William Eastlake once gave William Kittredge a piece of advice about
writing as a Westerner. Never allow a publisher to put a picture of a
horse on the cover of your novel: "The people who buy it will think it's
some goddamned shoot-up. And they'll hate it when it isn't."
For more than a century, picking up a "western" meant caressing a myth.
The plot rarely varied. Decent folk who'd left behind the corrupt
world--always somewhere to the east--came to a land of primeval beauty
and promise and set about turning a little chunk of it into a nice,
prosperous garden. But there were a few corrupt souls lurking in the
vicinity, and before long they showed themselves: heedless savages,
horse thieves, men with pistols on their hips. The good folks had no
choice but to confront the bad guys on their terms--often with the aid
of a mysterious and taciturn stranger on horseback. Violence,
regrettable but necessary, ensued. The good guys were wounded. The bad
guys were killed. Our happy homesteaders returned to taming the
wilderness, cultivating their corner of paradise, a little less innocent
but having earned in blood their claim to the land. The taciturn
stranger was saddled and gone by morning, having left neither a card nor
a silver bullet.
Louis L'Amour wrote more than a hundred works of fiction along those
lines, 260 million copies of which are moldering on cheap pulp paper all
over the world. In the second half of the nineteenth century alone,
1,700 novels about Buffalo Bill were published. Our appetite for the
myths of law-bringing and wilderness-taming is as old as America itself.
The pulp western simply spruced it up with big hats, six-guns and blue
roan appaloosas. Hollywood seized on the concept and tinkered with its
variations for more than thirty years; John Wayne had one of the longest
runs of any male movie icon of the past century.
This is the seductive mythology serious writers in the West have to
grapple with as they set out to write the much messier, much less
uplifting story of the true Western experience. They also face an
Eastern literary establishment that is often indifferent or
unsympathetic to their aims. Norman Maclean couldn't find a major
publisher to bite on his masterpiece, A River Runs Through It.
"These stories have trees in them," he was told. And in a snotty review
in these very pages, Edward Abbey was called "puerile" and "dopey" and
was accused of arrogance and xenophobia.
Not that every literary effort to come out of the West deserved
canonization. Kittredge published a collection of stories, We Are Not
in This Together, that borrowed much from the old myth--except the
happy ending, which leaves a rather curdled vision. Despite a laudatory
foreword from Kittredge's friend Raymond Carver, the stories contain a
predictable mix of unfaithful women, barroom hijinks, cold-blooded
killings, guns and knives and whisky and tight-lipped men who, when they
deign to speak, do so not with or even at but past one another.
"My stories were mostly imitations about old men and wounded boys,
reeking of sorrow and sad romance about the ways love is bound to fail,
and could never have been enough anyway," Kittredge eventually admitted.
Thankfully, in 1978, Terry McDonell of Rocky Mountain Magazine
asked Kittredge to write an essay on the theme of "redneck secrets."
Kittredge said he had no idea how to write an essay. A friend who sat in
one of Kittredge's writing workshops at the University of Montana told
me that Kittredge recounted McDonell's advice this way: Give me five
scenes or anecdotes strung together with your own bullshit philosophy.
Five hundred words of anecdote, 200 of your own bullshit, scene,
bullshit, leading to a summation or revelation. It's that easy.
And for Kittredge, it was; turned out he could bullshit better than
most, and in a rugged, poetic and wholly Western prose style. He's since
written mostly nonfiction, looking at the West as a set of true stories
that deserve telling in all their complexity. Like this, from his very
first essay: "A Redneck pounding a hippie in a dark barroom is
embarrassing because we see the cowardice. What he wants to hit is a
banker in broad daylight."
Yee-haw! Now we're getting someplace.
Kittredge's first essay collection, Owning It All, published in
1987 and just reissued by Graywolf, is one of the quintessential books
to read if you want to understand the ferment of the modern West. He
followed that with Hole in the Sky, a memoir that recounted his
youth and early manhood on his grandfather's ranch in southeastern
Oregon, a backlands enclave in a "huge drift of country...pretty much
nonexistent in the American imagination," where "we knew a history
filled with omissions, which can be thought of as lies." Kittredge took
it as his duty to fill in the omissions, most involving violence done to
Native Americans, and he told his own story with astonishing candor: boy
buckaroo, teenage dandy, self-pitying young man, a ranch kid in a
swampland version of Eden that he and his family ultimately ruined
through a combination of greed, pesticides, overly ambitious irrigation
schemes and an overweening lust for property.
Over something like three decades my family played out the entire
melodrama of the nineteenth-century European novel. It was another
real-life run of that masterplot which drives so many histories,
domination of loved ones through a mix of power and affection; it is the
story of ruling-class decadence that we fondle and love, that we reenact
over and over, our worst bad habit and the prime source of our sadness
about our society. We want to own everything, and we demand love. We are
like children; we are spoiled and throw tantrums. Our wreckage is
All of this from a book with a horse on its cover.
Hole in the Sky placed Kittredge in a blossoming tradition of
Western writers who can be thought of as anti-mythological. They begin,
not surprisingly, with women--Willa Cather (read Death Comes for the
Archbishop) and Mari Sandoz (Old Jules)--and continue with
writers such as A.B. Guthrie, Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig, Marilynne
Robinson and Denis Johnson, whose novel Angels is among the
bleakest visions of the urban West ever committed to paper. And that's
merely a few of the white folk from the mountains and plains, a list
that leaves off the interlopers, Texans, Californians, poets, Hispanics
(Rudolfo Anaya, Jimmy Santiago Baca) and Native Americans (N. Scott
Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich) who have
enriched the region's literature.
Stegner dreamt of a West that had "a civilization to match its scenery,"
and no other writer did more to bring that transformation about. His
influence can be felt all over a fine anthology edited by Kittredge,
The Portable Western Reader, which Stegner didn't live to see but
would have appreciated as a marker of how far the storytelling culture
of the region had come. "The Westerner is less a person than a
continuing adaptation," he wrote. "The West is less a place than a
process." On the evidence of his new book, Kittredge is in total
In Southwestern Homelands, he tells stories from thirty years of
tooling the freeways and back roads of Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New
Mexico, mostly with his longtime love Annick Smith (another fine writer)
and often with a set of golf clubs in the trunk. He goes in search of
history and the earthy flux of the present, and he's as fine a travel
companion as a reader could hope for. I'm with him for all but the golf.
It helps to have friends to show you around an unfamiliar land, and
Kittredge had some good ones, including Eastlake, Abbey and Doug
Peacock, the renowned grizzly-bear expert and model for George Hayduke
in Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang. Eastlake once told Kittredge a
perhaps apocryphal tale in which he and Abbey drove the Southwest's
Interstate highways, felling billboards with a chainsaw. Whether or not
the tale is true--don't you like to think so?--it symbolizes the tension
at the heart of the region's history. What is progress? What are its
costs? And, to paraphrase Charles Bowden, can we not imagine a future in
which we have less but are more?
Everywhere Kittredge goes, these questions haunt the air. At Chaco
Canyon the Anasazi built immaculate pueblos across four square miles
between 1025 and 1100 AD. "The houses were fitted together from tons of
red stone cut in quarries and mortared into tapered load-bearing walls,
five stories high on the curving back side of Pueblo Bonito. Tens of
thousands of pine timbers were cut and trimmed with stone axes in
mountains sixty miles away and brought to Chaco by people without horses
or wheels." They built irrigation systems to channel rainwater toward
domesticated crops. Abruptly, around 1150, they abandoned all of it. To
this day, no one knows for certain why. Drought? Enemy siege? Whatever
the cause, their attempt at constructing a secure homeland failed. The
Anasazi drifted to the north and west. In Canyon de Chelly, they built
cliff houses accessible only by ladders, which they pulled up when they
One millennium later, dreams of an impenetrable fortress persist.
Phoenix, another human settlement fed by diverted water, spreads on the
landscape like a malignant tumor; its gated communities might be
compared to ancient fortified pueblos. One severe or prolonged drought
would also send that city's inhabitants scurrying to more hospitable
climes to the north and west. Aridity, as Stegner incessantly pointed
out, is the defining characteristic of the West. In some distant future,
tourists may gawk at the splendid, dune-covered ruins of Phoenix or
Albuquerque the way we seek out the spooky grandeur of abandoned cliff
The Glen Canyon Dam, on the Colorado River, is among man's most
ambitious efforts to compensate for a lack of rainfall. It flooded what
Kittredge calls "one of the most exquisite runs of landform on earth," a
labyrinth of canyons formed by 10-million-year-old sand dunes compacted
by wind and carved by running water. Abbey once wrote, "To grasp the
nature of the crime that was committed imagine the Taj Mahal or Chartres
Cathedral buried in mud until only the spires remain visible." Kittredge
consoles himself with the thought that canyons and species don't last
forever. I'm surprised it doesn't make him happier to think that dams
are even more ephemeral.
Gated communities, seething barrios, cross-border maquiladoras, crimes
against humans and nature--that's one side of the coin. On the other:
spicy food, entrancing native ceremonies, breathtaking landscapes,
hummingbirds flitting among the saguaro and art that soars into
timelessness, from the overcommodified Georgia O'Keeffe to Mogollon
Mimbres pottery. The exquisite care taken in crafting the Mimbres bowls,
decorated with imagery that made use of communal symbols and stories,
might even be a valuable example for careless book editors. In the
middle of a very moving passage, we find Kittredge viewing "my mother's
powered face that last time before she was interned." You might be
forgiven for momentarily thinking she was a robot on her way to prison
But if you hang with him, you discover him working through one of the
keystone moments of the book. "On Second Mesa, in the village of Walpi,
a man came up while I was walking the balustrade around the edge of the
mesa, and offered to explain the Hopi beliefs. I imagined he was hitting
on me, running some scam, and I turned away." His failure to connect
gnaws at him; he keeps brooding over Walpi until he settles on a
"message" from the ancients: "Be communal, join up, share your goods,
and once in a while give your sweet time away, no charge, pro bono, and
you'll be as close to home as you're likely to be." He could have merely
bought a trinket or a piece of Native art and moved on. Instead, and
despite his failure to connect at first, he was driven to seek some
cross-cultural pollination to take with him as he returns to his own
homeland in Montana. Which ought to be one of the points of travel for
anyone who does it seriously. "Intimacy with otherness is close to
impossible without taking some time to stop playing the game of
anthropologist," he writes. In other words, open up, drop your guard,
talk to strangers. The world awaits: desert and mountain, laughter and
tears, bedrock and paradox.
From the chair where I write this, in a fire lookout tower in the Gila
National Forest of southwestern New Mexico, I can see nearly 100 miles
in all directions. The landscape is multifarious: austere desert to the
east, rising into pinyon and juniper on the foothills and up to peaks
covered in aspen and ponderosa pine, before falling away to mesas and
grassland river valleys to the west. Hard to recall that just a month
ago I was a cog in the corporate journalism machine, a rearranger of
commas, scourge of the split infinitive. "Flight involves a spot of
reinventing the sweet old psychic self," Kittredge writes. Amen.
Everything out my window sings to my soul the way Beethoven's
Archduke Trio speaks to Kittredge's when he's on the road. Yet
the feature I find most intriguing from my perch is a man-made one on
the edge of Silver City: a giant open-pit copper mine that looks like a
gaping wound in the earth. Just above it, at the end of a shelf of
exposed rock, a solitary spire looms. The locals called it the Kneeling
Nun, and through my binoculars I can see why: It resembles the shape of
a woman wearing a habit, bowed in supplication to an ancient altar of
I like to think whoever named it also saw our need for forgiveness. All
across the West, man-made monstrosities punctuate the landscape--dams,
clearcuts, open-pit mines, oil refineries. Some of us silently seethe,
some of us protest, others work quietly toward a new definition of
progress. As we dream and argue our way toward the homeland of the
future, we could do worse than to take our cues from an old boy from a
ranch in the backlands of Oregon, a man who himself learned to take a
few cues from the ancients: "Everything evolves. Nothing lasts. Don't
destroy that which your people depend on. Take care, and plan for the
seventh generation, the long future."
Walking at a good New Yorker's clip, you would need about fifteen
minutes to go between Film Forum and the World Trade Center site: a
straight shot down Varick Street from three cozy screening rooms and
fresh-made popcorn to the remains of a mass grave. I sketch this
geography to suggest what September 11, 2001, meant to the Film Forum staff, and to clarify the meaning of their decision to commemorate the other September 11 attack: the one that killed Salvador Allende in 1973.
The calendar links these two events, and so too does the roughest kind
of arithmetic. About as many people died at the World Trade Center as
were snatched up and murdered by the Pinochet regime. Because the United
States helped install and maintain that dictatorship, you might imagine
that Film Forum is also connecting these Septembers politically. You
would not be entirely wrong; after presenting Patricio Guzmán's
new documentary, The Pinochet Case (on view through September
24), the theater will continue its Chilean theme by showing The
Trials of Henry Kissinger. But if you know the Manhattan streets,
you will realize this schedule doesn't mean to explain--or, worse, to
excuse--the criminals who destroyed the Twin Towers. Rather, the Film
Forum staff have added sorrow to sorrow, looking beyond themselves and
their neighbors to others who are neglected at this moment. Generosity
inspires this programming choice, along with hope--precisely the
qualities that shine through The Pinochet Case.
If you remember the dangerous immediacy of Guzmán's
now-classic The Battle of Chile, you may be surprised to see
The Pinochet Case begin as a landscape film. Guzmán sets
the tone by showing views of mountains under a clear blue sky, as
glimpsed from a car on a lonely highway. A little time passes before the
car reaches its destination: a site where corpses were dumped. Two fully
clothed men, breathing and fidgeting, lie on the ocher ground to show
where the remains were found. By the very inadequacy of their imposture,
these surrogates hint at a horror you can't imagine; and maybe they
suggest as well that this place belongs to the living. Nothing is left
of the victims except for a few fragments--precious to the forensic
experts--and the memories borne by their families, who have come here
with Guzmán so they can testify to what cannot be seen or heard.
A woman speaks of her missing son, meanwhile fingering a photograph that
she has slung around her neck. A man recalls his missing brother by
reciting a song lyric by Victor Jara: "The spring will come from your
heart." He says the line several times over; and somehow, in this place
of natural beauty and man-made bitterness, he doesn't choke on the
The Pinochet Case belongs to witnesses like these. They sit for
their portraits, singly or in groups, sometimes while the moving camera
seems to caress their faces. They talk about whatever was hardest for
them to endure. (For Nelly, it was admitting that her missing husband
would never use the suitcase she packed for him. For Gabriela, who was
tortured and raped, it was seeing others killed.) Above all, these
witnesses hold out. "My revenge," Luisa says, "is just staying alive."
Not subsisting--staying alive. For Luisa and other witnesses, that meant
compiling data that Chilean society preferred to ignore, pressing
lawsuits that Chilean courts refused to hear, seeking justice that
seemed unattainable even after Pinochet stepped down. Underneath the
forms of democracy, as one witness explains, Chile remained unchanged,
since the thousands who had cooperated in state terror were still
around, still powerful, still unwilling to see their deeds uncovered.
And yet, "The spring will come from your heart." The witnesses went on
expecting justice--and suddenly, in 1998, they got it.
Narrating the story with brisk reverence for its heroes, The Pinochet
Case explains how Spanish prosecutor Carlos Castressana ingeniously
recognized that "crimes against humanity" are by definition the business
of all courts everywhere. Charges of torture and political murder could
therefore be brought against Augusto Pinochet in a Spanish court, even
though the crimes took place in Chile. Judge Baltasar Garzón
accepted this argument and began to hear testimony--quixotically, it
seemed, since no one imagined there would be a trial. But then
Castressana and Garzón had the further insight that if their
court could enter charges, it could also request extradition. They
sprang upon Pinochet during his annual visit to London. All at once, the
Senator for Life found himself under house arrest, while the British
legal system began fitfully to strip away his immunity from prosecution.
Another surprise: While The Pinochet Case is meditative and
leisurely when dealing with the witnesses, it becomes lively and even
raucous when it details the court proceedings in England. Part of this
energy comes from the polyrhythmic demonstrations that sprang up around
Pinochet. (Wherever he was, Chileans and their supporters turned out in
force, to bang on drums and shout "Murderer!") Another part of the
film's energy comes from the personalities of the lawyers--Castressana,
for example, is memorably forceful when he speaks of the historic ties
he feels with the Chileans--and still more is contributed by the
filmmaker himself. Guzmán illustrates the legal tactics with a
chessboard; the political maneuvering with some patched-in footage of
Margaret Thatcher, who paid a courtesy call on Pinochet during his
period of house arrest. "I'm very much aware," she intoned for his
benefit and the camera's, "that it's you who brought democracy to
What kind of laughter should those words arouse? If I know my New York
audiences, a jeer will greet them. We're good at jeering, and Thatcher
deserves it. What haunts me about The Pinochet Case, though, is a
far different expression of amusement: the bright smile of one of the
witnesses toward the end of the movie. She has lived to see Pinochet
humiliated; she knows the history books in her country can no longer
pass over his crimes; and although full justice has hardly been done,
although killers live unmolested all around her, she speaks with a tone
of laughter in her voice, a laughter without spite. The killers, she
says, are ashamed before their children; but we, we are free.
In September 2002, in New York City, The Pinochet Case is a gift.
Short Takes: The Method actor and the sensitive young junkie
emerged together in film history. New versions of the rebellious city
boy, scruffy yet soft and inward-looking, they both elected to hunch
over a pain in the gut, seeming to protect and even savor the inner
flaws that made them writhe.
