Thursday, December 29

Considering Elizabeth Strout's "Olive Kitteridge"

The final lines of the final story of Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge suggest that the work is about love. Remembering the stories of husbands and wives, parents and children, boyfriends and girlfriends, mistresses and men, it does not seem inappropriate as the central theme, but it came as a surprise to me. I had thought Olive Kitteridge was about misery. A young widow learns of her husband's infidelity the day he is buried. An old lover returns to a woman only to tell her that he slept with her mother. A daughter runs away from home to be with a man who only told her he preferred that they live together but not as a married couple on their wedding day. The titular character, who appears in all the stories if only as a cameo, is dismissive of her meek husband and is told by her son that she ruined his young life through her mercurial moods. For something so widely celebrated in contemporary American life, what little love there is in Crosby, Maine, setting of all the stories, brings little happiness to the people. Even when it is found and recognized, as Mrs. Kitteridge seems to do at the very end, almost two years after her husband dies, it is not very appealing. She does not like the man particularly. She merely finds in him someone who has undergone the same pains she has and makes her feel needed and less interested in leaving the world.

It's childish, ironic considering that Olive Kitteridge is retired by the time the stories begin and seventy-two by the time they end. If there were a motto for Olive Kitteridge it would be, "Life is loneliness and pain. Should you be lucky enough to find someone to make it a little more tolerable, you will probably neither recognize nor appreciate them." The only people who could find such a statement profound and true is a snot teenager whose first intimate relationship does not go as planned and who finds their parents fools. There are good things in life. There are things to smile and laugh about and enjoy, but there is no humor to be found in this collection.

Wednesday, December 21

"Childhood's Cost"

Nicholas Kristos knocked at the front door, the door used by Boy Scouts selling popcorn and Jehovah's Witnesses offering salvation, and waited.

“Oh, Nicky!” Maria Kristos shrieked in joy when she answered. He tried to step past and out of the snow, and she wrapped him a tight embrace. “You should have told us you were coming. I would have cooked you something special.”

Nicholas made an effort to return the gesture, but he carried a briefcase.

“It's alright. I just need to see my father.”

Maria released Nicholas and stepped back to look him over.

“Oh, please, it's never any trouble. Anything you want, I'll make. You look too skinny.”

“Don't worry about it. I just need to speak with my father, and I'll be on my way.”

“Well, if you want to see George, he's reading in the living room, but just let me know if you change your mind. I feel like celebrating. I'll cook anything you want.”

Maria walked toward the kitchen, and Nicholas was alone for the moment. The temperature was the same as when he lived in the house, set ten degrees higher than where any reasonable person would keep it. It was cloying and stifling, and Nicholas had to concentrate to avoid feeling slow and stupid. He drew a breath and walked into the living room.

“Hello, Nick,” George said. He rose from his chair and opened his arms to embrace his son. Nicholas extended a hand, and George shook it after a pause. “How have you been?”

“I have come to settle my accounts.” Nicholas said it as though he had rehearsed it, careful to speak at just the right tempo and with enough bass to achieve an affect of determined authority.

“What do you mean? Are you in trouble? Do you need a loan?”

“No. I want to settle my accounts with you.”

“But you don't owe us anything.”

“Yes, I do.”

“I don't understand, Nick. We've never loaned you anything.”

“You have. I'm in incredible debt to you, and I want to pay you back for everything. I lived rent-free under your roof for eighteen years. I want to pay you for that. For every day of those eighteen years my breakfast, lunch and dinner were bought and prepared for me through yours and my mother's labor. I want to pay you for that. I want to pay you for every piece of clothing you ever bought for me, for every school fee you ever paid, for every toy. I want to balance the books.”

George gave a gentle chuckle.

“Really, son, we don't expect anything from you. It was a gift. Forget about it. Sit down, and we'll talk.”

“Then I have no reason to stay here. I have a long drive back to Seattle.” Nicholas turned to leave.

“Wait, Nick,” George sighed. “Stay. We'll talk about it.”

Nicholas placed his briefcase on the coffee table, opened the clasps and passed the papers to George.

“I've organized your expenses and my debt into seven categories: food, lodging, clothes, transportation, education, medical and entertainment. These, in turn, are organized by year. The two columns on the far right reflect the expenses for the year and their current value adjusted for inflation. Please feel free to review my estimates and revise them if you think they are wrong or if I missed anything significant, but I hope you will find the sum to your liking.” Nicholas tapped a number, bold and several sizes larger than anything else, on the top page.

