Friday, December 31, 2010

Old World Man

The following post is part of a work-in-progress on Daniel Day-Lewis specifically and actors as historians generally.

As with Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese’s decision to make The Age of Innocence was catalyzed by Jack Cocks, who also got the credit for this screenplay. Cocks gave the novel to Scorsese to read in 1980; is often the case with Scorsese projects, this one took a long time to gestate. Scorsese didn’t actually read the book until 1987; a first draft of the screenplay was not completed until early 1989, and filming didn’t begin until three years later (by that point Twentieth Century-Fox had dropped the project, but Columbia stepped in). As with Gangs, the majority of smaller roles went to British actors, whose accents were closer to those of 19th century Americans than Americans’ typically were.[1]
Day-Lewis was a relatively late acquisition. Though he was a huge Scorsese fan, he was chary about accepting the director’s offer, which Day-Lewis received literally on the eve of his Academy Award for best actor in My Left Foot in 1990. “Too English,” he explained later. “I was hoping he’d ask me to do something more rough and tumble” (which, of course, Scorsese ultimately did). It was not until the following year, just before embarking on Last of the Mohicans – the role that would smite any of his lingering fears of typecasting – that Day-Lewis finally said yes.[2]
Whatever the degree to which the actor resembles his character, this is a role that seems like of a stretch than Hawkeye or Bill the Butcher: Day-Lewis looks every inch the aristocrat. But here as in every other American he’s played, the Day-Lewis character is in a world but not quite of it – and has the strength to stand apart comfortably. From the beginning of Innocence, it’s clear that Newland Archer has little patience for the superficiality of the men around him or the pettiness of the women. He shows a genuine proto-feminist indignation in the way that divorce is simply not considered a feasible option for the Countess Olenska, even as anyone familiar with her situation concedes her husband’s behavior has been outrageous. And he’s as open with his opinions on the matter with mother and sister as he is the senior partner at the law firm where he works.
But Archer is nevertheless afflicted by an ambivalence that ensnares him. It is his very independence and curiosity that draws him to the Countess, an attraction that he allows himself to pursue even as he tries to counteract it by seeking to accelerate his engagement and marry May sooner. The irony is that his relationship with the Countess is furthered by his involvement in her legal affairs, a professional entanglement that’s actually urged on him against his will by May’s family. Even more ironic is that Archer’s desire to resolve his ambivalence toward her by speeding up their engagement is also thwarted by his fiancé and her family.  At one point, he asks her in exasperation, “Can’t you and I just strike out for ourselves, May?” (the same line, missing the colloquial “just,” appears in the novel).[3]
Archer’s plaintive query – “can’t we strike out for ourselves?” is a kind of Turnerian pivot in Day-Lewis’s American history. Previous Day-Lewis characters lit out for the territory or took a stand, but Newland Archer finds himself at the mercy of events beyond his control – and, as he will come to realize, beyond his understanding. May’s family will give him what he says he wants at precisely the moment he decides he doesn’t want it. And yet he sees himself as having no real alternative than going ahead with the wedding anyway. Yet this act fails to resolve his ambivalence; the Countess remains in the picture and his desire for her intensifies, leading him to take risks that may endanger his standing in his family and his community. Yet when Archer finally resolves to force the question he finds he has been totally outflanked, not only by his wife but by a set of confederates who, with the assent of the Countess, maneuver him into submission.
The scene where this happens is priceless. The Archers have just hosted a dinner party for the departing Countess, who will be returning to Europe (it’s at this meal that he realizes that everyone, including his wife, has long assumed he’s been having an affair that has not only never been consummated, but which he believed was a secret). During the dinner, Archer talked, as he had been recently, of travel – once again, he was looking east – but somehow the conversation never attained a degree of seriousness. Now he again attempts to take up the subject with May, who replies to his idea about going to India or Japan by beginning to administer the coup de grace. “I’m afraid you can’t do that, dear,” she says, rising in her chair to tower over her husband before then curling up with her head in his lap. (Scorsese lavished great attention on this scene, and has spoken at great length and detail on how he achieved the desired dramatic effect with camera speed and editing.[4]) She’s having a baby, she explains, and therefore the two must remain together. There will be no frontier for Newland Archer.
Reflecting on this pivotal moment sparks a memory of another actor, one Day-Lewis is said to admire: Jimmy Stewart. Interestingly, in citing his admiration for this giant of classic Hollywood, Day-Lewis expressed a preference not for Stewart who starred in a series of psychologically sophisticated westerns under the direction of Anthony Mann in the 1950s, but rather the Stewart of Frank Capra movies.[5] The most famous of these, of course, is It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), which Stewart plays George Bailey, the would-be adventurer who’s repeatedly prevented from leaving his hometown of Bedford Falls and ultimately becomes a pillar of his community. As a number of observers (myself among them)[6] have noted, Bailey’s life is a less wonderful than the ending would have you believe. But for that very reason, the things he trades his freedom for become all the more precious.
  The same can be said for Newland Archer. Scorsese cuts – actually, it’s more like a seamless transition – from the final scene between Archer and May in his library to the same room some decades later. (Wharton describes it as about 26 years;[7] given that the backdrop of the climactic moments of the story is a financial crisis that would correspond to the Panic of 1873, and the telephones and motorcars we see, the action of this epilogue would appear to be sometime in the first decade of the 20th century). May is now dead, victim of an illness she contracted while tending to one of her sons. The couple’s daughter is now married (in the book it’s to the child of a minor character; in the movie, it’s to “the dullest and most reliable of Larry Leffert’s many sons”). Their oldest son, Ted, is now engaged to Julius Beaufort’s daughter – ironic how Archer ends up even more tightly bound up in the lives of men he detests.
Ted is going to Paris on business as a budding architect, and insists that Archer join him.  We understand that Ted, a smart confident young man, a credit to his father, is not to be denied, even as we understand that he lacks Newland’s understated charm. The two make the trip, and Ted, with studied off-handedness, suggest that the two visit the old man’s former flame. Archer is shocked that Ted knows about the Countess; Ted explains that on her deathbed that May told the boy he was in good hands because, “once, when she asked you to, you gave up the thing you wanted most.” Archer replies (twice) that “she never asked me,” but the point, perhaps, is that she never had to: his devotion would now be complete. Later Archer, who is said to have genuinely mourned his wife, reflects that “After a little while he did not regret Ted's indiscretion. It seemed to take an iron band from his heart to know that, after all, someone had guessed and pitied. And that it should have been his wife moved him inexpressibly.” It is perhaps this realization that leads Archer to resolve, despite what could very plausibly be considered the right to do so, not to join Ted, at least not immediately, in ascending to the apartment of the Countess. “What will I tell her?” he asks his father incredulously. “Don’t you always have have something to say?” Archer jabs back.   “I'll tell her you're old-fashioned and you insist on walking up five flights instead of taking the elevator,” Ted rejoins. “Just tell her I’m old-fashioned,” Archer concludes in what is the final line in the movie, as he walks past a couple parked cars. In the end, Archer is an old-world man. Strong, in a real but limited way. But a man who decides to live in an ordered society rather than break free – Jimmy Stewart, not John Wayne.

[1] David Thompson and Ian Christie, eds, Scorsese on Scorsese (2nd ed; London: Faber, 1996), 177-179.
[2] Hirschberg; Jackson, 194.
[3] Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence (1920; New York: Collier, 1993 [movie tie-in edition]), 82.
[4]Gavin Smith, “Martin Scorsese Interviewed,” in Martin Scorsese Interviews (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1999), 200-202.
[5] Hirschberg, “The New Frontier’s Man”
[6]See Robert Ray, A Certain Tendency in the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 213-25, and Jim Cullen’s chapter “It’s a Wonderful Death,” a chapter which compares It’s a Wonderful Life with another Scorsese film, The Last Temptation of Christ, in Restless in the Promised Land: Catholics and the American Dream (Frankin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2001), esp. 131-134.
[7] Wharton, The Age of Innocence, 344.

