Friday, September 30, 2011

Photo-finish Friday: out and about

You know there's a movie shoot somewhere nearby when you see these parked along a street in LA or in a vacant lot. They are Star Waggons, which are mobile unit rentals for on-location filmmaking. They come in versions for the folks responsible for makeup, wardrobe, or production - or for the stars themselves.

These were recently in a lot near where I work. Hard to walk by them and not be totally curious about who might be inside.

Photo-finish Friday is the bright idea of Leah Utas over at The Goat’s Lunchpail.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Meša Selimović, Death and the Dervish

The psychological density of this suspenseful political novel captures well the paradoxes at the heart of human experience. For 455 pages the reader is immersed (almost imprisoned) in the twists and turns of one man's awareness of himself and the world around him. While it's a small world, maybe 17th-century Sarajevo (we're not sure), it is also a city under the heavy-handed governance of far-off Constantinople during the Ottoman Empire.

A reader familiar with the political realities of the 1960s, when the novel was written, can easily see it as an allegory of life in Soviet-era Yugoslavia. The dominant theme from beginning to end is a state of anxiety. One thinks of similar anxious and fearful moods captured in the compositions of the author's contemporary, Shostakovich.

Yet there's a universality that readers from any culture can recognize and identify with. The novel's narrator, Sheikh Ahmed, is tormented by his emotional conflicts, and much of his account of himself reads like Edgar Allan Poe. Like the humans we know ourselves to be, he behaves well at times and unforgivably at others.

Baščaršija mosque, Sarajevo (CC) Martin Belam
The morally right course of action is often clouded by self interest, so that our estimation of him varies sometimes from one paragraph to the next. The more admirable character in the novel is his friend Hassan, who represents a good-heartedness and depth of character free of ideology and religion.

Still, the novel wavers in its point of view. On the one hand is an earthy folk wisdom, which can easily yield to mob violence and other forms of depravity, as the novel illustrates. On the other is a moral code as provided by religious faith and transcribed in scriptural texts like the Koran, which can be misused for ignoble ends as the novel also illustrates.

Selimović addresses the central moral issue of any time and place - the great difficulty of choosing the right course of action when the consequences of that action are impossible to predict and potentially perilous. This is a fine novel that wants to be read slowly and thoughtfully. It may be set in Bosnia, but it is about everyone.  

First published in 1966, Death and the Dervish is currently available at amazon, alibris, and AbeBooks. Forgotten Books is the bright idea of Patti Abbott over at pattinase. 

Photo credit: Martin Belam from Chania, Crete, Creative Commons, Wikimedia Commons 

Coming up: John Neihardt, The Lonesome Trail (1907)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Hired Hand (1971)

This is a re-run from over a year ago when I was a brand-new blogger and famous for being unknown. So, once more with feeling:

Peter Fonda directed and stars in this very authentic-looking and conceived film about two drifters who return to the wife and child that one of them abandoned six years before. Warren Oates plays Fonda’s friend and Verna Bloom is the wife. While unspecified in the film, we learn in Fonda’s commentary that the year is 1881, and it was shot in New Mexico.

The river in the opening scenes is the Rio Grande, and key scenes were shot in a dusty town of adobe buildings that the filmmakers found far off the beaten path. The bar where the men go for a drink is a haphazard construction that looks like it could tumble down at any moment.

Fonda also reveals that he wanted to create a new mold for the western by making it as realistic as possible in its details. Lovers of shoot-em-up action will be immediately struck by how slowly the film unfolds, reflecting the slower pace of life on the frontier, where almost nothing moves faster than a horse in low gear. Soft acoustic music plays under some scenes, but the film mostly captures the quiet of a pre-industrialized rural environment, the ambiance colored by birdsong during the day and crickets at night.

A. F. Miller store, Farmington, New Mexico, 1885
The two men may have worked as cowboys in their drifting, but we see them only as farmhands in the film, repairing a windmill, lubricating a wagon wheel, clearing brush. There are a few chickens, but no cattle. Their work clothes look worked in, although lean-legged Peter Fonda wears leather stovepipe chaps sometimes for no particular purpose (complaining about the heat in one scene, when removing them would have reduced his body temperature). 

Both men have brushy beards and hair that is appropriately long for 1881 (also fashionably so for 1971). Verna Bloom wears no makeup, looking as plain as possible when we first see her, the many years of hard work and the climate already making her age before her time.

