Category Archives: Cinderella Man

Cinderella Man

I guess it makes sense to ring in the new year with a poem about Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man, the story of boxing legend James J. Braddock’s comeback after the Great Depression nearly tore his family apart, when the economic pressure to fight in spite of a disqualifying injury got him suspended from the ring. Starring Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger and Paul Giamatti, this is one of my (and Bagehot’s!) favorite films of all time, even though I’ve never followed boxing (or boxing movies). I also love the soundtrack, by Thomas Newman, which has a track named after a line in the movie – “All Prayed Out.”

This poem, based on the 39th Psalm, is inspired by a tear-jerker of a scene in which the suspended and still-injured Braddock revisits the boxing club to ask for loose change, after having already signed on for unemployment relief, in order to get the heat turned back on and buy food for the kids. Braddock had been a rising star in boxing before the Depression, making enough money to own a cab company and provide a middle-class life for his family, so it’s jarring for the people who knew him then to see him now. Jarring for him, too.

The screencap above is from an earlier scene in the movie. Just as he had to hide his injury to fight, he has to conceal his injury to get work at the docks now that boxing isn’t an option any more. His wife Mae, played by Renee Zellweger, hides the cast with shoe polish.

I thought, “Today I will hold my peace instead.
I should not give voice in my prayers to anger
as long as my family’s hardships swell my throat.”
I said nothing – waited in silence, prayed out.
I kept still, while my children went hungry, cold,
punished by the pain in my useless right hand.
My heart rose, on fire, in my throat that night.
In my private thoughts a thousand questions burned.
I confided in my wife I did not know
where we would end another winter ourselves
or how much longer we could keep the children.
You can see how fleeting a man’s success is.
Listen, we built what I had together here,
and I would have been nothing if not for you.
We’re each and all a breath away from ruin.
The long shadow of want has touched all of you.
To murmur under one’s breath for help – men work
without knowing day to day how they will eat.
I came here last, expecting little; I need
your help to turn the heat back on, and buy milk.
Your generosity is all I can ask.
Don’t turn me back without what I need in scorn.
I said nothing before, when you laid me off,
for it was your right and your own decision.
But do not punish me for fighting injured,
not today – my family needed me that night.
You rebuked me then and you chastise me now,
when all that I built here has melted away.
All I have left is the strength to ask for help.
Hear me out, for the sake of our past; this once,
help me find the means to keep my children warm,
do not turn aside from my embarrassment.
For we have done great things here, earning laurels,
and each of us made our start here in his turn.
But look away for me – I must catch my breath
before I leave. Outside these walls, I’m no one.

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Filed under Cinderella Man, Poetry

Kin and country, work and love

What is it with Hollywood and reluctant heroes? I’ve taken one stab at giving them a pedigree, but Schiller’s relatively obscure legacy can only be a partial explanation. As much as Russell Crowe wants to distinguish Maximus from iconic action heroes like the cop in the Die Hard franchise, both characters spend their illustrious careers killing bad guys secretly dreaming of a modest retirement, utterly unambitious in their work despite self-evident talent of a superhero caliber. Would it be worth it to save the world from terrorists if said terrorists hadn’t kidnapped your daughter? Maybe, but only if you happen to be on duty when the shit hits the fan and no one else is available. And therein lies my next angle on reluctant heroes – they’re our family men.

Maximus is trusted by Marcus Aurelius above all men because his excellence as a general doesn’t compromise his commitment to his family with ambition. But if he had put his family first he would not have risked all to honor the dead Emperor’s last wishes for a legacy greater than his conquests. Quintus may have justified his loyalty to the usurper on his commitment to his own family’s safety. Maximus can only offer his family vengeance and impatience to join them in the afterlife. But in her moral philosophy of public life, Jane Jacobs warns against privileging the domestic sphere as more naturally virtuous than public life, or treating the family as an island that can endure in a social milieu where corruption in public life makes it dangerous to trust strangers. Without recourse to justice outside the home, families can be destroyed from within with brutal efficiency.

Not all trade-offs between public duties and private commitments are tragic conflicts. But how often does the gifted artist find balance, when it is so commonplace for the skilled worker to undervalue his own family’s needs out of love of his work for its own sake? Einstein, the iconic genius, was no family man. The alternatives are laid out starkly in Cinderella Man and American Gangster. Jim Braddock faces the world championship with milk money in mind, and Richie Roberts dodges weekends with his son to chase criminals in a city so corrupt his efforts seem futile. Richie is the genius who will beat the odds and single-handedly clean up the NYC drug enforcement police force, against seemingly impossible odds. Jim Braddock is the man we want our children to look up to instead.

I came across an interesting generalization in a textbook on corruption research, “Cultural and social factors are related to a country’s level of corruption; in particular, when family ties are very important, reported corruption is high” (Rose-Ackerman 2006). So it’s not just Sicilian families, then? The more assiduously we provide for our own, the less ground we will give for the public interest, I suppose. Frank Lucas is a family man, exploiting the strength of family ties in his crime organization in the Sicilian fashion, but showing his kin genuine consideration at the same time.

The tension between public life and the security of the household is embedded in the political liberal’s defense of personal privacy and the political conservative’s defense of domestic prerogatives to self-government. Every polity has ideas about how families should work, and every political minority takes refuge in the home when its values are under assault. So there is room for muddying the topic of corruption in with political dissent. If for its own purposes Hollywood is politically cosmopolitan, expecting generic heroes to serve humanity rather than region, country, race or sect, the family is the protagonist’s refuge from overextension, a tribal unit where his identity means something, and not just everyone can make equal demands on him for help. If he’s written too generic, then like the hero in Red he might find retirement a little empty, but sometimes we concede that being the ultimate badass comes at a price, an achievement made possible by love of work to the exclusion of the rest life has to offer.

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Filed under Acting, American Gangster, Cinderella Man, Gladiator, Systems of Survival

“From the inside out”

I’ve mentioned Elaine Scarry’s literary account of pain before, and I’d like to go into it further to talk about the violence in Cinderella Man. She sees pain and imagining as opposite poles on the spectrum of mental experience, one a passive, receptive and aversive state of consciousness, the other active, inventive and free to transform our lived experience into a realm of limitless possibility for supernatural consolations and rewards. In between these poles are the simple verb-object sensations, feelings cognizant of something, as almost all somatic states (she names “hatred for, seeing of, being hungry for”) are mental states that are necessarily referential, whereas pain is without a referent, and the imagination cannot be experienced independently of its referents, in the sense that we cannot imagine in vain for any referent (e.g., don’t think of a pink elephant). For this reason her account of pain is also an account of culture, because to her mind our pain is answered by our imagination, and out of imagining the flowering of culture gives rise to artifacts that mend and succor every cause of suffering. At the same time, the silencing power of pain as a state of consciousness inspires our use of weapons to govern allegiances and convictions with incontrovertible expressions of power, and she dwells at length on the significance of torture as an instrument of oppression that subjugates the victim’s conscience.

I admire her effort to give an account of violence that has depth and complexity, because she can readily show that pain is an especially slippery subject, one we are prone to oversimplify if not discount altogether, in part because it is so difficult to objectify. The topics I tried to capture in my poem about Dan Evans in 3:10 to Yuma are enumerated in a passage in which she reveals how many ways we have of silencing the pain of others in our own minds. (1) Pain is a negation, a feeling of “against” that defies the person experiencing it to have any other psychological characteristics or content, a feeling that the body is become alien to the self, that “other” is intruding onto the body and an “enemy” force has been internalized, violating the self’s integrity and making expression of pain a self-betrayal that admits the “enemy” within; by its very nature pain is deniable and to admit to pain is a corruption of the will to resist defeat. (2) Pain’s internal location creates an illusion of self-agency, implicating one’s own body in the cause of suffering; yet a healthy and whole body is not in pain, hence pain is by definition external in origin; the paradox is totalizing – to resist a force that is at once internal and external is futile, and the only recourse from pain is to deny it any expression. (3) Pain is obscenely humiliating, because it conflates the privacy of felt-experience with the utterly public experience of disability, handicap or punishment; hence the sufferer may be exposed but his suffering is not a shared experience felt by observers. (4) Pain destroys the sufferer’s capacity for language, first by monopolizing language in desperate complaint, then by overwhelming the psyche to the point that it is no longer verbally articulate. (5) Pain is blinding and empties consciousness of all else, so that what speech can be managed has no meaning for the sufferer. (6) Pain is totalizing, a distraction from both the self and the environment, a narrow felt-experience that invades the perceived environment and permeates the body until every object in the inhabited room and every part of the sentient body feels like an instrument of wounding; and finally. (7) Pain is unreal to others because it resists objectification, so that the undeniably real experience of the sufferer can readily be categorically denied by anyone else, doubling the aversiveness of hurt with the psychological aversiveness of negation and rejection, lack of acknowledgement and refusal to be recognized. This is especially true of chronic pain, for we are no sooner made aware of it than we urge the sufferer to seek distraction; here the instinctive recourse to imagination, and also the belief that pain is not objectively real, if the imagination can remove our attention from it at will (a passage in the TOFOG song Danielle belies this dogma that distraction is a cure-all, “Forgettin’s only temporary / In the middle of nothing / My eyes get weary I feel like crying”).

But the scope of her book is much broader than acute or chronic pain, drawing subtler examples of embodied cognizance from The Old Testament and Karl Marx, talking for instance about the sun striking Rebecca’s eyes in the field, or describing labor as a controlled discomfort that realizes the ambitions of the creative imagination by bringing artifacts into the world that serve our comfort and convenience. These less distressing sensations have the same privacy, the same existential subjectivity, interrupting the continuity of sentience with the body’s utterances. In another book, Resisting Representation, she remarks on how unusual depictions of repetitive work and its aversive qualities of boredom and physical strain are in art and literature, as though these parts of our lives were mindless and uneventful, never coming up in our stories about ourselves. We do, however, have ways of making sense of our more embodied moments. I like how Australian poet John Forbes describes them as “diaries of pure sensation,” those stranger parts of our lives that are not quite shareable.

“Flexed suddenly the muscles of the stomach
can make the joints in the back of your neck
go ‘crack’. This clears the room for you,
the way these diaries of pure sensation
balance your responses against how you think
you will respond, leaving a margin of wind
for you to turn into.” – excerpted from Rolling in Money

Scarry sees productive work as a liberating discomfort, where any pains taken are an investment with rich returns. Comically, she goes on for pages about how much more relief a pregnant woman would enjoy if a sympathetic man built her a chair, as opposed to perhaps distracting her from lower back pain with an expressive dance about his sympathetic pain. An object made by hand, like a lever, is expected to reciprocate disembodying relief from the problems of sentience in excess of the effort expended to create it, to exceed the power of work to distract from those problems, and to exceed the duration of this distraction in utility over time. This excess of reciprocation can be appropriated by someone other than the maker of the artifact, but this vulnerability to appropriation gives the maker another advantage – the power to exchange it for something else. On the other hand, the investment of labor in creation may fall short of these attainments if the artifact is a failure, or the fruits of one’s labor can be appropriated with minimal compensation for the work, if tools can be alienated from their users in the form of physical industrial capital.

This must seem like an odd approach to blogging about a boxing movie, but what struck me most about the movie the first time I saw Cinderella Man was the intensity of the violence, and the physical cost of desperate poverty on Jim’s family, in hunger, cold, sickness, separation, humiliation and constant fear. And in the boxing ring, winning meant beating his opponents “from the inside out,” getting inside their heads in a battle of wills that tested his imagination, his ability to confront his opponents with a vision of his own unlikely victory. I didn’t know his story, didn’t believe he could win, so that first time watching the movie was a harrowing experience. The boxing scenes are so cinematically executed, the acting in them so expressive, the camera work so dynamic, I felt the blows without any experience or sympathy for the sport. To be fighting so badly injured, so much of the pain invisible, makes suffering in silence a theme of the movie for me, particularly because of the theme song’s treatment of militated optimism as a toxic oppression in a time of economic despair. At the same time, Jim’s ability not to be destroyed inside by anger or pain is so central to his heroism, it seems to explain why his story has stayed with us as a uniquely inspirational family drama. It shows in a larger than life way how our modest victories over pain, even those that are only temporary distractions, are a special source of dignity in our lives. At their most flimsy, they are evidence of the unlimited powers of the imagination, and when more concrete, they show readily how our inventive imagination invades the real world through our works.

