Dorner, Django, and the Tremendous Responsibility of the Artist

A theme fairly common to modern-day cinema is that of revenge.  Our hero was happy and everything was perfect.  Everything is taken away from him.  Battered and bleeding, he embarks on a righteous crusade for payback.

We love this sort of thing in our culture.  It makes us pump our fists and feel vindicated.  We might jump a little bit as our hero kills the antagonist in cold blood, but then we cheer.  “Justice” has been done and we get to watch it all happen in a two hour, nicely produced package.  We love this type of fantasy in film and books and we leave the living room or the theater feeling charged up and we hold our heads up high.

It looks different in real life than in fantasy.  Or perhaps not, for all of the same elements are there, only with real consequences.  For revenge is not justice, but rather a perversion of it.

In real life, the Hollywood revenge story looks uglier.  It looks like Christopher Dorner, a cop-killer and a 4-time murderer who was recently all over the news.  Citing vague notions of racism and corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department, he decided that it was his moral obligation to blow the brains out of innocent men and women as they sat unsuspecting in their homes.

What is perhaps even more disturbing than his actions was the support that he garnered.  “Dorner Supporters” held protests near police stations, news outlets discussed the merits of his agenda, and many people brushed aside the bloodshed and justified the deranged and evil actions of this serial killer.  That is what he was.  Not a vigilante, not a crusader, but a serial killer.

If you type “modern day Django” into google, the first page is filled with results referring to Dorner. He’s been called a hero on the news.  ABC wrote an article entitled “Did Dorner Have Legitimate Complaints against the LAPD?”  All over the news, journalists were saying that he had a point, and the implication was that it’s an ugly business what he did, but it might have been necessary.

Oh, and forget about the families of the four innocent people who lie dead (only two of which were police officers and none of which worked for the LAPD).

And we continue to watch revenge cinema.  I intend in no way to excuse this man’s actions, for his choices were his own, but do you suppose that Dorner hadn’t seen films like “The Punisher” and “Django Unchained” and many, many others?  Those movies didn’t make him a killer, but they may have given him ideas, given him justification in his own mind.

Culture is ruled by narrative.  We remember stories we’ve been told, films we’ve seen, books we’ve read, songs we’ve listened to, and we accept their premises after repeated, conscious exposure.  Our brains like to build heuristics to handle life.  We like to treat each situation as the variables that complete our pre-printed, fill-in-the-blank worksheet.  Insert “LAPD” for evil racists who will get what’s coming to them, insert “Dorner” for wronged black man on a quest for vengeance, and we’re done.  No problems here.  (Never mind the fact that Emada Tingirides, a black, female sergeant in the LAPD, came out to passionately deny the presence of racism in the department.)  We fit situations into the fantasies that we’ve accepted.

I’m not condemning stories.  I’m not condemning film.  I’m not even condemning man’s practice of filling in the blank.  What I am saying is that this is the reality of how things work.  If movies, books, music, video games, etc. can shape our cultural narrative, shouldn’t we write them with fear and trembling?  Should not we be extremely purposeful in the messages that we purvey?

Artists have a tremendous responsibility on their shoulders.  It is often ignored, but it exists none the less.  What sorts of stories are we telling?  What is the moral?  For there is always a moral- intended or not.

The sad truth is that even if Dorner’s claims were true, it would still be horrifically wrong for him to do the things that he has done.  Yet that is not the way most people see it at first glance.  Our cultural narrative endorses revenge, which is one of the ugliest vices of man.  What if our stories, our narratives, endorsed forgiveness?  What if they endorsed patiently pursuing justice the right way?  What if our stories weren’t so self-focused?  I think the world would be a different place today.

Writers, musicians, editors, filmmakers, painters, actors, directors, and the rest of you, we have a responsibility that should not be taken lightly.  If not a responsibility, then at least an influence, and we should take tremendous care in what we do with it.  People want their lives to fit into a story, so let’s give them a good one.

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Starfall is officially published!

I know that I usually post on Wednesdays (don’t worry, there will still be a Wednesday post this week), but I wanted to share something exciting with you.  My first novel is now available!  It’s the first installment of a Fantasy trilogy I’m writing called Starfall.  For anyone who enjoys the genre of fantasy, new worlds, drama, action, romance, and adventure, this is the book for you.  If you feel inclined to give it a read as I hope you do, it’s available on Amazon.com and Createspace.com, and soon it will be available elsewhere as well, so keep an eye out.  Online reviews, both on amazon.com and on blogs, help tremendously, so if you read the book and enjoy it, please rate the book and share your experience.

Starfall takes place in an entirely new fantasy world.  It follows the paths of two twin brothers named Ducasus and Malleus, who are born into slavery on a plantation in the country of Flaroria, waiting for the day when their stars might fall, giving them a new life and a chance of escape.  After all, everyone has a star- only most people miss theirs.  If anyone is vigilant enough and fortunate enough to see their star careen to the earth and then find it, they are able to choose a gift, and having a gift changes everything.

To read the official description, click here.

I’m very excited to finally be able to share a full-length work of fiction with you.  I hope that it entertains you, encourages you, inspires you, and just maybe gives a new perspective.  (See what I did there? ; )  Happy reading, friends.

A Noticeable Limp

These sorts of affairs were always the same.  Big philanthropy ball, some old man we’re honoring, and tiny cocktail appetizers that actually make you hungrier.  Needless to say, I wasn’t a huge fan.  The lights were blinding and the whole scene reeked of pretentiousness.  If it was a “feed the hungry” campaign I wouldn’t have minded, but it wasn’t anything that noble.  Just a bunch of stuffed shirts trying to be seen at a charity ball.

The only reason I was there was that my editor thought it would make a great story for the local news section.  I thought differently, so he thought for the both of us, and there I was at the ball.  I pulled a plastic smile out of my coat pocket and wore it around like a professional, but no one was worth talking to in my admittedly jaded perception.  I had a few drinks and rolled my eyes when they announced that there were going to be some speeches.  All of the others clapped politely and tried their best to remember the name of the charity they were supposedly so invested in.    It wasn’t a bad cause, it just wasn’t that great either.  It bugged me.

Some silver-haired ken doll made a criminally long introduction and managed to say his own name eight times.  I counted.  I jotted a few half-hearted notes and had a few more sips of bourbon at the bar.

Then the old man walked up to the front and took the stage.  He was elderly, but vibrant.  A little slow, and he held the microphone in the exact middle of his chest.  I figured his speech would be more of the same, so I wasn’t holding my breath.

“Thank you all so much for coming here tonight,” he began, and then he smiled a little bit.  “You all know how important this organization is to my wife, Isabella, and I.  In fact,” he said, getting a wily look in his eye and leaning forward, “it’s our anniversary tonight and there’s a whole city full of romantic bistros we’d rather be at right now, but we’re stuck here with all of you people.”

The crowd chuckled politely at the old man’s ribbing.

“I’m not kidding, the second this thing ends, we’re out of here,” the old man continued with wide eyes, evoking a bigger laugh from the audience.  He allowed himself a wry smile at his wit, and I grinned too.  Maybe this guy wasn’t going to be all bad.

I set down my glass and listened as he got into his speech.  I wasn’t expecting much, even then, but I’ll never forget what he said.

“In all seriousness,” he continued, still holding that microphone in the dead center of his chest, “I want to thank you all for the award that you’ve given to me tonight, but at least half of it belongs to my Isabella.  She loves this work as much as I do and has had a hand in it from the beginning.”  The old man reached up and scratched the top of his head.  “So if you’ll permit me, since it is our anniversary, I have a few words I’d like to say about her.”

I’ve heard the routine before.  Cynical as I am, when it comes to women I’m something of a romantic.  I knew the drill; tell her she’s the air you breathe.  Tell her you’d die without her, tell her you’re nothing without her, that you couldn’t get out of bed in the morning if you didn’t know she was there.  I liked hearing that sort of thing.  A little bit of real emotion might even break up the sea of posers around me, I thought.

He didn’t say those things.

“Isabella, my dear, I love you.  You’ve added immeasurably to my happiness in life, and you’ve helped  me with this foundation more than I can thank you for.  You’re beautiful and hard-working and I’ve never regretted choosing you for a moment.”  I got my pen ready to quote the loveable geezer.  He was getting ready to tell everyone how hopeless life would be without his better half.

I looked up from my pad of paper with a slight smile, but I saw a seriousness in the old man’s eye.  He held that microphone clutched to his chest and he stared intently at one point in the crowd, clearly at his wife.

“I would be telling a lie if I said I couldn’t have done this alone, my love, but it was more fun with you.  It was better with you and more enjoyable.  People have said that they can’t walk through life without their partner.”  The old man shook his head.  “I could.  Even now I would be able to walk if you were taken from me.  I’d grieve like the dickens and, Isabella, we’re old, we can talk about this sort of thing.  If you were to be taken from me I’d be sadder than I’ve ever been, I know it, and in my selfish heart I pray that God takes me first if he can’t take us at the same moment.  But if you were gone, Isabella, my love, I could still run this organization, I could still function.  I could still walk.”  The old man reached up and scratched his head once more, pausing only a brief moment, but already the crowd was on edge.  Heck, I was on edge.  He didn’t slow down.

“I could still walk, but it would hurt, and I would have a noticeable limp.  I don’t love you because I’d fall apart without you, I love you because I love you, Isabella, and I can’t think of anything I like better than spending time with you.  As we celebrate our 57th wedding anniversary later on tonight, I want to tell you that I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I hope that the time we have left together is as wonderful as the last 57 years have been.  I love you, Isabella.  I love you.”

The crowd was almost too stunned to respond, but someone managed to awkwardly clap so everyone else snapped out of it and joined in.  The old man looked intently at his old wife, his eyes alive and his lips trembling.  He still held that microphone in the middle of his chest, like it was glued to that spot.

He kept talking after that.  I don’t remember what he said.  He talked about the charity or something or other, and then he finished and the night went on like you’d expect.  I never forgot what he said, though.  It caught me off-guard.  I felt like it was so opposite my idea of romance, and yet it was so beautiful.  You’re supposed to tell the girl that she’s your soul, your life, your idol, the blood running through your veins, but he didn’t.  He said that he was capable of living without her, but no one in that room could have doubted that he loved his wife.

I still lay up thinking about it sometimes.

New Immorality

We are a clever species.  We not only have the capability of fooling others; we have the ability of fooling ourselves.  Having never been inside the mind of an animal, naturally, I do not know if any other creature is able to lie to itself, but we most certainly are able.  It is an astounding thing, rationalization.  The very source of an untruth, through a series of choices and thoughts, may actually come to believe in his own lie.  We see it all the time.

In my experience, this typically occurs in one of two situations: 1) I want something I know is not good. 2) I’ve done something wrong.
In the midst of processing through either situation, a choice to lie to ourselves appears.  We often take it.  We often, clever as we are, forget that we have done so, having shifted our view of the world ever-so-slightly.  They say people don’t change.  Look in a mirror.  Are you the same person you were ten years ago?  I know I’m not.  Small choices over time affect us, for better or for worse.  This is true in an individual, but I believe it is true for a society and a culture as well.  Small choices, slight shifts in view, change how everything is interpreted.

We, as a people, have strong desires, and often they are desires we know to be wrong.  This doesn’t make us desire any less fervently, however.  Possessing this strange skill of being able to tell a lie to ourselves and then eventually to believe it, we have given reign to many desires we used to know were wrong.  But we don’t know any more.

We painted over our canvas.  The truth is likely still buried beneath the layers of paint somewhere, but uncovering it is laborious, difficult work if we deal only in introspection.  As I said before, I believe that we as a society have painted over the truth, wanting our desires to be considered right.

