August 2009


I have watched Quentin Tarantino promote and explain his new movie Inglourious Basterds, with clips, on two talk shows now. This will not propel me to rush to the nearest Cineplex to save my movie-loving soul and see it. I might watch it, or parts of it, on TV some night years hence. I’m in no hurry.

One of the clips shows a clean cut kraut in spotless uniform kneeling meekly before Jewish Resistance leader Brad Pitt. From a tunnel in this wooded setting enters one of Pitt’s men, in a sleeveless undershirt, carrying a baseball bat, resembling a Brooklyn street kid from the 1940s. Only instead of hitting a baseball, he takes aim at the Nazi’s head and swings for the fences.

This brought to mind a conversation from a Woody Allen film, in which Woody says something to the effect that Nazis aren’t funny and it’s okay to take a baseball bat to them. It would be just like Tarantino, movie maven that he is, who also acts in and writes the movies he directs, to pull this bit of dialogue from a friendly bar scene and take it to another level, so to speak, and turn it into pornographic violence. This is what Q.T. does best: twist things like that. He calls it homage, or maybe hommage.

What Q.T. doesn’t quite understand is that, in a flash before bat meets brain, we imagine ourselves as the victim. So no matter what evil the character has done or represents, we suffer the blow in our imagination.

What I will never forgive Q.T. for, unless he asks for it, is Pulp Fiction, which unfortunately was nominated for seven Oscars in 1995 and won Best Screenplay. This gave money and clout to the terrible adolescent, propelling him to make even more awful movies like Kill Bill.

What kind of damage did Pulp Fiction do to do American cinema? Well, it spawned a whole host of hit man films designed to derange and destroy the middle class. In Grosse Pointe Blank, for example, John Cusack plays a hit man, in coat and tie, who returns to his high school reunion. He’s just like Bob, Ted, or Larry, except that Martin Blank is a freelance assassin. Whereas Ted might carry golf clubs in his car trunk, Marton packs the right weapon for the job. And, guess what, Martin has emotional problems; he begins to develop a conscience and sees a shrink. Isn’t life a beach.

With his genius I.Q. and arrested development, Q.T. burrows into the American psyche, looking for weak joints, creaking foundations. Or maybe, worse, he just does what he loves best and it turns out this way. The middle class had lost its panache, became dysfunctional and wimpy, with mom and dad bed hopping and son and sis doing drugs and cheating in school. Their crimes were petty crimes. Maybe, comedically, they pulled a heist to make ends meet. But there was a line they did not cross.

Tarantino, with his nose to the streets of L.A. and taste for the lurid in filmmaking, saw his opening. So he helped the middle class cross over that line. Not explicitly in Pulp Fiction, where the buddy hit team is low life. But he made the killers socially attractive, dressed them up, and invited us, the middle class, to enjoy the ride with them.

He took the dead weight out of real hit men like mob underboss Sammy (The Bull) Gravano, who expressed his favorites among opera and wine, and sat them at our table for two hours, just like Woody Allen and friends discussing love and life in a New York bar. Author Gay Talese, who interviewed and wrote about a number of mob hit men, called them “very boring people.”

If you compare the buddy banter in Pulp Fiction to Training Day, for example, you notice the difference immediately. One is adolescent drivel about cheeseburgers; the other is man talk about honor and betrayal. If you compare Kill Bill with any of the great samurai films, Rebellion, say, or When The Last Sword is Drawn, well, you might weep or swear never to see another Tarantino film.

Q.T.’s films are not necessarily boring. It’s just that they don’t say much of anything satisfying to a reasonably well-grounded adult. They are soul dead. They unfold before your eyes with creative camera work and narrative quirks and pop culture references and homage to film genres near and far—in his own destructive way—and porn violence leavened by humor—traits that have become the trademark of a Tarantino film. The man has said as much himself in explaining his films. “It’s a Tarantino film,” he says in answer to honest, adult questions about his duplicitous, or merely demented, pictures.

On the Charlie Rose show, talking up Inglourious Basterds, the perfect film fanboy revealed that he drove all over L.A. to watch his movie open in this theater and than one, asking audience members what they thought. Imagine the angst! What if he can’t pay off Brad Pitt’s $20 million salary! Will he ever work in this town again?!

