The year is 1952 & the place is Cape Cod. The Coast Guard stations learn there’s been a terrible accident–a tanker’s sinking in a Nor’easter storm–every effort is made to save the crew. By some strange coincidence, a second tanker, in the vicinity of the first, breaks in two, the prow sinks, & the crew, in the stern, try to pilot their way through the storm. There is only one lifeboat left to send to save them, once the Coast Guard learns about their plight.
The lifeboat pilot, Bernie Webber, is a smallish unprepossessing man. Some men in his native Chatham blame him for a previous failure to save a crew. His life is tied up with their suffering in their mourning; he knows he is being sent to die by a commander from the South, Cluff, who does not know the land or the sea; Webber must now assemble a small crew.
The bitterness of the reproaches Bernie faces is tied up with the reasons people have for obeying the orders. They are seamen & they have to obey; the small place fosters sea-families & that means people who are bitter, tyrannized by the sea, but resilient. What each feels as an unbearable offense of nature, each sees in another as a call to community. Self-pity is impossible to separate from the invisible anger that shows only in the striving of the various parts of the community.
Older seamen who contemn Bernie nevertheless try to save his life by telling him to merely pretend to do his job. They do not care about the crew of the SS Pendleton–nature, human & inhuman, has put those men beyond care, in the hands of necessity & chance. Their reasonable, callous cowardice is not meant as a mind, but as a heart–they will accept Bernie for the failure he is. No heroism is expected of him; it’s enough to survive events.
His betrothed makes every appeal available to her sex to moralize with the commander, to call Bernie back. The commander cannot say why he should ask Bernie to be a hero or how that is possible for him. He merely observes he has the authority to do so & that circumstances call it forth, regardless of humane considerations.
His feebleness is known to his right-hand, too, who also treats him with some contempt. Bernie does not stand up for himself against the old men; he does not stand up for his commander; he does not quite stand up to or for his betrothed. Who will trust his life to a man who does not pretend obedience & lives are owed him? Nobody doubts Bernie knows right from wrong; but nobody believes he can be anyone’s savior.
This is the American movie of the year. It was completely ignored, but it has daring, great dangers, a community setting, & it’s a true story. Find it. See it.
John Link is a recovering alcoholic. His two-year sobriety is his exile from America. He got out of prison; he’s in the California desert; he does tattoos. Everything else he knows or knew is either lost, dead, or illegal. One wonders whether he has any reason to live, except discipline. He’s a man contemplating the failure of American freedom–his failure. He has only one hope left.
His daughter seems to have taken after him early–flouting family & school & laws, making one bad decision after another, ending up with a vaguely romantic drug kingpin’s cousin who murders people out of cowardice, but makes her feel special. It’s hard to see what individualism might mean in a free country–it’s hard to stand out & it means standing outside the laws by which people live. The difference between crime & fame is not obvious from a psychological standpoint. It’s still TV, it’s still youtube.
Now she needs his help, but it turns out that they do not know each other. He learns the hard way, by learning from experience how much she is like him–he is blinded as much by his love of her as by his regrets. He now knows to avoid alcohol & parole-breaking. The only satisfaction of his new normal life without normal people is that the old evil things are kept at bay.
His daughter brings all that back & she is a girl–she needs protection when she unleashes evil like he had once done. His love sends him to her rescue. But his embracing normalcy inclines him to send her away. He calls her mother, who happily rebuffs him hysterically; his friend & AA sponsor recommends detox, which he rejects because he doesn’t want to lose her to strangers, even though he doesn’t think there’s anything she might need from him.
He takes care of the detox & she is remarkably obedient, which is a testimony to his fatherly love. But then the evil comes & he has to run away with her. The daughter doesn’t know he’s trying to save her; he doesn’t know his daughter wants to run away in order to hide the law-breaking things in her soul. The important plot device–her phone–is plausibly foreign to this wild man from an older world. It is a social fact; it is an insight into her secrets.
All this adds up to a tragedy, or nearly. There is nothing for which this man can live; all he can do is die for his daughter. This suggests a Christian correction of manly protection. All he can do is give her something for which to be grateful. It’s as though only laws paid for in blood are worth obeying…
The new Mel Gibson movie is harsh & sentimental, but worthwhile–it opened in Cannes, as the man is not welcome in Hollywood.
