Monday, July 27, 2009

Cambridge Blues

In his movie reviews, one of my favorite critics, Roger Ebert, occasionally refers to "the idiot plot." This is a device in which, in order for the plot of the movie to move forward, the leading characters must react to the situation unfolding around them like blithering idiots. This is not a compliment.

Reading the news reports of the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. by Cambridge police officer James Crowley brings to mind Ebert's description. According to various sources, a passerby saw Gates and his driver trying to shove open his stuck front door. I had a cousin who used to live in Cambridge, and you could drop a marble at one end of her apartment and watch it roll to the other. The way some of those houses have settled over the years, a stuck door is perfectly logical.

The passerby called the police, and Officer Crowley responded. He asked Gates for identification. According to Crowley, Gates refused to show him his driver’s license and only showed his Harvard employee ID. According to Gates, he showed both forms of ID. When Crowley tried to determine if anyone else was in the house, Gates became abusive and was arrested for disorderly conduct.

Now, like most Stanford graduates, I've always harbored doubts about Harvard, and not just because it awarded a diploma to George W. Bush. Its motto is "veritas," which is Latin for truth. But any campus tour guide will happily tell you that the statue of John Harvard is colloquially known as the statue of three lies. The statue bears the inscription, John Harvard, Founder, 1638. In reality, the institution was founded in 1636, not 1638, and as New College; it was renamed Harvard College in 1639 after John Harvard contributed a significant amount of money (with the stipulation that his name be applied to the college, if memory serves). The statue was cast by Daniel Chester French in 1884, but because there were no likenesses of John Harvard available, French used a student as a model. Veritas, indeed.

Back to the idiot plot. You have a woman passing by a professor's home — presumably a local citizen — who has no idea who lives there. Here's a tip — get to know your neighbors, lady.*

Then you have a police officer sent to the house who somehow believes that the 58-year-old man within is potentially a burglar. Here's another tip: show some respect for your elders. Unless you’re a big fan of Going in Style (in which George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg play a trio of unlikely bank robbers), you should know that guys with canes aren’t usually burglars. Heck, I can't even lift my television set, and I'm younger than Gates.

Then you have a Harvard professor, who, admittedly, is probably cranky after a long trip. Here's a tip: show the officer some respect for the job he has to do. Be thankful that if a burglary was indeed taking place while you were away, he arrived to investigate it.

What I find equally mystifying about this idiocy is that everyone — from Gates to Crowley to the Cambridge police chief — is sticking to his guns about who was right and who was wrong. That is, they're continuing to be idiots about the whole sequence of events.

I gotta tell you: Even with a cameo by the president, this is not a movie I would pay to watch. Even as a comedy.

*After this was posted, I learned that the woman was actually an employee of one of Gates' neighbors.

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