Friday, October 13, 2017

Fences – Denzel Washington’s filming of August Wilson’s play.

Fences played in our local theater years ago and I wanted to see it then – and wanted to see it again when it came out on the screen last year.  Watching it in the intimate theater of the small screen in our home recently, we finally became acquainted with the play – and this movie production seemed confined by the play – it seemed to be bursting at the seams of the small movie set that was created for it – but also not to be quite big enough for the screen that it would burst out onto. It is a powerfully intimate play that should not be as broadly populated as a movie screen allows.  The production thus interferes with the pleasure – if you can call brutal confrontation with the realities that our circumscribed lives dump on us a pleasure – of engaging with this material because it seems oddly remote, unreal, and therefore, as it were, staged.  And this is too bad, because this really is very good theater.  I am glad to have had a shadow experience of it – though rue not having seen it in its natural setting.  (See another discussion of the difference in experience based on venue here).

The play (and it is hard to think of it as a movie) is set in Pittsburgh in the 1950s.  Troy is a fifty something year old black man who is currently employed as a sanitation worker – he picks up garbage – with his best friend and wingman Bono.  In his youth, he played baseball in the negro leagues and he had a season that was truly exemplary.  He complains that racism kept him from playing for the New York Yankees – but we discover later that his break-out year came late in an athlete’s life – after he had served 15 years in prison for robbery – where he had met and befriended Bono.  In that break out year, when he was a star and had his pick of women, he chose Rose, who insisted that they marry, and they have led a hardscrabble life.  They now live in a shotgun house in Pittsburgh, a house his disabled brother Gabriel has recently moved away from into a neighbor’s home.  Gabriel’s settlement with the federal government over his war related head injury paid for the house.  Rose and Troy live in it with their high school age son, Cory.  They also live  near Troy’s son Lyons from a pre-prison relationship.  He is having an affair, which he denies to Bono (and implicitly to Rose), but can no longer deny when it produces a child.

This play is a tragedy – or rather a set of them.  The central tragic figure is, of course, Troy, whose anger about his own treatment, by his father and then by the white establishment ends up isolating him in an angry stew - he becomes fenced by his anger – and this, in turn, chases away those who love him.  His anger is toxic and it eats away at and destroys the winning aspects of his personality.  He tries to keep it directed at imaginary enemies like death, but it all too often gets directed at the people who love him.  Not only do they love him, he loves, needs and depends on them.  He does not articulate all of this, however.  Instead we infer it – we see it – and we also see and recognize that he is defending against being dependent – defending against his needs – at least in part because acknowledging them makes him weak or vulnerable and he expects that weakness will lead to others taking advantage of him – taking away all that is most valuable to him.  He cannot see that it his own actions that are bringing about the very thing he most fears.

Rose, too, is a tragic figure.  She has hitched her wagon to a man who is bigger than life – someone who is bursting the boundaries of what it means to be alive.  He is guy who hit more home runs than anyone else, and had a higher average – and got seven hits off of Satchel Paige in one season, but he is also the man that she is trying to fence in – or rather to fence the world away from – a world that tempts him away from her.  She has subjugated herself to him – but she decides not to do that any longer by supporting Cory’s wishes to become a football player and accept a scholarship to college.  Troy thwarts this attempt, refusing to allow Cory to play and refusing to allow Cory to talk to the recruiter.  Rose must live with Cory’s decision to leave – to go into the Marines – and she decides to raise Troy’s daughter when her mother dies in childbirth – but she locks Troy out of her heart in order to do that.  She chooses a life that is smaller than the one she would have had in order to make things work.

Cory is also a tragic figure – but in the modern meaning of that word – not the classical Greek sense.  Instead of being betrayed by his own character he is a victim of circumstance – of the ways that his father has been mistreated and now treats his son – providing everything that his son needs except love and affection – and envying him as a result – which the son finds confusing.  How can his father both despise him – think him unworthy – and envy him – want what he has that the father finds to be of such little value?  Cory’s tragic experience is one of confusion.  But it also opens the door to the overriding tragedy – the tragedy of the larger circumstances in which the more classical tragedies of Troy and Rose play out.  They are trapped by racism, by gender roles, by their economic conditions, and by the inter-generational violence that plays itself out in front of our eyes.  We see that they are victims as well as perpetrators of their isolation and despair.

