Reading the Landscape: 45

DSC05116-001The Sears Roebuck store at the foot of the Watchung Hills near Plainfield, NJ has one of the most interesting murals I’ve ever seen in a nondescript chain store. Beneath the painting is a plaque. The type is too small for a blog sized photo, but I’ll cut and paste the words from the town of Watchung’s website.

Around 1670, a group of Dutch settlers was traveling from the Amboys up an old Indian trail which is now Somerset Street. They were under the leadership of Captain Michaelson. The Watchung tribe of the Lenni-Lenape Indians was traveling the same trail for their summer trip to the ocean to fish and collect shells for wampum.

During the night the settlers were camped near what is now the center of the Borough. Deer Prong, an advance scout for Chief One Feather’s tribe, was shot when he surprised a sentry. During the skirmish, Captain Michaelson was captured and was to be burned at the stake. Princess Wetumpka, who was traveling with the Dutch, and had some years ago saved the life of Chief One Feather, intervened and saved the life of Captain Michaelson. The Indians befriended the Dutch and allowed them to settle in the valley. The legend ends with the full tribal ceremony marriage of the Princess and Chief.

I don’t know how much truth there is to the “Legend of Watchung” but the mural serves as an unintentional critique of American settler colonialism, a picture of what the surrounding landscape looked like before white people took it over and covered it with ugly suburban sprawl. Who wouldn’t prefer the waterfalls and the trees to strip malls, Route 22, and the car culture? It’s also part of my childhood. Traditionally, my father always took us shopping at the Watchung Sears the day before Thanksgiving.

The mural was dedicated in 1965, the year I was born. 

Eddie and the Cruisers (1983)

Martin Davidson’s film about the disappearance of a fictional New Jersey rock singer initially flopped at the box office. It later became a “cult favorite” on cable television. Many film critics blame it on a two month holdup in its theatrical release. Instead of August, they contend, the film hit the multiplexes in October, long after high school and college students were already back in school. I don’t think I became aware of Eddie and the Cruisers until 1984. By that time we were already in the middle of the hype over Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA tour, and the very last thing I wanted to pay money to watch was a fictionalized movie about the same guy who was all over the media, and who I couldn’t have avoided if I had wanted to. When Walter Mondale came to Rutgers in May to campaign ahead of the New Jersey primary and quoted Born in the USA, I think I actually booed. Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Bryan Adams, I was sick to death of the whole “roots rock” movement of the mid-1980s.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when upon finally watching Eddie and the Cruisers in 2016, I discover that it’s not only a good movie. It might even be a great movie. While Eddie Wilson bears more than a superficial resemblance to Bruce Springsteen – he’s a white ethnic guy from the Jersey Shore who plays in a band with a black saxophonist – he actually stands for something a bit more interesting, the Baby Boomer who didn’t sell out, the genuine rebel who chose to leave the music business rather than end up on MTV singing “We Built this City.” I doubt I missed very much not seeing Eddie and the Cruisers during its original theatrical release since the plot focuses on Eddie’s band mates, middle-aged losers in their late 30s and early 40s who spend most of the movie picking up the pieces of their lost youth, wondering why all their early promise disappeared so fast. It’s not the kind of film that will appeal to an 18-year-old, especially the 18-year-old I was in 1983, an early member of Generation X who was already sick of the Baby Boomers and their nostalgia for the 1950s and 1960s. At age 50, I get it.

The narrative structure of Eddie and the Cruisers closely resembles Citizen Kane’s, or that of the Polish movie Man of Marble by Andrzej Wajda. It is 1982, and the single album by Eddie and the Cruisers, who had a number one hit song 20 years before, has been re-released. A journalist named Maggie Foley is assigned to write write a brief portrait of Eddie’s surviving band members, has something more ambitious in mind. Eddie Wilson, she believes, is still alive. Not only was his body never found. His last, and unreleased album was supposed to have been called “A Season in Hell.” Arthur Rimbaud, she points out, also disappeared at age 19 after a dazzling early career in poetry, never to write again, dying at the Hôpital de la Conception in Marseille at the age of 37. Eddie, she suspects, chose to fake his death rather than to slog along in a career he no longer believed worth the effort. Patti Smith, it must be noted, who coauthored Because the Night with Springsteen, and who looked to Rimbaud as an artistic inspiration, also quit writing music in 1980 to raise a family, only to reemerge in the mid-90s after the death of Kurt Cobain.

The key, as Maggie Foley explains to her editor, might lie in the demo-tapes for the never released album Season in Hell. If she can persuade one of Eddie’s old band mates to listen to the music so violently rejected by the their record company, she might be able to figure out exactly why Eddie died, or if he died at all. To her dismay, however, she discovers that while they’re mostly willing to be interviewed, none of them know where the demo tapes ended up themselves. The first member of The Cruisers she interviews is Frank Ridgeway, played by the 33-year-old Tom Berenger. Ridgeway is the band’s intellectual. He’s a graduate of Benton College, a loosely fictionalized Haverford, and the man who turned Eddie onto the idea that the lyrics to his music could be more like poetry than the shallow, commercialized pop he was writing when they met. Ridgeway is also a rival for Eddie’s girlfriend, Joann Carlino, who’s played by Helen Schneider, who probably gives the most subtle, complex performance in the movie. Wendell Newton, the Clarence Clemons stand in commits suicide shortly before Eddie’s death. Sal Amato is Ridgeway’s opposite, the bassist who wants to stick to playing music that sells, and Doc Robbins, played by a young Joe Panoliano, is the band’s manager. Since Eddie’s death they have all led unfulfilled lives. Amato makes a living playing in an Eddie and the Cruisers tribute band, the singer of a cover band for the real band he once played in himself. Ridgeway is a high school English teacher living in a trailer park in South Jersey. Joann works in Atlantic City along with the drummer Kenny Hopkins. Doc Robbins, an obscure, broken down DJ in Asbury Park might be the most unfulfilled ex-member of The Cruisers of all, bitterly regretting his shot at the big time, obsessed with finding the same tapes as Maggie Foley.

As the film progresses, as Maggie Foley, like Citizen Kane’s Jerry Thompson, interviews the surviving Cruisers one after another, trying to get to the bottom of the mystery of Eddie Wilson, we not only get to know Eddie, who’s played by an actor named Michael Pare, we begin to believe, with her, that Eddie is actually alive. Someone has been burglarizing the houses of all the ex-Cruisers. Could it be Eddie himself looking for the same demo tapes? That none of the actors in the film tries to work up any sense of having aged, or having been younger – they all look exactly the same at age 40 than they did at age 20 – would usually be considered a weakness. In Eddie and the Cruisers it’s part of what makes the film work. It erases the distinctions between past and present, between 1963 and 1982, expresses the fears of the young musicians that they might end up as middle-aged failures, and the regret of the middle-aged failures for the young musicians they once were. Eddie Wilson turns out to be a complex man, someone who has more inside him than his pretty boy appearance might suggest. He’s also the only member of the band who visibly ages – more on that later — but the film’s revelation is Helen Schneider. Tom Berenger does a credible job as Frank Ridgeway. I can take him or leave him as an actor, but Schneider, who’s was 33 when Eddie and the Cruisers was released, manages to express both the longings and insecurities of a 20-year-old and the nostalgia and regret of a 40-year-old. Her anxiety over her own working-class background – there’s a great scene at Haverford College where she talks about how she doesn’t feel she belongs, even to play a concert – is grounded in her vacillation between the blue-collar hunk Eddie Wilson and the Ivy League misfit Frank Ridgeway. It’s Joann who genuinely begins to hallucinate that Eddie might not have died, her longing to see her old lover alternating with her sense of dread that he might just be an evil spirit come back to haunt her and Frank, who rekindle their old relationship as the plot unfolds. By the final scene, she not only believes both that Eddie is still alive and that she belong with Frank. She convinces us to believe the same thing.

