Thursday, June 23, 2011

Ode to the Departed: They Finally Got Whitey

They finally got James (Whitey) Bulger. The legendary Boston crime boss had disappeared nearly two decades ago after a tip that the F.B.I. - which for years had utilized him as an informant - was about to bring him in for good.

If you have spent any time in Boston, you know about Whitey, one of a long line of American outlaws who has skirted myth in life. Think of Frank and Jesse James, Joey Gallo, or Bonnie and Clyde.

You would not want to see all of the blood in their shoot-outs, or the junkies hitting their smack, or the broken lives caught up in their rackets; but at the same time, kids still play "Looking for Whitey" in Southie and dress up and shoot like Jesse James eveywhere, because something about outlaws captures the imaginations of people young and old.

Artists fall for outlaws just the same, but even harder. Warren Zevon swooned for Frank and Jesse James, Dylan worte an epic ode to Joey, and we all remember Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. It's also because of a fusion of outlaws and art that, even if you have not spent any time in Boston, you know at least a little bit about James (Whitey) Bulger.

As the basis for Martin Scorcese's film The Departed, Bulger was loosely portrayed by Jack Nicholson. Nicholson seems barely able to play even his trademark "Jack Nicholson" part at this stage of his career, but in this film of wicked lines and faces and stunning scenes - "Don't move until you're numb" - Whitey gets an homage comprised of some of the best pop culture stuff that any good guy or bad guy could ask for.

From the opening images of Boston's 1970's racial chaos wrapped in the Rolling Stone's "Gimme Shelter" to the Dropkick Murphy's "I'm Shipping Up to Boston" to the immaculate "Baby Blue" by the sadly departed Badfinger, The Departed offers one of the best soundtracks ever made. Then there are Leonardo Dicaprio, Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, and Matt Damon playing some churning combination of minions, heroes, and rats circling Whitey's world. We meet Vera Farmiga for the first time in The Departed, too. She is the tragic lover who carries the seed of someone in the group as the only survivor after the confusing shakedown at the end of the film.

I happened to listen to part of the soundtrack of The Departed very early this morning in Central Park before learning that Whitey had finally run out of time. Apparently he had been hiding out in Santa Monica with his lady companion, whose weak spots for plastic surgery, dental hygiene, and dogs made it impossible for them to keep themselves concealed any longer.

Now, as he will begin to spend the rest of his life "sitting like Buddha in a ten foot cell," someone who I must assume was a very smart, pretty lucky, but also twisted and violent man gets to live at a very high place in the pantheon of American myth, supported by some of its finest purveyors. I'm not sure what to make of that.

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