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Category: Film

Which Book? Which America?: John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge (with bonus Michelle Obama reference)

Sergeant Rutledge, from 1960, is probably not a great movie; it’s marred by weak acting and (according to in interview with the screenwriter) a sort of lazy directing and writing performance from Ford, who was getting quite on in years. One of the male leads-Sergeant Rutledge, a black cavalry officer wrongly accused of rape-was played by Woody Strode (who you’ve never heard of) even though the studio wanted to cast Belafonte or Poitier. I wish they had; Ford wanted the ex-football player because he looks magnificent, and he does, but the man is a passable actor at best and there are some cringeworthy moments of dramatic dialogue as a result. It says something about how Ford worked, though: he wrote in pictures and images, and the kind of image Strode could give off, the cut of his jaw and the rippling muscles, does come off as singularly impressive. Strode was always grateful for being rendered magnificent on screen in this way; as he put it: “You never saw a Negro come off a mountain like John Wayne. I had the greatest Glory Hallelujah ride across the Pecos river that any black man ever had on screen before.”

The whole movie is singular, actually. I’d never heard of it before, and I think that has something to do with the long shadow cast by To Kill a Mockingbird, which came later but which is also somewhat less daring. Both films are courtroom dramas, in which a black man is accused of a crime and defended by a brave white man who realizes that the honor of America is at stake in whether a fair trial can be held. In this film, Sergeant Rutledge is accused of the rape/murder of a white woman, and he runs, not because he’s guilty, but because, as he tells another black cavalry soldier, “white woman business” is something none of “us” can fight.

I give Ford a lot of credit for lines like this. There are two narratives in the film, actually-which is itself very Fordian-and they’re not wholly in alignment. The first is the To Kill a Mockingbird narrative, in which the trial is not primarily about the defendant, but about what he represents: the honor of America as adjudicated by its ability to treat an “other” with justice. There’s a scene in which the JAG lawyer argues with his love interest over whether this is “a good land” or not, whether it is now and whether it ever will be, and it sounds like classic “The-West-will-become-modern” talk, like Earp talking to his dead brother’s grave in My Darling Clementine. But here it’s clearly a question of whether or not an innocent black man accused of miscgination could ever get a fair trial. And it’s not an easy belief: the JAG office quotes Rutledge himself in saying that “this is a good land,” but Rutledge’s choice to run rather than face military justice indicates that his faith may be only in future possibility. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, then, the courtroom drama is therefore a test of whether America’s various idealisms have any purchase on reality, the test of whether this is really a good land or not. As the lawyer puts it, “If the color of a man’s skin is to be entered as evidence against him, or even as argument, then I say that it is this court that is on trial and not Sergeant Rutledge.”

These are strong words, I think, because the court’s acquittal is neither predetermined nor without costs. For one thing, the Capra-esque courtroom scene is more of an anamaly than anything else: Rutledge happens to be proven innocent, but Ford makes it quite clear that this was pretty lucky on his part and it could easily have gone the other way. America got lucky this time, but it quite clearly doesn’t, most of the time. And there’s a wonderful moment when the president of the court commends his officers for not having mentioned the fact of the color of the man’s skin, and the quick chiming in of his flunkies “Very well put, Mr. president!” is a lovely Fordian touch: not mentioning the fact of racial difference only enables white privilege to operate all the more effectively. There is no grounds for optimism in such a courtroom.

My favorite touch, though, is the question of what kind of “book” can represent justice in America. The JAG’s love interest, at one point, calls him a “cheap, contemptible, tin-plated book soldier” for insisting on bringing Rutledge back to stand trial. She doesn’t know what he knows-that the key piece of evidence clearing Rutledge has fallen into his hands-so the film asks but saves itself from having to answer the truly damning question: should he bring an innocent man back to stand trial in a courtroom he knows is rigged against him? As the JAG lawyer puts it, “a soldier can’t think by his heart; he’s got to think by the book,” but does this mean he has to adhere to the letter of the law when that letter is unjust? And the film makes it clear that the court is rigged; the actualy manual for courtroom procedure (the very book they’re using) is at one point revealed to be a confederate manual, which the US cavalry has adopted complete, to the judge’s embarrassment.

What I like best about the film, therefore, is this darkness, this hopeful optimism that America can overcome its history linked with a dogged refusal to forget how viciously present that history still is, in this case, that a black man can get justice in a courtroom still run according to the rules of proceedure set down by the confederacy (even if the judge and his cronies prefer to pretend that it isn’t). This, to me, is something much braver than the pablum optimism of To Kill a Mockingbird, where the end is predetermined, something much more like Michelle Obama’s statement that she had never been proud of America until the moment that it showed a willingness to elect a black man president. This land has to earn the right to feel good about itself, goddammit, and if it wants to do that, it’s got a long way to go. The film knows this, and shows it, to its credit.

There is, however, another book in the film, and here we tend towards a more questionable piece of Americana: using racism to overcome racism. At a crucial point in the film, Sergeant Rutledge is in handcuffs when Indians attack, and when he points out that the cavalry rules for engagement state that prisoners are to be freed and given weapons in the event of attack. He is freed, and armed (“like,” as he puts it, “the books says”), and is therefore able to lead his men in glorious victory over the savages, going far above and beyond the call of duty. Unlike the black and white justice of the confederate courtroom manual, in other words, the cavalry manual gives justice in white and red, and when there are injuns around, even a black man becomes American. And here, Rutledge suddenly regains his faith in America: at a key moment, he has a chance to ride away to the north, where he can be free (crossing a river, no less) but, of course, he decides to turn back and come to the aid of his fellow cavalry soldiers.

This is a mixed triumph: on the one hand, Rutledge can-when set alongside savage indians-become fully a member of the cavalry unit again, fully an American. One kind of racism can cancel out another. But even this mixed blessing must be fully qualified: like an uncle Tom, he can only prove his virtue through selfless service to white people. When questioned about why he didn’t just run away when he had the chance, he burst out “The ninth cavalry was my home, my freedom. If I deserted, I wasn’t nothing but a swamp rat nigger, and I ain’t that. Do you hear me? I’m a man.” The fact that he can only be a man by disclaiming the right to run away (and the “swamp rat” line is a clear reference to runaway slaves hiding in swamps) is important, as is the fact that this film does not, as such, attack the principle that miscegination is a lynchworthy offense. To the contrary, in an early scene, it goes to great lengths to establish that Rutledge knew his place and was (like Uncle Tom with Little Eva) a protector of white innocence and virtue. His one on-screen interaction with the girl he was supposed to have raped involves both the extension of his protective mantle (he sternly admonishes that “You’ll break your neck if you ride like that”) and a wink to the other white man in the scene. Coming hard on the clucking disapproval of the old lady who finds the sight of a young girl not riding side-saddle (clearly indicating that a spread-leg riding position is inappropriate for a girl of her maturity), Rutledge gives a similar warning: ride like that, and something bad will happen. And the wink is a gesture of mutuality, the assumption that he and all other men are united by the need to protect (and control) such sexualityan attempt to use manly fraternity to create interracial solidarity. He is wrong, of course; as it turns out, the other man was the guy who eventually rapes and murders the girl, but the important thing is that Rutledge himself is trying to use gender to overcome race*.

As with Uncle Tom, though, such manhood can only be accomplished by giving up the claim that, for example, a black man denied justice might have some grounds for complaint, can only be asserted by first accepting his proper place (a young girl’s protector). Unlike the Jeremiad rhetoric of, say, Frederick Douglass’ “What to the slave is the fourth of July?” Rutledge can only become American, can only earn his citizenship, by first accepting that it is his responsibility to earn it. For a black man to become an American, we are reminded, he has first to acknowledge that he is not an American, and only then can he begin to bargain for naturalization.

* This, by the way, is a muted version of a larger theme in Ford, maybe something I’ll post about the next time I feel a John Ford post in me. In The Searchers, the question of who is the real threat to female innocence (the savage rapist or the murderous John Wayne, who seeks to revenge the rape by killing the girl) is not really the issue: more important is Ford’s illustration that male possession of female virtue is, at the very least, a kind of latent violence, and often enough, a very real violation. Ford has taken flak from people who point out how many times you see a Ford hero violently taking possession of his woman (without even trying, Donovan’s Reef, The Quiet Man, and Drums Across the Mohawk all spring to mind) but such moments are visible as such precisely because Ford wants them to be, and plays them as such in ways you can;t help but notice and be disturbed by. What makes Ford remarkable, in other words, is that he’s so often willing to directly portray the ugly violence of gender as ugly and violent, without pretending that you can simply-by condemning it-get rid of it. And there’s some of that bravery in Sergeant Rutledge with regard to race; Ford constantly goes back to the confederacy over the course of his career because it represents a formative history within the United States’ consciousness, and while one could simply condemn it (and he pretty much does), that doesn’t really make it go away. So in movies like The Prisoner of Shark Island, I think Ford is, whether successful or not, trying to imagine a constructive engagement with that history, trying to imagine how something inescapably negative can be integrated into an America one would want to live in. The same with gender: he recognizes that marriage is bound up with all sorts of patriarchal privilege and violent possessiveness, but he uses his engagements with this violence to think about ways to make that violence into something positive. Again, I don’t wish to say that he succeeds, but there’s something much more interesting about his willingness to engage with the really hard questions, rather than simply wishing them away by moral righteous my-eye-hath-offended-me-ism.

Can content be empty? It’s the thing that gets *contained* after all, which is a figure that implies fullness. That’s the opposite of “empty.” But, for today’s post, the description sticks with me, anyhow.

These are the fourteen movies directed by John Ford that I have seen, in order of preference:

Donovan’s Reef
How Green Was My Valley
Drums Along the Mohawk
Stagecoach
The Searchers
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
The Quiet Man
Young Mr. Lincoln
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
The Informer
My Darling Clementine
The Prisoner of Shark Island
Mogambo
The Lost Patrol

Just to put it in perspective, I think The Informer is easily in the top ten percent of all movies I’ve seen. Even Mogambo had its moments, and the Boris Karloff freak out scenes in the The Lost Patrol were worth the buck I paid to rent it.

Why Film Now

I’ve been learning to read film, and if there’s a better way to do it than trying to watch more John Ford films than the departmental film guru, I don’t know what it is. I’m reading some film theory too, intermittently, but reading about film isn’t nearly as good as reading films, lots of films (nor can you do the former without also doing the latter anyway). It makes me think about what it is that makes one the right kind of crazy to do a degree in literature. I’m addicted to narrative (or narrative has become a necessary habit) and film offers a kind of dense concentrated blast of narrative that books can’t compete with. I read about thirty pages in an hour (less if I’m taking notes, and I find it hard not to take notes), which means that I can watch about three movies in the time it takes me to read a two hundred page novel. Three narratives for the price of one. And as poor as a graduate student is, time is always the real limiting factor.

One of the hardest things for me is putting in the kind of time and care necessary to really and adequately do justice to a book. There’s just not world enough and time, or rather, there’s a whole world out there to be charted and not nearly enough time to do it in. So I bounce from book to book, sometimes half-reading and always not reading deeply enough (but when can you read deeply enough?), drawing tentative lines between them, rubbing them out, then redrawing them. And everything seems to find its way into what I’m doing, from the most bizarre places. Maybe its because there just isn’t enough excess narrative to waste. And in order to get more fuel into the fire, more raw narrative to be stored up and molded into something later, I commodify the number of pages I read in a day, and give myself a baseball box score as measurement. 100 pages is a solid day, maybe a one for four with a base on error; 180 pages is a HR and a walk. 45 pages is a GIDP and a couple K’s. Silly, but it works.

Film, though, doesn’t fit into the equation so neatly. I watch films slowly, sometimes, if they’re rich enough to savor. It took me about 5 hours to watch Ran because I kept needing to get up and cleanse my palate. And sometimes when I’ve watched a movie, I’m not done with it. I need to watch it again. Johnny To’s Exiled was like that.

One of the revelations I’ve had–no, not revelation, maybe disillusionment–has had to do with how tricky a concept genre is, and how badly so many of the tools I have for reading books work when applied to film. Which makes me wonder how well they really work on books in the first place. For a start, films are so over-determined, so phenomenological, that the kind s of psychologizing one does (even if one, a good Foucauldian, talks about the “author-effect” rather than of a real author) just doesn’t take. How can you take the idea of an auteur seriously, even so powerful a director as John Ford, when someone else wrote the screenplay, when someone else did the editing, when someone else produced it, when someone else spoke the lines? Even directors who embrace the idea of the auteur, who micromanage and write their own scripts and so forth, can one really afford to believe the fiction that all things flow out of a single source? An auteur is no unmoved mover. And neither is an author either, I guess. But more importantly, “genre” seems like a way of theorizing the relation between form and context in a way that doesn’t fall victim to either, managing to do much of the work of both formalism and historicism without making them into an opposable dichotomy. It isn’t portable back to literature, of course (the power of genre having so much to do with the specific infrastructures of the cinema industry) but it’s a useful counterexample, should we lit types start to think we’ve got it all figured it out.

The Colonialist Western and Putting an End to Realism

As you may have noticed, I’ve been watching John Ford movies lately. I like them, a lot. But as tight and symbolically rich as his films can be at his best, at his worst his characters become cut-out figures, signifiers for larger issues without any real presence themselves. When there is ambiguity, it gets evoked so it can be resolved: everything depends on who shot Liberty Valance, for example, but there’s no doubt that he was shot, and whatever troublesome problems that it might cause for Ransom Stoddard to have not actually shot him himself is foreclosed by that happenstance (I think of this, by the way, as the Pioneers maneuver: after toying with the idea of miscegenation for the entire book, Cooper reveals that the male lead is not, after all, of mixed blood at all, and never was. Sort of like ending a book with “And suddenly she woke up and realized it was all a dream.”)
When Ford is messing around with myth, his heavy symbolism is both a blessing and a curse. At his best, he makes it into a virtue: in How Green Was My Valley, for example, the characters are so ludicrously flat and impossible that it becomes a film about the kind of fantasy-work necessary to render memory in such terms. Welsh coal miners speaking in a sort of accentless (neither American nor English, and certainly not Welsh) fairy tale dialect and living in the most bougie of middle class houses is one example, but only one of many in a film entirely about the impossibility of the very events it narrates.

In The Young Mr. Lincoln, I’m still not sure. Since the civil war is sort of a precondition for the movie itself, everything that happens is already predetermined, and because we already know that the young Abe will acquit himself well and unite the town around him (as an allegorical rehearsal for a civil war which, as myth itself, can only be perfect), the character itself becomes something of a cipher. Henry Fonda is a great cipher, but his personal charisma makes up for a real aporia in the script. Maybe its an interesting aporia; I’m still not sure.

But in The Prisoner of Shark Island, I’m more certain. The opening shot tells us that Mudd will be pardoned and his reputation restored. But unless you come to it with an overwhelming Gone-with-the-Wind love for Dixie, Mudd has to rank as one of the least interesting of all Ford protagonists: as a Christ figure, he ultimately “redeems” the south through his trials and tribulations, but it’s a passion play that gets performed on a stage bare of anything but really questionable race politics. And don’t get me started on the The Lost Patrol: one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, especially because the ending is so clearly telegraphed by the film’s first half.

Where it’s working, in other words, it works because his films become anti-realism, expressions of the impossibility of realism. That’s a fascinating thing for a filmmaker to do with a medium for whom the camera-doesn’t-lie is still a watchword, especially given his fascination with historical memory and how it gets created. When it doesn’t work, it’s because we can look back and see Ford’s own fantasies for what they were: confederate nostalgia (and where Ford, an Irishman born, came up with this crap, I’d love to know) and reflexive anti-Arab racism. That’s the trick, right? Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, for example, works very hard to mask its own racism by foregrounding race as, itself, a mask and a blindness, and a lot of what the novel does and says can be excused by Conrad’s efforts to displace it all onto Marlowe, making it all about Marlowe’s blindness. But there are still moments when it falls into the conventions of realism; for me, the simple fact that Conrad imagines a white man could simply show up in the “deep jungle” with a rifle and a dream, and assemble a fiefdom of adoring Africans to do his bidding (which is something that happens and is represented through realist conventions independent of Marlowe’s perceptions) is an example of an early twentieth century racist perspective we still cling to (as the “open arms and flowers” fantasies of the neo-cons illustrates).

I have an axiom that I don’t get to use nearly often enough: plots are a novel’s way of asking really hard and interesting questions, but endings are a novel’s way of provide uninteresting answers. Part of the problem for these works (though not an unsolvable problem) is that the ending is a place where realism always seems to re-assert itself, where ambiguities and anti-formalism run up against the chips down question of: how does the film end? And lots of novels and films get betrayed by their endings; Defoe, for example, tells us that the message of Moll Flanders is that women should be good Christian wives and save their money. But the plot of the book (which you have to ignore for this “moral” to be taken seriously) illustrates that a woman can make a lot of money by commodifying her sexuality, and do at least as well as she could by being a good wife, especially when she ends up in the same place in the end. Defoe is a good example because Moll Flanders is one of the “classic” examples of the novel genre, but I think this dynamic is at the heart of at least most narrative literature: endings close down ambiguities that the work has spent all of the rest of its time opening up. Some works have ambiguous endings, of course, but all novels and films do end, and in a formal sense, that fact means that something ultimately gets said, even if, a la Heart of Darkness, that something is simply that Africa is a scary, nasty place. But when Marlowe is still sailing up the river to find Kurtz, when Kurtz is still just a voice in his imagination, anything can still happen because it’s just about his imagination. Meaning has not yet been foreclosed.

Kafka had a hard time finishing his novels, and I wonder if this had something to do with a desire not to fall into exactly this trap. Perhaps metameat knows? In any case, an overly holistic kind of narrative theory will always miss this dynamic: the way the most interesting stuff in a movie is the questions it asks, and the least interesting thing is the ending that answers them. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, for example, has the most ridiculous ending it could possibly have: after an elegiac “passing of the West” story of failure and the remorseless passage of time, a retired John Wayne rides out into the empty desert towards an impossible California of the soul, only to be called back by the machina of deux: appointment by both northern and southern generals to be captain of the frontier scouts, or something. It goes against everything the film has done up until that point to append a happy ending to it (and an almost unforgivably bizarre cotillion at the cavalry base): poignancy over inevitably lost possibility is the thing that the film does well, and (for once) the unreconstructed confederate thing has actually worked well for the film (I particularly like the scene where they bury an aged private with the honors due to the rank he had in the confederate army, a redemption of sorts, but only to be found in death). To appreciate what the film has done up to that point, in other words, you sort of have to ignore the ending, a little. Even in films like Chinatown or McCabe and Mrs. Miller, whose endings are so powerful and are so well integrated into the rest of the film, the neatness of a gunshot is strikingly superficial when placed next to the unbelievable richness of the rest of the plot. After all, the whole point of Chinatown is that things are just too complicated for a detective to figure out or resolve (and in this sense it wants to be anti-noir), so why should the ending come along and resolve it? Maybe that’s why Chinatown had to spawn a god-awful (yet fascinating) sequel.

Back to Ford, one of his virtues is the tightness of his plots, and this tightness makes him really, really good at self-parody (or, if you like, ironic detachment and critique of the form). And so his best films begin at the end: just as the West is defined by “the closing of the frontier,” so too are his “America” movies defined by a history that is already written. And in doing so, they call attention to the process of writing, of how historical memory is created. By the same token, the virtue of his “genre” films isn’t that they invent the generic conventions, but that they work so hard to make otherwise scattered symbols into conventions, playing so hard on this generic conventionality that the movies become more about genre more than anything else. How postmodern, eh?

I haven’t yet figured out what I think of Mogambo, a 1954 Ford remake of an earlier film (1932’s Red Dust), but it seems to me that Ford is at least playing on the conventionality of the questions the film asks as he is interested in the questions themselves. Casting a noticeably too-old and too-shaggy Clark Gable to reprise the same role as he played the earlier film, too, seems like a highly self-conscious gesture.

But what is it self-conscious of? Beyond Red Dust, which I haven’t seen, I want to put forward a strikingly large and interesting genre of European writing under the moniker colonialist western. Not that the American Western isn’t itself colonialist, of course (and there’s a “postcolonial John Ford” essay that needs to be written out there), but it’s amazing how many novels and texts about colonialism are post-colonial in the sense of being, like a John Ford movie, written from the ending. The bad-wrong way to approach the “imperialism” of Victorians and early modernists is to imagine that they thought colonialism had a future, that they really believed in the imperial visions of the British Empire or France’s civilizing mission and so forth. Some did, of course, but you’ll find that those aren’t the people we read, because those people simply aren’t interesting: their blunt (and now counterfactual) realism makes their texts as valuable and as desirable as a betting stub for a race that’s already been run. And I’ll wager they weren’t even the texts about empire people were that interested in then. Rudyard Kipling, for example, is obsessed with race and cultural racism, but his obsession is driven by fear and anxiety: the fear that the Empire is failing (and his work, if you take the biographical long view, reads like one long jeremiad against the dying of the light).

In this sense, a text like Out of Africa (book or film) is not so much about proclaiming that imperialist fantasies are true (or real) as they are about wishing they were, and even about lamenting that they’re not. And in this, I find it to be quite typical of imperialist Victorianism like Conrads, which makes the fantasy into the focus. The extent it escapes from realism is the extent you stop calling it racist: it’s about racist fantasies, which it recognizes as such. And while an unforgivable piece of text-crement like Out of Africa obsesses over a lost vision of innocent racial domination, the book is hard to dismiss because, even in in 1938, years before the Mau Mau revolt, imperialism could only be represented by her as a lost possibility. To the extent that the book is anything more than an offensive collection of racist fantasies, then, it’s a collection of racist fantasies that knows itself as such; by dreaming of Africa, it refuses to live in the real world, but it does at least understand (like Conrad) that it’s a dream. Where is the status of realism for such a test? More complicated, I think, than any formal analysis can acknowledge.

This vexed relationship to realism is what makes a category like “colonialist western” stick for me. Just as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance remarks on how myth-making precedes the “reality” of the “West” (“when the legend becomes fact, print the legend”), colonialist Westerns like Out of Africa are obsessed with the failure of the colonialist enterprise, unable even to to imagine what it is except in terms of the imagined traditional Eden it disrupts and the impossible utopia it fails to achieve. Those disruptions and failures are the central narrative (as the torn-from-a-dream nostalgia of an Out of Africa illustrates), far more than the out of focus utopias or edens. And just to bring us full circle, I offer you the ultimate (and most obvious) colonial Western of all: Peter Hewitt’s Kenya Cowboy.

But since no one actually reads that one, let me toss out two more texts that such a category helps illuminate. When telling a friend about an attack on a Turkish troop train, T.E. Lawrence wrote, “I hope this sounds the fun it is … It’s the most amateurishly Buffalo-Billy sort of performance.” As the article I found this in elaborates: “at times, he was even oppressed by the sense that he was a kind of vaudeville cowboy, and Arabia a ‘foreign stage on which one plays day and night, in fancy dress, in a strange language…. The whole thing is such a play, and one cannot put conviction into one’s daydreams.’ I want to read the Seven Pillars and re-watch the film with that in mind. And, thirdly, this image from The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (and T.R. Was the ultimate maker of the American cowboy legend): when he met a bunch of Boer settlers in south Africa, he sang them a Dutch song his grandmother had sung for him, and mused on how their ancestors had left Netherlands the same time his ancestors did, a narrative in which “American” and “South Africa” as expressions of frontier colonialism are explicitly rendered analogous. Also, the first book he ever read was an account of Livingstone’s travels in Africa, and though he understood only the pictures, I can’t help but feel that his lifelong practice of reading Africa through cowboy mythology might have the opposite derivation: a lifelong reading (and writing) of the western as colonial.

Sound good? Still thinking it through. But I think it’s got legs.

Staging and Depth: Yet another post on John Ford

There’s a certain eeriness about the way Monument Valley frames the whole of John Ford‘s Stagecoach. In theory, the travelers voyage through five different towns, crossing a vast stretch of western terrain, and allegorically re-creating the great Westward passage. Or something. But the bulk of the movie is actually shot in front of exactly the same picturesque part of Utah, what is now Monument Valley state park, and if you watch the background with any care, you’ll notice that they keep parading in front of the same hunks of rock. They vary the effect by shooting from different angles, of course, but if you know what you’re looking for (and it helps to have been there) there’s still a “sixty-four views of Monument Valley” kind of effect to it, the kind of timelessness that intensely rootedness in a particular physical space can achieve. So what does it mean that a film so archetypically named “Stagecoach,” a film so obviously and incredibly about travel, is actually filmed in a single place? And made that one place into a metonym for the entire West?

One response, the simple one, is to ignore it. “You’re reading too much into it,” my students sometimes try to tell me, “You’ve got to suspend some disbelief!” And maybe it’s fair to ignore it, the way we overlook other breaks in cinematic continuity (and Stagecoach has a few). But John Ford, damn his eyes, is a much more subtle director than is immediately apparent. Plus, this film is not merely the origin of certain generic traditions in the Western (like the Monument Valley imagery), it’s also a highly self-conscious revival of a tradition considered (at that time) to be moribund. Its success gave the genre a shot in the arm, and made it possible for more such films to be made (and that’s an important thing to remember about it), but it’s also key to keep in mind that John Ford is dealing out from a well-shuffled pack of cards, not so much establishing archetypical Western characters (the gambler, the hot-head gunslinger, the fallen flower, the drunken doctor, etc) but troping on their extreme conventionality.

So maybe it’s exactly the point that they move but don’t move. While the drama of “The West” is always the closing of the frontier, the establishment of order in wild places beyond the border (a drama which therefore has a definite end), the “Western,” as generic dramatic form, has to make an enduring monument out of that thing that, by it’s very nature, cannot last. Where better than Monument Valley?

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, on the other hand, wants to distance itself as much as possible from such romanticizing. While Stagecoach is a kind of stage play, in which the background is spectacular but also somewhat shallow, Yellow Ribbon is fascinatingly interested in the little details, the particular and the tangible. The tobacco that John Wayne is always chewing on, for example, is real and deep in a way that nothing in Stagecoach can be. In Stagecoach, Doc Boone drinks because that’s what he does: he’s the “drunken doctor” archetype, so it’s necessary that he drink. But tobacco in Yellow Ribbon serves no functional purpose: like tobacco in real life, it is chewed because of how it feels to chew it. I was also struck by the curiously deep pattern of cavalry bugle calls we hear in this film; like the incredibly particular maneuvers Wayne puts his men through at various stages, it is simply more complex than it has to be. We don’t understand (or need to understand) what those different calls mean, or why Wayne orders his men to go through the particular maneuvers he does, but we do recognize depth beyond our ability to perceive it. That depth seems important, in exactly the way that Stagecoach had to remain shallow. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon also has a scene with prominently burning stagecoach, I noticed, which the old John Wayne kicks to pieces in disgust. There’s also a scene (which I particularly treasure) in which a stagecoach rides up and over and down a piece of steeply sloping ground, and the wagon almost–almost!–tips over. It’s not fake; that thing almost tips over. But it doesn’t.

 

These are lovely little intertexts; what Stagecoach made into a symbol without form (you knew they were going to get there, didn‘t you?), Yellow Ribbon is fascinated with for exactly its physicality, for the fact that if you burn a wagon, it will burn up. If you drive it recklessly, it can fall. And putting John Wayne in the central roles in both films, of course, just establishes the link all the more firmly. The Ringo Kid he plays in Stagecoach will always be a kid, always be just one step ahead of “the blessings of civilization” as Doc Boone puts it in the film’s last lines. John Wayne in Yellow Ribbon, on the other hand, plays a man on the cusp of retirement and death, a Captain Nathan Brittles that can burn if set on fire, a man brittle enough to break. “Old soldiers,” he muses. “How they hate to grow old!” But in this film, they do.

John Ford Goes to Guantanamo, again

Since you’re barely five minutes into The Searchers when it’s firmly established that John Wayne hates people of color and wishes they were all dead, and he’s the hero of the film, I’ll just assume that its safe to call Ford’s opus politically “questionable.” But beyond glorifying racially charged violence, the film is also interestingly obsessed with discipline. During a Comanche raid, Ma keeps the children in line through ignorance–not telling them about the impending Indian attack, because they won‘t be able to handle it–and then violence, slapping the older daughter when she finds out and can’t handle it. As she visibly struggles to keep her own fear in check, it is necessary for her husband to discipline her, and as he‘s rushing to their rescue John Wayne kicks Mose in the rear for being a figure from the minstrel tradition and leaves Martin in the dust for being impetuous and getting his horse killed, or something. In fact, on a meta-level, even the badness of the acting actually adds to the movies often-misogynist disciplinary project: when an actress screams in the face of an Indian attack, for example, and John Wayne slaps her for her histrionics, we feel a sense of relief, for as her excessiveness is punished (as all excesses should be) we find that we, too, are being brought to agree.

So there’s all that. But what occurred to me as I was watching the film is how it fits into a comparison I’ve been thinking about between Heart of Darkness and A Few Good Men. Bear with me for a minute here.

Chinua Achebe famously called Heart of Darkness a racist novel, and there’s almost nothing he says in that essay that I don’t basically agree with. But that kind of sweeping indictment does surprisingly little to actually explain the kind of work the book is doing. “Racism,” after all, simply isn’t a helpful description, here, the same way words like “fascist” or “capitalism” or “empire” tend more to obscure than clearly explicate. A Few Good Men, it is safe to say, is not exactly “racist,” but that doesn‘t really get us anywhere: saying the movie is not racist does exactly as little for you as saying Heart of Darkness is.

What The Searchers, Heart of Darkness, and A Few Good Men all do have in common is an intense concern with discipline “out there”: when “our” people go “out there,” they sometimes go a little crazy and need to be checked up on. Most Americans didn’t know as much about Guantanamo when A Few Good Men was made as we do now, of course (nor was there as much to know), but the problem of Jessup is that he’s been standing on that very wall in Cuba a little too long, been a little too deep in the cold war trenches, and has gone a little bit troppo. Kurtz, similarly, had lost sight of the ideals of which he was once a shining example, and when he builds a brutal fiefdom in central Africa, doing things like putting skulls on posts and having sex with black people, the dilemma is how to haul him back, which the Apocalypse Now version makes explicit.

Yet one of the more subtly disturbing things about Heart of Darkness is that it is not precisely a anti-colonial text, full stop, but a very specifically polemic against the Belgian Congo. In that sense, Conrad was squarely in the middle of a well established network of London based activists who very successfully made King Leopold‘s Congo a watchword for bad colonial management, as opposed to good colonial governments in the parts of the map painted British red (places where, as Marlowe puts it, “you knew real work was being done”). A rule of thumb for comparative colonialisms is that the weaker the colonial power, the more brutal they had to be to enforce their rule. Great Britain, Germany, and France, for example, could build schools and roads because they had enough liquid capital to make long-term infrastructural investment profitable. Portugal, Italy, and Belgium, however, did not, so instead of using modernization as a carrot to draw Africans in, they had to use a variety of “sticks” to prevent African labor from opting out. The Belgians, for example, made piles of human hands when rubber production quotas weren’t met, and the pictures of these enormous mounds (which London based activists made sure were widely publicized) is clearly in the back of Conrad’s mind when he illustrates Kurtz’s “methods” in the Congo. So, because it’s a specifically Belgian method that’s being critiqued in the book (“no method at all,” as Marlowe puts it), only the kinds of brutality that weak colonialisms resorted to are really under attack.

The British model of colonial development, unexamined and left offscreen, shines by (non)comparison. And in A Few Good Men, the glamorous Army lawyer Tom Cruise serves to distinguish the good American imperialists from the bad ones, reminding us that the military isn’t all a bunch of crazy cold warriors and that today’s Armed Forces can be glamorous and exciting and moral and racially integrated. Together, the film proclaims, we can all learn a valuable lesson about standing up for the weak, in this case, a “weak” character who just happens to be the brownest character in the movie (and the most dead). Jack Nicholas repeats over and over again that lack of vigilance will cost lives, but he’s not so much wrong as he is outdated; the cold war is over, and a new kind of American power beckons, a Top Gun where no one needs to die. The real problem is how to teach valuable lessons, how to make brown people like the deceased into soldiers and how to make black people respect their white superiors (watch the movie’s last scene, where Tom Cruise gets his salute, and tell me I’m wrong).

This commitment to an attractive kind of imperialism is the key, for both Heart of Darkness and A Few Good Men: regulate the bad apples, they say, and then we’ll get down to business of ruling the world, to make it a place where “real work” can be done. But while The Searchers is the most blatantly racialist of the three, you have to acknowledge that Ford did not think John Wayne was the wave of the future. Instead, Wayne’s Ethan is a cranky old un-reconstructed ex-confederate who kills people, and you’re nice to him mainly because he might kill you if you’re not. So even he drives the film with his charisma, his violent baggage also becomes the film’s main problem: what the heck do you do with this guy?

Ostensibly, the plot is about John Wayne’s niece being abducted by Indians (“Comanch” as the Duke puts it), and his long search to recover her. But the movie gets interesting after a few years of searching have passed, and you realize that the search is no longer about getting her back again. By now, everyone in the film silently realizes, somewhere off screen, the young niece has come of age and the unspeakable has happened. And so, with the threat of miscegenation silently become fact, the mission changes: instead of rescuing her, Ethan (John Wayne) wants to kill her. Because of this Ethan becomes the problem that the film has to solve, and just as the film has to figure out a way to re-incorporate him, it has to figure out a way to incorporate Indians, to figure out a kind of metaphorical miscegenation we can accept.

This is, in other words, a different kind of imperialism than the blood-obsessed white supremacy that Ethan carries back with him from the confederacy; it’s not about exclusion but about inclusion. So, the movie’s romantic “hero” is Martin, the rescued child of a miscegenous union, who over the course of the proves himself to be “white” (and is thus allowed to breed with the film’s other heroine) even if he isn’t quite “white.” At first, Ethan is incredibly hostile to him, and he contemptuously says things like “that’s the injun in ya” when Martin thinks they’re being followed. But in that case they actually are being followed, and in the end, Ethan not only makes Martin his heir but he abstains from killing Natalie Wood for the crime of having been raped. What a guy!

And maybe this is where The Searchers is a little different than Heart of Darkness or A Few Good Men: while Jessup and Kurtz both dominate their respective texts, they are, ultimately, the things that have to be put aside, in order to make way for the good imperialisms. Kurtz has to die, so that Marlowe’s can be how to remember and misremember him. Jessup has to be put out to pasture so that Tom Cruise’s triumph can bring to completion the movie’s quasi-oedipal generational story, where Cruise takes the place of his real father (who was a famous careerist or something) by defeating the “old man” Jessup. Kurtz put heads on fence-posts to boost production while Jessup ran “code-reds” that left Private Santiago dead, and so, for the good of the empire, they had to be pulled back. This is a problematic thing in its own right. But I’m unable to put The Searchers aside, just yet: John Ford may have a long history of quasi-confederate sympathies, but here, he can’t put John Ford, and the legacy of racism he represents, aside. He wants to reform him, to change him, and to update him. I’m not sure if this is better, of course, but it is different. Heart of Darkness and A Few Good Men hold out the possibility of a clean, pressed, and civilized empire, the possibility that empire can start from scratch having discarded the bad old days. By making Wayne both the hero and a very impartially reconstructed confederate, Ford at least seems to recognize that not much can really change; you can try to reform him, but he’s still John Wayne.

Dismembering and Remembering the Young Mr. Lincoln

The Young Mr. Lincoln is so over-determined as to be a complete cipher, and in the hands of a less expressive actor than Henry Fonda, the title character would be completely crushed by the heavy weight of the dead president’s mythology. That’s all in the future, of course; here, in 1939, John Ford only addresses the years when young Abe was a lawyer in Springfield, when his political ambitions were still well masked by a layer of self-doubt and country humility. But the events that will come after are so incredibly present throughout the film that it only really signifies, proleptically, through reference to that context.

As I wrote here, Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island did something similar from a different angle, replaying and re-mixing the civil war in order to resolve its aftermath. In that film, the firing on Fort Sumter is reincarnated as the very act by which Mudd, the confederate scapegoat, can be re-admitted into the union, for it turns out that only he can order the recalcitrant black soldier to do what needs to be done. Only southerners, you see, have the necessary knack of command, so as freed slaves are re-cast as the divisive factor that must be overcome if the union is to be reborn, the special talent that a white Virginian brings to the table is what allows him to file for citizenship.

In The Young Mr. Lincoln, on the other hand, African-Americans are striking by their almost complete absence. This is the way it has to be, I think; since neo-confederate fantasies like Shark Island would re-imagine the racial other as the divisive cause of the civil war, a movie that is set in the period before the civil war can’t allow itself to be populated with racial others without skipping the record ahead. So when the first piece of law that the young Abe Lincoln reads is on a man’s liberty to own property, he can sit and marvel at its transparent self-evident truth status precisely because there are not, yet, any black people to muddy the waters. The problem of man as property, the question of people’s claims to own other people, has not yet emerged.

In this sense, the movie makes racial purity into the object of a kind of pastoral nostalgia: since we’re all aware of the hidden significance of his words–in ways that he, himself, is not–the film’s wish fulfillment is for a world without black people, where something like rights to property can be a kind of uncomplicated first principle. So, to hear this Abe Lincoln tell it, his family left Kentucky not to get away from slavery as a system, but to get away from the slaves themselves. Kentucky’s a mighty fine place to live, he says, “but with all the slaves coming in, white folks had a hard time making a living.” So, he moved north.

David Blight has written a great book on popular memories of the civil war, where he makes the point that national reconciliation (and the roll back of reconstruction) was a project of misremembering the causes of the civil war, small issues like the citizenship of black people which could (after being forgotten) be allowed to slip under the radar. Instead of focusing in on the basic issue that still divided the country, therefore, people like Horace Greeley retrospectively recast the conflict as been caused by hot tempers and mis-applied patriotism, and not by slavery at all. In sharp contrast to the ways that Lincoln himself reluctantly, but firmly, made slavery the central issue in his second inaugural address, general reunification actually proceeded only after slaves and freedmen had been erased from the historical narrative, and, in effect, the north turned its military victory into a political defeat by folding like a lawn chair on every important issue, allowing the South to re-establish a violent racial hierarchy familiar in its outlines if not exactly the same as slavery. This transcendence of partisan bickering by renouncing anything resembling a principle would have made today’s congressional democrats stand and salute, of course, but I digress.

In The Young Mr. Lincoln, containing and regulating overzealous enthusiasm is the central problem, and Abe Lincoln strides forth not as a steadfast man of principle but as a kind of “Great Mediator” whose folksy ways, gentle humor, and willingness to use violence can solve every disagreement. From a pie-eating contest to his law practice, Lincoln’s principles are far less important than his Solomon-like ability to broker compromise: instead of compromise, everyone magically comes away satisfied whenever Abe Lincoln hands forth a decision.

So it’s exactly right that the film’s central event is Lincoln’s prevention of a lynching of white people by white people. In a movie made at a time when the lynching of black people in the South was still a relatively common occurrence, when the Ku Klux Klan was still a real political force, the inextricable racial element in the practice of lynching has been extricated, exactly as the centrality of slavery in the civil war had to be forgotten in post-bellum mythologies of The Lost Cause.

In this movie, therefore, rebellion becomes the problem of keeping public order, not of resolving a real dispute, and the man who is the man for the job is a guy who plays Dixie on his Jews Harp (called that because of David’s harp, he informs us). When his companion notes that the song makes you want to march, he simply muses; imperturbable, the young Mr. Lincoln keeps his passions in check, and because he can, he succeeds in keeping the passions of Springfield’s overzealous citizenry in check as well.

And so, when the time comes, he is a Solomon. A man is dead, and two brothers stand accused of killing him. Neither will speak, so after Lincoln stops a mob from lynching them, he becomes their attorney. And when the prosecution offers him the choice of letting one brother live and one brother die (if one will confess, the other can go free) he makes the inexplicable choice to go for broke, risking all in the effort to save them both. Like Solomon, who offered to let the baby be cut in half and in doing so saved it, and like President Lincoln, who preferred war to sacrificing the South, this young Mr. Lincoln refuses the choice, saves them both, and everybody is happy. There are no losers here, because the problem of race has been erased from the movie before it began. And, as a fitting coda, his accomplishment wins him the attention of a young southern belle named Mary Todd, who tells him she admires his conduct during this recent “deplorable uprising.” Indeed.

“The Unspeakable Pleasure of Killing Arabs”: or, John Ford gets lost in Iraq

The Lost Patrol; an early John Ford movie set in “Mesopotamia” during WWI. After The Prisoner of Shark Island, I figured this one can’t miss, right?

As it turns out, the movie is sort of like “Waiting for Godot” in the desert, except instead of existential angst, its more like the actors were waiting for the script to arrive and amused themselves by playing a game called “act out Kiplingesque scenes that Kipling would have chewed off his own knuckles rather than put to paper” and then they edited it into a movie and called it a day. The plot, such as it is, consists of an unlovable bunch of losers marching up to an oasis in the Mesopotamian desert, apparently fresh from combat with Ottoman Arabs during WWI, where they spend the rest of the movie getting picked off one by one in progressively stupider ways. You could say John Ford phoned it in, except it would be better said that he smoke-signaled it in. Or semaphored it in on a moonless midnight with two blind semaphore operators waving black flags a hundred miles apart and facing in opposite directions. Or something like that.

So, to recap: it’s a truly piss-poor movie, and the fact that it’s called The Lost Patrol isn‘t even nicely ironic enough to save it, nor is it even interesting enough for it’s blatant racism to be more than run of the mill. The band of soldiers lost in the desert are so stupid, they don’t really need Arabs to kill them; you could wipe out the whole lot of them if you left them unattended for five minutes in a room with a pair of rusty scissors. They’d find a way. The Arabs don’t even show up until the last scene, but what little buildup there just gets frittered away when they prove to be just as stupid and incompetent as everyone else involved with this movie.

I mean, seriously, what is with this movie? It is so bad. The night-time scenes aren’t just obviously filmed in sunlight; there are actually characters that refer to the darkness while the shadows of clouds are literally passing over them. And its made all the worse by a harp-heavy score that occasionally turns into jaunty trumpets, sort of independently of (and in weirdly inappropriate counterpoint to) whatever is going on in the film itself. This move takes badness to a level of aesthetic achievement, and not in a good way. It was interesting to see Boris Karloff get cast as “creepy religious nut job” and he is frighteningly bad. But, again, not in a good way.

What I do with my time

In Rear Window, when Tom, the real detective shows up at Jimmie Stewart’s house, there is a slow recognition shot as he glances from article of clothing to purse scattered about the room; you can see the thoughts adding up in his mind as he realizes there’s a woman in the house (and you see him thinking thoughts he wouldn’t be allowed to verbalize onscreen). Stewart sees it and basically tells him to be cool. So, he’s cool. But as Grace Kelley walks in from the kitchen, carrying two brandies, he says nothing and his expression fails to be cool. Kelley, however, doesn’t blink an eye (literally), handing him the other glass, announcing “we think he’s guilty” and sashaying back into the kitchen, where she belongs apparently. And yet, she owns that scene. Plus, a few minutes later, when Tom has poked holes in all their theories, Kelley is briefly seen sitting in the corner sloshing her brandy around her glass like it was acid she’s about to toss in his eye. Very nice; she’s the most typecast and least self-motivated character, but she’s also the most interesting, the center of tension, and the source of the scene’s energy. I guess that’s how it works.

* * *

William Faulkner co-wrote Land of the Pharaohs, but it’s not often part of his work that gets studied. Mostly because it sucks. But there’s a certain pleasure I get out of watching 1950’s concerns get refracted across an atemporal orientalist landscape. That Jack Hawkins the Pharaoh and Vashtar the architect and quasi-Moses have British accents, while the women (like sultry Joan Collins) and children have American accents, and only the masses actually look Egyptian is just one of those things that happens in 1950’s cinema, I suppose, but you can see Nasserism floating through the hazy background, and maybe even the Suez crisis on the horizon. Emperors always have British accents, and leading ladies are always white; that‘s how it is, and I’m not going to try to untangle it, though the fact that (according to Howard Hawks) Faulkner wanted to make Pharaoh talk like a southern plantation owner seems to merit some attention, though they didn‘t, in fact, go with that. In any case, when the author of Absalom, Absalom! puts the line “All wealth comes from slaves” in the mouth of a hubristic “oriental” despot (played by an anglo-saxon in light-blackface makeup), well, it does seem like one should have something to say.

The Movie of Shark Island

What to say about John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island? After being dragged into a military drumhead trial without benefit of defense of any kind, a shackled and hooded man is accused of conspiring to commit terrorism and quickly found guilty–the country, you see is at war–being then sent to prison indefinitely on a small piece army land in the Gulf of Mexico. Sound familiar?

It’s not Gitmo, but “Shark Island,” the piece of land where Dr. Mudd, the man who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg, was condemned to live out his life in prison. But although he was a southerner who fought for the confederacy, Mudd was a kind of patriot too, and it is only after praising Abraham Lincoln, “the one man who can save us,” that he accidentally treats Lincolns murderer without knowing it. An overzealous martial prosecutor gets him sent up, and we’re suddenly in a movie about a prison break, where the United States has become the bad guy, albeit inadvertently, out of excess zeal and grief for its captain, oh captain.

In the movie, the prison break is almost successful, but at the last minute he is caught again. This is how it has to be. Mudd cannot merely escape, you see, because the problem the movie has set up is stickier than that. The problem is not simply that he has been wronged (such that it could be solved by his escape from the wrong); the problem is that it is the USA which has wronged him. And that, it seems, requires a wholly different solution. Thomas Jefferson once suggested that the real problem of slavery was that whites would never be able to treat blacks as equals (nor blacks forgive whites): having wronged their slaves by enslaving them, no expiation would ever be sufficient, or offered. Living side by side was, for him, unthinkable on the basis of this belief, and he became an early proponent of the movement to colonize freed slaves back to Africa. In the movie, too, the problem of Mudd is that simply escaping leaves the crime done to him unpunished, and this isn’t how justice works: someone has to pay for what’s been done, and just as slaves must pay for the crimes done to them, so too should it be Mudd that expiates the sins of his persecutors.

Jefferson was living in a fantasy world, and he didn’t live to see the national conflagration that the refusals of people like him to consider racial harmony a real possibility would make necessary. But John Ford’s fantasy world had the benefit of that history, and so he spins something out of it that Jefferson never dreamed of: the re-integration of the southerner into the union, on the basis of his particular skill as southerner, and consequent on his redemption by fire. The other reason why Mudd cannot escape, you see, is that a post-civil war southerner can only be so innocent; he may not have shot Lincoln, but (like Muslims who aren’t necessarily actually terrorists) , that identity already always incriminates him, in a way which supercedes trivialities like actual guilt or innocence. Just as Muslims are terrorists until proven innocent; Mudd is a treasonous rebel until he proves otherwise.

So we are treated to a warped replay of major tropes of reconstruction and the civil war itself, the climax of which being the moment when Mudd orders a black soldier to fire a cannon on a Navy vessel in the harbor. Having been freed as the only doctor on the island during a yellow fever epidemic, Mudd is (in a literal sense) forcing the ship to pull in with its precious cargo of medicine, but the figurative sense is much more important: he is both re-enacting and undoing the civil war itself (with, as early 20th century Kluxers liked to imagine it, the African-Amreican being the catalyst culprit). A lot is going on there, of course, and I’m not going to try to tease out all the ways the scene is over-determined; the key point for me is simply dthat a southerner like Mudd has something to offer to the forces of law and order that even his northern jailors do not, redemptive quality that brings him back into the American fold: the negro respects him.

This is the movie’s repellant message, a point which gets hammered home with all the eloquent subtlety of a lynch mob. Early in the film, a radical reconstructionist tries to convince Mudd’s former slaves that they are free, but after a single urbane word from their urbane master, they run him out of town. They don’t want any such rabble-rousers, you see. And in the climactic scenes, not once but twice, Mudd is the only white man on Devil’s Island who can make the African-American soldiers do their work, both times by threatening their extra-legal murder, and both times saving the island from fever. In this way he saves Fort Jefferson, and comes to deserve the praise that he is given at the movies opening, a hyperbolic canonization as “one of America’s greatest heroes,” that seems strangely misplaced for most of the movie. A good man, perhaps, and unfairly persecuted, perhaps, but America’s greatest hero? But by the end of the movie, we understand why. It isn’t just Fort Jefferson he saved, but Jefferson’s white republic.

This is, I’ll say again, an artful and repellant film. What Amy Kaplan says about Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in The Anarchy of Empire is much more true here, only with a dogged and serious attention to the subject of white supremacy that Roosevelt couldn’t himself match. The moment when Roosevelt orders his “smoked yankees,” as the Cubans called African-American soldiers, back into the fighting, on pain of their death, is only a single scene, and although that scene brings to culmination TR’s obsession with his confederate lineage (and Anglo-Saxonism in general), TR lacks the stomach to really embrace that kind of political theater. Ford has no such limitation.

The strange resonance the film retains makes it stay with me; I’ve kept it for weeks now, but lacked the desire to actually watch it again, even to double check quotes. The narratives it trafficks in, as rooted in the civil war as they are, remain startlingly cogent and topical. The story of the United States being forced to do un-American things by un-American people is not out of fashion, nor is the idea that these non-Americans can only undo their criminal foreignness and expiating our guilt through their own suffering. But I’ve find I’ve lost the stomach to write about it, for the moment at least. So I’m netflixing it back.

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