• The Movie Diary: You gotta be crood to be kind
    By Dom Cioffi
    Arts Correspondent | March 27,2013
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    William Blake did a heinous thing.

    In 1987, while being led into court to face a common drug charge, Blake made the split-second decision to escape. That ill-fated move resulted in one dead police officer and another critically wounded.

    Months later, when handing down his sentence of 77 years to life, the county judge told Blake that he deserved an eternity in hell for his crimes. Now, according to a recently published essay by Mr. Blake, that is exactly what the last 26 years have been. At nearly 50 years old, William Blake has spent over half his life not just in jail, but in solitary confinement. And while most of us may think we understand the concept of solitary confinement, Blake’s essay confirms that any idea we have is far removed from the reality.

    As Blake explains, death would come as a welcome reprieve from the loneliness and isolation that is faced within the confines of a cement cell no bigger than your average clothes closet.

    Cut off from human contact and provided with only a bare minimum of reading material, life in “The Hole” is sensory deprivation on an epic scale. Blake argues that the torment on the human brain when a person is left alone with their thoughts for years at a time is a gateway to insanity. And indeed most individuals who face long-term solitary confinement experience profound psychosis and lasting psychological effects.

    Blake’s essay, which won an honorable mention in the Yale Law Journal’s Prison Law Writing Contest, details his quarter century of existence. He vividly describes his day-to-day routine and how the average person’s idea of boredom would be considered a whirlwind of activity for him. Random details like explaining how he has read about the Internet and cellphones but never actually experienced them reveals just how removed isolated prisoners are from the real world.

    I’ve read this essay three or four times and still can’t determine whether I agree with the confinement technique or not, regardless of the crime. (You can read Blake’s essay by Googling “Voices from Solitary: A Sentence Worse Than Death.” There’s also a very interesting National Geographic documentary on the subject available on YouTube.) Ironically, I have a storage room in my garage that is roughly the size of a solitary confinement cell. I’ve been cleaning it out recently so it’s fairly empty other than some old chairs and a few boxes.

    Having been intrigued by Blake’s article and a bit of follow-up research on the subject, I decided that I would sit in my storage room for one hour and try to imagine what a sentence of solitary confinement would feel like (and yes, I did wait until my family was out of the house before initiating my experiment). I spent the first few minutes arranging my living space before finally sitting in one of the chairs and kicking my feet onto another. After some time with my eyes closed, I drifted off to sleep. I woke up about 15 minutes later and looked at my watch: Not even a half hour had passed. Over the course of the next 15 minutes I became more and more agitated as I imagined that the door to the storage room was locked. Putting myself into the mindset that I could not get out genuinely effected me. While I’m normally not bothered by enclosed spaces, a profound sense of claustrophobia overtook me once I bought into the idea that leaving wasn’t possible.

    After 50 minutes of “confinement,” I thought I was going to come out of my skin. When the hour was up, I walked out and shook my head. “I’d definitely end up talking to the toilet and drooling,” I thought.

    My little experiment opened my eyes to why prisoners who are incarcerated in solitary confinement often lose their minds. It also had me deeply questioning whether the death penalty is a more humane approach. Sitting in a box for years seems a bit like torture ... but maybe that’s what some criminals deserve.

    In the end, I’ve never met anyone who actually enjoyed being in tight spaces — until I met the cavemen featured in this week’s feature, “The Croods.”

    Set in the days of prehistoric man, “The Croods” follows a family of Neanderthals who spend most of their time hiding inside a small cave, fearful that death is awaiting them at any moment. All that changes when a stranger arrives and convinces them to set off on an adventure.

    I must admit that I am immediately suspect of any digitally animated film that is not produced by Pixar. The short history of the genre has proven that no studio comes close to creating the level of entertainment that Steve Jobs’ outfit makes commonplace. However, DreamWorks production of “The Croods” could point to a changing field. I usually commend Pixar for pushing the envelope on special effects while the other studios simply copy their advances. This time, however, DreamWorks must be praised not only for the beautiful visuals and intriguing re-creation of disaster scenarios, but also some highly stylized characters.

    If you’re in the mood for a great animated film with lively characters and a chewable storyline, by all means give this one a shot.

    While most animated films easily impress the youngsters, this one will also play well to the accompanying adults.

    An unrestrained “B+” for “The Croods.”

    Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him at moviediary@att.net.
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