Bisbee 17 – Quips & Quibbles
‘If you want to send a message, use Western Union!’
– Sam Goldwyn
In class with my soldiers I bring up how Iraq was the land of the Old Testament, Ur, where some say the Garden of Eden was located. They say, it’s hard to reconcile ‘all that’ when you’re up top a Humvee, behind a 50 caliber machine gun, alert for hostiles.
‘All that’, I guess, is relegated to the info dumps today. Not quite trivia, not quite relevant to day-to-day survival or fun. In Bisbee 17, a new film by Robert Greene and 4th Row Productions, we have filmmakers trying to figure if ‘all that’ makes any difference today. What does ‘all that’ offer us? Is there anything to learn from conditions and events of 100 years ago? The film has received rave reviews, already mentioned as one of the best movies of the year. Precious modifiers percolate through the reviews, words like haunted, lyrical, conjuring, like readymades. It’s as if the film were something the critics had imagined they’d respond to. This is surreal understanding, part of something called the ‘new’ documentary, we are told. In Bisbee 17 (I almost wrote Babel-17), a contemporary hot destination, a former mining town in Arizona, remembers, or relives, what happened in 1917, when copper was king and Bisbee was a bustling Brigadoon of a white mining camp, when 1200 miners were rounded up at gun point and deported, literally dumped in New Mexico.
‘All that’ used to be called history with a capital H. The capital has been rescinded. Today, history is Hamilton (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). Back in the day, when we had a social contract about education, we were taught ‘what is past is prologue’. We were told we must learn from our mistakes, so as not to repeat them. History conveyed the sacred heritage of how we got here, men and women struggling to survive. Today, maybe because no one seems to have learned from past mistakes, we are interested in perspective, point of view. Whose history is this? Backed by whose authority? What does history require now?
‘All that’ hoards details, then glosses of inferred lessons. Bisbee 17 has details and lessons built in to the very concept of 1200 miners and townspeople (many recent immigrants) dumped in the desert to die. ‘All that’ can only go so far to help us relive this horror today, the visceral outrage of the physical act, compounded by the sacrilege of betraying America’s most precious covenant. ‘All that’ demands caution, in plunging from details to lessons. For example, if the 1200 were really left to die, why didn’t they just shoot them? Were they really left to die? That’s a tough melodrama built in to those few words, ‘left to die’, when we do know the sheriff’s posse had gotten word that Rosa McKay had telegraphed the governor and president, so that, probably, the deportees would be salvaged. In fact, soldiers from Camp Furlong in Columbus, New Mexico, just down the road, did come to their rescue, so that no deportee did die. That didn’t make it into the movie.
For me, who had a very small part in the movie, and a very small role in its production, it’s an odd, open ended shrug. The critics don’t seem to care about this quibble. Bisbee folks who participated in the filmmaking absolutely adore the movie. Adults around movie people get all a-quiver, as if they’re getting a glimpse into some kind of secret Disneyland for grownups. Sins of history, ugly aspects of the past, efforts to come to terms, all coolio expressions of the film’s coolness, all part of the cascade of enthusiasm over Bisbee 17. People buy the melodrama. Folks love a good exorcism. Valis be praised! It’s a beautiful film but I have concerns.
Two items cause iotas of concern. My first item is necessary to disclose because this is a time when leaders talk about ‘good people, on both sides’. Moral equivalencies are tricky and often beneficial to one side more than the other. A hundred years ago we had Oligarchy and Labor—mining company owners and their workers. Yes, copper mining electrified the nation, benefiting millions. But at what cost? ‘All that’ supplies plenty of details easily available to anyone who cares to look them up: copper prices and profits were way up. Miners’ deaths and injuries were way up. The conflict that had evolved wasn’t about capitalism, or even fairness. It was about whether human life had value. Because if human life had value than treating miners like slaves was unacceptable. Safety and a livable wage did not equate to socialism, they meant higher production. Somehow, this basic common sense logic had been lost; or, somehow, the Oligarchy had pulled off one of the sweetest cons in American history: they had convinced poor people that their problems were caused by other poor people. The mining companies had one law: whatever they could get away with, and they had a private army to back it up. All the miners had was an ideal: together, we are strong.
Second item with an iota of concern has to do with what the critics simply referred to as the eccentric, former mining town, Bisbee, Arizona. How did the film folks end up in Bisbee? It seems the director’s mother-in-law lives here, so he had become familiar with the town on visits. It may not have escaped his notice during these visits, that Bisbee had developed a certain cachet, as a hot destination, a cool place to visit. But there’s very little mention of contemporary Bisbee in the film. Laurie Mckenna does an outstanding job, standing in for 50 years of artistic iconoclasm in Bisbee. For nearly 50 years, wackos have mustered to the fading mining town and transformed this forgotten corner of the nation, that hides away down on the bottom of the map, into an art town (where wacko is not a pejorative, rather a sloppy generalization that satisfies civilians, for seekers, artists, survivalists, independent scholars, and con artists).
So two items, perhaps quibbles, but interestingly enough they have a built-in proposition: folks like to assume, take for granted–they have predilections that it’s a natural thing for outsiders to come in and save us. Bisbee 17’s emphasis on the IWW influence on the strike that led to the Deportation is misleading. It is unclear exactly how many card-carrying Wobblies were even in town. Miners had been organizing across the nation for decades. Including in Bisbee. Deportations were becoming popular! Of course Bisbee miners needed all the help they could get, and of course the IWW was a powerful inspiration, but Bisbee miners had been navigating to a strike all on their own for quite a while. Besides, they won (at least in part). Today, copper miners in the American Southwest working for the big companies have enjoyed a shift in class, from the miner as laborer, to the miner as skilled technician. A livable wage with benefits is the miner’s rightful due. This is not to ignore the tough times of nonunion miners in small operations, often with horrendous safety records.
Bisbee people have been organizing Deportation commemorations for at least 30 years. These have included art shows, poetry readings, reenactments from the trials, film screenings, and oral history recordings. In the 80s the screening of the film, Salt of the Earth, still ignited brouhaha. But the haunting of the sins of the past changed. There’s only a few hundred artists and their entourages in town. Then there’s a whole lot of people working for a living, then a big percentage of the population is retired people. The median age in Biz is 50. More than 25% of the population identifies as Hispanic. Sure, folks don’t always get along. People in neighboring towns dismiss Bisbee as full of hippies, or welfare bums. Tourist towns are tricky that way, and art towns are an extreme rarification of the form. Maybe the basis of the tourist town is the con, that these folks here, who just happen to live in a place of popular interest, get to ‘host’ tourists in enjoying their experience. Along come artists and writers, and they seem to con that con, with their poetry readings and exhibits, their funky shops and studios, their funky bars and breweries. So whether the film was made or not, Bisbee had already planned on an open mic night to allow Bisbee to share its voices. So on the night of the hundredth anniversary, over 100 people attended the open mic event. There were poets. There were dancers. A couple of music groups did original songs, then old labor songs. Families of miners who had been here 100 years ago shared their stories and photos. Theatrical performances included a ribald Chautauqua of Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and his reminiscences of the Deportation.
We define history, then there are the annoying versions. Whose POV is best? Does best mean true? ‘All that’, it turns out, does not supply answers. What the film does is elegantly slobber imperfect allusions, illusions, delusions. Discernment of the director. So what we got here is a con’s con’s con. BIZBRAINSANE. ‘I’m real’, announces a character in the film. The gaze is to confide. And it’s a mess today, everywhere we turn, and in this iteration it’s a sacred mess. Mess on fire! I hope the film will be shown in Arizona schools. It’s better than nothing.
I saw the film at a local movie theater with my wife and a Bisbee friend. The friend was disappointed. The reenactments didn’t work for her. They seemed cartoonish, or like pantomime. She thought of all the times people had come to town and purchased historic structures. And they were going to restore them, restore the fine old buildings to their former glory. So they gut it, work it, end up filling it with little, plastic flats–
I wish the film had dared to show what the artist’s life in Bisbee is like, because this experience, poets and writers and visual artists and performers working every day, is an expression of our humanity that embraces what happened 100 years ago, which is why the so-called haunting has eased up.
Maybe it’s just as well the uniqueness of contemporary Bisbee is left out. Who cares that neon tropical fish are seen in the river after a rain? Or that Naco, Sonora’s sewage is leaking into Arizona, threatening Bisbee’s water supply? Who cares that there’s a problem burro on the Gulch that’s already bitten a lady? Big hummer migration this year. All over town people are making art, rehearsing for shows. There’s a screamer in town, terrifying tourists. Most of the artists, like me, don’t have smart phones. A few have flip phones. I don’t know anybody who googles himself. An old guy in town, an artist, in the early stages of dementia, spent all day watching the Ford/Kavanaugh testimony. Now he screeches at inappropriate times, ‘I was raped by Bart Kavanaugh’. He’s not being ironic. He was a performance artist, and I guess this is his last riff. He’s feeling the terror and rage of assault. Then he found a boot in his soup, and he disappeared.