a new low in topical enlightenment

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Issue #40 (April 7, 2010)

Walnut Street, Philadelphia

Photograph by John Covert

Mike Watt, Eye-Gifts From Pedro opening reception, 4.1.10

Photograph by Chris Collins

Drawing by James Fotopoulos

From the desk of Joe Carducci…

Christopher Corbett on the Central Overland California & Pike's Peak Express Co. in the WSJ. Corbett’s the author of the book Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express; he writes:

For many years, the West was aswarm with old men who claimed to be ‘the last of the Pony Express riders.’ The king of these was an accomplished prevaricator named Broncho Charlie Miller, an old Wild West show roustabout and admitted horse thief who could take a match out of a volunteer's mouth with a bullwhip at 50 paces. The first literary chronicler of the Pony Express was Colonel William Lightfoot Visscher, an alcoholic journalist and occasional temperance lecturer. His legal address was the bar at the Chicago Press Club, and he did much of his research there. He was not a colonel, but that's another story… But the person who immortalized the Pony was William Frederick Cody, or Buffalo Bill. (He also claimed he had been a rider. Not true.) The fast-mail service may have lasted only a year and a half, but it thrived for four decades in Cody's Wild West show, seen by millions in the U.S. and Europe.

Another recent book that deals in part with the Pony Express is Dan Rottenberg’s Death of a Gunfighter: The Quest for Jack Slade, the West’s Most Elusive Legend. It approaches the PE through the life and legend of Slade, who accepted the job of overseeing the most troubled section of the Pony Express -- Julesberg, Colo. to South Pass, Wyom. (see Overland Trail map) -- in autumn 1859. Rottenberg writes:

When a stagecoach was held up and the passengers robbed, Slade and a few chosen employees gave chase. The robbers… were captured and hanged from a gatepost, and their bodies were left to hang as warning. Shortly afterward two horse thieves were hanged to the limb of a tree, either by Slade or his men; their bodies too were left hanging to spread Slade’s message.

Before Slade’s arrival on the Sweetwater Division, the Central Overland stagecoaches had been perceived as vulnerable moving targets for outlaws and Indians; now the coaches were viewed as predators themselves…

…‘He had the reputation of having killed his three men,’ reported the English traveler Richard Burton after meeting Slade in August 1860. Mark Twain, who met Slade in the summer of 1861, later wrote that ‘in order to bring about this wholesome change, Slade had to kill several men -- some say three, others say four, and others six.’ Whether he had killed one, three, or more, in a region where (contrary to popular notions back in the States) killings were relatively rare, that reputation sufficed.

There’s a nice little forgotten western, Jack Slade (1953), directed by Harold Schuster and starring Mark Stevens. Brian Garfield’s Western Films guide has it co-directed by Stevens and it does have the dark commitment of Stevens’ Gun Fever (1958) which he directed and even co-wrote. Novelist and screenwriter Garfield is one of the few critics who remembers these two films, at least until my own book lifts Stevens’ reputation -- his death in 1994 was barely noted. Garfield undervalues GF, writing, “I wouldn’t call this a good movie but it’s interesting,” but on JS, “Based on historical events, this brooding but compelling movie is a different sort of Western with a feeling of genuine tragedy. It’s brutal, grim, downbeat -- don’t expect light entertainment.” Halliwell’s Film Guide notes it was considered extremely violent at the time of its release, but today we see that it is actually that the tragic weight of the killings is visible on the nominal hero Slade that is so striking and, we trust, truthful.

Rottenberg’s book is an authoritative weighing of the evidence, the contemporary record, the stories, the legend, the topography of the faint trail of one Joseph A. Slade. The legend is less carefully checked against the evidence in the book, Slade! - The True Story of the Notorious Badman, by Bob Scott. The High Plains Press backcover come-on betrays ignorance of the film, never mind its lesser Stevens-less sequel The Return of Jack Slade (1955) which turns on Slade’s son trying to live down his rep.


The Newspaper Picture at the Film Forum April 9 thru May 6. It’s a great idea for a repertory series but they ought to have focused on just the late twenties/early thirties films, that period when the Newspaper picture was a true living genre -- one that, like the College football picture or the South Seas picture, didn’t survive. This series includes good later films but they are easier to rent or see on television. What’s striking about the earlier pictures is the cold-blooded and yet attractive cynicism of the reporters and editors; they’re worse than the gangsters, and funnier too as they feed their readers’ low taste for crime and scandal. As with the early gangster film, newspaper movies were where Hollywood learned they could put American colloquial speech patterns into the new talkies. Their first instinct had been to import Broadway actors, writers and directors who were offering mostly a false British elocution and done well above a stage whisper. Hollywood had been building the studio system of film production through the twenties, but they were able to use the coming of sound to re-order the talent hierarchy and fully assert producer control. The Hays code affected the genre, but what really ended such cutting portraits of cynicism was Hollywood’s top-down enlistment in FDR’s New Deal and National Recovery Act beginning with Gabriel Over the White House (1933). Realism wasn’t picked up again until the late forties, the exception being a veiled portrait of FDR’s opponent Col. McCormick of the Tribune in The Power of the Press (1943); I’ll have to get a look at that one.

The programs I wouldn’t miss:

April 11
The Front Page (1931), Five Star Final (1931)

April 13
Blessed Event (1932)
Advice to the Lovelorn (1933)

April 19
The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932)
Love Is a Racket (1932)

April 27
The Power of the Press (1943)
The Lemon Drop Kid (1934)
Night Mayor (1932)

May 3
Okay America (1932)
The Final Edition (1932)
Sob Sister (1931)


A.O. Scott in NYT on critiphilia; he sure doesn’t seem to lament cinephilia’s passing, which is the norm. He doesn’t even mention Armond White’s vivisection of the patient in column and speech which I linked to in the past two issues. And that makes Scott’s piece just about him and the end of the old Siskel & Ebert program which features him in this, its last year. You wouldn’t think that’s enough for the Sunday Arts & Leisure lede. I’ve been reading through a century of film criticism going back to the earliest New York trades and what is striking is how good film writing was until the sixties when conventional memory has it at its pinnacle. Music writing was never as good, and in fact the best of hip colloquial music writing has attitude and style foreshadowed by James Quirk’s Photoplay in the teens and twenties, and later Variety.

Jonathan Rosenbaum on The Mother and the Whore (1973) in the Reader. It’s a reprint from 1999 for a current revival of Jean Eustache’s summary masterpiece and New Wave headstone. Rosenbaum has a history with the film and yet even he hasn’t seen (as of then) much of Eustache’s earlier docu-styled films which don’t all have feature film structure or running times. I haven’t seen any of those or read his film writing and didn’t know his name at all when I saw it in 1974 at the Flick in Denver. I went because even if French film was sputtering as Godard disappeared into video and Truffaut went soft and then Hollywood, this 3½ hour film sounded important and it was. It didn’t seem like the end of French cinema but by the time I was on the west coast and trying to watch Rivette or Pialat I just gave up on the French. The Germans, Clint Eastwood, and Jeff Bridges were where it was at.

Rosenbaum respects the film, claims it for a New Wave masterpiece, but disapproves of it, as if he felt as many leftists do, that the rejection of human nature and tragedy is a simple matter of making the correct political choice. He heartily endorses Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974) but personally I remember wanting those three-plus hours back. However Rosenbaum is better on Eustache’s film because it doesn’t go down so easy for him; here’s his setting of the politicultural past the film treads on:

One can't claim that the dreams of May '68 and those of the North American counterculture were identical. Hallucinogenic drugs play no role in the lives of Eustache's characters, perhaps because French Catholicism had already had a long tradition of linking drugs and rebellion, as found in the work of writers like Baudelaire. And the impact of feminism on French life was so slight in 1973--and remains slight in 1999--that Alexandre can blithely reduce women's lib to the issue of whether a wife should serve her husband breakfast in bed. In more ways than one, Catholic notions about gender and procreation are too operative in The Mother and the Whore--just look at the film's title--for feminist alternatives to do anything more than occasionally graze the consciousness of the characters…

So in some respects it might be argued that France's version of the counterculture and what it eventually produced was a few steps behind what was happening in North America--and maybe even more than a few steps when it comes to women's rights. However, French student radicals came much closer to joining forces with workers and immobilizing their government than their stateside counterparts ever did.

What he and others assume they were close to achieving in 1968 is anyone’s guess, just don’t question their intentions. But I would say Eustache’s sharp though natural insights on their failure can be seen decades on in the novels of Michel Houellebecq.


Rock Books coming

Tony Rettman’s new book, Why Be Something That You’re Not - Detroit Hardcore 1978-1985, is out soon and it’s full of cool stories told by the surviving participants. There’s additional info and coverage at the blog.

Touch and Go: The Complete Hardcore Punk Zine ’79-’83. The fanzine led to the record label, but being a fanzine, it’s been long gone so its great to see that its documentation of those fast-moving years will be available again. It’s nice to see the cover of #22 again too. That two-shot of Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins was taken by a 17-year old Naomi Petersen on July 1, 1982 out in front of Unicorn Records in Santa Monica; I think it was on Pico. I wrote about those shots in my book Enter Naomi - SST, L.A. and All That…:

Her brother Chris said she was very proud of what she thought was her first iconic image -- a two-shot composition of Ian and Henry outside of Unicorn-Santa Monica… It’s significant that Naomi valued these shots that show the two D.C. buds letting her in on their relationship. I remember Greg looking at the composite and being convinced that Naomi had revealed the real Ian, or at least what Ian really thought of Henry leaving Washington to join Black Flag. I didn’t have an opinion on that, but then I knew I wasn’t up to speed in terms of Paranoia. But I thought it was a good sign if Greg was conscious of the price Henry might be paying for having joined Black Flag.

Naomi was there taking shots on her own time, working her way in. I met her days later when she came down to SST in Redondo Beach and had her shoot Saint Vitus just outside the office and under nearby power-lines. On July 13 she shot Saccharine Trust inside the Unicorn back practice rooms (see the book). I wrote about another Touch and Go cover in R&TPN; that cover featured a Brian Pushead drawing of Henry as he got hairier. It was hard for midwesterners, easterners, and Europeans to really feel in sync with what was going on in L.A. In recent ILX board polls on the best SST releases by year, Husker Du seems to be the safer handle on the label. The L.A. bands (BF, Minutemen, Saccharine Trust, Stains, Descendents, Saint Vitus, Overkill…) plus the Meat Puppets were certainly respected but they could never be fully, comfortably, embraced.

Steven Rosen on Tommy James’s Me, The Mob, And the Music. Rosen seems under several layers of misapprehension; he considers James not a “legacy act”, you know like the concept album classic rock guys, and so is surprised that this is a good book. I’d be surprised if it was not.


Heavy metal Zionism in Egypt.


Eddie Flowers in the new issue of perfectsoundforever.


Iso-track craziness courtesy Swesuburan; here’s Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” stripped to just the guitar sub-mix.


The Easter Sunday NYT let the Pope slide to page 8 where the Archbishop of Canterbury unshut his trap for another preface-to-apology, and even lower to Maureen Dowd’s column. (Tuesday’s William McGurn column in the WSJ checks into the editorial methodology of the NYT's tag of the Pope and finds books-cooking.) But NPR’s "Weekend Edition" coffee-klatsch had stored up a week’s worth of anticipation in the apparent hope the Pope would turn his Easter homily into one of those no-skin-off-my-back apologies the newsmedia give great weight to. Sylvia Poggioli seemed as clueless as Linda Wertheimer; I guess they think Easter is something to do with rabbits and hard-boiled eggs.

The NYT Book Review focused on Vietnam on the occasion of two new novels. Sebastian Junger’s review of Matterhorn, a novel of the Vietnam war by the vet Karl Marlantes, pulls this from the novel:

No, the jungle wasn’t evil. It was indifferent. So, too, was the world. Evil, then, must be the negation of something man had added to the world. Ultimately, it was caring about something that made the world liable to evil. Caring. And then the caring gets torn asunder. Everybody dies, but not everybody cares. It occurred to Mellas that he could create the possibility of good or evil through caring. He could nullify the indifferent world. But in so doing he opened himself up to the pain of watching it get blown away.

The other novel, The Lotus Eaters, by Tatjana Soli sounds like a more pop-modern take whereby academic novelist (pick one) dips into some world that offhandedly makes the author’s look like a picnic. This sounds like a cross between a romance novel and a historical novel. Vietnam… punk rock… it's all good for the dreamer.

“Reading Tim O’Brien in Hanoi“, by Matt Steinglass in the NYTBR. He concedes censorship and a death penalty might have something to do with it, “What Vietnamese literature seems to be missing, from an American perspective, is the kind of amoral chaos we have come to expect from war stories.” Yeah, communist party dictatorships aren’t too high on amoral chaos lit; it’s more the province of free, successful democracies.

James Hookway in the WSJ on Vietnamese cyberattacks on dissident blogs.

Peter R. Kann in the WSJ on Vietnam in nonfiction. Vietnam: Rising Dragon by the BBC’s Bill Hayton, and The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Vietnam War by Phillip Jennings, former Marine and Air America helicopter pilot. I wonder which author’s the dreamer.


Warren Kozak in WSJ, Why Foreigners Can’t Win in China.


Carola Hoyos in FT on China’s prerogatives v. International Energy Agency, et. al. I’m sure.


Get your sea legs for the next dystopia, in Prospect.


"The Atheists’ Collection Plate" by Samuel G. Freedman in the NYT is about an atheist who in taking his children to church so they’d have “religious literacy”. He was then inspired by the social work done by the church with monies thrown into the collection plate by the believers. What’s strange about Dale McGowan’s philanthropy and Freedman’s piece on it is that the secularist’s tendency to nationalize such relief impulses by taxing to fund programs staffed by civil service positions is never duly noted. This is why McGowan’s project is treated as a novelty. In the FT Brian Groom reviews three books on the British conservatives and summarizes Phillip Blond’s book, Red Tory,

He attacks the left, to which he used to belong, on two grounds: that it crushed working-class self-help with the welfare state and that the 1960s generation promoted a hedonistic individualism that resulted in infidelity and destroyed common values. That paradoxically required the growth of an authoritarian state to guarantee individual ‘rights’.

Blond apparently claims Thatcher also increased the state’s power when what she did was allow the growth of private powers as she pulled back state involvement in the economy. This leaves Blond and others in the run-up to UK election pining for the dark ages of medieval artisanal guilds and subsistence farming. Blond is no neo-pagan stone-age radical if only because he expects people to start marrying for life again too!

Take a look outside the British or western political “deadlock” and look at China. There it is clear that this communist state is allowing the growth of economic private wealth and power. They aren’t in love with this idea but they learned harsh bloody lessons with their first contact with the Enlightenment, and though many individuals are still ground up pitilessly by their system, the Party decided they didn’t want to kill them wholesale anymore unless absolutely necessary. These choices are far in the west’s past. It’s easy to take the status quo for granted and pine for some authentic past. But to go there would mean all that bloody business would be back before us again.

Roger Scruton in the new American Spectator evaluates the difference between personal charity and nationalized aid:

When gifts are replaced by rights, so is gratitude replaced by claims. And claims breed resentment. Since you are queuing on equal terms with the competition, you will begin to think of the special conditions that entitle you to a greater, a speedier, or a more effective share. You will be always one step from the official complaint, the court action, the press interview, and the snarling reproach against Them, the ones who owed you this right and also withheld it. That is the way European society is going, and American society may one day follow it. Agape, the contagious gentleness between people, survives only where there is a habit of giving. Take away gift, and agape gives way to the attitude that Nietzsche called ressentiment, the vigilant envy of others, and the desire to take from them what I  but not they have a right to.


Julian Gough in the Prospect rules compulsory education out of order:

We no longer force adults to work in Victorian workhouses. So why do we force children to learn in Victorian schools? …What will Britain’s children do with no schools? They‘ll sit at home immersed in the internet (reading), texting (writing), and playing computer games (arithmetic, physics, geography, history). Learning is impossible if you are neither motivated nor focused; but it is unavoidable if you are both.

India mandates children ages 6 through 14 go to school, reported by Krishna Poeharel in the WSJ. This might seem to confirm Gough’s point from the other side of industrialization.


Obituary of the Week

H. Edward Roberts, MITS Altair PC inventor/small town doctor.


Caspar Melville in the New Humanist, "Battle of the Babies". He discusses the new book, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?, with its author Eric Kaufmann:

Behind the shouty headlines, StRItE? is a detailed and patiently argued study, with convincing demographic data woven together with deft political analysis in three core case studies -- of Israel, the US and Europe. But before delving into the detail I wanted to start with the central thesis. What is it about secularism, I wondered, that contains the seeds of its own destruction? ‘My argument is that there is something about… multicultural liberal secularism that is good for fundamentalism and bad for itself’ OK, how? ‘I think in three ways. Firstly secular liberalism is individualistic, and therefore it goes hand in hand with delayed child bearing and lower fertility rates…. Second there is what you might call multicultural toleration of religious fundamentalism’ …And third? ‘We are in a post-ideological phase… The draining away of liberal ideology creates a vacuum that fundamentalism can exploit.’


David Wallace-Wells on Ira Berlin’s book, The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations, in TNR:

TMoAA is macrobiotic history -- high-minded, unsynthetic, and unrefined -- and a noble effort to place this migratory experience alongside the stories of white immigrants in our broad narrative of national assimilation. With it Berlin would like to re-fashion for a new generation the leftover, linear history captured by the title of John Hope Franklin‘s supervisory survey From Slavery to Freedom, which presented four complex centuries of black American life as though it were a single odyssey in pursuit of dignity and liberty…. In its place, Berlin offers a more haphazard history, fashioned from stories of upheaval and turmoil rather than captivity and constraint, that reflects the centrality of movement in black American life.


