GOLDEN AGE WESTERNS–THE CANON (A Handy Ten, Times Two)

There is no way to limit Hollywood’s Golden Age westerns to a mere ten, or, as you’ll see, twenty, without seeming silly. You can do it with every other genre, even war films, even noir. The western is deeper at the high end, low end and every level in between, so I won’t be stopping here. A similar list of movies that aren’t as well known, will follow at some point.

But what with civilization crumbling faster every day, this seems like a good time to ruminate on the 1939-1962 period that defined what we thought of ourselves then and what troubles us now, as the thrashing about that was bound to follow the breakup of the Frozen Silence (1980-2016) proceeds apace and the past threatens to repeat its well-established pattern of eternal return to the anti-utopian verities. It won’t be long now before any discarded lessons contained herein will become valuable again.

Stagecoach (1939)
D. John Ford

There were other good westerns made in the late 30s, but John Ford’s return to the form–his first since his great silent Three Bad Men in 1926–is rightly regarded as lifting the game for his favorite genre. It wasn’t the first or last time he managed the trick, but it may have been the most influential. Rightly so. It made the western’s definitive star, John Wayne, solid box office, won Thomas Mitchell a well-deserved Oscar, and set Claire Trevor on a path to winning one later, some year when Vivien Leigh wasn’t making Gone With the Wind. They headed a deep, faultless cast, and the story, a series of intertwined character studies, grows like a fresh flower from the oldest dirt in the hills (or anyway Guy de Maupassant by way of Ernest Haycox).

After this, perhaps Ford’s most purely exciting and entertaining film, with action informing character, and character action, at lightning speed, the cliches that had propped up thousands of dime novels, silents, and serials for half a century were at last so well-defined the western–and the western alone–could go anywhere.

Destry Rides Again (1939)
D. George Marshall

And one of the first places it went, in the very same year, was a wiseacre spoof of itself. It’s prevented from stooping to parody by being a full-blooded western first, with a strong, well-developed, town-taming story that was pure Hollywood, owing little more than its title to Max Brand’s fine source novel. Highlights: Marlene Dietrich’s loose, unmannered performance, proof she should have done more westerns; Samuel S. Hinds’ tobacco-chawing judge, dispensing Boss Brian Donlevy’s mayhem with a firm, laconic hand; Mischa Auer’s seriously whipped “deputy”; and, the big screen’s greatest catfight, courtesy of Dietrich, the priceless Una Merkel, and “eight gallons of water.” Jimmy Stewart? Well, that’s a given, but it’s high even on his endless list of indelible performances.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
D, William Wellman

Wellman made better westerns (my later list will feature at least a couple of them), but none quite so iconic. Matching Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s superb source novel scene-for-scene, it’s not an easy watch. Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan (neither ever better) are a couple of cowhands caught up in a lynch mob. Jane Darwell, two years after her salt-of-the-earth Oscar turn in The Grapes of Wrath, plays the Spirit of the Mob, a kind of Rocky Mountain Madame LeFarge, with such conviction you might never see her the same way again. Here and there it’s a touch heavy-handed, but given the subject matter, that’s almost unavoidable and easy to bear. Certainly easier than the final scenes which put a noose around the neck of anyone who has studied enough history to know how often man’s gift for folly, from which God has not made him exempt, is the real source of horror in the universe.

My Darling Clementine (1946)
D. John Ford

Returning after a seven-year break, Ford remakes the Western again and sets the stage for everything it would become. Henry Fonda and Victor Mature play a Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday who are sufficiently removed from history that Ford asked studio head Darryl Zanuck for permission to change the names. Zanuck had a studio to run. No way was he going to give up those names. Ford, typically, doubled-down and vouchsafed the historical accuracy of the obligatory gunfight, claiming Earp had told him all about it in their silent-era bull sessions. But Ford the tall tale-spinner never got in the way of Ford the Artist. Ford the Artist knew the real story was about the epic Loneliness of the Gunfighter and how thin the line between lawman and outlaw was in a lawless land. In other words, the tall tales were what mattered, not the tawdry facts, which would have held nobody’s interest for more than thirty seconds. A century-and-a-half later, the Earp story is still being told and retold. No one has come close to giving it the significance it acquired here, as a cautionary fable.

Canyon Passage (1946)
D. Jacques Tourneur

This isn’t a town-tamer epic so much as a town-being-born Narrative, with all the nuances and complexities that implies. Susan Hayward was on her way up, and you can already see why she will make it to the top. Playing friends who are growing apart and beginning to compete for the same woman, Dana Andrews and Brian Donlevy are at their respective peaks as are the arts of cinematography (courtesy of Edward Kronjager) and Technicolor. Not even Ford’s westerns ever looked more spectacular. Ward Bond shows yet again why he was Hollywood’s supreme character actor, this time portraying a terrifying, animalistic thug who would have been at home in Deadwood…or Deadwood. As usual, the second romantic subplot is a little weak, but not fatally so–once Susan Hayward’s on the screen, it’s not likely the hero will end up with anyone else. As with Stagecoach, the story is from Ernest Haycox, another fine western writer who has been neglected by our urgent need to forget. The fate of Andy Devine’s family is all the more devastating for being handled with gravitas but no fuss. Not as famous as most of the films here, but like all the rest, it grows with time and distance.

Red River (1946–Released 1948)
D. Howard Hawks

Proof that Howard Hawks could conjure an “all is now right with the world” ending out of any scenario. But don’t let that deter you. According to Joanne Dru, Hawks needed editing advice from Ford. That seems to have been the principal reason for the film’s release being delayed for two years. We have Hawks’ own word–every bit as reliable as Ford’s–that this is where Ford saw Wayne’s performance and said, “I never knew the big sunnava-bitch could act!” The discovery would alter the course of the western for decades to come. As for Red River itself, it has more than enough going for it to justify its place in the pantheon: It made Montgomery Clift’s reputation, there’s stellar work from Dru, John Ireland, Walter Brennan and a host of sidekicks. The story, about the first trail-drive from Texas to Kansas after the Civil War, is epic and intimate in equal measure. And, yes, as only the very stupid or the very misinformed would doubt going forward, the big sunnava-bitch could act.

THE CAVALRY TRILOGY (1948–1950)
D. John Ford

Fort Apache (1948)

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

RIo Grande (1950)

John Ford’s three late-40s cavalry films have been considered a loose, informal trilogy almost since they were made. Themes certainly unite them, as does a keen eye for the details of cavalry life as men and women actually lived it in the post-Civil War generation during the conquest of what became the American Southwest. I’m treating them as one entry because there’s nothing else here I could leave off in good conscience–and certainly, none of these three could be left off!

