The grounds in and around Michigan Reformatory have been undergoing a vast sewer-upgrade project involving a huge backhoe, several front-end loaders and a bulldozer. You have never seen so many men in the light grey M.D.O.C. uniforms standing around watching earth being moved. I would like to ridicule this wide-eyed loitering phenomenon further, but I find myself likewise standing on the wall-mounted desk/shelf, looking through the barred windows at the ever-evolving ditch.
The digging of holes seems to cast a similar spell to the one spun by fires. Fires, I think, remind us of life—they cook our food, give us warmth, approximate the internal glow of living things—hence the spirit of fun and celebration around flames.
Holes, on the other hand, are a symbol of our mortality. If there is talk around holes it is generally solemn and subdued—or absurd (consider the gravediggers’ exchange in Hamlet). Mostly, though, people just stare, contemplating in that cold, dark scar the place where we will all one day lie for all eternity.
Anyway. The upshot of all this sewer work is that outside “yard” time has been pretty severely curtailed. Inmates can’t get within 500 feet of the massive machines. Certainly a few of the men here know how to work the levers and gears. The walls and razor-wire, the boundaries that keep us in, would fall like a castle made of sticks. As a symbol of goodwill, to make up for the loss of “yard,” several movies have been playing during the week, one of which was The Hunger Games. I reviewed the book in July and hoped we would eventually get to see the film version.
The movie follows the book as closely as any adaptation I’ve seen. I liked the book, and the movie was just as good. I loved, especially, Elizabeth Banks—who I like from 30 Rock—as a cartoonish minion of the State. She’s so good, in fact, for half of the movie I thought her character was being played by Helena Bonham Carter, similar to the freakish characters she and Johnny Depp often play in Tim Burton films.
Another movie that I happened across recently was a dour Finnish film from the mid-80’s called Shadows in Paradise, as part of TCM’s tribute to the Telluride Film Festival. It is a love (this term is used very loosely by me—is it love? I don’t know. I’m not sure what else to call it. If a person wanted to get real technical, I suppose the mother rats eating their pups—see the Nanny Diaries review—is a form of love!) story between an ex-butcher/garbage man prone to violence (his favorite line is: “How would you like for me to smash your face!”) and an oddly appealing supermarket check-out girl. Don’t expect any Hollywood sparks—I don’t think anyone ever smiles—which was refreshing. It was an anti-love-story masterpiece of lovably suicidal Finns, which made me very happy.
Something else that made me very happy recently was seeing David Lynch as a CBS trainer/producer on Louie. As the producer, Jack Dahl, Lynch was incredible—crackling with a weird, genius energy of late night television from yesteryear. Lynch, of course, is best known for the iconic Blue Velvet (if you’ve never seen it, get it now—it is the perfect Lynch primer as it is his most-straightforward narrative), and the beautifully dark and strange television series of twenty-five years ago, Twin Peaks (also a must-see). But the best movie Lynch ever made—that I know of (there are literally dozens of the strangest things on film that Lynch is responsible for which I have never seen)— is the illusory masterpiece about the fiction of Hollywood, called Mulholland Drive.
I loved seeing Lynch in an acting role on FX’s Louie, though a series by him would be even better. He was also the subject of a great essay by the late David Foster Wallace—who was a huge fan of the film auteur—in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. I was never a big fan of Wallace’s fiction, but his non-fiction was great, and is greatly missed.
I write in these reviews often of things I’ve learned from television. (It occurs to me now that the flicker of the TV is the closest thing inmates have to fire since they took our matches away.) If a person didn’t know me before, they might think coming to prison has caused the boob-tube to become a centerpiece of my life. The fact is, I have always been a TV addict—a bit like Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy. I was primarily raised by Gilligan, Batman, Bugs Bunny, et al.
When news came to us about three years ago that tobacco would be phased out of Michigan prisons, I began to dream of somehow going to a federal prison where I thought inmates could still smoke. How would I do this? Well, I hadn’t gotten that far. I suppose I would have had to commit some heinous federal crime as an inmate in a state prison—the assassination of some federally-elected visiting official, for example—and hope the public outcry demanded my execution in the federal system.
As you can see, this wasn’t a plan, but a dream—all for the sake of smoke. But I spoke with my then-current bunky, Pete, a dwarfish, racist redneck who made his own “chew” from the tea in teabags and melted Jolly Ranchers. Pete had done Fed-Time for drug charges, and he broke the news to me that federal inmates aren’t allowed to purchase their own television set. He told me how there are four or five TV’s in a dayroom tuned to different channels and the inmate plugs his earphones into a corresponding jack—or something. I had stopped listening, my fantasy plan about smoking in federal prison had fallen apart. I wasn’t going anywhere where television was out of my control. I later found out inmates can’t smoke in federal prisons anyway, and haven’t been allowed to in a decade or more.
And finally, a correction I want to make about a movie I mentioned in a review some time back. The film was the very good, mind-bendy, science-fiction train movie where Jake Gyllenhall keeps returning to a seat on a Chicago-bound Metra for seventeen minutes, trying to find a bomb. I called the movie 17 Minutes, or some other amount of minutes. It is not called Some Other Amount of Minutes, but rather, Source Code.
My friend Myrle once told me that serial killers have this trait in common: a bad sense of smell. This little known fact explains how many of them are caught—the stench of corpses decomposing around their lair tips off the neighbors.
I’ve only known one serial killer: Opie, who I mentioned in a review of The Wreckage by Michael Robotham. In case you don’t remember, he had been profiled on The History Channel, referred to as the “Port-of-Call Killer,” and is allegedly responsible for the deaths of 60 prostitutes all over the world, though he’s only been convicted in one or two cases.
I can’t speak to any of that mythology because I have never seen the History Channel profile, but I know Myrle used to jokingly ask for trinkets signed by Opie, which Myrle planned to have his father put on E-Bay. There is a lucrative market for serial killer memorabilia. Opie always laughed it off, but I think Myrle was serious.
You can now add this trait as one possibly shared among serial killers: can’t remember titles to movies. When I asked Opie the title of the Gyllenhall movie (I knew he would know because he’s a sci-fi, Dungeons & Dragons fan) he said 17 Minutes, which didn’t sound right, but I was convinced otherwise. Never doubt that a psychopath can get a lady of the night to enter his car, or house. They are very convincing!
Do you have a friend who you’ve thought might fit the profile of a serial killer? Have you thought of beginning a possible-serial-killer checklist? Ask him the name of that movie you watched a few months ago, then pull out the hunk of old Parmesan you just happen to have in your pocket. Ask him if it smells.