STUDIES IN COMMAND ON FILM (A Handy Ten)

These were harder to choose than I thought. I could easily have come up with another ten and covered several new angles. But I wanted a mix of good commanders and bad, intimate situations and world-shaping ones–or sometimes both. If you watch these ten, you can get a good sense of just how difficult it is to lead under pressure…and perhaps intuit why we are no longer good at it. It might even be a decent guide to answering whether we ever will be good at it again.

Me, I dunno. When we no longer have actors who can even imagine how to play these parts in a movie, I would say the signs aren’t good…but history exists to surprise us. I left aside such magnificent portraits as Herbert Lom’s definitive Napoleon in King Vidor’s War and Peace and George C. Scott’s Patton to focus on small unit command: the ship’s crew, the wagon train, the cavalry patrol, the lonely outpost. Mastery of such things is the root of Western Civilization’s military success and relentless civilizational advance for three thousand years. Any other sort of progress, real or imagined, that has been made the meanwhile is because people like these won the space for it when they succeeded and were punished by God and the courts of law when they failed.

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
D. Frank Lloyd

Like most of the films here Bounty‘s story was based on a real incident. Pure fictions involving small unit command are usually adventure stories like The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare, wonderful films that alas, can do no more than reflect the qualities that shape the real world. The Nordhoff-Hall novel upon which this and the several remakes are based was already famous. But if we ponder the miracle of its two iconic characters–the able but sadistic sea captain William Bligh and the reluctant leader of his crew’s resistance, Fletcher Christian–being so definitively portrayed in the same movie, it becomes a little less miraculous when we consider that, at least outside Great Britain, Charles Laughton and Clark Gable helped make them iconic. The Bligh/Christian template–a vicious leader driving his men to the brink of mutiny by insisting on the letter of the law transcending its spirit to appease his own cramped soul–has found its way into a lot more than Bounty remakes…as we shall see. In any case, this is the exemplar in how not to lead free men. The refusal of the British Admiralty’s judges to shake Bligh’s hand after they, too, have followed the letter of the law and upheld his conduct, is a great lesson in the power of unspoken honor codes to rule men’s thoughts, irrespective of what the law demands of their actions.

Northwest Passage (1940)
D: King Vidor

A fictionalized account of Rogers’ Rangers, the famous militia who performed miracles on the frontier during the French and Indian War. Robert Rogers had a checkered career afterwards, descending into alcoholism, fighting for England in the American Revolution he had done as much as any man to make possible if not inevitable, and being exiled for his troubles. But, as portrayed by Spencer Tracy during the Rangers’ glory days, this is a finely etched character study of the kind of man needed to both drive and inspire men to the very limits of their capacities and perhaps a bit beyond. By the end, you can understand why such a man comes to need conflict and why, so often, only his kind can ensure victory. Always assuming they don’t turn into Captain Bligh. Vidor was one of the great, under-sung period directors who, especially with the aid of glorious Technicolor, can make you feel the sheer physical effort and sacrifice required of anyone who served under a man like Rogers and why those who survived took exceptional pride in being one of his men. It wouldn’t surprise me if George C. Scott, or George Patton himself, learned a thing or two by studying Rogers or Tracy or both.

Wing and a Prayer (1944)
D. Henry Hathaway

Of course, World War II brought many studies in command to the screen. Few were better than this relatively forgotten film which loosely re-creates the Bounty triad on an aircraft carrier preparing for Midway, with Charles Bickford’s captain serving as a stand-in for English sea law, Don Ameche’s second-in-command serving as Bligh and Dana Andrews serving as Christian. Except Ameche, in the performance of his career, is a better man than Bligh, able to play the hard-ass who stands between order and chaos, make the brutally hard decisions about life and death that are required for the mission to succeed, and take the slings and arrows that come with it, without losing himself. His satisfying but lonely walk in the rain at film’s end speaks quiet volumes about the emotional cost of middle command. (A good companion piece is 1948’s Twelve O’Clock High, with Gregory Peck playing a similar role to perfection.)

