Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Leaving Nothing to Chance (on Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo)

Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett (screenplay), Howard Hawks (director) Rio Bravo / 1959

The first of Howard Hawks' great western trilogy, representing some of the last films he directed in his long career, Rio Bravo is perhaps the best and most complex, despite what at first appears to be a light-weight cast. The idea of crooner Dean Martin, young singing-idol Ricky Nelson, ingénue Angie Dickinson (playing the role of a hardened gambling woman), and an slightly overweight John Wayne teaming up to help save a small border town from the clutches of the evil rancher Nathan Burdette seems, on the surface, almost ludicrous; and there were still titters in the audience at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's late Hawks' retrospective that justify those feelings. Nearly all film critics agree, however, that Rio Bravo one of the best Westerns in film history.

Hawks takes us through the few days between the arrest of Burdette's brother, Joe and the inevitable showdown, much in the way that Fred Zinneman did in the classic High Noon. But the differences between these two movies are crucial in their effects. While Gary Cooper, in his attempt to "save" an idealized and quite lovely small Western town from Ben Miller and his gang, is refused help from every citizen he asks to join him, Hawks, in response to High Noon, presents Wayne as Sherriff John T. Chance, supported at first only by his cackling old deputy Stumpy (hilariously played by Walter Brennan), as being ready to tackle the job almost by himself until he is joined by has alcoholic former sidekick, Dude (Dean Martin). The three of them spend much of the early part of the film prowling the streets of the gritty-looking, slightly seedy Rio Bravo, telling other folk to get out of the way.

If High Noon's Hadleyville is a spiffed-up village of wood-framed houses filled with proper middle-class citizens, Rio Bravo is as culturally-mixed as any border town probably was in its day: Carlos Robante and his wife Consuela run the local hotel in which the Sheriff sleeps, eats and drinks; Burt, the local undertaker, is Chinese. Other than Chance, Dude, and Stumpy, it appears, the only Caucasians in Rio Bravo are from the outside: Burdette's men, the cattlemen passing through, and the recently arrived card shark, Feathers (Dickinson). When cowboy head Pat Wheeler is killed by Burdette's gang, one of his young assistants Colorado Ryan (Nelson) casts his lot with the Sheriff, as he and Feathers save the Sherriff's life. In short, nearly everyone in this bustling little collection of low-stucco buildings is willing to help, and even those who might only watch the outcome, help to save the Sheriff being from being shot down on the street, since they might serve as witnesses.

Because the outcome of the final shootout, accordingly, is fairly apparent—justice will triumph—Hawks can spend most of his film revealing the interrelationships of these ragtag figures, revealing the power of friendship, loyalty, and love that connects them. And love in this drab outpost is not just reserved for the relationships between man and woman (Chance and Feathers, Carlos and Consuela), but—perhaps due in part to screenwriter Leigh Brackett's perspective as a woman—is equally expressed between the men, particularly through the complaining housewife-like role played by Stumpy (like many a Western housewife the Sheriff has consigned his partner to the back room of their little "house"/jail cell, in this case armed with a rifle to protect it from all intruders), and in the admiration and love between Dude and Chance, the latter of whom has bought back his friend's gun and other belongings when, in his drunken nadir, Dude was forced to sell them. With the arrival of the young Colorado, the prickly trio becomes a happier foursome, as Dude and Colorado break into song.

Music is quite essential in Rio Bravo; if the cowboy songs "My Rifle, My Pony, and Me" and "Get Along Home, Cindy" reveal the isolation and hidden desires of the singers, the enemy's repeated degüello, with its references to the battle of the Alamo, haunts these men barricaded in the jailhouse and torments them with their own failures. But their very fraternizing spirit ultimately strengthens them, cinematically revealed in the class of whiskey Dude has just prepared to consume successfully returned to its bottle without a spill. It is their love and friendship that saves the day.

Only after normalcy has been restored to this village frontier, does Feathers get her chance, in more ways than one. But it is she who does the proposing, leaving nearly nothing to Chance, the man, but to bashfully accept their inevitable partnership.

The delight of Rio Bravo, unlike almost any other Western I've seen, lies not in the characters' heroism, nor even in their dedication to justice, but in their own personal and often idiosyncratic connections with one another. Rio Bravo may be a rundown collection of desert dwellings, but I'd prefer it any day to the clean, white houses and churches of Hadleyville with its Sheriff's Quaker bride.

Los Angeles, March 27, 2009

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Hidden Self (on Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray)

The essay below is one of several devoted to a longer grouping of essays on "Missing Bodies," which also includes "Caligari at the Fair" and "Hiding Out" which appear below.

Oscar Wilde The Picture of Dorian Gray (New York: The Modern Library, n.d)
Albert E. Lewin (screenplay and director), based on the novel by Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray / 1945

It may at first seem strange that Oscar Wilde's 1891 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray should center around a work of art that quickly begins to reflect the inner self of its subject, Dorian Gary, particularly given Wilde's insistence on the separation and difference between life and art. As Wilde insisted in the preface to this book, "All art is quite useless," and he admonished elsewhere that it should be admired just for that reason, because it is not life but something finer and of more importance than the real.

Yet Dorian Gray finds Basil Hallward's painting of him extremely useful in that it hides his true inner self from the world, at least if he can keep the portrait out of sight. Any physical evidence of his aging and his increasingly treacherous acts, indeed, have been subsumed by art in this fiction, and by hiding away that reality in his boyhood study, Dorian can cheat the world, despite the rumors surrounding him.

The metaphor here, of course, is not only about his villainous actions—Gray's corruption of friends and lovers, his use of drugs, and other devious transgressions—but concerns his own relationship with Lord Henry, a relationship that might remind one of Wilde's "friendship" with Lord Alfred Douglas.

