Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Tom Mix, The Miracle Rider (1935)

One of the earliest on-screen appearances of Tom Mix (1880-1940) was as himself in the 1910 western documentary Ranch Life in the Great Southwest. Filming on location in Oklahoma, a director for Selig Pictures had found him working as a local deputy sheriff and hired him to handle stock.

Asking for a part in the picture, Mix got a scene as a bronc rider in a rodeo sequence. At the age of 30, he’d been married three times and had taken various jobs with a series of Wild West shows. Later the same year, he was starring in a two-reeler, The Range Riders, shot in Missouri.

By 1920, when he surpassed William S. Hart in popularity, Mix had accumulated acting credits in something like 235 films, all of them silent, most of them shorts. Of these he’d directed over 100. Like William S. Hart he’d begun featuring his horse, Tony, in the credits.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

As if

Desert walk
After posting last week’s journal entry here, I wondered whether I had not gone off the deep end, having read too much of mysticism lately. The jargon that crept in made what I wrote well-nigh incomprehensible.

What I meant to say was something more like this in plain English: As questions about life and death typically involve notions about God, however one imagines such a Being, why not imagine God in a way that deepens one’s spirits and contributes to what might pass as wisdom?

A lifetime of consuming literature and movies actually makes this somewhat easier than it may at first seem. It’s called “suspension of disbelief.” Just let go of what argues against irrationality. (The voice in your head that says, “These aren’t real people, just words on a page or actors on a stage.”) Thanks to this mental act of complicity, literature has developed its own way of raising questions about life and death.

Monday, September 22, 2014

D. W. Griffith, The Lonedale Operator (1911)

D. W. Griffith, c1925
The directing career of D. W. Griffith (1875-1948) began with Thomas Edison’s company Biograph, where he made the one- and two-reelers that the New York-based filmmaking Trust permitted. Two early westerns, made in California, are his Fighting Blood and The Last Drop of Water, both released in 1911.

The first is set in Dakota Territory and concerns an Indian attack on a settler's cabin. The second tells of a wagon train, facing various perils, including another Indian attack and running out of water. In a melodramatic resolution of this latter problem, one man dies and is left behind.

Poster, The Battle of Elderbush Gulch
His final film before leaving Biograph was a two-reeler western, The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1914). This film featured yet another Indian attack and rescue by the cavalry. It starred Mae Marsh and Lillian Gish. After that, given the freedom to make the monumental feature-length films he had in mind, Griffith produced Birth of a Nation (1915) and his big-budget 3.5-hour epic historical drama, Intolerance (1916).

According to film historian Jon Tuska, what Griffith brought to the western were filming and editing techniques that would make the story more exciting for the audience. As one example, he advanced the art of crosscutting, taking us back and forth between two different threads of action.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Does God like jazz?

Morning clouds
Questions like this one are what make Mystery interesting as a subject of speculation and
contemplation. It came to me as I was watching a YouTube playlist of videos by a Polish group, the Marcin Wasilewski Trio (see below). I was literally being thrilled with enjoyment, partly my own, and partly by the pleasure these three young musicians take in creating music.

Theirs, it seems, is a higher order of pleasure I’ll call joy because when you look at the universe (the macro and micro versions of it), that seems to be its intent, an ongoing Big Bang of joy and freedom. Jazz is that. So if it puts a smile in my heart, surely, in some shape or form, it must have a similar effect on the Ground of Being itself. Imagine having to wait through centuries of Gregorian chants for it.

These thoughts followed a meandering connection made a few days ago while I was supposed to be meditating. It occurred to me that I could think of the material world as an interface between me and what I think of as immaterial Mystery, which touches us with hints of itself—a humanly intelligible membrane behind which operates a nondualistic (so mystics insist) infinity that eludes all rational understanding.

Stormy clouds
For me, those hints come in the form of metaphors and analogies that leak through into awareness if I’m alert to them. They resonate not in mental realms of reasoned argument and logic but somewhere deeper, in a rush of feeling, an unaccountable excitement, or a relaxation of some dread or fear, the sense that I am in Good Hands.

The word for that, faith, has I’m told an interesting history. It has evolved from the acceptance of beliefs for which there is no evidence. Over time it has come to mean belief only in what one knows for sure. The first embraces ambiguity, finds reassurance in uncertainty, and tolerates doubt. The second clings instead to beliefs that cannot be known with any certainty—and yet permits no room for doubt.

Faith, for me now, is something I look for signs of somewhere in the body, in whatever I take for the moment as a center of gravity (shifting downward, I’ll add, as the steroids have broadened my girth by 20 pounds). I have been starting each day with a prayer of gratitude: “Thanks for another day to be human.” Cancer has got me doing that.

Before, (I’ll blame no one), and easily enough from my own congenital fears, I have avoided deeply engaging with my humanness—except in limited ways, mostly having to do with thinking, thinking, thinking all the time—my head inserted as I’ve often joked, in a dark place.

MRI time
In the time I have left, I hope to discover more of what it is to be human. There is an adventure of a lifetime, still waiting. I don’t want to have missed it. This came home to me in the PBS series about the Roosevelts this week, each of them an individual portrayed as profoundly wounded and damaged, yet emerging as both human and resilient—despite the odds.

I’ve also been reading Sam Harris’ new book, Waking Up, about spirituality without religion. This may seem an odd choice, since Harris is an avowed atheist, and he would surely scoff at some of my ruminations here. So far, his book covers a lot of scientific research into the workings of the brain—not what I expected—and he gets a bit self-congratulatory if not smug about his own preference for rationality.

This gets a little tiresome, as he seems not to know how boring he makes it by comparison with the rich suggestiveness of poetry and storytelling—the English major in me always ready to suspend disbelief. The man is a champion of meditation, however, and I’m curious to know how it fits into his scheme of the universe.

Desert Regional Medical Center, Palm Springs
Health news. This week was my monthly MRI and visit with the oncologist. Nothing has changed.
The tumor, what’s left of it, remains stable, and swelling from surgery in January has reduced yet a bit more. My meds have been adjusted again, steroids and anti-seizure dosages reduced by 20 to 30%. Discussion of whether it will ever be safe for me to drive a car again resolved to “probably not.” Meanwhile, I have started another 5-day course of chemo. Going into it, my blood count is good this time. I’m hoping not to have the usual week-long bout of fatigue—and that the taste of food will not revert again to zero.

No poetry writing this week, but I’m making progress with shifting more attention to the right side of my brain (same side as the tumor), where I’ve been dusting off the neuroreceptors for metaphor and making the guest room comfortable for any surprise visits of Mystery.

Closing out this week with a quietly meditative piece by the Marcin Wasilewski Trio, “Cinema Paradiso.” Enjoy.

Previously: Metaphor

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Willard Wyman, Blue Heaven

Can’t say how many times I have anticipated the opening of a review with the words, “This is really an unusual book.” For all the predictable conventions of storytelling, I am still often surprised by the unexpected turns a writer’s story takes. I don’t mean turns of plot, because we expect that in a novel. They are, in fact, a convention of the form. A novel would not be a novel without them.

What I mean is the presence or absence of conventions so out of the ordinary and unusual, you feel like your GPS has purposely taken you someplace you never intended to go, and could not find on your own if you tried. This happened to me with this novel.

Blue Heaven is a prequel, preceding in time Wyman’s earlier High Country (reviewed here a while ago). It introduces in its later chapters a character who is at the center of High Country, and is the link between them. Blue Heaven takes place during the 1910s to 1940s. High Country unfolds in the years that followed.

While Blue Heaven is set in the Swan range north of Missoula in Montana, High Country follows its characters southward to California’s High Sierras. Both novels are about wilderness packers and the mystique of being in the mountains, especially at high elevations, over passes, and along watersheds in hard to access back country.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

William Kittredge, ed., The Portable Western Reader (1997)

Editor William Kittredge has done a remarkable job of bringing together this great collection of Western writers representing a vast swath of terrain, covering prairie, mountains, desert, and Pacific Rim. At 600 pages, his book is an introduction to over 70 writers from the journals of Lewis and Clark and the collectors of Native American chants and tales to the writers of late 20th century fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

Some are well known and easily associated with the West: Wallace Stegner, A. B. Guthrie, Louise Erdrich, John Steinbeck, Edward Abbey, Maxine Hong Kingston, Raymond Carver, Larry McMurtry, Ken Kesey. Many are lesser known and deserving of a wider audience, such as James Galvin, Adrian Louis, and Linda Hogan. As someone less familiar with the poetry inspired by the region, I appreciated selections from a wide range of poets, including Montana poet Richard Hugo.

Describing the experience of reading this book is like trying to sum up a year traveling in another country. There are several familiar works: Wallace Stegner’s great story “Carrion Spring,” set on the northern plains during the spring thaw after a horrific winter kill and the opening of Ivan Doig’s Montana memoir This House of Sky.

Plus Terry Tempest Williams’ chilling essay on the rising incidence of breast cancer in her family after above-ground nuclear testing in 1950s Nevada,  childhood memories of homesteading in the Nebraska Panhandle, from Mari Sandoz’ book about her father, Old Jules, and a discourse on water from Gretel Ehrlich’s essays about ranching in Wyoming, The Silence of Open Spaces.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Broncho Billy and the School Mistress (1912)

Broncho Billy Anderson
Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson (1880-1971) was the first great cowboy star. A vaudeville actor in New York when he appeared in Thomas Edison’s Great Train Robbery in 1903, he was so taken by the enthusiastic reception of this short film that he decided to make a career of filmmaking.

By the end of the decade, he was a partner in Essanay Pictures and had appeared in 82 films. The company was based in Chicago, and Anderson, inspired to make cowboy movies, roamed the West with cast and crew cranking out 15-minute films at a rate of one a week for several years.

Anderson understood the importance of having a continuing character, and he bought a story by Peter B. Kyne in Saturday Evening Post, which featured a character called Broncho Billy. Reportedly unable to find an actor for the part, he played the role himself and the series began with “Broncho Billy’s Redemption” (1910). From then on, he was billed as Broncho Billy Anderson, appearing in a series of 144 films during a period that ended in 1915 when he left Essanay.

Anderson produced two more westerns, Shootin’ Mad (1918) and The Son-of-a-Gun (1919), after which his movie career rapidly ended. The introduction of feature-length films had made the old one- and two-reelers outdated. Film historian Jon Tuska argues that the new sophistication of the 1920s also altered what audiences wanted to see.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


Stormy sky
While I complained in last Sunday’s post about a lack of poetry for guidance and companionship on this journey of mine, I mention two poets today who have shown up, not dense with forced left-brained cleverness and demanding of me an intellect I do not or cannot lay claim to. Walt Whitman is one; the other is William Stafford, whose last published collection in 1993 is aptly called The Darkness Around Us Is Deep.

Both poets owe their identity in part to their roles as noncombatants in wartime. Whitman, an anti-slavery Northerner, worked as a volunteer nurse in army hospitals. Stafford, a pacifist, was a conscientious objector during World War II. As I read their poems, each shows what it is to be in touch with what is human in them, and they generously invite the reader to do the same.

That humanity finds expression in what I’ve come to understand as a mystery that reveals itself where Scripture, “holy texts,” or whatever you want to call them, converge with poetry.  Both find at the core of being human a condition of woundedness—a suffering that takes many forms, physical and psychological, and cannot be escaped despite a tireless pursuit of happiness.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

James Wood, How Fiction Works

Some readers here will know James Wood as a book reviewer (he would say critic, I suppose), at The New Yorker. Published in 2008, this book suggests by its title that it’s a how-to manual for writers, but it’s better described as a what-to-notice for readers.

