Memo from the Dead Zone | 1986 World Cycling Championships

Let’s take a trip back in time. The year: 1986 — the last and only year the US was allowed to host UCI World Cycling Championships since 1893. You’re about to find out why.

In the mid-1980s I was a columnist for the greatest cycling magazine ever, Bicycle Guide. They sent me to cover the Worlds in Colorado, and the following is my report. Consider it a little taste of what to expect next year when, for better or worse, the Worlds return!

That’s right, in 2015 the World Cycling Championships road race is scheduled for Richmond, Virginia — a state with hurricanes, tornadoes, hazardous seismic activity, toxic waterways, 31 Superfund sites, doctors in tents instead of modern clinics, a governor convicted of 11 felony corruption counts, and police who tried to force a teenager to have an erection to prove they saw it in private emails they spied on illegally. Yup, Virginia is for lovers. And, uh, racing.

 ★★★

MEMO FROM THE DEAD ZONE
originally published in Bicycle Guide, January/February 1987
Text and Photos Copyright ©1987, ©2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER

Colorado Springs, America’s largest small town, wasn’t quite ready for the Worlds. After all, who else would sic police dogs on the World Pursuit Champion and ask you not to ride your bike in their hotel rooms?

***

I’m no good with small towns. I need large quantities of food at odd hours, department stores open ’til 9, all-night newsstands, winos who wipe your windshield because gas stations won’t, and 24-hour greaserias serving rotgut coffee. I’m a New Yorker. Bite me.

In the pantheon of small towns that should be avoided, Colorado Springs may be America’s largest. Its population, mostly somnambulant, consists of 375,000 tropes who seemed utterly unaware they were hosting a major international sports event.

Upward of 100,000 bikies had been making World Championships-related reservations since the previous January, but by August the Springoids remained staunchly oblivious even as cycling interests mainlined $10 million into the local economy. Few area businesses benefitting from this windfall reciprocated by donating primes to the Wheat Thins Mayor’s Cup street races, pretty much the only recreational entertainment available (and organized by David Pelletier, a savvy non-USCF East Coaster, natch). Because, you know, … duh.

Me, I saw the planets lining up upon my arrival at my fancy B&B, which was more like a dorm in hell. The headmistress saw our bikes and demanded to know — wait for it — if we intended to ride them in our room. Huh?!

I tried to imagine her scenarios: The next track session is three hours away and every restaurant in town is closed (yes, that happened): “Honey, I’m bored. Let’s ride bikes around the room!” Or I’ve just met some interesting people who also shlepped bicycles along, like the Italian team (that happened, too): “Hey, let’s have some fun riding bikes around my room!”

Soon the headmistress found out I was press, which resulted in surveillance of my “gourmet breakfast” plate. Her “inn” publishes and sells a collection of its “special recipes” (too special to actually waste on guests, apparently; I was never served any). My leftovers (ie, everything — hippie moderne crap!) elicited a stern lecture from the management, who considered that a smart way to avoid bad publicity.

I have to tell you, this grub nouvelle was everywhere, like acid rain. And they couldn’t even get that right. Hungry bikers turned militant as they searched in vain for bacon and eggs and burgers, and starved altogether from 3 to 5 pm and after 9, when Colorado Springs rolls up its streets — even when 100,000 tourists blow into town, dying to burn $10 million.

The city has exactly one diner (which I discovered on my way out of town) and barely enough late-night eateries to count on one hand. These establishments are distinguished by religious graffiti in the restrooms and menus featuring airbrushed, highly idealized photos of food-like matter. The pictures came in handy when the Japanese team (whose English was better than ours) failed at verbal communication with the waitresses, who eventually took orders by pictures. That is, after they finally stopped laughing and got up off the floor.

Where's the beef?

Where’s the beef?

Basic math

Ever notice how the ratio of small brains to small towns is in direct inverse proportion? I went sightseeing by bike and a local passed me in a tricked-out RV, yelling “Go Germany!” The jersey I wore was yellow, with my New York City club’s name on it. The Germans wear silver ones (East), or white (West). With German words, usually. Go figure.

I was luckier on my ride than others. Another hayseed drove his car over Olympic track star Shaun Wallace, and the police sicked an attack dog on world pursuit champion Tony Doyle. (Said Doyle after winning the pursuit gold with the teeth marks still visible on his calf, “I’ve got three legs he could have bitten. I’m glad he chose the one he did.”)

The Russians rode their bikes over to K-mart and were orgying inside when some hoods swiped their rides parked outside. Their bikes were recovered only because sharp-eyed neighbors noticed the $2,000 custom Colnagos with Cyrillic decals parked beside the Carrillo’s trash. [$2000 was a LOT of money in 1986. — ss] Sensing something not quite right about that, they called the cops, who clearly need all the help they can get. They never did find the $25,600 worth of equipment stolen from Campagnolo’s service truck.

Colorado Springs — a national treasure

No, really. Where else would contractors build bleachers to seat 8,000 by balancing them on little piles of sticks and sand? Where else would an elite international audience be expected to sing “Home on the Range”? Where else can you spend $100 on dinner and get food poisoning? (The Broadmoor, y’all — plan accordingly.) Where else would the Soviets end up in the Satellite Motel?

It’s somehow fitting that the United States Cycling Federation* is HQed in Colorado Springs. As small-time as small-town operations get, the USCF was unfortunately the organizer of this event, and mired in provincialism to the bitter end. First they blew a deal for network TV coverage. Then they let sponsors paint advertising directly onto the brand-new, state-of-the-art track surface at the US Olympic Training Center, on which many racers subsequently slipped and crashed. They mounted signs on all the velodrome’s rails, blocking most paying folks’ view. They recruited redneck road marshals who’d never seen a bike race before, much less hoards of hardcore bike racing fans, with whom they interacted like the Berlin border patrol. There were a lot of fights.

Strategically placed advertising is key to viewing enhancement.

Strategically placed advertising is key to viewing enhancement.

Judging by how late the town got the event memo, I’m guessing the USCF dropped the ball on publicity, too.

The one thing that was micromanaged was the press. The Federation demanded that we send in passport pics for mandatory photo IDs, which the Federation immediately lost. Then the USCF generously reshot them, thoughtfully providing a broken laminating machine to seal the magic passes. I call them magic because, although they looked alike, women’s prohibited them from bringing anyone inside the press area, while men’s allowed access by their entire families plus their analysts, stockbrokers, refreshment dealers, Akita trainers, et al.

Olympic and World Champion Jeannie Longo looks for an exit.

Olympic and World Champion Jeannie Longo looks for an exit.

A night out in paradise

Every convention has its party scene and this Worlds was no different. The only thing was, utterly no entertainment was provided for athletes or press, so improvisation was necessary. The trick was finding a decent location for a party.

One nightclub deejay proudly informed me, “I’m from Iowa, and we’re at the same level musically as New York.” Sure. Whatever. He demonstrated by spinning up a stupefying disco cacophony of stuff listened to in New York by people who wear vinyl pants and shower caps.

I pounded the buckaroo meat beat until I struck gold. Everyone else seemed to have found it first — including the hardhats, food designers, RV fans, waitresses, merchants, graffitists, thieves — even the deejay from the other club was there. One townie flew at me out of nowhere, shrieking that I better dare not take the empty barstool that was obviously hers because she’d left her wallet on it while she was gone. Like, to reserve it. I am not making this up.

The track events had just concluded and the biciclisti were there, too, boogying with a vengeance. The crème de la crème of sports proceeded to rout the scum de la scum of Colorado Springs. By midnight the townies had retreated in disgust.

