Taxi Driver: 40 Thoughts for 40 Years

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Not many critics would name it as the best American movie, and it probably would rank as few fans’ favorite films. Is Taxi Driver, nevertheless, the most important American film? It is, in the sense that we need our best art to endure; to speak past trends and time, to tell us about ourselves while asking more questions than are answered (otherwise it’s philosophy or worse, literary theory).

Shakespeare’s oft-quoted notion of stories holding a mirror up to Nature has become a crutch if not cliché for describing what art does. As history continues to confirm that we’ve evolved less than we might hope or imagine in the intervening centuries since Hamlet soliloquized, the more relevant issue might be why art matters. As such, it’s probably Oscar Wilde who got it right when he declared “It’s the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”

Taxi Driver might not even be Scorsese’s best movie, but it’s definitely in the Top One. Okay, Raging Bull could fairly be considered his ultimate achievement (although substantial credit must be given to the ready-made script and tag-team for the ages from De Niro and Pesci). Mean Streets may, for aficionados, be his most consistently watchable (aside from The Departed, but in terms of aesthetic heft, that comparison would be like an all-star game vs. what the Miracle Mets pulled off in ’69—de rigueur brilliance vs. once-in-a-lifetime lightning caught in a bottle of straw-covered Chianti). Goodfellas, of course, is Goodfellas.

Aside from Taxi Driver, is there a film that continues to address—both directly and indirectly—so much of what makes America simmer and sometimes explode? Network turned out to be so prescient it’s practically a documentary (and would this make Paddy Chayefsky cackle or cry?). Taxi Driver seems to provide both a macro and micro analysis of our combustible American experiment: violence, sex, repression, isolation, exploitation, poverty (for starters) and the ways these phenomenon push and pull on practically everyone, occasionally proving toxic for the least-equipped amongst us.

Two words: Bernard Herrman. Three words: Best Soundtrack Ever.

In the crowded field of contenders, a handful of geniuses easily distance themselves from the competition: Piero Umiliani is Bach, Nino Rota is Mozart, John Barry is Wagner, (John Williams is Stephen King), and Bernard Herrmann is Beethoven. (Ennio Morricone is God.)

There’s also Beethoven-level pathos in the fact that not only was this Herrmann’s final score, but he died literally hours after completing it. Added bonus: as Scorsese was largely unknown during pre-production, the notoriously cantankerous Herrmann was unmoved by the director’s desire to have him score the film. “I don’t write music for car movies,” he allegedly said. Only when he saw the scene where Travis pours peach brandy over his breakfast was he convinced.

Fact: during the immortal “You talkin’ to me?” scene, the screenplay simply read “Travis looks in the mirror.” (A reminder that not only was De Niro once an actor, during his prime there were few better.)

Apparently Scorsese first approached Dustin Hoffman to play Travis Bickle. It’s best to not even imagine how different this movie would have been.

Many other actors were considered for (even offered) the part, ranging from the intriguing (Jeff Bridges) to the preposterous (Burt Reynolds?!).

The fact that Paul Schrader spent some time sleeping in a car before writing the screenplay helps offer insight into the myriad ways everything about Taxi Driver feels so real.

In an interview, Albert Brooks relates the conversation (equal parts amusing and disturbing) where, after filming, Schrader thanked him for helping him “understand” Tom, the one character he didn’t understand.

The stories of method actors being method actors can be hilarious and embarrassing, but at times, instructive. It may seem obvious or facile, but the time De Niro took actually driving a cab around NYC enriches his performance. Just the way he stretches his sore neck after another endless evening is a deft, if subtle touch. It’s also a natural reaction from someone who has pulled some 15 hour shifts.

We rightly mock the onanism of thespians who believe staying in character throughout a shoot confers authenticity. How many actors, today, fresh off an Academy Award—as De Niro was in ’74—would actually spend any (much less substantial) time physically driving a cab?

Also noteworthy is the way De Niro, the ultimate New Yorker, is able to convincingly seem out of his element (on all levels) in The Big Apple. He supposedly studied the speech patterns of some soldiers from the Midwest (while on the set of Bertolucci’s 1900).

The issue of Bickle’s “complicated” views on racial relations is a subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) theme that recurs. In the original screenplay, the pimp (Harvey Keitel) and both the Mafioso and bodyguard/bouncer were all black. Consider that, and appreciate the credit Scorsese deserves for his better judgment—creative and cultural—in spite of screenwriter Paul Schrader’s objections.

No matter how controversial his treatment of race, in this or any movie, it’s impossible to pretend Scorsese is not rendering real people, however backward or repellant. Contrast this with another director who courts derisive scandal, Quentin Tarantino, whose characters’ bigotry always seems too gleeful by half. Where Scorsese, at his most incendiary, can credibly claim he’s interrogating certain experiences and observations of an adult with the filth of a city under his fingernails, Tarantino repeatedly comes off like a developmentally arrested video clerk who has lived his life watching movies.

According to legend, the actor intended to play the role of Bickle’s psychotic passenger (George Memmoli, memorable as Joey from Mean Streets) was injured and couldn’t make the shoot. Scorsese gamely stepped in and gave it a shot. Suffice it to say, the results are terrifying, and astonishing. The entire film holds a camera up to NYC’s shadiest back-alleys, and this scene depicts the rotten core inside these hearts of darkness as much as any of the more celebrated ones.

It’s fascinating to hear Scorsese (in interviews and the making-of feature) describing the way De Niro directed him during their scene together.

While so many other scenes continue to be discussed and celebrated, with good reason, De Niro nevertheless gives a clinic even as the camera mostly focuses on Scorsese. His economy of words and movement in this scene are extraordinary: for almost four whole minutes, the only thing Bickle says is “Yeah,” twice.

The best soundtrack scores contain music that can exist entirely outside the films they appear in (or were written for), yet are—for all the right reasons—inseparable from the movies themselves.

Perhaps more than any film, Taxi Driver portrays New York City as it used to be (for better and worse). Adding to an already claustrophobic script, the shoot occurred during a garbage strike over the course of an unusually sweltering summer. One can certainly see, and practically smell the mid-decade grime.

For visual evidence of how much the city has actually changed, this site does some wonderful work.

No matter how many times you’ve seen it—and you know it’s coming—the slow pan-up revealing Bickle’s Mohawk remains one of the more arresting, and disturbing visuals in all cinema.

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The aforementioned improvisation before the mirror is venerated as one of De Niro’s finest moments. For this writer, the unbearable moments that occur as Travis follows Betsy out of the porn movie might best illuminate De Niro’s mastery of craft. Even as his date (and we) cringe that he’s naïve enough to even consider a “dirty movie” (in Betsy’s words) appropriate, the fact that in this scene—and for large chunks of the movie—we feel empathy for Travis, a character we might understandably feel nothing but disgust for, is one of the primary reasons the movie resonates after repeated viewings.

A great many things occur throughout the course of the film, but few of them happen quickly. The languid pace of the action, obviously, reflects the tensions simmering below the surface. It’s possible that Scorsese’s directorial instincts were never quite as impeccable as they are in Taxi Driver. For instance, this: a scene so pitiful even the camera looks away.

Or this. The implication that Travis is rehearsing his own soliloquy (Hamlet meets the narrator from Dosteyevsky’s Notes from Underground), editing and perfecting it, in his mind.

Okay, one more. If I were forced to submit the single scene (in any movie) that best illustrates both loneliness and alienation, and the ironic disparity between what gets sold on TV (as normal, as achievable, as happiness) and what so many people actually experience, it would be difficult not to choose this one.

A lot of actresses auditioned for the role of Iris. Like dozens. Jodie Foster allegedly was not the first choice, but it’s difficult to imagine anyone else doing the role similar justice.

Some serious heavyweights auditioned for the role of Betsy. Cybill Shepherd was far from the most talented of the lot, but she did exude the combination of beauty and banality the part required.

It’s a minor role, but it can’t be overstated how crucial Albert Brooks is for providing humor and fleeting relief from the near-suffocating intensity of the screenplay.

Even when it’s well-intended, we have an inclination to mythologize artists, particularly actors. There’s nothing wrong with this, especially if the work warrants our adoration. That said, shrewd preparation is seldom sexy as improvised magic, but it’s often crucial for a convincing performance. Case in point, Harvey Keitel spending time with an actual pimp (and play-acting as a prostitute to really get a sense of the power dynamics at play) unquestionably provided heft and credibility to his uncanny turn as Sport.

Paul Schrader, naturally—and with Scorsese’s full blessing—scoured the streets to find a prostitute he could talk to. The young lady he eventually met not only informed the final script, she appears (as Jodie Foster’s friend) in the film.

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In terms of bang for buck, is there a character actor from this era who ended up in more epic films than Joe Spinell? In addition to a brief role in Taxi Driver, he also found his way into both Godfather movies, the first two Rocky movies, as well as Cruising, Nighthawks and Night Shift. He should be buried, with a plaque, beneath the Empire State Building.

How many movies have been as flawlessly cast, from the leads to the most minor characters (think Melio in the convenience store, or even the man attempting to rob him, or the Secret Service agent Travis attempts to impress, and not least, Peter Boyle (!) as Wizard).

As reliable and perceptive as Roger Ebert usually was, his speculation that the post-shootout epilogue is a dream sequence has always seemed remarkably undiscerning. Never mind that Schrader, Scorsese and De Niro all are on record as stating the opposite. Never mind that if Travis, from whose point of view we’ve seen all the action unfold, is dead but still “seeing” it undermines the narrative logic. The carnage, horrific as it is, is still only the second most grotesque aspect of the film. The most appalling incongruity is that Bickle’s viewed as a hero. The movie would already be an unqualified success, but with Travis (who, no sentient viewer should forget, was seconds away from attempting to assassinate a presidential candidate) being lionized by the media, Schrader et al. offer some of the darkest irony in cinema history. More, they anticipated an American media that’s only become more culpable for sanitizing or altogether misreading sensational acts because, naturally, sensationalism sells.

Even the ending isn’t really the end. Courtesy of the extremely ambivalent final shot of Travis seeing (or hearing, or sensing) something, and only catching his own eyes in the rear view mirror, the last image the viewer is left with is that Travis remains tightly wound. As the credits roll, one is left wondering if he might be in the news again, inevitably.

Eternal props to Tom Scott.

Apparently De Niro was on board for a sequel. Thank God for the rain that helped wash that garbage from our screens before it ever got made.

Forty years. Wow.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 9/19/16.

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PUNCH DRUNKER: THE 50 GREATEST MOVIE FIGHTS OF ALL TIME (Part Five)

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10. True Romance

Yes, Clarence vs. Drexl could easily make the list. But even Oldman’s genius has to take second place to the scene. And you know which scene we’re referring to. This scene, notorious for its, shall we say, frank discussion of racial relations, and hilarious for its rather unorthodox delineation of history, is one of the most-quoted from all contemporary films. For good reason, and all praise to Tarantino (who wrote it), Tony Scott (who directed it) and the bravura performances of Hopper and the genuinely incomparable Christopher Walken. It also includes the hulking presence of the then-unknown James Gandolfini.

The scene is certainly problematic (and no politically correct critic would want to touch it with a ten foot soap box), but more than the adults-imitating-schoolchildren one upmanship it sardonically presents, there is serious acting going on here. It is to the considerable credit of all involved that this scene never degenerates into (self) parody and is able to be hilarious and horrifying, often at the same time. There probably aren’t too many examples of scenes in semi-recent cinema that so successfully skirt the switchblade’s edge of tension and release. Hopper goes from scared to crafty, then understands he’s screwed and decides to go out with a bang (literally). The moment he realizes he is a dead man, you can almost feel him resignedly saying “fuck it” as he decides to have a cigarette, after all. And when he lets out the mirthful little laugh (a very Hopperesque touch), you get the chance to savor him saying “fuck you” to the men who are about to murder him.

 

9. The Terminator

Like I said, forget T2. The first installment was superior in every way, and—like many of the old-school films celebrated here—is better precisely because it’s so human. Sure, special effects are swell for the unimaginative, but they are for people who prefer lap dances to actual intercourse. Aesthetically, the final confrontation between The Terminator and Kyle is raw and goosebump-inducing (sorry young readers, nothing will ever match seeing this, for the first time, on the big screen), but emotionally, the good guy who, not for nothing, is only trying to save the world, feels pain, actually bleeds and finally dies. He fulfills his purpose, takes one for the team and becomes one of the more convicing martyrs in movie history. (Also: for my money, Michael Biehn does not get nearly enough love for his superlative performance. I cringe to think how terrible this role would be if played by many of the A-List clowns who likely read for it.)

 

8. The Karate Kid

Because it still feels good, after all these years. The crane kick that keeps on kicking (ass). Banzai, Daniel-san!

 

7. Monty Python and The Holy Grail

It’s just a flesh wound! At once a send-up of over-the-top movie fights, and an impressive bit of violent showmanship, this is arguably the most memorable (and quotable) scene in the movie. The idea and execution are impeccable, but the inimitable John Cleese (“I’ve had worse.”) elevates this scene from extraordinary to all-time status.

