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Thursday, December 23, 2010

What Little Girls Are Made Of

As a fan of the novelist Charles Portis, I've always felt a little bad that most people probably associate the title True Grit not with his 1968 novel but the movie version of it that was made the next year, a movie whose sole purpose was to give John Wayne a last-ditch chance to win an Oscar. He played the bloated, hard-drinking, one-eyed U.S. marshal Rooster Cogburn, who is hired by the fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross to catch his father's murderer, ideally so that she can then shoot him herself. The role gave Wayne the chance to poke fun at himself as an over-the-hill action star and offscreen proponent of homicidal politics. (Rooster is recommended to Mattie as "the meanest" of all available marshals, and is introduced in a courtroom scene in which we learn that he is most reluctant to bring a man in alive if there's any reason to think he'll be any quieter dead.) In other words, it enabled him to turn to his advantage all the things that, in pretty much all his other late performances, turned him into a shambling punch line. He's entertaining, and very cute, in it: it's probably one of the best Wallace Beery performances ever given, including the ones actually given by Wallace Beery. He's fun to watch, but if you compared his Rooster to Jeff Bridges's performance in the new version from the Coen brothers, you might have trouble guessing which of these guys played Ethan Edwards.

That said, what's really frustrating about the 1969 movie, as an adaptation of the novel, is that the book is Mattie's story: she's both the central character and the narrator, relating the story as an old woman, and as she describes them, the cutthroats and lowlifes she encounters speak in a mannered, stylized diction that she presumably thinks is how people should talk in a proper work of literature. The script of the 1969 movie replicated much of Portis's dialogue, but it shifted Mattie (awkwardly played by a 21-year-old Kim Darby) to the side and dispensed with the conceit that the events we were seeing had been filtered through her memory, and without that framework, many of the actors seemed to be crucified on their own lines. (The most embarrassing performance was given by Glen Campbell as La Boeuf, the Texas Ranger who throws in with Rooster and Mattie; it's the kind of thing that ought to have ended someone's movie career before it began. Oddly enough, the only other movie made from a Portis novel, 1970's Norwood, reunited Campbell and Darby in the leads, which is reason enough to suspect that the credited producer was a front for Guy Grand.) Strother Martin was the only cast member who managed to deliver his lines as if he'd been speaking like that his whole life, and the scenes with the horse trader he played in the original were the only moments in the new movie where I thought back a little longingly on the earlier movie.

Bridges and Matt Damon, as La Boeuf, both put on a great show, but the star of this True Grit is Hailee Steinfeld, who, in her feature debut, can stand alongside Jennifer Lawrence of Winter's Bone and Delphine Chanéac of Splice in what's been a good movie year for young women who should probably be in charge of combat operations in Afghanistan. And I liked the movie she's in more unreservedly than any other Coen brothers picture that I've seen in a while. For people who've seen the earlier movie version, the best way I can suggest the differences between the two is that Rooster's post-shootout rescue of Mattie from a snake-infested pit, which in the Wayne movie seems to be there just to make the film longer, is, along with the galloping horse journey that follows, the heart and soul of this one. I like the Coens a lot better when they're exploring themes of light and darkness through action than when they're pretending to think deep thoughts about them.

A Bad Case of Miller's

As a special Christmas treat, David Weigel has posted a link to the Alaska Supreme Court's ruling in Miller v. Treadwell, with choice excerpts and appropriate commentary. You remember Joe Miller: he's the Tea Party featherweight who Sarah Palin threw her support behind in order to crush one of her Worst Enemies 4-Ever, Lisa Murkkowski, the Republican U.S. Senator from Alaska. Miller beat Murkowski in the Republican primary, only to get stomped by her in the general election, when she ran as a write-in candidate. Ever since, Miller has been trying to get the courts to throw out Murkowski's victory, even though, as Weigel noted in a previous post: "George W. Bush's margin over Al Gore in Florida was 0.0052 percent. Murkowski's margin over Miller if none of her contested ballots are tossed is 4.03 percent. This might be the largest margin in a recount lawsuit in American history." As for the above link, Weigel writes, "It's an amazing read when you consider that Miller has a law degree from Yale... The gap between what the Miller campaign claims happened in the election, and what actually happened in the election, gets wider with every one of these decisions."

All this is pretty funny on a number of levels, but here's the aspect of it that kills me: when conservative pundits who were clambering aboard the Tea Party bandwagon and hoping that a Miller victory would establish Palin as a real influential player instead of a right wing red-meat media freak, they were afraid that Murkowski might cost him the election by splitting the vote, and couldn't say enough vicious things about her. "Mrs. Murkowski loses a primary and suddenly discovers that she has a property right in her Senate seat and she's going to run as a write-in," George Will sniffed on This Week. "Who are the extremists?" As the race tightened up, he reminded conservative voters that "the American Conservative Union ranks as the fourth-most liberal Senate Republican and [she already has been rejected by Republicans in the primary," sneering at "her sore-loser write-in candidacy." Does Will think that some of that language was unduly snarky, now that he knows that he was basically insisting that the candidate who was clearly the people's choice was undermining democracy by making herself available as a candidate? And if he thought that staying in the race made Murkowski a sore loser, what does he think of Miller's shenanigans? That they're an example of the hard-hitting, never-say-die spirit that makes the Tea Party great?

