Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Book Review: An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of James Wilkinson

Many of my friends would charaterize my interest in American military topics as obscure.  No, let's be real, they'd call it weird, or, perhaps more charitably, fringe. I find the federal period of the U.S. Army fascinating  It was highly political, pinched by fiscal and philosophical conflicts.  The early army was also dominated by highly colorful characters, such as Secretaries of War Henry Knox and Alexander Hamilton.  It also had two highly influential Major Generals, Anthony Wayne and James Wilkinson. 

Those who aren't attached to the period might know Wayne, Mad Anthony, because of his distinguished Revolutionary War career.  Wilkinson is a name less well known, however, a man flying under the mainstream historical radar.  James Wilkinson, also a Revolutionary War veteran, became perhaps the most important traitor in American history.  Though Wilkinson's duplicity was well known to me, a more complete picture of the man emerged in Andro Linklater's 2009 book An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Life of James Wilkinson.

Linklater paints a familiar portrait of Wilkinson.    Entering the army at nineteen in 1775 at the siege of Boston, Wilkinson was strictly a staff officer who engaged in the many political feuds of the Continental Army.  Never a combat commander, he resigned from the army to seek the life of a Pennsylvania country squire after marrying Ann Biddle, daughter of a wealthy Pennsylvania merchant. Wilkinson failed as a Pennsylvania esquire, far outspending his substantial resources in land speculation and entertaining.  Forced to give up his Bucks County estate, he followed many other land seekers into the Kentucky territory.  There, he also borrowed considerable sums hoping to strike it rich in land.  Instead he hopelessly mired himself in debt and in 1788, seeking a regular income, re-joined the Army. 
Anthony Wayne from a portrait in 1796 following his triumph at Fallen Timbers and the Treaty of Greenville.  Wayne was Major-General in the United States Army and Wilkinson's superior.  Wilkinson did all he could to undermine Wayne.
Wilkinson remained in the army for almost the rest of his life.  He came to dominate the era of his service as other Americans have done-Winfield Scott, Phil Sheridan, Nelson Miles.  He rose to be the senior general of the United States Army and was involved with most of the important events the army engaged in.

What emerges from Linklater's narrative are some important themes in Wilkinson's life.
Andrew Ellicott was hired by Congress to determine the boundaries of the new capital city, and, more importantly create accurate maps of the boundaries with Spain in the Floridas and Louisiana.  Wilkinson feared Ellicott would reveal his employment as a Spanish spy and slandered him. 
First, Wilkinson was utterly self-interested.  His status as a double agent in the pay of Spain was simply to pay off his ridiculous debts from land speculation.  This would be terrible enough, but Wilkinson went out of his way to smear the reputations of those he thought were close to knowledge of his treason .  His commander from 1794-96, Anthony Wayne, began to understand Wilkinson's connection to Spanish New Orleans, and Wilkinson began to undermine the general with his troops and in Congress.  Andrew Ellicott was appointed by Congress to survey the boundaries of the United States and Spain from 1794-96.  In his travels, the honest and earnest Pennsylvanian learned of payments to Wilkinson from Spain.  When it became clear that Ellicott would publicize this information, Wilkinson did his best to make the surveyor out to be under Spanish influence.  Wilkinson never forgot that he was the most important person in his universe.

For lack of a better word, Wilkinson was a drama queen.  He loved intrigue and was happy to participate in it throughout his life.  Wilkinson was an intriguer during the Revolutionary War.  As a staff officer, it seems he had nothing better to do than intrigue against Philip Schuyler, then against Benedict Arnold, then against his boss, Horatio Gates during the Conway Cabal.  He intrigued against Anthony Wayne during the Fallen Timbers campaign.  Perhaps his biggest intrigue was during the Burr Affair in 1806 when he seemed, as commander of American forces in Louisiana, to support Burr's plot for a breakaway republic in the Southwest, but finally withheld assistance and the plot failed.  Loving the stage, Wilkinson was also court-martialed as part of the Burr trial.  His opening remarks took three days to deliver. 
Portrait of Wilkinson in 1813 after his capture of Mobile and before his failure at Crysler's Farm

Despite these severe character flaws, Linklater does paint a three dimensional portrait of Wilkinson.  He was a devoted husband to his wife, Ann, who died of tuberculosis after 25 years of marriage.  He understood the nature of frontier soldiering, the isolation of frontier posts and their debilitating affect on soldiers and their commanders.  He was an active commanding general, regularly inspecting posts and demanding high levels of readiness from his troops. Linklater even details Wilkinson's sole success as a battlefield commander, capturing Mobile for the United States during the War of 1812. 