Wood covers a half dozen or so topics: narration, point of view, detail, character, and realism. In his preface, he states that his argument is that fiction is both “artifice and verisimilitude.” In other words, it draws on a store of conventions and fakery to create an illusion of reality.

Detail. This assertion won’t come as a surprise to many readers or writers. What’s interesting about Wood’s argument are the examples he uses, starting with Flaubert, whom he credits with virtually inventing the modern novel, with its eye for concrete detail. Whether in literary or genre fiction, the prominence given to visual, audio, and other sensory images becomes suddenly obvious after Wood points it out. You see that it is part of the artifice.

Gustav Flaubert
Narration. More complex is the matter of narration. Wood argues that all narration is unreliable, and third-person more so than first-person. To demonstrate this last assertion, he takes apart a paragraph from Henry James’ What Maisie Knew. There he finds a supposedly unbiased and neutral narrator using a word betraying an attitude that Maisie would not herself possess.

It’s a surprising revelation when you realize how writers do this all the time, blurring the line between the storyteller and the character—sometimes for a clever sleight-of-hand effect, sometimes from lack of narrative precision.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Ed Gorman, Riders on the Storm

Ed Gorman’s new Sam McCain mystery is set in 1971 and reflects some of the civil turbulence of those Vietnam years as they wash over a small Iowa town. 

Plot. A hawkish Senator is trying to ride a waning tide of patriotic enthusiasm to keep himself in office. But his handpicked candidate for a Congressional seat gets murdered after an altercation with a fellow veteran who has made public his opposition to the war.

That John Kerry-sympathizing vet is quickly suspected of the crime by the new sheriff, and the man’s best friend, McCain, has an uphill battle finding evidence of his innocence.  

Time and tide. Gorman remembers the early 70s well (Janis Joplin is heard on the radio at one point singing “Me and Bobby McGee”). The novel is aptly named for the mournful Doors song, “Riders On the Storm,” which recalls the darkly violent and divided mood of a time marked by the growing national ambivalence about Vietnam. He is also a sharp observer of small-town politics and social distinctions.

The portrayal of women in the novel does much to fix its particular point in social history. Whether wives, lovers, or others, they are mostly untouched by the feminist creeds that came to dominate public discourse about gender roles in the years that followed. Gorman shows them as attractive and sexy, reliant on the men in their lives, homemakers and loving mothers of small children.

Ed Gorman
Two, however, emerge as professional women, one of them McCain’s own girl Friday, bracingly independent and unapologetically resourceful. Another seems able to blend marriage and career, though we don’t learn quite everything a candid review would reveal about her until well after she gets involved in McCain’s attempts to rescue his falsely accused friend.

While Gorman does not necessarily endorse it, there is much of the 1970s indulgence in extramarital sex, booze, and other pastimes that had a generation smugly confident in themselves because they were under 30. But you can feel the earth shifting under McCain’s feet as the 1960s recede into the hazy distance behind him.

Wrapping up. This is an enjoyable novel that has as much fun capturing the time and place of its setting as puzzling over the clues pointing to the solution of the mystery it poses. Whether westerns or crime fiction, you know you’re in good hands with Ed Gorman. I recommend this one.

Riders on the Storm is currently available in print and ebook formats at amazon and Barnes&Noble.

Further reading/viewing:

Image credits:
Author’s photo, amazon.com

Coming up: Max Evans, Bobby Jack Smith You Dirty Coward!

Monday, September 8, 2014

3 Bad Men (1926)

If you can tolerate the pop-up ads every 15 minutes at YouTube, there’s a fine copy of John Ford’s silent western 3 Bad Men currently available for viewing there. Otherwise, it’s been paired with another Ford film from his years at Fox studios, Hangman’s House (1928), and both are on DVD.

As you would expect from Ford, it is a big, sprawling western, set against the picturesque Tetons of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with several scenes shot in the Mojave. Ford imagines a land rush in Dakota Territory as thousands of settlers bring covered wagons to the town of Custer to await the opening of Sioux lands to homesteaders and gold prospectors. The year is 1876 (or 1877 depending on how you read the intertitles).

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Too much thinking

Desert morning walk
I am at that point between chemo cycles when I get irritable and grumpy, with lapses of impatience. I’d like to find an island of calm, but the usual routes to that seem blocked. Proofreading the book I’ve been working on brings some relief as long as I can concentrate, staying unstuck and in a creative flow, fully in the moment, not getting sidetracked with my restless complaints.

For a while I thought I’d be talking today about poetry. I like Robert Bly’s and Coleman Barks’ translations of Rumi and Hafez (see below). They ring a note that resonates and is hard to find elsewhere. There’s a copy of Mary Oliver’s dog poems in the house, but I can’t seem to tap into whatever it is she is dedicated to expressing. Her little tributes to her dogs seem superficial and sappy. I must be missing the point.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: addenda
(mukluks – too dead to skin)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of frontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.” (The following are additions, turned up since weekly postings began a year ago.)

mukluks = a high, soft boot worn in the American Arctic and traditionally made from sealskin. “He moved lightly, his footing made doubly secure by reason of his soft-soled mukluks.” Rex Beach, The Spoilers.
needle-tell = a system for marking a deck of cards with invisible needles, as explained in Rex Beach’s The Spoilers, which prick “the dealer’s thumb, signaling the presence of certain cards.”

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Elmer Kelton, Other Men’s Horses

More and more, I think of genre writing as a game of cards. A writer gets dealt a few from the deck to make of them what he or she can, given some ingenuity, luck, the rules of the game, and the help of a wild card or two. 

This is especially true of the western, which has long relied on a familiar formula, with its roots in the dime novel. A writer departs from that formula at some risk of losing an audience. You admire someone who manages to get away with it, and Elmer Kelton has been one of them.

Plot. Other Men’s Horses has several elements of a typical western plot: a Texas Ranger, horse thieves, a cavalry officer, a sheriff, a lynch mob, and a long pursuit over sparsely settled frontier. At the center of the story is Texas Ranger Andy Pickard, out to bring in a man for trial who has killed another man over the theft of a horse.

Pickard's life is unexpectedly saved by Bannister, the wanted man, who sees that he gets to a doctor when Pickard is himself shot. Given his duty to arrest Bannister, Pickard follows the man’s wife, Geneva, as she drives a buggy for many days across a stretch of 1880s Texas to meet up with her husband. Along the way, Pickard’s route crosses that of a Buffalo soldier, Joshua Hamlin, who is a deserter and on the run after avenging the death of one of his own men by whites.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Invaders (1912)

Francis Ford, 1919
Here is another Thomas Ince production (see the recent BITS review of his 1919 film with William S. Hart, Wagon Tracks). A short, 40-minute western, The Invaders tells a familiar story of U.S. Cavalry vs. Indians on the frontier.

The film is notable for its direction by Francis Ford, elder brother of John Ford. While active behind the camera during the silent era, with 177 directing credits, Francis worked chiefly as a film actor in Hollywood. IMDb lists a phenomenal total of nearly 500 on-screen appearances in mostly uncredited roles during 1909 – 1953.

Plot. The story concerns the breaking of a treaty with the Sioux, who are promised that settlers will be prevented from entering their lands. Trouble quickly ensues as a party of surveyors arrives to take topographical measurements for a transcontinental railway.

In a parallel plot thread, we learn that the Sioux chief’s daughter, Sky Star (Ann Little), is being courted by a member of the tribe, who attempts to trade for her with a gift of horses. Her father is happy with the deal, but she is not. Before long, one of the surveyors, who spies her in his scope, takes an amorous interest in her.