Friday, September 22, 2017

In Search of Brer Rabbit

Below the reader will see a feature article about Daryl Cumber Dance that I wrote in 2003. It was published by a Richmond magazine called FiftyPlus. At that time Dance was an English professor at the University of Richmond. She has written extensively about African American folklore.

*

Unbeknownst to the slave traders transporting their kidnapped human cargo from Africa to the New World, there was a stowaway on-board. Folklore scholars tell us that Brer Rabbit made his way across the Atlantic Ocean, hidden in the minds of shackled men and women on their way to a life that might as well have been on another planet.

Impish Brer Rabbit is just one of the fascinating characters from African American folklore who appeal to University of Richmond English professor Daryl Cumber Dance.

In Dance’s newest book, "From My People: 400 Years of African American Folklore," she has fashioned an eclectic collection of African American folklore, music lyrics, art, toasts, proverbs, riddles, and superstitions.

“What I’m doing is capturing a certain tradition, in print,” she said of her 736-page anthology, published last year by W. W. Norton.

That “certain tradition” was a subculture that in its time relied entirely on the spoken word of storytellers, or griots (pronounced gree-oh). After all, it was illegal during extended parts of America’s slavery era to even teach Negroes how to read and write.

In "From My People," next to her collection of yarns featuring mythical characters, such as Brer Rabbit, the Signifying Monkey, and Stagolee, Dance includes thought-provoking samples of the words of well-known black figures, including Ralph Ellison, Jelly Roll Morton, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Then, too, there’s a chapter on Soul Food, with plenty of useful recipes.

While Brer Rabbit made it to America’s shores in the memories of slaves, Dance pointed out, it was Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908), author of the Uncle Remus stories, who brought Brer Rabbit to the reading public.

Slaves told him those stories, featuring animals blessed or cursed with human-like traits, when he was a boy. Uncle Remus, the kindly yarn-spinner, was Harris’s invention. Significantly, the stories were written in a style he asserted was the dialect spoken by slaves in his youth. Harris also underlined the universal nature of stories concerning subjugated underdogs and their struggle for survival with dignity intact.

Dance happily subscribes to the basic idea expressed by mythology guru Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), when he held forth, in his authoritative writings on storytelling in ancient civilizations, that fables about heroes and their transforming quests are more similar than not.

Now, well after the days of Harris’ Uncle Remus, the study of folklore has become quite important to historians and anthropologists. Then, too, folklore can also be seen as the forerunner to today’s popular culture of magazines, movies, popular music and broadcasting.

The word “toast” is among the interesting terms Dance examines in From My People. As she explains, toasts were artful rants presented from the point of view of a powerful black man. They began to be a popular form of expression/entertainment in urban neighborhoods around the turn of the century. They were always bawdy.

“A clean version of a toast is not a toast,” said Dance, eyebrows raised.

She struggled with how to include such material in From My People. Nonetheless, Chapter Nine contains some traditional toasts, including Stagolee.

If that title has a familiar ring to it, that’s because there is a raft of songs out there about a gun-toting Stagolee, or Stagger Lee. New Orleans singer/songwriter Professor Longhair did his take on it, “Stag O Lee,” in 1974. There was also Lloyd Price’s big hit, “Stagger Lee,” in 1959. Still, Mississippi John Hurt’s version of the song, “Stack O'Lee Blues,” in 1928, is considered the definitive version.

Deciding the book needed some examples of traditional toasts in it, while also wanting to make it accessible to young readers, Dance compromised her long-held belief in absolute authenticity, to do with wording. She crafted a few substitute terms, here and there, hoping to retain the original toast’s meaning and verve.

As a toast, Stagolee probably originated in turn-of-the-century Memphis. It may well have been based on a real murder. Eventually the songs came, with all the variations on the same theme. Today, it’s easy to imagine the bloody saga of Stagolee and Billy presented with a hip hop treatment.

“Rap is an outgrowth of the toast,” said Dance. “Things find ways of going on.”

That apt observation sheds light on such acts as the legendary Last Poets. Their first performances in New York City in 1968, of what many popular culture aficionados see now as seminal rap music, could also be seen as bringing the long-established tradition of the toast forth for a new generation.

