Category Archives: Movies

Gushing over Mickey Rourke

In 1981, I turned 15 years old. That winter, me and a couple of buddies snuck into Body Heat, an R-rated movie that introduced us to Kathleen Turner, William Hurt, Ted Danson and, most important to me, Mickey Rourke.

Rourke’s part was small, but he made the most of it as an oft-incarcerated arsonist. His big scene, when William Hurt comes to him for advice on how to burn a house down without getting caught, was talked about by me and my buddies almost as much as Turner’s nude scenes. The movie launched his career.

Gushing over Mickey Rourke
I clipped this ad from an issue of GQ

From that point on, Mickey Rourke was an object of fascination and admiration as I fantasized about becoming an actor myself one day. By the time he starred in The Pope of Greenwich Village, I was also obsessed with all things New York and associated him with the city and great actors who started there, like Brando, DeNiro, Dean, Pacino and others.

Mickey Rourke was different from the other rising stars of that time. He has like a wild animal. Grimy, intense and quiet, with a feral sexuality. But also good looking and vulnerable. Sean Penn may have acted tough, but Mickey Rourke seemed like the real deal, a genuine badass.

I read everything about him I could get my hands on, which in those days meant Premiere magazine and maybe something in Rolling Stone or Interview, Andy Warhol’s oversized tabloid. When a friend handed me a copy of Playboy with a long interview with Mickey Rourke featured, I immediately made a photocopy at work (which I still keep among my prized possessions).

I don’t know what it was about Rourke that made him stand out above the rest. God knows I’m nothing like him. Maybe it was a desire to be self-possessed and cool, but still vulnerable and sweet. Who knows?

What I do know is that his early movies are rock solid. These days, if he’s mentioned at all, it’s often as the punchline to a joke. That’s too bad, because he’s a great actor. Here are five films to watch that prove this:

Diner (1982)

Diner is easily one of the best movies of the 80’s, as well as one of the most influential. Don’t believe me? If there was no Diner, there might not have been a Quentin Tarantino, the most influential director of the 1990’s and perhaps the early 2000’s.

Gushing over Mickey Rourke
Rourke, second from left, not fitting in

Diner was one of, if not THE first talky guy-movie. Take one of the scenes with the guys in the diner and lay it next to the first scene of Reservoir Dogs and you’ll get the idea. Tarantino to the inspiration and ran with it.

Anyway, Diner, directed by Barry Levinson, is set in the late 50’s in Baltimore and tells the story of a group of lifelong friends who are negotiating that weird no-man’s land between high school and adulthood. Most of the guys are nice, middle-class Jewish boys except Mickey Rourke’s character, Boogie, a womanizing hairdresser with a gambling addiction.

When the rest of the guys argue over who’s best to make out to between Frank Sinatra and Johnny Mathis, pompadoured Boogie breaks a tie by quietly declaring “Presley.” With that line, you get the whole character – the danger, the vulnerability, the tragedy and humor.

Diner is a great film in the vein of American Graffiti, touching on universal themes that will never grow old.

Rumble Fish (1983)

During Francis Ford Coppola’s wilderness years, he made a couple of movies that came from books that were passed around in middle school and fawned over like classic literature. The first was The Outsiders, featuring a who’s who of up-and-coming teen stars of the early 80’s, and Rumble Fish, featuring more of those 80’s kids…and Mickey Rourke.

Gushing over Mickey Rourke
Rourke, as Motorcyle Boy

Both movies were based on novels by S.E. Hinton, and though the books might not rank with Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Coppola treated them like they did, making serious movies that were deeply appealing to teenagers like me, if not film critics.

Rumble Fish is my favorite of the two. Shot in black-and-white, it features Matt Dillon, Diane Lane, and Rourke as Dillon’s older brother, Motorcyle Boy.

Dillon is Rusty James, juvenile dilenquent trying to live up to the legend of his mysterious (read crazy) older brother, a tortured soul alienated from the streets and toughs of the dying town where he is a legend.

Once again, this role is custom made for Rourke’s own sense of alienation and otherworldliness that makes the character, no matter how flaky, seem so real. So heartbreakingly broken.

I haven’t seen the movie since I was in my 20’s, so this recommendation is given from that perspective. But regardless of how well the movie holds up, it’s Coppola and it’s Mickey Rourke, for crying out loud. Just see it.

The Pope of Greenwich Village (1983)

This is easily my favorite Mickey Rourke film, and probably his best. When Rourke was on Alec Baldwin’s Here’s The Thing recently, he said this is his favorite movie.

Gushing over Mickey Rourke
Eric Roberts and Mickey Rourke

The Pope of Greenwich Village is the quintessential New York movie. Rourke and Eric Roberts headline this story, which features a terrific supporting cast that includes Geraldine Page in what had to have been one of her last decent roles.

Rourke plays Charlie, a former wiseguy and cook who’s trying to go straight as a restaurateur. Roberts is Paulie, Charlie’s fuckup cousin who can’t keep a job or keep his mouth shut.

Charlie manages a restaurant in the Village where Paulie waits tables. When Charlie warns Paulie not to overcharge his customers one night, Paulie does it anyway and gets them both fired. This puts Charlie in hot water with his waspy girlfriend (Darryl Hannah), who hates Paulie, and Charlie’s ex-wife Cookie, who sends her brothers to collect late child support payments.

Paulie tries to make it up to Charlie by letting him in on a big score – a robbery so easy, a coupe of kids could do it. You can see where this is going, right? They pull in a semi-retired safe cracker to round out the team and, against Charlie’s better judgment, plain the heist.

They get into the targeted warehouse easy enough, but when an undercover cop accidentally dies during the robbery, things go downhill quickly. It turns out that the warehouse – and money – belongs to a notorious mobster, Bed Bug Eddie, played by Burt Young.

Paulie is quickly identified by the mob and a prime suspect, and when he won’t crack, Bed Bug Eddie has his thumbs cut off. This sets Charlie on a course of revenge that takes us through the thrilling third act.

It’s a great story filled with memorable characters and lines. Rourke is at the top of his game as Charlie, and conveys Charlies tension between the streets and the good life that his waspy girlfriend represents. The chemistry between him and Eric Roberts, who steals every scene he’s in, is palpable. The guys really seem to love one another, and they both seemed to be having as much making the movie as it was to watch it.

The Wrestler (2008)

Gushing over Mickey Rourke
Mickey Rourke (right)

It’s hard to believe it’s been eight years since The Wrestler came out. Before that, it seemed like an eternity since those early great roles. Thank God for Darren Aronofsky and the vision he had for the character of Randy “The Ram” Robinson, who couldn’t have been played by anyone other than Mickey Rourke.

