Thursday, September 30, 2010

How Bruce Changes Styles Throughout Novel

As we discussed in class when we first started reading Escape from Alcatraz, Bruce began his novel with a style that led us to believe we would be reading an account of Frank Lee Morris’s escape attempt. However, after the first chapter, the story line took a turn toward the historical perspective of Alcatraz. We read about the history of the island from its discovery to various escape attempts. Somewhat suddenly at Chapter 15, Bruce begins in on his history of Morris and his relationship with his mother and Chapter 16 begins the telling of Morris’s time on Alcatraz. I thought this was a weird turn because I had almost forgotten about the suspense he had built up about Morris in Chapter 1. The account of his escape attempt spans two chapters and is very detailed; so detailed, in fact, that I almost prefer the historical accounts of the island in Chapter s 2-14 rather than the escape story.
Originally, I had wished for Bruce to go back to Morris’s story after reading Chapter 1, but during Chapters 15 and 16, I found myself wishing for the abridged version of the escape attempt. I think Bruce could have left out some of the more insignificant details and still managed to tell the story in its entirety. Also, I think the change in writing style throughout the novel is strange. During chapters 2-14, I feel Bruce writes mostly as though he is writing a historical novel. His account of Morris’s escape is not written from a historical perspective, but rather as a dramatic or thrilling fiction novel. The sudden change of styles struck me as incongruous and I think he should have stayed with one style.


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Focus on the Guards of Alcatraz

Much of what is known of Alcatraz as a prison relates to the prisoners it held. Common names one might associate with such an infamous place are “Mobster Al ‘Scarface’ Capone, ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, Robert Stroud” (back cover) and others. This narrow focus on the criminals overlooks the role of the guards on Alcatraz. They are just as important as the felons who lived there, they had to endure the same monotony and they had to overcome much of the same tensions.

Whereas earlier chapters in the book stress the emotional turmoil of the inmates, Chapter 14 provides a new focus on the guards, offering a greater insight into the emotional aspects of their occupation of Alcatraz. This section begins with the after-effects of the Battle of Alcatraz: enhanced security. The guards were trained to view every criminal as a potential threat, this puts them on a vigilant mental state, creating an atmosphere of tension and anxiety.

Also, prisoners enjoyed playing tricks on the officials, thus making their watch on Alcatraz more difficult. It is hard already to be in a place with the most feared criminals and having these men use them as entertainment makes it unbearable and apprehensive. For instance, inmates enjoyed making loud noises when it was completely silent just to scare the officers on duty. Similarly, some convicts would swear to others while looking at the guards. Sometimes a convict “could call you a sonofabitch without moving their lips”(126). These events highlight the hostility that many of the
officials had to tolerate.

The torment that the officials suffered was hinted at an earlier chapter, namely Chapter 9 where Gilmore assaulted Thelma Fleming simply for collecting flowers. This action along with the pressure caused by the inmates demonstrates that they also suffered mentally and emotionally on Alcatraz. The conditions were so terrible, that some quit and left, “Now and then a man would report for duty at eight thirty in the morning and take the noon boat back to the city. A half day, and he’s had it”(126).

Chapter 14 offers an insight into what circumstances were like for the officials living at Alcatraz. While earlier chapters concentrate on the negative treatment that the prisoners received, this segment concentrates on the harassment the guards received. This gives a more complete illustration of the state of mind of all the prison dwellers.


Thursday, September 23, 2010

To blame or not to blame?

Throughout Escape from Alcatraz, the reader is exposed to what life was like inside of Alcatraz as a prison. We are engaged in the experience through the perspectives of the prisoner and the authoritative figure(s). However, In Chapter 11, we are introduced to the murder trial of Henri Young. The defense: Alcatraz, not Henri Young, killed Rufus McCain. But who’s perspective should we trust? Who is to blame? The strict and intimidating authoritative figures or the outcasted and dangerous criminals?

We are completely aware that individuals that go against the societal norm are outcasted or punished. Individuals are sent to prisons for acts that they commit: robberies, kidnappings, murders, etc. The most notorious individuals were sent to Alcatraz. We come to learn that rules are strict at the prison. A few words could send you straight to the dungeon, on a mere starvation diet.

In chapter 7 we get an introduction to the monotony of prison life as a guard. One guard “wish[ed] to hell one of them bastards would stick his head up so [he] could take a pot shot at him” (57). An interesting aspect to this comment was that it was only a monotony of 8 hours. Yet, prisoners experience a much greater amount of monotony by doing the same work nearly everyday and on most occasions left to counting the minutes of the day.

