History in Films: Lawless


Lawless (2012)

I am drawn to the time period, 1880-1945. Mix in the eruptions and innovations with people struggling with their landscape and watch a dynamic story ensue. Who needs fiction when you hear about the incredulous stories of your grandparents? Inventions revved up time and a day sped forth into a year and another decade flew by.  After I read biographies, novels, or text books about people from this time, the message was clear: life was brief and unsympathetic. There was a lawlessness, a raw hunger in people. You can see this urgency in the characters of films and novels.

I revisited John Hillcoat’s historical film Lawless and was impressed with certain aspects of the film–the setting and story of the bootlegging brothers who reached for financial independence in Prohibition-era Virginia.  The true story comes from author Matt Bondurant’s novel The Wettest County in the World (2008) about his grandfather and two great-uncles as moonshine gangsters. The story spoke to me having lived only a short drive away from plot’s location, Franklin County, Virginia. I can attest these back-woods moonshiners existed (and still do) in pockets of Virginia today.  However, those that dislike violence might be put off with double barrel shotguns firing in all directions.The real reason you should watch the film is the acting by Jessica Chastain, Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce, and Tom Hardy. They make a great team and the film memorable.


Tom Hardy played the oldest brother, Forrest. He was larger than life in the county, a legend for beating back death when those around him perished. He embellished the attributes of my grandfather–chomping on a cigar, grunting more than talking; he was mean and tough. The character Forrest in Lawless was tough. How tough? Someone slit his throat from ear to ear and he took it like a man. While it seemed like an easy role to play–just slap a stony expression on your face for two hours–Tom Hardy brought to the surface a glow of tenderness. Unable to vocalize his affection for citified girl-on-the-run, Maggie Beauford, played by Jessica Chastain, his eyes and the way he grunted spoke volumes. Or maybe it was the way he used his brass knuckles that demanded respect from the rest of the community. Add to the film the solid acting performances by Gary Oldman and Mia Wasikowska and the awesome villain played by Guy Pearce. His role as the snobby, bureaucrat whose disdain for the mountain hicks was memorable due to the details. The gloves that kept his hands clean. The delight in himself while he ruthlessly wielded his power. His barely contained rage was downright evil. I was never so happy to see a villain get his comeuppance.

Lawless represented a historical setting of the late 20s, and I marveled throughout the film about the toughness of the characters. The violence depicted the hardness of the times. It’s not that the characters were models of morality and that I condone their lawlessness. The generation of my grandparents used their environment to help them carve out a living. They survived by making the best of their place in society. They followed their own laws to survive. I admire their survival instincts. I admire their toughness. The film tried to represent that element. It had its holes what with the romanization of the fight and the western-like feel of the show down. The guns missed their mark too many times for realism, but it was a film where the ensemble troupe outlasted the weaknesses of the film. I loved it.


Read This: 3 Favorites by Louise Erdrich


One of my favorite American authors is Louise Erdrich. She is the daughter of a Chippewa Indian mother and a German-American father and has won the National Book Award (Roundhouse) and is a Pulitzer finalist. She is usually featured in canonical textbooks featuring short stories from The Red Convertible. Why? She illuminates the toughness of the time period in the 20s, 30s, and 40s in America and a regional writer of the Dakota/Minnesota area. She uses the lonely space, harsh seasons, and unsympathetic landscape to create quirky characters. I recommend reading what made her famous in the first place, The Beet Queen, 1986.

I love the character Mary Adare. We meet her as a the abandoned girl who watches over her newborn brother and her sensitive brother Karl, resolute. Her reaction to her mother flying away with a pilot from a carnival without so much as a goodbye is a simple response of gladness, for her mother was irresponsible and frivolous in Mary’s eyes.  As a narrator, Mary Adare told her side of the story in a clinical way. She reports the events devoid of tears and bitterness. For instance, immediately following her mother’s abandonment, Mary sits on a bench holding her infant brother. A childless couple takes the hungry newborn from Mary’s arms and claims they will take good care of him. Even though Mary wrestles with the man to keep her brother, she is overtaken and the couple disappears. This kidnapping is a horrific event. Yet, the old soul in Mary listens to her baby brother’s wail fade, resigned; it is not practical to keep the baby. She sits quiet, stunned. Women from the 20s and 30s dealt with the gritty experiences of life that make me cringe with wonder today. Erdrich has a great ability to create memorable scenes in ordinary surroundings. That’s one of her specialties.


Circa 1930 Argo, ND comes up again in Erdrich’s The Red Convertible: Selected and Other Stories. Her minimalist, subtle style matched the time period perfectly. In the story,“The Blue Velvet Box”, Mary Adare reappeared as the teenage narrator who cared for her brother Karl and a newborn when their mother renounced her responsibilities. The siblings hitched a ride as hobos on a train to their aunt and uncle who owned a butcher shop in Argo, North Dakota. Mary reported what happened in her matter-of-fact-way. This technique of contrasting emotionally charged events in a detached way was very effective.

