Sunday, November 21, 2021

The Virgin Spring: Finding Meaning in Chaos

People need to make sense of chaos. Anything will do: superstitions, religion, fairy tales. And if your actions contribute in some way to the destruction of a loved one? What then? Find a way of making sense of things that simultaneously absolves you of blame. On the other hand, a person incapable of latching onto conscience-soothing beliefs faces true terror. What better way to explore the benefits of using fairy tales to cope with trauma than in a film based on an ancient folk ballad (i.e., a fairy tale)?

Ingeri
In medieval era Sweden, a servant girl, Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), struggles to light the morning fire in the dining hall of a feudal farm compound. Flames finally come to life and she opens the roof hatch to let the smoke escape. Then she prays to the Norse god Odin, telling him to make himself seen on Earth. So ends the opening scene of Ingmar Bergman's 1960 film, The Virgin Spring.

In the next scene, prosperous farm owner, Töre (Max von Sydow), and his wife, Märeta (Birgitta Valberg), pray in front of a crucifix of Jesus. The wife pours hot wax on her wrist to further show her devotion. It’s spring, likely close to Easter, and their daughter, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), must take candles to a church in a distant village because tradition indicates the task must be performed by a virgin. Karin begs her father to allow Ingeri to join her on the journey, and he relents.

The contrast between Ingeri and Karen is an interesting one. Ingeri is pregnant and at one point hints that her pregnancy may be the result of rape. But nobody cares. She's a throwaway person. What happens to her doesn't matter. Karin, on the other hand, is a virgin. The daughter of wealthy parents. But is she really a virgin? Or at least, as innocent as her image suggests? Karin tells her mother she danced with countless boys last night. Ingeri saw Karin kissing a boy in the barn during the same night of apparent abandon. Later, Karin's father remembers a time Karin stayed in the distant village over night. Perhaps not the same connotation it might have nowadays, but part of a pattern. All these scenes contribute to the theme that people believe what they want regardless of other contrary evidence.

Karin and Her Mother
Most of the characters in the film have a belief system based on Norse paganism or Christianity. But Simon (Oscar Ljung), a labourer on Töre's farm, may be an exception, at least by degrees. He sprinkles his poetic language with cryptic riddles. At turns, he appears obsequious and clownish; a kind of jester. And like most jesters in literature and fairy tales, he's more intelligent and prescient than first impressions might suggest.

But there's something darker there. In one scene, as he chats with the old servant, Frida (Gudrun Brost), Simon makes a light-hearted, bawdy insinuation about her. She counters with a suggestion about an indiscretion in his past. He laughs and swats it aside with a line about the benefit of fleeing a bad situation. It's in this scene the viewer might first notice a lesion at the corner of Simon's mouth. Perhaps symbolic of a tainted past.

The two girls set off, the blonde Karin in silk dress and on a white horse, the dark-haired, pregnant Ingeri in grubby peasant's dress and on a darker horse. They travel across fields, along the shore of a lake and into a forest until they come to a stream and the ramshackle mill-cabin of a one-eyed old man (‘Bridge Keeper’ in the credits, played by Axel Slangus). Karin carries on alone and Ingeri remains in the cabin with the old man. 

Bridge Keeper and Ingeri
His beliefs are based on magic and superstition. At the sound of galloping horses nearby, he proclaims the riders 'three dead men riding north.' Is he referring to the three goat herders we are soon to meet? They have no horses and one of them is only a young boy. But they hail from the North and perhaps begin fleeing in the direction of their home region after committing the horrific crime at the heart of the film. And, indeed, they do meet a nasty end later in the film. Through observation and speculation, or sheer luck, the old man has hit on a partial truth, at least on a symbolic level. And he seems aware of the real purpose of his belief system, saying "I hear what I want and see what I want."

Karin is brutally raped and murdered by two of the three goat herders she meets in the forest. Ingeri watches, transfixed, from a copse of trees, having trailed after Karin on foot after the incident in the cabin. Unwittingly, the murderers (Axel Duberg and Tor Isedal) and their young brother (Ove Porath) later seek shelter inside the walls of Töre's modest compound. Töre agrees to give them food and a place to sleep, and now we're on a collision course with the brutal, vengeful climax.

Simon of Snollsta
Before that horrific explosion of violence, we see one of the most arresting scenes of the movie, involving the young boy and Simon. After the three brothers have taken refuge at Töre's home, the young boy is the first to realize their horrible mistake. Later, as the boy lies in a bed in the dining hall, Simon at first mesmerizes, then terrorizes him with a story soaked in metaphor, violent imagery and conflict. Simon describes a dangerous journey the boy is on and horrible obstacles he will eventually overcome.

It's not difficult to see religious connotations in the parable. A description of hell, good triumphing over evil and, in the following lines, eventual redemption for sins a person may have committed: "But at the very moment you think you’re doomed, a hand shall grasp you and an arm circle around you, and you’ll be taken far away…where evil no longer has power over you." 

And following the scene, the film cuts to an image of Christ on the cross. But despite its elaborate flourishes, Simon’s tale is absent the wild rationalizations made by the other characters yet still intends to make order of chaos, to help the boy overcome guilt and move on in life. Simon's monologue is surely one of the most overlooked and powerful in film history.

The Young Boy
Immediately after the conclusion of Simon’s tale, something takes place off screen in the dining hall. It seems the tale may have led the young boy to the verge of a confession about the murder his brothers committed. Or perhaps something more sinister takes place. Viewers never find out for sure. Regardless, Simon rushes out of the hall just as Karin's mother, Mareta is about to enter, telling her that "They struck the boy."

