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murder_by_numbers

Reasons:
☻ Will watch anything with Michael Pitt in it (Justin)
☻ Directed by Barbet Schroeder, who lived in Venice, California for a while. It has nothing to do with this film, but predisposes me to like his work

In a high school class, spoiled rich kid Richard (Ryan Gosling) heckles dweeby rich kid Justin, but they are secretly friends who hang out together and have a weird relationship. For instance, Richard pretends to be an attacker, etc. Justin says, “Freedom is crime because it thinks first of itself and not the group.”

The girl Lisa tells him, “You really need to get laid, Bonaparte.” It is explained why she calls him that, but I forget. She likes Justin and wants him to help her study, because he’s a genius. But she shuns Richard, and he spies on them together.

Justin and Richard hang out in this great abandoned house at the edge of a cliff, where they burn candles, drink absinthe, smoke cannabis, and plan the perfect murder, which Richard is very eager to get busy and commit. It involves killing a random person and blaming it on the school janitor. It is hard to buy into the fact that high school kids would do anything to take their pot supplier out of business. And later, the cops say there was a “significant stash of marijuana buds” at the janitor’s place – yeah, that proves he’s a killer, all right.

(Just by the way, IMBD notes that this opus has 172 plot keywords. Marijuana is among them, also absinthe. But “drinking”? No. But “alcohol”? No.)

Cassie Mayweather (Sandra Bullock) is the tough cop who rocks black leather and demonstrates her efficiency by talking so fast you can’t understand her. She arrives with a “very important crime scene tool,” a box of doughnuts to pass out to the other cops. Her subordinate is a man, who moved over from the vice squad. She calls him “Vice.”

Mayweather goes to see the corpse of girl beautifully posed like a Disney heroine. Of course it gets ugly fast. Then there’s a microscopic camera travel along her skin, seeing the fibers that the boys took from the janitor’s house and carefully placed on the dead female. At her house where she was killed, a broken clock says 9:27. It’s the perfect clue.

Detective Sandra Bullock lives in a houseboat. She seduces a male cop who is below her in rank. She pushes him down, sits next to him, and extends her arm along the back of the couch – the stereotypical male move. It’s a corny way to indicate she’s after him, but a movie needs shorthand. In real life, the chase might last days or weeks, stretched out over time and more subtle. But this is a movie, so you have to show it blatantly.

In another scene she tries again to seduce him – it’s bigtime sexual harrassment – but fails and they have a fight. Again, in real life, this disillusioning process would take days, weeks or months but this is a movie. So far, there are two sexually bold women in this story. Also, proof that a woman can have her asshole moments too, just like a man. Ain’t equality wonderful?

She opens a “notice of hearing” from the parole board, wanting her to testify in regard to a Carl Hudson. At work, the boss tells her, “You’re supposed to be identifying with the killer, not the victim. Remember that.” Words of wisdom for cops everywhere!

At her houseboat home, she has pictures from one case spread all over her table, but then gets out the file from the old, troubling case, and starts shuffling through it and looking at pictures from that – IMHO, creating the likelihood of mixing up the evidence from the two cases, misfiling, etc., certainly not a Best Practice. If she’s supposed to be such a hotshot, this doesn’t prove it. On the other hand, when she steals trash from outside the home of one of the boys, she’s so competent she takes along a fake trash bag to replace it, just in case anyone notices.

She has dinner with the cop she seduced. Just like hippies and teenage serial killers, the cops also like to imbibe psychoactive substances in an atmosphere of candlelight.

Justin vomited near where the boys left the body of the woman they killed, and Richard gets mad at him. But Richard left footprints!

Richard videotapes himself screwing Lisa and shows it to Justin, who confronts Lisa. Richard wants to prove to Justin what a slut she is, and that he’s better off without her. Justin is not grateful for the revelation. Earlier, one of them had created a composite portrait of them blended into one person. To show that he is symbolically separating himself, Justin takes the picture back apart, then blanks the Richard one.

In this film, Gosling mainly plays a kid who is acting – first in the sick games with Justin, then the scene in the bleachers where the cops question him is brilliant. He does sincere so well. He’s an actor playing a kid who is acting, but with an insolent edge that dares the cop to prove that he’s acting. Part of the game is to taunt the cops and let them know he’s bullshitting, but he dares them to prove it because he knows they can’t. He wants the cops to doubt his sincerity just to drive them nuts, because he has an airtight alibi.

The janitor supposedly commits suicide.

I slept through a lot of this and didn’t see the end. Mayweather the cop ends up in the hospital but won’t stay, and shows how tough she is by ripping out her IV line. She knows the boys did the murder, and gets in trouble for cowboying the investigation.

Mata Hari (2014)

David Carradine and Barbara Hershey in Boxcar Bertha

David Carradine and Barbara Hershey in Boxcar Bertha

No disrespect to Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, whose filming stretched over many years as the boy grew up. But when some Slate people said it’s “completely unique” and “Nobody else would undertake this project,” I was like, “Just a minute, please.”

