Fritz Goes West

October 19, 2013

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1940, and in color, Fritz Lang takes on The Western, in The Return of Frank James.  What do you get when the master of M and Metropolis goes west?  A pretty good show, with Henry Fonda being particularly fine.

Lang plays it straight with the genre – how could he do otherwise then?  But at times, he seems to be slipping in some playful self-referential material.  Frank James is the brother of Jesse James, the famous outlaw gunned down by the Ford brothers, supposedly in a cowardly manner in return for their pardons.  When Frank hears they are off the hook for the killing, he vows to get them.

Frank concocts a bit of theater to make it easier to spring a trap on the Fords.  He checks into a fancy hotel and spreads the story by way of his young sidekick that Frank James was actually shot dead in a gunfight in Mexico.  Nobody knows their faces, so the ruse is quite successful.  It attracts the interest of a young, ambitious female reporter, Eleanor, played by Gene Tierney in her first starring role, who is completely taken by the tale.  In the shot below, Clem acts out his “eye witness” account of Frank’s “heroic” death for the benefit of Eleanor and Frank.  He seems to be spoofing the western genre itself as he does so.

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Seems that the Fords are making hay out of their killing of Jesse, reenacting it in another bit of theater.  Frank goes in to take a look at the show, Earlier in the film, there is a bit of dialog in which Frank relates another theatrical experience of his, seeing a great performance by an actor named Booth.   Frank sits in a box  above the stage, but he doesn’t kill anyone at the show, unlike John Wilkes.  When Ford recognizes him from the stage, and hurls a lamp at him, Frank, like John Wilkes Booth, leaps from his box onto the stage, but he doesn’t break his arm…

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Eventually, Frank turns himself in to prevent his farmhand “darky,” innocent of any crime, from being hanged for taking part in one of Frank’s robberies.  The subsequent trial is filled with Civil War politics that results in Frank’s acquittal.  I wonder what Fritz made of it all.

Say, what was the name of that theater, Mrs. Lincoln..?


Thaddeus, Then and Now…

October 10, 2013

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I was surprised to see that D. W. Griffith’s cinematic masterpiece, Birth of a Nation (1914) begins with a peek at Thaddeus Stevens, one of my American heroes.  He is called “Stoneman” in the film, and is something of a villain, until he is redeemed at the end by revealing his deep hypocrisy about race, to wit, when it comes down to it, he would never allow his daughter (played by Lillian Gish) marry a mulatto.

It’s interesting to note the difference that 100 years makes:  in Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), Stevens is a hero, a foresighted champion of racial equality and justice.  Was Speilberg purposely making his Stevens look similar to Griffith’s Stoneman?  And yes, it is true, Stevens wore an outrageous wig, having lost all of his hair during an illness when he was young.

I knew that Birth of a Nation was racist propaganda for the Southern view of Reconstruction, but still, I was not prepared for just how vicious it is.  As one reviewer said, watching the film is “a torment,” similar to watching Nazi propaganda films, including the justly famous Triumph of the Will.  The southerners are gallant Christians, defending their women like chivalric knights of old, and everyone, north and south, despises the negroes.  The film is, despite itself, amazingly realistic at times, using African-Americans for bit roles and background extras, while white actors in blackface take the major “negro roles”:  realistic in its depiction of the culture of slavery and Jim Crow, and I don’t mean in a favorable way.  As Roger Ebert points out in his excellent review, this is only so because Griffith was so totally convinced of the rightness of his views – the gentle South, happy slaves, etc. – that it would never have occurred to him that his imagery implied their contradiction.

The print that I watched on Netflix includes a brief interview between Walter Huston and Griffith, both decked out in formal evening wear, in which Huston lobs softball questions to Griffith:

Was the Klan necessary at that time?”

“Yes, Walter, it was necessary, at that time.”

There you have it.  The freeing of the slaves, untutored and unready for civilization, unleashed upon the traumatized South a tyranny, egged on by unscrupulous Northern carpetbaggers who manipulated the negroes to their ends.  The Klan had to step in to restore civilization.  Thus, Reconstruction ended, and Jim Crow began.  In Griffith’s mythology, even Stevens sees the wisdom of it, returning to a policy that Griffith is convinced Lincoln would have favored.

There is a lot of high-toned stuff in this film too:  several anti-war pleas, including an image of Christ at the end, and a denunciation of artistic censorship.  Yes, if only the war had been averted.  Perhaps the South would still be carrying on with its slaves!  And yes, censorship is bad, The film was instantly immensely controversial, and the NAACP in some cities did call for censorship of the most racially offensive scenes.  I say, let it all hang out.  The NAACP has had the last laugh on D.W.

Did I say that the film is fantastic?  It is.  It is gripping, a wonder of cinema so great, I found it hard to believe it was from 1914 it seems so contemporary in many respects.  The battle scenes are stunning; the acting, though melodramatic, is nevertheless powerful.  Gish gushes beautifully.  It is one of the most innovative and influential films ever made, and the reasons why are obvious if you watch any other film from 1914.  Some scenes:

The very first sequence.  With the introduction of black slavery, the seeds of disunion were sown.  Only the Civil War produced a truly united nation.  True enough, but somehow it seems here that it is the fault of the Africans!  As Melville put it in Benito Cereno:

“You are saved, Don Benito,” cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained;

“You are saved; what has cast such a shadow upon you?”

“The Negro.” There was silence, while the moody man sat, slowly and unconsciously gathering his mantle about him, as if it were a pall.

It’s all the curse of the negro…

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The first part of the film is about the run-up to the Civil War and the actual conflict.  The real story is Part II, Reconstruction.  Stoneman/Stevens has a mulatto mistress, his housekeeper, an historical fact.  She manipulates him (lust seems to be a big motivation) to take a hard and brutal policy position towards the defeated South, hoping to revenge her people.  Stoneman’s right-hand man, another mulatto, is going to be made puppet governor of South Carolina in order to better implement the destruction of the Old South.

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A black Union soldier chases a white woman who, fearing for her honor, leaps to her death from a precipice.  The Klan organizes to capture the man, otherwise protected by Stoneman’s puppet.  They give him a “trial.”

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The Birth of a Nation (1915)

The scene of the KKK dumping his body at the governor’s office is, I think, supposed to be taken as a brilliant example of justice delivered, but in one of those inadvertent truth-telling images, it is a brutal image of the Klan’s racial tyranny.

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To finish off the local white gentry, the savage negroes are let loose to pillage and rapine in the town.  The Klan rides in, just like the cavalry, to save the day.  Of course, the actual events were more like the reverse, i.e., sustained campaigns of racial cleansing by organized whites to rid entire regions of black farmers who owned land.

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The blacks are vicious and terrifying, without regard to sex, of the victim or the perpetrator.  Here is Lillian Gish being threatened by a former servant.

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One of the local gentry kills a black man in an altercation while he was being arrested for harboring Klan members.  He manages to escape with the assistance of his loyal former house-slaves, and flees with his daughter and some friends to a remote cabin where he wants to wait for things to call down.  The cabin is inhabited by two white former Union soldiers.  Racial solidarity prevails.  It would take a few more years for the word “Aryan” to fall into disrepute.

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In a climactic scene, the father grabs the hair of his daughter, preparing to shoot her, rather than have her be captured alive and be despoiled by the black troops attacking his cabin hideout.

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All’s well that ends well.  Hero and heroine reunited at last.

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Order is restored, and the next time there is an election, the Klan is on hand to make sure that the Negroes vote properly.  Yet another image that surely was not intended to seem as it now does to us.

Vote


Life Among the Lowly

September 20, 2011

Uncle Tom’s Cabin or, Life Among the Lowly by Harriet Beecher Stowe is one of those tremendously important novels that I never wanted to read.  Yes, Lincoln greeted Stowe with the remark, “Here is the little lady who made this great war,” and it incited the howling protest of the south (as well as scores of ‘rebuttals’), but I expected a melodramatic and not very satisfying literary experience.  I was wrong.  The book is suspenseful, direct, and extremely powerful.  As an American, that is a person who lives with the political and social legacy of centuries of slavery and Jim Crow all around me, it is at times, a harrowing read.

In American English, an Uncle Tom is a black man who is compliant and subservient to his masters, often in an obsequious and fawning manner – that’s the cliché.  The character of Tom in the novel, however, is not like this at all.  In the introduction to my edition, and this NYTimes piece on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the book, the writers account for this contradiction by pointing out that the novel, which was incredibly popular, was immediately copied, parodied, adapted to the stage, and eventually found its way into, of all things, Minstrel Shows.  Along the way, a novelistic broadside against racism and slavery became a comedic entertainment perpetuating racist stereotypes.  Such is the wending path of culture.

The book is sentimental at times, particularly in two areas:  the description of the slaves; and the treatment of religion.  Stowe portrays the slaves almost always a fine souls, at the worst, a little ridiculous:  not genuine people who will be good, bad, or indifferent.  They are filled with noble sentiments, and their faults are only the product of their degraded state in life.  They are described often as having the positive attributes of childhood:  sincerity, directness, empathy.  Whether this was Stowe’s actual view or a means to make her characters more attractive to her readers I do not know. As the editor remarks in the introduction, this sentimentality has a radical element in that directing such feelings toward African slaves involved contradicting their status as chattel, often regarded as members of a non-human or sub-human species. 

The treatment of religion, especially in the depiction of the death of the little angel, Eva, is a fine example of Victorian religious sentimentality, and might bring to mind Oscar Wilde’s quip about Dickens:  One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter.   But it is sincere nevertheless:  Stowe was serious in her belief that adherence to Christian teaching would make the institution of slavery impossible.

Abolitionists, of which Stowe was one, sometimes criticized Uncle Tom for being too light in its criticism of slavery.  This may have to do with the fact that the slaves are, for the most part, house servants and higher level members of the plantation staff, and have relatively good masters.  Perhaps Stowe felt she could not write convincingly of the thoughts and feelings of workers spending their days toiling in sugar cane and the like, and in this, she followed an important writers’ guideline:  write what you know.  By focusing on the hardships of slaves under benign masters, who nevertheless face servitude and the potential breakup of their families, she opens, but leaves unanswered the question, how much worse would it be for those with hard masters?  The slaves live in fear of “being sold down the river,” (I never knew the origin of that phrase!)  i.e. shipped off to plantations further south where the hard labor kills them off quickly.  Then she brings that about for Tom, who is sold to the vile Simon Legree.

Stowe is not the least sentimental when she skewers the hypocrisy, intellectual, theological, and political, that surrounds the peculiar institution.  A lengthy section in which Tom is owned by Augustine, a jaded and refined member of the plantation élite, provides a stage to walk on and dismantle all sorts of notions that were argued about slavery in the pre-Civil War days.  Augustine knows all the arguments, and dismisses them all as humbug.  He knows it’s wrong, and that slavery is based on nothing but might and self-interest, but he does nothing about it – does not free his slaves – because he claims to be lazy and indifferent, but he is kind and thoughtful to his human property.  His cynicism masks the corruption and despair of a soul polluted by the institution that makes his leisured affluence possible.  His wife, a clear ancestor of Tennessee Williams’ neurotic belle, Blanche Dubois, spends her days in bed with headaches and complaints, and has nothing but contempt for her servants.  Augustine is also an atheist, which Stowe sees as the cause of his moral inertia, but with the death of his daughter, he is shaken loose of his torpor, but too late.

Augustine, a typical Victorian ideal figure – he has a Grecian profile, alabaster skin, golden curls, and a noble temperament – may represent the class of people Stowe was trying to influence.  Certainly the grim and vulgar Simon Legree is a species of the white trash, in the North and South, with whom she would not bother.  Ophelia, Augustine’s Yankee cousin who comes to stay with him, represents a properly religious northerner.  Although she is abolitionist to the core, she is stung when Augustine truthfully points out to her that she is disgusted by the Africans in her midst.  As always, the southerners claim that you northerners don’t know how to treat our negroes.  Ophelia, in touch with her Christian faith, changes however, and repents of her moral error.

Very often, Stowe points out with brutal clarity how what would be considered immoral and intolerable among whites is considered perfectly normal for whites to inflict on the slaves:  breaking up families and selling them off like horses at auction, for example.  In one stunning passage, she explicitly compares an escaped slave, George, who holds off his pursuers with a rifle, to Hungarian freedom fighters opposing Austrian oppression, a cause supported by many Americans.  What is the difference, she asks, other than color?  So much for sentimentality.

In many passages of the novel, Stowe references the sexual degradation that awaits pretty girls sold to less than humane masters, something which brought to my mind the statue The Greek Slave Girl by Hiram Powers, one of the most popular pieces of art in the 19th century.  Copies were made and widely distributed, and crowds lined up to see it.  The press did not often make the connection between Greeks sold into slavery by Turks and American enslavement of Africans, but some people did.  Moreover, literary accounts of ‘white’ girls, i.e. women who were legally black although of very light skin and hair, and were sold as slaves, were sometimes a sensation:  perhaps a truly white girl could, by mistake, find herself enslaved?  The knot of social/sexual issues surrounding all this is so huge, how can one hope to cut through it?  It is just this sort of mental/moral frisson, if not outrage, that Stowe calculated on producing in her readers.  Her armory was large:  if expositions of intellectual hypocrisy don’t convince try religion; If appeals to religious truth and values doesn’t work, try sex and violence; If that doesn’t work, try the sentimental.  They all lead to the same place – abolitionism.

I’m nearly through with the book, and I still don’t know why it’s called Uncle Tom’s Cabin…


Our Civil War

April 13, 2011

This week is the 150th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War.  Also known as:  The War Between the States; The War of Succession; War of Southern/Northern Agression; and The War for Southern Independence, among others things.   I prefer The War of Southern Rebellion or The Slave Society Rebellion Against the Union.  No matter how you spin it, and the spins are mighty, the cause of the war was slavery.

The South was a society built on slavery, and it could not coexist with the industrializing North.  The southerners rebelled to preserve their way of life, a plantation economy ruled by an elite of large slave owners, and a rabble of whites (antecedents of the storied “white trash“)  who at least weren’t black slaves.  After the war smashed the South, the former slaves enjoyed a brief period of freedom during Reconstruction, but the North made a deal that allowed it to reap the benefits of the South’s resources of agriculture and cheap labor, and left the African-Americans to fend for themselves in the neo-slavery of Jim Crow.  Slavery was done, and that was enough for most in the North.

Not everyone felt this way.  Thaddeus Stevens and his fellows understood that the South had rebelled, and left the Union.  He wanted the leaders of the Confederacy rounded up and shot, or at least imprisoned.  He wanted the plantations confiscated and parceled out to the former slaves, and used to compensate Union veterans.  He wanted the rebel states to be denied congressional representation until they could demonstrate that they deserved it yet again.  His view did not prevail, and the torrent of self-serving, sentimentalizing, dishonest, distorted and reactionary narratives began to pour forth from the North and South.  Today, the Confederate flag flies proudly in many locales – it’s just a cultural thing.  Yep, and I’m sure there are some old Germans who would like to display the swastika and SS skulls, just to preserve that culture…

You cannot understand American culture and politics today if you don’t contemplate the Civil War and its aftermath.


The Red Badge of Courage

February 27, 2010

Stephen Crane had never seen a battle when he wrote The Red Badge of Courage: only read of them, and conversed with his civil war veteran brother about Chancelorville.  Nevertheless, his depiction of the atmosphere of battle convinced many that he had seen it first hand, and it won high praise from veterans.  He is writer of marvelous descriptions, and uses poetic metaphor with a wonderful economy.  This gives his epic of the Civil War an overarching sense of irony, deflating the romantic pretensions of lawful battlefield slaughter; pretensions which yet lived on, kept alive by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt in America, and countless others in Europe.  WWI pretty much finished off that point of view.

The story proceeds on two levels: a realistic tale of a few days in the life of a civil war soldier, filled with telling minor details and marked by a singular absence of glory; and the inner tale of the psychological evolution of Henry Fleming, usually noted simply as “the youth.”  He grapples with the central question that faces him, and all soldiers, and all who contemplate their work:  How the hell do they do it?