In one of the earliest scenes between the two men, Lord Henry comes close to Dorian and "puts his hand on his shoulder," and the scene that follows is as close to a love scene—one in which the startled Dorian finds "his finely-chiselled nostrils" aquiver as "some hidden nerve shook the scarlet of his lips and left them trembling"—as the age might permit. A few moments later Lord Henry praises Dorian's beauty: "...You are the most marvellous youth, and youth is the one thing worth having." Soon after Lord Henry Wotton finds himself in near complete control over Gray's aesthetics through his introduction to the young man of what is obviously Huysman's Against Nature, a work that soon after determines Gray's collecting and reading activities. Later in the novel, moreover, we discover that Lord Henry and Gray have been sharing not only evenings at dinners and theatre, but a vacation house. Gray's hidden portrait, accordingly, is a clear metaphor of an entirely closeted self, a hidden self that is not only ashamed of the consequences of his behavior, the suicide of Sibyl Vance and the ruination of several friends, but of its own sexuality.

It is no coincidence, therefore, that Dorian feels compelled to reveal to the artist himself the miracle of his painting, a work which Hallward has described as being rendered with his soul. And the murder of the artist is almost inevitable, given the fact that he has created a monster, an artwork that actually has an effect on life. Had Hallward heeded Lord Henry's (and Wilde's) own statements and created merely a work of great beauty, Dorian might have been spared, simply because his face would have revealed his criminal acts as his own beauty decayed. But Hallward has been so successful in his realism, that, as in a fairytale, he has turned the painting into a kind of fetish that connects it to being itself. Such a transgression, in Lord Henry's critical terms, is necessarily punishable by death. And just as Dorian has "lost" is real body to the painting, so too does he arrange to chemically dispose of Hallward's corpse; after Alan Campbell's "dreadful work," nothing is left of the body.

The consequences also of hiding one's own essence—one's actions and behavior—from the world has long been understood to result to self-loathing, evidenced in this fiction in Dorian's final days, as he, like the thousands of other closeted individuals before and after him, Dorian seeks to cleanse himself of his past. But given his hidden sexuality, it is no wonder that Lord Henry scoffs at his contrite act of breaking off a relationship with a young country woman; and there is something delightfully humorous in that act. It is also predictable, perhaps, that Gray must attempt to destroy "the evidence," so to speak, to wipe away any trace of his own condition, which, obviously, ends in the self-destruction which has all too often been played out in real life. Only through an attack upon the painting can life be restored to its proper vessel, the human body.

Wilde uses the story of Dorian Gray, accordingly, almost as a moral lesson for the dangers of mimeticism. Art, he argues, must remain in its own sphere, in the world of the ideal. An art that attempts to mimic life can only diminish the trials and tribulations of the living.

Los Angeles, March 21, 2001

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Three by Horton Foote (introduction to three essays below)

As I mention below, the death of Horton Foote on March 4th, 2009 sent me back to three screenplays he had written: To Kill a Mockingbird, based on a novel by Harper Lee, The Trip to Bountiful , and Tender Mercies, the latter two emanating from his own pen.

Foote is the kind of man who, as one of my favorite film guides, Time Out, describes him, is seen as "admirable." Harper Lee reportedly said of his face something to the effect: "He looks the way God should, only he's clean shaven." The films I selected to write about are immensely popular, most of them winning awards, two of them being mentioned recently in The Los Angeles Times in their list of 10 best "Comfort Films," films they claim to be as appealing in our economically hard times as comfort food.

Finally, I had enjoyed all three films on which I chosen to write, having seen the first two of them several times.

How to explain, then, the essays that follow, in which I basically dismiss them for representing the status quo or, at least, a diminishment of life? Chalk it up, perhaps, to my curmudgeonly shift into older age. Or, perhaps, as I have aged I simply do not have as simple-minded notions about life and happiness as I did in my youth.

As I wrote early on in this series of My Year volumes: "I seek no agreement with what I put forth and often have skewered my perceptions of things in order to explore issues that most interest me."

Looking at that kindly face—he does sort of look like a god, if you believe in a white god—I am sure that Horton Foote was admirable, kind even, caring, loving, well meaning. But I still don't think I could live a world created by him.

When Jem Waked Up (on Horton Foote's screenplay of To Kill a Mockingbird)

Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1960)
Horton Foote (screenplay), based on the novel by Harper Lee, Robert Mulligan (director) To Kill a Mockingbird / 1962

Almost every American school child and millions of adults know Harper Lee's American classic novel and the film, scripted by Horton Foote, based on the novel. As Joseph Crespino wrote in an essay in 2000: "In the twentieth century, To Kill a Mockingbird is probably the most widely read book dealing with race in America, and its protagonist, Atticus Finch, the most enduring fictional image of racial heroism." Lee's novel and the film, moreover, are etched in American consciousness; the racial violence of 1936 in the small town Alabama it recounts dovetailed perfectly with the changes occurring in American minds and the radical challenges of Southern prejudice which became a major issue of the 1960s. And in this sense the book, perhaps, effected more middle-class Americans than any other of its time. Even at a personal level, I remember being impressed when my mother, who read primarily Romances, hosted a book club during this period; my father, brother, sister, and I were consigned to the basement, but I recall creeping up to the doorway, listening in as one book club member dramatically read the scene in which lawyer Atticus Finch is spat upon by the evil Bob Ewell on a downtown Maycomb, Alabama street. When the movie premiered, I was in attendance.

I believe I first read the book a few years later, in 1964, while living in Norway. I recall devouring it in a single afternoon, wiping away the tears as I completed its last pages. There was no question in my mind that it was extremely sentimental—for most of that year I had been reading the works of Thomas Hardy and Henrik Ibsen—but I recognized it for its high moral tone and its gentle nostalgia nonetheless.

With the news of the screenplay writer Horton Foote's death on March 4th, I decided to revisit both the novel and picture. For the most part, Foote's adaptation of Lee's book is successful, if far moodier and grittier than the more comedic original. Indeed Harper Lee was said to have been pleased with Foote's version. But that is not to say there are no crucial differences between film and novel.

Mulligan's black and white images, helped by Elmer Bernstein's brooding but lyrical score, creates a darker tone than the novel evokes. And Foote's decisions to focus the action on the Finch house, the courtroom, and the back country lanes where the Ewells and Robinsons live, along with his deletion of characters such as Aunt Alexandra and the larger role in the novel played by their childhood friend Dill (based on Truman Capote), further isolates the Finch and Radley families from what is clearly a highly bigoted community. It is almost as if, in Foote's version, Atticus and the children are not given leave to walk the streets of Maycomb. The children's two outings are a nighttime scramble to protect their father from a lynching mob and a hidden attendance in the Black only upstairs gallery of the courthouse proceedings. Even Ewell's open act of hatred, his spitting upon Atticus's face on a downtown street now occurs in front of the Robinson's shack. Given Atticus's moral separation and their neighbor Boo Radley's secretive ways, there is almost a claustrophobic quality to Jem and Scout's life in Foote's rewriting of the work.

That sense of isolation, moreover, changes everything by pitting the people on the Finch's street against the entire community (epitomized by Scout's several school yard scuffles), a fact emblematized in the appearance of a rabid dog, clearly wandering into their cul de sac from some other part of town. To the children's surprise, their father—who notably refuses to play baseball with the other city fathers—shoots the animal dead, amazingly protecting his loved ones.

Similarly, when Ewell attacks the Finch children (Ewell's attacks in the novel also include Tom Robinson's wife), their neighbor Boo, like the father, comes to their rescue. It is notable that the sheriff of this hateful town, argues against his lawful duty, proclaiming that the truth—the fact that Boo Radley has killed Bob Ewell—would harm the mentally retarded man:

I never heard tell it was against the law for any citizen to do his utmost to
prevent a crime from being committed, which is exactly what he did. But
maybe you'll tell me it's my duty to tell the town all about it and not to
hush it up. Well you know what'll happen then? All the ladies in Maycomb
including my wife will be knocking on his door bringing angel food cakes.
To my way of thinking, taking the one man who's done you and this town
a big service and dragging him with his shy ways into the limelight—it's a
sin. And I'm not about to have it on my head. ...Bob Ewell fell on his knife.

Like the figures of the musical Oklahoma! described in My Year 2003, the authorities of this southern town decide to bend truth, something very near to what Scout has earlier on defined (mistakenly, so Atticus insists) as a "compromise."

Frankly, given the outcome of Tom Robinson's trial, we may find it hard to imagine that the "good" ladies of Maycomb would award the murderer of Bob Ewell, who has evidently convinced their kind that his daughter has been raped by a Black man. Is it any wonder then that Tom Robinson, despite Atticus's advice to "not lose faith," runs "like a rabbit" to escape the police? The fact that he is shot and killed, despite the deputy's proclamation that he meant just to wound him, is, perhaps, inevitable.

Given the events of both film and novel, particularly the more enfolded fiction of Foote's script, it is clear that—despite any moral lessons and perceptions gleaned by the Finch children and the audiences of this film—the world to which Jem will awaken in the morning (the familiar last lines of both novel and film being the adult Scout's words about her father: "He turned out the light and went into Jem's room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning") is no better than the one in which he was nearly killed that night. Atticus Finch may represent a hero, but his actions in such an isolate world, have little effect. And in that respect, the film embraces the status quo, and the moral indignation of the readers of Lee's classic and the viewers of the Mulligan/Foote adaptation can only represent a kind of righteous pat on the liberal back.

While it may be true that there were no real alternatives in 1936, and that both novel and the film merely reiterate the truth of that reality, it is the imitation of the facts, the bland realism boiled up with heavy doses of nostalgia and romance, that ultimately disturbs me. Perhaps a more passionate response might be a fantasy where one could celebrate change.

Los Angeles, March 13, 2009

Home to Houston (on Horton Foote's A Trip to Bountiful)

Horton Foote (screenplay) based on his play, Peter Masterson (director) The Trip to Bountiful / 1985

Based on his 1953 television play, Horton Foote's film, The Trip to Bountiful is, as The New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby wrote in 1985, "a richly detailed film," "exquisitely performed" by the great actress Geraldine Page, a role for which she won Academy Award for best actress.

The story, like most of Foote's writings, is a simple one: one day in 1947 Carrie Watts, an elderly woman now living in Houston with her detestable daughter-in-law Jessie Mae and her unimaginative son Ludie, escapes their constant admonitions—Carrie is told time and again by Jessie Mae not to run through her daily chores, to stop singing her "out of style" hymns, and to stop rifling through Jessie Mae's dresser drawers—and their attentive watch over her—more determined during the time of month when Carrie's social security check is due. As Jessie Mae goes about her daily chores, consisting primarily of shopping and sipping cokes with her friends at the local drug store, Carrie bolts, first to the train station (where she attempts to buy a ticket to the now-nonexistent stop at Bountiful) and then to the bus station, where with the help of a young woman rider, Thelma, she eludes her guardians and is able to get aboard the bus.

Thelma and Carrie's journey to Harrison, the nearest stop to Bountiful, is the perfect time to establish Carrie's character, and through a mix of garrulous historicity, shy inquisitiveness, and gentle poetic wonderments, Page displays her dramatic range in time for the bus to arrive in Harrison, twelve miles from her goal.

Carrie was born and lived most of her life on a farming community, where, it appears, the last of the inhabitants has recently died, a place where Carrie will be unable to reach before her son, in a rented car, arrives to return her to "civilization." Unlike most of the small town policeman we encounter in film and television, however, the Sheriff of Harrison is a friendly authority who agrees to drive her out to Bountiful. Carrie's encounter with the old homestead is a mix of pure joy and total dismay, as she recalls the "bountiful" life she lived there along with memories of the loss of a child and the hard times she and her family faced, all intertwined with her recognition that "when you live longer than your house and your family, then you've lived long enough."

Even the old cannot go home, and when Ludie finally arrives, it is with complete acceptance that Carrie readies herself for her return. Ludie, at first, is resistant to any notion of a nostalgic past, but perhaps because of Carrie's joy in simply having been able to accomplish her trip, he finally is able to admit that he too has some good memories of the place. Afraid of dirtying her shoes, Jessie Mae has remained in the car, and when she does trot out to demand that her husband and mother-in-law return to the city, she has nothing to offer but another litany of do's and don'ts.

With one final scratch of the hard soil Carrie is ready to return home to Houston. As in many of Foote's works, the status quo is restored. Once again, we have, along with the characters, experienced a mild catharsis in the form of small psychological revelations, but nothing has truly changed—except perhaps for an even more determined imprisonment of Carrie Watts, while her trip to Bountiful will no longer be a dream of possibility, but simply another remnant of a failed past.

Los Angeles, May 15, 2009

Mistrusting Happiness (on Horton Foote's Tender Mercies)

Horton Foote (screenplay), Bruce Beresford (director) Tender Mercies / 1983

Two years before The Trip to Bountiful, Horton Foote wrote and directed what was perhaps his most successful screenplay, which won him an Academy Award. Like the others of Foote's scripts I describe, the story of Tender Mercies is a simple one, and the actors, particularly Robert Duvall in the role of country-western singer Mac Sledge, are so laconic that at moments there seems to be no story to tell.
Famed country singer Sledge has fallen into an alcoholic chasm, destroying his marriage to fellow country singer Dixie Scott (played by Betty Buckley) and alienating him from his daughter, Sue Anne, whom he has not seen in over eight years.

As the film begins, Sledge loses even his drinking partner, and is left alone in a rural motel without money or means of transportation. The hotel owner, Rosa Lee (Tess Harper), a widow with a young son, offers him two days and some food which he parlays into a part time job working in exchange for room, food and $2.00 a day.

Sledge befriends Rosa Lee's boy, Sonny, and a romance between the two adults develops—so quickly, indeed, that we hardly notice it until he announces his desire to marry Rosa Lee; before we have even assimilated that romance, moreover, the two are described as being married. Most of the "action" of this film, in fact, occurs offstage, with the major onstage movements consisting of Rosa Lee ironing and Mac repairing doors, gardening, and traveling into town to pick up seed.

Little by little, however, we piece together his tragic past: a successful singing career that ended in his alcoholically-charged near-murder of his former wife. His new relationship with Rosa Lee, however, is a sustaining one that allows him not only to overcome his alcoholism, but gradually admit that his misses singing and composing, both of which he has continued on the sly. It is clear that without accepting his past, his present identity is in question. As a town local shouts to him: "Hey, mister, where you really Mac Sledge?" His humorous answer reveals his dilemma: "Yes, ma'am, I guess I was."

As word gets out of his whereabouts, journalists and admirers seek him out. While he rejects the former, he accepts the friendship of four local singers, the Slater Mill Boys, to whom he gives permission to perform his song, and with whom he ultimately sings in a local gig. In the offing is a record.

When Dixie performs in nearby Austin, Mac attends the performance, hoping to get a chance to see his estranged daughter, but Dixie furiously sends him away. A few days later the daughter escapes her mother's guard to visit the father, but the silence between them offers neither much to go on. The next day, the daughter runs away with a singer from her mother's band, and soon after is killed, again "offstage," in an automobile accident triggered by her husband's drinking.

The film ends in two long distant shots of Mac and Rosa Lee digging in their garden as he discusses what he sees as the unfairness of life. "I don't trust happiness. I never did, I never will," he proclaims. A few minutes later, however, Sonny discovers a football Sledge has bought him, and the film ends with son and father throwing passes, Rosa Lee fondly smiling, basking in the glow of a normal and good future for her family.

If, as I have argued in my discussions of Foote's other two screenplays, that they end in the status quo, in Tender Mercies we witness a change—a change that the filmmakers apparently perceive as better than the past. Sledge ends up, indeed, as a kind of American Candide, a man who in his grand past suffered in his innocent pride, but who wisely turns to tending his own garden.

I squirm, however, when I think of Sledge basically sacrificing his musical talents and the appreciation that goes with them for the kind of nostalgically evoked America Hoote rewards him with. Although Australian-born Beresford, like the Germans Wim Wenders and Percy Aldon would do in the years following, poetically depicts the American southwest, it is hard for me to see the barren flats around Palmer and Waxahachie, Texas, where the film was shot, as representing a kind of new Eden. And, although, Rosa Lee's house seems to improve in appearance with every scene, it is still a grubby, unpainted shack in the middle of nowhere. While I know many thousands of viewers will cry their eyes out (I admit it, so did I) at the very thought of father-and-son bonding in football heaven, I find it a long way from anything I might describe as my American dream. In order regain his peace of mind, I would argue, Sledge has had to give up nearly everything, including—the near impossible for a song writer—language itself. Rosa Lee's quiet smile at the end of Tender Mercies sends a shiver through my bones, for in order to survive in her world, Sledge has had to abandon the messiness of a creatively meaningful life.

Los Angeles, March 17, 2009

Monday, March 16, 2009

Finding It Hard to Navigate (on Robert Crosson)

The Day Sam Goldwyn Stepped off the Train Robert Crosson (New York: Agincourt, 2004)
Signs/ & Signals: The Day Books of Robert Crosson, edited by Guy Bennett and Paul
Vangelisti (Los Angeles: Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, 2008)

On the morning of December 10, 2001, Paul Vangelisti's wife, Małgosia found our mutual friend Robert Crosson on the floor of the small studio he inhabited behind Paul's house. He had collapsed, evidently after having delivered the daily newspaper to Paul's door. As Paul left the house on his way to work, he yelled out to Bob, not realizing that Bob had fallen inside to the floor, dead.

