Weekend Film Recommendation: Across 110th Street

Blaxploitation films are often described as sloppily produced, overly violent, sexist, racist, and demeaning to their audiences. Those gibes definitely apply to many entries in the genre, but roses exist among the thorns, particularly when a film had a bit more budget than usual and drew on other genres in creative ways (e.g., Blacula, for which I have long had a soft spot). Accordingly, this week I am recommending a 1972 blaxpolitation-film noir blend which is usually remembered today only as a Bobby Womack song: Across 110th Street.

The plot: The long-entrenched Italian mob is struggling to maintain the upper hand over the rising African-American gangs who rule the underworld across 110th street (i.e., Harlem’s boundary). Some small-time black criminals execute — and I do mean execute — a bold robbery of both criminal organizations, netting a massive haul of cash. The big-time criminals set out for vengeance, led by an arrogant, racist, Mafioso (Anthony Franciosa). But the robbers’ leader (Paul Benjamin) is nobody’s fool, and also knows how to handle a machine gun. Meanwhile, an honest African-American police detective (Yaphet Kotto) and a much less honest old school Italian-American police captain (Anthony Quinn) spar with each other as they try to round up all three criminal gangs.

Probably the best thing about the blaxploitation genre is the opportunities it afforded African-American actors to strut their stuff. Paul Benjamin brings the emotional heart to what otherwise would have been a routine crime melodrama. He conveys the power of friendship in his scenes with his fellow thieves, and even moreso expresses quite movingly how the degrading life of being a black ex-con in America drove him to crime as his only apparent option. True to his character’s cynicism, Benjamin sadly never became a big star in white-controlled Hollywood despite his evident talent. Where Benjamin brings the passion, Yaphet Kotto radiates intelligence here, as he was always able to do even when cast in cardboard roles (e.g., the James Bond villain in Live and Let Die, for which he was recruited while making this movie). Quinn as usual gives a blowy performance trying to dominate the screen, but in those same scenes you can’t stop looking at Kotto quietly thinking about what the hell he’s going to do next to crack the case.

Although many of its plot elements are straight from noir (cops being as crooked as criminals, small time crooks robbing big-time mobsters), the film retains the action-packed, violent, sensibility of the blaxploitation genre. The sadism of Franciosa’s character is hard to watch, but it’s central to the plot rather than being gratuitous: He’s such a racist that he enjoys torturing black people even to the point that his murderous black criminal allies are repulsed by him.

Across 110th Street’s modest budget shows here and there. At a few points, the plot jumps forward as if an intervening scene were missing, and there are some visible goofs (including two howlers in the first 10 minutes that I won’t ruin for you). But for the most part the unadorned sets and Naked City veteran Jack Priestly’s unvarnished cinematography are assets for a grim, gripping, story set in the rotting big apple that was 1970s New York City.

p.s. After watching this film, you will laugh very hard seeing Antonia Fargas send up his character 16 years later in I’m Gonna Git You, Sucka.

p.p.s. I don’t have a lot of company on this recommendation. Wikipedia summarizes contemporary critical reaction thus: Roger Greenspun of The New York Times wrote, “It manages at once to be unfair to blacks, vicious towards whites and insulting to anyone who feels that race relations might consist of something better than improvised genocide … By the time it is over virtually everybody has been killed—by various means, but mostly by a machine gun that makes lots of noise and splatters lots of blood and probably serves as the nearest substitute for an identifiable hero.” Variety wrote that “Those portions of it which aren’t bloody violent are filled in by the squalid location sites in New York’s Harlem or equally unappealing ghetto areas leaving no relief from depression and oppression. There’s not even a glamorous or romantic type character or angle for audiences to fantasy-empathize with.” Gene Siskel gave the film one-and-a-half stars out of four. Gary Arnold of The Washington Post slammed the film as “a crime melodrama at once so tacky and so brutal that one feels tempted to swear out a warrant for the arrest of the filmmakers.” Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the film “self-destructs by consistently selling out to stomach-churning displays of unrelieved violence.” Yet I stand by my recommendation, because I’m a complicated man and no one understands me but my woman.

What Amadeus Teaches About Being Content in Academia

The 1984 movie Amadeus deservedly netted 8 Oscars for its gorgeous sets, brilliant acting, nuanced direction, and unforgettable music.  The film can also be appreciated for the lessons that Peter Shaffer’s story conveys about fame, talent, humility, and gratitude.

 The tale is told through the eyes of Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham, above right) the court composer of Emperor Joseph II. Having risen from poverty to great musical success, Salieri is grateful for his lot in life until brash, young, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart arrives in Vienna (Tom Hulce, above left).  Salieri is quite talented but Mozart is a genius whose gifts dwarf all of Vienna’s many composers.  Salieri admires Mozart’s music but is consumed with envy — as well as rage at God — for the fact that he himself has never produced anything quite as beautiful.

Almost everyone who works or studies at a university will at one time or another identify with Salieri in the excruciating scene where a welcome march he has labored on all night is effortlessly transformed into a much better piece of music by Mozart.  No matter what university is your home, it will bring you into contact with people who are smarter than you, and that can be hard on one’s vanity. For example, a few years ago, a friend of mine at another university worked out a bunch of scholars in my field’s h-index, and sent me an email saying that I should be proud of how relatively high mine was.  Fifteen minutes of my own fiddling on Google Scholar revealed that I clock in slightly below the median of my regular poker game with faculty colleagues.  

This is where one of the key messages of the film becomes relevant: Salieri deserves no sympathy at all.  He had the extraordinary privilege to pursue his talent in a nurturing environment, to create and be appreciated for his creations, and to know and appreciate Mozart. All of Salieri’s emotional misery stemmed not from his objective circumstances, but from his irrational conviction that he was entitled to be a Mozart. I speak from experience when I say that letting go of that vanity can make one appreciate how lucky it is to be a Salieri.

The other aspect of the movie that is meaningful to me concerns the character I consider the hero, Baron Van Swieten (played by Jonathan Moore, above). All the other Vienna court musicians lodge ridiculous critiques of Mozart’s work (“too many notes”) because they are terrified at being passed up by the dazzling new arrival. But the Baron advocates for the talented tyro because he takes uncomplicated joy in what Mozart creates.  Many people in academia have horror stories about mentors who saw them as competitors. It’s easy for even well-established faculty to be intimidated by extraordinarily talented young students, fellows, or junior faculty. That’s why it’s vital for mentors to summon their inner Baron Von Swieten, set ego aside, and be grateful for the chance to see such magnificent birds take wing.

R.I.P. Mark Kleiman

Professor Mark Kleiman, the founder of RBC, and a giant in crime and drug policy analysis for decades, passed away this morning after a long illness that he himself had chronicled here. His sister Kelly announced his death on Twitter earlier today, asking that “If you are moved to honor him, please donate to the NYU Transplant Institute, the ACLU, or any Democratic candidate.”

All of us who have written at RBC over the years mourn the loss of our remarkable colleague and friend.

UPDATED July 23-25 to link to some terrific tributes to Mark from Ed Kilgore, German Lopez, Kevin Drum, James Joyner, Jacob Sullum, Dan Mitchell, Gabriel Rossman, Harold Pollack, Sam Roberts, Megan McArdle, and me.

Embracing “Impossible” Data

Image result for snowing indoors

As I waited for my train to London in one of those cavernous railroad stations up North, flakes of snow started to fall around me. My first thought was “Huh – it’s snowing”, followed seconds later with a shocking realization: “I’m indoors…and it’s snowing!!!”.

I looked up into the gloomy reaches of the arched ceiling high above me and concluded there must a hole in the roof through which an outdoor snowstorm was casting some flakes. I walked outside to check. It was certainly a cold November day, but the sky was clear and there was not even a skiff on the ground. Yet when I walked back inside, it was still very lightly snowing by the tracks where I had been standing.

Later that evening, in a downstairs bar off Pall Mall, I related my strange tale to my companions, who began forming theories. Because this particular watering hole is popular with spooks — who enjoy eavesdropping and puzzle solving in equal measure — pretty soon the whole place was engaged in a lively debate regarding how my impossible data could indeed be possible. It was fun discussion and without rancor.

