Saturday, September 29, 2007

So, what's the 'symbology' there?

Don't Cross the road if you can't get out of the kitchen.

I liked
Boondock Saints before it was cool.

Correction: I LOVED Boondock Saints before most people ever heard of it. It's true. There are few things in my life that coincide with what's "cool". This, however, I can safely say I was ahead of the curve. In fact, I may even so boldly make the claim (accurately so) that everyone I know who has seen this film, saw it upon my urging. I found it on a back shelf at a "Ballbuster" video store when they only carried ONE copy. Go there now and there's four or more. It was staring back at me, the brothers, ominously poised with their guns and Willem Dafoe's face hovering in the background. I recognized Sean Patrick Flannery from the "Chronicles of the Young Indian Jones" TV series (yeah...I used to watch it). It was Willem Dafoe, however, that made me pick it up and eagerly read the back for a description. I was instantly intrigued. Less than fifteen minutes into the film, I already KNEW it was going to be one of my modern favorites. A 'cult' favorite if you will.

For those who haven't see the film, let me give you a rough estimation of the story. Two young men, through a random act of violence find themselves compelled to rid their neighborhood of Evil Men. Their breed of vigilante justice has a higher calling as it is God's Work that they believe they are doing, reciting a family prayer over each victim and even blessing their souls once they are dead. They are pursued by an FBI Agent sent in because all of their victims just happened to have hefty dossiers. He is a highly educated, astute detective that cannot wrap his mind about the motives of the killers and finds himself envying them as they, in effect, rid the streets of the very men he has pursued for years but been unable to put away because of legal bureaucracy.
"You know, you Irish cops are perking up. That's two sound theories in oneday, neither of which deal with abnormally sized men. Kind of makes me feel like Riverdancing." - Agent Paul Smecker, who then dances a jig with a smile
For a bare bones explanation that will do, because the details make it so much more interesting - and unique. Each character is so real and alive, none of them fit a stereotypical persona at all. On the surface, perhaps, you see Russian mobsters, the mysterious cut-throat assassin, three dumb Irish cops...but each character fills out so much more than those cookie-cutter rolls. For example, our super-FBI Agent Agent Smecker listens to Opera on his CD walkman (that was before the iPod, children) while examining his crime scenes, dances to it openly as he thinks and is a not so closet homosexual with a hatred for "fags," not a self-hating homosexual, mind you, but a "Real Man" that dislikes the effeminate nature of some gay men; not the kind of characterization that you find in most action/dramas. He's intelligent, and knows it, often smugly mocking the amateurish mistakes of Boston's Best. When he fails to connect all the dots, however, he falls to dramatics like temper tantrums and all-out hissy fits in public - outraged at feeling outwitted. This character of Paul Smecker is truly our narrator. The story is mostly propelled from his point of view as he tries to find these vigilantes and reconcile his feelings of admiration with his sworn duties to the law.
"I put evil men behind bars, but the law has miles of red tape and loopholes for these cocksuckers to slip through." -Agent Smecker, Drunk in church confession

The MacManus brothers, Connor and Murphy never seem to question the validity of their choice to kill. They are holy men by nature, devout and god fearing, attending early mass everyday before going to work at a meat-packing plant. They speak English, Russian, Italian, French, and being catholic, it is possible, Latin as well. They both are exceptional marksmen, just happen to know IRA arms dealers, and have a friend with connections to the very Russian mob that they are killing. Oh...and their father is Il Duce. The Duke. The most revered and feared hitman in Boston history, hired by the mob when it was other mobsters that needed to be killed. The family tradition seems to be the killing of 'Evil Men,' as well as a family prayer which brings to mind the angels of death, a reference made by the father of the brothers MacManus.
"Never shall innocent blood be shed, yet the blood of the wicked shall flow like a river. The Three shall spread their blackened wings and be the vengeful striking hammer of God." -Il Duce
And shepherds we shall be, for thee my Lord for thee, Power hath descended forth from thy hand, that our feet may swiftly carry out thy command, we shall flow a river forth to thee, and teeming with souls shall it ever be. In nomine patris, et filii... [they cock their guns] spiritus sancti." - the brothers MacManus

An interesting technique employed by Troy Duffy, sadly a never-to-be-heard-from-again-debut director, are the news segments interspersed throughout the film to transition as well as the 'Man on the street" interviews that run during the credits asking people what they think of the vigilante killers dubbed "The Boondock Saints." They seem to be fairly genuine reactions that one would encounter on a subject as controversial as vigilante-justice. As a writer and director, Duffy shows a wonderful ability to capture people - real ordinary people in situations not so ordinary. The three Boston cops assisting with Agent Smecker's investigation are men one would not be surprised to encounter working the police department. Det. Greenly, a young, cocky detective whose enthusiasm for the job greatly overshadows any actual ability he has and only seems to highlight his lack of observation and basic logic. Det. Dolly, an older detective whose lost interest in his work,is street smart but not book smart, and is equally intimidated by Smecker's intelligence as he is the man's homosexuality. And Det. Duffy, who could be so much more than he is, but he's grown comfortable being more than the other two with ease, so does not strive to do better. All easily identifiable people, but in no way stereotypical.
Agt. Smecker: [walking through the hotel room] How many bodies, Greenly?
Det. Greenly:
[Smecker gives him a look]
Det. Greenly:
Ah, shit! I forgot about that one! Nine! Nine?
Agt. Smecker: While Greenly's out gettin' coffee, anybody else want anything?
Det. Greenly: Shit.

The relationship that the Brothers have with 'Rocco' (interestingly played by David Della Rocco) not only enables them to commit their crimes of justice, but also hinders them in the act. While Rocco, "The Funny Man", is known for his wonderful sense of humor and witty jokes, he is also often the butt of those jokes due to his uneducated,trusting and sometimes belligerent manner. He's 'just one of the guys,' only he's pushing 45 and they are barely 30. He has a junkie girlfriend that takes advantage of him, works for a mob boss that still has him running packages (traditionally a kids' job), and is mocked by kids young enough he could have fathered them. Seeing the route that Connor and Murphy have gone, he misunderstands the directive behind it and follows suit committing a crime of passion as he outlets his anger and hatred for being mistreated for so many years. He's the loser that everyone knows, and pities. And it is Murphy's pity for him that nearly gets he and Connor killed.
Rocco: Don't shoot, don't shoot. We're on the same side. Boss must've sent me in as backup. I'm Rocco! I'm the funny man. That ain't my name. [His name tag says Jaffar]
Where's your gun? Where's your gun!?
Rocco: I'm the fuckin' funny man! It's right here. Right here. That ain't my real name.
What the fuck? Jeez! [to Murphy] It's a fuckin' six-shooter!
Murphy: there's nine bodies, genius! What the fuck were you gonna do, laugh the last three to death, funny man?
The villains of the story, while given their own individual quirks, are almost immaterial. They are painted as bad men, and no one need question that fact. The mob boss is racist and kills people. His henchman is played by Ron Jeremy...imagine what you will from there (and yes...there is a masturbation scene, though blissfully we see NOTHING). His cronies are large, violent men that would hurt an old man with Tourette's Syndrome and a stutter. They are not stereotypical in only the sense that they are shown in their less scary moments, but regardless they are unquestioningly Bad Men. Troy Duffy makes an interesting point in the film, whether deliberately or not, that while society on a whole can agree whole-heartedl
y upon what makes men evil...we cannot agree on what justice is and therefore, if what these men do is right, or if they to are evil - even if they do no harm to innocents. This is the very question that plagues our narrator, Agent Smecker....the question that unsettles his well kept persona...and drives him to seek God's guidance for the first time ever.

Are Connor and Murphy doing God's work, or merely justifying homicide? When does the Justice System fail to do justice? When do good men cease to be good: through acts of vengeance, or acts of indifference?

So I leave you with the opening of the film, and irony which is more than symbollic in itself.

[the brothers rise from their pews and boldly walk past the Monsignor as he preaches to kiss the feet of Christ on the cross]

Monsignor: [as he sees them] And I am reminded, on this holy day, of the sad story of Kitty Genovese. As you all may remember, a long time ago, almost thirty years ago, this poor soul cried out for help time and time again, but no person answered her calls. Though many saw, no one so much as called the police. They all just watched as Kitty was being stabbed to death in broad daylight. They watched as her assailant walked away. Now, we must all fear evil men. But there is another kind of evil which we must fear most, and that is the indifference of good men.

Connor: [as the brothers exit the church] I do believe the monsignor's finally got the point.

Murphy: Aye

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

...what's your heaven?

I - I ain't got no mama now
I - I ain't got no mama now
She told me late last night, "You don't need no mama no how"

Mmm, mmm, black snake crawlin' in my room
Mmm, mmm, black snake crawlin' in my room
Some pretty mama better come and get this black snake soon

Ohh-oh, that must have been a bed bug, baby, a chinch can't bite that hard
Ohh-oh, that must have been a bed bug, honey, a chinch can't bite that hard
Ask my sugar for fifty cents, she said "Lemon, ain't a child in the yard"

Mama, that's all right, mama that's all right for you
Mama, that's all right, mama that's all right for you
Mama, that's all right, most seen all you do

Mmm, mmm, what's the matter now?
Mmm, mmm, honey what's the matter now?
Sugar, what's the matter, don't like no black snake no how

Mmm, mmm, wonder where my black snake gone?
Mmm, mmm, wonder where this black snake gone?
Black snake mama done run my darlin' home

Black Snake Moan, recorded by Blind Lemon Jefferson, 1926
If there aren't spoilers, then its not a review, its a summation. We got spoilers here. BIG ONES.