The movie plays as a metaphor for Rourke’s career. Randy is a has-been pro wrestler who can’t catch a break to save his life. His life and career are riddled with self-sabotage and a string of bad decisions. Despite enough wreckage to make the most Pollyanna-ish person disillusioned, Randy always manages to pick himself up and stumble forward, with some vague hope of a better tomorrow.

It’s a heartbreaking role that Rourke put everything into. It’s a towering performance that, sadly, didn’t usher in a late career surge. That may as much to do with Rourke’s appearance (too much bad plastic surgery and weightlifting) and boxing as it does with his reputation for being difficult to work with.

Regardless of all that, The Wrestler will no-doubt be Mickey Rourke’s legacy picture, the one that is used to encapsulate his strange career.

Angel Heart (1987)

Gushing over Mickey Rourke
Rourke, as Harry Angel

John Huston said that Angel Heart was one of the best films ever made…until the third act. Who can argue with the great director? It’s a noir styled thriller that stars Rourke as Harry Angel, a private investigator hired by a mysterious Robert DeNiro to find a missing singer.

Alan Parker directed this frustrating mix of wonderful design, good cinematography, wonderful acting (except for Lisa Bonet) and a story with an undeniable hook. It’s too bad that Parker couldn’t land the plane on this one, because it could’ve been a classic. Instead, it devolves into silliness, completely usurping a great performance by Rourke.

I won’t spoil the movie here, but it’s well worth watching, even knowing that it goes to hell. If it would’ve been shot in black-and-white, you’d think the movie was made in the 40’s or 50’s, and Angel’s pursuit of the singer is filled with violence, humor voodoo and sex.

Speaking of sex, Angel Heart was as notorious for the steamy scenes between Rourke and Lisa Bonet as it was for the third-act breakdown. Compared to Game of Thrones, Angel Heart is pretty mild stuff, but back then it was a different story.

 

There’s one bonus movie I’ll toss in, though most will probably hate it. Probably my second favorite Mickey Rourke film is Barfly, a good natured story of life on L.A.’s skid row, taken from the stories of Charles Bukowski, another favorite of mine.

Gushing over Mickey Rourke
Rourke, as Henry Chinaski

Rourke played Henry Chinaski, the Bukowski alter-ego, who inhabits the seedy bars of his low rent neighborhood when he isn’t writing or earning some money at a shitty job.

Rourke’s portrayal of Chinaski is borderline cartoonish and over-the-top, which suits the character perfectly, for that is Henry Chinaski, a loser with the ego of a champion, who picks fights with the muscle bound bartender, not because he hates him, but because he’s got nothing better to do. Well, not until Faye Dunaway’s Wanda comes into his life.

Barfly is a delightful comedy that is, oddly, a celebration of life, albeit a strange and foreign one to most people. Once again, Mickey Rourke is the only person I can imagine pulling off the role of Chinaski because so much of Chinaski’s charm and hubris and tragedy is what makes me love Mickey Rourke. Both are flawed men who you know will never end up on top…but you love them and root for them anyway.

Brooklyn

Brooklyn, story about a young Irish woman leaving her family behind to forge a new life for herself in the America of the early 1950’s, is old-fashioned movie making in the best sense of the term.

BrooklynThe film, directed by John Crowley (Boy A, Intermission) and adapted by Nick Hornby (About a Boy, An Education, High Fidelity) from the novel by Colm Tóbín, is a nostalgic take on a story as old as America itself – reinvention.

Eillis Lacy (Saorise Ronan) lives in a small post-war Irish town. Her father is dead, and she lives with her mother and older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott), who cares for them both. Her future is so bleak that she agrees to have an Irish priest living in New York arrange a job and living arrangements for her, in hopes of creating a better life there.

Eillis (pronounced Á-lish) feels guilty about leaving her sister with the burden of caring for their mother, but Rose has carved out a nice life for herself, and won’t hear of any guilty talk. It’s a difficult parting and a rougher ocean crossing, but Eillis makes it to Ellis Island and her new life.

At first, the new world is jarring. The boarding house is a strange place, ruled by a loud woman, Mrs. Keogh (Julie Walters), and occupied by a chorus of lonely women who eventually grown on Eillis.

The job that has been arranged for her – a position as a shop girl at a fancy department store – is yet another adjustment. Eillis’ supervisor (Mad Men’s Jessica Paré) is a tough, serious woman who insists on having her customers treated as special friends, but Eillis is so homesick, that can’t see through the fog of tears that constantly fill her eyes.

But things aren’t what they seem. Eillis’ supervisor calls the priest, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), after an especially rough day, and he meets with her in the breakroom of the store and dispenses some priestly wisdom. “Homesickness is like any other sickness. It eventually passes and moves on to someone else.” He assures her it will be okay, but he has more than just kind words. He’s also arranged for night classes at Brooklyn College, which will allow her to study bookkeeping.

With this bit of good news, the clouds begin to lift. Back at the boarding house, the girls and Mrs. Keogh have begun to warm up to their quiet new neighbor. Enough so that they all hang out together at the weekly parish dance, where Eillis meets a boy one Friday night.

This is where the movie really turns. The boy, an Italian named Tony (Emory Cohen), cruises the Irish dances because he prefers Irish girls to the same old Italian girls available at the Italian version of the parish dance.

It’s a meet-cute moment that works for the innocence of these two. They are each so earnest and decent, you can’t help but root for them (even though you’ve been conditioned by movies and TV series to expect some underlying perversion).

The romance escalates to the point of a funny dinner with Tony’s family that is concluded by him walking Eillis home and telling her he loves her for the first time. It’s an awkward moment because Eillis doesn’t know how to respond. She’s never been in this position before. It’s yet another new experience for her.

As their love blossoms, a complication arises when Eillis’ sister Rose dies, perhaps from an illness she kept from everyone so that Eillis could be turned loose to live her own life.

Eillis returns home to mourn with her mother, but not before being persuaded to marry Tony before leaving. Tony feared that once back home, Eillis would never leave. Being first or second generation American, he probably knew something about the power of Home. Eillis agrees, and the go to the courthouse and marry in secret just before she returns to Ireland.

Back in Ireland, she finds that little has changed and everything has changed. Having come from America, everyone looks at her anew. It’s as if she’s being noticed for the very first time. Boys want to date her. Rose’s old employer wants to hire her, knowing she has a bookkeeping certificate. It’s like an Irish Tractor Beam has been turned on to keep her from returning to New York.