What’s interesting narratively, is that each story stands alone at least as well as the three hang together. Ford viewed cavalry life as a continuum in three distinct modes, first as Tragedy (Fort Apache) then as a Comedy of Manners (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) and finally as Elegy (Rio Grande). Anyone who thinks Ford glossed the men in “dirty shirt blue” should give his subsequent takes on the subject a gander (Sergeant Rutledge, Two Rode Together, even The Searchers) for a stark, sometimes corrosive contrast.

Most of Ford’s stock company features throughout this cycle of Tragedy-Comedy-Elegy, keeping things lively in one, two or all three pictures. Beyond that, look for a teenage Shirley Temple, luminous in Fort Apache, John Wayne at his most moving and eloquent in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Maureen O’Hara’s twirling parasol in Rio Grande (If Ford had given it to Phil Sheridan it would have been yet another historical touch he was accused of manufacturing). Those and a thousand other things. (Stanley Crouch, lifetime Crit-Illuminati member paid in full, once described Shirley Temple in Fort Apache as “somewhat monstrous.” Has any actress ever done a more valuable service than making Stanley Crouch look under the bed?)

And keep going back to them. There’s always more to learn.

Where they rode, that place became the United States of America.

Colorado Territory (1949)
D. Raoul Walsh

Perhaps the greatest western heist flick. It’s a train robbery this time (as opposed to a bank or stage), and a redemption story to boot. Walsh remade his own High Sierra, setting the modern gangster story that had made Humphrey Bogart a star back three-quarters of a century and mining even more gold from it. Joel McCrea didn’t know how to give a bad performance but this time, as “nothing but a big Kansas Jay,” he had a script that allowed him to be far better than good. Same for Virginia Mayo as a girl who’s been run out of all the best saloons in the territory and proves more honorable than either the thieves McCrea’s character has fallen back in with or the good girl (Dorothy Malone, always a welcome sight even in a stodgy role) he has fallen for. A strong story, a sterling character study of a man trying to escape his past, and nobody, but nobody, ever said Raoul Walsh was anything less than an action master of the highest order. The climax stings, no matter how often I watch it.

The Gunfighter (1950)
D. Henry King

The pinnacle of the gunfighter-tries-to-lay-down-his-guns narratives. Gregory Peck proved one of many western leading men who were more convincing playing an older man than a younger one. He’s not grizzled exactly, but there’s an old soul watching every single thing from behind those eyes. This is one where the bullets hit the bone. You can feel the weight of the lives, and souls, at stake, including eternal sidekick Millard Mitchell in the role of a well-spent lifetime. Peck’s aging gunfighter keeps looking for answers and the film doesn’t let you believe he’ll find them–but it lets you believe he believes.

Leads to killing in the end. One of those films where you know where it’s going but you can’t stop watching just the same.

WInchester ’73 (1950)
D. Anthony Mann

Outside of John Ford’s very best, perhaps the greatest and most influential western of the era. It remade Jimmy Stewart’s career, allowing him to keep all the associations of his past everyman roles while he re-invented himself as a western hero who, while still on the side of the angels, serves them with a touch of warrior madness in his soul. It also vaulted Anthony Mann, who had already made several fine noirs and historicals, to the top shelf of Hollywood directors, where he was to remain for more than a decade. It’s great enough that, except for Rock Hudson, who didn’t make a very convincing Indian, everyone associated with it would be remembered even if they had never done anything else.

Just on a side note, it was seeing Winchester ’73 on a big screen (after a dozen viewings on video), that made me realize no great film can be appreciated on a television set. When the bullets hit the rocks in the famous final shootout between Stewart and Stephen McNally, I felt like the shards were knicking my cheek.

High Noon (1952)
D. Fred Zinnemann

Of the many good things that can be said for High Noon, the best thing is that it troubles hidebound souls straight across the political divide. No ideology you bring to it can survive its scrutiny, which is why so many feign boredom or derision or simply run out of the room to keep from confronting it. Its primal power has rarely been matched even in this most primal of genres.

The constant repetition of the theme song, the ticking of the endless  array of clocks, Gary Cooper’s stone face, all work to set the audience on edge (or drive them batty), as the plot keeps us invested in that most nerve-wracking of existential questions: What happens under the pressure of time that doesn’t happen any other way?

It’s the question that drove Howard Hawks, John Wayne, Louis L’Amour and other giants of the genre to distraction when they came to assess the film as Realism. That is, they, and others felt compelled to demand strictures from High Noon they rarely paid the least attention elsewhere, including much of their own best work.

I love it myself, for all those reasons and more. But it really doesn’t matter. Like the next film here (which seems to elicit similar discomfort from the tepid and the passionate alike), it needs to be confronted. Be careful, though. Like the next film on the list, If you pay too much attention it might start to work you over. You might start finding a lot of elements, like Katy Jurado’s face, that won’t let you run and hide.

Priceless exchange overheard in the men’s room by the director following the not-very-promising debut of his only western: “What does an Austrian Jew know about making a western anyway?”

Shane (1953)
D. George Stevens

Jack Shaefer’s source novel has a gem-like purity. George Stevens, with memories of Dachau still playing in his head, both toughened and expanded it without losing the story’s central iconic force. Among the more famous exchanges, including the last one between Alan Ladd’s Shane and Jack Palance’s Jack Wilson so oft-quoted elsewhere, I like this one best:

Shane: What’s your offer, Ryker?
Rufus Ryker: To you, not a thing!
Shane: That’s too bad.
Ryker: Too bad?
Shane: Yeah, you’ve lived too long. Your kind of days are over.
Ryker: My days! What about yours, gunfighter?
Shane: The difference is I know it.

The tragedy is that Ryker’s “kind of days” are never over.

Except in the valley Shane rides out of, slumped in his saddle, the dreamland where he has obliterated himself and there is no more need for his guns…or any guns at all.

The man who filmed the ashes and bones at Dachau, another man who made only one western, must have wished it could be so–and must have known it could never be.

The Man From Laramie (1955)
D. Anthony Mann

Anthony Man and Jimmy Stewart again. Each of the five westerns they made together is a masterpiece and ranking them by quality is a fool’s errand. But, after Winchester ’73, this is the one that seems to carry the most canonical weight. Stewart ratchets up his a-man-against-himself-is-a-man-against-the-world persona to Shakespearean proportions. The story and cast (exceptional: Donald Crisp, Arthur Kennedy, Aline MacMahon, Alex Nicol and the great Cathy O’Donnell who makes even the obligatory ingenue role sing) are up to the task. It’s a stranger-in-town saga (Stewart, with a secret and a purpose of course), crossed with a family drama of an aging cattle king (Crisp) reaching the time of life when he must choose between the son he has (Nicol) and the son he wishes he had (Kennedy).

Anyway, he thinks Kennedy is the son he wishes he had.

Like I said, Shakesperean. At least.