They Were Expendable (1945)
D. John Ford

Of course John Ford made a career of studying small group command. His films could make up the whole Handy Ten and then some. But I’ll confine myself to this one and the next as they represent the extremes of effective and ineffective leadership. The quality of the times brought out a new level of seriousness in actors usually associated with lighter fare. Like Don Ameche in Wing and a Prayer, Robert Montgomery, who had served as a naval officer, gave the performance of a lifetime in Ford’s even greater film, perhaps the finest ever made on the subject and certainly the best-titled. He’s bolstered by an excellent John Wayne, bringing unusual depth to the standard role of the hot-headed second, and Ford’s usual superb stock company, some playing men who are forced into command themselves as Montgomery’s PT unit is whittled down, down and further down under the withering Japanese assault on the Philippines in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about this film is that it captures the demands of leadership in war–most of which are boring and mundane and as likely to be made in the service of managing defeat as of procuring victory–as opposed to combat, where heroes are made.

Fort Apache (1948)
D. John Ford

And on the flip side, there’s Henry Fonda as the disgruntled, glory-seeking colonel of an outpost contending with renegade Apaches in the desolate southwest of the late nineteenth century. His unwillingness to learn from more experienced, but lower-ranking (and, as he sees it, ethnically inferior) men, ultimately dooms himself and his command. It might be Fonda’s very best performance as a man who is thoroughly professional, a loving father (to a luminous, teenage Shirley Temple), brave to a fault…and completely unlikeable. The ending is still controversial. Has John Wayne, again playing a strong second, except this time he’s the level-headed one, accepted Fonda’s example…or only seemed to? I’ll tackle all that some day when I write about the film in the depth it deserves, but as a study in how to destroy your command despite doing everything “by the book” this could hardy be bettered.

Little Big Horn (1951)
D. Charles Marquis Warren

This one features Lloyd Bridges and John Ireland leading, and competing for the heart of, a small squadron assigned to ride through Indian Country and warn George Armstrong Custer that he is about to be ambushed at the Little Big Horn. Of course you know going in their mission will fail–but just how it fails is compelling from beginning to end and holds up on repeated viewings. Bridges and Ireland were outstanding second-line stars who rarely got the chance to shine as they do here, playing tough men who are learning on the job while carrying out what they don’t know is a doomed mission. The film’s claim to historical accuracy may be dubious but as a study in not just command–but the competition the desire for command is bound to engender (especially when the ghost of Marie Windsor is lurking in the shadows)–this is one of a kind.

Westward the Women (1951)
D. William Wellman

A unique film on every level. This one isn’t based on any specific event but on a plausible summary of an aspect of frontier experience dreamed up by Frank Capra. When Capra himself, post-war, was deemed insufficiently credible or commercially viable to be entrusted with directing it, he passed it to his good friend, Wild Bill Wellman, who toughened the script and made a masterpiece. As a wagon train movie it might be matched by John Ford’s Wagon Master or Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River. But as a study in the vicissitudes of running a wagon train it has no equals. That it involves Robert Taylor reluctantly accepting the job of leading a hundred and fifty mail order brides through the toughest part of the American frontier, and then seeing it through, is an unusual twist that puts the icing on the cake. Not recommended for anyone who accepts the modern idea that men and women don’t really need or want each other. For everyone else, a great film waiting to be rediscovered.

