Tuesday, August 22, 2017

When Bullies Fail

Like many others, I've grown weary of news cycles dominated by A-holes. Recently, I've been dealing with other types of holes. The good news is that they're not K-holes. The bad news it that on some nights I've fallen down Y-holes, hypnotically watching one YouTube clip after another as I savor a menu of operatic arias, bodybuilders pumping iron, clips from The Lion Whisperer, and comedy monologues from late night talk shows.

I've also learned that one of the most dangerous Y-holes to fall into is built by an algorithm that keeps coughing up clips of Judge Judy meting out justice and zinging plaintiffs and defendants with her pearls of wisdom. In between encouraging women to become financially independent (so that they can avoid a cycle of dependence and potential abuse), Judge Judy doesn't hesitate to inform some folks that they are idiots, morons, and/or nincompoops who made the tragically dumb mistake of thinking they could outsmart her. Without any need to dress up like a dominatrix, Judge Judy easily slices and dices these folks before an international audience of millions. In all honesty, they deserve it.

We are now living in the era of Great American Stupidity (GAS), which continues to flourish despite impressive gains in artificial intelligence. Whether showcasing gullible fools who never understood that the Affordable Care Act was the exact same thing as Obamacare or the political naifs who believed that Donald Trump was "just like us," one sad truth keeps coming back to haunt America: "The stupid, it burns!"

Although some people like to believe that crime pays, it now looks as if Robert Mueller will use the same methodology to take down Donald Trump that Frank J. Wilson used to convict Al Capone: follow the money. As is so often the case, the devil is in the details (many criminals learn that they are not as smart as they'd like to think they are).

When one thinks of the most daring robberies and attacks, it's impossible to ignore the amount of advance planning that led to their astonishing success. No matter how painful it is for people to recall the September 11, 2001 attacks, there's no denying that they were carefully plotted, executed, and helped by the element of surprise. Less successful crimes are often impulsively planned and sloppily executed.

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Earlier this year the San Francisco Silent Film Festival offered its audience a chance to savor a restored print of 1920's Outside the Law. Set in San Francisco, the screening of Tod Browning's film at the Castro Theatre was accompanied by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius and introduced by film noir historian Eddie Muller, who wasted no time pointing out that:
“One of the most striking aspects of this film is its lawlessness. Vestiges of the infamous Barbary Coast remain in streets and alleyways rife with Irish gangsters and prowling tongs. The local cops are gullible pawns in a scheme by Black Mike Sylva (Lon Chaney) to put railroad gang boss Silent Madden (Ralph Lewis) into jail so Mike will get a crack at becoming the town’s new vice lord. Browning renders this nefarious terrain with the pungent exotica that was his specialty, from the sawdust-strewn saloons to the mysterious maze-like corridors of Chinatown, to the opulence of a Pacific Heights society gala. Oddly, the only thing missing from Outside the Law is a detective. And some competent cops. So many elements of Outside the Law later appear in Dashiell Hammett’sContinental Op” stories that I wonder if the one-time Pinkerton detective didn’t see Browning’s film at a local movie house.”
E.Alyn Warren (Chang Lo) and Priscilla Dean (Molly Madden)
in a scene from 1920's Outside the Law
“But this isn’t just standard underworld stuff. Browning has a few surprises up his sleeve. Before you cringe at white actors playing all the main Asian roles (Chaney’s makeup as the omniscient Ah Wing is, of course, monstrously grotesque), consider that the story posits the Chinese as the stabilizing force in this wide-open seaport town. It’s the sagacious Chang Lo (E. Alyn Warren, white as rice) who convinces Silent Madden to cease his criminal ways and go straight; it’s Chang Lo from whom the police seek inside ‘dope’ and guidance; it’s Ah Wing who susses out the motives of the crazy white men.”
Lon Chaney as Ah Wing in 1920's Outside the Law

There are enough plot twists in Outside the Law to keep one's head spinning all the way from Chinatown to Russian Hill and back again. But while the violence is well staged and the action often thrilling, this is also an extremely funny film filled with near-misses, sight gags, and moments of intense suspense. Character actor John George (who easily holds his own while playing opposite Lon Chaney) scores strongly as Humpy, one of Black Mike Sylva's fast-footed henchmen.

John George (Humpy) and Lon Chaney (Black Mike Sylva)
in a scene from 1920's Outside the Law

San Franciscans will have great fun identifying various landmarks and intersections while martial arts fans will be delighted by the extended fight scene within a gift shop in Chinatown. But the scenes that find Molly and Bill holed up in an apartment overlooking San Francisco Bay ricochet back and forth between nail-biters and moments when the audience has no choice but to erupt in laughter. And then there is the kid. As Muller notes:
“The story revolves around Madden’s daughter, Molly (known in the underworld as Silky Moll) whose partner in this daring caper, Dapper Bill Ballard (Wheeler Oakman), has one tenth her tenacity. Once they’re on the lam, Moll (Priscilla Dean) proves herself the brains and the brawn of this chaste (chased?) pair. Hiding out in a 'Knob’ Hill walk-up (a glaring goof by title writer Gardner Bradford), Bill fights off cabin fever while Moll staves off Bill’s growing ardor. A scene-stealing little boy (Stanley Goethals, credited merely as ‘The Kid Across the Hall’) makes a habit of barging into the apartment and trying, with all his mini-might, to melt Moll’s hardened heart. Dean plays it so frostily you expect her to pitch him out a second-story window.”
Priscilla Dean (Silky Moll) in a scene from 1920's Outside the Law

