Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Staycation movie reviews

Things have been mighty quiet here at the Sound and Fury office ever since the boss undertook to write a story. But if we don't turn on the heat the pipes are like to freeze, as the saying goes. So in the interlude between episodes of River, we offer up these abbreviated reviews of staycation movies.

Inside Llewyn Davis

Chalk up another for Joel and Ethan Coen. Inside Llewyn Davis is a beautifully-crafted flick with all we've come to expect from the brothers. Set in 1961 on the Greenwich Village folk music scene, the story is rich in symbolism, eccentric characters, and subtle humor. Llewyn is a young man struggling to make a career in music. He's hindered by his own personal short-comings and by a recent tragedy involving his music partner. Oscar Isaac was convincing in the title role and John Goodman delighted with his cameo as an enigmatic jazz performer. The flick is a gentle admonishment to the idealists among us: in case you're wondering, the world just doesn't give a good god-damn.

American Hustle

David O. Russell is now on my list of great directors. Just as with two of his earlier works, Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter, American Hustle engrosses with its gritty portrayal of Americana. The flick examines the ambiguous nature of truth through the eyes of Irving Rosenthal (masterfully played by Christian Bale), a con man in New Jersey in the late '70s and early '80s. The entire cast delivers top-knotch performances, which is a tribute to Russell's skill as a director. Add in a lively script, loaded with unexpected twists and turns and you've got a great flick. American Hustle is probably the best film I've seen this year.


Another perplexing film by Alexander Payne. (See my review of The Descendants.) Quirky, dry, and vaguely morose, Nebraska is the story of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an age-enfeebled auto mechanic who is determined to make his way to Nebraska to claim a million-dollar sweepstakes prize. His long-suffering family at first attempts to dissuade him from his quixotic endeavor, but eventually his younger son, David (Will Forte), agrees to drive Woody the 850 miles to Lincoln. Their journey conveys them across both years and miles and together they confront the fading memories, good and bad, of a man near the end of his life. Despite all the critical acclaim, I didn't find this film to be exceptional. The performances worked, but didn't stand out. It's done in black-and-white which suits the landscapes it depicts, with lots of pleasingly aesthetic views of vast grain-fields and grazing cattle. But I found the story itself lacking. Not a bad flick. But not a great one, either.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Martin Scorsese does it again. The Wolf of Wall Street is a high-intensity romp through the very worst excesses of Wall Street in the '90s. Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a stock-broker who gathers a collection of fast-talking buddies to create Stratton Oakmont, a fraudulent brokerage that peddles penny stocks to gullible investors. The lucrative scheme takes Belfort to the pinnacle of financial success, but also attracts the attention of the SEC and the FBI. Belfort's personal failings compound his problems, and the whole thing unwinds as yet another demonstration of the tragic Greek hero. DiCaprio's performance is sterling, as were those of the entire cast. Jonah Hill nearly stole the show with his brilliant interpretation of Donnie Azov, Belfort's right-hand man. This flick recalled an earlier Scorsese flick, Good Fellas, in its frantic, out-of-control pace which is relentless throughout its 180 minute run-time.

Happy New Year

Well, friends, that will wrap it up for 2013. My story, River, will continue into next year, but I hope to continue with other posts as well. I'm happiest when I'm creating. Thanks for reading and my very best wishes for a fulfilling year to come.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Solstice approaching

A diffuse light spreads across the sky to the west. The sun is a flat, colorless disc.

The recently-dissipated arctic front that visited itself upon all the land leaves in its aftermath a city that is seedy and snarly and stripped of all humor.

To longingly recall those cold, austere days, sharp and bright though they were, seems foolish. There is no sense in wishing to forestall what must come. Zeus's nod is irrevocable and he nodded long ago.

People hurry from place to place with nary a smile to spare. Even the panhandlers and the clipboard-toting fundraisers are surly. I'm worried and restless.

I had grave news recently from a friend, a former lover. I mull on this as I walk in the cold. On this and on all the people who've passed. Father, family, friends. And on all the disasters narrowly avoided.

We are at the mercy of gargantuan, indifferent entities we cannot possibly understand. I grimace to remember.

Gray dusk settles onto the streets. The sun sets to the south of Council Crest. Two days off the solstice, the darkness descends.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Liberty and justice for all?

Ethan Couch: According to the State of Texas, he's the real victim.

