Sunday, May 30, 2010

Not Much To Tell

Back in 2008, I wrote a brief review of Chuck Palahniuk's novel Snuff, and in looking over what I wrote at that time, I realized two important things. One, I was very diplomatic in discussing a book that I haven't thought about since the time I wrote the review, a title that would undoubtedly reveal many more problems in my mind if I were to re-read it. Two, as I mentioned in that piece, I interviewed Mr. Palahniuk in 2002. I was nineteen years old at the time, and I've finally realized that his gracious manners and politeness in talking with a starstruck teenager has shaped my opinions of his works. As a human being, I'll always respect him, just based on the hour and a half I spent with him eight years ago. However, his works have consistently gone downhill, and I cringe when I think back to my original interview, in which I balanced thoughtful questions and responses with gushing praise, calling Palahniuk "one of America's greatest living novelists," or something along those lines. I can't find the link to said piece, but that's just as well; in my early years devoted to books, I assumed I knew everything when in fact, I knew nothing. It reminds me of an old quote written by Roger Ebert in regard to John Waters. Ebert disliked a particular film by Mr. Waters, but was quick to mention how respectful and polite Waters can be...this is a case of confusing an artist with his or her work, but it's important for me to note that.

Palahniuk consistently publishes one book every spring, and this year, his newest novel is Tell-All. As I've done in recent years, I went into it with low expectations, partly in response to my blind praise of earlier times, and partly with hope that expecting to be disappointed will yield some bright spots. Tell-All is a dark satire of Hollywood memoirs, detailing the life of aging star Kathie Kenton, narrated primarily by her caretaker (and former Hollywood hopeful) Hazie Coogan. Much like Norma Desmond in the film Sunset Boulevard, Kenton believes that she is still relevant and able to regain her former status. Coogan does everything she can to help, from organizing every part of Kenton's life, being wary of potential male suitors, reading potential scripts, and, in a clever touch, dutifully etching every one of Kenton's physical flaws into a mirror with a diamond ring. The mansion in which they live, even though the story is set in the past, seems to resemble a more contemporary version of Desmond's abode in Billy Wilder's classic.

"Next to the bed, the night table built from a thousand hopeful dreams, those balanced screenplays, it supports two barbiturates and a double whiskey. Miss Kathie's hand stops petting and scratching the dog's muzzle; there the fur looks dark and matted. She pulls back her arm, and the towel slips from her head, her hair tumbling out, limp and gray, pink scalp showing between the roots. The green mask of her avocado face cracking in surprise (Palahniuk 16)."

Two other supporting characters are Lillian Hellman, an actress/director who casts herself in every project, and who happens to direct a Broadway show based on World War II that could be Kathie's big comeback. However, her younger lover, Webster Carlton Westward III, is possibly plotting Kathie's demise in order to publish a scandalous biography detailing their love life. Hazie is distrustful of the young man from the beginning, and the novel alternates between which is worse: the myriad of potential ways Westward could kill Kenton, or the effect of a posthumous tarnished legacy.

Like the majority of Palahniuk's works, there is really nothing to "review"--he takes a specific theme and expands a novel around it. This worked well with Fight Club, with its underlying looks at masculinity in the face of an ever-growing consumer culture. However, Tell-All is just that: a fictionalized tell-all. However, Palahniuk does a decent job with some of his usual styles. He has a tendency to repeat key phrases and sentences as a sort of chorus through a given novel. In this work, he repeats animal sounds, and while the initial explanation doesn't have much effect, the sounds work well throughout the course of the book.

"Beyond her first few words, Lillian's talk becomes one of those jungle sound tracks one hears looping in the background of every Tarzan film, just tropical birds and Johnny Weismuller and howler monkeys repeating. Bark, bark, screech...Emerald Cunard. Bark, growl, screech...Cecil Beaton (Palahniuk 3)."

The above passage also highlights two other recurring motifs. The book is written and styled like a long gossip column, with hundreds of names, phrases, and titles highlighted in boldfaced font. The intention is smart, but after awhile, it merely becomes a distraction. Palahniuk also weaves both real-life and fictionalized names from old Hollywood, including phrases from vintage columnists that are made up, but sound authentic.

"Miss Kathie's goal: to reduce until she becomes what Lolly Parsons calls nothing but 'tan and bones.' What Hedda Hopper calls a 'lipstick skeleton (Palahniuk 33).'"

These themes and wordplays will be very familiar to anyone who has read Palahniuk's works consistently, and anybody who considers him or herself a fan of his novels should enjoy this one. There are far worse writers around today, and while I freely admit some personal bias, I really don't have an opinion on Tell-All either way. I absolutely loved his novel Choke, and absolutely hated Pygmy. Perhaps that's the worst sign of all: apathy. I have long doubted that he'll ever write anything that will come close to the strength of his earlier works, but there's always hope. In the meantime, one can also hope that he realizes that he doesn't have to publish books on such a consistent schedule. A little more thought, editing, and research might yield a better novel. There's no doubt that Palahniuk has fun with his works, and for a quick read, Tell-All is easy to digest. To borrow a line from Choke: Guilty pleasure isn't the right phrase, but it's the first phrase that comes to mind.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

iPadded Statistics

In one of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes strips, Calvin explains to Hobbes that his father is going out to purchase a hardcover book for thought-provoking material, and intending to pay in cash, so the book purchase will not end up being a commercial exploitation of his buying habits. In the last panel, Hobbes says "your father's going into the future kicking and screaming, isn't he?" Like many of Bill Watterson's sociological source materials, these elements are still very relevant today, and perhaps more so than in the early 1990s. Like any new item produced by Apple, there has been a lot of fanfare surrounding the iPad, which was first unveiled by Steve Jobs back in January. It's a tablet-shaped computer with all of the usual apps and features that are synonymous with Apple. I don't see myself owning an iPad anytime soon, and that's nothing against the product itself. So why am I writing about it? This piece isn't solely about the iPad, but about the rapidly changing book market. While I probably won't splurge on an iPad, something tells me that I may have to splurge on some form of technology in the future. This technology will come in the form of an e-book reader. Two recent articles, "The iPad Revolution" by Sue Halpern (The New York Review Of Books, June 10) and "Publish Or Perish" by Ken Auletta (The New Yorker, April 26), detail the underlying questions that come with the knowledge that e-book readers are the future. Naturally, there are indeed a lot of questions surrounding this revolution, but unlike music and the iPod, physical aesthetics are part of this equation.

One of my personal pleasures is sitting on my couch, reading and note-taking, with a cup or coffee or a drink within reach. Whether the device in question is an iPad, a Nook, a Kobo, or a Kindle, the idea of reading with a machine doesn't sit quite right with me, despite the technology that makes the screens look like actual pages. I'm not at all claiming that this is a unique concern. The fact that the producers of these products have made strides to replicate the psychological qualities of reading means that these issues have been problematic and voiced. However, Halpern sums up these feelings quite well, in stern, yet eloquent terms. The magic of having thousands of songs in your pocket is a much different form than having hundreds of books.

"You don't need to be a technophobe or a Luddite to dismiss out of hand the idea of reading on a machine. Maybe it is muscle memory, but there is something deeply satisfying about a 'real' book, a book made of pages bound between hard or soft covers, into which you can slip a bookmark, whose pages you can fan, whose binding you can crack and fold as you move from beginning to end. E-books, by contrast, whatever platform delivers them, are ephemeral. Yes, you can carry thousands of them in your pocket, but what will you have to show for it? What will fill your bookshelves (Halpern 22)?"

In both articles, there's a very distressing quote by Steve Jobs, originally cited in The New York Times, about the state of reading and publishing. Jobs has said "It doesn't matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don't read anymore. Forty per cent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year." Granted, my personal demographic of professional contacts and friends is inflated and includes a lot of readers; if I were to guess, among the people I know, the median of books read in a year would be between ten and twenty-five. However, if Jobs is right, this is a disturbing trend. Book sales have fallen recently, and the hope is that digital books will boost sales once the companies and publishers agree on prices, distribution, and collaboration. This is somewhat comforting, especially with the memory of record labels fighting a losing battle against downloading. Technology is the future, and publishers need to adapt. But, as I mentioned before, the aesthetics of reading add new twists to that rational understanding. Auletta presents a concise, important breakdown of where money goes when one purchases a book.

"Traditionally, publishers have sold books to stores, with the wholesale price for hardcovers set at fifty per cent of the cover price. Authors are paid royalties at a rate of about fifteen per cent of the cover price. On a twenty-six dollar book, the publisher receives thirteen dollars, out of which it pays all the costs of making the book. The author gets $3.90 in royalties. Bookstores return about forty per cent of the hardcovers they buy; this accounts for $5.20 per book. Another $3 goes to overhead costs and the price of producing and shipping the book--leaving, in the best case, about a dollar of profit per book (Auletta 25)."

Naturally, there's the issue of how much a book should cost when there's no physical book to be held. Even with actual books, there was a lot of backlash during the last holiday season when certain online retailers were attempting to sell new hardcovers for $9.99. I believe it was John Grisham who summed it up best when he stated that if readers weren't willing to pay more for established authors, then naturally they wouldn't shell out for new and unproven writers, artists who are hurt the most when books aren't selling. Naturally, there is a trickle-down effect. Unknown writers might struggle, and warehouse and factory employees would find themselves out of a job if all books went solely digital. In today's environmentally conscious world, the idea of saving paper and trees is a natural plus for e-books; but as a friend of mine pointed out, the energy used to produce digital readers and maintain the software could pose its own ecological problems.

Today's world is about choice, for better or for worse (I'd go for worse, but a.) that would lead to another essay, and b.) I don't want to come across as needlessly misanthropic). The availability of digital books, a mouse-click away is no different from having an Amazon account and a half hour to kill.

"Stephen Riggio, the CEO of Barnes and Noble, pointed out that publishing was still big business; at $30 billion a year, it was bigger than both the music and film industries. He also observed that readers wanted books on demand, which is what the Nook--with its access to the Barnes and Noble catalog, as well as to the more than one million scanned public domain books already on offer through various online sites, and, most likely, to the millions of books promised by the pending Google Books settlement as well--would give them (Halpern 22)."

What scares me the most is the idea that books are in need of more "bells and whistles." In an age of constant, streaming information and entertainment, the existence of text that is complex only in its information is important. Yes, people don't read books that much anymore, but the people who do are not in need of "improvements" to books themselves. Digital readers are fine by themselves. I'll gladly make myself look snobby by vehemently opposing the views of Amazon's Russ Grandinetti and Simon & Schuster's David Rosenthal.

"In Grandinetti's view, book publishers--like executives in other media--are making the same mistake the railroad companies made more than a century ago: thinking that they were in the train business rather than the transportation business. To thrive, he believes, publishers have to reimagine the book as multimedia entertainment. David Rosenthal, the publisher of Simon & Schuster, says that his company is racing 'to embed audio and video and other value-added features in e-books. It could be an author discussing his book, or a clip from a movie that touches on the book's topic' (Auletta 29)."

I love watching author interviews online. I love stumbling upon an idea in a book and being compelled to research it. However, I resist the idea of having other media intrude in my books. Perhaps it's a reality of American attention spans, but books can adapt to new technologies but remain books at heart. Once I have one at my disposal, I'll learn to appreciate the nuances of a digital reader. But text should not be needlessly "complimented." The internet has made information much more available. The apparent minority of readers can be trusted to seek out the information that they need. I have the feeling that books will eventually go the route of vinyl albums and compact discs: still readily available, perhaps a niche market, but a compliment to the digital revolution. For the time being, I'm going to stick to turning pages, not pushing buttons.

Works Cited:

Auletta, Ken. "Publish Or Perish." The New Yorker, April 26.

Halpern, Sue. "The iPad Revolution." The New York Review Of Books, June 10.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Early Risings

Whenever I read books by a new author (new in terms of my readings, not recent debuts), it's rare that I start at the very beginning. Last year, a close friend of mine was very excited about the publication of Colson Whitehead's Sag Harbor, and in talking to me about his canon, gave me an excellent endorsement of Whitehead's 1999 debut novel The Intuitionist. Like any good word-of-mouth description, my friend's synopsis was an excellent sketch, but left so much more to be discovered. The author's name has been in my head and in my notes for quite some time, and I mention the early recommendation to give credit where it's due. Given Whitehead's literary esteem, I would have started reading his works eventually, but perhaps those readings would have been delayed without my friend's enthusiasm. After reading an enjoyable interview between Whitehead and Rob Spillman in the 10th Anniversary issue of Tin House magazine, I decided to not wait any longer.

The Intuitionist details the politics and conspiracies of two vastly different groups of elevator inspectors in an unnamed city (if not New York, then crafted as such), in an unnamed time (this is more vague, but the descriptions have the aura of the post-World War II era). The Empiricist inspect elevators with standard, by-the-book methods; The Intuitionists use emotions, intuition, and deep meditation in their inspections. As the book hints, the Intuitionists have a higher accuracy rate, but are still looked down upon by the Empiricists. Lila Mae Watson is the first black female Intuitionist in the department, and her demeanor and devotion to her job suggests nothing metaphysical or out of the ordinary. However, a glimpse into her mind as she inspects an elevator shows the curious, tangible thought process that goes into such a mental form of inspection.

"Everyone has their own set of genies. Depends on how your brain works. Lila Mae has always had a thing for geometric forms. As the elevator reaches the fifth floor landing, an orange octagon cartwheels into her mind's frame. It hops up and down, incongruous with the annular aggression of the red spike. Cubes and parallelograms emerge around the eighth floor, but they're satisfied with half-hearted little jigs and don't disrupt the proceedings like the mischievous orange octagons (Whitehead 6)."

An elevator inspected by Lila Mae crashes, leading to immediate backlash against the Intuitionist faction, especially since it's an election year for the Elevator Guild. Lila Mae knows that she inspected the elevator properly, leading to the immediate assumption that the faulty elevator was sabotaged. Her apartment is broken into and searched, and she has to go into brief hiding in an Intuitionist safe house. The intention of clearing her name eventually turns into several different mysteries, including the search for notes and blueprints regarding the "black box," a theoretically "perfect" elevator designed by the late James Fulton, the founder of the Intuitionist movement. Lila Mae seems to take every new turn in stride, since her makeup suggests a woman not easily shocked or broken down. As Whitehead says in his interview with Spillman:

"With The Intuitionist I am confined by the character of the book and [Lila] Mae's disposition--she's sour and repressed, so she's not going to be cracking a lot of jokes."

This disposition is understandable. Despite being completely professional, intelligent, and a valued elevator inspector, Lila Mae experiences a lot of discrimination. She's the first black female Intuitionist, thereby representing three minorities in the scope of the novel. Whether blatant or implied, she can't seem to escape even the most mild criticisms or racial implications.

"'I think I remember you,' Mrs. Rogers says flatly, nodding her head. 'There never been too many of us around here, who weren't scrubbing floors or picking up, that is. Yes, I remember you. I remember you because you were the only colored gal around here who didn't work here (Whitehead 92)."

The above quote is a hint to the suggested time period, with the adjective "colored" being used frequently. The Intuitionist is partly historical, with the slightest dash of science fiction, but is at heart a novel about race relations. A reader would not be faulted for thinking that, if Lila Mae were a white male, the vast majority of her problems would be minimized. She's not the only one dealing with racism. Pompey, the only other black Intuitionist, has internalized the racism, and it manifests itself in downright ludicrous thoughts.

"No caramel soda, no prune juice, and definitely no coffee: Pompey won't drink anything darker than his skin, for fear of becoming darker than he already is. As if his skin were a stain that could worsen, steep and saturate into Hell's Black (Whitehead 87)."

The politics of the Elevator Guild are also race-driven, with the leaders putting up the front of being supportive of the black community when they're anything but. In the search for the "black box," Chancre, the Empiricist Guild leader, makes his beliefs explicit to Lila Mae. In this quote, Whitehead could very well be encapsulating the negative history of American politics and race relations:

"Chancre pauses a moment, savoring, responds: 'Do your job. Serve the Department. Reed's got you running around looking for Fulton's little box--well, if you happen to find it, you give it to us. What good is it going to do them in the long run? They may sway some of the undecideds, but the Empricists have always been the party of the Elevator Inspectors Guild, and always will be. You believe what they tell you and think that Lever [an Intuitionist] and them are 'friends of the colored people' or some such, but they're the same as anyone else (Whitehead 115-116).'"

While greatly different in style and subject matter, The Intuitionist reminded me of Jonathan Lethem's Gun, With Occasional Music. In both novels, the writers created distinct mashings of genres and time, all housed in the style of standard mystery novels. However, the mystery aspect of the books is intended to be a compliment rather than the main plot. Both Whithead and Lethem are scholars of media and pop culture, and in the midst of originality provide great homages to past writers in a variety of genres. Lethem was obviously inspired by the mysteries of Raymond Chandler; in Lila Mae Watson, Whitehead creates a woman who would be very much at home in a private eye story, not blinking at each new turn. Despite her lack of explicit confrontations, she doesn't accept any discrimination. She's mentally superior to the people who look down on her.

The elevator metaphors are obvious in The Intuitionist, the notions of rising and falling, especially in relation to black American history. However, Whitehead doesn't rely solely on these metaphors. Much like the fiction of Nella Larsen, the fictionalized friction isn't different from reality.

Work Cited:
Whitehead, Colson. The Intuitionist. Copyright 1999 by Colson Whitehead.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Broken Landscapes: "The Searchers"

"As for movies, I was a perverse muddle...I'd seen dozens by Godard and Truffaut, and never one by Howard Hawks or John Ford (Lethem 3)."

Despite my being able to use youth as an excuse, I often look back to my days as a college film critic and, to put it bluntly, wonder how the hell I ever kept the job. Granted, there are literally hundreds of "influential" films by dozens of "respected" filmmakers, so getting caught up can take someone an understandable amount of time. But my lack of knowledge and personal screenings at the time should have come to haunt me a lot more than it actually did (this was manifested by my occasionally poor writing skills, but that's another long topic). As I began reading the Jonathan Lethem essay collection The Disappointment Artist, which opens with the essay "Defending The Searchers," I was struck by two realizations. One, I had never seen a John Ford film; two, I had purchased a DVD copy of The Searchers years ago, but had never screened it. These kinds of admissions are embarrassing, yes, but I've long asserted that everyone, no matter how culturally-savvy or educated, has their own glaring gaps in various mediums.

At first, I was going to screen the film before reading Lethem's essay, but instead I decided to do the screening with his thoughts fresh in my mind. Afterwards, I was pleased to find that "Defending The Searchers" worked as both a companion piece as well as a philosophical sketch of a film that is equally admired and frowned upon. I've written about controversial films before, with a much more blatant example being D.W. Griffith's 1915 film The Birth Of a Nation. For all of the great acting, directing, and cinematography, the 1956 work is marred by its sometimes misogyny and much more consistent racist views of American Indians. While The Birth Of A Nation is much more distinct in its balance of landmark filmmaking alongside white supremacy, The Searchers does present a few grey areas, and I write this not to soften the thematic problems, but to expand on them in the context of contemporary film studies.

The film opens with Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returning to his brother's Texas farm in 1868, and the dialogue establishes that 1.) Edwards fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, and 2.) he very well may have engaged in some illegal activities following that conflict, since he's elusive about his coming home with lots of Yankee gold coins. However, his nieces and nephews are in awe of his stature, and the above shot both highlights his closeness to the family and foreshadows his future interactions with his niece Debbie.

The "searching" in the film takes two meanings. Above, the initial search is for the Comanche band that has stolen a head of neighboring cattle, which was actually a decoy operation--while the men are away, the Comanches burn the home down, kidnap the nieces, and murder and rape Ethan's sister-in-law. The first search, and subsequent scenes following, highlight the staggering beauty of Monument Valley, where The Searchers was filmed. The setting works wonders on a few levels. Even for audiences with no clue of the plot can look at the title to understand what part of the film will be about. The sheer size of the area would make searching for anything next to impossible. As Lethem writes, there are other, more intangible suggestions made by the continuing shots of the vast valley.

"A homestead on the open range--no, hardly the range. This family has settled on the desolate edge of Monument Valley, under the shadow of those baked and broken monoliths rendered trite by Jeep commercials. You think: they might as well try to farm on the moon (Lethem 2)."

Once the "official" search of the film begins, the audience sees John Wayne in his iconic get-up: a wide black cowboy hat, bandanna, and a continuing glare. It goes without saying that Wayne's cowboy image has been reproduced, imitated, copied, saluted, and critiqued for decades, but the image hides the fact that, despite his character's racism and faults, Wayne gave one of his greatest performances, if not his best.

"Wayne's character, Ethan, is tormented and tormenting. His fury is righteous and ugly--resentment worn as a fetish. It isolates him in every scene. It isolates him from you, watching, even as his charisma wrenches you closer, into an alliance, a response that's almost sexual. You try to fit him to your concept of hero, but though he's riding off now, chasing a band of murderous Indians, it doesn't work. No parody had prepared you for this. Wasn't Wayne supposed to be a joke? Weren't Westerns supposed to be simple? The film on the screen is lush, portentous. You're worried for it (Lethem 3)."

As the film progresses, audiences today will struggle between the superior direction and the film's misguided label of Indians as savages. In the aftermath of the Comanche raid on the Edwards home, Ford sets up a stunning, emotional shot of Ethan, in complete silhouette, looking at his sister-in-law's raped and mutilated body. Thematically, this highlights the middle of the film, as the beginning and the ending of the film are marked by Ethan in the middle of a doorway: coming, searching, and then leaving. The above screencap shows one of the most famous scenes in the film, with the Rangers and Comanches walking parallel, both sides resisting an urge to ambush the other, and creating tension that's blatant, in full daylight, a polar opposite of hidden, unseen dangers in the dark of night. Again, the beauty of Ford's direction is marred by the insinuation that the Comanches are evil killers. Modern audiences naturally see the dated notions, and any writing on the film would insult modern intelligence by having to state the obvious: "Indians were NOT savages; they were members of a complex society and civilization." However, returning to Lethem's essay, there's still an instinct to try and defend the negativity without tolerating it. Lethem recounts a scene in which he watches the film in the company of an old girlfriend's drugged-out, unforgiving roommate.

"I began a defense and immediately contradicted myself, first insisting that the Indians weren't important as real presences, only as emblems of Wayne's psychic torment. The film, I tried to suggest, was a psychological epic, a diagnosis of racism through character and archetype. The Indians served as Wayne's unheeded mirror. Then, unable to leave my research on the shelf, I cited Ford's renowned accuracy. Maybe he knew a few things about Comanche battle ethics--

D. scoffed. For him it was impossible to honor Indians by showing them mowed down in a senseless slaughter (never mind that senseless slaughter was historical fact) (Lethem 8-9)."

The above scene is haunting, and represents, even for a few minutes, the range of Wayne's acting ability. Brad, Lucy's fiancee, believes that he has seen her amongst a nearby group of Comanches, not knowing that Ethan had actually buried her dead body earlier, being so shaken by the act that he can't talk about it. When he finally tells Brad, he becomes enraged at his constant questions, warning him to never ask him about it again. The scene is jarring, as Wayne shows a man completely overcome with emotion, almost near tears, a contrast to the usual assumption that Wayne only played strong, silent types. The film is not perfect; there are scenes in the film played poorly, or for comic relief. However, Ethan's revelation that he buried Lucy is near-perfect, and one of the film's many emotional lows.

Scar, the leader of the Comanche tribe, is the main villain. He's only featured in a few scenes, but is difficult to forget in his warrior makeup and silent, brooding personality. Assuming that Lethem is completely correct in his assessment of Ford's accuracy, Scar looks authentic; there's nothing about his presentation that smells of stereotype or caricature. However, stereotype and misogyny are fully manifested when Martin, Ethan's main companion in the searching, accidentally barters with an Indian and comes away with an Indian "wife." She's submissive to her "husband" and to Ethan, who constantly derides her and pokes fun at Martin's new partner. This leads to one of the film's most embarrassing moments, especially given that it's supposed to be comedic. The Indian woman beds down next to Martin, who's so angered and embarrassed that he literally kicks her away.

"The scene is odious. The chance that Wayne might be some kind of hero, that the filmmakers might redeem him, or themselves, is pissed away (Lethem 6)."

The scene in which Ethan and Martin are shown a string of scalps is stereotypical, but is undeniable in its creeping possibilities and presentation. Their possible fate is literally right under their noses, and even Ethan, as tough as he is, looks intimidated. However, after years of journeying, they've found a grown-up Debbie, who's now one of Scar's wives.

Casting Natalie Wood as the adult Debbie, in today's context, seems like a poor choice. She was a fine actress, but, especially coming on the heels of the previous year's Rebel Without a Cause, it seems like a cameo at the wrong time. In modern films, cameos are usually played for in-jokes (Stan Lee comes to mind) or homages (Fay Wray died before filming a cameo in Peter Jackson's King Kong). She adds nothing to Debbie's brief appearances, except for standing out as an obvious white woman in the midst of the Indians. Costume aside, she obviously has not integrated herself into Comanche culture, despite having lived with them for years.

This adds another layer to Ethan's psychological makeup. When she intially doesn't want to leave, he wants to kill her on the spot, claiming that she'd be better off dead than being a Comanche. However, Ethan somewhat redeems himself in the final showdown, rescuing her and completing his duty, returning her home. With his job done, Ethan leaves to complete the next chapter in his life, whatever that may be.

Again, ideology aside, The Searchers has its share of stumbles. As Roger Ebert notes in his "Great Movies" essay on the film, some of the comedic scenes are grossly out of place, both weighing down the film as well as contextually harming the flow and climaxes. Ford's direction is phenomenal, but some of the editing seemed shaky to me. The audience knows that the search goes on for years, but some of those years are presented without any transition, leading to an initial confusion as to when a given scene is taking place. A separate essay could be written on Debbie's psychological state. Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves depicts how someone could be completely immersed in a new culture at a young age and find it difficult to remember what life was like beforehand. Granted, the audience at the time was happy--Ethan did his job and saved the girl.

Jonathan Lethem's notion of "defending" the film is honorable. It's an undeniably influential piece of American film history, and while today's audiences will rightfully scoff at the dated interactions and generic "Cowboys vs. Indians" motif, there is a lot of beauty to defend. This was the acme of the Ford-Wayne partnership, and in acknowledging the horrible depictions of Indians and women, one can honor a great film despite its imperfections.

Work Cited:
Lethem, Jonathan. "Defending The Searchers." Published in The Disappointment Artist. Copyright 2005 by Jonathan Lethem.

"Everything Sounds Better on Vinyl:" New Fiction in Gulf Stream Magazine

Good morning, y'all! I have a new short story up today. You can read " Everything Sounds Better on Vinyl " in the Spring i...