January, 2014

A Man with a Tight Mouth

January 30th, 2014 1 Comment

Another young Mac

 

What I remember most is laughter.

We would be on the set, waiting in our chairs, or rehearsing, or, most likely of all, actually filming, and one of us, usually Mackie, would ad-lib something or come out with some one-liner and off we would go. God only knows how much film was wasted on shots of one or both of us becoming suddenly incoherent with laughter, roaring, gasping, eyes tearing, legs weak, stomach muscles burning as we staggered out of frame, howling.

I remember fatigue, rare bursts of temper, occasional adolescent behavior, some misbehavior, even tears. I remember famous names and famous faces, as well as glamorous ancillary events that our own fame brought us, events I feared and despised. I remember anonymous names and faces, many greatly loved, many dead now. I remember press junkets that made me feel like a much prized frozen hamburger—catered to, the center of attention, pampered, and absolutely indistinguishable from the hamburger ahead of me or the hamburger behind me. Or the undiscovered hamburger still to come a few years hence. I remember girls, lots of girls. I remember feeling lost, unsure of who I was, and trying to forge an identity that had nothing to do with me or reality.

But most of all, I remember laughter.

Mackie, Marlowe

I attended a convention a few years back in New Orleans, a huge, Outdoor-industry thing, exhausting in its size and scope. I had made plans to meet Mackie there—somewhere, somehow—prior to our having dinner that night at Galatoire, his favorite restaurant, on Bourbon Street. I hadn’t seen him in many years. We missed each other repeatedly at our agreed upon meeting spot and I was weaving my way through the crowd when, suddenly, there he was, standing still, just as a cat might freeze before it pounces, watching me with the old bemused look I know so well. It is a look that says: Gotcha, I saw you first. And: I have a half-dozen quips ready on my tongue. And also: Let’s see what you come out with. It is a look both welcoming and challenging, as if humor, even kindly humor, were a competitive thing, a weapon of civilized war.

He is heavier now, and grayer in both face and hair, the unhealthy gray of the heavy smoker he used to be. In certain lights, at certain angles, I could see in one eye the tell-tale flat and fishy iridescence of potential cataract problems, a gleam I recognize from professional boxers I have known over the years, a gleam that speaks of blind spots and trouble ahead. But the handshake that greeted me was as strong as ever, the tongue as quick, the tilt of head as confident.

I know this man. I know him as well as it is possible for one man ever to know another. For eight years I spent more time with him, day in, day out—and many a long night too—drunk and sober, working, playing, camping, hunting, the vast portion of each year, more time than I spent with my then wife—and in some ways as intimately, too, for acting, like jazz, involves an intuitive interplay that is almost like making love—until I know him so well I can detect nuances that tell me instantly when he is honest or false, sure or uncertain, happy or sad, lying to me or lying to himself.

I have known him in good times and bad. I have seen him craven in the face of circumstances, physical and moral, that left me unfazed. And I have seen him show towering grace and dignity in circumstances that would have undone me. I have seen him indulge in ridiculous pettiness. And I have seen him show real and royal generosity. I have seen him show childish immaturity, and singular wisdom. I have seen him, in short, at his best and at his worst, as he has seen me. And, for better or for worse, like it or not, we are forever linked in the public memory, like Fric and Frac, like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, like Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. Like Simon and Simon. Whenever I am recognized and asked for an autograph, invariably I will hear, “What’s your brother up to?” “Where’s your brother?” “Why aren’t you doing another show like your brother?” My brother.

Auditions are the worst thing, the most excruciating thing. Auditioning for a play, on a brightly lit stage, staring out into a darkened and empty auditorium—empty of all but disembodied voices that offer neither help nor hope—is perhaps slightly worse than auditioning for a movie, which is characteristically done in an overcrowded office where you can actually see the boredom on the faces you are trying to impress, but we’re only talking degrees here. It’s like saying: Being roasted over hot coals is worse than being boiled in oil. There is a reason why actors who reach a certain stage of preeminence refuse to audition anymore. They may argue, and rightly so, that they don’t have to because of their stature and reputations, but it is also because they don’t like the diarrhea-inducing agony any better as stars than they did as wannabes.

But back in those days—this would have been late ’79 or early ’80—producers generally had greater respect for and empathy with the desperate and terrified actors who paraded before them and it was customary to chat for a few moments and give the actor a chance to stop hyperventilating.

So when I walked in to audition for a pilot at that time called Pirate’s Key, I was introduced to the writer and executive producer, Phil DeGuerre, and to Milt Hammerman and Robert Harris who were representing Universal Studios. After we had shaken hands, Phil made the mistake of asking me how I liked the script.

“God, I love it. It’s got a great energy to it, a wonderful blend of tension and humor. The relationship between the two brothers is inspired. It’s as if you took the character from…” and I named the hero of a famous series of detective novels “…and divided him into two people, Rick and AJ, and then added some of the sense of humor of…” and I named a highly successful television detective series.

All three men froze. There was a long silence during which all the blood drained from Phil’s face. He looked like a man who realizes, too late, that he has just swallowed a bad oyster. The silence continued and all three of them looked at each other.

I started to laugh. I realized that I had, quite by accident, named the precise sources of inspiration for Pirate’s Key. Stealing is routine, a way of life in Hollywood. The rule of thumb back then was: The better the source you are stealing from, the better your end product is likely to be, so steal from the best. (Obvious examples: West Side Story from Romeo and Juliet; Apocalypse Now from Heart of Darkness.) There is nothing wrong with it. Shakespeare stole from other sources for most of his plays. The key is, if the original author is still alive—and consequently in a position to sue—make sure you change things around enough to avoid messy litigation. Clearly, all three men were now wondering if, in fact, things had been changed around enough.

Phil pulled himself together first. “Don’t ever say that outside of this room.”

I read for them and either because the script was so good that no one could mess it up or because I now felt somewhat in a position of power, I did an excellent job. I read so well that the upshot was that I was offered whichever role I preferred. Since I looked barely out of my teens, it would have been an act of madness to take the role of the older brother, even though I felt it was better written. Instead I chose AJ and a few days later Phil called and asked me to read with the actors auditioning for Rick. I was delighted to be asked. I was delighted to do it. I had no idea what an eye-opening experience it would turn out to be.

I thought it was going to be very easy. I really did. The script was so well written, the patterns of speech and rhythm of delivery so intrinsic to the character, so obvious, I thought, that it would be a simple matter to find a Rick. Instead, we were at it for weeks. It seemed we auditioned everyone in Hollywood. If they were breathing, sentient, capable of getting in and out of the room under their own steam, and male, we auditioned them. I read with famous stars who had had their own highly successful series, and with unknowns who had just gotten off the Greyhound bus. I read with one Tony award winner, and with an actor who went on a few years later to win an Emmy. I read with poor devils who seemed to have cleft palates and dysphasia (though, to be fair, I have given that impression myself at more than one audition). I read with men who looked enough like me to pass as my twin. I read with men who resembled me only to the extent that they had the normal accompaniment of appendages. I read with men who towered over me and with men I could have used conveniently as a coffee table.

Then, finally, after several weeks of this, we were sitting in the office one day when Phil stopped pulling out fistfuls of hair and got a thoughtful look on his face.

“You know, I remember an actor who worked with us a couple of years ago on Baa Baa Black Sheep who was very good. What the hell was his name? McRaney! Gerald McRaney. Let’s see if we can locate him.”

He leafed through his Players Directory and made a call. (The Players Directory no longer exists, driven into oblivion by the internet, but it was a sort of studbook for actors. It was divided by sex, obviously, and then further divided into categories: Children, Characters, Comedians, Young Leading Men, Leading Men. I never understood the tacit implication that if you were funny, you couldn’t be a leading man. Or if you were a character actor, you couldn’t be funny. I was always disappointed that they didn’t have an Aging Roué category, but that would probably have taken up too much space.)

“We’re in luck! He’s right here on the lot, doing an episode of The Incredible Hulk. Let’s walk down and see him.”

In those days, Universal hadn’t yet figured out that they could make more money as a theme park than as an actual working studio and there were many TV shows and movies constantly in production on the lot. On any given day you might see Jim Garner cracking jokes with his crew, Jack Klugman reading the Racing Forum, Rod Taylor with a six-shooter on his hip, Angela Lansbury dining in the commissary, or even, once, Robert Redford talking quietly to Sidney Pollack in an alley between two stages. There was a constant hum of activity and it was all very heady and exciting for a young, naïve, star-struck actor only recently arrived from New York.

