Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Sam Peckinpah was reputed to be too violent and to have no respect for women. These two categories were favorite rubber stamps for a certain kind of liberal for a long time -- maybe still. But watching Peckinpah movies is a good way to get rid of those assumptions, esp. if you go back and watch again with the commentators. Not that they’re right. In fact, I get pretty irritated with them. I’d much rather talk to Sam himself. The trouble was that he was a drunk. These commentator guys don’t know much about that. They’re all nice boys who are so pleased that they were able to escape to their tree house where their wives can’t find them. And they know exactly the right “in” thing to drink, but their wives won’t let them drink too much.


But don’t think this is a rejection of Sam Peckinpah. I love him and I love the moral and artistic construction he made of Westerns and his understanding of land and the people of land. What I want to know is what is the deep historic and human structuring that made him so powerful that these men -- jejune and turned back in on themselves as they are -- would sit down to write articles, organize pilgrimages, sit in libraries researching, teach classes, and create whole departments to house courses about the American West -- while the whole time living in cities, going to the “empty” West only on summer vacations to do very travel-agent suggested things: white-water rafting, back-packing, but mostly sitting around in nice places to eat. The West as a theme park. How do we get out of it? It’s important because people are profiting by defining human experience as a matter of props and scripts. Why should we pay for being human? Is there no way to reach raw experience except violence and sex?

Another thread I’ve been following is the writings of Clay Shirky -- actually, I’ve been watching YouTube vids. I couldn’t figure how what major chord he was striking for me until I came to this in his official bio: “Mr. Shirky graduated from Yale College with a degree in art, and prior to falling in love with the internet, he worked as a theater director and designer in New York. His company, Hard Place Theater, staged "non-fiction theater", theatrical collages of found documents.” There is nothing more real than an audience present in front of a stage. NOT a critic.

Got it. A theatre director (I spell it the English way -- it’s an affectation but it pleases me and this is my blog) is a person who looks deep into the human structure of a play in something like the way a good psychoanalyst (of whatever persuasion) looks into a human identity, which is like the way a good physician looks into the functioning of the body or the way a good engineer looks into the forces interplaying in a bridge (like the engineer who rigged that bridge in “The Wild Bunch” to fall with horses and stuntmen on it without killing them -- you don’t necessarily want a bridge to do the ordinary thing of joining two shores but that means rethinking the problem) -- or Nassim Taleb looking into the structure of financial transactions. Taleb is actually the closest to Shirky because he is not looking so much as individual human beings but at the patterns among humans of various kinds. This is probably also the secret of Malcolm Gladwell: he can find little repetitive patterns in the big picture, give them a name, and explain where they come from. But they are small, not the big picture.

It is PAST time for us to analyze the big picture. Even in Afghanistan the military is shifting to looking at the pattern instead of past assumptions. Shirky was, not surprisingly, working at an investment firm before he went to his present academic position. He has not addressed an analysis of universities and maybe he’d better not. It’s not a pretty picture and a lot of people would be very angry indeed.

BUT what remains always valid for me is Peckinpah’s personality: his own dilemmas and the force and ingenuity he used to overcome them. He embodies ideas. We still want to know the personalities of our generals and we are offended if the President is so transparent that we can’t see him, even when he is clever enough to sit down for a beer with us. But Peckinpaw was produced by a specific set of events IMAO: ranch-raised, mother-devoted, school-resistant so military school, intense and responsible third-world exposure (Marines in China at the end of WWII), then academic history and local theatre. I haven’t quite “got” this yet. It seems to me Shakespearean.

Sam was a competent rural man in terms of hard, direct riding and shooting (not just in movies) but a thoughtful man searching rather desperately for a dependable center pivot, a moral one. Keeping your word no matter what? It hasn’t worked for me. Faith? Entering one’s house “justified,” as he said? Who decides what’s justified? This is the dilemma also of a world society seeking to leave a code-specified world (like the Taliban’s) but uncertain what the next key is, except money. We are just now learning what a false god money is, because it is a construct -- a pretend thing. It’s neither a horse nor a gun nor a plate of beans by a campfire. It’s all just paper that can be wiped out overnight. It can take your house, inflate the price of food so much that whole countries starve. Yet it’s nothing.

Once when I was still preaching, I asked if anyone in the congregation would give me a paper dollar. There were willing offers. As I said to them, it wasn’t different from buying me a drink. Then I set it on fire and burned it down to the corner where I was holding it. They were appalled, aghast, jumped to their feet to stop me. So much emotion! But it was just a piece of paper.

“Theatrical collages of found documents,” like the evidence that big Pharma has sold drugs they know might kill you (Avandia, most recently). Freedom of information is the scariest bomb on the planet. Might make drunks of us all. So why is Clay Shirky so centered and calm? I dunno. I’m going to watch him carefully. No suit -- there’s a good clue. Willingness to confront and decipher high tech elements. He doesn’t waste time combing his hair. (I don’t know how Robert Sapolsky, my other favorite guru, gets around that. He doesn’t wear a suit though.) Both Shirky and Sapolsky and others (Tim Barrus is of this ilk.) are fluent, intense, and evidently anchored in real life. You don’t have to work through their print -- you can watch them on YouTube even if you’re illiterate.

In the Sixties when Peckinpah was making his movies, I was in Browning, Montana, living out the very things he was filming. That has been my anchor and it continues to be, but the theatre education I got at Northwestern and the seminary education I got at the U of Chicago were very much focused on systems, the way forces intermingle to create something new. I don’t have to own Scriver bronzes to know what they mean and it is the meaning that is valuable IF it is experience-based, not just commercially constructed. Even Montana seems to have lost track of this. Even though they watch old Westerns every night on the Ted Turner channel while they drink a six-pack of beer.

No comments: