I was 9 when the Sixties began, 13 when they began in earnest with the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the advent of The Beatles.  The decade sucked up all of my teenage years and brought many cultural shocks, from the Civil Rights Movement to Dylan's minatory prophesies, more assassinations, fighting in the streets over the Vietnam War and the sublime derangements of Jimi Hendrix and Jean-Luc Godard.

I went off to college in the Bay Area in 1968, grew my hair long, wore Nehru jackets and sandals made out of tire treads.  I eschewed illegal drugs — my little stab at non-conformity — but drank plenty of Ernie's Burgundy and took up the smoking of cigarettes.  I hitch-hiked all over the country and once panhandled for spare change on a street corner — living out a fantasy of dereliction, all the while knowing that I had a nice middle-class family to return to if things ever got really desperate.  (Such was the depth of hippie rebellion.)  I was at Altamont where everything came crashing down in spectacular fashion.

In all that madness, I don't think any cultural artifacts impressed me as deeply as the works of R. Crumb.  When I bought my first batch of Zap Comix at the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco and began to devour them, I had a sense that I would never look at America and American popular culture in quite the same way again — and I never did.  Crumb represented a permanent mind-fuck.


The Western isn't dead — it never was.  It abides, through fruitful times and fallow times — a rich soil always capable of putting up unexpected shoots.

A bestseller, like Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, can inspire a classic Western, which the mini-series based on the book surely was.  A great screenplay, like David Webb Peoples's Unforgiven, in the hands of a great director, can produce a critically-acclaimed box-office hit.

Unforgiven was much more than that, of course — it is now generally recognized as one of the greatest Westerns ever made, one that can stand comparison with the classics of the genre, and with all but the very best Westerns of John Ford.

Since Unforgiven was made in a fallow time for Westerns, it naturally reflects this.  It is part of a tradition that arose in the Sixties when the Western seemed to be dying off as a viable commercial genre — the twilight Western.  This tradition concerns aging heroes who set off on one last adventure, mirroring a feeling that the Western itself might be heading for the last round-up.  Valedictory in tone, it actually wants to assert that the aging heroes are still with us, that their values still matter.

The twilight Western tends to be revisionist, painting a darker and grittier vision of the Old West than the older classics, and often incorporating a female perspective — these are its nods to modernity, on one level, but also its witness that the Western genre is still alive, still capable of evolving, of reflecting contemporary issues and ideas.

The makers of anti-Westerns, like Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, believed that the Western was played out, and proceeded to deconstruct it, to suggest that the Western myth was all a lie — that was their nod, or surrender, to modernity.  It was a delusion, as the phenomenal success of movies like Lonesome Dove and Unforgiven proved, but a delusion with great cachet for filmmakers and studio executives who came of age in the Sixties and Seventies.  For them, the thrill of killing off the traditions of their fathers festered and metastasized into an industry truism — modern audiences don't like Westerns.

The truth is that modern audiences don't like anti-Westerns, the only Westerns that present-day Hollywood thinks are cool.  Every time a new anti-Western flops, it seems to confirm the truism.  When a new Western that celebrates the classic virtues succeeds wildly, it's seen as an anomaly.

If the Coen brothers' True Grit, opening this Christmas, succeeds, Hollywood will not see it as the success of a Western.  As a Hollywood producer recently remarked to a friend of mine, reflecting on a possible revival of interest in Westerns, “The Coen brothers are their own genre.”  There's some truth in that, of course, but only up to a point, and that point is reached when the Coen brothers tackle a classic Western tale like True Grit.

Eventually, the glamor of the anti-Western will die out, with the rise of new generations of directors and producers untainted by the follies of the Sixties and Seventies.  The Western will still be here, its soil richer than ever from a long fallow time, ready to produce a new harvest of stories and adventures.  The passing of the twilight Western will signal the true renaissance of the form — new, young stars will take up the reins as protagonists of the revived Western, and blaze their own trails into the heart of America's most precious and enduring myth.


Magnificent in many ways, breathtaking visually in many sequences, Anthony Mann’s The Fall Of the Roman Empire, from 1964, is nevertheless an epic failure.  Unlike the Roman Empire, the film’s downfall can be traced to a single cause — a single miscalculation in casting.  A film as big as this needs an emotional rudder, a figure at its center the audience can steer by, and Stephen Boyd is just not able to be that.  Very few actors could, but Boyd is singularly ill-equipped for the task.

Boyd had a slightly fey quality, a hint of weakness in the eyes and mouth, which worked wonderfully when set against the stolid heroism of Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur.  It fueled the slight suggestion of a homo-erotic attraction between the two antagonists.  As the heroic lead of The Fall Of the Roman Empire, by contrast, Boyd creates a kind of black hole of charisma at the center of the picture, especially since he is paired romantically in the story with Sophia Loren, who is, just in her own person, an epic of femininity.  Between the Roman Empire and Loren’s empire of female flesh, Boyd doesn’t have a fighting chance.