We went down to the Incredible Hulk set—I caught a glimpse of poor Lou Ferrigno, painted green from head to toe and looking about as happy as you would under those circumstances—and asked for Gerald McRaney. In due course a man came out of the make-up trailer and walked over to us. I took one look at him and knew immediately, beyond any possible shadow of a doubt, that this guy was all wrong for the role of Rick. He was skinny (Mackie was always thin in those days, but he was just getting over a bout of stomach flu and was positively cadaverous), balding, and because he had shaved his moustache for the role he was playing and was wearing a suit, the general impression was of a preternaturally serious Certified Public Accountant. A CPA with a secret sorrow and an upset stomach. There was no hint or trace of Rick in him and I knew this was never going to work.

Nevertheless, we shook hands and chatted for a few moments and he took a copy of the script and agreed to come read for us later that afternoon.

As we walked back to the office Phil peered at me.

“What do you think?”

“Well, Phil, to be honest, he isn’t at all what I had in mind, physically. I mean, he’s incredibly thin and he just doesn’t look like what I thought Rick would look like.”

“Yeah, but he’s a good actor. Let’s see how the reading goes.”

Well, we had already auditioned some very good actors. We had already auditioned some award-winning actors. On the other hand, I happened to know my afternoon was free.

He didn’t look any better out of make-up. In fact, the poor devil looked like he still had the stomach flu, which, of course, he did, though we didn’t know that. We took our scripts and stood in the middle of the room. Milt Hammerman and Robert Harris smiled politely and tried hard not to look as if they were bored to tears. Phil leaned forward in his seat. I took a breath and we were off.

Thirty-two years later that moment remains, etched on the copper plate of my memory. He was perfect. All the rhythms and shadings and inflections I had heard in my head, that I knew were there in the writing but that no one had been able to reproduce before, all of them were suddenly being spoken. The scene that had been creaking ponderously, dustily along in other hands now crackled to life with humor and energy. Phil looked ecstatic. Milt and Robert were blinking like men who have had blindfolds removed in bright light.

Several days later we read again for the CBS executives. According to protocol—after all, CBS was going to be paying for the show—we gave them two possibilities. I read first with a very nice, amiable, Famous Actor who had just finished a six-year run starring in his own series. He was as good as anyone and better than most and was, at that time, a household name. Then I read with Mackie. Again, he was perfect.

They left and a few minutes later Phil came out into the hall.

“Which of these two guys would you rather work with?”

I thought about it. I liked them both. The Famous Actor was a nice guy and I felt vaguely embarrassed for him, for I knew what the right choice was. But I also knew that if we went with the Famous Actor, the odds of making it onto the air were infinitely better and I said as much.

“Phil, if we go with [Famous Actor] we’ll be on the air in the fall. If we go with Mackie, we may not make it on the air, but at least we’ll have made a hell of a good movie of the week. I’d rather make a good movie of the week than a bad series.”

Phil smiled. “I was hoping you’d say that. I’m going to go back in there and fight for Mackie, but I may need your help, so stay close.”

He didn’t need any help. The CBS executives were no fools; they knew what they had seen. I knew even then, and time as proven me right, he was a far better actor than I.

th0RPZM0CT

Buster Welch is the legendary grandfather of cutting horse trainers, the best there ever was. He is the man novelist Tom McGuane, himself in the National Cutting Horse Hall of Fame, has described as an oracle. In an interview, McGuane once quoted Buster Welch as saying, “Every really good horse is a freak. Anybody who sets out to do something unique is going to acquire the status of a freak in his own family.” Mackie is the freak in his family.

He was born a story teller, a raconteur, a master of the amusing anecdote, the unexpected quip, in Collins, Mississippi. Curiously, he always talked more about his grand-parents and older brother than of his parents and sister. In particular the brother, Buddy, loomed larger than life in his anecdotes, so that I had a vision of a towering titan of a man, a heroic, two-fisted swashbuckler. When I met him, I was surprised to meet a quiet lawyer smaller, physically, than Mackie, but just as charming, just as funny. Many years later, when we did a Simon & Simon reunion movie, Buddy played a judge, and it was easy to see why Mackie became an actor.

His father was a builder of spec houses and Mackie started working with him very young, eight or nine years old. Then, in junior high Mackie hurt his knee playing football and with a combination of a free school period and knowledge of what to do with a hammer, someone suggested he help build sets for the school play. Someone else put him in the play. It was like giving crack cocaine to an addictive personality.

“I loved it, right from the start,” he told me recently. “And then a year or so after that I saw the film of Richard Burton’s Hamlet, the one John Gielgud directed as a dress rehearsal, and the light bulb went on. I thought: That’s what it’s all about.”

He made a show—probably the only bad performance he has ever given—of following in his older brother’s footsteps and went to Ole Miss, but he dropped out and moved to New Orleans where he built a life around working half the year in a repertory theatre and the other half on off-shore oil rigs. After five years he lit out for Hollywood.

Mackie-024-Small1-225x300

Mackie and I were both essentially mischievous children and we settled into a routine of bedeviling each other and the crew of Simon & Simon with practical jokes in a variety of amusing ways. Amusing for us, anyway. Some of it was completely juvenile (jacking the producer’s car up onto apple boxes so that it looked as if everything were normal, but the wheels had no traction; breaking into the same producer’s office one night and carefully reversing everything in his office, so that the picture on the right side of the desk was switched with the one on the left, the contents of the right-hand drawer switched with the left-hand drawer, and so on) but some things were more imaginative.

We were filming a scene in a bank, down in San Diego, and as we were well ahead of schedule, we persuaded the director to let us have some fun. The scene consisted of Rick and AJ questioning a crooked bank manager. When the camera was on us, you could see the extras playing the tellers and bank customers over our shoulders. One extra who worked with us fairly regularly, a kindly, gentle man in real life, was enormous, and had one of the most threatening, villainous faces I have ever seen. We gave him a prop gun, a .44 magnum with a six-inch barrel, and instructed him to rob the bank while we were doing the scene. So what you saw, while the camera was on us, was Rick and AJ earnestly and obliviously interviewing the bank manager as a robbery took place behind them.

It was a very funny sequence. After we saw it we decided, just as a joke, to cut it into a complete version of that episode, to be sent to CBS as if it were intended for airing. Predictably, what we got the night the CBS executives screened it was frantic phone calls. Even after we explained that we had a real version standing by, appreciative laughter was conspicuously absent.

Mackie’s birthday preceded mine by about three months. The first year I did something pretty benign, put some balloons in his trailer, gave him a bottle of wine, something like that. But the second year I started going down a road which was ultimately to have disastrous consequences.

That second year, prompted by some mischievous little gremlin that lives inside me, I came early to the studio with thousands of balloons. I had made arrangements to have a canister of helium standing by and with the help of some of the crew, I was able to get all of those balloons filled up and crammed into Mackie’s trailer, crammed from floor to ceiling, crammed so that he couldn’t even get in, crammed so thickly that even with a knife it would take him about twenty minutes to fight his way in. It was fun. Mackie was suitably amused.

The third year, for reasons that are now obscure, I decorated his trailer with scores of Playboy centerfolds and all the flimsy, trashy lingerie our wardrobe mistress could lay her hands on, which was quite a lot. I also had some rather less subtle, ancillary items lying around. The general effect was of an exceptionally tacky bordello the morning after the night before and prior to the cleaning lady’s arrival. Every man on the crew had to stop by and take a look. It was fun. But Mackie wasn’t quite as amused as he had been the year before because his then wife, who had tendencies towards jealousy, was following him to the set to spend part of the day with him. The only reason she hadn’t arrived with him was because she had gotten caught in traffic. Mackie showed a turn of speed I had never seen before, hastily tearing down centerfolds, cramming bras and panties into my and the wardrobe mistress’s arms, hiding stuff under pillows and in drawers. Mackie wasn’t quite as amused, but I was immensely gratified.

The next year I guess I really did go over the top. We were filming in Freemont Place, a gated, highly exclusive enclave within the already exclusive neighborhood of Hancock Park. When we were on location, we were picked up in our motor homes and so I was unable to do anything to Mackie’s trailer. Instead, I hired a stripper-gram. She arrived shortly after lunch and preceded to sing, after a fashion, Happy Birthday, while doing what she had been paid to do, as the cameras kept rolling. The director had conniption fits, convinced that if the neighbors reported us, we would lose our filming permit. The crew turned out in droves and had hysterics. The young lady finished her rendition with very little left on, sitting in Mackie’s lap, running her hands through his hair and making cooing sounds. And the cameras kept rolling.

Mackie was suitably mortified. I was laughing so hard I could barely stay upright. But when the young lady finally let him up, Mackie looked at me through narrowed eyes and breathed heavily through his nose. “Oh, are you going to pay.”

Well, forewarned is forearmed. When my birthday rolled around we were filming on location in a dance studio somewhere in Hollywood and I was very much on my guard. The morning passed uneventfully and I was just beginning to relax a little when I noticed Mackie’s stand-in, Scott, standing next to a very tall, not pretty, but highly sexy redhead. Warning bells went off and as soon as I had an opportunity I confronted Scott.

“Hey, Scotty, who’s your friend.”

The son-of-a-bitch never missed a beat. “Oh, she’s one of my clients.”

When he wasn’t working as a stand-in, Scott was a small arms instructor, and I knew he prided himself on his ability to teach ladies how to fire handguns. But still I was suspicious. I turned to the girl.

“What kind of handgun do you shoot?”

But Scott was ready and he jumped right in. “She’s just starting. I’m going to let her try a bunch of my guns, different ones, and see what works best for her.”

Well, damn it, that’s exactly what a good instructor does, so I let it go.

A few minutes later we broke for lunch. I noticed that Scott and the redhead had disappeared, but before I could give it any thought my stunt double, Randy Hall, suddenly stepped in front of me as I was walking out to my trailer, a length of rope in his hand.

“Hey, JP, do you know how to tie a Turk’s head knot?”

And without further ado, he started tying one. But he clearly hadn’t mastered the damn thing because he couldn’t tie it for beans. Finally, after innocently watching this pathetic charade for several minutes, I said, “Randy, that’s absolutely fascinating, but maybe we could do this after lunch. I haven’t got much time.” And I pushed past him.

I walked out into the street and over to my trailer. I stepped inside, closing the door behind me. My lunch had already been put on the counter and I was focused on that. I was dimly aware, out of the corner of my eye, down a little corridor, that something was on the bed in the back, but our wardrobe man would frequently lay my next costume change out on that bed, so I really didn’t pay any attention. Just then, with exquisite timing, there was a knock on the door and as I turned around I got an eyeful of what was on the bed.

It was the redhead, and the only thing she was wearing was a Happy Birthday card propped up between her spread legs. She was a real redhead.

The door opened and there was my then, now ex, wife, bottle of champagne in one hand, present in the other, stepping in the door.

There may be men who can deal gracefully and imaginatively with the unexpected and simultaneous conjunction of a wife and a naked redhead. I am not one of them. With great presence of mind I said, to the world in general, “Jesus Christ! There’s a naked girl on my bed!”

My ex laughed and closed the door and came up the stairs as the redhead rose up from the bed. She was very tall and had a lovely body.

I believe I mentioned that Mackie’s wife was jealous. My ex made his look like Saint Rita of Cascia, the patroness of marital fidelity. Under these circumstances, it would be hard to find any spouse who wouldn’t display at least some ruffling of feathers, and I felt confident that feather ruffling was about the very least thing that I could expect now from my spouse. She looked at the redhead, who was walking down the little corridor with a wavy motion, and her jaw sagged. Then she turned on me. She threw the champagne and the present at my feet and hissed: “You bastard!” She managed to get more “s’s” into both those words than I would have believed possible. And then she ran out of the trailer, slamming the door behind her.

Meanwhile the redhead walked up next to me. Her breasts were practically in my face. “Happy Birthday,” she purred.

Well, I admit I wasn’t handling things very well at this point. In fact, it would probably be safe and accurate to say that I had totally lost my grip. “Oh, thank you. Thanks. Thank you very much. Thanks. Thank you,” I babbled. It then occurred to me that my marriage was ending and that it might behoove me to find my wife before things got too completely out of hand.

“Would you excuse me? I think I better go find my wife.” I actually said that. I actually said that to a naked redheaded hooker. And I vaulted out of the trailer.

My wife was nowhere to be seen. She was nowhere to be seen for the very good reason that she was hiding in Mackie’s trailer where the two of them were laughing their damn fool heads off.

After that I called it off—no more practical jokes. Clearly, if Mackie was going to be that devious, that underhanded, that treacherous, not to mention low enough to enlist outside help, there was no telling where it all might end. Besides, I couldn’t think of anything to top him.

Apart from talent and a sense of humor, Mackie has a quality I greatly admire. It’s a quality best expressed by Big Daddy (a role Mackie is finally old enough to play, a role I would love to see Mackie play) in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: “A pig squeals, but a man keeps a tight mouth…”

A man who keeps a tight mouth wouldn’t want his troubles hung out on the internet for all to see, so I will only say that in thirty-two years life plays many jokes on all of us, some kind and amusing, some not so. Mackie has known death and loss and sorrow and the duplicity of that false housewife Fortune; he has experienced all the unexpected shocks we all expect from life—physical, emotional, personal, professional, financial—but through it all he has kept a tight mouth. He shares his joys and triumphs, never his reversals. Even when I called to commiserate with him about his lung cancer, he remained positive and upbeat, and sprinkled the conversation with enough one-liners to make me laugh.

He beat the cancer. He also beat the odds in the riskiest crapshoot of any career a man could choose, and has worked steadily for over forty years, starring not only in Simon & Simon, but in Major Dad, Promised Land, Jericho, Deadwood, a host of movies and TV movies, on Broadway, off-Broadway, directing, producing, winning awards in the career that was born of an injured knee in junior high. There is now a Gerald McRaney Street in Collins, Mississippi. There is also an historic marker in the town, showing the site of Mackie’s birth place. Those are admirable things and he deserves them, but when I see him next, I will have many unflattering comments to make to him about a man who is old enough to have a street named after him, not to mention an historic marker. Historic, for God’s sake.

It won’t matter. He’ll top me.

What I remember most is laughter.

The Kid, at Twilight

January 29th, 2014

Rob Smets

 

The second ride of the evening did not go well.

Rogerio de Souza Pereira came out on Wild Thang and within two seconds, on the third or fourth massive, twisting buck, Rogerio was in trouble, his head snapping back, throwing his weight off balance. The Kamikaze Kid was already moving. Things that were happening faster than thought appeared to be in slow motion.

On the next buck, Rogerio was thrown forward, his face hitting the bull’s head, which was now coming up. It’s unclear if the damage was done then, or if it happened later, when Rogerio’s head hit the bull’s horn as he flopped at Wild Thang’s side, the young Brazilian’s hand caught in his own bull rope—‘hung up’ is the technical term—but by the time the Kamikaze Kid freed Rogerio’s hand, the bull rider was already unconscious and bleeding heavily.

Rogerio fell on his back, loose and inert as a sack of grain, one arm out to the side, the other almost straight above his head as if he were still riding. The bull, still bucking, stepped on his belly, 1700-pounds concentrated onto a hoof the size of a dessert plate, and a collective sound of pain and pity went up from the crowd.

The Kamikaze Kid and the other two bullfighters, Dennis Johnson and Greg Crabtree, were still in motion, twisting and dodging in front of the bull, drawing him away from the fallen man. As soon as the bull peeled off after Dennis Johnson, the Kamikaze Kid, still running, circled back to the injured rider. He knelt by his side, placed his hands on Rogerio’s chest as delicately as a man might touch a sleeping baby, and bowed his head in prayer. The eight-second buzzer sounded.

The whole incident, from the moment Rogerio’s head snapped back, to the stillness of the two men in the dust and noise of the arena, one helpless, the other praying for him, had taken less than six seconds.

Rob Smets and rider

“Anticipation is a lot of it.”

The Kamikaze Kid is not a kid anymore at forty-six. His name is Rob Smets and he is considered to be the greatest rodeo bullfighter that ever lived, though he would never admit that.

“You see a rider’s chin come off his chest, you know he’s fixing to come off that bull. Or if you see his back ‘C’, you know, not sitting straight anymore.”

Rob slumped forward like a sullen teenager. His normal posture is Marine color guard at the White House.

“That’s called riding on the pockets and it’ll cant his pelvis. Or if his free arm goes past his head on the back swing or too far across his body on the front swing, ‘cause that’ll torque his hips and then he’s off balance. Or if his feet start flopping, though sometimes that just means the rider’s trying to get a better hold. That’s the sort of stuff you look for. You got to read the bull and you got to read the rider and you anticipate.”

Rob Smets is sitting on the edge of his bed in the Marriott Hotel in Kansas City, Missouri, eating a room temperature room service hamburger, his typical dinner before he leaves for the ‘office.’ The ‘office’ tonight is Kansas City’s Kemper arena. Next week it will be the Dallas, Texas American Airlines Center, then the Bismarck Civic Center in North Dakota, then the Prescott Rodeo Grounds, then Cheyenne, Tulsa, North Carolina, Nevada, Florida, Michigan, California, the states and cities and arenas, the hotel rooms and airports, all piling up like snapshots in a shoebox.