That was the trumped up condition that Ethan Couch's high-priced lawyer coaxed out of an expert witness, psychologist Gary Miller, to explain why Couch was not responsible for his actions when he drove drunk and killed four people. In his testimony, Miller claimed that Couch suffered from "affluenza," a condition suffered by very wealthy individuals. Quoth Miller: "[Couch] never learned that sometimes you don't get your way."  (Read about it here.)

That testimony apparently satisfied Texas District Judge Jean Boyd who sentenced Couch to 10 years probation and mandatory enrollment in a California inpatient rehabilitation center. No jail time.

Apparently Couch is a victim of being too rich to know that other people matter.

Trayvon Martin: Forced George Zimmerman to shoot him to death
Unless they're black.

Not even a year ago, Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black kid was walking home from the store in Sanford, Florida, when George Zimmerman, a "concerned citizen," espied and began following him. Zimmerman pursued the teen against the instructions of a 911 operator, going so far as to leave the safety of his vehicle to pursue Martin on foot. A confrontation ensued and ended with Zimmerman shooting Martin dead. A jury found Zimmerman not guilty of 2nd degree murder, determining somehow, that he had acted in self-defense.

This is our glorious justice system.

For the ultra-rich, anything goes. For the poor and racial minorities, you'd better keep your nose clean, 'cause if anybody has it in for you, all bets are off.

In America, you're presumed guilty until proven rich.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Writer's plaint

Poorly clad, I made my exercise today. The ominously-forecast Arctic front's arrived. Unseasonable, sharp, and bright.  I kept a good pace by necessity, sticking as much as possible to the sunny parts of the street.

Hustling down the south side of Hawthorne Boulevard, heading west, I met a fellow heading east. His jacket flapped in the breeze and he ambled along easily, seemingly unaware of the bitter cold. His black curls, loose and long, started high back on his forehead. His mustachioed and bearded face held a mild expression. He reminded me of someone.

Much of my walk, I ruminated on my inability, of late, to write. To write anything.

River has grown --expanded, twisted, spread out --so that I no longer feel in control of it. In its current form, what exists of the story is rough. Too rough. Its deficiencies are so offensive to my writer's aspirations that I must daily resist the urge to go back and rewrite what is already there.

The rewrite will come, but for now it is more important to complete the story arc.

It's difficult. Although I have a fairly firm idea about where the story is going, my faith in it --and in my own abilities --is failing.

The unfinished story is the monkey on my back, the glaring light that I cannot extinguish. Failure, with all its sordid affirmations, looms.

Such were my thoughts as I walked. I was nearly home when I remembered who the fellow with the open jacket brought to mind: Dave Kocka.

The way Dave died, the way he went out --God forgive me --I resent him for it. It was such a half-assed way to go.

Dave never tried. He saw himself sinking and he didn't care. His friends cared more than he did and he knew it. He just didn't care. Or, worse, he destroyed himself purposely because he fed on our worry. Maybe he thought it validated him.

Well, there are failures and there are failures.

But I'm not giving up on River.

I can't.

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Christian failure

Here's a true story about something that happened in the Portland Metro area not too long ago. I've changed names where appropriate.

For African women, getting one's hair done is more than a cosmetic activity --it's a social event. The process of having extensions braided into kinky African wool is a time-consuming activity that can often take 8 to 10 hours. The custom is that the women spend all day at it while watching Nollywood movies and eating African food.

Several years ago, a woman, an immigrant from sub-Saharan Africa and a Christian, came to our house so that Maty (coiffure extraordinaire) could braid the woman's hair. I'll call the woman "Fatou." The woman brought her 3-year-old daughter (I'll call her "Susie") with her.

At one point during the day, as Maty and Fatou were gabbing away in French, Susie looked at me and said, apropos of nothing: "Stevie put his penis right here!" She pointed at her vagina. All conversation stopped at that point.

"What?" I asked, uncomfortably.

She repeated the statement.

In the confused silence that followed, Fatou spoke. "It's true. She was raped." In response to Maty's and my gaping incomprehension, she shrugged. "The counselor told me to let her talk about it, if she wants."

Fatou then proceeded to tell us the story.

When Fatou's family came to America from West Africa in the early 00's, they were having a hard time adjusting to the new culture. A local Christian church, I can't remember the denomination, took the struggling family under its wing. They brought the family to their place of worship, invited them to social events, and made them feel welcome.

