BIG BAD LOVE AND DONALD TRUMP COMETH (And Then There Was Hollywood: Sixth Rumination)

Big Bad Love (2001)
D. Arliss Howard

I’m not prepared to bet on it yet, but Donald Trump’s election and subsequent administration may end up being the kind of watershed that will make the future ask how this came to be. A lot of art that’s been made in the last few decades might wind up being viewed through the lens of whether it had its finger on those elements of the American pulse–traditional and modern—that made Trump not so much possible as inevitable.

If that comes to pass, Arliss Howard’s Big Bad Love, based on some short stories by the dissolute Southern writer Larry Brown (Mississippi Division, and I know, “dissolute Southern writer” is a serial redundancy), might be an interesting place to start.

I first heard about the movie when Greil Marcus praised it in one of his Real Life Top Ten columns just after its 2001 release. It stuck in my memory because Marcus wrote of Rosanna Arquette (an ongoing concern of this blog, see HERE,  HERE and HERE) that she was “alive on the screen as she hasn’t been since long before the black hole she hit with Desperately Seeking Susan, the passionate woman of The Executioner’s Song and Baby It’s You stepping out of a 20-years-older version of herself.”

Now that I’ve finally seen the movie, I can say that Arquette is certainly more alive than anyone else around her–just as she was in The Wrong Man, Black Rainbow, After Hours, Pulp Fiction (where Tarantino’s choice of Uma Thurman in a role Arquette auditioned for represents his biggest failure of nerve in a career that’s been defined by cowardice) and, come to think of it, Desperately Seeking Susan (where Arquette was touchingly vulnerable and Madonna was saved by the chance to be herself, something no other film, including her various vanity projects, has offered to date).

Except for Madonna being herself, and John Lithgow in The Wrong Man, though, she never had much competition.

Here, the competition is fierce. Howard, Paul LeMat, Debra Winger and especially a revelatory Angie Dickinson make up a spectacular ensemble. If the writing had allowed them to breathe, they might have turned this into a great movie.

As it stands, we have what we have, which is a well-wrought, but finally empty version of an oft-told tale, the standard dissolute Southern writer’s take on his own southernness, dissolution and writerliness, filtered through the travails of trying to find a combination that will impress a Yankee editor. There’s a near-tragedy thrown in. Then a full-blown tragedy. Howard, playing the lead, is especially impressive in his ability to allow a man who is no more damaged after the near and full tragedies than he was before. Less lively maybe, but no more damaged. Dickinson, unfortunately, does not get much chance to show us how the damaged man’s mama responds to his near and real tragedies, which is disappointing because they’re written in her face before they happen.

All of which leaves us with a series of moments, some quite brilliant, all finally devoid of hope or meaning.

It is, however, the kind of world where Donald Trump might become President some day, even if none of these folks (observed? or dreamed up to please the Yankee editor? even the late Larry Brown may not have known). I mean, hell, if this is what they think of us, why not bite their ankle just once and vote for somebody who will pee on their heads too?

I’m not saying I approve, just that I understand.

As for the movie itself, and taking it strictly as a movie and nothing else, it does lead to the question of whether Arquette’s character–the only one who will ever have a lease on anything you would call a life, new or otherwise–is an expression of the writer, the actress or the moment. It’s her meat. Weird stuff has never thrown her (heck, when she worked for Scorcese and Tarantino, she was the only one who wasn’t thrown, not that I didn’t enjoy watching some others give it a go and maybe even convince themselves they had turned the trick, at least after the reviews came in). She gives brief flickers of life to the movie in the same way that her character would give life to those of such dreary, interesting characters as we meet here, or even to their real life counterparts if anybody this dreary was ever really interesting.

Debra Winger, for instance, doesn’t get lost here. We’ve always known that she–Winger, not her character–is capable of nearly anything. But even Debra Winger can’t resolve the contradiction between the kind of grounded realism her character represents and the existential despair a dissolute Southern writer (in this case her character’s husband–based, of course, on the writer himself) must practice twenty-four/seven if he’s to gin up the blend of authenticity and sympathy-for-that-fella-who-knows-the-devil that will create the space for near and real tragedies to occur without costing him his chance at twenty pages in The New Yorker. Arquette–playing a character who is just as recognizable–sails past all that, out into a world of her own, the very one she would have to create if by chance she were ever stuck in the world the movie can’t quite bring itself to convey, let alone the one it invents as a replacement.

So, on a first viewing at lest, I value the movie most for that. It provides another tiny bit of color in a mad mosaic–all her own–which Arquette has built, piece by piece, ever since The Executioner’s Song. One that adds up to a strange, alternative world where it never matters who the President is because no one remembers his name.

She’s Gloria Grahame, fifty years on.

Except it’s the crit-illuminati‘s job to notice such things and how can they when the new President is busy taking a leak on their heads and calling it tears?

I’m glad I got acquainted with this bit of Arquette’s journey. But I have to admit she’s the only reason I would ever subject myself to all those dreary, interesting people twice.

 

PAINTING THE DAYTIME BLACK…ROSANNA ARQUETTE GOES SOUTH OF THE BORDER, TAKES OFF ALL HER CLOTHES (Noir, Noir, Noir: 1st Feature)

[NOTE: Time for a new category, explanation to follow….]

The Wrong Man
Director: Jim McBride (1993)

You will start out standing
Proud to steal her anything she sees
You will start out standing
Proud to steal her anything she sees
But you will wind up peeking through her keyhole
Down upon your knees

“She Belongs to Me” (Bob Dylan)

Alternate unused title: “You Wish She Belonged to You (And You’ll Keep on Wishing, No Matter What)”

(Beware: Spoilers included!)

WRONGMAN1The great lie in the American version of the modernist myth (well, other than it being somehow “modern”), is that we’ve cast off the old Puritanism and traded it in for our new, liberated selves.

Fat chance. We’re Americans and we’re stuck with who we are. Last I looked, even our porn is grim. Take out rock and roll and maybe very early New Orleans jazz and it’s been one long march to the reaper, hat in hand, for four hundred years, though at least now, in the new millenium, the march is growing shorter, day by day.

When it comes to writing about art at length, however, as opposed to preaching about the state of the world as an occasional aside, I prefer to ac-cen-tu-ate the positive. If paid up members of the heavily industrialized crit-illuminati didn’t keep bringing my mood down, I’d be a regular ray of sunshine around here. That’s why I’ve mostly stayed away from noir, film or otherwise. There’s a roadside bar between here and town. If I want to encounter the dark side of the American dream I can stop in any time. Since I don’t drink, ain’t any good at schmoozing, and am a long way past my high school social or physical reflexes being anywhere near their prime, I reckon I could get rolled by the dark side quicker than just about anybody.

So I doubt I’ll be dwelling on this, but I’m not immune to noir-ish charms, if that’s what you want to call them, and I’ve decided that whatever I’m not immune to, I shouldn’t be too proud to write about.

My first visit with The Wrong Man in twenty years seems like a good place to start.

The film shares a name with a classy affair by Alfred Hitchcock, which came out in 1956. That one rates a full point-and-a-half higher on IMDB, doubles the rating on Rotten Tomatoes, is taken quite seriously by many serious people and, even with Vera Miles’ great, unnerving performance as a woman driven to the nuthouse when her husband is wrongly accused of murder, is about one-tenth as destabilizing as this Clinton-era sleaze bucket from a mid-level Hollywood pro that was apparently made for Showtime but also played at Cannes, which is pretty destabilizing all by itself.

Is it any good?

I have to say I think so, which I think is the most you ought to ever be able to say about any noir after a couple of viewings twenty years apart.

