A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Hillary Hilarity (Sort of)

I went back and reviewed my earlier posts about Hillary Clinton, now that her campaign has been pretty widely exposed -- at least by lefty bloggers (and Andrew Sullivan) -- as both inept and underhanded. In the earliest ones, I was mostly impressed by her experience (even if some of it was vicarious). But as the campaign has dragged on, it's become evident to me that either she's incapable of leading -- of enforcing dignity and discipline upon her staff -- or that she's just plain cynical, as the video above suggests.

The Geraldine Ferraro flap, coming as it does just a day or so after the resignation of Samantha Power from the Obama campaign, only underscores the unpleasantness that has overtaken Hillary Clinton. Perhaps it has nothing to do with her ability to govern, but she has allowed a pointlessly divisive comment to stand, and it makes me even gladder that I didn't vote for her in the California primary. Keith Olbermann had some especially cogent words on the Ferraro remarks:

The Magnolia State

It's been odd hearing the word "Mississippi" uttered on TV today, especially by news anchors who've probably never been there. But it's been odder seeing Democratic candidates for president actually campaigning there, in a state that has gone Republican in the worst way.

I haven't written much about Mississippi, where I was born and raised, but this seems as good a time as any to run a couple of old Mercury News reviews that pretty much sum up my feelings about where I'm from.

I graduated from the University of Mississippi in May 1962, before the violence that accompanied the admittance of James Meredith to the university. So I was drawn to William Doyle's splendid account of that event:

The Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962
By William Doyle
Anchor, 416 pp., $16 paperback

I think of 1962 as the year the fictions died, and not just because William Faulkner died on July 6, 1962.

It was a tense summer: A black man, James Meredith, had applied for admission to the University of Mississippi, and the state tried every legal maneuver -- and some clearly illegal ones -- to prevent it. In May, I had graduated from the university, which is known as ''Ole Miss'' and is in Oxford, where I grew up. At the end of September, when I left for a year in Germany on a Fulbright grant, Meredith was about to enroll, and demons were about to be unleashed in the town.

The fictions that died that fall were white supremacy and state sovereignty. But it took a bloody riot and armed military intervention to kill them.

William Doyle's ''An American Insurrection'' is a compelling account of how the last battle of the Civil War came to be fought in my hometown. For what took place on the Ole Miss campus and in the town of Oxford in the first days of October 1962 was, as Doyle puts it, ''the biggest domestic military crisis of the 20th century.'' To end the disorder, the Kennedy administration deployed ''more soldiers than the United States had in Korea, and the peak troop strength of nearly fifteen thousand in the Oxford vicinity was three times more American troops than were stationed in West Berlin.''

Any reader of Faulkner knows how steeped Mississippi was in its own past, how white folks were caught up in tales of great-granddaddy marching off to Shiloh or Chickamauga. And that much of the state was mired in the kind of poverty that breeds the resentment, frustration, hatred and folly that Faulkner depicted. But I doubt that anyone realized how deadly the state could be until the riot happened.

Intelligent leadership, however, might have prevented it -- or even just leadership based on political cunning. The year after the Ole Miss riot, George Wallace would do what Doyle calls a ''carefully choreographed charade'' at the University of Alabama, blocking the ''schoolhouse door'' until forced to submit -- saving face and launching a national political career in the process.

But the Ole Miss disaster was the product of political indecision -- the ''dithering,'' as Doyle calls it, of John and Robert Kennedy and the utter ineptness of Mississippi's governor, Ross Barnett. To be fair to the Kennedys, they had no idea that Barnett was as dumb as a stump.

Barnett reminded my father of ''an old mud turtle,'' which with his thick neck and beaky nose Barnett surely resembled. But turtles have the sense to stay in their shells when threatened by things beyond their control. Barnett didn't.

The conversations between Barnett and the Kennedys that Doyle recounts -- available on the presidential tapes that were the subject of Doyle's earlier book, ''Inside the Oval Office'' -- show that Barnett wanted to do the kind of face-saving charade at which Wallace would be so successful a year later: a capitulation in the face of federal power, which would both allow Meredith to enter the university and make Barnett look like a martyr in the eyes of the segregationists. But Barnett couldn't make up his mind how far things should go until they had gone too far.

And they went too far on Saturday, Sept. 29, when Barnett made an appearance at the halftime of an Ole Miss football game. The crowd was already inflamed by the appearance of the world's largest Confederate flag, which was unfurled over the heads of the Ole Miss marching band. When Barnett ''strutted onto the field,'' Doyle writes, he was ''saturated with one of the most powerful crowd raptures ever given to an American politician.'' A witness remembers it as ''the way Nuremberg must have been!'' An unstoppable, tragic confrontation was under way.

My parents lived on the edge of town, and from the woods and fields behind the house, my mother recalled, strange men appeared throughout the following day, crossing our yard on their way to the campus. They were also arriving by car from as far away as California.

