Tuesday, August 18, 2009

# 62 From Here to Eternity – James Jones

On July 4th 2008 at an annual gathering at a Michigan lakeside one young man drew substantial attention from family and friends alike. The fresh 19-year-old Marine had just completed boot camp at Parris Island. He was enjoying a few days of leave before undergoing desert training at Twentynine Palms, followed by deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Over burgers and franks, the centathlete probed about Parris Island (naturally envisioning scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 film, Full Metal Jacket). The comments were brief, due to the respondent’s laconic personality, and concentrated on one aspect: the rigorousness of the physical training.

While playing cornhole toss on the lawn, the grunt removed his shirt and revealed his new black ink: the initials “USMC” tattooed boldly and gothically between his scapulae. This art was not discussed that weekend, nor was the military’s changed policy toward its members’ tattoos, which are plentiful. But the ink bespoke the newfound pride and identity of a man not six months in the Corps yet willfully marked by it for life.

This is the pride of Prewitt, Warden and the soldiers of the 1951 novel, From Here to Eternity. The author James Jones had been a 20-year-old, frightened participant in Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Guadalcanal. He went on to co-found the Handy Writer’s Colony in his home state of Illinois (where men were evidently encouraged to wear diapers). He lived in Paris, among other places, and spent his last years in the Hamptons on Long Island. At the time of this writing you can buy his home for less than $9 million. Who’s in?

From Here to Eternity is mighty and lush, like much of its setting, Hawaii. The centathlete has had the great fortune three times to visit, not as a G.I. like Jones but as a pleasure-seeking haole and a conventioneer. Several months after his first trip, to Kauai in 1992, the island was devastated by Hurricane Iniki, the “third most damaging hurricane in U.S.” history, according to Dr. George P.C. On his second trip he tramped in Maui’s Haleakala crater, which amazingly resembles Mars, and watched weather being born.

During his last visit, to the Big Island, the youngest of the islands, he and two buddies took a day trip to the magnificent Waipi’o Valley (it looks Jurassic though it is 145 million years too young), which can be uplifting and also menacing. The black sand beach and brilliant white cataracts dazzle. The surf invites but proves overpowering. Driving very slowly into the valley brings wild horses begging for food at the window.

The trio passed a few shanties established in the tangle. One scraggly proprietor looked out from his porch and said, “Hey, that’s my car.” The meaning was clear; he was going to repossess it, even if it was a rental. The rolling tour accelerated only modestly as per the tropically treacherous muddy road. Tension announced itself inside and hung around, abating only when the porch turned out to be vacant on the return, and ultimately dissipating as the events were rehashed that night at a luau by the Mauna Kea Resort…

Prewitt, Jones’s honorable soldier hero, experiences ecstasy and terror a thousandfold beyond the sensations of a vagrant tourist. While in solitary confinement after appalling torture, Prewitt falls into a trance and sees a “jism cord” connecting his two selves and revealing the profound relatedness of the past and present, the personal and the social. The hallucination is provocative and apt output in a book coursing with hormones. “Jism,” according to the O.E.D., was first used in 1842 to describe horse semen and energy.

A contemporary artist, Matthew Barney, builds on similar imagery to evoke and complicate notions of identity, connectivity and virility. In his “Cremaster 2” movie, Gary Gilmore is “parked in a shiny Mustang that is seamlessly connected to another Mustang by a tunnel linking the two cars. Seen sitting inside the tunnel, Gilmore (played by Matthew Barney) pulls and pushes at the Vaselined interior that appears in all of the “Cremaster” films,” as summarized in Art: 21.

When asked about his choice of material, Barney said, “I’ve always thought of the way that Vaseline worked as a transitional element in moments of friction between two objects.” Barney’s vision is decidedly more developed than Prewitt’s, but the hypersexual context of his Cremaster cycle and its gelatinous sculpture lets us appreciate the private’s epiphany all the more.