The Ranger has an Indian sidekick. Lone Ranger jokes aside, the Indian tells him that the Texans are now losing their land like his people did before. He Americanized–he’s Catholic–he’s half-Mexican. The Ranger & Tanner look to something else when they talk about Comanches: They’re not willing altogether to let go of the freedom that dwelt with war. They’re killers, or could become killer. They’re not enemies of danger.
The Ranger, about to retire, seems to think his racial insults are going to toughen up his sidekick. He’s too soft. He doesn’t see how much is wrong with the world & that a man has to do his job without expecting that things are going to get better. What’s the pursuit of justice like? You end up a fat old guy, always sounds angry, his mind on crime, & he cannot even sleep at night, much less figure out what to do with his retirement? He’s a widower. Work is life. Well, he has more to lose than he knows & his humor is put to the test.
The Indians lost their way of life & their self-rule; the Americans in Texas feel the same way because they’re more primitive & less sophisticated than elsewhere–it’s not primarily that civilization has not done enough for them to make up for what they lost–it’s not clear that any good things could persuade them to give up their freedom. They might even prefer savage nature to a benevolent government & free market, always claiming to give people good things they want the easiest way you can believe in!
We see almost nothing about community & that’s tied up somehow with the fact that women have no exalted role. Certain things about men come out in the wilderness of a failed effort at civilization. People who live in Texas poverty know about the wealth in Texas–the robbers avoid the bigger towns with bigger banks–but there’s nothing they can do to improve their situation while they remember their dignity.
What freedom is there without the freedom to form a community–self-government? Family seems to be the American answer, & it’s natural that the roots of a tragic conflict be found there. Maybe that’s the true failure of American government in the part of Texas on display.
It’s hard to rehabilitate the redneck virtues: Defiance & self-reliance. One seems undemocratic, the other uncivilized. Backward, unfair to women, & too confrontational. Don’t we live in a win-win world? Well, there’s one place left in America for manliness in pursuit of excellence that’s supposed to achieve some kind of freedom–sports, football, America’s newer, more savage pastime. Toby’s son plays, that’s his chance to make something of himself.
It seems the women in the story are there to serve the men. The banks getting robbed are staffed by women. One mocks the savage brother; she gets lucky. Two waitresses stand out–one’s a tough old battleax who is turning the poverty of the poor part of Texas into a pride, & who treats the Texas Rangers like unruly boys–this may be part of what makes women unhappy. It’s not so easy being proud of your life, when there’e little in it you’ve yourself chosen…
The other waitress offers Toby her number, as well as a job in the kitchen. He’s a down on his luck cowboy–used to work drilling for gas. He cannot seem to bring himself to take such a job & the offer she suggests is just not attractive enough. It’s not for men. Then, too, help is humiliating; he leaves her an incredibly large tip. It turns out to be too good to be true–the Rangers confiscate the money as evidence… She turns angry & tells the Ranger he’s robbing her & the children of her mortgage payment.
Then there is the sexual promiscuity. Tanner think he’s a superior man in part because women will have sex with him. If he’s debased, he thinks the truth about their desires debases them, as well. One wonders whether this is a matter of humiliating male pride or of humiliating female judgment. Everything about Tanner is worth putting to the test of generalization, because of his attack on the laws. Now, when a woman of dubious virtue puts the moves on Toby–he tells her about his family–Tanner turns suspicious in all his ugliness. The one thing he won’t believe is a woman’s kindness.
This is not enough to say that women end up so miserable because they’re so powerless to deal with men who are not civilized, but it’s certainly suggestive. Toby’s ex-wife is somewhere in-between. She thinks nothing of saying unholy things about his departed mother; but she takes the money he brings & the future he makes for their kids. The only women who talk about the future are talking about kids.
The one exception is the Ranger–a woman gets his office–he has to come in & ask permission to follow up on his post-retirement mission for truth or justice. He does–he’s accepted that in the future there is not going to be much danger left or any men.
Only men get killed in the story, but then there is the dead mother, who suffered misery & disease. She had left her all, whatever it was, to Toby. Tanner thinks this is one last humiliation. His mother could never love him for killing his father.
Lawlessness cannot get you justice, but it can get you good things
The savage brother, Tanner, seems entirely devoted to the idea that the weak suffer. His father beat him until he shot him dead. Then the laws sent him to jail. Turning to robbery for the sake of his family is his chance to fight back. His is the exaggerated expression of an experience that’s expressed more & more in our times. Laws that did not protect him can have no authorization from him, it implies; they are mere tyranny & a man might as well die proud, if savage, than live meekly.
It is not that many people live this way; it is that this kind of thinking poisons minds. That’s suggested by the cruel killings. It shows one form of individualism, which is not reducible to helplessness, but does not go far beyond wishing for revenge. It’s dedicated to the belief that no good future is even remotely likely.
Toby, the smarter of the two, was for suffering his beatings. It is not that he has no part of manliness–he just has a sense of what a man stands to lose by killing. In his case, turning robber is the consequences of the sense that all has been lost or is about to be lost. He is acting in defense of something, not in despite of anything worth defending. It may be a shocking thing to say, but the relation between intelligence & suffering is not merely coincidental.
Toby has planned a way not to get rid of the laws, but to commit the crimes necessary to get the laws to work for him. Crime pays for the rich; he had better turn rich even if no one in his family was ever anything but poor. This is moving in the direction of self-interest rightly understood. He hopes not only to be a successful criminal, but to hide his criminality & live more or less respectably.
He’s taking justice into his own hands, after a fashion. He does not want some tragic stand against the laws; he wants his kids to avoid misery. Both brothers have a sense that they’re at fault in their failure–they made the wrong choices; neither really wants to change, but they get the sense that it’s not quite the American thing to do. They want the next generation to be more successful at being American, not more removed from American hopes & habits.
There’s some talk about ancient Texas. Toby is not a desperado–he wants to do what the Indians couldn’t do to save whatever could be saved of their lands–to Americanize. Much could be said of the image of burying a Corvette; much, too, of Toby’s decision to move to town & work again.
Here’s how lawlessness & manliness might make secure the good
After doing a great job showing American manliness signing up for heroism in a democratic mode in The finest hours earlier this year–I’ll write about it soon–Messers Ben Foster & Chris Pine have teamed up again as Texan desperadoes fighting to give their family a future & the audience a startling show. See both movies–the difference between them speaks to the difference between Massachusetts & Texas, as well as the great depreciation of manliness in America in the last two generations.
The two play broken men. A savage father destroyed the family; one brother killed him & inherited his savagery, spending a good part of his life in jail; the other married, had kids, got divorced, & took care of his mother in her misery & death–he inherited the burden of the small farm. It’s hard to say what such men even live for, & it can’t be the beer. It’s unnecessary to address the matter, because nobody cares.
An incredibly humiliating injustice moves the brother who had hitherto obeyed the laws to learn to become a criminal. He enlists his criminal brother & together they turn bank robbers, because that’s where the money is. There is a lot of romance to this & you’ll get to see the sentimentality cause the cruelty to emerge. But the important thing is to notice how this story aims to rehearse the history of Texas with oil & banks.
The story talks about the brother who was jailed, but shows us the plan of the brother who had never broken the laws. It wants to show intelligence–how manliness turns crime into an attack on the principles of a society. At their worst, these men are coming back to take revenge on a society that never helped them & made their misery worse by holding out hope for them–morality & prosperity–but always just out of reach.
It’s important, too, to notice the women in the film. How quickly they turn bitter, what kind of humor they mix with their bitterness–they seem to bear the burden of the failing manliness of the men. It’s hard to say that the new inventions of prosperity are doing any good for them, & civilization only ever has one reliable ally–women.
I’m not sure there’s any thing left to subtlety in the story. The straightforward presentation fails to match the straightforward speech of the man who is as good as his word; & it fails to give the audience any experience of the helpless hatred that sometimes moves men into hell. But at least it tells no lies. The savage brother ends up with a snake by his side. There is no tragedy in American families; there is sin & the wages thereof-
This is an unfortunately stupid title. Get past that & you’ll find the year’s only famous movie that does the needful work of displaying the anguished manliness of rural poverty.
