Archive for the ‘Violence’ Category

“I’ve been hearin’ his name all over the land…”

March 29, 2012

Art is Our Friend, Part 399

February 2, 2012

Last night I stumbled across something I forgot I even had, a copy of the color version of Jacques Tati’s Jour de Fête, so I popped it in the ol’ player. I’d only seen the black and white version, which was the only version available for decades because the lab in ’49 couldn’t process the color negative correctly, and I’d wondered if I was going to find it half as funny as I did when I saw it back in ’91. At least I think it was ’91; anyway, whenever the hell it was, I remember the circumstances well enough because the night before I’d been assaulted by some jackasses in North Beach. They roughed me up pretty good—broke my schnozz and knocked four teeth out, just for the sweet hell of it. The good news, if you could see it that way, is that I was so drunk when it happened that afterward I kept cracking jokes for the E.M.T. who happened to be on the scene, and who kept glumly shaking his head while he checked out my shredded gums. Because that was the other angle to it all. I’d spent the previous two years in A.A. and had just a week earlier decided to try drinking again; and, since this night represented my first trip back into the bars, it certainly felt like the universe was sending me a message reading YOU ARE A DOLT in big block letters.

So between falling off the wagon and having my ass handed to me, I definitely wasn’t cracking any jokes when I woke up the next morning. In fact my first conscious action of the day, even before opening my eyes, was to burst into tears. It was the most surprising, most spontaneous outburst of grief I’ve ever experienced; one moment I wasn’t crying, and suddenly I was sobbing my guts out. It was a perfect little squall of emotions that was blistering while it lasted—but it lasted only a minute or so, and then I was ready to start the day. At some point that morning I talked to my friends M. and D., who offered solace in the form of soup and company. I did not say no to this offer, and they showed up around noon bearing a quart of miso, a couple of joints, no moral judgments, and a copy of Jour de Fête.

I’d never seen any Tati, and when the movie started I was thinking Jesus, some old French movie, played largely in pantomime, about a mailman out in the provinces…Man, I don’t think so…But about 20 minutes into it Tati, while pedaling his bike down a country lane, is attacked by an invisible bumblebee. By much frantic waving of the arms and whipping his legs in circles, he drives the bee away, and one perfectly timed moment later a farmer standing on a nearby hilltop begins waving his arms, and when the farmer’s waving drives the bee off, Tati—who in the meantime has ridden his bicycle to the opposite corner of the frame from whence he entered—again begins waving like a madman.

I would’ve said you were crazy if you’d told me five minutes earlier that I’d be laughing hysterically that morning, but I was laughing so hard by the end of that bee scene that I thought I was having a stroke. There are a lot of good reasons to love Jacques Tati, but I’ll always owe him for the flood of endorphins that spilled through me on one of the shittiest days of my life. As for Jour de Fête, it’s still a wonderful movie.

And since I’m getting stuff off my chest here…I’ve always been a morbid sonofabitch, and I long wondered if my fascination with certain true crimes wouldn’t someday come back to bite me—and then one day it did. I’m not detailing the murders of the musician Bryan Harvey and his family here because they don’t bear thinking about—which was exactly my problem. The two killers had, to use Colin Wilson’s phrase, made a decision to be out of control, leading them to commit crimes so brutal that even the lead killer, in his police confession, seemed stunned by his own actions. I had a harder time processing the Harvey murders than I did Columbine, and it was only when I chanced upon the Drive-By Truckers’ loving and intelligent tribute to them that I got a handle on what went down. As a container and an organizer for a lot of raw emotion, this song is unbeatable.

Hazing Private Ryan

August 30, 2010

Sometimes the difference between what you mean to do and what you wind up with lands on the sweetest part of the bat. Case in point: David Samuel Peckinpah, who packed the The Wild Bunch’s gunfights with exploding squibs and blood-bags because he thought an outburst of graphic screen violence might make a useful object lesson for Vietnam-era audiences. We now know, thanks partly to his example, how naïve it is to think that our violent tendencies can be manipulated, or maybe even switched off—or that a mere movie could accomplish either of these things. The fluke, though, came when Peckinpah’s miscalculation was exposed by his own innovations: the slow-motion interruptions which worked as dazzling parenthetical asides, and the forced changes in perspective which dragooned viewers and made them proxies in the action in a way no movie had done before.

