THE LAST TEN WESTERNS I WATCHED…(I Watch Westerns: Take Three)

When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Machree comes to me, and I start watching westerns. The last few weeks were kind of odd in that none of the westerns I watched were by Ford, Hawks, Mann or Boetticher, so I thought it might make a fun post reinforcing my occasional off-hand suggestion that the genre is bottomless. Here’s a look:

April 27–Rimfire (1949, B. Reeves Eason, First Viewing)

rimfire2The essence: An innocent man is wrongly convicted of card-sharping in a “trial by acclamation” and subsequently hanged. (For card-sharping? Yep!) His ghost–or someone channeling it–wanders about, gunning for those who convicted him, offing them with solid gold bullets and dropping deuces and fours on the corpses. A Secret Service man, tracking the gold while he works under cover as a local deputy, tries to catch him between attempts at wooing the local blonde. That’s for starters. Is that enough to overcome indifferent acting by minor period stars, jittery direction and a choppy story-line with more subplots than War and Peace? I would never presume to judge. Each of us must find our own level in these matters. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if Ian Fleming had this floating around in his subconscious. And I’d bet money Sergio Leone did.

April 26–Little Big Horn (1951, Charles Marquis Warren, First Viewing)

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This actually came in a cheapie double with Rimfire and the contrast couldn’t be starker. The basic story is based on a historical incident and involves a scout patrol which comes across signs that the Sioux are lying in wait for an unsuspecting General Custer. The movie consists of the patrol’s attempt to reach Custer in time. Of course you know they won’t, but it doesn’t matter because the real story is a truly complex study of male honor. Additionally, as a representation of the ethos of the U.S. Cavalry, it stands with John Ford’s famous trilogy and Ernest Haycox’s fine novel Bugles in the Afternoon. John Ireland and Lloyd Bridges, two actors who rarely got enough screen time, get plenty here and make the most of it. Neither man was ever better. The great Marie Windsor is sadly underused, but even that is a small quibble. A real find.

April 25–Rawhide (1951, Henry Hathaway, Umpteenth Viewing)

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Perfect. Along with Key Largo, one of my two favorite films using a common plot: innocents trapped by violent men waiting for an “event.” The setting here is a lonely stage stop. The event is an impending stage robbery. The cast is perfect, the plot unbreakable, the direction, by old pro Hathaway, taut as a piano wire. The denouement features a tension-filled “child in danger” sequence that’s on a level with Battleship Potemkin or Small Change and more fully integrated than either. (Note: I watched this in preparation for an upcoming blogathon where I’ll take a closer look at Jack Elam’s villain. The role was his career maker so watch for further thoughts here.)

April 24–The Last of the Mohicans (1992, Michael Mann, Third Viewing)

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Fenimore Cooper seems a natural for the movies. But this, likely the best adaptation of his work, is far more of a chore than it needs to be (though admittedly less of a chore than the thirties’ version with Randolph Scott). Mann shrouded the Fort William Henry battle scenes in an impenetrable darkness, only occasionally caught either the beauty or the mystery of the Appalachians and evidently convinced his female stars they were playing the Bronte sisters without the comedy. Past that, you have a depressingly inappropriate modernist score, Natty Bumppo transformed into “Nathaniel Poe,” perhaps so Daniel Day-Lewis can play him as a natural vessel for the Method and various English-actor types who deliver their lines as if they are simultaneously passing kidney stones.  Moderately worthwhile for Wes Studi’s definitive turn as Magua, a good surrender scene between the commanding French and English officers, and some occasionally haunting scenery that proves you can’t really turn off Appalachia’s beauty and mystery no matter how hard you try. (Note: I go back and forth on whether Drums Along the Mohawk, the Walter Edmonds novel, which shares its time and place with Cooper’s most famous novels and was filmed by John Ford in the late thirties, is really a western. But Cooper invented the form and nailed most of its elements in place. For whatever reason I have no such qualms about the Leatherstocking tales.)

April 23–The Last Hunt (1956, Richard Brooks, First Viewing)

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A brooding tale of the last days of the buffalo hunters. Robert Taylor takes a rare turn as a villain and he’s fine, though I couldn’t help feeling the movie might have been even better if he and Stewart Granger (who carried a tinge of self-contempt in his bones that came out of his eyes when he put on a cowboy hat) had switched places. The best performance in a solid cast is from Lloyd Nolan as an aging buffalo skinner. The plot is unusually existential. Civilization is not at stake. It’s barely felt. In that respect, it’s more noir than western. In one other respect it’s pure western: Death is real, right down to the last, genuinely chilling scene.

April 21–Drum Beat (1954, Delmer Daves, First Viewing)

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Alan Ladd as an Indian fighter trying to make peace among his enemies, in this case the Modocs of the Pacific Northwest, on orders from General Grant (played, not badly, but rather improbably by Hayden Rorke, who would make his last mark a decade later as the forever flummoxed base psychiatrist in I Dream of Jeannie). A bit staid, but, as one might expect with Delmer Daves at the helm,  it certainly has its moments, not a few of them provided by a very young Charles Bronson as the never-surrender Modoc war chief. Ladd is his usual fine, laconic self, but, a mere three years after Shane, he looks twenty years older in a part that might have been better served by his younger, more energetic self. Worthwhile for fans of Daves, Ladd or Bronson.

April17–Fury at Showdown (1957, Gerd Oswald, First Viewing)

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This one gets where it’s going. There is no especially striking aspect, but the story is a good one (good brother/bad brother, with bad brother trying to straighten up for his brother’s sake) and it’s well executed. Best performance is by Nick Adams, a James Dean/Elvis associate who has never impressed me anywhere else. John Derek is good enough as the lead. I can see why somebody thought he might be a star and I can see why he didn’t make it, though I’m sure I never would have guessed he would eventually be mostly famous for marrying exceptionally beautiful women.

April 17–Along Came Jones (1945, Stuart Heisler, Second Viewing)

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Gary Cooper spoofing himself. I hadn’t revisited this one in years and, upon doing so, I was reminded why there was no particular urgency. Cooper’s fine, but he’s saddled with an out-of-her-element Loretta Young and a script that frequently ambles when it should gallop. Still good for a few laughs, especially when Cooper’s hayseed is sparring with the ever reliable William Demarest. But, with Nunnally Johnson scripting, there was a chance for much more. A bit of a missed opportunity.

April 12–Roughshod (1949, Mark Robson, First Viewing)

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Nifty. I acquired it strictly for the purpose of investigating whether Gloria Grahame’s essence would translate to a western. It does. She’s superb and, more to the point, she’s Gloria Grahame. Oh, there’s a good story, too: Hookers…er, “showgirls,” with and without hearts of gold, try to survive any way they can while traveling from the town they’ve been kicked out of to the town where their dreams will come true (in California, of course). It’s well directed and, excepting Robert Sterling’s stolid but uninspiring presence in the lead, superbly played. Claude Jarman, Jr., one of the period’s finest child actors, is especially good in a part that could have gone wrong a hundred ways. And, after all that? Gloria Grahame is in it. She’s superb and she’s Gloria Grahame. So it’s like every other movie she was in where she was herself: A Gloria Grahame movie. There’s a reason they put her up front on the poster even if they billed her second on screen and fourth in the advertising. I might watch it again tonight.

April 11–Garden of Evil (1954, Henry Hathaway, Fourth Viewing)

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This one has grown on me. I liked it well enough when I first encountered it a few years ago. Watching it about once a year since, it’s gotten better every time. At this point, I’m almost ready to move it to the very first rank. Susan Hayward juggles a dying husband and the four hard men she’s hired to save both him and the fortune he’s excavated from a gold mine deep in Apache country. There’s a powerhouse cast, all in top form: Hayward, Gary Cooper, Richard Widmark, Hugh Marlowe, Cameron Mitchell, Mexican star Victor Manuel Mendoza and a red hot, if too-briefly seen, Rita Moreno. It winds and winds, rather like the mountain trails the plot traverses. That might be what deceived me into thinking it was a little slow the first time around. The more i watch, though, the deeper it gets. The climactic action sequences are of a high order. The final line is classic. And did I mention that, in a western, death actually hurts? That might be because, in the westerns Hollywood used to make, life was never merely existential or programmatic. Not even when they tried.

UTOPIAS, DYSTOPIAS, MYOPIAS AND A BRIEF ROUNDUP OF THE USUAL SUSPECTS (Monthly Book Report: 8/15)

Since I’ve disconnected my television satellite and I’m not currently working on any side projects, I’m starting to have more time to read. I don’t know if the trend will last, but for now, I’m making two changes to the book report.

First, when there are more than the usual three or four books, I’m going to try to put them in categories, rather than simply reviewing by strict chronology according to the date I completed them.

Second, my policy with book covers up to now has been to post a copy of the edition I read, if I can find it. Seems like the more I read, the more of a chore and/or impossibility that becomes, so, starting now, I’m just going to use the cover of the edition I like best. Based on this month’s experiment, that will probably mean lurid for the pulp, stately for the classics, and functional for everything else.

So, sticking to the announced categories…

Utopias

Well, a pastoral anyway…

The Prairie (James Fenimore Cooper, 1827)

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And so, at long last, I fulfill a teenage promise to myself and finish the Leatherstocking Tales. This was the third written of the five, but the last chronologically for the character of Natty Bumppo. I’ve written at length elsewhere about the modern world’s odd and foolish neglect of Cooper, but I have to admit this was my least favorite of the series.

Cooper’s usual strengths, namely his unsurpassed descriptions of a wilderness Fitzgerald could evoke so swiftly and efficiently on the final page of The Great Gatsby in part because Cooper had done the heavy lifting for a century’s worth of readers in a pre-visual age, his action sequences, and his ability to wring real tragedy from melodramatic plots and a more than occasionally turgid literary style, are all present here, but severely muted.

Moving the setting from the upstate New York he knew like the back of his hand to midwestern plains he knew chiefly from the witness of others robs his descriptive passages of their authority.

Dealing with a landscape and tribal cultures he knew less than well meant he had to basically transport his stock characters into unfamiliar and sometimes ill-fitting skins.

With Chingachgook killed off and Natty aged out of both his heroic skill set and his appeal as a leading man (who broke a heart in The Deerslayer and had his broken in turn in The Pathfinder), the romances fail to spark.

And with the conflict between the woods and the town (or the fort) replaced by a roving fight between rootless and unsavory settlers, more unsavory Sioux, and noble Pawnees (standing in for the noble Delawares of Natty’s younger years), the great theme of civilization encroaching on the wilderness and vice versa never comes to life until the very end.

Even so, the book is hardly without worth. There’s some good comic relief from a naturalist who is Natty’s equal for stubbornness and pluck, though not for intelligence. (If classic Hollywood had taken on the story, Donald Meek could have played him perfectly).  And there’s a genuinely horrific scene, after the not-for-the-faint-of-heart fashion Cooper had mastered if not invented, in which the rude settlers are forced to punish one of their own for killing one of their own.

Plus, Natty’s long day’s journey into night is handled with grace and aplomb, a fitting end for the character, even if the series carried on until the 1840s and found its pinnacle in The Deerslayer, set first and written last, by which time Cooper knew a lot more than the thing or two that had already made him America’s first major novelist, and an undismissible guide to our national psyche, by the time this was written.