The Searchers (1956)
D. John Ford

The apex, a narrative so densely layered it can no more be plumbed than Hamlet or the Illiad or War and Peace. It’s also a hellishly entertaining Saturday Matinee western. John Wayne’s performance was one of the handful that makes awards irrelevant. The greatest American director’s greatest film. If Ford had made noirs or musicals or horror films, one of those would be the defining American genre.

He made westerns.

7 Men From Now (1956)
D. Budd Boetticher

The first of the Ranown western cycle made by Boetticher, producer Harry Joe Brown, writer Burt Kennedy, and star Randolph Scott. They are all endlessly rewatchable. At least four, including this one, Comanche Station, The Tall T, and Ride Lonesome, are masterpieces. People debate endlessly about which is best but the four are on a level where rankings are silly. I’m choosing this one because it’s first, it has an astounding performance by Gail Russell which has grown with time (and which, according to the great critic Blake Lucas, who had a good bit to do with restoring 7 Men From Now, Boetticher’s favorite of his western leading ladies, all of whom were excellent), and it’s Lee Marvin’s definitive bad guy turn.

If there had been Oscar justice, Marvin would have won for his supporting role in the same year John Wayne won for his lead in The Searchers.

Oscar ain’t about justice.

3:10 to Yuma (1958)
D. Delmer Daves

A morality/mystery/miracle play all in one, which I wrote about at length here.

I said most of what I had to say there, so I won’t pontificate. This about sums it up:

However, he got there, Daves must have recognized that 3:10 to Yuma was a chance to merge the presumably old-fashioned prestige genre with the just-about-to-be-cool one (noir) he had helped pioneer in a way that was rare, if not unique.

I say “must have” because films that are better on the eighteenth viewing than on the first don’t happen by accident.

It’s a lot more than eighteen now. And it’s better still. Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, each at their very best, give one of the top ten “dual-performances” in any Hollywood film and I doubt I need to restrict that to Hollywood.

The film’s prestige has grown sufficiently to have a Criterion release in recent years. Any list of a hundred American films that fails to include it doesn’t have my serious attention.

Avoid the pointless remake.

Rio Bravo (1959)
D. Howard Hawks

The story has been told, again and again, that Howard Hawks and John Wayne were disgusted by films like High Noon and 3:10 to Yuma, where professional lawmen seek help from amateurs. It was the seeking that disturbed them, not whether Gary Cooper failed to find a Van Heflin in his particular town. It’s our good fortune that by the time they actually made  Rio Bravo, their “answer” film, all that preaching was conveniently tabled and they just went out and made one of the all-time pure entertainments (one where it should be said Wayne’s John T. Chance is helped by amateurs whether he likes it or not–it’s okay, apparently, as long as he didn’t ask for it!). Everyone’s great, with special kudos to Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan in what might be his defining comic role, and Claude Akins, playing that rarest of men–one with no redeeming virtues whatsoever.

The story doesn’t bear too much scrutiny measured against history or common sense. Just as a for-instance, drunks don’t dry out after a two-year bender and start shooting like Annie Oakley the next day, as Dean Martin’s Dude does here. But it works within its own miracle play assumptions and achieves its own kind of perfection.

The reason I know is that except for The Searchers, I’ve watched it more than any film here.

The Magnificent Seven (1960)
D. John Sturges

John Sturges made better westerns (more on that later)..but this is by far his most iconic and well worthy of the canon. It’s a remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. You can fall short of that standard and still be damn good. The Magnificent Seven falls a bit short of that standard–and is still damn good. (Sturges said no less than Kurosawa told him so.) The story has professionals putting their lives on the line for Mexican villagers who are plagued by a band of outlaws. No doubt Howard Hawks and John Wayne approved!

Truth be told, the village scenes drag a bit and Horst Bucholz, a good actor, was a bit miscast, not so much because he doesn’t seem Mexican as because he seems urban and modern, which might just be a way of saying too European (a problem that did not extend to Yul Brynner, who according to Bucholz, was the only cast member to extend him either courtesy or respect).

But Sturges was an action master and there’s a raft of career-making performances by Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn. That plus the great presences of Brynner and Eli Wallach as the outlaws’ leader make this an easy watch.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
D. John Ford

The direction of the country since its release–beginning with John Kennedy’s assassination a year later–has lifted this into competition with The Searchers as John Ford’s greatest, most prescient work. It would be great in any case. There’s definitive work from James Stewart, John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Woody Strode, Edmond O’Brien. Vera Miles gave one of the finest performances in American film. It’s also one of the great language films, the source of “Well, Pilgrim,” “Print the legend,” “You don’t own me” and much more.

And it contains the greatest line in American fiction, and the greatest line reading in American film, spoken by Miles’ Hallie Stoddard near the end:

Look at it. It was a wilderness. Now it’s a garden. Aren’t you proud?

Well, aren’t we?

Ride the High Country (1962)
D. Sam Peckinpah

Well, aren’t we?

There is almost no way to reconcile this film with Bloody Sam’s later, more famous exercises in style. It’s laconic, elegaic, sure-footed, unhurried, character-oriented, without a single false note. Here, he seems all but fated to pick up John Ford’s torch and carry it forward.

Fate, as it often does, had other plans. Peckinpah’s most famous film, The Wild Bunch, made a mere seven years later, is a lynchpin of another age, one that sought to extinguish not only all assurances but the traditions upon which they were based.

His later approach met with considerable short term success.

Whoever replaces us will get to decide what that’s worth. I don’t short The Wild Bunch‘s considerable virtues and I understand its reputation even if I don’t agree with it.

But for me, this film is worth far more.

Joel McCrea’s aging sheriff would have heard Hallie Stoddard’s question and answered: “Hell yes, I’m proud!”

But whoever was listening might have noted–might still note–that he was dying.

[NOTE: As I mentioned above, I’ll be doing another list of less well-known westerns from the same era. Give or take The Searchers, I think I can come up with a list of twenty that are just as good as what’s here, if not as iconic. Heck, I already have, and it wasn’t even hard.]

Til then….

ROUGHSHOD (I Watch Westerns: Take Eight)

Roughshod (1949)
D. Mark Robson

Hectic week, but I found time for a second viewing of Roughshod,  a 1949 effort from Mark Robson that occupies a unique space among both westerns and the career of Gloria Grahame.

I originally sought it out because I want to see Gloria Grahame in anything and I especially wanted to see her in a western, where being ahead of her time (as she always was in the noirs that made her legend), would be more a challenge than an advantage.

Challenge it may have been, but she made it work. This was probably her first really strong multi-dimensional role, and it can be seen as a bridge between the hardcore sheen she had perfected in the likes of Crossfire (and even It’s a Wonderful Life), and the complex, truly unsettling performances she would give shortly after in In a Lonely Place, Man on a Tightrope and The Big Heat.

