Life Imitating Art: The Russiagate Floodgates

600px-Serpico-bhp3

Toward the end of Sydney Lumet’s ’70s classic Serpico there is an unnerving scene that encapsulates the conundrum faced by the eponymous cop: already persona non grata within the law enforcement fraternity for his refusal to take bribes, Serpico is transferred to the narcotics division, where the beat is the exceedingly dangerous streets way off-Broadway. His new partner grimly explains that, compared to the types of kickbacks Serpico was accustomed to seeing, the haul in narcotics is serious business. “That’s big money, that you do not fuck around with.” In this moment Serpico finally understands his life is now in greater danger, amongst police officers than at the hands of criminals, because of his insistence on obeying the law.

There’s another scene that succinctly summarizes the film’s central conflict, and how close Serpico is to snapping (also featuring an early and authentic example of Pacino’s peerless ability to explode and implode, simultaneously). He’s already on edge for understandable reasons, but when he discovers the scumbag he just busted (so infuriatingly calm and cocky) is, in fact, a cop killer.

Here he is, an honest cop in a room full of men who’d just as soon drop him off the Empire State Building, unable to elicit the slightest emotion from any of them. Of course, it’s because this slippery felon has bought off practically the entire precinct. They just stand there. Probably embarrassed, maybe even mortified but mostly culpable. They’re in too deep, the money’s too good and plus, this guy’s got the goods on them.

This is how it’s getting to be with the now daily drop of all-things Russia (as the invaluable Charles Pierce memorably puts it, “Right now, there are more Russians involved in this story than there are in War and Peace.”). We hear another unbelievable development, something that the key players?—?following the inexorable script?—?at first deny, then pretend to have forgotten and then, with the assistance of the usual suspects at Fox News, insist, indignantly, is, in any event, not illegal. And each day, the entire Republican party stands mute, impotent. Not because they can’t or don’t want to believe it (if their eyes or actual memories fail them, there’s a trusty paper trail that now resembles a relay race between moist slugs), but because they’re in. Deep. They made their deal and are now obliged to ride shotgun in this clown car.

And just like Serpico’s corrupt brethren, it’s all about money. But at least in the movie (based, by the way, on a true story), the money is coming from illicit activity, mostly drugs and gambling. What we have today is much worse. Republicans are colluding and covering and denying (and, probably at this point, sweating) not so they can merely get a slice of this contaminated pie. No, their motivation, at once more complicated and disgraceful, consists mainly of poaching funds designed for poor people to give to rich people. Oh, and take away millions of Americans’ health care.

You couldn’t make a movie about this. It’s too implausible. Too depressing.

And too real.

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Serpico and Turning Black Friday into Good Friday

SERP2

Look at that dude.

Pacino, clean-shaven and short-haired as the movie begins, sports the best ‘stache of the decade, then goes goatee, then gets full facial (hair and head), all of which accomplishes several purposes, concurrently: it denotes time passing, it indicates the all-in embrace of counterculture and defiance this ostracized cop is both acting out and reacting to, and finally it reveals how indelibly –and painfully– the process ages him. Mostly, on simple aesthetic levels, Pacino on screen here is as badass as any icon could ever be. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Some people shop on Black Friday. I watch Serpico.

I want –and need– to revisit this movie on an annual basis, because it satisfies many needs. One, it’s a masterpiece, so there’s that. Two, it reminds me many things I need to know, about the world and myself. And most of all, it is a rallying cry against conformity and cowardice; it is a stark reminder of how much we are capable of and how little we typically do. I watch it and think: I want to be that guy. I know I can’t be that guy, so it’s the least I can do to watch, learn and emulate.

I wrote about Serpico while introducing a piece commemorating the ten-year anniversary (in 2009) of what I consider the best film of the last twenty years, The Insider:

(Toward the end of Sydney Lumet’s ’70s classic Serpico there is an unnerving scene that encapsulates the conundrum faced by the eponymous cop: already persona non grata within the law enforcement fraternity for his refusal to take bribes, Serpico is transferred to the narcotics division, where the beat is the exceedingly dangerous streets way off-Broadway. His new partner grimly explains that, compared to the types of kickbacks Serpico was accustomed to seeing, the haul in narcotics is serious business. “That is big money, that you do not fuck around with.” In this moment Serpico finally understands that his life is now in greater danger, amongst police officers than at the hands of criminals, because of his insistence on obeying the law.)

I think this one scene, perhaps even more than anything in the embarrassment of riches that is Network, tells us all we need to know about how the world really works. Going back to the Watergate story, the reporters were advised to “follow the money”. That might be the most disturbingly succinct epitaph of our last century. Every act of violence and venality is prompted by the pursuit of money or the lack thereof, and most of all, the things money can’t buy (which, come to think of it, is the central theme of Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead).

When I ask myself: how is it possible that, despite the will of the people and the painfully obvious cookie crumbs leading to the criminals, Obama has let Wall Street off without so much as a harsh word, or how the Republicans can hold the country hostage for indefinite tax cuts on the wealthiest one percent, or (worse) how so many feckless and supine Democrats can tolerate –and in some cases, abet– this mendacity, or how our military budget is sacrosanct, or how we can continue to fight ill-advised and unwinnable wars (killing countless Americans and “foreigners” in the bargain), when I look at some of my well-educated and otherwise enlightened friends and wonder how they can possibly be immune to this cognitive dissonance, I think of these words: “That is big money, that you do not fuck around with.”

I’d like to revisit a piece I wrote many moons ago (earnestness trumping ability), celebrating Serpico. I could never (and would never) pick favorites but if I had to, I would probably suggest that this movie represented the best work that Pacino and Lumet ever did.

Serpico (1973)

An illuminating moment occurs near the beginning of the film Saturday Night Fever—the project that officially launched the trajectory of John Travolta’s career, where, with a haircut and white suit, the young hot shot evolved from Vinny Barbarino, Sweat Hog, to Tony Manero, disco icon—a film which, like any formidable piece of art, is as much a reflection of its times as it is the vision of its creator: A lean, mean, and bikini brief-clad Travolta halts in mid-strut and gazes lovingly up at his wall, upon which is a poster of the man—a bearded, long-haired, gold hoop earring-wearing undercover cop—and he haughtily, if speciously assures himself “I look like Al Pacino!” The symbolic import of this simple scene is substantial. The act of conferring coolness through establishing, by any means necessary, solidarity with Pacino—particularly a young cat who knows he’s bad, especially a movie character depicting a young cat who knows he’s bad—is about as ringing an endorsement of unequivocal hipness as anyone could reasonably hope to attain. This moment then, signified a passing-of-the-torch of sorts, and an informal promulgation of what most folks already knew: that Al Pacino, in short, is the ‘70’s, and along with Nicholson and DeNiro, formed the divine triumvirate of American motion-picture ascendency in that decade.

Coming less than a year after the searing intensity of his performance as Michael Corleone—in the role and movie, The Godfather, Pacino could not have chosen a more diametric project than the true story of Frank Serpico, the undercover cop who pits himself in a lonely—and costly—war against an entire police force. This film serves as a radical (and realistic) rewriting of the classic—and antiquated—American Dream myth, wherein the best man always wins, and good always prevails over evil. With an escalating irony that could only be culled from real life (otherwise it would be offensively implausible), the more he attempts to distance himself from the wrongdoing around him—which has casually corroded the department like a malignant infirmity—the more scorn he is subjected to. In a word, it doesn’t get any more American than this: Serpico, the man, and Serpico, the movie, are potent amalgams of, and commentaries upon, the country that made them. The idealizing, even naïve young man confronting corruption is arguably an invariable rite of passage for just about every individual who leaves the comforts—and conformity—of home for the bigger, badder realities of the world. When the individual is a police officer, and the subject of his disillusionment is the laissez-faire depravity of his precinct—and, to a larger extent, the backbiting, political system as a whole—the stakes are raised rather considerably.

It is sufficient testament of a job well done that it is impossible to imagine any other actor taking on the role of Frank Serpico and delivering such a capable, compelling performance. The tribulations of this alienated underdog provide the opportunity for Pacino to utilize a concentrated fervor in ways he never would (or could) again. It is a tailor-made vehicle for his expressive gifts: this is his superlative performance, his greatest role. He is, in turns, quiet, assertive, tranquil, indignant and incensed. He is a man of intelligence and integrity surrounded by the numbed and indifferent denizens of New York City’s police departments, amongst whom he wears out his welcome quickly—and irretrievably.

The crux of his dilemma is an unflinching nonconformity, which obliges the battle-wearied veterans of his precinct to examine not only their own detached compliance, but why he won’t go along with it. In a development that is perverse as it is ironic, he becomes increasingly regarded with suspicion because he refuses to break the very laws he’s sworn (and is paid) to uphold. Because he is honest, he cannot be trusted. If the story, or the actor, wasn’t up to the task, this rather unremarkable—indeed scarcely believable—story would seem trite, redundant, or nauseatingly bathetic. Thankfully, this true tale—which, like any worthwhile biography about an extraordinary individual, serves equally as a commentary on society and that evasive and evanescent perception dubbed the human condition—is abundantly provocative, discomforting, and ultimately redeeming.

Serpico is one of the rare and wondrous works of art that truly satisfies on all levels: it is, first and foremost, an intriguing and indelible movie experience. It is also an inspirational story that serves to remind us that crime often operates in an unremarkable, but eviscerating fashion. It reminds us that heroes don’t wear capes, and seldom wear badges. Often, they wear a look of defiance, and a battered, but not beaten pride—a weary, but unwavering integrity.

Serpico was—and will remain—one of the great things that came out of the much-maligned “me-decade”. The bell-bottoms, platform shoes, white suits, pompadours and carefully cultivated obtuseness faded, like the fads that they were. Disco faded; Travolta faded. Just because the cyclical engine of fashion has made some of these things unconscionably, and inconceivably cool again, doesn’t mean that they won’t once again drift back into the droll depths whence they sprang. The stuff of substance, soulful as it is scarce, will nevertheless continue to stick around—as it always does—especially on the fleet and unfashionable frequencies. And, despite The Godfather, despite Dog Day Afternoon, despite Scarface, despite Glengary Glen Ross and Heat—Pacino would never be this cool again. Just ask Tony Manero.

Share

Serpico and Turning Black Friday into Good Friday

SERP2

Look at that dude.

Pacino, clean-shaven and short-haired as the movie begins, sports the best ‘stache of the decade, then goes goatee, then gets full facial (hair and head), all of which accomplishes several purposes, concurrently: it denotes time passing, it indicates the all-in embrace of counterculture and defiance this ostracized cop is both acting out and reacting to, and finally it reveals how indelibly –and painfully– the process ages him. Mostly, on simple aesthetic levels, Pacino on screen here is as badass as any icon could ever be. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Some people shop on Black Friday. I watch Serpico.

I want –and need– to revisit this movie on an annual basis, because it satisfies many needs. One, it’s a masterpiece, so there’s that. Two, it reminds me many things I need to know, about the world and myself. And most of all, it is a rallying cry against conformity and cowardice; it is a stark reminder of how much we are capable of and how little we typically do. I watch it and think: I want to be that guy. I know I can’t be that guy, so it’s the least I can do to watch, learn and emulate.

I wrote about Serpico while introducing a piece commemorating the ten-year anniversary (in 2009) of what I consider the best film of the last twenty years, The Insider:

(Toward the end of Sydney Lumet’s ’70s classic Serpico there is an unnerving scene that encapsulates the conundrum faced by the eponymous cop: already persona non grata within the law enforcement fraternity for his refusal to take bribes, Serpico is transferred to the narcotics division, where the beat is the exceedingly dangerous streets way off-Broadway. His new partner grimly explains that, compared to the types of kickbacks Serpico was accustomed to seeing, the haul in narcotics is serious business. “That is big money, that you do not fuck around with.” In this moment Serpico finally understands that his life is now in greater danger, amongst police officers than at the hands of criminals, because of his insistence on obeying the law.)