Troy’s quixotic engagement with the world is symbolized by his opening anxiety about losing his job after asking why he can’t be a garbage truck driver just because he is black.  He is called into the commissioner’s office and we, along with Bono and Rose, assume that he will be fired for insubordination.  Instead, he is promoted.  But even this turns out to be, at best, a mixed blessing.  He is separated from Bono, with whom he was paired at the back of the truck, and he has no one to talk to – and he is now seen as an authority – just one of the many pieces that leave him more and more isolated – but in this case particularly from Bono.  Michael Balint, in writing The Basic Fault, noted that we much prefer to be Don Quixote to being Sancho Panza – the role of Bono – who keeps Don Quixote tied to the real world.  Troy’s other Sancho is, of course, Rose, and he is separated from her as well.  The tragedy that Troy endures is that of isolation.  As much as he wanted to be the great baseball player – the adulation that brought is a substitute for what he truly needs – the grounding influence and connection he feels with Rose and Bono.

After watching the movie, the reluctant wife and I agreed that we both identified with the Rose character more than the Troy character (though we are also, at least theoretically aware that we play Troy in significant chunks of our lives – and had earlier agreed that we would rather be Don Quixote than Sancho Panza).  Even though I imagine that Troy is modeled on real people in the playwright’s life, I think he is alive in the ways he is because Wilson has imagined himself into the character in writing him– as has Denzel Washington and, once upon a time, James Earl Jones in playing him.  I admire all three men for doing this.  Seeing ourselves in the mirror of demanding fealty and getting loneliness instead of love is intensely painful, indeed Don Quixote was defeated by the night of a thousand mirrors.  Being Don Quixote also involves being unconscious of how that looks from the outside so, when we are confronted with image, as we were in this movie – we escape into identifying with Sancho.  Being Quixote is no longer fun when we are confronted by the problematic aspects of being the isolated, tyrannical Don, so we can flee even further, into being victims in the broader, Cory-like sense.  The power of tragedy; however, and Freud’s realization and characterization of the tragic quality of living our lives – is that realizing our own part in a tragedy – no matter how disempowered we actually are and further feel – is all the leverage that we may have.  Ultimately, especially when we are disempowered, we cannot change others, but only ourselves.  In our roles as Sancho Panza (and both Bono and Rose exemplify this) we can, at best, put things in front of the Don to see – as they did with Troy, and as an analyst does with a patient.  It is the patient who is empowered to make the change.

What is remarkable about our government is that we put in place a powerful check on the rule of the majority – the court system.  I heard in an NPR story once that we frequently counsel other countries not to include this check in their constitutions because it is such a headache.  And it is.  But if we don’t build in a means for the minority position to be heard, if we don’t, as Troy, recognize that it is we who are, in fact, not just put upon, but putting upon others, if we don't hold up a mirror and recognize ourselves, we become despots, and this will always end tragically for all involved.  

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Thursday, October 5, 2017

Edward Abbey’s The Brave Cowboy

When I first landed in Albuquerque, I felt like I might as well have landed on the moon.  A sophomore in college, I had transferred from the “home” campus of my college in Annapolis, Maryland, to the campus in Santa Fe.  Never having been to the southwest before, I was unprepared for its austere beauty.  Riding “The Roadrunner”, the van that carried travelers from the Albuquerque airport to Santa Fe, some 60 miles away, I noticed every new scrap of green that appeared as we travelled higher up into the mountains – out of Albuquerque’s dustbowl and into Santa Fe’s, by contrast, verdant high desert.  During my four years there – school and one more where I tried to join the tiny middle class in a city that includes many poor and very wealthy citizens often living cheek by jowl – I pined for the lush green of the Midwest.  My friends would claim that I just needed to slow down – that the mountains around us were waves that were cresting and, if we could slow enough, we could see that they were liquid.

Edward Abbey’s 1956 book, The Brave Cowboy, dropped me back into Albuquerque and the mountains around it.  Though he played a bit fast and loose with the geography, the texture of the place – the canyons and the arroyos felt like – from a very different vantage point – home.  And it was good to be back.  The writing of the book is also a movement back – back into a world that is described from the outside (in beautiful and moving detail – with care that invites, especially at the beginning, the kind of slowing down that my friends in the southwest urged upon me), but that leaves us to imagining the internal world of people we meet instead of having direct access to it. 

The first and central figure is Jack.  A cowboy who is living in a world that is increasingly hostile to his kind, his first action is to cut a barbed wire fence when there is no apparent gate.  He is on his way to connect with his friend Paul, who is married to Jerry.  He gets there on horseback and crosses lots of uncluttered landscape, and one memorable highway where his mare, who is barely broken, becomes skittish, imperiling them both as she skids and clatters across the unaccustomed black top while cars and trucks bear down on them.  (In a seemingly random coincidence, I once road my bike on that same highway and was carried across the lanes – through traffic – to be deposited safely upright and still riding on the other side – by a dust devil – one of the small tornado-like wind events that occur in the Southwest).