Imagine hundreds of Timothy McVeighs -- racist, anti-government fanatics -- blending with hormone-driven college kids, many of whom may have thought of the thing as just a big fraternity prank. Until it got out of hand, that is: Two people were killed in the night of Sept. 30 and morning of Oct. 1, but Doyle's vivid, appalling account of the riot makes it hard to believe there weren't more.

Amid the madness there was also heroism. Doyle singles out for praise the U.S. marshals and, more surprisingly, the Mississippi National Guard, which was called out to support the marshals until Kennedy could decide whether to commit troops to the scene. These weekend soldiers did their duty despite being assaulted and vilified by their fellow Mississippians.

But the most heroic figure was James Meredith. Doyle's portrait of this strange, almost quixotically courageous man is one of the best things in the book. Meredith maintained a Zen-like composure through it all -- he is said to have slept through the riots taking place only a few hundred yards from the dormitory where he was guarded by a handful of marshals.

He was a civil rights movement of his own, never identifying himself with other leaders or organizations, and his later career was, to say the least, enigmatic. He was almost killed by a sniper in 1966 during a one-man march for voting rights in Mississippi, but in the years that followed he denounced integration as a ''sham;'' worked on the staff of Sen. Jesse Helms; opposed affirmative action, welfare and busing; and even announced his support for Klansman David Duke's run for governor of Louisiana. But as Mississippi civil rights leader Aaron Henry put it, ''If any of us has earned the right to be eccentric, Jim has.''

Doyle's book has its flaws: He likes to hammer home his points, telling us again and again that the killers of the two men who died in the riot were never caught. And the chaotic events make for chaotic narrative -- Doyle struggles to keep track of what was happening when, but doesn't always succeed. Still, it's as precise and evocative an account of the riot as you're likely to get: It wasn't filmed -- in 1962 TV news was not the force it would become later, and the few photojournalists who showed up had their cameras smashed quickly.

And the book is valuable in reminding us of an event that today seems to be largely forgotten. Even in 1962 it was overshadowed by the Cuban missile crisis a few weeks later. But it was one of the great turning points of the civil rights movement: If Mississippi could be desegregated, any place could.

The troops lingered in Oxford until the next summer. This worked a small hardship on my mother, who set out one day to do her shopping with a carton of Coke bottles in her car. (Those were the days of refillables.) But she had to stop at a checkpoint, where the bottles were confiscated as potential material for Molotov cocktails.

When I came back to the United States in August 1963, the troops were gone and the riot was already being forgotten. As I was going through customs in New York, the agent looked at my passport and said, ''You're from Mississippi?''

Uh-oh, I thought, self-consciously determined not to be identified with my home state's bigotry and bloodshed.

The agent continued, ''Then maybe you can answer this: Where does the Southern cross the Yellow Dog?''

He was a blues lover for whom Mississippi meant a railway crossing near Moorhead, celebrated by W.C. Handy.

History is, after all, a matter of point of view.

Times change. A black man, with the help of a largely black electorate, has just won most of the state's delegates to the Democratic National Convention. But how much have they really changed? Paul Hendrickson made an effort to measure that change with his fine book "Sons of Mississippi.

SONS OF MISSISSIPPI: A Story of Race and Its Legacy
By Paul Hendrickson
Knopf, 320 pp., $26

In February 1995, Washington Post reporter Paul Hendrickson was browsing in a bookstore in Berkeley, where he came across a book of photographs by Charles Moore from the civil rights era.

In one photo, a group of white men has focused its attention on a man gripping a wooden stick as if it were a baseball bat. He has a cigarette clenched in his teeth as he demonstrates, with evident amusement, how he intends to use this stick. Meanwhile, the man to his left, whose cigarette is dangling from his upper lip, tears a piece of white cloth into strips -- a man at the extreme right of the photo has tied one of the strips around his left arm.

Another man, with a Stetson pushed back on his head, is laughing -- perhaps at what the stick man is doing. At the left of the photo, a man with the soggy stub of a cigar in his mouth is similarly amused. In the background, a serious-looking man is apparently in conversation with a man obscured by the others.

Context is everything. When we know that these men are Mississippi sheriffs, gathered on the campus of the University of Mississippi in September 1962 just before the attempt of a black man, James Meredith, to enroll at the university, then we think we know the context. Recognition floods in: racist lawmen of a certain age and time, kinsmen of the bully cops of Birmingham and Montgomery and Selma.

I know these men, or the men like them who were my neighbors, my uncles, my friends' fathers and our Sunday school teachers and scoutmasters. When I was growing up in Mississippi, they would say such appalling things about black people that even to remember 40 or 50 years later causes my gorge to rise. Yet I also know that when they weren't spewing racist filth, they could be men one could respect and even love. It was as if, in the lives of these men, a tributary of human feeling had been dammed, grown stagnant and polluted, and its foulness had seeped out and corrupted a mainstream that should have run clear.

Hendrickson has noted this paradox, too: ''In the South, as has been observed, people who aren't victims of injustice often are victims of irony.'' Is it any wonder that so many Mississippians have written so much good fiction?