Roger Ebert, as he so often does, misinterpreted a film that didn’t quite fall inside any mainstream category. He hated the ending. I loved it. You might do both since Eddie and the Cruisers essentially has two endings, a beautifully lyrical, and yet perfectly logical explanation to the whereabouts of the tapes, and the identity of the person burglarizing their houses, and a “twist”that shows us what finally happened to Eddie Wilson. Like the painting in the Oscar Wilde novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, his final appearance lets us see the passage of 20 years, all in a glance. Whether Eddie is a complete failure, or a man of true integrity who lived up to all his ideals while the people around him failed is left to the viewer to decide.

The Wind Rises (2013)

I’m not sure if I’d call The Wind Rises the front runner for the best movie of the decade, but it certainly is one of the most beautiful animated films I’ve ever seen.

Miyazaki understands something every 12-year-old who’s built a model ship or model airplane understands. Weapons of mass destruction can be beautiful and poetic. Think of the Iowa class battleship, or the German Panther tank. So he’s made what might for lack of a better word be called an “animated poetic romance” about Jiro Horikoshi, the creator of the best fighter of World War II, the iconic “Zero.”

The Wind Rises is a nationalist film. Most of the film focuses on the beauty of the Japanese countryside, which we watch the film with a realization that it will eventually be destroyed by the United States. Think of an American film about the Second World War made up of a series of frames taken from Ansel Adams’ photographs, and you’ll get an idea of the aesthetic Miyazaki is going for.

Jiro himself isn’t a militarist or an arms merchant. He’s a poetic innocent who just wants to make a beautiful airplane. The fascist government of Japan in the 1930s is only alluded to obliquely. The secret police briefly investigate Jiro, then disappear after he becomes increasingly devoted to his dying fiancee.  We never hear about Pearl Harbor but the earthquake in the first half of the film that burns Tokyo vividly foreshadows the firebombing of Tokyo and Hiroshima. Mr. Castorp, an obvious allusion to Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain seems to be a German anti-fascist. The character isn’t fully developed, but he is prophetic. In the end, both the Zero and his fiancee are gone, and Jiro must go on.

Note: I saw the Japanese version with subtitles, not the dubbed English version. No movie not a Kung Fu movie should be dubbed in any language. As bad as subtitles can be, they never spoil the aesthetic quality of the original language, which can often be beautiful, even if you don’t understand it.

Dragonslayer (1981)


Dragonslayer is the child of Jaws and Star Wars, the long-lost uncle of The Hunger Games, and in some ways better than all three. While it has gotten some publicity recently – Guillermo del Toro has praised the special effects and called for a blue ray release– it is still far too obscure. If only because of its transgender heroine, Dragonslayer deserves to be watched by the Millennial Generation.

The film opens in the very early Middle Ages at the castle of an elderly sorcerer. Ulrich, played by Ralph Richardson in one of his final film roles, has two companions, a very old man named Hodge, played by the veteran English actor Sydney Bromley, and Galen, a young apprentice barely in his twenties played by Peter MacNichol. A knock on the door reveals a Valerian, a young man played by Caitlin Clarke, and a group of rough, working-class men, all of whom have com to ask for Ulrich’s help in killing a Vermithrax Pejorative, the dragon who has been terrorizing their homeland, the Kingdom of Urland. A flashback to Urland reveals why. Casiodorus, their king, has pursued what for lack of a better term might be called a “policy of appeasement.” Every year, a virgin is chosen by lot to be sacrificed to the dragon. The horrifying scene that follows reveals why Valerian is so determined to have Vermithrax Pejorative killed. A young woman is wheeled out to the dragon’s lair and chained to a post. As she struggles to free herself from her handcuffs, we become aware that the dragon is not only stalking her. He’s toying with her, letting her believe that she might get away before he closes in for the kill. Guillermo del Toro has praised the design of Vermithrax Pejorative, but what really makes it work is the aura of malevolence that hangs about the monster, the sense of being in the presence, not only of a cinematic dragon, but of something genuinely evil.

