THE CIVIL WAR ON FILM…A HANDY TEN

What with all the chatter about a coming second Civil War and all those statues coming down, I thought it might be useful to provide a list of good movies about the first Civil War. There haven’t been all that many, considering the significance of the occasion (I settled on ten, though even ten is way more good ones than we have about the Revolution, which some people regard as being an event in its own right).

As often happens, the losers had the stories. Four of these are from a Southern perspective. Three are either balanced or apolitical. The other three are about Lincoln.

My experience with Birth of a Nation is too long ago, and left too limited an impression (VHS on a 25″ television was perhaps not the best way to experience it) for me to have much of an opinion about it. From what I do remember it wouldn’t have made the cut anyway.

The General (1926)
D. Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman

And we begin here, with the Silent Era’s real Civil War masterpiece. It’s such a great and lauded comedy (it competes with Some Like it Hot for the highest ranking comedy on all those Best Of lists compiled by the crit-illuminati, and that it’s even a competition would be proof God doesn’t exist if it weren’t greater proof that the Devil does), that it’s easy to forget it’s also an action masterpiece, a Great Romance, a better train movie than Hitchcock ever made, and, as such things go, pretty sound history (the event depicted was real and, underneath all the zaniness, the story doesn’t stray much from the facts). You can have extra fun running around the internet looking up all the breathless reviews and trying to catch anyone emphasizing that the movie is as pro-Confederate as Gone With the Wind, or, if memory serves, Birth of a Nation. Buster makes us laugh. He’s protected. For now.

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
D. John Ford

The variety of approaches John Ford took to the Civil War–without ever quite making a straightforward Civil War Movie (even The Horse Soldiers, comes in at an odd angle)–would make for an interesting book. Ford was one of two major American film-makers whose movies had politics (see below for the other) and those politics were cranky, unpredictable, leaning toward the pragmatic but with a touch of poetry thrown in at key moments to tip the moral balance.

He was made for Abraham Lincoln, then, and Lincoln for him. Ford famously “shamed” a reluctant Henry Fonda into playing the lead. Fonda was overwhelmed by the idea. Forget the Great Emancipator, Ford said. He’s a jack-leg lawyer from Springfield.

And that’s what Fonda does. He forgets himself right into the jack-leg lawyer’s skin.

But Ford never lets you forget this jack-leg lawyer’s eye for the main chance. Every move he makes–whether defending innocents from a lynch-mob, judging a pie contest, or, in the movie’s most telling scene, moving, with seeming reluctance, from the easy company of the backwoods farmers who know he’s a card, to the lap of Springfield Society, where only a certain Mary Todd laughs at his jokes–is rooted in ambition. Any idealism would be–must be–forever tempered. The visage of the stone monument that emerged from the rain in the film’s final frames as World War II loomed counts the cost.

Gone With The Wind (1939)
D. Victor Fleming (among others)

The Great White Whale.

Or is it Elephant? I get confused.

Anyway, it’s not the History that bothers the termite-lauding gate-keepers. As a matter of abiding by facts (which is what the illuminati always mean by History, except when the facts are inconvenient), Gone With the Wind is better than almost any of the historical fictions that never seem to bother anybody.

It’s the perspective that grates.

You know….But it’s racist!

No kidding. It’s told from the point of view of a daughter of the Plantation South–a class not generally known for their enlightened views on the subject–and engaged entirely with what she sees, feels, deems important. And if you think she and hers have got a sense of privilege when it comes to black people, you should take a look at how they–and Mammy–feel about “white trash” hillbillies some time.

It’s dangerous to forget what people have believed or why they believed it. I’m sure I read somewhere or other that it’s the forgetting that will let them learn to believe again.

Unless, of course, we really have transcended mere human nature.

Watch it now, while it’s still legal.

The Tall Target (1951)
D. Anthony Mann

Mann watched John Ford’s movies even more obsessively than Orson Welles or David Lean. He studied them so hard, his movies ended up having politics, too, never more than here.

The story involves Dick Powell’s detective, John Kennedy–who has isolated himself by resigning his post–trying to stop the Baltimore Plot assassination attempt on Lincoln as he journeys to Washington D.C. by train for his inauguration.  It’s a fine thriller, a great train movie and an excellent historical drama, not to mention one of the great unsung films noir.

But it’s also sharp about the complexities involved in secession and slavery as seen by the people of 1861. There are fine performances all around–Powell was really good at this sort of thing and the unflappable Adolphe Menjou has one of his very best roles.

But don’t sleep on Ruby Dee’s “servant,” as loyal as Mammy or Pork, and under no illusions about where her real interests lie. The subject of freedom does come up, after all. And her I know what it is (in response to her mistress suggesting she couldn’t possibly) says more than any hundred books about why the seductive appeal that slavery held for the slavers could only be eradicated by the massive bloodshed that, by 1861, was inevitable whether the Baltimore Plot succeeded or not.

Worth remembering–and revisiting–as the Alt-Right seizes the Post-Millennial Narrative.

