Archive | June, 2011

The Devil’s Lonely Boy, part 4: The Way of Salvation

17 Jun

My father isn’t saved. He is an agnostic. A lapsed Episcopalian. A decent, moral man who didn’t and doesn’t go to church. When I was ten, my mother and my aunt explained to me that my father needed my help.

“You can save him,” my Aunt said. “You’re the only one he listens to.”

I nodded, feeling decades older and a few feet shorter.

“He needs the Lord,” my mom said.

“Ask him to pray with you,” my Aunt said. “Ask him to go to church with you.”

“He needs the Lord,” my mom said.

“He needs your help,” my Aunt said.

My mom started praying in a hushed mutter.

“Your father, when he finds the Lord, will be such a powerful warrior for Christ,” my mom said. “He just needs your help.”

I cried that night and many after. I was convinced that my father was going to hell. He wasn’t saved—my mother had told me—so he was headed for the place of eternal suffering and great gnashing of teeth. He and I were pals from the start. I was his only son and he raised me in his image. We went to movies every weekend. He took me to my little league soccer games, we ate out at Burger King, we went to the beach. We threw the football in the front yard; he made hamburgers special just for me, smothered in barbecue sauce; he bought me comics; he got me hooked on oldies rock n’ roll music; he was damned to Hell.

His salvation remained a thorn in my thoughts. Despite our friendship, I was scared of my dad, to a degree; I’ve always assumed every boy is scared of his father. I didn’t know how to talk to him.

It became a pattern. My mom and my Aunt would try and get me to ask him to go to church, ask him to read the Bible with me, ask him to pray with me, ask him to accept Jesus into his heart for me, and so on. I was torn. I wanted my father to live with me in Heaven, obviously, but I also didn’t want to lose his favor on earth. I was scared of talking to him, scared of not talking to him.

So I cried at nights. For my father’s salvation. I recognized that I was being selfish; I was sacrificing my dad’s afterlife so that I could have time with him on earth. I prayed for him constantly. I asked God to show him the way to salvation. I begged God for my Dad’s peace and well-being. For harmony in my own life. An end to the melancholy.

I would try to talk to him about it sometimes. But how do you broach your father’s eternal salvation? “So, Dad, you do know that you’re going to hell if you don’t get saved, right?” I thought of ways to trick him into saying the words with me, like a game of Simon Says. I imagined him on his deathbed, me pleading with him to accept Jesus, he finally submitting at the end, croaking the words out above the heart monitors and IV drip.

I sometimes thought that if I could save my dad, I would be saving myself. That to win him to Christ would ensure that I wasn’t faking, that I really did believe, that I was going to Heaven, too.

One day I gathered up the courage to speak to him about it. He was watching television, sitting big and comfortable on the couch like a suburban Buddha. I sat next to him, staying quiet, hoping he would casually mention his recent salvation and we could carry on. He was watching an Audi Murphy western.

“Hi, Goofy,” he said.

“Hi, Dad,” I said.

We watched the silly western with the silly non-actor while the sun set into the late afternoon. We sat and said nothing, through commercials. My dad finally got up and came back with two grilled cheese sandwiches with pickles on top and handing them to me. I thanked him and ate. They were delicious. The Audi Murphy movie turned out to be pretty good. I stayed quiet.

A few weeks later my dad and I went walking around the neighborhood one night. I was armed with a slingshot he had bought me for my birthday. I was tempted to try and shoot out the streetlights but resisted. We walked through the warm early evening, the ground a little damp from an earlier rain; we didn’t speak. There was an awkward silence. The canopy of starts shimmered in the dark sultry firmament. Finally he spoke. “Do you know who else used a slingshot? In the Bible?”

“David,” I answered. I realized in that moment that he felt just as uncomfortable as I did. I slung a rock at a stop sign and hit it and he cheered me on with a pat on the back. We walked home in silence. The evening ended and that night I went to sleep, this time without crying.

I never spoke to him about God or salvation. Ever. I still feel ashamed that I never nudged him towards Heaven.

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The Devil’s Lonely Boy, part 3: The One Unforgivable Sin

17 Jun

If I were sick and didn’t go to church, I had to watch a sermon on television. This was worse than church in a way, because the television didn’t provide the distractions of real church—the polyester people, the cute girls, the reeking, bedraggled bums who wandered in off the street. I could sleep in church, often did in fact. Something about the shape of the pew just got me all the time.