To complicate matters even more, a nice boy with a secure financial future falls for her, which her mother seizes on as a sign that things are looking up for “them.”

Eillis is torn between love and guilt, old and new, the past and the future as she struggles with a riot of emotions that have caught her completely off-guard. Finally, a voice from the past rears her ugly head, bringing everything to a head.

Saorise Ronan is a delight to watch in the role of Eillis. One of the many pleasures of Brooklyn is its comfort with silence, which it uses like white space on a printed page, and Ronan’s use of silence speaks volumes in subtext in the way she uses her eyes and body to tell stories and convey the inner dialogue that rages inside this thoughtful woman. Her Oscar nomination is well deserved. There will surely be many more to come.

Emory Cohen, a relative newcomer, also walks a thin line, playing a sweet, decent man without falling into treacly obnoxiousness that would have us rooting for Eillis to stay in Ireland. I look forward to seeing what’s next for him.

The supporting cast of Brooklyn was marked by one fine performance after another, from the girls at the boarding house to Domhnall Gleeson as Eillis’ Irish suitor. But it’s Julie Walters and Jim Broadbent who do standout work as Mrs. Keogh and Father Flood.

Walters’ comic timing is put to good use as the fearsome proprietor of the boarding house who dotes on Eillis as a “sensible girl.” Walters takes the role up to the point of caricature, but when it seems she’s about to take it to cartoonishness, she softens the woman and gives her a vulnerable twist that completely humanizes the old woman.

Similarly, Broadbent conveys a decency in the old priest that conveys a sense of how Christians should be – loving, wise, humble and charitable people.

Looking at the construction of Brooklyn, on paper it seems like a movie that might be better suited for the Hallmark channel for all its sweetness, but the quality of the storytelling, direction, art direction and especially the acting give it the boost it needs to transcend sentimentality and achieve a kind of sweet grace that will have the hardest of hearts wiping away tears.

As Brooklyn reaches its inevitable conclusion, we are given a reminder of one of the things that makes America so great – here, you can be whoever you say you are. There’s no guarantees, and it doesn’t come cheaply, but if you are willing to pay the steep price of turning away from home, it could happen.

What Happened, Miss Simone?

What Happened, Miss Simone? Is a familiar story powerfully told in this Oscar nominated documentary from Liz Garbus (Bobby Fischer Against the World, The Farm: Angola, USA). By that, I mean this: Nina Simone’s story is familiar to those who’ve lived in close proximity to or have studied artists and the emotional makeup that often times drives them forward while also driving them mad. In the realm of popular music, Brian Wilson and Loretta Lynn come to mind.

The movie’s title, which comes from a Maya Angelou poem, drives the thesis of the film, which uses Miss Simone’s own voice in the form of interviews and concert footage to sift through the details of her remarkable life to find out just what happened.

“But what happened, Miss Simone? Specifically, what happened to your big eyes that quickly veil to hide the loneliness? To your voice that has so little tenderness, yet flows with your commitment to the battle of Life? What happened to you?” – Maya Angelou

The story opens in 1976, as Simone takes the stage at the Montreaux Jazz Festival. After she’s introduced, she takes the stage and stands at her piano in an odd pose as the applause dies down. After the room has gone silent, she remains frozen, creating an awkward moment reminiscent of Andy Kaufman-esque performance art – a move designed to seize control of the moment by putting the crowd off balance perhaps.

What Happened, Miss Simone?Finally, Simone takes her seat, and after some nervous patter and adjusting of the microphone, she acknowledges a promise made long ago never to perform at jazz festivals, once again raising that question: “What happened?!” From there, she says she’ll answer the question by taking us all the way back to the beginning, which is where Garbus takes us next, filling in the biographical details of Simone’s early life.

Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina on February 21, 1933. The film hardly mentions her parents, but her mother was a Methodist minister and housemaid. Simone began taking piano lessons by the age of four and quickly showed promise at the instrument, which she played in the churches where her mother preached.

Two white women, one of whom employed Simone’s mother, saw Simone’s talents and endeavored to see that she received training, which led to a goal of Simone becoming the first African-American female classical concert pianist.

In addition to lessons, the women began a fund which was used to send Simone to Philadelphia to attend the Curtis Institute. Simone was rejected, and believed that her denial was solely based upon the color of her skin. From there, she went to Julliard, where she studied until the money ran out.

Having to earn an income, Simone began playing in nightclubs, which her mother opposed. This led to the adoption of the new name and, at the demand of a club owner, the addition of singing to her playing. Soon after, her career took off in earnest.

Because of Simone’s rigorous training, she was a hit with the jazz musicians who respected her technical ability as much as her soulful playing and singing. As the 60’s hit full swing, Simone was established as a rising star in popular music.

Along the way, she met her husband, a New York vice squad sergeant named Andy Stroud, who retired from the force and became her manager. At first, Stroud’s firm hand and devotion were welcomed by Simone, but as the years went by, their relationship became volatile and marked by physical abuse that became so bad, Simone wrote in her diary of wanting to commit suicide.

As Simone’s star rose, it was Stroud who was pushing her, keeping her to an aggressive schedule that positioned her with the jazz fans as well as the more mainstream pop fans. The money began to pour in and their coterie of friends included the biggest names in African-American culture and politics: James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X and his family, who were neighbors and confidants.

Simone and Stroud had a daughter, whom Simone formed a complicated relationship with. Wanting to be a good mother, Simone also wanted to be a star (with a busy schedule orchestrated by her husband/manager). It seems like being Miss Simone won out over being just mom most of the time.

As the 60’s were marked by the violent deaths of one African-American civil rights activist after another, not to mention the general violence against African-Americans that was occurring all over the south, the accumulative effect on Miss Simone, who became increasingly political throughout the decade, came to a head after the murder of Dr. King in 1968. As her politics, along with her music and live performances, veered towards the radical, record sales began to dwindle, as did demand for her live performances.

In 1970, Simone left Stroud, her daughter and the United States and eventually settled in Liberia for some time. At first, she seemed liberated by the freedom from responsibilities and the oppression of racism, but her inner demons seemed inescapable. As the decade wore on, the need to earn a living sent her to Europe, where bad luck, bad decisions and bad health sent Simone into a tailspin.

Simone’s bouts of “anger” devolved into madness, and with the help of an old friend/side man and a former business partner, she received medical help in the form of a diagnosis of bi-polar disorder and a regimen of prescription medication that helped her to cope while slowly destroying her motor skills in the process.