“You could pay this right now?”

“I have the check ready. You just need to confirm my estimates.”

George nodded, took his bifocals from atop the magazine where he had left them and began reading. After a little while, he said, “If you really want to go through with this, we should do it right.” George left and returned with two decades worth of files on taxes balanced atop a cardboard box. Inside were tens of notebooks, bound with rubber bands. “Your mother's journals,” George explained. “Every day she listed everything that happened. Tax records are fine, but these will fill in any gaps. You should make yourself comfortable. This may take awhile.”

George leaned back in his chair. Nicholas sat down straight on the sofa and didn't take off his coat. Maria stepped in briefly to put down two cups of tea and a tray of cookies and sweets before she bustled out.

After awhile, his eyes still on the records and estimates, George asked, “How are you doing?”

“I'm doing well. I spent the summer looking at potential sites for Gyro Place franchises in Phoenix, Denver and San Francisco.”

“I'm glad to hear that. Your restaurant deserves to do well. Your mother and I went down to the one on King a few months ago. I was impressed. The food and service were much better than McDonald's or KFC.”

“Thank you.”

“San Francisco, though. That's exciting. How did you like the City by the Bay? Did you catch a Giants game? I've always been interested in visiting, but the opportunity never came up.”

“It was fine.”

The silence returned. George kept a pen between his fingers but had not written a single note. When he finished comparing Nicholas' estimates and the tax record, he picked through the journals until he found the oldest.

“Is this really necessary?”

“Of course. Anything worth doing is worth doing right, remember?”

Nicholas collapsed back in the sofa and drummed his fingers on the end table.

George stopped on one page and chuckled.

“I didn't remember this.”

Nicholas let his tea continue to grow cold.

“Don't you want to know what it is?”George asked.


A few minutes later George said. “Do you remember when you went to that summer acting camp? Do you remember speaking with that terrible British accent for weeks afterward? I was only glad that you stopped before school started again.”

“That was a long time ago. I included it in my estimates.”

There was silence again, and George continued to go through the journals. When he was through the last of them, failing several times more to draw Nicholas out, he left for a moment and brought back a laptop.

“What's that for?” Nicholas asked, finally allowing his irritation to distort his voice.

“I just want to check your numbers for inflation. I want to make sure they're right.”

“They're right. You don't have to do that.”

“Just the same, I'd like to check them myself. It'd be an easy mistake to make when you're concentrating on getting everything else right.”

“No, really, they're right.

“We'll see.”

George tapped at the keys and looked from the screen to the estimates, double checking every number.

“It looks like you were right.”

“I told you I was.”

“It never hurts to double check. Better the few seconds for a second look than embarrassing yourself with a stupid mistake.”
George gathered the papers and squared them.

“There were a few little things, I think, but everything looks good. I don't think I need to change anything. This was an impressive job you did. Very professional. You should be proud.”

“Of course.”

Nicholas took the papers back, leaving only the contract for his father to sign, and rose to leave.

“Actually,” George set, a look of fear crossing his face, “I've just thought of something. All of these papers calculate just the financial aspect of raising you. What about your values? Doesn't that count for something? What if I hadn't pushed you on your homework, to always strive to do your best and get an 'A' and not just coast to the 'B'? Would you own a fast-food chain then or would you have settled for something easier?”

“Maybe not, but I think that's balanced out by the bills I'm paying my therapist now.”

“I didn't know you were seeing a therapist.”

“I never told you.”

“Is something wrong? Can I help?”

“You could sign and let me leave.”

“I just thought of something else. What about our opportunity costs? It's not just what we paid to raise you. You didn't calculate at all what we gave up to raise you. You know your mother forced me to turn down a job offer that would have made me the regional manager in Seattle because she didn't want to take you away from your cousins and friends. What about all that? Sit down and stay awhile, and we'll figure it out.”

“How about this?”

Nicholas scribbled a new number, twice the original estimate, and pushed it toward George.

“This will make you richer than you ever dreamed. You physically won't be able to spend all of that money in how ever many years you have left.”

“I would like to check the numbers one last time.”

“You already have.”

“Would you like to know what we'll do with the money?”

“It doesn't matter to me.”

“I think I'd like to buy a house outside the city, some place small where there isn't so much traffic. Your mother will probably want to send some of it to her cousin in Athens. You probably don't know, but she's working with immigrants there and could use the funding.”