The Red Badge of Courage (1951)
D. John Huston

I wrote extensively about this one here. I would only add that its mutilation is not entirely without relevance to the question of why Empires fall. And that what is left is still essential viewing for anyone who hopes to learn from the mistakes we were beginning to make even as this still essential film was being chopped to pieces by its studio.

Escape From Fort Bravo (1953)
D. John Sturges

“How’d a decrepit old man like you ever get in the war?”
“Because all the smart young men like you was losing it.”

A rare western actually set in both the West and the Civil War. Its most stirring scenes involve Indian fighting. But it’s a first rate Civil War film, too, presaging the kind of cooperation between bitter enemies that was required to hold the West during the conflict, and conquer what remained of it afterwards.

Anyone who thinks that was easy or inevitable will be disabused of the notion by this one. The final clash with the Mescalero Apaches is among the most heart-stopping action sequences in cinema, nonpareil even for the man who made The Great Escape.

Meanwhile, William Holden and Eleanor Parker are at their considerable best–he never more bitter or world-weary (not even in The Wild Bunch, the movie Sam Peckinpah made after Major Dundee, which shares its main themes with Bravo, turned out less than half as good), she never more noble or fetching.

But the heart of the film belongs to William Demarest’s aging Confederate. He’s there for a reason.

You know because all the smart young men like you was losing it.

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
D. Clint Eastwood

Of the Eastwood-directed films I’ve seen (eleven by my count, most of them entertaining), this is the only one with a touch of poetry. One wonders if the early involvement of Phil Kaufman–who’s known for such touches–had something to do with that. But, as it’s brutal poetry, it might have been Forrest Carter’s source material. Carter wrote two novels about the Josey Wales character, a renegade who, motivated by vengeance after his family is murdered by Kansas Redlegs, rides with Bill Anderson in the Civil War and refuses to surrender afterwards. Before that, as Asa Carter, he had been a speechwriter for George Wallace, credited with, among other things, Wallace’s “segregation forever” speech. Brutal poetry was his specialty.

Any chance Josey Wales would be rated as highly as it deserves (Orson Welles thought it a masterwork and, with Eastwood shedding most of the Sergio Leone influence and accessing his inner John Ford, I’m in no position to argue), was shot to hell once that got around. Perhaps Kaufman’s status as a sterling liberal would have helped ease the illuminati‘s collective conscience. There was no way for that to happen with Eastwood’s name under the directing credit.

Be that as it may, it’s an essential film. certainly the best made about a border raider. Unlike the Jesse James’ narratives it shadows, it doesn’t need a distortion of history to make the fictional Wales a protagonist who, if not exactly easy to root for, is still worth feeling for. The character suits Eastwood’s laconic style to a T (it might be his best acting job), and there’s good work all around, especially from Chief Dan George, who, in a just world, would have picked up the Oscar he already deserved for Little Big Man.

With time and patience I’ve even forgiven Sondra Locke for not being Shirley MacLaine (Eastwood’s partner in Two Mules for Sister Sara, who would have been perfect for this if she’d been ten years younger).

And, lo and behold, gleaming through at the end, is that old shibboleth, The American Dream.

The one where all men are brothers, forgiven their sins and living in harmony–a strange vision indeed, emanating from the Segregation Forever man and, perhaps for the last time, granted the power of myth.

Gore Vidal’s Lincoln (1988)
D. Lamont Johnson

Television and, to my mind, a superior take to Steven Spielberg’s (still quite good) made-for-theaters Lincoln.

Gore Vidal’s source novel had enough authority to excise the inevitable sentimentality that’s built into Lincoln’s basic arc (so primal that little myth-making gild has ever been required) from any adaptation. And Sam Waterston and Mary Tyler Moore, the best Abe and Mary since Young Mister Lincoln, look, act, move and speak as though they’ve absorbed everything John Ford implied forty years earlier–or that the real Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd left behind of themselves just shy of four score years before that. There is no better way–on film, television, stage or page–to experience the weight of Lincoln’s burden or the lasting tragedy of his being taken from the scene so soon after the guns grew silent.

Gettysburg (1993)
D. Ron Maxwell

The best battle film ever made. There are sequences in other films that match the combat scenes here, but no entire film that mounts with the same tension from peak to peak.

The battle itself was made for a three act drama, though no one seems to have realized it until Michael Shaara published The Killer Angels in 1974. It’s all captured here. Sam Elliot’s John Buford turning a skirmish into a battle on the First Day that established the respective positions of the armies (and the Union’s tactical advantage). Jeff Daniels’ Joshua Chamberlain desperately clinging to Little Round Top and preventing the turn of the Union flank (in scenes of brutal close order fighting that have not been surpassed) on the Second Day. Stephen Lang’s George Pickett leading the fatal charge against the Union center on the Third Day.

