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Archive for the ‘Crime’ Category

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.

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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.

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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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.”

* * * * *

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.

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Two federal marshals are on a boat, headed for the institute for criminally insane, located on an island. Once landed, they have to hand over firearms, and are told the rules they must observe. Ward C is for the worst homicidal maniacs, and, only has 27 inmates, but it’s a Civil War-era fort about as big as the Pentagon. (The sensible thing would be to section off part of the huge building for prison use, and shut off access to the unused portion, which in this case would be the greater majority of the interior space. It’s a scandalous waste of tax dollars. But it has to be that way, for the numerous stalking and chase scenes that take place in the corridors and dungeons.) (The entire institution has seemingly hundreds of staff and employees, for 60-some patients. Somebody’s congresscritter needs a talking-to.)

Leonardo DiCaprio plays marshal Teddy Daniels, who has a serious case of PTSD, complete with flashbacks and hallucinations, as a result of being a liberator of concentration camps during the war. One of the administrators of the institute for the criminally insane is a former German citizen, so that gets Daniels’s back up.

The other chief shrink is Dr. John Cawley, played by Ben Kingsley. It’s nice to have such a good face that baldness doesn’t matter. He explains to the marshals about the escaped patient, which is what they came here to investigate. She’s gone, “as if she evaporated,” and her case psychiatrist left the island for vacation this morning. My first thought is, the chief shrink killed her. Then it gets really complicated, a tricky psychological thriller.

The storm blows out the phone lines. The staff is called together for interrogation, which seems kind of risky, because who’s watching the inmates? Daniels quizzes a nurse about group therapy the previous night. She schools him about how they deal with a lot of really dramatic situations, so group therapy “usually isn’t a big part of our day.”

Everybody who works at the place pretty much stonewalls and stymies the investigation. Daniels threatens to call in the FBI, and tells his partner the main reason he came here was to blow the whistle on the mind control experiments being conducted. And the institution is funded by a special grant from the House Unamerican Activities Committee. Top-secret evil needs to be exposed. Then it gets even more complicated. There’s a lot of derring-do, including the scaling of cliffs by a federal marshal who is better than Spiderman at clinging to vertical surfaces.

How did the entire Board of Overseers manage to get to the island in the hurricane? Around that point was when I started to catch on. But at the end, I still wasn’t sure.

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Bully

Well, I watched this thing because Michael Pitt is in it. But it’s a movie that really didn’t need to be made. Apparently the whole story is in a book by investigative reporter Jim Schutze. Why anybody thought it belonged on the screen, except as a vehicle for some crude camera angles featuring crotches and butts, is a puzzling question. It’s based on a real event, the murder of Bobby Kent by what came to be called the Broward County Seven, with an amount of verisimilitude that is debated by critics. (Actually, the most unbelievable thing about this film is that it won a couple of awards.)

Basically, it’s the story of two friends, Marty the surfer and Bobby the bully, who has kept Marty in sado-masochistic crypto-homosexual thrall, brutalizing and humiliating him, since they were kids. The director said in a print interview, “Bobby and Marty were such a couple of knuckleheads, they had all these things going on. They posed as a gay couple and they would go to a gay club and hustle gays.”

There’s no doubt that kids do this kind of stuff. I once knew a Vietnam vet, from a typical middle-class “good” family, who as a teenager used to hang out at the Alamo and charge grown men $100 for the privilege of sucking him off. One of his johns even bought him a motorbike. (My friend, of course, denied being anything other than a genuine heterosexual who just needed some walking-around money.) And it wasn’t only the boys who were up to no good. Another of the numerous articles about the film says that the real Ali and Heather, in their first year of high school, were hookers working for a pimp/cop.

A reviewer named Wesley says, “…the parents of these teens were completely non-responsive to all the warning signs of their children’s behavior. This murder could have been completely avoided if just one of them acted but most of them were completely blind to how bad things were getting with their children.” Bullshit. Spoken by a non-parent, for sure. These kids all have Eddie Haskell syndrome, showing saccharine mildness toward the grownups. Having been both a teenager and a parent, I know how easy it is for kids to keep their families clueless. The bully Bobby, especially, is a lamb around his father, who is so supportive he wants to buy his son a stereo equipment business. This kid has everything, and he’s an evil psychopath.