 

6. Rocky III

Of course the fight vs. Apollo Creed is the best thing Rocky (or Stallone) ever did in or outside a ring, but for the purposes of this list, Rocky III is the gift that keeps giving. Nevermind the paint-by-numbers fight and rematch with Clubber Lang (Mr. T. for you youngsters), how about the beyond-over-the-top invocation of boxing and wrestling? Enter a relatively young Hulk Hogan as Thunderlips, the ultimate male (“Move around the ring”, “He is the ring”). It’s a shameless cash-in on a popular “sport”, camp that gives Adam West a wedgie, and a laugh-out-loud scene that I enjoy more as an adult than I did when I first saw it (in the theater, naturally). Bonus points for the beach sprint competition with former foe Apollo on the beach in L.A., which culminates in a short scene that, for homoerotic mileage, gives even Top Gun a run for its money.

 

5. Mean Streets

An antidote of sorts, it’s instructive to appreciate Martin Scorsese’s integrity. His dedication to authenticity depicts a ridiculous pool hall fight scene that actually plays out the way fights usually look in real life: sloppy, uncoordinated, mostly embarrassing. It’s a steadicam clinic, made indelible by Robert De Niro, who initiates the mayhem (while “Please Mr. Postman” plays on the jukebox) and then, after police-assisted peace is restored, almost starts it up again. So many exceptional images from this still somehow underrated masterpiece, and the incorrigible Johnny Boy (De Niro) standing on top of a pool table, brandishing a cue and doling out very ineffective karate kicks is among the best. Bonus points for this exchange: “You can’t call me a mook!” “I’ll give you mook!”

 

 

4. They Live

And here we have the scene, where so many of these elements (camp, over-the-top pyrotechnics, implausibility, bad (and good!) acting, and, of course, wrestling) come together. A six minute fight scene. S.I.X. M.I.N.U.T.E.S. And this isn’t just a gratuitous scrap; the end of the world as we know it as at stake (“Put on the glasses!”), with hero Roddy Piper (formerly “Rowdy” Roddy Piper of World Wrestling Federation fame)  and not-yet convinced good guy Keith David sorting things out in an alley. The sequence allegedly took over three weeks to rehearse, and it endures as the Alpha and Omega of what we talk about when we talk about movie fight scenes.

 

 

3. Tom Yum Goong

Words can’t do it justice, so just trust your eyes. Instant clasic, already immortal one take (!!!) scene, which took Tony Jaa and company over a month to prepare and rehearse. The result is unedited (!!!) perfection, using the fifth take. Only one word will suffice: Respect!

 

 

2. On The Waterfront

Have we ever rooted for anyone like we do for Terry? “You take them heaters away from you and you’re nuthin’! Your guts is all in your wallet and your trigger finger!”

Terry is fighting mad, fighting for himself, for his livelihood, for everything. He’s fighting Johnny Friendly, the man who murdered his brother; the man who has systematically choked the soul out of an entire neighborhood. He is trying to become, finally, a Good Guy, and he has to defeat the Bad Guy (and his crew) to do it. If he loses, it’s all over not only for him, but hundreds of other working men who’ve never kidded themselves about becoming contenders. He fights the good fight and nothing is ever the same, for anyone, after it’s over.

 

 

1. Blade Runner

The extended, indelible final sequence of Blade Runner has all the elements of every archetypal fight scene listed above (violence, blood, danger, desperation, even humor), but it obliges the invocation of that most dreaded word in criticism: it transcends. To be certain, it easily enters the discussion of greatest fight scenes, ever. More, it is one of the great movie scenes, ever.

“More human than human”: that is the infamous motto of The Tyrell Corporation. Between implanted memories and superhuman attributes, we focus on the literal implications (“We’re not computers Sebastian, we’re physical.”). Only near the end–of the movie, of Roy Batty’s life–do we understand the irony: by dying, and letting his opponent (who is trained and paid to hunt him) “win”, Roy becomes more human than the humanity we’ve seen on display throughout the story. By acknowledging he’s not built to last (“It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?”), he proves himself to have more empathy, more soul, more purpose than the human machines who’ve built, persecuted and profited from him.

By losing (the fight, his life) with grace and compassion, Batty proves that his existence was not in vain, and solves the greatest mystery of being: so long as someone survives, his life–and memories–will not, in fact, be lost like tears in rain.

In the end, this confrontation is a matter of life and death and, unlike almost all the fight scenes in movie history, it manages to matter and mean something.

 

This essay originally appeared in The Weeklings on 7/29/15.
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Sinners and Saints (File Under: The Catholic Church is (Still) Decadent and Depraved)

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So here is the best thing I’ve seen this week relating to the Pope slinking away into post-Prada obscurity.

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Pope Benedict is stepping down from his official duties, but he’ll continue to ignore the sexual abuse of children on a freelance basis.

Whatever anyone wants to write (and there have been the predictable parade of ring-kissers and lotus eaters giving obligatory benedictions to Benedict), this is his lasting legacy, and it will only get worse in years to come as more insidious info leaks out of the Vatican vaults.

My various takes on religion, faith and spirituality have been liberally –and hopefully, intelligently– sprinkled throughout my writings and anyone familiar with this blog knows where I stand (for a taste on how my evolution was impacted by a love of art, and people, go HERE).

I don’t have much more to say that hasn’t already been said, so I’ll go back to the archives and dust off an old favorite, reposted below.

Follow the money. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

These are the two oft-invoked quotes I kept thinking to myself as I read Sabrina Rubin Erdley’s piece, “The Catholic Church’s Secret Sex-Crime Files” from Rolling Stone. Find it here.

I encourage anyone to read it in its entirety, though make sure you’ve already eaten; it’s sure to put you off food and you’ll likely need a nap and perhaps a shower to wash yourself clean from the filth. Here is a sampler:

The deluge of sexual-abuse cases in America’s largest religious denomination began in 1985, when a Louisiana priest was sentenced to 20 years in prison after admitting to sexually abusing 37 boys. But it wasn’t until 2002, when civil suits in Boston revealed that Cardinal Bernard Law had shielded rapist priests, that the extent of the scandal became widely known. In Germany, the church is overwhelmed by hundreds of alleged victims, and investigations are under way in Austria and the Netherlands. In Ireland, the government recently issued a scathing report that documents how Irish clergy – with tacit approval from the Vatican – covered up the sexual abuse of children as recently as 2009.

Battered by civil suits and bad press, the church has responded with a head-spinning mix of contrition and deflection, blaming anti-Catholic bias and the church’s enemies for paying undue attention to the crisis. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops helped fund a $1.8 million study of sex-abuse cases against priests, but the results read like a mirthless joke: To lower the number of clergy classified as “pedophiles,” the report redefines “puberty” as beginning at age 10 – and then partially blames the rise in child molesting on the counterculture of the 1960s. The church also insists that any sex crimes by
priests are a thing of the past. “The abuse crisis,” the study’s lead author concluded, “is over.”

Bill Lynn understood that his mission, above all, was to preserve the reputation of the church. The unspoken rule was clear: Never call the police. Not long after his promotion, Lynn and a colleague held a meeting with Rev. Michael McCarthy, who had been accused of sexually abusing boys, informing the priest of the fate that Cardinal Bevilacqua had approved: McCarthy would be reassigned to a “distant” parish “so that the profile can be as low as possible and not attract attention from the complainant.” Lynn dutifully filed his memo of the meeting in the Secret Archives, where it would sit for the next decade.

Over the 12 years that he held the job of secretary of the clergy, Lynn mastered the art of damage control. With his fellow priests, Lynn was unfailingly sympathetic; in a meeting with one distraught pastor who had just admitted to abusing boys, Lynn comforted the clergyman by suggesting that his 11-year-old victim had “seduced” him. With victims, Lynn was smooth and reassuring, promising to take their allegations seriously while doing nothing to punish their abusers. Kathy Jordan, who told Lynn in 2002 that she had been assaulted by a priest as a student at a Catholic high school, recalls how he assured her that the offender would no longer be allowed to work as a pastor. Years later, while reading the priest’s obituary, Jordan says it became clear to her that her abuser had, in fact, remained a priest, serving Mass in Maryland. “I came to realize that by having this friendly, confiding way, Lynn had neutralized me,” she says. “He handled me brilliantly.”

This revolting but very important instance of journalism warrants as much attention as can be mustered. It is crucial that more people read about this for at least two reasons: one, these crimes are actively being covered up (there is big money behind this cult, inconceivable money) and need to be further exposed. But second and perhaps most important, it’s still seen by too many as a minor problem; the unfortunate result of the inexorable bad apples that any group large enough will produce. It needs to be understood and dealt with with clear-eyed deliberation for what it is: a systemic and institutional syndication of criminal enterprise that, astonishingly, answers to no law or due process.

Reading this latest installment of scandal made me think of this great scene from Mean Streets. It also compels me to revisit a piece I wrote a little less than two years ago. I don’t have much to add (nor do I particularly care to add more logs to this repugnant pyre). I would simply ask anyone compelled (out of fear and misguided loyalty) to deny or belittle this atrocity to consider how they would react if all of the same evidence was compiled and attributed to a more-easily marginalized cult like Scientology or better still, some third-world impoverished group we could (condescendingly, typically) dismiss as “savages”. There would be unanimous scorn and we would have public, ardent calls for justice. (More righteous indignation here).

 

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Part One: Abandon hope all ye who enter here…

First, and appropriately, a confession.

The title is both a tribute to, and an outright plagiarism of Hunter S. Thompson’s masterful essay “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”. And if, with that piece, he could be accused of shooting some very wealthy and insular fish in a bourbon-scented barrel, somebody had to do it. The pompous and circumstance of a spectacle like the Kentucky Derby needed to be sent up. And the thing about the good doctor during his prime, when he decided to do something, it stayed done.

The Catholic church, on the other hand, has been assailed from all sides, so any new criticism will be neither original nor particularly earth shattering. So what. It remains essential to single out hypocrisy and malificence when it is condoned or perpetrated by people or places wielding power. And despite the fact that its influence has been waning, the Catholic church is still an appallingly influential and imperious organization. To put things plainly, it is frankly because so many millions of innocent (and unknowing) human beings are impacted by this institution that its self-righteous posturing be paraded as openly and often as possible. That’s all.

Aside from Richard Dawkins, the most vocal and coruscating critic of late has been the indefatigable Christopher Hitchens. His seminal book God Is Not Great would be required reading in a sane world; but a sane world would not require that such a book be written. Of course, Hitchens correctly does not limit himself to just the Catholic church: he sets his sights on the entire notion of a Big Guy upstairs, or more specifically, our farcical and self-serving conception of same. To be certain, Hitchens does not waste his time and energy poking holes in the fairy tales and phantasmagoria that all organized religions are predicated upon. Any half-witted college freshman with a semester of Logic or Composition 101 can handle that light work. Rather, Hitchens trains his sights on the considerable violence, repression and ignorance the various religions have instilled and propagated, spanning the last two centuries. He assails the clergy, and the historically inconsistent, often hysterical dogma that they cling to for their specious moral autonomy. Hitchens argues that, for all the good deeds religion is regularly credited for inspiring, the scales are quite heavily tilted toward the negative in terms of wars, moral terror and child rape –just to pick some of the low-hanging fruit. Speaking of fruit, it remains hilarious and more than a little pathetic that grown men dressed in fancy pajamas invoke words written centuries ago as an inviolable decree to guide the contemporary affairs of mankind. (And I understand that this simple-minded insistence of following “God’s word” is the convenient catchall acting as a kind of ecclesiastical flypaper to ensnare all troublesome inconsistencies and intrusions of logic or inconvenient Truth; suffice it to say, until I see any of these disciples actually living by the letter of the onerous and inconceivable edicts of the Old Testament, I’ll remain wary and skeptical.)

For those who aren’t inclined or don’t have the time to read books about religion, check out the heavyweight champ George Carlin, who offers the most concise (and hilarious) dissection you’re likely to come across.

Hitchens has taken on all comers, and his debates are amusing (for the lucid) and, at best, embarrassing (for the indoctrinated). Have a look:

After Hitchens, Stephen Fry gets his licks in and does with erudition, panache and elegance. If Hitchens prefers a brawl, Fry acquits himself as a true gentleman and his calm evisceration would mortify anyone with a smidgen of shame. (This is part two of three; do yourself a favor and watch the first and third installment.)

Hitchens et al. are going after the jugular, debating whether or not Catholicism is a positive force in the world. This, it seems to me, is ultimately a proposition that remains largely unprovable and not particularly relevant (prolestyzers on either side of that argument can –and will– produce what they consider immutable testimony to advance their case; and both sides have sufficient ammunition). With no choice but to (belatedly, begrudgingly) own up to some of the more colossal outrages it has perpetrated, the clergy draws a line in the sand with the following concession: for all its faults, the church does endeavor to fill more potholes than it causes.

The enduring question remains: does it?

For every pedophilic priest one can point to (and the unforgivable, institutionally sanctioned cover-up of these atrocities), you also have humble men and women making genuine and heartfelt contributions to society. The vocation, whatever manifold psychological impulses it answers (or quells), seems genuine enough to have attracted hundreds of thousands of young men, at least some of whom have remained celibate and faithful. That warrants consideration, leaving aside any understandable questions about the spiritual duress and denial such a lifestyle entails.

And yet. At the end of the analysis, while it’s easy for anyone with an IQ approaching triple digits to poke fun at the snake handling or spaceship-seeing outliers on the religious spectrum (despite the considerable damage the more extreme, and whacko, religions do to its most earnest and unenlightened parishioners), it is difficult not to suppress a special distaste for the fathomless myopia that underscores Catholicism’s sensibility. One look at The Vatican (in Vatican City) is enough to salivate at what Jesus would make of that temple. No money lenders there; these are straight up faith pimps, trading favors for forgiveness going back several centuries. What these charlatans are able to pull off, in tax exempt fashion, is the apotheosis of all Ponzi schemes. But, like the simple saps that Madof ensnared, few tithers throw their sheckles in the collection jar without a preconceived quid pro quo: it’s an ecclesiastical installment plan, and Catholic guilt –inbred from an early age– creates a collective bank account that accrues interest at unprecedented rates. The Catholic hierarchy’s ultimate legacy is successfully establishing a cadre of spiritual stockbrokers.

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Part Two: The Soup Kitchen Nazis

So, with so much to mock about the self-satisfied piety of the RCC, why now?

Well, there’s this. And this.

There you go. What brings the RCC out of the cloister? War? The outrages of Wall Street? Humiliation over its involvement in generations of profligate buggery? Of course not. Only the really crucial and relevant issues prompt such expediency: abortion and gay marriage! These are the conjoined crises that impel the otherwise oblivious foxes to slink out of the holy henhouse.

To summarize for those with short-attention spans or quick gag reflexes: in recent weeks the Catholic brain trust has picked public battles with Patrick Kennedy and D.C. area homeless. In the first instance, the smug and odious Bishop Thomas J. Tobin castigated Kennedy over his support of abortion rights. It is, the robe-wearing one whined, “a deliberate an obstinate act of will…(and) unacceptable to the church and scandalous to many of our members” (emphasis mine). Scandalous? Really? That anyone in a position of authority within the Catholic Church would have the audacity to use the word scandalous tells you all you need know about how truly clueless and shameless they have become.

This grandstanding, naturally, recalls memories of certain priests getting involved in the ’04 election, reminding their parishioners that voting for a man (Kerry) who did not have the appropriate pro-life bona fides was tantamount to heresy. This while the incumbent was actively waging preemptive war and shrinking the middle class to levels not seen since, well, the Great Depression. We all know how that one played out.

But you almost expect that type of intransigence, that level of obliviousness, from the men who have evolved from the bad old days when they burned scientists at the stake. What inspires the ongoing outrage is the fact that the Catholic church –this tone-deaf, intellectually devoid, bullying organization– ceaselessly finds ways to outdo itself. Take, for instance, the real and present outrage playing itself out, right now, in Washington D.C.

To recap: the (ultra conservative) Catholic Archdiocese of Washington has recently made ugly noise about withholding support for the homeless (about 70,000 individuals) due to its “principled” opposition to D.C.’s same-sex marriage bill. Let that one sink in for a moment. The church, ostensibly doing the work Christ instructed, is grandstanding said work over an issue that Christ never made a single mention of in the scriptures (go ahead and look it up; we’ll wait for you). Welcome to the Catholic sensibility! This is bigotry disguised as rectitude, but what else is new? Aside from the sickening hypocrisy (that word again, it’s unavoidable), this jumps so many sacred sharks it is difficult to keep track. For starters, these same churches that continue to enjoy tax exempt status are sticking their nose into the affairs of the government. Really? These same churches that are more than happy to accept government funding think it’s acceptable (legal?) to ignore said government’s laws, should they pass? The Catholic lemmings, following their Prada-wearing pontiff, have descended to the level of being soup (kitchen) nazis.

As ever, to fully grasp the illimitable duplicity of the church, one must inevitably turn to the costume-clad church elders. (Not for nothing, and with an irony that no objective reader of biblical scripture can avoid noting with a particular pang of nausea, it is the same well-fed and unreflective old men that Jesus had a special disdain for.) Look, let’s not sugarcoat the underlying issue at hand: with the world moving ever further away from biblical flights of fancy and despotic mind games, this is the sign of a desperate institution indeed. You only see this in politics and religion: when things start to spiral out of control, double down. In this instance, the decaying infrastructure and waning sway the church holds over humanity at large, makes its actions resemble those of a cult. Isn’t it funny how people (understandably) feel no compunction poking fun at the ludicrous precepts of Scientology, but bristle if anyone snickers at the apparent seriousness with which Catholics (and many other cults) regard that virgin birth thing or the notion that the Pope speaks infallibly (no, really). Farcical, sure, but also insulting, considering the man Catholics look to as an arbiter of morality, Thomas Aquinas, was last seen levitating in that cathedral (no, really).

vat

In closing, allow me to directly address anyone (Catholic or otherwise) who applauds (or remains merely unmoved by) the appalling positions the church is clinging to. The abortion issue is, at least, a tangible (if complicated) dilemma that people can wrestle with for spiritual and secular reasons. The open hostility toward and discrimination against homosexuals, on the other hand, is something that simply cannot be tolerated by anyone pretending to endorse the Declaration of Independence as well as the New Testament (you know, What Would Jesus Do?).

The prayerful prejudiced can hide behind the bogus claim of faith and fidelity, but in the final analysis, a bigot is a bigot. Congratulations on being, once again, on the wrong side of history and the righteous shift of love over fear.

And for the Catholic-Lite weekend warriors who don’t have the guts or the brains to, at long last, cut the cord, understand that you continue to associate with –-and, to a certain extent, intellectually and spiritually prostrate yourself to— an organized religion that goes several steps farther than these ignorant, opportunistic politicians who use pro-life positions to garner votes. The Catholic Church, despite any real evidence in the bible (!) abominates not only the practice but existence of homosexuality. Despite the much-discussed (but ever astonishing) fact that it harbors more than a fair share of closeted, (and not-so-closeted) in its cloister. Despite the fact that this obsessive and intolerant dogma is the fulcrum upon which these political types fortify their indefensible positions. Despite the fact that, even knowing —if failing to come to grips with— the considerable hypocrisy and mendacity that exists in its own sullied garden, this craven institution uses its brute force and reliably backwards (see: women, blacks, gays just to name the unholy trinity) clerical acumen to tyrannize anyone susceptible to its influence. The world that includes the powerless and dispossessed who cower, and especially the useful insects who apprehend and acknowledge this moral fascism (yes, fascism), and either choose to whistle blithely past the truth or —in inimitably Catholic fashion— obey the rules that fit and overlook or rationalize the ones that cause discomfort. Avoiding that discomfort at the expense of your innocent brothers and sisters is an abomination. It is also the essence of Catholicism.

But hey, who knows, maybe one day you’ll stand before your white, Republican Jesus and explain to him that you were only doing what he instructed you to do. Good luck with that.

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The Catholic Church is Decadent and Depraved: Papal Edition

So here is the best thing I’ve seen this week relating to the Pope slinking away into post-Prada obscurity.

Selena Coppock
Pope Benedict is stepping down from his official duties, but he’ll continue to ignore the sexual abuse of children on a freelance basis.

Whatever anyone wants to write (and there have been the predictable parade of ring-kissers and lotus eaters giving obligatory benedictions to Benedict), this is his lasting legacy, and it will only get worse in years to come as more insidious info leaks out of the Vatican vaults.

My various takes on religion, faith and spirituality have been liberally –and hopefully, intelligently– sprinkled throughout my writings and anyone familiar with this blog knows where I stand (for a taste on how my evolution was impacted by a love of art, and people, go HERE).

I don’t have much more to say that hasn’t already been said, so I’ll go back to the archives and dust off an old favorite, reposted below.

Follow the money. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

These are the two oft-invoked quotes I kept thinking to myself as I read Sabrina Rubin Erdley’s piece, “The Catholic Church’s Secret Sex-Crime Files” from Rolling Stone. Find it here.

I encourage anyone to read it in its entirety, though make sure you’ve already eaten; it’s sure to put you off food and you’ll likely need a nap and perhaps a shower to wash yourself clean from the filth. Here is a sampler:

The deluge of sexual-abuse cases in America’s largest religious denomination began in 1985, when a Louisiana priest was sentenced to 20 years in prison after admitting to sexually abusing 37 boys. But it wasn’t until 2002, when civil suits in Boston revealed that Cardinal Bernard Law had shielded rapist priests, that the extent of the scandal became widely known. In Germany, the church is overwhelmed by hundreds of alleged victims, and investigations are under way in Austria and the Netherlands. In Ireland, the government recently issued a scathing report that documents how Irish clergy – with tacit approval from the Vatican – covered up the sexual abuse of children as recently as 2009.

Battered by civil suits and bad press, the church has responded with a head-spinning mix of contrition and deflection, blaming anti-Catholic bias and the church’s enemies for paying undue attention to the crisis. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops helped fund a $1.8 million study of sex-abuse cases against priests, but the results read like a mirthless joke: To lower the number of clergy classified as “pedophiles,” the report redefines “puberty” as beginning at age 10 – and then partially blames the rise in child molesting on the counterculture of the 1960s. The church also insists that any sex crimes by
priests are a thing of the past. “The abuse crisis,” the study’s lead author concluded, “is over.”

Bill Lynn understood that his mission, above all, was to preserve the reputation of the church. The unspoken rule was clear: Never call the police. Not long after his promotion, Lynn and a colleague held a meeting with Rev. Michael McCarthy, who had been accused of sexually abusing boys, informing the priest of the fate that Cardinal Bevilacqua had approved: McCarthy would be reassigned to a “distant” parish “so that the profile can be as low as possible and not attract attention from the complainant.” Lynn dutifully filed his memo of the meeting in the Secret Archives, where it would sit for the next decade.

Over the 12 years that he held the job of secretary of the clergy, Lynn mastered the art of damage control. With his fellow priests, Lynn was unfailingly sympathetic; in a meeting with one distraught pastor who had just admitted to abusing boys, Lynn comforted the clergyman by suggesting that his 11-year-old victim had “seduced” him. With victims, Lynn was smooth and reassuring, promising to take their allegations seriously while doing nothing to punish their abusers. Kathy Jordan, who told Lynn in 2002 that she had been assaulted by a priest as a student at a Catholic high school, recalls how he assured her that the offender would no longer be allowed to work as a pastor. Years later, while reading the priest’s obituary, Jordan says it became clear to her that her abuser had, in fact, remained a priest, serving Mass in Maryland. “I came to realize that by having this friendly, confiding way, Lynn had neutralized me,” she says. “He handled me brilliantly.”

This revolting but very important instance of journalism warrants as much attention as can be mustered. It is crucial that more people read about this for at least two reasons: one, these crimes are actively being covered up (there is big money behind this cult, inconceivable money) and need to be further exposed. But second and perhaps most important, it’s still seen by too many as a minor problem; the unfortunate result of the inexorable bad apples that any group large enough will produce. It needs to be understood and dealt with with clear-eyed deliberation for what it is: a systemic and institutional syndication of criminal enterprise that, astonishingly, answers to no law or due process.

Reading this latest installment of scandal made me think of this great scene from Mean Streets. It also compels me to revisit a piece I wrote a little less than two years ago. I don’t have much to add (nor do I particularly care to add more logs to this repugnant pyre). I would simply ask anyone compelled (out of fear and misguided loyalty) to deny or belittle this atrocity to consider how they would react if all of the same evidence was compiled and attributed to a more-easily marginalized cult like Scientology or better still, some third-world impoverished group we could (condescendingly, typically) dismiss as “savages”. There would be unanimous scorn and we would have public, ardent calls for justice. (More righteous indignation here).

 

pope benedict

Part One: Abandon hope all ye who enter here…

First, and appropriately, a confession.

The title is both a tribute to, and an outright plagiarism of Hunter S. Thompson’s masterful essay “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”. And if, with that piece, he could be accused of shooting some very wealthy and insular fish in a bourbon-scented barrel, somebody had to do it. The pompous and circumstance of a spectacle like the Kentucky Derby needed to be sent up. And the thing about the good doctor during his prime, when he decided to do something, it stayed done.

The Catholic church, on the other hand, has been assailed from all sides, so any new criticism will be neither original nor particularly earth shattering. So what. It remains essential to single out hypocrisy and malificence when it is condoned or perpetrated by people or places wielding power. And despite the fact that its influence has been waning, the Catholic church is still an appallingly influential and imperious organization. To put things plainly, it is frankly because so many millions of innocent (and unknowing) human beings are impacted by this institution that its self-righteous posturing be paraded as openly and often as possible. That’s all.

Aside from Richard Dawkins, the most vocal and coruscating critic of late has been the indefatigable Christopher Hitchens. His seminal book God Is Not Great would be required reading in a sane world; but a sane world would not require that such a book be written. Of course, Hitchens correctly does not limit himself to just the Catholic church: he sets his sights on the entire notion of a Big Guy upstairs, or more specifically, our farcical and self-serving conception of same. To be certain, Hitchens does not waste his time and energy poking holes in the fairy tales and phantasmagoria that all organized religions are predicated upon. Any half-witted college freshman with a semester of Logic or Composition 101 can handle that light work. Rather, Hitchens trains his sights on the considerable violence, repression and ignorance the various religions have instilled and propagated, spanning the last two centuries. He assails the clergy, and the historically inconsistent, often hysterical dogma that they cling to for their specious moral autonomy. Hitchens argues that, for all the good deeds religion is regularly credited for inspiring, the scales are quite heavily tilted toward the negative in terms of wars, moral terror and child rape –just to pick some of the low-hanging fruit. Speaking of fruit, it remains hilarious and more than a little pathetic that grown men dressed in fancy pajamas invoke words written centuries ago as an inviolable decree to guide the contemporary affairs of mankind. (And I understand that this simple-minded insistence of following “God’s word” is the convenient catchall acting as a kind of ecclesiastical flypaper to ensnare all troublesome inconsistencies and intrusions of logic or inconvenient Truth; suffice it to say, until I see any of these disciples actually living by the letter of the onerous and inconceivable edicts of the Old Testament, I’ll remain wary and skeptical.)

For those who aren’t inclined or don’t have the time to read books about religion, check out the heavyweight champ George Carlin, who offers the most concise (and hilarious) dissection you’re likely to come across.

Hitchens has taken on all comers, and his debates are amusing (for the lucid) and, at best, embarrassing (for the indoctrinated). Have a look:

After Hitchens, Stephen Fry gets his licks in and does with erudition, panache and elegance. If Hitchens prefers a brawl, Fry acquits himself as a true gentleman and his calm evisceration would mortify anyone with a smidgen of shame. (This is part two of three; do yourself a favor and watch the first and third installment.)

Hitchens et al. are going after the jugular, debating whether or not Catholicism is a positive force in the world. This, it seems to me, is ultimately a proposition that remains largely unprovable and not particularly relevant (prolestyzers on either side of that argument can –and will– produce what they consider immutable testimony to advance their case; and both sides have sufficient ammunition). With no choice but to (belatedly, begrudgingly) own up to some of the more colossal outrages it has perpetrated, the clergy draws a line in the sand with the following concession: for all its faults, the church does endeavor to fill more potholes than it causes.

The enduring question remains: does it?

For every pedophilic priest one can point to (and the unforgivable, institutionally sanctioned cover-up of these atrocities), you also have humble men and women making genuine and heartfelt contributions to society. The vocation, whatever manifold psychological impulses it answers (or quells), seems genuine enough to have attracted hundreds of thousands of young men, at least some of whom have remained celibate and faithful. That warrants consideration, leaving aside any understandable questions about the spiritual duress and denial such a lifestyle entails.

And yet. At the end of the analysis, while it’s easy for anyone with an IQ approaching triple digits to poke fun at the snake handling or spaceship-seeing outliers on the religious spectrum (despite the considerable damage the more extreme, and whacko, religions do to its most earnest and unenlightened parishioners), it is difficult not to suppress a special distaste for the fathomless myopia that underscores Catholicism’s sensibility. One look at The Vatican (in Vatican City) is enough to salivate at what Jesus would make of that temple. No money lenders there; these are straight up faith pimps, trading favors for forgiveness going back several centuries. What these charlatans are able to pull off, in tax exempt fashion, is the apotheosis of all Ponzi schemes. But, like the simple saps that Madof ensnared, few tithers throw their sheckles in the collection jar without a preconceived quid pro quo: it’s an ecclesiastical installment plan, and Catholic guilt –inbred from an early age– creates a collective bank account that accrues interest at unprecedented rates. The Catholic hierarchy’s ultimate legacy is successfully establishing a cadre of spiritual stockbrokers.

vatican 1

Part Two: The Soup Kitchen Nazis

So, with so much to mock about the self-satisfied piety of the RCC, why now?

Well, there’s this. And this.

There you go. What brings the RCC out of the cloister? War? The outrages of Wall Street? Humiliation over its involvement in generations of profligate buggery? Of course not. Only the really crucial and relevant issues prompt such expediency: abortion and gay marriage! These are the conjoined crises that impel the otherwise oblivious foxes to slink out of the holy henhouse.

To summarize for those with short-attention spans or quick gag reflexes: in recent weeks the Catholic brain trust has picked public battles with Patrick Kennedy and D.C. area homeless. In the first instance, the smug and odious Bishop Thomas J. Tobin castigated Kennedy over his support of abortion rights. It is, the robe-wearing one whined, “a deliberate an obstinate act of will…(and) unacceptable to the church and scandalous to many of our members” (emphasis mine). Scandalous? Really? That anyone in a position of authority within the Catholic Church would have the audacity to use the word scandalous tells you all you need know about how truly clueless and shameless they have become.

This grandstanding, naturally, recalls memories of certain priests getting involved in the ’04 election, reminding their parishioners that voting for a man (Kerry) who did not have the appropriate pro-life bona fides was tantamount to heresy. This while the incumbent was actively waging preemptive war and shrinking the middle class to levels not seen since, well, the Great Depression. We all know how that one played out.

But you almost expect that type of intransigence, that level of obliviousness, from the men who have evolved from the bad old days when they burned scientists at the stake. What inspires the ongoing outrage is the fact that the Catholic church –this tone-deaf, intellectually devoid, bullying organization– ceaselessly finds ways to outdo itself. Take, for instance, the real and present outrage playing itself out, right now, in Washington D.C.

To recap: the (ultra conservative) Catholic Archdiocese of Washington has recently made ugly noise about withholding support for the homeless (about 70,000 individuals) due to its “principled” opposition to D.C.’s same-sex marriage bill. Let that one sink in for a moment. The church, ostensibly doing the work Christ instructed, is grandstanding said work over an issue that Christ never made a single mention of in the scriptures (go ahead and look it up; we’ll wait for you). Welcome to the Catholic sensibility! This is bigotry disguised as rectitude, but what else is new? Aside from the sickening hypocrisy (that word again, it’s unavoidable), this jumps so many sacred sharks it is difficult to keep track. For starters, these same churches that continue to enjoy tax exempt status are sticking their nose into the affairs of the government. Really? These same churches that are more than happy to accept government funding think it’s acceptable (legal?) to ignore said government’s laws, should they pass? The Catholic lemmings, following their Prada-wearing pontiff, have descended to the level of being soup (kitchen) nazis.

As ever, to fully grasp the illimitable duplicity of the church, one must inevitably turn to the costume-clad church elders. (Not for nothing, and with an irony that no objective reader of biblical scripture can avoid noting with a particular pang of nausea, it is the same well-fed and unreflective old men that Jesus had a special disdain for.) Look, let’s not sugarcoat the underlying issue at hand: with the world moving ever further away from biblical flights of fancy and despotic mind games, this is the sign of a desperate institution indeed. You only see this in politics and religion: when things start to spiral out of control, double down. In this instance, the decaying infrastructure and waning sway the church holds over humanity at large, makes its actions resemble those of a cult. Isn’t it funny how people (understandably) feel no compunction poking fun at the ludicrous precepts of Scientology, but bristle if anyone snickers at the apparent seriousness with which Catholics (and many other cults) regard that virgin birth thing or the notion that the Pope speaks infallibly (no, really). Farcical, sure, but also insulting, considering the man Catholics look to as an arbiter of morality, Thomas Aquinas, was last seen levitating in that cathedral (no, really).

vat

In closing, allow me to directly address anyone (Catholic or otherwise) who applauds (or remains merely unmoved by) the appalling positions the church is clinging to. The abortion issue is, at least, a tangible (if complicated) dilemma that people can wrestle with for spiritual and secular reasons. The open hostility toward and discrimination against homosexuals, on the other hand, is something that simply cannot be tolerated by anyone pretending to endorse the Declaration of Independence as well as the New Testament (you know, What Would Jesus Do?).

The prayerful prejudiced can hide behind the bogus claim of faith and fidelity, but in the final analysis, a bigot is a bigot. Congratulations on being, once again, on the wrong side of history and the righteous shift of love over fear.

And for the Catholic-Lite weekend warriors who don’t have the guts or the brains to, at long last, cut the cord, understand that you continue to associate with –-and, to a certain extent, intellectually and spiritually prostrate yourself to— an organized religion that goes several steps farther than these ignorant, opportunistic politicians who use pro-life positions to garner votes. The Catholic Church, despite any real evidence in the bible (!) abominates not only the practice but existence of homosexuality. Despite the much-discussed (but ever astonishing) fact that it harbors more than a fair share of closeted, (and not-so-closeted) in its cloister. Despite the fact that this obsessive and intolerant dogma is the fulcrum upon which these political types fortify their indefensible positions. Despite the fact that, even knowing —if failing to come to grips with— the considerable hypocrisy and mendacity that exists in its own sullied garden, this craven institution uses its brute force and reliably backwards (see: women, blacks, gays just to name the unholy trinity) clerical acumen to tyrannize anyone susceptible to its influence. The world that includes the powerless and dispossessed who cower, and especially the useful insects who apprehend and acknowledge this moral fascism (yes, fascism), and either choose to whistle blithely past the truth or —in inimitably Catholic fashion— obey the rules that fit and overlook or rationalize the ones that cause discomfort. Avoiding that discomfort at the expense of your innocent brothers and sisters is an abomination. It is also the essence of Catholicism.

But hey, who knows, maybe one day you’ll stand before your white, Republican Jesus and explain to him that you were only doing what he instructed you to do. Good luck with that.

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A History of Violence

When you think about the distinctive ingredients of Americana, the elements that comprise what we think about when we think of what makes America so…American, it’s easy to recite the clichéd short-list: mom, apple pie, convertibles, rock and roll, McDonalds, sexual repression, colonialism, enhanced interrogations, et cetera.

But really, when you get down to it, we are all about violence. And, to a large degree, violence sort of encompasses all of the things listed above (the violence we do to others, the violence we do to the environment, the violence we do to ourselves–inherent in the desires we succumb to as well as deny, which are epitomized by most religions). But our religion is violence, and our cathedral has long been the silver screen. So we celebrate our addiction to violence in ways less brutal but more calculated than the barbaric Gladiator spectacles of yesteryear (we weren’t Americans yet): by perfecting what has become a universal aesthetic, the movie fight scene. Kind of like porn movie plots are a delivery device for the fucking, action movie plots are often a disposable fulcrum for the fighting.

The actual art of choreographed violence is serious business, literally and figuratively (i.e., in terms of time and money spent, and revenue generated) and really should not be blithely dismissed. There are books written, there are even movies made about the making of movies. So let the academics and darkened room disciples ruminate and pontificate; it’s much more enjoyable to make fun of the ritual that constitutes an entire industry. And it’s certainly a hell of a lot more satisfying to consider the sinister art of the bad fight scene, the dark cousin of the painstakingly crafted celluloid ballet. The bad fight scene, a semi-retarded pas de deux, has evolved into its own special status: it is an indispensable aspect of our culture. Thank God.

To appreciate the curious magic of the laughably bad, it’s helpful to first consider the unassailably good. I don’t know many serious film critics (or fans) who would deny that our nimble brethren from Asia have come closest to elevating the serious fight scene to unprecedented levels of artistry. Two recent examples, each featuring the obligatory one-man vs. the crowd sequence appear in Chan Wook Park’s Old Boy and Prachya Pinkaew’s Tom-Yum-Goong.

Exhibit A: Dae Su (the great Choi Min-Sik) drops the hammer (pun intended) on a bunch of hoods. Improbable, over-the-top, outstanding!

Exhibit B: the jaw-dropping Tony Jaa’s instant classic (already immortal) one-take (!!) fight scene, which took over a month to prepare and rehearse. The result is unedited (!!!) perfection, using the fifth take. Respect!

As kind of an antidote, it’s instructive to appreciate Martin Scorsese’s integrity. His dedication to authenticity depicts an epic fight scene that actually plays out the way fights usually look in real life: sloppy, uneven, embarrassing. This is a clinic, made indelible by De Niro and Joey “The Mook”:

And as an intermission, or delicious palette cleanser, let’s appreciate the sine qua non of campy superhero fight scenes (which obliges us to turn to the ultimate in camp, the caped crusader played by the marvelous Adam West): this is the all-in battle royale, a brawl that involves all the assorted players (skip to the three-minute mark if you can’t stand the suspense). Three words: “Bon voyage pussy!” Holy blissful extravagance, Batman! (Much, much more on Batman, and camp, here.)