Myopias

Jake’s Thing (Kingsley Amis, 1978)

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Yet another reminder that, if satirists have their uses, they also have their limits.

Based on his famous and, as the English say, spot-on preference for John MacDonald (“by any standards a better writer”) over Saul Bellow (“a human heart chap”), plus happy experiences with The Anti-Death League (a genuinely great spy novel from 1966) and Lucky Jim (his misanthropic career maker from 1954), I’ve cut Sir Kingsley a fair bit of slack over the years.

That slack has now stretched to cover The Green Man (1969), The Russian Girl (1992) and this. And unless somebody can convince me he had another Anti-Death League in him–or at least a novel which isn’t yet another variant on Lucky Jim–I’m done.

I’m done even though this had a smile on nearly every page, a laugh on more than a few and a potentially intriguing premise: “Is male menopause any sort of crisis for a misanthrope?”

Amis was a Conservative Hedonist. He practiced a style of world-weary, seen-it-all, Englishness that probably reached its peak with Lucky Jim and had evidently worn thin by the time the Sexual Revolution got up a real head of steam. Conservative Hedonism was certainly preferable to it’s Liberal counterpart. Real Hate is more bracing than Fake Love in both Art and Life. But it’s lost its sting now that the age of cultural collapse it foreshadowed has arrived in force.

Laughter’s precious, alright, but it’s not worth the supercilious slog that Amis began extracting from his readers as the price of the ticket. And, God help him, somewhere along the way he started trying to invest in character development, almost always a deadly notion for a satirist.

One can ponder “Jake Richardson,” or Kingsley Amis, and get a glimpse into why and how civilizations fail alright. It’s when enough people who might have done better, don’t.

Not saying there’s no value in being reminded.

But one reason I never got into Seinfeld or Larry David or any other recent version of the lineage Amis the Elder (his son, God help us, writes too) had picked up from H.L. Mencken (a truly corrosive misanthrope who was evidently a frustrated Hedonist, always the kind who both start this sort of thing and are bound to be the best at it), is that, at some point, very soon after you take its measure, the corrosiveness is just plain tiresome.

Life’s too short.

Oh yeah. The “thing” is impotence…or lack of desire to perform even in the face of undiminished capacity….or the male member.

One of those. Or maybe all of them.

All nice subjects for satire. This would have made a great short story, so if I do try Amis again it will probably be through that route.

I’m old enough myself to have commitment issues whenever I get ten pages into a novel and realize it’s already going in circles around a very familiar track.

Dystopias

NOTE: I usually avoid dystopian novels written by anyone but Philip K. Dick, for the same reason I usually avoid novels about psychotics written by anyone except Patricia Highsmith. If a standard exists, met over and over by the standard setter, why bother with the rest? That said, the classics of certain genres do beckon when I’m in the mood to further my education, hence, the following:

Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1931) and Brave New World Revisited (1958)

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Huxley’s great insight was his recognition that the old truth about Religion and Art being incompatible with the New Age’s rising Gods (one of which is, amusingly, always called Science or, even funnier, Reason, the other of which, given that it covers everything from political boot-licking to industrial criticism, must never, ever be called anything as mundane as Journalism and therefor can never, amusingly or otherwise, be called anything at all) was reaching a new, feverish pitch, even when he knocked his original dystopia into a novel of sorts.

The world more or less survived the first go-round with Perfection. Fascism came and went. Soviet style communism was still going strong when Huxley “revisited” his own vision in the late fifties, but has come a cropper since.

We’ve found new ways to terrorize and undermine ourselves here lately.

Still, his vision was on-track in the macro sense. We’ve been fairly resistant to Big Brother, but we do love our machines and our drugs and we are using them to reshape ourselves into something already recognizable as the very subversions of “brave” and “new” that Huxley glimpsed in outline in the early thirties.

Like most dystopian novels (Dick excepted), Brave New World is a bit of a chore once the premise is established, but I’m glad I finally read it–sense of accomplishment and all–and I agree with those who insist it was a more likely vision of the future than Orwell’s.

Still, it’s less likely than the vision at the back of all the other western visions, laid down by John the Revelator after a mad dream incurred on the Isle of Patmos. Like I said. Only Philip K. Dick has got past him.

The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood, 1986)

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…And while I was in a dystopian mood, I thought I might as well tackle this one.

It’s a little more engaging than Orwell or Huxley. There’s an approximation of a human character at the center (she narrates) and a neat twist at the end. The vision itself isn’t very complicated or compelling. It’s made up out of bits and pieces of standard dystopian rubble and glued together by the even more standard Good Liberal horror of (and complete misunderstanding of) Evangelical Christianity. Anyone who has ever attended a Wednesday night business meeting at the local First Baptist, or understands even a little bit about how the chaotic anti-structure of Protestant sects actually works, will get a wry smile out of the notion that such folks will be running the New World Order, Star Chamber fashion, any day now. (The Handmaid’s Tale is set in what is supposed to be a disturbingly near future.)

On the positive side, the book is well written and there are a lot of sound general insights. Nothing that couldn’t have been gleaned from a good captivity narrative, mind you. (I know, because I just finished a captivity narrative myself and have been studying the sources.)

What really made this a grind, though, was that the specifics, despite being oh-so-carefully rendered, simply weren’t very convincing. It read like a philosophical treatise, not something the author felt in her bones.

So a lot like Brave New World–or 1984–after all.

The book was published in the eighties. If Atwood wanted to remain contemporary a generation hence she should have put jihadis in control of her world.

Of course, if she had, she would probably be dead or in hiding now.

I have no idea whether this was a failure of imagination on her part, or a failure of nerve.

And, despite her obvious skill, no desire to investigate further.