Nicholas didn't say anything, and George sighed, defeated.

“Where do I sign?”

Nicholas tapped the line.

As George wrote his signature and the date, he said “This is silly, you know. You've already paid me back. You're happy and successful. That's all I ever wanted for you. Your mother would like it if you got married and raised a family, but she just wants you to be happy, too. That's better than anything you could pay us.”

Nicholas took the signed contract. He scribbled a new check and put it on the coffee table in front of George.

George said, “If I disappointed you or somehow hurt you to make you want to do this, I'm sorry.”

“You haven't done anything wrong. I just wanted to settle my accounts.”

Maria walked into the room.

“I know you said you didn't want anything, but it's already getting dark, and I didn't want you to leave hungry. I set a place for you, and the eggplant's almost done in the oven,” she said.

“You could pay us for it, if it'd make you feel better,” George said quietly. “I think fifteen dollars would be fair for your mother's labor and the ingredients.”

“George,” Maria said, shocked. “There's no need for that.”

Nick didn't pause.

“No, I really have to go.”

His parents didn't protest and followed Nicholas to the entrance. When Nick opened the door to let himself out, Maria asked, “Do you think you'll come back for Easter this year?”

Nicholas said, “I don't think so,” and walked out into the snow and night.

Tuesday, December 20

Considering David Fincher's "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo"

It's funny how film releases go. There can be months of waiting where maybe one or two releases has me thinking that if I were bored on the weekend I might take the time to visit the theater and watch them, and then comes a two week stretch where there are at least four movies out that I'm actively interested in seeing. I'm trying to figure out how I can justify paying for all the tickets and how I can make time, and then I get a pair of free tickets to an advance screening of David Fincher's remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. When fortune smiles on me like this, I cannot help but to share my thoughts.

Adapting Stieg Larsson's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is an interesting choice for Fincher. On the one hand, it's a crime procedural like Seven and Zodiac and Lisbeth Salander is an outsider not so different from The Social Network's Mark Zuckerberg and Fight Club's Tyler Durden. You can see what Fincher could find attractive about the novel, and he does some excellent work with what he has. There are some beautiful scenes. The use of ambient sound of the subway when a man grabs Salander's bag and runs and the floor buffer when Salander first asks Bjurman for money are brilliant. The editing makes a guy looking flipping through pictures on his computer engaging. Fincher gets a surprisingly effective turn from Daniel Craig, the new James Bond, as the tired and broken Mikael Blomkvist. Rooney Mara does a fine job as Salander but doesn't match Noomi Rapace in the Swedish original, but who could?

But what's it all for? The source material is a generic thriller that most stands out for the intensity of the sexual violence and its Swedish setting. Fincher's faithful to it and creates some beautiful scenes and imagery, but that's all there is. Not that there's anything wrong with it, but I had hoped for something more from the man who has directed three of my favorite films of all time.

A question regarding the sexual violence. Salander is handcuffed and anally raped by her government payee and guardian early in the film. She returns to the man to do the same and more to him. Both scenes are brutal. If you found them titillating in the least, you need to ask yourself serious questions about your proclivities, but people laughed when Salander had Bjurman at her mercy. I don't understand that. It wasn't meant to be funny. I even think that Fincher edited the two scenes that they resembled each other, that there were more parallels than simply what they did to one another. Why did people laugh? Why was it funny when the woman kicked a dildo into the man's anus and not when the man straddled the woman? Cheering at the second scene, as loathsome as it would be, I could understand. The woman outsmarted the man legally and physically superior to her. Evil was answered and vengeance was taken, but the audience's laughter unsettled me. Why did they laugh?

Wednesday, December 14

"Camera Obscura"

His cellphone sang. “One love, one blood, one life. You got to do what you should.”

It was Kate, the photo editor. She didn't say hello.

“I can't use your pictures,” she said.

“What?” Toby's voice was higher pitched than he had intended. He took a breath. “I'm sorry, but I thought they were good. Why can't you use them?”

“The Saturday package is about homelessness and what the city government and everyday citizens are doing to fight it. Our job is to put a face to that enemy, a face that captures all the suffering and deprivation it causes. Your pictures don't do that. No one is even going to believe these men live on the streets. Washed faces? Collared shirts? Clean shaves? My stepson doesn't dress this nice, and they're supposed to be the bums.”