When Tyrian, the King’s thuggish enforcer played by the bearded, swaggering 6’4” John Hallam, who has been stalking Valerian exactly the same way the dragon had been stalking the virgin sacrifice, we begin to understand what Vermithrax Pejorative represents. Much like the Vietnam War draft lottery, which had ended only a few years before Dragonslayer was made, the lottery in Uland to choose the yearly virgin sacrifice is corrupt. The rich pay bribes to keep their daughters from being chosen. The burden of keeping the dragon satisfied falls disproportionately on the working-class. Tyrian, who represents that corrupt social order, has come to Ulrich’s castle to make sure young Valerian can’t find anybody to help him lead a revolution. After Tyrian asks Ulrich for proof of his authenticity as a sorcerer, the old man offers him a knife and tells him to stick it in his chest. “You can’t kill me,” Ulrich says, just before Tyrian does just that, plunges the knife into his heart, and sends him to the floor in a heap of blood and old bones. Suddenly, the movie seems to end right there. We won’t get to see the great magician battle the dragon, or so we think. We will hear from Ulrich again. Anybody who’s seen Stars Wars or Lord of the Rings realizes how difficult it is to kill a wizard played by an elderly British actor.

After Galen cremates Ulrich, and Hodge fills a cloth sack with his ashes and hangs it around his neck, the young man offers to take his elderly master’s place. Valerian and her company, having little choice, accepts. On the way back to Urland, we see another dimension to the oppressive social order the dragon represents, patriarchy and the gender binary. When Galen unexpectedly comes upon Valerian taking a swim, he realizes that she’s not Valerian at all. She’s Valeria. Her father had disguised her as a boy before she entered puberty to keep her out of the lottery. Her quick transformation back into a woman after Galen apparently kills Vermithrax Pejorative by bringing a rock slide down on the dragon’s lair indicates that perhaps Dragonslayer has a more complex insight into the gender binary than director/screenwriter Mathew Robbins realized he had created. Galen’s arrival in Urland, and his willingness to take on the corrupt social order of King Casiodorus, has liberated Valeria from Valerian, has made her feel safe enough to become a woman after years of having been forced into a gender identity she hated by her well-intentioned father. Indeed, when she puts on a dress for the first time and dances at the Kingdom’s celebration of Vermithrax Pejorative’s apparent death, it feels like a coming out party. Even after the dragon claws his way out from under the earth, proving himself more of a menace than ever, she doesn’t go back to disguising herself as a boy. Instead she submits her name to the lottery – a new sacrifice will have to be chosen to appease the now especially wrathful dragon – and demonstrates how determined she is to live as a woman, even if being means her possible death.

Enter the Princess Elspeth, King Casiodorus’ daughter played by Chloe Salaman. How the cowardly and stupid Casiodorus managed to become the father of so beautiful and genuinely noble young woman left me confused when I first saw the movie at age 16. But it’s clear that, like Galen and Valerian, she’s part of the upsurge of Urland’s youth against the corrupt patriarchy that condemns the working-class girls of the town to become food for the monster. After Galen shames her out of her initial denial – she believes she had always been in as much risk as any peasant girl – Elspeth “checks her privilege” and stuffs the lottery with so many ballots with her own name that her getting picked as dragon food is a foregone conclusion. Casiodorus then attempts to shut the lottery down altogether and throw in his lot with Galen and Valeria, but Tyrian, the real power behind the thrown, mounts a coup, and condemns the princess to her death. Casiodorus is merely a corrupt appeaser. Tyrian is the human reflection of the dragon himself. Before he can fight the dragon — armed with a spear specially forged by Valeria’s father and a shield made up of dragon skins by Valeria – Galen has to kill Tyrian, an unlikely feat he manages with great difficulty, but not before Elspeth is killed and eaten by Vermithrax Pejorative’s babies.

I can’t express just how disturbing this scene was to me as a 16-year-old. It certainly should have been rated R, not PG-13. If anything, I find it more horrifying as 50-year-old then I did when I was in high school, not because it’s necessarily frightening, but because it so eloquently expresses how such a noble soul as Elspeth can so easily be reduced to a hunk of meat. The relatively primitive technology of the day actually contributes to more than it distracts from the horror, the coarse movements and facial expressions of the baby dragons eloquently speaking to the obscenity of the senseless destruction of a young life. How many young men so their friends in Vietnam butchered just as needlessly for the corrupt social order? Galen, now confident in his own powers as a warrior after killing Tyrian, and enraged over the princess’s death, easily slaughters the dragon’s litter and bravely takes on Vermithrax Pejorative himself, but it’s useless. The dragon is too powerful, too malevolent, to be killed by a twenty year old with a spear and a shield made out of dragon scales. Only a genuine wizard, which Galen realizes he is not, can overthrow the reign of terror in Urland.

Re-enter the elderly Ulrich. Ulrich had been right when he told Tyrian that “you can’t kill me,” but he had not told Galen or Valeria, only Hodge, who Tyrian had murdered shortly after he and Galen left Ulrich’s castle. Having battled Vermithrax Pejorative to within an inch of his life, however, and having realized his own inadequacies, Galen has a revelation. Ulrich isn’t dead. Instead, he’s been temporarily transformed into the pile of ashes in the cloth sack, which Galen and Valeria spread over the water in the dragon’s lair, bringing the old man to his mortal form. Ulrich, the good father, had been with Galen all along. Now that Galen has been transformed from a boy to a man, and Valeria from a boy to a woman, the old wizard is ready to give his life to free the world from the monster’s wrath. Galen has only one final task. He must destroy a green amulet, an object similar to Tolkien’s ring of power, which embodies all of Ulrich’s magical powers and which he has been carrying since the old man’s apparent death. “You’ll know when,” Ulrich tells his apprentice. After Ulrich offers up himself as a sacrifice, mirroring Elspeth’s own decision to die for the good of the common people, Galen and Valeria suddenly understand what he means. The black arts, like Vermithrax Pejorative, and like the corrupt social order of Urland, must be destroyed so the next generation can live and prosper, so that Galen and Valeria can get married and live happily ever after. After the dragon snatches up Ulrich, carrying him off, or so he thinks, to be his next meal, Galen and Valeria smash the amulet. This sets off a massive explosion inside Ulrich himself, blowing Vermithrax Pejorative to bits, finally freeing the Kingdom of Urland from its long reign of patriarchal and class terror.

Note: Am I reading too much into a Disney movie? Maybe. But I also think that like the best B movies of classic Hollywood, Dragonslayer wound up being a much better movie than anybody had planned.

Blue Collar (1978)


If you’re ever tempted to feel nostalgic for the days before NAFTA, Paul Schrader’s directorial debut might provide some cold satisfaction. Those “good jobs” Democratic politicians are always talking about never really existed. Factory work was a trap, a poorly paid, debt-ridden hell caught between corrupt, mobbed up unions, and a spiteful, authoritarian management.

Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto, and Richard Pryor play Jerry Bartowski, Smokey James, and Zeke Brown, three friends who work on the assembly line of the Checker Motor Company in Detroit Michigan. None of them is going anywhere, and they know it. Bartowski and his wife, who are living check to check, can barely stay one step ahead of the bills, and can certainly not afford badly needed braces for their daughter. James, a hulking ex con who did three years in prison for accidentally assaulting a police officer, knows society is rigged against him, but since he can’t think of a way out, contents himself with cheap hedonism, drugs, partying, and women. Zeke Brown, their leader, is a natural born rebel and troublemaker, always giving the incompetent, and indifferent shop steward a hard time for not adequately representing the workers. It’s Brown who figures out a way to rebel, and eventually leads them all to their doom.

If Blue Collar has any faults, from my leftist point of view anyway, is that it’s a right-wing movie in sheep’s clothing, a Reaganite justification for union busting two years before Reagan was elected President. Don’t let the superficially proletarian nature of the heroes fool you. Bartowski, James, and Zeke Brown aren’t auto workers. They’re quick talking actors pretending to be auto workers. We also know that Hollywood screenwriters and directors like Schrader hate unions. Why do you think they make so many movies in Vancouver? Clarence Hill, the tyrannical yet whiny and strangely ineffectual factory foreman played by Lane Smith, may badger his subordinates to “get back to work” and drop an occasional racist remark, but in the end there’s barely a capitalist villain in sight. The United Auto Workers Union, on the other hand, might just as well be the mob. In fact, it is the mob. One day, after Zeke Brown is given a bill by the IRS for $2000 dollars, which for him might as well be $2 million dollars, he comes up with a plan to rob the vault at the UAW local, which reputedly contains at least $10,000. The three friends successfully break into the union hall, knock out the guard with a power drill, and make off with the safe.

When they get it back to the workshop of one of James’ friends from the penitentiary, and cut up open the doors, they find, to their great disappointment, that it only contains $600 dollars in petty cash. Zeke Brown, however, is smart enough to figure out that if the $10,000 isn’t in the safe, it must have gone somewhere. Combing through a book of transactions, also in the safe, he figures out that Eddie Johnson, the corrupt local union President, is using their union dues to run a loan sharking business on the side. From the very beginning of the film, John Burrows, an FBI agent, has been conducting an investigation of the Checkers Motors Local, trying to get someone to open up about Eddie Johnson, and Schrader is basically in favor of snitching. If Bartowski, James, or Brown had only gone to Burrows in the first place, he strongly implies, they would have saved themselves, and their fellow autoworkers, a world of a pain. Instead they try to blackmail Eddie Johnson into giving them the $10,000 he’s been using for his loansharking business. Inevitably, their plans lead to disaster.

If Blue Collar has any strengths, it’s how  accurately it expresses the typical working-class man’s rage against a corrupt union bureaucracy, and how well it understands the way the ruling class pits us against one another. In the age of Hillary Clinton, where the Democrats have figured out how to use identity politics to keep the rabble fighting one another instead of Wall Street, and where bureaucratic, out of touch unions like SEIU are clearly in the the tank for the establishment, it can’t be stressed enough just how important this message is. Smokey James, more than anybody, gets how it works.

“Why do you go to the line every Friday? Because the finance man’s gonna be at your house on Saturday, right? That’s exactly what the company wants – to keep you on their line. They’ll do anything to keep you on their line. They pit the lifers against the new boys, the old against the young, the black against the white – everybody to keep us in our place.”

After the union has Smoky James murdered in a surreal and incredibly powerful scene, which probably expresses the hell of factory work even better than Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, Zeke Brown and Jerry Bartowski end up at each other’s throats. Eddie Johnson, knowing that Brown is the kind of superior man from the working-class who can be neutralized most effectively by giving him a little power, offers him the shop steward’s position in exchange for the book documenting the union’s loan-sharking. The way Brown justifies his decision to Bartowski with a speech about his white privilege that could have been taken from yesterday’s edition of Slate or Salon. Bartowski, in turn, decides to snitch on his former friend, finally going John Burrows to turn state’s evidence, and, in turn, proving Brown right. “I can’t go to the government,” he had said earlier. “They won’t protect me like they’d protect a white man,” and we not only remember the IRS leaning on Brown for the $2000 dollars, we also realize that, from the very beginning, Burrows had sidled up to Bartowski, favoring him over his two black fiends. Blue Collar ends with Brown, the newly appointed, and already co opted shop steward, and Bartowski, the federal snitch, picking up weapons, hurling racial and ethnic slurs at each other, and getting ready to attack. The movie’s final frame is as powerful an image of the defeated American working class as has ever been put on the big screen.