‘Mockingbird’ town

Monroeville street banner.

Monroeville street banner.

Outside of connecting with my family history at Pine Level, there was nothing more appealing on our Alabama trip than a visit to Harper Lee’s hometown in Monroeville.

Lee’s story had gripped me for a long time.  In 1960, at the age of 34, her bestselling novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published and won the Pulitzer Prize.  It has become an American classic.  What engaged me was the fact she stopped writing.  One book and that was it.  Her controversial and yet to be published “Go Set a Watchman” pre-dated ‘Mockingbird.’  In fact she has often called ‘Watchman’ the parent of ‘Mockingbird” and saw no reason to have it put into print.

Nothing like a whiff of fragrance from the spirea.

Nothing like a whiff of fragrance from the spirea.

Now, here it was, 55 years after ‘Mockingbird,’ and she was still alive, at age 89, residing in a care facility in Monroeville with the ‘Watchman’ controversy surrounding her.  The new-old novel apparently was discovered by Lee’s attorney, sent to a literary agent with the author’s approval and is set to be published on or about July 15 by HarperCollins in the U.S.  It will also be published in Great Britain.  Many of Lee’s friends in Monroeville question whether she is mentally competent to OK a book that for more than a half century she has chosen not to publish.  Many think it is an attempt by others to enrich themselves and to bring new fame and tourist business to her hometown.

Also, at least in my mind, was the question of her authorship of  “Mockingbird.”  Her late cousin and celebrated author of “In Cold Blood” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” has long been linked to at least having an editing role in ‘Mockingbird.’  As a young boy, Capote, spent summers in Monroeville, living next door to the Lee family, and becoming close friends with Harper.  In fact, years later Lee accompanied Capote on his reporting trip to Kansas for “In Cold Blood.’

All this stirred my interest, although there was one apparent setback to our visit.

Crowd awaits start of the play.

Crowd awaits start of the play.

Since 1990, local amateurs have been putting on a two-act play of “To Kill a Mockingbird” at the old Monroe County courthouse in town.  To see the play in Lee’s hometown while she was still alive and nearby was the big attraction.  Trouble was the play, which runs several weekends each spring, was sold out.  Every performance.  I knew that as we left Sikes and Kohn’s Country Mall in Pine Level and steered south for the 120-mile drive to Monroeville.  At least, I thought we could do the “Mockingbird” walking tour and check out the museum in the old courthouse.

Despite storm clouds moving in from the southwest, the drive proved enjoyable.  Alabama seems to me nothing more than a zillion small towns, most of them interesting.  But I saw none as nice as Luverne, between Troy and I-65 at Greenville.  Luverne bills itself as “The Friendliest Little Town in The South.”  Some of my distant kin live here to this day.  In my notebook, I jotted “very pretty place.”

Then there was tiny Rutledge where on the west side I saw a Confederate flag flying high.  It was the only one I would see during the entire trip.

The traveling was greatly enhanced by the fragrance of spirea blooms along the roadside.  Growing an estimated 15 feet high in places, the sweet scent of these abundant bushes and their cascading white flowers permeated the Yaris as we drove along.  Getting off 65 at Greenville, we stopped to take a closer look and a whiff of this intoxicating flower.

Capote house's ruins.

Capote house’s ruins.

It was mid-afternoon when we finally reached Monroeville.  Plenty of time to look around.  And maybe, just maybe, we could luck in to a pair of tickets to the play.  A woman at the museum I’d talked to by phone was not encouraging.

We had turned back north on 21 highway after seeing the sign to Monroeville, “The Literary Capital of Alabama.”  Two writers, Lee and Capote, have made that boast plausible.

Coming into town from the south, the “new Monroeville” emerged.  Sparkling signs dotted Alabama Avenue. Wal-Mart, Sonic, Shell gas for $2.29, the Monroeville Inn, McDonald’s, Burger King, you name it.  The main town was quite different.

The old courthouse rests in a town square with store fronts on all sides, some empty and gathering dust.  It appeared to be a poor town in decline.  I thought, if it were not for “Mockingbird” and Harper Lee, this town would have dried up and blown away years ago.

The museum covers two floors in the courthouse.  Separate rooms are devoted to Lee and Capote.  On the west side is the court room itself, clean and sparkling as if it were awaiting the next trial.  It became the model for the Hollywood set in the “Mockingbird” film of 1962 that starred Gregory Peck as the defense attorney, Atticus Finch.  The film won three Academy Awards including a “Best Actor” for Peck.

We picked up a map of the walking tour and set out south along Alabama Avenue.  The map shows 33 points of interest.  Only two caught my eye, Nos. 14 and 15.  They are the sites of the houses where Lee and Capote once lived side by side.  Both houses are long gone.  The ruins of a foundation and rock wall are all that remain of the Capote place, that and a metal plaque in front with bio notes and brief history of the house.  Lee’s old home, just to the south, has been replaced by Mel’s Dairy Dream, a confectionary that dispenses tasty strawberry shakes, etc.  The sites are just two blocks south of the courthouse.

Act 2, inside the courthouse.

Act 2, inside the courthouse.

While I napped in the car, Nebra poked around the area.  I awoke to an excited rap on the window.  Nebra had run across two tickets for the play at the regular price of $50 each.  The play would start in about an hour, at 7 p.m.  Sprinkles of rain had started.  We walked over to The Courthouse Cafe and had a pleasing supper.

The two-act play began on time.  It lasted 2 1/2 hours.  Act One is performed outside at the west end of the old courthouse.  When it is over, everyone gets up and walks around to the  courthouse entrance and into the courtroom  where the trial of the black man, Tom Robinson, is held.  At the end, audience and cast intermingle.  It was a powerful moment, the troupe’s director describing how much the play meant to everyone and the town.

As in so much of my life, good fortune had visited again.  That we were able to get tickets to the play at the last minute, that the rain clouds had stayed away, well, it was a memorable evening.

Now, it was on to a motel in Greenville for the night.  The next day we hoped to travel to Selma for some of the most important history in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

So much to do, so little time.



The girls in Bisbee

Lynn (Basinger), going back to Bisbee.

Lynn (Basinger), going back to Bisbee.

There’s a throw-away line in one of my favorite movies, “L. A. Confidential.”  Finally that line hit home last night while watching the film for maybe the 10th time.  That the line is about Arizona, where I live, makes it all the more amazing I never got it, never understood why “Confidential” is ultimately so unfulfilling.

The line comes out of a tender scene, the pillow talk after sex.  The brutal detective, Wendell “Bud” White, is lying in bed with the Veronica Lake look-alike, Lynn Bracken.  It is a homey moment.  Bud is checking out Lynn’s “Arizona pillow,” the one with “Bisbee” and “Phoenix” on it along with the state flag.

Bud (Russell Crowe) strangely asks Lynn (Kim Basinger) about Bisbee but not Phoenix.

“I grew up there,” she says.  “I’m going back in a couple of years, open up a dress shop.”  Pause.  Them smiling, “The girls of Bisbee need a little glamour.”

Detectives and love rivals, Ed Exely (Guy Pearce) and White (Russell Crowe).

Detectives and love rivals, Ed Exely (Guy Pearce) and White (Russell Crowe).

How sweet. But what does all that nonsense have to do with a film about police corruption in Los Angeles?  Nothing.  It was the director, Curtis Hanson, wanting to inject romance into a story where romance clearly was not needed.

At best, Lynn Bracken should have been a minor character, and in the end got her ass killed off like just about everyone else in the film.  But here again Hollywood’s fear of a box-office bust came into play.   They wanted insurance the movie would make money.  Enter Kim Basinger who, while truly beautiful, is no Bisbee girl.  She could never return to the little sleepy town southeast of Tucson to live happily ever-after with Bud.  She’s  there for one reason.  To draw customers.

The love angle was a distraction and led to a silly, sputtering end that didn’t make sense.

Why not keep it simple and focused?   Like “Jaws,” when director Steven Spielberg chucked the novelist Peter Benchley’s love story for a direct approach:  Man vs. Shark.

Too bad. For the longest time “Confidential” (1997) was almost up there with Roman Polansky’s “Chinatown,”  probably the best-made American movie of my time.

Another ‘Rebel’ death

Almost 60 years after the film’s release, the James Dean classic “Rebel Without A Cause” lost its screenwriter recently, leaving only one known cast member still alive.

The writer, Stewart Stern, died on February 2 at age 92 in Seattle.  Stern created “Rebel” from an adaptation by Irving Shulman of director Nicholas Ray’s story.  In reporting Stern’s death, the New York Times noted he was “best known” for that 1955 film that starred Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo.

Jack Grinnage is the only cast member thought to be alive.  Grinnage played “Moose,” a member of Buzz Gunderson’s high school gang.

I posted two blogs about ‘Rebel’ deaths five years ago.  “Dennis Hopper and the dwindling cast of ‘Rebel,’ on May 29, 2010, and “Corey Allen:  2 scenes and immortality,’ on June 30, the same year.

Since then, Beverly Long (“Helen”) died last year and Frank Mazzola (“Crunch”) passed away several weeks ago, on January 13, at age 79.

Stern, according to the Times, based James Dean (“Jim Stark”) and parents on his own family, who were “unnaturally detached and seemingly incapable of love.”

In an interview with the Vancouver Sun in 2005, Stern said, yes, his parents had seen the film.

“They thought it was marvelous,” he was quoted as saying.  “But they never recognized themselves.”


The condom problem with ‘Wild’

I saw the film “Wild” last weekend with the same annoyance I had in reading the wildly popular book by that title almost two and a half years ago.  The condoms.

Here was the author, Cheryl Strayed, setting out on an arduous trek to purify her soul by hiking part of the Pacific Crest Trail in California and Oregon.  Her life up to the point of departure along Highway 58 near Tehachapi Pass was a disaster.  She was, if we are to believe her, a heavy drug abuser with a major in heroin and a propensity for unprotected sex with numerous male partners.  As portrayed, this was a woman who clearly hated herself, although she blames it all on grief.  Her “beloved” mother died of cancer not long before.

Strayed’s idea, it seems to me, should have been to make this spiritual voyage, at least at the start, drug and sex free.

But, no.  As she put together that giant backpack, dubbed Monster, she slipped in some condoms.  Why would she do that? To start out so half-hearted on such an important venture to cleanse herself?  Or, as she said, to become the perfect person she once was, “strong and responsible, clear-eyed and driven, ethical and good.”  Right there, it sounds like someone with an idealized and unrealistic view of self.

It was at that point early on, with the condoms, that I began to lose faith in the author and the honesty of the book.  And for that matter, the film too, since she wrote the screenplay.  The film, by the way, larded on Strayed’s grief from the death of her mother to the point you could slit it with a dull knife.  Flashback, flashback, flashback, to good times with mom, times that did not seem good to me.

Problems abound.

Why did she change her married name to the affected “Strayed?”  She did that soon after the divorce from a husband who of course worshipped her and always saw the good Cheryl.  She seems to glorify her life as a bad girl, straying from the straight and narrow.  And if she so loved her mother, why not keep the original surname to honor her?  But again, no.  I suspect the change was made because she planned to write a book all along and thought it would enhance sales.

Why not start with the PCT at its beginning point at the Mexican border?  And after starting, why skip the most dangerous 450 miles, from Lone Pine, near snowbound Mount Whitney, to Sierra City?

At one point, in self-pity, Strayed describes herself as “the woman with a hole in her heart.”  In checking my reading notes, I wrote she had a “callous” for a heart.  Take her pregnancy.

Strayed was not sure who the potential father was and suddenly followed up with this:  “I got an abortion and learned how to make dehydrated tuna flakes and turkey jerky and took a refresher course on basic first aid and practiced using my water purifier in my kitchen sink.”

While abortion is more a health issue to me than a moral one, my god, shouldn’t you give a little more time and consideration to it than “tuna flakes?”

In the end I did not like Strayed or her book.  She waited almost 17 years to write it after ending her journey at the Bridge of the Gods on the Columbia River at the Oregon-Washington border, a long way from the trail’s end in Canada.  So I believe a lot of what she wrote, because of the way she wrote it, was fiction.

I will give Strayed this.  She made a pile of money from book sales and whatever film deal she made.

The one good thing I see is that “Wild” will encourage a lot of women to set out on spiritual treks alone and find the hikes rewarding — only doing them right.  Though Strayed no doubt suffered physically during her journey, I as a longtime hiker myself, think too often she took the easy way out.


