Sunday, August 29, 2021

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, A Reappraisal

The other night Butch Cassidy was on TCM and I watched it and recorded it, and today I watched it again, this time with my wife and her caregiver, so I got to comment and even put some of my comments onto Twitter while I was sitting there, being my own contemporaneous commentator. It was fun! I enjoyed it so much I thought I'd reassess BCATSK here in writing. I'm not sure that my title is right, because I'm not sure I ever appraised it in the first place, except to give it an A+.

I have recurrent fantasies of being in a plane and sitting next to someone I don't know and finding out who they are and making a remark, which is a double fantasy, actually, first from sitting next to them, especially when the people I think of sitting next to would doubtless be flying on a private plane or at the very least traveling with someone, and second, from actually being able to say something, because my experience in the few situations where this has occurred is that I tend to get tongue-tied. But, if I had my fantasy and I was seated next to George Roy Hill, the director of Butch Cassidy, and I stayed collected, what I would say is, you are such a genius. There, that wasn't so hard, was it?

But then he would smile and I would want to elaborate. I would concentrate on Butch Cassidy, even though I loved The Sting, too. “Can I tell you what I liked about it?” I'd ask. “Sure,” he might reply, no matter his inner reservations. “Fans!” he might think, “What a bore!”

But what I would strive for wouldn't be to show him how smart I am – my default position, or you could say my fault position – but to relive it with him. And in the end, few people can resist hearing how great they are; I'd rely on that.

First, it's a mournful picture, because it's about time, and time always runs out. It's a nostalgic picture, nostalgia, from the Greek, nostos – return home, and algia – pain. The pain of returning home, or remembering how it was, memory. From the start, when we're told it's mostly true about these people and these deeds, and that they're all dead now. The musical theme that sustains the movie all the way through, especially plaintive at beginning and end, mournful but beautiful. The faux old movies of Butch and Sundance, black and white, speeded up, herky-jerky, the way movies were at the beginning of movies, which was roughly the time of Butch and Sundance.

And time is what's run out for them, we're told very directly. The marshal they visit in the midst of their flight from the hit squad Mr. E. H. Harriman has assembled to capture and/or kill them (we suspect the latter,) this marshal tells them they're doomed, that their time has passed. What can they do? They have to leave the West, because it's been modernized. They go to New York where we are treated to period music and faux sepia still pictures of Butch, Sundance, and Etta in the modernizing New York, where they can't stay, of course. They have to seek the past, which is Bolivia, for them, where the banks are old, the police are rudimentary, the jungle is old. They try to find a place where they can thrive, just as we see now with climate change, where plants and animals try to find a place to survive higher up the mountain until they run out of space.

Even the posse can't work out in this aging West, which Butch and Sundance observe from their second floor whorehouse of choice where they are honored guests, and the old time sheriff is displaced in his posse-talk by a salesman selling bicycles, “the future.” Of course, when the Butch, Sundance and Emma have to leave the West, the bicycle is left with its wheel spinning in a gulch and Butch tells the future it's not for him, he's off for reclaiming the past.

Emma is the only one who knows how to extract herself, although we don't know how she'll do it. But she just up and leaves them as she said she would, so she doesn't have to see them die. They don't have a way out, because they can't leave their charm behind, the charm she loves and we love. She's embedded with the guys, but not stuck with them.

The sensibility of the movie is exactly 1969, when it came out. They are self-conscious about the changes around them, and they exhibit grace under pressure. It's all going to end, but we'll be clever and appreciate every minute that remains, carpe diem. In 1969, of course, we couldn't see the future, but we could certainly see all the changes that had happened, and we were savoring every minute. I can't say we had the same foreboding that Butch and Sundance had, but there was Vietnam, there were nukes, and there was Nixon. Plus, with changing mores, having two guys and a girl wasn't so outlandish – sometimes it seems Butch and Sundance are really married, they bicker like it. How refreshing!

I love the craftsmanship of the movie. The distinct scenes, or segments, or whatever they're called. The card game, the Hole in the Wall leadership challenge, the first robbery, at Etta's place, the bicycle montage (no talking) with BJ Thomas's Raindrops and Etta's what if it were you and me Butch, the second train robbery where the money flies in the air and they laugh at themselves (look what we did! We are totally crazy!), the big chase where corporate interests are out to wipe them out, the big vistas of the Southwest and how little the people are but how intense vs. the immobile background, back at Etta's and definitive change under pressure with the packages and the buggy, New York as an interlude with sepia stills and contemporary-sounding music in the foreground (no talking), Bolivia, going straight and ironically only then killing people (Think Vietnam. In the movie the only killing is done by the corporate interests or the government, except when Butch and Sundance protect themselves), and realizing what Butch and Sundance are doing to Latin America as the Banditos Yanquis, even when they are charming. The use of music is just genius, Burt Bacharach – I hadn't realized it was him. That's what got me watching it for the second time, I realized I was humming it.

I don't know a lot of movie jargon; there must be a word to using film technique the way “painterly” portrays painting. But whatever the word is, Hill tells the story in movie technique that is native to the art. Music and pictures not words in New York and on the bike. Music as the leitmotif. Sepia vs. technicolor ( Kansas vs. Munchkinland.) It's so filmic.

So, what I'd say to George Roy Hill is, man, I just can't get over I'm sitting next to a genius. You really are, no matter what else you do, no matter who else you are, what a gift you have, and what a gift you have given. But it's not likely this will happen. GRH was born in 2021 and died in 2002 of Parkinson's. See how film cheats time? He's gone, but we still have Butch.