Speaking of camp: does it get any better (worse) than Patrick Swayze? This scene has so much homoerotic energy it almost sucks its own dick. You can fear the mullets while simultaneously contemplating who’s gayer: Swayze, (the great) Ben Gazzara (“Can somebody geta drink around here?”) or the dude with pool cue? Are you kidding me? In very un-American fashion, embedding is disabled but you can enjoy a full ten minutes worth of “highlights” here.

Of course, the only cat who could challenge Swayze for the crown is Rob Lowe. First up, an epic romp with Andrew McCarthy (doing his finest work, which isn’t saying much) from the so-bad-it’s-great Class (two words: Jacqueline Bisset). Skip ahead to the 5.23 mark for the fight, but you can watch the whole thing to appreciate John Cusak in his first movie role. Recognize!

But this is child’s play compared to Youngblood(which gets you a young(er) Swayze and Keanu Reeves, demonstrating that at no time in his career could he act), a cheesefest that reaches almost offensive levels of connect-the-dots corniness. The bromance battling the testosterone here is officially off the charts; the movie itself is one long fight scene between gay yearning and feel-good Hollywood onanism.

Of course, for both fight scenes and hockey, it’s all about the Hanson brothers and Slap Shot (six words: “I’m listening to the fucking song!):

Don’t think I’m going to sleep on Stallone. Any number of his movies could be considered (duh) but for the all-time camp, how you can top the over-the-top invocation of boxing and pro wrestling? Enter a relatively young Hulk Hogan as Thunderlips, the ultimate male. (Incidentally, Rocky III would be on the short list of all-time homo-erotic films. It may be in the top three alongside Road House and Top Gun.)

Now we’re approaching that elevated plane also known as the truth. Male gymnist? Check. Pommel horse? Check. Gayness off the charts? Big check. The only remaining question being, can you handle this truth? Let’s see:

But let’s stop screwing around and get to the glory. The scene, and I mean the scene, where all the elements (camp, over-the-top pyrotechnics, implausibility, bad (and good) acting, and wrestling) come together, are made manifest in John Carpenter’s They Live. A six minute fight scene. S.I.X. M.I.N.U.T.E.S. And this isn’t just a gratuitous scrap; the end of the world as we know it as at stake (“Put on the glasses!”), with hero Roddy Piper (formerly “Rowdy” Roddy Piper of World Wrestling Federation fame) and not-yet-convinced good guy Keith David sorting things out in an alley. The sequence allegedly took over three weeks to rehearse, and it’s one for the ages.

So what do you get, where else is there to go, when you have a scene like the one above, that parodies virtually every aspect of the entire history of fight scenes? You have a scene that parodies that scene. Enter Ernie the Giant Chicken, the recurring character from Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy. (The scene below is an appetizer; here is the main course.)

What else is there left to say? Why not tie it all together with the only genius who actually is capable of intermingling all of these elements into his own work. Martial arts inspired reggae? Lee Scratch Perry has it covered.

So what did I miss? Let me know what fight scene (good, bad, ugly or hopefully, all of these) you would put into the pantheon. Peace!

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Farewell to a Goodfella: Henry Hill, R.I.P.

Well, it finally happened, albeit a lot later than many of his enemies would have liked.

The world’s most famous –and recalcitrant– bad-guy-turned-FBI-informant, Henry Hill, has passed away at age 69. Details here.

His remarkable transition from relatively unpromising punk (“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”) to up-and-coming wise guy (“Oh! You broke your cherry!”), to rat (“Mr. Hill, you know everything about being a rat”) to exiled, very unpromising yuppie (“I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook”) is, of course, immortalized in Goodfellas, an instant-classic that, in 2010, I opined was the most definitive American movie of the previous two decades. That tribute is below. What do you think? Favorite moments from the movie? Other gangster movies that can hold a candle to the life story of Henry Hill? Let’s hear it.

 

First, a confession.

I did not love Goodfellas the first time I saw it (in the theater, shortly after it opened, in October, 1990). Then again, this seems to happen with certain albums and movies: the ones you end up loving most often are not love at first sight. For instance, I also didn’t fall head over heels (as I later would) with Mean Streets that first time, possibly because I was too young and needed to get the one-two punch of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver fully out of my system; after those two (which were indelibly seared into my impressionable psyche at first viewing –and subsequent ones) Mean Streets seemed almost like an autobiographical home movie (which, I was too dumb to realize, it kind of was).

Likewise, I didn’t “get” all the fuss about Chinatown (you probably have to at least be out of high school to begin to appreciate; to even know how to grasp that one) or The Last Detail. In fact, while I’m naming names and copping to confession mode: I was severely underwhelmed by The Big Lebowski, a film I now would have to put in my all-time Top 20. Let’s face it: some movies (and albums) confound expectations (I came to Lebowski still reeling from the sullen perfection of Fargo and I was simply not prepared to grapple with The Dude’s Tao) and some simply require extra levels of dedication: like a good marinade or magic spell, they need time to do their thing. That, at least, is the best explanation (rationalization?) I can come up with for why a handful of films I would take to my desert island initially left me unconverted.

Suffice it to say, I quickly learned the error of my ways. And, I reckon, one of the redeeming qualities of humans is our capacity to repent and improve. Put another way, those movies did not get better with repeated viewings, I did. Or, they helped me be better: a better viewer, a better judge of art, and quite possibly a better (or at least more evolved) human being. And don’t get me wrong, I liked Goodfellas when I saw it in the theater, I just could not have predicted I’d end up considering it the most definitive, fully realized (in short, the best) American film made over the course of two ensuing decades.

All of which seems a rather pointy-headed way of introducing a celebration of one of the most violent films of all time. Of course, Goodfellas is much, much more than that. But, I would argue, of all of Scorsese’s upping of the ante in subsequent efforts (Cape Fear, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed), this is one film (along with the aforementioned Raging Bull and Taxi Driver) that not only warrants, but demands the borderline gratuitousness of the violent action and images. It is, after all, a movie about mobsters. Thin-skinned and, frankly, puritanical critics have always chafed at the near pornography of Scorsese’s stylized brutality, but in a film like Goodfellas the ceaseless stream of severed limbs and bodily fluids is designed in the service of verisimilitude.

Take, for instance, the infamous pistol-whipping scene, which occurs relatively early in the story: we’ve already met the young Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), and despite the (brilliant) opening sequence where we see him and his partners in crime shove a half dead (and made) man into a trunk, then kill him on the highway, we’ve mostly identified with him as the good-looking, gentler mob acolyte (indeed, he is chastised for being too soft when he has the temerity to waste a few extra aprons on the poor slob who got shot in the stomach and is bleeding to death outside the pizza joint). Particularly in comparison to the hardended elders, including mentor Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (DeNiro) and psychotic running mate Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), we could be forgiven for thinking Henry is actually a, well, good fella. The efficient impact of this scene, then, is the way it advances the plot and reinforces the grimmer reality of who Henry is, and where he came from. Remember the first time you saw this? How shocking that quick explosion of violence seemed? It was not merely a matter of a thug not having the time or interest in a fist fight, it was the even more disturbing notion that he could, and would kill Karen’s neighbor as a matter of course. And when he says he’ll do it next time, there is no question he will.

This scene is actually a clinic in character study and compressed plot rhythm: we are reminded, abruptly, that Henry is in fact a violent man and is capable of extreme violence which he will unleash without hesitation or remorse. How about the initial reaction of the neighbors? In addition to the excellent juxtaposition of social status (here is Henry, the poor kid from the shitty ‘hood and these clowns, polishing the expensive car that mommy and daddy bought), you see their nonchalance: they are not the least bit intimidated as Henry crosses the street. “You want something fucker?” the ringleader asks a second before he gets the something he’ll never forget. See, in their world, there are three of them; what could this dude with his leather coat do? Three on one; and if he threatens us, we’ll tell our parents. Oh, unless he bashes one of our noses in and tells us, without bravado, that as bad as this hurts, it’s only a warning (reminiscent of Sonny’s vicious smackdown of Carlo in The Godfather: when he says, out of breath from the beating he’s just dished out, “You touch my sister again, I’ll kill ya,” it’s not only an obvious statement of fact, but a masterful bit of acting from Caan: a lesser actor would have shouted the lines and been unable to resist the seemingly obligatory opportunity to grandstand; my theory is that his restraint is partially or entirely due to the fact that he’d witnessed –and possibly delivered– ass-kickings like this in his own life and didn’t have to talk the actorly talk because he could walk the bare-knuckled walk).

(Intermission: if you have not seen it yet, Christmas has come early for Goodfellas fans: GQ has a special feature, with comments and recollections from cast and crew. The whole thing is here and I’ll happily submit five of my favorite anecdotes, below:

Corrigan: I’ll never forget the first time I saw the scene where Pesci is saying, “You think I’m funny?” and he pretends like he’s going to kill Ray Liotta. Now everybody knows it, but there was a first time when no one knew what he was going to say and do. We were on the edge of our seats, like, “Oh my God! He’s gonna fucking kill him!”

Liotta: For the scene at Tommy’s mother’s house, I don’t think Marty gave his mom a script. I remember Joe saying, “Mom, I need this knife. We hit a deer, we got to cut off its—” and he can’t remember it, and Bob jumps in as he’s eating “—hoof.” There was a lot of improv.

Darrow: Marty calls me into the trailer. I had lines in the scene with the bandage on my head [when Sonny begs Paulie to be a part-owner of his nightclub], but it wasn’t much. Marty said, “I’m going to take this scene away from Paul and Ray, and it’s your scene.” So I says, “Okay, but tell Sorvino.” He said, “Don’t worry about it.” I say my lines, and Sorvino goes, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! What fucking movie are you doing?” Marty didn’t tell him anything; he wanted him mad. See how mad he was in that scene? Because Marty knows how to get it out of you, he really does.

Peter Bucossi (stuntman): De Niro was kicking the hell out of me that night. I had pads on, but I recall being quite bruised a few days later. I mean, he tried to hit the pads, but in the midst of their fury they’re not worried about making sure.

Low: I did come up with my own lines of, “What am I, a schmuck on wheels?” “I’ve been bleeding for this caper.” “Jimmy is being an unconscionable ball-breaker!” During a break, one of the Mob guys in the movie comes to me and he says, “What is this ‘ball-breaker’ thing that you’re saying, the ‘unconscionable?’ ” I said, “You know, in the Caribbean there’s conch shells; you can’t break ’em.” They all give me like the thumbs-up: “Oh, I get it. ‘Unconscionable!’ “)

So, let’s go to the scorecard.

Most quotable movie from the last two decades? What else have you got?

Most compulsively rewatchable? Obviously.

Best soundtrack? It’s on the short list.

Sheer number of indelible scenes? Please.

Best acting, from leads to bit parts? Not even close.

Most imitated movie of the last 20 years? Not even debatable.

Goodfellas was so great its largest “fault” was its own success; that it inspired so many lame, shameless rip-offs. We see this phenomenon over and over, with movies ranging from Pulp Fiction to Swingers, but we are still seeing it with Goodfellas. Everything from the clever introduction of characters to the voiceover narration (not the use of it, but the way it is utilized), to the then-revelatory use of still-frames to, well, frame some of that narration. All of these have been copied to the point of parody –real or intended.

Take DeNiro and Pesci (please!), neither of whom again came close to this level of work (I realize Casino has its advocates, but DeNiro does not act in that movie, he smokes cigarettes, and Pesci –whose range was limited in the first place– is an amusing and occasionally riveting caricature of the role he immortalizes in Goodfellas). This is not necessarily offered as critique: Pesci has two of the seminal supporting roles in Scorsese (and movie) history, first as Jake LaMotta’s long-suffering brother Joey in Raging Bull and then, a decade later, as Tommy DeVito. DeNiro, in hindsight, may have had less range than many of us realized; he certainly has done plenty of work in the last two decades, but…let’s just say he front-loaded his career with his finest work. And it’s work that stands tall in all cinema, so it seems silly to nitpick the bad choices, lack of inspiration or punch-drunk technique he has put on display since his epic turn as Jimmy Conway.

What tends to get lost in the discussion of Goodfellas, between the violence, the quotable scenes and the sheer heft of the soundtrack (Shangri-Las to Sid Vicious? Only Scorsese) is the fact that there are moments of incredible, almost astonishing subtlety. Most of them, not coincidentally, are delivered by the master at the height of his game, DeNiro. His character is so fully realized that every word, wince and grimace go beyond authenticity and seem natural, obvious. Conway is such a genius at crime, it is amusing and eventually almost heartbreaking to behold the befuddlement he is constantly feeling as he’s confronted by the idiocy of others. The way his disgust with the motor-mouthed and insufferable (and hilarious) Morrie slowly boils past the breaking point; his disdain for Henry’s increasingly out of control drug abuse (“they’re making your mind into mush”); his big brotherly admonishment of Tommy’s increasingly out of control emotions (“you’re gonna’ dig the fucking hole this time”) as well as his loyalty (you get the sense that after Tommy is whacked, this is the first time in his life Jimmy has cried). And then there are the sublime moments: his dialogue before the Billy Batts beating (“ah, ah, you insulted him a little bit; you were a little out of order yourself”), the aforementioned improv during the dinner scene (“the hoof”), and his reaction to the cohorts, after the big heist, when they roll into the Christmas party with fur coats and Cadillacs.

