Thursday, June 29, 2017

Summing up the Trump Presidency

Nut in a Trump-Shell

Five Film Favorites: Crazy Protagonists

For this edition of Five Film Favorites the common denominator is craziness. Not just somewhat eccentric, or sort of peculiar. I’m talking about bats-in-the-belfry loony.

To get on this list the protagonist’s madness is what drives the story. Maybe they’re trying to keep a grip on the reality around them. Maybe not. In each of the movies on the list below, the main character is adrift in sea of imagination, gone wrong.

However, context is the key to this premise. Therefore, if most everybody in the story is just as strange, which character is the one that’s off-kilter? The same goes for a plot that depicts a world of pretend. If the customary norms simply aren’t present, then the protagonist isn't disconnected from the reality of his or her peers.

Example: David Lynch‘s brilliant surreal joke of a film, “Eraserhead” (1977), doesn’t qualify. In the dark realm Lynch thrusts at the viewer, Henry Spencer (played by Jack Nance) doesn't appear to be any more detached from everyday life on Earth than the rest of the film's characters. Although the viewer is told that “in heaven everything is fine,” it's plain to see "Eraserhead" isn't set in heaven, either ... but I digress.

The same everybody-is-crazy reason keeps Werner Herzog’s “Heart of Glass” (1976) from being considered for the list. Accordingly, since it's tricky to find anything like a sane world in the midst of a shooting war, moving pictures set in that brand of bloody madness have been excluded this time.

In alphabetical order here are my five favorite films with crazy protagonists: 
  • "Network" (1976): Color. 121 minutes. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Cast: Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Robert Duvall. Note: Written by Paddy Chayefsky, the future of cable television’s soon-to-be-seen excesses in bad taste and irresponsible broadcasting is anticipated with chilling accuracy. This is the flick that gave us the line, “I'm as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Both Finch and Dunaway won Oscars.
  • "Repulsion" (1965): B&W. 105 minutes. Directed By Roman Polanski. Cast: Catherine Deneuve (pictured above), Ian Hendry, John Fraser. Note: When a shy manicurist is left alone in her flat she begins to wallow in paranoia. With her sister away on vacation the beautiful young woman descends into madness. Did I mention she’s got a dead rabbit in her purse? Could she be dangerous? You won’t forget this one.
  • “Sling Blade” (1996): Color. 135 minutes. Directed by Billy Bob Thornton. Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Dwight Yoakam, J.T. Walsh, John Ritter. Note: Thornton wrote the play. The fey but lovable character he invented/plays is Karl Childers. In “The Idiot” Dostoyevsky’s character Myshkin can only tell the truth; so he’s seen as crazy. In this very unusual movie honest and gentle Karl wouldn’t kill anyone without a good reason. He told them so when was discharged from the hospital.
  • "Taxi Driver" (1976): Color. 113 minutes. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Cast: Robert DeNiro (pictured right), Jodie Foster, Peter Boyle, Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks. Note: Travis Bickle is an ignored, alienated veteran. We stare in the mirror with Travis the insomniac as he points his gun asking, “You talking to me?” We ride with him in his cab, as he steers toward becoming a protector of innocence and a vengeful assassin. This neo noir classic is still as eye-popping and haunting as it was 41 years ago. 
  • "Wise Blood" (1979): Color. Directed by John Huston. Cast: Brad Dourif, Harry Dean Stanton, John Huston, Amy Wright, Dan Shor. Note: This is a deft adaptation of the Flannery O’Connor story about a self-styled street preacher’s twisted efforts to fit into a low-road world of shadows and scams. But he’s an atheist of a sort. It’s one of those movies that makes you feel a little bit guilty for laughing, but you can’t help it.
While identifying with at least one character in the story being presented on the screen is important to many viewers, some of us creative types find a special comfort in watching movies about characters we like to think are crazier than we are.

To close, here's the last title I had to cut from the list to get it down to five: "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" (1972) by Herzog.

-- 30 --

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Five Film Favorites: Courtroom Dramas

The courtroom in "To Kill a Mockingbird"
by F.T. Rea

After the crime has been committed, the cops have investigated it and the handcuffs have been slapped on the culprit some movies end. Most viewers probably assume the captive will face the music for having been caught breaking the law.

In a general sense, the characters in such films are usually developed by what they do -- action. If the story is more about the legal ordeal after arrest, the trial, then it’s usually dialogue that drives the story. Typically, the characters are developed by what they say … and of course, how and when they say it. 

This installment of five film favorites is focused on courtroom dramas. Legitimate courtrooms, please. Not kangaroo courts. So trials that take place outside of a real courthouse, such as in "M" (1931) or in "The Ox-Bow Incident" (1943), as good as they both are, belong on another day’s list of favorites.

To further narrow the field, military trials aren’t being considered this time, either. So that means great war films with pivotal trials in them, such as "Breaker Morant" (1980), "The Caine Mutiny" (1954) and "Paths of Glory" (1957) can’t be included on this particular list.

