Straw Dogs (2011)

Rod Lurie's remake of Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs serves its purpose. It's an interesting look at the veneer of civility that exists among men, and the transformative powers of violence to create personal (and, in this case, physical/geographical) identity.

Here, the contrast is between rural and urban; between the American South and the Hollywood star system. I mention that it's a physical/geographical source of identity because, if we're to trust Lurie's film, we're led to believe that hunting is simply what you do in the American South. Hunting, in fact, serves as a kind of overt symbol for our protagonist's character transformation. It's not part of his make-up initially, but it surely becomes a part of it by film's end...

James Marsden offers a fine performance as David Sumner, a screenwriter thrust into a difficult situation when he and his new wife return to Mississippi to fix up the family homestead. It's a traditional "fish-out-of-water" trope, and Marsden delivers a nice turn here. He steps on the wrong toes (opting for a nap while church is in session--a big-time cultural faux pas) and manages to alienate just about everybody around him within a few days of pulling into town. We've seen it all before, but Marsden's transformation from mild-mannered writer to principled fighter is a redemptive journey for the audience. In the scene where he takes down the deer, we understand his conflicted feelings at the same time that we clear an important narrative hurdle: Sumner is willing to pull the trigger.

Good thing, too, because he'll need to in the third act.

There is an undercurrent of sexual antagonism that makes the film appropriately uncomfortable. The rape scene is very hard to take, more emotionally grueling than the brutal on-screen violence in the third act.

I read an interesting criticism of how the American South was depicted in this piece, and I had some of those same thoughts after leaving the theater. While Jacksonville, Florida, is far removed from rural Mississippi, so I could be guilty of provincial thinking here, I will say that the antagonists came off as caricatures. They fit into just about every nice little Southern stereotype you can think of, with Rhys Coiro's portrayal of Norman crossing the line most egregiously.

We had a discussion in our rhetoric session today on the artistic impact of violence and sex in contemporary cinema. In the case of Lurie's version of Straw Dogs, the violence absolutely creates the narrative tension that pushes the film forward. It's gory, to be sure, but never gratuitous.

Overall, I liked it better than many of the critical reviews I read (I'd say a 'B' grade about nails it, no pun intended) and I think it's a fine example of how violence distills some very honest human reactions to conflict...


Qualifying Hate

He glanced at his parents watching through a nearby window, took several deep breaths and closed his eyes. A single tear hung on the edge of his right eye as he was pronounced dead at 6:21 p.m., 10 minutes after the lethal drugs began flowing into his arms, both covered with intricate black tattoos.

That paragraph comes from a story about the execution of Lawrence Brewer. Brewer, a soldier in a race war that only he and his idiot friends were fighting, died tonight. He died young, and he created his own demise.

Brewer was charged and convicted for dragging James Byrd, Jr. to death on a rough Texas road. If you read the original reports of the crime, they are harrowing. Mr. Byrd was literally pulled apart on that road.

My thoughts on capital punishment are ongoing. I'm still wrestling with it.

But when I think about how Mr. Byrd's life ended and how Brewer's life ended, it really doesn't compute.

Peace be with you, Mr. Byrd...


The Gaping Maw

It's been an extraordinarily frustrating and expensive year around the old homestead this year. Home ownership is great and all, but I often admire renters, too--particularly for the fact that they have mobility and that the burden of maintenance falls upon the landlord.

Our house is fourteen years old. It's a nice place, and we've been very happy here. No jaw-less Japanese corpse ghosts in the attic, which has always been a big plus for us. It's got a nice layout and we've done a good job with the yard, and Lyla knows it well and is comfortable here.

But the last year has seen a wave of appliance meltdowns. Since January, we've replaced the dryer and the dishwasher and did an $800 repair on the A/C unit. We paid a fellow to put in the dishwasher (we tried to do it ourselves, but after a short period of time we didn't find even an ounce of joy in it) and it took us forever to re-wire the danged dryer cord.

Then, a month ago, we had to do a repair on the Prius. $500 more bucks that just flew away...

So that brings me to Monday morning, and a note by the coffee machine that Jeanne left before heading to work. She said the freezer was leaking, and told me to replace the towels (that's how we fix things--soak it up with towels! Quick! More towels!). I did and I went to work. I came home and looked at it more closely and, lo and behold, that ol' side-by-side refrigerator bit the dust in the middle of Sunday night. I didn't even know it was sick!

Last night we ordered another one.

A cool grand later, our new fridge will be here tomorrow and we're eating at Subway tonight.

I came home from work today (I left it plugged in over night, as it was still marginally cool, just not either freezing or cold) and the house stank like moldy cheese. The culprit, I soon found, was a brick of moldy cheese.

I vented the house, tossed out more than one hundred pounds of frozen and fresh foods, and spent an hour hosing out enough condiment bottles to fill a hefty garbage bag. Now, only the gaping maw (my least favorite horror cliche, by the way) of the old bleached-out fridge remains in the kitchen, waiting for haul away.

She gave us five good years of service, and likely did a good job for many years prior to that. We had planned to maybe fly home for Christmas this year, but now it's looking like spring break. I'll hum jingle bells every time I open the door for a cold drink, I suppose...

These things happen and that's just a part of life, but I sure hope that water heater out there isn't getting any ideas...


Jones Creek...

Very Thankful...

My wife is my best friend.

That is the sincere truth, and after our fourteen years together, I still marvel at how much goofy fun we have together every single day.

Over the last six months, we've been a little antsy with medical concerns. I never reached defcon-five in terms of my own worry status, but I found that, fairly often, I would catch Jeanne in a private moment of anxiety. We had some tests done, and then we had to wait and go through the tests again. After six months of waiting, very fortunately, we have a clean bill of health and everything looks fine.

It's turned out to be an immense relief.

Last night we celebrated our ninth wedding anniversary. We will probably have a date pretty soon just to actually mark the date, but I think that, while the ninth anniversary holds no traditional mark of distinction, this one will always be very special to me.

I'm very thankful to Jeanne for all that she does for our family. Lyla and I are extremely fortunate to have her.

And another reason that I'm thankful: I live 2.8 miles from Jones Creek. I can throw the boat in the truck, pick up five fresh Key West pink shrimp, cut them into fifteen baits, and have four big reds within the space of an hour. I released the fish, but they would have been some jim-dandy mouth candy on the ol' grill!


Geoff Ryman's "What We Found"

Geoff Ryman's story "What We Found," which can be read in the SEPT/OCT issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, is one of those redeeming tales that keep me interested in the digest. I really had some trepidation about extending my subscription a few months ago. The publication has some decent books columns, and there are occasionally brilliant tales found in these pages, but I found there was more of the hard science fiction than I like, and also a bit more of the whimsical fantastic than suited my tastes. I'm a fan of the mundane speculative tale, the stories where small artifacts and encounters take on greater meaning as a result of their speculative influences, whatever they may be.

So it's been nice to see some of the stories that carry that out well published recently in F & SF. Ken Liu's "The Paper Menagerie" is just that type of story, and so is "What We Found." I would expect that this story, a treatise on familial love and betrayal, the ties that bind us to our genetic inheritances, and the uncertainty of madness, will make many lists of best fiction when those things come back into fashion during the holidays.

It deserves its critical praise. Our first-person narrator is simultaneously detached and intimate. It makes for a very compelling character study. The narrative heart of the story is the narrator's love for his mercurial brother, Raphael. Their connection is based on genuine love and mutual respect, and the time that Ryman takes in illustrating their bond makes the final act all the more heart breaking for the reader.

In many ways, "What We Found" strikes me as a companion to Louise Erdrich's fine tale of sibling dissolution, "The Red Convertible." Raphael and Junior share a number of the same character traits and, ultimately and unfortunately, a similar fate.

I won't delve too far into the plot of Ryman's story here because it's such a treat to read, but if you're familiar with the Erdrich story, you'll find the tale packs an emotional wallop. Ryman's writing is excellent. The fluidity and clarity of the prose I discovered here have compelled me to seek out and read his novels...


Crucified Dreams

What I'm Reading in 2011

Despite the odd title of this anthology of urban fiction, Crucified Dreams represents a solid collection of interesting storytelling. I've said it before here on this blog that Joe Lansdale is, for my money, one of the most consistent writers in the business for my tastes. I've never put one of his books down after starting it, and I find most of his offerings to trend toward the high limits of the quality scale.

He proves he's no slouch here as an editor as well.

Most of these are dark, dark tales. As he states in the introduction, the only thing these tales really share is a climate of originality, and there is that in spades here. There's a little fantastic whimsy in stories like Ellen Klages's "Singing on a Star" (makes one wonder about the family down the street--and the ominous record or toy your son or daughter might bring home after a play date).

There's brutal, no-hold-barred stories like "The Pit," by the editor, and "Quitters, Inc.," by Stephen King. Tom Piccirilli's "Loss" reminds me of the surreal, dark output that I've been reading by Laird Barron.

My favorite story in this fine collection is "Coffins on the River," by Jeffrey Ford. Ford's ability to nail the protagonists' character and flesh them out with real pathos is enviable. I also really enjoyed the subtleties exhibited by the nuanced storyteller. Ford, in one passage, mentions the tale's central redeeming plot conflict in such a cursory manner that, when we re-encounter it in the story's third act, the redemption is all the sweeter for the reader. It's masterful narrative.

