Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call--New Orleans

The disorder and destruction in Post-Katrina New Orleans mirrors a similar state of being in the main character of Werner Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call--New Orleans (2008). I found the title of this film awkward the first time I heard it. Why “Port of Call”? The film has nothing to do with shipping or sailing or travel. The title seems a contrivance, an effort to suggest something more artful and exotic than what the film really offers. It should offer more. I felt the entire film was a contrivance, and not in a positive sense. The first fictional film directed by Herzog in years (he has been making documentaries in the meantime), Bad Lieutenant is a loose remake of a 1992 film set in New York. Herzog has a great eye for settings—I think in particular of his 1992 documentary Lessons in Darkness on the first U. S. invasion of Iraq, and his 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World. That perceptive eye is sometimes in evidence here, especially in views of the New Orleans skyline and of devastated streets left vacant by the post-Katrina floods.

But for the most part the film is a hyperbolic and excessive mess. Nicolas Cage plays Terence McDonagh, a detective already inclined towards questionable behavior when we first meet him. In an early scene he and his partner (Val Kilmer) are taunting a prisoner in a city jail cell about to be submerged by rising flood waters from the hurricane. They laugh at the prisoner, a young Hispanic man, who is terrified. Finally Cage jumps in the water to release him from the cell, but he injures his back and is left permanently in pain. He is promoted and honored for his heroism, and a year later he is seeking relief from his pain through various forms of legal and illegal drug use, and his life seems a darkening shambles. He’s faced with gambling debts (and mobsters who threaten him for failure to pay what he owes), he loses his temper with two citizens whose relatives are influential with the police captain, he pressures a football player to throw a game he has bet on, he blackmails arrest victims for sex, he’s suspended from duty, he promises to fix speeding tickets, he makes a deal with a local drug lord (Big Fate, played by Xzibit) in hopes of making enough money to pay his debts, the list could go on.

McDonagh’s difficulties finally reach the point where it seems impossible to conceive that he will find a way out. I found myself overcome with suspense as to when and how he would meet his fate. Amazingly, he doesn’t.

The one possibly redeeming trait in McDonagh’s character is his interest in solving the murder of five Senegalese illegal immigrants. Children are among the dead. McDonagh is horrified and enraged at the crime. But it’s difficult to sort out his desire to solve the crime with his numerous small and major acts of corruption. He does solve the murders and brings about the arrest of the murderers. His success could be the result of crafty thinking and planning, or it could simply be the result of good luck.

Some scenes in this film make no sense. In one McDonagh hallucinates and listens in hilarity as various lizards, including an iguana, sing. The iguana shows up in another scene. McDonagh’s colleagues never figure out that he is addicted to drugs, many of which he is stealing from the police stock room. He often looks drugged out, and his behavior is often very unusual. (Maybe they do know and don’t care—maybe that is Herzog’s point—it’s OK for the white detective to do drugs, just not the blacks and Hispanics and the young). McDonagh’s father, struggling with alcoholism, lives with his drunken younger wife in what appears to be a broken down Southern mansion—exactly how does he manage to afford living there? Near the end of the film, McDonagh is sitting with Big Fate when the mobster and two henchman show up to demand that he pay his gambling debt. Big Fate and his henchmen (everyone in this film has henchmen) shoot the mobsters to death. In a scene just a few moments later, McDonagh leads his police colleagues in a raid on Big Fate’s home—he is arrested. Yet the drug lord never reveals that McDonagh had conspired with him. Are we to believe that McDonagh’s plotting was all the result of a conscious plan? Does Big Fate never give a second thought to why this white detective wants to help him sell drugs and make money? McDonagh does convince Big Fate to smoke crack from his pipe—this allows detectives to use DNA on the pipe to connect him with the murders—a solution that in the context of everything else in the film seems too gratuitous and forced.

In the penultimate scene, all McDonagh’s problems have vanished. He’s given another commendation and promotion by the police department. He has married the woman he loves, who is pregnant and sober (she was a drug addict prostitute throughout most of the film), and they live in a handsome New Orleans home. Everything is wonderful. (I was reminded of the final scene of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet). And in the closing scene we see that, as much as McDonagh has turned his life around, he is still the same corrupt lieutenant as in the beginning.