Born in Richmond in 1938, Daryl Cumber grew up on land in nearby Charles City County that her free black ancestors of the Brown family owned in the time of legalized slavery in Virginia. Of course, if any of those pre-Civil War ancestors traveled, they were well advised to carry their precious free papers with them, to be able to prove their status. The regional tradition that kept most folks close to home had its roots in reason.

Dance’s father was a jointer at the shipyard in Newport News. He also built and owned a beer garden called the Shanty Inn. It was a no-frills place with a jukebox where the black men and women who lived in the county gathered to wet their whistles and socialize. At first he kept his day job, but eventually he began working full-time at his own business, once it began to thrive.

The Shanty Inn wasn’t a wild roadhouse or whiskey-serving speakeasy, Dance said. Still, young Daryl wasn’t permitted to go inside during business hours. She was nine years old when her father died of a heart attack, at the age of 36.

As a girl, Dance expected to become a teacher. “I always wrote,” she said with a laugh and a sigh. “I had the nerve to send a play to a radio show [called] ‘Dr. Christian’.”

Although she may have thought about becoming a lawyer, as her grandfather was, in her bucolic 1950s world women didn’t study law.

“In my family, women taught,” said Dance, who attended Ruthville High School, which had been named for a great-great aunt, Ruth Brown. Daryl Cumber went on to Virginia State College, where she majored in English, and in 1956 she began her teaching career at Armstrong High School in Richmond.

Two years later she married Warren C. Dance, a teacher who is now retired from Richmond Public Schools; he also served on the adjunct faculties of J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College and Virginia Union University. The union of life-long teachers has produced three children (two sons and a daughter), who, in turn, have produced two grandchildren, so far.

Speaking of family, From My People is dedicated to “my son Allen Cumber Dance, a bright, handsome, generous, and supportive individual who would make any mother proud, but an inveterate Trickster, who almost always makes me worry a little but laugh a lot.”

Dance returned to Virginia State to get an M.A., which was followed by a doctorate in English from the University of Virginia. She has received a couple of Ford Foundation Fellowships, three Southern Fellowships Fund grants, two National Endowment for the Humanities grants, a Fulbright research grant, a grant from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, and other honors too numerous to list in this space.

Ten years ago, after teaching at Virginia State University, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Virginia Commonwealth University, she became a member of the English Department faculty at the University of Richmond.

Dance now has eight books to her credit. Her first, Shuckin' and Jivin': Folklore from Contemporary Black Americans (1978), established her as an emerging figure in the folklore field. Subsequent books have dealt with a variety of subjects, including Caribbean folkore and African American women’s humor.

Long Gone: The Mecklenburg Six and the Theme of Escape in Black Folklore, published in 1987, buffed her reputation not only as a dauntless researcher, but also as a scholar who was willing to weigh in on controversial matters and deal with them evenhandedly.

With an unflinching directness, Dance sought to demonstrate how the audacious 1984 escape from a maximum-security prison’s death row by the two infamous Briley brothers (and four accomplices) fell into a well-established template of tales about the authorities searching for black men on the lam.

The crimes of Linwood and James Briley (both were eventually executed) were not the book’s issue. Their much-storied last gasp of freedom was. The mainstream media’s high-profile accounts of the escape and subsequent sightings of the escapees - many of which were more hysterical than they were accurate - stoked the myth-making machine, spawning songs, stories, and all sorts of curious Briley brothers’ memorabilia. However, their crimes, carried out in Richmond, were so gruesome that some in the area couldn’t countenance the notion that such wretched men should be written about in any way, other than to condemn them.

Dance was surprised at how many people, officials and private citizens alike, attempted to frustrate her project. Nonetheless, the scholar pressed on. In the book she mentions that a good number of people also went out of their way to help her overcome contrived obstacles.

Tall and graceful in manner, Daryl Cumber Dance brings a rare combination of tools to her work. Her curiosity and integrity don’t stumble over one another. She intuitively blends her researcher’s need to seek the authentic, with her chosen role of editor/translator of an arcane language from another age. In the doing, Dance uses those colorful expressions to paint an American history with what amounts to an impressionistic style.

Yet, her very Southern-seeming modesty makes her laugh softly and shrug off the suggestion that she should be called a “historian,” a “folklorist,” or even, a “writer.”

“I haven’t written novels,” said the English professor in her Ryland Hall office.

What about the seeming contradiction of an expert on the folk culture established by generations of slaves, and their descendants, on tweedy Richmond’s West End campus?

