Thursday, April 20, 2017

The 1980s as horror-comedy muse in Mike Leigh's "High Hopes" (1988)

When Mike Leigh assembled one of his stellar ensemble casts to make High Hopes, the 80s were nearly done. Nearly but not quite. And their impact is a major theme throughout this muffled madcap domestic melee.

As in most Leigh ventures, we're unceremoniously dropped into the world of a family, in this case, the Benders. Cyril Bender (Phil Davis) and his girlfriend Shirley (Ruth Sheen) live in comfortable near-squalor in a tiny dark apartment full of Ruth's cacti and Cyril's political posters. The Iron Lady Maggie Thatcher makes a cameo here on their wall. Their largest, pointiest cactus is named after Thatcher for being such a "pain in the ass."

This is a film of contrasts and comparisons. Cyril is a motorcycle messenger, working alongside yuppie office drones, of which the 80s bred many. Shirley is a gardener, planting trees in small city parks and medians. Cyril's mum lives in a former council flat in a neighborhood now gentrified by yuppie scum, who'll we'll meet soon enough. Can you guess which townhouse belongs to Mrs. Bender? Leigh has always had a great eye for art direction to depict class and economic malaise.

Cyril's God-awful sister Valerie (Heather Tobias) and her misogynist husband Martin (Philip Jackson) are junk-bond nouveau-riche personified. Martin sells used cars and openly hates his wife. Valerie is desperate for his sexual attentions, but she'll just as energetically chase down material goods and even people in a doomed quest for status. These are such dreadful comedic characters and you might be tempted to disbelieve that such people could possibly exist, but take a look at the current U.S. President, who made his (mis)fortunes in the 80s. Martin could easily be a stand-in for the boorish fame-monger now occupying the White House.

Let's visit Valerie's attempt at a well-appointed home. With only the slightest exaggeration, we get a sense of 1980s wealth-obsessed tacky decor in two shots.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Bender's next-door neighbor, Madame yuppie-scum Laetitia (the always-great Leigh-stalwart Lesley Manville) is so very annoyed that her grubby little neighbor has locked herself out of her house.

Whenever I've imitated snobby British caricatures, I've sounded exactly like Laetia. I just never knew it until I saw this film. Once again, Leigh avoids tipping over into caricature entirely by simply being observant and honest of a certain type of upper-class sensibility of the time.

Mrs. Bender as seen from high above Laetia's steps. Mrs. Bender is losing her memory and her keys. Laetia would very much like her to go away and use a payphone to call a family member for help. I guess flipping a dime down the stairs would have devolved into caricature.

Back at Valerie's we're treated to her afternoon home-gym reverie.

I'm just including these for the 80s set design. Tops.

People really did dress like this to exercise. I'm sorry to say it was a fad.

Valerie could barely be bothered with her mum's predicament. She calls on Cyril, temporarily trapped within the uniformed office world, to fetch Mrs. Bender.

Laetia's husband Rupert (David Bambert), dripping with pretension, discusses oyster and steak lunches while treating Mrs. Bender like a pesky housefly that will hopefully let itself out the window sometime soon.

This would all be a real unbearable pit of (satirical) human waste-matter if it wasn't for Cyril and Shirley's playful relationship. They are in tune to leftist politics, the environment, and social concerns. When Wayne (Jason Watkins), a wayward lost soul with a mental disability wanders into their orbit, he at times subtly stands in for the child Shirley would like to have.

Cyril is not on board with child-rearing, citing excuses that many laid-back politicos over the ages have used: too many people on the planet, not enough resources, terrible world to bring new life into. The truth is he'd rather smoke pot and listen to Chuck Berry than deal with it.

The humanity of actress Ruth Sheen is a quiet delight. Her face projecting so many emotions within the span of moments.

Karl Marx's massive stone head makes its film debut as Cyril ponders how to do something of value in the world, when one feels inconsequential.

Hint: maybe don't smoke so much pot all the time.

One of Leigh's jittery ladies (a character trait featured in several of his films), Suzi (Judith Scott), visits their apartment, furthering the conversation of how to make positive change in a world run by wealthy power-hungry assholes. Her answer: go to meetings. Have discussions. Cyril scoffs, all sunk into his chair.

A surprise birthday party for Mrs. Bender at Valerie's single-family dwelling cannot bode well.

And it doesn't. Note the familiar hat. Costume designs by the sharp-eyed Lindy Hemming.

More of Valerie's house of misery (and you may feel for her if you watch her closely, as Leigh wants us to).

Leigh pioneered much of our current comedy of awkward social gatherings and uncomfortable embarrassment within misaligned pairings and groups.

In Leigh's industrialized modern world, grand gestures are most likely doomed and we can only hope for moments of humorous, affectionate connection between like-minded souls for any personal happiness. Not everyone has their thoughtful eyes on humanity within the modern world like Mike Leigh, but if you do, he's your cinematic man.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Tax March San Francisco - April 15, 2017

Don't listen to the tweets of the puffy orange man beneath the fluffy comb-over. the majority of the U.S. wants to see his tax returns. He won't reveal what every President in the past four decades has revealed—where his money comes from and where it goes. This tax day, thousands of people across the nation marched with their funny homemade signs. And the general consensus was that this guy's a crook, probably dealing with a lot of other crooks, besides being a liar and a tax cheat. Plus he's about to make tax policies that will most likely benefit him and his wealthy administration greatly. At least that was the summary I gathered from the hundreds of homemade signs of the day.

A brief glimpse of this weekend's march. I call this clip "Cowardly Lyin'":

Some great signage and great spirit. Thank you Indivisible for organizing. Thank you volunteers, marchers and the SFPD. It's inspiring to be with so many great sign-makers.

The photogenic giant inflatable chicken inspired us all

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is a resistance leader in person and online

The March started in the Civic Center and headed down Market Street

A science-based protest of sorts, with bobble eyes


"RELEASE THE TAXES" did its duty before falling out of my bag to go to the lost protest-sign graveyard of demonstration mythology (most likely a filthy BART-station stairwell).

With respect to the late great Ray Harryhausen

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Home Tour of the SLA Patty Hearst Kidnapping and Crime Spree

Patricia Hearst/Tania - identity crisis
I pitched my crime-spree home-tour idea to HGTV and they never got back to me, so I'll just post it here. Having finished reading Jeffrey Toobin's American Heiress - The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst, I was struck by how many Bay Area neighborhoods the self-proclaimed Symbionese Liberation Army took residence in during their year-and-a-half odyssey after kidnapping publishing mogul Randolph Hearst's granddaughter, Patricia (only her dad called her "Patty," but the name stuck from the seemingly endless media stories about her ordeal).

I was not quite ten years old on February 4, 1974, when 19-year-old Hearst was carried, kicking and screaming from the Berkeley apartment she shared with her fiancĂ© Steven Weed (who she dated when he was her high school teacher — gross — that was the 70s, people). I thought the entire situation was shocking, like most of the country, and even more so when approximately a month later, Hearst in one of her taped communiques, denounced the "Pig Hearsts" and the "Pigs" in general, joining her comrades in fighting the "fascist insects that prey upon the life of the people," The SLA was committed to one thing: plotting (and more often than not bungling) ultra-violence while spouting meaningless jargon.

"Waaaah?!" I countered, along with the rest of the world, watching her rob banks in surveillance photos in a saucy beret while brandishing an assault rifle. Hearst and her gang became the most wanted criminals in the U.S. For all their ineptitude and confusion (and Toobin documents plenty of it), they managed, with the help of sympathetic cohorts, to avoid detection from the entire FBI, as well as local law-enforcement agencies for more than a year. This was a saga of the far-far-far-left, as well as a sort of overview of life on the lam in the downtrodden economic-times of the 70s, when inflation rose in absurd disproportion to salaries, and landlords were happy to fill their substandard housing with no questions asked.

Thanks to Toobin's impeccable research, I can now make sense of the SLA path to oblivion and jail-time as they traversed the country, renting safe-houses, apartments, farm-homes, roadside motel rooms, even living for a time in Manhatten. Let's take a virtual tour of the SLA's road to nowhere. Toobin supplied most of their actual addresses, which I called up on Google Maps, but I'll leave the house numbers off here, out of respect of the homes' current occupants. If you want to find them, read the book—it's a page-turner and offers a true slice of 70s living, horror, dark humor and all.

The kidnapping itself occurred in Berkeley, Calif. on Benvenue Avenue. Hearst and her older boyfriend/former teacher Weed were hanging out for a quiet night of TV and dull conversation when a tiny band of operatives calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army, led by their leader Donald DeFreeze ("Cinque"), burst into the apartment, pummeling Weed and a curious neighbor before hauling off Hearst into the trunk of their car. The apartment hasn't changed much in all these years.

The SLA had partially met at this communal house on Chabot Road in Oakland, after Cinque had escaped jail and was hiding out there with a bunch of lefty roommates. Cinque, who was black, gathered his troops, consisting of nine people, including two girlfriends, all of whom were white and involved in prison reform and pontificating. Wanting to make a splash in leftist underground circles and start a nationwide revolution, he and his girlfriends, Patricia ("Mizmoon") Soltysik and Nancy Ling, brutally assassinated Marcus Foster, the first black superintendent in Oakland, for the unfounded belief that Foster had catered to some idea of the "The Man's" concept of black and white relations. The murder was unanimously decried across all political and activist spectrums, and the SLA scrambled to form another plot based on South American guerrilla groups to get their muddled points across. Hence, kidnapping.

Two of the SLA (Joe Remiro and Russ Little) were soon picked up by local police while the collective was living in this suburban ranch house on Sutherland Court in the East-Bay suburb of Concord, California (where I grew up, amidst the cow-dotted Mt. Diablo foothills). The group was hiding out here after the Foster murder when Remiro and Little were stopped by an officer while driving a suspicious-looking van around the neighborhood.

What I especially like about this aspect of their saga, was that the men had gotten lost in a tangle of cul de sacs, trying to escape the police. So you could say that Concord's lack of city planning helped law enforcement nab their prey. Unfortunately for Remiro and Little, they would be found guilty for Foster's murder, while their comrades and actual murderers got away. But a much worse scenario awaited that core group.

In their haste to pack up their news clippings, political books and a growing stash of weaponry, the SLA attempted to burn the Concord safe-house to the ground to cover any remaining evidence of their tenancy. But like so many of their crimes, they botched the job and the house merely smoldered. And there it stands to this day, with drought-tolerant landscaping.

Onward, they drove in the dark of night to Daly City, the southern suburb of San Francisco, where the fog wafts thick the majority of the year. They first rented a house on Winchester Street, which Google Maps refuses to pinpoint with any accuracy, but no matter because they soon moved to another Daly City location, throwing a dirty foam mattress into a bedroom closet in anticipation of their next victim.

Here at the modest digs on Northridge Drive is where they pulled Patty Hearst from the trunk of their car, placing here in the closet for the next month while teaching her about their vision of overthrowing the conservative-pig government. They weren't clear about what to demand while they held her, although they hoped to spring Remiro and Little from the hoosegow. They settled on a food give-away program that Hearst's father paid for and brought to fruition in San Francisco and Oakland. It was poorly managed in the short span of time it was thrown together. Rioting and chaos in the streets ensued as crowds tried to get their allotment of goods as decreed by the SLA. And Hearst by that time had befriended one of her kidnappers, Angela Atwood, and taken up with another one, Willy Wolfe, who became her boyfriend.

They next moved to a dumpy apartment in San Francisco, on Golden Gate Avenue, to try and "blend in" a bit more, now that the kidnapping had been internationally reported, Hearst by this time was calling herself Tania and spouting "Death to the insects" rhetoric herself. Desperate for cash, the operative planned another attention-grabbing action, robbing the Hibernia Bank in the Sunset District on Noriega and 22nd Avenue. Tania would make headlines as a gun-toting urban guerrilla (which was the occupation she chose for her arrest form, but that comes later in the story).

The SLA was amused to learn that the city's FBI headquarters was only a mile away at 450 Golden Gate Avenue. In trying to locate Hearst, the FBI was fully inept, which gives me hope that Quentin Tarantino will someday sign on to direct a movie about this strange odyssey, so impenetrable in motive and indicative of a lost time and place.

An ill-conceived move to hide out in a small hovel on Oakdale Avenue in Hunter's Point, where the majority-white members, including the now-infamous Tania, stuck out in a black neighborhood. The house was barely habitable, and where it once stood is now the site of a new City College building.

Tiring of their downwardly mobile housing trajectory, the operative packed up their bloated arsenal once more, this time for the long drive to Los Angeles, where Cinque had grown up. They rented this place on West 84th Street in South Central, with no running water or working electricity. Once again, the nearly all-white household could rarely leave the house in the all-black neighborhood without drawing attention.

And one day, when Bill and Emily Harris drove the collective van to do errands with Hearst in the back, the SLA blew up, literally, not far from the West 84th Street house. That day the Harrises ended up in an absurd melee in front of a sporting-goods store when Bill tried to shoplift a small item and was accosted by a zealous store employee. Fisticuffs ensued and Hearst, waiting in the van, saw the commotion and decided to shoot up the front of the store from across the street with her semi-automatic rifle.

Miraculously no one was killed and the Harrises made their escape into the van. Zipping through the streets of L.A., they ditched their ride, carjacked a couple of vehicles, and wound up briefly kidnapping a high school kid who had agreed to sell them his vehicle. They all passed the night in a drive-in, watching movies, waiting for their cohorts to meet up with them, but their friends were no-shows.

Because after the sporting-goods shoot-out made the news, the remaining SLA members, numbering six—four women, two men—ditched their ride and hid out at this location on East 54th Street. Several people were living in what Toobin calls a flop-house, including some children. When the SLA came knocking at 4 A.M., offering the gift of stolen bank cash, the inhabitants no doubt marveled at their new house guests as they hauled in a tremendous amount of guns, bullets (filled with cyanide—a Cinque calling card) and bomb-making equipment.

Meanwhile the police found a traffic ticket in the abandoned Harris van, with a nearby address, and soon zeroed in on this location, bringing the newly formed SWAT team to surround the tiny house.

Not the actual house, which burned to the ground, along with two other homes

Here's the story of the ensuing shootout, the largest in U.S. history, which the nation watched unfold in our country's first unplanned live news broadcast.

The amount of automatic fire-power blasting into and out of the little house for two hours turned the neighborhood into a war zone. The ensuing house fire could have started from the multiple rounds of tear gas thrown by the P.D. or a punctured gas can inside the house. Everyone in the house, hiding in the crawl space, firing away, was eventually shot or burned to death, which is nightmarish in the extreme. They would not surrender. It would be an era of inexplicable death-wish behavior, including the Jonestown Massacre and the assassinations of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone by disgruntled former co-worker Dan White.

The Harrises and Hearst, holed up in an Anaheim motel across the street from Disneyland, watched the news, just like the rest of us. Their tiny homemade army was now down to three members. No doubt in shock, they headed north the next day, staying in another hotel in Costa Mesa, then hiding in a former coal bin on Oak Street in their friend's San Francisco apartment. After the friend kicked them out, they settled into a run-down apartment on Walnut Street in Oakland. Toobin doesn't give an address, but I looked up Walnut Street and it's located by my son's former preschool. There's something about this story that hits home with me.

A guy named Jack Scott who wanted to write a book about the SLA, managed to track them down at this point and offered them his apartment in New York City on West 90th Street. They drove cross-country and stayed awhile (meeting up and living with sympathizer and partial babysitter Wendy Yoshimura) before Scott whisked them to a remote farmhouse he rented in South Canaan, Pennsylvania, where he hoped to interview them at length. Another farmhouse in Jefferson, New York, served as a hideout as the relationship between Hearst, Scott and the Harrises withered under the stress of being long-term fugitives and freeloaders.

Hearst would end up in Las Vegas briefly with Scott after he brought her back to California (she also traveled with his parents, who urged her to turn herself in, but no dice). Eventually the last of the SLA reconvened in Sacramento, on W Street, where they met up with some like-minded bombers (literally—the group was wanted for bombing various empty-building targets), which included brother and sister Steve and Kathy Soliah, plus Michael Bortin and James Kilgore.

Everyone worked on their bomb-making skills and planned a new bank robbery to take place at the Crocker National Bank in nearby Carmichael. This went catastrophically wrong when bank customer and mother of four, Myrna Lee Opsahl, was shot and killed by Emily Harris when her gun discharged as she ordered Opsahl to lie down on the floor. A teller later miscarried after Kathy Soliah kicked her on the way out of the bank, taking $15,000. Hearst drove a getaway car. Soliah would later face a day of reckoning for not only this bank job, but also for planting a bomb in a police car in Los Angeles that failed to detonate but would have killed many bystanders, including children, had it gone off.

Some miserable times were had in Sacramento after the botched robbery. The gang made their way back to San Francisco where they moved into two houses, this one on Morse Street in the outer Mission, where everyone but Hearst worked as house painters, building bombs in their spare time.

And this house, on Precita, not too far from where my Grandma lived for 40 years, off of Geneva, in the godforsaken San Francisco neighborhood we called "The border of Daly City." Here, Hearst lived a quiet, isolated existence with her new boyfriend Steve Soliah.

By this time, the world had figured out that the SLA was a bunch of fucking idiots. And dangerous too, so finding and convicting them was paramount. The FBI doubled down and followed some tips that led to the site of Steve Soliah's house-painting job. This led to some old-fashioned surveillance and stake-outs, and finally everyone was captured. Hearst was in the Precita house when the police came bursting in. As she was driven away in the patrol car, she famously raised her fist in defiance.

But it didn't take much jail time and time with her family before Hearst turned on her former comrades, including her boyfriend, Soliah. The former revolutionary soldier claimed she had been tortured, raped and brainwashed and believed that if she didn't join the SLA, they would kill her. Which didn't take into account all the times she could have easily escaped. Either in Los Angeles, or in Sacramento, where she was left alone for hours at a time. It also doesn't explain why she felt compelled to shoot up innocent bystanders in Los Angeles, or continue on with the SLA even after their crimes escalated, resulting in more death and destruction.

Whatever her reasoning and state of mind, the kidnapping was no doubt a nightmarish and terrifying ordeal, and Patricia Hearst is a survivor. She was found guilty of bank robbery and served some time before being pardoned by Presidents Carter and Clinton. She married her bodyguard, appeared in some John Waters films, raised two daughters, and is known for her prize-winning pedigreed dogs. That is about as bourgeois as it gets.

The Harrises were convicted of kidnapping and bank robbery. The rest of the group spread out and went underground for more than twenty years before finally being caught and pleading guilty for the robbery that led to the murder of Myrna Opsahl. That is a story unto itself, but doesn't involve much real estate, unless you count the nice St. Paul Minnesota home Kathy Soliah settled down in, going by the name of Sara Jane Olson while living an upstanding suburban life as a wife, mother and community-theater player before she was identified on "America's Most Wanted." Wendy Yoshimura got a plea deal and now paints watercolors in Oakland. She paints vivid still-lives of fruit, which would look fine in any home environment.