What I Watched About Evil: Out of the Past

Out of the Past (1947)

Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Starring
Robert Mitchum as Jeff Bailey (Markham)
Jane Greer as Kathie Moffat
Kirk Douglas as Whit Sterling
Virginia Huston as Ann Miller

“Think we ought to go home?

“Do you want to?”

“No.”

Out of the Past begins with a montage of shots of the Sierras. It looks like a series of Anselm Adams’ photographs: stark snow-peaked mountains and high skies cast in rich, sharp grays. The music is sweeping; it befits the landscape. The camera pans down to a small town, Bridgeport, in the shadow of the mountains, and follows a black car as it drives in among the white buildings. The good world, the one we wish for, may be severe in its beauty, but it is beautiful—and natural. Evil, when it comes, comes in human form, wearing a black coat and black gloves.

None of this is surprising or unexpected. It’s almost too easy and too obvious. Out of the Past is a movie that continually works between the obvious and the hidden. The main character, Jeff Bailey, is hiding in Bridgeport, a sleepy little California town with a diner owner who knows everyone’s business. Jeff is the wild card, which draws the attention of the town’s beautiful Ann Miller. She is straight out of a fairy tale. We first meet her fishing in secret with Jeff, he declares, “You see that cove over there? Well, I’d like to build a house right there, marry you, live in it, and never go anywhere else.” She answers, “I wish you would.” Ann comes from a world where wishes come true. Jeff does not.

Jeff Bailey is a marked man—his actual name is “Markham,” and we learn the details of his past promptly as the story progresses. The black-gloved driver has come with a summons for Jeff from a gangster named Whit Sterling. The gangster and Jeff share a past: Whit hired Jeff to find a woman, Kathie Moffat, who stole forty thousand dollars and his heart (although the gangster never admits this); Jeff found the woman and fell in love with her. In simplest terms, Whit is evil.

In simpler terms than that, so is Kathie. Essays about film noir identify Kathie Moffat as the femme fatale par excellence. She is bad. After hearing her story, Ann states, “She can’t be all bad. No one is.” Jeff responds, “Well, she comes the closest.” Before the story of the movie begins, Kathie shot Whit—three times with his own gun. She shoots and kills Jeff’s partner (after Jeff pummels him in a fistfight). She finishes off Whit. And finally, she shoots Jeff. She is bad; she is a killer. But so are most of the male characters in the film—even the “innocent” deaf-mute boy who works for Jeff causes the death of Whit’s black-coated muscleman. Kathie acts out of self-interest, and unlike Jeff, who naively believes that his roughed-up partner will not cause further trouble, Kathie understands what men will do. Jeff barely understands himself.

Jeff is repeatedly called “smart” in this film. It reminds me of how often Iago is called “honest” in Othello. Mitchum plays Jeff with languid rakish charm, and it’s an act so good that it convinces nearly everyone, even himself. Jeff is tough enough to claim, “I’m afraid of half the things I ever did,” but toughness and charm simply ease his way into disaster. His actions lead to the deaths of six characters, including his own. He kills none of them. Joe Stefanos, Whit’s muscle, kills a man to frame Jeff. “The Kid”—who works for Jeff—hooks Joe with a well-placed cast and pulls him from a precipice and to his death. Kathie kills three. And the police kill Kathie. But all six deaths begin with Jeff’s admission, “I saw her—coming out of the sun. And I knew why Whit didn’t care about that 40 grand.” “I saw her.”

Some critics will let Jeff off the hook—an appropriate metaphor in this film because we are introduced to Ann and Jeff while they are fishing—and claim that the film frames Kathie. After all, Jeff acts nobly at the end of the movie, when the Kid tells Ann, in unspoken accordance with Jeff, that Jeff was leaving with Kathie. This clears the way for Ann to return to her old reliable beau. And Kathie did kill three men.

Still, Jeff’s naïveté—the kind of naïveté fostered by an over-sentimental macho ethos—never takes into account the consequences of his actions. He’s halfway smart and gets the lion’s share of great lines, but he doesn’t actually know what he’s saying. The lines just sound good. When he chides Whit, “I sell gasoline, I make a small profit. We call it earning a living. You may have heard of it somewhere,” he doesn’t really believe it, no matter what he tells Ann or anyone else.