One of the most underrated films of this past Summer is without question, Black Snake Moan. The fault for this little diamond being overlooked lies in the advertising. Now, while the advertisers were smart enough to keep Justin Timberlake OUT of the previews, they made the mistake of trying to sell this film as "Pulp Fiction in the South", which is a quote. Let us look at what the preview sells us:

Samuel L. Jackson.
Christina Ricci nearly naked, with nymphomania, chained to a radiator, in all her bottled-blonde, under-nourished, bobble-headed glory.
Samuel L. Jackson.
Did I mention the nymphomania?
And Samuel L. Jackson.

All of the above is correct. It is all in the movie...yes, even Samuel L. Jackson. HOWEVER...we are left with the impression that this is a hip, black-comedy (black as in dark humour, not black as in Samuel L. Jackson), just writhing with a naked Christina Ricci having sex with everyone. This impression is only a "partial print", as the CSI folks might say.

What this film is truly falls more into the realm of redemption, salvation, the battling of personal demons, the definition of true love versus self love, and an understanding of what "The Blues" truly means. Black Snake Moan, is not a film about sex. It is not a story about religion or social stigmas, or breaking down any barriers, or any of the other ridiculous pseudo-literary tripe the media may try to silver-spoon feed you to get you to watch this movie. This movie, like all great movies, is more than a fucking tag-line.

Written and directed by Craig Brewer, the man who wrote and directed "Hustle & Flow", the story is a different kind of love story. It is prefaced by Eddie James "Son" House, Jr., one of the Old Boys of Blues in a film clip of him explaining the origin of the Blues.

Ain't but one kind of Blues
and that consists between male and female that's in love
Sometimes that kind of blues will make you even kill one another or do anything, that kind of love.
It goes here, on this side, that's where the blues started
It ain't on this side, it's over here...
When i say that this is a different kind of love story, I mean to say that, unlike most which focus on the emotions between two individuals...or sometimes a tangled web of a few people, this story is really one about the kinds of love that exist. Within it there is new love, expired love, friendship-love, family-love, God's love and what proves to be the most important in the tale, and in truth--life, is that of Self-love. Black Snake Moan focuses on three characters in particular, and more so on only two of those three. It shows their journey together to reach a place where they can truly express their love to each other, and feel the love from others by learning to love themselves.

Now this all sounds very fine and Hallmark-Special like, but I assure you, it is not.

Samuel L. Jackson plays Lazarus (or 'Laz' for short), a blues man who put aside his guitar when he'd found love and contentment no longer 'feeling them blues.' All of this changes when first his wife Rose leaves him for his younger brother, Lincoln. It is shortly after this that he meets-- or rather, finds Rae, played spiritedly by Christina Ricci. Now I must first point out that the film opens with the introduction of Rae and Ronnie (Justin Timberlake). The opening is a sex scene, close angles and very intimate. This then goes on to actually introduce us to Ronnie and Rae. The scene is awkward and difficult to judge for emotional range merely because the audience has no understanding of the characters yet and it is not written to be revealing. All that is shown to us is that Ronnie is going away in the armed services, buying into all the usual sales pitches they give young men: make money, go to school, etcetera; and he believes that by this he will be able to better provide for Rae. He doesn't seem entirely sure of himself however, as he promptly vomits in the toilet before leaving. In a sweet moment, which figures quite well into the story, he gives her a digital watch which matches his own, and both are set to beep at synchronous moments so that at least once every day they will be thinking of one another at the exact same moment. Rae's own insecurities of being left behind seem clingy and needy, but not out of the ordinary for a young woman in love....until the truck pulls away and she seems to react with a very physical sort of pain, which borders on a psychological fit.

Enter Samuel L. Jackson. He meets his now ex-wife at a restaurant in the hopes of begging her back, but she rather harshly humiliates him and leaves. He reacts in the only way he knows how and secludes himself at his farm with multiple bottles of liquor and his guitar. Through a series of events, which serves to build an easy-to-judge perception of Rae in the audience's eye, the girl ends up at the end of Lazarus' drive way drunk, drugged, raped and beaten wearing only a shirt and her panties. Now a black man, in the south, finds a drunk, drugged, raped and beaten unconscious white girl half naked in his drive way and he has two choices: 1) call the police and pray to GOD they believe that he didn't do it....or 2) try to help her on his own and at the least she'll be grateful and not call the police.

Lazarus is a good, god-fearing man who is sad, lonely, and feels that he needs to be redeemed for his life. In the short time that he has Rae, it becomes quickly evident that the girl is troubled. Deeply troubled. Between fevered sweats, nightmares that send her running out of the house screaming and delirious, and bizarre fits of moaning, shrieking and writhing on the floor, Lazarus is all but certain the girl is possessed. He believes that God has put her in his path that he should help her...cure her of her demons...and he aims to do that. When she awakes to the infamous chain which he hooked about her waist to tether her to the radiator- in all honesty, for her own good-- she of course fights his decision with spitfire.

I ain't gonn' be moved on this. Right or wrong, you gonn' mind me. Like Jesus Christ said, "Imma suffa' you. IMMA SUFFA' YOU!" Get yo ass back in my house!

Or what? Or what? [spits in Lazarus' face]
She proves to him early on that brutality will not break her. She used to that. Lazarus, of course, doesn't really intend to hurt her- not in any way. His entire goal is to bring her salvation from her troubles so that he may find some form of peace or redemption. Through every trial they face, in any scenario that would so easily be perverted into some sexual fantasy for the hundreds of men in the audience scratching at their crotches each time Christina Ricci's bare breasts are flashed on screen (which is a few), Lazarus is never anything less than paternal. Even when bathing her in cold water and ice to lower her fever, he is delicate and tender, but never sexual in his manner. It is this unusual dynamic which often confuses Rae, as she has never felt to be anything but a sexual object to men. She finds her greatest frustrations when she TRIES to seduce him and Lazarus, not immune to her wiles, but in control of himself, refuses her and demands to know why she lets men treat her as she does. When she reaches out to him with salacious intent, his response is to walk away, and a dog on a leash, Rae begins to learn how to treat others and how to behave. In many ways, he treats her like a dog, so long as she insists on behaving like one. And when she begins to behave like a young woman, he buys her dresses.

At a moment's thought, this all seems like a rather slave-like method of treatment. Confined to a house, kept on a chain...but truthfully, its more parental love than she's ever been shown and- harsh as it may seem on the surface- it is effective and exactly what she needs. In a way, it is no different than the way that Helen Keller is educated by Annie Sullivan. When Annie first meets Helen, the girl is like an untrained animal. She doesn't speak with any articulation (and not because she cannot, but because no one has tried to teach her), she steals food from other's plates, she screams, she throws fits. it is all a very infantile way of expression. When babies need something (food, diaper change, affection) they cry. They have a very limited form of expression. For Rae, it is just such a case. We are introduce at one point to her mother- a very detached woman who has written off her daughter and speaks of her, and to her, in the same ridiculing manner as the teenagers in town. So we can see plainly that Rae received little or no love from the woman. Rae was an irritation, an inconvenience and she was treated as one. So this is her model of behavior for others, in particular women. She learns to be distant, detached and critical. Throughout the film we catch snatches of the fever dreams that Rae has and it becomes very clear that she has suffered some nature of sexual abuse. The events were very traumatic and, as this person was one of the father figures she had (as its insinuated that there was more than one), this leaves an impression upon her which then models her behavior and relationships with men. No one had ever tried to tell her differently...except for Ronnie.

Ronnie returns from the service less than three days from when he left. He is given a medical discharge due to severe anxiety- a condition he has suffered since high school and was only able to control when Rae was there. She knew how to calm him and ease him out of his panic attacks- so without her he was a mess. When he returns, however, Rae has been missing for two days and his best friend Gil isn't all that willing to help find her...three guesses who was responsible for the beating that left her on Lazarus's doorstep. Gil, being the asswipe that he very early in the film seems proud to be, does little to help his best friend and goes out of his way to humiliate him by revealing that he and Rae had been cuckolding Ronnie behind his back and painting descriptive pictures of the vents and the other men with which Rae had also been. All of this sends the high-strung, military trained, young Ronnie into a rage...and he owns a gun- because he's in the military and they're in the south. I mean...come on, people. Safer to piss off a center city Philly boy...only half of them have guns. White boy in the south? They give them one at birth. So Ronnie goes looking for Rae.

I am fairly against disclosing the resolutions to films, unless there is such a poignant point made that I simply must, for my own giddy pleasure, discuss it. In this case, I feel that the poignancy of all that takes place is really not for me to tell. The tidy way that all the loose ends are gathered is beautiful because they are gathered - not perfectly trimmed. No one character walks away from this story a perfected human being, their problems are not even truly resolved. Instead what is offered up is a small serving of hope and understanding. Hope for every person by seeing that even the most severely fucked up individuals in this story find a way to make life go on without undue suffering....but an understanding that, there will always be suffering. The ultimate lesson in the film, if it has one, is not that people can be fixed...but that people can be mended but never without help.

I'mma tell you something and it's just gonna be between you and me. I think folks carry on about heaven too much, like it's some kind of all you can eat buffet up in the clouds and folks just do as they told so they can eat what they want behind some pearly gates. There's sinning in my heart, there's evil in the world but when I got no one, I talk to God. I ask for strength, I ask for forgiveness, not peace at the end of my days when I got no more life to live or no more good to do but today, right now... What's your heaven?