On Top of Mount Whitney

View from Mt. Whitney

Just a few pics from my recent hike up Mount Whitney.  I think this may represent my last strenuous hike.  It was a great experience, but it was also an ass-kicker.  Going straight from the Ohio Valley to 14,500 feet can wreak havoc with your brain and lungs.  But, I summited…and survived to tell.

(Next year, I’m limiting it to a couple days in the Scottish highlands.)

Mt. Whitney Portal road

The Whitney Portal Road from Lone Pine, California looked innocent enough.

Sunset at Mt. Whitney Trail Camp2

Base camp (“Trail Camp”) was at 12,000 feet.  Rock everywhere, a narrow crevasse between cliffs that created a howling wind chute.  No rest for the wicked when 50 mph winds whip your tent all night, and your skull feels like it’s being squeezed in a vise.

 

Trail partner A.J.

On the summit hike, I hooked up with a 39-year-old guy from Daytona Beach named A.J.  Equally fatigued, we doubled over every 300 feet or so to catch our breath, allowing the stronger hikers to pass by.

Climbing toward Whitney

In addition to altitude sickness (acute mountain sickness, or AMS), I suffer from vertigo.  There were several massive drop-offs where I forced myself not to look down, leaning into the mountain, grasping the rock, and praying that my footing was solid.  Many hikers, unbelievably,  follow this trail at night (using headlamps).  Guess there’s a reason why people have died trying to summit.

Mt. Whitney shelter

Mt. Whitney plaque

Mount Whitney is the highest point in the contiguous United States.  The only signs you’ve arrived at the top are a plaque, an old stone shelter littered with graffiti, and your fellow hikers, celebrating in their own ways.

I stayed a second night at Trail Camp on the way down.  The wind was just as vicious, and my headache was only slightly better.  Blood was now clogging my sinuses.

On the way back to Whitney Portal, and Lone Pine, I hiked with a retired 67-year-old man named Dennis.  He and his wife had driven up from Phoenix (his wife stayed in a B&B at Lone Pine).  Dennis was a veteran backpacker, but was unable to summit due to allergies and lack of sleep due to the wind at Trail Camp.  He, too, admitted he was retiring from strenuous hikes.

After returning to Lone Pine, I rested up in the Dow Villa Motel, which dates to the 1920s, then visited a nearby film museum.  I did not know that this area, with its scenic Alabama Hills, is legendary for providing the setting for hundreds of Hollywood Westerns, both silent films and talkies.  In fact, many of the greats at one time stayed at the Dow Villa: Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, John Wayne, among others.

Lone Pine Film Museum

Not sure if Humphrey Bogart stayed in Lone Pine when he made the movie High Sierra.  When I bumped into him at the museum, he wasn’t talking.

After a modest recovery in the relaxing and historic Dow Villa, I hiked for a few days in Yosemite.  Then hitched/shuttled to Reno, Nevada to catch a plane home.

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In summation, I’ve always thought I was immune to altitude sickness.  But I learned otherwise.  If any prospective daredevil mountain climbers are reading this, make sure you become acclimated to higher altitudes before attempting any major climb.  Severe AMS can cause hospitalization, and even death.

Suffice to say, I’m looking forward to the gentler peaks of Scotland’s West Highland Way.

Top 'o the World, Ma

“Top ‘o the world, Ma!”

When You Have to Shoot, SHOOT (Don’t Talk): The Revisionist Western

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A man lies in a wooden bathtub filled with soap suds. His face is dotted with beard stubble and beads of sweat. There are pockmarks punched into his left cheek and a bloody gash above his right eyebrow. A leather, string necklace dangles from his neck. He licks his dirty finger then digs inside his ear.

Suddenly, the wooden, saloon-style doors swing open and a one-armed man brandishing a six-shooter bursts into the room.

“I been lookin’ for you for eight months,” he croaks. “Whenever I SHOULDA had a gun in my RIGHT hand, I thought of you. Now I find you exactly in the position that suits me. I had lotsa time to learn how to shoot with my LEFT.”

There’s the sound of a click, then four bursts of gunfire, as suds spray from the tub. The one-armed man spins back through the door, topples over a table, and lands on a broken bed. He groans and struggles to get upright. The bathtub guy rests his gun barrel on the swinging door, and fires one final shot.

In a gruff Mexican accent, he says “When you have to shoot, SHOOT. Don’t talk.”

The entire scene lasts almost two minutes. But only twenty seconds is dialog.

If you are a fan of Clint Eastwood, you probably know this scene. It is one of many memorable moments from the Sergio Leone-directed “Spaghetti Western” entitled “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Although Eastwood is the star, Eli Wallach (the Mexican in the bathtub, named “Tuco”) and bad guy Lee Van Cleef help make this film one of the great “revisionist” Westerns. Even if you’ve never seen it, you’re surely familiar with the title and the music, which are now embedded in popular culture.

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Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach set the standard for “buddy” movies

It is Oscar time again, and, surprisingly, two movies nominated this year for awards are Westerns (The Revenant and The Hateful Eight). This gives me an opportunity to talk about some of my favorite Westerns, with “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” at the top of the list.

One hears the term “revisionist” much these days, and it is usually in negative way. Revisionist history often implies embellishing or altering historical fact to suit a particular agenda. But Revisionist Westerns were intended to bring more realism to a film genre, and, in my opinion, they improved the genre. Nothing against John Ford, John Wayne, or Gary Cooper, who made some of the most noteworthy Westerns in Tinseltown. But I prefer cowboys who have a little tobacco juice on their whiskers – if you know what I mean.

Before the 1960s and dating back to the silent film era of the 1920s, movie Westerns and later television Westerns were extraordinarily popular, but very formulaic. With only a few exceptions, there were good guys and bad guys, and little in-between. The actors looked like they had just stepped from the fitting room at JCPenney. The dialog was clean and predictable. Even the violence was clean, with maybe a spot of grey, at most, to reveal blood. If a good guy was shot, he always managed to take a few moments to gasp some poignant last words.

Women were limited to secondary roles as wives or sweethearts. American Indians were always portrayed by white actors, and always the evil aggressor. If Mexicans were depicted at all, they were generally lazy and subservient (a notable exception being in the Marlon Brando vehicle, Viva Zapata).

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William Holden in “The Wild Bunch”

But in the 1960s and early ‘70s, America went through many changes, and these changes affected how movies were made, including Westerns. Realism began to displace romanticism, and Westerns became more cynical and critical of the motives and actions of frontier lawmen, settlers, Christian missionaries, government agents, and the U.S. Army. Westerns reflected the times in which they were made.

In addition to theme and tone, style changed as well. European directors like Leone had much to do with this. I already devoted a whole blog post to Spaghetti Westerns (Spaghetti Western Feast), so I won’t reiterate here. But these foreign-made Revisionist Westerns greatly influenced Hollywood. They emphasized realistic cinematography, action and atmosphere over dialog, authentic costuming and makeup, and, for good or bad (or ugly)… a much harder edge to the violence.

And – finally – Hollywood began employing Native Americans, instead of Caucasians who wore wigs and brown skin cream.

I’ve once again blathered on far too long. Let’s get to the good stuff. As promised, here are my top ten favorite Westerns. All of them can be considered Revisionist Westerns. (One favorite NOT in this list is HUD, starring Paul Newman, and based on the book Horseman, Pass By by Larry McMurtry. Although revisionist in nature, the setting is the contemporary West.  I feel this brilliant flick deserves a separate category.)

Here they are:

10. THEY CALL ME TRINITY (1970): An unusual Spaghetti Western that spoofs the genre, it is the first in a series of “Trinity” movies starring blond, blue-eyed Terence Hill. trinityHe plays a lazy, happy-go-lucky cowboy who teams with his brooding brother to protect a town of pacifist Mormons from a ruthless land baron. Lighthearted fare with lots of funny moments (including hilarious overdubs).

9. THE APPALOOSA (1966): Marlon Brando portrays a Mexican-American buffalo hunter trying to recapture a beloved, stolen horse. scorpionsI haven’t seen it in years, but I remember it as a minor gem with lots of atmosphere. A highlight is a great arm wrestling scene with live scorpions on the table. Unrelated to Appaloosa (2008) with Ed Harris.

8. WILL PENNY (1968): Charlton Heston called this his favorite film. He plays a loner cowboy whose mountain cabin has been “borrowed” by a young widow and her son. Beautiful scenery, with excellent supporting cast, especially bad guys Donald Pleasance and Bruce Dern. A little old-fashioned, but revisionist due to an unusual ending.

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7. THE WILD BUNCH (1969): This might be director Sam Peckinpah’s greatest film. wildbunchposeIt stars William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, and other great actors too numerous to list. The Old West is changing, and a team of aging outlaws go south of the border after one last heist. Raw, bawdy, THE WILD BUNCH makes John Ford Westerns look like chick flicks. “Let’s go!”