In the folk ballad on which the movie is based, the men who kill Karin are revealed to be the sons of Töre, cast out years earlier due to the impoverished state of the family before the farm prospered. In other words, they are Karin's brothers. No indication that the film includes this final noirish twist. In fact, the age of the youngest brother in the film wouldn't allow this scenario to be possible. At most, there might be an allusion to this twist from the folk ballad when one of the brothers offers to sell the soiled dress of the dead Karin to her mother, claiming it's all the brothers have left of their 'dead sister.' Karin's mother now knows the horrible truth but doesn't let on to her daughter’s murderers. She rushes to tell Töre, which triggers the film’s famous revenge scene.

Before Töre sets out to avenge his daughter's murder, he takes a sauna while flogging himself with birch branches. Like all such rituals, it is done to assuage guilt, which, together with jealousy, is also a theme throughout the film. Perhaps the ritual will also give him guidance. Or at the very least, attach grand, righteous meaning to the task at hand. Upon finishing his sauna, he strides to the food hall, where the murderers have been sleeping for the night. He does away with the two older brothers: first plunging a dagger in the neck of one and then driving the other into the flames in the central fireplace.

Tor
Is the young boy spared? No. Töre hurls him against the wall, killing him. He is perhaps the most innocent character and suffers the same fate as his brothers despite the fact he didn’t take part in the rape or murder. He has no coping mechanisms, no ability to rationalize, and remains mute throughout the film. He experiences the true terror of what has happened to Karin and what, unjustly, happens to him. Perhaps, too, together with Simon, the small boy sees more clearly than anyone else in the film. 

When Ingeri leads Töre and his wife to Karin's body, they move her and water springs forth from where her head had rested. This is absolute proof to Töre of divine intervention. A sign from God that he must build a church at that spot. Not the more likely reality that, because it is spring and Karin had been left to die on a slope below a stream, the water overflowed and gravitated towards the depression her body made. The guilt of his earlier actions is all but forgotten.

The Virgin Spring has been classified under the genre ‘rape and revenge.’ That crude description does a disservice to this film. Like most fairy tales, it’s deeper and more powerful than its simple, linear presentation suggests. And just like the characters, viewers of this film will see the action through their own personal lens of life experience and world-view. Religious and superstitious types may have a more literal take on the film while skeptics may share the interpretation included here. 

In a world of chaos, terror and, finally, eternal non-existence, many people latch onto irrational explanations to get them to the finish line. Every random act can be attributed to divine intervention. Every misstep explained away. It’s a game that validates your status, ignores those with less power and has a particular flavour that just happens to suit your chosen fairy tale and level of intellect. The alternative is to let chaos sweep you into eternity before you have a chance to make sense of the world.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Book Review: A Purple Place for Dying by John D. MacDonald

A Purple Place for Dying
In the third Travis McGee novel A Purple Place for Dying, McGee travels to an un-named state in the Southwest (likely New Mexico) to meet with the young wife of a local good ol' boy who has numerous business interests and holds all sorts of sway in the county. He is much older than his wife, and he was a friend and business partner of her father before he died. They were married after her father passed away a few years earlier.

The woman, Mona Yeoman, suspects that her husband, Jass, has bilked her out of most of the fortune her father left her when he died. McGee meets Mona Yeoman at the local airport and they drive out of town to a cabin she and her husband own. As they walk around outside the cabin and she explains the details of  how she wants McGee to help her, someone lines her up from a distance with a high-powered rifle and blows the back of her skull apart. The mystery begins.

The mystery also involves the man Mona Yeoman was having an affair with. His name is John Webb. He has disappeared, as has the corpse of Mona Yeoman. Upon reporting the murder of Mona to the local sheriff and then returning to the scene of the crime with him, McGee is stunned to see that her corpse is nowhere to be seen.

When McGee starts his own investigation, he meets Isobel Webb, the sister of John Webb, the man who is missing and now presumed dead. Isobel quickly becomes McGee's book-length challenge. The challenge is to try to uncover what makes this frigid woman tick. Yes, she's quite a beautiful woman, but she behaves like someone who has either experienced a bad relationship or no relationships at all. She dresses in a frumpy manner, and becomes haughty at any hint that a man is flirting with her. In lesser hands than MacDonald, this stereotype could quickly become cringe-worthy. Even so, it is a bit hard to wade through at times. Perhaps back in 1964 when the book was published, the notion was not so ridiculous that beautiful, prudish women needed a good seeing to so that they could behave the way women should behave.

Despite the absurdity of the frigid-woman stereotype, McGee and Isobel do engage in some entertaining scenes and dialogue. The character of Jass Yeoman is also explored to a reasonable degree. And there are some pretty good passages when things kick off and violence ensues. However, like the previous Travis McGee novel, Nightmare in Pink, the lack of insight into the people who have done the crimes is a serious weakness. As the book progresses, the mystery of who may have targeted Mona Yeoman and John Webb is relatively interesting. But after Jass Yeoman is subsequently murdered and it becomes clear that one of his illicit children and her half-brothers are behind the blundering attempt to ensure she is the only one in line for the inheritance, any tension that may have existed quickly dissipates. This is largely due to the fact that the characters that did the crimes are paper-thin caricatures.