But tonight in Kansas City will be Rob’s first night back after a ten-week layoff following a broken leg in Albuquerque. There are unavoidable hazards to messing about with animals that weigh in the neighborhood of a ton, and it doesn’t make much difference whether you’re trying to sit on their backs for eight seconds or trying to outrun and outmaneuver them on the ground. The Professional Bull Riders Association keeps a running news brief on its website listing the sidelined riders and bullfighters and the extent of their injuries—broken shoulder, fractured ribs, facial injuries (resulting in a titanium plate in the skull), fractured and dislocated hip, broken collar bone, perforated bowel, concussion, dislocated shoulder, torn ligaments, herniated discs, broken ankle, torn groin muscle, the list goes on—but it doesn’t mention the ancillary financial impact on the athletes.

Unlike other professional sports, the PBR makes no allowance for injuries. There is no second string, no backup, no sitting on the bench, no injured reserve list. If you don’t perform, you don’t get paid, so the combined motivation of pride and paycheck is considerable. Rob had already tried to make it to the office in Phoenix three weeks earlier, but the leg refused to hold him on a sharp cut to the right during a practice run, a down-and-out pattern. He has a ranch in Texas that needs to be paid for; he has a wife and child counting on him; he has horses, dogs, cattle to be fed. Above all, he has pride.

“I’m competitive. I want to win. I don’t care if it’s flipping a coin, I want to win. When I get knocked down by a bull, I get up mad. I want to get even.”

Eating his dinner he is strangely relaxed for a man who is about to risk his life—more than risk it, offer it up—to save someone else, someone he may not like nor even know particularly well.

Our mutual friend, Mike Schwiebert, Rodeo All-Pro Bullfighter of the Year in 1978, long retired from bull fighting, is sitting on the other bed: “A bullfighter is like a Secret Service agent,” he says. “The job is to protect the rider at all costs, and if that means taking the shot for him, that’s what you do.”

The analogy seems to amuse Rob and he grins, transforming his face. He is a former Golden Gloves champion and long-time barroom brawler, his face battered and broken by gloves and bare fists and bulls, and within the collage of mashed lips, flattened nose, and scar tissue are eyes as unblinking and dispassionate as a bird of prey. Would it be worth my time to kill you? Would you be good to eat? But when he laughs or smiles the eyes become lighted windows, the mouth a welcome mat.

“Stepping in front of the bullet.” He laughs as if it were the funniest thing in the world, as if the degree of danger from either bull or bullet wasn’t worth anything more than a laugh.

“I first saw Rob in 1977 in Ardmore, Oklahoma and I thought, That kid will never last; he takes too many chances.” Mike is looking at Rob as he speaks. “Three years later I was finished. And now, twenty-six years later, he’s still going strong. How’s the leg?”

“Good. I was in the pool doing therapy two days after I broke it. It’s fine now.”

What he doesn’t say is that those two days were spent alone in a motel room with over-the-counter pain killers, without even having had X-rays taken or anything more than a cursory examination by the emergency doctor behind the chutes after he was helped out of the arena.

“I wanted to wait till I got home to my own doctor. Cheaper. And I couldn’t grab an earlier flight out without paying extra.”

Medical insurance is not an option for someone who makes his living doing whatever it takes to save a fallen rider, relying on his own timing and speed of reflex to distract a misanthropic 1500- to 2000-pound animal. That’s when everything goes well. When things get Western, it can come down to hurling his own body over an unconscious rider and enduring whatever he must endure until the other bullfighters or the single mounted cowboy in the arena, known as the safety-man, can pull the bull’s focus away.

Over the years the broken bones, torn muscles, and torn hide have added up, but most obvious is the aftermath of a twice-broken neck (once, C-1, the same vertebra that paralyzed the late Christopher Reeve). Rob has some partial mobility to the right, but none to the left, so when he turns now to look at the clock he has to turn his entire torso, twisting from the waist and rolling his eyes.

“Oh! I got to go. We’re having a prayer meeting. Hand me that shirt, will you.”

He pulls his T-shirt off and grabs the red PBR shirt he will wear to the arena. He is a stocky, powerfully built man, slightly bow-legged, an attribute that is exaggerated by the extra-long blue jeans falling in folds—called a stack in cowboy parlance—around his boots. The bow-leggedness and his slightly rolling gait make him appear deceptively clumsy in a bear-like way, but now, as he changes shirts, the thick bones and heavy muscles show the boxer he once was. The shoulders especially are massive and speak of long hours on the heavy bag, driving T-posts into hard ground, tossing bales of hay onto a flatbed, staying in shape to stay alive.

Prayer is something new for Rob. His father was a heavy machine operator who worked for mining companies in Thailand, Singapore, Australia, Puerto Rico, and around the States, and fighting seems to have come naturally to a tough American kid in foreign lands. He was finally asked to leave school in Salinas because of the constant brawling.

“My friends were all Hispanic and I didn’t like it when people would pick on them.”

The statement is both true and disingenuous. The impulse to save, to help, to protect—to don dented armor, grab a rusty sword, and ride off in all directions—is undoubtedly very strong in Rob. He wouldn’t be a bullfighter if it weren’t there. But there is also a lot of pit bull in him too.

Three months earlier, a group of men were standing in the kitchen of a remote hunting camp in California, waiting for supper. The men were excited about the next day’s pig hunt, and beer and whiskey and margueritas were flowing. The combination of booze and empty stomachs was making everyone boisterous, everyone but Rob. He was the center of attention, the star, as he is in places where men know anything about rodeo and bull riding, and he leaned against the sink, his face flushed with alcohol, still and deadly quiet. Whenever anyone asked him anything he would answer politely, but the more he drank, the more he gave the impression of a ticking clock attached to a stick of dynamite. The conversation turned to boxing, and from boxing to fighting generally, a few of the men recounting their own exploits, usually humorous, usually self-deprecating, but always coming back to Rob, to his brawls in and out of the ring.

“Hell, Rob. Didn’t you ever lose any fights?” The man who asked was no drunker than anyone else, but perhaps his judgment was worse.

“No. I never lost a fight.” He said it as softly and matter-of-factly as another man might say, No, I’ve never been to Morocco, or, No, I’ve never driven a race car.

“Well, aren’t you worried someone will take you someday?”

“No one in this room.” It wasn’t surly or aggressive or ugly, just a quiet statement of fact, yet behind it was an eagerness no one was drunk enough to ignore.

At least half-a-dozen of the men in that kitchen were substantially bigger than Rob, but there was an uncomfortable moment of silence and then Mike Schwiebert stepped gracefully, humorously in, deflecting and defusing, and the group recaptured their anticipation and high spirits.

The next morning Rob came to the breakfast table looking as much the worse for wear as the others, but his eyes were lighted windows. He stood by his seat as if he were standing in front of the blackboard and said his piece.

“I had too much to drink last night, and I said some things I shouldn’t have. I apologize to everyone here. It won’t happen again.”

It didn’t.

Rob Smets, bull

The bull fighting came almost by accident.

“I was sitting on the fence at a high school rodeo watching the bullfighter,” Rob told me, “and I could see what he was doing wrong. I kept yelling at him to get closer to the bull until he finally turned around and said, Why don’t you try it, kid. So I did.”

He was an instant sensation in the rarefied world of bull riding, his insane, daredevil style of charging the bull earning him the nickname Kamikaze Kid. But there was another side to rodeo life in the late seventies and eighties.

“I was a total pothead. I’d roll a joint first thing in the morning before I got
out of bed. I worked stoned. Sometimes I’d smoke a joint, do a line of cocaine and then go out and fight bulls.”

He is very candid about the drugs and the booze and the brawling and nameless girls in the back of horse trailers, candid too about the price he paid in a failed marriage, failed friendships, and failed finances. What he doesn’t mention are the triumphs: an unprecedented five World Championships; being voted to the PBR finals seven times and to the National Finals Rodeo six times. He doesn’t mention qualifying for the National Finals Rodeo bullfighter’s competition seventeen times in a profession where ten years is the top end of a bullfighter’s working life. Instead he talks about getting off drugs.

“When I broke my neck the second time the doctor asked me if I smoked cigarettes. Well, no, I’d never smoked a cigarette. But he said it could make your bones brittle. So I lay in that hospital bed and thought about it. I thought if tobacco could do that to you, pot probably could too. When I got out, I rolled one last joint and smoked it as I drove home. Then I threw the bag out the window, and that was that. Took me six months to get over the smoker’s cough.”

The next step was meeting his wife, Carla.

“She was a big influence. She works with disturbed children, and I’m her biggest case study. But the religion…. That came because I was always searching for peace, for happiness. I finally realized it wasn’t about booze and drugs and girls. And I realized I couldn’t fix everything, that Rob Smets couldn’t do it all. I had some friends, Lynn Shawls and Rope Myers. They were in a church. I could see the joy in their eyes, and that was what I wanted.”

Now, in Kansas, he grabs his suitcase and his bag with his uniform and athletic shoes and pads—similar to those worn by hockey players—and carefully places his twenty-X Stetson on his head. At the door he turns and smiles again.

“I’ll see you there.”

Rob Smets and bull

Most of the sports that came out of the cowboy lifestyle used to be lumped together under the name rodeo. Today, while there is still bull riding in rodeo, it has evolved as a sport on its own, as have cutting (separating a single cow from the herd) and reining (riding a set pattern at different speeds, spinning, and a slide stop, as a test of the athletic ability and training of the horse, and the horsemanship of the rider).

Traditional rodeo events such as saddle-bronc riding, bareback-bronc, bulldogging (steer wrestling), calf roping (tie-down roping), team roping, barrel racing, even reining and cutting, all had their genesis in the day-to-day activities on the long cattle drives in pre-barb wire days, or in the day-to-day activities on the great ranches post-barb wire.

The exception is bull riding. There is no practical reason why any sane man would ever try to ride a bull. In the unlikely event you could get the thing broke to ride, it would be the sorriest form of transportation in the world, worse even than a camel.

Bull riding has only existed as a pure expression of cowboy machismo. Somewhere, back in the dust of history, some idiot put his beer down and yelled, “Hey, y’all! Watch this,” and was promptly killed or invalided. The ancient Minoans risked their lives against bulls in ceremonies that evolved out of the ritual slaughter of their king every eight years to ensure a bountiful harvest, but even those slim and agile youths merely vaulted over the bull. They didn’t actually ride the sucker. (Of course, if you’re going to have your throat cut or be roasted alive for the benefit of the community, anything you can do with a bull, even riding it, looks pretty good.)

Bull riding was always the glamour event in rodeo, and today it stands on its own under the aegis of the Professional Bull Riders Association. It stands on its own because it is more dangerous than any other sport. Infinitely more dangerous. It is not a question of if a cowboy gets hurt; it’s simply a question of how badly and how often. In a society where the threat of dying is no longer a quotidian issue for most of us, where there is pill for every ache and every discomfort, people are thrilled by the spectacle of men risking their lives, and will pay money to see it. ‘Recreational terror,’ as writer Jeff MacGregor calls it, has become big business in America.

All sports, from bowling to boxing to bull riding, offer the spectator a chance to experience vicariously what his own limitations, physical or psychological, keep him from doing. All people and all societies admire courage, whether you’re the first man ever to eat an oyster, or the first man ever to fly a plane faster than sound. The appeal of bull riding lies in the courage of the young men who do it. There is absolutely nothing you can do that is more dangerous than bull riding. It is the ultimate Fear Factor.

But there is far more to successful bull riding than mere courage. There are the issues of balance, coordination, timing, speed of reflex, and – just as important as courage – the ability to ignore pain.

Add to all this the fact that bull riders are young, greyhound-lean and fit, attractive, clean-cut, and have the ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ manners of the cowboy culture, and you can understand why they have such an incredible following. They are revered and idolized. Perhaps not quite as much as the bulls, whose Breyer statuettes sell like hot cakes, and whose names are whispered with breathless admiration—Bodacious! Little Yellow Jacket! Blueberry Wine! Mossy Oak Mudslinger!—but enough that sponsors fight to be first in line with their checkbooks, fans with their autograph books. And after the bulls, Rob Smets is the biggest selling item, even more than any of the riders, on play sets, playing cards, figures, T-shirts, a host of other forms of licensed merchandise.

Cabela’s was one of the sponsors of the Kansas City event (Ford Motor Company, truck division, is the primary sponsor of the whole thirty-one city tour, which bills itself as The Ford Built-Tough Series, presented by Wrangler, the secondary sponsor) and they arranged for Rob and some of the riders to come sign autographs at their 150,000 square-foot store.

You might think nearly three-and-a-half acres under roof would be enough space to accommodate any amount of autograph signing, but the folks at Cabela’s know their business.

In the parking lot in front of the main entrance they had set up a tent capable of holding a three-ring circus, which was pretty much what it held. There was an archery booth inside a specially designed eighteen-wheeler, where people could test their skills with high-tech compound bows; a similar booth, just as large, selling bratwurst; another selling candied popcorn; an enclosed ring with an inflated pad and a fuzzy mechanical bull where people stood in line for a chance to imitate the young men at the autograph tables. The stuffed and padded bull bore a remarkable resemblance to Barney the dinosaur, only brown, not purple, and with horns, and moved in an equally stately and non-threatening manner, but no one lasted eight seconds.

And amid the crowds and confusion and blare of country music, autograph seekers waited patiently in lines so long they snaked around the displays and booths and games and out into the bright heat of the June Kansas sun, waiting to have their scraps of paper or hats or T-shirts signed, their pictures taken with the all-American heroes.

Rob sat behind a table with a stack of photographs in front of him. It’s a color shot of him leaping onto a bull’s back, totally focused on the bull rope and the hand of the airborne young man hung-up below him. And as each person stepped to the table he turned his full attention to them, focusing on his nameless admirers as he had on the hand of the hung-up rider, signing autographs, chatting, answering questions. Over and over he stood up to pose for pictures, until, in an effort to save his legs for the event that night, he began pulling the women down onto his lap, smiling disarmingly at their husbands and boyfriends, laughing and joking, wishing them well, signing more autographs.

Rob Smets on bull

Kemper arena is a circular building with a tunnel, also circular, that runs under the seats. Sprouting off the tunnel like cogs on a fly-wheel are storage rooms, maintenance rooms, electrical rooms, janitorial rooms, private entrances for athletes, a private bar and restaurant for VIP’s, administrative offices, and, of course, dressing rooms.

The riders are in one dressing room, the three bullfighters—and the single clown, also known as the barrel man—in another. It used to be that all four men were referred to as rodeo clowns, all wore garish makeup and ridiculous costumes, and all were responsible for entertaining the crowd as well as protecting the riders. In recent years the two functions have evolved away from each other in the PBR, and now the clown does nothing but entertain, the bullfighters nothing but try to keep the riders alive. A documentary on Rob Smets filmed only a few years ago shows him putting on makeup before going into the arena, but that too has been dropped now. The only hangover from the old days is the loose clothing, but that has a very functional purpose: the chest protector and pelvic padding preclude tight jeans or shirts.

In the riders’ dressing room the moods vary widely. Some men sit quietly on benches with mouths as tight as their jeans. Some pray. One young cowboy who had missed the prayer meeting got on the elevator in the hotel praying softly under his breath. He punched the lobby button and finished his prayer before he nodded politely to the other people in the elevator. Now he sits on a bench by himself, lips moving.

Some of the riders laugh and joke and roughhouse. Tony Mendes, currently number six in the PBR standings, is loose as a goose, roping people as they pass by. It is an activity that might spark anger if anyone else did it, but Tony’s goofy charm allows him to get away with a lot. It is hard to tell if the joking and horseplay are a result of relaxed confidence or an effort to stimulate that condition.

The bullfighters’ dressing room is very different. The barrel man has already dressed and gone off somewhere, and Rob, Dennis Johnson, and Greg Crabtree are the only ones in there, so it’s much quieter, for one thing. There is a good deal of razzing and laughter as they dress, but there is also a good deal of the casual catching up of people who know each other but haven’t been together for awhile. Dennis is working with a broken arm and he is struggling to get his shirt on over the cast. Without being asked, without interrupting the story he is telling, Rob pulls the shirt down for him and keeps on talking and getting himself dressed.

All three men are mixing dressing with cursory stretching. All three could benefit from a yoga class. Greg Crabtree, who has the reputation of being the craziest man in the PBR, which is really saying something, lies on the floor in the position known as the plow.

Rob stops talking and looks down at him. “Damn, Greg. Doesn’t your wife let you be on top sometimes?” He and Dennis laugh as Greg keeps trying, unsuccessfully, to touch his toes to the floor.

