Thursday, June 22, 2017

So It Goes: Where I've been, what's happening now, and where I'm going

When my aunt died three years ago, I ended up with her house. My grandfather bought it from a bank back in 1943 and fixed it up with a gang of his fellow Norwegians. I love the house, mostly because I've spent a large part of my life there. 

The problem with the house is that it's about 150 years old and my aunt's maintenance of it was piss-poor for the last decade of her life. When my wife and I decided to move in, there was more than a little work to be done. Then we hired a nice but business sense-lacking contractor. Eventually, we fired him, found an awesome new guy, and moving in. A year and a half later than planned. So it goes. 

The last month or two has been madness. Every time it looked liked we were done, something came up. First, we learned the sump pump didn't work when the basement flooded with three inches of water and fried the hot water heater. At the same time it looked like we'd have to rip up ten feet of sidewalk to clear the sewer line. Fortunately, that last one didn't happen, but we didn't have water in the house for a week.

I'm telling you all this 1) for the heck of it, and 2) to explain where I've been. It's been a struggle to keep on top of my regular Black Gate reviews, so this site has just gone silent. Now I'm back(ish).

I've been enjoying the heck out of reading old sci-fi for Black Gate these past few months. I hope you've enjoyed following along as I've returned to my youthful haunts. So far, most of the trips I've taken have been good fun, particularly some of the most recent ones, City and Half Past Human in particular. 


In addition to becoming burned out on swords & sorcery, I was getting a little irritated by the recent kerfuffle over hard sf vs. soft sf. I think there was a serious misunderstanding over the two definitions. 

As long as I've been aware, hard sci-fi, a term apparently coined in the fifties, referred to fiction that tended to utilize the hard science (ie. physics, mathematics, etc.) for its story hooks. That means Clarke, Clement, Anderson, as well as Niven, Bear, and Brin. You'll note all those writers took tremendous liberties with science, to the point that they included wholly fantastic things like psychohistory the Teela Brown gene. At some level, though, the getting some of the science right is important for the stories they're telling.

Soft sci-fi, a term generally attributed to Peter Nicholls of the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, refers to writing with two strands. The first, echoing the real science, is concerned with the soft sciences, such as anthropology, sociology, and the like. Think of Ursula K. LeGuin's sci-fi. The second strand is one where the science is just not that accurate or important. A good example here would be Simak's City, where the even the broadest generalities of how the robots function or humans (and dogs) are transmogrified into Jovian lifeforms are never a concern. Nicholls also wrote that what's hard and soft sci-fi is all a little nebulous and rarely a clear cut set of categories. I definitely can't disagree with that.

The pre-WWII sci-fi that everybody was up in arms defending doesn't need to be defended, let alone by crapping on later "harder" fiction. The examples people brought up about Campbell and company dismissing older sci-fi were worth discussing, but only insofar as it explained why Astounding published what it did and what it didn't. Writers like Anderson, Norton, and Heinlein may not have been writing as extravagant space opera as Doc Smith had, but they didn't stop writing tales of heroic action and adventure just because they took more time thinking about physics.

The only thing that matters is whether a story's well told. Sticking labels on things is really only beneficial to book sellers and critics. It helps them find a place to put, the former to stock their shelves, the latter to decide if they should condescend to reviewing it favorably or just dismiss it as so much trash.

I like science fiction that's concerned with ideas as much as I like stuff that's pulp adventure. When I read sci-fi, it's a question of what mood I'm. It's really a question of using props that are explained scientifically instead of supernaturally. This means Edgar Rice Burroughs=Robert Heinlein=CJ Cherryh=William Gibson=Cixin Liu.

I'm not done with swords & sorcery by any means. A few weeks back, I reviewed the mighty Charles R. Saunders' new collection, Nyumbani Tales over at Black Gate. Even though I swore off heroic fantasy for the time being (except my story roundups), I readily agreed when Milton Davis asked me to review it. I'm glad I did, because it's an important book. It gathers together 13 of Saunders' non-Imaro stories set in a fantastical version of ancient Africa. That there is no other review of this book than mine is an indictment of the failure of fantasy readers and critics to recognize and respect one of the best and most important voices in the genre. For those of you who haven't bought it yet, go forth, now, and buy it!

I have a short story roundup next week that, if I get everything read in time, will have at least one nifty surprise. I might even break my promise to myself and read some S&S for myself. It's been a long time since I read any of the Witch World books and I think I need to get back to them.


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Finally, the coolest thing I've got coming up is I'm going on the radio. Folks on Facebook already know that, so I figured it was time to spread the word here as well. 

MakerPark Radio is the brainchild of Kristin Wallace. She's wanted to do this for years, and it's finally happening. She's got all sorts of DJs lined up, with metal, hip hop, hardcore, a Sri Lankan kids' show, and all sorts of other cool stuff. We've got a booth built into the front of Staten Island Maker Space with a big picture window looking out onto the street and Maker Park. It goes live on July 1st.

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My show is called MUSIC I LIKE. It's exactly what that says. There'll be bits of everything rock 'n' roll that I like, from rockabilly to psychedelia to prog to metal to punk and more. I'll be on every Sunday from 4pm to 6pm EST. Expect lots of glitches and mishaps the first few times out. Nonetheless, it should be a blast.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

H. Beam Piper

From here and my twitter feed (what, you don't follow me?), I think it's clear I've been thinking about sci-fi lately. I've also been getting, dare I say it, a little bored with swords & sorcery lately. For three and a half years it's been most of what I read. So, I'm moving on for now. I'll probably get back to S&S, and I'll definitely keep my eye open for good historical novels, but for now I'm going back to my first genre love: science fiction.

