Laughing to keep from crying

Carl Hiaasen practices rage humor.

Carl Hiaasen

He’s so angry — over the environment, greed, political imbeciles, and general assholery.

Yet instead of standing on a mountaintop to spew screeds about injustice, he uses humor to craft magnificently twisted tales in which the bad guys get what they deserve. (Besides, there are no mountaintops in Florida.)

He makes us laugh as he eviscerates the unjust. I just finished his latest, Squeeze Me, and in the modern landscape, there is much that angers Hiaasen.

I’ll give nothing away, but a lot of the action takes place at the Florida estate of the President of the United States. He’s a rotund toupee-wearing blowhard referred to only by his Secret Service name, Mastodon.

It’s a wonderful book. A couple of times, I had to close the book and sit and laugh for a moment. I had a chuckle every other page or so.

But as I was reading — and laughing — all I could think about was the righteous anger underneath. I’ve read all of Carl’s novels and they are without exception excellent books. I marvel at his word choice and the music of his language.

What a great, distinctive voice.

His writing is masterful and his passion is there, the foundation underneath the humor. I’ve always been fond of Double Whammy and Native Tongue and Lucky You. But hell, I love all of his novels. I can’t think of one that wasn’t simultaneously funny and thought provoking. You rarely find someone who can succeed on both of those platforms.

He’s deft, this Hiaasen fellow.

Every now and then, I recall Native Tongue, which is about a corrupt South Florida theme park called the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills. Every afternoon at 3, the park watches a parade called the Pageant of Florida History, featuring tributes to wastewater and break-dancing migrant workers. I’ve broken out in random laughter on the subway when that crosses my mind. (Usually my fellow passengers scoot away from me when this happens.)

But this new book — Squeeze Me — may be his best work. It so well reflects our time, set as it is in the post-Covid-19 world. Carl has us laughing just to keep us from crying.

It’s funny. When someone is a social critic, those on the far right think they’re unpatriotic or anti-American. Seems to me the critics are the ones who love their country long after a weaker soul would have given up on the enterprise.

Carl’s so angry about the maggots destroying the environment and our system of democratic government. That anger inspires him to make us see, through laughter, the lurking tragedy. When I think of what’s behind the anger, I recall John Lee Hooker, who sang, “It’s in him and it’s got to come out.”

Lucky for us, he channels his Wagnerian rage into his novels. Rarely has fury been so funny.

I hope he’s OK, though. This book makes me wish I could buy him a bowl of soup.

Going off the cliff

 

Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis

If anything good has come out of our culture in the last 18 months, maybe it’s that us Clueless White Guys are beginning to understand the problem.

To many of us, the election of the Pussygrabber in Chief was like sticking our heads in a sink full of ice cubes. And not long before that, there was that viral video showing a woman walking around the Five Boroughs getting catcalled by everything male.

As a Clueless White Guy, I’ve got to tell you how much those two events affected me. When I saw the catcalling video, I asked my adult daughters if that’s really what it was like to be a woman. Yes, they said, and worse.

And then that vile, groping guy got elected president.

This is all heavy on my mind as I read Becky Aikman’s new book, Off the Cliff. Aikman tells the story of the making of Thelma & Louise, and all of the behind-the-scenes battles to get the story on screen.  The story of two renegades from sexual oppression and violence, it was the work of Callie Khouri, who became the first woman in 60 years to win a solo Oscar for screenwriting.

Since the film became such a touchstone of popular culture – 25 years ago now! – it might come as a surprise to Clueless White Guys what a struggle it was to make.

The lead roles were played by women! That’s as rare as frost on a frying pan! A story about women — note plural — that did not cast them in the standard roles of “mom” or “hooker” (or perhaps both at once).

The script was by a woman! Great mother of jabbering Jesus! Since when does that stuff happen?

And, of course, the director was the guy who made Alien. Yes! This makes perfect sense!

Off the Cliff doesn’t tell a story that merely pits women against men. The director, Ridley Scott, is as much of a horndog as the rest of us, but he is drawn to the story and making Thelma & Louise was his education and consciousness raising.

Studio head Alan Ladd Jr. also pushed the film, and we learn how he was the rare executive to move into production films with strong female leads. It was Laddie (as he was called), who suggested to director Scott during that earlier collaboration on Alien, “Say, why don’t we make a woman be the hero?”

Sigourney Weaver, here is your career.

The two stars of the film, Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, were not the first choices. It was going to be Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer. Then it was Meryl and Goldie.

Becky Aikman

Sarandon is the hero of the book, both for her principled character as an actor and in the role she played, but also as a mentor to younger artists such as Geena Davis and … well, and nearly everyone else she comes across. She understands the characters and knows the power of the story. And she stands up for Davis when she catches the slightest whiff of exploitation.

And who better than Susan Sarandon to be charged with consciousness raising?

(Offscreen tidbit: George Clooney was turned down for the role that Brad Pitt got. This is the film that made Pitt into a star. Would the cosmos have evolved differently if Clooney had gotten the part? Discuss.)

There are a lot of great making-of-the-film books out there, dating from Lillian Ross’s magnificent Picture (about John Huston’s struggle to make The Red Badge of Courage in 1952). Later entries included John Gregory Dunne’s The Studio (about the horrifying Rex Harrison version of Doctor Doolittle), and Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy (about turning The Bonfire of the Vanities into a film).

Aikman’s book is one of the best of the making-of subgenre and certainly one of the best books about filmmaking since Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.

But Off the Cliff is not just a book about making a movie. It’s about the culture that so devalues the contributions of the majority of its citizens. Aikman doesn’t preach; she doesn’t need to. The story is up on the screen.