As with the previous McGee novels, his cynical outlook on life and his numerous internal rants are what make the book worth reading. But while his views on women were previously quite entertaining if somewhat outdated and shamelessly chauvinistic, things take a nasty turn in A Purple Place for Dying. The constant comments about particular characters as well as women in general will definitely be a turn-off for some readers. Here are a few quotes from the book to demonstrate this. In this passage, McGee refers to Mona Yeoman, who is murdered in the first chapter:
So she was a big creamy bitch standing beside me in her tailored tight pants, and suddenly she was fallen cooling meat, and it was too damned fast.
About Isobel Webb:
Then it was the catalyst of things, of course. All of them. Night, death, fright, closeness, the security of the den. Male and female in the most primitive partnership of all. This was a twisted virgin, frightened by men, sex, pleasure, wanting—thinking it all of a conspiracy of evil against her. 
Later, McGee would seem to redeem himself somewhat in the eyes of modern feminists:
"Iz, if we get out of this. If I get you out of this. If you're ever in my arms again. Just one word will do it. Every time. No. That's all you have to say. No. And it stops. So don't say it as a nervous habit. Say it when you mean it. No. There's nothing wrong with my hearing."
But shortly after, McGee concludes his monologue on his honour code regarding women and negates some of that apparent chivalry:
"And you can say it any point you want, right up to the moment when we are, excuse the expression, coupled. From then on, it's Molly over the windmill."
In fact, a psychologist would probably have a field day analyzing the mind of John D. MacDonald vis-à-vis the words and actions of Travis McGee in A Purple Place for Dying. The height of the unpleasant attitudes towards women comes in the book's final pages when we find out the real motivation for murder by the illegitimate, half Mexican daughter of Jass Yeoman. You see, Yeoman had kept in touch with her, brought her into his home, and then decided to rape his own daughter. This information is delivered in a rather bland, matter-of-fact way, accompanied by one last caricature—this time of the woman who was raped—lunging at McGee like some kind of wild animal because he hints at this horrible information as a way to make her confess. Which she promptly does.

But this news about the rape (or perhaps many rapes over a period of time) really doesn't result in any negative comments from McGee towards Jass Yeoman. Throughout the book, McGee mentions that he really likes Jass. He's painted as a real man's man. And the rape revelation doesn't appear to change those feelings at all. In fact, McGee seems to have a hard-on for two male characters in the book: Jass Yeoman and the sheriff. Strange stuff.

I would still classify A Purple Place for Dying as well worth reading, if not for much of the writing, then at least as an exercise in seeing the progression of John D. MacDonald as a writer. The Travis McGee series has been widely praised, but the qualifier usually is that the quality of story telling improves greatly in subsequent novels.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Book Review: Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town
Rape is one of the most destructive, soul-destroying and contentious crimes of this or any other period in human history. No other crime elicits such a wide range of emotions, nor is there any other crime that is so burdened with myths, stereotypes and the views of a large percentage of the population who either genuinely don't feel rape is a serious crime, or are themselves rapists. This is all compounded by the rise of the internet and the ease with which multitudes of low-life pieces of human garbage can congregate online and validate each other's sick fantasies. In addition, an entire generation of ignoramuses weaned on the internet has acquired incredibly warped views about sex and intimacy.

The notion persists that rape is only "real" if committed by a stranger and only if it involves knives, guns or other weapons and repeated threats of harm (beyond the sexual assault itself). Also, most people have in their minds an idea of what "normal" and acceptable responses are to rape and other types of sexual assault. For example, many people believe that if a woman does not scream or violently resist her attacker, then it could not possibly be rape. In fact, researchers have found that reactions are often, if not usually, counter-intuitive to the collection of Hollywood-influenced stereotypes about how a victim should respond. Many victims freeze and are unable to do anything but wait until the horror of their assault is over. Many victims blame themselves in an attempt to push away reality and convince themselves the attack didn't occur or to lessen the psychological damage. And, yes, as hard as it may be to believe, many victims will maintain contact with their attackers (the likelihood of this is increased by the fact that most victims know their attackers).

In Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, Jon Krakauer describes five sexual assaults against female university students that take place in Missoula, Montana and the horrible effects suffered by the victims. Krakauer also details the actions taken by the university administration in each case, as well as the shockingly inadequate response of the local police and justice system. Because all the rapists are college football players, the crimes become a rallying cry for many of the local pieces of filth who have helped construct a subculture for the roided-up piece of shit athletes who think that they do not have to suffer any consequences for their criminal behaviour. Sadly, they are often correct in such thinking. It is instructive that out of all five cases, only one perpetrator was imprisoned, and that was mainly because he confessed on two separate occasions and both times his confessions were recorded.

The county attorney's office in Missoula at the time was staffed by some class-A bags of shit whose main concern was keeping their conviction rate as high as possible. To maintain the high conviction rate, they would only prosecute cases in which it was very likely they would get a guilty verdict. Because sexual assault cases are notoriously difficult to win, the county attorney's office simply refused to take on any but the most black and white cases (such as the one where there were two recorded confessions). The following passage indicates just how shameless and inept the Missoula Country Attorney's Office was in prosecuting rape crimes:
In one case described in the DOJ [Department of Justice] report, the Missoula police obtained a confession from a man who admitted raping a woman while she was unconscious. The Missoula police referred the case to the county attorney's office with a recommendation that the prosecutor charge the suspect with rape, but the country attorney's office declined to file any charges, citing "insufficient evidence."
The DOJ report mentioned in the above passage was the result of an investigation launched by the federal Department of Justice in response to a number of high-profile rape cases in Missoula (some of which are discussed in the book) and the perceived general ineptness of the Missoula County Attorney's Office in dealing with rape cases.

In a further example of what absolute filth staffed the county attorney's office, one fleck of shit resigned so she could defend the rapist who was initially charged when she was a prosecutor! In a town where most people metaphorically eat the shit out of the assholes of all the local college football players and anyone else associated with the team, it's hard not to feel that most people involved in maintaining law and order are more concerned about remaining popular and are willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that they have the best shot at remaining in or attaining highly-paid, elected positions.

Krakauer is in top form in Missoula, equaling or surpassing his other great books such as Into Thin Air, Into the Wild, and Under the Banner of Heaven. I hesitate to call Missoula a true crime book because of the connotations that go along with that genre. In his crisp, engaging prose, Krakauer provides detailed narratives of the crimes and their fallout, and those passages are without doubt the most riveting parts of the book. But he also includes research that has been conducted about the trauma suffered by rape victims, the counter-intuitive behaviour of victims, the laws surrounding consent, the subculture of university athletics, and the criminal justice system and how the odds are stacked against victims of sexual assault. Of course, often the discussion, while not explicitly stated, is simply about ignorance, herd-mentality behaviour and most people's lack of critical thinking skills.