One of Herzog’s points in this film is to show that the American legal system, the American system of values and its commitment to democratic ideals, the entire concept of the American Dream (which McDonagh has incredibly attained at the end of the film) are hollow and corrupt. The devastated New Orleans landscape, especially the poverty-stricken areas whose inhabitants suffered horribly during Katrina and its aftermath, is his embodiment of the discrimination and corruption that he sees underlying the system. The oppressed and powerless—African Americans, Hispanics, the young—are victimized by those in power. Herzog has frequently shown his disdain for America in his films. It is entirely appropriate for him to dramatize and illustrate his opinions. But one wishes he could have done so in a better film.

Many reviewers of this film liked it more than I did. Did they pay too much deference to Herzog? Perhaps they were reacting to the performance by Cage. His McDonagh is wild and remarkable, reckless and self-destructive. He held my attention.

Catch-22, by Joseph Heller

A memorable scene in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) is Yossarian’s romance with Nurse Duckett, which is followed immediately by death when McNutt’s plane flies too close to the wooden raft on which Kid Sampson is standing. The first is lively and vital and satiric, and the second benefits from the gruesome contrast—the idyll of love followed by the bizarre gruesomeness of a horrible death.

Much in this novel is slapstick and vaudevillian. A good example is the scene in which the three officers interrogate cadet Clevinger. The dialogue could easily be that of a vaudeville comedy act from the 1920s or 30s, and it reminded me of the famous Abbott and Costello “Who’s on First” routine—nonsensical and hilarious. This novel contains more self-contained hilarious one-liners than any book I can think of. They sometimes overwhelm the narrative.

One might argue that Catch-22 is a moral indictment of war. I regard it as an amoral indictment. Yossarian is the heart and conscience of the book. He is outraged by the death and carnage of war, especially by the deaths of men in his unit caused by corruption of the military bureaucracy or the incompetence of senior officers or simply bad luck. But he is also afraid to die, and this fear drives him more strongly than any other motive. It explains why, in a scene late in the novel, he joins in a plot hatched by Colonels Cathcart and Corn to send him back home to the states if he will simply agree to “like” them. He later rescinds this agreement, in part out of concern for the other men in his unit, but it is nonetheless an example of the subversively amoral undertones of the novel.

There is not much plot here. What plot there is concerns Yossarian’s desire to survive the war, with corollary threads concerning Nately’s whore and her attempts to kill Yossarian, his half-memories of Snowden mortally wounded in the plane, his various stints in the hospital tent.

War in Catch-22 is a capitalistic enterprise. The growing conglomerate that Milo Minderbinder builds after he is appointed to kitchen duty is the primary vehicle through which Heller develops this idea. “What’s good for the syndicate is good for the country.” This notion leads Minderbinder to sell the morphine in the first-aid kits used to treat wounded soldiers, to bomb his own squadron headquarters, to feed chocolate-coated cotton to the soldiers, to enter into business agreements with the enemy, and so on. The enterprise is the nation, but more than that, the enterprise is the institution, the bureaucratic organism that consumes every individual. Catch-22 is about that organism, which feeds on the corruption and self-interest of all characters, including Yossarian himself.

In some ways the novel may be dated, especially in its treatment of women. In others it remains vital and pertinent. In the later chapters, especially after the death of Yossarian’s friend Nately, the novel becomes increasingly dark and hallucinatory. Some of the scenes, especially those in which Yossarian searches for the young sister of Nately’s whore, in which he discovers that Minderbinder’s men have driven all the whores away, in which he experiences one horrific vision after another, is like a journey through hell. It doesn’t approach the gruesomeness of the scene in the plane with Snowden, which Yossarian manages to avoid through most of the novel.

The novel’s pessimism is summed up in this realization: “He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden's secret. Drop him out a window and he'll fall. Set fire to him and he'll burn. Bury him and he'll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden's secret. Ripeness was all.”

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Post-American World, by Fareed Zakaria

Fareed Zakaria writes about significant global paradigm shifts in The Post-American World (W. W. Norton, 2008). A native of India and a naturalized United States citizen, he advocates a nonwestern view of global culture without pushing an anti-western agenda. He does not argue that the West (and specifically the U. S.) is in decline, but that such nations as India and China are experiencing dramatic growth, that they are becoming major factors in world economic and political matters. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the U. S. has stood unchallenged as a global super power. That position is changing. The U. S., Zakaria argues, still wields major economic and cultural influence, but other nations are gaining in power and prominence, and the question that confronts the U. S. is what kind of role it will assume in this new world order. Will we work with other nations, including ones with whom we have major disagreements, or will we pursue our own goals unilaterally, without regard for other players?