…the Usual Suspects

The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper (John D. MacDonald, 1968)

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Jesus. The first half of this is so touchy-feely I thought I’d picked up a Harlequin Romance by mistake. There are letters for God’s sake, and no sign of the usual gimlet eye, sizing up the late twentieth century, let alone any sort of adventure going on.

It picks up in the second half. But even then is seems more like a misguided attempt to imitate Ross MacDonald than anything I’d want or expect from the McGee.

Weakest of the series so far.

Dress Her In Indigo (John D. MacDonald, 1969)

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I hate to say it, but the late sixties were not a good time for MacDonald/McGee. At least this time around he has the makings of a good story. even if it’s back to Mexico with not much to say that he hadn’t already said better.

There are too many twists and turns here and they don’t all make a lot of sense. When the bereaved father of a lost girl turns out to be not the out-of-shape midwestern businessman we’ve been led to believe but a stone cold torturer/murderer, the problem isn’t so much that it’s a stretch, or even that it’s a long stretch. It’s that the revelation comes as a total surprise to McGee, but not to the reader.

Believe me, I’m a pure sucker. You can have me agape with the least effort imaginable. But even I saw every twist coming, except for one very small, and genuinely unsettling one near the very end.

In short, too much sex therapy, as had become the norm (though at least this time around it’s the various fantasy women providing and McGee receiving). Too much intricate plotting (leave it to the other MacDonald, i.e. Ross, not to mention Agatha Christie, for they were good at it). Too much Meyer (I like Meyer, we all like Meyer, but McGee doesn’t need a true Watson). And yet again, no really memorable villain.

The McGee was clearly in a slump. The late sixties had thrown both him and his creator. I have fond memories of some of the books coming up so I’m looking forward to a rebound. This was a little better than the last one, but it’s also the first in the series that had me checking page numbers, which is the equivalent of checking your watch in a movie, wondering just how much longer until it’s over.

Eye of the Needle (Ken Follett, 1978)

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Having finally caught up last month with The Day of the Jackal, which story I knew from the fine film version, I decided to give this one, which inspired an even better film, a try.

Turns out the movie was a solid improvement (whereas the film of Jackal just held its ground). In part, because more liberties were taken.

The book is fine, a definite page turner, but it isn’t quite as good as Jackal, which was even better than the movie it inspired.

I don’t know if Follett was attempting a spin on Forsyth or anyone else, but coincidentally or not, his central track, in a story with an otherwise rather similar structure, ran opposite.

In Jackal, the trick was to keep the lone man trying to outwit the powers of the police state (in that case a paid murderer, who must necessarily be an expert in the craft of espionage) from being revealed as a sociopath until the last possible instant.

In Eye of the Needle, the trick was to keep the lone man trying to outwit the powers of the police state (in this case, a German spy loose in the England of WWII, who must necessarily be an expert in the craft of unpaid murder) from being revealed as something other than a sociopath. This is where the movie was an improvement (even though most critics didn’t get it…do they ever?).

Here, the murderous spy is merely cold-blooded, a standard Nazi-oid type most of us have encountered so frequently in fiction and film we’re bound to find ourselves stifling an occasional yawn by now, now matter how skillfully he’s rendered.

The film changed a few key sequences to hint at a man who got into it for excitement and love of country but knows he has lost his soul along the way. Given that for a premise, his affair with a lonely woman makes strong dramatic and emotional sense. In the novel, it’s far more mechanical and efficient. Still compelling, mind you, but the compulsion is strictly intellectual.

The movie of Eye of the Needle leaves an echo. The novel, well done as it is, is over when it’s over.

MARCH BOOK REPORT (3/13)

The Instant Enemy (Ross MacDonald, 1968)

A re-read. Late period MacDonald, the first of the “He’s-better-than-Hammett-and-Chandler!” hard-boiled writers and still the only one I know of who very nearly was. This was in his high-middle range and very good indeed. I hadn’t visited with him in a while and though I hadn’t exactly forgotten his unique gift for plots that are simultaneously labyrinthine and tight-as-a-tick, swift and contemplative, it was still a sort of giddy pleasure to be caught up in one again. The fact that he had worthwhile things to say about the center that was falling apart around him in the late sixties is icing on the cake.

The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend (Glenn Frankel, 2013)

Frankel is a little more devoted than I am to the idea of Cynthia Ann Parker’s particular captivity narrative being the true wellspring of Alan LeMay’s novel The Searchers and the subsequent classic film of the same name. Even he admits here and there that LeMay’s sources were numerous, so a broader-based approach might have been more productive.

Still, threading together the Old West and mid-twentieth century Hollywood required massive research (enough that I’m not going to quibble too much over occasional mis-statements of fact such as crediting John Ford with a directing Oscar for Stagecoach in 1939 or stating that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was Ford’s last collaboration with John Wayne or suggesting that the famous “Print the legend” line is the conclusion of TMWSLV–except to wonder why it must always be so). And, given how much territory it covers, the book is a good, swift read. [NOTE: I bogged down a little in the Cynthia Ann section but only because I had recently read S.C. Gwynne’s compelling account and found myself covering a lot of the same territory].

The book is a must have in any case for fans of the film or novel if only because it sheds a lot of light on LeMay and scriptwriter Frank Nugent, two figures that haven’t been written about or appreciated nearly enough. And all credit to Frankel for not falling into the common trap of elevating these unfairly obscured figures into more than they were–he knows that, for all the skill and inspiration supplied by others, the reason The Searchers has the hold it does is because Ford directed it and John Wayne found his greatest role in it and, even if I don’t agree with all his conclusions about the film’s real significance, this is still a valuable addition to the basic libraries on the varied subjects it addresses.

The Pioneers (James Fenimore Cooper, 1823)

Fourth in the historical chronology of The Leatherstocking Tales, but the first written. Maybe a third of the way through it, I thought it was reading a lot like a Jane Austen novel and subsequent research (I really should get hold of a good Cooper bio) revealed that he was in fact enamored of her and that his first novel, written a few years earlier, had been a more or less straight homage.

And as a comedy of manners it often works quite well. The usual criticisms of Cooper’s style are hardly unfounded. Yes, he’s stilted at times, given to melodrama (often at moments when it’s least effective), needlessly repetitive and prone to long-windedness and–a particularly salient criticism here–awkward plotting.

Of course, many a high modernist has been praised to the skies for exhibiting the very same qualities.

And very few of them have matched Cooper’s real strengths–his action scenes still haven’t been surpassed, his descriptions of the American wilderness are peerless and, in the Leatherstocking series at least, he found–over and over–those moments of real emotional power that have evaded–over and over–virtually every one of his stylistic “superiors.”

Plus, all the themes that still engage us in our little experiments in Statecraft and Nationhood are present, restlessly coursing through the national bloodstream right where he put them: tensions between Man and Nature; Civilization and the Wilderness; Private and Public interests; Capital and Community; Christian and Pagan (a theme that has made a particularly strong comeback in the last fifty years…with Christianity being put to flight both within and without the church walls); Progress and Primitivism; Hearts and Minds. The tone might be old-fashioned but the themes will always be contemporary. As long as there’s an “us” anyway.

And while it would be foolish to insist Cooper’s novels in general–and this one in particular–couldn’t do with some pruning, it would be even sillier to deny his more than occasional mordant wit:

“Mr. Doolittle belonged physically to a class of his countrymen, to whom nature has denied, in their formation, the use of curved lines. Everything about him was either straight or angular. But his tailor was a woman who worked, like a regimental contractor, by a set of rules that gave the same configuration to the whole human species.”

Or his knack for pegging social and psychological types at a glance, as in this look inside the dual and tortuous mind of a lawyer (where his real thoughts are inserted parenthetically among bland, oblique language virtually anyone who has ever dealt with a certain kind of legal mind will recognize):

“I will make the communication, sir, in your name (with your own qualifications), as your agent. Good morning, sir.–But stay proceedings, Mr. Edwards (so-called), for a moment. Do you wish me to state the offer of traveling as a final contract (for which consideration has been received at former dates (by sums advanced), which would be binding), or as a tender of services for which compensation is to be paid (according to future agreement between the parties), on performance of the conditions?”

Granted Joyceans–including Joyce–engaged in this sort of thing more frequently. But they never did it any better.

 

WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS (Sixth Maxim)

Once the rumor spreads…

“Frankel notes that the year Cynthia Ann [Parker] was taken, three of America’s four best-selling novels were by James Fenimore Cooper, with captivity figuring in all; the fourth was the true story of a settler woman who, captured by the Seneca Indians, married into the tribe, had seven children and refused to rejoin white civilization.”

(Source: J. Hoberman, review of Glenn Frankel’s The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, from New York Times, Feb. 22, 2013)

We’ll lay aside that “novels” should be books (as the quote itself admits the fourth was a nonfiction account). And I  really don’t want to drag Frankel’s book into this. I’m reading it now and it’s quite good (I’ve already turned up one nugget I plan to use in my next post about the movie). Overall the book seems a well-researched, well-written labor of love and Frankel clearly put a lot of work and care into it.

So I was just going to pass over the messy bit Hoberman cites as one of those things. We all make mistakes. But now that it’s been given the imprimatur of the paper of record, it’s worth mentioning that Hoberman’s reference does clearly demonstrate one of the dangers of what I like to call “industrial criticism.”

So here’s the relevant quote from the book under review:

“At the time of the massacre at Parker’s Fort, [the historical event that forms the basis of Frankel’s book] three of the nation’s four biggest sellers were novels by Cooper–The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer, all of which featured captivity as an important plot element.” (p. 35)

Since the massacre (and abduction of Cynthia Ann Parker) took place in 1836 and The Pathfinder and The Deerslayer weren’t published until 1840 and 1841 respectively, this is a somewhat dubious statement.

Again not a terribly big deal in and of itself. Perhaps Frankel really meant bestselling books of the era or “the time” (as opposed to the specific year). Perhaps there was some lapse of research or memory. Perhaps some  initially clear language was garbled at the editorial or typesetting stage. There could be any number of perfectly good explanations.

But, of course, if you do make a mistake–or at least the impression of a mistake–that’s likely to be the very thing a reviewer cites! And he’s likely to apply compound interest. (As here, where the lack of clarity and specificity implied by “the time” immediately becomes the completely counter-factual “the year.”)

Since Frankel’s book is largely about the relationship between fact and “myth” it’s a little ironic–and frankly pretty interesting–to find such a perfect example of how one soon becomes the other in America’s most prominent reviewing space. The author planted a seed. The reviewer (with hundreds of pages to choose from!) immediately homed in on it and turned it into a sapling. Pretty soon word gets around and there’s a mighty oak tree standing about, obscuring all kinds of things!

It won’t surprise me to be googling the subject five years down the line and find that it has been spun into something that is very, very far afield. What that “something” might be I won’t try to guess. For now I’m letting it be the inspiration for The Sixth Maxim:

Please do sweat the small stuff!

 

WHY IT MATTERS…THE CASE OF TARANTINO V. FORD

Okay…Why I think it matters. Let’s stay classy here (also introducing a new category which I’m calling John Ford, John Ford and John Ford):

First, two images:

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From Pulp Fiction (1994) (Director, Quentin Tarantino)

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From Wagonmaster (1950) (Director, John Ford)

Obvious similarities, of course:

In each case a man is casually shooting another man, who is helpless, prone and unarmed.

Enough similarities that it might be a visual quote but I don’t think that’s provable or even germane. John Ford gets “visually quoted” so much it could be a visual quote that arrived in Quentin Tarantino’s brain seven times removed or just by osmosis.

And, in any case, the similarities don’t matter nearly as much as the differences.

In the first picture the man doing the shooting is loquacious to a fault, in the second the shooter hasn’t said a word in the entire film.

In the first picture we’re supposed to identify with the shooter because he’s cool, hip, post-modern and clearly a figment of the imagination–also because we have nothing invested in his victim. And just oh-by-the-way, we’re supposed to keep identifying with him, no matter how many other unarmed men he shoots…or how many moronic psychopaths he lets go free.

In the second picture, we’re supposed to identify with the victim, who is paying for the “crime” of having–on orders–delivered lashes to the bare back of the shooter’s brother (or cousin, it’s never made entirely clear, but in any case he’s family) for assaulting a Navajo woman. And we’re supposed to identify with him even though he’s a minor character who hasn’t been particularly likable and would have been unlikely to become any more so had he lived. Beyond that, we’re also supposed to identify with him because he’s a fictional character–one rooted in the possibilities of human history and behavior–as opposed to a philosophical construct (i.e., the hit man as the thing he never is in life–the coolest cat in the room).

That is, unlike the “character” (i.e., construct) we’re supposed to identify with in the first picture, the man on the ground in the second picture–who we identify with only in this very brief instant–is someone who might have actually existed in something like real time and space and someone we might have known–and quite probably disliked despite his having never done anyone any particular harm–somewhere along the way in the journey through our own  time and space.

There are plenty of other differences–like the scene from Wagonmaster taking place among realistically portrayed hard men (some good, some bad, all recognizable) who barely bat an eye at the sight of a cold-blooded murder while the scene from Pulp Fiction features one highly unrealistic hard man terrorizing boys made, miraculously, out of screaming cardboard–but those will do for now.

*  *  *  *

To be blunt, I’ve never cared much what artists are “really” like.

In the first place, outside of being on intimate terms with them personally, what they are really like is generally unknowable.

And the first place pales next to the significance of the second place, which is that the thing which is most unknowable about any artist is their precise relationship to their art–that is, the extent to which what they are “really like” has any bearing on what we find in their finished products.

Oh, we can know a few things in a vague and generalizing way, and it’s sometimes pleasing or even instructive to know those things. And, yes, the “real” person might even be showing through sometimes.

It’s just that we’re extremely unlikely to know precisely when or how and not knowing precisely means we really don’t know at all.

The only thing more unlikely–if we ever got that that far and still somehow found ourselves standing on solid ground–would be knowing what the when and the how “really” mean.

I mean, the real person we think we’ve just glimpsed could be fooling us. He is an artist after all.

So we might be able to judge whether something is bearing down on him. What effect war or displacement or drug addiction or a nasty divorce or a happy childhood or a too close association with the Angel of Death might have had. Something along those lines might even become obvious.

But that’s not the same as reading the soul–or the soul’s intent when it’s dipped in the process of creating artifice.

For that, I think it’s best to start with the art–if we’re going to start at all–and work backwards to the point that interests us.

Bearing in mind that this point will be different for each person who does make the effort. And that the relationship between the soul and the soul’s intent will still be best measured by what we know of the art, not what we know of the artist.

*  *  *  *

Which is to say I don’t care much about what Quentin Tarantino or John Ford are/were really like.

I know I wouldn’t care to have lunch with QT and I doubt I would have wanted to spend much time with Ford either. (I called Tarantino a liar the other day and that was only based on his tendency to lie, but, being fair I should have mentioned Ford was no better. There are distinctions I could make–the propriety of lying about oneself versus lying about someone else, for instance–but for the purposes of the argument at hand they don’t really matter. For the purposes of this argument, call them two SOB’s of decidedly different stripes…and then call them, for the moment, equal.)

Either way, I do not pine for their company.

I do get suspicious, though, whenever an artist, posing as critic, goes after another artist’s character when it would presumably be at least as easy to go after their art.

In such cases, I tend to suspect–without knowing of course (I’m not that much of a hypocrite!)–that the attacker might be covering for something. It doesn’t matter what that something is. What matters is that the attacker has called both his own trustworthiness and the value of his motives into question.

Maybe in this case it doesn’t really matter. Maybe Ford is secure enough in the pantheon that what Quentin Tarantino has to say about him makes no difference.

Maybe we don’t need to do any more than what a number of bloggers and their commenters have done in spades on other sites–that is, throwing up some variation of the “Quentin Tarantino is a pimple on Ford’s ass!” defense.

Maybe that’s all that’s required.

I think we should be careful, though.

It’s not like we haven’t seen this kind of thing engaged in before.

*  *  *  *

The most famous case of one important American artist attacking another is almost certainly Mark Twain’s 1895 essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” which Twain wrote as a combination literary critique and character assassination.

The essay had no more justification than Tarantino’s recent attacks on Ford, and was just about as ham-handed.

And–in keeping with the main theme here–who knows what Twain’s real motivations were? We can speculate that he was writing out of jealousy of Cooper’s fame or reputation. That he really did hate Cooper’s books to such a degree that he lost his own hold on rationality. (Lost it entirely, incidentally, as his opinions were his opinions, but not a single one of his numerous factual assertions about Cooper’s “offenses” was true). That his own considerable debt to Cooper was stuck in his subconscious, lying uneasy in the very place that was bound to raise the most terrible bile, unreleasable by any means but public vitriol.

Or that he was just having a bad day.

It could have been any or all of these things or something else entirely.

But the “why” of it is neither here nor there.

What should trouble us about Twain’s essay is not its fundamental silliness or dishonesty (or his similar, but less famous, opinions regarding Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James or pretty much anyone whose reputation threatened to eclipse his own), or the emotions that may have driven him to write it.