David Carradine wrote and directed a movie about Mata Hari, starring his daughter Calista Carradine. It was meant to follow from her teen years to age 41, when the famous spy was executed by a firing squad. The first installment was filmed in 1977, with a couple weeks more of shooting added every year or so, as money was available. Some scenes were shot in Europe and India. It was a monumental passion project, and David Carradine talked about it in his book Endless Highway.

Various journalists have said it was meant to span 30 years. Somebody else reported that it would cover Mata Hari’s life from 15 to 30, and would thus be a 15-year project. There seems to have been confusion. In a 1981 interview, D. Carradine mentioned that even though the subject had been dead for more than 60 years, new facts about her life were still being discovered. He said, “It may be three movies.”

Just before that he said, “The film will probably not exist at a single level or reality.” Which it makes sense to interpret as, it’s a mystery AND a biography AND a war story, or some similar trio of genres. But another writer took that literally and spoke as if the work would actually be three separate movies, and someone else called it a trilogy. And there’s a Carradine quotation about being almost done with the first film, with maybe one more scene to do.

Movie star crush

I fondly remember the TV series Kung Fu, and I’m sure David Carradine’s character Kwai Chang Caine had something to do with the formation of my preferences in men. Later on when the movie Boxcar Bertha came out, it was my favorite for a long time. The picture on this page is from a Playboy photo session commemorating the movie, extra hot because Carradine and Barbara Hershey were deep in love in real life.

What follows is from a 1979 chapter of my book Call Someplace Paradise:

On the way to work night shift, at the Lincoln Boulevard onramp to the Santa Monica Freeway, I saw a family group looking for a ride. They were headed for Hollywood but decided Westwood would do just as well. My front door on the passenger side is still crunched in so they piled in the back with a guitar case and backpack and various other paraphernalia. The man was Bill Sunshine, a filmmaker who documents births, mostly home births, for people who want to relive the moment on video. This is what people get now instead of bronzed baby shoes.

He introduced his wife as Calista Carradine, who plays Mata Hari in her father’s film, which they have been working on since she was a child. The concept is to have the same actress fill all the different age roles by the simple method of shooting the film as she grows up. I read about David Carradine’s ambitious project a couple weeks ago, and said so. Bill Sunshine talked some about the movie and, since I work at the hospital, a little about the advancing age and medical problems of John Carradine. The couple have been married for six weeks and are reduced to hitchhiking because of a drunk driving incident during their honeymoon. The boy, about 9, was introduced as Jason Sunshine. The guitar case contained picnic supplies. They’d spent the day at the beach.

A few months later I was at a screening that David Carradine attended. Though I had watched Kung Fu religiously, I figured half the world probably told him that. So I told him I’d picked up his daughter hitchhiking. In another of his books, The Kill Bill Diary, a page says…

…a promo reel for Mata Hari which I made to show at Cannes in 1980, made up of scenes from the first three years, ’77. ’78 and ’79, starring my daughter, from fourteen years old in India to her execution at the age of seventeen in a forest in Holland….

How did that get published? Mata Hari wasn’t executed at 17. WTF? Anyway, at the international film festival, D. Carradine was given a special award for writing the score of the fragmentary film. Over time, Mata Hari grew its own legend. A lot of people heard of it, few saw any of it. There were disturbing rumors and reports, a mild example being someone’s comment about watching D. Carradine directing a scene where his daughter and a male actor were naked and going at it.

The film was included in a couple of “greatest movies never made” webpages. One of them said the action spanned 20 years, and noted that it was supposed to have been released in the summer of 1998. The reviewer called it “an incredible concept that would have made a groundbreaking film that would have served as a fine legacy to Carradine.” It must have been money that stood in the way of completing and releasing the movie, because the filmmaker lived until 2009. According to IMBD, Mata Hari now seems to be one movie, scheduled for release in December of 2014.

A woman's faceThe Little Foxes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In A Woman’s Face and The Little Foxes we meet two of cinema’s baddest bad girls: Anna Holm (Joan Crawford) and Regina (Bette Davis.) First, how did they get to be so bad?

Anna was physically scarred in childhood by a fire. Subjected to rudeness and mockery by pitiless smooth-faced people, she decided at age sixteen that if the world was going to be against her, she would be against the world. Consequently Anna embarked on a career of blackmail and presumably other criminal activity as well. Even as an adult, when we are introduced to this woman, she is still mocked by her cohorts on account of her disfigured face and abrasive personality. We understand that her character has been formed by her face, that beneath the scars there is another potential Anna. The cause of her problems is physical and amenable to correction.

Regina’s personality has been formed by different forces. Although quite presentable in appearance and possessing social status, she became embittered about being passed over in her father’s will which divided the estate between her two brothers. Further disappointment came with her husband, who was never sufficiently acquisitive or ruthless in business to satisfy her lust for wealth. The root causes of Regina’s personality could be called sociological. Her situation is the converse of Anna’s: Regina’s hard, aristocratic, disdainful face has been formed by her character.

Anna is influenced by sexual attraction and a certain kind of misdirected loyalty to become the pawn of Torsten Byrig, the lover who “saw the hard shining brightness of her.” He attempts to manipulate her into doing his dirty work, which she goes along with by posing as a governess and planning to kill the nephew who stands between Byrig and a fortune. Like the original causes of her personality, the cause of her willingness to murder a child is also physical (her infatuation for Byrig).

