ELEGY REVISITED IN ANOTHER COUNTRY CHURCHYARD….

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

(Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”)

Virgil Caine is my name and I served on the Danville train,
‘Til Stoneman’s Cavalry came and tore up the tracks again…

(The Band, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”)

I’ve mentioned before that I drive a hundred miles each way to put flowers on my mother’s grave every Mother’s Day. My parents are the only appointed missionaries buried at the oldest Baptist church in Florida (est. 1825). Every year, I walk around to see who has died. Every year, one or two familiar names are added (usually wives joining husbands long passed). Every year, I note the military ranks of many of the departed. It’s a small church with a small graveyard so the military mentions toward the middle and back of the cemetery are a smattering.

Korea (my Sunday School teacher, he never mentioned it).

WWII (the man who loaned us money to travel home to see family the first Christmas we moved there, he never mentioned it…this year, he was joined by his daughter, a college teacher who wrote the letter of recommendation that helped me get a job at the Southern Baptist Convention’s center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina in the summer of ’79….else her husband…the grave was fresh dug, no stone yet).

WWI. (too far back for me to know them personally though the names suggest I knew their heirs).

At the front, the names are somewhat more numerous. Up in that part of the churchyard, the military designation is always CSA. Some of them died in what they would have called The War Between the States, some after. Whenever they died, an alarming number bear birth dates of 1848, 1849, 1850. By the end, the CSA was calling up fifteen-year-olds.

That’s what happens at the end, when your life is at stake.

I never had much sympathy for the Lost Cause or Ye Olde Confederacy. A permanent curse on the slaveocracy who cast their permanent curse on us. As much as I know anything, I know if we’d somehow managed to win, we’d have been the Balkans and the USA would have been some hellish combination of Germany and Russia. Best that it worked out as it did.

But I don’t like to run from the past either.

If I’d been born in 1849, I know where my bones would lie…and I don’t doubt the military designation on my grave would read CSA. If not in this churchyard, then some other, because I doubt there’s a vintage cemetery in the parts of the South where my folks came from that doesn’t have an even longer row of the Lost Cause’s Honored Dead.

Hell, by the time Stoneman’s Cavalry rode their last, ” just eighteen”  was an old man in the army of the CSA.

And it’s not like I have to project.

When Stonewall Jackson’s West Point roommate, George Stoneman, rode out to exact the final vengeance for his humiliation at Chancellorsville (the high tide of both the Confederate States of America and his roommate’s brilliant career, which ebbed away in an instant when a unit from my mother’s home state mistook Jackson for the enemy in the gloaming and mortally wounded him), he left from Knoxville, Tennessee, twenty miles from my father’s stone-cold Unionist home town (where the college my father had not quite graduated from when Pearl Harbor re-directed his life down a path that eventually led him to the bible college that sits seven miles from where my parents are buried, was founded by one of the South’s now forgotten fire-breathing abolitionists and where my father’s older relatives nonetheless had living memories of chasing cows into the woods to keep the Yankees from confiscating them), and ended in Salisbury, North Carolina, where my mother grew up learning to hop trains in the hobo jungle in the days when the legends of Jimmie Rodgers and Woody Guthrie were still aborning.

From this distance, I can be glad the Yankees won, even in this age when we seem so determined to throw it all away.

But when I’m walking through a country churchyard down here, mulling the gravestones, there’s no way for it not to be a little bit personal.

Even from this distance.

This month is the thirtieth anniversary of my mother’s death. But you know what Faulkner said. In the South, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

And, as he did not quite say: “Would that it were.”

Rest of ya’ll will know what we know soon enough. I give it not more than a century and it will pass in the blink of an eye. Then you won’t care if the money’s no good either.

Enjoy this hard and bitterly won space while you can.

 

THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE (And Then There Was Hollywood: First Rumination)

His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)

(Note: I got a request to review this, which is not exactly a chore, but as it didn’t fit any existing category, I decided to create a new one. No idea how often I’ll update it, but it could grow into something. Not everything is a western or a noir, after all, no matter how hard some folks insist on having it otherwise.)

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I’ve now seen His Girl Friday six times.

That’s three more times than I’ve listened to Never Mind the Bollocks and seventeen times fewer than I’ve seen Rio Bravo (yes, I keep count–on the movies no matter what, and on the albums if it doesn’t go over three). I only mention this to place it on a scale: I like screwball comedies better than punk rock and not as much as westerns.

I’ll let you figure out what that says about me.

One thing I’ve figured out for myself, though, is that the twenty-something me did not predict the fifty-something me.

At twenty-something, I didn’t have much awareness of directors, let alone auteurs. If such awareness had existed, Howard Hawks almost certainly would have been my favorite.

Makes sense.

At twenty-something, dreams tend to occupy the lion’s share of a romantic sensibility and, at twenty-something, it’s hard to accept–even if you can imagine it–that those dreams will one day be memories.

Mostly memories of what might have been.

Unless, of course, the dreams come true (fat chance), or you don’t quite grow up (I had my doubts but, curse or blessing, it happened to me).

Which is all a way of saying that the part of me that once wholeheartedly embraced Hawks’s happily-ever-after world view generally and His Girl Friday specifically, now has a tendency to hold him at arm’s length, His Girl Friday–which, with the possible exception of To Have and Have Not, I once embraced most wholeheartedly of allnot excepted.

Oh, it’ s still great fun. As pure fun goes, I can’t imagine greater. I’m sure I’ll watch it several more times before my dreaming ends–in any case, way more times than I’ll listen to the Sex Pistols. I’ll always keep it in a special box, well-lit and carefully tended, in part because it’s such a perfect distillation of a cultural confidence and cohesion the loss of which I so regularly mourn here.

I mean, who doesn’t want to be (or be with) Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell trading memories and wisecracks and secret nods and winks at the expense of the rubes and charlatans who are forever running amok in this world? Who doesn’t want to believe that our perfectly idealized selves aren’t capable of rising to any challenge, whether it’s coming up with the next zinger in the fastest-talking movie ever made or running rings around corrupt politicos or saving an innocent man from the gallows even if–maybe especially if–he’s a consummate rube himself?

And who doesn’t want to believe that the elements of a world that made such a movie possible still exist somewhere, waiting to be drawn forth at any moment even if, in our heart of hearts, we know there is nobody left who could imagine anything remotely similar, let alone write, produce, direct or act in it? I mean, it’s a testimony to just how great His Girl Friday is that it makes it possible to wonder if the war and famine that were loose in the world when it was made might actually be worth enduring again if we could just get the dream life it depicts so beautifully back to stay.

Would that there were still room for fairy tales.

Of course, none of this makes me immune. Hawks’s Rio Bravo–take it from somebody who’s done serious research for western fiction–is not a whit more susceptible to anything approaching “realism.” And, yes, I have seen it twenty-three times.

That’s probably because it’s at least grounded by a streak of melancholy.

You don’t find much of that in Hawks’s work prior to the late fifties. (You could measure the psychic distance between Hawks and his perpetually melancholy friend, John Ford, by their WWII “combat” movies. Hawks’s Air Force, made a few months after Pearl Harbor, ends in triumph. Ford’s They Were Expendable, made just after Japan’s surrender, ends in defeat. All that was before Hawks worked Red River in such a way as to prove he could wring a happy ending out of literally anything.)

And you don’t find a trace of melancholy, or any other form of doubt, in His Girl Friday.

So you have to lay the world aside, sure, but once you do, the movie still takes flight and never touches down. It may not have much to do with this world, but it sets you down in one any dreamer would want to live in, one where you’re always Cary or Roz and never Ralph Bellamy or, God forbid, Mother!

No small feat for a movie about a bunch of hyper-cynical newshounds covering a hanging!

I wouldn’t say the film takes any big chances. Not for nothing was Hawks the most reliably commercial director in Hollywood for two decades. He always kept the rules straight. No masks allowed.

In a Hawks’ movie, you always know who the winners and losers were going to be from the first breath.

But Hawks had the rare gift of making formulas work for him by never forgetting the inherent limits of those formulas–by making them work for him. Give him a cliche and he didn’t push outward, try to explode it. He doubled down.

By God, if he was stuck with a sad sack loser convict then he was going to get John Qualen and nobody else to play him because that would make him the greatest sad sack loser who ever lost.

If there was gonna be a corrupt mayor in this thing, then he was going to get Clarence Kolb and nobody else, so he’d be sure you were watching the most corruptible mayor who was ever corrupted.

And so on and so forth, and you don’t even have to know who those people are to know  what they are the second they show up.

Hawks being Hawks, you also don’t have to worry about whether they’ll change up and surprise you.

Oh, the circumstances might change. The mayor might weasel all the way to the right before he’s forced to do the about face you knew he had in him and weasel all the way to the left. But you know where they fit right off the bat.

Which means you can, among other things, relax, turn off your mind and float downstream without the assistance of hallucinogens.

If it’s not exactly brimming with moral force, at least there are no distractions or pretense. No Hollywood mantra was ever more surefire than “give ’em a good time,” and His Girl Friday was just about the best time that could ever be had.

Still is, despite everything.

Because of course I still want to be Cary Grant–especially this Cary Grant, i.e., Walter Burns, who has not a single redeeming virtue except the greatest redeeming virtue of all, which is his Cary Grant-ness. And of course, I want to be with Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson, especially this Rosalind Russell, who would be such an impeccably perfect match for my Cary Grant-ness!

And I’ve read enough reliable reportage from enough Hildy Johnson wannabes to know the reverse works just as well.