Not to worry. America is with you, baby! As of this writing, Basterds is tops at the box office. Q. T. went on to say that he didn’t expect to be making movies by the time he hits age 60. At that ripe age, when he will be a senior citizen by definition, he expects to take up writing full time. He is now 46. This means that in 2023, if we are lucky, Quentin Tarantino will have passed into the legend and lore of Hollywood—long may it live—while we wait for the next clever fanboy to come up with a new strategy to mis-entertain us.

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.

My first full time job in Canada, when I moved there in 1969, was at Sunnybrook Hospital north of Toronto, as an orderly. It was easy for me to get work there as I had already worked at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and McLean mental hospital, in Belmont, MA.

Mostly I worked on the evening shift. It was a long bus ride from my digs in the city, and often I was late. This meant I was assigned to E-Block. E-Block was where veterans of Canada’s foreign wars were cared for. It was considered a punishment to deal with these old men, but I developed a fondness for them.

In the evening I undressed them and put them to bed. During the night I guided them to the bathroom in their nocturnal wanderings. In the morning I roused them and helped them to put on their starched white shirts and blue corduroy pants. Some patients were unruly and had to be tied into bed with restraints. One old battler wandered the halls looking for a fight. Part of the job entailed emptying colostomy bags. I also inserted catheters in patients who needed them under supervision of the night nurse, which was awkward for both of us.

During the day I gave the men sitz baths and oatmeal baths for their skin. Para- and quadra-pelagics required special attention. They rested on sheepskins, which had to be changed now and then. I bought gum and cigarettes for them from the commissary and listened to their stories. One stout white haired veteran had fought in a Scottish regiment in the First World War. All the men in his unit were six feet tall, he told me. They were mowed down by German machine gun fire, which he recalled more than a half century later with pain and regret. The older orderlies were also veterans. I got along well with them. All they cared about was that I did the job. Politics and the Vietnam War were of little interest to them. They considered me to be a good shit mate.

The old man in the poem is a composite character. The poem was originally titled “—- and the Orderly.” The editor at Poetry Toronto asked me to come up with a better title, and I obliged her.

Age And The Orderly

“Good morning, sir.” You greet me with a lung,
And shake your speckled hands and sneeze a stool,
And let in sun and air on tooth and tongue,
Assemble thought, and tell me sonic drool.

Man-to-man, old man, just what do you see?
You follow motion, turn to light and eyes.
Your wispy dome must hide a memory.
The beard inside your ears at least looks wise.

I measure you until the afternoon.
I bathe your body and a mystery.
You eat alone. You turn to face the spoon,
And turn aside from eggs to fantasy?

Some old men dribble secrets, but not you,
Prone cerebration looking up and through.

Later I worked as an orderly at The Wellesley Hospital, in downtown Toronto. Ernest Hemingway’s first son was born there. For awhile, I worked on the wards during the day. I was transferred to “Emerg,” as they called it, usually on the evening shift, the busiest time of day. I saw plenty of action there: rolled drunks, losers in bar fights, gunshot wounds, suicides, criminals brought in by the police, mental patients on the loose, heart attacks, a robber who cut his foot kicking in a gas station window, druggies who needed their stomach pumped, you name it. No one pulled a gun or knife on me or managed to land a punch.

I earned a reputation for calming bad situations. The nurses would say to me, “Talk to him, Hudson.” When it was quiet, I sat in a corner and read a book. Sometimes a bum came in from the cold for the night. The hospital provided such persons with a bed and a sandwich. These were older men and generally good-natured. Some carried lice, and the cubicle was fumigated after they left. I smoked cigarettes at the time, and they would hit on me for a smoke, which I provided for them. I tired of doing this and stopped smoking for the second and last time. Years later I took up a pipe.

After nine months of watching misery come in through the swinging orange door, I had had enough and punched out for the last time. I had saved up money for travel abroad. I punched out, tore my card in half, and stuck it in the Out slot under the night supervisor’s nose. The Wellesley was my fourth and last hospital.