Until last Friday, I wasn't sure what book I'd kick things off with. I was halfway through C.J. Cherryh's Heavy Time (1992) and H. Beam Piper's Space Viking (1963), plus I'd started Hal Clement's foundational hard sci-fi book, Mission of Gravity (1954). 

Cherryh's book is better written and more complex, but Piper's focus on societal collapse and the rise of barbarism, both cultural and of the sword-swinging, semi-literate type fit right in with some other things I'm reading now (Rod Dreher's The Benedict Option, this interview with Paul Kingsnorth about the Dark Mountain Project, and Jim Cornelius' provocative post Resist!). So, Space Viking it was. It went live over at Black Gate this morning.

The first book I read by Piper was Little Fuzzy in 1984. I'd seen the title praised in Analog and in the Peter Nicholls' original Encylopedia of Science Fiction. When I saw the omnibus edition of Little Fuzzy and Fuzzy Sapiens, I grabbed it. It's been a very long time since I read it last, but I remember being caught up by Piper's story of cute critters and a crusty old prospector at once. Hell, even when it turned into a courtroom drama, the book didn't let me go. As soon as I was done, I started right in on Fuzzy Sapiens. Then I set about finding the rest of Piper's Terro-Human Future History books (for whatever reason, I never latched on to the Lord Kalvan Para-time stories - but my dad did). Later that year, the long-lost Fuzzies and Other People was published and I got a copy form the Science Fiction Book Club.

Over the next year, I read the two collections Federation and Empire, along with the novels Uller Uprising and The Cosmic Computer. They're all good, and it's a damn shame Piper took his life in 1964, when he clearly had more stories in him to tell. 

Piper's Future History is a pessimistic one. General civilization seems incapable of persevering. During the rise of the Terran Federation, bureaucracy and cultural decay are unavoidable hazards that set it to rot. During the galactic dark age following its collapse, the beacon of technological survival, the Sword Worlds, are murderous raiders who slaughter and rob any weaker world they encounter. In the end, order and stability can only be imposed with strength from above as exemplified by the birth of the Galactic Empire.

The difference between Piper's dark ages and empires and, say, Asimov's, is that Piper isn't just using about them to tell a cool story. Though he wrote in solid, pulp space opera-style, he was really intent on exploring the fragility of human civilization. He doesn't do it with all that much complexity, but he does it well enough to give a deeper resonance to what might otherwise be just some more space opera adventures (albeit, very good ones).

One of the things I was most impressed with in rereading Space Viking was Piper's his lack of faith in any type of government being able to fend off corruption and collapse. Sure, he makes fun of liberalism and social worker-types, but he knows the other side is just as prone to taking every advantage of the situation to line their own pockets. Few people anywhere are ready to take the long view and do the real dirty work of building and maintaining civilization.

The other thing that impressed me was how freakin' cool the action is. The space battles are something else, with squadrons  firing missiles at each other across from a thousand miles apart, then closing in on each other to let loose with volleys of kinetic guns. They would look killer on screen. 

I also loved the logistics involved in the reestablishment of trade and civilization on the edge of the old Federation. Discounting the wish-fulfillment of hyperspace travel, Piper makes interstellar trade and expansion seem believable. As much as the book's hero, Lucas Trask, I found myself getting swept up in the building of schools, bringing education to the barbarians, and figuring out what will help reignite society best. 

I know I will be reading more Piper in the coming months. Right now I'm in the middle of his oft-anthologized story, "Omnilingual." I'm definitely going to read Little Fuzzy, and probably The Cosmic Computer.  

If you haven't read anything by Piper, I'll repeat what I say in my review: pickup Little Fuzzy or Federation and give 'em a go. For 99¢ you can get most of his work in Wild Side Press' H. Beam Piper Megapack. Trust me, it's a worthwhile investment.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Books My Dad Read (and read, and read, and read)

Without my dad, my tastes in science fiction and fantasy wouldn't be what they are. It was he who had boxes of paperbacks in the attic filled with Poul Anderson, Gordon Dickson, Fred Saberhagen, and the like. They were added to constantly as he snagged new books at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal in Manhattan or Waldenbooks. Together we took regular trips to local used bookstores, where he'd usually pick up an armful of books.

The thing is, as I grew up, our tastes diverged. Not completely, but significantly. Since he read so much, finishing several books a week, he deplenish his stock of new stuff and turn back and reread certain old ones over and over again. These are the ones I know he read at least five times or more. 

I never read Roland Green's Wandor or Vance's Alastor Cluster books. For some inexplicable reason the Wandor books looked to cheesy. I mean, when he brought those home, there wasn't much heroic fantasy he brought home that I just did pick up when he was done. I have no idea whatsover I saw in these that made me not do that. The little bit I've found out about them, they sound like they're filled with carboard characters and a list of plot coupons to punched and foozles to be defeated. As for the Vance books, well, I've got no excuse. Somehow, I never found the time for them despite all together they don't break 650 pages. Sheesh.

My memories of the Stasheff and Lanier books are fond, but I suspect there's a heavy blanket of nostalgia laid over them. The Stasheff series eventually topped out at a dozen books, but I never read any mention of them anymore. They're humorous stories of a secret agent landing on a planet with a medieval tech level and magic. I'd be willing to reread the first one, but probably no more than that.

Lanier's books, with psionic heroes, mutants animals, secret societies, and deadly, atom-spawned abominations was the primary source for TSR's GAMMA WORLD. I've read some negative reviews recently, but I'm still tempted to go back to them.

Patterns of Chaos was solid, pulp fun. A man with no memories finds himself on a planet targeted for destruction by "hell-burner" missles. Then people start talking to him in his head. I'd love to find my dad's copy and give it a go. I think he might have reread this a dozen times of more.

Finally, a book that looks way cooler than any memory I have of it. I think The Yngling is about a Scandinavian warrior in a post-apocalyptic world saving the day. There were several sequels and I know my dad read them as well, if not as often. As a kid I found it lackluster and would be hard-pressed to think about revisiting it.

My dad liked his sci-fi and fantasy boisterous and pulpy. He saved contemplation for when he read history. I first read Karl Edward Wagner and Robert E. Howard because of him. Same for Tolkien. Early Jack Williamson and Edmond Hamilton came to me via those boxes in the attic as well. 

If a book was too soft-sciency or grungy or whatever, he probably wasn't going to bother with it. Early on, I fell in love with Clifford D. Simak's stories, but they never caught my dad. I don't think he finished William Gibson's Neuromancer of Howard Waldrop's Them Bones when I suggested he read them. On the other hand, he became enthralled by David Wingrove's bizarre Chung Kuo series. Whatever the case, if the local librarian Ms. Herz really made me a reader, it was my dad who made me a reader of sci-fi and fantasy. It's one of the many things I'm eternally grateful to my dad for.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

I Get Interviewed by Joe Bonadonna at Black Gate + Why I Don't Read Science Fiction (much)

I've been living in a sick house the past few days, so I didn't get to my review of M. John Harrison's Viriconium Nights for Tuesday. Heck, I didn't even finish the book.

But wait, you're not starved of new insights from me this week. Some time ago, Joe Bonadonna, asked if he could interview me. I said yes, and today, in lieu of Viriconium Nights, John O'Neill posted it at Black Gate.

Read or not as you wish. I reread it this morning and it was like hearing a recording of my own voice: irritating. Maybe if it was a live interview instead of one by email where I had a chance to go back over my answers again and again it would sound more like how I think I sound. Maybe if I had gotten Hallie to edit it it wouldn't be filled with mistakes. I think it's pretty clear what she brings to the table: logic and eliminates needless repetition. You know, important things.

Tonal qualities of the interview aside, I'm proud of that picture Hallie took for it. Without any forethought, I sat in a place where you can see books by P.C. Hodgell, Raphael Ordoñez, Teresa Edgerton, Mervyn Peake, Michael Moorcock, and Tim Powers. That wide range of authors says more about my taste in fantasy reading than anything I managed to say in the interview. 

I absolutely love the covers I'm assuming John O'Neill added. As I tweeted to David West this morning, "All I sent Joe was that picture of my ugly mug." Those covers, especially for the Larry Niven books, are stamped on my brain. John picked the exact editions I originally read. Few things say SCIENCE FICTION! to me like Rick Sternbach's covers for Tales of Known Space and Neutron Star.

As I answered the questions, an interesting thing occurred to me when I reached the one about my favorite characters. None of them were from heroic fantasy. The Master and Margarita is literary fantasy, The Last Coin is contemporary fantasy, and Guards! Guards! (the first Vimes book) is a satire of fantasy. I love S&S, but it's clearly not what's effected me the most. The funny thing is, since I've been writing for Black Gate, it's almost all I've read. 

The editions I read originally
Obviously, I love S&S and its associated genres, but I'm just realizing how much reviewing it weekly has pushed out so many other types of books from my life. I don't like that. I own but haven't read the last two books by Tim Powers and the last three by James Blaylock.

My goal of working my way through a stack of 19th century Russian books has long fallen by the wayside, broken under the weight of heroic fantasy. I've got to get back on track reading outside S&S. 


The biggest change in my reading habits over the past decade is how little science fiction I now read. For a very long time, I read far more sf than fantasy. For years, it formed the bulk of my reading. In grade and high school the number of non-sci fi books I read paled in comparison. And then about ten years ago I just sort abandoned it.

I stopped reading science fiction when it got dull. There were plenty of good books out there. Vernor Vinge, Robert Charles Wilson, Iain Banks, and others were still writing good and powerful stories, but much of what I found bored me. Even those writers lost some of their appeal for me.

Part of it is that sense of wonder I used to get from reading science fiction seemed reduced or even lost. This idea first came up in a conversation over on Keith West's site the other day and I think it's an important insight. I was older and had read a ton of sci fi and had a better understanding of real science. Keith suggests sf is like a drug and you become inured to its high over years of exposure. The books pictured above feature "science" that's so advanced that they're almost fantasy. I think, without ever consciously realizing it, that's why I turned more and more to pure fantasy. I could still approach a story with a "sense of wonder" and didn't need to get distracted by the author's sciencing to rationalize the craziness.

It's easy for my "sense of wonder" to be triggered by fantasy and pure pulp-type sci-fi. Maybe a need to scratch that itch drove me to those genres.

In addition to big idea sci-fi, I read a lot of low-tech stuff with space opera overtones such as Gordon Dickson, Poul Anderson, and CJ Cherryh. After a while, those stories can start to get a little samey-samey. I took a break from them, and the next thing I knew it was ten years later.

It wasn't just a lost sense of wonder, though. If the sci-fi from my younger days (especially by Americans) was more libertarian and conservative, it became increasingly left-wing in the nineties and beyond. Now, that's not necessarily a problem. Fred Pohl, Mack Reynolds, Ursual K. LeGuin all wrote left-wing science fiction and that didn't stop me from reading them. But they were part of a large, diverse sci-fi community of writers whose politics ran all over the place. Some time in the last twenty years, it seemed like the voices of writers not on the left were being marginalized (or only published by Baen).

I'm conservative in all aspects of my life with a healthy distrust of the bureaucratic state and centralized authority. I'm also not a fool, and know better than to put my faith in corporations either. Much of the science fiction I grew up with tended to align with my views. Anderson, Dickson, Niven, and Pournelle explored libertarian themes in their stories at times. It wasn't all they did, though. They made sure to tell stories that were thwacking good adventures and provoked you to think about the future of humanity.

Too many new stories I found seemed to exist only as "correctives" about the previous eras of science fiction. I yearn for more voices and perspectives in sci fi because it offers the potential for new vistas, new ideas, and new types of stories and storytelling. Hell, there's always a place for addressing past assumptions and perceived flaws. If all you're doing is writing in response to what's come before, and not telling those new stories, though, it gets boring. It seemed intent on going on about the problems of the real world to the exclusion of any sense of wonder or exploration. At some point it turned into nothing but lecturing.

Coupled with the lecturing was what seemed to be a blanket dismissal of sci fi's past as sexist, racist, homophobic, and capitalist. I know I'm being too broad and too ready to take offense (though reading the comments from some folks on the left during the Puppy Wars were pretty offensive to anyone not explicitly on their side. You can't convince me of your arguments if you act like a tool), but I don't care. The past of science fiction was a hell of a lot more than it's dismissively portrayed as being. When people, who often haven't even read the books they're condemning, dismiss a lot of what you like, it gets tiresome and you don't want to play anymore. I can't be alone.

It's not that politics haven't worked their way into fantasy, but the field has managed to remain more open to diverse opinions and perspectives than mainstream sci fi. Heroic fantasy in particular tends to be a more libertarian genre to start with, telling the tales of lone warriors and adventurers living outside the rules of society. Maybe it's an unconscious reason I drifted toward it. Again, I'm not sure and haven't thought too much about it until now, but I'd wager that's part of it.

Total book sales in the US have remained steady over the past decade, while those of sci fi and fantasy have dropped drastically. Part of it has to be tied to genre fans getting their fix from other media, but not all of it.

Eventually, I stopped keeping up with the field and reading reviews. It's only the occasional big book like Cixin Liu's The Three Body Problem that breaks through to my awareness. I'm tempted to give Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice a go, even if it does sound a little bit like an Iain Banks pastiche. I also hope to get to Vernor Vinge's The Children of the Sky. For the most part, though, I can't tell you what's new in sci fi anymore.

As I'm writing this, my thoughts have gone back to some of the sci fi I loved best and I hear it calling me. It called me so loud the other night that I spent about an hour reading old reviews of CJ Cherryh's Alliance-Union books. It sparked a real desire to revisit some of the grittiest, most fast-paced sci fi I've ever read. I'm not sure where I'll start. Maybe I'll pick up the first book in the series chronologically, Heavy Time, or jump to the earlier published Downbelow Station. After one of two of them, I think it'll be time to get back to the Russians.

Oh, and I haven't forgotten my Western reviews. A few projects, including getting my house finished (almost done and only a year late), have derailed it the past week. I'm hoping to watch Ride Lonesome this weekend in between some serious reading and writing and let you all know what I think next week.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Welcome to Hell: High Plains Drifter (1973)

directed by Clint Eastwood
written by Ernest Tidyman
“High Plains Drifter isn’t what the West was all about. That isn’t the American people who settled this country.” – John Wayne in a letter to Eastwood.
Years later, Eastwood said this: “It’s just an allegory…a speculation on what happens when they go ahead and kill the sheriff and somebody comes back and calls the town’s conscience to bear. There’s always retribution for your deeds.”

 In the first fifteen minutes of High Plains Drifter, Clint Eastwood's unnamed rides into the lakeshore town of Lago and kills a trio of gunmen then rapes a woman who insults and smacks him (Marianna Hill). Instead of trying to arrest Clint, the town's sheriff tries to hire him. Later, when the woman tries to shoot Clint, someone suggests she only did it because she was mad he because "he didn't go back for more." Clint's no sort of hero, making this, it would seem, the model of a Revisionist Western.

Clint Eastwood as the high plains drifter
If you read the explanation of Revisionist Western on Wikipedia, though, it's really all rather vague. It states that, starting after WWII, directors and writers started questioning "the ideals and style of the traditional Western."  Among the pictures it grants the distinction of belonging to the sub-genre are Ride the High Country (1962), The Wild Bunch (1969), and Little Big Man (1970).The only thing that ties them together is a marked degree of cynicism. In the first film, a fairly traditional one, it's moderate, while in the other two, to call it severe is inadequate. 

The Western has always lent itself to critiquing American assumptions, I think the only thing that really makes the films most commonly called revisionist "revisionist," is the presence of more blood and sex than in older films. The same thing that happened to the rest of filmmaking happened to Westerns: the boundaries around those two matters were pushed and expanded until they broke. 

Marianna Hill and Eastwood
Sometimes, as with Little Big Man, it was a good thing, others, like in A Man Called Horse (1970), a little less so. The point is, I don't think Revisionist Western really means anything. That said, High Plains Drifter is plenty bloody and violent, and has that rape.

Take out that rape, though, and HPD could probably have been made at any time in the history of Westerns. Shortly after Clint's nameless rider comes to town, we learn, as seen through a nightmare he has, that Lago's marshall was whipped to death in the middle of the street. The same men looking to hire Clint were there and didn't lift a finger or say a word to stop the murder. Clearly, the wanderer is linked to the killing.

The Whipping

The men Clint killed in the opening scene were hired by the town to stop a trio of men (played by Geoffrey Lewis, Dan Vadis, and Anthony James) from wreaking havoc on Lago. The way the sheriff explains it, the good people of Lago caught them stealing and got them sent off to jail. Now, their sentences are up and everyone expects them to come back looking to get even. The viewer knows it's not that simple: the men with the whips were the three prisoners. Later we learn, the murder was commissioned by the people of Lago to cover up another crime.

Vadis, Lewis, and James

Clint signs on, but only after extracting concessions from the townspeople. First, anything he asks for, from any merchant, any citizen, he gets free of charge. Second, all the men of the town must join a defense force and practice every day. The "good" people of Lago, readily, if very unhappily, agree to his demands and immediately start paying a steep price.

The gun dealer and the tailor learn quickly that this deal applies to them as well as everyone else. When the sheriff and mayor needle the saloonkeeper when he balks over eating the price for a round of drinks for the whole bar crowd, Clint strips them their offices, as their own contributions. Increasingly, the drifter's demands become stranger and stranger.

Mordecai (Billy Curtis) becomes Mayor and Sheriff

HPD practically revels in its darkness. Most of Lago's citizens are corrupt and hypocritical. When Clint tells the pastor to take in the folks put out when the hotel's blown up, he does, but for only for a price. The only good people (all two of them) are powerless. The villains might as well be twirling their mustaches they're so despicable. By the end, Clint doesn't make anyone confront their sins, but instead, suffer and burn for them. The survivors are shell-shocked and few.

Production-wise, Eastwood drew on his experiences with Sergio Leone. His character, dressed in wide-brimmed hat and cigar stuck to his lip only needs a poncho to double for any of his three Man With No Name appearances. His dry, laconic line delivery is exactly the same. Like the towns in Leone's Westerns, Lago exists in isolation from the rest of the world, on the desert-surrounded shore of a bleak looking lake (Mono Lake in California - a high salt, alkaline lake). It could easily be a setting for a post-apocalyptic movie as much as a Western (and really, how far apart are those two genres, really, you know, except for the V8 interceptors instead of horses?). 

A drifter arrives at Lago
So what to make of this movie? If you don't know how Eastwood described it, how do you approach High Plains Drifter? Well, as a story of vengeance. Everybody who participated in or abetted the murder of the marshall pays. Even the first rape, which quickly mutates into a disturbing "she really wants" scene, serves to set up Hill's character for a later scene where it's clear she's a purely mercenary opportunist. The implication with the rape being she senses Clint's the strong horse worth grabbing hold of.

As a revenge story, it's brutal and effective. It's not so much you root for Clint - he remains coldly unknowable - but against the townspeople. We see what they did and know why, and that they don't have a drop of remorse. We want to see some sort of justice meted out for the dead marshall, and Clint's clearly the tool that's been chosen for retribution.

The thing I haven't mentioned is that High Plains Drifter isn't just a story of vengeance, but of supernatural vengeance. Clint, though, is no avenging angel, but an ambassador from below. For its inhabitants' crimes, Lago is turned into an outpost of Hell. The movie doesn't have any ghostly apparitions or spectral coyotes howling in the sagebrush, but gradually, the mystery of Clint's presence in Lago is revealed to have unearthly underpinnings.

This movie doesn't succeed because of its characters' depth, but on its powerful images and the elemental nature of its story. The landscape is harsh and barren, much like the townspeople's souls. These are people sunk in corruption. They they used three evil men to kill in order to protect their secrets. Now they are hoping to use someone even meaner to try and avoid their justifed fate. Unknowingly, they welcome the hand of judgment into their homes. 

Justice demands to be served. Lago must be purged - and it is.with fire, bullets, and a whip. As the final part of the films begins, when every surface of Lago has been transformed, the viewer is left without a doubt to the depth of terror the town and its people are about to be subjected to. 

Rating  - A: From the first time I saw High Plains Drifter, probably when I was twelve or thirteen, I was struck by Eastwood's stark vision of justice for the dead and punishment of the wicked. Lago painted red will never leave my brain. This is filmmaking as primitive mythmaking, and as such it is unforgettable.

I'm starting to think I shouldn't bother with the ratings, as I won't be reviewing movies I don't like (so no Silverado or High Noon). I'll probably keep them though. I have a tradition of revisiting old favorites and finding them disappointing (I'm thinking of John Ford's Cavalry Trilogy). I'm also hoping to hit a few films I still haven't seen yet (One-Eyed Jacks springs to mind)

High Plains Drifter's historical location

Like so many Westerns, the film's exact location is never made clear. It was filmed largely around Mono Lake, just east of the Sierra Nevadas

Rating System
A: Ace - Brilliant or groundbreaking; one of the best that no fan should miss.
B: Bravo - Good stuff, but less than perfection
C: Cowpoke - Routine oater, filler
D: Dismal - Sloppy or junky, but either way not worth the runtime

Next time: Ride Lonesome (1959), one of the Bud Boetticher/Randolph Scott movies. It co-stars a young Pernell Roberts and, in one of his first films, James Coburn. Spaghetti Western icon, Lee van Cleef is also on hand.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Serious Weirdness in the Wild West: Johnny Guitar (1954)

directed by Nicholas Ray
script by Ben Maddow
from a book by Roy Chanslor
"Down there I sell whiskey and cards. All you can buy up these stairs is a bullet in the head."
After watching a stagecoach get robbed and a passenger murdered, a stranger rides up to a lonely saloon in the Arizona countryside. That could be the beginning of your standard Western. In the case of Johnny Guitar, starring Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, and Mercedes McCambridge there is nothing anywhere near close to standard.

Most of the time, seeing Sterling Hayden (in real life he had captained a schooner from Gloucester to Tahiti and served in the OSS and shuttled guns to Tito and parachuted into Croatia) in the credits implies he going will be the star of a movie, and his rumbling voice and smoldering masculinity will be at the heart of the picture. Hell, the movie's even named for his guitar toting character. Not here. 

Instead, it's around Joan Crawford's steely, dehumanized ex-saloon girl, Vienna, and Mercedes McCambridge's bug-eyed Emma Small around whom Johnny Guitar spins. It is a bonkers allegory of the McCarthy days and tale of sublimated lust. Crawford and McCambridge dominated the story and every scene they're in, relegating everything else to background noise. Sterling Hayden as Johnny Guitar and Scott Brady as outlaw, the Dancin' Kid, more often than not, merely kibitz from the sidelines and snap at each other as they compete for Vienna's icy affections.

Joan Crawford striding
I first heard about Johnny Guitar when I read that its basic plot was lifted by Sergio Leone for his epic Western-to-end-all-Westerns, Once Upon a Time in the West. In both cases, a character has gambled everything they have to build a town where the railroad is expected to come through in the near future. Other than that both are color-saturated phantasmagorical takes on the genre, the two films are as different as chalk and cheese.

Vienna's casino exists on the apparent edge of nowhere, someplace "outside of town." She and her staff pass each day spinning the roulette wheel because she likes "to hear it spinning," waiting for the railroad's arrival.

Into her customer-less establishment rides Johnny Guitar summoned by Vienna for purposes unknown.
Barkeep: What's your pleasure?
Johnny G.: Whiskey. Where's the boss?
Barkeep: Who's asking?
Johnny G.: Name is Johnny...Guitar.
Barkeep: So?
Johnny G.: I have an appointment with Vienna.
Barkeep: Vienna's busy. You'll have to wait.
Only a few minutes later a posse barges its way into the casino, carrying a body. At the center of the gang is a small, short-haired woman dressed in green. She's Emma Small, and the dead man is her brother. She claims he was murdered by the Dancin' Kid and Vienna's hiding him. The hatred between Emma and Vienna (mirrored in real life between the two actresses) comes across like beams of fire being shot out of their eyes. It becomes clear quickly, there's more going on than just a hunt for justice or revenge.

Watching the scene, it's clear Emma is nearly as fired up over Vienna as by the Dancin' Kid. Even if you take the exchange just at face value, every line is ramped up way past eleven. The look on Vienna's face as she stares down at her enemies looks more appropriate for a horror movie than a Western. 

Meanwhile, Johnny pauses eating from some delicate blue and white china, takes in the weirdness and, like the audience, ponders what the heck is really going on.

A few minutes later, the Dancin' Kid arrives. His three man gang is played by Ernest Borgnine (a year away from winning an Academy Award for Marty), the great character actor Royal Dano, and a youthful Ben Cooper. It seems inevitable bloody death is about to be unleashed, but it doesn't come.

At this stage in the story, the marshall still holds some power. When the witness admits he can't identify who held up the stage and killed Emma's brother and the Kid and his crew provide a reasonable alibi, the marshall's able to send the posse on its way. Before he leaves though, Mayor McIvers tells Vienna he's just outlawed drinking and gambling outside the town limits. She's got twenty-four hours to close up shop or else. The violence has only been postponed. It will be delivered.

Vienna and the Dancin' Kid vs. the Posse
Johnny Guitar looks like no other Western I can think of. It might be the most art-directed one ever. The interior of Vienna's casino is so fake looking it can't be unintentional. We never see anything of the town besides the front and inside of the bank. The showdown takes place around a solitary house on top of a hill. It looks more like a stage production than one that was actually filmed on location in Sedona, Arizona. 

While the men are dressed in standard Western gear, both women are costumed in over-the-top getups. They don't look like ordinary people, but unworldly creatures fighting it out among mere mortals. You will never forget Crawford's first appearance in brown slacks, black shirt, and teal tie. Later, her yellow shirt practically throbs on the screen. Most women in Westerns are either frontier wives or saloon hall slatterns. Just from the look of her, you know Vienna is neither of those and will kick your ass if you run afoul of her. 

Her eyebrows exaggerated, crimson lipstick, and dressed in severe, mannish slacks and shirts, Vienna seems almost without gender for much of the movie. She looks to have unsexed herself like Lady MacBeth in order to achieve her aims.

Lady in White
Late in the film, while waiting for the posse to take her, Vienna dresses in a giant white dress. At the same time, Emma goes into the final showdown in her mourning dress. Why settle for white and black hats when you can have a whole dress?

Lady in Black
Crawford's reputation as an actress has suffered since her death in 1977. Instead of one of the greatest leading women in Hollywood history, between the lamentable Mommie, Dearest and her penchant for harshly-applied makeup, she's been turned into some drag icon, and it's a shame. 

Her performance in Johnny Guitar is fantastic. Despite the arch, often campy dialogue, she's a utterly believable and captivating as a woman possessed of implacable willpower fighting for a dream. At the same time, she's in love and has to struggle against letting her feelings for Johnny swamp her plans. The other actors are all good, too, but none have the power of Crawford. 

McCambridge is all bristling, viciousness and rage. Though straight, she had a reputation for playing butch characters, having won an Academy Award for such a role in All the King's Men (1949). Here, she's pushed to her limits and to the limit of the stereotype of the hyper-butch woman. The men of the town cower before her, bending to nearly every one of her demands. She burst of searing, black flames, generating waves of hatred that prove irresistible to the men of the town driving them to do things it's clear they have no real heart for. 

Emma Small and her pack of capons
Hayden is the model of tough guy cool. He never shouts or yells, and never threatens, but you know what kind of guy he really is. In this scene, he walks between the Dancin' Kid and the posse and just sort shuts them both down without a drop of obvious menace or a bit of fear.

Among the minor players, Ernest Borgnine as the thuggish Bart Lonergan and Ben Cooper as the lovestruck kid, Turkey, are splendid. John Carradine is fine as the sweet-natured Old Tom, another man hopelessly caught up in Vienna's orbit by unrequited love.

Johnny Guitar is so far afield from the standard Western, so much stranger than even the weirdest Spaghetti Westerns, that it's almost possible to not classify it as a Western at all. That's one of the great things about Westerns, which I pointed out in my introductory essay: Westerns can be anything, even an insane story of powerful men, jealous gunslingers, and compliant mobs.

Rating - A: There's nothing else like this in the annals of Western filmmaking. For first time viewers, throw out any expectations, and just sit back and watch a masterpiece of lunacy that's equally serious and high camp.

Johnny Guitar's Historical Location

It's never really clear where the film's set, but it was filmed in Sedona, Arizona. Here's a great article from Sedona Monthly about filming the movie.

Rating System
A: Ace - Brilliant or groundbreaking; one of the best that no fan should miss.
B: Bravo - Good stuff, but less than perfection
C: Cowpoke - Routine oater, filler
D: Dismal - Sloppy or junky, but either way not worth the runtime

Next time: Enter Clint Eastwood in the self-directed apocalyptic revenge Western, High Plains Drifter (1973).

Friday, January 27, 2017

A Father and Son Feud: Red River (1948)

For anyone doubtful of John Wayne's acting, Red River (1948) will disabuse you of that foolishness.
For anyone who isn't aware of the greatness of Montgomery Clift, this will set you on the right track. While dated at times and hampered by a sappy, slightly out-of-left-field end, this is one of the true Western classics.

Red River was directed by Howard Hawks. He was one of the most versatile directors in Hollywood. Among his numerous films prior to this one were the screwball comedy His Girl Friday (1940) and two Humphrey Bogart classics, To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946). In 1959, he made another one of the best Westerns, Rio Bravo, again starring John Wayne. 

The script is by Borden Chase (who wrote several of the important Jimmy Stewart/Anthony Mann Westerns) and Charles Schnee. It was adapted from an original story by Chase titled "Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail" published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1946.

John Wayne plays hard-headed cattleman, Thomas Dunson. He abandons a wagon train to start a cattle empire, leaving his best gal, Fen, to die in a Comanche raid. 

The conversation between Dunson and Fen suffers from the worst sort of Hollywood melodramatic overwriting and syrupy music. She wants to go south with him, but he insists it's no place for a woman. She doesn't care, telling him:

"Do I feel weak, Tom? I don't, do I? You'll need me. You'll need a woman. You need what a woman can give you"

Matters aren't helped that she's in full makeup and styled hair. It mars a scene that's already creaking under sentimental writing. Still, it sets up Dunson for the viewer as a man willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to fulfill his dream. Before the end, there are other grim prices he will pay as well.

After crossing the Red River into Texas, they wander south in search of good ranch land. The land on the Rio Grande Dunson later claims is owned by a Mexican grandee four hundred miles to south. To secure it, he guns down one of the grandee's men. Later we learn he killed several more men to hold his territory.

Montgomery Clift, fresh from Broadway, co-stars as Matt Garth. Sole survivor of the Indian raid, he's adopted by Dunson. Along with sidekick Groot (Walter Brennan in full-on wheezy mode), the pair establish one of the mightiest cattle empires in Texas, with over ten thousand head of cattle.

Groot, young Garth, and Dunson 
The film then jumps ahead fourteen years to 1865. The Civil War has left the South broke, without a dime to pay for Dunson's beef. His only option is to take them to a railhead and ship them back East. It's at this point the movie really kicks into gear.

Dunson puts together a team of cowboys, including gunslinger Cherry Valance (John Ireland), to drive his herd north to Sedalia, Missouri. After telling every man the trail will be brutal, he adds that any man who signs on must agree to finish the drive or forfeit all pay. All agree, unaware of just how miserable the conditions will really be and how hard a man Dunson is.

The trail is rough, and when Cherry tells the rest of the crew he heard about a new railhead in Abilene, Kansas, they're all excited. Abilene is closer and afford more places to water the cattle. Without any eyeball proof of the new railroad line, Dunson rejects the idea and keeps pushing on to Missouri.

Things start to fall apart as the trek gets deadlier. There are storms, short supplies, and a stampede. Dunson becomes more dictatorial and obsessed with completing the journey his way. Matt tries to settle things and act as the voice of reason, but it's clear he can't do this forever. Eventually, it leads to a split between the two, that seems only able to end in death.

A lot of John Wayne movies and roles suck. There's no way of putting it any better. He found an easy persona that he stuck to in way too many movies: the slightly arrogant and steady tone, the tilted-hip-swagger, and the no-nonsense attitude. Sometimes he mixed it up with a little humor, but a performance he delivered time and time again.

Even in his weakest films, though, he filled the screen with a towering presence. When gifted with the right role, he blazed with a deep brilliance.  At his best, he was as good as most of his contemporaries, and better than many. I hope to look at some of his other standout performances later (Stagecoach, The Searchers), but his Thomas Dunson is as good as any of those.

Thomas Dunson (Wayne)
When we first meet Dunson, he's a hard man, but he's good-natured. When the wagon train master tries to bully him into staying, Dunson makes it clear that won't be happening. He does it, though, with a smile and a reminder to the boss that he signed no contract. 

After the Comanche raid, the death of his girl and the loss of his small herd (also to the raiders), his hard edges emerge. It's then that he guns down the Mexican cowboy. Over the ensuing years we learn he's killed numerous other men who tried to take his land. Later, he's ready to bullwhip a man and gun down any standing across his path.

Wayne had a public image of the true-blue American hero, but he never had trouble messing with that image on the screen. This role and that of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers are some of his best work and both are damaged, nearly pathological men. There's an appealing raffishness to Dunson when he's introduced, but it's gone, replaced with a dead-eyed, affectless manner.

Matt Garth (Clift)
Montgomery Clift had a meteoric career that began burning up when, following a terrible car crash, lost himself to booze. Between 1948 and 1956, the year of his accident, he made eight movies and was nominated for Best Actor three times.

In 1945, after several notable Broadway roles, he went to Hollywood, and the very next year cast in Red River. Watching his ease and naturalness, it's easy to see how his role as Matt Garth made him a star. If Wayne is a dark, menacing figure, Clift practically glows with compassion and life.

Clift doesn't appear until twenty minutes into Red River electrifies the film in a way it isn't before.  Both Garth and Dunson are highly self-controlled, but Garth is a calming, reassuring man, whereas his adoptive father is a vortex of domination. At the movie's heart is the clash between the two once the cattle drive goes off the rails.

Garth is the voice of reason, striving to keep Dunson's worst instincts from destroying the expedition. When he proves unable to keep the peace, he is forced to make a terrible choice, driving the two men apart irrevocably.

The final part of Red River, introduces Tess Millay (Joanna Dru) as the wagon train she's part of come under Indian attack. After a meet-cute during the raid (she takes an arrow to the shoulder, then she smacks him, then she faints), she falls for him hard. So hard, that even after he flat leaves her, she still risks her life to thwart Dunson when he rides up a few days later gunning for Matt. 

Tess Millay (Dru) and Matt Garth
The movie climaxes in the inevitable showdown between Dunson and Garth. Dunson is all black rage and murder. Garth is ready, but unwilling, to kill his father. It's the moment the film's been building to from the beginning. And then it's ruined by a cop out of the first order. Diverging from the original story, it ends on an utterly false note of unbelievable reconciliation. Still, if I squint my eyes, I can see the proper ending of Red River

There's some serious weirdness to Red River. The obvious starting place is the relationship between Dunson and Garth. Dunson wants his adopted son to be as strong and commanding as himself, someone who will inherit everything from him one day and then make it even greater. After his split with Garth, Dunson offers Tess half of all his wealth to bear him  a son. His fury at Garth seems fueled by his loss of an heir as much as the loss of control of the cattle driver. 

Then there's the infamous "gun scene" between Clift and Ireland. Just watch it for yourself.

Watch the two gunslingers size each other (and guns) up. Here's how Valance introduces himself to Garth.
"That's a good-looking gun you were about to use back there. Can I see it? Maybe you'd like to see mine. Nice. Awful nice."
To call their conversation homoerotic in a film with only two speaking women roles would be a disservice to the word homoerotic. Sadly, Ireland fell afoul of Hawks during production and found himself written out of most of the picture.

Despite a flawed ending and sloppy, melodramatically written women, Red River is one of the best Westerns. It's a distinct turning point in the genre where it matured into something more than entertainments filled with cowboys, Indians, and villains in black hats. 

In Hawks' movie there aren't any white hats or black hats, but instead, gray ones. He gives us an exemplar of American frontier independence, but it becomes twisted and evil. The conflict between its two stars is rooted in their personalities and their actions flow from them as well. They are recognizable, adult characters.

This is an A Western. There were plenty of great movies before it (ex. Stagecoach, Destry Rides Again), but Red River represents a real step forward. Parts are dated, but this movie is one of the best classic Westerns to come out of the Hollywood system with actors. 

Red River's Historical Locations

Map showing approximate position of Dunson's ranch, Sedalia, and Abilene
According to IMDB, Red River was filmed mostly in Arizona. 

Rating System
A: Ace - Brilliant or groundbreaking;  one of the best that no fan should miss.
B: Bravo - Good stuff, but less than perfection
C: Cowpoke - Routine oater, filler
D: Dismal - Sloppy or junky, but either way not worth the runtime

Next time: The utterly nutso Johnny Guitar (1954) starring Joan Crawford at her most glowering.