“Richmond is beginning to be a different school than what people think,” replied Dance.

Throughout her enlightening examination of an American history that has been largely ignored by traditional historians, Dance uses the words Negro, Colored, Black, and African-American with equal ease. She explains that she chooses the term that was appropriate in the era to which she is referring.

In fact, Dance seems completely at ease with all sorts of words that ruffle feathers. And, she seems just as at ease in her own mahogany-colored skin. That has to be part of her success as a researcher. It’s easy to imagine that strangers would be disarmed by her gentle curiosity and trust her with their stories.

While Brer Rabbit was shanghaied, once he returned to land he was far too slippery to be held down for long. He freely hopped from one generation to the next. Trials and tribulations came and went, but Brer’s dignity was crushproof.

“The story of our history, as African Americans,” said Daryl Cumber Dance, “is just beginning to be told.”

-- 30 --

From Yeats to Greene to Stone

As a professor, Balcomb Greene
is said to have had a significant 
influence on Andy Warhol.
Revved up over an English class assignment to write a paper on "The Second Coming," by W. B. Yeats, I stayed up all night crafting it, and thought I had hit a home run. The professor, an awkward, gangly sort of fellow in his mid-20s, gave me a “C” on it.

Well, I just had to ask him to explain to me what was wrong with the paper. In a private conference he told me my analysis of the poem didn't jibe with the accepted school of thought on what Yeats was saying. While admitting my writing and analytical technique were fine, he nervously explained that I was simply wrong in my conclusions, no matter how well-stated my case might have been.

That sort of pissed me off, so I told him I thought that ambiguity could imply multiple meanings, and it deliberately invited alternative interpretations. Rather than defend his stance the man suddenly grabbed his face and broke into tears.

The sobbing professor went into a monologue on the shambles his life had fallen into. His personal life! Worst of all, he said, his deferral had just been denied by Selective Service, so he would soon be drafted.

He was wearing a pitiful brown suit. His thinning beige hair was oiled flat against his scalp. My anger over the bad grade turned into disgust. As I remember it, I walked out of his office to keep from telling him what I thought. Now I regret my impatience and feel sorry for the poor schlemiel.

Still, when the offer came at the end of the semester to expand my part-time job to full-time, I took the leap. My chief duty was to schlep visiting scholars around Virginia from one university campus to the next in a big black Lincoln.

Each week, under the auspices of the University Center in Virginia -- a consortium of Virginia colleges and universities -- there was a new scholar in a different field. Somebody had to drive them to lectures, dinners, convocations and to hotels throughout the week. For the spring semester of 1969 that was me.

Naturally, in the crisscrossing of Virginia, the wiseguy driver and the actually wise scholars had a lot of time to talk. Some of them kept to themselves, mostly. Others were quite chatty, in several cases we got along well and had great talks.

Three of them stand out as having been the best company on the road: Daniel Callahan (then-writer/editor at Commonweal Magazine), Henry D. Aiken (writer/philosophy professor) and Balcomb Greene (artist/philosopher and art history professor).

Callahan challenged me to think more thoroughly about situational ethics and morality. He was happy I was reading the books of Herman Hesse and others. He turned me on to “One Dimensional Man,” by Herbert Marcuse.

Callahan was quite curious about my experiences taking LSD, we talked about drugs and religion. Click here to read about him.

Aiken (1912-‘82) was then the chairman of the philosophy department at Brandeis University, he loved a debate. He was used to holding his own against the likes of William F. Buckley. Talking with him about everything under the sun in the wee hours, I first acquired a taste for good Scotch whiskey (which I haven't tasted in years).
From a ‘pragmatic’ point of view, political philosophy is a monster, and whenever it has been taken seriously, the consequence, almost invariably, has been revolution, war, and eventually, the police state.

-- Henry D. Aiken
Aiken, like Callahan, agreed to help me with a project I told them about. Inspired by popular new magazines like Ramparts, Avant-Garde, Rolling Stone, etc., at 21-years-old, I wanted to jump straight into magazine publishing, with no experience, ASAP.

That dream stayed on the back burner for 16 years, until the first issue of SLANT came out in 1985. How I went about designing SLANT to be a small magazine, mostly featuring the work of its publisher, flowed in great part from my brief association with Balcomb Greene (1904-90). Of the rent-a-scholars I met, he was easily the funniest.