The story is simple but deceptive. After twenty years I remembered basically where it went…

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…but very little about how it got there (and, really, not as much about the ending as I thought). But, either way, it didn’t feel like anything that would fall apart on a dozen viewings, which is the other thing you have to be able to say about a noir to start deciding if it’s any good, let alone really good.

So check back with me about ten viewings from now on that.

I promise it won’t take twenty years…or two hundred.

One thing I can say is possible is that I might get tired of Kevin Anderson, who plays the nominal lead and sustains a narrow range of slightly befuddled expressions throughout, whether by choice or typecasting I bet his own mother couldn’t say. One thing I can say for certain, is that I won’t get tired of John Lithgow or Rosanna Arquette, who enter about fifteen minutes in and proceed to both take over the screen and make all that simplicity very, very deceptive indeed. I mean, I won’t again forget the beginning…

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…Or, bang, bang, bang, that it can’t be reconciled with that ending in the imagination the way Arquette miraculously reconciles it on-screen.

Between times, in the heart of the movie, it’s all faces. Basically, those three.

There’s an occasional Mexican thrown in, mostly policemen, and well played all around. But, mostly, it’s three souls truly adrift in a strange land, every part of which is made stranger by their continued presence. The land’s not haunting them, they’re haunting it…or anyway Lithgow’s Phillip Mills and his “wife,” Arquette’s Missy, are. Anderson’s Alex Walker is caught in the wash, running from the Mexican police because he’s wanted, in classic dream-logic noir fashion, for a murder he didn’t commit. Mills and the girl he keeps calling his wife (whether she really is or not and what it would mean if she either is or isn’t, are some of the dozens of things I feel certain are worth pondering in this particular dream), don’t know what he did and don’t care, at least not until the very end, when, by means entirely persuasive without being entirely logical, they come to care a little.

Meanwhile, he’s a fish on a hook and they like taking turns jerking the line and watching him flop.

What sort of complicates things is that Phillip himself is a fish on another hook. That’s the one Missy keeps yanking on and that’s the real narrative here. It’s all about the hook-pulling and the triangulation of those three faces. One which hardly changes…

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One which shifts almost entirely between degrees of suspicion…

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And one which is on the hunt for endless kicks….

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and, hence,can hardly stay still for a second…

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I don’t really know of any equivalent to what Arquette does in this movie. She’s a purely sexual being, playing somebody who can’t add two and two and wouldn’t bother to try if she could. She’s crazy as a loon. And, except for maybe when she’s stripping to James Carr’s version of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody,” drifting in on the kind of station you can always tune in on the radio playing in your dream version of the Mexican boonies, in a scene that, by the time it arrives, is as likely as the sun rising in the east tomorrow….

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or wondering if her “husband” is dead…

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or pulling a gun on him, when it turns out he isn’t…

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,..she’s kind of klutz.

She’s also got the fashion sense of an attention-starved four-year-old….

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She lies the way the living breathe and the dead sleep…constantly and naturally….

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. And, if you don’t like the one she just told, she’s got another, even better one, waiting right behind it.

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Oh yeah, she also sucks her thumb when she’s riding around in the backs of cars….

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fans her crotch for the bus crowd when the night’s too hot….

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and is good at exactly one thing, which is making everybody sweat…

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…including whoever is on the other side of that camera there.

She’s Carroll Baker in Baby Doll and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde and Melanie Griffith in Something Wild, only with the ante upped and all rolled into one. Any hint of artiness has been replaced by pure crass.

Sort of like you imagine it would be, if you ever met this girl in “real” life and were stripped of any protection or pretension mere civilization might offer.

One reason she’s so good at the one thing she’s good it, is that she’s only interested in two things: nailing everything on two legs (as long as she doesn’t have to chase it…too much work, she’d much rather you just keep popping up in her car or wandering back to her bedroom)

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and being cared for (which is why you are always going to have to put up with her current man until you prove you’re somehow better for her)…

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About these issues, she is passionate and relentless.

