Monday, May 20, 2013

Dope Island: The Fiend climbs aboard the Seymour Avenue bandwagon

You probably didn't hear it in the news during the Seymour Avenue sensation, AKA the "Miracle in Cleveland" in early May that brought world media attention to this area - but there was another story in the news: during the Cannes International Film Festival, top-selling prostitutes can bring in an incredible $40,000 per night.

So, back to tawdry northern-Ohio events that folks can't stop talking about: there is the very real prospect of at least one, maybe more films (weren't there THREE separate "Long Island Lolita" true-crime TV movies?) based on the decades-long sexual captivity of Gina DeJesus, Amanda Berry and Michelle Knight. Already, Clevelanders are banking on the income brought in by out-of-town, big-time, big-money Hollywood union filmmakers landing here from NY/LA and wringing High Drama and craft services from the grueling ordeals these women endured. And the features that result...will almost certainly be exploited on the international arena, peddled at Cannes, a place where the flesh of prime-cut sex workers fetches $40,000 per night at the height of the annual silver-screen market-expo. A little irony there, n'est-ce pas?



A great quote I recently read: "Business tends to corrupt, but show business corrupts absolutely." I tell you, the tragedy of Ariel Castro is he missed his calling. He should have been a producer. Then he'd be garnering industry awards, not indictments, and still get to keep the dungeon.

[And don't be surprised, after target-audience focus-group surveys are tabulated, if Cleveland GETS CUT from the script of any resulting movies anyway, and Seymour Avenue saga gets relocated to trendier New York, Los Angeles, Miami,  Atlanta, Seattle or New Orleans (Nicolas Cage or John Goodman can be had for cheap in New Orleans). At least the material will probably stay here if the brother-sister act of Michael and Patricia Heaton get to make it. That said, in the event Michael Heaton is one of the Plain Dealer staffers getting laid off, and has to "take his talents elsewhere" - the Miami Herald for instance, I believe, is still in business - I wouldn't even place odds on that]

The Seymour Avenue affair, AKA the Miracle in Cleveland, AKA the Cleveland House of Horrors (one of them. Maybe more to come) prompts a great deal of reflection, perhaps inevitably, following our collective total-media-immersion in every single detail. I myself can hardly conceive what it must have been like, a decade of one's life lost. What milestones of my Cleveland existence might I have missed - should some crazed kidnapper have been locked me away for the past ten years?

Let's see...Getting cut from the staff of the Cleveland International Film Festival...Seeing my alternative newspaper go out of business (twice)...Watching Visible Ink Press pull the plug on my career-defining book project...Getting the boot from a prominent San Francisco-based website...Being downsized from my daily newspaper...Being downsized from my weekly newspaper...Getting laid off from my night job right before benefits were due to kick in...


Hmmm...You don't suppose someone out there might still want to lock me up, do you? No raping though, Homeboy won't play that, not even for free food/board. Well...how good is the food?

One of my few remaining gigs triggered some other curious mental associations for me, in recent marathon-documentary viewings. Two movies recalled by specific aspects of the case and police investigation.

First let us address the overnight stardom of ostensible rescuer Charles Ramsey. It always seems to astound folks in the upper classes when an individual from the `uneducated' rungs of society (white or black, really) can expound eloquently on matters of race the like. Liberals, especially, are amazed anyone from the ghetto can communicate without their indispensable assist. You'd think Richard Pryor had schooled us all, but guess not.

I find a mirror to this in BOOKER'S PLACE, recently released to video. From filmmaker Raymond De Felitta, it rediscovers a footnote in civil-rights history via the work of De Felitta's own father, an NBC-TV documentarian Frank De Felitta. In the mid-1960s NBC basically gave Frank free reign to produce high-quality nonfiction (later NBC would resist the trend of the major networks to join the "reality" TV bandwagon - then, when the trend became irresistible, dive in with the slimiest offerings in the genre. Sad, so sad). The elder De Felitta determined to give nationwide home-viewers an unfiltered, nonfiction portrait of Deep South racial segregation, as practiced in Greenwood, Mississippi.

De Felitta was tipped off to a waiter named Booker Wright, a server in a whites-only restaurant, as a possible interview, above and beyond the docile and beaten-down negro sharecroppers he had previously met in Greenwood. Setting up his B&W 16mm gear hastily, Frank De Felitta got the project's standout scene, an unexpected soliloquy by Wright, who turned to be as at ease, humorous, sardonic and charismatic with the lens as Charles Ramsey would be generations later. Booker spoke unprompted of his keep-smiling facade whilst being called "nigger" by customers, and he hoped for a better life for his children.

Millions of viewers saw Booker Wright and heard and remembered his heartbreaking message, even though the special aired only once. Unlike Charles Ramsey, there were no T-shirts or YouTube remixes for Booker Wright. He lost his job and was ambushed by Greenwood's racists. He never spoke with De Felitta, or, apparently, anyone else in the mass-media again.

BOOKER'S PLACE rediscovers this civil-rights sidelight, and the picture goes a little too far, I think, into facile conspiracy territory, by going in accord with Booker's descendants in the line that [SPOILER ALERT] Wright's 1970s death in an act of black-on-black street violence was white-masterminded assassination/coverup worthy of JFK. But the film succeeded for me not only in evoking the plantation-culture Mississippi of not so long ago, but also the onset of sudden media fame and its serious consequences.

I do hope things go better for Mr. Ramsey than they did for Mr. Wright. But the other movie that I saw that put me in mind of the Seymour Avenue villain, Ariel Castro himself.

