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Friday, September 27, 2019

Mungo Man: What a 42,000 Year Old Skeleton Says about the Current State of Culture

University of Melbourne 

In its September, 2019 issue, Smithsonian magazine published a celebratory article about the reburial of a 42,000 year old skeleton named Mungo Man. Smithsonian is the fifty-year-old official journal of the Smithsonian Institution. The Institution itself is often referred to, lovingly, as "The Nation's Attic," housing, as it does, Dorothy's Ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, Archie Bunker's comfy chair from All in the Family, as well as the Enola Gay, the Hope Diamond, and "The Nation's Tyrannosaurus Rex."

The logo of the Smithsonian is a bright yellow sun shining, unimpeded by any cloud, in a blazing blue sky. Clearly this logo represents Enlightenment concepts of the untrammeled search for truth through disciplined scholarship. James Smithson (1765-1829) was an English chemist and mineralogist who never visited the United States. It was his will that established the Smithsonian. Smithson bequeathed his fortune to an institution bearing his name and dedicated to "the increase and diffusion of knowledge." Today, the Smithsonian is funded by taxpayer dollars. "Federal appropriations cover about 70 cents of every dollar needed by the Smithsonian."

In its September, 2019 coverage, Smithsonian magazine points out that Australian geologist Jim Bowler found Mungo Man on the dry remains of Mungo Lake in New South Wales, Australia, in 1974. This skeleton rewrote history. It is one of the best preserved ancient skeletons ever found. Scientists knew the man's age, about fifty, his height, 6'5", and that he had arthritis in his right elbow from throwing a spear. His teeth were worn to the pulp, and at a distinctive slant, perhaps from stripping reeds for twine. Mungo Man remains had been laid out in what appeared to be a ceremonial manner, his interlocking fingers placed over his groin, a fire nearby, and red ocher sprinkled over the corpse. This is one of the oldest ceremonial burials ever found. Mungo Man is further significant in that his age pushes back the length of time humans have lived in Australia, and also pushes back the time period when modern humans left Africa. Mungo Lady, similarly ancient, was discovered in 1969. Archaeologists say that Mungo Lady was cremated, after which her bones were crushed, burned again, and then buried. This is the oldest known cremation.

Scientists cannot claim that they have gathered all the knowledge that Mungo Man or Mungo Lady have to offer. As impressive as today's techniques are, it is inevitable that the future will produce new ones. For example, in 1928 Australian polymath Norman Tindale and Harvard anthropologist Joseph Birdsell began collecting Aboriginal hair samples. They could have had no idea that in April, 2017, those very hair samples would result in a Nature article verifying, through DNA analysis of their decades-old hair samples, that Aborigines have been in Australia for over 50,000 years. DNA analysis did not exist when Tindal and Birdsell began their collection.

One might think that Smithsonian magazine would champion the science that explicated Mungo Man and Lady, and challenge the politics that resulted in their reburial. One would be wrong. Smithsonian's coverage of this reburial pits big, bad, cold, racist, anti-earth white man science in a jousting match against pure, peaceful, earthy Aboriginal spirituality. Aboriginal spirituality is romanticized and exoticized. Science is demonized as the tool of racist imperialists. Science is also denigrated as deficient in its ability to arrive at the truth.

Smithsonian's coverage depicts the denial of science as compassionate to Aborigines. In fact this approach does no favor to the Aborigines, one of the most unfortunate populations on earth. It imprisons Aborigines in a fake identity as something between prehistoric wild animals and modern-day ghosts. This exoticized identity serves whites' paternalistic woke fantasies, while it handicaps Aborigines in their efforts to thrive in the modern world.

Smithsonian's coverage of the sacrificial reburial of one of the most scientifically important sets of human remains is sentimentally titled "The Homecoming." The subtitle indicates that "Mungo Man … is finally being returned to the Aboriginal people." This subtitle is counterfactual. The Aboriginal people never possessed Mungo Man. Had a Western-trained scientist not unearthed these remains, they would have stayed where they had been for the past forty millennia – underground in a remote, inhospitable desert.

The first page of the Smithsonian article is a two-page spread of a monochromatic moonscape. "The mysterious skeleton emerged from Lake Mungo," a small caption proclaims. Except that the skeleton did not "emerge." It was discovered and unearthed using time-tested scientific techniques by patient, disciplined scientists toiling under hot sun. One can see a photo of their work at the National Museum of Australia website. To arrive at that photo, though, one must first past a gatekeeper screen that announces, in white script on a black background, that "The National Museum of Australia acknowledges First Australians and recognises their continuous connection to country, community and culture." This opening screen is part of a new custom in Australia, where public events begin with such announcements. Kenan Malik, an Indian-born scientist who has championed Enlightenment values, fears that these announcements, that appear so righteous, are "little more than a ritual incantation that allows white Australians to assuage guilt."

Another Smithsonian magazine caption reads, "He walked the earth 42,000 years ago. Now his remains are at rest." Is it really the job of Smithsonian to assume that bones have feelings, and that when those bones are in a museum, rather than a grave, they are agitated, but putting the bones back in the ground "rests" them? Smithsonian, like an announcer at a prizefight, tells us who occupies each corner of a ring: "an agonizing clash" occurred "between modern science and ancient spirituality."

Quotes from Mungo Man discoverer, Jim Bowler, reinforce the Aboriginal spirituality v white science dichotomy. "'Aboriginal people have a deep spiritual connection to the land. The ocher Mungo Man was buried in was a link to the cosmos. Western culture has lost these connections.' The Aboriginal use of stories and myths satisfies deep human longing for meaning. 'Science has trouble explaining mysteries. There's an entire reality beyond the scientific one.'"

Bowler romanticizes pre-contact Aboriginal life. One might think that Bowler's romanticization is a good thing, a compliment to Aborigines. But Bowler is making Aborigines other than regular people. He's making them other than himself, other than you or me. And Bowler is monopolizing science for white Westerners. If Aborigines are all about spirit, stories and mystery, then they aren't fit for science. This is racism, pure and simple.

There's another discovery from Lake Mungo: 560 footprints that are 21,000 years old. The prints were made by 12 men, four women and seven children. The guess is that the prints were made by an extended family. Note the sex ratio. When Westerners first arrived in Australia, they found 150 males to each 100 females. Female infanticide explains the imbalance. Hunter gatherers must be mobile; women are often encumbered by childcare and are not as swift as males. So you kill off female newborns. In Bad Dreaming, Australian playwright Louis Nowra quotes Aboriginal men citing traditional culture to justify their abuse of women and girls. Paternalistic, "liberal" white judges sometimes said the same thing – that Aboriginal men could not be prosecuted for child rape of Aboriginal girls because such rape was traditional in Aboriginal culture, and, thus, above criticism by Westerners.

Geologist Bowler lauds Aborigines deep, spiritual, connection to the cosmos and the land, a connection that he insists Westerners and scientists lack. The article does not mention that current research suggests that pre-contact Aboriginal burning may have increased desertification in Australia. The article lingers over the environmental damage white people caused by importing sheep. It brushes over the Aboriginal role in the extinction of Australian megafauna.

Scientific facts indicate that ancient Aborigines were every bit as calculating as any white man building a modern factory. They assessed their environment, tools, and abilities and chose behaviors that would lead to more calories in the short run. Ancient Aborigines harvested eggs of Genyornis newtoni, a large, flightless bird, and they ate those eggs till they drove that bird into extinction. That makes them human, just like Bowler, just like you or me. The dichotomy between spiritual, earth-friendly Aborigines and cold white men that anti-Western woke folk fantasize about does not exist.