Boyd was an actor of limited range, and heroic grandeur did not fall within it, as it did for Heston, limited as Heston may have been in other ways.  (Heston and Kirk Douglas both turned down the Boyd role — either one of them, I think, could have saved the picture.)  Boyd here summons at best the slick authority of a Las Vegas lounge singer — not someone one would entrust with the command of a Roman cohort, much less the rule of Rome itself.  It doesn’t help that Boyd is given a preposterous hair-do, with curled, poofy bangs, obviously dyed.  If this film hadn’t cost so much money, you might almost believe that the bangs were some kind of cruel joke slipped into the film by a prankster on the production.

The inadequacy of Boyd can’t quite sink the first half of the film, up to the intermission.  This section, set on the frontiers of the empire in Germania, boggles the mind with its size and sweep and beauty.  We will never again, in the age of CGI, see images like this on film.

The film shifts to Rome after the intermission and, despite a parade of staggering and mostly magnificent sets, unravels quickly as a drama.  It becomes a test of wills between the neurotic Caesar Commodus, played with relish and wit by Christopher Plummer (below) . . .

. . . and Boyd’s Livius, his second in command.  At stake is Livius’s love for Lucilla, Commodus’s sister, played by Loren, as well as the survival of the Roman Empire.  It’s hard to care about either with Boyd as the protagonist in both struggles and a bit of a relief when Rome finally implodes.

Once you accept the film as a failure, though, you are free to appreciate its wonders — some of the most spectacular recreations of the ancient world ever committed to film, all shot with Anthony Mann’s usual genius for plastic composition and action.   It’s a thrill, as well, to watch the way the camera worships Loren, who gives a very good performance here, along with a wonderful cast in almost all the supporting roles.  Fans of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator will also discover that its original screenwriter David Franzoni found much of his inspiration for that film in The Fall Of the Roman Empire, set in the same period, with a number of set pieces and major story elements in common.

But, as I say, Mann’s film is a rudderless ship, narratively and emotionally — one soon ceases to wonder where it’s going, because, like the Roman Empire itself in its twilight years, it’s so obviously going nowhere.

TRUE GRIT (1969)

Henry Hathaway’s film True Grit, from 1969, is a wonderful entertainment, respectful of, if not exactly faithful to, the great Charles Portis novel on which it’s based.

The powerful emotional impact of the novel is achieved by indirection, by characters who don’t speak about what’s really going inside them because they’re rarely aware of it.  We read their inner lives though their actions, which are often surprising, startling, even shocking.  Hollywood is generally afraid of tales told this way, afraid that audiences won’t get the point, so the adaptation of True Grit brings the emotions and motivations of the characters to the surface.  Paradoxically, this leaves the viewer with less to respond to.

It’s clear from the start in the film where the friendship between the teen-aged Mattie Ross and the grizzled frontier marshal Rooster Cogburn is going.  It’s a pleasure to watch it go there, but one can’t fully enter into the journey as a participant.  John Wayne, who won his only Oscar for his portrayal of Cogburn here, is exceptionally good, working against his usual buttoned-up hero’s persona, but reveals the character’s decent and genial side too quickly.

Kim Darby, as Mattie Ross, also gives a fine performance, but because Darby was 21 when she made the film, Mattie’s precocious self-possession can’t help but lose some of its edge.  (In the book, Mattie is 14.)  Glen Campbell, then a popular cross-over country singing star, was cast in the third lead as Le Boeuf, primarily as a marketing ploy one assumes.  He acquits himself well enough, but always looks out of his league among the other fine supporting players like Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper and Strother Martin.

Although Hathaway directs the film in a classical style, with beautifully composed images (discounting a few ill-advised zooms), the film tries in other ways to be contemporary.  Elmer Bernstein’s score, often echoing the one he did for The Magnificent Seven, is generally light and buoyant — it doesn’t enforce the darker emotional currents of the tale.  The script incorporates a lot of Portis’s fine dialogue but emphasizes the cheerful and comic side of the novel, at the expense of its paradoxes and contradictions.  The disturbing undertow of the book is only suggested.

Paramount probably thought it was taking quite enough chances on this film, a Western with a strong female protagonist that featured John Wayne as a slightly less than heroic drunk — but in truth it was only keeping up with the times.  In the 1960s, Hollywood and the culture were becoming self-conscious about the conventions of the Western in an era of national doubt about the American dream, undermined by a controversial war in Vietnam and rowdy social upheavals at home.

1969 also saw the release of The Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah’s savage and cynical deconstruction of the Western genre.  True Grit was a big hit at the box office, The Wild Bunch not so much, but a critical favorite.  The culture was clearly open to a different kind of Western.  It’s a shame that filmmakers chose to follow in Peckinpah’s tracks, instead of Hathaway’s or even Portis’s.  Dark and unconventional as the novel True Grit was, it still managed to celebrate, in its quirky way, the humane and noble values of the classic Western, introducing a convincing female perspective in the process.  Portis’s vision might have led to a renewal of the Western film — Peckinpah’s led to its virtual destruction as a reliable Hollywood genre.