Some small attempt is made to explain how the kids in this crowd got so screwed up. Heather relates how her grandpa killed her grandma and locked himself in the bedroom for two days, drinking and performing necrophiliac acts. That messed up Heather’s mother, and thus, Heather and her brother. But by and large, what we see is kids with an enormous sense of entitlement and plenty of all the allegedly right stuff, including intact families with caring parents who try to do the right thing.

In the most violent scenes, rap music always plays on the sound track. But it would never occur to me to blame or illegalize the ugliest music in the world, just because these assholes love it. What really pisses me off is that these kids are shown constantly smoking pot and dropping acid, as if those are the causative factors that turn them into moral imbeciles. But the film doesn’t mention the steroids that the real Bobby and Marty are both said to have used, and which probably had a much greater effect on their warped personalities. It’s a true insult to the thousands and thousands of marijuana smokers who never did a violent deed in their lives, and to the seekers of spiritual enlightenment through entheogens. Taking LSD isn’t the problem; taking LSD to do stupid stuff like play Mortal Kombat is the problem. Therein lies the true drug abuse.

The trouble starts when Marty acquires a girlfriend, Lisa, who immediately gets pregnant and threatens to break the Marty/Bobby bond. Feeling ornery, Bobby hooks up with Lisa’s best friend Ali. They start off all sweet and nice, but he makes her watch gay porn and punches her, insisting that she say he’s the best she ever had. Lisa later remarks, “He’s too weird even for Ali, and she’s into everything.” Next thing we know, Lisa recruits a whole cabal into her plan to kill Bobby. Two of the kids have never even met him, but hey, whatever.

Michael Pitt shows up as Donny, who likes to have hot wax dripped onto his chest while in flagrante delicto. He also French-kisses a dog. Donny has one of the few comic lines. He’s been sitting around watching TV with clothespins attached to his nipples. When they others start talking about the planned murder he leaves the room saying, “You people need professional help.” Donny gets to vomit, too. In fact, just about everybody gets to vomit in this masterpiece. Marty gets to cry and drool copiously while confessing to Lisa his abject servitude to Bobby. Then she kisses him passionately. Let’s hear it for true love.

The stunningly attractive Kelli Garner, who plays Heather, has crooked teeth and I like it that she hasn’t gotten them fixed. There’s kind of an interesting bit where Marty suggests to his parents that they relocate, not telling them it’s because he badly needs to escape Bobby. But they aren’t interested in moving. Ironically, Bobby’s father thinks Marty is the bad influence on his precious son, and he threatens to move his family to a different neighborhood.

So anyway, the plan to kill Bobby gets underway, and one of the girls has another funny line: “The hit man needs a ride.” The hit man is a supposedly super-tough kid who they bring in as a consultant and backup. Haranguing the little group of deadly clowns, he tells them, “You gotta understand some shit,” and it sounds so bogus. Real, authentic swearers don’t emphasize the swear word itself, they just slip it into the sentence. A real, authentic swearer would say, “You gotta understand some shit.”

Lisa is a total flake, first the cheerleader and chief instigator of the murder, then she immediately falls apart, has olfactory hallucinations, thinking she smells blood; gets all hysterical; and goes around compulsively confessing. Although confessing isn’t the right word, since it’s not remorse she feels, but anxiety lest the body was not adequately hidden. What she’s trying to do is drag yet another girlfriend into it, asking her for a ride to the murder scene to check on things.

Reviewers vary widely in their opinions about how much “exploitation” is involved in Bully. The answer is: lots. For these kids, life is one big orgy. They’re always lying around, minimally clothed or naked, entwined with each other like a nest of rattlesnakes. Some viewers object because Lisa conducts a long telephone conversation, gratuitously topless. It’s hard to understand what the problem is, since her bosom is virtually nonexistent. The guy who plays her cousin has bigger tits, and nobody complains about him being topless in one scene.

