Monday, December 18, 2000

Chris Clouser We Hardly Knew Thee

Years back KSTP-TV, the station with regularly revolving anchors, hired a man named Randall Carlisle who loved to open the newscast with a question. One night the newscast's lead story was of a salmonella outbreak involving some local dairy products. Randall dutifully opened the show with the wonderfully profound, "How many of us have ever had cheese?"

I never much appreciated Randall while he was here. But now I'm beginning to see the wisdom of the philosophy of living life by thinking in questions rather than declarative thoughts. I used to think that it was the not knowing that made people mad. Now I see that sometimes it's what you don't know that won't hurt you. Was it Plato or Socrates that used to ask so many darn questions?

My week began by receiving a check for $48 in the mail from Hennepin County. It came completely from out of the blue and the only note were a few words written on the stub- "Non- negotiable" and "Restitution." I appreciated the unexpected windfall all the more by using the Carlisle approach to life. How many of us like getting a surprise check in the mail?

To find out what it was about I called a nice young fellow at the county as soon as I had the chance. It was as I suspected. Back on election night 1998 I was doing contract work for the county. My car was parked on the deserted late night streets of downtown Minneapolis with thousands of dollars of election equipment inside, and somebody busted the passenger door window. The $48 restitution check was a result of the perpetrator being sentenced and slowly but surely paying his debt to society (five others and myself). How many of us have ever had to pay back an unwanted debt?

Actually if truth be told, the county owes me much more than that if we want to talk about just restitution. Who among us always gets what we deserve?

Certainly not new Texas Ranger shortstop Alex Rodriguez a.k.a. "A-Rod." Rodriquez was rewarded for his standing as the world's greatest baseball player with an astounding $252 million contract. To put the state of the game in perspective the local team is struggling to sign journeyman Ron Coomer to a $1.7 million contract. Rodriquez now will make more by himself than the total payroll of twelve teams. This turn of events now makes even those most ardent in the support of building a new baseball stadium scratch our heads. Can the game survive such obscene disparities?

With the current state of affairs it's important to keep in mind that dealing with disappointment is all a part of life as the poets tell us. We live in a land of tainted beef and presidents so it's important to remember a principal principle of writing- in writing it is better to "show not tell." How many of us wouldn't be better off living the life of a writer?

One answer to that question is that those who live in movies (or "la la land" as someone I'm quite fond of once said) are often better off not living the life of a writer. I imagine it would be much less stressful being a full-blown movie star. 'Cause we all know what all movies are ultimately about- sex. What is sexy?

It's an unfortunate Hollywood cliche' that many of our biggest starlets worked their way up through the ranks by taking bit roles in some pretty lousy movies. Of course one of the unwritten duties of unknown starlets in unmemorable pictures is to do the obligatory sex scene. The apple peach of my mind's eye, Sandra Bullock, unfortunately was no exception. Who needs to see the girl next door naked?

In 1991 Bullock "starred" in a Roger Corman film called Fire on the Amazon. The film was completely forgettable. Co-starring Craig Sheffer as an obnoxious American photographer, Bullock plays an activist fighting the destruction of the Rain Forest in some Amazon country. One of the leaders of the cause is brutally murdered (arrow through the neck witnessed first hand by a young daughter). A local native is arrested for the murder and commits "suicide" while awaiting trial of the apparently open and shut case. Bullock and Sheffer are the only two who believe the accused has been conveniently framed by the local authorities. Who says all third world countries are full of corruption?

The movie seems to have its heart in the right place- sort of. There is a message about ugly Americans bringing their unwanted arrogant judgments to other cultures that they don't understand. There's a message about the need to stop the destruction of the Rain Forest. It's just that it's all approached on a somewhat superficial level- and comes across about as effectively as your average late night cable USA network offering. Still the essence of Sandra's appeal is readily apparent. She's plucky, she's smart, and she's immensely likeable and familiar. Isn't this true of all her subsequent roles?

In some far off stretch Fire on the Amazon reminded me of the classic Rita Hayworth film Gilda. That film was a pretty standard exercise, a love story revolving around a political thriller. Both films feature plots about corrupt men dealing in a precious earth element. In Fire on the Amazon it's the rubber barons who are the bad guys. In Gilda it's the men trying to build a monopoly on the world's supply of tungsten. In the center of both films are climatic sex scenes. What movie would be complete without one?

And it is here where the "show don't tell" approach is proven way wrong. The sex scene in Fire on the Amazon comes out of nowhere. Bullock's character views the Sheffer character with disdain and rightfully so. He's selfish, single-minded and has annoying hair (even the local police notice that). They venture deep into the Amazon and are captured by an angry local tribe. So of course what is the first thing that they do?

They have wild jungle sex. The scene itself was graphic enough to earn the film an NC-17 rating. For those scoring at home so to speak, we get to see lots of skin and lots of bodily movement but not much anatomy. So therefore it's a treat for us Sandra Bullock groupies right?

Not necessarily so. Her sex appeal isn't her greatest appeal to some of us. And that's not to say on the other hand that it's her wholesomeness that attracts some of us either. For some, Sandra's appeal has always been rooted in her cloned believability- a reminder of a limper from the past, the giver of a lucky rock- a Siskel to my Ebert- the rare one who enjoyed the movie "experience" as much if not more than I. If I can't enjoy her company next to me at the movies anymore it's always nice to be reminded of her up there on that big white screen. Movies as life, life as movies etc. Isn't it hard to separate the two?

Fire on the Amazon was the last movie of Bullock's film catalog remaining for me to see. And I wavered in my decision of whether or not to see the film. I'm a completist by nature and I'm now quite proud to say I've seen all her movies (I even have the made for TV movie The Bionic Showdown on tape). I'm the first in line to see her new movies (and plan to be there December 22 when the ironically titled Ms. Congeniality opens). Yet I know Sandra tried to block the video release of Fire on the Amazon for obvious reasons. Is my devotion only skin deep?

But back to the heady and admittedly not too fair comparison with Gilda. The sex scene in that film is one of the most famous film moments and to my eyes probably the most erotic bit of filmmaking I've ever seen. Ironically the sex of the scene isn't between Hayworth and any man but rather between Hayworth and the camera. The movie establishes that her character Gilda isn't exactly the most stable woman around, but she is a free spirit with a devilish mind. Entrapped in a manipulative marriage she is literally imprisoned in a casino owned by her husband (played by of all people Glenn Ford). One night in a sly effort to break out she protests her entrapped state of being by seducing a captive crowd of men with a stunning version of "Put the Blame on Mame" much to her husband's discomfort. It's a smoldering performance that leaps off the screen in an apocalyptic way. Decked in a shimmering dark dress the dangerous carnal appeal of Hayworth's performance is greatly enhanced by the black and white photography. We're not sure what color the dress is only that it clings at all the right times in all the right places; we're not sure what color Gilda's hair or eyes are only that they have to be the color we desire them to be; and that voice (though not really Hayworth's but singer Anita Ellis) oozes sensuality. It is a clear example of how some things are better left to the imagination rather than explicitly lay bare. Tell don't show. Share don't hold back. Trust don't worry. What we see often is not as powerful as what we think we might see. And it all depends on what the definition of "is" is. In between the darkness and light lies some mighty confusing gray hues. When is a vote not a vote?

So leave it to Sandra's character in her constant comforting way to offer up the ultimate intimate wisdom. "Promise me one thing, write about what you feel not what you see..." she says fading away after earlier offering up the fitting and insightful question, "How far will you run when you have nowhere to hide?"

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