Steve Landesberg, International Man of Mystery

Of all the things that were said to me in high school, the one that I probably felt best about was when Wayne Martin, who was sort of our Reggie Mantle with a little Eddie Haskell thrown in, told me that I reminded him of Dietrich, the geek-hipster police detective played by the comedian Steve Landesberg on Barney Miller. I'm pretty sure it wasn't intended as a compliment, but I always liked Landesberg, who had a dry as dust delivery and a faint smile that could seem abrasively hostile or sweetly complicitous, depending pretty much entirely on who he was pointing it at. As Dietrich, his specialty was to go off on some random tangent about a subject, ranging from obscure scientific theories to the Three Stooges, about which he appeared to have encyclopedic knowledge and to regard with theoretical density. For a few seconds, he could pull in someone who, a minute earlier, had been staring at him with absolute incomprehension, as if casting a spell over him. Then, somehow, he'd pull the rug out from under everything he'd just said, and amble off, smiling. Even in the one scene that I remember where he appeared to be opening u and inviting sympathy from the other characters and the audience, admitting that he doesn't understand why "I just alienate people", he was setting up someone so he could deliver a snapper. He made living on the outside look like a hoot and a half.

Landesberg seemed to come out of nowhere on that show, and after it ended, he seemed to go back there, at least partway. Every few years, I'd catch sight of him--in an unreleased movie that went into heavy rotation on Comedy Central, as a defense lawyer on Law & Order-- and it was always a shock. From what little information I managed to come across during his moderate-high-profile era, he was regarded as a genius in comedy circles but also a strange, flaky guy who didn't like to work any more than he had to, a neat trick if you want to leave people wondering forever about the unreached limits of your potential. The first reports of his death were as sketchy as anything about him, but tended to at least agree that he was 65. His New York Times obituary has now been amended: it turns out that he was 74, but that he shaved off nine years (because, his daughter says, he “got kind of a late start in show business" and "tried to straddle the generations"--and, in the Wikipedia age, somehow managed to keep them shaved off to the end of his life. Which is sort of perfect.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Crackers

Last night, I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show
With a smart-ass New York Jew
And the Jew laughed at Lester Maddox
Audience laughed at Lester Maddox, too

Well, he may be a fool, but he's our fool
If they think they're better than him, they're wrong
So I went to the park and took some paper along
That's where I made this song

--Randy Newman, "Rednecks"

I thought of that song last night, when I saw Chris Matthews and Eugene Robinson bear-baiting Thomas Hiter, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who was there to stick up for South Carolina on the occasion of its throwing a ball to "celebrate" the centennial of the state's voting to secede from the union. It cannot be said that Mr. Hiter did any favors to himself or any cause he thought he was defending. He's either one of those sorry bastards who think he's winning an argument by moving the semantic goalposts or else he's just not on really good terms with the English language. He tried to put his opponents--and he did them the favor of making it clear from the outset that he saw them as being agin him rather then trying to be friendly, thus giving them the option of taking off their gloves--on the defensive by saying that he thought there was a right to free speech in this country and that the anniversary celebration was protected by that right, but since nobody was saying otherwise, he sounded deranged; few things make a man sound more overwrought than pretending that the people pointing and laughing at him and calling him a jackass are actually debating his right to exist. He got testy when Robinson described the act of secession as "terrorism", insisting that, although we now know that it doesn't work, it was an admirable political act at the time because it took some courage. (Every dumbass in America, except one, can be counted on to insist, at one point or another, that what really counts in politics isn't intelligence or decency or even being right but bravery. The sole exception is George H. W. Bush who, for obvious reasons, always insisted that what he most wanted was to be seen as loyal.) Then, when Matthews asked him if he himself would have opposed slavery if he'd lived a hundred years ago, and, after Hiter said that it was a moot point because the Civil War wasn't about slavery, Matthews asked him if, for example, he would have been a supporter of John Brown's, and Hiter gagged: of course not, he said, because "John Brown was a terrorist!"

All this same time, Hiter clung stubbornly to the word "celebrate", repeating it again and again and saying that we ought to "celebrate" important historical events, instead of even attempting to try out cooler alternate terms such as, say, "commemorate" or "remember" or even "honor". Mercifully, neither Matthews nor Robinson asked him how he planned to celebrate the tenth anniversary of 9/11 or next Pearl Harbor Day. They did everything else, though, literally chortling at their new friend's haplessness, until, at the sign-off, Matthews thanked Robinson for having represented "the right side" of this argument. There's no question that Robinson was on the right side of the question over whether seceding from the union to protect the peculiar institution was something to be celebrated with dancing and petit fours, or something to be stuffed into the history books and then never spoken of again, if being right about something that obvious is something to be proud of. It must be said that being wrong about it is a lot worse.

