Thursday, January 24, 2008

Six dangerous movie myths

Scientific studies have proven that part of our memory -- not just institutional, but personal -- comes from Hollywood.

A classic example is a story Ronald Reagan once told to a group of reporters. He used it to illustrate the true meaning of courage, and it involved a plane that was badly damaged by enemy fire over the English Channel during World War II. As the aircraft shuddered in its death throes, everyone bailed out except for the pilot and a crewman who was too badly injured to evacuate.

According to Reagan, the pilot went to the rear of the plane, put his arm around his comrade, and said: "Don't worry, son -- we'll ride this thing down together."

It was an inspiring and touching tale, and the press corps spent a moment in silent contemplation. Then came a flash of insight.

"If there were only two people on the plane and it crashed," asked one reporter, "who came back to tell this story?"

Turns out the President was really recounting a scene from a 1950s movie. And the aforementioned studies showed that many of us, like Mr. Reagan, occasionally color our memory of past events with Hollywood fiction.

Which is harmless enough, I suppose. But I'd like to touch on six myths (Why six? Because that's all I could think of before my second cup of coffee) perpetuated by nearly a century of films. Some of these can actually be hazardous to our health.

1. If you're persistent enough, you can make another person love you. That's true in movies, where the person being pursued almost always winds up regarding the other's obsessive, semi-crazed behavior as somehow endearing. In real life, though, over-the-top persistence is likely to get you slapped with a stalking summons. And the philosophy that "he/she is the only person for me, and no one else can have him/her" has found its way onto many a police blotter.

Generally speaking, if someone continually rejects you, it's a dead end. Move on.

2. Bullies are always cowards at heart. Thus, they turn to jelly when the 120-pound seventh-grade hero finally stands up to them. That's a nice thought, and might occasionally be true, but the hard fact is, most bullies are that way precisely because they're bigger, stronger and meaner than their peers. A lot of 120-pound would-be heroes have wound up in the emergency room because they believed the movies.

3. Bad guys can't use firearms. A sort of corollary to the myth above. Why is it in movies that hired killers and thugs, who shoot people for a living and thus are presumably good at it, can never hit the hero despite unleashing a lethal spray of bullets at him? I remember a scene from "Beverly Hills Cop" where Eddie Murhpy is running in front of a fence with bullets hitting above and below him, but emerges unscathed.

In reality, despite what the National Rifle Association would have you believe, good guys don't always win in a gunfight.

4. Automobiles always catch on fire when they crash. Why does this always happen in movies? Because it makes for better video. Audiences love to watch things blow up and burn. The problem is, this is often used as an anti-seat belt argument -- "If I have a seatbelt on, I'll be burnt to a crisp when my car catches on fire."

Actually, cars aren't quite as flammable as Hollywood depicts.

5. People dying of a terminal disease always look great. In movies, they still have color in their cheeks and a sparkle in their eyes, even as their life ebbs away and cancerous cells devour their bodies. I think showing the unpleasant reality would go a lot further toward convincing people to get an annual checkup

6. Being smashed over the head by a large, blunt object is really no big deal. I have a friend who is affiliated with a head injury support group and always talks about this. Two people are sneaking up on a lone sentry, and one says: "Should I shoot him?" The other replies: "No, we don't want to hurt him. Just hit him over the head and knock him out."

And, yes, in movies, characters routinely leap to their feet 30 seconds after being rendered unconscious by a rifle butt, pistol or crowbar and dash off in pursuit of whoever did the rifle-butting, pistol-whipping or crowbarring. On screen, they never suffer from double vision, loss of memory or partial paralysis.

Can you think of any more of these? Pass them along.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Honoring MLK's army

Why is it that every great social movement has to have a single human face attached to it to make it real?

With no disrespect to the Rev. Martin Luther King (I don’t want a phone call from Barack Obama’s people), I don’t believe that the civil rights revolution would never have happened if he hadn’t been born. The time was ripe. If it hadn’t been him, some other leader would have emerged.

Therefore, while it’s important to honor a man who gave his life (literally and figuratively) for the cause that shaped his legacy, I believe it’s also important to use Martin Luther King Day as an opportunity to also recognize all the other courageous people who finally took down segregation.

Beginning with …

1. The black World War II veterans who returned from fighting for their country in godforsaken places around the globe, only to be shooed to the back of the bus. The resentment this created smoldered for years until King and others poured gasoline on it.

2. The college students, black and white, who staged sit-ins at lunch counters across the South, not knowing if this act of defiance would result in a plate of grits in the face or a police baton over their heads

3. The Montgomery domestic workers who trudged miles to clean out their employers' cupboards and toilets in order to honor the transportation strike triggered by Rosa Parks.

I remember visiting my relatives in North Carolina as a child and regarding the segregated bathrooms and drinking fountains merely as some quaint local custom. Nobody, black or white, seemed especially distressed by it all (although I know now that was an illusion).

There should have been a sign at the Mason-Dixon Line, clearly visible to southbound travelers: “Welcome to Dixie. We’ve Always Done It This Way.”

King and his followers faced hatred, racism and anger in their crusade. We all know about that. Even more, though, they faced the apathy of a region firmly set in its ways.

And the real dangers to breaking with the established order weren’t being lynched or having a cross burned on your lawn, although those things happened. The real dangers were losing your job, or your friends.

A wise longtime Lynchburg resident once told me something that made a lot of sense regarding the white community and the communal treatment of blacks prior to the 1960s.