Crosson's last journal entry, published in Signs/ & Signals: The Daybooks of Robert Crosson, is a painful reminder of how everything around him became a fodder for writing for this author: dated Sunday, December 9th, Bob describes the comings and goings of those near to him before, between two slanted lines at the center of the page, reporting the ominous news:

still" [underlined three times]

all I can hear is
"my heart-beat"
—in my left ear
: ((a passing "plane"
in the distance.))

At 6:45 p. m. he eats macaroni salad and "Angels-Delight," purchased from the Pioneer Market. At 6:50 Małgosia returns.

These are the major facts of his life, as I reported them in The PIP Anthology of World Poetry of the 20th Century, Volume 5/Intersections: Innovative Poetry in Southern California:

Born in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania in 1929, Robert Crosson remained in the East until his family moved to Pomona, California in 1944. He attended the University of California, Los Angeles, and received his B.A. in English in 1951, briefly joining the Communist Party during his college years. After college he began working as an actor in television and film, in 1954 landing a small role in White Christmas. The following year he appeared as the character Danny Marlowe in I Cover the Underworld, and acted on television in series such as "Dragnet," "The Millionaire," and—through the help of his friend Jack Larson, who for years played Jimmy Olsen—"Superman." During those years Crosson encountered the several celebrities he refers to in his later book of poetry The Day Sam Goldwyn Stepped off the Train. But Crosson grew increasingly dissatisfied with the Hollywood scene, which, combined with his brief political activities, dimmed his prospects for further Hollywood employment. In 1959 he traveled to Europe, working his way through various countries as—so he reported—a piano player, a black-marketer, and pimp.

In 1960 he returned to the United States, enrolling in Library Science at the graduate level at the University of California, Los Angeles. Eventually he dropped out, taking night jobs and attempting by day to write his first novel, Midland. Jobs as a painter and carpenter, another movie role in Mike's Murder (1984), and a 1989 Poetry Fellowship from the California Arts Council, allowed him to survive during these lean years; however, as he grew older Crosson grew increasingly dependent on "the kindness of strangers" and friends, particularly Los Angeles poet Paul Vangelisti, who—when Crosson was evicted from the Laurel Canyon house where he was caretaker—took him in. Crosson lived with Vangelisti from 1993 until his death in 2001.

I knew Crosson, however, not as a has-been actor, but as a incredible story-teller and wonderful poet. I first heard Crosson's name and read some of his work on the 1989 California Arts Council panel which awarded him a small fellowship. I had never met Crosson, but Vangelisti, who was also on that panel, assured me that we would instinctually like one another. And when I met Bob a few months later, Paul's prediction became fact. Like many others, I loved Bob, primarily because of his complete disregard of cant and doctrine, against which he would rail in brief asides in the manner of W. C. Fields or Mae West, but also because of his gentle friendship.

True Bob was both an alcoholic and a heavy smoker. Although his death was listed as a heart attack, he was told by a doctor previously that his smoking would soon result in his death. In 1991, Bob appeared in my performative work, The Walls Come True, picking me up in his truck at least two times so that we could travel to the Diana Daves' home in the Valley to rehearse. The trip on both occasions was excruciatingly frightful, as Bob drove at a snail's pace so that we might not hit anything along the way, while nonetheless nearly clipping any car parked en route. When Bob was later arrested for drunken driving in 1996, he describes his ordeal in prison as an 67-year old man who could hardly keep up with the other prisoners:

I find it hard to navigate (I cannot navigate steps). Outside officers order to come out fast. I can't. (I pull at the chains). Black gentleman in front of me, in face of the order, retorts: "We're coming—but this old man is holding us up."

In response to the charges, Crosson pleads "No contest," and is released. Bob continues in his Daybook, "Paul picks me up...Find truck (yet) parked at curb." A footnote explains that they "celebrate with a drink at Rustic," one of Bob's favorite watering holes.

The following year, 1997, Bob joined numerous other poets and artists at the conference on Catalina Island I describe below in the essay titled "History." The trip over by ferry had frightened and exhausted Bob, so when most of the conference participants decided to walk down the hill into town for dinner, Bob and I stayed behind. It gave us several long hours to renew our friendship, to discuss gay issues, and, for me, to hear more of Bob's wonderful tales. He retold one of his favorites: how when he and his brother where young, they had had sex, his brother afterwards responding, "How could anything that feels so good be bad."

At Bob's memorial service (where I met Jack Larson) Bob's brother—from who he had been separated most of his life, the boys having been sent to different families—reported that several of Bob's stories were simply not based on fact. "I love Bob dearly," he said, "but...well, he loved to make up stories." For example, Bob's long insistence that his mother died upon his birth, we were told, was simply not the case. She died a few years after his birth.

As far as I was concerned, the veracity of Crosson's tales about himself and others, was of no matter. I could have listened, and did listen for hours at a time.

Perhaps more importantly, as I grew to discover, Crosson's own poetic work, although clearly eccentric, was fascinating. He published, during his life time, only a few books—Geographies (1981), Wet Check (1983), Calliope (1988), and The Blue Soprano (1994)—but he continued to write until his health began to seriously deteriorate the year of my dinner with him. In 1997 Guy Bennett published a short chapbook, In the Aethers of the Amazon: Poems 1984-1997 and in 2004, Agincourt printed a collection I once had hoped to publish, The Day Sam Goldwyn Stepped off the Train. Like the man, Crosson's work in this volume was irreverent witty and yet, at times, heart-wrenchingly beautiful. His poems always surprised, never fitting into easy patterns or reader expectations, which, I suspect, often put some readers in the position of the poet himself, finding it "hard to navigate." A few lines from the last poem of that book will have to suffice as example:

Of Course

Whilst I still can.
Whilst. I do.
Whilst the otter to the edge of the pond

(I have never seen an otter)

Whilst the midnight of morning
holds me close
Whilst the dogs are quiet
(especially the birds)
Whilst the hush of a new day
allows no helicopters
and prayer is silent.

Whilst memories yet hold me prisoner
of my hulk, whilst Whitman yet holds
such daring of his & lord of his affection.
When silence pervades

and any punctuation is unnecessary.