Zulu (1964)
D. Cy Endfield

Less than three years after George Custer’s cavalry command was wiped out at Little Big Horn in the American west, a couple of green lieutenants were faced with similar odds at a mission post they had little choice but to defend in South Africa at a place called Rorke’s Drift. They were leading about a hundred and fifty men, nearly a third of them sick or wounded, against four thousand Zulus who had broken off from an even larger force which had annihilated 1,300 British troops at Islawanda earlier in the day. While it’s superb on every level, with some of the greatest battle scenes ever filmed, Zulu rises highest when viewed as a study in improvisation of the sort that western armies have excelled at for several millennia. As a heroic military feat, the stand at Rorke’s Drift is on a par with the Spartans’ delaying action against the Persians at Thermopylae in 480 B.C., a tactical defeat that may have nonetheless prevented Western Civilization from being snuffed in the cradle. And if you think the Brits losing the land they fought for to the Boers a few decades later, and the Boers losing it back to the natives within a century, makes the historical importance of Rorke’s Drift less monumental, you might be right. Then again, if you accept that the spirit of Rorke’s Drift had more than a little to do with the spirit of the Battle of Britain, fought sixty years hence and without which the history of everything would probably look very different today, you might be righter. In any case Stanley Baker and Michael Caine (in his star-making role) give unbeatable performances as men who don’t particularly like each other showing grace under pressure over a twenty-four-hour period in 1879 when nearly one man of every ten they commanded earned a Victoria Cross, the British equivalent of the Medal of Honor.

Gettysburg (1993)
D. Ron Maxwell

I’ve sung the praises of Ron Maxwell’s film about the most important battle ever fought on American soil several times here. But, in addition to being one of the great war films, and, in my opinion, the greatest battle film ever made, it’s also a detailed portrait of several levels of command: watch it for Martin Sheen’s Robert E. Lee, Tom Berenger’s James Longstreet, Stephen Lang’s George Pickett, Richard Jordan’s Lo Armisted, Andrew Prine’s stinging, poignant cameo as Dick Garnett, Sam Elliot’s John Buford (who may have saved the war on the battle’s first day) and, especially, Jeff Daniels’ Joshua Chamberlain (who almost certainly saved the Union army on the second day). There may have been a few better films on small unit command and a very few better films on command at Robert E. Lee’s level. But there has never been a film to equal it as a study in command at all levels during an existential battle in an existential war. Please don’t call yourself informed about American history if you haven’t seen this one.

Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
D. Kelly Reichardt

Not strictly speaking a film about command but a great look at how force of personality can trump all previous presumptions about who is fit to lead when everyone’s life is at stake. Michelle Williams gives another of her eerily natural performances as Emily Tetherow, a woman travelling with Stephen Meek’s half of a wagon train that has split in two along the Oregon Trail in 1845, who gradually takes on the role of leader and decision maker as the group loses confidence in Meek himself. Calling this film nuanced is an understatement. It moves at a glacial pace and Reichardt takes “realism” to such extremes it is often hard to follow the muffled talk or read the characters’ expressions in night scenes lit only by the tiny flames of candlelight available to pioneers of the period. And the film reaches no conclusions on the wisdom (or lack thereof) in transferring allegiance from Meek to Tetherow. But it makes you understand why the switch takes place–and why you might have cast aside your own assumptions in their place. The underlying message is that humans gravitate towards natural leaders and if the circumstances are desperate enough, all other presumptions grounded in nature will be cast aside. You make enough right decisions and people will follow you anywhere. Whether in war, commerce or adventure, it’s the first lesson of command: The strongest lead. Whether to success or disaster depends on what else they bring.

THE FOURTH TURNING OF THE EMPIRE, THE GRAND BARGAIN AND THE AGE OF THE ROUGH BEAST

[NOTE: I’ve been promising this one for a while and, barring truly unforeseen developments, it will be my major statement on Election Year 2020. Nothing much has changed since 2016 and I commented plenty then. I’ll probably still drop a humorous aside now and again. (Though with the clownish Democratic nomination process now winnowed down to Bernie and Biden, the clown show having predictably ended with the top clowns emerging from the pack, even the comedic value of the race is likely to diminish. The general election will consist of a cat toying with a half-dead mouse, which isn’t really my kind of humor). Short of assassination, the Overlords have shot their collective wad, so there isn’t much left to say. Donald Trump isn’t up against J. Edgar Hoover and Allen Dulles. He is opposed by morons…and only morons. Get ready for four more years. For those who have other hopes, be warned that you will find no comfort in the following. But I can’t promise you wont learn something!]

Patton is treated as if he were the spirit of war, yet the movie begs the fundamental question about its hero: Is this man the kind of man a country needs when it’s at war?