Popular morality today is different than it used to be.  How could it not?  Ever age has its own set of vices and virtues, traps that ensnare it and rays of light that shine through.  Morality is not a thing to be decided upon by men, but we have done so over time.  Having strong, yet inappropriate desires, we have come up with a solution.  I think I will never hear it put better than Tim Chaddick, pastor of a Los Angeles church, once said, “Self-denial is the new immorality.”

I think he’s right.  In looking at what our culture values and what it frowns upon, it is rather striking how convenient our morality is.  I am to believe that my desires are good and as long as I’m not “hurting anybody” (whatever that may mean), I’m good.  I should never deprive myself.  I owe this to myself.  I deserve to be happy, regardless of how I get that happiness.

I urge you not to misunderstand my next point, for as I’ve said before I believe Epicureanism and Stoicism to be equivalent evils, and the self-righteous man is probably worse off in some ways than someone who isn’t even trying.  Something being hard doesn’t necessarily qualify as good simply because it is difficult, I understand.  Thus, with all of my qualifiers out of the way, I ask this question: since when is doing the right thing so easy?

I venture into strange waters now for the sake of telling you a story, but I think that the heart of the tale is an important one.  Many years ago, when I was a student, the issue of being under torture came up.  I cannot remember why or in what context we were speaking about torture; I only remember a conversation I had afterwards with another student.  The hypothetical situation arose where one of us was to be put under the strains of torture, being interrogated for the location of our hidden comrades.  I had stated something along the lines of saying that it was a hard and tragic thing, but you have to hold back confession, because other people are depending on you.  If the enemy finds your friends, bad things are sure to follow.  This shocked the other student, who insisted that you have to give in because they’re hurting you, and no one would expect you to endure such pains.

I am not a veteran.  I have never served in the military.  I have no idea what undergoing torture must be like, but I know that giving up the lives of your friends because you’re hurting is not right.  Yet I dare say the sympathy that the other student expressed seemed right to many others.  It was inconceivable to them that you must hold out in such a situation.

I think this is a symptom of the lies we have told ourselves.  If it is uncomfortable, we think it’s wrong.  We look out for ourselves first and foremost.  This is extremely convenient, and it aligns with our baser desires.  Notions of sacrifice and selflessness make for good stories, but we discard them in everyday philosophy.

“Self-denial is the new immorality.”

We’ve told ourselves another lie, and that is that we are all counter-culture.  How absurd when so many people share the same opinions, opinions that are extremely mainstream today?  Let’s be truly counter-culture.  Let’s be selfless.

Vinnie

“You know why you’re here, don’t ya, Vinnie?”

Vinnie lifted his trembling head slowly, sweat dripping from his anxious brow.

“Yeah, Boss.”

The room was well-lit, a stark contrast to how the scene felt to Vinnie.  He was a thin man with thinning hair and a thin lip.  He was everything the Boss wasn’t, and the large, extremely sophisticated man reclined in his ornate chair behind a desk.  A few other cronies looked on in silence.

The boss cracked his knuckles.

“Well?”

Vinnie swallowed hard.  His heart was beating much too fast, he was sure of it.  He wanted nothing less that to have to say what he was about to say.

“I, uh… I don’t have it,” he whispered.

“What?” the boss returned in a calm, yet intimidating fashion.

Vinnie just shook his head.

“You mean to tell me,” the boss began, raising his voice and leaning forward in his chair, “that you borrowed 25 mil and can’t pay me back?”

Vinnie shook where he stood, staring desperately at the ground.  Sweat played down the sides of his face.

“You come to me a year ago and tell me that you have a sure thing, but now you don’t have it.  You gambled away my 25 million dollars?”

“I, uh, I don’t-”

The boss sighed.

“Get this joker out of here,” he said to the suited bald man next to him.  “Take his wife and put her to work in our factory.  Send his kids to live with his sister.  And break his hands just as a reminder while we go through and sell his house and everything this leech has.  Then when that’s done, make him disappear.”

“No! Please!” Vinnie screamed as he fell to his knees.  He was not a brave man, and tears swelled his eyes.  “I just need time, Boss,” he sobbed.  “I just need time!”

The boss folded his meaty, ring-accented hands and looked at the pathetic specimen of a man who kneeled sobbing before him.

“I’ll pay you everything!  I’ll pay it all back!  I just need time!”

The boss chuckled.

“You kidding me, Vinnie?  I know your salary.  I pay your salary.  It ain’t enough to pay me back.  And word on the street is you already lost every dime you borrowed from me.  Don’t insult me.”

Vinnie rubbed his face into the rich, crimson rug, sobbing for all he was worth and muttering “I’ll pay it all!  I’ll pay it all!”

The boss looked down at the twisted creature as two of his lackeys began to pick him off the floor and drag him away.  His head hung down and he wept.

“Geez, Vinnie,” the boss said softly.  “You’re the most pathetic thing I ever met.”  The boss raised a hand, signaling to his men to let Vinnie go.  He fell to the floor in a heap.  “I don’t think much of ya, Vinnie, but I married one of your sisters and havin’ ya disappear won’t make her too happy.  I gave you a job and some men,” the boss continued, “and you still screw me like this.”  He sighed.  It was a deep and intimidating sigh.  Vinnie had not stopped weeping.

“Guido,” the boss called, “find my ledger.  Wipe out this shlup’s debt to me.  Vinnie, it’s done.  Now get out of here and don’t expect another free pass.  I’m gonna forget about the 25 million.”

Vinnie sniffed hard and looked up, stemming the flow of his tears.

“I just need time, boss.  I’ll pay you back.”

The boss leaned back in his chair again, shaking his head.

“That’s a joke, Vinnie, you don’t have the means.  Your youngest sister is my wife, so I forgive the debt.  Don’t worry about it and go about your affairs.”

“Thank you for the time.  Thank you for your… benevolence,” Vinnie said, smiling a pained smile, backing up towards the rich, mahogany doors.  “I’ll pay you back, boss.  I’ll pay you back.”

“Don’t worry about it,” the boss called as Vinnie turned and walked out of the room into the richly decorated hall of Italian marble.

 

~°~

 

Vinnie rubbed his hands nervously as he walked into the marble hall.  His crony who had been in the room with him followed behind silently.  The only sound was that of harsh footsteps echoing off of the walls, mixed with Vinnie’s hyperventilation.

One thought occupied Vinnie’s mind- how could he get his hands on 25 million dollars?  It was way above his pay grade.

While consumed with anxious thoughts, Vinnie made his way out of the large, ornate house.  He rubbed his hands together and continued to sweat.  He plotted in his mind as to how he might begin to raise some of the money, despite the insistence of his suppressed better judgment that told him it was impossible.

On the front steps leading into the house Vinnie stopped rubbing his hands.  He stopped altogether.  His eyes alighted on a house servant who was just walking up to the impressive abode.  Vinnie’s entire countenance changed.  His brow tensed downward and he narrowed his eyes.

“Carlo!” he shouted, barreling over to the servant.

The servant looked surprised and jumped a bit at the loud mention of his name.  He turned, bewildered towards Vinnie.

“Oh, hey, Vinnie.”

“Shut up.  Where’s my money?” Vinnie gave the servant a shove.

The servant smiled nervously and his fragile eyes looked hesitantly into Vinnie’s.

“It’s been a rough month, Vinnie.  Kids got sick, you know?  And my wife, she’s had to take off work to take care of them.”

Vinnie reached back and slapped the servant across the face.  He felt emboldened by the presence of his crony behind him, whose face rarely betrayed any emotion.  The crony looked on warily at the scene.

The servant winced and rubbed his face shamefully.

“I’ll pay you back, Vinnie, I just need some time,” he said softly.

“Time?  You’ve had plenty of time, Carlo,” Vinnie said loudly.  “I want my five hundred bucks and I want it now!”

“I’ll pay you everything I owe ya, Vinnie.  I just need another month.  I’ll pay it all,” the servant said, stooping down and wiping off Vinnie’s wingtip shoes.  “I’ll pay it all, I just need some time.”