When we catch up to Simone at Montreaux in 1976, we have a different understanding of the significance of this unlikely return. Earlier, we witness an interview, where Simone expounds on the meaning of freedom. After groping for an answer, she finally settles on the answer – no fear. Having settled in on that answer, you can see that she has struck a deep nerve within herself that the interviewer completely missed.

In that 1976 performance, Simone confronts an audience member who has distracted her. When the moment passes and Simone returns to the music, she’s obviously rattled and takes a beat to re-compose herself. The look in Simone’s eye is not the same as the self-possessed artist of 1960, who’d yet to feel the crushing weight of celebrity, the crushing defeat of the murder of dear friends and the crushing accumulation of whatever those demons were that pursued her, be they mental illness or something else.

What Happened, Miss Simone? paints a vivid portrait of a sensitive artist with a towering gift who performed a profound act of fearlessness in giving us, in her art, herself.

Cartel Land

A buddy of mine likes to tell me that drug use is a victimless crime. For people who think like this, I give you Cartel Land,  an Academy Award nominated documentary that give us an up-close view of the impact of the drug trade by examining two groups of citizens trying to do something about it. It’s an amazingly intimate portrait that gives us a seldom seen perspective.

Cartel LandCartel Land attempts to make sense of the complexity of the drug trade between Mexico and the United States by focusing on two vigilante leaders – one on the Mexican side and the other on the American side of the border. By going micro, director and camera man Matthew Heineman is able to make real the abstract nature of the tragedy and absurdity of the so-called War on Drugs.

On the American side of the border, in Arizona’s Altar Valley, we meet Tim “Nailer” Foley, an American vet around fifty years old who has organized a small vigilante force dedicated to patrolling the border and stopping the movements of the Mexican drug cartels. It’s dangerous work, and Foley has skin like leather and clear blue eyes reminiscent of the mythological American Cowboy.

On the Mexican side, more than a thousand miles from the border in the state of Michoacán, we meet Dr. José Mireles, a physician from a rural community overrun by a cartel known as the Knights Templar. After seeing many of his friends, neighbors and family members beaten, raped and murdered by the gangs, Mireles took a stand against them, and on February 23, 2013 launched a vigilante effort called El Grupo Autodefensas that was initially very effective in turning back the tide of lawlessness.

Cartel Land
Director, Matthew Heineman

Heineman was allowed to embed himself in each of these groups, seemingly alone and armed with a light and portable camera rig that allowed him to participate in patrols and raids with the vigilante groups where he was often exposed to gunfire. By being approved by the leaders of each group, he was able to film interviews with principal participants and victims that paint a chilling picture of the high stakes each group is playing for.

Foley and Mireles are each dismissive of the desire of their respective governments (as well as the government on the other side of the border) in bringing an end to the drug trade. I must admit a cultural bias that makes believing in Mexican corruption an easier pill to swallow than what is either American corruption or at least callous indifference to the flow of drugs and people who are smuggled across the border with little resistance. But Foley and his band of militants have no such troubles.

To his credit, Heineman deals with the controversy that accompanies each of these groups.

In the American camp, Foley is presented as a clear-headed, fair-minded pragmatist, willing to climb into bed with survivalists, white supremacists and other fringe elements so long as they share the same objective, which is to protect the American border from what Foley perceives as the forces of evil – that is, the drug cartels. Heineman interviews one such individual who states without blinking that good fences are effective and necessary in keeping incompatible races apart. He also shows news clips that we’ve all seen that characterize the vigilantes in a negative light as violent, hateful people.

Foley himself is honest and open about his troubled past, which includes drug and alcohol abuse. But after a near-death experience some 20 years back, he’s now clean, sober and on a mission to make a difference. To put a dent in the universe.

Cartel Land
Dr. José Manuel Mireles

As for Mireles, it’s a trickier tale. When we meet him, Dr. Mireles is a handsome, mustochioed man nearing 60. Tall and graceful, with an eloquent and charismatic appeal to his neighbors. His appeals to one community after another to join his movement to put an end to the mindless violence of the cartels is like something from Hollywood.

And the people followed him.

As the Autodefensas cleared out one village after another, Mireles’ celebrity grew, which also drew the attention of not only the cartels but a nervous federal government, which must have worried about a popular uprising against it. I had a sense, watching Cartel Land, that Mireles was a goner, and right after the thought struck me, the description of the suspicious nature of a plane crash involving Mireles is revealed.

Without the galvanizing force of Mireles’ leadership, the Autodefensas spirals into chaos with counter-offensives from the cartels as well as corruption and in-fighting within the group.

To make mattes worse, Dr. Mireles is open about his weakness for women. At first, he’s shown first as a compassionate neighbor, then as a caring doctor and finally as a doting husband, father and grandpa, but we also see that “El Doctor” also has a thing for pretty young women, which becomes a perfect metaphor for the murky waters of the War on Drugs. Nothing is as it seems. Nobody is pure. Good and evil often co-exist within the same men at the same time.

On the first anniversary of the Auodefensas movement, Mexican president Enrique Peńa Neto made a slick maneuver designed to eliminate the threat of the Autodefensas movement while simultaneously appearing to support it by absorbing the vigilante group into the federal government and giving it legal status and a new name.

Suspicious of this move, Mireles refuses to go along and stands alone against the government that has shown that it has little interest in doing serious damage to the cartels that have infiltrated its halls of power. Not long after, Dr. Mireles was captured and imprisoned. Today, he is in a remote prison in a kind of legal limbo with his health deteriorating as the Mexican government decides what to do next.

The last we see of Mireles, he owns up to his mistakes and unlike the two governments in question, takes full responsibility for his actions.

At the same time, the vigilante movement he spawned has devolved to the level of the cartels they were created to fight, with corruption, in-fighting and lawlessness their signatures. In this case, evil has won out. As we hear two times, from Mexicans on both sides of the fight, “For now, I’m the lucky one.”

Cartel Land
Tim “Nailer” Foley

Back in Arizona, things are a little better. Without a federal government out to stop him, Foley is adding to his numbers and can point to small victories as they regularly intercept small gangs of scouts who are the eyes of the smugglers. He characterizes his efforts as an elaborate game of hide-and-seek, which is okay with him. He’s in this for the long haul.

In the final analysis, I suppose that Heineman’s message is one of hope. Having seen what people can do when they stand up to tyranny, he has shown us that the cartels can be beaten as long as we have people like Mireles and Foley who are true believers with nothing to lose. For though they may be flawed, at least they can’t be bought.

After watching Cartel Land, I defy anyone to say that drugs are a victimless crime.

