Action figures: Movie night at Bowery Mission Transitional Center
When the U.S. announced that Osama bin Laden had a stash of pornographic videos, the instant response from males worldwide was, of course he had a stash of porn.
Growing up, I knew a kid from down the block who stole from his father’s stash and hid it in the bushes directly across the street from my house. I thought he was just telling stories, but, sure enough, peering through the twigs and discarded candy wrappers, I could see the proud logo HUSTLER BUSTY. Boys will be boys—even terrorist boys. A lot of folks are even begging for the government to tell us the titles in bin Laden’s private stock, for the base purposes of gossip but also for the more noble but no less misguided notion that his preferences might tell us something about his character that we don’t already know from the decade of snuff porn he coaxed out of Ho’wood and the Defense Department.
I want to know what his secret movie collection looked like. Has he ever seen Rocky or Star Wars or Tougher Than Leather? What movie, if any, stirred his soul, gave him goosebumps, kept him committed to the long, hard task of wiping us off the face of the earth? What was his cinematic comfort food? A Serbian Film? The Care Bears Movie?
The answers were surprising and deep. My Capital colleague Sheila O’Malley was there, and though I’ve known her for four years and covered a film festival or two with her, our friendship took a strange leap when she told me her movie was John Cassavetes’ Opening Night. The understanding that she expressed about that film—which is my heart, too—gave me a glimpse of who she is at her best, and I liked what I saw. Next week you could bring me a surveillance tape of Sheila O’Malley robbing a bank and executing the hostages and I would insist that it was doctored footage. Or if it wasn’t, well, she must have had her reasons. Nobody who loves, and truly gets, Opening Night can be beyond redemption. Well, that’s the feeling, anyway.
I’m staying at Bowery Mission Transitional Center, a very rare New York men’s shelter that some staff members proudly say is “not a shelter.” It’s more like a plainclothes monastery. I have my own room and quiet areas in the facility for reading and thinking. Every Friday night through the weekend, the cafeteria becomes a near-round-the-clock movie theater. Folks bring down their DVDs and vote on which ones to watch first, second or not at all. Not TV shows on DVD, not standup comedy or music video compilations or concerts. Only movies. What is it about movies?
Miraculously, on a slow night for this action-loving crowd, the Ben Stiller/Drew Barrymore comedy Duplex once made the cut. About a dozen of us suffered through the cutesy animated credit sequence to get to a shockingly not-so-lame comedy about yuppie brownstoners who find themselves wanting to kill their irritating elderly tenant. As much as certain cinephile snoots tend to think Stiller has overstayed his welcome on the big screen, he retains the broad appeal of a silent comedy star. (Some of the fellas watching Duplex kept referring to him as "Something About Mary Dude.") His slapstick predicaments in Duplex, which would probably leave a room full of critics dead silent, got some huge laughs in the cafeteria. And I always love it when Stiller characters try to be civil in the face of colossal obnoxiousness or foolishness (see Flirting with Disaster).
The night I came back from the film-geek party, the usual suspects were gathered to watch a pretty OK animated Superman film. Must be another slow night, I thought. But then a shortish, stocky, bald Hispanic guy in wireframe glasses who looked like something out of a comic book asked for a vote: “Who wants to keep watching this, or who wants to watch Thor?” He held up his bootleg copy of the Marvel comics adaptation. Another dude said, “We can watch that after Superman. Won’t be long, bro.” The stocky guy slumped back in his chair when nobody mustered more than a couple of murmurs as votes. He looked sad.
I remembered movie nights at a three-quarters sober house in East New York, three years ago. I was tight with those guys, more of a main character rather than the bit player or extra I prefer to be at this shelter. Kid and Hef, two old-timer ex-cons who loved classic movies with a passion, were my co-curators. We showed our housemates so much good stuff collected weekly from the Brooklyn Central Library that I felt rejuvenated in my passions. Who knew '40s Sherlock Holmes movies had such scintillating visual storytelling? Or that Once Upon a Time in the West can dazzle just as well on a 13-inch screen if everybody’s huddled close and in the right mood for slow-burn badass-ness? Oh, we watched a ton of trash, too, but it was all fun. (I will never forget Uwe “Toilet” Boll’s attempts at Terrence Malick profundity in his Vietnam epic Tunnel Rats).
The next day I came down to lunch to find Thor starting up. It was a pretty clear bootleg, letterboxed more or less to the right proportions. Anthony Hopkins’ Norse deity was strutting around in glittering palaces in the sky. There were some sweeping Peter Jackson-style C.G.I. swoops over Valhalla.
I got my food at the counter and sat down at a table near the back. Right up front near the TV was the stocky guy. He’s normally the kind of dude you hear before you see him, always joking loudly or genially taking the piss out of a staff member. This time he was sitting, fixed on the screen, leaning back, his arms folded. That’s when I let my imagination make sense of his wireframe glasses: He was a comics geek. Sure, in what appears to be his late 30s, he has a gym physique now, but I pictured him 20 years earlier, scrawny and telling the same nervous jokes while organizing his Avengers collection in plastic sleeves. Did he send off for the muscle-building kits advertised in the back of Marvel books when we were kids?
When some serious action got going in Thor—a meteor crash or somesuch—Stocky Guy unfolded his arms and leaned forward a little. Again, only in my imagination, he was making sure the film was getting it right. Comics geeks are stereotypically pasty suburbanites out of a Daniel Clowes graphic novel, but that’s not the scope of reality. Everywhere in my travels down here on the bottom, dudes argued comics as passionately as they argued sports and politics. A prison scene in Wendell B. Harris’s Chameleon Street has a hulking black convict in a do-rag explain why he had to kill his mother for throwing out his prized possessions: “I said, ‘Mom, what hath become of my comic books?’ See, I used to talk like Thor. I patterned my speech after him.” Well, what serves as comic relief in Chameleon Street rings true in my experience. My unscientific shelter poll finds that The Dark Knight is tied for greatest movie of all time with The Shawshank Redemption and Scarface.
I didn’t stay for the movie, but I’ll bet that Thor isn’t Stocky Guy’s heart. It barely held my attention for 15 minutes.
The following weekend, Predators, Nimrod Antal’s sequel to John McTiernan’s Predator, played at lunchtime. Human rejects are trapped as prey on the titular aliens’ galactic game preserve. It actually kept me in my chair even after I finished my fish sticks. Antal is one of the few contemporary action directors who hasn’t succumbed to peer pressure from the Shaky Cam Mafia. He stages action in crisp, relatively dynamic frames. He’s no McTiernan (whose propulsive, jocular original deserved to beat out The Last Emperor’s Bernardo Bertolucci for Best Director), but at least you can make out what’s going on in his action sequences without going cross-eyed.
At the heart of Predators is the question of what it means to be human. Since this film is to Predator what Aliens was to Alien, professional pencil-neck Topher Grace assumes the Paul Reiser role of weaselly yuppie sociopath.
Late in the adventure, he gets wounded and begs the hero, Adrien Brody, not to leave him for dead. Brody ignores his cries, saying he’ll just slow him and Alice Braga down, and get them all killed. Braga defies Brody and carries Grace out on her own. She has compassion. It’s the same misguided empathy that I had just watched music teacher Judy Garland shower upon a very fragile retarded boy in the lovely John Cassavetes film “A Child is Waiting." Judy’s coddling the boy does more harm than good, while Braga's rescue attempt almost gets her killed.
In each case, a tough-minded Alpha male steps in to set things right, make the tough call. In Predators, that man is Brody, who returns in the nick of time to send Grace straight to hell. In a Child is Waiting, it’s Burt Lancaster as a group-home director who insists that the hypersensitive kid be given no special consideration, for the sake of his “dignity.”
Cassavetes cried bullshit when his producer, Stanley Kramer, edited the film to ultimately favor the Lancaster character’s perspective—that retarded kids should be institutionalized in order to spare them humiliation in mainstream society; that in such matters, “father” knows best. I suspect he also would have cried bullshit if he were the director of Predators: Brody emerges victorious simply because his killer instinct outpaces all other predators', human and alien. This is the post-9/11 action film. It’s as if Unforgiven, with its insistence that all killing is for naught, never happened.
I remember when Obi Wan Kenobi drew back his lightsaber not to strike but in a prayerful gesture, allowing Darth Vader to cut him down. “If you strike me down, I will become more powerful than you can imagine.” Ultimately, his warning came to mean that he would simply be able to help direct a military strike on the Death Star from beyond the grave. But the very first time I watched him die, I took it as a spiritual victory for peace. Obi Wan was like the folks who set themselves on fire to protest war or the African grandmothers who stripped nude to shame government thugs or the American girl who laid down her life before Israeli bulldozers.
Down here at the bottom, our masculinity is so bound up with the notion of being the coolest killer (see Wanted or The Expendables) and the threat of becoming somebody’s dupe that we completely miss the point of action movies. So does Ho’wood.
Action films are about light and motion. If you cut out all the killings in the greatest action movies, the excitement is still there. Whatever their body count, the true classics are about life, not death. The triumph is in survival, not, as in Predators, garroting or beheading your foe like a crazed jihadist. (One of the finest action flicks is, in fact, Opening Night, in which there is no violence and the only death happens early on, as an accident. Its third act, in which a great actress must pull herself out of a drunken, depressed state in order to give the stage performance of her life, is more heartstopping than any chase in Fast Five.)
“Great movie, lots o’ killing!” Monty announced in the day room at Willow shelter in the Bronx last Spring. He was trying to get the vote up for his DVD, Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day. The tally was pretty close—a lot of dudes were set on watching Kevin Smith’s “Cop Out”—but “Boondock” tipped the scales once Monty mentioned killing. I even raised my hand, since at least “Boondock” writer-director Troy Duffy had an eye for imitation John Woo pistol opera and a bit of that dumb-smart McTiernan jocularity.
Monty was a middle-aged African-American, about 6’ 5” and lanky, with a sprig of Jehri curl atop his squarish head and a Jimmy Durante nose. He never stopped talking. His dream was to become a movie star, so he often spoke loudly of all the autographs he’d collected on sets where he’d served as an extra. He was always off to some audition in a baggy, rumpled suit, and humoring him became a house pastime.
But I believed him. After we were both transferred to Palladia shelter in Harlem, I asked him if I could interview him for a video project about life and the movies. He was organizing a bunch of papers in manila folders on a concrete barrier across the street from the shelter. Everywhere he went, he carried a leather briefcase bursting with papers and several binders, pens and toiletries. What wasn’t in bags was tied together with rubber bands or duct tape.
“Hell yeah, let’s talk about movies,” he said. “I’m always down for that!”
I’d already heard him describe some of his botched auditions to an audience in the Palladia cafeteria, to gales of laughter. His anecdotes, full of pratfalls and humiliation, sounded like prime material for Jerry Lewis or Michael “Kramer” Richards. In fact: “This dude is the black Kramer!” one of the residents howled, doubling over. When I told Monty the same thing, he fell silent. In his mind, he’s the leading man.
Thanks to my own survival struggle, I never got around to getting Monty on tape before I left Palladia. If he’s still in the city, I’m sure I’ll catch up with him again and follow through.
Monty once asked to be transferred to a different room because his roommate was being disruptive and disrespectful. Rather than request that the roomie leave, he sought to diffuse the situation by removing himself from it. That’s not an action-hero move, but I am certain that, had I captured Monty on camera in his full, bright, crazy, daydreaming splendor, you would have seen an action movie, one dazzling enough to become somebody’s heart.