Vinnie pulled his foot back sharply, then brought it up into the man’s face, causing him to cry out in pain.  Vinnie’s face was red and he shook.  He looked down at the servant with a crazed expression and kicked him again, hard and in the ribs.

“Please!” the servant shouted from the ground, trying to cover his head.  Vinnie was in no mood for mercy.  He continued to beat the servant and stomp on him until the man could only groan, no longer able to shy away from the pitiless blows.  Finally, dripping with sweat from the heat of the day and from his exertions, Vinnie wiped his forehead and signaled to his crony.

“I don’t want your excuses, Carlo.  I’m gonna take you to my place and tie you to a frickin’ chair.  You’re gonna stay there until you don’t owe my any money.”

The servant only groaned in response, too weak to argue at the impossibility and the cruelty of it all.

Vinnie stepped into his limousine that pulled into the expansive driveway and his crony put the servant inside the vehicle, as he had been instructed to do.  He eyed Vinnie askance, but spoke no words.

Vinnie did as he promised the servant.  He had him tied to a chair and locked him in his basement, where his moans of pain would not be heard.  Vinnie did not resume his anxious mannerisms, feeling that he had accomplished part of his goal.  His mind still swam with plots, and he drank a glass of red wine to relax before he fell into his queen-sized bed and slumbered immediately.  He dreamed of ways he might once again come to be in the good graces of the boss.

Out of a dead sleep, Vinnie was violently torn from his bed.  He could see only darkness and his wife screamed as he felt a bag being placed over his head.  Strong arms bound him and he was carried away, confused, fearful, and exhausted.  He was shoved into a car, and not gently.  The sounds of car doors slamming reached his ears, then a motor roared and his vehicle raced off he knew not where.

At long last the car stopped and Vinnie was roughly pulled from his seat.  He was forced to walk up many stairs and he tripped several times.  His hands were sweating and his body began to shake.  He racked his brain for explanation, but nothing would come.

The bag was ripped off of his head and light blinded Vinnie’s unadjusted eyes.  As he got used to the vibrant interior lighting, he recognized his surroundings.  He was back in the boss’s office.

The boss swiveled around in his chair, now facing the trembling, skinny man.  He held his hands palm up in incredulity.

“…Boss?” Vinnie asked timidly.  “What’s happening here?  This is some kind of mistake.”

“You’re the mistake, you sniveling rat,” the boss replied, rising from his seat.  He was tall, and Vinnie shrank before him as he walked around the desk.

“You think I don’t know what goes on?  You think I’m blind, Vinnie? ‘Cuz I think you must think that I’m blind to try and pull some crap like this.”

Vinnie’s already over-active sweat glands upped their production.  He swallowed hard.

“…What?”

The boss reached back and slapped Vinnie hard.  The impact of his many rings stung Vinnie’s sallow face sharply.

“I forgive you a debt of 25 million friggin’ dollars,” the boss spoke softly and incredulously, “and then you have the nerve to shake down a butler for five hundred?”

Icy chills of realization rushed down Vinnie’s spine as his eyes grew wide.

“No! No, see, it wasn’t like that.  I was just collecting on some of my accounts- I was trying to pay you back!”

“I cleared your ledger, Vinnie!” The boss responded loudly and slow, as if he was speaking to a simpleton.  “And you tell me you were trying to pay for yourself?  Don’t insult me.”  The boss grabbed Vinnie by the hair and pulled the man’s ear close.  “I let 25 million dollars slide today, and then you shake down one of my guys for some change.  That pisses me off, Vinnie.  It pisses me off bad.”  He then let go of Vinnie’s hair and patted him roughly on the cheek.

“Guido,” the boss said, returning to the other side of his desk, “get creative with this one.  Do all the stuff I said earlier, but I want you to make him suffer.  Tie his head down and make him watch you break all his fingers and toes.  Pull his teeth out.  I don’t care, just take your time before you whack him.”

An odd smell suddenly overtook the room and the boss turned to see a stain appear on the front of Vinnie’s pants.  The boss scoffed.

“Get this trash outta my sight.”