Freedom Bird

OFF THE RECORD is a charity anthology that benefits children’s literacy. Luca Veste asked 38 writers to pen 1500 words inspired by a classic rock song. I drew “Free Bird.” The book is only 99 cents for Kindle, for the next few days.

Eva Dolan, reviewer at Loitering with Intent and Crime Fiction Lover, said Freedom Bird “is a beautifully constructed story about the strength it takes not to act; may bring a tear to your eye.”

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A buddy of mine in high school drove one of these babies. The Firebird on the hood is truly iconic, and I kept thinking how the soldiers in Vietnam called the plane home the “freedom bird,” and thought of a teenager trapped in a house with his vet father, neither understanding each other, fighting over what it means to “be a man,” and how sometimes it means to act and other times it means not to.

This is a story I could write a book from. The characters are strong in my mind, and I’ve wanted to write about being a kid during the end of the Vietnam war. I was 4 years old when Saigon “fell.” I remember the footage on television. (I woke up early at a young age, would walk down and turn the TV on. I saw Sadat’s assassination this way, and also watched PATTON when I was way too young). So you’ll be seeing more of Harve Chundak, someday.

The Ballad of Ira Hayes

“Call him drunken Ira Hayes, he won’t answer any more, not the whiskey-drinking Indian or the Marine who went to war…”

Wars battle on until everyone touched by them is dead.

I remember watching the last American soldiers leave Saigon. On television, of course. And likely years after it occurred, on April 30th 1975. The footage replays in my head. My young mind couldn’t comprehend the images, but with the long-range empathy of the innocent, I could feel its import, sensing the troubled minds of the adults around me. What’s that, Mommy? Viet Nam.

Maybe it was the succession of Vietnam War movies I saw in the ’70s and ’80s, like The Boys in Company C, but it always felt like the war raged on forever, and always had been. When I read Vietnam: A History, by Stanley Karnow, I realized that I was correct. At least from the perspective of the Vietnamese, that war began centuries ago and continued long after those choppers tumbled into the sea.

And it is the same with World War 2. Europe is rebuilt, though monuments and wreckage in the forests and along the shores remain; but the scars of warfare run deep within those who fought, those who suffered, and their families.

Ira Hayes was one of the Marines who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, in the iconic photo. The government whisked those men home for photo ops, and many, including Hayes, suffered survivor’s guilt for leaving their buddies in the fighting. I didn’t think much of the film Flags of Our Fathers, but give it credit for dramatizing the reality behind the manufactured glory of World War 2. As the song states, Hayes died of alcohol poisoning and exposure. A tragic and lonely death for a war hero who served in the company of many forgotten heroes.

My great-uncles fought in the War, some in the Pacific, some in Europe, and one in both. Only two of them are still kicking. Jimmy- who I recently learned is actually my Uncle Vincenzo- and Dominic, who everyone has called Butch, since before I was born. My great-grandparents came over from southern Italy, the seaside city of Bari and the mountaintop village of Acri. (The priests and teachers wouldn’t accept Italian first names, so Dominic and Vincenzo became Butch and Jimmy.)

Like most soldiers, they don’t talk much about the War. Jimmy’s feet froze at the Battle of the Bulge. Patton’s tankers saved their behinds, he says. Butch proudly wears his medals, when a suit is required. Jimmy never has. Both of them are past 90, and are now widowers. They helped each other survive the Depression, and they visited my grandmother every Sunday morning for coffee, until she passed away six or more years ago. We were very close, and I try not to remember losing her. Now uncle Jimmy is deteriorating, and that same sadness wells inside me. So that’s why a depressing song about a war hero dying forgotten and alone is in my head this week. Uncle Jim is a generous, kind, hard-working man. Him & Butch worked as plumbers and roofers- just to keep busy- well into their eighties. He hunted until his eyesight faded, and gave me venison when his freezer overflowed with it. I’m planning to visit him this weekend, and I’m afraid it may be the last time I see my great-uncle, whose sly smile and pencil mustache, whose straight man humor and upright authority made him a giant to me.

The War will smolder on, in dying skirmishes and distant echoes of small arms fire, in my memories of my uncles Jimmy and Butch, and the stories of them that I will tell my own children. Like the unexploded ordnance buried in the woods, or land mines long forgotten, war touches us long after the last soldier is lain to rest.

Bánh mì, bon ami

I’ve longed for the Vietnamese sandwich known as the Bánh mì. I’ve heard foodies wax orgasmic about them, and had to try one. How good can a sandwich be? This good.
Okay, maybe this is a sandwish, but when they are this good you can deal with a little Engrish. Mangez Avec Moi on Church Street near Ground Zero is tucked in an unassuming little storefront with stripes, and for $6 they’ll serve you a sandwich made of chicken satay, pork chop, Vietnamese ham, or turkey with pickled carrots and daikon radish, fish sauce, some jalapenos, cucumbers and mayo on a special baguette made of wheat and rice flour. This gives it a lighter taste and crunch, which goes well with the snappy veggies and tangy meat within. Light, delicious, and unique, the Bánh mì is worth hunting down. This place is just convenient to me, and does it well.
As you can see it’s not humongous or overflowing, but it’s easy to eat on the run. We took ours to Battery Park and watched the ferries roll in, and the koi jump in the nearby pond. The shop also sells various Vietnamese snacks like shrimp chips, summer rolls, candies and everyone’s favorite spice, Sriracha Cock Sauce. The ham was very good, next time I try the pork chop. We got there after 6pm and they had run out of a few like chicken satay.
The storefront. Easy to miss. There’s also a sit-down joint next door.

Tropic Thunder

Well, I finally got around to seeing Tropic Thunder, and I was not disappointed. Sadly the hype machine took the juice out of many of the best scenes by putting them on heavy rotation, but the movie is a lot of fun and a good way to bounce back from the gut-wrenching thrills of The Dark Knight, which it neatly knocked out of the #1 spot, at least for now.
By now even the isolated Yanomamo tribe of the Amazon knows that Tropic Thunder is about what happens when a bunch of actors making a big-budget Vietnam War movie get lost in the jungle and have to fight actual bad guys. It is directed by and stars Ben Stiller, who when he’s not being hit by whale penises and bumbling his way through formulaic romantic comedies, actually makes some funny movies. The Cable Guy was hilarious, and flopped because people didn’t want to see Jim Carrey’s obnoxious persona from “In Living Colour” turn into what it would be in reality- horrifying. I haven’t seen Zoolander, but if it’s anything like his underrated “Ben Stiller Show,” where he mastered the art of mocking Hollywood movies, I’ll be renting it. For example, check out his trailer for Die Hard 12: Die Hungry, which is actually better than the fake trailer he introduces his character with in this new movie.

After seeing Meet the Fockers on cable a billion times, it’s hard to want to see Stiller on the big screen again and actually pay for it. But let me assure you, this new movie may not be better than Pineapple Express, but it’s as least as good as Get Smart with three Steve Carells would be. The movie begins with three fake trailers and a commercial that introduce us to the big-name stars who collide in this spoof of the typical bloated Hollywood epic turned money pit. There’s Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson, Roll Bounce) the young rapper of the minute who sells his own energy drink called Booty Sweat; Tugg Speedman the action hero of the “Scorcher” series, now in the double digits, whom Stiller plays using his familar action-hero parody schtick; Jeff Portnoy, played by Jack Black as a poke at Eddie Murphy, the great comic who’s stooped to playing a family of fat farty fucks; and of course, Robert Downey Jr. as Kirk Lazarus, the method actor who undergoes a “contoversial medical procedure” when he finds out his character was supposed to be black. I won’t spoil the trailers for you, because they are some of the best laughs of the film.


From there the movie dumps us on the set, which seems modeled on the production of Apocalypse Now as depicted in the documentary Hearts of Darkness. Steve Coogan (A Cock and Bull Story, 24 Hour Party People, Hamlet 2) plays director Damien Cockburn, who can’t wrangle his 3 bad boy actors and is risking losing the production. After an argument that messes up an expensive explosion scene, he gets chewed out on a video conference by hirsute, intense producer Les Grossman, played by Tom Cruise in a fat suit. I’m sure there will be comparisons to the last time Cruise tried acting in Magnolia, but I found this the most distracting part of the film. I’m sure he took the role to draw attention away from his psychotic outings on youtube and show him as a self-effacing guy who doesn’t think he can fly or cure you with B-12, but it doesn’t really ring true, and the joke wears thin very quickly, especially when they try to play it up by having him dance whenever a joke deflates.

