[Caution — this post contains plot spoilers.]

modern-day Hollywood it's fashionable to analyze drama in terms of
“character arc”.  A character starts off a tale with a problem
which he or she must then develop the skills and inner resources to
solve, and this development follows a chartable arc.  I think
corporate executives are drawn to this model of storytelling because it
reminds them of the charts and case studies they used in business
school — it reduces human experience to something resembling the
problem of growing a business or maximizing profits.

The model is useless, of course, for understanding the actual life
experiences of human beings or the great stories and dramas in the art
of the past.  Achilles has no character arc, neither does
Hamlet.  They both undergo various experiences which sometimes
reveal their characters, and sometimes make their characters seem
hopelessly mysterious.  Neither of them “solves” anything.

The character arc model is particularly useless for analyzing the films
of John Ford, which are full of characters who suddenly do complete
turnarounds, often without the slightest explicit motivation — the
most famous case in point being Ethan Edwards in The Searchers
Their “arcs” are unchartable, mysterious — they raise more questions
than they answer, but the questions are ones of profound interest . . .
they provoke moral thought in audiences.

In 3 Bad Men, a silent film by
Ford from 1926, three criminals are suddenly converted into saints by a
young woman who mistakes them for heroes, and from that moment on they
behave like heroes, and in the end sacrifice their lives for her. 
Such a tale would never make it past the first story conference in
Hollywood today.  The film would have to spend most of its length
working up to that moment of conversion, showing the conflict within
the men as they struggled with the decision to be good.

Instead, Ford presents us with a mystery up front, and lets us spend
the rest of the film wondering what it means.  For Ford, the
answer lies somewhere in the realm of the moral, the spiritual, the
religious.  This is a realm not studied in business schools, not
relevant to ordinary business practice, and thus meaningless to the
corporate executives who run Hollywood today.  In modern corporate
culture, which is Hollywood's culture, moral issues are covered by
charitable contributions, perhaps by a dedication to ethical behavior
or to worthy political causes.  The issue of saving souls does not

But the saving of souls is what Ford's films most often concern, which
involves positing the existence of souls in the first place.  3 Bad Men
suggests that the worst of men have souls and are just waiting for a
chance to save them — just waiting for a call to goodness.  And
it further suggests that goodness is not always approached on paths
with chartable arcs.  Sometimes goodness descends on men like a
dove and changes them in an instant.

We may cheer when the hapless nerd grows his business or maximizes his
profits against all odds — but the bad men in Ford's movies,
unaccountably redeemed, make us cry.  It can be argued that they
also make us wise in the actual ways of the human heart.

[With thanks to the Silents Are Golden web site for the images above.]


You can look at John Ford's The Iron Horse
in two ways — as a silent melodrama set against the epic backdrop of
the building of the transcontinental railroad, or as an epic poem about
the building of that railroad with some melodrama woven through it to
give it a more coherent structure.

In truth the film is both these things, simultaneously or alternately
— the two halves of its nature are never entirely reconciled.

The melodrama isn't at all bad — it's entertaining and sometimes
moving — though it has one of the lamest lovers' misunderstandings in
all of movies.  (Interestingly, the international version of the
film tries, through rewritten intertitles, to make the misunderstanding
more plausible but just succeeds in making it even lamer than it already was.)  The real
problem is that the epic poem which hosts
the melodramatic narrative is one of the most sublime achievements of
the silent cinema.  It's hard to imagine any melodrama which could
holds its own with such poetry.  (It should be noted that Griffith
faced the same dilemma with The Birth Of A Nation, and similarly failed to solve it.)

The epic poem within The Iron Horse
has themes and developments peculiar to itself.  Ford is
interested, as he often was, in the process of things, which in this
case centers on the land, the physical fact of the land, which
determined the challenge the road builders faced.  Ford is also
interested in the moral development this challenge prompted —
specifically the uniting of diverse peoples in a national consciousness.

The inclusiveness of the film is notable, and notably modern. 
Building the railroad unites former antagonists in the civil war
North and South.  It unites Eastern engineers with Western scouts
and hunters.  It unites ethnic groups — most specifically the
and the Italians, though there are a few scenes demonstrating
good-natured camaraderie between Europeans and Chinese.  It unites
women and men, who at one point take
up arms together to rescue some besieged track layers . . . and in the
climax of that scene, a band of light cavalry rides to the rescue —
not U. S. soldiers but Pawnee Indians, allies of the train
workers.  The only people conspicuously absent from this American
mosaic are blacks — probably to avoid alienating white Southern
audiences of the time.

The epic poem of America that's at the heart of The Iron Horse unfolds
at a stately pace, even though it's brimful of incident and exquisite
lyrical images.  (There's enough pure cinema in this picture to
supply a dozen ordinary movies)  Unless you surrender to its
rhythms, are willing
to just sit back and enjoy the sheer spectacle of it, you are likely to
find The Iron Horse tough going.  If you're primarily interested in the
melodrama, wanting Ford to get on with it already, you'll find it even
tougher going.

On the other hand, if you let Ford take you at his own pace, show you
want he wants you to see, you'll be deeply rewarded.  Here is the
vernacular lyricism of Leaves Of Grass
applied to a truly epic subject and translated into visual terms that
transcend its melodramatic armature.  It's an imperfect but genuinely awesome work.

The film is part of the new Ford At Fox
box set, where it's presented in two versions — the American release
and the somewhat abridged international release, derived from a
separate negative made up of second-camera shots and alternate
takes.  The American version is far superior but apparently better
print material survives from the international version.  You
really need to be familiar with both to appreciate the film fully.

The international version on the set has a first-rate commentary by
Robert Birchard, filled with a wealth of information about the
personalities involved in the making of the film and about the


Just Pals, the first film John Ford made for Fox, makes an
illuminating pendant to another silent film also recently released on
DVD, D. W. Griffith's True Heart Susie.  They could have been made by
the same director — which is to say that Ford, the younger of the two
and the one newer to the business, obviously studied hard at his
master's feet.

Both films fall into the American Pastoral genre, both feature plots
that are outrageously melodramatic, unashamedly sentimental — and both
are visual masterpieces.

We forget it sometimes, but American culture is in love with virtue — a
love tempered only by the desire not to be taken for a fool.  We like
our virtue delivered sidewise.  In less cynical times than the present,
this sidewise delivery could be only slightly oblique.  So we have
Griffith's gentle teasing of the innocent protagonists of his tale, and
Ford's cursing urchin in his.  But simple decency is the theme of each
film — as it is of Huckleberry Finn, from an earlier age, and of Casablanca, from a later one.  The differences in attitude mainly
involve how cynical the narrator or protagonist has to pretend to be
before getting down to doing or celebrating the right thing.

The message of most works of art can be boiled down to a platitude, if
one is so inclined.  The message of Huckleberry Finn is “blacks are
human, too, and anyone who thinks otherwise risks losing his or her own
humanity.”  But art is not about messages.  It's about creating psychic
movement within the audience — about internalizing the wisdom
trivialized in a platitude.

In silent movies, this process of internalization happens visually —
not in the plot or in the intertitles.  In Just Pals, Ford convinces
us that he loves his protagonists not by making them narrative agents of
good but by the way he situates them in space, in the settings of the
story.  The cursing urchin is revealed as plucky and independent and
admirable not by his curses but by the way he rides a moving train.
Bim's moral authority in foiling the express office robbery is conveyed
not by his statements of resolve but by the way he commandeers and rides
a horse in the execution of his resolve.

Just Pals is a celebration of sacrifice — of the mechanics of
sacrifice — not a sermon about sacrifice.  It makes sacrifice seem
beautiful by making the mechanics of sacrifice beautiful.

Just Pals is part of the recently released Ford At Fox DVD box set.  It can't be said often enough that the release of
this set is one of the most important cultural events of
recent times.


My friend John Sosnovsky was just in town and brought as a gift a copy of Just Enough Liebling,
a collection of A. J. Liebling's writing about food, boxing and
war.  In one of the articles about food Liebling offers an
extended paean to Tavel, the rosé wine from the
Rhône region of France.  It brought back many
memories.  Tavel is a wine often served in the South Of France
with seafood (although Liebling insists it's so good it can go with
anything) and I've drunk it with many fine meals in that part of the world,
usually in restaurants or on the terraces of restaurants with a view of
the sea.

On John's last night in Vegas I tracked him down in the card room at
Caesars around 9pm.  He'd been playing poker all day, with mixed
results, and said he was pokered out, so we decided to meet at Mon Ami
Gabi, a terrific French bistro in the Paris, Las Vegas casino. 
Once installed on its very pleasant terrace I discovered that they had
a Tavel on their wine list, and John and I decided to drink a bottle in
honor of Mr. Liebling.  And we decided to drink it with steak, to
test Mr. Liebling's assertion that it can go with anything.

It went exceptionally well with the steak, with the brisk night air and
with our conversation, which kept circling back to the upcoming fight
between Ricky Hatton and Floyd Mayweather, Jr. next Saturday in Las Vegas.  John
is a member of the Fancy and very knowledgeable about boxing, but even
he seemed baffled by the question of who was likely to prevail in this
contest — Hatton, the brawler with heart, or Mayweather, the scientist
with lightning-fast but hardly lethal hands and canny instincts for
defense (or unseemly evasion, as some consider it.)

The best we could surmise was that Hatton had a chance only if he got
inside and ripped Mayweather apart with body shots, shocking him and
breaking his will.  That didn't seem likely, but it seemed
possible.  Such imponderables are what have made this fight one of
the most anticipated in ages.  Mr. Liebling, long since deceased,
would have had much to say on the subject and we missed his wisdom

After the Tavel and the beef, John decided that perhaps he wasn't
pokered out after all.  We set off to see what tables might be
going in the Paris' card room.

The night before, at the Palms, John had cajoled me into
sitting down at my first no-limit Hold-'em game in a casino.  (I'd
played a few hands at a no-limit game in the old card room at the
Rancho Fiesta, but it had broken up almost as soon as I arrived at the table.)  I
was terrified of playing at the Palms — not least because Phil Helmuth
(below, playing in a tournament) and Layne Flack, two high-profile
high-limit poker pros, were hanging
around my table to watch a couple of their friends play.  It's
tough to make your debut at a no-limit table under the eyes of a winner
of the Main Event at the World Series Of Poker.  (Helmuth won it in 1989 at the age
of 24, the youngest player who's ever done so.)

No limit Hold-'em is intrinsically terrifying.  Any amount of
money can be bet on a hand at any time, which means you can lose every
chip in front of you if you call an “all-in” bet with the
wrong cards in the wrong situation.  On the other hand, you can
use big bets to push your fellow players around — to make them fold
better cards than you have, for example.  It's a wild and
exceedingly complex endeavor.

Miraculously, as soon as I sat down at the table I felt cool and
perfectly in command of things.  I've played endless hands of
no-limit poker for fake money online and I understand the dynamics of
the game — far better than I've ever understood the dynamics of limit
Hold-'em, where you can bet only certain fixed amounts.   I've
always played limit Hold-em because it seemed on the face of it less
No-limit Hold-'em for money, however, is a far more logical game,
far less dependent on the random fall of the cards, though the logic is
sometimes the logic of ruthlessness and terror.

I played for three or four hours in this heady atmosphere and walked
away about a hundred dollars
down.  Not good — but not
devastating, either.  You can pay more for a good meal or a rock
concert and not enjoy either half as much or for half as long.

There were no poker pros hanging around the Paris' card room (above) — just a
lot of genial players who seemed like people on vacation
looking for a good time . . . and to say they'd played poker in Las
Vegas.  They weren't bad players but they played too many hands,
eager for action.  I waited for my chances, bet hard when they
came and walked away three hundred and thirty dollars ahead —
by far the most money I've ever won at any poker table.  More importantly, it left me over two hundred dollars ahead for my first two nights of no-limit poker. 

John did even better, walking away over seven hundred dollars ahead — covering the cost of all his poker playing in Las Vegas and his hotel room and
his flight here, with a little left over for celebratory drinks
afterwards.  To say that we raised our glasses joyfully would be
putting it

[The snapshot of the Paris poker room above is from a useful web site, vegasrex,
which describes and reviews the various card rooms in Las Vegas and has a lot of other stuff about what's going on in town.]


Victorian academic painters loved doing scenes set in antique Roman or
Oriental baths — it was a respectable way of showing lots of women in
various stages of undress.  The casual, languorous poses of these
women would have seemed shocking in a modern setting or unseemly in
mythological or allegorical images.  One of the things that was
radical about the Impressionists was their depiction of nudity in
naturalistic ways, in ordinary settings.  The academics had it both
ways — their settings could say, by implication, “Modern European
women don't look or act this way with their clothes off,” but everyone
knew (or suspected, or hoped) differently.  The hypocrisy added a little spice to the
proceedings — wink, wink . . . nudge, nudge.  It seems a bit
silly now, but a bit charming, too.


past week, on my friend Jae's last night in Las Vegas, we decided to
have an all-American experience.  We decided to go to a drive-in
movie.  Jae had never been to one — I hadn't been to one since my

There's a multi-plex drive-in in North Las Vegas.  It sits in
between a casino and a small private airport.  You can see planes
and helicopters taking off and landing behind the screens during the
show.  The projection seems to be accomplished by some sort of
video system seriously inadequate to the “throw” involved — the
distance between the projector and the screen.  The resulting
image is very indistinct.  The audio is delivered over an FM
station on your car radio and sounds way worse than normal FM reception.

The whole scene has a quality of desolation.  The experience is
clearly designed for people who just want to say they've been to a
drive-in movie.  I suppose the enterprise could also qualify as
what real estate speculators call “ground cover” — something to bring
in a little income on a property that will be developed more
spectacularly at some future date.

We “saw” Enchanted, which was
fun, even with the fuzzy, washed-out picture and the static-ravaged
sound.  We enjoyed the surreal spectacle of it all.  This is
what seeing movies in Hell will be like — and that's enough to get you
to try a little bit harder to make it to Heaven, where the movie
theaters will probably be almost as good as those at the Arclight complex in Los Angeles.


a chill in the air at night out here in the middle of the Mojave Desert
— a little taste of winter.  There will be no snow, of course —
no snow to speak of.  Las Vegas gets a light dusting of it from
time to time but it melts quickly and seems like some sort of mistake,
like a FedEx delivery gone awry.

shahn, of the lovely web site six martinis and the seventh art, lives
in San Francisco, which is also a snow-free city, and, missing the
stuff, she's posting a series of images of snow from movies on her
site.  Images of snow in movies are almost always wonderful —
especially, to my mind, the ones tricked up in a studio, as in the “A Fine Romance” number from
Swing Time (above),
which I hope will be represented in shahn's series.  There are so
many other fine images of snow in movies — from Way Down East (real) to Citizen Kane (tricked up in a studio.) 
One can watch them with a glass of egg nog in hand and feel cozy and
warm, protected from the blizzard that's visible through the magic window.


have no memory whatsoever of my first view of Paris — what I must have
seen of it on a cab ride from the airport to my Left Bank hotel in the
winter of 1983.  I have a vague memory of the view from the hotel
room, a charming chamber up under the eaves of a small, venerable and recently
refurbished establishment near the École des Beaux Arts.  I
looked out over the rooftops of Paris, which reminded me of Paris in
the movies, but I'm not sure what else I saw, besides possibilities.

I arrived at the hotel late at night but my companion, who'd been to
Paris before, knew a restaurant
that was open 24/7, one she was fond of, and we went there.  It
was at the edge of Les Halles, the site of the legendary produce
market.  The market had long since been moved to the outskirts of
Paris and was then
just a ghost of itself, but the restaurant, Au Pied de Cochon,
which had been there in the glory days of Les Halles, remained.  It opened in 1946 and has not closed its doors
since.  Once, obviously, it served the all-night workers and
truckers of Les Halles when it was a functioning market but people
still made their way to it at all hours of the night.  There was a
small crowd there when we arrived sometime after midnight.  I had
a sense that many of them were musicians grabbing some food after an
evening's gig, though I'm not sure at this remove what made me think so.  Perhaps
one of them was carrying an instrument in a case.  Perhaps one of
them pulled out a guitar and sang some snatches of a song.

The restaurant was rather plain in those days, even shabby, reflecting
its original working-class milieu.  It has been remodeled at least
a couple of times since then — it has an unfortunate faux-Belle Époque
décor now (see above) but still isn't particularly fancy. 
It specializes, as its name suggests, in pig's feet and other rustic
fare, and also in shellfish, which seems to be de rigeur for all-night
restaurants in Paris.

It had a wide selection of raw oysters, and I ordered a dozen Belons,
the small, tangy oysters of the Breton coast that have a considerable
reputation.  When the round tray of them arrived at the table,
they created my first intense visual memory of Paris.  The opened
oysters and some cut lemons were nestled on a bed of ice decorated with sprigs of
seaweed.  The tray was placed on a
wire rack directly in front of me, giving me a good view of and
easy access to the oysters.  On a plate in a holder built into the wire rack beneath the tray was a

small bowl of red wine vinegar and finely chopped
onions, some slices of brown bread and some butter.  The oysters
in the picture below are not Belons — I offer it just to show the
general set-up.

I revere oysters extravagantly.  To see them served in such an
exalted way stirred my deepest admiration.  (I had never seen such
a presentation in an American restaurant, though now it's fairly common
in upscale French eateries.)  They were the
tastiest, most mysterious oysters I had ever eaten.  I ordered

Several times in the preceding few hours I had thought to myself, “I'm in
Paris!”  But I didn't quite believe it.  Halfway through the
second tray of oysters, I believed it.

Next February, it will no longer be possible to smoke in Parisian
restaurants, so I will most likely never go back to Au Pied de
Cochon.  This is not altogether a bad thing.  The places you
love that you can never return to are also places you can never
leave.  They become part of your own small portion of eternity.