6. ONE-EYED JACKS (1961): one eyed jacksAnother Brando flick, this was his only directorial attempt and is maybe the first Revisionist Western. He plays Rio, a robber who is double-crossed by his older partner, Dad Longworth (Karl Malden), and who years later tracks him down. His plans to kill Dad are complicated when he falls in love with Dad’s virginal daughter. Rio is nasty, but the audience sympathizes with his plight. Malden, who had appeared with Brando in both On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire, called him “a genius in our time” after this film.

5. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968): This is an epic Spaghetti Western by Sergio Leone and stars Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, and Charles Bronson. Like THE WILD BUNCH, it concerns the encroachment of civilization (the railroad) on the Old West. bronsonFonda is chilling as the villain, Bronson is moody and mysterious, and Robards adds class. Claudia Cardinale plays a struggling widow, but she’s also sexy and independent. Her “rape” by Fonda is very unsettling.

4. HOMBRE (1967): Based on an early Elmore Leonard novel about a white man raised by Apaches, Paul Newman portrays the stoic and taciturn John Russell, who, reluctantly, has to protect a group of bigoted whites from a band of outlaws. One of the bigots is a corrupt Apache Indian agent (excellently played by the great Fredric March). After 40 years of vanilla Westerns, here’s one that honestly depicts racism against Indians.

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3. JEREMIAH JOHNSON (1972): Beautifully shot in the mountains of Utah, with some of the most breathtaking cinematography of any Western. Robert Redford plays an alienated Mexican War veteran who disappears into the Rocky Mountains to become a trapper. crow indianHe meets an eccentric grizzly hunter, is forced into leading a group of pioneers through hostile Crow country, and soon has to defend himself from isolated attacks by Crow warriors. Atmospheric, with sparse dialog, it is (literally) great escapism.

2. LITTLE BIG MAN (1970): little big manThis movie is perfect on every level. It is tragic, funny, dramatic, has great acting (Chief Dan George was nominated for an Oscar), and it depicts Plains Indian cultural and spiritual life with sensitivity, humor, and truth. Richard Mulligan makes a more enjoyable Gen. George A. Custer than Custer himself. See this movie at least once before you die!

1. THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1966): Six reasons to watch this film: clintSergio Leone, Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef, soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone, and the stark Andalusia landscape. What this movie lacks in substance it makes up in style. What else can I say?  Only that I’ve seen this movie well over a dozen times and I keep going back for more.

Whew! I apologize for not heeding Tuco’s advice, and talking too long. I guess my only excuse is that I love movies, particularly Westerns, and I also love lists. And I’d love to see your own lists, so please tell me your own favorites (revisionist or otherwise).

Until then, I wish you happy trails and beautiful sunsets!

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Spaghetti Western Feast

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Who likes Spaghetti Westerns?  I love Spaghetti Westerns.  And the more pasta, the better.  “What’s he talking about?” some of you are thinking.  “What does John Wayne have to do with marinara sauce??”  Well, this essay will explain.  I’ll also give a short list of my top five “Spags” – in case anyone would like to sample the cuisine.

Here’s the Spaghetti Western Database definition of a Spaghetti Western (this assumes most of you already know what a “Western” is):

The spaghetti western was born in the first half of the sixties and lasted until the second half of the seventies. It got its name from the fact that most of them were directed and produced by Italians, often in collaboration with other European countries, especially Spain and Germany. The name ‘spaghetti western’ originally was a depreciative term, given by foreign critics to these films because they thought they were inferior to American westerns. Most of the films were made with low budgets, but several still managed to be innovative and artistic, although at the time they didn’t get much recognition, even in Europe. In the eighties the reputation of the genre grew and today the term is no longer used disparagingly, although some Italians still prefer to call the films western all’italiana (westerns Italian style). In Japan they are called Macaroni westerns, in Germany Italowestern.

I’ll add that most casual Western fans in America associate Spags with four films produced and directed by Sergio Leone, three of which starred a young Clint Eastwood (before he started talking to empty chairs): A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (the fourth is Leone’s epic ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST).  Although these are the most well-made and popular, there are hundreds of lesser-known Spags, some of them quite interesting.  Many have outrageous titles like GOD FORGIVES, I DON’T and LIGHT THE FUSE…SARTANA IS COMING!  Many also feature the alternately weird and majestic musical scores of Ennio Morricone.  Stylistic trademarks include sparse, dubbed-in dialogue, lingering close-ups, desolate landscapes – and often the lack of coherent plot (forget substance, Spags are all about atmosphere).

Spaghetti Westerns are also very violent.  Quentin Tarantino’s recent DJANGO UNCHAINED is a modern-day nod to Spags.  I’ve been critical of overt violence in cinema, but I do think there’s a difference between the almost cartoonish violence in movies about the Old West and the more realistic violence of today.  Anyway, that’s my lame excuse.

