleep nights.”

The Brave One is as close as Hollywood has ever come to making L’s story–and that of what are no doubt thousands of other women.

Given where the world has gone in the decade since, I don’t see them coming any closer.

It’s hardly a perfect movie. That word “Hollywood” comes with some baggage and only some of it is discarded here.

And, of course, there are real differences between L and the victim portrayed in The Brave One.

Jodie Foster’s  Erica Bain is urban to the core, host of an NPR-like local radio show, has no children, glides through the lightly swinging, modestly upscale, lifestyle of a local celebrity, has a de rigueur modern boyfriend (handsome, exotic, sensitive, arty, head-over-heels in love with her, wants to get married right now).

That said, when her boyfriend is killed and she is savagely beaten and (presumably–it’s not made entirely clear) raped by Central Park thugs whose animal nature and darkness of hue is, like Erica Bain’s whiteness and civility (she is a Good Liberal played by Jodie Foster, after all) cranked to the max, she does try to do the right things.

The problem is she can’t get her story out.

Beyond her own burgeoning, hardly unjustified, paranoia, there’s a massive big city bureaucracy to deal with. While not exactly hostile, it is almost inherently indifferent. Her life’s been ruined, her psyche shattered. They see stuff like this every day. The cost of any given civil servant taking a personal interest would probably put them in therapy.

And there it might have lain, except that there’s a movie on and Erica doesn’t just feel scared and alone, but threatened. (They’re going to kill me! she says at one point, and her fear and disorientation are palpable, though it isn’t clear, despite her small celebrity as a radio host, how they would even find her).

The bureaucracy won’t let her buy a gun either….but the street will.

Soon enough, she’s carrying.

A heartbeat after that (the biggest leap of logic in the narrative–what are the odds?) she’s the lone night shopper in a store near her apartment when the clerk’s crazed ex-boyfriend storms in, gun blasting. Erica tries to hide but makes a noise. He comes looking for her. After a tense game of cat and mouse (well directed, as is the rest of the movie), she manages to shoot him in the face.

Her recent experiences with law enforcement have not given her the sort of confidence in the system required to hang around and plead self-defense.

From that moment on, she’s living two lives: Her day job as a talk radio host–where opening up about the part of her personal experience she can share makes her a bigger celebrity. And a night stalker, now actively seeking circumstances (lonely subway cars for instance) where the creatures of the night will come to her–and be mowed down in turn.

At this point, Terrence Howard’s Mercer, the one cop who took an interest in her case (though he wasn’t assigned to it), becomes the lead detective on the search for the vigilante killer now stalking the city’s streets.

Complications–some predictable, some not–ensue.

The plot works because the two lead actors are most of the show and both are, as usual, excellent. They glide past the standard Hollywood holes into something that feels almost real.

But the movie works at a deeper, more troubling, level because the fine actress playing the lead isn’t just any Oscar winner.

She’s Jodie Foster, here given the chance of a career to bring all the associations that are hers alone together.

I’m not sure a good-not-great movie–especially one that pulls its punches here and there–can bear the entire weight of all that. Given the subject, and the knowledge of all those L’s out there, needing to be heard–there’s no way I can watch it without wishing it were just a little bit better. That it got all the way to real.

I keep coming back to it, though.

A movie called A History of Violence came out two years earlier (2005). I haven’t seen it, but it’s hard to believe any movie would have earned that title better than this one.

So far as we know, Jodie Foster is the only woman in the modern world who has ever inspired a major political assassination attempt, and that was in part because she had, in her fist iconic role*, played a teenage hooker being stalked/avenged by an earlier era’s idea of a vigilante.

Us being us, of course she was/is also a major movie star, and, her being her, of course she would win her first Oscar playing a victim of a gang rape** and her second playing a detective who must understand the mind of one horrific serial killer*** to capture another.

There are other actresses (not many, but some) who could have played Erica Bain as well in any technical or “artistic” sense.

None could have brought those associations–or anything like them. The movie has a kind of mythic power going in, and it comes tantalizingly near to merging that power with art.

Which is maybe as much as we could expect. We’re having our strings pulled and our buttons pushed by a top-flight director and two standout actors giving their best, providing entertainment value aplenty along the way, if entertainment is the right word. That’s a long way better than nothing.

And it does achieve one thing more, one thing that takes hold early and plays out to the climax, where, gun in hand, her attacker begging for mercy, Foster’s primal Yes I do! connects to moments as otherwise disparate as Rosanna Arquette’s explosion at the climax of 1982’s Baby It’s You or Illeana Douglas’s in Grace of My Heart and gets at the heart of civilization’s modern dilemma…the fine lines that must be constantly negotiated between freedom and security at the most basic, private level.

And right there the movie scores.

Because grudgingly, messily, it accepts there are no answers.

That’s a little too real for comfort.

Interviewed for the DVD extras, Foster declares My character is wrong!

But the movie works–and troubles–because, when you’re watching it, it doesn’t feel like she’s wrong.

And when you’re thinking about it?

Well, like I said, there are no answers.

Guns are a problem without a solution (and there’s nothing that bothers a Good American like a problem without a solution). Back in the real world, where L and thousands of others live, there are those who, despite being staunchly anti-gun, will say But of course we would never DREAM of robbing L of her right to defend herself!

They’ll be the very ones who, if one of her sons–having been raised around guns and maybe, just maybe, developed a psychological problem or two–decides to steal one and shoot up a school or a mall on his seventeenth birthday, will demand the government do something.

And they are the very ones who, when the government, being made up of human beings after all, can offer no solution beyond promising better application of the thousands of laws already on the books which have already failed to deal with human nature’s endless capacity for evil, plus the usual hapless moralizing on both sides as they debate whether we should have a few more such laws, will take their first opportunity in front of a television camera to scream in L’s face that she is no better than a child murderer.

And they’re the very ones who will assure us, yet again, that one is too many, never mind how often one of her (L, Erica–the lines are always blurring) has already been discarded when hers is not the problem of the moment.

And so we circle. The issue and the drain.

Endlessly.

If you really want an answer to the question of whether or not the right to defend yourself is individual and absolute, don’t ask me. Despite my fierce commitment to every single one of the rights enumerated in the first ten amendments to our government’s founding document, I’ve never owned a gun.

And don’t ask her…

She can afford all the bodyguards she needs.

Ask her.

Because she’s the only public face L is ever going to have.

*Taxi Driver (1976)
**The Accused (1988)
***The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

POLITICS ON THE RADIO….OLDIES RADIO…UNLESS OF COURSE IT WAS ONLY IN MY MIND (Segue of the Day: 5/16/18)

There are no true oldies stations in my market anymore. The last one changed formats more than a decade ago. What’s left is the Hank format and a Classic Rock Formula which has been reshaped from hard-rock-all-the-time (white except for Jimi Hendrix) to a mix of hard rock (white….except for Jimi Hendrix), hard pop rock (all white), a little easy listening (ditto), plus, for the sake of diversity, “Superstition” and “Low Rider.”

It’s not exactly a true re-creation of how hit-oriented radio worked in the sixties and seventies, but it is an accurate reflection of these focus-grouped times.

Usually, I just listen to the gasbags on talk radio who at least keep me up with the news. (And represent the last, best hope Never Trumpers have of taking their nemesis down, even if they don’t know it and would never admit it if they did. Believe me, when you’re in the Byzantine spot Robert Mueller’s in, a place where so many corrupt riddles are wrapped inside so many diseased enigmas your own best hope of staying out of jail is the pubic’s inability to keep up, you couldn’t hope for better than to have Sean Hannity and Mark Levin representing the other side).

But, now and again, when the gasbags either overwhelm me or go to commercial once too often, I still pull up the Classic Hits station in my car.

I had missed a promo-promised Go-Go’s/Queen segue earlier in the day, but now I hit the button just as this one started…and, once it starts, I never change the station…

Strange thing, though. This time, all I could think about while the song was playing (and I was shouting every word–have I ever mentioned that I harmonize with Christine McVie and Lindsey Buckingham like a long lost sibling who shared a mother with one and a father with the other?…Or that I can’t be the first person to have considered the possibility that everyone can do this?)–was how, when the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign adopted “Don’t Stop” as the theme song and wanted Fleetwood Mac to re-unite and play it for some big occasion (the Convention? Election Night? the Inaugural?…the memory hazes, but, for my purposes here, it only matters that they said yes), Buckingham at first refused.

He gave in only when Stevie Nicks called him up and said If you take this away from me, I’ll never speak to you again.)

Whatever harm he may have done to her elsewhere (I wrote about some of it here), on that occasion Lindsey was right.

Never trust a politician.

He might have shown great taste picking your song, but there’s always a chance he’ll end up sustaining and encouraging a status quo (you know,might even be granted permission by his own voters to complete the Reagan Revolution, which they had professed to despise only a moment before, when Stevie and every other good liberal was proving how serious they were by saying things like “I’ll never speak to you again!”–remember?) that will lock up black people at rates old Jim Crow (whose natural born child he was) never dreamed of and make everybody who fought for him twist themselves into pretzels telling themselves how it was alright because he did it, never mind it would have been worse than slavery if the other side merely settled for talking about doing the same.

Don’t mind me. I get peculiar thoughts some times.

Because while all that was running through my head (without my thrush-like throat fluffing a note) I also started wondering if Oo-o-o-hh, don’t you look back might be a sentiment tantamount to civilizational suicide. Didn’t somebody say something once about those who don’t learn from the past being doomed to, etc., etc., etc.?

And wouldn’t not learning from the past you never look back to just about define Bill Clinton’s life and legacy? (Be sure you read Thomas Frank’s blind-squirrel-finds-a-nut article at the link, especially if you’ve forgotten, or never admitted, how much damage Clinton did to liberalism, damage that is likely to remain irreparable…..And, like I said, don’t mind me.)

Boy was I depressed.

Not even remembering how the ghost version of “Don’t Stop” had long since forced me to ponder whether Christine McVie having just possibly conceived the song as pure irony should be one of my heart-of-the-universe questions–how, with the slightest shift of timbre, she transformed don’t look back from the proverbial fear that something might be gaining on you to an anthem worthy of an American presidential campaign, where never a discouraging word must be heard–allowed me to shake the feeling the whole world has been had all over again every time this song plays on the radio and one of us sings along in perfect harmony without missing a note or a nuance.

Then the radio went straight into this…

…which was so much about nothing (a Curfew Riot–which sounds like the title of a Monty Python skit) it ended up being about everything. Including now.

Paranoia strikes deep….

And even though it had been too long since I heard it (and though nothing could ever match the impact of singing it, in perfect harmony–with five kids who weren’t conversant with English, or even born, when it was released–under the eaves of the library at Kent State in 1998) for me to get every note, or even every word, right, I thought…well this radio still speaks in mysterious ways some times, its wonders to perform.

After that, Tom Petty reminding me I don’t have the live like a refugee, usually the highlight of any paranoiac’s day, felt as comfortable as an old shoe.

Then “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” came on and I remembered how talk radio came to be an option in the first place.

Because the Empire planned it that way….That’s how.

Now go back to bed and leave me alone you damned ol’ Politics.

ONE COUNTRY? (Segue of the Day: 11/18/16)

Well, time for a little journey…

First, here’s a link to a list of recommended movies posted at (estimable blogger and resident New Yorker) Sheila O’Malley’s place (I’ll get to the significance of this in a bit):

2016 Movies To See

Next, a tweet from a despondent Mark Harris (estimable film critic/historian and also resident–and native–New Yorker) from Nov. 9:

“Every day, I’m exposed to people of different races, classes, and ethnicities. So is any New Yorker who has ever been on a subway.”

And, finally, a quote from Cali-raised Matthew Bright, director of Freeway, a 1996 movie starring New Orleans born, Nashville raised, pre-stardom Reese Witherspoon, on the DVD commentary track, (re: a long kiss between Witherspoon and her black co-star, Bokeem Woodbine):

“I’m a big fan of screen kisses and there was no way I could make a movie without a great screen kiss, and here is my contribution to the screen kiss. Here we go….It’s comin’…Oh, now it’s the exchange of gifts….She’s so happy….And here it is….Young love….Reese is from the South, too!….I hope she doesn’t take any heat back home!”

Goodness…

Leaving Sheila aside (she’s simply putting out a list of good movies to see, though it ties in indirectly with the main point here), one sometimes wonders if the Yanks ever realize it’s not 1963 anymore.

Oh, I suppose in some ways it is, simply because some things never change anywhere, but the modern South imagined by Bright and at least implied by Harris (even though he’s including the rust belt as well) has changed a great deal.

Harris’s tweet was part of a series on his twitter feed where he seemed to be attempting some kind of defense/explanation of why a place like New York voted massively for Clinton and so much of the rest of the county did not. He was apparently responding to accusations that people like him (a gay New Yorker who writes about Hollywood and is married to a famous playwright) “live in a bubble,” i.e., are out of touch with “reality.” But his response was curious. He clearly thinks being “exposed to people of different races, classes, ethnicites” on the New York subway system is an experience that both lifts him out of “the bubble” and places him in a more worldly context than the hicks in the sticks–who are thereby confined to a bubble of their own–can possibly imagine.

Which would be a fine defense/analysis of Harris’s point if it were true.

But if I want to be exposed to all those different types, and many more besides, I don’t need to descend into a New York subway terminal (where, hick though I be, I have ventured a time or two, all by my lonesome, no less). I  just need to drive to a mall in Tallahassee, Florida or Dothan, Alabama, or, I imagine, pretty much anywhere in America. Neither Harris nor anyone else is absolved of “living in a bubble” because he has walked the big, bad streets of the city where he was born. And I’m not saying that he does live in a bubble, just that the example he chose to prove he doesn’t proves nothing.

Which makes me wonder. Does he?

I’ll stay tuned.

I don’t think there’s much chance Matthew Bright doesn’t live in some kind of bubble as it seems he’s spent his entire adult life involved with Hollywood one way or another. (I’m not entirely sure, because his internet bio is sketchy beyond his being a lifelong friend of famous film composer Danny Elfman and his brother, which doesn’t exactly improve his “just folks” cred.)

Based on that one comment I quoted above, I’d say he’s lived a very sheltered life indeed. Those malls I mentioned feature plenty of interracial couples and have done since at least the eighties, by which time they had long ceased to turn heads.

And Reese Witherspoon has never taken “heat” for an interracial kiss. Her star waned when she had a drunk driving incident that involved her verbally baiting a cop on video, but her career lost momentum long before. when the producers of Sweet Home Alabama failed to pony up for the rights to Skynyrd’s version of the title track and went with Jewel (yes, Jewel!) instead. Believe me, I was in the theater the weekend it opened and an audience that was ready to erupt (the movie had been entertaining) went flat as a pancake when the riff they had been set up to hear for the last hour and a half didn’t come out of the speakers and Jewel came out instead. The movie was a decent-sized hit, but whoever made that decision gave up a hundred million profit and the chance to turn Reese into a superstar who could guarantee box office for a generation. Never let them tell you Hollywood is all about money. Sometimes it’s about stupid.

Short version of all of the above: Some a’ ya’ll need to get out more.

Which brings me back to Sheila’s post.

I live next door to a mid-size college town in the Florida Panhandle. That college has a first rate film and drama school that has produced its share of both major stars (Burt Reynolds, Robert Urich,) and character actors, plus behind the scenes folks, etc.

Of the forty movies Sheila is recommending, three are streaming/TV (O.J.: Made in America being the most famous). Of the remaining thirty-seven, exactly four have played in my market (or anywhere nearby…this is the big market for two and a half hours in any direction).

Of course, it’s possible (now or in the future) to track the rest down on DVD, but who will do that who is not already a dedicated film fan with a sizable entertainment budget and/or a very well stocked local library?

One country?

Not quite, and in, oh, so many ways. But then, what country really is?

If you really want it to be one country–as much as any country can be–remaining willfully ignorant of all the places you don’t live, in the manner of Harris or Bright, probably ain’t the way.

[NOTE: For the record…Harris’s Five Came Back is one of the finest books ever written about either Hollywood or World War II. I reviewed it at length here. Bright’s Freeway is a mind-bender and Witherspoon gave the kind of scarifying performance that has to be seen to be believed and then basically covered up and swept under the rug for anything like stardom to remain attainable. Bridging the gap was either her biggest success or her biggest failure, depending on whether we, the grasping audience, value her happiness/sanity or ours. There’s room for argument there. We all contain multitudes.]

Here’s to that one country, still out there, waiting….

(With apologies that the version I heard sung and accompanied by an acoustic guitar, coming from a dorm window in the early, pre-dawn hours of May 4th, 1998, on the campus of Kent State University, is available only to the memory of those present for the occasion.)