Zakaria notes that the West tends to view its history only from its own point of view. He notes as an example that we think of World War II only as a war fought by the West against totalitarian regimes, yet argues that most of the fighting in that war, and most of the deaths, occurred on the Eastern front between Russian and German armies. We also overlook the former prominence of science and of other forms of knowledge in the Asian and middle-eastern worlds. The West is not the only wellspring of knowledge and of civilization, he argues.

Zakaria is clearly an admirer of the United States. He calls it the first multinational nation and notes that much of the rest of the world has had great admiration for our nation and culture. But since the 1990s, as the U. S. has acted in an increasingly monolithic way, and especially since the second Bush administration, the nation has forfeited its former position of respect. Zakaria argues that much of the current prosperity of the U. S. is attributable to the creative work of recent immigrants from other countries. He praises our system of higher education as the best in the world, one that teaches students how to think critically and to solve problems, but notes that our public school systems are in crisis and that they’re not working well—we haven’t discovered how to educate the diverse population of students in these schools. The open market of the United States, its receptiveness to new ideas and ways of doing things, is a major key to its success. He notes that China’s open market approach to the world economy is a key to its burgeoning success. China is not a democratic nation, and Zakaraia observes that when the Chinese government decides to enact change, change happens fast. When India decides to do something, decisions get bogged down in the democratic process. The same is true in the United States. Zakaria finds our government a weak element in our nation—it is crippled by partisanship and political bickering.

Zakaria discusses the rise and fall of the British Empire and considers whether it offers parallels to the current position of the U. S. He regards the Boer War at the end of the 19th century as responsible for the decline of British world influence. He suggests that the current Iraqi war for the U. S. could be similar, but also notes significant differences that do not guarantee a similar outcome if appropriate decisions are made.

Much has changed since Zakaria wrote this book—a devastating international economic crisis (which some nations are blaming on the U. S.), growing anti-immigration sentiments in our nation, the Tea Party movement, the election of an African American president who has taken an approach to foreign policy decidedly different from that of his predecessor—all these changes and others have significantly altered the landscape he describes. But they don’t alter his fundamental argument.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen

The American nuclear family has not fared well in American literature. Whether it has been William Dean Howells or Sinclair Lewis or John Steinbeck or William Faulkner or Jane Smiley or Joyce Carol Oates or John Cheever or John Updike or any number of other myriad writers, the family is often portrayed as a source of anguish, wounds, suffering torment, and existential angst. Usually, however, there is some small redemptive glimmer. Not so in Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections (2001). This novel is well written. Franzen is a fine prose stylist. Scenes are artfully conceived and executed. Characters are fully and credibly drawn. But artfulness is not its own justification. The deeper I got into this novel, the more abysmally depressive and dark it became. The Lambert family is clearly supposed to be representative, the quintessential American family of the new century. Yet its members are mired in self-interest, vanity, egotism, self-indulgence, cruelty, fatuousness, pride. They corrupt each other. They corrupt themselves. They mistreat their children and their aging parents.

Franzen’s novel is ripe with misanthropy and pessimism. Nary a glimmer of light is there anywhere. Franzen tempts his readers to laugh at the comic miscreants who make up his family, but after a while the various pains and indignities they suffer and inflict become all too deafening and one-dimensional.

The Lamberts are an all-too-easy target. Franzen invites us to laugh at and revile them. But he lacks pity, mercy, compassion, generosity, sympathy, understanding. In their place he exhibits smug scorn, self-righteous superciliousness, arrogance, heartlessness—I’m sure he’d insist otherwise.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Never Too Late: A Prosecutor's Story of Justice in the Medgar Evers Case, by Bobby DeLaughter

Never Too Late: A Prosecutor's Story of Justice in the Medgar Evers Case (Scribner, 2001), Bobby DeLaughter’s account of his prosecution of Byron de la Beckwith for his murder in 1963 of civil rights leader Medgar Evers explains how prosecutors meticulously reconstruct the details of the case thirty years after two trials ended in hung juries. It is notable for its portrait of Beckwith himself, whose racism and anarchistic propensity towards violence and murder were not merely monstrous but pathological. Beckwith admitted his responsibility for the murder of Evers to numerous individuals after the two hung jury trials. He was convicted in 1972 of the attempted murder of a Jewish leader in New Orleans, for which he spent three years in jail, and he bragged of involvement in other acts of violence and terror. De la Beckwith (known to friends as “Delay”) believed in the sacred virtues of white Christianity. He favored the elimination of nonwhites—especially Jews and African Americans—by whatever means possible. The rhetoric by which he expressed his views was essentially the same as that of the Nazis. De la Beckwith was the tip of a cultural iceberg that, one hopes, is rapidly melting.

