To You I Bring Cat Ballou

My dear old uncle Dave of Vermont recommended I add Cat Ballou to my film list. “Two Lee Marvins,” he said, “you can’t beat that.” I had only heard of Lee Marvin from his mentions in Terantino films, so I expected him to play a gun-slinging hardass like Mr. White, or the outlaw Josie Wales. While Lee Marvin’s character, Kid Sheleen, does play a gun slinger, “hard” is not the ass prefix I’d ascribe to him.

Drunkass. Slackass. Oldass. Those would work. This hokey, folksy film leans heavily on Marvin’s slapstick and alcohol abuse, as well as a pair of folk musicians–Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaybe–who pop up from time to time turning the narrative into song and creating, in real time, the American legend of Cat Ballou. It’s fun to find Nat King Cole, young and trim, waiting behind every scene with a banjo or sitting at a piano.

Thoughts on Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes

Finally, a film set almost exclusively on a train. From the opening scene showing a set of trains snowed in on some mountain clime, we know we’re in for some high railroad drama. We also get to see the fine dining available on the train for these wealthy Europeans, their cozy sleeping cars and aisles much wider than a bus’s or an airplanes’.

The movie starts in the fictional country of Bandrika, somewhere in the Alps between Germany, Italy, and France. Avalanches are common in this country, and the frazzled manager of the hotel where an eclectic crowd of visitors must stay and wait for the tracks to clear says, “even the trains disappear under the avalanche.”

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The Last Hiking Book, I Swear

Outside the English building on FSU’s campus there is a hot dog stand where I would often go between classes for a cup of coffee. One day when I walked up and the girl working there was reading a book by Bill Bryson. “Do you like Bill Bryson?” I asked.

“He’s pretty entertaining,” she said, plugging the coffee capsule into the Keurig.

“I read A Walk in the Woods, where he hikes the Appalachian Trail, and really enjoyed it.” I was only telling half of the truth–I had only read half of the book.

“Yeah,” she said, cocking her head, “but he didn’t even finish the trail.”

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Travels with Steinbeck

Who's my blue dog?After reading two frenetic, romantic Kerouac novels (On the Road and Dharma Bums) in a short time, picking up John Steinbeck‘s Travels with Charley was like a breath of fresh air. No more sententious philosophizing, no more blurriness between fact and fiction, Steinbeck presents himself as simply an aging man with a big blue poodle named Charley, a camper truck, and a desire to look for America.

However, that doesn’t mean the book lacks meditations; just that Steinbeck tends to meditate outward, on the nature of travel, on a changing America, on regional differences that together define America, rather than the inward-looking Kerouac. Some of Steinbeck’s meditations are so insightful, so lucid, I found myself putting down the book, staring off into space and saying to myself, “That’s why he’s Steinbeck.” He makes travel writing look easy.

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DeVito Throws Hitchcock from the Train

Last month, I wrote a blurb about Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. It’s a great film. So when I realized Danny DeVito’s Throw Momma from the Train was an adaptation, I got excited. But it’s apparent from the start of Throw Momma that the plot isn’t a copy of the original. And that’s okay. It’s different and good.

Danny DeVito’s character, Owen, is in Billy Crystal’s character, Larry’s, creative writing night class for adults, and Owen can’t seem to grasp the concept of “motive.” Going through his own difficulties after his ex-wife stole his novel and is making millions off of it, Larry won’t lie to Owen and tell him his writing’s any good. Seeking approval or explanation, Owen calls Larry at all hours and stalks him to all kinds of absurd places like a small-scale train in a park at night where Larry admits he wants to kill his ex and, just as he’s about to get to third base with his current love interest, hears the crunch of Owen’s popcorn two cars down.

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The Dharma Bums Initiative

That's what my copy looks like.

Although I didn’t originally intend to read Dharma Bums in preparation for this trip, after I finished On the Road, I needed more Kerouac. I felt that delving further into Kerouac’s tales of beatnik debauchery would put me more in touch with that 15-year-old me, vegetarian, trying to grow dreadlocks, embracing The Grateful Dead and The Big Lebowski, choosing every alternative to the straight and narrow.

Now, that’s not to say I was a bad kid. I was too afraid of punishment to commit felonies or fall into hard drugs. I went to school and got decent grades just to keep the attention off. But internally I resented authority and wanted to rebel. I held the beats, and the hippies, on a pedestal. I read Desolation Angels, where Kerouac sits alone on a mountaintop a couple seasons as a fire lookout, and copied his poetry, meditations, and incantations to notecards, thinking I’d put them to music.

Or maybe I just like the way Kerouac writes.

Or maybe it’s because my alma mater, Rollins College, shares the original manuscript with the Kerouac House in the College Park area of Orlando, where Kerouac wrote the novel and later died.

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The Wild Success of Wild

Check out my book review.

Seeing all the wildly positive (see what I did there?) reviews about this book, and feeling the need to represent the female gender in my reading list, I decided to read Cheryl Strayed‘s Wild. In fact, I got a review copy through The Southeast Review so I could write my own review of the book and, yes, it was wildly positive. I’ll link to it here in the future if the SER editors choose to use it. Hell, the book single-handedly inspired Oprah to resurrect her book club.

Cheryl Strayed is also known as advice columnist Dear Sugar, and this is her advice.

If SER Online doesn’t use it, well then I got a credit hour out of it anyway, and I got to see how one writer can write so concretely about emotion and experience while simultaneously rendering the trials and figures of her journey into metaphors about her own coming of age.

Wild is the story of a 26-year-old woman who retreats to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from the Mexican to the Canadian border, to grapple with the hardships of her life. But it’s about much more than that.

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Yeah I watched Boxcar Bertha…

…’cuz it was on top of the rack when I went to the library.

This 1972 Scorsese film is loosely based on a true story about a group of union members and sympathizers who for a time make life hell for railroad tycoons. Strong-armed out of their union rights, Bertha and the man she loves, a union organizer, as well as a escaped convict black man and a fourth man of ambiguous southeast European descent,

No I didn't watch it in Japanese.

take up their guns and force the wealthy railroad families to share the goods. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before the law catches up to them, but the gang of four show the desperate, even suicidal, attitude the lower class must take when thrown in front of omnipotent and suffocating wealth.

As you can see on this cover, the film ends with a crucifixion. I must believe, since this is a loose adaptation, that the final scene was a fabrication–it put the “fiction” in “crucifiction,” if you will. But damn, what a way to go. Railroad spikes driven through your wrists and ankles, hanging from the sunset limited and headed to that special place God put aside for those who kill the rich to replenish the poor.

Idiot Abroad: That’s Not My Voice

"I'm cold," Karl whimpered. "I'm cold."

On Idiot Abroad, the producers, including Ricky Gervais, give their lead character, idiot Karl, who’s really not so dumb, a bucket list of exciting options. Each week he chooses from the list. This week, he chooses “whale watching.” However, those two words don’t come close to conveying the litany of trials and ancillary activities for our hero to endure before he reaches his goal. The show’s logic flows like this: Karl wants to go whale watching. That happens in Alaska. What do we know about Alaska? Ice road truckers. Polar bears. Eskimo. Snow, ice, and mountains. Karl’s whale watching must involve all of these things, too.

Soon enough, Karl finds himself slogging for nine hours through five-foot deep snow guided by an Alaskan who giggles each time Karl falls over and patronizes him by saying “awesome” when Karl can keep his skis straight enough to slide 10 feet down a slope. Continue reading

The Homosocial Bromance of Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Look at the sparks flying between these two.

I have a confession to make. When I called Planes, Trains and Automobiles the best film ever in the introduction to my Haney on the Train promotional video, I hadn’t seen the movie in years, if ever. But hey, I was aiming for irony, and you can at least assume any film staring John Candy will be up there in the pantheon. And I knew how it ended, with John Candy coming home with Steve Martin for Thanksgiving, but when I popped in the DVD the other night and watched how they got to that point, John Candy’s gaffs and one-liners along with Steve Martin’s expressions and explosions, left me in a lump of giggles there on the living-room floor.

