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In the Old West, without GPS, if they wanted you, they’d find you

16 Nov

Cormac McCarthy

Everyone knows we’re being tracked. You leave a trail with credit cards, cell phones, cookies and social media. Cameras take pictures at traffic lights.Auto dealers hide GPS devices on the cars they sell. Even U.S. passports have a chip embedded in them.

But in the Old West, in the days of the horse and buggy – mainly because of the horse and buggy – it also was easy to track people. People back then left tracks, the old-fashion kind.

Blood MeridianI point this out after reading Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel, “Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West.” In it, a band of characters travels endlessly across vast expanses of plains, desserts and mountains. They always seem to find each other. Their enemies always seem to find them, and they their enemies.

There are some major skills involved here, as Cormac suggests. But the basics are hard to miss. In today’s times, we forget about giveaways like smoke from a cook fire, dung and urine from animals and humans, the simple imprint of foot, hoof and wheel. Either way, it’s pretty much a sure thing that after crossing the dessert everyone is going to end up at the well or creek. A great place to wait for your prey.

While it is frightening to think that today’s phones reveal where we are and where we went, it’s also a scary thought that you could ride or walk for days and nights, in the heat and cold, possibly without water and food or even clothes, across the harshest terrain, and the person trailing you will find you and kill you in the most brutal fashion.

This lesson, among others, I learned from Cormac McCarthy and the book they call his masterpiece.

No country posterIf you don’t know McCarthy from his many novels – almost all of them filled with horrific violence – then you might know him from the films made from his books. Perhaps the most famous is “No Country for Old Men,” which in 2007 won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Some see McCarthy as the equal or near equal of Faulkner. While I was amazed by “No Country for Old Men,” I’m embarrassed to say I had overlooked McCarthy, then and even after. I only came to know him after briefly watching a so-so TV movie with an unfamiliar name – one I don’t even remember — and hearing several pieces of brilliant dialogue.

I admire a good sentence and these were unlike anything I’ve heard on TV – with the possible exception of “True Detective.” They came from deep within some dark, mysterious, knowing soul.

I checked and found they came from Cormac McCarthy. And so I went on to read “Blood Meridian.”

If you read it, or even just look at it, you’ll notice some things right off. First, there are no quotation marks (even when there are quotes). Cute, but only idiosyncratic. Next, there are all these words you won’t understand because they are archaic and rarely appear anywhere. Doubly troubling are the passages in un-translated Spanish – the common tongue of Cormac’s characters, who are American, Mexican and Native American.

But the most obvious and disturbing thing about McCarthy is the violence. Nearly every page is covered in blood. I recall thinking that while the writing was terrific, the plot line had to come from a thoroughly sick and disturbed mind.

Glanton gang
Then I began to listen closer to the tone, attitude and motif phraseology of his characters. I came to realize this was not made up. This was all true. It was history, and the writer must have relied heavily on journals and first-hand accounts.

While McCarthy is not in the habit of discussing his work, I searched for confirmation of my theory and found it on good old Wikipedia:

The majority of the narrative follows a teenager referred to only as “the kid,” with the bulk of the text devoted to his experiences with the Glanton gang, a historical group of scalp hunters who massacred Native Americans and others in the United States–Mexico borderlands from 1849 to 1850 for bounty, pleasure, and eventually out of sheer compulsion . . . .

 

. . . McCarthy conducted considerable research to write the book. Critics have repeatedly demonstrated that even brief and seemingly inconsequential passages of Blood Meridian rely on historical evidence. The Glanton gang segments are based on Samuel Chamberlain‘s account of the group in his memoir My Confession: The Recollections of a Rogue, which he wrote during the latter part of his life. Chamberlain rode with John Joel Glanton and his company between 1849 and 1850.

 

Unlike many people, I try not to look for meaning in creative work. Beauty alone is enough for me, and “Blood Meridian” is beautiful. The best art is an open presentation of depth that allows the consumer to add the meaning. It really doesn’t come with it.

Still, my favorite parts of the book are the philosophical pronouncements of the character known as “the judge.” I sense he sounds a lot like Cormac McCarthy at a cocktail party. The judge accepts violence. In total, what the book does for me is calm my frustration at man’s inhumanity, convincing me – if only for a short time – that violence is NOT inhuman, but rather perfectly and intrinsically human.

I’ll end with a passage and invite comment.

“It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.”

Lanny Morgnanesi

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Big war, small peace – did Stephen Hawking really know the truth?

29 Aug

Cambridge3

I was waiting, so I picked up a book. Inside, just a few pages in, was a simple sentence with the power to uplift, encourage, and promote optimism.

 

It seemed to confirm the idea that there was light amid the dark; that somewhere below the horrid nature of mankind there was good trying to surface.

Sadly, that sentence – written as a statement of fact – is probably wrong. Oddly, its author is one of the world’s most intelligent men.

 

Hawking book jacket-bioThe book was “My Brief History,” the 2013 autobiography of physicist Stephen Hawking, the man in the wheelchair with the synthetic voice whose life is now a major motion picture called, “The Theory of Everything.”

 

The movie is more a love story than a science story. Still, its title comes from Hawking’s pursuit of a unified way of explaining all forces in the universe.

In the book, Hawking talks about his birth in Cambridge, England, home of one of the world’s greatest universities. His reason for being born in Cambridge is what uplifted me. His casual little sentence was a gentle piece of history I had never heard of; one of those marvelous pieces of information that suggests we maintain a small degree of civility even as we try to utterly destroy each other. It was like reading for the first time about the unofficial Christmas truce during World War I, when soldiers from both sides climbed out of the trenches, sang songs together, exchanged presents and even played soccer.

 

In Hawking’s case, the scene is World War II. The scientist said his family moved to Cambridge because the English and the Germans had agreed it was not to be bombed. Also under protection was Oxford, and in Germany the universities at Heidelberg and Goettingen.

 

I had never heard anything of the sort, but recognized that such an agreement could easily have been buried in the rubble of all the other destruction. Visualizing the leaders of these two warring countries shaking hands on this was heart-warming. I actually pictured them doing it.

 

But I guess even Hawking can get things wrong.

 

The fact-checking site Snopes.com said the agreement mentioned by Hawking had been an Internet myth. It’s likely to spread further now with Hawking’s book. Additional searches could not confirm the agreement.

 

Of course, Cambridge was without strategic value and bombs were precious, so it was much safer to be in Cambridge than in London. Hawking’s father probably moved the family there just to lessen the odds of being killed.

 

With many others doing the same, the myth of protection probably evolved and spread. I’m sure it made living in Cambridge a lot more comfortable.

 

Cambridge bombedMyth or not, in 2010 a BBC website ran a story on the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Vicarage Terrace in Cambridge. It has a woman named Barbara Wright remembering the incident. She was six. There’s a photo.

 

“Suddenly there was a huge noise,” she said. “The actual walls on either side came in and practically touched us.”

 

The story said nine people were killed in the attack, and that they were the first British civilian casualties of the war.

 

The fact that the myth exists even when there is proof that Cambridge was bombed shows the power of myth and the need to believe in good things.

 

If anyone can shed additional light on the myth, the truth, or Stephen Hawking, please comment. Perhaps the full story still remains to be told. Please don’t, however, write if you have info that the Christmas truce was a myth. Let’s at least leave that one in place. After all, they made a movie out of it.

 

The trailer is below, along with that for the new Hawking movie.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

           

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embed trailer

Art and the importance of suspending belief, even for Shakespeare

2 Jan

theater-disney

On my own, I’ve been studying filmmaking. I have even made a few short films, including this one. From my studies I know the craft is in turmoil due to vast changes in technology. Critical decisions have to be made on what new technology to use, how to use it and what from the old to keep. With high-definition digital cameras, a film can be as realistic as life, but most filmmakers see this as bad.

Audiences, they say, are used to the imperfections and inexactness of 35 mm film shot at 24 frames per second. For feature films, this “old look” brings the viewer into a world that is not his own, a world where he can suspend belief and enjoy the fiction being created on the screen. If a film is viewed in high-definition, all one may see is a bunch of actors walking around.

In such a case, the real world treads on the world of fantasy.

And so movies are shot with digital cameras but the images are converted later to a format that looks much like 35 mm film.

ShakespearI had a taste of this necessity to suspend belief during the Christmas holidays. It was not at the movies but rather at the gorgeous Academy of Music in Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania Ballet was performing George Balanchine’s version of “The Nutcracker.”

This was a first-class production. I was enjoying myself when suddenly, while watching costumed dancers swirl, jump and create visual poetry, I saw on the stage a painted sheet. Then I saw painted boards. Belief was no longer suspended; the magic had disappeared.

It was just for an instant and it occurred for no apparent reason. While outside the spell of the stage, my mind entertained a passing thought of using digital effects to duplicate a Russian winter. That thought quickly left. I returned once again to an illusion that I was willing and able to accept as real.

In the golden age of radio, that medium was referred to as “the theater of the mind.” But no less a personage than William Shakespeare has pointed out that even theater needs the cooperation of the mind.

I know little of this man and would not dare to interpret him. Still, it seems clear that in the prologue to “Henry V” he finds it necessary to ask his audience to suspend belief.

He seeks pardon for “the flat, unraised spirits that have dared on this unworthy scaffold to bring forth so great an object,” and ask rhetorically if the stage can “hold the vasty fields of France?” He explains, through his chorus, that one crooked figure will have to take the place of a million, and actors of no world standing will pretend to be historic figures, and that the imagination of the audience is required to dress the king.

He pleads, “Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them.”

This from a man who, with a few words, can induce hypnotic visions.

Had some muse or god given him the power to actually bring all of France to the stage and allow a thousand horses to romp across it, would he have accepted the gift? I think not, nor would the best of our filmmakers, nor would the Pennsylvania Ballet.

The power and force of fantasy is, after all, fantasy itself.

In the theater or at the multiplex, please do not watch too closely.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

When Truman Capote seduced Marlon Brando

28 Dec

brando-1

One of the great classics of entertainment journalism is a 1957 piece called, “The Duke in His Domain.” It appeared in the New Yorker and was written by Truman Capote. The subject was actor Marlon Brando.

I read the article for the first time this week. It made me realize that, although I have been in journalism for many years, I’ve been doing it all wrong. Little Truman, God bless him, had been doing it all right. This is not a testament to his skill as a writer but rather the way he approached his craft.

Capote laid Brando bare.

In the portrayal, the normally reticent and reclusive actor was not a shimmering Hollywood star but a flawed man who could be seen from all sides and angles; a man who revealed much of his soul. In the 50s, entertainment journalism was not done this way. This piece was revolutionary; a precursor to something called The New Journalism.

Brando hated the article and wanted to kill Capote. Yet it was Brando who voluntarily revealed all … talking endlessly into the night, canceling meetings so he could continue the gabfest, not wanting to stop.

All the while, for almost six hours, Capote never took a note. Therein, I believe, lies the secret to great journalism.

It doesn’t take a reporter long to learn that the best material often comes at the end of an interview, when the notebook is put away and you are walking toward the door. I call it the Columbo Effect.  The person being interviewed relaxes and opens up, trying to build on the uneasy rapport established while the notebook was out.TrumanCapoteA_800_0

In a way, gathering information without taking notes is something of a con. In the Brando interview, the actor indeed felt that Capote was not working. Capote thought this was absurd. The interview was conducted in a hotel in Kyoto, Japan, while Brando was making the film “Sayonara.” Why would Capote make such a journey if his intention were just to socialize?

Long ago, when I was a student, I met a tough reporter who toiled in the pre-computer era. He was aware that people would talk casually and unguarded and then insist the conversation was off the record. That’s why he firmly and emphatically told all his sources, “When you talk to me you’re talking into a typewriter.”

Capote didn’t say this to Brando. It would have been fairer to do so.

The story behind the “Duke in his Domain” is an intriguing one.  It is documented in the Nov/Dec issue of the Columbia Journalism Review by writer Douglas McCollam. He does a fantastic job explaining the events of more than a half-century ago.

Over the years there has been much speculation about how Capote got his story, but two key elements seem to be alcohol – Truman got Marlon drunk – and the fact that Capote baited Brando by sharing his story of an alcoholic mother, a story very similar to Brando’s.

“I didn’t trick him,” Capote later said. “We simply swapped stories.”

But I’m convinced that the results were only achieved because Capote carried not a pen, not a notebook, not a tape recorder. He claims to have had what some call a photographic memory.

Capote, who broke literary ground with the so-called nonfiction novel, “In Cold Blood,” is said to have taken no notes while researching this book on the brutal murder of a Kansans family in 1959. After interviews, however, he would type up his mental notes.

There was a time when I was working in a situation where those around me would have objected to note taking, so I tried to train my mind like Capote said he trained his. I had no special skill for it. If there were a good quote that I wanted to preserve, I would have to say it over and over again in my head. When I had the chance, I’d use a scrap of paper to write down one or two words to help me remember it.  The one-or-two-word method also was used to record the facets of the story as it unfolded.

It was difficult work, but as time went on I got better at it.

Even so, my technique was totally incapable of producing anything like the detailed, full picture in “The Duke in His Domain.” The story has long quotes and conversations and captures incredible moments. Here is one, as Brando talks about his mother moving in with him.

“I thought if she loved me enough, trusted me enough, I thought then we can be together, in New York; we’ll live together and I’ll take care of her …. I tried so hard. But my love wasn’t enough …. And one day, I didn’t care anymore. She was there. In a room. Holding onto me. And I let her fall. Because I couldn’t take it anymore – watch her breaking apart, in front of me, like a piece of porcelain. I stepped right over her. I walked right out. I was indifferent.”

I can see where a reporter could reconstruct sentences like these, keeping the sense of the message while taking license over the choice of words. That’s how I view Capote’s technique.

Brando, however, said this: “That little bastard’s got total recall. Every goddamn word, he remembered.”

For all journalists and journalism students, I recommend reading “The Duke in His Domain.” For myself, I’ll be thinking a lot about the huge gap between notebook and non-notebook journalism. I’ve become convinced that the latter, even without precise quotes, might render the truer story.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Jews and Muslims together; vet neglect; the easy life in Greece

14 Jul

A small assortment of items:

I discovered a rare, interesting and encouraging case of Jews and Muslims uniting. Both are working together against a regional court ruling in Germany that outlaws circumcision, equating it with bodily harm, a criminal act.

While the court ruled in a regional case with only regional authority, hospitals across Germany are reacting by banning the procedure.

Jews and Muslims, who circumcise their male children, see this as an attack on religion and have found common ground.

From the New York Times:

            “The often very aggressive prejudice against religion as backward, irrational and opposed to science is increasingly defining popular opinion,” said Michael Bongardt, a professor of ethics from Berlin’s Free University who added that the ruling reflected a profound lack of understanding in modern Germany for religious belief.

 

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Prolonged wars drain the treasury because killing is expensive. Equally expensive, with no end date, is the post-war cost of curing – and the difficulty of actually doing an effective job.

In June Bloomberg Businessweek  reported that:

  • 1.3 million disability cases were filed with the Veterans Administration in 2011, a 48 percent increase from 2008.
  • 905,000 cases are awaiting action.
  • 14,320  VA employees must handle the load.

There really is nothing new in this. Since the Revolutionary War, it has become routine for the government to abandon soldiers once they no longer are needed.

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Eating ice cream with a Greek national, I learned a little more about why that nation and its economy cannot climb out of its fiscal swamp. The Greeks just aren’t working very hard, especially in the summer.

Perhaps we all knew this, or at least thought it. But my friend made it clearer, telling me how the Greeks take a fairly long siesta after a hearty and leisurely lunch (the day’s main meal). They nap from 2:30 p.m. until 6 p.m., when they return to work.

A light dinner generally is eaten around 10.

In the summer heat, however, only the merchants who service tourists go back to work after the nap.

Once I recovered from the realization that Greece is basically a part-time nation, I looked at my friend – a U.S. resident undergoing a great deal of stress from multiple layoffs in her family – and asked, “How in God’s name can you leave a place like that?”

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Many clever lines in Woody Allen’s new movie, To Rome with Love.

Here is a rough paraphrase of one. It’s Woody’s character, a father speaking against his daughter’s new boyfriend, a left-wing Italian lawyer who he thinks is a communist.

“I understand being a leftist. I was a leftist when I was young. But I was never a Communist. Never. I couldn’t share a bathroom.”

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