The Central Park Five: My Brother’s Keeper

Sometimes we’re not very good people. Often we’re not.

This is a quote from one of the lawyers interviewed in The Central Park Five, and it stuck with me after the credits rolled. At first I wasn’t compelled to write about this documentary by Ken Burns for several reasons. One, I’ve never been a fan of the man’s work, which is not a popular opinion. He’s had great success with his highly awarded and vaunted series’ The War, The Civil War, and the eternal Baseball, a piece that feels so interminable I almost forgot why I love the sport in the first place. Burns is of the old school, traditional era of documentarians, the type of filmmaker that lets the subject matter speak for itself. He is the objective author who uses conventional, unobtrusive interview and photography alongside steady narration to tell stories, absent of style or finesse. It’s a more patient, contemplative approach that allows the audience to paint in the details for themselves and meditate on the significance, or insignificance of a strangers life, through diary entry or letters or by simply quoting the historians of the day. I deeply respect his attention to detail and thorough research, even though I am absolutely bored to tears throughout. And this comes from a sort of history junky, I can read about World War II on Wikipedia until my eyes dry out and I have. But I don’t look to film to be read to. Modern documentaries, the really fascinating ones, owe more to Gonzo Journalism and advances in camera technology. They are more personal and specific in scope, sometimes to the point of being distracting. I believe that a lot of the subject matter Michael Moore explored would have been better received and appreciated if his Jack O’ Lantern of a head weren’t in every shot.

But, to return to the point, I find Ken Burns to be too clinical and detached in his work to find it inspiring. The second reason I didn’t feel like writing about this documentary about five minority youths who were convicted of the assault and rape of a jogger in Central Park is because I didn’t immediately feel that there was anything I could add to the conversation that hasn’t already been said before. Particularly in regards to the recent Trayvon Martin tragedy, the conversation about race and the media reached a fever pitch and then nothing changed. There seemed to be a collective agreement that, well, it was an awful thing to have happened but what can you do. What else is on. After all, the news is really just another form of entertainment. So on this second point, my reason for not writing about The Central Park Five, was just as dismissive and lazy as the thing I’ve just mocked. But don’t worry, I’m not done being awful.

The final reason I didn’t feel compelled to write about this documentary, and the worst one, is because this kind of crime, not only the one that was committed but the crime that was perpetrated against these young men, pardon me, these children by the city of New York and its police department, is all too common. It was not shocking or horrifying to me because, although I should be shocked and horrified, I have just come to expect this kind of thing to happen to people because I do read the news. I do keep up on current events.

So when a group of teenagers were coerced into making a false, inaccurate and contradictory confession, with no supporting evidence to corroborate their guilt, with DNA testing that effectively exonerated them, the fact that they were convicted anyway by a jury, a prosecutor, and a police force that is bound to protect and serve, did not shock me and I walked away from The Central Park Five thinking, well, that’s really terrible but sometimes things like this happen. But what can you do.

This is a mentality that is, for all intents and purposes, bullshit. Something happens to people when they are afraid, when they can’t make sense of their environment. A pack mentality asserts itself, a type of herd-like thinking, although that is the wrong verb to apply (thinking has little to do with it). I have a complicated opinion on the death penalty but if there was ever a perfect argument against it, it’s this film. It’s the unfiltered, reactionary response to tragedy that is only recognized in hindsight for what it is: madness and bloodlust. Rage against any and everything that represents the fragility of innocence, of life itself. In that time and place it’s going to be hard to not feel passionate and incensed. I can’t persecute the country in the late 80s for how they felt but I can look back and wonder how much progress has been made. And when there is so much divisiveness so much unilateral reasoning when it comes to the subject of race relations it deflates me. It weakens my resolve because I don’t understand it. I can comprehend the idea of prejudice being one of the few universal qualities we all share in one form or another, it’s an uneasy truth to accept but it’s one that needs to be acknowledged in order to be a more complete adult, but the complete lack of empathy after the fact is what is deeply unsettling.

There is probably a more profound sociological motivation involved that escapes my understanding but that might have to do with being mixed race myself. I’ve never really felt like I’ve belonged to one group or another so I take a more personal approach to racial inequality. I’ll honestly admit that I make judgments about people based on the way they speak and dress. Even how they act on a day to day basis. This is was an idea that I could not shake watching The Central Park Five, that although I could not strongly relate to these kids or the adults they became it didn’t make their story any less tragic or important. Maybe they were hoodlums and hellraisers as kids but the fact that they are black and Latino seemed to make them that much scarier, in fact, it’s almost an expectation when it comes to violence on the news. But the simple fact is, their story is tragic and important, it deserves to be heard and I deserve to be affected, I need to feel the wrongness of it, we all do. But it’s that expectation that informs what is being observed, i.e. if you treat someone like they are a monster to be feared and avoided at all costs it’s difficult for the subject to form a different opinion of themselves. To put it a different way, when the world treats a beautiful person differently because of how they look that person can form a certain opinion of themselves, that they have redeeming qualities they don’t actually possess, qualities that persists beyond the superficial. The same thing happens when you treat someone like a criminal because of their skin color or baggy pants. To simplify, prejudice is often self-perpetuating and self-consuming, like an ouroboros.

So the fact that an entire cross section of the population has an entirely different experience with the justice system is abhorrent. In the 21st century, in a country that espouses freedom and equality for all, it is shameful and embarrassing that when the argument is raised again, as surely it will be, as to whether or not racial bias is alive and well, the argument will become immediately about who is at fault, rather than how to ameliorate the issue itself. We don’t want to fix the problem until we can assign blame and this is juvenile thinking at best, it can and should be beneath us. To be juvenile in kind, in all my years it has been my experience that no one racial, ethnic, or religious group owns the patent on being an asshole. As much as it is a cliche, it starts with one person, one opinion, one moment to say, no, I don’t know this person or understand him, but I’m going to treat them with respect and go from there. When tragedy happens, as surely it will again, calmer minds must prevail, reason cannot continue to be an afterthought and it is films like this that inform, that suggest reflection and introspection. Because although it may not be fun to watch a documentary like this these miscarriages of justice will keep happening until we take the time, in sober moments, to learn rather than be entertained. It’s worth spending a couple hours to see how someone else lives and to maybe, just for moment, see the world through someone else’s eyes, however unpleasant that new perspective might be.

Netflix Suggested Viewing #9- The King’s Speech

This is one of my favorite experiences I’ve ever had with a film. I saw it in theaters after selecting it at random, based on the wording of certain critics without any knowledge of what it was about. The Oscar buzz had not started to ramp up, which is the perfect time to check out a movie before the hoopla and rigmarole eclipse the film itself. If I hadn’t seen it when I did I might have missed the profoundly personal connection I have with it, I might have only heard the rabble, the generic din of praise for a perfectly written, acted, and directed film while discounting the thing about movies that make them more than just brightly lauded ponies in a horse race for statues and box office receipts. In a period piece about the Duke of York in the mid 20th century I found a sort of hero and a kindred spirit; I was reminded of how much I love language in general and how it changed my life; it’s easy to forget how beautiful and inspiring it can be while we live in an era when the New York Times is written at a 10th grade level and politicians speak monosyllabic, party vetted, pre-polled speeches that rarely inspire and never offend. I have a great affinity for legendary orators, for Lincoln and Churchill, who applied their own humor and eloquence to their addresses in ways that made their words timeless and inspiring. I can go back and read about their experiences and the words they used to describe some of the most epic and turbulent periods of modern history and I find humanity redeemable again, if only for a few minutes at a time.

There is a version of this film that was edited to reduce the amount of profanity when some words are used as part of the therapeutic process and I fully understand both perspectives of the small controversy it created. Most adults recognize that language, however profane, is only that, a vehicle for communicating ideas but there are some words that parents and teachers do not want shared with children of a certain age, children with speech problems who may be encouraged and inspired by a story like this. I’d argue that the material might be a little dull for a child and that a young adult is probably going to be more comfortable with both the content and the language itself but whatever gets a story like this out to more people, without undermining the essential message on display, is perfectly alright with me. Although I trend more towards a purist, towards supporting an artist’s right to create and hew his work as closely to their vision as possible, sometimes the message itself is more important than how it’s being said.

Recently, I discovered that I still have a stammer. Close friends of mine might consider that an impossibility given my tendency to ramble for hours on end about any and every passionate subject I happen to stumble on but it’s cropped up recently because of a career change that requires me to talk to strangers about complex problems all day long. It’s not debilitating, I don’t want to give the impression that I am some kind of hero myself for completing a sentence but it’s a part of my childhood that I’ve completely forgotten until the other day when I found myself mute, frozen in space while a customer waited in suspense for me to finish what I was saying. It’s hard to describe the moment when your mind tells your body to do something very basic and it simply does not cooperate. It’s scary and frustrating and embarrassing, which has a tendency to make the issue worse. As a kid I retreated into books and comics. I discovered and built a vocabulary that I didn’t know how to use at first and this helped me move past my stammer by distracting myself with synonym, metaphor and simile. I found new ways to express myself when the words I wanted wouldn’t come and in this I was improved for the experience: I found my confidence in losing my stammer. The strange thing is that I don’t know that there is such thing as a cure, it’s something that’s always a part of me. Which is an idea that I found so compelling about The King’s Speech.

I’ve seen Pride and Prejudice as well as Bridget Jones’ Diary (why are you looking at me like that) and I never found Colin Firth to be anything other than capable, if bland. I accept that he is considered handsome but why, I do not know. But I never considered him a gifted actor until this film. It’s hard to explain how authentic and compelling his performance is if you haven’t experienced the frustration that his character is going through. There is so much beauty and complexity in his facial expressions, the clear undercurrent of emotion that is swimming through his mind as he chains together word after word. Fear of public speaking is pretty common and although it should be difficult to relate to an English Duke assuming the mantle of responsibility for his country during the build up to the second World War, somehow, with a brilliant and clever script, Tom Hooper and company tell a pretty lovely story about friendship that is accessible and endearing. Even though this is a film about stammering, they achieve a steady confident rhythm that draws the viewer in, visiting the personal fears and insecurities of each character with perfect tone. And it’s a wonderful thing to see a film that has no action or violence to speak of, that is purely about two souls connecting or not connecting, about a loving marriage, or a scary father, about a brave but tormented person struggling to outgrow his demons.

It’s a well reviewed and deservedly awarded film like The King’s Speech that is able to imbue a sort of kinship between two people with vastly different backgrounds and upbringings. That I found a way to work around my small impediment feels so insignificant when compared to a man who had to work around a much more severe impairment while the entire world, in its darkest hours, waited and listened to every word. But the kinship is still there, the feeling of not being alone, of sharing with a stranger that irrational and primal fear that this voice has fled forever, and that we didn’t deserve to have it in the first place. It’s often, but not always, some kind of emotional trauma at a young age where it starts and just like the stammer that trauma never goes away, not really. It informs and affects. Arrests and influences. But it doesn’t have to rule if you don’t let it. To paraphrase one of my favorite and possibly apocryphal speeches from Churchill himself delivered in lieu of a prepared statement, never ever ever give up. Because in the end it’s more about what we do than what we say. Or how we say it.

Netflix Suggested Viewing #8- Rescue Me: Everybody Here’s Got Somebody To Lean On

The original intention of Netflix Suggested Viewing was to recommend a quick movie or a documentary to pass the time when you’re scrolling through the Instant Queue for a distraction but aren’t ready to commit to any one show. I’m breaking with that rule for a couple reasons. One, nobody tells me what to do, not even me. Two, I haven’t been able to catch a new film in a few weeks and the urge to write is building up to dangerous levels; I considered starting a new blog where I just write about cheese. And three, well, there are some gems on Netflix that deserve consideration, regardless of their format. This last generation of basic cable original programming was like a Golden Age (Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Walking Dead) but it appears to have been a high-water mark and is beginning a slow decline, like the Byzantine Empire of old in a way that I don’t know how to finish this simile because I don’t remember anything about the Byzantine Empire’s decline (It declined, right? Had to…). I’m talking about Low Winter Sun, Anger Management, the super-okay Hell On Wheels, etc. shows that have redeeming qualities but are not looking like they will exceed the previous generation so I decided I’d reflect on one of the shows that came before.

I never got into Rescue Me until it was broadcasting its fifth season or so and was hesitant because of a small grudge I hold with Dennis Leary. Comic purists and devoted fans attribute a large portion of the stand up material that made him famous to the late great Bill Hicks. In the days before the internet it was a lot easier to plagiarize other comedians and there is some compelling evidence that the cigarette smoking malcontent persona that Leary invokes in his No Cure for Cancer set is a carbon copy of Hicks’ stage personality, down to the mannerisms and cultural references used. In the interest of impartiality, I’ll say that this kind of thing probably happened a lot more often in the pre-web days and whether or not it’s an unforgivable offense is debatable, there is an element of imitation in all art forms. To be completely honest, this vitriolic, self-destructive, social critic crossed with your basic factory-model asshole seems to suit Leary better than it did Hicks. Although, both comedians had/have a sincere conscience and an authentic desire to call attention to social injustice in their material, Bill is from Texas, and Dennis is from Boston. Bill discovered spirituality and spoke from a place that was angry and frustrated because he genuinely seemed concerned about the human condition, Dennis is from Boston. Bill originally wanted to be a preacher and was survived by his wonderfully soft-spoken, old fashioned parents, who seem left over from some other kinder, idyllic, fictional town like Mayberry. Dennis is… you get the idea. I don’t mean to generalize and discount Leary’s life story in anyway, I just don’t know anything about it. And when Bill Hicks passed away of pancreatic cancer at the age of 32 he became a kind of legend to his fans, his story became both mythical and extremely personal to anyone with the time to really explore his body of work. So Leary hasn’t been deified in this way but has moved out of the world of stand up comedy into film and television, a world that Hicks adamantly refused to explore out of love of his specific art form, for stand up itself. To return to my original point, I wasn’t sure if I could separate the comic persona I knew from whatever character or story he might be trying to portray. In a dramatic comedy series based on New York firefighters coping with life that is returning to something like normality after the madness of 9/11, I wasn’t sure what tone or message could be worth watching. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to not see Dennis Leary.

So when I finally gave Rescue Me a chance I was stunned by how much range it has, there are few emotions the stories and characters don’t touch on, it’s a little overwhelming at first. And it’s definitely not for everyone, the show alienates it’s audience on multiple levels but not for the sake of alienation, rather, it has a comics willingness to explore the taboo, the offensive, the self-reflection, the profane, and the hypocritical all in the same breath. This show gets away with some pretty horrifying behavior because of how self-aware and grounded in reality it tries to be. The truth is, people in this profession use racial and homophobic language because they don’t really know any better. It doesn’t seem egregious because, relative to the horrors of their job and the gravity of the choices that they have to make, it doesn’t make sense to them to draw lines in the sand about what is politically correct in their day to day lives. It’s a fascinating show for demonstrating some of the heroic things that person is capable of while at the same time showing how deeply flawed they can be in every other aspect of their lives. Humanizing First Responders with a stark, honest light and a wry sense of humor makes for a pretty damn entertaining show.

Arguably the most heroic and capable character is Tommy Gavin, who also happens to be hands down the most emotionally maladjusted and narcissistic character in a cast stock full of emotionally maladjusted narcissists. Although he is a frequently lapsed alcoholic and semi-divorced man-child struggling to maintain a presence in his family after a separation, he is also the unquestioned leader when an emergency call goes off the rails. This is where Dennis Leary and Peter Tolan, the show’s creators succeed in spades, I don’t see a comic anymore, I don’t see an imitation of one my favorite comedians; I only see Tommy Gavin. Where it would be easy to assume that this character’s conspicuous and inspiring efforts to save every life that he can, going far above and beyond reasonable risk, is an effort to redeem and validate himself in some way, it’s important to remember that this is the same character who refuses awards, accolades, or promotion. This is a person who knows that he is sonofabitch and a bastard, he hates himself in a lot of ways but when it comes to doing his job, and this is true of every member of 62 Truck, they put aside their personal lives and take on that responsibility with grim determination and gallows humor. Which brings me to my next point.

Did I mention this show is funny? The drama and social satire can be a little erratic and unfocused depending on the subject matter being explored but what keeps this show from being weighed down by a sense of self-importance (in the early seasons, anyway) is how great the humor is. From broad, frat-boy hijinks to subtle rapid-fire wordplay there is constantly something going on. The dialogue is a joy, delivered by a pitch-perfect cast. No one character is always the smart one or the dummy, they each have their moments, they all riff off each other so perfectly it’s hard to picture these guys as anything other than a close-knit group of coworkers and colleagues. Everyone is fully realized and genuinely sympathetic, their chemistry is where Rescue Me really shines. That brotherhood is played for laughs and tears alike and it’s a rewarding experience as the show matures alongside the characters.

As with most comedy-dramas later seasons have a harder and harder time striking a balance between the two, teetering irrecoverably towards the latter. Rescue Me, already toes that line towards unwatchability at times and does eventually fall victim to melodrama, to soap opera plot twists that make it difficult to stay invested. When it gets bad it gets really bad and it’s up to the viewer to truck on through the tragedies and the heartbreak. Leary and Tolan take real risks with these characters, real gambles with the story and although they do lose at times they also win just as often. When this show is good, it’s really good. There are moments that are so poignant and beautiful that they defy the darkness they come out of and are unlike any other show on television. A lot of the writing lends itself to stagecraft and would be perfectly at home in theater, it’s human drama about masculine alpha male personalities discovering ways to deal with their emotions in the modern world where it’s okay for a man to cry or write poetry or demonstrate weakness of any kind.

The most compelling part of the story is Tommy’s hallucinations (?) of the people he has failed to save. It’s never explicitly stated whether or not the ghosts he sees are the real thing or part of his splintered psyche struggling to deal with survivor’s guilt. Whether they torment him or offer council or simply wander into his eyeline when he least expects it, they are a part of his character, they inform his conscience. And whether or not he listens or dismisses them and whether or not he’s going insane trying to make sense of a cruel, uncaring world, he is never truly alone, not really. For better or worse.

Netflix Suggested Viewing #7- The Grey: Do Not Go Gently

Joe Carnahan is a director I have been paying close attention to ever since his low budget crime thriller Narc. This is a film that had an enormously difficult time being made, boasting 21 different credited producers, including Tom Cruise at one point, but the strength of the writing and the energy of the story kept this critical gem alive to completion. It’s not a great movie, by the way, but is a pretty good one. At a certain point the plot becomes unnecessarily convoluted and the great beginning loses some of its emotional impact. When I say ‘great beginning’, I mean specifically the opening sequence that was so shocking, visceral, horrifying that I actually paused the DVD, restarted it, went and found a friend and then made them watch it with me. I had to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating or had accidentally ingested some kind of drug. The rest of the movie is good, if extremely bleak, and although I haven’t thought about it much beyond those opening scenes, my interest was peaked. I kept an eye out for Joe Carnahan’s next full length release with more than a little optimism and I was duly rewarded.

Just kidding. His next release was the tornado of bullets, blood, and cliche called Smokin’ Aces, a movie that wanted so desperately to be cool that you can practically see Carnahan’s grinning face leaning into frame, peering through the camera, eagerly searching the audience for a happy face, for some form of validation. A hybrid of Quentin Tarantino’s style, Tony Scott’s (RIP) frantic energy, and the self-satisfied swagger of The Boondock Saints, this movie is a mostly enjoyable train-wreck. The plot is a shameless excuse to setup as many absurd action sequences as possible but, at the very least, the film seems to be aware of these things, even as it careens around like a terrified pit bull with tribal tattoos that someone has inexplicably set on fire. Also, it’s armed with automatic weapons (shrug, it just is). Needless to say, I was a little disappointed in the director but he seemed to be having fun and who am I to judge anyone for that. Somehow he was able to channel that energy into a more entertaining direction with his reboot of The A-Team. The dumbness was still there, bubbling under the surface, but with a more capable cast in the form of Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, and Sharlto Copley, the franchise was redeemed financially and critically. I left out Rampage Jackson on purpose because, all due respect, there is only one B.A. Barracus.

So at this point in Joe Carnahan’s career I decided that the signs he might be a serious, important filmmaker had been a flash in the pan. That his style was now developing into something closer to a third generation clone of Michael Bay, I could respect, even if it wasn’t a direction I had originally hoped for. Life goes on. Then along came The Grey, starring Liam Neeson and I was overjoyed to discover my instincts were not completely deceiving me and that I had only to wait a little longer. Set in the Alaskan wilderness, a group of plane crash survivors attempt to hold out against the elements while being stalked by a particularly vindicate pack of wolves. This may not sound like the most entertaining premise for a film and it does fall victim to the occasional survival horror trope: the sudden, unexpected jumps and starts, the frantic We’re All Going to Die Guy, the existential conversations about God, the thoughtful reminiscing about home and loved ones juxtaposed against monstrous, mostly believable CGI predators picking off the survivors, one by one. The story itself is brilliantly simple, completely engrossing, accessible and, somehow, fully relatable. The details are what sell this story so effectively, the atmosphere, the acting, the set design. It’s obvious throughout that this was not filmed on a soundstage, safe from the elements. Instead, Carnahan and his crew occupied a small town in British Columbia, shooting on the side of a mountain at the ragged edge of the known world and that fidelity shows through in the final product. As the viewer you feel transported to another place, a cold, windy, merciless one, far away from the warming glow of civilization.

Liam Neeson is one of those actors who is capable of elevating average material with his presence alone. The movie Taken was basically Jason Bourne if he were a dad but it made enough money to (bizarrely) warrant a sequel. In the Star Wars prequels his character Qui-Gonn Jinn was fatherly, wise, and knightly, even if he kind of went out like a punk. And I strongly recommend his performance in a period piece from the 90s called Rob Roy, which has a sort of historical romance quality to it and co-stars Tim Roth in a vile-yet-genius performance. Neeson has this kind of heroic confidence, this indescribable vitality despite the fact that he lacks the typical leading man good looks, and is kind of old, relatively speaking. In most of his movies he seems indestructible, like a force of nature and this is where his performance in The Grey left me haunted. It’s in this film that he really does something that I haven’t seen him do since he found mainstream success and that thing is the ability to project. He affects every frame of film that he is in with this character, this person who seems to be a dead man walking from the very opening of the film. John Ottway is putting one foot in front of the other for no other reason than that it is all he knows how to do. This character, without the story ever explicitly saying how or why, is a born survivor and an instinctive killer. And without ever explicitly saying how or why, John Ottway has no soul left behind his eyes, it’s either been lost, forfeited or sold and all that’s left are sweet memories of a previous life. He is conditioned and highly capable but he is at the end. This film is so compelling to me because where another story would look to try and redeem this man or explain how he has reached this point and teach a lesson, the screenplay by Joe Carnahan and Ian MacKenzie Jeffers has no interest in doing any of those things. And leaving the experiences that broke this man up to our imaginations empowers him as a fictional character and as a viewer, we easily project ourselves, along with our own demons, onto him.

This man survives this horrific plane crash in the middle of the untamed wilderness and instead of resigning himself and the others to their fates, he comes alive, he is suddenly invigorated for the final fight that he knows is finally at his metaphorical doorstep. This fight against the elements, this fight for survival is a pretty clear existential allegory: to take arms against a sea of troubles, to know, not fear, that you are going to die, to not go gently. It’s inspiring because of its futility, his knowledge and expertise explicitly inform them of how hopeless their situation is but his willpower is indomitable. His rage is still awake as the cold, unrelenting nature of the wild world bears down, visiting horror and tragedy on these unfortunate souls, like some great and terrible wheel that rolls on overhead, grinding away anything in its path.
To the last, Ottway pulls them onward and forward and through, until he calls on God Himself for answers, for reason, and the answer he receives is all too familiar.
The ending is an important one, maybe the most important one of all and subject to debate as all good ones are. Some controversy was raised over the depiction of wolves as malevolent, heartless monsters and I’d argue that they are characters themselves in the story, twofold. As intelligent, calculating adversaries to the human characters, they are defending their territory from invaders for reasons that only become clear as the story develops. And, complimentary to that, they are unmerciful executors of fate, meting out consequence, dealing death. Fundamentally, it’s on the survivors to choose how the encounter will play out, with fierce denial of the inevitable, with passive acceptance, or with fists squeezed tight and a battle cry on their lips.
I’m glad I didn’t give up on Joe. I’ve poked some fun at him, but in truth it’s nice to see the man find studio success and still be able to make a film like this, that is as brutal as it is beautiful. Which it is, strangely. Beautiful. It sticks with me and imparts a feeling that evokes Dylan Thomas. It makes me think that there, at that sad height, when it comes, with fierce tears, I’ll pray. That I’ll not go gently into that good night. That I will rage, rage against the dying of the light.