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.

MY FAVORITE BOOK OF FILM CRITICISM (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

The Hollywood History of the World: From One Million Years B.C. to Apocalypse Now (1988)
George MacDonald Fraser
Okay, the competition is not exactly fierce. I respect their work ethic and even their skill with language, but, for ideas and insights, I’ve never been moved much one way or the other by Farber, Agee, Kael, Sarris. I counted Roger Ebert a genial dolt and Richard Schickel something less than that. Stanley Kaufman seemed like a nice man who was so cautious and judicious in his judgments that I could never remember what he thought of a movie ten seconds after I finished his review.

David Thomson? Don’t get me started on the clodhoppers.

Graham Greene was clearly slumming.

I like Molly Haskell a lot and I need to read more of her stuff.

Even so, I doubt anything she’s done would replace this. It’s the only book of film criticism I really like–and I like it a lot.

It probably helps that film criticism was the least thing Fraser did. Before and after that he was a novelist, essayist, memoirist, historian, screenwriter and all around exemplar (one of the last) of that old-fashioned breed: The Man of Letters.

It helps, too, that among Men of Letters, he was one of the best–not least because he took himself and the world less seriously than almost anyone else who ever earned his way into that club where no legitimate membership can ever be given.

And he was uniquely qualified to write his one book of criticism. The list of first rate novelists (he’s justifiably famous for his incomparable Flashman series, but don’t sleep on Black Ajax, a superb historical novel which recounts the rise and fall of Tom Molineaux, the ex-slave who, in the early nineteenth century, was the first great African-American boxing champion), who are also professional grade historians and accomplished screenwriters (he did Richard Lester’s Musketeer films and a personal favorite, Crossed Swords, among others) is not long.

Like a lot of his other writing, The Hollywood History of the World occupies a space all its own–in this case, defending Hollywood’s take on history. That’s not something I’m sure anyone else has ever even attempted, but I have a reasonable confidence that it has never been carried off so well.

For starters, Fraser knew that History itself is contested, often hotly so. For closers, he knew how to write it–so it’s not surprising that he knew how to write about it. The Hollywood History of the World then, works on three levels: as straight film criticism, as a back way into a historical worldview (the author’s own) and as a front way into the manner in which Hollywood, from the silent era to the 1980s, presented history as both History and Mythos.

That’s a lot to take on, but Fraser did it elegantly and forcefully, without coming off as being too full of himself. The book’s a great read–and it did for me something no other book of film criticism has done. Similar to the way Lester Bangs, alone among music critics, made me hear with new ears, Fraser made me see with new eyes.

Fraser wisely sequenced his book as a history of film itself, proceeding chronologically from the prehistoric era to Viet Nam, pairing up films from different eras by their subject matter, not their production chronology.

Along the way, he showed his grasp of the large scope of history without short-shrifting his own tastes and biases, both cultural and cinematic. Of course, not being a Leftist made him stand out. (Fraser once described his politics as whatever was dead opposite of the most recent attempt to convert him–a true kindred spirit.) But that never helped John Simon, or anyone else who was no better or worse than the competition.

Fraser stands out because he said things no one else said, and said them with the authority of someone who knew of whence he spoke. Perhaps most significantly, he spoke in the voice of one who was not concerned that others might have got it wrong and needed correcting.

In that respect, he really stands out from the crowd.

Hence…

From the introduction (a concise explanation of what film really does do better than any other art form):

It is worth remembering that the often-despised film moguls were the greatest patrons of the arts since time began; Hollywood employed more scholars and experts and diverse talents than any philanathropic or learned institution—and, incidentally, paid them better. They gave, and got, their money’s worth, and in the process they built us old Baghdad, new and shiny, and the Pyramids, and the Colosseum; they refought Trafalgar and Thermopylae for our benefit, and sent Columbus to the sands of Watling Island, Marco Polo to the courts of Cathay, Major Rogers to St. Francis, Rowan to Garcia, Drake around the world, and Stanley in search of Livingstone (to the tune of ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’, which hadn’t been written then, but sounded wonderful); they brought Clive and Zola, Lincoln and Saladin, Buffalo Bill and Catherine the Great, Wellington and Dick Turpin, Florence Nightingale and Calamity Jane, to life again; they showed us Argonauts and Mountain Men, Vikings and Jane Austen’s ladies, gladiators and Roundheads, Chinese warlords and Pilgrim Fathers, Regency bucks and Zulu impis. Really, it was the greatest show on earth.

Some of it was historical nonsense; most of it was not. If some of the images were blemished, they were better than no images at all. Samuel Pepys has given the most brilliant and finely detailed memorial of Restoration London that could be imagined–but imagined in the word; we must form our mental pictures from what he tells us, and from artists like Lely and Kneller; is it sacrilege to suggest that Forever Amber, Frenchman’s Creek, and Hudson’s Bay add something worthwhile, if it is only a visual impression? All the world knows that when the Light Brigade charged in the San Fernando Valley, it was as the climax to a film that had no more to do with Raglan, Cardigan, and Balaclava than with “Little Women”–but even Lord Tennyson might have had his imagination enlarged by the most spectacular recreation ever seen of cavalry going neck or nothing into cannon fire. Bette Davis or Flora Robson could play only an imaginative personation of the Elizabeth, but they gave us something that the historian cannot. Personally, I always doubted that an army could be stopped by flashing polished shields until I watched it on the screen; I envisaged the Gordian knot as a vague tangle of rope until Richard Burton was confronted with something that looked like a spherical doormat. What the beginning of the Exodus was like, no one will ever know–Demille brought it to life. The sight of old Vladimir Sokolov perishing in the snow while Charles Boyer made sympathetic noises, conveyed some sense of what the Retreat from Moscow was like; the scene in which Jack Palance pulls on his glove while Elisha Cook stands wary and angry in the mud is art of a high order; it is also as true an impression of a Western gunfight as we are ever likely to get.

There is something else that the costume picture has done. I have lived long enough in the world of historical fiction to know how strongly it can work at turning readers to historical fact; Hollywood, by providing splendid entertainment, has sent people to the history shelves in their millions.

And, on specific movies:

True Grit

Having seen True Grit my one regret is that John Wayne never had a shot at Falstaff; Rooster Cogburn, the boozy, disreputable old rascal of a marshal hired by an adolescent girl to track down her father’s murderer, is his best performance, possibly because the script is quite the most authentic ever written for a Western picture. Whether the principal credit should go to the screenwriter, Marguerite Roberts, or the original novelist, Charles Portis, (NOTE: For the Record, Portis, though Roberts also got off several wonderful lines that weren’t in the book). I don’t know, but for once the voice of the Old West is heard strong and clear; its splendid imagery cries out for quotation, but I will cite only Rooster’s final raging challenge to Ned Pepper (Robert Duval)–not “Reach!” or “Draw!” or “Go for your gun!”, but: “Fill yore hands, you son-of-a-bitch!’ Never mind the plot, listen to the characters–not only Rooster and Pepper, but the game little bantam of a girl (Kim Darby), the Texas Ranger (Glen Campbell), the renegade Chaney (Jeff Corey), and the superbly articulate outlaws encountered along the way; actors seldom get the chance to speak so well, and they rise to the occasion.

The Wild Bunch

..a foul film which for some reason received enthusiastic reviews. One critic wrote of it: ‘The bloody deaths are voluptuous, frightening, beautiful’, and described it as an ‘imagistic epic’. I don’t know if that critic has ever seen bloody death, but it is not beautiful at all, and there is nothing clever or artistic or worthy about its portrayal ad nauseum. (NOTE: The critic was Pauline Kael…and, no, she hadn’t.)

Platoon

Platoon is terrifying. Not because of its horror and violence, but because I suspect it is a true picture, and that makes me tremble for the safety (to say nothing of the good name) of Western civilisation. I would prefer to believe it is a grotesque fiction, but good authorities have claimed it an honest portrayal of the Vietnam war, and if it is, then there is no doubt why America lost. On this showing, they didn’t have an army….like all the blood, carnage, and pretentious talk with which the film abounds, the danger is that audiences may regard it as typical of all warfare, and the conduct of the principals as acceptable, even excusable. They may even tell themselves that Barnes, with all his beastly faults, is a darned good soldier; he isn’t. He is a rotten soldier, and I wouldn’t bet on his platoon to beat the Band of Hope..

…I am reluctant to believe Platoon, because the Americans of 1942-45 (NOTE: with whom Fraser, a Brit, had served in the Pacific theater) were not like this; they were good soldiers.

Even within this small sampling, I don’t agree with all of Fraser’s assessments. I would not, for instance, fault the soldiers in a badly led army and leave any criticism of their leadership implicit. There is much else in the book I would dispute more strongly.

But every assessment made me think–and not just about movies.

They still do.

As a historian, Fraser understood that, at a certain point, events consist not merely of the facts (whether agreed upon or disputed) but of the stories we make from those facts. As a first-rate novelist and screen writer, he understood film has become, for better or worse, the principal means of conveying those stories.

His best quality, though, was that he kept his head, and stuck to what his extraordinary life had taught him.

As a result, his criticism had the sting of moral authority, astringently applied.

And, in an age when the theater at the strip mall is filled every weekend with “imagistic” violence that makes The Wild Bunch look like Renoir’s Impressionistic Paris, his warnings about allowing our worst instincts to run free were prescient.

THE SECRET LIVES OF THE NOT QUITE YET RICH AND FAMOUS (Segue of the Day: 1/31/18)

This was actually from a week or so back, but, hey, my blog, my rules. I’m not above toying with the time/space continuum.

Thus…a week or so back….

I was resetting my radio channels after I had an airbag recall replacement in my car and left the new setting on a local channel that plays semi-offbeat music from yesteryear. Most of the stuff is by famous artists, but not necessarily the familiar hits. My internet being out a day or two later, I found myself cruising to the local college theater one evening on a work night to catch When Harry Met Sally, which I had never seen on the big screen (it was worth it…I almost posted about that).

And, in the new dark, I heard this…and I kept thinking, if it’s her, it can’t be from her solo career or her post-Tusk Fleetwood Mac career. Leaving what? An outtake? Thought I’d heard all those too.

Well, I couldn’t find a parking space in time to make the 7:00 show, which meant I had a chance to stop and write down a piece of the lyrics, making it easy enough to find on the net when I got home. Ah, yes, Buckingham Nicks. How could I have forgotten!

I might not have considered it more than a nice find–another fine piece of Stevie’s secret career (a subject that’s probably worth its own post some day) to be tucked away for a rainy day.

Except when 9:00 rolled around, my internet still wasn’t working, so I headed back to the college to catch the 10:00 showing (there’s always plenty of parking that late, after class lets out), and on the way, on the same station, I ran into this….which I’ve never heard on the radio anywhere….

…which, in addition to reminding me of how much Elvis Costello used to hate Stevie Nicks (maybe not as much as he hated Linda Ronstadt, but there was definitely a theme there…if Stevie had dared to cover a few his songs, the gap would have closed in an eye-blink, though of course he would not have failed to cash the royalty check), and how great he was once upon a time, also set me to wondering how different either career might have been if these records had been the hits they deserved to be.

I kept the station tuned all week, waiting for another revelation.

No such luck.

This evening, on the way to the grocery store, I switched back to Classic Rock. Nothing revelatory there, either, but at least I could sing along. I even got to use my Freddie Mercury voice (don’t worry folks, unless the Security State has my car bugged, no one will ever hear my Freddie Mercury voice).

Which made me think about when Dave Marsh, expecting to be taken seriously, called Queen “fascist rock.” I think that meant he either didn’t like them or just couldn’t keep Pauline Kael and Greil Marcus out of his head, kind of a crit-illuminati version of the way Norman Bates couldn’t keep his mother out of his head.

Calling anyone you didn’t like a fascist was very big back then.

The lesson as always: The seventies drove people crazy.

I’m just thankful such things never, ever happen now.

EROTICISM AS SOFT PORN HATE SEX (Segue of the Day: 11/28/17)

NOTE TO SELF; There. That oughta make me go viral….

Last Tango in Paris (1972)
D. Bernardo Bertolucci

The Executioner’s Song (1982)
D. Lawrence Schiller

NOTE TO READERS: Spoilers included.

After I finally caught up with Last Tango in Paris over the weekend–because what else would you watch when you’re existentially depressed?–I found myself wondering (as I often do with these “edgy” films of yesteryear) what all the fuss was about.

I thought I’d give Pauline Kael a try and her contemporary essay is worth reading, if only so you can have an idea of what such debates were like in Last Tango‘s day, a day when “eroticism” was still going to rescue the day in poor old American Life and Art.

Not surprisingly, her essay is mostly about Marlon Brando. Brando had made himself the point of every film he had ever made to date. Once or twice he stooped to interpret a character, but this wasn’t one of those times. No matter how hard the intelligentsia rooted for him, he could never quite get out of his own way. All of which means neither Pauline Kael nor anyone else was likely to explain what Brando himself failed to deliver, which is any reason a young woman as lovely, charismatic and, yes, erotic, as Maria Schneider, about to be engaged herself (to a dweeb, which might have been it’s own explanation if it was say, Paul Newman’s or Alain Delon’s bones she wanted to jump if he just happened along, or if the most erotic scene in the movie weren’t her and the dweeb’s “Oui/No” argument over who is proposing to who), would stoop to anonymous hate sex with anybody as creepy and dessicated as Brando’s “Paul.”

Kael took the position that Brando’s, and, perhaps, “Paul’s” as well, was a tragic character, a sensitive Americano, led on to his doom by a Euro-trash Cookie. We’re supposed to be really sad when she shoots him.

I thought she was about a day late. I was rooting for her to off him right after he anally raped her (in the film’s most famous scene and one which Schneider was not prepared for by either Bertolucci or Brando). Evidently, they didn’t think enough of her acting skills and figured they could only get what they wanted by “surprising” her with a little improv.

They might have been wrong about that, because Schneider’s lovely, lethal and unaffected performance is the only thing time hasn’t burned away in a film that promises to drown you in Art from the first frame.

Why all this put me in a mood to finally re-watch The Executioner’s Song, which I hadn’t seen since the eighties–and certainly hadn’t forgotten–I don’t know. But perhaps Schneider’s presence/performance (and reading about her subsequent reluctance to take her clothes off for the camera) was bound to call up Rosanna Arquette some way or other.

Arquette expressed a similar reluctance to shuck her clothes after her experience with The Executioner’s Song, and she was able to at least cut back on–though not eliminate–the fantasy nude scenes until her real-life encounters with Harvey Weinstein reduced her to taking anything she could get to keep working (whilst being given all kinds of grief from Kael’s natural inheritors–Greil Marcus, Charles Taylor, et al, for tanking her own career). One can respect her choices, but it’s easy to see why male directors became a little disoriented.

Arquette’s Nicole Baker–the real life girlfriend of murderer Gary Gilmore (played in a  very Brando-esque turn by Tommy Lee Jones, who, to be fair, was at least channeling a real-life narcissistic sociopath and was operating with a script that managed to flatten actors as gifted as Eli Wallach and Christine Lahti)–is never so alive as when she’s either got her clothes off (“You and seven other motherfuckers!”) or is trying to scheme her way out of them.

She’s still trying when the only place she and Jones/Gilmore can get it on is the conjugal visit room next to Death Row in the State Pen, where she must have known it was likely to end up all along, even when she, Arquette/Baker, was pulling guns on Jones/Gilmore and withholding herself, maybe, just maybe, with thoughts of driving him to murder.

It’s a lived-in performance and should have had more screen time. It’s also a short, but significant, evolution beyond Maria Schneider in Tango: Yeah, I might have shot him, just like that chick in Last Tango, but he was bound for the firing squad anyway so why bother? Especially when we could get in on right there in the Big House while his lawyers were exhausting his appeals and it won’t even matter if they won’t let me take my clothes off in there. Might even work a double suicide attempt–in which neither of us will quite manage to die–while we’re at it.

One wonders if Nicole Baker had seen Last Tango.

Hard to believe Rosanna Arquette–along with everybody else involved with The Executioner’s Song–hadn’t.

In which case it doesn’t matter what Baker knew. Once Rosanna Arquette got hold of it, with Maria Schneider’s ghost at her back, it wasn’t Nicole Baker’s story anymore anyway.

It wasn’t even Gary Gilmore’s.

But, to Baker’s credit, even Rosanna Arquette never had a better one.

Story, I mean….

SAM SPADE AT THE MULTIPLEX (What Impressed Me This Week)

The Maltese Falcon
(John Huston, d. 1941)MALTESEFALCON1

Whenever classic films make it out to the hinterlands I make an effort to see them, partly in hopes that theaters will book more of them. I don’t know how much good it does. I paid double the usual matinee price for this one this week and saw it in the company of exactly one other patron.

But I’ll keep going anyway, if and when I can, because of the good it does me.

I’ve seen The Maltese Falcon well over a dozen times and read the book three or four times. This was even the third time I saw it on a big screen, (more than any Golden Age film except Gone With the Wind which I’ve seen four times in theaters). I can’t say I’ve always learned from it, though I’ve certainly always enjoyed it. But this time, it definitely stretched me, not entirely in pleasant ways.

One thing that’s always pleasant–and rewarding–is watching Humphrey Bogart’s face, and that’s probably the most important way the big screen enlarges the experience. Even the biggest televisions can’t offer the same opportunity for nuanced scrutiny of a performance like the one Bogart gave here, the one that truly shaped his lasting star persona. Remembering the masterful ways he deployed and varied that persona over the next decade and a half, in Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, The African Queen and even The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (where, to tell the truth, he went a tad self-conscious, though the overreach probably created the space where he found his take on Dix Steele in In a Lonely Place), it can become easy to forget the degree to which every bit of it–hence every shade of his celebrated modernity–was on display in The Maltese Falcon.

It’s not so easy to forget it when you’re watching the movie. Because it’s all there. The sardonic wit, the heroic (or, if you prefer, antiheroic) stoicism, the edge of pure sadism (including large doses of misogyny and homophobia which, were they anywhere near as prevalent in the iconic performances of, for instance, John Wayne, would surely be routinely excoriated by a left-leaning illuminati which has both insisted that the performance is the man and idolized Bogart for those very same qualities for half a century and counting), the assurance of the beast in the urban jungle who operates as a law unto himself, and the inability or unwillingness to separate any of these qualities from the rest, to regard any of them as less than absolutely essential.

Writing in the early seventies, Pauline Kael famously observed of Dirty Harry that “this action genre has always had fascist potential and it has finally surfaced.” But whether fascist is the right word for that potential (I’d argue not quite but that’s a long, interesting debate), there was no “finally” to it. The only meaningful distinctions between Sam Spade and Harry Callahan are the hare-vs-tortoise speeds at which their respective brains work and whatever dime-size wedge can be put between Spade’s sort of private eye serving the inept police and Callahan’s sort of policeman serving the even more inept public.

What Kael might have been getting at was that Clint Eastwood’s Callahan made it impossible to continue either missing or dismissing the above-and-beyond-the-law dynamic that Bogart’s Sam Spade had hardly concealed, though he at least made you swallow it with a smile.

It could all be very seductive.

Dorothy Parker, who I’d rate as an even sharper knife than Kael, may have started the whole “white knight” school of lit-crit that became so curiously bound up with the rise of the hard-boiled detective genre when, in her review of Dashiell Hammett’s source novel for TMF, she declared that Spade had made her go spoony in the same way that Sir Lancelot had when she was a wee lass.

That’s a dangerous spell for any man to cast. Especially when he’s casting it while slapping around women and gardenia-scented queers on such a regular basis and insisting “you’ll take it and like it.”

It’s the liking it that marks the first step into the danger zone. You know: It’s not enough for me to slap you. It’s not even enough for you to accept it. What really matters is that you like it.

That certainly sounds like an idea waiting for a definition and fascism is certainly one that springs to mind.

Sitting in a quiet movie theater all these decades later and marveling at the glory of it all–the perfection in casting, direction, lighting, mood, dialogue woven into an indestructible plot–it’s still easy to miss the road to hell at the center of both Spade’s troubled conception and Bogart’s thrilling execution.

You can learn a lot about a society by studying its heroes. I’m not sure Hammett quite intended for us to take Spade into our national mythology in such an uncomplicated manner. Whether the lethal mix of bravery, hubris and cruelty generated by Bogart and John Huston struck so deep because it carries a touch of naivete that Hammett, having been both a Pinkerton and a commie, surely did not possess, I don’t know.

All I know, all I was reminded of this week, in between the news-channel marathons that are carrying on blithely, cluelessly, while the country that once produced all these things so imminently worthy of devotion circles the drain, was what a dangerous man this Humphrey Bogart still is.

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I hope he’s also still on our side.

WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS (Twelfth Maxim)

So this week I got kicked in the head by what I can now say was a far-too-long-in-coming re-visit with John Sayles’ 1983 film Baby It’s You. I’ll be writing in depth about it as soon as I get my new computer updated with the software I need for providing my own screen caps. (UPDATE: I eventually wrote about it here, sans caps.)

Meantime I went looking around the internet for any thoughts that others might have had about the film in general and Rosanna Arquette’s remarkable performance in particular and found this little gem (which isn’t about Baby It’s You but that’s how things go when the old net-surfing impulse kicks in):

“Ellison’s shots of Rosanna Arquette (taken before, to use Greil Marcus’ phrase, “the black hole of ‘Desperately Seeking Susan,’ ” that numbskull movie that effectively ended her career)”

(Charles Taylor: “Way Back When” March 15, 2002, Salon.com)

And yes, Greil Marcus (who lavishly praised Baby It’s You), did say that about Desperately Seeking Susan (which came out two years later).

And he did sort of mean that it killed his idea of what Rosanna Arquette’s career should have been.

But what about her actual career? The one to which Taylor makes it really clear he’s referring?

Well….

I saw Desperately Seeking Susan when it came out in the theaters in 1985. I remember moderately enjoying it, though not so much I’ve gotten around to seeing it again. I remember that Pauline Kael took a strong dislike to it…and that she was a generally reliable barometer of what the intelligentsia felt comfortable smacking down in those days.

None of which matters a whit to how and why Taylor could feel comfortable saying that particular movie “effectively ended” Arquette’s career.

What’s interesting is his definition of career. That is, his particular abuse of the language, rote and familiar as it may be.

Because what he means is: “Before Desperately Seeking Susan, Rosanna Arquette was somebody me and my fellow members of the crit-illuminati considered worthy of our attention. And after Desperately Seeking Susan, this was no longer the case.” (2nd UPDATE: Which is probably how so many people missed what happened here.)

In a way Taylor was just being more honest than Marcus. Letting the cat out of the bag so to speak by giving the illuminati’s starkest warning.

Don’t let us down!

Else we’ll write you and your silly “career” (actually one of the busiest of her generation and hardly without subsequent high points–a fair number, even, considering how few opportunities to do something more than stay busy Hollywood has offered to any actress in the last forty years) out of history.

I mean this must be what Taylor meant….because otherwise we’d have to assume Desperately Seeking Susan, a big hit that won Arquette a BAFTA and, well, put her on the cover of Rolling Stone, killed her career. You know…”effectively.”

desperately_seeking_susan6

So let’s ask the Charles Taylors of the world to think a little less of the joys of sweatily embracing Stalin-esque memory dumps that others have merely hinted at and a little more of themselves.

And, yes, let’s lay down the Twelfth Maxim:

Bootstrappers beware!

(NOTE: You can link to Taylor’s full piece, about a book of photos by Nancy Ellison, here. And speaking of “sweatily,” I decided to stay classy and not get into the creepy part about Arquette’s “lovely breasts” and “wide, generous mouth.” That seems beyond the scope of our strictly spiritual and intellectual pursuits here, though it does lead one to wonder if, in being written out of her own history, Arquette has merely joined many another comely female in paying a high price for being the intense object of some future critic’s inevitably frustrated college dorm fantasies.)

Happy Easter ya’ll.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Selma…the Movie…and the Flap)

HENRYSANDERS

For me, Selma the movie called to mind Pauline Kael’s astute line about another “black experience” film, the Civil War film Glory….not a great movie but a good movie about a great subject.

And I’ll add that I think Selma is an even better movie about an even better subject.

That being said, the flap about its relative lack of Oscar love this week–and the possible reasons behind it, which involve the mindset of a few thousand people who are about as representative of an average citizen’s perspective as, well, the few thousand people who are in the profession of judging the significance of such things–is more than a bit overdone.

I haven’t seen too many of 2014’s serious award contenders (basically just this and Boyhood). But it wouldn’t shock me, for instance, if there really were five performances better than David Oyelowo’s Martin Luther King, or five better directorial efforts than Ava DuVerney’s.

That’s nothing against either Selma‘s lead actor or director (or screenwriter, etc). They’re plenty good enough that it also wouldn’t at all surprise me if they were among the year’s best.

But I didn’t feel I was in the presence of some landmark in the history of cinema. Twenty years from now, when we are all once more re-hashing the Academy’s greatest oversights, I doubt this film or its makers are going to join Citizen Kane or John Wayne’s performance in The Searchers as consensus-makers on the standard list of “travesties.”

Basically, Selma is a movie that tries to do a whole lot and–especially by the standards of modern Hollywood–succeeds admirably. It’s got a fine cast, a sturdy script, sure (and occasionally inspired…that Birmingham church bombing scene is everything you’ve heard) direction and, with one very big exception, a riveting, well-chosen soundtrack.

If it keeps threatening to go off the rails, that’s only to be expected when a film is striving for so much while also being true to its vast historical subject–the story of the Selma marches and the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act told not simply as cantankerous, skillfully crafted political actions rooted in deeply moral causes (well done as those aspects are), but as a culmination of three hundred and fifty years of Black America’s suffering through the long night and dreaming of a brighter day.

That’s a lot for a movie to take on–almost certainly more than any other American film attempted this year–and for that reason alone, yes, it probably deserved more than just a Best Picture and Best Song nomination (if only because, if it now wins Best Picture, as it might, it will likely be seen as the Academy acting from a sense of White Liberal Guilt, rather than rewarding the film on its considerable merits–like I say, it’s very good, but not the rare film that could make all of that not matter, either now or in hindsight).

But the real shame is that all of this is overshadowing the film’s greatest strengths, and actually obscuring any meaningful debate (as least so far as I can find) of its weaknesses.

Case in point to the latter is the film’s portrayal of Lyndon Johnson. Though the decision to make his relation with J. Edgar Hoover (a genuine scourge of the Civil Rights era who basically gets a pass here) a bit cozier than it was, is curious and wrong-headed, he’s hardly scripted as the “villain” some have suggested. The more fundamental problem is that Tom Wilkinson, the fine British actor who plays him (and has received near-universal plaudits), doesn’t give him any dimension–he captures LBJ the strong-armer pretty well, but has none of Johnson’s unctuous charm or casual way with obscenity or resemblance to a force of nature. Any time Wilkinson was on screen, I felt like I was watching yet another Brit play yet another Southerner–a trick that hasn’t been pulled off with any panache since Vivien “I understood Blanche but I shouldn’t have played her because it cost me my mind” Leigh literally drove herself bonkers investing a little too much in A Streetcar Named Desire.

And, yeah, it’s a problem elsewhere, too: a big problem with Tim Roth, playing George Wallace as a flat piece of cardboard who couldn’t have gotten himself elected dogcatcher in Eufala; a smaller-but-still-nagging issue with Oyelowo’s King (every bit as Southern as Johnson or Wallace, lest we forget) and Carmen Ejogo’s Coretta Scott King (ditto), who are both excellent in general, but lack a certain elementary ease, as if they can’t quite overcome the distance between flesh and iconography. [As Andrew O’Hehir pointed out, in one of the more even-handed reviews of the film on Salon.com, it’s become a rather strange situation when such significant, and specifically American, roles (same thing happened with last year’s 12 Years a Slave, which was even directed by a Brit) keep not being played by American actors….just what, if any, deeper significance there might be, I’ll leave to others to debate, though if the track record of Americans, including actual southerners, playing southerners, is any indication of future performance, we certainly aren’t any worse off for having the Old Country’s exquisitely trained thespians shoulder the burden.]

Against all that, there’s an awful lot that goes right. The film has politics (extremely rare), it has heart (just as rare), it has nerve (even rarer). It doesn’t beat its chest or shirk its basic responsibilities. It handles potentially tricky subjects like King’s infidelity with both finesse and power.

Heck, its even got a good Elvis joke, told at the expense of Selma’s notorious sheriff Jim Clark no less.

So much to the good and credit all around.

But the real force in the movie–what keeps it on track and sears it in the memory even after an inexplicable mistake like playing a piece of bland modern music under the climactic final march (nearly killing the scene itself and effectively obliterating the earlier chills and echoes raised by inspired period picks like Otis Redding’s “Ole Man Trouble” and Duane Eddy’s heavy metal version (from 1965!) of “House of the Rising Sun”)–lies in the faces of the older black American actors: Oprah Winfrey (superb as Annie Lee Cooper); Wendell Pierce, (so right as Hosea Willams I’d pay twice regular if somebody made a movie about that monumental character and had Pierce play him) and, especially, Henry Sanders, pictured at the top of the post.

As Cager Lee–the grandfather of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young activist who was murdered by law-breaking “law enforcement” during one of Selma’s early protests–Sanders, a seventy-two year old native of Houston (and, therefore, perhaps the only member of the main cast who experienced Jim Crow both first-hand and at length), collapses the distance between himself and the then eighty-two year old Lee so thoroughly that he punches a hole in time.

When he’s on screen, its not history anymore….or a movie anymore.

We’re there. Not inside his skin–considering what such a man is bound to have endured, that would be presuming far too much–but looking at his face in the room.

Looking him in the eyes and knowing he would give up anything–not only his right to vote, but any chance to avenge himself for every wrong that’s ever been done to him–if he could only have his daughter’s boy back.

And knowing all the while–telling us all the while–that the best he can do now is push forward. That the only possible good that can be wrung from this and a million other horrors is the marker of progress the “movement” that his son died for is trying to achieve.

If the Oscars really meant anything, this is the kind of performance (hardly mentioned in any reviews and certainly not “nominated” for anything) they would exist to reward. So I’m not going to get worked up about what all else Selma might have gotten, or even what it might have deserved.

But there are some things….like this (cut in the Stax studio in Memphis, one of the few places in the film’s contemporary South that was actually fully integrated)…

…or this (the purest words of the prophet Curtis Mayfield)….

…that I’ll never hear quite the same way again.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (In Which I Tackle the Age-Old Question Which I Just Now Thought of: Can We Thank Two Egg For the Decline of Western Civilization?)

Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Two Egg is a small town in the Florida Panhandle. At least I think it’s still there. If it is, then it’s probably still about thirty miles from where I spent my high school and ju-co years–and still about eighty miles from where I live now.

When I moved to the Panhandle in 1974, it took about five minutes to have the significance of Two Egg transmuted by cultural osmosis.

Faye Dunaway was from there.

As far as I could ever tell, that and the fact that Dionne Warwick’s grandmother lived in Cottondale were not things anyone–newcomer or native–were ever specifically told. You hit the county line (or the hospital delivery room) and within no more than a handful of heartbeats you acquired the knowledge.

Neither fact was as much a point of pride as a source of amazement.

Sort of like: “If you can make it from here, you can make it from anywhere!”

Faye Dunaway “made” it in 1967 when she starred in–and discombobulated–a relatively unpretentious (though highly effective and well made) art film called Bonnie and Clyde.

I hadn’t realized just how thoroughly she discombobulated it until this week when I saw the film for a third time (the first having been somewhere near the dawn of the video age in the eighties and the second having been about ten years ago), and then watched the “making of” dvd extras (where Dunaway specifically states that she drew on her North Florida roots for her interpretation of Bonnie Parker) for the first time.

I suppose I always “recognized” her Bonnie on some level.

She’s a fairly common southern variation on a fairly common type. I haven’t spent any real quality time in Texas, where the real-life Bonnie Parker was from. But every place I have spent quality time–Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina–I’ve known versions of her.

And Dunaway nailed her. Even down to the fake southern accent real southerners learn from Hollywood.

Normally, that would have meant nothing more (or less) than a great performance in a Hollywood movie. But Bonnie and Clyde resonated far beyond any of that–and, to judge by fairly recent reactions here and, in a supreme example of maroon logic, here, it still does.

Since I’m sticking to my own “impressions” I won’t delve into the culture wars that developed around the film in its own time. Fun stuff, but beyond the scope of this post (though it was interesting to discover that Pauline Kael, in her famous New Yorker review, which just about everyone agrees turned the movie’s critical and commercial fortunes around when it seemed headed for the oblivion of cult-hood, was as convinced of the real and irreversible cultural damage done by 1964’s Dr. Strangelove, as conservative blue-noses were of the damage done by Bonnie and Clyde).

Kael didn’t think much of Dunaway’s performance. I can’t say I blame her.

Wherever you happen to find her, that girl is always disruptive. I think what Dunaway got about her was that for her “character”–unlike everyone else being portrayed in the movie–the only real perdition is boredom. And that she always thinks (or at least hopes) that the next bank she robs or the next man her Clyde shoots in the face or the next visit to the old home place, will be her ticket out.

She got that Bonnie Parker wasn’t sorry so many people ended up dead in her wake–that her only real regret was that the path she took didn’t get her where she thought she wanted to go. I suspect Dunaway–unlike everyone else in the highly skilled cast–also got that the person she was playing would have cared less for what big city intellectuals thought of her.

BONNIEPARKRE

Just so long as they were paying attention.

And–like her real life counterpart and like almost no one else in the history of the movies (including, for the rest of her career, Faye Dunaway)–she radiated sex (what Americans are really afraid of though, of course, like most blue-noses, we just love porn) the while.

FAYEDUNAWAY

Whatever was disorienting about the movie at the height of the Viet Nam disaster–whatever was read or mis-read into the film’s portrayal of events that had already been blurred by mythology–Dunaway’s performance, straight out of Two Egg, is the only element that hasn’t long since been swallowed up by the ever-receding, porn-and-gore edges which have rendered Bonnie and Clyde‘s once shocking violence tame and its identification with murderous psychopaths routine.

What was really shocking about Bonnie and Clyde then and now is that it scraped just far enough below the surface to reveal that the essential glory of democracy is also its abiding horror.

Practically anybody is liable to get the idea they are worth something….if only they can grab a headline.