Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Five Fim Favorites: Scary Movies

Audrey Hepburn as Susy Hendrix in "Wait Until Dark."


This episode of five film favorites is about scary movies. Films that made me jump out of my seat, or that thoroughly creeped me out. Movies that haunted me after watching them. Scary!

Although surprise is an important element in scariness, to make the list this time the movie had to sustain its fright factor beyond just one or two spectacular jolts of sudden horror or mayhem. So, the overall mood is just as important as the shock factor.

  • “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956): B&W. 80 minutes. Directed by Don Siegel. Cast: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Carolyn Jones, King Donovan. Note: A small town doctor hears complaints about some of the town-folk. They seem to have changed, not in appearance but in the way they act. With the Cold War raging, this story was seen by some as warning against a communist takeover. Others connected it to McCarthyism and witch hunts.
  • “Psycho” (1960): B&W. 109 minutes. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Cast: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, Martin Balsam. Note: Marion, the secretary-turned-thief-on-the-lam, is tired. She checks into the Bates Motel. Norman manages the motel. He's painfully shy and tries to be good, but his demanding mother is awfully hard on him. Marion decides to take a relaxing shower before turning in.   
  • "Repulsion" (1965): B&W. 105 minutes. Directed by Roman Polanski. Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Ian Hendry, John Fraser. Note: A beautiful but depressed young woman wallows in paranoia and detaches from her connections in life. With a dead rabbit in her purse, she descends into madness. You won’t always know what is real in this early Polanski flick, but you won’t forget Deneuve's quite convincing dangerous crazy-girl character.
  • “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991): Color. 118 minutes. Directed by Jonathan Demme. Cast: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine. Note: The success of this film launched so many forgettable movies about serial killers, there have probably been more films about serial killers than there have been real serial killers. Still, the spell this one casts over viewers is unique. Oscars? This scary movie won Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay).
  • “Wait Until Dark” (1967): Color. 108 minutes. Directed by Terrence Young. Cast: Audrey Hepburn, Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. Note: This taut thriller was adapted from a play. The story pits brave and recently blinded Susy against some truly nasty criminals. The bad guys are sure she inadvertently got a valuable package meant for them. But where is it? Most of the action takes place in Susy's English basement apartment.
Spoiler alert reminder: Don’t let any mischief-makers who like to diminish surprises for others tell you much about how these films turn out. If you don't like to be spooked by a movie, then skip watching the five on the list.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Five Film Favorites: Boxing Movies

Jeff Bridges and Stacy Keach in "Fat City"

If you go back 100 years boxing and horse racing were probably America’s most important spectator sports. People had been watching versions of both for hundreds of years. Then came newsreels and radio in the 1920s, which facilitated America’s love affairs with team sports, primarily pro baseball and college football.

Boxing was important in television’s early days. Over the last 50 years America’s best athletes have found better ways to earn a living with other sports, so the pugilism hasn’t had nearly the talented practitioners it once did. Besides, over the last decade cage fighting has become more popular than boxing with young fans of blood sports.

Since professional boxing has long been directed by the worst elements of society -- what’s the upside to it? -- to me, it’s a wonder prizefighting is still legal. But there are probably more good movies that revolve around boxing than any other so-called "sport."