DeLaughter sees his successful prosecution of Beckwith as evidence that Mississippi and the South have shed (to some extent) the racist heritage of the past. He also saw his victory in the case as the result of divine providence. That I doubt. It was the result of persistence, hard work, and the changing demographics of Mississippi society—the first two trials of Beckwith were heard by juries of all white males. The third trial jury included eight African American jurors, four whites, a mix of men and women. If divine providence had a role to play, Evers would not have been murdered to begin with.

One may be tempted to think that DeLaughter over-estimates the significance of his successful prosecution of Beckwith. Yet this book makes clear that DeLaughter’s persistence, hard work, and commitment to the trial were crucial to the outcome. He wasn’t simply a man who happened to be in the right place at the right time. He recognized the injustice in the fact that thirty years after the death of Evers, and after admitting to the crime on a number of occasions, Beckwith still walked and breathed a free man. Thanks to DeLaughter and his associates, and to a state that had changed, Beckwith was convicted and died in prison.

In an afterword, DeLaughter discusses his unsuccessful campaign for judge. He lost by a 2 to 1 margin. He felt many whites voted against him out of resentment over his prosecution of Beckwith. Some voters may have resented the negative attention the film Ghosts of Mississippi brought to the area—the film was a docudrama about DeLaughter’s prosecution of Beckwith. He is unhappy too that many African Americans did not vote in the election—he felt he had put himself and his career on the line in support of their cause and that they should have acknowledged his efforts by supporting him. Elections and the reasons why people do and do not vote are more complex and conflicted that DeLaughter would have it.

The narrative ends with DeLaughter’s appointment as a county court judge in 1999. Sadly, in 2008 DeLaughter was charged with five counts of bribery and suspended from the bench. He pleaded not guilty to these charges but eventually pleaded guilty to a count of obstruction of justice and was sentenced to eighteen months in federal prison.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring, by Richard Preston

Richard Preston, author of Hot Zone, is most interested in The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring (Random House, 2007) in the character and background of young men who become obsessed with the huge California redwoods, especially with climbing them. He focuses especially on three individuals, Steve Sillett, who becomes a botanist who studies the redwoods; Michael Taylor, afraid of heights but obsessed with identifying the tallest redwoods in the world—they grow up to 380 feet tall; and Marie Antoine, who compensates for childhood loneliness following her mother’s death by various hazardous activities, among them tree climbing. She eventually marries Sillett.

There is a subculture devoted to tree climbing, and Preston describes it along with the technology, techniques, and attractions of climbing the huge redwoods. Especially harrowing is his account of how a group of climbers sleep one night hundreds of feet above the ground in an especially tall and ancient redwood that leans at a precipitous angle out over the rest of the forest. A storm front comes through, and the tree sways and shudders wildly in the wind. The climbers can hear the tree groaning as it bends, but darkness and the wind make it too dangerous for them to descend to safety. They wait out the storm. A few weeks later the tree falls to the ground.

Although the redwoods originally covered large expanses of land near the California Pacific coast, logging and development have taken their toll, and now the trees remain in only a few areas, some of them protected as national and state parklands, others still vulnerable. They represent one of the largest and most remarkable life forms in the world, yet they’re threatened with extinction.

In the huge upper structures of the redwoods, which can live thousands of years, soil accumulates in the nooks and crannies of the branches and trunk stems. Other plants and animals take up residence there, and the redwoods therefore sustain their own unique biological environment.

Although the discussions in this book about the biological and environmental significance of the redwoods are fascinating, its greatest interest lies in the redwood climbers themselves. Disaffected in certain ways from their families and the greater human world, they find solace and satisfaction clambering above the ground in the redwood branches and trunk stems.