Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Photo of the Day: Bottle Palm, Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh PA

Much like the last decade, 2019 contained a multitude of moments of unsurpassed personal ugliness. But I could not say goodbye to the past year without taking note of beauty that went against the grain. 

That beauty was physical rather than emotional, in the form of the species popularly known as the “Bottle Palm.” But any group that can maintain this and the other specimens on display at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh can’t be all bad.

(For more on the conservatory, a gem of the city of Pittsburgh, please see this prior post of mine.)

Quote of the Day (T.S. Eliot, on Tradition and Poetry)

“[I]f the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition. Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.”—American-born English Nobel Literature laureate T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), “Tradition and the Individual Talent: An Essay,” in Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, edited by Frank Kermode (1975)

Disruption, we have been told endlessly by self-promoting tech titans, is the spirit of the age. Look around you, in business and politics, to understand the wreckage involved in that philosophy.

In the 20th century, there may have been no greater disruption than World War I. I don’t think that it’s coincidental that its aftermath saw the publication of what Robert Crawford, in his 2015 biography Young Eliot, termed his subject’s “greatest manifesto, his ‘programme for the m├ętier of poetry.’”

This passing year marks the centennial of “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” a groundbreaking piece of literary criticism that appeared in the September and December 1919 issues of The Egoist. In it, T.S. Eliot argued that “the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.” His second point was more problematic: that a poet should be “impersonal,” acting, in effect, as a “receptacle” of past images, phrases and feelings so as to create “a new art emotion.”

The extent to which Eliot himself could be “impersonal” in his work is debatable, as Crawford outlines in some detail. But he certainly would use his feelings about tradition in a time of displacement as he shortly began to work on The Waste Land, perhaps the keystone of modernist poetry.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Quote of the Day (James Thurber, on How Women ‘Always Know Where Things Are’)

“I hate women because they always know where things are. At first blush, you might think that a perverse and merely churlish reason for hating women, but it is not. Naturally, every man enjoys having a woman around the house who knows where his shirt-studs and his brief-case are, and things like that, but he detests having a woman around who knows where everything is, even things that are of no importance at all, such as, say, the snapshots her husband took three years ago at Elbow Beach. The husband has never known where these snapshots were since the day they were developed and printed; he hopes, in a vague way, if he thinks about them at all, that after three years they have been thrown out. But his wife knows where they are, and so do his mother, his grandmother, his great-grandmother, his daughter, and the maid. They could put their fingers on them in a moment, with that quiet air of superior knowledge which makes a man feel that he is out of touch with all the things that count in life.”—American humorist, cartoonist, and playwright James Thurber (1894-1961), “The Case Against Women,” in Let Your Mind Alone and Other More or Less Inspirational Pieces (1937)

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Quote of the Day (Missionary David Brainerd, on the Elusiveness of Time)

“Oh, how precious is time, and how it pains me to see it slide away, while I do so little to any good purpose. Oh, that God would make me more fruitful and spiritual.”— Colonial missionary to the American Indians David Brainerd (1718-1747), journal entry Apr. 15, 1746, in Jonathan Edwards, Life and Journal of the Rev. David Brainerd (1826)

Saturday, December 28, 2019

This Day in Film History (Death of ‘Bloody Sam’ Peckinpah, ‘Wild Bunch’ Director)

Dec. 28, 1984—Sam Peckinpah, a writer-director-producer who revised notions of the American West with films of beautiful landscapes, ugly violence and blurred moral lines, died at age 59 of heart failure in Inglewood, Calif.

Writing about Peckinpah now is my way of compensating for inability to write about The Wild Bunch, his most famous and controversial film, on the 50th anniversary of its release this past summer. While denying neither its importance to the cinema of the Sixties nor the qualities that have led many critics to hail it as a masterpiece, I find it deeply problematic for the way it immerses audiences in violence. 

This carnage—especially slow-motion action sequences that bracket the film—has influenced the likes of Martin Scorsese, John Woo and Quentin Tarantino. (An image from the film accompanies this post--the famous walk to the climactic shoot-out featuring, from left to right, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, William Holden and Ernest Borgnine.)

Roger Ebert, in a contemporary review at the time of its 1969 release, defended the movie for presenting “death and violence in such a definitive (indeed, even excessive) terms that it becomes, paradoxically, a statement against violence, and a reaction to it.”

I am not so sure of this. In recent years, psychologists have debated whether prolonged exposure to violence, rather than acting as a prophylactic against killing (as Peckinpah said he intended), instead desensitizes witnesses to it. 

I will say this: in depicting a small unit of Americans in 1913 Mexico, The Wild Bunch held up a distant mirror to the audiences of its time. As Richard Slotkin observed in his 1992 cultural history, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America, the movie opened just as American newspapers were reporting on the My Lai Massacre. 

Just as Pike Bishop and his outlaws were using a machine gun to kill soldiers and even civilians, U.S. forces were using the latest destructive firepower in a foreign country where their options were limited and poor at that. The fear that had gripped some observers of the frontier—that Americans would, by crossing a border, “go native”—had come to pass.
Nicknamed “Bloody Sam” for his predeliction for onscreen bloodshed, Peckinpah was also nicknamed “Mad Sam” for his volatile ways on and off the set. He boozed and brawled from one set to another—and, as if that were not enough, added cocaine to the mix—shortening his filmography and, ultimately, his life.

Television work in the Fifties and early Sixties in series such as The Rifleman and The Westerner gave Peckinpah a thorough grounding in the genre he would come to revise, as well as give him the reputation for being difficult that would dog him for most of the rest of his career.

His second full-length feature, Ride the High Country (1962), starring two western veterans, Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, demonstrated a mastery of the genre it eulogized. It includes an unambiguous hero, McCrea’s Steve, who, with his strict moral code ("All I want is to enter my house justified"), was likened by a number of observers to Peckinpah’s own father.

In his following film, Major Dundee (1965), the director enraged the normally equable Charlton Heston to such an extent that the star was sorely tempted to run him through with his character’s cavalry saber. 

Though the star eventually came around to support him vigorously, Peckinpah’s disputes with Columbia Pictures over the final cut were so tumultuous that they led to him being replaced on his follow-up, the Steve McQueen film The Cincinnati Kid (1965), by Norman Jewison.

A triumphant return to TV, an adaptation of Katherine Anne Porter's 'Noon Wine" for ABC Stage 67 (1966), revived Peckinpah’s big-screen career, and the critical acclaim and box-office success of The Wild Bunch afforded him more creative control. 

But he continued to test the patience not only of studio bosses but of his admirers. A scene in Straw Dogs (1971) involving Susan George led the normally supportive critic Pauline Kael to claim that he endorsed rape by depicting the protagonist's wife seemingly enjoying an assault by her ex-boyfriend. 

Straw Dogs placed front and center another charge often made against Peckinpah: misogyny. His films are filled with desirable women equally dangerous to males—and frequently subject to their outbursts of violence. (In The Wild Bunch, a woman shoots Holden in the back, whereupon he retaliates with a shot of his own and “Bitch!”) 

John Patterson’s March 2016 Guardian retrospective of the director's work noted the speculation that much of this animus may have derived from bitterness toward his mother, who had sold the family ranch that he and his brothers worked in their youth on the expectation that they would inherit it.

That same work in his youth also gave him a deep appreciation of the beauty of the West, the folkways of men in constant contact with it, and the agony of the passing of this way of life. All of these, along with the formal artistry of his landscapes and the performances he coaxed from actors, inform the best moments of the 14 films that Peckinpah managed to complete before his death. 

The question is the extent to which the human values exhibited in his films compensate for their unbelievable body counts or the nihilism that fueled these. Thirty-five years after his death, the cinema of “Bloody Sam” continues to pose this troubling dilemma.