My five favorite boxing movies are:
  • “Fat City” (1972): Color. 100 minutes. Directed by John Huston. Cast: Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges, Susan Tyrrell, Candy Clark. Note: In his teens Huston was an amateur boxer. This gritty tale presents two boxers in Stockton, CA. Down on his luck, Keach is past his prime. Of course, he decides to make a comeback. Bridges is the young boxer he meets who has much to learn. Tyrrell is a friend who drinks a lot of sherry. The film plods along, developing its offbeat characters without sentimentality. In a few words it’s hard to say why this film is so good, but it is.
  • “The Hurricane” (1999): Color. 146 minutes. Directed by Norman Jewison. Cast: Denzel Washington, Vicellous Reon Shannon, Deborah Kara Unger, Liev Schreiber. Note: Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was a highly regarded middleweight contender in 1966 when he was convicted for murder and went to prison. Eventually, the battle for his release made him into a celebrity. Bob Dylan’s 1975 song “Hurricane” helped to focus attention on Carter’s plight to be exonerated. Although this compelling biopic bends the truth on some peripheral details, Washington’s spot-on performance is so strong it matters little.
  • “Raging Bull” (1980): B&W. 129 minutes. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Cast: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci, Frank Vincent. Note: Jack La Motta, was a middleweight champion in the laste-40/early-50s. He wasn’t known as a stylish fighter or smooth athlete. He was seen as a fearless brawler who always charged his opponents. He was also seen by those who knew him personally as a cruel, self-absorbed jerk. After his boxing career ended La Motta turned to acting. He appeared in several bit movie roles and on television. This is the movie that De Niro gained 60 pounds to play the role convincingly. 
  •  “Requiem for Heavyweight” (1962): B&W. 95 minutes. Directed by Ralph Nelson. Cast: Anthony Quinn (pictured right), Jackie Gleason, Mickey Rooney, Julie Harris. Note: Rod Serling wrote the award-winning teleplay for a live Playhouse 90 broadcast in 1956. When it was adapted to the big screen Jack Palance, who played the boxer, was replaced by Quinn. In the opening scene, in which the viewer is looking through the protagonist’s tortured eyes, his opponent in the ring is Cassius Clay (before he became champ and changed his name to Muhammad Ali). Several other real boxers also appear in the film.
  • “The Set-Up” (1949): B&W. 73 minutes. Directed by Robert Wise. Cast: Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter, George Tobias. Note: The plot isn’t so unusual. The boxer, Stoker Thompson, is past him prime. His wife wants him to quit. His manager has lost faith in him. The gangsters bet on him to lose and try to fix the fight. Made by RKO in film noir’s heyday, this feature is lean and stylish. Ryan, who was a boxer in college (Dartmouth), is convincing as a prize fighter and as the very kind of guy who might defy gangsters. 
Yes, I liked "The Boxer" (1997), "Cinderella Man" (2005) and "The Great White Hope" (1970) a whole lot. But this time they didn’t make the cut. When “Rocky” (1976) came out, before all the sequels, I liked it, too. Now I can’t separate the original from all those awful follow-ups.

Why professional boxing remains legal in Virginia isn’t clear. It shouldn’t be. Other forms of dueling have been outlawed for a long time. Still, if somebody makes another decent boxing flick, I’ll watch it.


-- 30 --

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Favorite Unavailable Sandwiches

While they may not be deemed to have been all that worthy by professional restaurant critics or know-it-all blogging foodies, my all-time five favorite sandwiches from Richmond restaurants that no longer exist are:
  • The original Commercial CafĂ©’s barbeque, as served on N. Robinson St. from about the early-80s to the late-80s.
  • The Clover Room’s club sandwich, as served on W. Broad St. from sometime in the late-50s to the late-70s.
  • Grace Place’s open-faced muenster/tomato/sprouts sandwich, as served on W. Grace St. approximately from the late-70s to the early-90s.
  • Texas-Wisconsin Border Cafe’s soft-shell crab sandwich, as served on W. Main St. approximately from the mid-80s to the mid-90s.
  • The original Village Restaurant’s submarine sandwich, as served on W. Grace St. from the late-60s to about 1980 (when the Fleck brothers bought it).  
By the way, I haven't looked up the dates these places actually opened and closed. Instead, the dates I've offered above are when I was eating those beloved sandwiches.

Five Film Favorites: Film Noir

The characters were often damaged goods; usually someone had done them wrong; deliberately. The lighting was dramatic -- lots of shadows with splashes of chiaroscuro. As props, cigarettes and handguns were ubiquitous. Liquor was consumed without ice or mixers. Payback was a bitch and happy endings were hard to come by.

That was film noir in its day, or maybe I should say night, since “film noir“ means black films and much of the action took place after sundown.

We’re told the term "film noir" was first applied to cynical American crime dramas in 1946. A French critic, Nino Frank, used it in an article about films made during World War II. Films he saw as having something in common. During most of the war these pictures hadn’t been seen in occupied France. But the term itself didn’t become popular until afterward. 

If any of the major studios in Hollywood could be said to have specialized in making film noir movies it was probably RKO. In some part that was because RKO produced many of its well-crafted features of all types on B movie budgets. Clever art directors and cinematographers could hide a lot of money-saving compromises in frames filled with shadows. For much of its existence RKO was hurting for cash. 

The protagonists of film noir pictures were usually men with specific reasons to be bitter. Life had taught them to put faith in taking direct action to solve problems, rather than calling for help. They tended to be spontaneous anti-heroes. Film noir females were more self sufficient than the women in most American movies in the ’40s and ‘50s. Such scheming femme fatales used lots of makeup and were just as focused on getting their way as the fedora-wearing men.    