If we look at any image long enough, it begins to ''tease us out of thought,'' as Keats put it when he tried to wrest the secrets from the figures on his Grecian urn. And something kept Hendrickson looking at this image: ''I wanted to know: How did these seven white Southerners get to be this way, and how did it all end, or how is it still going on, and was there no eventual shame here, and what happened to their progeny, especially their progeny, and was it all just ineluctable?''

It seems that no one spends much time in Mississippi without trying to write like Faulkner, resorting to words like ''progeny'' and ''ineluctable.'' And Hendrickson spent a lot of time in Mississippi trying to answer the questions raised by this picture. Context is everything, but contexts have contexts, ad infinitum. Especially when you're dealing with something so integral to the American experience -- so, yes, ineluctable -- as racial conflict.

For seven years, Hendrickson searched through the contexts of this image. Most of the men in the picture were dead, but their families, as well as the two surviving men, sat down to talk with him in that generous but wary way that Southerners have. The survivors were defensive but not apologetic, Hendrickson tells us: ''Anything in the direction of atonement or expiation -- even if never named that or understood as such -- has been left to sons, or to sons of sons, or to sons of sons of sons.''

And so the most poignant profiles in his book are of the grandsons of two of the men. John Cothran's grandfather is the man with the armband in the photo, then the sheriff in the Mississippi Delta town of Greenwood. The grandson is a man with anger-management problems that wrecked three marriages before he was 30, a high school dropout who works as a supervisor at a Home Depot, a job that gives him more stress than gratification.

Ty Ferrell's grandfather is the man with the stick, Billy Ferrell, the sheriff in Natchez -- a job that Ty's father, Tommy, now holds. Ty has followed in the family profession, but not in Mississippi -- he's a Border Patrol agent, working out of El Paso, and is so deeply conflicted about what he's doing that it sometimes brings him close to tears in his conversations with Hendrickson. Ty exhibits ''what seemed like existential torment, as if he were meant to be a roiling repository for so many unnamed, unclaimed Ferrell family shames.''

Hendrickson understands the pain of John Cothran and Ty Ferrell, which makes the profiles of the grandsons more affecting than those of the men who appear in the photo. For Hendrickson never succeeds in answering the first of his questions: How did they get to be this way? ''It's so puzzling that a land of such charm and physical beauty, a people of such natural grace and disposition to kindness, could have so appalling a history,'' Hendrickson muses. How did a bigotry so pathological take hold of an entire region?

The best Hendrickson can do is to cite ''The Mind of the South,'' W.J. Cash's 1941 classic, in which Cash, a Southern journalist, wrote of a ''crisis of white masculinity'': ''The ultimate and as-yet-unrealized expression of the overthrow of slavery in the white male mind would be the destruction of the white sexual order.'' So Hendrickson asks about the men in the picture, ''Is it too much to suggest that there may be a faint undertone of sexualized tension in their faces?''

What I see in this picture I have seen in locker rooms and committee meetings and other all-male gatherings, where testosterone speaks to testosterone and the old primate emerges. But what I also see are the products of a closed system, of a place where opinions went unchallenged by other ways of thinking, to the point that prevailing attitudes could be swaddled in a communal bigotry. (There are many other places like this in the world, which makes understanding the Mississippi experience all the more crucial.)

By far the most potent figure in Hendrickson's book is a man who doesn'tappear in the photograph: James Meredith, who shattered the monolithic system of racial repression -- if it could happen in Mississippi, it could happen anywhere.

But Meredith stepped out to his own drummer -- after his graduation from Ole Miss, he stubbornly refused to align with any civil rights organization, starting his own solitary crusade for voting rights, including a one-man march through Mississippi during which he was almost assassinated. Later, he would shock and appall even those who had regarded him as a hero: He took a job as an aide to Sen. Jesse Helms and endorsed ex-Klansman David Duke's candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination -- Meredith even volunteered to be Duke's running mate. Hendrickson's interviews with Meredith only reinforce his reputation for eccentricity.

As the 40th anniversary of Meredith's entrance to Ole Miss approached, his son, Joe, quietly enrolled in a Ph.D. program in business at the university. Joe, who had graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, seems puzzled by his father, too. He tells Hendrickson, ''My father has an overwhelming need to be famous and so will do whatever he thinks will provide that and get him attention -- Jesse Helms, David Duke, you name it, even if it's only for a day.''

''Sons of Mississippi'' feels like a substantial, maybe even essential, contribution to our understanding not only of Southern racism, but also of the ways that the past can mark and mar. The book is sometimes over-reported -- not every detail of Joe Cothran's messy, mundane life is worth telling, for example. And complexities sometimes overwhelm Hendrickson -- his book occasionally seems like several very good magazine articles struggling to get out of the stack of paper in which they're buried.

But Hendrickson is a humane observer who can disarm the reader's impatience. And he's clearly on a mission -- you don't spend seven years researching a book if you're not. As he puts it, ''In Mississippi, nothing ever changes, and everything always changes, and sometimes it seems as if God put Mississippi on earth purely for our moral and confounding contemplation.''