Thursday, October 24, 2013

Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers"

"Did you enjoy that rubbish?" asked my wife, the next morning. She'd gone to bed after two scenes of Natural Born Killers. Too much violence. Too much bad language. Not her sort of film.
I wouldn't say I enjoyed the film but I was quite mesmerised by it. I have a habit of falling asleep in front of the telly but there was no chance of me doing that with Mickey and Mallory on the rampage.
With original story by Quentin Tarantino (though substantially rewritten) and directed by Stone, the film was never going to pull any punches. It concerns the curious relationship between two young people from dysfunctional families (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis both played brilliantly) who embark on a mass-murder spree. The second half of the film deals with their eventual incarceration and bloody break-out. It was shot mainly in New Mexico and Illinois respectively.
The main themes of the film are the almost innate violence in society that produces such a pair and the media's glorification of the violence. Mickey defends his actions as being 'pure' whereas the media, as portrayed by the Robert Downey Junior figure Wayne Gale, is hypocritical and false. During the breakout, where Gale himself goes on a shooting rampage, the film seems to suggest there is not much difference between the two. Like de Niro in Taxi Driver, Woody Harrelson also shaves off his hair before cleansing the world of filth.
Even the warden of the prison - a brilliantly OTT  neurotic psychotic Tommy Lee Jones - is just a step away from the Mickey and Mallorys of this world and the law enforcement officer Jack Scagnetti once strangled a prostitute. The pair drive past buildings that appear to be on fire or showing grisly violent scenes, an effect that works well the first few times but I began to tire of it a bit towards the end.
I won't give away the ending. It seems very far-fetched but the film seems to be suggesting that we are approaching some kind of apocalypse where violence becomes the norm.
For me, the violence got wearisome after a while. Maybe that's the point. Like society, the viewer sees so much violence he becomes inured to it. We never seem to have much sympathy with the victims because they are mere canon fodder to be butchered. We don't know their back stories or have any empathy with them. It's the old Sex Pistols 'No one is innocent' thing. The film concentrates on the perpetrators and their motives for seemingly random acts of butchery, though it seems that several of the victims were pretty unsavoury - Roger Dangerfield as Mallory's Dad, her mam, the redneck in the bar (quite Thelma and Louise-ish), the warden, the police officer, the media guy. Except for the Indian guy. He was shot by accident.
This film was actually banned in Ireland on its release. I can kind of see why. The irony is that, although the film is an attack on the media's sensationalision of violence, the two protagonists are the real anti-heroes of the film and there is a very real danger they could inspire copycat killings.
Not for the faint-hearted. Or the criminally deranged.

John Ford's "Rio Grande"

Apparently in 1950 John Ford was itching to make "The Quiet Man" but Republic Pictures didn't have much faith in the project and insisted he make "Rio Grande" first to help finance the picture. And although the Irish film proved a bigger box office success, "Rio Grande" is nevertheless one of the great Westerns of the period.
Kirby Yorke (John Wayne) is a lieutenant colonel stationed near the Mexican border after the Civil War, charged with protecting the area from marauding injuns. It is a hard life and into his troop one day walks new recruit Jeff Yorke (Claude Jarman), his estranged son who he hasn't seen for 15 years. He is followed by his estranged wife Kathleen (Maureen O'Hara) who hates the army life and all it stands for, determined to buy her son back out of the army.
One of the main stars of the film is the wonderful Monument Valley with its magnificent hoodoos. (The crew apparently stayed in quite primitive conditions at a location called Goulding's Trading Post, which I must visit someday) Rugged, uncompromising and mysterious, the scenery is a perfect backdrop for Wayne, though one of the themes of the film is how the seemingly intractable positions held by humanity (O'Hara) and duty (Wayne) blur during the course of the film.
"Rio Grande" is not merely an Injun film, though there is none of the ambiguity attributed to the Injuns' motives as in "The Searchers." These Injuns are bad, "savages," as one character puts them and their eventual routing is quite predictable. The strength of the film lies in the chemistry between Wayne and O'Hara and the questions posed. Wayne had burned O'Hara's homestead to the ground 15 years previously during the Civil War - the cause of the estrangement - on army orders. "I wonder how history will view Shenandoah," Wayne asks at one stage. To him, it was a necessary evil. To O'Hara it was an act of cruelty.
There is a lot of comedy in the film too, mainly provided by the soon-to-become Squire Danagher, Victor McLaglen, as the Sergeant in charge of the recruits. McLaglen was once a heavyweight boxer of some note and, despite popular misconception (much of it fostered by McLaglen himself) he hadn't an ounce of Irishness in him, despite his constant casting as a dim-witted but lovable Irish rogue.
"Rio Grande" is the third and, in my opinion, best of John Ford's three cavalry pictures - "Fort Apache" and "She wore a yellow ribbon" were the other two - and is interesting as the first pairing of Wayne and O'Hara. Most critics seem to disagree, placing "Rio Grande" third in the trilogy. There are a few niggly problems - mainly due to the fact that most of the songs in the film were actually written post 1870s, though Quincannon's tears during the singing of "The Bold Fenian Men" is a delight! Wayne continues his emergence from being a one-dimensional actor to a multi-faceted anti-hero and, all in all, "Rio Grande" is a much under-rated film.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Battling intrinsic evil

