Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Ice Cream and the American Apocalypse

Imagine with me, if you will,  the end of civilization as we know it.

There. That should be long enough.

Now, to lighten things up, imagine two empty ice-cream cones tip to tip with the open ends facing opposite directions, something like this:
Hey, whoa! I said two cones and no ice cream! Let's try again.
That's better. Let's use this image, inspired by William Butler Yeats -- the star of one of my earlier posts -- to represent the rise and fall of civilizations. Yeats, by the way, used these cones to illustrate a similar but far, far loonier and more complex theory. I am going to dumb it down right to the edge of idiocy just so I can understand it.

For us, the open end of the cone on the left will stand for the taming of chaos (i.e., the wilderness and Indians in the American myth) so that a civilization can be born. The tip or vertex of that cone will stand for, oh, "mission accomplished," the civilization at its apex, esp. as gauged by social stasis and national economic health.

Keep in mind that I know very little about history. I hardly know the difference between the 99 theses Martin Luther nailed to a church door and Woodrow Wilson's 14 points. I don't know how many countries were in the Triple Alliance and or how long The Hundred Years War lasted. So all I know about the rise and fall of civilization comes from films, books, poems and pop culture in general. I only know mythic truth. Which means I think I understand what Oscar Wilde meant when he overstated the following: "Nothing that actually occurs is of the smallest importance."

It's the dreams we have after the occurrence that matter, and those dreams often take the shape of great works of art.

So let's begin with the open end of the cone as it is depicted in those great American creation myths, Western films, And let's go with the one the American Film Institute voted best of the all, and the one the French film journal Cahiers du Cinema voted as the tenth best film ever made, and the one young Americans refer to as "some old cowboy movie in color": John Ford's The Searchers (1956).

In this film we see what America looked like before the taming, the urban sprawl, the Wal-Martization, and we see what kind of human it took to tame it.

The story, set in Texas beginning in 1868, goes like this: Comanches, led by Chief Scar, raid a home, kill the father, son and the mom, possibly raping her first, and rape and kill the oldest daughter. Once their work is done there, they take the little girl, Debbie, with them. Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), Debbie's uncle and a wandering Confederate veteran of the Civil War who has never surrendered, spends the rest of the film searching for Debbie. He is accompanied by Debbie's foster brother Martin Pawlie (Jeffrey Hunter, who would grow up to play Jesus just five years later). Martin is one eighth Cherokee, which, using Ethan's racist math, makes him a half-breed. They were really sort of a grown-up version of the Lone Ranger and Tonto.

At the time of her capture, incidentally, Debbie is played by Lana Wood, the more famous Natalie's sister. By the end of the film, she has aged roughly seven years and is played by Natalie herself.

There are several families in horse-riding distance of the Edwards family and all of them have a man or two. So why must Ethan risk his life to find her and bring her back?
Uncle Ethan comes to visit. He's out there somewhere.
Because he has no home; he has no family; he has no community (in fact, he frequently violates the community's rituals and values: He interrupts a funeral, for example, to begin the search for Debbie; he later interrupts a wedding when the quest for Debbie is almost over; he shocks Martin and his "white" values by shooting buffaloes, not for food, but to keep Comanches from having food); since his "country" lost the Civil War and he hasn't surrendered, he has no country; but most importantly, he takes on the Indians because he is capable of it, and "normal" or domesticated men aren't.

He is capable of it because he is so much like the Indians. Ford even suggests that, for all Ethan's hatred, he is one of them. As I said, he is a wanderer, the perpetual Stranger in Town, the guy who gets it done, then gets outta there. As Edward Buscombe points out in his book on The Searchers, "The branch of the Comanche that [Chief] Scar leads are called 'Nawyecka,' which Ethan translates as 'goes about.'" Scar raids a white settlement; Ethan raids a Comanche village; Scar scalps Martin's mom; Ethan scalps Scar; in a meeting, Ethan mocks Scar's English, Scar mocks Ethan's Comanche.

So . . . anyone who can fight  Scar on his own level, beat him at his own game, will not be invited over for afternoon cocktails. He will not be attending PSTA meetings or parent-teacher conferences or completing a list of honey-do's over the weekend or dropping off little Tad for soccer practice.

Once Ethan and his ilk (Shane comes to mind, as does anyone you can think of who has come back from war talking dirty and unable to carry out genteel social functions gracefully) have made a community safe for banks, churches and schools, they must leave. From our perspective, they are too violent, erratic and uncivilized to be trusted. From theirs, we bore them bleepless. 

Here's Ethan -- mission accomplished -- shut out of the community and either free or condemned to "wander between the winds forever":
While this does not fit smoothly into our Ice Cream and American Apocalypse schema, it must be said that racism (Scar's and Ethan's) is depicted as a truly unsettling, virulent, violent, obsessive disorder, one that might well be necessary to achieve a peaceful community. And the man most afflicted with this in The Searchers is portrayed by John Wayne who, as everyone in the generation before mine knows, is the true father of our country, not George Washington.

So think about this: The film comes out in 1956, when wealthy white America was perfectly happy with the economic boom following World War II. The American Dream was in full white bloom, Eisenhower was in charge, Norman Rockwell was our Painter Laureate, and, according to a highly respected scholarly work -- the source of which I cannot recall at the moment -- adults did not actually have genitalia until sometime in the mid-1960s. So everything was decent.

And in those halcyon days when I, as a young goober, saw The Searchers at the Woodard Theater in Madison, FL, black people entered through a side door and sat up in the balcony, an odd spastic-mirror reflection of their place in our community. And of course they had separate water fountains, separate schools, separate waiting rooms in doctors' offices, and all the other stuff you know from history.

So I looked up at the screen and saw an American hero, John Wayne (who never actually saw combat duty), playing a flawed, savage, racist "hero," whose inner monster is at no time more apparent than when he contemplates the possibility of an Indian "buck" mating with a white woman (see the movie; we can't talk about here; there are kids in the StarkNotes audience!). Even the denser among us weren't sure if we were supposed to be on his side or not. He was trying to save a little girl, but when he found her, she was all grown up and . . . well, see for yourself. We sure didn't have to think that hard about good ol' Atticus Finch!
Here Ethan is looking at a woman whose stay with the Comanche has turned her into an object of disgust. 
To reiterate: The Searchers (and dozens of inferior films in the same genre) demonstrates how the wilderness and the Wild Man were tamed and how this vast country (played by Texas) was made safe for democracy. Historically, the country had already been around for about a century, but aesthetically this depicts its Creation. This, for our purposes is the opening of the ice-cream cone pictured above. The time of the film's release, on the other hand, is the tip of the cone, our white Shangri-La, nestled snugly like a kitten in your lap, just a few years after the Korean War and just a few before Nam and chaos in the streets.

Before we move on in the days ahead to show how Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men turned all of this on its nose and spilled ice cream all over everywhere, giving its viewers Apocalyptic anxiety, let's allow two women to have their say about the West on its way to being a Promised Land.

Mrs. Jorgensen (Olive Carey), an old frontier woman in The Searchers, ponders the sacrifices and toughness required by the folks who tame a wilderness: "A Texican is nothing but a human man way out on a liimb . . . this year and next . . . and maybe for a hundred more. . . . Someday this country's going to be a fine good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come." (quoted from Buscombe's The Searchers, p. 41)

More recently, Natalie Merchant waxes elegiac about the promises of the West, and what it may ultimately deliver.

And here is an informative and thought-provoking book I recommend. In fact, I recommend almost the entire series, even though more recent entries have squinted at their subject film through their narrow theoretical view:

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