Half a century later, those figures are still with us, most recently in
a Warner Bros. release titled City by the Sea and in a film from
China, Quitting. Both are based-on-a-true-story movies; both are
exercises in acting. Only one of them touches on the social disaffection
that used to spark these now-mythical types.
Directed by Michael Caton-Jones from a screenplay by Ken Hixon, City
by the Sea stars Robert DeNiro as a police detective whose
long-abandoned junkie son (James Franco) is now wanted for murder. The
dialogue is thick with intergenerational doom; the images with
establishing shots, as the action bounces between lower Manhattan (where
the cop lives and works) and the derelict boardwalk of Long Beach, the
son's all-too-symbolic hangout. But the real locus of interest is the
face and body of DeNiro, who once might have played the son but now has
grown meaty and measured, avuncular if not exactly paternal. You spend
the movie admiring his self-control but waiting for the performance to
start, until it finally does, on schedule, at the very end. Too bad the
acting doesn't benefit the son. The turmoil in this pretty-good picture
serves only DeNiro, helping him say farewell to his Method youth to
settle comfortably into a chair at the beach.
So I prefer Quitting by Zhang Yang, a fiction film in which young
actor Jia Hongsheng, playing himself, re-enacts his years of drug
addiction, his struggles with his family (who also play themselves) and
his time spent in a psychiatric hospital. Directed and performed with a
mercifully light touch, the movie is full of telling details, not just
about the characters but about their world: Jia's contempt for his
parents' "peasant" manner of speech and dress, for example, or his
fascination with Western youth culture, meaning drugs, rock and roll and
Method acting. (On the door of his room hangs a poster of DeNiro in
Taxi Driver.) All this is right on the surface, unlike Jia's
sexual orientation; but if you've got an eye for tight blue jeans and
midriff T-shirts, maybe that theme, too, comes to light.
Can function follow form?
The debate over how to redevelop the World Trade Center site has
revolved around several key concerns: the commercial interests of the
real estate industry, the public's desire to embolden Manhattan's
skyline with exciting architecture and the historic obligation to
memorialize thousands of lost lives. As we continue to address and
balance these concerns, let's also seize the chance to reclaim Ground
Zero in the spirit of the twenty-first century, showcasing one of
today's most inspiring and politically meaningful industrial movements:
the revolution in clean energy.
Imagine for a moment that the structures surrounding the memorial will
be sheathed in an invisible skin of electricity-producing solar cells.
During the day, while electricity demand is peaking, the buildings will
silently, automatically produce energy. No power plants or transmission
lines necessary. No greenhouse emissions. No need for oil, coal, natural
gas or nuclear energy. No risk of blackouts. No spiking electricity
prices. Computer and phone networks, elevators, clocks, air conditioners
and ATMs will all run simply, cleanly, like a crop of corn or a grove of
trees, on sunlight. (The complex will be connected to the grid, drawing
electricity when necessary--at night or on cloudy days--and pumping
power back in when it creates a surplus.)
These high-tech buildings will supply all the services and comforts of a
traditional commercial or residential complex but require less than half
the electricity because of their green design features: superinsulated
walls and windows; highly efficient appliances and lighting, heating and
cooling systems; and a motion-sensing laser system that will
automatically switch off lights and equipment when not in use. Whereas
the original World Trade Center complex guzzled nearly 100 megawatts of
electricity a day on peak days, with associated emissions, the new
complex will be a net-zero-emission development. Moreover, this mini-El
Dorado of energy independence and its surrounding neighborhood will be
designed to have minimal need for cars and trucks. Once there, visitors
will be in the greatest walking neighborhood in the world. The three
airports, Kennedy, La Guardia and Newark, will be connected by train to
the downtown terminal, making it an easy commute. An expanded network of
ferries connecting lower Manhattan with Brooklyn, Queens, New Jersey and
uptown will provide a fast and pleasurable way to get around. The heart
of lower Manhattan will be knitted together by a clean, quiet street
grid restored for use by pedestrians alone.
"From both a technological and cost standpoint, this scenario is
entirely possible," says Ashok Gupta, an energy economist at the Natural
Resources Defense Council. Solar systems, fuel cells and
energy-efficiency measures have already been implemented in the design
of several skyscrapers in Manhattan, including the Condé Nast
building at Times Square and the residential tower at Battery Park
currently under construction. As clean-energy technologies become
rapidly more sophisticated and affordable, a large-scale application at
Ground Zero would galvanize their acceptance in the marketplace. As for
transportation, fuel-cell-powered buses and taxis may be too expensive
today, but already they're technologically feasible. The Lower Manhattan
Development Corporation (LMDC) and the Port Authority have approved
additional rail connections for commuters beneath the new complex; they
are also considering plans to depress the West Side Highway for a more
pedestrian-friendly environment, and to add new ferry lines at Battery
Park and on the East River.
The opportunities are real, but they can't be realized without leaders.
Yet neither Governor George Pataki, site developer Larry Silverstein nor
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has expressed much interest so far. "Mr.
Silverstein isn't really thinking about this," says his spokesperson.
"It's just too early to get bogged down in these kinds of details."
Pataki's office expressed a similar lack of initiative, saying the
issues are important but not yet a priority. Alex Garvin, vice president
of planning for the LMDC, was more assertive in his commitment: "We plan
to establish standards for sustainability and green technology that
architects will be not only encouraged but required to meet. But we
can't get started on this now; it's too early to determine the details."
Prominent green architects disagree. Robert Fox, senior principal of Fox
and Fowle, the architecture firm that designed the Condé Nast
building, says planners should adopt the Leadership in Energy and
Environmental Design rating system, the gold standard for sustainable
building practices. "Now is the time to address this, at the beginning
of the planning process," stresses Fox. "Sustainability measures must be
incorporated into every aspect of the design, from the infrastructure of
the water, sewage and electricity systems to the external PV-integrated
It's a safe bet that the public will support much if not all of the
larger zero-energy vision. In addition to the LMDC, two
coalitions--Civic Alliance, representing more than 100 institutions, and
New York New Visions, representing dozens of local architecture
firms--have endorsed principles for downtown redevelopment that promote
sustainable design and clean energy. Furthermore, there's impressive
evidence that supports the use of clean-energy systems: Richard Perez, a
scientist at SUNY Albany who's been tracking sunlight in New York City
for more than ten years, has found that the average amount of sun that
hits the city annually is only 12 percent less than that in cloudless
Right now the Pataki administration is considering a proposal to limit
power-plant emissions of carbon dioxide 30-40 percent below 1990 levels
by 2010. Building a zero-energy complex and a state-of-the-art
transportation system would advance these goals and address the mounting
crisis of global warming, while making a clear statement about America's
commitment to energy independence. Since September 11 many energy
experts have called for a massive, government-funded research project, a
"Manhattan Project of alternative energy" to alleviate our dependence on
foreign oil. The opportunity for such an initiative now lies at the foot
of Manhattan. Nothing would be more appropriate for a memorial to a
traumatic past than one that points us in the direction of a sustainable
The footprints of clashing interests.
For the 43 members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 100, working at the Windows on the World restaurant, who lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center
Alabanza. Praise the cook with a shaven head
and a tattoo on his shoulder that said Oye,
a blue-eyed Puerto Rican with people from Fajardo,
the harbor of pirates centuries ago.
Praise the lighthouse in Fajardo, candle
glimmering white to worship the dark saint of the sea.
Alabanza. Praise the cook's yellow Pirates cap
worn in the name of Roberto Clemente, his plane
that flamed into the ocean loaded with cans for Nicaragua,
for all the mouths chewing the ash of earthquakes.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen radio, dial clicked
even before the dial on the oven, so that music and Spanish
rose before bread. Praise the bread. Alabanza.
Praise Manhattan from a hundred and seven flights up,
like Atlantis glimpsed through the windows of an ancient aquarium.
Praise the great windows where immigrants from the kitchen
could squint and almost see their world, hear the chant of nations:
Ecuador, México, Republica Dominicana,
Haiti, Yemen, Ghana, Bangladesh.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen in the morning,
where the gas burned blue on every stove
and exhaust fans fired their diminutive propellers,
hands cracked eggs with quick thumbs
or sliced open cartons to build an altar of cans.
Alabanza. Praise the busboy's music, the chime-chime
of his dishes and silverware in the tub.
Alabanza. Praise the dish-dog, the dishwasher
who worked that morning because another dishwasher
could not stop coughing, or because he needed overtime
to pile the sacks of rice and beans for a family
floating away on some Caribbean island plagued by frogs.
Alabanza. Praise the waitress who heard the radio in the kitchen
and sang to herself about a man gone. Alabanza.
After the thunder wilder than thunder,
after the shudder deep in the glass of the great windows,
after the radio stopped singing like a tree full of terrified frogs,
after night burst the dam of day and flooded the kitchen,
for a time the stoves glowed in darkness like the lighthouse in Fajardo,
like a cook's soul. Soul I say, even if the dead cannot tell us
about the bristles of God's beard because God has no face,
soul I say, to name the smoke-beings flung in constellations
across the night sky of this city and cities to come.
Alabanza I say, even if God has no face.
Alabanza. When the war began, from Manhattan and Kabul
two constellations of smoke rose and drifted to each other,
mingling in icy air, and one said with an Afghan tongue:
Teach me to dance. We have no music here.
And the other said with a Spanish tongue:
I will teach you. Music is all we have.
Martín Espada's poem will appear in the Spring issue (#82) of
Hanging Loose magazine and in Alabanza: New and Selected
Poems 1982-2002 (Norton), forthcoming in April.
Editor's Note: One year after the attacks, Eric Foner assessed the impact of 9/11 on the way America tells the story of itself and readjusts its relationship with the world.
All history, the saying goes, is contemporary history. People
instinctively turn to the past to help understand the present. Events
draw our attention to previously neglected historical subjects. The
second wave of feminism gave birth to a flourishing subfield of women's
history. The Reagan Revolution spawned a cottage industry in the history
of US conservatism.
Many years will pass before we can fully assess how our thinking about
history has changed as a result of September 11. While historians ponder
this question, conservative ideologues have produced a spate of
polemical statements on how we should teach American history in light of
recent events. In a speech less than a month after the tragedy, Lynne
Cheney insisted that calls for more intensive study of the rest of the
world amounted to blaming America's "failure to understand Islam" for
the attack. A letter distributed by the American Council of Trustees and
Alumni, which she once chaired, chastised professors who fail to teach
the "truth" that civilization itself "is best exemplified in the West
and indeed in America."
In What's So Great About America, Dinesh D'Souza contends that
freedom and religious toleration are uniquely "Western" beliefs. The
publisher's ad for the book identifies those who hold alternative views
as "people who provide a rationale for terrorism." With funding from
conservative foundations and powerful political connections, such
commentators hope to reshape the teaching of American history.
Historians cannot predict the future, but the past they portray must be
one out of which the present can plausibly have grown. The
self-absorbed, super-celebratory history now being promoted will not
enable students to make sense of either their own society or our
increasingly interconnected world.
Historians cannot choose the ways history becomes part of our own
experience. September 11 has rudely placed certain issues at the
forefront of our consciousness. Let me mention three and their
implications for how we think about the American past: the upsurge of
patriotism, significant infringements on civil liberties and a sudden
awareness of considerable distrust abroad of American actions and
The generation of historians that came of age during the Vietnam War
witnessed firsthand how patriotic language and symbols, especially the
American flag, can be invoked in the service of manifestly unjust
causes. Partly as a result, they have tended to neglect the power of
these symbols as genuine expressions of a sense of common national
community. Patriotism, if studied at all, has been understood as an
"invention," rather than a habit of the heart.
Historians have had greater success lately at dividing up the American
past into discrete experiences delineated along lines of race,
ethnicity, gender and class than at exploring the common threads of
American nationality. But the immediate response to September 11 cut
across these boundaries. No one knows if the renewed sense of common
purpose and shared national identity that surfaced so vividly after
September 11 will prove temporary. But they require historians to devote
new attention to the roots of the symbols, values and experiences
Americans share as well as those that divide them.
All patriotic upsurges run the risk of degenerating into a coercive
drawing of boundaries between "loyal" Americans and those stigmatized as
aliens and traitors. This magazine has chronicled the numerous and
disturbing infringements on civil liberties that have followed September
11. Such legal protections as habeas corpus, trial by impartial jury,
the right to legal representation and equality before the law regardless
of race or national origin have been seriously curtailed.
Civil liberties have been severely abridged during previous moments of
crisis, from the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 to Japanese-American
internment in World War II. Historians generally view these past
episodes as shameful anomalies. But we are now living through another
such episode, and there is a remarkable absence of public outcry.
We need an American history that sees protections for civil liberties
not as a timeless feature of our "civilization" but as a recent and
fragile achievement resulting from many decades of historical struggle.
We should take a new look at obscure Supreme Court cases--Fong Yue
Ting (1893), the Insular Cases of the early twentieth century,
Korematsu during World War II--in which the Justices allowed the
government virtual carte blanche in dealing with aliens and in
suspending the rights of specific groups of citizens on grounds of
military necessity. Dissenting in Fong Yue Ting, which authorized
the deportation of Chinese immigrants without due process, Justice David
Brewer observed that, like today, the power was directed against a
people many Americans found "obnoxious." But, he warned, "who shall say
it will not be exercised tomorrow against other classes and other
September 11 will also undoubtedly lead historians to examine more
closely the history of the country's relationship with the larger world.
Public opinion polls revealed that few Americans have any knowledge of
other peoples' grievances against the United States. A study of our
history in its international context might help to explain why there is
widespread fear outside our borders that the war on terrorism is
motivated in part by the desire to impose a Pax Americana in a grossly
Back in the 1930s, historian Herbert Bolton warned that by treating the
American past in isolation, historians were helping to raise up a
"nation of chauvinists"--a danger worth remembering when considering the
drumbeat of calls for a celebratory and insular history divorced from
its global context. Of course, international paradigms can be every bit
as obfuscating as histories that are purely national. We must be careful
not to reproduce traditional American exceptionalism on a global scale.
September 11, for example, has inspired a spate of commentary influenced
by Samuel Huntington's mid-1990s book The Clash of Civilizations.
Huntington's paradigm reduces politics and culture to a single
characteristic--race, religion or geography--that remains forever
static, divorced from historical development or change through
interaction with other societies. It makes it impossible to discuss
divisions within these purported civilizations. The idea that the West
is the sole home of reason, liberty and tolerance ignores how recently
such values triumphed in the United States and also ignores the debates
over creationism, abortion rights and other issues that suggest that
commitment to them is hardly unanimous. The definition of "Western
civilization" is highly selective--it includes the Enlightenment but not
the Inquisition, liberalism but not the Holocaust, Charles Darwin but
not the Salem witch trials.
Nor can September 11 be explained by reference to timeless
characteristics or innate pathologies of "Islamic civilization." From
the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction to Oklahoma City in our own time,
our society has produced its own home-grown terrorists. Terrorism
springs from specific historical causes, not the innate qualities of one
or another civilization.
The study of history should transcend boundaries rather than reinforce
or reproduce them. In the wake of September 11, it is all the more
imperative that the history we teach be a candid appraisal of our own
society's strengths and weaknesses, not simply an exercise in
self-celebration--a conversation with the entire world, not a complacent
dialogue with ourselves.
The streets of lower Manhattan are deserted--also spotlessly clean and
glowing in the light of the golden hour--when the studio head takes the
movie director outside to tell him he's washed up. Those were great
dreams he had in New York in the old days, with Cassavetes, but they're
over. How it must wound the director to hear these words in Hollywood, on a mere back-lot
simulacrum of New York--and from his own ex-wife! How it must shame him
to hear the name of Cassavetes! Although the director claims to be the
last American auteur, who is being fired because he won't compromise,
we've seen some of the picture he was shooting, and it looks less like
Cassavetes than a feature-length ad for "Dysfunction" by Calvin Klein.
But Hollywood holds out hope even for a moviemaker who's so pretentious
that he spells his first name "Viktor." The director receives a genie in
a bottle--or, in this case, a wonderful computer program on a hard
drive. This gift puts into his hands a virtual actress, or synthespian,
who can be molded exactly as he wishes and secretly inserted into his
not-quite-finished movie. The computer program is known as Simulation
One; the virtual actress, as Simone. When the picture is released, it
will be Simone, not Viktor, who wins the public's unconditional
love--after which it's only a matter of time before he's struggling to
shove the genie back into its bottle.
"Our ability to manufacture fraud," muses the director, "now exceeds our
ability to detect it." These words will do to sum up a theme that has
emerged in the work of Andrew Niccol, who wrote and directed
Simone. He first made a name for himself as the screenwriter of
The Truman Show, in which Jim Carrey unwittingly resided on a TV
soundstage the size of an entire village. Niccol next wrote and directed
Gattaca, a futuristic fantasy about a world where you have to be
physically perfect, or else. Now comes Simone, a story about the
public's adoration for an actress who is too good to be true, and isn't.
"Simone has the voice of the young Lauren Bacall, the body of Sophia
Loren and the face of Audrey Hepburn crossed with an angel," raves one
critic about the new star. "Almost right," the director mutters.
You will observe that Simone is not a fraudulent contest winner, phony
political reformer or bogus war hero (to mention only three of the
impostors who populate Preston Sturges's movies, and so define the great
tradition of American screen comedy). Simone is a mirage of femininity,
projected by a man who can make her into just what he wants a woman to
be. Conversely, when Viktor turns against her, he can make Simone into
his image of everything he finds horrifying in a woman. Since the
director is simultaneously trying to win back his ex-wife (Catherine
Keener, in another of her hard-as-peanut-brittle roles), we can judge
how well his fantasies match reality.