Regina is nobody’s pawn. Instead, she manipulates others. She sends her daughter to Baltimore to convince her husband to return, and attempts to coerce the same daughter into marrying her dumb cousin Leo. She rejects the girl’s young newspaperman suitor out of hand., Regina does not dissemble or pretend to be other than she is – even though her brother Ben repeatedly counsels “softness and a smile,” Regina makes no bones about the fact that she is a disciple of naked power. Her machinations are inspired only secondarily by material greed – her primary focus is hatred for the husband she perceives as weak and worthless. She tells him quite clearly, “I hope you die – I’ll be waiting for you to die” – she despises the man. The murder she commits is rather a sin of omission – she watches as he has a heart attack, spills his medication, crawls up the stairs… throughout all this, Regina sits rigid and implacable. When she’s sure Horace is dead, she makes a fuss and calls for help. Afterwards, when she finds out about the stolen bonds, her manipulations continue – if she’s not cut in for 75% she threatens to put her brothers in jail.

Anna is capable of change. Influenced by love for the boy under her care, and good feelings toward the doctor, Anna becomes a different woman. When her chance to carry out the planned murder comes, a ride in an aerocar, she is unable to proceed. When the second opportunity presents itself – the sleigh ride – she comes to a crux of decision and shoots Byrig rather than allow him to kill the boy. Another change in Anna is that somewhere along the way she has realized that sex does not equal love. Capable of change, Anna is also capable of guilt – after writing a note to the consul warning him of Byrig’s plans for murder, she planned to kill herself. But she is redeemed by love, and admits to the doctor that she just wants to be like the rest of the human race – get married, have babies, and so on.

Regina is not influenced by love for anyone. She probably thinks she loves daughter Zan and has Zan’s best interests in mind when arranging the marriage and scheming for money. She is capable of change only slightly and temporarily – crumbling near the end of the film, she shows unfamiliar weakness and asks Zan to sleep in her room for comfort – but this softness doesn’t last long. In the last shot of the film, Regina’s sinister face, mask firmly back in place, is seen at the window. She is her old self again, the self whose motives are plain. As she has told Zan, “I’m going to get you the world I always wanted.” – the world of wealth and power. She began with these priorities and she ends with them.

The Women (1939)

The Women

Of course many of the characters are trivial, ridiculous ladies. The people who made the movie thought so too, that’s why they showed us the characters. They knew and deep in our hearts we know that there were (and are even today!) women whose interests do not extend much beyond clothes and gossip. Why should we hide from the fact? Of course the monkeys dressed up in miniature copies of high-fashion designs are silly – but no sillier than the women for whom this sort of status symbol is important

Taking this film on its own merits, without resorting to specious comparisons with some ideal of indescribable loftiness, it’s pretty darn good. After all, it’s a comedy, and comedy is exaggeration. And props, as they say, to screenwriter Anita Loos. Credit must be given to any woman who survives in a male-dominated field for umpteen years. She worked with D. W. Griffith! And of course Loos didn’t start writing this one from scratch, but adapted it from a play by Clare Booth Luce.

It was really a clever decision, to have not one single male in the whole picture. Yet, how to include the decisive argument between Mary and Stephen – a dialogue which includes every line ever spoken between husbands and wives in similar situations since the beginning of time – while preserving the artistic decision of the all-female cast? I can just imagine the author and/or screenwriters brainstorming this problem… Aha! Play the scene with the two women domestics, one reporting the argument and the other providing appropriate cynical comments – what a solution!

The dialogue between Mary and her mother is right on, and it can’t be denied that even in this age of openness and therapy for all, a person whose loved one strays is still faced with the same choices – confrontation or feigned ignorance – and making the choice still needs to be thought over carefully.

Technical comment: After a bad-news phone call from her husband, Mary reflectively fondles the bottle of Summer Rain perfume – cut to the department store counter with lots of bottles of Summer Rain perfume.

Crystal is such a baddie – treating the black woman as if slavery were still in effect, making her break a date, to cook a dinner which Crystal will pass off as her own handiwork. When Stephen breaks their date she brings in the big guns – it’s her birthday and her neuralgia is acting up and her sister is sick etc. Power plays between women in a struggle to hold a man are a phenomenon we can witness today. Those who clamor for verisimilitude have got it.

The fashion show of course is pure satire, and I bet the clothes looked ridiculous even to 1939 eyes, as overwrought as Fellini’s bishop robes in Roma. The woman who announces the styles promises models engaging in the “activities of everyday life” – like going on a picnic in big antebellum dresses.

Symbolic touch – Crystal snaps up the sexy nightgown that Mary planned to buy – as if to say, “You won’t be needing it, dearie.”

Technical comment – Sylvia the troublemaker reflected in a 4-way mirror, assaulting Mary from all sides with her wicked advice. What she’s saying is the most awful thing of all. Stephen has introduced the interloper to Mary’s child, they were seen having lunch in the park. When kids are dragged into an affair, mothers freak out. This is a psychological truth which there is no sense in denying. Now totally off her head, Mary rushes to the confrontation her friends are urging. Naturally Crystal is as slimy and mean as Cruella deVille.

What about the extreme demonstrativeness of Mary’s relationships with her daughter and mother? They’re forever embracing and petting and putting heads in laps. Veterans of group therapy of course are unfazed to view this, but I’m curious to know how 1939 eyes looked at the very physical style of relating in this affectionate family. Why did the director choose it? Was this sort of thing more common back then? Or is the demonstrativeness a conventional exaggeration meant to portray Familial Love, in the same way that Crystal’s gimlet eyes portray Bitchiness?

In Joan Fontaine’s autobiography No Bed of Roses she describes the making of The Women. The story of how Rosalind Russell played sick to coerce the management into giving her equal billing with Shearer and Crawford, also found in Russell’s book, is recounted here. Fontaine says working with George Cukor was a refreshingly pleasant experience.

Directed by: George Cukor
Actors: Joan Crawford, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, Hedda Hopper, Rosalind Russell, Norma Shearer

Dear Facebook

NOT THIS AGAINDear Facebook,

Add Movies You’ve Watched? WHY???? As a recommendation to the people I connect with via Facebook? Well guess what. The number of movies I’ve watched is much larger than the number of movies I would recommend to anyone I liked and respected.

I’m trying to imagine a universe where anyone gives a flying f*** what movies I have WATCHED. However, occasionally people are interested to know which movies I admire enough, for whatever reason, to recommend. Why don’t you ask me about that, Facebook?

The other reason why Facebook would inquire about movies I’ve WATCHED is to recommend other ones to me, as they have lately taken to doing. But what if I hated 99% of the movies I’ve watched? (Not true, but just as an example.) Why on earth would I want to know about more movies that are LIKE THEM?

And. Even if Facebook recommendations were based only on a complete list of films I have already recommended to other people, in my pantheon of personal hits – so what? Does Facebook not think that I already have a list several pages long, of movies I’d like to get around to seeing? Because movie viewing is never random. Anything I watch nowadays is based on solid reasons and because it’s been on the to-do list, the very long list, for a long time.

And. I don’t watch a lot of movies these days anyway. Between survival and a quaint fondness for a little something called DOING MY OWN CREATIVE WORK, there isn’t much time.

So take your algorithmically derived recommendations, Facebook, and place them gently where the sun don’t shine. About my algorithm, you have not a clue.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Whenever the subject of horror movies is introduced, I stoutly maintain that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the ultimate horror movie. As in, you never need to see another one. I’m prepared to defend at length the proposition that it is an exceptional piece of work which transcends its genre. If I were still taking a film class at Santa Monica College, I could write a paper on it for sure.

I remember liking the sound effects and the music. I read somewhere that one of the victims screams for the last 30 minutes of the film, but I don’t remember that, and it’s the sort of thing I notice, because about 3 seconds of screaming is plenty enough for me. If indeed a woman screams for one-third of the film’s length, it is a testimony to its other elements that I didn’t register it.

I like what The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has in common with Picnic at Hanging Rock – the portentous brooding evil of a bright day. Heat waves shimmering over a green field – how do you make that look sinister?

Hitchhiker is a facially-birthmarked grave robber whose character was based on the actor’s real-life schizophrenic nephew. When Leatherface performs an atrocity one of the lost teenagers, the cannibal father grouses, “Look what your brother did to this door.” Touchingly, Leatherface dresses for dinner in a shirt and tie, and a mask made up with rouge and eyeliner.

The only surviving kid finally gets away, and the most memorable image, fittingly, is the last scene. In the tender pastel light of a dewy dawn, in the middle of a country road, Leatherface is having abandonment issues. Still wearing his white dress shirt and tie and suit jacket, he whirls about in a grotesque frenzied dance of lonely frustration, chain-sawing the empty air.

Leatherface

Once, I recommended The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to a pair of friends. They rented it, watched it, hated it, and have never trusted me since. A like-minded film critic said,

…sadistic in the extreme and unrelieved by any artistic value whatever.

In Gadfly magazine Daniel Kraus, who will be quoted again, wrote,

…it was banned in the U.K., Germany and Sweden for over twenty years. Britain’s chief film censor, James Ferman, damned it as “psychological terrorism” and Harper’s magazine spat that it was, “a vile piece of sick crap . . . Nothing but imbecile concoctions of cannibalism, voodoo, astrology, sundry hippie-esque cults, and unrelenting sadistic violence as extreme and hideous as a complete lack of imagination can possibly make it.”

Michael Bronski speaks of a new aesthetic which…

….probably traceable back to the 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre – treats the graphic mutilation of human flesh as a satisfying end in itself.

Just a moment, Mr. Bronski. Okay, for Leatherface, mutilation is an end in itself. I give you that. He lives to wield the chainsaw. It is his passion.

But there is nothing graphic about it. The last time I watched The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it was with the express purpose of tabulating the visible violence, which seems to have been more implied than illustrated. Presumably there is dried blood on Leatherface’s apron, but I don’t think there is a drop of fresh blood. I think the only actual violence we see is, after the girl has been captured and put into a cloth bag, the cannibal father hits and pokes her with a stick.

But even here, the violence is, in the most technical sense, implicit. The odds that the girl is inside the bag approach certainty, but we still don’t see a direct assault on human flesh. It is a fine distinction but an important one, and one I think the director consciously drew.