My five favorite courtroom dramas are as follows:
  • "12 Angry Men" (1957): B&W. 96 minutes. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Cast: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Klugman, Martin Balsam, E.G. Marshall, Ed Begley. Note: An 18-year-old boy/man is charged with murdering his father. Adapted from a teleplay, the story follows the jury’s deliberations to determine a verdict. On the first vote just one juror says he isn’t convinced of the defendant’s guilt. Then the perspectives and prejudices of each juror are examined as they argue their points.   
  • "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959): B&W. 160 minutes. Directed by Otto Preminger. Cast: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, George C. Scott, Eve Arden. Note: In the late-50s this story about a violent killing and some sex-related issues was a bodice ripper. Stewart is the easy-going defense attorney. Gazzara, the defendant, claims to have amnesia. Remick, a fun-loving temptress, is his wife. The judge is played by Joseph Welch, a lawyer made famous by the live telecasts of the Army-McCarthy Hearings.
  • "Inherit the Wind" (1960): B&W. 128 minutes. Directed by Stanley Kramer. Cast: Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Gene Kelly, Harry Morgan. Note: Adapted from the play with the same title, which was a fictionalized version of the famous Scopes “Monkey” Trial (in 1925), the movie offers Matthew Harrison Brady (March) as a William Jennings Bryan-like figure. Henry Drummond (Tracy) as a Clarence Darrow-like figure and E. K. Hornbeck (Kelly) as a H. L. Mencken-like figure. To avoid a spoiler, I can't reveal here who plays the role of the monkey.
  • "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962): B&W. 129 minutes. Directed by Robert Mulligan. Cast: Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Brock Peters, Robert Duvall, Phillip Alford. Note: Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, via Horton Foote’s screenplay, was smoothly interpreted to the big screen in this compelling story set in a small town in Alabama during the Depression. A respected white lawyer, who is the father of two precocious kids, is appointed to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman.
  • "The Verdict" (1982): Color. 129 minutes. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Cast: Paul Newman, Charlotte Rampling, Jack Warden, James Mason, Lindsay Crouse. Note: Newman’s character was a hot shot attorney at a big law firm before he let alcoholism unravel his life. A friend and former colleague tosses him what seems to be an easy medical malpractice case, as a favor. Of course, it turns out to be a much more complicated situation and some tough choices must be made. 
The courtroom in "The Verdict"
Maybe one reason so many courtroom dramas have been produced is that if most of the scenes are in the courthouse, it saves money on sets. Another reason is that a trial provides a ready-made and organized context in which to present a story. The testimony of witnesses can tell the whole tale. The disclosure of the verdict is a natural way to wrap up a story. Once the suspense is over, the viewers see The End appearing over footage of attorneys gathering up their papers.

Whether righteous justice has been wrought, or not, one table of lawyers is usually happier than the other.

-- 30 --

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Five Film Favorites: Overwhelming First Viewings

Vanessa Redgrave and David Hemmings in "Blow-Up"
This edition of Five Film Favorites makes a short list of movies that absolutely bowled me over when I saw them for the first time. Each of them prompted me to rethink what I expected from a movie. In the vernacular of my youth, these great films "expanded my mind."
  • “8½” (1963): B&W. 138 minutes. Directed by Federico Fellini. Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée. Note: A film about making a film, but fret not about making sense of it. Just watch as Fellini dazzles you with unforgettable characters and images. Eventually, you'll get the picture.
  • “Blow-Up” (1966): Color. 111 minutes. Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. Cast: David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles, Jane Birkin. Note: With England’s cool mod scene in the background, a detached, cocky fashion photographer stumbles onto a murder mystery … or does he?
  • “Chinatown” (1974): Color. 130 minutes. Directed by Roman Polanski. Cast: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston. Note: This is a dark story about a dogged detective who won’t let go of a dangerous mystery. The evolving truth keeps getting more diabolical. Ironically, this noirish tale unfolds in soft pastel colors. This one is about as close to a perfect movie as it gets.
  • “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972): Color. 102 minutes. Directed by Luis Buñuel. Cast: Fernando Rey, Paul Frankeur, Delphine Seyrig. Note: This is said to be the prankster director's most accessible film. With its dry wit this dream within a joke, within a dream, sparkles like a jewel.
  •  “Napoleon” (1927): B&W (a few scenes are tinted to achieve a color effect). 240 minutes. Directed by Abel Gance. Cast: Albert Dieudonné, Vladimir Roudenko, Edmond Van Daële. Note: The tale of resurrecting Abel Gance’s masterpiece from the ash heap is almost as fascinating as this ancient film is eye-popping.
It was in the summer of 1964 that I first saw “8½” in Virginia Beach. I was 16 years old when I watched it to kill some time. I’m pretty sure it was at the Beach Theater. As I hadn’t seen many foreign films, it was utterly fascinating, but I hardly knew what to think of it. It didn’t seem to have a plot.

The ending seemed to mock all of what had preceded it. So, I went back the next day and saw “8½” again.

“Blow-Up” played its first run engagement in Richmond at the Loews (now the Carpenter Theatre at Richmond CenterStage) in 1966. After seeing it, I remember arguing about the movie with a group of friends on the sidewalk under the theater‘s marquee. Some of them thought it was overly artsy and made no sense. The mysterious ending of it was criticized. 