Still, it seemed a little, what's the word, rude, to invite the third runner-up in the Shelby Foote Look-Alike Contest at the Southern Division Village Idiots' Convention onto your TV show just to pull his tail and laugh in his face. It's simply not the case that Chris Matthews does not routinely have guests on his show who talk ridiculous, fantasy-based gibberish, some of it very offensive, while treating them respectfully. People come on and say that there is good reason to believe, despite all the evidence of the past quarter century of American life, that taxing the affluent causes economic ruination and that tax cuts prevent deficits and improve things for everyone, just as deregulation flushes corruption and incompetence out of the system, and Matthews doesn't hit them with pig bladders on cut a rope that drops cardboard props with "1000 LBS." printed on the side onto their heads, because the shit they're talking is still seen as conventionally accepted nonsense, spoken by people he might want to have on his show more than once. Hell, if Matthews were to behave this way after every interview, there was a time not too long ago when the people he'd have been laughing at were the ones who were skeptical about the need for war in Iraq and the ones he'd have been congratulating for being on "the right side" would have been the guests who swore up and down that Blofeld's underground lair was beneath Saddam Hussein's presidential palace. Nothing that Hiter said was forgivable, but given how predictable this was, it might have been kinder to not invite the silly man to come on the show at all than it was to invite him on so that a soft target could have the stuffing beaten out of it.

Because I grew up in Mississippi, I've known about Haley Barbour for a bit longer than most other people. Haley was much in the local news when I was still in high school: he worked on John Connolly's short-lived bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980 and then ran unsuccessfully for John Stennis's U.S. Senate seat in 1982. In between those early years and his current position as Governor of the Magnolia State, Barbour was a frighteningly successful lobbyist and head of the RNC, and he is a pol to his core. Michael Kinsley recently summed him up as "a master spin artist, plays on this social insecurity among journalists. Barbour doesn’t literally wink as he spins, but he manages to send the message: This is all a big game — a big wonderful game — and you have the privilege of playing it with me." Because of his friendliness to the press, Barbour really is as beloved among journalists now as John McCain used to be, and, with weird but inexorable logic, they write stories that celebrate his soulless machine-politician efficiency the same way they used to wrote stories extolling McCain's high, high character and stature as something other than a (ick! nasty!) politician.

There may even be journalists who share Barbour's delusion that he could be president someway. I don't see how that could happen, because the one constant in national elections held in my lifetime is that nobody stands a chance unless he's seen as a non-politician, like George W. Bush--that whole "guy you'd like to have a beer with" bullshit--or as some kind of savior. The same qualities that Kinsley recognizes as flattering to reporters will repulse Joe and Ma Lunchpail, or whatever the hell we're calling the regular citizens of Oz this week. Given this fact, I have mixed feelings about the arguments made by some observers that Barbour has no shot at achieving a national constituency because he's from Mississippi and, with his thick, rubbery features, potato-sack build, and Depity Dawg accent, he automatically reminds people of the racist sheriff of corn pone melodrama; The New Republic has mocked him as Bogg Hogg. I get the point, sure, but I can see where this kind of talk is just going to add to the sense of grievance and self-pitying anger that makes conservative white Southerners see the "elites" as banded against them. And of course, it's going to drive these guys crazy that this kind of caricature is socially acceptable in a way that portraying Obama as a pimp or a monkey isn't, and shouldn't be. They may be blind to the irony that Obama had to be careful to not given racist jokers anything they could work with, while Barbour probably gains a few points with his target audience whenever he staggers away from the barbeque table wiping his hands on his shirt, thus proving that he's an authentic good ol' boy.

Andrew Ferguson's profile of Barbour in The Weekly Standard has gotten Barbour in trouble on account of his butt-stupid remarks about how little racial tension there was in his home town of Yazoo when he was growing up, and how much the White Citizens Council was to thank for this. Barbour claims to be proud that school integration, when it came to Yazoo, was nonviolent, and Ferguson seems to agree that this was an impressive feat. The only problem with this view is that by the time desegregation did come to Yazoo--and to other parts of Mississippi, including Walthall County, my old stomping grounds--it was 1970, fifteen years after the Supreme Court issued its edict about getting this shit straightened out "with all deliberate speed." "Up north," Barbour told Ferguson about the White Citizens Council, a racist pro-segregationist organization,"they think it was like the KKK. Where I come from it was an organization of town leaders. In Yazoo City they passed a resolution that said anybody who started a chapter of the Klan would get their ass run out of town. If you had a job, you’d lose it. If you had a store, they’d see nobody shopped there. We didn’t have a problem with the Klan in Yazoo City.” Of course, if anyone tried to integrate any quicker than the town leaders wanted, nobody would shop at their store either, and eventually, they'd get run out of town. What Barbour is saying is that Yazoo had no need of the Klan, because it had a group of town leaders who had nonviolent ways of keeping things the way they ought to be. The inclusion of the phrase "up north" is his reminder that "the elites" may think that racism had something to do with the way things were done at home, just as they may think that slavery had a little something to do with the Civil War, but that, to his mind, just proves that they don't get it. Because the White Citizens Council was an unambiguously racist organization, and overt appeals to racial discrimination don't cut it anymore, in 1988 the group morphed into the "Council of Conservative Citizens", on which Barbour has always been on good terms, and whose membership it would do him no good to piss off. Since his comments to Ferguson went viral, he has tried to get back into the good graces of the rest of the world be saying that the WCC was "totally indefensible", despite the fact that his original comments amounted to saying that no one would think they even need defending, unless that person had the misfortune to be a typical ill-informed Yankee. All he's saying is, hey, they weren't the Klan! And, as George Bush used to say about Dan Quayle, it's not like he ever burned the American flag, right?