The scene (or one of them anyway) that stays with me is near the end: everyone, including Henry, knows he is on borrowed time, and it’s very likely his one-time mentor Jimmy is going to pull the trigger. The only person who doesn’t –or does not want to– believe it is his wife, Karen. In the brief but disturbing scene, she visits Jimmy who casually (but carefully, we know) inquires what types of questions the feds are asking Henry. At that moment we know (we already knew) that it’s over; we’ve seen what Jimmy has done to every other participant in the heist, we know (even though Karen still doesn’t realize, even as she stands next to the man who will kill her and her husband; the man that was there for the birth of her children) that something terrible is about to happen. And it almost does. When Jimmy mentions some extra dresses Karen should take, she initially appreciates his generous offer. As she walks down the alley (and Jimmy does not follow) she begins to get suspicious, and when she looks into the doorway Jimmy is signalling, the goons inside shush each other and it goes silent. Finally, she gets it, and rushes to her car even as Jimmy urges her to go back. This scene takes less than a minute, happens in broad daylight and it’s scarier than anything from any “horror” movie in the last 25 years. It also brings the sensibility of the movie (of these people) full circle: just as we needed to see, and understand, that Henry –despite his kindness and charm– was capable, and quite willing to inflict bloodshed at any time, we now see what Henry later articulates: it’s often your best friends who take you out, and they are smiling when they do it.

Moral of the story? Crime doesn’t pay, except when it does (and even if it never does, it’s better than a day job). At the beginning of the film, Henry claims “as far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.” The tragedy of his life is not that he became one; the tragedy is that as the movie ends, and Henry stands in the (relative) safety of his suburban lawn, he still longs to be one.

What else is there, besides everything? The best way to discuss a movie this rich is to simply watch it, again, and savor all the scenes and words and sounds. In the final analysis, full credit must go to the wisest of guys, Scorsese, for pulling off a tour de force on every conceivable level: a lavish looking spectacle that never seems overly polished, a massive production where every set, every song and every role is ideally cast (super-sized props to Marty for hanging in there and remaining true to his vision of having the fairly unknown Ray Liotta play the starring role; the studio imbeciles, in their eternal anti-wisdom, wanted Tom Cruise), and a detailed examination of an alternate universe — an America of a different era, populated by people we couldn’t have otherwise understood, or ever wanted to let into our living rooms. With the considerable help of the writers, actors and crew he assembled, he obliged us to welcome these good fellas into our lives, forever.

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The Catholic Church is (still) Decadent and Depraved

Follow the money. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

These are the two oft-invoked quotes I kept thinking to myself as I read Sabrina Rubin Erdley’s piece, “The Catholic Church’s Secret Sex-Crime Files” from Rolling Stone. Find it here.

I encourage anyone to read it in its entirety, though make sure you’ve already eaten; it’s sure to put you off food and you’ll likely need a nap and perhaps a shower to wash yourself clean from the filth. Here is a sampler:

The deluge of sexual-abuse cases in America’s largest religious denomination began in 1985, when a Louisiana priest was sentenced to 20 years in prison after admitting to sexually abusing 37 boys. But it wasn’t until 2002, when civil suits in Boston revealed that Cardinal Bernard Law had shielded rapist priests, that the extent of the scandal became widely known. In Germany, the church is overwhelmed by hundreds of alleged victims, and investigations are under way in Austria and the Netherlands. In Ireland, the government recently issued a scathing report that documents how Irish clergy – with tacit approval from the Vatican – covered up the sexual abuse of children as recently as 2009.

Battered by civil suits and bad press, the church has responded with a head-spinning mix of contrition and deflection, blaming anti-Catholic bias and the church’s enemies for paying undue attention to the crisis. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops helped fund a $1.8 million study of sex-abuse cases against priests, but the results read like a mirthless joke: To lower the number of clergy classified as “pedophiles,” the report redefines “puberty” as beginning at age 10 – and then partially blames the rise in child molesting on the counterculture of the 1960s. The church also insists that any sex crimes by
priests are a thing of the past. “The abuse crisis,” the study’s lead author concluded, “is over.”

Bill Lynn understood that his mission, above all, was to preserve the reputation of the church. The unspoken rule was clear: Never call the police. Not long after his promotion, Lynn and a colleague held a meeting with Rev. Michael McCarthy, who had been accused of sexually abusing boys, informing the priest of the fate that Cardinal Bevilacqua had approved: McCarthy would be reassigned to a “distant” parish “so that the profile can be as low as possible and not attract attention from the complainant.” Lynn dutifully filed his memo of the meeting in the Secret Archives, where it would sit for the next decade.

Over the 12 years that he held the job of secretary of the clergy, Lynn mastered the art of damage control. With his fellow priests, Lynn was unfailingly sympathetic; in a meeting with one distraught pastor who had just admitted to abusing boys, Lynn comforted the clergyman by suggesting that his 11-year-old victim had “seduced” him. With victims, Lynn was smooth and reassuring, promising to take their allegations seriously while doing nothing to punish their abusers. Kathy Jordan, who told Lynn in 2002 that she had been assaulted by a priest as a student at a Catholic high school, recalls how he assured her that the offender would no longer be allowed to work as a pastor. Years later, while reading the priest’s obituary, Jordan says it became clear to her that her abuser had, in fact, remained a priest, serving Mass in Maryland. “I came to realize that by having this friendly, confiding way, Lynn had neutralized me,” she says. “He handled me brilliantly.”

This revolting but very important instance of journalism warrants as much attention as can be mustered. It is crucial that more people read about this for at least two reasons: one, these crimes are actively being covered up (there is big money behind this cult, inconceivable money) and need to be further exposed. But second and perhaps most important, it’s still seen by too many as a minor problem; the unfortunate result of the inexorable bad apples that any group large enough will produce. It needs to be understood and dealt with with clear-eyed deliberation for what it is: a systemic and institutional syndication of criminal enterprise that, astonishingly, answers to no law or due process.

Reading this latest installment of scandal made me think of this great scene from Mean Streets. It also compels me to revisit a piece I wrote a little less than two years ago. I don’t have much to add (nor do I particularly care to add more logs to this repugnant pyre). I would simply ask anyone compelled (out of fear and misguided loyalty) to deny or belittle this atrocity to consider how they would react if all of the same evidence was compiled and attributed to a more-easily marginalized cult like Scientology or better still, some third-world impoverished group we could (condescendingly, typically) dismiss as “savages”. There would be unanimous scorn and we would have public, ardent calls for justice. (More righteous indignation here).

 

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Part One: Abandon hope all ye who enter here…

First, and appropriately, a confession.

The title is both a tribute to, and an outright plagiarism of Hunter S. Thompson’s masterful essay “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”. And if, with that piece, he could be accused of shooting some very wealthy and insular fish in a bourbon-scented barrel, somebody had to do it. The pompous and circumstance of a spectacle like the Kentucky Derby needed to be sent up. And the thing about the good doctor during his prime, when he decided to do something, it stayed done.

The Catholic church, on the other hand, has been assailed from all sides, so any new criticism will be neither original nor particularly earth shattering. So what. It remains essential to single out hypocrisy and malificence when it is condoned or perpetrated by people or places wielding power. And despite the fact that its influence has been waning, the Catholic church is still an appallingly influential and imperious organization. To put things plainly, it is frankly because so many millions of innocent (and unknowing) human beings are impacted by this institution that its self-righteous posturing be paraded as openly and often as possible. That’s all.

Aside from Richard Dawkins, the most vocal and coruscating critic of late has been the indefatigable Christopher Hitchens. His seminal book God Is Not Great would be required reading in a sane world; but a sane world would not require that such a book be written. Of course, Hitchens correctly does not limit himself to just the Catholic church: he sets his sights on the entire notion of a Big Guy upstairs, or more specifically, our farcical and self-serving conception of same. To be certain, Hitchens does not waste his time and energy poking holes in the fairy tales and phantasmagoria that all organized religions are predicated upon. Any half-witted college freshman with a semester of Logic or Composition 101 can handle that light work. Rather, Hitchens trains his sights on the considerable violence, repression and ignorance the various religions have instilled and propagated, spanning the last two centuries. He assails the clergy, and the historically inconsistent, often hysterical dogma that they cling to for their specious moral autonomy. Hitchens argues that, for all the good deeds religion is regularly credited for inspiring, the scales are quite heavily tilted toward the negative in terms of wars, moral terror and child rape –just to pick some of the low-hanging fruit. Speaking of fruit, it remains hilarious and more than a little pathetic that grown men dressed in fancy pajamas invoke words written centuries ago as an inviolable decree to guide the contemporary affairs of mankind. (And I understand that this simple-minded insistence of following “God’s word” is the convenient catchall acting as a kind of ecclesiastical flypaper to ensnare all troublesome inconsistencies and intrusions of logic or inconvenient Truth; suffice it to say, until I see any of these disciples actually living by the letter of the onerous and inconceivable edicts of the Old Testament, I’ll remain wary and skeptical.)

For those who aren’t inclined or don’t have the time to read books about religion, check out the heavyweight champ George Carlin, who offers the most concise (and hilarious) dissection you’re likely to come across.

Hitchens has taken on all comers, and his debates are amusing (for the lucid) and, at best, embarrassing (for the indoctrinated). Have a look:

After Hitchens, Stephen Fry gets his licks in and does with erudition, panache and elegance. If Hitchens prefers a brawl, Fry acquits himself as a true gentleman and his calm evisceration would mortify anyone with a smidgen of shame. (This is part two of three; do yourself a favor and watch the first and third installment.)

Hitchens et al. are going after the jugular, debating whether or not Catholicism is a positive force in the world. This, it seems to me, is ultimately a proposition that remains largely unprovable and not particularly relevant (prolestyzers on either side of that argument can –and will– produce what they consider immutable testimony to advance their case; and both sides have sufficient ammunition). With no choice but to (belatedly, begrudgingly) own up to some of the more colossal outrages it has perpetrated, the clergy draws a line in the sand with the following concession: for all its faults, the church does endeavor to fill more potholes than it causes.

The enduring question remains: does it?

For every pedophilic priest one can point to (and the unforgivable, institutionally sanctioned cover-up of these atrocities), you also have humble men and women making genuine and heartfelt contributions to society. The vocation, whatever manifold psychological impulses it answers (or quells), seems genuine enough to have attracted hundreds of thousands of young men, at least some of whom have remained celibate and faithful. That warrants consideration, leaving aside any understandable questions about the spiritual duress and denial such a lifestyle entails.

And yet. At the end of the analysis, while it’s easy for anyone with an IQ approaching triple digits to poke fun at the snake handling or spaceship-seeing outliers on the religious spectrum (despite the considerable damage the more extreme, and whacko, religions do to its most earnest and unenlightened parishioners), it is difficult not to suppress a special distaste for the fathomless myopia that underscores Catholicism’s sensibility. One look at The Vatican (in Vatican City) is enough to salivate at what Jesus would make of that temple. No money lenders there; these are straight up faith pimps, trading favors for forgiveness going back several centuries. What these charlatans are able to pull off, in tax exempt fashion, is the apotheosis of all Ponzi schemes. But, like the simple saps that Madof ensnared, few tithers throw their sheckles in the collection jar without a preconceived quid pro quo: it’s an ecclesiastical installment plan, and Catholic guilt –inbred from an early age– creates a collective bank account that accrues interest at unprecedented rates. The Catholic hierarchy’s ultimate legacy is successfully establishing a cadre of spiritual stockbrokers.

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Part Two: The Soup Kitchen Nazis

So, with so much to mock about the self-satisfied piety of the RCC, why now?

Well, there’s this. And this.

There you go. What brings the RCC out of the cloister? War? The outrages of Wall Street? Humiliation over its involvement in generations of profligate buggery? Of course not. Only the really crucial and relevant issues prompt such expediency: abortion and gay marriage! These are the conjoined crises that impel the otherwise oblivious foxes to slink out of the holy henhouse.

To summarize for those with short-attention spans or quick gag reflexes: in recent weeks the Catholic brain trust has picked public battles with Patrick Kennedy and D.C. area homeless. In the first instance, the smug and odious Bishop Thomas J. Tobin castigated Kennedy over his support of abortion rights. It is, the robe-wearing one whined, “a deliberate an obstinate act of will…(and) unacceptable to the church and scandalous to many of our members” (emphasis mine). Scandalous? Really? That anyone in a position of authority within the Catholic Church would have the audacity to use the word scandalous tells you all you need know about how truly clueless and shameless they have become.

This grandstanding, naturally, recalls memories of certain priests getting involved in the ’04 election, reminding their parishioners that voting for a man (Kerry) who did not have the appropriate pro-life bona fides was tantamount to heresy. This while the incumbent was actively waging preemptive war and shrinking the middle class to levels not seen since, well, the Great Depression. We all know how that one played out.