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

I went into Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom knowing very little about the conflict it describes. Maybe that was a good thing, because today at lunch I got an earful from my conspiracy theorist cousin about what a bunch of propaganda the film is. I don’t know if that’s true, but regardless of the facts about the protests of 2013-2014, director Evgeny Afineevsky has crafted a powerful story about a people standing up to injustice and paying a steep price for change.

Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for FreedomThe film, nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary this year, is an insider’s view of the events that led to the forced resignation of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.

In late 2013, as a deadline approached for Ukraine’s joining of the European Union, young people gathered in the city center of Kyiv to mark the moment and ensure that it actually took place. Yanukovych was well known for his desire to align with Russia, and as the deadline came and went without a signing of the paperwork, Yanukovych moved towards the feared partnership with Putin, triggering non-violent yet vocal protest that, over a 3 month period, escalated to the point of bloodshed, killing 125 protesters, injuring hundreds more and forcing Yanukovych to flee the country in the middle of the night to seek asylum in Russia.

Afineevsky’s footage takes us into the middle of the protester’s makeshift camp and acquaints us with many of the principal figures who marched and died during that momentous three month period.

The only talking head interviews are with the protestors themselves who recount their experiences and emotions as we see the images of what they describe. What started as primarily a movement of the young soon mushroomed and pulled in older generations – doctors, lawyers, bankers and even the military who were afraid of returning to the old Soviet ways.

Even after the government employed violent tactics that escalated over time, the movement only grew until it reached a point-of-no-return as the participants described the final bloody encounter with government forces.

Having sat through many documentaries covering unrest in decades past, it’s still strange for me to see images of people decked out in skinny jeans, hipster beards and contemporary clothing in a story as old as time itself. But as long as governments ignore the wishes of the people they represent, we’ll continue to see images like the ones captured in this powerful documentary.

It’s a one-sided telling of this story, for sure, that paints the protestors as freedom fighters, innocents and crusaders for a better tomorrow, and without knowing any of the opposing sides to this story, I walked away from this movie moved to the point of tears at the bravery and dedication of those who fought and died, as well as those who fought and have to carry on.

A first-draft take: The Revenant

Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant was nominated this week for a Best Picture Oscar, and I went to see it today hoping it was better than I’ve been hearing. Unfortunately, it’s exactly as I’ve been hearing.

The problem with The Revenant, if you want to call it that, is that it’s a good adventure tale dressed up like an epic.

The RevenantThe film stars Leonardo DiCaprio (in an Oscar nominated performance) as Hugh Glass, a real-life frontiersman who lived in the time of frontier heroes like Jim Bridger, with his own true-life adventures that read like tall tales. DiCaprio is solid in the role, which called for very little memorization of lines. What sounds DiCaprio made were mostly in the form of grunts and heavy breathing, and dressed in a thick bear skin pull-over and sporting a scraggly beard and long hair, he looks more like an animal than the suave Gatsby-esque figure we’re used to seeing.

The story opens in a flashback of the savage murder of Glass’ wife, a Pawnee, and the mutilation of their son’s face by white soldiers. Her whispered words of love and wisdom serve as a kind of frontier Greek chorus as Glass makes his way through this story.

The story’s present is years after the massacre and finds Glass and his son Hawk working as guides for American fur trappers in Wyoming in the early-1800’s. As Glass and his son hunt for food, their party is attacked by Ree’s seeking the daughter of their chief.

The action sequences are expertly shot, putting you in the middle of the action. The violence is depicted so realistically that blood spatters the lens at one point. Arrows pierce necks, bullets open up holes in bodies, knives puncture abdomens. And blood flows in nearly every scene.

Glass and Hawk make it back to their party and help the survivors escape to their flatboat, which provides temporary relief from attack.

During all of this, we meet Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hardy (in an Oscar nominated role), a cruel fur trapper who is a tough man among tough men. Of course, he makes it back to the boat without so much of a scratch, cursing and complaining about all the pelts they had to leave behind – no doubt a comment on the boundless greed of American expansionism.

Once they’ve gotten out of earshot of their attackers, Glass recommends abandoning the boat, which is sure to be attacked downstream, and opting for an overland route back to the safety of their fort of origin.

Fitzgerald hates the idea and argues strenuously against it, discounting Glass’ coolly articulated explanation of them being sitting ducks. Their captain, played by Domhnall Gleeson, sides with Glass and orders the boat ashore at the next logical spot.

Fitzgerald keeps up his bitching and complaining until the captain orders him to knock it off. This only shifts his target, but not his tone as he starts in on Glass, asking him if it was true that he shot and American officer in defense of an Indian woman (Glass’ own wife, we learn later). Glass refuses to engage the man.

This sets up the central conflict between Glass and Fitzgerald, two men who openly dislike one another.

When Glass is mauled by a bear a few mornings later, in a scene that is amazingly shot and performed, it’s Fitzgerald who argues strenuously against attempting to haul nearly dead carcass over the mountains. When the captain finally relents, and asks for volunteers to stay with Glass until he dies(along with the real-life Jim Bridger and Hawk), to see he is properly buried, Fitzgerald agrees after a handsome payday is offered. All this is done in full view of Glass, who is injured but conscious.

Later, when Fitzgerald is tired of waiting, he tries to bargain with Glass to let him end his life. When Hawk interrupts this plan, Fitzgerald kills him in a struggle, which is again played out in full view of Glass, who can do nothing but grunt and cry.

When Fitzgerald lies to Bridger, in order to get hi to abandon Glass, the remainder of the movie is the struggle for Glass to literally claw his way back to civilization to exact his vengeance on Fitzgerald.

Against all odds, Glass relies on his training and a single-minded determination to overcome obstacle after obstacle. Cold weather, lack of food, lack of shelter, lack of weapons for protection and an improbably crowded wilderness filled with predatory men are all dealt with in an improvisational manner that would Jason Bourne proud.

Fitzgerald and Bridger make it back to the fort, just after the captain and the others, and as promised, he’s paid his bounty for doing the honorable thing. Not wanting young Bridger to go un-rewarded for his duty, the captain gives him another share even though he’s paid the original to Fitzgerald. Bridger, in a fit of conscience, leaves it with the captain and storms out of the meeting.

Glass finally does make it back to the fort, where his return is announced with enough warning that Fitzgerald can break into the captain’s safe and sneak off for Texas with a small fortune.

The final act of the movie sees a rejuvenated Glass setting off with the captain to finish what he started, challenging his wife’s haunting reminders to leave vengeance to God.

Everything about this film is done superbly, from the fine cast to the extraordinary cinematography to the special effects of the frontier violence. There’s not a false note in the whole movie, which begs the question – “Why did I walk away feeling like there was something missing?”

Again, I think that the story just wasn’t big enough to support the great ambition of Iñárritu and his team.

The first evidence of this lies in the flashback sequences and the voice-overs. My guess is that they weren’t in the first draft of the script, but were added to give Glass’ struggle depth and universality that, although they worked, just didn’t elevate the story.

Compare The Revenant to Jeremiah Johnson, and you’ll see what I mean. Jeremiah Johnson, similarly, was the story of a frontiersman in roughly the same time period whose family is similarly butchered. But what elevates the Redford classic to the level of epic is the framing of Johnson’s story against that of the culture from which he’s escaping from and into. Jeremiah Johnson is a densely layered story that works first as an adventure, then as social commentary and finally as epic.

All this is not to diminish The Revenant. If it wasn’t for the aforementioned Oscar nominations, I probably wouldn’t belabor the above points. But because it has been nominated for so many awards, it’s impossible not to think of it in those terms.

I look forward to seeing the remainder of the nominated films to see where The Revenant ranks, but for now, I’m guessing it’s not this year’s Best Picture.

Star Wars is magic (seriously)

Yesterday, I went to see the new Star Wars movie with my family and parents and I loved it every second of it. At the first site of the yellow, scrolling text, I was transported back to 1977, when I was 10 years old, seeing the original for the first time. A moment later, I was lost in a new story with familiar, though older characters.

I saw the original trilogy as it was released, but by the time the prequels came along, I’d moved on and didn’t bother with them. After yesterday, I may have to re-think that decision, especially since my kids, who’ve never seen a Star Wars movie, told me they wanted to watch the first six.

When I say the experience I had yesterday was magical, I’m not using hyperbole. I believe that the ability of one person to fabricate a made-up story in a way so powerful that it causes another person to be transported into that make-believe reality for a even a brief moment is the closest we come to making magic.

The Hero's Journey
The Hero’s Journey, as it pertains to “Star Wars”

It’s no secret that George Lucas based the structure of that first Star Wars film on The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell’s synthesizing of myths from around the world into a cycle that includes a call to adventure, followed by an adventure that involves adversaries, helpers, jokers and heroines.

Of course Star Wars isn’t the only movie to pick up on the structure of the Hero’s Journey, as Campbell called the cycle. That story structure is coded into our DNA, buried deep within the recesses of our subconscious, and one needs to look no farther than stories like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or High Noon or Gone With the Wind to see the cycle at work.

I find it fascinating, though that Campbell connected world mythology (or religion, if you please) to the secular mythos of popular entertainment, for the power of story is just as strong in the form of parable as it is in a story like Schindler’s List or The Killing Fields to hook us emotionally and point us to a deeper truth.

Story always trumps facts, and the great teachers throughout history prove this point. Jesus didn’t argue as the lawyer, parading a progression of facts that proved his point. He told stories that were relatable to everyone, from the mightiest king to the lowliest outcast.

The Soviets and the Nazis understood this, and used propaganda, or storytelling, to reinforce their narratives and rally their respective citizenry to their causes. Because of the potency of story to engage the emotions, it can be used to manipulate large numbers of people. Just look at the way debt has been marketed to Americans over the past 50 years, to the point where we are a nation up to our ears in crippling debt – all because of the power of banks and financiers to hook us emotionally with a narrative that tells us that we deserve better.

Story is like The Force, in Star Wars. It can be used for good or bad.

On the good side, we can always point to a William Shakespeare or an Abraham Lincoln or a Martin Luther King Jr., who said that he had a dream, not a ream of data or a pie chart. It was a dream – a story – that galvanized the Civil Rights Movement.

Last week, I had lunch with my cousin Greg, and when I told him of the plans to see Star Wars, he rolled his eyes cynically and said that the Hollywood machine would get none of his money for what he was sure would be a formulaic pile of shit. He’s not the only one to express this sentiment, but after seeing the movie for myself, I can say that he’s wrong. While the movie, like all movies, is designed to separate me from my hard earned money, it’s also a nice escape from the stress and headaches that go into making that hard buck. And at 135 minutes, it’s a bargain compared to other movies, in terms of bang for the buck.

At the movies
With my family at “Star Wars The Force Awakens”

It’s funny, and no coincidence, that just as our churches went from being opulent cathedrals to more utilitarian or even multi-use facilities no too different from warehouses, so too have our movie theatres gone from ornate palaces to functional, cramped spaces that are little more than warehouses with drapery hung on the walls for better sound.

Times are tough, friends, for sacred and secular churches alike, and while the places where we go to hear these stories may have changed, the power of stories to transform our lives is just as potent now as it ever was.

I can’t wait for episode 8 of the Star Wars saga, and while I’m waiting, I can’t wait to go back with my kids and catch up.

Film Review: Life Itself

LieItselfIf you’re a movie fan and haven’t seen Life Itself, Steve James’s documentary on the life of film critic Roger Ebert, you’re depriving yourself of quite a treat.

If you’re old enough to have grown up in the ‘70’s, like me, then you probably discovered Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel on Sneak Previews, when they were giving thumbs up or down on public television. My family, movie geeks of varying tastes, loved the show, and we argued about their reviews as much as they did.

Where Mom and Dad probably saw the show as mere distraction, I consumed it as a gateway drug to a way of life that eventually led me to New York to pursue a life in theatre and film. By the time I discovered the show, I was already a movie junkie, but I couldn’t envision them as anything more than fantasy. What Siskel and Ebert did for me was to take movies as seriously as people take politics or the economy or their jobs.

For a dreamy kid like me, their impassioned feuds over films like Apocalypse Now gave me permission to take movies as seriously as they did. And boy did I.

As I grew older, my plans and priorities changed, but my love for the movies has never dimmed. Whenever a new movies pops up on my radar, I’ll go over to Rotten Tomatoes to see how it scores with the Top Critics. Before Roger Ebert died, in April 2013, I’d always at least skim his reviews to see what he had to say about a movie, trusting him and Andrew Sarris about all other critics.

Life Itself, is an admiring take on Ebert’s life, though there are plenty of rough edges discussed by friends and former colleagues from Chicago. Ebert was, for a time, a heavy drinker, and like many journalists before him, frequented the neighborhood bars near the Chicago Sun-Times, where he spent his career. And when he finally gave up alchohol, in 1979, he didn’t give up on his combative style, which was most publicly evident on the various incarnations of Sneak Previews, where he and frienemy Gene Siskel would go toe-to-toe, resorting to low blows when mere rhetoric failed.

