Monday, November 07, 2005

Alan Dugan


Consider, if you will, just the linebreaks:

This Morning Here

This is this morning: all
the evils and glories of last night
are gone except for their
effects: the great world wars
I and II, the great marriage
of Edward the VII or VIII
to Wallis Warfield Simpson and
the rockets numbered like the Popes
have incandesced in flight
or broken on the moon: now
the new day with its famous
beauties to be seized at once
has started and the clerks
have swept the sidewalks
to the curb, the glass doors
are open, and the first
customers walk up and down
the supermarket alleys of their eyes
to Muzak. Every item has
been cut out of its nature,
wrapped disguised as something
else, and sold clean by fractions.
Who can multiply and conquer
by the Roman numbers? Lacking
the Arab frenzy of the zero, they
have obsolesced: the butchers
have washed up and left
after having killed and dressed
the bodies of the lambs all night,
and those who never have seen blood awake
can drink it browned
and call the past an unrepeatable mistake
because this circus of their present is all gravy.

Two of the first four lines are enjambed – their last word is part of a phrase that only completes itself on the next line. The effect, because we expect all & their to lead somewhere, is to minimize the gap between the end of one line and the start of the next. This is what I meant the other day when I referred to the concept of soft enjambment as a specific literary device & the idea has been haunting me since then. The poem is by Alan Dugan, one of the masters of soft enjambment, and was originally part of his Yale Younger Poets volume, Poems. Only two of the poem’s 33 lines end on a period, partly because there are so few: just four sentences to divide up 185 words, an average of more than 46 words per sentence. Yet there is nothing inherently difficult about Dugan’s language. The length of both first & last sentence is extended through the use of colons. And note how the middle two are quite short – just 28 words between them. Which means that first & last average just under 80 each (100 exactly for the first, 57 for the second). It’s a poem that seems so casual at first that the degree of control Dugan exercises on the text seems almost a surprise – it is, after all, something of a magic trick done in plain sight.

Now consider “Deep Winter”:

A starling drops
from branch to
branch, it’s cold
but not that cold:
the feel of cold-
ness is movement
on the skin so
walking in it
robs the air of
stillness: walking
on the half-thawed
yard you charge
the air with motion
you are a kind of
breeze a light
wind stirring still-
ness like shaking
out a rug the dust
hangs and swims
and shows a pattern
for a while, unstill.
Squirrels are every-
where, they fight
and follow “chase
the leader.” Where
are their larders?
They seem still
to hunt for food
in winter-waiting
weather. The only
blue is shutters
or a car. The car
sits still behind
a house: that’s Sun-
day for you. The
church bells swing
sound invisible
so palpable, it’s
strange. Shops
are shut. That’s
Sunday for you.
Purchases can wait
for Monday. Each
day so different
yet still alike
in waiting weather.

This poem, one of the “Elsewhere” sequence in Jimmy Schuyler’s Hymn to Life, makes use of the same toolkit, but to very different effect. It’s 150 words is divided into 46 lines, the shorter line giving the poem an austere feel that echoes the leafless, sunless, colorless condition of winter in the Northeast. Once again colons are used to stretch out a sentence, but in this poem only the first, which at 73 words is nearly half of the text – the next ten sentences will average just 7.7 words each. Here four of the lines end on terminal punctuation: three periods & a question mark. More pronounced are the four lines so enjambed that they break up individual words. Note also that Schuyler here uses a less colorless, less specific vocabulary than does Dugan – Schuyler’s small nouns almost mimic the palette of Larry Eigner. Yet what is profoundly different about Schuyler’s poem, both in contrast to Eigner’s work in general or the Dugan poem above, is his use of repetition, not just that’s Sunday for you, but the subtler echo of winter-waiting / weather in lines 29 & 30, and waiting weather at the very end. Who’d’a thunk it woulda been the New American to resolve the poem through rhyme?

Yet the poems are going in very different places. Schuyler is interested in identifying a certain dailiness, an unhurried rhythm that can exist in life away from the big city. Dugan is painted a pointed political allegory, equating meat consumption with the Holocaust. Such similar devices to such dissimilar ends.

