150 Films #16: Blood Simple (1984)

As a preamble, let me just discuss the year-long gap between reviews. It began, as so many things do, with fear. Only 10% of the way through this project, it began to occur to me that I’d already started to repeat myself. I examined my shelf of wonders, at the films that lay ahead, and thought I like a lot of movies with similar themes, similar stories, in similar genres, at times by the same filmmakers—and I like all of these films for roughly similar reasons.

When I decided to combine The Big Lebowski with The Big Sleep and talk about their protagonists’ shared moral codes and interest in the truth above all things. This will be a recurring theme in many 150 Films selections, and it won’t be the only recurring theme. I worried less about boring readers through repetition—one advantage of having no readers is that nobody will get bored—than boring myself. I thought of different modes of attack—for instance, grouping the movies by five and doing a single essay on the whole group—and then started to get overwhelmed by this entirely self-imposed project.

So… I put off the next post. And put it off, and put it off, until I more or less forgot about it. I started writing paleo food reviews as a stopgap while I regrouped, and then I stopped writing those. And then I forgot about them, too, and as is often the case with this blog, it took a back burner to other priorities. Lately, though, I’ve found myself doing nothing instead of focusing on other priorities, so I’m back, because at least this is something. I can flex my writing muscles and my critical analysis muscles, give myself an excuse to watch movies that were once (and might still be) meaningful to me, and have an outlet to ramble about myself until I get something better going.

Oh, and self-promotion. Nobody reads this blog, and I don’t know how to get them to, but it’s here. As I try to get something real going with my writing, I can point people to this place because I don’t want strangers on my Facebook friends list, and after trying to get into Twitter to boost my “social media” profile, I found I’m more of a passive observer than an active participant. So this is it. My place.

Finally, that nebulous thought solidified over the past few weeks: this is my place. I don’t need to overwhelm myself with some bullshit I chose to do. I don’t need to wax poetic for paragraph after paragraph if I have little to say because I’ve said it all before. These reviews could be one sentence long if I want them to be. Nobody’s paying me or grading me on my content, and if someone were to do either, that would be their nightmare, not mine. With that glorious sense of freedom restored, I’ve decided to resurrect this project, those paleo reviews, and maybe even—gasp!!—some of those cranky posts about politics, religion, and how much I like Ayn Rand. The events of the past few months have given me a metric ass-tonne to complain about, so why am I ranting in private? Why am I not trying to pick fights against Sean Spicer or the morons in the “Antifa” movement? Isn’t that how people boost their social media profiles?

It sure is! But first, let me talk briefly about a great, great film called Blood Simple.

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Paleo Challenge Round-Up: Week 16

By my count, it’s been 11 weeks since my last Paleo Challenge Round-Up. I fell out of the habit of writing these posts, but I didn’t fall out of the habit of eating paleo, with only a couple of exceptions:

  • During a trip to Seattle, I indulged in dim sum and ate a slice of chocolate cake to celebrate my nephew’s birthday.
  • In an extremely poor decision, I had a Taco Bell dinner to celebrate my weight falling below 250 lbs. (and counting)
  • Last weekend, I had lunch at Chili’s with my family, because I was starving.

Now seemed like a good time to start writing again, for two major reasons. First, I’m one of the many people who bought an Instant Pot on Prime Day, which I used for the first time to cook some of this week’s meals. Secondly, while complaining to a friend about being tired of making soup (a natural consequence of trying to eat paleo with braces), the friend suggested smoothies.

Ordinarily, when I browse recipe websites looking for food to make, my eyes skip right past smoothies. I always view them as, at best, a post-workout indulgence. This is more psychological than anything else; smoothies are too easy to make, too quick to drink, and too liquidy to be “real” food. But hell, when I slow cook meat until it’s fork-tender or grind up sausage in a food processor, how much different is that from a smoothie? (Answer: not much.) In fact, my most realistic gripe against smoothies is that they tend to have a fruity base, and I try to eat fruits in pretty strict moderation until I have my weight under better control.

On the other hand, I’m so fucking tired of soup. So… After getting the thumbs-up from my friend Marisa Moon about whether or not to trust grass-fed whey protein powder, I decided to dive right in.

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Paleo Challenge Round-Up: Week 5

The paleo challenge is supposed to last for 30 days, so technically, it ended on Tuesday. However, as I mentioned early on, I plan to continue to eat with the “challenge” restrictions for as long as possible. There will be a few “cheats” here and there, but nothing taking me off the paleo reservation—just off the highly restrictive challenge rules.

Over the past week, things have continued to change for the better. I took the initial four weeks off from the gym, as a way of forcing myself to remember the importance of nutrition as party of a healthy lifestyle. This is one of those things that I know, but I also knew I needed both a reminder and a clear demonstration of the results. Even though I haven’t done any regular weigh-ins or anything like that, I did weight myself about three weeks ago, and again one week ago, and I’d lost about five pounds. Over the total month of the paleo challenge, I’m not sure how much weight I’ve lost, but I can tell you this: (1) I’ve gone down a full belt size, (2) my shirts and pants no longer stretch taut when I sit down, and (3) my flexibility and physical movement has dramatically improved (it was reaching a point where tying my shoes was becoming a Sisyphean task). So I don’t really need concrete numbers to see that it’s working.

Well, last week, I added going to the gym back to the equation. I made it three days for cardio (could’ve gone for four, but the bike at my gym really makes my butt hurt, and until I’m a little bit more used to the workout, I’d prefer to keep doing the bike rather than risking hurting myself on an elliptical or rowing machine, which are basically the only other machines I can do). I lost another five pounds between last week and this week, which may be unhealthy on some level, but it’s on pace with the first time I did this paleo challenge. This time, for the sake of curiosity and finding a reason why intense hunger pangs and cravings pushed me off the paleo bandwagon time and again, I’ve kept track of my caloric intake. I’ve been surprised to see I’m generally in the 2300-2400 calorie per day range—so I’m not starving myself by any means, yet I’m still “losing weight” (I don’t like putting everything into those terms, and honestly, my goal is better nutrition, so I am looking at “weight loss” as a positive side effect rather than the main purpose), a sign my body is adjusting to eating better foods and utilizing them better. (And as you’ll see, some of this week’s meals included non-“challenge” “treats” for completing the 30 days—and yet I continued to feel better and keep losing weight.)

Another positive side effect is this feeling swelling within me (that’s what she said!). I’m not sure I’d call it yearning, exactly. Maybe restlessness. In any case, I have had quite intense desires to just…get out and do things. I’m not exaggerating when I say I haven’t felt anything this strongly since the last time I started eating clean. Once I started veering off a clean diet (and I’m not talking non-“challenge” rules; I’m talking getting candy bars or fast food or whatever), I slowly but surely lost that fire. Until now, I thought that had a lot to do with things happening in my personal life. Until now, I genuinely thought I’d kind of deluded myself into thinking paleo influenced my brain with all the good vibes, but I’m starting to see that the chicken-versus-egg issue here is that eating paleo gave me the incentive to seek out good vibes (in the form of a social life, forging good friendships, and dating), in part because I feel really, really good and want to chase that “high” by finding fun, engaging, possibly perverse ways of burning off the extra energy.

I didn’t feel good then because I had a social life and feel bad now (until recently) because I didn’t; I felt good then, and I both felt compelled and had the energy to start doing the things a person needs to do in order to cultivate a good, rewarding life. When I first started the paleo challenge, I was coming off a toxic relationship, several bad dates, and a period of intense depression that left me questioning whether or not any of my friends were actual friends, or if we were just mutually using each other as emotional crutches because we were too miserable and cowardly to take any actions without running them by the committee.

I made a friend, by way of two dates that were, in retrospect, pretty bad. She was interested in fitness, running, paleo, CrossFit, and she unlocked that entire world for me, for which I will always be grateful. But I came around to thinking that a lot of the good vibes—maybe all of them—were a result of this combination of worship and, let’s face it, sexual desire for my friend. She “inspired” me, and I thought I wanted to succeed just to impress her. Now that I’m doing it all again, I’m seeing that while those things were true at that time, my desire to impress her was sort of a “Dumbo’s feather” situation; I was still putting in all the work myself, and all the positive changes physically, emotionally, and mentally came from within—from the positive results of great nutrition and intense exercise—rather than the external worship/crush feelings.

I think that’s a good thing for me to realize, emotionally. Even though these days, it’s harder for me to get down on myself, it still happens, especially when I have what seems like “evidence” of a shortcoming. When I was in full “worship” mode, it was so, so easy to eat well… Afterward I was out of “worship” mode, it got harder and harder until I just plain stopped. And I told myself it wasn’t worth the effort, because I had nobody to impress. What happened to the good old self-motivated D.B.? What happened to the guy who used to see Ayn Rand characters as inspirational figures, instead of impossible fantasies? That D.B. imploded.

But he’s clawing his way back, and astoundingly, a lot of the credit must go to nutrition. I can’t under-emphasize this relationship between the physical (what you put into your body and how you use it) and the mental/emotional. It can be so easy to lose sight of, especially if you’re like me and enjoy “comfort food” and emotional eating, but this shit is not magic. It’s also not an accident; I eat better, I think better, I feel better, I work harder, I stay sharper, and instead of a downward spiral of eating like garbage and feeling like garbage, there’s an upward spiral of eating great and feeling great, which leads to greater and greater achievements in all areas of life.

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Paleo Challenge Round-Up: Week 4

As I enter the home stretch of this 30-day paleo challenge, I’m reconnecting with why I loved paleo in the first place. The bottom line is simple: regardless of whether or not I lose weight, whether or not it serves as a magical cure-all (or even-more-magical placebo effect) for what ails me, eating well makes me feel great; eating poorly makes me feel like shit. That’s all there is to it.

Another thing I’m reconnecting with is paleo recipe websites. Scouring the web for new recipes to continue momentum with eating paleo (although I’ve fallen in love with some recipes, I don’t want to fall into the trap of eating the same things until I get bored and choose Taco Bell instead), I’ve discovered a disturbing trend: many websites simply regurgitate the same recipes as other sites, without tweaks or added information (one thing I’ve been trying to do here is explain where I’ve veered from the actual recipe, and whether or not it improves or worsens the recipe). With a couple of exceptions where I know the person writing the blog is experimenting and creating the recipes, I have no idea who should deserve credit for recipes that turn out great. I find that a little disheartening.

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Paleo Challenge Round-Up: Week 3

I spoke too soon about my foot. It’s feeling a lot better, despite the fact that I haven’t exercised at all in about a month, but I still occasionally get a series of shooting pains if I walk around for too long. Also, the jury’s out as to whether the diminishing pain in my joints and muscles is a miraculous effect of paleo or the fact that, because I spend significant chunks of my weekend cooking, I consequently spend a lot of it on my feet.

Even if that’s the case, it’s a good thing. And it’s a good thing that I have the newfound energy and, let’s face it, enthusiasm to stay on my feet for a big chunk of the weekend.

I’ve also found my energy level has led me to some strange directions. Over the past few weeks, I’ve gotten a wild hair up my ass to upgrade my Hackintosh—that is, for you n00bs, a PC built by me to run Mac OS X—from Snow Leopard, which it’s been running since Lion was released in 2011. I built it originally in 2009, but I made a conscious decision to stay one OS generation behind, because I figured by the time the next OS was released, the Hackintosh community would have all the bugs worked out. After awhile, I stopped caring about keeping one-generation-behind, but now—goddammit, I want to be current! Forgetting the advantages of staying behind, I started with the latest operating system, El Capitan, but something is wonky with the video drivers. I tried numerous hacks to make it work properly with my older video card, but finally, I just settled on installing the previous OS, Yosemite, which runs perfectly.

Of course, the Yosemite decision and getting it to run perfectly all came about this weekend. I also bought a new, larger hard drive and decided to use the old hard drive to play around with Linux, something I haven’t done (and haven’t been interested in doing) since around 2001. Remember when Linux was touted as a free-for-all Windows-killer? Those were the days! But unlike Lex from Jurassic Park, I didn’t know enough about UNIX systems to have much fun with it. Now, thanks to 15 years of OS X use—and 15 years of making Linux a friendlier out-of-the-box experience—I think it’ll be fun to screw around with.

While I know the idea of sitting at a computer, figuring out why shit doesn’t work and playing around with new operating systems, doesn’t sound like a huge energy investment, I’m directing excitement and enthusiasm at a project I haven’t cared about in years; in fact, since I bought a friend’s used MacBook a few years back, I’ve used my menacing, once-overpowering desktop Hackintosh less and less, to the point that it’s acted as a media server more than anything else. Yet now, I want to play around with it again, and I’m having fun doing it, even when I fuck everything up and have to reinstall Yosemite from scratch.

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Paleo Challenge Round-Up: Week 2

As I write this, on Wednesday afternoon (a little later than I’d like, but better late than never), I can confirm that the good vibes of paleo are starting to kick in. Pain in my wrists, from my surgery in 2009 and arthritis I’ve developed is almost completely gone. The muscle fatigue and labored breathing I was experiencing during my depressingly short walk to and from the train has vanished. My mood is better—despite numerous shitty things occurring at work, not directly to me, which nevertheless leave me unhappy—as are my concentration and memory.

I’m not ready to call it a miracle yet, but the chronic, debilitating pain in my foot has abated significantly. I’m not sure about weight loss—I weighed myself for the first time in this challenge just last night, and I was not happy with the number I saw—because I see the weight loss more as a pleasant side effect than the main goal. The goal is to feel good, physically and mentally, and it’s truly amazing how much of that can be accomplished through diet alone. (I haven’t exercised over the past two weeks, as I readjust to the diet.)

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Paleo Challenge Round-Up: Week 1

Longtime readers of this blog probably won’t remember that I did my first paleo challenge in early 2012. This is a fact I mentioned in one post, and then never again (partly because I abandoned blogging for a long stretch about a month later). Let me briefly fill in the gaps:

After my initial “30-day challenge,” I just kept rolling with the rules of that challenging, not quite realizing that the guidelines I used were an extremely strict form of the diet. The positive side is that, in addition to change my eating habits, I started working out, lost about 70-80 pounds, pulled out of a spiral of depression and anxiety, and then—for awhile—everything seemed to be going my way. About a year later, when things stopped going my way…

Well, I don’t know that I want to compare my food issues with actual addiction; it’s certainly compulsive, and at times unmanageable, but I think it’s an exaggeration to say I was “addicted” to shitty food, and it does a disservice to actual addicts struggling with actual problems. But basically, my 2012 holiday season was a fairly stressful time for a number of reasons. I’ve always been a stress eater, and although I managed to resist the many treats and snacks brought into work during the holidays, I made the decision at a Christmas party with a friend’s family that a few treats wouldn’t hurt me. And they didn’t—not at first. The fact that I had lost so much weight and continued to work out made me think I could treat myself once in awhile. “Once in awhile” quickly became “once a week,” but it was okay. I was training for a half-marathon at that point, shedding pounds like they were going out of style, eating well 95% of the time. Then, weekly treats led to more frequent cravings, which I would try to resist but often didn’t. Some of the time, I would say to myself, “I’m satisfying this craving so it goes away” (it didn’t); some of the time, I would simply acknowledged that I was stressed and dealt with it by eating, even though I knew it was a hollow activity. Part of it, even, had a warped, secretive quality that I still don’t fully understand… Like, I’m so much of an open book, I somehow felt like I needed this secret of eating garbage to keep to myself. Not my finest hour.

Then, in August of 2013 (one week before the half-marathon), while house-sitting for a friend, I got up early to go for my last “long run.” Two miles into it, I tripped on a protruding chunk of sidewalk, tumbled, and literally saw stars (I didn’t think that really happened!). I knew I’d sprained my ankle, and after sitting for a little while and trying to determine if I could walk, I made the trek back to the condo. This may have exacerbated the injury, but I had no choice; it was 6AM on a Sunday, nobody was out on the streets, nobody I knew lived nearby (and even if they did, I left my phone behind so it wouldn’t flop around the entire run), there were no cabs or buses.

This was a turning point. After an urgent care doctor diagnosed me with a minor sprain and all but guaranteed I would be able to run my half-marathon the following week, I felt no better. After a month of physical therapy, I felt somewhat better, but my foot was definitely not in running shape. I let it slide for a few months, hoping the pain would gradually go away; it didn’t. Finally, I went to an orthopedist for a proper diagnosis, and within two weeks, I was in surgery having a torn tendon and ligament repaired. Grueling recovery followed; overly intensive physical therapy led to a separate issue, the build-up of scar tissue on my Achilles’ tendon, which was both extremely painful and required even more physical therapy.