The family was grateful for the kindness and immersed themselves into their new community.

Susie's parents both worked and so they needed day-care for their daughter. Fortunately, a prominent family in the church provided day-care. The mother of that family home-schooled her own children and also oversaw a day-care center that catered to the children of other church members.

Susie joined other toddlers at the church family's home while Fatou and her husband went to their wage-earning jobs.

The family providing the day-care included a teenage boy of about 15 years whom I'll call "Stevie." Stevie had been home-schooled his entire life. On occasion, when his mother would leave the house on some errand or another, Stevie was asked to watch over the children.

On one such occasion, something bad happened.

On that day, Fatou picked up her daughter after work and was driving home when Susie told her about it. Fatou couldn't believe it at first. But as her daughter said more, Fatou began to panic. She took her daughter home, gave her a bath, and called the police.

Although Fatou later learned that giving her daughter a bath might have hindered the investigation, nonetheless, there was enough compelling evidence on Susie's clothing and on her body that a warrant was issued for Stevie's arrest.

The day-care family, as it happened, had left that very afternoon for the Oregon coast, to take part in a Christian convention. So Portland police called the Newport authorities and asked them to arrest Stevie and have him brought back to Portland. Apparently, the arrest occurred in front of the entire Christian community during their convention.

Stevie was found guilty. At the trial, the judge stated that he had never before seen a case where a 3-year-old girl had been raped. I don't know the details of the sentencing, but Stevie was incarcerated and assigned "sex offender" status, which will be with him for a long time to come.

It's a horrible story, but it doesn't end there. One of the most tragic and disappointing aspects of the whole affair was the reaction of the local Christian church.

Like good Christians, they rallied around the prominent day-care-providing family. I think that was noble and kind. That family was devastated by the act of their wayward son and was, no doubt, in sore need of support.

But the African family, Fatou's and Susie's family, suddenly found themselves shunned by the Christian community they thought had befriended them. Invitations to events dried up. People avoided them at church services. They were ostracized.

Eventually, the African family felt compelled to leave the church and find another place to worship.

It's a sad and tragic tale. A family in need comes to a community for help, is assaulted by one of its members, and then is turned away for exposing the community to shame.

Make of it what you will.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

River (Pt. XVI)

The rosary is a path she has walked since the days of her childhood when, in the dull red heat of Chihuahua afternoons, she would sit in the shade and pray, working the beads in her fingers.

The beads have never been far from her hand. They were once bright and polished, but years of devotions have worn away the color. Each bead is the member of a family known only to her. Here is the bead with the chink near the cord. Here, the ten bright sisters of the second decade. Here is the void where once had been the large bead for the second Padre Nuestro. A place in her heart is saddened whenever her fingers encounter that void. It was in the tragedy that had swept her old life away, when she was a girl with a mother and a father and a brother. Then there are the three new beads --the beads that were carved by her husband many gray years later from the walnut tree that stood in the corner of garden behind the house in Merced. The house where they had raised their children. The house where her life flowed alongside that of her husband.

She murmurs while her mind probes the Great Mystery. Her voice is a ghost.

En el nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo. Amén.

She knew the boy before she ever saw him. Tottering out of Hector's van in the predawn, her first sight was of the car. It was not a car she knew. There were two people in the front seat. The scarecrow girl and the hatchet-faced man. She did not see the boy lying in the back seat, but she knew of him. She is sure he had come to her in a dream

Creo en Dios Padre Todopoderoso, Creador del Cielo y de la tierra, y en Jesucristo su Único Hijo, Nuestro Señor, que fue concebido por obra y gracia del Espíritu Santo;

When the boy emerged from the car, she saw first his broken mouth and then his confusion and anguish and knew that he was caught in something he feared and did not understand

Padre nuestro, que estás en el Cielo, santificado sea Tu nombre; venga a nosotros Tu Reino; hágase Tu Voluntad, así en la tierra como en el cielo.

"And what business is that of yours?"

It is Father Pedro's voice. Her memories of Father Pedro are vivid in every detail except for his face. She cannot remember. Was it kindly or stern? Smooth or wrinkled? Handsome or ugly? But she does not wonder on it overmuch. She remembers mostly the sound of his voice --the way it enveloped her in warmth and peace much like the waters that nearly drown her.

"Will you weep if the boy is swept away? Has there not been enough weeping already in your life?"

Dános hoy nuestro pan de cada día; perdona nuestras ofensas como también nosotros perdonamos a los que nos ofenden; no nos dejes caer en tentación y líbranos del mal. Amén.

"If it is my part to weep, I will weep." This she replies to the memory that confronts her. This is easy for her. She has never lost the reassurance she found on that terrible day in her childhood

Dios te salve María, llena eres de Gracia, El Señor es contigo, bendita Tú eres entre todas las mujeres, y bendito es el fruto de tu vientre, Jesús.

They were gathering firewood in the dry riverbed, the wind chasing the storm clouds away to the east. Jaime, forever a child, stooped to pull at a half-buried tree limb. A trickle of clear water cut a channel through the sand. They did not notice the swell.

The roar from the canyon alerted them. Jaime straightened and turned to the mouth of the shallow canyon from whence the noise came. Then she saw her father, sprinting toward them across the sand, yelling and waving his arms. But his voice was lost in the growing tumult.

Gloria al Padre, y al Hijo y al Espíritu Santo.

A wall of water gushed from the mouth of the canyon, pushing before it a riot of dead brush. As it bore down on him, Jaime turned to her. Her father, eyes wide with terror, rushed toward him, his feet raising small eruptions of water with each stride.  

She saw her father embrace the boy, then saw the flood envelop them both in oblivion.  It was upon her only seconds later.

Vuelve a nosotros esos Tus ojos misericordiosos, y después de este destierro muéstranos a Jesús, fruto bendito de Tu vientre. ¡Oh clemente! ¡Oh piadosa! ¡Oh dulce Virgen María!

The boy from the car needs help. He fears to act; he fears that choosing will doom him. If she could only reach him...

To be continued...

Read Part I here.
Read Part II here
Read Part III here
Read Part IV here.
Read Part V here
Read Part VI here
Read Part VII here
Read Part VIII here
Read Part IX here.  
Read Part X here
Read Part XI here
Read Part XII here.  
Read Part XIII here
Read Part XIV here
Read Part XV here.  
Read Part XVI here
Read Part XVII here
Read Part XVIII here.

Monday, November 04, 2013

River (Pt. XV)

Something drifted in the broad sweep of the river. Eddie saw first the glitter of sunlight reflected on glass, then bright blue and white paint contrasting with the gray-green water. A child's toy boat, spun in the roil gathered at the footings of the Hawthorne Bridge. It pitched and reeled in the turbulence.

Behind Eddie, Jonah's performance thundered. Eddie caught snatches of the monologue. "...led Eligius to a camp hidden in a fold of the hills ...a blind old witch mumbling by the fire... never again to see Lupe or Dolores or silent, strong Maximo..." 

But Eddie had lost interest. He watched the toy boat bobble in the current. His mind caught on unanswerable questions. What am I doing here? Where am I going? His thoughts dove beneath the surface, seeking out the whisper of the river.

Darrel held the knife in his fist, blade-down, and dug a hashmark into the surface of the panel door. The mark he made was as long as Eddie's hand, and ran straight up and down, parallel to three similar marks that were there before he started.

When he finished, Darrel spun the knife in his hand and pointed it across the room. He closed one eye, as if aiming a gun, and pointed the tip at Eddie, who huddled on the mattress. "That's four," Darrel slurred. It was Friday night, so he was drunker than usual. "One more and you're gone." He weaved on his feet, then nodded, as if he had just demonstrated an irrefutable truth. "'Member that," he said. He lurched out into the hall and beyond to where Carlotta lay inebriated in the front room.

Eddie kept silent, salty tears warming his cheeks. The coppery taste of blood lingered on Eddie's tongue. His teeth felt awkward; the force of Darrel's punch had moved them, pushed them into a new alignment.

He wasn't sure what he had done to cause Darrel's rage. But Darrel wouldn't remember, either. He never remembered anything when he got that drunk. The hash-mark would be enough to remind him. He'd awake in the morning, eyes like blood, jaw already clenched in anger, and see the mark etched into the cheap stain on the door. He'd glare at Eddie, just like he had the three times before. Then, he'd look at Eddie's bruised face and his own mangled knuckles and growl "What'd you do to piss me off, boy?"

The television blared in the front room.

Even after Darrel had gone Eddie huddled on the mattress, covering his face with his hands. He peered through his fingers at the empty space where Darrel had stood. I hate you, I hate you, I hate you. I'd kill you if I could. The fixture on the ceiling cast the room in stark, yellow light

After a time, Darrel's snores came roaring out of the front room, rising above the noise of the television. Big man, Eddie thought. One day you won't be so big, though. He wiped the tears off his cheeks and stared at the hash-marks on the door. Four. No matter. There was nothing Eddie could do or not do. In time, Darrel would etch the fifth mark. Eddie didn't know what would happen then.

He got up. Darrel's snores rose and fell like waves of nausea.

Eddie crept through the doorway and down the hall. The front door was before him, solid and ominous, concealing the world beyond. To his left was the opening to the front room. He peered in.

The television was on the local newscast, tinny noise blaring out of its speaker. Darrel was slouched on the sofa, arms folded across his chest, booted feet stuck straight out and resting on the coffee table before him. The bill of his cap covered his face. Carlotta lay like a dead thing in the round rattan chair across from him.

The knife rested on the coffee table, near Darrel's crossed boots.

Eddie stared. Big man.

Eddie stepped into the room and looked down at Darrel. He would not awaken, Eddie knew. When he was drunk like that, he was as good as dead until morning. Eddie's hand was inches from the knife.

"Whatever you're thinkin', it won't work," Carlotta said.

Eddie turned his head.

Carlotta had not moved. She lay exactly as she had when he entered the room, but her eyes were open. When she saw Eddie's mangled face, her expression softened, somehow became more human, before settling into the hard lines that came from years of heavy drinking and despair. "He'll probably kill you one day," she muttered.

Eddie blinked, but said nothing. When Carlotta spoke, her words were like a punch in the gut.

"There's nothing here for you, kid," she said. "Be better to just shove off and see where you end up."

Darrel's snores marked time.

Eddie felt his throat tighten. Tears welled anew in his eyes. "Are you serious?" he asked. "You really want me to go?"

She didn't move. She just stared.

"Mama? Really?"

She sat upright. Her hair, alive with static charge, waved about her head like the thousand antennae of some freakish insect. "You got a choice," she said. "That's more than I ever had."

"Where can I go, Mama? How can I go anywhere?"

"Go to your dad in Oregon. It's about his turn to take you for a while."

Thoughts of Oregon and Adam danced on the edges of Eddie's imagination. His heart rose at the thought, but he shunted it aside. A hopeless dream was worse than no dream at all.

"I can't walk to Oregon, Mama."

Carlotta didn't reply. She watched him. He could see that she was more than half drunk, but that she was struggling to piece something together. A plan of action or a scheme. Then she shrugged. "Take my car," she said. "It might get you there."

"Your car? You want me to take your car?"

She gave a little laugh. "Consider it your inheritance," she said. "It ain't the send off I ever imagine I'd give you, but it is what it is." She stood and tottered away, into the bedroom she shared with Darrel. Eddie stood in the middle of the front room, stranded by his own confusion. Darrel's snores droned like scornful laughter.

She returned, extended hand holding a twenty-dollar bill and a single car key. She held it toward Eddie, who stared, uncomprehending.

She shook her hand at him and nodded toward Darrel. "Take it. He won't sleep forever," she said.

"Really, Mama?"

She gave a curt nod.

Eddie held his hand out, palm up. He kept his eyes on her face.

But she did not meet his gaze. Instead, she dropped the key and the money into his open palm. Then she turned away. "I don't expect I'll be seeing you for a while," she said. She disappeared into the shadows of the room beyond.

Eddie stood frozen for a moment. He heard the creak of box springs and knew she was gone to bed. Goodbye, Mama. He tucked the money and the key into the pocket of his jeans. Then he turned and went back to his room. All the clothes he owned were scattered about on the floor or in stacks by the mattress. These he stuffed into a plastic garbage bag. He slung the bag over his shoulder and cast about, looking for anything else he might need, and wondered if it wasn't too late to find a way he might stay here, in this hopeless place. For all its misery, it seemed better than the terror of what might lay ahead. His gaze came to rest on the door, with the four hash-marks. No. Carlotta was right. There was nothing for him here.

He turned toward the front door, the noise of the television and Darrel's snoring denying him any sense of solemnity. He started toward the door, then stopped short. He stepped quickly back into the room and lifted a corner of the mattress. The mermaid keychain, the gift from Adam, lay on the dirty carpet beneath. He snatched it up and tucked it into his pocket.