Try to imagine, if you can, Robert Creeley reading each poem aloud. Or perhaps Robert Duncan during that period circa 1970 when he was counting three beats (sometimes whispered) at the end of every line. If you hear that pause at the end of every line, actually, it undermines Schuyler’s poem fairly seriously, because these short lines sound suddenly anxious & asthmatic. Yet Schuyler clearly doesn’t want you to hear that pause – there are lines that read, in their entirety, on the skin so that become almost unless they recede almost to the point of invisibility. That recessiveness is absolutely necessary tho, in order to foreground the deliberately askew syntax of The / church bells swing / sound invisible / so palpable, it’s / strange. Schuyler reiterates the point with the simplicity & directness of the next sentence: Shops / are shut.

The idea of writing a line that becomes invisible as such is a concept that could only have occurred in a world in which the line was always already visible everywhere. Schuyler & Dugan approach it from different angles, but operating on very similar assumptions. For each, it gave their work, within their different literary contexts, a distinctness, an identifiable formal signature that they would return to again & again.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

On the edge of a ridge removed from the sea lay a small wooden inn half-buried in snow. Four hooded figures, grunting against the storm, struggled unbidden into its darkened entry. Snow swirled in around them, and the clouds of their breath were torn away.

Thus begins The Apprentice, the 1996 novel by I. Lewis Libby, better known for fictitious weapons of mass destruction. The novel went into paperback after some decent reviews, but appears to have sunk without a trace. Amazon claims that you can find copies for as little as $124, but the cheapest I could see in was going for $169. I don’t think the price has much to do with the quality of writing: “grunting against the storm”? “struggled unbidden”? “the clouds of their breath were torn away”? This first paragraph reminds me of nothing more than Snoopy typing on the roof of his doghouse.

Word is that Libby is working on a new piece of fiction, soon to debut in federal court.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

A couple of people have suggested that it was brave to run my early work here, a little like posting one’s second-grade photo with the terrible cowlick & missing front tooth or something. Actually, I don’t agree. For better or worse, I made my mistakes in public – I published the first serious poem I ever wrote & I was sending work off to The New Yorker when I had all of four or five weeks’ experience. That some of these were accepted is what seems a little bizarre, not that I fumbled around with different approaches, different styles.

Joe Green notes rightly that he “knew plenty of guys who were writing stronger poems at 21.” Me too. I was painfully aware that I lacked the natural lyric gift of certain of my peers – Gerard Van der Luen among the readers at the Shakespeare & Co. open readings in 1965, Heywood Haut at San Francisco State a couple of years later, John Gorham at Berkeley. Of the three, I’m only aware of Woody Haut ever going on to publish a book. I was turned down for the very first creative writing class for which I ever applied by Leonard Wolf, better known nowadays as Naomi’s dad. Never once in any of my classes was I ever a star student.

It may be an instance of making lemonade because I had lemons, but somewhere along the line I decided that my inherent klutziness as a writer – which continues unabated to this day – was an advantage. It forced me to think harder, work harder, ask more questions, including the dumbest & most basic, like what does it mean to capitalize at the left hand margin, how does that change everything else that happens in the line?

Andy Gricevich asks if I feel the repulsion toward Crow, for example, my first actual book, that I do towards “Youra.”¹ The answer is no, I don’t. By that point, I was actually writing, not just mimicking my elders. I can envision a volume of early works built around Crow, Mohawk, nox, the poem “Berkeley” & my Rilke translation, “Do We Know Ella Cheese?” plus a smattering of others. Actually, I’m not so certain about Mohawk, a text that was an attempt to identify a space midway between Clark Coolidge’s early work & Helmut Heissenb├╝ttel, but there are some other shaped texts from that period I’d think pretty hard about.