“So this is what extra body thetans feel like”

Thankfully the rest of the cast picks up the slack. Director Cockburn (hurrrr) is at the end of his rope when the author of the book his movie is based on, Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte) takes him aside with a proposition- drag these prima donnas out to the jungle, and have Cody the one-eared pyrotechnician (Danny McBride, Pineapple Express, Hot Rod) play some pranks on them so they get a taste for what it’s like to shit your pants in the jungle. It’s too bad Nolte couldn’t smack some acting chops into Cruise, because he’s pitch perfect here. It’s not much of a stretch for him to play the Scary Vietnam Vet, a role he mastered way back in Who’ll Stop the Rain, but when things fall apart, we see nuances to the character that amp up the comedic energy exponentially. He really adds something to every scene he’s in.

Once they’re in the jungle everything goes pear-shaped, and they have to try to survive. Robert Downey Jr. steals the show, refusing to break character “until the DVD commentary,” and trying to grab the reins from “the Tugger,” who expectedly refuses to believe that it’s not still being filmed, and that everything’s okay. Stiller playing someone stupider than Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin’s love child isn’t anything new, but thankfully the other characters play off him well, and also reduce his screen time. Jack Black manages to come up with a new character to play, as fart-boy Portnoy starts getting withdrawal symptoms. It was quite refreshing to see JB slip into a gruff fat GI character and then become a trembling addict, without doing any of his trademark wild-eyed manic persona. The big surprise was from Brandon T. Jackson as the rapper- he plays the straight man most of the time, but fits right in among the 3 big stars and doesn’t get lost, unlike Jay Baruchel (Knocked Up, Almost Famous) who’s good, but sort of melds into the background scenery.

From Iron Man to cast iron

They bumble their way into a heroin processing plant, and have to fight their way out- with blanks, mind you. We’re never expected to believe it’s realistic, and when it gets over the top ridiculous, Stiller wisely makes it just absurd enough that we’re laughing and don’t care. There’s a great gag on the action movie cliche of the little kid who befriends the hero that takes a long time to pay off, but when it does, I hope you don’t have to pee. You’re likely to do it in your 128oz. Medium soft drink cup. There’s a side plot with Tugg Speedman’s agent (Matthew McConaughey) that seems poised to sink the picture with unnecessary drama, and that gets torpedoed with a great gag too. The screenplay, penned by Stiller, Justin Theroux (The Baxter, Mulholland Dr.) and Etan Cohen– not Ethan Cohen– manages to avoid being episodic and the expected cliches. It also lets the actors infuse their roles with enough character that we never think they’re just delivering jokes.

Only slightly less embarrassing than Envy

There’s an apparent controversy over the use of the word “retard” in this movie. While it is certainly a hurtful word to call someone with a learning or mental disability, here it serves another purpose- skewering the Hollywood Oscar train for anyone who portrays a mentally challenged person on screen.  The joke here is that Tugg Speedman tried to be taken seriously by starring in a movie called Simple Jack that parodies these Hollywood feelgood movies and fails, but it keeps coming back to haunt him. If people want to protest, why not picket the next movie where Sean Penn gets the part instead of Chris Burke (Corky from “Life Goes On”). According to his IMDb resume he can use some work right about now. And even he calls himself retarded!

People said I could never become an actor because I’m retarded. It goes to show you that anyone can make their dreams a reality… unless they’re brain dead.

I worked with “Special Young Adults” in high school as part of community service– no, not for carrying a bushel of knives to school, either– and I think Stiller did a great job mocking the Hollywood cliche, and was not making the joke at the expense of the mentally handicapped.

Anyway enough about this controversy. Tropic Thunder may be a bit overhyped but it’s a refreshing big-budget comedy where Hollywood pokes fun at their own. Of course it falls flat when they try to mock the money men- after all, a bunch of Les Grossmans probably financed this. I hope Cruise sends a royalty check to Saul Rubinek, who played the hyperactive asshole producer to perfection in True Romance, and was so funny he didn’t need to dance to get laughs. If Cruise ever puts down the cock and the e-meter, we might see him act again- if he gets away from his handlers.

Rescue Dawn and Little Dieter Needs to Fly

Werner Herzog is a fucking animal. He makes a movie every year practically, from art house classics to gripping documentaries, and now he’s taking on Hollywood at its own game, with Rescue Dawn, and an upcoming remake of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant with Nicholas Cage. Part of me thinks that will be like The Wicker Man remake, but if anyone can beat a performance out of an actor, it’s Herzog. He kept a gun on set when working with Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, the Wrath of God to keep him under control.

When he’s not making movies, he’s been known to save people like Joaquin Phoenix from car crashes.
Probably best known for his documentary Grizzly Man, Herzog has made literally dozens of films over his career. In the beginning he worked with a stolen camera, the ultimate in rogue filmmaking. By the time Grizzly Man came along he had his own cameras, but the energy and spirit he manages to capture on film has not changed. He has always been interested in obsessed individuals, and Timothy Treadwell, the guy who walked up to wild grizzly bears, was definitely one of them.

Another, more heroic figure is that of Dieter Dengler. He was a pilot in the early days of the Vietnam conflict, was shot down on a raid, and was held as a prisoner of war for many months. Rescue Dawn, starring Christian Bale as Dieter, dramatizes his account as a pilot, prisoner, and how he escaped and survived in the jungle for 23 days before being rescued. It’s a very naturalistic movie and feels like an old war movie at some times, and brutally realistic at others. Shortly after his plane is shot down, he is captured in Laos and dragged to a prison camp, with a few other U.S. and Thai soldiers. He is tortured with bamboo splinters, beatings, and submerged in a well up to his neck; overnight he and his fellow prisoners are shackled by the ankles.

Holy shit Steve Zahn can act!

Steve Zahn is one of his fellow P.O.W.s and gives a stunning performance as a broken-down man. Bale on the other hand does a fine job playing Dengler, a man who grew up in post-war Germany scrounging for scraps, so he has undergone suffering before. He’s steeled to it, and keeps the men in good morale by planning their escape. He ingeniously builds a lockpick out of a shell casing, and dries and stores rice in a hollowed-out bottom of his shit-can; he was a tool and die maker before he joined the Air Force, and has a way with metals. It takes months for his plan to come to fruition, and nothing goes as planned; he and Zahn end up on their own, with a single tennis shoe to protect their feet from the jungle floor.

This is no Missing in Action or Rambo 2, and when they do escape, it is by the skin of their teeth. When Dengler was rescued, he weighed a mere 85 pounds. Bale doesn’t pare down to that extreme weight like he did for The Machinist, but does look like a man fighting for his life in the jungle. The story is exciting and realistic, and beautifully filmed. Herzog has always had an artist’s eye for composure and presenting nature in all its terrible beauty, and the jungles of Indochina are the perfect palette for him.

I’d do it all again for a currywurst

If you pair the film with the 75-minute documentary he made prior to dramatizing the story, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, you get the story behind the man who seems always too cheerful to be in a prison camp. He stockpiles huge amounts of dry goods after his starved childhood and time as a P.O.W., and talks about how we take simple thinks like an unlocked door for granted. As a child he saw a bomber pilot, and resolved to fly planes. In Germany after the war this was impossible. He tells us of how his mother would cook wallpaper for the nutrients in the glue, things were so dire. He remembers the first time he saw a sausage for sale in a shop, and how no one he knew could afford it.

Nice to see you guys again

His dream of flight eventually brought him to America, where he joined the Air Force. His dream of flight has led him to join the very army that bombed him as a child; that’s the kind of drive that makes Herzog make a documentary about you. He brings him back to the jungle so he can re-enact some of his capture and escape with the Pathet Lao, and you can see that Rescue Dawn sticks very closely to the facts. It really should come in a two-pack. After his escape, he became a test pilot and survived 4 crashes. Like the movie says, Death didn’t want him. He passed away in 2001 of Lou Gehrig’s disease, and is interred at Arlington Cemetery.

Rest in peace, Dieter.