My Literary Discovery of the Year: Laughing Whitefish

For me, discovering an important book that I’ve overlooked is one of the most pleasurable parts of the reading life.  I used to use the classroom to share my findings with students–who, I’ll admit, for the most part didn’t really care about my discoveries–but now, since I’ve retired, I’m forced to use The Tabard Inn to record them for a posterity which probably doesn’t really exist. That’s ok, because I feel it’s my duty, if not my destiny, to read forgotten books, to encourage these literary wallflowers and buried masterpieces to take their place in the spotlight, so to speak, even if no one is in the audience.

I’ve discovered a number of fine books through having absolutely no discipline in my reading the last few years. But I count Laughing Whitefish, by Robert Traver  (McGraw Hill, 1965), among the most significant of my discoveries. My readers may recognize Robert Traver as the author of the book Anatomy of a Murder, which was made into a racy film starring James Stewart in 1959: the star’s father, believing the film to be immoral, actually took out an advertisement in his paper to ask people not to see it. You can see the unusual trailer for the film below:

Much attention has been given to Anatomy of a Murder, but I’ve seen virtually nothing about Laughing Whitefish, which is actually a great deal more important than Traver’s earlier book. In fact, I will make the claim here that this novel is every bit as important in its way as To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published five years earlier. Laughing Whitefish is based on real events and is based in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; it takes place in the late nineteenth century and focuses on a lawsuit in which a Native American sues a mining company for breach of contract. Like Lee’s mythic condemnation of the inequalities between blacks and whites in the first half of the twentieth century, Traver’s book addresses the evils done to Native Americans during the settlement of the United States. And it does this in impassioned language. Take, for example, these words spoken by the first-person narrator:

It seems passing strange that we whites in our vast power and arrogance cannot now leave the vanishing remnants of these children of nature with the few things they have left….Can we not relent, for once halt the torment? Must we finally disinherit them from their past and rob them of everything? Can we not, in the name of the God we pray to, now let them alone in peace to live out their lives according to their ancient customs, to worship the gods of their choice, to marry as they will, to bring forth their children, and finally to die? Can we, who for centuries have treated the Indians as dogs, only now treat them as equals when they dare seek relief from injustice in our courts?….I am the first to concede that whatever you may decide here will be but a passing footnote in the long history of jurisprudence, that the pittance we are jousting over is but a minor backstairs pilfering in the grand larceny of a continent. (202)

These are difficult words for a white person to read, but I believe it is important for every American to read them, because they present the situation as clearly as Harper Lee did in To Kill a Mockingbird. The question is, why is it that we know Lee’s work, but not Traver’s? I would suggest that Laughing Whitefish be made required reading in public schools, because it is just as important a book as To Kill a Mockingbird.

No one has a monopoly on misery in this country. But the first step in solving a problem is admitting it exists. The second step is exploring its origins. What a different world we might be living in today if, instead of making a film of Anatomy of a Murder, Otto Preminger had made one of Laughing Whitefish.






On Mondegreens and Willful Misunderstandings

Image from Wikipedia
Image from Wikipedia–Lucy the Australopithecus 

Once in a while, I hear about a new movie that I really want to see. It doesn’t happen often, because I really prefer old movies to new ones; I’m happiest when watching a movie from the 1930s or ’40s, and it takes a bit of gumption for me to sit down to watch a movie in color–a fact that really throws my students for a loop. Action and superhero movies bore me, and I usually end up falling asleep during them, or checking my wristwatch several times throughout the film.

But once in a rare while, I hear about a movie that really sounds interesting. The operative word here is “hear”: what I really do is hear the title, then ignore the movie’s description and single-handedly create a movie that I’d really want to see. The most recent example is the film Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansson. Now, a very quick internet search brings you to the official site, but that’s not the movie I envisioned when I heard the title. Somehow, I decided this movie was going to be about the discovery of Lucy, the hominid remains that shook up the world of anthropology in the 1970s. I created an entire plot in my head, which, while shadowy and only partially formed, revolves around archeologists. It’s set in the dry, dusty plains of Africa, where the drama emerged from a slow process of discovery, perhaps involving scholarly rivalry and personal conflicts, and maybe even a love story. This Lucy is, in my warped view, a recipe for a wonderful film, and every time I bump into the real film’s advertisements, I find myself quickly dismissing them, overwhelmed by a sense of ineffable disappointment.

Years ago, I did the same thing with the film Glengarry Glen Ross, which I decided was a film about Americans on a fishing trip to Scotland. It was a little like Deliverance, without the violence; perhaps it would be better to say that my sense of the film was that it was like Brigadoon, minus the magic and the music. Apparently, I couldn’t be further off in my characterization of the film.

I think we need a word to describe this type of willful misunderstanding, where, like Wordsworth in his poem Tintern Abbey, we encounter films which we “half create” (line 106) making unique alternative-reality films that exist only in our own minds. After all, because these alternative films arise from a misunderstanding, they’re not that much different from a mondegreen–a misunderstood song lyric, and there’s a whole slew of websites devoted to them. (You can read about them here and here.) Everyone has a mondegreen story to tell, usually involving a small child. For example, my daughter asked me, when she was five years old, why, in the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” the lamb’s fleas were white as snow, since the fleas on our little Sheltie were definitely black. Was it a different kind of flea? Or were Geordie’s fleas simply dirty?

At any rate, this topic has me thinking about the ways we misunderstand the things we hear about, and, because I deal with the written word so much, the things we read. Don’t worry–I’m not going to launch into a critical essay (though I am tempted to talk about Much Ado about Nothing, a Shakespeare play that focuses on the way we misread people and texts). Instead, I’m going to bring up a memory from my early childhood. My parents, in an apparent effort to provide their three children an introduction to the great books, bought us a volume of stories entitled something like “Great Stories of the World.” In this volume was a short synopsis of myths and legends mixed helter skelter, arranged with no attention to provenance or significance. Thus Beowulf, the first story in the book, was followed by an adventure involving Pecos Bill. I probably never made it past these two stories, which is why, as a graduate student studying Old English, I always felt I was missing something–until I realized that I was waiting for Pecos Bill to come in at the end of  Beowulf and slay the dragon, saving Beowulf and giving him a ride back to his mead-hall on a cyclone.

pecos lassoing cyclone
Image from

I’m not sure whether other readers have this experience, but I do remember a fellow graduate student explaining that, like most of us Victorianists, she had seen the movie Oliver! well before she ever read the novel. During the movie, she explained, after Bill Sykes beats Nancy so savagely, she watched, transfixed, and noticed that although Nancy’s body is obscured behind a wall, she could detect her leg moving–and so as a small child, she decided that Nancy was not dead. Wounded, perhaps severely, but not dead. That impression, she explained, held sway each time she re-read the novel, and she had trouble convincing herself that Nancy had indeed been killed by her vicious boyfriend.

So I issue a call to readers–two calls, in fact. Have you ever misunderstood something in a film or a book and preferred your misunderstanding to the reality? And, if so, do you have a suggestion for what to call this situation? I look forward to your responses!


My War with Westerns

From Wikipedia:

If you’ve read this blog for a while, or just snooped around a bit, you will remember that one of my earliest posts was on movies that I couldn’t finish, which is available here. But recently I’ve found another film to add to the list, and perhaps an entire genre as well.

The film in question is 3:10 to Yuma. I actually walked away from the television about halfway through the film, bored with and tired of what seemed to be a predictable plot with lots of violence to keep it moving. But I’m not sure the film itself is to blame. Maybe it’s actually a good film of its kind; maybe I just don’t like Westerns. When I talk about genre in my classes, I always point out that genres, like clothes,  are subject to fashion trends through the years. For example, remember leisure suits from the 1970s?

From the website Plaid Stallions: Reliving the 70s a Catalogue Page at a Time

Truly awful, right? Consider literary (or film) genres as if they were clothing, and you’ll see what I mean about trending fashions in genres. If 1970s was the decade of horrors like the leisure suit in terms of clothes, the 1590s were the decade of the sonnet in England. Everyone who was anyone was writing them–kind of like children’s books in the last decade or zombie/vampire/supernatural stories today.

What does this have to do with Westerns? While I’m not an expert on film or on Westerns, it seems safe to say that the heyday of the western film was the 1950s and 1960s, spilling over to television in those years as well, with shows such as Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, The High Chapparel, and of course Bonanza. Doing any Western film today kind of seems like revisiting an older art form, but in this case, it really is a remake: 3:10 to Yuma is a remake of the 1957 version of the film starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, a version I haven’t seen, but which I strongly suspect I would not like either.

Why? The answer is simple: I’m a woman, and the Western is a man’s genre.

I realize that is a loaded statement to make today, in an era of gender liberation, an era of liberation from gender itself. But let me point out why I left the couch last Saturday night to go play my guitar when confronted with another 45 minutes of watching a film I couldn’t connect with. It wasn’t the violence, or the cynicism, or even the sexist attitudes of the characters: these are things that I can understand and accept, given the plot and setting. Rather, it’s the fact that there are no women in the movie for me to identify with. In other words, while watching 3:10 to Yuma, I was left with the  choice of identifying with either  the prostitute or the faithful wife, neither of whom get a lot of time on screen–unless I wanted to do some cross-gender fantasizing, which is fine when it isn’t forced down your throat.

It kind of makes me want to slap the director. “Really?” I want to say to him.  “We wait fifty years for a remake of a movie, only to duplicate the sexual stereotypes that probably made it a B-grade movie on the first go-round?” It seems like a monumental waste of time to me. I kept hoping that the boy William, who follows his father off into the sage on his mission to deliver Ben Wade to justice, would turn out to be a girl. I even concocted this whole story about how William’s parents created this switched gender for her in order to protect her from marauders and would-be seducers. In the end, I realized that the story I was making up to get me through the movie was, in fact, far more interesting than the movie itself, which is why I stopped watching it in the middle.

The truth is, I can accept a film that has gender stereotypes when it’s made in the 1950s and 1960s; we don’t quit teaching The Taming of the Shrew just because it’s antifeminist, after all, because we can explain its outlook from a historical perspective. For much of recorded history, women have been given the short end of the stick, so to speak, and it does no good to deny this. In fact, studying such depictions of women might even help us understand other forms of oppression, so I get the idea of tolerance for gender stereotypes in older films. But I expect more from a contemporary film, and I’d love to hear from readers out there if there is, in fact, a Western that does not demand we step into a mental straitjacket when we watch it.

Any takers? Leave your comments below, and I’ll start expanding my Netflix queue.

On Sappy Movies and Why We Should Watch Them


The other night, I watched a 1957 movie called Tammy and the Bachelor. It’s a sappy movie, starring Debbie Reynolds and an unbelievably young and handsome Leslie Nielsen, and it’s famous for its theme song “Tammy,” which was a number one hit on the charts when the movie came out. Both the song and the film are saccharine, however, and I’m embarrassed not only about watching it, but about having to admit that I actually liked it, too. But, as I pointed out in last week’s blog, the internet was made expressly for embarrassing disclosures, so I’m going to go ahead and write something here that I’ll probably regret in the near future: there’s nothing wrong with watching a movie like Tammy and the Bachelor, and, in fact, we’re may actually be missing out on something important if we don’t watch them from time to time.

I’m not really defending the movie or saying it’s great cinema. The truth is, Tammy and the Bachelor is over-the-top schmaltzy. In case you don’t remember or have never seen the movie, it’s all about a young backwoods girl who lives on a houseboat in Mississippi with her grandfather. Together, in a kind of Our-Mutual-Friend kind of beginning (and, on reflection, this movie might just be a 1950s reconstruction of Our Mutual Friend–Dickens was, after all, the king of schmaltz, and Tammy lines up quite nicely with Lizzie Hexam), they go downriver to salvage flotsam from a plane crash. While there, they unexpectedly discover a survivor: the bachelor of the title, played by Nielsen. The inevitable romantic attraction follows. It’s a simple plot, filled with amusing but highly improbable events. Tammy, as she is played by Debbie Reynolds–lovely, down to earth and somehow naive and nubile at the same time–is a far cry from our contemporary sense of the rural south (as in Duck Dynasty). Yet somehow, by the middle of the movie, there were enough really funny moments to make me forget how silly it all was. By the time Debbie sings her signature song, I was really enjoying the film–and forgetting to be embarrassed by it.

And then, as I thought about it, I discovered all kinds of reasons why it isn’t so bad to watch these old and outdated movies. True, Tammy isn’t thought-provoking. But neither are a lot of the movies in theatres today. The plot is completely predictable–where it’s not predictable, it’s implausible–and there’s blatant and troubling racism in the film (although there are extenuating circumstances for it). But it portrays a young woman who has interesting ideas and isn’t afraid to voice them, even when doing so gets her into trouble. That’s a small victory, yet an important one for a 1950s movie.

But here’s the real reason why I think we’re missing out when we don’t watch these old romantic comedies. It should come as no surprise when, at the end of the film, the destitute (but somehow fresh-faced and thoughtful) Tammy winds up with the impoverished but genteel David Brent, who appreciates all the quirks about Tammy–even her unorthodox ideas about life, which she tends to blurt out at inopportune moments. Their mutual on-screen chemistry and occasional sexually charged comments allude to an active and healthy romance to come. It’s good, clean, sexual fun, in fact: no power games and no using sex as a means to something else.

Ok, so this probably doesn’t really happen in real life. But neither do many of the plots from the kind of movies that are privileged today. And shouldn’t young people have some place they can go to–besides Disney’s animated films–where healthy sexual relationships are portrayed? Is relentless realism such a good thing that we can have nothing else? Are we so far gone that only by grafting romantic love onto supernatural, blood-craving vampires can we actually become interested in it any more?

If that’s the case, then I echo Thomas Carlyle, who said, “Close thy Byron; open thy Goethe” (Sartor Resartus). Let’s put down Fifty Shades of Grey and waste our time instead watching pointless, silly movies. At least we’ll feel a little more peace and contentment when the credits are rolling. Films like Tammy and the Bachelor give us something simple and (dare I say it?) pure to aim for in our own lives, and heaven knows we need a little more of that.

On Films I Could Not Finish

I love films–not as much as I love books, certainly–but I spend a good deal of time watching movies. As with my taste in books, however, I especially like films that reached the zenith of their popularity decades ago. Ask me who won the Academy Award for Best Picture last year (2012), and I’ll have to guess at it; ask about the Oscar winner of 70 years ago, and I’ll have something to say about Mrs. Miniver. So this post is going to be idiosyncratic and esoteric, and I might as well confess it from the get-go. Here are a few movies that I was not able to watch through to the end. I’ll give a brief description of the film, explain why I couldn’t watch it, and leave it up to my readers to point out why I should in fact give said film a second chance.
That being said, here are five films I could not watch through to the end:

1. Most recently, Snakes on a Plane.

If you ignore the completely lame plot and the implausibility of thousands of snakes making it into the cargo department of an airliner, you’ll still end up with a movie that stretches the bounds of belief to the point of breaking, and all that within the first 15 minutes of the film. The movie seems like something that a couple of adolescent boys would come up with if given a budget they didn’t deserve. The sexual and bathroom humor (in a rare stroke of efficiency, these two types of humor were often combined into one sorry attempt at being funny) failed time and time again. In fact, I sat down to watch it with an adolescent boy who pulled the plug on the film after 23 minutes. This film is truly awful, and the only intriguing thing about it is why Samuel L. Jackson consented to appear in such a dog at all. images

2. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves

I distinctly remember this film when it came out. At that time, my interest in the legend hadn’t been obliterated by too many film and television adaptations, and I looked forward to watching the film on a VHS tape, rented from Blockbuster for the evening. Kevin Costner was easy on the eyes, after all, and what could be better than a retelling of the old, familiar story? images-1 Boy, was I wrong. I couldn’t make it through the first 30 minutes. Costner was woefully miscast; his Robin Hood was so forced it was painful to watch. Unfortunately for me, those brief 30 minutes ruined my ability to watch Robin Hood films in any form, no matter how good the actors–with the exception of Robin Hood: Men in Tights, which I consider a comic tour de force.

3. Topaz
Now, don’t get me wrong: I love Alfred Hitchcock films. I even liked the biopic that came out last year starring Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren. Sure, I’ll admit that I must be the only Hitchcock fan who doesn’t love Psycho; I don’t count it among Hitch’s best pictures, certainly not in the same category as Strangers on a Train, Shadow of a Doubt, or Rope. But I simply could not get through Topaz, and I have tried at least three separate times.
41J5052T1VL Something about this film (espionage and action, starring European, not American, actors) put me right to sleep each time. I couldn’t even make it to Hitch’s cameo appearance 30 minutes into the film. As far as I’m concerned, three strikes is plenty; I’ve taken the film off of my list of must-see-to-be-an-educated-film-watcher films.

4. The Avengers
I’m fully aware that this might evoke angry cries from superhero fans, but I just don’t get into superheroes. I find them distant and hard to relate to; my experience on this planet is clearly nothing like that of a superhero, and it’s just too much work for me to try to identify with them. In addition, action movies tend to bore me; either I’m checking my watch to see how long the shoot-em-up scene is lasting, or I actually nod off, unimpressed by the immense explosion and subsequent annihilation of Manhattan Island and all of its inhabitants. Perhaps I am not able to fully suspend my disbelief. That being said, I’m sure that as far as action films go, The Avengers is a fine film. But I was primed to dislike it, because its very name tricked me into thinking it was a remake of the old British spy series. avengers_mr-steed-emma-peelNowhere did I find Mrs. Peel and Steed sneaking about and articulating clever repartees, however, and their absence may have led to my immediate disenchantment with the film, which I stopped watching at about the one-hour mark.(You will notice that my media shot is of the television series, not the film–a clear example of my wayward authorial stubbornness.)

5. Ponyo
Here’s another example like Topaz. I adore Hiyao Miyazaki films. Spirited Away is one of my all-time favorite movies, and I’m pretty crazy about Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro. One of my sons actually wore out a DVD of Castle in the Sky by watching it too much. In fact, most members of my family love this guy’s work.images-2 But we could not get through the first five minutes of Ponyo, and I can’t say why, except that it was so strange that we simply couldn’t relate to it. I’ve seen strange animated films before and made the leap into their world, although sometimes it does take work. The Triplets of Belleville, for example, was odd and off-putting in the opening scenes, but I was able to stick with it and come to appreciate it. Ponyo, however, just couldn’t keep me watching after five minutes. Maybe I need some encouragement from some well-meaning readers.

That makes a good list of five. I’ve left off many films here, but this is a start. And, should you think that I am presenting an immutable judgment on these films, please remember that I have only discussed them in an attempt to open up conversation and debate. Perhaps one reason I’ve taken up this topic is because I want to be convinced that these films really are worth watching. On the other hand, maybe they really are dogs and should be left sleeping. I certainly look forward to seeing how other film-goers feel.