We find ourselves in the midst of protracted war in a distant land that was supposed to have been over quickly and in which we Americans were supposed to have been greeted as liberators. When I was the age of most of the soldiers fighting in the Middle East, our country was in the midst of another protracted war that was also, always, supposed to be over quickly. Remarkably, during the long years that my fellow young Americans sacrificed their lives in Vietnam, the American film industry took little notice. The great, direct cinematic treatments of the War in Vietnam would not appear until after the war’s sorry denouement with the fall of Saigon in 1975. Coming Home and The Deer Hunter didn’t appear until 1978, Apocalypse Now a year later. Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Casualties of War weren’t released until the mid- and late-1980s, more than a decade after the war ended.
During the fighting and dying of the 1960s and early 1970s, Hollywood looked the other way. Frenchman Pierre Schoendoerffer won a 1967 Oscar for his documentary The Anderson Platoon that chronicled the experiences of the American GIs in the bush, but it was barely seen in the US, opening only in a few cities, closing, if it opened, after a single week. The primary film about Vietnam made while the war was being fought was The Green Berets, a 1968 pro-war feature co-directed by and starring John Wayne. For what it’s worth, and I entirely agree, Roger Ebert called The Green Berets “cruel and dishonest and unworthy of the thousands who died in Vietnam.”
Vietnam was the elephant in the national living room that our most popular and accessible art form chose not to notice. The only wartime film that addressed Vietnam in any meaningful way and drew a substantial commercial audience in the process was Robert Altman’s M.A.S.H. (1970), and it was set in Korea during the 1950s, a pointed, biting, but nonetheless indirect commentary on Vietnam.
The filmmakers of the Iraq/Afghanistan era have not been nearly so circumspect. And though the miasma of the Middle East has permeated American cinema in less direct ways, I take note of how very vocal American filmmakers have been about our foreign policy over the last four years.
In contrast to the cinematic silence of the Vietnam era, American filmmakers have produced at least eight fictional films dealing directly with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These include In the Valley of Elah, which dealt with criminal behavior by our American troops, Rendition, which addressed the kidnapping and torture of a suspected al Qaeda collaborator, Redacted, which revolves around the rape of an Iraqi civilian teenager by American soldiers, and Lions for Lambs, which details, among other things, how an idealistic college professor ironically and unintentionally convinces two of his students to volunteer for the army where they lose their lives on a snowy mountain slope in Afghanistan. These films star such big name players as Tommy Lee Jones, Susan Sarandon, Robert Redford, Tom Cruise, and Meryl Streep and have been helmed by such A-list directors as Redford, Brian de Palma, and Paul Haggis.
Meanwhile, American filmmakers have produced at least thirteen documentaries about Iraq and Afghanistan, including such titles as No End in Sight; The War Tapes; The Ground Truth; Standard Operating Procedure; Gunner Palace; My Country, My Country; Iran in Fragments; and WMD. With the exception of Voices of Iraq, a film released on the eve of the 2004 presidential election and purportedly “written and directed by the people of Iraq,” all of these films, to greater or lesser degrees, portray our military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan in disturbingly negative ways. I want to look at one of these non-fiction pictures in greater detail, Taxi to the Dark Side, which won last year’s Oscar for Best Documentary.
Authority to Torture
As former President George W. Bush’s record low standing in national opinion polls attests, opposition to the Iraq War is no longer a partisan issue. The brave men and women of our military have been asked to sacrifice their lives and their limbs for a war whose justification has been constantly redefined. And they have faced the enduring hostility of the people they have been sent to “liberate.” The cost in American blood and treasure has been enormous. An under-noted contributor to our current economic crisis, we have financed the War in Iraq with $10 billion dollars a month of American taxpayer money, a burden that will be borne by our children and theirs. More than 4,000 of our men and women have died and over 30,000 others have been wounded, many maimed for life.
After 30,000 troops were belatedly sent to Iraq to supplement the minimal forces Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dispatched at the war’s outset, the loss of American lives sharply diminished. But the sectarian violence the war unleashed among the Iraqi people continues at an appalling rate, and General David Petraeus judged the civil order in the country as, at best, “fragile.” Some estimates suggest that as many as 1.2 million civilians have died, and even the Bush administration admitted civilian casualties of more than 30,000, a factor ten times the number slain in the terrorist attacks on 9/11, thus a factor ten times greater than the biblical admonition that justice should be restricted, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, on a one-to-one basis.