In 1977, Tom Mandel & I were running a reading series at the Grand Piano Coffee House on Haight Street. One of the events we sponsored was a “first poem” evening, with everybody bringing the first poem they ever wrote & reading it aloud. I can’t remember if Rae Armantrout brought the poem that was published in My Weekly Reader when she was around seven or not, but Carol Gallup had something fabulous I do recall. And we all had a wonderful time with what was mostly dreadful work. After all, what you get when you first write poetry is not poetry itself, but all of your expectations about poetry, all your received ideas & stereotypes, which may or may not be clear given your sense of your own tools at that early stage. You may not even be able to reproduce your misimpressions. Much of actually learning to write is figuring out how best to cast off those inherited ideas until what emerges is the writing itself.


¹ Gricevich identifies some of the work in Crow as going “beyond the general Robert Grenier mode of a lot of that book.” In fact, more than half of it was written before I first met Grenier, which didn’t happen until I entered a rough draft of that manuscript for the Joan Lee Yang award at Berkeley, which he was judging, and won. He later told me that he was sure I was Arthur Sze when he first saw the manuscript. So that book has less to do with his influence on my work – which has been vast – and more to do with why we hit it off when we first met.

Friday, November 04, 2005

A couple of folks, led by Kirby Olson, have suggested that I ought to talk more about my Quietist youth, and what led me to abandon that path in my writing. The idea creeps me out, which probably means that I ought to do it. But I have a limitation. Virtually all of my early work , some 11 spring binders’ worth in addition to the first twenty years of correspondence, are all housed safely in the rare books collection at UC San Diego, some 2750 miles away. One early poem I do have on hand is “Youra,” which first appeared in TriQuarterly in its spring issue, 1968. I was 21 at the time and had written the poem a year earlier. It is, I think, a worthy candidate for any “so bad it’s funny” competition:

Where the trees never dare to grow. Though I cannot know.
Where the earth begins the slow bruise
to rock.
Where the water must be free of blue.
Though I cannot know.

on the far side of love.

The public side. The side where the heart beats
slow as a march in half-time.
Youra from the distance. Thin line
of an island.
Though I cannot know.

What can a man know who lives in a room?
Some men live in the world.
Some men go in boats to Youra.
There, maybe they can feel the sea recede
at night, and know
I cannot know.

I have never seen the fence an island grows.
Where the sun is contained.
Where one talks his poems loudly to the gulls
to keep from going sane.

I have often seen the face that knows Youra.

Whatever sees into the deep that is not forest.
Whatever sees spiders, wild.
Memory of the earlier dead.

Though I cannot know for sure.

What will you do when Youra comes?

There is a note at the bottom of the page in TriQuarterly stating that Yannis Ritsos had been confirmed as being held at this island prison camp by the Greek junta that had just taken over in Athens & that there were fears that Nikos Gatsos was being held there as well. This poem appears in an issue that also includes work by John Berryman & Theodore Roethke, and a chapter of Robert Duncan’s H.D. Book that is available nowhere else (which, in fact, is why I still have this issue at hand). To render my humiliation complete, the poem was picked up and reprinted as the as the frontispiece to Gods and Heroes: A Modern American Writer Looks at the Greece of Yesterday and Today, by Herbert Kubly, published by Doubleday in 1969. With an honorarium from both TriQuarterly and Doubleday, this for a long time was my most financially successful poem. You can probably find even worse in my 1966-67 Poetry Northwest publications, as well as a Southern Review piece that is not even on my bibliography

Realistically, “Youra” might not have been so bad read for what it really was – a study of Eliot’s poem ”Marina,” from which I took the rhetoric & reiteration. Rereading Eliot today – his poem is every bit as melodramatic, pompous & silly as mine – one could even fault him, as I do myself, for writing about something he does not know (in his case, an imagined daughter). But “Marina” is also leavened with some feats of syntax that sort of rescue it, while mine has a flatness that reminds me instead that I was then also reading Jack Spicer & George Stanley really for the first time (I certainly wasn’t aware of their lurking shadows behind this text when I wrote it, tho it seems apparent enough today). That’s an interesting effect, perhaps, but I’m not sure how appropriate it is to this sort of project.

