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Daily Reads: Whitey Bulger’s Pop Culture Empire, the Stealthy Humanism of Stephen Colbert, and More

Daily Reads: Whitey Bulger's Pop Culture Empire, the Stealthy Humanism of Stephen Colbert, and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. They Gawt Whitey: A Pop Culture Reckoning of James J. Bulger. 
The new Johnny Depp film “Black Mass” opens in theaters nationwide today. It tells the story of Whitey Bulger, the legendary Irish gangster, from the late 1970s to the early 1980s, when Bulger was securing his position as a Mafia leader at the same time he was feeding information to the FBI. Over at Grantland, Amos Barshad explores the history of Whitey Bulger and his recent pop culture renaissance.

The story of James “Whitey” Bulger — the Irish mob kingpin who strangled and bludgeoned and cheated his way to the top of Boston’s underworld — did not end when, tipped off to impending FBI indictments, he fled the city in 1995. It did not end in 2011, when he was found living — near the beach, with his girlfriend — in Santa Monica, California. It did not end in 2013, when he was found guilty on 31 of 32 counts, including racketeering and 11 separate murders, in U.S. District Court in Boston and sentenced to two consecutive life terms. And it will not end when, sooner rather than later, the man, now 86 years old, dies in his prison cell in a federal penitentiary in Sumterville, Florida. The story of Whitey Bulger will end this Friday, with the release of “Black Mass.” Like all great American outlaws, Whitey’s real story ends as the pop-culture lore begins. He came up a street thief and brawler for a South Boston kid gang called the Shamrocks. Later, after washing out of the U.S. Air Force, he’d get pinched on armed robbery; while in federal custody, he subjected himself to the CIA’s MKUltra LSD experimentation program in exchange for a shortened sentence. Eventually, after a cred-earning stint in Alcatraz, he finished a nine-year prison sentence. In 1965, he made his return to Southie. Over the next few decades — through cocaine and crew coups, through IRA gun runs and Megabucks chicanery, through at least one gang war incited by the biting-off of a man’s nose — Whitey took over, and ran, Boston crime. But remove from your mind the cinematic image of a pristine, clean mob boss, signaling deaths with the flick of a wrist. There were no capos or lieutenants layered on as insulation. Alongside his Winter Hill Gang’s associates, Kevin Weeks and Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, he himself did the blood-splattered dirty work. When Whitey ruined your life, he did so in person.

2. The Stealthy Humanism of Stephen Colbert
Stephen Colbert is finishing up his second week as the host of Late Night, and though he’s been dealt some criticism about his handling of the talk show format and the staid nature of some of his segments and interviews, he’s doing a solid job with the hosting gig. The Atlantic’s Megan Garber discusses the stealthy humanism of Colbert through his recent interview with Apple CEO Tim Cook.

What was remarkable, though, was the journalistic bent of Colbert’s questions. And what was even more remarkable than that was the brief conversation’s focus on values. This talk about human rights. This talk about Cook as a role model. This talk about charity. This sense that Apple isn’t just a company or a manufacturer of technology products, but also a steward of something broader and deeper. Which goes without saying, sure, in the sense that every technology — every business — has an internalized morality. Apple’s, because of its products’ popularity, is simply more visible than most. But we don’t hear a lot about that stuff on late-night, network television, for the most part. Late-night comedy usually treats its audiences — perhaps tired from long days at work, perhaps dozing on the couch, right before bed — to wacky stories designed to make their tellers look charming. It often serves up goofy skits designed to make their performers look relatable. It traffics, for the most part, in fluff. It pretty much relies on it. Cook’s interview was, say what else you will about it, not fluff. It was funny, at points, but it was, more than anything else, serious. It had a distinct whiff of humanism in it — one that has been showing up in other Colbert interviews, as well. Which might indicate, just a little bit, what “The Late Show” is going to become as it settles into itself. Because when you hear a guest uttering the phrase “human rights” — multiple times! — on a late-night comedy show, that says as much about the show as it does about the guest.

3. A Joke That’s Already Been Told: A Review of the 19th Season Premiere of “South Park”. 
This season, Trey Parker & Matt Stone’s beloved animated comedy “South Park” celebrates its 19th season on the air. The show is long past its days of being a cultural phenomenon, but it still occasionally produces an episode that’s at least somewhat notable. The A.V. Club’s Dan Caffrey reviews the season premiere, which focuses on political correctness and outrage culture, and how it has so little to say.