Lucius Shepard's "Beast of the Heartland" is a startling tale--the writing is crisp and beautiful, the characters three-dimensional and round.

There are fine stories here by Octavia E. Butler, Joe Haldeman and Michael Bishop. Very good anthology, and highly recommended.

Now off to class...



Steven Soderbergh's latest is a very strong film. It unfolds with narrative urgency (the running timeline of the epidemic's progress is quite compelling) and some startling intimacy that provides some very uncomfortable moments. Soderbergh's tight close-ups on the blotchy, feverish victims--on their credit cards, their hands in public bowls of peanuts, their frequent touching of their faces and their uncovered coughs--are unsettling. You'll turn and look at the others in the theater. I dare you not to...

There was a guy in the theater that was absolutely hacking up a lung throughout the whole picture. It certainly added a level of diegetic authenticity to the film, and it drove me up the wall! My two-year-old daughter knows well enough to cover her mouth when she coughs, but this guy was doing that at a movie called Contagion!

It's a sprawling story. A very good cast carries out the piece with aplomb and pathos. My two favorite turns were given by Kate Winslet and Jennifer Ehle. These are the doctors that address the epidemic at its outset, and that test the vaccines as the disease mutates. Both bring a sense of exhaustion and perseverance to their roles, and they hit their notes perfectly.

It covers a lot of territory in such a short time. From the shortages of medicine to the looting and profiteering by scumbags like Jude Law's toothy Alan Krumweide, we see the worst that humanity has to offer in times of crisis. Civility breaks down, as does our national infrastructure. The detached news reports are all too authentic, and there is a chilling shot of the vaccine being archived next to the SARS and H1N1 vaccines. At one juncture in the film, a reporter discusses absenteeism by law enforcement reaching 25%, and that's a pretty scary glimpse behind the veil.

The film delves into the international reaction to the disease, with an unresolved narrative thread concerning a hostage negotiation for vaccine doses. It's the only fault, this unresolved story line, in an otherwise great film (A-).

It feels all too real, and the story is one that begs for audience introspection. How would you react to such a pandemic wildfire? What would you do to keep your loved ones safe? What is "normal," and to what extent are we our brothers' keepers?

There is a bouncy, digital score that feels like it was ripped from the best thrillers of the late 1980s. The film itself, gritty and fast-paced, would have been at home in that era as well. It's a throwback--an adult film with a downer plot that moves well based on strong acting and solid filmmaking craft.

And it'll make you think twice when you're in the back room, folding laundry, and the newscaster on the television in the other room, in typical exuberant nonchalance, offers a tiny report about the latest flu virus ripping out of the interior of Mexico or the streets of Hong Kong. Tough stuff, indeed.

Now go see the movie, and don't wipe your eyes. Hey you! Stop touching your face!



Thanks, Freddy T!

The greatest Jaguar of all time retired today. He was in Jacksonville today to hold an emotional press conference. Fred deserves to go into the hall of fame. He had eight seasons in which he averaged more than 4.5 yards per carry (only Barry Sanders and Jim Brown can also say that). He ran for more than 10,000 yards, developed as a pass catcher, had longevity after overcoming some early injuries, and he has the longest playoff run in NFL history.

Even more remarkable is the kind of person he is. Fred is a community stalwart. His foundation does a lot for the city of Jacksonville, and he is a good father and husband. He said some great things today about his wife and grandmother, and he is a perfect example of a humble superstar.

Thanks for all the great memories, Fred. It'll be good to have you working with the organization as the Jaguars move into a great future...


Picture This, Jacksonville

Imagine a major metropolitan area in Florida that took full advantage of its greatest resources: its diversity of human capital and its rich natural resources.

Imagine a place where people had a genuine mutual respect for one another--where they operated under the golden rule in their daily interactions, regardless of age, race, economic status, religious background or ethnicity.

Imagine a place carved from an ecosystem teeming with wildlife and with some of the greatest access to the natural world in all of the United States of America. Imagine a place with some of the finest fishing on the planet, with some of the best golf courses in North America, with miles and miles of pristine beach.

Imagine a place filled with colorful history. Imagine a place that is home to first-rate museums, a wonderful zoo, beautiful botanical gardens, dozens of state and national parks, and the largest municipal parks system in the United States.

Imagine a place where the community supported education. Imagine a place where our teachers were given autonomy to teach a curriculum unbound, at least partially, to standardized testing. Imagine a place that respected its public servants, and where parents instilled in their children a desire to strive for a station in life that surpasses their own.

Imagine a safe place for everyone. Imagine a place where folks could make a living wage without the need for a college education, where the citizens could work for companies that were successful enough to give their employees access to dentists and doctors.