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150 Films #14 & 15: The Big Lebowski (1998) / The Big Sleep (1946)

My original plan for this essay was to combine The Big Lebowski and The Big Sleep, because (1) I’ve fallen behind on these essays, and (2) they share in common a pitch-perfect depiction of L.A. culture that most other L.A. movies don’t quite catch. Even sprawling, L.A.-set ensemble epics like Short Cuts or Crash or future 150 Films entry Magnolia have a tendency to make demographic separations that aren’t quite as neat in Los Angeles. The oddest and most entertaining aspect of my brief stint in L.A. was observing the elbow-rubbing of these many varied walks of life.

In The Big Lebowski, bowling brings together an inebriated hippie, a right-wing Vietnam vet, a dullard who is frequently out of his element, and a flamboyant Latin pederast. A bogus kidnapping plot ties together a wealthy wannabe-plutocrat–who, it is revealed late in the film, is far more incompetent and beholden to others’ largesse than he lets on–his porn star trophy wife, his avant-garde artist stepdaughter, a collective of German nihilists, and a shady porn kingpin and his hired goons. A misadventure involving a joyride in a beater leads to the dunce son of a famous television writer trapped in an iron lung. All this weirdness seems perfectly normal if you’ve lived in L.A. for awhile.

Lebowski, as many know, was a conscious pastiche of Raymond Chandler’s ideas, so it’s fitting that his novel The Big Sleep similarly ties together threads of humanity who, in any saner city, would be unlikely to find each other in such close proximity. It starts, like Lebowski, with a wealthy, wheelchair-bound man and a blackmail scheme. This plot brings into the wealthy Sternwood family’s orbit: the eldest daughter’s missing bootlegger husband, the drug-addled youngest daughter, a gangster club owner, a pornographer, said pornographer’s gay lover, and a handful of shady characters from all social strata. One detail contained in the book not retained for the movie is the notion that General Sternwood was a Mexican immigrant who changed his name but retains a dark complexion.

I got that out of the way, in brief, because I think it’s an interesting facet of both stories. But as I rewatched the movies, back to back, I realized very quickly that they both make an even more important point as it pertains to my development as a human person, an aspect I touched on in essays about Above the Law and All the President’s Men: the importance of the truth. Of course, the way each film manages to get at the truth—operating as extensions of its central characters—is very different, but I would say the reason they’re both equally satisfying, in their different ways, is because of my desire for truth and justice in a world that often lacks either.

Alphabetically, I know I should start out talking about The Big Lebowski, but autobiographically, it doesn’t quite work. I came to Chandler earlier, and if I’m being honest, the first few times I saw The Big Lebowski, I didn’t like it at all. I dismissed it as a stoner comedy that had the same sort of languid, borderline-incoherent rhythm of talking to a stoned person. I admired the Coens for pulling that off in a film, but I didn’t actually enjoy it. It wasn’t until the cult audience started to build, and the numerous times I was subjected to it during film school, that I began to appreciate how well the Coens manage to combine a pitch-perfect Chandler narrative with ’90s L.A. culture and a dash of stoner ambling.

So let me start with The Big Sleep and my general love of Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s indelible, incorruptible investigator. The Marlowe of the books is slightly different from the Marlowe of the film version of The Big Sleep. Marlowe’s backstory very simply explains who he is: a former insurance investigator and D.A.’s office investigator, repeatedly fired for insubordination before striking out on his own. The major difference in the film version is that he is catnip to women, a strange addition that I have to assume came at Warner Brothers’ insistence–in their first starring vehicle together, director Howard Hawks had to make it believable that short, middle-aged, not-very-hunky Humphrey Bogart could land Lauren Bacall, a bombshell less than half his age.

Many actors have played the role of Marlowe over the years. Chandler’s personal choice for the role was Dick Powell, who played him in 1944’s Murder, My Sweet. I still can’t fathom this choice; Powell is fine, but if we’re talking the definitive 1940s star to play the definitive 1940s detective, it has to be Bogart. Bogart’s persona nails the wise-ass, takes-no-shit dialogue better than just about anyone, and he’s one of a very small number of actors who can project being both the toughest and smartest guy in the room at any given time. (Powers Boothe, who played Marlowe for a short-lived HBO series, is the only other actor who has come close to nailing the role.)

So while it’s a little goofy that Hawks adds cartoonish sex appeal to Bogart’s Marlowe, The Big Sleep remains just about the best adaptation of any of Chandler’s books, for two major reasons: first, Bogart’s performance captures Marlowe’s integrity and persistence, and secondly, Hawks’s direction captures Chandler’s frequent descriptions of the tedium of investigation, making it clear that the exciting parts of the story are the exception rather than the rule.

Throughout the film, characters try to push Marlowe away from the truth. Eddie Mars (John Ridgely), especially, telegraphs to Marlowe that he knows plenty, but he wants Marlowe to stop digging into the truth. The closer Marlowe gets to the truth, the more danger he faces; most of the time, that’s the only way he knows he’s on the right track. And he just keeps going, no matter how dangerous the job gets, until he’s solved the case. Once he makes a commitment to his client, as long as he believes they themselves aren’t criminals and he keeps getting paid, Marlowe can’t be flattered or tricked, bought or intimidated, or otherwise dissuaded from uncovering the truth.

In much the same way, but for very different reasons, Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) can’t be dissuaded from uncovering the truth. The Coens have to do a lot of heavy lifting—which they do quite deftly—to put an apathetic slacker into the role of a man who wants the truth. It starts with a soiled rug, continues with a “ringer” provided by his friend Walter (John Goodman), and keeps going until The Dude has uncovered a truth that will clear his own name and rid him of the weirdos that keep attacking him. But for The Dude, the search for the truth also has to do with justice: thanks to Walter’s switch with his ringer, The Dude fears that actions forced upon him might have led to a woman’s death.

There are elements to The Dude’s character, and Bridges’s performance, that add several shades of nuance that often go ignored by even the most ardent critics and fans. For all the running gags about White Russians and smoking joints and repeating others’ dialogue as if it’s an original thought, The Dude is neither a stupid man—evidenced by his acerbic wit, his ability to cut through others’ bullshit and get at the truth, and his alleged writing of the Port Huron statement—nor an unfeeling man. The Coens understood a mere goof-off slacker stoner couldn’t fit into a Chandler-esque narrative without tapping into those feelings; The Dude needs a reason to care about finding the truth.

The masterstroke, though, is the Coens’ recognition that Marlowe learns more from bad guys tipping their hands than from actual investigation. Sure, Marlowe’s investigations tend to lead him to the wrong place at the right time—but moreso than any physical evidence, it’s the people he encounters, often in the form of threats, beatings, or attempted bribes—that let Marlowe know he’s on the right track. So The Dude gets harassed by Jackie Treehorn’s (Ben Gazzara) goons, beaten by Maude Lebowski’s (Julianne Moore) thugs, harassed by the German nihilists and their marmot, harassed again by Jackie Treehorn’s thugs, and so on—it’s these characters, who believe The Dude knows more than he does about everything that’s going on, who keep bringing The Dude into the story. It’s their forceful behavior that, ironically, allows The Dude to put all the pieces together and unravel his own role in a sort of goofy conspiracy. More than anything, the Coens managed to make a film anchored by a passive character, and it actually works!

In the end, though, neither The Big Lebowski nor The Big Sleep would succeed nearly as well if they didn’t have characters who want the truth. In one case, an incorruptible man has devoted his life to uncovering it; in the other, a goofball slacker needs to know he and his idiot friend didn’t cause the death of a mostly innocent woman. Soon enough, we’ll encounter some films in which the truth is either never discovered, or it’s more devastating than believing the lie. “The truth hurts,” they say, and that can be true a great deal of the time, but I’ve never understood why people would rather live in ignorance—or worse, with a lie. The truth may hurt, but the active refusal to know it destroys.

Then again, they also say “the truth will out,” and that’s a lie. One reason I love Chandler is that he places Marlowe in a world, similar to our own, bereft of anyone who will seek the truth no matter the cost: physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, political, whatever… And then, at the center of that sad world stands a lone hero who makes anyone reading hope for the day that there are more people like him than like everyone else. In a weird way, I feel the same about The Dude. Like The Stranger (Sam Elliott), I take comfort in knowing he’s out there, takin’ her easy for all us sinners. He’s less outwardly heroic, less clearly motivated to do the right thing, and if he has any sort of code of ethics, it would not in any way resemble a man like Marlowe’s. Yet, he exists in the same plane of awful people willing to look past the truth and prop up their own delusions: those they want others to believe, and those they want to believe themselves. The Dude himself numbs the world with drugs and alcohol, but when push literally comes to shove, he will step up and do what’s right.

That, sadly, is a rarity.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Keep or Sell? Keep

The Big Sleep (1946)

Keep or Sell? Keep

Next Up: Blood Simple (1984)

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150 Films #13: The Bicycle Thief [Ladri di biciclette] (1948)

I’ve made a number of cracks at this essay. It turns out a film with such a brief running time and simple story asks too many profound questions. Without a heavy hand or any pompous philosophizing, the story of a man who needs to recover his stolen bike in order to keep a job he desperately needs manages to ask the following:

  • Does faith, religious or otherwise, serve any purpose or have any value?
  • How can a man with nothing deal with the consequences of a thief literally stealing his livelihood?
  • To what extent does poverty fuel desperate, criminal behavior?
  • What purpose does a criminal justice system serve when it has little interest in criminals or justice?
  • Does a man who can’t provide for his family have any purpose? (This is a bit dated but still a relevant concern for many men.)
  • How can a man who can’t provide for his family—or himself, for that matter—set a good example for his children?
  • Is one man’s desperate story any more important than anyone else’s?

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150 Films #12: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

In a 1973 interview with Gene Siskel, François Truffaut famously said, “I don’t think I’ve really seen an antiwar movie. Every film about war ends up being pro-war.” He’s not wrong. Even an ardently antiwar film, like Oliver Stone’s Platoon or Stanley Kubrick’s future 150 Films entry Paths of Glory, tends to shy away from actually making the case that war, across the board, is futile. The war in Vietnam was terrible, pointless, and monstrous, says Oliver Stone—and I agree, but would he say the same about the Civil War? Would Kubrick argue that war, itself, is the problem, or would he merely claim that bureaucracy and incompetence lead to unnecessary deaths in otherwise justifiable wars?

Until recently, I don’t think I could have called myself “pro-war” or “antiwar”; my interest in war has always had more to do with an inability to understand why wars happen, what constitutes “war” (as opposed to “police action” or “skirmish”), and whether or not they cause more harm than good (even in the case of so-called “just” wars). As we get deeper into this list, I think my stance will grow clearer. The “war films” that I admire tend to focus more on the psychological consequences of battles than the spectacle of explosions. Now, don’t get me wrong—I love action movies, I love explosions, I love combining the thrill of gymnastics with the kill of karate. But action movies, even ones with spectacular battles, don’t aim for the same thing as a “war movie.” Generally speaking, war movies take sides: World War II was the greatest, Vietnam was the worst, the Civil War was noble, the Hundred Years’ War was not…

The inherently political nature of war means, of course, that I inherently distrust them. As I see it, wars should only happen in clear-cut cases of self-defense. If someone attacks the U.S.—as opposed to, say, ineffectual saber-rattling by leaders playing to the cheap seats—we respond by decimating them. End of story. Political pressures encroach on that logic. If the government knew an attack was imminent, how could they let it happen? If the government didn’t know about an attack, why didn’t they? Isn’t it their job to protect us?! If a President says, “We’ve been attacked, but we won’t respond until we’ve done a thorough investigation,” he’s criticized for ineffectual leadership; yet, if he jumps on the first scraps of intelligence, we end up playing Whac-a-Mole® in the mountains of Tora Bora while the mastermind slips away to our “friend” Pakistan.

Another aspect of my ambivalence toward war is the moral cowardice of American politicians. I grew up with a military that picked fights like cowards, against enemies they knew they could beat, while backing away from (and often allying with) countries with abominable human rights records spitting in the face of American values. When was it ever necessary and just to use the U.S. military to secretly back Latin American coups (trading a dictator we don’t like for one we do)? Why was it just for Saudi Arabia to face no consequences for attacks perpetrated mostly by Saudis (because of what Saudis are taught to believe), or for Pakistan to face no consequences for housing the mastermind and financier of the September 11th attacks, when we blew up Afghanistan and Iraq in the name of a “War on Terror”?

To me, the answer is simple: American politicians are pussies. Neo-cons, especially, have an obsession with “nation-building”—reshaping jerkwater dumps in the image of ‘Murica—but whenever we’ve had neo-cons at the helm, we’ve gone after weak countries we could beat so handily, we often did it in secret. It looks really, really bad to boldly declare we’ve sent American troops to dumps like El Salvador, Chile, and Bolivia, taking sides in their political strife. None of them did anything to us, so why were we even there? Because we want their stuff, and we want a friendly leader to sell their stuff and exploit their labor. That’s not a good enough reason to back somebody else’s war.

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