From beginning to end, including all revisions, the poem took less than an hour to write. And that, ultimately, is the big red flag over this poem & over almost all my work prior, say, to 1970. Getting work into Poetry, TriQuarterly or Southern Review may have taken more than one submission, but the poem itself virtually never took more than an hour, often less. It’s not even clear to me, in retrospect, that I would call what I was doing even writing. More exactly, I was demonstrating mimicry, the capacity to reproduce a recognizable form. That was all that was needed to get into these publications.

There were editors who did take the time to offer me constructive feedback – Iven Lourie at Chicago Review, Clifford Burke at Hollow Orange, Clayton Eshleman at Caterpillar a little later and my writing began to evolve in part as a result of their questions – I always found questions much more valuable than “suggestions.”

Now there are poems – and even poets – that I would characterize as first rate where the actual period of composition involved is often quite brief – Larry Eigner, for example. But in such circumstances the act of putting word to page seems more the tip of an iceberg, rather than representative of the entire process. That’s not a claim I could make of my poems of this period.

Not only were these poems of mine just too freakin’ easy to write, but when I did start to incorporate other influences & elements into my work, when my poetry began to become a little more complicated & ambiguous, these same publications closed up again instantly. Their commitment certainly wasn’t to me personally, nor to my writing, nor to writing itself, but rather to the reproduction of recognizable forms. As elastic & flexible as those might have seemed – Roethke & Berryman are not your standard School of Quietude types, even as both worked within that tradition – it was easy to go over the line & suddenly become persona non grata. Indeed, the instant that Henry Rago died & Daryl Hine took over Poetry in ’69, the shift away from a nonsectarian journal was as profound as the political Right hopes the Supreme Court will be once Alito joins Roberts, Scalia, Thomas et al. In the issue in which I appeared, just a few months before Rago died, Kenneth Koch, Anselm Hollo, Larry Eigner, Mitch Goodman & Hugh Seidman all appeared. One year later, I doubt if any of those folks could have been published there. And by then I had become one of “those folks” myself.



¹ Because I’d gotten rid of my contributor’s copy & no longer had a good record of the piece when I first cobbled that biblio together for Tom Beckett’s “Silliman issue” of The Difficulties. Written in 1967, Southern Review held onto it for several years before printing the poem. I recall getting a note about it from Ray Di Palma, wanting to know if I had a “secret life.”

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Philip Hobsbaum


I’m just far enough removed from reading John Ashbery’s Other Traditions for it to begin to resonate in my thinking at odd moments, for example while I take my shower in the morning, in that new & synthetic way that happens once a work starts to operate as memory rather than as present fact. The thought that has been haunting me, if that’s the operable word, is that Ashbery is trying in that book to articulate an avant-garde tradition for American poetry that is not, by definition, the Pound-Williams tradition. When I stop & think about the Allen anthology & the enormous influence The New American Poetry: 1945-1960 had on writing in the U.S. (& elsewhere), it does seem that Ashbery is one of at most five of that volume’s 44 writers operating outside of the larger Pound-Williams framework, the other four all being writers from the West Coast: Brother Antoninus (William Everson), James Broughton, Helen Adam, & Jack Spicer.

That observation instantly provokes a whole chain of caveats. First, Ashbery does acknowledge “some of” Williams more than once in Other Traditions, & I think he’s being relatively straightforward in doing so. Second, there have always been an active, successful American avant-garde outside of the Pound-Williams legacy. One can only imagine – tho the thought of it is rather amusing – what Gertrude Stein might have said had she been asked about her relationship to Williams & Pound. Third, and far more problematic, is the question of Eliot, beloved by Pound, resented by Williams, whose work & influence plays out quite differently in the U.S. & U.K. This in turn triggers another free association, a most useful note I read yesterday on Jeffrey Side’s blog, linking Seamus Heaney to the late Philip Hobsbaum’s anti-modernism, which was also, in the same moment, an anti-American & anti-speech-based poetics aesthetic. Side quotes Hobsbaum to the effect that “damage” was done in the 1930s to British writing through the influence specifically of Eliot & Pound. Thinking of Eliot as the emissary of Whitman & Williams in the U.K. may seem curious (Eliot certainly would have hated the idea), but there you have it.

This in turn gives rise to some other thoughts. One is that the School of Quietude tradition that seemed so thoroughly consolidated in the American academy in the early 1960s was hardly as monolithic as it sometimes appears in retrospect. Specifically, American universities exploded in both number & size after the Second World War, when an enormous amount of hiring was done right at the moment when New Criticism (NC) was at its height. The New Critics, who were themselves most often poets, favored two particular strains of American verse, the Boston Brahmin tradition that would coalesce in the 1950s around Robert Lowell, and the earlier agrarian tradition to which many of the NCs themselves belonged. The degree to which the New Critics were successful, if only for a time, can be gauged by how many of the new modes of poetry rose up in the 1950s in reaction to that aesthetic. Without even considering the New Americans for the moment, you have Robert Bly & his leaping surrealism, W.S. Merwin transforming from his early closed verse forms to the work of The Lice, Adrienne Rich emerging from both closet & the Brahmin cocoon in Diving Into the Wreck, and the rise of the McPoets first out of Iowa City, then through the suburban college writing programs across the country where the first generation took teaching jobs. Not coincidentally, the key element in the rise of a distinct Iowa City aesthetic can be read as the influence of W.H. Auden, who as an expat Brit operated outside of both the New Critical and Pound-William paradigms.

One might say – and reading Ashbery here can be seen as one step in that argument – that the relatively monolithic moment of the School of Quietude was only a brief blip in the history of American poetry, indeed that same 15-year span covered by the Allen anthology, and that it had been much more diverse & polyvocalic both before 1945 & in the decades since 1960. If not Ashbery’s argument, per se, then at least Ashbery’s implication would seem to be that one could trace within that broader, more diverse reading an alternative if not overtly avant-garde lineage quite apart from Williams & Pound and their joint emphasis on the role of the line in poetry.

The elimination of that emphasis, the legacy of imagism (& beyond that, of Dickinson & Whitman, the two 19th century poets whose formal innovations invariably engage the line), opens up writing not only to an increased influence from the likes, say, of Stevens & Crane (the two poets most central to Creeley, in fact, once you get past Williams & Olson), but to all manner of loners, writers whose principle relationship to a tradition is that it seems to have made them feel uneasy.

This is where, to my thinking, the resurrection of the Objectivists in the 1960s becomes a fascinating social question. Unquestionably, the Objectivists were – as they themselves recognized – the missing link between Pound & Williams and the New Americans. But they also were not so dramatically removed from certain independent poets, especially around New York, who also felt some vague kinship to the poetry of Williams, tho not to Pound & certainly not to the New Americans. I’m thinking here of Harvey Shapiro, David Ignatow & even Alan Dugan. Indeed, there is an interesting discussion to be had somewhere about the use of the line in their work & its relationship not only to a certain side of Williams (cf. “The Yachts”), but to somebody like Jimmy Schuyler who is likewise a master of what I might call soft enjambment.

However, Objectivism in the 1960s, in its third phase¹, was quite different from Objectivism in its heroic first period, when these Marxist modernists were in stark contrast not only with other modernists because of their politics, but also other Marxists because of their modernist aesthetics. Indeed, if one looks at a representative issue of San Francisco Review, a journal funded by Oppen’s sister, June Degnan, in part to promote her brother’s work², one notes a careful blend of New Americans, older modernists, & even Quietists, but specifically those who favored a “plain spoken” & “direct” style that jibed well with Oppen’s neo-imagist mode: Jack Anderson, Diane Wakoski, Judson Jerome, William Stafford, Patricia Goedicke, Curtis Zahn, Bern Porter, Thomas McGrath, James Schevill, Lew Welch, Walter Lowenfels, Lewis Turco, George Hitchcock, George Abbe, Cynthia Ozick, and of course Oppen himself. Eleven Oppen poems were published in Poetry – this was during Henry Rago’s editorial reign – while "Bahamas” first appeared in the New Yorker.

