|. . . 2005-08-11|
I probably won't collect much hate mail by claiming that the spaghetti Western culminated in Once Upon a Time in the West, with My Name Is Nobody a yodel-lay-ee-hoo echo in the Spanish hills, and Henry Fonda (of all people) central to both. Along with Ennio Morricone's score, Fonda's Frank is what straps Sergio Leone's wobbling tower of set pieces together, even while he contributes to its imbalance: the Good, the Ugly, and the Italian Girl can't possibly hold the screen against Bad Fonda's intensity — or shock value.
Fonda had played clean, and Fonda had played brittle. But how had Leone intuited that Fonda could use Lee Van Cleef as a toothpick? For decades, it seemed the most brilliantly foolhardy piece of casting-against-type I knew.
Until the first time I saw Warlock.
"That was his favorite. He had it printed in his head."
The mannered acting, message-burdened scripts, aging stars, and ever stiffer rhythms of post-WWII Hollywood (reaching sclerotic apotheosis in Peckinpah's crying jags) could be made shapely only by the most forceful directors: Ray's Johnny Guitar, Lang's Rancho Notorious, Mann's Jimmy Stewart series, Hawks's plot-defying Rio Bravo.... Only Budd Boetticher approximated the balanced terseness of Western fiction's prose.
Warlock's an engaging curiosity in the less successful crowd. Its story riffles through the social studies textbook before pseudo-resolving in big grins and choked-back tears. ("Stay away, Shane! Stay far far away!") The great Joe MacDonald's Cinemascope is rewarding but not quite redemptive. Richard Widmark's prematurely wizened deputy pays penance mostly by looking out of place, and his neurosis and Dorothy Malone's ultra-archness clash like fuschia and salmon.
Anthony Quinn plays the "Is he sublimated or do they just remember to close the door?" Sal Mineo / Mr. Smithers role, except more robust, what with being Anthony Quinn. To make sure we know homosexuality's a disease regardless, on top of being a murderer and a misogynist, he's "a cripple" (i.e., he limps). Despite those liabilities, his adored reacts a lot more strongly to his loss than James Dean did....
In the Black Rattlesnake's defense, Henry Fonda's Clay Blaisedell is pretty worthy of adoration, since he's what makes the movie more than a case study in compromised ambition. Unlike most reviewers, I even like his love scenes with proper lady Dolores Michaels. It's refreshing to see someone attracted to a transgressor not because he's confused or reformable but just because he's a shortcut to transgression.
Blaisedell defines the exact midpoint on the line I'd been unable to draw from My Darling Clementine to Once Upon a Time in the West. He's closer to the historical Wyatt Earp than John Ford's, but he's still Wyatt Earp: flesh disturbingly relaxed around a ramrod sense of right; the defender of order, if no longer quite law.
That vector shifts him from taking part in a community to taking part in a process. The change benefits his income and wardrobe. It could even be viewed as beneficial to the community. In particularly tangled circumstances, an outsider can define and resolve problems more effectively than those who are part of the tangle. Anyone who's ever worked with a good consultant will recognize Blaisedell's rhetorical use of "of course" and his matter of fact detachment:
"People generally begin to resent me. I don't mind it when it happens. It's part of the job. But it will happen. When that happens, we shall have had full satisfaction from one another."
But even if he provides satisfaction to the town, he doesn't belong to it, and he has only one human contact outside it. With his technocratic pride, his carrion crow hunch, and his near sneers at the weak and noisy, he's not far from Frank: the defender of mere orders and, finally, the sociopathic carrier of an untouchably solipsistic rectitude.
And when Blaisedell kicks the crutch out from under an old man, we've crossed the Leone line.
Rob Carver writes:
Nice tip of the hat to "Warlock", one of my favorite Fonda films, if a bit wordy for a western and all the better for it. Quinn was eerily goofy in that one, and Widmark was so neutered - all the more to make Blaisedell a more troubling figure to me when I first saw it on TV. Even though the straight-jacketing of the Hollywood Western of the time was close to breaking open, Fonda's quiet, assured menace made one hell of an impression on me, well beyond the conventional heroes or villains other HW westerns were presenting. You could almost compare Blaisedell to Ryunosuke in “Sword of Doom”, in the way he has a code and sticks to it, until the sadly soft ending. I always prefer the ambiguous, such as “Yellow Sky”, “Blood on the Moon”, or “One-Eyed Jacks”, to the white hat/black hat setup, as it allows for interpretation rather than the bland pablum with horses and gunfire. This was also one of the first Hollywood westerns I feel that portrayed hetero sexual attraction well, or as well as they felt they could; you’re right about Dolores Michaels looking to transgress – elegantly repressed lust was never done better in a western from that time.
|. . . 2005-08-14|
A reader puts words or something like them in our mouth:
nobody likes me, everbody hates me just because i eat worms
I stumbled, in an old post, upon a peripheral declaration I found very interesting and provoking - "... as Wes Anderson decided to drop the pretense that less-than-wealthy characters held any interest for him." - and felt an urge to comment, as old as it was. I'm not quite sure if it was meant as an accusation or merely an observation, and consequently not sure if I'm attempting to practice apologetics or am just riffing, but as I see Anderson has no interest whatsoever in the wealthy - He is purely interested the extravagantly rich, and that's a fundamental distinction: It's no longer an issue of an aristocratic choice of social-economic milieu, obfuscated as natural and commonsensical, but of writing about the stuff of legend.
In his work there's a romantic, imaginary artifice of aristocracy that has more to do with Oberon's court or the minor Olympic Gods than with the modern upper class. (Though with Paris Hilton and everything I might not have a good grasp on how surreal the upper-class truly is, but still.)
His interest seem to be in characters utterly removed from life's usual concerns not in a manner mimetic or reflective of any social phenomenon, but in a glorified, accented and fantastical way, either because they went so far up the social ladder they are utterly unaware of its struggles (the Tennenbaum kids), and thus even when broke and working as elevator-boys they do not feel any hardship (Royal Tennenbaum), or because they have no intention to struggle up the social ladder, but have a pretty easy time getting by with nearly no money (Dignen from Bottle Rocket), or because they're still kids and have no obligations or constraints (Rushmore), or because they live on a submarine and go hunting sharks (Life Aquatic). But the key feature here is that all those life-styles a presented in an equally magnified, unrealistic manner, not as defaults but as extravagant imaginations- a kind of an idealized projection of fundamental emotional and existential (god I wish there was a better word for this) concerns into a plane without necessities or concrete outside limitations where only choice and emotional constraints are factors (thought it's only about 70% true about Bottle Rocket).
Anderson isn't producing a biased, snobbish vision of social reality- he isn't producing a vision of social reality at all. I like to think of Wes Anderson as kind of the ultimate Fuck You to Jameson (not the whisky).
Paul Kerschen writes:
I was talking yesterday to our mutual friend J.F., and she was explaining how in the stories she used to write at age eleven the main characters were generally princesses, because they were the only ones who had the right resources -- if you want to write a scene at the ocean involving whales or something, the princess can just up and go to the ocean. Given how Anderson's films are either about childhood or weird overgrown children, I always figured that was his idea also. I quite like the later films, but don't find anything in them as affecting as the scenes in Rushmore where Max, who can't always rely on Bill Murray's millions, actually has to work to protect his fantasy and ends up lying about his poor barber dad, etc. There's a binocular vision there, while later on, in order to preserve the integrity of the fantastic, Anderson elects to close one eye.
The original context of my remark probably made clear that it sprang from an idiosyncratic case of class resentment — or maybe class petulance. I enjoyed the fantasy of a non-wealthy character being painfully but harmlessly ridiculous; it was nice to get that break. Clearly, though, a large American audience doesn't require such eccentricity. And The Life Aquatic's dud tragedy clearly indicates that Anderson should continue to stay far away from consequences.
I like your way of putting it. It's fun to picture Royal Tenenbaum or Steve Zissou pulling out a spy glass, making like Popeye, and scanning the backdropped horizon....
|. . . 2005-08-16|
I wish some other poets with day jobs had tried similar designs: a paregoric prescription by William Carlos Williams; a double indemnity policy by Wallace Stevens; a profits chart by Ron Silliman; a customs report by Geoffrey Chaucer....
Work! For the Night is Coming!
|. . . 2005-09-05|
"Another Country: Marlowe and the Go-Between" by Richard Wilson,
Renaissance Go-Betweens: Cultural Exchange in Early Modern Europe,
ed. Andreas Höfele & Werner von Koppenfels
I first read The Jew of Malta as shallow trash at about the level of The Abominable Dr. Phibes, with hand-waving taken care of by anti-Semitism in lieu of horror conventions.
Richard Wilson read it as a torn-from-tomorrow's-broadsides thriller, fueled by insider knowledge of London's hottest political and economic issues.
In my reading, Marlowe's Malta was as flat a backdrop as Shakespeare's Verona, the temporary alliance of "Christian" and "Turk" was pure plot convenience, and the long-winded wheeling-dealing of Barabas made a poor verbal substitute for the wallows and dives of Uncle Scrooge's vault.
In Wilson's reading, these desiccated passages reincarnadine.
* * *
The play's first scene describes an economic revolution. Shifting the plunder of the New World eastward had become immensely more profitable than the traditional markets for European goods. Between English ships and that Mediterranean trade stood the island of Malta.
Maltese affairs were subject to intense speculation in the City, with proposals for a conglomerate combining the Venice and Turkey merchants into one consolidated Levant Company. In effect a takeover by the Turkey Company, this merger laid the foundation for the mighty East India combination of 1599.... When launched in January 1592 [a month before The Jew of Malta's first known performance], the Levant Company remained, Brenner notes, 'a highly ramified network of interlocking families,' dominated by Walsingham, who together 'drove a trade worth more than £100,000 a year,' a colossal return.- Richard Wilson, "Another Country"
Members of the Marrano intelligence network and David Passi, a Jewish-Italian quintuple agent, played key roles in Anglo-Turkish conspiracies against Malta's Catholic rulers.
... the great game hinged, as Edward Barton, the Turkey Company agent, wrote from Istanbul in 1589, on bribes: 'It would cost no more than the setting forth of three of Her Majesty's ships, for all are well-affectioned here and could easily be bought. The sum need not be so great nor so openly spent as to allow the Papists to accuse Her Majesty of hiring the Turk to endamage Christendom.' The state papers covering this Anglo-Ottoman conspiracy were only fully published in 2000; but they reveal the cash nexus connecting the Turkish military, via 'the very knave' Passi, with ministers in London. ... With £20000, which he would 'distribute so secretly no suspicion would be aroused,' he promised to 'do Her Majesty more good and Spain more harm than she could with infinite expense, and save many an English life.' No wonder the Turkish generals complained that 'this expedition, to send the monks of Malta to the Seraglio, is calculated more by a merchant than by a prince.'- "Another Country"
As Barton worried, lucrative or not, this wouldn't make good propaganda. At the same time that religion was providing a pretext for a Dutch alliance and the Anglo-Spanish War, English policy-and-profit makers were going after the Ottoman market so furiously that the Sultan is reported to have said they "wanted only circumcision to make themselves Muslims."
Elizabeth's spymaster, Francis Walsingham, took the moral low ground: "If any man take exception against our new trade with Turks and misbelievers, he shall show himself a man of small experience in old and new histories." A weak argument, especially given the extent to which this "new trade" was devoted to arming the infidel, exchanging munitions (and their raw materials) "for their weight in gold."
* * *
I've seen critical "appreciations" of The Jew of Malta run the gamut from half-hearted to disingenuous. Seemingly motivated more by Marlowe's canonicity than by the play itself, they discard the text in favor of unprovable but more savory subtexts.
The tradition continues in this assured online piece by Lisa Hopkins. The play's "often been accused of being anti-semitic. Surely, though, the point is that everything Barabas does is either learned from Christians or Turks in the first place, or promptly imitated by them."
Well, no. Barabas himself describes his people as cunning, canine, and miserly by nature.
And no. Christian leader Ferneze and Turkish leader Calymath didn't poison wells, slaughter the sick, murder their only child, or blow up a monastery. Since greed, hypocrisy, and slave-trading are practiced and suffered in common between Christian, Turk, and Jew, only such super-villainy could justify the denouement — about which Hopkins asserts "there is no real suggestion that this is divine retribution."
In fact, the script's last words are "let due praise be given / Neither to Fate nor Fortune, but to Heaven." Hopkins's reasonable-sounding (and, as I say, not at all eccentric) interpretation doesn't even recognize the bulk of the play and the closing lines as suggestive.
If Marlowe was counting on such X-ray insight from listeners and readers, I'm afraid his ghost suffered centuries of disappointment. Ernst Stavro Blofeld is admirably resourceful, James Bond is vicious and hedonistic, but audiences don't do a lot of soul-searching over the fineness of the distinction.
* * *
One difference between these readings is what's been read. Traditional critics and the younger me restricted ourselves to the canonically literary, whereas Wilson read other things too.
Another difference is that one reading is thin and dull while the other is richly convincing.
|. . . 2005-09-11|
Without wanting to denigrate (or re-trace) Wilson's hard work in the archives, I would also mention a few problems.
The essay's chronology is hodge-podged, sometimes to the point of incoherence: it uses the single name "Walsingham" to refer to Francis Walsingham (who wrote the position paper quoted above, and who died in 1590), to a chief investor in the Levant Company (formed in 1592), and to Thomas Walsingham (a younger relative, and Marlowe's patron). Also, unnecessary stress is put on an uncertainly placed line. 1
Well, that second issue is trivial, and the first is minor enough.
Oddly, though, Wilson shares with his art-for-author's-sake precursors a compulsion to deny the play's explicit attacks on Judaism. The Chewbacca Defense is employed.
That's so. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries hatred of Jews was much more wide-spread, fervid, and unquestioned than it is now.
For instance, Marlowe's Maltese governor confiscates Jewish property as repentance for previous sins of tolerance and mercy:
For through our sufferance of your hateful lives,
The modern reader — even the anti-Semite — likely finds this justification weak. But no other character disputes it, and it would have sounded like common sense to at least some portion of the original audience. Its form should be familiar enough even to Americans: the fornicators and fags who brought great Neptune's wrath upon the poorest sections of Louisiana; the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers.... (Internationally, however, the prevalent 9/11 myth more closely resembles Marlowe's main plotline.)
After expelling Jewish residents Levant-wards, the Maltese went on to forcefully import some:
Jewish chronicles are punctuated with such episodes, like those that occurred in 1567, when large numbers of refugees from persecution in Italy were held hostage; and in 1620, when a party of pilgrims was hijacked on their way to Palestine. Jews were the most lucrative victims, in other words, of the slave traffic which made Malta infamous until the Knights were evicted by Napoleon. Thus, 'the monks of Malta are exceedingly evil to the Jews,' it was reported in 1600: 'They sail in Italian seas to prey on seafarers, and sell them for slaves, both men and women, unless they can pay ransom.'
... as English witnesses reported, 'the victims are persons of any race, age or sex, who happen to be sailing in captured ships,' and 'Jews, Moors, Turks and Christians are enslaved and sold together.' ... When English warships did first pass through the Straits of Gibraltar, in 1620, it was part of a campaign to release English slaves, to which the Levant Company contributed £1,800. But it was Jewish brokers who took the lead in founding fraternities for 'Redemption of Captives,' and it was under the auspices of these that a few Jews were allowed into Malta in the 1580s, as middlemen charged with negotiating freedom for captives on commission, 'normally 15 per cent of the ransom.'
- Richard Wilson, "Another Country"
But when Wilson suggests that Barabas frequents the slave market solely as angel of redemption, he again snubs the text itself.
... not an infant of the curtail'd skin-clipping pagans but talk of London as frequently as of their Prophet’s tomb at Mæcha, & as much worships our maidenpeace as it were but one sun that shin'd over them all. Our first embassadour was he to the Behemoth of Constantinople, and as Moses was sent from the omnipotent God of heaven to persuade with Sultan Pharao to let the children of Israel goe, so from the prepotent goddesse of the earth, Eliza, was hee sent to set free the English captives and open unto us the passage into the redde sea and Euphrates. How impetrable hee was in mollifying the adamantinest tiranny of mankinde, and hourely crucifier of Jesus Christ crucifyde...
Conversely, the dream of Pax Britannica, "a peaceful rule" built on subtlety and guile, is well expressed by Barabas:
Thus trowls our fortune in by land and sea,
All of these points are interesting, and they all seem enticingly germane. But none of them deal with the actual evidence of the play.
They don't eliminate or excuse Marlowe's utilization of prejudice. Instead, they emphasize its hypocrisy. Wilson's defense has taken a regrettable matter of fact which only needed brief acknowledgment and made it a problem to be solved.
|. . . 2005-09-18|
No government which executed so many citizens could be called "limited," but Elizabethan England was certainly privatized: Constantinople's "British ambassadors" were directly employed by the Levant Company. Government's role was to coordinate espionage networks, corporal punishment, military action, proclamations of religious intent, spectacular patronage, and highly profitable monopolies by and for the benefit of the powerful few. Delivering arms to yesterday's or tomorrow's enemy helped finance the looting of today's. Power was centralized and capricious, the middle class kept in line by a mix of fear and feverish speculation. Life was spent in display and exited in debt. Expressions of charity, unlike professions of faith, were left strictly to the individual conscience; long-lived consciences learned to be flexible in their professions.
Marlowe's play fantastically alters a siege that took place the year after his birth. Obviously, some alterations were part of his job as a playwright with a scene-chewer to feed. Speculatively, some were due to religious-economic war with Catholic empires and Anglo-Turkish conspiracies against Malta.
Given these backgrounds, what strikes me about the play isn't its cynicism, or its plea for tolerance, delivered by neo-con Machiavelli himself:
I crave but this,— grace him as he deserves,
What strikes me is who's been added and who are missing.
The addition, of course, is Barabas.
In Marlowe's alternative history, Barabas gives the Maltese governor the trifecta of his dreams: Barabas provides an excuse for the governor to steal all his possessions, purportedly to pay off an urgent debt which is then reneged on; Barabas blocks an embarrassing interfaith marriage between the two families; Barabas delivers a valuable hostage into the governor's hands and is then neatly deposited down his own trapdoor.
In Marlowe's real history, there existed Jewish (or quasi-Jewish) agents who played all sides against each other. But it was a thoroughly British relative of Marlowe's own Lord Strange who engineered the time's most Barabas-worthy betrayal. And the English (like the Maltese) managed to eke out some profit through these wicked middlemen before discarding or slaughtering them.
Who're missing are the English.
Absent Protestant characters, the play's taken-for-granted pro-Christianity and its boisterous anti-Catholicism clash scene by scene. On the one hand, the Jew's daughter assuredly gains redemption by joining a convent and the Maltese victory is thanks "to Heaven"; on the other, the monks are money-grubbers and the nuns are whores. In Wilson's formula, Barabas somehow stands for the English point of view — and yet the governor of Malta is clearly meant to be cheered by the English audience — and yet the Catholic Maltese were (in Wilson's theory) Marlowe's patrons' chief targets.
Such awkwardness has its uses.
Since the Christian governor cheats Turk and Jew twice over, when Barabas advances arguments like:
Thus, loving neither, will I live with both,
It's no sin to deceive a Christian;
No one disputes his points. Instead, they bring up less ambiguous issues, such as his people having been cursed by God, or his having poisoned a nunnery. In doing so, they've been relieved of the responsibility of making his arguments themselves. They reap the benefits of tacit agreement while avoiding the danger of overt advocacy.
By having the Jewish villain espouse doing business with heretics, Marlowe avoids the propaganda problem that worried Edward Barton. By having the Jewish villain commit such horrendous crimes, Marlowe insinuates by contrast that doing business with heretics isn't so heinous.
These "love the sin but hate the sinner" narratives are familiar enough. We're titillated; we condemn; all's well.
Sometimes such narratives smuggle out otherwise uncommunicable signals. It's Snowflake's Choice: a narrative which dehumanizes or no narrative at all. The envelope cuts both the sender and the recipient; the envelope may even be poisoned; still, the urge to communicate finds outlet.
But Marlowe apologists should limit their liberatory claims. No gaybasher was ever stricken by remorse at the memory of the insane killer in Laura. And Marlowe's choice of a Jewish scapegoat for capitalist sins doesn't undo medieval anti-Semitism or Counter-Reformation anti-Semitism so much as anticipate nineteenth and twentieth century anti-Semitism.
Similarly, the play's Christian-and/or-Catholic awkwardness reminds me of the awkwardness a later generation of privatizing profiteers faced while constructing a "Judeo-Christian" pseudo-identity which permitted relations with "good" (that is, profitable) non-Judeo-Christians, at least until such heretics could be cut out of the picture....
And the play's solution isn't far from theirs: Justify a war for profit as a war on terror.
* * *
I began this essay in an approved New Critical monogamous literary relationship: individual reader and individual work, in bed alone with the covers drawn up. Maybe spiced a bit mendaciously by fantasies about the author. All very legitimate and, in this instance, very unsatisfying.
By opening our sheets to encompass the work's political and economic context, vague background texture snapped into vibrant focus. The relationship became intriguing.
Well, that's my problem, not Marlowe's. And so to solve it I had to broaden the scope again, to my own — to the reader's — political and economic context.
In doing so, although I strayed from what might be called "appreciation", I don't think I dragged in arbitrary matter. The extent to which The Jew of Malta is depiction, indirection, prediction, or coincidence is unascertainable, but Marlowe himself opened this purse of worms. His play becomes more interesting when politically contextualized because his play was to some unknown degree a political act — not only a depiction of Realpolitik but an example of it.
* * *
Some time ago CultRev requested "brief statements about what we think the role of politics in the study of literature might be." This one wasn't very brief, I'm afraid. Particulars are my statement, and particulars take a while.
Thanks to some gruesome reaction of genetics and environment, I'm an unapologetic aesthete. (OK, I apologize sometimes, but it doesn't do much good.) Art is central to my metaphysics, ethics, and even (shamefully) my politics. It's the lightbulb the world revolves around.
However, I revolve with the world. To an absurd extent, my essay on Lubitsch's final movie and my edition of The Witlings were prompted by last autumn's American elections. In the case at hand, if I'd wanted to write about shallow trash on purely aesthetic grounds, I would've chosen John Marston, the English Renaissance Trey Parker.
And the light's not confined to the bulb. "Politics" can clarify what would otherwise remain obscure, solve puzzles or remove the blinders of arrogance. If we ask readers to imaginatively ally themselves with those heroic canonical authors, why not promote imaginative alliances with their circumstances? If it's not cheating "literary value" when we explain The Jew of Malta's vocabulary or the conventions of blank verse, or when we treat a haphazardly published assortment of poems and commercial scripts as evidence from which to deduce a fascinatingly singular Marlovian mind, how could anyone protest when we explore the political and economic conflicts at the dirty heart and fingertips of the play? If students bitch about Jane Austen's lack of interest in colonial injustice, we might remind them of their baggy jeans' provenance. If they snub Thomas Jefferson, we might point out the profitability of their state's prison system.
There are other roles for "politics", I know — maybe I've been displaying them myself; you tell me — bulking up one's blinders, deploying righteousness as an ornamental shield for ignorance....
I just don't think they're as useful in the study of literature.
|. . . before . . .||. . . after . . .|
Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2005 Ray Davis.