Pickett’s Charge

July 25, 2016

[First posted 10/17/14]

The phrase “Pickett’s Charge” has always been a byword for futility, but you can’t really appreciate why until you see how vast and exposed the flat, open field is that Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s men were asked to first walk, then charge, across, straight into the face of thousands of Union troops who were waiting for them, half-sheltered by a long ridge and a stone wall looking directly down on the rebels’ progress. I made the walk, both out there to where the Southerners first gathered in the trees three-quarters of a mile away, and then back to the ridge, and even on a perfect autumn day, strolling just as quickly or slowly as I pleased, and with no one raining hell-fire down upon me, it seemed to go on forever. Funny thing, though. Despite the scores of tourists that were also there that day, not one other soul took advantage of this chance of a lifetime; every time I paused to look back toward them I could see people on the ridge staring at me as if I were a madman swimming out to sea.

Earlier in the day I’d visited the spot in Gettysburg’s military cemetery where Lincoln is said to have delivered the Gettysburg Address. There was no one there either when I arrived, but at least in that case there was a reason for it: the placard identifying the spot  is so vaguely worded that it sounded like the speech was given at some point farther along the path. Once I figured it out, though, I sat down on one of the benches next to the monument, pulled up the text of the speech on my phone, read it for what must’ve been the hundredth time, and then put my phone away and simply stared at the monument and the space around it, not thinking directly about Lincoln or his words, but just feeling their presence and meaning come and go in waves. Eventually another straggler rolled up, a businessman about my age who began fiddling with his camera. Suddenly his phone rang, and he not only took the call, he set his phone down on the base of the monument and put it on speaker-phone so that the space around us was filled by the squawking voice of a woman asking him about some business matter as he paced back and forth yelling his answers into the open air. I gave him 30 seconds or so to wrap it up, but he didn’t—he continued on with the call while still fiddling with his camera. So I yelled over to him, asking him pointedly but still semi-politely to move away if he had to take the call. He didn’t even look at me. I barked something else, I don’t recall what, but this time it wasn’t polite, and he ignored me again. So I lost it. I yelled “Hey!” at him, and suddenly he turned and began walking towards me, calling out “What? What?” I told him (in these words) that this was no place for him to take a fucking phone call and that he should get the hell away from there, but he was still saying “What?” and bearing down on me. That sounds more threatening than the moment actually was—neither one of us was looking for a fight—and right now I think he was just thoughtless or maybe even a foreigner or hard of hearing, because he did begin apologizing and, after scooping up his things, he moved about 30 yards up the path, where I could see him glancing back at me.

And so it was on the field where Pickett’s men died. Standing 500 yards out on the battlefield is a totally different experience than standing on the ridge: you can’t hear any of the tourists’ chatter for one thing, and even the sound of the RVs and buses is blown away by the wind, so that all you can hear are crickets and birds and the sound of your feet brushing through the grass. Likewise, looking down on the field from the ridge is one thing, but looking up at it, especially when you’re moving toward it from a distance, and seeing what had been mere dots swelling into human beings above you, gives you a different  perspective on what happened that day. During much of this trip—and even today—I’ve been pleased to see my countrymen visiting the places where so many of our formative experiences went down, but almost always there’s still a final barrier, an impermeable layer of incuriosity, in their refusal to not simply conceive of the past, but to surrender to it. Okay, so they don’t want to make that long slog all the way across the field and back, and who can blame them? It tired me out, too. But to not even climb down from the ridge and wander 10 or 20 dinky little yards onto the grass so as to feel what it’s like to have that ground under their feet? Why do they go there at all?

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9/19/14: National Bison Range (Montana)

November 12, 2014

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9/11/2014: Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument

September 11, 2014

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Valley

Hills

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Before & After

“Ready Huerta?”: Some Tales from the Old West

August 26, 2014

Having to go [to Hickok’s cottage in Abilene] early one morning Bill was still in bed and when I went to the door and the woman came to let me in she saw through the window who I was—she was only just up and still in night dress. Bill said: “Let him in you don’t give a damn for Gross seeing you.” But she did and showed it in looks. She went into the next room and Bill got up leisurely and as he sat sideways on the bed I saw he had his six shooter in his right hand and on the bedspread lay a sawed-off shot gun (double barreled) with a strap on it so he could swing it over his shoulder and carry it under his coat out of sight and I don’t think the barrel was more than 1½ feet long.

— Charles Gross to J.B. Edwards, June 15, 1925

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***

Many Confederate soldiers returning home from the war brought with them old Enfield muskets. These were smooth-bore and chambered one large ball and three buckshot. These old guns, loaded with small shot, were fine for use on birds and squirrels, but they had one serious objection—they would kick like a mule. As the boys used to say, they would “get meat at both ends.”