There is menace enough to be found among unsavory characters the two men meet, but violence when it erupts is sudden and over with quickly. It takes a kidney punch – not a lengthy fistfight - to bring down a man who’s spoken ill of a woman. And there is little gunfire. We hear a couple of gunshots off-camera early on in the film, and about a half hour passes before there are a few more. While the gunfight at the end is deadly, it’s also realistic in its brevity and confusion.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Western writer inspiration no. 4

Here is this week's omnibus of #westernwriter inspirations posted each day at twitter. If you are on twitter, you can follow me @rdscheer.

Arizona cowboy. Frederic Remington, 1901

Cowboy, c1900

Cowboy. Thomas Eakins, c1890

Cowboy bar, Jackson, Wyoming (CC) Acroterion

Rodeo, Cody, Wyoming (CC) C. G. P. Grey

Cowboy, Yellowstone Valley, Montana, 1904

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: John Neihardt, Lonesome Trail (1907)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Photo-finish Friday: food trucks

Don't know about other cities, but Los Angeles has become an epicenter of mobile sidewalk cuisine in the form of food trucks. We've had food trucks that make the round of construction sites for years, affectionately called "roach wagons." But the new food truck craze is something else, with a clientele of mostly young foodies ready to slap down $5-$10 for edible specialties that can be a little quirky and are a cut above fast food.

Food trucks usually have a jazzy look and playful names, like NaanStop, Crazy Creole Cafe, Global Soul Truck, Jogasaki Burrito, Knockout Taco Truck, Slammin' Sliders, Truck Norris, and Get Your Lard On. [For a little help with that last one, you may want to click over to wikipedia.]

They spend only a few hours in one place before moving on, and to keep track of your favorites, you need to follow them on twitter, as I do @SteelCitySndwch, which serves up an approximation of the famous all-in-one sandwiches at Primanti's in Pittsburgh (fries and coleslaw included in the sandwich).

In the photo above is No Tomatoes, which calls itself an Indian Cafe. They park sometimes near my office on Jefferson Blvd., late afternoons and evenings, and usually in a row of other trucks. Last night there were five of them. For a map of greater LA with the current locations of all gazillion food trucks, you can check online at Truxmap.

Photo-finish Friday is the bright idea of Leah Utas over at The Goat’s Lunchpail.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Mackey Hedges, Last Buckaroo

I posted a review of this book over a year ago when I was still a new blogger and before anybody knew I was here. Among many books about the day-to-day life of working cowboys, it's among the best. Out of print for many years, it's now back in print and, for all those reasons, worth a reprise:

Last Buckaroo purports to be a novel, with something of a story to follow. But once you get past the fairly far-fetched antics at the beginning, you're treated to an informative description of what it's like moving from one ranch job to the next -- each time getting used to a new boss, a new bunch of cowboys and horses, and the conditions of various kinds of ranch operations and cow camps in various seasons of the year.

There are a few digressions, as Tap the narrator in his sixties recalls adventures from earlier times. Mostly it's the absorbing accounts of working cowboys who seem completely real, like they could walk right off the page. The novel is set in the Great Basin of the West, so the lingo, the gear and the cowboy way are all buckaroo-style, harking back to the vaqueros from old California. The terrain is mostly Nevada and Oregon.

In northern California the two heroes take jobs packing dudes into the mountains. Later they settle down for a while working in a huge feedlot operation. There's also a side trip to Arizona, where our boys fetch up with an outfit of Apache cowboys, and the author explores in fascinating detail the uneasy relationship between white cowboys and their Native American counterparts.

It's also a story of friendship, as old-timer Tap acquires a young, greenhorn sidekick, Dean, who knows kickboxing but not much about what it takes to be a cowboy. Over the seasons and years, the boy learns a great deal, giving the reader a chance to learn some things along with him. Hedges captures the romance of cowboying without denying the discomforts, the dangers and risk of accident and injury, and the potential for conflict between men who don't get along. The novel is punctuated with several violent fights, and there are two or three accounts of accidents sending cowboys to hospital emergency rooms.

This book was a great pleasure to read. It's currently available at amazon.

Coming up: John Neihardt, Lonesome Trail (1907)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Death of a Gunfighter (1969)

The story goes that Richard Widmark fell out with director Robert Totten during the making of this film, and Totten left the project. Disavowing any connection with the final product, Totten had his name removed from the credits. And thus began the career of fictitious Hollywood director Alan Smithee, whose name appears instead in the opening credits of this film.

From appearances, Totten seems to have been doing creditable work. The cinematography is often inventive, fresh, and interesting. It’s tempting to think the film would have been a whole lot better had he remained in charge. The finished product starts out well, gets to feeling a little choppy in the middle, and then becomes more than a little confusing at the end.

Plot. Widmark plays a town marshal who has outlived his usefulness. It’s now the 20th century and the men of the town council no longer have need for frontier-style law enforcement. But he doesn’t want to quit, and he can go public with some of their dirty secrets if they try to take away his badge.

They first try to get the county sheriff (John Saxon) to arrest him on murder charges and spirit him away. But the sheriff doesn’t quite cooperate. Seems he was once Widmark’s deputy, and the marshal had championed the young man despite the town’s prejudice against his Greek roots.

The editor of the newspaper, who has a dark secret to keep, tries to bushwhack Widmark. His attempt fails, and he commits suicide. When the editor’s son tries to avenge his father’s death, he gets shot in an exchange of gunfire with Widmark. Before he dies, the young man learns his father’s secret.

The rest of the film is a long bloodbath, as the sardonic owner of the Alamo saloon (Carrol O’Connor) and two cronies try to gun down the marshal themselves. Two get shot dead, and the bar owner is roped and dragged off through a corral of milling cattle by Widmark on horseback. The marshal is finally cut down in a barrage of rifle fire as he staggers, already wounded, into the center of the town’s main street. The town fathers have finally rid themselves of him. 

Lena Horne, 1964
Characters. The old-west marshal out of place in a new-west town makes for an interesting story. Hired many years ago, he cleaned up the town at the point of a gun. The film begins with his 13th fatality, as he shoots a man who tries to ambush him in a livery stable. Not exactly an outlaw, however, the dead man was the aggrieved husband of a woman Patch has apparently been bedding.

Afterward, Patch and the widow have a long scene together in which she laments a life wasted on a man she long ago stopped loving. There’s also a good deal of warmth lacking in her feelings for Patch, though her reasons are not clear. She tells him she hates him before he makes his exit.

Patch also has an ongoing affair with the owner of another saloon, played by singer Lena Horne. She keeps a stable of whores, who are an ordinary-looking bunch next to their stunningly beautiful employer. Patch, in a quick decision never explained, proposes marriage to her in the last reel, and within an hour the JP is pronouncing them man and wife.

Carrol O’Connor stands out in a role that looks ahead to his Archie Bunker. A long cheroot between his teeth, he and his two associates are for a long time a kind of chorus observing and commenting on the action. It’s a surprise when they assist the newspaper editor’s son in his effort to kill the marshal. And it’s another surprise when they begin a firefight with him themselves.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Old West glossary, no. 20

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of terms garnered from early western novels. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as searches in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The New Encyclopedia of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, The Cowboy Encyclopedia, The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from novels by Harold Bindloss and Hugh Pendexter, about a rancher in British Columbia and a world-travelling showman. Once again I struck out on a few. If anybody knows the meaning of  “pleasuroid,” “gallery god,” or “toss up grapevines,” leave a comment. Images today are from old Fourth Readers (defined below).

Alice-blue = a pale tint of azure favored by Teddy Roosevelt’s daugher, Alice. “Now the average peon, after absorbing all the visible supply of aguardiente, will hunt all over the map for the most outre place in which to sleep off his Alice-blue rabbits.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith. 

big casino = an idea or asset expected to be a big winner. “Hiram fractured his face with another smile, and I instinctively knew he had big casino.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

boodle = corrupt politician. “How I wish we were back there living in Christian fraternity with Mike O’Daffy, the boodle alderman.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

brace game = any gambling game in which there is concealed cheating. “This is a brace game and we play no favorites.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

brûlée = a burned-over area of forest. “It was dark when they came out of the brûlée and pitched camp amidst the boulders beside a lonely lake.” Harold Bindloss, Alton of Somasco.

budget = a leather container. “Deringham glanced through his budget, and his face changed a little.” Harold Bindloss, Alton of Somasco. 

castor = a hat. “That was the only time Tib ever shied his castor into a ring.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

circus type
= a display font with circus poster features. “He invented names of men and even States, and at the wind-up proclaimed in circus type that England was about to declare war against the North.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

copper = to bet against (a term from faro). “If we’d asked for potatoes they would have coppered us to lose, I reckon.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith. 

Daniel come to judgment = someone who makes a wise judgment about something that has previously proven difficult to resolve. “When it came to doing the Daniel-arrived-at-judgment act, he had Blackstone and all the other calf-bound antiques begging for mercy.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

deadhead = receiving services without paying. “We let them in for what they had, except the alcalde, who entered deadhead.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

devil’s club = a large forest shrub noted for its large leaves and woody stems covered in brittle spines. “His breath gave out as they floundered into fern-choked forest which was further garnished with the horrible devil’s club.” Harold Bindloss, Alton of Somasco. 

diligence = a stagecoach. “We sailed in November from ’Frisco, bound for San José de Guatemala. From there we were to take diligences to the capital.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith. 

Fourth Reader = a textbook of instructive readings for elementary school students. “Then came a few stanzas about his lost youth, and ‘Oft in the Stilly Night,’ and other Fourth Reader stunts.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

foozle = a miss, a blunder. “The chief rattled off a few eeny-meeny-miney-mo sentiments to his god and again swung back his club for another foozle.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

highbinder = a thug. “I told Tib it was bad enough to get chummy with various disagreeable forms of deaths in just trying to catch wild life for a show, without skiving our margin down another degree by inviting the acquaintance of that highbinder.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith. 

joss = an idol, figure of worship. “At that moment we completely filled in the foreground, middle distance, and background of all their joss dreams.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

Marlin rifle = a shoulder arm developed by John Marlin of New Haven, Connecticut, in the 1890s. “Seaforth was at the head of the stairway with a pack upon his back, and the barrel of a Marlin rifle sloped across his shoulders.” Harold Bindloss, Alton of Somasco.

mill = a fight, prizefight. “Dear, dear! what a mill it was, and neither of ’em wore the American flag or talked into phonographs!” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith.

pink tea = a formal tea or social occasion. “Tiberius Smith has never been eaten yet and doesn’t intend now to contribute himself for a pink tea.” Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith. 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Western writer inspiration no. 3

Here is this week's omnibus of #westernwriter inspirations posted each day at twitter. If you are on twitter, you can follow me @rdscheer.

Montana cowboys, 1904

Smoke of a .45, Charles Russell, 1908

Steer wrestler

Montana cowboy herding cattle, c1910


Working cowboys near Benjamin, Texas (CC) Pschemp

Come and get it!

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons 

Coming up: Old West glossary no. 20

Friday, September 16, 2011

Out and about: LAPL

Today I'm posting a short photo essay about my new "branch" of the Los Angeles Public Library. This busy place is located on a slope across Fifth Street from Bunker Hill, in the shadow of the high rise office buildings downtown. Built in 1926, it was damaged by fire, renovated, and reopened in 1993.

The small park has fountains, benches, and grass, where you can sit in the shade and read, with a cup of coffee from the cafe as I did on a recent afternoon. Around you is the hum of the city traffic and the sound of street musicians. In a city with few green areas and a short supply of tranquility, it's a haven for book lovers.

View of Central Library from elevated walkway at Fifth and Flower
Ground level view of fountain-lined entrance

Steps to entrance inscribed in various languages
Central room where the main floor's four corridors meet

Eight-story atrium with colorful hanging artwork

There's always Hope, and a way to find it.
Street-level entrance on Hope: "Books Invite All - They Constrain None"

Terraced walkways leading from Hope Street up to main floor entrance 

Two towering neighbors

Cafe with two food counters

Exit through the gift shop

The Dash shuttle that gets me there and back home for 25 cents each way

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Hugh Pendexter, Tiberius Smith (1907)

The full title of this comic novel is Tiberius Smith, as Chronicled by His Right Hand Man, Billy Campbell. Hugh Pendexter (1875-1940) became a prolific western writer in later years, but this early effort owes more to Jules Verne. Modeled after a fashion on great showmen like P. T. Barnum, world-traveler Tiberius Smith is a turn-of-the-century Phileas Fogg.

Tib helps four fugitives escape capture disguised as circus animals.

Tib, as he’s known by his young sidekick Billy, is often on the search for exotic wild animals. Whether leopards, apes, or polar bears, an order comes from a circus agency in New York, and the two men are off to another corner of the pre-postcolonial world. There the animals are easy to find, but the local natives are quick to take umbrage.

Thus every chapter is a different death-defying and thoroughly farcical adventure. In Mexico they are stranded in the middle of an insurrection. There they keep hostile troops at bay with the aid of a handy kinetoscope, projecting movies of marching armies on the side of a cliff.

Captured by headhunters in the Amazon, Tib engages the chief in a game of baseball, dumbfounding him with sinkers, sliders, and curve balls. Deep in the jungles of Burma, he discourages an attack of spear throwers by loading dogs with explosives. In Canada, they discover a stash of medieval armor in an abandoned fur trading post and get out of trouble by using it to skate along a frozen river with a band of indigenous cutthroats in hot pursuit.

And so on.

Abbott and Costello, 1949
All is told by Billy Campbell, a kind of James Boswell to the great man Tiberius. Reading his accounts, you find yourself looking ahead to the antics and wild excesses of the Keystone Kops, with the verbal hijinks of the Marx Brothers added in, and the buddyship of Abbott and Costello. Along with Mark Twain, you’re at the headwaters of American humor’s mainstream.

If you have the temerity to sample this novel, you’ll find the first stories lack the finesse of the later ones. Since making sense of it all relies not at all on the order you read them, start with the chapters near the end and work your way backwards.

All or nearly all of the Tiberius adventures appeared first in the magazines: Munsey’s, Saturday Evening Post, Everybody’s Magazine, and All-Story Magazine among others. Pendexter burst upon the scene in 1904 with a story in The Red Book. By 1907, the year that Tiberius Smith saw hard covers, he’d published 28 titles in the magazines. And it was just the start.

Tiberius Smith
can currently be found at Internet Archive, google books, and for the nook.

Image credits:

Illustration from the novel by Albert Levering
Africa Screams, Wikimedia Commons

Coming up:
Old West glossary, no. 20

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Last Sunset (1961)

Start with two men in a Texas town, facing off at sunset for a gun duel. Then imagine a story about both of them that leads up to it. This one involves a cattle drive, the soon-to-be widow of the cattle owner, and a teenage charmer of a daughter. The cattle drive has Indians, bad weather, Mexican vaqueros, and three brigands with human trafficking in mind. It’s a full house.

Writers. This one was written by Dalton Trumbo, after his return to credited work, which followed over a decade of uncredited screenplays as a blacklisted Hollywood writer. The story is based loosely on a novel Sundown at Crazy Horse (1957) by Vechel Howard Rigsby.

A reading of the synopsis of the novel (found here) reveals some interesting differences. The film sets the story in Mexico, with the end of the trail on the Texas side of the Rio Grande, a far cry from the Texas-to-Wyoming trek in Howard’s novel.

Of the two men who meet at sundown in Rigsby’s novel, one is a gunman with a modified firearm to accommodate the lack of a trigger finger. A kind of Billy the Kid, he’s a devil-may-care sort, ready to sing and joke. The other man, dressed in black, is a sheriff with a warrant for the killing of his kid brother.

Smitten by the ranch owner’s wife and two young children, both men declare a temporary truce and agree to help drive the cattle to market. And so events are set in motion. 

The film. The filmmakers dress the gunman in black, slick back his hair, and give the role to Kirk Douglas. All ten fingers are intact. The man with the warrant is played by stalwart and dependable Rock Hudson. The victim of the killing, we learn, was the husband of his sister, and there were further consequences. Grief-stricken, she hanged herself.

The ranch owner’s wife is the gorgeously blonde Dorothy Malone, and her two young children have morphed into the pretty and headstrong Carol Lynley. Douglas and Malone have some history, we learn. They were teenage sweethearts. Meanwhile, her daughter, about to turn sixteen, falls head over heels for Douglas herself.

Hudson also takes a tumble. As soon as the ranch owner (Joseph Cotten) has met an untimely end during a dispute in a taverna, Hudson offers a soft shoulder to the not-very-grieving widow. Rescuing her and her daughter from three hired hands (Jack Elam, Neville Brand, James Westmoreland), who try to abduct them, Rock wins her heart.

The alliance between Douglas and Rock remains an uneasy one. Like a card game, each plays his trump cards and seems to hold the advantage for a while. When Douglas shoots an Indian, Rock saves the day by trading away cattle instead of taking on casualties in a firefight. Finding Rock and his horse sinking into quicksand, Douglas rides off at first, only to return with a rope to drag him out. We lose the horse, though.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Western writer inspiration no. 2

Introduced last week and continuing today is a collection of the past week's #westernwriter inspirations posted each day at twitter. If you are on twitter, you can follow me @rdscheer.

Cowboys and surf

River crossing, c1910

Buccaroos, Charles Russell, 1902

Bull wrestling. Frederic Remington, 1895

Mustangs, Utah
Idaho cowboys driving cattle
Arizona cowboys, roused by a scout, 1882

Image credits:
Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Old West glossary, no. 20