While I loved “Blow-Up,” ambiguous ending included, I was hard pressed to make a convincing case of why. The process made me want to both read about and see more foreign films.

In the summer of 1974 “Chinatown” made its Richmond premiere at the Biograph Theatre, which I then managed. First watched it before it opened with a small audience; it was a critics’ screening which included a few friends and members of the theater’s staff. As it ended I was sure we had just seen the greatest movie ever made. I couldn’t wait to tell the whole town.

Now I’ve seen “Chinatown” countless times.

My first viewing of “Discreet Charm” was at the old Cerberus in DeeCee in late-1972. After it ended I stayed and watched it all the way through a second time. I can still laugh out loud upon remembering certain scenes.

When the famously restored version of Gance’s “Napoleon” played at Radio City Music Hall in 1981, it was an event unlike any other in the history of movies. Francis Ford Coppola’s father, Carmine Coppola, conducted an orchestra to accompany the silent film as it played out on three large screens. That I was paid by my bosses to go to Manhattan to see it just put the frosting on the cake ... but that’s another story.

All five of the movies on this list played at the Biograph Theatre while I managed it (1972-83). So I had a chance to not only see them again, but I could study them. Anyway, like some others these five movies tattooed my brain and deepened my understanding of film.

Note: Two first-run highlights:

On April 11, 1973, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” opened at the Biograph for its Richmond premiere. It had just won the Oscar for Best Foreign Movie. That I wasn’t able to persuade enough Richmonders to see it to keep from losing money on its two-week run was a huge disappointment at the time.

On June 28, 1974, “Chinatown” opened at the Biograph. It did good business and ran for five weeks. As a movie theater manager, I was never happier with a first-run engagement than I was during those five weeks. Watching it over and over and drinking in all those details changed me … hopefully for the better.

The Birth of the Blockbuster: Or How Margot Kidder Made My Day

The movie business changed during the summer of 1975. A new style of creating, promoting and exhibiting feature films was established when “Jaws” opened in 465 theaters and became a box office smash.

Typically, in those days, major releases opened initially in the most popular movie houses in a handful of large cities. Which meant the advertising buys were all local. The unprecedented marketing strategy for “Jaws” required enormous confidence. Its distributor, Universal, had to spend millions on national advertising and strike enough prints of the film to serve all of the theaters playing the film. 

Before that summer was over “Jaws” had already broken all-time Hollywood box office records.

Washington D.C. was a regional hub for film distribution. Part of the strategy for releasing “Jaws” was that Universal chose not to screen the film for bookers and exhibitors in the usual way.

Ordinarily, a feature about to be released would be shown a couple of times in a small screening room downtown. Run by the National Association of Theater Owners, it seated about 50 people. Bookers for theater chains would see the new films to help them weigh how much money should be bid for the rights to exhibit the picture in a given market. But security on admission wasn't all that tight, so any industry insider, entertainment writer, etc. might have been in the audience on a given day.

At this time I managed the Biograph Theatre on Grace Street in Richmond. My bosses were located in Georgetown and I saw several movies in the DC screening room over the nearly-12 years I worked for the guys who oversaw the Biograph on "M" Street.

The prior-to-premiere screenings of “Jaws” took place a few weeks before it was to open. It was shown to theater owners and their guests in selected cinemas in maybe a dozen cities. As I remember it, the screenings were all on the same night.

As a treat my bosses gave me four of their allotment of tickets to the special screening of “Jaws” at the old Ontario in DC. My ex, Valerie, and I were part of a full house; the show itself went over like gangbusters. The audience shrieked at appropriate times and applauded as the movie’s closing credits were lighting up the screen.

Not only was I knocked out by the presentation, I came back to Richmond convinced “Jaws” would be a gold mine. It was the slickest monster movie I’d even seen. The next day, still caught up in that mania, I tried to talk my bosses into borrowing a lot of money to support a bid on “Jaws” that would include a substantial cash advance.

That summer I wanted to bet everything we could borrow to out-bid Neighborhood Theatres for the Richmond market. I even convinced a neighborhood branch bank manager to try to help us borrow the dough.

Well, we didn’t get the money, but it was privately satisfying seeing “Jaws” open on June 20, 1975, and go on to set new records for its box office grosses. Its unprecedented success put its director, Steven Spielberg, on the map.

After “Jaws” Hollywood hustlers aplenty rushed out to try to duplicate the formula its producers and distributors had used. Thus, in 1975, the age of summer blockbusters with massive ad campaigns and widespread releases began.

Another thing “Jaws” did was make young men who were sometimes too self-absorbed, like me, feel intimidated by Spielberg’s outrageous success at such a tender age. I can still remember reading that he was younger than me.

Although I had a great job for a 27-year-old movie-lover who liked to work without a lot of supervision, it offered no direct connection to filmmaking. At this time I had one nine-minute film and one 30-second television commercial, both shot in 16mm, to my credit. 1975’s Boy Wonder, Steven Spielberg, made me feel like I was on the wrong track. That might have been the first time I gave much thought to how and when to leave the Biograph.

Fast-forward 34 years to when I watched a BBC-produced documentary, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood,” about filmmaking in the ‘60s and ‘70s.  Directors and other players from that time were interviewed. Made in 2003, it was thoroughly entertaining. I saw it on Turner Movie Classics in 2009.

Among those who made comments in the documentary were Tony Bill, Karen Black, Peter Bogdanovich, Roger Corman, Richard Dreyfuss, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, László Kovács, Kris Kristofferson, Arthur Penn and Cybill Shepherd.

Dreyfuss, who was one of the stars of "Jaws," spoke of attending one of those pre-release screenings. He said he got caught up in the experience of seeing it for the first time in a crowded theater; he totally forgot himself as the actor on the screen.

Actress Margot Kidder (best known for her Lois Lane portrayals in the Superman series of movies) appeared on camera several times. She made a joke out of how Spielberg had begun to fib about his age, once he became famous. She had known him before his sudden notoriety, so she noticed it when he went from being older than her to being younger. Kidder claimed Spielberg was fudging his birth date by a couple of years.

Well, flashing back on my absurd jealousy to do with Spielberg’s rise to stardom, when he was supposedly younger than me, I had to laugh out loud. Then I looked up Spielberg’s age; he’s older than both Margot and me.

So, I searched for more on the age-change and found some old articles about “Jaws” and Spielberg. Yes, it looks like Kidder was right. Back in the ‘70s, perhaps to play up the Boy Wonder aspect of the story, Spielberg’s birth date was being massaged. Somewhere along the line, since then, it looks like it got straightened out.

Laughing at one’s own foolishness is usually a healthy exercise. Yes, and when the laugh had been waiting over three decades to be realized, it was all the sweeter.

After all, nothing has ever been more integral to Hollywood’s special way of doing business -- before or after “Jaws” -- than making up fibs, especially about one’s age.

*   *   *

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Remembering 1968, Forgetting the Pueblo

The USS Pueblo
For as long as it has existed, dealing with North Korea (the Democratic People's Republic of Korea) has never been easy for the USA. So, since the end of the Korean War (1950-53), other than watching Robert Altman's "M*A*S*H" (1970) and then later the television show, we have mostly averted our eyes. With regard to the Pueblo Incident, in 1968 so many other shocking things happened it was easy to look away.

Maybe our government should have handled North Korea's piracy differently. Maybe there were no good options. No doubt, America's armed forces were stretched so thin in 1968 that all options weren't on the table. So 49 years ago, 15 years after the end of the Korean War, America was humiliated by North Korea. And we sucked it up, pretending there was nothing to see.

The Johnson administration considered several risky courses of action to retaliate for the Pueblo seizure. They included a blockade of North Korean ports, air strikes on military targets, an attack across the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas, a phony intelligence leak to the Soviets that the United States planned to attack North Korea, and a "show of force" by U.S. naval and air units outside the port of Wonsan, where the Pueblo was being held.
Click here to read the entire article in the Smithsonian.

Jan. 23: The USS Pueblo was seized on the high seas by North Korean forces; at least that’s the story I got. At the time I was in the Navy and I had little doubt we would rescue the Pueblo’s crew, even if it meant another war.

Subsequently, as captives, the Pueblo’s 83 men endured an ordeal that was shocking to an American public that had naively thought the USA's Super Power status meant such things could not happen.

Jan. 30: The Tet Offensive began, as the shadowy Viet Cong flexed its muscles and blurred battle lines with simultaneous assaults in many parts of South Vietnam. Even the American embassy in Saigon was attacked.

Mar. 16: In what came to be known as the My Lai Massacre, some 500 Vietnamese villagers -- women, children and old men (animals, too) -- were killed by American soldiers on patrol. However, it would be another 20 months before investigative journalist Seymour Hersh would break the horrifying story of the covered-up massacre, via the Associated Press wire service.

Mar. 31: Facing the burgeoning antiwar-driven campaigns of Sen. Eugene McCarthy and Sen. Robert Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson suddenly withdrew from the presidential race, declining to run for reelection by saying, “I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination...”

Apr. 4: America’s most respected civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. Riots followed in cities coast-to-coast. The bitterness that remained after the dust settled was scary.

In Richmond, it ended an era. Young adventurous whites who followed music could no longer go in the black clubs they had once patronized. No more Sahara Club for me.

May 13: The USA and North Vietnam began a series of negotiations to end the war in Vietnam that came to be known as the Paris Peace Talks. Ironically, as a backdrop, France, itself, was in chaos. Workers and students had shut down much of the country with a series of strikes. The trains weren’t running, the airports were closed, as were schools, etc.

May 24: On the same day I was discharged from the Navy, Father Philip Berrigan and Thomas Lewis (of Artists Concerned About Vietnam) were sentenced to six years behind bars for destroying federal property, stemming from an incident where duck blood was poured over draft files at Baltimore’s Selective Service headquarters.

June 3: Artist Andy Warhol nearly died from wounds received from a gunshot fired by Valerie Solanis. She was a sometime writer and one of the many off-beat characters who had occasionally hung out at Warhol’s famous studio, The Factory.

June 5: Having just won the California primary, Robert Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan in Los Angeles. The hopes of millions that the Vietnam War would end soon died that night. It’s hard to imagine that Richard Nixon would have been able to defeat Kennedy in the general election. Kennedy's death meant the gravy train being enjoyed by big corporations supplying the war effort would continue to chug along.

June 8: James Earl Ray was arrested in London. Eventually, he was convicted of murdering Martin Luther King. Yet, questions about that crime and Ray's role linger today.

July 1: By an act of the General Assembly which was signed by Gov. Mills Godwin, Virginia Commonwealth University was established by a merger that seemed awkward at the time. The School of the Arts the new university inherited from RPI was already the largest professional art school in the country. The Medical College of Virginia was showing the world how to do heart transplants.

July 23: After watching “2001: A Space Odyssey” at the Westhampton Theatre, I saw The Who play live on stage at the Mosque (now the Altria Theater). Looking at the long line to get into the concert, I was quite surprised at how many hippies there were in Richmond. This was in the period the band was into smashing up its equipment to finish off shows. The acid I took an hour or so before seeing the movie served me well.

Aug. 20: Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush what had been a season of renaissance. As it had been with the construction of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis, talk of World War III being one button-push away was commonplace.

Aug. 28: In Chicago the Democratic convention that selected Vice President Hubert Humphrey to top its ticket melted down. With tear gas in the air and blood in the streets 178 demonstrators/bystanders were arrested. Many were roughed up on live television. As cops clubbed citizens in the streets, CBS reporters Mike Wallace and Dan Rather were punched on the convention floor.

Watching the riots surrounding the Democratic convention on television, I began wondering if those who were saying our society was coming unglued might be right. Consequently, for the first time my political ideas were aired out in a newspaper, when my letter to the editor was published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. That experience began a love affair with seeing my name in print.

Oct. 18: At the Summer Olympics at Mexico City, American track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists during the medal ceremony for the 200 meter race. Smith and Carlos wore black gloves (and other symbolic accouterments) for a protest gesture that was widely seen as a “black power” salute.

Nov. 5: Richard Nixon narrowly defeated Hubert Humphrey. Although Humphrey, himself, was for peace, out of loyalty he refused to denounce Johnson’s failing war policy. Disillusioned liberals stayed at home and it cost Humphrey dearly. Also elected that day was Shirley Chisholm from Brooklyn. She was the first black female to serve in the House of Representatives.

Dec. 21: The first manned space mission to escape Earth’s gravity and orbit the moon began with the launching of Apollo 8.

Dec. 24: After having its way with them for 11 months, torture and mock executions included, North Korea released all of the members of the Pueblo’s crew but kept the ship. The U.S. Navy seemed to blame the Pueblo’s captain, Commander Lloyd M. "Pete" Bucher, for the entire fiasco. Mercifully, the Secretary of the Navy called off any official punishment.

Today, for many of my vintage, 1968 is remembered mostly for its explosion of violence, in particular the assassinations. We mostly don't like to remember the Pueblo.


Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Sound

A scan of the campaign handbill
mentioned in this story.

Ed. Note: A longer version of this story was published in 1987 in SLANT. Then, in 2000, it was cut down to this version, which ran in STYLE Weekly as a Back Page.


In the spring of 1984, I ran for public office. In case the Rea for City Council campaign doesn’t ring a bell, it was a spontaneous and totally independent undertaking. No doubt, it showed. Predictably, I lost, but I’ve never regretted the snap decision to run, because the education was well worth the price.

In truth, I had been mired in a blue funk for some time prior to my letting a couple of friends, Bill Kitchen and Rocko Yates, talk me into running, as we played a foozball game in Rockitz, Kitchen's nightclub. Although I knew winning such an election was out of my reach, I relished the opportunity to have some fun mocking the system. Besides, at the time, I needed an adventure.

So it began. Walking door to door through Richmond’s 5th District, collecting signatures to qualify to be on the ballot, I talked with hundreds of people. During that process my attitude about the endeavor began to expand. People were patting me on the back and saying they admired my pluck. Of course, what I was not considering was how many people will encourage a fool to do almost anything that breaks the monotony.

By the time I announced my candidacy at a press conference on the steps of the city library, I was thoroughly enjoying my new role. My confidence and enthusiasm were compounding daily.

On a warm April afternoon I was in Gilpin Court stapling handbills, featuring my smiling face, onto utility poles. Prior to the campaign, I had never been in Gilpin Court. I had known it only as “the projects.”

Several small children took to tagging along. Perhaps it was their first view of a semi-manic white guy — working their turf alone — wearing a loosened tie, rolled-up shirtsleeves, and khaki pants.

After their giggling was done, a few of them offered to help out. So, I gave them fliers and they ran off to dish out my propaganda with a spirit only children have.

Later I stopped to watch some older boys playing basketball at the playground. As I was then an unapologetic hoops junkie, it wasn’t long before I felt the urge to join them. I played for about 10 minutes, and amazingly, I held my own.

After hitting four or five jumpers, I banked in a left-handed runner. It was bliss, I was in the zone. But I knew enough to quit fast, before the odds evened out.

