On the Radio — Movies, Zombies & “Homecoming”

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Two weeks ago I traveled to New Jersey with Mark Svenvold, a published author of non-fiction and poetry who teaches creative writing and literature courses at Seton Hall University. Mark, who I’ve known for many years, also co-hosts a half-hour Saturday morning show called “Talk Art Radio” on Seton Hall’s campus station WSOU @89.5 FM. I got a kick out of the fact that WSOU (which proudly calls itself “Seton Hall Pirate Radio”) basically airs nothing but heavy metal throughout the week, and then there’s this weekly arts show where writers, musicians, and artists come on to talk about what they do. Mark had asked me a month or so earlier if I’d be interested in being on the show to talk about movies. Despite some reflexive panic and anxiety at the thought of doing something I’d never done before, I realized I’d be nuts not to give this a shot. Besides, Mark and I have a good rapport and share a love of movies and the bizarre in general, so that made it feel safer. The show doesn’t air live, which also lightened the pressure a lot. However long we talked would be edited down to a hopefully brilliant 28 minutes. So not to worry if in my excitement I let loose with an F-bomb or two (which, for the record, I did not).

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Mark follows this blog, so he’s familiar with what I write about. In preliminary discussions we decided I should talk about my background as an Iowa farmboy and how I fell in love with the films that hijacked my imagination at an early age (which was covered in one of the first pieces I posted, “Famous Monsters & Me”). On the drive from Manhattan to Seton Hall in South Orange, New Jersey, it became clear that Mark also wanted our discussion to focus on zombie movies. We were talking about the state of zombie movies before and after George Romero’s jaw-dropping Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Nobody had seen anything like this. It was a game-changing, watershed moment. There was a profound difference between zombie films before Night of the Living Dead and basically everything after. Films such as White Zombie (1932), with Bela Lugosi, and the Val Lewton production of Jacques Tourneur’s incredibly poetic I Walked with a Zombie (1943) followed the more traditional concept of zombies as being created for slave labor, generally a product of Haitian Vodou (aka Voodoo) practices. Zombies also appeared in comedies, such as The Ghost Breakers (1940) with Bob Hope, and its remake, Scared Stiff (1953), with Martin & Lewis. Romero’s flesh-eating, brain-chomping, highly contagious walking dead forever changed the template for zombies in films, television, fiction, and in the culture at large. Its influence cannot be over-estimated. The contagion aspect has a particularly metaphoric resonance in a pandemic world. And really, in addition to everything else, just think of that movie being released in 1968, a year as filled with domestic turmoil, assassinations, and general insanity on a national level as any in our recent history. It’s no wonder that Night of the Living Dead was such a freak-out, amped up as it was by all that anxiety and paranoia. As the evocative tag line for Romero’s 1978 sequel, Dawn of the Dead, put it, “When There’s No More Room in Hell, the Dead Will Walk the Earth.”

Night of the Living Dead-posterAt one point during the drive I mentioned Homecoming, a 1-hour film Joe Dante had made for Showtime’s Masters of Horror series in 2005, in which the bodies of soldiers being sent back from a war (unnamed, though obviously Iraq) start coming back from the dead in an election year in order to vote out of office the president (unnamed, though obviously George Bush) who started the war.  When I told Mark the premise he jumped right on it and said we had to talk about that on the show.

Homecoming-posterI first became aware of Homecoming in a review by Dennis Lim that appeared in The Village Voice in November, 2005. Referring to the film as “The dizzying high point of Showtime’s new Masters of Horror series, the hour-long Homecoming is easily one of the most important political films of the Bush II era.” Michael Sragow, writing in The New Yorker in April 2006, calls Homecoming “The best political film of 2005…” High praise, indeed. Lim goes on to write, “With its only slightly caricatured right-wingers, the film nails the casual fraudulence and contortionist rhetoric that are the signatures of the Bush-Cheney administration.” So Homecoming is not a traditional post-Romero zombie movie, though it utilizes the format to promote a very angry agenda which is clearly not meant to please anyone who was for George Bush and the Iraq war. There’s never a doubt where it’s coming from. It’s the kind of black comedy where the laughs are spiked with bile. (Another insightful review of Homecoming is by Grady Hendrix in The Slate online in 2005.)

Homecoming-"Vote Today"The Village Voice review made me really want to see Homecoming, but we didn’t have Showtime, so I was out of luck until it came out on home video. When I finally saw it, I was definitely not disappointed. It reflected my take on things, so naturally I liked it. But it’s not just that. I’ve always liked Joe Dante’s films. He started out, as did so many others (John Sayles, Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron, Ron Howard, etc etc — the list is long) working for Roger Corman making low-budget exploitation films, getting paid very little and learning everything about filmmaking in the process. In 1978 he made Piranha, a Jaws knock-off written byJoe Dante-photo with gremlin John Sayles, who also wrote one of my favorite Dante movies, The Howling (1981), a werewolf film that paid homage to the basic tropes of the genre while reinventing them at the same time. Dante may best known to general audiences for the much-loved Gremlins in 1984 (which he followed up with an edgier, satiric sequel in 1990, Gremlins 2: The New Batch). Per Wikipedia, “Dante has cited among his major influences Roger Corman, Chuck Jones, Frank Tashlin, James Whale, and Jean Cocteau…” His filmography certainly reflects that range. Homecoming shows those influences in various ways, though the film is fueled by a serious anger I don’t think is seen in his other work. If you haven’t seen Homecoming and think you might be interested, I highly recommend it. It’s almost 10 years old, but Homecoming still resonates and still has a nasty jolt. – Ted Hicks

All of the films referenced here are available for sale, rental and/or streaming from Netflix and/or Amazon. Homecoming is available for rental from Netflix and for sale from Amazon, listed in both venues under the lengthy title “Masters of Horror: Joe Dante: Homecoming.” It’s also complete and free on YouTube, as can be seen below!

WSOU logoP.S. “Talk Art Radio” programs are available as audio podcasts and iTunes downloads at the station’s website. When the show I was on (which has not yet aired) is available, I’ll put a link on one of my blogs for those who are interested. I had a really good time doing it, and it turns out this might become a semi-regular gig for me. Our next one is slated to focus on Film Noir. Stay tuned.