(as a child I was told "you think too much."
Parentheses rarely apply.

Beginning with a Beckett-like "I can go on, I do," Crosson both mocks Romantic conventions (with the repeated "Whilst" and his pretended devotion to nature) and yet embraces it, like his beloved poet-friend Whitman. The work is both a commentary on itself, is itself about the language which he uses, while remaining an old-fashioned ode to the surrounding world of early morning. Bob was like that, an irreverent postmodern Romantic, who as he bent down to pet a cat might spew some dark comic quip out the side of his mouth. And in that respect, Crosson was an antidote for all seemingly passionate fakers one faces every day. The other morning, Paul Vangelisti admitted to me: "I miss Bob. Our world needs him even more now." I agreed.

Los Angeles, March 6, 2009

Monday, March 9, 2009

Reclaiming the Past (on Eleanor Antin's Historical Takes)

Antin, "Plaisir d'Amour (after Couture)"

Thomas Couture, "Romans of the Decadence"

Historical Takes, Eleanor Antin / San Diego Museum of Art, July 19-November 1, 2008 / Howard Fox and I toured the show with David and Eleanor Antin on October 15, 2008

As the Foreword to Eleanor Antin's catalogue for the show Historical Takes observes Antin's work has long involved photography. One of earliest pieces, Carving: A Traditional Sculpture of 1972, presented photos of Antin herself, nude portraits shot from front, back and side, as she underwent a diet, losing several pounds of weight. Her famous postcard series 100 Boots portrayed the boots in various American landscapes as they traveled across the country. A great part of her various impersonations of the Ballerina, moreover, depended on photographic representation of Eleanora Antinova and the various roles she had performed. The series Angel of Mercy consisted entirely of photographs, made to look like gelatin silver prints of the 1850s of a kind of Florence Nightingale-like figure involved in the Crimean War.

None of this, however, led us to expect the size and grandeur of her newest series of photographs, The Last Days of Pompeii, Roman Allegories, and Helen's Odyssey, some of which are nearly 50 x 60 inches in size! These grand portrayals of Roman and Greek life, moreover, are almost baroque in their lustrous detail of these worlds of the imagined past.

Antin's notion of the past however, as we know from her other works, is never a simple representation—not even a representation of art—although her works in this show do reference famous art works such as Oscar Gustav Rejlander's The Two Ways of Life, Lawrence Alma-Tadema's The Roses of Heliogalus, Nicolas Poussin's The Triumph of Pan, and Thomas Couture's The Romans of the Decadence. Even when directly quoting from the original, as in the Couture painting, which Antin titles "Plaisir d'amour (after Couture)," there are important and illuminating differences between the two. The bodies of Couture's bacchants are more fully clothed and their various groupings of individuals, melodramatically playing out themes of drunkenness, voyeurism, exhibitionism and just plain lust, seem far more "staged" than Antin's tableau vivant photograph. Perhaps because Antin's work captures images of real human beings in the same acts, there is something more fleshy—and even in our porn-sated times—more literally "shocking" than the original painting. The numerous beautiful bodies portrayed in Antin's photograph engaged in various heterosexual couplings, and gay and lesbian friezes appear far more lustily engaged in the contemporary work than in Couture's emblems of decadence. By cropping the original at the edges, moreover, Antin has centered our attention on the fleshy appetites of these sexy beings, drawing our attention even more to the center-right male, directly behind the Pan-like figure toasting the whole affair, who in the original painting seems to be pondering his navel in a Narcissus-like reverie; in Antin's work this muscle-sculpted male seems gazing off into nowhere, as if he were simply distracted in thought or even bored with the whole thing. Accordingly, the photograph "after Couture" carries with it a kind of cinematic quality, as if Cecile B. DeMille had decided to bring the vices of Roman life to the screen. The central figure's apparent ennui concerning the proceedings, accordingly, brings with it an element of irony and even humor completely absent from the 1847 canvas.

In numerous other works, by combining anachronistic elements, purposely playing with viewer expectations, and creating absurd narrative situations, Antin forces us again and again to compare the past of other generations with the visions of the past of our own time. Neither, we recognize, is a "true" vision of reality, even if such a vision were possible, but by overlying these different sets of realities, the artist often poses profound questions for our time. Who, for example, are "the lovers" in her photograph titled by that name. Are the man and woman standing among the ruins "the lovers," or the young girl biting an apple (a young Eve) and the man? The man, smoking a cigarette as he leans against an ancient pillar, seems more bored than interested in sex. Or perhaps he is pondering his love of art in the form of the stone goddess before him. Or are the lovers the robed couple, holding hands (apparently both men), trotting off into the woods? In this love among the ruins, no one answer is sufficient.

Similarly, who are the players of Antin's "The Comic Performance." Obviously the half naked old man at the center the work, being prodded in the ass with a long stick by a jester-like figure is a fool. But so too he who prods, as is the man at left, grabbing an equally foolish being by the leg as if to drag him off. The various spectators on either side of the central action, all nearly doubled over with laughter seem as foolish as the others, as are the secret lovers in the background.

In "All for Love," part of the Helen's Odyssey series, poor little cupid, his arrows crossed, is pulled in two directions by the admiring women entrapped in a guilt-encrusted room. This piqued little Cupid is frozen in the opposing pulls of his own admirers.

Antin also, of course, transforms her "imitations" of the past into comic narratives of contemporary feminism. In the two versions of "Judgment of Paris (after Ruebens)"—one presenting a "Dark Helen," the other a "Light Helen," since the "casting" director obviously could not make a decision—reminds us of the other contestants, Athena, Aphrodite and Hera, the first the beautiful warrior, the second, the elegantly dressed beauty Aphrodite, and the third, the jealous wife of Zeus, here portrayed in a kind of I Love Lucy costume, vacuum cleaner at her side. What Antin's work clearly suggests through these different manifestations of beauty is how the modern woman is asked in encapsulate all of these qualities to survive in contemporary society. The poor Helens, light and dark, seated upon their trunks, seem painfully awaiting an outcome that, as Antin herself has described it, with inevitably "suck":

She isn't free to run away, the trunk would be too heavy,
she doesn't have a warm coat, and anyway, be real, where
would she go? My Helens are reasonable; it's the world
around them that's crazy.