Picking up my staple gun and campaign literature, I felt like a Kennedyesque messiah, out in the mean streets with the poor kids. Running for office was a gas; hit a string of jump shots and the world’s bloody grudges and bad luck will simply melt into the hot asphalt.

A half-hour later the glamour of politics had worn thin for my troop of volunteers. Finally, it was down to one boy of about 12 who told me he carried the newspaper on that street. As he passed the fliers out, I continued attaching them to poles.

The two of us went on like that for a good while. As we worked from block to block he had very little to say. It wasn’t that he was sullen; he was purposeful and stoic. As we finished the last section to cover, I asked him a question that had gone over well with children in other parts of town.

“What’s the best thing and the worst thing about your neighborhood?” I said with faux curiosity.

He stopped. He stared right through me. Although I felt uncomfortable about it, I repeated the question.

When he replied, his tone revealed absolutely no emotion. “Ain’t no best thing … the worst thing is the sound.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, already feeling a chill starting between my shoulder blades.

“The sound at night, outside my window. The fights, the gunshots, the screams. I hate it. I try not to listen,” he said, putting his hands over his ears to show me what he meant.

Stunned, I looked away to gather my ricocheting thoughts. Hoping for a clue that would steady me, I asked, “Why are you helping me today?”

He pointed up at one of my handbills on a pole and replied in his monotone. “I never met anybody important before. Maybe if you win, you could change it.”

Words failed me. Yet I was desperate to say anything that might validate his hope. Instead, we both stared silently into the afternoon’s long shadows. Finally, I thanked him for his help. He took extra handbills and rode off on his bike.

As I drove across the bridge over the highway that sequesters his stark neighborhood from through traffic, my eyes burned and my chin quivered like my grandfather’s used to when he watched a sad movie.

Remembering being 12 years old and trying to hide my fear behind a hard-rock expression, I wanted to go back and tell the kid, “Hey, don’t believe in guys passing out handbills. Don’t fall for anybody’s slogans. Watch your back and get out of the ghetto as fast as you can.”

But then I wanted to say, “You’re right! Work hard, be tough, you can change your neighborhood. You can change the world. Never give up!” During the ride home to the Fan District, I swore to myself to do my absolute best to win the election.

A few weeks later, at what was billed as my victory party, I, too, tried to be stoic as the telling election results tumbled in. The incumbent carried six of the district’s seven precincts. I carried one. The total vote wasn’t even close. Although I felt like I’d been in a car wreck, I did my best to act nonchalant.
This shot, taken at Grace Place, shows my reaction to
the news that with half the votes counted I no longer
had any chance to win.
In the course of my travels these days, I sometimes hear Happy Hour wags laughing off Richmond’s routine murder statistics. They scoff when I suggest that maybe there are just too many guns about; I’m told that as long as “we” stay out of “their” neighborhood, there is little to fear.

But remembering that brave Gilpin Court newspaper boy, I know that to him the sound of a drug dealer dying in the street was just as terrifying as the sound of any other human being giving up the ghost.

If he's still alive, that same boy would be older than I was when I met him. The ordeal he endured in his childhood was not unlike what children growing up in any number of the world’s bloody war zones are going through today. Plenty of them must cover their ears at night, too.

For the reader who can’t figure out how this story could eventually come to bear on their own life, then just wait … keep listening.

 -- 30 --

Five Film Favorites: Rock 'n' Roll

The Mamas and Papas onstage (1967).

Movies and music go together. Like peanut butter and jelly? Perhaps more like Bonnie and Clyde.

Anyway, because moving images and music, in one form or another, compliment one another so nicely and they both rely on timing, we get the two together so often we don't even notice it. Then there are other times we're supposed to notice -- times when the music is at least as important as the picture.

When considering music films for a favorites list there are so many different kinds of musicals and movies about musicians that the category has to be narrowed. Therefore, for this list of five favorites, I’m looking only at rock ‘n’ roll movies, the genre baby boomers like me grew up hearing.

However, over the last five decades, plus, there have been so many movies that used rock ‘n’ roll music to add to the story, or perhaps to fill some gaps, that the category must be narrowed further. Just think of how many movies copied the manner in which George Lucas used oldies in "American Graffiti" (1973). Still, calling that movie a rock 'n' roll flick would be a stretch. 

So, for this list of five, only those films which present the music as concert footage are being considered. All five on my list present the musicians, performing as themselves, on-stage, before a live audience. All are documentaries of concerts of a certain stripe, even if they were staged for the purpose of making the film.

Which means that as much as I like "A Hard Day's Night" (1964) I can't put it on this particular list. Tomorrow I might change my mind, after all it's my list, but today my five favorite 'rock 'n' roll concert films are:

“Gimme Shelter” (1970): Directed by Albert Maysles and David Maysles. Performers: The Rolling Stones, also with Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Tina Turner and more.

“The Last Waltz” (1978): Directed by Martin Scorsese. Performers: The Band and various guest musicians.

“Monterey Pop” (1968): Directed by D.A. Pennebaker. Performers: Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Simon and Garfunkel, The Mamas and Papas, Otis Redding, and more.

“Stop Making Sense” (1984): Directed by Jonathan Demme. Performers: Talking Heads.