Then he turned and made his way down the hall to the front door. He did not hesitate to open it and step out into the warm California night. He pulled the door shut behind him, taking care to do it quietly.

To be continued...

Read Part I here. 
Read Part II here
Read Part III here
Read Part IV here.
Read Part V here
Read Part VI here
Read Part VII here
Read Part VIII here
Read Part IX here.  
Read Part X here
Read Part XI here
Read Part XII here.  
Read Part XIII here
Read Part XIV here
Read Part XV here.  
Read Part XVI here
Read Part XVII here
Read Part XVIII here.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Movie review: The Counselor

Note to readers: If you're following along with my story (novel? novella? short story?) "River," don't despair! I'm still working on it. Another episode will be forthcoming in the not-too-distant future. Whatever that means.

The Counselor is a collaboration from two formidable artists: director Ridley Scott and screen-play author Cormac McCarthy. That, right there, sets expectations high.

The cast is a powerhouse. Michael Fassbender (who was fantastic in Inglourious Basterds), Brad Pitt, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, and Javier Bardem. This is Bardem's second collaboration with McCarthy. Recall that he played the terrifying Anton Chigurh in the Coen Brother's No Country for Old Men. More about that flick later.

Ridley Scott's made some great flicks. My favorite is Alien (1979), one of the best ever science-fiction thrillers (and the flick that made Sigourney Weaver's career). McCarthy is one of the premier writers of our time, having written such classic literary novels as Blood Meridian and The Road. Artists like these aren't common. 

Judging from their previous works, you can expect the world they create to be beautiful, yes --but also appallingly dark.

Right on both counts! The Counselor is a suspenseful and profound flick that makes you stare into the face of an abyss that most of us would rather not know exists.

It's the story of an unnamed protagonist, the counselor. (McCarthy often refrains from naming his protagonists.) The counselor is a successful criminal attorney in El Paso who decides to dive into the dangerous and violent world of international drug trafficking. The counselor is in love with Laura (Cruz) and wants to provide her with a life of comfort and opulence. He partners up with a coke-dealing client, hedonistic Reiner (Bardem), and a shady finance lawyer named Westray (Pitt). Malkina (Diaz) is Reiner's sharp-as-a-razor girlfriend who always seems to be in the know about everything. She has cheetah spots tattooed down her flank. She owns two of the predatory cats, which she occasionally sets loose upon the local jack-rabbit population.

The complicated scheme involves making a big drug buy from a cartel in Mexico and delivering the cargo to a distributor in Chicago. "A one time thing," as the counselor imagines. If everything goes as planned, money changes hands and everyone walks away happy.

It doesn't work out that way.

The acting was great, Bardem in particular. The dialog is sharp and significant, with lots of profound exchanges.

"When the axe comes through the door, I'll already be gone. You know that," Malkina says. Reiner nods. "That's fair."

"It's not my fault," the counsellor protests. "It's just a coincidence." "These people don't believe in coincidences," Westray replies with matter-of-fact coldness. "They've heard about them. But they've never seen one."

And then there is the soul chilling exchange between the counselor and an unnamed, mobbed-up Mexican lawyer played by Ruben Blades. "There is no choosing," the lawyer says. "The choosing was done a long time ago. There is only accepting."

This is the stuff that keeps me coming back for more. McCarthy has few rivals when it comes to delivering maximum meaning with the minimum number of words. And when the lines are delivered by a cast that strong, it is positively sublime.

This is a well-crafted, suspenseful film that has you sitting in your seat, dreading what is to come. (Expectations are set early when Reiner describes the use of a ghastly assassination tool called a bolito.) And that's the way things go in McCarthy stories: Things are set in motion and there is no going back. Some of the characters accept it. Others fight their fates. Can you guess who gets the worst of it?

But at times the Shakespearean soliloquies seemed a bit forced and unlikely. And the movie's 111 minutes ran a bit long.

McCarthy's usual explorations of solipsism and predestination are powerfully presented. But, you know, The Counselor covers much of the same ground that was already covered by No Country for Old Men. In fact, the two stories have a lot of similar elements: a protagonist who sacrifices his woman in a futile attempt to save himself, a grizzly murder by garrote, a ruthlessly competent villain. The Counselor is different from No Country in that it is more talking, less action. But it's the usual McCarthy: despair in the face of the void.

