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Posts Tagged ‘Autobiographies’

The Death Instinct

December 12, 2014 | by

The autobiography of one of France’s most notorious criminals.

Jacques_Mesrine

Mesrine’s mugshot, 1973.

On the morning of November 2, 1979, a gold BMW pulled up behind a blue truck stopped at a stoplight in Porte de Clignancourt, in northern Paris. After a moment, a tarp covering the back of the truck opened to reveal four men with rifles. They opened fire in unison, blasting holes into the windshield. The man driving the BMW was hit fifteen times; the woman in the passenger seat was blinded and crippled by the attack. Her pet poodle died, too. And that was the end of Jacques Mesrine, France’s public enemy number one.

For nearly twenty years, Mesrine had humiliated the country’s judicial system with repeated high-profile bank robberies, murders, and daring prison escapes. But now the police had caught up to him. His bloodied corpse laid limp in his car, left out for the paparazzi. One of the officers tossed Mesrine’s wig, riddled with bullets, onto the car hood like roadkill into a dumpster. That last detail comes from one of the many YouTube videos you can watch of the shooting’s aftermath, waiting to be compared with Jean-François Richet’s 2008 two-part film Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One, both starring Vincent Cassel. And through the bullet holes of mythology, you can see in this tableau a bit of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, and a little bit of Jean-Paul Belmondo dying on the pavement, calling Jean Seberg a bitch.

This was a fitting death—and has been a fitting afterlife—for Mesrine. He was France’s most famous criminal not only because of his crimes but for the way he hot-wired the machinery of fame. While he was on the most-wanted list, he gave interviews and was photographed for the cover of Paris Match. Two years before his assassination, Mesrine wrote his autobiography, The Death Instinct, while incarcerated in the inescapable La Santé Prison, from which he later escaped. It was 1977, a bleak time for culture and politics: in England, it was “God Save the Queen,” with Johnny Rotten whinnying “no future” into recorded oblivion; in Germany, it was the Red Army Faction, their crimes, and their deaths in Stammheim Prison. For many in France, a few decades out of existentialism, the late seventies were a time of startling political conservatism, a time when the hopes of ’68 were being actively erased. It was this regime of erasure that Mesrine fought against, and that killed him two years later. Read More »

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Best Western

February 26, 2014 | by

Happy Birthday, Buffalo Bill.

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Postcard, Courier Lithography Company, ”Buffalo Bill” Cody, 1900, National Portrait Gallery, via Google Art Project

Buffalo Bill's Special Service; or, The Death Dance of the Apaches. 1906
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Ned Buntline. Buffalo Bill's Best Shot. 1897
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Buffalo Bill's Last Scalp (Ornum and Company's Indian Novels, No. 6). 1872

“Buffalo Bill's Last Scalp”, Ornum and Company’s Indian Novels, 1872

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No one did more to shape our concept of the American West than William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the hunter, would-be cowboy, and showman whose traveling revue, “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World,” helped create the dime-novel image of frontier life that persists to this day. Cowboys, injuns, tipis, headdresses, firewater, peace pipes, weathered wide-brimmed hats, fearless feats of derring-do, stagecoach heists, impossibly accurate gunplay, bucolic campfires, tremulous harmonicas, bareback rides across windswept prairies, vast herds of grazing bison, virile stallions, lawless lands, hootin’, hollerin’, spectoratin’—the whole whooping metaverse came straight out of Bill’s fringed leather pockets. Today, his story exists in a kind of liminal space between history, mythos, and stagecraft; no one really knows what’s true and what isn’t. But however he lived, the dude gave us the Western, and he reminds of simpler times. He staked his massive celebrity on the speed with which he could dispatch a herd of buffalo—think about that.

These illustrations pay fitting tribute to the Buffalo Bill zeitgeist: its bumptious individualism, its rugged sense of adventure, and, yes, its racial insensitivity. Except where noted, they come from the first of his two autobiographies, 1879’s The Life and Adventures of Buffalo Bill, and from Buffalo Bill Stories, “a weekly publication devoted to border history” from the early twentieth century. As bigoted as some of these images are, though, it’s worth noting that Bill hired many Native Americans to tour in his troupe—“show Indians,” as they were pejoratively known—and he shared in their horror as the West he knew was tamed, subdivided, denatured, and “civilized.” Quoth Wikipedia: “He called [Indians] ‘the former foe, present friend, the American,’ and once said, ‘Every Indian outbreak that I have ever known has resulted from broken promises and broken treaties by the government.’”

 

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