I wouldn’t say she’s quite as unsettling here, though she didn’t have it in her to be comforting. But the quality she brought to everything works beautifully in a western–at least in this western, which has a sharp, perceptive script that offers a far more nuanced, sensitive and realistic portrayal of  Old West prostitution than the “modern” takes seen in the likes of Unforgiven or Deadwood or even Lonesome Dove.

Grahame’s Mary Wells (there’s a prescient name for you!) is hardly the whole show in Roughshod. There’s the usual fine work by the period child actor Claude Jarman, Jr., a menacing, typically understated turn by John Ireland as the villain (a shot of his face replaces a scene where the last “showgirl” in Grahame’s little troupe is presumably raped and murdered and it’s a wordless forerunner of Johnny Cash’s offhanded line, delivered a few years hence, about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die). Robson–not known for being exactly actor friendly–gets good work all around here, and keeps a complicated story moving at a brisk pace, helped along by a sharp script that keeps on delivering, both visually and verbally. Robert Sterling is better than I thought on first viewing as the stoic lead, forever trapped by his classic westerner’s inability to convey any emotion not rooted in the mastery of violence and physical hardship it takes to survive in an untamed land.

I could go on. This is not a movie with any weaknesses. It’s the sort of movie where two people whose honor is suspect on every level, give up their lives trying to protect each other from men who don’t care about them one way or another except as a means to finding the man they really want to kill…and don’t much care that killing them will only make their own vengeance task more difficult.

Yes, I could certainly go on.

But Grahame is the center piece.

It’s her dilemma–her skepticism that any new life will really be better than the one she has, tempered by her fragile hope that the one she glimpses behind the Sterling character’s “roughshod” demeanor, just might be–that lifts the movie into something better than fine craftsmanship.

Turns out she didn’t need Nicholas Ray or Elia Kazan or Fritz Lang after all. At least not any more than they needed her.

I wasn’t entirely sure of it on a first viewing, but this one’s going on my frequent watch list. It really does set the stage for the great theme of Grahame’s career–it’s her first three-dimensional character (at least the earliest I’ve encountered) and that character wants what all her great characters want: to be taken on her own terms.

And Mary Wells refuses what all Grahame’s great characters refuse.

To be taken any other way.

If the great western theme–that Civilization should not merely exist, but be worth something–happens to get reinforced along the way?

Well, you won’t hear me complaining about that, either.

I AM SHOCKED TO DISCOVER!….RUMINATING ON OBSCENITY, THEN AND NOW (Adventures in Language: First Journey)

[WARNING: Since this category-inaugurating post is about current and historical uses of vulgar language, I’ll have to use words I don’t normally use either in my every day existence or on this blog. I know I have readers who prefer to avoid all that, so, if you’re one of them, you may want to either skip this or at least proceed with caution.]

tombstonedove1

Hard to read, but if you peer closely enough, you’ll find a copy of a license to practice prostitution at a “House of Ill Fame” in the City of Tombstone, Arizona, circa 1881, which is very close to the time period I’ll be discussing below.

So last week came the news that Madonna is offering high quality blow jobs to Clinton voters. While it’s unclear whether this is a promise or a threat, it’s definitely an attempt to stay relevant. These days, you have to run fast if you want to stay on the cutting edge Madonna used to navigate with ease. Even so, the belief that a woman’s freedom lies in wanting what her guy wants–already all the rage–doesn’t have much further to go before it reaches its inevitable conclusion. That’ s where the rape victim at last finds “freedom” by learning to want what the rapist wants.

You can see why even Madonna might be getting a little out of breath.

It can’t be easy being the Queen of Shock when a major party nominee for president–the Republican no less–has a tape out there where he’s bragging about pussy-grabbing and Howard Stern, of all people, is insisting he’s never heard that kind of talk!

If I seem a little skeptical of this latter claim, it might be because Trump would have been counted an amateur in my rural southern high school’s lunchroom. (Forget the “locker room.” In public school environments back then the only place that was relatively loose and unsupervised was the lunchroom.)

I’m not saying something along the lines of  “Damn it, I saw that white stuff spilling out of her pussy and I started thinking Jesus fuckin’ Christ I mighta’ just made a baby. Fuckin’ bitch was straight-up Italian, too. Little fucker’ll probably be born with a mustache.” was every day conversation, but nobody counted it any way unusual. Given my subsequent adult exposure to city types (i.e., “Who does he think I”m gonna hire John? I’m gonna hire the one I want to fuck!”), I doubt the level of enlightenment was much higher elsewhere.

And I doubt much has changed.

But here’s a question.

Was it ever thus?

I have a special interest in this for two reasons. The first is that I have a relationship to language that’s a lot like the relationship singers have to singing. Ask a singer when they started singing and it’s almost guaranteed the answer will be along the lines of “since before I can remember.” Same with me and the pursuit of words–spoken words, written words, overheard words, covert words, public words, whispered words, imaginary words, words to learn, words to live by, words to forget or else be nagged or haunted or vexed by.

Almost any child has a boundless interest in words, of course, but mine went far beyond  any version of normal. When it came to words (and almost nothing else), I had to know. I didn’t have to share what I learned. Sharing, in fact, is still a learning process (of which this blog is just the latest part). But I always had to know. And what I mostly had to know was just how much power words–or, if you like, language–could contain. How I could use them and how they could use me.

The second reason, likely the main reason I’ve taken a long time to find myself as a fiction writer–and I have, the world just hasn’t caught up yet–is that I never wanted to be pretty good. I never wanted to settle. I wanted to be as good as anyone can be in this time and place. I wanted to die unpublished (which could still happen), rather than live with being just okay, no matter how successful.

Whether I’ve gotten all the way there will be for others to judge once the stories I’ve learned to tell make their way into some public domain (self-publishing if all else fails–yes you pros out there, yearning to discover the next big thing, that’s a threat and a promise).

But the yammering around the “shock” that’s being expressed over vulgar, abusive language these days–language which always amounted to just words in our collapsed “modern” culture until Donald Trump, of all people, spoke them out loud–has put me in mind of a particular instance where I found myself playing Mark Twain’s old right word/almost right word (i.e., the difference between lightning and the lightning bug) game whilst trying to live inside the mind of a young woman in the Arizona Territory, circa the late 1870s, trying to find just the right words to say to a town marshal who has come to deliver her a considerable bounty earned by her husband for tracking down three stagecoach robbers.

Normally, the right words for that circumstance might be along the lines of a simple “Thank you.” But, this being a tale worthy of the telling and a telling worthy of the tale, the young woman’s relationships to the marshal, her husband and the bounty her husband has earned are…complicated.

Without giving away too much of the plot–you will want to read the book some day–let me just give the situational basics:

The young woman has come from a terribly hard, violent background in the Civil War South. The marshal is a classic Yankee carpetbagger who has an eye for her. They have collaborated on a scheme to send her husband after the bounty. They do not have the same ends in mind, however, as she simply wants the money while he wants a crack at her.