The son of a Methodist minister, Greene grew up in small towns in the Midwest. He studied philosophy at Syracuse University, psychology at the University of Vienna and English at Columbia University. Then he switched to art, having been influenced by his first wife, Gertrude Glass, an artist he had married in 1926. He became a founder of the avant-garde group known as American Abstract Artists in 1936.

After World War II, just as abstract art was gaining acceptance, Greene radically changed his style. He began painting in a more figurative, yet dreamy, style that fractured time. Click here,
and here, to read about Greene and see examples of his work.

One day I’ll write a piece about the visit to Sweetbriar with Greene. It was a hoot collaborating with him, to have some fun putting on the blue-haired art ladies of that venerable institution. This time my mention of him is to get this piece to I.F. Stone. It was Greene who gave me a subscription to I.F. Stone’s Weekly.

I.F. “Izzy” Stone (1907-89) was an independent journalist in a way few have ever been. In the 1960s his weekly newsletter was a powerful voice challenging the government’s propaganda about the war in Vietnam. Click here to read about Stone, and here.
"All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out."
-- I.F. Stone
Stone remains one of my heroes. At my best, over the years, I have emulated him in my own small ways. Thank you for the schooling, Professor Greene.

-- 30 --

Monday, September 18, 2017

Bizarro Easter Parade

Sat., Sept. 16, 2017: 10:27 a.m.: 1600 block of Monument Ave.


It was a bright, beautiful Saturday morning all over town. Folks came to Richmond's storied Monument Avenue with their placards and supplies. They came in their get-ups, including T-shirts with slogans for some, including combat equipment for others. They came to ruffle feathers; they came to keep the peace. They came to strut their righteous stuff … oh yeah.

On September 16, 2017, tasteful green, waist-high barricades hooked-one-to-the-next defined the areas around the towering Robert E. Lee memorial that had been designated for civilians, as well as the areas restricted to officials only. There were plenty of tourists in pairs and there were a few teams/organized groups that marched, en masse, into the scene with banners … oh yeah.

Exactly five months after this year's Easter Parade crowd milled around on that same stately Fan District avenue, what amounted to a Bizarro Easter Parade unfolded before us who live in the neighborhood.

For a much fretted-over demonstration set in motion by self-styled Confederacy aficionados, a rally that threatened to be Son-of-Charlottesville, there was a surprising shortage of signifying for the Lost Cause. If the alt-right was represented in the neighborhood, they were stealthy and I missed them. I saw no Nazi regalia.

Basically, there were the two opposing aspects of the spectacle, such as it was: The CSA II's mini-rally of Confederate monument worshipers and the much larger turnout of people to confront and denounce that rally. Then, of course, there were the spectators satisfying their curiosity.

On the east side of the Lee Monument a faction of those confronters caused a stir for a spell with their chants and fuming at their opposition – Hey Ho! Hey Ho! – but what I saw of it came nowhere near boiling over into violence.

What didn't happen was a riot. Even the media on hand, pros and amateurs, out-numbered the main attraction – those demonstrators, local and imported – determined to save the monuments from removal. If it was a contest for turnout, the so-called counter-protesters – Antifa and various peace and social justice groups – won by a wide margin. In that sense, it was a good day for the lefties and moderates.

Kudos to the City of Richmond for its plan to deal with the range of possibilities the situation presented, going into the day. Likewise, from what I saw firsthand the cops executed their strategy well. Looking back on the expense of managing that event, it's harmless to joke about how much money was spent. No doubt, on Monday, the 18th, some of it might seem to have been unnecessary. Still, on Friday, the 15th, no one could know what would be necessary.
OK, about Antifa: First of all, as an old goat watching from afar, I gather it's not accurate to view all Antifa activists and sympathizers in the same light. So I'll try to be fair.

Meanwhile, I'm glad that some people were brave and smart enough during the evening of Aug. 11 to help protect peace-loving worshipers in a Charlottesville church from the lathered up, torch-carrying alt-right crazies on the street.

If an aspect of Antifa deserves the lion's share of credit in that instance, then I'm grateful to them. Direct action worked.
Just as Antifa, Black Lives Matter and many Americans who aren't members of mission-driven groups, I am alarmed by the growing threat a new wave of fascism is imposing on the USA today. While I want to help quell that threat, too, my experience tells me to be careful with my tactics.