“Only a few people really made a big deal out of race,” she said, “maybe 10 percent. But 80 percent of everyone else was afraid of that 10 percent.”

Human nature. You’re walking down the hall in high school and see a bully picking on someone. You keep walking, lest that bully turn on you.

What Martin Luther King did, though, was to invite the reaction of that 10 percent. He baited them, hoping that when they were flushed out into the open, the majority would see them for what they really were.

When racist cops beat up black prisoners in a back room, it went unnoticed. But when Jim Clark and Bull Connor turned fire hoses and police dogs on peaceful demonstrators, the New York Times had a front page story and the networks had great film footage for the 6 o’clock.

King did that. He could not, however, have done it alone. No general can win a battle without an army.

So on this day when King is remembered, here are just a few Central Virginia people who should be acknowledged, as well. Every community had them.

  • Anne Spencer, who refused to sit in the back of the bus even before Rosa Parks.
  • Vivian Camm, who when she became principal of Garland-Rodes Elementary School, took down the portraits of the Confederate generals for whom the school was named,
  • Jim Ould, a white City council member who voted to re-open and integrate the city’s swimming pools in 1965.
  • Oliver C. Thaxton, who led a “wade-in” that got those pools closed a year earlier, and lost his trucking business because of it.
  • Lynda Woodruff and Owen Cardwell, who took on the enormous challenge of being the first two black students to enroll at E.C. Glass.
  • The students from Lynchburg College, Randolph-Macon Woman's College and Virginia Seminary who were jailed for their participation in the lunch counter sit-ins.
  • Former Lynchburg Mayor Leighton Dodd (a Caucasian), who spoke out in a memorable meeting about the injustices he felt were being inflicted upon the local black community. He did get a cross on his lawn.

Obviously, I'm leaving out a lot of others. But they know who they are, and so do the people for whom went out on a limb.

The civil rights movement -- and, by extension, all of American society -- owes a large debt of gratitude to Martin Luther King. But what happened was bigger than him, too.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Are you ready for the Packer movie?

It’s almost eerie, what’s happening in the National Football League playoffs. And as I watched the Green Bay Packers decimate the Seattle Seahawks in a swirling snowstorm on Saturday, I sensed a made-for-TV movie waiting to happen.

Even though they don’t look very much alike, I’d pick Woody Harrelson to play Packer quarterback Brett Favre in the inevitable film. Southerners both, they have the same combination of impishness and toughness in their eyes. Think Hawkeye Pierce. Think Burt Reynolds in “Smoky and the Bandit.”

For we can all see where this might be going. When the New York Giants upset Dallas on Sunday, residents of Green Bay must have partied in their slush-filled streets for the second straight night.

Had Dallas won, the Packers would have had to play down there, on a field where they are 1-8 lifetime, against a star player (Terrell Owens) who always performs his best against them.

Now, the Giants have to invade what has become known as the Frozen Tundra. If bad weather isn’t actually predicted, Packer officials might sneak in the night before with some borrowed snow-making machines.

This is all of personal interest to me, because green and gold blood runs in my veins (the nurses who occasionally take samples keep asking me about this). My father was raised in the Green Bay suburb of DePere, and I have a large colony of relatives there -- some of whom are Packer season ticket holders.

Which is a very big deal in the Frozen Tundra, where Packer tickets are handed down in wills and fought over in court. The waiting list for seats, even bad ones, can be decades.

Moreover, the community owns the team, an anomaly in the corporate-centric world of today's NFL. Green Bay's field is named not after some mega-conglomerate, but Curly Lambeau, who started the team back in the 1920s with the backing of a small meat packing company.

But back to the movie. It would all revolve around Favre, one of the true characters in the game. At one point during the 42-20 victory over Seattle, he reached down, packed a snowball, and fired it at wide receiver Donald Driver (as hard as the 38-year-old Favre still hurls a football, I'd hate to be in a snowball fight with him). His unbridled joy lit up the TV screen.

Two years ago, though, Favre was close to rock bottom. His wife, Deanna, was receiving treatment for breast cancer. His brother-in-law, Casey Tyner, had died in an ATV accident. Hurricane Katrina had devastated his home in Kiln, MS. And the Packers were terrible, winning only four games. Favre was ranked 31st out of 32 NFL quarterbacks statistically, and sentiment was growing that he should retire.

Instead, he came back in 2006, leading the Packers to an 8-8 season. Again, retirement rumors swirled around him during the off-season as he rode his tractor and stonewalled the media.

The team wasn't supposed to be any better than in 2007, if not worse. The running backs and wide receivers were young, putting all the pressure on Favre's shoulders when he finally decided to come back. Somehow, though, the team went 13-3 during the regular season before trouncing Seattle.

One play in that Seattle game was vintage Favre, a player known for his improvisation. Chased out of the pocket by a couple of large and menacing Seahawks, he ran to his right and stumbled on the snow-covered turf. After a couple of staggering steps, he regained his balance, then threw the football underhand to tight end Donald Lee to set up a key touchdown.

In the movie, that play will be shown in slow motion, perhaps with cut-ins to Deanna Favre up in the stands.

Should Green Bay beat the Giants, chances are Favre would have the chance to spoil the landmark perfect season currently being forged by the New England Patriots. Now 17-0, the Patriots have become widely reviled (except in Boston, of course) as a bloodless, coldly efficient team that executes its opponents without mercy. They could be Drago, the killer Russian heavyweight, to Favre's Rocky.

I need to rummage through my closet and find my cheesehead.