Jack finally arrives at Paul and Jerry’s home to find only Jerry there with their young son.  Jerry is a vision.  She is a confident, brash woman who is clearly connected to Paul and quite attracted to Jack (whom we only learn later is not a particularly physically attractive man).  The connection between Jack and Jerry is palpable – but they, largely because of Jack’s restraint, remain chaste.  Paul, it turns out, is in the county Jail waiting for transfer to Federal Prison because he has refused to sign up for the draft.  He is not, it turns out a draft dodger.  In fact, he served in the military.  Nor is he a conscientious objector, which would not make him a criminal.  He is opposed to the idea of the necessity of the imposition of the federal government making a claim on him – the draft, instated in 1948 – is, in his mind, unconstitutional.  Jack promises Jerry that, having heard about Paul’s predicament, he is here to talk with him about that and sets out to visit him in jail, despite Jerry’s protests that this is not one of the jail’s visiting days.  Jack proceeds to get himself into jail as a prisoner where he meets up with Paul.

Initially I thought Paul was the most interesting character in the book.  Frankly, I thought that it would be a book about his moral dilemmas and sense of being trapped.  In fact, I thought that Paul was everyman, trapped by authorities, but also by time, in a jail that he could not get out of.  I imagined he and I as prisoners in our own heads, caught by ideals and concerns and blind to what is going on around us.  Even when it became apparent that Jack was there to spring him – Jack brought a couple of files with him into the jail – Paul’s ambivalence about leaving and his fear of living on the lam seemed to be further evidence of his sense of entrapment – which by then Jack had clarified was an entrapment in his sense of moral rectitude – a moral rectitude that led him to value being right over being home and thus trumped his being relationally available to his wife and child.  This became even clearer when Paul revealed that he could leave at any time – all he had to do was to agree to be on the draft rolls and his two year sentence would be commuted.  And now Jack is in Jail with him – beaten by the guard, about to go on the lam himself, with no simple get out jail card like Paul’s, and I felt concern that Jack had been hornswoggled by Paul’s rigidity.  But it becomes clear that it is Jack and his freedom, or lack thereof that is the central concern of the novel.  And we leave Paul, summarily, behind.

The protagonist who proves worthy of Jack is the sheriff.  The sheriff could not be more different than Jack.  Where Jack is thin, the sheriff is round.  Where Jack is single and carefree, the sheriff is henpecked and deeply attached to his children.  Where Jack is impulsive and loyal, the sheriff is thoughtful and self-centered.  These two characters are, however, the two characters that are most clearly cut from the same cloth.  They represent many things, but among them they represent us, the reader – and me, the reader cooped up in the Midwest – hoping to take his family to the land that is so close to his heart and so far from everything that is familiar and comfortable – for me, but also for them.

Jack and the sheriff are the only two who, in the posse chase that draws in more and more people to traipse through the canyons and the arroyos, have a reverence for the world of nature that they are lucky enough to be immersed in while going about an increasingly grim business.  They are the only two who are thinking about each other – Jack anticipating that someone will do what the sheriff does, and the sheriff thinking through the options available to Jack as he works to track him down.  They are drawn together and both are trapped by a system that is grinding each of them down, a system that will ultimately consume them both – and they are the ones that we end up caring about (OK, we have a few feelings for Jerry, but this author is not one to acknowledge women as independent beings, nor does he acknowledge the feminine in his own soul (and I find myself wondering if this is one of the walls in his personal prison cell)).

In any case, the dilemma for both of these men is that the modern world cannot tolerate them.  One commentator on the book maintains that this is the last cowboy bookwritten.  This is not my genre and I wouldn’t know, but it certainly seems to be a book about the last cowboy.  And his death feels like the death of one version of the American Dream.  The dream – or fantasy – that we can expand westward indefinitely – that we are infinite in our vision, and unencumbered as we move forward into an inviting new day turns out to be just that – a fantasy that is empty and, despite having been alluring, ultimately one that disappoints us.

Jack, when he is a young boy, is sent by his mother, after his father dies, to live on his grandfather's ranch because she cannot keep both Jack and her new man and she chooses the new man.  On his grandfather’s ranch, Jack joins his grandfather and the other cowboys on a cattle drive as cook’s helper.  His hero is the lead cowboy who is dazzling in his abilities in the saddle.  But the lead cowboy embarrasses the cook, and Jack’s grandfather steps in to sets things straight.  In doing this, the grandfather – the man who stands up for the little guy against the tyrant – becomes Jack’s new hero.  And Jack has emulated that hero, giving up his own freedom to fight for Paul who, it turns out, doesn’t really want or need his help.  Paul is already hopelessly enmeshed in the system.  And so, it turns out, is Jack.  This is a tragedy not in the Greek sense, though it is that, but in the cosmic sense.  Freedom is, it turns out, not something that we can aspire to, even in this, the home of the free and the land of the Brave Cowboy. 

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