Concomitantly, America has soiled its reputation in the international community by condoning practices we have heretofore associated with tyrants and monsters. This later is the subject of writer/director Alex Gibney’s searing, Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, an unblinking look at the appalling policies that Vice President Dick Cheney advocated, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld implemented, and President George W. Bush approved and publically defended.
Before the invasion of Iraq was unleashed in March 2003, an Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar was arrested by a paid informant and turned over to the American army in December 2002. Dilawar was transported to Bagram prison where he was held for five days until he was killed by American military police prison guards using the extreme interrogation techniques authorized by the Bush administration in the aftermath of 9/11. Dilawar was never assigned an attorney, never charged with a crime. But the American army was told he was the getaway driver after a rocket attack on an American base. His guards were instructed to soften Dilawar up so that he would give information about his terrorist connections. Responding to these instructions, the American GIs deprived him of sleep, hung him from the ceiling by his wrists in the cage where he was incarcerated, and kicked him in his thighs and calves until the flesh of his legs was pulpified. His legs were so badly damaged they would have had to be amputated, had he lived. Dilawar’s death certificate ruled him a homicide victim, but an official army report stated that he died of “natural causes.” Dilawar’s treatment would have been unacceptable had he been guilty of something, but he was innocent. The man who turned him in was the man who launched the rockets.
Most Americans have heard of the human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and of the controversial detention center at Guantanamo, Cuba. But the officially sanctioned torture of men detained in the War on Terror began at the Bagram prison in Afghanistan, and Dilawar was among the first and most definitively tragic victims. Many Americans were so outraged after 9/11 that they lusted for revenge. An associate of mine swore that we should go after the perpetrators with overwhelming force and not concern ourselves with “collateral damage,” an Orwellian euphemism for the innocents who die in the process. Leaders in the Bush administration obviously agreed. Shows like 24 regularly promote the successful use of torture on our enemies, and Taxi to the Dark Side wonders if such fictional representations have deadened our sensibilities. But, in fact, most authorities on the interrogation of prisoners believe that torture seldom works because the prisoner eventually will tell the torturer whatever he thinks the torturer wants to hear. And that fact doesn’t even address the too frequent situations that have emerged from Abu Ghraib and elsewhere where the torture victim wasn’t a terrorist in the first place and had nothing to reveal.
In addition to things our soldiers did to Dilawar, we did other things in the name of protecting America. We hooded, ear-muffed, and blindfolded men and kept them in isolation cells in order to deprive them of all sensory perception, a practice scientists have proven causes complete mental collapse. We stripped men naked and forced them to wear panties on their heads and to masturbate in front of female soldiers and their fellow inmates. We forced them to commit homosexual acts with each other. We used IV drips to force fluids into men and denied them toilet facilities until they urinated on themselves. We put them into “stress positions” and bound them so they could not move to relieve the pain. We water boarded them. We beat them and kicked them. We let dogs attack them. We shocked them in their genitals with electric current. And we murdered them, Dilawar and others at Bagram and 107 who died at Abu Ghraib. Even the self-protective army admits that thirty-seven were homicides. To protect ourselves from the implications of these atrocities, President Bush declared that these men did not deserve the rights established under the Geneva Conventions. And to protect himself and those in his administration from future prosecution as war criminals, the president secured pre-pardon legislation from Congress.
In a concluding voiceover, director Dibney summarizes one of his own reactions to this horror, and I will let it speak for mine: “American values are premised on the notion of human dignity and the sanctity of the individual. To allow cruelty to be applied as a matter of official policy is to say that our forefathers were wrong about the founding principles of inalienable human rights.” Yet some among us still wonder why Americans, who once, not so long ago, were greeted around the globe as heroes and liberators, are now routinely hated in many places outside our own borders. Let us pray that the departure of the Bush administration and Barack Obama’s occupation of the White House may soon begin to change that.