The most harrowing, despair-inducing, difficult passages to read involve the trauma suffered by rape victims. In this passage, Krakauer writes about a woman's self-destructive behaviour after being raped, which unfortunately validated many people's confirmation bias about what is an acceptable way for a victim to behave:
Laura suffered intensely for many years from being sexually assaulted. And her misery she said, was magnified by the stigma attached to the unhealthy compulsions that tyrannized her existence after the assaults. In this regard she was like many other rape victims. Their self-destructive behavior is often held up as "proof" that they are unreliable and morally compromised, or that they deserved to be raped.
Later in the book, Krakauer further discusses the research about rape victims and the fallout they experience:
When I mentioned this to Trisha Dittrik, the therapist who supervised our group, she told me she wasn't surprised. Rape and war, she explained, are among the most common causes of post-traumatic stress disorder, and survivors of sexual assault frequently exhibit many of the same symptoms and behavior as survivors of combat: Flashbacks, insomnia, nightmares, hypervigilance, isolation, depression, suicidal thoughts, outbursts of anger, unrelenting anxiety, and an inability to shake the feeling that the world is spinning out of control. 
If you're looking for just-the-facts reportage from Krakauer, you likely haven't read any of his books. He doesn't shy away from editorializing, or more accurately, he makes it clear exactly where he stands on the issues. That's not to suggest that Krakauer doesn't provide nuanced, balanced narratives of the events and people involved. He includes both sides of every account, interviews alleged rapists when they are willing, and delves into the topic of false accusations of rape. Yes, it does occur, although statistics and research indicate that it is a very small percentage of the vast number of sexual assaults that take place. Of course, that doesn't stop apologists from advancing the lie that false accusations are just as common as rapes. Strangely, the handful of high-profile cases in the past few years in which innocent men have been locked up for rapes that never happened, somehow resonate with most people in a more fundamental way than even the most brutal of sexual assaults in which the rapists are proven guilty beyond any doubt.

It's interesting that when trying to elicit understanding from the segment of the population who live confidently with the belief that they will never be victimized and who perpetuate the litany of myths about rape, it is often necessary to appeal to an imaginary situation in which their sisters, daughters or mothers are assaulted. Instead of direct empathy with victims, it's necessary to frame the issue in terms of loss of face, honour and a vague sense of male ownership regarding the people who suffer. Sure enough, in Missoula, a character witness who goes to bat for Beau Donaldson (the rapist depicted in the book who actually went to prison) only stops to ponder the seriousness of the crime he is essentially defending when a lawyer asks him if he would feel differently if his daughter had been the one who had been raped. When comparing the words of rape victims and rape apologists, it's also interesting to note that victims essentially focus on details of what happened while apologists use generalizations, cliches, logical fallacies and constant references to the invisible sky daddy.

Implicit in any discussion about rape is power, and Krakauer's book is no different. Rape is a crime of power. Unfortunately, the institutions tasked with providing assistance to rape victims and making rapists pay for their crimes, are part of the power structure in society. It's fair to ask: Is there some kind of affinity for rape (and all sorts of other crimes) within many of our institutions? Well, in any institution in society, a certain number of people with power seem to be rapists. Think of the Catholic church, residential schools, the military, police forces, university sports programs, and professional sports teams, to name a few. At the very least, institutions never do anything that will undermine themselves or reduce their power, and that often means a subculture in which predators can get away with their crimes without any concern for repercussions.

For example, in Canada, the federal police force, the RCMP, is currently facing a number of class-action lawsuits by current and former female officers who faced years of harassment and sometimes sexual assaults. A recent report bizarrely indicated that nudity is common in many RCMP offices. This is is some wackworld stuff. Until you consider the fact that the RCMP is an organization largely staffed with grade-12 educated individuals who carry guns and believe that they are above the law. The point is, how can we rely on corrupt, out-of-control, often extremely ignorant people who apparently embrace the misogynistic, sneering-at-rape-victim culture, to do an effective job of taking rape victims seriously and locking up rapists?

Whether people are attracted to power because of the impunity they know it will provide them, or whether power has an effect on some people in such a way that corrupts their character, is not completely clear. What is clear is that as human beings we have not come far enough in our understanding of power and how to more effectively monitor, regulate and sanction powerful people and institutions when necessary. What is also eminently clear is that few people adequately understand rape and the horrible effects suffered by its victims. Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town is not only extremely well-written and engaging, but is also a very important book that should be read by anyone who believes in justice, empathy and the importance of doing all we can to help victims of sexual assault.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Book Review: Nightmare in Pink by John D. MacDonald

Nightmare in Pink
In the second Travis McGee novel, Nightmare in Pink, McGee heads to New York at the request of one his former war buddies. The friend, now bed-ridden and close to death because of a war injury, asks McGee to help out his sister, Nina Gibson, whose fiancé was recently killed in a mugging gone bad. After the requisite swooning of a number of females at his feet, McGee does some digging and unearths a muddled (muddled that is, in terms of what the reader ever finds out about it) scheme involving a real-estate investment firm being fleeced of millions of dollars. The boyfriend worked at the firm and started having suspicions of his own, and his curiosity appears to have cost him his life.

The first-person, detective-novel trope rears its head and McGee is captured just as he starts to uncover the details behind the scam that left his friend's sister (she quickly becomes McGee's love interest) with a dead boyfriend and an envelope full of ten thousand dollars that he, the boyfriend, had finagled as part of his own snooping around. McGee and Nina aren't sure whether the dead boyfriend was himself part of the scheme as evidenced by the envelope full of money, though McGee soon determines that he had hoped to use the money as proof of the bad intentions of his colleagues at the real-estate investment firm.