But you almost expect that type of intransigence, that level of obliviousness, from the men who have evolved from the bad old days when they burned scientists at the stake. What inspires the ongoing outrage is the fact that the Catholic church –this tone-deaf, intellectually devoid, bullying organization– ceaselessly finds ways to outdo itself. Take, for instance, the real and present outrage playing itself out, right now, in Washington D.C.

To recap: the (ultra conservative) Catholic Archdiocese of Washington has recently made ugly noise about withholding support for the homeless (about 70,000 individuals) due to its “principled” opposition to D.C.’s same-sex marriage bill. Let that one sink in for a moment. The church, ostensibly doing the work Christ instructed, is grandstanding said work over an issue that Christ never made a single mention of in the scriptures (go ahead and look it up; we’ll wait for you). Welcome to the Catholic sensibility! This is bigotry disguised as rectitude, but what else is new? Aside from the sickening hypocrisy (that word again, it’s unavoidable), this jumps so many sacred sharks it is difficult to keep track. For starters, these same churches that continue to enjoy tax exempt status are sticking their nose into the affairs of the government. Really? These same churches that are more than happy to accept government funding think it’s acceptable (legal?) to ignore said government’s laws, should they pass? The Catholic lemmings, following their Prada-wearing pontiff, have descended to the level of being soup (kitchen) nazis.

As ever, to fully grasp the illimitable duplicity of the church, one must inevitably turn to the costume-clad church elders. (Not for nothing, and with an irony that no objective reader of biblical scripture can avoid noting with a particular pang of nausea, it is the same well-fed and unreflective old men that Jesus had a special disdain for.) Look, let’s not sugarcoat the underlying issue at hand: with the world moving ever further away from biblical flights of fancy and despotic mind games, this is the sign of a desperate institution indeed. You only see this in politics and religion: when things start to spiral out of control, double down. In this instance, the decaying infrastructure and waning sway the church holds over humanity at large, makes its actions resemble those of a cult. Isn’t it funny how people (understandably) feel no compunction poking fun at the ludicrous precepts of Scientology, but bristle if anyone snickers at the apparent seriousness with which Catholics (and many other cults) regard that virgin birth thing or the notion that the Pope speaks infallibly (no, really). Farcical, sure, but also insulting, considering the man Catholics look to as an arbiter of morality, Thomas Aquinas, was last seen levitating in that cathedral (no, really).

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In closing, allow me to directly address anyone (Catholic or otherwise) who applauds (or remains merely unmoved by) the appalling positions the church is clinging to. The abortion issue is, at least, a tangible (if complicated) dilemma that people can wrestle with for spiritual and secular reasons. The open hostility toward and discrimination against homosexuals, on the other hand, is something that simply cannot be tolerated by anyone pretending to endorse the Declaration of Independence as well as the New Testament (you know, What Would Jesus Do?).

The prayerful prejudiced can hide behind the bogus claim of faith and fidelity, but in the final analysis, a bigot is a bigot. Congratulations on being, once again, on the wrong side of history and the righteous shift of love over fear.

And for the Catholic-Lite weekend warriors who don’t have the guts or the brains to, at long last, cut the cord, understand that you continue to associate with –-and, to a certain extent, intellectually and spiritually prostrate yourself to— an organized religion that goes several steps farther than these ignorant, opportunistic politicians who use pro-life positions to garner votes. The Catholic Church, despite any real evidence in the bible (!) abominates not only the practice but existence of homosexuality. Despite the much-discussed (but ever astonishing) fact that it harbors more than a fair share of closeted, (and not-so-closeted) in its cloister. Despite the fact that this obsessive and intolerant dogma is the fulcrum upon which these political types fortify their indefensible positions. Despite the fact that, even knowing —if failing to come to grips with— the considerable hypocrisy and mendacity that exists in its own sullied garden, this craven institution uses its brute force and reliably backwards (see: women, blacks, gays just to name the unholy trinity) clerical acumen to tyrannize anyone susceptible to its influence. The world that includes the powerless and dispossessed who cower, and especially the useful insects who apprehend and acknowledge this moral fascism (yes, fascism), and either choose to whistle blithely past the truth or —in inimitably Catholic fashion— obey the rules that fit and overlook or rationalize the ones that cause discomfort. Avoiding that discomfort at the expense of your innocent brothers and sisters is an abomination. It is also the essence of Catholicism.

But hey, who knows, maybe one day you’ll stand before your white, Republican Jesus and explain to him that you were only doing what he instructed you to do. Good luck with that.

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Goodfellas: The Most Definitive American Movie of the Last Two Decades

First, a confession.

I did not love Goodfellas the first time I saw it (in the theater, shortly after it opened, in October, 1990). Then again, this seems to happen with certain albums and movies: the ones you end up loving most often are not love at first sight. For instance, I also didn’t fall head over heels (as I later would) with Mean Streets that first time, possibly because I was too young and needed to get the one-two punch of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver fully out of my system; after those two (which were indelibly seared into my impressionable psyche at first viewing –and subsequent ones) Mean Streets seemed almost like an autobiographical home movie (which, I was too dumb to realize, it kind of was).

Likewise, I didn’t “get” all the fuss about Chinatown (you probably have to at least be out of high school to begin to appreciate; to even know how to grasp that one) or The Last Detail. In fact, while I’m naming names and copping to confession mode: I was severely underwhelmed by The Big Lebowski, a film I now would have to put in my all-time Top 20. Let’s face it: some movies (and albums) confound expectations (I came to Lebowski still reeling from the sullen perfection of Fargo and I was simply not prepared to grapple with The Dude’s Tao) and some simply require extra levels of dedication: like a good marinade or magic spell, they need time to do their thing. That, at least, is the best explanation (rationalization?) I can come up with for why a handful of films I would take to my desert island initially left me unconverted.

Suffice it to say, I quickly learned the error of my ways. And, I reckon, one of the redeeming qualities of humans is our capacity to repent and improve. Put another way, those movies did not get better with repeated viewings, I did. Or, they helped me be better: a better viewer, a better judge of art, and quite possibly a better (or at least more evolved) human being. And don’t get me wrong, I liked Goodfellas when I saw it in the theater, I just could not have predicted I’d end up considering it the most definitive, fully realized (in short, the best) American film made over the course of two ensuing decades.

All of which seems a rather pointy-headed way of introducing a celebration of one of the most violent films of all time. Of course, Goodfellas is much, much more than that. But, I would argue, of all of Scorsese’s upping of the ante in subsequent efforts (Cape Fear, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed), this is one film (along with the aforementioned Raging Bull and Taxi Driver) that not only warrants, but demands the borderline gratuitousness of the violent action and images. It is, after all, a movie about mobsters. Thin-skinned and, frankly, puritanical critics have always chafed at the near pornography of Scorsese’s stylized brutality, but in a film like Goodfellas the ceaseless stream of severed limbs and bodily fluids is designed in the service of verisimilitude.

Take, for instance, the infamous pistol-whipping scene, which occurs relatively early in the story: we’ve already met the young Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), and despite the (brilliant) opening sequence where we see him and his partners in crime shove a half dead (and made) man into a trunk, then kill him on the highway, we’ve mostly identified with him as the good-looking, gentler mob acolyte (indeed, he is chastised for being too soft when he has the temerity to waste a few extra aprons on the poor slob who got shot in the stomach and is bleeding to death outside the pizza joint). Particularly in comparison to the hardended elders, including mentor Jimmy “The Gent” Conway (DeNiro) and psychotic running mate Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), we could be forgiven for thinking Henry is actually a, well, good fella. The efficient impact of this scene, then, is the way it advances the plot and reinforces the grimmer reality of who Henry is, and where he came from. Remember the first time you saw this? How shocking that quick explosion of violence seemed? It was not merely a matter of a thug not having the time or interest in a fist fight, it was the even more disturbing notion that he could, and would kill Karen’s neighbor as a matter of course. And when he says he’ll do it next time, there is no question he will.

This scene is actually a clinic in character study and compressed plot rhythm: we are reminded, abruptly, that Henry is in fact a violent man and is capable of extreme violence which he will unleash without hesitation or remorse. How about the initial reaction of the neighbors? In addition to the excellent juxtaposition of social status (here is Henry, the poor kid from the shitty ‘hood and these clowns, polishing the expensive car that mommy and daddy bought), you see their nonchalance: they are not the least bit intimidated as Henry crosses the street. “You want something fucker?” the ringleader asks a second before he gets the something he’ll never forget. See, in their world, there are three of them; what could this dude with his leather coat do? Three on one; and if he threatens us, we’ll tell our parents. Oh, unless he bashes one of our noses in and tells us, without bravado, that as bad as this hurts, it’s only a warning (reminiscent of Sonny’s vicious smackdown of Carlo in The Godfather: when he says, out of breath from the beating he’s just dished out, “You touch my sister again, I’ll kill ya,” it’s not only an obvious statement of fact, but a masterful bit of acting from Caan: a lesser actor would have shouted the lines and been unable to resist the seemingly obligatory opportunity to grandstand; my theory is that his restraint is partially or entirely due to the fact that he’d witnessed –and possibly delivered– ass-kickings like this in his own life and didn’t have to talk the actorly talk because he could walk the bare-knuckled walk).

(Intermission: if you have not seen it yet, Christmas has come early for Goodfellas fans: GQ has a special feature, with comments and recollections from cast and crew. The whole thing is here and I’ll happily submit five of my favorite anecdotes, below:

Corrigan: I’ll never forget the first time I saw the scene where Pesci is saying, “You think I’m funny?” and he pretends like he’s going to kill Ray Liotta. Now everybody knows it, but there was a first time when no one knew what he was going to say and do. We were on the edge of our seats, like, “Oh my God! He’s gonna fucking kill him!”

Liotta: For the scene at Tommy’s mother’s house, I don’t think Marty gave his mom a script. I remember Joe saying, “Mom, I need this knife. We hit a deer, we got to cut off its—” and he can’t remember it, and Bob jumps in as he’s eating “—hoof.” There was a lot of improv.

Darrow: Marty calls me into the trailer. I had lines in the scene with the bandage on my head [when Sonny begs Paulie to be a part-owner of his nightclub], but it wasn’t much. Marty said, “I’m going to take this scene away from Paul and Ray, and it’s your scene.” So I says, “Okay, but tell Sorvino.” He said, “Don’t worry about it.” I say my lines, and Sorvino goes, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! What fucking movie are you doing?” Marty didn’t tell him anything; he wanted him mad. See how mad he was in that scene? Because Marty knows how to get it out of you, he really does.

Peter Bucossi (stuntman): De Niro was kicking the hell out of me that night. I had pads on, but I recall being quite bruised a few days later. I mean, he tried to hit the pads, but in the midst of their fury they’re not worried about making sure.

Low: I did come up with my own lines of, “What am I, a schmuck on wheels?” “I’ve been bleeding for this caper.” “Jimmy is being an unconscionable ball-breaker!” During a break, one of the Mob guys in the movie comes to me and he says, “What is this ‘ball-breaker’ thing that you’re saying, the ‘unconscionable?’ ” I said, “You know, in the Caribbean there’s conch shells; you can’t break ’em.” They all give me like the thumbs-up: “Oh, I get it. ‘Unconscionable!’ “)

So, let’s go to the scorecard.

Most quotable movie from the last two decades? What else have you got?

Most compulsively rewatchable? Obviously.

Best soundtrack? It’s on the short list.

Sheer number of indelible scenes? Please.

Best acting, from leads to bit parts? Not even close.

Most imitated movie of the last 20 years? Not even debatable.

Goodfellas was so great its largest “fault” was its own success; that it inspired so many lame, shameless rip-offs. We see this phenomenon over and over, with movies ranging from Pulp Fiction to Swingers, but we are still seeing it with Goodfellas. Everything from the clever introduction of characters to the voiceover narration (not the use of it, but the way it is utilized), to the then-revelatory use of still-frames to, well, frame some of that narration. All of these have been copied to the point of parody –real or intended.

Take DeNiro and Pesci (please!), neither of whom again came close to this level of work (I realize Casino has its advocates, but DeNiro does not act in that movie, he smokes cigarettes, and Pesci –whose range was limited in the first place– is an amusing and occasionally riveting caricature of the role he immortalizes in Goodfellas). This is not necessarily offered as critique: Pesci has two of the seminal supporting roles in Scorsese (and movie) history, first as Jake LaMotta’s long-suffering brother Joey in Raging Bull and then, a decade later, as Tommy DeVito. DeNiro, in hindsight, may have had less range than many of us realized; he certainly has done plenty of work in the last two decades, but…let’s just say he front-loaded his career with his finest work. And it’s work that stands tall in all cinema, so it seems silly to nitpick the bad choices, lack of inspiration or punch-drunk technique he has put on display since his epic turn as Jimmy Conway.

What tends to get lost in the discussion of Goodfellas, between the violence, the quotable scenes and the sheer heft of the soundtrack (Shangri-Las to Sid Vicious? Only Scorsese) is the fact that there are moments of incredible, almost astonishing subtlety. Most of them, not coincidentally, are delivered by the master at the height of his game, DeNiro. His character is so fully realized that every word, wince and grimace go beyond authenticity and seem natural, obvious. Conway is such a genius at crime, it is amusing and eventually almost heartbreaking to behold the befuddlement he is constantly feeling as he’s confronted by the idiocy of others. The way his disgust with the motor-mouthed and insufferable (and hilarious) Morrie slowly boils past the breaking point; his disdain for Henry’s increasingly out of control drug abuse (“they’re making your mind into mush”); his big brotherly admonishment of Tommy’s increasingly out of control emotions (“you’re gonna’ dig the fucking hole this time”) as well as his loyalty (you get the sense that after Tommy is whacked, this is the first time in his life Jimmy has cried). And then there are the sublime moments: his dialogue before the Billy Batts beating (“ah, ah, you insulted him a little bit; you were a little out of order yourself”), the aforementioned improv during the dinner scene (“the hoof”), and his reaction to the cohorts, after the big heist, when they roll into the Christmas party with fur coats and Cadillacs.

The scene (or one of them anyway) that stays with me is near the end: everyone, including Henry, knows he is on borrowed time, and it’s very likely his one-time mentor Jimmy is going to pull the trigger. The only person who doesn’t –or does not want to– believe it is his wife, Karen. In the brief but disturbing scene, she visits Jimmy who casually (but carefully, we know) inquires what types of questions the feds are asking Henry. At that moment we know (we already knew) that it’s over; we’ve seen what Jimmy has done to every other participant in the heist, we know (even though Karen still doesn’t realize, even as she stands next to the man who will kill her and her husband; the man that was there for the birth of her children) that something terrible is about to happen. And it almost does. When Jimmy mentions some extra dresses Karen should take, she initially appreciates his generous offer. As she walks down the alley (and Jimmy does not follow) she begins to get suspicious, and when she looks into the doorway Jimmy is signalling, the goons inside shush each other and it goes silent. Finally, she gets it, and rushes to her car even as Jimmy urges her to go back. This scene takes less than a minute, happens in broad daylight and it’s scarier than anything from any “horror” movie in the last 25 years. It also brings the sensibility of the movie (of these people) full circle: just as we needed to see, and understand, that Henry –despite his kindness and charm– was capable, and quite willing to inflict bloodshed at any time, we now see what Henry later articulates: it’s often your best friends who take you out, and they are smiling when they do it.

Moral of the story? Crime doesn’t pay, except when it does (and even if it never does, it’s better than a day job). At the beginning of the film, Henry claims “as far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.” The tragedy of his life is not that he became one; the tragedy is that as the movie ends, and Henry stands in the (relative) safety of his suburban lawn, he still longs to be one.

What else is there, besides everything? The best way to discuss a movie this rich is to simply watch it, again, and savor all the scenes and words and sounds. In the final analysis, full credit must go to the wisest of guys, Scorsese, for pulling off a tour de force on every conceivable level: a lavish looking spectacle that never seems overly polished, a massive production where every set, every song and every role is ideally cast (super-sized props to Marty for hanging in there and remaining true to his vision of having the fairly unknown Ray Liotta play the starring role; the studio imbeciles, in their eternal anti-wisdom, wanted Tom Cruise), and a detailed examination of an alternate universe — an America of a different era, populated by people we couldn’t have otherwise understood, or ever wanted to let into our living rooms. With the considerable help of the writers, actors and crew he assembled, he obliged us to welcome these good fellas into our lives, forever.

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Kwai Chang Caine, R.I.P.

While I could appreciate where Quentin Tarantino was coming from with Kill Bill and the ways he dutifully pays homage to old school pop culture icons, there were a couple of reasons that movie did not resonate with me. One, protracted and pyrotechnically-proficient fight scenes aside (for the record, Uma Thurman’s womano a womano brawls with Vivica A. Fox and Daryl Hannah were quite satisfactory; the over-the-top and ludicrous fight vs. the Crazy 88s not so much), it was a pretty medicore flick. Both of them. (But more on Tarantino’s general post Pulp Fiction irrelevance another time.) Two, for people of my generation, it simply wasn’t all that cool to see the great David Carradine ostensibly ressurected as Bill; sure, he had sauntered out of the limelight, but he did not seem particularly anxious to stroll back into it. In other words, his role was not the type of career-saving reclamation project as it applied to, say, John Travolta and Bruce Willis circa 1994. Carradine was what he was: an old school legend who had been there, done that. He was Kwai Chang Caine for Christ’s sake.

Anyone who hesitates for a single second, or even has to ask who that is, will be unable to understand why cats of my ilk (kids of the ’70s) identify Carradine with the role he was born to play: Kwai Chang Caine in Kung Fu. (Of course, this immortal, if somewhat short-lived TV show was namechecked not only in Office Space, but in the aforementioned Pulp Fiction, which in hindsight seems like an appropriately reverential bit of foreshadowing on Tarantino’s part.)

I can’t say I’ve watched a single episode of Kung Fu since the early ’80s when it was syndicated on Saturday afternoons, just after Soul Train and just before Soccer Made in Germany. This was sacred stuff for me and my Pops: we hunkered down and got it on. And just thinking back, for the first time it occurs to me, thank God America was so much more of a melting pot in those days. Soul Train, Soccer Made in Germany and Kung Fu? That’s some serious, if appropriated, cultural import right there. And the point is, it wasn’t self-conscious or anything we were even cognizant of; it just was. I say this with a nostalgic twinkle in my eye, considering my understanding (and appreciation) of these shows might have been a tad different if, for instance, I had any clue what those cool sing-song chants the large crowds were singing (in German) actually meant, or the act that most of these hip dance moves were approximating. But even then, I knew it was a stretch, at best, and awkward, at worst, that in the Kung Fu show, Carradine was (of course) supposed to be half-Chinese, leading to many of the bigoted taunts his character suffered. It certainly strained credulity on one hand, but also tended to make the portrayal that much more human. Credit Carradine for managing to pull that off. Mostly, this was righteous Shaolin shit, and it was of its time (’70s) and I was its ideal target audience: a young Catholic who heard priests talk the talk each Sunday but appreciated seeing the message carried out, albeit funneled through a pseudo-mystic far-East-via-Hollywood filter. Kwai Chang Caine walked the walk.


 

Later in life, when I discovered more adult-oriented entertainment, it was amusing to see Carradine as such a diametrically opposite character, in his brief but classic scene in Scorese’s Mean Streets (he appears at 1.33 but this entire scene is highly recommended for a variety of reasons):

 On the other hand, even though it was understood as pure fantasy, it was still a little painful to see Carradine cast as the bad guy in the sucktacular masterpiece Lone Wolf McQuade.


For more time than I’d care to consider, I’ve settled into the age where it’s inevitable to see several of my childhood heroes pass on each year: it’s been an especially painful twelve months for me, with Rick Wright, Mitch Mitchell, Freddie Hubbard and John Cephas all leaving us behind. There will be many more just around the corner, and it won’t be too long before real significant voices of my generation (no conjecture necessary; suffice it to say, they too will die someday) start passing on. For me, Carradine’s departure is not as immediately affecting, since he is inextricably linked to my childhood, and for better or worse, I put childish things behind me quite some time ago. (In other words, I mourned this man and that era long before he had his last splash in the celluloid sun, courtesy of Quentin Tarantino.) As always, the silver lining in these losses is that while the man might be gone, the character–in this case, Kwai Chang Caine–will remain a part of me until the unavoidable day my own reality show is cancelled.

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A History of Violence

When you think about the distinctive ingredients of Americana, the elements that comprise what we think about when we think of what makes America so…American, it’s easy to recite the cliched short-list: mom, apple pie, convertibles, rock and roll, McDonalds, sexual repression, colonialism, enhanced interrogations, et cetera.

But really, when you get down to it, we are all about violence. And, to a large degree, violence sort of encompasses all of the things listed above (the violence we do to others, the violence we do to the environment, the violence we do to ourselves–inherent in the desires we succumb to as well as deny, which are epitomized by most religions). But our religion is violence, and our cathedral has long been the silver screen. And we celebrate our addiction to violence in ways less brutal but more calculated than the barbaric Gladiator spectacles of yesteryear (we weren’t Americans yet): by perfecting what has become a universal aesthetic, the movie fight scene. Kind of like porn movie plots are a delivery device for the fucking, action movie plots are often a disposable fulcrum for the fighting.

The actual art of choreographed violence is serious business, literally and figuratively (i.e., in terms of time and money spent, and revenue generated) and really should not be blithely dismissed. There are books written, there are even movies made about the making of movies. So let the academics and darkened room disciples ruminate and pontificate; it’s much more enjoyable to make fun of the ritual that constitutes an entire industry. And it’s certainly a hell of a lot more satisfying to consider the sinister art of the bad fight scene, the dark cousin of the painstakingly crafted celluloid ballet. The bad fight scene, a semi-retarded pas de deux, has evolved into its own special status: it is an indispensable aspect of our culture. Thank God.

To appreciate the curious magic of the laughably bad, it’s helpful to first consider the unassailably good. I don’t know many serious film critics (or fans) who would deny that our nimble brethren from Asia have come closest to elevating the serious fight scene to unprecedented levels of artistry. Two recent examples, each featuring the obligatory one-man vs. the crowd sequence appear in Chan Wook Park’s Old Boy and Prachya Pinkaew’s Tom-Yum-Goong.

Exhibit A: Dae Su (the great Choi Min-Sik) drops the hammer (pun intended) on a bunch of hoods. Improbable, over-the-top, outstanding!

Exhibit B: the jaw-dropping Tony Jaa’s instant classic (already immortal) one-take (!!) fight scene, which took over a month to prepare and rehearse. The result is unedited (!!!) perfection, using the fifth take. Respect!

As kind of an antidote, it’s instructive to appreciate Martin Scorsese’s integrity. His dedication to authenticity depicts an epic fight scene that actually plays out the way fights usually look in real life: sloppy, uneven, embarrassing. This is a clinic, made indelible by De Niro and Joey “The Mook”:

And as an intermission, or delicious palette cleanser, let’s appreciate the sine qua non of campy superhero fight scenes (which obliges us to turn to the ultimate in camp, the caped crusader played by the marvelous Adam West): this is the all-in battle royale, a brawl that involves all the assorted players. Three words: “Bon voyage pussy!” Holy blissful extravagance, Batman!

Speaking of camp: does it get any better (worse) than Patrick Swayze? This scene has so much homoerotic energy it almost sucks its own dick. You can fear the mullets while simultaneously contemplating who’s gayer: Swayze, (the great) Ben Gazzara (“Can somebody geta drink around here?”) or the dude with pool cue? Are you kidding me?

Of course, the only cat who could challenge Swayze for the crown is Rob Lowe. First up, an epic romp with Andrew McCarthy (doing his finest work, which isn’t saying much) from the so-bad-it’s-great Class (two words: Jacqueline Bisset). Skip ahead to the 5.23 mark for the fight, but you can watch the whole thing to appreciate John Cusak in his first movie role. Recognize!

But this is child’s play compared to Youngblood(which gets you a young(er) Swayze and Keanu Reeves, demonstrating that at no time in his career could he act), a cheesefest that reaches almost offensive levels of connect-the-dots corniness. The bromance battling the testosterone here is officially off the charts; the movie itself is one long fight scene between gay yearning and feel-good Hollywood onanism.

Of course, for both fight scenes and hockey, it’s all about the Hanson brothers and Slap Shot (six words: “I’m listening to the fucking song!):

Now we’re approaching that elevated plane also known as the truth. Male gymnist? Check. Pommel horse? Check. Gayness off the charts? Big check (special shout out to my beloved Meatbull for bringing this one to my attention). The only remaining question being: can you handle the truth? Let’s see:

But let’s stop screwing around and get to the glory. The scene, and I mean the scene, where all the elements (camp, over-the-top pyrotechnics, implausibility, bad (and good) acting, and wrestling) come together, are made manifest in John Carpenter’s They Live. A six minute fight scene. S.I.X. M.I.N.U.T.E.S. And this isn’t just a gratuitous scrap; the end of the world as we know it as at stake (“Put on the glasses!”), with hero Roddy Piper (formerly “Rowdy” Roddy Piper of World Wrestling Federation fame) and not-yet-convinced good guy Keith David sorting things out in an alley. The sequence allegedly took over three weeks to rehearse, and it’s one for the ages.

So what do you get, where else is there to go, when you have a scene like the one above, that parodies virtually every aspect of the entire history of fight scenes? You have a scene that parodies that scene. Enter Ernie the Giant Chicken, the recurring character from Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy.

What else is there left to say? Why not tie it all together with the only genius who actually is capable of intermingling all of these elements into his own work. Martial arts inspired reggae? Lee Scratch Perry has it covered. So what did I miss? Let me know what fight scene (good, bad, ugly or hopefully, all of these) you would put into the pantheon. Peace!

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