Closing time came and went (too many receipts to skim). The morals squad came and went (not enough paddy wagons). Into the wee hours the bikies danced on the tables, danced on the chairs, danced on the bars. Had there been rafters, they’d have swung from them. No big deal, our clueless bartender assured us. “It’s always like this on Ladies’ Night.”

The next day I called it quits. A simpatico native asked to beam up with me.

“The people who live here think the UCI championships are an annual local event,” he told me, incredulous. “They’re already talking about next year.”

Call it a hunch, but I’ll bet it’s a cold day in hell before Colorado Springs hosts another Worlds. And that’s just fine with me.

Many-times Tour de France winners Laurent Fignon, Bernard Hinault, and Jacques Anquetil (and some guy) at a Colorado Springs press conference, wishing they were someplace else.

Many-times Tour de France winners Laurent Fignon, Bernard Hinault, and Jacques Anquetil (and some guy) at a Colorado Springs press conference, wishing they were someplace else.

Text and Photos Copyright ©2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved
May not be reproduced without permission.
*In 1993 the USCF was incorporated into USACycling. It didn’t help.

DEAD SPOT on AmazonSydney Schuster and Dead Spot  neither approved nor endorse any third-party advertising that may appear below, nor do we derive any income from it. Feel free to ignore it.

The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard | Book Review

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The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard
by Peter Benjaminson
Book Review © 2014 Sydney Schuster – All Rights Reserved

Whether The Supremes are icons of your youth or a legend you’ve recently discovered, don’t miss The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard. Author Peter Benjaminson skips no juicy details in this splendid biography of the group’s founder and most gifted member.

 

A former investigative reporter and author of the books The Story of Motown and Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar, Benjaminson delivers a seamless portrayal of the R&B luminary who zoomed from projects to stardom at 20, descended into alcoholism and poverty, then died tragically at 32 while attempting a comeback.

Benjaminson’s exhaustive research is impeccable. Every page of The Lost Supreme comes alive with intimate recollections from Ballard and the people who knew her best.

For lovers of showbiz backstory, The Lost Supreme has it all — Ballard’s harrowing rape by an NBA star; her manipulation by Berry Gordy and Diane Ross; the power struggle between the tinny-voiced singer and the throaty, sultry one; the ludicrous contracts; the catfights; the racist attacks; the bizarre meeting with the Beatles; Ballard’s ignominious ouster from the Supremes; the fortune stolen from her; and her unsuccessful $8.7 million lawsuit against Motown.

There are many wonderful quotes, too, like this gem from Ballard about the songs from the Supremes’ first single: “… both flops, but they were good flops.” And this zinger from Mary Wilson: “Whenever Diane would insist on a lead and then sing it, we would sort of look at each other and try not to laugh. She had this weird little whiny sound.”

There are other books about the Supremes, but only this one’s author has a musician’s understanding of R&B, a union spokesman’s understanding of contract law, and a Detroiter’s understanding of the inner city. All serve to illuminate the book’s narrative without overpowering it, as when Benjaminson describes the Motown sound: “This heavy beat was a natural connection between the African past and the mechanized present … African American tradition updated by the incessant pounding of the punch press and buffed to a shiny gloss by contact with an urban society.”

Benjaminson’s writing style is clean and direct but never boring, painting vivid images of civil rights-era America while elegantly putting Ballard’s successes and struggles into perspective. He takes great care to analyze the conflicting reports of certain pivotal events that, Rashomon-like, left fans and historians alike scratching their heads for decades. With a keen talent for juxtaposing quotes and events, he unveils interpersonal dynamics overlooked in other books on this subject.

The author’s wry wit keeps things lively. About Motown’s notorious owner who mixed and matched artists, writers, and producers with wild abandon, he writes: “Gordy hadn’t worked in a factory for nothing: he knew the value of interchangeable parts.”

In short, The Lost Supreme is can’t-put-it-down reading.

The exclusive input from Ballard is riveting. By allowing Flo to speak for herself (based on extensive one-on-one interviews just before her death), Benjaminson and Ballard distinguish fact from myth in the oft-romanticized central story of a beleaguered superstar who stood up to an exploitive recording industry. It all adds up to a remarkable history, brought to life by the people who lived it.

Available on Amazon.
guitars

Don’t miss Peter Benjaminson’s article in Rolling Stone about how The Lost Supreme got thisclose to becoming a movie!guitars

Copyright © 2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

I make no money from this blog. If you find it interesting or useful, please buy my book Dead Spot. The Kindle version’s only $5 and you’ll love it! Thanks.

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Sydney Schuster and Dead Spot neither approved nor endorse any third-party advertising that may appear below, nor do we derive any income from it. Feel free to ignore it.

HELP WANTED | The Myth of the Mighty Bicycle Messenger

Back during The Great Bike Boom of the 1980s, I wrote for an assortment of cycling publications. Mostly I covered racing.

At that time there was this inexplicable American obsession with big-city bicycle messengers — or rather, the idiosyncratic romantic heroes Americans imagined they were.

I knew many New York City bike messengers and was mystified by the out-of-towner’s fascination with them. Romance, my ass. We were in a recession, and they were just a bunch of good kids making a bad living the hard way. In 1987 Cyclist magazine asked me for a report. Here it is. Enjoy!

HELP WANTED
Originally published in Cyclist Magazine, August 1987

Copyright ©1987 ©2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

Kevin Bacon making a delivery.

Kevin Bacon making a delivery.

Let’s start this thing off with a fairy tale that came true. The prince is Nelson Vails — Olympian, film star, and officially New York City’s most famous ex-bicycle messenger.

Popular legend holds that Vails was snatched from obscurity by Fred Mengoni, the US Bicycling Hall of Famer who founded GS Mengoni USA. That’s the NYC farm team that produced international champions Alexi Grewal, Leonard Harvey Nitz, Mike McCarthy, Steve Bauer, and George Hincapie.

The story goes that one day Mengoni spotted the Harlem native chasing racers on a beater bike in Central Park. Profoundly impressed, Mengoni was moved to buy Vails his first good racing bike. The rest — Olympic stardom, product endorsement deals, film role, nice house in fancy neighborhood — it’s all history now. From ghetto to Gollywood on the express track.

Vails became the first African American to win an Olympic cycling medal (the silver), back in 1984. He also won a gold medal at the prestigious Pan Am Games in 1983. Not for nothing, but Vails’ messenger nickname was The Cheetah.

In the press, Vails’ story sold like ice water to bedouins. Hollywood couldn’t resist. So instead of making a movie about that, Columbia Pictures pandered to the appetites of drooling yahoos enraptured with idealized urban rebels (or the idea of them, anyway). The result was the fawning 1986 tribute to bicycle couriers, Quicksilver, about a fictional white stockbroker played by Kevin Bacon. Vails had a cameo. He played a bicycle messenger.

The best part of Quicksilver is the exciting opening action scene: a street race between Vails on a bike and Bacon in a cab. (Saw it or not, you know who won.) The movie goes downhill from there. New York Times reviewer Walter Goodman wrote: “Quicksilver is as much fun as a slow leak.”

No doubt about it. Bike messengers are hot stuff. But are the genuine items really the scruffy-yet-lovable street urchins portrayed in the media? Or are they slumming yuppies like Kevin Bacon, or sports champions in training, or something else? Who the heck becomes a bicycle messenger, anyway? And does the reality live up to the hype?

Nelson VailsNelson Vails delivering the bacon.

☆☆☆

At a spartan loft space one flight up from Park Avenue’s glitz, you’re welcomed into Amazing Racing Messengers by a scrawled Kilroy with a hole in the plaster instead of a nose. A crazy quilt of receipts, bike frames, posters and flags is the backdrop for Stella Buckwalter, a former racer. She looks like a fashion model, talks like a corporate executive and manages the business like an air traffic controller.

Most messengers, including Buckwalter’s, work part-time, furnish their own equipment and get a commission. Buckwalter’s are independent contractors who keep the standard 50 percent of what each trip nets, which is about $10. Buckwalter feels they don’t get compensated enough and loads them down with quarters out of her own pocket, she says, “to make sure they call for pick-ups.”

Not far away from Amazing Racing Messengers is its competitor, Born to Run. On the surface it seems antithetical to the standard courier company model. There are no random arrangements of tire tracks and chain grease. Floating amid glowing oak floors and pristine white walls is the only decoration: a landing strip of a desk covered with phones. Born to Run looks like an art gallery, sans the art.

“We just moved in,” apologizes owner Shelly Mossey, a former messenger with some great stories to tell.

While back office decor may differ, the function served by bicycle messengers stays the same. Or as Mossey puts it, couriers accommodate “anybody who can’t fax their package across town.”

Even with the proliferation of telecommunications and overnight air delivery, the cyclists’ immunity to gridlock and AT&T strikes makes them tough to beat.

Road to Riches! (Not)

Just so you know, messengers don’t get rich doing this. For 40 or so miles of daily riding, the average week’s messenger pay is a modest $250 to $300. A little ambition guarantees $450 to $600, and $1,000 weekly isn’t impossible for top earners.

But employee turnover is rapid — a messenger’s career is as spasmodic as a cabbie’s driving. And while they may have transformed communications, New York’s 3,000-plus messengers haven’t endeared themselves to the man on the street.

Despite superior bike-handling skills and a competitive attitude (plus any bull you’re asked to believe by Hollywood about stockbrokers-turned-messengers), these are not all middle-class bike racers.

The reality is that a relatively lucrative job with limited educational requirements is flypaper to immigrants and the underclasses. The racer look is often just vigorous posturing by wannabes with every reason to emulate athletes and no reason to take a driving test or learn vehicular law. Language comprehension and social graces are not givens, either.

The picture New Yorkers see frequently looks like this:

• A messenger zigzags the wrong way down a one-way street and then peels south on Madison Avenue, which goes north. He hits a pedestrian, who lies unconscious in the intersection. As a crowd gathers, he takes off without so much as a wave. Don’t want that pizza to be late!

• Joey is famous for his delivery uniform and style, which includes a hockey helmet complete with goalie’s mask. “He’ll ride the wrong way up Fifth Avenue, weaving in and out,” laughs Mossey. “At full speed. He’s totally crazed!”

• A non-English-speaking messenger drops off a package at the wrong address. The client is desperate. The frantic dispatcher tries to reconstruct the messenger’s trip. “Where did you come from?” he asks the messenger. The reply: “Cuba.”

• A messenger cuts off a bike commuter, hops a curb, scatters a gaggle of terrified pedestrians, and is stopped. A shouting match ensues. The messenger reaches into his pants as if to seize a weapon. Lycra doesn’t lie, clearly indicating the limitations of his defense options. Bewildered but relieved victims close in.

Despite the inherent chaos, it’s wrong to assume all messengers are guerillas. You’re just as likely to find gentle folk who can’t abide suits, or need flexible hours for auditions or classes. A cross-sampling of employees discloses lots of moonlighters from other trades: musicians, students, writers, artists, models — yes, even bike racers.

One of the latter is Craig Cook, a USCF-licensed junior racer. At 17 he’s more articulate and self-assured than your garden-variety teenager (or even your garden-variety racer). He looks like a choirboy from the waist up and a power sprinter from the waist down and doesn’t wear weird outfits.

Initially Cook was attracted to messengering by its mystique. That was before the pick-up that turned out to be a stack of dining chairs.

“But it also looked like a way to combine race training with a summer job,” he says. Now he finds that riding in fits and starts all day is stressful, and after-hours laps and Saturday races feel redundant. “By the end of the week,” Cook admits, “you’re sort of sick of bicycles.”

An interesting messenger subset is the small but growing contingent of women invading what’s considered male territory, because of the risks. One of them is Julia Ashcroft. Her purple locks are souvenirs from her last job, writing for a rock music publication in London. This American adventure junkie shifted to bike messenger mode, she says, “because the pay is better than a staff journalist’s, and I love riding.” She also loves the undeniable glamor of being a road warrior.

That last part, of course, comes with a downside.

Wild Kingdom

“It’s not an easy job, and it’s dangerous. It gets pretty wild for them out there,” insists Buckwalter. She estimates Amazing Racing Messengers’ crashes at one per week, “mostly minor. We try to get them to wear helmets.”

Trouble is a messenger’s shadow. Car doors open unexpectedly. Pedestrians cross against the light. One time a chicken-playing bus driver intentionally broadsided Mossey.

“Compare it to skydiving,” he suggests, remembering a messenger who lost two front teeth in an accident. “Take your eyes off the road for one second, you end up under a truck.”

Cook was prepared for bad surprises like oversized deliveries and rushes, but not certain others, like getting hit by a limousine that ran a light.

Casualties, which have doubled over the last five years, are a touchy subject. Sizable taxes and licensing fees are derived by the local government from commercial delivery activities, and the city doesn’t want the negatives publicized. But in 1986 there were 2,629 injuries and 7 fatalities in bike/motor vehicle accidents in New York. Pedestrians in the wrong place at the wrong time numbered 617, one of whom checked out permanently.

Who’s minding the store? The city claims courier services are responsible for insuring their messengers. Services claim their messengers are responsible for insuring themselves.

Just call it a free-for-all, because that’s what it is. Tired of dodging two-wheeled projectiles, irate citizens and businesses lobbied for citywide bike control several years back. City Council members and even Mayor Ed Koch jumped in, although Koch would jump into a vat of boiling Afrosheen if a camera was there. Steady streams of damning legal documents flowed between lobbyists and City Hall. Guess who was hired to deliver them.

The upshot was a toothless commercial regulation passed in 1984, Local Law 47. It requires company uniforms on messengers and identification plates on their equipment, so they can be more accurately fingered in the event of mishaps.

With messengers pretty much left to police themselves, compliance is unsurprisingly lax. Improvised head protection and comic book onesies rule. A courier named Juda authored and distributes a handout entitled Safe Cyclists Code [sic] in a sincere (if bone-headed) attempt at self-government. The Code dispenses jewels of advice like this one: “Don’t run red lights or ride against traffic without giving everyone else the right of way.”

So are couriers above the law, or what? Let’s just say they’re in a grey area of enforcement. This fact contributes substantially to their fearlessness, or foolhardiness, depending upon your vantage point.

One fellow sure to take the long view was standing on Wall Street recently, minding his own business, lost in thoughts of blind trusts and insider trading when one of Mercury’s own zoomed out of nowhere. Pedal and knee connected in a mighty crunch. David Stockman, former bad-boy budget director of the Reagan administration, went straight to the hospital. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

Legends die hard, especially ones about blue-collar workers in day-glo Spandex. Andy Warhol said that in this, the Electronic Age, everyone will be a celebrity for 15 minutes. It’s been a long trip from anthropological footnote to media darling, but for better or worse, the bicycle messenger’s quarter-hour has arrived.

Team Breakaway Courier — real messengers, really racing.

Team Breakaway Courier — real messengers, really racing.

New York City’s 1992 Team Breakaway Courier. From left to right: Craig Cook, architect; Mike McCarthy, 1992 World Pro Pursuit Champion; Kurt Gustafsson, competitive skier; and Rafe Diaz, MIA. Photo © 2014 Kevin Hatt

☆☆☆

Sydney Schuster rides bikes, lifts weights and battles computers in New York City. She was hit by a bike messenger once. He is expected to recover.