Returning to the poem by John Forbes,

“…the rise &
fall of your chest arches over the day-to-day
posture you impose / on appearing as you are
– that is, not really knowing you’re alive
until the air touches more than your idea of
its following you around. Instead you are
in the wake of the air, preceding your first
impressions: delicate & quick, but here left
out of things, like a law of karma that will
never improve you. Just as a dead calm will
never delay the Owl & the Pussycat in their
beautiful pea-green boat, so you will continue
breathing like a sail & the comic loot from
this effect piles up on the deck, lots of money &
plenty of honey, wrapped up in a five-pound note.”

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Filed under 3:10 to Yuma, Acting, Cinderella Man, Poetry

Systems of Survival

I brought up Systems of Survival in my last blog and mentioned I wanted to return to the ideas in this book and go into them at length. The author is Jane Jacobs, a very creative thinker but fairly obscure as intellectuals go, known mostly for her work in urban planning. The topic is ambitious – she has gone through journalistic and archival records of public life cutting across historical epochs and continents to try and abstract moral principles operating in public discourse that transcend human history and culture. What’s the use of taking all this out of context? Well, she quickly hit upon vital applications in the study of political corruption and crime, topics you can think of as timely or timeless, on which moral philosophy has heretofore shed little light.

Although her non-Western sources are usually presented through a Western analytical lens (ancient history or anthropology), it is tempting to give her credit for having transcended these limitations with a natural history of human civilization that doesn’t flatter present circumstances as the best of all possible worlds. Her abstract principles are compellingly simple and her approach to organizing them into systems is at once easy to support with empirical examples and theoretically coherent. So rather than worry too much about her idea’s pedigree, I’m running with it as a tool for studying motivation, organizational behavior and corruption.

Her idea is that in public life, there are two possible codes of conduct that are internally valid but diametrically opposed to one another, and civilization needs adherents to each to play different roles for which their different values are uniquely suited. I liked this at once, because I enjoy dissecting false controversies and I think one of the main reasons Americans look for post-partisan candidates is that we see false controversy in the very way our bipartisan system is organized. Strikingly enough, her two moral codes of conduct fall out along the same fault lines as the Democratic and Republican parties in U.S. politics. One moral code of conduct is for commerce, the other for governance. She calls the second category of roles “guardian work” because it encompasses the military and police, but administrative and regulatory watchdog work that is in the public interest (rather than providing services from the private sector) belong in the same category.

I’ve illustrated her two lists with examples from Russell Crowe’s filmography to show how closely they correspond to the professions of the characters he plays. For me the correspondence between the ideas in the book and the values in these movies is fascinating and encouraging. I think movies are fertile territory for illustrating this sort of theory, because of the plurality of perspective so common in film. You can see characters from different walks of life interacting on their own terms, and have a sense of each person’s perspective in the same scene even if they disagree. Of course, we know Russell Crowe best for playing “guardian” types, muscular and adventurous, but Cinderella Man is an interesting exception. For Jim Braddock, boxing is a professional sport and his adversaries aren’t supposed to be trying to kill him. Work isn’t supposed to be dangerous, and outside the boxing ring he shuns force and puts the utmost importance on abiding by voluntary agreements rather than simply taking what you can for yourself.

The first thing you might notice about these lists is that they seem incomplete. Universal virtues appear on neither list, though Jane Jacobs can think of many: cooperation, courage, moderation, mercy, common sense, foresight, judgment, competence, perseverance, faith, energy, patience, wisdom. No one disputes these virtues, whereas adherents to the moral code of commerce hold values diametrically opposed to those of adherents to the guardian code of conduct. It is the values that have twinned opposites that distinguish these ways of life from each other and function interdependently with the other values within the same code.

She recounts being surprised to discover a variant on her own idea in Plato’s writings, and notes how adamant Plato was that each citizen must mind his own work and not try to do anyone else’s, in support of her claim that corruption occurs when people mix and match values from both codes and combine roles. She points out that the British navy was set up with a merchant fleet that merchants did not wish to operate themselves, because of the temptation to use warships to raid one another’s trade ships if they were responsible for their own protection from piracy, fearing anarchy would make the seas un-navigable if trading vessels were armed. In the drug trade this is a constant threat, because drug dealers are quick to resort to violence.

She does point out that there are jobs in civilization that mingle the priorities of governance and commerce, inevitably as without guardian enforcement of contract rights or fraud liabilities, commerce would be an unreliable way of life. The darker side of collusion between governance and commerce is illustrated in the colonial history that prefigured what we now call globalization. I used a graph to illustrate these overlapping responsibilities and undertakings, and used the axes to underscore the basic functions and modus operandi of each code of conduct. Jane Jacobs argues that in many managerial and administrative jobs, one must wear two hats, one at a time, adhering to the code of conduct appropriate to the task at hand. These are delicate responsibilities, easily mishandled. The corporate confidentiality agreement among tobacco executives in The Insider is an example, ethical when it protects trade secrets, unethical when it conceals knowledge of fraudulent public statements or practices like adulteration. The Brown & Williamson lawsuit against Jeffrey Wigand for violating his confidentiality agreement was not upheld in court because the expectation that he withhold knowledge of corporate malfeasance was unethical. The U.S. government is less understanding of whistleblowers within the guardian services, treating Wikileaks as treason instead. But this hypersensitivity to betrayal of government secrets is closely linked to the edict “shun trading,” which for a public official means not selling out the public interest, not selling military secrets to the enemy, and not subverting one’s professional responsibilities for bribes.

I doubt I’ve said enough to be clear yet, you should really read the book. But I’ll keep drawing examples from movies as I think of them, to try and show how her ideas work. So far my favorite examples are Master and Commander for guardian/governance values, and Cinderella Man for commercial/professional values. I pulled a picture from the scene where Jim takes his son to the butchers to return the salami because it underscores the importance of not taking what you need without paying for it in a voluntary transaction. In Master and Commander, in contrast, the crew speculate that if they take the Acheron as a prize, they’ll enjoy shares of her stolen loot. Thus far, the basic taking/trading distinction.

The importance of luxuries like rum and music on the HMS Surprise is part of the guardian way of life, dangerous at times but taking some of its core values from hunter/gatherer lifestyles rich in leisure time and creative arts. Jane Jacobs speculates that one reason hunter/gatherers cultivated skills in art and other leisure activities was to keep their predations on the game animals sustainable. The introduction of fur trade in the Americas subverted this conservation ethic and created incentives to maximize kills and waste meat in favor of pelts. Rum also functions as largesse, dispensed by the powerful to placate subordinates expected to abide by a rigid hierarchy with few rewards at the bottom of the pecking order. Hierarchy and discipline are explicit themes in the script, along with cunning, prowess, fortitude and tradition.

State largesse comes into play in Cinderella Man when Jim goes on welfare, and as such it is help he is reluctant to accept. He would not expect charity without obligations from peers, and it hurts his pride as an equal among other ordinary citizens to go to the welfare office. His friend Mike dismisses FDR’s reforms as politically motivated and not a redress of what had been taken from families like theirs. Jim repays the welfare office as soon as he’s able as if it had been a loan, like the cash assistance he asked for at Madison Square Garden, which he also repaid. As a professional boxer and wage laborer, he’s uncomfortable taking something for nothing even when his family is in need, impatient to return the welfare money even when his family’s future is still precarious. It’s a matter of keeping true to his own way of life, which has no part in governance, although he respects the need for the government to step up in a national emergency.

I’ll refer back to this account of the core concepts in Systems of Survival later, so I hope it’s adequate since you probably won’t have time to read the book. I have a lot of ideas about how to apply this theory of corruption and public life to the analysis of other movies, and I’ll bring in more material from the book as I go along. Hopefully I’m not the only one eager to see how far her ideas pan out. I think I can use them to study corruption in hospitals, since my work is in public health, so I have a great deal of interest in the details of her theory.

For now I’ll leave you with a quote from her book, about elementary school children evincing guardian virtues without coaching, lifted from John Holt: “Ten is a heroic age for most kids. They remind me in many ways of the Homeric Greeks. They are quarrelsome and combative; they have a strong and touchy sense of honor; they believe that every affront must be repaid, and with interest; they are fiercely loyal to their friends, even though they may change friends often; they have little sense of fair play, and greatly admire cunning and trickery; they are both highly possessive and very generous – no smallest trifle may be taken from them, but they are likely to give anything away if they feel so disposed.” Jane Jacobs thinks if Holt had watched the same children at a yard sale, they would have taken just as naturally to the commercial virtues, that all this is in human nature and flows naturally when the appropriate task is at hand.

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Filed under A Good Year, Acting, Cinderella Man, Corruption, Economics, False controversies, Gladiator, L.A. Confidential, Master and Commander, State of Play, Systems of Survival, The Insider