I’ve written before of how the Berkeley Renaissance – the work done by Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser & Jack Spicer, prior to, say, 1952 – can be read as an instance of modernism that looks to Yeats, not Pound, as its figure for the modernist venture. (And similarly, I’ve written of how one can read someone like the Canadian Louis Dudek as an instance of how such poetry might have evolved had it not run headfirst into the 6’9” presence of one Charles Olson.) If one looks also at the work of those other West Coast poets operating outside of the Pound- Williams paradigm in the Allen anthology – Everson, Broughton & Adams – you can see vestiges of it there as well. Ashbery’s model, which he consciously pluralizes as Other Traditions, is different primarily in that it is not western, but the vein he is tapping – in Laura Riding, John Wheelwright & David Schubert in particular – is not particularly at odds with these western neo-romantics, nor with some others outside the Allen anthology, like the two Kenneths, Rexroth & Patchen. Plus of course Everson's model, Robinson Jeffers. It also makes it possible – easier, certainly – to see all the ways in which some others in the Allen collection – Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Philip Lamantia, Gregory Corso, Edward Field, Madeline Gleason – can be read as easily outside of the larger paradigm as they can within it.

Ashbery’s gesture thus is a complicating one, casting new shadows because it reveals new depths. And this is what I think about, standing there in the shower.


¹ Phase one being 1930s period when the literary phenomenon – it’s not quite accurate to call it a movement – first coalesced & its major practitioners were all active publishing; phase two being the 1940s & much of the ‘50s, when many of the Objectivists had stopped publishing &, in some cases, stopped writing altogether.

² Oppen’s first two books with New Directions, The Materials & This in Which, were co-published by San Francisco Review, which is to say that June Degnan funded them & James Laughlin did the work.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

A Vocabulary Gatha for Peter Rose


I once took a job with a weekly newspaper in San Francisco just to get my hands on their review copy of Jackson Mac Low’s Stanzas for Iris Lezak. Jackson’s first big book & the first great work of procedural poetry to be published in America, Stanzas was/is an epochal event. It wasn’t the last work by Mac Low to have that impact. One can scroll through a Mac Low bibliography with one’s mouth agape at all the major books that have had a huge impact on American (indeed, world) poetry & the performance arts, mouth agape also at just how very different each one is. There has never been an English language poet – not even Gertrude Stein, who comes closest – who ever had this many sides, nor did this many things so very well.

Now Granary Books has published Doings, offering us yet another major Jackson Mac Low. It is one of the most ephemeral, yet most important, of all his facets, that of performance artist. Arranged chronologically, from the 1955 “21.21.29., the 5th biblical poem (for 3 simultaneous voices) the first biblical play” to the 2002 “Gatha in C for Theresa Salomon,” Doings chronicles the progress of Mac Low’s work for live & recorded performance. At 266 7.5” by 10.5” pages, it’s a production on the scale of a largish art book & the nature of many of these scores – there are five gate-fold pull-outs, for example – makes it every bit as complicated a project. In addition, there is a 60-minute CD (or CD/MP3 is more like it) that offers recordings of 15 pieces, ranging from the vocal performances to Theresa Salomon’s exquisite violin realization of that last project. If this publication has any limitation, it is only that the press run is just 1,000 copies. That has implications not only for the price – it’s a $50 paperback, tho cheap for the value – but for the distribution also. A lot more than 1,000 readers are going to want this book – indeed, a lot more than 1,000 poets are going to need this book. Within six months, any poetry library that doesn’t have this book can be dismissed as not serious.

One aspect I find fascinating, reading through – and like an art book, this isn’t so much a volume one reads as it is one “reads in” – Doings, listening to the CD, is that performance represents the most joyous side of Mac Low’s work – Doings is a bright, sunny, optimistic volume, not something one always gets in reading Mac Low’s more text-centric works, which could brood on the fate of the planet. It’s as if the insertion of voice – or is it sound, as such? – causes the work itself to connect with what Yoda would call the life force implicit whenever air vibrates, on a string or in the hollows of a flute, or within the human throat.