That place could be Jacksonville, but it's not.

This community is blessed with some of the greatest fundamental assets of any place I've ever been, and I lived in Colorado and Oregon prior to moving here in 2005. Those are two places that have recognized the wealth of opportunity they have, and they've capitalized on it. We have many wonderful advantages here, but will we ever harness the community will to capitalize on them?

Fifteen people have been shot in Jacksonville in the last four days. Four have died as a result of the shootings, including an unborn child, and a toddler is now fighting for his life in the hospital. A witches' brew of circumstances has certainly contributed to the sorrowful place in which our city now finds itself: unemployment, a lack of education, a diffusion of weapons among young people, a lack of viable opportunities for our new college graduates.

It's a real shame, this sense of community nihilism.

My wife works as a counselor at Forrest High School, where she puts in long hours helping students achieve success and move toward college. There are many like her, and yet the dropout rate in Duval County is a staggering 30% (and that number takes into account some generous accounting). Many of the kids lack parental involvement and stable home lives.

I encourage our school board, our educational leaders and our public safety community to work hard to hold parents accountable for truant children. We have viable after-school programs for our kids, but we need more. Many of the sports we no longer fund (because our tax basis faltered, and the decreased revenues led to cuts in education and extracurricular activities) kept kids occupied and working toward concrete goals.

I hope, as the federal government works to re-think the "No Child Left Behind" legislation, that our educational leaders will devise a plan that recognizes testing as the important tool it is, but doesn't make it the greatest measure of a person's ability to learn and execute fundamental skills. In Oregon, the educational system had specific testing benchmarks, but the emphasis for students was on developing critical thinking skills, using technology effectively and focusing on effective communication skills.

I work with around one hundred students every term here at Florida State College. These are intelligent people with strong fundamental academic skills. They are hungry to learn, and they are taking advantage of the great opportunities that our state has to offer in higher education.

But my students are in the extreme minority. We have one of the least expensive higher education systems in America (I believe we rank #49 in total cost for in-state tuition). We also have one of the best, in terms of value and practicality. The problem here is the disconnection between high school preparation and ascension to college. Our students, for various reasons, are dropping out of school at such an alarming rate that they never even see this great opportunity as a realistic option. Our city and educational leaders must work with families in disadvantaged communities to stress the value of education and push for lifelong learning. We need to take advantage of VPK in these areas and re-think our approach to siphoning the best students from our struggling schools and sending them to our best magnet schools. This practice only exacerbates the problems of the haves and the have-nots.

Jacksonville is beautiful. I'm thankful that our community doesn't subscribe to the saccharine, insincere cultural make-up of Disneyfied Orlando, or the pumped-up, cosmetic nature of South Florida. The people here are sincere and refreshingly unpretentious. And we should use that cultural ethos as part of our pitch to capitalize on tourism.

If I'm Mayor Brown, whom I admire and voted for, then I work with my economic development team to apply for every federal dollar available to develop Jacksonville as a destination spot for folks looking to revel in "Old Florida."

I'm working to first find federal money, and then work with community leaders to venture into places like Brooklyn, where folks are out of work; I'm taking that money and giving them jobs working on our finest natural assets. I get the Palms Fish Camp up and running and I work with the St. Johns Riverkeeper to keep our waters clean and I identify other city properties for tourist development.

I put my butt on the plane and I pitch Jacksonville to every major community in America. Come here for our history, our climate, our cuisine, our friendly people, our beaches, our fishing and our sporting activities! I get businesses to locate on the waterfront in downtown, taking tourists out on the St. Johns and into the creeks for birding and shrimping and fishing.

We live in a paradox. This place has such great advantages, and such a staggering disregard for those very things. I experienced a perfect metaphor for this earlier today. I was headed out to the St. Johns to do a little kayaking and fishing. There I was, enjoying the view of the brackish marshes, when a tricked-out Monte Carlo cuts me off, rolls down the window and empties an ash tray at forty miles an hour. It looks like a comet tail, all that foul garbage. Then, at 9:30 in the morning, the passenger throws three empty cans of Busch into the grass on the side of Merrill Road. Those cans will likely end up in the river.

Why? Because some people simply don't care.

This is the greatest task that we who care about this place face. How do we get others to buy in? How do we overcome this cultural nihilism that seems to pervade our city?

The stakes are too great not to try, but when I read about the things that happened this week in Brooklyn and I see egrets stalking minnows in shallows filled with floating garbage, I become discouraged, and that's no way to live...

Updated: I received a few e-mails on where I put in. The cul-de-sac on Ginhouse Creek...

You Know When It's Good

If you spend any real time at the word processor, you understand that sometimes the writing flows and you just know in your heart and in you...