I enjoyed the hell out of this flick. But it's not for everybody.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

River (Pt. XIV)

Jonah's performance grinds forward. Not a single soul has left the area around the food cart. Hector, forgotten behind the counter, rests on his elbows, himself caught up in the show. La abuelita rocks on her stool, working her beads. Passers-by from the esplanade collect on the periphery. Flo moves from the bench to a place in the shade, nearer to Jonah, tickling the edge of his vision. Only Eddie seems to have lost interest. He sits with his back to Jonah, staring out at the river. It bothers Jonah, but he files it away for later analysis. The show must go on.


The years rolled swiftly past. Eligius began to bud into manhood and by his twelfth year, worked the farm with Máximo. He learned to harvest indigo alongside the slaves. He learned to slaughter and butcher livestock and salt the meat for sale to the Spanish garrisons in San Juan and Bayamón. Whipcord muscles knotted his arms and legs.

Máximo was well-pleased. If the boy would ever assume management of the estate, he must first learn the work, truly. But his actions proved him eager to do so.

Tastes for vivid, exotic apparel did not wane in the fashionable quarters of the great European cities.
Máximo's decision to raise indigo brought him great wealth. He doubled the number of slaves on his estate and cleared land much further inland. In time, his holdings became so expansive that it took him a full day to walk the perimeter which extended from the shore well into the hinterland.

But peril loomed at the far corners of
Máximo's lands. Runaway slaves and castaways inhabited the shadows of the highlands, and more than once, Máximo saw evidence of their presence. Cold ashes from campfires, carcasses of poached animals, discarded clothes and broken tools. Now and then a shallow grave. Máximo never left the homestead unarmed, but the vagabonds themselves stayed out of sight.

On the water, El Cocodrilo del Mar's reputation grew. Every merchant ship carried tales of his plunder. In San Juan, the Governor proclaimed a bounty of 500 doubloons that carried all the weight of an old crone's mutterings at the campfire. All knew that more than gold or soldiers would be needed to capture the Crocodile. Some said he could breathe water; that he dwelt in an underwater cave not a cannon shot's distance from El Morro itself; that he knew of every ship that passed through the mouth of San Juan bay. They said he was a master of disguise and deception and spoke fifteen languages and was at home among any crowd. The people believed he had the run of the city, and frequented the brothels and taverns in the township. He was said to carry a string of human ears around his neck and a pouch at his belt, filled with the powdered bones of victims of his piracy.

The more responsible citizens of San Juan,
Máximo and the Governor among them, scoffed at such romantic notions. And yet, no matter what he said, the Governor was never without an armed escort when he passed through San Juan's streets, and they said he burned a lamp in his chambers all through the night. 

For Eligius, El Cocodrilo was an exciting whisper passed between the slaves when they rested in the courtyard after the day's labors. Entertaining, yes. But life was cutting indigo and slaughtering livestock or learning letters from Lupe's stern hand.

In his fourteenth year, on the very anniversary of the day when Lupe had found him, Eligius's stood on the far edge of the Fuentes' territory, staring at markings in the mud of a stream bank. He did not know of the anniversary; Lupe had never told him the story. Nor did he know that he stood beside the very stream by which Lupe had found him all those years ago. What interested him were the markings.

Two sets of prints from two very different animals pocked the soft mud beside the slow-moving water.

The first set was the cloven-hoof markings of a boar. The animal was known to Eligius. He'd seen it rooting in the mud over the past several weeks.
Máximo had recently instructed the boy on the use of the matchlock musket and when Máximo left the estate that morning, Eligius decided that this would be the day that the beast would die. He entertained visions of presenting the carcass, dressed-out and ready for salting, to Máximo upon the older man's return.

The other set of prints intrigued Eligius greatly. They were bootprints. Each print had a distinct heel and sole that suggested sturdy boots. Nothing that a lawless refugee might be expected to wear.

Eligius spoke to Ancianito, the old mestizo slave who had accompanied him on his patrol. 'What have we here, old one?' he asked.

'Caution, young master,' said Ancianito. 'There is danger here.'

'A poacher,' the boy said. 'Go back and fetch my father. Tell him what passes. I will follow this trail and take the lay of the land.'

Ancianito hesitated. 'Young master, think on it carefully. Escaped slaves don't wear boots...'

'Don't worry, old man,' the boy replied. 'These outlaws are craven. They flee before the righteous.' This was a truth that Lupe had taught him.