(Pauline Kael, review of Patton, in The New Yorker, Jan. 31, 1970)

There is a soul to an army as well as to the individual man, and no general can accomplish the full work of his army unless he commands the soul of his men, as well as their bodies and legs. (William Tecumseh Sherman)

The secret of victory lies not wholly in knowledge. It lurks invisible in the vitalizing spark, intangible, yet evident as lightning–the warrior soul. (George S. Patton)

(Introductory quotes to The Soul of Battle, Victor Davis Hanson, 1999)

Pauline Kael was often good at distilling things to their essence. Her quote above is a  version of the Good Liberal’s Eternal Question, nearly as succinct as the Question itself:

Are we there yet?

Do we still need the Rough Beasts?

Can’t we just talk this out?

Is this the kind of man a country needs when it’s at war?

Hanson’s book, coming nearly thirty years later, evincing a knowledge of the movie Kael was reviewing, perhaps of the review itself, and certainly of the mindset behind the review, which Kael strove to represent, plays as a kind of professional military historian’s answer record.

And the historian’s answer?

Only if you want to win.

And therein lies the rub.

These days, Hanson, whose opinion of the movie wasn’t much different than Kael’s is better known as a political columnist. In twenty years, he’s gone from being a Truman/Kennedy style liberal to a Bush Republican to a solid Trump supporter, all without changing his basic views, though he’s sometimes been a little slow to recognize the speed at which history can leave a man behind while Empires are busy collapsing…or at very least evolving.

His contention all along has been that men like William Sherman and George Patton are in a long line of heroes produced by Western Civilization’s history and mythology going back to the Greeks. Such figures rise to the surface only when there’s a dirty job to be done and are soon dismissed once they are no longer deemed necessary.

I find the theory compelling, with a lot to support it (even if I have to assert the not insignificant caveat that it focuses only on those who succeeded in accomplishing Civilization’s reluctantly appointed tasks–Hitler himself was a bit of a rough cob after all). Sticking to winners, I’ve even expanded it a bit.

To the three subjects of Hanson’s original thesis, the ancient Theban Farmer General Epaminondas, Crazy Billy Sherman and Patton the Primitive, we can, just for starters, add the Heretic Joan of Arc, Savage Andy Jackson, the Drunkard Sam Grant, Lincoln the Rube, the Mad Bomber Curtis LeMay, Churchill the Warmonger.

Lincoln may have had the best answer to Are we there yet?, when, assailed by reports of Grant the Drunkard, Grant the Butcher, Grant the Unfeeling Monster willing to throw away his men’s lives without a second thought, said simply “I cant afford to lose this man. He fights!”

So it has been, again and again, and not just in history.

Hanson, trained as a classicist, also periodically makes reference to the lonely heroes of Greek mythology, from Homer and Sophocles on down, and of American westerns.

Again the connection is apt. It’s why the western endures and outstrips every other Hollywood genre in historical and emotional resonance: It’s why Ethan Edwards turns from the open door at the end of The Searchers; why Will Kane throws his badge in the dust of High Noon‘s street; why Shane rides out of the valley slumped over his saddle having rid that valley of guns the way Churchill fulfilled his pledge to “rid the world of his (Hitler’s) shadow,” only to be turned out of office by high-minded voters at the first opportunity once he had done just that.

I was surprised in 2015 and 2016 when Hanson took many months to recognize Donald Trump as one of his crude, vain, unpolished men (Rough Beast is my own designation) who step forward in Democracy’s hard, existential moments. Once he took on the task of explaining why Trump fit the mold (just before the 2016 election) it was easy enough. Compared to Patton or Sherman (a stout supporter of slavery, it was disunion he had issues with), or even Harry Truman, Trump’s a beacon of Enlightenment, a softy even. But he’ll do for the moment.

I think one problem Hanson had with Trump in the beginning was what I’ll call Tom Brokaw Syndrome, summed up by Brokaw’s pained, puzzled expression early in the 2016 primary season, when he was a guest on somebody’s MSNBC show and insisted Things just aren’t that bad! and it wasn’t yet clear just how many million people thought For you maybe.