While the idea of equating the increasing mob mentality of the PC police with a hell-raising frat is funny at first, the comparison ultimately ends up being blunt, repetitive, and one-sided. For one, there’s not much room for the comedy to grow. After PC Principal brutally kicks the shit out of Cartman early on in the episode, we get Parker and Stone’s message right away: Who’s worse? The narrow-minded individuals of the world or those that publicly stone them with the same palpable hatred they claim to be combatting? The problem with this joke — aside from it peaking too early — is that “South Park” has been telling it for years. Railing against condescension and political correctness has been a nucleobase in the show’s DNA ever since season one, when Parker and Stone showed the world that you can rattle off gay jokes and still fight for gay rights. You can be open-minded about religion and still depict God as a droll, possum-like rodent. You can address 9/11 with grace and still draw Osama Bin Laden as an Elmer Fudd cartoon. Where as these gags all work because they hone in on something specific, “Stunning And Brave” keeps its scope broad the entire time. Granted, outrage culture is a much bigger problem in 2015 than it was in 1997 or even 2010, but the episode never digs deeper into its initial statement. Although we get a balls-trippingly great dream sequence making fun of how many resources were wasted on the Deflategate scandal (Tom Brady is Cartman’s idol, of course), Parker and Stone never blow open something like Caitlin Jenner’s coming out to make a point that’s complex or unconventional. That’s a shame, too, since outrage culture is such a hot-button issue, making it a prime target for the down and dirty satire of “South Park” — on one hand, it’s never healthy to flat out demonize someone who makes an un-PC slip-up, but on the other hand, it’s important to be aware of the pronoun preference of someone who’s transitioning from a man to a woman. The closest the episode gets to recognizing that this kind of uneasy balance even exists, however, is with Kyle, who doesn’t think Jenner’s transition makes her a hero when she may not even be that good of a person to begin with. But that notion of morality having nothing to do with gender never really gets explored, as Kyle decides to keep his mouth shut after the PC fraternity starts harassing him, namely in the form of crudely drawn dicks on his face.

4. The “Peace Officer” Documentary and Why Police Tactics Seem To Be Getting More Brutal. 
“Peace Officer” tells the story of the increasingly militarized state of the American police force told through the story of William “Dub” Lawrence, a retired lawman who established his rural state’s first SWAT Team only for him to see that same team kill his son-in-law. The LA Times’ Jeffrey Fleishman explores both the story and Lawrence at length.

When police killed his son-in-law in 2008, William “Dub” Lawrence, a retired lawman with a meticulous streak, started his own investigation, tracking bullet trajectories and scouring the crime scene in an obsession aimed at exposing the increased militarization that has turned many police forces into small armies. Lawrence is the persistent everyman of “Peace Officer,” a documentary that examines excessive force at a time when police tactics nationwide have been criticized by government officials and civil rights groups. Much of the film’s focus is on the heavily armed SWAT teams that emerged after the 1965 Watts riots. They were central to the 1980s war on drugs, and their role expanded in recent years as the Defense Department has given military hardware to law enforcement agencies to combat terrorism. Lawrence watched this dangerous evolution from his home in Davis County, Utah, where as sheriff he started a SWAT team in the 1970s that decades later was involved in a standoff that killed his son-in-law Brian Wood, who was sitting in a pickup truck with a handgun. Wearing gas masks and paramilitary gear, police closed in and fired 111 rounds, including tasers, pepper balls, flash-bang grenades and live ammunition. “It’s a video games mentality,” said Lawrence, a private investigator who also runs a sewage pump repair business, in an interview. “Police are the good guys, civilians the bad guys. There’s a bully mentality…They feel the badge and the gun give them omnipotent power.” He added: “Everybody learns how to kill, but there’s not much emphasis on neutralizing or negotiating.”

5. Prop Masters Explain the Movie Magic of Fake Cocaine. 
“Scarface.” “Goodfellas.” “Pulp Fiction.” Plenty of movies have featured protagonists snorting cocaine recreationally as a way to get high and express their power. But how does it all work on camera? What goes into the fake cocaine? Hopes & Fears interviews two prop masters, Kenn Finn and Natalie Hearns, about how movie magic makes fake cocaine look so real.

Something about the cocaine monomyth extends deep into the American psyche. Almost every story about it begins by saying “cocaine is bad,” but eventually adds a whisper of, “but it’s expensive and makes you feel assertive, so it’s actually good.” That seductive feeling of getting away with something, or of getting-caught-but-what-a-ride, is as American as is it gets: You can see it in movies like “Goodfellas,” but also anytime anyone namechecks Bonnie and Clyde, or in every image of Paul Newman ever shot. For better or worse, cocaine’s mythology embodies that feeling perfectly. Which makes it an ideal thing to put in your movie (or TV show). Which, in the grand American tradition of co-opting dangerous things, means it must be faked. Ken Finn is a prop master who’s been helping filmmakers do just that since his first gig involving fake cocaine, on “one of the early seasons of ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.'” These days, one of his primary jobs is on the television show “The Knick,” which, to put it bluntly, stars Clive Owen as a turn-of-the-century surgeon who invents powdered cocaine. At this point in his career, however, Ken feels like he’s got his work cut out for him. “Cocaine is probably one of the two or three easiest [drugs to fabricate],” Finn tells Hopes&Fears. “It’s just a white powder.” Not just any white powdery substance will do, of course. Says Ken: “You don’t want to use powdered sugar because it gets sticky. You really don’t want to use flour either because if it gets damp at all it just becomes clumpy.” Instead, it’s almost always inositol, a B-vitamin compound. “In fact,” says Ken, “if you ever snort it, you might get this familiar feeling. A certain memory, like, ‘Hey, I’ve tasted this in the back of my throat before.’ What I’ve learned since then is that actual cocaine is oftentimes cut with this stuff. If you ever do shitty [cocaine], You might actually be ingesting this stuff without even knowing it.” Natalie Kearns, a veteran stage prop master, seconds the use of inositol: “It absorbs easily into the sinuses and doesn’t affect vocal chords, so it’s a good choice for musicals and has been reliably used by some big names on Broadway for extended runs.”

6. Glasses Full of Rye: Nick Pinkerton on “On the Bowery.” 
This Saturday, the Museum of Moving Image in New York will screen Lionel Rogosin’s “On the Bowery,” a 1956 docufiction film about the then impoverished lower Manhattan neighborhood the Bowery. The film has been acclaimed since its release and was nominated for an Academy Award, and won Rogosin the Best Documentary award at the Venice Film Festival, the first American to do so. Over at Reverse Shot, veteran critic Nick Pinkerton explores the film at length.

Under the steelwork silhouette of the Third Avenue El, bums splay out across doorjambs in mid-afternoon; anyone who has scraped together enough money already has their binge underway. It’s a few stops downtown from P. J. Clarke’s and Don Birnam’s apartment in “The Lost Weekend,” but formally it’s another universe — shots of winos being scooped into police vans seem cut-in direct from life, seemingly surreptitiously filmed; people, buildings, everything in sight shows marks that could only come of long, terrible attrition. There are no open-armed, redemptive Jane Wymans here, only men, specimens in advanced states of decay, in-and-out-of-Bellevue types not quite able to fill out their rusty, piss-scented trousers. Enter a new guy, Ray (Ray Salyer), whose biceps still fill out his sleeves, his chest not yet concave, looking preoccupied as he enters the Confidence Bar & Grill. He’s railroaded into buying a round of drinks, learns a few names, and just like that he’s part of the Bowery. Lionel Rogosin’s “On the Bowery” is ostensibly Ray’s story: He’s hustled for his suitcase by a sack-shaped, apparently harmless coot (moustache-chewing Gorman Hendricks, a real-life Bowery resident), kicks around at the corner of Houston looking for day labor, gets rowdily drunk off muscatel, tries to bed down with a hatchet-faced barfly, gets rolled for his couple of bucks. In another sense, maybe more successfully, “On the Bowery” is the distilled essence of a bygone social panoply, fully infiltrating the Bowery at a very specific spot on its timeline, when it served as the final way station before potter’s field and oblivion. Though it has, in the main, disappeared in any significant form from the contemporary consciousness, “The Bowery,” that mile of pavement between Astor Place and Chatham Square (where a statue of opium trade-busting Chinese Consulate Lin Ze Xu stands watch), was a popular entertainment staple for nearly a century, supporting its own rowdy folklore, self-mythologizing melodramas, and reams of comic songs. Fallen from its heyday as an entertainment district by the time cinema arrived, it remained a potent presence, the symbolic “East Side” of Allan Dwan’s “East Side, West Side” (1927), the eponymous stage for a dumb, rambunctious bluster of Gay Nineties nostalgia by Raoul Walsh — and in fact it was only in 1956 that Leo Gorcey laid down his “Slip” Mahoney fedora, ending a two-decade stint with the Dead End Kids/ East Side Kids/ Bowery Boys. By then any trace of the series’ hard-nosed Thirties realism had dried up, and Gorcey and Huntz Hall mixing it up with mad scientists and séance scams wasn’t something that a lot of Bowery residents could relate to; the street was an oozing open wound, a purgatorial skid row housing tens upon thousands of men who had lost or walked away from their function in society, renting cell-like holes in cheap motels with ironic-grandiloquent names (The White House, The Dandy), and living there a life whose aspect lay somewhere between the monastery and the charnel house, rotting together and waiting on Last Call. That it is on this street, so goes the story, that the phrase “Off the wagon” was coined, is a factoid too perfect to pass up.

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