“They said they wanted to look good if they're going to be in the paper. I thought the homeless deserved that little dignity at least.” Toby stressed “the homeless” instead of “bums” and hoped Kate would notice.

“You don't understand. We want to touch people's hearts. We want them to demand change. No one will care if the face of homelessness is healthy, clean and well-fed. This is a daily newspaper, not some high school yearbook. You fought for this assignment. Now go out, and do it right,” Kate hung up.

Toby gave a full sigh that the others at the bar noticed.

“I need to go and take more pictures,” Toby explained when Jason turned. “Apparently the men at the YMCA aren't 'homeless' enough for the Herald.”

“That sucks,” Jason said. “Happy hour ends in twenty minutes.”

“I'll make it quick. I just wish they'd told me when I turned in my pictures. No one deserves a new assignment on Friday night. God, it's been such a long week, too” Toby sighed again even though he had their attention. “Do any of you have any idea where I can find the 'real homeless?'”

“Highman Park,” Anna said without hesitation. “If you drive by too slow, guys will rush your window asking for change. Be careful, though. I hear a lot of gangs and drug dealers hang out there, too.”

Toby had never been to Highman before, and Anna gave him directions. No wonder he didn't know the way. It was on the west side. He preferred to avoid that part of the city.

He finished the rest of his micro-brew in two long gulps before leaving the bar. What Kate had said was true. He had fought for the story. When Toby picked up the photography assignments that morning and read that Rachel Emans had the front-page homelessness package while he was left with the profile of the local driftwood artist, tentative headline “One man's garbage...,” he went straight to Kate's office. If she had been surprised when he walked in without knocking, she didn't show it. She glanced up only briefly from the pictures and papers on her desk before returning her full attention to them. Toby, however, was impressed by the audacity of his entrance. He understood it as evidence of his zeal for the assignment. While waiting for Kate, he considered his argument.

“This may be presumptuous of me,” he carefully began when the editor finally looked at him and held her gaze, “especially since I've only been here a couple of months, but I think I deserve the homelessness assignment. I don't think anyone else on staff cares more about the homeless or can show the same compassion for them in their photographs.”

Kate made no reply but to take a sip of coffee and lean back in her chair, but Toby felt himself getting into a rhythm and his voice gained strength.

“You know how some people take up environmental causes and plant trees or run across the country to raise cancer awareness? Well, my issue is homelessness. My senior year at State I was president of the Homelessness Action Front and led some of our biggest campus awareness campaigns. We chalked facts about homelessness on all the sidewalks and collected signatures to force the city council to increase funding for social services. I wrote editorials for the student paper about the incredible rates of mental illness among the homeless and their drastically shorter life expectancies. I wanted everyone to know that homelessness matters. This isn't just another assignment for me. This is my passion.”

Kate took another sip of coffee. Then she picked up her phone.

“I need you in my office now, Rachel,” she said. Waiting for the senior photographer, Toby could hardly stand to stay still. He knew the story was his. He just needed one final push.

Rachel knocked before walking in, and Kate told her, “The rookie wants your assignment today because he thinks he could do a better job than you.”

Turning back to Toby, Kate said, “Tell her why.”

Rachel gave a wry grin as Toby began, but he didn't notice. He was concentrating on everything he had learned in his Advanced Public Speaking class.

“With all due respect, Rachel,” he said, “do you know what it's like to be homeless and spend the nights outside and carry all your possessions with you everywhere? I do. I spent a week in solidarity with the homeless when my club slept in front of the school library last spring. We only had coffee and day-old doughnuts for breakfast every morning and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for every other meal. We couldn't go into our dorms because we were homeless, so we had to shower in the gym locker rooms. I understand the homeless at a personal level, and I think that's imperative to doing this assignment right. Don't you?”

“What do you think?” Kate asked Rachel after the briefest possible pause.

Rachel shrugged.

“If he wants it that badly, he can have it. I'm waiting on a call from Thomas to finish that story on illegal dumping by Agrochemical. If he calls, I need to be there immediately. The suits have been such a pain in the ass with scheduling an interview and tour of the plant that I won't get a second chance at them.”

Toby let a smile break across his face. His first front-page assignment. And for a major weekend package. That was something to celebrate. After giving them both the most gracious thanks possible, he had rushed from the office to get started. Toby checked first with Ericsson, writer of the package's lead story, and he sent Toby to the YMCA. Ericsson had met a few sources there and thought it would be an easy start and safe since it employed security. He told Toby that if he hurried, there still might be a few people at the free breakfast.