Mac Low, of course, has his influences & they range from his classical music training as a boy in Chicago, the heritage of sound poetry itself from Hugo Ball & the Russian Futurists onward to different modes of Buddhist vocal practice & the old testament tradition of Judaism. Yet I don’t think, if one were given these various legacies as a project & told “go make something out of all this & have it make sense,” that anyone could have predicted just how Jackson Mac Low would have fit these things one into another. Today, having seen, read, or heard so many of these performances over the years, it seems so very obvious – but it’s worth keeping in mind that it was Jackson that made it so. And that persistent thread that runs through it all, lively, all-questioning, brash & humble simultaneously, filled with humor & still utterly serious – read those instructions, there is not one instance of sloppiness or touchy-feely flab in them – that thread is the presence of Jackson Mac Low himself.

Mac Low worked on this project before he died, seeing & approving every step right through the final proofs. Like many others, I felt devastated when he passed on December 8 last year. This book is so completely like having him back in the room again that it’s spooky. And that really is the magic of Doings.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Edward R. Murrow

To this day, I think of Dog Day Afternoon as the apotheosis of fact-based drama. Director Sidney Lumet so completely recreates the few minutes of street theater that were caught on national TV during Sonny Wortzik’s bungled bank heist – Sonny literally dancing around the sidewalk chanting “Attica! Attica!” to the thousands of curious onlookers as his partner held patrons & employees inside at gunpoint – in 1972 that to see it play on the big screen just three years later with Al Pacino as Sonny (with John Cazale, the hapless brother Fredo from the Godfather trilogy, as his sidekick¹) enabled Lumet to unveil an unsuspected – & in 1975 all-but-unimaginable – back story that is the real heart of the movie’s transgender love story.

That, of course, is the secret of fact-based drama: get the few details that the audience can identify right & you have permission to take your story anywhere. Patty Jenkins, in her 2003 Charlize Theron vehicle, Monster, works from the same premise, knowing this case that her audience will mostly have seen prostitute-turned-serial killer Aileen Wournos from her courtroom photographs, clad in an orange jumpsuit, bad teeth, bad skin, bad attitude, or from her subsequent death house interviews that have fueled the cable crime channels gleeful to have a female serial killer to profile. At 5’9”-plus, the South African model Theron is a far cry from the stockier Wournos, but 30 pounds & contemporary makeup artists can work amazing transformations. Theron’s Wournos is a hulking wreck of rage, having been raped more or less continuously from the age of eight onward, a mother & hooker both at the age of 13, so raw with hurt & fury that hardly anyone can get close until she runs into a young lesbian by the name of Selby, played by Christina Ricci as a dependant pliable wounded puppy with just a touch of Addams Family creepiness. Jenkins steers away from many of Wournos’ wilder claims², giving us just enough to sense the thrashing, psychologically caged woman underneath.

Jenkins follows Lumet in transforming the crime spree into a love story, in fact making it at least partly a consequence of the affair between Aileen & Selby. Yet “Selby” is Jenkins’ fictional version of Wournos’ real-life partner with whom Wournos had been involved for several years before the first killing. So that while Jenkins goes to great lengths to recreate settings, for example, holding the arrest scene in the same Harbor Oaks bar where it occurred (the real-life bartender is an extra in the film), the actual arc of the affair & its relationship to the killings is strictly speculative. It’s a movie, tho a powerful & sad one, much of whose dynamism is governed by an economy of fear, Aileen’s fear of everyone & our fear of the events & a conclusion we already know before setting foot in the theater.

Another fact-based drama making the rounds right now that also uses fear – or at least suspense – as a governor of narrative motion is George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck, the recreation of a series of See It Now broadcasts by Edward R. Murrow in 1953, pitting Murrow & his immediate boss, Fred Friendly, against Senator Joe McCarthy, the alcoholic senator from Wisconsin who poster boy for irresponsible rightwing character assassination long before Scooter Libby showed up. This is Clooney’s second film as director & his second “fact-based drama,” if Chuck Barris’ memoirs of life as a Gong Show host by day, CIA assassin by night (the crux of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) are to be believed. Like Confessions, Good Night is a motion picture at least partly about television. Clooney himself is the son of a television newscaster turned (less than successful) politician, & the apple, as they say, has not fallen far.