Maxwell spent years trying to bring it all to the screen and the commitment shows. The weight of the matter is left in no doubt. The men on either side understood the battle’s–and the war’s–significance, to them and the nation. An impressive array of fine actors do their best work bringing them to life–not just Elliot, Daniels and Lang, but Tom Berenger (James Longstreet), Richard Jordan (Lewis Armisted), Brian Mallon (Winfield Hancock), C. Thomas Howell (Tom Chamberlain) and Kevin Conway (as a fictional Union Everyman)  are all indelible. Even the small parts are exquisitely cast and played–for me the strongest impression is made by Andrew Prine’s Dick Garnett, on screen for perhaps five minutes, and doing more than any man here to demonstrate the fatalistic sickness that descends on men who have seen too much slaughter.

And beyond all that is the movie’s most disorienting feature–Martin Sheen taking Robert E. Lee down from his pedestal and putting a human being in his place with a penetrating psychological portrait that does not shirk the idea that Lee was undone by the cult of personality his virtually unbroken string of successes before the Third Day at Gettysburg was bound to engender.

Ride With the Devil (1999)
D. Ang Lee

A box office disaster with the kind of mixed reviews that always result when a movie doesn’t come with the underlining in crayon that tells critics what they are supposed to think.

Don’t let that put you off. It’s a great sequel to The Outlaw Josey Wales, but it’s also it’s own thing–something that cannot be said of many films made post 1980, in the Frozen Silence of modern American “culture.”

Tobey Maguire reminds you of why he was such a big deal for a while there and Jewel caps a lovely performance by being the only white person in the history of film to keep the word “nigger” free of modern associations.

It’s the absence of all modern associations, especially those tied to moral or physical comfort, that make the film difficult to fit into any approved Narrative.

We’re back to the border wars again–the one part of the country where the War raged on for years after Appomattox, not as a test of political will, but as a killing field fought over by “irregulars.”

A German immigrant and a black man ride with the Southerners (this made many heads spin on C-Span), who are losing their identity anyway. The Southerners fight each other verbally as much as they fight the Enemy physically.

No one is ever right. Or safe.

You can see how the thirty-eight million dollar budget turned into six hundred thousand at the box office.

But the lessons for the future are there, if you choose to look and learn.

The main difference is that, next time, it will be down your street, and the bickering will be between men with Uzis and AKs, instead of six-shooters.

Else rocket launchers.

Watch ’em while you can ya’ll!

 

 

CITIZEN KANE ON CAMPUS (And Then There Was Hollywood: Tenth Rumination)

Citizen Kane (1941)
D. Orson Welles

Notes on attending Kane on campus last night….

1)   Watching it for the first time in a while–first time in decades with an audience–I was struck by how little its prescience has been noted by the crit-illuminati and/or their journo-politico fellow travelers re our recent political upheavals. I’ve seen Donald Trump compared to Adolf Hitler, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln (by himself), P.T. Barnum, Huey Long, Ross Perot, Ronald Reagan, Calvin Coolidge, etc. Never once have I seen him compared to Charles Foster Kane. I’m sure it must have happened. But, as closely as I’ve been following along, I have to believe such comparisons have been few and far between. Now why would that? Hold on, I think I may have an answer way, way further down…

2) The main reason I go to watch classic movies on college campuses whenever I can is to participate in–and gauge–audience reactions. This was one of the rare times FSU’s Student Life Center was running a film in 35mm, so it was extra treat. (The Center, incidentally, is named for Reubin Askew, former Florida governor who was the only Democrat my mother ever considered voting for. In the end, she didn’t, citing her contempt for his running mate, though I always suspected she just couldn’t make the leap to the idea that the “New” Democrats were anything more than the Jim Crow scoundrels who had ruled her Southern childhood dressed up in sheep’s clothing. She was wrong about the thoroughly decent Askew–but had she lived just a little longer she would have spotted Bill Clinton for the smooth, duplicitous son of Pitchfork Ben Tillman he was right off, and taken some gently sardonic satisfaction in noting which one rose to the White House.) Re Kane, though:The reactions this time were….interesting.

3) The film was introduced by a couple of genial, slightly goofy student-age dudes, one of whom was evidently in charge of the theater’s programming, the other the projectionist (this being a rare modern occasion when one was required). They gave us an entertaining five minutes, during which I kept thinking “If this was Moore Auditorium in 1983, these guys would be chum for the sharks.” We won’t win any more wars, but the world was meaner then.

3) The main new thing that struck me in the movie–it’s one of those movies which will always reveal new things–was that when Joseph Cotten’s Jed Leland returns his copy of Kane’s “Ten Principles” (along with a $25,000 check torn to pieces), it’s not a comment on Kane’s journalistic or political honor (Leland was the first to know he didn’t have any), and therefore must be meant to strike at his betrayal of his marital honor–the only kind he’s really broken faith with. I don’t think the college kids around me quite got this (though they knew it was a big deal of some sort–it elicited the only gasps and “o-o-o-h-h-h-s” of the night). There’s no reason they should have, of course, marital honor no longer being a thing. But I was ashamed of myself for not noticing years back, when it still was a thing.

4) When it was over,  a girl in front of me turned to her friends and said “It was good.” They all nodded along. The relief was palpable.

5) There was a moment during the film, when the kid behind me said “This is going on right now.” I honestly can’t remember which scene he reacted to, because I was pretty much thinking that about every scene.