However, most Americans didn’t recognize these movies as being in a category with a special label until the film noir era was in the rear-view mirror, style-wise. Thus, the titles on my list of favorites below weren’t promoted in their original release time as film noir, at least not in this country.

To me, it now seems the film noir era was a post-WWII phenomenon. It was influenced not only by the spooky German Expressionism of the 1920s, but also the gritty Italian Neorealism of the 1940s. Film noir was both a look and a focus on subject matter.

Timeline-wise that puts great movies like “M” (1931) and “The Maltese Falcon” (1941) in a category of movies that is a precursor to film noir. They are among the best dark-themed crime dramas that paved the way to film noir. But in a general sense, in my view both of them are too concerned with morality -- right and wrong -- to be seen in the same category with the best of the world-weary noirs.

Once society began absorbing the troops coming home from the war with their own damage, movies changed. Which means to make the cut this time the movie must have been released between 1946 and 1959. Naturally, it has to have been shot in black and white. Then again, although I’d like to restrict the list to American films only, what’s probably the best movie on my list, “The Third Man” (1949) -- made in England -- won’t permit it.
 
Without further ado, my five favorite film noir movies for today are:
  • "The Asphalt Jungle" (1950): B&W. 112 minutes. Directed by John Huston. Cast: Sterling Hayden, Jean Hagen, Louis Calhern, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe, Marilyn Monroe. Note: A criminal mastermind (Jaffe) assembles a team to steal a million dollars worth of jewelry. But as good at their jobs as each guy is, they all have flaws that could be fatal. Marilyn Monroe’s brief but pivotal role established her child-like, ditzy blonde character that she reprised in several subsequent movies. 
  • “The Big Heat” (1953): B&W. 90 minutes. Directed by Fritz Lang. Cast: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin, Jocelyn Brando. Note: Sgt. Dave Bannion (Ford) is an honest cop who is drawn into investigating the apparent suicide of a coworker. He eventually ends up battling the local crime syndicate. Marvin is at his evil best as the brutal enforcer for the big boss. Yes, this is the one with the scene that has Marvin -- just for grins -- slinging boiling coffee into his girlfriend’s (Grahame) pretty face. 
  • "The Killing" (1956): B&W. 85 minutes. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Cast: Sterling Hayden, Coleen Gray, Vince Edwards, Jay C. Flippen, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook. Note: This lean story about a race track heist put Kubrick on the map (he was just 28 when it was released). Rather than the feel of a caper melodrama, the presentation feels sort of detached ... like a documentary with a narrator giving the viewer an inside look at the crime.  
  • "The Third Man" (1949): B&W. 104 minutes. Directed by Carol Reed. Cast: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard. Note: Screenplay by Graham Greene. This elegant murder mystery is set in crumbling post-WWII Vienna. Or, is it a murder mystery? All the characters are working an angle, so the truth isn’t easy to grasp. The movie’s distinctive theme music was also a hit in its time. Maybe a perfect movie.
  • "Touch of Evil" (1958): B&W. 95 minutes. Directed by Orson Welles. Cast: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Akim Tamiroff, Dennis Weaver. Note: This crime melodrama, set on both sides of the American/Mexican border, is so chock full of weird characters it feels like a cartoon. And, don’t be put off by Heston’s presence, the director uses his wooden, bad acting to a good purpose. For some wags this movie marked the end of the film noir era.
Even though it was limited this was a tough category to stay within the limit of five. I could easily name five more noirs I like a lot. So, as it has been with other lists, sometimes it's a matter of which ones I've seen again, more recently. 

-- 30 --

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Five Film Favorites: Jailhouse Flicks


Last month this space was devoted to courthouse dramas, films about trials. What should follow?

Jailhouse flicks, naturally.

Movies about people confined against their will have always appealed to me. Liking such movies goes all the way back to when I was a little kid. In those days I felt like a prisoner a lot of the time, especially in school. In one way, or another, films with detainees as protagonists are usually about escape, real or imagined, which may have been the original lure of jailhouse flicks for me.

This Five Film Favorites list is devoted to movies set in civilian jailhouses/penitentiaries. So if the plot unfolds in a stockade or a brig it’s not included. For my purpose, this time, I’m saying they are military movies. Which means marvelous films like “The Hill” (1965) or “Stalag 17” (1953) must be left for another column’s consideration. The same goes for movies about captives who are hostages. 