Outside the Law was conceived as a star vehicle for Priscilla Dean. Although Lon Chaney had previously acted in more than 125 films, many of them were shorts (his big breakthroughs would come as Fagin in 1922's Oliver Twist, Quasimodo in 1923's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Paul Beaumont in 1924's He Who Gets Slapped, and the title role in 1925's The Phantom of the Opera).

Poster art for 1920's Outside the Law

Nevertheless, Outside the Law showcases Chaney's great skill as a character actor and Priscilla Dean's unmistakable appeal to the masses. You can enjoy the entire film in the following video from YouTube.

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On rare occasions, a film can push a viewer's buttons for very personal reasons. I first saw Eliza Hittman's gritty Beach Rats in April, when it was shown during the 2017 San Francisco International Film Festival. Like many gay men, my curiosity was aroused by some titillating publicity shots that promised beefcake by the boardwalk. Because I grew up in Brooklyn (where my family spent many summer mornings at Coney Island and Brighton Beach), I was curious to see what the area looks like today.

Frankie (Harris Dickinson) hangs out with
his "bros" in a scene from Beach Rats

Hittman's film focuses on the misadventures of Frankie (Harris Dickinson), a directionless piece of white trash whose father lies in a hospital bed at home, dying of cancer. Frankie's kid sister, Carla (Nicole Flyus), is the kind of inquisitive little brat who knows exactly how to push Frankie's buttons. Their depressed mother (Kate Hodge) has enough on her hands trying to cope with her dying husband to worry about the seedy types Frankie likes to hang out with.

Like many high school jocks, Frankie has a secret. At night, he's been hanging out on gay videochat platforms where he poses seductively for older men who are likely to proposition him. As much as Frankie keeps telling himself that the only reason he lets guys suck his dick is so that he can score some weed, he knows two things:
  • He doesn't know what he likes.
  • He prefers older men because they won't know any people who know Frankie.
Frankie (Harris Dickinson) hangs out with
his "bros" in a scene from Beach Rats

Far from being a great conversationalist (or having any interests other than getting high), the sullen Frankie lacks social skills whenever he tries to communicate with women. When his mother asks if he's on drugs, he responds "Yeah, I'm on drugs. Really GOOD drugs!" When Simone (Madeline Weinstein) asks Frankie if he thinks she looks pretty, his lack of interest or enthusiasm for such small talk is painfully obvious. When, much to his surprise, Simone informs Frankie that they were not dating and never will be, she tells him that "You're a fixer-upper, you require a lot of work."

Frankie (Harris Dickinson) and Simone (Madeline Weinstein)
go out on a date in Coney Island in a scene from Beach Rats

One night, when he takes Simone to a party on a dinner boat docked along Emmons Avenue in Sheepshead Bay, Frankie runs into a former trick, a middle-aged Russian who is working as a bartender that night. When the Russian presents Frankie with a bottle of champagne on the house, Simone gets suspicious about why anyone would want to do that for such a loser.

Frankie (Harris Dickinson) and Simone (Madeline Weinstein)
attend a party on a sightseeing boat in a scene from Beach Rats

Several nights later, Frankie makes the mistake of suggesting to his friends that he hook up with a gay guy as a means of getting enough weed to get them all high. It doesn't take long for things to go horribly wrong after his friends suddenly pile into the man's car. One thing leads to another as the audience watches a vicious fagbashing near the beach, which leaves viewers wondering whether the victim has been left to drown.

A friend who attended another screening of Beach Rats was furious about Hittman's choices, stressing that independent filmmakers should be long past the point of needing to stage a fagbashing in order to sell an independent film. But as news reports keep reminding us, fagbashing remains a favored activity among homophobic middle and high school students, drunk fraternity brothers whose sadistic tendencies come roaring to the surface while hazing pledges, and others whose toxic boredom and latent homophobia prove to be a dangerously volatile combination. Thanks to the viciousness of Donald Trump's base, rolling a queer is making a comeback.

Frankie (Harris Dickinson) hangs out in Coney Island
in a scene from Beach Rats

Horny young men like Frankie are extremely angry at a world that has left them with no marketable skills as they struggle with issues of self-identity and sexual orientation. As recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia have demonstrated, many of them are chest-beating bullies who, once the wind gets taken out of their sails, can become remarkably fragile snowflakes.

Frankie's problem is that he doesn't know who he is, what he wants from life, or how to spend his time. He fulfills the sorry stereotype of a supposedly straight young man who is "young, dumb, and full of cum." The boy's a douchebag without a future and Hittman's film is a pathetic waste of time. Here's the trailer.

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