In chapter 8, after the death of prisoner trying to escape a guard remarked: “Well, he’s a lot better off now where he is than where he was,” (66). This can be interpreted in two ways. Understandably, many people say this line when trying to accept the death of a close and loving individual. But in this case, it is a guard responding to a death of a prisoner. It’s very likely that this guard and prisoner weren’t close at all. To simply share a drop of sympathy for a prisoner makes the
reader imagine how life was on Alcatraz. What this statement seems to imply is that the guard is accepting the fact that Alcatraz was a harsh environment, even as a prison.

Throughout chapter 11 we hear from the prisoners saying that they endured harsh treatment, hollered for medical attention, beaten into unconsciousness, etc. Finally, a prisoner finishes with this statement: “You wonder how human beings could do that to human beings,” (82). Is it truly justified to treat human beings as harshly as these men were treated, even if they did commit an act against society? As a reader, we empathize for the prisoners for being treated so harshly. However, we are also left to believe that these men may be lying. It wouldn’t be the first time that these men go against society and try to get what they want. Youngs final comment is of particular interest as well. He wonders about the treatment of one human being to another. However, he was the one that murdered. So we are left to wonder, who is to blame? Alcatraz or Young for the murder of McCain?


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Residents of Alcatraz

For many residents of the Bay Area, Alcatraz has become a fixture in the landscape of their everyday lives, catching a glimpse of it through out the day. For some the island’s involvement in their life was more direct, acting as a place of residency, captivity or work.

When most people think of Alcatraz, they think of the penitentiary that housed some of the world’s most harden criminals, little did they know there were average American families living on the island. Many authors including Bruce, portray Alcatraz as a great place to raise a family. There were neighborhood parties and activities for the children, within yards of bank robbers, kidnappers and murders. Children grew up similar to those in the city, except on the island there were no play guns or knifes. The residents often bragged there was no need to lock the doors to their homes. Overall, Alcatraz seemed like a picturesque place to live.

The pleasure of being on Alcatraz was not the same for the prisoners. They were poorly treated and given little amenities. Not even allowed the simple pleasure of conversation, the monotony of daily life took a toll on the prisoners. Harsh treatment left little on their minds except how to end their suffering. Suicide and escape were the two main solutions to their pain. The trial of Alcatraz seemed to be the first time the prisoners’ civil liberties were a matter of importance.

Not the usual 9-5 job, those who worked at Alcatraz also experienced a drastic invasion of their lives. Alcatraz was an inescapable figure that altered who they were as a person. Acting like robots, the guards were trained extensively in combat and defense. They were not allowed to form any type of camaraderie with the prisoners or even have a friendly conversation. Their job was to up hold Alcatraz’s title as inescapable. Part of their occupation included being abusive to the prisoners, to keep them inline and as a form of punishment. Their barbaric behavior was a daily practice that seemed to alter how they treated civilians. An extreme example can be seen in chapter 10, when a guard, John Gilmore, attacked a woman picking flowers in the vacant lot next to his apartment. He claimed it was self-defense, however Gilmore out weighted the woman by nearly 100 pounds. The woman walked away bloody and bruised with chipped teeth, lacerations to her head, a swollen eye and 5 stitches. It seemed Gilmore’s actions were more substantial than the average definition of self defense. His acts speak more to the tone of a prison guard disciplining an unruly prisoner.

While Alcatraz was a positive experience for the families living on the island, it was a much different world for those men living and working within the cell blocks. The prisoners became demoralized. Experiencing daily monotony and brutality changed these men to the core of their being. The guards forgot how to behave like civilians. Daily exchanges turned into battery and assault. It is debatable whether or not any good came from the creation of Alcatraz as a federal penitentiary.


The Cover: Escape from Alcatraz

The cover of Escape from Alcatraz practically presents a novel when looked at alone. The cover is literally illuminated from corner to corner, including a variety of fonts, pictures, and colors. J. Campbell Bruce, author of Escape from Alcatraz, gives no credit to another author or artist for the cover work, leaving the reader to assume that he completed the masterpiece by himself. This does not come to a large surprise with the knowledge that he was also a featured writer for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Bruce’s job as a newspaper author most likely aided him in the task of creating his own book cover. Writer’s who work with highly distinguished newspapers possess great talent in reviewing evidence and searching through the core of every story. Journalists often work closely with editors and aid the photographers, or take the photos themselves, in order to represent the work they complete the exact way they wish. With this cover in particular, the editorial talent stands quite apparent.