Emergency Bum

Okay, I am a bum come through your door,
Not one bit sober, clean or young, and beat
Up slightly—one small cut. I know the score.
Please give me a bed and a bite to eat.

Turning over and over like a leaf,
I got up once and changed my underwear
And nothing happened. What the hell. “Hey, Chief,
Could you lend me a smoke?” Then you won’t care.

I’m ailing, so give me the brightest pills,
Something to dim my awareness of lice.
I fight for my pride and flop for your skills:
Orderly muscle, stitches, good advice.

Lean down close though I have odor to say;
Up there in health you’re much too far away.

These poems are included in Selected Poems 1967 –2007 by Hudson Owen.
All Rights Reserved.

I Too Walk 8x10 JPG

Fairly soon the U.S. Congress will pass health care reform. The various bills in the House of Representatives right now are being fiercely debated. Whatever the outcome, I can guarantee you some people will be happy with it, and others will not. And I doubt that whatever bill is passed will be the end of it.

Here are a few thoughts on the subject.

First, health care is not an entitlement. The Declaration of Independence declares “that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It does not mention health care. This is important, because once something becomes an entitlement, all other considerations go out the window. Everyone has to have it regardless of quality or cost. And we, as a nation, cannot afford this. We can afford better health care.

Second, you cannot pay for something if you don’t have the money. This sounds apparent, but it is often overlooked in these discussions. You can borrow against the future, but someday the bills will come due. In the meantime, you have to pay the interest on the debt.

So, how do we control rising health care costs? There are two ways I can think of. One is to put a price on every good and service. Insurance companies attempt to do this, to set standards, and in the current discussions they are reviled for placing “profits ahead of health.” However, someone must decide these things. It will either be an employee in private insurance or a government bureaucrat. Many people, thinking that health care is an entitlement, think it is also free—or at least the other guy should pay for your kidney transplant. The other way to lower costs is to drain money out of the system.

I can remember the 1950s, when a loaf of white bread cost 14 cents. The entire economy of scale was much smaller than it is today. You made less and paid less. My family was covered by Blue Cross/Blue Shield. My father had a good job, but we weren’t rich by any means. When I got sick, Dr. Bender came to the house with his black medical bag and told me to stick out my tongue and say “ahhhh.” It worked. I don’t know what we paid for health insurance, but it didn’t break the bank. My sister and I were never told that we couldn’t go on vacation that year because of unpaid medical bills. Blue Cross couldn’t charge a fortune for health insurance because no one could afford it. Once the federal government got in the business of health care with Medicare and Medicaid—and I don’t say they serve no purpose—medical costs rose at a higher rate, just as the cost of a college education shot up when federal funds became readily available to students and families. This leads to Point Three, which is really a corollary of Two:

If you scatter the bread crumbs, the pigeons will come. Case in point is an acquaintance of mine who had a cardiac stent put into his chest. He spent one day and night in the hospital and was released the next day. Cost: $10,000 for the operation, $10,000 for the hospital, and $10,000 for drugs. He was an employee of New York City and his union insurance paid for all of it. He wondered out loud, “I’d like to see the ten thousand for drugs.” And he wasn’t talking about heroin or cocaine.

If the union wasn’t able to command vast sums from the public purse, the entire procedure would have cost much less. You will notice that New York City is billions of dollars in the red with the highest taxes in the nation.

Four, the best health care is what you do for yourself. This is not to be confused with preventive measures like government-funded preventive medicine apart from regular checkups. Studies show that this kind of approach adds to health care costs overall because doctors can’t predict who will benefit from the care. They still must charge for the many preventive procedures that don’t help.

I’m talking about the things you can do for yourself, by eating a healthy diet (based on fruits and vegetables) and exercising, by treating yourself well and not getting sick in the first place. That you can control. It’s much better to take care of yourself and not go to the doctor then the abuse your body and become a chronic patient with serious disorders, even if someone else is paying. After all, even the best medicine cannot cure everything.

Which would you rather live in: A world in which most people are sick and in constant need of medication attention, costing ever larger amounts of the national budget? Or a world in which most people are well, taxes are low and medical expenses are light?

Health care is one of those issues that involve many players and a great deal of money. It doesn’t necessarily reward efficiency. The people who use it the most don’t necessarily contribute the most to the system; in fact, just the opposite. Lawyers will fight tooth and nail against tort reform because they benefit mightily from sky high costs for medical procedures and malpractice. I’ve read about doctors who became lawyers; I’ve never read about the reverse. If you want to know who runs the world, it’s not doctors.

However, tort reform is essential. Otherwise, there will be insufficient doctors practicing general medicine to handle an increased patient load under any of the plans under consideration. This will surely lead to rationing of care whether anyone admits it or not.

Many people think that the single payer system, as they have in Canada, for example, is the best way to go. Presidents starting with Harry Truman have argued for it. President Obama has said that if he were to start from scratch, he’d opt for the single payer system. Maybe it is the best way, I can’t say for sure. Single payer has the virtue of being easy to explain. Pull the knob on the health care machine and out pops a heart, a kidney, a root canal. It’s so simple and it hardly costs a dime! What seems simple in smaller countries and countries with smaller, less contentious populations, is not simple in America.

The countries that have single payer, or single payer plus a small private plan, including Britain, Canada, France, Sweden, Switzerland, all have or have had socialist parties in power. Their populations are accustomed to dealing with socialist governments, paying their high taxes and receiving their generous benefits. Americans have never supported socialism and communism at the polls. Americans think of themselves as individuals and value freedom of choice. When we shop, we like to compare products and get the best deal. We like to horse trade. In order to comparison shop, you need to know the value of the products, and right now, the numerous health care proposals are poorly presented and confusing.

Those who oppose ObamaCare, as it is being called, need to clarify their ideas and show more convincingly that they will solve the real problems of our present health care system by providing “quality, affordable health care to all Americans,” while preserving what is good about the present system. They need to show that their products, based on sound market principles, will save money and avoid a new giant government bureaucracy like the proposed Federal Health Board. Remember Ross Perot and his pie charts?

Maybe what we need is a dual system: Basic and Advanced—similar to computer programs that ask if you want the basic installation (recommended), or the advanced installation for more experienced users, where you choose which parts of the package to install. The Basic Plan would be for those who want to push the simple button and not think too much about it. They would get good care though not necessarily the best care. The Advanced Plan would be for those willing to sort through the details to make more intelligent choices. Their plan would offer greater risks and greater rewards, especially for those who take care of their health, as well.

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.

In Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke” a meeting of the local culture society comes to order. Vernon, described as “a willowy younger man with an open collar and Byronic locks,” has brought his long verse play to read. It is quickly decided to put off the verse play till cooler weather and hear a paper on William Blake instead. Alma, the heroine, suggests that before the paper is read one of Blake’s poems should be heard to acquaint the group with the English poet, and she reads “Love’s Secret,” which is greeted by “various effusions and enthusiastic applause.”

Vernon never utters a word and does not appear in the play although we are told in a later scene that his verse play was read in another meeting. “Ah, how was it received?” asks Alma. “Maliciously, spitefully and vindictively torn to pieces…” replies Mrs. Bassett.

Williams does not make it clear whether the malicious response is deserved. His sketch of Vernon as a would-be small town Lord Byron suggests satire aimed at a certain type of perennial sentimental versifier hopelessly out of touch with art and life.

Poetry is the historical language of the theater. From the ancient Greeks until mid-19th Century it held sway, being challenged at times by melodrama, farce and outright circus. Circus is the historical enemy of the theater. On the London stage in the Romantic Period one could find nautical drama, equestrian drama and plays built around animal acts.

From Ibsen into the present, prose has been the dominant language of the stage. Prose is the language of the Modern Age; of the scientist, technician, journalist, ad exec, talk show host, sports celebrity. All of the professions considered to be more important and worthwhile than the poet. It is the language of the transfer of information and disinformation, of getting along in the Space Age, Atomic Age, Computer Age.

The looming obstacle the American poet confronts in his or her journey in the theater is the uncertain status of the poet in the society and culture.

Our heroes, mythical and real, are lumberjacks and frontiersmen, cowboys and drifters. Walt Whitman has had bridges and schools named after him. He is not woven into the fabric of the nation in the way Shakespeare is in England. Poets win grants and prizes but make little impact on the culture at large. Poets have preferred the politics of flat-sounding unquoteable lines. Art has been replaced by sincerity. Most of us know more rock lyrics and TV jingles by heart than we do lines from poems.

Since the 1960’s, the theater has been dominated by the speech of adolescent rebellion. The 60s brought youthful energy into the theater and a fresh awareness of the body, and with that a sharp tongue, the politics of shit-fuck.

The most compelling reason for a stronger presence of the poet in our theater is simple economics.

Recently, I noticed a script call in the Dramatists Guild Newsletter by a theater group asking for “kitchen sink realism.” Well, realism has an honorable tradition in our theater, but I wonder what kind of sink they have in mind. Probably a porcelain model of the 1930s.

The truth is, the theater cannot afford much in the way of realism these days. The production budget is too small, and every playwright knows this. In a curious way, economics has thrust the small theater back into the days of The Globe in terms of the limits imposed on staging.

If the theater is to mean anything any longer as an art form, if it is not to be reduced to mere craft, it must reach out in some apparently limitless direction.

If poets/playwrights are to be part of the age they live in, there must be a loosening and broadening of imagination. We cannot continually reinvent Checkhov and Ibsen as if nothing has happened since their day. A 30-second TV commercial contains more visual information than a stage play. The news broadcast gives you realism, and doesn’t cost a dime.

The theater is whatever writers, actors and directors choose to make of it. Like all art, it is artifice.

Our society is fragmented and sectarian. We have women’s theater, gay theater, minority theater. Each faction seeks to appeal to and influence the world. Can’t we also have a poets’ theater?

Poets/playwrights, used to scrabbling for existence, are a feisty lot. And numbering in the tens of thousands, we are no small army.

If you are cynical, you might say the odds against a vital, challenging theater in the 1990s are long indeed. The theater is too divided, too political, too crazy, especially in New York. The audience is laff happy and soft. As a people we no longer have the intellectual and spiritual capacity to take up the great themes with conviction. Is it the best we can hope for in the twilight of this the American Century to be decently entertained by those who buy us out?

We have come to the end of the road in this amazing 20th Century, reached a vanishing point. All of us. Along side the white light at ground zero stands a blank canvas, an empty page. It is exciting, this empty space, because it means that one thing has ended, whatever that is. We begin a new painstaking search…touching our keypads and powering up!

First published in Lamia Ink 1990. By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.

Dreams are running
from my ears like hot wax.

Imagination wanders
like sun struck heifers
circling in a flat stupor,
their flint hooves raising dust
finer than ash.

Random memories
of more natural days
are X-rayed on the wall
like the images fixed on stone
of sundry objects
by the Hiroshima light.

Time evaporated at noon.

By Hudson Owen. From Selected Poems 1967 -2007.

In her July 14 New York Times column, “White Man’s Last Stand,” about the Supreme Court nominee hearings, Maureen Dowd wrote: “A wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not know that a gaggle of white Republican men afraid of extinction are out to trip her up.”

Ms. Dowd is very often a witty writer. She frequently writes about political subjects, dressing them up as kings, queens and princes, with pithy or eloquent quotes from literature, making them seem more interesting to the reader than they otherwise would be. In this, Ms. Dowd is essentially a literary writer. And it would be fair and accurate to say that most of her references come from the very writers making their last stand, according to her. And if she does not mean those words, what does she mean?

Frank Rich, the former Times drama critic, has been writing opinion pieces for the same paper for some time now. His August 2nd piece, “Small Beer, Big Hangover,” begins thus:

“The escalating white fear of newly empowered ethnic groups and blacks is a naked replay of more than a century ago, when large waves of immigration and the northern migration of emancipated blacks, coupled with a tumultuous modernization of the American work force, unleashed a similar storm of racial and nativist panic.” His reference is to the Gates-Crowley confrontation (See my essay “Profiling in America”) and beer drinking with the President in the Rose Garden to smooth things over. Mr. Rich ends with: “Beer won’t cool the fury of those who can’t accept the reality that America’s racial profile will no longer reflect their own.”