So many conservative bloggers and pundits have rushed to declare that Barbour is toast as a national politician that I have to assume that they share the belief that he's too alienating a figure for non-crackers and that any attempt by him to enter the presidential race would be a straight-up disaster. Such defenses of him that I've seen have boiled down to saying that the Governor is kind of stupid, but in that lovable, Bush-Reagan-Gump way that just goes to show what a regular good American from Riverdale High the candidate really is. We've been told that he was too busy thinking about girls, nudge-nudge wink-wink, to think about the state of racial matters in the 1960s. And anyway, what American boy doesn't see his home town through "rose-colored glasses"? For the sake of perspective, Barbour was sixteen years old when he murders of the three civil rights workers occurred in Neshoba County and twenty-two in 1970, and has always given the impression of having been especially plugged in since he was in the womb.

For my part, I'm about twenty years younger than Barbour and remember having grown up, in a post-desegregated society, feeling very much aware of race and its deranging effects on most of the white Mississippians around me, all my childhood, and I don't know anyone I grew up with who didn't feel the same way. This shit doesn't grow in the brain naturally and without lots of encouragement. I remember my first day at elementary school in Mississippi: I remember the days leading up to it, and all the helpful advice that my parents and other grown-ups beat into me. I was told that there were things called black children, and that they'd probably find me fascinating because they would have never seen straight blond hair before, and they'd most likely reach out to touch it, but if that happened, just scream for the teacher, and she'd get out her can of mace and a whip and a chair and set things right. My mother, who was the closest thing to a hipster in the 39641 zip code, warned me that black kids became wild and murderously violent if any mention was made of their mothers. Just to be on the safe side, I was told to absolutely not to talk to any of them. At the end of the school day--which turned out to be my last day in public elementary school, before my dad pulled me and enrolled me in one of the costly new "private academies" that sprang up in the wake of desegregation--we were told to line up in two rows, one black and one white, and wait for the bell to ring. I noticed that the black kid standing next to me had one of his shoelaces untied; summoning all my courage, I whispered, "Psssst!, to him, and he nearly jumped out of his skin. This is the environment that Barbour grew up in, never noticing any signs of racial uneasiness and thinking of the White Citizens Council as some kind of booster organization that passed the hat around for holiday wreaths to hang on the lampposts when Christmas rolled around. Mind you, I'm not saying that I think he's lying. I think he probably fit right in, to a degree that I find deeply unsettling.

This past couple of years--during the presidency of Barack Obama, what a shocking coincidence--we've seen a rise in the number of aggrieved white guys, such as Andrew Breitbart, trying to make careers on the backs of black politicians and activists who they accuse of the opportunistic (and racist) use of charges of racism. It's a line that depends on the assumption, which is probably shared by a depressing number of people, that overblown charges of racism against whites is now a bigger problem than actual racism against non-whites. It goes hand in hand with a tendency to think that people who invoke the Civil Rights movement do so only to make white people feel guilty and ashamed. We saw this reach a new low earlier this year during the health care debate, when Breitbart and others accused John Lewis and other civil rights heroes of being lying hucksters slandering noble Tea Party goons as bigots. Then, as if to prove that you can always go lower than the bottom. we had Steve King attacking the Pigford settlement, intended as compensation for discrimination against black farmers by the USDA, as "reparations for slavery" by another name, which made him the poster boy for white cranks so obsessed with what they see as other people's morbid obsession with slavery that they automatically connect it to any make up for an injustice which found black Americans on the receiving end.

People like King and Breitbart, and Thomas Hiter, don't understand why we can't shut up about slavery and segregation, which were never really that bad and anyway were so long ago and anyway, the Negroes won--and won and won and won and won, so could they please get off their neck already? In order to appreciate just how surreal this line of thinking is, you need to keep in mind that we're talking about an issue that, whatever level of social acceptance race-based policies ever enjoyed, was always as morally clear-cut as anything anyone has dealt with in the last couple of centuries: you can say that there were places and times when trying to do away with slavery or segregation would have made a person unelectable, but how many people, especially in the past half century or so, could ever have been morally obtuse enough to convince themselves that supporting these things, or even tolerating them, didn't make you evil? Men like Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms and Ross Barnett and William Rehnquist were all, fully consciously, deeply committed to serving evil--and to subverting democracy, since a key political component to segregation was denying the vote to a considerable percentage of eligible voters.

You could say it was in some ways a little more complicate than that, so long as you don't mind flat-out lying. And the amazing thing is, they all got to keep their careers, becoming revered old men of the U.S. Congress and, in the case of Rehnquist, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. They were as wrong, morally and intellectually, as it was possible to be about one of the most important issues of their times, and it didn't hurt their careers at all, and this is in a world where, as recently as 2004, John Kerry's opposition to a war he fought in, with distinction, was enough to blow a hole in his own presidential hopes. People who are still mad at Jane Fonda can't imagine why anyone would think harshly of someone like Thurmond, who fought against civil rights for blacks even while keeping it quiet that he'd had a part-black daughter after screwing his family maid. Those guys are gone now, and in their place are guys who came along in their wake and learned politics at their feet--people like Haley Barbour and Trent Lott and Joe Wilson, who, when word got out about Thurmond's daughter after the old man's death, savagely denounced the woman for having besmirched a great man's reputation by having had the temerity to exist. I mean, talk about uppity!

The question that the most reasonable of these people would ask is, what does it matter, now, what someone like Barbour thinks Yazoo was like fifty years ago, so long as he understands what things are like now and is prepared to make the proper insincere noises about race? It's not that I think Barbour is a flaming racist underneath the affable exterior. I don't think he's eaten up about having to live in a post-desegregation world, and I don't think he has any thoughts of trying to change things back to the way they used to be. I certainly don't think he'd get very far with that program even he tried. But, even though we can't know for sure how anyone, even ourselves, would have behaved if they'd lived their lives in a world that viewed a little enforced racial discrimination as just something you have to learn to live with, I'd like to at least think that anyone we'd elect to high office would have been in the camp that fought to change it, and I can't think that of Barbour, or of Lott or Wilson. They're just too comfortable with the old ways, even if they seem less pissed off than someone like Breitbart about the new ways. I'm sure that Barbour thinks that discrimination is unacceptable now, because thinking that is now a prerequisite for getting elected; but he's never given anyone a reason to think that, fifty years ago, he wouldn't have believed, just as sincerely and just as unthinkingly, that integration was unacceptable, if he'd seen that as a prerequisite for getting elected. And though old times aren't coming back on the next train, if they did, I'm sure that he could see things that way again, and that the change would come to him as naturally as breathing. And for reasons that he could never begin to understand, that makes him and his brethren hard to trust and connect with. The fact is, most people I know don't feel guilty or ashamed when they think of the Civil Rights movement. Those of us who are white and of a certain age see it as something to be grateful for, because we were spared having to find out how hard a time we would have had adjusting to a system that had singled us out for unfair advantages, but all of us see it as something to take pride in, because the people who ended segregation, like the people who ended slavery, were--are--American heroes. But we see these things as victories for Americans, while others see them as victories for black people. That might not necessarily be a racist attitude, but I'd argue that it's not a fully American one.

It's weird how adaptable some of the old professional racist politicians turned out to be, after giving so many fiery speeches vowing to lay down their lives before they'd see all Americans granted the same rights and privileges as themselves. Anyone who can't imagine what that would sound like coming from someone today must have missed John McCain's impassioned diatribe on the Senate floor railing against the repeal of DADT, expressing shock that, "about six weeks after an election that repudiated the agenda of the other side", in "a direct repudiation of the American people", something could happen that is favored by a huge majority of the public. McCain knows that most people disagree with him, he knows about the lives and careers that DADT has wrecked, he knows about the weakening of our intelligence networks by the dismissal of Arab-language translators whose bedroom activities he disapproves of, and all that matters to him is what he sees as his God-given right to use the government to officially classify a major segment of the population as less than fully human. This is someone who, not very long ago, a lot of people thought would make a fine president.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Late Notices: Irv and Dino

I saw TCM's annual boneyard clip reel last night, and it reminded me that were a couple of notable deaths in November that I probably would have taken note of if I'd been at the keyboard. One was that of Irvin Kershner, which got a lot of ink because he'd directed The Empire Strikes Back, a lucky career break that made him the beneficiary of George Lucas's reluctance to actually step behind the camera again until computer technology had advanced to the point that he could make an epic movie while making minimal contact with his onscreen collaborators, or what Alfred Hitchcock called the "cattle." Empire was both the biggest hit of Kershner's career and, by miles, the best of the Star Wars movies, but it's too bad that his fluky standing as the man who helped introduce audiences to Yoda and broke the news about Luke Skywalker's parentage so overshadowed the rest of his long, active, and more than honorable career, so that in most of the notices I've seen, everything else was reduced to a footnote. It's true that a lot of people would never have heard of him otherwise; it's also true that, for whatever reason, he didn't do much with whatever industry muscle Empire gave him, directing only two other features, both of them (like Empire) franchise installments, and neither anything very special: Never Say Never Again, the rogue James Bond movie that brought a hairpieced and not especially engaged Sean Connery back in a rehash of Thunderball, and Robocop 3. He also did a little TV work and, at 65, made his screen acting debut in The Last Temptation of Christ, revealing a great, buzzardy New Testament face as Zebedee. I suspect that marshaling the forces of Empire tapped out most of his energy as a director, after more than twenty years in the business; I could torture myself a little imagining what he might have done with his elevated profile if a break like that had come his way a little earlier.

Kershner's first feature, Stakeout on Dope Street (1958), was a cheaply made little crime picture that James Ellroy, playing guest programmer, had an orgasm over on TCM a few years ago. In his best pre-Empire pictures--notably the marital tragicomedy Loving (1970) and Up the Sandbox (1972)--he demonstrated a real, wide-ranging interest in character and a mastery of bringing out the best in his actors, which--big secret--is also what most sets Empire apart from the rest of the toys in George Lucas's play chest. In that movie, and also the one he made before it--the underrated slasher thriller Eyes of Laura Mars, which, with its rich atmosphere of eroticized dread and threadbare script, is the closest he ever came to a pure exercise in style--Kershner achieved a new level of confident visual dazzle, but just as it's the character bits by people like Brad Dourif and René Auberjonois that give Laura Mars its buzz, Empire jumps-started the Star Wars series because even the puppets have an emotional weight and depth of character unknown to the characters in any movie actually directed by Lucas, American Graffiti included.

