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.]

MY FAVORITE SINATRA….NANCY IN ‘69 (Vocalist of the Month for 4/15: Nancy Sinatra)

THE BELIEVER MAGAZINE: It seems like the middle of the ’60s marked a distinct change in the demographics, subculture, and kinds of restaurants and clubs that filled Hollywood from what had been the popular landmarks during your father’s generation–like Ciro’s, the Trocadero, etc. Was there a reason that you weren’t part of this transformation? Was that your label’s decision?

NS: No, Reprise was very much into that scene. They had a lot of great artists join the label at that point. But I think most of the executives at the label looked at me as Frank’s daughter. They didn’t look at me as a fashion icon or an influence on the women’s movement or anything like that. The just tolerated the existence of me. And I know the result of it made me not welcome by my musical peers. I never felt I was part of [a scene], and they never accepted my music or me.

(Source: The Believer, July/August 2014)

FRANKANDNANCY

This month marks the centenary of Frank Sinatra’s birth and there have been plenty of celebratory markers, including Sinatra being named “Voice of the Century” by London’s Daily Mail and a new, much-lauded documentary on HBO. As in much of the past twenty years or so, deserved acknowledgment of Frank’s genius has come from across the political spectrum (you can get a sampling from conservative critic Terry Teachout (Commentary, The Wall Street Journalhere and The Daily Beast‘s Allen Barra here).

Me, I appreciate Frank a lot, both as a singer and an actor and, of course, he’s the greater artist and all that. No one’s going to put his daughter up for Voice of the Century.

But the last measure for a fan of singers is the listening they do and, when it comes down to it, I’ve always listened more to Nancy.

The famous Nancy, of course…the Nancy of “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” and “Sugartown” and those strange, cool duets with Lee Hazlewood.

And the not-quite-so-well-known Nancy, too (I’m especially fond of her “Hard Hearted Hannah”…aka “the vamp of Sa-van-nah, G-A!”)

More than that, though, I’ve listened to this Nancy…the Nancy who is neither terribly hip or, outside of her hardcore fans, terribly well-known. The Nancy of Nancy:

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Along about now, I should make two things clear.

First, I don’t believe in “kitsch” or “camp” values. I don’t think art should be a shield, or an inside joke or a snigger. It works on you or it doesn’t. It gets around your defenses…Or it doesn’t.

Nancy’s music was hit and miss for me, to be sure, but I never thought “ah well, I really like that, but I better put it through the hipster strainer before I confess it to anybody.”

What I might or might not confess to others in any given moment has always depended on a number of factors (albeit fewer and fewer as I get older and older). But what I believe has always depended on how the object of belief struck me.

And only me.

I thought Nancy Sinatra was great back in the late seventies, the first time I heard “Sugartown” on a small-town radio station in the Florida Panhandle (’bout sixty miles from Tall-a-has-see, where it very definitely “also rains”).

The station played a very odd mix of current pop and country hits and threw in an oldie every hour or so that was always announced by a warm, friendly male voice that I later learned was computer-generated and named “Bruce.” (The oldies in question, incidentally, were a constant rotation of about a dozen songs–the four I remember are “Sugartown,” Lulu’s “Oh Me, Oh My” and Tanya Tucker’s “Lizzie and the Rainman” and Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer Mak’er,” all of which are still playing in my head no matter how long it’s been since I last heard them.)

I’ve thought she was great–no fooling or excusing–ever since.

Having said all that, I freely confess I bought the album above for the cover.

Three bucks at a record show? What, are you kidding? So what if it didn’t have any hits on it (all I knew of her at the moment) and so what if the idea of Nancy doing “Light My Fire” or “Big Boss Man” seemed a bit of a stretch even for a fan like me?

Didn’t matter. I wanted that record cover in my house!

Mind you, I didn’t even know about Nancy’s killer album covers back then (circa 1990 or so–long before she had registered any significant reverse-hip-cred from the likes of Morrissey, or her definitive version of “Bang, Bang” had provided the only piece of music ever played in a Quentin Tarantino film that promised something he couldn’t possibly either deliver or successfully take a crap on). I don’t think I had ever even seen this one. But I was buying that record of hers, even if I never played it more than once or ever bought another one.

To be honest I didn’t have terribly high expectations when I got it home and put it on the record player. See, I didn’t have camp values then, either. But I had the mistaken impression that certain things could never transcend camp. They were bound to be that, or they were bound to be nothing.

Like Nancy Sinatra doing “Big, Boss Man” for instance.

Boy was I wrong.

“Big Boss Man” was at the top of side two (back when you had to flip the darn things in the middle!), and I knew I was wrong long before then.

Side one started with “God Knows I Love You,” which is one of those old-fashioned romancers that, if it ever took place anywhere, did so as far from Hollywood High as anybody could get, and wasn’t likely to grab me less with each ensuing year of confirmed bachelorhood.

I was suspicious of it, to be sure. It was, like a lot of Nancy’s music, familiar, without being quite like anything else. There wasn’t anything to orient it to–to help me figure out whether it was actually good. It was dangerous because it made me want to develop a camp impulse just so I’d have somewhere to put it.

Nothing could make me more suspicious than that. Not then and, frankly, not now.

So, as my own brand of defense, I figured “well, it’s definitely got something” I wasn’t sure what, except that it probably drove the staff at Rolling Stone deeper into drugs and delusion.