No, what’s troubling about the essay is its effect.

I wouldn’t personally rate Cooper as highly as Ford but that his reputation has suffered severely–and unfairly–at the hands of a fellow artist’s petty assault, delivered long after he himself was beyond offering up a defense, is almost undeniable.

*  *  *  *

How undeniable?

Well, we can study a few bits of anecdotal evidence (the only kind that’s ever really available in these rather abstract debates, so I’m afraid it will have to do).

TAKE 1935.

That’s the year (forty years after Twain’s essay) when Ernest Hemingway published Green Hills of Africa, his account of a safari he and his wife took, where he somehow found the occasion to include this famous-ever-after aside:

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

Notice: Up Mark Twain

Notice: Down anything that preceded him (Cooper included)…or anything that happened along between him and, well, Hemingway.

Hold that thought….

Then…TAKE 1981:

I was taking an English class at Florida State titled something like “Popular Literature in American History.” The teacher was excellent at his profession and, so far as I know, a perfectly decent human being. The gist of the class was to study books which had been enormously popular in their own time, but which had no particular lasting literary merit. At one point during the course, he happened to mention how fortunate we were that he had decided to take a break from Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans that semester. (At which point the brown nosers which no English class can do without and who always–always!–pose as contrarians, spoke up long and loud. As such types are ever mindful of the value of getting on the teacher’s good side in any class where the memorization of mere facts is of next to no value, you can imagine the bashing old Fenimore received from their tender mercies. Twain’s essay, of course, had a prominent place among the name-dropping portion of the show–and was accepted as representing an unassailable truth somewhere along the order of the higher laws of mathematics.)

My response to this was rather strange.

I had been raised to the notion (mostly passed along by my father) that Cooper was a great, important writer, and I had read The Pathfinder in high school (on my own–it wasn’t the sort of thing that got assigned in the sort of high school I attended, which ran more to field trip movie versions of Shakespeare and dialogue-only abridgments of Dickens for “serious” literature assignments) and very much liked it.

I’m not sure I had ever actually heard Cooper’s name in any sort of English lit context since then.

But I knew how to act and what I should believe. I knew I wouldn’t have spoken up in his defense, even if I had been used to speaking up at all (which I wasn’t).

The feeling against him was strong enough and pervasive enough that I had grokked his fundamental uncoolness–his absence of pure “literary” value and, thus, any value at all–with no word having need been spoken.

So it was in English class in 1981.

Now…TAKE ANY NUMBER OF RECENT YEARS:

…Where I’ve come across several cases, right across the political spectrum, suggesting all you ever need to know about Cooper in general, and the Leatherstocking Tales in particular, can be found in….you guessed it, an essay by Mark Twain called “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”

Then…TAKE 2012 (oh God, please do take it):

The Library of Congress publishes a list of 88 “Books that Shaped America.”

The fact that the list came out to “88”–rather than some round figure–strongly suggests that those responsible for its compilation meant to arrive at an exact idea of everything which could not be reasonably excluded (a risk if the round figure were too small–say fifty), but also without padding (a risk if the round figure were too large–say a hundred).

Cooper did not place a book on the list, leading to two important and obvious questions:

Is he someone who could be reasonably excluded from such a list?

If not, why was he?

The answer to the first one is simple.

No, he’s not.

Cooper wasn’t just the first really important American novelist–a distinction that should have earned him a place on any such list all by itself. He’s also a genuine titan. A flawed titan to be sure…but, when it comes to American literature, only Henry James even comes close to being any other kind.

Now James is not on the list either, but that actually makes some sense. He spent most of his adult life in England and most of his personal and professional time becoming the epitome of that old saw “more English than the English.” And even if he had not, you could make a fair claim–without resorting to reverse snobbery–that he did not write in such a way that his books, by the sheer inimitability of their brilliance, ever had much chance of “shaping” America.

But Cooper is a very different thing. The Library of Congress itself made a point of noting that the list was not based on literary merit (easy to see when you peruse the list itself) but was meant to be just what it said.

Namely, books that shaped us.

To be honest, when I heard the list had been published but hadn’t yet seen it, I assumed Cooper was the only writer (or at least the only fiction writer) who was guaranteed a spot!

Call me crazy, But I figured if we were going to have an official list from the national library celebrating not the “greatest” books but the most influential–the ones that helped make us who we are–then the man who, in the space of about five years in the early 1820’s, invented the spy novel, the sea novel, and the western (and not the “American” versions, which he eventually did for the novel of manners and the murder mystery, but the things themselves) might just have a place.

Especially if some number of his novels did indeed have substantial literary merit.

More especially if his shadow was hanging over nearly every novel that did make the list and hanging with particular heaviness on the most highly regarded of the “literary” entries.

Sometimes this shadow is obvious.

Herman Melville (on the list with Moby Dick) knew where the sea novel came from even if the Library of Congress doesn’t. We don’t have to guess, because he told us so and this is one case where we can probably take an artist at his word.

Twain himself is on the list with a novel we didn’t really need Leslie Fiedler–or even D.H. Lawrence–to tell us had taken its gestalt straight out of Cooper. (Though we evidently did need Ernest Hemingway to tell us it was the source of all modern literary good.)

Sometimes the shadow is not so obvious.

But that doesn’t mean it is any less present, or any less real.

Hemingway himself–the exalter of Twain–is on the list with For Whom the Bell Tolls,  his own last, mighty swing at greatness. The novel, that is, where he set out after Cooper (not Twain) and burned himself to figurative ashes trying to do once what Cooper had done repeatedly, all while getting no closer than shouting range–though he did get closer than Twain, who had set out after Cooper a time or two himself.

Hemingway’s great contemporaries are there, too.

There’s Faulkner with The Sound and the Fury (that’s the one where he copped Cooper’s ending from The Deerslayer for his revised edition).

There’s Fitzgerald, inevitably, with The Great Gatsby, which ends with what may be the most famous passage in American literature. You know, the one where his narrator imagines the Dutch sailors reaching the shores of Cooper’s wilderness (though Cooper was never glassy-eyed enough to pretend this arrival was “the last time man came face to face with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” For that level of delusion, you needed a modernist).

I could keep going. What’s On the Road, but Cooper’s frontier refracted? What’s Red Harvest but Cooper’s spiritual wilderness made modern and urban? What’s The Grapes of Wrath but Cooper’s abiding concerns about the rape of the land turned scatological?

Okay, all of those books are about other things, too. But they–along with most of the others acknowledged by the L of C–each have Cooper’s DNA deeply embedded.

And that’s not even getting into Cooper’s wider influence, nowhere felt more deeply than the visual narrative arts–you know, film, television, whatever is coming next. (It’s not like John Ford or Quentin Tarantino themselves are untouched…and, given how much he likes to pair a white man with a dark-skinned blood brother, I’d say Tarantino more than Ford.)

So if Cooper’s all that…Well, why isn’t he on the list?

And why isn’t he on any number of other similar lists I’ve seen in recent years?

Is it a question of “literary merit?”

Well, sticking to this particular list, let’s just say that Zane Grey is on it. Not to mention Edgar Rice Burroughs.

I happen to love Riders of the Purple Sage and Tarzan of the Apes for what they are.

But come on.

Is it a question of being too early–of being on the other side of some invisible wall built by time and progress?

Then how to account for Washington Irving? Not to mention Benjamin Franklin?

So it must be some version of political correctness then.

Right?

Isn’t that the last, worst explanation for every screwball thrown in screwball land, yea, verily these many years?

Well, that could be it.

But then how to explain the presence of Gone With the Wind (you know, the one where headstrong Judith and spiritually pure Hetty from The Deerslayer are re-imagined as Scarlett and Melanie–even down to their abiding fates as, respectively, jilted lover and corpse)?

Has all suddenly been forgiven?

Surely not.

So you can see where we might be running out of options here.

How there might only be one explanation left.

And how that explanation might well be summed up in the headline, “Mark Twain Once Wrote an Essay Called ‘Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.’..and the World Listened.”

Yeah. That could be it.

Unprovable again. But in this case, it almost has to be the truth. Maybe Sherlock Holmes could think of some other explanation that accounts for all the available facts, but I sure can’t.

So now we go back to those two images at the top there (come on now, admit it…you thought I forgot!)

And we ask ourselves…does it really matter what Quentin Tarantino says about John Ford?

Let me first say what I think doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter–in the least–why QT said what he said.

It doesn’t matter if the real reason is the son’s need to kill the father, or the white boy’s need to bond with the Other, or the simple man’s confusion when confronted with complexity and ambivalence, or the amoral artist’s discomfort with the moral (as opposed to moralistic) one, or the straight-line jealousy of a deeply ambitious filmmaker who, for all his ducking and hiding and peeping out from behind his genre obsessions, desperately wants to be thought of as great, as auteurist even (and maybe has got far enough down his own road to glimpse just how hard it would be to ever begin that other journey, let alone finish it) lashing out at someone who made masterpieces the way most of us pour milk on cereal, routinely, calmly, not caring much if a little splashes over the side.

That’s what I think doesn’t matter. The undiscernible “why” of it.

What does matter–what matters a lot–is what we make of it.

If Ford is greater than Cooper (and he is), and Tarantino is nowhere near being Mark Twain (and he isn’t), that’s all the more reason to push back.

Because what matters–okay, staying classy here–what I think matters, is doing what we can to prevent a scenario whereby some future version of Hemingway writes something along the lines of, “All modern cinema comes from a single film by Quentin Tarantino called Pulp Fiction,” and has his twaddle taken seriously.

Lest we think this is far-fetched, we should probably note that Tarantino (and what he represents) are taken at least as seriously today as Twain (and what he represented) was in 1895. And while the present is always impressed with itself, it may never have been so impressed as it is today, in part because the past has never been caught receding quite so rapidly.

So history is moving Tarantino’s way–the way of homage over creation, of sensation over memory, of the feel-good cult of the individual over the prickly annoyances that attend the preservation of community–and will likely accelerate.

Throw in that Ford, even more than Cooper, was/is cantankerous in both his person and his art–and that ever-impressed-with-itself-modernity is ready to accept virtually anything in an artist except his being a threat to easy assumptions about its own validity–and I don’t think a version of Hemingway-exalting-Twain-all-out-of-proportion-to-reality popping up forty years or forty days from now is even a little far-fetched.

All that’s before we even get to the final problem.

Cooper and Twain (and Hemingway for that matter…though not so much my eighties-era English teacher or the present representatives of the Library of Congress) were part of the same universe. It was/is possible to love all three of those writers (as I do) without practicing some kind of cognitive dissonance.

The split between Ford and Tarantino (and what they each represent) is much deeper. That split is a new kind of challenge. The challenge of choosing.

Truly choosing.

When it comes to Tarantino v. Ford, there really is a good deal more at stake because it’s possible to care about one, the other, or neither…But I’ll submit (while staying as classy as I can) that it is not possible to truly care about both–at least not without.seriously misunderstanding (and thus distorting beyond any comprehension that is rooted in their “finished product”) one or the other.

And when, in what I suspect is a rather near future, it really does come time to choose, my ever-classy self thinks we should be very, very careful which fork in the road we decide to follow.

UPDATE: I meant to highlight this link somewhere above but forgot. It’s academic and therefore may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it should probably be required reading next to the Twain essay in question.