POX Americana

navajo-slide4Today’s script comes from the top end of the 2013 Black List. The writer is best known as an actor, although he does have two other writing credits attributed to him on IMDb.

Site contributor, walker, suggested POX Americana on the forums. As with last week’s review of Calvary [chosen by Mr. Dorland], I owe walker my thanks for picking this excellent script. It allows for an expansive use of the reviewing questions.

1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)

Part A) Most of the dialogue based exposition in this script is concentrated into one passage. From pages 11-12:

THACKER
Gents this business last month –
them settlers you lead the search
party for, Captain, who was
mutilated out at Bear Rock? Well
one of those families were friends
of President Buchanan and he’s
taken the massacre as a personal
affront. He’s mad. Wants the
Indians chastised. Severely. And
administered thusly…

Thacker leans forward…

THACKER (CONT’D)
He’s ordered a top secret incursion
deep in Navajo territory. The
operation is two pronged; the first
will function as a diversion.

(MORE)
It involves three companies of
Dragoons marching toward Canyon De
Chelly in staggered waves to make
the Navajos prepare for a full on
assault. That operation is already
underway.

Burke throws Gus a quick look.

THACKER (CONT’D)
While the Navajo are scattered, a
raid team will carry out the real
mission – to assassinate their
chief, Babazorka and any others
that may be with him. Our Zuni
scouts have been tracking the chief
and his clan. They say he’s ill and
hiding in the La Taza del Diablo
mountain range. There’s no tellin’
how long the chief will stay put –
so speed and astoundment will be
paramount. You leave in the
morning. Before sunrise.

Burke tries to hide the shock of how soon it is.

BURKE
Yes, sir.
(beat)
But Colonel, with all due
respect… why would we attack the
Navajo for what happened at Bear
Rock? I was there at the massacre
site… saw the evidence with my
own eyes. I know for a fact that
the Navajo had nothing to do with
it. This was clearly the work of
the Apaches…

GUS
… I agree, Colonel. My scouts
tell me it was Jicarilla Apaches to
be exact.

THACKER
(knowing they are right)
Well Washington thinks differently.

This short exchange presents all the information we need to understand the premise of this story. The Army will mount an incursion into Navajo territory to distract from their real goal, the assassination of the Navajo chief. The passage also houses thematic exposition, as it will become vitally important to our [eventual] theme that everyone involved knows they will not be hunting down the Native Americans who were actually responsible for the massacre. To drive this thematic exposition home, the passage concludes with:

THACKER
(knowing they are right)
Well Washington thinks differently.

In the last third of the script, a new idea surfaces which the author also feels requires exposition—Babazorka [the Navajo chief] wasn’t actually in hiding, he was in quarantine. The author hedges his bets about whether or not his audience will connect his dots, so he has many of his characters deliver some variation of the following line [from page 88]:

DOC
(a hoarse, demonic growl)
That red nigger done this! She gave
Cuddy this. He gave me it. There
was something in her blood… she
has some pox… that’s why she was
branded… they sent her down here
to do this to us. It must be
contagious… we all got the pox
now!

He vomits again. Turns and looks over his shoulder – blood is
trickling from his tear ducts, nostrils and ears…

DOC (CONT’D)
I told him to go! We could have
been rich! I told him to kill her!
Burke done this to us!

Two things strike me about this sickness exposition:

1. I love that the author set up his Pox in Thacker’s initial comments explaining the military operation. In the lines quoted above, Thacker says:

…our Zuni
scouts have been tracking the chief
and his clan. They say he’s ill and
hiding in the La Taza del Diablo
mountain range.

When you initially read this, it feels like a throwaway line buried inside the important information about the assassination strategy. In the end, however, this piece of “intelligence” was the only thing the government “spies” got right.

2. I don’t think it’s necessary. At least not as many times as it’s delivered. By Fade Out, almost every character offers a repetition of Doc’s hypothesis. Babazorka was quarantined, and Burke has killed them all by not killing the wounded Navajo girl who ran down the mountain and straight into their defensive position.

One more note before we move onto subtext. Historical fiction, like its intentional cousin Science fiction, is a genre where expositional content tends to run higher than in genres which get by with single word descriptions. The audience may not know the historical foundation on which you are building your story, and if you don’t give them some details in the dialogue, you risk losing your reader. Writers often try and get around this by burying some of their exposition in the description. POX Americana employs this technique. I’ll cite one example, from page 7:

EXT. FT. RESOLUTION – DAY

Looming behind an impoverished town of windowless adobe
structures and sitting on the edge of scorched nothingness
for as far as the eye can see is Ft. Resolution – home to
Company G and its fewer than 200 troops.

SUPER: TOWN OF SANGRE DE CORDERO, NEW MEXICO TERRITORY, 1859

This work-in-progress fort built deep in the Navajo nation on
what is today the border between Arizona and New Mexico, is
the US Army’s farthest-flung garrison, designed to provoke
the Diné people and let them know the white man isn’t going
anywhere.

At the center of the compound is a 300 yard parade ground
surrounded by a series of simple pine log troop barracks,
some smaller private quarters for officers, and a string of
tents where Mexican servants and Indian scouts reside.