My favorite Kershner movie is A Fine Madness (1966), which stars Sean Connery as a libidinous poet named Samson Shillitoe, rampaging all over New York in search of women, money, and inspiration. Adapted by Elliot Baker from his novel and with cinematography, by Ted McCord, that captures the city with the glitter of morning dew and has a special, sensuous way of conveying the different flesh tones of the actors, whether strapping and muscular (Connery), beefy and muscle bound (Harry Bellaver), stocky and portly (Sorrel Booke), or soft and inviting (Joanne Woodward, Jean Seberg, Sue Anne Langdon, Zohra Lampert--take your pick), it's alive and kicking (and unsmug) in a way that movies about the liberating qualities of utter self-serving rudeness seldom are. It's patchy in places--and Kershner's version was apparently recut by the studio--but it's also an enduring love letter to a lost New York, seen not the glamourous romantic postcard of '60s movie like Breakfast at Tiffany's but as a place where all different kinds of people, at all different income levels, some of them raising families even, could live and work alongside each other. All in all, Kershner was the best kind of journeyman, a dependable craftsman who used whatever jobs he had to take between the projects he cared about to hone his skills to the point that he could rise to the level of an artist when the opportunity was there. For my birthday a couple of weeks ago, the Missus got me this, which is a blast and a half, and which I highly recommend. My couple came with a DVD containing the full half-hour television "expose" of the effects of comic books on kids that was memorably excerpted in Ron Mann's 1988 documentary Comic Book Confidential. Turns out, as I learned when the closing credits turned up onscreen, that Kershner directed it, too.

Of all the high rollers in the movie business who had a few decent pictures to their credit, maybe none had more shit talked about them than Dino De Laurentiis. He was regarded affectionately by many film journalists, but in a Damon Runyan kind of way, as a lovably clueless sleazeball with Tony Montana taste and a Chico Marx accent. Early in his career, De Laurentiis produced such films as La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, but as the sixties rolled into the seventies, what stuck to his name was schlock like Drum and Death Wish and moderately freakish projects such asBarbarella with Jane Fonda and John Huston's "movie version" of The Bible. Movie nuts of my generation were most likely introduced to him via the hype attack for his 1976 remake of King Kong, and for the Saturday Night Live sketch in which John Belushi, playing De Laurentiis, declaimed, "When the Jaws die, nobody cry, but when my Kong die, everybody cry!" In the '80s, De Laurentiis began attaching his name to more and more movies, most of which were of such squalid quality that you had to wonder if he and Golan and Globus were in a competition to see who would have the more to be ashamed of come judgment day.

He took chances, though, and on at least one celebrated occasion, he kept his word: having arranged for David Lynch to waste a couple of years of his creative life bringing Dune to the big screen, he made good on his word to cover the bills on Blue Velvet, a startling act of largesse, considering that Dune failed to be the franchise tent pole and Slurpee cup blockbuster he had been hoping for. Beyond that, it may be that a few of De Laurentiis's sensitive little art movies are ridiculously underrated. I think in particular of the 1980 Flash Gordon, directed by Mike Hodges and written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr, the same wise guy who wrote the rebooted Kong. It is a movie I have always loved unreservedly, and you can wipe that smirk off your face if you think I forgot to put quotation marks around the word "love", the better to emphasize the ironic, campy nature of my appreciation of this big chunk of fun.

Not only is this Flash as genuinely witty and high-spirited as any adventure movie since Gunga Din, it fully, and accurately, captures the look, style, and kinky charms of the original Alex Raymond comic strip, of which Robery Fiore once wrote, "The whole thing is dripping with sex, and none of it is normal." (Much of the credit for this must be shared by the cinematographer, Gilbert Taylor; Danilo Donati, who designed the production, costumes, and set decoration; and whoever the hell invited Ornella Muti to send in her head shot.) By coincidence, it happened to arrive in theaters in 1980 at the same time as Robert Altman's admirable but laborious Popeye, which was modeled on the E. C. Segar version of the seafaring hero, and the inevitable comparison went a long way towards establishing the difference between working very hard to recreate a comic strip in live action, and letting every bit of that hard work show, and stepping into a comic strike's frames and effortlessly breathing the air as if you'd been made of newsprint your whole life. It has only just come to my attention, in recent years, that many people mistake Flash Gordon for a bad movie. Clearly they must be using ping pong balls for eyes. It's discoveries like this that make you understand the bored revulsion that stirred in Ming the Merciless's breast when he gazed through his interstellar peep screen and muttered, "Pathetic Earthlings."

