Thursday, March 22, 2018

How the Epic Story of "El Padrino" and the Cuban Mafia Started with...the Lottery

March 20, 2018
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The Corporation: An Epic Story of the Cuban American Underworld
By T.J. English
592 pp.
William Morrow
There is perhaps no better modern chronicler of organized crime and criminals than T.J. English. Combining the research of a historian with the narrative flair of a novelist, he’s chronicled bad men of Italian, Irish, Asian descent, along with the taking a bite out of racially-tinged crimes in the Big Apple.
English has covered some of the Cuba-Italian Mafia story before in his essential Havana Nocturne. But for this hefty tome, his focus is on Cuban-American crime and criminals in America.
And the whole thing swirls around the life and activities of one man: José Miguel Battle, or “El Padrino.” That roughly translates into The Godfather. Battle was obsessed with the mafia film saga, would quote lines endlessly, and many say even changed his voice at times to sound more like Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone.
An avowed anti-Castro true believer, earlier in life Battle participated as part of Brigade 2506, the 1,100 or so Cuban expatriates who fought in the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion. By all accounts, his actions proved heroic on the ill-fated expedition, and he saved many lives of his fellow expatriates. How the U.S. government and President John F. Kennedy screwed over those soldiers has filled other books, but it did allow Battle and his surviving members a ticket to the United States – initially through military service, and then citizenship.
Battle’s civilian criminal empire centered around his dominance of bolita– the ages-old, off-the-books lottery system favored by Hispanics and Cubans where kids, business people, and grandmothers of mostly lower class economic situations took a chance at betting on daily numbers with various amounts at stake and to win. At one point, Battle’s operations were grossing $2 million a week in New York City alone. All in cash, and worth millions more in 2018 dollars.
English’s narrative jumps from many locales including New York City, Miami, Cuba itself, Peru, and the unlikely venue of Union City, New Jersey were Battle started his empire. An empire that quickly expanded from gambling to drug trafficking, racketeering, money laundering, and even running a shady South American casino.
Like a revolving door, English introduces a cast of characters who may appear on a handful of pages, or pop in and out of the entire story. And sometimes, it’s hard to keep track of so many characters in such an epic narrative. Through, English also weaves an equally interesting story of the experience of thousands of Cuban Americans in exile in America, with thehated Fidel Castro looming large for decades.
There’s shadowy anti-Castro terrorist groups with names like “Omega 7” and “Alpha 66,” and a Scarface-like side story about the Mariel boat lifts of refugees coming to Florida and looking for work – any work.
Battle’s enterprise – which he called “The Corporation” – included a litany of shootings, beatings, assassinations, arson, shifting alliances trade-offs with dirty cops, cockfighting, heists, and sex. And as the body count piles high, victims are not always male and not always involved with Battle’s world.
There’s even dark comedy in the form of one Jorge “Palulu” Enriquez. He murdered one of Battle’s brothers, and then survived a dozen retribution assassination attempts over a decade (while losing a lot of blood from shootings and stabbings…and a leg along the way).
With Enriquez seemingly protected by a Divine force, the obsessed Battle even consulted black magic practitioners to make his target more vulnerable. He was eventually done in on the 12th try by assassins while lying in a hospital bed recovering from wounds suffered during the 11th attempt.
If all this sounds like it would make for a great movie…it will! Even before the book’s publication, the rights were sold to Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, and Benicio Del Toro has been cast to play Battle. And he’ll certainly have a chance to show his acting range, as Battle in this book can be at times evil, noble, vain, emotional, lustful, heroic, proud, and even a committed pet lover (he had a thing for taking in stray dogs by the dozens). Yet, he was also a man who could order the brutal murder of a mistress, possibly for embarrassing him in front of his crew with her hysterics.
Tracking Battle like a hound for much of many years of his empire was Miami cop David Shanks, who once found a live rattlesnake planted in his mailbox, likely by Battle as a sign to lay off. Fortunately, he realized the hissing coming from within was not the sound of cicadas and emptied two guns in it before opening.
In the end, the saga of “El Padrino” ends with somewhat of whimper. A very ill and defeated man by the time he pleaded guilty to racketeering (of all things) in 2006, he died the next year at the age of 78 from a host of ailments, though liver failure was the cause of record. But his deeds live on here, and English takes readers on the methodical criminal journey, every dirty step of the way.

Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Deep-Freezing the Truth at Penn

A distinguished law professor is publicly shamed for pointing out truths about race preferences
March 20, 2018
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The diversity imperative demands dissimulation and evasion. The academic-achievement gap, the behavioral differences that produce socioeconomic disparities, and the ubiquity of racial preferences must all be suppressed in public discourse, since they undercut the narrative that white racism is the driving force in American society. This dissimulation was on display last week at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, when Dean Ted Ruger announced that law professor Amy Wax would no longer teach mandatory first-year law courses at the school. In a memo announcing his decision, Ruger accused Wax of “conscious indifference” to truth. It is Ruger, however, who has distorted facts.
Ousting Wax from her first-year civil-procedure class has been a desideratum of the academic Left since she published an op-ed last August celebrating bourgeois virtues like the work ethic, respect for authority, and sexual temperance. Wax was deemed a “white supremacist” for suggesting that not all cultures were equal in preparing people for participation in a modern economy.
In December, Dean Ruger asked her to desist from teaching first-year students and to take a leave of absence, in the hope that the controversy spurred by her op-ed would die down. As a “pluralistic dean,” he said, he needed to accommodate all factions in the school. Wax declined the request and reported the details of the conversation immediately thereafter to friends. (I was one of the people to whom she spoke.) Wax later described the conversation in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. Ruger denied her account through a spokesman, claiming that he had merely engaged in a pro forma discussion of her sabbatical schedule, such as he would have done with any other professor. Ruger’s version is not credible, though: in an informal survey, no law professor polled reports ever having a dean drop by his office to discuss a routine sabbatical. This alleged bureaucratic convention does not exist, unless Dean Ruger has only recently introduced it.
Ruger’s request that Wax stop teaching first-year students became non-negotiable, however, after a video dialogue Wax had recorded in September came to the attention of her opponents. On the video, Wax and Brown University economist Glenn Loury discuss affirmative action. Wax talks about how racial preferences hinder the ability of their alleged beneficiaries to succeed academically, by catapulting them into schools for which they are significantly less prepared than their peers; this negative consequence of affirmative action is known as the “mismatch effect.” At Penn’s law school, Wax said, she didn’t think that she had ever seen a black law student graduate in the top quarter of his class, and “rarely” in the top half. Loury asked Wax if the University of Pennsylvania Law Review had a “racial diversity mandate.” Wax answered “yes.” In his memo to the school, Ruger denied this point: “the Law Review does not have a diversity mandate,” he wrote. “Rather, its editors are selected based on a competitive process.”
By any common understanding of a “diversity mandate,” the Penn law review most certainly has one. In the summer of 2003, it created a new pathway for membership to solve the perennial lack of racial diversity among its editors. According to a contemporaneous Chronicle of Higher Education article, until then, students were selected based either on their grades or on a writing competition that assessed analytic and editing skills. Now, however, a third criterion would be added—a “personal statement,” in which an applicant might address the “challenges” he has faced, the “familial, cultural, or personal experiences that have contributed” to his worldview, and the “unique contribution” he would make to the review. The editorial guidelines explain that the personal statement allows the law review to find editors who bring “diverse perspectives” to legal scholarship.
Anyone familiar with “holistic admissions” will recognize this language, even had the architects of the personal-statement requirement not already explained that its goal was to increase racial diversity. Somehow, “challenges” and “cultural experiences” always pertain exclusively to underrepresented minorities. The percentage of editors selected via the personal statement, which is factored into a new composite score that includes first-year grades and the writing competition, may vary from year to year.
The 2003 Chronicle article was a rare public peek into law reviews’ diversity efforts, not just at Penn but across the country. Since then, the Penn guidelines have been closely guarded; any editor who discusses them with an outsider risks getting kicked off the review. But they remained in place as recently as 2015, according to a former member. There is zero chance that the review has since reverted to a purely meritocratic selection process, especially in the era of Black Lives Matter campus protests.
If challenged, Ruger might argue that the Penn law review’s diversity policy is not a “mandate,” since it was not imposed by the administration. But most such diversity policies are similarly self-imposed. Ruger might also insist that the process remains “competitive.” But the question is: would the candidates who compete via the personal-statement route have gotten on the review through grades or writing skills alone? If they could not have, then the competition is not universal but race-specific.
Ruger also accused Wax of saying during her interview with Loury that Penn’s black law students should not “even go to college” (whatever that would mean, since they have already gone to college). That, too, is a distortion, presumably intended to inflame the sentiments against her. Wax at that point in the discussion was speaking about college generally. She said in passing that while no critic of racial preferences is saying that black students should not go to college, some students should not. Wax was speaking generally, not referring to Penn law students in particular.
As for the low number of black Penn law students graduating in the top of their class, Wax’s observations about the mismatch effect accord with all available data. The Law School Admissions Council collected 27,000 law student records in the early 1990s, representing nearly 90 percent of accredited schools. After the first year, 51 percent of black law students ranked in the bottom tenth of their class, compared with 5 percent of white students. Two-thirds of black students were in the bottom fifth of their class. Only 10 percent of blacks were in the top half of their class. As mismatch theory predicts, bar-examination failure rates were also skewed, since students put into classrooms above their preparation levels will learn less than when teaching is pitched to their current academic skills. Twenty-two percent of black test-takers in the LSAC database never passed the bar exam after five attempts, compared with 3 percent of white test-takers.
Unfortunately, Wax overlooked the precautionary rule for criticizing affirmative action: avoid any generalizations that can be rebutted with an even vaguer generalization. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a black student graduate in the top quarter of the class and rarely, rarely in the top half,” she said, clearly speaking informally and from a subjective perspective. Ruger responded in his memo: “It is imperative for me as dean to state that these claims are false: black students have graduated in the top of the class at Penn Law.” Ruger’s statement leaves unspecified what the “top of the class” is and how many black students over what period of time have graduated in it. But his assertion, as so broadly defined, is undoubtedly true. It is also not inconsistent with Wax’s claim that black students have graduated in the top half of the class, but “rarely.”
Ruger’s stated reasons for demoting Wax were that she had violated the confidentiality of students’ academic records and had put her impartiality regarding black students into doubt. The confidentiality charge is the only facially plausible one. Though Wax mentioned no students by name, and was speaking generally, to state even a provisional recollection that no black student has graduated in the top quarter of his class does allow an inference about the grades of all black law students. But if making such a statement is a punishable offense, then there will be a serious chilling effect on any discussion of the negative consequences of affirmative action.
Ruger says that black students may now “legitimately question whether the inaccurate and belittling statements she has made may adversely affect their learning environment and career prospects.” That is a calumny. Wax has won teaching awards from students and from faculty. There is no evidence that she has ever treated her students unfairly. And even if she were inclined to partiality, which she most decidedly is not, grading in first-year courses is blind.
If Wax’s statements about the mismatch effect are “belittling,” that is not her fault. She has simply dared utter the facts about black academic underpreparedness that the diversity charade works overtime to conceal. It is the perverse consequence of affirmative action that the people who pull back the veil on that charade are the ones accused of doing damage to minorities.
Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal, and the author of the New York Times bestseller The War on Cops.