When he was fifty, Ebert married Chaz Hammel-Smith, and the glimpses we get into their marriage are truly inspiring. Chaz’s devotion and care for Ebert are naked on the screen, and it’s impossible not to well up with emotion as she struggles with caring for her husband in the wake of thyroid cancer that ultimately left Ebert with no jaw or tongue, making speech impossible for this man of many words.

To the very end, Roger Ebert shared his ideas and opinions with us through his blog, which he updated almost daily. In Life Itself, we see a man who has been dealt a tough hand deal with his troubles with grace and dignity, choosing to experience life as a blessing and facing each day with two thumbs up.

Film Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest HotelAs with his other movies, Wes Anderson has described The Grand Budapest Hotel, his latest feature, as a fable, and it is through the lens of fable/fairy tale that the Anderson oeuvre is best viewed.  Throughout his career, Anderson has developed a style that creates a dreamy, childlike version of the real world where his characters navigate new settings for his obsessions, which include family and loss and nostalgia.

The movie is structured like a set of four Russian nesting dolls, with each layer representing a particular year (the present, 1985, 1968 and 1932, respectively).  This being Wes Anderson, he frames the different periods by shooting each in a different aspect ratio.  Further, the main action of the movie takes place in 1932, and is subdivided into five chapters.

The film opens in the present with a young lady visiting a cemetery, where she finds a monument to a man identified only as “Author.”  On the monument are dozens of sets of keys, left by fans, to which she adds her own before opening the man’s book, titled “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

By way of reading along with the girl, the movie flashes back to 1985, where the Author (Tom Wilkinson) recites what is likely the preface of the book, telling how he came to visit the Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968, when he was stricken with scribes fever, a common malady of the intelligentsia of that time.

This leads us to 1968, where we see a younger version of the Author (Jude Law), hanging out in the shabbily appointed lobby of the Grand Budapest Hotel.  The place is only a shadow of its former self, and it is here that the Author meets the hotel’s famous and mysterious owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham).

The two dine together in the hotel’s cavernous but empty grand dining hall, and Moustafa tells the Author the story of how he came to work at the Grand Budapest Hotel and come under the tutelage of Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the hotel’s larger-than-life concierge and benevolent dictator who micromanaged every detail of the guest experience – not unlike Wes Anderson himself.

This takes us to 1932, where we will stay until the final scenes.  Moustafa is a young boy (Tony Revolori), orphaned and alone in his new country, and he idolizes M. Gustave, who takes him under his wing, first as Lobby Boy and then as a surrogate son/brother.

M. Gustave has a habit of getting “involved” with elderly blondes with low self-esteem who also have lots of money.  He lavishes them wth attention and pleasure, and they adore him in return.  He’s a dandyish fop of a man, vain and blow-hardy, but genteel and likeable.

The death of one of his lovers, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), brings M. Gustave and Mosutafa to her estate to hear the reading of the last will and testament.  When it is revealed that M. Gustave is to receive her prized possession, a priceless Dutch painting, that’s when the plot kicks into overdrive, becoming part screwball comedy, part caper.

Sensing a battle, M. Gustave and Moustafa sneak off with the painting.  Madame D’s son, Dimitri (Adrian Brody), along with his henchman Jopling (Willem Dafoe) are determined to get the painting away from M. Gustave and frame him for the murder of Madame D.

This gives us a prison escape that is quintessential Wes Anderson whimsy, a secret society of Europen concierges who come to the aid of M. Gustave and Moustafa, a clandestine meeting at a mountaintop observatory/monastery involving miniatures and a wild and crazy chase scene, capped off with a denouement that is quite moving.

The world described in The Grand Budapest Hotel, like the one in The Royal Tenenbaums is a carefully constructed alternate reality, meant to closely resemble their real-life inspirations, New York and pre-war Europe.  It is a highly stylized, fairy tale rendering that allows Anderson to explore his themes without a lot of baggage that comes along with telling a story of Europe at the moment that World War II is breaking out.  It frees Anderson to cherry-pick images and ideas and characters, exactly as a fable does. In this world, because it’s not quite real, the fascists and nazis can be played for laughs.

There are all the other flourishes we’ve come to expect in a Wes Anderson movie – the “uniforms” each character wears, the color palette, the Futura font and the tinkly, music box music that makes us feel were are indeed in a fairy tale.

As much as I love Anderson’s movies, I don’t know that I’ve ever gotten choked up at one…until the last scenes of The Grand Budapest Hotel.  The fairy tale nature of his films mutes the sadness somehow.  In this case, something is different.  I don’t know if that is due to Anderson, or due to the extraordinary performance of Ralph Fiennes, whose portrayal of M. Gustave reminds me of Gene Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum.  Anderson’s characters tend to be two-dimensional, if you want to pick on him, but in the case of Fiennes and Hackman, their collaborations added depths that might not have been on the page.  Fiennes gives us, in M. Gustave, a rich and flavorful portrait of a man ate up with vanity and insecurity who also grows to love others as much as himself (much like Royal Tenenbaum).

M. Gustave’s transformation is from a man whose ideals were directed externally to his work and appearance, to one whose ideals are more fully realized through the expression of his devotion to Moustafa.  He remains the dandy, but with depth.

We see this play out in three train rides.  In the first train trip, to see Madame D’s corpse, M. Gustave, perhaps unwittingly, risks his security for the sake of Zero.  On the way home, they sign their sacred oath in which Zero, a lowly newcomer to Zubrowka, becomes the heir to M. Gustave’s estate (worth nothing at the time of the signing).  Finally, there’s the last train ride, in which M. Gustave stands up for Zero, the way a father would for his only son.  In the first and third examples, the world has changed, but M. Gustave doesn’t see it, and the scenes are played with a beautiful balance of comedy and pathos.

As hinted at above, the cast is rounded out by many fine performers and performances, an Anderson trademark, and Tony Revolori more than holds his own with Dafoe, Brody, and others with whom he shares the screen.  If nothing else, he should be able to make a living as a member of Anderson’s ever-expanding troupe of loyal players.

As to Anderson’s troupe of actors, I’m reminded of John Huston’s statement that most of his directing came in the casting.  If he was making a Clark Gable picture, he’d hire Clark Gable and let him be Clark Gable.  We see this brilliantly fleshed out in the casting of Dafoe as a quiet killer, Goldblum as the doomed lawyer, and Keitel as the grizzled old convict.  As with a lot of Anderson’s characterizations, the casting is a kind of shorthand where the actor’s baggage fills in some of the gaps that may be on the page.  I don’t know if that’s good filmmaking or not, but it works for Anderson the same way a fairy tale may simply say that a knight was noble or a king was good.