Her husband is lying (seriously, though not mortally, wounded–he may never walk again) in the tiny house where they live with their four-year-old daughter.

She has just learned that the gunfight where her husband was wounded, may have been a bushwhack set up by the marshal (his backup plan for turning her into a vulnerable, available widow in case the stage robbers weren’t up to killing her husband to begin with).

She is now standing just inside the front door of her house, staring out through a fly screen, watching the marshal walk up to her front porch.

She is not yet certain that the information just conveyed to her by a teenage girl who is her unofficial ward is reliable, but she has nonetheless picked up a shotgun.

As she waits for the marshal to step up on to her porch, she thinks: I will know by his eyes.

When he is close enough for her to see his reaction to the sight of the shotgun (on an occasion when he expects to be met with open arms), she knows the information is sound. The marshal is the reason her husband may never walk again…and why certain larger plans, of which the bounty is a necessary ingredient, may never go forward.

She pushes the screen door open with the barrel of the shotgun and steps onto the porch.

Then she raises the shotgun’s muzzle to the very surprised marshal’s eye.

…There I had to decide what she was going to say, and, this still being a telling worthy of the tale, I shifted to a memory scene, wherein the teenage girl who gave the woman the information (and who stuck around to watch the four-year-old and sneak a peek at what she suspected were going to be fireworks) is recalling her time on the witness stand during the trial that inevitably ensued.

She’s been admonished to say exactly what happened and, having been assured by the court that this is what she must do, she begins by repeating the woman’s exact words–the words I had to come up with to convey the quality of the woman’s rage.

“Damn” and “hell” didn’t seem to get there and I knew “mother fucker”–which is kind of dull and listless anyway–was not a thing then.

So I had the woman say (and the girl remember) this:

You back up off of my porch cocksucker!

I thought this was strong. The woman in question is a devout Christian, but has been formed by an extremely violent and harsh set of experiences. She is drawing on deep memories of that previous violence (much of it done to her, some of it done by her). She  also well knows the power of shock language coming from her, especially when it is directed at a man who is infatuated with her and has an inkling, but no specific knowledge, of her background. Having had women point guns at him before–he’s that type–he only becomes alarmed when he notices that her hands don’t shake.

Perfect then, or at least perfectly acceptable.

I was satisfied with it.

The only question was, did anybody, Christian woman or otherwise, say “cocksucker” in Arizona in 1878?

Language, you see. My thing. Should I leave it alone just this once?

It bugged me a little. Surely, I thought. Surely by 1878!

I spent another year finishing the book from that scene forward (it’s about a third of the way in), then some months editing and polishing.

I left in “cocksucker.”

It still felt strong. I just still didn’t know if she would actually say it in 1878.

I liked it well enough that I considered not researching it, because, if the book were ever published, not one in a thousand readers would know if the word was historically anachronistic and even fewer would care.

Still, it bugged me, not knowing. It bugged me long after I had satisfied the thousand other issues–language related or otherwise–bound to come up in a seven hundred page novel set well before the memory of anyone currently living.

I admit it. I didn’t want to find out that “cocksucker” wasn’t a valid word for the time, place and/or character, because, if it wasn’t, then it was unlikely I would find another word or phrase as good.

If that happened, then I would be caught in the Deadwood dilemma. Though I had never seen an episode of Deadwood at the time (I wrote about my subsequent, rather disappointing experience with the first season here), I had come across interviews with the show’s creator David Milch and some of the other writers. They freely admitted their use of “cocksucker” and the various forms of “fuck” were anachronistic (in the sense that they were almost certainly not part of every day speech, even in brothels or criminal gangs) in the show’s time period (very close to mine).

I didn’t want to be part of the Deadwood crowd. Even before I watched it I was sure of that. I didn’t want to be part of the Deadwood crowd because not being part of any crowd is my identity.

Knowing that, I also knew that, finally, I had to do my research.

It didn’t take long to confirm one expectation and discover another thing I hadn’t know.

The expectation was that the specific origin and use of blue language as it related to common speech in an era when many words were unprintable is often murky at best. By the best information I could find, “cocksucker” wasn’t referred to in print anywhere until the 1890s. But that didn’t mean it couldn’t have been in use in 1878. Words are rarely invented for the purpose of publication and, if they are, they rarely outlast their specific usage. (Think supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, which my generation of school children used to insist was the longest word in the English language no matter how often our teachers kept insisting it was not a word!)

“Cocksucker” seemed like the kind of practical word that might have been in common usage by 1878, found its way into print a decade or two later, and survived to even more common usage in later days, to be re-inserted into “history” by modern fiction writers invested in making the language of history seem real.

Its historical usage–the likelihood, or at least possibility, of it showing up in my character’s speech on that porch in the Arizona Territory in 1878–couldn’t be confirmed.

But it couldn’t be absolutely denied either.

I was safe….Kind of….Sort of.

Not safe enough, in other words, to keep the issue from bugging me.

Still, I might have let it go, had I not come across the thing I did not expect.

I did not expect it because, what with those thousand other things on on my mind, I had gotten hung up on the origin of this certain word and simply neglected to consider something which should always be first and foremost among anyone trying to write convincing historical fiction, which is the evolution of words.

It was one thing to suggest–without proof one way or the other–that my character, under extreme duress, could have used “cocksucker” on a porch in Arizona in 1878.

But what about how she used it?

Not how she said it. That’s a matter of tone, and the tone being perfectly matched to the word–along with the fear of never finding another quite so good–was the whole reason I was fighting to keep it to begin with.

Usage is something else, though. And that was where the real problem began.

At a stretch “cocksucker” might have been available to my character. At only a slightly longer stretch she might have even used it.

But, in Arizona, in 1878, she would never have used it the way I was having her use it.

Being a very literal-minded character, she would never have used it at all unless she was referring to someone she knew for a certainty sucked cocks…and would never have used it at all in the circumstance I had her using it.

She would not have used it as a euphemism for “bastard” or “son of a bitch” or “hell spawn” because, even though those insults already carry a certain euphemistic quality, the one thing all my research confirmed–the one thing everybody agreed on–was that it was well into the twentieth century before “cocksucker” was used the way those other words were used.

To be called a “son of a bitch” did not mean someone literally thought your mother was a bitch (then regarded as a further euphemism for a “loose women” which was the polite phrase for “whore,” now more likely to be applied to someone merely being cranky). But to be called a cocksucker just meant you were known to suck cocks.

In other words, before it became a euphemism itself, “cocksucker” was, by every account I could find, universally literal.

My character might have said (even as far back as the 1870s, well before its first officially recognized use, if we accept that much obscenity was then kept in the shadows) “Well he is known to be a cocksucker.” But neither she, nor anyone else, would have said: “He’s a goddamned cocksucker!” simply to identify someone who didn’t suck cocks as a bad person.

Nor, as Deadwood might have it, would one have said “He’s a mother fucking cocksucker!”.

Not unless maybe you knew for a fact that the man in question had both consorted with his mother and sucked at least one man’s member.

Evolving sex words into general insults–ultimately the worst insults–seems to have been a curious side effect of the twentieth century’s waves of sexual revolution.

That might be another post for another time.

For now, let’s get back to me and my dilemma.

Cocksucker was a word my character simply would not have used.

Granted, historical language is unlikely to be anywhere near perfect.. One of the things I came across in my research was how many of the “folksy” frontier words Hollywood was using in westerns or historical dramas in the 1930s were completely anachronistic or even ahistorical, despite many of the people involved as writers, directors and actors, having grown up around a generation who lived through the period in question. But I still couldn’t live with something I knew didn’t cut it.

I’d already told myself every comforting lie I could think of, and I still had to go and poke the anthill. Once the anthill was good and poked–no longer hibernating but alive with confusion–I had no choice but to set out on a new quest for the “lightning.”

“Cocksucker” had officially been turned into a lightning bug.

For the moment I was stuck with going back to “son of a bitch,” which I had rejected to begin with because it was too common an epithet (in that time or this) to carry the full weight of the situation. The man arranged to have her husband shot for God’s sake!

In those rare moments when my character could forget that she was on her way to becoming a lady, she would have thrown son of a bitch around as casually as she drew a breath.

For this moment, when she was pointing a shotgun in the face of a law officer who she had just discovered had her husband shot and nearly killed, I thought she would reach a little deeper….that something stronger would flow through her mind.

It was my job, finally, to discover what she already knew…which was what she would really say.

“Son of a bitch?”

I meant more to her than it does to anyone now living.

But it still didn’t feel like it meant quite enough.

Back to the Deadwood dilemma.

How to bridge the distance between the modern mind’s expectations and what a historical character would actually say at one of the novel’s crucial moments.

There was nothing to do but keep living in her mind–especially her mind at that moment–and hope for the best.

i did that for a few weeks and then, unbidden, she walked through my mind’s eye and confronted the Marshal as she had a thousand times before. She raised the shotgun to his eye, saw his shocked expression, just like always.

Then she said:

You back up off of my porch you sheep shit son of a bitch.

And that was that.

Son of a bitch hadn’t done it.

Adding “sheep shit”—the beautiful, natural alliteration, the organic association with the eternal images of the sheep-vs-cattle wars that take up so much space in western history and mythology, the combination of the long assimilated directness of judging a man’s character by his whore of a mother and being no better than sheep dung as a result–gave it the just right touch.

Once I heard the unbidden phrase in my ear, I knew that, unlike “cocksucker” or “son of a bitch” on its own, it came from her and nobody else.

I knew those words satisfied her and, the way only she could deliver it, they stung the Marshal far deeper than “cocksucker,” which he would have already had flung at him a hundred times over if the word, and the concept of applying it non-literally, had been available to the average “dove” (the time and place’s euphemism for a prostitute, especially one working in “a house of ill fame”).

My character is a woman who will abide by, even insist upon, the strictest observance of the social niceties, unless and until her back is to the wall. At which point she will make the meanest man in the world wish he had just walked on by. The combination of steady hand on the shotgun trigger and “sheep shit son of a bitch” conveyed all of that.

Just where she decided to shoot him, you’ll have to read the book some day to find out.

Just as a coda: Madonna and Trump, in the recent instances cited above, both deployed direct, frontier usage, calling a thing what it is. However, one of Trump’s earlier headline-grabbing “transgressions” was a game of cat and mouse with a female in the audience at one of his early rallies, which ended with first her, then him (quoting her), calling Ted Cruz “a pussy.”

That was pure modernism, no matter how much you think Ted Cruz resembles a vagina.

THE AMERICANS….WHERE IT’S ALWAYS WINTER, WHETHER OR NOT IT’S EVER AMERICA (What Impressed Me This Week)

The Americans: Season Three

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For those who aren’t familiar with The Americans, now entering its fourth season on FX, it follows the lives of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, both superb and now married in real life),  an attractive, All-American couple living in Falls Church, Virginia, in the 1980s. They have a travel agency, a lovely house in the suburbs, two kids and every outward appearance of respectable normalcy.

They’re also deep-cover Soviet spies.

As I’ve mentioned before here (often, on the order of a broken recorrd), I haven’t kept up with much modern television. Generally speaking it’s just too much time and money for too little reward. Among those who do keep up, several whose opinions I respect, including Steven Rubio, count The Americans as one of, if not the best, shows going.

I can believe it.

For starters, it doesn’t have any major weaknesses, something I can’t say for 24, Deadwood, Justified or even Homeland (to mention the “serious” shows of recent vintage I’ve seen at least a fair amount of…you can catch my various thoughts here, here and here) and can’t imagine ever saying for The Sopranos, The Wire or Mad Men (all of which make my ears bleed and eyelids droop whenever I try to attend them for more than five minutes). The casting, acting, writing, direction, visual style, story, conception and just plain Zeitgeist in The Americans are all compelling and have sustained beautifully throughout three full seasons, with some key elements actually improving over time. I don’t know how the show would fare on a revisit–I’ve basically binge-watched each individual season after it became available on DVD–but on first acquaintance it has the additional pull of being a thriller that is actually thrilling. A near disastrous cock-up at the end of Season One might be the most gut-wrenching “action” sequence I’ve encountered on-screen, movies included, because, for once, the danger is both palpable and personal. It wasn’t until that very moment I admitted to myself I didn’t want the protagonists, who are, after all, cold-blooded killers working for a monstrously evil cause, to be caught–not a common reaction to a car-chase.

Having scaled that height, it seemed almost inevitable that a drop-off would follow.

Instead, the series has only gotten better and better. Every potential trap that has snagged other similarly compelling sympathy-for-the-sociopath narratives around the ankles at some point has been avoided. That’s in part because somebody on this show–presumably creator and overseer Joe Weisberg–has a real feel for narrative structure which, remarkably, has not so far given way, even for an instant, to the usual crippling demands of cliffhanger plotting. It’s also in part because the cliffhanger plotting has not been undermined, even for an instant, by the considerable demands of the narrative.

Pulp narrative to be sure. This ain’t War and Peace. But true narrative just the same.

I can’t say how rare this actually is in television. I simply don’t watch enough to know.

But I can say that, until I encountered The Americans, I didn’t think it was possible at all on television, where too many cooks–producers, writers, directors, stars, show runners, network suits–are forever spoiling the stew. For me, part of the tension that set in around the middle of Season One, when I had accepted the far-fetched elements of The Americans as part of a legitimate really-no-stranger-than-life vision (much like 24, which, albeit in often entertaining ways, began falling apart almost immediately thereafter, with only Season Five managing any kind of transcendence), was in wondering just how and when it would all go wrong this time.

