The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Appaloosa (2008)

Ed Harris' version of Robert Parker's novel is the damnedest love story I've ever seen. Harris and Viggo Mortenson play freelance Sheriffs cleaning up troubled towns. Renee Zellwegger plays...well, she plays a widow woman making her way through the world the best she can, attaching herself to the Alpha male wherever she happens to be. And Jeromy Irons plays the wealthy, wicked rancher whose murder of a sheriff and two deputies puts a chain of deadly events into play.

This reminds me of early "Spenser" novels, back before Parker got bored with the character. DAMN I loved Spenser and Hawk. Avery Brooks as "Hawk" on the Spenser show was my favorite black character on television up until that time. No, "A Man Called Hawk" doesn't count. Ugh. But I now realize that it wasn't just about the fact that Hawk was black, and a bad-ass, at a time when such things were unknown on television. It was that there was a male bond between these two men that was wholly extraordinary. That is so damned captured in Appaloosa, a bond that makes it possible for two men, together, to accomplish things that two men separately cannot even begin to approach. That bond that men who have been through combat yearn for their whole lives, and find it almost impossible to describe to friends or spouses. There is a scene where Zellwegger, "engaged" to Harris, comes on to Mortenson. He pushes her away. "You're with Virgil (Harris)" he says. "And so am I."

I don't want to say too much more about this film, except that it leads toward an unavoidable act of violence that defines everyone in the movie. Ultimately, if it had been called "The Wedding Present" that title would have been more perfect. Perhaps. But I want to thank everyone involved for reminding me what I loved about the "Spenser" novels in the first place, before they devolved into the "White guy and his black/gay/Italian/whatever `Other' pal of the month" books they turned into.


Regarding the Rihanna/Chris Brown case, someone asked, implicitly, what I would say if asked to participate in the healing.

1) If the mother came to me, saying that her son had brutally beaten his girlfriend (the term "smack around" doesn't do it for me. That might cover a black eye). I'd want to talk to both of them, starting with mother and son. Her relationship history and attitudes. If there had been a father in the home, and the nature of that relationship. In other words, I would start with my concept of a "healthy" family and see what was missing, and then see what it would take to nurture such an internal representation in the son, so that his internal voices would automatically lead him to appropriate behavior.

2) If the father came to me, I would look first into the father's relationships with the mother, and other women. If the son's behavior mirrored the father's, they would have to be counseled together to determine what rules they were playing by in relationships that made such behavior appropriate. If they agreed with those internal rules, then I'd see if they had enough motivation to tear down the internal emotional/conceptual structures and rebuild.

3) If Brown came to me personally, I would find out about his family relationships, the place where he originally got his rules for behavior in relationships. I would determine, NOT by his conscious answers but with body language and eye movement, whether he agreed with the rules he has been playing by. If not, I would help him align his rules with his actual values. If so, I would determine if he really didn't want to change...or if he merely wanted to avoid long-term consequences for what he did. If so, and I still wanted to work with him, I'd drop him into a "Core Transformation"-style trance, and have him identify with his actual core motivations for this (and all) actions: the urge to come closer to God. Working backwards from there, I would attach pain to inappropriate behavioral expressions, and pleasure to the appropriate ones. To do this, I might have to kick his ass a little first (emotionally only, hopefully) to establish sufficient dominance to put him in a regressed state where he is willing to accept imprintation. The military has understood this, at least unconsciously, forever.

This is one of the reasons that martial arts is such a great way for a young man to mature. By the time his father can no longer pick him up and dangle him by his heels, completely dominate him physically, one whole level of imprintation is no longer available.

What every living being is trying to do is move through life with a minimum of suffering. When you see negative behaviors (such as beating the shit out of people, especially the people you love) the question to ask is: what kind of internal representations and rules does this person have, such that these behaviors diminish the amount of pain and fear they experience in life?

Criminologist Lonnie Athens suggests that human beings go through five stages on their way to becoming irredeemably violent criminals:

1) Brutalization, or violent horrification. The suffering of pain and humiliation, or witnessing those they love suffering it.

2) Rebellion. "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more.

3) Acting out

4) finding a society of like-minded individuals to approve of his actions (like, for instance, the chorus of people who say: "it wasn't so bad!" "What did she do to make him do that?" "He's just young" etc.)

5) Internalizing the voices.

By the time you get to level five, it is too late. No known form of ALL of my sympathy is with the victims, and with young men and women who are still in stages 1-4, where change is possible. After that...well, change may be possible for a few of the truly motivated, but it can no longer be implemented from the OUTSIDE, if you see my meaning. I would consider efforts to do so to be a waste of resources.

So...IF he really wanted to change, then he could either change his beliefs and values, or learn to bring his actions into alignment with them. Males are these dangerous hunter-killer thingies, and the world needs their energy. But that energy has to be safely channeled, and part of that is total condemnation of inappropriate expressions, and that condemnation must come from mother-figures, father figures, peers and potential sex partners. Women who suggest that this behavior is anything less than sub-human are creating a safety valve: he doesn't have to change in order to get laid? Great! And the behavior is perpetuated another generation.

While I do not believe that oppression of women is good for men, anywhere, at any time, I do see that it can APPARENTLY be good for them, if they don't look long-term, or below the surface of the game...and we are programmed to accept the surface. So the Chris Browns of the world, on some level, belief that physical violence in response to verbal stimulus, or disproportionate levels of violent response (after all, she may have hit him first) is appropriate. So long as any part of him believes this, he is dangerous to himself and others. So long as there is a chorus of voices in his head saying "smack that bitch up," he can act in a negative way.

And there are millions of boys around the world who are asking the question: "what will it take for me to become a man?" And for the answer, they will look at two things:

1) What are sexually alluring women responding to?

2) What are men who seem confident and powerful and sexual doing?

If he does not experience substantial pain in response to what he did, not only will he not change, but he will provide a negative role model for an entire generation, guys who will, in privacy, say: "see? It's cool."

So...positive behaviors have to be associated with pleasure, and survival. Negative behaviors have to be associated with pain, and death. This can be as abstracted as you wish. It can be emotional pain as well as or in preference to physical pain.

Males didn't ask to have the poison of violent propensity. They didn't select it at birth...and only the 10% or so of Alpha males benefits from a system that rewards aggression. But all society reinforces it, creates that chorus of voices that says: "act this way and you will get the money and the girls, and you will survive." The males who behave in violent fashion have to be put under the microscope and corrected IMMEDIATELY. There is no possible positive outcome. If you lose a Chris Brown, but save another hundred young men and women, that sounds like a cheap price to me.

4) If Rihanna came to me and asked me to help Chris. If they were willing to go into counseling together, I'd take a deep breath and dive in. If she wants to get back together with him, I'd want to know where she got her rules about relationships. If she would want her own daughter to get back with a man who had beaten her. I've noticed that a LOT of women cannot and do not love themselves as much as much as they love their own daughters, and would accept treatment that they would not want for someone they love. I would work on her self-love. Then, if she still wanted to be with him, so be it. But I would NOT help her heal that relationship unless the deepest, healthiest part of herself, the part that believed she was made of the same stuff as the stars, believed that this relationship could be healthy.

I would evoke their deepest rules about love, relationship, violence. And attach enormous pleasure to behaving in alignment with those deepest principles, and genuine pain to violating them. There have to be massive communication glitches between and within these two, and that would have to be addressed, big time. If possible, both families should be involved, because the answer for the current pain lies in the web of relationships.

Under no circumstances do I believe that both families are intact with loving mothers and fathers. Just don't believe it. THIS is one of the reasons I have so much objection to people who BEGIN parenting with partial or dysfunctional situations. Baby, you'd better assume that you're going downhill from where you start. Hopefully the slide will be shallow. But if you start with a bad man or woman (or none) at your side and figure "they'll get better" you are doing far more than kidding yourself: you are setting your children up for disaster. Then, down the road, when your crazy partner abuses your children, you'll use the "crazy people need love too" defense. Well, sure. But what I hear when you say that is: "I'm crazy, and where else will I get love but from someone just as nuts?"

That's fine...just don't bring children into the world. They had no choice, and you are DELIBERATELY starting their life journey in the toilet, just because you don't have the courage and honesty to either climb out of it, or flush away by yourself.


So...those would be my actual responses. Yes, when angry I will say nasty things some times. Yep. But words can be lies, fantasies, safety valves.

Behavior is truth.


Josh Jasper said...

Hawk's persona is still one of the most interesting things about the books. He's not just black and badass, he's well read, cultured when he wants to be, and sexually potent. But his downside is that he's unable to connect emotionally, except in a limited way, to a small number of people - Susan and Spenser. The women in his life are either transient, or wanting to connect in ways he just can't provide. He also makes his living at violence, is good at it, and enjoys the power it provides him, bu the does so with self awareness, and something of a moral code.

But yeah, eventually the books got repetitious. It's sad.

BWoodson said...

I always knew you were smart since i saw you talk about your (then) upcoming book called Lion's Blood (Philadelphia Frankin Institute). After reading the book not only was i surprised, but intellectually moved to tears that you could write as well as Octavia.

And i've been following your blog for a good time now and have been relatively put-off by some of the stuff you say. Not that it isn't on-point, but that it's just so redundant, you fighting with people that disagree with you. I think too much clarification. And i'm not too taken on your movie reviews either.

But I keep reading because once in a while you write shit like this. A spasm of concise common sense. Educated, eloquent, specific and helpful. In a single post you reframed the uproar from individual actions (chris) to his family and then instead of leaving it there, you contextualized the shift in how you would apply NLP (love the stuff) to the situation.

Diamond in the rough. I'm considerably amazed . . . and still waiting for the sequels to Zulu Heart and Firedance btw.

suzanne said...

I'd drop him into a "Core Transformation"-style trance, and have him identify with his actual core motivations for this (and all) actions: the urge to come closer to God.

I hope you aren't suggesting this is in fact a "Core" motivation!

if ever there was a notion that has led
way off-track
into how others should be treated
it's the organized monotheisms

azrael said...

finding a society of like-minded individuals to approve of his actions (like, for instance, the chorus of people who say: "it wasn't so bad!" "What did she do to make him do that?" "He's just young" etc.)

When I asked if Chris Browns' youth should be considered,I didn't mean that it excused his actions. His actions were unacceptable and require some logical consequence. But, I also wanted to know your thoughts, and others thoughts about rehabilitation that might actually work. Rather than punishment that costs the tax payers lots of money without making Rhianna, or any other woman any safer.

As a child protective services social worker, I have abused and neglected minor clients who are already doing some fairly unsavory things and on the path to following in the footsteps of their abusers. At one point I had THREE fourteen year old clients with probation officers. I wish I knew how our system could help them heal and become productive citizens who are harming neither themselves or others. To me, a 19 year old isn't that far removed from childhood. So, it wasn't much of a leap for me to wonder if Chris could be rehabilitated. Of course his fame may make it even less likely than it would be if one of my nineteen year old former clients was beating one of his girlfriends.

Thank you for your thoughts about possible healing for the victim and the abuser. From what I've read online, not enough people are actually talking about actions that would result in Rhianna's healing.

What would you tell young, female Chris Brown fans who don't think it was that bad or who think it was Rhianna's fault? Young female fans who might be in similar situations?

Josh Jasper said...

We need more healers, in order to have less probation officers.

Some guy said...

That TV Hawk was a great character. I loved the way he could smile widely without any sense of joy or kindness, so true to the book character. (Whoever cast the Spenser character should probably be drawn and quartered, though.)

Not to quibble, and I'm sure there are boys out there who contemplate your 2(both sexually related)choices to try to figure out manhood, but it's definitely not a universal viewpoint. I know that as a kid I didn't look at those two in considering what constitutes "manhood" and even then I'm pretty sure I would have considered those two too "skin-level". Defining manhood in terms of whether a boy/man appears confident or how well he could do with girls just wouldn't appeal to some boys.

Some guy

Frank said...

I miss Spencer and Hawk too. For a long time, these two were my favorite fictional characters. Ever.

But Parker got bored, and I still read them, but I do not pant with anticipation for a new book now as I once did.

I've actually been enjoying Jesse Stone and Sonny Randall more than Spencer.

I'll have to give Appaloosa a try.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

I've wondered if Hawk was a racist move by Parker. You get a highly violent white main character, but an even more violent/less emotionally connected black character so the white character looks relatively normal.

You get the same black/white pattern in Rachel Caine's Weather Warden novels (generally fun, though as with most series, better towards the beginning), though both the characters are female.

On the other hand, if this isn't bothering people who have reasons to be pickier than I am, then I'm quite willing to believe I'm wrong.

Steven Barnes said...

saying "closer to God" didn't mean in the Christian or monotheistic sense. I could have said "the divine" just as easily. And I wouldn't have believed it was true if I hadn't first read the transcripts of the trance sessions, then heard them, then led clients through the process myself. It really is astounding, but no matter where they start, where they end is a deep, almost painful yearning for spiritual connection.
Young girls who excuse Chris, or think Rihanna asked for it are lacking self-love in some critical ways. I would bet my car that almost none of them have a loving, protective father in their home. My first girlfriend tried HARD to get me to hit her, because she felt this was what a good man did. Good lord.

Steven Barnes said...

The Spencer novels get repetitious because you CAN'T keep going over the same personality arc without change, without it becoming repetitious. And you can't change the characters without disappointing some of your audience.'re stuck. You can either stop writing 'em, or change the characters so that the audience doesn't connect. Parker's gotta eat, you know? I don't blame him, I really don't.
Hawk is, I think, a little deadlier than Spencer, but not as well balanced as a human being. I am grateful to Parker for creating him, and think his heart is in the right place. Oh...and I don't think Parker was happy with Robert Urich as Spencer, either. Just some oblique comments he's made. He's a gentleman, and won't speak ill of the dead, but...

Marty S said...

Steve: I like your choice of the word deadlier for Hawk. I see both Spencer and Hawk as deadly men rather than violent men. They perform violent acts, but only in response to violence.

Josh Jasper said...

Marty - I see both Spencer and Hawk as deadly men rather than violent men. They perform violent acts, but only in response to violence.

What? Hawk worked as a mercenary, a mob enforce, and an assassin for pay.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

So far as keeping your audience's attention over a long series, Pratchett and Bujold found a couple of interesting solutions. Pratchett developed an ensemble of main characters, so that the odds of finding someone to like went up. On the other hand, I think he's got a really extraordinary ability to sympathize with different sorts of people.

Bujold let Miles change a *lot* in the course of his series, and it worked. On the other hand, this hasn't happened with any of her other characters, so it might have been a combination of luck to have a character with that range of possibility and Bujold's talent to pull it off.

One more-- there was gradual change in Remo Williams' character in the course of a hundred Destroyer novels. I don't know if there are any other series with that pattern.

Josh Jasper said...

Nancy - I don't know, Ivan showed a few hidden depths, as did Gregor, and especially Marc.

Marty S said...

Josh: I'm sure your right about Hawk's background, but I read the initial Spencer books a long time ago and my memory is not that great and I don't recall that aspect being highlighted in any recent novels.

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