As a child I had no real concept of God. I sort of imagined him as a bearded face in a silvery mist, like Professor Marvel’s projection of the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz, minus the fat man hiding behind the curtain. He had huge blazing eyes, like suns gone supernova; his face was the size of the Milky Way. I didn’t believe in aliens; I didn’t believe in ghosts, not really; I didn’t believe in evolution (“We did not come from monkeys.”); I simply believed in an all-knowing face floating somewhere out in space, staring a frown at me the size of Texas.

One morning I didn’t go to church; I was probably pretending to be sick. The television was on, and some country preacher on low fidelity sound and cheap cameras began his sermon. I tried not to pay attention. I looked out the window, I twiddled my thumbs, but there’s something about television that was impossible to ignore. So I watched. And I heard him mention an unforgivable sin, something that would condemn you to the lake of fire, forever. He didn’t say what it was. This mysterious sin tantalized me.

The comic books and sci fi novels were in full effect. I was beginning to dream of space operas, of laser blasts and demon queens and super powers and princesses with enormous breasts wearing gold gilded bikinis.

The next week, in church, I began to wonder. The pastor was talking, pacing up and down red-faced on the dais. What if, I thought, the God we’re praying to is actually the devil? What if all the songs and rituals are an elaborate ruse to trick humans into worshiping Satan? And Satan, it turns out, is actually God?

We drove home that afternoon, my mom and older sister and me. I wanted to ask my mom, “How do you know God is God and not the devil? That Jesus isn’t a devil spawn? That the pastor isn’t in fact a fire-breathing Satanist? That we aren’t all held in thrall by Lucifer? That a giant cosmic trap laid millennia ago hasn’t sprung, catching most of humanity in its iron jaws?”

I knew how my mom would react to these questions, so I instead asked her what the unforgivable sin was. “I thought there weren’t any,” I said.

She smiled. “No, there’s only one, Ben. The one unforgivable sin is thinking that God is actually the Devil. But no one really does that. It’s a monstrous pride.”

I didn’t say anything the rest of the drive. When we got home, I went up to my room and closed the door. I knelt and begged God for forgiveness. Please, I prayed, I didn’t know. Please please please please please please please please please please please

I walked around in a stupor for days. I was convinced that I was doomed. To the burning place. Where your bones are dried husks and your eyes scrambled eggs and taloned demons impale you on rusty spikes, where the only language is groaning, crying, and screaming, where for an eternity, all you can do is suffer. Pain and humiliation and torture and agony and despair and the burning, a fire that crisps the skin and bakes the organs and barbecues all of the doubts about God’s existence right out of you.

I didn’t talk about it. I smiled and said my prayers at dinner, acting as though nothing were wrong. But inside, I was a roiling mess.

The world looked different through my doomed eyes. Food lost its taste. Sports were pointless. The sky was yellowish with clouds of weedy bracken, the trees and grass and air all tainted with decay. Conversation was a waste of time. Board games were trite and inconsequential. My comics smelled like mildew and colors seemed to bleed into each other so that everything was a dull gray. I fixated on what Hell was really like. Would it be all that bad? Maybe I could occasionally take a break from the torture and gnashing of teeth to play cards or eat a grilled cheese sandwich. Maybe it’s only a few millennia of pain and suffering and then you get to kick your feet up at a heated pool.

I knew I was just fooling myself. I could feel the Devil smiling into my ear, whispering a sweet little message just for me. “I’ve got you,” he said, softly, his ruffled shirt collar tickling my neck. “You are forever mine.” His breath smelled like perfume with the subtlest hint of rotting meat.

I prayed. And prayed. And prayed. I looked for answers in the Bible. I begged. I pleaded. I gave extra from my allowance at tithing time. But I couldn’t find peace anywhere. I could only imagine the sweating glaze of eternal damnation. I could think of nothing else.

But like the greatest childhood calamities, this too faded with time. As the weeks passed into months, the feeling faded and I forgot I was going to hell. But every once in while the feeling returns, and I fear that I signed my life away in one moment of cavalier youthful caprice.

The Devil’s Lonely Boy, part 2: Christ in Comic Books

17 Jun

My mom bought me a comic book Bible to lure me into its pages. For a solid year I read my comic book Bible during Sunday sermons. It looked like I was paying attention and following along, meanwhile I was skipping ahead to Samson bashing ten thousand men with the jaw bone of an ass, Saul impaling himself on his sword, David committing adultery with Bathsheba, Ezekiel and the army of bones, Jesus thrashing the money lenders in the temple, all the good parts. But the comics my dad gave me, like the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Green Lantern, and countless others, in my head combined with the comic book Bible and I very quickly transposed the two. Both instilled a deep fascination with Lucifer Morningstar, also known as Satan, Beelzebub, Mephisto, and the Devil.