Posted in Books, Fiction, Film, Home Video, TV | Leave a comment

“The Departed” – Shoot ‘em in the Head

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It seems that my “Best of 2013″ recaps keep getting pushed back by films that jump in my face and demand to be dealt with. That’s definitely the case with this one. Last Thursday through Saturday the Ziegfeld Theater here in New York, which has been showing The Wolf of Wall Street in a regular run, presented all five films that Martin Scorsese has made with Leonardo DiCaprio. In addition to Wolf, these include Gangs of New York (2002), The Aviator (2004), The Departed (2006), and Shutter Island (2010). Of all these, I most wanted to see The Departed again, especially in a theater  like the Ziegfeld, which has the second-largest screen in the city (not counting IMAX screens), and with digital projection the image was as sharp as a razor. I’m here to report that The Departed does not disappoint. If anything it surpasses what I’d remembered.

The Departed is a remake of a 2002 Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs. Brad Pitt andInferno Affairs-poster producer Brad Grey had obtained the remake rights in 2003. William Monahan was hired to write the screenplay, which located the story in Boston. Scorsese read the script and liked it, and signed on as director. Pitt, who was a producer on the film, and was initially set to also star with Leonardo DiCaprio, stepped aside in favor of a younger actor, Matt Damon. Jack Nicholson played Boston mob kingpin Frank Costello, a character based on the Irish gangster Whitey Bulger. Nicholson invests the character with a sense of menace that frequently becomes volcanic.

Departed-Nicholson stillIn The Departed DiCaprio’s character, William Costigan Jr., is recruited out of the police academy to go undercover in Costello’s gang. Likewise, Damon’s character Colin Sullivan is recruited by Costello to go undercover inside the police force. This might sound like a contrivance, but it works beautifully.

The Departed hits the ground running and does not let up. I hadn’t seen it for several years, and was struck by the freshness of it, the fierceness of it, and of how tight and controlled it all is. The following scene is a good example. Leonardo DiCaprio as Billy Costigan, Jr. is ostensibly minding his own business in a convenience store in Boston until two hoods from Providence start shaking down the proprietor. Nobody does this like Martin Scorsese. Let ‘er rip.

Notice how the music that flares up when the fight starts supercharges the scene and takes it to another level entirely (the cut is “Nobody but Me” – The Human Beinz). Scorsese has used pop/rock songs in his features from the very beginning, starting with Who’s That Knocking at My Door in 1967, his first film with Harvey Keitel (as well as Keitel’s first credited role in a motion picture). What surprised me when I saw it again was that I’d somehow forgotten about all the music in The Departed, but as soon as “Gimme Shelter” came up on the track at the beginning under Jack Nicholson’s voice-over, I was back in it.  The Departed also has a score written by Howard Shore, but I don’t remember that at all, though I’m sure it’s fine. What I remember are the Stones, the Allman Brothers, and Roy Buchanan. I think it was Easy Rider (1969) that really put across the idea that you could score a movie entirely with rock songs. For me, it was when I’d first heard Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” under the main title credits of Blackboard Jungle (1955) that I knew something was shifting. The excitement I felt was very personal, and continues to be that way. The associations we have with music that we’re now hearing re-purposed by a filmmaker like Scorsese in a violent scene, for example, create a connection to the film that’s stronger and more personal than if we weren’t familiar with that music.

The Departed doesn’t need any help from me at this point. It appeared on thirty-seven top-10 lists of Departed-Baldwin & Wahlbergfilms of 2006, and won four Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Editing. Additionally, Mark Wahlberg was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. It’s obvious that everyone in the cast and crew was operating at the top of their game, and even above that. The acting is amazing from top to bottom. Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, and especially Alec Baldwin and Wahlberg are stand outs.

The Departed may not be as expansive as Goodfellas or as personal as Mean Streets (1973) or Taxi Driver (1976), and it may not contain as many F-words as The Wolf of Wall Street (237 vs. a record-breaking 506 for Wolf), but I think it’s definitely one of his strongest films, a tightly focused, uncompromising piece of work that gives us everything he does best.

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The first time I ever heard of Martin Scorsese was in a film class taught by Dr. John Kuiper at the University of Iowa in 1964 or ’65. My memory is a little unclear on this, but I think Dr. Kuiper knew Scorsese at NYU. In any event, he showed two of Scorsese’s student film shorts in our class, The Big Shave and It’s Not Just You, Murray (1964). They seemed amazing to me at the time, particularly the inventive playfulness of Murray. A mystery at present is that The Big Shave is listed as a 1967 film in nearly every source I’ve checked except one, which has it as 1963. Maybe it wasn’t released by NYU until ’67, but I know I saw it in ’64 or ’65, unless I was time traveling. In any event, The Big Shave, which has become somewhat famous, is particularly interesting in that it foreshadows Scorsese’s use of music and fondness for blood, lots of it. Here are the shorts.

All of the films I’ve referenced, with the exception of The Wolf of Wall Street, are available on home video via a variety of venues. - Ted Hicks

 

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“The Broken Circle Breakdown” – Beauty, Sadness & Bluegrass

Broken Circle Breakdown-poster2The Broken Circle Breakdown has been playing in New York since last November, and though initial write-ups made me very interested, mainly because of the bluegrass-in-Belgium angle, I didn’t get around to seeing it until a week ago. I went into The Broken Circle Breakdown without knowing much about it, other than that it was about the relationship over a period of years of a man and woman who play in a Belgium bluegrass band. I’d scanned some early write-ups, but had basically forgotten any details. Generally, the less I know about a film before I see it, the better.  As it turned out, there were many moments in The Broken Circle Breakdown that really took me by surprise, so much so that I was glad I hadn’t known too much beforehand. It’s a challenge to write about any film – and especially this one – without giving too much away, but I’ll give it a shot.

I was completely knocked out by The Broken Circle Breakdown, most powerfully by a final scene that completely bypassed my “intellect,” went straight to my emotions and hit me square in the gut. I see a lot of movies, but rarely have a reaction this intense or sudden, something that slips by too fast to get filtered through my brain. The last time I can remember this happening was during the investigation hearing at the end of Flight (2012) when Denzel Washington finally comes clean.

