- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 26, 2007

Barry Gifford’s “The Cavalry Charges” is a collection of writings that has the content and texture of a memoir. But,

unlike “The Phantom Father,” Mr. Gifford’s putative memoir of 10 years ago that kept everyone guessing about what was true and what was not, this book is anything but ambiguous. In it, Mr. Gifford delivers straight talk on books, film and music in little narratives that are less like essays than little cha-chas, each tautly built and sharply ended. No games here.

In the book Mr. Gifford also includes a nine-part dossier on the 1961 film “One-Eyed Jacks” following an essay about the writing and making of his operatic transcription of “Lost Highway,” entitled “Madrugada.” He also includes the full libretto of the opera.

Oh, and did I mention that there is a section entitled “Read ‘Em and Weep: My Favorite Novels,” in which he includes a list with short synopses of the books that have mattered most to him.

But this spicy jambalaya of a book is hardly chaotic. It is divided into three parts: “Books,” “Film and Television” and “Music,” a structure that somewhat prepares the reader for what he will encounter. But only barely. Take the startling profile of B. Traven, the presumed author of the screenplay of “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” with which he opens the book:

“Does it really matter who B. Traven was? Was he at one time a Polish locksmith named Feige? An actor turned radical journalist in Munich named Ret Maarut? A German or even Norwegian immigrant to Mexico named Traven Torsvan? An American by way of Europe who at one time worked as a merchant seaman and disembarked in Tampico in 1924 never to set foot on a ship again? … ”

By way of sorting out the mystery of this man, whom the author first came to know about from the 1948 film starring Humphrey Bogart, readers are taken on a free-associative romp in which the author remembers: “I never forgot the kid, played by Bobby Blake, selling a lottery ticket to Fred C. Dobbs, Bogart’s character in a Tampico cantina. Almost half a century later, Robert Blake played an unforgettable character called the Mystery Man in a film I cowrote with the director David Lynch, Lost Highway. Little did I know in 1958, when I was eleven years old, watching Bogart splash water into the face of the kid trying to tell him he’d won the lottery , that it was the creator of their characters, a figment of a Dr. Mabuse-like mad genius’s imagination, who was the real Mystery Man.”

Now, in a section entitled “Books,” readers may wonder where this essay entitled “B. Traven: The Man Who Never Forgot” fits, and Mr. Gifford does not disappoint. After he first watched the move, he tells us he began reading Traven’s books including “a little gem of a paperback I found in a used-book bin in Chicago that I bought for a nickel entitled Stories by the Man Nobody Knows. It was this book that made me wonder why: I didn’t care so much who B. Traven was, I just wanted to know why he didn’t want people to know.”

Mr. Gifford follows Traven’s life, eventually meets his stepdaughters, does not gloss over the writer’s early and then later anti-Semitism (“a cultural sickness,” he calls it) and describes how Traven kept writing and publishing up to the end of his life.

It is a surprisingly moving profile and sets the tone for other reminiscences on the writing life in general and for profiles of other celebrity writers, notably William Burroughs, who we are reminded “had shot and killed by accident his wife while playing William Tell in Mexico City, had embraced then rejected Scientology, had written several groundbreaking works of futuristic, satirical literary fiction, was … a painter of some merit, had acted in a few feature films” and was, according to Mr. Gifford’s son, “the strangest man he’d ever met.”

The most interesting part of the book for me was Mr. Gifford’s assessment of the books that mattered most to him. It is not at all the wacky list one might expect. And the best of these include his essays on Charles Portis’ “Masters of Atlantis,” Thomas Wolfe’s “Of Time and the River” and the likely not widely known “The Last of the Vikings” by Johan Bojer. Essays on E.M. Forster, Don DeLillo and Fannery O’Connor are standouts as is an interesting assessment of the Bible.

The movie section of the book is also the one from which the book takes its name. “‘Do you know,’ [Francis Ford Coppola] asked, what the three most dangerous words in a screenplay are?’ ‘No,’ I answered, ‘what are they?’ ‘The cavalry charges!’ Francis said. ‘Three little words to the writer,’ he went on, but what do they mean to the production? Three days and three million dollars. More! And horses!’”

“Madrugada — Not Opera Action Musical” is an interesting musical addition to the rest of the book, but less affecting than what precedes it. In the end, it is the people profiled who remain with reader. A long riff on Artie Shaw is memorable. Even more memorable is the section called “Keeper of the Cat People: A Paean to Val Lewton,” Lewton being the producer and “sometime screenwriter” of “Cat People and Curse of the Cat People,” along with “The Leopard Man,” “I Walked with a Zombie,” “The Body Snatcher” and others. Some of these 1950s films could be seen on television, and, Mr. Gifford writes, “Watching these masterpieces of chiaroscuro at three a.m. made an indelible impression on me.” He gives Martin Scorcese the chance to wax more eloquently: They were “wonderfully inventive, beautifully poetic, and deeply unsettling … some of the greatest treasures we have.”

Another treasure of sorts is Marlon Brando, about whom Mr. Gifford writes: “Sure, he got grotesquely fat and Truman Capote called him an idiot and his son murdered his daughter’s lover and then she killed herself and he had several wives and who knows how many children and he probably became clinically crazy years and years ago, but the guy did a lot of work that people will remember for a long time if not for always and anyway he’s from Libertyville, Illinois (though born in Omaha), where I used to go swimming with my mother when I was a kid, and I remember the farms there, which are now suburban Chicago housing developments. Brando undoubtedly remembers the farms that were there too, he lived on one and Orson Welles was from rural Illinois, also. Homeboys, all homeboys, filled with longing, looking to create other worlds, and Brando did it despite what those lousy European actors say dropping cigarette butts into their espresso cups.”

Sprawling, deeply felt, fascinating, incisive, “The Cavalry Charges” is Barry Gifford on just about everything.

THE CAVALRY CHARGES: WRITINGS ON BOOKS, FILM AND MUSIC

By Barry Gifford

Thunder’s Mouth Press, $25.95, 271 pages

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