6) It became obvious to me for the first time during this viewing that Welles didn’t screen Stagecoach forty times while he was making Kane so he could understand more about deep focus cinematography or how to film ceilings (those being two of many theories, some endorsed by Welles himself, of what he was after). He screened Stagecoach forty times so he could learn how people move and talk on screen and to understand film-rhythm.

7) For all that–and all its technical perfection (one understands why it knocks ’em over in Film School)–it still doesn’t pack the emotional punch of Gone With the Wind or The Searchers, the reasonable competition for Hollywood’s greatest film. It might be a greater film from a purely technical standpoint and it’s certainly formidable as a Narrative. But if Narrative is the prime value of story-telling–and it should be–it still comes a little short. I should add that this says more about the other films than it does about Kane, which is still a moving experience on every level. And more so, I find, with age.

8) I’ve never bought that it was one of the great Hollywood blunders for John Ford and How Green Was My Valley to have won Best Director and Best Picture for 1941. All in all, I might pick Welles and Kane, but it’s a close run. He was robbed of the acting Oscar, though. Gary Cooper–almost inevitably with war clouds looming, then breaking, during awards season–won for a fine performance in Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (Ford’s own stated choice for best picture and director). But Welles gave one of the half-dozen signature performances in film. The only greater injustice in the history of the acting category was John Wayne being denied so much as a nomination for The Searchers. Welles was at least nominated.

9) Did I mention kids are so much nicer now? In the bathroom afterwards, three guys were talking about how “It wasn’t bad for 1941.” And another said, “I mean, it’s not something I’m gonna tell my friends they have to see.”

10) I was otherwise occupied, and thus robbed of my chance to share my Citizen Kane story with the younger generation. Had I been able to leave the stall a little sooner, I was planning to say something like this:

So I was sitting with my Dad about fifteen years ago, a few years before he died, and he puts down his newspaper and says ‘John, what is the significance of “Rosebud?”‘ I then proceeded to explain to him that it was a reference to the movie Citizen Kane (of which he had vaguely heard–my dad saw a movie about once a decade). I told him some of the plot and the presumed symbolism of it turning out to be the name of Charles Foster Kane’s childhood sled, the one he was playing with when he was taken from his parents.

My dad listened patiently to all of that, and, when I was finished, he looked off into the distance for a minute and finally nodded and said “Oh yeah. Old Hearst’s mistress.” Then he went back to reading his paper.

Mind you I hadn’t said a thing about Kane being based, in whole or in part, on William Randolph Hearst, let alone anything about Rosebud being his pet name for Marion Davies’ private parts and that being the more or less real reason Welles got more or less run out of Hollywood.

The only thing I could ever figure was that in Dad’s Carny days, perhaps through his friend and business partner “Cy,” who was an intimate of Red Skelton’s (they having grown up together in the mob-owned night clubs of the Midwest–there were certain towns in Illinois from which it was necessary for Cy to absent himself from the show for a week or two), he had picked up some piece of stray gossip that stayed with him all those years and flashed to the top of his mind as the shortest, straightest way to sort out all the nonsense I had been babbling on about.

I’m not sure how much of that I would have had a chance to share with my fellow bladder-emptiers last night. But if, by chance, they hadn’t fled, I was going to finish with a flourish and say:

“Now you should probably go watch it again and see what you missed.”

Ah well. Their loss.

And I still can’t blame them because, for all its purported “modernity,” Kane’s fall is straight out of the oldest trope in Western Civilization: Pride goeth before a fall.

Today’s twenty-somethings could be forgiven for thinking that’s all a lot of hogwash.

[Addenda: To answer the earlier question….The crit-illuminati and journo-politicos will catch on to the similarities between Donald Trump and their “fictional” Welles-ian hero when the Security State arranges for The Donald to be found in Mar-a-Lago, with a snow-globe falling from his dying hand as he lies on his big brass bed and Melania is discovered by a maid, locked up in the bathroom, murmuring, “I never wanted it. He wanted it for me!” The reports of the event won’t suffice to awaken them, but the note from the boss will do the trick. You know, the one that begins “Our friends at CIA have requested…”

MY CIVIL WAR (1968, 1974, 2017)

My first instruction in the history of the Civil War was from the Soviet Agent who wrote the book pictured at the right.

His name was Charles Flato and you can read all about him on the internet now if you wish. But in 1968, when seven-year-old me received this as a present (not even my birthday!) from my father, whose inscription (my name and the date 4/22/68) is still on the fly-leaf, one could have been forgiven for thinking his credentials impeccable. The Golden Book of the Civil War was “Adapted for Young Readers from the American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War” and came with an introduction by Bruce Catton, the sober Yankee professor–Michigan born and bred–and founding editor of American Heritage, who was then (along with Allan Nevins, of Illinois) the reigning popular authority on the subject in question (a position now shared by the New Yorker Ken Burns and the North Dakotan James McPherson).