It hasn’t. And, after three seasons of what is apparently going to be a five-season run, I’m now convinced there’s a real chance it won’t.

One of the very smart elements that has given the show this kind of space–the key element I think–is the extent to which, in a show called The Americans, America itself is felt in every frame while being barely glimpsed visually, and then in only the most obvious and superficial ways. Since the protagonists are the spear tip of a sleeper cell which has essentially infiltrated the American security state and, with the Cold War raging under Reagan, are under intense pressure to act, the audience is drawn into a claustrophobic world which really does present itself as the unseen reality while everything going on around it, including what’s beaming forth from the ubiquitous televisions playing in background after background, is reduced to a series of illusions.

Add to that a nuanced view of the KGB which never devolves into romanticism, or lets us forget that some secret police forces really are worse than others, lots of first-rate acting (this is the kind of show where even Frank Langella doesn’t stand out), and an editing style that actually creates its own tension (any scene you enter might last thirty seconds or ten minutes and, unlike any other show I’ve actually watched, there really is no way to predict) and you can maybe begin to understand why this highly praised show has a lot of frustrated followers, now including me, who feel it hasn’t been praised nearly enough. It’s just possible that, narratively speaking, it asks too much of a world which has been preconditioned, especially and specifically in the matter of narrative, to accept much, much less from shows that rate far more chatter.

By way of example, we need only examine the element in that narrative that was most fraught with peril, which is the character development of the Jennings’ daughter Paige, who is first drawn to, then immersed in, evangelical Christianity.

Normally, even a hint of Hollywood using evangelicalism as a plot device just makes me sigh and roll my eyes. I’ve never seen anything remotely resembling a fair or accurate treatment of the world I grew up in on screen, and, to be clear, that’s not exactly what happens in The Americans either. If the show does have a weakness it’s in the portrayal of “Pastor Tim” (Kelly AuCoin). He’s a kind of reformed hippy type which was, in fact, pretty common in evangelical churches during the seventies and early eighties. But either the casting or the conception is off base. As played by AuCoin, Pastor Tim is pretty much a Hollywood idea of the type. He has none of the charisma or feral intensity (often fueled by self-doubt which was not infrequently compensated for by the loudest “halleluahs” and “amens” in the hall) that was typical even for youth ministers and choir directors (the more common positions an ex-hippy was likely to hold), let alone the occasional leader of a flock.

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This fly in the ointment is redeemed, however, by Paige Jennings’ own character and the remarkable performance of Holly Taylor who has caught, or perhaps just embodies, a certain fresh-faced American type–so at odds with her cynical, devious parents and with the ridiculous parodies of teen angst that have frequently undermined narrative in 24 and Homeland–to a tee.

For all she talks about Pastor Tim, it’s pretty evident Paige is really caught by the message, not the messenger (in that sense, Pastor Tim’s drab qualities may be a narrative strength, though I have to believe it’s accidental). Since Christian ethics are the elephant in the room in the fight going on at the heart of The  Americans, the never-to-be-admitted, two-thousand-year-old reason why some secret police forces are better than others even if it all leads to the same place in the end, Paige’s ever-greater certainty that something is rotten in Falls Church (and the KGB’s nagging insistence that her parents start training her as a second-generation agent, which presumably will mean subjecting her to the same soul-killing horrors they endured during their own “training,” of which the show offers occasional chilling flashback glimpses), it’s hard to believe this is merely a plot device. It might have started out that way–but it hasn’t stayed that way.

And so, as I watched Season Three, it became more and more evident that Paige was coming to represent something more than youthful innocence. I have to admit that, based on the seeming superficiality of the “Christianity” on display in the first two seasons, and the show’s usual concessions to graphic sex and violence (tame by modern standards but still plenty strong enough to offend what’s left of the church crowd), I assumed some serious missteps would accrue.

Not only did that not happen, but the handling of the Paige element made an already strong show measurably stronger. I won’t give away the details–no spoilers–but seeing an American teenager presented so ably and credibly on American television (let alone a devout Christian, let alone one who is now in a place where the moral shield of her faith is likely to invite real physical peril, let alone in a show that takes place in the eighties and is very definitely about the way we live now and how much cultural time has stopped and stagnated since the period in question) is refreshing to say the least.

The quality and quiet depth of Taylor’s vulnerable performance, though, presents another possibility, one that will have me on the edge of my seat a year from now when I catch up with Season Four. I don’t want to oversell the likelihood of this happening, but I wouldn’t be caught entirely by surprise if the resolution of Paige Jennings’ character arc were, at some point, to match the power and poignancy of Judith Hutter going among the British at the end of The Deerslayer, or Caddy Compson being glimpsed among the Nazis at the end of the revised edition of The Sound and the Fury.

The Americans is that good. And that unexpected.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Burt Kennedy and James Garner Look at the Future Looking at the Past….Or Something Like That)

Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) (Burt Kennedy, director; starring James Garner, Joan Hackett, Bruce Dern, Walter Brennan and a cast sent from God.)

I mean, except for a nice Christmas and all, it’s been a dreary, slogging couple of weeks. So, with depression hovering, I did what I oft-times do and fired up a couple of westerns.

First up, was The Tin Star, Anthony Mann’s superbly balanced town-tamer from 1957, with Henry Fonda’s old school flint sparking Anthony Perkins’ whet-stone Methodology. This was my umpteenth visit and it never gets old.

Then, just by coincidence, my eyes roamed the shelves and alighted on this:

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Now, if anything, I’ve seen this even more often than The Tin Star…but I don’t think it ever made me laugh until I stopped breathing before (believe me, I’d remember, because not much ever does).

It may have just been the burden of the times being lifted for a few moments, but I suspect another element was the proximity (in my personal viewing lexicon) to this.

I mean, Support Your Local Sheriff is a specific kind of spoof–not only of westerns but of the “town-tamer” tropes in particular (there are plenty of direct references to Rio Bravo, My Darling Clementine and High Noon, among many others).

But, take all the elements…a reluctant sheriff:

SUPPORT5a wide open town…

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with muddy streets and, er, “construction issues”

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touchy moral dilemmas…

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shady back room deals…

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a winsome, “complicated” heroine…

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a bemused sidekick…

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villains who embody consummate evil…

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spine-tingling showdowns…

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further moral dilemmas…

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and a sort of happy ending…

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..and what have you got, but Deadwood with all the “realistic” dreariness supplanted by gut-busting laughter and touching human drama!

Not to mention a tight script, a dream cast (every one of whom would have served the “seriousness” of the later project better than their modern stand-ins) and a fine sense of the absurd.

A spot-on parody of the past is one thing.

But parodying the future forty years before it gets around to “revising” that same past?