The advertising refers to The Broken Circle Breakdown as “A Bluegrass Love Story,” which it is, but it’s also much more than that. The film concerns Didier, who loves bluegrass music and plays in a local Broken Circle Breakdown-still2band; his wife Elise, who works in a tattoo parlor and sings in the band; and their young daughter Maybelle, named for Maybelle Carter. It opens with the three of them in a hospital, then cuts back seven years to the time when Didier and Elise first meet. The film continues to cycle back and forth in time in a way that slowly reveals how the characters get to where they do. This looping temporal structure is one of effect and cause, rather than a more sequential cause and then effect. A scene will show us where they are today, then we jump back in time to see the roots of that. This is not a new technique, but the way it’s used here feels different. The layered narrative is revealed in stages; this takes awhile, so it grows on you.

Bluegrass music is at the heart of The Broken Circle Breakdown in much the same way that jazz permeated David Simon’s great HBO series Treme, but that’s not what it’s about. That would be how a family either endures a tragedy or is broken by it. There’s a heartbreaking darkness here, and the music weaves in and out to comment on that and also lift it. For as much as death hangs over this film – we see 9/11 coverage on TV in a flashback, for example – it’s also filled with joy, love, and life, which makes the heartbreak even more intense. The film itself is like a bluegrass song. The music often has a mournful quality, as in the following clip, which features Veerle Batens (excellent as Elise), with Didier watching from the side. (This clip has several shots that require a SPOILER ALERT, so use your own discretion.)

The Broken Circle Breakdown was directed and written by Felix Van Groeningen, and based on a play co-written by lead actor Johan Heldenbergh. Heldenbergh, tall and bearded, brings a strong and sometimes anxious, wounded presence to the role of Didier. When Didier first meets Elise in the tattoo parlor where she works, he’s living a rustic, quasi-hippie lifestyle in the country on a sort of farm with chickens on the loose and assorted livestock wandering about. He and Elise hit it off right way – it’s basically love at first sight. In short order she falls in love with both Didier and bluegrass, and becomes the lead singer in his band.

Broken Circle Breakdown-still7There’s a great moment from a flashback to early in their relationship when Didier is breaking down the genealogy of bluegrass instruments for Elise. I wish I could remember what he says more clearly. He talks about each instrument, how the fiddle has a Celtic source, that the banjo evolved out of an African instrument, and how he loves the way the banjo “snarls.” He speaks with the focus and enthusiasm of someone who truly knows and loves a subject.

The Broken Circle Breakdown is one of the five films nominated for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award this year. I’ve seen two of the other four films: The Great Beauty from Italy (an amazing, almost phantasmagorical immersion with echos of Fellini) and The Hunt from Denmark (a teacher is falsely accused of molesting a girl in kindergarten). Both of these films are “bigger” than The Broken Circle Breakdown, especially The Great Beauty. I obviously can’t speak for the two remaining films that I haven’t seen, but The Broken Circle Breakdown seems to be the dark horse of the bunch. I liked The Great Beauty and The Hunt very much, but Broken Circle gets into the subjects of sex and death and passion in ways I don’t recall seeing before. There’s a kind of cathartic effect to watching it.

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The following synopsis of the film at the IMDB site really nails it.

“Elise and Didier fall in love at first sight. She has her own tattoo shop and he plays the banjo in a bluegrass band. They bond over their shared enthusiasm for American music and culture, and dive headfirst into a sweeping romance that plays out on and off stage – but when an unexpected tragedy hits their new family, everything they know and love is tested. An intensely moving portrait of a relationship from beginning to end, propelled by a soundtrack of foot-stomping bluegrass, The Broken Circle Breakdown is a romantic melodrama of the highest order.” Written by Tribeca Film

Broken Circle Breakdown-stillI strongly recommend this film. It will lift you up and it will wipe you out. I promise. How often do you get that combination in one film? - Ted Hicks

The Broken City Breakdown is still screening in theaters, as well as available now on iTunes and Amazon Instant Video. A DVD will be released for sale and rental on March 26.

Posted in Film, Home Video, Music | 3 Comments

Gunfights at the O.K. Corral

My Darling Clementine-still2John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) just ended a one-week run at Film Forum here in New York, presented in a stunning digital restoration, clean and crisp, like the first time anyone had seen it. I’d seen the film only once, many years ago, and wasn’t sure I was going to see it during this run. But my interest was indirectly sparked by a book I’d recently read by Glenn Frankel, The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, about the actual story of Cynthia Ann Parker, whose capture by the Comanches inspired the Alan LeMay novel that in turn became the basis of John Ford’s monumental film, The Searchers (1956). The production history of that film is covered in the last half of Frankel’s book. Throughout Ford is seen as a great film director, but also a deeply flawed and rather horrible human being. I finally decided to see My Darling Clementine because now Ford was on my mind and I wanted know if I could get past all that negative personal stuff and just see what he had put on the screen, which is, indeed, really something.

There have been many films depicting Wyatt Earp’s time in Tombstone and the iconic gunfight at the O.K. Corral. My Darling Clementine is probably the most lyrically beautiful of them all, as well as the most historically inaccurate. Though there was a shootout at the O.K. Corral in 1881, and many of the characters existed in real life, including the Earp brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Clantons, almost everything else is the film has been entirely made up. The Earps were never working cowboys or cattle owners, though Clementine begins with the brothers – Wyatt (Henry Fonda), Virgil (Tim Holt), Morgan (Ward Bond), and James (Don Garner) – driving a herd of cattle through Arizona on their way to California. They encounter the Clantons, led by Walter Brennan as Old Man Clanton in a truly menacing performance, thoroughly mean and malevolent, which comes as a shock if you only know him from The Real McCoys on TV (1957 – 1963) or as Stumpy in Rio Bravo (1959). After repeated offers to buy the Earps’ herd are rebuffed, he tells the them that the town of Tombstone is nearby. Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan ride to Tombstone through heavy rain, leaving younger brother James to keep watch over the cattle. When they return they find the cattle gone and James dead in the mud, shot in the back.

My Darling Clementine reduces the entirety of the Earp’s stay in Tombstone to the single goal of finding the men who murdered their brother. They don’t seem to care much about their rustled herd. I don’t think it’s ever mentioned again. The Clementine of the title is an entirely fictional character, though the Wikipedia entry on the film says she “appears to be an amalgam of Big Nose Kate and Josephine Earp,” both of whom actually existed and appear as characters in more recent film versions of the story.

By all accounts I’ve read, the actual O.K. Corral gunfight lasted only 30 seconds (which was probably long enough if you were in it). Earlier films, including this one and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) have extended the event. I guess if everything in your film has been leading up to this gunfight, you’d want it to last longer than half a minute. More recently, Wyatt Earp (1994) and the superior Tombstone (1993) have kept closer to the historical record, especially where the gunfight is concerned. Let’s compare some of them. (The film studies portion of this post now commences.)

The O.K. Corral gunfight sequence in My Darling Clementine is extraordinary. I just watched it again and was struck by how beautifully it was shot and put together. It’s a masterful episode that reflects Ford’s expansive use of landscape, with white clouds against a sky that seems almost like the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral. The crisp black & white photography is quite stunning. Music is not used at any time during this sequence, which is unusual, especially for films of the time. The absence of music emphasizes the quiet, almost meditative feeling of these scenes. Earp, Holliday, and the others exit the building where they’ve been preparing for their confrontation with the Clantons. Earp stops, looks around, and almost casually says, “Let’s go.” This reminds of the scene near the end of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) when Pike (William Holden) says, “Let’s go!” somewhat more dramatically before he and the three others who are left of his gang take the walk to their final shootout. In nearly all these films it comes down to four men with guns heading to a shootout. Here’s how John Ford does it:

Note: When you click to play this, a message appears saying “Embedding disabled by Request. Watch on YouTube.” Click on that and the clip plays nicely.

Here’s how director Lawrence Kasden handles the gunfight in his overloaded epic Wyatt Earp (1994). The theatrical release version was 3 hours long, with the extended DVD version 3 1/2 hours. I have no problem with lengthy running times unless the film turns out to be as leaden and unwieldy as this one was. Though Dennis Quaid makes a great Doc Holliday.

Tombstone (1993), directed by George Cosmatos,  is a film I can watch repeatedly. It’s Tombstone-Sam Elliottincredibly well cast, especially Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday (though I think Dennis Quaid’s Holliday has the slightest edge), and even more especially Sam Elliott as Virgil Earp. Sam Elliott was born to play in Westerns (so were Ben Johnson and Randolph Scott). He never feels less than totally authentic. And the Earps have great moustaches! Tombstone also correctly has Virgil becoming the marshal, not Wyatt, who didn’t want the brothers to become the law in Tombstone, but ends up putting on a deputy’s badge anyway. The O.K. Corral gunfight here is very well done, though a bit longer than 30 seconds. I won’t fault them for that.

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My Darling Clementine (1946)French critic Georges Sadoul has called My Darling Clementine “The most classically beautiful Western of the ’40s,” while director Peter Bogdanovich, who knew Ford and interviewed him a number of times, judges it to be “Ford’s most poetic and most personal Western.” I wouldn’t disagree.

There are many iconic shots and moments in the film. Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in the shot at the head of this post is one, his boot resting on the porch column, tilting back in the chair while he quietly watched life go on around him. Earp’s open-air dance with Clementine (Cathy Downs) on the floor of an unfinished church on a quiet Sunday morning is another, the big sky filled with clouds above them.

My Darling Clementine (1946)Probably more than any other moment in the film, this sequence conveys the growth of community and civilization in Tombstone, and by extension, in the West itself. It’s a wonderful scene, with Earp’s shy awkwardness towards Clementine transformed into the gracefulness of their solo dance.

Victor Mature is a strong presence as Doc Holliday, though he seems rather too robust My Darling Clementine-posterto play the consumptive dentist (a surgeon in this version), but the film makes a point of showing us a number of his debilitating coughing fits in spite of his otherwise healthy, though haunted, appearance (contrast Mature with Dennis Quaid and Val Kilmer’s physically wasted Doc Hollidays in Wyatt Earp [1993] and Tombstone [1993], respectively). Mature is probably more associated with films such as Samson and Delilah (1949) and Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), and may not have been the greatest actor, but when he’s well-cast, as he was in this film and especially in the great film noir, Kiss of Death (1947), he can make quite an impact. It’s interesting that the focus in the poster at left is on Mature rather than Henry Fonda, ostensibly the hero of the film.

My Darling Clementine-still6Doc Holliday has always been a more interesting character than Wyatt Earp. He’s a tubercular ex-dentist with a death wish who was a card sharp and a gunman. Many actors have played the role. Jason Robards was excellent as Holliday in The Hour of the Gun (1967), director John Sturges’ follow-up to his Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), which has the distinction of opening with the gunfight. Stacey Keach played the title role in Doc, Frank Perry’s revisionist 1971 film that portrayed Holliday and Earp (Harris Yulin) in particularly grubby, post-Wild Bunch terms. I haven’t seen Doc since it came out, but I don’t remember any good guys. As mentioned earlier, Dennis Quaid and Val Kilmer each put distinctive brands on their Holliday versions.

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Tombstone-Val KilmerWyatt Earp 1994-Doc Holliday

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Jason Robards (upper left), Stacey Keach (upper right), Dennis Quaid (lower left), Val Kilmer (lower right)

My Darling Clementine was based on Stuart Lake’s 1931 biography, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall, which turned out to be largely fictional. The book was the basis for the 1939 film Frontier Marshall, with Randolph Scott as Earl and Cesar Romero as Holliday. I’ve not seen this film, but I intend to. I’ve always liked Randolph Scott, and as I mentioned earlier in reference to Sam Elliott, Scott always appears completely as home as a Western character.

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John Ford got to know Wyatt Earp, who died in 1929 at the age of 80, when Ford was working as a prop boy in Hollywood. Earp would often visit the set. Ford says that Earp “told me about the fight at the O.K. Corral. So in My Darling Clementine we did it exactly the way it had been.” Well, maybe not but it makes a nice story. And as far as all the historical inaccuracies are concerned, at the end of the day they’re not that important. In the universe created in the film, this is how it happened. Taken on its own terms, My Darling Clementine is a great film, one of John Ford’s best. I hadn’t realized that before, but I do now.   - Ted Hicks

Supplemental: Some examples of “The Walk.”