“We go after each other in here,” Rob fakes kicking Greg in the backside, “we even get into it sometimes, but if anyone out there goes after one of us, he better be ready to go after all of us.”

It is the warrior sentiment, the psychological glue that binds squads and platoons and battalions, the motto of men who only feel truly alive when risking death together. It’s not just talk.

A rider got his spur caught in the flank strap in Greensboro, NC earlier this year. Unlike the bull rope, which is wrapped around the bull’s withers and has heavy bells that hang below to make it come loose as soon as the rider releases it, the flank strap is tied on, and the spur must be worked free or the strap either untied or cut. As the rider came off, the flank strap half-hitched around his spur, jerking him underneath the bull. The animal continued to spin, each turn adding another half-hitch. Cowboy boots are designed to allow the rider’s foot to slip easily out for just this reason, but bull riders use a leather strap just above the ankle to keep the boot secure when they grab hold with their spurs during the ride. There was no way the boot could come off or the spur come free.

Rob, Greg, and Dennis went instantly after the bull, who kept running, bucking, kicking, spinning. Time and time again the bullfighters were thrown, tossed, knocked down. It all happened in a fistful of seconds as the rider continued to be dragged and stepped on.

And then the riders came over the bucking chutes, five, ten, fifteen of them, each man with a knife in his hand to cut the strap, and under their combined weight and strength the bull was finally brought to a halt. The bull had gone from rival athlete to enemy and the entire assemblage of PBR had come together as a single unit to combat him.

Rob is wearing a pair of tight-fitting shorts and a T-shirt that go under his pads and uniform. He walks out into the tunnel and starts for the physical therapy room. Located midway between the two dressing rooms, this is the heart of pre-event activity, a steady stream of young men coming in for attention from one of the three therapists. It is stunning how many of these men are riding injured. Ankles are taped, shoulders are taped, ribs, knees, wrists, elbows. Brendon Clark, a young Australian rider coming back from a knee injury, has his entire leg taped from groin to ankle. (It doesn’t help him. Later that night he will be thrown twice and the second time he will hobble out of the arena in obvious pain.)

Rob briefly rides a stationary bike to warm up his muscles and then lies on a table as a therapist tries to help him stretch out the hamstring of the leg that was broken. Then the therapist tapes the leg from knee to ankle, and Rob starts back to his dressing room.

The circular tunnel is crowded with people: sponsors, press, TV crews, wives, friends, stock contractors, hangers-on, PBR reps, and little knots of remarkably pretty girls. These last are all heartbreakingly young, all blond, all wearing hip-hugging, low-rider jeans that have been spray-painted on, and shirts that leave their arms and midriffs – and as much of their fronts as possible – bare. In the rock music world, they would be called groupies. In the bull riding world, Annie Proulx has called them buckle bunnies.

Walking toward Rob around the curve of the tunnel are a man and woman and a little boy. The boy, five or six, wears glasses and has one arm in a blue cast. Rob has an affinity for children, his own, his deceased grandson, any children.

“Hey, pal. What’d you do to yourself?”

His eyes are beaming benevolently, but the battered face is what it is, attractive but intimidating, and the little boy shrinks back next to his father.

The father tries to do the right thing. “Tell him how you broke it.”

Rob squats down. “Did you fall down while you were playing ball?”

The little boy tries to get between his father’s legs. “Tell him what happened.”

“I just got my leg out of a cast.” Rob pats his taped shin. “They sure aren’t any fun.”

“Tell him how it happened.”

But it’s clear the boy is on the Audible-Speech-Injured-Reserve list.

“Well, since we both had broken bones, give me a high-five.”

This the little boy is willing to do, cautiously and gently, with his good hand.

Rob stands up and the mother speaks for the first time.

“Oh, my God!” She is staring at Rob. “Oh, my God. Do you know who this is?” She doesn’t turn her head away from Rob so it is unclear if she is speaking to her husband or her son, but she doesn’t wait for a reply. “It’s Rob Smets! We got to get a photograph. Can we get our picture with you? Oh, my God!”

She and her husband take turns photographing each other posing with Rob and their son, and either the little boy is aware of who Rob is or he picks up on his parents’ excitement for as Rob starts to leave the arm in the cast comes up and the fingers wave a farewell. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, son.”

Rob Smets clown

The noise in the darkened arena is deafening, visibility almost non-existent. The show starts with pyrotechnics and pounding music, and then the riders walk out one by one in the glare of a spotlight as the announcer calls their names and gives a one-sentence update, this one’s standing in the ratings, that one’s most recent injury, another one’s most famous ride.

The young men walk out from their place by the chutes in their black or red PBR shirts and brightly colored chaps festooned with sponsors’ names—Mossy Oak, Ford, Rocky Boots, Jack Daniels, Luchesse, Branson tractors, Enterprise Car Rental, Jim Beam—and as each hears his name he doffs his hat to the crowd. The applause and cheers are constant, but certain names cause a swell in volume: Adriano Moraes, Justin McBride, Tony Mendes, local Missouri rider Matt Bohon, J. W. Hart, Ross Coleman.

At the other end of the arena the three bull fighters and the barrel man stand in the gloom, waiting. Greg and Dennis and the barrel man fidget and shift nervously from foot to foot, Greg kicking at the dirt with each shift in weight. Only Rob stands absolutely still, arms hanging loosely by his side, and the contrast of his stillness to their constant motion is compelling, the old gunslinger surrounded by anxious townspeople. He is the last to be introduced and he is the only man of the evening to be introduced as a legend. As he jogs forward in the spotlight beam, the applause and cheers swell as they did for the handful of popular top-ranked riders.

The smoke in the air, from the pyrotechnics and a fog machine, and the volume of the announcers voice and the music—an eclectic selection, ranging from Charlie Daniels to Pink Floyd—and the excitement of the crowd, lend a surreal atmosphere to the event, so that it is possible to imagine almost anything occurring in the sand of the arena: a rock concert, a magic act, a sporting event, a human sacrifice.

Behind the platform where the riders are grouped are the chutes where the bulls wait. They are magnificent beasts, all massive, sculpted muscle, reminiscent of some of the more powerful top heavyweight boxers of a few generations ago, Ken Norton, or Ernie Shavers, a young George Foreman.

Looking down on the bulls from the stands it is hard to appreciate the sheer, staggering size of them. From the stands, their size only becomes apparent when one of them gets near the safety man. He is mounted on a rangy, sixteen-hand sorrel, but every time a bull comes near him his horse suddenly looks like an emaciated Welsh cob. It’s like putting a Hummer next to a Mini Cooper.

Walking around the chutes gives an immediate, visceral appreciation of their size. They are colossal, mythological, Jungian symbols of some nightmare archetype.

In size. In temperament, standing placidly and patiently in the holding pens, they are very docile, gazing through the bars with dull curiosity. One of the riders drapes his chaps over the top rail of a holding pen and the Brahma raises his head to smell them attentively. The chaps are fringed and after smelling them for several seconds the bull extends a long pale tongue and samples the fringe. His eyes are bulbous and ringed with white, making him look like an apoplectic bullfrog, but after deciding the chaps are not edible he goes back to his serene contemplation of the flow of traffic around him. A foot-long string of slobber hangs from his mouth.

The bull in the pen next to him paws impatiently at the ground sending a spray of sand over the waiting riders, the TV crew, the paramedics, a PBR official, and some buckle bunnies who have made their way down here. The buckle bunnies squeal and bend over to shake the dirt out of their hair and everybody watches them appreciatively.

The bulls are moved from pen to pen and ever closer to the bucking chutes by a system of inter-connecting pens and gates no less intricate and no less mystifying than the labyrinth Daedalus designed. The two men who move the bulls are respectful of the animals, but not unduly cautious. Of the sixty waiting bulls, only three cause the men to scramble up the rails of the pens. Three alert, aggressive bulls that move quickly and unpredictably, heads swinging from side to side as if looking for someone or something to fight, turning unexpectedly back to the pen they just came out of, or spinning around to catch the men before they can clamber to safety.

But those three are the exception. The rest are true to Hemingway’s assessment: the pacifying effect of the herd instinct makes them safe in numbers. Alone, out in the arena, they will become dangerous.

In the arena the three bullfighters are very busy. Rider after rider gets thrown, a string of nine unsuccessful rides. But even successful rides keep the bullfighters busy. After the eight-second buzzer the cowboy may use the momentum of the next buck to spring to the ground, but the bull, alone and aggressive, is completely unpredictable. He may continue bucking or he may stop. He may charge the first person he sees or he may simply run back to the gate that leads back to the pens. He may fixate on a fallen rider or he may swing erratically from bullfighter to rider to another bullfighter. He may run down to the far end of the arena where the safety man, on his suddenly small horse, will try to get a rope on him. He may just run around randomly near the chutes.

