Comfortable and Furious

The Shawshank Redemption

I despise Stephen King, his novella of Rita Hayworth, and The Shawshank Redemption. It was an un-readable blot of blueberry mustard smeared on a Maine tourist map from 1973. Why ’73? Well, that’s the last year of Maine’s state pride as it is the last year it WOULD NOT be associated with this human cowlick with a tin ear so hollow his characters sound like they have late-stage brain asphyxia.

And so I speak the unspeakable for a man of the written word, a heresy I thought I’d never in the lifespan of ten trillion suns…EVER! hear myself say. [deep breath]

Hollywodimpriovedsomethingsowellitcompletelytransformedadonkeyturdintoaglitteringjewelofnarrativegreatness…...[deep breath]— oratleastsomethingmemorableinsteadofthathalf-writtenpillowstuffingitwasbasedon [deep breath, aaaand exhale].

Oh, Wow, you know, I feel, uh—I feel clean. Unburdened.Like–like–like I could run a marathon right now!—just goes to show: face your fears. kids, don’t walk around on eggshells because somebody told you it was the ‘right’ thing to do—I feel like a new man!

Eb-o-ny and I-vo-ry, To-gether avoiding so-do-my…

I’m big enough to admit it: a broken nuclear clock is right twice a century. Handed the uninspired fiction of Rita Hayworth, Hollywood not only managed NOT to make it worse but to make it into a great piece of entertainment. Great news for us. A big, fat fart in Stephen King’s spaghettios. King was right to faux-stoically state that the book and its film adaptation were two separate works of art and should not be compared, beings how two of the greatest cinematic treasures to come out post-Pet-Rock were made by UTTERLY DESTROYING HIS SOURCE MATERIAL! [that other treasure would be The Shining]

Let’s tally the three pointers this 12th round draft pick from Belarus with the funny name racked up from the opening buzzer, shall we:

Cinematography. There’s poetry in the use of natural light for dark-themed dramas, and the natural light available in prison is extra cinematic. Every prison built before 1970 followed the same Calvin Coolidge Charity Hospital/Haunted Mental Asylum Floorplan™. They featured high narrow windows in claustrophobic stone, sunless recesses lit by the sickly incandescent glow of a single fading light bulb, and with long narrow hallways diagonally bifurcated with shafts of radiance that make any dull, ugly bastard look like a painting of St. Titus.

Score. Deep, groaning strings, minimal and damn near perfect, lifting, as per the story, into a well-deserved echo of faint hope then triumph. There are no blaring horns, no attempt by the composer to be seen earning his fee. The story and its sonic support come first. Rare stuff.

Rehabilitated? Oh, sure, if you mean by ‘rehabiltated’ that I’m haunted by a daily need to kill old people and midgets—then yeah, I’m rehabilitated.”

The Actors. Seven dazzlers all in a row: the Main one, the Black One, the Warden, his Thug, the Redneck, the Rocker and Grandpawith a crow.

Tim Robbins never did it for me as an actor, but the role of Andy Dufresne was admittedly a hard one to transmit. He did actually transmit what the script needed, a banker falsely convicted of murdering his wife and her boyfriend, a geology-buff. Wait! Is there any such thing as an exciting geology buff? A buff who, on the outside, was a detached world-unto-himself but within was a tenacious and unyielding beacon of optimism? Just think about what a sack-crusher it is to make real thorough face, eye, and voice with those wispy, almost gossamer, character points. It ain’t easy. As a theme for a prison break movie, perhaps geology is the best choice. Geology doesn’t just happen, it slowly, glacially builds into a crescendo of Oh-Honey-take-a-picture over mee-illions of years. Geology, Science, and Geology Buffs (the People), are as painfully dull as the discipline itself. Why? Because there’s no way to jazz up a process that takes as long as your wife trying to open a jar of olives.

Shawshank could only be redeemed, the story says, by someone so methodical and patient as to bore through its thick stone of secrecy with a constant dripping, only because though the erosion is long, eventually, it lets in the hot magma of justice. Institutions are stone, it says, you must be like water. Tim Robbins, to his credit, brought that out admirably.

Morgan Freeman, however, was born for the role of Red. In fact, the only reason he’s famous is because he played the movie’s narrator (unless you think his stint on “The Electric Company” in the seventies was that rocket to fame his agent said it was)–Okay, you’re right! He was famous before that (Glory, Robin Hood) but he wasn’t Narratey MacGee like he’s been in every movie since. He wouldn’t have played God twice had it not been for this movie, is what I’m saying.

A great actor does three things: he serves the character (not the story, the writer and director serve the story), he makes even the smallest burp on camera feel like it was the only burp that’s ever been burped, and he does this without showing the audience he knows what he’s doing. A great actor doesn’t juggle three balls, he juggles three chainsaws—one early snatch, one late catch, the scene collapses and some PA is being rushed to the hospital minus a thumb and a pinky toe. Freeman’s burps were the burps that rang out at the dawn of time and can still be seen in the hazy snaps of background radiation from the Big Bang. He’s unforgettable.

Bob Gunton, Warden Norton, is the main reason atheist teens claim they don’t want to go to church this Easter. The real reason is, if there is a God, they know he’d be super pissed if he heard them singing hymns with stale marijuana breath. Having myself grown up in the hands-raisingest, spirit-slayingest, tougue-talkingest milieu offered by Christendom, I know the Warden’s character is a bit of a cheap shot…or not. Even though the outwardly-pious-inwardly-evil trope has been done to death, everybody in one of America’s fine Protestant Tract Dispensaries and Rapture Portscan point to a guy they knew or a preacher they heard of that was just like that.

3 percent of every congregation is composed of psychopaths” warn Bible Colleges to their new seminarians–literal, clinical psychopaths. Why? Because 3 percent of the general population are psychopaths, so don’t get confused as to why that guy who’s always first for communion chopped up his mailman and then completed his route in a pair of bloody kneesocks. Bob Gunton’s Warden Norton, is that simmering psychopath using the church as a disguise brought into disinfecting daylight. Fantastic.

The Redneck, the Rocker and Grandpa with a crow are played to second-fiddle perfection by the likes of William Sadler, Gil Bellows and James Whitmore—Sadler is the sneakiest of sneaky character greats, in that you don’t notice him until he’s not there anymore, every scene he’s in you understand him, his role, his background, and his value to the group—not bad for a guy with five scenes,playing downwind of everybody else didn’t put him off his stride one bit, He proves that there are no small parts, even though this guy, in his characterful credits, headed whole movies such as the surprisingly entertaining and soulful B-horror,

Demon Knight. Gil Bellows plays to chicks mostly, but here, to understand him, you gotta be a guy with a daughter on the way and the one trade you have is stealing TVs—also you’re dyslexic–you want to do well, to get out of jail, make something of yourself. You feel his youthful frustration and his despondent self-hate as he admits, basically, that he recognizes three letters of the alphabet and the question mark. The character is there to be done wrong by the psychopath Norton, and motivate Dufresne, but shit, does Bellows earnest demeanor not make his arc the most tragic?

Did I say the most tragic? I shouldn’t’ve . Get ready to cry and blame it on the air conditioning in your face again (She knows, man—just because she doesn’t say anything doesn’t mean she doesn’t know, it’s cool, people cry—but if she tells anybody you cut that bitch!). I have NEVER in my film-going life seen so many black guys squirt-and-snot for a white guy like they do for Brooks Hatlen. He finds a crow as a baby and feeds it the grubs wriggling in the inmate’s lunch. Convenient! He’s the librarian and a one-man UPS—because on his library route he transfers goods one cell to the next– so he is one of the richest is respect, import and soft packs of Lucky Strikes—I don’t remember him smoking, I don’t know where he keeps them but if the warden or Hadley needed some quick cash Brooks could fill an eighteen-wheeler

Brooks’ character is choked with irony and James Whitcomb knew to play him completely without irony, like a matte canvas on which our minds would see the secret horror. Institutionalization is a theme throughout, what is it, how does it start, how do you resist it and what does it look like if you don’t. “I’m telling you these walls are funny,” Red says “First you hate’em, then you get used to’em, then it gets so you depend on’em.” Brooks was little more than a boy when he came to Shawshank, and now the prison itself grew into his mind and spirit, the absolute cruelest—ironically–most ferocious thing you could do to that old man was let him loose, so of course they did. 

At his halfway house job bagging groceries he spends his break feeding park-bench pigeons, his crow he released when he was paroled, he remarks in a letter, “I saw an automobile once, but now they’re everywhere!” and he ponders ways to get sent back to prison “I could get a gun and rob the Foodway—maybe shoot the manager, sorta like a bonus,” but that’s really not him anymore—in a titanic-ally artful metaphor that still kills me that they scrapped it(you can find the deleted scene) Jake, his pet crow, lay dead on the Library floor, unable to feed himself he returned home, looking for Brooks.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, the stand-out performance: Hadley, by Clancy “Muthafuqn” Brown!

When things are too monumental to describe, I often turn to song, so, sing with me,won’t you:

My name’s Hadley and I’m the King of Dicks,

I beat the hell out of everyone while givingzero shits

The warden turns a blind eye to my murdering

And I turn a blinder clipboard to his white slave ring

Chorus: Hadley! The kid shootin’-est, Fag rebootin’-est Fat-ass rebukin’-est

Screw I ever seen. He’ll kill ya’ twice ‘fore you hit the ground,

This ain’t Shawshank, fish, it’s Hadleytown!

[the “Ballad ofBob Hadley” goes on for sixteen more verses, I won’t trouble you with it]

Clancy Brown is one of those character actors that makes American cinema watchable, his Hadley was the warden’s knee-cracking, baton-wielding brute whose first and last solution to every problem was acute percussive head trauma. He could kill at will, with no oversight. The story of Andy Dufresne’s escape from Shawshank prison begins with Hadley about the throw him off the roof of a building. It was Hadley’s overheard conversation with the other guards that prompts Andy to tap Hadley on his shoulder. Up until now, Andy was a well-known but not necessarily liked inmate who was also the unwilling target of, shall we say, “alternative intimacies” by a greasy throng of institutional uber-queers.

Andy’s real world expertise impresses Hadley, you know, as it might, when a banker is head-and-shoulders hovering over a six-story drop and still remembers the minutiae of U.S. tax law. Fixing Hadley’s problem led to Andy’s being the private financial slave and money launderer for the warden This also resulted in Hadley’s one hero moment. After Andy’s particularly savage beating the by the ‘Sisters’, led by the greasy ringleader, Boggs, the thug gets out of solitary only to find Hadley calmly waiting for him in his cell. The beating was savage, and after one of the most satisfying joint-knucklings in film history, the poor, oppressed sodomite Boggs has the nerve to crawl away and bawl for help. No help was coming. He was dragged back “as if by the hand of God”, Red narrates over the glorious sound of baton thumps. “Boggs never walked again. The last I heard he spent the rest of his life drinking through a straw.”

I say! The Shining! IS! About the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act of 1930—the gold room, they’re cut off from the world like we were because of protectionist policies, there’s even a photo of Herbert Hoover in the lobby!–Keep talking! You’ll look real funny making logical leaps with no ankles!

But this moment is not redeeming, it’s self-interested, Hadley didn’t care about who cornholed who and why and where and if there was was music. Hadley was a murderer and sociopath, since the beginning of the film, he…Okay, one more verse from the “Ballad of Bob Hadley”:

Fat-fish you best shut your big, fish mouth,

Hadley’ll come and fat-whoopif you fat-cry,

Tuck your fat-ass in your fat-cot and shut the fuck up!

‘Fore Hadley makes you fat-sleep with his lullaby.

Clancy Brown has the sadistic growl and the eat-your-face eyes of Hadley down pat, but he also evokes the institutional cruelty through other means as well. He brings the stiff protocol patter of a lifelong guard masquerading as a professional was once in that uniform and evokes the Stanford Prison Experiment that reveals that the institution makes men sadistic, even if they wear a uniform and go home to a wife every night.

Also “You don’t have to show me a bear shits in the buckwheat!”

Stephen King’s crap made into 24-carat Clancy Brown gold.

And now, the unsung hero behind this flick: the man who took filler from a collection of bad novellas and turned it into a 9.3 on IMDB, the great artist himself, you know him, you love him [drum roll, spotlights fall on an unassuming man in the 8th row]


[Trumpet fades, cymbals crash– distant, lonely claps, silence]

Who?! I ain’t never heard of no ‘Fig Dillabond’?! Are you tryin’ to sneak a new person in on me?

That’s the tragedy, you haven’t. HE wroteShawshank. I mean really, just as Kubrik wrote the Shining, for all extents and purposes by RE-writing it into something cinematic and valid. I’m shocked too, when Hollywood does this it almost always pisses me off, but King’s dead rock of a novella was sculpted into the Venus di Milo (with arms) before the whole world’s eyes and they keep crediting the godamm quarry! The King story does not thrill, HIS version does, the King story does not fascinate, HIS version does, everything that is to be loved in Shawshank is Frank Darabont’s not Stephen “that van’s hugging the shoulder a little, dontcha think’” King.

He also directed it, drew the storyboards and one lady said he made sandwiches—Why would you credit KING for FRANK DARABONT’S Magnum Opus? the similarities are trivial, the Rita Hayworth poster, they both took place in a prison, both environments had…chairs, I guess—that’s basically it. Stop giving King credit he does not and will never deserve, true authorship of this fantastic movie.

That goes to the Hungarian who fled soviet communism as a child.

Not the mewling man-goblin who thinks, the best origin of a killer clownis as a hibernating alien.

[deep sigh] Sometimes, I think I should go away, not worry about a world that would make an arrtittically dull, tonally shallow Lovecraft-five-pints-in New England mega-hack a household name while leaving it true artistic heroes, like T.C. Boyle, unacclaimed…would they notice or even care? No. I don’t think the world would kick up any fuss…

…not for an old crook like me.



, , ,