Today this view of the movie—which received its fullest articulation in Paul Seydor’s bedrock study Peckinpah: The Western Films, A Reconsideration—is commonplace, even unavoidable; and while Peckinpah himself never explicitly discussed it in these terms, he clearly realized he’d cooked up something stronger than a spoonful of castor oil. Before the booze and coke took hold of him, he was a liberal only a touch to the left of Norman Jewison, and a man who felt he’d most fully expressed himself, not in any of his famous works of suffering and destruction, but in the tenderhearted The Ballad of Cable Hogue. (In fact, something went out of him after Cable Hogue bombed.) But he was enough of an artist to keep his cool when the violence in The Wild Bunch turned out to be something disturbingly beautiful. Along with his editor Lou Lombardo, Peckinpah had made a fundamental contribution to cinema’s basic vocabulary—a no-shit, honest to god Eisenstein-Kuleshov-Griffith moment. He ran with it, and continued to mine the vein he’d uncovered (with wildly varying results) for the rest of his career.

One thing he never did, though, was return to the idea of portraying violence straight-up—“realistically”—as a social corrective. But 14 years after Peckinpah’s death Steven Spielberg stepped up to the plate and tried again to “resensitize” audiences with another iconic battle scene: the D-Day landing that opens Saving Private Ryan. A 24-minute catalog of hellish details—human torsos rent apart, shrieking men stumbling about in flames, a head with only a smoking crater where its face ought to be—it sounds like the latest provocation from Cannes, yet Middle America took it instantly to heart. This was partly due to the subject matter and the movie’s rigidly respectful treatment of it, but it was also an expression of America’s appreciation for Spielberg, a near-addiction which is itself paradoxical: known, and in some quarters despised, as a leading member of “Hollyweird”, he remains largely revered for his pop hits, and mainstream audiences work to keep the two figures separated in their minds. Spielberg doesn’t make the task hard for them. Saving Private Ryan bundled together his professional popularity with Tom Brokaw and Stephen Ambrose’s PR-driven drool about the “Greatest Generation”, and fashioned from the combination some absolutely bullet-proof body armor for the movie; as a result his astonishingly violent motion picture was received, not as the product of a sick mind (or, worse, a pacifist, like Peckinpah), but as a salute to our veterans’ sacrifices. Even in the hands of the pop magus Spielberg, the only way Saving Private Ryan could exist at all was if it reinforced our most cherished myths and values.


The special dispensations continued when ABC agreed to air the film uncut on Veterans Day of 2001, a courtesy that’s been extended to only one other movie with a hard R rating: Schindler’s List—of course. The decision was hailed by the VFW, the Parents Television Council, and people desperate for a break from Touched by an Angel, but it didn’t make a lick of moral sense. The powers-that-be okayed the violence and salty language in the name of honoring our veterans, all of which was a clear admission that mangling reality is what Hollywood is all about. Broadcasting Spielberg’s two big movies blew holes in the ideas that the censors must help parents control what their children watch, and that four-letter words and pubic bush are inherently corrupting things. If the word “fucking” is bad at all, it’s bad all the time, no matter how super-solemn the context is, and the broadcast should have infected the country with an epidemic of profanity. But it didn’t. Indeed, the broadcasts raised such little stink that ABC reran Ryan for the next three years—like It’s a Wonderful Life, except for Veterans Day—until the fine slapped on CBS for Janet Jackson’s wardrobe prank reclenched everyone’s sphincters for them.

ABC’s experiment with Saving Private Ryan was a courtesy that would never, not in a million years, be extended to, say, Taxi Driver, a movie with more actual relevance to our lives than either of Spielberg’s opuses; movies like that are still seen as morally iffy adjuncts of the problems they explore. But outlawing movies about ugliness leaves only the ugliness itself, and anyone who thinks that Spielberg’s attitude towards violence is more objectively responsible than his peers’ has another think coming. If Peckinpah’s original point going into The Wild Bunch was that violence is an awful, degrading thing, Spielberg’s is that it’s an awful, degrading thing which is sometimes necessary. That’s a legitimate position to take, but the movie, bookended as it is by shots of the American flag and focused on an elemental engagement with a despised foreign power, encouraged domestic audiences to come away feeling first and foremost reenergized as Americans. It failed to make us see warfare as a last resort to be entered into only with sorrow, and without chauvinism or bombast, and the acid test came during the very years when Ryan was being televised, as the Bush administration massaged the case for a sour and unnecessary invasion, and a fresh round of war whoops went up which has yet to fade from our ears.

Saving Private Ryan is what a conservative movie looks like when it’s made by a liberal people-pleaser, and it practically chokes on its force-fed cornbread when George Marshall reads Lincoln’s letter with a lump in his throat or the Ryan family’s farm is rendered as an absurdly bucolic Eden. But nowhere is it more conservative than in the final exhortation Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller croaks out with his dying breath: “Earn this”. Truth be told, the so-called Greatest Generation was just a damned unlucky one; it’s prized for its pluck in outlasting a depression and a world war but, really, what other choice did it have? The double whammy created a survivor’s mentality which made them duck and cover throughout the McCarthy era, and which for years afterward could curdle their personalities on a moment’s notice. “Earn this”—a key attitude in the Generation Gap of the Sixties—is a call for bottomless guilt and indebtedness, and Saving Private Ryan reveals the stress fractures in its reasoning when the aged Ryan, who once gave up safe passage home in order to stand by his comrades, is still so stricken by doubt that he tremblingly implores his wife, “Tell me I’ve led a good life.”

“Earn this” refers not just to Captain Miller’s death or the deaths of the men in his unit, but to every sacrifice we’ve witnessed over the course of the movie, and it doesn’t take an Einstein to understand that by its end the movie views us as “Private Ryan”—that we’re the ones being called on to redeem the losses of every American war by leading lives worthy of all that death. Well, that’s a totalitarian and impossible demand to place on any human being. I’d rather consider the words that close out The Wild Bunch (a movie about the cost of impossibly high ideals), words which stir the embers of life in another old man facing darkening horizons: “It ain’t like it used to be, but it’ll do.” That’s as far removed from “Earn this” as the two movies’ depictions of violence are: where Miller’s advice is crippling, its eye fixed on the rear view mirror, the other is optimistic, forward-looking, and striving to make us free. That’s just how the men on Omaha Beach wanted us to be.


Reach for the Sky

August 20, 2010

It was four or five obsessions ago—before film noir, before the Iraq War, before Enron and the Italian neorealists and vegetarian cooking the Army-McCarthy hearings—that I really plunged into the gunmen of the Old West. It lasted a while, a year or two in any case, and in that time I bored certain people silly (Gary, Kathy, Cay—are you still out there?) with the exploits of such forgotten men as John Selman, King Fisher, and Outlaw Bass. For instance, there was the handsome train robber Tom “Black Jack” Ketchum,

who caused some excitement when his head popped off during his hanging,

and “Deacon” Jim Miller, the religious nut and hired killer who asked permission to keep his hat on before getting strung up in an Oklahoma barn,

and Henry Brown, the popular but poorly paid marshal of Caldwell, Kansas, who decided to improve his lot in life 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 to reach its boiling point; while not posing for photographs at gunpoint, Brown used the time to write a letter to his wife which ended: “It was all for you. I did not think this would happen.” When the mob finally came that night, Brown made a break for it and was shot down in the street. That’s Henry, second from the left there, in shackles:

Some of the most famous gunmen were so thickly embroiled in the currents of history they seem like frontier Forrest Gumps, yet one can’t say much about them as people. These were far from self-actualized men, to put it mildly, and they had no say in how others represented them. Some of them come across as sociopaths pure and simple, others as workingmen carrying capitalism to its logical end, but in the main their personalities don’t communicate across the ages in any illuminating way, leaving us only with their violent, often nugatory experiences. Those experiences, draped as they were in law-breaking and immorality, were a tangled web to begin with, and any remaining hope of clarity was dimmed when generations of dime novelists, journalists, and slipshod historians took to heart the words of the too-slick newspaper editor in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Every field is open to information abuse, but the Old West was left to the amateurs for so long that peer reviews and other reality-checks couldn’t obtain a toehold for decades, allowing writer after writer, for generation after generation, to repeat “the legend”—the myths, tiresome the second time you read them, that Billy the Kid shot a man for every one of his 21 years, that Hardin once shot a man for snoring. Indeed, “the legend” was regurgitated so many times that the writer-bibliographer Ramon Adams felt moved to compile Burs Under the Saddle, a virtual encyclopedia of errata which painstakingly corrects, one by one, the outright myths and half-truths peppering Western histories. Beyond the weekend warriors, the field has also seen its share of warlords and empire builders, most notably the belligerent and quite possibly insane Glenn G. Boyer, whose inexplicable mindgames have hindered serious researchers for years. Nor do publishers, especially in the academic world, offer much help when they saddle their offerings with presentations trivializing their own subject matter. When the University of Oklahoma Press reissued John Wesley Hardin’s autobiography for the first time in decades, this is what it looked like:

Likewise, Joseph G. Rosa’s indispensable pictorial biography The West of Wild Bill Hickok is available only in a cheaply produced edition even though Hickok led a life richer than Picasso’s, and the man himself, an incorrigible camera hound, possessed one of the great modern gazes in 19th Century photographs.


Despite all this, certain potent snapshots still jump out from the literature that is reliable: a disconsolate Hickok sitting on his bed, surrounded by firearms, as a half-dressed prostitute putters about his room; or Henry Brown’s vest catching fire from a pistol flash and going up in flames as he ran down the street during that escape attempt. These luminous, ephemeral glimpses have no more substance than heat lightning, and they’re no help at all to, say, the grad student writing a thesis on the economics of mining towns. Anecdotal history like this doesn’t leave much more than a feeling, but it’s a feeling that’s tangled up with the texture of some rugged lives once lived, a constant shifting between the gridpoints on a wilderness, an easy familiarity with violence, and the unmistakably American flavor of all these things; if nothing else it injects some small dose of grit and authenticity into an age of designer-ripped jeans and Lady Gaga.

John Wesley Hardin, for instance, came out of the East Texas hills, the son of a Methodist circuit rider (hence the name), and his early reputation as a mankiller was based on run-ins he had with freed slaves, Union soldiers, and the hated (by Democrats and ex-Confederates) State Police. Getting himself into scrape after scrape, he was a fugitive long before he was 20; in the Taylor-Sutton feud he shotgunned a man on the deck of a riverboat even though the fellow was known to be fleeing the territory; when he subsequently murdered a deputy and lit out again, a furious mob strung up his brother.

The Texas Rangers caught up with him on a train outside Pensacola, knocked him out, and renditioned his ass back to Texas, where he was given a 25-to-life prison term. In Huntsville he taught Sunday school—par for the course for celebrity felons today, but Hardin seemed to believe his own sermons, and he went one step further and began studying law. He served 20 years before he was pardoned in 1894, and the Texas of his youth was fading away fast. He passed the Bar but few people wanted to pay John Wesley Hardin for his legal advice. He married a 15 year old girl who fled on their wedding night and refused to discuss him ever again. The children from his first marriage, grown now, were strangers to him. He moved to El Paso and hung out a shingle.

There he began work on his autobiography, a book short on insight but long on detail, with names and dates supplied for almost every killing, some 30 or 40 in all. He distributed autographed playing cards drilled by bullet holes—keepsakes which are traded to this day. But things continued to slide downhill for him: not enough clients, a messy affair with the wife of one of the few clients he did possess, a card game that so pissed him off he scooped up the pot and walked out the door, silently daring anyone to object. The local newspaper, hearing of this, began a drumbeat: the day of the gunman was over. It was just a matter of when. There was one final dispute, one final exchange of charges and countercharges, this time with a degenerate constable, and on August 19, 1895—115 years ago yesterday—Hardin was playing dice in the Acme Saloon when John Selman stepped up and shot him in the back of the head.

Now, not even with a gun to my head could I tell you why I find these details irresistible. The fact is, I just do…

“A Dry Place in the Swamp with Trees”

October 11, 2007

It’s a slow-ass day today, so much so that I was a little irked when the mail trolley didn’t bring me that copy of The Crime of Monsieur Lange I’ve been pining for, and instead dropped off the latest issue of one of my company’s in-house magazines. I was flipping through the various urban renewal stories inside it when the words “Opa-Locka, Florida” caught my eye—I hadn’t known before today that we’ve been working on some revitalization projects there. Opa-Locka is, of course, the hell on Earth into which the bible drummer Paul Brennan falls during the Maysles Brothers’ and Charlotte Zwerin’s great film Salesman. It’s one of those nutty little communities that adopted a “theme” when it sprang up during the land boom that Groucho took an axe to in Cocoanuts, and its choice of motifs—the Arabian Nights—seems stranger still now that we’ve entered the 21st Century. In one of Salesman’s most memorable passages an exasperated Brennan tries to make sense of the city’s whimsically named and plotted streets, including Sinbad Avenue, Sharazad Boulevard and, yes, Sesame Street. The town’s founders, not content with laying out their city as a pack of five-year olds might, went on to line its avenues with buildings done up in a faux Moorish style, with a City Hall festooned in golden domes and pointed arches and minarets so laughably fakey that Walt Disney’s version of Mad Ludwig’s Castle looks authentically medieval by comparison. And if you thought the name “Opa-Locka” was coined by some tin-eared booster, you wouldn’t be wrong: it’s a land developer’s abbreviation for the region’s unwieldy Indian name. A true linguistic curiosity, it’s a word that physically pains the eye that takes it in.

What civic nuttiness couldn’t take care of, geopolitics would do its best to finish off. When I was a kid my family drove down Route 66 to my grandparents’ place in the Ozarks every summer, a trip that took us through the tiny burg of Cuba, Missouri, whose denizens, perhaps too aware of how much that name stood out in the early 1960s, mounted a billboard at the city limits that read WE MAY BE NAMED CUBA BUT WE DON’T LIKE CASTRO. I can’t help but think that in late 2001 Opa-Locka’s civic leaders felt even more pricklish and on the defensive, especially when it came to light that the some of the 9/11 hijackers, perhaps at home amongst the papier-mâché towers and play-tot street names, had taken their flying lessons there.

Now, you’d think that its links to Salesman—one of the most ferocious assaults on American capitalism ever put to celluloid—and the WTC attacks would create enough bad vibes for any city in the world, but Opa-Locka had yet to win the saddest prize of all. In 2003 and 2004 it led all of America’s cities in violent crime—and not by a little, but by a lot. In 2005 its murder rate dropped to second, after East St. Louis, but it was still something to behold: where the killing fields of Oakland reported 23.2 murders for every 100,000 citizens, Opa-Locka—with a population slightly south of 16,000—racked up 51, while the number of its assaults and robberies dwarfed the national averages. Most of the violence could be traced to “the Triangle,” a tiny warren of streets just a short hop up Ali Baba Avenue from where Paul Brennan got lost in 1968, and home to some truly vicious drug wars.

In Salesman’s closing shot a sere and withered Paul Brennan gazes out of his motel room, and his thousand-yard stare looks like it’s taking in the abyss rather than some choice Floridian real estate—the poor old guy was seeing his hopes and dreams evaporate before his eyes. It was the end of a long process but one that starts easily enough. This morning the mailroom guy plopped a magazine down on my desk and I happened to glance at its thirteenth page, and in less than an hour I was up to my eyes in Opa-Locka.

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