Saturday, July 28, 2018

No Reason: The Leopold and Loeb Files

Nathan Leopold, Richard Loeb, and Clarence Darrow, Chicago, 1924. (Chicago Daily News)


Immediately on opening The Leopold and Loeb Files: An Intimate Look at One of America’s Most Infamous Crimes (Agate/Midway; 296 pp.), you’re lured into a world as factual as documentary, as real as black and white, yet fundamentally mysterious. Illustrating the inside front panel and flyleaf, dominant at the center of several enlargements – a ransom note, a handwritten envelope, a comparison of typewriter strikes – is a photograph of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. 19 and 18 years old, respectively, they have just confessed to the kidnapping and murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks, and they are sitting in an office. Between them is their lead defense attorney, Clarence Darrow; to the rear, two sheriff’s deputies keep watch. The handsome, heavy-lidded Loeb leans toward Darrow almost seductively, his languorous gaze aimed at the cigarette in Leopold’s hand. Darrow is the only one looking at the camera, and though his posture is nonchalant, his face shows uncertainty, perhaps even fear, in the face of what he has taken on. One deputy, fist on hip and tin star gleaming, stares straight ahead, all righteousness and rectitude; the other looks down at Leopold as if asking, for the thousandth time, what could be going on in the boy’s head. Finally there is Leopold himself, his large, inexpressive eyes foreshadowing every Kubrick psychopath, staring out at the world through whatever acid bath of ideas and desires – vengefulness, sexual excitement, intellectual intrigue – is uniquely, unfathomably his. The photograph is a Last Supper of true crime.

In May 1924, Leopold and Loeb – prodigiously brilliant university students, scions of wealthy Jewish families, and lovers – conceived a plan to kidnap a child from their social circle, extort ransom from the parents, and then murder the child. The victim who came along was Bobby Franks, youngest member of a family that lived, like the killers, in the affluent Kenwood section of Chicago. The boy, who also happened to be Loeb’s second cousin, was lured into a car, bludgeoned with a chisel, and suffocated; his body was found the next day in a culvert beneath a railroad overpass in a marshy area on the city outskirts. Little over a week later, Leopold and Loeb were apprehended, and, after a brief and unsuccessful stonewall, both confessed.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Carefully Crafted: Benedict & Keteyian's Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods. (Photo: Getty)

I love the game of golf. When I play, which isn’t often enough, it’s my time to focus and to stay present with every shot. Golf is the only sport where the player hits a stationary object. Every other popular sport features a moving target such as a baseball or hockey puck. But golf is more than “a good walk spoiled,” as Mark Twain characterized it, at least for me. For Tiger Woods, the single most popular player in the world, it’s not just a game, it’s a mission  and winning, according to authors Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian in their new biography of Woods published by Simon & Schuster, is what makes Woods tick. It’s not the money or the fame; it’s the “hardware” or trophies that really matter to him, and his love of the game.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Inventory Management, Vol. IX: Summer Escapism

Adam Jensen in a piece of concept art for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. (Photo: Forbes)

As a creature of comfort – a seasoned indoorsman, to use a colleague’s self-applied title – summertime has always been a challenging season for me. I can only indulge in its bright and scorching pleasures for brief periods of time, before my mind and body cry out for relief and force me to retreat to the cool, crisp darkness from whence I came. Games were my summer escape, a way to splash through the sun and surf that didn’t involve a searing orb in the sky that peeled my actual skin off. And over time, this reinforced a Pavlovian connection between the real, tangible feelings of summer and the virtual adventures I’d enjoy once I’d had enough of them. Sunlight on my skin, beads of sweat on my neck, the smell of fresh-cut grass, warm air through the window, ice cream and sneakers and barbecue and soda – these things make me think of StarTropics and Mario Kart, of Donkey Kong Country and The Legend of Zelda.

When I was young, and this link was first being forged in that sweltering heat, a single game was enough to sustain me for months on end. There was no internet to offer walkthroughs or tips; no guide to follow but my own intuition (and maybe a cryptic word-of-mouth hint from a friend). But now, things are different: summer is known as a slow period for new video game releases, so the torrid days and nights between May and September are a perfect time for playing catch-up on all the titles I’ve missed. And once in a while, I’ll find a game memorable enough to be included as a new link in that chain, whose lineage stretches all the way back to the blue skies and blood-orange sunsets of those halcyon days.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Fathers & Daughters: Hearts Beat Loud

Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons in Hearts Beat Loud. (Photo: IMDB)

Brett Haley’s Hearts Beat Loud is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen about a father-daughter relationship. Frank Fisher (Nick Offerman) is a one-time rock guitarist who retired from music after the vocalist in his band – his wife – died in an accident. (A motorist hit her on her bike.) He opened a vinyl shop, called Red Hook Records after the name of their Brooklyn neighborhood; now he only plays for his own pleasure and with his daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons), who was a baby when her mother passed away. Their jam sessions are a tradition and a bond between them, and Frank insists on one more before she starts college – she’s been accepted to the pre-med program at UCLA. Sam has inherited her mother’s vocal chops, and it turns out she’s been writing songs, too. When he wheedles her into playing one, “Hearts Beat Loud,” in their home studio, backing her on guitar, he thinks it’s such a knockout that, on impulse, he puts it on Spotify. He’s right – it is a knockout, and so is Sam. And evidently he’s not the only person who thinks so, because Spotify includes it on an indie alt-rock playlist, and Frank hears it at his local coffee shop. Buoyed by the recognition, he wants to convince his daughter to put off university and tour with him. The name he gives them is We’re Not a Band, since that’s what Sam has kept insisting, reminding him that she’s got the next phrase of her life all set.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Neglected Gem: Minor Miracles in West of Her (2016)

Ryan Caraway with Kelsey Siepser in West of Her (2016).

Maybe it’s just because I like country music, girls in tank tops, semi-structured improvisation, perfect titles, and drop-dead gorgeous cinematography, but the micro-budget indie road film West of Her (2016), written, produced, and directed by Ethan Warren and shot in three weeks over ten states with a cast and crew of eleven people, haunted me for a straight week after I saw it. Three weeks: to put that into perspective, it took Ridley Scott a bit more than a week just to shoot Christopher Plummer’s scenes in All the Money in the World (2017) on familiar sets and locations and with the support of a Hollywood production team. And West of Her is, I think, the better film.

Monday, July 23, 2018

More Sounds of Music: Hair, Oliver!, & On a Clear Day You Can See Forever

The company of Hair. (Photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware)

Daisy Walker’s production of Hair at Berkshire Theatre Group begins badly, with rather mechanical by-the-numbers choreography (by Lisa Shriver) on an ugly, perplexing set (designed by Jason Simms) that consists of a wall with opaque windows and a double-tiered wooden platform. Where is the action supposed to be taking place? This isn’t a question you’d ask with an abstract, open unit set, but the wall tells us we’re inside a building, so we want to know what kind of building. And why a building at all? Hair is about hippies interacting with each other and with the straight world, presumably on the streets of New York or (in the first half of the 1979 movie version) Central Park; it hardly makes sense to place them inside some room – especially this one, which looks like a recreation hall in a summer camp. The young actors, a mixture of professionals and others just out of actor training programs working toward earning their Equity cards, generate a lot of good energy, but they’re restricted by the space and the staging.

That is, until after intermission. The second act of this Hair is exponentially better than the first, despite the fact that it’s act two of the musical that is classically problematic because a long acid-trip sequence weighs it down. Unexpectedly, the choreography loosens up and showcases the performers more effectively, and the ensemble comes together – you start to believe in them as a “tribe,” to use the term the book writers, Gerome Ragni and James Rado, adopt for them.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Struggling with Private & Public Demons in the Novels of James Lee Burke, Part II: Dark Underbellies

Author James Lee Burke on his Montana ranch. (Photo: Getty)

Read Part I of this series here.

"For many years our state legislature has been known as a mental asylum run by ExxonMobil. Since Huey Long, demagoguery has been a given; misogyny and racism and homophobia have become religious virtues and self-congratulatory ignorance has become a source of pride." – James Lee Burke, Robicheaux

Since the 1987 publication of Neon Rain, Burke has mastered the technique of writing in the first person, remaining within the consciousness of his chief protagonist, enabling Dave to offer commentary on political, social, moral and philosophical issues. Robicheaux is set once again in the familiar setting of New Iberia along the bayou and opens with Dave seeing the ghosts of Confederate soldiers marching through the swamp. He is in a dark psychic space as his wife, Molly, has died in a car accident. In his grief and rage, his sobriety cracks as he succumbs to his demons who "live in me like a snake that slowly swallows its prey." During an alcoholic binge, he fears he might have murdered the taxi driver who killed his wife but afterwards he cannot remember if it really happened. Worse, the investigation of the man's death is assigned to a dirty cop.