For one, the film is a total bromance. Candy and Martin – Dell and Neal – bumble into each other in a series of fortuitous encounters brought on by plane-grounding snowfall. The New York on which the movie opens is a manic free-for-all of business suits trying to hail taxis beneath skyscrapers. Neal, with a flight to catch, finally secures a cab but Dell slips in and speeds away, initiating a tension that ratchets up as the impossibility of getting home to Chicago forces the two to sleep in the same hotel bed that night. They wake up spooning, Dell with his arms folded around Neal and Neal holding Dell’s hand. Like true homosocialists, the two men erupt out of bed shaking off their willies and changing the subject to football. Continue reading

Thoughts on Robin Hemley’s A Field Guide to Immersion Writing

The nonfiction genre is a contentious battleground where authors, critics, and audiences wield fact and fabrication, truth and exaggeration, to make claims upon the hazy territory between literary style and subservience to what happened. I witnessed a battle such as this in March at AWP in Chicago (faithfully depicted here), where I also saw, at a different panel, Robin Hemley speak about honesty and persona in nonfiction. While a piece of writing can never flesh a person in her entirety, Hemley claimed, a successful piece must always employ a coherent persona: the combo of  voice, perspective, cultural background and experience. Honesty falls in service to this persona; not that a successful piece lacks honesty, but that it creates a seeming honesty for the reader that maintains itself over time.

At least that’s what I got from his talk.

With all these evolving expectations and tricky guidelines, I figured I’d better stay updated on the crafts and techniques of the genre I’ll be writing in for Haney on the Train. Thankfully, Robin Hemley just this year published A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel. (That plus I’m a writing craft book junkie—I even taught a freshman writing course last year called Writing About the Craft). What’s Immersion Writing, you ask? It’s a subset of nonfiction writing where the author immerses himself in his subject, employing the first-person point of view and even turning the lens back on himself at times to lend intimacy to the story. I think of immersion writing as what New Journalism, practiced by writers such as Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, and Tom Wolfe, has evolved into. Readers should always know where the writer stands in relation to his subject. Continue reading

Revisiting On the Road

This past April I read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road for at least the second time in my life. Like Sal and Dean’s sojourns across America, some complete, some derailed, some half-starts and some hardly remembered at all, it’s hard to say exactly how many times I’ve delved into this novel. Even my copy is frayed and yellowed, coffee-stained and missing both the front and back covers. The narrative inside, however, spoke to me first as an impressionable early teen and influenced my shaky relationship with conventionality and authority. And I’m sure, from somewhere in the chasms of my subconscious, that first reading of On the Road helped me conceive Haney on the Train.

We now regard OtR as the definitive novel for the Beat movement of the American 50s. Kerouac, if working in today’s market, may have done better to publish OtR under the heading of nonfiction (he may have sold more copies), but converting and expanding his experiences into the novel form allowed him to elaborate and condense, forget, remember, and forget to remember the capital-T Truths of his experiences. Though we can never know which details are true and which are fabricated in Kerouac’s aggrandizement, relaying these pilgrimages across the highways of America in the fiction genre allows him to conjure up a new hero for the 1950s counter-culture, Dean Morrearty, “who had the tremendous energy of a new kind of American saint” (39). Though reality can indeed be stranger than fiction, Kerouac’s fictionalization of reality serves to beatify his main character and elevate Dean to the proper proportions for an American folk hero—the unassailable journeyman clutching to his liberty and searching always for a home that doesn’t exist. Continue reading

Thoughts on Strangers on a Train

Up until the other night, I had never watched an Alfred Hitchcock film all the way through. But the lists I found of the top films featuring trains consistently put 1951’s Strangers on a Train near the top, and since it was the only highly ranked train film available in the main branch of the Leon County library, I checked that sucker out.

To be fair, the movie didn’t feature trains all that much except for the long opening scene where Guy Hanes, a well-known, amateur tennis player, meets Bruno, a charismatic, murderous psychopath, and they make their tacit agreement to criss-cross applesauce murder each others’ problematic loved ones: Guy’s current wife who’s pregnant with another man’s child, and Bruno’s father who wants his son locked up. Thing is that tacit agreement happens only in Bruno’s mind as he fingers the lighter Guy, who thinks the arrangement a morbid joke, leaves behind in the train car. Continue reading