“You’re no good, and neither am I,” Kathie insists to Jeff. We may have been charmed by Jeff. She may have found him charming, she may even love him, but most of all, she knows him and knows that the good act that he puts on is his weakness. He is evil—as bad as her, worse because he can neither admit it nor make it work to his advantage. It’s a crushing realization.

The realization that the hero—even the louche antihero played so well by Mitchum—is, in fact, the villain, is not easy to accept. We like the cool character, the slow-eyed machismo wins us over, even while he threatens the fairy tale princess at the heart of the story. Maybe we like him for the same reason that we like the stark gray landscape: the Sierras are neither moral nor immoral. The landscape is beyond good and evil. If the mountain stream can be sublime even though it may be dangerous, then why can’t a person be beautiful even if she—or he—is villainous?

Iago claims that “When devils will the blackest sins put on,/ They do suggest at first with heavenly shows” (2.3.371-2), he points out how we may be fooled by evil. There’s something else though, a willingness to set aside our judgment when the “Divinity of Hell” wanders into our midst. We want to understand, to analyze, and to rationalize, thus casting evil into a knowable and, therefore, acceptable quality. We value our ability to sympathize, no matter what. Do we sympathize with Whit? Or his blunt right hand, Joe Stefanos? Or even the femme fatale, Kathie? I suspect that we do not. But Jeff elicits sympathy. Because he is cool, and maybe, because we want a little of that coolness to rub off on us. No matter the cost.

It’s what we wish for.

“Think we ought to go home?” Ann asks Jeff when we meet them. He answers with a question, “Do you want to?” She says, “No.” Home, this country founded on a beautiful idea that there is no evil—or if there is, it is outside whatever we define as home: the four walls, the property lined with a stone wall, the land we call our own. We wish for home and cousin up to the idea that evil exists outside, that it is a black-gloved interloper, that it doesn’t know how to fish, that it doesn’t hire the innocent deaf-mute boy to pump gas and repair tires. And that if evil does exist at home, it comes in the form of nosiness, petty jealousies and provincial attitudes. It doesn’t look or sound like Jeff Bailey.

Writing: Sludge and Frustration

I spent the past 24 hours writing in what I described as “sludge”–not exactly “ten million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey,” but close. It happens. I admitted this to a friend, who asked, “You’re not feeling frustrated?” I answered, “Frustration is part of writing. One cannot write without it.” Let me explain.

First, as you will recognize from previous posts, I used to sail on the ocean, heading back and forth from the Chesapeake Bay to Bermuda with my father. Setting aside the variability of the weather (from windless and flat to howling and mountainous), I was sick nearly every time I took the trip: 24-36 hours of plain and pronounced discomfort. I eventually discovered that a vertigo medicine helped settle the sea for me, but up to then I kept at it, and accepted the retching as payment for the joy. So, I have that experience to draw on.

Second, I was a swimmer, and while I was not an Olympian, I practiced hard. Improvement came with pain, and I learned to adapt to the persistent ache in my shoulders, arms, and legs. During practices, the immediate feedback for how fast I was going came through either the proximity I had to faster swimmers, or, when I was one of the faster swimmers, from how much pain I felt. Pain—of a certain kind—equaled speed. There are, of course, other kinds of pain, such that denote injury and not improvement, and I was fortunate to avoid these until later in life.

Some days writing is just going to be like a bad day on the ocean, or a crap day in the pool. Some days my brain just does not connect to anything brilliant, or worse I think it’s brilliant, but I have done none of the necessary work of getting my characters in and out of rooms. I have left out simple gestures, and replaced action with explication.

Sometimes when sludge is all there is, I scrap large chunks. Sometimes it just takes connective tissue—so that the ideas get bound to motion. Sometimes, it is a signal that I am not being wild enough. Once I was told that a character was boring. Tough criticism, but, a sludge encrusted character needs to be set free—or buried.

So, frustration will happen. So will boredom, says the man who puts in 26-32 minutes on the elliptical six days a week. Raucous music keeps the heart rate over 160 bpm, and sometimes works for writing. And metaphoric raucous music too—add a crazy scene as needed. Even Dickens used spontaneous combustion to advance the plot.

But the frustration also comes when we get close to the sludge, and the sludge covers what we don’t want to engage. Sometimes we need to treat ourselves roughly when we write, and work what makes us, not just uncomfortable, but downright upset. The sludge can be like a makeshift bandage, covering some old hurt. Hey, you don’t have to own the hurt, but see it, and work it. Pain can clarify and properly unsettle the writer—and enliven the writing.

So, here’s to frustration. And writing through it.

The Writer’s Character (and work)

I began graduate school in the fall of 1988. Writing was still new to me. I had written in high school then in college, but the daily life of writing was only a shadowy presence. I had begun a novel, and tended it during the free time of my six day weeks managing a small Italian restaurant in the Manayunk neighborhood of Philadelphia. Which is to say, that I had written enough to gain admission to a program, but not enough in any real kind of way.

Graduate school was a relief and a release—it was the thing all my friends and customers were hinting at when they asked, “What are you going to do?”—recognizing long before I did that there was something specific that I was going to do.

I had drifted after college. It was as if I wore an anti-gravity suit that kept me from becoming grounded. There were reasons. I had encountered “purpose” as a rationale for selfishness and intentional moral blindness. The latter I found incredibly troubling. I believed in an inherent goodness—found in man or god—in spite of my experiences in the world. And when I wrote, I explored that possibility.

When I arrived at Binghamton, I poured myself into the work, writing with avaricious fervor, and studying gleefully. I learned quickly that a “B” was an “F,” and after one failing grade on an essay, turned to successful outcomes. I earned a scholarship after my first year, and with it, the right to teach, which I welcomed with the zeal of the recently converted. I was hooked.

One of the hooks at Binghamton was the presence of John Gardner, the author of The Art of Fiction and several novels I had not yet read. I had read Grendel when I was much younger, drawn by the monster after my mother had read us some version of Beowulf as our bedtime entertainment. What attracted us, some of us at least, was the myth of John—driven, irascible, generous, and demanding. As often as not, when describing ourselves as writers, we focused on our characters-not the characters in what we wrote, but out own personal strengths and foibles, and how we matched up against this fabled presence. He had been dead for 6 years, but he hung around the program (his ex-wife became my dissertation director).

One of my teachers, I think it was Liz Rosenberg, introduced me to On Becoming a Novelist, in which Gardner laid out some characteristics of the novelist:

Like other kinds of intelligence, the storyteller’s is partly natural, partly trained. It is composed of several qualities, most of which, in normal people, are signs of either immaturity or incivility: wit (a tendency to make irreverent connections); obstinacy and a tendency towards churlishness (a refusal to believe what all sensible people know is true); childishness (an apparent lack of mental focus and serious life purpose, a fondness for daydreaming and telling pointless lies, a lack of proper respect, mischievousness, an unseemly propensity for crying over nothing); a marked tendency toward oral or anal fixation or both (the oral manifested by excessive eating, drinking, smoking, and chattering; the anal by nervous cleanliness and neatness coupled with a weird fascination with dirty jokes); remarkable powers of eidetic recall, or visual memory (a usual feature of early adolescence and mental retardation); a strange admixture of shameless playfulness and embarrassing earnestness, the latter often heightened by irrationally intense feelings for or against religion; patience like a cat’s; a criminal streak of cunning; psychological instability; recklessness, impulsiveness, and improvidence; and finally an inexplicable and incurable addiction to stories, written or oral, bad or good. Not all writers have exactly the same virtues, of course. Occasionally one finds someone who is not abnormally improvident.

We looked inside ourselves to see whether we met the unholy criteria that John threw down—gauntlet-like—for us to match. It became a weird check list. There were dozens of weird checklists that we tested ourselves against: pre-work habits and rituals, kinds of writing implements, time that we wrote. I think that many of us were hoping to awaken a writing practice that could sustain us, and so looked for that one thing, the one trick that would allow the words to tumble out as effortlessly as possible.

Of course, we focused on how damnably hard writing was—and is. The metaphors we used to describe writing—like Virgilio Pinera’s man who decides to eat a mountain, one rocky mouthful after another—emphasized the difficulty, futility, and irreverent commitment. Perhaps the real solution was a correction to our character—some unbridling of our sinful writer manqué natures, and a resurrection into some more saintly (or demonic) deranger of the senses. If only we could rid ourselves of our flaws, and get to work.

I came to grad school, and to writing, after years of 60+ hour weeks. I rose early enough to get to the pool and down 3000 meters, then head across town to the restaurant. When I arrived in grad school, I found a job, and worked 3-4 nights a week in a high end restaurant. After I started teaching, I took a job in a bookstore ran by the husband of my mentor (he had been a student of Gardner’s as well). I swam, and then started running several days a week (I could listen to music while I ran!). Some of my classmates complained about the workload. I did not. Work was in me. Writing was not.

But it was. I wrote some inspired pieces, and won praise from mentors and classmates for my work. I didn’t know what to do with it—I had some things published, but what do a few stories and prose poems amount to in a world driven by novels? Besides, I confused inspiration with work. Work, that simple, boring, daily activity, with simple, boring, daily and measurable rewards. I was seeking star fire, supernovae, and earth-shaking prose. In order to do that I had to remake myself in the image of whom? John Gardner? Stephen King? Virginia Woolf? Some Norse God?

And what is the measure of good (let alone brilliant) writing? A great sentence doesn’t blaze as distinctly as the time on the clock when you touch the wall after one of ten 200 yard swims (That’s good; keep going). You write without a clear standard, and a novelist bangs out 60,000 to 100,000 words into the blind space of “who knows what will happen to all this?”.

So we focused on character, the one thing we could control or change. This, of course, is poppycock. There are good and bad people who write. Character is no Holy Grail, and no simple gateway or guarantee to writing. Work is. I wish we had simply talked more about work and habit and word count in grad school. How do you sneak in an extra 200 words? Have you done your work for today? Do you need a new pen? God only knows, make it work, let it be work, and demystify the process. It’s just work. It’s not about whether the muse is singing to you, or the dread siren, or anything or anyone. It’s just work, a job, a practice, and all you need to do, is to do it.

In the long run, Gardner’s description of the writer, and, once again, that sense that a purpose that led to blindness to everything other than IT, drove me away. After all, what was the lesson of nearly every novel, short story, or poem we read? Connect. Connect. And for the sake of everything that’s holy, or valuable, or worth saving: connect. The pursuit of art never matched the message. Picasso was a sonofabitch, but Guernica. Dickens philandered. Woolf suffered from limiting snobbery and mental illness. Joyce? Don’t even. Our contemporaries wandered into the forest of “immaturity and incivility” with a stridency that was matched only by ignorant blowhards and professional athletes.

I recognize that now, all of it, as a kind of armor. I know what it allowed, and what costs they incurred for strapping it on with such easy regularity. I saw it for a kind of blindness, and doubted. And in that doubt, returned to the anti-gravity armor that had supported me years before.

I turned, for years, to teaching and a kind of preaching. I tried to reach out, to convert the sensible—and others—to deeper understanding (reading) and brighter thought (writing). These are not fool’s errands, to be sure. But once you have tasted brilliance—and writing done well is brilliance—every other work other than the work that is the most brilliant, makes your tongue recoil. Even your dog would turn away from that feast. Not me. Not for years. And though I still fight with gravity, I feel the pull, and this is what binds us together—separate planets careening into each other with cataclysmic potential. I tried to resist, but, really, why?

So I’m left with these questions: How does one balance the work and the meaning of the work? How does one have purpose and character? Ah, as always, the trick of balance, and not in Gardner’s list of a writer’s characteristics. We will have to figure this out ourselves.

Of course, equanimity (balance) is not Gardner’s list, but the safety net is the work—stupid, dull-witted, and quotidian. Be an angel or a devil, but get to work. It comes back, and, if done well, connects us, once more, to the world, to each other, and to the gravity that holds us all.

Lessons from Sailing: Patience and Course

We gathered a twice a day to listen to the nautical forecast, usually in the cockpit, but when the weather was execrable, in the cabin. For days on the ocean it was the only external information we had, and the computerized voice that intoned the zones and conditions annoyed and entranced us. My father never explained which particular slice of the forecast we should heed. If there was one, it was his secret. We did get a general sense: the information could reveal a significant change from the forecast with which we headed onto the ocean. For the most part, the weather we encountered was weather we could see.

Besides, what did the weather matter? We were going into it one way or the other. If something sudden arose—and in a storm, wind and rain could change direction in a moment—we had one rule: change course. At 3 a.m. on a Monday morning, Saturday afternoon’s destination could wait. That lesson only took one stern delivery.

I think I became an atheist on the ocean, or at least a pragmatist. If there is a god, it answered my prayers for relief with a simple, “You put yourself out here, jackass. You are going to have to get through it on your own.” At the same time I learned to believe in and respect a power much larger than my desire. Only a fool raises a fist against the weather or the ocean and then dares an impossible course. We had our foolish moments. On particularly bad days, my father would simply decree, “This is shitty.” If it was, we sailed through it.

In this way, we learned a sensible passivity on the ocean. Our single dare was the initial impulse: sail. After that we trimmed sails, corrected course, vomited, slept poorly, ran the engine through flat days, cursed the diesel odor, and gloried. We were sailors.

Every so often, the moment called for essential courage: tying down loose sheets at the bow while the boat bucked through night storm. I could hold onto nothing while grabbing the clew of the working jib and the sheet (line) that whipped back and forth, having worked itself loose. “You get that,” my father said, in a tacit admission that his Parkinson’s Disease would prevent him from ever again wandering forward in less than pleasant conditions. “It’s shitty, but we have to get that.” He didn’t even need to add that proviso. I had hooked my tether to the line that ran from bow to stern and was scrambling ahead—cursing, as is one’s right, and scrambling.

One learns not to wish for courageous opportunities. Danger is not a reward, even if it frees the soul from, what? complacency? On the ocean, complacency is death.

I knew about my father’s illness because, on the ocean, every limit will be tested, but it is essential to acknowledge those limits. You do not ask a first time sailor to take the helm in a gale, nor do you ask uncertain hands to tie a bowline. Few are those who ask for something hot to eat and a place at the helm in any weather. And my father’s illness was a limit–he wanted, desperately, to be the one who managed every danger; after all, he was our father. When he could not, we had to know it, and keep him safe.

Even while waiting on the ocean, one never stops being on alert, ready to absorb the next challenge—and boredom (bored in a week? Bah!) must be one of those challenges. But, who gets bored between the sun, the sky, and the endless blue?

Still, I wonder about the lesson—prepare and wait. It is easy to forget that while I waited, I was on board a 36’ sailboat that made steady and infernal forward motion—through all kinds of placid and idiotic weather. Yes, wait, be patient, but for the love of all that’s right, keep going. Even if the pace is a mere 6 knots, keep going. Even if a storm causes a momentary reversal, there is a destination, perhaps on the other side of the world. Keep going. And be prepared for what comes. It is, it will.

Heeding the Call

Some of my students are aghast at the idea of reading a book a second time, let alone a third or forth, or fifteenth time. The life of a teacher means revisiting books again and again. They become habits. The past dozen years brought steady stops in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Homer’s Odyssey, and maybe Shakespeare’s Macbeth. All became exceedingly familiar territory—terra too cognito—and I welcomed the changes that a change of job and change of curriculum brought this year. I taught half a dozen book I had not read in years. The freshness helped revive my vision.

Of course, repetition is the backbone of study. There isn’t a piece, whether film, book, or painting, that I have not poured over. And over. Some works hold up to repeated visits—this is especially of true of paintings and sculptures. I have sat in front of some paintings for hours, and then gone back a year later to do more. The ability to give concentrated attention to something is a rare quality. And yet, I find myself loosing the fire for return visits and viewings, even for old favorites. How many times can I return to Hamlet, or It’s a Wonderful Life, or Wings of Desire? I know there are things I have not seen, and they call to me.

With spring, my attention is pulled back to baseball, and a group of friends with whom I have played rotisserie baseball for nearly thirty years. I have risen at odd hours when the season began in Japan, as it did again this season. I did not wake to watch early in the morning, but acknowledged the game at arm’s length. I almost did not play our little game this season, almost tired of keeping track of scores and statistics. 162 games and fifteen teams works out to nearly 2500 events to be aware of in some nagging fashion. Enough already.

How much has repetition and routine play a part in life? Too much. At times it seemed that I flew on autopilot, barely aware of the ground beneath me or the time that slipped past, never to return. Sometimes the routine is good—I don’t give more than passing thought to breakfast and lunch when I am busy. I eat the same thing, more or less, day after day. Perhaps my life would be better if I added variations here, but I have had other pressing concerns, like a Stephen Greenblatt essay about Hamlet. There are ways to keep the standards fresh. Still, there must be more.

I changed large parts of my life this past year—there were many reasons, but one was to interrupt the flow that had become too familiar, too easy. I wanted to drive up to a different door—my door. It did not have to be more beautiful—and it wasn’t—it just had to be different. My work as a teacher, although familiar enough, had to take me to different books an different students. And I needed to extricate myself from a years long creative drought. I needed to write to be alive.

This past December, I traveled to a new place, London, to which I had meant to travel almost thirty years ago. I traveled after I did a series of new things, each one satisfying, but each fueling a desire for more. Almost everything that has been part of the solid ritual of my daily routine tastes bland. I don’t hanker for extremes—a solo sailing venture around the world, or an ascent up some foreboding mountain, or a year in a seraglio—I yearn to encounter something as if for the first time. I wish to be a beginner again, with a clean slate ahead of me.

It will not be. There is much that I cannot jettison (Overboard! Overboard!), and some of which has been central to my life. But to bring my daughter along for the ride. To carry my brave and loving heart into boundless possibility. To write without care for sharp tongued critique. To go, and keep going.

I recognize that when I felt at my best, I was a student, learning, reading, discovering with a vigor that few matched. Right now my writing carries me vigorously to some new place—an undiscovered country that is beyond death—the little death of stagnation and routine, the larger death of a withered soul. I need to find a way to return this more adventurous, more daring, more profound sense of discovery to the rest of my life, to every aspect of my life. To become a masterful student again. Even while I wear the mantle of expert, I am an expert explorer. It is time to honor that. And go.

Perhaps my writing will be enough to answer that call during the long school year. My work feels, for the first time in longer than I care to admit, durable and ecstatic. However, I cannot let anything—or anyone, even myself—keep me from discovery. There must be time for new thoughts, new places, and a new world that will animate my work and revive my old heart. Here—there, and everywhere—I go.

Summer Time

Summer unsettles me. For the last three weeks I walked through my days drunk with free time, having gone from the manic pace of the end of the school year (exams and graduation) and the beginning of the summer Sunday School program, to a single (part time) job. The manic pace is the pace of the week from September through June. I put in six and seven day work weeks as a matter of course. I am fortunate that some of those days last only a few hours, but there is always something work-related on my schedule. That is the wonder of working what amounts to three part-time jobs, none of which is really part-time. When I add my daughter, who stays with me three days out of seven, into the mix, I really have no trouble getting from waking up to falling asleep with more than an hour here or there to sit idle.

As busy as I am, my schedule gives the day a durable structure. It does not feel so much like a limit on my time, as much as something that opens specific spaces that are “not work” in each day. During the school year, I sip my idle time, and cherish it as something special. I fit in an hour of writing, and it serves as a counterweight to the all the rest of the day’s efforts.

Then comes summer. My schedule opens up, and idle time drinks me down in one single swallow. I can watch six hours of news at the drop of a hat, or nap while old, favorite movies play on Turner Classic Movies, or stand in the kitchen and pet the cat who likes to eat on the windowsill while being petted. The three hours it takes for the dishwasher to sanitize bottles passes while I walk for gelato; I could eat gelato for days. Work, work of any sort, gets in the way of lazy naps. Licking a postage stamp would take too much effort. Small balls of cat fur collect on the carpet; I give them names.

What happened to the grand plans? Wasn’t there a romance I was going to undertake? Don’t I have the outline of a novel festering somewhere? When will I install a properly working garbage disposal? I have scads of miles built up on Southwest, aren’t there friends I haven’t visited in years?

Nothing. Inertia wraps its warm comfortable fingers around my wrists, and holds me tight with the insistence of a dirty secret: I love to be idle. Nothing to do is my idea of heaven, and I can do it with sluggish zeal. Do less! Do less! Forsake your obligations and practice closing your eyes! This is not “genius at work” time, unless I am the genius of laggardly living.

But then I do this, I write about it, and the spell is broken. How did I forget words, the deeper determined secret that I tried to deny, and which surface from even this short (and all too long) dormant time and claim me? I may not be the self-ascribed martinet of the school year and yet I feel compelled by word and dream to get back to it. And so I do.