Discovery as a home for the homeless A note on self-love
I’ve explained previously what lies at the core of the psychological problem of the story, that is, the story as it should have been written, had the writers been interested in what they have stumbled upon concerning captaincy. I’d like to complete that account with an account of the other good thing in this story, which is the uniquely detailed look at the officer corps of the Enterprise, especially in its relation to Starfleet Academy.
In the future, there is no more manliness. Everyone is peaceful & the life fantastic is a birthright. The opulent Starbase Yorktown is the best place to reveal this–the architecture serves no practical purpose, admits of no limits set by poverty or fear of enemies or catastrophes, & is designed to not allow for any concentration of body or mind. The conquest of nature is effected & affected at once. In the end, as my friend pointed out to me, the saviors do not get a parade. Lying about what it takes to keep peaceful people secure is at the core of the Federation.
For all that, there is a fleet, an academy that trains its officer corps, & a kind of man who finds this peaceful prosperity worse than death, so that he would rather risk oblivion in outer space than enjoy life with his fellow men. This story makes the most of this man.
Both Scotty & Kirk play crucial roles in recruiting for Starfleet a young woman who seems their natural superior. She seems fit for command, but lacking in confidence. She seems capable of wonderful works of engineering, but nobody ever told her what to do with the things she might make, so she does not make new things. The admiring demands of these men & their sense of purpose & their ability to work together teach her that there is a way to go from fearful concealment to bold discovery. They literally teach her that a ship is a home for the homeless, but only if it flies away to discover new things. That’s home for manly man–discovering whatever this wonderful world has to offer.
It makes sense that Spock is mostly absent in this story. His experience as a captain & his scientific mind are split between Kirk & Scotty–they are just much better than he is at fostering the friendship required for a crew to risk their lives together.
This experience of a brotherhood of the daring is supposed to be an adequate replacement for the fact that the best the officers can hope for in the future of peace is to be ignored. Obeying Starfleet here is the condition for men of parts to gain access to the military & technical powers they need.
The understated importance of having a future
On the troubled character of faithful service
Buried in the rubble that is the spectacle of unrelenting destruction, running around, & narrow escapes, there is something serious we can see by confronting the problem of captaincy.
The first relevant fact the trailers advertise: Kirk is depressed. Halfway through his mission, he thinks it’s all pointless. He wants out–but in a very specific way–he wants command, to become a ruler. He starts out by seeing that roaring lions are really mice, more a nuisance than a danger. & aliens’ unreasonable recalcitrance to peace offers brings out his own deep dissatisfaction with the peaceful world he’s supposed to protect. He’d rather turn admiral & leave the ship to Spock, who doesn’t mind mindless peace.
Next, a fact unadvertised: Ambassador Spock is dead–well, everyone knew it, because Leonard Nimoy died last year. Now, Spock to want to abandon the ship in order to defend his own race on New Vulcan–he also wants out by way of securing command.
Finally, the villain, the big mistake in the plot. He’s supposed to be both a remnant of the young war-making Federation & a creature of the new frontier, where freedom fosters enormous variation among intelligent species & therefore great threats to peaceful civilization. Partly, this is liberal hysteria: When you run out of ideas, treat the conservatives as psychopathic soldiers. The villain is a caricature of PTSD. Partly, it’s potentially a new Coriolanus story, woefully wasted.
The plot moves like a nightmare: A sense of powerlessness pervades the opening acts; the officers of the Enterprise face the destruction of their ship & desperately try to survive; then by convenient impossibilities, everything & everyone goes back to the way it was. This implies a failure at a deep level: The Federation is embodied by a terribly inhuman paradise, the Starbase Yorktown, which has nothing to do with America or victory, being completely defenseless, ignorantly opulent, & designed to preclude community.
The plot is about not making bitter men into rulers. Kirk & Spock are tempted. They’re thinking ultimately of taking revenge on the world by becoming utterly conventional–that is, doing exactly what is expected of them & nothing else–because nobody deserves any better. They’re doing this out of a misplaced sense of duty–they no longer know to whom or to what they owe their duties & why doing their duty might be for the greater good. They’re getting defensive at a deep psychological level–they simply do not see any reasonable hope for the future & have decided that managing decline is all there is left. The clue supplied by the villain is that self-pity is a terrible thing. The Enterprise was always about leading the way to a better future. It’s over now. I cannot begin to tell you what a terrible thing that is.
