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Thirteen, Thirty-One, Forty-Nine

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Some years back, I was at a neo-Pagan shop picking up a particularly nice-smelling incense they specialized in.  After he’d fetched it for me, the clerk suddenly gave me an intense stare, peering at me through his glasses and between his shaggy bangs.  “When’s your birthday?” he asked.

“……why?”

He grabbed a notepad.  “I want to do your numerology,” he said.  It was a bit slow at his counter, but that still doesn’t explain why he was that determined to give me a complete numerological workup at that exact moment.  He asked me my birthdate and name, and then, pen flying across the paper and fixing me with intense looks as he spoke, he gave me a five minute dissertation on numerology, complete with telling me my birth number, how to calculate it, what such a number portends, and how to calculate a separate number based on my name and how it also affected me.

I have forgotten nearly all of what he told me – I’ve always been a little dubious of numerology – with one exception.  “The thing about life,” he said, “is that it goes in eighteen-year patterns.  Or, more like pairs of nine-year patterns,” he added, sketching a curved line for me on the page – up, then down, then back up.  “It takes you nine years to go from here to here,” he said, pointing first at the beginning of the line up high, and then the valley.  “And then, it takes another nine years to go from the bottom here back up to here.  And then it repeats,” he said, continuing the line in a few more swoops up and down the page.  “So if you want any insight into where you are now, a good way to find out is to look back eighteen years to see what was happening to you then.  That’s when you were at the same place in the pattern.  Not nine years,” he warned, staring at me and tapping the paper.  “Eighteen.  That’s the pattern.”

In late June Alex told me he was moving to Los Angeles.  It wasn’t entirely surprising – he’s always wanted to get into screenwriting, and after visiting friends there this spring he came back saying that writing jobs were “free-flowing” there and I suspected this would happen.  What did surprise me was how his brave leap started me thinking about what I’m doing with my own life as well.  “It looks like you’ve triggered a midlife crisis,” I joked to Alex, “it’s just manifesting as something deeper than a facelift.”

He moved out this Monday.  But I had a decent amount in savings, so I’ve chosen to treat August like a sabbatical – take my time finding the next roommate, and otherwise live alone, trying to do some digging into my own brain and clearing some things out while I did the same with the apartment.  It’s going to be a tough job – not only have I built up an amazingly stupid amount of junk in this apartment that should probably go, I’m afraid that I’ve buried some bits of myself out of necessity and they need to be unearthed.  Doing that out of sight of any other human is probably going to be a very wise move.

It’s scary as hell, I’m not going to lie.  It’s triggered some really uncomfortable moments at work, where I’ve had to fight back the urge to burst out crying at my desk out of sheer frustration that I even have to be there instead of….somewhere else, doing….something else.  But that’s the thing, I haven’t been sure yet what the somewhere and the something else are, or what I want them to be.

But it’s a start.  And looking back a couple of eighteen-year jumps, it looks like that may be the pattern.

Eighteen years ago I was 31.  That spring I’d been working as a secretary in a bank while working as a stage manager when I could, mostly at a little company on the Lower East Side five minutes’ walk from my house.  I wrote a little bit for them as well.  But then in June, the department I was working in imploded, and they laid off about 70% of us, me included. But at my meeting with Human Resources, they presented me with an eye-poppingly huge severance package.  “Ah,” I thought.  “I’m not being laid off.  I am having a summer of theater funded.”  The first rehearsal for the latest show at my theater was that evening; I’d been tapped to be the company dramaturg, and I turned up early to tell the director, “you know how you didn’t want to ask me to stage manage because of my job?….Good news!”

That summer was the beginning of a full-bore concentration on theater.  I dedicated myself to it more intently than I had before, a move which carried me through another seven years and nearly 30 shows, an Equity card, three Fringe Festivals and a stint off-Broadway complete with seeing my name in a review in the New York Times.  It also led me to doing double-duty in writing – that same director moved on to another theater the following year, and when they needed someone to write program notes for their shows, he called me up and even offered to pay.

Relatedly – although I didn’t know it was related at the time – that summer also introduced me to my friend Colin.  But “friend” wasn’t what we were thinking initially – we actually met through an online personal site, and…er, in the interest of discretion I’ll just say that that was the avenue we explored at first.  We dated only very briefly, but had already been talking about working together by the time we called that quits – so when Colin called me literally the next day to ask “I know we just broke up, but…do you still wanna try working together?” I surprised myself by saying “you know what?….I do.”

First we tried working on a quick fundraising event for his own company, and then I gave him some help at another event, and a couple months later he invited me to join his company fully, a move which lead to us co-producing another 10 years’ worth of plays and founding a playwriting contest that at last count helped to launch the careers of three different writers.  I was there to see him meet Niki, the woman he would ultimately fall in love with (and ultimately move to Colorado with last year), he was there to see me meet the man I fell in love with (and who ultimately broke my heart).  I helped him and Niki paint their first house.  He did my taxes for two years simply because he was convinced I could do better than taking the standard deduction.  He teased me for being a sucker for plays about people growing up Catholic, and I teased him back over his soft spot for bioplays about Shakespeare.

We developed a conversational shorthand that relied heavily on quotes from Princess Bride and Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and a professional decision-making method that involved southern barbecue and pitchers of margaritas. We worked in the same office for nearly eight years and only had two major arguments, neither one about work (they were instead both about politics, which lead me to decree that henceforth, on Election Days, we were only allowed to talk to each other about puppies).  We once giggled ourselves into breathlessness over the title of a play we received – “To Barcelona!”, complete with exclamation mark – because after three hours neither one of us was capable of saying the name without heroically shouting it in a Castillian accent and pumping a fist in the air.  We both nearly got trampled at a protest march when a group set fire to a banner in the middle of the crowd behind us, sending a crowd of people stampeding at us from behind and a flying wedge of cops charging at us from the front (I grabbed him and dragged him onto a side street barking that we’re going to walk this way RIGHT NOW, please). We both recognized in each other a few years back that “it looks like neither of us is really into theater any more,” and I know that helped me face that it was time to close that chapter of my life.  He has an insight into me and my mind that I have come to value tremendously.

Eighteen years ago today, I didn’t know any of this was ahead of me – I was likely only just finding Colin’s profile online and sending my first “hey, how are ya” message before slipping off to rehearsal for the show I’d just started working on.

Eighteen years before that I was just thirteen.  I was only a few months into puberty, something I find comically ironic now that I am likely only a few months away from the end of that part of my life.

I don’t really remember all that much of that year. I keep on thinking of things but then realizing they came either a year or so before or a couple years after; meeting my best girl friends Sue and Cliona came when I was eleven, writing a goofy book with Sue and another friend came in high school, when I was fourteen.  I even tried browsing a couple history sites for news events from that year, but save for clinically noticing that “okay, I remember that movie” it didn’t trigger anything.

But doing the math that may be because there were things that went down that spring that I’ve wanted to block out.

I was bullied as a child for a solid three or four years, pretty much from fourth grade up through seventh.  Not for any real definitive reason that I know, either – I was a little bit quirky, prone to nerdishly obsessing over random things, and perhaps some kids didn’t know how to relate to that so they turned on me.  Or, maybe it was just the reason any kid gets bullied, because I was there and I usually didn’t fight back.  I didn’t know how to fight back, either – when it started, my parents advised me to just ignore it, which I internalized as “even though you do hear what they’re saying and it hurts, don’t let them see that you’re hurt.”

And a lot of times the things they said would seem like compliments if you were to type them out and read them.  They would tell me I was smart, I was pretty, I was their best friend.  They would wave really big at me when I walked into a room. They would tell me that my hair was pretty and my clothes were cool.  But they said it in exaggeratedly sarcastic, syrupy-sweet overly fake voices that made it obvious that they were picking on me.  It was especially insidious, because how was I going to complain to a teacher about that?  “They’re picking on me by telling me I’m pretty”? I had friends, but only a couple, and they weren’t always around and didn’t really know what to do to help me either.

And so I sat, in classroom after classroom, in lunch room after lunch room, for four years, listening to the giggles and sarcastic whispers telling me that I was sooooo smart and sooooooo pretty, and knowing they meant something completely different from what they said and not being able to do anything about it. To this day I have a hard time trusting praise or compliments from anyone because my bullies taught me that sweet words are usually insincere.  Only when I know you well will I believe you if you praise me, and sometimes not even then.

Still all of that was prelude to when I was thirteen.  It wasn’t constant, either – it came in fits and starts, as different people saw me in different classes.  But that spring it suddenly got physical when a group of girls in my gym class took to laying in wait for me after I changed out of gym clothes and was trying to get to my next class.  When I was with my friends, they would leave me alone, but when it was just me, they’d giggle and follow me, trying to corner me against a wall and…and I didn’t know what they wanted to do and I didn’t care, I saw enough menace in their eyes.  Once they even trapped me in the stairwell and one threw the threat of a punch at me, all of them giggling when I flinched.  It got worse as the semester went on, with them not even waiting until after class sometimes, trying to corner me in the gym itself.  I’d spend most of class trying to dodge them and escape their notice, and was not always successful.

But sometime that April, at the beginning of a gym class when we were playing volleyball or something, the teacher told us to all form ourselves into groups for games.  I saw my buillies heading my way and I was cowering, knowing they were going to try to pull me into their group so they could corner me – and suddenly three other girls from class that I didn’t know got to me first, standing around me in a protective huddle.  “Hey, wanna play with us?” they said, a mite louder than necessary.

“Uh….okay?”  I dumbly followed them, and they introduced themselves to me as we found our way to a net.  We played a haphazard game – the three of them had known each other a while and had a lot of in-jokes that I didn’t really know how to relate to, but they treated me decently, and we all were equally bad at volleyball so it didn’t matter as much that I was bad and I took their laughter when I blew a serve as the good-natured laughter it was.  I was still puzzled about why they’d sought me out, but went with it.

After class they told me what they were doing.  “We don’t like seeing you getting beat up by the tough girls every day,” they said.  “We decided we wanted to do something.”

“Really?”  The thought that anyone even noticed what was happening to me, much less actually wanted to do something about it, floored me.

“Why don’t you tell the principal?” one challenged me.  “You don’t have to take that.”

“I don’t know….I don’t think he can really do anything, he won’t understand.”

“That’s stupid!” she retorted.  “Of course they can do something.  And you don’t have to take that, it’s not fair to you.  You should tell him!” When I still hesitated, she added, “I’ll come with you and hold your hand, want me to?”

She did hold my hand.  Literally, as I sat in the principal’s office and sobbed and hiccupped my way through finally telling someone what was happening, she sat in the chair beside me with my hand in hers.. She’d taken it when she saw me start crying and held on.

The school mismanaged it, of course, by trying to set up a mediation between me and each of the other bully girls, and I had to sit in front of the principal as they lied through their teeth about what they’d been trying to do.  Schools usually mismanage bullying, in my experience.

But the notion that someone standing outside of my hell had even noticed me, and had decided to try to help me, was a crack in this sense of self-belief I’d been constructing that told me I didn’t deserve anything better. I was on my way to believing that this was just what I deserved and that was that.  Those girls reaching out just that one time was the first inkling I had that that was bullshit.

I didn’t realize I was thinking that the August I was thirteen.  Mostly I was just relieved that round of bullying had ended, and I was trying not to think about it any more.  It’s only now, 36 years later, that I realize that it was the last time I was properly bullied at all.  I did have a few more people try a time or two over the next couple years, but I thought differently about it; it was a reflection on the bullies, not on me.

The August I was thirteen was the end of a hard few years and the beginning of realizing that I deserved better.

I’ve had a hard few years.  I was starting to believe that the rut I’m in is as good as it can get; I had to settle for less, just to protect myself.  But that’s over now.  I’ve started looking into ways to change the path I’m on and do more with it; it will take time and years to get there, but I’ve started to remember I am worth that path.  And it’s very possible, if my history repeats itself – as it seems to have done – that the things ahead of me might be rich indeed.

Eighteen years.  That’s the pattern.

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Movie Crash Course: The Lady Eve

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Alex will sometimes join me in watching a film and we usually have a lively discussion after.  This time, his commentary was more pithy.  About 45 minutes into The Lady Eve, Alex blurted out, “….this movie is so dumb.”

 

The thing is, he didn’t mean it as an insult.  And I agreed.

 

The Lady Eve is a screwball comedy starring two people better known for dramatic roles (Barbara Stanwyck, who we last saw from Stella Dallas, and Henry Fonda, late of Grapes of Wrath).  Fonda is Charles Pike, the heir to a millionaire brewer who is instead pursuing a career in ophidiology (the study of snakes); he’s just wrapped up a year in the Amazon assisting one of his professors, and is bringing a live specimen home via steamship.  Stanwyck is Jean Harrington, part of a father-daughter team of con artists who’ve been hopping from steamer to steamer roping people into card games and fleecing them before they hit the next dock.  They first see Pike in the ship’s dining cabin – ignoring all the other women making eyes at him as he reads a book about snakes – and peg him as an easy mark; Harrington can try turning on the charm and romancing him a little, persuading him to a friendly card game with her and her dear old dad.  So what if he is oblivious to the point that Jean literally has to trip him to get his attention.  She then accuses him of breaking the heel on her shoe, and hhe’s such a decent chap that he offers to escort her back to her cabin to change shoes, and is soon falling sway to her feminine wiles. Harrington has him right where she wants him.  Except – he’s such a decent guy that now she’s not sure she wants to go through with the con, and actually tries to double-cross her own father to spare Pike.

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But then right before they dock back in the USA – right when Jean is about to confess her feelings – Pike discovers evidence of her criminal past, and angry breaks up with her.  Stung, Jean persuades her father to join her in a second, different con against Pike – and this time, it’s for revenge.

Fonda manages to play Pike as somehow both intelligent and stupid; he’s a student of biology who can’t even pick up that the woman turning up at his house and calling herself “The Lady Eve Sidwich” is actually Jean Harrington, even though she’s made no effort to disguise herself aside from affecting an accent.  He’s a fuddy-duddy who gets the vapors when “Eve” relates a long list of past lovers she’s had, but is easily swept off his feet simply by Jean showing a bit of leg.  Surprisingly, Fonda’s salt-of-the-earth earnestness serves him here, as it did in Grapes of Wrath – he oozes “decent upright citizen” all throughout, the kind of trusting soul who takes everyone at their word and believes in decency and fair play.  Exactly the kind of person who’d be taken in by such a pair of cons.

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As for Stanwyck, she’s having a blast – she gets to play two characters, both of them the smartest people in the room by far, and one of them a juicy femme fatale.  There’s an extended sequence when Jean is in her cabin with Pike, having a conversation, and she begins playing with his hair while she speaks.  An enraptured Pike sits enchantedfor a full three minutes while Jean strokes and caresses and runs her fingers through his hair, talking away about something perfectly inconsequential – because she knows that Pike isn’t listening to her anyway, and that’s the point. (Incidentally, an earlier draft of the script implied the two went on to hook up in Jean’s cabin; but the Hays Board put a stop to that.)

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This movie is ridiculous. But not unpleasantly so – even as you’re rolling your eyes at Pike’s naïveté or over some of the sight gags (Fonda has five pratfalls in a single scene), you’re also chuckling at Jean’s wit.  Actor William Demarest has a small role as Pike’s valet and self-appointed protector, and a recurring gag sees him going to greater and greater lengths to convince Pike that “the Lady Eve” is not who she seems.  There’s a completely pointless gag involving a horse that nevertheless had me giggling.  This film is dumb, but in the way that some big cuddly dogs are a little endearingly dumb and you end up fond of them in spite of yourself.

Focus And Perspective

I spent this weekend learning about perspective.

This weekend I was up in the Catskills, at a photography workshop organized by my friend Colin.  It was focusing on capturing the fall color of the Catskills – a subject Colin excels at – but he also taught us ten students a sheer wealth of material, like the challenges of catching leaves when the wind makes them dance, and how to compensate for the fading light of Autumn and why misty days are actually perfect for a fall photo day.  How to capture the endless sweep of a Hudson Valley field sloping down into a dappled lake, and then the trees dotting the far-distant peaks beyond that.

However, I didn’t have quite the chance to try his techniques that I thought I would.  Because on our very first day – only twenty minutes into our first photo session capturing the scene around a Catskill pond, and only five minutes after Colin had wandered over to me and showed me a setting on my little camera that I never knew I had – I lost hold of my camera and it tumbled into the pond.  Everyone else in the class froze when they heard me start chanting ogodogodogodogodogod and splash in after it; then they all started hollering over their remedies and advice –

“Take the battery out right now!”

“Shake all the water out!”

Colin ran over with his car keys.  “Go sit in the truck with the camera right next to the heater for 20 minutes,” he said.  “Then we’ll see what happens.”  I trotted off, and another student, Chuck, tagged along.  “I have a spare camera,” he offered, “you want to use it?”  I told him I’d see how my own familiar camera did first, if I could get it back up and going.  I spent the next 20 minutes carefully swabbing things out with a stack of napkins Colin had in the car and cranking the fan and the heater, with other students periodically wandering by to check on me.

My camera turned on after 20 minutes, but made some strange noises and the viewfinder screen didn’t work.  “I’m thinking you may need to try the bag of rice trick when we get back to the house,” Colin said.  Chuck, hovering nearby, offered his spare camera again so I wouldn’t be sitting around doing nothing at the next photo stop.  This time I said yes – but was still intimidated when he handed over a camera that was twice as big and ten times as complicated as my little friendly drowned camera.  It also came with a big telephoto lens on it that I had to adjust to.  I had to keep trotting over to Chuck to ask how to adjust the shutter speed and ask why it was blinking and ask how to turn off different settings and make it stop making that weird vvvvhh noise.  But I got through that day, and immediately buried my camera in a bag of rice when we broke for the day.  It was still not quite right the next morning, so Chuck once again handed me his big camera with a grin.  But it was a frustrating day of wrestling with the unfamiliar controls and juggling the heavy lens.  I drained a battery because there was an obscure setting switched on that I hadn’t even known how to check, and spent about twenty minutes that second afternoon in a sulk in the car because the battery was dead and it wasn’t even my camera in the first place and I had to keep interrupting Chuck to fix everything and I had also almost dropped a borrowed tripod earlier that day too and I felt like a huge unprepared klutzy doof.

But I got through the weekend, and Colin and Niki (Colin’s better half) brought me to the bus back home – but after a half hour past the time it was supposed to come, we were still there, and both Colin and Niki were just as exhausted as I was waiting with me.  We called the bus company, learned that the bus had broken down and the replacement bus was still two hours away.  We went back to Colin and Niki’s place, sat around a while, then went back to the bus stop – and waited a half hour past the time the second bus was due.  I called the bus company again – and learned that the second driver had actually spaced out, totally bypassed the tiny town where I was, and was halfway to Kingston by then, much too late to turn back around and fetch me.  The most they could do was offer to switch my ticket to one this morning, so Colin and Niki were forced to put me up for one more night.

But.  I spent this weekend learning about perspective.

The morning of our second day, we were lingering for a long time by a lake with a lot of things going on around it – mist wreathing the distant hills, flocks of geese, a water wheel by a small falls, a small boat dock. A man came by with a canoe and we all secretly tried working him into all of our shots, with varying degrees of success (he was paddling fast). I was getting the hang of some of the basic settings on Chuck’s camera by then, and on the last day, when Colin asked us all to show off our six best shots from that weekend to the class for discussion and critique, all of mine came from that lake.

And, so, apparently all those complicated settings on Chuck’s camera do stuff, and it really makes a difference.

 

There were gasps and “ooh!”s when Colin put my work up – from me as well as the others.  – I took THAT photo? I kept thinking with surprise.  Niki was in the kitchen making us lunch the whole time we were discussing our work, and told me later that she’d been listening to the happy buzz of conversation throughout – and then was confused when suddenly the room went silent.  “And I came out to find out what was going on, and it was because they were looking at one of your photos!”  Chuck took me aside to say that he was glad he’d had a camera to loan me “because look what you did with it.”

Photography is something I’d let slide – I was much more interested in it about 15 years ago, and then a lot of life busyness got in the way.  This all encouraged me to seriously pursue getting a better camera, even if I can revive my old one – apparently there’s a skill there I can develop.  Colin and I spoke a lot about that sometime during all the bus mess; he gave me some advice about what might be the next step.

We also talked about how it was good that this had all been a step out of my comfort zone.  Colin and Niki have known me for nearly 20 years now, and Colin’s always had a talent for spotting what makes me tick, and what advice I may need most at a given moment.  They moved to Colorado a few months ago, but I hadn’t really much chance to catch up with them during the photo class – but even though we were all exhausted, my staying an extra night let us catch up a bit, reminisce and talk about our current lives and even zone out watching the first Doctor Who episode with Jodie Whittaker.

So if I hadn’t dropped my camera – I would never have known what I could do with a better camera, and never would have taken pictures I’m as pleased with as I am those.  And if I hadn’t been abandoned at the bus stop I would never have had an extra precious few hours with two of my closest friends, swapping jokes about pot pies and hurricanes and talking about TARDISes.

I spent this weekend learning about perspective.

Blogathon 3!

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Yay it’s another blogathon!  This one celebrates British film.

I’ve contributed Blackmail, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s first sound films.  (Protip – one of the screenshots I use features Hitchcock’s cameo in that film.)

Administrative Announcement:

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My dear friends:

So. I have been working on the Movie Crash Course for a little over a year now; it was slow at first, but has been gaining a lot of momentum (and I’ve really been getting into it).  However, it is at present just an annex on this blog.

A few months back I promised myself “when I get to 100 reviews, maybe I’ll move the Movie Crash Course to a new blog dedicated just to that.”  I can have more than one blog on this platform, and I can keep WadsWords for my other musings.  But the Movie Crash Course would have its own identity.

….I am currently only six reviews away from reaching that 100-movie landmark.

I’m kind of scrambling to figure out how to do this, whether I will mirror the reviews here for those of you who started following me here, or whether to move everything over there.  (In fact, please weigh in if you have opinions on the matter!)  This probably won’t happen for another couple weeks, but…I wanted to let people know.

Thanks.

Cliff Notes For The Movie Crash Course

Real quick – I have just discovered a film enthusiast’s Youtube Channel, and signed up almost immediately.  He’s doing a series of supercuts that capture the “look” of films during a particular year.

He doesn’t catch everything – and I’m not as convinced that each period he’s chosen has a distinct “look” – but each is a fun retrospective, and I was chuffed to see that I recognized more than I thought.

Here’s the 1920 one, for a taste.

Movie Crash Course: Little Caesar

Welp, I’ve seen the ur-war film, now it’s the ur-gangster film.  At least the feature interviews on the DVD I got said so, with a handful of talking-head interviews with lots of film scholars. Even Martin Scorcese turns up to make that case. A friend who’d heard I was about to watch this pointed out that even Bugs Bunny cartoons patterned their “gangster characters” after Edward G. Robinson’s performance in this.

So it feels a bit unsporting to say that Edward G. Robinson didn’t seem to be quite so threatening a gangster.

The film is about the rise and fall of Caesar Enrico Bandello – who goes by “Rico” – in Chicago’s underworld. At the start of the film, he and his buddy Joe are small-town crooks robbing gas stations and drug stores, but after one of their heists they decide to go for broke in the big city. Rico is set on his life of crime, but Joe wants to go a different route – he wants to be a dancer. They head to Chicago to pursue their separate paths.

Rico stays in touch with Joe, though, and when Rico’s mob boss “Big Boy” proposes a hit on the night club where Joe works as a dancer, Rico bullies Joe into collaborating on the plot. During the furor, Rico ignores Big Boy’s order that they conduct a clean heist, and siezes the chance to shoot the police commissioner.  Big Boy dresses him down after the heist – but Rico argues back that his boss is just “getting soft” and declares that maybe he should take charge.

….I have to stop a moment – because this, here, is exactly where the film lost me.  Rico’s boss is one of Chicago’s main mob bosses, and here comes Rico, an upstart who’s disobeyed orders and declared that not only was he not wrong, but that he should take over.  Tony Soprano or Vito Corleone would have thrown the guy out of his office and then sent one of their other men to assassinate Rico a few days later, right?  Right.  But instead – Big Boy totally caves and puts Rico in charge, with only the faintest of protests. Which I didn’t buy in the slightest.  Unfortunately, Rico’s “meteoric rise to power” is told in exactly this flimsy a fashion, with a series of increasingly more powerful mob bosses simply rolling over in submission after Rico blusters a bit – making what was a major plot thread feel completely unbelieveable.

Ah well.

This isn’t to say that the film was a loss.  Instead, I was more fascinated by some things it was seeming to say about wealth and fame. In the first scene, the catalyst for Rico’s wanting to go to Chicago is a fluffy news piece about a big-name Chicago gangster enjoying a splashy party, and wearing a piece of diamond jewelry for the occasion.  In a later scene, when Rico is still one of Big Boy’s underlings, he’s tagged along in the entourage when Big Boy goes to a meeting with another mob boss; and the film makes a point of showing us when Rico covetously examines the other boss’s pocket watch, tie pin and other bling.  For Rico, the bling is the important thing; the bling is how he can be sure he is successful himself.  He wants his own name in the paper, for any price.  And – he does get that, for a time.

But every so often we get a glimpse of Joe’s path, which makes for a fascinating contrast. After the hit on the night club, Joe ghosts on Rico, devoting himself to his dancing job – and to his dancing partner Olga, who before long is shacking up with Joe. Rico stops by after a while – he’s afraid that Joe knows too much about him, and has come to convince Joe to work for him again. When Joe refuses, Rico considers killing him – but can’t.  This moment of Rico “going soft” is where his own luck takes a downturn, sending him into hiding at a flophouse while Joe and Olga continue on their own story.

At the very end of the film, we get one last glance at how these two friends’ paths diverged. As Rico gasps out his last breath after a shootout (“Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?”), the camera pans up – to reveal that he is lying under a billboard advertising Joe and Olga’s new show at a local theater.

So, I admit that this contrasting-paths perspective is very likely what the filmmakers intended – that we were to consider how the pursuit of a fast life and flashy status signifiers lead Rico to a bad end, while dedication to a craft and a passion led to real success for Joe.  But it seems that most people were more titillated by Rico’s story instead.  Whereas I didn’t buy it because it wasn’t mean enough.  I’m not entirely sure what to make of that.