Clooney has a problem tho. Something that happened 52 years ago is not going to be remembered by anybody under the age of 65, if that. Clooney also has an advantage that neither Jenkins or Lumet had – his story took place to a much larger extent on TV than either the bank robbery or Wournos’ killings (indeed, her trial itself largely preceded the days of Court TV). The amount of archival footage available is a lot & Clooney uses so much of it that it’s not impossible that the late Senator McCarthy might himself get a supporting actor nomination for his representation of unrelieved villainy. I can’t think of a major motion picture, outside of the documentary category itself, that has ever made this much use of the real footage. Not only do we get McCarthy & other members of the US Senate sparring, but one sequence shows David Strathairn as Murrow – like Theron, appearing taller than the original – interviewing the real (but late) Liberace, asking coy questions about would he like to get married.³ In addition to the footage, many of Murrow’s statements at banquets & over the air are themselves available to the public, reducing “original” text to something like maybe 40 percent of the film.

One of the most interesting elements of the film, in fact, is the language. It is impossible to imagine any broadcaster today with the scope of vocabulary & love of complex syntax that flows forth from Murrow in his public statements. Indeed his private dialog, at least in the hands of screenwriter Grant Heslov, tends toward the taciturn. More than one scene ends with another character looking to Murrow for comment, only to get a silent drag on a cigarette in response.

As a whole, Good Night is a spare production, predominantly talking heads (& often talking heads editorializing, as such). At one level, it sounds like an infomercial for the American Civil Liberties Union – and that’s not accidental. At another, Murrow’s analysis of McCarthy’s tactics is spot on. And in the process, what Clooney (not Murrow) is doing is telling us how to listen to the likes of Bill O’Reilly, to separate out allegation & innuendo from documentable fact.* The narrative around the talking heads reveals some of the human cost of such actions.

The overall film feels much shorter than its 93 minutes – Clooney’s pacing echoes television’s short attention span. In black & white, it’s also a very male film, with only Patricia Clarkson having a role of any size at all – the exact opposite of Monster, in which Bruce Dern has the one serious male spot. In fact, one of Good Night’s weaknesses, I think, is that it doesn’t do nearly enough with the superb supporting cast that have been assembled for this project. When Robert Downey, Jr., one of the most gifted character actors now going, is restrained to a half dozen lines & otherwise squinting through the cigarette smoke, you’re leaving the best batter on the bench.

There is, of course, a degree of fiction in this film as well as Monster or Dog Day Afternoon. Unless you understand the importance of the Army-McCarthy hearings, you won’t really understand that it was the Army & Dwight D. Eisenhower who ultimately brought McCarthy down, not TV newscasters. McCarthy, in attacking the army in his ongoing witch-hunt for reds, was taking on not just a major institution, but one that the sitting president, the head of McCarthy’s own party, felt more loyal to than he did to the GOP.

At one level, Good Night is the most factual of any of these films, since so much of it is the original footage. On the other, it is also a parable about what happens to a society when witch hunts are afoot and institutions of power are willing to sidestep the constitution in the name of combating an enemy that is ill-defined at best. Dog Day & Monster use facts to offer us back stories of love under difficult circumstances. Good Night wants us to look not at anyone’s psyche – this is the least psychological picture imaginable – but at the consequences of words, power, capital & media, both then & now.


¹ Cazale made exactly five motion pictures in his brief career before dying of cancer at the age of 43 – the first two Godfather films, The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola’s best motion picture), Dog Day Afternoon & The Deer Hunter.

² Having had sex with a quarter million johns, for one.

³ Liberace’s answer, which goes by so fast that hardly anybody in the 1953 audience would have caught it, sounds at first like the flamboyant pianist is thinking of Princess Margaret when in fact he says he hopes, like her, someday to find the right man.

* Consider how, in his most recent op-ed submission to the LA Times, Bill O’Reilly manages to associate Gary Trudeau with Joseph Goebbels, characterizing Trudeau’s treatment of Doonesbury character B.D.’s loss of a leg in Iraq as “attempting to sap the morale of Americans.”