Monday, August 29, 2011

Cee-Cee Chews Me Out

(I'm going to run again a short series of posts regarding justice matters. ACLU blood runs in my veins, and although I'm often not the righteous champion for justice that I should be...I think people should at least try.)

The background to this post is that I write letters to the editor, early and often. I like to think of these letters as bold and illuminating, but friends keep me from vanity with remarks like, "I see where you were gassing away in the paper again," or simply "blah, blah, blah."

My friend Cee-Cee (not her real name) is a retired policewoman. I met her, if that's the right word, when she called me up very late and out of the blue, to chew me out, grind me up and spit me out for a letter I'd just written. The letter concerned what I saw as a poor judgment call on the part of a police officer.

Cee-Cee is not the officer I wrote about. To this day, I don't know if she was a friend of the officer, or if she just reacted like a lionness to any criticism of a brother or sister in arms.

Keep in mind that this was around midnight. I'd been asleep. Cee-Cee, a stranger to me then, has a voice of mighty thunder when upset, sort of like God and Thor combined. She said, or shouted, that although the facts in my letter were "technically correct," I had written it in a spirit of smug fault-finding and from a place of ignorance. Like most civilians, I had no idea of the thousands of judgment calls which every officer is required to make, often under severe stress. Neither I nor any other civilian would hear about the great majority which turned out to be right.

I was speechless for once. You would be too, if the side of a mountain suddenly split off and fell on your head, or if an avenging angel suddenly swooped down out of heaven and began flogging you like a racehorse. But I come from a long line of bossy teachers and ministers confident in their salvation, and those genes kicked in. I told Cee-Cee the truth. I said I admired the police, because they have such a tough job. I said that I would never say or even think a single harsh word about an officer, as long as he seemed to keep alive in the front of his mind the fact that he'd promised to protect and serve the public. He had not vowed to protect and serve himself.

Cee-Cee said bluntly, "I bet if you ever needed help, you'd be the very first to be yelling for the police to come and save your puny butt!"

"You got that right," I said, "I would be the first, and if there were some word before First, I would be that. If I was threatened by some criminal, I would stand there screaming like a toddler into my cell phone for the police to come and rescue me, to come charging up in their shiny cars and obliterate whoever was menacing me, to sweep me to a place of safety. That is their duty. That's what 'Protect and Serve' means!"

Unexpectedly I heard Cee-Cee's deep, jolly laugh for the first time. She said, "You don't expect much, do you? Just your own squad of knights. Damn, you certainly are a STUBBORN little shit."

I wasn't thrilled to be called a stubborn little shit, but her tone had warmed up. I don't know if she had decided I was mentally delayed and therefore forgivable, but the conversation became much more amicable. She even finally allowed that my letter had been "an honest, though stupid, mistake."

And a few minutes later, after a thoughtful pause, she said slowly, "Not that every single cop who ever existed has been an altar boy or altar girl. There's a story or two I could tell you--no names, though."

"Over a glass of good red," I said. "My treat."

"Deal, " she said, and laughed.

And I think that Cee-Cee is a woman who keeps her word.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

"What Were They Thinking!" Movie Moments

It was Mel Gibson who said, "Without transgression there is no story," and he ought to know.

Movie plots are often pumped up by impossible burning love, vampire thirst, bloodlust, racist outrage, leaps of heroism, outrageous gambles. If the characters just sat down and shut up and behaved themselves, there would be no movie.

So I understand, theoretically, why film heroes sometimes have shocking lapses of judgment. It drives the story. But it also drives us crazy, has taken at least twenty years off my life, and I'll give a few examples which are guaranteed to have you shouting at the movie screen.

I liked the original TWILIGHT (2008), so will only mention in passing some dialogue that would turn any parent's hair white as snow. Of course the premise is that the 17-year-old hero Edward is secretly a vampire (and he's actually more like 117), but a sensitive one. He's madly drawn to his girlfriend Bella's delicious-smelling blood, which he wants to drink like wine, but he struggles against the urge. He tries to warn her not to trust him. He looks at her with stark red irises and says, "I've killed people before."
"I don't care!" is her blithe response.
"I've--wanted to kill you."
"It doesn't matter! Whatever!"

This is the way parents are AFRAID their teenagers think. And now we know.

In Edward's favor, it should be mentioned that he seems to be a Mormon vampire virgin. All of his and Bella's love scenes are very chaste. He also has excellent manners, dresses well and is stinking rich. In fact, most parents would be delighted to have him squire their daughter to prom. But Bella's grumpy old dad Charlie just can't shake the feeling that something about Edward is a little, well, different.

Edward has pale white skin, razor-sharp pointed teeth, and staring eyes that change from blood red (when he's "thirsty") to golden (when he has "hunted"). He's ice-cold to the touch, never sleeps, never comes out when the sun is shining, and never eats food that lies still on the plate. What's not to know, Charlie?

The sci-fi movie THE THING (1951) introduced James Arness in his debut role as a violent giant carrot from outer space. It was also one of the first movies to use the plot device of an unworldly professor, book-smart but earth-stupid, naively trying to bond with a homicidal extraterrestrial
monster. Throughout THE THING, wild-eyed Dr. Carrington is always doddering around, protecting the murderous carrot/beast in the name of science as it slays not only the crew but the odd sled-dog or two. Why does the professor do this? Well, he wants to be BFF with The Thing and enjoy scientific chats with him, even as the drained corpses pile up. In the end the giant man/vegetable is incinerated, and Dr. Carrington survives, but he doesn't really deserve to.

Finally, I have a question about the famous Coliseum battle in GLADIATOR (2000). Our hero Maximus (Russell Crowe) and the other enslaved gladiators are in the huge death ring, looking very nervous since hostile giants, numchuk-swinging dwarves, Roman legions, spike-wheeled chariots and Siberian tigers are about to advance on them fast. And it's at THIS moment, not before, that Maximus asks rather casually, "Say, were any of you guys soldiers? Maybe it would help us if we used some old battle strategies..."

The results are GREAT. Everybody had been a soldier, and within about ten seconds the formerly doomed gladiators are snapping into crack military manuevers at warp speed. After five minutes of boiling excitement they succeeded in using their old army skills to save themselves from massacre. Their enemies are all either dead or on the run. It's a thrilling moment, an unforgettable scene.

So it was only later that I thought this: Why did Maximus wait until the last possible second to ask if the others had been soldiers? They'd all been hanging out together in their cells under the Coliseum with nothing to do but chew the fat. Hadn't the subject ever come up? What if they'd answered him, at that fraught moment, by saying, by saying, "Actually, I was a potato farmer in Thrace," "I plucked a lyre in Thessalonika..."

Well, I guess it really doesn't matter. What matters is that at the end of that scene Maximus is taking a victory gallop around the Coliseum on a gorgeous white stallion. The sand is littered with his defeated enemies, and he's wearing the coolest silver mask in the world, and the stands are jumping with thousands of Romans shrieking their excitement and approval.

It's a very public scene, but the most important part of it is silent: Maximus's grim and private joy, behind that mask, in the fact that the day of his vengeance is almost at hand. His stars and the gods have promised it. And so we should not inquire why he didn't ask earlier if his comrades were soldiers. He knew they would be, because they had to be.