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Cute Versus Charm

March 10, 2013

Debbie ReynoldsDorisDayCaryGrant

20th century Americans tended to favor, in each other, cute over charm.

Perhaps cute was our innocent small-town rebuke to charm, that smart city-slicker sparkle of snake-oil salesmen. Cute was as natural as the countryside. Charm, suspiciously Big City.

Cute is one-sided and unselfconscious, a helpless demand to be found adorable. Cute, in musicals, were equally-virginal Debbie Reynolds and Doris Day, peppy as puppies, all gee-wiz, aw shucks, and oh let’s! You, the guy, finally break down and marry cute.

Charm, on the other hand, is intimately mutual, a special someone’s open invitation to love and be loved, renewed from moment to enchanting moment, for as long as you two are together. Charm might be Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy swapping Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer repartee in a sophisticated “white telephone” comedy. Charm conjures up delicious romance.

Now the greatest charmers are often not the best-lookers. Consider Cary Grant.

More than just cute or charming, Cary Grant was admirably handsome, and that indelible yet somehow unresentable male beauty focused his personality. His charm was in not taking being Cary Grant too seriously. So, uniquely, his charm was for himself, and this self-distancing gave his personality depth and made the audience’s reaction to Grant more complex than stunning good-looks alone usually requires.

Of course, neither of these two happy qualities is a be-all and end-all. Incessant cuteness eventually makes us feel used. And what exactly is at the bottom of charm? Charm is always elusive and half-mysterious, especially to the degree it seems frank and open. Certainly, styles of allure are as perishable as actors’ careers. What beguiles us one year, bores us the next and, at a third showing, may even bang on our anger.

But ever-changing fashions in what is charming ought never overshadow charm’s original wonder. This fascinating grace blossoms among a handful of blessed characters in every generation. Not all are actors, by any means. The two greatest charmers of the 20th century were also writers. Neither was American-born. We over here were too busy being cute to perfect infinite charm.

A French woman and an English man. This pair of choicest European spirits have somehow never lost their power, across time and space, beyond languages and customs, to make us love them.

Cherchez la femme. Next time, we meet the 20th century’s most charming woman.

Most Popular 20th Century Fiction

February 24, 2013
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Most popular 20th century fiction? Murder mysteries.

Everybody from all walks of life constantly read detective stories. Even avant-garde geniuses like T.S. Eliot, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Faulkner scandalized literary critics by stuffing their bookcases with private eye novels.

Why this universal popularity? Perhaps because heavy times demand light reading. Two World Wars and a Great Depression had taught people how often history is committed, like murder, in the dead of night. Mystery readers took back a measure of personal control, under the guise of guessing who-done-it, when they spent their hour or two searching mean streets as a wised-up truth-seeker in a cheap suit.

When did the private detective debut in English literature? Who founded this genre?

Our premier mystery story was written, noir-ly enough, in the gas-lit mid-Eighties, by the greatest outlaw among America’s literary masters. Edgar Allen Poe invents the amateur sleuth in 1845 when, for a fat reward, C. Auguste Dupin deduces where The Purloined Letter is hidden.

It took popular fiction forty years to follow-up on and to perfect Poe’s conception of a “consulting detective.” The immortal sway of Sherlock Holmes begins with 1886’s A Study In Scarlet. Meanwhile, twelve months after Arthur Conan Doyle’s coup, E. Philips Oppenheimer publishes the first of more than one hundred books, mostly thrillers, among which he creates the modern spy novel.

The turn-of-the-century ushered in a vogue for gentleman burglars — the very first heroes-as-villains — beginning, in 1893, with France’s long-running good-guy thief Arsene Lupin, soon followed, in 1899 England, by Raffles, celebrated cricketer and, by night, “Amateur Cracksman.”

Also a fad from out of pre-WW I France comes Fantomas, in 1911, the first modern villain-as-hero. Thirty-two volumes feature this faceless sadistic criminal master-mind, a Gallic Dr. Moriarty, or forerunner to Hannibal Lector.

In 1915, Richard Hannay first appears in The 39 Steps by John Buchan, who was also Lord Tweedsmuir, Prime Minister of Canada, a major diplomat who wrote best-selling thrillers until 1941. As captured in Alfred Hitchock’s 1935 film version, Hannay was a veteran of Empire, stolid and resourceful, but, after the First World War, more dangerous men step forward.

Now the magic year for murder mysteries was 1920.

In 1920, The Queen of Mysteries, Agatha Christie, debuts with her first Hercule Poirot puzzler. “Sapper” (Herman Cyril McNeile), in that same year, has Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond (“Detective, patriot, hero and gentleman!”) advertise himself for-hire  out of sheer post-war British boredom. Meanwhile, back in the States, no less a literary figure of his time than H.L. Mencken helps publish the first issue of Black Mask magazine out of a pressing need to offset losses from his stylish monthly The Smart Set.

In 1928, W. Somerset Maugham collects in one volume his famous spy stories, Ashenden: Or the British Agent, based on the author’s own intelligence experiences during World War I. Cynical and cool, Ashenden is an immediate forerunner of James Bond (so much so, for years herbork assumed — incorrectly — that Ian Fleming’s spy master “M” stood for “Maugham.”)

Above all, in 1928, half-English, half-Chinese Leslie Charles Bowyer-Yin took the name Leslie Charteris and introduced Simon Templar, The Saint, in the novel Meet The Tiger. “The Robin Hood of Modern Crime” will prove to be — in novels, short stories, radio and TV serials, a newspaper comic strip, his own monthly magazine, and motion pictures — the 20th century’s longest-running international action detective.

During the Thirties, Black Mask editor “Cap” Joseph Shaw discovers Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett, who had been a Pinkerton agent. The hard-boiled detective is born. Legions of newsstand imitators revolutionize pulp mystery fiction with endless knockoffs of wise-cracking Philip Marlow and tricky Sam Spade, low-rent agents who nonetheless stand for justice.

In 1939, British author Geoffrey Household comes up with Rogue Male, where “the hunted man” becomes a new sub-genre and, years later, the direct inspiration for the first Rambo story. As World War II looms, many other memorable crime-fighters are coined, including arcane vigilante Lamont Cranston, The Shadow, with his “power to cloud men’s minds.”

In post-war America, from Ellery Queen to Nero Wolfe, detectives were a dime a dozen. Then, with his scandalous I, The Jury in 1947, Mickey Spillane ignited a national obsession with brutal Mike Hammer. Only Atlas Shrugged author Ayn Rand (with whom Spillane enjoyed a brief but fond love affair) was more openly and universally despised by journalists and critics. Yet, selling millions upon millions of Spillane thrillers helped make possible the entire paperback book business, even as pulp magazines were dying from a new disease called TV.

Nobody could compete with Spillane in street-toughness, but, starting in 1950, Richard S. Prather’s Shell Scott began a fifty year run as a mostly humorous and softly naughty send-up of trench-coated avengers. Then, in 1953, everything changes.

In 1953, James Bond shows up in Casino Royale, based on a true card game with a real Nazi bagman which, unlike his hero, former British spy turned journalist Ian Fleming lost badly — thus, inadvertently funding the German war machine. Bond only becomes an international cult when it is revealed President John F. Kennedy reads his adventures.

By the Sixties, then, all the wannabe Mike Hammers were morphing into spy-guys and lone-wolves. Gold Medal paperbacks — a line created to capture Spillane readers — began successful runs, in 1960, with Donald Hamilton’s counterspy Matt Helm, and in 1963, Philip Atlee’s secret agent Joe Gall. Most triumphant of all, however, were John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels from 1964 to 1984. McGee is, at last, the anti-Hammer, a sympathetic Florida-based Saint-like rogue male who understands and helps women in distress.

The great “lost” action author from the mid-Sixties is John Quirk. He wrote three straight novels — about the rivalries of hot-shot Navy fliers in wartime, big executives scrambling for control of their company, and a novella about a pro footballer’s rookie year — and then, in 1964 and 1965, Quirk published three Peter Trees adventures.

Peter Trees, The Survivor, is a shockingly blase millionaire jet pilot for, and business associate of, pop fiction’s first billionaire, Michael Archangeli. Trees himself is a former Navy combat pilot, a Medal of Honor recipient, and, as a personal friend of the President, “a hidden power in the secret lives of nations.” On the back cover of the Avon editions of his first two novels, Quirk proudly poses, holding a custom-made pilot’s helmet, before a Crusader jet like Trees’.

The three Trees adventures — The Bunnies, The Survivor, and The Tournament — constitute the last stand for the mindset of triumphant World War II veterans who still felt they were hard-chargers like Peter Trees, with “the world at his itchy fingertips.” Of all the talented writers who created action-detective heroes, only Quirk and Spillane actually seem to believe they are their protagonists, and this gives a verve and snap and “hypnotic conviction” to their prose which sets them apart.

But, perhaps because of his awkward name, Trees is not a success. The country’s mood no longer favors super-masculine winners.

After the assassination of President Kennedy, men, who had defined every kind of 20th century writing, began to disappear from print, along with their male readers, as feminism, drugs, a faltering public school system, and mass media changed the entertainment habits of guys. And so the last burst of mass-appeal paperbacks for men came with the launching, in 1969, of Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan series. The Executioner character has recently, rather wistfully, been revived in paperback, to scant notice.

Now let’s tiptoe away altogether from the Seventies literary scene. As women took control of popular fiction, the lowly detective novel became a semi-precious college-educated art form, often effective as fiction but, like university-educated jazz, too self-consciously derivative.

So, if you walk the mystery story back to its origins, the British Empire birthed as many fictional action heroes as the back alleys of American cities coughed up pulp magazine private eyes. The founder in England was James Buchan, who wrote, mostly for men, to reminded us: “No great cause is ever lost or won. The battle must always be renewed, and the creed must always be restated.”

 

"The" Red State men's novel... gutsy, smart, funny, prophetic
 

Looking For a Valentines Day Laugh

February 14, 2013

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“I can see the crab-loves-lobster joke from here.” –herbork

Underwater by the coral head one day, a pretty pink little girl lobster by chance caught the eyestalks of a hip young crab. She stole his heart in a heart-beat. He scuttled off at an angle, to intercept her and to confess his passion.

“I love you!”

The girl lobster clicked her claws sympathetically — he was nice-looking for a crab — but, advancing straight ahead past him, sadly shook her antennas no.

“It cannot be. It is not natural. For, crabs walk sideways, and lobsters walk straight.”

“But if we truly love one another!” The crab pleaded, touching his claws together prayerfully.

The girl lobster moved on ahead of the crab, who zigzagged desperately, trying to catch up with her. “But I do love you!” He cried out as she pulled away from him.

“No, dear little crab, this love cannot be,” she called back. “For, crabs walk sideways, and lobsters walk straight.” And before the broken-hearted crab could catch up again, the pink and pleasing girl lobster disappeared beyond the coral.

The next day, the girl lobster happened to be going by the same coral, and there ahead of her — the crab, his eyestalks fixed on her, came straight across the sand.

“Why, crabbie!” The girl lobster exclaimed. “You’re walking straight!”

“Yesshh, I am,” he slurred, going by her, ” ‘an’ hiccup don’ care WHO KNOWS it!”

"The" Red State men's novel... gutsy, smart, funny, prophetic

 

Mum Meets Mae West

January 22, 2013

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“When I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad, I’m better.”  –Mae West

It’s hard not to love Mae West. She invented “Sex.” In fact, she was arrested for performing it on stage in the Roaring Twenties.

The Queen of the Double Entendre good-naturedly scandalized 20th century audiences by delivering “suggestive” wise cracks in her signature punchy purr during those headlong decades when America went from buttoned-up tightly to “let it all hang out.”

Starting with a 1927 stage play called Sex, which got her briefly jailed for “corrupting youth,” Mae West wrote all her own shows as well as those classic 1930s film comedies when, stout and no longer young, she came into her own in Hollywood.

Like any comic genius, she knew to a scintilla how she got laughs. “It isn’t what I do, but how I do it. It isn’t what I say, but how I say it, and how I look when I do and say it.”

In 1933, Mae West discovered a young ex-acrobat named Cary Grant and made him the co-star of her most popular movie, She Done Him Wrong, based on her biggest stage hit, Diamond Lil…

One long-ago summer Saturday in Washington, D.C. where my mother grew up, mum happened to be downtown shopping. As she walked by the National Theater, all around her, other pedestrians were hurrying down the stage-door alley. And, yes, there was glittering Mae West fresh from her matinee performance of Diamond Lil, greeting fans and signing autographs.

As mum joined the crowd, she started searching through her purse for something Mae West might sign. All mother could come up with was a leaflet from a local Catholic church.

Her turn in line came, and May West was especially gracious since mum, too, was a famous beauty, locally. The first color photographs ever published in The Washington Post were rotogravures of the White House, the Washington Monument, visiting Queen Anne of Romania, and Margaret Virginia Mangan as a debutante.

After an exchange of smiles and compliments, mum asked for an autograph and passed Mae West the church leaflet. The star glanced down, then looked up, grinning, and wise-cracked in that husky, knowing voice, “I don’t usually endorse this kinda literature.”

Everybody around laughed, but, unfortunately, the feeling turned out to be entirely mutual. The church didn’t much care for Mae West, either. And, in 1930, Catholics set up the Hays Office, whose Production Code censored studio motion pictures. Mae West’s career suffered when the naughty sparkle got scrubbed out of her scripts, and directors had to tone down her performances.

Mae West never did retire. Into the Seventies, she played Vegas, put out a rock’n’roll album, and made a final screen appearance in 1978’s Sextette, adapted as usual from a one-act play of her own. Today the American Film Institute ranks Mae West as the fifteen greatest movie actress of all time.

Not her epitaph, but she once quipped, “”The score never interested me, only the game.”

Is Human Nature Natural?

January 7, 2013

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You hear what they say every day.

The lords of conformity — who wish to make peasants of us — insist that people’s lives can be manipulated infinitely because, they say, there is, at bottom, no such thing as a fixed and enduring human nature. We are not much better than monkeys.

Hear this as an attack on religion, since they mean we have no souls. And, by lacking a soul, your personal pretense, above other animals, to any special dignity… is snuffed out. By then the conformists got you where they want you, and don’t think for a second the idea doesn’t excite them. You can hear it in their voices.

Does human nature exist? Why even bother trying to defuse a loaded question? Fundamental good will, I’m afraid. Normal peoples’ mistake is we always hope taking conformists seriously will somehow bring them to their senses. It’s the touching good manners of our defeat, this solemn pretense of zombie training.

Does human nature exist? Gee, zombie, let’s see. What about the laughter of old folks? If there were no human nature, what else could possibly strike the dying as being funny? Do growing kids learn more about themselves from homework or from each other? Also, lest we forget, along with our religions, grandly getting swept aside by conformists are recorded History and all the world’s great treasures of Art.

They are quite sure in their own minds they are more rational than we. Please, conformists, abandon smug pretensions to science. Limping is not a triumphant new way to skip. Nor is taking yourself for a monkey the humane thing to do. Actually, the simplest proof of an authentic human nature in action must, by definition, show up when we least act like monkeys.

Before bothering to prove the obvious, let’s admit words alone can never establish our first and most essential fact, which is how normal it is for human nature to impinge on and constantly be surrounded by mysteries. What is naturally human is also supernatural.

For proof of human nature, however, all we need is a good example of humanity caught demonstrating itself. That means nothing a monkey might also do. Logic dictates, if we uncover even one uniquely human trait held in common always by all peoples everywhere, then conformists are mistaken.

I am thinking of a cliche. Each world language has its own version of this cliche. It is so universal, people barely notice saying it anymore. Which is odd, actually, because this trite little motto is a magic formula seven-million-years-old and everywhere still remembered because it has never failed us.

Seven million years ago monkeys began evolving into human beings. God only knows out of what thick-tongued chatter our magic formula first erupted, but erupt it did —  this ritual exhortation which summons, out of animal darkness, that fabulous mythical beast, the natural man.

So, in English, to this day, we say: “Hold your head high.” “Stand up straight.” “Show some spine.” “Stiffen your backbone.” “Walk tall.” “Ten-HUT!”

This is not prayer, nor simply a call to calisthenics. More like pulling a finer soul down into oneself from above — and, please, Man, take better control of the nervous system of this half-monkey body!

It’s odd, if you say so, conformists, but undeniable nonetheless. Some immortal force of aspiration plucks us up, up! We are “the vertical mammal. ” Chinese traditionally call the crown of the head “point of aspiration.” And in both tai chi and yoga — ancient bodily exercises so sophisticated they broach the spiritual — a chakra or point of vital emphasis appears above the cranium. Even small children feel heaven or, at least, Neverland is up there.

What is it the vertical mammal has aspired to for so long that even now we discover mankind’s birth cry engraved in our speech like archeological stone? Anyway, this magic spell is the original, foremost and eternal essence of human nature. Case closed.

…Yet the tense and empty among us somehow overlook their immortal ghostly selves and see only monkeys. Very well, I answered your question, conformists, so now let me ask you.

Why did the monkey stand up in the first place?

Sermonette

December 31, 2012

“I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river/ Is a strong brown god –“

T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages

New Years Eve 2013

Do you believe in God, simply and instinctively? Or are you a materialist, by nature scientific? So, where others commune with a vibrant overflowing, you sense only tense emptiness. Can you at least tell love when you feel it?

Of course, both camps are aware no possible rational proof of God exists. However, if not of God per se, at least His love for Man does seem to be clearly and irrefutably demonstrated by one of your sciences, the science of Man: Anthropology.

Spare us a sonorous roll-call of Nineveh and Tyre and all the other great fallen civilizations of antiquity. Simply allow Anthropology 101 to state its standard observation: these epics of human progress grew up under strange gods and lasted as long as the population held with those gods, and finally the great cities, the glittering empires, collapsed and dispersed when their old gods died.

Now the conventional materialist riposte is that all gods are either superstition — crude fabrications of frightened peoples swept together by the darkness of poverty, ignorance and death — or else their gods are the pseudo-religious mask for a totalitarian system of political and economic control such as William S. Burroughs conceived the Mayan Calender to be.

The trouble is, far from dismissing religion, these weary sneers simply falsify human nature and all normal group behavior. Be we close students of history or merely adult observers of the passing scene, we clearly see how over and over again even the subtlest of lies deflate, how gangs do not prosper for long because, inevitably, thieves fall out, that fads peak and pass away, and even the most determined and carefully-laid cults rarely survive their second generation.

The challenge to materialists is, if ancient religions were reducible to one of these four categories, why then did the gods of these mighty civilizations not fail within the usual short period of time? Instead, the tribes who most prospered were inevitably in liege to a present divinity, however multi-headed. These divinities were not trivial or made-up. Even in our own recent centuries, from Shakers, to Beatlemania, to the Soviet Union, neither ethical cults, giddy fads nor ruthless political control systems endured. Thus, the elder gods were none of these.

If such splendid civilizations rose up by godly inspiration, if this is indeed “historical realism,” then why did they ever fall?

Anthropology 101 teaches, above all, we are weak. When the sky cracks and actual divinity inspires men to come together, humanity in general advances, but, being mortal and fallible and unable to sustain any sacred revelation, however glorious and vital, sooner or later we lose our faith, all of us together, and our instinct for success decays, and then our works and days turn to ashes in our hands.

No, I did not say science  proves there is a God. Just the opposite! The entire human project — our world history — is grounded in the absolute necessity for God to be unknowable. Because, if the tiniest crumb of proof did appear, temples to it would blacken the sky while, in their shadows, a stagnant human race must perish of an impossible historical completion of consciousness.

It would be best to know God, directly. Satori, and such. Second-best — but at least better than materialism — is fully appreciating how much our science infers God’s effective existence by the simple test of comparing birth- and death-dates of various ancient civilizations.

So, let me ask you again. Are you rational? Does logic compel you, or not? Can you at least tell love when you feel it? Because, you and I speak a strictly scientific truth when we say together… He, whose very first proof of love is by hiding from us, is as evident in human history as wind writing on the water.

Happy New Year!

The Most Important 20th Century Novel

November 16, 2012

“What do I care about what matters only to me?”                                                  Andre Malraux

This blub from Penguin’s 1970 paperback edition of Anti-Memoirs shows how even a staid British publisher got breathless over “the French Hemingway…”

“Andre Malraux is one of the most extraordinary men alive. After agitating for revolution in China and Annam in the 1920s, he commanded the Republican air force in the Spanish Civil War and joined the French Resistance in the Second World War. At times an archaeologist, an orator, a philosopher of art and distinguished author (whose novel La Condition Humaine has entered European consciousness), he has crowned a glittering career with his years as Minister of Culture in the French government.”

Part of what sets fire to the blurb is… Annan was the French protectorate name for central Vietnam, and this copy is being written in 1970, two years after the Tet Offensive, as the despised American War there was winding down. The copywriter cheers “the extraordinary man” for having abetted the future first.

Malraux, in his twenties, had come among Southeast Asians on a money-making mission to pilfer forgotten Cambodian temple statuary from the jungle-hell grown up along the ancient Royal Way. The government caught him at it. He also championed the earliest incarnation of the communist insurgency there which, in the second half of the century, after twenty years of fighting, ultimately broke French will and then America’s heart.

It was not revolutionary politics or Marxist philosophy or praxis (the action) which magnetized Malraux, who even as a young man was a mythomaniac: a legend in his own mind. No, what moved and excited his masculine courage was the possibility of restoring human dignity to a people utterly debased by French colonial rule.

Malraux never did become a communist. First of all, as a famous intellectual, he publicly denied the end justifies the means. But, more urgently, for a great artist this political conversion would amount to suicide. The arts are “the canary in the coal mine” of human freedom. Communism begins by killing the arts, especially the verbal ones, since it lives off a systematically falsified conscience. Malraux’s own fiction proves even genius cannot finesse this trap.

In his 1936 short novel, Days of Wrath, when Malraux tries to embrace communist solidarity in the face of fascist torture, his brilliance vanishes; and the book was immediately put aside as a weak embarrassment. Even so, alone among the century’s major political authors — George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Victor Serge, Ayn Rand — Malraux came closest to celebrating what the others desperately warned us against.

Malraux’s first novel, 1928’s The Conquerors, and 1934’s Man’s Fate, are both set among the communists at war with the Kuomintang in Twenties China. At this historical moment, what is at stake is everything — historically, man’s fate — since, nearly a century ago, the rise of a communist China along side Soviet Russia would seem to  create an irreversible momentum toward socialization of the planet.

By serving as a postwar bureaucrat in General de Gaulle’s conservative government, Malraux dismayed his many admirers on the Left, but Man’s Fate “entered European consciousness.”  What novels have been absorbed into the American psyche? Huckleberry Finn, Moby-Dick, The Maltese Falcon, Gone With The Wind, Catcher in the Rye, Fahrenheit 451?

Man’s Fate, when read today, still feels new and exciting. Starting abruptly on the night before the 1927 communist insurrection in Shanghai, a young Chinese terrorist is about to stab a sleeping arms merchant. Nothing from then on seems anything less than fresh; this is not an historical novel; it is an urgent narrative Present which has never stopped happening right now. Except, we know what the characters do not. The insurrection will fail.

Expect Thirties Modernist international film noir atmospherics — Alfred Hitchcock or Fritz Lang ought to have brought Man’s Fate to the screen — characters who take the reader’s interest by storm (especially the utterly unique Baron de Clappique who, like Sherlock Holmes or Falstaff, walks out of the story and into real life), anguish and hope and love, women’s rights, sexuality, drugs, violent actions set loose among people who seem more accessible in the 21st century than they did when the novel first came out. And, finally, there is Malraux’s world-famous climax, historically accurate, which will appall and astound and harrow your soul with wonder.

Genius gets ahead of our contemporary interests, it lasts at a distance, waiting for us to catch up. This work of genius is a must-read in Obama’s second term. Man’s Fate is the most important novel of the 20th century.

Best. Movie. Ever.

September 14, 2012

There’s only one way to make a Ford picture, and that’s Ford’s way. When he made The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, they wanted to make it in color, and the old man said, “It won’t be right if it’s done in color.” –Cinematographer William Clothier

European critics dethroned Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane as the all-time greatest movie, this summer, in favor of Vertigo, a second-tier effort by another cinematic genius, Alfred Hitchcock.

Taking for granted that Old Europe’s nomination of the James Stewart movie is a cheesy provocation rather than a serious proposal, what motion picture better deserves the crown?

Let’s replace one James Stewart movie with a far better one.

I am a lifelong fan of global cinema. I am also an international-award-winning screenwriter. I can play the cineaste. I can stand there with a drink in one hand and a graceful gesture in the other and tell some dude from LA: “I think we all agree the first couple hours of Les Enfants du Paradis are better than Seven Samurai.” So, believe me, my choice today is made in all seriousness and not simply to strike a pose.

John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the Greatest Motion Picture Ever Made.

Ford’s 1962 pocket epic is family entertainment raised to the dramatic pitch of historical wisdom — one of the strongest, most completely realized, thoroughly interesting, effortlessly re-watchable, warmest, and genuinely smart movies ever made. Above all — and here is where Citizen Kane falls down — TMWSLV can be enjoyed by anybody of any age.

Orson Welles created Citizen Kane out of a popular resentment of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst’s ability to manipulate public opinion instead of simply report the news. Like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Hearst, too, “bestrides this narrow world like a colossus.”

The movie’s set-up is simplicity itself. A faceless journalist doggedly interviews survivors, trying to explain Kane’s cryptic dying word — “Rosebud.” The reporter fails and, in the last scene, gives up. By an unforgettable coup de theatre, only we the audience, in the final seconds of the movie, solve the mystery.

Reducing the wellspring of Kane’s epic life to a symbol as poignant but slight as the boyhood loss of a beloved snow sled sounded plausible to Forties movie-goers already steeped in popular Freudian psychology.  Rosebud, the prop itself, efficiently diminishes this history-shaping multimillionaire publisher into, simply, a wounded child. Kane’s seemingly admirable energy of accomplishment becomes instead a kind of endless ferocious lifelong tantrum. Not so much to be admired, in other words.

Like Citizen Kane, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance exposes through flashback the secret truth about a famous public figure. Welles’ movie sets out to debunk Kane personally; his relationships with friends and lovers will prove Kane is not really great because he is not even good. Ford’s tale, however, is the inside story of how confronting evil makes a legendary frontier statesman out of a pacifist young Eastern attorney, so it is not Ransom Stoddard himself but the legend which propelled him to early prominence which needs to be exposed.

Stewart’s Ranse actually is a great man, an agent of change who helps a little town “south of the picket-wire” aspire to a more civilized life, even as John Wayne’s Tom Doniphon brandishes his six-gun and warns Stoddard things must sooner or later come down to a shootout between the lawyer and Lee Marvin’s lawless, sadistic Liberty Valance.

Welles’ theme — absolute power corrupts absolutely — is true but trite. His film spends a little too much deep-focused footage shooting fish in a barrel from fancy camera angles. Ford’s subject — the part played in our traditions by American legends — is larger and more profound because more inclusive.

Citizen Kane is about Kane, and all the other urbanites are interesting for the way he treats them, but not so much in and of themselves. Kane’s darkly-hinted fascism has therefore infected his movie, since the characters become only the means, ruthlessly exploited by Welles, to highlight the Big Leader’s power over their lives.

Ford’s straight-forward movie presents, not fascism, but freedom. Every character in the town of Shinbone has a moral and emotional weight, a fitting-in-ness together, which is for Ford’s westerns the dramatic equivalent of the meaning of democracy. So the artistic greatness of his film is inspired by and expressive of the greatness of American democracy.

I’m aware choosing a John Ford western makes me sound either a little precious, or a lot influenced by patriotism. And, of course, nowadays aesthetic considerations are always trumped by politics. So, this year, the choice of greatest 20th century movie largely rests on how your Party feels about 21st century America.

Should its greatest movie criticize and undercut American myths and values, or rationalize and celebrate them?

Both of these exceptional movies end with a newspaper editor not getting the story. No readers will hear what Rosebud means; and the most famous line from Ford’s show is uttered at the end by an editor who is shaking his head, crumpling up, and throwing away his notes. The truth about the man who shot Liberty Valance will not be told to the public after all.

When challenged by Stewart’s character, who has finally confessed his oldest secret, the editor answers forthrightly, “This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Best. Movie. Ever.

The Greatest Motion Picture Is…

September 11, 2012

“Orson (Welles) was a rugged individualist who had a lot to lose by giving in to what he thought was wrong. If Orson wants certain things, by God, he’s going to get them.” –Cinematographer Stanley Cortez

This summer of our discontent, European film critics made international news by replacing Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo as Best Movie Ever.