Today's Tune: Larry Norman - The Outlaw

The founder of Christian rock music would've hated what it's become

Ryan Vlastelica
March 18, 2018

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Larry Norman was perhaps the most complex figure in 20th-century American music. He was a mess of contradictions, a singer with a message who grew more contradictory the more he tried to keep his message pure. He struggled quite visibly, grappling both with his own personal failings and with a movement that he helped start but which leapt beyond his control, mutating into something he hated and which had world-changing implications.

Who was Larry Norman? He’s one of the fathers of spiritual rock music, “the Forrest Gump of evangelical Christianity”—which puts him on the front lines of America’s culture wars, though on whose side it’s hard to say—and the subject of Gregory Alan Thornbury’s fantastic new biography, Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music? The book, titled after one of Norman’s best-known songs, draws extensively on Norman’s personal archives, where he was thoughtful and introspective about his beliefs, work, and doubts, giving Thornbury’s work a level of insight and intimacy that’s all too rare among recently published artist biographies. When it comes to telling the story of an artist, what makes a good biography is not the fame or even the talent of the book’s subject, but the complexity of the figure and how that manifests itself through their life and work. Norman’s story has this in abundance. Why Should The Devil also serves as a primer on Christian rock, a critical analysis of the genre, and a compact history of Christianity in the latter half of last century, a period where Jesus went from a counterculture hero to all outcasts to a cynically deployed tool of the religious right.