Contrast that with different impossible data: Your doctor brings back your “routine tests” and says that even though you feel fine, you are gravely ill. Something in you shouts NO and you understandably come up with every possible reason why the impossible data just can’t be correct.

Those two cases of “impossible data” are at the extremes where the data are either entirely fun and non-threatening to learn from vs. terrifying to the core. Most impossible data is between those poles, and I wonder as a teacher and as a citizen whether we can instill in people a stronger habit of seeing impossible data like indoor snow instead of proof of terminal illness.

How do we get a gun rights advocate to do something other than scream “fake news!” when a study shows that gun owners are more likely to be shot? How do we get a firm atheist to appreciate evidence that highly religious people are happier and healthier? What is the magic that makes impossible data an exciting chance to learn more about the world rather than something to shut out at all costs?

Weekend Film Recommendation: They Shall Not Grow Old

Americans understandably think of World War I as a far less severe conflict than World War II. But for most European nations, the slaughter was on a larger scale in The Great War, making the 2018 Armistice centennial a major cultural and historical event. The British Imperial War Museum’s contribution to the commemoration was to open their film archive to Peter Jackson, who is addition to being a famous filmmaker is also a Great War buff. The astounding result is this week’s film recommendation: They Shall Not Grow Old.

Jackson and his team began with unpromising visual material: scratchy, battered, over and underexposed, black and white, silent, film footage taken during the war with hand crank cameras. The audio material — interviews with many veterans long after the war ended — was in better physical shape but had no essential connection to the images. With remarkable technical skill and artistic vision, Jackson spun dross into gold.

Computer scanning was used to counterbalance for light exposure problems, add vivid color, and impute missing frames (the latter of which eliminates the herky-jerky motion produced by the slow pace of filming in this period). Professional lip readers were employed to determine what the soldiers in the film were saying and actors were hired to voice the lines. And an array of preserved WWI tanks, rifles, artillery, and other equipment were recorded and the resulting sound track synced up seamlessly to the original footage. The stories of soliders were then skillfully assembled to narrate the film entirely in the words of “ordinary people”.

The resulting film is a technical marvel and an emotional wallop at the same time. Watching so many young men marching cheerfully from the recruiting station to the front line, and seeing them later dying in the muck and staring shell shocked into the camera is a devastating experience for the audience. And the stories told by the veterans, which range from the lighthearted (e.g., fishing soldiers out of the latrine when the bench broke) to the gut wrenching (e.g., seeing horrific injuries…and smelling them too), are utterly compelling. The banal aspects of military life are interspersed between the terrifying moments, including the shattering climax when the troops go over the top into the teeth of machine gun fire.

Many film makers would have had the impulse to have some authority figure add narration regarding “What it all means morally” either to (a la Stanley Kramer) “make sure the audience drew the correct conclusions” or to signal their own virtue. Peter Jackson is wiser than that: he lets the soldiers speak for themselves and the audience to draw their own lessons. The overpowering result is a unique cinematic achievement. Indeed, it even made me forgive Jackson for The Hobbit.

Political Upheaval

The above chart is from Electoral Calculus, a reputable polling and forecasting firm in the UK. When I see my friends in Parliament these days, I largely confine myself to buying them drinks and telling jokes. Nothing much is happening in the policy areas I know something about, so I instead focus on providing some transitory relief of their suffering and uncertainty.

Weekend Radio Show Recommendation

You read that arightly, I am recommending a radio drama rather than a film this week: 1938’s War of the Worlds (click here to listen). To the extent people have heard of it at all, they know it as the show that allegedly drove America into a national panic about invading Martians (in truth, very few people actually listened to the broadcast). What it ought to be remembered for is its high level of artistic achievement.

The radio play was performed by the Mercury Theater troupe founded by two wildly talented people: Orson Welles and John Houseman.
Howard Koch, who later became justly famous as the co-scripter of Casablanca, gets the credit for brilliantly adapting H.G. Wells’ novel to radio in a fashion that took advantage of everything the medium and the Mercury Theater company could do. The novel’s rather lengthy set-up chapters and some of its clunky plot development (i.e., having the narrator run into someone who provides crucial information) were a function of the book being told through the eyes of a single narrator. In contrast, staged as a fake news broadcast with scattered, breathless, reports coming in as the Martians wreak havoc, the radio play grips you by the throat immediately and gives the listener a range of details from different geographic locations in an utterly realistic fashion.

Radio also of course opens up opportunities to add sounds — the screams and footfalls of panicked crowds, the horrible, metallic, unscrewing of the Martian cylinders, and the terrifying zzzaaapppp of those heat rays! It’s high craftmanship that still leaves us the fun of imagining how it all looked.

Last, but not least, what an explosion of talent this troupe of actors represented! Not just the big names, but also people like Ray Collins, Dan Seymour, Kenny Delmar, and Frank Readick. They are all perfect at creating characters with voice alone, each of whom seems like a real human being responding to out of this world events. Some New York theater fans were disappointed when talented, stage-trained actors they admired began transferring to new, middle brow, media like radio and film, but the upside was that the whole country and indeed the whole world got to enjoy the dramatic gifts and skills of companies like the Mercury Theater.

I loved listening to radio play as a kid (the image above is of the record album of it my parents had) and it’s just as suspenseful and exciting for me today. War of the Worlds is in the public domain so you can give it a listen anytime. You won’t regret it.

p.s. If you want to see a film version of the same story, Walt Disney’s 1953 version provides way more entertainment value that Spielberg’s grim and weirdly lifeless, gazillion-dollar version.

How Jails Stay Full, Always

Governmental organizations have interests, and that includes the jail and court system. They work together to keep jails full no matter whether crime is rising or falling. It’s not that hard: If you hold more people pre-trial and hold all inmates for longer periods, you can keep at capacity in a way that the hotel industry would envy.

But it’s wrong. My analysis in Washington Post today.

Shopping for a Comfortable Coach Airline Seat? Consider the ASSPHIT.

Here’s a travel tip you don’t hear every day: Can you guess how I upgraded all my ticketed airplane seats from basic to premium economy for free? I lost 20 pounds. With two inches taken off my waist, the spacing between me and the arms of my seat has increased to a level I could normally only get by paying for an upgrade. My personal journey of weight loss inspired some research that can benefit any cost-conscious flier, particular those who, like myself, have experienced being “gravitationally challenged.”

Passengers frequently rage at the airlines for restricting seat sizes, and with good reason. Data gathered by former Consumer Reports Travel Letter editor Bill McGee, supplemented by some research I did using Seatguru.com while wedged into seat 47Q, shows that the smallest seat width in coach class across American, Delta, and United Airlines declined around 15% over the past three decades.   

But examining airline seat size decline in isolation understates the march of rear-end pinch. Even if seat size had stayed constant, flying would still feel more uncomfortable because the proportion of Americans who are overweight swelled from 55% in 1989 to about 73% today. Clearly, the nation needs a new statistic to assess the combined impact of smaller seats and bigger (cough) seats. I therefore charted the ratio of minimum coach seat width to the proportion of U.S. adults who are overweight.  At the risk of being cheeky, I label this variable the Airline Seat Size to Passenger Heftiness Index Tracker (ASSPHIT), which reveals a startling 36% decline in posterior comfort over the past three decades. 

The extraordinary ASSPHIT of the first class section is mainly for the corporate traveler; what’s the best coach class choice for the corpulent traveler? Delta Airlines, with minimum ASSPHIT of .23 (and even better ASSPHIT on most of its airplanes) is your best bet among legacy carriers. In contrast, one of the seat configurations of a particular United Airlines narrow body jet offers a minimum coach width of just 16 inches. Even if you have a narrow body yourself, that’s one tight ASSPHIT.

As for my recent success at improving my personal ASSPHIT, the hard fact is that most people who lose weight gain it back again. Given how often I fly, I am hoping to beat those odds. I know I have your good wishes, particularly if you are crammed into the seat next to me.