Tag Archives: movies

650. My Friend Charles

When I was a junior in high school, I was force-fed Great Expectations and it was the most excruciatingly boring experience of my young life. It put me off Dickens for years.

Then I started seeing adaptations of A Christmas Carol on television every Christmas. That led me to read the book itself, and it was even better than the movies. That led me to his other four Christmas books and they were also wonderful.

Maybe this Dickens fellow could write after all.

Somewhere in there, fully a decade before I became a writer, I started to want to write a Christmas book. That’s hard in a world where every other writer has the same idea. You see them on every book rack, paperback equivalents of made-for-TV movies, all asking, “will the girl get the guy by Christmas”? Really, they have nothing to do with Christmas, but that doesn’t keep them from being competition.

No one is every going to match A Christmas Carol, but to sit on the same shelf any book would have to meet a certain level of gravitas. And it can’t be a grumpy old guy who finds redemption; once Dickens got through with his version of that story, every other one would be pastiche.

Ultimately, I found my story, although I have not yet written it. In Philadelphia, in 1790, during the brief period that it was the American capital, Ethan Gunn, a merchant seaman, returns from a year’s long journey to find that his wife has died in his absence. His children were taken in by his brother, living inland, where they died in a house fire. (Or so he is told.)

It is Christmas time and the poor of Philadelphia are in great need. Gunn has money from his voyage, but he counts it as nothing compared to the loss of his family. Through a friend he contributes to those in need, giving us access to a series of brief views of the lives of a series of minor characters.

Gunn himself gains nothing from his charity, because he is not giving of himself. His only ties to humanity are his friend, and a seemingly orphaned girl he has rescued from a shipwreck and taken under his wing. She is of about the same age as his lost children; in trying to ease her grief at losing her parents he comes to love her.

Every scene of a poor family rescued from the brink by Gunn’s aid only drives him closer to despair. The seemingly final blow comes when the parents of the girl he has befriended turn out to have also been saved, and are looking for her. He faces his demons when he considers hiding her away to keep her for himself, then relents, and finally gives away the only thing that has real meaning for him.

Whereupon his own children turn out to have been living with a Moravian family after escaping from the house fire, and are reunited with him.

It’s the unwritten books that will haunt you.

Incidentally, Gunn’s daughter becomes the mother of Titus Young. See 636. Half Breeds, Various.

*            *            *

Like Clockwork, which I finished about nine months ago, also owes a lot to A Christmas Carol. It isn’t a Christmas book, but it is Dickensian, and it owes it’s origin to a scene in Scrooge, the musical adaptation. I’ll tell you more about it on Wednesday.

Like Clockwork isn’t really my Christmas book but it is as close as I have come so far. It’s out looking for a publisher right now. Maybe by next Christmas you can see for yourselves.


352. A Modern Maverick

The old TV show Maverick has been on local channels lately. It was one of my favorite programs when I was twelve years old, but I’ve pretty much outgrown it. I don’t watch the reruns, but they started me thinking about an American archetype — the lovable con man.

There are a lot of them in literature, and a lot more moving among us in our everyday lives. You know him, weird Uncle Bob who always has a beer in his hand but never buys drinks. Or Uncle Jim who thinks it is wonderful that you are planting trees in your mother’s yard, and drives home to get his favorite shovel, but never comes back.

What all these slick dealers have in common is that they are funny, charming, and it is almost impossible to stay mad at them. They’ll steal your beer, or steal your heart, or steal your money, and leave you laughing at how easy you were to take.

In the movie version of Maverick, he says, “There is no more deeply moving religious experience, than cheating on a cheater.” Cute, but in point of fact, Bret and Bart and Beau cheated everybody. It doesn’t matter though, because they were charming.

There were others before Maverick. Starbuck, in The Rain Maker, teaches Lizzie that she is beautiful, but she marries her home town swain. Good thing. If she had run off with Starbuck, it would not have ended well.

Harold Hill, in The Music Man, made a career of separating suckers from their money. He was charming and slick and thinks faster than the locals. When he falls in love with the librarian, it changes his attitude. She reforms him. Okay, fine, but for me that doesn’t saves the movie; the line that saves the movie is when he tells Winthrop, “I always think there’s a band.”

See, he didn’t mean it. He thinks he’s giving something back. He’s a good Joe at heart.

If a con man believes his own lies, does that make us forgive him? In the movies it frequently does. But what if a real Marian the librarian married a real Harold Hill. We would probably find her later with eight kids, hungry and living on skid row, after Harold Hill moved on. I like the movie version better.

Does our charming American con man believe his own lies? Does he even know himself where the truth is? Does it matter to him? Does it matter to us?

If he is slick enough, and fast enough, and plausible enough — if he can tell one lie to cover another until we get lost in the shell game — there is no limit to how far he can go.

He could even become President.

327. The Lone Hero


                         A note before we start  ——

     Yesterday, someone searched on the sub-title of this blog (be not ashamed . . .) but my software doesn’t tell me who. For your information, unknown and curious person, I explained my relationship to this poem on the last day of 2015, and included a copy of the poem the same day.

     And now to our regularly scheduled business ——


In my youth, before Star Trek and Star Wars and computer generated effects, the typical movie hero was a cowboy, riding into town alone, beholden to no one, ready to stand or fall on his own.

Even the word “beholden” seems old fashioned. Ancient. Outmoded — like the western hero himself. And to be fair, he never really existed. If you spend any time at all reading histories of the old west, you’ll find out that things were done by groups, not by lone heroes. When the Dalton gang tried to hold up two banks at once in Coffeyville, Kansas, it wasn’t a John Wayne figure standing tall in the street that stopped them. It was a dozen or so armed citizens that blew them out of the saddle from windows and doorways. Same story in Northfield, Minnesota when the James gang bit the dust.

I called them armed citizens. That sounds pretty good. Put them up on horses with Winchesters and send them as a posse after the bad guys. It still works — unless you are the one they are after. Call them vigilantes, and some people will start to feel uncomfortable, but not everyone. Call them a gang and people will start thinking about locking their doors.

Put them in white hoods. What do you think of them now?

It’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it?

The lone, self-sufficient individual or small family did exist. There were soddies on the Kansas prairie miles from the next settler. Or log cabins in the deep woods of Ohio and Indiana — back when Ohio and Indiana had deep woods. And there were the mountain men. You can’t get more independent than that — except that they moved across the prairie in companies, and only dispersed once they were in the mountains.

One thing is certain. The idea of the loner was always there.

I wrote my first book, a young adult novel called Spirit Deer, with the idea of the loner front and center. The young man Tim — he didn’t need a last name — got lost in the Sierras while deer hunting and found his way out without help despite innumerable trials and tribulations. You can still sell that kind of book (see Two Hands and a Knife), but they are becoming rare. Today’s YA novels seem to be about how to get along in the world.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It better fits the world today’s youth live in. The — ask a friend, seek companionship, don’t rock the boat, politically correct, do no harm, love yourself, make no judgments, everything is morally right as long as you don’t hurt someone’s feelings — world.

Granted, there is much good in these “civilized” changes, but whatever happened to standing up on your hind feet and saying, “I don’t agree. That’s not for me.” There’s nothing wrong with having an opinion different from the crowd.

No wonder Trump won.

He’s as fake as Rooster Cogburn, but he represents something Americans have come to miss. The cowboy hero, riding into town alone, beholden to no one, ready to stand or fall on his own.

There is one thing to remember though. When the smoke cleared and the sound of six guns faded at the end of that movie, half the town was dead in the street. That may work when you can leave the theatre and drive home to your secure suburban house. It doesn’t work so well when you have to pick up a shovel and go bury your dead.

The self-certain loner and the soft spoken conformer. As Kirk said to Spock, “The truth probably lies somewhere in between.”

251. Night at the Movies

Over in Raven’s Run in Serial today, Ian Gunn is reminiscing about:

The feeling in a night drive —- the humming of tires; the warm heaviness of the air, the darkness beyond the car —- when you were a child in the back seat —- and the thick air slid in and out of your throat like oil.

That description is pure memory.

Oklahoma is the edge of the South, with thunderstorms, tornadoes, and hot, humid summers. Air conditioner country – but I lived there before people has air conditioners. Days over a hundred were common, and the nights brought thick, moist, warm air. There were scraggly trees in the creek beds and flattish land between that was half native grass pastures and half grain fields.

Was. Now it grows houses, and people live indoors with the AC running, but in the fifties people were sparse on the ground and they spent most of their time outdoors.

I spent my summer days driving a tractor. There were no air conditioned cabs – no cabs at all, actually – but it wasn’t bad. There was an umbrella clamped to the seat, and as long as I was moving, which was at least ten hours a day, there was a breeze.

Nevertheless, nights were a pleasure by contrast. After the cows were milked, we sat in the living room with the west windows open to the wind. My parents watched TV (black and white, two channels). I joined them, or read a book. Once or twice a year, we would all go see a movie.

Those same years, my wife-to-be lived in Saginaw, Michigan. She used to walk to Saturday matinees. It’s a common reminiscence, but my nearest theatre was twenty miles away, so going to a movie was a family expedition.

After the day’s work, and milking the cows, and supper, and cleaning up, we would drive to Collinsville as the sun was going down. When we arrived, we went right in. There was only one theatre with one screen, and it changed movies every three days, so you went on the day your movie of choice was there. It didn’t matter what time the movie started; we went in, sat down, and started watching. Then we watched the coming attractions and the cartoon, and pretty soon the next showing started. We watched until my dad said, “Okay, this is where we came in.” Then we left, with no wasted time, because four AM was coming all too soon, and the cows weren’t going to milk themselves.

What I remember best about movie nights, is the ride home – especially when I was ten or so. Twenty miles on a two lane blacktop, lying stretched out on the back seat, reliving the movie, and the coming attractions which were pretty exciting for a ten year old in the fifties. Imitation of Life previews were disturbing, largely because I didn’t understand the premise of the picture (see 95. Literature of Passing). Then there was a scene of a girl wearing only a towel in a cowboy movie preview that revisited my libido for months. Mostly though, I remember a science fiction movie – something I would never have seen outside of previews – with animated pterosaurs and dinosaurs chasing people as they fled in their cars. Tame stuff for the Jurassic Park generation, but scary to me.

Outside the car, the night dampness amplified the smell of grass and weeds. The soundtrack of the night was the humming of tires and the unending churr of cicadas. The air swirling in through the open windows was syrup thick, damp and cool. The vibrations from the road, softened by the seat and transmitted through to my spine, was electric, and the little shocks from potholes were like tiny bursts of pleasure.

All this comfort was balanced by the emotional rush of hearing those imaginary dinosaurs in pursuit, along with the scree of giant pterosaurs flashing overhead.

I’ve forgotten most of the movies we saw, but I will never forget what the night felt like.

175. 1776, the movie

Ah, June 29th. Its just about time to watch the movie 1776 again. It is a family tradition to watch it every year just before Independence Day.

My wife and I saw it first as a play on July 4, 1976, in an outdoor presentation. We had gone to the big city – locally that means San Francisco – to rub elbows with the crowds on the day of the Bicentennial. That afternoon, we were hooked. When it came out as a movie, we went to see it, then bought the VHS. Yes, this was before DVDs, or downloading, or streaming, or TiVo; actually, I think it was before we had bought a VCR, but we wanted to always have a copy.

1776 is a great patriotic rush of a movie but I wouldn’t recommend that you learn your history by watching it. The Columbia Companion to American History on Film says that “inaccuracies pervade 1776, though few are very troubling.” Maybe, but I’m not so sure. Some of the best parts of the movie just didn’t happen.

In fact, the wiki summary of historical accuracy praises the play while documenting error after error until you get the impression that nothing in it was true to life. See the movie first, then read the quibbles, because 1776 is not a historical movie, but an allegory, or better still, a retelling. It goes to the essence of the hesitation and worry, even fear, that attended the event, all wrapped in a story of arrogance, honest outrage, pride, and sacrifice. The writing is beautiful, the quips are side-splitting. Much of the dialog is taken from the words of people who were there, gleaned from works written by them years later.

In fact, there is no lack of historical material to work from in reconstructing the event, even though it was conducted in secrecy. These were literate men, with a clear picture of their own historical importance. Most of them told their own stories in later years.

Unfortunately, they tend to disagree on what actually happened. Years after I first saw the play, I went back to college for an MA in History, and thereafter set about trying to make my own knowledge of the event more accurate. It is surprisingly hard to do. Even the date July 4 is in partial doubt. The Declaration was approved on July 4. Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin claim that it was signed that day, but only a hand written copy then existed, and not all members were present. Those present may have signed the hand written copy – or not. We just don’t know. Certainly the printed version that we now view in the National Archives was not ready for some weeks. It was signed on August 2, but not by every member, as not all were present. Some signatures were apparently added piecemeal later on.

I care about historical accuracy, but when I am watching 1776, I let that go by and immerse myself in a moving theatrical experience. Now don’t bother me any further. I’ve got the DVD cued up.

89. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

You can learn a lot from television, if you are alert, and usually not what they want you expected.

My local oldies station has been running Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner incessantly for about a month. I’ve watched the whole thing several times and bits and pieces here and there as well. If you don’t remember the story, in 1967, a very handsome, very black man (Sidney Poitier) wants to marry a very pretty, very blonde white girl (Katherine Houghton). They spring this on her liberal parents and complications ensue.

I like the movie despite its obvious problems. I even forgive that it ends with a fifteen minute monolog by the grumpy, old white guy (Spencer Tracy), as he puts everybody else in their places.

The movie is dated and excessively, even simplistically, sweet. It is unrealistic that the black guy in question is such a moral superman and so terminally handsome. Never mind; the movie’s heart was in the right place and it probably did some good. And it was 1967, after all.

But there’s something else to be learned from this movie beyond what the producer intended. The next time you see it, take a look at Dorothy (no last name, played by Barbara Randolph), a minor character, assistant housekeeper and a drop-dead gorgeous black girl.

Or is she? Stand her up in your imagination half way between Poitier and Houghton. She is half as black as he is, and half as white as she is. How did that happen! And why do we accept her as black without even thinking about it?

The whole movie is based on the shock that everyone feels when Poitier and Houghton decide to marry, but no one even takes notice of the obvious product of four hundred years of interracial sex, married or otherwise, strutting her stuff in the background.