I think this one scene, perhaps even more than anything in the embarrassment of riches that is Network, tells us all we need to know about how the world really works. Going back to the Watergate story, the reporters were advised to “follow the money”. That might be the most disturbingly succinct epitaph of our last century. Every act of violence and venality is prompted by the pursuit of money or the lack thereof, and most of all, the things money can’t buy (which, come to think of it, is the central theme of Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead).

When I ask myself: how is it possible that, despite the will of the people and the painfully obvious cookie crumbs leading to the criminals, Obama has let Wall Street off without so much as a harsh word, or how the Republicans can hold the country hostage for indefinite tax cuts on the wealthiest one percent, or (worse) how so many feckless and supine Democrats can tolerate –and in some cases, abet– this mendacity, or how our military budget is sacrosanct, or how we can continue to fight ill-advised and unwinnable wars (killing countless Americans and “foreigners” in the bargain), when I look at some of my well-educated and otherwise enlightened friends and wonder how they can possibly be immune to this cognitive dissonance, I think of these words: “That is big money, that you do not fuck around with.”

I’d like to revisit a piece I wrote many moons ago (earnestness trumping ability), celebrating Serpico. I could never (and would never) pick favorites but if I had to, I would probably suggest that this movie represented the best work that Pacino and Lumet ever did.

Serpico (1973)

An illuminating moment occurs near the beginning of the film Saturday Night Fever—the project that officially launched the trajectory of John Travolta’s career, where, with a haircut and white suit, the young hot shot evolved from Vinny Barbarino, Sweat Hog, to Tony Manero, disco icon—a film which, like any formidable piece of art, is as much a reflection of its times as it is the vision of its creator: A lean, mean, and bikini brief-clad Travolta halts in mid-strut and gazes lovingly up at his wall, upon which is a poster of the man—a bearded, long-haired, gold hoop earring-wearing undercover cop—and he haughtily, if speciously assures himself “I look like Al Pacino!” The symbolic import of this simple scene is substantial. The act of conferring coolness through establishing, by any means necessary, solidarity with Pacino—particularly a young cat who knows he’s bad, especially a movie character depicting a young cat who knows he’s bad—is about as ringing an endorsement of unequivocal hipness as anyone could reasonably hope to attain. This moment then, signified a passing-of-the-torch of sorts, and an informal promulgation of what most folks already knew: that Al Pacino, in short, is the ‘70’s, and along with Nicholson and DeNiro, formed the divine triumvirate of American motion-picture ascendency in that decade.

Coming less than a year after the searing intensity of his performance as Michael Corleone—in the role and movie, The Godfather, Pacino could not have chosen a more diametric project than the true story of Frank Serpico, the undercover cop who pits himself in a lonely—and costly—war against an entire police force. This film serves as a radical (and realistic) rewriting of the classic—and antiquated—American Dream myth, wherein the best man always wins, and good always prevails over evil. With an escalating irony that could only be culled from real life (otherwise it would be offensively implausible), the more he attempts to distance himself from the wrongdoing around him—which has casually corroded the department like a malignant infirmity—the more scorn he is subjected to. In a word, it doesn’t get any more American than this: Serpico, the man, and Serpico, the movie, are potent amalgams of, and commentaries upon, the country that made them. The idealizing, even naïve young man confronting corruption is arguably an invariable rite of passage for just about every individual who leaves the comforts—and conformity—of home for the bigger, badder realities of the world. When the individual is a police officer, and the subject of his disillusionment is the laissez-faire depravity of his precinct—and, to a larger extent, the backbiting, political system as a whole—the stakes are raised rather considerably.

It is sufficient testament of a job well done that it is impossible to imagine any other actor taking on the role of Frank Serpico and delivering such a capable, compelling performance. The tribulations of this alienated underdog provide the opportunity for Pacino to utilize a concentrated fervor in ways he never would (or could) again. It is a tailor-made vehicle for his expressive gifts: this is his superlative performance, his greatest role. He is, in turns, quiet, assertive, tranquil, indignant and incensed. He is a man of intelligence and integrity surrounded by the numbed and indifferent denizens of New York City’s police departments, amongst whom he wears out his welcome quickly—and irretrievably.

The crux of his dilemma is an unflinching nonconformity, which obliges the battle-wearied veterans of his precinct to examine not only their own detached compliance, but why he won’t go along with it. In a development that is perverse as it is ironic, he becomes increasingly regarded with suspicion because he refuses to break the very laws he’s sworn (and is paid) to uphold. Because he is honest, he cannot be trusted. If the story, or the actor, wasn’t up to the task, this rather unremarkable—indeed scarcely believable—story would seem trite, redundant, or nauseatingly bathetic. Thankfully, this true tale—which, like any worthwhile biography about an extraordinary individual, serves equally as a commentary on society and that evasive and evanescent perception dubbed the human condition—is abundantly provocative, discomforting, and ultimately redeeming.

Serpico is one of the rare and wondrous works of art that truly satisfies on all levels: it is, first and foremost, an intriguing and indelible movie experience. It is also an inspirational story that serves to remind us that crime often operates in an unremarkable, but eviscerating fashion. It reminds us that heroes don’t wear capes, and seldom wear badges. Often, they wear a look of defiance, and a battered, but not beaten pride—a weary, but unwavering integrity.

Serpico was—and will remain—one of the great things that came out of the much-maligned “me-decade”. The bell-bottoms, platform shoes, white suits, pompadours and carefully cultivated obtuseness faded, like the fads that they were. Disco faded; Travolta faded. Just because the cyclical engine of fashion has made some of these things unconscionably, and inconceivably cool again, doesn’t mean that they won’t once again drift back into the droll depths whence they sprang. The stuff of substance, soulful as it is scarce, will nevertheless continue to stick around—as it always does—especially on the fleet and unfashionable frequencies. And, despite The Godfather, despite Dog Day Afternoon, despite Scarface, despite Glengary Glen Ross and Heat—Pacino would never be this cool again. Just ask Tony Manero.

Share

Serpico and Turning Black Friday into Good Friday

Look at that dude.

