What’s in a Movie Quote?

June 24, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

You shouldn’t use a quote out of context, especially when that context gives the quote a meaning very different from what you intended. And especially if it’s one of my favorite movies.

Novelist Sally Rooney’s literary career began with a non-fiction piece, her 2015 autobiographical essay (here) about becoming a champion debater. The title of the essay is “Even If You Beat Me.” It’s a line from the 1961 movie The Hustler. It’s spoken by Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman), a brash young pool hustler from middle America who has come to New York to shoot high-stakes pool against the great Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). They play through the night, and Felson is winning by a considerable amount.

“I’m the best you ever seen, Fats. I'm the best there is. Even if you beat me, I’m still the best.”

Earlier in her essay, Rooney uses another line from the film. Being on stage in a debate tournament she could slip into what athlete’s call “the zone.”

There are a lot of different names for this state of immersion. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would call it ‘flow’: that form of focus so clear that all distractions, even the ego itself, fall away. Fast Eddie Felson, the pool-playing protagonist of The Hustler, talks about it too. ‘You don’t have to look, you just know,’ he says. ‘You make shots that nobody’s ever made before. And you play the game the way nobody’s ever played it.’ Hitting that perfect rhythm while speaking, connecting concept to response, drawing examples out of thin air, you feel just like I imagine a pool shark must. Complex things become simple.

Rooney was a winner. “When I was twenty-two, I was the number one competitive debater on the continent of Europe.”

But that’s not quite what happened to Fast Eddie. And the line Rooney uses as the essay title was eclipsed by the line that follows it, the line spoken by Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), the manager and money man for Minnesota Fats.

The question for Bert Gordon and for Fats is whether to keep playing. They are down by more than $10,000, and it certainly looks as though Fast Eddie is right when he says he’s the best there is. Fast Eddie’s manager (Myron McCormack) wants to end the match and leave with their winnings.

Here is the scene.

“Stay with this kid. He’s a loser.” That’s the line everyone remembers.

And he is a loser. In the hours of pool that follow, Fast Eddie loses his edge, his coolness, his composure, and his money. For Bert, “Even if you beat me,” is the tip-off that Fast Eddie, at some level he himself is unaware of, wants to lose.

Bert’s point, and perhaps the point of the movie, is that “talent” is not enough. To win also requires “character,” an unbending focus on winning. As Bert tells Eddie later in the film, “Minnesota Fats’s got more character in one finger  than you got in your whole skinny body.” 

“Character” — at the highest levels of competition, it means a willingness and desire to crush your opponent. I don’t think that this is the point Rooney wants to make about becoming a champion debater.  In fact, just after she says that debating requires “a taste for ritualized, abstract interpersonal aggression,” she adds, “And you have to learn how to lose.”

As for her career, she stopped debating at age twenty-two and wrote that essay. Soon after The Dublin Review published it, she was sought out by a literary agent, wrote a novel (Conversations With Friends) that became the prize in a seven-way bidding war among publishers, and barely a year later published a second novel (Normal People). I don’t know if she has character, but she certainly has characters.

The Hustler is a great movie with great performances from Newman, Gleason, and Scott. (And that saxophone you hear in the last minute of this clip is the great Phil Woods.). It’s one of those films that works only in black and white. Years later, Scorsese made a sequel, The Color of Money, in color, and it retains nothing of the feeling of the original.

What Cops Can Do, and What They Should Do

June 14, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

“There is a clear distinction between what you can do and what you should do.”

In one simple sentence, Atlanta’s Mayor Bottoms has zeroed in on a central problem in police violence and the public response to that violence. “Can” is about what is legally justifiable. “Should” is about what is right.

Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, and others — all these killings were legally justified. The same is true of less well-publicized cases, lethal and especially non-lethal. The grand jury did not indict, or if the case went to trial, the jury did not convict. And it’s not because prosecutors and juries are racists; it’s not because they are biased towards the police; it’s not even because the police lie. Those reasons apply in some cases. But often, the justice system fails to achieve what to most people would seem like justice because the violence is consistent with the law. It is legally justifiable.

But that doesn’t mean that the shooting, the beating, or other abuse was right. Nor does it mean it was unavoidable.

In the Atlanta killing that occasioned the mayor’s statement, the victim, drunk and uncooperative, had thrown a punch, taken the taser of one officer, and tried to run away. According to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation,* “During the chase, Mr. Brooks turned and pointed the Taser at the officer . . . The officer fired his weapon, striking Brooks.” (This last sentence is copspeak for “The officer shot him.”) It’s possible that the victim’s actions will provide sufficient legal justification for the killing. But the cop certainly did not have to shoot.

Some police violence seems justified, and not just legally, given the pressures of the immediate situation. But that situation itself may have been the outcome of actions on the part of the police. The most obvious recent example is the killing of Breonna Taylor. In the police version, someone shot at them. They returned fire. Surely that’s legitimate. But that shooting was the end point of a series of actions that could have been avoided — the no-knock warrant, the battering ram breaking down the door, and even farther back in the causal chain, the militarization of the police.

Six years ago, when the St. Louis police shot and killed a man, probably mentally disturbed, who was armed with only a steak knife, I posted (here) this 2011 video of police in London responding to a truly deranged man wildly swinging a machete.

In the US, the police would have shot and killed the man, and they would have been legally justified. But the London police who first arrive on the scene do not carry guns, and they handle the situation in a way that results in no death or injury.

* The GBI’s original version was much more favorable to the cops and was probably based on what the cops told them. When video of the incident turned up, the GBI changed its story.

Chick Corea, b. June 12, 1941

June 12, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

I started taking piano lessons last winter. Before the pandemic shut that down, I managed to meet with my teacher a half-dozen times. I told I was stuck in bebop cliches and wanted to move beyond that. At our last meeting — we didn’t know then it would be the last — he suggested that I listen to Chick Corea’s “Matrix.” It’s a 12-bar blues, but Toto, we’re not in “Now’s the Time” territory anymore.

I saw Chick live only once. I had gone to see Bill Evans at the Village Gate. Not long into the second set, Evans noted that Chick was in the house and asked him to sit in. Evans then left the stand and didn’t return. Chick played out the rest of the night.

“Black People”or “The Black People”

May 31, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

There’s a subtle but important difference between talking about “Black people” and taliking about “the Black people. Here’s Trump yesterday. (I’m usins Sarah Cooper’s version because she’s physically so much more expressive than Trump playing his invisible accordion.)

“By the way, they love African American people. They love Black people. MAGA loves the Black people.”

Does anybody really believe that Trump was being sincere? Or accurate? Does team MAGA love “the Black people”? The definite article, that the, gives him away.

During the 2016 campaign, when some suggested that Trump presidency would not be good for women, Trump said, “I’d be phenomenal to the women.”

At the time, I wondered how “I’d be phenomenal to the women” is different from just “I’d be phenomenal for to women.”  The blog post (here) continued:   

when you add “the” to a demographic group and speak of “the women” or “the Blacks,” you are separating them from the rest of society. Without the definite article, they are included. To say, “In our society we have Blacks, Jews, women. . . . .” implies that they are all part of our group. But, “We have the Blacks, the Jews, the women . . . .” turns them into separate, distinct groups that are not part of a unified whole.

This construction using the definite article fits well with the MAGA notion that America is their country. In their view, they are, as Sarah Palin put it, “the real America.” Republicans, when they are out of office, talk a lot about “taking back our country,” as though the Democratic party were a bunch of foreign usurpers. (See this post from when Obama was in office and running for second term.)  Now that they have taken back the country, they may allow others — the Blacks, the women, and others — to live in it.