Lucifer loomed large in my imagination. Unlike the dour apostles, he was flashy and charismatic and hinted at unnamed reservoirs of fun. He was pastel red, caped, with tiny, fashionable horns in his forehead. He was a good dancer, like Fred Astaire. He could shoot energy bolts out of his hands. He was tall and thin and good looking, like Cary Grant, and he had long ago discarded the pitchfork for a steely, shiny sword. He wore dark, double-breasted suits when he wasn’t flying around shirtless to terrify the damned. And sometimes young heroes with pure hearts would battle him to a standstill.

In addition to being king of the underworld, the Devil also owned foreign oil cartels on earth and worked to have his people—like Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and Bill Clinton—elected to high office, in the U.S. and abroad. The Devil manipulated people on a grand scale. The world was his playground. He had a perverse sense of humor and liked to tell dirty jokes. He didn’t need to eat and never had to go to the bathroom. His voice was rich and nuanced and slightly British, a cross between John Huston and James Mason. Flames sometimes shot out of his eyes. His teeth were perfect. Stare at him too long and you would fall in love with him and serve him forever. I saw him in adult magazines, bad words, late night television programs and in the Russians. He tainted everything.

And he had it in for me.

He was a clever chap. There was nothing too mundane for him to use as a trap. If I stepped over little scraps of garbage without picking them up, I had been tricked. Temptation for me worked in reverse; I confused omission with commission. If I stepped on an ant, killed a spider, didn’t speak to the lonely homeless man on the corner—anything, accidental or otherwise, was a sin. Satan knew my every weakness. He exploited my inflated sense of loyalty and my overwrought sentimentality.

When other kids made fun of me at school, I could feel his handiwork. If I did poorly on a test, he had clouded my thoughts. He caused wars, famines, hurricanes and earthquakes, as well as untied shoelaces, unzipped flies, bullies and stomach-aches. He was a constant presence, always enticing me towards Hell.

The hell in my head was straight out of Doctor Strange. It was a cavernous place, craggy and perilous, tinted red with perpetual fires. Demons tortured the damned on an endless loop, sort of like an ancient conveyor belt, prodding and poking and tearing the flesh of dead sinners. The demons never bored of this tirade; they approached their jobs with cacklish professionalism, worried only when Satan came to their little corner of hell to check up on their progress. Hell was a nasty, bendy slice of infinity.

I obsessed over eternity. I could feel the vastness of the universe breathing down my neck. I also wondered about the spaces between Heaven and Hell. Baptists don’t believe in purgatory. I filled the huge gulfs of gray matter—the spaces between Earth, Heaven, and Hell—with undulating, tentacled creatures that sometimes snagged an unlucky sinner out of hell. These unnamable beasts existed outside either domain, cosmic freaks not welcome anywhere; their mouths were snapping beaks, their soggy heads ringed with thousands of eyes, big bug-eyed slimy beasts that gnawed on human souls. While I was daydreaming about the afterlife, precious good deeds were passing me by.

I mashed Christianity and comic books together, interpolating Marvel characters with the Bible on a regular basis. The Avenging Angel in Exodus looked like the Punisher with wings. Ruth was Mary Jane Watson. Solomon looked like a combination of Reed Richards and J. Jonah Jameson. Goliath was a taller, flesh-colored Hulk. David was Peter Parker and Cain was Wolverine and Job the Silver Surfer. When I prayed, I saw flashes of superheroes in the phosphene glare of my shut eyes.

My cosmology even read like a comic book. At the beginning of time, God zaps Satan! Satan vows revenge and ruins the world! God sends his best hero to save the endangered world! Satan defeats God’s son! But it was a trick! Jesus’s death saves humanity! Jesus resurrects, goes home, and with God begins to plan the final battle! Lucifer vows revenge again! He and God spar with various earthly heroes and villains before the final days!

This was all innocent fancy. I remember the exact moment when my childhood innocence came to an end.

The Devil’s Lonely Boy, part 1: Genesis

17 Jun

My life began when I accepted Jesus into my heart. I was five years old. This is where my memories begin. My mother wanted me to tell someone so I ran into my sister’s room. “Ann, I just accepted Jesus as my savior!”

