Saturday, November 26, 2022

When a Movie Stays the Same But You’ve Changed


Scott D. Parker

For six years now, my family of three have watched “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” the night before Thanksgiving. And yeah, it is still a funny and heartfelt as it as always been. Heck, minutes before any given scene or line of dialogue shows up on screen, I’ll find myself laughing at it. Case in point: when that pickup truck driver arrives to drive Steve Martin and John Candy to the train station.

The other movie tradition is “Home for the Holidays,” the 1995 film directed by Jodie Foster. Holly Hunter stars as Claudia, a forty-year-old single mom who travels from Chicago back home to Baltimore for Thanksgiving. She’s just lost her job, her sixteen-year-old daughter matter-of-factory announced that she’s planning on sleeping with her boyfriend at her boyfriend’s family house, and she’s just counting the hours until she can get back on the plane and fly home. In between, she has to survive being with her empty nest, retired parents (Anne Bancroft and Charles Durning), her straight-laced, bitter older sister (Cynthia Stevenson), and her hyper, over-the-top, gay younger brother (Robert Downey, Jr.). Tagging along with her brother is Leo (Dylan McDermott) who Claudia assumes is with her brother but is actually there to meet her.

The family is dysfunctional and the first time I saw it, that dysfunctionality bothered me. You see, I’m not from that kind of family. I’m an only child of only child parents so growing up, if all the grandparents showed up, there was only seven people in the room. But even when I think about my extended family, I can’t think of any member who doesn’t get along with everyone else.

As the years have gone on and I’ve watched some truly wonderful acting, many of the film’s little moments stand out. It could be an off-hand remark Claudia says to her brother or Downey Jr.’s eyebrow raised to say more than words could say or Durning’s chance answering of the phone and hearing his son’s husband on the other end of the line and this straight-laced, old fashioned man summon up the words to congratulate him while softly touching his son’s face.

But on Thursday night, another scene just walloped me and I should have saw it coming. Late in the movie, on the morning after Thanksgiving when Claudia has to fly home, she walks down to the basement. There she finds her dad, sitting alone, watching his home movies. There, flickering on the white screen, are the images of his past, his children as kids, and he and his wife as they used to be. The film is made to look like it was shot in the Sixties, with slightly overexposed colors.

Her dad, having just experienced the latest in a probably long line of difficult Thanksgiving dinners with his adult children and their families, starts to give his daughter life advice. He recounts a day that he considers one of his best memories. It took place back in 1969 when his family watched as a 727 took off and he and Claudia watched with eyes wide open. They were fearless and that’s his advice to his adult daughter: be fearless and go after Leo.

The subtext of that scene is bookended by the home movies and the last words he says that ends the scene: “I wish I had it [that 727 moment] on tape.” Durning is a retired empty nester whose family has grown up, moved away, and changed. He can’t get back what he had, so he’s comforted with memories and home movies.

Last year when my family of three watched this movie, my son still lived with us. This year, he returned home from his own apartment to stay with us these few days. My wife and I are empty nesters now, and while that scene of this wonderful movie has not changed, we have. We all three have. Life always moves on.

So cherish each and every moment of your life for it won’t ever happen again. And take as many pictures and videos as possible to help you remember. Because one day, we’re all going to find ourselves watching home movies or flipping through a photo album (physical or digital) and remembering our favorite moments of life.

And always be fearless.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022


Everyone I know has Thanksgiving horror stories. 

Family who turn the table into the goddamn Marketplace of Ideas. Insensitive Uncles. Small personal gripes that spill over like so much gravy from the pourer. Cousins fresh from their first semester at college who think they have the whole world figured out (who also think you're too stupid to smell the reek of ditchweed when they come back form "going for a walk"). 

This is a stressful time of year for a lot of people. There are expectations everywhere. Do we have Gluten Free options? How long does that Turkey really need to de-thaw (add two hours, at least, just to be sure)? Will everyone get along? Will everyone get along if we don't have booze? Or maybe we should have more?

But our expectations, for ourselves and for others, are borne out of love. We want the people we gather with to have a pleasant time. We want to enjoy ourselves. We want the ability to sit down and soak in a quiet moment. We want a chance to reflect and be thankful. 

Some of us, if we're lucky, will get that. That moment where the table falls to a lull and everyone is content and satisfied and happy. For others, the whole thing will spill into chaos. Shouting and messes and conversations so brittle they may snap like the hardtack Aunt Doris proudly calls butter rolls.

This doesn't have anything to do with crime fiction. With reading or writing. I could make a lame post about how inspiration is everywhere and you should kill your annoying family members in your work. I could make an overly sentimental post about how, no matter what, at the end of the night you'll be able to sit down with your book and catch a few minutes of silence. But that would both undercut the genuine stress so many people are going for, and also not live up to the quiet joy that others will feel. 

So, for now, I'll just say this: I hope your Thanksgiving is something you can actually be thankful for. I hope it is as easy as possible and that everyone has a wonderful time. And I hope, if things do fall into the maw of chaos, you can laugh about it. If not now, then later. 

I have a lot to be thankful for this year. I'm going to do my best to enjoy it. I hope you do too.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

A Great Thanksgiving Film

Thanksgiving with time has essentially become an excuse to cook, drink wine, eat, and stay in comfortable clothes all day, except for the times I may have to go out and buy something for the cooking or drinking.  And later in the day, what else to do in a lazy mood but binge-watch a series or see a movie or two? When I think about it, I guess I could say that Thanksgiving has become something of a template for what retirement days, if ever reached, might be, though I wouldn't eat as much every day in retirement as I do on Thanksgiving.  But exercise (which I do early in the day on Thanksgiving), cook, eat, watch something enjoyable -- and write certainly -- wouldn't make for the least pleasurable old age.  But anyway, I'm getting off track, because what I really wanted to talk about here is a movie that just popped into my mind as one I might watch this year to mark the occasion. Why it hasn't occurred to me in years past as a  fitting Thanksgiving film I don't know, but regardless...I'm talking about Terrence Malick's The New World.

I haven't seen it since it played in theaters, for not all that long, back in 2005.  But it is, without doubt, the most memorable, and unusual, depiction of the Jamestown, Pocahontas, John Smith and John Rolfe story I've ever come across.

Somehow the film is both majestic and otherworldly, not to mention, in the Terrence Malick way, astonishingly beautiful.  Yet it also has an immediacy that makes it feel as if history is actually unfolding, in all its weirdness and horror and moments of grace, before you. A lot of that is because, as I recall it, the film unfolds with virtually no exposition. The film feels like something both mythical and historically grounded, though it also seems as if Malick has only incomplete information to work with, which, of course, considering all the romance and exaggeration and downright nonsense that have come down to us about these events, he has.  Roger Ebert's review from the time sums up this quality well, saying "what distinguishes Malick's film is how he firmly refuses to know more than he should...The events in his film, including the tragic battles between the Indians [his usage] and the settlers, seem to be happening for the first time."

As he points out, tragic, in the end, is what much of it is.  We all understand that now.  Or should.  When civilizations meet, with conflicting values and belief systems, one eager to expand at all costs, no matter what destruction it will wreak, you get, well, what we've gotten. But The New World somehow conveys the essential mysteriousness of all these events, defamiliarizing them, making a story we've heard too many times to remember something strange and new.  

And what does any of this have to do with crime, here on a crime-themed blog? Nothing, I suppose, other than the obvious -- that you could say that the whole country (like most countries I've ever read about) was founded on a crime. Or multiple crimes. "How much better if Plymouth Rock had landed on the Pilgrims than the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock" and all that.  Still, nothing I've seen captures what might have been, what was pristine, what was there at the start, when anything was possible, as this film does. And the final sections, following Pocahantas to England, where she died, dressed in English finery, are extremely moving.

Yes, after the cooking and eating this year, I think I'm going to settle in and watch The New World again, thankful that Malick made it.

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Review: Deep Cover: Mob Land, Taking on the Chicago Mob


By Claire Booth

I recently listened to Season Two of Deep Cover, a podcast that deconstructs the story of one undercover operative. This time it’s Bob Cooley, a Chicago lawyer who becomes a fixer for the mob. He’s completely amoral, until he decides he doesn’t like the way he’s being treated. So he walks into a federal prosecutor’s office and offers to start wearing a wire.

That ultimately leads to arrests, indictments, and a serious dent in the mob’s power. The facts make for a good story, but it’s Cooley’s psychology that’s the really fascinating part of this 10-episode season. He’s full of contradictions and inconsistencies and his ability to rationalize his law-breaking is jaw-dropping. And it makes for excellent listening.

If you haven’t listened to Season One, you can find my take on it here.