RED LOBSTER

Recently I began to be seriously disturbed by the fact that I had never eaten at a Red Lobster.  I did not expect that the experience would be a good one, but avoiding the experience seemed . . . well, it seemed un-American.



My nephew Harry's current visit to Las Vegas offered a rare opportunity to enlist a companion for a visit to a Red Lobster, because Harry is mad for seafood.  Despite his profound lack of enthusiasm for this particular venture — he had eaten at a Red Lobster once before and had found it underwhelming — he agreed to it in a spirit of scientific inquiry and patriotism.



The results of the inquiry can now be reported.  The decor of a Red Lobster is predictably generic.  The service at a slow hour was acceptable.  An appetizer plate of fried calamari, clams and broccoli was appetizing.  The recently-live Maine lobster I had was red, and perfectly fine.  The crustaceans on Harry's Ultimate Feast platter, a lobster tail and snow crab legs, were tasty — the fried shrimp edible, the shrimp scampi not so much.



So . . . o. k. seafood in a boring setting at a stiff price.  I wouldn't revisit the place here in Las Vegas, where there are so many great seafood restaurants, but I can imagine being grateful to find a Red Lobster in a desolate
strip mall somewhere in the heartland, not too far from a desolate motel one happened to be stuck in for one reason or another.

At any rate, I feel that my credentials as an American have been honorably renewed.

HARRY

My nephew on the terrace of Mon Ami Gabi at the Paris — in his cool Seven Samurai T-shirt.  We feasted like kings — oysters, snails, chicken-liver mousse, steak, lobster.



Groups of crazed bachelorettes dressed like hookers, with plastic tiaras and beauty-pageant sashes, swirled around us but did not deter us from serious talk about movies.
  As you can probably tell from my expression in the photo above, the conversation has just turned to the subject of André Bazin.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: REPORTAGE DE LA PLAGE, 23 AVRIL 1999

En Californie, le printemps n’existe pas.  Entre l’hiver et l’été,
l’année souffre une crise d’identité.  Les jours sont entrés dans une
folie d’oscillation entre une chaleur luxurieuse et une mélancholie
d’automne, brouillée par les nuages.

On a l’impression d’habiter un film assemblé par un monteur derangé,
sous la direction d’un metteur en scène dément.  Votre rôle dans la
drame est morcelé.  Quelquefois on parle Anglais, quelquefois on parle
Francais.  Quelquefois, la mer parle dans la voix d’une femme — et
alors l’ocean interromps le discours tendre dans la voix d’un homme.

On a l’envie des longeurs de la saison d’été, monotone et stupide, mais
fixée, lorsque elle vous dirai “Cowabunga, dude!” et on repondra avec
le sourire d’un idiot.

HIGH COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

Before the anti-Western there was the twilight Western — a series of films which seemed to sense that the genre was almost played out, or at least that America no longer looked to it for wisdom and inspiration.  The iconic Western stars were becoming old men in the 1960′s, and no figures of comparable stature were riding in to replace them, with the possible exception of Clint Eastwood (who would start the important part of his journey far from Hollywood) but the older stars still had box-office pull, for some part of the audience.

So we were given Westerns about the passing of the West, the last days of aging heroes.  These Westerns continued to affirm the traditional values of the genre but acknowledged that the world might no longer need them, or if it did need them, no longer understand them.



The twilight Western really began with the last shot of John Ford’s The Searchers in 1956.  Ethan Edwards, a somewhat deconstructed hero, walks off alone, having performed his last heroic deed — there is, at any rate, a suggestion that no more such deeds await him.

Ford continued the deconstruction of the Western hero, and offered a look at the times that made him irrelevant, in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence — a film told mostly in flashback.  Budd Boetticher had previously made a series of brilliant films starring the aging Randolph Scott, still noble and implacable in virtue, but always alone — not just a lone wolf, like many Western heroes, but marked with a sadness  for lost times.  The Boetticher-Scott Westerns are uncompromising in their celebration of traditional values, but haunted, too, by a sense of something coming to an end . . . by the idea that Scott’s stoic hero may be the last of his breed.

This idea is made explicit in Sam Peckinpah’s first Western (and second feature), Ride the High Country, from 1962.  Scott (above on the left) plays an aging hero who loses faith, at least for a while, in the code he has always lived by.  Joel McCrea (above on the right), almost as old as Scott, holds on to that code, knowing full well that the world no longer gives it much credit, if it ever did.

The film is an elegy for and affirmation of this old code of
the Western hero — a combination that is both inspiring and poignant.
It’s a new kind of Western, too, in its treatment of its female lead, played by Mariette Hartley (above).  She offers, as in many Westerns, an occasion for testing the gallantry, and thus the true worth, of the male characters, but Peckinpah makes an effort to get inside her head, to let us imagine what the test means for her.  One can’t really call Peckinpah’s perspective feminist, but it’s a step in that direction.

Ride the High Country has taken on a deeper emotional significance over the years, since we now know that the end of the Western genre it seemed to sense was in fact just over the horizon.  Curiously, the most successful revivals of the Western have gone back to the twilight theme — Lonesome Dove and Unforgiven, for example, have aging heroes out for one last adventure.  It’s a pattern also followed in two modern-dress Westerns, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and No Country For Old Men, both starring Tommy Lee Jones, of Lonesome Dove.  The title of the Coen brothers’ film might have served as the title of Ride the High Country as well.  Both films suggest that with the passing of the old men, some hope for the redemption of the new world coming into being has been lost.

PULL MY DAISY

Paul Zahl (of this site's The Zahl File and his own marvelous PZ's Podcast) observes beats and a bishop cavorting on screen in a strange document of the Fifties:

SNAKE-DANCING BISHOP


 


Pull My Daisy, the 1959 “beatnik” movie by Robert Frank and Alfred
Leslie, with narration by Jack Kerouac and music by David Amram, has
one amazing character in it,
unique, I'll bet, in American literature.  The character is a Christian
bishop possessing, to put it mildly, wide-ranging interests.



 


Pull My Daisy is a casual treatment in film of Act Three of Kerouac's
1957 play entitled
Beat Generation.  The play was not produced.  It
concerns some Lower Manhattan beatniks, played by Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, and Larry Rivers, who receive a chaotic
visit from “The Bishop”, played by Mooney Peebles.  During the visit,
the beatniks, especially Allen Ginsberg, try out their ideas on this
religious man, and variously try to tease him.



 


Here is Kerouac's narration of the Bishop's grilling:


 


“And Allen is saying, Is ignorance rippling up above the silver ladder
of Sherifian doves?


 


“(The Bishop) says, Yes yes yes, Sherifian doves, yes . . .  In any case
we are not concerned one way or the other about what we're thinking about,
about anything in particular.  But perhaps we sit in some kind of quiet
bliss.  And he goes on trying to explain it because he really knows
what he's talking about.”



 


Later, the filmmakers, in a high reflective pause, somewhat lengthy,
show The Bishop leading the women and children of the beatniks in
prayer and song, all standing out in front of the Third Avenue loft
building where the visit is taking place.  Kerouac voices this over:
“The angel of silence hath flown over all their heads.”


 


Towards the end of
Pull My Daisy, The Bishop excuses himself in order
“that I go now and go make my holy offices (laughter): if you know what
I mean.”


 


But Wait!  There's more on this Kerouacian Bishop.


 


We learn in Act One of
Beat Generaton, on the third act of which Pull My Daisy is based, that The Bishop's denomination is “the new,
ah, Aramaean church.”



 


We also learn The Bishop is wonderfully weird.  He says to the Allen
Ginsberg character, “We cannot expect solutions, or nirvana, eh, if you
wish to call it that, without making some eff-
fort in the direction of
God, some movement (AND HE TWISTS)”


 


IRWIN (Allen Ginsberg):  Ooh you twisted just like a snake then . . .  Yes
your movement then was exactly like a supernatural illustrated serpent
arching its back to Heaven . . . I mean that was the
hippest thing I've
seen you do tonight.”


 


The Bishop also praises the Kerouac character, whose name is “Buck”:
“You're making sense and you do drink (LAUGHTER)”


 


Our “Buck” has the last word on The Bishop:


 


“Bishop, let me say, you're positively right in everything you say and
you're a very sweet man.”


 


BISHOP: My disciple here!



 

Behold, then, dear Sisters and Brothers, a hip bishop, snake-dancing
with the beats over on Third Avenue.  May his tribe increase.

PALPABLE SPACE

This is the eighth in a series of essays in honor of André Bazin.

Susan Barry was born with slightly misaligned eyes, which couldn't both be focused on the same object.  As is common for people with this condition, “normal” vision produced an image in which objects situated in different spaces were superimposed on each other, and distant objects seemed to vibrate.  So her brain, as is also common, learned to disregard the image from one eye, for greater clarity.  But this meant that she could not see in stereo, in three dimensions — she could not perceive the spatial relationships between things, except by inference.

In her 48th year she trained herself to focus both eyes on the same objects — something that was previously thought by medical science to be impossible.  Suddenly she could see in three dimensions.  It's wonderful to hear her talk about the joy of this.  Before, she had seen falling snow as a flat screen of moving white dots, the branches and leaves of trees as a flat pattern of shapes.  Now, she says, she can see the “palpable spaces” in depth between the snowflakes, between the branches and the leaves.

It's an interesting choice of words, since palpable meant originally something that can be physically touched.  It comes from the Latin word palpare, to stroke, and has the same root as palpation — now mostly a medical term for a doctor's examination of a patient by touch.  (It can be used aesthetically, as well, as in “the beauty of the female breast is best appreciated by palpation.”)  You can't physically touch the spaces between things, of course, but Barry was using the word palpable correctly, since it is now often used figuratively for anything that is obvious, readily perceived.

And yet . . . there is something “palpable”, in the original sense, about space.  If you close your eyes and move your hand between two objects, it's the absence of feeling something you can touch that tells you how far apart they are.  This is a kind of “negative touch”.  And if you close your eyes and try to navigate around, the absence of objects that can be touched tells you where you can safely go.  Empty space always has the potential to be filled, occupied, by something that can be touched.

You can think of space as the kind of mold used in casting an object out of bronze or plastic.  The mold receives the impression of the model, which is then removed, leaving a negative space.  The mold is next filled with the material to be cast, and when it hardens the mold is removed, leaving the cast object.  The mold is a kind of negative (solid, palpable) impression of the space around the new object.

In practice, we think of objects and the space around them as both “palpable”, since they both deliver the same kind of information to us about the physical world.  We take this “palpability” of space for granted, see it as emptiness, just as we throw away a casting mold when we've made what we want from it.  But Susan Barry's joy at “palpable” space reminds us of what a wonder it is — perhaps reminds us of our joy as infants in learning to use the “palpability” of space as a prime way of understanding and navigating the world around us.

It seems to me that paintings and photographs which convincingly convey the illusion of space, and all the plastic arts, from dance to architecture, which celebrate the wonders of “palpable space”, work in large part by reprising and tapping into the joy of these first discoveries — reminding us of the beauty of a spatial palpability we come to take for granted in the course of time, but which Susan Barry had never learned to take for granted.

Movies are the art most wired into this beauty, the beauty of spaces.  Movies are flat images, but when people and objects move through the spaces depicted on screen, or when the camera moves through those spaces, the wondrous palpability of space is reborn for us.  At the end of his life, D. W. Griffith lamented that movies, in the post silent-film era, had lost touch with this beauty, the beauty, he said, of leaves rustling in the breeze.  And it is the beauty of leaves rustling in the breeze, along with snowflakes, that Susan Barry cites as the things she most enjoys now that she can see in stereo.

Griffith didn't mean, of course, that there should be more trees in movies.  He meant that movies needed to reconnect with the phenomenon out of which their fundamental magic arises.

[Susan Barry's book about her recovery of stereo vision, Fixing My Gaze, has just come out in paperback, and Oliver Sacks devotes a chapter to her case in his forthcoming book The Mind's Eye.]

WESTERN GIRLS

There is no place for Westerns in modern corporate culture but that doesn’t mean that the form is no longer alive in the American and in the world’s imagination. Any Hollywood studio executive will tell you, as though reciting the Nicene Creed, that audiences don’t want Westerns, and publishers will say the same of Western fiction. Both are craven lies.

When a traditional Western manages to slip through the cracks in Hollywood, it invariably meets with success. Dances With Wolves, Unforgiven, Tombstone, Open Range and the Coen brothers’ True Grit all turned a profit, and a few of them, True Grit conspicuously, made a very great deal of money. Non-traditional, cynical Westerns, the sort of Westerns that appeal to the collapsed males who run Hollywood, invariably flop. These dreadful men make their case from the latter type of Western, and ignore or explain away the former type. It may be that they don’t even know the difference between them.

Larry McMurtry’s great Western novel Lonesome Dove was a huge bestseller, and was made into a tremendously successful television mini-series. McMurtry’s other Western novels have sold well, too. Publishers find ways of believing that these facts don’t count. Westerns remain anathema in the world of fiction.

Part of the problem, it must be admitted, lies with the creators of Westerns. Many of them did not notice how the Western was evolving in Hollywood, just before it lost its credibility with the studios. In the Sixties and early Seventies, the Western was starting to incorporate the female sensibility into its generic concerns. This could be seen most clearly in Charles Portis’s novel True Grit, made into a somewhat compromised film by Henry Hathaway, but also in the early works of Sam Peckinpah, like Ride the High Country and The Ballad Of Cable Hogue. Peckinpah would eventually self-destruct as an artist and a man, indulging in his personal nihilism and misogyny to the detriment of the Western genre, taking it down an apparent dead-end street and leaving it there for dead.

Curiously, it was around this same time that McMurtry, long before he wrote Lonesome Dove, recognized where the Western needed to go—into the female experience, into the female psyche. This, he saw, was the great undiscovered country of the genre, the path to a renaissance of the form. In discussing the future of regional Texas literature he wrote, in 1968, “Literature has coped fairly well with the physical circumstances of life in Texas, but our emotional experience remains largely unexplored, and therein lie the dramas, poems, and novels. An ideal place to start, it seems to me, is with the relations of the sexes, a subject from which the eyes of Texas have remained too long averted.”

McMurtry, writing here in a book of essays about Texas called In A Narrow Grave, was not talking about the Western itself as a genre, but he might as well have been. And he was certainly not talking about making Western literature responsible and inclusive, incorporating female experience out of sociological or feminist obligation. Elsewhere in the book he bemoans the idea of movie Westerns becoming “responsible”, obliged to convey any particular political or sociological messages. This was part of what killed the Western in the Sixties—the idea that the national myth had to reflect modern guilt over things like Vietnam and civil rights, had to own up to the fact that America was always rotten, its heroes always fraudulent.

As if Westerns had ever tried to sell their visions as historical fact! Westerns have always been wisdom tales, not history tales. They deal, as writer Ray Sawhill has observed, with issues of shame and honor, as opposed to modern film stories (and non-traditional Westerns) which deal with issues of guilt and therapy.

It’s a crucial distinction. Shame incorporates a perception of personal failing, honor a sense of self-worth restored through action, action that can just as easily involve sacrifice and forgiveness as gun play. Guilt, on the other hand, can be seen as something imposed unfairly from without, by parents or priests or society, curable by therapy, which can be bought and consumed passively.

Stories based on guilt and therapy are not really stories—they’re self-help case studies, often entirely delusional.

But imagine a new frontier for the Western, a territory in which it might be possible to deal with the relations of the sexes in terms of shame and honor, without political correctness, aiming only to entertain and inspire, not gratify and instruct.

The Western will go there some day, and when it does we will forget the time when it seemed to have vanished into thin air before our longing eyes.