Of course it could be that the violence is more explicit than I recall. If I’m all wrong about this, please speak up. Tell me in which scene a weapon, or a body part used as a weapon, actually strikes a blow that is shown landing, and I’ll watch the movie again and slap my own forehead in dumbfoundment.

Then again, Kraus says,

It’s the kind of movie where you swear you saw the rusty meat hook sink into the girl’s soft back, when it really wasn’t shown… Was it?

Wilson Bryan Key, author of Subliminal Seduction and Media Sexploitation, claimed that the film had those subliminal horror frames in it, which if true, could explain why some people are so appalled. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is said to have been made on a shoestring budget in seven weeks. It grossed $21 million in the first year, mostly at drive-in theaters. Then, next thing you know, it had made $30 million, and who knows how much by now?

In the summer of ’73 it was hot, hot, hot in Austin. Kraus says,

Under the lights, animal flesh and bone festered and burned, raising a sickly stench… Outside, a doctor applied nausea medicine to vomiting crew members.

As to story’s original inspiration, Kraus says,

The grisly case of Eddie Gein, who simultaneously desired and loathed women reminiscent of his mother, inspired the landmark 1960 film Psycho, as well as the shocker classic Silence of the Lambs. But in the fall of 1974, a film came out that — for sheer, relentless terror — devours them both.

And just in case you ever wanted a complete list of the nastiness promulgated by the real Ed Gein, the Gadfly article provides a full list. But in another publication, director Tobe Hooper told an interviewer,

Our family doctor told me that when he was a pre-med student, he once skinned a cadaver’s face and wore it as a mask to a Halloween party of med school guys. That’s where Leatherface came from; we weren’t consciously ‘doing’ Gein and had done no Gein research.

Vindication is Sweet –
Marks of Distinction Awarded to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (A Partial List)

It was chosen “Outstanding Film of the Year” at the 19th Annual London Film Festival, and shown there again when its 25th anniversary rolled around.

It was shown at the Cannes festival, where Rex Reed said it was the most horrifying motion picture he had ever seen, and was carried in Essential Media, the hippest catalog.

It was acquired (along with The Hills Have Eyes) by the New York MOMA for its study collection. The museum said, “We’re not willing to say yet these films are works of art. There is always a possibility that they will be accepted into our permanent collection but they haven’t been yet….” Then later on, it was accepted as part of the permanent collection.

A report from the 8th International Paris Festival of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films said,

Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre… touted last month by Dan O’Bannon as the state of the art in horror films before Alien, was awaited with the greatest anticipation of any entry. Record crowds, estimated at 5,000 or more, were turned away, causing the first riot outside. When the movie was shown, it turned out to be a heavily censored version, sorely disappointing the audience and almost provoking a second riot.

Ridley Scott, director of Alien, said,

I think there are certain types of underground movies like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre which are frightening beyond belief – really outrageous.

Joe Bob Briggs, author of Profoundly Disturbing: The Shocking Movies That Changed History, was asked by interviewer Sara Rimensnyder, “If you could show the moral nags one movie, what would it be? His answer:

Actually, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which 30 years after its release is still always used as an example of cultural decay and the depravity of mass entertainment. I’d have them tell me what about it revolts them so much. It’s a comedy!

Back when I lived in LA, a trip to the intellectually elevated Nuart Theater, where they kept a request log in the lobby, revealed that it was the most frequently requested film by Nuart patrons.

A review in Playboy said the movie was done with taste and conscience, and,

There are films that skate right up to the border where art ceases to be thrown off and exploitation begins, and those films are often the field’s most striking successes. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of those. I would happily testify to its redeeming social merit in any court in the country…

Daniel Kraus saw it as representing civilization versus the wilderness, “the rural getting revenge for the urbanite sins — business, familial and sexual.” Praising its brutal simplicity and “the sick grandeur of an age-old myth,” he cited “our barely concealed collective nightmare and hidden lust for a world of destruction and negativity.” He also said the film

…re-affirmed our ability to be repulsed and shocked, an ability we lost with the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, the atomic aftermath in Hiroshima, and the concentration camp atrocities of World War II… The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has entered the popular unconscious to such an extent that it effects even those who have not seen it.

The Double Life of Ernesto Gomez Gomez

and

Through the Wire

Consider the question of indie filmmakers as freedom fighters. Every now and than, some flagrant injustice will capture the imagination of an auteur who becomes obsessed with setting things right by making a documentary. Does attention from the alternative media help people in dire situations to get out? What happens to them (and their kids) afterward? Americans who decades ago were labeled terrorists, and either incarcerated or hounded out of the country – including Tupac’s auntie – are still making news.

* * * * *

Imagine a happy, carefree boyhood in Mexico. Now, imagine being told that your mother and your father… aren’t. Instead, they are your adoptive parents. A mental health professional has advised them to reveal only that much, then wait for your questions. Which you don’t ask, because you’re so freaked out already.
double life
Years ago, someone handed over a mystery baby to Gabino and Alma Gomez. They understood it was a political situation. Although no details were supplied, they suspected that the U.S. authorities were interested in your whereabouts. In honor of Che Guevara, they named you Ernesto.