Monday, December 27, 2010

'Innocence' Experience

The following post is part of a work-in-progess on the work of Daniel Day-Lewis in particular, and on actors as historians generally. --JC

At one point early on in his 1993 movie The Age of Innocence, Martin Scorsese briefly shows us the Fifth Avenue mansion of widow Catherine Mingott (Miriam Margolyes), the maverick matriarch whose granddaughter (Winona Ryder) is engaged to marry Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis). “Though brownstone was the norm,” the narrator (Joanne Woodward) informs us, Mrs. Mingott “lived magisterially within a large house of controversial pale cream-colored stone, in an inaccessible wilderness near the Central Park.” This geographic cue alerts us to Scorsese’s (slightly exaggerated) visual joke: We all know that Fifth Avenue near Central Park is some of the most crowded and valuable real estate on the planet. But in the world of the mid-1870s, when the story is set, what we see is a single house in a remote urban outpost. Referring to the Central Park is another cue this is not yet territory that has been incorporated into the linguistic fabric of New York life. While the elite leisure class lives safely north of the Five Points that would have been dominated by Bill the Butcher when Newland Archer was a boy, Mrs. Mingott lives beyond the pale of settlement. But her power is great enough that the people of her milieu, prospective grandson-in-law among them, will respond to a summons uptown. Way uptown.
For Archer himself, however, the primary point of orientation is neither north nor west. It is east. This is not simply a matter of him getting his suits from England or listening to his operas in Italian. For Archer inhabits an aesthetic frontier, importing the latest books from Europe and taking in latest gallery exhibitions from contemporary painters at home and abroad. That’s why the unexpected return of his fiance’s cousin, the expatriate Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) proves so unsettling. The Countess, fleeing an unhappy marriage to a Polish nobleman, is finding readjustment to the world of her childhood difficult, not only because her of status – which will only become more problematic if she proceeds with her intention to divorce the Count – but also because she is impatient with the Old World pretenses of New World poseurs. “It seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it a copy of another country,” she observes to Archer at a ball early on in the movie. “Do you suppose Christopher Columbus would have taken all that trouble just to go to the opera with [the hypocritical prig] Larry Lefferts (Richard E. Grant)?” “I think if he knew Lefferts was here the Santa Maria never would have left port,” Archer replies, as the two break into laughter. This man of a new land has an arch sense of humor, which he points at those near at hand. Ironically, his prospective bride, the apparently pleasant but dull May, is quite the markswoman; we will later see her score a bulls-eye at a competition in Newport. “That’s the only kind of target she’ll ever hit,” observes the philandering speculator Julius Beaufort (Stuart Wilson). Archer glares at him.
 The Age of Innocence both is and isn’t Martin Scorsese territory. It is, of course, set on his home ground of Manhattan, the locale of a number of contemporary Scorsese films like Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976), as well as historical dramas like New York, New York (1977), which was set in the forties – and, as discussed, Gangs of New York. Scorsese has always been fascinated by tribal rituals and the often unspoken codes that shape the behavior of local subcultures, especially violent behavior (there’s no bloodshed here, but a casual brutality lurks beneath a veneer of civility). And the set of visual signifiers in this movie, from place settings on a dinner table to flowers – an often tellingly misleading metaphor – provided a feast for his imagination. This film, like Gangs of New York, featured production design from Dante Ferretti.
In another sense, however, The Age of Innocence takes place on an entirely different universe than that of the ethnic working class that is Scorsese’s metier. Based – very closely, including a good deal voiceover narration taken verbatim – on the 1920 novel by Edith Wharton, Innocence is a closely observed portrait of Wharton’s youth, the elite New York of the Social Register, a community of old-money Vanderbilts, Roosevelts and Astors. So it is that the reigning social arbiters of the movie, the van der Luydens (Michael Gough and Alexis Smith), have Dutch names.
In sharp contrast to Scorsese, Wharton also approached her art from a distinctly female point of view. To at least some extent, her work can be described in terms of the dilemma of strong women in an inescapably male world.  Interestingly, many of Wharton’s most memorable characters – like Lawrence Selden in The House of Mirth (1905) or the title character of Ethan Frome (1911) – are men. But her most sympathetic characters also tend to be ineffectual, lacking the will to act decisively before it’s too late. (Scorsese’s characters, by contrast, are impulsive figures played by the likes of Harvey Keitel and Joe Pesci, who do great harm by acting impulsively.) The Age of Innocence is told from Newland Archer’s point of view, but early on Wharton’s narrative adopts an ironic, even condescending, tone towards him. Archer is described “as at heart a dilettante” who thought himself more enlightened than he really was when it came to women, particularly that woman who was to become his wife. “He did not in the least wish the future Mrs. Newland Archer to be a simpleton,” the narrator says.

He meant her (thanks to his enlightening companionship) to develop a social tact and readiness of wit enabling her to hold her own with the most popular women of the ‘younger set,’ in which it was the recognized custom to attract masculine homage while playfully discouraging it. If he had probed to the bottom of his vanity (as he sometimes nearly did) he would have found there the wish that his wife should be as worldly-wise and eager to please as the married lady whose charm had held his fancy through two mildly agitated years; without, of course, any hint of the frailty which had so nearly marred that unhappy being’s life, and has disarranged his plans for a whole winter.
How this miracle of fire and ice was to be created, and to sustain itself in a harsh world, he had never taken the time to think out; but he was content to hold this view without analysing it, since he knew it was that of all the carefully-brushed, white-waistcoated, button-hole-flowered gentlemen who succeeded each other in the club box, exchanged friendly greetings with him, and turned their opera-glasses critically on the circle of ladies who were the product of the system.

Archer does not remain cluelessly complacent. In essence the novel is a story of growing awareness – a loss of innocence about others’ lack of innocence. This remains the narrative core of the movie. But the vein of sarcasm that salts Wharton’s prose is removed from Newland Archer of Martin Scorsese/Daniel Day-Lewis. Which is, on the whole, an improvement.
 Next: DDL's informed Innocence

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Common Sense

In Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership, essayist Lewis Hyde makes a compelling case for the public domain, grounded in history -- and real estate

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

Back in the Reagan era, a group of historians ranging from J.G.A. Pocock to Sean Wilentz ransacked U.S. history in a quest to find some model of American society that could furnish an alternative to the free-market industrial capitalism that had so evidently triumphed over its domestic and international rivals. The varied explorations of this counter-tradition went under a general rubric of civic republicanism, usefully surveyed in a 1992 article on the career of the concept by Daniel Rodgers in the Journal of American History. Other historians, notably John Patrick Diggins in his book The Lost Soul of American Politics (1984), regarded the attempt to locate an alternative to liberalism -- in the laissez faire sense of the term -- as quixotic at best, and the overall historiographic project went into eclipse, though scholars in related fields, like Michael Sandel and Robert Putnam, have continued to trace, and argue, for the reality and necessity of a strong civic tradition in American life.

Lewis Hyde is not an academic historian, and a rearticulation of the civic republican synthesis is not his primary agenda in Common as Air. But in the process of arguing for the expansion and production of a public domain in the realm of intellectual property -- a point of view associated most prominently with law professor Lawrence Lessig -- Hyde offers a stalwart defense of the public domain strongly grounded in history, particularly that of the Founding Fathers. In so doing, he offers a fresh set of reasons for thinking about the reality, viability, and necessity for a civic republican vision of national life.

Hyde has two core strategies for making his case. The first is to make a distinction between property that is material and finite, and intellectual property that is infinitely reproducible with no reduction in content. Hyde quotes Thomas Jefferson's famous formulation that "he who lites his taper at mine, receives light without darkening mine." He draws on examples from Jefferson's own work as an inventor, John Adams's work as a pamphleteer, and the remarkable career of Benjamin Franklin to show that all these people created works with the unmistakable (and often explicit) intention of collective use without financial remuneration. As Hyde notes, these people were familiar with the idea that creators of content needed some recognition for their work as a matter of incentive and support. But he also notes they were resolutely consistent in their belief that a monopoly over such content should always be temporary, typified by the 14 years of copyright stipulated in the U.S. Constitution. As a string of figures from James Madison to William Rehnquist have repeatedly affirmed, copyright protection is not something whose primary purpose  is the permanent protection of private property, but rather a means to the more important end of encouraging the production of knowledge that will contribute to the common good.  And yet, as Hyde notes, copyright protection has increasingly been seen a form of patrimonial inheritance, typified by the Sonny Bono Act, which in some cases extends it close to a century beyond the death of its creator and the rapacious behavior of Martin Luther King Jr.'s son Dexter in extracting royalty payments King's likeness and speeches (though using King to sell telephone service is OK if the corporation pays up).  This is not exactly a novel argument, but it's one made with real cogency and novelty in a series of illustrations that extend forward to the musical career of Bob Dylan to the mapping of the human genome.

The other pillar of Hyde's argument, which he makes in tandem with this one, is to point out that   material property has never been entirely private. Beginning with the reciprocal obligations embedded in feudalism and moving through the enclosure acts in Britain, the development of allodial notions of property and the decline of entail as legal means of preserving estates in North America, he notes the very notion of  private property itself has rested on the existence of a commons and notions of responsibility that range from voting to public service. Indeed, private property is worthless without a public infrastructure, whether in roads or regulations to keep it viable. Ironically, many of those who seek patents or copyrights on things that range from songs to genes are very often appropriate big chunks of the public domain in the process of "inventing" things that are very often more accurately described as discoveries. Indeed, it is a measure of how rapacious private interests have become that Hyde should even have to make this case, which he does with notable clarity and grace.

Hyde's preoccupation with creativity and the way it transcends economic considerations can be traced back to his now classic 1983 book The Gift, an extended literary meditation with an anthropological overlay. His output of in the last quarter-century (five books) is small, but beautifully wrought and quietly influential. A former MacArthur fellow who teaches creative writing at Kenyon who is also affiliated with Harvard's Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, Hyde is an essayist in the Thoreau tradition. In his simple, plainspoken wisdom, he is a great American, which is to say he is an excellent democrat. His mere existence is a living demonstration of the civic republican tradition in American life, which we forget or dismiss at our peril. Unless we remember that a society is more than a market, we will soon not only find ourselves at the mercy of large corporations, but even greater powers who have fewer compunctions about deploying, if not seizing, property in the service of interests that are more than merely economic.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Long wars, short versions

In Why Some Wars Never End: The Stories of the Longest Conflicts in History, Joseph Cummins provides elegant case studies of grisly conflicts

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

This is a clever book by a clever writer, produced by a clever publisher. To work backwards: Fairwinds Press is an imprint of the Quayside Group, a house with roots in instructional materials. The evident ability to produce lavishly illustrated books at a surprisingly inexpensive $20 list price (a strategy that in part appears to be derived from shrewdly chosen photographs, art and maps in the public domain) has resulted in a series of oversized trade paperbacks that are nevertheless easy to tote and browse. Many of these books are authored by Cummins, a former editor for Book of the Month Club -- yes, it's still in business -- who has become a one-man cottage industry of books on military history. Why Some Wars Never End is the latest in a string of works that range across time in a case study approach (three of which were contributed by other writers).

These particular case studies stretch from the failed Persian attempts to subdue Greece in the fifth century BCE to the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Cummins divides them into five sections consisting of 2-4 chapters. These are: wars of empire, religious wars, guerrilla wars, nationalist struggles, and wars of chaos. This taxonomy isn't airtight; one wonders, for example, why the Ottoman wars of 1354-1529 are considered wars of empire rather than religion, given that the struggle was largely between Muslims and Christians. One possible reason is balance: a virtual sequel, the Balkan struggles from 1912-2001, also included, are classified under a nationalism rubric. Some of these conflicts have what may be regarded as arguable periodization; indeed, the chapter on civil wars in Guatemala (1944-1996), for example, makes the subject a virtual theme of the chapter in its own right.

In any case, the taxonomy here is less the point than in brief chapters that consist of an opening anecdote followed by a regional overview and then a series of military encounters. Recurring themes include the likelihood that installing a puppet regime in any conflict tends to prolong it, as well as the role of technology and geography in determining the cast and length of wars. Cummins' sources are almost entirely secondary, but the best kind -- from John Keegan to Stanley Karnow, with a sprinkling of quality journalism from Thomas Friedman to Robert Kaplan.

You're not going to get a whole lot of original interpretation here, but that's not the point. What you do get is editorial versatility: this is a handy reference guide, a source of brief readings -- any of these chapters is readily imaginable as a night's reading to accompany some larger pedagogical objective -- or a book that can be read in its entirety (as I did) with satisfaction. These are not the kind of books that tend to be honored in a profession that prizes original research and interpretive novelty. But when done well, they deserve recognition. Kudos to Cummins and Co.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Native American study

In Gangs of New York, Daniel Day Lewis is the last of a (downstate) Mohican

The following post is part of a work-in-progess. Comments welcome at

Like Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans, the 2002 Martin Scorsese film Gangs of New York has a twisty history. If Mohicans began as a novel rooted in historical events, Gangs began as a history with more than its fair share of invention. The core source material was The Gangs of New York, a 1927 book by journalist and crime writer Herbert Asbury. As Russell Shorto points out in his foreword to the 2008 edition of the book, Asbury “wasn’t writing history – there are no footnotes in the book – but popular entertainment. And he was working with material that would be hard to verify even if you were getting it as events unfolded. His sources are themselves tellers of tall tales, old men with scarred faces reminiscing, maybe misremembering, setting the record straight or crooked.”

Nevertheless, in its broadest outlines the parameters of the world Asbury described have long been accepted as true. Since New York lacked a recognized and effective police force well into the nineteenth century, an active gang culture flourished in the city’s poorer neighborhoods, like the Bowery and the Five Points, typified by the presence of informal clans with colorful names like “The Plug Uglies,” “The Shirt Tails,” and the “Dead Rabbits” (according to Asbury, dead rabbit was slang for a rowdy, athletic fellow). The character Day-Lewis plays in the movie, Bill Cutting, a.k.a. Bill the Butcher, is modeled in the real-life figure Bill Poole, a butcher who was shot to death amid a series of gang vendettas and whose dying words, after lingering four fourteen days, were reputedly, “Goodbye boys, I die a true American.” (Those last four make it into the movie.)

Martin Scorsese first encountered The Gangs of New York in 1970, and almost immediately hoped to make a movie of it. His friend, critic and screenwriter Jay Cocks, discovered the book independently around the same time, and began working on a screenplay (he would ultimately share credit with Kenneth Lonergan and Steven Zaillian). Scorsese and Cocks knew at the outset that the project would be difficult to realize, because it couldn’t be shot in New York – the world of the movie had utterly disappeared – would thus require the recreation of lower Manhattan on a massive scale. After a flurry of initial activity in the late seventies – a trade ad announcing the project appeared in Variety in 1977 – the movie lapsed into turnaround as both Scorsese and Cocks moved on (they would collaborate in 1993 in realizing The Age of Innocence.)

The rise of independent cinema in the 1990s, and in particular the success of Miramax under brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein, fostered the creation of a series of movies that broke out of the box office formula that had documented major-studio moviemaking since the 1980s. By the turn of the century, the independents were increasingly swallowed by larger companies (Disney bought Miramax), but it was still possible to launch projects with a deeply personal vision. The Weinstein brothers backed Scorsese, and British producer Graham King picked up the foreign rights. Scorsese procured the famed Italian Cinecitta Studios for his sets, and the services of production designer Dante Ferretti to create the New York’s Paradise Square as it was reported to look between the 1840s and 1860s. By no means was it smooth sailing from here – power struggles and delays dogged the picture, whose shoot ran long and whose release was delayed.

One of the bigger challenges Scorsese and Co. faced was casting. On a picture of this scale, shot in a foreign country, recruiting was a major logistical enterprise. Many actors turned out to come from the British Isles, among them some pretty impressive names. From Ireland came Liam Neeson, who plays Bill the Butcher’s archenemy, Priest Vallon, and Brendan Gleeson, who plays the rising Irish politician Monk McGinn (both characters are fictive). England’s Jim Broadbent is Boss Tweed, who of course was real. Tweed was the master of Tammany Hall, ground zero for the city’s rising Democratic Party base, and in an ironic coincidence, our friend Tammanend of Last of the Mohicans resurfaces as a statue in the movie (as indeed it was featured at the real Tammany Hall). The Hollywood firepower for the movie was provided by Cameron Diaz, then at the height of her commercial appeal, was cast as the Jenny Everdeane, the main love interest in the story. And the lead role – or what in theory was the lead role, anyway – went to Leonardo DiCaprio, who played the part of Amsterdam Vallon, the deeply conflicted son of Priest Vallon who experiences Hamlet-like ambivalence in trying to avenge his death at the hands of Bill the Butcher. DiCaprio, whose critical cache in the nineties was vastly augmented by his success as a leading man in the hugely successful Titanic (1997), not only brought tremendous box office potential to the project, but also a bankroll: he, like Scorsese, agreed to be partially liable for cost overruns.

But the keystone of the project was Day-Lewis. As is often the case, getting him on board took some persuading. There were anecdotal reports at the time of the film’s lease that Scorsese had coaxed him out of retirement in Italy, where Day-Lewis had reputedly become a shoemaker. While the degree of Day-Lewis’s alienation from his acting career was probably exaggerated, it is true that he has experienced periods of depression and burnout, like the period following The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and the his well-publicized breakdown while playing Hamlet onstage, which led him to lay low. Actually, five years lapsed between the release of The Boxer in 1997 and Gangs in 2002. But Day-Lewis had tremendous regard for Scorsese – he well might not have taken the role of Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence in 1993 (which we’ll get to shortly) had not Scorsese been at the helm of it – but Gangs was a juicy opportunity to stretch his range. So he took the role of Bill the Butcher, even though he had some reservations, among them working with the notoriously abrasive Harvey Weinstein. “What he doesn’t understand,” Day-Lewis told film writer Peter Biskind at the time of the film’s release, “is that I did Gangs in spite of Harvey, not because of Harvey.

As with Last of the Mohicans, Day-Lewis prepared for Gangs with a period of intense physical and psychic preparation. He exercised with the music of the venom-filled Eminem every morning, and inhabited the rage of Bill the Butcher whether or not the cameras were rolling. In 2007, Day-Lewis said that “in America, the articulate use of language is often regarded with suspicion.” But the remarkable thing about his Bill the Butcher, is the spellbinding way in which his savage intelligence is expressed with unique patois that fuses profanity and poetry. My favorite such moment comes late in the movie when Boss Tweed comes to see the Butcher to remonstrate with him over the killing of Monk McGinn. The Butcher has just finished sizzling a piece of meat (looks like veal), and is slicing it up as he addresses Tweed:

I know your works. You are neither hot nor cold. So because you are lukewarm, and are neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth. You can build your filthy world without me. I took the father [Priest Vallon]. Now I’ll take the son [Amsterdam]. You tell young Vallon I’m goin’ to paint Paradise Square with his blood. Two coats. I’ll festoon my bedchamber with his guts. As for you, Mr. Tammany fucking Hall, come down to the Points again and you’ll be dispatched by mine own hand.

This is great dialogue, but it’s animated by even greater delivery. Day-Lewis accompanies “two coats” with a sign of the cross, made with a knife in his hand. And “festoon” is delivered with lusty aggression: “I’ll festoooon my bedchamber.” Ironically, there’s something downright Catholic about the way this militant Protestant uses a biblical idiom in secular context (much in the way that Catholic crucifixes are much more graphic than Protestant crosses). But there’s also something appropriate about this, in that the Butcher considers the papist Priest Vallon the last worthy adversary he’s ever had. In any case, the effect is utterly riveting, and an illustration of why Day-Lewis utterly dominates the movie.

Indeed, he almost overwhelms it. Nominally, the plot of Gangs of New York concerns Amsterdam’s Vallon’s loss of his father in a gang fight in 1846 and his return, after sixteen years of reform school, to kill the Butcher, only to fall under his sway and become a virtual son. This patricidal struggle takes place against the backdrop of a fratricidal one: the Civil War, which engulfs New York in the form of the draft riots of 1863, a five-day episode of urban anarchy that would only be quelled by the arrival of troops returning from Gettysburg.

But it quickly becomes clear – or, at any rate, after a first viewing it becomes clear – that the movie belongs to Day-Lewis’s Bill the Butcher. Indeed, while the film garnered ten Academy Award nominations, the reviews were not uniformly rhapsodic, and much of the complaints focused on a belief that DiCaprio simply lacked the heft of his counterpart (not the last time such a problem would surface in a Daniel Day-Lewis movie. ) We first see him about five minutes in the film; Scorsese’s camera starts on the ground, where the Butcher stamps the snow from his shoes. As the camera pans up his flowing coat and red/white/blue sash of combat, we see a figure who, like that his character in Last of the Mohicans, does not have the kind of gangling physical presence we’ve come to expect from our movie stars. But his internal power is so tightly coiled, his murderous rage as evident as it is (temporarily) held in check, that it’s impossible not to be awed.

The Butcher has come to Paradise Square for a showdown between his men and those of a variety of gangs under the leadership Priest Vallon, head of the Dead Rabbits. Vallon, as we can tell on the basis of Liam Neeson’s accent alone, represents the rising tide of Irish immigrants who have been flooding into New York as a result of their oppression in their homeland. After a ritual exchange of insults, the Butcher’s men help him shed his coat and top hat as he pulls out a knife and cleaver declaims what’s stake: “By the ancient laws of combat, we are met on my challenge to settle for good and all (read: “awlllllll”) who holds sway over the Five Points – us Natives, born rightwise on this fine land, or the foreign hordes defiling it.” Vallon accepts the challenge: “By the ancient laws of combat, I accept the challenge of the so-called Natives. You plague our people at every turn.” Behind his well-oiled handlebar mustache, the Butcher smiles with satisfaction.

Again, there is something appropriately ironic that the Butcher’s gang goes by the name of the Native Americans. The term is historically accurate in denoting what was at the time a growing number of U.S. citizens who were increasingly hostile to the rising tide of immigrants, especially Irish immigrants, a tide that would crest with the power of the “American,” a.k.a. “Know-Nothing” Party in the 1850s, which would prove to be a temporary but powerful force in U.S. politics. But of course in our day the phrase “Native American” is a synonym for Indian. Though a gleeful racist who regards anyone who is not a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant as a real American, the Butcher’s situation in Gangs of New York resembles no one’s more aptly than that of a Delaware sachem confronted with growing numbers of outside interlopers and deciding to take a stand against them.

On that day in 1846, the Butcher and his Natives prevail despite their enemy’s greater numbers. But as we sense, he’s only bought himself time. He can manage, even absorb, the steady stream of new arrivals for a real interval. Indeed, it’s one of the paradoxes of the Butcher’s character that he can employ his former enemies, and even tease them affectionately about their ethnic foibles. But like a hydra-headed monster, Vallon’s legacy returns in the form of his son, whose ironically Teutonic name – “Amsterdam” – will ultimately challenge the Butcher for supremacy. In the meantime, however, the unwitting chief takes a shine to the kid and nurtures him in the ways of tribal power. As such, he’s like a triumphant Indian warrior who incorporates the kin of vanquished foes into his own clan.

Over the course of the almost three-hour movie, Amsterdam will struggle to grow sufficient strength to reassert his true patrimony. But the truly overwhelming forces that Bill Cutting faces do not come from knives, or even guns, but the mortal threat of votes and the overwhelming force they can ultimately impose on behalf of those who control them. The first person to realize this, naturally, is Boss Tweed. He starts out as an eager collaborator with the Butcher, but comes to see him as an obstacle to consolidating his power. Instead, Tweed turns his attention to the new arrivals that will be the shock troops of a renovated Democratic party. “There’s the building of our country right there, Bill. Americans aborning,” Tweed says down at the docks as Irish immigrants arrive. The Butcher’s reply: “I don’t see Americans. I see trespassers.” After a further exchange, their dialogue culminates as follows:

TWEED: “You’re a great one for fighting, Bill, I know. But you can’t fight forever.”
BUTCHER: I can do down doing it.
TWEED: And you will.
BUTCHER (who was walking away but now turns around): What did you say?
TWEED: I said you’re turning your back on the future.
BUTCHER (waving a pointed finger): Not our future.

Yet another irony: the Butcher puts his hand on young Vallon’s shoulder as they depart from the scene. A piece of tour de force silent filmmaking follows, as the camera rotates from immigrants disembarking from one ship to newly recruited Union soldiers embarking on another, as coffins are lifted from that vessel to join the immigrants on the dock. Though it’s highly unlikely anything like this actually ever happened, there’s an allegorical truth here about the way immigrants were raw material to be consumed in a not-so virtuous cycle of death and rebirth.