 However, the real strength in Linklater's story is the story of continuing contentiousness between Spain and the United States from 1788-1808.  The two former allies were constantly on the verge of war.  Chiefly it was conflict over the western boundaries of the United States, but it also had a great deal to do with Spanish fear the United States would step in and gobble up New Orleans before striking out for Santa Fe and silver-rich Chihuahua in Mexico.  For the Spanish, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Zebulon Pike's second exploring mission were military missions aimed at discovering the defenses of New Spain.  They needed a man like Wilkinson-the ranking general in the U.S. Army-to inform of them of U.S. intentions.  That the Spanish hold on Mexico dissolved into revolution n 1810 only gives credence to their fears.

 Linklater's book is a good read.  It fills in a gap in America's military history and provides a fair assessment of this important figure in the U.S. Army

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Movie Review: Cameron Crowe's Pearl Jam 20

I'm not a big fan of rockumentaries.  They've just just never interested me.  Music is something deeply personal for me, and I channel my reaction to a song, an artist, or a body of work through my own filters.  Films about music often try to portray an image, often not real, of a performer's work, so I always take them with a grain of salt.
Director Cameron Crowe, bottom center, with Pearl Jam. 
 Nevertheless, I've been really interested in seeing Pearl Jam 20.  Why?  It is a Cameron Crowe movie, and I really like his films.  From Say Anything to Almost Famous to Elizabethtown I've found something to like in all of them.  The other reason is because I like Pearl Jam.  No, I'm not a Pearl Jam junky that follows them from place to place, racking up hundreds of shows.  I confess I don't even know all their music, listening only intermittently after Vitalogy.  But I am Seattle born and bred, I saw them in Magnuson Park in 1992, and loved the raw energy they brought to that show.

Crowe's movie combines an almost Ken Burns-like approach to his documentary. Jeff Ament, Mike McCready, Stone Gossard, Matt Cameron, appear throughout the movie, but Crowe combines these with considerable archival footage, both in concert and interviews to create his narrative.  Surprisingly, or maybe not to others, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden also plays a major role in telling the Pearl Jam story.  Maybe a natural given his closeness to Mother Love Bone front man Andrew Wood, and his collaboration with Pearl Jam members on Temple of the Dog.
Mother Love Bone.  Stone Gossard left, Andrew Wood center, Jeff Ament right.

 Crowe begins by sketching a portrait of music in Seattle in the late 80's and early 90's of bands with guys who stayed inside and played a lot of music, making their way into the city's burgeoning club scene.  It seems to me that Pearl Jam had two important events that shaped their careers.  The first was Ament and Gossard's band Mother Love Bone and the death of lead singer Wood to drug overdose.  It profoundly shaped their musical experience and led eventually to the reconstitution of the band that would become Pearl Jam, gathering in McCready and eventually corralling a surfer guy from San Diego named Eddie Vedder.
Ament and Gossard back in the early days.
With the arrival of Vedder, success was not long coming to the band, first as Mookie Blaylock and shortly after as Pearl Jam.  And part of Crowe's story is how the band dealt with that success.  One of the most poignant moments of the movie is Cornell explaining that Vedder in particular did not want to explode on the scene as an overnight success.  Rather, he wanted to find fame incrementally, writing, working and performing without the explosion of exposure. The band went from playing small clubs on the West Coast to Lollapalooza and European festivals almost overnight  The challenge for them was to find a way to channel their success into  a path they could control.  We see them fighting Ticketmaster and dissing the Grammies, usually with Vedder speaking plainly and honestly, drawing the public fire on the one hand, while on the other seeking an artist's anonymity.
Crowe with with Gossard in Stone's home.

Bassist Jeff Amen plying his trade

Guitarist Stone Gossard doing what he does best.
The second event that plainly changed Pearl Jam's career arc is the Roskilde tragedy outside Copenhagen in 2000.  Nine spectators were killed at the huge, raucous festival in front of the Pearl Jam stage.  Ament explained the incident affected him in ways that nothing had since Andy Wood's death. It clearly prompted the band to ask, who are we, and what are we doing. What followed, and I assume continues, is the band's control over where, when and what they play.
Mike McCready:  "I'd like to think it comes from heaven, but I think it comes from inside  . . . the good stuff" said Eddie Vedder.

Eddie Vedder doing his thing

Crowe does a superb job of insuring that no one person is alone the limelight.  Vedder, outspoken, reticent yet charismatic, easily the most recognizable member of the band unsurprisingly gets a great deal of attention in live and archival interviews.  But each band member emerges from the movie fully formed.  Gossard is engaging, interesting and funny.  His remarks before Congress during the Ticketmaster anti-trust hearings are smart,  focused and rightfully scornful.  Ament is reflective and earnest.  Crowe's exploration of his Big Sandy, Montana roots may be the most insightful look inside the influences on any of the band members.  McCready seemed to have been interviewed while he was at home babysitting.  His memories and his observation are every bit as sensible and real as any other dad doing dad stuff. Crowe's conversations with Cornell and Vedder about McCready paint a picture of a guitarist capable of touching another plane of talent.

If Crowe's film has a failing, it is is that that it avoids a serious critique of the band.  Yes, those Eddie Vedder moments of don't-think-before-you-speak are there to see, and references to Roskilde, to internal stresses in the band, to moments of personal excess are made. Yet, there is no serious attempt to take a deeper look at them, to provide some analysis.  Perhaps it's an effort by Crowe to keep himself out of the film as much as possible, or trying to avoid a gotcha moment, but there are times when it seems he's missed the mark. 

Crowe does avoid the bombast, the party footage of other concert films.  He does create broad connections between Pearl Jam and the musical tidal wave that roared out of Seattle in the early nineties. Soundgarden and Nirvana are both included, mostly to broaden our understanding of what was happening here during that time.  But Crowe avoids promoting the Pearl Jam/Nirvana "feud." He dodges the silly stuff.  Though we see a few light moments with the band on stage, there isn't any staged goofiness, such as the Who's Keith Moon showing how to trash a hotel room in The Kids are Alright.

What emerges instead is a picture of a band that has come through the fire.  Crowe shows these men as talented artists that flew too close to the sun, only to find their way to self-preservation together and as individuals before their fame consumed them.  It is a great story.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Marching with Occupy Tacoma

Today I'm off to march with Occupy Tacoma.  I'm trying to follow the entire Occupy Wall Street movement.  I must say that while I completely sympathize with and support their effort, I confess a certain frustration with our local band in the City of Destiny.  I keep hoping they, as with the other Occupy movements throughout the country will lay out a plan supporters can get behind. 

Maybe that's just too much to ask. What I have learned is this:

1.  Americans across ideologies are frustrated, feel powerless, and are afraid of what the future holds for them, their children and grandchildren.
2.  With tens of millions unemployed and many millions more underemployed, families are hurting and despite their best efforts can't find work or are struggling to make ends meet.
3.  Elected representatives of both parties are unable or unwilling to take on the issue of continuing joblessness, preferring to fight partisan and ideological battles rather than governing in the peoples' interest. 
4.  Corporate interests, especially financial institutions seem to have profited despite the magnitude of the Great Recession, received federal financial aid, and their CEO's are making mega-bonuses despite the fact states find themselves in fiscal ruin, the unemployed are running out of benefits, and there's been no serious aid to those about to face foreclosure on their homes.
5.  The interests of entrenched wealth in this country seem to have the politicians' ear, the latter seem to act in the interests of the former, and nobody seems to be an effective advocate for working Americans. 

