Sunday, January 31, 2010


Tim Barrus To My Film Students at Cinematheque: RE: Your Assignment on Shorts.

I have received most of your shorts. I am enjoying them tremendously. Most of you are beginning to develop an understanding of the power of a metaphor. You get in. You zap it. And then you’re out. No lingering. The audience doesn’t have time. How can you say what you have to say within the context of a moving image, hold the attention of the audience, and then get out so the narrative can move. You’re getting there. I have a few more to look at. You’ve run it from humor to tragedy. The trick is in how to do that in the longer telling of your story. IT’S ALWAYS ABOUT TELLING A STORY. That will never change. Keep it up. More! More! — Tim Barrus

This is Mary now. I’ve been in the background watching these clips and reading the assignments for several years. Normally they do a layered sort of metaphorical event, a lot like music videos. They create mood, establish place, and are about as long as the song lasts. Sometimes there are arbitrary and surprising things happening. Anything to hold attention.

These class assignments were different. Fifteen seconds to tell a story.

Two are standouts so far. The first is called “Pull.” The unasked question it answers is “what happens when someone you love can no longer make it by themselves?” if the link doesn't work.

You pull. And we see one boy pulling another in a bleak complex forest without knowing whether he is sick, hurt, dying. . . There’s no dialogue. Remember that this is an art school for boys at risk, so the truth -- even the TRUTH of this, might be any of those things. Simple. But LOADED.

The other one doesn’t have a title and is not a question, unless you count rhetorical questions.

Here’s a beautiful young man who says, “You don’t get it, do you?” Then a beat. “You will.” It’s that beat between the two shots -- the second one closer -- that gives the piece brilliance, because it’s where we put our own thoughts into the story. We don’t know who “you” might be. Another boy? A girl? A mother? A coach? Someone more sinister? (He himself doesn’t seem sinister. In fact, this is a very beautiful boy as is the title image of a freckled boy’s innocent eye.) He’s looking UP, directly, confidently.

Both of these seconds-long vids tell stories that are packed with possibility, but still profoundly ambiguous, so that we can project ourselves inside whatever is happening. They are like Hemingway’s idea that a classified ad (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”) can contain a novel.

There’s a good deal of talk lately about “meta” -- the idea of the ideas BEHIND or UNDER something. Like maybe “metafiction” when the author drops the characters and speaks directly to the reader about what he’s doing. So we could say that the strategy of short, ambiguous but highly engaging narrative is artistically “meta,” and could work in painting, in dance. I suggested that it was pioneered in music videos, short meditations on a song as it’s sung with lots of atmosphere and emotion, but often with quite a bit of mystery. If you’re dealing with human relationships, what choice do you have?

Another source, I think, is the personal practice of “looping” a moment of dialogue or action or music that somehow has intense meaning, something that people watch or listen to over and over as though trying to get inside it. I really think some kids succeed, always have. Those moments exist forever deep inside them, sometimes guiding their real lives. Some of us make loops of memories.

And I relate this “short mode” story-telling to -- don’t groan -- all those high school exercises in Haiku. For those who got it, the lesson of an image that suddenly shifts into deep meaning, is always there. It’s that thing about the old wheelbarrow in the rain, isn’t it?

And then there was that wave of nanofiction: a story in a limited number of words. I wrote a bunch of them. Here’s a timely, if cautionary one.

“The night of the district playoffs there was a freezing rain. The high school bus went off the highway and rolled twice, shattering windows and strewing both baggage and players. Five young men and the coach survived, but wished they had not. Over the years their drunken grieving killed them one by one, even the coach.”

The boys at Cinematheque are not all readers or writers -- they are artists and a keyboard is not necessarily their metier. Anyhow, they speak an assortment of languages. Their shared meta-language is color, form, movement (some are dancers), image, always music, rhythm. They work on the “meta” level, which I’ve approached elsewhere as “felt concepts,” the sort of thing you dream but can’t put into words. The stuff underneath the words.

Another thought. We’re often told about the brief attention spans of modern people and their habits of snatching quick moments of something on a small screen, not unlike advertisements: brief, intense, focussed, no context outside the moment. The medium through which a story is told can’t help but affect the story itself, the way it’s told. The bard who walked from one town to another singing long balladic stories depended upon rhythm and rhyme to carry his memory of the text. Paperback books for people who didn’t have a lot of money and read where ever they could needed vivid, simple stories called “genre” after “gens,” the people. Writing for television in half-hour increments means structuring plot in a certain way. Writing for wide-screen means a certain lyrical visionary style. This meta-level is not mysterious once you learn to see it and, well, FEEL it.

These two “shorts” indexed here are personal, specific, contextual (one in a room, one in a woods), and intense. Technically they are clear and well-framed. I don’t know who made them. I never know the boys as individuals, but rather as a group, mutually supportive. I have an early and intense history with repertory theatre, which is not that different. On the “meta” level.


When I was “doing education” for animal control, I used to complain that the four main things I needed to talk about were all taboo in polite society: Birth, death, sex and shit. Of course, the reason they cried out for education was that when something is taboo, it cannot be discussed and therefore no one knows anything much about it. They just wander around making guesses and accumulating wrong-headedness.

This is not just true of dogs. People are also much in the dark about their own birth, death, sex and shit, though they have begun to wonder out loud. For instance, I once saw an advice column by a doctor in a counterculture publication. He was asked this question: a frat boy was organizing a big party that was supposed to impress everyone with their daring sophistication. So he wanted to know whether, if they decorated their punch bowl with a specimen of human excrement on a floating cake of ice, whether they would actually be endangering the guests. (Which is not the same issue as whether anyone would be tempted to partake.) The doctor, completely straight-faced, said that normal stomach acid would kill almost anything contagious in human excrement but that it would be a good idea to get the donor checked for hepatitis first. Maybe the more ubiquitous human gut parasites as well.

So there are really two things to think about here: the actual reality of shit and the mythology of shit, which makes the substance so attractive to those out to shock and revolt. Since Freud, no psychoanalyst has been unaware that in dreams shit equals money. Sometimes sex. Observers have noticed that taboo subjects are only taboo to the middle classes, maybe because of ambivalence. The sophisticated top layers of society like to talk more about sex than about money. Sex talk becomes a kind of privilege because it’s “adults only.” If you wear a white coat like Dr. Masters, you can ask people anything, ask them to DO anything. But it is also a power-marker for the underclasses and lower classes where common vernacular is full of those old Anglo-Saxon low class markers: four-letter words. Middle class people say, “Cleanliness is next to godliness” and refuse to even say the word shit.

“Dark Eros”
by Thomas Moore is a serious upperclass sophisticated investigation into the philosophy of the Marquis de Sade, who was much interested in sex and shit and what they stood for. He spent much of his life sitting in prison pondering all these things and writing semi-sane screeds against the Powers That Be, describing them as libertines who had no human empathy, wanting only more power. I knew very little about de Sade until reading this. I started to read some of his stuff long ago but found it profoundly boring, which Moore grants right away. It is NOT pornography, which is supposed to be the opposite. After all, the idea of porn is to sell it.

One of the first surprises is that de Sade concentrated on bottoms, from the back, which our society finds amusing and childish. The effect of this choice is to lessen the importance of gender difference: rear ends are much more androgenous than the breasts and penises law requires us to cover. We spank on bottoms. We worry about whether they are too big. Mooning is funny and shocking and insulting, but not considered sexy. And yet, spanking erotica is a huge category in porn, especially in the upperclass circles of Britain where spanking or flogging or caning was a big part of adolescent life at boarding schools and became conflated with the antics of boys in dorms and group showers. I guess that’s not impossible to understand. And blacks, always more honest, call bottoms their “booty.”

But de Sade, in his quest for the unmentionable, talked quite a bit about what he called “the gourmands of excrement.” There are two ages when people get fascinated by excrement. One is the baby and sometimes the distressed or regressing child who simply see a smearable and smelly substance to dig fingers into. They put EVERYTHING in their mouths. The other is the oldsters who worry constantly about becoming impacted, even as they decrease their intake of roughage. On the other hand, they may become incontinent, “dirty old men.” There is also a peculiar time when entering intimacy with another person and becoming aware of things normally kept secret, like, they also use the bathroom. What a surprise!

Being an archetypal psychotherapist means pinning discussion to one of the Greek pantheon as a sort of container for a group of concepts. As it happens, the latrine workers were under the protection of Saturn, “the lord both of the outhouse and of freedom, Saturnalia. He liberates from the restraints of a narrow morality. . .” Repression as a Saturnine leads to such shit as “our cities littered with his literal garbage, and our homes . . . teeming with the excrement of human family emotions.” Impacted.

Moore remarks “government has an enormous backside.” Don’t we know it. So often horses’ asses producing bullshit. But we don’t seem to taste it, “get it,” digest it. We just hold our noses and go around. As Moore notes, the backsides are SO much more interesting than the facades of people. All those politicians who are boringly upright in front but mighty loose from the back. All those major athletic or literary personalities with unsuspected child-sides, locked in the bathroom.

