UNSPEAKABLY COOL: DREAM OF THE RAREBIT FIEND

The fourth of the four coolest books published in the last few years, like
two of the others, collects the work of Winsor McCay — in this case
the extraordinary strip Dream Of the Rarebit Fiend — but unlike the other three wasn’t put out by Sunday Press Books.  Privately published by Ulrich Merkl, it
includes all of the strips from the series — those not reproduced in
the book itself are supplied on a DVD that comes packaged with the book.

The book is gigantic and presents the strips, published between 1904
and 1913, in their original size.  It also has a wealth of other
illustrative material showing McCay’s sources and documenting the
enormous influence his images have had on America’s visual culture,
especially that of the movies.

The draftsmanship of the strips is stunning, the visual imagination exhilarating.  Its central gag involves the dreams of people given indigestion by eating Welsh Rarebit, making it a kind of run-up to McCay’s masterpiece strip Little Nemo In Slumberland, which illustrates the dreams of a restless little boy.

Merkl’s book, published in a limited edition, is expensive but worth every penny.  It lovingly documents a brilliant and endlessly enchanting work of popular art.

Check out my reports on the other three coolest books of recent years:

Little Nemo

Little Sammy Sneeze

Walt and Skeezix

BACK TO THE FUTURE


                                                              
[Image © 1998 R. Crumb]

With the circulation of the photo of Barack Obama looking silly (and oh
so “other”) in traditional Somali garb, it's clear that the Bill and
Hill machine is back on message, delivering its urgent warning to all
real Americans:

“The Negroes are coming!  The Negroes are coming!”

Bill and Hill have now officially used up all their passes for creepiness.  Voters of Texas, please — make them go away.

HOLLYWOOD: ART VERSUS COMMERCE

One
of the enduring myths of Hollywood is that the town is an eternal
battleground between art and commerce — between studio executives who
only care about money and filmmakers who only care about art.

The truth is that movies have been, almost since the moment they were
invented, a popular art form.  They attracted, for the most part,
popular artists — which is to say, artists who wanted to reach large
audiences.  Long before there was an established studio system run
by corporate functionaries, filmmakers courted a mass audience and
reached it.  The financial returns that followed created the industry that corporations at once set about dominating and
controlling.

The art of cinema was created by the same people who created the mass
market for films — Griffith, Chaplin, Pickford, Keaton, Lloyd. 
Because they were popular artists, commerce was an intimate aspect of
their endeavor.  The corporate executives who took over the
industry these artists created were by no means more
interested in the box office than the artists had been — they were
interested in power and turning the art form into a more predictable
revenue source . . . interests which often conflicted with maximum
box-office potential.

When executives and filmmakers clashed over the content of films, it
was not a battle between art and commerce — it was a battle between
popular artists who actually knew how to make popular films and
bean-counters who thought they knew better.  Since the
bean-counters quickly gained a virtual monopoly over the distribution
of films, they had the last word, and also the ability to insure that
this word could never be challenged, since the overruled filmmakers had
no practical way of getting films before the public without the
bean-counters' consent.

John Ford fought constantly with studio executives and, by his account,
never won a single battle with them — but does anyone seriously
believe that Ford, one of the most consistently successful popular
artists since Dickens, was fighting for some
private, noncommercial artistic vision?  Ford did make a few films, like The Fugitive,
which he may have known in advance would not be wildly commercial, but
for the most part he wanted to address a mass audience as effectively
as possible.  For a genuine popular artist like Ford — or Dickens, or Shakespeare, for that matter — there is no
conflict between art and commerce.

Ford was fighting against executives who could not have created a
popular work of art if their lives depended on it, executives who only
managed and bullied and second-guessed those who could create such
works.  The real issue was not art or commerce — it was
power.  Without their corporate control of the means of film
distribution, these executives would have remained in the realm of
exhibition, from which most of them emerged and where they belonged.

Hollywood in truth has been a battleground between monopoly and a free
market, between corporate standardization and homogenization and
entrepreneurial innovation.  The conflict between art and commerce
has been nothing more than a smokescreen.

PIERROT'S EMBRACE

Guillaume Seignac
was a late Victorian painter (he died in 1924) who mostly turned out
undistinguished but sometimes amusing imitations of Bouguereau. 
His draftsmanship could be flabby and his images didn't have the
über-photographic authority of his master.

The image above is different, though.  It has an odd suggestive
power, almost perverse, that's rooted in theatrical gesture.  I
find it haunting, for reasons I can't quite put my finger on.

CHEYENNE AUTUMN

This
was the next to last feature film John Ford completed, in 1964, when he
was 69 years-old.  It doesn't work as a drama, much less a
melodrama, or as a character study or as an historical epic . . . but
it's one of the most sublime visual poems in the history of movies and
a very great work of art.

It tells the once little-known story of a band of Cheyenne who, in
1879, broke out of confinement on a reservation in Indian territory,
present-day Oklahoma, and made a 1500-mile trek back to their homeland
in Montana.  Pursued and harried by a succession of cavalry
expeditions, starved and near death, the band made it to its old home where
it was allowed to remain.

In his excellent commentary on the wonderful new DVD edition of the film, Ford
biographer Joseph McBride says that Ford originally intended to make Cheyenne Autumn
as a small, black-and-white film, an intimate study of the Cheyenne
pilgrims, but that he was persuaded by the studio to expand it into a
big wide-screen Technicolor extravaganza.  It was, says McBride, a
“Faustian bargain” which led to a film that was neither fish nor fowl,
since Ford lost sight of the Cheyenne characters yet failed to create a
genuine epic.

This may indeed reflect the development of the project but I think it
misses the essence of the film that Ford finally made.  All
of the characters in the film, both Cheyenne and white, recede into the
images, become secondary to the images.  Ford doesn't lose sight
of them as dramatic personae because he has no real interest in them as
dramatic personae.  They're just narrative markers that guide us
through the landscape of the film.

Landscape was always a character in
Ford's Westerns, a kind of Greek chorus commenting on the relative
smallness of human intention and desire.  It stood in, one might
even say, for the regard of Eternity, in which human endeavor held an
insignificant place.  It transformed the melodrama of his stories
into tragic
absurdity.

In Cheyenne Autumn, as in
Shakespeare's late romances, the author lost interest in the mechanics
of plot altogether, in the centrality of individual character, and became enchanted by the
mystery of his medium — the magical poetry of words, in Shakespeare's
case, and of images in Ford's.  The
progress of the Cheyenne through the magnificence of the landscape, the
evolutions of mounted cavalry on the march or at the charge, fill
Ford's imagination fully — the characters dissolve into the beauty of
movement itself.  They are elevated into a transcendent glory not
by the specificity of self but by their possession of space.  They
are dancers, sculptures in motion.

This is not an abstract vision, however, a celebration of
technique.  In his old age, disillusioned with the legends of the
West he did so much to reinforce, Ford lost his faith in man's
essential goodness, or at least in that part of it related to his
will.  Primal values, transcending individual human character,
were all he could believe in — the dumb urge to go home, to preserve
community, to do one's duty.

At the center of the film Ford inserted, unaccountably to many critics,
a 21-minute sequence set in Dodge City which mercilessly satirizes the
myth of the Western hero, of the frontier town.  Jimmy Stewart
appears as a corrupt and cynical Wyatt Earp leading the hysterical townspeople on an
absurd pursuit of the phantom Cheyenne, who in truth are nowhere near
Dodge.  The familiar narrative of the old West is deconstructed, revealed as
a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

After this strange interlude, the film switches back to the story of
the Cheyenne, doing what they have to do, and the horse soldiers, doing
what they have to do.  When the Cheyenne are restored to their
ancestral Eden, Ford shows us how much they have lost recovering it,
just as
he shows us how much honor the soldiers have lost in fulfilling a duty
that's been applied to a meaningless and inhuman mission.

The triumph on both sides was only in the journey, the movement, the dream — all of
which vanish in the end, as the eternal landscape looks on impassively.

The
film has a nominal “upbeat” resolution in its penultimate episode in
which
Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz, wonderfully played by Edward G.
Robinson, goes to visit the escaped Cheyenne in Montana and promises to
help them stay there.  This scene, oddly, is shot against
cheesy-looking back-projections — such a radical violation of the look
of the rest of the film that it almost seems deliberately surreal . . .
as though Ford was asking us not to take this superficial “climax” too
seriously.  Perhaps it can be compared to the improbable events
that “resolve” the narrative of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale,
in which the playwright seems to be asking us to laugh with him at the
conventions of the stage — to remind us that the true heart of his
work lies elsewhere.

DUDLEY NICHOLS AND JOHN FORD

With the notable exception of Stagecoach,
I'm not a big fan of the movies John Ford made with screenwriter Dudley
Nichols, even though these include some of Ford's most celebrated and
entertaining films.

Nichols was an extremely skillful writer, with a sound sense of story structure and a good ear (usually) for
colorful dialogue.  But he also had a self-conscious, “literary”
style — he tended to see situations and characters in emblematic,
metaphorical terms.  This aspect of Nichols' work encouraged Ford
to indulge his gorgeous visual expressionism at the expense of what he
did best — create cinematic spaces and places of mesmerizing
specificity.  The images of The Lost Patrol and The Informer
are supremely beautiful but they grow claustrophobic after a
while.  The desert and the fog-bound city are too obviously
surrogates for existential states, symbolic and airless.

In his best work Ford found ways of imbuing interiors and landscapes
with an uninsistent symbolic quality — we read them as real spaces and
feel their emotional resonances on a subliminal level.  We have a
sense of discovering and exploring these spaces on our own, no matter
how many times we come back to them.  The shadowy streets of Gypo
Nolan's Dublin in The Informer, the merciless desert that swallows up The Lost Patrol, are places we visit with a guide, always reminding us what these environments “mean”.

The streets of Tombstone in My Darling Clementine,
the unfinished church on the edge of town, the maze of the O. K.
Corral, are every bit as charged with meaning and significance, but
Ford lets us tease them out for ourselves — he lets us inhabit them at
our ease, until the places seem to speak to us in their own voices.

POLITICAL POKER UPDATE

The
flop on 5 February didn't favor either Democratic player — Clinton was
still ahead with her AK to Obama's AQ.  Obama spiked another queen
in the Potomac primaries, however — not because he won all three of
them by big margins and not because it gave him the lead in pledged
delegates . . . he paired his queens because for the first time he made
big inroads into Clinton's base, older white women, Latinos and
non-black lower-income voters.

If he can keep doing that in the primaries to come, his queens will
hold up.

Clinton will pair her kings and take the lead if she
wins big in Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania, getting close enough to make
a brokered convention acceptable to the party as a whole — or at least
not totally unacceptable.  Clinton would be likely to win a brokered convention.

However, if Obama leads significantly in vote totals, states won and pledged
delegates after the primaries, I suspect that Clinton will take the card room manager
aside and argue that AK high beats a pair.  If he rules in her
favor, the card room will riot and the Democratic party will be
finished for the foreseeable future — which might not be a bad thing
at all.

Obama represents the Democratic Party's last chance to reform itself
from within and from the bottom up.  If he fails, a more radical
solution will be required — a new party altogether.

THE FIRST

I keep having to remind myself how exciting it is that this year America
might elect its first female President, or its first African-American
President.  It takes a certain amount of effort.  The truth is that such excitement doesn’t have a lot of genuine substance.

I think back to JFK’s election as America’s first Catholic
President.  It seemed like such a big deal at the time, but five
minutes after JFK took the oath of office it was a non-issue.
Nobody cared anymore.  We forget how stupefyingly boring prejudice
– whether religious or sexual or racial — really is . . . because
it’s not underpinned by anything real or relevant to the actual world we
live in.  Its consequences can be horrific, but its core is empty,
illusory, meaningless.  Like all ideas based on irrational
concepts, it has no roots — any strong wind can blow it away.

Five minutes after Hillary Clinton is sworn in as the first female
President, if that happens, five minutes after Barack Obama is sworn in
as the First African-American President, if that happens, the era in
which such a development seemed extraordinary will instantly pass into
ancient history.  Fifty years from today kids will have no
imaginative grasp of that era, just as today they have no imaginative
grasp of the era of legal apartheid in America.

For America, with its knuckle-headed orientation towards the future –
itself somewhat irrational — the lunatic evils of the past have a
tendency to enter the realm of science fiction.  In America, for example,
women and blacks have always had the vote — any time when they didn’t
have the vote unfolded in an alternate universe.  I grew up in
such an alternate universe — North Carolina in the 1950s.  I saw
signs like the one above every day of my life.  Today they seem
more like something I read about in a book than like memories of real things.

Perhaps it’s an example of the narcosis of hope . . . and perhaps, in a
strange way, that’s part of the genius of America.  We started
with these words — “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all
men are created equal . . .” and it may be that on some level all the
rest of our history has just been a process of finding our way home
through a vale of treasonous delusions.

THE SIXTIES BEGIN

9 February 1964 — I’m 13 years-old, an 8th-grader, in my first year at
an all-boys New England boarding school.  No access to television
– required to be in study hall between dinner and lights out in our dorms.
The Beatles are appearing on the Ed Sullivan show for the first time.

What to do?

It’s possible to sign out of study hall to work in the library.
Three friends and I do this.  Just before the Sullivan show goes
on we sneak out of a bathroom window in the library, move from shadow
to shadow across the campus to the math building, where there is a
television which juniors are allowed to watch.  We enter the room
with the television where about twelve juniors are gathered.  The
moment of truth arrives.  If the older boys decide to bust us,
we’re in serious trouble with the school authorities, with so many
demerits it will take us the rest of the term to work them off on
campus maintenance details, with all privileges suspended.

For the first time it strikes me what a strange thing it is I’m
doing.  I was a nerdy straight-arrow of a kid back then — I don’t
think I’d ever knowingly broken a school rule in my entire life.
Somehow, though, the Beatles seem bigger than school rules.

The juniors smile and stare at us for a few moments, giving us time to sweat — then wave us in.  We watch the Beatles on the show.

This is the same television, in the same room, where we were allowed to watch coverage
of the JFK assassination not quite three months earlier.  Hard not to process the Beatles, purveyors of joy, as a kind of answer to Lee Harvey Oswald.

We sneak back across the campus, climb back in the library window . . .
undetected.  The librarian, a plump, genial woman, looks at us
wryly as we sign out — I’ve always suspected that she noticed our absence over the
course of the evening but decided not to bust us, either.

The decade of rock music and assassinations, desire and transgression had begun.  The Sixties were on.

A PUNCHINELLO FOR TODAY

Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (1727-1804) was the son of the great painter and master of the fresco Giovanni
Battista Tiepolo.  Domenico painted and did frescos as well, but
his most amazing work was series of drawings featuring the
commedia dell'arte character Punchinello, done towards the end of his life.

The series comprised 104 pen and wash images which explored the
character in unexpected ways.  Domenico showed him in childhood,
in the kitchen cooking polenta, imprisoned, and finally dead and buried
(see above.)  Indeed, Domenico treated Punchinello as an early
version of Krusty the Clown, but with a depth of feeling that
transformed him from a stock figure of the comic stage into an image of
everyman, a clown of Shakespearean dimensions.

The drawings are free, almost casual, but incredibly beautiful. 
The series was sold and dispersed in 1921 but in 1986 77 of them were
collected and superbly reproduced in a book, which is out of print but
still available, for a price, through online booksellers.  It's
well worth tracking down.

FAITH ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL

I
personally like to hear a little religion come up in the political
discourse of this country.  Abraham Lincoln, like Martin Luther
King after him, was very good at reminding us that our actions of the
moment have to be seen in the light of transcendent values, and
religion has powerful language in which to frame such ideas.

Here's Lincoln on the human cost of the Civil War (spoken at his Second Inaugural, above):



Fondly do we hope — fervently
do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.
Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by
the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil
shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash
shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said
three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “The
judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Word up, dude.







Barack Obama first got my attention in his speech at the 2004
Democratic Convention when he said, in the space of a few lines, “We've
got some good gay friends in the red states . . . and we worship a
righteous God in the blue states!”  It occurred to me that no
other politician on the national scene could say both things with such
fervor and conviction.  I'm sure that Hillary Clinton's faith and
John McCain's faith are sincere, but neither could use the phrase “a
righteous God” with such an unselfconscious sense of joy — and neither would dare to
speak with true affection for gays, afraid of alienating some
constituency or other, regardless of their stated positions on gay
rights.

I was really pissed off at the Mike Huckabee campaign ad in which a
bookcase behind him was lit to present the image of a gleaming
cross.  Huckabee later said it was inadvertent.  Right. 
It was a Christmas message, in which Huckabee mentioned celebrating the
birth of Christ — why lie about the cross image?  Was he just too
wimpy to put a crucifix behind him — did he think it would be better
to sneak it in?  Subliminal messages like this, especially when
denied, are very
creepy.  (Have a look at the ad yourself here and draw your own conclusions.)  I also am totally unmoved by mere statements of faith, or
policies defended by scriptural doctrine.  I want the ideas behind
those doctrines to take center stage in the discourse.

Michelle Obama, who is becoming a truly powerful speaker, said the other day
in California that “our souls are broken”
in this country because we have lost some of
our capacity for empathy with “the least of
these”.  She was using what is essentially a religious argument,
and referencing scripture in the process — these lines from Matthew:



Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

That's
one of the most radical statements in the history of human thought, and
a keystone of Christian faith, but Mrs. Obama was using it in the
context of an argument about ideas — about the way a democracy ought
to function.  She wasn't arguing about getting religion back into
public life, with symbols and slogans, she was getting religion back into public life by speaking to (and from) its wisdom.

You don't have to be religious to appreciate the value of religious
language for illuminating complex moral ideas — Lincoln's own
religious faith was a little murky even as he penned the words I've
quoted above.  And even if you are religious, you can afford to be
offended when politicians use the language of faith as a marketing tool.

CLASH BY NIGHT

There's a terrific short review of Fritz Lang's Clash By Night, maybe the greatest of all domestic noirs, recently posted on the web site films noir.  It has this sublime evocation of the film's themes — “Sexual abandon and existential entitlement are put on trial and found empty.”

Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard are certainly the most entertaining domestic noirs, but Clash By Night offers far more complex insights into the ways post-WWII anxiety corroded relations between the sexes.

Check out the review here.

FLETCHER HANKS

Fletcher
Hanks is sometimes called, with a kind of affectionate awe, the worst
comic book artist of all time — sort of the Ed Wood of the comic
book.  Like Wood, he was bad in an earnest, reckless way that
grips the imagination.

Fletcher's drawing style was crude, his stories simple and
brutal.  They have a way of penetrating straight to the unconscious.

Not much is known about him, except that he was an abusive drunk who
terrorized his family and then abandoned them in 1930, that he stopped
drawing comic books in 1941 and that he froze to death on a park bench
in New York City sometime in the 1970s.

But the work remains, saved by a few collectors of wildly obscure comics and now reprinted in a new book called I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets!  It is a cry from a twisted heart and in some weird, unfathomable way both brilliant and important.