SOUTH OF THE BORDER

Ringo Starr said he had no particular interest in music until he heard, around the age of seven, Gene Autry singing this song in a movie.  It left him with a lifelong love of Country and Western music, and he called Autry the most significant musical force in his life.

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The clip at the head of this post is probably the scene he was referring to, from South Of the Border, 1939, though Ringo would have to have seen a reissue of it sometime after WWII.  Discussing it in 1976, he misremembered its details — he thought Autry had slung his leg over the horn of his saddle when singing the song — but he described it as his “first musical experience”, one that had stuck in his brain ever since.

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He added that his bedroom was covered with Gene Autry posters.

A NEW REVIEW

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Well, new to me, at any rate — it was actually published a year ago at Buddies In the Saddle, the blog of Western enthusiast and scholar Ron Scheer, who has recently published the first volume in his study of Western literature How the West Was Written.

It’s a thoughtful and, to me, perceptive review, that gets to the heart of my ambitions for the stories.  Here’s part of it:

This is one of those books that came over the transom at BITS. Written by screenwriter and novelist Lloyd Fonvielle, it’s a self-published collection of stories that seem not to have seen the light of day until now. Springing from obscurity, they bear the marks of an inspired imagination, well informed by western movies.

A caveat at the outset, for readers of the traditional western. There’s both a dark and raunchy edge to some of these stories. If they were movies themselves, they would challenge the MPAA reviewers given the job of labeling them with suitable parental warnings. One or two would be candidates for an NC-17 rating.

Themes. The stories take place in a world of shootings, killings, and various frontier atrocities, but the recurring interest in them has to do with relations between men and women. Typically a man of some character finds himself dealing with a woman of equal nerve and grit.

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Exploring relations between men and women on the Western frontier in franker and more complex ways strikes me as the great new horizon for writers of Western fiction, and it has certainly been a central concern of my own Western fiction.

For the full review, and to check out Scheer’s valuable site, go here:

Fourteen Western Stories review

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THE YEARS OF LYNDON JOHNSON

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Epic, majestic, magisterial — it’s hard to find words equal to Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, now just one volume away from completion.

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Five massive volumes on any historical figure might seem like overkill, but not in this case, because Caro is just as interested in the social and political context of Johnson’s life as he is in biographical details.

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As a congressman in the 1930s, Johnson was instrumental in bringing electricity to his district, the hard-luck Hill Country of Texas, where Johnson was born.  Caro details the dazzlingly complex political maneuvers Johnson employed to do this, but he also wants you to know what the accomplishment meant — so he devotes a long chapter to describing the day-to-day life of Hill Country ranchers and farmers, and particularly Hill Country ranchers’ and farmers’ wives, in the days before electrification.  The result is the best, most powerful and most harrowing evocation of daily frontier life and labor ever written.

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And this is just one example of Caro’s ability to illuminate the world Johnson moved in, the world that made him and the world he changed, for better and for worse.

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Johnson was a fabulous, mythic creature, not least because he understood the way American political life was changing in the 20th Century — understood how a ruthless and tireless man could ride those changes to a position of unprecedented power.

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The story of Johnson’s life is wildly entertaining, wildly inspiring, wildly depressing — because it exposes the deep corruption of the American political process along with its unaccountable ability to accomplish great things.

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You simply can’t understand America in our own time without understanding the dark genius and eccentric idealism of Lyndon Johnson.  He was a man who, like America itself, can never be explained or fully known — a man at the very heart of the paradox that is America.

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BACK IN LAS VEGAS

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My sister stuck around Las Vegas for a while to help me get my apartment into liveable shape.  We hung out a couple of nights at McMullen’s (above), losing money at video poker, and watched a couple of movies, including Angel and the Bad Man, shot around Sedona, which we’d just visited, and Rio Grande, which for my money gets better and better the more times I revisit it.

I was sorry to see her fly back to her home in New York, but we had some great times and great talks while she was out West.

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THE LAST PICTURE SHOW

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There has long been a theory that his first wife Polly Platt was the creative genius behind Peter Bogdanovich.  It’s based on the fact that after he stopped working with her, a few years after they separated, Bogdanovich’s career went into a precipitous decline from which it never quite recovered

Platt encouraged Bogdanovich to film Larry McMurtry’s novel The Last Picture Show.  There have been rumors that she worked closely with McMurtry and Bogdanovich, uncredited, on the screenplay and played a decisive creative role on the set.  The actor Ben Johnson said she virtually co-directed the film.  She certainly designed the film, her credited role, with impeccable authenticity and taste.

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Bogdanovich was a fine filmmaker, but It was Platt’s critical evaluation of material, and the ways to approach it, that seemed to keep Bogdanovich on course in the years of his success, and whose absence left him a bit adrift after Platt moved on.

Platt (pictured above with Bogdanovich) described their creative partnership this way — “He’s the locomotive, I’m the tracks.”  Bogdanovich’s career after Paper Moon, the last film he worked on with Platt, can be fairly described as a locomotive that’s gone off the tracks.

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In any case, The Last Picture Show is a genuine masterpiece, wonderfully cast and brilliantly shot.  Though Timothy Bottoms (above) carries the film as its principal character, our window onto the tale, the heart of it is Ben Johnson’s powerful performance as Sam the Lion, for which he won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor.

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The film is about the passing of time, the dying out of a small Texas town, and Sam the Lion (above) personifies what’s being lost in the process, the old breed of Texan whose world is vanishing.  Without Johnson’s character, we wouldn’t have quite the same sense of what’s at stake in the film’s mournful, bittersweet parade of longing and disappointment and heartache.  Johnson gives the film an epic dimension, elevates it into the highest ranks of American cinema.

SIMPLY GRAND

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Although my sister Libba had no need to photograph The Grand Canyon for her documentary, and I had no reason to go there for my own research, I felt it imperative that she see the place, especially since we were so near to it.

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So we drove north again from Flagstaff and checked it out.  Looking into the canyon is like looking up at the night stars — awesome but impossible to process rationally.  In Kant’s formulation, it is sublime, beyond comprehension, rather than beautiful, a phenomenon with a quality of aesthetic unity.

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The sublime is always somewhat forbidding, somewhat terrifying.  It reminds us that the mind of God passeth all human understanding.

[Photographs © 2014 Libba Marrian]

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