 These seem to be the chief issues the Occupy (name the city) are showcasing in their protest movements.  Yes there could be more, and there could be fewer, but ultimately they are those I could get behind.  I gave up my Saturday afternoon to march with son Patrick, his friends Rafael and Adam, and an estimated 400 fellow travelers from the Hilltop neighborhood and down into Tacoma. 
 Pre-Funk at People's Park

 Who are these folks?  Well, they defy description.  Yes there are a minority of young folks with their tattoos and piercings so disparaged by the eastern media, but honestly that's just a hallmark of generational identity like the long hair and love beads of my own generation.  Most seemed to be over 40 and approaching my own age of middle 50's. Lots of signs, lots of enthusiasm, lots of respect for authority and close work with the Tacoma Police Department.
A smattering of the signs displayed by marchers.

 The march left People's Park at 9th and Martin Luther King Way, and proceeded down 9th into downtown, with rallies at Wells Fargo Plaza (renamed Bailout Plaza for our activities) and the front of the federal courthouse on Pac Ave., before an ending hoo hah at Tollefson Park.  It was a nice day for walking.  It stayed cool from about 1-3:30 with the sun bursting out and warming things up at the end.  Lots of chanting-"We are the 99 percent," "Banks got bailed out, we were sold out," and the catchy "What does democracy look like? This is what democracy looks like?"
Folks Rally at the County City Building 

There was a certain 60's blind optimistic hokum to the entire affair, but I had a fine time.  The company was amazing, the weather cooperative and it was great to get hundreds of people together that believe there has to be a better way than what we have now.  I didn't hear any chants for nationalizing the banking system, for taxing the rich and feeding the poor until there were no rich no more, just that everyone needs to do their fair share and that bankers had gotten a free ride.  There were also calls for a single-payer health care system which is what I believe anyway. 
Occupation Park-are the police coming?
If there was any negativity to the march it was the announcement at the end that there would be occupiers of Tacoma.  Though some of the volunteers were experienced at acts of civil disobedience and quite willing to suffer arrest from their choice of parks at Pacific and 21st, others were less experienced and fearful.  I admire their dedication and wish them well.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

" By Rights We Shouldn't Even Be Here" The Lord of the Rings and the crimes of Peter Jackson.

I took a big chunk of our long weekend and watched the Lord of the Rings again.  I know what the headline says, but before I say another word I want to assure you I believe the three movies Jackson made not so long ago are very good.  I've seen the Rankin-Bass Return of the King, the Ralph Bakshi LOTR and they were godawful.  Jackson's movies were ambitious, exciting and usually followed the story.

Let me be clear, taking on a massive masterpiece like J.R.R. Tolkien's masterwork is no easy feat.  It has a complex storyline, modeled on an alternate history with a huge number of characters and subplots that are almost impossible to make intelligible to a person who has never read the book a half dozen times or more. It's only natural the tale is simplified where possible.  Tom Bombadil and the Old Forest-gone. The conflict between the Moria orcs and the White Hand orcs reduced to a petty squabble.  Aragorn's raising of the coastal towns simplified to capturing the corsair fleet with the Army of the Dead.

In doing this,  Jackson was able to help us understand other important stories a bit better.  He lavished time on the tale of  Gollum/Smeagol, helping us to get inside his head a bit. He played out the story of Saruman and Isengard to better understand his role in the story and also bound the rise of his power to his depredations on Fangorn Forest.   A little artistic license on Jackson's part, but it furthered the story.

 However, in three areas Jackson exceeds the speed limit and rockets us off into places that don't further the story and simply left me scratching my head.
The winsome Ms. Tyler as Arwen. Unfortunately. Arwen has little mention in The Lord of the Rings.

