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Archive for September, 2010

Matt Taibbi has contributed a must-read piece on the Tea Party to Rolling Stone (rollingstone.com/politics).   Here’s a taste:

“But after lengthy study of the phenomenon, I’ve concluded that the whole miserable narrative boils down to one stark fact: They’re full of shit. All of them. At the voter level, the Tea Party is a movement that purports to be furious about government spending — only the reality is that the vast majority of its members are former Bush supporters who yawned through two terms of record deficits and spent the past two electoral cycles frothing not about spending but about John Kerry’s medals and Barack Obama’s Sixties associations. The average Tea Partier is sincerely against government spending — with the exception of the money spent on them. In fact, their lack of embarrassment when it comes to collecting government largesse is key to understanding what this movement is all about.”

Go for it.

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Dan Simmons’ Black Hills got me interested in the myth that surrounds Custer’s famous “Last Stand” once again.   The myth goes as follows:   once upon a time there was a brave cavalry officer named George Armstrong Custer who confronted a large band of Indians on a bluff in Montana.   Because the Indians had overwhelming numbers, they killed Custer and all his men, who bravely fought off the attack until the very end.

I say “once again” because I read Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (1964) and Mari Sandoz’ Battle of the Little Bighorn (1966) when I was in college.   Sandoz, a Nebraska writer whose work was held in near-sacred veneration in my parents’ household, anticipated the current trend where writers take the Indians’ point of view.  And Berger’s hilarious satirical novel told the story of a white boy who is found and raised by Indians, and who, through a series of mishaps, lives now as a white man, now as an Indian.   Needless to say, this double point of view turns him into a fairly cynical fellow.

I visited the historical site of the battle during an epic hippie-van-trip through the western states and Canada one summer when I was in graduate school.  At that time the site was guarded by Crows, which is an irony of the first magnitude.  No doubt these Crows were in the pay of the federal goverment, just as were the Crow scouts who spied for Custer on the Sioux and Cheyenne camped on the Little Bighorn in 1876.  The historical enmity between the Crow and the Sioux was longstanding even then.

By now the bibliography on the Last Stand is huge, so I used the expedient method of choosing what to read:   if it’s in my local public library, I check it out.  Thus last week I read Evan Connell’s Son of the Morning Star (1984) and Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn (2010).   Connell’s work, which was made into a TV movie in 1991, is a quasi-hagiography of Custer that paints him as talented man who was a victim of circumstances.

Philbrick, on the other hand, has nothing to do with myth:   his book is carefully researched, and he bases much of his argument about the battle itself on Indian testimony and pictographs.  Philbrick portrays Sitting Bull as a wise man caught in an unenviable position:   fight and die, or give up your way of life.   And he paints Custer as the grandiose self-promoter he was.   The New York Times’ review of Last Stand gets it right:

“Custer’s military action at Little Bighorn was certainly not the last stand of the white man, who soon succeeded in decimating the Indian population. There was not even a last stand by the hapless soldiers who followed Custer into what was clearly an ill-considered military action against a Sioux village on June 25, 1876, in what is now Montana. Instead, Custer’s final battle was messy, conflicted and confused. It did not signify anything heroic or deranged. Militarily, it was a blunder.”

The blunder lay in Custer’s habitual underestimation of his foes.   Custer was pretty good at killing women and children (as had happened in the battle of the Washita) and he apparently assumed that the large camp reported by his scouts contained few if any warriors.   So he split his troops into three units.  Following Custer’s orders, Major Marcus Reno actually charged into the Indian camp, where at least ten thousand people were lodged, and was thoroughly routed.  By the time he made it back to a bluff, where he began his own stand, he had lost a third of his men.   He was soon joined by Captain Frederick Benteen, who had been left behind with the pack train.  The two groups held off the Indians for two long days and nights.

Horribly enough, the political stakes involved in opening the West were so high in the late nineteenth-century that Reno was later charged with cowardice and made to undergo a military trial.  Even though he was found innocent of wrongdoing, he was dishonorably discharged, and the army refused to bury him at the site of the battle where he wished to lie with his former comrades.

But back to the battle itself.   While Benteen and Reno were fighting for their lives, Custer apparently charged down a ravine, probably expecting to rage through a peaceful village as usual.   Instead he was met by warriors already on their horses and hopping mad about Reno’s ill-fated charge.  They chased him back onto the ridge and made short work of Custer and his men.  When Sitting Bull heard this news, he knew the shit was about to hit the fan.   So he immediately cleared out of the area, and took his people to Canada.

Needles to say, the Last Stand has been amply represented in paintings and movies.   Frederick Remington and Charles Marion Russell, among others, painted it, but my favorite is by E. S. Paxton:

Paxson apparently interviewed survivors and modeled their portraits from life.   This piece maintains the Custer-as-undaunted-hero myth, but it also captures the fear and despair of his men as they faced death.

In 1942, a film appropriately named “They Died With Their Boots On,”  starring Errol Flynn, depicted Custer as a handsome visionary:

Here Flynn peers into the (white) future of the American West.  But such treatments of Custer fell out of favor once his wife Libby was no longer around to promote it.  And when the enlightened ‘sixties dawned, writers rediscovered the American Indian.  Custer’s stock has fallen ever since.

My favorite movie portrait of Custer was delivered by Richard Mulligan, who played the role in the film made of Little Big Man (1970).   Mulligan portrays Custer as vain, stupid, arrogant, and, during the battle, flat-out unhinged:

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Last Saturday night the Scyfy channel treated us to Roger Corman’s new movie,  Sharktopus.   True to its title, the genetically engineered beast has a shark’s head and lots of pointy tentacles:

Problem is, as Pharyngula helpfully points out, this means that Sharktopus has two mouths and no, er, anus.   No wonder he’s so angry.

The movie is  standard Scyfy fare, although they did manage to hire Eric Roberts (brother of Julia) to smirk his way through a lead role.  No doubt Roberts was trying to forestall breaking into hysterical laughter.   The plot and dialogue  are inane:   a greedy scientist bio-engineers this creature for the navy;   it gets loose and  swims down to Puerto Vallarta and eats bikini-clad babes and surfer boys by the dozen.   The beach is not safe, because this thing can actually walk on its pointy tentacles (no word on how it manages to breathe out of water).   The locale offers lots of opportunity for  T & A;   I saw only one woman in the film who was fully clothed, and she was a grey-haired extra.   People are snatched off yachts and waterskis and bungie cords and eaten by the dozen.  Sharktopus even eats a Volkswagon.  But none of this fazes our hero and heroine, who spend most of the film chasing Sharktopus in a small speedboat, and who are never threatened by the monster, even when it snatches the hero’s best friend right off the stern.

Of course our hero does not stop to grieve.  He simply grits his teeth, shoulders his big gun, and throttles up, heading off after the beast.   Nor are other characters fazed when people are killed right in front of them, except for one cameraman who wisely retreats to the nearest pub.  (Remember the great scene in Jaws when Roy Scheider’s character is confronted by the mother of a boy who has been eaten by the shark?    Nothing like that here).

I guess these lapses are conventional in this sort of film, because kids with blogs seem to love it.  If you really love the film you can even get a Sharktopus T-shirt from Nature’s Mistake.net:

I suppose there is something heavy to be said here about the tastes of this young generation.  Or maybe not.  Maybe there is a bigger gap between representation and reality than I want to admit, and maybe younger generations are hip to it in a way I can never be.   But I love horror films, too.  Jaws and the first Halloween movie and the X-files and scary films from the ‘fifties (ie Tarantula, Them) are among my favorites.   I even liked MegaPiranha, because it was so execrably awful.

But a film like Sharktopus, which has a good actor in the lead role, and a good director in Roger Corman, is something else because it can’t be simply awful.  Back in the day, Corman directed some pretty good films, despite his flip attitude toward the entire enterprise.  And most everyone who is anyone among directors and producers (ie James Cameron, Gale Ann Hurd, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard) worked in his shop back in the day.   He retired briefly when he had a stroke, but now he’s back making movies for Scyfy.  His previous effort for them was Dinocroc, also about a genetically engineered eating machine.  That one featured character actor Bruce Weitz, which also redeemed it from the simply awful, and thus made me uneasy.   I guess I worry when monster films that are made or acted with even some skill also present an utterly bankrupt moral calculus.

Which of course renders me an absolute fuddy duddy.  I liked Corman films a lot better when they starred Vincent Price and were based on the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe.  At least Price had only one mouth.

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Dems Should Listen to Suh

A few says ago, Nadamukong Suh wrote on the Lions’ blog that he didn’t “foresee any more losses at home” (DetroitLions.com).  When asked to explain this comment (Detroit is currently 0-2, after all) Suh said something along these lines:   You have to play with confidence.   If you don’t go in thinking you will win, you won’t.

Suh welcomes Michael Vick to Detroit.

I wish Democrats in Congress would listen to Suh.   Yesterday they decided not to put the issue of extending the Bush tax cuts up for a vote because the Blue Dogs are afraid, for some reason, to support tax relief for the middle class.  (I know, it doesn’t make any sense to me either).

If you don’t even bring the damn bill up for a vote, you can’t win it.  All you can do is lose, lose, lose.  The irony is that if they had brought it up for a vote, and the Rethugs had voted against it, the Democrats would still win because they could point this out, over and over, from now until election day.

When Suh was asked to comment on his prediction, he said something along these lines:    Well, yeah–you can lose a game even when you are confident.  Last year at Nebraska, we played a game where we had eight turnovers.   You can’t win when you turn the ball over eight times, no matter how confident you are.

Congressional Dems seem to believe that if they run any plays at all, they will turn the ball over.

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Paha Sapa’s Ghost(s)

Dan Simmons’ Black Hills is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, primarily because the main character, Paha Sapa, is unforgettable.

When we first meet him, Paha Sapa is a ten-year old Lakota who has just inhaled the ghost of George Armstrong Custer.

Custer’s ghost will remain with Paha Sapa for most of the rest of his very long and eventful life, which is entwined with important events in American history through the turn of the twentieth-century and beyond.   Paha Sapa is distantly related to both Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, which narrative device affords Simmons an opportunity to introduce us to nineteenth-century Native American politics as leaders consider options for dealing with encroaching whites.   He meets his future wife at the Chicago World’s fair, and they fall in love while riding Mr. Ferris’s wheel.  Paha Sapa is in Chicago, ironically enough, because he is employed in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show as a re-enactor of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.  Later, Paha Sapa is employed by Gutzon Borglum, who sculpted Mount Rushmore.    He takes a long train trip to New York to visit Libbie Custer, who is by then over ninety years old.   (You will have to read the novel to discover how Custer’s ghost reacts to that encounter).

Throughout these tumultuous events, Paha Sapa is haunted by other ghosts as well (although Custer’s ghost is burden enough, given its lengthy ramblings about his and Libbie’s imaginative sex life).   Paha Sapa possesses the ability to read a person’s future by touching them (which is how he got saddled with Custer’s ghost on the Little Bighorn battlefield).  He also experiences powerful visions, the most important of which he has while still a child.  This vision foretells the destruction of the Black Hills by the whites.  This destruction is encapsulated for Paha Sapa in Borglum’s desecration of the Six Grandfathers, the Sioux name for Mount Rushmore.   This vision explains why, later in life, Paha Sapa gets a job as a dynamiter on the mountain’s face–or perhaps I should say, faces.  Nope, I won’t give this one away either.

I read a few reviews of Black Hills on the web before composing this one, and I am disappointed that so few readers–even fans of Simmons’ other work–seem to grasp what he has attempted here.   Many seem disappointed that they can’t pigeonhole this work into some genre in which Simmons has worked before–horror (Carrion Comfort or Summer of Night), or sci fi (the Hyperion novels).   Others don’t like the otherworldly stuff in Black Hills–visions and ghosts.  Others are turned off by narrative pyrotechnics that switch from one time period to another and from place to place.

If I may say so, these readers miss the point, or rather the scope, of what Simmons has tried to do here, and what he has attempted in all his recent work (Ilium, Olympos, The Terror, Drood).   Each of these works rewrites history, but they are far more ambitious than the usual alternate history fare given us by Turtledove and his ilk.   As Barbara Ehrenreich put in in her review of Black Hills for the WaPo:  “So what does Simmons need the supernatural for? Couldn’t he be content writing carefully researched historical fiction in beautiful prose? My guess is that he’s using his monsters and ghosts to impress on us that the historical novelist’s business of bringing the dead to life involves a kind of magic.”     (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/15/AR2010031502855.html)

While I agree with Ehrenreich, I think Simmons is attempting even more:   to remind us that each life is important.  Each life plays a role in the unfolding of history, and while death may seem like a huge divide (to the living at least) it is important to remember the many many interlacings that entwine the living with the dead.  Paha Sapa, whose name means “Black Hills,” is quite literally the embodiment of this notion, and he is taught it over and over again both by his visionary forefathers and by events.

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Zowie!   Nebraska beats Washington 56-21!   And makes mincemeat of the fabled Jake Locker!   Sis Boom Ba!

More tomorrow when I’ve calmed down a bit.  Now I have to go watch Texas get its butt kicked (I hope).

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News Flash!

Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire opposes the nomination of Elizabeth Warren to head Obama’s new Consumer Protection Commission.

Gregg is afraid Warren will pursue “an agenda of social justice.”

Oh, The Horror!

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