The font captures the reader even from the first glimpse. Escape from Alcatraz are the largest words on the page, white lettering outlined in a black box. The smaller font surrounding the photographs begs for more attention than the title. The tiny words give some mystery and ironically at the same time insight into the depths of the novel. When taking a closer look, the reader finds that the fonts only explain a brief history of Alcatraz and the attempts made to escape “the rock” and do not pay any attention to the picture of the prisoner placed between the two blocks of wording. Next, the small cursive spreads hope to the reader that maybe it is the signature of the pictured prisoner, but no, it simply declares “U.S. Penitentiary.”

The set image of fingerprints draws a few interesting conclusions, although I am no expert, it looks to me that no two fingerprints match. This means that all fingerprints taken must come from ten distinct individuals, but gives no lead as to whom they might be. J. Campbell Bruce worked to create an intriguing cover title that would not go unnoticed to the readers. It presents so many intimacies that it could be quite possible to write a novel on the cover alone.


Monday, September 20, 2010

The Calculated Juxtaposition of Scenes in Escape From Alcatraz

In the first three chapters of J. Campbell Bruce’s novel Escape
from Alcatraz, the author uses a distinct juxtaposition between
the storyline of chapter one, and the storyline of chapter

In chapter one, after the introduction to distinct
characteristics of a mystery prisoner being transported to the
federal penitentiary at Alcatraz, the reader finally finds out
that his name is Frank Lee Morris. The last half dozen
paragraphs of the chapter center on the myriad possibilities of
escape from Alcatraz; imagined by the described “escape artist,”
Morris. Each possibility one by one is abolished by the
maximum-security nature of the setting. It’s somewhat comical
because arguably the most difficult way of escaping alive from
Alcatraz would be swimming to shore in the freezing cold waters
of the San Francisco Bay. This part of the escape is not
mentioned, and in italics it reads: “How in the name of God can
anyone possibly get out of here? (7)” The chapter ends with a
vow by Morris that he would find a way to escape Alcatraz.

In chapter three, the juxtapositions in description and
storyline are evident in Campbell Bruce’s writing. He used
Warden Johnston to contrast with the character of Morris as a
humanitarian and prime intellectual, instead of a criminal
mastermind. But, the most obvious contrast is the juxtaposition
of Morris’ thoughts of escape and Johnston’s ideas of a
maximum-security fortress with no chance of escape. Paragraph
after paragraph exemplified the shear impossibility of escape by
prisoners, and the elaborate nature of Alcatraz’s security under
the new Warden. The chapter ends in similar contrast to the
chapter one with the sentence: “‘It was made clear that the
prisoners, the most vicious and desperate in the country will
not escape from Alcatraz (21).” Campbell Bruce’s calculated
writing style is well done and exciting to read. The contrast
of characters and ideas enhance the reader’s imagination of what
is to come next.

Friday, September 17, 2010

HOWL at the Rialto Elmwood Theater 9/25!

Hi All:

Just a note to let you know that the directors of HOWL, the recent James Franco film about Ginsberg's obscenity trial, will do a Q & A with the audience after the 4:15 showing the film. For more info click on the link below!

Also, if you go, and you're interested in extra credit, then write up a short reflection/review of the movie that I'll post of the blog.


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Analysis of “A Supermarket in California”

The poem “A Supermarket in California” gives a synopsis of Ginsberg’s character as both a writer and a human being. As a writer, Ginsberg was known for being particularly outright and radical, speaking out against many of the traditions of American society in 1950s. But this poem also gives a view as Ginsberg as a normal person, literally depicting his trip to the grocery store. Throughout the piece, it goes inside Ginsberg’s admiration for Whitman as his role model, and how he wants to learn everything about him, and also touches on Ginsberg’s stance on homosexuality in those times.

A major component in all of Ginsberg’s pieces, including this one, was his outright stance on homosexuality. Aside from the fact that Walt Whitman was considered to be one of Ginsberg’s poetic models, he was also known to be homosexual. The same was suspected of Garcia Lorca, who, aside from Whitman, is the only other person referenced in this piece. By having called on several people of the same stance, it makes it appear as if homosexuality were to be common, or more normal, in those times. Ginsberg openly acknowledged his sexuality as he and Whitman are freely “eyeing the grocery boys” and the husbands in the aisles.

