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
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:
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:
AN AMERICAN INSURRECTION:
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
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
Any reader of Faulkner knows how steeped
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
When I came back to the
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
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.
By Paul Hendrickson
Knopf, 320 pp., $26
In February 1995, Washington Post reporter Paul Hendrickson was browsing in a bookstore in
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
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
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
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
Ty Ferrell's grandfather is the man with the stick, Billy Ferrell, the sheriff in
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
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
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
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.''
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