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March 2014
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jury duty

I was called for jury duty on Monday.

Sometimes the U.S. legal system can be mundane, at least from the outside. I got up early and my kind wife drove me to the courthouse around 8:30 in the morning. I sat in the jury waiting room until around 9:45, at which point we were told to come back at 1:45. Which meant I had three hours to kill, since I didn’t have the car and getting home and back would have been a bit much (not to mention a burden on my wife, who was working all of this time). So I left and walked seven blocks down to Jack London Square, wandered around, walked back to the courthouse, went through the metal detector for the second time, bought a couple of plain old-fashioned donuts, and went back to the waiting room, prepared to wait for the more than two hours it would take for 1:45 to arrive. I’d started reading Nelson George’s book on Soul Train, and figured I’d just go back to it.

The waiting room was empty except for the guy behind the counter, and I had this bizarre feeling that I was the only person among the 120 or so folks who had been called, who had nothing better to do than return to the room and sit around.

Good news finally arrived: the judge had postponed everything until Tuesday, which meant us Monday jurors could go home, with our jury obligation served for another year.

I’ve been on a couple of juries, and I’ve been thanked for my time and turned away a couple of times. To be honest, I prefer the latter. The first jury on which I served was a purse-snatch … trial lasted six days including two days of deliberations before we found him guilty. The second jury was ended in the middle when one side agreed to pay money to the other side … it was a fight between two guys during a pickup basketball game, and I still don’t know why the tax payers’ money was wasted on the case.

When I am questioned by the judge and/or attorneys, I can tell a truthful story that makes me sound like a good or bad potential juror. Mostly, I can turn myself “bad” by mentioning certain things, like that my dad did time as an embezzler. But in recent years, after a long time teaching critical thinking classes, I feel like I’d be paralyzed on a jury, because my standards of truthful evidence are much stricter than they used to be. For one trial, I told this to the judge … explained that I had a hard time accepting basic stuff like eyewitness testimony, even though I said I could follow the judge’s instructions. I was thanked and dismissed by one of the lawyers.

I don’t know … in some ways, I’m a perfect choice for a jury. I’m smart enough, I’m good at analyzing material, and I’m at least semi-retired. Yet I can’t get rid of the notion that any jury I sat on nowadays would end up a hung jury, with 11 votes one way and me saying “I don’t know”.

what i watched last week

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford, 1949). It’s a beautiful film to look at (Winton C. Hoch won an Oscar for Best Color Cinematography), Ben Johnson shows some of the charisma that led to a long acting career in one of his first credited roles (he was a rodeo champion who got into movies as a stuntman), and John Wayne does a good job of playing a character a couple of decades older than he is. (Wayne isn’t helped much by his makeup, but the acting is fine, as is usually the case.) The movie features the good and bad of John Ford, which is also usually the case in his films. There are peerless elements, but the “let’s get Victor McLaglen drunk” scene is as boring as always, and the movie seems more than once to be over. But the good outweighs the bad, and if this isn’t an all-time classic Ford, it’s more than good enough. Joanne Dru (and her role) raise an interesting point. A year earlier, in Red River, she played a typical Howard Hawks woman (not the best example by far, to be honest). I’ve always loved the scene where she takes an arrow in the shoulder and keeps jabbering away like nothing happened. In Yellow Ribbon, she plays a much more traditional woman who rides side-saddle. Ironic side note: the thunderstorm with lightning bolts that likely did a lot of win Hoch his Oscar wouldn’t have happened if Ford hadn’t told Hoch to keep working during the storm. #605 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10. Best companion pieces would be Fort Apache and Rio Grande, the other parts of Ford’s “Cavalry Trilogy”.

They Died with Their Boots On (Raoul Walsh, 1942). Nonsense about Custer that is almost entirely fictional, yet presented as fact. In fairness, I’m not sure anyone was ever expected to believe the film was “true” … the New York Times review at the time referred to “factual inaccuracies liberally sprinkled throughout”, with “a viewpoint in variance with certain historical accounts of the tragedy”. The best argument seems to be no argument at all; we are just supposed to take the film for its value as an action picture with Errol Flynn. Given the continued controversies surrounding Custer’s actions, I suppose that’s OK, although it’s pretty hard to watch without thinking of “facts”. Some of the problems are just reflective of the times, such as Anthony Quinn playing Crazy Horse. Ultimately, I think the film fails, regardless of its take on Custer, because it tries to be too much: the epic story of a great historical figure, the drama of a flawed man, an enduring romance between two actors who had worked together so many times before (Flynn and Olivia de Havilland), and more. I admit to liking the part where the big villains are greedy businessmen. But at 140 minutes, the movie is at least 40 minutes too long, even if it keeps your attention because you know Little Big Horn awaits you. #993 on the TSPDT list. 6/10. If you want to see the best Flynn-de Havilland movie, watch The Adventures of Robin Hood.