And, oh yeah, I should have added that, as my friend Bob mentions, "you could have at least nodded at William Goldman who wrote the damn thing.  All Hill had to do was point the cameras in the right direction."  Needless to say that Bob is a writer.  But if Goldman sat down next to me, I'd say the same thing, and ask him who did what.

OK, so this is not really a reappraisal, it's a recelebration, a resavoring, a reversion to my own past of hopes and dreams. I think I'll watch it again. Maybe tomorrow. As soon as I get through Season One of The Bridge. I guess not too much is going on in Shenkinland.

Budd Shenkin

Friday, August 6, 2021

The Anonymity Of COVID Infectors

How To Be A Secret Assassin -- Spread COVID

Is deciding to get or not to get vaccinated against COVID a collision of rights, as anti-vaxxers are claiming? Do they have the right not to get vaccinated, because it is a human right to decide what to do with one's own body? (Let's leave aside the obvious for now, that many if not most of these “it's my body” claimants are anti-abortion. The power of rationalization!)

Maybe so. But balancing rights is what a lot of our laws are about. A nation of laws is a nation against might-makes-right. So, is the balancing of rights really difficult in this case?

I think not. I think the balancing of rights in this case is a rather open and shut case. The biggest problem is just visibility of the agent of injury.

If you drive drunk, it's pretty clear that you are a menace to others. When you have your accident and injure others (not to mention yourself), and it's clear that others suffer as a result of your inappropriate self-indulgence, then the cause and the victim are right there for all to see. You drank, you drove, you killed. It's not much of a leap for laws to be enacted to prevent these events by forbidding you to do something to your body – drink alcohol to excess – and then commit and act – driving – that may injure others. Note: it's a preventive law, that you “may” injure others. A certain percentage of the time, you will injure others, not every time, there's just a chance. The law weighs in on competing rights in favor of the potential victims, and there are few who will challenge that societal judgement.

Likewise, do you have the right to step outside your house and fire a gun wildly down the street? No, society says not. You must give up your right to do what you want because it may be injurious to others. Possibly, some of the time, there's a chance.

In fact, some laws go even further than that. Motorists must wear seatbelts. Motorcyclists and bicyclists must wear protective headgear. In these cases, the potential harm isn't to others, but to oneself. Society has judged that the universal law of seatbelts and helmets not only protects the individuals who are protecting themselves, but also protects others, who are influenced by the universality of the laws to follow the societal law-enforced custom. The law protects against the social influence of defiant self-absorption.

And now, closer to home, what about vaccination? For many decades, school children must have been vaccinated against so-called childhood diseases to be able to attend school. It has been controversial recently, it's true, because of the rise of anti-scientific and socially-defiant elements in society. The reasoning used by anti-vaxxers is immensely spurious. The decades-long norm, however, is well-reasoned and accepted. The “violation of body” has been judged to be far-outweighed by the social good of resisting epidemic disease.

Finally, the point of this essay, what about COVID vaccination? Are there differences here that make resistance to COVID vaccination possibly valid? Or does COVID vaccination fall into the same pattern of other regulations of personal behavior in favor of public safety? Only one, and that's really a technicality. Those who don't want to get vaccinated, or those who want to encourage this misbegotten predisposition, can point to the vaccines' not having “official, final” approval, only emergency approval by the Food and Drugs Administration. Which comes, of course, from the both usual and extraordinary typical FDA bureaucratic incompetence, following up their incompetence and uncooperative behavior in delaying COVID testing. The vaccines are as safe as all the other, time-tested vaccines, it's clear, with hundreds of millions of doses administered already.

The biggest difference between driving drunk and shooting wildly in the streets, on the one hand, and spreading COVID, on the other, is visibility. If you could trace the source of each infection, each serious disease, each hospitalization, each death – if you could trace the source to a specific individual as you can with a drunk driver or a shooter, then the connection between individual action (or inaction, in this case) and another individual's affliction would be clear. In that case, perhaps an afflicted person of the family of a deceased might even be able to sue the spreader for reckless endangerment. I don't know, I'm not a lawyer. But at the very least, public opinion could be even more strongly evoked, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving could reappear and do their magic with legislators once again.

Did you ever hear that in an execution by firing squad, one soldier's gun is loaded with blanks, but the executing squad never knows which one it was? So if you're on the squad, you can always claim, it wasn't me. Let's hear it for all those unvaccinated who are claiming, it's not me, after all, I'm healthy, I lead a life filled with exercise and healthy foods – I'm shooting blanks.

I think it's a compelling argument, and rationality would have it that laws mandating universal COVID vaccination should be passed. But “rationality” is a funny word.

I remember when I heard the word “rationalization.” It was puzzling to me – what was the difference between reasoning something out and rationalizing? They seemed to be the same, using reason. Then, when it was explained to me that “rationalizing” was using reason in a spurious way, to defend a position that you wanted to take or had taken anyway, rather than using reason to find a truth wherever it may lie, then, I understood. I saw it immediately as it manifested itself in others! (It took me a little while longer to see it in myself. But there it was. It made me a better reasoner when I understood it.) Rationalizing is universal, and the more you see of the world, and the more you hear from ambitious Republicans and their followers, the more predominant it seems to be.

The power of rationalization is usually stronger than the power of rationalism. So I don't anticipate changing many opinions with this brief analysis. Rationalization is deeply entrenched, and rational argument with opponents generally yields simply a defense, no matter how farfetched. No, the best I am hoping more for helping clarity of thinking for those of us already on the right side of COVID vaxxing thought.

Anyway, that's my hope.

Budd Shenkin