Today, Christian rock is closer to sub-emo and ska in the extent to which it is maligned by mainstream critics, a statement Norman himself would’ve likely agreed with. (He died in 2008). He was a man of faith but also an artist of integrity, who wanted to push music forward and saw no reason why spiritual music couldn’t challenge audiences and rock at the same time. He played on the same bills as The Who, the Doors, and Janis Joplin, and later jammed with members of the Sex Pistols, and appeared onstage with Pixies frontman Black Francis. Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney were fans; U2 and Gun N’ Roses both cited him as an influence.
There are a number of fascinating through-lines in the book, each of which arise organically from the material and are explored in depth by multiple articulate perspectives; this isn’t a book of cheap shots.
One theme centers on religious pop art in general, and whether it should be accessible enough for secular audiences or geared toward the converted, and if so, whether it should challenge or celebrate one’s faith. On top of that, there’s an analysis of faith-based art on artistic grounds, with the argument it lacks the kind of inspiration or technical skill that would make it of interest to those who appreciate craftsmanship but aren’t there for the sermon. (This argument easily applies to the recent spate of Christian films, which have a loyal audience of the already converted but don’t even try to preach to any other choir.) The book quotes a Christian record executive who dismisses the genre as “not art” and “merely propaganda,” saying “it never relies on—in fact it seems to be ignorant of—allegory, symbolism, metaphor, inner-rhyme, play-on-word, surrealism, and many of the other poetry born elements of music that have made it the highly celebrated art form it has become.”
Norman, who pushed the envelope both artistically and thematically, is at the heart of these debates. He wanted it both ways, Thornbury writes: “He wanted to rock and he wanted to talk about Jesus, he wanted to follow Jesus and to offend other followers of Jesus, for people to enjoy his music but also be discomfited by it.” Of course this pleased no one; he was “too edgy for the Jesus people and too religious for the run-of-the mill rock fans.” Christian stores didn’t stock his records and secular ones didn’t know how to categorize him. (“‘Christian psychedelic’ was hardly a category.”)
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He’s a fascinating character to have at the center of a book. Like Dylan, who had his own religious phase, Norman had a combative relationship with interviewers, lashed out at any attempt to define him, and grew discomforted with his own success. But there’s another layer to this, which is that Dylan resisted narrow definitions for his own reasons, while Norman viewed himself relative to a higher power. He was essentially preaching in his concerts, which made his popularity something of a moral paradox. The more popular he became, the more his music was about him as opposed to Jesus, even though the popularity meant more people were hearing his message in the first place.
His struggles are palpable and very relatable, and they’re far more interesting than the contract disputes and behind-the-scenes anecdotes that make up so many artistic biographies. Norman has his flaws and weaknesses (failed marriages, an apparent child out of wedlock he was reluctant to acknowledge), but he’s also sincere in his message. The core of the book is what it means to truly be a Christian in the mold of Jesus, and what a life like that looks like. Certainly there’s something parable-esque about how Norman preferred spend time with “honest, albeit crass-talking” punk rockers, rather than suffering through “the pious spiritual mumbo-jumbo from his fellow CCM artists.”
There’s something exhilarating in the example Norman sets: He rails against religious institutions for their racism and other sins, and is dismayed when the Republican Party co-opts Jesus and ignores his message of love, tolerance, and helping the misfortunate. At one point he’s the subject of a smear campaign, as an establishment that doesn’t want to be questioned grows threatened by his willingness to call out all sinners, particularly those in religious power. At times he seems to take umbrage at everyone, including his own fans; he “would often stop playing [in concert] if people started clapping during his songs or singing along. His main interest was forcing his audience toward self-examination, so if people were having fun at his concert, Larry though, they probably weren’t thinking hard enough.”
Thornbury captures this personality its all its complexity, and by the end Norman seems like one of the great unsung cultural figures of the era. It’s hard to not have affection for an artist who views clichés as a sin (“maybe not to God, but to the muse of art”) and who can go from chewing out his own sound crew (“Could you turn the guitar up on the dial just past where it says ‘folk music?’ ... This is rock ’n’ roll, okay? Louder is better.”) to dismissing the genre he pioneered with a joke. “As for mixing God with rock music,” he muses at one point, “well, maybe with God all things are possible, but this was not one of them.”

Jordan Peterson is Driving His Critics to Desperate Attacks

March 21, 2018
Jordan Peterson, the Canadian clinical psychologist, is having an enormous impact on our culture.  His refusal to use legally mandated language has reverberated around the world.
He is obviously rattling leftists as they continue to make hysterical claims about him.  The most recent and long-winded example comes from Nathan J. Robinson, the editor of Current Affairs.  He published an almost twelve-thousand-word essay in that journal.  It's hard to believe, but even with all those words he lands not a single blow on Peterson.  He does manage to make a complete fool of himself. 
His essay begins by listing an impressive group of people, including the head of Harvard's Psychology Department, who praise Peterson's work.  He then sets out to try to prove them all wrong.  He also lists a large number of writers who have treated Peterson unfairly.  He then supersedes them all.  There is no way to cover all the silliness in this piece, but I can explain a few of the problems in it.  If you think I'm making this stuff up, by all means, read the whole messy, wordy essay. 
Robinson has a long windup.  There are many long paragraphs with snide remarks and hand-crafted editing designed to make Peterson look vague.  The man is anything but vague.  Finally, we arrive at the first factual disagreement with Peterson.  In the famous interview with Cathy Newman, Jordan said that you now have more female than male doctors, and the trend in that direction is accelerating.
Robinson tells us there are not more female than male physicians either in the U.S. or Canada.  (In context, you can hear the rim shot.)  It's worth dwelling on this supposed killer line.  Peterson was in England being interviewed by Newman.  His English interviewer is pelting him with questions about the lack of female executives in England.  Jordan explained that women are often drawn to alternative professions.  For example, you, in England, have more female doctors than male.  That's what he said, and he is correct.  Don't take my word or his.  Invest thirty minutes to watch a truly intelligent and, under the circumstances, gracious person at work in that half-hour interview.
While it's worth noting that trends in the medical profession in North America are moving in the English direction, the current ratios are not germane to the conversation Jordan and Ms. Newman had about England.  It is fair to ask: was Robinson trying to slip one by, like a Clintonian lawyer, or is he just sloppy in his thinking?  I think it's a combination of both in roughly equal measure.  He, like many of his peers on the left, is half-cocked.  That phrase will come in handy later.
The original basis for Peterson's worldwide notoriety is his objection to being compelled to use legally mandated language.  This is a huge step beyond the current Canadian laws, which prohibit and criminalize certain speech.  Robinson denies that the law does any such thing and that it's crazy to think speech would be criminalized.  The link he provides looks moderate enough.  It's the text of the law that simply adds gender pronouns to existing hate speech law.  Robinson is careful not to link to the existing law, but we easily grasp its content by noting that the amendment is to the Criminal Code.  I'm not a lawyer, so instead of the legal text, here is Wikipedia on that criminal code.  Peterson is right.
Again, I don't think Robinson is lying.  There is a funny space that some people on the left occupy that blinds them to facts.  They are just very odd people.
To paint Peterson as a space cadet, Robinson presents a "random" transcript of 17 minutes of a YouTube lecture.  He then dares the reader to read all the way through because it's so spacey.  I lost the dare.  In print, the lecture is full of anecdotes and asides that make it hard to follow.  But if you have 17 minutes and have not watched Peterson, this YouTube lecture is a good one to start with.  As a lecture, it is enlightening, in places very funny, and finally at the end a little sad.  Two thoughts: Robinson may have shot himself in the foot, as some of his cohorts might actually watch this video.  They will see Robinson in the same negative light as I do. 
If you believe the claim that this video, which clearly does not translate to print, was selected "at random," please come to Florida, because I have some prime land for you.  In today's world, you'll make a fortune growing oranges.
One of the reasons why unfettered speech is vitally important is that it's our only alternative to violence.  Peterson makes a couple of recurring points here.  One is that he, like most men, knows how to stand up to other men who have unfairly trespassed.  We all know that in a serious – say again, serious – dispute, things can get physical.  Peterson says in a variety places that no one respects a man who makes it clear that under no circumstances will he stand up for himself.  His second point is that physical force is clearly prohibited between men and women.  It is forbidden, and for good reason.  But that prohibition can put men in an untenable position.  It is important to recognize that problem.
Robinson reads this prohibition as Peterson regretting that he can't hit a woman.  That's pretty amazing.  Here is the video in question.
Decide for yourself.  But our man doesn't stop there.  He stoops to the lowest of all internet tactics: he quotes from the comments section.  I never know who is serious or even who is, in a case like this, a troll saying things I've never heard right-of-center people say.  I think Robinson understands the problem.  Not for lack of trying, I can't find a place to leave comments on the Current Affairs website.
A recurring theme in Peterson's work is the need to fix yourself before you reform the world.  The world is made up of complex systems.  It requires a competence to change a complex system for the better.  It is much easier to destroy a complex system than it is to improve it.  One step on the road to competence is to fix yourself.  Peterson says to develop some competence.  Clean your room before you try to reform the whole world.  While he means that literally, he also means it metaphorically.
This sends Robinson into a frenzy of lists of things that people like him aim to fix, and these things are of greater importance than a tidy room.  He completely ignores competence.  I do not have space here to debate all the issues, but it is clear that many of the reforms designed to help the disadvantaged have done more harm than good.  Rather than get too far afield, I'll say just this: black unemployment is at an all-time low and continuing to improve.  Liberals, progressives, socialists, or whatever had nothing to do with that.  Programs they want to implement will actually undo this progress. 
A final point: There is a paradox.  Like me and many other folks on the right, Peterson is a fan of the socialist George Orwell.  Virtually everyone knows 1984 and Animal Farm.  Few people are familiar with The Road to Wigan Pier.  It is a fabulous book that is divided in half.  The first half is a heartbreaking picture of the brutality of working-class life in early 20th-century England.  It catalogs what the left wants to call the contradictions of capitalism.  But it's not that at all.  It paints a clear picture of the deprivations caused by the social and personal disruptions of moving from near subsistence farming to an industrial economy.  It's terrible, but so is what came before it.
Peterson spends many lectures movingly describing these deprivations.  He is also, like many of us, interested in the second half of the book.  In it, Orwell describes his total disgust with socialists.  They are not interested in alleviating suffering.  They are smug, resentful, bratty snobs who want to strike out at people.  That pushed Peterson away from socialism, as it did me and many other people.
Robinson says we should work on our reading comprehension, because here is Orwell's conclusion: "To recoil from Socialism because so many socialists are inferior people is as absurd as refusing to travel by train because you dislike the ticket-collector's face."
I read that line as a teenager.  My opinion has not changed: Orwell was wrong.  Socialism puts the government in charge of all economic resources.  When people realize they and all their relatives are mere economic resources, then the depraved nature of individual socialists takes on paramount importance.  They are the inferior people who under socialism run everything – run it badly and run it cruelly.  We see that in every instance, in every part of the world, where socialism's been implemented.  When Orwell wrote Wigan Pier, socialists were neither nice nor competent.  In Robinson, we can all see that they've gone downhill.  Had Orwell lived to see the drivel published by Current Affairs, it's quite likely he'd rethink that quotation.
It is possible that Mr. Robinson's room is neat and tidy.  His magazine and his writing are not.  His work is creepy in its dishonesty.  He should clean up his act.  That would start with an apology for the garbage he's spread in this essay.  When that's done, maybe we'll listen to his ideas for reforming the world.  Well, maybe.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

WSJ's Ben Fritz weighs in on the present and future of movies

Ben Fritz

In the 21st century, cinematic universes housing the canons of Marvel, DC, Star Wars, Harry Potter and other franchises have largely replaced movie stars on the big screen.
As Netflix and Amazon Prime gobble up content for their streaming services, and cable networks such as HBO and FX attract talent who would have worked exclusively in movies at one time, some of the major studios face consolidation or even extinction.
In his new book, "The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies," Ben Fritz, who has covered the movie business for a decade for Variety, the Los Angeles Times and currently, the Wall Street Journal, explains how we got here.
Jumping off from emails and documents uncovered through the 2014 Sony Pictures hack and through extensive interviews, Fritz details the studio's decline after 2002's "Spider-Man" (the Tobey Maguire version) launched the modern superhero craze. In a compelling, well-reported narrative, Fritz deftly ties together some of the industry's biggest questions with some arresting twists and turns, topped with the irony that two of Sony's biggest stars of the early 2000s, Will Smith and Adam Sandler, both now make movies for Netflix.

Recently, we talked to Fritz about the book and where things are heading for the movie business.

How did the book come about?

I'd been thinking about as a reporter covering this business for a long time. People always say to me, "Why are there so many superhero movies? Why are there so many sequels?" I started digging into the hack more and realized there are answers to these questions here and it's a story.

Covering these stories on a daily basis as you do, how did you get enough perspective to connect the dots?

The best advice I got was, if you get a book leave, do all your research early on. From the time I sold the proposal in the summer of 2015 to the fall of 2016, I spent researching. I was working, and I would spend an hour or two in the evenings and on the weekends, when I could, and I would read 10 or 20 emails or some of the documents or set up an interview. I did interview about 50 people for the book.

I was trying to focus on the 30,000-foot view, to immerse myself in this material. I had to virtually shut off the news — which was weird, there was a lot going on — and live in this world of what was happening to the movie business over the past decade and see where it's going.

My job for the past decade was covering the business of movies and even I hadn't really stepped back to think about this 'big picture' trend. Marvel's the great example. We all know Marvel is really successful. Marvel has become the dominant movie company of the 21st century — how did they do that and how did it impact everybody else?

Did any of these connections surprise you?

Digging into the history of Marvel and their connection to Sony surprised me. I found out Sony had the opportunity to buy the rights to all the Marvel characters for $25 million and they were like, "Who would be interested in a Captain America movie or a Thor movie or a Black Panther movie? Nobody wants that."

I understand hindsight is 20/20, but that was a shocking moment to me. And that was not from the hack; that was from interviews I did. And the story about how Marvel got into movies basically because of their anger over how successful Sony was with "Spider-Man," which was their character. Sony was making money off their character and Sony was getting credit for their character and they wanted to get into movies in response to that. They were doing it not because they cared about movies but [because] Marvel saw movies as a way to sell toys. Even to the extent that they picked "Iron Man" because they did focus groups with kids and kids liked "Iron Man" best of all the characters.

Partly intelligently and partly by chance, [Marvel] was ahead of all the trends. That was the most interesting part to me of all my reporting.

You discuss the idea of premium video-on-demand studio movies being available shortly after their theatrical premiere. Is that the next big domino to fall in this?

At this point, I would call it an evolutionary change. It's absolutely inevitable. The biggest studios — not Disney at the moment but Universal and Warner Bros. — really want it. The only reason they're not pushing for it is that with this Disney/Fox deal happening and AT&T/Time Warner, a lot of mergers, you don't want to upset anybody when you're trying to get a big deal approved by the government. The companies want it and a lot of consumers want it. Some movie lovers may be upset, but the audience, especially younger people, understandably in the age of Netflix, are used to getting what they want when they want it. It's a cliche, but it's true.

Already, the date from a movie's theatrical release to when it is available to buy online has shrunk to 75 days. It used to be 120, then it got down to 90, now it's 75. It's not going to start with day-and-date for the bigger movies; it's going to start with three or four weeks for a higher price, and eventually it will go lower. Maybe it will start to be two weeks, and then it will be fewer and fewer movies that will qualify for the longer theatrical play. We're definitely going to a shrinking window, and you'll pay a higher price to see it sooner.

This idea that a movie has to be seen in a theater, it's not going away, it's going to be a smaller class of movies and a smaller number of audience members and filmmakers who insist on that.

How will that affect multiplexes?

We're already seeing [that] the chains are ripping out seats and putting in luxury seats. We're definitely going where the moviegoing experience is becoming more of a luxury, high-end experience. Going out of the home has to be special. It's got to be a better experience than you can have at home. That makes movies something affluent professionals can do but tougher for teenagers to do or people who don't have a lot of money.

It's a nationwide trend. I still think there will be cheap bargain theaters for movies that have been out for a month or two, but like so many things in America, the middle is what's going to fall out. The middle-class movie theater, so to speak, is going away.

What's next?

The biggest thing I'm paying attention to that I write about in the book is the push of the streaming platforms into movies. Neflix's spending on movies has risen rapidly. They've hired a bunch of executives.They're getting bigger and bigger films. They're bidding on all the biggest films in Hollywood these days. They're spending $8 billion on content this year. They have 700 pieces of content, including films, TV, comedy specials, etc. They are just eating Hollywood alive.

I think movies are the toughest area to do that, but they are pushing aggressively. How they do that and how that changes audience behavior and how the major studios figure out how to respond, I talk about that in the book. I saw it coming, but it's coming even faster than I thought.

With Disney buying Hulu, Hulu's going to become a bigger player in movies for sure. The Disney direct-to-consumer platform, is something again I think that's predicted in the book, but not talked about. Disney is making original films, family films for its direct-to-consumer platform.

How do the traditional studios differentiate their content? How do you get people to leave their homes and leave streaming to see a movie in a theater? What is the definition of a movie anymore? Those are questions I thought were a few years out when I finished the book, and in reality, they're maybe one year out. They're happening right now.

What are we losing out on?

The great thing about a movie like "Get Out" or "Black Panther" is we're all seeing it at the same time and we're all talking about it in this cultural moment. That's something that's special about theatrical release that might be lost. A Netflix movie, I put in my queue and I get around to it when I get around to it. You might see it now; I might see it in a few months. It's not this cultural moment, and that is something movies were always able to do and it's tougher now.

How does the book help readers understand the future of movies?

The entertainment business is changing so rapidly now. Since I finished the book, Disney agreed to buy Fox, Netflix has accelerated their push into movies, China's investment has taken a pause. These are all things that are changing. My hope and belief is that the book is not just about little specifics but about these big picture trends and these things happening now are not surprising to anyone who's read the book.

How a Bay of Pigs Survivor Became a Brutal American Mobster

The mess of a CIA operation had horrific consequences for the organized crime scene back in the United States.

By Seth Ferranti
March 19, 2018

Image result for t.j. english the corporation

In April 1961, about 1,500 Cuban exiles trained and backed by the CIA set out to invade and overthrow the Fidel Castro regime. The Bay of Pigs operation, as it has since become notoriously known, was, of course, an unmitigated disaster—those exiles who weren't killed by well-prepared pro-Castro forces were rounded up and imprisoned until the Kennedy Administration was able to negotiate their release. The fiasco not only helped lay the groundwork for the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 but generally made the United States look like shit.