It would be enough for me if Simone played out these ideas
consistently and well. But it does even more--because Viktor is
portrayed by Al Pacino. If you've seen him as the suffering detective in
Insomnia, you've had a recent reminder of how overbearing he can
be. Part of the pleasure of Simone is to see him give pretty much
the same baggy-eyed performance as Viktor, yet make the character come
out funny. Who better than Pacino to take on the role of a director,
railing against those self-regarding actors who think they're more
important than the movie? And who better to be transformed into a
porcelain-skinned blonde? Simone "acts" by mirroring her director's
gestures and speech--which means she's a Victoria's Secret version of
Pacino, right down to the hands spreading apart as if they were pulling
I confess there were moments when I merely chuckled at Simone, or
smiled, or checked my wristwatch (during the meandering third act).
There were also moments--two of them--when I laughed till I wept. I
think that's reason enough to recommend Simone for a holiday
weekend's viewing--that, and the delight of discovering there's still a
moviemaker in America who can toss up three ideas and keep them all in
American moviemakers (including those who, like Niccol, come from New
Zealand) get a hard time from Jean-Luc Godard in his most recent
feature, In Praise of Love (Éloge de l'amour). By
now, one particular sequence in that film has become notorious. A
certain Steven Spielberg wants to buy the life stories of an elderly
couple who were active in the French Resistance in World War II. The
couple's granddaughter bitterly denounces the project; but she is
silenced by Spielberg's negotiator, who comes not from DreamWorks but
the US State Department.
Although I don't want to overprotect Spielberg--he's probably capable of
defending himself--I admit I squirmed at this burlesque. But that was
just on first viewing. The second time through, having got my bearings
(which is no easy matter), I still disliked the too-facile choice of
target but could see it as something more than the product of old
Jean-Luc's crankiness. I now think it's part of a dense, thrumming
network of ideas, which concern resistance both with and without the
Resistance against what, you might ask. Godard shows you some possible
answers and lets you sound out a few others. Here are homeless people
sleeping in the rain, in the world's most beautiful city. (The larger
portion of In Praise of Love, filmed in black and white, brings
Godard back to Paris as a location, for the first time in many years.)
Here are silent, shuffling workers, cleaning railroad coaches late at
night; here is a grim, spray-painted underpass, in one of the workers'
suburbs. And here, too, is a report about the recent massacres in
Kosovo, in case you forgot that mass murder still happens at your
doorstep. Let us agree there is something in the world worth resisting,
and something within ourselves, too--call it slackness, indecision,
indifference, a failure to create ourselves as adults. Resistance is
necessary; and resistance is impossible, the voices on the soundtrack
say, without memory and universalism.
I would suggest that "Spielberg" is the name Godard gives to a false
universalism: the omnipresent culture of Hollywood, which unites people
by offering them all the same fantasies about movie stars. What might
constitute a genuine universalism? Godard's protagonist, a would-be
artist named Edgar (Bruno Putzulu), takes a stab at an answer when he
launches a project about love: its cycle of meeting, passion, rupture
and reunion; its different manifestations in youth, adulthood and old
age. An impossible project, for Edgar anyway. A perfect specimen of the
European mope--a descendant, you might say, of the screenwriter
character from Contempt--he's so weighted with historical memory
that he can't finish anything, let alone mount a resistance to
Spielbergism; so conscious of his cultural birthright that he can't love
the forceful Berthe (Cécile Camp) but can only pursue her and
then push her away.
This leaves Godard himself to love and remember and resist, in the best
way he knows how: by making something ravishing. In Praise of
Love is an achingly beautiful picture, both in its initial filmed
section and in the later portion that was shot on video, with vibrating,
Fauvist colors. (The video section seems to take us into Edgar's memory,
where he has just met Berthe, where an orange sea crashes onto chocolate
rocks.) Every image is incisive; every cut to a fresh shot, musically
timed; every musical fragment, eloquent; every spoken line, evocative of
some new picture.
Still, I can understand why some people resist the autumnal beauty of
In Praise of Love. Its sense of melancholy can become oppressive.
(There are four suicides in the story, not counting the death of Simone
Weil.) The protagonist is insufferable (and is meant to be so, I think);
and the proliferation of allusions can make you feel like the slowest
student in Professor Godard's seminar room. As has usually been the case
in his later films, the characters speak almost entirely in quotations,
while hanging around settings that are themselves in need of footnotes.
Were Godard still interested in actors, you would at least have a strong
performance to help carry you through the quiz; but he hasn't cast
anyone with a personality since he put Depardieu into Hélas
pour moi. To Godard, people are now just elements in the
sound-and-image mix. He's the sole actor.
And, of course, he is a brilliant actor. In Praise of Love may be
a kind of directorial soliloquy about loss and failure--including
cinema's failure to put up an adequate alternative to Hollywood--but
it's performed with such deftness and vigor that it can make the heart
Short Takes: In Satin Rouge, first-time feature director
Raja Amari gives us the tale of Lilia, a respectable widow in Tunis who
finds happiness through belly dancing. To get a hint of Amari's deadpan
methods, and of the magnificence of Hiam Abbass's performance as Lilia,
you need look no further than the opening shot. A 360-degree pan reveals
the details of a humble apartment, which is being briskly cleaned by a
handsome woman on the verge of middle age. Lilia dusts the mirror,
checks the surface to make sure it's clean and then belatedly notices
herself in the glass. As she does so, she begins to move to the music on
the radio. She unpins her hair, letting it flow over the shoulders of
her housedress; she dances; and then, just as simply as she'd begun, she
pins the hair up again and cleans her way out of the room. A woman
capable of such interludes might end up just about anywhere, to the
astonishment of both her daughter and the audience in the movie theater.
Lilia may well astonish you, too.
You may recall Liz Garbus as co-director of a fine documentary titled
The Farm: Angola, USA. She's back now with a new picture, The
Execution of Wanda Jean, which was made for HBO but will have a
well-deserved theatrical run, starting September 6 in New York. The
picture follows convicted murderer Wanda Jean Allen, her family, her
defense team and her victim's family over the final weeks of Wanda
Jean's life: from the preparations for her clemency hearing, to her
execution in January 2001, to her funeral. Garbus worked wonders in
winning the confidence of her subjects (as she also did in The
Farm); and to her great credit, she chose to follow a genuinely
thorny case. On the one hand, prejudice seems to have played a role in
Wanda Jean's getting the death penalty: She was an African-American
woman accused of having killed her lover, Gloria Leathers. On the other
hand, Wanda Jean had previously done time for manslaughter, and she shot
Gloria outside an Oklahoma City police station. Those of us who oppose
the death penalty need to be able to look at cases like this, take a
deep breath and then say, "Even so." The Execution of Wanda Jean
is a tough movie, and a valuable one.
It's only August, but I'll go out on a limb and congratulate the
Village Voice's Keith Harris for what I feel confident will stand
the test of time as the stupidest comment of the year. "Because his
vision of rock and roll is so grand, Springsteen requires a popular
consensus as surely as any invasion of Iraq. And as we've learned yet
again, nothing sparks phony consensus like national cataclysm. Maybe
that's why, for the past few days, a nagging thought has burrowed into
my brain that I wish was merely the snide aphorism I initially took it
for: If there hadn't been a September 11, Bruce Springsteen would have
had to invent one."
Like an Ann Coulter bestseller or a Rush Limbaugh radio rant, Harris's
review is idiotic but instructive. Aside from its self-evident (and
self-incriminating) silliness, what galls about the comment is its
willful forfeiture of the common cultural ground upon which Bruce
Springsteen plies his trade. Does 9/11 belong only to George Bush and
Donald Rumsfeld? Is American popular culture the exclusive preserve of
Spielberg, Bruckheimer and Britney?
While managing to keep both feet planted in the mainstream, Springsteen
has done more than any American artist to give voice to the American
"other" that pop culture would prefer to forget: the humiliated Vietnam
veteran, the fired factory worker, the hunted illegal immigrant, the
death-row inmate, the homeless person living beneath the bridge and
Amadou Diallo, a West African immigrant, accidentally murdered by
forty-one shots from New York's finest. With his 1994 AIDS ballad
"Streets of Philadelphia," Springsteen became the first heterosexual
rock star ever to sing in the voice of a homosexual man, in a work
that--as Ann Powers, who was then writing brilliant music criticism in,
uh, the Village Voice, observed--succeeded in crossing "the
barriers of class, race, and gender."
Springsteen is vulnerable to criticism on any number of grounds,
artistic and commercial, but his willingness to offer solace in troubled
times strikes me as pretty low on that list. Springsteen was literally
stopped in his car after 9/11 by someone who cried out, "We need you."
Monmouth County, where he lives, lost 158 people in the towers. He
played a couple of local benefits. He read, repeatedly, about the
meaning of his work to his fans in the New York Times's
"Portraits of Grief." He called a few widows, shared their stories and
made a record. It's what he does. "I have a sense of what my service to
my audience is going to be," he explains. "It's the true nature of work
in the sense that you're filling a place. And that place comes with its
blessings and its responsibilities." So sue him.
It is a separate question as to whether one thinks the art that emanated
from this impulse is wholly successful. With regard to The
Rising, I can argue the point either way. But to take issue with the
very idea that art can be a balm to those in pain--or, as Springsteen
puts it, "music is medicine"--is cynicism itself. And to the degree that
this is at all representative of leftist attitudes, it speaks for an
impotent and self-defeating left: too smug and self-satisfied to engage
the culture of the common people, preferring instead to smirk on the
Granting both its sincerity and its (inconsistent) genius, The
Rising does nevertheless raise some complicated questions about art,
politics and commerce. One has to go back to 1984--to Springsteen's own
Born in the U.S.A.--to find a rock record that was marketed as
energetically to mainstream America. After decades of relative
reclusiveness, Springsteen is suddenly everywhere in the mass media:
taking over the Today show in Asbury Park, on David Letterman two
nights in a row, ditto Ted Koppel, on MTV, Saturday Night Live,
simultaneous covers of Time and Rolling Stone; long
interviews with the New York Times, the LA Times and
USA Today. I half expected him to duet with Elmo or Big Bird over
breakfast. It should surprise no one that the record entered the charts
at No. 1 in eleven countries.
The problem arises--just as it did with Born in the U.S.A.--when
the work's cultural signification overwhelms its artistic essence; what
Nietzsche, in Twilight of the Idols, termed "the thing itself."
The dilemma for anyone who seeks to use popular culture to communicate a
message at odds with its market-driven heart of darkness is: who's using
whom? Did Springsteen accidentally empower Reaganism back in the
mid-1980s as he simultaneously denounced it? Is he somehow cheapening
the individual tragedies of which he writes and sings by performing
these haunting melodies at the ungodly hour of 8:30 am in the happy-talk
context of a Today show beach party?
Matt Lauer asked Springsteen whether he feared being accused of
exploiting the tragedy of 9/11, and Springsteen told him to listen to
the music and make up his own mind. The same might be said of his
willingness to embrace (and exploit) America's mighty mass-marketing
The answer has to be a personal one. In Asbury Park, I did some random
interviewing of people who had traveled many hours, and waited on
overnight lines, in the hope of seeing Springsteen perform four songs in
the Convention Hall for the Today broadcast. I spoke to a
firefighter who had gone into the burning buildings, a 16-year-old girl
who was repaying her mom for waiting ten hours on line to get 'NSync
tickets, a woman with her 5-year-old son, who, back in '85, enlisted her
entire family in a weeklong wait for tickets. Nobody mentioned Matt or
Katie. Nobody mentioned the marketing campaign. Nobody even complained
about the all-night wait and the uncertainty that they would be allowed
inside the hall. They were there for Bruce because Bruce was there for
them. In the midst of what Springsteen accurately terms "a theater of
humiliation on TV and on the radio, a reflection of self-loathing," they
had created a community around something better. This was their
(Don't forget, while those Nation folks are on vacation,