Friday, December 22, 2006
Penny Press! GQ and POROUS BORDERS!
Three things of interest in the new GQ, each a little more interesting than the last.
First, a breezy one-page appreciation of Peter O'Toole that manages, accidentally it seems, to hit a few right notes. As many of you may know, we here at Stevereads consider O'Toole to be the greatest actor of the 20th century, and we never tire of championing his good works to all and sundry.
The problem is, his good work forms only about 25 percent of his total work, and the other 75 percent of the time, he's not only not great - he stinks. That ratio of success (which he shares in almost exact proportion with his acting coevals, Michael Caine, Richard Burton, David Warner, and Richard Harris ... out of the group, the only exception is Albert Finney. In his entire career, Albert Finney has never given a performance that was anything but perfect. Go figure) is tough to sell to the Gameboy generation.
All these current magazine puff-pieces don't make things any easier. Yes, they all mention 'Lawrence of Arabia,' and yes, O'Toole is good in it (and it's a great movie in its own right). But then they ALL seem to blather on and on about O'Toole's COMEDIES, which is confusing. OK, the man had near-perfect comedic timing - but nevertheless, most of his comedies ('My Favorite Year' notwithstanding) are pretty thin soup.
This piece is no different, singing the praises of 'What's New, Pussycat?' in the same breath that it refers to 'Becket' as a 'fantastic hamfest' ... for those of you reading this (and really, who ISN'T reading this?), be advised: 'Becket' is a brilliantly written, brilliantly acted movie - it is not by any stretch of the imagination a 'hamfest.' We here at Stevereads can't STAND it when hipster-doofuses dismiss all passionate non-method acting as 'scenery-chewing.' Just because you've lived your whole videogame-playing 20 years believing that feeling passion for ANYTHING is, like, lame doesn't make it so. If you're looking for the key to good acting, think Zach Braff in 'Scrubs' and not Zach Braff in 'Garden State,' ya pill-popping little tools.
This piece cites O'Toole's new movie 'Venus' as a strong bet to win him Best Actor. This is doubtful (most of our industry-watchers say it's a train wreck), but can't take anything away from O'Toole's performances in 'Good-Bye Mr. Chips' or 'The Director' or 'Masada,' or, of course, 'The Lion in Winter.'
Elsewhere in the issue, there's a fairly moving piece by Rob Sheffield about how he married young - and then was widowed young, when his young wife Renee suddenly collapses one day and is dead in minutes.
Sheffield's account of their courtship and married life is quite touching (including their adoption of a young beagle from the pound), and his narration of his reactions on the day she died will strike a true and painful chord with anybody who's ever lost someone they loved:
"That was the first moment anyone said anything about Renee dying. It seemed like such a long time before I heard my stupid voice asking, 'She died?' The sun was streaking through the leaves in the yard next door. The upstairs neighbors' air conditioner was right over my head, drip, drip, drip. The EMT said something about God, but she was just trying to be kind. Maybe it was a heart attack, she said; it was too soon to tell. I was sure they would find something in Richmond they hadn't found here, and I knew they would be bringing Renee back later that day."
"I didn't want to get up off the floor, because I wanted to be there when Renee called and said she was coming home."
The piece is an excerpt from an forthcoming book. We here at Stevereads hope the book, unlike the excerpt, has something good to say about what happened to the beagle.
Ah, but the big piece in this issue, the real prize-winner, is about that always-fraught subject: the US-Mexican border!
Specifically, the so-called 'Minutemen' who patrol chunks of the border looking to catch-and-release 'illegals' streaming over from Mexico. The author of the piece (at first, as is my custom, I intentionally didn't look at the name - I like to pre-empt any personal predilections that way, so no hapless freelancer is hindered by his past strike-out ratio) spends two weeks with a group of these Minutemen and gets them to open up about themselves.
The piece is immediately compulsive, pulling you in with a perfect blend of fact and anecdote. Take this, for example:
"Some National Guardsmen come in and sit nearby, and this gets us on the subject of Iraq. Brian, a smart, articulate Minuteman, originally from Massachusetts, who has traveled all over the world - Brazil, Japan, India - says Fallujah should have been leveled. He sends this out like a blustering trial balloon. Is he nuts? I ask. How many women and children would that have required killing? Well, he says, that happens once, it doesn't happen again. Hello? I say. Are you really saying that? Little kids, old ladies? Well, he says, you order them out first. Come on, I say, think about New Orleans. People in Fallujah are much poorer than that, how do they 'get out'? What do they do, rent cars? Call taxis? Could you give that order? I don't think you could, and I don't think you would.
'He looks chastened and does a remarkable thing, given that he's arguing with a Liberal, in front of his own people: He reverses position.
"'You're right,' he says. 'I wouldn't, no.'"
Right about that point, I thought: not only is this an interesting article, but this writer is really pretty good. He has a slangy command of mood that struck me as vaguely familiar.
Then I read this:
"The Minutemen cannot detain an illegal. They cannot harass. All they can do is call the Border Patrol. So why the guns? They don't, they say, want to be overrun by the cartel. Has a Minuteman ever been shot, or shot at, by the cartel? No. But conceptualizing the cartel dudes as Scarfacian monsters, the Minutemen come out armed to meet them in the night and thereby rev themselves up, and yet there's no training - Art is the most experienced Minuteman on our Team (Lance and Scott are both first-timers).
"So, a prediction: Eventually, somebody's going to get shot. It may be a Minuteman, it may be a cartel dude, it may be some little kid standing scared at the back of a group of migrants - but eventually, I tell Art, all this tension and drama is going to lead to something tragic.
"'You don't come into my house, man,' Art says."
"'This isn't your house,' I say.
"'Oh, it sure is,' he says. 'This is my country.'
"'Your house is your house,' I say. 'This is some dude's ranch.'"
It was at this point that I flipped back to see just who it was I was reading, and I shouldn't have been surprised: George Saunders, one of our very best new-ish writers. Almost his whole piece is quotable and sharp, but in addition to liking it for those qualities, I couldn't help but think about it too, since the piece is a veritable dossier of Liberal soft-think on the question of porous borders. Right around the point where Saunders starts musing about the beauty of the landscape, I pictured my colleague the Reichmarshal's head popping off in outrage.
I think it would be only fair to say that the Reichmarshal, like Saunders' Minutemen (and indeed like most Americans, especially in the Southwest), is intensely xenophobic. There should be an immense and forbidding wall - like the gates of Mordor, one imagines - across the whole length of the border, and the movement through it should be only one-way: hunted-down and rounded-up 'illegals' being sent back to their own country.
Our views here at Stevereads have already been aired and outraged-upon: the United States should solve its border problems with Mexico by conquering the country (with or without - but most likely with - the cooperation of the Mexican power-structure already intact).
But that's only in a perfect world, one dominated by the Roman empire! Here in the practical world, we need practical solutions, and really don't think the Minutemen are it. A bunch of redneck yahoos roaming around in the shrubbery armed to the teeth? Yeah - what could possibly go wrong with THAT?
But neither is the Reichmarshal's solution practical. The wall, quite apart from its moral shortcomings, would require ten years and several billion dollars to build and maintain - but it's the moral shortcomings that really put it beyond the pale. Where would the Reichmarshal be, after all, if such a wall had been in place when his Junker forefathers first came to this country? Where would we here at Stevereads be, if the border had turned away our grandparents from Ireland? Where, really, would any of us be (kindly keep yer perky mouth shut, My Lady Disdain! None of us want to hear about the friggin Mayflower, ya blue-blooded pop tart!)?
No, closed borders aren't the answer either. I'm not in favor of Saunders' hippy-dippy live-and-let-live stance, not by a long shot: there aren't enough jobs to go around for actual US citizens, without adding millions of 'illegals' to the mix. But for a country with so much to take people from a country with so little and TURN THEM BACK ... well, that seems fundamentally wrong.
Perhaps we should open the question up to the vast array of minds available here at Stevereads (posters and lurkers alike)? What approach should be taken - say, by the next President - to the problem of the 'porous' US-Mexican border?
And just to pre-empt the predictable 'Mayflower 400' response: no, My Lady Disdain, "personally, we're not thrilled that ANY of you are here" is not an acceptable answer....