Thursday, May 29, 2014

Pulling the Trigger

Exactly why should another mass shooting in America, at the beginning of Memorial Day weekend, make me so homesick? Every historical event that I've missed since I departed from Anchorage, Alaska on a Wednesday afternoon seven years ago come November has reminded me of my distance from home. I feel more acutely than ever that I'm in the wrong place - that I should've been there when, for instance, Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, or when George Carlin died earlier that year, or when Hurricane Sandy slammed into New York and New Jersey, or throughout the long, hard winter that seems to have just come to an end.

I've written about some of the many mass shootings that are now endemic to life in America. Every time one occurs, the same issues come up in the media, both sides argued passionately, and nothing changes. By now, the only sensible response seems to be to simply own the fact that Americans are a uniquely obstinate people and that guns are never going to be taken away from them.

The latest (as of this writing) shooting rampage has already provoked the father of one of the victims (who had gone to a deli to buy a sandwich) into a public rant, directly blaming the NRA and "gutless" politicians for his son's death. But three of the six people that Elliot Rodger murderer were stabbed to death, for which the NRA and gutless politicians are blameless. And what about the pedestrians whom Rodger ran over with his BMW? The vehicle wasn't even American made.

Adding to what I've already said on the subject, I happen to agree with the NRA's argument that it isn't about the weapon of choice [guns], but that certain people choose to use it. Yet you cannot overestimate the enabling power of a gun. Think of all the people who enjoy going to firing ranges and shooting live rounds at targets in the form of human silhouettes. It gives them a thrill, a rush, a feeling of power. Over what? The disappointments of their lives? Their unfulfilling jobs and relationships? A universe that seems to be conspiring against them? What does the silhouette target represent? A criminal bent on robbing them? A man or woman who broke their heart? Their boss? Their mother or father? And what do they do when they discover that the bullets they fired have only put holes in a paper target?

Anecdote time. When I joined the Army in 1997, after I'd served eight years in the Navy and was finding the transition to civilian life especially frustrating, I was glibly informed by my recruiter that, because of BRM (Basic Rifle Marksmanship), which was central to Army training, I would have to undergo basic training for a second time. I turned 39 in the middle of it, surrounded by boys who were at least half my age, and because of my higher rank and time in service, I was made a squad leader in my platoon. When the time came for BRM arrived, I was surprised when some of the guys in my squad approached me to express their reluctance to accept even the idea of firing a weapon in combat. I tried to assure them that it was the drill instructors' duty to prepare them for the eventuality of combat and that, under those conditions, it was a choice of killing or being killed - you either used your rifle to defend yourself or you would probably be shot by the enemy. I'm afraid that my assurances weren't very reassuring. (One of my drill instructors told us prior to going to the range that, if any of us had it in his mind to shoot him once he was given a loaded M16, to please shoot him in the head and not maim him for life.)

Most people have a natural aversion to aiming a weapon at another person and pulling the trigger. It takes months of military pr police training and a certain amount of brutalization to overcome this natural aversion. All the target practice in the world won't make it any easier, when the time comes, for an untrained civilian with a gun, who just wants to use it to defend his property, to point it at another person and pull the trigger. Criminals are prepared to do so because they've already arrived at the decision to break the law. Consequences are obviously not enough of a "deterrent" to stop them. Should we be willing to submit average citizens to the brutalizing process of military training so they can more easily and conscionably shoot and kill one another? 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Special War

"Rebuke the company of spearmen; scatter thou the people that delight in war." Psalms 68:30

Combat remains the only place where murder is permissible.(1) After tasting the life of a conventional soldier for a few years, and experiencing all the aspects of warfare that most of my comrades and I found inconvenient and uncomfortable, like the long deployments away from home and a nice warm wife, living in the open with other men who had only a tentative concept of hygiene, all the day to day little hardships from which civilization is supposed to redeem us, I thought that it's an excellent idea that warfare be left to people who delight in it, who seem to enjoy everything I hated about it.

Having met a few Navy SEALS and Army Green Berets, and been told by one - an officer - that he got a "rush" from killing, I can say that they are an extraordinary breed of men, and that I am happy that there are not - by definition - very many of them. They may serve an important purpose, but their humanity has been put on hold. They are human beings deliberately gone feral, and I wouldn't trust one of them any further than he could throw me. Many of them have problems adjusting to life under ordinary circumstances, among ordinary men and women.

One of the strangest permutations in popular taste is the current vogue, probably generated by computer gaming, for members of military elite special forces - the unconventional commandos who undergo extreme training for extremely unconventional warfare. A skillfully made counter-argument to this special forces vogue is William Friedkin's The Hunted (2013). It's an remarkably cool film about a heated subject.(2) After four deer hunters are found gutted and dismembered in the states of Washington and Oregon, a retired outdoorsman named L.T. Bonham (Tommy Lee Jones) is called in to help track down the perpetrator. Accompanied by an FBI team led by Abby Durrell, played by the beautiful - and highly unlikely - Connie Nielsen, L.T.,  as everyone calls him, examines the traces of the murderer in the Oregon woods and, with the assistance of the FBI agents, captures a man he recognizes as a former student, Aaron Hallam (Benicio Del Toro). When they take Hallam to Portland for questioning, L.T. explains to Durrell how he trained Hallam, and many more like him for the U.S. Army, how to survive and to kill with extreme skill and a minimum of means - sticks and stones. Hallam, whom L.T. takes to calling "my boy," was a talented student who, upon learning how to kill by direction, finds that he can't turn it off. A flashback shows us L.T. lecturing a group of Army recruits. "Once you make it past killing someone mentally," he tells them, "the physical part is easy. The hard part is learning how to turn it off."

Three men representing some secret operations authority shows up to take charge of Hallam. One of them explains to the FBI director that Hallam is officially "missing in action" after suffering "severe battle stress" in the Kosovo war. Hallam is no ordinary psychopath, but a military-trained psychopath who is used like a surgical instrument. Despite the objections of the FBI chief, the three men take custody of Hallam, but when they try to kill Hallam while transporting him in a van, he manages to wreck the vehicle and escape. The rest of the film is a frenetic, though entirely predictable, chase sequence.

The film gets into enough hand-to-hand action to earn its bonafides. Benicio Del Toro, who plays Hallam with total conviction, brought in a Filipino martial arts expert to choreograph the training and fight scenes. But the film fails to do more than merely touch on the almost mystical relationship these men must have with the natural, only-the-strong-survive, kill-or-be-killed, world. The film ends with L.T. back in his snowy wilderness, watching a wolf running in the woods. But spending more time on the theme would probably have threatened the film's status as an action thriller. There is one risible moment in which Hallam lights a fire and forges a piece of iron into a knife. Forging metals requires considerably more heat than a campfire can produce. Aside from this (minor) slip, and the eye-candy provided by Connie Nielsen, The Hunted has bite and a compelling grasp of its serious subject. 73-year-old William Friedkin, who made The French Connection and The Exorcist forty years ago, proves he still has some craft in him.

A Bob Dylan song, sung by Johnny Cash, ends the film. "And God said to Abraham, 'Kill me a son.'"

(1) Unless you count the state-sanctioned murder of capital punishment.
(2) The script is derived from a book by Tom Brown, Jr., The Files of The Tracker. Brown also served as technical adviser for the film.

Friday, May 16, 2014

There Is Something I Can Do

I am 56 years old today. With the world the way it is, as every warning that environmentalists and conservationists have been throwing in our faces since the 1960s bears toxic fruit, and as every week brings more ominous proof that, by the end of the century, if not a whole lot sooner, the world will be a far less hospitable and habitable place for every living thing, who could complain about being as old as I am today?

More than thirty years ago I read a stanza that summed up the mood of disengaged terror that pervaded the darkest years of the Cold War:

My God
It is a test
This riding out
The dying of the West.

By now every part of the world - the West, the East, North and South - is on the skids. How much easier it was to accept even the idea of the death of the West. At least there was the expectation that humanity, however differently constituted, would somehow survive.

Pessimism about the fate of the world itself seems increasingly inescapable at the present moment. In 1947, a moment in human history when the atomic age had just begun, when America was in sole possession of nuclear weapons, but the Soviet Union was only months away from a bomb of its own, George Orwell was doubtful:

"If I were a bookmaker, simply calculating the probabilities and leaving my own wishes out of account, I would give odds against the survival of civilization within the next hundred years."(1)

Notice how Orwell was talking about "civilization," and not humanity.

The threat of nuclear annihilation has - perhaps only momentarily - passed. Today the threat of mass extinction is looming. Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of the revival of Carl Sagan's ground-breaking series Cosmos, has pointed out that "We just can't seem to break our addiction to the kinds of fuel that will bring back the climate last seen by the dinosaurs, a climate that will drown our coastal cities and wreak havoc on the environment and our ability to feed ourselves. Why can't we summon the ingenuity and courage of the generations that came before us? The dinosaurs never saw that asteroid coming. What's our excuse?"

The answer to this somewhat disingenuous question was written by Albert Camus:

"If the instinct to live is fundamental, it is no more so than another instinct of which the academic psychologists do not speak: the death instinct, which at certain moments calls for the destruction of oneself and of others. Thus, the instinct for self-preservation is matched, in variable proportions, by the instinct for destruction. The latter is the only way of explaining altogether the various perversions which, from alcoholism to drugs, lead an individual to his death while he knows full well what is happening. Man wants to live, but it is useless to hope that this desire will dictate all his actions. He wants to be nothing; he wants the irreparable, and death for its own sake."(2)

Even if I can't bring myself to believe the most grim predictions, and I think that human beings will muddle through somehow, the remainder of my life is likely to witness natural calamities that will make the typhoon I survived last November, which was the most powerful tropical cyclone to strike land ever, look like small potatoes.

Today is my birthday. What better way to end this post on a more positive note than to talk about a great film? How many films can you name in which a character's birthday takes place? Maybe the most dramatic and most poignant can be found in Akira Kurosawa's Chekhovian masterpiece, Ikiru (1952). The title means "To Live," and it's about a Public Works Section Chief named Watanabe who learns that he has terminal stomach cancer. If the news of a his looming death were not terrible enough, he realizes that he has spent his entire life without doing anything of lasting value and importance for his community. In his last days he spends his time thinking of how to accomplish one thing that would give his wasted life meaning.

One day, in a crowded restaurant, he is sitting upstairs with a young girl who used to work in his office. She hated working in his office and chides him for devoting his life to such inhuman work. She takes a wind-up toy rabbit out of her bag, and tells him she now works making such toys. And though her work is long and pays little, she thinks of all the children who will play with the toys she is making. Watanabe, whose face has looked sad and hopeless, suddenly breaks into a smile so transfiguring that the girl is frightened by it at first. Watanabe seizes the mechanical rabbit and hurries down the stairs. Just then an office girl passes him on the stairs and her waiting friends at the top of the stairs rush forward and sing "Happy birthday to you" in English. "There is something I can do," Watanabe says excitedly as he hurries down the stairs. "There is something I can do!"

It is Watanabe's birthday, the first day of what's left of his life. He goes back to his office and immediately sets about the work that will transform a wasted piece of land, a dumping site that breeds weeds and mosquitoes, into a children's playground. In the photo above, you can see Watanabe, just before he dies, sitting in a swing on a snowy night singing a beautiful folk song. The playground is finished.

(1) George Orwell, "Toward European Unity," Partisan Review, July-August 1947.
(2) Albert Camus, "Reflections on the Guillotine," 1957.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Swimming to Bullet Park

"Any memory of pain is deeply buried."

"It was a terribly difficult story to write. Because I couldn't ever show my hand. Night was falling, the year was dying. It wasn't a question of technical problems, but one of imponderables. When he finds it's dark and cold, it has to have happened. And, by God, it did happen. I felt dark and cold for some time after I finished that story."

Even the best writers go into decline. In the late stories of John Cheever one can detect the strain of an aging storyteller trying to maintain relevance in an era in which he feels that he no longer belongs. A celebrated short-story writer for more than two decades, Cheever had tried to write novels, lengthy ones, but the critical reaction to The Wapshot Chronicle (1957) and the Wapshot Scandal (1964) was that they seemed like loosely constructed and somewhat padded arrangements of Cheever's stories.

Cheever was getting nervous, and he expressed his nervousness by pushing his range. In most cases he did what every artist who begins to consciously shape what used to come naturally to him. In other words, Cheever choked. His famous story, "The Swimmer," which was made into a successful movie with Burt Lancaster, shows the strain of Cheever's trying a new approach to his old material.

The story of a successful man in his forties attempting some absurd physical feat is a familiar one in John Cheever country. Cash Bentley, the protagonist of "O Youth and Beauty!", is "an old track star" who periodically re-enacts his glory days at cocktail parties, until, late one particular night at home, he moves the furniture in his living-room and hands the starter pistol to his wife.

Neddy Merrill, the hero of "The Swimmer," decides one "midsummer Sunday" to swim the eight miles home through the swimming pools of everyone he knows along the way - the Westerhazys, Grahams, Bunkers, Levys, all the way to the Biswangers and the pool of his mistress, Shirley. He names the water course, the "Lucinda River," after his loving wife, who sits with him at Westerhazys pool. His four lovely daughters are waiting for him at home.

Cheever leads us, along with Neddy, through a landscape replete with the signs of a season. But we quickly begin to realize that it may not be the season that Neddy believes it is. Rather than midsummer, many telling clues reveal that it's much later in the year. When the wind from a sudden storm strips a maple tree of its "red and yellow leaves," Neddy accounts for this "sign of autumn" by assuming the tree "must be blighted."

Neddy then finds the Lindleys riding ring strangely "overgrown with grass and all the jumps dismantled." He faintly remembers something about the Lindleys' horses, but isn't sure what it was. At the next stop, he finds the pool has been drained, which leaves Neddy "disappointed and mystified": "It was common enough to go away for the summer but no one ever drained his pool." When had he last heard from the Welchers? And then Cheever makes a tactical error. He gives Neddy just enough presence of mind to try and account for his surprise: "Was his memory failing or had he so disciplined it is the repression of unpleasant facts that he had damaged his sense of the truth?"

When he finds himself exposed to the jeers of motorists on Route 424, on his way to the next string of swimming pools on his way down the Lucinda River, Neddy wonders: "He could have gone back, back to the Westerhazys', where Lucinda would still be sitting in the sun. Why, believing as he did, that all human obduracy was susceptible to common sense, was he unable to urn back? At what point had this prank, this joke, the piece of horseplay become serious?"

He finds further signs of autumn when he notices that the beech hedge at the Hallorans is yellow. But he guesses that it, too, must be blighted. The people he encounters, who have known him for years, begin to disclose their sympathy for some personal misfortune of which Neddy is oblivious.

By the time he reaches his house, Neddy feels he has grown feeble and old. His house is dark, locked up and empty. And we learn the truth: that Neddy's marriage is over and that his daughters have moved away. But what can account for Neddy's strange amnesia throughout the story? The story begs the question: was Neddy's fall traumatic enough to induce such complete forgetfulness of his situation?

The story reminds one of other stories of self-delusion. In Rebecca West's novella The Return of the Soldier, the loss of a child and subsequent trauma in the trenches of the Great War cause Chris Baldry to forget several years of his life. He writes letters to a woman he once loved, whom he hasn't seen in more than a decade. A psychologist is called in to discover a way to restore Chris to the present, even if he is happy in his amnesia. "The truth's the truth," even if it is terrible. "And he must know it."

And there is the American writer Ambrose Bierce's story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," in which a prisoner of war is hanged - but the rope breaks and he escapes down the river. Running and hiding from his pursuers, he finally finds himself in familiar surroundings. He sees his front gate and his wife with her arms open wide to embrace him.

"As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon--then all is darkness and silence!

Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge."

Bierce's story, though strange, is consistent with many other of his stories of the Civil War, some of them involving ghosts. It is believable as the fantasy of a man who finds himself within moments of his own death. It is utterly convincing that in his mind he would spend those last moments fleeing to the people and places he most loved.

Neddy Merrill, in Cheever's story, is subjected to no such comparable duress, and Cheever makes no attempt to help us to understand what would cause Neddy to try and live out his fantasy of a stable marriage and family home so drastically. Unless, that is, he's had too much to drink. Cheever begins the story, famously, with this litany:

'It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, "I drank too much last night." You might have heard it whispered by the parishioners leaving church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestiarium, heard it from the golf links and the tennis courts, heard it from the wildlife preserve where the leader of the Audubon group was suffering from a terrible hangover. "I drank too much," said Donald Westerhazy. "We all drank too much," said Lucinda Merrill. "It must have been the wine," said Helen Westerhazy. "I drank too much of that claret."'

Could "The Swimmer" be nothing more than Neddy Merrill's alcohol withdrawals?

In his short story, "A Miscellany of Characters that will not Appear," Cheever lists seven types that he vows never to admit to his fiction. Among them, at number 5, is "All lushes . . .

out they go, male and female, all the lushes; they throw so little light on the way we live."

This, despite the obvious fact that Cheever's characters do a lot of drinking in his stories, and the fact that Cheever himself had been a lush from an early age until 1975, when, at the age of 62, he finally stopped. Clearly, Cheever was that most terrible of lushes, a "functioning" one - one who found a way to balance the writing of some of the most beautiful American prose with the bingeing, and the hangovers, the agonizing abstinences and the gratifying and disappointing relapses.

Neddy Merrill drinks - as much as he swims - his way down the Lucinda River. He is finally almost begging for a drink from his friends at the last few swimming pools. Auden, in his essay, "The Prince's Dog," points out the only way we can truly sympathize with Neddy:

"His refusal to accept the realities of this world, babyish as it may be, compels us to take another look at this world and reflect upon our motives for accepting it. The drunkard's suffering may be self-inflicted, but it is real suffering and reminds us of all the suffering in this world which we prefer not to think about because, from the moment we accept this world, we acquired our share of responsibility for everything that happens in it."

In an interview, Cheever said:

"I seldom read my own work . . . It's like looking over your shoulder to see where you've run. That's why I've often used the image of the swimmer, the runner, the jumper . . . I also feel, not as strongly as I used to, that if I looked over my shoulder I would die. I think frequently of Satchel Paige and his warning that you might see something gaining on you."

The Taste of Greasepaint

Gary Morris edits the Bright Lights Film Journal, and is well known among film scholars and critics. I first came into contact with him in 2010 via email, when I sent him a link to an essay I had written that mentioned a book he co-edited with Bert Cardullo. Wanting something more pleasant to talk about, I suggested that I write something for Bright Lights. In his latest online issue, Gary published my latest stab at film scholarship, "The Taste of Greasepaint." Although he made a few changes, like replacing the opening paragraph with a later one, I am pleased with the result. The essay can he found here.