Mary asked for no sympathy for herself. She accepted the harshness of her reality as though it were the natural order of the world. Mary’s brother Karl was her opposite. Sensitive and weak, his mother’s betrayal crushed him. The only soft side to Mary was her friendship with Celestine. Mary worked at the butcher shop and the chores of handling, cutting, and mincing the carcasses was a perfect job for Mary’s hard personality. Mary was a by-product of her environment.

Finally, in The Master Butchers Singing Club (2003), Erdrich created characters by constructing them with quirky details. Take Cyprian. He was the love interest of the prominent narrator, Delphine. What did he do for a living? He was a juggler and they performed in shows and circuses. His proclivity for men did not stop his devotion and attention for Delphine. She loved him, but instead of throwing away what was good between them, she ignored his wanderings. Then there was the relationship between Delphine and Eva, her surrogate mother who died of cancer. The master butcher, Fidelis, was heartbroken and surrounded by three sons and an antagonistic sister. He will eventually marry Delphine. Delphine’s father, Roy, was the town drunk and harbored three dead bodies under the house creating a mystery in the story. The positives of the novel were the creations of unusual characters and how they interacted with each other.

So the characters come and the characters go. It occurred to me, the novel was a vaudeville act reminiscent of Cyprian and Delphine’s juggling show. In a vaudeville show, some acts last longer and have staying power. Some characters you hate to see leave, like Cyprian and Eva and Franz. I wonder if Erdrich meant for her novel to function as a vaudeville act becoming a metaphor for life? Are not our lives made up of acts starring characters who come and go? Haven’t you ever felt like you were part of a freak show? Writing is a balancing act. Writers are tight-rope walkers and jugglers and accomplished at both is Louise Erdrich.


Come hike with me around Lake Laura, Virginia

Let’s go on a 3.5 mile hike around my favorite mountain lake in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia. I’d like to introduce you to my outdoor gym, Lake Laura. It took me fifty minutes to walk around her and over the course of seven years, I’ve estimated I walked around her 644 times. She is not a particularly large lake. It’s not on the “must-see” places of anyone’s bucket list, I’m guessing. Lake Laura is an attraction at Bryce Resort, a four season golf and ski resort. To expert skiers, Bryce is considered second-rate and lack-luster compared to neighboring Massanutten Mountain Ski Resort in Harrisonburg. It’s not worth comparing Bryce to PA or VT ski resorts and forget about the Rockies. The ski resort is for families, especially for kids who learn how to compete on ski teams. It’s that neighborhood ski resort one learns how to ski on first before going somewhere legitimate. It’s also great for teenagers who want to learn how to snowboard. That’s the consensus in the area if you are a skier. I’m not. I don’t bounce anymore when I fall, and my aversion for hospitals keeps my love for golf growing. Now as a golfer, and the consensus in the area is, Bryce Resort is a legitimate 18 hole golf course. I recommend the trip there because the fees are reasonable, and the course is not easy but not too hard. Rarely is there a problem getting on the course, and there’s enough par 5s to keep it interesting, and the grounds are groomed by a devoted staff. However, a golf blog is for another time. Lake Laura. We were hiking around her, yes?
I bought a condo at Bryce Resort because I fell in love with the mountain ridge of the Appalachians, and I was thrilled it was not overcrowded with tourists and traffic and noise, etcetera, for 300 days of the year. When I hiked around the manicured trail of Lake Laura, I felt like it was “my” lake, for the 644 times I walked around her, over half of those treks I saw no one.
In the spring, the trail on the west side of Lake Laura was covered with rose bud trees. For a half mile, it was a special experience to walk under the festoon of pink blossoms. Ignore the bumble bees. They want nothing to do with you. The spring always came early—a month early, compared to my home state of Illinois. On the east side of the lake, I observed the geese and ducks protect their nests. When the babies hatched, I counted the single file procession of families. We looped around the lake together, and they grew up right before my eyes.
In May and June, the turtles arrived. I loved seeing hundreds of their heads peeking up over the water and sunning on the logs. The water was cold and my old buddy, Dewey, loved this water break at the half way point.
The humid heat of July and August could make the hike under the trees stifling. Just as I thought about turning back because it was too hot to be out in 95 degrees with 95 percent humidity, I turned a corner and the breeze off the lake was so refreshing I ignored the coating of sweat on every inch of me and marched along. Now was the time to go jump in the lake. Families came to swim on the beach and lounge in the grass. It cheered my spirits to hear the sounds of kids jump off the floating rafts put out by Bryce Resort and watch the paddle boats and canoes criss-cross the lake.

Who doesn’t love to hike in the fall? Lake Laura was gorgeous. The lake colors changed to a deeper hue and matched the sky while the trees took their time turning colors. Leaves crunched and it was nice to put on a sweatshirt and jeans.
Winter was a great time to hike around Lake Laura. First, no one hiked around the lake. It was your private sanctuary. Second, I fell in love with the quiet. How quiet? You could hear the ice groan and echo off the lake. It sounded like whales talking to each other. Finally, it doesn’t get that cold in VA, so a winter hike means hiking in the 20s and the air is dry and pure and more comfortable than at the peak of summer.

I miss “my” lake. Is it possible to personify a place into a friend? How therapeutic, how Socratic to walk and think out my problems and dream up new ideas?
Where do you go for solace?

Guilty Pleasures in Film

Movie Buffs love to talk about great cinematography and the best performances out there–it’s a lot of fun. But I’m curious to know your guilty pleasures. Those films that are really quite crappy when you think about it, but who cares? They hit a nerve and you have seen them numerous times.  So what’s your guilty pleasure?

Science Fiction? Here are two cheesy science fiction films. So beneath Space Odyssey: 2001, but I love the chemistry of the characters and the ridiculous plots don’t bother me at all.

Love Stories? I thought Hugh and Drew were charming and I love British 80s pop (I know, I know). James Gardner made me ball like a baby. I didn’t care I was watching a Harlequin Romance.


Action?  Lot’s of holes in these plots, but I still have fun watching them anyway. Two of Sean Connery’s worst films.


Crocodile Dundee is a ridiculous film. Why have I seen it so many times? I have no idea. I find Paul Hogan in this one charming and whats-her-face hysterical. What a wardrobe. I’m embarrassed to say I would watch it again.  I can’t get enough of Simon Pegg. Even if the plot is outrageous and blue-blooded robots attack. He makes me laugh.

Okay, I’m really embarrassed. Tell me some of your guilty pleasures in film.




Tom Cruise: Love him or hate him?

Tom and I have shared thirty-three years together. He’s never jumped on the couch over me; I wouldn’t say yes if he asked me to marry him; and I doubt we’ll ever go to church together–and that’s all right by me.

Tom has been in the spot light for over three decades. He’s grown up and grown old literally in front of our eyes. Why would it be a surprise, then, when the quirky chapters of Tom’s life emerge as well? While it’s popular to dislike him, I think he’s more talented than people give him credit. We are the same age and I’ve seen probably every film he’s been in. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Throughout the stages of my life, he’s been around in the background entertaining me for decades. He’s like a brother to me.

Here are some of my favorite roles.

The Great

The  Very Good

One of my favorite roles of Tom Cruise’s was when he danced as Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder. I hadn’t laughed that hard in a long time. He stole the movie and showed he had a sense of humor.

Other than John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Gary Cooper, he’s well on his way to becoming the top-producing paid actor in history.  (Quigley Publications’ annual poll of movie exhibitors)

Tom Cruise makes it look easy–the stunts he does on his own, handling smart dialogue, passionate deliveries, the variety of characters. His expressions, that running gait, the roar. Hate him if you must, but I bet there’s one in his filmology  you admire.  Which one is it?  Or, if you must, which one is his worst? I’d have to say Cocktail.

Film Spotlight: Dirty Wars


The documentary, Dirty Wars (2013), by reporter Jeremy Scahill examined the history of JSOC (Joint Specials Operations Command) and brought to light the dangerous shift in war tactics since its inception in 1980. In class, we watched Black Hawk Down, an example of JSOC intervention, and a tribute film dedicated to 19 U.S. fallen soldiers. Then we swayed to the opposite direction, and my upperclassman and I watched Dirty Wars. With predictable dismay, the ease with which the romanticized painting of heroes in Black Hawk Down was gobbled down and the rejection in Dirty Wars for speaking against the United States illustrated the persuasive power of films to influence society. The human mind likes to box up information into a tidy package. It’s easier to accept a positive message than swallow a disquieting one. Thus began the exercise to check bias and to analyze the facts so we could draw an intelligent conclusion.

There’s no one alive today who hasn’t been affected by the history of the 20th century. In most minds, covert operations, secret agencies, the fight against evil empires, assassinations, and technology leading the way for national victory have been a part of everyone’s cognizance.

Think of the movies and books you’ve read that have either told the story about a covert group

or warns you of the lunacy and scary world from unchecked power.

In the documentary, Dirty Wars, one interesting aspect concerned the legality for the U. S. to assassinate an American citizen. Anawar al-Awlaki was a U. S. citizen, a popular muslim cleric from Virginia and a voice of American muslims when the attack on 9/11 happened.  Deploring the terrorist action, over the course of a decade, he turned from moderate to speaking out against the actions of the United States toward muslims around the world.  Anawar was jailed without charges or trial for 17 months in Yemen. He was assassinated by JSOC in 2010. Two weeks later, Abdulrahman, the 16 year old son of Anawar,  was killed by a drone. Was it a strike or “collateral damage”?  Killed for what he might become? If that’s so, it’s sinister.

The War on Terror is about as winnable as the War on Drugs. Drones are carrying out the assassinations now and someone at control center has incredible power.

Is the JSOC abusing their power? What are the repercussions with drone use and covert intervention? Are targeted assassinations crimes against humanity? Are the heightened attacks on Muslims an example of growing genocide?


Weighty, disquieting questions. I don’t pretend to know the answer, but it saddens me to think our future seems as bleak as the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia.


Five Shots: Green


Is there anything more invigorating than the rejuvenation of Spring expressed by the wonderous color of green? I never appreciate the color more than now. Here are five + two shots of green.


The skeletal map of leaves


water lilies and rock gardens


Juniper branches and berries


back yard garden of greens

garden 1

lush English gardens


mountain top carpets


How green is my valley?

Which green shot do you like best?