Friday, December 17, 2010

Grew Fins

Don Van Vliet, A.K.A. Captain Beefheart, was the kind of artist who didn't have fans: he had acolytes. Maybe disciples, but that would imply that he sent forth squadrons of imitators and pretenders to carry on his word, and Van Vliet hardly send out any. There's a band, Fast N Bulbous, who do spirited jazz versions of the Captain's songs, which were themselves highly individualized takes on gutbucket blues and early rock and roll and old country music. Other coterie musicians with cult reputations, such as the Velvet Underground and Van Vliet's sometime collaborator Frank Zappa--people who, like him, failed in the mass commercial marketplace only to be picked up as signifiers of cool by discerning, snobby young people such I once was myself--inspired a lot of younger musicians to try to sound sort of, in not just, like them, but nobody really sounded like the Captain. Not because nobody wanted there to be more music like that in the world, either. It's more as if nobody dared.

There was another important difference between Captain Beefheart and Zappa and the Velvets and for that matter just about any super-hip rock performer you could think of. There didn't seem to be much anger or hostility in the Captain. There was rage, sometimes, expressed in the music at the things he thought were wrong with the world. And there's no denying that his sound could be abrasive and jarring, especially on earliest acquaintance. ("Why," Langdon Winner wrote in the classic essay on Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica that is included in the 1979 rock crit anthology Stranded, "would anyone sing in the voice usually reserved for telling trespassers to get the hell off their property?") But the Captain was no exclusionist. The closest he came to erecting a wall of protective hipness around himself came on Trout Mask Replica, parts of which sound as if the band was having way more fun recording them than anyone would ever have listening to them, but also the one where the Captain urges us to "take my kind hand" and enter his world, if only for a while.

"Beefheart," Winner wrote, "is not concerned to build bridges for his audience or to make it any easier for anyone to come along. Either you're interested or you're not." This is true as far as it goes. But the Captain did want people to be interested; it's just that the sometimes difficult music he made was the only language he knew as a musical artist. This point was driven home in the early '70s, when, on a couple of notorious records for Mercury, he did his level best to sell out, to the horror of his fans and the total indifference of the larger world. His real hot streak began in 1978, with the first of three albums--Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), followed by 1980's Doc at the Radar Station and the 1982 Ice Cream for Crow--that had the old bite and snarl, the wit and intense, mysterious dream imagery, coupled to a new tunefulness, that seemed a better fit in a world informed by punk and its aftereffects than the Captain's music had in the old context of the hippie dream. (I would also direct you to I'm Going to Do What I Wanna Do: Live at My Father's Place, a concert from the Shiny Beast days that Rhino made available in 2000.) And that was that; having earned the kind of reviews that usually serve to inform a cult artist that his long-deferred, coasting-while-overrated period can now began, Van Vliet shut down his music factory and concentrated on his painting and sculpture, while battling multiple sclerosis far from the public eye. Now comes ord that he has died, at 69.

It's funny to feel that Van Vleit died young, because of how old he seemed to me when I first heard of him and his music, when I was in high school, some thirty years ago. With his weather-beaten look and the way his music and persona conjured up old medicine show barkers, carny con men, and fabulists from an earlier America, he had the timeless thing going on when Tom Waits still looked like a kid dressed in his daddy's clothes, trying to seem "experienced" and colorful. (Waits would later credit much of his own breakthrough as an artist, after a decade's worth of recording, to his immersion in the Captain's music.) Beefheart began to make better sense to me after I saw him on TV in 1982, plugging what would turn out to be his farewell album. On that show, and in some of the clips of him gamely trying to present himself to the mass audience, you could see the shyness peeking through as he summoned the courage to command the stage and show the people what he was about. I think that much of the beauty of his music came from this tension between whatever pushed him to reach out and present his world to those who might be interested in it, and the sense, which I don't think ever left him, that he was a natural weirdo and outsider best suited to hiding out with his paints and clay. Other artists might set out to change the world; I think that Van Vliet knew that his work wasn't going to touch everyone, but that made him all the more determined, while the fire was inside him, to do everything he could to make sure than he made his pitch to every single person who might be sealed up alone in their bedroom somewhere who would answer the call of the Magic Band. This was how a rough-looking guy of indeterminate age with a cabinet full of weird composition made millions of strangers feel nothing short of love for him. Okay, maybe more like thousands. But still, y'know?


I wish I'd seen Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work back when I was writing posts about movies suitable for Halloween. In a way, this documentary is a change of pace for the directing team of Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, whose previous work includes The Trials of Darryl Hunt (about a man who was wrongfully convicted of rape and murder) and The Devil Came on Horseback (about the efforts of human rights activist Brian Steidle to draw attention to Darfur), but in another way, it's not: those movies also made you think about how much some people suck. Though it dips a toe into the history of its subject's life and career--her becoming a mainstay of The Tonight Show as frequent guest and regular guest host, her banishment from Johnny Carson's sight after her disastrous attempt to launch a competing talk show of her own, the suicide of her husband, Edgar--it's really about the place she's at now and the person she's become: a 77-year-old monster with a Cat-Women from the Moon face whose need for ego gratification is scarily unquenchable. She frequently refers to her need for money to explain why she's still working, but it's clear that what she really needs, the way Dracula needs blood, is what she and her crew refer to as "face time", preferably on a major TV network. Her best explanation for what she was doing on The Apprentice--and dragging her daughter, Melissa (who refers to Mom's career as her "sibling") along for part of the ride--is that it got her back on NBC. Presumably it was worth enduring the judgment of Donald Trump to feel that Johnny Carson was spinning in his grave.