Like a lot of intellectuals, Hanson wasn’t out front, but, unlike Brokaw and many others, he at least caught on.

If millions are voting for Trump, things must be worse than I thought.

And so they were. Like most professional historians who venture into political commentary, Hanson is much stronger on history than current events, just as Pauline Kael was much stronger on film criticism than philosophy.

Having no professional credentials myself–I really am just a blogger–I’ll take a moment to outline my own world view.

Start with the obvious.

The absence of any intelligentsia or punditry able to gauge his purpose, policies or effectiveness, is the principal reason Trump’s in a position to impose any purpose or policy at all. There’s no question Trump saw in our contemporary cultural collapse–a condition, as I’ve pointed out before, of which he may have been the single biggest beneficiary–a chance to do something unprecedented. While others of his generation with presidential ambitions went about pursuing them the same old way, becoming what the Overlords demanded, learning to take orders, he went about becoming himself. And when he was ready to present himself as a political candidate it was himself we got: crude, vain, ambitious…and proud of it!

Also supremely focused and ready to take his voice and his case straight to the People, whom he trusted, even worshiped, in a way no traditional politician could. That they trusted and worshiped him in return should be no surprise and, unless you really are invested in the idea that Professionalism is the Path of Progress, no cause for alarm.

And yet alarm rings through the land. It rings in the face of more peace, prosperity and security in a three-year stretch than anyone had even imagined possible in fifty-plus years of misgovernance, the last thirty-five better described as malgovernance, irrespective of who was in charge at any given moment.

It rings in the face of Reaganomics (put on Steroids by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who, post-Presidency, gorged themselves on eight and nine-figure personal fortunes as a reward for their services) having finally been proven a fraud; of Free Trade (never really Free and never really Trade) being punched in the nose; of North Korea going silent; of China backing down in a “trade war”; of high-ranking terrorists being killed at such an alarming rate that the last couple barely made headlines. The alarm rings in the face of prison reform, the best wage hikes in decades, low inflation, employment numbers that have disproportionately benefited minorities and poor people, a jobs training effort that threatens to lift millions out of poverty and off food stamps, etc. etc. etc.

It rings through constant talk, backed by occasional action, of bringing the boys home.

Boy does it ring through that.

At some point one is tempted to conclude that the old orthodoxies were not merely insufficient at solving problems but were imposed to create them.

So concluded Donald Trump. If you quaked at his coming or are bothered by his presence on what, after all, is not a battlefield–not a place were a Saint Joan or a Billy Sherman or a George Patton could see clearly the best way forward while others remained trapped in the orthodoxies of Good Taste and, even more hilariously, Decency–that probably means you were as comfortable with the old Narratives as the plantation class of Ye Olde Confederacy was with theirs. If you were a Liberal, then Reagan and the Bushes suddenly didn’t seem all that bad. If you were a Conservative then Obama or the Clintons the same. At least they all played by the same rules.

Those were the rules of the Grand Bargain, where, circa 1980, Democrats took the Culture and Republicans took the Economy. If one or the other happened to ascend for a moment they made sure to rig the game in a manner their putative opponents could recognize and everybody got fat (and protected from prosecution, no matter how many “investigations” were launched) so long as they stayed within the carefully constructed guidelines which certainly had nothing to do with preserving either the culture or the economy.

And meanwhile back at the D.C. Ranch?

Well something that called itself the Intelligence Community, nascent in the First World War, powerful by the end of the Second, “necessary” by the Dawn of the Cold War, had grown up inside the newly imperial government. Such an apparatus may not be necessary to a nation, certainly not to a free nation, but it is always crucial to the maintenance of an Empire.  Whether or not the leap to Empire, begun in the Spanish American War, taken as a given by the end of WWII, was a good idea is debatable, but the unwillingness to shoulder the moral burden–the pretense that we could maintain our notional idea of a Nation of Settlers (rather than Conquerors, or, more disingenuously, “Immigrants”) sufficiently well to keep everyone in line on the home front when it was time to make the ultimate sacrifice has proven disastrous. One does not need to be a Trumpian to realize he is a necessary corrective to decades of preening hypocrisy, endless war and the normalization of a two-tiered society where some have all and most have just enough to keep them voting for Republicans and Democrats, cycle after endless cycle (and turning to loony options like Socialists and Greens and Libertarians when they stray).