The primacy of hormones and sexuality throughout From Here to Eternity affirms the novel’s thematic fecundity, a quality most notable when contrasted to the 1953 movie adaptation, directed by Fred Zinneman. At the time the aggressive censorship of the HUAC era, combined with Hollywood commercialism, prevented cinema that was “faithful" to its source. The filmmakers omitted so much of Jones’s “racy” plot lines that their trash heap could have created discrete, dynamic dramas with the respective subject matter of Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Bernard Malamud, Upton Sinclair and Henri Charrière.

Jones didn’t appreciate Hollywood’s redactions of his novels (The Thin Red Line was first adapted in 1964). His novelist daughter Kaylie stated, “He thought that they were not true to the books. With From Here to Eternity, they had to change many things at the time because of the censorship.” She added in the same interview that years later he saw the film again and changed his mind.

After Prewitt is imprisoned he is gravely knifed in the side (you don’t have to read the gospels to catch that symbolism) and finally shot. He dies in a sand trap on the golf course of the Waialae Country Club, today the “premier country club in Oahu” and home to The Sony Open on the PGA Tour. The scene is realistic, as “numerous military defenses had been installed along Oahu's coastline including the golf course,” and the setting of privilege and recreation underscores the pointlessness of the private’s demise.

A caddie for 10 years and a bogey-golfer-on-a-good-day for many more, the centathlete has walked nearly 2,000 rounds in his days and seen some things, even stepped in a hive of yellow jackets while wearing shorts, but he has not witnessed death (though his father was struck by lightning while exiting his cart onto a fairway and miraculously escaped unharmed). No, the centathlete’s most memorable golfing experience, more than 25 years ago, involved the near-dispatch of a bird.

Canada geese are attracted to golf courses with water, crapping multitudinously, to the unmitigated consternation of players and groundskeepers. At Crab Meadow Golf Course on the Long Island Sound, the centathlete was engaged in a high school match. His opponent was teeing off, when a goose waddled directly in front of him at the worst moment. The drive struck the bird in the neck and the goose collapsed, wings outstretched on the grass.

Instantly every goose for at least a half-mile—there were hundreds—stood still and silent. Flock consciousness had transmitted the alert; the victim had not made a sound when it went down. The four humans shared a few uneasy seconds, wondering if there would be Hitchcockian revenge by beak. Fortunately the goose arose and walked away tentatively, its head wobbling significantly on its wounded neck, and the rest of the birds resumed their activities.

Humans lack such a collective nervous system and quasi-telepathic alarm mechanism, but armed forces throughout history have sought to instill their approximation. One U.S. Marine Corps Captain discussed the necessity of speedy groupthink during Basic Training:
“Over time, a recruit learns to obey orders without hesitation, and it is this Pavlovian response that allows us to be successful in battle. Decisions are made quickly, and orders are carried out without question.”

Prewitt was not incapable of such obedience; he was a fine soldier. It was his balking at a corrupt, cannibalistic system that made him unfit. The novel tracks the rotten values to Captain Dynamite Holmes and further up the chain of command, condemning an entire institution that in Jones’s eyes had removed honor and sound moral justification from its foundation. Indeed, Holmes is ultimately promoted. The film does not partake in Jones’s grand indictment. Instead it portrays Holmes as a delinquent rogue, pins all the blame on him, and then punishes him at the hands of a righteous military tribunal.

The centathlete’s immediate reaction when watching the movie was utter bafflement at the miscalculated choice of black-and-white. Any native of or visitor to the Rainbow State of Hawaii will undoubtedly be struck by its vibrant colors, which are inseparable from the islands. At least one reviewer agreed:
“…the film is hurt by the use of black-and-white photography. Use of colour, together with more shots of the Hawaii countryside, would have provided effective contrast between heaven outside setting and hell inside movie's troubled protagonists.”

In support of the aesthetic of Zinneman and company, their movie, according to imdb.com, inspired an aloha-shirt trend. The centathlete, ever the mellow weekend warrior, endorses the superb craftsmanship of Tori Richard, as the company’s apparel is appropriate “anywhere in the world where the resort lifestyle can be embraced.”

Zinneman and company, after taking a machete to Jones’s lush tangled narrative, further distanced themselves from the text through casting. In true Hollywood tradition, Montgomery Clift and Oscar winners Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed were more than 10 years older than the literary personages they portrayed. They were also too pretty and polished (and the men’s lollipop physiques make them appear as starving actors rather than hard soldiers). That said, Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, with admirable muscles and curves, playing characters true to their actual ages, actually convey the heat of the book.