Text Copyright © 1987, © 2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved
Photo of Nelson Vails © 2014 Nelson Vails
Photo of Team Breakaway Courier © 2014 Kevin Hatt
Photo & Video from Quicksilver © 2014 Columbia Pictures

Breaking: A new documentary about the life of Nelson Vails will premiere in New York City on February 15, 2014. It’s called Cheetah: The Nelson Vails Story. For tickets, go to Vails’ info page.

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll really like my book Dead Spot!

DEAD SPOT on AmazonSydney Schuster and Dead Spot neither approved nor endorse any third-party advertising that may appear below, nor do we derive any income from it. Feel free to ignore it.

Film Review | Road to Hell

road to hell title

The Long-Awaited Film by Albert Pyun

Movie Review Copyright ©2014 Sydney Schuster – All Rights Reserved

roadtohell_IMDB.43123343

I watch an awful lot of movies. I own very few. One of them is Streets of Fire, the 1984 cult rock drama by Walter Hill about a mercenary soldier, Tom Cody. Another is Cyborg, the 1989 martial arts horror extravaganza by Albert Pyun starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. So when I heard years ago that Pyun was making a sequel to Streets of Fire, it stayed on my radar like gum stuck to my shoe.

I finally got to see it this week. Let me just say this: It is stunning.

Road to Hell, as it’s called, certainly lives up to its name. A largely self-financed labor of love, it was in production for five years and survived many setbacks before finally making its maiden tour of film festivals in 2012. So far it’s won three Best Picture awards: Yellow Fever (Belfast), XIII Costa del Sol Fantasy Film Festival (Spain), and the PollyGrind UnderGround Film Festival (Las Vegas, where it also scored Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Song, and Best Visual Effects). It recently began general theatrical showings. At its first screening, Road to Hell grossed enough to make Indiewire’s box office chart, and was the only independently distributed film in the bunch.

If you get the chance to see it, do not hesitate. Go!

That said, Road to Hell is not what you’d expect. If you’re a Hill fan, keep in mind that it’s an homage, not an official sequel. If you’re a Pyun fan, you’ll love it no matter what. One viewing tip: If you never saw Streets of Fire, watch that first and you’ll appreciate Road to Hell even more. (Rent it. It’s $3 on Amazon.) For fans of both Streets of Fire and Pyun, Road to Hell is totally worth the interminable wait.

So what’s it about? Okay, first let’s review. When we last saw our hero Tom Cody (Michael Paré), it was 1984. He’d just rescued the toothsome Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) from rubber-clad kidnappers and was leaving to attend a war, apparently because he liked guns more than her. Go figure. And she was leaving their slummy ’hood, The Richmond, for rock superstardom. Fair enough.

MSDSTOF EC108

STREETS OF FIRE, Michael Pare, 1984, (c)Universal Pictures

Plotwise, Streets of Fire is your boilerplate morality play with the usual suspects. The only characters with any emotional depth are Cody and his sister Reva (Deborah Van Valkenburgh). The rest are one-dimensional, almost cartoon-like. Or as Pyun explains it, “Cody was all about Ellen and Ellen was all about Ellen.” Which is perfect here, because anything more complex would just muddy an effort of this scale. Sort of the way Ben & Jerry’s flavors all have one too many ingredients so you buy Haagen-Dazs chocolate chip instead, just so your head won’t explode.

Why pay $3 to watch this? I hear you asking. Well, Streets of Fire has singing and dancing. It has brawls and car chases and motorcycles, and stuff exploding everywhere, and the obligatory mash scene is extra steamy. It has a huge cast of talent who became famous for doing something else. The action’s artily set against other-dimensional backdrops of garish 1950-ish tableaux mixed with 1980s hair and semiautomatic weapons.

You might guess a formula like that would never work. You’d be wrong. Not to mention the soundtrack is so bitchin, it had a life all its own. There are songs by Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks, Ry Cooder, Leiber and Stoller, Link Wray, Bob Seger, and Meat Loaf’s wife, Jim Steinman, produced by Jimmy Iovine. The Dan Hartman hit “I Can Dream About You” made Billboard‘s Top 10 chart. In 2007 Vanity Fair rated the film’s score Number 6 on its Best Soundtracks Ever list. Simply put, Streets of Fire is a pre-CG sensory feast.

A rock & roll fable, Hill called it. Others called Streets of Fire the first music video. MTV didn’t exist yet, and Hill famously said in interviews that he filmed all the concert scenes by the seat of his pants, having no precedent to follow.

“It’s cut in time with the music!” oozed viewers who’d never seen A Hard Day’s Night. “You can’t use my song!” snorted Bruce Springsteen when told Hill didn’t want him to sing it. “It wanted to be a comedy and it turned out to be a drama,” costar Rick Moranis groused to Empire magazine. “What is this crap?” said just about everyone at industry screenings.

Nobody got it. One reviewer picked on the stars’ noses. (“…the smallest noses in show business history; perhaps this is why, when their faces meet, so little happens.” — Susan Dworkin, Ms. Magazine, August 1984)

It opened the same week as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Doom being the operative term here, box office was half what the film cost to make. ($14.5 M cost, $8 M gross.) And so Streets of Fire bombed resoundingly, thus claiming its rightful place in the pantheon of Eye Candy Rock Movies We Love, Now.

According to Hill, Streets of Fire was to be the first film in a Tom Cody trilogy. When it tanked at the box office, The Bombers Strike Back and Return of the Sorels sank with it. (Paré claimed the sequels were abandoned because everyone involved left Universal, who owned the rights to the franchise and wouldn’t play nice.)

For three decades, Streets of Fire fans waited patiently for someone to salvage the wreckage. Albert Pyun is their Argo.

Pyun, for those who don’t know, apprenticed to Akira Kurosawa in the 1970s and debuted as a feature film director in 1982, with The Sword and the Sorcerer, one of the top-grossing indie films of all time. His 50-some movies include the horrorfests Nemesis (1992) and Infection (2005), which won best picture and best director awards at VI Semana Internacional de Cine Fantástico y de Terror de Estepona. In 2013 he received the Indie Genre Spirit Award at the Buffalo Dreams Fantastic Film Festival.

Pyun first met Paré in the 1990s. Both were making movies for Cannon Pictures then, albeit not together, and racking up industry cred — Paré was upcycling his image to action hero after a decade of mostly forgettable TV roles and romance films, while Pyun was establishing himself as a director who could quickly make profitable movies, often two at a time.

houston knights & women's club 3

Michael Pare in “Houston Knights” (left) and “The Women’s Club” (right)

“We discussed the Road to Hell movie with Paré in 2007, in Spain” at a film festival, says Pyun’s longtime collaborator, Cynthia Curnan. “Albert and Michael had wanted to work together for a long time.”

With Pyun directing, Curnan writing and producing, and the preternaturally handsome Paré in nearly every scene, they started shooting Road to Hell in 2008. The result is more a tribute to Streets of Fire than a followup: not so much singing and dancing, way more violence and blood, all of it set against staggeringly beautiful scenery.

But that’s Pyun’s forté. Shocking visual effects, coupled with edgy dialogue by Curnan that makes you believe ordinary people can triumph in extraordinary circumstances. Like Streets of Fire, Road to Hell is way, way ahead of its time.

Much of the film’s carnage is suggested rather than shown (probably as a result of budget constraints and lost footage — I’ll get to that). There’s a lot of outside-the-letterbox mayhem and sex. Personally, I like this approach. It leaves more room for the characters to develop and the plot to run on its own wheels. A great director is one who presents stories as well as he does entrails.

I don’t want to give away too much plot here. Me, I thought I knew what to expect and still had a visceral reaction at key moments, so I’ll let some other reviewer mess up that pleasure for you.

Suffice it to say that Road to Hell didn’t win PollyGrind’s best effects award for nothing. Much like Streets of Fire, many scenes have mesmerizing other-worldly backdrops. Every color-saturated shot is carefully framed, almost like a postcard — a picture postcard from Hell.

Hell Valley, that is. That’s where we hook up with Cody again, returning from his precious war with a bad case of post traumatic stress disorder. He still has too many weapons. Hell, he is a weapon.

Having had 29 years to reconsider his earlier poor decision, he’s now on his way back to The Richmond to reconnect with the hot girlfriend who got away. Along the way he meets two new characters: Caitlin (Clare Kramer) and Ash (Courtney Peldon), a pair of fetchingly underdressed misanthropes having car trouble on Route 666.

The women are luminous and electric, even while changing a tire that’s bigger than they are, and so reprehensible it’s hard to feel sorry for them. They’re loud and pottymouthed. They kill people for fun. Caitlin thinks she’s found her soul mate in Cody.

Kramer simmers in her role. She was my favorite villain — the mean, funny, fashion-victim god Glory — in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and she makes a good baddie here. Peldon cooks, too. Her best moments come when she realizes her use-by date has expired, and she utters barely a word. It’s all on her beautiful, horrified face.

Speaking of meaningful looks, one part I was compelled to rewatch several times is the scene where Cody meets Caitlin and Ash. Look carefully. You’ll see the face of a softer, younger Cody, the one who wants to believe in love, in a pitched battle with harder, older, no-bullshit Cody who’d rather just kill. Paré’s face actually changes, then changes back. It’s more than acting (bygones, Michael) and it’s not a digital manipulation.

The technical explanation? “A camera malfunction damaged all the shots,” says Curnan. “We had to wait for technology to advance to fix them. We couldn’t afford to rotoscope each frame.” Five years after they started, they were reshooting and repairing scenes. This sequence was among them. What you see is an epic Jekyll/Hyde duel between a 40-something Paré and a 50-something Paré, duking it out for realsies.

And it’s freakin’ awesome. There isn’t a makeup artist alive who could believably achieve what Pyun accomplished here. That he arrived at it while making lemonade out of lemons is the stuff of legends.

If you don’t understand what I mean, or think I’m full of crap, or both, I refer you to 1989’s Eddie and the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives!, in which a then-30ish Paré alternated between a 20ish Eddie and a 40ish one wholly via makeup, and succeeded at neither. Clare Kramer had an alter ego in Buffy who was more believable, and he was a guy. Not for nothing, but in 1977 Luis Buñuel ingeniously used two actors (Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina) to play one character, Conchita, in That Obscure Object of Desire. No makeup magic there and no one laughed, either, at least not when they weren’t supposed to.

My point is, there are ways to do this sort of thing believably and too often it isn’t, due more to lack of imagination than budget. Film history is littered with detritus from failed id-versus-ego slapdowns. (The Curse of the Werewolf? The ShiningMary Reilly? Sybil? Anyone?) I say do it right or go home, and Pyun nails it.

Among Road to Hell’s other visual treats are the spectacular Nevada desert, subbing for purgatory here with enhancements recalling a bad acid trip (and cleverly referencing Streets of Fire‘s original artwork).

Road to Hell

Streets of Fire posterAnother thing I liked immensely is the juxtaposition of multiple timelines in the present (Cody’s, Ellen Dream’s, and Reva’s) with the Ellen Aim flashbacks. The present-time scenes are all different styles: a graphic novel look for Tom Cody, a cinema verité one for Ellen Dream, and a documentary feel for Reva Cody. They’re knitted artfully with the happy-fuzzy uber-romanticized memories of Ellen Aim. When they all collide at the end, you know exactly where you are.

Anyway, Van Valkenburgh reliably reprises the role of Reva. She does a fine job of tethering the day-glo present to a noir past necessarily relegated to viewer memory. It’s good to see her again. Ellen Aim is played by the sexy Anita Leeman. Other characters from Streets of Fire are mentioned but never shown at all (except for Cody’s sidekick McCoy and arch enemy Raven, briefly and gorily). As always, Brick Bardo (Scott Paulin) is in the mix, too.

Michael Paré of course plays Tom Cody. Michael Paré rocks Tom Cody. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in that role, ever. If there’s ever a sequel to the sequel, they’ll just have to wheel Paré out and let him gum the scenery. That’s how much he owns the part.

The Cody in Road to Hell is disillusioned and surly, seeking some type of redemption while questioning whether he even deserves it. He’s so discombobulated, he even toys with the idea of badgirl Caitlin as a viable alternative to Ellen, I guess in case his childhood sweetheart who’s probably an altacocker now doesn’t work out. Caitlin’s hot. She’s there. She gives MRE new meaning. So what if she’s depraved?

Granted, it’s a lot of story packed into a compact space and I’ve only told you half of it, like I promised I wouldn’t. Pyun and Curnan cleverly manage to convey all this in terms of biblical allegory. Don’t worry. It’s fun, not preachy.

The unique concept gives an interesting spin to a plot that, in the hands of lesser storytellers, could easily be not so special. I dare you not to love the backstory exposition humorously offered by Gabriel, of all people — yes, the archangel given the unenviable job of telling the Virgin Mary that the rabbit died. Joei Fulco plays the part — yes, she’s a woman. Instead of a horn, this Gabriel wields a mean guitar and modern slang. Her mission: Snatch Cody from the jaws of hell. Woot!

One of many other scripty things Curnan does especially well is sandwich very funny quips in between body blows. Consider this one, delivered ominously by a grinning, up-to-no-good Cody: “I’ve hunted up here. I hunt wabbit. The two-legged breed.” And this, blurted by Ellen Aim’s eternally disappointed daughter (Roxy Gunn) during a confrontation about to turn postal: “I needed you my whole life, asshole!”

Streets of Fire fans will delight in the strategic reuse of signature lines throughout Road to Hell. There are slick cross references, too: a flat tire that changes everything; OTT bondage; Ellen suffers idiotic fan questions about her creative process. Her band sports the same name as Torchie’s band, the Blasters. Cody coldcocks chicks. He even mentions his “dark side,” a sly wink at another Paré cult musical, Eddie and the Cruisers.

Much to the relief of everyone except Springsteen, there’s finally an actual song called “Streets of Fire,” written for the movie by musical director Tony Riparetti and sung the hell out of by Fulco. The whole score is quite good. Two Jim Steinman songs from Streets of Fire were dusted off and performed again, this time by Gunn, and arguably better: “Nowhere Fast” and “Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young.” Gunn is a guitarist and vocalist who wrote and performed many of the film’s excellent tunes. Vegas Rocks! Magazine called Road to Hell “one of the best music-driven films of the year.”

I love Pyun’s willingness to take big chances on relative unknowns, a kind of artistic bravura that really pays off here. Newcomers Fulco and Gunn pull double duty supplying both pipes and pivotal character portrayals, and never miss a beat. Fulco, amazingly, is only about 15 here and has since moved on to leading roles in feature films. She’s going to be a huge star. Quadruple-threat Gunn also has a big career ahead. Her band The Roxy Gunn Project is a favorite on Vegas stages, with a rapidly growing fan base. Both Fulco’s and Gunn’s lungs should be gilded and enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Best of all, Road to Hell has a twist ending you’ll never expect. I foresee it winning a lot more awards. And fans. Go see it. You’re welcome.




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Content of this blog Copyright ©2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved.
Road to Hell material Copyright ©2014 Albert Pyun Movies and Curnan Pictures ★ Images used with permission
Streets of Fire photo of Michael Paré and film poster art © RKO Universal Pictures

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Speaks for Itself

An adorable but completely insane admirer linked this to Dead Spot. Can’t imagine why!

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5 O’Clock World | Joyriding with the High Rollers

I used to be the nightlife columnist for a newspaper so dorky, I was the best thing in it. Here’s one of my club reviews from 2005.

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high rollers

Copyright © 2013 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

You sure wouldn’t know it to look at it, but the Narragansett Cafe in Jamestown (25 Narragansett Ave.) is one mighty interesting place.

On the face of it, it’s just another small-town bar. Except it’s a small-town bar that occasionally books national acts. We’ve got a few of those around here.

Anyway, that’s how I used to think of the Ganny, as the regulars call it. Unassuming. Low key. Sort of Ernie’s Garage-looking. Am I on the right block?

Then I went in. Many things make the Ganny special. First of all, the bartenders take no prisoners when out-of-towners get out of line. (“Martinis?! What kinda place you think this is?”) Plus there’s this resident angry mob that chased me — twice, actually — because they thought I was some dude invading the sanctity of the ladies’ can. One time a hysterical guy nearly kicked down my stall door. In the women’s room. I am not making this up.

Now, I’m assured by my loved ones that I do not (as Bunny Swan put it) looka like-a man, despite a propensity for motorcycle jackets and cowboy boots. It’s just that the Ganny, where the lights are atmospherically dim and the beer goggles extra thick, is a place where magic happens! Or something.

In other words, the Ganny is my kind of place. So forget that the outside looks like Mayberry Hardware. I’ve heard an awful lot of good music inside, the quality of which easily overshadows any cosmetic disadvantages by many orders of magnitude.

Last week I was overdue for some pixie dust, so I stopped in to catch Dave Howard and the High Rollers. Tommy Ferraro, the band’s guitarist, agrees that the Ganny looks deceptively laid back from the street. He should know. He’s played there for fifteen years.

“Most every night can be a crazy experience,” he says, recalling the old days when he’d perform atop the bar, dragging a long cord behind him. “I might’ve kicked over somebody’s drink once or twice.”

His favorite Ganny memory, though, is a birthday he’ll never forget. “The owner, Danny Alexander, and the manager, Lynnie Sisson, are great people. They brought out a big cake. I played a green Fender Stratocaster in those days, and the cake had a green guitar on it. It was really sweet!”

As it turned out, a bunch of my friends had had the same idea as me on this particular night. So I sat at a table full of jaded professional musicians whose idea of a fun night off is a date with the High Rollers.

Back in New York we called this a busman’s holiday. And let me just say, an evening off doesn’t get any better. We were all kinds of raucous, careening into the night with the High Rollers driving. It was like our own private party except with a killer band, someone to clean up our mess, and a bunch of other people we didn’t know.

Our bus never rolled in but the club was jammed anyway, because the High Rollers always draw a crowd. The dance floor was total chaos.

For the record, the only thing actually rolling here besides the band was a local guy in a wheelchair, who I’m told gets ejected regularly for groping distaff patrons. The vigilante mob? Not so much rolling as roiling. The band’s other fans range from gymnastic swing dancers to crusty jitterbuggers, to hardcore R&B and rock’n’roll purists who brook no shoddiness. This place is like dance school, with beer. And seething mobs and projectile wheelchairs.

The High Rollers’ bread and butter is blues, but they are chameleon-like, adapting seamlessly to the tastes of whichever town they’re in and whatever revelers drop by. They’re almost a different band every time, each incarnation flawless and irresistible. Whaddya like? Rockabilly? Honkey-tonk? Country? Stones? Ballads? You came to the right place. If you’re breathing, you’ll love them. There’s nothing they can’t play the hell out of.

If ya gotta ask why, then here ya go: Each band member is a monster in his own right. Ferraro is one slammin’ guitar wizard, perhaps one of the most underrated artists in the music industry. Paul Bondarovski of Midnight Special Blues Radio said: “Les Paul would stay open-mouthed having heard [Ferraro’s] solo in ‘Old But I Ain’t Dead.'” Ferraro’s been playing since he was eight, he explains, when his accordion teacher goaded him to “play an instrument you can make some money with.”

The rest of the line-up consists of Robillard alumnus John Packer on bass, ex-Radio King Bob Christina on drums, and of course Dave Howard on vocals and harp. He was one of the Vipers (as in Young Neal And The). Along with Ferraro, he’s also the High Rollers’ songwriter. Collectively the band has, like, 800 years of chops. They’ve cut three CDs that’ll blow your doors off: Sure Bet, Lonesome Tears In My Eyes, and Ride Past Midnight (the latter two are hard to find but worth the work).

The Providence Phoenix named the High Rollers “Best Blues Band” four freakin times. They play at the Ganny a lot. So ignore its Guido’s Pizza facade and go on in already. There’s plenty of room to dance and a stunning range of suds on draft. Just steer clear of the wheelchair perv and that lynch mob over by the restroom. Hell, there’s no cover. Whaddya want — everything?

Above: A killer solo by Tommy Ferraro.

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Diagnosis Murder: Imaging as a Psycholegal Defense Tool

I used to be a regular contributor to the website AuntMinnie.com — an unfortunate name for a fantastic publication read and revered by the entire radiology profession. Go check it out sometime.

I covered many aspects of radiology, but my hands-down favorites were legal-flavored. In 2006 I wrote the following story for AuntMinnie.com, a look into the surprising ways medical imaging could be used to defend — or convict — people accused of violent crimes.

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Diagnosis Murder: Imaging as a Psycholegal Defense Tool
Originally published in AuntMinnie.com, June 29, 2006
Copyright © 2014 Sydney Schuster – All Rights Reserved

If the current crop of TV shows is any indication, medical imaging is primed to replace forensics as the cool crime-fighting science. On the Fox drama “Bones,” FBI doctors use whiz-bang 3D virtual reconstruction to identify homicide victims.

Imaging has also popped up on all the incarnations of “CSI,” most often in the context of forensic autopsy, although one episode of “CSI: Miami” did raise hackles when iodine-131 was used as a murder weapon.

Of course, in these cases, imaging was used on the deceased victim. But in real-life crime dramas, imaging is being deployed in a new context — as a defense tool for those looking to back up a plea of legal insanity.

Consider the recent trial of Dena Schlosser, who was accused of fatally dismembering her 10-month-old daughter with a kitchen knife in the family’s apartment in Plano, TX. During her first trial, which ended in a hung jury, Schlosser’s team failed to convince the jury that voices in her head drove her to commit murder.

During Schlosser’s retrial, defense attorney David Haynes introduced new evidence that Schlosser had a midbrain tumor, which was spotted after she underwent a functional MRI (fMRI) test. The new defense tactic was that the voices Schlosser had heard were caused by this inoperable brain tumor. Schlosser was subsequently found not guilty by reason of insanity earlier this year.

Schlosser beat serious odds when her brain tumor was confirmed with the MR scan. Others are attempting to do the same. It would seem that defense attorneys order up MRI, PET, and SPECT scans so often that the topic inspired a lively debate in the AuntMinnie.com General Radiology Forum.

“We had an attorney in the state’s public defender office (who) would get a PET or MRI (on the taxpayer’s dime) on every capital murder defendant,” stated one Forum member.

Such complaints inspired AuntMinnie.com to investigate the use of scanning as a psycholegal defense tool (and before “Law & Order” beat us to it). Can a scan actually convince a jury that a person is not at fault for committing a heinous act of violence against another human being? Under what circumstances are scans most likely to be ordered? And how much liability do radiologists carry when they are asked to perform such exams?

Different states, different standards

Certainly defense teams can request an imaging exam, find a doctor to perform and interpret it, and submit the results as evidence in their client’s favor. But how likely are the courts to admit the evidence, especially as a bolster for the tricky insanity plea? The answer varies from state to state.

“The Texas formulation of the insanity defense is one of the tightest in the 50 states,” said David Haynes, Schlosser’s attorney, in an interview with AuntMinnie.com. “In Texas, a person is insane if, as a result of a severe mental disease or defect, he did not know that his conduct was wrong. Unless a defendant can show a long history of documented bizarre behavior that has been observed by lay persons, he has no chance to use the insanity defense successfully.”

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Primary glioma imaged on FDG-PET and 11C-methionine PET, revealing tumor glucose utilization and protein synthesis respectively. Image courtesy of Siemens Medical Solutions and Huashan Hospital, Shanghai.

Before the MR scan and the brain tumor, Schlosser had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, for which hallucinations are a classic symptom. But that diagnosis alone was considered inadequate proof of incompetency by the Texas court.

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Above, T1-weighted postcontrast axial image from the MRI series undergone by Dena Schlosser. Below, an axial diffusion-weighted image. Schlosser’s neurologist examined Schlosser after her first trial and, based on the MRI exam, testified that midbrain injuries could cause visual hallucinations. Schlosser had previously told psychiatrists that she believed God wanted her to cut off her child’s arms, as well as her own arms, legs, and head (Dallas Morning News, April 3, 2006). Images courtesy of David K. Haynes, Attorney at Law.

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In 1998, a Florida death row inmate Michael Robinson — who had pleaded guilty to first-degree murder — decided he wanted to serve a life sentence instead. In an effort to show mental incompetence, his defense counsel put in a bid for a state-sponsored PET scan, which was deemed too expensive by the state, and then a SPECT scan — dubbed “a poor man’s PET scan” by the defense. Robinson claimed his constitutional right to due process was violated when Florida denied him both scans.

Other states are more lenient. In Massachusetts, a judge felt a homicide defendant with attention deficient/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), traumatic brain injuries, and a language disability actually may have been unable to control his behavior. The court blamed the defense attorney for not mentioning those details during the trial, thereby depriving the accused of an insanity defense, and the defendant was granted a new trial.

In the U.S. territory of Guam, Joseph Hughes Valenzuela, accused of repeatedly stabbing his wife with a kitchen knife in 2003, was actually ordered by the court to undergo a brain scan. His criminal trial is set for June 30.

In New York City, Peter Braunstein underwent PET scans at the request of his attorney, Robert Gottlieb. Braunstein allegedly set a small fire in an apartment building and impersonated a firefighter to gain access to the victim’s apartment. He is accused of drugging the woman and raping her repeatedly for 13 hours, before fleeing with a pair of her shoes.

2006_06_23_14_17_12_706 Above, Peter Braunstein. Image courtesy of Gawker.com. Below, Braunstein’s PET scan. Image courtesy of the Law Offices of Robert C. Gottlieb.

2006_06_23_14_17_25_706A neuropsychiatrist who reviewed the images said that Braunstein’s scans showed frontal lobe deficiencies consistent with schizophrenia. Additionally, a psychologist hired by the defense interviewed Braunstein at Rikers Island and said that he suffered from “psychotic breaks with reality, a systematized paranoid delusion and compromised ability to control his impulses.”

In December 2005, Braunstein pleaded not guilty to charges of sexual abuse, arson, kidnapping, burglary, and robbery. Gottleib is rumored to be planning a psychiatric defense (New York Daily News, June 2, 2006).

A felon in your future?

Many types of psychoses and dementias are identifiable by brain anomalies or pathologies on imaging, so the appeal of imaging to defense attorneys is a given, especially as technologies become more cost-effective.

A 2001 study found that among forensic referrals for competency to stand trial the largest diagnostic category was schizophrenia (44%), followed by psychosis (43%). Overall, 18% of the present sample was found to be incompetent to stand trial, while 12% were found to be not criminally responsible or “insane” (Behavioral Sciences & the Law, September 17, 2001, Vol. 19:4, pp. 565-582).

Another study from the Yale University Child Study Center in New Haven, CT, found that of the 18 males in their patient sample — all of whom were condemned to death — all showed signs of prefrontal cortex impairment. In addition, “83% had signs, symptoms, and histories consistent with bipolar spectrum, schizoaffective spectrum, or hypomanic disorders” (Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 2005, Vol. 32:4, pp. 408-429).

What is the role of radiologists when requests for these scans come their way? Does the imaging expert’s obligation end once this “patient” is out of the scanner and/or once the films have been read, or is he or she now a reluctant participant in a criminal case?

First, the type of practice can makes a difference. A radiologist in private practice can always refuse a referral to image a violent criminal. On the other hand, those who work for government institutions (federal or state hospitals) may not have that option, although prison-based doctors have successfully bowed out of certain tasks citing ethical concerns (Boston Globe, February 21, 2006).

When defendants are referred for imaging, the order may come from another physician who is acting on the request of a judge or attorney, or if the defendant has been sent to a particular institution for competency evaluation. Occasionally, proper protocol is ignored and attorneys will order imaging exams as will physicians who are acting as an expert witness, but are not licensed to practice within the trial state.

Radiologists can refuse to provide medically unauthorized exams, although they risk being called on the carpet for insubordination, especially if a supervisor has approved the order. But that may be lesser of two evils — accepting such a referral does carry some legal risk. Conducting an imaging exam without a medical indication is questionable. Imaging experts also may be held liable for performing medical exams on referral from someone who is not a doctor.

The request for the scan should come directly from a medical professional, although the implicit understanding is that the psychiatrist or neurologist is asking on behalf of an attorney, said Dr. Harry Zibners, chairman of the medicolegal commission of the American College of Radiology (ACR).

As for reading the scan itself, Zibners recommended that radiologists approach it as they would in a routine clinical setting, including a working knowledge of the person’s relevant medical history.

“I would not view this any differently than any other case that I agreed to read,” Zibners told AuntMinnie.com. “I want to have some kind of history. I would read it and interpret it like I would anything else. That’s what my job is.”
For the written report, Zibners again suggested that radiologists walk the straight and narrow. While it may be obvious to everyone involved in this case that the defense team has an agenda, the radiologist need not play into that by making any connection between results of the scan and the defendant’s violent actions.

“I would not (make that connection) because I’m not a psychiatrist, and I don’t have that kind of expertise,” he said. “The radiologist’s job is to demonstrate an abnormality if there is one. But I think the attempt to connect these abnormalities with certain kinds of behavior is overdrawn. I don’t think it’s appropriate to say in a report ‘There’s a certain kind of abnormality in the frontal lobe so that might explain why this guy killed someone.'”

If the medical expert working for the defense requests a consultation to go over imaging exam results, Zibners said taking that meeting is up to the individual radiologist. “It’s like any other malpractice litigation. The radiologist has to decide whether he will or he won’t. I bet most people would say ‘No.’ I think that’s why the radiologists are upset (by these requests) because they feel like they are being set up. They don’t need to get pulled into that (case).”

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Above, regions of interest (ROI) examined in MRI study of patients with first-episode schizophrenia or affective psychosis and normal comparison subjects. Top (A) is a 1.5-mm coronal slice of the temporal lobe; the ROI used to evaluate the temporal structures are outlines. The gray matter of the superior temporal gyrus is shown in red (subject left) and green (subject right); more medially, the amygdala-hippocampal complex is shown in orange (left) and blue (right) with the parahippocampal gyrus underneath in pink (left) and purple (right). Below, a left lateral view of a 3D reconstruction of the cortical surface with the anterior superior temporal gyrus (light pink) and posterior superior temporal gyrus (red).

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There is a chance that the imaging expert will be called to testify, but it’s a slim chance. What attorneys really want is an image that will sway a jury and give weight to a psychiatric evaluation, not testimony from someone who may not stick with the defense team’s strategy.