Which brings me to this point: The faction of Antifa currently insisting that no one photograph them when they are making news on public streets must be challenged. Sorry, in this country no matter how righteous their cause may seem, no one is morally or legally entitled to assault members of the working press who are documenting events in the public way. No one is entitled to menace bystanders shooting photos of what's happening outdoors in front of them.

The threat of fascism being sold by populist hate-mongers will always be with us. Societies will always be somewhat vulnerable to the harm radical ideologies can facilitate. Each generation faces threats of that sort to the commonweal. It's our duty to deal with them wisely in our time.
On the other hand, hurling threats and violence at the media is exactly how fascist villains have operated in the past. Activists of any stripe who advocate using such intimidating tactics today can't be allowed to become the face of “the resistance.” 
Simply put, that mistake would invite disaster.
Now let's sit down over coffees, or perhaps beers, and talk calmly about which Confederate monument in Richmond should be the first one removed … oh yeah.

– 30 – 

-- Words and photo by by F.T. Rea

Monday, September 11, 2017

Guerrilla Art in Bryan Park Gets a B

Image from Indecline
Please note: My background to do with street art, graffiti, guerrilla art, etc., is a little different from most folks who opine about it in periodicals and on social media. Some longtime Richmonders know what I mean with that assertion. For those who don't, let's just say my hands didn't stay clean in the day.

That admission isn't to say I'm endorsing vandalism today. Nor is it to brag about my outlaw handbiller times. It means I've considered the realm of unauthorized expression and prankdom from various perspectives. My mind is open to the notion that sometimes such urgent, do-it-yourself expressions can sometimes have a righteous nature. 

Anyway, here's what I've got to say about the Sept. 5, 2017, Ku Klux Klowns stunt/art installation in Richmond's Bryan Park, a beautiful urban park with lots of big old trees, executed by a group calling itself Indecline.

As far as commenting on this caper/piece goes, I'm doing it without having seen it firsthand. It didn't stay on display in the park for all that long, so like most people who know about it at all, I've only seen still and moving pictures. Plus, I've read at least 10 articles about it. I also watched the Indecline-produced video on the stunt

As far as I know, no one was injured and no property was damaged. In my book that's good and not always easy to manage. So, in some ways the caper was done with precision. While the image of eight lynched clowns Indecline created had its disturbing aspects – after all, it drew on horrific photographs of mass lynchings we've all seen – it was not over-the-top vulgar or gross.

The group said they were reacting to Charlottesville's violent scene on Aug. 12th. They said they chose Richmond for its history. All that made sense. Mocking the KKK always makes sense. 

It was a striking image. Still, by putting clown masks and big clown shoes on the KKK-garbed effigies levity was used to softened the nightmare angle, somewhat. Moreover, that's just where I think they began to create a little problem, in that they raised the bar.

It seems the clown masks and goofy shoes weren't enough, the political pranksters hung a placard on one of the effigies that said: "If attacked by a mob of clowns, go for the juggler."

Photo from Indecline
OK, I'm not sure how many meanings can be wrung out of that statement. It seems mostly like a superfluous last-second dollop of absurdity. Not knowing when to quit can hurt your grade. Were they hedging their bet? 

If you want to be spot-on, art-wise, politically and flawless with the caper … AND then you want to be funny, too, well, that's trying to play at the top level of social commentary. That's on Luis Buñuel's level. That's on J.D. Salinger's level.

So I give Indecline a B for its well-executed KKK stunt and I'm looking forward to what they do next.

-- 30 --

Evil's Second Coming

Note: This reaction to 9/11 piece was originally published by STYLE Weekly on May 15, 2002.

*
Evil's Second Coming
by F.T. Rea

Washing in on what poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) might have called a “blood-dimmed tide,” the specter of evil suddenly emerged from the periphery of modern life eight months ago. In the blue skies of the time before 9/11’s sucker punch, the notion of pure evil had an Old World air about it. Absolutes, such as good and evil, had no seat at the table of postmodern thinking.

After 9/11, a generation of Americans suddenly learned a bitter lesson: Evil never went away. Living in a land of plenty, it had gotten to be a pleasant habit to avert our eyes from evil-doings in lands of want. Evil had gone out of style, as a concept, only because times were so easy.