In one of my favorites, "Going Home," Antin presents us with six figures, five of them seemingly walking into the ocean with raised umbrellas. Are they returning home via death by drowning or are they each beginning a voyage like Odysseus which will take years to complete? And do they expect the fragile Magritte-like umbrellas they hold to protect them from the waters they must face? The final figure, a young girl, sits, also with raised umbrella, on a suitcase, facing the other direction. Is she staying or returning? The images reveal no answer and call up an absurd Felliniesque world whose only clues, perhaps, are the strewn objects along the beach.

In each of the works Antin seems less interested in representing the past (as true tableaux vivant generally attempts) than in "reclaiming" it, remaking it through the lens of our own time into something which restores meaning to what otherwise can have no real significance in our lives. As with the Ballerina and other figures of her imagination, each time Eleanor Antin attempts to envision a slightly different solution to history than the one represented in the history books or even great art works of the past. While we may often be doomed to stupidly repeat the past, Antin suggests, we are not necessarily bound by it. By asking ourselves the questions her works evoke, we can perhaps redeem that dead world through transforming our own.

Los Angeles, December 2008-March 2009

Friday, March 6, 2009

Anyone or Everyone (on Russell Banks's Dreaming Up America)

Russell Banks Dreaming Up America (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2008)

In his first book of non-fiction prose, acclaimed American novelist Russell Banks takes on the daunting task of defining what it is to be an American—how our country came into being, how we perceive ourselves and how we define our dreams and aspirations, all directed to a French audience in the form of a film by Jean-Michel Meurice and, now, published as a transcription of his comments in Banks's own country.

Although I have attempted to tackle some of these same issues in a few of the essays of My Year, Banks is a far braver man than I; I am certain that had I been asked to do the same, I would have demurred. For how does one speak as a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant for a nation which Banks himself describes as a "Creole" culture from its earliest days, with its vast displacement of Native Americans and its endless waves of immigrant populations beginning with the Africans, who Banks, correctly I think, refuses to describe simply as descendants of slaves. And then, of course, there are those generations upon generations of German, French, Dutch, Scandinavian, Irish, Spanish, Italian, Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and vast ethnic populations Banks does not even mention such as the Russians, Armenians, and Persians (who are represented by large populations in my home city of Los Angeles)—all of whom are portrayed in popular thinking as having merged and embedded their cultural identities within the larger whole. Even in these cultural heritages Banks mistakenly combines religious groupings (describing Jews as a single cultural entity—tell that to Jewish citizens from Germany, Poland, Iran, and Ethiopia) and heaping all immigrants from Arabic-speaking countries into a single whole he describes as Arabs (let us just mention not only the differences between Arab-speaking people of different countries, but the radical separations between Sunis and Sufis). One might as easily declare that to be an American is be anyone from nowhere—or everyone from everywhere, depending upon your point of view.

But to be fair, this is not an historian's essay, let alone a coherent political commentary, but rather an intelligent artist's perspective of what it means to be from the USA. And from this perspective Banks presents a fairly credible and often fascinating discussion of our inherent successes and failures as a culture.

Note that I do not use the word "country." Banks argues, rather convincingly, that when our nationalist tendencies show their ugly heads, they are often directly in opposition to our founding members' philosophical viewpoint.

Banks argues that three major strands of American ambitions are evident in the first European settlers of the continent: in New England the English settlers' religious dreams of the "City on the Hill," the Dutch and French desires for commercial and trading success, the Spanish wishes for wealth mythologized in Cortez's and Pissaro's "City of Gold," and the dreams of Ponce de Leon for a "Fountain of Youth," ambitions that gradually were interwoven to express the current American Dream, a hope for religious purity and freedom of expression, our attempts to attain wealth, and our belief in the possibility of making a new life, of starting over again. Yet these three strands of the American Dream also pull us in different directions and often play out our destinies in opposition to one another such as our Civil War, which pitted our striving for wealth against the moral and spiritual opposition to slavery.

Banks also points to the basic hypocrisy of our values; while seeking a "City on the Hill," a moral ground that permitted freedom of expression, we simultaneously failed to recognize any rights for those that were here before us and had tended the new world which the immigrants now felt was rightfully theirs to settle and develop, to move ever forward with soldiers and fortresses followed by the settlers themselves who took over Indian lands, dividing them up into farms and ranches. Accordingly, Banks insists, racism was at the very heart of the developing nation from its inception—an issue with which (and even despite our joyful embracement of our first Black president) we have still not completely come to terms.

What set this new nation apart from other countries, however, was the radical embracement of democracy and, in particular, its Enlightenment leaders (Washington, Paine, Franklin, Jefferson, and others) who in documents such as the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution spoke in a loftiness of ideas that embraced not just its voting citizens (Blacks and women, we are reminded, not among them) but all of mankind. These "sacred documents," as Black novelist Ralph Ellison has described them, gave rights even to those who did not yet have them, and had important consequences that even the founding fathers might never have imagine.

As Banks writes of the Constitution:

It's fascinating to contrast the United States Constitution with the constitutions
of our individual fifty states. Each state has its own constitution, usually a
litany of laws. It's the same with most national constitutions—the new constitution
of Iraq, or the French Constitution, for example. They're deliberately oriented
to a specific people, place, and time. But the American Declaration of Independence
has a poetic loftiness that universalizes its ambitions. It speaks of mankind as much
as Americans. And the institutions laid out in the American Constitution are so
decorously balanced that it manages to universalize our country's political
structure, too. Both of our founding documents really are extraordinary acts of
creative genius.

Yet those pulls that Banks spoke of earlier often contorted and twisted those sacred texts, particularly given the enormous powers of the American presidents, that could work for the good of the American populace (Banks predictably mentions Franklin D. Roosevelt) or could push the country in the direction of a self-deluded people who regularly commit genocide in the name of "Civilization, Christianity and Capitalism." As he quotes D. H. Lawrence: "The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer."

The author of Dreaming Up America is particularly critical of how through some of our technological advances such as television we have turned our economic interests—that search for "The City of Gold"—upon our own citizens, inviting the salesman, who we once kept at the door, not only into our living rooms, but into our children's bedrooms:

We've colonized our own children. Having run out of people on the planet
to colonize, run out of people who can't distinguish between beads and
trinkets and something of value, having found ourselves no longer able to
swap some beads and axes for Manhattan Island, we've ended up colonizing
our own children. ...The old sow is eating its own farrow.

I wonder, however, just how gullible our own children truly are. I recall that when I was a grade schooler, presenting a school-play with another young boy satirizing the endless advertisements we had heard over and over again on both radio and television in its earliest days. Perhaps our children, having encountered thousands and thousands of such ads, may not be quite as naive regarding the market as we imagine. Rather, I would argue that the greater danger lay in the programming itself, in the empty narratives of television productions and news reporting. When that emptiness is presented as reality, it contorts the minds not just of our children but of adults as well.

Nonetheless, we can well understand Banks's fears. And with the author we wonder where this homicidal sickness caused by the "conflict of our material goals and our spiritual justifications..." will lead us. That, Banks appears to argue, depends of what we make of ourselves, on how we comprehend that despite our commitment to this particular nation, we have, as individuals, not truly been melted down in some metaphorical pot, but are still each different from one other while sharing similar ambitions and goals. We are not anyone, but everyone from everywhere, a truly universal force; and in that fact lies our strength and our ability to renew ourselves and our country.

New York City, January 17, 2009

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A Stuporous Dance of Death (on Andrzej Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds)

Jerzy Andrzejewski and Andrzej Wajda (screenplay), Andrezej Wajda (director) Popiól i diament (Ashes and Diamonds) / 1958

Wajda's masterwork, Ashes and Diamonds, begins in a seemingly bucolic world, with two men, Maciek Chelmicki (performed by the gifted actor Zbigniew Cybulski) and Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski) lying on the ground near a small country chapel. A young girl is attempting to open the chapel door, and asks their help. Slowly the men, clearly exhausted, are roused, Maciek, in dark glasses, taking a long while to awaken. Suddenly another man signals them, a car is coming, and we recognize that we have misread the peaceful scene. The girl is sent off, and, as the car comes into view, Maciek and Andrzej ready their guns, brutally murdering driver and rider.

It is, as we discover later, a botched murder; the two killed were factory workers, not the Communist party leader Szczuka, whom the assassins were ordered to kill. Entering the nearby provincial city on the last day of World War II, the two meet up with a local contact, the secretary to the city's mayor, who gives information, but refuses to participate in their activities. While reporting on their success, Maciek overhears the arrival in small hotel of Szczuka, and realizes their mistake. There is no choice now but to finish the assignment, Maciek checking into a room next to Szczuka's.

Szczuka is in town to celebrate his return from the Russian front and the appointment of the mayor to a ministry position. The banquet is to be held in the hotel itself. Maciek and Andrzej seek out the hotel bar, where Maciek discovers a beautiful barmaid, Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska), and proceeds with a kind a crazed flirtation with her that in his behavior reminds one of a mix the American actor James Dean (Cybulski was later described as the "Polish James Dean") and Marlon Brando. He is clearly toying with danger, daring the world about him, a world where he has daily had to face death.

Both men have been part of the Polish underground, and now hope to defeat the rising Communist influence. Yet neither Andrzejewski's original novel nor Wajda's film side with either the partisans or the Communists. Although a formidable and bureaucratic-like figure (no match for the appealing Maciek), Szczuka has fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and later warns of the dangers of "having power."

Andrzej is called away for further instructions, while Maciek determines the best moment to kill Szczuka is late at night, when the man has fallen asleep. In the meantime, he continues to woo Krystna, eventually seducing her into his room, where the couple celebrate their youth and sexuality at the very same moment that the banqueters celebrate their political futures and the townspeople the end of the war.

Throughout the long night, we begin to see that nothing in this celebratory world is quite right. Through Wajda's brilliantly surreal imagery, we witness a wooden image of Christ hanging upside down in a bombed-out church, a white horse loosed upon the streets. While Maciek and Krystna discover love, the banqueters grow drunker and drunker, ultimately throwing over any remnants of respectability and civility.

In this whirlwind of change, bringing both a corrupt new leadership and hopeful love, the young assassin is confused. He has never before disobeyed an order, but is now seemingly ready to give up his previous ways for the new possibilities of life—a life of young idealism he has never the opportunity to experience.

Yet the system in which he has been living will not permit escape. Andrzej returns to remind Maciek of his duty.

As Szczuka awaits a car to take him to his son, arrested with a group of failed partisan rebels, Maciek shoots, killing Szczuka; the body falls forward into his own arms so that the two appear to be embracing death together, symbolizing the pact that the Polish people will ultimately make with the Communist forces.

Inside the banquet hall, the participants, worn out and drunk, demand the orchestra play Chopin's Polonaise in A flat: while the tired musicians perform a rendition that is hardly recognizable, the celebrants enact what appears more like a stuporous dance of death than a spirited polka.

Attempting to escape the city, Maciek, spotted by troops, is shot. Stumbling forward he finally reaches the dump at the town's edge, collapsing and convulsing, little by little, into death. Krystna, the diamond of his world, is forced to join in the devil's dance.

Wajda's great film may not openly take sides, but by comparing the death of the beautiful Maciek with the surreal polonaise, we know that Poland's future will not be a thing of beauty, that the ashes of World War II will fall over anything that shines.

Los Angeles, March 21, 2001