I would bask in the glow of God for years.

My mother was saved in her twenties, before I was born, along with her sister. She was raised Methodist by John Birchers but wasn’t really saved until she joined the Southern Baptist church. I don’t know what my mom was like before Jesus entered her life, but from that moment on she was on fire for the Lord.

I was raised on fundamentalist fervor. Hell was a real place, described in detail in the Bible. Every word of the Bible was divinely inspired, true. Secular music was foul, evil. Journalists were leftwing atheists serving the communists in Russia. Jews were God’s chosen people but they had collectively lost their way and for this God continued to punish them. Black people were the children of Ham, one of Noah’s sons, and cursed for Ham’s bad sense of humor—he made fun of Noah when the old man was naked and drunk. Drugs and alcohol bad, movies bad, music bad, dancing bad, Devil bad, Bible good, Christian fellowship good, praying good.

And the end of the world was always nigh.

This was in the early eighties. Gorbachev was the anti-Christ and the Soviet Union was the “Great Bear” of the East in the Book of Revelations. Anytime something bad happened, mom would mutter, “We are living in the end times. The rapture is near.” During the Iran-Contra affair: “We are living in the end times. People need to get right with the Lord!” A report on obscenity in rap and metal lyrics: “The Lord is coming soon, Ben. You need to be ready.” Anytime a pastor in church would enumerate some fresh perversion lurking out there in the hinterlands, she would whisper: “Jesus needs to come soon!”

And I was waiting for Him.

I remember little patches from my childhood: My father makes faces when my mom read Bible verses at the dinner table; On Halloween, my sister and I have to say, “I am a new creature in Christ,” when we hand out candy, instead of “trick or treat,” my mom’s attempt to recapture the devil’s holiday; A middle-school classmate gets admonished by my mother for taking the Lord’s name in vain; I get spanked for watching Bewitched.

Television was the Devil’s box. I was expressly forbidden to watch The Smurfs (“Smurf means ‘demon’ in German.”); The Care Bears (“New age garbage.”); He-Man (“New age garbage and it’s demonic.”); The Dukes of Hazard (“Flagrant disrespect for law and authority.”); Bewitched (“Touch not the evil thing.”); I Dream of Genie (“Unmarried men and women shouldn’t live together.”); Mork & Mindy (“Unmarried women and men shouldn’t live together.”); MTV (“The Devil’s Music on the Devil’s channel.”); Re-runs of Three’s Company were out as was L.A. Law and Hill Street Blues and Who’s the Boss. Anything that wasn’t morally edifying or uplifting, anything with a hint of violence or sexuality, was forbidden. The only exceptions were Miami Vice and The A-Team, shows my dad was partial to. Mister T. emerged as an early hero of mine.

My mom switched churches when I was 11. We moved from the downtown First Baptist church to East Brent Baptist, a redneck congregation with a preacher who looked like Elvis and pews that smelled like wood polish with a hint of brimstone. This new church combined jingoism, militarism, conservatism, and Old Testament-infused Christianity into a new religion. Mom and my older sister loved it; I hated it.

At the same time my new pastor was introducing me to the finer points of sin, salvation, and eternal damnation, my dad inundated me with comic books and science fiction, sneaking me into R-rated movies and blaring rock and roll whenever he got the chance.

The best movies by decade, part 2: The 1940s

17 Jun

Wartime brought fresh motivation to Hollywood. Movies for the first time in the U.S. served purely propaganda purposes; the dream factory enlisted in the war effort. But after the war, the soldiers—black and white—returned home to disillusionment and despair. The good war dead ended into the cold war. A grey shroud settled over the world: proxy wars, warring economies, and the dread of mutually assured destruction. This strange darkness settled into U.S. films as well, a darkness that never really left. Collectively this bunch of post-war cheapies have been labeled noir or B-movies but they have as a common element: a focus on the losers, hustlers, criminals and ne’er-do-wells that crawled along the underbelly of the U.S. (The French loved these movies, and went on to perfect the artform.) The big theme is darkness, social anxiety, and alienation. Dark, dark, dark, dark.

1.It’s a Wonderful Life—Number one with a bullet. This annual Christmas tradition isn’t really a Christmas movie at all. Instead, it’s a character study of a desperate man, pushed to the limits by his thwarted ambitions. If you want to see how hellish a decent life can be, watch the first half of the film and then stop. It’s a horror story of self-imposed frustration, and how living for others is a peculiar kind of hell. Exposes the limits of dreams, ambitions, and talent better than any other film, a meditation on the victims of an America defined by fiduciary success. Jimmy Stewart delivers a master class on how to build a character and then tear him apart. They really, really, really don’t make them like this anymore. I don’t think they ever did.

2. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre—In some ways, the 1940s belong to John Huston. He made so many great films and he did them in a particular, artful way. It’s still riveting, after all these years, the story of three scoundrels prospecting for gold in the deserts of Mexico. Unlike many older films, the pacing of Sierra Madre never feels stagey or slow. The characters unfold beneath our gaze, stretched by the heat of their surroundings and desires. Walter Huston is marvelous, Humphrey Bogart is strong, and Tim Holt is passable. You can taste the grime and see the stink.

3. The Shop Around the Corner/The Lady Eve—A personal favorite, and a movie I can watch again and again. The story is simple: Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan play dueling shop clerks who have, through correspondence, fallen in love. Frank Morgan plays Matuschek, the cranky storeowner who has struggles of his own. An assortment of believable supporting characters fill out the movie. Funny, touching, and handled with that smart, light Ernst Lubitsch touch. A film that makes movies seem easy. Eve: Preston Sturges best film follows a hapless rich boy (played by Henry Fonda) as he is lured into the schemes of a band of con artists, including Barbara Stanwycke (who was probably the funniest actress of her generation). The original auteur, Sturges wrote and directed this film by himself. A fabulous movie.

4. The Third Man—One of the great thrillers, from a screenplay by Graham Greene, and directed by Carol Reed. Joseph Cotton plays a hack pop writer in post-war Vienna, visiting his friend Harry Lime who has been killed just before Cotton’s arrival. Or has he? It exists as a perfect film, birthed whole from some celluloid deity. Witty, fast-paced, and even scary, this is one of the greats.

5. Casablanca—The best Hollywood movie ever made. Last-minute rewrites, a changing cast, indecision about the ending, but somehow it all worked out. Bogart plays Rick, a hard-drinking expatriate living in a sordid port city in Morocco. Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre both make appearances, while Paul Henreid and Claude Rains deliver the best work of their career. Rousing, romantic, tender but not saccharine or overly sentimental, this is one of the ages. If aliens discover one film about human dignity, let it be this one.

6. Gaslight—I have a predilection for horror movies. At an early age I snuck around the house to watch as many as I could find. Gaslight follows Ingrid Bergman, a discombobulated young woman who moves back into the house where her aunt committed suicide. She’s accompanied by her controlling new husband. Often alone, Bergman begins to see things, such as the gaslight flickering. She believes that her aunt’s ghost is haunting her. Director George Cukor—the dismissed director from Gone with the Wind as well as the director of the Philadelphia Story and all of those great Tracy-Hepburn comedies—never did finer work than he does here.

7. Citizen Kane/ Magnificent Ambersons—Okay, it should be higher, but I can’t help but respond to the decades of constant praise. The film still delights. The story of a marriage, the terrible tantrum in the hotel room, Welles’s textured acting, the remaining enigmas that haunt once the movie has ended. The deep focus cinematography is still beautiful after all these years. Influential and important, but also moving. Magnificent Ambersons: Unclassifiable little movie about land, money, the breakdown of families, and the encroaching modern age. It has dazzling pieces, check out the dance, the myriad ways Wellese uses the spiral staircase, but it also has Tim Holt, who picked good movies to act badly in. Some of the scenes are a touch histrionic, but there’s a hard, dark nugget in here somewhere, about how futile the squabbling, scheming, loving and even breathing can be. Orson Welles left to shoot footage in Brazil before the movie was finished, and Hollywood tacked on a 3-minute happy ending. No matter; the movie still stands as a testament to Welles’s eccentric genius.

8. The Maltese Falcon—And darkness enters the Hollywood film, and it would never leave. The cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sidney Greenstreet. A lot of tough talk, dark interiors, and the pain of a thousand murders all written on Bogart’s haunted face. The rocket fast pacing comes directly from the Dashiell Hammett novel. Many critics prefer the Big Sleep, but I find the streamlined storytelling, the hard-nosed coherence and world-weary morality of Maltese far superior.

9. Double indemnity—A great movie from a great novel by a great director. Fred McMurray plays Walter Neffe, an insurance adjuster bewitched by the sexy wiles of married femme fatale Barbara Stanwycke. The two cook up a scheme to murder her husband for the insurance money and make it look like an accident. This would all add up to a great film, but there’s a fascinating and peculiar subplot involving Stanwycke’s daughter, taken straight from the James Cain novel. Edward G. Robinson co-stars as a suspicious coworker suffering from a strange form of indigestion.