That's Bill Eggleston above, wearing the bow tie, flanked in the foreground by my friend Lily Chubb on the left and his daughter Andra on the right, at the reception for the opening of his show Democratic Camera at LACMA last week.

The exhibition originated at the Whitney Museum in New York a couple of years ago but has been expanded and beautifully hung at LACMA's Resnick Pavlion — it's certainly the best Eggleston show I've ever seen, with images from every phase of his work from 1961 to 2008.  It gives a good sense of the scope and depth of his portrait of America, one of the most important artistic projects of our time.

I attended the show with my sister Lee, on the left with Lily below:

Bill seemed a little overwhelmed by the attention at the reception, and faded a bit in the crowded, stuffy galleries, but revived when he took up a position on an outside terrace.  Lily's dad Cotty pulled me aside and suggested that if I had an extra cigarette, Bill could probably use it.  When I offered him one he looked at me skeptically and said, “I didn't know you could smoke here.”  I said, “You're the star of the show, Bill — you can do whatever you want to do.”  He laughed.  “Do anything I want and say anything I want,” he said.

He smoked.  Nobody told him not to.  An endless stream of admirers approached him to offer their respects.  (That's me with Lily below.)

I first saw a large selection of Bill's work in 1971, before it was widely known, and realized immediately how important it was.  The world's eventual embrace of it never surprised me, and nearly forty years later, his recognition as a master, in shows like this one and many others, doesn't surprise me.  It probably doesn't surprise him, either.

                                                     [Image © William Eggleston]

Large as the LACMA show is, it represents only a small fraction of his work.  Taken as whole, it will represent an extraordinary legacy to the future.  He has a kind of calm about it all, a kind of satisfaction in his service to his art and his country.  Personal celebrity doesn't seem to mean much to him — what he cares about is showing people what he has seen.  He seemed gratified last week that people were looking at it.

If you live in the Los Angeles area, you should really go look at it for yourself.


My friend Eli Selden's birthday coincided happily with the opening reception of photographer William Eggleston's grand retrospective exhibition at LACMA, which I drove over from Las Vegas to attend.  (That's Eli above on the left, with her oldest friend from Memphis, where she grew up.)

A bunch of friends and family convened for dinner at the Tar Pit on La Brea before the reception, and we had a fine time.  The food was good and moderately priced, and people from every phase of Eli's life were on hand.

I first met Eli when she was a 16 year-old freshman at Yale (she's brainy) and she and I went on to share many remarkable adventures over the years in the dark jungles of Hollywood.  She's known Bill Eggleston about as long as I have, having babysit his kids in Memphis when she was a teenager, so the occasion of the reception, which Bill attended, was like old home week.

Eli wore a dress with sparkles on it, and sparkled herself all night.  Many happy returns of the day, kid.


On his recent trip to Paducah, Kentucky, Paul Zahl passed through Nashville and made a special trip to see . . . a Presbyterian church done in a very strange style.  He writes:

This photo is a little dark, but was the best I could do given the
available lighting.  Together with the First Presbyterian Church, also known as the Old Whaler's Church, at Sag Harbor, Long Island, this is one of the earliest Egyptian
Revival churches in America.  Now known as the Downtown Presbyterian Church, it was designed by William Strickland in 1849.
 It is directly across, or almost directly across, from the Capitol, in
the center of Nashville.  Because Presbyterian churches are rarely open
during the week, I was doubtful that my friend Ray and I could get in
but . . . dashing around the block to the church office, I found the
sexton.  She was just “closing up”.  Fortunately, she opened the
church, and I got in.

It is amazing.  Central pulpit, large organ and organ case, classic
Communion table under the pulpit.  I looked for the Mummy behind
the pulpit, but no dice.  I am believing that Kharis rests directly
under the pulpit.  Wonder, too, whether the preaching in this church is
sufficient to waken him.  I hope so . . . or maybe I don't.

I must say that the Egyptian Revival style in early 19th-Century American architecture was more or less off my radar, and the fact that it was used for Presbyterian churches seems delightfully odd.


Every time I drive west from Las Vegas my heart sinks as I approach the California state line because I know that, as a smoker, I will be treated in California like human scum.  It's socially acceptable to be obese in California, to drink and drive, to abandon your kids and trade in your wife for a younger and more attractive one, to cheat your colleagues and collaborators out of money in a deal, but light up a cigarette and all the pathetic duppies who dictate social hygiene in the state will stare at you with arrogant disdain.  You can be sitting on an outdoor restaurant patio within thirty feet of a street where hundreds of cars per hour pass by, but if you want to add a wisp of tobacco smoke to the exhaust fumes, you will be asked to step out back by the dumpsters.

I truly hate The Wellness State and rejoice in its current financial woes.  I hope they end in a total financial collapse which sends the people who do most of the real work in California back to Mexico.

What a difference on the drive back, though, when you finally see the preposterous casinos of Primm rising out of the desert and know that you are within an hour of Silly Town, where the streets are wide, parking is always easy and free, smokers are welcomed and the phrase “last call” is never heard.  It's as though there were a border between Saudi Arabia and the Old Weird America, and you're about to cross it, heading in the right direction.