“The T.A.M.I. Show” (1964): Directed by Steve Binder. Performers: The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, The Supremes, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Lesley Gore and more.

Sorry, "Woodstock" (1970) didn't make the cut.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Picky Progressives and Red Meat

You're in your favorite vegetarian restaurant for lunch. As you order a bowl of black bean soup with extra jalapeño cornbread two guys in dark suits, both about 25, are making a commotion. Seated at a table across the room, they are demanding to be served cheeseburgers with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. 

All the while, their waitress is trying to explain that the place just doesn't serve any red meat, poultry or seafood. Ignoring her, one of the guys says he wants his cheeseburger medium-rare. The other goes for well-done. Both of them laugh with satisfaction. 

You ask your waitress, who is a friend, how often that sort of thing happens. She sighs, rolls her eyes and says, "At least once a week."

You return to the magazine article you were reading. It's about the gubernatorial race in Virginia, in particular it focused on some disgruntled Democrats saying they can't vote for Ralph Northam. You read about how some self-styled progressives basically see their vote as sacred. So they can't support a man who is too conservative, or even one who maybe used to be. Those quoted in the article said they wanted Tom Perriello to win, because he was properly seen as the "progressive" in the race. A few said they will not vote at all. Others said they will vote, just to write in Jill Stein or Mickey Mouse.

The guys who ordered the burgers are shouting at their bewildered waitress. The manager of the restaurant rushes in to tell the unruly customers to stop making a scene. Undaunted, they demand to be served what they want to eat. One of them suggests, "Go out and buy the damn meat at the grocery store and..."

"There's no check for your drinks, please just leave," the manager says abruptly. As the troublesome duo laughs and gets up from their table, the room remains dead silent. Without delay, they finish their cocktails standing up.  

A minute later your waitress puts a longneck Pabst Blue Ribbon on your table. She knows you don't need a glass. You tell her you were just reading about some Virginians who refuse to vote for a candidate who is on the ballot. You explain that for governor they don't like the Democrat or the Republican. 
She says, “But one of them is going to win. From what I see Gillespie and Northam are different enough. One of them has to be either better, or worse, than the other.”

As the burger bros leave in a huff, you whisper to her, “That's pretty much how I see it. I'm for Northam.”

She grins, “Me, too, but it sounds like those lefties in the magazine are the same kind of brats who might demand to be served, I say SERVED, a medium-rare cheeseburger in the best vegetarian restaurant in town. Sorry boys, it's not on the menu.”

After a quick gulp of cold beer, you say, “Bull's-eye.”

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Kaepernick being blackballed?

Within the confines of the National Football League's macho culture, former-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick broke ranks. He took a stand that challenged the status quo by taking a knee. Now he can't get a job.

CBS Sports: 
Signing Kaepernick will be seen to some as a quasi-endorsement of his activism, specifically his refusal to stand for the national anthem. While Kaepernick had to expect some blowback for his actions, it’s really not reasonable to assume that this continuing wave of negativity would hound him.
Click here to read the entire article.

Last season Kaepernick made news, playing for a bad team, by kneeling during the pre-game playing of the National Anthem. He had his reasons. Some saw his protest as courageous. Others saw it as inappropriate. Here's more background: click here.

When I was in elementary school there was a ritual that was part of starting each day. The teacher called the roll. Then one student was summonsed to the front of the class to lead in the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord's Prayer.

Like some of my peers, I didn't like doing that job. It made me nervous. But in the second grade I hadn't gotten to the point in my career as a student that I would have protested, or totally refused to do it.

The pledge came first. So I faced the flag, as required, and started saying the spiel with my hand over my heart. Except! I started saying the Lord's Prayer – “Our Father, which art in heaven...”

Naturally, the kids laughed ... a lot. I must have changed gears to say the proper speech, but I don't remember that part. The embarrassment and laughter I remember all too well. 

Later some kids were sure I'd done it on purpose, perhaps because I was already somewhat of a class clown type. Or, maybe that came later. At some point it must have occurred to me that the pledge was sort of like a prayer, especially when a group says it unison.

Gradually, over the years, I did grow to be more and more uncomfortable with any kind of prayer/chant that is forced onto people. Maybe WWII movies about Nazis were influencing me.

Consequently, it has been a long time since I've put my hand over my heart during the National Anthem at games. I always stand, but I don't sing along. Yes, I've been glared at more than a few times, but there's never been a scene. Sometimes I flash back onto that time in the second grade when I was made to feel uncomfortable about forced patriotism.

By the way, CBS Sports reports that Kaepernick's San Fransisco jersey is currently the 17th best seller; whatever that means. Anyway, I'm rooting for Kaepernick, but I'll be surprised if he plays another down in the NFL. Which is just another reason why I'm less interested in professional football every year.

Photo from

Monday, June 12, 2017

OK, I'm voting for Northam

Ralph Northam (photo by WaPo)
For each statewide office Virginia's Democrats and Republicans must select their candidates either by way of a convention (with delegates only voting) or a primary (with registered voters casting ballots). Accordingly, tomorrow, this commonwealth's voters can weigh in on the process, if they are so inclined. 

Voters can participate in either party's primary, but not in both. Without any sort of party registration our system is therefore open to gaming by partisan activists seeking to undermine the other party's effort to win in the general election in November.Which is the last thing I want to do.

That means I'm going to cast my vote to put Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam at the top of the Democratic Party's 2017 ticket. In short, he seems qualified and ready for the job. 

One of the reasons I care enough to bother to vote in a primary concerns my grandson's future. After I vote on June 13 I'll be attending Sam's high school graduation ceremony. I'm proud of his accomplishment (he's going to VCU in the fall). Plus, I'm glad he and his sister, Emily, don't have to live in a state Donald Trump carried in 2016. Naturally, I want my grandchildren (Emily is a rising senior at JMU) to live their next four years in a Virginia not governed by any member of Trump's Republican Party, including the presumed Republican nominee, Ed Gillespie. 

At best Gillespie is a glib conservative flack; probably more of a weasel than an extremist, but these are strange times. Hence, given the makeup of Virginia's General Assembly, if a Republican is elected governor in November we could turn into North Carolina, trying to regulate public bathrooms.

OK, former-congressman Tom Perriello seems to have his heart in the right place. Seems smart enough. Seems to be a bona fide liberal. Seems to have a bright future. In spite of all that, I don't believe he will be as good a gubernatorial candidate as will Northam. Hey, I'm not saying Perriello is Creigh Deeds again, but this time around being ideologically correct on the issues (except for guns) is not enough for me. Winning in November is too important. 

Only two states are having gubernatorial elections this year, New Jersey and Virginia. Therefore much will be made of the Virginia race's signs of the Trump effect, going into the 2018 mid-term elections. Meanwhile, some wags would have you to believe that merely by having a perceived moderate clashing with a perceived liberal, the Democrats here are re-fighting the national primary of 2016.

In that perspective Hillary Clinton's stand-in is Northam and the Bernie Sanders stand-in is Perriello. Mostly, I don't buy that too-convenient analysis.

Maybe Perriello is more liberal, I'm not sure. He does have the endorsements of the two best known Democratic senators from the party's left-wing – Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Although that speaks well for Perriello, it also serves to underline his lack of endorsements from the likes of Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Sen. Mark Warner and Sen. Tim Kaine.

That's because those elected office-holders have endorsed Northam, which says volumes to me. Northam's 10 years of experience in state government is also a plus. Moreover, on television Northam seems more comfortable in his own skin. Finally, I'm told by people I trust that he's a good man, an honest man. 

This year honesty really matters. I hope Emily and Sam remember to vote. 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Trump's Personal Devil

President Donald Trump tells shameless lies. Absurd lies. Transparent lies. Then he scrambles awkwardly to bully his listeners into agreeing with him. He lies when he hardly needs to.

For instance, Trump's chock-full-of-baloney boasts about his margins of victory and crowd sizes are laughable, at best. The endless campaign, with such preening for his fans, has become a familiar part of the new normal. 

Still, having won the presidency and the awesome power that office wields, why does Trump continue to cough up so many untruths that can easily be exposed? Why bother?

In short, I say the Devil makes him do it. Stick with me, dear reader, a less cryptic explanation is coming soon:

In other departures from propriety and reality, Trump routinely tweets deranged declarations and purple protestations in the wee hours. Since those unfiltered tweets sometime undermine what seem to be his best interests, why the hell can't he stop?

Answer: The Devil, once again.

Question: Why did Trump fire Comey?

Answer: You know who made him do it.

OK, now I'll un-bury the lede: Who or what is Trump's personal devil? In one word, it's his "anxiety."

Trump's anxiety bubbles and boils when he feel besieged ... which probably happens a lot, lately. When his paranoia overwhelms him, his habit is to do something to relieve it. The pattern is a compulsion.

Think about it. When he feels that anxiety coursing through his veins Trump can't go to a familiar neighborhood bar, talk about the NBA Finals and toss back a few beers with his pals. Apparently drugs don't do the trick for him, either, so he doesn't fire up a joint, or pop a Xanax. (Who knows if that's really true?) I'm pretty sure Boss Tweet is not the type to go for a soothing bike ride. On top of that, with the current media "witch hunt" underway it's too damn risky to try to smuggle in any more Russian hookers to perform "salacious" acts. 

My theory is that one of Trump's favorite anxiety medicines is tweeting crazy shit. The crazier, the better. Imposing his imperial will on lesser beings is another. Weird bullying handshakes ... and so forth. When Trump's need to dominate is satiated he wins the moment. It's all about the moment.

Surviving the moment. His heart didn't explode out of his chest. Then the president takes a deep breath. He feels his pulse. Thump ... thump ... thump.

Wait, I guess his black heart probably goes, "Trump ... Trump ... Trump."

With that anxiety attack crisis in the rear-view mirror, Trump's squirmy-toad mind begins searching for the next ploy. His paranoia stemming from all the people he's turned into victims -- like, how many of them want to kill him? -- starts to crowd into his thoughts again. How many black people want to kill him? How many Muslims?

Picture a loquacious mini-Trump, with little horns, perched on the president's shoulder -- whispering in his ear, evermore.

Yes, anxiety can be a killer.