Flato himself was a “freelance” writer, working for magazines like American Heritage no doubt, when he penned the book for publication in 1960. The book was widely distributed  to say the least. I don’t know how many copies were published or sold, but it was probably north of a million. If I wanted to sell my Eighth Edition from 1968, on Amazon or AbeBooks–which I would do some time after I let go my left arm–it would fetch something like four dollars.

I knew nothing about the backgrounds of the men who controlled the Civil War Narrative for “young readers” when I devoured the book in my youth, or when I referred to its battle maps (still the best I’ve seen in the lifetime of interest they spurred in that subject) in later years to give myself a clear set of referential aids to the mind’s eye before my actual eyeballs encountered the battlefields at Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Gettysburg, Murfreesboro (I regretted not refreshing my memory before still later visits to Vicksburg and Shiloh–I’ll not make that mistake in the future when I finally make it to Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Antietam.)

Had I known, I doubt it would have made any difference to my appreciation of the book in question, or the later books I read or documentaries I watched, virtually all written or directed by Yanks.

One thing I understood about history–was given to understand both by my own instinct and my imminently practical parents–was that its always written by the winners.

I grew up then, in the deep South, with a very distinct view of the Civil War.

The view went for my Democrat father, who had attended a Tennessee college founded by an Abolitionist. It went for my rock-rib North Carolina Republican mother, who knew Democrats, up close and personal, as the people Franklin Roosevelt cut deals with to keep Jim Crow in place in return for the Solid South’s White Supremacist electoral votes.

Be proud of your heritage, your family, etc., then…..

And thank God the Yankees won.

Also, thank God it’s over!

In the sixties and seventies, that was as typical a Southern upbringing as any other.

And it was the only view I knew until I was coming on fourteen and we moved from Central Florida to North Florida.

That’s where I soon discovered that the Civil War was not over and was further surprised to learn that anyone born south of Gainesville was…a Yankee!

When I say surprised, I mean as in so surprised I forgot to laugh.

I really regret that missed opportunity, because laughing doesn’t seem to be an option anymore.

Too bad, because rooting around on Wikipedia this morning, trying to find out who Charles Flato was, I discovered that, besides being a Soviet agent in WWII (and likely afterward–the Soviets weren’t known for letting their agents just walk), and the author of a book designed to perpetuate a vision of the Civil War in line with Bruce Catton’s or Ken Burns’s (that is was worth it….and over….and worth it because it was over), was that he was a good enough friend of Suze Rotolo to will her his car when he died.

What Suze Rotolo was famous for–besides staunch leftiness–was the way she let herself be forever defined by her clinging devotion to a freewheelin’ young man, who had recently begun calling himself Bob Dylan, on the cover of his second album…and would drop her the minute Joan Baez came calling.

Now that’s really the sort of thing that should make you laugh out loud. And if there wasn’t all this talk about how we’re headed for a second Civil War, I’m sure I would have.

As it lay, I had to settle for a rueful smile.

I say all this to remind everyone–yet again–that I am not opposed to removing Confederate statues.

Nor am I opposed to leaving them standing.

Couldn’t care less.

I do care about what’s coming next–about seeing what’s behind the sudden fervor that has mobs of educated white people assaulting Bad Monuments to prove they themselves are not Bad People, even though everyone who ever fought to assure their Monument Assaulting Privilege was Very Bad Indeed.

And what I see is the same old, same old. The angry face of the mob.

I see it growing and growling in the heart of an Empire–not a nation–that is poised to go the way of the Russian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Hohenzollern Empires at the end of the Great War. I see it coming because I see there is already nothing to hold us together when the wind blows–and nothing will have to become less than nothing before it becomes more than nothing again.

Or, as the freewheelin’ young prophet had it….

If you see something different–something other than the waters of oblivion–peace be upon you.

I hope you’re right. Really I do.

For now, just remember that History does not have Wrong or Right sides.

It has Winning and Losing sides.

I know the modern American has been thoroughly brainwashed into believing otherwise, that Right will make Might.

But even when I was seven–soaking up Yankee and Soviet versions of my own region’s history and thinking no more of it then than I do now–I knew the winners get to decide about the whole Right and Wrong thing. That the only real Lesson of History is always the same.

Don’t lose.

So it is as we watch Lee and Jackson fade into our History.

So it will be when it’s Jefferson and Washington–and Lincoln’s–turn.

The only question now, for the people who think the old Liberal/Conservative divide that sustained the Enlightenment and the first two hundred years of the American Experiment still holds, and that they’ll get to opt out of the Future, is what you’ll do when it’s not Robert E. Lee’s statue the Neo-Nazi Fascists and Antifa Marxists are fighting over but the Jefferson Memorial, like it’s Weimar all over again.

Whose side will you be on then? Whose side will you be on when “Liberal” and “Conservative” are no longer an option?

Better decide now, because the people who will be coming for whatever your cherished version of History is have one thing in common.

They aren’t going to let you sit that one out.

And they aren’t going to give you a whole lot of time to think.

Take it Gene….

 

AS A POINT OF COMFORT….

…I’m not always right about this End of Days stuff.

I’ve been telling the only friend I have with whom I tend to discuss politics (she keeps her “political” twitter account under an assumed name, separated from her personal/business oriented twitter stuff, to avoid the usual constant threats of violence and barrage of abuse) that statues honoring Jefferson and Washington will soon follow those honoring Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson into various states of defacement and dismemberment, and that Lincoln and Grant will be in the cross-hairs five minutes after that.

Silly me.

It looks like I had the order wrong.

Oh, by the way, the organizer of the Charlottesville Unite-the-Right March, is now reported to be an Obama-supporting Wall Street Occupier who had a magical conversion to White Supremacist power player within days of Donald Trump’s election. It hardly matters if it’s true. The important thing is that conflicting accounts are now readily available from all the usual sources and you may choose among them as you wish.

I pity those whose brains remain unprotected from these waves of industrial feces by insufficient familiarity with the New Testament or the holy texts of Rock and Roll America and advise them to repair to a quiet space at once and redress their ignorance in council with their own spirit practicing the Priesthood of the Believer.

I don’t know any songs dedicated to the smell of sheep dip, so this will have to do for today’s inspirational tune from the Book of Clarence. (Chapter Seven, Verse 4, I believe, but don’t quote me. I ain’t here to start any trouble.)

Those who prefer The Good News version to the King James, may like this one better…

…Either way, hello America. It’s a brand new day!

Didn’t listen now, fools, did ya?

 

WHAT’S DIFFERENT THIS TIME…

Just a few thoughts before getting back to normal:

If you follow any political discourse,  mainstream or fringe, you’re almost bound to have heard we’re headed for a new Civil War (no I don’t just make this stuff up!).

There have been a few basic themes developing–a common one, expressed by Terry Teachout (who preaches as a Moderate Conservative and seems to practice as one, too, which makes him a reliable guide to a big chunk of conventional thought) is that we’ll split up into a set of Balkanized states, each going their own way by legal means and diplomatic wrangling, serving their own best interests.

Others predict simple chaos. Still others predict a more tightly controlled central government which will rule by direct force. And, of course, still others think we’ll muddle through somehow, as happened in the 1960’s.

I’m not in any of these camps, nor do I have any big idea of some different possibility no one’s thought of yet. (Though I note I’ve found no respectable opinion provider willing to state another obvious possibility–that of massive military defeat and takeover by a foreign power or powers. I think everyone assumes we’ll be able to nuke our way out of that one. There were plenty who once thought the same about the Soviet Union. Nukes are the new Greek Fire.)

What I do believe is that some things are inevitable. (This is assuming we don’t miraculously return to civilizational norms post haste…and anyone who follows along here knows what odds I’d take on that.)

So, when the Big Breakup comes, next month or next century, it will be different from our first, founding Civil War in these ways:

–It won’t be fought over some straightforward issue like slavery. Slavery rested on a legal structure. It could be changed by legal means. Means that–unlike outlawing “racism” etc.–could be imposed or rejected by a victor.

–Liberal Democracy as we have known it will have no side. If you’re for it, you will be left in the cold. If you resist, see below.

–It won’t be fought by entities who are neatly divided by geography. That means the points of conflict will be purely ideological–and run to the extremes. Those caught openly practicing the minority view in heir own neighborhood will be swiftly rounded up and dealt with by local standards. Richer environs may opt for detention centers (i.e., concentration or slave camps). Elsewhere, public executions will be preferred. Count on attendance being mandatory.

–I don’t know if nuclear weapons will be deployed. The reasons they haven’t been deployed since the end of WWII (i.e., Mutual Assured Destruction) will probably still hold. But everything else will be on the table and the side that deploys them most effectively in any given arena will prevail.

–If anyone does manage to gain some kind of central control over such a conflict, it will be by means that make Hitler and Stalin look like Sunday School teachers (and those who think Lincoln belongs in their company look even dumber than the box of rocks they resemble now).

–There will be no mercy for the loser.

The details of how all this will shake out?

No idea.

Via my usual sources, I am privy to a piece of the soundtrack. It’s from the early, hopeful days….

THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (Foreign Films: First Journey)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
D. Carl Th. Dreyer

(I had no existing category for this, so I’m creating a new one for Foreign Films….Hoping it will be an excuse to watch more of them!)

The Passion of Joan of Arc is a cinematic masterpiece with a hole in its head.

Its Danish director, Carl Th. Dreyer, is rightly hailed as a titan of form. His ability to create and sustain mood, especially through striking images (true cinema then) hasn’t been surpassed. This is the only film of his I’ve seen (there’s a box set sitting around that will allow me to correct that now that I’ve finally rewatched this one), but it’s enough to sustain a legacy. Likewise, Renee Falconetti’s performance in the lead role–mostly a series of agonizing closeups–deserves its legend.

Not, as it happens, as a portrait of Joan of Arc.

That doesn’t seem to be what Dreyer was after. What, exactly, he was after, is a bit vague, but my brief research confirms a suspicion: He prized technique as a means to an end, and the end was emotional resonance above all.

Including every other kind of sense.

On the surface, this Joan is as close to “realistic” as it’s possible to get in a drama. The sets and costumes effectively transport the viewer through time and space. Much of the script is taken directly from transcripts of her trial for heresy, for which she was ultimately condemned to be burned at the stake. The pedantry of the bureaucracy which judged her will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken on a government agency. And Dreyer’s technique serves the ends pursued–he portrays Joan as a hapless victim, a simple farm girl caught in a web of what we now call Kafkaesque evil from which there is no escape. In its single-minded pursuit of an emotional state–or, better yet, a state defined by one overriding emotion, fear–The Passion of Joan of Arc is never likely to be surpassed.

One wonders, though, just how lightly we can cast aside a historical figure’s essence and still acknowledge why we are interested in the first place?

I’m hardly one to cast aspersions on taking liberties with “facts” (which, in any case Passion does not do). I’d never recommend anyone take Hollywood’s views of Abraham Lincoln or Wyatt Earp (to name two subjects for John Ford, my favorite filmmaker), as historical gospel. But I never reach the end of Young Mr. Lincoln or My Darling Clementine with the feeling their subjects’ fundamental characters have been cast aside along with the usual historical details. The Lincoln who walks up the hill at the end of Young Mr. Lincoln (the film Sergei Eisenstein listed as the one he wished he had made, other than his own), is a man who has earned a march toward history. The Wyatt Earp who rides away at the end of Clementine, is a man who fully represents the fundamental social and spiritual isolation of the gunfighter.

The Joan of Arc who burns at the end of Passion (with Dreyer’s style and Falconetti’s performance allowing the viewer to burn with her–no small feat) is what she is in the first frame–a scared rabbit.

In this sense, focusing entirely on the trial seems to have been for the purpose of dramatic unity. It’s not a coda on great achievement, as Lincoln’s assassination–ritualized with unusual accuracy throughout Hollywood history, from The Birth of a Nation on down–invariably is, even in films that aren’t about Lincoln. It’s not a meeting with destiny. It’s a story unto itself.

If you entered it with no idea who Joan of Arc was, it would leave you baffled as to why anyone cared enough about her to burn her alive, let alone fight over her legacy.

Since when are epic heresy trials–designed to ensnare scared rabbits–the stuff of legend?

Well, since they involve Joan of Arc. That’s when.

So perhaps a little history is in order.

Jeanne d’Arc was born a French peasant in 1412, the darkest days of the Hundred Years War (which. to that point, had resulted in the English occupying much of France). She was given what amounted to a military commission in the French army in 1429, when she was seventeen. Sent to the besieged city of Orleans, she led (or inspired, or lucked into, depending on who’s telling the tale) a remarkable military turnaround which reversed the fortunes of a French aristocracy decimated at Agincourt in 1415. That reversal saw the French Dauphin, who had commissioned her, crowned king (her own prophecy) and, within a generation, the English driven from French soil for good. The latter might have happened earlier had she not been captured by her enemies in 1430 (perhaps with the collusion of her “friends”), put on trial for heresy, and burned at the stake in 1431.

It was a heady history for a girl who did not live to see her twentieth birthday.

That she was exceptionally brave and charismatic, and believed herself ordained by God to defeat the English enemy, is undisputed. That she was a military genius is not out of the question. That she, an illiterate peasant, defended herself at her trial with a deftness which often baffled her learned inquisitors (and has presented a conundrum for skeptical historians ever since), is counted as no less remarkable than her miraculous ascension.

One thing no reading of history or legend can reasonably suggest, let alone take for granted, is that she was a scared rabbit, able to function only sporadically, and then in the throes of religious fanaticism.

Yet this is the very thing The Passion of Joan of Arc asks us to accept. On one hand, it is as skeptical of her faith as the worst of her interrogators. On the other, it grants her no exceptionalism except her faith–leaves her reduced to the abject helplessness written in Falconetti’s face from the first frames….

Before consigning her to smoke and ash…

Just as her persecutors intended…

They cheated. And, by leaving the viewer no reason to admire Joan on specific grounds rooted in what we know of her character–including her devotion above all--Passion does too. Joan’s tragedy–great enough to engender comparisons to Christ, the only martyr more famous because the only one more remarkable–sears us not because it should never have befallen her, but because it should never happen to any poor soul.

Which means The Passion of Joan of Arc–for all its bold style and masterful techniquemight just as well have been about anyone who suffered a similar fate.

I wonder, as Dreyer must have, whether Marie Antoinette, who had her head chopped off for pretty specific reasons, too, would have sold more tickets….

Or gifted a century’s worth of crit-illuminati with a similar excuse to wink, nod and genuflect.

BREEZING (Quarterly Book Report: October through December, 2014)

Most of my fourth quarter reading was for BWW. Managed to get in a couple of quick hits in December:

Killing Lincoln (Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard–2011)

KILLINGLINCOLN

Sketch portrait of well-known events, It was an easy read–I can see why this series sells so well. Recommended for those with moderate interest in the subject, or youngsters looking for an easy introduction to the basics. The one interesting element I hadn’t encountered before (I’m not an expert on Booth-ology) is the suggestion that Booth and his co-conspirators may have had covert assistance from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, a longstanding Lincoln ally/rival (Lincoln may have had more of those than any man in human history–he seemed to bring out the duality in his fellow man like no one else). I don’t know if there is any really convincing evidence of this and the authors don’t make a big deal of it, but it has certainly made me view Stanton a bit differently as I presently make my way through Shelby Foote’s epochal three-volume history of the Civil War. I mean he certainly seems both sufficiently tormented and sufficiently shady to be involved in plots.

