Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Bound for glory

The Native Americans called him “Son of the Morning Star,” because he liked to attack at dawn. Tonight at 8 on Thirteen/WNET, PBS’ “American Experience” explores the life and legacy of George Armstrong Custer – the Civil War hero who in June of 1876 was overmatched, defeated and killed by native forces in a battle near the Little Bighorn River in what is now Montana. Andrew Young, a Croton-on-Hudson filmmaker who was featured in the November WAG, served as director of photography on “Custer’s Last Stand,” which ultimately plumbs the fateful character of a man bound for glory in the worst possible way.

Custer’s courageous but reckless and arrogant nature has long been the subject of film treatment. (Errol Flynn, anyone?) But those wishing to follow up on tonight’s work should begin with Evan S. Connell’s “Son of the Morning Star: Custer and The Little Bighorn.” It is biography as superb literature and quite frankly, one of the best books you’ll ever read.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Gridiron Galahad

With everyone talking about Tim Tebow, I wanted to weigh in – not because I know anything about football but because I can’t stand being left out of a conversation.

Although football and religion are beyond the purview of this blog, culture certainly isn’t, and so I’d like to talk about Tebow as a cultural phenomenon, which is what he is at the moment.

On one plane, he fulfills the classic American sports narrative – the at -once accessible and transcendent individual who while containing some seeming handicap (here a reportedly less than stellar throwing motion) nonetheless triumphs. I offer two examples from nonfiction and fiction. In “Seabiscuit,” the little horse that could overcomes even lofty War Admiral and galvanizes a nation in some of its darkest days. In the film “The Natural” – far different from Bernard Malamud’s dark novel on which it was based – the presumably over-the-hill Roy Hobbs jump-starts the hapless New York Knights and has fans once again believing in the importance of honor.

It’s interesting that the team is named the Knights. The medieval knight, the mythic Knights of the Round Table: These remain touchstones in our culture. The greatest of the Knights of the Round Table isn’t Arthur or Lancelot or Gawaine or Perceval but Galahad, because he remains pure of heart, one in himself, a person of integrity. And so he alone attains the Holy Grail and a vision of heaven so ecstatic that he is swept from this earth.

There’s a lot of Galahad in Tebow, a person of faith who seems to heed only the divine music within. We have unfortunately, however, been here before with our cultural heroes, been here and been crushed.

But wouldn’t it be something if in the end he turned out to be the one true knight?