The bullfighters are responsible for distracting him and trying to guide him back toward the pens, and until the gate swings shut behind him anything can happen.

One rider gets his spur caught in the flank rope. The bull runs in a circle, dragging the rider face down and terrifyingly close to the massive pounding hooves of the hind legs. There is an audible intake of breath, almost a groan, from the crowd. The three bullfighters close in on the bull and he swings suddenly to face one of them. The dragged rider becomes airborne as the bull turns; his weight is so insignificant relative to the bull’s strength that it is very possible the bull is completely unaware of his presence. Then suddenly all three bullfighters are on the bull. Dennis has grabbed the horns, Greg the tail, and Rob is on the animal’s back trying to release the spur from the flank strap.

That frozen vignette, less than a second, almost a duplicate of the picture Rob autographs for fans, illustrates the puniness and futility of their efforts. If the bull bucks, Rob will be thrown. If the bull hooks with his head, Dennis will be injured. If the bull kicks, Greg might very well be killed. Yet for no reason, the bull suddenly stops. A second later the rider is freed, the bullfighters move away, the bull gallops back to the open gate, and the crowd breathes again.

Mike Schwiebert, applauding with the rest of the audience, shakes his head. “Sometimes it just pays to be lucky.”

The next rider is thrown hard and Rob runs between the fallen man and the bull. It is a tried and true tactic to distract the animal and it works now. The bull goes after Rob with its head lowered. Rob runs, feints, and cuts to the right, but the bull catches him and tosses him like a cheese omelet, then swerves to go after Dennis. Rob falls and rolls onto his feet as gracefully as a cat and when he turns there is murder in his eyes. His fists are clenched and everything about his body language says there will be no more running, he will stand and fight. But the bull is already on its way back to the gate.

Rob roars and punches the air in rage and frustration. The crowd laughs and applauds. This is part of why they love him so much. He is the ultimate contender. He will never quit. He will go down fighting.

In the stands Mike Schwiebert stares down at his friend. “Ten years ago, even five years ago, that bull would never have caught him like that.”

Just before the last ride of the night the announcer lets the audience know that Rogerio de Souza Pereira is alright. He has suffered lacerations and a concussion and will be out of action for an indefinite period, but the protective vest saved him from any serious damage when the bull stepped on him. The crowd applauds.

A middle-aged woman waves and calls to Rob from the stands. She is wearing a white T-shirt with a picture of kittens wearing bikinis made of hamburger rolls with the caption Beach Buns. She is sitting with a man who appears to be her husband, but she screams mightily.

“Rob! Rob! I love you! You’re the greatest!”

Rob turns. It is unclear how much he has heard, other than his name, for he looks up at the right section but not at the right row. He raises one hand and smiles, happy, proud, the best there ever was. Then he turns. He will face one more bull tonight. He will shower and go straight to the airport. There is a roping in Reno where he hopes to win a few bucks. The Kamikaze Kid will be back in the office in Dallas next weekend.

At the Movies: Captain Phillips

January 26th, 2014 14 Comments

Captain_Phillips_Poster

 

 

Another movie in the running for all kinds of awards is Captain Phillips, the account of the real-life act of piracy off the coast of Somalia back in 2009. Okay, how do you take a highly publicized recent event, where the world and his wife and the little dog behind the stove all know the outcome, and make a terrifying nail-biter of it? Well, if you’re executive producer Kevin Spacey, writer Billy Ray, director Paul Greengrass, and star Tom Hanks, you do it so well that I had nightmares that night. Some of that, I admit, has to do with the still-lingering aftereffects of my own experiences of being held at gunpoint and shot (my bride, as tough a piece of work as ever survived Hollywood, slept like a baby), but much of it was due to the way the director keeps the tension building, which—in turn—was due to the performances.

 

Tom Hanks. Come on, I don’t have to tell you that Tom Hanks is a stone genius when it comes to acting. He’s one of our very best and I expect nothing less than brilliance from him. But the others! The director managed to find some Somali actors (at least, I assume they are Somali; for all I know they’re long-time residents of Wisconsin working at the Milwaukee Repertory) who are so convincing as the wild, desperate, doped-up, violent, unpredictable pirates that you honestly don’t know (in spite of having read all the newspapers and seen the television coverage of the actual event) if one of those lunatics is going to pull the trigger. I’ve obviously never seen or heard of any of these actors before, but they all—to a man—turned in brilliant, terrifying performances as men with none of the morality or reverence for life or even logical and linear thought processes that most of us take for granted, men driven as much by despair and fear of even worse men waiting for them back on land as they are by greed and amorality. The same goes for the actors who turned in such realistic performances as the terrified crew, and the calm, dispassionate Navy Seal team that brings the nightmare to a close. Every single one of them is so well cast and does such an honest job that you forget you’re watching a movie, and begin to believe you’re watching a documentary, which is why the tension becomes so unbearable.

 

Kudos especially to director Paul Greengrass. He is, apparently, known for his use of hand-held cameras, which contributes to the documentary style, but he also made brilliant use of the limitations of his locations. The ocean, the vastness and emptiness of it, and how both vastness and emptiness become more and more ominous as the drama unfolds. The staggering size of the freighter that also becomes a cumbersome, threatening handicap to Captain Phillips and his crew. The terrifying, nauseating, claustrophobic confines of the lifeboat where the final hours of the ordeal play out.

 

Since the real story is so well known, I’m not concerned with spoiling any surprises at the end, so I will tell you that after the final shooting there is a very quick scene of the Seal team—coldly capable professionals whose muscular, rugged, clean-cut looks and discipline provide a stark contrast to the erratic and murderous frailty of the pirates—calmly and silently dismantling their weapons and gear and packing everything away, and that quick scene tells you more about those men than any high drama Hollywood has ever manufactured.

 

Go see Captain Phillips. You won’t be disappointed. You may lose some sleep, but you won’t be disappointed.

At the Movies: Blue Jasmine

January 23rd, 2014 12 Comments

Blue Jasmine 2

 

 

I admit I was unprepared for this. I expected Woody Allen saying something intelligent about the human condition in his typical wry, humorous, neurotic style. After all, the movie bills itself as a “comedy-drama.” I don’t know who came up with that description, but whoever it was is a very sick puppy with a distorted, sociopathic idea of comedy. Let me try to give you a little background.

 

M. Scott Peck was a psychiatrist and author who wrote, among other books, The People of the Lie. Peck approached psychiatry from a Christian point of view and in The People of the Lie, he posits the existence of evil as a thing unto itself, rather like Coleridge’s description of Iago as, “…a being next to devil,” full of “motiveless malignity.” From a Christian perspective, if you believe in God, you must believe in the devil, and the people Peck discusses are the ones whom the devil has chosen to destroy those around them. (I am both greatly simplifying Peck’s brilliant analysis of evil and putting my own personal spin on it, but it’s close enough for government work.) These are people who project their own evil onto the innocent, so that their victims are made to accept responsibility for an evil that is not ultimately theirs. Let me try to give you a quick example, not from Peck’s book, but from my own indirect experience. This actually happened.

 

A recently divorced woman with three children, two boys and a girl, each with very specific attributes, was struggling through financial problems of her own making and decided to try and write her way out of her financial difficulties. (We could, at this point, have a very valid discussion about the lesser evil of making bad or impractical choices, and how a job at MacDonalds or K-Mart might have been a more practical option than sailing into a profession for which she had no training, experience, or qualifications, but we’ll let that go.) She wrote a work about a recently divorced woman with three children, two boys and a girl, each with very specific attributes, who was struggling through financial problems. The only change made in the fictional work was that she wrote of herself as an innocent victim, but otherwise it was a complete parallel to her real life. In the fictional piece that she wrote, her financial difficulties are resolved when one of the boys commits suicide. In real life, when the real woman who wrote this finished her written work, she then read the piece to her three children. I know this happened because someone I know was present at the reading and told me, horrified, what had transpired. What message was that woman sending to the real boy whose fictional counterpart committed suicide?

 

That is the evil of malignant narcissism. Those are the people who become the vortex of their own whirlpool of evil and disaster and chaos, sucking everyone near them down into the depths and destroying them. That’s the Jasmine of the title.