I confess I did not see him, or anyone like him, coming until he was here. I assumed the Overlords had stifled all dissent. When you find yourself with a lifetime of being asked to choose between Ronald Reagan or Walter Mondale, Bill Clinton or Bob Dole, Al Gore or George W. Bush, Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, it becomes very easy to think the cage is strong enough no one can ever rattle it.

Besides it had all proceeded so smoothly.

The Empire had presented itself in neat epochs:

First Turning the Leap: 1945–1963

Second Turning the Sorting: 1963-1980

Third Turning the Frozen Silence: 1980-2016

I thought that 2016 would be a much later number, occurring sometime in the next 50-100 years, with the fourth turning coming when we collapsed within and the world’s new powers (China, India, the EU, maybe even Russia or some Mid-East coalition) moved in to mop up the leftovers.

Then came Trump…and all bets were off.

They still are. I am more or less in agreement with John Michael Greer, the sci-fi novelist and professional Druid who has been the sanest and most insightful commentator I’ve found on our current predicament–this is more likely a temporary speed-bump along the road to Decline and Fall than any kind of reversal.

But Trump has at least made it possible to think about national renewal and drawing down the Empire in such a way that the world doesn’t collapse into a series of smoking craters or piles of ash and bone. Like the necessary men who have come before him, he will only be redeemed by history if his side wins and after he is safely dead. If not, he’ll join history’s villains, as all the figures I mentioned above would have if their side had lost.

Heck half of them are reviled still (Churchill the Warmonger is now Churchill the Racist, Sherman, the most humane of the major Civil War generals is counted the bloodthirstiest, the faith Jeanne D’Arc was willing to die for proves she was a bigot, and so on and so on).

Since the matter of his victory or defeat will be purely political (as opposed to military or intellectual)–and the chance of any final victory (like the Survival of the American Experiment) is slim–Donald Trump will likely be an even more problematic figure.  My own prediction, safely rendered since none of us will live to see it confirmed or denied, is that his long-term legacy will be the question that consumes, perhaps vexes, whoever replaces us.

How did they ever let it come to this?

We are too close to the problem to do anything but stay in our corners and rant and rave and, once we are out of breath, suck our collective thumbs.

How those who will own the future answer that question will determine whether they last any longer than we did.

All I know is that, whatever happens in November, the die is cast. The Old Guard has come at Donald Trump with everything it has and he is stronger than ever. He’ll stand for re-election against either a Socialist version of George McGovern or an enfeebled version of Fritz Mondale.

The Grand Bargain has unraveled.

The Fourth Turning is here. The Rough Beast has come, like him, want him, need him or not. The more Peace and Prosperity he threatens us with, the louder will be the Tumult and the Shouting and the more certain he won’t be invited to any state dinners once we return to our Destiny.

Ain’t that a kick in the head.

GETTIN’ BUSY IN HERE (Quarterly Book Report: January through March, 2015)

Okay, I might have to go back to monthly reports. Suddenly I have time to read again…Meanwhile, a quarter’s worth of grab-bag:

Breakheart Pass (Alistair MacLean–1974)

BREAKHEARTPASS

By the seventies, MacLean was transferring his well-honed thriller formula to more and more exotic settings with (according to a consensus of those who plowed through his later novels at least) less and less success. This “western” version is a pretty good one, though. It’s not The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare by any means, but it moves along crisply and builds some real tension and surprise along the way. What you’d expect from an expert romanticist who was tired but not yet quite worn out.

A Game For the Living (Patricia Highsmith–1958)

AGAMEFORTHELIVING

A bit of a tease–rather like A Tremor of Forgery, the only other Highsmith I’ve read that lacked a distinctly American flavor. Even the Ripley novels, with their European settings, feel like a coming to terms with Highsmith’s homeland but here, the flavor and setting are strictly Mexico.

Still, she knew the place well, and, if you read a line like this, early on…

“Theodore did not want to get into a discussion of the Catholic versus the Protestant conscience or, what was worse, the Catholic conscience versus Ramon’s idea of ‘Existentialist’s conscience,’ which was no conscience at all to Ramon. Just because he did not torture himself, as Ramon did, for having an affair out of wedlock!”

…you might expect a narrative where souls are at stake, if not lives. But it turns out she doesn’t drum up much interest in either. Maybe she needed America and Americans more than she thought.

Anyway the novel is best when it’s searching for the soul of its setting.

“The police arrived, two ordinary policeman in uniform, and in a somewhat bored manner went over the house and listed the items Theodore said were missing and their value. Theodore knew he would never see them again. One almost never saw stolen things again in Mexico, and the POLICIA accepted robberies–little house robberies like this–with a resigned shrug. It was no doubt their conviction that people with so much money ought to be robbed now and then, that it did no harm and did the poor possibly some good. And Theodore, too, felt rather the same way.”

The POLICIA do, of course, investigate a little further than Theodore expects, but only because a murder is involved. As with all her novels, nothing much happens. Even murder feels ordinary. Unlike most of her novels, in this one, the nothingness behind the central murder never quite materializes into that moment of existential dread which was her specialty. What you do get a philosophy of life, which I suspect is pretty close to the author’s own unique combination of not-quite-nihilism and not-quite-not-nihilism:

“If the earth became a hunk of metal, or disintegrated and vanished in particles too small for scientists’ eyes or even their microscopes to find, wasn’t there some beauty in that, beauty in the idea, if nothing else? It seemed quite as beautiful as three billion sweating or freezing human beings creeping around on a globe.”

Highsmith’s basic idea was that murder lay in the hearts of practically everyone–perhaps more deeply in the hearts of the mundane spirits than in anyone else. Since neither of her main characters here ever seems remotely capable of murder and since no one else is developed enough for the reader to have an interest, the dread never comes.

The Dark Lady is always interesting and I always approach her with extra care, but this time she didn’t leave a mark.

Go Where You Wanna Go: The Oral History of The Mamas & The Papas (Matthew Greenwald–2002)

MAMASANDPAPASBOOK1

First let me say (and I doubt this was the author’s fault), that this is the most incompetently produced book I’ve ever seen from a reputedly professional publisher. Spelling errors, grammatical glitches and/or malapropisms abound on nearly every page.

That being said, you should still read it if you have any interest in the group or their times. It’s not like there’s a really serious study out there and hearing this basic history in the words of the people who made it is fascinating…not least because you know you can’t trust a single one of them as far as you can throw one of those mountains you can supposedly see from the ocean California is supposed to slide into some day.

If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O (Sharyn McCrumb–1990)

PRETTYPEGGY

The first McCrumb I’ve read. The mystery/thriller part is standard enough, but the book is immensely valuable for its quietly effective and realistic depiction of small-town America in general and Appalachia in particular, a people and region who are rarely well-served by either fiction or life. On nearly every page you can find a little gem like this:

“Jeff McCullough found out a lot of things just because people stopped him in the street and asked about them, thinking that the local newspaperman would know more about it than they did.”

That’s the life of a small town journalist in thirty-three words and McCrumb offers up a town full of the same.

Naturally, when it came time for somebody to use this general setting for one of those “realistic” television shows that give the intelligentsia such a thrill, they picked Elmore Leonard, who couldn’t tell it from Detroit or Miami, to set the agenda.

Of course they did.

Growing Up Patton (Benjamin Patton with Jennifer Scruby–2012)

GROWINGUPPATTON

Multi-generational memoir from the grandson of the legendary WWII general and son of his highly successful namesake (also a general who served with distinction in Viet Nam). Benjamin Patton picked a different path and became a documentary filmmaker, a journey which led him to, among other things, develop a program where soldiers with PTSD (the kind his grandfather once famously slapped) document their experiences.

It’s not a “gotcha” memoir by any means, though. Rather the opposite. The grandson writes from a perspective of understanding what was valuable about his family’s military tradition and the enormous service both his father and grandfather rendered. Hence, along with stories of the many individuals they impacted, there are reams of good advice from both men, none of which is likely to be heeded by anyone conducting our present or future wars. Too bad. We’ll probably need to relearn the lessons they taught if we ever have to win one again. And we probably won’t.

For all that, the best anecdote, concerning the elder Patton, comes early on and confirms everything his admirers and critics ever dreamed or dreaded about him:

“Once when he was rehearsing his young daughter for a horse show, he berated her constantly, criticizing and cussing her, finding everything wrong, her posture, the way she handled her horse, her method of taking the jumps. He finally shouted in anger, ‘Get off that goddamn horse and let me show you how to do it.’ Meekly she climbed down, a chubby twelve-year-old, and he took her place. Resplendent and supremely self-confident in his horsemanship, he prepared to jump. As he spurred toward the obstacle, she was heard to say, ‘Dear God, please let that son of a bitch break his neck.'”

Such is love.

Garnethill (Denise Mina–1998)

GQRNETHILL1

A highly praised, 400-page snigger at the expense of rape, incest and abuse victims. It’s dressed up as empathy of course, complete with an improbably off-the-cuff revenge fanstasy and wrapped in a whodunit plot so transparent even I (notoriously bad at the game) guessed who the baddie was. The edition I bought has, as an addenda, a featured interview with the author, who reveals that she loves Glasgow (her adopted home and the novel’s setting) for its poverty and crime. Keeps it real and all.

Let me say that, having just finished her novel, I was not surprised. She does have one moment of honesty at the end of the book when the wee adorable lassies she has so fervently wished us to love and cherish throughout turn out, not as surprisingly as I suspect Mina intended, to be what they would call “pricks.”

In Glasgow slang that’s now apparently the worst thing you can call a woman. Bet you won’t need three guesses to know the worst thing you can call a man. (Hint, it starts with a c.) Ha ha ha. If this really is modern Scotland, I’m glad my ancestors got out.

[NOTE: Besides all that, I finished a Kennedy assassination book which I’m planning to review for BWW shortly. And I’m still pondering how to handle Devin McKinney’s book on the Beatles but I’ll definitely address it further in one venue or the other…I’ll also probably do a separate post on Paul Williams’ Outlaw Blues, which I’m currently reading and is certainly worth some extra attention…Til then.]

 

MODEST GENIUS (Dave Brubeck, R.I.P.)

I’m not enough of a jazz buff to render any deep appreciation of Dave Brubeck’s considerable talents. Suffice it to say that I know what I like and what I’ve heard of his music (mostly from the “Take Five” period) I like very much.

Beyond that, I want to heartily recommend–basically to anyone who cares about the past, which I’m guessing is most people who read this blog–the two CD set Private Brubeck Remembers, released by a still vital Brubeck in 2004. The first disc consists of lovely, just-past-midnight solo piano versions of songs the then unknown musician played as part of his repertoire while leading a military band in WWII.

That first disc is wonderful, but the real gem is the second disc, which consists of Brubeck’s own remembrances, through an interview conducted by Walter Cronkite, of childhood, war service and his early career (among other things, he had ver-r-ry interesting times serving under Patton and also a not insignificant role in integrating the armed services through his leadership of inter-racial bands, which he shrugs off as just something any decent fellow would have done in his place). The absence of cant or self-promotion from one so accomplished is nearly startling in this age when even self-deprecation tends to be carefully measured and calculated.

This is the only clip from Remembers that I could find online….like the rest of the album, it sounds very much like a pipeline to a state of mind a long, long way from a world at war.

What artists do, as they say…

Dave Brubeck “Lili Marlene” (Studio Recording)