Sunday, February 26, 2012

Eight Million Stories

I walked down Sixth Avenue in the rain on Friday night and watched the Empire State Building disappear into the mist.

It was an eerie, film noir kind of setting and it fit so perfectly with my evening. I had just gotten done viewing the International Center of Photography’s Weegee exhibit, "Murder is My Business" and I was in a B-movie state of mind.

Weegee, the nom de flash for Arthur Felig, was a famous New York press photographer of the 1930s and ‘40s who captured the soul of the city in all its glorious mayhem.

Gangland slayings, four-alarm fires, car wrecks, raucous celebrations, Weegee recorded it all in screaming black and white.

This was my second go-round with Weegee, having gone to an earlier exhibit at the center back in 1997 when I first moved back to New York. But that’s okay; I can never get enough Weegee.

Legend has it that Weegee, a phonetic rendition of Ouija, got his handle because of his uncanny ability to show up at the scene of the madness—sometimes before the cops did.

Walking through the exhibit, I felt like I was traveling through time, back to the era that I consider New York’s golden age.

I know this golden age business is just a fantasy, a rose-colored flashback of a time I never knew, but I still love that period of the city’s history.

Weegee’s world was often violent, a nighttime battle zone where a bartender could be murdered by a group of young thugs; where a gangster’s corpse could be given a grim send-off by being stuffed into a steamer trunk; and where a bread truck driver could be killed by a runaway car and laid out dead on the street surrounded by the staff of life.

It’s the kind of world where you could be alive and well one minute and dead and bleeding in the gutter in the next. This is a scary town, no doubt, filled with mugs and molls, grifters and goons, and liberally splashed with blood, but when seen through Weegee’s lens, it's the only place you want to be.

Survival of the Fittest

Weegee was great at capturing the faces of the crowd as they streamed out of their tenements to bear witness to the carnage. His Speed Graphic could carve the individual lives out of a mob of gawking faces and plant them deep in your memory.

Weegee lived for action and the exhibit includes a recreation of his Spartan apartment, which had little more than a bed, a police radio, and cameras. He had a portable darkroom in the back of his car so he could bring his photos to life as soon as possible.

The setting reminded me of my police reporting days in Pennsylvania, where I pretty much lived the same type of existence. He seemed obsessed with creating an image of himself, on being the man in the know, the guy on the spot. I know that feeling, too. You witness enough of this grief and you start feeling like the news is your personal property. People become props in your story.

In 1945, Weegee put out his first book of photographs called Naked City. The book was the inspiration for the film “The Naked City,” a fantastic police procedural film that plays across fabulous New York locations and reaches its climax with a shootout on the Brooklyn Bridge.

The movie, in turn, inspired a TV series of the same name, which always ended with the sign off “there are eight million stories in the Naked City; this has been one of them.”

Weegee is gone now and newspapers are cutting back and shutting down. Darkrooms harken back to the dark ages and just about everyone carries a camera in their cell phone.

I wonder about the future of the photograph in this age of instant video. Will there be a time when the single image becomes extinct?

Weegee’s world may be violent, but there’s also a sense of survival in his work, a feeling that no matter how terrible things get, the city and its people will always be here.

I took one last look at the vanishing skyscraper and then headed down the subway station to catch the train to Brooklyn. Yes, there are indeed eight million stories in the Naked City and Weegee captured them in a way that nobody else could.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Midnight Movie

I’m a sucker for cult movies.

I've always loved obscure, low budget flicks that nobody's ever heard of. They often put Hollywood blockbusters to shame with their inventiveness and originality.

I remember going to see Jimmy Cliff in “The Harder They Come” in a theater on the Upper East Side when I was in high school. And then there was “Once in Paris,” which came out in 1978 and, if my memory is correct, played at the now defunct 68th Street Playhouse for over a year.

Watching these movies, you feel like a member of a select club, one of the in-crowd. You just can’t wait to leave the theater and go out into the world where you can drop the title of an obscure film and enjoyed the puzzled looks on your friends’ faces.

The trouble is that, like anything else in life, what makes a good cult movie is a matter of opinion. One person’s brilliant piece of work can be the next person’s pretentious pile of crapola.

Recently I recorded a movie called “The Town That Dreaded Sundown.” I had heard about this film—a “minor cult classic,” according to one description—a few years ago and since it’s not available on DVD, I made sure to fire up the DVR so I could finally watch the thing.

The film comes with the dreaded tagline “based on a true story,” which usually means the story vaguely resembles something that actually happened. This contrasts with the handle “inspired by a true story,” which tends to mean “we totally yanked this one out our butts.”

The movie is loosely based—and, oh, do I mean loosely--upon a series of murders that occurred in Texarkana in 1946. I’d say “inspired,” but the only thing this film inspired me to do was to delete it as soon as the ending credits started to roll.

The real case, which remains unsolved, is fascinating and frightening and far beyond anything the film has to offer.

Now I’m not saying I could make a better movie. I’m saying a monkey could make a better movie. And you’d only have to give him bananas and a rubber tire.

I don’t know how you can take such riveting source material and churn out such a dull, lifeless film. But the filmmakers managed to do just that.

What's The Story?

The Texarkana Moonlight Murders had people in two states fearing their neighbors as a masked killer stalked their town.

Five people were killed in a two-month period, during which time people stocked up on firearms, barricaded their homes, and stopped going out at night.

Investigators had a strong suspect, a career criminal whose wife told police that she was with her husband when he committed the murders. However, she kept changing her story and the suspect, Youell Swinney, was never charged with the crime.

Unfortunately the “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” never captures any of the terror that Texarkana residents experienced.

It’s poorly directed and marred by bits of alleged “comic relief” in the form of a dimwitted cop nicknamed “Spark Plug” that offer neither comedy nor relief.

Ben Johnson, one of my favorite actors, shows up as a legendary Texas Ranger called in to investigate the case, but the film makes little use of his considerable skills.

The movie lurches into “Dukes of Hazard” territory when Spark Plug blows a gasket, goes full metal Barney Fife, and crashes his patrol car into a swamp. It was painful watching an actor of Ben Johnson’s stature emerging from the wreck and walking knee-deep in muck.

Every October near Halloween, the movie is shown at a park where two of the murders were committed. I would’ve thought that the people in this area suffered enough without having to go through this yearly torment, but I guess any publicity really is good publicity.

The real case still fascinates me. A few years ago, a Texas television station did an anniversary story about the unsolved killings. One of the retired investigators who was interviewed for the story steadfastly maintained that Youell Swinney was the killer.

However, as often happens in cases like these, there is a nagging detail that sheds a little doubt on the prime suspect.

Some of the victims’ relatives told police that they had received a phone call from a woman who apologized “for what her father had done to them.”

As far as anyone knows, Swinney had no daughter. Of course, there’s always the possibility that she was illegitimate or that this mystery caller was deranged. However, that seems a little strange to me.

While people have been known to confess to crimes that didn’t commit in a desperate bid for attention, this woman is anonymously apologizing for someone else’s crime. That’s an odd way to get attention.

Either way, it sounds like a great opening for a movie.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Off to See The Wizard

While vacationing in California last year, I spotted an adopt-a-highway sign that been put up by an outfit called the United Atheists.

United Atheists? What unites them, I wondered—their belief in nothing? If that's all then the meetings must be awfully short.

Please understand—I strongly support freedom of religion and that includes the freedom not to have any religion at all.

But I suspect that a lot of people who say they don’t believe in God would suddenly see the light if their car blew a tire on that highway while they were doing 70 mph. There are no atheists in rollovers.

You can’t turn in any direction without running into some religious issue. Recently I made the mistake of reading the comments section of a news story about some horrendous disaster and one of the posters had put up the usual “God help the victims” line.

And, like clockwork, this brought sarcastic responses from the non-religious types and a holy snark war quickly broke out.

“Good luck with your Sky Wizard,” one commenter wisecracked in an apparent reference to God.

As a modern, rational man, I have to admit that the whole idea of religion can seem pretty bizarre.

We tend to mock other cultures for their strange beliefs, yet at least three Republican presidential candidates said that God told them to run for the nation’s highest office.

I’ve heard candidates being described as “a man of faith,” as if those words are supposed to be comforting. People forget that Osama bin Laden was a man of faith, too. Not very comforting, is it?

I Gotta Have Faith

Religion has absolutely no place in politics and I look forward to the day when someone asks a presidential candidate about his or her religious beliefs and gets a hearty response of “None of your goddamn business!”

Abortion center bombings, 9/11, school prayer, religious fund-a-mental cases of all stripes have caused no end of trouble in this world and the things that some people have done in the name of God could make Satan turn his forked tail and run like hell.

We live in a society that uses the phrase “religious violence” with a straight face. Think about that one for a minute.

As a survivor of the 8-year spook house ride known as Catholic school, I can personally attest to the danger of religious zealots. The experience put me off church for so long that when I finally did go back I went to the Episcopalians.

The thing is, atheism just doesn’t do it for me. I like believing in a higher power, I like giving thanks to a divine being. Call me crazy and you might be right.

I know real men and women of faith, people who do wonderful things in God's name, and they're very inspirational.

I go to church now because I enjoy it, not because I’m afraid some psycho nun will kick down my door and beat me senseless with a yardstick.

And I try to the right thing by people because it’s the right thing to do, and not out of fear that I’ll end up in Lucifer’s eternal microwave.

I like starting my day off with prayer because it feels good. I don’t need to be guilted into submission.

You don’t believe? Fine. You won’t find me trying to convert you. What gives me comfort may seem like backwoods mumbo jumbo to you. There are few things I hate more than some bible-thumping screwball trying to drag me into the tent, so I make it my business to mind my own business.

But I’m going to keep on believing in my Sky Wizard. It’s nice to think there’s something beyond this mortal coil.

And you never know when you might blow a tire.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Privet Parts

Terry WetWet wants to connect with me.

I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. I find a lot of these messages when I look through the old junk email bag in search of the web’s least wanted.

“I have updated my fuckbook page with new photos,” she wrote. “Check it out and tell me what you think.”

Fuckbook? I never heard of it, but if they’re having an IPO anytime soon I want in.

But I didn’t check out the new photos and I don’t think I will. I’d rather not get involved with someone named Terry Wetwet and I really don’t want to make Georgia jealous.

Georgia also wrote to me recently, starting off with a hearty cry of “Privet, my dear friend!”

Privet means “hello” in Russian, but it can also refer to a European shrub called Ligustrum vulgare and after reading Georgia’s e-mail I’m still not sure which one she means.

“When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody,” she wrote, “you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible. This twenty-first century letter is for my twentieth century soul.”

A Twentieth Century soul? I think my soul is somewhere back in the Middle Ages. And it’s probably better off.

In my imagination you are just perfect and I am dreaming about you all days and nights.”

I may be perfect in your imagination, lady, but you might change your mind if you ever met me. You just keep dreaming about me all days and nights in your Twentieth Century soul while I deal with Theresa.

Theresa—I don’t think she goes by “Terry”—is a another privet person who starts her email with the same exact greeting as Georgia—“Privet, my dear friend!” Perhaps they’re related. But then Theresa had better lines than Georgia.

I Write the Songs

Love is a friendship set to music,” she writes. “I yearn for you so, my dear. Sometimes I do not know how I will get through another night alone. All I can do is to imagine how kind your voice is, how deep your eyes are, and how strong your arms are. They will comfort me like an angel’s wings.

Wow. I actually like the line about love being friendship set to music. I wish I could set that email to music. I’d have a top ten hit. And just imagine the video.

I hope she can get through another night alone. And perhaps in another life I could’ve taken Theresa in my strong arms and comforted her with my angel’s wings, but now I’ve got to handle Narciss.

Narciss is from Poland and she starts off her email by saying that she got my email, which is odd because if I had written to somebody named Narciss I think I’d remember it. That’s a pretty distinctive name--like Terry Wetwet.

I think we will find common language and interests,” Narciss wrote. “New emotions and a positive always wanted to communicate to men from the friend of the countries after all it so fascinatingly, so much.

New emotions and a positive…what, exactly? Attitude? Electric charge? Why won’t she say? This email is giving me a migraine with the men from the friend of the countries—oh, Narciss, what the hell are you talking about?

Narciss ends by saying she’s moving to America for work. Hopefully she won’t be teaching English.

And then there’s Justina seeking true friendship and a partner and a “22 y/o female new around town” who got my attention by opening up with “Howdy, Beautiful” which puts privet out to pasture.

This very young lady “absolutely thought you were stunning in those pics on your profile,” and then called me “babe.”

I tell you, with all these women in my life, I’m so glad I got the email reading “Be the Pied Piper of Chicks enlarge your pink just by popping a pill.”

My pink? I didn’t know I had a pink. I thought I had a blue. I wonder if the pink is anywhere near my Ligustrum vulgare. I’ll have to take a peek to make sure it’s in the pink so I can be a proper Pied Piper. (Jesus, I’m starting to sound like Narciss…)

And I wonder if I enlarge my pink will it hurt my privet? That would be a bitter pill to pop.