Unsurprisingly, public opinion has already tried/convicted/executed him, and why not? There doesn't seem to be any other possible conclusion than guilty-as-hell. Still, in reading all the online comments - bad habit, I know - by Clevelanders demanding Castro's torture and violent elimination on the spot (internet courage is so amazing, isn't it? I imagine half these posters, if they heard a car backfiring in the street, would be down on their knees frenziedly yelling "death to America!" and praising Allah, just in case the Taliban is out there to surrender to), the lynch-mob atmosphere recalled, for me anyway, the fever-hate surrounding another "open and shut" case, recently explored in a nonfiction feature from a name you all know.

The movie is THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE, about the truth behind infamous "Central Park jogger" rape case in New York City - truth you probably didn't get from your daily newspaper or corporate-owned TV news that cares more about Survivor results (or high-school football).

The filmmaker: PBS darling Ken Burns working under his name-brand Florentine Films. Those who associate Burns with a nice, safe, crowd-pleasing, off-the-rack style of documentary, narrated in the convivial voice of Keith David or Tom Hanks, set to ragtime music and full of slow camera pans across old photos of baseball players or Civil War portraits, are in for a slap in the face. THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE is a true-crime expose in the tradition of the PARADISE LOST series. On April 19, 1989, a white woman jogger - who turned out to be an upper-crust financial analyst - was found brutally raped, beaten and left near-dead in Manhattan's Central Park.


Against a backdrop of horror that such a thing could befall such a shining citizen (in the meantime, we learn, a black rape victim was thrown off a roof in a nearby ghetto; nobody much noticed) Mayor Ed Koch vowed swift arrests and retribution. As it happened, a dragnet of the Park that eventful night already had in custody five black and Hispanic boys, culled from a larger group of unruly teens who had been tormenting a homeless man in the Park and jumping turnstyles in the subway. A charge of gang-rape was conveniently pinned to the quintet.

NYPD interrogations elicited videotaped "confessions" from the kids - later the boys would say they had no idea what was going down, and they waived their Miranda rights and said what they thought cops wanted to hear so they could go home. With the announcement that New York's Finest had collared the thugz, tabloid news trumpeted the instant myth of feral black "wolf packs" on the prowl in our urban jungles (there was, prophetic of Seymour Avenue perhaps, a quickie B-movie called NIGHT OF THE WILDING; I'm pretty sure I've got it on VHS, straight outta the cheap bin at a Blockbuster liquidation).


The jogger, who did survive, had no memory of the incident. All five accused boys, proclaiming their innocence and turning down plea deals, were convicted and sent to prison, on the strength of the videotaped confessions, and a New York City invested heavily in a race-hate mentality that, one interviewee says, would have meant lynchings in a previous era (the ones the conservatives call the "good old days").

Except no "wilding" actually happened, as Ken Burns - going by the published research of his author-daughter Sarah - demonstrates. It was all a frame job (and yes, the late Ed Koch gamely goes on camera here for Burns here). DNA evidence and an event-timeline failed to link the suspects to the assault.

[ANOTHER SPOILER ALERT] No, dittoheads, Ken Burns is no Michael Moore-type trying to rewrite history to Al Sharpton dictates here. In 2002, the Central Park Five were formally released. A notorious serial rapist (Hispanic, for you who keep score), already in prison, confessed to being the jogger's LONE attacker - and he had DNA and previously unpublicized details about the crime that proved it. You probably didn't find this update in your local newspaper or see it on TV; I could be wrong, but I theorize that months of Baby Boomer mourning for the World Trade Center Towers made our press heroes banish such an embarrassing Big Apple item to the back pages.

Ken Burns, eschewing any narrator, speaks to all five former teenagers (one of whom still won't show his face on camera), about how the wheels of big-city "justice" crushed their lives. In what one may consider a major omission, the grievously abused jogger herself (who ultimately did come forward to reveal her name and write a memoir) is not in the movie. Her sufferings certainly would have added another dimension to the tragedy. Though it perhaps speaks for itself that NYC police, prosecutors and media, some of whom built their careers on avenging the Central Park jogger, still defend their actions and seem to think the world would better off if Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise and Yusef Salaam still rotted in some for-profit cellblock somewhere - not walk around free, just because they were...what's that word?...innocent.


And innocent is the plea lodged right now by the despised Ariel Castro. Who no doubt is guilty, right. Cleveland PD and reporters couldn't possibly have the wrong slavemaster. Couldn't possibly...

Yet, in 1989, no one for minute (except for the boys' families) thought that the Central Park Five were anything but loathsome urban super-predators. Watching THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE will make you lose whatever faith you might have had in Police State America, especially when race hysteria and crushing municipal pressure on law-enforcement get together. Oh, and when the show-biz media (who, in the eighties, weren't yet downsized amalgamations of network News/Entertainment divisions as they are now) descend en masse. The entertainment media are the real wolf packs.

The lesson is that, as aggravating as it may be for the self-righteous hotheads and macho types who want to hang every accused from the nearest tree, there has to be as thorough, cool-headed, by-the-book and zipped-up investigation as possible, even for Seymour Avenue. Don't believe me? Even Clint Eastwood, not known for liberalism, made a western on that theme, HANG EM HIGH, warning about rushing to judgment (the hacks who did the video-box promo copy clearly never saw the pic, which they still promote as a cowboy DIRTY HARRY. That sort of thing never happened when I wrote blurbs for the Film Festival). Maybe I'll discourse on HANG 'EM HIGH in a future column.


In the meantime, check out these two documentaries; they're worth it, whether you want to associate them with current sensations or not. And those of you selling your souls to creative artists planning Seymour Avenue: The Motion Picture, say hello to the girls at Cannes for me. Maybe if you're going to be whores too, you'll get the movie-business employee discount on that $40,000.             

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