Let’s be clear about this. Welles’ 1941 black-and-white film is an enormously vital historical drama about the rise and fall of a publishing tycoon, triumphantly capped by an immortal closing shot. Vertigo — 1958, Technicolor — is a queasy claustrophobic  psycho-sexual melodrama (with a disappointing last act) made by a great director.

In art criticism, even of motion pictures, there are certain standards, and one of them is size matters. Citizen Kane trumps Vertigo because the earlier movie takes audiences adventuring into broader and deeper and richer human experiences. An ecstatic young genius named Welles grandly tours the 20th century’s urban horizon. By making shrewd observations, he entertains us royally with a man of the world’s truths about all kinds and classes of striking people.

Vertigo shrinks out of the real world into the half-light obsessions of a necrophiliac. For most of its running time, this condition, at once sickening and dull, seems almost to matter. Through the compression of Hitchcock’s great art, audiences get temporarily infected for, unfortunately, not quite the entire length of the movie. But a faltering conclusion is the limitation of a trumped-up plot.

Vertigo, in short, has nothing to say. And, I guess, all that matters to a socialist European movie critic today — all that he has which is truly his alone — is his disease. Hence, the elevation of Hitchcock’s thin fable. From this shoddy announcement, we learn more about the accelerating Death of Old Europe than we do about great movies.

We free capitalists of the USA should not, however, feel any too damn smug. Seventy-year-old Citizen Kane reveals a Grand Thesis about our commercialism which is so all-inclusive it finally ate its author. In achieving this indelible cinematic statement, Welles foretold his own career.

A Fate as inevitable as Greek tragedy stalks public successes forged in the red-hot vacuum of American popular culture. Whether it is newspaper tycoons, movie moguls, superstars, or exalted politicians, the Law of Pop is…

“What Makes You, Breaks You.”

Okay, since I roundly reject the new European choice, even as I honor the healthy critical instinct to overturn stale canons of excellence — maybe they are right, and Citizen Kane top-honored long enough — I intend, in my next posting, to reveal what is the only clear and obvious choice for numero uno.

The greatest motion picture of all time is…

Maryland, Adieu

July 25, 2012

“I was going along a dusty highroad

when the mountain

across the way

turned to me its silence…”

— A.R. Ammons

The usual deep-thinkus we peddle around here has been curtailed, these last several days, by inter-state moving. Ripping up your home from here and going way off and putting it down there, of all the ways to travel, may be the least attractive, short of forced marches under a slave-master’s bullwhip. Although, actually, it was partially due to slavery that Elena and I have hied us out here to Olde Virginie.

We moved away mostly because Elena had ended up with a daily two hour Beltway Rush Hour Hell Commute back-and-forth, not to mention the rising price of gas, on top of which EZPass automatic tolls were adding three figures more of debt to our monthly finances. …Because, yes, dear friends, every blessed day the state of Maryland made her buy the highway she was inching along, dying inside. That’s how a rank whiff of involuntary servitude began to creep into the picture.

On the day we and the men loaded up their moving van, Drudge, cable-TV, and USA Today were reporting this big new East Coast demographic trend: a tax exodus — families are exiting Maryland and settling in Virginia in numbers so damning, State coffers are already $1.3 billion shallower. Tant pis.

“Free State”  Blue gluttony for its citizens’ cash has had to do with us coming here, but it is enough now that we have arrived safely and together before our Blue Ridge mountains view across the Shenandoah Valley. For what it’s worth, I feel at home. During the previous millennium, I took my degree from Mr. Jefferson’s University in Charlottesville and have fancied myself a little bit Virginian ever since.

Our first night here at Ace Court, she and I ducked outside to “taste the air,” a pleasant custom we often share before heading upstairs to bed. We fell into  a summer night made the way they’re supposed to be. So we just stood there, happy on our dark unfamiliar porch, enjoying being grateful bodies breathing cool aromas off a sly breeze after a 104 degree day.

“Haven’t seen so many stars since we waded ashore in Barbados, that first night, remember?”

We stood side-by-side, as always, enjoying that odd but pleasant phenomenon: the near quiet from far mountains.