If the casting, writing, and filmmaking add-up to a “typical” Wes Anderson fable, so does the moral of the tale.  As with most all of Anderson’s movies, we have the orphaned young Moustafa, somewhat like Max Fisher in Rushmore, Sam in Moonrise Kingdom or Eli in The Royal Tenenbaums, searching for a surrogate family, which he finds in M. Gustave and Agatha, his sweetheart.

Anderson’s movies almost always deal with attempts to fix broken families or create new ones in the absence of the original one.  Community is important to Anderson, both in his movies and the process in which they’re made.  During the filming of The Grand Budapest Hotel, he had the cast stay together in a small inn, where the dinners were prepared by one of Anderson’s friends nearly every night.  The cast lived communally, at his insistence.  Anderson makes no secret of the joy he derives from the collaborative aspects of making movies, as though the thought of working alone were a fright.

And so it is that families, either by blood or through self-selection, are at the center of Wes Anderson’s movies.  Though never perfect, they are held up as something worth fighting for.  M. Gustave and young Moustafa, with their unlikely pairing, make The Grand Budapest Hotel something of a father/son buddy pic, so in tune are they to one another.

Additionally, The Grand Budapest Hotel deals heavily in nostalgia, lamenting a bygone era that has been left behind and nearly forgotten.  Moustafa calls the timeframe of his story “the best years of my life.”  He goes on to observe M. Gustave’s nostalgia by accusing him of aping the lifestyle of a previous generation.  Nostalgia echoes throughout the movie, especially as the movie works its way through each successive timeframe layer.

Finally, a sense of loss permeates The Grand Budapest Hotel.  As each timeframe gives way to the one previous, we sense the loss – of youth, of lives, of culture – that came with the two world wars and communism and simply with the living of life, where nothing lasts forever.  Anderson romanticizes the people and places in The Grand Budapest Hotel, serving us a dish we love to savor and miss, once the last bite has been eaten.

In a wonderful moment that beautifully captures the fine line Anderson walks between mourning and shrugging off loss, M. Gustave tells Zero, just after they are pistol whipped on the first train trip, “You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.  Indeed, that’s what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant…oh, fuck it.”  It’s as if, mid-way trough this well-practiced speech that props up the façade of his life, he wearies of it, recognizing the silliness of his pose and understanding that poses aren’t necessary with a brother.

In short, Wes Anderson makes bedtime stories for adults, and with The Grand Budapest Hotel, he is at the top of his game.

Film Review: The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2011)

In 1954, the Pruitt-Igoe public housing project opened in the DeSoto-Carr neighborhood just north of downtown St. Louis. Covering 57 acres and consisting of 33 high-rise structures of 11 stories each, the project was initially hailed as an architectural marvel – the perfect marriage of design and public policy. Within a few years of opening, conditions at Pruitt-Igoe began to unravel, and every effort to salvage the project failed. In 1972, three of the buildings were infamously imploded, and in 1976, the remaining structures were also demolished, leaving behind an urban wasteland that has yet to be redeveloped.
Pruitt-Igoe was a colossal failure, and as so often happens with success and defeat, the stated reason evolved into an overly simplistic explanation that, after many retellings, became the agreed upon “truth.” As the myth goes, Pruitt-Igoe failed due to poor design. High-modernism was the culprit, and the attack came, surprisingly, from the architectural community itself – from competing dogmas that completely ignored the social, economic, and political forces at work.
The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, a fascinating documentary directed by Chad Freidrichs, cracks open the legend of this disaster and uncovers a complex web of causes that build, one on top of the other, until failure seems inevitable.
With a wealth of archival film footage and photographs, Freidrichs paints a picture of post-war conditions in St. Louis slums reminiscent of the work of Jacob Riis. Slumlords got rich preying on the working poor with over-crowded, ramshackle housing that was often devoid of plumbing or water. As the slums grew and threatened to spread into the central business district, merchants and politicians in St. Louis sprang into action, hoping to stem the tide, but a conservative political climate made urban renewal projects difficult to finance.
The United States Housing Act of 1949 created the opportunity that politicians sought, and soon, a plan was underway to redevelop a 57 acre tract of land just north of downtown. In 1950, the St. Louis Housing Authority awarded design of the new housing project to Leinweber, Yamasaki & Hellmuth (Minoru Yamasaki would go on to design the World Trade Center). The Pruitt-Igoe myth presupposes that the architects who designed Pruitt-Igoe had free reign to mold the project to their collective social philosophy. The truth is there were many government imposed design constraints – financial limitations, density parameters, the number of units, and the number of buildings and stories – that forced the firm to abandon its original vision for the project.
The true strength of the film lies in the interviews conducted with about a half-dozen former residents of Pruitt-Igoe, and what’s interesting is the disparity of their recollected experiences, which ranged from nostalgic to pragmatic to rueful. A woman who lived on the top floor of one building refers to her apartment as a “poor man’s penthouse.” And even with the passing of years and all the bad things that happened after she moved in, she remains grateful to have lived there. Another recalls the fights he endured and his retreat to a nearby vacant lot where he could study bugs and plants.
In the current political climate, the subject of public housing sparks wildly converging viewpoints (again with the over-simplifying), and Pruitt-Igoe both confirms and debunks the stereotypes of public housing, showing us that the truth lies somewhere in-between.
In the first years of the project, pride of ownership and a sense of community were common, but as a complex domino effect of economic, social, and political forces impacted St. Louis – white flight fueled by governmental incentives to develop the suburbs, declining funds to properly maintain the project, and wrong-headed policy – that initial ray of hope evaporated into crime and violence with frightening speed until it was finally done away with.
Freidrichs does a fine job of illustrating the complexity of the failure of Pruitt-Igoe without preaching. And in debunking the Pruitt-Igoe myth, he debunks the myth of the failure of public housing everywhere. St. Louis and Pruitt-Igoe become a stand-in for most American cities because what happened there was repeated throughout the country, if on a smaller scale. What becomes clear is that the oft-repeated liberal and conservative takes on the subject are over-simplistic and wrong.
Whatever the reason, there will likely always be poor people in our society, and The Pruitt-Igoe Myth invites us into thoughtful debate over the role of government in assisting the poor of America, nudging us to let go of the tired old myths that have left us all stranded.