They Were Expendable (John Ford, 1945). I admit I had misgivings about this one: a movie about PT boats with John Wayne second-billed to Robert Montgomery. Once again, I was wrong. They Were Expendable is actually a fairly dark, even personal Ford film. The trick is that the film tells the story of the U.S. mission in Asia during WWII before that mission turned in the Americans’ favor. So much of the movie is about defeat and loss. It wasn’t released until the war was over, though, and its dark mood didn’t match with the post-war relief felt by audiences. Even the obligatory love interest is downbeat: Donna Reed (always good) plays a nurse who cares for Wayne when he is hospitalized with blood poisoning. They come close to falling in love, he goes back on duty, and though there is still half a movie to go, we never see Reed again. #571 on the TSPDT list. 8/10. Companion piece? From Here to Eternity, also with Donna Reed and also featuring Pearl Harbor.

john wayne: the life and legend, by scott eyman

Scott Eyman begins his lengthy, well-researched biography of John Wayne with the following famous quote: “That guy you see on the screen isn’t really me. I’m Duke Morrison, and I never was and never will be a film personality like John Wayne. I know him well. I’m one of his closest students. I have to be. I make a living out of him.”

That quote effectively describes what Eyman is up to with his biography. There are the basic facts. There are the movies, with even the least of them getting a little attention. There is the pop psychology surrounding Wayne’s relationship to John Ford. But mostly, Eyman is telling the story of Duke Morrison, knowing all along that if the name John Wayne wasn’t in the title, no one would read his book.

Opinion about the quality of Wayne’s acting has risen and fallen and risen with the passage of time. Eyman quotes James Baldwin, who wrote about movie stars, “One does not go to see them act: one goes to watch them be.” Wayne was a movie star, and his popularity was not because of his acting skills (although he had plenty of them). It was because of his ability to be John Wayne. At the end of his career, that wasn’t enough. But he was on top for longer than most movie stars, and he remains an iconic figure, decades after his death.

Because of the seeming narrowness of his political views, because of the specific range in which he performed, some people assumed Wayne must have been anti-intellectual at best and a little dumb at worst. Eyman shows how untrue this is. Wayne could quote Shakespeare and Milton from memory … he was president of the Latin Society in high school … he was a masterful chess player. He was not dumb or anti-intellectual.

But I’m talking about John Wayne as if he was a real person. It was Duke Morrison who knew Milton and Latin and chess. And it was Duke Morrison who, gradually, over time, created “John Wayne”.  It helped that directors like John Ford knew what to do with “John Wayne”, but there were no Svengalis in this story. In an odd, artificial way, “John Wayne” was a self-made man, only the self who made him was Duke Morrison.

The book is good on the details of Wayne’s classic films, and Eyman has many of the participants in those films to offer their stories. Almost every actor who worked with Wayne admired his professionalism and found him a good work companion (the ladies in particular found him delightful, it would seem, with Maureen O’Hara at the top of that list). Because he came up through the ranks, and because he was Duke Morrison, Wayne was always respectful of the crew members (if they did their job well). Eyman hasn’t whitewashed Wayne’s story … the Wayne of the book is far from perfect. But he places Wayne’s movie career in a narrative arc that makes sense, and this leads to a bittersweet final few chapters, as Red River and Rio Bravo turn into McQ and Brannigan. Morrison did such a good job of creating John Wayne that he ultimately couldn’t escape his creation. For the most part, Wayne sidesteps self-pity, but the reader understands the difficulties in living up to a fictional character.

music friday, 1996 edition

The Fugees, “Killing Me Softly With His Song”. Lauryn Hill pays a deep tribute to Roberta Flack. How you think about that sentence will go a lot towards how you feel about the remake.

The Cardigans, “Lovefool”. Pretend that you love me.

DJ Shadow, “Midnight in a Perfect World”. How to pay deep tribute while creating something new.

Nas, “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That)”. Lauryn Hill pops up again.

The Wallflowers, “One Headlight”. I love the bass line on this.

Amy Rigby, “Beer & Kisses”. “Get home from work, turn on the light, sit on the couch, spend the whole night there.”

Iris DeMent, “When My Morning Comes Around”. “When my mornin' comes around, from a new cup I'll be drinking, and for once I won't be thinking that there's something wrong with me.”

Everclear, “Santa Monica”. OK, so it’s really 1995. It grew large in my brain in 1996. We can live beside the ocean.

2Pac, “California Love”. Sacramento, Sacramento, where you at?

Sleater-Kinney, “Good Things”. “Why do good things never wanna stay?” Why, indeed.



cover versions

I once saw Sleater-Kinney at the Fillmore perform “Promised Land” on Bruce Springsteen’s birthday.

