Saturday, May 24, 2008

*Growing Up Absurd in 1950's Texas- Larry Mc Murtry's "The Last Picture Show"-The Book

Click on the headline to link to a Wikipedia entry for the movie version of Larry McMurtry's The Last Picture Show.


The Last Picture Show, Larry McMurtry, Orion Mass Market Publications, 2000

There has been no shortage of coming of age stories in modern American literature. J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye is merely the most famous and probably widely known of the genre. Here Larry McMurtry, the Texas bibliophile, Old West aficionado and pack rat gives us his take on growing up absurd in a faded semi- boom town Texas during the Korean War era in the early 1950's.

Although the locale is different from Catcher in the Rye the issues raised by the teenagers who drive the story and those of their perplexed and clueless parents are the same. And what do those issues entail? Sex, the meaning of existence, sex, what to do on Friday night, sex, what to do on Saturday night, sex- well you get the drift. And those dilemmas of youth and its fight for recognition as presented through the main characters Sonny and Duane are in McMurtry's hands well thought out and, at times, poignant. The attention to detail that McMurtry is noted for is on full display in the interplay between the 'jock' students, the nerds and the 'in' crowd. High school football, the whys and wherefores of the high school classroom and the sheer fight to find one's own identity in this mix all contribute to a very strong trip down memory lane for this reader.

From my own personal experience I know how tough it was to grow up in the 1950's and it is good to see that there are indeed some universal ailments that are common to the 'tribal community' called youth in America. Moreover, read this book because it also has a few things to say about the adults, especially Sonny's lover the older woman and the football coach's wife Ruth, and their dilemmas as well. Damn, McMurtry is singing my song.

The film version of this book strongly evokes visually the points that McMurtry tries to make in the book. It helps that he was the screenwriter in this effort. Fine performances were turned in by the young Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges and Cybil Sheppard as the object of Sonny and Duane's attentions . Also by Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman, as Sonny's older woman lover.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Battle For Britain?


Foreign Correspondent, Alfred Hitchcock, 1939

This is an early black and white political suspense classic by the master of the genre, Alfred Hitchcock. What makes this film somewhat different from his other later classics like The Birds or Rear Window is its evocation of up front patriotism at a time when Europe was getting set for war in the late 1930's. The Foreign Correspondent Johnny Jones(for an American newspaper, of course) in this case (played by boy next door Joel McCrea) is sent to Europe to get the facts, and nothing but the facts, about what was happening there-namely was war really in the offing or was it merely a European-based imperial ploy.

Along the way he runs into people and organizations (the leader of one played by arch-British gentleman Herbert Marshall) whose sole purpose is to agitate for war -for the benefit of the other (unnamed but we know, right?) side. As McCrea and later a British correspondent (played by George Sanders) dig deeper they figure out the real deal and try to each single-handedly try to crush it.

Of course, along the way there is a little off-hand romance involving McCrea (with Marshall's daughter- the girl next door- Larraine Day) but not to worry `justice' will out in the end. A rather interesting point is that the traitor Marshall in the end finishes up heroically. Well, I guess we have to remember this was still a time when the British Empire, at least formally, held sway in the world so that even scoundrels, as long as they were British scoundrels, had to keep a stiff upper lip and do the right thing for old John Bull. As a thriller this film is interesting. As a political statement it is much too ham-handed.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

*Who 'Lost' The Sixties?- The Culture Wars In America Up Close And Personal

Click on title to link to Wikipedia's entry for Students For A Democratic Society (SDS), a central organizational expression of all the theoretical and strategic impulses that made the 1960s "very heaven" and, as well, a fount of confusion in the struggle against American imperialism. For those who are only familiar with the current version of SDS this is your parents' (or grandparents', ouch)SDS. On reflection, those were the days, warts and all.


I recently reviewed a biography of the late social democratic editor of Dissent, Irving Howe (by Professor Gerald Sorin, New York University Press, 2002), in this space. One of the grievous faults that I laid at Professor Howe’s door step was that he and his cohort of “greatest generation” intellectuals, mainly from New York City, had so thoroughly made their peace with bourgeois society that the bulk of the New Left in the 1960’s dismissed their efforts out of hand. Professor Sorin’s biography spent some time on this question and draws the conclusion that Howe and his compatriots were essentially right in their scorn for the confrontational tactics of the New Left. Furthermore, he argues that Howe was correct in his estimation that such New Left efforts would ‘turn people off’ and that a backlash would occur as a result. Thus, the question is posed point blank- who ‘lost’ the Sixties?

I titled my review of Professor Sorin’s biography The Retreat of the “Greatest Generation” Intellectuals for a reason. If nothing else the professor’s narrative of Howe’s political progression (if that is the correct word for such a trajectory) simply confirms that retreat. A quick synopsis of that odyssey is in order here. In the mid-1930’s Howe became an ardent anti-Stalinist socialist drawn to the American Socialist Party in New York City. As elements of that party moved leftward, responding to the labor struggles and general political turmoil of that period, he became a follower of Leon Trotsky. When the international situation heated up and the question of which side of the class divide one was on was unavoidable he slipped out the back door with the anti–Soviet defensist wing of the Trotskyist movement led by Max Shachtman.

Thereafter Howe spent the bulk of the Forties laboring to find a ‘third camp’ in a world that was becoming extremely polarized by the onrushing Cold War. By the early 1950’s he had begun his long-term position of ‘critical support’ to American imperialism. Perhaps out of old sentimental attachments he nevertheless still considered himself a socialist, at least as he understood socialism. The Trotskyist movement had another less kind, but apt, name for his type of politics- “State Department socialism”. Does that profile, and Howe was by no means the worst of the lot in this regard, read as if he was ready to ‘storm heaven’ in the 1960’s? To pose the question is to give the answer.

I have on more than one occasion been at pains to convey the fact that we of the New Left in the 1960’s made every political mistake in the radical/revolutionary handbook. (I have discussed my own political evolution in past entries and will make separate commentary on it in connection with this question in a future entry.) Part of the purpose of this blog site is to discuss and analyze those mistakes. What was not a mistake, because we were under the gun if for no other reason especially those in the black liberation struggle, was bringing our politics out into the street rather than solely relying on the good offices of the imperial state. One would think that those socialists who came of political age in the 1930’s, another great era of extra- parliamentary political struggle, would have taken that lesson as the ABC’s of political organizing.

To buttress my argument here is a graphic case in point. One of the defining issues of the Sixties was the question of the socialist position on the Vietnam War that was raging and tearing up (along with the effects of the black liberation struggle) the fabric of American society. One would think, and here we can use the current apparently never-ending Iraq war as a guidepost, that as an elementary political position that the call for immediate, unconditional withdrawal of American forces would be an early driving force behind the anti-war struggle of the times, say in about 1965 when the first mass escalations of troops were occurring. Howe, and not he alone, did not endorse such a slogan until 1968, rather late in the game. Of course, 1968 is one of those defining year in American politics. One of the reasons that it is so is that the North Vietnamese Army and the South Vietnamese Liberation Front also initiated their own version of the immediate, unconditional withdrawal slogan for American troops- it was called the Tet offensive. Frankly, I liked their version better.

Finally, Professor Sorin has favorable comments on Howe’s analysis that the confrontational tactics of the Sixties ‘turned the American people off’. We will put the question of whether socialist politics should be determined by polling the heartbeats of the population at any given moment to one side. We will further let the question of whether Howe’s take on the pulse of the American population was correct. We will even put aside the thorny question of whether, and which, tactics were or were no appropriate on the part of the New Left experience. Professor Howe, in his youth, saw social ills in the 1930’s and did something righteous about it. We of the generation of ‘68 saw social ills and did something righteous about it. There are social ills (mainly the same kind as it turns out) now to be righteously addressed. I think a little more of the Thirties and Sixties spirit is called for. What about you?