In this and other columns, Mr. Rich sees himself as an insider, confident of his acumen and place in the world. The white men he writes about are Republicans, with whom he apparently shares nothing in common. The ill effects they will suffer as their numbers dwindle and influence decreases will not affect him, a liberal Democrat. Unlike Ms. Dowd, he seldom uses literary or theatrical references to make his point. In the above-cited columns, the two authors write as self-negating liberals.

The hallmark of the self-negating liberal is his/her apparent lack of self-interest. He has no turf to defend, no stake or holdings, cultural or otherwise, in the world under threat and in need of defense. His sole purpose in the world, apart from feeding himself and taking care of his immediate needs, is to promote the cause of the Other, whoever that might be. Thus, the interests and concerns of the Other largely take precedence over his own concerns.
Whenever the Other is attacked, the SNL rushes to his defense. And his efforts, he imagines, are always appreciated. Never does he imagine that his own tastes and concerns will ever clash with the expansion of the Other in the world. He never seems to consider that the Other will someday supercede him and his kind. Rather, the Other will always allow the SNL to hold his high place in the world and treat him with deference and respect.

Of course, the self-negating liberal does have self-interests. He does have tastes, habits, old favorites, cultural icons, tribal myths and memories he values and cherishes. If it came down to it, he probably would defend his family in a fight. But he never admits to these things.

I am not interested in defending the Republican Party, giving it advice on how to win future elections. I am suspicious of partisan politics though I recognize they are a fact of the political landscape. My interests cross party lines. My interest here is in social and cultural habits, myths, stories, ideas, that are or were part of the core culture, and are worth defending today.

A minor case in point: the 2003 film “Sylvia,”about the life of Sylvia Plath. There is a scene early on, in an English pub, when Plath, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, and then-boyfriend Ted Hughes, played by Daniel Craig, deliver poems from memory to several barflies. They speak quickly and loudly, shrilly, which I believe is uncharacteristic of English-speaking poets of that era. Listening to the pair of them, it struck me that director Christine Jeffs was trying to show the contemporary art film audience that 1950s girls and boys could jazz it up just like minority-led rappers of today. It struck me as a false, unnecessary moment in an otherwise absorbing film.

Critics have been commenting for the past half decade on the coarsening of American culture. We have gone from “want to” to “wanna” in short order. I believe there are two forces at work here: white anti-intellectualism stemming from the 1960s, and minority slang, habits, customs and dress codes. I would not accuse the afore-mentioned Times columnists of being inarticulate. Far from it. Both are good writers. They came from my world, generally speaking.

However, in their incessant attacks on the outer manifestations of that world, they are undermining more than they allow. Continuing her attack on white men in her column, Maureen Dowd wrote: “After all, these guys have never needed to speak inspirational words to others like them, as Sotomayor has done. They’ve had codes, handshakes and clubs to do that.” She knows about these codes, handshakes and clubs from her own personal contacts; contacts that in some instances must have moved her career forward. Some of these men have confided in her, told her secrets and juicy tidbits that she has used in her articles. Now she is eager to betray them.

The self-negating liberals see these men, variously described as conservatives, Republicans, right wing radicals, as an obsolete breed, circling their wagons as they face an annihilating charge of Indians, who will cleanse the world of their bad governance and misdeeds. But I wonder.

It seems to me that behind the front line of attack, the SNLs have left their flank exposed. Behind their lines in the cultural wars is a void. No one is minding their fort, their well-springs and supplies. After all, they work tirelessly in the service of the Other. Those that will survive in the turbulent times ahead will be those that defend their sources, who strive to preserve something of their mythology, stories, sensibility: the well-springs of their strength and reason for being; those who take pride in their accomplishments.

I too want to live in a better world. I recognize the limitations and faults of the world I came from. But I doubt that the wholesale slaughter of the post-World War II America will lead to a better, brighter, more sustainable future. Looking around, I just don’t see it.

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.