The reason I cite this is because I actually think this is a great example of how you should write exposition into your description. These three paragraphs contain one Unfilmable Idea—white people are invading Native American land, and they’re going to persist with their “Resolution” until they succeed in their invasion. Yet, look how this unfilmable idea is made filmable:

Looming… This work in progress… compound… parade ground… barracks… private quarters

These are the words used to describe the look of things built and owned by the invading people. These are all orderly, strong, words. Contrast these descriptions with the descriptions used to paint the things owned and built by the native inhabitants:

…impoverished town of windowless adobe… on the edge of scorched nothingness… a string of tents where Mexican servants and Indian scouts reside…

Everything built by the invaders is ordered, imposing. Everything built by the invaded is impermanent, unnoticeable. The author has presented an unfilmable idea, and then used his description to allow a hypothetical camera to capture that idea. This is exceedingly well done. Overall [and because of the repetitious lines about the pox]:

  8 out of 10 points.

Part B) Before we get to exposition, I should point out that I take POX Americana to be a story with a dual theme. In line with my ideas about the way theme works, there is a Major theme which undergirds and supports a Minor theme.

Today’s script is, in my estimation, an example of the type of story which takes an historical episode and uses it as a metaphor for a more recent event in human history. A famous example of this can be found in Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible. Everyone who has survived High School English knows the one and only thing The Crucible isn’t about is… those Salem Witch Trials which it appears [almost necessarily] to be about. (1) There is no leap in asserting that POX Americana is about 911, and the two wars in the Middle East which resulted from 911. Summed to a [longish] bumpersticker, it would be:

America’s invasions of Middle Eastern countries in the early 21st Century was unjust.

The Major theme of POX Americana is about human reaction to violence. It is important [to the script] that this violence be isolated from Intentions. Violence happens, but we aren’t permitted to determine its philosophical correctness. In other words, you cannot establish a causal chain in which it is morally justifiable to punish another set of humans for ANY [prior or future] acts of violence.

This idea is radically well-defined in this story. I take it to be the uncompromising success of the script as a finished product. The author DOES NOT litigate [in a moral court] the violence which he sprays across his pages. We are not in this story world to determine if the Native Americans were justified in their massacres of European invaders to the same degree we are not in this story world to determine if the Europeans were justified in their massacres of Native Americans. In POX Americana,

Violence, everywhere, anywhere, and for all time, is morally wrong.

Usually I don’t let the thematic cat out of its bag before its time. I did so in this review because the subtext in this script [as it should] revolves around its Major and Minor themes. Necessarily, then, we will be looking for passages which describe violence between groups, and violence as an entity in itself. I’ll work through the script chronologically [and start with group violence]. The first example is from page 5:

CUDDY
14 males. 10 women. 7 children.
Three of ‘em infants.

Burke surveys the panorama of merciless bloodshed surrounding
him…

BURKE
Sure is an exquisite display of
savagery, isn’t it, Cuthbert?

Cuddy nods. Another of the platoons NCO’s walks up…

DOC
Oh these sons a bitches are good at
bein’ savage!

From page 7:

PRATT
Way I see it… only way to stop a
savage is to be more savage.

Page 29:

DOC
Job? Shit! I mean bedding down with
these savages! Turns my stomach to
think he’s married to one and got
two halfie girls with her too!
That’s why he left the army.

Page 46:

TRIGWELL
Our orders were not to negotiate a
peace with these savage terrorists (2)
but to punish them. And we will not
defy those orders.

Page 67:

DOC (CONT’D)
Ya’ll goin’ crazy? We come here to
kill and git! Every second we stay
here is another second closer to us
getting eaten alive by these
savages!

What all these lines illustrate is the well-known sociological idea that the human mind legitimizes the killing of other humans by assigning them to a group, and then determining this group is SOMEHOW not as human as the group which wants to do the killing.

Our brains come equipped with a remarkable [and not very studied] instinct to preserve human life—just so long as we identify that human life as belonging to our own group. The categories which define this “belonging” can be very broad [ethically speaking they OUGHT to be one step removed from infinitely broad (3)] or very small—depending on our rationalizations of our intentions.

Just as true, our brains also come equipped with a remarkable [and also not very studied] (4) exclusion apparatus. We can make the category of “belonging” as small as our intentions require.

All these lines about savages, and savagery, illustrate the human mind’s exclusion apparatus at work. They illustrate it succinctly.

The Major theme plays out in the character of Burke. We see it in his lines about his son—whom we never see on screen. The first example comes from pages 6-7:

Burke, his face bent with remorse, looks down at Chilby – the
boy’s torso chock-full of gashing wounds, flies churning in
the gummy blood of it…

BURKE
(almost to himself)
I have a son about his age.

The next on page 9:

CHAPLAIN DUKES
It is true. We’ll all have to stand
before God and answer to him
someday, Captain…

BURKE
It isn’t god I’m worried about. My
son Ethan’s thirteen now. Keeps
tellin’ his ma that he wants to
join the Army so he can kill
Indians like his pa.

Page 50:

BURKE
My oldest boy wants to be a
soldier. Maybe if he saw this, he’d
reconsider.

Pratt tries to strip an OLD WOMAN’S CORPSE, has trouble,
pulls his Bowie knife and slashes through her rawhide skirt
until she rolls over naked.

PRATT
I ever had a son – I’d rather kill
him with my own hands than let him
join the army.

BURKE
Surprises me to hear you say that,
Ebeneezer.

And finally, from page 102:

CAMERA CRAWLS DOWN EVEN LOWER TO REVEAL…

Ethan P. Burke
Corporal
New Mexico Volunteer Cavalry Regiment
Born April 17, 1845
Died November 25, 1864
Killed by Comanche Warriors
Battle of Adobe Walls

After which, we:

SMASH TO BLACK:

And then End.

I cite all these lines because they make it clear Burke has come to understand that violence is a false end. The author uses the father/son relationship as a primordial symbol of what humans SHOULD want. A father wishes for nothing more than a son who grows up to be just like him. Naturally, we want them to surpass us, but the biological urge to procreate seems necessarily tied to the idea that the parent is ghost in the child. To actively plot against this biological imperative requires philosophical sophistication… because of the logical contradiction implied. In strict terms, to not want your child to grow up just like you [only better] is to not want what you really do want. This is the human mind overriding the biology which comprises it.

I’ll let Burke sum up for himself, from page 97:

BURKE
I, Cyrus P. Burke, Captain, Company
G, First Dragoons, do hereby resign
my commission. Effective
immediately. This day, April 7,
1859.
(beat)
When I was a boy I always thought
if a good man killed a bad man then
the killin’ was good. But now…
either way… it’s just… murder.
(beat)
Terrible thing to come to your end
and realize your whole life was
wrong.
(beat)
Guess the only thing worse… is
never realizing it.

GUS
I’ll make sure your family gets
your end.

BURKE
You tell Ethan I resigned. Tell him
I died a civilian.

All this subtext is well done and deserves the majority of the points. I have one small issue concerning Babazorka and his sons which we will discuss when we get to theme. For now,

8 out of 10 points.

Part C) The character individuation in this script is adequate. I can’t be generous here because, as written, there is no standout. Also, I was not always impressed with the colloquialisms used to render Gus’ dialogue. There are too many times when he talks like this [from page 18]:

TRIGWELL
So you’re Canfield, the man who
makes the Indians run.

GUS
Done so… but most a-times they’s
runnin’ after me.

There is in that brand of dialoguesmithing the same kind of Cowboy talk which populates the spectrum of movies about The West.

6 out of 10 points.

2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)

There is no question this opening ten pages is Forceful. We begin with this [on page ii]:

Dear Reader,

The script you are about to read concerns acts of violence
and contains scenes of shocking brutality – all of which have been
pulled directly from the historical record.
I have deliberately written it in the most graphic prose
possible in order to strip it bare of any glamour which the reader
might associate with film violence and to expose it for its vile
and pointless truth.

It is my belief that, only by depicting the atrocities of the
American West in their most blunt and unforgiving ferocity, can
the reader experience the themes of the film and understand the
absurdity behind the myth so prevalent in our culture and history –
the myth of redemptive violence.

Frank John Hughes
Los Angeles, CA

which is almost off-putting. Mr. Hughes begins his script with Nietzche’s philosophical hammer. There is authorial tyranny in this address to the reader. I will posit that it is also a gamble. Doing something like this in your own script would be a coin flip. Yes, it gets the reader’s attention, but you better back it up.

Mr. Hughes does. The next four pages take us through a first person [but anonymously filmed] record of the massacre which becomes the catalyst for our story. I thought this pairing of direct address to the reader, with violence as seen from the camera, was exceptional. It was the perfect way to begin a script with the themes this script wants to discuss. The opening was so original, pages 5-102 would have had to have been unconditionally horrible for me not to have found my way to the Burke family tombstones which end this story.

That said, there is no way to describe this beginning as anything other than a cheat. The characters in these first four pages never show up again. I can’t say this is done for thematic reasons about the dehumanization of violence either. Pages 5-10 settle into a regular story, told regularly—a fact which makes the first four pages a cheat [effectiveness is only moderately congruent with goodness].

15 out of 20 points.

***Because this review has grown so long, I’ve decided to publish it in two parts. Look for question 3-5 to be answered this weekend.

Here is a link to the script: POX Americana

CONTINUE READING REVIEW

Footnotes:

1. This fact about The Crucible [in particular] and Story [in general], is THE REASON why I believe aesthetics is that Undiscovered Country whereby semiotics… can be deciphered.

2. Italics are mine. I use them to draw attention to the fact that the author means his script to be about Western Society in the post 911 world. I don’t know the etymology of the word terrorist, but I expect that it was not used in this way in 1859.

3. What [if any] limitations should be placed on this width, are beyond the scope of the current review.

4. My point here is not that there is no research into this exclusion apparatus, it’s just that the research isn’t finished. [I’d prefer to say that it was begun improperly. This is a general criticism which extends to most of the research done in human sciences during the 20th century. By no means, is this the place to take on that.]

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