John D. MacDonald's tight writing and the relentless cynical observations of McGee really make this book worth reading. However, there is little suspense in the book, either in individual scenes or in the overall arc of the plot. As mentioned, the reader never gets any real idea how the multi-million dollar scam, apparently planned and executed by a handful of people over a period of years, is pulled off. Details like that aren't always necessary in a well-written crime novel. But the lack of anything beyond a cursory glimpse of the bad guys involved in the fraud also detracts from the book. We get plenty of second-hand comments about some of nasties who are part of the plot, and then one brief passage in which one of the masterminds encounters McGee after he, McGee, has been drugged and held against his will at a bizarre mental institution. But it simply isn't enough to engender much hatred in readers or to fuel the inevitable revenge scene.

Yet, there still are many enjoyable passages throughout. That inevitable revenge scene does come about, although there is little imagination involved when McGee gets an opening and is able to initiate his escape from the mental institution. Sure, the psychedelic drugs McGee dumps into a coffee urn in the hospital's cafeteria do result in some bizarrely entertaining results, but as McGee himself laments numerous times, the only people who suffer are innocent hospital staff.

It's fairly easy to believe that MacDonald constructed the character of McGee partly as a parody of the playboy fantasy of easy women who readily offer themselves up or only need a solid right hook to make them contrite for their manipulative ways while simultaneously turning them on. So only the most frustrated and deluded readers will take this kind of dialogue seriously:
"So let's call it a draw. I'm an acceptable stud, and from the neck down you're Miss Universe. And if there was ever any reason to go to bed, we'd probably find each other reasonably competent. But I came here to talk about Charlie." 
McGee delivers the above lines to a woman minutes after meeting her. Of course, despite the absurdity of such encounters, they can be entertaining. And MacDonald recognizes the unbelievable fantasy-world, male-female interactions he creates and offsets them with McGee's own self-deprecating analysis of himself and his usual pessimistic take on everything, especially modern relationships.

And for readers who love a noirish, bleak take on life, McGee's running commentary about the state of the world and how he loathes so much of it, is one of the best parts of the book. For example, this passage is just one of many random observations McGee makes as he starts his investigation in New York:
New York is where it is going to begin, I think. You can see it coming. The insect experts have learned how it works with locusts. Until the locust population reaches a certain density they all act like any grasshoppers. When the critical point is reached, they turn savage and swarm, and try to eat the world. We're nearing the critical point. One day soon two strangers will bump into each other at high noon in the middle of New York. But this time they won't snarl and go on. They will stop and stare and then leap at each other's throats in a dreadful silence. The infection will spread outward from that point. 
After McGee's escape from the mental institution, the bad-guy scheme falls apart and the perpetrators are caught, though readers are never witness to any of the details. As the book draws to a close, McGee's friend—Nina's brother—passes away after an operation. All that remains is for McGee to take Nina back to Florida for some therapy aboard his boat, the Busted Flush. He hammers the emotional pain out of her and she achieves the appropriate Zen state of recovery, bids farewell to her saviour and returns to the real world.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

People Who Eat Darkness: Book Review

People Who Eat Darkness
Your child is missing: those are the most frightening words a family can hear. In many ways those words are more terrible than news that a child has been killed. When someone disappears, there is still hope of course, but imagining the horror that a missing loved one may be experiencing has got to be too much to bear. On the other hand, reading about people who have experienced the trauma of a missing child is fascinating and emotionally wrenching in its own way. The very word "disappeared" elicits so many dark and exquisitely terrifying emotions that stories of missing people are instantly appealing and morbidly engaging.

Those tales are doubly fascinating when the person goes missing abroad. Foreign lands are full of the mysterious and the unknown in the best of circumstances. The inscrutable cultural practices, incomprehensible languages and, often times, brazen discrimination or downright hatred of foreigners can combine to drag a family seeking answers about their missing child into a living nightmare.

People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman, by Richard Lloyd Parry, tells the story of Lucie Blackman, an eighteen year-old English woman who set off for Japan with her friend in May, 2000 and disappeared a few months later. Her family started a desperate search for their daughter shortly after she went missing, but their efforts would end in the worst way imaginable.

Parry goes into great detail regarding Lucie's life before Japan, reconstructs her two months in Tokyo, and then tells the story of the police work that led to Lucie's killer and eventually, the discovery of her body. The book also describes the efforts Lucie's family made to pressure police in Japan to find out what had happened to their daughter. It's a gripping, heart-breaking and utterly absorbing story.

As soon as Lucie's friends reported her missing, Lucie's already-divorced parents put their differences aside and quickly initiated a proactive media campaign and travelled to Japan to ensure that their daughter's disappearance received as much attention as possible. Based on what I have read about similar cases in various Asian countries, I believe it is a course of action anyone in a similar situation should seriously consider. While you obviously wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of the people whose assistance you would need in order to find a missing person and then, hopefully, to see justice done, you also wouldn't want to allow bumbling, shameless or corrupt police to operate without any pressure.

Lucie's father, Tim Blackman has a natural flair for organizing and motivating people and for interacting with the media. Some readers might consider some of his actions strangely out of place considering the situation at the time. But I think far more people will see his response for what it is: the desperate attempts of a distraught father to do whatever is necessary to find his daughter. Much later, after Lucie's body had been found, her suspected murderer arrested, locked up and sentenced to many years in prison for other rapes and assaults (though amazingly, he evaded a guilty verdict in Lucie's killing), Tim Blackman accepted a huge payout from one of the suspected murderer's close friends.

It's a tradition in Japan: the criminal or his family or close friends make a payment to the victim's family as a way of making amends. Some people call it "blood money." But as Tim Blackman would later say in interviews (not contained in the book), is it really any different than people who receive settlements after suing criminals in civil court? Of course, the Japanese blood money payouts are contingent on the person who receives the money signing a statement which can cast the criminal in a more positive light (if that is possible). Lucie's mother was outraged after her former husband accepted the payment, but Tim Blackman claimed much of the money would be used to finance an organization set up in Lucie's name. But at the time of Lucie's disappearance, those events would be years in the future.

This is a lengthy, thoroughly-researched, very well-written book. Beyond the developments of the case, the efforts of Lucie's family, and the trial of the man accused of killing her, Joji Obara, readers also learn about the horrific fallout experienced by Lucie's family, and the strange criminal justice system in Japan. And at every turn of the story, Parry includes more than just superficial descriptions, such as in this passage in which he discusses the history of hostess bars in Japan and the neighbourhood where Lucie and her friend Louise worked:
The earliest foreign participants in the water trade were Korean and Chinese prostitutes, colonial subjects of the prewar Japanese empire. In 1945, Westerners appeared in large numbers, but as buyers rather than sellers, during the seven-year-long U.S. occupation. It was during this period, too, that Roppongi began to emerge as a place of recreation. Its name meant “six trees”; before the war, it had been a nondescript residential area dominated by a barracks of the Japanese Imperial Army. The U.S. military took over the barracks after the surrender, and around its entrance sprang up little bars catering to off-duty soldiers, with names such as Silk Hat, Green Spot, and the Cherry. It was at this time that Roppongi’s curious motto originated. Locals noticed that the American GIs would greet one another by slapping palms together above their heads. One could imagine the scene late at night, as a curious Japanese barman asked his customers about this, and the long, drunken attempt to explain the theory and practice of the high five. It was mistransliterated into Japanese as hai tacchi, or “high touch”—hence the slogan on the walls of the Roppongi expressway: “High Touch Town.”
Parry paints a darkly evocative world of life in Japan for foreigners. I've lived most of my adult life in foreign countries, and I find that Parry captures that experience very well. As an expat, a vaguely unsettling feeling is always hovering at the edge of your thoughts. It's not always an unpleasant feeling—together with the relative anonymity, a day-to-day life that is more stimulating than in most western countries and the enjoyable aspects of the local culture, life can be very good as an expat in Asia. If the darker side of life as a foreigner remains an unrealized abstraction, it can add flavour to the script a person is always writing about his or her own life. Of course, when nationalistic, racist nastiness rears its head, that background music in the autobiographical noir film you're living can become quite frightening.

The outsider theme runs throughout People Who Eat Darkness. Lucie and her friend enter the world of foreigners working as hostesses in Tokyo bars, where they have few rights and willingly subject themselves to the advances of the creeps who have a fetish for young foreign women. The man accused of murdering Lucie, Joji Obara, is also an outsider of sorts in Japan. His parents emigrated to Japan from Korea and suffered all sorts of discrimination as they raised their son in a society which likes to claim it is the most ethnically homogeneous in the world. The author, who lived in Japan at the time of Lucie's disappearance, describes his own experiences as an outsider. Throughout the period when Lucie was missing, and then during the lengthy trials, Parry wrote numerous articles about the case and was eventually sued (unsuccessfully) by Joji Obara. He also became the focus of some nationalistic scumbags who threatened him through the post and confronted him in the street at least once.

I rank People Who Eat Darkness as one of the best true crime books of the past five years. Perhaps that's partly because I can relate strongly to the sentiments about living as a foreigner in Asia, but mainly, I simply feel it's an exceptionally well-written book. It certainly enjoyed a fair amount of success, but I'm kind of surprised it wasn't more popular. Of course, all books, no matter how good, are worthy of criticism. As I thought about what aspect of the book could have been better, I decided to take a look at the most common gripes other readers have made. Nowadays it's hard not to look at, and often be influenced by, reviews that appear on Amazon. Although the book generally receives favourable reviews on Amazon, I was surprised at the number of people who moaned about the overabundance of detail. Call me strange, but in an engaging, multi-layered, haunting tale that evokes such a powerful sense of place, I want all the detail the author can throw at me. In fact, it was one of those books that elicited a feeling of disappointment as the ending approached. I just didn't want the book to end.

Although it's not directly related to the writing, I found the cover art (there are at least three different covers I believe) oddly lacking. And for some reason, there have been at least three different subtitles for the book. Those are obviously very minor criticisms that take away nothing from the reading experience, but maybe are an indication that the publishers didn't give this book the publicity it deserved. Perhaps it doesn't quite rise to the level of the all-time greats in the genre such as Helter Skelter or The Executioner's Song, but People Who Eat Darkness is a book that most fans of true crime (save for those who apparently can't handle too much of a good thing) will find well worth their time.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Jeffrey Dahmer: Confessions of a Serial Killer

Time flies. One minute you're looking ahead to the turn of the century like it's some far off, mystical event. And then suddenly, it's more than 20 years since Jeffery Dahmer was locked up for eating people. I recently watched an interview of Dahmer that was conducted by Stone Phillips for Dateline NBC more than 20 years ago (but only aired for the first time about ten years ago). The interview lasted 90 minutes and was entitled Jeffrey Dahmer: Confessions of a Serial Killer. Dahmer's father (Lionel Dahmer) and mother (Joyce Flint) were also interviewed. It's a very compelling, insightful, and downright creepy viewing experience.

Most people carry around a storyline about themselves that nicely explains their circumstances and their place in the world. A not-so-secret wish for many is to have others accept this storyline. Serial killers attract a lot of attention  and almost inevitably are given the chance to explain themselves and their actions. And so, Dahmer offers up his own narrative on his twisted desires and what he believes contributed to his motivations to kill.

Jeffrey Dahmer newspaper headline
Dahmer's bland, shameless explanation for his crimes together with his claim that he won't try to put the blame on anyone but himself, will go a long way to convincing people that he is telling the truth. But I don't quite buy everything that he says. First of all, Dahmer knows that his blunt admissions and refusal to blame others contribute to a profile that screams: I have nothing left to hide; I am going to share all the horrific details of my crimes and accept my punishment. In other words, many people will assume that with nothing to gain, he probably is telling the truth.

Of course, he knows this. And perhaps some of what he says is true. But then he can slip in other details to craft the public image he leaves behind. Granted, it's pretty difficult to rehabilitate such a horrific legacy. But someone like him probably wanted to sculpt and refine the nastier details so as to increase his infamy.

I also have trouble believing him because he contradicts himself. Mere minutes after proudly declaring that he won't blame anything or anyone else for his actions, he does just that. Like many prisoners who have nothing but time on their hands, Dahmer decides that proclaiming a belief in the invisible sky daddy will give him numerous dupes in the outside world to manipulate for the remainder of his days. And so he blames his slaughtering and cannibalism spree on the fact that he wasn't, at that time, a believer in the nappy-haired little Jewish carpenter who lived 2000 years ago. Which means he is shifting blame for his nasty crimes onto the big, bad, horrible society in which he was born and lived.

As the interview goes on, Dahmer continues  spinning and crafting the image he hopes people will accept. Did he try to stop the insanity? Why yes, he says. But after the second time he killed, it was pointless, he claims. But right at the moment he says this, he offers up one of those classic, body-language "tells." The nose-touch. I am fully down with the idea people do get itchy noses, and a scratch is not always a sign that they are lying. But it is interesting how often that gesture comes right at the moment when a person is trying to sculpt their own story or are otherwise commenting in a way that shines a light on their character.

Dahmer describes some of the usual background behaviour associated with serial killers. For example, he killed young animals when he was a child and says that he was obsessed with examining their innards. Just as all people want to know their fellow humans, this bit of childhood nastiness by many sociopathic murderers apparently is their literal attempt to understand life.

Father-Son Freakshow

Dahmer's father sits alongside him during parts of the interview and offers his own take on his piece-of-filth offspring. Both father and son exude the same bland, weirdly  unsettling matter-of-factness as they discuss the sick actions committed by Dahmer. I suppose there really is nothing else they can do as they have decided to discuss such macabre and repellent crimes. But the presentation of the supposed facts and their feelings comes across as weirdly unaffected and blasé.

I've often felt that people who are involved in any kind of traumatic events can benefit from writing books and getting caught up in the potential publicity of interviews and other public interactions where they are able to discuss their experiences. It all casts a surreal haze over everything and elevates their horrible, dreary lives into something worth discussing. And, in a weird way, while they are writing about and reliving their involvement in any number of terrible situations, it somehow makes it all seem easier to deal with.

And so, Dahmer's father felt it necessary to write a book after his son ate a bunch of people. I haven't read this book, but Philips references some passages and the overall types of musings from it during the interview with Dahmer and his father. Many of the half-baked possible causes that Dahmer's father discusses in the book regarding why his son slaughtered people are raised in the interview. All of the questions Dahmer's father apparently discusses in the book have the vague feeling of being interesting thought experiments on abstract ideas. Yet they are actually related to the murdering scum he fathered and who calmly sits next to him pontificating on his crimes and motives in his flat, monotone voice.

The parts of the interview where Dahmer and his father riff off each other and discuss their belief in god and dismiss evolution are some of the most revolting. The self-righteousness that comes through as Dahmer pukes up the standard jail-house horseshit of criminal filth converted at the last minute is truly pathetic.

Destroyed Lives

The calm, navel-gazing, oddly disconnected responses Dahmer and his father provide are in contrast to the interview with Dahmer's mother. It's impossible to know how people are affected by events based strictly on what they say and their manner (and Dahmer's father does mention this, noting that his outward appearance can make people think that he is somewhat cold and unfeeling), but you can only really listen to what they have to say. What people say, and how they say it, tend to indicate how much importance they attach to those words. And Dahmer's mother expresses what appears to be real pain for what her son inflicted on others. She comes across as being truly and irrevocably damaged by what took place, as opposed to the strange, sterile interview with Dahmer and his father, both of who seemed, at times, pleased that their bizarre story warrants such attention. Of course, in her words and rationalizations, there is still plenty to criticize about Dhamer's mother as well.

The interview continues on. Dahmer's father is also interviewed alone, Dahmer answers questions alone, and Dahmer's mother appears alone and with a co-author of a book she had planned on writing (but which was never published). Dahmer's mother never appears next to her son during the interview. In fact, the parts of the interview where Dahmer and his father sit next to each other, of course, took place in prison, while the interview with Dahmer's mother was conducted elsewhere.

I can't really see any reason why the people involved consented to these interviews. Aside from money (I have no idea if they were paid), or the aforementioned desire for attention, I can't see the benefit. However, Dahmer's father apparently encouraged his son to do the interview, as the book Dahmer's father had written was released just prior to that time. Stone Philips briefly mentions this as a motivating factor. As for Dahmer's mother, she likely wanted to ensure that her side of the story was heard. She divorced Dahmer's father years ago, and apparently didn't like some of the suggestions or outright claims he made in his book.

But if part of the motivation was to help people understand Dahmer, or even to paint him as a sympathetic figure, then it was a complete failure. No matter how rational or convincing you may sound, it's simply too hard to reach people when your offspring does what Dahmer did. The nastiness is bound to cloud most people's judgement of anyone related to such a perpetrator of evil.

Only nine months after the interviews were conducted, a fellow inmate bludgeoned Dahmer to death in prison. I wonder what was going through Dahmer's mind as the life was being hammered out of him? Relief? A dull sense of interest at this final experience before he ceased for all eternity? Hard to say. But something tells me no real remorse ever troubled the mind of this vile fleck of human excrement, either in the years following his crimes, or during those last, well-deserved moments of brutal justice.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

FX's The Shield: Review and Analysis

The Shield
The Shield was an extremely frustrating show to watch. The writing was monumentally uneven. The lack of imagination from the writers was almost enough, on occasion, to kill any interest in the show. And the acting...well, at times, and from certain actors, it was very good. But at other times it was laugh-out-loud horrible. In particular, Kenneth Johnson, in the role of  Curtis Lemansky, took cringe-worthy acting to a new level. He of the gesticulating mouth.

Borderline Melodramatic


Like so many poorly written shows and books, the main problem that plagued The Shield was "jumping." That phenomenon that indicates the writers are unwilling or unable to build up the requisite tension for scenes and story arcs to be believable and effective.

Things "just happen" all too frequently in The Shield. It's almost as if you can see the point where the writers were over-worked, deadlines were looming, and they said "Fuck it. Just have them hold a gun to someone's head and that person will give the strike team the information they need. End of storyline/episode/subplot etc."

Speaking of guns to heads, resistance, and believability, it quickly became a cliché in the show that whenever obstacles came up for Vic Mackey and the strike team, they did just that. They held a gun to someone's head. And the person gave them what they wanted. Or the bent pigs on the team offered the criminal a deal. And the person quickly conceded. Or they unplugged the camera in the interrogation room and threatened a suspect. And then the suspect buckled.

Tastes Unaccounted For


It is almost incomprehensible that people compare The Shield and The Wire as if they are in the same league. The Wire is so many miles above The Shield that it highlights a simple fact. Many people are incapable of recognizing quality. They simply don't possess the observation skills to appreciate, discern or understand why The Shield is so lacking in so many ways. It's the Dunning Kruger law of illusory superiority applied to appreciating drama.

Suspension of disbelief crumbled dozens of times throughout the seven-year run of The Shield. In the world of fictional police forces, it has been said that the cops either come across as unbelievably inept or unrealistically proficient. In the case of The Shield, the former is definitely the case. For if there ever was a group of invincibly and moronically gullible, easily manipulated and simplistically placated morons, the fools of Farmington district are it.

Vic Mackey repeatedly duped, with ease, scores of his colleagues and assorted other buffoons. Yet, none of them ever truly pulled their heads out of their asses until perhaps the last episode. You can almost see the exasperation on the actors and actresses faces as they go through the motions of allowing their characters to be suckered time and again. And that in a nutshell is the entire seven-year plot of the show: Vic is a self-serving, nasty piece of work who never accepts blame or accountability.

Numerous potential story lines were sacrificed at the altar of that overriding, unrelenting, hammer-over-the-head, singular drum beat. Vic is bad. He destroys everything and everyone in his path. And he never changes. Never grows as a character. Never alters one iota.

Dominant Character Smothers All


Deus ex machinas crowd the sky. Plots wither and die. No audience expects a perfectly wrapped up and tidy ending to every storyline. But The Shield had too many dropped plots, stupid twists, and actions by characters that just didn't fit with what the audience had learned of them to that point.

How about the character of Julian Coles? The conflicted, self-loathing gay cop who is involved in a sham marriage? For the first few seasons, this was one of the most compelling narratives. Then...nothing. The writers threw in a clichéd scene in the final episode that involved him looking wistfully at two gay men. And that was it.

The absurdities are too numerous to detail here. But when you truly feel little when a character who has been on the show for five seasons is killed, you know something is wrong.

However, it is important to note that the quality of the show varied between seasons. Season one was quite good, and provided a tantalizing glimpse of what could have been an excellent show. Season two maintained some of the quality but  even then, the crime-of-the-week chintziness, the ridiculous plot twists and some of the other weaknesses detailed above were starting to push the show toward its borderline, melodramatic decline.

With the introduction of Glenn Close in season four, there was some hope that things might be improving. Unfortunately, season four was quite possibly the worst of the seven. On the other hand, season five was probably the best. With the appearance of Forrest Whitaker as Kavanaugh, the show received a much needed jolt of energy. A superb performance by Whitaker rejuvinated things and offered the possibility that The Shield might improve.

It didn't. The show withered from that point onward and offered one of the most ridiculous and unbelievable endings imaginable. The whole lack of authenticity surrounding the granting of immunity to a murderer/cop killer, armed robber, and drug dealer, was head-shakingly preposterous.

There are numerous holes in plots, continuity issues and scores of other amateur hour examples that further highlight The Shield as sub-par. In one scene, a temporary strike team member, Tavon, lies in a hospital bed being duped by Vic and his boys into believing that he had assaulted Shane's wife. After the fight with Shane and his wife, Tavon had subsequently been involved in an accident and does not clearly remember what happened.

Terrible writing, acting, and execution of the scene, make it laughably bad. The actor who plays Tavon offers up one of the worst crying scenes ever acted at anytime, anywhere in the history of acting. And then viewers are treated to a shot of an overhead microphone as it briefly dips into view. Horrid.

Other times, the lack of authenticity just screams: crap. In one scene, there is a streak of blood on a street from two criminals who have been dragged to their deaths. However, no one told the clods in charge that the average human has about five and half pints of blood in him, not the hundreds of gallons necessary to create the absurdity they chose to go with.

Themes?


With seven years' worth of episodes, surely there must be some regular themes that crop up? Perhaps that everyone has an affinity for blowhards and bullies and even feels a twisted admiration for those pushy, self-serving fucks because they have the guts to do what we all dream about doing.

But apparently little sociopathic wackjobs like Mackey's character also have the ability to dupe most of the people they interact with while simultaneously using them for whatever purpose necessary. Of course, individual episodes also had themes, and those were always telegraphed in the most awkward and brazen way possible.

But why put in the time to watch all seven seasons if I have so much to criticize? As mentioned, numerous individual shows were very good, as were (usually) at least a few scenes per episode. And while the range of concepts explored was limited, at least the writers did close out the show with Mackey screwing over every last person in his dreary orbit.

A last minute change of character just wouldn't have washed although the writers did flirt with this idea throughout the last few seasons of The Shield. In the end, Vic Mackey was no better, and in many ways far worse, than the scumbags he arrested. Also, watching flawed television shows or movies increases a person's appreciation for the truly great efforts and sharpens the ability to dissect what went wrong in the second rate offerings.

The Shield: a sometimes good, often mediocre show that could have been so much better.