List O Mania: Movies of the 1950s


The 1950s were a conflicted and confused time in our history.  Having vanquished evil at its most powerful in World War II, the United States emerged as the world’s greatest military and economic super power.    While most of the world was rebuilding, we were flourishing, producing goods for the world and fueling the long awaited post depression prosperity that for the better part of 20 years had been longed for.  Great value was placed on the “modern” material conveniences that we couldn’t afford in the depression and war years.

We may have been experiencing peace and prosperity, but underneath it all was the uneasiness of the cold war and living in the atomic age.   Mass culture at the time emphasized conformity and blandness, and was supported by the paranoia evidenced by the McCarthy hearings and the term, “un-American.” (which , if you really think about it, is in itself just about the most “un-American” term).  The threats of communism and the cold war resonated with the public, who had grown up in times of sacrifice and belt tightening, and naturally felt uneasy with the new found prosperity.  The result was a mass culture that comforted and reassured people, with music by the likes of Perry Como and Mitch Miller being popular.

The emphasis on blandness and conformity, of course, lead to rebellion in nearly all of the arts.  It’s no accident that rock and roll, which has always had at its core themes of rebellion and sex, became immensely popular.  In literature, Jack Kerouac and Allan Ginsberg and William Burroughs were leading the “beat generation” to places American literature hadn’t gone before, while novelists like Norman Mailer and James Jones were churning out gritty and authentic accounts of their experiences in World War Two and its aftermath.  In theatre, playwrights like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller were producing their greatest works, and the Lee Strasberg Actor’s Studio revolutionized the art of stage and film acting.

Hollywood, still under strict control of the production code, was especially impacted by McCarthyism, with Joe McCarthy’s famous list of supposed communist sympathizers leading to the House Un American Activities Commission subpoenas and black-listings.   As a result, the output from Hollywood was more cautious and conservative than ever before, and more bland and boring.   Hollywood instead focused on technological advances such as Cinema Scope and VistaVIsion and advances in Technicolor as reasons to put people in the seats.  Big budget Bible pictures (The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, The Robe) with their casts of thousands and wide panoramas were presented as showcases for these new technologies, and they were politically safe.  The western remained the most popular genre.

New fears  about the atomic bomb and threats from the cold war lead to an abundance of bad, low-budget science fiction films – these films were cheaply and quickly made and prayed upon the public’s fears of radiation, with mutant monsters like The Blob and The Thing and The Creature of the Black Lagoon becoming immensely popular.   A few of them, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, tapped into the underlying paranoia of the times.

Rock and roll fueled teenage rebellion, which fueled fears of gangs of teenagers run amok, which fueled a new teenage rebellion sub-genre, with films like The Wild One (with a great Marlon Brando performance)and The Blackboard Jungle scaring the snot out of parents everywhere.  There were also attempts to sympathetically portray the teenage rebel as a misunderstood victim of the stagnating culture, such as Nicholas Ray’s expressionistic Rebel Without  a Cause, with the great James Dean, in which the adults were portrayed as so physically and morally weak that they were worthy only of contempt.

As the 50s went on, it seemed that popular culture was about to pass Hollywood by.   Things were moving fast in music and literature, and Hollywood, bogged down by the production code, its investments in technology, the studio system and its inherent conservatism, seemed unable to keep up with the times and often times came across as anachronistic.  Where rock and roll, for example, was dealing directly and bluntly with sexuality, Hollywood was forced to use the same euphemistic language it had been using for the past thirty years.  Even the greatest of Hollywood’s directors had to play these games – for example, Orson Welles could only get the brilliant Touch of Evil made by agreeing to cast Charlton Heston (!) in the lead role of a Hispanic detective.  John Ford’s western masterpiece The Searchers attempts to deal with serious issues of racism and frontier justice, yet he is only able to imply and insinuate many of the specifics.  Alfred Hitchcock made some of his most personal films dealing with his own confused sexuality (Rear Window and Vertigo), but had to rely upon heavy handed symbols to represent his own obsessions.

It’s no accident then that some of the best movies of the decade were made overseas.  While Hollywood was struggling to keep up, European cinema was experiencing a renaissance, with Bergman and Fellini at the peak of their powers, and the French new wave auteur movement introducing such giants as Godard and Truffaut.

Here then is my list of favorite films of the 1950s:

14.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), directed by Don Siegel

13.   Bad Day at Black Rock (1955),  J. Sturges

12.  Shane (1953), Stevens

11.  Night of the Hunter (1955), Laughton

10.  Sunset Boulevard (1950), Wilder

9.  Touch of Evil (1958), Welles

8.  Vertigo (1958), Hitchcock

7.   An Outcast of the Islands (1952), Reed

6.  The Quiet Man (1951), Ford

5.  The 400 Blows (1959), Truffaut

4.  The Searchers (1956), Ford

3.  A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Kazan

2.  The Seventh Seal  (1957), Bergman

1.  La Strada (1954), Fellini

List O Mania: Movies (Part Two)


In my last list of favorite movies, I claimed to be quite the film buff, and that I’ve made a whole bunch of lists related to movies.  In case you didn’t believe me, here is further evidence of my movie geekiness.   I have, for some strange reason, made lists of my favorite films by decade. Today I present my lists for the 1930s and 1940s.  The number of movies listed is arbitrary – there are 13 in the 1930s for example because these are movies I love and that seem important enough to mention.

So here goes:

My Favorite Movies – 1930s

13.  The Wizard of Oz (1939), directed by Victor Fleming   

12.  Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Whale

11.  King Kong (1933), Cooper

10.  Wuthering Heights (1938), Wyler

9.  Freaks (1933), Browning

8.  Stagecoach (1936), Ford

7.  A Night at the Opera (1936), Wood

6.  Bringing Up Baby (1936), Hawks

5.  All Quiet on the Western Front (1931), Milestone

4.  Modern Times (1936), Chaplin

3.  M (1931), Lang

2.  The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Ford

1.  Duck Soup (1933), McCarey

Before there was the rating system (G, PG, R, X, etc), there was the Production Code.  Established in 1930, it began to be enforced in 1934, and imposed a strict set of rules and morality that Hollywood had to obey.  These rules had a profound impact on films for the next 30 years, forcing directors and screenwriters to address sexuality and violence in largely symbolic terms.   It wasn’t just sex, it was general morality – the language that was allowed to be spoken, and images that suggested crime did pay or cast the government in a bad light were censored.  This plus the fact that the country was in the throes of the great depression lead to an abundance of escapist films, with an abundance of extravagant musicals (which I could never get into) and “screwball” comedies (which I grew to love) – fast paced and silly movies (examples – Bringing up Baby, His Girl Friday) often involving upper crust members of high society being silly and stupid.   Crowds also escaped the hard times through great fantasy films like The Wizard of Oz and King Kong  It was also a popular time for horror movies, with the introduction of Dracula and Frankenstein and The Wolfman.  Romance was also big, with Wuthering Heights and the biggest film of the decade Gone With the Wind.

It wasn’t all escapism – many films dealt directly with issues of the time.  Frank Capra made a series of films that dealt directly (and sentimentally) with the depression and the plight of the American everyman (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Meet John Doe, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington).  With fascism on the rise, the German director Fritz Lang made the classic exploration of mob rule and vigilantism, M, while John Ford’s beautiful adaptation of Steinbeck’s great American novel The Grapes of Wrath told the story of disenfranchised and exploited migrant workers.  Finally, my favorite film of the decade, the Marx Brothers triumph Duck Soup, captures the surrealistic insanity of a world gone mad.   A broad comedy that is funny from first frame to end, to me it is comparable to Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Dr. Strangelove in its ability to make us laugh at the impending apocalyse.

 

My Favorite Movies – 1940s

19.  The Philadelphia Story (1940), directed by George Cukor

18.  The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Wyler

17.  Sullivan’s Travels (1941), P. Sturges

16.  The Shop around the Corner (1940), Lubitsch

15.  The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), P. Sturges

14.  Dead of Night (1945), Cavalcanti and Chricton

13.  Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Hitchock

12.  Black Narcissus (1947), Powell and Pressburger

11.  The Ox Bow Incident (1948), Wyler

10.  The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1949), Huston

9.   Odd Man Out (1947), Reed

8.   My Darling Clementine (1946), Ford

7.   The Magnificent Ambersons (1946), Welles

6.   Citizen Kane (1941), Welles

5.   Casablanca (1943), Curtiz

4.   The Third Man (1949), Reed

3.   The Maltese Falcon (1941), Huston

2.   Bicycle Thieves (1948), De Sica

1.   How Green Was My Valley (1941), Ford

A decade of profound pain and change and ultimately triumph, the 1940s saw cinema become a vital part of the global modern culture.  What emerges from the decade are many of the greatest films ever made.

Many of the greatest directors (including Ford, Hawks and Huston) were recruited by the government to make documentaries supporting the war effort.   When not churning out propagand, with films like William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Live and Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, Hollywood tried to address serious cultural issues – despite the heavy handedness of the approach; they were often effective, especially in the heart wrenching performances of Dana Andrews and Harold Russell as vets returning home in The Best Years of Our Lives.

The 40s are the decade in which a number of the true masters of the art form (Ford, Welles, Huston, Reed, De Sica) were at the peak of their abilities, using the studio system to produce a number of intensely personal films.   In Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, Joel McRae plays a Hollywood director of popular comedies (not unlike Sturges himself) determined to make a “serious” film that speaks to the painful real lives being lived by his audiences.   Welles’ Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons were stylistically unlike anything to come before them, Reed’s Odd Man Out and The Third Man gave us unsentimental and very real glimpses into dangerous worlds (from James Mason’s IRA agent in Odd Man Out to the post war ruins and black markets of Vienna in The Third Man) that are typically neglected by Hollywood .  Huston turned introspective with his examinations of human greed in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Maltese Falcon, while William Wyler examined mob rule in The Ox Bow Incident.  Meanwhile, John Ford made his two most personal and poetic films, My Darling Clementine and How Green Was My Valley.

Next time:  Hollywood struggles to overcome the blandness of the 50s, and films that are core to the cultural revolution of the 60s.

List-O-Mania: Movies


Time for another one of my lists (I know, you’ve been hardly able to wait!) – this time, the subject is movies.

I’ve always been a big movie fan, but I really went nuts while in my late teens, in the mid to late 70s.  Every afternoon, the PBS TV station out of Chicago, channel 11, would show selections from the Janus film collection, many of them foreign films.  I quickly lost it all over these strangely beautiful concoctions with subtitles.  I also began reading the critic Pauline Kael, first her books and then her columns in the New Yorker.   From these I learned how to watch and “read” a movie.  Finally, it helped that my Mom had grown up watching a lot of the American movies from the 1930s and 1940s that I was also becoming fascinated with – she had a great memory of trivia about these movies, and a very developed critical eye for what was good and what wasn’t (I remember her telling me, for example, that she normally couldn’t stand the actress Betty Hutton, but that she loved the daring comedy Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, and how funny Eddie Bracken was in it.  I finally got a chance to see it a few years later, and it remains one of my favorites, and I think of my Mom every time I see it).

A copy of this poster, obtained in the 70s, hangs on my home office wall

I watched as many movies as I could, and learned the trick to watching movies from the thirties to the fifties (when the production code was in full force, strongly censoring and controlling what could and couldn’t be explicitly displayed on the screen) compared to the “modern” films of the sixties and seventies.  I still love movies, but I don’t get out that often, and I rarely rent new movies.  There are still many, many wonderful movies being made, and I eventually catch most of them on television, but for some reason I find it difficult to get excited about many of them, and still watch Turner Classic Movies more than any other channel.  I think it’s because the technology and money and visual wizardry that is the norm these days seems to, more often than not, at least for me, come across as antiseptic and impersonal.  It also seems that most movies made these days are calculated to appeal to a predefined demographic and as a result have become more and more formulaic.  An example:  a few years ago, the film Little Miss Sunshine – with a great cast featuring the great Alan Arkin, Greg Kinnear and Steve Carel – generated a lot of buzz as an alternative to the big budget blockbusters.  I finally got around to watching it and found it thoroughly predictable and unimaginative – it stayed true to the formula of the independent, arty alternative film, and as such, was every bit as predictable as the latest Mission Impossible or Adam Sandler comedy vehicle.

That’s not to say there aren’t still a lot of great, original movies being made these days (Moon and There Will Be Blood are two examples of brilliant film making in the past few years that come to mind).  It’s just that for some reason, my passions are rarely stirred these days by a new film as they are by a repeat showing of a Truffaut or Fellini or John Ford film on TCM – but that’s just old and stodgy me.

Anyway, I’ve compiled list after list of films in various categories, so I’ll start with the big one, the list of my all-time favorites.  As always, it is the list as I think of it at the moment, and is subject to change as my mood or whimsy dictates.

Here goes:

#12 Casablanca  (1943) Directed by Michael Curtiz   Arguably the greatest screenplay ever written (by Julius and Phillip Epstein and Howard Koch), this movie has given us such unforgettable lines as “Round up the usual suspects”, “we’ll always have Paris”, “here’s looking at you, kid”, and “Play it, Sam” (the exact line “play it again, Sam” is never spoken).  Bogart, Bergman and Claude Rains are all unforgettable.  Probably the greatest love story ever filmed.

#11, The Apartment (1960) Directed by Billy Wilder  The most cynical of all of Wilder’s masterpieces about cynicism (see Stalag 17 andSunset Boulevard), The Apartment is elevated by Jack Lemmon’s brilliant performance as the schmuck who rents his apartment out to his bosses for their sexual dalliances in return for promotion.   Only Lemmon and Wilder could bring out the poignant pathos in this character – it is one of the great performances in the history of film.

#10, Rushmore (1998) Directed by Wes Anderson  Brilliantly off beat, this comedy about the king of a prep school who becomes friend  and then romantic rival with a millionaire industrialist never goes in the direction you expect it to.  In the process we are treated to the greatest performance by the great Bill Murray, in a movie that is every bit as eccentric as his comic persona.

#9, Duck Soup (1933) Directed by Leo McCarey  The greatest comedy ever made, and the crowning achievement of the great Marx brothers.   Clocking in at just under 90 minutes, it opens on a high note, and never lets up.  This time, Groucho (as Rufus T. Firefly) has been named president of the Republic of Fredonia.  With the help of Chico and Harpo (who are the worst spies ever for the rival country of Sylvania) and the cinematic direction of McCarey, the brothers demolish government and wars and society.   Highlights include the cabinet meeting, the musical number celebrating the upcoming war, and the justifiably famous mirror sequence.

#8, Psycho (1960) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock  Psycho remains, for me, the greatest horror film of all time.   Though not graphic by today’s standards, the famous shower scene and the climactic cellar scene retain their impact – it’s the artistry in how Hitchcock shot and edited these scenes and the raw, personal nature of the crimes that remains jarring.  Also memorable is the murder of the detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam) – if I were teaching a film class, this is the sequence I would use to illustrate the power of montage

#7, The Third Man (1949) Directed by Carol Reed  From a script by Graham Greene, The Third Man is about a naïve American author of paperback westerns (brilliantly played by Joseph Cotten) who goes to post World War II Vienna to look up his childhood friend, the mysterious Harry Lime (played by Orson Welles), who may or may not be dead.  As Cotton blunders his way through an investigation, he learns that Lime has become the personification of evil, trading penicillin on the black market.  Tremendously atmospheric and suspenseful, with a great final shot where Cotton is rejected by the woman he has fallen in love with (Allida Valli).

#6, The Maltese Falcon (1941) Directed by John Huston.  The first and best of Huston’s three great films studying human greed (the others being The Treasure of the Sierra Madre  (1948) and The Man Who Would be King (1975)).   Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade has rightfully become one of the great screen icons, tough and cynical and wisecracking, he is morally no different than the slimy Peter Lorre and the unscrupulous Sydney Greenstreet (who Lorre refers to at one point as “you bloated fool”), and you can understand how he nearly becomes the next victim of the great femme fatale Mary Astor.

 #5, The Seventh Seal (1956) Directed by Ingmar Bergman  Bergman’s epic about a knight (Max Von Sydow) returning from the crusades who gets involved in a chess game with none other than Death himself.  In the end, he tricks death, not to save himself, but a family of entertainers he has befriended, essentially trading his life for their lives.   While unforgettable for it’s bleak and stark imagery, it also has more hope and optimism than most Bergman films.

#4, La Strada (1954) Directed by Federico Fellini  La Strada is something of a street fable.  Fellini gives us three archeypes: The brutish Zampano (Anthony Quinn), representative of pure physicality, the clever tightrope artist The Fool (Richard Basehart), representative of the mind, or intellect, and the tragic Gelsomina (Giuletta Masin), representative of the heart, of pure emotion.   The film is about the relationship of these three entities, and how each cannot survive without the others.  Superbly shot and directed, this is my favorite Fellini film. Much more conventional and less surreal than many of his later works, his imagery here is stunning, and remarkably disciplined. Supreme story telling, with lots to say about art and aritists, and deceptively simple.

#3, Bicycle Thieves (1948) Directed by Vittorio DeSica  DeSica, with films like Shoeshine, Umberto D, and Bicycle Thieves, established himself as the master of the neo-realist style.  His films are visually indistinguishable from documentaries, yet no other director ever put so much heart into his work.  Bicycle Thieves is the supreme tragedy of cinema, and the relationships of Father and Son has never been examined in greater depth.   The ending is pure heartbreak, and will stay with you long after the credit s roll.

#2, How Green Was My Valley (1941) Directed by John Ford  Ford’s unabashedly sentimental depiction of a small Welsh mining community, focusing on the dissolution of the family headed by Donald Crisp and told from the point of view of the youngest of his sons, played by Roddy McDowell.  Ford, cinema’s greatest visual poet,  fills every frame with love, and for me, he never over does it, always teetering but never going over the top.  The result is one of the most beautiful films ever made, made by perhaps it’s greatest artist.

#1, Shoot the Piano Player (1960)  Directed by Francois Truffaut  Truffaut’s genre busting comedy about melancholia is so full of life it is infectious.   For a detailed review, look to my earlier post, “My Favorite Movie”

“Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow”


Tomorrow is a 1972 film based upon the William Faulkner short story of the same name.  Directed by Joseph Anthony and adapted by Horton Foote, it is, in my humble opinion, the best and most representative adaptation of Faulkner ever made.  Shot in black and white on a shoestring budget, it is a hauntingly beautiful film.  It also has perhaps the greatest performance by one of the all time great film actors, Robert Duvall, as the simple farmer and watchman Fentry.

The movie begins with a young lawyer trying to understand the strange man who hung the jury in his first trial, a seemingly open and shut case of murder in self defense.   It then proceeds to tell Fentry’s story in flashback.   It is a story of isolation and loneliness, of two simple people finding and losing one another, of man and woman and nature and time, and above all, about love and the enduring power of the human spirit.  Fentry’s character is simple and unsophisticated and quiet, yet his soul is pure and complex and heroic.  Above all he is graced with the capacity for love, and in true Faulkner fashion, his love endures, and he remains true to it.  Duvall masterly breathes life into a character who is simple and complex, in fact, his complexity and depth arise from his simplicity.  Watch the movie, you’ll know what I mean.

When you scrape away the layers of his overly complex style and the guilt of his southern gothic themes and the twisted violence of his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, the Mississippi setting for nearly all of his work, what you find at the core of Faulkner is a romantic existentialist.   He is, after all, the man who wrote the line, “given the choice between pain and nothing, I would choose pain every time”.   Ephemeral and endure, two words that seem to be at odds with each other, reappear through his work, and I think sum up his central conflict, whether or not these romantic ideals can survive the unfeeling onslaught of time and change.   In bleaker moments, he said “the sad thing about love is not that it can’t last forever, but that soon, even the pain is gone”.

It’s interesting that in his darkest and most famous work, the novel The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner took the title from the famous Macbeth soliloquy that ends with:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
and then is heard no more. It is a tale
told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
signifying nothing

Not only does Faulkner take this passage literally by having the first section of The Sound and the Fury  told from the point of view of an “idiot”, the adult man-child and seriously mentally handicapped Benji Compson, the book itself is about the dissolution and end of the Compson family.   The ephemeral tides of time wash away any trace of romanticism.  Significantly, the most romantic character in the book, Quentin Compson,  is doomed because his romanticism is misaligned – he tries to convince himself he is romantically in love with his sister, when in fact he is in love with death, and ends up a suicide.   The Sound and the Fury ultimately is about the triumph of the ephemeral over the romantic.

In the short story Tomorrow, Faulkner goes back to the same stanza from Macbeth that inspired “The Sound and the Fury”, this time focusing on its beginning rather than its end:

          She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

In closing the short story, Faulkner writes:

“The lowly and invincible of the earth – to endure and endure and then endure, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.”

Tomorrow, taken from the same source as The Sound and the Fury, is about the triumph of the romance inherent in the human condition over the ephemeral nature of the universe.  I think he is saying that the unfeeling and unending movement of time and our romantic ideals of the human spirit are intertwined and tied up with each other.   It is the passage of time and its ability to bury the past that give things like truth and love their romantic power.  That a simple man like Fentry, one of “the lowly” is capable of such depths of soul is what will ultimately endure and make him, and us, “invincible”.

Or as Faulkner put it in his address upon winning the Nobel Prize for Literature:

“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.”

Amen to that.

My Favorite Movie


I first saw Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player sometime in the mid 70’s, when channel 11 out of Chicago used to play classic foreign films from the Janus film library in the afternoons.  It was right at the time I was becoming a serious film buff and started buying books and encyclopedias on movie history.  It was lucky coincidence that Channel 11 was airing many of the greatest films of all time at the same time I was reading about them. I remember seeing Fellini’s La Strada, De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Shoeshine and Umberto D, Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim.  In short, many of the greatest films ever made.  I also began studying the classic American directors, John Ford (How Green Was My Valley and The Grapes of Wrath) and Orson Welles (Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons) and John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), among others.  As great as many of the American films were, there was something different about Fellini and Bergman and Truffaut.  I think it was their sensibility, their willingness to take chances, the unusual subject matter and characters.  For example, I immediately fell in love with La Strada, though it wouldn’t be until after several viewings that I got a sense for what was really going on.  I knew the three main characters were symbols for something, exactly what I had no idea.  What I was falling in love with was the pure sensory beauty of the film, the poetry of the images.  It was in visual terms what Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor were doing to me with language. 

So it was right in the middle of the most passionate time of my love affair with movies that I first saw Shoot the Piano Player.   It was radically different from Fellini or Bergman, and I recognized the American gangster movies of the 30s and 40s it seemed to be paying homage to.   It was goofy and eccentric, with low brow slapstick and sight gags and stupid humor.  But as it went on, a remarkably sophisticated and deceptively complex story was being told, a story that immediately drew me in, and it connected with me on a level that no other film ever has.   Unlike La Strada and The Seventh Seal, I got it right away.

And I wasn’t the only one.  Through the years, I’d watch films like Bonnie and Clyde and Pulp Fiction transform the American gangster film, and it was obvious that Arthur Penn and Quentin Tarantino had also seen and been affected by Shoot the Piano Player .  But more on that later.

Shoot the Piano Player is about Charlie (wonderfully played by Charles Aznavour), who we find at the film’s beginning playing piano with a jazz trio in a cheap Parisian bar.    He lives in a small apartment above the bar with his still school-age younger brother, in the apartment across from him lives a hooker who, when not doing business at the bar, helps Charlie out, by baby-sitting his brother and seeing to other needs he might have.  Early on we are introduced to another of Charlie’s brothers, an inept and bungling and crude oaf of a gangster, who is being chased by a couple of other comically inept but dangerous gangsters.   We also learn, early on, that Charlie is secretly in love with the beautiful bar maid Lena, but is too painfully shy to act, to make his feelings known.

Charlie and Lena inadvertently get drawn into the gangster story and are captured by and then escape from the gangsters that are after Charlie’s brother.  They flee to Lena’s apartment.  This is where the story really gets interesting.  In a great shot, as they enter the apartment, the first thing Charlie sees on the wall is a huge poster advertising a concert featuring the famous pianist, Edouard Saroyan, who’s name appears with Charlie’s picture.  Lena has known all along that Charlie isn’t really Charlie, and she is familiar with his tragic past as an acclaimed concert pianist.

The film then, through flashback, tells the story of Saroyan and his first wife, how they married and how he became a star, how he tried unsuccessfully to overcome his timid nature, and how, after his wife revealed a dark secret, he acted too slowly to prevent her suicide.  He retreated from the fame and the trauma, winding up as a dishwasher for the bar with his new identity.  One day he finds a dusty old piano under sheets in the back.  He can’t resist, he plays it, and soon the trio is assembled, and he is the bar’s entertainment, playing silly dance hall numbers.  Then the film returns to the present, with Lena determined to resurrect Saroyan’s career, while the gangsters have kidnapped his little brother, all resulting in more death and tragedy.

The film is actually very short and shot on a shoe string budget, but there is so much going on, and Truffaut moves it about so quickly, packing so much information in each frame while at the same time experimenting with different point of view camera shots and throwing in his cheap sight gags.  In the meantime, while we are being entertained, on a more subtle level we watch Chalie / Saroyan wrestle with questions of identity, while Truffaut explores complex themes related to life versus art.   Charlie / Saroyan is born with a gift for art that he didn’t ask for, and he has no idea how to live.  Much is made of his shyness and timid nature, he drifts through life, uninvolved, while those around him, those moved by his artistic gift, suffer for it, and he bounces from one tragedy to another, always finding a piano somewhere to play.  The film has at its core a tragic melancholy, yet it is vibrant and alive and fun the whole time – it’s how well Truffaut makes this contradiction and dichotomy work that makes it so radical and remarkable.   

I mentioned Bonnie and Clyde and Pulp Fiction, two landmarks of American cinema.  Both films are known for their groundbreaking and graphic use of violence, and you won’t find anything of that sort in Shoot the Piano Player.  What you will find is the same contradiction at work, the same sensibility in the treatment of the criminals.  In Bonnie and Clyde, Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty and their gang are portrayed as simple and comic everyday people.   We laugh at them and with them, and we see ourselves in them.  The way Arthur Penn establishes this is through the same kind of dumb jokes and friendships that Truffaut used to make his characters so likeable.  And in Pulp Fiction, in the dialogue between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, and in the interaction of the various pimps and drug dealers and  gangster types, Tarantino takes this approach to a new level, making us identify and care about these unsavory types.  In both Bonnie and Clyde and Pulp Fiction, the violence is graphic, and it is jarring because of our identification with both its victims and practitioners.   Though both films are unique and bold statements that stand on their own, they both owe a debt of gratitude to Truffaut.

Truffaut is one of the great originals of all cinema, and one of my two or three favorite directors of all time.  The thing I think that sets Truffaut apart from other directors and runs through all of his films is his humanity.   Even when exploring the darkest of subject matters, Truffaut maintained his romanticism and finds the core humanity, whether it is the unabashed love of the three main characters in Jules and Jim, the attempt to preserve humanity in Fahrenheit 451 or find it in The Wild Child, or the hanging on of a romantic ideal against all reason and logic in The Story of Adele H.   It is the value Truffaut places on this humanity, the belief that it is core to being human, that has resonated with me through all these years, and has been evident in the other artists I’ve admired, from Kurt Vonnegut to John Steinbeck to Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen.

In these dark and cynical times of the early 21st century, it’s a shame Truffaut is no longer with us, but his body of work endures and is more relevant and important than ever.

My Review of “Life Seemed Good, But …”


“Life Seemed Good, But ….” is an e-book collection (available from Smashwords.com) of short comic essays and fables written by my fellow Kenosha Writers Guild member, Richard Bell, and is unlike anything else you are likely to read.  Quirky and imaginative, Bell’s fractured fairy tales are funny and defy convention.  Many of the stories lead you to believe that there is some profound moral or lesson to be learned; however, more often than not, they instead lead to an absurdly underwhelming conclusion (“This is how the legend of Timmy the smelly, bald, and fat porcupine began” and the unforgettable moral, “Never interfere with dancing magical trolls who have matches” are two examples).

Bell’s humor is soft and surreal and intelligent, even when revealing the twisted stupidity of his characters.  If you read closely, you’ll find, buried in the nonsense, clever references to T.S. Eliot, Lewis Carroll, and, in one of my favorites, to “On the Waterfront” in a story about a tongue tied shoe named Terry that could have been a contender.

Bell writes with a stand up comic’s sense of timing, yet he refuses to be constrained by the typical setup-punch line structure of the traditional joke.   Rather, his humor is of the Monty Python – Steve Martin variety – he presents situations, images and asides that are just intrinsically funny, and make you laugh out loud without knowing why you are laughing.  For example, one of the stories, “Revenge”, begins this way:

In a long procession marched the villagers up the dark, remote mountainside. Some carried torches, some had pitchforks, and one had a 3/8″ socket torque wrench.

“Life Seemed Good, But …” evokes James Thurber, Robert Benchley, and Ogden Nash, yet at the same time is the voice of a distinct and unique comic mind.   A disturbed mind, maybe, but distinct and unique and funny none the less.

Earnest Ernest


This morning, I reread “Big Two Hearted River”, a short story by Ernest Hemmingway.  It’s probably been thirty years since I last read the story, and it’s always been one of my favorites (note that it is number three on my “list-o-mania” list of favorite short stories).  But reading it now, with the passing of time and circumstances, the story resonates even stronger. 

On the surface, the story is the straight forward retelling of a man’s fishing and camping trip, a story that, as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, in which “nothing happened.”  But dig beneath that surface and you quickly realize there is much more going on.  The story is really about a damaged and traumatized man (Hemingway’s fictional alter ego Nick Adams) searching for something that has been lost.   

The story begins with Nick being dropped off of a train in a deserted and burned out town.  He has a pack containing his tent and provisions, and a leather rod case.   In the town, as described in that distinctive Hemmingway style, he stops by a bridge and looks down to the water below.  Note the cadence of the writing.

“Nick looked down into the pool from the bridge.  It was a hot day.  A kingfisher flew up the stream.  It was a long time since Nick had looked into a stream and seen trout.  They were very satisfactory.  As the shadow of the kingfisher moved up the stream, a big trout shot upstream in a long angle, only his shadow marking the angle, then lost his shadow as he came through the surface of the water, caught the sun, and then, as he went back into the stream under the surface, his shadow seemed to float down the stream with the current, unresisting, to his post under the bridge where he tightened facing up into the current.

Nick’s heart tightened as the trout moved.  He felt all the old feelings.”

Nick is one with the trout, as they both “tightened”, and he “felt all the old feelings”.  Like the trout, Nick has lost his shadow, his soul, the thing that marked his place in the world.   “Big Two Hearted River” is about Nick’s attempts to find his shadow, to reclaim his soul.  It’s interesting that Hemingway’s description of Nick’s sensory reactions to what he sees are described in very short and simple phrases (“It was a hot day”, “They were very satisfactory”, “He felt all the old feelings” )  I think this fulfills two purposes.  One, it gives the writing a lyrical rhythm, and two; it describes the mental and emotional state Nick is in.  Damaged as he is, he is able to process the complex and overwhelming rush of images and memories in only the simplest terms.  He longs to return to the simpler time of his youth, before the landscape was scarred and burned, before the incomprehensible complexity of the things he has seen and experienced in war.    As he goes on to his campsite, there are more simple descriptions of Nick’s moods and thoughts – “He was happy”, “but Nick felt happy”,  “He felt he had left everything behind”,  “It was all back of him” – but they somehow seem forced and untrue, and you are left with the sense that Nick is trying a bit too hard to convince himself he is happy and leaving everything behind.  

He goes on to pitch his tent and cook his meals, ritualistically and methodically and with great discipline.  He is determined to savor every moment and he does so, taking great satisfaction in the work of setting up camp, in the comfort of his tent, the taste of his food, and finally, the following morning, in the trout fishing he has come for.   All the while, though, the presence of the dark swamp that is just down river from him looms.

 “Ahead the river narrowed and went into a swamp.  The river became smooth and deep and the swamp looks solid with cedar trees, their trunks close together, their branches solid.  It would not be possible to walk through a swamp like that.  The branches grew so low.  You would have to keep almost level with the ground to move at all.  You could not crash through the branches.  That must be why the  animals that lived in swamps were built the way they were, Nick thought.

He wished he had brought something to read.  He felt like reading.  He did not feel like going into the swamp.  He looked down the river.  A big cedar slanted all the way across the stream.  Beyond that the river went into the swamp.

Nick did not want to go in there now …   

In the swamp the banks were bare, the big cedars came together overhead, the sun did not come through, except in patches; in the fast deep water, in the half light, the fishing would be tragic.  In the swamp the fishing was a tragic adventure.  Nick did not want it.   He did not want to go down the stream any further today.”

The river, where he camps and fishes, is filled with life and sustenance and purpose.  But then it flows into something dark and mysterious and foreboding.   As his trout fishing takes him gradually downstream, closer to the swamp, the apprehension grows.   It is the fear of death, and also the fear of both the known and the unknown.  He has seen terrible things that remain vivid and unresolved in the darkness of his heart and mind.  He sees the same darkness in the swamp and fears that not only are the terrible things in there, but so too is their ultimate resolution, and whatever unthinkable conclusions about the nature of the universe those resolutions would reveal. 

The story ends with Nick picking up his fishing gear:

“He climbed the bank and cut up into the woods, toward the high ground.  He was going back to camp.  He looked back.   The river just showed through the trees.  There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp.”

He isn’t ready yet to confront the darkness.  He needs more time to heal the scars that time and fate have carved into his soul.

When I reread the story this morning, I found it even more moving and profound than I had when I read it as a much younger man.   I found parallels to my own circumstances, and some of the solitary trips I have made to my northern Wisconsin cabin in the past few years.  Like Nick Adams, I have found myself turning to nature and longing to “feel all the old feelings.” (with only varying degrees of success)   I also have my own personal swamp that I am afraid to face, that being the late stages of Parkinson’s disease that loom just down river from me.  Above all else, the themes of isolation and solitude, and the diminutive stature of the individual against his landscape, resonate with me.

Everybody has an opinion about Hemingway, from literary genius to male chauvinist hack to arrogant self important hypocrite.   Aside from the Nick Adams stories, I really haven’t read enough to subscribe to any of these views.  But I do know that, with “Big Two Hearted River”, he was capable of true artistry, painting a vivid and complex portrait of both a physical and psychological landscape. 

 

List-O-Mania Part Two: Albums


OK, here is another of my lists.   This time the topic is all time favorite albums.  As with all of my lists, it is subject to head-slapping oversights and ommisions, and would no doubt look significantly different tomorrow than today. 

I grew up in the late sixties and seventies, a time when the album became the center point of the music universe.   Album releases were events comparable to the releases of motion pictures and books.  There were overt concept albums, like Tommy and Quadrophenia by the Who and The Wall by Pink Floyd.  Other albums contained songs that were part of an overriding mood or theme that the artist wanted to convey.  There was lots of brilliance, and even more self-indulgence and pretentiousness (see the Emerson, Lake and Palmer album Works – Volume One for a classic example).  There were also the different genres of popular music, dominated by what has now come to be referred to as “classic rock” (a term I truly despise).   There was folk, progressive, soul and country – and there were interesting artists making great music in every genre.   There were hard rock and heavy metal and Rhythm and Blues bands.  There were singer songwriters and there were punks.   And, of course, there was disco.  

 Now, well into the 21st century, the album is still alive, but on life support.  The internet and IPODs have changed the way music is sold, marketed and purchased.   For many, albums have been replaced by individual song downloads and the creation of custom playlists.   There’s a lot of good in this new model, with many artists adapting to it and getting more music to their fans faster.   Some artists still approach album releases as opportunities to explore and examine themes.   But the golden age of the album seems to have passed.

 So my list is dominated from the years I’ll refer to as “The Album Era”, the years when I was building my album collection and developing, for better or worse, my own tastes, my likes and dislikes.    I have a personal relationship with each of the albums on the list – at a minimum, they are part of the soundtrack of my life.  Some of them shook my earth and profoundly changed the way I see the world.  

 Here is my list of my fourteen favorite albums:

 #14  Copperhead Road, Steve Earle, 1988:  Earle’s cross over album, from respected country songwriter to rock superstar.   Whatever genre he works in, Earle is an enormously talented songwriter, and his range is on full display here, from the southern gothic, multi-generational anthem of the title track, to the deceptively plaintive love song “Even When I’m Blue”, to the rocking hillbilly perfection of “The Devil’s Right Hand”, to my favorite, the hard rocking and poignant collaboration with the great Irish band, The Pogues, on “Johnny Come Lately”.   A rare combination of folk, country, hard rock, and poetry.

 #13  Blood on the Tracks, Bob Dylan, 1975: Dylan’s “divorce album” is as raw and open as an untreated wound.  A very difficult album to categorize – it’s not folk, it’s not rock, it’s not blues – it’s not acoustic, it’s not electric – isn’t solo, isn’t with a band.  Whatever it is, it’s all connected, starting with “Tangled Up in Blue”, through “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” and “If You See Her, Say Hello” and ending with “Shelter From the Storm”and “Buckets of Rain”.   Blood on the Tracks sounds like no other album by Dylan or anybody else. 

 #12  Tunnel of Love, Bruce Springsteen,  1988:   Released as the eagerly anticipated follow up to the mega hit “Born in the USA”, Springsteen defiantly deconstructs the all-American cartoon of his superstardom and turns inward, wrestling with his image, his Catholicism and his success.   Conflicted and brutally honest, the result is some of his best and most personal songwriting, with songs like “Tougher Than the Rest”, “Brilliant Disguise”, and the achingly beautiful “Valentine’s Day” standing out.

 #11  Surrealistic Pillow, Jefferson Airplane,  1967   The breakthrough album that defined the San Francisco sound, this album is best known for the immense hits, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” – and to me, that’s a shame, because good songs though they are, they are among the weakest tracks on an album that shows the incredible range of this band that history all too often overlooks. The aching  Marty Balin ballads “Today” and “Coming Back to Me”, the acoustic guitar instrumental “Embryonic Journey”, the unabashed 60s hippie pop of “How Do You Feel”, or the tight rocking “Plastic Fantastic Lover” are good songs by talented musicians with exceptional range.

 #10  Live at Leeds, The Who, 1969   Without a doubt the greatest live album by the greatest live act in history.   Famous for their stage antics, this album proves that the Who were great musicians – there’s never been a greater rhythm section than John Entwistle and Keith Moon, and, on this album,  Pete Townsend gets to show his credentials as an electric guitar God.  As good as any of the power blues by super groups like Cream, the same band that was the Godfathers of the punk movement also prove here to be a great heavy metal band.

 #9  A Space in Time, Ten Years After, 1971  Ten Years After is known primarily for the power blues guitar riffs of Alvin Lee.   A Space in Time shows surprisingly sophisticated songwriting, command of lovely melodies, and atmospheric production.  There is great melding of acoustic and electric guitars on the justifiably famous “I’d Love to Change the World”, and also on the lovely rockers “Hard Monkeys” and “I’ve Been There Too.”  The sonic love song “Let the Sky Fall” is another highlight, while there are still examples of the great blues rock that the band was famous for in “One of These Days” and “Baby, Won’t You Let Me Rock and Roll You”                                    

 #8  Red Dirt Girl, Emmylou Harris, 2000  Best known for lending her incredible voice to interpretations of other artists music, in “Red Dirt Girl”, Emmylou Harris shows off her skills as a top notch songwriter.  The material is personal, confessional, atmospheric and deeply felt.  The album crosses and combines genres  – it isn’t quite rock, it isn’t quite folk, it isn’t quite country.  It is beautiful and eloquent.  Highlights include “Michelangelo”,  “Tragedy”, “Red Dirt Girl”, “My Antonia”, “Boy From Tupelo”, and her emotional elegy to her Father, “Bang the Drum Slowly”, which, for me, never fails to conjure up the haunting image and feel of Arlington National Cemetary.

 #7  Let it Be, The Replacements, 1984   The third album from the restless Midwestern juvenile delinquents could have been titled “growing pains”, because it shows them in transition, from the punk rockers of their first two albums to the maturity that leader Paul Westerberg was suddenly writing songs with.  “Androgynous” is one of the most amazing and sophisticated love songs ever written, and “Sixteen Blue” is the archetypical teen angst song.  “Unsatisfied” is an eloquent articulation of the punk mindset, and “Answering Machine” captures the frustrating loneliness for which Westerberg would become spokesman for.  “20th Century Boy” proves the Mats could rock with the best of them.  With “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” and “Gary’s Got A Boner”, the Mats happily demonstrated that they’d never completely grow up.

 #6  Exile on Main Street, The Rolling Stones, 1971   My son Jon thinks “Beggar’s Banquet” is the best Stones album, and he may be right – it’s right up there with “Exile” as the very best of the Stones.   My vote is for “Exile”, because of the Mick Taylor / Keith Richards guitar interplay.  On hits like “Tumbling Dice”, “All Down the Line” and “Happy”, and especially the often overlooked “Stop Breaking Down”, the line between lead and rhythm guitars are blurred.   The Stones have spent most of the years after “Exile” trying to recreate this sound, but have largely failed.  I think it’s because Taylor was a more talented and melodic guitar player than either Brian Jones before him or Ron Wood after.   With Taylor manning the stratosphere, Richards was left to explore the dirt in the gutter, and the Stones never sounded tighter or rawer than on tracks like “Ventilator Blues” They explore their blues/gospel roots on songs like “I Just Want to See His Face” and “Shine a Light”.  

 #5  London Calling, The Clash   1980   The greatest album by the greatest punk band.  On London Calling,  the Clash is bursting open with creative energy and ideas and influences, from the pop of “Lost in the Supermarket”, the hard rocking “Brand New Cadillac”, the exhilarating Phil Spector-ish wall of sound and tragedy of “The Card Cheat”, the reggae of “Revolution Rock”, the political fervor of the title track, and the beautiful “Train in Vain”.  It’s the raw emotional content of rage, disappointment, heartbreak and boredom that tie these disparate elements together.  Punk or not, “London Calling” stands as perhaps the most eloquent articulation of the theme of rebellion that has always been at the core of great rock.

 #4  The Beatles (the White Album), The Beatles, 1968  As my son Nick points out in his top ten list, the White Album contains  lovely pop songs like “I Will” and “Martha My Dear” that could have fit on early Beatles albums, as well as bad-ass songs such as “Happiness is a Warm Gun”,  “Yer Blues” and “Helter Skelter” .  To me, the White Album showcases Lennon, McCartney and Harrison at the peak of their songwriting skills.  Besides “Helter Skelter”, McCartney rocks with “Back in the USSR” and “Birthday” and shows his famous skill for ballads on “Blackbird” and “Mother Nature’s Son”.  Lennon contributes lovely pieces such as “Dear Prudence” and the heart wrenching “Julia”, as well as the primal scream “Yer Blues” and the eerie “Cry, Baby Cry.”  Harrison’s contributions are among his best as well, with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, “Piggies”,  and the overlooked “Long, Long Long”

 #3  Are You Experienced. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, 1967  Hendrix’s debut album truly changed everything.  This has to be one of the most influential albums of all time.   The over simplified myth is that this freak of nature guitar player dropped out of the sky and dazzled us with sounds we had never heard before.  The truth is that Hendrix was much more.   He was a brilliant songwriter (“The Wind Cries Mary” is brilliantly evocative in both music and lyrics, “Purple Haze” virtually invented heavy metal, “Manic Depression” walks the edge between sanity and insanity) as well as a wonderful interpreter of other people’s songs (His version of the traditional “Hey Joe” is pure perfection and unlike anything that preceded it).    The reason he remains unparalleled as a guitar player is because his playing was an extension of his soul, and there was only one Hendrix.

 #2  Bringing it All Back Home, Bob Dylan, 1964  Half electric, half acoustic, all genius –  this album is as revolutionary and brilliant today as it was 46 years ago.   The electric side one glides with tight rockabilly efficiency, starting with the surreal rap of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”.  “She Belongs to Me” is an ironically titled song of a man enslaved to his muse (“You will start out standing proud to steal her anything she sees/ but you will end up peeking through a keyhole down upon your knees”)  “Maggie’s Farm” is a personal declaration of independence.  There’s the comic  surreal boogie “On the Road Again” (“I wake up in the morning and there’s frogs inside my socks/ your mama she’s hiding inside the icebox/your daddy walks in wearing a Napolean Bonaparte mask”) The acoustic side two is awe-inspiring:  raw, personal and poetic.  This is what anyone who doesn’t get Dylan needs to listen to.  It begins with the epic poem to physical and spiritual exhaustion, “Mr. Tambourine Man.”  Next it’s the jarring juxtaposition of nightmare and paradise in “The Gates of Eden”, followed by the relentlessly bleak and angry “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” and the heartbreaking “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”.   It’s beyond belief that four songs of this stature can be found on the same album side – most artists would consider any one of them the crowning point of their career

 #1  Darkness on the Edge of Town, the River, Nebraska, Bruce Springsteen, 1978, 1980, 1982   OK,  three albums as number one might seem like cheating, but to me these three albums are so  thematically linked they should count as one.  Issued between the mega successes of the “Born” albums (Born to Run (1975) and Born in the USA (1984)), they combine to chronicle the journey of the same character, a character who is the embodiment of the mythic archetypes forged by the rock that had preceded him:  alone, rebellious, sexual, and misunderstood.   At the end of Darkness on the Edge of Town, he chooses to stay on the outside, scorned by omnipresent and nameless forces (the “they” of “Something in the Night” and “Prove it All Night”), bruised and battered but defiant and triumphant:  “Tonight I’ll be on that hill cause I can’t stop/ I’ll be on that hill with everything I’ve got/with lives on the line, where dreams are found and lost/I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost/for wanting things that can only be found/in the darkness on the edge of town”). 

In The River, he tries to come back to society and find love and hope, characterized by the many optimistic garage band songs that comprise most of the first disc.  But even finding love doesn’t fill the void presented by the knowledge of his own mortality, as seven of the nine songs on the second disc are dominated by death imagery.  The album that begins with the optimistic 12 string guitars of “The Ties That Bind” ends with the rainy acoustic guitars of “Wreck on the Highway”, while the character lies awake in the dark, clinging to his lover, haunted by his awareness of death. 

It’s enough to drive one mad, and that’s where the stark and acoustic Nebraska begins, with the retelling of the Charles Starkweather murder spree of the 50s.   The outsider of “Darkness” still had his defiance at the end, but at the end of Nebraska, he is left at the altar, jilted and alone, struggling to find “A Reason to Believe”.

Those who know only the bandana wearing pop icon of “Born in the USA” or the respected elder statesman of the 21st century may wonder what all the fuss is about.  These albums should make believers out of anyone with a functional ear and soul.

List-O-Mania: Short Stories


For some reason lately, I’ve been occupying my spare time making any number of top ten lists.  I have no idea why.   The lists cover a wide range of topics, from top 10 favorite movies to top 10 favorite pre-packaged breakfast foods (Quaker Oats Maple and Brown Sugar Instant Oatmeal is number one, in case you are curious).    Not that anyone gives a rip about me or my opinions, but I thought I’d post some of these lists from time to time on my blog, because,  one, it is my blog,  and two, why not?

So, since it is the middle of summer, we begin with my top ten favorite short stories of all time.  It seems like summer, for whatever reason, is when I read most of these stories.  Maybe it’s because the days are longer and as a kid I had summer vacation, but short stories for me are as much a part of summer as baseball.

You’ll notice that I have actually listed 20, not ten, because it didn’t seem right leaving the ones in places 11-20 off the list.

Like all the lists, not a tremendous amount of thought or time went into creating it, and I have undoubtedly forgotten a couple that moments after I post this I will remember and slap myself on the forehead, hopefully not rendering myself unconscious again.

Note too that all the entries are from American Lit.  I’d like to give some high falutin’ explanation of the short story as a uniquely American art form, but the truth is that I am not as well read in world literature as I’d like to pretend I am.

You’ll also notice an overabundance of William Faulkner titles.  This is because, despite his many and considerable faults, he is my favorite short-story writer of all time.  His ridiculous and over dramatic style for me, for some reason, works so much better in the short forms than in his novels.   One of the first books I ever purchased was his Collected Stories, and it remains among my favorite books (list number 37).

 Here is my list – comments are welcome:

  1.                  A Good Man is Hard to Find                                       Flannery O’Connor
  2.                  That Evening Sun                                                         William Faulkner
  3.                  Big Two Hearted River                                                Ernest Hemmingway
  4.                  An Occurrence at Owl’s Creek Bridge                       Ambrose Bierce
  5.                  Hunters in the Snow                                                    Tobias Wolff
  6.                  My Son the Murderer                                                 Bernard Malamud
  7.                  A Rose For Emily                                                         William Faulkner
  8.                 Death in the Woods                                                       Sherwood Anderson
  9.                 Barn Burning                                                                 William Faulkner
  10.                 Two Soldiers                                                                  William Faulkner
  11.                 The Man Who Was Almost A Man                             Richard Wright
  12.                 Bartleby the Scribner                                                   Herman Melville
  13.                 To Build a Fire                                                               Jack London
  14.                 Good Country People                                                   Flannery O’Connor
  15.                 Dry September                                                             William Faulkner
  16.                 Indian Camp                                                                  Ernest Hemmingway
  17.                 Young Goodman Brown                                               Nathaniel Hawthorne
  18.                 The Secret Life of Walter Mitty                                  James Thurber
  19.                 Eyes of the Panther                                                      Ambrose Bierce
  20.                 The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky                                  Stephen Crane

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.