The mess of a CIA operation had long-term consequences for the organized crime scene back in the United States, too. Among those members of Brigade 2506—the would-be-liberators of Cuba—released back to American custody in 1962 was José Miguel Battle, Sr., a former Havana cop. He went on to reinvent himself in the US as El Padrino, a "Godfather" of the Cuban-American Mafia. Thanks in part to his connections to both legendary Italian mafiosi and the Havana underworld, he became a sort of king of the numbers racket in the New York/New Jersey metro area. With criminal interests all along the Eastern seaboard, Battle’s run continued into the George W. Bush era, when he and his son were finally arrested in 2004. Numbers, murder, and drugs—El Padrino seemed to outlast politics itself in a ruthless bid for power and riches.
In his new bookThe Corporation: An Epic Story of the Cuban American Underworld, out March 20, the master of true crime TJ English explores the life of the Cuban mob boss who, the author concluded, consciously modeled himself on Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone as he got older. VICE caught up with English about his new book and where El Padrino ranks in the chronicles of gangster lore. Here’s what he had to say.
VICE: What do you think José Miguel Battle learned as a vice cop in Havana that would help him head a criminal empire in the United States? 
He learned how corruption works and how the world operates. How organized crime is a conduit between the upper world (the business and political class) and the underworld (the criminals and gangsters). Battle delivered the skim from the casinos to the presidential palace. He was the go-between, the bagman between Meyer Lanksy and President Fulgencio Batista and his government. Battle really understood how you needed to take care of people within the system. Payment would be made to whoever needed.
When he got to the United States and wanted to set up this gambling empire revolving around a numbers racket, or what Latinos called “bolita,” he knew if it was properly organized, it could be a goldmine. Part of organizing it was making sure he cleared it with the necessary Mafia figures in the United States. He set up meetings, through Santo Trafficante, with all the key Mafia figures in the New York/New Jersey area and started this bolita enterprise, which was quite vast and profitable on many levels.
It's remarkable that the failed Bay of Pigs invasion seemed to ultimately bring together the men who would become the Cuban Mafia in America. But given the way things were run in Batista's Cuba, it's not exactly shocking, right?
A lot of the Mafia figures and Cubans who were displaced by the revolution were angry. They had lost money, property, and belongings, had been unceremoniously kicked out of the country, and wanted to take Cuba back. They had a mutual interest with the CIA and the US government, who saw the Communist government of Fidel Castro as a threat, and wanted to overthrow it. All these elements—the Mafia, the CIA, and the Cuban exiles—formed a coalition and became determined to kill Castro and take back Cuba. The biggest initiative in that effort was the Bay of Pigs invasion. The men from this botched invasion, including Battle, became the foundation of The Corporation.
A lot of Americans' frame of reference for Cuban gangsters is probably still Brian De Palma’s Scarfacewhich emphasizes the Mariel boatlift of Cubans into Florida. How did Al Pacino's Tony Montana compare to the real man they called El Padrino?
José Miguel Battle was more of an establishment figure, the guy with lots of connections in the upper world. Tony Montana was a refugee, a guy with nothing, from the lowest level of the gutter who rose up. El Padrino was much more of an old-school don, because of his understanding of how the system worked. But the Mariel boatlift did have an impact on The Corporation. When they arrived in New Jersey and Miami, they were immediately integrated into the criminal underworld, and they were the kinda guys who would do the type of criminal assignments that other people might not be willing to do. Murders, all kinds of hard-line criminal activities. Some of the most violent criminal activity was done by the Marielitos, as they were called.
Like plenty of real-life and fictional mob figures, El Padrino didn’t exactly take kindly to betrayals. But the incident with his one-time protege Ernesto Torres—whom he is said to have ordered killed—was the closest he came to hard time in prison before he actually got nabbed in 2004, right?
Ernesto Torres was known to the organization as El Hijo Prodigo, the prodigal son. He was this young kid, 19-years-old, who showed talent as a gangster and as a killer. He started out pretty much as a hitman: One of his first missions was to try to avenge the murder of Battle's brother. Battle saw him as someone he could mentor and shape, maybe even to take over the organization. Others in the organization couldn't quite understand it, because this guy Torres wasn't very bright and didn't seem like the kind of guy who would make a good leader. Ernesto was always broke. He started kidnapping other bankers in the organization, and holding them for ransom money.
Eventually, Torres did the unthinkable and shot one of the kidnapped bankers. The guy survived, but Torres almost killed him. The other bankers told Battle that he had to do something about it because this guy was a loose cannon.
[After Torres's death], Battle was put on trial for conspiracy and found guilty on one of the counts. It looked like he was going to be put away for a long time—his reign was over. Torres's girlfriend had testified against him, but Battle beat that charge on a technicality. He got a lighter sentence. When there was some belief that he would be tried again using the girlfriend as a witness, the organization took care of that situation by murdering her before that trial could ever take place.
El Padrino was eventually brought down due to the dogged pursuit of one law enforcement official—David Shanks—whom you had access to. Why do you think he made bringing down this mafioso his career? 
David Shanks was just a Miami cop who came into the story of The Corporation kind of late. By the time he was involved, Battle had moved from New Jersey down to Miami, and the Corporation had been up and running for a least 15 years or 20 years in the New York area, and was now moving its operations. David Shanks was the guy who had worked organized crime, particularly street gambling and money laundering. He's one of the guys who first comprehended, I think, the full scope of what the Corporation was all about. He did a lot of it through tracking the money and how the money was being laundered by a kind of a check-cashing scheme, and he had connected that money-laundering scheme to the organization itself. He investigated them for about 20 years.
How do stories that teeter in the grey areas of politics and crime, like the ones you are so inclined to write, reflect on what’s going on today in that arena in our country? 
If you don't understand the history and the workings or organized crime in America, you can't understand America. That's how intertwined they are, and always have been, and still are. We talk often about how the mafia diminished and all that, and, of course, it has. But I don't think the corrupt mandate that created organized crime has diminished at all. It just keep taking on new forms and new shapes depending on what the dominant racket is in any given era at any given time. At one time it was illegal booze. Then it was sort of labor racketeering, and then it was narcotics. Any number of things. Political corruption and law enforcement corruption is always part and parcel to what makes the world go around. I don't think that's changed much.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Learn more about English's new book, which drops Tuesday, here.
Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter.