Posts in: August, 2007

Gideon’s Trumpet (1980)

They don’t make TV movies like this anymore. Hell, they don’t make many TV movies at all, but these days few outside certain cable outlets would make a movie featuring a 12-minute scene containing nothing but lawyers arguing before the Supreme Court (and justices arguing back)—no background music, no flashy camera work or bizarre editing, nothing but impassioned oratory and incredible acting.

Gideon’s Trumpet, an excellent made-for-TV movie from 1980 that finally comes to DVD via Acorn Media, stars Henry Fonda as an elderly fellow who becomes a victim of both circumstance and shoddy law enforcement: he’s accused of a crime he didn’t commit, and when the court refuses to appoint an attorney, Fonda stumbles through the trial in an attempt to defend himself. He’s a man of average intelligence, without any real idea of how to conduct himself in a court of law, and watching scene after scene of his awkward cross-examinations becomes heartbreaking. Fonda was the king of the “everyman,” able to elicit sympathy just by being there, shoulders hunched a bit, hands in his pockets, shifting his confused and humiliated gaze from the judge to the witness. It’s no surprise that he’s found guilty, but it is surprising that he’s given the maximum sentence—five years in the state pen.

The crime? Breaking into a pool hall to steal $25, some beer, some wine, and some Coca-Cola from a pool hall. Granted, the film takes place in the early 1960s, so $25 was a fair chunk of change, but is it worth five years in prison? Well, maybe it is—one of the nice things about Gideon’s Trumpet is its unwillingness to pull punches. Fonda as Clarence Earl Gideon is not a bad person, but the film is very effective at painting his flaws as well as his heroism: he’s a drifter who’s been jailed four previous times for petty crimes. The judge’s stiff sentence serves to teach him a lesson, and while Gideon admits to the previous crimes, he’s outraged when the state convicts him of this theft.

While in prison, Gideon spends much of his time at the library teaching himself about the law. When he realizes he’s been unfairly—and illegally—treated by the state of Florida, he writes an appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States. How the Supreme Court agrees to hear the case feels a little simplified, on par with Schoolhouse Rock, but Gideon’s Trumpet is based on fact so the bottom line is, the Supreme Court got word of Gideon’s request for appeal.

A few justices’ opinions haven’t changed since a decision made 20 years earlier, Betts v. Brady, which ruled that courts are not required to appoint defense attorneys unless the defendant has “special circumstances” (illiteracy, race discrimination, mental problems, etc.). An unfair decision that doesn’t take into account the complexity of the law and the simple inability of men of “average intelligence” to properly defend themselves, many states had already rectified the decision in the intervening 20 years. Florida was not one of them. The Supreme Court sees this as an opportunity to overturn the decision at a federal level and, despite a few disagreeable justices, agrees to rehear the case.

After hearing the arguments from both sides, the Supreme Court rules unanimously in favor of Gideon—but like many others, he’s not off the hook right away. They’ll retry him with a lawyer, and if he’s found guilty a second time, that’s it. Gideon stubbornly argues that this is double jeopardy, not understanding that it qualifies as part of the appeals process. While an ACLU rep and lawyer try to explain this to him, Gideon flies off the handle and sends both of them away, insisting on being represented by local attorney Fred Turner (Lane Smith, from V and Lois & Clark, who blends a shabby Lionel Hutz appearance with Darrow-like passion). The film is bookended by the two trials: the first showing Gideon’s tragic incompetence, the second allowing Turner to easily poke holes into witness statements and circumstantial evidence, which not only reveal Gideon’s innocence—but the guilt of the key witness.

Aside from Fonda and Smith, the film is a veritable who’s-who of “Hey! It’s that guy”-type stars: John Houseman from The Paper Chase (who served as executive producer of this film) as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, José Ferrer (The Caine Mutiny, Cyrano de Bergerac), Fay Wray (King Kong), Sam Jaffe (The Asphalt Jungle), and dozens of veteran character actors like Dolph Sweet (best known as the chief from Gimme a Break!) and Gary Grubbs (most recently on The O.C.). The pseudo-vérité style the film sometimes employs succeeds despite the plethora of recognizable actors—they manage to blend in and, through the strength of their performances, lend more realism to the story.

Anybody looking for a dramatization of a landmark case we now take for granted—our right to a public defender—will find an exceptional story in Gideon’s Trumpet.

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Owen Autumn Songs

Click the image for a larger view.

Spearmint Moon Daddy:
I conceived the character of Owen Autumn as a super-pretentious guitar virtuoso along the lines of Steve Vai, Eric Johnson, or (his most direct inspiration) Edgar Winter. Unfortunately, I am not actually a guitar virtuoso. I’m a sloppy lead, so I mostly just came up with some basic chord progressions and puked out solos all over them.

Pink Cosmos So Fresh, So Rare:
I attempted and abandoned to write a country song about a Kentucky bootlegger who sells his liquor under the guise of being a milkman (based on a true story). “Pink Cosmos So Fresh, So Rare” turns the chord progression from that song into something slow, ethereal, and kind of neat. Too bad about the guy playing lead, though.

Press the “Play” button to listen.

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Open Comments

I’ve vacillated for many years about whether or not to have open comments. Ignoring the many Google hits from “outsiders” looking for “humiliation stories” or “porno stores in des plaines,” among the many other bizarre keyword combinations that will bring you to my mess of a blog, my belief is that anybody who would read the blog and leave a comment is either an R. Kelly fan or a personal friend. This has been the case nine times out of ten, but then came the junk comments.

Yup, once Google archived my entire site, comment-bots came out of the woodwork to wreak havoc on my site for no real reason. Any time I have open comments, I get slammed harder than frequent commenter Teenwolf’s mom on any given Saturday night. This wouldn’t bother me if MovableType had a better spam-catcher. Maybe they will when 4.0 comes out, but for now…it’s pretty shitty, so every time I come home I’m greeted with anywhere between 20 and 70 comments that are pure junk. I have to go through and junk them all, hoping in vain that this will bring MT’s junk filter up to snuff.

Sometimes I disable comments, resulting in panic and uproar from both of my fans. They don’t want to sign up to TypeKey, SixApart’s “authenticated” commenting system, even though it’d make life way easier for me. Do you know how difficult it is to login to MovableType, click “highlight all,” then click “junk”? I’m already guilty enough for never blogging; the junk comments are like a heckling Greek chorus, saying, “Heeey, buddy, we want to hear more stories about masturbation and blow-up dolls.” Well, it’ll happen…someday.

My decision is usually to say, “Suck me,” and disable open comments. If my commenters don’t want to authenticate themselves, I miss out on related ribaldry and possibly invitations to meet up at Adult World. I can live with it.

But then, once in awhile, I get some really nice, well-rounded comments from people I don’t know—new readers who stumbled across it through the aforementioned keywords and did something amazing, astounding, unexpected:

They read my blog. And sorta like it.

I can’t deny that it’s pretty rewarding to have somebody drop some comment science on me. For awhile it was other bloggers, and I’d add them to my embarrassingly brief blogroll. But there’s been quite a lull—

Until now!

And by now, I mean “almost a month ago.”

I was going through the junk comments like, “Jesus, what is wrong with people?” and griping about how MovableType needs a “ban by e-mail” function, because that’d make my life way easier (temporarily, anyway), and then I stumbled across an actual, legitimate comment on an old entry. For those too lazy to click the link, here’s the comment:

Don’t know if you’ll see this because this entry is so old and I’m not sure how blogs work, but here goes:

  1. Something like 10 years ago my best friend’s wife (who works in the industry, she attaches talent to green-lighted projects) told me Mario Van Peebles is gay.
  2. My wife saw some documentary recently that was about Melvin Van Peebles’ travails in the industry and she told me she thought it was good.
  3. I googled “Mario Van Peebles is gay” thinking, “hey, I never heard anything about Mario coming out of the closet, I wonder if he’s still in.”
  4. Found your blog and laughed my ass off reading the Peebles post. Read backward and forward to find out who the cast of characters are. Pretty good stuff.
  5. You have a Freudian typo in the Peebles post. At one point you’re talking about Maria, but you substitute Gina’s name. Didn’t catch it at first, but then a couple days later I was reading that entry to my wife telling her how I stumbled on your stuff, caught it then.
  6. You’re a good writer.


Well, Paul, if you’re still checking this blog out: first, sorry (and this goes for all my readers) for never updating. Second, sorry for checking the comments so infrequently that it took me nearly two weeks to see your comment. Third, sorry it took another two weeks to actually get back to you, in the form of this entry. I’m appreciative that once in awhile, people actually read this. Based on the Google hits I see, usually people stumble across this place looking for pornography. As you can see, they’re pretty disappointed.

I’m glad you’re digging the blog, but I actually have a question now: is Mario Van Peebles out of the closet? I honestly don’t know, and my own Google search on the subject didn’t come up with anything promising. It seems to me like he’s one of these guys who’s “in the closet but anyone who knows of him knows the truth,” so why bother being in the closet anymore? Maybe he’s afraid nobody will take him seriously as an action star when Solo 2 comes out.

Also, I’m just wondering about the Melvin Van Peebles documentary. There are several, and I’ve seen a few, but if your wife remembers the title and I haven’t seen it, I’ll check it out.

If you don’t already own it, I am told Baadasssss is available on DVD for $2 at Big Lots, if you have one nearby.

Funny story about the Freudian typo you mention: back in the olden days, when I needed to give “Gina” her name (as you might have read, she was originally known as “The Crush” until I realized giving everyone a “The [Adjective]” name is a pain in the ass, and also until she kinda stopped being my crush and became a regular old friend), I picked Gina sorta haphazardly, after Martin Lawrence’s girlfriend on Martin (as in “Daaaaamn, Gina”). Then, a year or so later—I became friends with an actual person named Gina. This is the folly of fake blog names. I started to call her Maria so people wouldn’t get confused by “fake Gina” versus “real Gina.” So this was less Freudian slip, more “oh shit I forgot to use her fake name.” Either way, I appreciate you letting me know. It’s much more valuable than somebody pointing out my improper use of the past-tense of “to shit,” ALAN.

I’d love to hear from other readers, if any of them dare to comment. Any old obscene entry, at any time, I will probably turn your comment into a blog entry because hey, at least I’m blogging.

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