A friend told me once that he learned that the most difficult thing to train new soldiers to do is to run the right way.  To run towards danger.  The Red Badge does not deal with the training that Henry got, perfunctory, no doubt, but in a modern army, there is tremendous effort placed on molding the soldiers into a group so that they do not think of their paltry survival as separate from the the unit.  War is not a place for individualistic heroism these days.  That went out with the hoplite revolution of ancient Greece…

After Henry flees the front lines, he engages in a long series of inner divigations to prove to himself that he acted sensibly, if not heroically, and he manages to screw his courage up to rejoin the unit, rather than to desert.  He thinks

…furthermore, how could they kill him who was the chosen of the gods and doomed to greatness?

The pagan theme is sounded frequently, an ironic note of comparison with the myths, legends, and literature of classical antiquity.  When Henry rejoins the battle and falls into a manic frenzy of shooting, continuing alone, long after all others have ceased, unaware that the skirmish is over, Crane says, “He had fought like a pagan defending his religion.” And note the further irony in the quotation above…doomed to greatness! He echoes the common sentiments of new recruits, recounted in a passage I recall from a WWII memoir that went something like this:

At first, everyone believes he is too smart, too good looking, too strong, or too loved by his mother to bit hit.  Then, after a while, that illusion goes, and he realizes he could in fact be killed or wounded.  Finally, everyone realizes that it’s only a matter of time before they leave action, dead or badly hit.

A writer on the Holocaust remarked once that there were no survivors in the death camps, only those who happened to be alive when the war ended.  For the infantry in total war, it is the same.  The casualty rates in WWII were mind boggling for our troops, hastily trained, hastily equipped, not always well led, and facing a hardened fighting machine on the defensive in the Pacific and Europe.  Those who went first, died pretty much.  Some of them had a copy of Crane’s book, no doubt.

Crane did not finish with Henry Fleming in this novel.  A short story, The Veteran, revisits him, now as The Old Man, recounting his experiences to avid listeners.  He does not hide the fact that at first, he ran.  His grandson is very perturbed.  In the climax of the story, the youth is tested yet again, or tests himself.


Radical Republicans!?

September 26, 2007

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The very term, “Radical Republicans,” sounds like an oxymoron, or it used to. That was before GW started on his blundering path down the road of reactionary leadership, and appointment of judges who seem to be living in the 19th century. Pretty radical to me.

Well, history makes strange turns indeed. After the Civil War (recall, Lincoln was a Republican) there was a big debate about how to treat the defeated South, i.e., the Confederacy, aka, the Rebels. Had they ever genuinely seceded from the Union, or, since that was not allowed, were they simply defeated rebels? Conquered belligerent nation or errant citizens entitled to due process? Thaddeus Stevens, the leader of the Republican Radicals, opted for the first description. A rock-solid egalitarian, he wanted equal rights for all, voting rights, established and protected for the freedmen (former slaves), and confiscation of the property of the southern elite to fund veteran’s benefits and land distribution to the blacks. He got some of it, but never all he wanted.

The north, and his party, were divided. Many did not like the notion of “negro rights.” Slavery was bad, but that was over, and it was time to move on. Some were eager to bring the rebels back into the fold of the Union, get their states’ delegations seated in Congress. Of course, many southerners, except for the minority of Unionists who were quaking in their boots in the midst of the general hostility around them, wanted to get back to normal as soon as possible so they could try to restore the status quo ante bellum. That is, slavery might be gone, but there was still plenty to do to keep the negroes down, what with lynching, racial cleansing of towns, debt peonage, and the like. Stevens understood all this and worked tirelessly for a Reconstruction program that would prevent it.

Eventually, in 1876, Reconstruction ended, and Jim Crow rushed in to fill the void in full force. The South stayed Democratic for generations, until Nixon managed to pry it loose on the basis of “values” politics. The Democratic Party evolved into the more liberal-progressive of the two major parties in the USA, but it always had to deal with its racist-segregationist element with deeply reactionary instincts that ruled the southern states.

As I say, the past is always present.


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