“Lawyers don’t want an unfriendly witness,” said Dr. Leonard Berlin, chairman of the department of radiology at Rush North Shore Medical Center in Skokie, IL.

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Same subject. Above and below, axial MRI is used to present top-down views of the 3D reconstruction of the amygdala-hippocampal complex and parahippocampal gyrus. All images: Figure 1, Hirayasu Y, Shenton ME, Salisbury DF, et al. “Lower Left Temporal Lobe MRI Volumes in Patients with First-Episode Schizophrenia Compared with Psychotic Patients With First-Episode Affective Disorder and Normal Subjects,” (Am J Psychiatry 1998; 155:1384-1391).

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If a subpoena is issued, don’t even think of ignoring it, Berlin said. “If subpoenaed by a court, you must obey that order. If you don’t, you’re in contempt of court and can be jailed. But you cannot be forced, except in rare circumstances, to testify as an expert witness.”

If subpoenaed to testify, consult an attorney first and your malpractice insurance carrier, as they often will cover lawyer fees. The ACR offers practice guidelines on being an expert witness in radiology.

Finally, Zibners suggested that if a radiologist is contacted directly by the defense team for a consultation, the practice or hospital’s legal counsel should be notified about the request as a courtesy, even if the radiologist refused the meeting.

Endless possibilities

So what are defense teams looking for with imaging? In most cases, they order neurological scans that will cast their client’s violent actions in a slightly more forgiving light. And radiologic forensic studies have indicated that tendencies toward violent behavior are manifested physically.

For instance, an FDG-PET study showed that temporal lobe anomalies can be linked to violent crimes, particularly homicide and sexual assault (American Journal of Neuroradiology, April 1997, Vol. 18:4, pp. 625-63).

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Above, a coronal FDG-PET scan in a control subject. Note relatively homogenous temporal lobe metabolism. Below, a coronal FDG-PET scan in a 20-year-old male, with a history of unpredictable behavior and domestic violence, who shot and raped his stepmother and hid her body in a closet. Note low metabolic activity in medial temporal lobes.

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D Seidenwurm, TR Pounds, A Globus, PE Valk, Abnormal Temporal Lobe Metabolism in Violent Subjects: Correlation of Imaging and Neuropsychiatric Findings. American Journal of Neuroradiology, Volume 18, Issue 4, pp. 625-631, April 1997. © by American Society of Neuroradiology.

In a poster presentation at the 2006 International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine (ISMRM) meeting in Seattle, Danish researchers used 3D volumetric MRI to demonstrate that major depression caused measurable structural changes in the thalamus, inferior and middle prefrontal gyrus, and occipital lobe. Severe postpartum depression was the defense mounted by Andrea Yates’ attorneys when she was tried in 2002 for drowning three of her five children in the bathtub. Yates is currently undergoing a retrial and has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity (CNN.com, February 7, 2005).

Physical illness as the basis for an insanity defense has also relied on imaging to prove a disconnection — or disprove a connection — between a violent act and the defendant a la Dena Schlosser.

In 1998, Concord, CA-based physician Gary Parkison claimed AIDS-related dementia made him legally insane — and that’s why he plotted to hire a hitman to kill his former lover in a life insurance scam. Parkison was also convicted of setting fire to his office to dodge his lease.

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Coronal MR scans from a chronic schizophrenic (above) and normal comparison subject (below). Note increase in CSF in left amygdala-hippocampal complex. Images courtesy of Schizophrenia Research Project and Psychiatry Neuroimaging Laboratory, Harvard University, Boston.

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Parkison was diagnosed with AIDS in 1992 and, after he was jailed, an MRI scan showed brain lesions. In an HIV-positive patient, these lesions can lead to poor impulse control and a lack of judgment, according to the psychiatrist who examined Parkison (SFGate.com, May 1, 1998).

Liar, liar

And what if there are no obvious disease processes or mitigating psychological problems? Then bring on the “No Lie MRI.” Recent research has focused on differentiating truth tellers from those who are being less than honest. A study done at the University of California, Los Angeles, used MRI to determine that pathological liars had 22% more prefrontal cortex white matter and 14% less gray matter than normal controls (British Journal of Psychiatry, October 2005, Vol. 187, pp. 320-325).

An earlier controlled fMRI study at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles also showed that schizophrenics showed a distinct lack of functioning in the prefrontal region of the brain (Schizophrenia Bulletin, 2002, Vol. 28:3, pp. 501-513).

In another study, Dr. Daniel Langleben, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, showed that deception is distinguishable from truth by increased prefrontal and parietal activity, and that fMRI clearly revealed frontal lobe activity associated with lying (Human Brain Mapping, December 2005, Vol. 26:4, pp. 262-272).

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Group analysis showing significant differences in brain activation between Lie, Truth, and Repeat Distracter conditions. Row 1: Truth > Repeat Distracter; row 2: Lie > Repeat Distracter; row 3: Lie > Truth (blue scale) Truth > Lie (red scale). Images are displayed over a Talairach-normalized template in radiological convention. Significance thresholds for all contrasts based on spatial extent using a height of z ≥ 2.57 and cluster probability p ≤ 0.05, except Lie > Truth (blue scale) presented at a z ≥ 1.64, uncorrected. Image courtesy of Dr. Daniel Langleben.

Could defense attorneys start ordering MRI exams as “proof” that their clients are telling the truth when they claim they suffered from diminished mental capacity at the time of the crime and did not understand their actions?

Possibly. According to Langleben, the No Lie MRI system, when used in combination with a carefully controlled query procedure, demonstrated 80% to 92% accuracy versus a polygraph test, which turns in an accuracy of 50% to 90%.

“The problem with polygraph is that it seems to be operator-dependent and thus susceptible to manipulations,” Langleben told AuntMinnie.com. With the 3-tesla MR test, “no one ‘reads’ the scan,” he said. “The data is automatically processed with preset thresholds of significance.”

The No Lie MRI system has not been used in a U.S. criminal court case to date, although fMRI lie detection and brain mapping were used in 2006 to convict a rapist in Mumbai, India. Abhishek Kasliwal, 27, was accused of kidnapping and raping a 52-year-old woman at the compound of a mill owned by his father. Kasliwal underwent brain mapping at the Central Forensic Science Laboratory in Bangalore as a routine part of the investigation (IBNlive.com, March 28, 2006).

Neuroethics

While courts seem to be more open to using imaging in criminal cases, ethical questions still need to be answered. Neuroethics is the name given to a new field that encompasses the array of issues emerging from different branches of clinical neuroscience (neurology, psychiatry, psychopharmacology) and basic neuroscience (cognitive neuroscience, affective neuroscience), including the use of functional neuroimaging.

“Most of neuroethics theory is highly speculative at the moment,” said Professor Margaret Somerville, founding director of McGill University’s Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law in Montreal. Scanning for insanity or deception “leads into a whole lot of other things,” according to Somerville. “What if you find someone’s got a hyperaggressivity gene? Does that mean they couldn’t help it if they did something aggressively?” she said.

There are other ethics issues as well, such as the application of imaging for nonmedical reasons and the potential violation of informed consent if the attorney is keen on the scan but the accused isn’t interested in being tested, whether by choice or an inability to make those kinds of decisions. “The patient has to agree. It can’t be done against a patient’s will,” Berlin said.

Haynes agreed with Somerville that the future of brain scans in court appears limited. “The law proceeds on the assumption that people decide to do bad things out of their evil hearts and minds,” he said. “This is the basis of the criminal law. If we’re now going to say we can scan a person and see why he engages in violent behavior, then why are we going to put him on trial or punish him at all?”

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By Sydney Schuster / Copyright © 2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved
AuntMinnie.com contributing writer
Originally published June 29, 2006

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