This almost made me like her. Almost. And for a minute. Ok. Maybe ten seconds. But it’s still kind of funny. Or it would be. If it wasn’t her. Which it is. But I still got a kick out of it. Sort of. As long as I didn’t think about how it was her. Which I did. Because it was. Her. Which I…Oh heck. Read it for yourself, see what you think.
I’m not sure I’ve ever mentioned it here, but I taught at Hobart and William Smith for four years back in the 90s. Of course it’s a different place now but I’d have expected it to be a better place. Not that it was a bad place then. In fact, compared to a lot of schools at the time it was an enlightened and progressive and aware place (although with significant qualifications), particularly when it came to feminist issues and concerns and the well-being, physical and academic, of female students. Twenty years on, you’d think they’d have only grown more that way.
Note I referred to the school as a they.
Here’s the odd thing about Hobart and William Smith. It…they…are two separate colleges. Hobart and William Smith. Hobart is for men, William Smith for women. The separation exists mainly on paper. Students of both colleges share the campus, share classrooms, share professors, and share dorms. What they didn’t share then (although they may now) were the same admissions officers. The academic standards for both were about the same but the types of student each college recruited and attracted were different. William Smith students tended to be more intellectual, more academically ambitious, more emotionally mature, more independent, and more sophisticated or, really, better at putting on a show of sophistication. Hobart students were, on the whole, less driven, less likely to be giving serious thought to their futures, more social, more into enjoying the whole college experience (which often resulted in Hobart students in my classes being more enthusiastic about the subject, so it was never the case that all my best students were William Smith students even though they were generally the more diligent, and that made for a nice mix in classroom discussions; everybody knew his or her stuff, they’d just come to know it differing ways), and much less sure of themselves. That doesn’t mean they were diffident or shy and retiring. They often over-compensated, and they would band together. I’m sure this often looked and felt to other students like they were being ganged up upon and it was something I had to police, but I could do it good-naturedly and without much effort because, for the most part, those men were good-natured and and earnestly eager to be “good guys.” And they liked me. They thought of me as a pal. They thought of everybody as a pal. They assumed friendship and camaraderie. Every one of them was everyone else’s big brother. I’m not sure what the William Smith students made of that. But these Hobart students were, by nature, fraternal.
Which might explain why so many of them belonged to fraternities.
I don’t know how many William Smith students belonged to sororities. I can’t even tell you if there were sororities. But the Greek life defined the social lives of many Hobart students and so by default of the colleges.
Here’s another difference: a much greater percentage of Hobart students were athletes.
Hobart and William Smith didn’t offer athletic scholarships. The student-athletes truly were student-athletes. And they had to have good grades to get in and to keep their places on the teams. But they’d chosen to come there because they could continue to play their chosen sport.
In short, it was a student body dominated by frat boys and jocks.
Now, here is the way the students at both colleges were alike.
They were almost all children of privilege.
Their parents weren’t necessarily rich as in rich rich. But they had money. A lot of the students at Hobart and William Smith had gone to prep schools. They’d grown up taking ski vacations, European vacations, Caribbean vacations. When they talked about their summer jobs they were often talking about unpaid internships they’d secured through their parents’ connections. A great many took it for granted (with good reason) they would be going on to top-flight law schools and MBA programs and from there into high-status, lucrative professional careers like their parents’. There were some future doctors and scientists and even a few future teachers and academics---but no future engineers that I recall---but for the most part they---the ones who were thinking ahead, and like I said, a lot of Hobart men didn’t---were a collection of future lawyers and business executives and bankers and stock brokers, and they were a little full of themselves about it.
They were on the whole somewhat spoiled, a little arrogant, unthinkingly snobbish, a bit more self-centered than your average adolescents, and cheerfully, unabashedly entitled.
Hobart students felt additionally entitled because they were men and it was a man’s world---still is, but it was more so then---and because they were athletes and because they belonged to fraternities which signified.
I liked teaching there. I loved many of my students. But I did not love them as a group the way I’d loved my students in Indiana before we moved to New York or the way I love my students at SU now. They were hard to love because they didn’t need or want to be loved. Not by me. Not by any of the adults around them. (The Hobart guys wanted to be liked, a different thing.) They didn’t think of us as adults, anyway, because they didn’t think of themselves as children. Although not as grown up as they thought they were---like I said, William Smith students were very good at imitating maturity and sophistication---in many ways they were still more grown up than their contemporaries at other, less exclusive and prestigious schools, and they were used to being on their own and left to their own devices. They thought they were perfectly capable of taking care of themselves without supervision of any kind and I think they convinced most professors and administrators they were right about that.
I was never all that plugged into things and so I never knew for sure what was going on outside of class, but it seemed to me that while the powers that be paid a lot of attention to students as a group, there wasn’t much attention given to students as individuals, and my concern was that if a cry for help went up in the night, as it were, there was no one in the administration on duty listening for it.
It’s been a long time and I have almost no connections left. Just about everyone I worked with has retired or moved on. Administrations have changed hands several times over. I’ve heard that the colleges, Hobart and William Smith together, have done much to improve their academic reputation. My students were no slouches, but the students who have passed through there over the last decade or so have been even higher achievers, Hobart’s men as well as William Smith’s women. But I’ve also heard that they’re even more privileged---there are more preppies among them---and their higher achievements are due to their parents having been able to buy them advantages middle class and working class and poor parents can’t buy for their college-bound kids. They aren’t necessarily smarter, just better schooled in the art of going to school. This condition does not tend to inspire humility, and, consequently, I suspect they’re more likely to mistake their good fortune for the rewards of intelligence and hard work. And the more full of themselves they are, the more entitled, the more privileged and coddled, the more likely they are to think they are immune to the consequences of mistakes or out and out bad behavior.
What I’ve heard hasn’t changed is that the majority of Hobart men are frat boys and jocks.
Whatever the benefits of belonging to a fraternity are---and no one has ever been able to explain them to me persuasively; as far as I’ve ever been able to tell, all they do for members is increase the social and economic rewards of unearned privilege---what fraternities mainly contribute to campus life are opportunities for minors to drink. Basically, their function is to put oversized plastic cups of cheap beer in the hands of kids under twenty-one and bring young men and women together over brown and green bottles, punch bowls, shot glasses, growlers, pitchers, and kegs.
The administrations at colleges where fraternities thrive know this.
For the most part, they look the other way.
What happened at Hobart and William Smith can and does happen without fraternities having any involvement. It can and does happen where the student body is less privileged, less entitled, less too sophisticated for their own good.
But students at every kind of college have a right to expect that the administration is doing all it can to prevent it from happening and that when it does there’ll be someone in charge ready to come to their aid.
An important part of prevention is making sure everyone knows investigations of misconduct will be fair and thorough and punishment, if warranted, will be sure and swift. Another important part is making sure everyone knows victims will be taken care of and taken seriously and not be treated as problems the administration would like to make go away in a hurry.
This is not the way it went at Hobart and William Smith.
A cry for help went up in the night. No one in the administration was listening or at least not with both ears. When they were made to listen, they all but shrugged. They went through the motions of investigating. They did nothing to protect the student afterwards. When they were called on it, when their neglect and incompetence were revealed to the world, instead of admitting their failure, apologizing, and trying to make amends, the colleges went on the defensive. The president and the Board of Trustees made excuses! They came just this close to blaming the victim and calling her a liar! They put the school’s reputation, which is to say their own reputations, ahead of not just this student’s but all students’ safety and well-being.
This is why my friend, colleague, sometime teaching partner, and boss Steve Kuusisto says Hobart and William Smith failed a second time and on a wider scale. Steve has a longer and more personal connection with the colleges than I do. He earned his bachelor degree from Hobart. His father was the president from 1970-1982. He taught there for seven years himself. In short, he feels like he’s still a member of the colleges’ community and in that second failure he sees the president and the colleges failing that entire community of students, faculty, alumni, and parents and guardians who have sent their children there in the expectation they will not ever be treated as problems to be made go away.
While I don’t know all the facts about Anna’s story at HWS, I know this: there’s a thing called citizenship. Underage drinking, sexual impropriety, hate speech, any one of these justifies taking action against students. Let’s forget the rape allegations for just a minute. Let’s forget about whether or not the staff of the Colleges review committee was competent to hear a rape case. The men in this story were and are guilty of profound misconduct. By pretending the New York Times story is about the “provability” of Anna’s contention trivializes the very notion of community that President Gearan and the Board of Trustees now say they care so much about.
By their collective failure of will and sense of responsibility, the administration has announced to the community that Hobart and William Smith is a place where it’s safe for minors to drink themselves stupid, a place where it’s safe for men to treat women as targets of alcohol-facilitated “seduction,” a place where it’s safe to harass and humiliate and bully and threaten a victim of rape and drive her out of school, a place where it’s safe to be a rapist because your victim won’t get a real hearing or any justice from the powers that be, (The accused men don’t have to have been guilty of rape for this message to have been sent. If they didn’t do it, somebody did, and that somebody and any other somebodies who did it to someone else now know they’re safe to do it again. And yet another somebody who will be in a situation where he will ask himself Can I get away with this? will be able to answer, Yes, I can!), a place where it’s safe to be or do any number of things except a victim reporting a rape.
Considered invasive and weedy in nearly all areas; banned or noxious wherever it occurs.
Infestations result in dramatic disruption in water flow in rivers and canals, and a sharp decline in biological diversity as native food and cover plant species, notably cattails, are completely crowded out, and the life cycles of organisms from waterfowl to amphibians to algae are affected. A single plant may produce up to three million tiny seeds annually. Easily carried by wind and water, the seeds germinate in moist soils after overwintering. The plant can also sprout anew from pieces of root left in the soil or water. Once established, loosestrife stands are difficult and costly to remove by mechanical and chemical means.
James Garner is gone. Here is my review from 2006 of what’s either my second or third favorite of his movies. I go back and forth.
“Garner…sets the pace, slow and steady. Too steady. Inhumanly steady. Scarily steady.” James Garner (right) as a morally self-compromised Wyatt Earp in John Sturges’ 1967 revenge Western, Hour of the Gun.
Plodding shouldn't be a complimentary way to describe a movie, but offhand I can't think of a better word for the pacing of John Sturges' revenge Western, Hour of the Gun, starring James Garner as Wyatt Earp and Jason Robards as Doc Holliday.
It's as if Sturges set the beat to Wyatt's first, slow, measured steps out into the streets of Tombstone and towards the O.K. Corral, in the opening shots of the film. The pacing from there on, never speeding up, never slowing down, matches Earp's inexorable march towards vengeance and his final showdown with Ike Clanton, the man who ordered his brother's death.
Wyatt's path to that last gunfight takes him all over the map. It moves in fits and starts. There are times when he isn't chasing the bad guys at all, he's off on some other, mundane, or at least non-violent, errand, like taking Doc, who's dying of tuberculosis, to a sanitarium in Colorado, hundreds of miles away from Tombstone, so far off that it might as well be another planet. Definitely far enough away---and he spends several weeks there, looking after Doc---that you begin to wonder if he's given up his vendetta.
But Sturges hasn't paced the movie to keep in step with Wyatt's geographic travels. He's matching the progress of Wyatt's thoughts as Earp changes from a decent-hearted and dutiful lawman into a lawless but cold and methodical killer.
This progress is only seemingly inexorable. The measured pacing, the one foot in front of the other, one step following from the last scene structure---no jump cuts in this movie. Few close-ups too. Sturges shoots mainly in medium and medium long shots and lets the characters' movements provide all the action, and since Garner is in just about every shot, he sets the pace, slow and steady. Too steady. Inhumanly steady. Scarily steady.---what we're being shown is that this change in Earp is not inevitable. One thing does lead to the other, but predictably, and because it's happening slowly, he has time to think about what he's done, where he's headed, what the final results will be.
He could stop himself at any time.
Like I said, there are times when he seems to have stopped; in the scenes in Colorado Wyatt even comes close to looking cheerful, as if he's let it go. But the measured beat of Sturges' drum is relentless. In his mind, Wyatt's never given up the hunt.
It doesn't help that Clanton can't give up his obsession with Earp any more than Earp can give up his obsession with Clanton. Clanton wants to see Earp "cold and in the ground" and just at the moment when Wyatt seems ready to listen to the angel of his better nature, he gets news of Clanton's plottings.
He doesn't have to do anything about the news, though. He just decides that he will.
He gets back on the trail. The killings continue, each one more violent and more unnecessary and more like murder.
There's not much suspense in the plot. The suspense arises from the place suspense arises in all tragedies---from our hope that something will stop the inevitable in its course and our despairing certainty that nothing will.
Hour of the Gun isn't a true tragedy, though. For one thing, we know going in that Wyatt Earp can't die. Not if the movie is going to be as historically accurate as the title card after the opening credits proclaims it will be.
This movie is based on fact: This is the way it happened.
And for another thing, neither Sturges nor his screenwriter, Edward Anhalt, do much to make us care about what happens to the men Earp goes gunning for. They are bad men and their boss, Ike Clanton, is worse.
What Sturges expects us to care about, and to mourn, is a good man throwing away his own soul.
Hour of the Gun has been called a sequel to the movie Sturges made about Wyatt Earp ten years before, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, starring Burt Lancaster as Earp and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday.
Sequel's the wrong word. Hour of the Gun is the Wyatt Earp movie Sturges would have liked to have made in the 1950s. The Jimmy Stewart-Anthony Mann problem westerns had already shown that movie audiences were ready for morally ambiguous stories with conflicted, if not downright unsympathetic, heroes, but apparently the Wyatt Earp legends were still untouchable. Sturges did what he could to make Gunfight at the O.K. Corral a more realistic story and not another burnishing of the myth, but it is finally an old-fashioned shoot-em-up, set in a romanticized Wild West with an idealized Wyatt Earp as its hero.
Hour of the Gun isn't a revisionist western. Sturges isn't out to debunk the myth he had helped shine. He's really trying to show what the title card says: This is the way it happened.
By 1881, when the Earps confronted the Clanton gang at the O.K. Corral, Tombstone wasn't in the Wild West, it was at the very westernmost edge of the tame East. And Wyatt Earp and his brothers weren't heroes riding in to town to clean up. They were peace officers---cops---hired by the town to maintain an orderliness that was already established. In his bulkiness and stolidity, James Garner's Earp is a little bit like John Wayne. But he's more like the guy who's running for sheriff in your town today, a career lawman who's spent too many nights breaking up fights between drunks and picking up the pieces after an accident and arguing with local politicians about budgets.
Hour of the Gun opens with the shootout at the OK Corral and it's staged fairly close to "the way it happened." It's over in a couple of minutes. I think the real gunfight took about thirty seconds. That's because it wasn't meant to be a showdown. It was four cops going to tell a street gang to break it up. The fact that three men ended up dead was enough of a surprise to everybody concerned and seen as something so heinously out of the ordinary that Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were actually arrested for murder, although a judge decided there was no case against them and refused to indict.
That's the "wild" west of Hour of the Gun. Showdowns are not a part of daily life and dead bodies in the street are a sign that something went wrong, not that the good guys have put things to right.
You don't need to have seen Gunfight at the O.K. Corral to know what's going on in Hour of the Gun. What you do need is enough of a sense of the legend of Wyatt Earp to accept Earp as a hero at first sight. You also need enough innocence to believe that the legend must have some basis in fact to carry you past any reflexive cynicism that might stand in the way of your seeing Earp as a good guy.
It might help, then, to know that the real Wyatt Earp apparently never killed anybody before the the O.K. Corral. He was a crack shot and could have killed any bad guy he felt needed killing. But his preferred method for dealing with troublemakers was to walk right up to them, snatch whatever weapon they were brandishing out of their hands, cold-cock them over the head with his pistol, and drag them off to jail.
The real Earp didn't look like James Garner or Burt Lancaster. He was tall, but he was skinny. So it wasn't his size that cowed people. There was something about the force of his character.
Whatever it was that kept him alive and saved him the trouble of having to kill anybody didn't work with the Clanton gang. Gang is the word for them too. They were more like modern gangsters than like the outlaw gangs of the movies or the real life James and Dalton gangs. They were cattle thieves and stick-up artists who ran "legitimate businesses" and bought up local politicians and while some revisionist histories suggest that the gunfight at the OK Corral was actually the result of business and political rivalries getting out of hand, with the Earps being in their way as dirty as the Clantons, it's more the case that the Earps shocked the Clantons by deciding to treat them like the criminals they were instead of the honest ranchers they pretended to be.
The shock caused Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers to draw their guns---or have their guns drawn, that's never been clear. We don't really know if the Earps knew they were walking into a gunfight and went anyway. The way they just walked straight at the Clantons suggests they didn't, and Ike Clanton may not have been wearing his guns, which would mean he wasn't expecting real trouble either.
The famous shootout was probably a mistake. Both sides miscalculated. What happened in the weeks after, though, was murder. Ike Clanton or somebody associated with the gang ordered a hit on the Earps. Morgan and Virgil were ambushed. Morgan was killed and Virgil left crippled.
Then various members of the Clanton gang began turning up dead.
My second favorite Wyatt Earp movie, 1993's Tombstone, starring Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer as Wyatt and Doc, treats this part of the story as a simple kill or be killed shoot out that takes place over the course of weeks instead of all at once at high noon.
Sturges, though, makes it plain that Wyatt Earp does not have to kill any of the men he confronts. He's a much better lawman than they are outlaws and gunfighters. He has the drop on them and the ones who make the mistake of drawing on him do it because he provokes them to.
In every confrontation, except the final one, Earp's former method of handling bad guys---stare them down, take their guns, drag them off to jail---would have worked.
In effect then, Earp murders them all.
Each killing seems less accidental than the last, and with each one Earp grows less and less surprised at himself. When he lets a bad guy live it's only to make him tell him where the next bad guy is hiding out so he can go kill him.
This is the story of a good man who does wrong, but Sturges doesn't ever let us think that Earp has no choice. Wyatt knows that the citizens of Tombstone have been working, successfully, to run Ike Clanton out of town and have effectively disarmed him by breaking up the gang, arresting and buying off those members Earp hasn't caught up with yet.
On top of which, Sturges makes us doubt Wyatt from the start. The opening gunfight is shot almost entirely in longshot and although there's some dialogue we don't hear the words, as if we're being kept out of earshot with the camera. We don't know what the Earps are thinking as they walk down the street or what the Clantons are really planning when they gather at the corral.
But Sturges has James Garner give Earp a moment of pause in which he seems to be re-thinking the situation and even telling himself that this probably isn't the way to go about things and he ought to stop it right now. It's only a moment, but before it passes Garner suddenly looks very sad, as if he has lost something important and is mourning the loss.
And while Sturges' title card insists "This is the way it happened," he's changed an important detail.
In real life, Ike Clanton was with his brother and the McLaurys. The reason he didn't end up dead like them is that when the shooting started he ran at the Earps shouting that he was unarmed---he might have thrown his guns away, he might have dropped them when Virgil Earp ordered the gang to disarm, or he might not have been wearing them to begin with. Whichever was the case, Wyatt Earp shouted at him to get the hell out of the way and even gave him a helpful shove.
In the movie, Sturges has Ike standing across the street with the rest of the gang and then ducking for cover as soon as the shooting starts. He's wearing his gunbelt, but he takes it off before the smoke clears so that he'll appear to have been an innocent bystander.
He doesn't owe his life to Wyatt then. He owes it to his trigger-happy kid brother Billy and the McLaurys who started shooting too soon. The Earps have to deal with them first and while they are shooting it out with Billy and the McLaurys, the rest of the gang scatters and Ike is forced to take cover.
The implication is that Ike meant to be part of the confrontation and that the Earps expected him to be. And since Ike is played by Robert Ryan and is the only star among the Clantons---although Jon Voight appears in one of his earliest roles as Curly Bill Brocius---Ike is the only Clanton of interest at that point. So we can't help feeling it was Ike the Earps were on their way to...
...do what to?
Arrest? Argue with? Interrogate?
That's what I think Garner's little moment of hesitation and sorrow is meant to tell us. As the movie begins, Wyatt Earp has already decided that he's going to kill Ike Clanton. He's concluded that there's no other way to deal with him. The decision is morally wrong because it's wrong for practical reasons. The town has already begun to make moves to get rid of Ike. Clanton himself is desperate because, as he tells his bought politicians later, "The East is coming." He means that the town's honest citizens will finally have the backing of real government and he won't be able to survive that.
Wyatt certainly knows the East is coming too. But he's lost patience. Perhaps it's also a matter of pride with him. He's going to put a stop to Clanton himself, once and for all, and that means he has to kill him. The thing he's mourning the loss of in that moment, then, is himself.
We're not meant to think that Wyatt is driven to murder by passion and an understandable desire for revenge. When Clanton has his brothers ambushed it gives him justification not motivation for a course of action he's already decided upon.
Hour of the Gun is a director's not an actor's movie. There's not much in the way of dialogue. The characters tell each other what they they need to know, never what they are thinking or feeling. Garner isn't called upon to do much more than squint and glower and then squint and glower harder, although that’s not a simple or easy matter. Glowering was not something Garner was known for. His portrayal of Maverick was built upon a rejection of the idealization of heroes who squint and glower. When he wasn’t smiling---and, God, did he have a beautiful smile!---he was wither coolly calculating the odds of his getting away with a bet or a scheme or an escape or he was staring with transfixed, wide-open eyes in utter bewilderment at a situation had gotten out of hand to the point of placing him in the position of needing to be a hero who glowers. Glowering as he does in Hour of the Gun requires a rejection of Maverick’s rejection, which is in effect a rejection of Maverick, which in turn makes it a rejection of Garner’s own image as a star, which, in a way, makes it a rejection of self, which is what Wyatt is doing.
Robert Ryan's job is to give Ike Clanton the charisma and intelligence necessary to organize, lead, and hold together a collection of thugs, cowards, sociopaths, drifters, and grifters. It's interesting and fun to see him make Clanton into a precursor of Deadwood's Al Swearengen. In his speeches to his gang about the threat from the East he sounds very much like Swearengen ranting about Yankton, without the profanity of course and without the poetry either, but he has exactly the same contempt for his bought politicians as Ian McShane has Swearengen show towards the corrupt "decent" citizens that are his allies.
The real heavylifting is left to Jason Robards. He only has a couple of notes to sing, going back and forth between world-weary cynic and outraged idealist, but he doesn't go the usual route of having the cynic be the mask of the idealist. He makes the idealist the creation of the cynic.
As I said, you don't need to believe the myth as much as remember it to accept the movie's premise that Wyatt Earp is a good man. But it's clear that Robards' Doc Holliday not only believes the myth but needs it to be true to the point that he drags himself out of the hospital in order to try to get in the way of Earp's self-propelled downfall. If there's killing to be done, Doc Holliday is the one to do it not Wyatt Earp.
Holliday sees himself as having been a bad man, and not just a sinner but a villain. Somehow and for reasons neither man can probably articulate Wyatt Earp became his friend. Holliday has concluded that if someone like Wyatt Earp can see something good in him then maybe he's not as irredeemable as he'd supposed.
Wyatt Earp is Doc Holliday's personal savior and now that Doc knows that he can't fight off his TB any longer, that it's going to take much more time to kill him, he desperately needs Wyatt to be what he thought him to be so that he can die thinking of himself as not entirely damned.
I like it that the dialogue doesn't lay this out for us. We have to see it for ourselves in Robards' anger and anguish at what Wyatt is doing to himself.
The nicest thing about Robards' performance, though, is the calmness that comes over him when he realizes that it didn't matter that he couldn't stop Wyatt.
It's Robards, not Garner, Sturges gives the last scene and the last lines to.
Before leaving him at the sanitarium, knowing that this is the last time, it's the end of the line for Doc, Wyatt has told Doc a lie about himself, a charitable lie, meant to leave Doc with his illusions about Wyatt's heroism. Doc pretends to believe it, but he doesn't and there's a heartbroken look on Robards' face as he watches Wyatt ride away.
But it doesn't last. He turns his attention to a card game he's playing with an orderly and finishes the game and the movie with a rueful but sincere grin.
"Aces," he says as he lays out his winning hand. It's a description of his mood as well as of his cards.
In Wyatt Earp, Sturges is showing us that the seeds of our moral self-destruction are in our own hands.
But in Doc Holliday he is showing us that the corrollary is true too. The agent of our redemption is our own self.
July 20, 2014. Up top I called Hour of the Gun my second or third favorite of Garner’s movies. I go back and forth between it and Marlowe. After that it’s The Art of Love, Victor Victoria, and Sunset. Number one never changes. The Americanization of Emily. If you include TV movies, though, all of them after Emily drop down and The Streets of Laredo and Promise take over at two and three.
…there’s not much to do but lie there and try to zone out or Zen out and pray you don’t get an itch or have to sneeze. I whiled away some of the time this morning by trying to memorize all the noises the scanner made, and it is noisy in there. I was hoping to hear a good old reliable ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. But, nope. Mostly it was random electronic and mechanical burps blips bangs and pops. There were times when the noises verged on becoming musical and other times when they seemed deliberately comic, sounding like Gru’s minions from Despicable Me trying to be funny by imitating robots trying to be funny by imitating minions.
Doc. Tor. Doc. Tor. Doc. Tor, they said during one round of imaging.
Pow pow pow pow pow pow, they said during another, accompanied by a minion rapping monotonously on a cowbell with a drumstick.
Be a BEACH! Be a BEACH! Be a BEACH!
That last one made me think of a New Age-y robot TM instructor.
Be a BEACH! Be a Beach! Feel. The. Waves. Wash. Over. You. Re. Lax. Re. Lax. Let. Your. Mind. Emp. Tee. Now. You. Are. A. Tree. Sway. Ing. Sway. Ing…
Note to friends and relations: Not to worry. It was for my back. Same old problem.
Searching online for James Thurber’s short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” tonight, I came across my own review of Ben Stiller’s movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and it surprised me on two counts. The first was that I liked the review. I usually don't like my reviews when I re-read them long after having posted them. I have a tendency to disagree with me. Vehemently. The second surprise was that I made myself want to see the movie again, which I thought I wouldn't want to after seeing it the first time. Anyway, see what you think, about the review and about seeing the movie, which, of course, by now is out on DVD and available to watch instantly.
Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller), lost in another daydream, momentarily escapes from the cold, corporate grayness threatening to swallow him up, in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a fortunately not very faithful adaptation of James Thurber’s short story.
Not sure what did it. Might have been the look on Ben Stiller’s face as he studies his checkbook and sees he has enough money to cover the deposit on his mother’s new room at the assisted living center and a few of his own immediate expenses but nothing left over for anything else.
The look includes half a smile and it mixes sadness, frustration, satisfaction, relief, and a determined good humor. It’s the perfect look for a man with a lot to be down about resolving not to let it get him down because, hey, things could be worse and, anyway, today is ok, problems are taken care of, at least for now.
It’s the look of someone whose life is circumscribed by responsibilities he has only a limited power to meet on his own. He can only do so much and the rest is up to luck and the charity, mercy, forbearance, and competence of other people, most of whom don’t know or care he’s alive. And the ones who do care have their own worries and problems.
In short, it’s a look that marks Stiller’s character, Walter Mitty, right away as an Everyperson.
He’s us. Most of us. The most of us who aren’t rich and extremely lucky but who are lucky enough at the moment not to be poor, sick, miserable, and totally without means to help ourselves. The most of us who can console ourselves with the thought Things really could be worse but then can’t help thinking But they could be a lot better and when we start wishing they were feeling vaguely guilty about that.
That look captures the mixture of wishfulness, frustration, guilt, and mustered faith and good cheer with which most of us live our lives and identifies Mitty as our hero.
But it also warns us not to expect too much of him.
His heroism will be of an ordinary and limited kind. We’ll be rooting for him not to triumph but to just get by on our behalf.
Whatever it was, that look or something else, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, directed by Stiller as well as starring him, had me choking up from practically its very first shot.
There have been a few movies that have done that to me, had me on the verge of tears from beginning to end, and all of them have been about the muddling through of ordinary people beset with the usual amounts of sorrow and care contriving to find satisfaction and enjoyment (even joy) in their less than wonderful lives, The Dead chief among them, a movie I insist earned its director, John Huston, a thousand years off in Purgatory.
Of course, even if I hadn’t known it from the trailers, I’d have been fairly sure The Secret Life of Walter Mitty wasn’t going to continue in this vein. Hollywood isn’t in the habit of lavishing big budgets on movies about the inescapable melancholy of ordinary life. That’s why Hollywood exists---to give us a momentary escape from ordinary life. But I was impressed with how long Stiller let the melancholy persist and how deep into his story he allowed it to seep.
Maybe too deep.
When, inevitably, Stiller switches gears in order to have Walter start living the kind of life Hollywood does like to make movies about---adventurous, romantic, heroic, thrilling, funny in a laugh out loud way and not a rueful, shaking of the head, boy, do I know what that’s like way---it feels like he’s cheating himself. And us.
I felt cheated, at any rate.
I felt like a sap for investing real emotion in what comes before the adventure begins and then like a cynic for not getting into the spirit of things as the plot takes over and the movie works its way towards a happy and triumphant ending, even though the ending isn’t that happy and triumphant and Walter’s adventure isn’t that Hollywood movie-level implausible. In fact, the middle section of Mitty reminded me a lot The Big Year, an overlooked movie I liked from a couple years back, starring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black as three rather ordinary men who manage to have a satisfying adventure chasing a bird-watching record that doesn’t require them to lose their ordinariness. The adventure in The Big Year is realistic because real people undertake the same one every year. Walter’s adventure is not realistic in that way. But ignoring that time has to essentially stand still for him to pull it off in the very few days he manages to do it in, he doesn’t do much more than a real person (with a company credit card and no boss watching) couldn’t do.
So the cheat isn’t in the adventure. It’s in how Stiller begins to push Walter as a hero. Inexorably, it becomes clear that we’re not going to be left to see one of us rising to the occasion in a way we hope we’d rise. We going to be expected to cheer at his triumph, a triumph not on our behalf, but on Walter’s own. A movie that starts off being about how an Everyman manages to muddle through despite the cares and woes wearing him down turns into a movie about how wonderful it is to be Walter Mitty.
I suppose that by extension it’s about how wonderful it is to be the rest of us Mitty-esque Everypersons or at least how wonderful we could be if like Walter we find a way to break free from our ordinarily dull and dulling lives, shake off our inhibitions, unburden ourselves from unnecessary guilt, and put our too restricting senses of obligation aside, at least now and then, and…go for it!
But for the first third, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty isn’t just suffused with wishfulness and melancholy. It’s close to heartbreaking.
I haven’t heard of anyone complaining Stiller’s Secret Life of Walter Mitty isn’t faithful to the James Thurber short story it’s based on, possibly because few people read the story anymore. Which is too bad. It’s one of the great American short stories. But it’s easy to understand why Hollywood wouldn’t wan to ante up for a faithful adaptation.
As funny as it is on the surface, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is a very dark, bleak, and depressing story. And its themes are antithetical to everything Hollywood stands for. In the story, ordinary life isn’t melancholy. It’s miserable. For Thurber, as much as for Sartre, hell is other people and there’s no exit. Romance is a fleeting illusion, love is a trap, and marriage is literally the equivalent of death.
And if that isn’t enough, Thurber makes it plain that the kind of escape from dreary reality movies offer is no escape at all. His Mitty’s daydreams are pastiches of movie clichés. The alternative heroic selves Mitty imagines are as ridiculous and empty of meaning and purpose and devoid of true heroic possibility as the self he inhabits. On top of his other problems, Mitty lacks a real imagination that would allow him to see his way out of his predicament or at least put his troubles in perspective. His ability to think for himself or about himself has been supplanted by bad movies. Hollywood does his dreaming for him.
Stiller’s Walter can think for himself. He has an imagination and he dreams real dreams. That’s one of the reasons he’s so sympathetic and why his situation is saddening. He’s self-aware. Stiller and screenwriter Steve Conrad don’t get carried away showing us their Walter’s daydreams. They give us just enough glimpses of the adventures and moments of romances occurring in his head to let us know how he’s compensating and sublimating and distracting himself at the moment and then cut them off before they turn into stories and mini-movies in their own rights---which is what happens in the 1947 Danny Kaye musical adaptation. Stiller’s Walter is made of sterner and less silly stuff than Kaye’s. His daydreams are just passing thoughts, not alternative realities. Walter’s mind wanders but he doesn’t get lost in his imagination. He’s too responsible to let that happen. Too tough and too brave for that matter, as well. Besides, he doesn’t want to live a different life. He just wants a little more out of the life he has.
It’s not too bad a life.
He has friends. He’s close to his mother and his sister who love him and depend upon him. He has a job he’s good at, that he’s proud of (to a degree), and that means something (although not as much as he wishes it did). He has some financial worries and he’s lonely. There’s a woman at work he has a crush on but can’t bring himself to ask out, partly because he doesn’t want to risk rejection, partly because by habit and temperament he can’t bring himself to do things that will make him happy when, in his own opinion, he should be trying harder to make his mother happy. But there’s nothing awful about his life at the moment. The worst that could happen happened twenty-six years ago when he was sixteen and his father died. He’s still feeling the effect of that all these years later, however; he’s stuck on the day after his father died when he decided to put aside all the dreams and ambitions his father had encouraged and helped prepare him to realize to become…responsible.
What happens, of course, is circumstances come along that force him to become irresponsible.
That is, he’s suddenly deprived of the means to continue to be responsible, which leaves him desperate enough to do what he’s afraid is the irresponsible thing, run off on an adventure.
It’s at this point Stiller begins to cheat. Like I said, the cheating isn’t in the adventure itself but in how Stiller tries to force us to cheer for the hero the adventure reveals Walter to be and to keep on cheering past the point there’s any more reason to cheer.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty doesn’t exactly become The Public Apotheosis of Walter Mitty, but that’s not for want of trying on Stiller’s part.
Stiller the director, I should point out. Stiller the actor plays things more honestly and ironically.
For the better parts of the movie, that’s how Stiller directs it too, in the visual equivalent of a minor key quietly punctuated by comic and melancholy grace notes---one of Walter’s laid-off friends rescuing his potted plant from the moving men cleaning out the office, the car rental agent in Greenland’s pride in being able to offer Walter a choice of two cars, a red one and blue one, the care with which Walter carries a cake his sister has dropped off for his birthday, a pickup soccer game in the snow on the slope of a mountain. And it’s a beautiful looking film.
The dullness and numbing routine of Walter’s too ordinary and joyless life suggested by the grays and pale, cold whites of the magazine offices where he works are tricks of light. Look closely. They’re not grays and whites. They’re chromes and silvers in shadow. All it would take is for the light to shift and they’d shine and sparkle, an effect stunningly realized in the rocky and snowy landscapes and oceanscapes of Greenland, Iceland, and the Himalayas when Walter takes off on his adventure and shifts the light shining on his life for himself.
In style, tone, and theme, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty reminded my of Stranger Than Fiction. Both movies are stories of an Everyman trapped in the drab, gray routine of a too ordinary life, although Will Farrell’s Harold Crick is trapped by his addiction to his routines and Stiller’s Walter is trapped by his overburdened conscience. If Walter’s addicted to anything in his life, it’s to self-denial. Both our heroes are offered salvation by the sudden insertion (assertion) of art in their daily lives. Harold, of course, has to come to terms with the idea that he is art, somebody else’s art at that. But he then learns to make his own art. Art’s role in Walter’s salvation is less direct and less obvious. Ultimately, he has to wake up to the idea that what he does for a living is a form of art, but his adventure begins with running off to rescue someone else’s work of art. It’s not obvious that’s what he’s doing, though, because he thinks he’s just trying to save his job.
Stranger Than Fiction is a work of magic realism and yet seems more true to life for that. There’s magic in Walter Mitty’s world but it’s out there. It can’t be touched and doesn’t touch us directly. It can be felt and it can be glimpsed through things, wonderful things, like the sighting of a snow leopard, or fairly ordinary things, like the appearance of a friend coming to help you out just when you need him.
Both movies share the theme that a life doesn’t have to be like a movie in order for it to be worth the effort. You just have to make the effort. And if the effort’s made, then love, romance, beauty, joy, even a bit of adventure are all attainable.
A big difference between the two movies as movies is that Will Farrell shares the screen with a couple of acting powerhouses in showy roles given most of the best lines, Dustin Hoffman (“Dramatic irony, it’ll fuck you every time.”) and Emma Thompson. Thompson is in fact the second lead. Then there’s Queen Latifah, more understated but far from fading into the background. And as Ana, Harold’s love interest, Maggie Gyllenhaal is given a character to play who is more than just the love interest. Ana has a life and a sense of herself apart from her place in Harold’s story, and she doesn’t need him to rescue her in any way, except from himself in his role as the auditor of her unfiled tax returns.
Stiller almost never has to share the screen with anyone (characters or actors) capable of taking the focus off him and, when he does, it’s not for very long. Shirley MacLaine has a lovely cameo as Walter’s mother. Sean Penn appears just long enough to have made me wish there were more straight-forward heroic characters in his filmography. Patton Oswalt appears exactly when we need him. But I’d be surprised if you tallied up their collective screen time and it came to more than ten minutes. And as Cheryl, Walter’s love interest, Kristin Wiig is less of a person in her own right than the character she voiced in Despicable Me 2, Gru’s love interest, the overly enthusiastic secret agent Lucy Wilde, and she’s given fewer laughs. Her main job is to look like the kind of person Walter would find it nice to come home to. Cheryl has her own ordinary sorrows and cares as she’s also stuck in a life circumscribed by responsibilities she’s barely able to meet. But her predicament is too carefully contrived to be one Walter Mitty is perfectly suited to rescue her from.
I’m still not sure what to make of Adam Scott’s corporate weasel who becomes Walter’s antagonist at work. With his impossibly black and glossy Elvis pompadour and lumberjack beard, between which his baby face peeks like an infant’s who’s been dressed up for Halloween as his hipster dad by his comically-minded and too easily self-amused parents, Scott looks less like he’s been sent by corporate to play the villain on their behalf than like he’s been dreamed up by Walter himself, an imagined, cartoon version of such a person too silly to be a real threat.
Maybe that was the intent. The weasel has Walter pegged as a dreamer and is contemptuous of him for that. But it may be that he’s the real fantasist and has dreamed up a macho, hairy, swaggering bully of an alternate self to disguise the weakling toady and flunky he really is. This would be more likely if there were other characters in the movie daydreaming their way through their own lives.
As Harold took a bite of Bavarian sugar cookie, he finally felt as if everything was going to be ok. Sometimes, when we lose ourselves in fear and despair, in routine and constancy, in hopelessness and tragedy, we can thank God for Bavarian sugar cookies. And, fortunately, when there aren't any cookies, we can still find reassurance in a familiar hand on our skin, or a kind and loving gesture, or subtle encouragement, or a loving embrace, or an offer of comfort, not to mention hospital gurneys and nose plugs, an uneaten Danish, soft-spoken secrets, and Fender Stratocasters, and maybe the occasional piece of fiction. And we must remember that all these things, the nuances, the anomalies, the subtleties, which we assume only accessorize our days, are effective for a much larger and nobler cause. They are here to save our lives. I know the idea seems strange, but I also know that it just so happens to be true. And, so it was, a wristwatch saved Harold Crick.
In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, it’s not Bavarian Sugar Cookies, it’s citrus cake.
Unfortunately, Stiller, the director again, flinches and backs away from this idea almost to the point of backing up into the opposite idea, that a life is only worth living when it is like a movie.
Technically, Caillebotte wasn’t an Impressionist, although he was friends with many of them. He was much more of a realist and much more interested in the daily life of Paris. He liked taking people going about their routine business as his subject. Here’s another of my favorites, The House Painters.
But it turns out Caillebotte wasn’t a professional painter, at any rate not in the sense his friends Manet, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Pissaro and Cezanne were. That is, he didn’t make his living with his brush because he didn’t need to make a living. He was a rich man’s son---his father made his fortune outfitting and equipping Napoleon’s army---and he used his money to feed his painter friends, buy their paintings, and front them money when they were broke.
In Caillebotte's paintings, men leaning on new bridges seem engulfed by steel girders. Others stand on balconies, looking down at the Boulevard Haussmann — above, yet somehow dwarfed by, the street.
"Modern life doesn't create close relations between human beings," Garnot says. "You are [in] complete loneliness in these new buildings, new avenues, new boulevards. There's something quite sad about that."
Caillebotte's contemporaries — Renoir, Monet, Sisley, Pissaro — also put this "modern" Paris in their paintings. But theirs is a Paris peopled by happy dancers, or sociable boaters, or busy shoppers, or flag-waving parade marchers.
"They just wanted to show pleasant persons or fun activities," Garnot says, "not the kind of loneliness that you find [in Caillebotte.]"
Makes him sound like a 19th Century Parisian avatar of Edward Hopper, doesn’t it?
Meanwhile, here’s a fun video from the Art Institute of Chicago in which Faye Wrubel, the Art Institute’s conservator of paintings describes and demonstrates her work restoring Paris Street, Rainy Day.
Good to see Tim Robbins back at work and doesn’t he look wonderfully sleazy? And I’m hoping this is another sign Jennifer Aniston has finished with her string of Watch Another Leading Man Fall Madly in Love With Me, Brad Pitt movies and gone back to acting.
Life of Crime’s based on Elmore Leonard’s novel The Switch, which is the prequel to Rum Punch, the Leonard novel Jackie Brown’s based on (Technically, it’s the other way round. The Switch was published first, so Rum Punch is the sequel.), which makes Life of Crime a prequel to Jackie Brown with Mos Def (starring in this one under his real name, Yasiin Bey), John Hawkes, and Isla Fisher are playing the characters Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro, and Bridget Fonda played in Jackie Brown. Director and screenwriter Daniel Schechter has set the bar pretty high for himself, since, along with Get Shorty and Out of Sight,Jackie Brown is one of the only three truly good adaptations of Leonard’s novels. Crime novels. Hombre is a fine adaptation of Hombre and a good Western in its own right, and some people like Valdez is Coming(I’ve never read the book.) Three-Ten to Yuma has been made into two good movies, although, if you want to get particular about it, it’s not a novel but a short(ish) story, the 1957 Glenn Ford-Van Heflin version somewhat better than the Russell Crowe-Christian Bale version. And…movie adaptations. Justified is the best of the best, but then it’s long since transcended its beginnings as an adaptation and even its connection to Leonard to become its own, great thing.
Just about every shot in the trailer for Wild perfectly evokes a scene or image from the book it’s based on, Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir of a thousand mile plus hike she took in 1995 when she was twenty-six to cure herself of grief, heartbreak, and various addictions, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. That doesn’t guarantee it’s going to be a good movie. Sometimes movies based on books can be too faithful to their originals. But it’s a reminder of what a terrific book it is.
I walked all day, falling and skidding and trudging along, bracing so hard with my ski pole that my hand blistered. I switched to the other hand and it blistered too. Around every bend and over every ridge and on the other side of every meadow I hoped there would be no more snow. But there was always more snow amid the occasional patches where the ground was visible. Is that the [trail]? I’d wonder when I saw the actual ground. I could never be certain…
I sweated as I hiked, the whole backside of me wet where my pack covered my body, regardless of the temperature or what clothing I wore. When I stopped, I began shivering within minutes, my wet clothes suddenly icy cold. My muscles had at last begun to adjust to the demands of long-distance hiking, but now new demands were placed on them., and not only to brace myself in the constant effort to stay upright. If the ground upon which I was walking was on a slope, I had to chop out each step in order to get my footing, lest I slip down the mountain and crash inot the rocks and the bushes and trees below, or worse, go sailing over the edge. Methodically, I kicked into the snow’s icy crust, making footholds step-by-step…With all the kicking and bracing, my feet blistered in new places as well as in all the old places that had blistered back in my first days of hiking, the flesh on my hips and shoulders rubbed raw by [the straps of my pack].
The Mets radio announcers were talking about the 1973 pennant-winning season. They recalled that the Mets were in worse shape at this same point that year. Arguably.
There were only the two divisions, no inter-league play, so the Mets had more chances against their division rivals, and it was an embarrassingly weak division. The Mets were the only team to finish above .500 and they did it barely, at .509, going 82 and 79, still the worst record in baseball history for a pennant-winning team. (They played only 161 games. There must have been a rainout they didn’t need to make up to decide the division winner.) Over in the West, the fourth place Astros won more games than every team in the East except the Mets whom they tied in wins. (They lost one more, having played all 162 games.) And besides having McGraw as their ace reliever, the pitchers he relieved included Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Jon Matlack. Seaver won 19 and lost 10, a .665 winning percentage. He led the league in strikeouts with 251 strikeouts and an ERA of 2.08!
Probably more accurate to say the A’s took the Mets to a seventh game. The Mets were up 3 to 2 after 5.
Anyway, I’m not ready to believe this season. But it's still fun when this team gets its act together, and imagine what things would be like if Harvey was healthy, which he will be next year, and that's where my hopes lie.
That’s the title of a section in my new Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. Emberizine Sparrows and Their Allies. I like that. I like the idea of sparrows having allies. I’m picturing those small, feisty birds gathering their armies against hawks and cats and other members of what sparrows would regard as the Axis of Evil.
Emberizine sparrows, Sibley informs me, are “a large group [consisting] mostly small,streaked brownish birds of grassy and brushy areas” and they include rufous-sided towhees and dark-eyed juncos, neither of which are brownish birds, along with all sorts of sparrows---chipping sparrows, grasshopper sparrows, Lincoln’s sparrows, Vesper sparrows, swamp sparrows, field sparrows, salt-marsh sparrows, seaside sparrows, but not…sparrows.
Not the sparrows you’re probably used to, at any rate, the fussy, restless, chattering sparrows flocking noisily in bushes and small trees and agitating the branches with their nervous inability to settle down, the huffy little birds pecking in the gutters of houses, kicking up the leaf litter on lawns, taking over the sidewalks in roving gangs that scatter ahead of you as you approach only to regroup just a few yards straight ahead where when you catch up with them they’ll repeat the process, stirring up trouble in front of park benches and under the tables of outdoor cafes, those sparrows.
Those sparrows are house sparrows and Sibley places them in a group called Finches and Old World Sparrows. Old World as in Europe. House sparrows, which are sometimes called English sparrows, are descended from birds brought here in the middle of the 19th Century to be sold as pets. Somehow a flock of them was let loose in Central Park in 1850 and the breed has been busily increasing and multiplying ever since.
The house sparrows have been making a lot of noise and commotion around here the last couple of days. I’m watching a flock of them now from the front porch, furiously chasing each other back and forth between our bushes and our neighbor’s trees and feeders. They seem to be in a real tizzy. When I watched them at it yesterday I mused out loud, “Must be Sparrows Get Laid Day.” But then I realized that probably something far more wholesome was going on, a big family outing as fledglings tried out their wings and got lessons in avoiding cats and hawks from their scolding parents.
I like this bit from Sibley’s brief on house sparrows: “avidly seeks out handouts such as bread crumbs and french fries at parks and parking lots.”
House sparrows are city, town, and farm dwelling birds but they like to get out and around. I see them irregularly and, to me, incongruously on the beaches on around Chatham where they swoop down from the aspens and beach plums in behind the dunes when the seagulls aren’t looking to forage in the strings of sea grass left behind by the retreating tide. Beach bum birds.
The sparrows I more used to seeing down at the Cape are members of the Emberizine sparrows and their allies. Song sparrows. You don’t see them on the beach. They prefer to sit on telephone wires and sing all day long from there. They’re called song sparrows because compared to most other sparrows their calls are musical, but they really don’t have much in the way of a song. My Audubon Guide renders it as Madge-Madge-Madge, put-on-your-tea-kettle-ettle-ettle. Sibley offers a prosaic and phonetic seet seet seet to zleeeeeee tipo zeet zeet. Over and over again. But it’s sung from the heart and I love them for it.