In a Smithsonian photo, two lads, foreground, look sad. Their bare chests and faces are daubed with white pigment. Behind them stands a row of older guys, one of them sporting a paunch and man breasts. These men are also painted. Well, this must be the ancient spirituality Smithsonian told me about. Uh, oh. What's this? Between these groups of males (no females) is a shiny hearse. Nothing ancient about the hearse. In fact internal combustion vehicles are products of Western science and technology. Perhaps Smithsonian is hoping we won't think too hard about this, and will focus on the picturesque males in their ceremonial adornment.

Text informs us that the November, 2017 reburial of Mungo Man was "cinematic." Towns the casket passed through have "sonorous" names. "Elders," "activists" and "jubilant crowds" accompanied the casket. There was a celebratory "sausage sizzle," or barbecue. An interesting footnote about those jubilant crowds. Photos on the web suggest that they were largely white (see here and here). These photos suggest that Smithsonian's "Aborigine spirituality v white science" narrative is not entirely accurate.

These crowds, article author Tony Perrottet tells us, adopt a "reverent silence" when they spot the "ghostly vehicle." "He would be cared for by his descendants … Like many indigenous groups, the tribes believe that a person's spirit is doomed to wander the earth endlessly if his remains are not laid to rest 'in country.'" Warren Clark, an Aborigine elder, said that the museum that had housed Mungo Man "Is not home for me. It's not home for our ancestors. I'm sure their spirits won't rest until they are buried back on our land. Our people have had enough. It's time for them to go home."

There are a couple of problems here. No one knows if Mungo Man had children. No one knows if any children survived to produce children of their own. About 20,000 years ago, an Ice Age hit Australian Aborigines very hard. Aborigines abandoned 80% of the land they inhabited and populations plummeted by 60%. It's entirely possible that Mungo Man has no descendants. It's also possible that Mungo Man, if he could be consulted, might be delighted that his bones rewrote history. My driver's license identifies me as an organ donor, and another card in my wallet informs whomever handles my corpse that I would like the parts of me that can't be recycled to be put to use in scientific research. How can we be sure that Mungo Man would not feel the same way?

We don't give permission to anyone with European ancestry to dictate how Cro-Magnon remains are handled, and we don't assume an intimate connection, never mind complete identification, between white people living today and skeletons thirty millennia old. Why apply a different standard to Aborigines? Does not this standard create a corporate identity, rather than an individual identity? An Aboriginal person, unlike a European, becomes "An Aborigine" rather than "Joe," one person, with one person's rights, privileges, and duties. Is this not the definition of racism? To strip an individual of selfhood, and to essentialize him under a blanket of unchanging stereotypes that are meant to define a group over the course of tens of thousands of years?

The Australian Bureau of Statistics says that "Among Indigenous people, 1% reported affiliation with an Australian Aboriginal traditional religion … 73% reported an affiliation with a Christian denomination." If these numbers reflect actual belief, perhaps one percent of Aborigines believe that Mungo Man's soul was in pain while his bones were in a museum. A good three quarters of Aborigines believe, with their fellow Christians, that Mungo Man's soul has nothing to do with the fate of his bones, and that Mungo Man, if he was a decent enough fellow, is possibly in Heaven (See here and here).  

"The Aboriginal people believe that they have lived in Australia since it was sung into existence during the Dreamtime." Again, Perrottet, an educated, powerful white author from far away, chooses to depict Aborigines in the most exoticized terms possible. Yes, Australian myth does speak of Dreamtime. What percent of Aborigines believe this, not as poetry, but as actual fact?  

Perrottet describes scientific study of human remains as a crime, and the abandonment of the study of human origins as a necessary route for whites to expiate for imperialist atrocities. "Bone collecting … [is] unethical." Australia is now "a world leader in returning human remains as a form of apology for its tragic colonial history." When Aborigines come to the National Museum of Australia's Repatriation Unit, it is a "harrowing experience." "To see the skulls of their ancestors with serial numbers written on them, holes drilled for DNA tests … They break down. They start crying."

Perrottet wants to have his cake and eat it, too. He rejoices in that scientific work that is helpful to Aborigines. For example, archaeological study of Mungo Lady "destroyed the lingering 19th century racist notion, suggested by misguided followers of Charles Darwin, that Aboriginal people had evolved from a primitive Neanderthal-like species."

Mungo Man's discovery showed that Aboriginal culture was more complex than some might think. His burial suggests that Aborigines had complex thoughts about human souls, the afterlife, and that they engaged in trade for substances with purely symbolic value. The ocher that dusted his corpse came from over a hundred miles away. Perrottet brags that Mungo Man is 5,000 years older than the oldest Cro-Magnon sites in Europe.

A frequently mentioned "Aboriginal elder" who protested against the retention of Mungo Man is Mary Pappin. Pappin told Bowler that "Mungo Man and Mungo Lady. You didn't find them. They found you." "They had messages to deliver, such as telling white Australians that the time has come to acknowledge the injustices inflicted upon Aboriginal people." Pappin liked science as long as it was telling her something that she wanted to hear.

Pappin isn't even all that up on the basic facts. She incorrectly identifies Mungo Man as being 70,000 years old. And, and I'm not saying this to be catty, but Pappin plainly dyes her hair. It looks great, but hair dye, like one of the mourners' paunches, is a product, not of the hunter-gatherer culture that Smithsonian presents triumphalistically. Hair dye, hearses, and supermarkets are all products of the very modern, Western science and technology that Smithsonian demonizes. Western science is okay when it gives you hair dye and enough calories that you can grow plump and you don't have to kill off your baby daughters, but Western science is bad when it pursues research into human history? How convenient.

The left announces itself as Team Science, and the right as Team Anti-Science. But the left insists that a fetus is not human, "When a woman is pregnant, that is not a human being inside of her," claimed New York City politician Christine Quinn in May, 2019. Articles like "The Homecoming" remind us that the left is every bit as anti-science as it accuses the right of being.

This article is not, of course, alone. In March, 2019, Smithsonian ran "In Nigeria, the Veil Is a Fashion Statement. Artist Medina Dugger Finds Joy in A Colorful Yet Complicated Symbol of Faith." The Mungo Man piece is about hard science; this one is about Islamic-mandated clothing. Both articles serve the same agenda. White Westerners are evil, bigoted, and oppressive. Non-whites and non-Western cultures are spiritual, superior, and misunderstood. If the reader has any misgivings about hijab, that is because he is ignorant. 

The article is accompanied by photos that reduce Muslim women to faceless abstract designs. Hijabs swirl against colorful, patterned backgrounds, as faceless bodies float and jump in space. These photos of women with no faces "celebrate the veil's creative possibilities" and show how hijab's "aesthetic originality serves as a refreshing counterexample to the globalization of fashion." No mention of Koran verses that indicate that unveiled, non-Muslim women are fair game for Muslim men to molest. No mention of women beaten, jailed, and killed for refusing to wear hijab. How woke.

Nor is the Smithsonian's dedication to wokeness limited to articles. Front Page Magazine previously ran my piece discussing my visit to the Smithsonian's controversial and unpopular National Museum of the American Indian.

Nor is the push to use the social and hard sciences to advance a woke agenda limited to the Smithsonian. Six years ago I tried, in good faith, to review a scholarly book. I agonized as I read Tradition in the Twenty-First Century: Locating the Role of the Past in the Present. In the book, a "humor scholar" self-identifies as Marxist. He says he encourages his Italian American family to add quinoa, a South American grain, to their diets. He regrets that his family members' rejection of quinoa in Italian recipes might be an indication of xenophobia and racism against Hispanics. His encouragement that they eat quinoa shows that he "serves as a friend to a given community by calling it to more noble aspirations." Another author in the anthology attacks the "hegemonic" Catholic Church. The same author, a full professor at a prestigious university, goes on to support Neo-Pagans' false claim that they practice a tradition that goes back 35,000 years. This claim is nonsense. Neo-Paganism was a consciously invented commercial product, developed recently by eccentric Brits, Americans, and not a few Nazis, so that entrepreneurs could sell kitschy tchotchkes and windchimes. At least that's what my crystals say. An author criticizing American football fans dressing in Native American costumes during games argues that such costumes "perpetuate white hegemony and promote cultural imperialism by seizing authority to speak for marginal traditions and then remaking them as dominant groups see fit…Violence remains violence. Insult remains insult."

This book, these scholars, like the above mentioned museum and articles, all convey the same message: The West is bad. Western religion is bad. Non-Western peoples, cultures, and religions are superior.

I mentioned in my review that the Marxism espoused by the authors was responsible for the torture, dispossession and deaths of tens of millions of people, including some of my relatives. The editor called my review "petty and unscholarly." He objected to my mentioning that Communism kills. He asked, "Does one have to mention all the bad things that happen in the world?"

The woke brigade would have us know that they are larding their scholarship with compassion as redress for wrongs committed by their ancestors. Rejection of Western science is inevitable, they say, because, well, people have suffered.

My living loved ones, and the parents of my friends, encountered invasion, enslavement, and medical experimentation. Rudolf Spanner made soap from Polish victims during WW II. "Ravensbruck rabbits" were Polish, Catholic, women prisoners who were subjected to twisted Nazi medical experimentation. They were called "rabbits" because they were nothing but animals to their tormentors. Dr. Klaus Schilling conducted murderous medical experiments on Polish Catholic priests at Dachau. In the US, eugenicists, including Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, argued for fertility suppression of undesirable immigrants like my parents. Franz Boas, the "Father of American Anthropology," was commissioned by Congress to study Eastern European immigrant culture. He ignored our culture and spent time measuring 18,000 skulls for their "cephalic index."

Why is there no Bowler or Smithsonian advising Poles to abandon science and rely on spirituality? Because Poles are Catholics. Polish suffering at the hands of bad scientists can't be exploited to advance the anti-Western agenda of the woke, so it is discounted.

Yes, Aborigines have suffered horribly at the hands of white Australians. Yes, Aborigines today feel pain inherited from those crimes. The suicide rate of Aborigines was estimated in 2013 to be 2.6 times the rate for non-Indigenous Australians. Child abuse, including sexual abuse, is epidemic, as is alcoholism. Aborigines are three to four times more likely to contract type 2 diabetes than non-Aborigines, and they contract it at younger ages. Aborigines are incarcerated at the highest rate in the world. Videos on YouTube record heartbreaking scenes of suicidal youth, public drunkenness, public fights, and child abuse. Yes, decent people want to decrease suffering among Aborigines.

This is what the left gets wrong. It's the old Mother Teresa v. Christopher Hitchens paradigm. Many of Mother Teresa's critics bashed her for not changing the social circumstances that created suffering. Mother Teresa said that her vocation was to provide a decent place for the poor who had been abandoned in the street. I worked with the Sisters of Charity. I washed lice out of clothing. I did not change centuries of injustice. Someone whose clothes are full of lice is grateful when the lice are washed out of his clothing.

When I watch YouTube videos of frightened and traumatized Aboriginal children describing growing up with rampant violence, I don't see exotic others. I see myself. My father was an alcoholic and my mother beat me. Yes, yes, I know all about my people's proud moments and their history of suffering. That knowledge didn't help me when I had to run out of the house and find a safe place to sleep. What helped? A roof, a bed, and privacy.

Kids at risk for diabetes don't need a lecture about how connected to the cosmos their culture is. They need better food. Kids being beaten by their parents don't need a lesson in either didgeridoo or fujara. They need a safe place to sleep. Elders being attacked by youngsters and complaining that they are "under siege" don't need an end to science. They need law enforcement.

The people who reburied Mungo Man and Mungo Lady, robbing science of these priceless specimens, will not prevent one addicted Aborigine from drinking. They will not protect one Aboriginal child from abuse. They will not untie the knot in one self-administered noose.

The left sees people as collectives, and as histories of injustice. The proper way to see people is as individual human beings. The same approaches that treat alcoholism, child abuse, suicide, diabetes and recidivism in other populations will heal Aborigines. Jim Bowler shouldn't have sacrificed Mungo Man. He should have driven a drunk to a 12 Step meeting. Mary Pappin shouldn't be trashing science. She should be establishing safe foster homes for at-risk kids. Suicidal Aborigines need what all suicidal people need. A sense that they are loved and needed, and that the future offers hope.

I just received the October Smithsonian. There's an article blaming George Washington for the French and Indian War, an article on how men steal women's science prestige, and an article on a socialist uprising in Oklahoma. Stay woke, my friends.

 This piece appears at Front Page Magazine here

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

"Two Rode Together" 1961 Jimmy Stewart, Richard Widmark. This movie wrecked me.

If you watch John Ford's 1956 Western "The Searchers" and then read about "The Searchers" because you just can't let go of the experience, you will find fans and scholars mentioning two other films. John Huston's "The Unforgiven," discussed here, and "Two Rode Together."

"Two Rode Together" is a 1961 Western directed by John Ford and starring Jimmy Stewart, Richard Widmark, Shirley Jones, Linda Cristal, Andy Devine, Woody Strode, and Henry Brandon.

"Two Rode Together" comes up in discussions of "The Searchers" because both films were directed by John Ford. Both films treat the subject of white, Euro-Americans kidnapped and acculturated by Comanches. Both films feature Henry Brandon, a German-born actor, playing the part of a Comanche.

In "The Searchers," Brandon plays Scar, Ethan Edward's (John Wayne's) nemesis and parallel character, if not quite doppelganger. In "Two Rode Together," Brandon plays Quanah Parker himself, the son of Cynthia Ann Parker.

Cynthia was a real person who had been kidnapped by the Comanche when she was a child. It was her story that inspired the plot of "The Searchers." She married Comanche chief Peta Nocona and bore him three children, one of whom, Quanah Parker, was one of the last Comanche chefs.

"Two Rode Together" is not a celebrated classic and finding a DVD is not easy. I had to get mine through interlibrary loan. Princeton University sent it to my university and forbade me from removing the DVD from the library. I kept trying to bribe the librarians with homemade cookies but they resisted. I should have tried sexual favors.

Finally I had to watch "Two Rode Together" in the library, in a room under bright, fluorescent lights, with scholars chatting animatedly in the background about world peace or some other important topic. I think actually they were trying to figure out how to work a computer.

Even in that lousy environment for film-watching, "Two Rode Together" wrecked me. My reaction to it was so strong I had to ponder, yet again, if I am just too sensitive for this world.

Then I went to IMDB and found a review entitled "A good movie, but too sad for a western." The reviewer went on to add, "a beautiful, poetic title, it shows the usual John Ford's art, it avails of Stewart's and Widmark's perfect acting, but it is too sad, too depressing to be really loved … there is no hope for anybody: to escape violence, to have back their beloved relatives, to overcome prejudice, even to find love. And to see Ford's supporting actors, we are so fond of, involved in a beastly lynch-law, this is really tough to bear; however, we respect the will of the artist."

I'm with him. Or her.

On one level, "Two Rode Together" is a buddy movie about the love-hate relationship between Marshall Guthrie McCabe (Jimmy Stewart) and Army First Lieutenant Jim Gary (Richard Widmark). McCabe is a selfish ne'er do well who does as little work as marshal as he can get away with. He sleeps with Belle Aragon (Annelle Hayes), a beautiful, intelligent, cutting, dominating whorehouse madam. Annelle Hayes is spectacular in this part and her performance is worth seeing the movie for.

Jim Gary is a by the book true believer, very sweet and sincere.

If you've ever seen a movie featuring either Jimmy Stewart (of "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Mr Smith Goes to Washington" fame) or Richard Widmark, who, as Tommy Udo, laughed while pushing an "old hag" in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs to her death (see here), you know this casting is totally wrong. Jimmy Stewart should be playing the sweet, sincere Jim Gary and Richard Widmark should be playing the slightly sketchy marshal. Stewart is never fully convincing as an anti-hero. Widmark is believable as the nice guy.

So, these two guys are friends, and they go on a mission together, riding pretty horses through pretty countryside and every now and then meeting with colorfully costumed Indians and shooting their guns. What's not to like?

"Two Rode Together" is kind of like a kolach, one of those Eastern European pastries where black poppy seeds are rolled up, spiral fashion, in white dough.

There's a heartbreaking, deeply complex story intertwined in all the horseplay. (Get it? Horseplay? Pretty clever, no?)

The mission these two guys are sent on is the retrieval of Euro-American captives the Comanches have had for the past seven years. Their desperate relatives see McCabe as a Messiah figure who can bring their missing sons, daughters, and wives back, against all odds. The scene where these heartbroken families greet McCabe is powerful.

McCabe, though, is a selfish bastard, and he will undertake this dangerous mission only if the families pay him a hefty ransom. So cynical, so sad.

Marty Purcell -- Shirley Jones, in a totally fake blonde braid wig, in fact it's as fake as the blonde braid wig Vera Miles wore in "The Searchers" -- is seeking her little brother.

And the heartache begins. Marty describes being a child and playing outdoors with her little brother Steve. She hears the Comanche approach, and hides. She watches from hiding as the Comanche take her brother Steve. She is saved. She lives with lifelong guilt.

Look – this is a semi schlocky Hollywood movie. You can see the phony makeup, the fake eyelashes, the fake wig, the fake rocks, the fake scenery. But if you have any kind of a heart, you can't not be moved by Marty's story. And even though this is a movie, you know this really happened. These are real, human feelings.

Now, since this movie is made in 1961, and not five years before like "The Searchers," some things can be said and are said that were not said just a few years before. The Production Code was loosening its grip. Society was changing. And so Jimmy Stewart says some things to Shirley Jones that are shocking in the context of an Golden Age Hollywood movie.

If I find your brother Steve alive, he tells Marty, he stinks. He has braids down to here and they smell of buffalo grease. He is a hardened killer, and he'd as soon rape you as look at you.

Shocking. Horrific. Marty is horrified. I was horrified. Even though "The Searchers" begins with Scar's rape of Martha and the tribe's rape of Lucy, and ends with horror over Debbie being Scar's "wife," the movie never uses the word "rape." It's used here.

The movie inevitably prompts the viewer to think about big, tough issues. Who is Steve, anyway? Is Steve a "white" boy? No, he was kidnapped when he was a child. He's been acculturated as a Comanche warrior. Steve no longer exists. The Steve who could have been, the Steve who would say Sir and Ma'am and speak English, never came to be.

The Comanche warrior who is out there in Steve's body doesn't want to be Steve. He wants to be what he is: a Comanche.

Does Marty have a right to impose her idea of what her brother should be on him, even if he is found?

After all, Cynthia Ann Parker, after being rescued, tried multiple times to rejoin her Comanche tribe. She died heartbroken, they say.

McCabe and Jim Gary ride to the Comanche camp, with goods to trade for hostages. They meet Freida, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed child of a Swedish couple. She is now fully acculturated into Comanche life. She has Comanche children. She adamantly refuses to return to American society. We know this will break her parents' hearts.

They meet Mrs. Clegg, the wife of one man, and mother of two, waiting for her. She insists that she is dead, and she has no desire to return to American life. Whereas Freida didn't want to return because she has gone full Comanche, we assume, that Mrs Clegg doesn't want to return because she is so ashamed of what has become of her. She has lost her American self.

These scenes are heartbreaking and I still don't know how to understand them. Who has the right to tell these folks what their identity should be?

A boy refuses to return, but McCabe has given Quanah goods, so they tie the boy to a horse. The boy keeps screaming something in the Comanche language. We assume he is screaming, "I am a Comanche! I am a Comanche!"

A Mexican woman, who self-identifies only as "Stone Calf's woman," also returns.

Back at the camp, everyone is broken-hearted. To be kind, the rescue party lies. Freida and Mrs Clegg are dead, they insist.

No one recognizes, or wants, the boy, except a clearly crazy woman, mourning her lost son. She would probably think a tree or a rock is her boy. This mourning woman is given the boy who keeps screaming, 'I am a Comanche!" in the Comanche language. He promptly stabs her through the heart.

The mob is leading the boy to his lynching when the boy passes Marty. Marty had brought with her a music box she used to play for her brother Steve. The music box plays, and the boy recognizes it. Too late. The last we see of him are his moccasins as he is hung from a tree.

If that was not sad enough for you, there is a dance. Everyone is all dressed up and smiling, and dancing to traditional American music. The Mexican woman captive arrives. She's been given a bath and American clothing and she looks spectacular.

None of the men will dance with her. All of the woman stare at her. She says to McCabe, "Since I arrived, I have not seen the back of anyone's head."

As she sits on the sidelines, the women present approach her and ask her questions. They want to know what it's like to be married to a Comanche like Stone Calf. They want all the erotic details. She can't take it.

McCabe rises to reprimand the crowd. "You want to know why she didn't kill herself? Because it's against her religion."

That would be Catholicism, also the religion of John Ford.

These scenes are very painful. Marty has now lost her brother twice. If she had survivor's guilt before, you can imagine how bad her survivor's guilt is now. And yet the movie drops Marty after Steve's lynching.

If all of that were not enough. McCabe brings the Mexican captive, drop-dead gorgeous, to his town. Belle, the whorehouse madame, says to her, "Everything you see here is my property, including the livestock," meaning she "owns" McCabe.

"Would you like to work here? I can dress you in buckskin and braids. My customers would like that."

This ugly, racist dressing down goes on and on. It was horrifying to watch.

Stewart puts money on the bar and drags the Mexican captive out. They two of them take a stagecoach to California.

The movie has a "happy" ending. We assume that Jim Gary, the nice guy, will marry Marty, and McCabe, the scoundrel, will go off to California with the Mexican woman, so she can escape the racism tormenting her.

That happy ending didn't solve anything for this viewer. I was wrecked.

Monday, September 23, 2019

German Chocolate Cake

We used to make German chocolate cake for our birthdays, which fell close together, and were both on minor holidays. Hers on the first day of Autumn, mine on Columbus Day. We both loved fall so it was cool to share birthdays in fall.

