Redemption. Now there's something I could use a little of.
It's been one of those weeks, man. Like any red-blooded American boy who ever played in little league, I experienced emotions I never thought were there when I heard about the cancellation of the baseball season. It was without a doubt the hardest I ever had to struggle to stifle a yawn. I mean, I really thought I'd care, at least a tiny bit. After all, I'm from northeastern Ohio, and this year's performance by the Cleveland Indians A you know, the team so bad for so long that even Hollywood couldn't resist poking fun at them (in the two Major League films) A had given them the best shot at winning a pennant they'd had in my lifetime. At an age when most of my peers were happily progressing along the road to normal adulthood by experimenting with sex and drugs, I was bopping around the neighborhood with a transistor radio glued to my ear, hanging onto the play-by-play announcer's every word as he relayed the exploits of Fred "Wingy" Whitfield, "Sudden" Sam McDowell, and Leon "Daddy Wags" Wagner.
That's right, I was pathetic. So it came as quite a shock to hear the baseball season had been called off and to find that I really couldn't care less. Can you believe it? The thought of a few hundred pampered millionaires taking an early vacation failed to move me. The prospect of a cartel of greedy owners not squeezing any more milk from their cash cow evoked not one scintilla of sympathy. Imagine: If not for the Miami Dolphins and the Florida Panthers, Wayne Huizenga might be panhandling for pocket change at traffic lights along Dixie Highway with a hand-lettered sign hanging around his neck that reads "Help the Teamless."
I began to worry. Perhaps these many years of living the fast life of the professional movie critic have desensitized me. Perhaps I've become one of the Hollow Men, inured to all but the cheapest and most sensational of thrills. All around me people were moaning and gnashing their teeth. Grown men wept. (Grown women were another story.) A pall was cast over the editorial offices at New Times. The world of professional sports in general and baseball coverage in particular being the lifeblood of this publication, many of us were wondering if our paper would go under as well.
Something really big was happening, and I wasn't getting the point. So the world was spared another couple months of overpriced hot dogs, watered-down beer, and pearls of wisdom from Marge Schott. What was the big deal?
I felt the same way after sitting through The Shawshank Redemption, the distinguishing features of which appear to be its length (two and a half hours) and the fact that it was based on a short novel by Stephen King. Of course, since regular novels from Stephen King average 16,742 pages, I guess the fact that King's "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" came in at less than 10,000 qualifies it as a mere novella. The story, which appeared in his 1982 best seller Different Seasons (Rob Reiner's Stand by Me was adapted from "The Body," also part of the same collection), details the travails of a man who spends nearly twenty years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit (that's why they call it fiction A no one's ever guilty). By the time the final credits rolled on this tedious cinematic version, I felt as if I had served the time with him. Maybe leaving the theater was the redemption part.
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Just another prison movie, as far as I could tell. But afterward, in the lobby outside the preview screening I attended, it was if everyone else had seen a completely different movie than I had. Everybody was raving about what a fine picture it was, how entertaining and uplifting it was. Uplifting? A guy whose wife cheats on him with some sleazy golf pro spends twenty years in jail for a crime he didn't commit, undergoes regular beatings and gang-bangings from a trio of disgusting lifers, kisses the asses of his venal warden and barbarous guards, and crawls through 500 yards of raw sewage to break out only to end up in Mexico, for God's sake, where the living conditions are probably even worse -- how can anyone call that uplifting? I call that oppressive.
Admittedly, I'm not a Stephen King fan and have no intention of reading the book, so I can't tell you whether it's King or screenwriter-director Frank Darabont who's more responsible for this cheerless cliche fest. I don't want to sound too harsh, because The Shawshank Redemption is extremely well-acted and competently photographed. Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, and James Whitmore all rise above the material and make the whole affair watchable. But Shawshank essentially boils down to a compendium of every prison movie ever made. Break it down into its component parts, give the characters names and personality traits of people you know, and presto, you've got your very own easy-to-assemble prison-movie kit.
Here are the primary ingredients:
A) Cast of characters:
1. The wrongly convicted hero with an andomitable spirit
2. The corrupt warden
3. The sadistic guard
4. The sadistic fellow inmates
5. The loyal confidant inmate
6. The old inmate afraid of life on the outside
7. The comically stupid inmate
8. The too-likable-not-to-be-doomed inmate
B) Necessary scenes:
1. The opening shower scene
2. The guard-brutality scene
3. The cigarettes-for-favors scene
4. The rape scene
5. The solitary-confinement scene
6. The hero-nearly-cracks scene
7. The big escape
C) Necessary locations:
1. The laundry room
2. The "hole"
3. The industrial-looking room with all he pipes and steam
4. The "yard"
5. The cleverly concealed escape tunnel
There. You don't need to be Stephen King to make your very own prison flick. All you need is an 8mm camera with sound, a suitably gray setting, and a few friends as actors. You're on your way. Should you experience any difficulty rounding up guys with enough free time on their hands to play all the parts, try looking up a few baseball players. They don't have anything better to do right now.