Getting Off (Lawrence Block–2011)

GETTINGOFF

Disappointing, but, gee, I guess that cover should have clued me. Murder porn divested of all psychological, moral and legal consequences. I have to confess that only Block’s considerable pulp skill kept my eyelids propped open for the duration.

SEGUE OF THE DAY (2/1/13)

Anthony Mann/Modernity

I got booted out of my work computer last night by a determined group of painters who were beautifying my office, so I decided to make lemonade and spend the evening in the cozy company of a couple of thrillers, which, me being me, I inevitably watched in the order most conducive to wrist-slitting.

The first was 1951’s The Tall Target, Mann’s terse, fictionalized account of the very real assassination attempt against Abraham Lincoln on his journey to Washington D.C. to assume the presidency.

I had seen it a few months back (after years of waiting!) and enjoyed it, though I knew I was too groggy that particular evening to really give it my full attention.

No such trouble this time.

Strictly as a movie-movie, its strongest asset lies in Mann’s ability to make a physical setting its own major character–palpable enough when he was helming his quirky noirs and mighty westerns, but this is even better because here the setting is a train. And when I say train, I don’t mean Amtrak. For turning those shining metal emblems of human progress into a world of movement and menace this beats Hitchcock’s similar attempts in The Lady Vanishes or North by Northwest all to pieces. And, this being Mann in his early prime, there’s plenty of excellent acting, tight-rope pacing and a smart script.

In addition to all that, there’s a moral framework. The basic story involves Dick Powell’s detective (named John Kennedy, natch), trying to thwart the shadowy men who want Lincoln dead, because…well because Lincoln was decent to him on a previous occasion, but mostly because he knows the men he is ranged against are trying to commit an evil act.

Once upon a time that was enough. The chief assassins aren’t presented as monsters. They’re men with their reasons and their charms–and that very reasonableness and charm makes it all the more imperative they be stopped, both in history and in its subsequent representation.

This contrasts mightily to the moody George Clooney pic, The American, which came out in 2010 and happened to be next in the queue. This is one of the more recent entries in that ever more popular sub-genre The Story of the Soulful Hit Man.

Not bad of its corrupt type either. The character’s sins find him out (which isn’t always the case these days), but we’re supposed to be rooting for him the meanwhile. This despite the fact that nearly the first thing we see him do is shoot his perfectly innocent girlfriend in the back, presumably because she would be able to identify him to anyone who came looking after an attack by other assassins assures him that someone will come looking for her sooner or later.

He failed to hide her from his enemies so he has to shoot her.

And he feels really, really bad about it.

On the surface these two movies couldn’t be more disconnected. Mann’s film has history, character, politics–the latter pretty simply rendered, but effective for all that, and most importantly present. There’s no community to speak of (unless that train somehow counts as its ad hoc framing structure) but there is a sense of the larger social structure bringing its considerable weight to bear.

The Clooney film has none of that. It’s a pure abstraction. Whatever plot there is exists because, having killed one girlfriend for discovering his identity, he takes up with another–who he really, really loves (she’s an improbably gorgeous small-town hooker who loves him, too, and who wouldn’t be a sucker for that!)–and we, the audience, are evidently supposed to think it represents some sort of deeply felt moral crisis when it looks like he might have to kill her, too. (SPOILER ALERT: He doesn’t–whew!)

But, subterraneously, I found The Tall Target and The American pulling against each other at opposite ends of the same frayed rope. And if viewpoints can really fight it out this way, it feels like that represented by the likes of The Tall Target is the one being pulled into the mud hole these days.

Whoever Clooney and his cohorts work for in The American, they and their shadow world surely exist in part because the men Abraham Lincoln was heading to Washington to fight against–and ultimately defeat–were on the verge of destroying the idea of limited government forever by putting it at the service of an evil institution and, by their very ferocity and skill and persistence, rendering two notions which should have been forever  irreconcilable permanently inseparable instead.

Once that was accomplished it almost didn’t matter how the ensuing war came out. Our “American” natures would have needed much better angels than we’ve ever been able to summon to finally avoid a world where we root for assassins unless and until somebody gives us a reason not to–which is, by definition, the sort of world where few will bother.

Hello us! (So saith The Tall Target, which ends with the half-finished dome of the U.S. Capitol visible out Lincoln’s train window.)

Goodbye us! (So saith The American, which ends with the only American in sight slumped over the wheel of his sporty foreign car about twenty minutes after he managed to get himself gut-shot without noticing.)

Man, now I’m wondering if I should have put this in the “Why I Need Rock and Roll” category…and wishing I was back at work!