When Toby arrived, there were no more than ten men sitting at long tables in the poorly lit cafeteria. The guard sitting casually at the doors told him they were free to stay as long as they wanted so long as they didn't make any trouble for each other or the staff.

“Just give a shout if they start causing a commotion or you see them with any alcohol or drugs or weapons,” he told Toby with a smile and patted his billy club.

Toby assured the guard there would be no trouble and no need for the help but thanked him.

Toby walked over to a slight man, sitting silently against the wall and staring toward the distant windows, first.

“Hello. I'm Toby with the Herald,” he said as he put his hand out. “You mind if I sit with you for a little while? Ask some questions?”

The man didn't look up, and the guard shouted from across the room, “I wouldn't bother with him. George's pretty retarded. Hardly ever speaks, and when he does, it doesn't make any sense.”

Toby glared and made sure the guard was looking before he very deliberately sat down next to George. Toby tried to introduce himself again. George didn't even turn his head. Toby asked what the YMCA had served that morning and tried to joke about how stale the doughnuts were, but George only leaned forward to watch birds flying outside the windows. Frustrated after several more minutes of silence, Toby walked to the man sitting at the nearest table.

“Couldn't get anything out of George, could you?” the man said with a grin that made Toby's fists clench. “I wouldn't feel too bad about it. He doesn't talk to anyone.”

“That doesn't mean he's any less of a person,” Toby said without hesitation.

“Oh, I never said that. He may not be as interesting as some here, but he's a lot better than most. At least he's never been to prison.”

“Yeah? Have you?” Toby had never met a convict before and felt excited.

“I've made some mistakes, but the Lord knows that I've taken my punishment like a man. Now, I'm just trying to do right by Him and get back on my feet.”

“Like how?”

The man looked hard at Toby. “Who are you asking all these questions anyway?”

“Oh, I'm sorry,” said Toby. “I should have introduced myself. My name's Toby. I work for the Herald, and I'm on assignment.”

“Oh yeah?” the man said, the large smile returning and showing off missing teeth. “You here to write a story about me or something?

“Almost. I'm a photographer. You mind if I take your picture? The article's going to be on the front page tomorrow.”

“That sounds great.” He was positively gleaming now. “Of course you can take my picture. Come on, let's move over there by the window. I always look better in the sunlight. How do you want me? How about sitting? I look kind of funny when I'm standing. I got shot in the leg in 'Nam, and I've kind of leaned to the right since then. Maybe if I had my hand on a chair or something, like that portrait of Washington, no one would notice.”

“Hey, Dennis,” another man shouted as they passed. “What are you doing with him?”

“I'm getting my picture taken. I'm going to be in the Herald tomorrow. Front page,” Dennis shouted back.

“In that jacket? You'll be the city's most famous bum,” the other man laughed. Toby flinched.

“You're right!” Dennis said when he looked down. Grabbing Toby's arm, he said, “Give me a minute. I need to wash and put on something nice. Maybe that shirt I wear for job interviews. Do you think that would look good?”

Dennis came back fifteen minutes later. Every line of dirt on his face was gone, and his hair was combed neatly to the side. Toby felt as though he were at an advertising shoot instead of a homeless shelter. Dennis eagerly followed Toby's every suggestion to turn his head to better catch the light or to rest his chin in his hand, but he could never look serious for more than two seconds.

“I just can't,” Dennis laughed after failing for the fifth time. “This is too great. I'm having too much fun.”

Toby nodded with good humor and bit his frustration back. He was supposed to look somber and aged beyond his years but was acting like a child.

Soon enough the other men in the cafeteria drifted toward Toby and Dennis and started asking questions. Then they were all clambering for portraits of their own and hurrying to change and shave. Toby only barely left the YMCA before lunchtime and the newcomers started to ask what he was doing with the camera.

By the time Toby parked outside Highman Park, the sun was just above the horizon. A chill pierced Toby the moment he stepped out of the car. It was colder than he had expected for an early October evening. Colder even than the week of solidarity. Still, not enough to make him shiver. He had forgotten gloves, though. It hurt when he kept his hands out of his pockets too long, and his fingers were stiff and clumsy as he handled the camera, checking the body and lenses. To warm himself, Toby stomped his feet and breathed into his cupped hands. Jason had ordered a pound of french fries before Toby had left. He hoped he would be back before they finished them, even if the last few were lukewarm.

He could see how Highman might be nice for a walk or picnic in the afternoon for those who lived in the area, but it was ill tended. The grass hadn't been mown in weeks. There were tracks of bare dirt where people worn down their own paths between the designated gravel trails. He could see, too, how drug dealers would appreciate the thick bushes. There was plenty of privacy in Highman.

A quick look through the park and he would be done, Toby promised himself. He was losing daylight, and the temperature was dropping. It wouldn't matter if Toby found someone, and it was too dark to take his picture. Then Kate would just have to settle for one of those he had turned in earlier. And they were fine. They may live in shelters now, but those men had lived on the streets. They knew the suffering and indignity of being homeless. They deserved to be on the front page as much as anyone Toby might find tonight.

Toby started jogging to ward off the cold. The special had been Irish Coffee. He should have ordered it. With no certain destination he took turns indiscriminately. There were no fountains or statues or tennis courts or any landmarks whatsoever to mark Toby's way. Every few minutes he would pause to make a quick check of the area for homeless, but he always found that it looked entirely like the last part of the park he had stopped. He doubted he could easily retrace his steps and find his way back. Toby pushed on.

Coming around a turn much like the last, Toby skidded on the gravel, barely stopping. Standing in the middle of the trail, not more than ten feet ahead, were two African-American men. They were tall and wore dark, down-filled coats that disguised whether they were thin or fat or even carrying guns.

Don't think like that, Toby told himself. That's racist.

He opened his mouth to say good evening, but it caught in his throat as both men slid their hands into the breasts of their coats at the same time, their faces hard. Toby tried to smile, but it felt wrong.

The one with a scar running from the base of his jaw to the corner of his lips spit and took a step forward.

Toby turned and hurried back the way he came, faster than before. He thought he could hear a bitter laugh and the second man begin to walk. Toby ran.

Another turn. Another. Nothing looked familiar. Toby thought he passed that tree minutes ago.

Then the obnoxious odor of cheap alcohol and vomit. Toby remembered his assignment. He stopped and turned in every direction, looking for the source. Getting down on hands and knees, Toby found the drunk deep underneath one of the few shrubs whose leaves still clung to the branches. It was impossible to estimate an age. Toby would have guessed 45 but would not have been surprised if the answer were 30 or 60. A fraying wool cap covered the hair, but an unruly beard was streaked with white, gray and a pale brown. The coat had once been a rich brown but was sun-bleached from years of use and stained dark by drinks spilled that night. The soles of the shoes were only kept on with duct tape.

Even with the full force of his creativity, Toby could not have imagined a more appropriate scene. Here was Kate's “real homeless.” There could be no better demonstration of the urgency of their situation or the need for action now to save them.

There was a twitch. Toby jumped back, but that was the only movement. The sun was sinking. Toby had little time before it was completely dark. He set to work. He stepped back for a few wide-angle shots. He doubted Kate could use them. It was nearly impossible to distinguish anything, but they set the tone, how easy it is to miss the homeless among us. They're invisible to the rest of the community. Toby thought it would be funny if Kate saw the pictures and asked why he had taken them. He would relish the chance to point her blindness out to her. It would be politically incorrect, but if only they could print the pictures with the caption “Can you find the homeless person in this photograph?” to show the community its own blindness.

There was a sound. Faint, some distance away. Toby lowered the camera to his chest and listened. Two voices farther up the path? He switched lenses quickly and laid down for a better angle and close-up. He was relieved that the first shots were crisp. Despite the failing light, the details were clear. Long shadows cast by the low sun turned the broken nose into something of mythic proportions. Every scar, no matter the size, no matter the depth, was clear. The thick lines around the eyes and across the forehead had a gravity earned by years of rejection. It was a face that had known suffering intimately and endured.

The leaves of the shrub rustled when Toby got up after the final shot. The subject's eyelids drooped open.

“Hey,” he slurred. A line of drool of began to run from his mouth. “Could you give me a little help?”

“Sorry,” Toby said. “I don't have any change.”

“You don't have nothing for a cold vet?”

The voices were growing more distinct, and Toby's voice grew more rapid. “Sorry, I really don't have anything. Maybe the YMCA could help you out. They might have a bed or blanket or something for you.”

“I don't need their rules. I'm free here.” He grunted. “Didn't I see you there earlier? Weren't you the one with the camera?”

Toby was stuffing the camera back into its case and only glanced down briefly before looking up the trail again. There might have been something familiar in that profile, but he wasn't sure.

“You're wrong. I don't remember you.”

“Huh.” The man gave a wet belch and rolled to face the other way. Toby could make out individual words and took off at a sprint.

His breathing came in gasps, and the backs of Toby's legs burned. The camera bag was bouncing wildly, bruising his hip. He didn't dare look back.

Another turn but the gravel was loose. Toby's feet slid out from under him. His hand was just fast enough to cover his face before he hit the ground and rolled. No time to concentrate on the bright pain in his ankle or searing on his palms. Toby scrambled forward on hands and knees until he was running upright again.

The trees and bushes were thinning. Toby could see the parking lot, not more than a hundred meters ahead. A final surge and Toby was leaning, panting, against the hood of his car.

“Hey, boy.” The smooth bass voice came from behind Toby. “Why'd you run off like that? That was rude.”
Toby rolled onto his back like a defeated dog. It was them.

“We just wanted to make your acquaintance,” the one with the scar said. He bit out every syllable in “acquaintance” to prove there was nothing kind in the suggestion. “My name's Michael. This shit's Damon.” The smaller one smiled, and Toby saw gold teeth. “What's yours?”

“My what?” Toby's voice squeaked.

“Your name, dumb ass.”

“Toby.” It squeaked again.

“Toby, huh? Well, now that we know each other's names, that makes us friends, don't it?”

“I guess so.”

“And friends share. Right?” They were within arm's reach now.

“I guess so.”

“So why don't you share whatever that's in your bag with us?”

Toby tried to step back but only pressed himself flatter against his car.

“That's a fine car you have. What about sharing your keys with us, too?” The shorter one spoke for the first time. His voice was coarse, malicious, like it was used to telling jokes which ended with a kitten being flayed. Toby opened his mouth. To reply, to scream for help, he didn't know. No sound came from it. It just hung loose.

Another car pulled into the parking lot, and a uniformed officer sauntered out. The two stepped back.

“How you boys doing tonight? Have any trouble?” he asked, swinging his flashlight between Toby, still tight against his car, and the two blacks.

“No trouble,” the taller one sneered.

“And you, sir?” the officer asked holding the light steady on Toby. “Any trouble?”

“No.” Toby's voice still squeaked.

“Good.” There was a note of finality in his voice. “How about you all keep it that way and move along.”

The blacks slouched back into the park, and Toby's hands shook as he tried to key in the door code. He only managed it on the fourth try.

“Be careful,” the officer said just before Toby closed the door. “There are some bad people out here. It's no place for a man like you.”

Toby nodded quickly and sped away without looking back.

* * *

Kate called too early the next morning.

“Last night's pictures are brilliant. They were everything I hoped for.”

“Thanks,” he managed, still fuzzy from the night before. Anna had taken his keys just after ten, and he hadn't stopped drinking. She had driven him home around midnight.

“I think they could really make a difference. Good job.”

Monday, December 12

The Justice Society of America film genre

Sean O'Neal's first sentence in his description of the trailer for The Avengers is long and is a piece of comic brilliance.

Sneaking in under the radar next year is The Avengers, an ensemble piece featuring indie-film favorites Robert Downey Jr. (Two Girls And A Guy), Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right), Samuel L. Jackson (Coach Carter), Scarlett Johansson (Match Point), Chris Hemsworth (A Perfect Getaway), Jeremy Renner (The Town), and Chris Evans (Puncture) teaming with cult television director Joss Whedon (several episodes of Dollhouse) for an intimate story about the fragile bonds forged between headstrong individualists under difficult circumstances.

He prefers to imagine the film as something small and contemplative until he admits in the very last line of the piece that it's "a kick-ass comic-book blockbuster juggernaut that’s going to make tons of money." For those members of the cast whose reputations weren't already forged and faces recognized by films like Sherlock Holmes, Pulp Fiction, The Hurt Locker and Fantastic Four, they were through films that gave their heroes their origins. It's a large investment to gather an ensemble of actors and actresses, any of whom could lead their own film, but it's not a bad way to guarantee that your film will make handfuls of money. It's worked with the sheer star power the three Ocean's films, it's worked with the overwhelming masculinity of The Expendables, it's worked with the mixed bag of Valentine's Day, and it'll work again with New Year's Eve and What To Expect When You're Expecting.

But I don't want to talk about those films. I want to talk about those that some remarkable mixture of prescience and fortune assemble an ensemble that has amazing things in store for the future.

Consider The Fugitive. It cannot honestly be described as an ensemble piece, starring Harrison Ford who started coasting on a reputation built on Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Blade Runner about this time and Tommy Lee Jones, but it still gave managed supporting roles for Julianne Moore before her four Oscar nominations, Jane Lynch before her Golden Globe and Joe Pantoliano before his productive career.

Consider The Faculty. It had Salma Hayek before Frida and Desperado, Elijah Wood before The Lord of the Rings, Josh Hartnett before Pearl Harbor, Jon Stewart before anyone cared about The Daily Show and Usher before he discovered Justin Bieber.

Consider 10 Things I Hate About You. It had Joseph Gordon-Levitt before Inception and 50/50, Julia Stiles before the Bourne franchise and Dexter, and Allison Janney before The West Wing. It not only had Heath Ledger long before his Oscar roles in The Dark Knight and Brokeback Mountain, but it is the only American film I know of that had him speaking in his native Australian accent. It also had David Krumholtz before Numb3rs and Gabrielle Union before Bring It On for those who happen to care about those.

I would like to propose a name for these films, justice society. The Justice Society of America preceded the Justice League of America and its various iterations, and the biggest names in superheroes could not be members. Superman and Batman were only honorary members and the Green Lantern and Flash left once they gained their own series.

I would like to propose rules to this retroactive genre. First, and most obviously, more than a few of the actors and actresses must go on to stardom or win major awards or lead their own films or television series. Second, the film cannot be a smash. Its own success cannot be directly responsible the success of its actors. The Lord of the Rings and Star Trek may not have the biggest names in their casts, but you can be sure Orlando Bloom wouldn't have had the career he did without Legolas and that it wasn't The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagment that led to a role opposite Denzel Washington for Chris Pine. Third, it has to be an ensemble piece. It cannot be a star vehicle for a single lead character. It doesn't count when some uncredited background character goes on to bigger things, though it is impressive that Bruce Lee beat up both Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung in Enter the Dragon.

I would like to propose love for this genre. It's like five before-they-were-stars segments only interesting.

I would like to thank IMDB for making me appear a lot more informed with regard to film than I am.


Tuesday, December 6

"The Boy Who Very Much Wanted To Be A Writer"

The summer before Edgar began the fifth grade, an uncle asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. Edgar answered with no hesitation, “A writer. I want to be a teller of stories, to weave narratives fantastic, to craft characters with depths unplumbed.”

Toward this end he attended writing workshops and read manuals of style. Some emphasized unique descriptions and many of them. Others celebrated the terse. Some wrote that one must speak truth to power. Others replied that such was not literature but editorial.

Edgar found only one rule consistent throughout: show, don't tell.

It became his law.

“I love you,” Laura, dear Laura, told Edgar years later as they sat outside the park duck pond one Thursday evening.

Every attempt prior, she had breathed in deeply to quiet her heartbeat and steady her hands, prepared to say it. Then she would hold it a beat too long. The moment would pass, and she could only release a sigh of disappointment.

As soon as the declaration left her lips, Laura lowered her eyes, turned her face away and raised her hand to hide her profile, but Edgar could see the smile in her cheek.

Edgar could want nothing more. Already this was more than he believed he deserved. She loved him. She was his muse. Every hero, every good character he wrote partook of Laura's perfection. The china shoulders of Alexis. Aunt Cameron's casual recitation of Whitman. They would not exist without Laura.

He kissed her on the ear. Her hand fell from her face, and Laura turned. Edgar kissed her mouth. She kissed his. They remained so enjoined for some time.

When they disengaged, Laura held herself close against Edgar's chest and looked up at him with expectation.

Edgar took a breath to quiet his heartbeat and steady his hands. And paused. He released the held air in a steady stream.

Sitting together in the theater through the credits until they were the last to leave. A home-made dinner of polenta and spinach frittata and red wine for two on New Year's Eve. How could she begin to think he could mean anything less?

Edgar held her close, too, and they waited. Laura continued to hold him, but it was not so tight, so earnest, as it had been.

Time passed, and they went their separate ways home.