The last American president to get much mileage out of the word "evil" was probably Ronald Reagan, with his “evil empire” characterization of the USSR and its sphere of influence. Now, 20 years later, we have a president who sees “an axis of evil” — an alleged phenomenon that puzzles most of the world’s leaders, or so they say.

George W. Bush apparently has little use for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s stalwart advice to a nation in need of a boost in confidence — “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Rather than urge his people to rise above it, Bush chooses to color-code fear. The propagandists of the Bush administration have been successful in cultivating the public’s anxiety since September. Whether that’s been done for our own good remains to be seen. Perhaps it has, but this much is clear now — all the official danger alerts about nuclear power plants, bridges and crop-dusters have been effective in keeping most of the natural questioning of the administration’s moves at bay.

To hear Attorney General John Ashcroft tell it, the architects of 9/11 are the personification of the most virulent form of evil ever known. Although much of the evidence that would establish his absolute guilt in connection with 9/11 remains a state secret, Osama bin Laden is said to have shot to the top of the chart.

Forget about Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler, Idi Amin and Pol Pot. They were amateurs.Then again, evil, like beauty, has always been in the eye of the beholder.

Wasn’t it evil to deliberately dump tons of potent pesticide into the James River during the ’70s to make a greedy buck? Once it was in Virginia’s water, Kepone wasn’t so different from a bio-terror agent in the same water.


With the news seeping out of the cloisters about child-molesting priests and the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-ups, whose betrayal was more evil, the molester or the higher-ups who hid and facilitated his crimes?

Whether evil exists in some pure form, off in another dimension, is not my department. What’s known here is that in the real world evil is contagious. Lurking in well-appointed rooms or hiding in caves, evil remains as it ever was — ready to spread.

None of this is to suggest that al Qaida shouldn’t be put out of business. It isn’t to say that knocking the Taliban off was a bad idea. There’s no question here about whether the United States should protect itself from the networks of organized terror that are hell-bent on destroying the modern world.

Still, today’s evil is the same evil our forefathers faced in their wars. Evil hasn’t changed; technology has. With modern weapons in their hands, the fanatics of the world have the potential to wreak havoc like never before.

What has changed is the extent to which the hate festering in the souls of the world’s would-be poobahs and their sociopathic minions can be weaponized. It’s worth noting that the weapons of mass destruction that are scaring us the most were developed during the arms-race days of the Cold War by the game’s principal players.

So another question arises, who is more dangerous to civilization, the guys who spent their treasure to weaponize germs, or the guys who want to steal the stuff and use it on somebody?

Decades ago this was a concern expressed by some in the disarmament movement. Its scary what-if scenarios always included the likelihood that the Super Powers would eventually lose track of some of their exotic weapons. Looking back on it now, it seems obvious there was no way any government could keep all that material locked away from the greed and hate of determined free-lancers.

A man with a briefcase-style nuclear device may be no more evil than a man armed with a knife. Either danger could kill you just as dead. Those of us who feel connected to others, those who care about humanity's future know which one we should fear the most. The “rough beast” of dreadful evil “slouching towards” us is traveling on the back of technology of our own making.

While we watch out for organized terrorists in the short run, with a handy color code to guide us, it’s time to think more seriously about how to get rid of a lot of very dangerous weapons in the long run.

-- 30 --

Friday, August 25, 2017

Trump to Stump for Gillespie?

At this writing Pres. Donald J. Trump is still casting a long shadow over the nation's political landscape. That surely threatens to darken future elections, coast-to-coast. It's still anybody's guess when we will finally see the sitting president properly hoisted by one of his own petards. Tick, tick, tick...

Meanwhile, in Virginia, we're going to elect a governor in November. With mid-term Congressional elections not until next year, for the next two months this purple commonwealth's race for the Governor's Mansion will be at the top of the national political news. This year's gubernatorial race in Virginia is going to be spotlighted like no statewide election before. Or, at least not since 1994, when Ollie North ran against Chuck Robb … and Doug Wilder … and Marshall Coleman. No one should be surprised to see the money thrown at this election to break existing records.

Thus, the looming president's approval rating – his popularity, or lack thereof – will be tested in Virginia for all the world to see, to analyze. Sure, some state issues will matter. Likewise, either of the two major party candidates could manage to tilt the momentum his way, Trump or no Trump. Still, Republican Ed Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam better be ready for prime time, because here it comes.

But will the glowering president come to Virginia to stump for Gillespie, a potential loser? Could a desperate Gillespie disavow Trump? Will those two Republicans risk standing side-by-side on the same stage?

For the stewing president, here comes Robert Mueller. Tick, tick, tick...

-- Art and words by F.T. Rea

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Post-Charlottesville Reality

My photo of Richmond's Lee Monument (2007).
The Unite the Right movement came to Charlottesville with a mission. Ostensibly, its publicity stunt was to designed to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee on horseback from a public park. However, we can now see the planners' scheme was more ambitious – the movement's leadership wanted to unveil itself as a new player in today's roiling political milieu.

On the Friday night before the alt-right-designed assemblage of white supremacists and their ilk, torch bearing marchers served clear notice of where this new force is coming from in 2017: “Blood and soil,” they chanted, “BLOOD AND SOIL.”

Note: If those words have a scary ring to them, well, they were borrowed from the Nazis. The original Nazis.

In Charlottesville it was a coming out. Neo-Nazis openly strutted along side of flaggers and other staunch defenders of the Lost Cause. Rather than something to keep denying, to keep bothering to hide, apparently they now see their shared hatreds as the very thing to display. On the new amalgamated haters bandwagon that's emerged from the melee in Charlottesville, the Ku Klux Klan is merely one of several franchises.

Let's get real: The new normal in this country simply can't include the acceptance of white supremacists, or white nationalists, as legitimate players. They can't have a seat at the table of honest citizens who want peace, freedom and equal rights for all. Hey, if you're carrying a pole festooned with a Nazi or a Confederate flag you have excluded yourself from society's important discussions.  

Let's get local: I hope the city's leadership is now facing a post-Charlottesville reality. Any hate group's application for a permit to assemble a large group on public property must be treated differently now. This proposed event on Sept. 16, 2017, to be staged by the Virginia Flaggers, won't be the Easter Parade.

So let the amalgamated haters assemble and march up and down Jefferson Davis Highway. Let them convene a big-ass confab at the Richmond Raceway and chant “blood and soil.” Maybe mill around some with torches.

But drop a spoiling-for-a-fight mob onto the intersection of Monument and Allen Avenues ... have them wave flags that symbolize hate at all the lenses focused on them ... throw in lots of firearms ... don't forget the folks who'll show up to hurl insults at the flaggers and their cohorts ... what could go wrong?

Meanwhile, I hope Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Mayor Levar Stoney will soon announce that for public safety reasons no hate groups or bands of terrorists will be allowed to stage a rally anywhere in the Fan District (where I live).

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

What John Moeser said

In the last few years much has been said about what to do in/with Shockoe Bottom. But not much has changed. At least the ballpark idea seems to have dried up and blown away.

Anyway, I like what John Moeser has to say in his RT-D OpEd -- "The case for memorializing the entire Richmond slave district" -- about that important aspect of Richmond's landscape. 
With the soon-to-be completed $48 million redevelopment of Main Street Station into an events center, tourist welcome center, and retail marketplace, which in turn will be connected to a revamped farmer’s market, more pressure will mount to convert remaining property into office and residential development. Our foremost consideration, however, is the preservation of one of our nation’s central places associated with our own American holocaust, namely, the enslavement and slaughter of Native and African Americans...

Still, it seems to me a new farmers market could be situated almost anywhere withing a mile or so of its old location and it would work fine. So, as much as we can, why not free-up the landscape of what was the slave market area, to be devoted to a park (much like Moeser outlines in his piece) and a slavery museum?

At long last, I believe Richmond has an obligation to reveal the whole truth about its slave market days. Following more than a century of willful denial, this city should set about to atone for literally and figuratively covering up evidence of what went on in that neighborhood. So maybe the museum could include active archaeological digs, as well as indoor and other outdoor exhibits.

Moreover, I think that if it's done right the whole shebang would become a worldwide tourist attraction that would be a boon to Richmond's economy.
attraction that would be a boon to Richmond's economy.

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.


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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 Café’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. 

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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.

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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).

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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.

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-- 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. 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 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 an 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 shattering 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 criminals down the street was normal. Quaint as it may sound now, it seemed then that some collective sense of dignity was at stake.

In short, it took less than 10 minutes to discover the thief’s hiding place, then turn him over to the policemen who’d shown up. 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.

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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.

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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.

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