Pacino, clean-shaven and short-haired as the movie begins, sports the best ‘stache of the decade, then goes goatee, then gets full facial (hair and head), all of which accomplishes several purposes, concurrently: it denotes time passing, it indicates the all-in embrace of counterculture and defiance this ostracized cop is both acting out and reacting to, and finally it reveals how indelibly –and painfully– the process ages him. Mostly, on simple aesthetic levels, Pacino on screen here is as badass as any icon could ever be. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Some people shop on Black Friday. I watch Serpico.

I want –and need– to revisit this movie on an annual basis, because it satisfies many needs. One, it’s a masterpiece, so there’s that. Two, it reminds me many things I need to know, about the world and myself. And most of all, it is a rallying cry against conformity and cowardice; it is a stark reminder of how much we are capable of and how little we typically do. I watch it and think: I want to be that guy. I know I can’t be that guy, so it’s the least I can do to watch, learn and emulate.

I wrote about Serpico while introducing a piece commemorating the ten-year anniversary (in 2009) of what I consider the best film of the last twenty years, The Insider:

(Toward the end of Sydney Lumet’s ’70s classic Serpico there is an unnerving scene that encapsulates the conundrum faced by the eponymous cop: already persona non grata within the law enforcement fraternity for his refusal to take bribes, Serpico is transferred to the narcotics division, where the beat is the exceedingly dangerous streets way off-Broadway. His new partner grimly explains that, compared to the types of kickbacks Serpico was accustomed to seeing, the haul in narcotics is serious business. “That is big money, that you do not fuck around with.” In this moment Serpico finally understands that his life is now in greater danger, amongst police officers than at the hands of criminals, because of his insistence on obeying the law.)

I think this one scene, perhaps even more than anything in the embarrassment of riches that is Network, tells us all we need to know about how the world really works. Going back to the Watergate story, the reporters were advised to “follow the money”. That might be the most disturbingly succinct epitaph of our last century. Every act of violence and venality is prompted by the pursuit of money or the lack thereof, and most of all, the things money can’t buy (which, come to think of it, is the central theme of Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead).

When I ask myself: how is it possible that, despite the will of the people and the painfully obvious cookie crumbs leading to the criminals, Obama has let Wall Street off without so much as a harsh word, or how the Republicans can hold the country hostage for indefinite tax cuts on the wealthiest one percent, or (worse) how so many feckless and supine Democrats can tolerate –and in some cases, abet– this mendacity, or how our military budget is sacrosanct, or how we can continue to fight ill-advised and unwinnable wars (killing countless Americans and “foreigners” in the bargain), when I look at some of my well-educated and otherwise enlightened friends and wonder how they can possibly be immune to this cognitive dissonance, I think of these words: “That is big money, that you do not fuck around with.”

I’d like to revisit a piece I wrote many moons ago (earnestness trumping ability), celebrating Serpico. I could never (and would never) pick favorites but if I had to, I would probably suggest that this movie represented the best work that Pacino and Lumet ever did.

Serpico (1973)

An illuminating moment occurs near the beginning of the film Saturday Night Fever—the project that officially launched the trajectory of John Travolta’s career, where, with a haircut and white suit, the young hot shot evolved from Vinny Barbarino, Sweat Hog, to Tony Manero, disco icon—a film which, like any formidable piece of art, is as much a reflection of its times as it is the vision of its creator: A lean, mean, and bikini brief-clad Travolta halts in mid-strut and gazes lovingly up at his wall, upon which is a poster of the man—a bearded, long-haired, gold hoop earring-wearing undercover cop—and he haughtily, if speciously assures himself “I look like Al Pacino!” The symbolic import of this simple scene is substantial. The act of conferring coolness through establishing, by any means necessary, solidarity with Pacino—particularly a young cat who knows he’s bad, especially a movie character depicting a young cat who knows he’s bad—is about as ringing an endorsement of unequivocal hipness as anyone could reasonably hope to attain. This moment then, signified a passing-of-the-torch of sorts, and an informal promulgation of what most folks already knew: that Al Pacino, in short, is the ‘70’s, and along with Nicholson and DeNiro, formed the divine triumvirate of American motion-picture ascendency in that decade.

Coming less than a year after the searing intensity of his performance as Michael Corleone—in the role and movie, The Godfather, Pacino could not have chosen a more diametric project than the true story of Frank Serpico, the undercover cop who pits himself in a lonely—and costly—war against an entire police force. This film serves as a radical (and realistic) rewriting of the classic—and antiquated—American Dream myth, wherein the best man always wins, and good always prevails over evil. With an escalating irony that could only be culled from real life (otherwise it would be offensively implausible), the more he attempts to distance himself from the wrongdoing around him—which has casually corroded the department like a malignant infirmity—the more scorn he is subjected to. In a word, it doesn’t get any more American than this: Serpico, the man, and Serpico, the movie, are potent amalgams of, and commentaries upon, the country that made them. The idealizing, even naïve young man confronting corruption is arguably an invariable rite of passage for just about every individual who leaves the comforts—and conformity—of home for the bigger, badder realities of the world. When the individual is a police officer, and the subject of his disillusionment is the laissez-faire depravity of his precinct—and, to a larger extent, the backbiting, political system as a whole—the stakes are raised rather considerably.

It is sufficient testament of a job well done that it is impossible to imagine any other actor taking on the role of Frank Serpico and delivering such a capable, compelling performance. The tribulations of this alienated underdog provide the opportunity for Pacino to utilize a concentrated fervor in ways he never would (or could) again. It is a tailor-made vehicle for his expressive gifts: this is his superlative performance, his greatest role. He is, in turns, quiet, assertive, tranquil, indignant and incensed. He is a man of intelligence and integrity surrounded by the numbed and indifferent denizens of New York City’s police departments, amongst whom he wears out his welcome quickly—and irretrievably.

The crux of his dilemma is an unflinching nonconformity, which obliges the battle-wearied veterans of his precinct to examine not only their own detached compliance, but why he won’t go along with it. In a development that is perverse as it is ironic, he becomes increasingly regarded with suspicion because he refuses to break the very laws he’s sworn (and is paid) to uphold. Because he is honest, he cannot be trusted. If the story, or the actor, wasn’t up to the task, this rather unremarkable—indeed scarcely believable—story would seem trite, redundant, or nauseatingly bathetic. Thankfully, this true tale—which, like any worthwhile biography about an extraordinary individual, serves equally as a commentary on society and that evasive and evanescent perception dubbed the human condition—is abundantly provocative, discomforting, and ultimately redeeming.

Serpico is one of the rare and wondrous works of art that truly satisfies on all levels: it is, first and foremost, an intriguing and indelible movie experience. It is also an inspirational story that serves to remind us that crime often operates in an unremarkable, but eviscerating fashion. It reminds us that heroes don’t wear capes, and seldom wear badges. Often, they wear a look of defiance, and a battered, but not beaten pride—a weary, but unwavering integrity.

Serpico was—and will remain—one of the great things that came out of the much-maligned “me-decade”. The bell-bottoms, platform shoes, white suits, pompadours and carefully cultivated obtuseness faded, like the fads that they were. Disco faded; Travolta faded. Just because the cyclical engine of fashion has made some of these things unconscionably, and inconceivably cool again, doesn’t mean that they won’t once again drift back into the droll depths whence they sprang. The stuff of substance, soulful as it is scarce, will nevertheless continue to stick around—as it always does—especially on the fleet and unfashionable frequencies. And, despite The Godfather, despite Dog Day Afternoon, despite Scarface, despite Glengary Glen Ross and Heat—Pacino would never be this cool again. Just ask Tony Manero.

Share

Serpico and Turning Black Friday into Good Friday

Look at that dude.

Pacino, clean-shaven and short-haired as the movie begins, sports the best ‘stache of the decade, then goes goatee, then gets full facial (hair and head), all of which accomplishes several purposes, concurrently: it denotes time passing, it indicates the all-in embrace of counterculture and defiance this ostracized cop is both acting out and reacting to, and finally it reveals how indelibly –and painfully– the process ages him. Mostly, on simple aesthetic levels, Pacino on screen here is as badass as any icon could ever be. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Some people shop on Black Friday. I watch Serpico.

I want –and need– to revisit this movie on an annual basis, because it satisfies many needs. One, it’s a masterpiece, so there’s that. Two, it reminds me many things I need to know, about the world and myself. And most of all, it is a rallying cry against conformity and cowardice; it is a stark reminder of how much we are capable of and how little we typically do. I watch it and think: I want to be that guy. I know I can’t be that guy, so it’s the least I can do to watch, learn and emulate.

I wrote about Serpico while introducing a piece commemorating the ten-year anniversary (in 2009) of what I consider the best film of the last twenty years, The Insider:

(Toward the end of Sydney Lumet’s ’70s classic Serpico there is an unnerving scene that encapsulates the conundrum faced by the eponymous cop: already persona non grata within the law enforcement fraternity for his refusal to take bribes, Serpico is transferred to the narcotics division, where the beat is the exceedingly dangerous streets way off-Broadway. His new partner grimly explains that, compared to the types of kickbacks Serpico was accustomed to seeing, the haul in narcotics is serious business. “That is big money, that you do not fuck around with.” In this moment Serpico finally understands that his life is now in greater danger, amongst police officers than at the hands of criminals, because of his insistence on obeying the law.)

I think this one scene, perhaps even more than anything in the embarrassment of riches that is Network, tells us all we need to know about how the world really works. Going back to the Watergate story, the reporters were advised to “follow the money”. That might be the most disturbingly succinct epitaph of our last century. Every act of violence and venality is prompted by the pursuit of money or the lack thereof, and most of all, the things money can’t buy (which, come to think of it, is the central theme of Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead).

When I ask myself: how is it possible that, despite the will of the people and the painfully obvious cookie crumbs leading to the criminals, Obama has let Wall Street off without so much as a harsh word, or how the Republicans can hold the country hostage for indefinite tax cuts on the wealthiest one percent, or (worse) how so many feckless and supine Democrats can tolerate –and in some cases, abet– this mendacity, or how our military budget is sacrosanct, or how we can continue to fight ill-advised and unwinnable wars (killing countless Americans and “foreigners” in the bargain), when I look at some of my well-educated and otherwise enlightened friends and wonder how they can possibly be immune to this cognitive dissonance, I think of these words: “That is big money, that you do not fuck around with.”

I’d like to revisit a piece I wrote many moons ago (earnestness trumping ability), celebrating Serpico. I could never (and would never) pick favorites but if I had to, I would probably suggest that this movie represented the best work that Pacino and Lumet ever did.

Serpico (1973)

An illuminating moment occurs near the beginning of the film Saturday Night Fever—the project that officially launched the trajectory of John Travolta’s career, where, with a haircut and white suit, the young hot shot evolved from Vinny Barbarino, Sweat Hog, to Tony Manero, disco icon—a film which, like any formidable piece of art, is as much a reflection of its times as it is the vision of its creator: A lean, mean, and bikini brief-clad Travolta halts in mid-strut and gazes lovingly up at his wall, upon which is a poster of the man—a bearded, long-haired, gold hoop earring-wearing undercover cop—and he haughtily, if speciously assures himself “I look like Al Pacino!” The symbolic import of this simple scene is substantial. The act of conferring coolness through establishing, by any means necessary, solidarity with Pacino—particularly a young cat who knows he’s bad, especially a movie character depicting a young cat who knows he’s bad—is about as ringing an endorsement of unequivocal hipness as anyone could reasonably hope to attain. This moment then, signified a passing-of-the-torch of sorts, and an informal promulgation of what most folks already knew: that Al Pacino, in short, is the ‘70’s, and along with Nicholson and DeNiro, formed the divine triumvirate of American motion-picture ascendency in that decade.

Coming less than a year after the searing intensity of his performance as Michael Corleone—in the role and movie, The Godfather, Pacino could not have chosen a more diametric project than the true story of Frank Serpico, the undercover cop who pits himself in a lonely—and costly—war against an entire police force. This film serves as a radical (and realistic) rewriting of the classic—and antiquated—American Dream myth, wherein the best man always wins, and good always prevails over evil. With an escalating irony that could only be culled from real life (otherwise it would be offensively implausible), the more he attempts to distance himself from the wrongdoing around him—which has casually corroded the department like a malignant infirmity—the more scorn he is subjected to. In a word, it doesn’t get any more American than this: Serpico, the man, and Serpico, the movie, are potent amalgams of, and commentaries upon, the country that made them. The idealizing, even naïve young man confronting corruption is arguably an invariable rite of passage for just about every individual who leaves the comforts—and conformity—of home for the bigger, badder realities of the world. When the individual is a police officer, and the subject of his disillusionment is the laissez-faire depravity of his precinct—and, to a larger extent, the backbiting, political system as a whole—the stakes are raised rather considerably.

It is sufficient testament of a job well done that it is impossible to imagine any other actor taking on the role of Frank Serpico and delivering such a capable, compelling performance. The tribulations of this alienated underdog provide the opportunity for Pacino to utilize a concentrated fervor in ways he never would (or could) again. It is a tailor-made vehicle for his expressive gifts: this is his superlative performance, his greatest role. He is, in turns, quiet, assertive, tranquil, indignant and incensed. He is a man of intelligence and integrity surrounded by the numbed and indifferent denizens of New York City’s police departments, amongst whom he wears out his welcome quickly—and irretrievably.

The crux of his dilemma is an unflinching nonconformity, which obliges the battle-wearied veterans of his precinct to examine not only their own detached compliance, but why he won’t go along with it. In a development that is perverse as it is ironic, he becomes increasingly regarded with suspicion because he refuses to break the very laws he’s sworn (and is paid) to uphold. Because he is honest, he cannot be trusted. If the story, or the actor, wasn’t up to the task, this rather unremarkable—indeed scarcely believable—story would seem trite, redundant, or nauseatingly bathetic. Thankfully, this true tale—which, like any worthwhile biography about an extraordinary individual, serves equally as a commentary on society and that evasive and evanescent perception dubbed the human condition—is abundantly provocative, discomforting, and ultimately redeeming.

Serpico is one of the rare and wondrous works of art that truly satisfies on all levels: it is, first and foremost, an intriguing and indelible movie experience. It is also an inspirational story that serves to remind us that crime often operates in an unremarkable, but eviscerating fashion. It reminds us that heroes don’t wear capes, and seldom wear badges. Often, they wear a look of defiance, and a battered, but not beaten pride—a weary, but unwavering integrity.

Serpico was—and will remain—one of the great things that came out of the much-maligned “me-decade”. The bell-bottoms, platform shoes, white suits, pompadours and carefully cultivated obtuseness faded, like the fads that they were. Disco faded; Travolta faded. Just because the cyclical engine of fashion has made some of these things unconscionably, and inconceivably cool again, doesn’t mean that they won’t once again drift back into the droll depths whence they sprang. The stuff of substance, soulful as it is scarce, will nevertheless continue to stick around—as it always does—especially on the fleet and unfashionable frequencies. And, despite The Godfather, despite Dog Day Afternoon, despite Scarface, despite Glengary Glen Ross and Heat—Pacino would never be this cool again. Just ask Tony Manero.

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In Memory of Sidney Lumet: Celebrating ‘Serpico’

It’s difficult, and pointless, to try and isolate which film was Lumet’s best or most enduring. The fact that he made three of the best movies of the ’70s (three out-and-out masterpieces in one decade) is more than enough. There are already several well-written and worthwhile tributes and summaries of his long, amazing career, and they rightly spend time on the many decades he was active (including this last one when, at the age of 83, he directed the disturbing, outstanding Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead). For me, it was that seminal decade (the ’70s) when he did his best work, and that work does the near-impossible: it totally reflects its time and provides indelible commentary on –and for– that era; while managing to anticipate our world, almost forty years later. This is beyond prescient and bordering on prophetic. Of course, it has as much to do with the screenplays as his direction, but it’s to Lumet’s credit, and indicative of the dilemmas that drove him, that he gravitated toward this material.

In the recent past (2009) I wrote about how Network pretty much previewed…everything, focusing on the then-implausible ascension of circus clown Glenn Beck in a piece entitled A Half-Assed Howard Beale:

(Right now Paddy Chayefsky is:

a. Rolling over in his grave

b. High-fiving Peter Finch in heaven

c. High-fiving Peter Finch in hell (where it’s Happy Hour 24/7)

d. All of the above

There are any number of examples that could be (and probably have been) offered up to illustrate how prescient Chayefsky’s screenplay for Network really was. Think of phony purveyors of moral outrage ranging from Morton Downey Jr. to Jerry Springer, and the whole concept of infotainment to the hastening-of-the-apocalypse proliferation of Reality TV. Stage it and they will come is now the (un)official mantra of media’s M.O. And, in the end, it’s all pretty much a tempest in a teapot. Or, a tempest in a tea party. Which brings us to the unbelievable Glenn Beck. Of course, fabricated indignation has been good business in America since Jonathan Edwards first perfected the formula with Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God back in 1741, shortly before the advent of cable television.

Capitalizing on the nervous consciences of the faithful created steady work well into the 20th Century, and Sinclair Lewis codified the archetypal character in Elmer Gantry (1926). That pernicious tradition was carried on faithfully by Confidence Men like Pat Roberston, Jerry Falwell, Benny Hinn and Rick Warren. But of course this act has always been too tempting for politicians not to embrace with every inauthentic bone in their bodies. The only hucksters that can outhustle the pols are the preening simpletons who rile up the credulous citizens who dial in each day for another dose of bad medicine. At the appointed hour, the idiot box transfigures into a burning bush and these rapt minions who otherwise behold Christ in their breakfast food (or, proving how crafy and omnipotent the Lord can be, at  lunchtime too), get their Godhead on in the form of a third-rate carnival barker.)

I also wrote about Serpico while introducing a piece commemorating the ten-year anniversary (in 2009) of what I consider the best film of the last twenty years, The Insider:

(Toward the end of Sydney Lumet’s ’70s classic Serpico there is an unnerving scene that encapsulates the conundrum faced by the eponymous cop: already persona non grata within the law enforcement fraternity for his refusal to take bribes, Serpico is transferred to the narcotics division, where the beat is the exceedingly dangerous streets way off-Broadway. His new partner grimly explains that, compared to the types of kickbacks Serpico was accustomed to seeing, the haul in narcotics is serious business. “That is big money, that you do not fuck around with.” In this moment Serpico finally understands that his life is now in greater danger, amongst police officers than at the hands of criminals, because of his insistence on obeying the law.)

I think this one scene, perhaps even more than anything in the embarrassment of riches that is Network, tells us all we need to know about how the world really works. Going back to the Watergate story, the reporters were advised to “follow the money”. That might be the most disturbingly succinct epitaph of our last century. Every act of violence and venality is prompted by the pursuit of money or the lack thereof, and most of all, the things money can’t buy (which, come to think of it, is the central theme of Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead).

When I ask myself: how is it possible that, despite the will of the people and the painfully obvious cookie crumbs leading to the criminals, Obama has let Wall Street off without so much as a harsh word, or how the Republicans can hold the country hostage for indefinite tax cuts on the wealthiest one percent, or (worse) how so many feckless and supine Democrats can tolerate –and in some cases, abet– this mendacity, or how our military budget is sacrosanct, or how we can continue to fight ill-advised and unwinnable wars (killing countless Americans and “foreigners” in the bargain), when I look at some of my well-educated and otherwise enlightened friends and wonder how they can possibly be immune to this cognitive dissonance, I think of these words: “That is big money, that you do not fuck around with.”

So in tribute to Lumet’s genius, I’d like to revisit a piece I wrote many moons ago, celebrating Serpico. I could never (and would never) pick favorites but if I had to, I would probably suggest that this movie represented the best work that Pacino and Lumet ever did.

Serpico (1973)

An illuminating moment occurs near the beginning of the film Saturday Night Fever—the project that officially launched the trajectory of John Travolta’s career, where, with a haircut and white suit, the young hot shot evolved from Vinny Barbarino, Sweat Hog, to Tony Manero, disco icon—a film which, like any formidable piece of art, is as much a reflection of its times as it is the vision of its creator: A lean, mean, and bikini brief-clad Travolta halts in mid-strut and gazes lovingly up at his wall, upon which is a poster of the man—a bearded, long-haired, gold hoop earring-wearing undercover cop—and he haughtily, if speciously assures himself “I look like Al Pacino!” The symbolic import of this simple scene is substantial. The act of conferring coolness through establishing, by any means necessary, solidarity with Pacino—particularly a young cat who knows he’s bad, especially a movie character depicting a young cat who knows he’s bad—is about as ringing an endorsement of unequivocal hipness as anyone could reasonably hope to attain. This moment then, signified a passing-of-the-torch of sorts, and an informal promulgation of what most folks already knew: that Al Pacino, in short, is the ‘70’s, and along with Nicholson and DeNiro, formed the divine triumvirate of American motion-picture ascendency in that decade.

Coming less than a year after the searing intensity of his performance as Michael Corleone—in the role and movie, The Godfather, Pacino could not have chosen a more diametric project than the true story of Frank Serpico, the undercover cop who pits himself in a lonely—and costly—war against an entire police force. This film serves as a  radical (and realistic) rewriting of the classic—and antiquated—American Dream myth, wherein the best man always wins, and good always prevails over evil. With an escalating irony that could only be culled from real life (otherwise it would be offensively implausible), the more he attempts to distance himself from the wrongdoing around him—which has casually corroded the department like a malignant infirmity—the more scorn he is subjected to. In a word, it doesn’t get any more American than this: Serpico, the man, and Serpico, the movie, are potent amalgams of, and commentaries upon, the country that made them. The idealizing, even naïve young man confronting corruption is arguably an invariable rite of passage for just about every individual who leaves the comforts—and conformity—of home for the bigger, badder realities of the world. When the individual is a police officer, and the subject of his disillusionment is the laissez-faire depravity of his precinct—and, to a larger extent, the backbiting, political system as a whole—the stakes are raised rather considerably.

It is sufficient testament of a job well done that it is impossible to imagine any other actor taking on the role of Frank Serpico and delivering such a capable, compelling performance. The tribulations of this alienated underdog provide the opportunity for Pacino to utilize a concentrated fervor in ways he never would (or could) again. It is a tailor-made vehicle for his expressive gifts: this is his superlative performance, his greatest role. He is, in turns, quiet, assertive, tranquil, indignant and incensed. He is a man of intelligence and integrity surrounded by the numbed and indifferent denizens of New York City’s police departments, amongst whom he wears out his welcome quickly—and irretrievably. 

The crux of his dilemma is an unflinching nonconformity, which obliges the battle-wearied veterans of his precinct to examine not only their own detached compliance, but why he won’t go along with it. In a development that is perverse as it is ironic, he becomes increasingly regarded with suspicion because he refuses to break the very laws he’s sworn (and is paid) to uphold. Because he is honest, he cannot be trusted. If the story, or the actor, wasn’t up to the task, this rather unremarkable—indeed scarcely believable—story would seem trite, redundant, or nauseatingly bathetic. Thankfully, this true tale—which, like any worthwhile biography about an extraordinary individual, serves equally as a commentary on society and that evasive and evanescent perception dubbed the human condition—is abundantly provocative, discomforting, and ultimately redeeming.

Serpico is one of the rare and wondrous works of art that truly satisfies on all levels: it is, first and foremost, an intriguing and indelible movie experience. It is also an inspirational story that serves to remind us that crime often operates in an unremarkable, but eviscerating fashion. It reminds us that heroes don’t wear capes, and seldom wear badges. Often, they wear a look of defiance, and a battered, but not beaten pride—a weary, but unwavering integrity.

Serpico was—and will remain—one of the great things that came out of the much-maligned “me-decade”. The bell-bottoms, platform shoes, white suits, pompadours and carefully cultivated obtuseness faded, like the fads that they were. Disco faded; Travolta faded. Just because the cyclical engine of fashion has made some of these things unconscionably, and inconceivably cool again, doesn’t mean that they won’t once again drift back into the droll depths whence they sprang. The stuff of substance, soulful as it is scarce, will nevertheless continue to stick around—as it always does—especially on the fleet and unfashionable frequencies. And, despite The Godfather, despite Dog Day Afternoon, despite Scarface, despite Glengary Glen Ross and Heat—Pacino would never be this cool again. Just ask Tony Manero.

