25 March, 2009


On Tuesdays Allen ditched work promptly at five and took Route 11 to the Smash Emporium. The emporium was invite-only, and Tuesday evenings were when Reub scheduled his appointments. It was the perfect workout to get him through the rest of the week, neither too early nor too late.

A few sudden turns put the North Vegas suburbs behind a hill, and the next half hour was rocky terrain, sun-hardened brush, and telephone poles. The setting sun angled through his window, and the hot sun provided the warm-up to his exercise. He’d remove his tie and shirt behind the wheel, putting on a more comfortable tee. He kept a pair of dusty boots beneath the back seat. By the time he reached the manufactured community where the emporium was, a modern marvel of a town with bright green golf courses, quartz blue swimming pool oases, and gleaming white second homes, he was mentally and physically prepared to break as many things as possible.

The Smash Emporium was the foreclosed home of a recessed banker. His partners had gotten a bailout while he had been kicked out, and twenty-four hours later he had blown out his brains. That was in Chicago. He had apparently tried gulping a pint of Drano mixed with brandy mixed with ice, but he had vomited that mixed with blood all over his bathroom. The shock of that hadn’t been enough to change his mind about death. He just used a gun instead. Maybe he didn’t want to clean up the mess. Allen knew this because Reub did, and how Reub knew Allen didn’t know. Reub had snatched up his Nevada vacation estate cheap—the real estate market for an impossible luxury neighborhood in the middle of the desert was plummeting.

The estate was three floors with an attic, a basement, a kidney-shaped pool, a detached two-story garage, a now-dead garden, and a private shooting range. Reub had filled it with other items he got cheap from online auction sites, estate sales, thrift stores, big box discount retailers, and junkyards. He stocked each room according to a theme. An office with a wooden desk, a personal computer, a complicated telephone and fax machine set up. A living room with a flat screen television wired to other expensive electronics. Kitchen cabinets full of dishes, juice glasses, jars of tomato sauce, and gallons of milk. A home library with tall shelves overflowing with books. A car in the garage. Most of it was junk that didn’t work, but none of it looked like junk—the illusion of perfect working condition and affluence was always maintained. And for a high but fixed price, the customer could parade through the house with provided sledge hammers, flasks of lighter fluid, chipped hatchets, and hard fists and break as much as he or she wished in whatever ways thinkable. Unreasonable damage to the house itself was added to the bill, of course. And every week by appointment time the house was restocked to pristine, livable condition with new furniture, unique antiques, and whatever special touches Reub had managed to dig up. He was an artist of interior decoration, a master at recreating polished, functional environments that cried to be destroyed.

“I got something you’ll like,” Reub said, taking Allen into the lobby. “I remember you told me to keep an eye out for something matrimonial. Well, I’ve been putting something together for a couple of months now, ever since then, and well—it’s in the parlor. You can do it first. Or you can work your way up to it. Whatever you want.” He was excited, eager to unveil his newest creation. He always got giddy when he talked about his best new offerings. He prided himself on providing rare, wonderful, and suitable items to annihilate.

But Allen couldn’t jump right into the best part. He needed more mundane situations to blister first. He needed to save the catharsis for last. Reub knew what Allen did for a living, knew that he owned a company that sold audio and video devices to casinos under contract, decking out blackjack tables with tiny flatscreens that blared advertisements and distracted less seasoned players from keeping their attentions on the game. Giant monitors that wailed previews of burlesque shows and musical theater. Reub knew what Allen’s office was like, knew what irritations and stressful environments surrounded him on an average day. Reub knew about all his customer’s destructive fantasies. He sometimes knew what they needed to crush before they knew it themselves.

Allen loved kicking the computer monitor off of the desk, smashing it with his boot. He enjoyed the shattered glass, the finality of the sound it made. The way the shards splayed across the floor. You couldn’t put shattered glass back together. Every week, he also made sure he snapped the keyboard in half, sometimes pulling up on each end with his boot firmly planted in the center, sometimes repeatedly whacking it against the chipped and knicked desk.

He broke the dinner plates one at a time, trying to make music by spacing out the drops. It sounded like playing a cymbal. He took his time beating the refrigerator with a sledge hammer, until the muscles in his arms ached and sweat poured down his back.

Now he was ready for the power zone.