10. Sullivan’s travels—Preston Sturges stands as a hero to the outsider/auteur crowd, and here he creates a great film about an entitled director (played by Joel McCrae) who decides he’s going to live with the people so he can learn how to make great peasant art. His hubris leads him into the arms of Veronica Lake, and jail. Mistaken identity leads him into the hobo life, riding railcars with wobblies, and eventually into a life sentence. Don’t worry; it all enventually works out, but the film stands as a great historical document to the great depression, and a very good companion to My Man, Godfrey. (By the by, the film McCrae sets out to make is titled, Oh Brother Where Art Thou? Watch the Coen Brothers movie after this and you’ll see how crass our contemporary auteurs can be.)

11. Battleground/ The Best Years of Our Lives—Unsentimental, raw, almost documentary-style view of men at war. A battalion of American troops finds themselves trapped in a snow-packed landscape of fog, broken trees, and burned out earth. They are low on food, ammunitions, and fighting spirit. The Germans outnumber them, have them surrounded, and bombard them with entreaties to surrender. My father-in-law likes this to a European version of an American war film, and he isn’t far off. Best Years of our Lives: The gold standard study of post-war struggle and desolation, and the perfect companion to Battleground. William Wyler directs this somber study of a handful of veterans as they attempt to navigate the strange cruel society they donated years, and in one case both arms, defending. Dana Andrews has never been better, and the scene where an armless veteran plays piano in a bar ranks as the best Hollywood has ever produced.

12. Yankee Doodle Dandee—An exhilarating, funny, and ultimately somber celebration and exploration of a complicated life. Before he was a gangster, James Cagney was a song and dance man. He radiates light here as George M. Cohen, the child prodigy and eventual songwriter of “Over There.” Great dance numbers, where Cagney seems to be a life-sized marionette, and sharp characters, good writing, this is perhaps the best biopic ever made.

13. My Darling Clementine/Red River—Really two movies. The first is a tale of two violent clans, with stone-faced killer Walter Brennan leading the Clantons and uncompromising Henry Fonda leading the Earps. The second is a melodramatic soap opera with misfiring lines. How the two movies intersect is unclear, but it’s still worth seeing. John Ford strikes again. Red River: A very fine western for people who aren’t sure they like westerns. Howard Hawks is one of the great directors, and like Sidney Lumet he makes filmmaking seem so easy. Here we have John Wayne and Montgomery Clift locking horns over an immense stock of cattle. As in all of Hawks’s films, there’s humor, lots of great scenes. Wayne plays one of his tougher roles, uncompromising and murderous.

14. Thieves’ Highway/ Where the Sidewalk Ends—Jules Dassin is the great American director who was chased away. Here he shoots a film set in the unlikely world of fruit vendors and famers on the west coast. Richard Conte plays a veteran who comes home to find his father crippled by the back-handed dealings of an unscrupulous fruit dealer (played by Lee J. Cobb). Conte joins up with Millard Mitchell to deliver a truckload of golden delicious to the vendor, make some money, and enact revenge in the process. It sounds silly, but it isn’t. Dassin shoots the film with a sinister seriousness, and the seediness of the fruit market, which is realistic, offers a great backdrop for the inevitable confrontation between Conte and Cobb. Scripted by I.A. Bezzerides, the screenwriter on the greatest film noir ever, Kiss Me, Deadly. Sidewalk: Otto Preminger is one of my favorite directors, and this is his foray into the police procedural. Only, it isn’t a whodunit; the head detective, played by Dana Andrews, is the murderer, and he’s also assigned to the case. A very, very good movie, beautifully shot. Preminger later made long, attenuated films on the pillars of democracy (Anatomy of a Murder, Advise and Consent, Exodus). He also played a camp commander in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17.

15. The Man Who Came To Dinner/The Philadelphia Story—Playwright George S. Kaufman had a hand in many of the movies on this list (You Can’t Take it With You and Night at the Opera), and here he writes a very funny movie about a curmudgeonly film critic named Whiteside, who is forced to convalesce in the home of a middle class family. Rude, caustic, and disagreeable, Whiteside ingratiates himself with the children and servants of the house, while attacking, demeaning and berating the elders. Philadelphia Story: Not my favorite, overly talky, and strangely dated, but one of the great casts of the studio era with Jimmy Stewart, Katherine Hepburn, and Cary Grant sparring, jostling, ribbing, cutting. Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn play dueling ex-spouses, while Jimmy Stewart stars as a wisecracking prole out to burst bourgeouis hypocrisy.