Because my feelings about these issues are so strong, because my love for this country is so great, and because my shame at our nation’s recent behavior is so consuming, I would love to tell you that, because these documentary indictments were made by American filmmakers, we will soon be steered back to the right and honorable course. If so, it will not be as a direct impact of these documentaries, because, quite frankly, no one is going to see them. No End in Sight grossed only $1.4 million dollars, less than three-quarters of its production budget. Taxi to the Dark Side did far worse, taking in less than $275,000 total. Errol Morris, who won an Oscar for his profile of Vietnam-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, collected less than $210,000 for Standard Operating Procedure, his documentary on the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Yes, more people will see these movies as they play cable stations and are released on DVD, but their paltry theatrical performances suggest that the American people don’t really want the details on what their government has been up to in its War on Terror. They don’t want the story wrapped in a fictional package either. For despite the presence of our most prominent actors in their casts, the box office performances of the fictional films that have dealt with Iraq have been just as dismal. In the Valley of Elah, for instance, cost $23 million to produce and took in less than $7 million in the United States.
Of course, no one went to see The Anderson Platoon back in 1967, and the Hollywood decision-makers of the day, perhaps correctly, deemed Vietnam a topic without an audience. Still, despite our collective reluctance to face the details of what America has been up to, we know it at some level, we are concerned about it, and the issues of our behavior in Iraq are bubbling to the surface in places we don’t expect. We have all seen the bumper stickers that highlight the letters I and CAN in the word American. We have long been a confident, can do people. But I sense an uneasiness in our mood, a darker view of our future, and I see this concern in our movies.
No Shelter, No Exit
I am reminded of a line Peter O’Toole speaks in Richard Rush’s great 1980 movie about movie-making, The Stunt Man. Playing the symbolically named Eli Cross, the director of the film within the film, O’Toole counsels that if you have a serious message you want to send your audience, you slip it in while they are otherwise getting off on adventure, action, sex, or violence. I think that’s what American filmmakers have been doing, and whether their audiences are getting the message, I can’t say. But they have been buying tickets. As a first example of a dark turn in the American spirit, I will look first at last year’s Oscar winner for best picture, No Country for Old Men.
Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men establishes its key themes in its opening sequences. In the film’s second passage, from a rocky rise over a dusty Southwestern landscape, a sweaty, grizzled hunter carefully lines up a rifle shot on a herd of antelope. The shot rips out, and the herd scatters. Perhaps a buck has been wounded, but the bullet doesn’t bring him down. Eventually, the hunter discovers a thin trail of blood, but throughout a long march across the desert hardpan, he never catches sight of his wounded game. Preparation and persistence may not lead to satisfactory results. In the picture’s first sequence, a deputy takes a man into custody, handcuffs him, places him into a cruiser, and drives him to jail. Shortly later, the deputy is dead, and the arrested man is at large. Evil is an unfathomable, relentless, merciless, and perhaps unconquerable foe.
Adapted by the Coen brothers from Cormac McCarthy’s spare, bleak novel, No Country for Old Men is a showcase of brilliant, minimalist acting, a visual masterpiece by cinematographer Roger Deakins, and an uncomfortable philosophical challenge. It has filled theaters, but it is not a crowd pleaser. The story involves the death dance between the hunter, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a trailer-park resident and sometime welder, and Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a cunning killer of staggering heartlessness, his preferred weapon a compressed-air bolt thruster used to slaughter cattle. Moss and Chigurh get crosswise when the hunter stumbles into a drug deal gone fatally awry. Who started the shooting and why is never revealed, but perhaps ten people are dead, and one is dying. Cautiously poking around the grisly scene, Moss finds a truckload of heroin and ultimately a satchel containing $2 million in cash. He takes the money, and what happens to the drugs, we never learn. Moss incorrectly assumes that all the players in the drug deal are dead and that the $2 million is his with which to build a new life for himself and his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald). Unfortunately, like the original Terminator, Chigurh is on his trail, shedding the blood of innocent bystanders at every gas station and cut-rate motel along the way. Meanwhile, on the trail of both men is the tired local sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a spiritually stymied man nearing retirement and wondering what exactly life is all about.