— Six Years With the Texas Rangers, James B. Gillett

***

The gold rush gambling graduate with the most spectacular later career was probably John Morrisey. In 1851, when Morrisey arrived in San Francisco, he was a nineteen-year-old New York tough with a barrel chest, brawny shoulders, hands the size of hams, and thirteen dollars in his pocket. Opening a brace faro game with a stranded artist as a partner, he prospered quickly. One of his victims, a man named John Hughes, upon finding that he had been fleeced, challenged Morrisey to a duel and gave the New Yorker his choice of weapons. Hughes blanched and fled the field of honor when Morrisey appeared at the appointed place carrying two meat cleavers.

— Knights of the Green Cloth: The Saga of the Frontier Gamblers, Robert K. DeArment

***

[Toribio] Huerta was due for a hanging and I was the man to do it. No, I didn’t mind. He was a murderer and had to pay the penalty. I was the sheriff and had to do my duty….

“Sheriff, don’t spring me too quick!” Huerta begged. So we let him make a speech to the audience and he advised the young men who’d come to watch him die, not to set their feet on the path of crime. Then we tied the black cap over his head, but still he wasn’t ready. We let him pray there in the darkness. Finally I said, “Ready Huerta?” and he nodded—and for weeks it was a byword around town, “Ready Huerta?”

— on the last public hanging in Las Cruces, 1900, as told by Jose Lucero to Margaret Page Hood, The New Mexico Sentinel, 1/26/38, and quoted in An Illustrated History of New Mexico by Thomas E. Chavez

***

The tenderfeet and the townspeople thought of the country people out on the cattle ranges and in the mountains as semi-savages. I once heard a Las Cruces merchant say of a country wife, “She was just an old ranch woman. She’d spit through a screen door.”

 — Tularosa: Last of the Frontier West, C.L. Sonnichsen

***

The Green Front [a San Antonio gambling house] featured “Girls! Girls! Girls!” with dances available at “two bits a spasm.” Tableaux vivant with scantily clad females were presented nightly. One of these “living pictures,” featuring Georgia Drake as Miss Liberty bringing together a Union and Confederate solider, dissolved rather suddenly when an unreconstructed Civil War veteran shot Miss Liberty dead just as she lifted freedom’s torch.

— Knights of the Green Cloth: The Saga of the Frontier Gamblers, Robert K. DeArment

***

I went to the hotel [in Columbus, Ohio]. As it was rather late, we all retired to our room. The bellboy showed us to our room, which was a large double-bedded room, and turned on the light. When we were ready for bed, the question arose as to how we should extinguish the light, as we were all afraid of getting an electric shock if we tried it. None of us had ever noticed how it was put out. One of the party wanted to call the bellboy back and have him extinguish it, but I told him if we did so we should be the laughing stock of the city, so I told them to get into bed and I would try it. Knowing that paper was a non-conductor, I placed a newspaper on the floor under the light, and, standing at arm’s length, I reached up and turned it out expecting to get a shock. I know the rest of the gang were disappointed when they saw that I did not get what all of us expected.

*

At about ten o’clock that morning the [Vigilance] Committee [in Phoenix] went to the jail and took the two murderers out and hanged them to cottonwood trees in front of the town hall….The first man to be hanged either fainted or the noose was too tight. He sank down on the rope, and, as there was very little slack, his neck was not broken; he just strangled.

The other man, just as the team started to drive from under him, jumped as high as he could and his neck was broken. Everything was very quiet when someone in the crowd spoke up, “Why, the son of a gun must have been hanged before. He knows just how to do it.”

Helldorado, William M. Breakenridge

***

According to one resident, [Deputy James H. McDonald, who’d just fled the scene of his sheriff’s brutal murder] bolstered his courage in a saloon, where, “leaning against the bar, with a drink of whiskey in his hand, he blubbered out his yarn. There being nobody to dispute him, his story had to go. But I can still recall the looks that passed between men who had been raised from birth to eat six-shooters. It was so rank that no one could say a word.”

  Charles F. Gross to J.B. Edwards, August 23, 1922

***

And then there was Henry Brown, the popular but poorly paid marshal of Caldwell, Kansas, who decided to improve his situation by robbing the bank one town over from his own. It was a bad move: a couple of citizens were killed in the robbery, then Brown and his friends managed to trap themselves in a box canyon that was filling up with rainwater. They surrendered and spent the day in the Medicine Lodge lockup, waiting for the mob outside to reach its boiling point; while not posing for photographs at gunpoint, Brown used the time to pen a farewell to his wife which ended: “It was all for you. I did not think this would happen.” When the mob finally came for them that night, Brown made a break for it and was shot down in the street it was reported that the flash from one of the pistols set his vest on firewhile the rest of his friends were lynched.

That’s Henry, second from the left there, in shackles.

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Chariot of the Godless

August 23, 2014

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Buddy Movies

August 19, 2014

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A Child’s Garden of VD Posters

August 4, 2014

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Great Moments in Screenwriting #2: “The Wolf of Wall Street”

June 3, 2014

JORDAN: Ge ozza zone! Ge ozza iz!!

DONNIE: Waz? Iz zoggin oo anzali!

JORDAN: GE OZZA ZONE!!

DONNIE: Wazza fuh is wrong wizzz oooo?!! I wuzz awwing to!! Wazza mazzer?! Wazza yoo razy?!!

JORDAN: Zee vone!! He nah zuppose zoo dalk on zee vone!!

DONNIE: Wuzz?!!

JORDAN: ZE NAH ZUPPOSE ZOO DALK ON ZEE VONE!! WUZZ AAZZEN TOZAY WIZ ZOD?!

DONNIE: WUZZ?!

JORDAN: WUZZ ZOD IN ZAW?!

DONNIE: WUZZ?!

Terence Winter

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Frederic Remington (1861-1909)

May 5, 2014

“Shadows of horses should be a cool carmine & Blue…” (Click for full size; the difference is radical.)

The Flight (1895)

The Flight (1895)

A New Year on the Cimarron (1903)

A New Year on the Cimarron (1903)

A Fight for the Waterhole (1903)

A Fight for the Waterhole (1903)

An Argument with the Town Marshal (1904)

An Argument with the Town Marshal (1904)

Coming to the Call (c. 1905)

Coming to the Call (c. 1905)

Night Halt of the Cavalry (1908)

Night Halt of the Cavalry (1908)

The Grass Fire (1908)

The Grass Fire (1908)

The Night Herder (c. 1908)

The Night Herder (c. 1908)

The Stampede (1908)

The Stampede (1908)

Indians Simulating Buffalo (1909)

Indians Simulating Buffalo (1909)

Moonlight, Wolf (c. 1909)

Moonlight, Wolf (c. 1909)

Bob Hoskins (1942-2014)

April 30, 2014

I can think of two indelible images of Bob Hoskins: one is of him sobbing inconsolably behind his novelty sunglasses when he realizes that Cathy Tyson has been using him all along in Mona Lisa, and the other is the extended close-up of him at the very end of The Long Good Friday. The latter comes at the moment Hoskins, playing a barbaric little gangster named Harold Shand, has just realized that he’s made the miscalculation of a lifetime—one that will cost him not only his life but the lives of those dearest to him—and that there’s nothing in the world he can do to fix it. The shot lasts some two to three minutes, and not a word is spoken during it because there’s nothing left to say. Harold is seated in the back of a limo that’s whisking him to his doom, and the shot’s tight framing and its location in the story make it a bookend to the closing shot of Michael Clayton, an unblinking close-up of George Clooney sitting in the back of a NYC taxicab, as he reflects on his role in events we’ve just witnessed. Now, I love Michael Clayton dearly—it’s just the kind of thriller Hollywood ought to be cranking out by the bucketload—and Clooney is great in it, but his moment simply pales next to Hoskins’. An agonizing parade of emotions—surprise, fear, regret, outrage, defiance, grief—washes over Harold’s face, and Hoskins expresses each of these in such concrete terms that you feel like you’re tracking every inch of his anguish. And in the end you can see it happen, in his eyes and his tightening jaw-line, when Harold experiences the belated, now meaningless discovery that his downfall was entirely avoidable—that he has only himself to blame for his ruin. It’s a ghastly, glorious bit of work.

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Corinthians ’74

March 18, 2014

Reading Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers last night, and a character in it made me flash on a kid I met in the Ozarks one day. I spent the summer of ’74 with my cousin and his wife—they had 80 acres on a mountain in north Arkansas and they were trying to start a commune there. It was way the hell away from everything, no electricity, only a tiny spring for water, 20 miles of gravel roads to the nearest burg, etc., but occasionally people they knew would drift through and stay a day or two. One group was a family of four, and the older son was about nine, a handsome freckled kid with long yellow hair. We were all sitting round the redwood picnic table when he casually pulled out a bag of weed and papers and started rolling a huge, and perfect, joint like it’s nothing. Lights it, takes a huge hit, and hands it to me. While we were passing it around somebody mentioned to his parents how odd it felt and his parents—classic longhairs—just laughed. At some point everyone wandered off but the two of us and he rolled another fat joint. He was like a small adult. He wasn’t interested in kid stuff at all, and all his mannerisms and his way of expressing himself, even the things he talked about, were what you’d expect from someone three times his age. He had the hardcore stoner’s impatience with frivolous talk, and when I said something goofy at one point he grew cool enough that I was a little intimidated by him–which is messed up.

Anyway, there’s no big point to the story—they left after only a few hours. It was just something which, in that particular time and place, barely even registered as unusual, and it certainly laid waste to the notion that people can have their childhood “stolen” from them. This kid was clearly ecstatic to have shaken off the bonds of childhood; the big thing I remember about him is his adult-like poise sitting at that table. He was an equal, and totally happy with who he was.

March 14, 2014

Farm Life

March 13, 2014

I have no real point to make here except, perhaps, that it’s an abomination to bind a man—any man—to a pickaxe handle and leave him to lie in the midday sun. In any case it doesn’t hurt to remember that these men, and these places, and these situations, all came before us. (Click on the pics for full resolution.)

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Georgia 1895

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1903 (juvenile convicts, location unknown)

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North Carolina 1910 (wagons used to transport and house convicts during road work assignments)

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Georgia 1941

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Delaware 1907

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Bartow County, Georgia

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“Wagon Master” (1950)

March 6, 2014

Shot in between the final two installments of his famous “Cavalry Trilogy,” John Ford’s Wagon Master is a piece of personal filmmaking which expresses its director’s sensibility just as purely as Mean Streets reflected the young Scorsese. Adamantly not a “significant” work and devoid of any A-list stars, it was shot on a budget that was probably strained by the cast’s bologna sandwiches, yet it represents the zenith of Ford’s optimism. It remains one of the most satisfying films in his body of work, a road movie that moves at 5 mph, whose pliant laidback vibe, closeness to nature, and menagerie of offbeat characters make it a cousin to Renoir’s A Day in the Country and Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

The story follows a wagon train of Mormon settlers as they journey to a distant river valley; along the way they hire a pair of exuberant young horse-traders as guides, rescue a dissolute medicine-show troupe, share an evening’s entertainment with a band of Navajo, and cope with a gang of degenerate outlaws. On paper that may look like a lot, perhaps even too much. But plot takes a backseat in Wagon Master, which instead focuses on such intangible pleasures as mood, time of day, the interplay of dust and sunlight, and the stirring sight of man and horse moving as one over the mesas of Monument Valley. Nothing is forced or rushed, and one comes away from it dwelling not on its moments of confrontation or violence (indeed, it’s pacifist to the core of its soul), but on the myriad small delights that give it flavor: the way a young, almost absurdly appealing Ben Johnson flips a poker chip into a shot glass without moving in his chair, the now reassuring, now spectral tones of the Sons of the Pioneers on the soundtrack, the communal shadings of an impromptu square dance, or the moment when the camera turns away from a large-scale river crossing, content instead to follow a colt picking its way on its spindly legs up the steep bank. People will always have their reasons to criticize John Ford—for his occasionally shabby treatment of Native Americans, or the broad Irish shenanigans shoehorned into some of his movies—but the low-key lyricism of Wagon Master reveals its creator at his most generous and alive.

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“The Respectful Prostitute” (1952)

February 11, 2014

Last night it was The Respectful Prostitute, taken from Sartre’s play about racial tensions in the Deep South, a movie surprising both for its perceptiveness about American culture and its adult, no-bullshit approach. A prostitute (the rather scrumptious Barbara Laage) becomes a pawn in a powerful politician’s plan to frame a black man for rape, but the seemingly predictable theme of two outsiders is undercut by the Northern woman’s inability to comprehend the utter helplessness of the Southern black’s position. Though a word from her could save his life, she’s too busy launching a romance with one of the local bigots—himself a beautifully complex creation—to get involved.

Produced by a French film company, and performed in French by French performers, it’s nevertheless indistinguishable in look and feeling from many American movies of the period, to the point that it’s a through-the-looking-glass vision of what our movies might have been like had they never been subverted by the Production Code: unapologetically political, sexually frank, and pragmatically blunt in language. This is a movie in which unmarried lovers are seen waking up together after a one-night stand, and whose script freely employs the words “bullshit”, “whore” and “nigger” whenever those terms are called for—which is often.

Like the gathering of the lynch-mob in Fury or the road-trip in Nabokov’s Lolita, this X-ray of America by a foreigner is so revealing that in places it’s almost embarrassing. Certainly no white American movie I know of ever bothered to capture the atmosphere of a “coloreds only” railroad coach, much less did it so convincingly. It’s also noteworthy for being the last film of Marcel Herrand, who played the lethal Lacenaire in Children of Paradise, here playing the senator who clouds Laage’s mind with some subtle racist logic. However, I can’t pinpoint in the credits the name of the black actor who played the accused man—which is fitting, in a sick kind of way.

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