Okay…Why I think it matters. Let’s stay classy here (also introducing a new category which I’m calling John Ford, John Ford and John Ford):
First, two images:
From Pulp Fiction (1994) (Director, Quentin Tarantino)
From Wagonmaster (1950) (Director, John Ford)
Obvious similarities, of course:
In each case a man is casually shooting another man, who is helpless, prone and unarmed.
Enough similarities that it might be a visual quote but I don’t think that’s provable or even germane. John Ford gets “visually quoted” so much it could be a visual quote that arrived in Quentin Tarantino’s brain seven times removed or just by osmosis.
And, in any case, the similarities don’t matter nearly as much as the differences.
In the first picture the man doing the shooting is loquacious to a fault, in the second the shooter hasn’t said a word in the entire film.
In the first picture we’re supposed to identify with the shooter because he’s cool, hip, post-modern and clearly a figment of the imagination–also because we have nothing invested in his victim. And just oh-by-the-way, we’re supposed to keep identifying with him, no matter how many other unarmed men he shoots…or how many moronic psychopaths he lets go free.
In the second picture, we’re supposed to identify with the victim, who is paying for the “crime” of having–on orders–delivered lashes to the bare back of the shooter’s brother (or cousin, it’s never made entirely clear, but in any case he’s family) for assaulting a Navajo woman. And we’re supposed to identify with him even though he’s a minor character who hasn’t been particularly likable and would have been unlikely to become any more so had he lived. Beyond that, we’re also supposed to identify with him because he’s a fictional character–one rooted in the possibilities of human history and behavior–as opposed to a philosophical construct (i.e., the hit man as the thing he never is in life–the coolest cat in the room).
That is, unlike the “character” (i.e., construct) we’re supposed to identify with in the first picture, the man on the ground in the second picture–who we identify with only in this very brief instant–is someone who might have actually existed in something like real time and space and someone we might have known–and quite probably disliked despite his having never done anyone any particular harm–somewhere along the way in the journey through our own time and space.
There are plenty of other differences–like the scene from Wagonmaster taking place among realistically portrayed hard men (some good, some bad, all recognizable) who barely bat an eye at the sight of a cold-blooded murder while the scene from Pulp Fiction features one highly unrealistic hard man terrorizing boys made, miraculously, out of screaming cardboard–but those will do for now.
* * * *
To be blunt, I’ve never cared much what artists are “really” like.
In the first place, outside of being on intimate terms with them personally, what they are really like is generally unknowable.
And the first place pales next to the significance of the second place, which is that the thing which is most unknowable about any artist is their precise relationship to their art–that is, the extent to which what they are “really like” has any bearing on what we find in their finished products.
Oh, we can know a few things in a vague and generalizing way, and it’s sometimes pleasing or even instructive to know those things. And, yes, the “real” person might even be showing through sometimes.
It’s just that we’re extremely unlikely to know precisely when or how and not knowing precisely means we really don’t know at all.
The only thing more unlikely–if we ever got that that far and still somehow found ourselves standing on solid ground–would be knowing what the when and the how “really” mean.
I mean, the real person we think we’ve just glimpsed could be fooling us. He is an artist after all.
So we might be able to judge whether something is bearing down on him. What effect war or displacement or drug addiction or a nasty divorce or a happy childhood or a too close association with the Angel of Death might have had. Something along those lines might even become obvious.
But that’s not the same as reading the soul–or the soul’s intent when it’s dipped in the process of creating artifice.
For that, I think it’s best to start with the art–if we’re going to start at all–and work backwards to the point that interests us.
Bearing in mind that this point will be different for each person who does make the effort. And that the relationship between the soul and the soul’s intent will still be best measured by what we know of the art, not what we know of the artist.
* * * *
Which is to say I don’t care much about what Quentin Tarantino or John Ford are/were really like.
I know I wouldn’t care to have lunch with QT and I doubt I would have wanted to spend much time with Ford either. (I called Tarantino a liar the other day and that was only based on his tendency to lie, but, being fair I should have mentioned Ford was no better. There are distinctions I could make–the propriety of lying about oneself versus lying about someone else, for instance–but for the purposes of the argument at hand they don’t really matter. For the purposes of this argument, call them two SOB’s of decidedly different stripes…and then call them, for the moment, equal.)
Either way, I do not pine for their company.
I do get suspicious, though, whenever an artist, posing as critic, goes after another artist’s character when it would presumably be at least as easy to go after their art.
In such cases, I tend to suspect–without knowing of course (I’m not that much of a hypocrite!)–that the attacker might be covering for something. It doesn’t matter what that something is. What matters is that the attacker has called both his own trustworthiness and the value of his motives into question.
Maybe in this case it doesn’t really matter. Maybe Ford is secure enough in the pantheon that what Quentin Tarantino has to say about him makes no difference.
Maybe we don’t need to do any more than what a number of bloggers and their commenters have done in spades on other sites–that is, throwing up some variation of the “Quentin Tarantino is a pimple on Ford’s ass!” defense.
Maybe that’s all that’s required.
I think we should be careful, though.
It’s not like we haven’t seen this kind of thing engaged in before.
* * * *
The most famous case of one important American artist attacking another is almost certainly Mark Twain’s 1895 essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” which Twain wrote as a combination literary critique and character assassination.
The essay had no more justification than Tarantino’s recent attacks on Ford, and was just about as ham-handed.
And–in keeping with the main theme here–who knows what Twain’s real motivations were? We can speculate that he was writing out of jealousy of Cooper’s fame or reputation. That he really did hate Cooper’s books to such a degree that he lost his own hold on rationality. (Lost it entirely, incidentally, as his opinions were his opinions, but not a single one of his numerous factual assertions about Cooper’s “offenses” was true). That his own considerable debt to Cooper was stuck in his subconscious, lying uneasy in the very place that was bound to raise the most terrible bile, unreleasable by any means but public vitriol.
Or that he was just having a bad day.
It could have been any or all of these things or something else entirely.
But the “why” of it is neither here nor there.
What should trouble us about Twain’s essay is not its fundamental silliness or dishonesty (or his similar, but less famous, opinions regarding Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James or pretty much anyone whose reputation threatened to eclipse his own), or the emotions that may have driven him to write it.
No, what’s troubling about the essay is its effect.
I wouldn’t personally rate Cooper as highly as Ford but that his reputation has suffered severely–and unfairly–at the hands of a fellow artist’s petty assault, delivered long after he himself was beyond offering up a defense, is almost undeniable.
* * * *
Well, we can study a few bits of anecdotal evidence (the only kind that’s ever really available in these rather abstract debates, so I’m afraid it will have to do).
That’s the year (forty years after Twain’s essay) when Ernest Hemingway published Green Hills of Africa, his account of a safari he and his wife took, where he somehow found the occasion to include this famous-ever-after aside:
“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”
Notice: Up Mark Twain
Notice: Down anything that preceded him (Cooper included)…or anything that happened along between him and, well, Hemingway.
Hold that thought….
I was taking an English class at Florida State titled something like “Popular Literature in American History.” The teacher was excellent at his profession and, so far as I know, a perfectly decent human being. The gist of the class was to study books which had been enormously popular in their own time, but which had no particular lasting literary merit. At one point during the course, he happened to mention how fortunate we were that he had decided to take a break from Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans that semester. (At which point the brown nosers which no English class can do without and who always–always!–pose as contrarians, spoke up long and loud. As such types are ever mindful of the value of getting on the teacher’s good side in any class where the memorization of mere facts is of next to no value, you can imagine the bashing old Fenimore received from their tender mercies. Twain’s essay, of course, had a prominent place among the name-dropping portion of the show–and was accepted as representing an unassailable truth somewhere along the order of the higher laws of mathematics.)
My response to this was rather strange.
I had been raised to the notion (mostly passed along by my father) that Cooper was a great, important writer, and I had read The Pathfinder in high school (on my own–it wasn’t the sort of thing that got assigned in the sort of high school I attended, which ran more to field trip movie versions of Shakespeare and dialogue-only abridgments of Dickens for “serious” literature assignments) and very much liked it.
I’m not sure I had ever actually heard Cooper’s name in any sort of English lit context since then.
But I knew how to act and what I should believe. I knew I wouldn’t have spoken up in his defense, even if I had been used to speaking up at all (which I wasn’t).
The feeling against him was strong enough and pervasive enough that I had grokked his fundamental uncoolness–his absence of pure “literary” value and, thus, any value at all–with no word having need been spoken.
So it was in English class in 1981.
Now…TAKE ANY NUMBER OF RECENT YEARS:
…Where I’ve come across several cases, right across the political spectrum, suggesting all you ever need to know about Cooper in general, and the Leatherstocking Tales in particular, can be found in….you guessed it, an essay by Mark Twain called “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”
Then…TAKE 2012 (oh God, please do take it):
The Library of Congress publishes a list of 88 “Books that Shaped America.”