 

Blue Jasmine is a portrait of that kind of woman. From the point of view of creating a work of art, that kind of woman is a valid subject for study. The problem is—and the reason the movie didn’t work for me is—that if you start with an unpleasant malignant narcissist at point A, and after ninety-some minutes of catastrophe and disaster and chaos and cringe-inducing behavior you end up with that unpleasant malignant narcissist still right there at point A, you don’t have anything that could be called a work of art in the traditional sense of storytelling. There is no arc, no progression, no growth, no learning. Perhaps, I hear Woody Allen cry, that is the point of the movie, that the people of the lie never learn; they are simply terminators who take all and sundry down with them. It’s a valid point (even if I just made it myself), especially if you choose a sort of post-modern, deconstructionist style of storytelling, but it does not make for a satisfying ninety minute movie-going experience.

 

Jasmine is a wealthy New York socialite who projects her own failings and evil onto everyone around her, and blames everyone but herself for the fall that she saw coming and could, perhaps, have averted. (Think of the Bernie Madoff scandal and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the background plot.) The only true innocent in this movie is her son, and you learn all you need to know, more than you ever wanted to know, about Jasmine in a scene where she finds him after many years and confronts him, saying, “But what about me? Why did you leave me? I needed you!”

 

Those are the people of the lie. It’s all about them and their needs.

 

Beautifully directed by Woody Allen, with uniformly great performances, and one disturbing, unforgettable, coruscating Charybdis of a performance by Cate Blanchett, it will linger with you long after you have left the theater. But so too do certain horrific car accidents; does that mean you want to go out of your way to see one?

At the Movies: American Hustle

January 18th, 2014 14 Comments

American Hustle

 

 

The Screen Actors’ Guild picks members at random to vote on their awards. Darleen was picked to be one of the judges this year, so we’ve been getting DVDs of all the movies in the running for an award or multiple awards. The other night we watched American Hustle.

 

Without going too far and giving too much away, American Hustle is about a couple of sleazy, low-level grifters (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) who get caught up in an FBI-orchestrated sting operation that snowballs wildly out of control. Since the key to any con operation is maintaining control, the plot turns on who is actually controlling whom, and as the sting moves up the ladder of culpability from a New Jersey mayor (Jeremy Renner) to members of the United States congress and a United States Senator, and finally to the murderous head of a Mafia family (Robert DeNiro), the stakes and the danger rise exponentially. While I have made this sound like an edge of the seat nail-biter—and in fact after about the first ten minutes you could have set fire to my chair and I wouldn’t have left—it is also, in places, outrageously funny.

 

That is the basic plot, with the emphasis on basic because there are so many sub-plots and twists and turns and reverses and convolutions that every time you begin to grasp who’s doing what to whom, it all changes and your jaw slides down to your bedroom slippers. I came away congratulating myself on being infinitely more mature than any of the childishly self-centered, self-deluding, self-aggrandizing characters, and shaking my head sadly because I will never be smart enough to ever dream up anything one tenth as convoluted as their scheme(s).

 

So, a fabulous plot, a great script, magnificently directed by David O. Russell (who co-wrote it along with Eric Singer); what more could anyone possibly want?

 

Actually, the real reason to see this movie is for the performances, especially the extraordinary Christian Bale and Amy Adams. For a variety of reasons I missed much of the last ten years, so in spite of his steady stream of work, my experience of Christian Bale was limited to Batman: the Dark Knight, which I despised from soup to nuts; the remake of 3:10 to Yuma, which I enjoyed, though not as much as the original; and his bravura, unpredictable performance in The Fighter. In fact, I am so out of it that I thought he was an American; he is actually Welsh and, according to Darleen, has a thick accent. I spent the first fifteen minutes of American Hustle earnestly telling Darleen that she was wrong, that this balding, paunchy, nerdy, sad-sack couldn’t possibly be the glamorous Christian Bale. And it’s not just his physical transformation: he has the extraordinary capacity for inhabiting a character that only a few of the very greatest actors ever achieve. (Alec Guinness leaps to mind, followed by Albert Finney, Daniel Day Lewis, Ralph Fiennes, a few others.)

 

And Amy Adams! Lord have mercy. I had seen her in The Fighter and Julie and Julia, and thought she was very gifted, but that was clearly a grotesque underestimation of her talent. There is one scene that takes place in the stall of the lady’s room at Studio 54 that made every hair on my body “stand an end, like quills upon the fretful porpentine.” Her shifting alliances make her the wildest of the many wild cards in this intricate house of cards, and I found myself thinking that if anyone might survive, or possibly even come out on top, it would be her. (Whether she does or not, I shan’t say; you’ll just have to see the movie and find out.)

 

With Bradley Cooper as the most conceited and arrogant FBI agent you have ever seen (the shot of him with his hair in curlers is almost enough to justify seeing the movie by itself), and Jennifer Lawrence playing Christian Bale’s wife—the girl so dumb she actually thinks she’s smart—and a host of other vain, venal, self-absorbed characters, the movie makes you want to never trust anyone again. But it makes you want to watch it again and again.

Update from the Blog/Internet Land of Lost Souls

January 15th, 2014 7 Comments

Old man big book

 

I would like to thank everyone for the expressions of sympathy and the offers to help. I am touched by the many kindnesses offered, and impressed by the highly advanced technological skills so many people seem to have. At least they’re highly advanced and overwhelmingly technological to me, scribbling away on my clay tablet with my stylus.

Old man writing

One reader even saved all the pieces I have written, a fact I find a little overwhelming since I certainly didn’t consider all of them worth saving. (That reader is from Mossel Bay, South Africa. Beautiful South Africa. I’ve never been to Mossel Bay, but just the name brought back a flood of memories from both South and southern Africa: God spreading his tablecloth on Table Mountain; the astounding juncture—visible from the mountaintop when the tablecloth wasn’t spread—of the Indian and Atlantic oceans, the different colors merging as far as the eye could see; the strong red wine of the lovely Cape; beautiful stepped- and white-washed Dutch Colonial architecture; springbok leaping like ballerinas; a tame eland named Applequi (sp?); the ostrich that wanted to kill me and caused me to develop a taste for ostrich meat; the flamingos rising up in enormous lovely clouds from the shallow waters of Walvis Bai; the prehistoric paintings on a cave wall near Windhoek; a pair of lions in the moonlight, male and female, feeding on a freshly killed wildebeest, great pats of butter in a field of cream, beauty and majesty in deadly combination; the way the giraffes appear to run in slow motion; the pit-bull aggression of the warthogs; and other, less lovely and far more dangerous memories. But I did love that land.)

 

The good news is that my site administrator has managed to locate virtually all (we think) the posts, good, bad, and indifferent, and it now simply becomes a question of reviewing them and putting them back up. I will start that process, but I will try to keep at least some new material in the pipeline. In the meantime, thank you all again, not least for your patience.

To Err Is Human…

January 10th, 2014 20 Comments

computer cartoon

…to really screw things up, you need a computer.

A mistake was made. My website was being inundated with robo-responses, so many of them that it was clogging up the system and, in some way I don’t understand, that meant subscribers to this website weren’t getting the notices they had requested. (They still won’t, for other reasons, but we’re still working on it.) Apparently it also meant there was a potential for hacking (both my computer and subscribers’) and, in short, something had to be done. We tried to do that something, but unfortunately someone hit the wrong key at the wrong time with the result that three years’ worth of my work was wiped out. All the blogs as well as all the profiles and short stories were deleted in a way that meant they could not be retrieved. Gone. Vanished. Vaporized.

Needless to say, this kind of knocked me back on my heels. I have rough drafts of most of the stuff, but the difference between my rough drafts and the final product I actually post is considerable, and that doesn’t take any photographs or illustrations into account. Is this the end of Western Civilization as we know it? Hardly. Is it the end of the American Literary Tradition? Nope, it sure ain’t, Sparky. (Though based on much of the crap ballyhooed by the New York Times and other self-proclaimed arbiters of taste, we can safely say the American literary tradition has been moribund for at least the last ten years.) But it does mean I have to start over with a more or less blank slate. I simply do not have either the time or the energy to go back through everything and do it all over again. (And would it be worthwhile, I hear myself cry, would it have been worth it, after all, would it have been worthwhile, after the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets, after the novels and the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—and this and so much more… No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be…)

Unfortunately for those of you kind enough to follow this blog regularly, there is going to be a period of repetition. There are certain pieces I wish to restore, and there is at least one piece I have to restore to honor a commitment to the person about whom I wrote. This is all going to take a while, so if those of you kind enough to pay regular visits to my website wish to go on vacation (Barbados is nice this time of year) I will understand.

My apologies.

The author is fine

January 6th, 2014 8 Comments

It’s the website that’s having troubles at the moment.

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