Friday, September 05, 2003

Something is screwy at Blogspot ... again

This afternoon, I logged on to Blogspot, and found that the central computer remembered me as the woman who writes "Confessions of a Coconut." I logged out without reading anything.

Now I'm sure that Sally [not the writer's real name] is a good blogger in her own right, and wouldn't appreciate random interference with her files. But I find myself wondering who's been into my blog lately ....

alright tim it was me LOL

Does Salon Love Freedom?

Over the past two months, the webzine Salon has published several articles purporting to "honor the history and struggle for human freedom." If nothing else, the "Documents of Freedom" series is a triumph of self-indulgence: Salon executive editor Gary Kamiya has contributed three entries (out of nine so far), while in-house scribblers provide the rest. It's no surprise that they offer no insight into human freedom per se. But they do give us a passing glimpse into the mindset of American left-liberalism.

First, the documents discussed in this series don't make much sense in terms of human history, and several of them seem to have been chosen because of their authors' race. Included are Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman" speech and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," both of which have had only a marginal historical effect. (King's "Birmingham Jail" attained prominence only after his death, as the only writing of his to which the King estate did not own copyright.) Included just as prominently is a Chinese manifesto on "The Fifth Modernization," written over a decade prior to the Tiananmen Square crackdown and still largely unread. But the most inexplicable entry covers a Lenny Bruce comedy routine, in which the comic insinuates that a New York judge who threatened to convict him of obscenity was homosexual. Perhaps at Salon, homophobia in the defense of liberty is no vice.

An impartial observer may ask, apres Saul Bellow, "What?! No Zulus?!" The Zulus are in excellent company, though: The Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address haven't been mentioned, either. John Milton's Areopagitica and John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty" are our freedom-loving ambassadors from Britain, yet Salon hasn't breathed a word about the Magna Carta, the document that started the current liberty-and-freedom business way back in 1215. Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, the first and possibly last word on how the US works, also didn't make the cut: Either it's too long, or too complicated, or there were too many dead White males on the list already.

Perhaps it's a function of the strange selection, but the definition of freedom at Salon is fixated on unrestricted freedom of speech, frequently to the exclusion of all other considerations. For example, Roger Newman's article on the Bill of Rights pays only brief lip-service to some of the rights the Framers deemed most important, such as the right against unwarranted search and seizure, or the right to trial by jury. Newman chooses to devote the majority of his article to "the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of expression."

Naturally, economic freedom doesn't rate a sideways glance. Patrick Henry's rants against oppressive taxation helped to spark the American Revolution, but you won't find him among the Documents of Freedom. Ben Franklin, who had his own ideas about taxation and property rights, is bypassed in favor of his grandson Ben Bache. It's easy to see why Salon loves Bache so much: He wrote and published a left-wing rag -- just like Salon -- which went belly-up in a few years -- just like Salon. But even Bache had strong opinions about individual economic freedom and the necessity of a weak central government, and those opinions formed the content of his free expression. Unlike Salon, Bache didn't believe American liberty ended with the First Amendment.

Salon's narrow definition of liberty can lead to embarrassing blunders, especially when it tries to portray past thinkers as heralds of '60s radicalism. In an essay on John Milton's Areopagitica, Gary Kamiya writes, "Milton argues that all speech must be free, because it is only through struggle and competition that truth or religion worthy of the name will emerge." But Milton argued no such thing. The subject of his essay was licensing, a system under which a writer had to get governmental approval before he could write a book. Milton believed that licensing infringed on individual liberty of conscience, and was therefore bad. Yet he approved of censorship. If a book posed some danger to morals, religion or public welfare, Milton argued that government could suppress it legitimately after it had been published. So much for making a twentieth-century flower child out of a seventeenth-century Puritan.

None of this seems to faze Salon, though. Its distortions, fabrications, strange selections and sins of omission are all designed to reinforce a single polemical argument. For instead of enumerating the freedoms we enjoy, this series tries to persuade readers that the evil Bush administration is placing hard-won, dearly-bought freedoms of the '60s in direst peril. If Lenny Bruce sacrificed his career to attack obscenity laws, John Ashcroft "wants to turn back the clock" with a new "anti-porn crusade." The Pentagon Papers signaled a new era of governmental openness, but "if a case similar to the Pentagon Papers were to come before the high court today, a very different ruling would result." The Bill of Rights is "in the news even more than, to pick a topic totally at random, American (mis)adventures in foreign lands." (Random, indeed.) Frankly, when Salon senior writer Laura Miller described Sojourner Truth's passionate crusade for women's rights, I half-thought she would claim that Bush planned to bring slavery back. Luckily, she doesn't go that far.

The writers at Salon don't seem to know what our freedoms are, or how they evolved. Worse, they don't seem to care. They're much more interested in taking potshots at the Bush administration, justified or not. The "Documents of Freedom" could have been a highlight in this webzine's history, the sort of project that gives Internet writing a little more respect. Instead, it's a pretentious, self-absorbed disaster.

Thursday, September 04, 2003

On Westerns, Addendum #2

Michael Blowhard attributes the decline of the Western to the adult male's "loss of credibility" as a hero. That's a good theory, and well worth considering. I'm not sure I buy it, though, and here's why:

The gradual erosion of masculine authority begins in the post-WWII era, as Western heroes become less virtuous and more sociopathic. Contrast John Wayne's uncomplicated Ringo Kid in Stagecoach with the obsessive sadistic trail boss he played nine years later in Red River. Here the trail drive's success lies not with the old veteran Wayne, but with perpetual adolescent Montgomery Clift. The final showdown occurs not when Clift and Wayne face off, but when a young woman tongue-lashes both men into a bashfully submissive reconciliation. If any single film could have rendered the traditional Western hero culturally irrelevant, Red River would have done it ... in 1948.

Instead, the film set a pattern, making this figure a destabilizing threat instead of an all-around good guy. This change was understandable, considering that the post-WWII impulse toward home and hearth required the unattached male to view himself with a certain level of self-loathing. But it didn't take long for Westerns to take the idea to some pretty bizarre extremes. The anti-male viewpoint of Red River looks positively restrained next to the baroque masochism of 1950s Anthony Mann westerns. In these films, once Jimmy Stewart ventures beyond the domestic sphere, he gives his darkest impulses free rein, and the result is closer to Joseph Conrad than Zane Grey.

Nor was Mann the sole culprit. Starting with She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and culminating with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, John Ford's films gradually turned John Wayne against his wholesome image, either playing his machismo for laughs or presenting it as a decrepit or frightening parody of its former glory. Henry Hathaway's True Grit (for which Wayne won his sole Oscar) and Don Siegel's 1976 film The Shootist are particularly sad pieces of work, if only for the various ways in which these films emasculate Wayne's aging-gunfighter character. It's true that by the late seventies mature, masculine men were no longer heroes. But then again, if movies were any indication, they hadn't been for quite some time.

Yet none of the films I've cited signaled the decline of the Western as a commercially viable genre. On the contrary, the Western's critical and commercial heyday occurred during that quarter-century after WWII when it openly attacked the traditional hero and his values. Mann's tormented horse operas with Stewart were all "A pictures," presented at the top of a double bill. Ford's bitter Searchers was also a top-of-the-line studio production (though it didn't garner much audience attention at the time). Budd Boetticher's late-'50s films with Randolph Scott were no less ambivalent toward their star, but they were "B pictures," shot in a few days on a tiny budget. Still, they made money, especially with the French; Godard quoted from Boetticher's 1958 Westbound in his first film Breathless. Even though the masculine hero wasn't half as grand as he used to be, the Western had come a long way from the old "programmers" of Tim Holt, Ken Maynard and Lash LaRue.

But in the late '70s and early '80s, all of that changed: Teenagers became America's primary moviegoing audience, and the sci-fi All-American Boy replaced the western's Grizzly Gus on the big screen. I don't think that's a coincidence. Indeed, I suspect that most developments in American cinema over the past two decades may be traced directly to this basic shift in audience. Teenagers may want to see morality-based melodramas, but their tepid receptions indicate they don't want to see Westerns per se. My guess is that the Western genre just carries too much elegiac baggage for them, and that they can't relate to aging, earthy heroes. Something in the Western simply does not agree with a teenager's world view.

But whether Michael Blowhard's theory or mine better explains the genre's decline, the result is pretty much the same: Studios can't get an instant $100 million opening weekend off a Western, because teenage audiences don't want to see them. If a film can't hook the teenage audience, it can't be a box-office blockbuster. If a film can't be a blockbuster, it can't turn a profit. And if a film can't turn a profit, then there's no real point in having it made.

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

On Westerns (addendum)

Michael Blowhard of has weighed in on the subject of Westerns, writing that the American Western "just changed its clothes and reemerged as the sci-fi movie." Blowhard goes on to explain that "both genres (by and large) supply the pleasures of action-centered heroic morality tales set in mythical landscapes." He's absolutely right to note that sci-fi movies have appropriated the basic plots and settings of old Westerns. Still, I think sci-fi is fundamentally very different.

Sci-fi space epics are about the next frontier; Western horse operas are about the last one. Sci-fi is usually about the future; Westerns are about the past. Sci-fi heroes are younger (Flash Gordon, Luke Skywalker, "Neo" Anderson); Western heroes are older (William S. Hart, Ethan Edwards, Josey Wales). In short, sci-fi inherited the Western's penchant for action-based melodrama, but discarded its elegiac tone.

This leads me to another important point of contention with Spencer Warren of the Claremont Institute. Warren claims that the sci-fi heroes of Hollywood blockbusters reflect today's cultural nihilism. To me they do anything but. Sci-fi protagonists like Lara Croft (Tomb Raider) or Schwarzenegger's good-guy Terminator are simply, mindlessly affirmative; their inhuman defiance of basic facticity allows them to leap over trees, fly through the air, and generally perform feats that would kill or cripple any real person. These characters' crass, unrealistic perfection might lead to audience nihilism eventually, but that doesn't make them inherently nihilistic. Quite the contrary: They embody a teenager's naive belief in his/her indestructibility and limitless potential.

Teenagers don't have much patience with elegies, or for the idea that in their life's journey they may have lost or discarded something important. They don't look back on the past (their own or others') with nostalgia or regret; in fact, they seldom look back at all. This is good for them, I think, but fatal for the western. Thus, futuristic sci-fi films are thriving among teenagers, while old-fashioned Westerns have fallen by the wayside.

Monday, September 01, 2003

On Westerns

Patricia Nelson Limerick has written that the American West -- and thus, the Western -- is defined by the absence of water. In this frontier world, beyond the reaches of civilization, the dominant color is brown, brown, always brown. This barren landscape mandates equal starkness in character: Moral extremes of good and evil are thrown into sharp relief, and violence is the only way to resolve the implacable hatred between them. The Western expresses, with Abraham Lincoln, the hope that "right makes might," and that, given even a moderately fair fight, right and justice will prevail.

Once the darling of Hollywood, the Western movie has become something of a pariah, and I'm not altogether certain why this should be so. Cultural critic Spencer Warren of the conservative Claremont Institute thinks the Western's decline is attributable to the "nihilistic attitude" pervading contemporary American culture. I don't think that's the case, if only because the most nihilistic decade of American cinema -- the 1970s -- produced at least three of the best Westerns ever made: Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Clint Eastwood's Outlaw Josey Wales, and Walter Hill's The Long Riders. (To be fair, Warren doesn't think much of these films.)

A better reason for the Western's decline might be that the genre evokes indigenous American myth, ill-suited to the large-scale, internationally marketed blockbusters which have dominated Hollywood since the early 1980s. A Western might play well in the heartland, but it's not likely to do well in Japan or Pakistan. Still, I'm inclined to doubt that explanation as well, if only because other countries have been making Westerns -- or at least, their own versions of Westerns. The Japanese comedy Tampopo and the current British release Once Upon a Time in the Midlands both show the influences of classic Hollywood Westerns. Indeed, I dare say the only film industry that seems unwilling to touch the Western is America's.

So I'll offer a third theory, however tentatively: The Western's appeal blithely skips over teenagers, who constitute the primary moviegoing audience. Children (especially boys) see these mythic heroes as glorified surrogate father-figures, while older adults see in them the wistful promise of some grander road not taken. Nowhere in the classic Western does one see frankly narcissistic pleasure, the "mirror" that teenagers so clearly crave in their entertainment. Western heroes don't walk, talk, or think like the rest of us do; they may be the people we wish we were, but they never reflect the people we are.

It's no coincidence, then, that the Western hero is usually middle-aged or older. John Wayne and Clint Eastwood were well into their thirties before they became major film stars; Jimmy Stewart was in his forties before Anthony Mann made him a Western icon. Randolph Scott was fifty-seven when he starred in the first of Budd Boetticher's legendary B-movie Westerns. Contrast these stone-faced survivors with today's crop of young, hairless, pretty-boy action stars. Idealized American teen idols simply cannot approach, let alone portray, these glamorously grizzled heroes. They can't get dirty or sweaty, and they can't do manual labor with those impeccably manicured hands. In short, these young dandies simply haven't the authority -- moral or otherwise -- to succeed on the Western's unforgiving terms.

Unless you're counting bizarre action-flick hybrids like Wild Wild West or Shanghai Noon, director-star Kevin Costner's Open Range is the first new Western to come down the 'pike in quite some time. Much as I enjoyed it, I have to confess there's an airless, museum-like quality to the piece -- almost as if Costner had placed a great Western of yore under glass and invited us to admire from a safe distance, lest we accidentally damage the artifact. (It doesn't help that most of the film's best scenes, such as Costner's explanation of the strategy behind a gunfight, were cribbed wholesale from Eastwood's superior Outlaw Josey Wales.)

Spencer Warren has recently discussed some of his favorite Westerns at the Claremont Institute website. I'll second his list (at least those films I've been lucky enough to see) and add a few others:

Hell's Heroes (1929): The inspiration for John Wayne's Three Godfathers is a superior early talkie, thanks to William Wyler's direction and three pitch-perfect performances from the male leads. It's probably the best western of its time, eclipsing both the stagebound 1929 version of The Virginian and Raoul Walsh's panoramic yet inert The Big Trail the following year. Few films have captured the feel of the desert as effectively as Hell's Heroes, and the ending strikes a perfect balance between sentimentality and irony.

Run of the Arrow (1956): Iconoclastic director (and former crime reporter) Samuel Fuller is, hands down, one of my favorite filmmakers. His Run of the Arrow has almost exactly the same plot Costner used thirty-five years later in Dances with Wolves, but Fuller's tight pacing and unusual staging give this film a distinct edge over its imitators.

Westbound (1958): Generally considered the least of the Budd Boetticher / Randolph Scott westerns, this film still contains enough of Boetticher's toughness to qualify as a minor classic. Death strikes randomly, without morals or purpose, in this film: Not even children are spared.

The Wild Bunch (1969): Peckinpah's masterpiece very nearly made my "Sight and Sound" list of the ten greatest films of all time. Yes, the ending is harsh and nihilistic, but the comradery among the characters is positively infectious. It's much better, to my mind, than George Roy Hill's similarly themed Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Barbarosa (1982): Manos arriba, sunzabitches! The Australians still understand what makes a Western work, and Aussie director Fred Schepisi's first film in the States features stellar writing and brilliant casting all around. Willie Nelson is unforgettable in the title role, handling his tech-heavy dialogue so well you'd think he was born for the part. Scenes don't always begin or end when you think they will, but if you're willing to settle into the film's deliberately off-kilter rhythms, you'll be rewarded with what may well be the best Western of the 1980s. Problem is, the studio practically buried this film with a half-hearted original release, and the cruddy full-frame transfer on the recent Artisan DVD just adds insult to injury.

The Quick and the Dead (1995): Sam Raimi's mad funhouse of a horse opera is closer in spirit to his cult-schlock Evil Dead trilogy than to the great films of John Ford. But it may be closer still to Samuel Fuller's much-celebrated but little-seen Forty Guns, with its bizarre imagery, tricky camera setups, and wink-wink Freudian subtext. Sharon Stone is too fresh-faced and maternal as the lead (Fuller fared much better with steely-eyed noir heroine Barbara Stanwyck), but everything else is spot on. Best of all, Quick and the Dead shows no regard for historical authenticity -- which makes this film a blast of fresh air among the rather stolid revisionist Westerns of the past decade.

The last three films are available on video and DVD; the first three aren't. In addition, check out Anthony Mann's Man from Laramie and Eastwood's Outlaw Josey Wales (both available on video and DVD) for a festival of great American westerns. Happy trails, gentle reader!

Preview of Coming Attractions

In the works:

1. Since everybody seems to be writing about Frank Lloyd Wright (whose buildings I love, mainly because I will never have to live or work in one), I'm crafting a short travel essay on Stephen Foster, who to my knowledge has no connection to American architecture -- or for that matter, to My Old Kentucky Home State Park, which for eighty years has celebrated one of Foster's best-known songs without once paying attention to the words.

2. What do Communism and the theater have in common? Only aging hipsters and leftist professors believe either one is still alive. The indie musical Camp has come to Charlottesville at last. It's the first PG-13 film since Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven to take its Gay characters seriously, even if it can't quite figure out what to do with them. But more importantly, Camp is a Broadway vanity project, and thus can tell us everything we need to know about the cultural irrelevance of the Great White Way.

3. Your tax dollars at work? More fun with outdoor drama as My Stupid Dog visits the official outdoor drama of the Commonwealth of Virginia at the fag end of its fortieth season. (I won't spoil the surprise with a link.)

4. At last, the final entry -- Episode XIII, for those who care -- in my ongoing "Sight and Sound" series, in which I make apologies for not mentioning Michael Herr in my otherwise-more-or-less-adequate essay on Apocalypse Now Redux.

This and other culture-vulture stuff over the next week.

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