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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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“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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flotsam & jetsam

February 3, 2014

bill and billie

tristessa

nancy

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dick

(h/t Elliot Lavine)

the millstone

September 10, 2013

I was watching the end of I Vitelloni, with Franco Interlenghi looking out of the train window at his dead-end hometown as it rolls away from him for the last time, and I suddenly flashed on Quentin Compson, when Shreve asks him why he hates the South: “I don’t hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!

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whiplash

February 8, 2012

From condescending laughter to singalong in 2:00 flat.

December 19, 2011

“Gettin’ Better, Aren’t I?”: A bit of loveliness from “Poor Cow”

August 22, 2011

closer

June 14, 2011

Courtesy of the redoubtable DVD Beaver, two famous pairs of eyes from The Cincinnati Kid:

June 10, 2011

good stuff

April 25, 2011

A conversation between Cormac McCarthy, Werner Herzog and Lawrence Krauss that lives up to its billing.

Don’t Wait for the Punchline

February 2, 2011

these days

January 31, 2011

“This goes into an iPod”

January 25, 2011

“California Split” (1974)

January 14, 2011

Robert Altman’s California Split capped one of the most remarkable five-year runs any director has ever had. Altman had already made six movies in that span, three of which—McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, and Thieves Like Us—had been masterpieces, and a fourth the Zeitgeist-defining M*A*S*H. All of these films were innovative exercises that reenergized worn-out genres by bending, but not breaking, their rules; despite radical differences in setting and style each of them flaunted a formal sophistication that gave artistic ballast to their seemingly tossed-off, often raunchy contents. Meanwhile, the huge canvas of Altman’s next film, Nashville, and its even larger subject—nothing less than “America”—would lead to its being taken for his “masterpiece” in a critical spasm that mistook ambitiousness for actual accomplishment. California Split has none of these claims to fame, and yet upon its arrival it felt like—it still feels like—the quintessential Altman movie.

Compared to the wide grasp of Nashville, it’s about nothing—nothing at all: just a pair of gamblers, and some stuff that happens to them. And that’s it. Though it’s familiar with every inch of the compulsive gambler’s mentality (Altman himself was a heavy gambler for years), it doesn’t bother dressing up its insights as formal observations; there’s no lesson to take away from California Split, and even less of a moral. Even that opium dream called McCabe & Mrs. Miller grows increasingly dependent on its plot as it progresses, but California Split is about as untethered from meaning as a film can be while still cohering as a narrative. At its conclusion its protagonists are left hanging at what may be (but probably isn’t) a pivotal moment in their lives, but we’re not really asked to consider whether they’re at a true crossroads. Instead of building to a single climactic point like a pyramid, the movie’s episodes are tied together like a string of Christmas lights, each colorful but each equally luminous, so that the sudden appearance of a frightening stickup artist receives no more emphasis than a frazzled call-girl splashing too much milk on her Fruit Loops.

Hot on the heels of Hawkeye Pierce and John McCabe, Charlie Waters and Bill Denny join Altman’s pantheon of emotionally stunted heroes. Charlie (Elliot Gould) wears loud shirts and has a louder mouth, and he’s filled with native wisdom—who else knows that shaving cream makes a bruise feel better? Bill (George Segal) is a magazine writer on the fast track to nowhere; affable but rudderless he watches the world at a remove, certain that a place awaits him in it but unsure where it is. Barely more than overgrown boys, Charlie and Bill play the ponies, sit in on some poker games, frequent a lot of watering holes, and get in a fight or two, but mostly they just talk. (Charlie especially has a lot to say.) Their lives are conspicuously incomplete by traditional standards: Bill is divorced and seems to know no one other than Charlie, while Charlie, despite housing with a couple of hookers who adore him, appears to have transcended sex altogether. Both too loose and too tight at the same time, bored to death by the straight life and absolute slaves to superstition, they don’t feel alive unless they’ve got a few bucks riding on some meaningless wager. (Their drunken bet to see which of them can name the Seven Dwarfs—“Here come seven like a Gatling gun”—comes to naught when they get lost in their memories of Dumbo.) After their random meeting we follow the zigzag, why-not course of their lives through a series of incidents which make us feel like we’ve laid our fingertips on the pulse of real life.

California Split is like a Cassavetes film with a more pronounced funnybone; not many movies this focused and “real” are also of such bracing good cheer. Despite being set in an American limbo—the bleached and barren spaces of racetrack concourses and used-car lots, the eternal twilight of coffee shops and casinos—California Split hums with a gambler’s energy and restless optimism. If Altman’s attitude towards acting might be summed up as “Behave, don’t act,” he gives us Bill and Charlie’s lives unburdened by any of the moral baggage other directors would have felt obligated to lay on them. A movie that’s almost entirely devoted to atmosphere—both in terms of its characters’ emotional terrain and the Dewar’s-rocks settings they thrive in—that’s California Split.

Most of the movie sways to the rhythms of smoky lounge standards, perhaps the goofily bouncy “Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown” that Bill and Charlie take up as their theme song. (Altman’s editor was Lou Lombardo, who’d previously cut McCabe and The Long Goodbye, as well as that seminal editing textbook known as The Wild Bunch. Some men leave their mark on the world.) But the movie takes a stark emotional downturn occasioned by the one thing resembling a plot point in California Split: Bill’s debt to his bookie, Spark. Trying to raise the money in an all-night poker game only wipes him out, leaving him stumbling into the glare of a L.A. sunrise, and the ensuing coffee-shop scene is an exercise in desperation as Spark effortlessly dismantles his bullshit. The threat Spark poses to Bill’s confidence—the one weapon a gambler relies on more than his luck—is even larger than the threat to his well-being, so it’s a good thing when that picture of conviction, Charlie Waters, reappears fresh from beating some teenagers out of their pocket-money in a pickup game of basketball. (The sight of Charlie pulling up his sweat socks is almost as satisfying as the moment when John McCabe proves that he indeed carries a derringer.) Bill hocks his last few possessions and sets off for a high-stakes poker game in Reno, with Charlie in tow as much talisman as partner. California Split comes to a delirious boil during Bill’s long winning streak in a Nevada casino, a 20-minute outburst of fractured yet free-flowing filmmaking.

People who know Segal and Gould from Just Shoot Me! or Friends are going to be especially surprised by California Split. Gould was busy rehabilitating a career he’d all but destroyed through egotism and overexposure after his successes in Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice and M*A*S*H, and the first step in his recovery had been playing Philip Marlowe as an accomplished monologist in Altman’s The Long Goodbye. But there his mumbled soliloquies were for self-amusement only; Charlie Waters’ logorrhea is intended for the world to hear. An incorrigible optimist (“I’d like a thousand dollars’ worth of credit,” he tells a casino cashier before finally settling for, “Tell you what, just give me a roll of nickels”), Charlie wanders through the movie firing off salvos of questions, complaints and bits of trivia that keep all deeper thoughts safely at bay. With his unkempt hair, Hawaiian shirts, and (for the latter part of the film) a large bandage over his nose, he exudes a wonderful casualness which toggles back and forth with surprising cloudbursts of serious-as-a-heart-attack sobriety. George Segal gave so many fine performances in movie after movie during the ’60s and early ’70s, but as Bill Denny he mostly maintains a melancholy watchfulness until Bill’s hot streak, when he stitches together a seamless emotional arc—from wariness to manic glee to soul-weary heaviness—as all hell is breaking loose around him.

A lot of things help make California Split a special movie, but the biggest one might be its bit players and extras. The biggest cast names after Segal and Gould belong to Ann Prentiss and a couple of Altman’s stock players (including a not-yet-famous Jeff Goldblum), but beyond these special cases Altman scorned the practice of using proximate “types” and instead went for originals, filling the corners of his movie with the lived-in faces of real gamblers and ex-addicts from Synanon. (The movie’s writer, Joseph Walsh, brings his refined spookiness to the part of Sparkie; his brother Ed plays Lou, the skuzzy troglodyte who becomes Charlie’s recurring nemesis.) For long stretches Altman pays as much attention to these anonymous faces as he does his stars, bringing them close enough to us that we can smell the cigarettes on their breath, and by using an eight-track recorder he was able to cherry-pick the highlights of these veterans’ table talk—a technological first. The result plants us right in the middle of Charlie and Bill’s world, until we feel like we’re bumping elbows with its cardsharks and slatternly barflies.

Too many people think of Altman’s use of overlapping dialogue as a gimmick or joke nowadays; earlier this year the Academy had Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep pretend to step on each other’s lines before giving him a there-there Oscar because it didn’t know how else to approach him. But Altman, like Renoir and Ford before him, has always been about people, and catching the particularities of their speech and behavior on film. As Bill Denny is just setting out on his big night of winning, he notices that the plate on his blackjack dealer’s vest carries the same name—“Barbara”—of a series of women who’ve been sprinkled along his path throughout the movie. Recognizing it as a good sign he exchanges a smile with the woman, and their affectionate, knowing, slightly tired faces hint at the mysteries of the world; it’s an irreducible moment, practically a living exemplar of William Carlos Williams’ dictum “No ideas but in things.” It’s exactly the type of gesture—luxurious, utterly useless, but alive and generous to its core—that makes Altman’s films breathe as they do. The industry has always suffered from philistine producers and the egos of its superstars, but the big thing holding back American movies is that they aren’t more like California Split.

The High Hat—Fall 2006


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