Friday, March 17, 2017

Hell or High Water (or On the Moon)

The fine film Hell or High Water certainly is a bank-robbing yarn, and hidden under that a pretty slick scheme that apparently works so well that a detective (Jeff Bridges) can't prove it happened. But the film is also a portrait of the middle of the country, the western edge of the great plains, and although it's set in the southwest (filmed in New Mexico), set in the empty space and dying small town dust of the land above Amarillo, and the Oklahoma panhandle just north of that, the same place that Annie Proulx's That Old Ace in the Hole is located, it could happen anywhere there were Trump voters aplenty, including the far western side of Chatham County, NC. Lights of Cheyenne is further north still, the territory of Proulx's other great western book, Close Range, but it's still the same territory, set to the tune of Goodbye Old Paint, one of the sweetest and saddest of the old cowboy songs, where the cowboy even leaves his horse.

They might have put a McMurtry song in the sound track to Hell or High Water somewheres. They've got Ray Wiley Hubbard a couple of times, and Billy Joe Shaver, and Gillian Welsh, and even Townes Van Zant. The movie almost deserves Choctaw Bingo, but that song's just too much good times for the eventual plot turns that make Hell into a tragedy. Like Lance Mannion said in his review, this film should have gotten all the awards. If you want a happy ending to such a story, watch Peckinpah's The Getaway for a nightcap. Probably that's why Peckinpah hated his movie. He didn't believe in happy endings to such stories, and Jim Thompson didn't either. McQueen wanted to make some money, Peckinpah was broke. And damn if the happy ending they cooked up isn't a really happy ending, that leaves me every viewing with a smile and a little hope. It's the opposite of what happens in Hell, start to finish.

There's even an almost perfect parallel to the moment when Ali McGraw gives Slim Pickins more money than he asked for in the first place. In Hell, about mid-way, one of the bank robbers, Joe Pine, gives a waitress a $200 tip. Later on, but not much, Ranger Bridges shows up and tells her the money's evidence. She tells him it pay's her mortgage. It's still evidence. Law's the law.

That's how it is in Hell, all the way. The darkest funniest part is when the town takes out after the robbers in a convoy of pickup trucks. Everyone's armed now. That's what law is, pretty much, in our Republican formerly democratic republic. Get you a gun or three, eventually you may need it. When Ranger Bridges and his sidekick run up on a herd of cattle crossing a road to escape a range fire, Bridges says, "ain't no one to call about the fire out here. It'll burn out when it hits the Pecos." They watch the herd and the cowboys cross over the next rise and disappear. As William Holden says in the greatest of all modern westerns, The Wild Bunch, "these times are changing fast."

Yesterday I was watching the news and saw a real event. It looked like it might have happened out there in the middle somewhere. A cop had chased a guy down, and the guy was sitting on his chest and beating him up. After a while a driver who was stuck in the jam this was causing walked up with a pistol and told the assailant to stop. When he didn't, the civilian shot him, still sitting on the lawman's chest. No doubt Mr. Trump nodded in agreement, as did his pal Mr. LaPierre. The good Samaritan walks past the camera and out of the frame with a dazed, sick look on his face. Bridges best moment of acting in Hell might be when he releases a stifled, anguished cry right after he makes the kill shot on the brother who's murdered his partner from long distance.

I'm hoping that the people who have stolen our government are so stupid that they'll run out of friends. The defunding of Meals on Wheels might be one fulcrum, who knows. Then again, our Secretary of State has now said that we might take some sort of action against North Korea. Watch the skies to the west, after the sun goes down.

Regular folks are going to feel like they inhabit an outpost on the moon before the Trump people finish with us. When the next transport arrives, it'll be to pick up the next load of ore, period. When I flew out to Oregon last March I realized that western Nebraska and the moon look pretty much exactly the same. A cold, desolate beauty. Roads as straight as T-squares. Stars as bright as broken glass at the edge of the blacktop.

Sunday, March 5, 2017


Well the Old Vet seems to have descended a few steps further down into the darkness. It's a very slow-motion tragedy, and we can only watch it unfold. There are cheap answers, such as perhaps that people might in the light of this terrible fact that “old age ain't for the faint of heart,” my late great friend Bobby Barrett's quoted adage from his great aunt up in North Wilksboro, that he used to drive up once a week and attend to when she was in her late 80s—people with such an awareness might reconsider the mystery slogan on American Tobacco's most famous product: LS/MFT. I know of course that leaving with lung cancer is a horror too, but the Old Vet's fate may be even worse, and it stems in some part from the fact that he was a great believer in staying fit, in never drinking or smoking, plus he was a big church man and went not only Sundays, but Wednesdays, and sang in the choir (he loved music), and on Saturdays distributed Gideon Bibles to everywhere the group believed they might find people in need of spiritual succor.