Kerr’s voracious stare is exquisite. The Scottish actress, who was married during filming to an RAF squadron leader, discussed her preparation for the role: “For Karen Holmes…I studied voice for three months to get rid of my English accent. I changed my hair to blonde. I knew I could be sexy if I had to.” Mission accomplished. One could argue that the theme of this Pearl Harbor classic could be Hubba! Hubba! Hubba! instead of Tora! Tora! Tora!

With her blonde hair and good social standing, Kerr's Karen opposed Reed’s Alma, a raven-haired hostess/hooker with a heart of gold and the unlikely refined posture of a debutante. The inseparable light-dark hair-pair recurs throughout Pop History; its foremost incarnation is Betty and Veronica. During Crab Meadow days there was on MTV the blonde/brunette duo of Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall, the fetching but atrocious backing singers of The Human League, in “Don’t You Want Me Baby” and “(Keep Feeling) Fascination.”

Prewitt is a far cry from Sulley and Catherall—he is an expert musician. In addition, his gift with the bugle is natural, not consistently honed. The movie, through Clift, showcases his melodramatic rendition of Taps, and shows him “jamming” with only his mouthpiece on “The Re-Enlistment Blues” with real-life guitar hero Merle Travis. A Kentuckian born into poverty like Prewitt, Travis achieved musical success which was compromised by bad behavior similar to that of Jones’s dog soldiers, according to CMT.com:
“Travis also became known as a wildman, especially when he drank. He was arrested more than once for public intoxication and drunk driving—on his motorcycle—and in 1956 there was a highly publicized report of police surrounding his home after he assaulted his wife.”

James Jones wrote the original lyrics of “The Re-Enlistment Blues” and featured them throughout his book. Travis’s completed version is available on amazon.com and iTunes. The centathlete has listened to it many times on account of envy: he wrote a novel (unpublished) and inserted lyrics for a blues song in the hope that the next Taj Mahal or Stevie Ray Vaughan will someday write the tune and play it. Little Taj or Stevie, if you’re out there, check out “There’s No Reason (For These Blues).”

The centathlete finds Travis’s guitar playing enjoyable and the singing uninspired and disruptive. Travis as a vocalist repeatedly breaks a rule a Long Island music teacher once imparted: “when you play the blues, never come in early; late is OK, but don’t come in early.”

Moreover, although it likely wasn’t his decision, Travis altered the lyrics, making them more palatable for a general audience. He even omitted the verse for “Friday,” in a song that runs through each day of the week, a grievous error.

Speaking of the calendar… was it Groundhog Day? No, it was July 4th 2009 back at the Michigan lake and the centathlete again encountered the Marine, now 20, at the annual barbeque. The young man, more confident in his bearing, more tattooed (both arms), and still laconic, played cornhole toss more ably and determinedly. He spun the beanbag in the air for a softer landing because he wanted to win.

He was recently returned from Afghanistan. “Was it fun?” the centathlete asked affably, not knowing how to broach the subject. “No,” answered the young man politely and firmly. It was established elsewhere that four men in his unit were killed; one of them took a fatal bullet while standing right next to the Marine. He had been stationed in the hot zone of Now Zad and was changed unquestionably by combat. Since then he has gone for more desert and mountain training, to become a leader during his next overseas tour. He is not yet inclined to sing the blues.


SocrMom78 said...

I really like your blog, as I'm reading my way through the books. Your insight to the authors and the background of the books will be very helpful to me!

The Centathlete said...

My pleasure! Thanks for visiting and happy trails through the novels.

Gabe said...

I, too, enjoyed reading your blog. Do you have any information about the soldier Jones knew at Schofield who was the model for the Prewitt character?

The Centathlete said...

Thanks, Gabe! For the inspiration for Prewitt, I suggest you reach out to the James Jones Literary society,
http://www.jamesjonesliterarysociety.org/. Is Prewitt a hero worth upholding today? I would say so.

Keep me posted.