Walt Whitman was seen as very obscene and controversial poet for his time, which makes him fit to be Ginsberg’s poetic model. Ginsberg even referenced his adoration for Whitman when he admitted that he dreamt of Whitman just by touching his book. The whole poem is seen through the eyes of Ginsberg as he admiringly followed Whitman through the supermarket, doing all the same things that Whitman did. As he followed, Ginsberg played “detective” and tried to gain Whitman’s insight on every situation. While his adoration is understood, it borderlined inappropriate at times. For example, it was uncomfortable when Ginsberg offered to follow Whitman all night throughout the streets and back to their houses. It invites a closer view on Ginsberg’s inner workings, but sometimes went too far.

As radical as Ginsberg was in his poetry, he was not characterized as such in this piece. While he tried to make subtle stabs at capitalist America, such as going to the supermarket to “shop for images”, he and Whitman seemed more mundane than usual as they hardly stood out in this scene. They quietly milled throughout the grocery store, tasting foods and looking at whomever they please, but never spoke out like they do in their poetry. The rest of the poem remains the same as they went back to their quiet and lonely cottages, or walked through the solitary streets alone. The distinction between how Ginsberg acted in real life and how he did on paper is surprising, but can expected in the conformist times of 1950’s America.

Overall, “A Supermarket in California” invites readers to gain insight on Ginsberg’s actual life, apart from his life as a writer. It showed some of his thoughts and adorations for those wiser than him, but also stayed true to his radical stance on homosexuality and capitalist America.


The "Structure" of Ginsberg's Howl

I have analyzed the plays by Shakespeare. I have analyzed the poems by William Blake. But these were no comparison to the feelings I had after reading Ginsberg's "Howl". Indeed I was very puzzled. After looking up the many unfamiliar words in dictionary, I still could not translate the poem into my own language. Maybe it was a fruitless attempt after all. Who else could understand every word in every breadth other than Ginsberg himself? That being said, "Howl" is not an irrational poem. There is a logical structure behind the seemingly random sentences and words.

The poem is divided into three parts and a footnote, each holds a distinctive position in it. In the first part of the poem, every breath paints a desperate or even disturbing picture to the readers. While I was reading the poem, the images of the chaotic world in "Howl" vividly flashed through my mind like a slideshow. Drugs, alcohol, sex, suicides - Ginsberg almost touched every sensitive subjects in the society back in the 50's, some of which are still very sensitive now. Ginsberg depicted these lost souls as the innocent "Lambs" of the society. As he wrote, they are "the best minds" of his generation.

The second part of the poem introduces "Moloch" - a Biblical idol whom worshipers sacrificed children to. If part one depicts the people living in the society, part two depicts the society itself, which he named Moloch. Moloch is ""incomprehensible prison". Moloch is "pure machinery". Moloch is every unnatural and evil objects in Ginsberg's world.

The third part focuses on one of the "Lambs" he described in the first part - Carl Solomon. Ginsberg might have looked at the people he wrote about in part one with angry cold eyes. But there is definitely more sorrow and sympathy shown in the third part when he writes about his lover. In this part, words such as "hug", "kiss" and "tears" appear, casting a softer tone to the poem. Ginsberg repeats the phrase "I'm with you in Rockland" over and over again. Rockland is a psychiatric hospital where Ginsberg and Solomon met and formed an intimate bond. By repeating this phrase pushes the emotion to its peak.

The footnote can be seen as a prayer. The word "holy" makes up the refrain of this part. Suddenly everything is holy. It might be Ginsberg's wish that all the outcasts and lost lambs would be understood and accepted by the society, while all the evilness would be purified and forgave.

The four parts of the poem seem to be disconnected from each other. However, they are actually brilliantly tied together to the same theme. Being one of the most influential and controversial poems of America from the twentieth century, Ginsberg's bright howl successfully woke up everyone in the society at his time.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Diction of Moloch

Moloch depicts both the demon and the lover in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. To be honest, the diction surrounding this section of Moloch originally confused me to no end. After completing some research, I decided to leave Moloch as an accent of art in the poem. Moloch depicts the best and the worst, and the unset definition of it changes from person to person or situation to situation.

Moloch may be thought of as a demon in one religious but as a divinity in others, but where to the draw the line is something Ginsberg draws our attention to. Ginsberg groups stanzas of Moloch in contrasts of emotions, such as: endless love contrasted against having an electric soul. I think endless love sounds beautiful and an electric soul sounds wonderful, but at the same time the diction of different words provide a more inappropriate explanation for the time.

Ginsberg addresses his homosexuality as he writes “cocksucker in Moloch! Lacklove and manless in Moloch” (Ginsberg II). Howl was originally published by Ginsberg in 1956 during an era in which homosexuality was not commonly accepted. The language he uses was completely shocking to the public at this time, and might still shock people today. Literary critics and the population alike frowned upon homosexuality, but still Ginsberg decided to ring attention to his writing through the concept of Moloch. Moloch strung across the concepts of demons and Ginsberg even goes as far as to pair this with homosexuality during a period of lost generations.

Moloch astounds readers even towards the end of the second section, “Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! estacies! gone down the American River!” (Ginsberg II). I detect a sense of irony in the diction of this stanza. The visions, omens, hallucinations, miracles, and ecstacies all went down the American river due to the general census of the American population. Many were overly conservative just as the hippie movement was about to take place, yet there were people such as Ginsberg who had visions of free love and eternity. Ginsberg was the first to write with this diction, and although it caused a large amount of turmoil, it is one of the most highly regarded poems of all time.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Hamlet meets Alcatraz!!

Dear All:

Exciting news! The "We Players," a local Bay Area theater group, will put on a production of "Hamlet" on Alcatraz Island from October 2 to November 21. Free tickets are currently available, but probably won't last very long. If you are interested, click the link below and get a free ferry ticket to Alcatraz.


"We Players’ production of Hamlet will fully inhabit The Rock and stimulate awareness and conversation around the themes of incarceration, isolation, justice, and redemption.  We Players’ designated audiences will have unprecedented opportunities to enter parts of the island ordinarily closed to visitors. In addition, the park’s regular visitors will encounter performance environments throughout the island that will enhance their experience of the space and its history and provoke contemplation of project themes."


Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Note on William Carlos William's Introduction to "Howl"

The introduction to the “Howl” poem by William Carlos Williams sets the overall mood of what is to come. At first, Williams introduces Allen Ginsberg by giving the reader a brief overview of his past. The background that is provided is more personal since it was written by someone who knew Ginsberg. The description is somewhat shocking since the writer himself claims to be surprised by the achievements of Ginsberg. It is said that he was mentally disturbed, with a difficult life and had basically been through hell. Now, with all of these setbacks, it is astonishing for Williams and the audience alike that such a troubled man could have overcome life’s difficulties and succeeded in poetry.

In his roughest years Allen Ginsberg met Carl Solomon, a man with whom he developed a strong bond and came to love. Williams stresses the importance of Solomon in Ginsberg’s life through passionate and emotionally loaded words. He says that it is amazing that even though he has lived through some of the most devastating experiences that life can offer, Ginsberg has used love to persevere. Furthermore, this love is the topic of his poems.

Once again referring to Ginsberg’s life, Williams mentions that Ginsberg described it as a “howl of defeat”(7), but that in reality it was not defeat because he went through it as if it were any other common thing. A very penetrating statement from the introduction is “Everyone in this life is defeated but a man, if he be a man, is not defeated.“(7). I interpret this as saying that everyone in life has difficulties; however, if they use their strengths and everything at their disposal to overcome these challenges, then they are free and will not break under life’s hardships.

In the final paragraph there is a focus on poetry and what it means to write and be a poet. Williams says that poetry has accompanied Ginsberg in his Golgotha (a reference to the biblical place where Jesus was crucified); again emphasizing that this poet has been through the worse. He has been miserable in a place that the readers call home(the US). According to Williams people are blind, but poets are cursed because they see it all. In this paragraph Williams portrays the poet as somewhat of a modern prophet informing the people of the horrible truths of life.

Overall, the introduction gives the readers some background on Ginsberg to better understand the content of the poems. In addition, words such as “disturbed,” “hell,” “horrifying,” and “blindness” set the mood of the poem as perturbing and gruesome.


Reflections on Howl

My initial reaction to this poem, “Howl,” was confusion. This seemed like another impossible poem to understand, much like “The Wasteland” by Eliot. I thought to myself, “This guy is drunk, high, or just plain crazy.” I must not have been very far off, since the preface by William Carlos Williams describes Ginsberg as “mentally much disturbed.” However, somehow in this seemingly rambling and confusing poem (at least it appeared that way to me), there were style and eloquence. I could sort of understand the pain and despair, confusion and chaos he must have seen and felt through the poem. I could almost hear the desperate, tortured voice of the poet himself. The world that he knows is “destroyed” and the only escape from the reality seems to be the mindless pursuit of pleasure and destruction.

The first part of “Howl” is essentially only one very, very long sentence. The lack of period and the excessively long sentence creates a sense of panic and madness. He describes the “best minds of [his] generation” roaming around the street in hopelessness or otherwise engaging in useless or Hedonistic activities. The image that Ginsberg creates is a world of madness. It is a hopeless, brutal, and chaotic world, where no single event stands out or connects to another, but everything is a fragmented piece of individual misery. You get lost in Ginsberg’s sentence, wondering where this poem is heading to, and realize that it’s not heading anywhere. The parts 2, 3, and the footnote of “Howl” is strikingly different in syntax from the part 1 of the poem. They all repeat a single word or a phrase over and over again, as if saying a prayer or incantation. In part 2, Ginsberg repeats “Moloch” over and over, Moloch being the god of all things ugly in his life and his generation, such as materialism, filth, poverty, war, destruction, etc. In the footnote, he repeats “Holy” over and over; “everything is Holy” according to him. This reveals his disillusionment and deep disappointment with the world. Everything is “Holy” because everything around him is connected to Moloch, the god of all things ugly in life.


Friday, September 10, 2010

The Friendships make the man: The Birdman of Alcatraz

Although George L. Wellman’s A History of Alcatraz Island 1853-2008, describes Robert Stroud as “a murderer that many considered a psychopath,” Burt Lancaster’s Stroud in The Birdman of Alcatraz is depicted as a down to earth, honest man who actually has a few true friends. His three most prominent friends, as shown in the movie, are his mother, his fellow inmate Feto, and his wife Stella. Stroud has a caring, almost loving relationship with these three people. We observe a different kind of friendship, however, in his interactions with Warden Shoemaker and the main guard; these relationships are based on respect rather than care.

Throughout the movie, Stroud’s face is normally blank apart from when he is interacting with his mother, Stella, or Feto. These three characters seem to bring out a different person. Stroud and his mother have an interesting relationship because it is loving but also fiercely possessive, so much so that this causes a complete break in their relationship when she becomes threatened by Stroud’s relationship with Stella. This second relationship begins as a business partnership, but evolves into what might be interpreted as love. Even though Stroud is a lifer who could never carry on a true relationship with Stella, she stays dedicated to him and his cause all the way to Alcatraz. Feto, on the other hand, while he can be seen as nothing more than the inmate next door, embodies a strong role in Stroud’s life because he acts as the tough friend who is caring but still presents himself as the opposition when needed.

With Warden Shoemaker and the guard*, Stroud has a different relationship. He respects them, even when he doesn’t necessarily agree with them, stays completely civil with them, and does not put up a front around them. When the guard breaks protocol and gives him the crate, Stroud begins to respect him as an individual rather than the figure who guards his cell. This, in turn, encourages the guard to trust him, forming an odd sort of friendship. The Warden and Stroud, however, are quite confrontational, but over the years a bond of respect forms, even though the discords do not diminish. At the end of the movie, Shoemaker trusts him enough as to tell a guard that: “even though he’s been a thorn in [his] side for 35 years… he’s never lied to [him].” In order to admit this about an opponent, Warden Shoemaker has to step over his ego and fear in order to have complete confidence in Stroud’s claim.

So although Robert Stroud, the real man, may be a very disagreeable character, the Stroud portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the movie is painted as a solid, sometimes hotheaded, decent man, because of the friendships in his life. The friendships he has complete his person and make him a likable character in the eyes of the audience.

*(Bull? Hadly? Can’t remember his name.)


Prison: A Place Where the Home is - The Birdman of Alcatraz

A prison (n.) – a place where persons are confined, or restrained personal liberties. People generally associate incarceration and confinement with defiance and corruption. However, in the Birdman of Alcatraz, the prison was used more of a symbol of home and security from the evils of the outside world. Robert Stroud was still even able to grow and live a long life within the cells, by finding a passion for living, finding a wife to marry him, and also maturing into a sensible citizen of the U.S.

Although there are many scenes at the beginning of the movie
that show the dreary life of a prison mate, there are many signs that
suggest that prison is the better life to have. When Stroud takes care of
the first sparrow, he rescues the poor animal from the harsh storm. When
the bird became fully healthy, Stroud set him lose from the walls that kept
him from being a free animal. Although the sparrow, Runty was gone for
quite some time, he came back to the home he knew best. Stroud joked, “Come
back for a little prison security?” In reality, this is the place where the
sparrow was taken care of most and spent the majority of his life. Out of
respect, it’s almost like he came back to die at his “home”. He was able to
pay his last tribute to his “family” and caretaker.

In another scene, Stroud meets with his mother to talk about the great improvements he’s getting in Leavenworth. His mother talks about her distrust for his new wife and she asks him to get rid of her. She finally reveals that she wants to be the only woman in his life, and she expected him to stay in the penitentiary his entire life. Again, it is this reoccurring theme that drives that plot and allows for Stroud to show the growth of a man within a prison.

In one of the last scenes of the movie, Stroud’s wife, Stella Johnson comes to visit Stroud at Alcatraz Island. She confesses that he’s the last bit of reason she has to live. He makes the comparison of himself to Runty, calling himself a “lifer”. By this time in the movie, he has realized that there’s no escaping the prison and he’s going to be there for life. He uses the metaphor of Runty, because he knows that he’s going to eventually die in prison, and Stella should not waste her time waiting
for something that won’t ever happen. She reluctantly agrees to move on, however their love for each other doesn’t die after she leaves.

All in all, this movie is entirely based within prisons, whether it be Leavenworth, Alcatraz, or any other penitentiary. It’s no wonder one of the reoccurring themes ties the main character to always return to the cells. Even though Stroud is sentenced to life in prison, he still manages to thrive by studying birds, finding a wife, and gain the trust of major authority.


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Bird Motif in The Birdman of Alcatraz

The Bird Motif in The Birdman of Alcatraz

There were lots of very interesting things going on in this movie, but one thing that stood out the most was the bird motif. The birds seem to symbolize both freedom as well as the prisoners themselves in the movie.

The opening, which shows the photos of birds held in hands, sets a tragic and foreboding tone for the movie. The photos show a strange mix of fragility, beauty, and brutality. The birds provide the fragile beauty to the photos, but the stark lighting of the photos and the way that big hands overshadows the birds is a little eerie and scary. It’s like as if the hands are holding the birds imprisoned; it seems so easy to just squash the birds. The photos seems to represent the two sides of Stroud—his brutal, cruel side and his tender, softer side.

The relationship between Stroud and his mother is very strange in the movie; it almost borders on being inappropriate. Stroud is extremely attached to his mom—he gets extremely upset by something so small as another inmate touching his mother’s picture or talking about his mom. His mother, on the other hand, is very possessive towards her son; she only wants her son for herself. She wants her son to be imprisoned forever so that she would have him only to herself. Again, you see here that Stroud is like a bird in a cage—his mother, the bird keeper, wants her bird to stay in her cage.

Stroud’s interaction with the friendly guard in Leavenworth is very interesting. Initially, Stroud shuts himself off from everyone and treats people like “animals.” He kills two people without guilt or remorse. He only interacts with people when he absolutely needs to—he only thinks of bargaining with the guard who has been friendly to him for 12 years, and never once thought of befriending him until the guard snapped and told him that he is a human being and wants to be treated like one. This scene is very ironic because on the surface, it seems like Stroud is the one who is objectified and dehumanized as a prisoner, but it also suggests that opposite can be true as well.

Stroud’s relocation to Alcatraz is I think one of the turning points in the movie. Whereas in Leavenworth Stroud is the “bird keeper,” in Alcatraz, “the bird island,” he is the bird. He no longer has his birds anymore, and he and the other prisoners are strictly disciplined according to the rules of Harvey Shoemaker. Stroud meets a fellow inmate from Leavenworth and he is struck by his friend’s dogged loyalty to the prison rules. Harvey trains his inmates like he would train animals; he “rewards” the inmates for good behavior.


The Hand that Rocks the Cradle

Most think of hands as just another body part, when in reality they are of grave importance in many aspects of life. The Birdman of Alcatraz clearly exemplifies this within the first minute of the movie. Robert Stroud uses his hands to aid the birds that reside within the prison facilities. Not only does he aid the birds to recover, but he also cares for them and learns about them. In the opening scene, Stroud cups the small bird in a compassionate way, just as a mother would cradle her new darling infant. Robert Stroud committed murders in cold blood and certainly without compassion for his victims, but still he finds a sincere kindness for the birds.

Birds themselves can be looked at as helpless creatures. If they injure themselves they have no hands to aid themselves in the recovery process. Stroud shows his victims no compassion, but injured birds are an entirely different story. Birds have 2 legs and 2 wings; wings do not act as hands and certainly do not aid a bird if their legs are broken. Birds are incapable of committing any atrocious crimes, but still one of the most dangerous criminals is drawn towards these meek creatures.
A murderer, Robert Stroud most definitely needed to use his hands in order to commit the killing for which he was originally convicted. Thus he uses his hands to kill a guard while serving his first sentence at Alcatraz. His hands are filthy, covered with the blood of multiple men. In a less common thought, built a platform in which to hang him for his excessive violence. His mother then lends out a helping hand to her beloved son to stop the execution. Hands either kill or save people, but there seems to be no blatant medium in the film.

The lighting of the cinematography shows the darkness of Stroud’s hands at the beginning of the film, but within his hands is a small bird whose color is even darker. The lighting asphyxiates the bird within Stroud’s collected hands, but in reality he earnestly wants to learn and help the birds, not harm them. The lighting around his mother, who essentially saves Stroud from death, is drastically brighter than the opening scenes. Hands are responsible for many actions committed by prisoners and saviors alike, but it is the way in which they are used that illustrates the character behind the actions.


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Note of Characterization in The Birdman of Alcatraz

Robert Stroud was an essence of many things. He was considered the strangest man alive. He was also considered a genius. He was convicted of a murder in Alaska and was sentence to life in prison. In the movie Birdman of Alcatraz, he keeps birds as pets and finds cures for them when they got sick. He started to have pet birds in Leavenworth Prison and was told he could not have pets at Alcatraz. This starts a trend and he and the other convicts acquire birds, such as canaries, as gifts from the outside. Before long, Stroud has built up a collection of birds and cages. When they got sick, he conjured up experiments and tried to come up with a cure. As the years pass, Stroud becomes an expert on bird diseases. His writings are so impressive that a doctor describes him as a "genius."

Stroud is a paradox of a man living in a time period of violence. On the way to the prison he breaks a window in order for the suffocating prisoners, and this gets him off to a bad start with the warden at the Leavenworth Prison. At the beginning of his sentencing he got upset really easily and attacked a guard for making his mother leave before she could see him. After that he starts to calm down and gets into his studies.
When Stroud worked with the birds, he studied a lot. He taught himself half a dozen languages. He also taught himself a bunch of scientific subjects which helped him cure the birds. People thought he was a genius. Even with all those studies and working with birds, he kept to himself and rehabilitated himself.

He never broke out with the outside world. He never read a newspaper, watched a television, listened to radio, never saw an airplane, and never saw a car. He also became rehabilitated. Still at kept with a keen eye with authority, Stroud nevertheless manages to help stop a prison rebellion in 1946 by throwing out the guns the convicts got their hands on. He then assures the guards that they can now re-enter the premises without fear of being shot. He was never broken, never been beaten, and is known as the defiant man alive.


Monday, September 6, 2010

Essay 2 Prompt

Draft Due Date: 9/23 (5%)
Final Revisions Due: 10/05 (10%)

Using the techniques we discussed in class, perform a close reading on ONE scene from The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). You may choose to examine the linguistic, semantic, structural, or cultural elements of this scene, but you must limit yourself to one and only one scene. A scene, for our purposes, can be considered a 30-90 second self-contained episode in the film; examples may include: the introductory credits, the marriage scene to Stella, the death of Reddy, etc. The choice of scene selections is entirely left up to you. However, be certain to choose a scene that you can thoroughly examine in 3-4 pages.

Further, your essay must have a clearly stated thesis: don’t be afraid to telegraph this statement by including language like: “This essay argues/examines ___________.” Your essay will be evaluated on the clarity or your argument, the soundness of your evidence, and how well you use the close reading techniques we discussed in class. , be judicious in your choices, and make sure to select a scene you can adequately analyze in 3-4 pages.

This essay should be in 11 or 12 pt Times New Roman font, with conventional margins. For other questions regarding stylistics or formatting, consult the link to Duke University’s MLA Style Guide on the course blog.

For any other questions, please email me.

Good Luck!