Watch your language….

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A small child, her hair the color of the abundant Fionnan, the wild moor grass climbing the hills  dwarfing her; eyes, like the grey horizon harnessing the gathering fury, she stands solid and silent in the  gusting wind, under open sky, endless buttermilk and dust. And the others taunt her for speaking her Irish words.  The wreath of branches round her neck smells like dirt and cold; it scratches her pale skin through the dress handed down to her from her sister, Bridget, just above the place where her Miraculous Medal rests. The jeers jab her consciousness, but she gazes upon the sheep on the slope aside the school; links  her look with her brother, wary, sly, gathered  in the last row of the circlet with Bridget and Mary and Tommy and the other valiant ones who would rather wear the wreath themselves  than shame her for her honor and her words.

A lifetime later, in another world, where the lilting words spill freely from her mouth to spouse and dearest friend, if she should choose;  when she will not teach her own small child her cherished Irish tongue, she confesses this tale.

It breeds in her child’s imagination.

In a small and darkened corner of a large fragmented city, concrete and black top  intermittently receive  the sun, interrupted by hard, brown dirt sprouting patchy grass and clover.  Separate places set aside for Irish and Italian and for Polish; for the Catholic and the Protestant and the Jew;for  black and white, and “yellow.” The mother’s tale conceives the dismantling of boundaries.  Born childhood notions that defiance and resistance is a prideful means to meet injustice; delivers her to hope that words engaged in the cause of fairness could change the world.

And that child grows into a woman who cannot fail to  break the mother’s heart.

Another small child, her hair kissed golden by uncounted days of summer sunlight spent capaciously under  bountiful skies, widens her blue eyes in delighted exuberance, her dextrous shape gliding across the field.  Sunday morning ritual not a substitute religion. No  rote chants clutter her penetrating mind. The  mother hails the daughter from the sidelines,no convention to confine her regard.  Her granny, silent, watchful, and not approving, whispers words of prayer that the child will find the path. The young player stumbles and then quickly falls hard  on the fresh mown  field, limbs all tangles,  her eyes spilling her own distress..

The words she utters, and what language, we will hear another day…

The Mystery of “Crime Porn”


Getting through it, catholic school felt alternately like suffocating in quicksand, routing the lurking ambush of a terror squad , or  expanding with sudden joy as when a hurricane approaching is preceded by brief but glorious sunlight and tranquility.

Experiencing life, I often credited that education for the rewards gained from the love of literature  acquired despite the cautious offerings but likely because of the scholarly approach and the appreciation of excellence:  pleasure in the written word, even more in the spoken; solace in time of sorrow; refreshment in time of leisure.  Taking my children to the now almost quaint institution of a bookshop in their adolescence, I could command attention, almost impress, with my deep knowledge of literature and experience of the classics.  What had been forbidden during school days, Lawrence, Woolf, Joyce,  Lessing, later  transformed into the emotional and intellectual affluence and security of  a well-read life.

Alas, one with its quirky rules….

“If one starts something, one must certainly finish…”   And I struggled to finish every book I read until  past my mid-century mark!  Imagine discovering new freedom after 50!

“Read at least one ‘classic’ every summer……”  Feeling, forever young!

And “some books are less worthy than others!”  Yes, the shame of reading trash!  Whole genres…. Like the Mystery novel!

Until about five years ago, the mystery novel, like  its film, dramatic or television adaptation was, for me, a lesser thing, not even a guilty pleasure!    Dorothy Sayres?  Patricia Highsmith? Serious fiction?  Surely, not.

Ill informed, cheap pretension! –  my view that the mystery novel, or film, play or drama, is a lesser art.  Hawthorne, Green, Poe, Sayers, Tey, DuMaurier, Eco, Black. Surely, these are great writers, indeed.  Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Morse, Maigret, Montalbano, Comissario Brunetti, Wallander, Miss Marple, Miss Fischer:  investigators who delight,indeed.  Alfred Hitchcock, David Finchner, Carrol Reed, Francis Ford Coppolla, mystery genre directors who perfected an art form.

The good mystery engages the intellect in a complex puzzle, commanding attention to the most subtle detail.  Through this conceit, the skilled author lays bare and probes layers of the culture and society surrounding the characters: the physical landscapes, the interiors of the homes, offices and public spaces, the art, music, poetry of the day or of the past which supports the characters; the landscapes of the mind.  The mystery exposes the organization of the society, how it adheres, where it fragments, what it values and what, or whom, it discards.  Through the portrayal of crime, and the consequences of crime, concepts of justice are examined; issues of class, race, religion and gender  probed.  We  observe  equality and inequality, generosity and self-interest.  The mystery scrutinizes human motivation, often exposing the role of history in contemporary identity: the effects of emotional loss and the loss of power; the consequences of addiction, greed and mental illness.  The mystery can introduce the foreign and make it ordinary, whether it be the distant place or the idiosyncratic hobby or passion, such as collecting a rare bird or a stamp with a particular ink.  The mystery feeds the human hunger for an understandable world – where  chaos is tamed, action and consequences are predictable, if  only we go back and see the clues.  The mystery genre answers the quest for restored order, the search for social justice, a belief in connection and control.

Alas, in television, in particular, the mystery has been mutilated.    As one idea  so well presented in Gina Gionfriddo’s play Raptrue, Blister, Burn, television and film mysteries are toxic with sexplotation plots which are, in essence, modern “crime porn” masticated for the masses.  Not just a murder, we confront a plot of serial killers sexually abusing young women or boys, formalistically, securing trophies, eating , burning or mutilating them, or engaging in  some other perversely imagined amalgamation of male-commanding, female-submissive  scenario of  violence, gore and ritual, all available in prime time and cable for download and on the internet, 24 hours a day.  Fine actors, like Kevin Bacon or Viola Davis pollute the images of FBI agents or Law  Professors, indeed of human beings,  as they become these new tv “crime porn” stars (The Following, How to Get Away With Murder)  in dramas which do much more than merely coarsen public discourse: they pollute the national psyche.

The flood of “crime porn” in our theaters and on our screens fulfills none of these basic needs and aims at none of these aspirations.  Nor is the issue whether or not there is evidence to suggest that the violent degradation of women and children and the occasional man on the screen increases real life violence.  For even if this is not true, it is clear that ours is a society that is far too violent, far too toxic, and, certainly,  far too intolerant.  I recall my incredulity upon learning  that the crowds had hungrily  gathered to watch beheadings during the French Revolution.  Could this be the  impulse  which stimulates the greedy  creation and consumption of “crime porn” today?

The devolution of  “crime porn” provides us with no surrounding layers of culture,  (art, literature, music, landscapes) to cushion or surround the crime, to give a meaning, a context for the violence or a significance for the act or the actor.  Typically, in crime porn plots, the darkness of deranged criminal is only slightly less dark than some corrosive thing in the life or past of the detectives; the question of how society coalesces, what it values, how it is generous, is not often asked, much less answered.  Were it to be, the answer  would be as dark and ugly as the depiction of the crime itself.  Crime porn does not make chaos understandable, the unthinkable comprehensible; it does not provide a sense of justice and restored order.  Rather, crime porn seems to reflect our own anxiety that our world is intolerably out of control, craven, degraded, senseless and adrift.

The riddle is that we call this entertainment.  The puzzle is, we permit new, more lavish, star-studded performances every year.  Nationwide, we decry the many dangers of the media – cyber bullying, cyber crime, government surveillance – all while this “entertainment” violence propagates unimpeded.  The perplexity is our passivity.

As at other times in my life, I am grateful for the solidity gained from my classic, if confining and imperfect, education.  A screen can be switched  from images to words or a book picked up, and these, detective fiction included, can still transport to reaches where humanity and justice are examined, explored, considered.

The mystery, it seems, is how our culture, as a whole, can be moved to some place safe from this pandemic of “crime porn”.

Not your father’s barista: A Coffee in Berlin

Against a hypnotic soundtrack, A Coffee in Berlin , always with humor and often with tenderness, demonstrates the inadequacy of both compassion and apology as salve to the wounds, personal and political, those we glibly categorize  as “just part of growing up” and those we justly brand evil and monstrous,through the eyes of an alienated twenty -something who can’t even manage to procure a  coffee in Berlin.

Young Nikko is neither hero nor anti-hero, but a young man seemingly lost in directionless motion, holding on to the privileges of his life ( family allowance, leisure, drugs, alcohol, sex, companionship) without  forming any great attachment to anything.  His is a  youth unburdened by responsibility but also devoid of promise, neither littered with belief nor sketched with direction.  He applies intelligence against authority which enables him to distinguish the absurd and inequitable from the bullying and  illegitimate but he seems unable to engage emotion to match his perception.  Nor is able, when he finds himself the offender, to direct his encounters to resolution.

Nikko passively inhabits a world which exists in the shadow of Hollywood creations and Washington power plays, as evidenced by his mimicing actor friend and the anti- US graffiti spattered about the city.

More poignantly, Nikko apparently cannot find his place in this landscape through which he travels unsuccessfully seeking a cup of coffee,haphazardly, at times, the phlegmatic wanderer, observing but ineffectually engaging others.  His contacts:  the neighbor, the old school mate, the buddy, the drug dealer, the thugs, the father, the probation officer, the bartender,  – each like a painted pony on the merry-go-round invite engagement, but Nikko avoids connection.  Filial attachment, even gratitude,is inoperative.  Nikko is immune to sentimentality. He demonstrates neither moral, ethical nor legal concerns for conformity with social standards.  While he can own the harm he caused a woman whom he bullied as a child, he acknowledges he cannot understand how she felt, and he refuses a new connection either in intimacy or in her own complex drama of angry behaviors.

Nikko is, however, drawn to connect with the old woman who offers only sandwiches and comfortable seating.  The viewer questions whether this kinship is born of some understanding which the young and the old can share about the limits of dreams.

Nikko’s other connection is presaged by a darkly humorous “film within a film.”  Nikko wanders into a movie set filming a cloying sentimental and savagely revisionist World War II drama wherein a SS officer falls in love with a Jewish woman whom he hides, becoming her savior and, at the fall of Berlin, himself, the persecuted.  Later, as an old and failing drunk attached himself to Nikko, the elder recalls Kristallnact, and what Berlin was like, through his eyes as a child.

We leave Nikko with his  coffee in Berlin, and we are, all of us, contemplating: To be a twenty-something, carrying the legacy of Kristallnact;  To be human, feeling adrift; To have the goal, only, of a coffee in Berlin.