Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Maybe this can be done with modernist fragments. I don't know. You tell me. We know it can be done through plot. Through traveling from point A to point B without us knowing exactly how it will turn out. A journey of adventure and mystery.
Film Forum is showing a movie this Friday which is about undercurrents, "The Guns of Navarone." To those raised on ridiculous junk like the Tom Cruise "Mission Impossible" movies, an old film like 1961's "Guns" must appear creaky. But it's not just a roller coaster ride. It's a classically structured adventure story with meaning. Like "Westward the Women," it starts with a recruitment scene. In the case of "Guns" the recruits are hardened commandos. Their task is to blow up two gigantic guns-- German war guns on an island near Greece.
The minute the tasked team enters the sea on a flimsy boat, beginning their journey, they and we are in the world of dreams. The land of myth.
Everything in the film, from the sea, storm, cliffs, mountains, caves, the symbolic monster-like guns, to the impressionistic Tiomkin music and mood-inducing Cinemascope color photography, even the character of the alluring girl, serves the purpose of creating a believable or somewhat believable and enchanting dream. The job of the moviegoer is to sit back before the big dream-screen and enter it.
Likewise, "Westward the Women," though not nearly so impressionistic, has moments, like the climactic chase between Buck and Fifi, when we're not simply on the prairie. We've momentarily left the prairie and entered the strange psychological unconscious world that the unspoken love between the two characters has created.
This is the essence of art. This is what it's about-- entering that area.
Tuesday, February 28, 2012
It's a shame that Denise Darcel didn't make more movies. She had real charisma. "Westward the Women" may have been her only starring role. Because of her figure and accent, she was usually relegated to cartoonish parts. Yet she was one of those rare actors capable of conveying a Chaplin-like pathos. Why this was, I don't know. We don't know what experiences she went through as a teenaged girl in France during the war-- but she certainly brought her life experience to this particular role.
We see this pathos toward the end of the film. With her fellow bad girl friend Laurie dead, Fifi is more alone than ever. She hangs back at the celebration. After the arduous journey, all the things she's gone through to get to California, she still sees herself as different, outside the community. An outsider. We sense for a moment a prostitute's sadness, which Darcel conveys merely by standing there.
There are two crucial moments before this. First, the critical interview when the patriarch breaks through her embarrassing jokey-prostitute facade. She's just disgraced herself with a display of utter stupidity. It's how she goes through life, her adopted role. How she deals with men and with the world. The wise patriarch isn't having it.
The second moment is on the trail when Buck accidently/intentionally punches her while showing her how to shoot. This shocks us and it shocks her. It signals there's some dark under-the-surface sexual or at least psychological stuff going on between them. But there are two other points to note. One is that by her game-playing with him she's signalling she's after him. With the punch he's telling her, "Back off." His entire identity as loner trail boss is seriously threatened. On that score Fifi is as serious a threat as one could ever have! But also, Buck's backstory is that he had a past untold bad experience, likely with a prostitute, which has forever(?) soured him on women. The punch comes right after Fifi lapses back into her stupid-prostitute role, acting feebly incompetent and saying to him, "I'm not very bright."!! Which he knows A.) isn't true, B.) isn't what he'd want in a mate, if he wanted one. The only word for her expression after his display of cruelty is sad. The paradox is that they're both, on the surface, overpowering personalities, one ultra-male, the other ultra-female. Yet both are in fact seriously screwed up.
The movie works through alternating moods of joy and sadness. The oppositions are everywhere. For the characters of Buck and Fifi, the only way they'll survive the journey is to break from their self-created and restrictive roles, their overdone facades. They're both forced to change. Each one's change is dependent on the other's change. The impetus for that change and the impetus of the film is that subconsciously they both desperately need each other.
Or, this is a superbly written and acted film. (More to come.)
Monday, February 27, 2012
ANOTHER SPOILER ALERT
The final major character of the 1951 movie “Westward the Women” is introduced when Buck meets up in St. Louis with the fifteen cowboys hired to escort the wagon train of brides-to-be to California. Noticed sitting among the cowboys is a young and quite short Japanese-American cowboy. This is after Buck has given a short speech to the men telling them to stay away from the women.