Of course, relatives and friends were curious to know whose baby just showed up one day out of the blue. The simple answer, “He’s ours,” left everyone free to imagine telenovela-inspired scenarios of past indiscretion and spousal forgiveness.

Turns out you’re not Mexican, either, but a Puertoricano whose real name is Guillermo Sebastian Morales Pagan; whose biological father lives in exile in Cuba and whose birth mother is serving a 55 year sentence in an American prison for “seditious conspiracy.”

So goes an indie film called The Double Life of Ernesto Gomez Gomez, which follows the journey of this child of fugitives. “I grew up in Mexico with a beautiful family, being the eldest of four siblings with many uncles, aunts, three wonderful grandparents. I had a beautiful childhood and a normal life until the “truth” was told. I was ten, almost eleven, when I first was told by my parents that I wasn’t their ‘belly borned’ son.”

Ernesto was taken to the States to meet Dylcia Pagan in prison. At age 15, accompanied by a Puerto Rican patriot whose own children were grown, he moved to the US so it would be easier to get to know Dylcia. His guardian introduced him to Berkeley filmmakers Catherine Ryan and Gary Weimberg.

“She knew that we had made political videos, and she called and suggested a meeting,” Weimberg says. “We met for dinner and he enjoyed the evening. He borrowed one of our videos, “Maria’s Story,” produced by Cathy, about an El Salvadoran wife, mother, and revolutionary guerilla leader. The next time we saw him he asked, more out of curiosity than as a demand, ‘Could you make a film that would free my mother from prison?’”

That question resulted in a beautifully crafted documentary that includes historical background on the Puerto Rican independence struggle, and such gleaming side themes as the quietly persistent dedication of friends on the outside who try to ease the privations suffered by prisoners of conscience. There is fascinating and wrenching first-person commentary from the teenage Ernesto himself, exposing the complicated mesh of thoughts and feelings that encircled his young life.

In the late 1970s and early ‘80s the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional may have been responsible for as many as a hundred bombings. (Of course, taking the FBI’s creative bookkeeping into account, this could translate into 20 people charged in each of 5 incidents.) The organization was responsible for the deaths of six people and the permanent wounding of many others. Pagan and several FALN comrades were all apprehended at the same time. Within the system, they comported themselves as prisoners of war, refusing to recognize the jurisdiction of the court, to put up a defense, or to participate in their trials. Still, the government was unable to convict them of bombings or of any crime that injured anyone.

FALN member Alejandrina Torres, arrested in the same year as Ernesto’s father, was a subject of the 1990 documentary Through the Wire (directed by Nina Rosenblum, narrated by Susan Sarandon, and shot by legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler, veteran of his own fierce encounters with federal authorities.) Convicted of several counts, including “seditious conspiracy,” Torres was sentenced to 35 years. And that was the shortest sentence among the Puerto Rican independentists, the longest being 97 years. The average sentence meted out to these separatists was many times longer than the typical murder conviction in the US at the time.

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Through the Wire
“Supermax” prison design actually originated in Australia in the 1970s at a facility known informally as the “electronic zoo,” which was soon shut down by pressure from human rights groups. Undaunted by this example, the US penal system adopted the Supermax paradigm for, supposedly, the most ferocious inmates: serial killers, high-profile criminals, prison gang leaders, and those who have assaulted or murdered someone in less secure facilities.

None of the three women in Through the Wire was convicted of violent crime, either in or out of prison. Yet they were labeled “high risk” and singled out for special attention by the injustice system, not so much for their real-world actions as for their perceived wrong-headedness. As Susan Rosenberg said, “What put us in jail in the first place is that we made a commitment to say it’s possible to resist the strongest state in the world.” One of the movement’s slogans is Si, se puede, meaning “Yes, it can be done.”

Rosenberg, formerly of the Revolutionary Action Task Force, was arrested in 1984 and sentenced to 58 years for not the use of, but the mere possession of, explosives. (That’s another interesting bunch of numbers. Whenever her story is retold by law’n’order types, the number of pounds of explosives grows.) Hers was the longest sentence anyone in the United States had ever drawn for a similar charge.

Silvia Baraldini was sentenced to 43 years for aiding in a prison break. The escapee was Black Liberation Army soldier Joanne Chesimard (now called Assata Shakur.) Actually, Baraldini only got 40 years for that, but another three years were tacked on when she refused to tell a grand jury about the Puerto Rican independence movement.

A 1997 stage play, Bombs in the Ladies Room by Megan Rodgers, highlighted the cases of Baraldini and Torres, as well as two German women held in similar circumstances where the object is to get the political prisoners to inform on others and to renounce their deeply-held convictions. Baraldini is again featured in a film called Silvia, made by Margo Pelletier and Lisa Thomas, which was finished recently and is being shown in various venues now. This documentary, six years in the making, was partly financed by foundation grants.

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Through the Wire describes the high-tech high-security “control unit” in the basement of the federal prison at Lexington, Kentucky, where the isolation cells formed an environment specifically designed to break the spirits of dissenters and change their stubborn minds. In fact, these three women were clearly told that conditions would improve if they renounced their political beliefs. If you’ve ever voiced such thoughts as “Our foreign policy sucks,” there may be a similar place reserved for you.

From various sources, a picture is built up of this experimental hellhole’s methods. Sleep deprivation by being awakened every hour. Sensory deprivation in a stark white environment with round-the-clock bright fluorescent lighting and the absence of any natural light. Constant surveillance by male guards, even in toilets and showers, and daily strip searches by male staff, including frequent and unnecessarily brutal cavity searches which, had they occurred anywhere else, would be classified as rape. No books, no pictures on walls, petty humiliations over sanitary napkins and similar personal needs, lack of care for even the most serious medical conditions.

Geographical isolation from families, such that even the few visits allowed caused extreme hardship to the visitors, and harassment of what few family members and lawyers were allowed in. No contact with other prisoners, guards instructed to say nothing beyond the giving of orders, and everything said by the inmates logged in a journal. It is a Kafkaesque world of unrelenting psychological torture, stress, depression, fear, violation, and even physical mistreatment. “You will die here,” the prisoners are told. The only kind of “good behavior” that can earn any points is the renunciation of political beliefs and the giving of information about comrades on the outside.

Through the Wire doesn’t attempt to prove anyone’s innocence, or to say they shouldn’t be in prison. The point is that nobody, but nobody, should be in this particular type of prison, a test lab with human subjects where the authorities studied how much pressure prisoners could withstand before changing their views, admitting their thought-crimes, and renouncing their belief in justice. And, equally important, how much ill-treatment of political prisoners would the public put up with? When people who think about and, yes, even talk about violence are punished worse than many who actually commit violence, would the average American stand up and object?

The isolation of such prisoners is only partly punitive – it is also meant to keep the other inmates from being contaminated by the example they set. “We conduct ourselves with dignity and respect,” says Rosenberg, “and stand up for the other prisoners. They don’t want us in the general prison population.” This is a widespread policy in lockups. Ideological rebels, pacifists, and other dangerous thinkers aren’t allowed to pollute the minds of rapists and murderers.

Of course now, with the revelations of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and myriad forms of torture including electric stun implements, Lexington’s program may seem tame. But in that era, the punishment there was considered sufficiently cruel and unusual to attract the outrage of the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and the Center for Constitutional Rights. From the moment the High Security Unit opened in October of 1986, a number of organizations focused their efforts on closing it.

The Federal District Court in Washington finally ruled that confining inmates to an isolated prison under constant surveillance is a “dangerous mission for this country’s prison system,” as well as unconstitutional, and in 1988, after two infamous years of operation, the Lexington Unit was shut down. At the same time, however, sixteen similar facilities were being created in anticipation of a ruling the following year from the Federal Court of Appeals, which held that a prisoner’s political beliefs and associations are legitimate basis for placement in special “control units,” and that’s not going to change.

When Lexington was immediately replaced by a newer, much larger control unit within Florida’s Marianna prison, Torres, Rosenberg and Baraldini were transferred there. In this place and others like it, each 7 x 12 foot cell has a solid windowless “boxcar” door with a locked food port, and is almost totally soundproofed. The isolation is intense, with every type of human contact reduced to the minimum possible.

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At the time of her trial, Rosenberg’s lawyers pointed out that normally the things she was convicted of would have drawn maybe a five-year term. But she had been an outspoken activist against the Vietnam War and in favor of the freedom struggles of Blacks and Puerto Ricans. So in the system she stayed, until in January of 2001 Bill Clinton commuted her sentence, over vociferous objections from those who insisted that she was an unreformed terrorist. Indeed, the brainwashing hadn’t worked. Someone managed to interview her in the early ‘90s, when she was quoted as talking about “necessity for armed self-defense” in the cause of “revolutionary anti-imperialist resistance.”

Where do people like Rosenberg get their wild ideas? Maybe from Alexander Hamilton, one of those men we call the Founding Fathers. He wrote, “If the representatives of the country betray their constituents, then there is no recourse left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense.” Thomas Jefferson, another Founding Father, also thought it was a good idea for the rulers to be warned occasionally that the spirit of resistance is preserved in the people. “Let them take arms,” he wrote. “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

Once released, back in the world, Susan Rosenberg taught literature at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice in New York, but police officers who were students there objected. She was hired to present a creative writing seminar at Hamilton College, but alumnae donors got wind of it and withdrew hundreds of thousands in contribution pledges, so the gig was cancelled. The controversy got plenty of press well into 2005, and John Jay didn’t renew her contract.

President Clinton also exercised his right of executive clemency in 1999 to release former FALN members Alejandrina Torres and Dylcia Pagan, among others. Filmmaker Gary Weimberg describes how he, Catherine Ryan and Ernesto Gomez went to pick Dylcia up “at the very moment of her freedom after nineteen and a half years in prison – one of the most worthwhile and wonderful moments of my life.”

Bill Clinton did not just arbitrarily decide to issue pardons or commutations to the Puerto Rican nationalists. Nor, still refusing to recognize the right of the United States to hold them, did they request clemency, which is the usual first step. The request, made by their supporters, had been on the table for years, during which the FBI had plenty of time to react, and indeed did its best to insert a monkey wrench into the machinery.

Clinton may have done the right thing, but don’t cheer for him too loudly. This is the same president who in 1996 signed a wicked piece of law called the Prison Litigation Reform Act that severely curtailed the rights of prisoners to challenge brutal conditions by filing suit in federal courts.

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Like Alejandrina Torres, Dylcia Pagan returned to Puerto Rico where she now lives in a house of her own, free from restrictions after a period of parole. Her voice is still heard, saying what it has always said. She wrote about the death in 2005 of Ojeda Rios at the hands of the FBI, a shooting that many feel was no more than an extrajudicial execution. Regarding such matters, Pagan quotes United Nations Resolution 2621, which “affirms the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples under colonial and alien domination recognized as being entitled to the right of self-determination to restore to themselves that right by any means at their disposal.” Sustained by belief in the rightness of her cause, she is currently working on a book about her life.

Ernesto’s bio-father William Morales is a noteworthy revolutionary who in 1977 was severely injured by a bomb he was constructing. Still, he managed to escape from the maximum security area of New York’s Bellevue hospital, elude pursuers, and make it to Cuba, where later on his grown-up son visited him several times. Morales, who married many years ago and also has a 13-year-old son, is still making news. Early this year, students and alumni filed a lawsuit against the City College of New York. They claim their First Amendment rights were violated when a sign, which had been there since 1989, was removed from the door of the Guillermo Morales / Assata Shakur Student and Community Center. Currently, the US government is pressuring Cuba to prove its commitment to democracy by extraditing Morales (specifically named) and others. H.R. 525 has five sponsors and, you can count on this, a significant “or else” factor written between the lines.

Assata Shakur, member of the extended family of Black activists who all adopted the same last name, was best friends with the mother of rapper Tupac Shakur. Although there is a very convincing case that she was framed, Tupac’s godmother is still in Cuba with a million-dollar price on her head, offered by the US Department of Justice. The FBI and the state of New Jersey say she killed a state trooper. (Actually, a real cop-killer can be picked up much more conveniently – his name is Judge John M. Walker, Jr. and he lives in Connecticut.)

The Gomez family who raised Ernesto are still in Chihuahua, working with social movements to improve the lives of their fellow Mexicans with fewer economic opportunities.

And what of Guillermo Sebastian Morales Pagan, aka Ernesto Gomez Gomez? If his life was so complicated already, one can only guess how it changed after the film was released. In the comments section of a PBS website discussing the movie, one entry begins, “Dear Guillermo: By way of this letter, I would like to express my opinion on your life.” Whoa! Who needs it?

But let the man, who has returned to going by the name of the parents who raised him, tell it: “I right now live in Puerto Rico with my girlfriend. I finished college some three and a half years ago. I currently bartend to pay the bills and I’m trying to open a film production company with some Mexican partners. I tend to say my blood is Puerto Rican but my heart is Mexican.”

Ambivalent about the forces and historical events that have shaped his life, Ernesto says, “I feel that many people have turned this whole political prisoners issue into a romantic tale of heroism and sacrifice. And every mistake and wrongdoing, every pain they’ve caused, is supposed to be right and understandable because it was in the name of the struggle for Puerto Rico’s independence. I have learned by my own experience it isn’t like that. I was an innocent victim (and I hate the word victim) of both my biological parents’ decision to join a clandestine armed movement inside the US. Luckily for me, an exceptional family took me in as one of their own. But I was the only one with such luck. Most of the children of the other political prisoners had pretty difficult and, some, even horrible childhoods.”

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How much difference have these films made? Well, exposure has certainly not stopped the building, staffing and filling of institutions as bad as Lexington and worse. There are now two entirely Supermax federal prisons (Florence in Colorado and Marion in Illinois) and 30 others, both federal and state, that have Supermax wings or sections.

Silvia Baraldini served over 16 years in the U.S. prison system before being repatriated to Italy in 1999 to finish her sentence. Did being in two movies influence her fate? Whether it did or not, let’s hope she is better off in her native land, even if incarcerated.

Nearly ten years after Through the Wire, the still-imprisoned Susan Rosenberg was featured on 60 minutes in December of 2000. Did this lead to the commutation of her sentence the following month? One columnist suggests that Bill Clinton was influenced by the TV show. But, given the lengthy process involved in clemency, it’s more likely that the purpose of the show was to prepare the public mind to accept the executive decision that released her.

What about Dylcia Pagan and the other Puerto Rican independentists? “Yes, we were very much part of the seven-year international campaign that lead to the successful petition for clemency,” says Gary Weimberg, who took earlier versions of his film to fund-raisers and other events. Dylcia’s son Ernesto says, ‘The film played, in my opinion, a key role in the whole campaign for their freedom.”

It’s hard to measure just how much difference, in any given case, attention from the alternative media actually made. The increased visibility certainly didn’t hurt the cause. It’s an interesting point to consider, now when the political complexion of America has changed so much that anybody who speaks against the rapacious, murderous government could be picked up and made to disappear. Remember habeus corpus? Our leaders don’t. If something doesn’t change, there won’t be enough indie producers to make movies about all the potential victims of governmental injustice, and besides, all the filmmakers will be there in the Halliburton Hotel along with us.