Last night, Bruce hauled out another of his cover versions to start a concert. It was “Clampdown” by The Clash.

In an odd way, these two facts affect me in similar ways.

what i watched last week

Our Hospitality (John G. Blystone and Buster Keaton, 1923). Early Keaton feature is in many ways a more “normal” movie than some of his famous classics, telling a version of the Hatfields and the McCoys that is played only partly for laughs. There are some sweet moments between Keaton and his then-wife Natalie Talmadge, and loving recreations of an 1830 train and a bicycle from the same era. What makes it “normal” is that there is very little of the acrobatic slapstick we expect from Keaton. The ending, though, is a battle with nature than comes close to matching the peerless storm in Steamboat Bill, Jr. Even here, it’s played less for laughs than for audacious daring, and Keaton’s work is jaw-dropping as no one else was until Jackie Chan came along. #546 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10. The Netflix streaming version includes Sherlock Jr., which is one of his great 10/10 movies (there are more than one), which makes a nice double bill.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014). 6/10.

12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013). 9/10.

Big Night (Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci, 1996). 8/10.

happy anniversary!

Twelve years ago today, in one of the proudest moments of my life, I performed the wedding ceremony for Neal and Sonia. Here is what I wrote:

Welcome, everyone, to the marriage ceremony of Sonia Penaloza and Neal Smith-Rubio. For those who are wondering, yes, it's legal having me up here doing the marrying. Legalities aside, what is important is that you are all here to witness this special occasion. Neal and Sonia have been together for a long time, and part of what makes this ceremony important is that they are, now and forever, sharing their togetherness with us, inviting us to a public recognition of their life and love.

Con permiso, quiero hablar por un momento en espanol, y disculpeme, porque mi espanol es un poquito malo. Pero pienso que es importante en una ocasion como esto hablar en los dos idiomas de las familias. Creo que este boda sirve como un simbolo del siglo 21, con muchas culturas, y familias de los estados unidos, de mexico, de espana, todo incluido en una nueva familia de Penaloza, Smith y Rubio. Vamonos al futuro con Sonia y Neal.

Main Body
The future. That's what we're looking at here. Not just Neal and Sonia's future, but the future of all of us who will share, with them, the rest of their lives. But while the marriage ceremony itself is public, marriage life is a private affair between the two participants. For that reason, there's not a whole lot I can say here in terms of advice; it's your lives to live, and the decision to come here today was yours and yours alone.

I can say this. When you are young, you take pride in the things that you accomplish for yourself. As you join with others, not only in marriage but in friendship and in the workplace, you take pride in what you accomplish as part of a team. But there comes a time in your life when you realize that, in an odd way, you can take pride in what others accomplish with your help. When you watch the fruits of your life ripen into something that feeds others. Your pride is less in yourself than it is pride in your influence on those other people. I look out at all the people who have come here today, and I see people on whom I'd like to believe I've had some influence. And I certainly see people who have had that influence on me. Today, I am proud of my son, of the life he has created for himself, of the partnership he has formed with Sonia, and, yes, I am proud of whatever influence Robin and I have had on what has led Neal to this day. And I am proud that Sonia is a part of our family. I won't say I am proud to welcome her into our family, for in fact, she has been a part of our family for many years, now. But I am proud to join Sonia and Neal today in announcing to the world, esto es mi familia. This is my family.

[Song by Cory]

Neal, do you take Sonia to be your wife? [I DO] Will you love her, honor her, and stand by her in everything, so long as you both shall live? [I WILL]

Sonia, do you take Neal to be your husband? [I DO] Will you love him, honor him, and stand by him in everything, so long as you both shall live? [I WILL]

Exchange of Rings
At this point, as Sonia and Neal prepare to exchange rings, I'm supposed to say something about the symbolic meaning of rings, about how the circular nature of the ring represents a love that never ends but always circles back upon itself. But instead I'd like to mention a more obvious meaning of a wedding ring: it means you are married. When you see a person with a ring on the fourth finger of their left hand, you say to yourself, "that person is married." When Robin and I were married, I told her I didn't want a wedding ring, and so our ceremony was a bit shorter than most; we only had one ring to deal with! But six months later, we got me a wedding ring. Because I didn't really understand until I didn't have one: a wedding ring says to the world, "hey, I'm married!"

Sonia, do you have a ring for Neal? Neal, do you accept this ring as a symbol of Sonia's love? Neal, do you have a ring for Sonia? Sonia, do you accept this ring as a symbol of Neal's love?

I've tried to avoid saying the usual clichés today, but at this point I can't resist. Neal and Sonia, I now pronounce you husband and wife. It's time to kiss!