We and Buck know, by the tenor of the tough men, that this will be no easy feat. Least of all to fail to notice this is the short cowboy, Ito. (Henry Nakamura.) Buck kids him for his lack of stature. Laughs all around. We begin to cringe, thinking, here we go, a stereotype. Ito stops the laughter by offering to fight any of the other hired men. He turns to Buck. “I fight you too, Big Boss. I lose, but I fight.” We realize this is a guy who for obvious reasons has been fighting his entire life, and will do so again. For me it was another of those great surprising moments.
More important to the course of the film is that Ito knows Buck, and knows the situation he’s in, and with his few words has let Buck know that he knows. As an outsider used to taking on fights bigger than himself, he knows Buck has taken on a big fight. He knows Buck’s challenge and knows his isolation—one against fifteen. It’s already clear that this is what the journey may boil down to, if Buck can’t assert his will. Ito also knows that Buck is no mammoth John Wayne figure whose mere presence will cow a herd of men. Ito in effect says, “I’m one against fifteen—but as the ‘Big Boss,’ so are you!”
Buck quickly enough bonds with the young cowboy, because he’s the only one of them he can rely on and trust.
Ito plays a variety of roles in the story. One is as a kind of Shakespearean fool, offering commentary on or to the hero, being wiser than the other characters. For sheer survival in this tough world, Ito has had to become observant and wise. Another is to be Buck’s inner voice and sounding board. This is shown on a number of occasions. One is when he tells Buck he’s wrong in the way he’s treating Fifi Danon, who, as Ito points out, is doing double the work of the other women in her effort to prove herself. Or during another critical moment in the story, when Buck says he doesn’t know what to do, Ito tells him, “You know what to do.” Buck then does it. Since Ito sees Buck from the outside, he knows him better than he knows himself. (As does the other outsider, the irrepressible Ms. Danon.)
As the obstacles of the journey mount, so does Ito’s importance. I like the scene when they’re ready to sleep at the end of another tough day, not knowing what faces them the next. Ito begins talking in Japanese. Buck asks him, as he does continually, what he just said. Ito tells him he’s saying his evening prayers. Buck grimaces and endures it. The unsaid message is, “I’m doing what you should be doing right now, Big Boss. I’m doing it for you.”
The jumping off from outside St. Louis, by the way, is a great moment. We feel the sense of adventure that the pioneers must’ve felt, heading out into the dangerous unknown for they knew not what. Leaving safety behind to start over—and there are a few of them who very badly need to start over. The challenge, the journey, the obstacle, is what life is about.
The Best Picture award to "The Artist" was a good choice. This is the only motion picture in quite a while which provided that most elusive of artistic goals: surprise and wonder.
Meanwhile, stay tuned for more about the 1951 classic, "Westward the Women," starring Robert Taylor as Buck and recently-deceased Denise Darcel as Fifi.
Sunday, February 26, 2012
There's a marked arrogance among today's intellectuals, in which any other period by definition is inferior to our own, populated by uncouth half-imbecilic Neanderthals. It's the essence of snobbery, elitism, superiority complex, call it what you want. They'll tell you how they can't stand Hollywood toga epics of the 1950's because the Roman nobles and their palaces are too clean! What do they think those villas looked like? Why would rich Romans not clean up? What were they doing with all their baths? Not using them?
The difference with the western is that most of the classic western movie directors, like William Wellman, were born in the 19th century, roughly still in the same time period depicted in their films. They saw those who inhabited the towns or rode the plains in their stories as people like them, like you and me-- because they were like you and me. Not the knuckle-dragging Other. It's why the original "True Grit" is more realistic than the remake. They didn't try too hard to be "authentic." They didn't have to. Today's hipsters especially are fixated on authenticity-- see their buying of vinyl and love of bluegrass-- but they try too hard. They have no idea what the genuine article looks like. It's why the only fiction allowed to be published by working class writers or about the working class is filled with moronic grotesques and caricatures. It's how the intelligentsia sees anybody who is not them.
Their attitude has killed the western, a genre which became popular because the figures depicted were colorful and romantic. They did on occasion know how to "clean up." An auteur who doesn't show the occasional beauty of the characters is doing the art form a disservice.
Sorry for the impromptu rant. "Westward the Women" is grittily realistic, but the characters do know how to "clean up."
(Added point: It's one of the few westerns of any era which shows how you point and fire a revolver if you actually expect to hit anything. The lady marksman in the flick is completely believable, looks and acts like someone who's been around weapons.)
(More on "Westward the Women.") From a writer’s standpoint, one can look at the extended Chicago recruitment scene that takes place in a hall, and see how many things this one scene accomplishes while keeping the narrative running smoothly. It introduces all the important characters except one. This includes wonderful Patience (Hope Emerson), and an Italian woman and her son, and Rose, a schoolteacher with a secret. The scene also introduces two flashy prostitutes attempting to join, Fifi and Laurie, and shows how they’re able to do so. It gives us a glimpse into Fifi’s personality, and with two words, when Whitman presses her on her reasons for wanting to go, gives us a profound moment, understandable more in hindsight than when we view it. That he allows them to join after questioning her, against the advice of the trail boss, shows his wisdom. The end of the scene will introduce the dynamic between Fifi and Buck.
Before this, however, there’s the climax of the scene. Buck has asked if any women of the 140 gathered there know how to shoot a gun. Only a few stand up. Cynically, and skeptically, Buck silently tosses his revolver to one of them. This is an epic story about heroes, mind you. This is the first test, in a series of tests. Every epic has for its heroes tests. The prim-looking woman looks around for a target, carefully aims and puts a bullet directly through an eye on a poster of an authoritarian man looking down from a side wall. (Needless to say, the target is significant.) She tosses the pistol to a second woman, who aims and takes out the second eye. One can hear Buck’s jaw dropping. “Whoa!” he and the audience think. “What have we here?” We’ve suddenly entered a new world, where gender stereotypes are broken—as they surely will be on the journey to come.
In his book on Lacan, Slavoj Zizek points out that Hollywood movies made under the Code are often sexier than the more overt movies of now. Back then, sex was contained under the surface, waiting to explode. This is the case with “Westward the Women.” The plot, after all, is about a handful of cowboys tasked with getting 100 women to California to mate with 100 sex-starved men. The minute the wagon train leaves civilization, the sexual tension between the cowboys and the women begins. (Don’t get the wrong idea. This is covert. The hardship of the journey itself dominates the film.)
The tension and longing is best exemplified in a scene when Fifi, in her broken-English way, tells her fellow prostitute-trying-to-reform friend Laurie that she’s hopelessly in love with cranky trail boss Buck. “Don’t get ideas,” Laurie tells her. Fifi responds, as the camera angle includes her ample chest, “Ideas, they get me.” Buck’s impossible task is keeping the men and women apart until the end of the journey. As we’ll see, he not only has to wrestle with his own men, and the more-than-formidable Fifi, but himself.
AT THE MOVIES PART II
As a forbidden literary critic, I’m well qualified to speak about forbidden classics. “Westward the Women” is ignored for at least four reasons, any one of which would disqualify it for proper consideration in today’s politically-correct climate, when true free expression is a chimera. These are the four reasons:
!.) A PROBLEMATIC RELATIONSHIP. The relationship between the two aptly-named leads, “Buck” (Robert Taylor) and “Fifi” (Denise Darcel) is one of the most fascinating in all film, but it starts out as a very dysfunctional relationship, because these are two complex, and in their own ways, dysfunctional personalities. There’s at least one surprising moment of cruelty between them. An almost shocking moment, or two moments, which must throw people. Yet the moments help to explain their relationship, as I intend to clarify.
2.) A PROBLEMATIC THEME. The movie is about the settling of the West. The settling of America, which is one of the great feats of human history, given that the settling led to the creation of the greatest civilization the world has known. It’s extremely unfashionable to say this, even though it’s true. The settling was accomplished with an amount of cruelty, hardship, and pain, no doubt, but that doesn’t detract from the achievement. The movie gives an indication of what a great achievement it was. Anyone who’s driven out to Cali and back has an idea of the nature of the difficulty, the vastness of the space. Sorry, but that a couple million or so people were scattered across that enormous emptiness beforehand is no argument against the achievement.
3.) ALTERNATE FEMINISM. The movie depicts an alternate feminist vision. One might call it Sarah Palin feminism—a world where women can shoot better than any man. (A side note. In another life before I ever started writing, I spent a lot of time pistol shooting. The best target shooter I knew then was a woman.) Worse than shooting, the women in the film also are interested in having babies! This is kind of a necessary corollary to the settling of a continent idea. Let’s keep in mind as well that the film was made in 1951, during the postwar baby boom, when babies were on everyone’s mind. Guns and babies! This isn’t Gloria Steinem feminism, folks. The date of the movie, and the exhibited strength of the women in the film—likely the strongest collection of women in any film-- shows that the alternate version of feminism actually came first. (The women in the movie are stronger than the men.) (Another side note: It’s no accident that western states like Wyoming were the first to grant voting rights to women. In those spaces of nature, women had long since demonstrated and taken their equality.)
4.) WISE PATRIARCH. If I haven’t already lost all of my p.c. readers, the fourth problem should chase any laggards away. “Westward the Women” contains a wise patriarch, Roy Whitman (John McIntire), the Moses-like visionary who settled the valley the wagon train is headed to. Whitman serves the purpose of one of three tutors or guides to our hero, Buck. The other tutors are Fifi, and an unusual cowboy named Ito. Whitman, who’s a minor character compared to the revealed heroes of the film, dies halfway through the journey, which leaves the new generation abandoned, but also allows them to complete the journey themselves. Like all good artistic journeys, it’s not simply a journey to a physical destination, but a journey toward fulfillment and understanding of themselves.
Despite all this untrendy matter, it’s a fabulous, fabulous movie. If you’re not moved and entertained by it you’re not a human being!
Saturday, February 25, 2012
It’s been a good year for movies, hasn’t it? Not 1939, or 1959, or 1961, or 1967, but a good year. To celebrate Oscar weekend, yesterday I took a cheap bus up to NYC to see a great American movie at Film Forum, “Westward the Women.” (1951; William Wellman.) It’s not acknowledged as a great movie, so I’ve decided to make half-a-dozen or so posts over the next week to explain it. It might be the most pro-woman film ever made—yet there are reasons why it’s ignored, having to do, as with so much else in this culture, in not meeting the culture’s acceptable narratives.
Among the posts will be “The Forbidden Classic,” “Setting the Scene,” “Cleaning Up,” “The Dilemmas of Leadership,” “Community and Democracy,” “The Alter-Ego,” and “The Lovers,” and whatever else I come up with. Obviously, there’s more going on in the movie than first meets the eye.
What makes a great movie? For one thing, moments of surprise and awe. “Westward the Women” has such moments, beginning with the recruitment meeting in Chicago. I’ll explain the plot as i go along. Basically, in mid-19th century America, the founder of a community in California travels to Chicago with a trail boss to recruit 150 women for their 100 women-starved hard working men. (They figure on losing one-out-of-three on the journey. Events will show this is no exaggeration. This is the plot.)
The recruitment scene contains a few good moments—but an unexpected shooting exhibition stands out. If you rent the film, note the choice of target! One of a few surprises through the course of the movie.
At the showing I attended, the audience was mostly men. Understandable, since this was a western, and Film Forum had not given the lower part of a double bill much attention. There were three young college-aged women two rows ahead of me. After the film, a man asked them how they liked it. “It was great!” they said, and meant it. The film should be required viewing for women at colleges around the country. There was also an older woman sitting two rows behind me. When the lights went up I glanced her way. Her face was tear-streaked from crying. I’ll explain how the movie could have that effect, I hope, as I go along.
How many writers still write their first draft in longhand?
For semi-serious work, like a novel, I find advantages to using longhand. If you’re not sure of a particular word, you can write other options in the margin. You see all the choices before you make up your mind, and do it in a way not to disturb the flow of the writing. Another advantage is that you have saved all the drafts, every version of a particular scene, again useful if you change your mind and decide another version was better. Replace a word or paragraph on-line and you wipe it out. It’s gone. Or maybe I’m just a dinosaur.
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Now that I'm again writing something that will be more than a novella, of actual novel length, I find a couple interesting things about the experience.
One is that it puts a strain on the brain. Especially when you start obsessing over details, holding the entire thing as a piece in your mind, every character and plotline, every view and feeling, including every word and trivial item of punctuation. Especially when you're up all night thinking about these things-- reading it over and over in your mind's eye to see how it reads. I can see a little, just a little, of the mental stress the novelist DFW put himself through in writing his massive tomes. He should've got out and freed his mind.
Another discovery is that I-- unaccustomed to editing my writing-- find myself rewriting a few of the sections again and again and again. They're not even particularly key sections, but more of bridge sections. I swear I've spent as much time writing two of them as the other 40-some sections combined, most of which came extremely easy.
This doesn't include two key chapters near the end, crucial scenes, which I have rough drafts of but have put off finishing because I find them somewhat depressing. One of them, more than somewhat. Getting into the minds of the characters at this point of the story gives me a headache. Things were so much easier when I was drinking heavily! I now have no defense, no mediation.
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
“Very Good or Very Bad” will be the marketing theme of my upcoming novel. Given my reputation, I can’t write a bland, bourgeois book a la Harbach, Eugenides, or Franzen. I need to take a few chances. Will they work? I have no idea! But it should make for an interesting read.
Sunday, February 19, 2012
Saturday, February 18, 2012
Don't kid yourself. The most important player in determining the nation's President is the all-encompassing media. It's why the race will once again be Harvard v. Harvard.
I was thinking that, along with the thought that the media is going to utterly destroy Rick Santorum. Utterly destroy him. It's already begun, courtesy of a diatribe in today's NY Times by Charles Blow, and the recent interview by media attack dog Charlie Rose. Did you see or hear the interview?
As Santorum tried to point out, none too well, there was something fundamentally dishonest about the Charlie Rose line of questioning. Santorum wanted to talk about the economy. Rose's job wasn't to talk about the economy! His job was to destroy Rick Santorum. He knew it, Santorum knew it, and we knew it. Whichever side you're on, you know it.
Why is Santorum a particular target? Because his ideas go beyond the acceptable narrative. If you don't hew closely enough to the media's own in-bred beliefs, you're beyond the pale. A "crackpot."
The one question asked by nobody is whether what Santorum's supporter said was true or not. The "aspirin between the legs" quote. Is it true?
Of course it's true. That there were way fewer out-of-wedlock births fifty years ago, and fewer social problems, is an easily documented fact.
We have to be honest enough to admit that.
Let's be honest. We love liberal social ideas, myself included. (I don't say "liberal values," because that's an oxymoron.) We love them.
Why do we love them? Because they're easy. They ask of us nothing. NOTHING. They say, go have fun. Indulge yourself, with no consequences. If there are consequences, the government will pay for them. Pursue every appetite, bar none.
People hate Roman Catholic doctrine because it's not easy. It's in fact very difficult. Even the Church's hardest core advocates, its priests, have trouble living their own doctrine. Catholic philosophy is a difficult model to follow. It believes life was meant to be a challenge, a spiritual journey full of obstacles.
Then again, wisdom comes only from difficulty.
We don't ask the practical question-- no one wants to ask it-- of whether Santorum's social ideas will work. (Once, they more or less did work.) We don't ask if his ideas are true. The media won't ask that. Truth is irrelevant to them. "What is truth?" Their philosophical foundation is a convenient and expedient disbelief in truth. All they know is they have a job to do-- to get the candidate closest to their own viewpoint into office. To enforce, as they always enforce-- not just on Santorum's issue but other issues-- the acceptable narratives.
UPCOMING at this blog: "Lacan and Liberal Bias." Yes, an idea or two from a recent French philosopher that might have application to something in the real world. I'm surprised myself. Stay tuned.
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Monday, February 13, 2012
"Evil is hidden much deeper in man than is supposed by the socialist machine men and cannot be avoided whatever the organisation of society."
I've been trying to read current philosophy-- trying also to understand it, though much of it is gasbag doubletalk. The problem with philosophers is that their ideas float in bubbles without context or consequences.
Unlike Nietzsche, Dostoevsky "tested" ideas in his novels. It's remarkable how prophetic his books were. They foretold the crimes and monsters of the 20th century. Nietzsche, by contrast, wasn't able to envision the result of "killing" God-- the nihilistic wars that he in part unintentionally caused.
Tuesday, February 07, 2012
In the literary field, much of the upper caste won't even acknowledge that writers exist outside their bubble. When the ULA was going strong, they steadfastly denied this. (Tom Bissell: "All writers are outsiders.")
Those writers who do acknowledge the divide hold a caricaturized view of lower caste white people. For whites without money to be portrayed at all in American letters, they have to be depicted as angry grotesques. (See David Means or Jonathan Franzen.) Only the mutual skin color keeps this from being a nasty kind of racism.
Upper caste writers like Barbara Ehrenreich have occasionally been sent for brief forays into the Other America, as if they're Margaret Mead or Dr. Livingstone entering an unknown land full of unknown and scary inhabitants.
When lower caste individuals break out of their cultural isolation, and demand to be treated as equals-- see Sarah Palin-- they're hit with instant hostility, even visceral hatred. Bad enough was where she came from-- imagine, attending a few colleges to get her degree, and entering a beauty pageant to pay for it! Worse than her origin, is that she left that origin-- she made tons of money through Fox, and now has acquired a station where she clearly doesn't belong-- with them!
(So we get yet another election of Harvard v. Harvard.)
As for myself, how do I break out of my own blackballing? The fact that I'm excluded to the max, because I exposed corruption, and dared talk back to literary Overdogs? (And was too articulate and provocative in doing this?) The only way out I see against a wall of Overdog blackballing is to write a novel better than anything their own writers put out. A novel that'll blow overblown books like Franzen's Freedom out of the water. But you know, it still won't be enough. The closed-minded organs of literary power will refuse to read it.
Wednesday, February 01, 2012
American literature is already too politically correct, too feminized. Old fashioned authors like Norman Mailer if starting out today would never get in the door. It's one reason of many for the inferior condition of our literature.
Who are our top male writers right now? Jonathan Franzen and Stephen King, in the literary and popular realms respectively. Franzen's confessional Freedom is Oprah fare, a feminized novel through and through, as I'll explain in an upcoming essay at another blog. Stephen King's nonsensical and childish fantasy represents infantilism, a retreat from the adult world into the mindset of a twelve year-old. The old fashioned Tolstoyan novelist patriarch can't be approached.
What distinguishes the male novel is a need to dominate and control the world, and those who inhabit it. An expression of male ego. This is shown blatantly with Mailer characters like Rojack. More subtly, it's demonstrated by the lead characters of James Gould Cozzens's Guard of Honor, in which the generals have put together a complex authoritarian machine for training those pilots then sent out to dominate the world. The creation of American empire. A depiction of the here and now. It's the essence of maleness-- the very assertiveness and aggression that Winterston complains about. The need to dominate. To be, well, male. Nature's programming. To know the world and how it works. Literary critics and academics can't handle that, so Cozzens is excluded from their canon. He's replaced by irrelevance.
When I read Winterston's essay, I thought of F. Scott Fitzgerald's remark, when he said something to the effect of, "They complained about my subject, my material, but my God, that material was all I had!"
Jeanette Winterston objects to Henry Miller being Henry Miller. Miller was blackballed once. There's no doubt if he was a new writer, today, he'd be censored again. CAN ANYONE DOUBT THAT?
Part of the problem with the ULA's (Underground Literary Alliance) Bill Blackolive and Jack Saunders wasn't just their unfamiliar-looking writing, but that they came across to today's well-regulated literary world as too male.
In 1994 I wrote two long essays for North American Review. Why is it that they've posted on-line only the weaker, more inocuous essay-- about baseball!-- and not the other, stronger, vital one, about Detroit, which does contain un-p.c. moments because it tells the truth? (I realize now how fortunate I was it was ever published.)
The biggest lie going is that there is free expression in American literature. It'd be better if editors and publishers were upfront with their rules and biases from the get-go, so we know where the boundaries are. Otherwise it's guesswork.