That and the cover surely made it worth three bucks!

I might have been safe, then. That might have sufficed, if only the “one cut’s bound to be pretty good at least” syndrome had kicked in and the rest of the album had left me be.

Except…

On the very next track she plain-songed “Memories” into a completely different take on Elvis’ heavy (and gorgeous if, for once, actually a tad louche in the manner some critics were always pretending was his norm) sentiment.

That got me listening closer, thinking…well-l-l-l….

Well what?

Well, I didn’t think too long before I realized I was smack dab in the middle of my first great “easy listening for the midnight hours” album, and it was all the greater because it so obviously wasn’t easy at all.

How “not easy” has been made clearer by the decades since, when Nancy has been joined by Doris Day and Harry James’ soundtrack for Young Man With a Horn, Sam Cooke’s Night Beat, Charlie Rich’s Set Me Free, Louis Armstrong’s Favorites, and the odd item from Julie London as the handful of albums that fill that very particular smoky space.

I don’t mean those are the only albums I play after midnight or even the ones I play most. Just that those are the ones that suit a particular mood and, if you study those names, you can see it’s both the highest company a certain kind of singer can keep and the company is hardly rooted in genre or style, unless “Midnight Blues For One” really is its own style.

I don’t know what possessed Nancy Sinatra to make such an album in 1969, immediately upon her split with her hit-making producer Lee Hazlewood. Whatever it was, it wasn’t born of any impulse to follow the fashion. Torch albums by top-40 gals weren’t exactly the going thing in the Age of Aquarius, even if the top-40 gal was Frank Sinatra’s daughter.

So it was an act–or series of acts–that required some kind of artistic courage. And there’s a certain style of courage that always shines through, provided a proper measure of talent is also on hand. Courage is never enough by itself.

So, at the moment when her eternally hip father was, frankly, embarrassing himself trying to keep up with the times, Nancy reached straight across the broadest possible Pop spectrum and made that reach seem natural–ran the songs I already mentioned into the quiet seduction of “Just Bein’ Plain Old Me,” and a country-politan arrangement of “Here We Go Again” and a tender rendition of “My Dad (My Pa)” that provided a perfect setup for her to torch “Light My Fire” to within an inch of its life.

In other words, made the kind of effects her Dad was trying–and failing–to pull off at the time seem easy as pie.

And, like I say, that was all before she got to this…

…at which point I was a complete goner. ready to track down every Nancy Sinatra album in existence (which, given when and where I was getting ready to do this was, shall we say, a lot harder than it is now…and didn’t come close to landing me any more three-dollar deals either). I mean, plain-songing “Memories” was one thing and torching “Light My Fire” was another thing but plain-song-torching a number that already existed in truly great versions by Jimmy Reed, Elvis, Charlie Rich, Bobbie Gentry and maybe fifty or sixty other folks and making them all sound like they had missed the point…well…that was some kind of perverse genius and if I wasn’t quite past the point of caring who knew it then, I’m way past the point of caring who knows it now.

Frank found his stride again soon enough (turned out retiring, officially or unofficially, and coming back, officially or unofficially depending on how you left it, was the Career Move of the Century–it beat dying by miles and these days, you practically can’t find a big name in Show Biz who hasn’t tried it, up to and including Johnny Rotten.) Nancy, the meanwhile, soldiered on for a couple of years and started going decades between comebacks, always with some good things, but never quite hitting this height again.

Somewhere in those decades, she started to get hip. Not just quasi-hip but really hip, so much so that she finally reached the Quentin-Tarantino-has-you-in-his-movie-the-producer-from-the-Sopranos-is-on-the-phone-you’re-in-regular-rotation-on-Little-Steven’s-Underground-Garage-and-Greil-Marcus-is-calling-you “shockingly avant garde” stage, which is to say she had finally grabbed all the hipness and cultural currency our present world has to offer.

Which is great. On top of everything else, she always seemed like the sort of decent stick who deserved it and double for all the crap she undoubtedly had to put up with from what she nicely termed her “musical peers.”

Very few of those peers had the guts to truly go their own way when “being hip” was nowhere in sight. And these days, you don’t need to scour record shows or out-of-the-way vinyl bins in Florida beach towns to find a copy of Nancy. Right now you can go on Amazon and pick it up for a mere thirty bucks. Wait a week and maybe it will be a little more or a little less, but in any case, it will have a bunch of beautiful bonus tracks, which, unlike the bonus tracks on nearly every other reissue in existence, actually deepen and enhance the original concept and end with this, which we can all ponder as our overlords seek the newest excuse to send the next batch of twenty-year-olds into the next meat-grinder with the same old promise to make it come right this time.

So thanks, Nancy. Thanks, on the hundredth anniversary of your legendary dad’s birth, for staying true to something other than a moment of turbulence and helping see me and ever how many others through the long decades of increasingly discomforting numbness that have descended upon us ever since.

 

FIFTIES’ R&B: Part I, 1950–1954 (Great Vocal Events In the History of Rock and Roll: Volume 3)

If you click on the links below, you’ll be hearing a lot of this man (more of him than anyone else). He’s obviously an unstable element–for one thing, he’s called Clyde–so consider yourself warned:

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Just to reiterate a point I’ve made here before: “R&B” (or “Rhythm and Blues”) is a covertly separatist marketing term, coined by soon-to-be Atlantic Records’ honcho Jerry Wexler when he worked at Billboard in the late forties and meant to replace the previous marketing term which was the more overtly separatist “Race.”

In other words, it was not initially designed to describe a particular style of music but rather a sales demographic. That being said, it came, over time, to have some rather specific musical application and, in current parlance, the phrase “fifties’ R&B” mostly conjures a variant of beat-oriented music, (generally hard-driving and rooted in Black America, but in any case succinct) that anticipated, then was absorbed by, then transformed from within, a larger, even more general, marketing concept first called “Rock ‘n’ Roll” (and, later, “Rock and Roll”).

That’s the series of inter-related developments I’m trying to trace here…year by year, in two parts.

This particular field is even more bottomless than usual, and, though you may have heard otherwise, the “R&B” chart in the fifties was mostly conservative (as nearly all charts have been in nearly all times) so these are some of the startling highlights that kept moving the train down the track, with a few standard items thrown in for the sake of providing a fuller context (though I’ve generally avoided the crooning of established stars like Nat Cole, Billy Eckstine, Roy Hamilton etc.–great music but not really what one thinks of when R&B is used as something other than a marketing phrase.)

(NOTE: Hat tip to the Bear Family’s Blowing the Fuse series, without which, this particular task would have been beyond my capacity–the only flaw in this mighty series is the failure to acknowledge the substantial and exciting white crossover that occurred in the mid-fifties and which marked a significant part of the revolution now all too conveniently ignored when it is not being attributed–without proof or resort to common sense–almost exclusively to the spending and listening habits of white teenagers, an issue I’ve addressed in part elsewhere (see the Elvis In the Fifties category at the right). So, trolling across the tip of the iceberg…

1950:

“I Almost Lost My Mind”–Ivory Joe Hunter: Proto-soul that predates Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and Clyde McPhatter. If Hunter has been a tad neglected by history, it’s probably due to his being a balladeer who sought connections where others sought “identity.” We all know where that gets you–criminally ignored.

“The Fat Man”–Fats Domino: Domino’s first record was such a ludicrously perfect combination of swamp fever, industrial sweat and Old World hoo-doo it could only have happened in New Orleans. Something had to be born from it: turned out it was rock ‘n’ roll. You can argue forever about when, exactly, the train left the station. But Fats launching into his flight-to-freedom falsetto midway through this is the moment no power on earth could turn it around.

“Blue Shadows”–Lowell Fulson: Hints of languorous prophecy, which Elvis, among others, picked up on.

“Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere”–Joe Morris and His Orchestra (featuring Laurie Martin): The mighty Atlantic label’s first #1 R&B hit. Martin’s vocal is strident without being overblown, off-kilter and slightly disorienting in its peculiar style of intensity, much in the manner that Arlene Smith of the Chantels would achieve at the end of the decade when she was inventing the girl group ethos. Genuinely strange, a quality that was nowhere near as common to rock’s pre-dawn as modern romance would have us believe.

1951:

“Rockin’ With Red”–Piano Red: Remarkably prescient blend of laconic country vocal and rolling blues rhythm that kicked off Red’s career at the age of 40. Five years later, when younger men did it, it was called kid’s music.

“I Will Wait”–The Four Buddies (Leon Harrison, lead vocal, William Carter, Vernon Palmer and John Carroll, harmony vocals): Bedrock doo-wop, right down to being a one-hit wonder.

“Black Night”–Charles Brown and his Band: One of Brown’s last great rides up the charts. A stark, noirish reminder of what those charts would soon have no more time for. At least not until Ray Charles–who had begun by imitating Brown–grew up.

“Rocket 88”–Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats: Brenston was a pretty standard issue jump band shouter and, truth be told, his vocal–fine but not terribly distinctive–is the least impressive thing about this record. The “Delta Cats” were basically Ike Turner’s band of the moment and they did what Ike Turner’s bands generally did, which was stomp and storm (coincidentally or not, he wouldn’t learn to swing until he hooked up with Tina a decade or so later). That, plus being recorded at the Sun Studio, has been enough to insure the record plenty of “first rock ‘n’ roll record” love from people who really should know better.

“Sixty Minute Man”–The Dominoes (Bill Brown, lead vocal, Clyde McPhatter, second lead, Charlie White and Joe Lamont, harmony vocals): McPhatter’s not-quite-novelty “response” vocal now sounds like a precursor of prison rape as both national scourge and national joke. On the whole, the record is thus a little more disorienting than any joke can afford to be–perhaps because McPhatter is responding to a lead by Bill Brown that has lost none of its quality as the supreme expression of matter-of-factly asserted sexual prowess. You know what they say: It ain’t bragging if it’s true!

“The Glory of Love”–The Five Keys (Rudy West, lead vocal, Dickie Smith, second lead, Ripley Ingram, Maryland Pierce and Bernie West, harmony vocals): A new kind of formalism and a new definition of beauty, inviting a thousand challenges and, as often happens with such things, remaining unsurpassed.

“Eyesight to the Blind”–The Larks (Alden Bunn , lead vocal, Thermon Ruth, Eugene Mumford, David McNeil and Pee Wee Barnes, harmony vocals): Blues-drenched lead counterpointed by elegant harmony straight out of squares-ville (Julliard, the barber shop, whatever). Hence, a forgotten bridge between the polished sound of urban blues a generation earlier (which was very square indeed) and the David Ruffin side of the Temptations a generation later (which stepped just over the line into the place where studied elegance wasn’t square at all).

“How Many More Years”–Howlin’ Wolf: Is it possible to sound a thousand years old and predict the future? It is if you’re a prophet.

1952:

“3 O’Clock Blues”–B.B. King: On the purely vocal side of his first big hit, B.B. wasn’t doing anything exactly new. He worked well within established norms. He just did it better.

“Cry”–Johnny Ray and the Four Lads (Johnny Ray, lead vocal, Connie Codarini, Frank Busseri, Jimmy Arnold, Bernie Toorish, harmony vocals): The white boy who could hang. This is the only record by a white vocalist to hit the top of Billboard‘s R&B (or Race) chart between Helen Forrest (fronting the Harry James Orchestra) in ’43 and Elvis in ’56. Come together over me. So saith the Nabob of Sob.

“One Mint Julep”–The Clovers (Buddy Bailey, lead vocal, Harold Winley (bass interlude), Matthew McQuater and Hal Lucas, harmony vocals): Polished as glass, but it’s the kind of glass that shimmers. It keeps revealing new colors depending on the light. Salty subject matter aside, this is the other side of the world from the hard, electrified blues that were proliferating in the early fifties and at least as accurate a predictor as the Everly Brothers or the Platters of the values that would one day rule “soft rock.”

“Have Mercy Baby”–The Dominoes (Clyde McPhatter, lead vocal, Bill Brown, Charlie White and Joe Lamont, harmony vocals): The one-man typhoon that was Clyde McPhatter (spotted in the distance on “Sixty Minute Man”) reaches shore…and then starts to dance and twirl on everybody’s head.

“Lawdy Miss Clawdy”–Lloyd Price: A slightly slowed-down version of the formula Fats Domino had by now perfected (Fats–a great session man in addition to everything else–played the memorable trilling piano here). Price’s voice had a slightly brighter tone that gave the formula–and the basic New Orleans sound–a new edge that still cuts. Though it didn’t reach the pop charts, it apparently sold enough in white markets to start giving the men who ran small blues-based labels some very interesting ideas.

“Mary Jo”–The Four Blazes (Thomas Braden, lead vocal, Shorty Hill, Floyd McDaniel and Paul Holt, harmony vocals): A fascinating look at a direction the vocal group phenomenon that was about to explode might have taken. Braden sings traditional “shout” phrasing a la Wynonie Harris. But the group’s barber shop crooning tugs him back just enough to create a new space for a smooth, jazz-lite backing where the hard bopping used to be. It was a hit but the blend of musical reconciliation it pointed towards never quite arrived.

“My Song”–Johnny Ace: There had been a few three-a.m.-of-the-soul singers before Ace, even some who made the charts. But none who had been quite this lugubrious.

“Goodbye Baby”–Little Caesar: Some guy who must have been listening to a lot of Johnny Ace shows up at his lover’s door, explains why he has to shoot her, then does. Then he shoots himself. Went top five on the R&B chart. Though he went on the be a working actor himself, Harry Caesar was no Richard Berry when it came to acting a part on record. But then again, a guy who sounds like a zombie might be just what the Method ordered for a record like this. A rare instance where the black charts really did get crazy! (Sorry I wasn’t able to track down the name of the female vocalist.)

1953:

“Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean”–Ruth Brown: They called Brown’s label (Atlantic) “The House That Ruth Built.” The manner in which she built it is best exemplified by this, her signature record, which showcased her twist on the lighter side of the great blues’ queens from a generation earlier. A little less gravitas, maybe, than her predecessors, but plenty of sass and a bright, brittle twinge in her voice that let the hurt show underneath.

“Baby Don’t Do It”–The ‘5’ Royales (Johnny Tanner, lead vocal, James Moore, Obadiah Carter, Otto Jeffries and Lowman Pauling, harmony vocals): Perhaps the biggest, shiniest link in the chain between gut-bucket blues and a funk-filled future. But this is also its own glorious thing, in large part because Johnny Tanner sang like a teamster driving the four unruly horses of gospel, blues, doo wop and vaudeville without so much as breaking a sweat.

“Gabbin’ Blues”–Big Maybelle (Rose Marie McCoy shared lead vocal): Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, fifteen years early…with Maybelle playing Otis.

“Hound Dog”–Willie Mae ‘Big Mama’ Thornton: Menacing, wickedly funny and deeply wounded all at once. It’s too bad that this record has gotten caught up in the phony “culture theft” wars. (Just how “caught up” would require its own post so I’ll leave it there for now). Really too bad, because it’s one of the period’s greatest vocals–the sound of an unvanquished spirit doing a job of work in order to eat…and just maybe move the world.

“I’m Gone”–Shirley and Lee (Shirley Goodman and Leonard Lee, shared lead vocals): The Sweethearts of the Blues arrive. The tempo was slow-medium, but Goodman’s quavering vocal style was entirely its own medium–a medium she would maintain faithfully, straight through to the Age of Disco, a quarter-century hence.

“Crying in the Chapel”–The Orioles (Sonny Til, lead vocal, Alexander Sharp, George Nelson and Johnny Reed, harmony vocals): Stylistically something of a throwback (the group had been scoring big since the late forties), but it achieves a degree of shimmering peace that was virtually unprecedented in its own time and has become all the more valuable in the long journey toward Babel since. (You could hardly find a better measure of Elvis Presley’s genius, incidentally, than his taking on–and fully measuring up to–both this and “Hound Dog,” a feat no one else would have likely contemplated in one lifetime, let alone pulled off.)

“Shake A Hand”–Faye Adams with the Joe Morris Orchestra: The sound of Sunday morning finally integrated, as something more than a hint or allegation, with a chart topping vocal and arrangement. Beautiful and revelatory.

“Honey Hush”–Big Joe Turner: Turner had been having hits pretty steadily for almost as long as there had been a black music chart (nearing a decade by this time). He was a mostly conservative presence–always entertaining but sticking to the basics. With this record he began to loosen up a bit and position himself to be the old fashioned shouter who was, improbably, best prepared to ride out the rock and roll storm that was coming–maybe because he never really sounded like he was shouting.

“Feelin’ Good”–Little Junior’s Blue Flames: Little Junior was Junior Parker, one of the era’s supreme band leaders. But he was also a sublime vocalist, a unique combination of “uptown” and “down home,” who made this sound so easy he ended up being a quiet influence on everyone from hardcore shouters to folk rockers (John Sebastian lifted part of this lyric for the Lovin’ Spoonful’s fabulous “Let the Boy Rock and Roll”…and also learned a thing or two from Parker’s deceptively laid-back vocal approach.)

1954:

“Gee”–The Crows (Daniel Norton, lead vocal, Harold Major, Mark Jackson, Bill Davis and Gerald Hamilton, harmony vocals): A new kind of vocal strut enters the room. Not flashy, but no wasted motion either. The Crows themselves were never able to repeat the success (which was one of the very early big crossover records). But the sharp new dynamics served as the true lift off for doo-wop and whatever lay beyond.

“Sunday Kind of Love”–The Harp-tones (Willie Winfield, lead vocal, Billy Brown, Claudie Clark, William Dempsey, Dicey Galloway and Raoul Cita, harmony vocals): The stuff dreams–and legends–are made of. Literally inimitable.

“The Things I Used to Do”–Guitar Slim: A huge hit, a wonderful record, and a sign of just how conservative the R&B chart was capable of being the year before rock and roll really broke loose. The record could have been sent back to 1938 and been just as big without changing a thing. Two years later, it would have been bringing up the rear with its tongue hanging out.

“It Should’ve Been Me”–Ray Charles (Ray Charles, lead vocal; Jesse Stone, response and backing vocal): A real oddity. Outside of straight Sinatra-style pop and big band throwbacks, Charles was by far the most conservative of the era’s true giants. For reasons that seem to have nothing to do with the records he actually made, he has been lauded as a dynamo of innovation (the same narrative has him being quite a bit more popular with Black America’s record-buying public than his solid but unspectacular chart success of the period would suggest). I mention all that because this novelty record was pretty indicative of where he was when all hell was getting set to break loose. Namely, goofing around, trying to find himself. This, incidentally, does not even take full advantage of his one startlingly original quality which was his spectacular and unmistakable timbre. But it did well enough to get him in solid with his bosses at Atlantic. And that was significant. I mean, they loved him to death and all, but they were definitely into seeing their faith repaid in coin of the realm.

“That’s All Right Mama”–Elvis Presley: Should we mention that, from a strictly vocal standpoint, this was the most exciting and revelatory record of the year in any format? And that it fit “rhythm and blues” as readily as anything else? It wasn’t a big hit–probably didn’t really break much outside the Memphis market. Then again, nearly everybody came to Memphis. So it’s impossible to know exactly who heard it and when…or how exactly those who did really responded to it. Just one of many reasons that it remains as great a mystery now as it was then.

“Work With Me Annie”–The Midnighters (Hank Ballard, lead vocal): A smile record for the grownups. Big whoop, though, if you were twelve, hiding the transistor under your pillow. Or so I’ve heard.

“I Just Want To Make Love to You”–Muddy Waters: It would take at least a decade for this to be fully felt as “influence.” But it carved its own path in the moment. Muddy’s towering vocal doesn’t sound quite like anything else that was going on at the time. He sounds like what he was. A man in his own world–not to mention his own league.

“Feel So Bad”–Chuck Willis: An easy ride, urban–and urbane–to the core. He was big, and, if there hadn’t been a revolution (and a visit from the Grim Reaper) right around the corner, it’s easy to imagine him being even bigger.

“Shake, Rattle and Roll”–Big Joe Turner: The big man finally wigs out.

“Oh What A Dream”–Ruth Brown: Lovely, but by now, she’d turned a little slick. Billie Holiday without the delicacy or the death rattle. Within a year, she would be officially, sweetly old-fashioned. A sign of just how fast the times would change.

“Riot In Cell Block #9”–The Robins (Richard Berry, lead vocal, Bobby Nunn, Ty Leonard, Carl Gardner, Billy Richard and Roy Richard, backing vocals): One of those “are you kidding me?” moments in rock’s early dawn. The ultimate in comic menace. Certainly more convincing (on both counts, the comedy and the menace) than anything Quentin Tarantino and his ten thousand fan-boy imitators have managed.

“Honey Love”–The Drifters (Clyde McPhatter, lead vocal, Bill Pinkney, Andrew Thrasher and Gerhart Thrasher, harmony vocals): The bass singing here (by the mighty Bill Pinkney) became such a touchstone of doo wop style it now sounds like it must have existed since the dawn of man. But, if it wasn’t actually invented here, it’s at least a good reminder that such things are always invented somewhere, by somebody. And up top the meanwhile? Clyde being Clyde.

“Oop Shoop”–Shirley Gunter & the Queens (Shirley Gunter, lead vocal, Lula Kennedy, Lula Mae Suggs and Blondene Taylor, harmony vocals): Gunter’s creamy lead is pretty standard, but the backing group offers a modest tilt toward a future where a new kind of intimacy awaited. I still think the British critic Charlie Gillett was right to call it “girl talk.”

“Gloria”–The Cadillacs (Earl Carroll, lead vocal, Bobby Phillips, Lavern Drake, Gus Willingham and James Clark, harmony vocals): By now, an awful lot of the vocal excitement in black music was being provided by groups. The dynamics were not quite where they would be in a year or two, but the bed of harmonies was allowing more and more extreme flights of fancy up top. And that bed was getting deeper by the minute–a once-sleepy pond growing into a roiling ocean.

“Hearts of Stone”–The Charms (Otis Williams, lead vocal; Bob Smith, Rolland Bradley, Joe Penn and Richard Parker, harmony vocals): Fine and dandy and fairly routine until all those daring no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no-no’s start suggesting a substitute for feminine sexual stamina that (in pop music at least) had previously been relegated to instrumental numbers (and would not, of course, be available to actual female vocalists for a good while yet). Not surprisingly, perhaps, the record’s producer/arranger, Henry Stone, became a heavy hitter in the disco era. And Williams? He ended up singing country. Some things are meant to be…and too perfect to make up.

So there’s a decent overview of where things stood just before the storm. There was excitement in the air and plenty of it…but (except for maybe Clyde McPhatter and Elvis) nothing resembling a threat to the existing order. That lay just around the corner and will be covered in Part II!

[NOTE: Trying to discern the exact personnel for the era’s vocal group recordings is often akin to tackling the mysteries of quantum physics. I’ve done my very best to be accurate, but, if somebody happens along and spots a documentable mistake, please let me know. I will happily make the change!]

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (A Brief History of White Boy Stomp….From Garage Bands to Quentin Tarantino)

Mojo Workout Paul Revere and the Raiders (Recorded 1964, Released 2000)

MOJOWORKOUT

This two-disc set was released by Sundazed in 2000. Basically, it sets out to demonstrate that, before they were the Ultimate Garage Band Made Good, Paul Revere and the Raiders (who came out of the Ultimate Garage Band Scene in the Pacific Northwest) were, well, the Ultimate Garage Band.

Most of Disc 2 is studio material from their early days on Columbia Records (where they were the first rock and roll band signed to the high-falutin’ home of folk, blues, jazz and other “adult” forms). I’d heard most of it before, and the repackaging is just fine–especially nice hearing all the gutbucket stuff in one handy, hard-hitting place.

But the real ear-opener is Disc 1, which captures a show the label arranged for the band to perform in front of a teenage audience in Columbia’s own studio.

According to the liner notes, this came about because, after an initial dry run–made dry in part because famous ass-dragger Mitch Miller (whose sing-a-longs were, of course, the contemporary standard of “maturity”) had scotched proper promotion of the band’s version of “Louie, Louie” which was subsequently stomped by the Kingsmen–some of the honchos were having a hard time remembering exactly why they had signed the band in the first place.

I don’t know if the resulting explosion of atomic level noise and energy made the suits any happier. I can bet it didn’t make Miller any happier and, certainly, little of the show saw the light of day at the time (though the band did soon thereafter proceed with its glorious near-decade run of hit singles).

But, however it came to pass, it now stands as a true signifier of the garage-band ethos as it has come down to us in the present day. It’s a kind of pure (or impure) reminder that “garage” bands–so called because there was a perception, which, to my knowledge has never been proved or dispoved, rather like the existence of the Deity, that many of them had formed in garages–were a phenomenon that could only have been produced by a Land of Garages, i.e., a culture that was just beginning to glimpse the possible end of its five hundred year winning streak.

To that end, it’s a joyful noise, reveling in its complete and utter abandon (to steal a phrase and turn it into a paraphrase) to an extent that can only be achieved by not giving a rip about winning streaks, cultural or otherwise. The Raiders came from a place that epitomized an attitude that wasn’t so much committed to either stealing or honoring black music as stomping all over it. Whether the object was to replace one America with another (and whether the new America would be whiter or blacker), or simply level it all into a great fruited plain shared by all is unknowable. There may have been some up-and-comers in the scenes the Raiders both participated in and inspired who contemplated such questions, but this particular band became Ultimate by leaving all of that to one side most of the time and most especially here.

Heck, by the time they break into “Crisco Party” (all the boys on one side, all the girls on the other side, now everybody….disrobe) they even manage to make orgies sound like something they are inherently not.

Namely, democratic.

Baby that was one version of Rock and Roll that has gone the way of the dodo and taken democratic America right along with it.

And, while, they may or may not have been honoring the spirit that made the streak possible (stomping on things was certainly part of that spirit), I doubt they were threatening its continuance nearly as much as the purely cynical decisions being taken concurrently in the Corridors of Power regarding troop movements in South Viet Nam (to be announced immediately after the forthcoming election…still a few months hence when this was recorded!)

True Romance, 1993

TRUEROMANCE

Tony Scott (Ridley’s hackier brother) directed. That he did so with a little more distinction than usual was probably due to Quentin Tarantino’s script, which has plenty wrong with it, but also has some promising, non-nihilistic aspects which, aside from the anomalous Jackie Brown, (based on an Elmore Leonard story that, like this one, has a likable and unlikely couple emerging from the mayhem) his own directing career has never come close to realizing.

Too bad.

Yeah, the I’m-so-racist-I-can’t-possibly-be-an-actual-racist-because-no-actual-racist-would-think-he-could-get-away-with-this-hee-hee attitude is there, as is the cartoon violence masquerading as some kind of arty “statement” (or, more likely, the dread non-statement statement which is such a close cousin of the political world’s style of non-apology apology that emerged around the same time) and the mind-numbing ethnic/racial/regional stereotypes.

But there was still a lot to like. Yeah, Patricia Arquette is playing a Hollywood Southerner, and, because the script has her being from Tallahassee–a place I know something about–it was more than usually annoying to note that she did not remotely remind me of anyone I’ve ever known in my forty years of hanging about the place. That plus she’s called Alabama. Which, believe me, she wouldn’t be. Not if she was from around here. The only place you would be less likely to find somebody called Alabama than Tallahassee is Alabama.

Then again, she’s Patricia Arquette, so after a few minutes I didn’t care. Whatever comes in that package, I’ll gladly buy.

That, plus Christian Slater in his all-to-brief likeable phase, a few pretty good sub-Donald-Westlake plot twists and a handful of effective music interludes (something Tarantino became famous for elsewhere, though, except for Nancy Sinatra at the beginning of one of the Kill Bill movies, I’ve never for the life of me understood why–good Lord, the man muffed Santa Esmerelda’s version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” which, until I saw/heard it with my own eyes/ears, I would have deemed beyond mere human capacity–I mean, with that playing, ten minutes of black screen should have been mesmerizing) kept the whole thing chugging along pretty well until the ending, which has a couple of genuinely clever and touching moments.

I’m not making any claims for it being a great movie or anything, but, if I’d seen it when it came out, I would have tagged the writer as having some genuine promise (I think I would have known Tony Scott wasn’t responsible for very much). And genuine promise he had, even after Pulp Fiction.

Shame he squandered it.

Bigger shame we rewarded him for not living up to his potential.

But you know what they say. All winning streaks–large and small–gotta end some time.

 

NOT THAT HE WOULD WANT MY SYMPATHY GOD LOVE HIM (Elmore Leonard, R.I.P.)

Honestly, I wasn’t a big fan of his crime writing.

Too much of the Cain/Thompson/Ellroy school in his approach I’m afraid.

I’ve never really been interested in the quandary of an amoral man walking through an amoral universe. And, if the writer starts pretending his amoral man isn’t really amoral–Leonard’s more usual approach–so much the worse.

So what he was best known for always left me a touch cold. I never completely warmed to it even though his prose was every bit as swift and effective as his legion of admirers profess and his source story for Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown was evidently strong enough to impose narrative discipline even in the desolate space between that wunderkind’s ears (with a very good movie resulting for once).

However…

If there often seemed to be just a little more to Leonard than to Cain or Thompson (who really were pretty close to being nihilists and that “pretty close,” especially in Thompson’s case, may be kind) or to noise machines like Ellroy who came along afterwards, then it was probably attributable to his background in westerns, where he did some genuinely fine things.

Some of those fine things got made into even finer things when the movies got hold of them. I’d point particularly to Budd Boetticher’s The Tall T and Delmer Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma, the former one of the great westerns of the form’s golden age, the latter one of the greatest films ever made irrespective of era or genre. Even in such capable hands, it’s not likely either would have been quite as good without the cant-free strengths of their common source.

Once Leonard broke free of the moral constraints imposed by audience expectations in the last age of the pulp western’s cultural ascendance, however, he was basically on his own, bereft of even the most basic sorting devices. That’s a place no writer should ever be and he didn’t respond any better than anybody had a right to expect.

No, he didn’t turn into a genuine bomb-thrower. He wasn’t James Ellroy, forever calling for a police state and using his own novels as the evidence for how badly we need one. Nothing like that.

He just kind of drifted. You know, morally speaking. He got his ethics from his professionalism–the safe ground that isn’t safe at all.

The end result was that his prose got better and better…and covered less and less.

In his latter days, he was responsible, albeit indirectly, for Justified, which is one of those takes on southern white trash that makes it possible, for just a moment, for southern whites to get a small taste of what black people must feel when yet another Hollywood version of ghetto life springs forth.

In other words, he wasn’t entirely harmless just because he had emptied himself out.

I mention this because it was easy to be fooled. Appearances could be deceiving.

By the time he passed away today, he was, image-wise at least, a rather gentle curmudgeon, forever offering up writing tips to people who thought he was a stone cold genius. I give him enormous credit for never giving the appearance of believing the hype himself, or pretending to be anything but the solid, ethical pro he was. And I won’t worry too much about the rest. He wasn’t the sort of writer who can hurt us too much from the beyond. And if there’s anything that needs to be sorted out between him and the universe, then it’s nothing to do with me.

I will say that the chance he might have turned into a better version of Larry McMurtry (not saying the actual version is less than very good) will always be an intriguing one.

But that chance got lost along the way. It was gone a long time before “Dutch” went on to face whatever state of judgment or oblivion is really waiting.

So I’ll celebrate the best of what he did do, which was basically writing a thick volume of very good western stories and inspiring a raft of good-to-great movies.

Hombre, Out of Sight, Valdez is Coming, Jackie Brown, Get Shorty, The Tall T, 3:10 to Yuma.

The Complete Western Stories.

That’s a worthy legacy for any writer. Especially for one who lost his way and kept being assured otherwise.

Usually by people I’ll always prefer to believe he was too smart to trust.

 

WHAT HE SAID…EDGING BACK TOWARD JOHN FORD TERRITORY

For reasons I explained a couple of posts back, I’ve been off Ford much longer than I intended. As I’m getting back on track, here’s a great response from Kent Jones on the Ford/Tarantino flap a few months back (which I wrote about at length…newcomers can access my take under the Ford categories at the right. Kent is much calmer than me…and extremely effective.)

…Thanks, as usual, to April Lane’s definitive Ford site Directed by John Ford for making this readily availabe.

FOR TODAY, SOME FUN LINKS…

Noel Vera on Django Unchained (and QT generally)

 Walter Mosley on Raymond Chandler

 And, now that Kathryn Bigelow has published what is likely to be her defintiive response to the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty‘s presentation of the torture state (and now that I’ve finally seen the movie), my quick two cents:

Much ado about nothing on either side. The movie isn’t clearly pro- or anti-torture. It is, I thinkpretty clearly pro-security state–as in, it accepts more or less unconditionally (as does the director’s editorial) that we need one. Given that acceptance, no moral stance is possible, here or elsewhere. Once we’ve accepted the permanent need for a security state, then we’ve accepted the “need” for torture, assassination and all the other dubious “strategies” which are the life-blood of security states in all times and places (including arresting you tomorrow, in order to find out what you know). Whether any particular itch is being scratched at this or any other moment is immaterial. The salient matter is that the barriers are down.

This isn’t a political site so I’m not here to convince anyone that they should or should not agree with my particular position on any of this, just to argue that the fierce debate surrounding this movie has been conducted on mostly spurious grounds–should or should we not torture–as opposed to serious ones–should or should we not have secret police forces in “free” societies. A movie about that subject, by a film maker as skilled as Bigelow, would be worth the heat this one has generated.

As it is, from my perspective, by far the most disorienting aspect of this very well made movie is that the Navy Seals look, act, move and speak like my nephew’s old weekend softball team.

 There might be another post in that…I’ll have to stew on it for a day or two!

 

ONE LAST TIME BEFORE I GET ON WITH MORE IMPORTANT BUSINESS….

Prepping for the John Ford Project which I hope will get properly underway this weekend. So…

I’m not going to keep after Quentin Tarantino, as I’ve said most of what I had to say. But I did want to highlight this quote from the Charlie Rose interview and make a few final points:

“So I’m writing this piece [of film criticism] and the thing that’s nice about subtextual film criticism, it doesn’t really matter what the director was thinking. It’s about you making your case. He doesn’t have to be thinking that on the day. It’s about me seeing the movies and making my case in print and either I do or I don’t. Either I convince you or I don’t convince you. So at some point I’m writing this and I think, well, you know, I’m diving into this and digging it and I’m thinking, oh, truthfully, I don’t know if he was thinking any of these things. But I know I’m thinking it and I can do this! So, uh, in almost every way my film writing led me to my next film.” (Italics mine.)

(Quentin Tarantino, Charlie Rose 12/21/12)

There’s a lot to unpack there but it seems to me that this quote contains a large part of what is very wrong with both modern criticism and modern narrative (as practiced by so many contemporary film makers, novelists and playwrights).

Just from this quote I think I can see why a lot of critics take Tarantino seriously, even (and sometimes especially) if they don’t particularly like his films. Basically, he’s on board. He sees the world–and film–as they do.

As in:

Subtext (which the critic can define completely and on any terms he chooses) matters more than text (where the director might have something say about it).

What I think about the movie matters more than what actually happens in the movie–or than what the director was thinking.

I can DO this! (A common dream among critics of every stripe. One that seems far more manageable than the similarly common sports writers’ dream of playing in the bigs.)

Ergo, the critique of the art actually trumps the art. Especially if I manage to “convince” you that it does.

This kind of attitude didn’t happen all at once. But it’s where we’ve been headed for at least several decades. And this is the first instance I’ve seen that we’ve truly arrived–where an artist has admitted that his “next film” grew directly from writing about film. (There may have been others, but I doubt they were put any more succinctly than this, which seems to me the last word in perfect narcissism. That Tarantino would be this particular attitude’s consummate auteur?….Well, that I could have guessed.)

Anyhow…on to John Ford and back to rock and roll in the coming weeks. Better times coming!

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.