The films on this list are all pictures in which most of the action takes place in a penitentiary. They tell us about the pure tedium of life in the big house, as well as the horrors. As all five are about men in confinement, they also tell us about how mean and bleak a world without women can be.
  • “Birdman of Alcatraz” (1962): B&W. 147 minutes. Directed by John Frankenheimer. Cast: Burt Lancaster, Karl Malden, Thelma Ritter, Neville Brand, Telly Savalas, Betty Field. Note: A young recalcitrant prisoner kills a prison guard and winds up in solitary confinement for life. Years later he adopts a sparrow as a pet. Eventually, that leads to the lonely prisoner keeping other birds and he becomes an expert on treating avian diseases. Of course, there’s a cruel warden who tries to put the kibosh on the Birdman’s work and a test of wills ensues.
The Man With No Eyes in "Cool Hand Luke."
  • “Cool Hand Luke” (1967): Color. 126 minutes. Directed by Stuart Rosenberg. Cast: Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Strother Martin, J.D. Cannon, Jo Van Fleet, Dennis Hopper. Note: Luke Jackson (Newman) is a decorated WWII veteran who gets drunk, goes on a parking meter sabotaging spree and ends up in a Florida prison camp run by sadistic guards. This is the movie that put the catch phrase, “What we’ve got here is … failure to communicate,” into the lexicon of popular culture.
  • “Dead Man Walking” (1995): Color. 122 minutes. Directed by Tim Robbins. Cast: Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Robert Prosky, Raymond J. Barry. Note: A prisoner awaiting his execution for a double murder asks a nun to assist him with an appeal; he claims his accomplice actually did the killing. As the condemned man and the nun get to know one another, and his days dwindle, his need to be honest with the only person who cares about him grows.
  • “Papillon” (1973): Color. 151 minutes. Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. Cast: Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Victor Jory, Anthony Zerbe. Note: On his way to a French penal colony in the Caribbean Henri “Papillon” Charierre, a thief wrongly convicted of murder, befriends and protects Louis Degas, a forger. The story is about their grueling exploits to survive and escape. Papillon’s over-the-top will to resist his captors and be free are unforgettable.
  • “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994): Color. 142 minutes. Directed by Frank Darabont. Cast: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, James Whitmore. Note: Adapted from a Stephen King short story, this is an inspiring yarn about the power of courage, decency and patience in the face of daunting circumstances. Lots of patience, but all 142 minutes of watching this picture are well spent. Rita Hayworth isn’t actually in this one, but she still plays a pivotal role. It received seven nominations for Academy Awards.  
In each of the five movies on this list, the prisoners strive to gather and hold onto some shred of their dignity, while facing extremely tough odds. Which is a pretty good plot device for any story, behind bars or not. Consequently, the best jailhouse flicks aren’t just about dreams of escape from confinement. They are also about thwarting a timeless villainy that is only too happy to imprison the hapless and the resisters.

-- 30 --

Five Film Favorites: Screwball Comedies

by F.T. Rea

Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake in "Sullivan's Travels"
Like lots of other film buffs I enjoy making up lists of good movies. Comparing lists and discussing the choices with friends is fun. But I try to avoid getting sucked into coming up with a list of the greatest films of all-time, or the most influential, etc. That sort of game can get to be about the credentials of the list-makers. Instead, I go for favorites. My favorites in a specific category.

To keep it moving, just five favorites. And, of course, such lists are always subject to change, depending on the mood of the moment. Which means my favorite Jack Nicholson movies list might not be the same this week as it was a couple of years ago. Today I’m in the mood for writing about my five favorite screwball comedies.

The golden age of Hollywood’s “screwball comedies” was during the 10-year run-up to World War II. Since that time many popular features have imitated the style of the screwballs -- a few quite effectively -- but the best, or perhaps the most authentic, screwball comedies drew upon the humor to be found in the distinctions of class that became so obvious in the midst of the Depression.

Then, too, the women in screwball comedies were quite independent-minded for the times and deliciously sarcastic. 

Screwball comedies were farces. Frequently, the plots were stretched across a battle-of-the-sexes bed. The screenplays depended on well written dialogue. Mostly, the formula used static cameras focused on witty, attractive stars delivering their wiseacre lines. With their roots in stage plays these wordy flicks thrived on mocking conventions. The dignity of the common man was often lauded.

No doubt, Depression era movie audiences enjoyed seeing fat cats portrayed on the big screen as fops and phonies who were clumsy in dealing with problems everyday folks coped with all the time.

Then WWII’s brutal realities suddenly jolted popular culture. It isn’t that Hollywood stopped making comedies, it’s that fashion shifted abruptly and styles changed. Laughing at class warfare was put on hold. Maybe society's old fashioned restrictions on females weren’t viewed as being as laugh-worthy as they had been before the war.

Movies after WWII moved toward depicting a more harsh reality. Postwar audiences liked action more than witty dialogue. Comedies became more physical, more predictable.  

Into the 1950s and 1960s the American comedies that borrowed from the template of the screwballs tended to be over-the-top with cuteness and more explicit in their sexual tension. Generally, they lacked the subtleties and timing of the classics. Therefore, no movies produced after the USA’s entrance into WWII are on this week’s list of five favorite screwball comedies:
  • "Libeled Lady" (1936): B&W. 98 minutes. Directed by Jack Conway. Cast: Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy. Note: The principle members of the cast were all at their best for this one. While the silly story about duping a spoiled socialite meanders hither and yon, it still works beautifully. Primarily known for the roles he played later in his career than this one, Tracy's youthful energy is striking.
  • "My Man Godfrey" (1936): B&W. 94 minutes. Directed by Gregory La Cava. Cast: William Powell, Carole Lombard, Eugene Pallette, Gail Patrick. Note: As usual, the suave Powell charms the pants off every female in the story. This feature is chock-full of belly laughs at class warfare absurdities. It’s also a nice variation on the old the-butler-did-it theme. Last but not least: Lombard is perfect in her role.
  • "Philadelphia Story" (1940): B&W. 112 minutes. Directed by George Cukor. Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Ruth Hussey, Roland Young. Note: Adapted from a play written for her, this picture provided Hepburn with a perfect vehicle for what seemed at the time to be a comeback for her. Although the typical screwball plot that pokes fun at the filthy rich isn’t all that unusual, the sparkling performances of the stars won high praise from critics.
  • "Sullivan’s Travels" (1941): B&W. 90 minutes. Directed by Preston Sturges. Cast: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick, William Damarest. Note: A movie director known for his light comedies wants to make a different kind of picture. So he poses as a hobo to see how the downtrodden live. Naturally, he gets into scary trouble and hooks up with a beautiful blonde along the way.
    Lionel Barrymore and Jean Arthur in "You Can't Take It With You"

  • "You Can’t Take It With You" (1938): B&W. 126 minutes. Directed by Frank Capra. Cast: Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold. Note: Adapted from the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. A rich and well-connected guy falls for a middle class gal who lives in a house full of lovable but crazy characters. When the guy and his parents show up for dinner and meet the gal's eccentric family -- uh-oh!
“His Girl Friday” (1940), which was on my list the last time I wrote about screwball comedies, didn’t make the cut this time. Neither did “The Lady Eve” (1941).

-- 30 --

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Tenth Commandment

Note: A version of this piece was published by STYLE Weekly in 1999.

According to the Old Testament, Moses heard directly from God about establishing standards of civilized conduct. A portion of the instructions Moses is purported to gotten from God, Himself – known as the Ten Commandments – is still a news-maker.

The Bible says there were several other rules offered by God atop Mount Sinai; rules we hear less about. If you try reading the book of Exodus, it won’t take long for you to see why. Some of those other rules are rather Old World – such as the proper regulation of slavery and burnt offerings.
For the most part the Ten Commandments are to-the-point, covering basic stuff: Honor God and your parents. Be willing to make sacrifices for what matters most to you. Along the way don’t kill, lie, or steal. Don’t cheat on your spouse, or perhaps spouses – uh-oh, there's that Old World thing again.

In the final of the Ten Commandments, Moses said that we ought not to “covet” our neighbors’ goods. Isn't is curious that after a rather easily understood list of rules, put in the form of “shalt-nots,” the last rule is against even thinking too much about a shalt-not? Like, don't allow yourself to dwell on wanting what's not properly yours.

Covet? Come on Moses, what’s the problem with a little mild coveting? Why not stick to nine rules about actual behavior?

Hopefully, the reader will permit me the post-modern license to move directly from the Bible to a Hollywood thriller, in order to help Moses with his answer: In “Silence of the Lambs” (1991) the brilliant but evil psychiatrist, Hannibal Lecter, instructs the movie’s detective heroine, Clarice Starling – who is in search of a serial killer – that people covet only what they see all the time.

Bulls-eye!

Of course the ravenous doctor was right about what fuels obsessive cravings. If one hasn’t seen it, how can one lust for it? To dwell on wanting something, to the point of no return, one must see it regularly. Coveting is a festering of the mind; it's a craving for that which one should not have. 

Today, because of the reach of the mainstream and social media, just about everyone alive sees how wealthy/powerful people live all the time. One sure thing movies, sitcoms, soaps, and the celebrity news all do – in addition to telling a story – is to show us how well off some people are. Then the advertisements tell us just how to buy the same pleasures and accouterments the stars in those stories possess.

If you’ve got the dough to buy the stuff, that’s one thing. If you don’t that’s another. That might spawn some coveting.

The lifestyle of a celebrity is constantly sold to consumers as the good life. Wanting that good life is a carrot on the stick that helps drive our consumer culture. Therefore, in some ways, it has been good to all of us. My thesis for today’s rant is that there is a dark side to this strategy.

When powerless/poor people see that same good life promotions they want it, too. Why not?

However, if they are trapped in their circumstances and have no hope, they don’t believe the good life is available through legitimate channels. So, instead of feeling motivated to work overtime, to earn more money, the powerless are left to covet.

Eventually all that desire for the unobtainable can lead to trouble. I’m convinced that some part of the violence we have seen from teen-agers, in recent times, stems from their exaggerated sense of powerlessness. In the worst cases, their impatience boils over while waiting for what they imagine to be an adult’s awesome power over life and death.

The good news is that kids grow up. Most of our children won’t shoot up their schools because of frustration with having so little say-so over their schedule. The bad news is that for most of the world’s underdogs their sense of powerlessness is something that isn’t going to dissipate so easily.

In the so-called Third World, the longing for First World goods and options is festering as you read this. Meanwhile, these powerless coveters aren’t thinking about where to shop for knockoffs of what they see flaunted on screens. A hundred years ago, 50 years ago, the world's underclass wasn't wired into the rest of civilization. Now it is and it sees what we had for lunch. It sees our vacation snapshots. It sees what we brag about the most. Today the underclass knows exactly how soft life is for the well-off.

History isn’t much help here because it tells us the unwashed masses have usually had to take what they wanted by force. How much longer we can rely on the gentle patience of the world’s hungriest millions is anybody’s guess. In the meantime, perhaps the other side of “thou shalt not covet” is “thou shalt not flaunt.”

Just think about how many American movies and TV shows are about rich people doing as the please. If the wisdom of the ages — the Ten Commandments — suggests it's smart to discourage destructive cravings in the shadows, perhaps it would also be smart to stop promoting such trouble with our brightest spotlights.

Bragging was never cool. Now American's braggarts, who flaunt their wealth, are asking for the sort of trouble that will splash onto all of us.

– 30 –

-- Words and art by F.T. Rea

Friday, July 07, 2017

Chasing Dignity

Note: A version of this piece was first published by STYLE Weekly in 2006


“…Now once more the belt is tight and we summon the proper expression of horror as we look back at our wasted youth. Sometimes, though, there is a ghostly rumble among the drums, an asthmatic whisper in the trombones that swings me back into the early twenties when we drank wood alcohol and every day in every way grew better and better, and there was a first abortive shortening of the skirts, and girls all looked alike in sweater dresses, and people you didn’t want to know said ‘Yes, we have no bananas,’ and it seemed only a question of a few years before the older people would step aside and let the world be run by those who saw things as they were — and it all seems rosy and romantic to us who were young then, because we will never feel quite so intensely about our surroundings any more.”
– from “Echoes of the Jazz Age” (1931)
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
In the summer of 1978, with “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” playing to the delight of a midnight show packed house, a fight broke out in the middle of Grace Street. Insults, rocks and bottles flew back and forth between the two factions of four each: VCU frat boys vs. an Oregon Hill crew. Their battle was unfolding a perilous 25 to 30 yards from the Cinemascopic all-glass front of the Biograph Theatre.

The box office had just closed and the cashier had started her count-up. At the same time a group of my Biograph Swordfish softball teammates was in the lobby playing a pinball machine. As manager, I felt obliged to drive the danger away, so I opened an exit door and yelled that the cops were already on the way, which they were.

That was good enough for the frat boys, who scampered off. Their opposites simply switched over to bombing me. As they advanced rocks bounced closer. A tumbling bottle shattered on the sidewalk. I closed the door, then a piece of brick smashed through its bottom panel of glass to strike my right shin.

When we lit out after them, there were six or seven men running in the impromptu posse of employees and pinball players. The hooligans scattered, but my focus was on the one who’d plunked me. Hemmed in by three of us in a parking lot, he faked one way, then cut to the other. His traction gave way slightly in the gravel paving. As he stumbled to regain his balance I tackled him by the legs.

The others got away. With some help from my friends, we marched the captured 19-year-old back toward the theater. I could feel the adrenaline coursing through my limbs. During the trek east on Grace, the culprit said something that provoked one in my group to suddenly punch him in the face. That, while the punchee’s arms were being held.

A policeman, who had just arrived, saw it. He sarcastically complimented the puncher for his aggressive “technique” before the street-fighting man was hauled off in the paddy wagon. In contrast, I told the vigilante puncher he had overreached in hitting the kid unnecessarily, especially while he was helpless.

Surprised by my reaction, my softball teammate laughed.

Which prompted me to say something like, “Hey, we’re no better than the fascist bullies we’ve claimed to deplore if we resort to their damn tactics.” He disagreed, saying essentially this — that his summary punishment would likely be the only price the little thug would ever pay for his crime. Another in the group agreed with him. Others saw it my way, or they said nothing.

It wasn’t long after that night I found myself poring over a favorite essay by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Echoes of the Jazz Age.” The excerpt above is the evocative piece’s last paragraph. During that rereading, it occurred to me the brick shattering the glass door had been the sound of the hippie era ending for me.

Yes, as the '70s fizzled away we baby boomers were about to discover that our sweetest day in the sun -- with its righteous causes and rock ’n’ roll anthems -- had been another dollop of time, a period with its look and sound. In some ways, the Roaring ’20s redux.

A month later I agreed to the court’s proposal to drop the assault charge, provided the brick-thrower was convicted of a misdemeanor for breaking the glass and paid for the damage. A payment schedule was set up. As we spoke several times after that, I came to see the “hooligan” wasn’t really such a bad guy. Payment was made on time.

Eventually, he asked for the name of the man who’d punched him. While withholding the name, I agreed with him that the blow had been a cheap shot.

About a year later, on a late summer afternoon, a thief snatched a handful of dollar bills from a Biograph cashier, then bolted out the front door. The cashier’s frightened look triggered an alarm in your narrator’s sense of duty/propriety; her face was quite expressive.

As this happened half of my lifetime ago, I was still young enough to think chasing down criminals in the street was traditional. Quaint as it may sound now, in those days it did seem that some collective sense of dignity was sometimes at stake.

In short, the thief was fast but he wasn't so good at getting away. It took less than 10 minutes to discover his hiding place, then turn him over to the cops who’d shown up at just the right time. During the search I received some unexpected help in cornering the thief. As I had run west on Grace Street behind the 20-year-old grab-and-run artist, another young man — a total stranger — had jumped out of his pickup truck to join in the chase.

Later, when the dust settled, I thanked the volunteer and asked him why he’d stopped. He answered that he knew I was the Biograph’s manager, because a buddy of his had once pointed me out. His friend? It was the same Oregon Hill street-fighter I’d tackled a year before.

My assistant thief-chaser also told me his friend assured him I’d dealt fairly with him. Consequently, a favor was owed to me. Before he left, my collaborator said that in his neighborhood the guys stick together. Thus, he’d supported me in my time of need, to help pay off his friend’s debt. We shook hands.

Over the years what connects those two chase scenes has become increasingly more satisfying. No doubt that’s because so many times over the years, in dealing with bad luck and other ordinary tests of character, I’ve done nothing to write home about — even the wrong thing.

At least in this story, maybe, I got it right.

The point?

Dear reader, in spite of the wall-to-wall cynicism of our current age, there really was a time when cheap shots were seen in a bad light. Moreover, returning favors was part of what held things together. Through the mist of “ghostly rumbles” and “asthmatic whispers,” to some graying hippies, that hasn’t changed.

-- 30 --

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Unplugged: Waking Up the Day After

Note: With the electricity having been off for days, I was a spooked. I saw it as another sign of how getting old was humbling me. Hey! I had always loved storms. Hurricane Isabel changed that. I wanted hot coffee in the morning and I wanted to write. 

Back then my work was getting published regularly, so I was writing on something specific every day. After several powerless days I needed my routine. Plus, I wanted the Internet at my fingertips for research ... and comfort.

Which meant schlepping my laptop down to a coffee shop with electric power and WiFi to plug in, which wasn't something I was accustomed to doing. Anyway, because I had already assembled a file of information on Manny Mendez's background for a project that hadn't materialized, I was able to write this piece mostly in one sitting. It was published later that fall by STYLE Weekly, as part of a special section about Hurricane Isabel.

*

Unplugged: Waking Up the day After
by F.T. Rea

On the Friday morning after Hurricane Isabel blew through town (Sept. 19, 2003), the sky was blue and the air smelled clean. The residents of the Fan District, at the heart of Richmond, Va., woke from an uneasy sleep. Day One of the unplugged life was underway.

Before the worst of the storm passed, about midnight, Isabel tossed huge trees around like a handful of pickup sticks. Power lines snapped. Cars were crushed. Roofs caved in and basements flooded. As the shocking devastation dealt out by the previous night’s onslaught of wind and rain was revealed to the stunned urbanites in the Fan, so too did the reality of widespread electricity deprivation.

Still, faced with all sorts of uncertainty and disconnected from the doings in the rest of the world, many wandering the streets like zombies on that morning faced the immediate problem that there was no hot coffee to be had.

For hundreds of his neighbors, Manny Mendez, owner of Kuba Kuba, took care of the coffee shortage on that surreal morning. Boiling water on the restaurant’s gas stove and pouring it over sacks (improvised coffee filters) in a big colander, Mendez and his staff doled out tasty Cuban coffee to anyone who stopped by.

While opportunists in other parts of town were marking up prices on candles, batteries, ice, generators and anything else for which the supply was short and the demand was great, Kuba Kuba was pouring strong coffee for one and all at no charge — free!

“What are we going to do [under these circumstances], charge people for coffee?” Mendez asked rhetorically with a shrug.

When word got around that Kuba Kuba — at Park Avenue and Lombardy Street — had hot coffee, the crowd on the sidewalk outside the small restaurant swelled. Into the afternoon the size of the gathering fluctuated between 20 and 40 people at a time. Many neighbors met for the first time. By the time the coffee-making effort shut down in mid-afternoon, 100 gallons of free coffee had been served in paper cups.

By then several of Manny’s tables were on the sidewalk, with chairs arranged around them. Out came the boxes of dominoes.

The marathon dominoes scene continued for hours under the lights of a borrowed generator. Players sat in for a while, then sat out. Neighbors appeared with what they had in the way of libation. They swapped stories and the laughter from what had become an impromptu party drove off the demons that lurked in the eerie darkness, only 50 yards away.

Dominoes shark Manny Mendez was all of sx years old when he boarded an airplane with a one-way ticket to a totally uncertain future in the United States. In 1968, for people such as the Mendez family, getting out of Cuba was worth the risk of fleeing into the unknown.

The day little Manny left Cuba, his father was thought to be in Spain, as he had been deported. His mother was crestfallen when told that there were no flights going to Spain on the day her family was offered its chance to flee what Cuba had become. Recently released from 13 months of confinement at an agricultural labor colony, she opted to board the Red Cross-sponsored Freedom Flight for wherever it was going.

On Aug. 2, 1968, that airplane took Judith Mendez and her two children, Manny and his sister, Judy, away from Cuba. It landed in Florida. Upon touching down, Judith Mendez called her relatives, who lived in Richmond, to tell them the good news.

To her surprise she was told her husband, Manuel, was already in Richmond.

After a spell in an apartment building at Harrison Street and Park Avenue, the Mendez family moved to the 3400 block of Cutshaw Avenue, where several other Cuban families had settled. There was one car, a ’56 Chevy owned by his uncle, for the whole group to share.

Manny’s father had been an accountant in Cuba; in Richmond his first job title was “janitor.” As time passed, Manuel Mendez improved his situation and became a leader of the growing Cuban community in Richmond by making regular trips to Washington, D.C., to buy the essentials for Latin cooking and other imported goods unavailable in Richmond.

“Papi, how often did we used to lose power in Cuba?” Manny asked of his father during one of the dominoes games.

In his distinctive accent, with the timing of a polished raconteur, Manny’s father rolled the “r” as he said, “Oh, about two or three times … a night!”

Those gathered laughed, having instantly gained a wider perspective of coping with bad luck. Manny’s mother and the Cuban employees of Kuba Kuba laughed the loudest. Then, too, that may account for why Kuba Kuba routinely carries candles for sale along with other sundries.

The dominoes party broke up about 1:30 a.m. Most of the crowd returned to homes without power — with strange noises in the anxious quiet — no televisions, no Internet, and refrigerators full of risky food. No doubt, some of those dominoes players that unusual night carried away a new appreciation for people who can handle hardship with grace. Some may have even gained a new sense of how it must be in places where millions do without power, in one way or another, most of the time.

-- 30 --