Living in an ordinary semi-detached house in an ordinary newish estate in Dublin 15, intrinsic evil is not something we come up against on a daily basis. We do not have poltergeists chasing us down the stairs, nor axe murderers lurking around the wheelie bins, nor blood-sucking bats tapping on our double-glazing which, frankly, is no bad thing, as we don’t want the house prices to go down even further.
Of course, intrinsic evil (as opposed to any other kind) does not really exist outside of the horror movie genre, except in two forms – dentists and wasps.
No child ever grows up wanting to become a dentist. Psychologists suspect that medical students messing about with ouija boards inadvertently summon up the Devil who inserts into their brains the notion that they want to become dentists, and presto, another legalised sadist is created.
But for all their malevolence, the dentist tends not to bother you too much unless you are somehow brainwashed into visiting him in his surgery. In the thirty five years since leaving school, I finally summonsed up the courage to confront this man/beast about five years ago after a particular nasty abcess, thinking that the instruments of torture must surely have been refined during the intervening years. They hadn’t and consequently I will go to my grave with the stumps of my teeth rotting in my gums before making the same mistake again.
Wasps however are another kettle of insects entirely. In all of Christendom, there is no creature as nasty and this time of year they appear to be out in force to kill off any feelgood factor you might accidentally have picked up.
One of the few pleasures that we have is sitting outside on warm summer mornings and eating our breakfast on the wide bit of path outside the back door that we laughingly call a patio. This is an all too rare occurrence as sunny mornings tend not to coincide with my days off work, so when it does happen, it is a joyous occasion. A joyous occasion, that is, until a nasty black and yellow insect comes buzzing over the garden fence intent on spoiling our breakfast. Doesn’t matter if you’re eating fruit or Coco Pops or scrambled egg, he’ll come over and stick his big ugly snout in your airspace until you notice him and spring up wildly, threshing about like a demented windmill.
What I can’t figure out is how he seems to be able to smell a breakfast from two hundred yards. There could be juicy apples fermenting on trees or lovely nappies protruding from the wheelie bin down the road but produce a bowl of Krispies and he’s over like a shot, even though he’d never order it in a restaurant. Obviously it isn’t the food he’s interested in, per se, merely the ruination of your enjoyment of it.
Seemingly, they like garden sheds as well, though Lord knows, there’s not much nourishment in them. A few years ago they even started building a nest in our old shed, which I bravely sent crashing down with a rake before running away as fast as my short fat legs could carry me.
A few weeks ago, we had to get a new shed, as the old one was on its last struts. Two minutes after the new one was erected, there were four of them buzzing around it like potential house buyers, examining the joints and the felt roof. Only after emptying a half a can of Raid into the shed was I able to get in there myself.
Another thing they seem to like is carpets. We had Des Kelly coming to put a new carpet in the bedroom (not himself apparently, but a couple of lads who work for his company) and I got a nice dry day to roll out the old carpet on the grass to cut it up into small squares for easier disposal. No sooner had I started than a wasp started buzzing around my ear, obviously jeering me in wasp language because I was using a stanley knife that hadn’t seen a new blade since 1985. Even when I turned suddenly and threatened him with the aforementioned knife, he simply laughed and breezed away, returning with his waspish taunts as soon as I had got back to work.
Many years ago, when I was still in short pants (in my early thirties) my grandfather taught me how to kill wasps by the simple means of slapping them with my bare palm. They won’t sting you, he explained, because they won’t have their stingers out. But if you don’t kill them first time, don’t try and slap him again.
Of course, I tried and it worked and I duly became a minor celebrity in my primary school for my death-defying bravery in killing wasps with my bare hands. If I’d have been older, I could have walked around with a girl on either arm but at age seven, all girls smell. When asked how I did it, I simply said there was a knack to it, in case some other young punk tried to steal my thunder.
The problem nowadays is that wasps have got smarter. Oh I don’t mean they’re able to compose concertos or retrieve Dunnes trolleys with a euro coin without trying to push the coin in with another coin. No, they seem to have mastered the art of hovering. You can only slap a wasp to death if they actually land on a hard surface that your wife doesn’t object to ending up covered in wasp blood. If he simply flies around you, no amount of slapping will have any effect except maybe to add to his enjoyment of your rising frustration.
And now, in addition to your normal, nasty, head-and-torso wasp, you have these new guys who look like wasps but aren’t quite the real deal. They are more single-bodied and slightly transparent but if you suddenly find one landing on your glasses, you don’t stop to find out if its real or an impostor. They’re probably hornets but everybody says that about wasp-like creatures and I’m sure nobody really knows what a hornet looks like.
The other day we had three of these things in the kitchen and one in the sitting room and after I’d finished hooshing them out with a tea towel (their only natural enemy), I went upstairs to find a real wasp crawling around the inside of the bathroom window. I felt like Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs going around and bolting all the windows and doors against the evil outside. Unfortunately, the bathroom wasp flew away before I had time to get into position to slap him into oblivion.
The only good thing about this wasp epidemic is that you know, with our weather, that it won’t last. And then, in return for enduring abysmal weather for eight months, at least you get them wasp-free, demonstrating yet again that in front of every silver lining, there’s a dark cloud.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Goodbye Mona

Mona Brereton died last Wednesday (October 2nd) She was born on April 24th 1916, which is more commonly known in Irish history as Easter Monday, the day the Easter Rising started. I have it in my head that she told me once that she was born in the Rotunda, only a few hundred yards from the GPO, where Pearse read out the Declaration of Independence and which was shelled continually from land and water over the next few days. My wife and mother-in-law say this was unlikely as most babies were born at home and only the well-to-do attended the world's first maternity hospital in those days. Still, it's a good story and I'm sticking to it.
It wasn’t a very large funeral. Mona never married. She had one brother who disappeared off the face of the earth, so her only other relations were her cousins’ children. She used to talk a lot about her relations in New Zealand and corresponded regularly with them. She even visited them on two or three occasions and they would visit her whenever they came over this part of the world.
The other members of the congregation consisted mainly of her neighbours, her carers and the family of the late Doctor Dempsey, for whom she worked for decades.
Her parents lived in Swords Street where she grew up and, indeed, ended her days, in No 32.
Mona began working at the doctor’s surgery in Manor Street in Dublin 7 when she was 16 in 1932. It wasn’t Dr. Dempsey at the time but an older man. I have no idea when Dr. Dempsey took over but I know that Mona worked with him for decades. Mona lived above the surgery at the time.
Dr. Dempsey’s son spoke about Mona at the funeral. She had been very much a part of the family and her and the doctor would bounce off each other. The two of them were one of the first to run the Free Drug Scheme, when they were both somewhat elderly and apparently they’d both be giving out yards about the difficulties of dealing with what was effectively a prototype of Pobal.
Mona retired in 1993. She had to leave the house  in Manor Street but such was the affection in which she was held by the doctor’s family, that they purchased the little Artisan cottage in Swords Street that she had grown up in and gave it to Mona to live in till the end of her days.
I can’t claim to have known Mona well. My wife was born and reared in the house next to Mona’s and her parents still live there. They knew Mona for over half a century and Mona was a long-standing friend of the family. She told me she could remember my wife coming home from hospital in 19589 and crying continually. My mother-in-law used to spend long evenings in with Mona, chatting about this and that and the state of the world. My brother-in-law would do the same.
When we were moving house thirteen years ago now, there was a gap between selling our house and moving into the new one. We all moved in with my wife’s parents, though due to space constraints, it was decided that I would sleep in Mona’s.
I didn’t really know her that well. I knew she never forgot our children’s birthday and there was always a card with money in it at Christmas too. I’d visited her occasionally with my wife and mother-in-law but beyond a few pleasantries, nothing much had passed between us. So I was a bit apprehensive about how we’d get along.
I needn’t have bothered. Mona was so easy to chat to. I’d go in to her around 9pm and we stay up chatting until after 11pm. Most nights she’d get the whiskey out and we’d share a dram. Can’t for the life of me remember what we talked about but the conversation was always free-flowing. I remember asking her one time why she’d never married. “It just never happened,” she replied, shrugging her shoulders. She used to refer to me as “her toy-boy” and wondered if the neighbours were scandalized by an 84 year old woman co-habiting with a much younger man. All of course said with that twinkle in her eye that was never far away.
It must have been about six or seven years ago that she started getting sick. She ended up in hospital a few times and by the end, she had had more than enough. She didn’t see the point in carrying on, there was no quality of life. She was a real Eleanor Rigby, the spark had gone and it was simply a matter of waiting till the end. She had home-help, who came in and did a bit of light cleaning and cooked her meals. She had a very good neighbor who came in to see her all the time, collected her pension for her, paid the bills. But He did her no favours, dragging it out for years until finally last Wednesday, she got relief. She is buried in Glasnevin with her parents.
I hope she has at last found the God she believed in implicitly.