If I don’t tend to include His Girl Friday in my personal Top Ten anymore, or think of Howard Hawks as my favorite director anymore, it isn’t really the fault of the director’s particularly sunny vision or his most perfectly realized dream-scape.

They didn’t really get any older….

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I did.

 

SEPTEMBER BOOK REPORT (9/13…Nazis, Research and Grandpa Ford)

The Scarlatti Inheritance, Robert Ludlum (1971)

If the Nazis hadn’t existed, surely popular fiction writers would have needed to invent them. Exist they did, however, and, as they can never meet too many evil ends, stuff like this always goes down easy with me. This is a particularly compelling example–Ludlum was an able practitioner of this sort of thing in his heyday, from whence this derives. I read it a month ago now, so I don’t exactly remember much about what happened–for that you need at least a touch of art–but there was a whole good-vs-evil thing going on and good triumphed in the end, albeit wearily and not without cost. Never make it on telelevision these days with that kind of outmoded thinking, but I enjoyed the ride.

Civil War Arkansas, 1863: The Battle For a State, Mark Christ (2010)

Fiction research for me. On that level a gold-mine for anyone looking for info on the subject of the title. It’s just what it says–a straightforward account of the major military events in a relatively under-reported theater of the Civil War. The battles at places like Pea Ridge and Arkansas Post didn’t end up being the stuff of legend, but they were not without significance. The Union’s ability to dominate the region with relative ease thanks to a handful of able commanders who, at one point, included William Sherman in the midst of recovering the reputation he had more ore less put in jeopardy with a less than stellar performance at Shiloh, certainly made life easier for U.S. Grant elsewhere in the West, rendered Confederate sympathizers in Missouri and the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) impotent and cut off yet another potential source of valuable resources from the main body of the Confederacy. Christ employs a modest, unassuming style that probably won’t excite anyone who isn’t already interested in the subject but stays refreshingly and reliably on course for those who are.

 Pappy: The Life of John Ford, Dan Ford (1979)

This life of the great director was written by his grandson and published only a few years after Ford’s death. Recent times have brought forth longer, scholarly bios by critic/historians Scott Eyman and Joseph McBride. Although I’ve read plenty of Fordian criticism and scholarship, I haven’t read the major bios as yet (an oversight I hope to soon correct). But, however fine they are and however much fleshy detail they add to this bare-bones account, this is still an immensely valuable book for anyone even remotely interested in John Ford or, for that matter, the twentieth century movie business with which the director was even more intricately intertwined than I had imagined. Dan Ford is clear-eyed about his grandfather’s enormous strengths and weaknesses and offers a host of anecdotal detail exemplifying each.

Better than that, this account moves. Sometimes rapidly, sometimes langorously, catching a rhythm not unlike Ford’s own films. That’s a rare quality in any genre. Exceptionally so in biography, that most inherently disjointed form. It makes Ford’s life and work of a piece without straining for effect, reaching a visceral and emotional apex near the end with Dan Ford’s account of happening upon his then aging grandfather, drunk, depressed, long past making movies, collapsed on the floor of his beloved, creaking yacht (soon to be sold as a relic at fifteen cents on the dollar) and wrestling him to bed. As he left the room, the grandson, assuming the old man was dead to the world muttered some appreciative words about his grandfather’s genius and staggering legacy.

Ford immediately said: “I heard that.”

By then, the reader knows the man well enough to be surprised if he hadn’t.

This account is especially strong on Ford’s time in the OSS, which began frankly before there even was an OSS, lasted through World War II, and explains why Ford’s groundbreaking documentary film crew was ultimately connected to one major event after another: Pearl Harbor (aftermath), Midway, North Africa (highlighted by a hiliarious and finally moving account in which Ford’s crew turns a German prisoner they’ve captured over to a French officer and then–on Ford’s command–wrests him back when the Frenchman starts verbally and physically abusing him, finally turning him over to the Americans– a sequence that will surprise no one who has seen and grasped the better parts of The Prisoner of Shark Island, made in 1936 and, like a lot of Ford’s films, about the past and the future in equal measure) not to mention D-Day and Auschwitz, with side excursions into Burma and China.

Fascinating life and Dan Ford does full justice to it.

In the end, though, John Ford is a person of interest because of his art–his status as a world class filmmaker–and his grandson does well on that count, too. I didn’t agree with all his assessments of individual films, but Ford’s reputation wasn’t nearly as secure when the book was written as it is now (when it still isn’t entirely secure as no artist’s can be if his art has politics in it, not to mention art) and, even on this front, where it’s probably least valuable, the book is as good a starting point for a critical assessment as any.

Highly informative and just as enjoyable then–I hope the later bios live up to the same standard.

NOTE: I’m about to begin reviewing books for BroadwayWorld.com. I’ll post an announcement here when I submit my first review, which will be of Scott Berg’s 38 Nooses and should be up next week.