So here are my Top 5 Spaghetti Westerns:

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY: The most popular Spag, it’s also one of the greatest Westerns ever made.  Eastwood perfected his cool “Man with No Name” persona here.  He gets great support in bad Lee Van Cleef, a mainstay of the Spag genre, as Col. Douglas Mortimer (aka “Angel Eyes”); and ugly Eli Wallach, who provided a crude but lovable character as Mexican bandit Tuco and lifted this film to another level.  This is a long trail-ride of a movie about a search for buried gold, and it has dozens of great moments.  My favorite is a scene with a drunken Union general (a parody of U.S. Grant). Also the climactic three-way cemetery shootout.  And Morricone’s sweeping music is instantly recognizable even to those unfamiliar with Spaghetti Westerns.

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ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST: Another Leone flick, this movie is a bittersweet depiction of what happened when civilization intruded upon the Wild West, changing it forever.  Henry Fonda, usually a good guy, played the blue-eyed killer, Frank, one of the coldest villains in film history.  The hanging scene at the end is a classic.  Also stars Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale, and Charles Bronson as…wait for it…“Harmonica.”

THE GREAT SILENCE: This Spag is unusual because the entire movie takes place in the snow.  The cinematography is gorgeous, and it showcases creepy, maniacal actor Klaus Kinski as a soulless bounty hunter.  It also has a highly erotic, interracial love scene.  Director Sergio Corbucci loved downbeat endings, and this movie is no exception (though the DVD adds an alternate, more upbeat ending).

COMPAÑEROS: Starring charismatic Franco Nero, a big star in Europe, along with the entertaining Tomas Milian.  The movie has plot holes large enough to drive a wagon train through, but it’s a rollicking good time and, like a lot of Spags, it centers on an unstable partnership between two antiheroes.  It also has great comic elements, plus the added attraction of beautiful German actress Iris Berben. 

THEY CALL ME TRINITY: In the early ‘70s, a series of lighthearted Spaghetti Western parodies came out starring Terence Hill.  Many Spag fans don’t like the Trinity films, but I say “Hey, it’s all in good fun.”  Some prefer MY NAME IS NOBODY, with Fonda as an aging gunfighter worshipped by Hill, but I prefer this one, the first in the series, because it’s less goofy than the others.  Watch this one after you’ve seen a few of the more “straight” Spags.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my tribute to Spaghetti Westerns.  If you do choose to sample this pasta – gringo – may I recommend complementing your meal with our house tequila, followed by a skinny cigar?  No?  Maybe some sarsaparilla and refried beans?

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Oscars’ 10 Most Unforgettable Moments

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Tonight is the night when Hollywood allows the rest of the world to peek into its party while it pats itself on the back.  Statuettes are handed out, gushy speeches are made, and most importantly, the stars get to pose for paparazzi while displaying their expensive jewelry, revealing gowns, and their physical endowments – and often their plastic surgery.  Most of the hoorah is pretty silly (at least in my opinion).  But occasionally something happens that makes the pomp and ceremony worthwhile.  And since everyone else is doing it, here’s longitudes‘ own list of the Academy Awards’ unforgettable moments, from “The Trip” to “The Tramp.”  Some are funny; some are curious, embarrassing, and poignant.  But they’re all memorable:

10. “THE TRIP.”  The first Academy Awards ceremony to be televised was in 1952.  The Best Supporting Actress award went to B-movie mainstay Gloria Grahame (for whom I earlier devoted an entire blog post).  Nobody expected Grahame to win for her small role in the Kirk Douglas movie The Bad and the Beautiful, least of all the actress herself.  But Hollywood legend has her tripping while she walked down the aisle to accept her trophy from Edmund Gwenn and Bob Hope.  The press later accused her of being drunk.  I don’t know.  I’ve seen the clip on “YouTube,” and although she looked a little unsteady, possibly from all the TV lights, I didn’t see her stumble.  If she was drunk, she played it safe, for her acceptance speech consisted of four words: “Thank you very much.”

9. “THE DUKE.”  John Wayne had handed out Academy Awards a number of times, but he didn’t win one until 1969 for his role as “Rooster Cogburn” in the original True Grit.  He gave a short, classy speech, mentioning that if he had known he’d win the coveted statue, “I’d have put that patch on 30 years earlier.”  Despite his very right-leaning politics in liberal Hollywood, Wayne beat out more talented actors like Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight.  Did he deserve the Oscar?  Does it matter?  The award was as much for his impact on film history as anything else.  And it was touching to see the big man wiping away a couple tears.

8. “THE PUSHUPS.”  Jack Palance had a long history in film, going back to the 1950 Elia Kazan-directed Panic in the Streets.  He usually had supporting roles as a tough guy.  In 1991 he won Best Supporting Actor for his role in the comedy-western City Slickers.  When he accepted his award, the 73-year-old Palance looked down at his much shorter costar Billy Crystal and said “I crap bigger than him.”  He then got down on the floor and did one-handed pushups.  It was a funny moment that provided Crystal with a running gag for the rest of the show: “Palance just bungee-jumped off the Hollywood sign” and “He fathered all the children in a production number,” etc. (NOTE: somehow, a myth went “viral” that it was the indomitable Kirk Douglas who did the pushups.  No, folks, it was Palance.)

7.  “THE ICEBREAKER.”  The first African-American to win an Academy Award wasn’t Sidney Poitier for the 1963 film Lilies of the Field.  It was Hattie McDaniel, who won 23 years earlier for her role as “Mammy” in the classic Gone With the Wind.  She gave a tearful speech, and her award was testament to how progressive Hollywood was compared to the rest of the country.  But even Hollywood had a ways to go.  McDaniel emphasized she hoped to be a “credit to my race.”  And after her speech, she returned to a segregated table.

6. “THE POSE.”  Last year one of the presenters was luscious-lipped, long-legged Angelina Jolie.  A regular to the red carpet, Jolie forgot she was off the carpet when she presented the award for Best Screenwriter.  She awkwardly planted her left hand on her hip and thrust her naked right leg through her split gown.  This after lip-locking her own brother ten years earlier.  The Descendants’ screewnwriter Jim Rash, thinking quickly, did a hilarious imitation of Jolie when he reached the podium to share the screenwriter award.

5.  “THE CRUSADER.” In 1973 Marlon Brando won Best Actor for his unforgettable portrayal of Mafia boss “Don Corleone” in The Godfather.  One of the most gifted of American actors, and perhaps the most influential of the last 60 years, Brando was heavily involved in securing rights for Native Americans by 1973.  He used the Academy Awards to make a statement.  Rather than accepting his award himself, Brando sent a young American Indian Movement member, Sacheen Littlefeather, to deliver his 15-page speech.  She was booed when she tried to protest against television’s negative portrayal of Indians. (She later read Brando’s manifesto to the press backstage.)  The incident prompted the Academy to prohibit proxy acceptance of Oscars.  Littlefeather later posed for Playboy.

4.  “THE MILITANT.”  Brando may have at least had a point, but Vanessa Redgrave’s stab at “Zionist hoodlums” picketing outside the 1977 awards was pointless and embarrassing.  Like Brando, Redgrave was (and is) enormously talented.  But she was also politically controversial, immersing herself in causes for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).  So it’s not surprising she injected politics in her acceptance speech for Best Actress for her role in Julia. Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky later admonished her that “her winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history” and a “simple ‘thank you’ would have sufficed.”

3.  “THE GRATITUDE.”  Louise Fletcher won Best Actress for her role as “Nurse Ratched” in the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Until that time, Fletcher was fairly unknown, having appeared in some minor television and film roles over 10 years earlier.  As Nurse Ratched, she was one of the most cold-blooded characters in film history.  But her acceptance speech was one of the most tearful, when she used sign language to acknowledge her parents, who were deaf.  Ten years later deaf actress Marlee Matlin won Best Actress for her role in Children of a Lesser God.

2.  “THE STREAKER.”  David Niven was onstage at the 46th Academy Awards in 1974 when a streaker struck.  At that time, streaking – or running naked through a public place – was all the rage.  Niven was introducing a presenter when one Robert Opel jogged naked across the stage behind Niven and flashed the peace sign.  Fortunately for “Oscar,” the television cameras only caught a glimpse of Opel’s pubic hair.  Quick-witted Niven, in classic British understatement, remarked that “Isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”  His quip was so perfect that some have suggested the streaking was planned.  After all, it is Hollywood, isn’t it?

1. ” THE TRAMP.”  For my money, the most memorable Oscar moment was legendary Charlie Chaplin receiving an Honorary Oscar in 1972.  Chaplin wrote, produced, directed, edited, scored, and starred in movies beginning in 1914.  His most famous screen character was “The Little Tramp.”  In 1940 he made a movie, The Great Dictator, that satirized Adolf Hitler.  But in 1952 he had to exile himself to Switzerland due to the McCarthy-era witchhunts in the U.S.  Twenty years later he finally returned to the states to accept the award for his “humor and humanity” and received a 12-minute standing ovation.  It was a powerful moment that may never be equaled.  Hollywood remakes and sequels are never as good as the original.  Chaplin was an original.