05 December 2014

What is the role of Police in Society?

(AP / Jeff Roberson)
Let's take race out of it for a minute.  Let's reduce it to its most foundational level.  What is the role of police in our society?  I have always been under the impression it is to protect and serve, and to promote peaceful order.  Recent events, however, have made it seem like "kill and destroy" have creeped into the job description to undermine and in fact pervert the very things the police are supposed to stand for and preserve.  

When did we as a society accede to using deadly force as a cop's first option, rather than his absolute last?  If we don't begin with the premise that a trained police officer should be able to defuse a situation -- and subdue an unarmed subject without killing him -- then we're recklessly signing off on a police state. A place where all citizens, regardless of race or class, are equally threatened by an unaccountable and unchecked police force. No one wants a police state, liberals and conservatives alike.

What these recent cases have in common is that a man (or boy) is behaving suspiciously, but not altogether dangerously or life-threateningly.  There is a confrontation with police or security.  The man (or boy) winds up dead.  There's also another thing the cases have in common. The victims were all unarmed. 

Being a police officer is a difficult, thankless, and dangerous job.  Officers put their lives on the line every day and should be commended for it.  But surely the rules of engagement must include basic limitations on when to resort to deadly force.  As a bare minimum, lack of a firearm or deadly weapon on an assailant should automatically preclude a lethal response.  Cans of soda and skittles don't count as deadly weapons.   

If we accept that the role of police in our society is to protect and preserve life then we must accept that the tragic cases in Missouri, New York, and way too many towns and cities across our country have not met that standard. One death is too many.  One death is unacceptable.  That should be the baseline standard.

At first, it was heartbreaking.  Now it's become enraging.  We have to change because this is not justice.  This is not America. 

25 August 2014

Moonlighting in the South of France

After nearly fifty years of filmmaking, it's safe to say that we pretty much know Woody Allen's attitude towards all things supernatural.  Religion, God, afterlife, are all concepts that have borne the brunt of Allen's obtuse scorn over the decades.  And yet, as the writer-director pushes 80, it seems he has begun to deconstruct if not incrementally rollback his notoriously rational outlook.

Allen's latest film, Magic in the Moonlight, stars Colin Firth doing what Colin Firth does best: playing Mr. Darcy. Firth plays Stanley Crawford, a magician in 1920s Europe, whose sneering arrogance is eclipsed only by his vicious contempt for all things that can't be unmitigatedly proven by the cold calculations of science.  When word reaches him of a rich American family who has fallen under the spell of a psychic, he quickly travels to the south of France -- where they're summering at their waterfront chateau --  to expose the fraud.

Hoping to inflict as much humiliation as possible, Crawford begins jabbing Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) with sarcastic barbs immediately.  But regardless of his iterations of the impossibility of anything existing outside of empirical proof, Baker's effortless charm and uncanny clairvoyance slowly begins to win over the master skeptic.

This is not one of Allen's classics, but the Côte d'Azur setting and the classical score, including Stravinsky and Beethoven, make for a lovely diversion on a Sunday evening.  Allen became a legend filming in the confines of Manhattan, but his latest European period has proven he is equally adept at filming the radiance and splendour of the Mediterranean. I also appreciated the supporting characters of Caroline (Erica Leerhsen) and George (Jeremy Shamos), who seemed to be taken directly out of Fitzgerald's Tender Is The Night.  This and other Lost Generation literary allusions worked much better than the crudely amateurish caricatures of Allen's recent megahit, Midnight in Paris, which in many ways felt like Woody Allen had taken over the Back to the Future franchise.

Crawford/Darcy/Firth's intense rationality sets him up for a comeuppance, even as he continues to spew on about the cold bleakness of life, and death.  Much like his main character, it seems like the great director is softening in his dotage.  Yes, everything Crawford says is true, he's not debating that, but rather he's advocating for a kind of selective amnesia.  Maybe in the face of unimaginable dark nothingness, the key to survival and indeed happiness is to try placing existentialism on the back burner for a while and permit some magic into our lives.  Who knows, if we're lucky perhaps we'll get to experience the greatest magic of all:  love.

24 April 2014

Bibliomania, Jacques Bonnet, and Norwegian Wood

Recently I was gifted a wonderful little book for my birthday, Jacques Bonnet's Phantoms On The Bookshelves.  A diaphanous read, it's packed with anecdotes and factoids on the irrepressible subject of bibliomania. As any reader of this space knows, I am a great lover of books. I love the way they feel in my hands, I love the way they smell, I love flipping through their pages, underlining my favourite lines and writing little notes in the margins.  But after reading Bonnet's treatise on the subject, I am convinced and must somewhat ashamedly admit that bibliomaniac I am not.

Don't let me disabuse, I can be quite manic about books. My most prized literary possession is the massive Yale Shakespeare which not only features every single work ever attributed to the Bard, but is also typeset based on the authoritative First Folio and features modernized spelling.  I am proud of my book collection.  I call it a collection rather than a library because according to Bonnet, a private library must consist of 20,000 volumes, at a minimum. Yes, 20,000.  I cannot in good conscience refer to myself as a bibliomaniac.  Contrastingly, Bonnet boasts a private library of over 40,000 volumes!

Phantoms On The Bookshelves is peppered with tangents and asides on the peculiarities and necessities of book devotees.  Storage becomes a major issue, not to mention the horror of moving. Bonnet gleefully describes how the walls of his apartment are covered with books from floor to ceiling, including his bathroom.  Of course, it means he has to keep his bathroom window open at all times so as not to ruin books housed there by the steam from his hot showers.  The one place Bonnet eschews storing books is directly above his bed.  You see, there is a legend involving Charles-Valentin Alkan (no relation), a French composer from the 19th century who was called by Hans von Bülow as the "Berlioz of the piano".  The legend goes Mssr. Alkan too was a bibliomaniac who was tragically killed when a bookshelf collapsed on his head whilst, one version has it, he slept.  Another version claims he was reaching for the Talmud. The veracity of this tale is suspect at best but its tenor was enough to spook Bonnet from avoiding a similar fate.

I reveled in reading Phantoms, comparing my idiosyncrasies to others' who share my worship of books (the author and I share a preference for reading lying down).  Bonnet likes to retain the price of the book on the inside cover to always remind him how much he spent.  I too like to retain such tidbits but I also write my name and acquisition date on the inside cover. It's both a mark of ownership and a vain attempt to prevent theft.  The thinking goes that a borrower will be less likely to steal a book if he has to be confronted with the reminder of his crime every time he opens it. Naturally, this method has been resoundingly unsuccessful (Bonnet himself mentions that it's unreasonable to expect the return of loaned book).  

I wish I had been privy to Bonnet's assertion a long time ago because I am one of those who did expect a loaned book to be returned and would find myself quite annoyed when, in my excitement to share a newfound literary gem, I'd strongly encourage my close friends to read it immediately only to never see that edition again. This was the case about six years ago when something extraordinary occurred.  I finally got around to reading Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood and was completely overcome by its haunting brilliance.  Just thinking about the novel even now gives me chills.  Andrew, a close friend of mine whose expansive breadth of literary knowledge is a source of some insecurity for me, paid a visit and insisted that I let him borrow Murakami's masterpiece.  Although hesitant, I relented after repeated assurances that he'd return it to me promptly upon finishing.

I haven't seen it since but I am neither annoyed nor resentful.  Norwegian Wood is a novel of such heart-wrenching beauty and masterful elegance that Andrew's possession of it has in a certain sense further cemented our great friendship.  He loves the novel as I do, a devotion that transcends physical ownership.  Andrew has a twin brother, Scott, who counts Anna Karenina as his favourite novel.  He too noticed Norwegian Wood on Andrew's bookshelf and borrowed it.  Andrew hasn't seen it since.  A novel such as this almost demands to be passed from one reader to another, and its journey from Baltimore, MD to Columbus, MS is one that I'm convinced Murakami would be touched by, and that Bonnet would surely approve. 

Recently Andrew came to visit again and noticed a Richard Yates novel, Young Hearts Crying, that he wanted to borrow.  I agreed, but with a catch.  Andrew left his edition of Evelyn Waugh short stories as collateral.  

11 March 2014

A Few Thoughts on Breaking Bad

I have two admissions about Breaking Bad. The first admission:  I like Breaking Bad, but I place in the level of a really great crime procedural, rather than an all-time great show that fully explores the human condition.  Sure it's absorbing and disturbing but it is not in the same category as The Sopranos, Mad Men, or even, House Of Cards.  

For a show revolving around an anti-hero to be truly effective, the anti-hero has to be part hero. In other words, he must have certain qualities which make him lovable.  We loved Tony Soprano because he possessed infinite charm, a ribald sense of humour, and couldn't help but reveal his own insecurities and vulnerabilities.  We love Don Draper because he's smooth, charismatic, and downright brilliant. We certainly love Frank Underwood because of his Machiavellian genius, political wile, and seemingly magical ability to relate -- however falsely -- to others. These traits don't excuse or soften their dark sides, but they paint a more nuanced picture of a character, and ostensibly, make for more captivating television because we find ourselves empathizing with someone who we know does not deserve our empathy.

Walter White is different from those other anti-heroes because he's not a hero at all.  He's just anti. Sure, he's a genius at cooking meth and a seeming wizard at extricating himself from completely untenable positions but that's not something that I find all that laudable. There doesn't seem to be any kind of great struggle going on inside of him.  He cooks meth.  He makes lots of money. He destroys his life and that of his family's. He pretends to care, but it's obvious he doesn't.  Over the course of five seasons of the show, Walter White goes from a mild-mannered and unlucky Everyman who decides to spurn an ignominious fate to a greedy, selfish, drug kingpin with a healthy sadistic side.  Where is his humanity?  Where is his softness or vulnerability?  His sole motivation seems to involve outfoxing those around him, be it his competitors, his "colleagues", or his family.

I've arrived at admission number two. Perhaps my overall criticism of Breaking Bad stems from my prejudicial disdain for Bryan Cranston.  It probably stems from his Seinfeld days, when he played Whatley, the dentist who converted to Judaism for the jokes. Unfairly, I'll always associate him with that unctuous character. On a purely aesthetically superficial level, I find his mannerisms and demeanor aggravating and unpleasant.  His physicality is overbearing and feels forced, meanwhile his facial expressions range from grizzled scorn to grizzled horror to grizzled derision. I get it, he's pissed off, determined, and hates everyone.  

One thing I do love about Breaking Bad is its attention to detail.  There is a sense that Vince Gilligan, the show's creator, wants to convey a banality of evil that pervades the high-level drug trade. It's not glamourous, it's not exciting.  It is desolate, horrifying, and often repulsive.

However, Walt's misanthropy infected the show as a whole. Before the final eight episodes aired, a friend of mine asked me what I thought was going to happen. I told him I knew exactly what would happen.  Think of the most fucked up, disturbing scenario, preferably with as much murder, mayhem, and horror as possible and that's what we'll see. Part of the show's charm is the voyeuristic opportunities it affords to law-abiding, non-drug kingpin viewers everywhere.  We get to inhabit that dark and perverted world without any repercussions.  

Having said all that, I acknowledge that the final eight episodes finally allowed Walt to embrace his humanity and instantly he became a more interesting character. The scene where he pathetically offers Robert Forster's extractor character $10,000 to stay with him an extra hour during one of his monthly visits is a sublime spark of humanity and vulnerability. His anguish over Hank's murder (Hank, by the way, is my favourite character from the show because he's everything Walt isn't: funny, vulnerable, nuanced, empathetic) is also revealing.  It took Hank being murdered in cold blood for Walt to finally come to terms with the consequences of his actions.  Finally, his scheme to siphon his ill-gotten gains to Walt Jr. via the Schwartzes and admission to Skylar that he in fact built an entire criminal enterprise to satiate his own ego made him someone that is relatable.
Any effective work of art makes the audience care. We care about Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Frank Underwood even though we know we shouldn't but we can't help it.  They're just too likable. But what about Walter White is likable?  By the time he assumed the role of Heisenberg I found myself so disgusted by him I kept on hoping he would die or get caught or lose everything. He's just too damn unpleasant. With a pure villain as an anti-hero, the audience loses that tension between judgement and acceptance, empathy and disgust.