Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Butchertown Chronicles: "Savage Peace" by Ann Hagedorn

For research into my next novel, Butchertown, I recently read Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919 by Ann Hagedorn. It’s an often exciting and moving book about America during the year after World War I ended, when American troops returned to an even more turbulent country than the one they left barely two years before.

In this book, “Savage” hardly begins to describe what happened. If you think things are bad now, take a trip through the year 1919. You’ll need a stout heart for the journey.

Savage Peace is part of the genre that relates the events of a single year. (1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus is another example of this approach.) Judging from this, the first in this specialized genre I’ve read, this may not an optimum approach.

I found at least three or four great books jostling for attention here, all of them told passionately and compellingly. One is about Uncle Sam’s war on dissent against his wars. World War I set the United States on the road to becoming the global power that it remains today. This “success” (I use the term gingerly), also seemed to stoke native fear and paranoia to unprecedented and alarming ferocity.

Once the war was over, the United States seemed to turn its war fever inward, like an auto-immune disease. With no more dirty Huns to fight, the country declared war on itself, especially its more foreign-seeming elements, political leftists and radicals, especially those who were immigrants, such as Emma Goldman and a remarkable little spitfire named Mollie Steimer.

Even stalwart liberal patriots such as poet Carl Sandburg found themselves behind bars. The Bolshies weren’t just hiding under the bed—they had woven themselves into the mattress to set it afire. The government even set private organizations loose on the populace.

Unions, naturally, were also targeted. Wages were suppressed during the war years of 1914 to 1918, and neither unions nor workers had much appetite for thwarting the war effort with wage hikes and other demands. Once the war ended though, the manufacturers were content to go on paying crap wages for crap hours. Massive strikes ensued, which were put down with sometimes murderous ferocity.

To be sure, there were some reasons for alarm: Fire-bombing anarchists were in their heyday then and even autocrat Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer deserves a measure of sympathy after his house was bombed with him and his family inside. But these crimes were committed by tiny groups of gamy crackpots and dunderheads who did a better job of hoisting themselves on their own petards. They had no credible or reliable links to more serious, high-profile radicals, all of whom were well-aware of the damage that violence could do to their cause.

But, of course, that’s much too much nuance for the radicals on the right, especially since many of them held, or were about to grab hold of, the levers of power, among them one J. Edgar Hoover. It’s so much easier, so much simpler, to declare all your opponents enemies of the state and life and throw ‘em in the nearest pokey. Thinking things through is not a characteristic of the radical mind, no matter its compass bearings.

When that mindset achieves power, the results can be disastrous, as they were here: resources wasted, thousands of lives ruined and America’s nervous slump into an armed quasi-dictatorial camp that would have made Mussolini and Stalin dance a two-step. The bloody Bolshie revolution that the government and its many supporters swore again and again was going to happen RIGHT NOW OR TOMORROW WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE! never happened . . . nope, not even close . . . though plenty of other bad things did.

The second great book cramming Savage Peace follows the continued rise of the civil rights movement. The movement had been on an upswing ever since the release of D.W. Griffith’s racist classic film “The Birth of the Nation.” During World War I, black troops served with great distinction, but only the French Army could be bothered to award them medals.

When black soldiers returned home, though, they were not greeted as heroes, but as ominous threats to white privilege and supremacy. Practically any black soldier who dared to wear his uniform in public risked a fiendish and horrific death at the hands of white mobs, crimes that were evil through and through. The sadism of these assaults is mind-boggling and stomach churning.

Most poignant of all is a very strange, sad tale of white Mabel Emmeline Puffer and black Arthur Garfield Hazzard, two people who did what then seemed unimaginable: fall in love and get married. This is real tragic history that even turns “Romeo and Juliet” a little pale.

The third great book lies in a curious incident, a side war, most people have forgotten and relatively few knew of at the time: An American attempt to invade the Soviet Union and stop the Bolshevik revolution (not a bad motive, considering the horrors that befell Soviet Russia and its satellites). A definite case of “a bridge too far,” the war was almost hilarious in its fruitlessness and ineptitude, but for the suffering incurred and the damage it did to American foreign policy interests and prestige.

Along with Woodrow Wilson’s strenuous, but failing efforts to bring a lasting peace in Europe, any one of the above stories would make a terrific book on its own. But author Hagedorn’s panoramic ambitions strains to cover more bases than necessary: brief chapters on the scientific confirmation of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity; the first transatlantic flights, even the creation of pulp hero Zorro. All wonders worth writing about, but these are sidebars to the stories that truly engage Hagedorn and the reader. The result is a sometimes disconnected mishmash that pulls you in one chapter, then pushes you away the next, then finally trails away in a series of postscripts.

The limitations of this approach seem obvious. Hagedorn appears to have started out wanting to cover everything that happened in America in 1919, to weave some sort of epic tapestry, such as might be written by Robert K. Massie. In that, she doesn’t succeed. I doubt anyone could, not in one single year. The stories within are too sprawling and continue even now. The calendar just gets in the way of history.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Now Playing in Your Living Room: The Master


The Master, the acclaimed Paul Thomas Anderson film (newly available on DVD), stoked my gray cells without really stoking my enthusiasm when I saw it last Fall. I admired the movie but didn’t embrace it. You may also feel gnawed by dissatisfaction, but this movie is certainly worth your time.

The Master opens ominously: a 70 MM close-up of Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) peering warily out from under his marine helmet, tightly framed top and bottom by two horizontal slabs of ship’s steel. He looks like a man under siege, from within and without.

Freddy is a World War II Marine veteran battered by at least two types of trauma—the battlefield kind (which we don’t see) and the bootleg gin kind created by his own special distillation, made with fusil oil (which we see plenty of). There may be more, but clearly Freddy is so damaged that he seems trapped in a curdling hallucination. He’s like a tangled poisoned tree root, stunted, and twisted. His point of view is dangerously unreliable.

Freddy is so freakish, even other misfits shun him. Alone in the world, he drifts along like an adrift undersea mine, rising to explode the second it’s bumped by a sleepy passing ship.

But Freddy doesn’t remain alone forever. Freddy finds a direction of sorts when he stows away on a luxury yacht and from there, falls under the snaky, avuncular spell of Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffmann). There’s something folkloric about this first encounter: As Freddy enters Dodd’s life, Dodd enters Freddy’s mind, like a wizard making magic. Dodd’s world is a spider’s trap.

Freddy finds direction, but it’s Dodd direction, given by a man who loves control. Freddy’s vulnerability allows Dodd to mold and seduce him into one of his most trusted associates. Dodd’s point of view is even more unreliable than Freddy’s. That’s because Dodd is a con man, the self-styled visionary founder of a cult known as The Cause. (Its echoes of Scientology I leave to other hands.)

The Master follows the troubled love story of this odd male couple, acolyte and master, over several years, as one struggles to find meaning and stability and the other calmly, deliberately uses him to seek power wherever he can find it.

The Master plays in a low-key rumbling clandestine key (helped by Jonny Greenwood’s excellent score). I have never seen what amounts to a character study presented on the oceanic canvas of 70MM, a ratio usually associated with Lawrence of Arabia, Ben-Hur, and other grand old-style Hollywood epics. It was like seeing Grant Wood’s American Gothic displayed on an IMAX screen. Blowing it up seemed to water down the drama. The small screen may be a more suitable venue for The Master.

When I saw it, the movie’s drama felt muffled and distant. It swells with threats that rarely break the surface, except for frantic bouts of violence. It sometimes angers never grabs and shocks, despite the superb work of Phillip Seymour Hoffman and the strenuous efforts of Joaquin Phoenix. I share the view of some other reviewers on this—a little heavy on the acting, though I found Phoenix’s concave posture throughout memorably painful. I hope he had a good chiropractor handy.

Freddy beats hell out of any poor fool who questions the Master, but even when faced with Dodd’s perfidy, he never really rebels, not even when Dodd gets them both thrown in jail—the most explosive sequence—nor when Freddie is taking Dodd’s portrait photo. (Trouble here is foreshadowed early on, when Freddie, working as a department store portrait photographer, attacks a customer who bears an odd resemblance to Dodd)

Freddy’s rebellion finally takes passive-aggressive form when he steals Dodd’s motorcycle and vanishes over the desert horizon. Years pass before we find him asleep in a movie theater (showing a Casper the Ghost cartoon), dreaming that Dodd has called him on the phone to ask Freddy to rejoin him in England. Freddy follows his dream, only to find that Dodd (and the other cult members, including co-leader Amy Adams) want nothing more to do with him. Freddy is too weird and unsettling, even for cultists.

The film ends on a peculiar upbeat note. Even Freddy, it seems, is beyond Dodd’s quest for absolute control. In the end, all that Freddy needed was to get laid. The film ends with two contrasting images—Freddy in bed with a barroom wench and a flashback to his days on leave on a World War II beach, lying beside the grotesque image of a woman built of beach sand, the only kind of woman this oddball has been able to relate to. Real sex with a real woman brings him both a little freedom and a little intimacy, probably as much as his fragile soul can handle.

The Master has a studied, detached, sometimes dolorous, air, similar actually to Lawrence, which occasionally sees its hero through the same distant lens, finding him wanting. Portents arise but ever arrive. In one episode, Dodd drags Freddy to an abandoned desert mine to retrieve Dodd’s terribly top-secret life’s work. Both of them are armed like Old West gunfighters. I slid to the edge of my seat, expecting a hapless hiker to fatally stumble on the two of them. I don’t know if Dodd would have killed a passing stranger, but Freddy would have. The whole film tends to drive around moments like these. It promises, then and boldly delivers something else, though it may not always be compelling.

Nowhere was this detachment more apparent than in the punishment exercise, where Dodd forces Freddie through a humiliating series of exercises, among them scampering like a whipped puppy endlessly back and forth. We see Freddie through Dodd’s eyes as he stands to one side, intently taking notes, like a scientist watching a lab rat. It’s reasonable to say that Dodd is honing his techniques for future converts to his confidence game.

And Lancaster is first and foremost a con man, one who plays a lifelong con. Whether the con man actually believes what he says (unlike true religious leaders who will sacrifice their comforts and even their lives) is disputed among crime experts, Dodd has conjured the perfect con for this own needs, namely power, power achieved through forming a cult, closed off from the rest of the world, walled in by a poisonous combination of fake mystique and impervious circular reason, all tightly centered on, and controlled on, by the Master.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.