When, about two-thirds of the way through the movie, the Butcher learns the true identity of his protégé, he turns on him with ferocity. Yet he seems glad when Vallon, set free by the truth being revealed by his jealous friend Johnny, finally seems ready to take him on in an organized, collective fashion by resurrecting the Dead Rabbits and forging an alliance with Tweed. The Butcher embarks on a course that strongly suggests a fatalistic death wish. In a scene more shocking than any gang fight, he murders Vallon’s Irish mentor, Monk, who has been elected sheriff on a Tammany ticket, in broad daylight. “See if his ashes burn green,” he says to the horrified onlookers after throwing a knife into the conciliatory Monk’s back – a move reminiscent of a tomahawk throw – and bashing his head in with the club Monk used to use in his own gangbanging days. (It’s this act that leads Tweed to go to the Butcher in protest – “you don’t know what you’ve done to yourself” – but the Butcher sends “Mr. Tammany fucking Hall” away.) The Butcher also literally crucifies his former minion, Johnny, who has reconciled with Vallon, by impaling him on an iron fence, an act of cruelty so brutal that Vallon honors Johnny’s request to put him out of his misery by shooting him. The film closes a circle when Vallon challenges the Butcher to a gangfight; when the two sides meet to discuss conditions, the Butcher is pleased that they will eschew the use of guns. “Good boy,” he tells Vallon. There’s sarcasm here but also an implicit compliment than in honoring the “ancient laws of combat” cited at the start of the film, an erstwhile adoptive father is complimenting his enemy’s biological son for having grown into a worthy opponent.

By the time Vallon and Bill the Butcher have their climatic confrontation, however, their blood feud is beside the point. For it is taking place against the backdrop of a much larger one: the Civil War. At the very moment of their fight, the city is engulfed by the Draft Riots, a mass protest against conscription by the working class against the power of the state, to which the state responded with a massive show of federal force in the form of Union army, who, for so long seemingly irrelevant – the war is on the margins for much of the movie, finally overtaking the main story line – ultimately becomes the real enemy of the gangs of New York. The Civil War is traditionally represented as the triumph of federal government over a feudal plantation elite. Here we see that it’s not only slaveholding Southerners who are steamrolled by the power of the national state, but a local urban subculture as well. In “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Turner depicts the power of the national state as an implacable, but largely benign force that stitches the nation together. Here, it’s a terrible swift sword that slices cuts down existing growth to make room for a new society.

Scorsese underlines this point in an embellishment that did not actually happen, by bringing Union naval batteries to New York harbor, whose guns pulverize the paving stones of Paradise Square. The Butcher and Vallon can barely find each other amid the smoke, and the former is mortally wounded by a large piece of shrapnel that lodges in his gut. So it’s with something resembling grateful affection when the dying Butcher has a final moment with Vallon, both men on their knees, because he knows that Vallon will deliver the final blow. “Thank God: I die a true American,” the Butcher says – a line reputedly delivered by the real Bill Poole. Vallon then delivers the coup de grace by plunging a knife into him, an act of vengeance and compassion.

Gangs of New York represents a transposition of roles for Daniel Day-Lewis: In Last of the Mohicans, he was Hawkeye; this time he’s effectively Chingachgook. Like generations of dime novel readers and fans of westerns, we admire him in his savagery, which has a kind of nobility even as it is unacceptable as a basis for contemporary society. As with Indians of the frontier, Bill the Butcher must die so that we (a non-WASP multiracial majority) might live. It’s Leonardo DiCaprio’s Vallon who represents the synthesis of cultures who will survive as a hearty hybrid and make a modern America.

The problem is that one is haunted by a perception that he’s a lesser man. And that in some important respects the subsequent characters embodied by Daniel Day-Lewis in his narrative arc of American history are, too.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The urban frontier

The following post is part of an ongoing series on the work of Daniel Day-Lewis specifically and actors as historians generally. See earlier posts below.

Like all historians, Frederick Jackson Turner had his biases and blind spots, which were evident even at the height of his influence. Richard Hoftstadter, who came of age as historian in the shadow of Turner, and who reckoned with him at the end of his own distinguished career, noted that, “Beyond doubt, Turner depicted the frontier in bright colors. His disciples are quick to answer that he somewhere mentioned almost every dark aspect of frontier influence that his critics cite – but the point is precisely here: Turner mentioned them in passing, and they have the position in his essays only of faint qualifications in a full-throated paean to American virtues. And while he was also admitting American cultural shortcomings, he was also at bottom apologizing for them.” Even if you put aside Turner’s failure to acknowledge that democratic reform was at least as likely to originate in the east than the west, or in his presumption that “open” or “free” land was simply unoccupied – two fronts on which he has been repeatedly challenged – you’d still have to conclude that accepting Turner on his own terms involves minimizing the pain and struggle that accompanied even a successful frontier cycle, and the internal conflicts that often co-existed alongside the more obvious ones with outside forces like nature or Indians. A New York Jew acutely aware of the xenophobia and anti-intellectualism that laced through frontier social movements like Populism, Hofstadter was not inclined to romanticize the frontier, even he recognized the power of the Turner thesis.
One of the more notable – and, given the circumstances of his unveiling of the Turner thesis in Chicago, ironic – limits of Turner’s vision involved his difficulty incorporating cities into his vision of U.S. history. As the great environmental historian William Cronon has observed, “Turner consistently chose to see the frontier as a rural place, the very isolation of which created its special role in the history of American democracy. Toward the end of his career, he looked with some misgiving on the likelihood that there would be an ‘urban reinterpretation,’ of American history that might ‘minimize the frontier theme’ – as if frontier history had little or nothing to do with cities.”
And yet, as Hoftstadter admitted, “the great merit of Turnerism, for all its elliptical and exasperating vagueness, was to be open-ended. The frontier idea, though dissected at one point and minimized at another, keeps popping up in new forms, posing new questions.” It is in this spirit that I suggest that a frontier perspective can help us understand the role – in the literal as well as figurative sense of the term – of Daniel Day-Lewis in the next installment of his cinematic history, Gangs of New York.
New York, it should be said, is not typically viewed as frontier territory any more than Salem, Massachusetts is. For one thing, it’s an island, not a continent. For another, it was effectively urban from the moment of its (Dutch) inception. And yet one can plausibly view Manhattan (and its borough outliers) as a frontier in two senses. First, like the rest of North America, New York was a geographic space that was settled along an irregular line of development over a long period of time, albeit from south to north rather than east to west. And second, the frontier was a process of demographic transformation, as immigrants of one kind or another gradually gave way to other ethnic and racial groups, often in process of gentrification. Only by the end of the century did the entire island effectively become an enclave of affluence. These twin processes were captured in the prose of Luc Sante, whose now-classic study Low Life was an important influence on the filmmakers, Day-Lewis in particular. "The conquest of Manhattan was a microcosm of that of the whole of America, with its spaces so vast it was assumed that they could be squandered and there would still be so much left over that errors could be overlooked,” Sante wrote. In New York the natural wilderness was much more concisely and thoroughly swept away, so that a human wilderness could take its place." This notion of a human wilderness is important: whether on the mountain path or the city street, it wasn’t the trees that made the Wild West wild.

Next: How Gangs of the New York came to the screen.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A bullseye version of Hawkeye

How Daniel Day-Lewis transformed Last of the Mohicans
The following post is part of a work in progress (previous posts below).

By the time director Michael Mann, and his co-screenwriter Christopher Crowe, decided to tackle Last of the Mhicans in the early 1990s, they had a treasure trove of material to work with, and fragments of these sources end up in their final product.  At one point in the book, for example, Magua pretends to obediently follow Major Haywood’s instructions to slow down for Cora and Alice’s sake, but mocks him in his own language. “The pale faces make themselves dogs to their women,” he says to himself, “and when they want to eat their warriors must lay aside the tomahawk to feed their laziness.” At a similar point in the movie, Magua says, “Magua understand white man is a dog to his women. When they want to eat he puts down his tomahawk to feed their laziness.”
But the 1936 version is Mann/Crowe’s most obvious template (Philip Dunne’s 1936 screenplay is acknowledged as a basis for their movie in the credits). A number of lines, most memorably Hawkeye’s sarcastic assertion to Heyward, “Someday you and I are going to have a serious disagreement,” are imported into the 1992 version wholesale. I also like, “If your aim is as bad as your judgment, Major, I don’t imagine there’s much danger of you hitting him,” another exchange between the two characters at a moment when Heyward is unwisely attempting to shoot Magua. In 1992, the line is shortened to the scout simply pointing Haywood’s rifle down and saying “in case your aim is any better than your judgment.”
The most important precedent for the filmmakers of 1992 movie, however, was a long tradition of artistic license. Once again there’s the tweaking of names – for no especially compelling reason, Hawkeye is renamed “Nathaniel Poe” this time around – and rearranging of characters. This time, Heyward (Steven Waddington) is in love with Cora (Madeleine Stowe), not Alice (Jhodi May), while Alice pairs off with Uncas (Eric Schweig).  It is also Alice, not Cora, who finds herself perched at the end of a cliff, and Alice who plunges off it (an act we associate with what we now call post-traumatic stress syndrome). One reason Alice is so traumatized is that her father, Col. Monro (Maurice Roeves) dies at the hand of Magua in a notably graphic scene, instead of surviving as he does in the book or dying in battle as he does in 1936. Magua, as usual, kills Uncas, but this time it’s Chingachgook (the famed Native American activist Russell Means, in a real star turn) who dispatches him instead of Hawkeye. In keeping with a well-known historical phenomenon, the Hawkeye character this time around (who I will henceforth call Nathaniel) is actually Chingachcook’s adoptive son; Nathaniel’s parents were killed in his infancy and he was raised as a Mohican. At one point he mentions attending Reverend Wheelock School, a reference to the real-life academy founded by Eleazar Wheelock, which ultimately became Dartmouth College.
Perhaps the most crucial change in this version of Mohicans – and one of a number of things that really sets it apart from its predecessors – is the skillful way it sharpens the latent geopolitical dimension in what his typically treated as a frontier tale with a little romance in it.  The character of Montcalm (Patrice Chereau, in another outstanding performance) is both appealing and ambiguous, and the elaborate rituals involving the surrender of Fort William Henry, depicted with great pomp, underlines the way in which British and French imperial officers have far more in common with each other, even as adversaries, than their respective colonial and Indian allies. Even better in this regard is the scene where Nathaniel negotiates for the release of Cora and Alice with the Tamenend figure, here an Ottawa named Ongewasgone (Dennis Banks, a founder, along with Means, of the American Indian Movement [AIM]). The only way Mohican can communicate with Ottawa is literally through the lingua franca of the eighteenth century world. So Nathaniel speaks in English to the bilingual Heyward, who translates Nathaniel’s words into the French for the Ottawa. Magua (a fabulous Wes Studi), who also knows French, gets predictably angry when he finally understands what’s being said. Ongewasgone has a final monologue in his own tongue (all this dialogue is subtitled). The scene is a pointed and useful reminder that multiculturalism was not invented in 1990.
But perhaps the most important renovation in Mohicans ’92 is the way in which Mann & Co. effectively turn it into a movie about the coming of the American Revolution. Again, the DNA for this was always there, most obviously in 1936. But the filmmakers play up the tension between local colonial militias, who are first and foremost trying to protect their homes, and the professional British military, which has its own strategic objectives. Their divergent interests become an issue when the militiamen seek to leave the fort to defend their hearths and are barred from doing so by Monro, even when Nathaniel informs him that Indian war parties are indeed ravaging local residents. “Does the rule of English law no longer govern?” asks Jack Winthrop (Edward Blatchford, playing a character unique to this movie), noting that he had been promised he would be allowed to leave in such a contingency. “Their law no longer has rightful authority over us, he says later, bitterly.” In this argument, Heyward, who has also witnessed the destruction in the countryside, nevertheless sides affirms Monro, the man he hopes will someday be his father-in-law. But his decision to so completes Cora’s tilt away from Heyward and toward Nathaniel – part of her larger Americanization (and one way in which the movie as a whole does more with its female characters than any previous incarnation of the story).
Of course, the pivotal figure in this regard – the linchpin of the movie, and that of the point I’m ring to make in this chapter – is the character of Nathaniel, more specifically the Nathaniel of Daniel Day-Lewis. This is much more than a matter of which lines of the script he utters. To put it simply, the Day-Lewis incarnation of Cooper’s creation is a magnificent creation in its own right. Though he lacks the muscularity of the typical movie-star hero, he is an impressive physical specimen: lanky but taut, strong but agile. As was becoming typical at this point in his career, Day-Lewis disappeared into the role. He worked out five times a week for six months in England before shooting commenced in Appalachian North Carolina. He also spent a month in the woods living there. Moreover, he learned to track and skin animals, build canoes, fight with tomahawks, and fire as well as re-load a flintlock rifle – which he carried with him everywhere, even to Christmas dinner.[2]
            But Nathaniel’s presence is much more than physical. Actually, the Hawkeye of all too many Mohicans – nowhere more so than Cooper’s – is something of a buffoon, a hayseed who’s not as dumb as he looks. Randolph Scott’s Hawkeye is one of the better ones, because the geniality he gives the character doesn’t undercut his sense of competence. But Day-Lewis blows all his predecessors away with his sheer intensity. More than that: it is an intensity of self-assurance. “I liked the idea of a man who had not been touched by 20th-century neurosis,” he explained later. “A life that isn’t drawn inwards.”[3]
As such, Day-Lewis’s Nathaniel is the quintessential frontiersman. “You call yourself a patriot and loyal subject of the crown?” a sneering British officer asks at one point, wondering why Nathaniel shows no inclination to enlist in the militia. “I do not call myself subject to much at all,” he replies dryly. When Nathaniel joins the war effort, which he   does provisionally, it’s for his own reasons, not the empire’s. Though he’s involved in a dangerous scheme to help the militiamen escape from the fort and return to their families, he reveals that he won’t be with them. “I got a reason to stay,” he explains. “That reason wear a striped skirt and work in the surgery?” Winthrop asks. “It does,” Nathaniel replies. “No offense, but it’s a good deal better-looking than you, Jack Winthrop.”
What follows is the great love scene of the movie between Nathaniel and Cora, conducted against one of the major musical themes of the soundtrack, which fuses a Scottish reel and a Native American drumbeat. Day-Lewis’s chemistry with Stowe was part of a demographic appeal that cut across gender lines and ensured the film’s commercial office success. But it’s also crucial to Nathaniel’s identity – and Nathaniel’s central place in Day-Lewis’s gallery of American character portraits.  Nathaniel’s relationship with Cora faces all kinds of logistical complications – “Stay alive!” he shouts with furious rage on the eve of her capture by Magua, “I will find you!” – but the strength of that love, its uncomplicated purity, is never in doubt. Never again would Day-Lewis play a person so straightforwardly in love, so unconflicted internally, whatever the chaos around him.
This romantic clarity is of a piece with the larger sense of integration that marks Nathaniel’s character as a whole. He is a perfect Turnerian specimen, as at ease in a pick-up game of lacrosse as he is dining at the cabin of his friends, teasing Uncas about his prospects of finding a Delaware bride in Kentucky. At that point at the beginning of the film, he, Uncas and Chingachgook have just returned from fur hunting; in effect, the stretch of land between the Hudson and Ohio Rivers are Nathaniel’s stomping grounds. The three are headed back to Kentucky when they stop Magua from implementing his plans to seize the Munro sisters.
The fact that Nathaniel is not the entirely restless loner of Cooper’s saga, that there’s a place in his life for a woman who by the end of the film will literally stand by his side wherever he may go, is very much a part of the film’s larger design. The movie eschews the traditional funeral scenes of most Mohicans by having Chingachgook spread the ashes of Uncas over the western mountains amid a setting sun. He observes, as most versions of the story do, that he’s now the last of the Mohicans. But as sorry as we feel for Chingachgook, this version of the movie – as I will discuss, there are actually two 1992 versions, with subtly, but significantly, different endings – has a hopeful feel. That’s because we feel so strongly that the tragedy of Uncas notwithstanding, Nathaniel really is Chingachgook’s son (we moderns consider race and even parenthood a social construction, after all), and that in his presumed merger with Cora – a name takes on a new significance – the seed of a new national identity will be planted. As a hybrid, it will be resilient. And have plenty of room to grow. In this, the first film Day-Lewis made about American history, he embodies the frontier in its brightest phase and greatest height.
It will be all downhill from here.

Next: DDL and Gangs of New York


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

'Mohican' genealogy

On the varied versions of an American classic

In the almost two centuries since its publication in 1826, James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans has become a kind of pop culture jazz chart: a loose set of characters and plot points in a pop standard that have been rearranged and embellished countless times. Like a lot of jazz classics, Cooper’s source material lay in the public domain: collective memory of the French and Indian War, which ended a quarter-century before he was born.  Cooper subtitled his novel “a narrative of 1757,” since the events of the book take place at that moment when the Franco-Indian alliance against Britain and her colonists would crest with the capture of Fort William Henry, a key checkpoint in the chain of forts that secured British control of the Hudson River. Cooper, who was raised in upstate New York – his father was a large, and controversial, landowner in the baseball Mecca we know as Cooperstown[1] -- captured a time when the region was a frontier, and in so doing wrote what could plausibly be considered the first western.
Actually, Mohicans was part of a larger frontier saga, sometimes referred to as “the Leatherstocking Tales,” five novels that can plausibly be considered the Harry Potter books (or, perhaps more accurately, the Star Wars) of the nineteenth century. The Leatherstocking in question was a protagonist who went by a series of other names, including “Natty Bumppo,” “Hawkeye,”  “the Pathfinder,” and “La Longue Carabine” and and “the trapper.” (Poor Annakin Skywaker only had Darth Vader.) Over the course of this multi-part story, Cooper’s ever-restless protagonist, in good Turnerian fashion, keeps pushing to find open horizons, beginning in the northeast and ending, with as an old man in The Prairie, on the Great Plains at the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition (ca. 1806). Cooper wrote and published the five novels out of order; in narrative sequence, they are: The Deerslayer (1841, i.e. the first book was published last), Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Pathfinder (1840), The Pioneers (1823) and The Prairie (1827). As devotees of the saga know, the Star Wars saga was also produced out of sequence, and like producer-director George Lucas, Cooper was a hugely successful pop culture figure known for other work as well, though nothing as much as his multi-part masterwork. Unlike Lucas or Harry Potter J.K. Rowling, however, Cooper became ever more elitist in his political outlook, and in his work one sees what sometimes appears to be an inverse relationship between the expansiveness one’s racial politics (in this case, a relatively nuanced and appreciative view of Native Americans) and the narrowness, often unconscious, of class outlook (Cooper’s patriotism was increasingly coupled with growing disgust over the populist tenor of Jacksonian democracy).
From a contemporary standpoint, Cooper’s work is almost unreadably bad. Actually, “contemporary” is a fairly flexible term; Mark Twain’s hilarious 1895 essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” makes pretty short work of him.  Offering a mock-academic list of rules for successful fiction, Twain notes that Cooper’s chosen genre of romance “require[s] that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as The Deerslayer tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.”[2] And it pretty much does downhill from there. Only a sense of professional obligation led me to try, for a second time, to get through Mohicans to research this chapter. (I found The Prairie easier going in graduate school, but that may be because I was in better literary shape.)  “Is life grievous to you?” Cooper’s protagonist asks when another character foolishly tries to chase an Indian. “Yonder red devil would draw you within swing of the tomahawks of his comrades before you were heated in the chase.” Kinda makes you want to plunge a tomahawk into Hawkeye yourself, particularly when he sneers at another character for asking him for a biblical reference by saying “Book! . . . Do you take me for a whimpering boy at the apronstring of one of your old gals?”[3]  So much for flattering your audience.
Again, what has lasted in Mohicans – what indeed has proven to be amazingly supple – is a set of characters and a loose plot. (That and the title; when Twentieth Century Fox did a marketing survey as part of their plan to launch the 1992 film version of Mohicans, they found most moviegoers knew of the book, even though they hadn’t read it.)[4] The names sometimes get changed, and minor characters get added or subtracted, but at heart, the story involves the intersection of two sets of people with a villain who brings them together. At the center of the first is (the real-life) Lieutenant Colonel George Monro, who commands Fort William Henry, which sits on Lake George. Monro has two (apparently fictive) daughters, Cora and Alice, who are being brought to part of a group of reinforcements from nearby Fort Edward under the leadership of Major Duncan Heywood, who is in love with (the younger) Alice. This party is being directed through dangerous terrain by a Huron Indian guide named Magua. The Huron, like the Ottawa, are British enemies, but Magua is believed to be an outcast, and thus a reliable ally. In fact, he is not only working for the French army under the command of the Marquis Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, but is also hell-bent on revenge against Monro for giving him “firewater” and thus precipitating his alcoholic disgrace. As the villain of the story, Magua intends to lead the party into an ambush with his allies in the woods, and then dispose of the girls as he sees fit. But before he can do so, three other characters arrive on the scene as a skirmish breaks out. They are our protagonist, here called “the scout” or “La Longue Carabine,” as well as his companions, Uncas, and Uncas’s father, Chingachcook, the surviving remnants of the Mohican tribe (Cooper’s ethnography is murky here; he seems to conflate them with the Mohegans, who we all know are alive, well, and running casinos in Connecticut). They prevent Magua from realizing his dastardly scheme, but they fail to prevent his escape. A series of chases and captures follow, of which two are important. The first involves Cora and Alice’s reconciliation with their father at Fort William Henry. This proves brief, however, because the fort is on the verge of surrender, and because Montcalm cannot control his Indian allies, who pounce on the evacuated British contingent and cut it to pieces – events that are part of the historical record. The other involves a negotiation between Magua and his adversaries at the encampment of the Delaware sachem Tamanend (as in Tammany Hall, which long featured a sculpture of him). In Solomon-like fashion, Tamanend splits the difference between the antagonists giving Cora to Magua and Alice to the scout and his allies.  The climax of the story takes place high ledge from which Cora threatens to jump. Cora and Uncas die at the hand of Magua, and Magua in turn is dispatched by the scout. At the joint funerals of Uncas and Cora, whose low-key, but potentially problematic interracial attraction has been fortunately prevented by their deaths, Chicachgook sadly muses that he is the last of the Mohicans.
In the last hundred years, the principal medium through which this story has been re-told has been film – hardly surprising, given the proto-cinematic quality of the story. The first movie version of the novel, short and silent, came out in 1911. A 1920 version, also silent and selected for the National Film Registry, is an impressively executed piece of work with lots of exterior shoots. It scrambles the plot a bit by having a spurned suitor for Cora inside Fort Willliam Henry who turns out to be a turncoat for the French, but generally follows the outline of the novel. (The future horror star Boris Karloff has a cameo in the movie as a maurading Indian; another future horror star, Bela Lugosi, starred as Chicachgook in German version of Mohicans the same year.) A 1932 twelve-part serial version of the story – cheap, unintentionally comical, but surely thrilling to people like my father, who would have gone to see them as a kid part of a full slate of Saturday matinee movie-going -- ends with Chinachgook dead and Uncas as the last Mohican.  Probably the best-known version of the movie prior to 1992 would be the 1936 version starring Randolph Scott, who went on to be a fixture of westerns through the fifties. This Mohicans plays with some of the switched identity plot twists in the original novel, but departs from it – seriously, given the loner status so central to Cooper’s protagonist – both by having Hawkeye join the British army and fall in love with Alice. (Duty calls, but she’ll wait for him.)
Mohicans was also made into a series of television productions. A syndicated 1957-58 U.S.-Canadian production was made in Hollywood and starred Lon Chaney, Jr. as Chicachgook (amusingly faithful to its age of domesticity, it opens with Hawkeye coming home to his mother). An eight-part 1971 BBC series was long on acting talent but somewhat short in its production budget. Last of the Mohicans was also the name of a 1982 EP record by the British New Wave band Bow Wow Wow (it contained their biggest hit, “I Want Candy”; the weirdly incongruous cover depicted Mohicans-like characters inserted into a photograph modeled on the 1862 Edward Manet painting “The Luncheon on the Grass”).
So by the time director Michael Mann, and his co-screenwriter Christopher Crowe, decided to tackle Mohicans in the early 1990s, they had a treasure trove of material to work with, and ample precedent for artistic license. They took it – in a big way.  

Next: the 1992 version of Last of the Mohicans and Daniel Day-Lewis's take on the character of Hawkeye.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The independent communitarian

 The following post is part of a work-in-progress. Comments welcome at

To put it most simply, the main difference between the stage and film versions of The Crucible is in the way the latter underlines the degree to which Proctor was an outside man. This was true in fact: the real Proctor, who was about 60 in 1692, lived on the Farms, where he operated a tavern. Yet he was apparently not comfortable attending church services there, instead going to town, in effect making him doubly marginal. Proctor appears to have been a local iconoclast: he was among the first to ridicule the proceedings; allegedly beat his servant, Mary Warren, who confessed to witchcraft and accused others; and stood up for Elizabeth, who was his third wife. This may be why he was the first male to be accused of witchcraft, and why he was hanged for it. He unsuccessfully challenged the legitimacy of the judges and sought government intervention from Boston while awaiting his death. In the play, Miller draws heavily on the documentary record but scrambles it by compressing characters and positing imagined situations, like a sexual relationship between Proctor (who is closer to thirty than sixty) and Williams. He also includes a real estate conflict with Thomas Putnam, which is not documented but is certainly in keeping the widely accepted belief that unresolved financial and legal conflicts played a role in who was accused of witchcraft. (The real Putnam and his wife were pivotal allies of Reverend Parris and in promoting the trials.)
 But the movie version of The Crucible, exploiting the possibilities of the medium, makes Proctor an outside man in a much more literal sense as well. Our first view of him, about ten minutes into the film, shows him threshing wheat in a field with his sons. The imagery seems to come straight from a Winslow Homer painting: big open spaces, water in the distance, brilliant blue sky. The camera rotates from the inlet to the interior (east to west?) to reveal Elizabeth Proctor calling John. This establishing shot of a family idyll outdoors was not incidental. In describing the search for locations in the audio commentary version of the film, director Hytner said “it became clear to us that the real authentic landscape of the first Puritan settlers of America was integral, very, very important not just to the world of the story but the story itself.” Noting that Salem was not the forbidding landscape of Maine or Nova Scotia, he described the sets on Hog Island – a mere few miles away from Salem – as “a land that promised everything,” one which offered the Proctors “a hard-won life, but a life infinitely better, more rewarding than their ancestors would have been enjoying in England.”
Over the course of the movie, a remarkable allegory unfolds: Proctor is pulled into ever-darker interiors. That first summons from Elizabeth begins his descent. Over the course of the next hour we see him in his house, where he is trying to repair his rocky relationship with his wife in the aftermath of his infidelity, and where it is clearly darker but where light still streams in. We also see him at various locations in town. At first, these interiors do not really diminish him. Although he’s not a large man (unlike the real Proctor), he nevertheless commands attention from all around him, something easy to accept when the Proctor in question is played by Daniel Day-Lewis. In part, this is a matter of costume; he arrives in town for the first time dressed in a rugged coat and hat, looking like the direct ancestor of Davy Crockett. He’s got a scraggly beard, but he seems like he’s illuminated from within – those grayish-blue eyes bore into you – and he’s confident in his conduct with residents, whether in his friendliness with Rebecca Nurse (Elizabeth Lawrence), whose flinty saintliness will cost her, and in his willingness to confront Reverend Parris (Bruce Davison), whose political maneuvering will intensify the crisis.
Significantly, his first two encounters with Abigail take place outside. In the first, early in the movie, he runs into her outside a building on a cloudy day, and while the wild spirit that led to his transgression briefly resurfaces with a kiss, he wills himself back from the brink and informs her he’d sooner cut off his arm than have sex with her again. Their second meeting, in which Proctor warns Abigail to cease her accusations of Elizabeth, takes place in the woods. It’s sunny, but the two characters are dappled in shadow. When they meet a final time, when Proctor is in prison, both characters are engulfed in darkness.
Indeed, literally and figuratively, the walls close in on John Proctor. Elizabeth is arrested at night. He goes to argue for her release in a low-ceilinged chamber amid a downpour outside. Desperate, he decides to confess in open court about his relationship with Abigail, which will make clear her vendetta against Elizabeth at the cost of his own reputation. The increasingly defensive and Machiavellian Judge Thomas Danforth (Paul Scofield) is unwilling to accept this, and summons Elizabeth to corroborate his story, refusing to let Proctor talk with her first. Seeking to protect her husband, Elizabeth lies on his behalf – and in a moment of irony suggesting how this world has been turned upside down, a shaft of light streams through a courtroom window. When a series of new accusations leads to pandemonium in the courtroom, Proctor storms outside, the changeable New England weather has suddenly cleared. In bright sunlight, standing in an inlet that evokes the baptism of the adult Christ, Proctor angrily declares that God is dead, which appears to be the final nail in his coffin. He is tried, convicted, excommunicated and sentenced to death.
But there remains a ray of hope. Elizabeth Proctor is pregnant, and will not be executed while an innocent soul would also perish. Amid growing doubts surrounding the trials, Proctor is offered a deal: a pardon in exchange for a confession. (This is Arthur Miller’s nod toward the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s, which were fueled by precisely this tactic, though it was not an option available to Proctor, or indeed most confessed witches, some of whom were still executed.) Elizabeth is summoned to convince her husband to accept the transaction; she makes no promises but is allowed to confer with him on the freezing, windy coast.
 To my mind, at least, this is the most moving scene in the movie, and one of the most moving scenes of marital love ever depicted in a Hollywood movie. Two ravaged people, braving the freezing wind of a New England autumn, confess their weaknesses to each other. Elizabeth admits that her severity about her husband is rooted in doubt about her own worthiness as a plain woman; John fears that his refusal to confess to witchcraft makes him feel fraudulent, guilty of the sin of pride: in his admitted sinfulness he lacks the true nobility of characters like Rebecca Nurse – or Elizabeth herself.  John decides for the sake of his wife and children, one as yet unborn, he will “confess.” If anything, the town officials are even more relieved than the Proctors. But not everyone is. “Oh John,” a heartbroken Rebecca Nurse, who is among those summoned to witness it in the vain hope they too will confess, cries out in disappointment.
But Danforth, overplaying his hand, is not content to get Proctor’s signed confession. He also demands that Proctor, in the parlance of the Communist witch hunts, name names. But this is where Proctor digs in. He will plead guilty privately, but not allow the authorities to nail his confession to church door or use it as a cudgel against others. When Danforth insists, over the objection of his colleagues, merely signing the confession in their presence is insufficient, Proctor tears up his confession. He will go to his death a redeemed man. “He have his goodness now,” Elizabeth tells the Reverend John Hale (Rob Campbell), once a believer but now a critic of the trials, who is desperately trying to end the process. “God forbid I take it from him.” The final scene of the movie shows Proctor and other recalcitrants mounting the gallows for the outdoor execution scene. They recite the Our Father; the final image of the movie shows a rope against the sky, suggesting the thread of guilt and obligation that connects us to him.
In art and life, the Salem Witch trials were a disaster wrought by Puritans. But in art and life, they were a disaster ended by Puritans. John Proctor was among a growing chorus of critics of the trials and their reliance on spectral evidence (i.e. unsubstantiated charges that people had seen others consorting with Satan), and this growing tide of critics in Salem and the Massachusetts Bay Colony by the end of 1692 led to the end of the process. (London did not get involved, as indeed it had recently done in the reorganization of the colony, including an insistence on greater religious tolerance of other sects, which had accompanied the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution in 1688.) The death of nineteen people and the concomitant misery that resulted was byproduct of the social conformity implicit in the communitarian character of Puritanism. But one of the many paradoxes of Puritanism is that this communitarian impulse was accompanied by another, individualistic one, that was at least as powerful. The Puritans had always placed great value on the primacy of the individual conscience; the belief that one’s own relationship to God mattered more than what Pope or King might say is precisely what brought them to America.
This libertarian strand of DNA drifted across the ocean and found a hospitable climate that allowed it to grow. As Frederick Jackson Turner would later write in “Significance,” “the frontier is productive of individualism.” Turner would often define the “antipathy to control” in the frontier mentality in opposition to the Eastern establishment, but as he well knew, that establishment was itself the product of the frontier, and could never entirely control it. In an obvious and irrefutable sense, John Proctor is a tragic figure. But as embodied by Daniel Day-Lewis in this movie, he is a fierce and willful figure whose intensity cannot be contained by his death. His children, literal and figurative, will conquer a continent.