First, there is the matter of Arwen and her story.  In the Lord of the Rings Arwen received about three lines in the 1200 pages of text.  One of those lines may actually be in the considerable appendices.  Was Liv Tyler short of work?  Did Jackson simply need someone to look lovely and mopey, or did the part call   for somebody who could speak perfect Elvish?  The Arwen and Aragorn story Jackson tells is made from whole cloth because certainly Tolkien didn't tell it, and it's a ridiculous distraction from the rest of the story.  We learn little from it regarding the struggle to control Middle Earth, and it doesn't enhance our understanding of other key parts of the story. Is Arwen's presence an effort to bring some gender balance to the story? Unfortunately, the Lord of the Rings is a tale largely about males.  Frodo and Sam.  Gandalf and Saruman.  Gimli and Legolas.  Aragorn and Sauron.  Only Galadriel and Eowyn stand out as female characters of note. It is inappropriate and outside the story to create this new subplot, one that isn't told very clearly or acted very well, and ask us to buy it.
I feel a bit of nausea coming on. 
Sam's comment at Osgiliath: "By rights we shouldn't even be here" may be the most unintentionally ironic in the The Lord of the Rings.
 My second complaint is the capture of Frodo, Sam and Gollum in Ithilien and subsequent removal to Osgiliath. The perpetrator of this crime is Faramir, captain of the rangers of Ithilien, son of Denethor Steward of Gondor, and brother of Boromir, the Steward's favorite son, killed by orcs at the breaking of the Fellowship.  Enough titles already.  This did not happen in the book.  Faramir, of all the characters, seemed to be the least ego-driven of all the men in the LoTR.  In the movie version of the Two Towers Faramir, driven by the insinuations by his insufferable father, discovers Frodo and Sam in the wilds of Ithilien and takes the hobbits to Henneth Annun, their secret hiding spot, learns of the Ring through mistreatment of Gollum, and carts the lot of them off to Osgiliath in order to turn the Ring over to Denethor as a way of earning his approval.  An attack on the ruined city by Nazgul changes his mind when Frodo, convulsed by the power of the ring nearly gives himself up to the Witch King and nearly slays Sam in the process. Sam waxes nostalgic stating the line "We shouldn't even be here."  Hell no Sam, you shouldn't be.  In the book Faramir turns Frodo and the boys loose, understanding the importance of the mission.  This needlessly sullies Faramir's image even if he eventually makes the right decision.  The fabulous footage of the Nazgul simply buries this faux pas. 
Nazgul at Osgiliath.  The awesome video vs. the awful truth.
 Jackson's last great crime is introducing elvish warriors to the defense of Helm's Deep.  This is simply wrong on so many levels and is the greatest of his crimes.  First, it wasn't in the book.  There's lots of goofy stuff around the defense of the fortress in the movie.  In the book Gandalf shows up with the remnants of the defenders of the Westfold-but that's a stretch for the casual viewer, so instead he shows up with Eomer's horsemen.  He leads a mounted charge down a hill impassable by any creature affected by gravity, into a mass of pikemen temporarily blinded by the morning sun.  It's okay; all in good fun. The elves, are another matter.  The most amazing aspect of Tolkien's or perhaps Sauron's War of the Ring is its dynamism: nothing happens in a vacuum.  At the same time our heroes are fighting at Helm's deep, Sauron is preparing to unleash his attack on Gondor.  Further east, Galadriel and Celeborn are defending Lothlorien from attacks out of Moria.  Even further east Legolas' father, Thranduil is defending his kingdom in Mirkwood from armies thrown at him from Dol Guldur. Where exactly did these elves come from?  We meet Haldir in Lorien.  How could they have released hundreds of defenders and marched them hundreds of miles from home in the face of an attack?  Not only this, but what does this do for the story?  The defense of Helm's Deep is still desperate.  The defenders still win.  In fact I would argue that despite the incredible visuals from the film the defense in the book is in many ways more eloquent.  Adding elves to the story is just silly.
Haldir and a wandering company of elves abandon the defense of Lorien to show up at Helm's Deep.  In Tolkien 's story the defenders win without you big guy.  You don't need to die.
  The books published in the wake of the movie releases created tremendous confusion for those following the story.  It substituted elements of the Jackson story for the Tolkien narrative.  This a crime.  While I admire Jackson's work, those dire deviations from the Tolkien story create problems for those who have not and never will read the book.  Which is the true version of Middle Earth?