German chocolate cake is not something you can make on a whim. There are some good things you can make on a whim. Shortbread cookies, for example. All you need is butter, flour, and sugar. You usually have all you need in the house for sugar cookies. We would have all the basic flavorings on hand. Almond, peppermint, vanilla, lemon, anise.

When I was in the house after Joe died, I found extracts that had no doubt been purchased by my mother. It was so strange to pick up a bottle of Angostura bitters, which she kept on hand for stomach trouble, not for mixed drinks, which she did not consume. My mother, who died seventeen years ago, sought this out, selected it, paid for it, brought it home, and put it on this shelf, and it's been here ever since. Perhaps my hands are the first hands to touch it since her hands. Death is so mysterious. The bitters tasted just as good. Angostura bitters does not surrender easily to the pressures of time.

I still have some spices that Antoinette bought. About a month ago, I had to give up on many of them. I just knew I'd never use them. She bought nutmeg, I bought nutmeg. She bought hot pepper; I bought hot pepper. Was I going to use her hot pepper that she bought before she was diagnosed, almost seven years ago now, rather than my more recently purchased hot pepper? No. So, I finally threw them away, because it had finally gotten to the point where it did not hurt to throw them away. I didn't have second thoughts later and tearfully fish them out of the garbage can. Good. She would have thrown them away much sooner. Dry eyed.

So yes we made each other German chocolate cake for our birthdays, and that was highly intentional. You can't make German chocolate cake on a whim. You have to shop with the intention in mind of baking it. And after you've bought all that stuff, and you have it in the house, you can't change your mind later. What are you doing to do with all those ingredients, fit only to make a German chocolate cake with? You just have to make the cake. If not, the ingredients would just sit there, laughing at you.

I remember once going to the A&P on Ringwood Avenue. That A&P is no longer there. It is now the anonymous, barren landscape underneath an elevated superhighway, route 287. I grew up in a town without one traffic light and now there is a superhighway. And A&P declared bankruptcy and shuttered all its stores in November, 2015, seven months after she died. I'm not implying any connection.

Anyway, we would go to the A&P and do something that shocked both of us. Before we had taken the small package of Baker's German's Sweet Chocolate Bar to the check out, we actually *opened it up*!!!

This was shocking behavior. To open a product before you purchased it. We were such good girls. We were afraid we would "get caught." Some official person, larger than us and threatening, representing American authority, something we would poor, immigrant Bohunk children would never possess, would come clomping over to us and grab us by the scruff of the neck and carry us off to the institution for girls who opened products before paying for them.

But we had to do this. The recipe for the cake was on the inside of the wrapper. And you need the recipe while you are shopping because you need so much stuff. And if you don't get it all on this trip, when will you get it? The stores close – in those days stores actually closed. Sunday presented you with church and empty parking lots around closed stores. You couldn't suddenly decide to bake on Sunday. You had to shop in advance.

And people didn't have cars. Men had cars, and they used them to do manly things. Shopping for cake ingredients was not a manly thing. Women? Children? No cars. We probably walked the couple of miles to this store. So, yeah, you needed the recipe.

LOTS of eggs. You have eggs at home, of course. You need to buy another dozen. This is a German chocolate cake. Coconut. Pecans. A can of evaporated milk. Buttermilk.

For a while there I had a bit of a crisis. *German* chocolate cake? Was this really the best cake for Polish and Slovak people? The Germans were such bastards! I researched. I discovered that the chocolate had nothing to do with our invaders. It was named after its inventor, Samuel German, an English-American. An all-important apostrophe had been sacrificed to popular usage. Properly, it was *German's* chocolate cake. This was little comfort. What would people think?

There's a picture, somewhere, of Antoinette and me cooking in that little kitchen. I can see it in my mind's eye. She's sitting on a huge, overturned aluminum bread dough pan placed on the kitchen table. She's laughing and I'm smiling and reading the recipe to her. She was sitting on the table because the recipe said something like keep the bread dough tightly covered, and she figured that sitting on it would guarantee that it could not escape. We'd make jokes like this while we cooked. We'd extemporize little one-act comedies based on absurdities in recipes.

In improvisational comedy, the kind they do on "Whose Line Is It Anyway," the rule is "Always say yes." That is, if your partner suddenly decides you are about to do a parachute jump from a plane, just go with it. Antoinette and I, when we acted out these little routines, always said yes to each other. How did we manage these little islands of fun, amidst all the tension and the fighting? Dunno. Can't ask her. She ain't here. And if she were, and I asked her, she'd probably call me Soames and start speaking in Cockney accent, and I'd just go along.

I have no idea where that photo of us cooking together is, and since I'm the last one left, except for a distant brother who does not speak to me and does not want a picture of me or his other sister, nobody but me knows or cares about that photo.

I couldn't eat a German chocolate cake now. I tried, recently. I thought baking a German chocolate cake would exorcise some of the lingering spirits. I did the shopping. The coconut, the pecans, are still in my freezer. I have long since used the eggs for breakfasts.

In those days, we were poor and we were hungry all the time. We had enough calories. There was always mush on the stovetop. Sometimes you want to eat something other than mush.

So German chocolate cake was, well, it was a trip to heaven.

Now? So rich, so sweet, so much fat. I can't do it. Yeah, that's the reason. The fat content. Nothing to do with the tears camping on the rims of my eyelids right now at just the thought of German chocolate cake.

One of the saddest moments of my life.

This was years ago. I was living in Jersey. My birthday had come and gone a few days before, and I had received no notification from anyone to whom I am related. No cards, no calls, nothing. I expected nothing. Antoinette was going through one of her years of not talking to me. My mother, when I saw her, would tell me what a piece of garbage I was and that she regretted ever having me and that I should get out of her sight because just the sight of me upset her.

For some reason, I made a quick trip to the house. I hoped to arrive and leave before anyone saw me. The door was always open so this was easy to do.

I entered the house, opened the refrigerator, forget why, maybe out of habit, and saw, lined up there, in the back of the refrigerator, the ingredients for a German chocolate cake. The coconut, pecans, evaporated milk, and buttermilk, and the extra, as my mother would say it, in her Slavic-inflected English, "dozen of eggs." Never "a dozen eggs," but rather "a dozen of eggs," because of that genitive Slavic grammar thing. My mother spoke excellent English. When she did this, she was having fun with language. Injecting her native tongue into the language she was forced to speak because of that fated day that began on a flower-strewn ox cart and that ended with the nightmare trip into the hold of a ship that took her away from home forever.

So. It's decades ago, I'm on a stealth visit to my mother's house, to the very kitchen that used to be so warm when I cooked in it with my sister, it's a few days after my birthday, I open the refrigerator door, and there, lined up on the shelf, are all the ingredients for a German chocolate cake. Ingredients you can't buy accidentally. Ingredients you must purchase with intention. And if you don't use them, what do you do with them? Buttermilk? My mother had no other use for buttermilk.

She bought those ingredients for my birthday. She bought them in the crazy expectation that I, and maybe even Antoinette and I, would return to her house and bake in her kitchen again, for my birthday. And we didn't. And she had to live with those ingredients, ingredients she had no other use for, staring her in the face for her folly and the absence of her daughters and the crumbling of her family.

My heart broke for her then and it breaks for her now.

In God through Binoculars I wrote,

"Love is the thorn. Love is the sleepless night. Fighting is not unbearable. It's actually fun. Like a lot of abused kids, I used to beat up other kids. It was a rush. This is unbearable: the boundary violation between love and hate and right and wrong. People who do wrong are trying to do the right thing. The most frequently repeated message in Twelve Step meetings, the thing we needed to hear over and over and over and over just to live out our daily lives, was not 'Poor you' – such words were rarely said. The thing we needed to hear over and over was, 'You can't save someone who doesn't want to be saved.' My parents' demons would never allow my love to reach them."

How to close.

Mom, I hope, and I pray, that you have found in heaven the happiness that eluded you in life.

Antoinette, I miss you. Happy birthday.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

"Hustlers" 2019 Jennifer Lopez. Dishonest and Despicable

I'm a woman and a feminist and "Hustlers," a movie that wants to be a girl power anthem, disgusted me. It's a well-made film with strong performances and high production values. The main characters, Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) and Destiny (Constance Wu) are strippers who drug men with ketamine and MDMA and then rob them. "Hustlers" is based on real events. The real madame of the real-life Hustlers gang was Samantha Barbash. She and her former partners have publicly stated that the men they robbed deserved it. One said, "It sounds so bad to say that we were, like, drugging people. But it was, like, normal." These are not nice people.

The film works hard to convince us that these gals are sweethearts, that America offered them no economic opportunities other than sex work and theft, and that the men deserved to be drugged and robbed. Yes there is a lot of naked female flesh in "Hustlers." Viewers who want to see a porn show involving two women fondling each other to entertain a man in a private room, pole dancers, and naked boobs, this is the movie for you. The film also celebrates greed. There are long sequences that consist of nothing but the thieves purchasing and fondling chinchilla jackets, high-heeled shoes, and luxury automobiles. There are also lengthy scenes where the extended network of thieves Ramona has organized get together and give each other expensive presents, dance and laugh together.

What's not to like? A couple of things. For some people, and no doubt Jennifer Lopez is among them, women are valuable to the extent that they are sexual objects for men. "Hustlers" is for and about that narrow slice of a woman's experience. There is scant attention paid to women as family members, thinkers, creators. Yes, yes, there are exploitative, tacked-on scenes of the women with their kids, but it's clear that babysitters are raising those kids, not their mothers. One of the characters spends about sixty seconds pretending to read a book in order to study for a GED. Wow, a scholar.

What's really despicable about "Hustlers" is its utter dishonesty. Lopez worked really hard to make her pole stripping authentic. She didn't care about being honest about the women she was bringing to the screen. The film insists that these women had to strip and they had to steal because America is an economic wasteland that provides no other employment opportunities to women. The film also constantly waves around the strippers' daughters as justification. I have a daughter at home! I have to strip and steal from men!

Destiny goes to a high-end department store to apply for a job as a clerk. Destiny is impeccably courteous and obviously desperate. The boss treats Destiny with exaggerated contempt and refuses to hire her. It's a ridiculous, unbelievable scene.

By insisting that sex work and theft are the only ways a woman can survive, by celebrating greed with lustful close-ups of chinchilla jackets, "Hustlers" insults every woman who doesn't do sex work and who doesn't steal. My mother brought up six kids while working full time in factories and cleaning houses. Jennifer Lopez would have to work hard, and not on a pole, to be the woman my mother was.

"Ad Astra" 2019 Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones. Beautiful, Suspenseful, Cerebral

Source: Wikipedia

"Ad Astra" is a beautiful, suspenseful, cerebral movie. Action fans are giving "Ad Astra" terrible reviews. There is a solution to this problem. Action fans should not go see "Ad Astra"

Astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is sent to the edges of the solar system to save life on planet Earth. That's pretty much the entire plot. Brad Pitt in space is almost the whole show. There is a terrific supporting cast: Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland, and Tommy Lee Jones, but most of these actors are given precious little to do.

The film places a great deal of emphasis on the physical fitness required for successful space travel. Brad Pitt's vital signs are constantly being monitored. And yet we are supposed to believe that the US government sent Donald Sutherland, looking every minute of his 84 years, into space. In fact Sutherland's part could be lifted out of the movie and the movie wouldn't change. I wondered what Sutherland was doing there and thought perhaps it was to make 55 year old Brad Pitt look young, but Pitt doesn't need it. That man hit the gene jackpot.

"Ad Astra" is suspenseful. There is the "Houston, we have a problem" surge scene, that one can see in trailers. There is the space pirates scene, the bad space monkeys scene, the "Uh oh, I've inadvertently killed a bunch of people" scene, and a surprising scene involving travel under water that may or may not be a reference to the birth canal. These scenes are episodic. They don't build to a larger point. Characters come and go, but they are not developed. That aspect of the script was disappointing, but perhaps inevitable. "Ad Astra" is about the loneliness of an astronaut, and all people's loneliness. It's about an astronaut's vulnerability, and all of ours. It's about trying to find meaning in lives that can feel meaningless.

"Ad Astra" also depicts the inevitable Big Brother aspect of space travel. Here on earth, you can breathe and eat without too much government intervention. Not so in space. Astronauts are dependent on the government for the very air they breathe. If a spaceman runs afoul of what the government wants him to do, he has few options. He can't manufacture his own air.

Set after set shows McBride isolated in punishing landscapes. Either he is driving around the grey, lifeless moon, or sitting in a soundproof booth facing the most sinister sound engineers and radio operators in movie history. There's an environment that is designed to be comfortable and reassuring, and it's one of the creepiest sets of all. I love the wrinkles in the wallpaper.

"Ad Astra" depicts an unflattering view of space travel. This isn't "Star Wars" or even "Star Trek." It's closer to, but more coherent than, "2001, A Space Odyssey." Hal isn't a mistake here. Hal is a necessary part of the system. Humans trash space just as they trash the earth. Everything that is cheap and tacky on earth ends up in space, as well.

Unlike most other space movies, "Ad Astra" mentions earth-bound religious practice. An astronaut prays to St Christopher. What becomes of him can be taken as a statement about Catholic faith by the filmmaker, James Gray, who comes from a Ukrainian Jewish background.

Even though some will see "Ad Astra" as a cold movie, there is a scene where Brad Pitt cries. It's one of the most moving crying scenes I've ever seen. "Luke, I am your father" is one unforgettable space movie scene involving fathers and sons. For my money, this scene in "Ad Astra" is more powerful. Max Richter's score is one of the best film scores I've heard.

Monday, September 16, 2019

A Man Walking Alone

Victor Bauer "Walking Man" 

A stinging and scary financial blow.

Nightmares, crying, sense of doom.

When a financial blow hits I wrestle with worthlessness. if I had worth, I would not be so poor.

If I had only. So many "If I had onlys."

I really wish I could rewrite the entire decade of my twenties, starting with that sexual assault, and the response of so many I went to asking for help, the Catholic priest, the battered women's shelter, the professors at school, who dropped the ball and showed me zero compassion or guidance.

But I can't. And this is my life now. And I am trapped in poverty and disease and a very unsafe neighborhood.

Given how much I can earn to quality for healthcare, and given that that amount is miniscule, I walk a razor. Any unexpected financial blow topples me.

It isn't even the financial insecurity that wrecks me. It's the shame, the regret, wishing I could re-do every choice that got me here.


I was walking home from my encounter with the man in charge who would soon be demanding money from me, money it would hurt to surrender. It was morning. I was halfway back to Paterson. A very thin white man was walking up ahead of me.

*Very* thin.

All alone, in an area where I pretty much never see anyone walk, except me.

An red brick factory, that pumps out acrid pollution that makes it hard to breathe when I walk by there. What do they manufacture? Nail polish remover? Across the street from another red brick factory, this one abandoned. A funeral parlor and many low budget homes.

The very thin white man is walking in a very strange way.

Because I live in North Jersey's heroin hub, I have learned to recognize overdoses. There's a distinctive movement. Very, very slow, uncoordinated.

Generally when I cross paths with overdoses I dial 911 and wait for the emergency rescue personnel, looking bored and annoyed, to show up with Narcan.

Lately, though, I've been so annoyed with these heroin addicts. I'm tired of the fires they set, their breaking into cars, their begging from passing vehicles, thus slowing down traffic, and the example they show to neighborhood children.

And it must be said that many are white. Skeletal, zombie-like white heroin addicts haunting a majority minority city.

I just want to slap them.

So, I'm focused on my own woes, trying to hold off my own nervous breakdown, and I see this very thin white man walking in what looks like an overdose manner in front of me.

I know I'll be overtaking him soon and I think, do I call 911, or leave him to die on this sidewalk in front of an abandoned, red brick factory?

I catch up to him.

I struggle to make eye contact, His eyes are focused on the sidewalk he is finding it so hard to navigate.

"Are you okay?" I ask.








Well my heart broke right there. I was so focused on my own problems, and this gentleman, younger than I, could barely walk, thanks to a genetic degenerative disease that is slowly but surely robbing him of his ability to move, eventually to think, and of course to breathe.

and he knows that.

And on this beautiful fall day, in this lousy, polluted neighborhood, he is going for a walk.

One slow, disjointed step at a time.

"Good for you!" I say. "It's a beautiful day!" I say.




I'm still focused on my own mini catastrophe. I literally can't help it. I wish I could lighten up, stop panicking, but I can't. I drank some gin. I took a Benadryl. I'm still hyper and panicking and obsessed with my own worthlessness.

But I'm glad I ran into that guy today, and I'm glad I asked him how he was.

My old Facebook friend Mary Krane Derr, who wrestled with a chronic illness, said on Facebook that she didn't particularly like being, as a person with a chronic illness, an object lesson for more fortunate people, but she knew she was.

I'm paraphrasing here. Mary left us some years back and I can't fact-check the quote with her. Mary was a poet -- is a poet in heaven -- and I can just feel her tapping on my shoulder, telling me to get her words right.

But that man, whose life is harder than mine is, was my object lesson today.

I was praying the Friday rosary when I passed him, the sorrowful ones. I prayed for him.

"The Unforgiven" 1960 Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn. A Missed Opportunity

One problem with watching a great movie like "The Searchers" is that it makes you want more. There aren't that many great movies out there so repeating the experience is not easy.

When you read about "The Searchers" a movie that comes up frequently is "The Unforgiven." Novelist Alan LeMay wrote the books on which both movies were based. "The Searchers" is a 1956 movie about a girl, Debbie, kidnapped by Comanche. Her Uncle Ethan and adoptive brother Martin search for her for ten years before they find her.

"The Unforgiven," made in 1960, is a sort of mirror story. It's about a Kiowa baby girl, Rachel, who is kidnapped by white men and raised as a white girl. Years later, her Kiowa brother tries to get her back. "The Unforgiven" is nowhere near the great movie that "The Searchers" is, but it is interesting and it has its moments.

"The Unforgiven" was directed by John Huston, the giant who directed "The Maltese Falcon" and "The African Queen." It stars Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Audie Murphy, John Saxon, Charles Bickford, Lillian Gish, and Doug McClure. With that kind of fire power, you'd expect a superior film. What you get is a series of gripping set pieces that never gel into anything coherent. You also get an unbelievable plot and a couple of chilling, horrific moments where main characters you are supposed to love do really awful things.

The obvious, insurmountable problem: the plot revolves around Rachel, a Kiowa, growing up in a white community and no one noticing that she is Native American. This is patently absurd. Google "Kiowa" and you can see photographs from the time of the film, the late nineteenth century. Kiowa women look as little like Euro-American women as do Chinese women. There's no way the Zachary family could have hidden the real identity of their adopted daughter from their neighbors.

The second big problem with the movie is that whoever wrote and supervised the script (Ben Maddow is credited) had no idea how to get the story started. The first forty minutes of the movie flounder around. You're looking at great stars on a fascinating set in the Mexican desert, so you've got lots of eye candy, but nothing that happens in the first forty minutes or so makes much sense or advances the plot in any meaningful way.

A pointlessly weird character brandishing a saber, speaking gibberish, and riding a horse appears. This "Old Man" is played by the 42 year old Joseph Wiseman, who would go on to play Dr. No. His appearance is depicted as the appearance of a ghost. He has white powder, perhaps road dust, all over his face, and he speaks in riddles with lots of Biblical allusions. The so-called Old Man is the one telling people that Rachel is really a Kiowa, not a white girl. Finally, he's lynched.

The main story is that that Zachary family, widowed matriarch Mathilde (Lillian Gish), her sons Ben (Burt Lancaster), Cash (Audie Murphy), Andy (Doug McClure) and daughter Rachel (Audrey Hepburn) are pioneers scratching out a living herding cattle in Texas. Their house is museum-worthy. It's made of mud bricks and built into an earthen rise. Cattle occasionally feed on their roof. There are numerous metal-reinforced holes in the windows and doors, signs of their need to be prepared to fight off Kiowa. The father, we are told, was killed by a Kiowa spear.

Their nearest neighbors are the Rawlins family, headed by Zeb (Charles Bickford.) The Rawlins have more money and clout than the Zacharys. Zeb's son Charlie Rawlins wants to marry Rachel. (Gossipy Tidbit. Albert Salmi, who plays Charlie, was briefly married to child actress Peggy Ann Garner. He later married another woman whom he murdered, before taking his own life.)

The Old Man shows up and throws a monkey wrench into everything by telling everyone that Rachel is a Native American. GASP!

Mind: this is a movie where an actor named John SAXON can play a Native American.

About forty minutes into this meandering movie, a handful of Kiowa men show up at the Zachary homestead, offering to trade some fine horses for Rachel. Ben goes out to "parlay" with them. Lost Bird, one of the Kiowa, explains that Rachel is his sister. Another incomprehensible plot point. How does Lost Bird know that Rachel is his sister? Why did Lost Bird need some old muttering lunatic to tell him that the Zacharys have his sister? If Lost Bird knew that Rachel was his sister, why didn't he show up earlier? It's all pretty far-fetched, and no explanations are offered.

Lost Bird is handsome. He's played by German-Mexican-American Carlos Rivas, who played the star-crossed lover Lun Tha in "The King and I." Yes, an Hispanic playing a Thai. Ironically, he later formed an organization advocating for better treatment for Latinos in films.

The name "Lost Bird" has a tragic history. Lost Bird was a four-month-old Sioux infant found alive at the Wounded Knee massacre. Four days after the massacre, the baby was under a cover of snow, still tied to her dead mother's back. Lost Bird was adopted by General Leonard Colby. He and his wife abused and neglected her. She lived a tough life and died in poverty at 30.

Back to "The Unforgiven." Lost Bird was one of the most sympathetic and unambiguous characters in this film. He lost his sister; he wants her back. He is willing, courteously, to offer Burt Lancaster good horses for his sister. The film never besmirches Lost Bird or his motivations.

Ben Zachary (Burt Lancaster) is contemptuous toward Lost Bird. He says you can bring as many horses as you can steal; I will not sell Rachel to you. Lost Bird retreats, but he later pins, with a spear, a hide to the Zachary home floor. The hide is covered with illustrations that recount the tribe's history. The hide shows Rachel being kidnapped from her people by white men.

This detail is historically accurate. Kiowa and other Plains Indians did practice hide painting and ledger art. The painted hide in "The Unforgiven" looks a lot like the "winter count" illustrated on Wikipedia here. You can read more about hide painting here and ledger art here

Charles Bickford plays a mean old man so well I have always hated him. I'd like to punch him in the face. Gossipy tidbit about Charles Bickford. When he was nine years old, he was tried for attempted murder. Some bastard ran over his dog. Okay, so maybe Bickford wasn't so bad.

The Rawlins family, headed up by Zeb (Bickford) believes the crazy old man on a horse, and rejects the Zacharys. They call Rachell a "red-hide n-----." The Rawlins' rejection of their neighbors is very serious on the frontier. You need neighborly support when the cows run wild, when the locusts strike, or when the Kiowa decide to raid your house to take back their kidnapped child.

Again, there are many gripping set pieces in this film. There's the desert, the breaking of horses by cowboys, a lynching scene that really had me on the edge of my seat. But, again, the plot is so convoluted and implausible that it lost me.

Here's how, if I had a magic wand and super-duper skills at Deepfake videography, I'd fix "The Unforgiven."

Get rid of the old man. Delete him entirely.

Everybody knew all along that Rachel was Kiowa. Again, Kiowa do not look European. Everyone would have had to know.

Lost Bird had been arrested. That's why he never came for his sister before this. He's now out, and ready to take back his sister.

The community, represented by the Rawlins, had previously accepted Rachel. But, now that her brother Lost Bird is on the warpath and ready to take her back, the community suddenly decides that the girl they had previously loved, the girl they were ready to marry their beloved son Charlie to, is a "red-hide n-----." And she is the scapegoat. If one person's sacrifice can save a community from a Kiowa attack, then she's got to be given up.

More ways to fix the film:

Amp up the love affair between Ben and Rachel, and try to defuse some of the brother-sister incest ick factor. Ben is much older than Rachel. The film could explain that he left home before she was adopted. *Something.*

Amp up Rachel's inner struggle about being white or Kiowa, and about being in love with her adoptive brother.

I loved / hated the Ben / Rachel love story. Burt Lancaster was 47 when this film came out. Audrey Hepburn was 31 but she looks twenty. Lancaster is just so much older than she. Don't get me wrong. They are exciting together. Lancaster and Hepburn are like precious gems from different galaxies colliding and striking sparks. But he's playing her *brother* here. The incestuous love story is weird and demanding enough on an audience. And Ben's behavior is unhinged. There's just a lot that a viewer has to choke down to accept their love story. Remember: they grew up in a primitive dug out with little privacy.

The final scene of "The Unforgiven" was one of the most disturbing and scary I've seen. It was claustrophobic, hopeless, and terrifying, like a scene from a zombie movie.

I was invested in the Ben and Rachel characters. Lancaster and Hepburn are so charismatic, and so committed to their roles, I really wanted things to work out for both of them.

Ben, Rachel, Andy and matriarch Mathilda are at the homestead. Cash is not there. He can't stand suddenly discovering that his sister Rachel is a "red-hide n-----." He is with the Rawlins girl Georgia (Kipp Hamilton, Carol Burnett's sister-in-law), drinking and making out in a hayloft.

And the Kiowa arrive. This time, it's not four or five guys. They brought backup. "Maybe they just want to parlay," Andy says hopefully.

Rachel, with lamp soot, paints a black horizontal stripe on her forehead, meant to imitate Indian face paint, and announces that she is going to go out and be with her people.

At that moment, Ben does something that, if I had taken this movie more seriously, would have made me sick to my stomach. He orders Andy to murder a random Kiowa.

Andy treats Ben like the head of the household, and, though reluctant, he obeys, and shoots one of the Kiowa dead. This sets the entire party on fire, and they begin to attack the homestead.

"No point in your going out now, is there?" Ben asks Rachel.

Plainly, Ben ordered Andy to murder a random Kiowa in order to prevent the sister he secretly loves from rejoining her own people. This is pretty damn sick and disgusting. It's much worse than anything the notorious Ethan does in "The Searchers."

Ben's act is also completely irrational. He can see that he is outnumbered. He knows that his killing of a Kiowa will result only in retaliation. Never in the film does Ben attempt to talk respectfully, man to man, to Lost Bird about their shared sister, Rachel.

In any case, the final portion of the film, the Kiowa attack, was scary and disturbing. Ben, Mathilde, Rachel and Andy man the portholes built into the primitive earthen dwelling and start shooting. They kill dozens of Kiowa warriors. The Kiowa just keep coming, and you know the fate that awaits the family inside the home. So does Ben. As ammo runs short, Ben hands Rachel, his mother, and his brother Andy pistols that have one bullet each. "Just in case" he says. The suggestion is obvious: the pistols are for suicide once the Kiowa make it through their walls, which is inevitable. Andy regrets that he will die a virgin, though he phrases it in code, "I never made it to Wichita to have me … a beer."

There's an eerie break in the action when the Kiowa pause to play flutes and dust themselves with magic powder. This, Ben explains, will make them impervious to bullets, or so they believe. Ben answers them back by having his mother play classical music on the piano he recently brought back from Wichita. Afterward, the Kiowa ride their horses over the piano, destroying it. Savagery v Civilization is clearly the message here.

Dawn comes, and hope evaporates. In spite of the night's carnage, more Kiowa keep coming. They herd cattle over the roof of the Zacharys' dwelling. The Zacharys retreat to the root cellar, where Mathilde dies of battle wounds.

Inevitably the roof caves in and the family can see advancing Kiowa through the holes in their walls. Lost Bird, looking handsome and genuinely caring, moves toward Rachel. She shoots him.

That's the second moment in this movie that I really hated. First, Ben orders his brother to murder a random Kiowa, and then the script demands that Rachel murder her own brother, and treats that murder as a *good* thing. She's taken sides. She sides with the whites, with civilization. And she has to kill her own brother to do so. Rachel shooting Lost Bird to death was completely gratuitous. At that point, most of the Kiowa had been dead. Hideous.

Cash breaks free from the embrace of the Rawlins girl. He rides to the rescue. How Cash, alone, can fend off the remaining Kiowa, is beyond me, but Cash is played by Audie Murphy, who lived the life of ten men, and who, when he was just a teenager, held off an entire company of Nazi soldiers.

The Zacharys are surrounded by dead bodies, by people the viewer is not at all convinced had to die, and this is supposed to be a happy ending. Geese fly overhead, and the Zacharys look up and note them, as if the geese are a sign of some good thing. Too bad the smoking ruins of their home will smell like corpses for days.

Do the Zacharys mend fences with their racist neighbors? Are there more Kiowa out there, eager for revenge? Can a man and woman who grew up as brother and sister build a happy marriage? The film gives no clue.

I used to talk about film online with Nelle Engoron, who went on to write a book about Mad Men. She said something once about how a depressing movie is not, to her and other film lovers, a movie that handles unpleasant topics like death, disease, or heartbreak. Rather, a *well-made* movie, no matter what the subject matter is, exhilarates the film fan. A poorly made movie is a depressing movie.

I feel that way about "The Unforgiven." It had so much going for it, but it was poorly made, and it left me feeling bleh, whereas "The Searchers," a film about equally grim topics, exhilarates me.