The fact that the list came out to “88”–rather than some round figure–strongly suggests that those responsible for its compilation meant to arrive at an exact idea of everything which could not be reasonably excluded (a risk if the round figure were too small–say fifty), but also without padding (a risk if the round figure were too large–say a hundred).
Cooper did not place a book on the list, leading to two important and obvious questions:
Is he someone who could be reasonably excluded from such a list?
If not, why was he?
The answer to the first one is simple.
No, he’s not.
Cooper wasn’t just the first really important American novelist–a distinction that should have earned him a place on any such list all by itself. He’s also a genuine titan. A flawed titan to be sure…but, when it comes to American literature, only Henry James even comes close to being any other kind.
Now James is not on the list either, but that actually makes some sense. He spent most of his adult life in England and most of his personal and professional time becoming the epitome of that old saw “more English than the English.” And even if he had not, you could make a fair claim–without resorting to reverse snobbery–that he did not write in such a way that his books, by the sheer inimitability of their brilliance, ever had much chance of “shaping” America.
But Cooper is a very different thing. The Library of Congress itself made a point of noting that the list was not based on literary merit (easy to see when you peruse the list itself) but was meant to be just what it said.
Namely, books that shaped us.
To be honest, when I heard the list had been published but hadn’t yet seen it, I assumed Cooper was the only writer (or at least the only fiction writer) who was guaranteed a spot!
Call me crazy, But I figured if we were going to have an official list from the national library celebrating not the “greatest” books but the most influential–the ones that helped make us who we are–then the man who, in the space of about five years in the early 1820’s, invented the spy novel, the sea novel, and the western (and not the “American” versions, which he eventually did for the novel of manners and the murder mystery, but the things themselves) might just have a place.
Especially if some number of his novels did indeed have substantial literary merit.
More especially if his shadow was hanging over nearly every novel that did make the list and hanging with particular heaviness on the most highly regarded of the “literary” entries.
Sometimes this shadow is obvious.
Herman Melville (on the list with Moby Dick) knew where the sea novel came from even if the Library of Congress doesn’t. We don’t have to guess, because he told us so and this is one case where we can probably take an artist at his word.
Twain himself is on the list with a novel we didn’t really need Leslie Fiedler–or even D.H. Lawrence–to tell us had taken its gestalt straight out of Cooper. (Though we evidently did need Ernest Hemingway to tell us it was the source of all modern literary good.)
Sometimes the shadow is not so obvious.
But that doesn’t mean it is any less present, or any less real.
Hemingway himself–the exalter of Twain–is on the list with For Whom the Bell Tolls, his own last, mighty swing at greatness. The novel, that is, where he set out after Cooper (not Twain) and burned himself to figurative ashes trying to do once what Cooper had done repeatedly, all while getting no closer than shouting range–though he did get closer than Twain, who had set out after Cooper a time or two himself.
Hemingway’s great contemporaries are there, too.
There’s Faulkner with The Sound and the Fury (that’s the one where he copped Cooper’s ending from The Deerslayer for his revised edition).
There’s Fitzgerald, inevitably, with The Great Gatsby, which ends with what may be the most famous passage in American literature. You know, the one where his narrator imagines the Dutch sailors reaching the shores of Cooper’s wilderness (though Cooper was never glassy-eyed enough to pretend this arrival was “the last time man came face to face with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” For that level of delusion, you needed a modernist).
I could keep going. What’s On the Road, but Cooper’s frontier refracted? What’s Red Harvest but Cooper’s spiritual wilderness made modern and urban? What’s The Grapes of Wrath but Cooper’s abiding concerns about the rape of the land turned scatological?
Okay, all of those books are about other things, too. But they–along with most of the others acknowledged by the L of C–each have Cooper’s DNA deeply embedded.
And that’s not even getting into Cooper’s wider influence, nowhere felt more deeply than the visual narrative arts–you know, film, television, whatever is coming next. (It’s not like John Ford or Quentin Tarantino themselves are untouched…and, given how much he likes to pair a white man with a dark-skinned blood brother, I’d say Tarantino more than Ford.)
So if Cooper’s all that…Well, why isn’t he on the list?
And why isn’t he on any number of other similar lists I’ve seen in recent years?
Is it a question of “literary merit?”
Well, sticking to this particular list, let’s just say that Zane Grey is on it. Not to mention Edgar Rice Burroughs.
I happen to love Riders of the Purple Sage and Tarzan of the Apes for what they are.
But come on.
Is it a question of being too early–of being on the other side of some invisible wall built by time and progress?
Then how to account for Washington Irving? Not to mention Benjamin Franklin?
So it must be some version of political correctness then.
Isn’t that the last, worst explanation for every screwball thrown in screwball land, yea, verily these many years?
Well, that could be it.
But then how to explain the presence of Gone With the Wind (you know, the one where headstrong Judith and spiritually pure Hetty from The Deerslayer are re-imagined as Scarlett and Melanie–even down to their abiding fates as, respectively, jilted lover and corpse)?
Has all suddenly been forgiven?
So you can see where we might be running out of options here.
How there might only be one explanation left.
And how that explanation might well be summed up in the headline, “Mark Twain Once Wrote an Essay Called ‘Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.’..and the World Listened.”
Yeah. That could be it.
Unprovable again. But in this case, it almost has to be the truth. Maybe Sherlock Holmes could think of some other explanation that accounts for all the available facts, but I sure can’t.
So now we go back to those two images at the top there (come on now, admit it…you thought I forgot!)
And we ask ourselves…does it really matter what Quentin Tarantino says about John Ford?
Let me first say what I think doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter–in the least–why QT said what he said.
It doesn’t matter if the real reason is the son’s need to kill the father, or the white boy’s need to bond with the Other, or the simple man’s confusion when confronted with complexity and ambivalence, or the amoral artist’s discomfort with the moral (as opposed to moralistic) one, or the straight-line jealousy of a deeply ambitious filmmaker who, for all his ducking and hiding and peeping out from behind his genre obsessions, desperately wants to be thought of as great, as auteurist even (and maybe has got far enough down his own road to glimpse just how hard it would be to ever begin that other journey, let alone finish it) lashing out at someone who made masterpieces the way most of us pour milk on cereal, routinely, calmly, not caring much if a little splashes over the side.
That’s what I think doesn’t matter. The undiscernible “why” of it.
What does matter–what matters a lot–is what we make of it.
If Ford is greater than Cooper (and he is), and Tarantino is nowhere near being Mark Twain (and he isn’t), that’s all the more reason to push back.
Because what matters–okay, staying classy here–what I think matters, is doing what we can to prevent a scenario whereby some future version of Hemingway writes something along the lines of, “All modern cinema comes from a single film by Quentin Tarantino called Pulp Fiction,” and has his twaddle taken seriously.
Lest we think this is far-fetched, we should probably note that Tarantino (and what he represents) are taken at least as seriously today as Twain (and what he represented) was in 1895. And while the present is always impressed with itself, it may never have been so impressed as it is today, in part because the past has never been caught receding quite so rapidly.
So history is moving Tarantino’s way–the way of homage over creation, of sensation over memory, of the feel-good cult of the individual over the prickly annoyances that attend the preservation of community–and will likely accelerate.
Throw in that Ford, even more than Cooper, was/is cantankerous in both his person and his art–and that ever-impressed-with-itself-modernity is ready to accept virtually anything in an artist except his being a threat to easy assumptions about its own validity–and I don’t think a version of Hemingway-exalting-Twain-all-out-of-proportion-to-reality popping up forty years or forty days from now is even a little far-fetched.
All that’s before we even get to the final problem.
Cooper and Twain (and Hemingway for that matter…though not so much my eighties-era English teacher or the present representatives of the Library of Congress) were part of the same universe. It was/is possible to love all three of those writers (as I do) without practicing some kind of cognitive dissonance.
The split between Ford and Tarantino (and what they each represent) is much deeper. That split is a new kind of challenge. The challenge of choosing.
When it comes to Tarantino v. Ford, there really is a good deal more at stake because it’s possible to care about one, the other, or neither…But I’ll submit (while staying as classy as I can) that it is not possible to truly care about both–at least not without.seriously misunderstanding (and thus distorting beyond any comprehension that is rooted in their “finished product”) one or the other.
And when, in what I suspect is a rather near future, it really does come time to choose, my ever-classy self thinks we should be very, very careful which fork in the road we decide to follow.
UPDATE: I meant to highlight this link somewhere above but forgot. It’s academic and therefore may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it should probably be required reading next to the Twain essay in question.