Saturday, June 27, 2020


About two months ago, while driving through a rather remote and isolated part of Arizona, I pulled over to read a roadside historical marker. It referred to the Camp Grant Massacre, which happened nearby in April of 1871.

Ever heard of it? I had not, and neither had a friend of mine who worked for decades at a Native American museum. Briefly: A mob of more than a hundred Anglos, Mexican-Americans and Tohono O’odhams, led by Tucson mayor William Oury, raided a settlement near the Camp Grant outpost and murdered more than a hundred Apaches, most of them women and children; others were captured and enslaved in Mexico. It was a national story at the time and led to a shift in sympathy toward the plight of the Apache, although the killers were acquitted at trial in Tucson.

I didn’t learn all of this from the marker, of course; it inspired me to read up a bit on the incident. The marker is a simple stone slab with a metal plaque and plain, functional, unemotional text. If anybody suggested removing it for any ideological reason, or for any reason other than the information was determined to be inaccurate and needed updating, I would object. Despite its lonely location, it’s possible that more people learn about the Camp Grant Massacre every year from this little marker than hear about it in a high school history class. To remove it truly would be “erasing history.”

That’s what I keep hearing from folks opposed to the recent push to remove public statues dedicated to historical figures deemed offensive, especially Confederates—that the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a park or town square, or changing the name of a military base from Bragg or Hood to something, you know, not derived from an enemy of the U.S.—is a foolish and oppressive attempt to “erase history,” like what Stalin did (and, ironically, what eventually happened to Stalin). In some cases, this is even followed by a sage quoting of Santayana’s “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Very respectfully…that’s crap. Is the “erasing history” crowd actually suggesting that a statue of Lee, majestic on his horse in a city park or outside a courthouse or capitol building, is intended to prevent another Civil War?

A statue isn’t a history book. It isn’t a museum; it isn’t even that modest historical marker in Middle-of-Nowhere Arizona. A statue isn’t principally informational in purpose. A statue is—at least usually—intended as a celebration of its subject. People don’t normally erect statues of historical figures they don’t like and admire.

And a historical figure needn’t be perfect, or even close to perfect, to be liked and admired. But it seems to me that they shouldn’t be actual insurrectionists who betrayed their country in the cause of preserving white supremacy and legal enslavement.

This seems so obvious that it’s difficult for me to believe that the “erasing history” complainers don’t know it, deep down. “They’re trying to erase history!” is just a catchphrase, one that they hope you won’t think about too hard.

If you did, it might occur to you that after the Soviet Union collapsed, Russians tore down statues of Lenin. Were they wrong? When Baghdad fell, Iraqis tore down statues of Saddam Hussein. Were they wrong? If you don’t think so, then why is it wrong to get rid of statues of Confederate bigwigs?

Well, I’ve heard it argued that a statue of Lee, for instance, is intended not as a tribute to the Confederacy, but to honor Lee’s supposed military brilliance, or the supposed great gentility of his character. Even setting aside the historians who suggest that both of these traits may have been overrated, you’re going to have to do better than that. Rommel, I understand, is widely regarded as a fine general by military historians, but there aren’t many Rommel Parks or Rommel Memorial Boulevards around the United States (though I’m unsure how much the current administration would mind if there were).

There is, indeed, important history to be found in the Confederate statuary that sprang up so many places around this country in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, but it isn’t, on the whole, a history that the people who want the statues left alone prefer to emphasize. The real, subtle historical significance of those statues is in the calculated and tireless efforts of the Daughters of the Confederacy and other “heritage” organizations to sponsor such memorials, and through them to gradually make the Confederacy and its leaders respectable, even revered and tragically gallant in their romantic “lost cause.”

To give this campaign its due, it’s been far longer-lasting than the Confederacy, far more strategically sophisticated, and far more successful. I experienced it, even as a kid in the North—more than one of my elementary and high-school history teachers passed on the received wisdom that “the War wasn’t really about slavery,” but rather about “economics” or “States’ Rights.” Many years later, it occurred to me that the embrace of these abstractions may have less to do with shame over slavery and more with a desire to debunk the idea that black people could be important enough to fight a war over.

Renouncing the rehabilitation of the Confederacy is an easy call, at least for me. When you move past the Confederacy toward memorials to other notable Americans who were slaveholders or had other aspects of their lives now understood to be reprehensible, I admit that the issue can become more complex.

There were calls this past week to remove statues of Thomas Jefferson from New York’s city hall and from the University of Missouri; another statue of Jefferson was removed from a park in Decatur, Georgia at the donor’s request, for its own safety. Statues of George Washington and Francis Scott Key were pulled down in Portland, Oregon and San Francisco, respectively. And a creepy statue of Teddy Roosevelt outside the American Museum of Natural History in New York, depicting him flanked by and towering over Native American and African-American figures, is reportedly slated to be removed.

This is another issue. Jefferson, at least, should get to stay, in my opinion; despite the despicable, hypocritical aspects of his private life—not to mention his and the other Founders’ failure to abolish slavery at the beginning of this nation—his documents and the vision they articulate have been essential to the progress of civil rights and the ideal of human equality not only here but around the world.

But you know what? That’s easy for me to say. If Jefferson statues have to go, as part of starting to make things right in this country, so be it. A statue or two more or less isn’t the hill I want to die on, if the spirit inspired by Jefferson’s words in those documents is furthered by removing them.

In any case, while I have zero problem with the removal of Confederate statues—and I say this as the great-grandson of a Confederate soldier from Mississippi, albeit one who, family legend claims, deserted and went to Indiana in search of his POW brother—I would also make the “Don’t Erase History” crowd a counterproposal: Leave the statues, but add signage describing the barbaric institution for which they traitorously and ignominiously fought. Or, maybe, add statues of Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, Jr. or Barack Obama next to each one; taller, and looking down with a smirk.

Friday, June 26, 2020


Opening virtually this weekend:

Homewrecker--Michelle (Alex Essoe), a lovely young interior designer, is trying to get some work done on her laptop in a trendy coffee bar. All of a sudden she's accosted by Linda (Precious Chong), an aggressively over-friendly, strangely trapped-in-the-'80s woman from her yoga class. Linda invites herself to sit down, then bullies and cajoles Michelle into coming to her home on the pretext of offering her a design job. Once she gets her in the house, she won't let her leave.

The early part of this blackly comedic Canadian-made shocker, directed by Zach Gayne from a script he co-wrote with Essoe and Chong, is so socially excruciating that when the movie finally tips over into gruesome violence, it's almost a relief. Chong's persona is somewhat reminiscent of Leslie Mann's not-so-passively-aggressive shtick, and her energy drives the movie, but Essoe is subtly funny as well; Michelle's death-defying politeness and decency constitute Homewrecker's best joke.

The film is slight to the point that extended tussling and even a lip-synch sequence feel like padding to get it (just barely) to feature length. Even so, it improves steadily as it goes along; there are inventive episodes throughout, as when Michelle and Linda play an old-school '80s-style "video board game" called Party Hunks! It may be the best game between enemies since Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi played chess in The Black Cat.

My Spy--Dave Bautista of Guardians of the Galaxy plays a CIA badass who is assigned, for reasons I don't feel like explaining, to surveillance of a beautiful single mom and her cute nine-year-old daughter in Chicago. The daughter gets wise to the operation, and in return for silence about the blown cover, the badass agrees to be her special friend, to treat her to ice cream, take her skating and teach her to be a spy.

This comedy, aimed at families though surprisingly violent and crude at times, has the feel of something that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson might have taken a pass on. There isn't an original moment; indeed, a great many of the gags derive from acknowledging that they're borrowed from earlier movies. But the kid (Chloe Coleman) is poised and agreeable; vets like Ken Jeong and the excellent Kristen Schaal add some texture; and Bautista, if not as polished as The Rock, nonetheless has an almost childlike quality that's touchingly sweet.

Friday, June 19, 2020


Streaming this weekend...

My Darling Vivian--This documentary portrait of Vivian Liberto, the breathtaking, exotically beautiful, atrociously maligned first wife of Johnny Cash, is told by their four daughters. Rashomon-style, talking heads Roseanne, Kathy, Cindy and Tara each recount, with different perspectives and faintly different tinges of bitterness and perplexity but all with candor and palpable love, the story of their parents' turbulent marriage and its long aftermath.

Though she looked like the sort of woman required to fling herself into a volcano to appease the gods, Vivian was by this account a traditional, private San Antonio Catholic girl. She adored her husband, but never bargained for a life in the public eye, and certainly not for a life raising four daughters mostly by herself, while her pillhead husband disappeared for months on tour; where she was the target of a hate campaign by racist groups because they thought (erroneously, not that it matters) that she was African-American; and where she would later be a barely-acknowledged footnote in the story of her ex-husband's great love affair with June Carter, who was given to publicly claiming Vivian's daughters as if they were her own.

This dramatic, painful story is smoothly and efficiently presented by director Matt Riddlehoover and produced by Cash grandson Dustin Tittle. It's packed with vivid early photos and film footage, and is obviously a must for Cash fanatics. But the central figure remains enigmatic; an extraordinarily vibrant camera subject, yet a somehow recessive personality. Her life was richly documented but her inner thoughts were not; her most heartfelt letter went unmailed, and only at the very end of this film do we get to hear her speak a few words.

Thursday, June 18, 2020


Streaming today (rather than Friday, out of respect for Juneteenth)...

7500--Many thrillers are called Hitchcockian, but this German/Austrian/US production truly qualifies; after the opening minutes, it unfolds both in real time like Rope, and in a confined space like Lifeboat. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Tobias, the co-pilot of a jetliner flying out of Berlin. A few minutes into the flight the cockpit is stormed by terrorist hijackers and the Captain (Carlo Kitzlinger) is badly wounded; Tobias is also hurt but manages to keep control of the aircraft and re-lock the cockpit door.

Thereafter the terrorists outside keep relentlessly pounding on the door demanding he open it, and Tobias must watch the monitor in horror as they threaten to harm the passengers and crew, which include his flight attendant girlfriend (Aylin Tezel), the mother of his young child. He tries desperately to diffuse the situation, but the standoff escalates. Eventually, Tobias ends up in a strange semi-alliance with the youngest and least committed of the hijackers (Omid Memar).

The feature debut of the young German writer-director Patrick Vollrath, 7500 (the title is apparently flight code for a hijack attempt) begins with a low-key, naturalistic atmosphere that is very convincing, and therefore intensely suspenseful. After the violence starts, the film becomes grueling, but it never feels exploitative, thanks to Gordon-Levitt's touching tour de force turn, as Tobias clamps down on his anger and terror for the sake of the lives depending on him. As with Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips, there isn't a moment in Gordon-Levitt's performance that says "action hero"; the movie is, rather, a portrait of what true, grown-up heroism looks like.

Friday, June 12, 2020


Streaming this weekend:

The King of Staten IslandAlthough undeniably funny in the right dosage, the Saturday Night Live comedian Pete Davidson never struck me as a having a broad range. But playing the semi-autobiographical title character in this, his first star vehicle, he shows the ease and emotional accessibility of, well, a star.

Working from a script he co-wrote with director Judd Apatow and Dave Sirus, Davidson plays Scott, a twenty-four-year old stoner and aspiring, though not very promising, tattoo artist, living with his weary but doggedly upbeat widowed Mom (Marisa Tomei) in New York's persistently unglamorous Fifth Borough. The son of a firefighter who died in the line of duty—Davidson’s real-life dad died in the 9/11 attacks—Scott is funny, intelligent, likable, even charismatic, but also traumatized, stuck in adolescence, and quietly, almost unconsciously desperate.

Even for Scott, though, change is of course inevitable. His younger, better-adjusted sister (Maude Apatow) heads off to college, and soon his Mom has started a relationship with another firefighter (Bill Burr). Scott responds to it all with bursts of edgy anger—something like Adam Sandler without the mannered eccentricity—offset by a peculiar gentleness that suggests self-awareness and the potential for growth.

Like many of Apatow’s works, the film meanders around at a dawdling clip, exploring subplots and secondary characters, setting up gags that will pay off far down the road, if at all. Not everything works, but it’s a natural approach for a movie about an aimless hero, and we keep rooting for him.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020


Except for a comment or two on posts by other people, over the last week and a half I haven’t said a word in any public forum about the murder of George Floyd, or any of the events that have followed. There are a couple of reasons for this.

First, I’m unable to find words to express my horror and fury and disgust at this atrocity, nor at the fact that it’s very far from an isolated case. Any combination of outraged adjectives seems feeble, both for this individual incident and for the monolithic, deadly reality of deep-seated racism in our justice system.
Second, even if I could find adequate eloquence, I always feel presumptuous in railing against an injustice of which I’m unlikely to be the direct victim. Who cares what some random 58-year-old white dude thinks about racist police brutality?
But I realize that this won’t do. Nobody cares or needs to care what I think on this issue, but it’s nonetheless incumbent right now for all of us—maybe especially us 58-year-old white guys—to say what we think anyway. Modesty and sheepishness and circumspection are not virtues at a time like this. So, lest anyone suppose that my silence has implied either indifference or sympathy with the perpetrators, let me keep it simple:
Black Lives Matter.
I use this now-stock phrase because there is nothing whatsoever about it that a reasonable person should find offensive. Nobody, as far as I know, has suggested in using it that Only Black Lives Matter, or that Black Lives Matter More. Yet many white people, including plenty of people I knew back in high school, seem to find this plaintive phrase infuriating.
Many of these same folks, who seemed to feel no pressing need to denounce Floyd’s killing, were swift in their finger-wagging indignation over looting and other violence connected to some of the past week’s protests. Wrong as this violence (at least some of it probably the work of agents-provocateur) unquestionably is, the hand-wringing response to it by many white people who didn’t seem overly upset by the killing itself suggests the need of a reminder like the phrase Black Lives Matter.
Here's what I hope isn’t true: I hope the elaborate revulsion that some of my fellow white folks evince when they hear “Black Lives Matter” isn’t a reaction to the reflexive internal response “No They Don’t.” Or, “Yeah, But Not That Much.” Not as much as broken store windows or stolen jewelry or re-thinking our own sense of self-justification. But I have to wonder.
In any case, here’s what I think, in the broadest possible terms, about how we should proceed. Black people and other disadvantaged minorities in our country have been trying to engage white society about their plights since at least the end of the Civil War. The vast majority of this engagement, ranging in approach from advocacy to being "a credit to one’s race” to nonviolent resistance to militancy to taking a knee, has been peaceful and dignified on the nonwhite side; white folks have often responded, however, with near-psychotic violence or, on a good day, with patronizing condescension or angry evasion.
Every civil right that white Americans take utterly for granted, down to the most basic, had to be won by black folks, virtually inch by inch in some parts of the country, school by school, drinking fountain by drinking fountain, lunch counter by lunch counter, public swimming pool by public swimming pool, in slow, stubbornly entrenched battle. Black folks have had white allies along the way in this struggle, of course, some of them important, but overall, their victories, which benefit all of us, are their own.
But now it’s time for us white folks to step up. We love things being All About Us; here’s our chance. Black activism can lead the way on changing laws and policies and what sort of language or practices aren’t socially acceptable. But sooner or later this work, essential though it is, runs into the wall of hardwired, often not fully conscious racism. Racist police violence can and should be combatted by protests and changes in policy and training; it can’t be truly eliminated until white folks will no longer tolerate it. And that’s not likely to happen until we are willing to admit that, whether we approved of it or not, we have tolerated it.

I wish I had suggestions more specific than “step up,” but I really don’t. I need guidance on this myself. Ideally, I think, the change would begin within law enforcement culture, with a shift in aspiration from being a thuggish enforcer of an archaic social order to a proud public servant of all people equally. Plenty of cops already see themselves this way; it’s time we asked them to assert themselves as leaders in their profession.

But we can’t wait for this optimistic scenario. The rest of us need to learn to speak up, challenging casual racism on the part of family members, friends, co-workers. And if we witness one of these mortifying incidents of public bullying of black folks by a fellow white person, we need to try to summon the courage to stick up for the black person. It isn’t right that our voices will carry more weight with the bully than the black person’s, but it’s often the case.

Much more often, though, I think that we need to work on mastering the fine and noble art of Shutting the Fuck Up. When we hear or read a racial opinion or observation that we perceive as critical of our own position, we should take a few minutes to think it over before we leap to our own defense or reflexively self-justify. And when I say we should take a few minutes to think it over, I mean we should take a few years.

Also, we should take the earliest opportunity to run the toxic garbage currently polluting the White House, the Senate and many other governing bodies around the nation out of power on a rail. This won’t get rid of racism, obviously, but it can strike a gratifying blow against overt, unapologetic racism.

Black activism can change policy; it can’t cure racism. We can only do that for ourselves, and only if we want to. We should want to.

Anyway, in light of all this, this past weekend I went to a march in downtown Phoenix—wearing a mask and keeping a discreet distance from my fellow marchers, of course—as well as to a smaller neighborhood demonstration near my house, at the Cactus Park Police Station. I’m proud to say The Kid went too, of her own volition, both downtown and right here in the neighborhood (at different days and times than I did). Everything that we witnessed was entirely peaceful. Here are a few images from the weekend:

Friday, June 5, 2020


Opening virtually this weekend...

Judy and Punch--The Australian writer and director Mirrah Foulkes had the inspired idea to do a Punch and Judy show with real people. But the reversed order of the names isn't accidental. Foulkes not only flips the title; she flips the script.

Mia Wasikowska (Tim Burton's Alice) is Judy, stuck in a provincial town in an indistinct Renaissance-ish past, married to the great but down on his luck puppeteer Mr. Punch, played by Damon Herriman. He's a drunken, short-fused brute, and while she tries to be supportive she's long since become the real behind-the-scenes talent in their performances. Eventually we get a grim, gory equivalent to most of the traditional show's classic episodes: The Baby, Toby and the sausages, Pretty Polly, The Constable, The Crocodile, the gibbet, even, in a sense, the Ghost and the Devil. But this time Judy doesn't settle for being a mere victim.

These puppet shows, which when well-performed can be entertaining in their grotesque energy, are part of a long tradition in Western entertainment making light of tyrannical domestic violence. You can trace a line from Punch beating Judy to Ralph Kramden threatening to send Alice to the moon; Ralph never followed through, of course, but his sense that he was entitled to do it was understood. Foulkes makes the inversion of this dynamic exhilarating, and her actors are terrific, especially Herriman's intelligent, self-pitying, reflexively self-justifying Punch.

Those especially sensitive to depictions of violence toward the helpless should be forewarned: there are real horrors and outrages here. There are also moments of Ren Faire-ish corniness, and toward the end there's a big didactic speech that lands with a thud, even if, like me, you agree with every word of its sentiments. But even with these sour notes, the movie is rousing and generous in spirit, and its point is taken: The joke behind the Punch and Judy tradition is no joke.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020


Available on demand, from Dark Star Pictures...

Pulse--Ollie (Daniel Monks), a gay teenager in Perth, Australia, has long been in love with his straight best friend Luke (Scott Lee). He undergoes a rather vaguely-explained experimental surgery that turns him, physically, into a gorgeous young woman, Olivia (Jaimee Peasley). Then he gets to learn about how much fun it is when guys desire you: Fumbling drunken sex; the walk of shame; half-intentional Machiavellian agendas among your friends; clashes with his single Mom (Caroline Brazier).

Stevie Cruz-Martin directed this intriguing, nominally sci-fi drama, from a script by Monks. The technique is unfussy naturalism. Most of the time we see Ollie as his own self-image, a frizzy-haired, toothy kid in a t-shirt; only when we see Olivia from an external point of view do we see the glamorous young woman.

What we get heavy doses of here, and what the movie is really about, is the terror and agony of negotiating sexual adolescence. There are sustained scenes of teens giggling nervously as they maneuver through awkward interactions, and sustained scenes of teens dancing and partying in blaring clubs. They're all completely believable, and your tolerance for them is likely to be roughly analogous to your tolerance for such scenes in real life.

Monks and his costars are vibrant, skillful actors, and the movie is quite fearless in exploiting the dramatic possibilities of the idea, from the heartbreaking to the lurid. If the movie has a message, it would seem to be that putting a teenage boy, regardless of orientation, in charge of a beautiful body is something like giving a toddler a machine gun.