16. Humoresque/Notorious—A movie about music that watches like a movie about crime. John Garfield, famous for his roles as a tough guy gone rough, here plays a violin prodigy who falls into the sights of moneyed seductress Joan Crawford. The music is excellent. But the various shots of Garfield playing the violin—they had two top violinists play his left and right hands and you can’t tell at all—make this one of the best movies about music and musicians ever made. And not until Shine did a film show the toll a life devoted to music can exact. Notorious: Ingrid Bergman’s third film on my list, and Hitchock’s first. The story of a “fallen” lady who seeks to find redemption by using her feminine wiles to root out escaped Nazis in Argentina. Cary Grant and Claude Raines costar as the agent assigned to help her and the war criminal who she’s sleeping with. It’s Bergman’s movie, though, and anyone who sees her primarily as a nice actress, reliable and safe, should see her performance here. Hitchcock enjoys himself here, and the film’s suspense is all the more excruciating due to the on-screen chemistry between Bergman and Grant.

17. Black Narcissus—Michael Powell’s best film, a disturbing meditation on isolation, cultural misunderstandings, and unfulfilled sexual desires. A group of nuns set up a cloister in the Himalayas, where they attempt to administer medical aid to the local sick. The exotic peoples, the strange locale, the harsh realities of this new culture, all has an alienating and distorting affect on the sisters. Eventually, one of them descends into madness. Shot in rapturous color—Powell was one of the great visual stylists of film with Peeping Tom and The Thief of Baghdad—this is a fantastic, as well as strange, oddball, cultish and Freudian film.

18. White Heat/High Sierra—Hard-boiled, nihilistic, and bleak. Alongside Roaring Twenties, these two films form Raoul Walsh’s unofficial trilogy on American crime. Bogart plays the murderous psycho in Sierra, while Cagney delivers his most developed psychopath in White Heat. The final ten minutes offer white-knuckle thrills, and Cagney’s big denouement, where he screams to his dead mother atop an exploding tower, stands as one of the most memorable death scenes in the history of cinema.

19. Key Largo/Force of Evil—A fantastic John Huston film about gangsters and dames and drunks and hurricanes. A group of people are thrown together in an old hotel during a hurricane. One of them is gangster Johnny Rocco (played by Edward G. Robinson). When his presence is discovered, a cruel game begins. Rocco tortures, bullies, and torments the others, while a man named McCloud (played by Bogart) tries to outwit him. My uncle’s favorite film. Force of Evil: John Garfield again, this time in a hard-boiled gangster movie about unscrupulous lawyers getting mobbed up for money. The film is at times slow, scripted by later blacklisted writer Abraham Polonsky, but the movie’s steady tracking of the main character’s moral decline is chilling, unrelenting, and nightmarish. See how many of the 1940s best films are about crime?

20. Meet Me in St. Louis/Shadow of a Doubt—A visual feast, sumptuous and sad. Vincent Minnelli, along with Nicholas Ray, is the great visual stylist of the indoors. This very fine musical follows a family through a year of ups and downs. The songs are just okay, the acting is passable, and the story is pure melodrama. But the scenes are fantastic, the colors lush and rich. Shadow: Hitchcock offers a different view of small-town American life; there are untold horrors hiding amongst the idle trains. One of my favorite Hitchcock films, which says a lot. A teenager begins to suspect that her favorite uncle is actually an at large serial killer planning to kill again. Hitch did great work with black and white, and his lesser known films—Stage Fright and Frenzy for instance—hold a variety of surprises.

21. Buck privates—My wild card, and a ridiculous addition to the best of the decade list, but also hilarious, fast-paced and funny as hell. Abbot and Costello sometimes misfired; the often took their shtick too far; and their collective output runs together like many early comedians work, including Bob Hope. But when they’re on, they rule. Check out the seen where Costello convinces Abbot he owes him money when he’s the one asking for a loan. Manic wordplay, scripted pieces, hilarious slapstick.

Honorable mention: Arsenic and Old Lace; The Big Sleep; Cabin in the Sky; Grapes of Wrath; Here Comes Mr. Jordan; The Al Jolson Story; Now Voyager; To Be or Not to Be.

Tantrums aren’t cool. But don’t ask Joe Pesci.