That’s genius.

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Keith Carradine Nails Wild Bill Hickok, Gets Killed For His Pains)

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(John Hawkes and Timothy Olyphant, each assaying his entire range of facial expressions in Deadwood, and Keith Carradine as Wild Bill Hickok)

It may not always be obvious, but I really do prefer to accentuate the positive. So when I finally caught up to Deadwood this week, David Milch’s “revisionist/realist” vision of the west that ran on HBO from 2004 to 2006, I was hoping–against what I knew were long odds based on what I’d read and various clips I’d seen over the years–that I could find something good to say about it.

Not too long into the first episode, I realized it had one very good thing, which was Keith Carradine’s riveting performance of Wild Bill Hickok, a mytho-historical figure who has probably been portrayed on screen only slightly less often than Wyatt Earp and Jesse James.

Naturally, I didn’t want it to stop there. I looked really hard for a second good thing. Ten episodes in, I haven’t found it, unless having my suspicions confirmed that–given the bright “creative” minds involved–not much was likely to be very realistic and nothing at all was going to be revised counts as a positive.

I actually consider that last to be sort of value-neutral, so Carradine as Wild Bill it is.

I’ll admit it’s not a small thing.

I’m sure the script called for Hickok to meet his famous demise at the end of the fourth episode before Carradine was even cast. But, if it hadn’t, they probably would have needed to move the enterprise  forward. Based on the ten episodes I’ve seen so far, letting him hang around for even four episodes might have been a mistake, because having even one person walk through this drag-ass exercise in po-mo pretension for four seconds (let alone four episodes) who looks, sounds, moves and behaves like someone who might have actually lived a life worth telling  a story about–in the Old West or anywhere else–just knocks the whole enterprise sideways.

Once the famous fatal bullet finds its mark in the back of Will Bill’s head, we’re left with Ian McShane’s Al-Pacino-In-The-West bluster (I’d call it one-note but that’s giving it credit for far too much dimension) and Timothy Olyphant’s thousand-yard-stare (which, if, as I suspect, is his version of the laconic western hero, has given me a whole new measure of appreciation for Gary Cooper which I wouldn’t have previously believed either necessary or possible) and Milch’s evident belief that adding three “fucks” and a “cocksucker” to lines nobody who knows anything at all about “the West” as either history or myth could possibly read with a straight face to begin with will make it all come good in the end.

But, for all that, I’m still grateful Carradine got to assay his Hickok in something or other, and, while I regret he didn’t get the stage he deserved (preferably in something scripted by Charles Portis or Thomas Berger) I still have to honor a performance that gives us both a definitive version of the cold-eyed killer we’ve seen so often…

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and one we haven’t seen at all….

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(NOTE: Going over Carradine’s IMDB listing to see what all I might have missed I was reminded that he was a Robert Altman regular in the seventies. Robert Altman, if we didn’t thank you then–for this and many other gifts–we thank you now!)

WHY I NEED ROCK AND ROLL (Session #4)

First two songs that feed each other:

The O’Jays “Love Train” (Television Performance)

The O’Jays “Backstabbers” (Television Performance)

Then on to things that feed only themselves:

I have to confess that what is now called “serious” television tends to leave me cold. I’ve taken various, multiple shots at letting The Sopranos and The Wire and Deadwood and Breaking Bad, among others, into my brain and basically come up with some version of “life’s too short” after half an hour or so each and every time.

The one show of this high-falutin’ sort that I have occasionally managed to sit through entire episodes of is Justified. No idea why. I’m not a hater–like I said, life’s too short–so I only have three basic, if rather wide-ranging, reactions to any sort of art and those are basically as follows:

“This is great!”

“This is fun.”

“Meh.”

Somehow, Justified, like a lot of things Elmore Leonard has been involved in since he left westerns (where he was sometimes great and nearly always fun–or at least unpretentious), occasionally nudges over the line from the upper reaches of “meh” to the lowest level of “fun.” And Justified manages to do that even though its white trash chic (an approach that usually has my one and only deeply felt, bound-to-take-it-somewhat-personally version of “meh” encoded in its DNA–ask anybody who has ever lived among “white trash” and we/they will tell you “yeah I/we know somebody like that,” all the while wondering–like every other tramped-on “out” group–why it’s only the fools the rest of ya’ll are interested in).

So once in a while when I’m clicking around and nothing else is on I find myself watching all or part of an episode and this week the one I stopped on featured one of those “hey, let’s play a cool tune everybody knows as the soundtrack for some gruesome violence” scenes. In this case it involved the O’Jays’ “Love Train” playing behind a scenario where an assassin was trying to beat some information out of a dopey-looking deputy sheriff who was (surprise, surprise!) tougher than he looked and (shock and awe!) somehow managed to get hold of a weapon and slay his deadly tormentor.

To be fair, at this stage of civilization’s devolution it’s pretty hard to write scenes the world hasn’t seen a hundred times before and this one was done about as well as a complete non-surprise can be. But it was the choice of music that woke me up enough to start me thinking.

I have no idea what thought process went into having “Love Train” play behind the scene and I honestly didn’t even catch whether the music was actually being experienced by the characters (on the radio perhaps) or was being used as background “scoring.”

Perhaps it was meant ironically. Watch the meanie beat the tough little deputy’s teeth in while “People all over the world, join hands” sings along. That sort of thing.

Or possibly it just fit the rhythm of the beat down.

Or maybe it was just catch-as-catch-can on somebody’s Ipod and seemed like it would get the job done.

Who knows?

I certainly don’t. But I found myself caring a little bit because the song took me out of the scene. And if I had to explain why, I’d probably say it was because every other scenario in which I’ve ever been likely to hear the song–on the radio in some free-form oldies’ or R&B format where America always seems like a very big place indeed; on the O’Jay’s own great Backstabbers LP; on the various AM Gold or Gamble and Huff comps that are scattered through my record collection–is part of a bigger, better, living, breathing, world than the one Justified’s creators keep trying to convince me they have a real handle on.

I made it through the rest of the episode, but the game was up. Either deliberately or otherwise (one problem with the nihilism-is-the-coolest-thing-going game is that you never can tell what’s deliberate–even the creators themselves aren’t that far inside) the show’s decision makers had made the mistake of pointing up their own phoniness.

I’m not saying I won’t watch Justified again. If it gets late enough and my brain has been reduced to crawling I’m sure there will be some night or other when it’s still the best thing on. It ain’t that hard to beat Erotic Shop commercials and CNN.

But there had been moments previously when the night-crawler part of my brain thought it might actually turn into real fun.

To quote another vintage prophet who had to compete with folks like Gamble and Huff on the radio back in the day and therefore didn’t have the option of wallowing in his own occasional tendency to make music that could be played without irony during a teeth-kicking if he wanted to keep up:

“Won’t get fooled again.”