Just as the film sloughs off the usual duty of answering questions attendant to the details of its story, it bothers with plot cohesion only indifferently. We think that Chigurh has been hired at some point by the drug wholesaler (Stephen Root) and that maybe Chigurh has double-crossed him. That would then account for why the wholesaler, who is never given a name, hires Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) to find Chigurh. But what we aren’t told is how Wells manages to find Moss so easily; how, in turn, Chigurh knows that Wells is after him; and throughout, after Moss ditches the tracking device he finds buried in the satchel, how Chigurh nonetheless seems to know almost beforehand every move Moss makes. Moreover, the picture deviates from all conventional narrative strategy by staging its climactic gun battle off-screen. We learn who shoots whom when Bell shows up to investigate, but we don’t see the action itself. Like most everything, this movie seems to submit, it just doesn’t matter. Men live, men die, now or later. Action only buys time, a short amount or a shorter amount. Happenstance is far more important than virtue. Justice is a wish rather than a condition.
The odd plotting decisions might have been deemed carelessness on the part of filmmakers less talented than the Coen’s. Here, I think, it is their way of commenting on the mysteriousness and capriciousness of human life. We think we have answers for things we don’t. The nature of evil eludes us utterly. We regard ourselves more highly than we deserve. We track others by trails of blood, and, like animals, we are tracked by those who would kill us. Tommy Lee Jones’s Bell tells a friend of the emptiness he feels. “I thought God would come into my life as I grew older,” he says. “But he didn’t.” To his wife (Tess Harper), Bell relates a dream about his father, who died young. In the dream the father has gone ahead on a cold camping trip, and Bell understands that his father will be waiting for him with food to eat around a warming fire. “And then I woke up,” he says, the embrace and security of a father’s love but a dream, the implication of comfort in some life to come, a wisp of wishful smoke, poof, gone.
I saw No Country for Old Men over a year ago now, and I have been haunted by its withering pessimism ever since.
Dark Knight of the American Soul
If no one is going to see the damning documentaries about the War in Iraq, and if their indictment of America’s foreign policies in this new century is going unwitnessed, the spirit of our people is nonetheless being affected, at least if the message of No Country for Old Men and others like the equally bleak There Will Be Blood are any indication. Americans historically have seen ourselves as equal to any task. We always have believed in a proud present and a brighter future. After another period of national embarrassment during the years of Vietnam and the Watergate scandals, Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980 with the slogan “Morning in America.” Bill Clinton underscored that he grew up in a town named Hope. His theme song was “Don’t Stop Thinking about Tomorrow.” Barack Obama rode to the White House promising “Change We Can Believe In.” But Obama’s whole candidacy spoke directly to what he saw as declining American self-confidence. We may not like looking at the specifics as presented in Taxi to the Dark Side, but polls tell us that four in five Americans believe our nation has careened off course. And our cinema is pointedly wondering when and how we will get our bearings again. As another example, let’s look at this year’s most popular movie, one of the most financially successful motion pictures in history. Given its themes, it is appropriately titled with a pun “The Dark Knight.”
Even before the 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri taunted that radical Islam would exploit the very openness of American democracy as a mechanism for orchestrating our downfall. Our greatest strength, in our view, was our greatest weakness in his. In our fury and righteous outrage over the collapse of the Twin Towers, we must be careful not to sacrifice what has made us great just to squelch our enemy’s evil glee. And that is exactly why so many of us have been troubled by the Bush administration’s domestic spying and sickened by its decision to torture war prisoners. Such issues, in their own constricted way, are central to Christopher Nolan’s brooding and, until its compromised end, nigh despairing The Dark Knight, the latest in the Batman series.
Written by director Nolan with his brother Jonathan, The Dark Knight takes up sometime after Batman’s crime-fighting successes in Batman Begins. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is secure in his camouflage as a wastrel billionaire, freeing him to answer the Batman searchlight sent up by police Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman). Pointedly, Batman’s accomplishments have produced two negative consequences. On the one hand, the dons of organized crime have grown more desperate; on the other, television talking heads and other hysterics have denounced Batman as a vigilante who ought to be brought to justice for his extra-legal offenses. In response, Bruce and Batman in their separate ways try to promote the career of crusading district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) as the white knight who will pursue within the law what Batman has undertaken through personal force of arms.
The crime lords counter with a move that recalls German conservatives backing Hitler and deeming him a buffoon they could control. Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts) and his henchmen hire a clown-faced bank robber known as The Joker (played brilliantly by the late Heath Ledger) to kill Batman. Because The Joker is a thief and a murderer, the mobsters mistake him for an ally. But in the final analysis, The Joker isn’t on anybody’s side. He’s a psychopathic agent of anarchy. He’s contemptuous of the mob, but he agrees to go after Batman because he sees the caped crusader as an architect of order. Batman came into being to sustain and reinforce civil society; The Joker exists entirely to destroy.
The 152-minute struggle between these monumental forces of good and evil is played out with all the usual chases, vehicle crashes, fisticuffs, machine-gun fire, and wanton explosions that are the mainstay of superhero movies. Batman even has to ward off attack dogs on a couple of occasions, a development that presumably harbors an allusion that escaped me. As is so often the case in this kind of film, the editing has focused on speed rather than clarity. We frequently can’t tell quite what is going on, and we haven’t a clue how the opposing forces are able to keep track of each other. The picture is, in addition, considerably over plotted with all the underdevelopment of the interwoven plot threads that flaw almost inevitably produces. We learn what happens when Lt. Gordon doesn’t listen to Dent’s warnings about corrupt cops in his unit, but we aren’t told why this happens or made to understand why these attendant events are necessary to the larger story. We ought to be affected by The Joker’s murder of the police commissioner and a judge, but since we barely know them, their demise generates no emotional power. Moreover, I grew increasingly annoyed at The Joker’s ability to stage logistically complex acts of mayhem with no time to prepare and apparently little in the way of a support force.
Nonetheless, The Dark Knight attracted overwhelmingly enthusiastic notices, interestingly, because of its somber vision. Can good triumph? Can good men defeat evil men without compromising their principles? Not surprisingly, many critics have spotted analogies to America’s War on Terror, though Nolan has been dodgy about acknowledging that subtext. The connections are there, though I would have admired them more had they been more clearly worked out. We’re supposed to see something critical in Batman’s character when The Joker forces him to make Sophie’s choice between his love, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and his public ally, Dent, a choice between his own personal love interest and the larger public good as represented by the crusading career of the District Attorney. The film would have been stronger had it clarified Batman’s thinking as he decides what to do.
Still, the overwhelming critical judgment noting this film’s departure from the usual summer action formula is entirely accurate. The picture offers no happy, tidy denouement. The forces of evil are stymied but by no means defeated. And Batman is left in a quandary of indecision about his own methods and hence his next steps. How much of what he has done in fighting evil, he wonders, has fertilized it rather than crushed it? Shortly after 9/11, Vice President Cheney told interviewers that to fight the evil of Islamic terrorism America would have to go be willing to go over to the dark side. The policies he advocated, and President Bush approved, have resulted in the direct torture and death of innocent human beings and have unleashed a cancer on America’s concept of itself as an historical agent of justice. The extent of the reactive evil these policies have spawned is not easy to assess, but there can be little question that if and until Obama orchestrates a dramatic reevaluation, America’s standing in the world is far lower today than it was in September 2001.
Doubt, Anger, and the Sanctuary of Faith
It should be apparent by now, that I think the times warrant the kind of pessimism we have been witnessing in our cinema. But let me conclude with a bit of a twist, with another dark film from this summer past, but one that neither defaults to unearned optimism nor surrenders to the arid meaninglessness of it all. Let me conclude by looking at another example of popular entertainment that dares to ask the big questions.
Let’s start with, does God exist? If so, how does He exert his will on Earth? If, as Jews and Christians believe, God is omniscient, omnipotent, and beneficent, how do we account for the suffering of the innocent, for the starvation of impoverished children, for the Holocaust? These are questions that for millennia have challenged and sometimes defeated theologians, troubled believers, and stymied faith. Thus, I am stimulated to discover that they are the central concerns of director Chris Carter’s X-Files: I Want to Believe.
Written by Carter with Frank Spotnitz, the current X-Files reunites former FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) some years after they left government service. Scully is now a resident surgeon at a Catholic hospital. Mulder is at sea, not working at anything, haunted and resentful about being dismissed from his old job. They share a house together in an isolated location, but they have never married. In quick, deftly acted scenes we can see how much they love and need each other. But there is a melancholy that shrouds their lives. They have lost a child.
The plot of the film summons the different ways that Mulder and Scully approached their work in ten seasons of television episodes and an earlier motion picture. Their cases involved paranormal mysteries and implications of extraterrestrial invasion. Mulder was always the seeker. Never entirely convinced, he nonetheless always wanted and still wants to believe. Scully the scientist is ever the skeptic, and so she remains.
As the picture opens, FBI agent Dakota Whitney (Amanda Peet) beseeches them to assist on an urgent case. FBI agent Monica Bannan (Xantha Radley) has been abducted, and the Bureau’s only clues to her whereabouts are coming from a psychic. Both reluctantly agree to participate in the case, but Scully quickly wants to abandon participation when she discovers that the psychic is Father Joseph Crissman (Billy Connolly), a pedophile convicted of sodomizing thirty-seven altar boys. Scully instantly concludes that he is a fraud and one no doubt pursuing his own objectives under the cover of cooperating with the police. Mulder, predictably, wants to see if the disgraced priest can provide anything worthwhile. When Father Joe leads them to a severed arm and then other buried body parts, Mulder begins to believe that his psychic powers may be real. Scully refuses to surrender her conviction that the priest is a con man and begins to argue that he’s obviously a participant in new unspeakable crimes. The film’s deft script manipulates the revelation of evidence such that we metronome from siding with Scully over to Mulder and then back again.
Scully, meanwhile, is involved in a harrowing case at her hospital. She’s been treating a young boy suffering from a rare form of brain cancer. His prospects for survival are slim. Only an experimental and painful process of stem cell injections offers any hope. The hospital administrator, a priest, thinks that the stem cell injections are unwarranted, that they will expose the boy to unnecessary pain without extending his life. Scully herself is torn. She has become very attached to this child who reminds her of her own son. She doesn’t want him to suffer, but she fiercely wants him to live. Should she proceed with the only treatment available, or should she medicate the boy and let him slip away peacefully?
These two plot threads are connected in a rumination on medical ethics, for we discover that Monica Bannon’s abduction has been orchestrated by a monstrous team of doctors who are harvesting blood and organs in an attempt to save the life of a rich man dying of cancer. In short, good and evil reside side by side. And sometimes you cannot tell into which category a particular action might fall.
Much of what the film endeavors to say rests on the character of Father Joe. He does not deny the harm he has done, but he claims to have prayed for redemption and maintains that his psychic visions are evidence that God’s grace extends even to a man such as himself. Mulder wants to believe him; Scully, who is angry at the very notion of God because of the death of her son, doesn’t. But Scully does want to believe, against all reason, in a piece of advice Joe offers her that helps her decide how to proceed with her young patient. She despises the priest, is convinced he’s a phony, but chooses to believe him when he tells her that God has said she can make a difference.
However dark the issues are here, and they are dark indeed, I yearn for more movies like this one that determine to shine a light into the inky void. I am ashamed of what I am shown about my country in Taxi to the Dark Side. I am concerned that such shame leads to the despairing resignation we find in No Country for Old Men. I don’t want movies that ultimately settle for denial like The Dark Knight. Instead, I ache for cinema that, while telling us the truth, also offers us a way out, a chance to insist on the principles that we all used to take for granted. I hunger for the miracle of Gandhian, Mandellian healing transformation. Like Mulder, I want to believe. And this X-Files, in so many ways a conventional thriller, offers not an answer in a universe where absolute answers aren’t available but a generative question. “Do you believe,” it wonders, “that forgiveness is possible for someone who has done the unforgivable?” If we believe that, then redemption is possible, even for what we have let happen to our national values.
Fredrick Barton is Professor of English at the University of New Orleans and has won nearly two dozen awards for his film column in Gambit Weekly. He is the author of the novels, The El Cholo Feeling Passes, Courting Pandemonium, With Extreme Prejudice and A House Divided. A collection of essays, Rowing to Sweden, many of which were first published in The Cresset, will be published later this year.