'Master, this is not a common vagabond.'

'Ancianito, do as I say,'Eligius

Disapproval showed in the reluctance of the old man's steps and the sullen set of his shoulders. Nonetheless he obeyed. Eligius waited until he was swallowed in Spanish elm and satinwood.

Eligius checked the powder in the pan of the heavy musket and stowed the match in his breast pocket. It was a heavy, awkward weapon, but after weeks of practice he could fire and reload nearly as quickly as
Máximo. He'd seen the wounds it inflicted when Máximo brought down pigs at fifty paces. Whoever might be up the trail ahead of him would do well to avoid a similar fate.

He proceeded cautiously, but it was not easy going. Holly and itamo real choked the stream-banks and with each step. But the trail of his quarry was clear. The pig and the man (Eligius assumed it was a man) used the stream as their highway.

Verdant canopy concealed the sun. The heavy musket and the difficulty of progress wore on
Eligius. Sweat poured into the boy's eyes, and doubt gnawed at his heart. He was well beyond the boundaries of the Fuentes estate. Never before had he been this far into the interior. Perhaps it would be best to turn back and meet Máximo. Ancianito had spoken truly: Eligius had no idea who or what lay ahead. 

He came to a bosky area where the stream widened into a calm, green pool. A dim light filtered through the leafy canopy. Shadows shrouded the undergrowth. A round stone at the water's edge offered an inviting resting place. Eligius leaned the musket butt-down in the crook of an elm and sat down to catch his breath.

As his breathing calmed, the boy became aware of the sounds around him. He heard the kow-kow-kuk of a lizard-cuckoo, the croaking of coquí, but beneath those there was only silence. No grunts from a rooting boar; no sound of man. Eligius took comfort in the thought that his pursuit was likely forlorn. 

'You'll find your musket to be of little use in this terrain.' The voice seemed to come from the trees overhead. 

Panic gripped Eligius heart. 'Who's there?' he cried, springing to his feet and reaching for the musket. 

Movement flashed in the corners of his vision. A rustle in the shadows. A gleeful laugh. Splashing in the shallows. Before any of it could register, Eligius stared into the maw of a pistol, match alight and hissing. He froze.

'Don't get frisky, boy.' A leering face came into focus behind the pistol. 'Stay where you are.'

'That's right, lad, nice and easy.' A second voice. Eligius did not take his eyes off the bore of the pistol, pointed directly at his face. 

More shapes came out of the shadows. Three, four, six --too many to count. 

'Señor Abaroa, lower your firearm.' The second voice carried a tone of command. 

The pistol dropped. Eligius's vision cleared.

A motley assortment of at least a dozen men surrounded him, leaning against tree boles, squatting in the shallow water, seated on low branches. They were clad mostly in rags, but each man had a weapon of some kind --a firearm or a blade --at hand or tucked in his belt.

The pistol-holder grinned like a maniac. He was bald, his eyes seemed unfocused, and the corners of his mouth trembled. Eligius was stilled to a deadly calm --the fellow was mad.

 'A long-barreled musket is not a weapon for the forest, lad.' Again the commanding voice. 

Eligius slid his eyes toward the source. A tall, slender figure stood nearby. He held Eligius's musket before him, examining it with interest. He had a sharp chin honed to a point by a goatee and black curls hanging at his shoulders. His clothes were several cuts above those of his companions. He sported a wide-brimmed hat from which sprouted a dazzling parrot plume. Despite the heat, the man wore a seaman's jacket and knee-high leather boots. Eligius saw the boots and knew that the pursuit was ended.

'Who are you?' the boy asked.

Soft laughter rippled among the men. The tall stranger smiled. 'Don't you know?' he asked.

An impossible realization dawned on Eligius, but he did not answer. He thought of Lupe and Dolores and his vision blurred.

El Cocodrilo smiled with his eyes. 'Now, now, lad, none of that. With any luck, no harm will come to you.' 

To be continued...

Read Part I here.Read Part II here
Read Part III here
Read Part IV here.
Read Part V here
Read Part VI here
Read Part VII here
Read Part VIII here
Read Part IX here.  
Read Part X here
Read Part XI here
Read Part XII here.  
Read Part XIII here
Read Part XIV here
Read Part XV here.  
Read Part XVI here
Read Part XVII here
Read Part XVIII here.