This is not much fun as a movie & it’s got nothing to recommend it aside from fun. Much of the plot has about it the sloppiness of insolent incompetence; & the overall design suggests the people making it are resentful that they have to tell stories they cannot bring themselves to believe in…
Nobody in Hollywood seemed a new Shakespeare quite like Billy Wilder. He is not the only poet to have done both comedy & something like tragedy–the closest thing to tragedy available to the age of liberalism. But he did it more often, more successfully, & more naturally than, say, Howard Hawks & Leo McCarey. So it’s less surprising that he’d give us a protagonist whose story ends very unhappily, but who’s all wisecracks &, like comic heroes, gets to tell his own story.
Let me give you the two oldest opinions about the effects of tragedy on people. One is, it makes people cruel–they come around to punishing people like they see tragic heroes getting punished–because they’re afraid that bad things are more or less inevitable & it’s better to inflict than to risk incurring punishment. Or it makes people somewhat less crazy–they see these terrible stories about their worst fears & they get a lot off their chest–fear & pity lose some of their power over people & they can then deal with public things reasonably.
These opinions seem to fit the ages of mankind I outlined above: The age of belief & the age of reason. The latter seems more involved in educating the public, but it is the former that is really about educating people. As I pointed out, the only result of turning poetry into some kind of enlightened self-interest is, the people producing the poetry can neither tell what people want nor reflect on what the love of beautiful stories says about people.
Stories attain fame if they persuade the audience to take them seriously, that is, to identify character as an analysis of human being with the character as a part of a plot. Thinking about human things & what we call morality somehow seems to originate in stories or poetry.
So what are we supposed to think about this Joe Gillis? That he was an ambitious young man who, dissatisfied with being an American like any other, embraced a desperate hope to distinguish themselves & reaped the inevitable reward of his ambition? Or that he was a believer in the new religion of beauty sold by Hollywood one ticket at a time & he was corrupted by the dawning realization that it’s a false religion?
That is, we start aware that he ends up killed. We want to learn how come & wherefore? What do we learn trying to answer this question? Did he have it coming or was he a foolish innocent? Well, one thing that’s obvious is, either way, it’s not clear what choice he had or what American freedom really amounts to–is it the prestige or wealth he fantasizes about or the trying to acquire it?
The talkies are an entirely different world. The assistant director jokes about how his friends might write their story such that it would get him a job. The producer jokes that he had no idea Gone with the wind would be big–it’s just a Civil War picture, if you think about it rationally. The screenwriter-protagonist thinks of the weird people from the old days–he’s an amateur historian, so to speak, with all the condescension for people & things behind the times.
The film also includes a rather cruel joke in the plot: Cars age better than women in this age described by a childish curiosity expressed in museums.
All this skepticism is not all the dispiriting stuff there is. We must add to it the equally dispiriting experience of failure. People hope to make it in Hollywood–that’s why they go there!–& audiences hope to get a great show in the picture palaces–that’s why they go there. Everyday, something of the terrifying desires of the origins is rekindled in the soul. America is just not enough for Americans; they want these other things & it’s legal to fantasize eyes open, in front of the screen.
But if those hopes get beat up enough, a kind of cynicism grows out of that experience; people come to think that all you can come to know is that it’s a racket & success has nothing to do with whatever makes human life worth living. The never-was screenwriter & the has-been star both testify to the essential injustice of the celebrity-worship business.
So what’s good about this new world? Well, people talk more. There’s a pretty strong suggestion, when characters in the movie talk, they have some chance to find out what’s going on & deal with it in a reasonable way. When they don’t, things go to hell. Certain beliefs & certain habits impose a deep, abiding silence on the soul–you cannot have grandeur otherwise; but there is then no way to change or to abide change. The age of reason is not simply the end of this kind of self-importance, but it does discount heroism.
To speak like Nietzsche, everyone was a poet in the silent pictures–everyone’s a philosopher in the age of talkies. It’s all sham, but it’s sham of a different kind. Better to say, everyone’s a critic or an intellectual now. The pictures really did get small, like Norma Desmond says. In a democracy, it’s not great things, but little things that interest people. That’s not all bad. It ruins most false gods. Most pretenses of awful secrets revealing a fate greater than all the world–most of that sort of thing is gone. You get wisecracks instead.