Desecration of a grave in Indiana

Dean's hometown

Dean’s hometown

I guess it was important to see James Dean’s grave.  If it weren’t, I would not have driven out of my way 150 miles to Fairmount, Indiana, a few days ago.

It was a warm, muggy day as Nebra steered the rented Ford Focus east at Lafayette onto highway 26.  There may not be 65 miles of straighter and flatter road in America than 26.  Like much of northern Indiana, corn and soybeans bedecked the roadsides.  And there is an endless string of well-kept farms and small, neat “villes.”  Rossville, Geetingsville and Russiaville, and also Sedalia and Indian Heights.  Near Oakford, I got out of the car to inspect a large field of Roma tomatoes not quite ready to harvest.

Fairmount is probably the largest of these metropolises.  Population almost 3,000 in the 2010 census.  One of those 1950s places that seems to have ignored the march of time.   Quiet.  Young girls in shorts ambling along the streets with apparently little else to do here in the middle of summer.  Almost no vehicle traffic to deal with the town’s two or three stop lights on Main Street.

Picked up a free map of Dean sites here.

Picked up a free map of Dean sites here.

An attractive sign on the west end of town announces you are entering Fairmount “Where Cool was Born,” an allusion of course to Dean.  A full-size rendering of the actor is on the left.  He stands there familiarly. Thumbs tucked into blue jeans below the famous red jacket seen in his most iconic film, “Rebel Without A Cause.”  The only thing missing is the cigarette.  that usually hung down from his lips.  Yes, cool was the image of James Dean.  An arrow trumpets the Fairmount Historical Museum with its “Authentic James Dean Exhibit.   A second rendering on the bottom right depicts Garfield the Cat.  The asthmatic illustrator, Jim Davis, grew up on a farm near Fairmount.

Dean died in 1955, victim of a car crash at a road junction in California.  He was speeding of course.  Everything for Dean came fast, particularly fame.  I came to realize over the years that it was not so much Dean the actor that I admired.  It was “Jim Stark,” the character he played in “Rebel.”  The film was THE movie of my generation.  I’d been to Dean’s death site near Cholame, California, three times.   So, as I said, it was imperative to visit the grave.

It was too late to visit the Museum.  It closed at 5.  So we settle for the James Dean Gallery which stays open an hour longer.  The Gallery has much info to offer the Dean fan.   The collection covers three rooms in the front of the old two-story house on Main.   Nearby is a room with a projector that shows rare film clips of  Dean.

At the front desk, I bought a postcard, wrote a note at a table in the next room and addressed it to myself in Phoenix.  I then handed the card to the Gallery owner.  He assured me he would hand-carry it to the post office so it would receive the “Fairmount” postmark rather than the standard one in Kokomo.

As the sun descended, we concluded a walk-around of the high school James attended.  It’s in ruins, the roofs completely collapsing last summer and the whole she-bang is on the razing block.

James Dean GraveIt was then we headed north on Main to the cemetery.  Many of the graves were still decorated with plastic flowers and other ornaments.   At one spot Nebra pointed to a large headstone of the Scott family.  The “Dad,” Jay Dean” (1955-2010), was born a few months before Dean was killed, and next to him “Our Son,” Jared Dean (1988-2007).  Had to be James Dean namesakes, we thought.

Using the free map of Dean sites we picked up at the Gallery, it took little time to find the grave on top of a small rise on the cemetery’s north  side.

I was immediately struck by how small the headstone was.  The grave of his father, Winton Dean and wife on the north, is larger.  I don’t know precisely what I expected but something definitely of size.

Walking about the grave I was dismayed to see all the junk.   If you didn’t know better, you might have thought it a pauper’s grave in the neglected part of town.  The debris, if you could praise it even that much, was left by Dean’s fans and well-wishers, I suppose.  Cigarette butts, smoked and dropped on the grave and around it.  Rocks, pebbles, a comb, plastic flowers, a crumpled beer can, an old warped photo of the actress Elizabeth Taylor, who appeared with Dean in his last film, “Giant.”

White-washed stones line the cemetery’s driveways.  The ones in front of the Dean marker were covered with autographs of passers-by.

But worst of all were the “kisses.”  I counted at least a dozen lip-prints in various shades of red around the actor’s name “James B. Dean” on the grave’s front.

It is a strange custom, this decoration or desecration of a grave by people wishing to express their adoration.  But is it really for Dean these tokens are left?  Or is it more for the giver?  I can see someone dropping  a half-smoked cigarette there and then having a compansion shoot his photo with him by the grave pointing to the cig on the ground.  Celebrity worship is one of the worst aspects of human life, I think.

Graves of Winton Dean (left) and son James.

Graves of Winton Dean (left) and son James.

I was glad to leave the grostequeness of James Dean’s grave behind.  I remember near his fatal crash site at Cholame, people had pulled out parts of a Dean metal sculpture and, I assume, taken them away as souvenirs.  Very materialistic, unsatisfied by their spiritual connection there with Dean.

Maybe this will change my mind on something.  I have always hated the idea of cremation.  Ashes in a jar, carried around by the gods know who.  To me, it is a selfish act, cremation.  It is cheap, yes, but you leave nothing for those who come later perhaps seeking a spiritual union.  Or information on the tombstone.  Birth, death whatever.  Ashes for the famous may be the way to go.

Anyway, I saw what I came to Fairmount to see.  It has offered in its own way closure for me and James Dean.





Michael Shannon: Perfect face for ‘The Iceman’

Apparently even the most cold-hearted and vicious of killers needs a soft corner in his life, even if it is a make-believe world held high and separate from the crud that dominates his violent livelihood.  In the case of mob hitman Richard Kuklinski in “The Iceman,” this fairy-tale world is his family, a wife and two daughters, who he allows to go about their suburban lives in blissful ignorance.

“Iceman” is a film in need of a face.  The voice tells us very little.  And Director Ariel Vromen could not have found a better face than Michael Shannon’s to portray his superb study of real-life killer Kuklinski’s split psyche.   It is a monster’s face, and if you study it as the movie progresses it seems to look more and more like “Frankenstein’s Monster.”

Shannon, a little-known actor who received a 2008 Oscar nomination for a supporting role in “Revolutionary Road,” has a big, square-jawed face with eyes and mouth that can express utter indifference to human life and a flicker later reflect the doting love of a husband and father.  And a face too that reveals the mounting stress as his two worlds come closer and closer together.  Kuklinski’s words are nothing.  The Face tells all.  And what it tells shakes our confidence.  What is real in our own lives and what is fiction?

In the opening scenes, The Face undergoes a believability test.   Kuklinski is seen bundling porn films for the mob’s distribution network headed by small-time New Jersey mobster Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta) and then on a sophomoric first-date with the child-like Deborah, his wife-to-be played equally well by Winona Ryder.

It is during this date that we truly encounter The Face for the first time as taciturn Kuklinski lies about his occupation.  The Face is stoic as usual but the eyes reflect a kindness we do not see a few frames later when we see him slit a man’s throat over a trifling matter.   When The Face tells Deborah his favorite film is “Cinderella,” we too are torn between our cynicism and wanting to believe it possible.

“The Iceman” is unrelenting in its violence.  It is hoped the Oscars will not turn away from the film because of it.  The film is so much more than violence.

Michelle and the Oscars

While I have twice voted in the presidential elections for Barack Obama, I’m not blind to his faults or his Democratic Party’s over-stepping after November.  That’s why I’m able to say The First Lady, Michelle Obama, had no place in the Oscar program a few nights ago.

As she announced from the White House the winner of the Best Picture of 2012, “Argo,” I felt embarrassed she and Democrats stooped to such a low level of blatant politics.

The New York Times reported this morning how Mrs. Obama’s appearance came about.  It was largely orchestrated by a the Hollywood producer and big financier of the Democratic Party, Harvey Weinstein.

Perhaps Weinstein was attempting to endear himself to the President and his gun-control agenda.  He has produced some of the most gun-violent movies imaginable, including “Pulp Fiction” and “Kill Bill.”

It makes you wonder too about the legitimacy of “Argo” winning Best Picture.   This patriotic film was an American “feel good story” with two Hollywood figures as heroes behind the escape of “hostages” in Iran.  One might suspect some tinkering with the voting results to bring off this grand spectacle of self-promotion by the film industry and to promote the Democratic party’s goals as we near sequestration.

While it’s true Mrs. Obama was invited to do the spot and apparently did not seek the role, the appearance did more harm than good to the Obamas and Democrats.