This week, starting perhaps last week, there is on the Old Vet's face a new sense of worry, and worse, it's mixed with suspicion. For many months he's been unable to remember events and people and conversations that happened moments earlier. Now he isn't sure if anyone ever comes to check on him, to visit, to help with his bodily needs. More and more he lives in a dark mist of distrust and anger, together with anxiety and worry. He can't sleep, and awakes not knowing where he is. He's climbed out of his bed and crawled into the hall, yelling for help. He's of course fallen several times in this effort, although he hasn't as yet hurt himself. His bed is the kind that can be lowered so a fall is from less of a height. On the other hand, he ended up at his current lodgings because he had fallen and broken wrist and arm and was incapacitated to such an extent that he no longer fit the criteria for lodging at that facility. Even at that time he was suffering significant memory loss.

So my wife goes to visit every day, and his other daughter comes, and his son. But he doesn't remember any of it, and has begun to think he's been abandoned. There is also a tone of mental regression. My old fiddling buddy Malcolm Owen's wife Vickie used to talk to her son Jake, when he was three or so, about “Pig Will” and “Pig Won't.” It was a nice and subtle story to tell a child, about cooperation in the household. But at the moment she told this story, Jake looked at her and smiled and said, “I'm Pig Won't.” Last night the Old Vet had a BLT for supper. He usually likes the sandwich. He is still able to enjoy food, and much of the family visits involve giving him snacks. He eats them, say's “I shouldn't be eating this,” then immediately asks for more of the same. As we were leaving we said to him last night, “look, you've got one more piece of bacon.” “You eat it,” he said with something of a snarl. His Pig Won't side had won that tiny battle. There was another part of his mind that surely wanted that strip of bacon.

The attendants say he can't sleep. Literature on the progress of dementia report this as a deeper stage. The Old Vet climbs from his bed and rings the attendant call-bell, over and over again. A new procedure is being established: get him into his wheel-chair and just let him roll the halls all night. There are other clients of the home who are already well into this procedure. Now and then an old woman comes to his door and wants to come in. She thinks it's her room. A new wing of the facility is nearly completed. It's specifically for the demented. Apparently this too is a demographic trend. LS/MFT. Maybe Dean Martin, for all his sweet jolly persona of devil-may-care, had already made some decisions. (Then of course his beloved son crashed his plane into a mountain, and his heart was broken.)

The Old Vet has no idea of the larger stage, although once he was quite aware of public events, and was a life-long Democrat in a world of more and more right-wing Republican small town southern life, often withstanding a lot of unfair criticism for his strongly held beliefs. He often said that he'd rather give the tax money directly to poor people, rather than have the rich get even more of it. His old church now sports a “latino” ministry staffed with a preacher who is apparently of Guatemalan origin, and who writes missives to his flock suggesting that they invest in the stock market due to Mr. Trump's god-sent guidance. Hopefully when they are summarily deported they can still access their bulging portfolios from across the walled southern border.

The President's unhinged tweet storm of Saturday, 3/3, felt like something from the Old Vet. Everything is so unfair. Mr. Trump had spent last Tuesday doing the hardest thing he'd done in a very long time: acting a Presidential part so effectively that the media coverage accepted him as at last somehow coming into his own. It was a hard effort. We saw him practicing in the limo, over and over. It was real time acting. No re-takes permitted. And yet within two days Jeff Sessions had taken over the stage that was supposed to be his alone. Even his entrance at the construction site known as the USS Gerald Ford, heralded by Lee Greenwood's “Proud to be an American,” did not eclipse the breaking news of the moment, that Mr. Sessions had recused himself. No one cared that Trump had promised two more aircraft carriers of equal value, $13 billion each! Sessions had left the stage, and Mr. Trump had not been informed. Yesterday Sessions was summoned to a meeting at the so-called “Southern White House.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Trump's job is not to act Presidential for an hour, but to be Presidential, 24/7, for the whole term. It isn't fair. It must be Mr. Obama's fault, or Sessions, or Priebus. Someone. Before the tweets were done yesterday Mr. Trump moved on to another critique of the old show, The Apprentice,” where he'd graduated to real professional acting. He rode into the Florida mansion and golf club where he lives with his head up above the roof of the limo, red Great Again hat at full mast. The servants no doubt clapped and cheered as he rode past, like some NASCAR driver in the back of a pickup before the race.

The Old Vet has a new look in his eye. It makes me think of Joni Mitchell's song about her visit to Furry Lewis's place, in Memphis. He drinks her liquor, but then says, “I don't like you.” It's a small blessing that the Old Vet can't sit and listen to the teevee news any more. It would just make it all that much worse. Friday he told Libby that they needed to straighten out the Gideon Bible situation right away. It was worrying him in the night.

For those who read: