Page Two: Wild and Delirious
A columnist's lament, by way of some favorite cultural touchstones
When Meyer talked about folks he had worked with, there was a crucial way in which they were valued. Talking about a cinematographer he had worked with only once, he basically dismissed their entire relationship by saying, "He didn't get my joke." Praising someone he had worked with for years, almost proudly, Meyer noted, "He got the joke."
The joke, of course, isn't a simple knock-knock joke nor a comedian's routine. It really doesn't center on whether something is funny or not. That's a small part of it, but the way that Meyer said "joke" made it clear he was talking about much more – something to do with codes by which we live, accented by one's attitude and world-view. Ultimately, it is really about the rhythm of how you live your life in society: How you think of yourself and deal with others is just as important as how you approach fate.
Henry Miller's opening line to Tropic of Capricorn – "Once you have given up the ghost, everything follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos" – is one I'm quite fond of quoting.
Think about it. If nothing else, it is the opinion of a narcissistic, solipsistic egocentric. The statement is both definitive and nebulous. Easily taken as the most negative of sentiments, it could mean that, even in confusion, there is no hope and life has lost all meaning. Another way to interpret the line is much more positive: Once you have given up, then you are free! This deliriously wild statement is a challenge to the universe. Instead of surrendering, one stands in the direct path of a monster tornado, laughing.
The end of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch is a testament to Miller's quote. The Wild Bunch, an outlaw gang, is in Mexican Gen. Mapache's camp. The general has had Angel (Jaime Sánchez), one of the Bunch, tortured for assisting his enemies. Angel is brutally beaten, but he is not dead.
The morning after Angel's beating, three of the four surviving members of the gang are with prostitutes. Pike (William Holden) is the head of the gang. As played by Holden, Pike always carries himself with dignity, even as he dresses after spending the night with a young prostitute. His face reflects conflicting emotions, but, rather than being grand and tragic, they concern simpler matters. Pike needs sex, she sells it, and he bought it. There is something else, however – something out of focus, almost unholy, about the whole situation.
"To live outside the law you must be honest" is one of Bob Dylan's great lines. Pike, this gang's leader, wants to live outside the world, its rules, and its people. Still, he insists on order, though of a very different texture, with clear moral standards. Pike's thoughts and his actions are not always as one.
Meanwhile, the Gorch brothers have gotten into a fight with their prostitute because she is asking for more money, but brother Lyle (Warren Oates) is insisting that she told them it was two-for-one. His brother, Tector (Ben Johnson), seems amused.
Pike walks into the room. Looking at the brothers, he says, "Let's go."
It is important to understand that Lyle is not only the most base member of the gang but has little use for Angel, as well. Lyle, looking back at Pike, answers, "Why not?"
In a career literally clogged with brilliance in almost every role he acted, this is still Oates' finest moment.
The three head out the door. Ernest Borgnine is outside, sitting on the ground. The other three walk out; Holden looks down at Borgnine. Not a word is spoken between them, but right away Borgnine gets it. He smiles, then laughs one of those eerie laughs of his – you can't tell if it implies the peak of human enjoyment or the devil revealing himself in human sound. Borgnine gets up. The four walk over to their horses, get their rifles, and then head down the street.
In a way, this is the iconic shot of the movie: the four of them not talking, walking toward Angel and Mapache with his army. This is about honor; Angel is a member of their gang. They plan to free him, knowing they will die in the attempt. If they don't have a code and lack honor, however, then they are nothing.
"Let's go." "Why not?" Even in this world, you can live by your own rules, which has as its bottom line being willing to do anything for honor, even die, then you are free. In the same way Miller talks of letting go and Meyer of valuing the joke, this scene is about one's core.
Peckinpah's family motto was "to enter your house justified." Everyone who believes that doesn't necessarily get Meyer's joke, but everyone who does get it believes in that statement.
Last week I was well along writing "Page Two," holding forth on film and culture, trying to say something I really wanted to say. Often, after writing something over and over and finally getting it right, I understand much more clearly what I think.
It is no secret that, even at my best, as a writer I am much more of a bar brawler – throwing out word after word, shoving clause on top of clause – than any kind of skilled, careful craftsman. A sure sign of a potentially disastrous piece of writing is when I spend days and days working on the wording and sentences (rather than full steam ahead, turning out thousands and thousands of words, boisterously crowded together). Unfortunately, I am like an addict: Even though I know better, when I sink into trying for a more delicate word construction, it is so inescapable as to make quicksand seem like Teflon.
Which is how I stalled out most of the way through that column, though it wasn't derailed by this obstruction. My own obsessive compulsions caused me to pause. Even with this self-created crisis, the column was all but finished. I leaned back in the chair to close my eyes and, I was hoping, clear my brain. Leaning back, however, proved to be a mistake.
Eyes closed. Involuntarily, I felt the flushing of all breath being pushed out of my body; like the characters in the cartoon "Balloon Land," I deflated. This occurred not physically but in almost every other way: My spirit gushed out like rushing, raging water from a 10-day storm slicing through a dam. It wasn't the writing but the thinking. I had nothing to say and no desire to say it. You, the readers, disappeared, while the flames of my passion went out and even the embers grew cold.
Regularly, with this column I really do try to hit a degree of honesty. Otherwise why do it? But sometimes I just get sick of me, of my writing, of words, of trying to craft ideas into words. At the heart of it, I am sick of myself. Thinking becomes a pompous torture, as thoughts careen between the ego and the heart. Rarely do I write about this, mostly because it isn't of much interest to anyone. Some of it, however, is lazy and cowardly. The gaggle of geese that regularly write in assaulting me and the paper are quite mistakenly convinced that their honking sounds pass for some kind of snide wit rather than just annoying noise. Giving them too easy a target isn't healthy for them, our readers, or me.
The problem with a regular column is that you sound pompous when you are being tentative, arrogant when you are basically doing the same thing as thinking aloud but doing so by writing instead. Most of all, the voice of the column is not you. The column confines and contains. Necessarily, it limits one's horizons.
Often I am accused of doing the exact things I rail against. This was certainly true when I expressed my outrage over the unreal, hateful reaction to the Dixie Chicks' comment about George W. Bush. Readers would write that, here I was defending free speech (which I really wasn't doing, exactly) at the same time I was trying to shut up people who disagree with me.
Only I wasn't. Instead, it was all about engaging in dialogue, not being silent. There is an enormous distance between conflicting opinions – even when offered in the harshest terms and in any or every way trying to shut people up – and censorship. The Chronicle is designed to provoke a reaction, whether it is positive or negative. Stirring up our readers is a critical part of our relationship with and obligation to them. The Chronicle has "Postmarks" in the print edition and forums online, where the views of our readers are offered exactly as they write them, almost always without any editing or interaction on our parts. I qualified that statement because I will remove gratuitous curse words, and we won't print libel or a letter that lacks any ideas but is filled with derogatory slurs.
Read over the last three paragraphs. They make tar seem like vinyl. In the midst of speculation, I slip into self-pity. The problem isn't writing this one column; it is all the columns written, as well as those just thought of, crowding my head, holding a distorting sideshow mirror up to myself. "I got a head full of ideas that are driving me insane": Dylan again. It is not just ideas; it is that the "I" who writes has finally so pissed off the rest of me that everything is imploding, while nothing makes sense. I used to get the joke. I couldn't write last week's column because now I don't even remember what it's about, much less the punch line.