Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Con Stars

"Mrs. Bunting had a fierce horror of the pawnshop. She had never put her feet in such a place and she declared she never would - she would rather starve first."

Marie Belloc Lowndes, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, 1913.

Two of the "stars" of The History Channel's hugely successful reality show, Pawn Stars, Rick and Corey Harrison, blew through Manila this past weekend. In a country where pawn shops are as ubiquitous as coconut palms, the show is broadcast on a Filipino cable news channel and has developed a following among Filipinos, who know very well the reasons why people visit such places.

This is surely one of the most odious of new cable TV programs. Not content, apparently, with its usual despicably misinformative programming about ancient aliens and Nostradamus, The History Channel is serving up yet another example, as if I needed one, of the rock-bottom loathsomeness of my native culture.

The notion of exploring such an establishment as a pawn shop and having the proprietors relate how each object came into their possession, who sold it to them and why, is a tantalizing one. Cameras could enter a pawnshop anywhere in the world just to investigate the menagerie of strange things that people pawn or sell for a little cash, and learn the stories that they tell of destitution and desperation. The jewelry - the forsaken wedding bands, engagement rings - family heirlooms, baubles commemorating past events, old artifacts, musical instruments (musicians are forever on the brink of poverty), all the things whose sentimental value is impossible to calculate but which only managed to procure for their owners a few miserable bucks in exchange for their personal loss.

When I first learned that The History Channel was airing Pawn Stars, I was looking forward - silly me - to a program like this, exploring the sad history of purloined personal histories. Instead, the show makes the terrible mistake of concentrating on the people who run such establishments - the pawn brokers themselves - whose profession requires them to cheat everyone who crosses the threshold of their shops, to grossly underestimate the value of anything that sometimes desperate people might wish to exchange for the money that could pay their rent or some other past-due debt, enough to - if only for a short time - keep the inescapable wolf from their doors.

I am astonished at the success of the show, which has turned a family of Las Vegas pawn brokers into instant celebrities. A friend of mine who lives in Vegas tells me that the shop featured on the show (which, he assures me, is a "dump") is now a routine stop on Las Vegas tourist itineraries, with autograph hounds lining up to have their pictures taken, shake hands with one of the "pawn stars," like they're people someone would want to take home to meet their folks.

If folk memory is anything to go by, a pawn broker is usually a social outcast, like the town executioner or the undertaker. Pawn shops are routinely situated in the seediest parts of a city, and are regularly targeted in robberies. Historically, pawn brokers are looked upon as social parasites who have safes full of cash from which they dispense pittances to people unfortunate enough to need it, like inveterate gamblers and drug addicts. They are also supposed to have a sixth sense for items that are "hot," i.e., stolen.

One of the things that utterly falsifies the TV show is that the pawn broker always calls in an "expert" to appraise potentially valuable or historically important objects. No self-respecting pawn broker would ever do such a thing. It goes against virtually everything he stands for. He will size-up the object himself (as well as the person wanting to sell it) and appraise it for however much he thinks he can cheat him out of. And whoever heard of a pawn broker who haggles over a price? His offers are invariably "take it or leave it."

In Manila last weekend, the visiting pawn stars "offered tips to fans ... about bargaining and putting value on things," according to the Philippine Star. What on earth for? By the time Filipinos are desperate enough to take something to a pawn shop to sell or to pawn, they should probably be willing to accept even the most outrageous estimation of their most prized possessions.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

See Venice and Live

Whether you believe that hydrocarbons released into the atmosphere by human activity are causing Global Warming or not, the phenomenon is a dead certainty by now. I've been listening to warnings from conservationists about the consequences of humans polluting the planet all my life. So I shouldn't be all that surprised if, before I snuff it, I see at least some of those forebodings come true. To a great extent, we had it coming to us.

The alarming rate of the melting of polar ice has led to some grim forecasts for the rising of sea levels all over the world. Anyone who lives near the ocean, as I do, will likely see a steady migration of people away from the shore as sea levels rise. One place that has seen ocean levels rise and fall and rise again over the course of the centuries since its founding in the year of our lord 421 is the city of Venice. The city consists of 118 islets in a lagoon in the northeast corner of Italy, on an Adriatic Sea that it once ruled in glory. It has been in steady - if exquisite - decline for a considerable part of the past few centuries and, like many other Italian cities that has seen much better days, is in a constant state of restoration.

In his superb 1985 review of the travel book, On the Shores of the Mediterranean, by Eric Newby (1919-2006), "A Vanishing Metaphor," Vernon Young begins with a quote from E.M. Forster's A Passage to India.

"In a paragraph memorable to anyone who has read and re-read E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, Cecil Fielding, a British schoolmaster, on his way home to England after many years, pauses in Venice. There confronted with the visible coherence of Europe, he is driven, not without “a sense of disloyalty,” to compare it with the visible formlessness of the country he has left.

'The buildings of Venice, like the mountains of Crete and the fields of Egypt, stood in the right place, whereas in poor India everything was placed wrong .... In the old undergraduate days he had wrapped himself up in the many-coloured blanket of St. Mark’s, but something more precious than mosaics and marbles was offered to him now: the harmony between the works of man and the earth that upholds them, the civilization that has escaped muddle, the spirit in a reasonable form, with flesh and blood subsisting .... [T]hough Venice was not Europe, it was part of the Mediterranean harmony. The Mediterranean is the human norm. When men leave that exquisite lake, whether through the Bosphorus or the Pillars of Hercules, they approach the monstrous and extraordinary; and the southern exit leads to the strangest experience of all.'"

Young laments the erosion of the Mediterranean as a metaphor of western civilization, which can be seen in physical form in the steady dilapidation of Venice.

"The buildings of Venice . . . stood in the right place." Read this literally and a queasy sensation will ensue. For how long will they stand in the right place? If you have ever lingered in Venice through the marvelous early days of October — "going home" at night in a vaporetto after a day spent in the automotive alienation of noisy Padua — you may forget, for a hushed hour, the commonly held opinion that Venice is sinking. Yet Venice was always sinking! Like a mortal, its death was built in with its conception. In pre-industrial centuries, as now, the determining conditions for the flood that one day will not subside at the crucial hour—the so-called acqua alta—are heavy rain, a full moon, falling barometric pressure, and a strong sirocco, all of which prevent the water in the lagoon from getting out. As far back as 1240 the water rose to the height of a man; in 1280, rising from 8 a.m. until noon, it drowned hundreds in their houses, and as many perished of the cold. In modern times such calamities have increased with serious frequency. During our century the city has been inundated no less than forty times and the accompanying effects have been the more destructive, Newby reminds us, because to the normal waste products in this city without drains have been added the poisonous effluents of industry: "dangerous quantities of ammonia and its by-products of oxidation, phenol, cyanide, sulphur, chlorine, naphtha, as well as oil from passing ships."

The most spectacular instance to date of the fatally impending deluge was the acqua alta of November 4, 1966, when waves twelve feet high smashed the bathing facilities on the Lido, and at Venice itself the water rose six and a half feet above the normal sea level. According to Newby’s recital of the consequence, which is supported by his passion for the numerical, the flood threatened four hundred and fifty bridges, submerged the one hundred and twenty shoals or islands on which the city is allegedly built, and inundated fifteen thousand houses in which people lived on the ground floor. Three thousand miles of streets and alleys and the various open spaces known as campi were also inundated "with an unimaginably vile compound of all the various effluents mentioned previously .... To which was added diesel oil and gas oil which had escaped from the storage tanks, leaving the city without electric light, means of cooking or hearing, or any communication with the outside world."

One of my recurring nightmares is what will happen if the waters of the Venice lagoon neap sufficiently to engulf the Scuola di San Rocco, in which are housed under one roof more masterpieces by a single painter (Tintoretto) than anywhere else in Europe. Such considerations seem not to have inspired any major effort of prevention or rehabilitation (whatever these might be) on the part of the Italian government. Imbued by the spirit of classical timelessness, perhaps, civic officials do nothing in Italy until a crisis makes unopposable demands. It was always predictable that the Arno would overflow at Florence and inundate the basement archives of the Uffizi. This is what happened—in the late Sixties, if I recall correctly—and innumerable manuscripts and facsimiles were either destroyed or irretrievably damaged. Newby doesn’t mention that in the Seventies a small fortune was donated to the city of Venice by an international committee for purposes of salvage. When, a few years later, the authorities were consulted on the progress being made, the fortune had mysteriously disappeared.

Newby’s last word for the situation is spooky: the fateful alliance of indifferent nature with procrastinating man. The waters of our oceans are constantly rising because of the melting of polar ice; in the Venetian case the city is sinking because the subsoil has been deprived of alluvium by the re-routing of rivers. “So that one day, quite suddenly, without warning, just as the Campanile collapsed [July 14, 1902], so too will the wooden piles that support the buildings of the city, of which there are said to be more than a million beneath Santa Maria della Salute alone, suddenly give up supporting them and allow the city to disappear forever.”

Death in Venice. I have long thought Thomas Mann’s title appropriate to the sunset ambience invoked by almost everyone (E. M. Forster excluded) who has written an elegiac word on the sinking city. Death is in fact a conception more profoundly associated with Italy than the popular attribution of vitality—yet vitality, of a sometimes macabre order, is by no means absent."

A new threat to the buildings still standing along the Grand Canal are the monstrous cruise ships, like floating, packed to the gills Holiday Inns, bringing thousands of brainless tourists straight up to the Piazza San Marco so they can take a picture and tell all their friends that they saw Venice. They remind me of the little American girl in another E.M. Forster novel, A Room With a View, who asks her father, "Hey, Papa. What did we see in Rome?" Her father replies, "Rome? In Rome we saw a yellow dog!"

But if signs of the precipitous shrinkage of polar ice was apparent to some people 28 years ago, and nothing was done about it, who else is there to blame for our disastrous situation than every one of us?

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Little Bill: The Real Hero of The Unforgiven

In one of John Ford's most mythopoeic Westerns, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), a newspaper reporter interviews a senator (Jimmy Stewart) whose fame rests on the shooting of a notorious outlaw many years before. The senator tells the reporter the truth about the shooting, that Liberty Valance was really done in by a forgotten rancher named Tom Doniphon (played by John Wayne). At the end of the movie, instead of revealing the real name of the "man who shot Liberty Valance," the reporter destroys his notes and says, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

With The Lone Ranger set to become one of the biggest box office flops of all time (1), it seems as good a time as any to pronounce the Western dead as a doornail. The last Western - that made money - was the unsightly Cowboys & Aliens (2011), a bit of silliness comparable to 1966's Billy the Kid vs. Dracula. Clint Eastwood's last Western, Unforgiven (1992), which he waited almost twenty years to make so he would look the part of William Munny, was widely hailed as his greatest, and one of the best of the genre. But I have always been puzzled by what Eastwood was trying to impart in the movie.

The plot is fairly complicated, for a Western: In Big Whiskey, Wyoming, a group of prostitutes employed by Skinny Dubois (Anthony James) in a saloon called Greeley's, put together a $1,000 reward for the killing of two cowboys who attacked Delilah (Anna Levine) with a knife and scarred her for life. The town's sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), refused to arrest the two men, and knows that gunmen from Kansas and Cheyenne will be coming to Little Whiskey to collect the reward. Little Bill enforces a curious and draconian law in his small town that obliges everyone within the town limits to surrender their firearms. If anyone declines to give up their guns, Little Bill's policy is to take them by force and beat the living daylights out of the transgressor.

When Little Bill enforces this policy on an old gunman named English Bob (Richard Harris), he locks him in jail overnight and adopts a writer named W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) who has been writing colorful tales about Bob and other outlaws for the delectation of readers back East. Little Bill proceeds to debunk every story that Beauchamp has heard from English Bob and others, and tells him the ugly truth about the Wild West. At first, Beauchamp doesn't want to believe Little Bill, but he realizes he's telling the truth when English Bob says nothing to contradict him.

(Throughout the movie, we see Little Bill struggle to construct a house. It's a kind of symbol of the feeble impact Bill is having on his little corner of the West.

Then William Munny, played at first by Eastwood with almost exaggerated clumsiness, slipping in a muddy pigsty and falling off his horse, arrives in Little Whiskey, along with an old compatriot named Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and a wet-behind-the-ears upstart named The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett), on account of the Schofield revolver he carries. The long ride in the rain has left Will feverish, and when Ned and the Kid adjourn upstairs in Greeley's with the girls, Little Bill shows up to relieve Will of his firearm. The usual savage beating ensues, leaving Will nearly as scarred as Delilah. The three men escape to a shack outside Little Whiskey to nurse Will's wounds. (2)

The rest of the movie plods along predictably, until the final scene, which stands everything that came before it on its head. Will Munny is, at best, the anti-hero of this story. It emerges that he was one of the cruelest murderers of the West in his bad old drunken days, killing "everything that walks or crawls at one time or another" (his own words). But when Ned is captured by Little Bill's posse and whipped by Little Bill until he gives up the identities of his cohorts, Ned suddenly dies. One of the prostitutes, Little Sue (Tara Frederick), who gives Will and the Kid the $1,000 reward, informs them of Ned's "accidental" death and of his body being put "in a box in front of Greeley's" with a sign on him reading "This is what happens to assassins." Will starts drinking his liquid courage (whiskey) and is instantly transformed into the William Munny of old.

It's at this point that critics should've unanimously cried foul: Eastwood spends four-fifths of his movie debunking Western mythology, revealing the exaggeration and lies behind all the stories of gunfights and outlaws, only to turn 180 degrees in the last scene and create a brand new myth. I remember when I watched Unforgiven the first time with a group of fellow sailors in 1992, and how they cheered when Eastwood enters Greeley's saloon with a shotgun and asks, "Who's the owner of this shithole?" Like the storyteller W.W. Beauchamp, they want the exaggeration, the distortions, the lies, as long as they're as violent as possible.

What nobody noticed about Unforgiven is that Little Bill Daggett is the real hero of Eastwood's movie. Virtually alone among the region's law-enforcers, he knows the destructiveness of guns and seeks, within the confines of his small town, to curb their destructiveness. Not by banning guns, but by having them removed for the time being. Just before Munny shoots him the last time, Little Bill mutters pathetically, "I don't deserve this. I was building a house." All he wanted was a quiet place where he could smoke his pipe and watch the sun set. Not in Little Whiskey, alas.

There is a curious shot near the end of the movie. As Munny is riding out of Little Whiskey, he stops in front of Greeley's and shouts to whomever is listening, "You'd better bury Ned right, and don't be cutting up any more whores, or I'll come back and kill every one of you sons-of-bitches!" As he shouts those last words, there is an American flag over Will's left shoulder. Even if you consider there is more meaning behind the movie's title, that Will Munny, who tried living a civilized life of his own, cannot escape his bloody past, Unforgiven is just another example of John Ford's "print the legend."  

(1) According to reports, its losses could reach $200M.
(2) At the time of the movie's release, none of the critics dared to say a word about the fact that Ned's race is never noticed by anyone in the movie, not even when he goes upstairs with white prostitutes. This is strange behavior in 19th century America, even as revisionist history. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,--
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!--
It is the cause.

- "Othello," Act V, Scene II

When the great Paul Robeson played Othello in a London production in 1930, he famously called the play "a tragedy of racial conflict." For Robeson, Othello's tragic flaw was not jealousy, as everyone has always supposed, but racial prejudice.

Robeson's argument is well taken, but surely racial prejudice is Iago's problem, not Othello's? In the first scene of the first act, we know well what Iago thinks of his master Othello, as he rouses Brabantio from his sleep to tell him how "an old black ram/is topping [his] white ewe." The white ewe is Brabantio's daughter, and he goes to some lengths in the first act to obstruct Othello's access to her. The Moor, though regarded highly for his military exploits on the side of his Venetian lords, is also viewed with suspicion by them.

Robeson's argument is rather like saying that Shylock's tragic flaw in "The Merchant of Venice" was anti-Semitism. Much has been done to save the character of Shylock from the stereotype that Shakespeare manipulated in his play. But Shakespeare certainly intended us to hate Shylock, regardless of his attempts to "flesh him out" into a fully-realized human being.

And doesn't Robeson's reading of Othello lower Shakespeare's tragedy from a universal to a parochial level? Jealousy, while being an intensely personal agony, is something with which everyone can identify. Racial prejudice is a neurosis, affecting many people in racially mixed societies, but negligible in racially homogenous societies like Denmark or Japan.

But the fact that Robeson was unable to see through the veil of his own experience - as powerful and as undeniable as that experience must have been - shows the effects of racism on the minds of African-Americans. Whereas many white Americans fail to perceive racial prejudice in the society that surrounds them, simply because it is almost never directed at them, black Americans encounter it everywhere. President Obama spoke eloquently last month about his own experience of it - the white women clutching their handbags when he enters an elevator, and their exhaling in relief when he gets off, the car doors locking as he crosses a busy street. Making white people notice these things is only a first step.

It's almost as if we need another Gentlemen's Agreement - a movie in which a jounalist investigates the prevalence of anti-Semitism in America by masquerading as a Jew. (Alas, the unintentional moral of the movie, once the journalist comes out from under his Jewish alias, was "thank God I'm a goy.")

Philip Roth's novel The Human Stain dramatizes the life of Coleman Brutus Silk, a successful Jewish classics professor whose lifelong secret, divulged to Roth's narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, is that he is a black man whose light skin gave him a pass into the white world. Silk's revelation is provoked by his being forced into retirement after he uses a supposed racial slur toward two of his black students.

As Silk's mother tells him, "There was always something about our family, and I don't mean color--there was something about us that impeded you. You think like a prisoner. You do, Coleman Brutus. You're white as snow and you think like a slave." Silk's mother knew that, even if he managed to free himself from the constraints imposed on him by a white world, Silk was as much enslaved by them as his blackest brother.

As Paul Robeson's life and testimony prove, racial prejudice may not be a universal affliction, but it is certainly what gives African-American experience its tragic dimension.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Return of Ulysses

It isn't unheard of that some otherwise forgettable or moribund movie should put me in touch with art - with some utterly far-fetched reference to a beautiful piece of music, a magnificent old (or new) building, or an exquisite poem, that I had somehow overlooked in the bustle of my own life. The people who make movies are, some of them, cultivated people who, though they may not be so expert at making movies, have lived lives, seen the world, and found their own ways through.

Watching the latest James Bond extravaganza, Skyfall, which as such movies go, is a few strides ahead of most of the others, put me ijn touch with a few lines from a poem identified, by Judy Dench, as Tennyson's:

We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Dame Dench's character, known simply as "M," director of MI6, uses these lines as a sort of character witness for the defense of her department to the head of an oversight committee. It could also serve as one of those beautiful speeches of which the British are so fond that define them as a race. Rather as John Gaunt's speech in Shakespeare's Richard II:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,...

Except that old John was witnessing the very start of the panoply of English history, just as Dame Dench was apostrophizing it's decline.

But the lines from Tennyson quoted above are lifted from his wonderful poem, "Ulysses," of which I had no knowledge until I saw Skyfall, which I quote in full here.


It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
As tho' to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro' soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Ulysses' words are noble and bold, but he seems quite like Quixote, sitting in Ithaca, old and used up by his many adventures, longing to begin a new voyage. If you calculate that he was young when he embarked for Troy - maybe 30 - and the Trojan War lasted 10 years, and his return lasted another 10 years, that would make him 50 at the end of The Odyssey. Perhaps Ulysses was simply unable to imagine to quiet, domestic life at home with Penelope, who after all waited 20 years for him to end his voyages. Stay home, Ulysses. Here and now is your promised land.