Gunfight at O.K. Corral-stillHour of the Gun-still

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Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (upper left), Hour of the Gun (upper right), Tombstone (lower left), The Wild Bunch (lower right)

My Darling Clementine-end titleNote: To the best of my knowledge, all of the films referenced in this post are available on home video for rental and/or streaming.

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Posted in Books, Film, Home Video, TV | 8 Comments

Back in the Saddle (almost)

Safety Last-ClockI know I’ve been quiet for an unusually long time, but two days after my last post on October 24, I was run over by an airport shuttle van while crossing the street at the intersection of 94th & Amsterdam Avenue here in NYC, so I think I’ve got a pretty good excuse for the inactivity. Recovery from the accident has been progressing pretty well, but it will take awhile longer before I’m back to “normal” (so to speak). Apparently getting flattened in the street wasn’t enough to pay off whatever karmic debt I’ve accrued, because two weeks ago I also came down with a case of shingles to boot. Man, what next?

One thing this little episode made me realize was that most violence in movies is unrealistic (duh). When the protagonist, while chasing someone on foot, runs into the street and gets hit by a car, tossed onto the hood and bounced off the windshield, then gets up and continues the chase, well, I don’t think so. The same for scenes of people crashing through plate glass windows or skylights. You don’t just walk away from this stuff so easily. At least, I didn’t.

But I’m feeling better now (in spite of the shingles, which are very distracting, believe me), and plan to start putting up posts again. I saw 236 films in 2013, and I’ve got plenty of stuff to write about. For starters, I’ll be posting my “Best of” picks for films and TV within the next week or two. In the meantime, to take us out of 2013 and into 2014, here’s the Johnny Burnett version of one of my favorite rock songs of all time, “The Train Kept A Rollin’.” A version of this song was performed by the Yardbirds in Michelangeo Antonioni’s classic Blow Up in 1966. This is followed by the opening credits sequence of Richard Lester’s great Beatles movie, A Hard Day’s Night (1964).

And finally, just because it perfectly captures a kind of pre-punk attitude, here is a key moment I love from one of Marlon Brando’s definitive films, The Wild One (1954).

Keaton-The GeneralHappy New Year! See you at the movies in 2014. - Ted Hicks

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Posted in Film, Music, TV | 7 Comments

“All Is Lost” — Unique & Amazing

All Is Lost-poster2I’m still fresh from the impact of seeing All Is Lost several days ago. I think it’s a really great movie, and might be the best film I’ve seen so far this year. The story is as basic as it gets: a man alone, adrift in a damaged sailboat on the ocean, struggles to survive. It’s as simple as that. But saying that All Is Lost is about a man trying to survive alone in the ocean doesn’t begin to convey what it’s like watching the movie.

This is only the second feature written and directed by J.C. Chandor. His first film, Margin Call (2011), has a large ensemble cast of great actors and lots of talk; the action is in the dialogue. It’s a very smart, terrific film. At first glance it couldn’t be more different from All Is Lost, but it, too, is about survival, as members of a large investment firm struggle to save the company over the course of a long, dark night.

All Is Lost opens with a close-up of the side of a shipping container. The motion and sound of water lapping indicate it’s afloat somewhere. We hear a voice — Robert Redford’s — reading what sounds like a letter that’s been written his family, probably, though this is never specified.  He says that he always tried to be good and do right, apologizes for his failures and the disappointments he’s caused, and says “I’m sorry” several times. His voice is tired, resigned, sad, and nearly broken. And that’s it. Those are nearly the only words we hear him say during the entire film, as well as the closest we get to any kind of backstory on this guy and why he’s here.

At the end of the letter, there’s an on-screen title stating “Eight days earlier.” We see Redford in his cabin waking up to water pouring into the boat through a breach in the hull. A shipping container carrying a cargo of sneakers has rammed his sailboat, the Virginia Jean, the sea water damaging his communications and navigation equipment. On deck, we see sneakers bobbing in the water.

In a recent piece in the New York Times by Maureen Dowd on Redford and the film, he says of his understanding of the character: “He’s got a conscience. Clearly he has a family. He’s not a bad person, but he’s failed in some way. So maybe this journey has to do with him sorting all that out.” Redford also says he didn’t think about dying while making this film; he thought about enduring.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like this in a theatrical motion picture. It’s practically experimental, especially for an American film, totally stripped down. The script was only 31 pages long and the film cost under $10 million to make (which is considered very low budget these days). Story and character are reduced to the most basic elements. The film doesn’t give us anything beyond what’s on the screen. There’s no voice-over, no narration; he doesn’t talk to himself or, like Tom Hanks in Castaway, to a soccer ball named Wilson. A more conventional film might have included flashbacks to fill out the story, tell us who this guy is and why he’s by himself in the middle of the ocean. He doesn’t even have a name. It’s only in the closing credits that we see Redford’s character is called “Our Man.” Not “A Man” or “The Man,” but “Our Man.”

I only have two minor reservations about All Is Lost. One is that there were times as I watched him go from one exhausting task to the next, one after the other, I wished for something more, or maybe different, from the film, which by its very nature it wasn’t going to provide. The other is that I really liked the music score by Alex Ebert, but there’s a song with lyrics under the closing credits, which felt wrong for a film with virtually no spoken words. But as I say, these are minor.

All Is Lost-still2Redford’s Our Man has nothing but himself to count on, which is also true for Redford as an actor. He can’t rely on the Redford charisma in this film, or at least not the charisma we’ve come to know. Both actor and character are all alone in All Is Lost, which nothing to fall back on, no dialogue, no other characters or any kind of backstory. It’s a performance that’s almost like an act of survival in itself. Robert Redford is 77 years old. He’s been a huge movie star, an Oscar-winning film director, and founder of the Sundance Institute and the annual Sundance Film Festival. At this point in his life, it’s amazing that he would be willing to put himself on the line like this. He certainly didn’t have to do it. The result is probably the best performance of his long career, and totally different from anything he’s done before.

It’s been pointed out elsewhere that All Is Lost shares its survival theme with three other excellent films currently in theaters: Captain Phillips, Gravity, and 12 Years a Slave (I’ll leave it to others to speculate on what it is in the zeitgeist that might account for this.) Earlier films in this vein include 127 Hours (2010), Into the Wild (2007), and Cast Away
(2000). These are all terrific films, but none of them are as pure in their approach and style as All Is Lost (Gravity probably comes the closest). Survival is boiled down to life or death, nothing else. There is a total focus on staying alive, with no distractions of any kind.

Redford’s character is a man who doesn’t lose his cool under pressure. When he discovers water pouring into his boat, he takes steps to repair the hull and bail out the water. His communications are shot, except for a brief moment when the radio stutters to life and he tries sending an SOS. “This is the Virginia Jean. Can anyone hear me?” is one of the few times we hear him say anything. We see him reading a book called Celestial Navigation for Yachtsmen, and unpacking a sextant, which has obviously not been used before. But he knows what to do, he’s prepared, he’s capable. Though there comes a point, in the face of an approaching storm, when he takes the time to shave, as though to ward off the uncertainty he must now be feeling. This is an extraordinary moment in the film.

We learn from the charts he consults that he’s somewhere in the Indian Ocean. He manages eventually to cross into the shipping lanes,  but the two ships he sees pass by despite his efforts to signal them. (The first is a Maersk Line container ship, which is a bit of a jolt, since that’s the same shipping line that Tom Hanks’ character works for in Captain Phillips). It’s as though he’s invisible.

Our Man is in desperate straits nearly all the time, and at some point must realize his chances of surviving are all but non-existent. This is probably when he writes the letter we hear at the film’s beginning. A moment that really got to me is when he folds the letter and puts it in a jar, but hesitates to throw it overboard, as though reluctant to let it go. Then he almost casually flips the jar out of his hand into the sea.

Despite the nuts and bolts physicality of this film — everything is in the moment — there’s finally a spiritual, or metaphysical, aspect here (if you want to see it that way) that reminds me of the transcendent ending of The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), as weird as that may sound.

His life becomes one of damage control, having to deal with one problem after another, as things get worse and worse. It’s not just about survival; every minute Our Man remains alive is a kind of victory. Whatever happens, he will have done everything he could. – Ted Hicks

_______________________________________________________________

Extras:

Robert Redford & J.C. Chandor - Cannes 2013

Robert Redford & J.C. Chandor – Cannes 2013

 Here’s a segment from a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year:

And from an interview from earlier this month (neither of these contain spoilers):

Finally, there’s a piece on the Slate website by Forrest Wickman that definitely does contain spoilers. It’s a discussion of the ending. I strongly advise not reading this if you haven’t seen the film, but the piece is very interesting if you have.

Posted in Film | 5 Comments

Friction Fiction #5 — “Missing Vietnam”

The Nam-comic cover3Bobby Olay was chasing a pig in the clearing when a shot knocked his helmet from his head and he dropped to his knees with blood spurting from his temple. I saw this as I came out of the hootch where I’d found a tattered, muddy copy of “Mad” magazine. The pig was squealing, and there were sounds of the rest of us taking cover, then nothing but the pig.

“Eddie, is Bobby still alive?” Keefer asked me. We were crouched behind a broken down cart. I peered around the side. Bobby was still on his knees, one hand held to the side of his head. As I watched there was a second shot and a puff of dust on Bobby’s chest where it hit him. This bent him over backwards from the waist. He was still on his knees. It looked like some yoga pose.

“Jesus, I don’t know now,” I said. “One in the head, one in the chest. Who the fuck knows?” I turned to Keefer. “You see anything in the tree line? Where’s it coming from? Anybody else get hit?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know. What do we do now?”

It was quiet like we were the only ones there, just me and Keefer and Bobby out there bleeding. Where was the rest of our patrol?

“Fuck it,” I said. “We’ve got to go get him. Maybe he’s dead, but we’ve got to get him before that pig eats him.”

Keefer gave me a look. “Yeah, you’re right. Who’s going out there? You going? Eddie?”

I took a deep breath. “Yeah, okay. Give me your shotgun.” I handed Keefer my M-16 and took his shotgun. “Cover me as well as you can. I don’t know where the other guys are.”

It was about twenty yards. There was no point fucking around. I took another deep breath and ran from behind the cart as evasively as I could. Behind me, Kiefer began firing.

Bobby hadn’t moved. I reached him in a low crouch, grabbed him by the wrist and began dragging him back across the clearing. Except for Keefer’s stuttering cover fire there was no other shooting. On the way back I saw that Keefer had shot the pig.

The rest of the patrol had taken cover in the jungle behind the hootches on our side of the village. Lieutenant Pippin had already called in choppers for a dustoff, and ten minutes later we were on our way back to base camp. Bobby Olay would live, but he’d be blind forever from the shot he’d taken in the head. At base camp we drank beer and joked about Keefer shooting the pig. I guessed I’d get a medal.

******

No, it didn’t happen that way. It was like this:

Bobby Olay was in the clearing beating on the pig’s snout with the butt of his rifle.  He’d shot the pig’s front legs away. It was squealing in deep pain and scrambling its hind legs trying to get the fuck away. I could identify with that.

Keefer looked up from the “Mad” magazine I’d found in the hootch. “What’s Bobby doing to that pig?”

“Jesus, I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe he thinks it’s a Viet Cong. There’s nothing else alive in this ville.”

Suddenly a mortar round exploded in the clearing. They began going off all over.  Keefer and I huddled behind a broken down cart. We looked at each other.Then the mortars stopped. We heard Bobby cursing and moaning. I peered around the side of the cart. Bobby was on his knees by the pig, holding his hands to his bleeding face. It looked like part of his jaw was missing. Blood bubbled from between his fingers when he tried to speak.

I turned to Keefer. “Christ, he’s hit in the face. What’ll we do? You see anything in the tree line?”

It was quiet like we were the only ones there, just me and Keefer and Bobby out there bleeding next to the squealing pig. Where was the rest of our patrol?

“I don’t know. Fuck it,” Keefer said, “we’ve got to get him. Who’s going?”

“Keefer, man,” I said. “I don’t know, maybe, maybe…”

“Okay, okay. I’ll go.” Keefer shook his head and moved around me. “But you’ve got to cover me. Eddie? Eddie!” I nodded. He took a deep breath and began a zig-zag run toward Bobby. I started firing into the jungle at the other side of the clearing.

Keefer reached Bobby in a low crouch, grabbed him by the wrist and began dragging him back across the clearing. Except for my cover fire there was no other shooting. I stopped firing.

Keefer shouted, “Keep firing, for Christ’s sake!  Keep firing, you asshole!” Then a shot hit Keefer in the back and brought him sharply upright. He collapsed backwards on top of Bobby. The sniper could be anywhere. I fired several times in frustration, then stopped.

“Eddie!  Come on! I can’t move,” Keefer said. He was lying on his back on top of Bobby. He must have been hit in the spine. I could hear Bobby’s gurgling moans and curses. The pig kept squealing from where it lay stuck on its shattered front legs.  “Eddie! What the fuck!” Keefer’s voice was pissed and desperate and afraid.

I shot the pig.

******

No, that’s not it, either. Nothing like that. More like this:War Fury-comic cover

I was on guard at the base perimeter. It was pitch black, the middle of the night.  Everybody was keyed up, but nobody said anything about it. We knew something bad was going to happen soon. There was a bad voodoo feeling. Patrols had come back with weird reports. One didn’t come back at all.

At the first sounds I froze. I didn’t know what to do, couldn’t remember what to do. I wanted someone to tell me. No, I didn’t want to know anything. I hid in the bottom of the foxhole, and heard low rustling sounds as the gooks slipped by. I expected to feel a bayonet in my back at any second. I didn’t want to be hurt. I didn’t want this to be it.

You’d think they’d have been able to smell the crap in my pants, but I was invisible in my fear. I heard the firing start behind me, explosions and scattered screams. A lot of our guys got killed that night. That wasn’t my fault. Not all of it. But I knew. Eventually there was a court-martial. Then everybody knew.

******

None of that happened. None of it. I was never in Vietnam, not really, but for years I tried to imagine it. I’d read all the books, seen all the movies. I’d gone to the Wall. I dreamed of it, wished for it, longed for it in a way that only someone who hadn’t been there could. I felt that people who’d been there during that war knew something I didn’t. And they probably did, though maybe they’d rather not.

Maybe it’s a guy thing, I don’t know. But you wonder how you’d do. In combat, under fire. Would you be brave? A coward? Would you survive? Would you get killed or captured or get your balls shot off? Would you be like the guy in old war movies who panics and gets a lot of good men killed? What would you do? If you saw someone being attacked on the subway, someone being raped, what would you do? What would people say about what you did? Would it be like in the books? Would it be like the movies?

The truth was, that was bullshit. Yeah, you might wonder how you’d do, but you didn’t actually want to know. Not if in your gut you knew the worst image of yourself was the true one. My dreams of Vietnam, our acid rock war, the books and movies and deeply moving PBS specials, that was as close as I ever wanted to get.

Because I knew what I’d do. Anything to save my skin, that’s what. They say you never know until it happens, but I know. Look the other way, keep my mouth shut, eat a ton of any kind of shit, give up every friend I’ve ever had, you name it, I’d do it.

But if I wasn’t there, then why was I dreaming about Bobby Olay, Keefer and the rest? Why did I dream about the pig? One night, on the No. 2 train up from Fourteenth Street, I thought I saw Keefer at the far end of the car, trying to drag Bobby down to where I sat. But it wasn’t Keefer and it wasn’t Bobby. It was just a bum with a bag of empty soda cans.

Carla thought I should see someone, a therapist, a shrink, someone. She thought I might want to think about going to AA. This was in 1995. I’d met Carla in the laundry room of my building a couple months before, and we’d started going out. It made her nervous when I talked about this stuff or showed her what I’d written. She didn’t like it when I drank too much. Carla meant well, but I don’t know. She was just someone I met in the laundry room.

******

Carla and I were walking up Eighth Avenue in the Forties in the rain when a wild haired guy in dirty clothing blocked our way. He stared fiercely at me and I saw he was about my age.

“Can you help a vet?” he said. It was more a demand than a request. He made me feel funny. I looked sideways at Carla.

“Were you in ‘Nam?” he said. “Weren’t you in ‘Nam? You were in ‘Nam.”

“No,” I said. “I mean, I was in Thailand. In the Air Force.” I saw Carla looking at me. It was like they were both waiting.

“Thailand, huh?” he said. “A flyboy.”

He was standing too close. “I didn’t fly,” I said, taking a step back. “I was on the ground.”

“Hey, man,” he said, his voice rising, “I was on the ground, too. Really on the ground. Come on, you know how it is. You were there.”

I took Carla’s arm and started to move around this guy.

“Come on, man,” he said. “You know how it is. I need some help.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry.” I tried to hurry us up the street. I wanted to be far away. He was muttering angrily behind us, but I didn’t look around. Carla and I didn’t speak for several blocks. I felt like I’d done something wrong.

“You can’t give to everybody,” I finally said. “Besides, there was something about that guy.”

“Yeah,” she said, “I noticed.”

******

Couple out of focusWe were in a coffee bar. I wanted a beer, but it was a coffee bar. Carla looked at me and said, “Why do you need to write these stories? Like you told that homeless guy, you weren’t even there. Write about Thailand if you’ve got to write about something.”

I’d been in Thailand a year, drinking and chasing whores as much as possible and making a fool of myself. I didn’t want to write about that. I hated coffee. I looked down into my cup of hot chocolate. I didn’t want this. I wanted a beer. “It’s not like I need to write them. I’m just trying to imagine what it was like. They’re just stories.”

She drank her coffee and looked at me. “Well, I don’t know, Eddie. It seems that enough of the men who were there have written about it, and they were there.

I thought about that. “What does that mean? That I can’t write about something I haven’t done? You ever hear of fiction?”

The corner of her mouth twisted down and she stirred her coffee. “It’s just that, well, sometimes you talk like some Rambo wannabe. You ever talk to any real vets about this?” She paused. “Anyway, do you think people care about that war the way they used to? It’s history, Eddie. We’ve got other wars now.”

I put my hands on the table decisively, trying to hide how pissed off she was making me. “Listen, it’s still early. Let’s go to that new place on Amsterdam, the one with the great jukebox.”

She frowned and drank her coffee.

******

There was a large black man, a really big guy, I’d often see on Broadway in the lower Eighties who was always dressed in camouflaged combat fatigues and a poncho that reached his knees. He wore this jungle gear rain or shine and used a large push broom and a trash can on wheels to clean the sidewalk and street near the curb. As far as I could tell he’d taken it upon himself to perform this duty. I wondered what had happened in Vietnam to put him on this mission here, because he’d clearly been there and just as clearly hadn’t come all the way back. Then again, what did I know? Maybe he’d never been in the army or any war. Maybe he was just nuts. There was plenty of that.

Carla and I had come out of Barnes & Noble and were walking uptown when we heard angry voices. The guy in fatigues was slowly sweeping near the curb where another man wanted to park. He stood in front of his double-parked car with a woman at his side. They were both yelling. The black man said nothing and continued to sweep.

I wanted to see this. Carla pulled on my arm. “Let’s go, Eddie. I don’t want to stay here.”

“Wait a second,” I said, not looking at her. Just then this guy walked up to the black man, said something I couldn’t hear, and pushed him. He held his balance and continued sweeping.

“That’s not right,” I said to Carla.

“What’s the point?” she said. I looked at her and saw a pained, annoyed expression on her face.

“Hey!” I called out. “Stop it. Leave the guy alone.”

“Eddie, shut up!” Carla said as I took a step toward the street.

The man turned and looked at me. “What? You should mind your own business, mister. Keep out of this.”

“Yeah,” the woman with him said. “Mind your own fucking business! Tommy, who is this fucking guy?”

I took another step toward the street. “Look, just leave him alone, okay? What’s the big deal anyway? This isn’t necessary.”

Tommy’s eyes narrowed and he stepped toward me. He looked like a gangster, some thug on TV. I was scared. Carla was right, this was stupid.

“Listen, pencilneck, this retard’s fucking with my parking place. What’s necessary is that I might have to fuck you up if you don’t shut the fuck up and get out of here.”

“Eddie,” Carla said behind me. “What are you trying to do?” I looked back. A small crowd had gathered. I wondered if any of them would help me.

“Look,” I said to Tommy, “I don’t want to fight. This guy’s not hurting you. This isn’t necessary. There’s some parking spaces across the street.”
He came up to me. “I don’t want to park across the street. I want to park right fucking here! And I’ve listened to you long enough.”

He pushed me in the chest with both hands. I stumbled back and fell. As I got up he hit me twice in the face, very fast. It just made a quick slapping sound. I fell back and sat on the sidewalk, holding a hand to my face. He looked down at me, then turned back to see that the black guy had finished sweeping the spot and was moving down the street.

Carla helped me up as Tommy backed his car into the space. I took my hand away from my face and saw blood on it. Carla handed me some tissues. “Here,” she said. “Wipe your face. Christ, you should see yourself. Are you alright?”

“Yeah, I’m okay,” I said, wiping my face where I was bleeding from the mouth. I looked at the bloody tissues as we started to walk up the street.

“Do you like that, Eddie? That’s your blood,” Carla said. “Are you happy with that? Just what were you trying to do? Be a tough guy?”

“Carla, let’s just stop somewhere for a drink, okay?”

She started to walk ahead of me.”No, I’m going home. You should go home, too. You should go home and watch one of your war movies.”

******

“This isn’t working,” Carla said. “I don’t think we should see each other any more.”

We were in my apartment. Carla was sitting on a swivel chair by my desk. I stood looking out the window. It had been raining earlier in the evening. The street wetly reflected the lights on the block.

“I like you a lot, Eddie. You’re a nice guy and I have a good time when you haven’t been drinking, but you get into this thing and it’s like I’m not even there.” She sounded tired. I heard her let out a breath. “I don’t like talking to your back. This is what I mean.”

I turned and leaned against the window sill. I didn’t want her to leave, but I didn’t know what to say.

“I mean, this whole Vietnam thing, what’s that about? Christ, Eddie, that was thirty years ago, and you’re what, almost fifty? I’ve never heard of anybody being this fucked up over it who didn’t go.”

Blurry streetShe sat there looking at me, waiting for me to say something. Then she slowly got up and went to the door. She paused with her hand on the door knob and said, “I’m not sure what you’re looking for, but I don’t think I want to be there when you find it.” Then she left. I stayed at the window for a minute, looking at my feet, then got another beer. All this while I hadn’t said a word. I wondered when I’d see her again.

******

I’m in a booth near the back of the bar. This is an old place, a real tavern, with a long dark wooden bar that smells of years of soaked-up beer and cigarettes. It’s ten in the morning and nearly empty. The jukebox is playing the Rolling Stones and I’m drinking beer. Outside the sun is shining.

The front door opens and sunlight spills across the floor.  Bobby Olay and Larry Keefer come in the bar, Bobby pushing Keefer’s wheelchair.  They’re late.  Keefer removes his sunglasses, sees me in the back and waves.  He says something to Bobby and Bobby starts pushing Keefer toward my booth.

Keefer tells Bobby to stop when they get near the booth. He wheels himself closer to the table in the booth. Bobby feels his way into the seat across from me.

“Glad you guys got here,” I say. “I’ll get some beers.” Keefer watches as I get up and go to the bar. I return with three long-necked bottles and set them on the table.

“Well, Eddie,” Keefer says after taking a drink from his bottle, “she dumped you, huh?”

“Yeah, well.  What else is new?” I look across at Bobby with his sightless eyes.  “I’ll survive.”

“Well, hell,” Bobby says. “We’ll all survive. You survived.” He pauses. “You got fucked in that court martial, man.”  He is drunk. So is Keefer. Bobby bangs his head back against the booth and laughs. I see the bartender look our way.

“Hey, Eddie,” Bobby says. “I got a question. Tell me again. Who was it shot that fucking pig?”

Keefer and I look at each other and laugh.  We look at Bobby and say together, “We all did!

I order another round.  We’re laughing hysterically. It’s a beautiful day outside, but I’d rather be in here. 

Beer + shotby Ted Hicks

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