Going back to the bottom without the squishy stuff, Moore makes a small mention of Aphrodite, whose alternate name was Kalliglautos, "She of the Lovely Behind." (When you write about naughty subjects, you always want to introduce some learned, i.e. Greek words.) In fact, she is often posed in a way that has a name: anasyrma, the lifting of the dress to reveal the naked body while glancing over the shoulder. Such a graceful revelation is not the same as de Sade’s insistence on torture, examination, standards (and the destruction of any lesser performers), controlling, counting, schedules, samples for testing, nit-picking attention to religion, aging, suppression, depression. cold and distance. Often it is the denial of one’s own weakness and inferiority by imposing punishment (torture) on others marked as weak and inferior. In short, modern bureaucracy in too many shitty ways.

The book is "Dark Eros: The Imagination of Sadism," by Thomas Moore. 1990. ISBN 0-88214-365-4

Saturday, January 30, 2010


For all those who despair that they can’t find reviews of anything but best-sellers and big-push Manhattan stuff, this is what to look for. Thirty years old this year, this newsprint bimonthly located in Denver might be named for the Virginia Woolf Bloomsbury group, but there is nothing specifically Brit about them. They are both regional and eclectic, one foot in the counterculture and one foot in grad school.

They make me mad. Not really angry, but frustrated, because I’ve never really figured out how to interface with them. I LOVE reading the review and go through it carefully every time it comes. I boost it as much as I can on this blog. But I don’t really connect with these people somehow. I don’t know why and I don’t know why it should even matter anyway.

Jim Hepworth is the only one I know personally. I took a class from him at Fishtrap Writing Conference which was fun and valuable and he praised me in an encouraging way. It was about Stegner’s “Angle of Repose” and I had prepared as though I were a grad student -- with one difference. The book is about the impossibility of reconciling an Eastern educated woman with a Western man of the land. At one point she has gone home to the east, while he stays on the land as an engineer. A mounted elk head, yes, taxidermy, is hanging in the barn and it’s a good job. She’s out there and for a moment it seems to come to life. This showed that she DID love the West. I said that.

Everyone sat there staring. They all KNEW that taxidermy is a “bad thing,” that it kills, that it’s false, that it’s politically incorrect. But I’d spent a decade with Bob Scriver living with taxidermy. It has a LOT of meaning to me, none very typical. Jim finally said, “In all the years I’ve been teaching this book NO ONE has ever said that before.” I was proud and gratified. But I was OUT. I did not fit. Our experiences did not match. They were irreconcilable, like Stegner’s parents.

For a while in the subsequent years when I was driving back and forth between the prairies and Portland, OR, I’d pull up in front of Hepworth’s house -- usually at some ungodly hour like 5AM -- and sit at the curb in the dawn light for a while to see whether anyone might show signs that they were up. There was never any sign so I’d move on. That’s the way it mostly is with me and publishing. I never did go back to Fishtrap writing center at Wallowa Lake. They’re an initiated group who love to sit around a bonfire and roar out songs while swilling beer. At least that’s my mental image. I’m not loose enough.

I sort of see the Bloomsbury Review the same way: an NGO of great value and generosity, much bon homie and bonding, but not for me as a participant. They don’t accept my reviews, they didn’t review my book, “Bronze Inside and Out.” Probably have no idea it exists. They know about this blog, I think. I copy them when I talk about them.

Both the attraction of literature and what I might call “the repellancy of literature” is that we all learned in school that it’s a charmed circle. I’m not talking about the commercial goo and greed of Manhattan. I mean something more like a religious denomination where everyone knows the hymns and order of service. Environmental groups are like that. Bloomsbury loves environmental groups. Religion, too, but only if it’s not Christian, mostly.

So many of the books they do review are exactly what I’m looking for. For a long time they were the only trustworthy reviewers of Native American books. (By now the NA’s are writing for each other and are not reviewable for this audience.) They were interviewing Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry before anyone else knew they existed.

Take a look at this list of advertisers’ websites. Very useful. Little guys, going along full of hope and ideas. Boomers. Bloomsbury Review is on Facebook and will soon have a website: Still boomers. The gray ponytail crowd has found the Internet. The website has advice for people who would like their book to be reviewed. The advice is: 1. send the book and 2. don’t expect anything. So should I hustle around to buy a copy of my own book (I’m out of review copies) to send? Naw. I think I’ll just sit here and pout. What difference would it make? I mean REALLY what difference would it make.

The advertisers in Bloomsbury Review have always included a lot of “regional” academic presses plus some other high grade publishers. I see that they are shifting around. U of Oklahoma Press is missing. Texas took the whole back page. Kansas, New Mexico, Nebraska, Arizona and California are in. Montana has no university press. Montana small publishers create pretty tourist books. Montana is where writers and movie actors come to be ignored. We DO read when we’re snowed in.

Bloomsbury is about the English pattern of “printing” with machinery, not even an iPod. That’s okay. Why should I get all shook up about it? Tim is on a roll this morning, “preaching” about the relationship between social class and books, the American accumulations of books simply piling onto their other mounds of things to own and drag around the country in 18-wheelers or leave in storage units until the rent on them can’t be paid so the books and Christmas ornaments and grandma’s old rocker all go to auction. (With the occasional murder victim.) How publshers are de facto censors.

The English pattern of printed publishing is a capital-based pattern. One must have money -- universities used to have money. Professors, before they were dispersed into adjuncts, came close to being landed (tenured) gentry and what counted in that context was your advisor, who was a patron who could get you grants and positions and a published book. Now that the money is gone, the books have gone as well. What we see on our iPads and Nookies is our consolation. They ARE our professors now. Backpack professors. Who needs a university anymore? Corporations. Quickly sell your stock in textbook companies.

I hope The Bloomsbury Review travels into that virtual world. It has lasted thirty years now. Read it while you still can. On Facebook.

Friday, January 29, 2010



When researchers rather recently gained access to Hudson’s Bay records, they found enough new information to challenge many assumptions. Subtle and ingenious scientific methods have also added to our understanding of what Darrell Kipp likes to call the “population hydraulics of the plains.” The opposite of reservation systems where defined people must stay within mapped boundaries, the people of the early days pushed and pulled in many different ways, using both diplomacy and war as well as trade. Hunting tribes built up reciprocity with agricultural tribes and small tribes formed alliances to resist big tribes.

Individuals who were on the outs with their own clan or attracted to another clan, were free to go there. Some tribes -- which were really aggregations of clans that developed out of extended families -- did so well that they overwhelmed the carrying capacity of their location, so split in half. Others became so decimated in the face of disaster like the major smallpox epidemics that they formed a new composite group.

In “Common & Contested Ground,Ted Binnema describes how groups have been forced to respond to climate change. Some major events, extending over hundreds of years, include the Neo-Atlantic episode (circa A.D. 850 to 1250) which probably allowed corn agriculture to move north as tougher varieties developed. But then a drier and cooler Pacific episode (A.D. 1250 to 1550) pushed corn back out of the north.

Between 1300 and 1750 the people classified as Mortlach, described as traders who mixed hunting with agriculture, become powerful enough to push what is called “Old Woman” culture up to the north where it ran into what is called “Selkirk.” At the end the Mortlach traders were beginning to acquire European implements, but were still on foot, horseless though they traveled constantly with commodities. Most of us have no awareness of these groups.

Since much early American travel was by waterways, Europeans had access to the high prairie through Hudson’s Bay to the north and the Mississippi/Missouri complex to the south. Hudson’s Bay Company brought its ships into the bay and established their early forts on the shore. Thus many metal objects and weapons entered the population there, often distributed by busy Cree entrepreneurs who carried them inland via canoes on smaller streams. The Blackfeet wanted the materials but hated having to travel “sitting in canoes and eating fish.” “Without buffalo, I will die,” announced one man. These trade relationships led to new alliances and knowledge exchanges.

Horses arrived overland from the south. The Shoshoni had a brief explosion of potency when they were the only horseback warriors, but lost their advantage when others became mounted. Still, the northern plains are hard on horses so mortality was high and raids over the Rockies into Kutenai/Salish/Flathead territory became necessary to replenish the herds. Reciprocally, the People of the western valleys came to the east side after buffalo. Formal protocols allowed messengers to ask for permission to share the main buffalo hunting grounds, which was normally granted.

Horses to the south were balanced by guns to the north, but then smallpox reduced the population by more than half. Suddenly the buffalo were gone and the free life ended.


Ranchers can easily understand that buffalo (bison) are really about grass, but to most people grass is simply grass -- out there growing where it wants to or else neatly corralled into yards. Ranchers know that grasses are all different in growing season, location, nutritional value, plant recovery and so on. Buffalo knew that, too, and therefore they went where the grass was good for them. Indians also understood and went where the buffalo went.

Mother Nature did NOT manage her buffalo the way a good rancher would. Specifically, the harsh conditions of the prairie caused a massive die-off the of the animals every winter which varied according to the specifics. Research has now dispelled the idea that buffalo migrated like songbirds, and can be much more detailed about where and why they moved around the high plains, sometimes only changing which side of a hill they grazed and other times moving from one ecology to another: foothills to protected valleys, for instance. One of the worst hazards was fording rivers in spring when the ice was likely to give way, so that drowned carcasses piled up in huge numbers in places like the Great Falls of the Missouri. This provided a well-timed nutritional bonanza for bears, wolves and their smaller satellite mammals.

In hard years the buffalo became so lean that the protein-without-fat became indigestible, even poisonous to humans who need a minimum of fat in their diet for metabolic reasons. This put a premium on fetal or newborn animals or their mothers, both of whom preserved fat better than bulls. The invention of pemmican, drymeat pulverized with both fat and berries and thought to have developed about 4,800 years ago, was life-saving for early humans.

Theodore Binnema’s book, “Common and Contested Ground: A Human and Environmental History of the Northwestern Plains,” is a carefully documented and reasoned overview. He identifies three main grass ecosystems that the buffalo moved through depending on the season. The first is fescue/parkland/riverine, the second is mesic (moist) mixed prairie, and the third is xeric (dry) mixed prairie. The benefit to the animals had more to do with the amount of nutrition in the grass than the actual amount of the grass. The growing seasons of cool weather grasses start earlier and then overlapped with the warm weather grasses. Of course, both depend upon the availability of water, with the monsoon season east of the Rockies being usually in May/June. Then the ability of the grass to “cure” might relate to a long period of hot sun.

Indians understood much about grass but they did not cut it. Rather they used fire to renew rangeland and jumpstart growth in spring. Sometimes even to move buffalo to better terrain for hunting. The buffalo themselves also helped the grass by preventing tree growth. Thrashing their way into aspen groves, they broke off and stirred up the vegetation. At the edges of the evergreen stands, they trampled seedlings. And, like cattle on the Savory plan, they grazed one place hard, then moved on, leaving behind their dung and hoof scuffs to help plant growth. It all fit together.

(These two pieces were written by me for "Montana Lifestyles" and are reprinted through the generous permission of Hope Good.)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

"Eatin' Shit" : fiction

(This story was written for a boy who felt he was made to “Eat Shit” by an adult who didn’t get the picture. I hope it cheered him up.)

A., who was European, was visiting the small Carolina town where a relative had a house. He and J stayed in a little loft room over a store because they were artists and needed space to work at it all the time. The time was pretty good. Different, you know. But people stared. He got a little self-conscious so he started walking down the alleys instead of out on the regular street where people were always hanging around on the sidewalk.

Then this one day he was passing a dumpster and saw a tubby little black kid trying to pull out this huge flattened cardboard box. Must’ve been on an appliance, like a refrigerator. It was way too big for the kid to handle, so A -- who’s a good guy -- went over and helped him get it out. “What you want such a giant piece of cardboard for? You going to make something? A cut-out maybe? It’s so big you could make a cut-out elephant!”

The kid had a big wide white grin. “Naw. I’m gonna break-dance on it!” Now he was towing it along the alley behind them, raising dust, until they came to an empty lot. Eyeing the ground critically and kicking aside some rubble and cans, the boy positioned his cardboard so it was flat.

“What is break-dance? Some American thing?” The kid grinned some more and spun into a routine, first making his feet fly under his baggy pants in a quick syncopated rhythm and then flipping over on one arm, then dropping to a shoulder, and spinning. “Oh, hip-hop!” He began to clap and sing, but the kid didn’t last too long.

“Can’t do as much as I used to. Busted my arm.”

“How’d that happen? Break dancing?” He laughed at his joke, but then felt sheepish. The arm did look a little crooked.

“Oh, it healed pretty good now. My mom’s boyfriends are pretty rough, but she ain’t got one right now. I can sleep at home for a while.”

A looked at this boy speculatively. He was gettin’ the picture. “You know a good place for coffee around here?” A. was curious.

“You drink COFFEE??”

“What can I say? I’m European.”

The boy rolled his eyes. “I thought Europeans all drank wine!”

When they’d settled in a booth back in a corner where it was dark and unobtrusive, a plate of fries between them, he began to probe a little bit. “Where’d you learn to dance like that?” He didn’t eat many fries. The kid doused his in ketchup, but there was no vinegar.

“Aw, it’s a way to make a few bucks -- you know, on the street when you can’t go home.”

“I know,” admitted A quietly and decided to chance it. “What happened to your dad?”

The boy lit up like a Christmas window display. “He’s in AFRICA, man!”


“Yeah, he ain’t no ordinary black man. He AFRICAN! Like a warrior. His hair in little braids all over his head and he TALL and WIDE and I can’t hardly even get my arms around him, but he have long arms and he wrap ‘em around me and hold me so TIGHT, on account a’ he love me, man. He come back to get me. Keep me safe forever.”

“What country in Africa?”

“I dunno. It jungle, but he know where there a diamond mine and he gonna smuggle out some BIG ones by swallowin’ them and then when he shit them out, he sell ‘em for enough money to come back and get me.” A had a feeling this was fantasy and more likely the boy’s father was in jail, sitting there getting more massive by the day because of weight-lifting and starchy food.

A skinny black girl was looking in the window with her hands on the sides of her face to see through the shadows. She came in and marched straight back to the booth. “Lonzo! You got to come home right NOW. Mama SAID.”

The boy sighed. “First I gotta visit the shitter.” He dragged himself out and around the corner to the door marked MEN.

“Don’t shit no diamonds,” joked A.

“What you talkin’ about?” the girl demanded.

“Oh, he was tellin’ me how your daddy was gonna swallow diamonds in Africa and get rich.”

“He ain’t got no daddy.”

“Huh?” A had such a clear picture in his head, he just wanted that dark warrior man to be true. He could almost smell lion blood or something.

“He’s my brother, or at least half-brother, but none of us in that family knows who our daddy might be. Whoever was around at the time is all.” She went and pounded on the door of the shitter. “Come outa there, Lonzo!” Then she came back to the booth with her hands on her hips, as angry as if she were a mama herself and likely she was.

A hated her. He couldn’t help himself. He was a little afraid of her, really. He tried to think of something true to say. “Well, I think he DOES have a daddy. It’s just that his daddy lives inside him and maybe some day he’ll BE that daddy.” She glared at him. “And he won’t run off. He’ll wrap his arms around his boy and hug him hard.”

“Hmmph,” she sniffed, “You as much a liar as he is!” and marched off with Lonzo trailing along behind. Lonzo turned enough to exchange a little finger wave.

A got another coffee, black, and sat for a while wondering what it would be like to be hugged by a massive African warrior with brass earrings and muscle bracelets on his upper arms and maybe a leopardskin thrown over his shoulder but no pants. Just one helluva swingin’ dick.

He turned over the placemat and began to draw.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Okay, so I have three all-male groups here: the “Platoon” cast; the “Shakespeare Behind Bars” company and Cinematheque boys at risk. “Platoon” is a true memoir, written many years later and rearranged/conflated a bit. The Shakespeare group is a year’s worth of film, edited and rearranged for theme and meaning. Cinematheque is a three-year email journal with vids which I get almost daily. Out of that resource I’ve edited two manuscripts: “Orpheus Pressed Up Against the Windows of the Catacombs” about the years 2007 to 2009. “Pole-Dancing with the Universe” starts from the present and moves backwards farther, counter-clockwise as it were.

“Platoon” is about violence, with real, justified-and-unjustified, kill-and-be-killed events. War means murder, and not just the enemy. Bystanders and comrades as well. The Shakepeare inmates were not all killers but I don’t think there were any who had not been exposed to violence. Not just on television but family and acquaintance conflict. One had been a military sniper, like the one in the recent Vanity Fair article, but this one came back and found a civilian who “needed killing.” The Cinematheque boys raise questions about the quiet lethality of passing HIV virus as well as questions about a society allowing them to die by ignoring them.

Each forms a kind of ecology, a set of expectations, but the most obvious characteristic of all of them is that they are flowing, moving, developing processes, the Shakespeare company most self-consciously. Nothing holds still. The groups change, the people within the groups change, and then the dynamics among them change. The question of what is “real” and what is “fiction” hardly seems useful, much less answerable. Anyway, says Hank, the director of the Shakespeare group, don’t concentrate on the end product, look at the process and if that is done well, the product will be there. Certainly a principle of all arts. Even in the ministry the wisest people would say, “trust the process.”

When the Shakepeare company talked about what confined and distorted their lives, it seemed to me most often it was the attempt to force them to comply with a role, to stay within expectations of either family or church. Or at least the appearance of that role. But the demand was sometimes destructive, esp. for the gay or otherwise sexually nonconformist. The men themselves noted that one of their most gifted members, who committed suicide after breaking the prison rules (no tattoos), came from a neighborhood with half-a-dozen men in that prison. Evidently the local template for honor and valued behavior was in conflict with the laws of the state. (The tattoos were meant to honor the memory of the man the convict had killed to avenge. He was serving two life sentences with no possibility of parole.)

These Shakespeare men were far from stupid, but -- of course -- they were self-selected from the general population. One pointed out that they were totally unlike the Forties version of convicts, criminal hustlers always trying to “get over” on the man, working scams and corruption. Some of these contemporary men were so big and powerful that when they lost their temper they could break people’s necks as though they were drinking straws. Things happened fast, especially since the big men seemed somehow child-like. One had been damaged and abused in childhood and -- though he was massive because of weight-lifting -- still spoke in a high child’s voice and could not manage a predatory woman who leeched off him except by killing her. He couldn’t generate options. This is the man who became one of the themes of the film.

When they talked about what healed and redeemed them, it was bonding with each other in a safe context -- exactly what one would expect in a family or ministry rather than in a prison. It was not the prison that provided the safety, though it did structure their lives, kept them off the street, clothed and fed them. (Admittedly increasingly low-grade food.) Safety, emotional safety, came from the Shakespeare group. Also, their intimacy meant no drugs because everyone would know right away and because the group itself did what drugs would have done.

Race was there, but not the kind of determining factor that studies show at the bottom of prison gang violence. The same was true of “Platoon” where blacks sometimes grouped politically (events were almost a half-century ago) but the real differences were between drunks and potheads, country music versus hard rock. (Putting aside the HUGE differences between enlisted men and educated “suburban” white officers, that old class rift at the bottom of so much fragging. Is that where the contempt for “suburbanites” comes from?) At Cinematheque the issue doesn’t seem to arise. They are a European group. But age can group them, youngest versus oldest.

The mantra in the Shakespeare company was “truth and courage,” or, more elaborately, the courage to tell the truth once a person managed to figure it out. The human “truths” of the plays were only a means to get at the individual truths of the men. Courage, of course, was right up front in “Platoon,” but the failures were notable and fatal. Truth was just a theory. Cinematheque, for its own protection, must work with private -- even secret -- truths while spinning out artistic constructs that hopefully illuminate larger social truths. It is essentially iconoclastic, self-defined “guerrilla,” but also learning and growth-based. The members stay included by choice. No one makes them stay.

“Groups” or “communities” are major puzzles that I have not personally solved. Church, school and small government are the places I’ve made my living, always painfully and blindly in ways that forced me to compromise. Why is that? Is it me or them? Or both? Or is there something in “Western society” (in the sense of Euro) that makes it toxic, for instance, the hierarchical principle or the insistence on certification and supervision or the obsession with either/or? Surely in any Asian system I’d have been excluded, confined, or killed as a trouble-maker long ago.

There’s an old WWII joke about soldiers. It was said that German soldiers were so obedient that they would do things obviously lethal or immoral; American soldiers were so defiant that they’d be standing there arguing with the sergeant who told them to dive-and-duck until the bomb hit them; and -- naturally, because this was a Brit joke -- the English hit the proper balance of judgment and compliance. But what is that?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

EXTRAORDINARY MEN: Shakespeare Behind Bars

People are anxiously poring over the forces of the last ten years -- the militarization, the money trap, the flashy sex-obsessions -- but I haven’t seen much of anything about what often troubles me: the trivialization of the big powerful cultural forces like literature, religion, and even psychotherapy. They are all centered on popularity, feeling good, fitting into some statistical category. Where are the enormous outraged cries of agony? Maybe that’s why I’ve been watching war movies.

Last night’s movie was about the internal war in this country: the drug-fueled underclass that patterns poor and rich alike along the path to prison. So many people in prison. The movie was “Shakespeare Behind Bars.” Instead of “this little wooden O” like a ship in a sea, this is a concrete sprawl like a nation of troubled men. The play is “The Tempest.” I’m convinced that I’ve seen another movie about this program with a different director and play, but can’t bring up the title. I almost passed on this one, thinking it would be a repeat, but it wasn’t. (I should start keeping a list.)

In a way the tight supervision and structure of a prison makes it safe to really look at humans honestly in all their hatred and violence the way a real play does, the way “penitentiaries” were once presumed to work: to produce penitence. This movie demonstrates, but it is cut down from 170 hours of film, which means there was a lot of winnowing in the editing room to get this gold. (Mixed metaphor, I know.) But the arbitrariness of prison and court systems -- which is like, because it is produced by, real life -- rarely allows the gold to provide escape. The container up-ends and all is spilled. A chance cats’paw of breeze blows it all away.

When we look at crime in movies it’s more usually made spectacular and swaggering with lots of stunts. But real felonies, esp. murder, are more likely near-accidents, the deep storms and undertows of people happening into opportunities for real damage. Domestic violence, guns close at hand, mixed families, harsh religious beliefs, and always booze and drugs. As Charlie Sheen knows, it’s not just a matter of being in Vietnam. In fact, some actors entering this territory can’t leave it. The adrenaline rush is SO addictive.

At first this movie shows us the burly, self-guarded men as though they were the local Moose or Elk club. Slowly and often individually, Hank Rogerson begins the work of finding their inner systems and relating them to Shakespeare’s insights. We become attached to certain people as their disclosures increase. Sammie is the tent pole of the narrative. Howie, who plays Prospero, seems the unlikely inmate. Halfway through, his wire-rimmed glasses are exchanged for prison-issue plastic, his neat goatee becomes a bit runaway, and his original story of how he murdered his “first” wife shifts around a bit into a more literary tale of deception, his own little play. Still, he can talk about how he is somehow “clamped” in the middle by his rigid religious upbringing. Sammie is harder to understand since he’s been a productive worker, a supervisor, in the database center. He expects parole but knows he’s habituated to prison life. The filmmakers, to some extent, are controlling the plot by choosing what to show.

Still, that’s aside from the point of this post and I probably shouldn’t write about these individuals until I’ve watched the DVD voice-overs by the men themselves. What I wanted to get at is that among the losses after the counterculture, we lost some grand, passionate, daring, confrontive therapists who were probably not quite balanced themselves, like the vivid BBC crime-solvers or tormented abstract expressionist painters. We used to value them. I knew a few. Some were college professors.

People are criticizing Obama for not being more like these extraordinary and media-friendly people. They miss the drama queens like Rumsfeld and Cheney. And yet no one was more cottage cheese than Bush, stumbling through his B-movie scripts while his wife smoked and watched, smoked and watched. I think we’re afraid of extraordinariness now, can’t trust EITHER the big gesture or steady persistence.

I’ve been cruising back around among some of the big name therapy gurus of the past and am finding that they’ve been seized by “spirituality,” a great cloud of devotees, mostly female and looking for womb-like peace and harmony. (Not unlike the majority of book-readers.) A few have put out little feelers towards the dark and dangerous, you might say the world of “The Lord of the Rings” with its orcs and wizards, but then withdraw into the Harry Potter world of thinking caps and pet phoenixes. In both cases (fantasy movies and fantasy psychotherapy), it’s mostly special effects.

Such a huge percentage of our national population are in prison that, taken en masse, they must be telling us something about ourselves. When I was on the street in the Seventies, we used to joke that NE Portland (where the blacks lived) had the highest percentage of time-serving felons in town while outlier SE Portland (where the poor whites lived) had the highest percentage of unarrested felons in town. Some of us were pretty uncomfortable in NE and others were highly nervous in SE. The place everyone was nervous was where people were most educated/prosperous, because they wouldn’t shoot you but they’d get you fired. We had no black officers. We tried to hire them. No Asian or NA. One hispanic. Women, yes. But having female officers changed the role, trivializing it.

Dave Lull, the cross-pollinating reference librarian, is an admirer of Nassim Taleb, the originator of the trope he calls “The Black Swan” which is his word for something totally unexpected, like big time money collapse. I was trying to express to Dave what I thought was a possible black swan in the future. I said civil war in the US, like what almost happened in the Seventies, because it was never really resolved -- just stuffed. We got out on parole by promising to be good. But some people had their fingers crossed.

In my view, Obama is our Hank Rogerson, patiently bringing high-grade education, history, and processing to bear on a lot of denial, jealousy, and greed. Even though we blame him for what we find.

Monday, January 25, 2010


My “plan” for this post was to compare and contrast “The Killing Fields” and “Platoon,” which are part of my back-looping through Netflix to pick up movies I never saw or really considered when they were first issued. Both are famous, high-impact, “true” stories. So suddenly they ran into the constant discussion about “memoir” that buzz like flies around Tim’s head. Many definitions, typologies, and moral arguments, almost all of them self-serving. Political testimony is esp. hot. And these two movies are indeed exactly that. As the character in “Platoon” says, “It’s all politics, man. All politics.”

I saw “Platoon” in Saskatoon when I was candidating for their Unitarian pulpit. The congregation was so nice they were totally out of politics. They considered themselves above it, dividing their interests between therapy and mysticism, except for a dedicated sub-group that had their teeth set deeply into environmental protection and were marginalized within the group for their pains. Anyway, during “Platoon,” a row of farm boys sat right behind me, shouting the “f” word three times every time one of the characters used the word, which was mighty often. I had a hard time concentrating.

I was much aided this time by two DVD voice-over back-through viewings, one from Oliver Stone and one by Dale Dye who played “Captain Harris” as well as running the actors through a two-week jungle boot camp and checking all details for accuracy. This movie was a right-up-front memoir, written and directed by Oliver Stone, endorsed as “real” by Dye. It was made twenty years after the events and some characters were composites, esp. the polar opposites played by Berenger and Dafoe, who drove the narrative around the Stone character (Charlie Sheen) as he tried to make sense of what was happening. The problem is complicated because Berenger is NOT unmitigated evil. That honor goes to the character named “Bunny” who is a type very familiar to me: kid testosterone-on-a-stick, unrestrained, mindless, sneering at consequences. Berenger, most of the time, is disciplined, the ideal controlled warrior, lethal and demonic when off the leash. Dafoe, on the other hand, has a conscience, humanity, intelligence. In war that cuts both ways. But the character called Rhah (well-cast in Anthony Quinn’s son) is farther out into the juju stuff than Dafoe’s character and still not into the REALLY supernatural bloodthirsty weirdness. Just a pothead.

“The Killing Fields”
(1984) is also much aided by the DVD voice-over of Roland Joffe, the director. The success of this movie made “Platoon” (1986) possible, even though it’s not quite the same subject. Both are considered “anti-war” movies, really, but “Platoon” in all its awfulness merely titillated the Saskatoon farm boys, who had spent most of their lives on the dry prairie trying to make huge machines go in straight lines well enough to satisfy their dads. “The Killing Field” pitches the highest values (friendship, family) into the jaws of the Khmer Rouge.

Joffe said that Haing Ngor broke and could not go on without persuasion only once. It was not when he fell into the pit of decomposed murdered people. It was when he was faced by an eight-year-old girl acting the part of a Khmer Rouge child who has just uprooted his little tomato plant. When you see her face, you understand. It’s not so much that she was a true ethnic Khmer girl, it was that her face showed the same amoral unyielding viciousness of Bunny and the whole Red Chinese anti-success, anti-elite, anti-education child’s mind. Later we see this little girl arbitrarily choosing a worker in a rice field, taking him (with adult help) behind a tree and killing him by holding a blue plastic bag over his head. The half-skeletons in the Killing Fields have blue plastic bags on their heads. Lethal, banal, quiet, nothing so dramatic as Auschwitz or cavalry riding down on a smallpox camp. The number of victims was huge.

“The Killing Fields”
was, of course, originally written by journalist Sydney Schanberg and is his story. The shooting murder of Haing Ngor in LA by his own apartment has just been reopened, so the story has not ended. The central message of “Platoon” is friendship, or at least affinities, and that is the same as “The Killing Fields.” Both are about the fragility of life -- anywhere, anywhere.

Tim and I have been talking about S/M, since the label showed up on him again in a New Yorker article on memoir. He says, “It is far, far more a place for people to enact their internalized dramas in a safe landscape versus enacting out those conflicts in their real, or personal lives. Trust me. You don't want these people enacting out their dramas for real. This S/M backdrop gives them a PLACE where they can then leave it when they walk out of the playroom. This was my entire focus as a whore. SAFE meant more than an exchange of bodily fluids. Safe means learn how to keep it in the land of make-believe. I have worked with Vietnam vets in S/M playrooms. It kept them out of the hospital.”

That, of course, is for grownups and the reason S/M is for grownups is what I just said about Bunny and that little Khmer girl. One hopes that movies and written memoirs and friendships with their exchanged stories can in the end civilize us all enough to prevent such stupid and unending vengeances as shooting Haing Ngor twenty years after it was all over. The police claim it was drug gangs who shot Ngor, and then one has to wonder whether they were like a row of Bunnys sitting in front of a TV, watching “Platoon”, swilling beer or puffing pot, and driving it all deep into their brains, down to the reptile level.

Both movies illustrate the changes in men under the hard pressure of dislocation, delirium, and death. Some got better and some got worse. Some just got wiped. It doesn’t happen only to them. The rest of the culture comes along. In my neighborhood in the Forties and early Fifties, we played “guns” constantly, girls against the boys, crawling through the shrubbery and around the house foundations with our squirt guns and cap guns, screaming “I gotcha!” and “Did NOT!” My brothers were both volunteer seventeen-year-old Marines just before Vietnam. Neither saw combat. Neither would talk about it. I don’t even know whether they saw these two movies.

Movie “memoirs” have not been discussed alongside written memoirs. As we shift over to videobooks and vooks, I think it’s time.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

HOW WE READ: The Physical Setting

One cat is sleeping in my reading chair and the other cat is sleeping in my other reading chair. Someday when I'm rich I'll buy me a third reading chair so I'll have a place to sit and read. What do I read? It’s hard to explain, but I start with the newspaper, which I enjoy tearing down the fold and throwing on the floor as I go. But even before that I read my email and automated news aggregators on the computer, which is part of the reason I don’t fuss about the cats very much, except when they try to sit on my lap when I’m typing. While I read and write on the computer, one cat sleeps under what was originally my computer lamp and the other sleeps in the fan slipstream from the computer. That’s in winter. In summer they go out to cat nests in the grass or sprawl on the bed.

Writers these days spend a lot of time agonizing over content and media -- sometimes content VERSUS media -- but they don’t spend a lot of time thinking about HOW readers read. I become conscious of it when my female cousins report in. There are three who read constantly: one who reads my blog daily, one who reads it occasionally, and one who reads it only if I copy and email. (We are all descended from two sisters named Welsh who emigrated from Scotland and followed various paths.) The one who reads my blog has a busy and young family. Her reading is short intervals, sometimes at work (she’s a librarian for a school system and works projects rather than running one job in a library) and she’s often already on a computer. When she reads books, they tend to be prestige books, literary. She knows that my blog mode is a thousand-word daily essay on almost anything and she would probably write a similar one if she had time.

The other two (both retired) consider the household computer to “belong” to their husbands. The husbands are happy to print out things of interest and leave them on their night-tables, which are already heaped with books, because that’s where they read. One cousin, who “goes to bed” pretty soon after supper, describes “bliss” as a lovely warm soft bed in a nicely decorated bedroom with good light and lots of pillows. She reads to escape, mostly, and this, I think, is the core of the female/fiction consumer focus of Manhattan publishing. The reviews on, which used to be diverse and surprising, are now predictably by younger women who praise books only in terms of a submersive experience: they were grabbed, couldn’t put it down, read late into the night, totally forgot everything else, entered another world, had their emotions raised to new heights, and so on. (Near sexual.)

I’m unclear about whether my cousin watches television except for news or movies except Netflix, and we have a running joke about whether any specific movie or book is “Jeannie-friendly” since she considers the real world so ugly, hostile and tragic that she wants nothing to do with depictions. (She taught special ed for a long time, which forces a person into this kind of a world.) However, with her liberal friends, she enjoys getting into a frenzy of rage about how stupid and self-defeating politics is. Then she withdraws into saying it is “depressing.” (This is a legitimate point of view, but it’s not mine -- mostly because of the difference in our mothers. My mother’s natural mode was attack. If she started getting angry, you had better go someplace else.) But, she’s intelligent and trained to seek information, which is the other kind of books she reads: how the money system works, brain theory, some politics and history. This is where we overlap. The other cousin does much more with the style-history of couture and interior decorating than Jeannie and I. She’s big on Jane Austen and the BBC.

We like books because they are the usual venue of what we want to read and of HOW we read. But my bedroom is cold and spare, except for the electric mattress pad, for sleeping only. I read in a chair with a strong light, nearby tables for hot liquids, an ottoman, a heating pad on my back (Jeannie does that, too.), a cat on my front, and a down throw over my legs. Recently I listened to a book on CD, Jonathan Harr’s “The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece,” beautifully read by Campbell Scott. I could be flat on the sofa for that, but there is some risk of falling asleep and missing parts. The cats, who migrated to my stomach, didn’t mind.

In the Saturday Review of Literature, which used to be the benchmark for culture, men read books with their pipe and decanter at hand, seated in leather club chairs at the hearth of a wood fire with their hunting dog at their feet, relaxed now that it had fetched the slippers. These men did NOT take notes, underline, fetch reference books, or even highlight, since highlighters had not been invented. They might scribble in the margins. Tastefully. They did not read paperbacks.

Today’s academic readers need tables for piling up the auxiliary materials, the stickies and highlighters, the legal pads for notes, and so on. If they have an ashtray at hand, they will be rebuked unless it’s for pot. (That’s hip.) Does anyone drink while reading anymore?

One of the best-read men I’ve run into was on the road all the time, driving 18-wheelers across the American West. Actually, he was listening rather than reading. Since he was driving -- and I expect “books” interfered with his attention less than talk radio or mobile phones -- he could hardly read a Kindle. When he was actually in a bed, he slept. It’s commuters, either daily bus or train riders or long-distance air travelers, who can relate to vids.

Many of us go through the day with music -- I do -- interspersed with talk radio, including stories read out loud. Being (ahem) a high-grade person, my listening is NPR or PRI. It’s how I time my tasks. I was interested that the Haitian violinist who was trapped in rubble for days could mark time by playing concertos in his head: he knew them note-for-note and the length of time each took. Prisoners have spoken of using poetry in a similar way, or math problems. I don’t think many people can remember word-for-word prose books but if they could, it would give new meaning to the concept of “escapist fiction.”

Saturday, January 23, 2010

REMINGTON VS. RUSSELL -- And Who's Monkman?

Charlie Russell wasn’t that fond of cavalry. His thing was Indians. After all, the family branch called the Bents (see the excellent biography called “Half-Breed”), famous for their trading fort rather than any war fort, included Indians. Charlie loved to dress up as an Indian, not a cavalryman, and it was not to mock Indians that he hung out with them as much as he could. Remington was the guy who loved cavalry, though horses groaned when they saw his size. (Anne Morand, the curator at the CM Russell Museum, made her reputation as an expert on Remington, esp. a brilliant show organizing together Remington’s night paintings.)

Genetics as a way of sorting makes less sense when dealing with so-called Western art than dividing them between Remington-types and Russell-types. Remington-types are from back east, more invested in class and education, and more aligned with the cavalry/Republican/manifest-destiny sympathies. Russell was more like James Willard Schultz, an Indian wannabe, and it is surprising that Charlie didn’t marry an Indian. He did romance a few. I would suggest that Nancy Russell was a Remington-type, if not a Mrs. Custer, who saw the route to a comfortable life as through sales in the east. Nancy was right, but she had to nearly lock Charlie up.

Remington had a shadow, an artist whose work was close enough to be easily mistaken for Remington’s, except that Charlie was pretty good friends with his own painter/shadow, O.C. Seltzer, and Remington was NOT happy about Schreyvogel. The back-east art experts have not much picked up on Schreyvogel, who was around this country in the early twentieth century, about the same time as Sharp and others. He stayed in Blackfoot, Montana, and left paintings behind him which were mostly burned when the former station agent, Mr. Carberry, had a house fire. It killed and consumed Mr. C. as well, but not his daughter who sometimes babysat Bob Scriver. It’s odd that nothing has been made of Schrevogel since Bob and I saw his studio contents at the Cowboy Hall of Fame in the Sixties, complete with an oil 8” X 10” view of the Rockies from Browning. Those were the Dean Krakel visionary years when the focus was not so much on profit and prestige.

The best overview of the Northern Plains Western artists is still Dale Burk’s “New Interpretations,” unless you’re looking for insight into politics, in which case Father Schoenberg’s account of the founding of MONAC (a museum dedicated to Indian art and attached somehow to Gonzaga University, but which collapsed after a couple of decades) is instructive. I will not summarize for fear of libel suits. Father Schoenberg is dead. Others involved are not. Dale Burk is still alive and publishing but doesn’t write about art anymore.

The “marker” artist for the northern plains is not a cowboy artist, but rather Carl Rungius, whose studio was in Banff. He painted scenery and animals, which have escaped politics until recently when environmental concerns heated up. Rungius is dead. But Russell Chatham is another good scenery “marker” artist (he’s alive, born on the same day as myself). Winold Reiss is another northern plains artist who has been somewhat lifted up but he’s a portrait artist, not an action painter. Cowboy art aficionadoes want action, someone being killed.

But they will NOT want Kent Monkman’s idea of action, or rather “post” action. QUOTE: "The Romantic tradition of westward expansion and colonial nation-building is radically revised by the artist Ken Monkman in his fantastic vision of idyllic free-for-all pioneer orgies, flamboyant performance personas and other high-spirited interventions into historical mythology." See A show of his work is just opening in Calgary. From his website: “Kent Monkman is an artist of Cree ancestry who works in a variety of media including painting, film/video, performance and installation. Monkman has exhibited widely within Canada, and is well represented in numerous private and public collections including the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. He is represented by Stephen Friedman Gallery in London, UK, and Bailey Fine Arts, Toronto.” The show is “ The Triumph of Mischief,” (solo), Glenbow Museum, Calgary, February 13 – April 25, 2010.
He’s painting Moran landscapes with NA warriors lolling along the edge of the lake among the bodies of their cavalry victims (US, not RCMP). The Indians are identified as “Achilles and Patroclus” who are figures at the heart of the Trojan War. Consult Brad Pitt rather than the condom company.

Take a look. No feathers. Not even a feather boa. (He’s gay.) His painting of a boudoir of a berdache features a French reclining couch, a bison hide rug, expensive luggage, and the kind of crystal chandelier once beloved of R. C. Gorman. (Do not ask anyone associated with either of the two Charlie Russell auctions about R. C. Gorman, though they are experts on the SW, where his studio was in Taos.)

Monkman’s version of the “End of the Trail,” centerpiece of the Cowboy Hall of Fame, is reinterpreted via the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, in which a skillful sculptor creates a statue of a young woman so beautiful that he falls in love with it. (“My Fair Lady.”) In sympathy for him, the gods bring her to life. In this case, the curly-headed sculptor is on tiptoe to kiss the Indian on his exhausted horse and the Indian has come to life.

The significance in terms of this blog post is that the show, both intellectual and socially avant garde, is in Calgary -- the northern plains. Great Falls has become an outpost of the SW. It was already a cavalry post, if you think about Malmstrom. Charlie would have laughed. Remington -- who once painted a cavalryman wearing a lady’s sunbonnet -- would have looked away, blushing.

Nancy Russell
had no time for such nonsense. What counted to her was the money, honey, and if it hadn’t been for her, Charlie might have starved among his friends, who sometimes starved themselves. At least the friends he picked out himself because you can’t really count customers. The whole nation is Nancy Russell Country now. We’re all just buying and selling.

Monkman is an entirely new type, a metis in several ways, classically educated, as skillful as the new Chinese-taught painters, with the sharp satirical edge of the supposed outsider, who is now an insider. His warrior heroes wear no uniforms (they don’t wear much of anything); their allegiance is to their human relationships. Come to think about it, that’s sorta like Charlie.

Friday, January 22, 2010


The Western Art season starts north and works its way south for some counter-intuitive reason, probably because Charlie Russell’s birthday, which was the original inspiration for the CMR Auction, falls on March 19, 1864. The auction began as the inspiration of the Great Falls Ad Club, particularly its spearhead personality Norma Ashby. The thing grew and grew until the little corner building that once sheltered the collection of personal objects owned by a little old lady librarian fan of Charlie’s had become one of the swarm of massive Western art institutions across the USA. Now the institution is a huge building, very expensive to maintain, and really NEEDS the auction.

The most recent development is the split of the auction into two parts. (This is not the same as the half-dozen me-too satellite shows and auctions.) Eric Newhouse writes in the Great Falls Tribune of January 20, that “Both of the art auctions named for famed cowboy artist C.M. Russell introduced their catalogs electronically this week with each presenting a wide range of artwork.” You can access both through the newspaper:, then click on the Western Art Week icon, which is a buffalo skull. Or you can enter for the “new” auction or for the "old" one.

Eric’s story emphasizes that there is an assortment of good art at each location, and I’m willing to believe that except that radical difference in the software of the two locations rather complicates the matter. The Museum Art Auction program works smoothly, one piece of art following the next quickly. (I’m on Mac OSX 10.3.9.) The Ad Club Auction program is slow, balky, doesn’t show pictures, and is full of bugs. This is not new. And the difference is a quick computer demonstration of what is going on. The short version is that the Museum is the Big Boys of Western Art with major resources and the Ad Club is working with volunteer amateurs locally. The latter might be more lovable, but the former is far more powerful.

Eric reports, “The museum’s events will begin with a wall art sale and reception from 5 to 8 PM Thursday, March 18.” The paintings are hung and lit, I presume, which saves all those girls in high heels from having to stagger down the catwalk with them.

“Thirteen of the pieces will go to the highest bidder above a set minimum, opening with a Russell watercolor/pen and ink, “Happy New Year Greeting,” which starts at $90,000.

“There’s also a 25-inch-30-inch oil on canvas, “Canyon del Muerto -- Coronado Rock,” by Maynard Dixon that has a minimum asking price of $750.000, and there’s an oil on board, “Archer Beside a Lake,” by Eanger Irving Couse that requires at least $100,000 s an opening bid. Among the 13 sealed-bid pieces of art are four other Dixons. . .

“The remainder of the 132 pieces in the fixed wall sale have set prices. . .

“Among the pieces are a mixed media on canvas, “Winter Kill Shaker” by Oleg Stavrowsky for $65,000, an oil on canvas, “Montana Morning,” by Gary Lynn Roberts for $30,000; an oil, “Bargaining for a Bride,” by Steve Seltzer for $18,500; and an oil on canvas tepee, “L’Avocet,” by Tom Gilleon for $15,000.”

The second auction is at the museum from 11AM until 2PM on Saturday. “Among the highlights of that show will be “Ah Wah Cous,” a 60”X60” oil by Gilleon that features Russell among Indians -- it’s valued at $65,000 to $75,000.

“A pen and ink by Russell, “The Medicine Man No. 3” is estimated at $80,000 to $85,000.

“A big oil by Roberts, “The Scouts,” is valued at $25,000 to $30,000, while another big oil by Andy Thomas, “Stampede Stampede!” is pegged at $52,000 to $58,000. Charlie Fritz adds another big oil, “Emerging from a Storm -- the Packet Benton on the Upper Missouri River,” which is estimated at $14,000 to $15,000.”

On the Ad Club side, the list includes:

Several small Russell Bronzes.
O.C. Seltzer 18”X22” oil, “The Mad Cow”
Several unspecified paintings by Steve Seltzer, Bob Morgan and Ace Powell (including a 20”X30” painting called “Prairie Powwow”).
Gary Lynn Thomas: 30”X45” oil, “Ambush on the Bandit Trail” and 24”X36” oil, “Pride.”
Tom Gilleon: 30”X30” oil, “Mountain Crow Horses.” (Eric says it’s an “iconoclastic tepee” which is a slip. Gilleon’s tepees are actually ICONIC, simplified and idealized images.)
Larry Zabel: 30”X40” acrylic “The Buckskin”
Tara Moore: “Roping Duo and “Hold Your Horses” (no sizes given)
Carol Hagen: “Don’t Mess with Momma” and “Brown Noser”
Sherry Salari Sander: 38”X18” bronze, “Horses of the Mountain.”
“Art by many newcomers.”

Alert onlookers could have spotted developments as soon as B. Byron Price showed up with his CMR Catalogue Raisonee. Over the last decade he has managed to encircle and dominate CMR matters. Here is his bio from the University of Oklahoma website:

B. Byron Price currently holds the Charles Marion Russell Memorial Chair and is Director of Charles M. Russell Center for the Study of Art of the American West [funded by Nancy Russell’s estate] at the University of Oklahoma. He is a 1970 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and earned an MA in Museum Science at Texas Tech University in 1977. [plus a quick one-year art degree.]

“Before taking his current position, Price spent nearly 25 years in the museum profession. He served as executive director of the Panhandle Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Texas (1982-1986); the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma City (1987-1996); and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming (1996-2001).

“Price is the author of more than three dozen journal articles on western American history and art and has written several books including Fine Art of the West (2004); The Chuck Wagon Cook Book: Recipes from the Ranch and Range for Today’s Kitchen (2004); Cowboys of the American West (1996) and Erwin E. Smith: Cowboy Photographer (1997). Price is currently editing the Charles M. Russell catalog raisonnĂ©.

“In addition to his published works, he has served as a consultant for several television series on the History and Discovery Channels, most recently: Unsolved History:The Gunfight at the OK Corral and Cowboy Tech.

“In August 2007, Price also became the Director of the University of Oklahoma Press.”

Put the photo of his “mini-me” Darrell Beauchamp [formerly the owner of an art gallery] next to the photo of B. Byron Price. They represent a particular kind of enthusiast of Western matters: the cavalry side.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


The present chaos in authored content and media is spawning any number of games for getting ahead in one way or another. Here’s a necessarily incomplete list. (New ones pop up all the time.)


1. The writing “contest” with an entry fee, maybe one that comes with a subscription to the magazine sponsoring the “contest,” which includes publication in the magazine.
2. A “reading fee” imposed by a magazine (like Glimmertrain) which has on-going contests all year round: long stories, short stories -- the categories mean a mix of writing so the mag not only has income but also has a good overview of what’s going on out there. The amount of entries is probably staggering.
3. Professional journals (publication in them is necessary in order to get academic tenure) are charging the writers per color page, knowing that writers WANT color pages, while the institution “underwrites” the other pages. Will they be charging for ALL illustrations soon? Or just charging to include an article at all? How about competitive bidding to get one’s article into a journal? Sure, your article is better but the other guy will pay more money to get it printed. Or more probably some pharm company or other commercial enterprise paid.

Academic journals have abandoned being judges of quality. Today it’s all politics and networking with the goal of preserving the existence of the press itself and its employees. Universities can no longer afford to fund them as an aspect of education. Anyway, as some of the “faked” articles -- high science and philosophy written in gobbledegook that were published as though they were valid -- have demonstrated, the willingness and leisure to really winnow articles is no longer there. Those legendary three expert referees who were supposed to be watchdogs -- are now more often one. Expert readers expect to be paid and will not be used again if they don’t respond to the press’s interests. Some have special interests of their own, like defending their pet theories,


1. A print book with accompanying CD-ROM. Been tried and discarded.
2. An ebook with inserted vids made by a professional vid company: not much diff from a product website with clickable vids. Transparently commercial.
3. An ebook with true story elements on vid composed by the author who also wrote the priint in which it is embedded.
4. Vid events controllable by paper signals embedded in paper writing. (See the Jan. 2010 Esquire for a vivid example.) Mind boggling. No one really knows what to do with it yet.
5. Website “publishing,” simply curating as they aggregate writing according to the tastes and standards of the website owner. Maybe just aggregating.


1. “Author’s websites” that purport to list authors (of unknown quality) for the sake of the possibility of agents or publishers finding them. Forget it.
2. “Author’s websites” that purport to network writers so they can help each other and form social networks. If you want a lot of friends who are writers, buy books.
3. The only really effective networks are Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the several used book websites like Powells, Abebooks or Alibris. Even then, you’ll have to find out what to look for ahead of time. I’m even suspicious of Lulu’s directory.
4. Good bibliographies and footnotes remain helpful. So are listservs and affinity groups like the H- (humanities) academic groups who ask for and get recommendations. But you have to stay on top of the list enough to know whom to believe, or at least who is in sympathy with your point of view.


1. Long years ago I signed up for Famous Writers’ correspondence course. It was of no use whatsoever. Things haven’t changed much.
2. If you are a person who wants to write for the sake of writing, the best thing you can do is read the best books you can find. They will sink into your soul and become an aquifer for the rest of your life.
3. One kind of writer’s book is valuable: the style guides or accepted usage books that can sort out things like “bring” versus “take” or where to put that wretched comma.
4. If you just want to “be” a writer and you really want to sell books, then all the how-to might be helpful. Stuff like how to do a “blog book tour.” The expectation now is that you will take on your own publicity and marketing, even distribution. That means paying up-front the way publishers used to pay, designing the campaign or paying experts, paying for ads in mags and newspapers, soliciting interviews on radio and TV, and possibly even schlepping the books around to various places which will mostly take them only on consignment. Nothing personal. ALL bookstores take new books on consignment only, even from the big publishers. (Used books are paid-for inventory.) It’s just been kept secret.

5. If you want the books to look good, you will have to educate yourself or pay a designer, layout artist, editor (to catch grammar, usage mistakes -- line editing -- as well as to advise you that this needs to be tightened up, that has already been done, you’re repeating yourself, where did that quote come from” and so on). It’s possible you already have these skills yourself. So far I have not run across any critics who will write a review for pay after the book is published (they just get the book free) but there are plenty of readers of manuscripts who will give advice for fees. Their goals and standards might not be the same as yours.

6. Books are radically Balkanized: that means they are divided up into assigned compartments. Most people are focused on Manhattan popular publishing, partly because of the television and magazine media connection. Your chances of wiggling in there are zilch. Regional publishing also is controlled by gate-keepers, but you might be in sympathy with them already. The same with affinity publishers: for cops, for EMT’s, for makers of this or that, for duck-hunters, cat-lovers, and so on. To move into affinity territory, you have to really KNOW it which means keeping up with the print. Here’s an area that needs to be developed, maybe in a book: actively seeking books you want. Most book readers are passive: book just happen.

The bottom line is that it’s probably more work to get a book published than it is to write a book.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


I’m weary of filling out forms and listing my favorite anythings and pointing out my CV on writers’ websites, social networks, and vocational databases. Here it is, folks: the definitive Mary Scriver. It’s a time-line, but I’ll run this backwards so you can assume that at the end I’ll be born.

Physical address: 709 Montana Avenue in Valier, Montana 59486. PO Box 295. If you’re sending something UPS, use the street address. If you’re sending it via US Mail, use the PO Box. They both know jolly well who I am and where I am, but their rules are their rules. Montana Avenue crosses Highway 44 at the only traffic light (a blinker) and continues north to Cut Bank. If you’re looking for me, turn south. East side of the street.

If you want to send me email, I have an account with under the name of mary.scriver. If you can’t figure that out, the phone here is 406-279-3429.

Why Valier? Because it’s at the edge of the Blackfeet Reservation but just off it, not to get away from Indians (they live in houses adjacent to mine) but to escape political jurisdictions. Because it’s a small quiet pastoral village (pop. 350) founded by Belgian farmers brought here by their Jesuit priest a century ago. Because Bob Scriver’s daughter, Margaret, was a year older than me and graduated from this high school. Because Ivan Doig, who wrote “This House of Sky” about this place, graduated from this high school, went on to Northwestern University in the same class as me, and his roommate dated my roommate, but we didn’t know each other. Because when I lived in Browning, Valier was the place where one stopped for coffee halfway to Great Falls and in bad weather the road was generally open to the south.

And because when I turned up on St. Patrick’s Day in 1999 looking for a $30,000 house, in Valier I had a choice of twelve. In Choteau there were none and the real estate agent had no time for me.

As soon as I bought the house, I went back to Portland, quit my job, put everything in a U-Haul and moved here. My neighbors from across the street helped me empty the truck into the house. Then I sat down and began to write.

1991: City of Portland Bureau of Buildings: clerical specialist, cashier, data entry.

1991: Fired from Heart Butte. (2 years of teaching)
1990: Hired at Heart Butte.

Interim Methodist minister for the Blackfeet Reservation.

Left the ministry and returned to Browning from Saskatoon.
1986: Called to the Saskatoon Unitarian Congregation.
1985: Interim Unitarian-Universalist minister in Kirkland, Washington.
1984: M. Div from Meadville/Lombard Theological School.
1982: Circuit-Riding UU minister for four Montana fellowships (2 opted out). Great Falls, Helena, Missoula and Bozeman were “in.” Billings and Whitefish were “out.”

MA in Religious Studies from the U of Chicago Div School
1978: Entered Meadville/Lombard Theological School and U of Chicago Divinity School in double-degree program.

1975: Designed the education program for Multnomah County Animal Control (contracted to Portland, OR) and became the first education coordinator: officer training, public education, wrote a textbook for AC.
1973: Returned to Portland, OR. First female animal control officer in Portland, OR.

1970: Divorced. Returned to teaching in Browning, MT.
1966: Married to Robert Macfie Scriver in Portland, OR, November 27, Westminster Presbyterian Church.
1961 - 1966: Taught high school English at Browning, Montana, on the Blackfeet Reservation.

Graduated from Northwestern University, Evanston, IL
1960: Costumer for Eagles Mere Summer Repertory Theatre, Pennsylvania.

Graduated from Jefferson High School. Best Thespian, Persona Cup, Best Actress of the Senior Class, Better Crocker Homemaker of the Year, full tuition scholarship from NU, finalist for the National Merit Scholarship and the National Honor Society Scholarship.

1953: Graduated from Vernon Elementary School.
1944: Began kindergarten at Vernon Elementary School, Portland, OR

1939: Born at Emanuel Hospital in Portland, OR
Parents formerly rural, aspiring white-collar. Father from the Dakota and Manitoba prairies with a BS from the University of Manitoba and an MS from Oregon State University. Mother from southern Willamette Valley orchard farm with two years of college interrupted by the Great Depression. Sibs, two younger brothers, one now deceased.

Put your questions in the comments. I’ll be adding and updating over time.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


It’s a little town, almost toy-like, golden with dust and gilded with fire. The hills around it are varnished brown by a dark sun. We know this place, but this time around it has a curiously Old World quality to it. Is this a spaghetti Western? Is that Clint Eastwood, talkin’ tough and ridin’ fast?

Nope. It’s Sharon Stone. But she sure looks like she’s closely related to Eastwood and acts like it, too. A gold-goofy digger takes a potshot at her, is tricked and left chained to his wagon’s wheel. Undaunted, he comes into town dragging the remnants of the wheel, thirsting for revenge. Evidently we are to understand that revenge is a root cause of power-lust. Okay. She shoots him dead.

Evidently the American public had a hard time figuring out this movie which is as much a meditation on men with power as it is any traditional or spaghetti Western. Of course, everyone knows that guns equal penises (penii?) and this movie is wonderful gun porn with revolvers (long guns are for hunting -- revolvers are for killing) being brandished everywhere. For the first time there’s even a gun shop. Didn’t you ever wonder where all those guns came from? And the bespoke name-brand guns get oiled, the cylinders spun, the mechanisms snapped, the butts replaced with ivory or solid silver or carved. The best shootists look and listen carefully to the seduction of it. In fact, it’s close attention that defines “Cort.” (Hmm. Tout cort? Curt? Or “see you in court?”) That and his uncanny ability to soak up punishment WITHOUT revenge.

They say that Sharon Stone had a lot to do with the casting of then unknown Russell Crowe as Cort and so much to do with Leonardo di Caprio as Fee (Price you pay? Fidelity?) that she paid his salary. Barely 21, the pencil-necked actor looks more like 12 and it is hard to believe that “The Lady” would be turned on by him, though she sleeps in his dynamite bed. (That’s literal and actual dynamite, which will eventually give new meaning to the word “gunfire.”) They say that a love scene with Crowe was actually shot but edited from the American cut of the movie. Americans love violence more than sex. The only sex in the version I watched was implied and evil, abuse of a little girl. When that little girl tells the “lady” that she wants to be like her, the lady tells her “grow up.”

Gene Hackman, ominously named Herod, keeps order by intimidation because he’s the meanest shootist in the valley and his daddy made him that way by forcing he and his mother (what does THAT mean?) to watch hangings and then to play Russian roulette until daddy blew his own head off. One could do a riff on this being the Biblical sort of story where a mysterious suffering person (son) comes to break the power grip that is throttling the people. (Not all of them are good: they strip the loser of each shooting contest and one vulture collects even the gold teeth out of their mouths. Not all of them are bad, exemplified mostly by beautifully mournful Mexican women in shawls and crosses.) Possibly this movie is the generator of “Deadwood,” the television series, which had a lot fewer laughs in it.

“The Lady” is the plot driver and also the moral eye through which we see. ("Gaze" is vital in these films.) She rarely comments but always reacts subtly. One unscripted moment Hackman must have enjoyed, since he couldn’t famously act these parts so convincingly if he didn’t have a bit of tyrannical power-freak in him. Towards the end he slaps Sharon Stone in the face without warning. Her reaction was NOT subtle. One wonders what she really said.

A movie shoot is not unlike a little temporary town out West. The power struggles, the assigned roles, the necessary technology of “shooting” with cameras, the many angles. This particular movie had dueling scriptwriters. Simon Moore wrote the original script with its teasing, reflective, ironic moments but then the studio execs (always fossils) wanted it to be like a “real” Western and hired a new writer who worked on it for months. In the end every change he made was quietly dropped out and the film was shot as written by Moore. The execs never noticed until it was all over. Some of the viewers and reviewers were just as baffled as the execs. For others, it is a movie of rare insight and fun, worth seeing again and again.

My personal favorite among the gunners was “Ace Hanlon,” whose black leather outfit was embroidered with Metis flowers. Named the same as our artist friend “Ace” Powell, he was a dead ringer for another artist friend, Paul Dyck, so I was sorry when he was shot. I was also sorry Indian Spotted Horse was killed. And black Sgt. Clay Cantrell with his fancy pipe and big laugh. (There was no Chinese shootist, maybe because they are supposed to be smart.) The deaths were so over-graphic (computer-aided) that they became comic.

To put the decorative superficiality of this lovable Western into proportion, I will invoke a serendipitous Vanity Fair magazine article this month about modern long-gun killers. William Langewiesche is surely one of the few free-lancers who could have gotten close enough to an army/police sniper to capture the reality, a man who does not blast computer-generated wounds in a main street shoot out. He finds cover, uses a rifle so complex that one must use math to sight it, and from a far distance renders his target into a pink mist.

The authority is not his own but rather society’s. The skill is his and the emotional aftermath is also his, for one does not kill, even this way, without consequences. A family man, he lives quietly and defensively with justified paranoia. He is not a stereotype.

They say that the war in Afghanistan where terrain is not unlike the American West is ideal for this sort of soldier. A sniper is the next safest way to kill the enemy after using a predator drone, which is as likely to wipe out civilians as adversaries. The people in those varnished brown hills where towns are golden with dust and gilded with fire, do not look unlike the townsfolk in this movie. I’d really like to talk to Sharon Stone about it.