With his heart rate elevated and a healthy flush to his cheeks, he made his way to the parlor, where a wedding banquet awaited him. There was a buffet of gourmet food—glazed chicken and whole fish and steaming vegetables and seasoned rice—aside a stack of plates, with crystal champagne flutes waiting to be filled by heavy, corked bottles over ice. A three-tiered white cake trimmed with red candy roses stood on its own small table, a carving knife laid out beside it. A glittery, white “CONGRATULATIONS!” banner hung on the wall. Beneath a trellis wreathed with lilies stood two mannequins side by side, one in an elaborate white dress and veil, the other in a smashing tux. On a podium before them sat a thick, leather-bound Bible. Bouquets of lilies lined every wall, and folding chairs had been arrayed for an audience to view the blissful mannequin betrothed.

Allen’s first instinct was to strangle the bride, rip apart the dress, and smash the plastic limbs. Maybe give it a few stabs with the carving knife. But he held back. Better yet to first try on the tuxedo. To have a throw at the food and the wine glasses. To give the metal chairs a good beating. In due time the bride could get what she was due.

* * *

When he was out of breath and his muscles burned from the exertion, with endorphins and adrenaline coursing through his blood, he wrote out the check for Reub and waited for him to shut down and lock up the house. The smoke damage from the fire in the parlor would possibly cost him in the future, but it was nothing to worry about. Reub was happy it had been a success.

Reub each night always drove behind his clients back to North Vegas, where he would treat them to some drinks at one of the finer, low-key bars before retiring to his own home. Tourist rarely wandered up to North Vegas, so the bars were relatively unpolluted. The one he liked most had dim chandeliers veiled in maroon shades, glinting liquor bottles climbing to the ceiling, wall-sized mirrors in every direction, plush leather booths into which the clientele sank softly, and lazy jazz whispering from invisible speakers. The waiters wore white suits and all had slicked-back, black hair.

Reub insisted on being friends with all of his customers, on having social time after each session. He wouldn’t treat just any paying strangers to hours of violence; he needed to know that something average and normal occupied a part of all of them. The servers at the bar knew him well and treated him with warmth and respect.

“The thing about engagement is,” Allen explained while sipping at Drambuie, “it gives a woman permission to give up. Before that there’s a certain uncertainty. She doesn’t know if you really like her. And so she’s always trying to impress, at least as much as is reasonably possible. Otherwise, you could just as easily find someone else, some woman who’s got her shit together better. And like that you’re out, no explanation necessary. With engagement, though, comes responsibility. Responsibility on your part. You can’t just say bye-bye anymore. It’s more long-term, and so there’s more of a cushion for her.

“From the time I proposed to Allie to the time of our wedding day seven months later, she had put on so much weight that the ring I had bought her couldn’t even fit on her finger anymore. And let me tell you, she was hot. A redhead. I know, most of them are atrocious, but when you find one that’s attractive, it’s such a rare beauty. Ivory white skin, she had, but not, like, translucent. Not blue or veiny or freckly. Just spotless. And dark auburn hair.

“But then I proposed and she fucking ballooned. Inflated. Like a goddamn beached whale, she looked. Moby Dick, the white whale. That’s what she looked like. And ha ha, how cute, how funny, the ring doesn’t fit, how embarrassing, we’ll just get it refitted soon, ha ha. Right. No ring, no commitment. Soon as it was said and done I hightailed to the farm up in Burkett, fucked as many whores as I could in a seventy-two hour stretch, drove all the way back completely hammered—I don’t even remember the drive, to be honest—and as soon as I was back, I got that shit, that joke, annulled.

“And it’s about self-respect. And it’s about responsibility. And it’s about staying true to your word. There’s a promise in a proposal. It’s not a permission slip to do whatever the hell you please. Allie Franklin. She was a mess, Reub. A goddamn mess.”

He finished his drink and suckled on the ice cubes. He was relaxed. The workout had released a lot of tension, and it felt great to be unwinding with Reub. Reub understood, and he never judged. He saw the banality and frustration of society, knew where the fault lines were, how to erode it and shatter it. He knew what people needed and was honored to provide it. He was of an old style of entrepreneurs, a philanthropist as well as a capitalist, a fulfiller of needs, a provider of goods, a genius of innovation, not unlike Rockefeller or Ford. Humble and proud all at once, a man of strong character.

“I want to thank you again, Reub,” he said. “What you set up was swell. If there were more people like you running things, the world wouldn’t be headed down the hole.”

And they ordered another round of scotches.

* * *

Wednesday morning brought disappointment and vexation. Vandals had broken in, but the security cameras for some reason hadn’t been running, suggesting it could have been an inside job. There had been a lot of layoffs in recent months. Employees had been let go who had been there since the beginning—too expensive to maintain their high salaries in such a weak economy—and so there was much motivation for disgruntled behavior floating around.

Papers lay scattered everywhere, some of them ripped, many of them trampled on. The phones were missing, and the fluorescent light bulbs had been smashed. Most of the computers were busted out. Many of the cords were ripped and frayed.

It was early, and he wasn’t quite awake yet. Confusion and annoyance came naturally, but Allen had to work on building up his anger. They’d sue the security company, of course. What were they paying them for anyway? Everything was insured, so the financial loss wouldn’t be too great, but it would take time to deal with the police, to file the insurance claim, to sort out the mess, to buy new equipment. It was difficult to tell what documents had been stolen, what confidential information had been exposed. Such a waste of valuable time to rebuild and replace, to get everything back to smooth operation, as it was and how it should be. Such an obnoxious bother the disrespectful little shits had caused, to be so irresponsible and selfish, to damage other people’s hard work, to chip away at the foundations of society. He would find the worthless sons of bitches who had done this, and he would wring their goddamn necks.

By lunchtime, when he’d had his coffee and taken some time to think about the mess, he was suitably furious.

20 March, 2009

Movie Review: Pinocchio (1940)

So many movies seem like they were made just to make a few dollars and fill a few minutes with entertainment. Flat scenes hastily strung together with trite filler. Conventional moments that drag on for two hours, never breathing fresh air. Especially kids' films. So long as the message is right (even if obvious), no parents will be offended (nor children too frightened), and there's an occasional outrageous gag (often implausible) to keep the kids laughing, then it's fit to air.

Pinocchio isn't like that. It's clearly a film that was crafted by artists who knew that they were making art. Every frame is rich with visual humor and wonder; the workshop and home of the toymaker Gepetto is full of a lifetime of sentimental mementos, toys, and inventions. His cat Figaro and goldfish Cleo express more convincing emotion than many live human actors. The bumbling Jiminy Cricket--who's no sage and implacable wise man despite his top hat and role as "Conscience"--constantly interacts with the giant, cluttered world around him, arguing with glum gargoyles, hiding in voluptuous flowers, crawling inside of rusty locks. The clever soundtrack adds a musical dimension to the visual humor. In a song about whistling, Jiminy employs objects throughout the workshop to audibly accentuate his point: violin strings, singing saws, and a cuckoo clock marching band.

Every moment is full of visual and auditory marvels and amusements, but the film never seems cluttered or overwhelming, as the calm tone allows the viewer to get out of the film as much as he wants to put into it. That's a good thing for a children's movie; it means parents can watch it and have just as much fun, if not more, while their children can watch it without getting exhausted and confused. Jiminy Cricket is a comedian, but you can just as easily laugh as groan at him. He's the good-natured old man who always tries to be funny but is only successful sometimes. Just the trying is amusing, even if the specific jokes aren't. His likable personality as the wayward traveler with strength of character despite normal shortcomings makes him an excellent guide through this moral tale, which is willing to forgive people for their mistakes so long as they make a decent effort to do the right thing.

You all know the story: the lonely toymaker Gepetto wishes upon a star that his cute, new marionette puppet be turned into a real, live boy. The Blue Fairy grants the wish, naming Jiminy Cricket his conscience, and explains that he'll only become a true boy made of flesh and bone if he proves himself unselfish, honest, and brave. Of course, he then proceeds to dabble in all the wrong sins, but his virtue comes from recognizing his mistakes, regretting them, and moving forward anew.

Often he tries to take the easy street: skipping school, making mischief, telling lies, falling for scams. The consequences always quickly become clear. After some time on Pleasure Island smoking cigars, drinking mugs of beer, damaging property, and playing pool, he realizes that he's turning into a real jackass--literally--just like all the other "stupid boys" who abandon responsibility to have fun by wrecking havoc.

isn't a bright film, nor an antiseptic one. Pinocchio gets into real trouble and gets punished for it, and it isn't always clear that everyone will get out safe and sound and happily ever after at the end. At one point a marionette gets an axe thrown through his chest--he's rotten firewood now. And the final scenes involve a dark and dismal prison, a ferocious real-life monster, and some of the most beautiful and thrilling water animation I've ever seen.

I used to watch Pinocchio some twenty years ago, and I always though it was one of the scarier cartoons. It is. But it's also hilarious and beautiful, and its hope lies in its granting of wishes, forgiveness, and second chances.

Pinocchio is #334 on the TSPDT? list. It probably deserves to be higher. The film won Academy Awards for music categories for Leigh Harline (composer) and Ned Washington (lyricist), who certainly deserved them. Disney recently released the movie in a beautifully restored Blu-Ray edition, and it's definitely worth revisiting.

Pinocchio (1940)
d: Hamilton Luske, Ben Sharpsteen w: Ted Sears, et al.
(Cliff Edwards, Dickie Jones, Christian Rub)
TSPDT? #334

18 March, 2009

Movie Review: The Grand Illusion (1937)

It's humbling to write about a movie as intelligent, revered, and successful as Jean Renoir's 1937 war masterpiece La grande illusion, or to even publish my hastily compiled first impressions after one late night viewing amongst the probable thousands of things that have been written and said by scholars, critics, and fans in the past seventy years, whose acclaim have pushed the movie to #24 on the TSPDT? list. The Grand Illusion is a thought-provoking, touching, and funny accomplishment, and it deserves rank amongst the greatest that cinema has ever offered.

"The Grand Illusion" is, of course, war, and the First World War--the Great War--is chosen as the stage whereon the old world of chivalry, esprit de corps, nationalism, and aristocracy, all those notions that helped to propel Europe into the war, extinguishes pitifully to make way for a hopeful, modern society of sacrifice, democracy, trust, and respect. There's no fighting in The Grand Illusion, and very little blood is shed. The causes of war, the faults and consequences, the specifics of who is winning and by how much: no time is wasted on any of these absurdities. The tug-of-war capture, surrender, and recapture of an offscreen French fort by German battalions is the only direct reference to tactical maneuvers, and its frequent change of possession causes one cynical observer to remark, "There mustn't be much left by now."

The war depicted could be any war. Some people on one side die. Some people on the other side die. In the end, some politics happens and the world resumes with different borders and laws and other such inventions and a few million less human lives. Renoir's film is allegorical. Characters represent different aspects of a diverse society, yet they are rich, unique and convincing. What's important here is which characters live and which ones die. As a crippled German officer explains in an odd moment of camaraderie with his French prisoner of war, either the French or the Germans may win, but the old world they represent will certainly die.

Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) wears white gloves, a stiff uniform, and a neck brace, all to cover a body destroyed by war burns. He'd rather be fighting--would rather die fighting--but his diminished physical capacity means he must not police a prisoner of war camp, doing his duty in an eleventh century cathedral and tending to his lonely geraniums while the world around him violently trudges forward. His name is important--he is a von Rauffenstein, an aristocrat--and when his men capture a Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), a French nobleman whose count brother--also fighting the war somewhere--he once knew in Paris, he sees a kindred spirit. Boeldieu's captured comrades--a Rosenthal, a Marechal--are honorable men Boeldieu honors and trusts, but von Rauffenstein sees them as mere prisoners. A Jew and an urban workingman, Rosenthal and Marechal are subjected to the same examinations, confiscations, and interrogations as any suspect prisoner. With de Boeldieu, however, an honorable word and a promise suffice.

The French aristocrat prods, half amused, half confused. He is, after all, no less dishonest than his peers. They are all plotting to escape. Why should he be treated with respect and naive trust when the others are justifiably searched. To the German aristocrat, the answer is quite obvious. A Jew? A lower class workman of no distinguished name? Why even bother explaining?

It sounds racist and simplistic, and it certainly hints at the antisemitism that would follow the war, spawning its sequel (The Grand Illusion was made as the Nazis were building steam in Europe), but the characters--both of them wearing monocles (I found myself constantly thinking how impractical such an obsolete instrument must have been), both of them excessively yet naturally prim and polite--are so precise and natural in their assumptions that the scene never seems outrageous. We feel only sympathy for von Rauffenstein, helplessly stuck in an outdated perspective that forces him to trust the one man he should be most suspicious of, the man who has in fact hidden the ropes that will later be used to flee. It's like if your farsighted grandmother in the heat of competition asked you to help her read her poker cards.

Von Rauffenstein, like Germany with its nationalism and antisemitism and other preposterous, excessive notions of the first half of the twentieth century, sets up his own demise. The sadness, rejection, and acceptance that cross his face when he realizes that de Boeldieu has betrayed him are heartbreaking.

De Boeldieu, with the knowledge that the life he is accustomed to is long gone and the hopeful new life of his comrades is just beginning, uses his position of trust to lure the Germans in a Pied Piper distraction while Rosenthal and Marechal escape by rope over the fortress wall. He wants to die. He knows von Rauffenstein wants to die, too. For most people, death in war is a tragedy. For aristocrats--the knights of bygone ages--it's the only way out.

Meanwhile, Rosenthal and Marechal begin their two hundred mile trek to neutral Switzerland through the freezing landscape of northern Germany. They run out of their scarce food, Rosenthal sprains his ankle, the map begins to tatter, and soon they're at each other's necks, irritable, desperate, and fatigued. Rosenthal's a filthy Jew. Marechal's a common dog. Rosenthal's dragging him down like dead weight. Marechal was always a waste of space. They separate; good riddance. Then the anger subsides and they hobble on together. Their virtues and dependence on each other triumph. Contrary to being a "stingy Jew," the nouveau riche Rosenthal, son to a wealthy banking family, always gladly shared his abundant prison parcels so that all the prisoners could eat like royalty. Despite being a common dog, Marechal has shown courage and resiliency in rallying the prisoners against humiliation and defeat. Goodness prevails, regardless of race and class, and despite the evidence of the eighty years since this movie was released, it still can.

Hiding in a barn in the German wilderness, they are captured by a peasant woman named Elsa (Dita Parlo), who never considers rousting them out or alerting the authorities, despite their French ethnicity. To her, having lost her husband and all her brothers to a war she could care less about, they are fundamentally cold, tired, and hungry people, despite their language. She invites them in, feeds them, and explains the loneliness of her life, the sorrow of a dinner table far too large for just her and her young daughter. Pointing to a photograph of military men, she rattles off the battles her brothers died in--all of them conclusive triumphs for Germany but major defeats for herself. Enclosed in a warm, bright, humble abode far from the fighting and the capital cities, with Christmas approaching, they form a loving, bilingual family with plans to reunite when the war ends.

In a final scene, they finally make it to snowy Switzerland. How can you tell, Marechal asks. It all looks the same. To which Rosenthal responds, borders are an invention of man. Nature doesn't give a damn.

They cross the final steps to arbitrary freedom. A German border patrolman spots them, ponders opening fire, but--his mind governed by the fictions that control borders, politics, and war--realizes that they are in another country and must let them escape.

For the minorities, women, and working men, war is hell. Something to be suffered and escaped from. Limbs and lives can be lost, but those who put stock in the divisive inventions of noble blood, political frontiers, superior ethnicities, and heroic bloodshed should have the most to lose: a lifestyle that seeks to separate rather than unite, that seeks to justify chaos and disunity for the sake of tradition rather than promote understanding, trust, and respect for the sake of progress.

I've seen one other Renoir film--The Rules of the Game, considered his masterpiece (and #2 on the list)--but I think I prefer this one with its more hopeful tone, its dose of humor, its rigorous but clear pacing, and its characters, who despite being obvious stand-ins for allegorical statements never seem anything short of real and well-rounded. An excellently acted and finely crafted film, it still maintains the freshness and meaning that it held eight decades ago, the allure that propelled it to being the first foreign film nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. It's inspired movies from The Shawshank Redemption to Woody Allen's Manhattan to Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law, and it will hopefully inspire anyone who sees it to strive toward a dignified approach to all mankind. (The Nazis, by the way, despised this film, and Goebbels labeled Renoir Public Enemy Number One.)

Like I said at the beginning, I'm only scraping the surface of all the rich layers this film has to offer. I've only seen it once. I suggest you see it as many times as possible.

The Grand Illusion
d: Jean Renoir w: Jean Renoir, Charles Spaak
(Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim, Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Marcel Dalio)
TSPDT? #24