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The Insider: Ten Years Later

Toward the end of Sydney Lumet’s ’70s classic Serpico there is an unnerving scene that encapsulates the conundrum faced by the eponymous cop: already persona non grata within the law enforcement fraternity for his refusal to take bribes, Serpico is transferred to the narcotics division, where the beat is the exceedingly dangerous streets way off Broadway. His new partner grimly explains that, compared to the types of kickbacks Serpico was accustomed to seeing, the haul in narcotics is serious business. “That is big money, that you do not fuck around with.” In this moment Serpico finally understands that his life is now in greater danger, amongst police officers than at the hands of criminals, because of his insistence on obeying the law.

This scenario, magnified many times over (in terms of the cash, and the stakes) is what Jeffrey Wigand went up against when he made the excruciating decision to defy his former employer, Brown and Williamson, and expose their big, dirty secrets on 60 Minutes. His reluctance to quietly play ball helped get him fired; his refusal to remain silent made him a target of a very committed company with ridiculously deep pockets. Like Serpico, Wigand was obliged to work from within to affect change. He is, in the words of Lowell Bergman (serendipitously portrayed by Al Pacino), the “ultimate insider”. So why is this story important? Trying to remember the world when it was still in Big Tobacco’s unthreatened sway is sort of like trying to imagine the same world before it was wide and webbed. Yet both of those eras are not impossible to recall: they are still quite clearly in the rear-view mirror; one just needs to see through the smoke.

From today’s segment (Part Four of Five) in PopMatters’ feature Decade-Dense: The 60 Most Memorable Films of 1999, my review of The Insider appears (it is also posted, directly below, with some additional clips from the film).

Even before they started taking down the Marlboro Man billboards, just about everyone agreed cigarettes were bad for you. Macho associations aside, it was more a matter of freewill; not unlike drinking alcohol, certain risks are associated with legal, if unhealthy behavior. That’s America. Of course, more than a few people would have been outraged to learn how much chemical manipulation was taking place in order to make those cancer sticks even more habit- forming.

So: some dirty secrets were kept strictly under wraps, as a matter of policy. Big Tobacco counted the money and its executives testified that, to their knowledge, nicotine was not addictive. Considering the money involved, the perjury committed, and the industry’s unfettered success with litigation, only the most recalcitrant underling would dare defy its wrath.

Enter Jeffery Wigand, VP of Research and Development at Brown & Williamson in Louisville Kentucky. He is well paid if unfulfilled, but reaches the end of his moral rope once he discovers the company is systematically using toxic chemicals (like ammonia) to enhance the addictive properties of its cigarettes. His refusal to play ball gets him fired; his refusal to remain silent about it invokes the god-like wrath of his former employer. Enter Lowell Bergman, producer for the CBS show 60 Minutes, who could accurately be called a crusader (as a compliment from his fans and an epithet from his enemies).

Bergman meets Wigand by chance, but quickly realizes the powerful information the scientist is struggling to conceal. The tipping point—for both men—is when they each understand how badly Wigand actually wants to speak out, and it’s only the threat of a lawsuit (and loss of severance) that is keeping him quiet. To ensure they have made their position clear, B & W initiates some subtle and not-so-subtle harassment of Wigand’s family. Once the death threats begin, he decides to tell his story to Mike Wallace. The rest is history.

The Insider is an unqualified artistic success, and one of the most important movies of the last ten years. It is remarkable drama, compellingly portrayed. It is also director Michael Mann’s finest film. It features a gorgeous soundtrack (courtesy of Lisa Gerrard). It boasts some of the finest acting in Al Pacino’s legendary career. And Russell Crowe not only delivers his personal best work, he turns in what is possibly the best performance since De Niro in Raging Bull. With all respect to Mann’s considerable abilities, he wisely manages to stay out of the way and let the scope of this story supply its own abundant energy. His restraint has the opposite effect of the overwrought (and overrated) Heat, which attempted to parlay an armed robbery into an opera.

With The Insider, he takes grand theater and mostly scales it down to its human elements: the people making the decisions and the people devastated by them. Forget the forever discussed showdown between Pacino and De Niro in Heat. The ongoing confrontations (initially contentious, ultimately loving) between Pacino and Crowe are effulgent. Their entire time on the screen is a two-and-a-half hour acting clinic.

Jeffrey Wigand, as a character (and a role) is practically too good to be true: his life is derailed in part by his own hubris and mostly by the ugliest kinds of corporate machinations. Ultimately he recognizes his fate is to accept the circumstances and consequences that are bigger than his privacy or security. Crowe is equal to the task. Beyond the superb script and expert direction, he instinctively grasps that in order to convey the depths of Wigand’s turmoil (and, equally important, avoid an easy, almost inevitable descent into bathos—one shudders to think of what the majority of A-List actors would have done to this part, if given the opportunity), he has to present a brilliantly flawed man always at risk of imploding. Wigand is not a saint and neither Crowe nor Mann attempt to portray him as one. There is so much anger, frustration and fear coiled within his super-sized frame, Crowe consistently seems obliged to expel words from his mouth as much as speak them. As Wigand, he is almost unrecognizable with his added weight, bleached hair, glasses and disheveled defensiveness.

As Lowell Bergmann, the irrepressible producer who has the pleasure (and burden) of working with the megalomaniacal Mike Wallace, Pacino conveys the passion and purposeful edge that made Wigand’s ultimate triumph possible. Bergmann’s quandary is less dangerous but arguably more unwieldy: after gaining Wigand’s trust and convincing him to break his confidentiality agreement, he is directed by the brass at CBS to censor the segment. “The greater the truth, the greater the damage,” he is told in a sickening sequence that illustrates the ways in which corporate media’s cowardice might be even more profound than Big Tobacco’s rapacity.

The Insider is a rare artistic achievement that is compelling as it is important. It is a document that recalls the world as it used to be, while depicting the decisions and events that changed it for the better.

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