Reza Aslan talks with Reza Kahlili in the Daily Beast about his book A Time to Betray.


Four law professors in the NYT on the regulator’s fiction, though being profs in good standing they continue to believe in some kind of fiction where selfless legions of underpaid civil servants keep all manner of hustlers and swindlers on the straight and narrow. These four at least don’t go in for the dominant fiction that there has been no regulators, no rules in this savage Anglo-Saxon jungle capitalism. Perhaps their recommendations are right but off the top of my head it seems the certified part of the CPA who signs off on these products as they come out of the financial departments is where improvement lies. They don’t underline strongly enough that the Enron case wasn’t sufficient to warn anyone -- privateers or public servant. As there may not be another case that visible or another bubble-burst as large as the current one for decades, the government might do best to do less, do it better and let pain teach. Rescues are set-ups for further swindles and bubbles down the line.

Instead the smart and high-minded argue for more micro-management from D.C. This makes the state more responsible by compromising ownership and management. These then further expect their not-so-silent partner to come to their aid. The NYT editorial board proves its quantum sub-atomic brainpower by arguing in Tuesday’s lead editorial that “double-dipping” through a maze of tax and incentive regulations is not kosher when everyone knows that’s what its all for. That it privileges large corporations with their own tax lawyers on salary means that its nothing but a game for playing. The green-eyeshade brigades don’t imagine their thicket of provisions and rules and sub-clauses will yield anything but what they’re aggressive blind naivete insists:

The affected companies have already profited from an inequitable provision in the 2003 Medicare prescription drug law. At the time, many employers were already providing drug coverage for their retirees. And to keep them from dropping that coverage, the new law provided doubly sweet subsidies to corporations. For every $100 the company spends on retiree drug benefits, Medicare sends it a subsidy payment of $28. On top of that, the companies got a rare double tax break. The $28 subsidy is tax-free, and the company was allowed to deduct the entire $100 as a business expense.

Suh-weet! And thank you! No, thank you! The NYT chides the private sector as if its made up only of Manhattan-headquartered multi-nationals, and further instructs their public servant overlords to run around plugging leaks in the regulatory apparatus until the country is as the house in the Three Stooges’ "A-Plumbing We Will Go". This is how they prove their smarts, how they prove the worth of their position in the mid-town pecking order, how they prove superior to mere mortals forced against their will to respond to sticks and seek carrots via lobbying. Of course the NYT will argue against lobbying too. That’s rich. Like the Three Stooges arguing against comedy.

The older, feudal model of this dynamic drive to more government to solve previous governmental failures which nevertheless cause business and society to seek even more from that government, is the idea behind the NYT story by Clifford Levy headlined “Don’t Blame Me. I’m the Man in Charge”. I love that headline, especially over the grim visage of President or Prime Minister or General Secretary Vladimir Putin; naturally they pulled that headline from the web for something utterly AP anodyne. Maybe the Russian embassy complained; nice to know the secular Times responds to some power greater than itself. But the peasant wisdom behind the aphorism “Good Czar, Bad Advisors” is that a people are stuck with a Czar so why make him angry? Instead, give him a hint on how to please his subjects. If Russia is a democracy and its citizens are still buying that, then they are less wise than the serfs under the Tsars. And us here? If the courts fail the constitution once again, the coming failure of healthcare to deliver as advertised will reprise exactly this, as opinion-leaders like the NYT editorial board separate President Obama and his party from the saboteurs who acted out of race-flavored spite. This won’t be simple toadying though, it’s a problem of political philosophy presuming to more than its purview and settling, after inevitable failure, for simple self-interest, a pretty good plan B.


Juan Williams may be holding America together. He’s a regular on both Fox News and NPR. Here is his weekend WSJ piece, "Tea Party Anger Reflects Mainstream Concerns."


Numbers Watch wordjazz on all wrought by the Big Heat via the IBD


(thanks Andy Schwartz, Steve Beeho, Jay Babcock, Mike Watt)

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• The New Vulgate
• Joe Carducci, Chris Collins, James Fotopoulos, Mike Vann Gray, David Lightbourne
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1 comment:

  1. I think is interesting that the BAFTAs are now recognizing games and game development, and has given 3 men a place of honor as Academy Fellows