You can see where this might lead to complications. Anything that happens along, she can talk her husband into giving it a ride, even if (maybe especially if) the police are after it.

Then what?

A movie, that’s what. A real movie sort of movie, made up out of purely sordid but tangible dreams. The kind Quentin Tarantino is always bragging so much about wanting to make but never quite does, and, if it’s true that he turned down Arquette for the lead in Pulp Fiction in favor of Uma Thurman, then he’s even more of a coward than I think he is, which, until now, I didn’t even consider possible.

There’s no real hope of romance or redemption in The Wrong Man: Hollywood kind, pulp fiction kind, or any other kind. I’m not even sure a sane person would wish those things on any of the people involved. Certainly no sane person would want to be caught dead in a hotel room with them.

But the thing is, the characters are human size, even if the situation isn’t. To some degree, they are even likable. You there, with your sanity, wouldn’t want to be caught standing next to them when the bullets start flying. But you can see how it might happen just the same.

As I said, Kevin Anderson’s Alex is a pawn in all this. The movie is about faces and his hardly changes expression. Arquette and Lithgow are familiar. He’s not. They have histories as actors, even if those histories mean next to nothing here. They’re old pros stealing scenes from the nonentity as easily and thoughtlessly and greedily as their characters steal his character’s soul.

Or at least they make it seem that way and without a hint of professional slickness showing anywhere. They’re caught in a project that’s part road movie, part southern gothic (with as much dream-sharp dialogue as Tennessee Williams ever gave anybody), part neo-noir, part south-of-the-border wet dream (I think I had this exact one when I was in the tenth grade), part soft-core porn flick, part made-for-cable-because-there’s-no-more-drive-ins-for-it-to-play extravaganza, with a real actress standing in for the various cable-ready Playmates of the Month, most of whom weren’t built as well, nearly as anxious to show it off or anyways capable of making a bareback ride on John Lithgow seem like something a girl might just naturally want to do.

So they take one piece of Old Hollywood advice that for all I know may be taught in chic acting schools as well.

If you take the part, whatever it is, sell it.

The result is a movie that starts running when they show up and, for all the laughable complaints about “slow pacing” from the peanut gallery at IMDB and elsewhere (I’d bet ninety-nine out of a hundred paid up members of the crit-illuminati would say the same if they ever deigned to watch it in the first place, because they would surely have their defenses up every second of the way), it never sets its feet again. It just keeps leaping and crawling and pointing its toe, searching for something solid underneath,  until the very end, when it turns into genuine tragedy of the kind that classic noir almost never achieved, even in the rare instances where it was tried (I’m always amazed at the number of fake happy endings Old Hollywood noir could snatch from the thinnest possible air).

And that’s what makes this one a little shocking–the running and running and ending up in a place where the earth seems very far away. Arquette’s Missy Mills screams over her husband’s congealing corpse because she may have no more idea than we do whether he deserved it or not, but she knows in an instant that she’ll never find another sucker quite like him.

The closest she could hope to come is moving down the track, too fast for her to catch up to and too broke to make it back on his own. And just because she sucks her thumb once in a while doesn’t mean she doesn’t hurt as much as you do buster!

Well, anyway, that’s what I’ve made of it so far.

I’m not worried, though. I’m sure I’ll understand the rest eventually. In twenty years or two hundred.

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(In case you are wondering, that’s Missy’s “Yeah, I banged the kid last night, and I’m thinking of running off with him. But don’t worry, I might change my mind at the station right before they shoot one of you for the murder you either did or didn’t commit and I’m sure whatever I do it will be worth it” look.)

[NOTE: This has never been released on DVD as far as I can tell. There’s currently a copy on YouTube for those who are into downloading or watching on-line. I’m, uh, not recommending it or anything. Because, really, it could make your day or rot your liver. View at your own risk.]

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.

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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.