For some reason, and I rarely do this, I checked out some of the extra stuff piled onto the DVD. I’d read somewhere that director Larry Clark is a former heroin addict who has done time for shooting someone, so figured I’d see what he had to say, in the attached interview. Forget it! Clark is one of those excruciatingly boring talkers who can’t enunciate two words in a row without interjecting “uh” in between. To hell with that.

Also, there’s a collection of the mug shots or prison photos of the real Broward County Seven. Ho-hum. But here it is, finally, the best thing on the whole disk, a little feature called “How the Actors Landed Their Roles.” Each one of them in turn explains deadpan and matter-of-factly that he or she got the part by sleeping with Larry. Now, that’s funny.

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After Innocence

by Pat Hartman

Generally speaking, law-abiding folk who wind up in prison face a much worse time than the career criminals. We know this. But imagine, first, being accused and convicted of a heinous crime you didn’t commit. Then, for the rest of your life as an inmate, imagine being hounded, under the guise of rehabilitation, to make a confession. For the innocent, one of the worst ordeals is that the staff won’t let you just do the time, they’ve got to mess with your head. When the administration regards you as its number one challenge, and years of “therapy” are aimed at making you admit that you did something you didn’t do, that pretty much qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment.

When I get that I’ve-lived-my-life-all-wrong feeling, and think about untrodden paths, the one that inspires the most regret is that I didn’t go to law school. It takes a village-equivalent of attorneys to spring an innocent person from prison. I should have been one of those pain-in-the-ass lawyers.

Of course, documentation doesn’t hurt, either. Jessica Sanders wrote, directed, and produced this film; Marc Simon wrote and produced it. These stories are only a few from the 150 people the Innocence Project had helped to free, when After Innocence was made. Apparently, the exonerees are a very lucky subclass, because at least their cases did involve some kind of biological evidence, whereas many cases don’t. If I understand this correctly, only a fraction of those who want to contest a wrongful conviction are able to, because DNA evidence would be their only hope, only no DNA samples were taken. Then, it seems they are a fortunate subgroup again, because the DNA evidence was actually preserved long enough, and conscientiously enough, to be still useful. In many jurisdictions, the survival rate of evidence is not good.

One guy reacquaints himself with the world only to find that, after 23 years of breathing a recycled processed atmosphere, he’s allergic to fresh air. One told the judge that the administration of justice in their state is a crock of shit. One says he had “the worst lawyer on the planet.” There’s a guy whose father, a highway patrolman, wouldn’t visit him in prison. Another is a former police officer, and he believes thousands of people are incarcerated who should not be. In one case, the guy’s freedom literally hung by a hair. Another says, “I’m one of the strongest human beings ever created. I know that now.” One guy amazingly keeps a sense of humor, joking about reporters who ask, “Are you angry?”

Well, they have every reason to be angry. They would be serving life sentences, or dead by execution, if not for the Innocence Project, founded by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. The men whose stories are told here were cleared, or at least freed, by DNA evidence. A lot of times, exonerees can’t even get their records expunged. That’s one of the problems with life after innocence – there’s always residual trauma.

The system’s refusal to back up and correct its mistakes is only one of the many ugly offshoots of the basic problem, namely, too many wrongful convictions. I mean, one is too many, but this is getting ridiculous. The system is so recalcitrant, even people who have been proven innocent can’t get out.

And why should the establishment be so damn stubborn? After all, who benefits when the wrong person is convicted of a crime? Certainly not the victim of that crime, whose rapist or killer goes unpunished. Not the other, future victims of that criminal. And it creates another whole group of victims, the innocent person who is put away, and the family, and anybody else who depended on them. The only benefactor is the corporation that gets paid by the taxpayers to keep this person locked up. What kind of a way is that to run a justice system?

In this film we see parents who thought they would never hug their sons again, which is always nice. We see drawers full of letters from those the Innocence Project is unable to help. You say to yourself, “How could there be that many wrongly convicted people?” But, knowing that DNA is considered infallible, why would any convict with certain knowledge of his own guilt, bother to request DNA testing? We see clips from the Phil Donahue show, and an interview. His huge fanbase helped a lot in raising public awareness of this problem. Publicity is important not only to help the imprisoned innocent, but to spread the word about the possibility and consequences of wrongful conviction to potential jurors, which includes just about everybody.

Anger is only one of many emotions felt by exonerees. Some try to understand the greater purpose behind so much pain. I would imagine that for someone freed after a couple of decades, there would be a very strong impulse to create distance from the experience and try to move on. Even so, for many victims of the system, to move on is to take up the cause and become activists. When they were inside, they hoped someone outside would take an interest. Now that they’re outside, they do take an interest in the wrongfully convicted who have, so far, been left behind.

Here’s a scary fact: the single leading cause of wrongful conviction is good old eyewitness identification. In a film which overflows with human interest stories, one of the oddest and most heartening is of the woman who apologized to the man imprisoned by her testimony. They got to be friends, and she became an activist too. She tells an audience, “Change one person’s life and you change the world.”

We need to get back to where “presumption of innocence” meant something, say the proponents of what some call the “new Civil Rights Movement.” We need legislation to make states submit the DNA they have, to the national database for comparison, which could find the real rapists and killers.

The truly guilty, having paid their debt to society, are released on parole, and society then performs its obligations to them. They’re entitled to a whole range of social services to help them get back on their feet. The exonerees get don’t even get that much.

One of the things they fight for is compensation, for themselves and others like them, who have had big chunks bitten out of their lives. It would be nice to just break even, to be able to pay back the $150,000 your parents took out of their retirement fund to finance your defense, for instance. You’d think someone in this situation would at least be owed the back pay for the jobs they were removed from.

There are some bright spots in the movie: a prosecutor asks for forgiveness from the guy he put away, and a judge smiles as he signs the order to vacate a sentence. A district attorney apologizes. A Department of Corrections director realizes that his regime has been part of the problem, and needs to take on some accountability. A governor commutes the sentences of all death row inmates.

And then there’s an official who insists that an exoneree’s innocence is irrelevant, because “the system worked exactly like it’s supposed to.” Well, duh! That’s what we’re saying – this is how the system is supposed to work, the very thing that’s wrong with it. When a violent crime has taken place, as long as the outcome is a that a body occupies a cell, it too often doesn’t matter which body. That’s a system which needs to be fixed!

Of course, as we now know, not every aspect of every DNA test is infallible, due to methodology and interpretation and one thing and another. At least, not every instance of DNA testing can infallibly prove what somebody wants it to prove or claims that it proves. But I appreciate the spirit behind what one of the exonerees says:

“DNA is God’s signature… never a forgery, and his checks don’t bounce.”

Related:
Free Tim Masters Because
Lights…Camera…Freedom?
The Innocence Project

Note: The After Innocence DVD includes “Pearl Jam performing with exonerees Wilton Dedge and Vincent Moto,” and footage from the film’s Sundance premiere.

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dance-hall

Apparently, this film was at some point titled Shame Shanty, and it’s kind of a shame that it was changed. The story and screenplay are by Lenny Bruce

There are evocative scenes of taxi dancers picking the pockets of the men who pay them to shuffle around the dance floor. There’s a girl-on-girl brawl. One of the girls hustles a mark for the last $70 she needs for her mother’s surgery. Vaudevillian Sally Marr (in real life, Lenny Bruce’s mom) dances the Charleston in a scene that should be included in the material sent out to intergalactic sentient beings.

One of the club boss’s henchmen is Joe Piro, who may or may not be the same guy who became disco king “Killer Joe.” Rose, the hooker, is Honey Harlow (in real life, married to Lenny Bruce). She tries to steal a mark’s wallet. He objects, and Vinnie (that’s Lenny) kills him. They have to get the body out of there undetected. Federal authorities are interested in the dance hall owner, who is suspected of smuggling diamonds. An undercover agent, posing as a sailor, is sent in.

A gangster, whose tongue was cut out, gets out of prison, and has a quarter million dollars worth of gold hidden away. The dance hall boss throws a party for him and gives him Rose for a welcome-back present. Uh-oh! Vinnie swings into action, kills the boss, seizes the gangster, shoots it out with the undercover agent, and gets killed.
dance-hall-racket

Related:
Dry Hustle

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