Aristotle Would Be Proud

This afternoon, as I was heading out to the monthly meeting of the local Weasel and Ferret Appreciation Society (W.A.F.A.S), I had another frustrating bout with modern technology. 

Starting my car, it didn’t take me long to realize that there was something terribly wrong.  I’m no mechanic, and there are many aspects to the modern automobile that I don’t have the first clue about, but, having spent close to 30 years in various I.T. roles, one thing I do understand is computers and their systems.  Drawing on this experience, I sensed immediately there was something wrong with the car’s computer.

The warning message flashing on the dashboard said simply, “The Passenger Door is Ajar”.   This message was accompanied by urgent beeping sounds.   I looked at the passenger door, and it appeared to me that the passenger door was still a door.  It didn’t look like a jar.  My first instinct was that the warning system was malfunctioning.  However, I like to consider myself a man of science, familiar with the scientific method.   Assumptions are not valid unless they can be proven.   I needed to prove that the door wasn’t a jar. 

First I had to understand the attributes of a jar, the characteristics that make a jar indisputably a jar, and then try to apply them to the passenger door of my car.  I went back into the house and pulled out a jar of peanut butter and a jar of grape jelly.  Studying them, I observed that they were roundish shaped containers, one made of plastic, one of glass, each with a cover and a label describing its contents. The primary function they appeared to be made for was containing semi-solid foodstuffs, and enabling the easy retrieval of these foodstuffs for their intended application (for the jelly and peanut butter, this consists of dipping a knife into the jar to retrieve the contents and then spreading them on their desired destination, either toasted or untoasted bread, a cracker, or the bare skin of a lover.)

Returning to the car, I tried applying these features to the passenger door.  The door was not roundish shaped, but was made of a hard plastic.  A visual inspection would prove insufficient – while the door clearly didn’t look like a jar, appearances can be deceiving.  The only way I would know for sure was by performing a functional test.  I would have to determine if the door was capable of performing the primary function of a jar, whether it was able to facilitate the storage and subsequent retrieval of a semi solid foodstuff. 

So I went about and emptied the contents of the jar of grape jelly in the door, wedging it into the little slot the window rolled up and down in.  It took me better than 30 minutes to get the entire contents of the jar into the door, and to be honest, a good portion of it ended up on my fingers and arm, resulting in an unpleasant stickiness that was made worse by today’s heat and humidity.  Once finally complete, I grabbed a slice of bread and a knife, and tried to retrieve enough jelly to spread it to a degree that would make for a satisfying sandwich.  The results were disappointing but conclusive.  My failure to adequately make a grape jelly sandwich from the contents  of the door proved my original assertion true:  the door was not a jar!  The computer was indeed malfunctioning!

It was at this time that I applied my vast experience and knowledge of computer systems and how they work.  It was obvious that there was a bug somewhere in one of the programs.  Drawing on my own background as a programmer, I remembered that a common mistake made by programmers is the inadvertent switching of variables.  Perhaps the programmer had accidently switched the variables for “door” and “jar”, meaning that what it meant to say was “The Jar is a Passenger Door.”  Again, the theory needed to be tested.

I then spent the next three hours removing the passenger door and affixing its hinges to the now empty jar of grape jelly.   Finally, with the jar attached to where the door was, I was able to test the jar’s functionality as a car door.   Sadly, it failed miserably.  It wasn’t big enough to fill the opening next to the passenger seat, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make the window work.   It was clear that the jar wasn’t a door.

Having exhausted both of these options, it was time to go back to the drawing board.  I removed the jar and re-installed the door.  By the time I was complete, I have to admit, I was more than a bit frustrated at the failure to determine a root cause, not to mention being late for the meeting (where I was to present my paper on alternative disciplinary methods for disruptive adolescent weasels) and I slammed the door shut in disgust.  It was at this point that the computer alarm magically cleared!   It no longer thought the door was a jar!   Maybe a sensor was misfiring, or a chip was misaligned, or maybe the grape jelly still in the cavity of the door had a healing effect.   I’ll have to save the analysis for another time – right now, I have to get to my meeting.

Father’s Day

June is a contradiction.  It is the brightest month, with the most daylight, as the days grow longer than any other time of the year.  Yet despite this brightness, June is dominated by the darkness of the shadows cast by the green leaves and trees against the late afternoon and early evening skies.  As the night approaches, the shadows lengthen, and we can sense the emergence of the ghosts that their darkness conceals. 

The most recognizable sound of June is the sound of a screen door slamming, the sound of ourselves as young children, with unbounded energy and time at our disposal, running outside in the warmth of the late spring days, freed from the confines of school.  As we grow older we recognize this sound to be the doors of memory slamming and locking in experience.   Everything that has ever happened to us is stored in dark and dusty corners of our brains that wait to be exposed by the flash of recognition.

Tonight I am in my cabin in northern Wisconsin, some 330 odd miles to the northwest of my home in Pleasant Prairie, where the days are even longer, with shades of daylight becoming evident shortly after 4:00 AM and not completely fading until sometime around 10:00 P.M.    Up here, as the sun slowly descends in the west, the trees cast shadows of the fading today that gradually lengthen and disappear, only to be replaced, on clear nights, by the shadows of the silver moonlight that light up the night sky and haunt the landscape of tomorrow.   

It is in the lengthening shadows cast by the setting sun that I see myself as son to my Father, nearly 85 years old now, and in their darkness and mystery I see myself and him, then and now, and the slow parade of forgotten days that have left the marks of age on us both.   When the sun completes its descent and the shadows are consumed by the night and die, our time as Father and Son will end, and the whole of our experience will lie hidden by the vast and all encompassing darkness, reduced to shapeless and random fragments that we occasionally stumble upon while walking the blind path of memory.

But then the moon rises, and in its new shadows I see myself as Father to my sons and daughter, and those same random fragments are illuminated.  They take shape and their meaning begins to form.   The shadows of the dying day inform the moon lit shadows of night, and we realize the path we are walking is headed east, toward the new day. 

I have tried to be as good a Father to my children as my Dad has been to me.  I have always recognized this to be an unattainable goal.  I’ve always loved, admired and respected my Dad.    Everything I know about and aspire to be as a Father I learned from his example.   Despite his flaws and imperfections he is, above all, a good man.

The new day arrives on the familiar streams of ultraviolet light that pass through early morning windows.   I get out of bed and look outside.  The sun is shining and everything is bright and green.  It’s going to be a beautiful day, warm and dry with a pleasant breeze blowing out of the north.  The sun is beginning its ascent.   It’s going to be a long day and there is much to get done before the evening shadows and their ghosts emerge again.


(This is an excerpt from my memoir project)

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things”                                                                          –   Corinthians 13:11

 “You’re just like your Father.”

When I was very young, I heard this all the time, often times from my Aunts, most often from my Mother.   It was usually after I had gotten into trouble of some kind, so it really wasn’t meant as a compliment.  But that made no difference to me because, when I was small, I was like many other young sons in that my Father was my hero.

When I was small, I thought there was nothing my Father couldn’t do or hadn’t done.   He could fix anything, and he’d been everywhere.   He was strong, he was smart, and most of all, he was funny.  There’s never been anyone who could make me laugh like my Dad.

One of the best things I can say about my Dad, and one of the best compliments I can think of giving anyone, is that he’s always been good company.  As a small child observing him interact with other adults, it didn’t take me long to notice that the others were often laughing and almost always smiling at something my Dad had said.   They may have been scratching their heads in confusion, but they were almost always smiling.

My Dad is a master storyteller.  He made his living all those years driving eighteen wheelers by night across the Midwest.  As a truck driver, he knew he wasn’t paid for showing up at some destination.   He didn’t earn his pay when he pulled into the terminal in Cleveland.   He was paid instead for the journey, for navigating all the miles between Milwaukee and Cleveland, for living in the lonely dark hours before sunrise when the rest of America was sleeping.   It was this knowledge of the road that informed his storytelling.  Those impatient to reach a destination, those unimaginative souls looking for a point to my Dad’s stories, would wind up frustrated and disappointed.   But those of us who had learned to strap ourselves in and let him take us on the meandering off-ramps and detours his stories inevitably took would discover the wonderful and unexpected treasures that existed in the back roads of his mind.    We’d watch as some small place or minor event would be recreated in incredible detail, waiting more often than not in vain to see if it actually had anything to do with the outcome of the story, and then, after stringing us along for so long that we’d forget just what the Hell the story was about in the first place, he’d pause, stare off into space, scratch the side of his bald head, and get that quizzical look on his face that we all recognized, that told us, here it comes, grab a hold of something quick, because the payoff is coming, and then, with a master’s timing, he’d deliver the punch line, usually self deprecating and almost always hysterically underwhelming for all the buildup we had endured.  And we’d laugh, and he’d laugh with us, and one of the things I admired about him more than anything was that he was usually laughing at himself.  If there was ever anybody who didn’t take himself too seriously, it’s my Dad.

As with many other sons, when I was very young, my Dad was my hero and, as with many other sons, the older I got, the less need I had for heroes.  I began, like every child does at some point, to see flaws in my Father.   Some of the same things that were sweet and charming at age five at age 14 were embarrassing.   As I grew older still I noticed other flaws, such as occasional insensitivity and awkwardness in dealing with those situations that demanded an honest emotional response.    Don’t get me wrong, I recognized that these were minor character flaws, and the same undying love I always had for him continued unchanged.  It’s just that by this time, I was a full grown man myself, making my own way in the world, and the need for heroes had been put away with other childish things.

Then, in March of 1993, when I was 34 years old, my Mom was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer.  In November of the same year, my Dad had quadruple heart bypass surgery.  The following March, my Mom was hospitalized with a stroke that signaled the beginning of the end, she returned with a hospital bed to the living room of their house on Tower Road to die at home.   My Dad, only four months removed and still weak from heart surgery, and my Sister Jenny and Sister-In-Law Sue took turns keeping vigil at my Mom’s bed side for the more than three long months of pain and decline that were her final days.   I’d come up and visit on the weekends, but the heavy lifting of the care giving was administered by my Dad, Jenny and Sue.

Finally, one weekend in May, when my Mom was doing relatively well, my Dad convinced Jenny and Sue to both take a long deserved weekend off and return to their homes and families.  If things got too bad, we reasoned, I’d be there to help out.  They reluctantly agreed, leaving Saturday morning and coming back late Sunday, leaving my Dad and I to hold down the fort for a couple of short days and one night.

Saturday came and went, pleasant and warm, my Mom sleeping a lot and in relatively good spirits most of the day.  Then night came, and my Mom was sleeping soundly, so I left my Dad sitting in his chair by my Mom’s bedside and went off to sleep in the camper he had parked in the front yard.  The camper had been equipped and tested with the same walky-talky monitors Deb and I had used when Jon and Nick were babies; my Dad would call for me over these airwaves if he needed any help in the night.  I quickly fell into a deep sleep.

Sometime around 3:00 I was awakened by the static filled voices of my Mom and Dad over the walky-talky.  As I gathered my wits about me, I listened, and realized very quickly that my Mom was having a bad episode.  I had heard about these episodes from Jenny and Sue, but I hadn’t witnessed any.   My Dad, still weak from the surgery, was doing his best, keeping his cool, trying to calm her down.  I got dressed and slipped my shoes on and put my hand on the door handle of the camper, ready to climb up the driveway and help my Dad, but, as I listened in horror to the events on the radio, I froze.  I couldn’t bear to see what I was hearing, to see my Mom in that state and I stood there, my hand on the door handle, for an eternity while the sounds of my Dad taking care of my increasingly agitated Mom echoed through the night air.  My  Dad, who, despite the fact that his already fragile heart had to be  breaking into a million pieces, never once asked for my help and remained patient and calm and loving and strong throughout.  Somehow, he eventually got the situation under control.   Once all had quieted down, I tried to go back to sleep, but the sounds of what I had just heard and the shame I felt for not helping my Dad would allow no such thing.

Finally, sometime after 5:00, the sun rose and I was still awake.  The baby monitor was silent and still, and seemed to be staring at me, accusing me.  I couldn’t stand it anymore and went up to the house.  The grass of the lawn was wet with dew and I heard the waking songs of morning birds.  I quietly opened the backdoor and carefully made my way through the kitchen to the entry of the living room.  There, the soft early morning sunlight shone on my Mom, peacefully sleeping in her hospital bed, the same way it shines on still fields after a night storm passes through, concealing the violence and turmoil that the dark had allowed.  And next to my Mom’s bed, in his chair, the same place I had left him the night before, sat my Dad, also peacefully asleep, a hand’s reach away from my Mom.   As I stood there in my Mom and Dad’s living room and absorbed the quiet beauty of the moment and everything it represented, a funny thing happened to me:

My Dad became my hero again.

Clint Eastwood and the Mythology of the American West

(be warned – film buff that I am, this entry is a very lengthy and boring and pretentious look at one of my favorite genres, the western – it was inspired by recently watching the Clint Eastwood film “Gran Torino” on television (I know, not a western) – proceed at your own risk!)

The frontier history of America, from the arrival of Columbus to the Louisiana Purchase to the cowboys and Indians of the American west, has created its own mythology and iconic figures.  The expansion and conquest of a wild and unexplored continent defined our values.  The term “rugged individualist” is often used to describe our ideal character.  The iconic American hero was largely defined by the myths of the American west that were created in the dime novels of the late 1800s and used to fuel and justify our “manifest destiny” and expansion to the shores of the Pacific.   From the outset, hidden under thin layers of this myth were harsh truths of genocide and brutal violence and exploitation.   We used the myth and the mythic hero as methods to sublimate these ugly realities and project the image of who we wanted to be, who we wished we were.

The western hero that emerged from this mythology was perpetuated in the early cinema serials and b-movies, starring the likes of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.  This hero was a simple and solitary and pure and righteous figure, who existed on the periphery if not outside the boundaries of society, yet was always willing to stand up and fight for social justice and defend the community against the wild and untamed evil of the wilderness.    In “The Lone Ranger”, in the immensely popular works of Zane Gray and Max Brand, truth, justice and the American way became the mythic core values of these mythic archetypes.

As time went on, American cinema relentlessly exploited these myths, as they became central components to our value system.   Perceived as the great democratic empire of the world and flooded with immigrants from all continents who were eager to embrace this mythology, America developed a cultural certainty and arrogance in its moral superiority that the simple, two-dimensional portrayals of good guys in white hats and bad guys in black hats reinforced and reveled in. 

While most of the western films created in the 1920s to 1940s were unimaginative and formulaic exercises in perpetuating and exploiting this mythology, some talented directors and actors emerged, and from time to time made nuanced and artistic variations on the same stories.  John Ford and Howard Hawks emerged as the genre’s greatest directors, with films like Ford’s Stagecoach  (1939) and My Darling Clementine (1946) and Hawks’  Red River (1949)  enhancing and expanding the genre with three-dimensional characters, complex plots and conflicts, and visual artistry.  These films, great as they are, still largely operate within the confines of the boundaries of the genre that the myths had established.  Other westerns came along and used the genre to explore more universal themes.  William Wellman’s The Ox Bow Incident (1943), for example, used the western to explore mob violence and fascism.  John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) used the setting but none of the mythology as the second of his three great explorations of human greed (The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Man Who Would be King (1975) being the other two).   These films primarily used the west as a setting for broader, timeless themes, and as such didn’t explore or challenge the mythic archetypes. 

For me, there are three great westerns of the 1950s that make serious explorations of these myths.   Then, in the 1960s, the same cultural explosion that challenged archetypes in all art exposed the underlying hypocrisy and shallowness of the western myths, nearly destroying them and the entire genre in the process. 

The first 1950s western to examine this mythology was Fred Zinneman’s  High Noon (1951), in which the traditional hero (played by Gary Cooper) is portrayed as an almost Christ-like figure.  Forsaken by an ungrateful and cowardly community, Cooper’s sheriff Will Kane is left to defend the town alone against the evil Frank Miller and his gang, just released from prison and determined for vengeance on the community that sent him away.  Cooper tries unsuccessfully to recruit help from the town, and finally, after heroically and single-handedly defeating the bad guys, he disgustedly throws his badge in the dust, leaving the community that has proven unworthy of him.  Cooper’s sheriff is simple and straight forward, virtuous, and heroic, an embodiment of all of the mythic elements of the western hero.  What is significant in High Noon is the notion that the community is not worthy of such a man and his heroism.  This is a foreshadowing of the anti-establishment mood that would take hold in the 1960s.  The ending of  High Noon is consistent with the traditional ending to the mythic western tale in that the hero rides off, triumphant and virtue untarnished.  However, Cooper’s sheriff isn’t alone – his new bride (Grace Kelly), a stranger to the town and the only one to help him in the gunfight, is with him.   The implication is that the town is corrupt and cowardly, and only the pure and beautiful outsider, unstained by the culture of the town, possesses the virtue that makes her a worthy love of the hero.  As they leave the town, it is implied that they will never return. 

This idea that society is unworthy of such a hero was a subtly radical challenge to the assumption of the mythic purity of the American way.  The selection of an iconic screen presence like Gary Cooper, and the traditional and heroic qualities his character possesses, reinforce the iconic archetype of the myth.     But the film denies the mythic inherent goodness of American society, and not only suggests it is flawed and not worthy of such a hero, but also questions the wisdom of the hero.  Is this town really worth fighting for?  Is it worth losing not only his life, but the love of his new bride?  These are questions that were never asked in the dime novels and b-movies that created the myth. 

The second 1950s film I’ve chosen that examines this mythic character is the 1956 John Ford film, The Searchers.  The John Wayne character, Ethan Edwards, is, as Ford often did with Wayne, shot from angles to heighten Wayne’s impressive physical presence.  Wayne is bigger and stronger and faster than any of the other characters, he is a dominating and intimidating physical presence who knows the real, harsh and violent world of the west.   When Indians raid and kill his brother’s family and capture his young niece, his hatred for the Comanche people boils over to an almost psychotic rage.  The traditional portrayal of the western hero would portray him in tragic terms, maintaining his virtue despite the heavy burden of grief he carries as he conducts an endless search to rescue his niece.  Instead, Ford introduces serious flaws of hatred, racism and violence in the hero, and combined with the character’s exaggerated and intimidating physical presence, the flaws become heightened and dangerous.  The search for Ethan’s niece goes on for years, and it isn’t motivated by virtuous heroism, it is instead driven by the need for vengeance and the white-hot hatred he feels for the Comanche.  When encountering a dead Comanche brave, Ethan shoots his eyes out, so he will be unable to wander the spirit world.   He is so consumed by rage that his nephew is compelled to join him on the search, knowing that when he finds his niece, he will kill her, because she’s been “tainted”.   When he finally finds her, he is ready to kill her, when, upon looking in her eyes, the instincts of the mythic hero return, and he instead takes her home.  The famous final shot is of Wayne, framed in a doorway, watching as the family members all enter the home, euphoric in their reunion and oblivious to Wayne, standing alone beyond the porch.  Wayne starts to enter but then turns away, and the door closes on his image.  Again, the hero is left alone, admittance to family and community denied him.   Only this time, you get the sense that the hero is alone because of his flaws, not by choice or tragic circumstance.   The film seems to be saying that in order to be such a hero, in order to defend society and the purity of its values, one must be capable of raw hatred and brutal violence, and while these things may enable him to triumph in the harsh wilderness of the west, they make him incapable of the love and companionship of family and community.  Ford’s portrayal of the family scenes is all warm and innocent and light-hearted, in sharp contrast to the brutal and desolate wilderness that Ethan and his nephew’ s search is conducted in.  Ethan is much more comfortable and at home in the lawless wilderness.   The film seems to suggest that outside of America’s borders, the world is a harsh and violent place, and only by understanding and maintaining a presence in that world can our idyllic and isolated values be defended and preserved.  This is another radical challenge to the myth, that in order to preserve our core values and principles, we have to be willing to violate them.  

The third 50s film to play on these mythic archetypes is George Steven’s Shane (1953).  Stevens enthusiastically embraces the old myths to almost cartoon levels.   Alan Ladd is Shane, the retired gunfighter trying to change his ways, Van Heflin and Jean Arthur are the pure and good settlers trying to raise their son Joey (Brandon DeWIlde) on the frontier, while Jack Palance is the evil, black hat wearing gun man hired by the cattle men to drive the settlers off.  The film is shot largely thru the child’s eyes, as DeWilde idolizes Ladd and the myths he represents.  His Father (in a memorable performance by Heflin) is a simple and hard-working man, too simple and virtuous to see that he is losing his son and wife to the hero that has inhabited their home.    The odds are stacked against Shane, both in terms of maintaining his heroic virtue and in his triumph over evil.  He has to resist the temptation of love from the woman and her son, and defeat the towering presence of evil that Palance represents.  The odds against Shane are represented by the camera angles him and Palance are shot against, and even in their horses – Shane is given such a small pony to ride that he looks ridiculous on it as he makes the long trek into town to face Palance.  It is Shane’s virtuous character that saves the family not only from the evil cattlemen; it also saves them from themselves, from the urges and longing that threatens to tear them apart.   In the end, a wounded Shane tells Joey to take care of his family, he then rides off into the sunset past the cemetery, intermingling with the graves, while Joey cries, “Shane, come back!”   In Stevens’ film, society is not only saved by the hero, but remains faithful to him. The western hero and the associated myths are dying, symbolized by the cemetery, and despite DeWilde’s pleas, will never return.  The myth is ultimately just that, a myth that has served its purpose.  The simple, emotional cries to Shane can be interpreted as Stevens’ farewell to the myths and the core values they represented.  The broad strokes with which Stevens paints the film highlight the iconic archetypes and emphasize that what we are watching is myth; the good guys are as unmistakably good as the bad guys are bad.  The tone is elegiac, and the film is colored in distinctive autumnal hues – there is a funereal tone, and it becomes clear Stevens is paying tribute to the myths as he buries them.  Like Joey and his family, we can draw strength from the heroic values represented by the myths, but it is time to move on and grow up.

In the sixties, as American cinema was being hit with the same cultural explosion that was transforming music and literature, it took an Italian director and a supporting player on an American television series to write the next chapter in the exploration of the mythic American western hero.  In the spaghetti westerns, “A Fistful of Dollars (1964) ”, “For a Few Dollars More” (1965), and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966), Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood recast the western hero as an anti-hero.  They created the “man with no name” character, and imbued him with all the super human skills of the best gunfighters, but they added moral ambiguity, as the intentions and morality of the character were often times indistinguishable from the corrupt bad guys.   This was all in tune with the anti establishment mood of the time.  In The Good, the Bad and The Ugly, it isn’t until the end that Eastwood’s character is revealed to be the good.  Through most of the movie he is morally indistinguishable from the other two of the trio, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach.  In the end of these movies, like the other icons, the man with no name is alone, outside of society, the rugged individual that America has always celebrated.  However, unlike his heroic predecessors, the man with no name swears no allegiance to or longing to belong to society.  Leone and Eastwood combine the flaws and violence of the Wayne character in The Searchers with the flawed society of High Noon, and offer no hints of healing for either hero or society.   At the end, unlike the Cooper and Wayne and Ladd characters, there is no tragic romanticism associated with Eastwood’s triumph.   The triumph of Eastwood’s character is that he is cynical and world weary enough to manipulate and ultimately rise above the corruption that is inherent in Leone’s view of the world.  

In 1971, in Dirty Harry, Eastwood and the American Director Don Seigel took the man with no name character, put him in a suit and tie, and made him an urban detective in modern day San Francisco.  Harry Callahan was every bit the misogynist of Leone’s man with no name, hating people of all races and creeds equally, and every bit the cowboy on the raw and violent urban streets he patrolled.  The problem, as imagined by Siegel and Eastwood, was that society had softened to the degree that it granted more rights to criminals than their victims, and was every bit as weak and ineffective as Callahan was strong and effective.  As such, Callahan, tracking down a ruthlessly evil serial killer, not only had to triumph over the evil of the villain, but the contemptible weakness of society.  Imagine Gary Cooper’s hero in High Noon not only unable to get help, but also be told that he had to bring Frank Miller and his gang to justice without shooting at them. 

In the end, after triumphing over the serial killer, Eastwood’s Callahan, like Cooper’s Will Kane in High Noon, takes off his badge and throws it away in disgust.   Society has proven unworthy of the hero, but this time, it’s not the leftist anti-establishment view of Leone’s corrupt society and it’s not the ineffective institutions of religion and community of Zinneman’s town in High Noon.  In Dirty Harry the criminal is the soft and naïve intentions of the liberal values that have created an atmosphere where the emphasis on individual rights has elevated the criminal to the master of society.  The establishment that Dirty Harry is rebelling against is contrary to the right wing, Nixon administration establishment that most films of the era were railing against. The ultimate triumph of Dirty Harry  is  that, at a time when Hollywood was dominated by films embracing the counter culture, such a right wing fantasy was not only made but became one of the most commercially successful films of the era. 

 As an actor, the role of “the man with no name” wasn’t very demanding.  It traded on Eastwood’s leading man looks and ability to snarl out his largely monosyllabic lines.  While he projected an undeniable screen presence, there wasn’t a lot of depth or ambiguity to his performances.  As such, he initially seemed an unlikely figure to start directing his own films.  However, it soon became apparent that he was no slouch, and that no one understood Eastwood like Eastwood.  As a director, he has not only made some of the most interesting explorations of the mythic American hero, he has also deconstructed and fleshed out the very iconic images he helped create.

 The first of his films to do this was his second directorial effort, the expressionistic 1972 western High Plains Drifter.  In High Plains Drifter, Eastwood puts the man with no name character directly in the shoes of the Gary Cooper character in High Noon,  but he exaggerates the misogyny of the character and the corruption and cowardice of the town.  Eastwood’s character is hired by the town leaders to defend them from a gang being released from jail that has vowed vengeance on them; like the Cooper character, the town did not defend its Sheriff, unlike High Noon, their inaction resulted in his brutal murder.  Eastwood imagines his character to be an avenging angel, as one by one, he exposes the town leaders for the cowards they are, rapes their women, and literally paints their town red.  In the end, after defeating the returning outlaws and delivering justice, he leaves, telling the midget he had promoted to mayor to mark a grave before riding off and fading into the haze, a ghostly apparition.  The ending recalls the death imagery of Shane, but with a mystical, paranormal twist.   It is with this element of the supernatural, always evident in the character’s superhuman skills with a gun, that Eastwood deepens the mythic qualities of his character, rendering him immortal and comparable to a Greek or Norse God, delivering cosmic justice to the flawed and inferior mortals.

 In 1994, in Unforgiven,  Eastwood deconstructs the man with no name character, stripping him of any hint of immortality or mythic qualities.  In Unforgiven we see him aging, alone, widowed, struggling to bury his past and raise his children on the frontier.  The character is given a name, William Munny, and we see him on a farm, literally falling face first in the mud as he tries to raise pigs.  He even has difficulty mounting a horse.  He is unable to do much of anything; it seems, except kill men.  Even in that aspect, he seems luckier than superhuman.  

In Unforgiven, society is viewed as harsh and corrupt, but gone is the weakness and hypocrisy of “High Plains Drifter” or “Dirty Harry”.  In fact, in Unforgiven, instead of being weak and ineffective, law enforcement is portrayed as brutal and sadistic. The sheriff, played by Gene Hackman, rules the town with a brutal iron fist.  He disposes of the legendary gunfighter English Dan (Richard Harris), hero of dime novels,  with violent effectiveness.  In this film, there is no room for myths of any kind (though there is a writer character who spends the entire film drifting from character to character in an unsuccessful search to find and capitalize and perpetuate the myth) .  It is interesting that the Hackman character, like Eastwood’s, is trying to build a normal, respectable life – he is trying to build a new home but is as bad a carpenter as Eastwood is a farmer.  Neither character is good at anything except raw brutality.  They both long to be part of society but are unable to function there.   There is literally no place in society for men with such skills, and despite their desires to repent, there will be no absolution for their sins.  They will remain unforgiven.

 In the film’s postscript, as Eastwood’s silhouetted figure is seen visiting his wife’s grave, text on the screen says that no one is sure what happened to William  Munny, that he disappeared with his children and was rumored to have moved to San Fransisco and prospered in the dry goods business.  As the text finishes its crawl, Munny’s image disappears.  Shane and the Eastwood character in High Plains Drifter also fade from the screen, but in Unforgiven, there is none of the romantic or mystical symbolism of the earlier films.  The ending is unusually ambiguous for an Eastwood film.  I think it means that regardless of what happened to William Munny, with all his mythic qualities having been stripped away, the hero he represented has finally faded and is gone, and like the ending of Shane, it is time to move on.   Unlike Shane , which seeks to honor and pay tribute to the myth, Unforgiven recognizes the violence and brutality that the myth has perpetuated through the years and that no posthumous tribute is deserved.   In interviews, Eastwood has said he was motivated to make Unforgiven by the Rodney King race riots of 1991.  Recognizing the cowboy mentality that is at the core of the inner city street culture to this day, and the role of the western myths in perpetuating violence, Eastwood seems to be saying that the myth will only be buried when it is stripped bare and clean and revealed as nothing more than a manufacturer of violence,  and that an unglamorous and anonymous ending is the only ending that will finally allow us to move on without its destructive influence.

So now, well into the 21st century, what are we to make of the American western hero?   Has modern culture, as Zinneman and Siegel presented, proven unworthy of such heroism?   Is he, as Stevens and the Eastwood of “Unforgiven” suggest, an outdated relic, something we have to move past?  Were Ford and Leone correct that in order to survive in the modern world of violence and cynicism, he had to shed some of his heroic values?  

This brings me to the film that got me thinking about all of this, Eastwood’s Gran Torino (2008).  Gran Torino isn’t a western, and, unlike Dirty Harry, it isn’t a cop movie, either.  But the film does have Eastwood as leading man in what he has said will likely be his final performance.   If so, he saved his greatest performance for this last, a neat summation of all the characters he had ever played, particularly the Man with No Name and Dirty Harry.

In Gran Torino, Eastwood imagines Dirty Harry as retired auto worker and Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski.   Kowalski finds himself old and alone in an unfamiliar landscape.  He is still recovering from the death of his beloved wife, while the neighborhood he has lived in for years has been taken over by Hmong immigrants and a cycle of poverty and gang violence.  Kowalski clings to his “greatest generation” values of family loyalty and hard work, and his racist attitude and stereotypical viewpoints are reinforced by the violence and selfishness and decay he sees around him.   A new Hmong family has moved next door to Kowalski, and the teenage son, named Thao, as part of a gang initiation, attempts to steal Kowalksi’s prize possession, a mint 1972 Gran Torino.  Kowalski, despite his better judgment, gets involved with the family, rescuing the teenage daughter, Sue, from a gang attack.  Sue befriends Kowalski, and introduces him to her family.  The family is shamed by Thao’s  attempted theft of Kowalksi’s car, and in addition to bringing him gifts and food, they insist the young man work off their shame by doing whatever odd jobs Kowalski has for him. 

A t the same time, Kowalski’s fractured relationship with his own sons is revealed.   On his birthday, one son and his wife try to convince Kowalski to enter a retirement home, with disastrous results.  Then, invited into their home by Sue, he witnesses the close knit multi generational dynamic of the Hmong family, and observes that he has more in common with them than his own family.  This is an important revelatory moment for Kowalski:  not only does this foreign culture hold dear many of the same ”American” values and principles, they observe them and are more faithful to them than he and his family are.   Kowalksi is able to see the universal humanity that had previously eluded not only him, but had also eluded Ethan Edwards’ view of the Comanches in The Searchers and Harry Callahan’s two dimensional view of the street minorities in Dirty Harry .   By seeing his failures with his own family, he also begins to understand that just merely labeling values as American doesn’t mean we actually obey them.   

As Thao goes to work for Kowalski, a friendship emerges, as Kowalksi learns that Thao possesses the core value that Kowalski holds most dear, a strong work ethic.  Kowalski becomes aware of the tragic cycle of poverty and violence that is perpetuated by the gang culture that dominates the streets.  Like Harry Callahan, Kowalski “knows how to fix things”, and tries to take matters in his own hand by brutally beating the gang leader and telling him to leave Thao alone.    However, Kowalski is unable to fore see the violent and tragic outcome of his action, as the gang takes vengeance, retaliating with drive by shootings of the family’s home and brutally raping Sue.  Kowalski knows he is responsible for this chain of events, and knows that Thao and his family will never find peace as long as the gang continues.   He tells Thao that he is planning their revenge, that “this is what I do, I finish things.”  Then, while preparing for their final confrontation with the gang, he lets Thao admire the Silver Cross he won in Korea, using it as a vehicle to lock Thao in his basement, so he’d have no part in the killing that was going to occur.   He explains to Thao that he got the medal for shooting a teenage Korean kid not much older than Thao, and that the memory has haunted him ever since.   Here is the second key deconstruction of the myth – the heroic deed for which he received such a high reward was in fact the murder of a young boy – not much different from the young boys who are murdered every day in the cowboy violence of the modern inner city.  Again, as in Unforgiven,  Eastwood is revealing the real cost this outdated myth continues to inflict.

 All of this sets the stage for the final showdown between the lone gunslinger hero and the bad guys.  Like Will Kane, Eastwood is seen preparing for the showdown by visiting members of the community, unlike Kane, he is not seeking their help, but rather seems to be saying goodbye.    He approaches the bad guys and calls them out, loudly so the townspeople can bear witness.  He puts a cigarette in his mouth and when he reaches in his jacket, the gang members shoot him down, assuming he is reaching for his gun when in fact he was reaching for his military issued lighter.   Having shot down an unarmed man in front of many witnesses, we are told the gang members will be put away for a long time.   Kowalski has willed the Gran Torino to Thao (instead of his own selfish granddaughter) and ensured peace for Thao’s family.   He has, like he promised, “finished things.”

In the end, Kowalski sacrifices himself for the American family.  His death suggests the Christ comparisons of High Noon, except in Gran Torino, Kowalski dies for nobody’s sins but his own, for the cycle of violence he perpetuated when he beat the gang leader.   In a larger sense, Eastwood’s hero is dying for the sins committed since the earliest days of our history in the name of the western hero.   It is also worth noting that the American family Kowalski dies for is a Hmong family, having proven to be more worthy of the “American” values than Kowalski’s own family.    The melting pot proves to be a better ideal to strive for than the “rugged individual”.    In the end, the hero possesses none of the cynical survive at all costs attributes of Leone’s man with no name, there is no place for the violence or misogyny of Dirty Harry or Ethan Edwards of The Searchers.   The true heroic values of self sacrifice and love of community are all that  remain.

A Face Made for Radio

.... and a voice made for silent moviesI have, as they say, a face made for radio.  I also have a voice made for silent movies.  

Last Friday, the writers group I belong to, the  Kenosha Writers Guild (KWG), taped the first installment of what will be a monthly show on WGTD 91.1, Hi-Def channel 3.  The program is intended as a vehicle to showcase the members and their work.  It is being produced by a pair of talented and experienced radio veterans, and they have added an impressive touch of quality and professionalism to the program.  The program will be hosted by Chris Deguire, KWG writer and professor at Columbia College of Chicago.  In addition to being a tremendously talented writer, Chris has enough experience hosting conferences and workshops to make him a natural to host our show.  So everything was planned, and eight of us submitted short pieces of prose or poetry to read as part of our first episode.

One of the most noticeable symptoms of my instance of Parkinson’s Disease is my impaired speech.  At worst, my voice is soft and slurred with frequent cases of stuttering and stammering.  A side effect of the Deep Brain Stimulation I underwent last year has been, when the nuero transmitters are set to achieve higher benefit, an exacerbation of these speech issues.  Early this spring, under the guidance of my speech therapist, Dr. Norma Villegas, I went thru Lee Silverman Voice Therapy.   In the days before the studio session, using the techniques Dr. Villegas taught me, I rehearsed my reading several times, recording my efforts in a little hand held device I had purchased a few months ago.  I did pretty well and improved with each reading.   These practice sessions coupled with my temporarily turning down the voltages sent by my neuro transmitter left me feeling pretty comfortable and confident as we went in to the studio.

Then we are in the studio, the producers are radio theatre veterans with disgustingly smooth radio voices, and Chris is the host.  I’m the first to read, and he introduces me and conducts a short introductory interview, in which he lobs me simple questions.  Instantly my mouth is stuck and I stutter and stammer some nonsensical responses, sounding like a lobotomized Mel Tillis.  Panicky and anxious, I somehow make it thru the brief interview.  Then it’s time to read and I relax. I think I did pretty well.  The producers assured me they can clean up my incoherent babblings with the magic of editing.  

The other KWG writers who read their pieces did spectacularly well, and I look forward to the finished project airing – it is going to reveal the extraordinary talent and range of our little group.  The first session alone includes memoirs of growing up in Europe in the early 1940s, hysterically funny essays about controlling the thoughts of potatoes and encounters with Santa Claus, poetry, and insightful and moving essays about the boomer generation and turning 60 years old.  And I got to be a part of it!  We all had a great time, and we look forward to the next installment.  

I’m proud and grateful to be a member of the KWG.   I have to extend a sincere thanks to Dr. Villegas and my neurologist, Dr. Zadikoff, who has programmed my neuro transmitter in such a way as to give me the freedom to dial down the voltage when I need to engage in public speaking.  The ability to clearly communicate is one of the many wonderful things that I no longer take for granted.