17 Jun

Simone is in the kick and yell phase, and it sucks. She throws her food on the floor. She pulls hair, slaps. She runs into her room and slams the door. She shrieks for no reason. She cries like a pack of orphaned baby elephants. She’s a miniature little James Cagney, bullying us with her outsized personality and force of will. It’s a grueling gulag of a life, having a baby yell and scream at you and your only three weapons are ignoring, time outs, and distractions.

Her mother and I don’t know what to do, so I’m sending her message through the digital ether.

Simone, listen up. Trantrums aren’t cool. The Silver Surfer disapproves.

This afternoon, while watching her wail and scream and shriek and throw herself on the floor in a rage, I thought of famous movie tantrums (revealing a lot about how my mind works). These off the top of my head:

Orson Welles smashes up a hotel room and loses his soul: uncool. (Citizen Kane)

Alan Ruck kicks his father’s car into a ravine and grows up: lame. (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)

Adam Sandler breaks his sister’s window and sobs in anger: useless. (Punch Drunk Love)

Chazz Palminteri threatens to kill a man in a grocery store and learns nothing: boring. (Hurlyburly)

Johnny Depp savagely beats his dimwitted brother: ghastly. (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape)

I can only think of two actors who can pull of the on-screen tantrum and look cool.Jack Nicholson is the first. He’ll get his own entry eventually. Joe Pesci is the second. Pesci loses his temper a lot. For a while it was his stock and trade. Look at Casino, Goodfellas and Raging Bull. He’s small, diminutive really, but he’s also terrifying. He’s pathetic, a psychopathic bully, and the movies judge him for it, usually with premature death.

When Simone’s tantrum phase will end is a big question mark. For now, I’m left with the false memories of fiction to stay afloat.

My life in 60 seconds

14 Jun

I was born a bull in the year of the snake. Atlanta, 1977, and I lived down the street from my cousins. Felt like a big family. Entered special ed in first grade. Issues with phonics, reading. Road that short bus. Learned how to sight-read beneath an enormous oak tree.

Mom read the Bible every night. I was saved at 6. Told my sister. Thought I had a choice.

Moved to Pensacola when I was 7. Redneck Riviera. Military town. Too small, too many churches.

I started playing soccer. I started reading. I wrote my first novel when I was 12. Title: Sword and Sorcery. Cheap Tolkein knockoff. It was terrible.

Worked hard. Got better at soccer. Got better at writing, too.

I discovered girls. I discovered movies. I attended a Catholic high school. Lots of religion. Some math. Plenty of classics.

Moved up to varsity my freshman year. We made it to state. We lost.

Two girlfriends, lots of late nights, Gulf Coast heat, underage binge drinking, rumblings of existential despair. That’s high school.

College: picked a school for the wrong reasons but made out okay. Soccer scholarship. Burgeoning social conscience. Plenty of self-inflicted heartache. Learned how to be awkward and uncomfortable. Drank too much, then didn’t drink at all, then drank too much again.

Living in the heart of Dixie. Re-discovered books. Decided to become a writer.

Graduated in 1999. Worked in publishing. Had a knack for editing. Didn’t understand business.

Worked as a writer. Moved to Atlanta. Heart of the New South.

My wilderness years: worked in a bookstore; worked as a part-time custodian; reviewed movies, interviewed movie stars, traveled to New York and L.A., scrabbled for money to pay rent. Wrote and wrote and ghostwrote, too.

Met my future wife, fell in love.

Moved to Spain. Broadened horizons. Moved to Illinois. Flat earth and grungy politicians.

Moved to Iowa. Didn’t like it. Continued writing. Rejections piled up. Worked as a security guard, as an essay scorer, as a librarian. Somewhere lost my faith. The religion was gone, and only the weirdness remained.

Moved to Chicago. Felt at home. Got married. Worked for an educational publisher and didn’t like it. Applied for an alternative certification program to teach and got in. Student taught on the north side. Got a job teaching sixth graders at a school named Disney. Worked hard. Loved and hated it. Principal disliked me. Wasn’t rehired. Some times assholes win.

Became a wandering teacher. Economy bad, distress everywhere, wife got pregnant. Hired at the eleventh hour as a school librarian. Like it a lot. Once again in graduate school. Had a child, named her Simone. Still writing. Published some books but no novels. Scared of the future, unsure of the past. Outlived Jesus, my childhood idol.

This is the story of 34 years.

Seems both longer and shorter.

— B.W. Beard