Rivers says at one point that you can say what you like about her as a comedian, but she's proudest of herself, and expects to be taken seriously, as an actress. I didn't know she ever acted. From what's shown here, most of her notable "acting" has been as herself; she and Melissa played themselves in a ghoulish TV movie about what they went through when Edgar died, and we get to see a snippet of the play she took to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which looks to have been a one-woman show about her life. But her own boasts to the contrary, you can't say anything about her at all--or, you can, but then she'll never stop whimpering about it. After talking about how eager she is to take her new play to Broadway, she abandons the idea because the British notices aren't sufficiently glowing to suit her. (She wrote a play that died in New York in the early '70s, and says she never got over the experience. The one movie she directed, the unspeakable 1978 Rabbit Test< starring Billy Crystal as a pregnant man, isn't mentioned, but presumably the response it got also killed any further ambitions she had as a moviemaker.) During her standup act, she bawls out a man in the audience to a joke about deafness--he says he has a deaf child--by yelling at him that he doesn't understand how comedy works and should just shut his pie hole, then wrings her heart out afterward, telling everyone how she feels the guy's pain: seeing her callously strike the man down to his face and then lament the fact that there's one person out there who paid to see her but now doesn't like her would count as a low point for any normal human being. As if to prove that she doesn't quite qualify as that, she then tops herself by agreeing to be the subject of a Comedy Central roast and agonizing over how painful it is to have to sit there listening to other people make cruel jokes about her. (Let me repeat that: Joan Rivers agonizes over how painful it is to have others make cruel jokes about her.)

A Piece of Work is interesting, in the manner of one of those nature documentaries where you get to see a snake inhale a mouse in slow motion. What bugs me, though, is something that Rivers can't really be blamed for, though I doubt she has a problem with it. It's the number of reviews I've seen that compare Rivers, especially in her unguarded, "candid" moments, to Lenny Bruce. Say the fuck what? I know these are forgetful and discounted times we're living in, but has Lenny Bruce's reputation really shriveled to the point where people who write about movies for a living think he was just a mean bastard with nothing on his mind but the contents of the latest fan magazines who reserved his scorn for anyone in show business younger and more successful than himself? At one point in the movie, Rivers tries out a new joke on her entourage: she says she's been thinking about how Michelle Obama is this new style icon, and she remembers when the White House queen of fashion was Jackie O, and now it looks like it's Blackie O. Everyone on Team Rivers practically pukes at this, as well they might, and Rivers says, okay, it's out, but it's too bad, because "it's a good joke." Everything you need to know about Rivers's comic imagination is right there, starting with the fact that she assumes people must be groaning at that line because it's tasteless or outrageous, because, God help her, she thinks it's a good joke.

True, Bruce wasn't funny at the end of his career either, but that's because he was up there on stage reading court transcripts and babbling about his legal troubles. (And even though he really was hurting for money, he also rejected a role that Terry Southern had written for him in a major motion picture, The Loved One, because he didn't think it was meaty enough or sufficiently shaped to his particular talents to be worth his time--probably a fair suspicion, given that it wound up being played by Lionel Stander. The point is, it's really hard to see him agreeing to be a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice, just for the sake of a little "face time".) Maybe the idea isn't that Bruce's work was garbage, like Rivers's; maybe it's that Rivers, like the Jewish hipster junkie Bruce, supplies an abrasive outsider's viewpoint, and tells valuable, harsh truths, because she's 77 years old, and woman, in a culture that reveres youth and (still) has problems with the idea that a woman can be funny. It's an interesting idea that can't survive exposure to thirty seconds of Rivers herself, onstage or off. As blasphemy, it's not far out of the weight class of Bill O'Reilly's instantly infamous column insisting that Jesus would have made careful distinctions between people who deserved his charity and those who didn't have it coming to them, because "he was not self-destructive." (Do people like O'Reilly and Pat Buchanan--who called The Last Temptation of Christ sacrilegious because it portrayed Jesus as a pacifistic sort instead of a punch-throwing tough guy--think that the guy who healed an enemy's severed ear before turning himself in to be judged and executed was some other character? Or was the church just going through a weird phase when these guys were in Catholic school?) About the only good thing that can come from comparing Joan Rivers and Lenny Bruce is that it serves to remind us that there are worse things for the body and soul than heroin addiction.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Bob Feller has died, at the age of 92. He was regarded as a heroic figure by many, and not just for his baseball career, and I'm sure he deserved our admiration. But, because I'm one of those people who, to my regret, enjoys reading and hearing about sports from people who love the subject, but who can't sit through twenty minutes of any team sport without passing through at least four of the seven stages of grief, I'd never heard of him before I watched Ken Burns's Baseball series back in 1994. And because of that, I've always thought of him as the guy who must have gotten on Ken Burns's nerves. Baseball is full of heroic stories and legendary figures who the series took pretty much at face value, especially when they were still around to be interviewed. At the very least, players and famous fans alike were presented in the most flattering way possible: even goddamn Billy Crystal, offering his misty-eyed recollections of being a New Yawk baseball fan in the sacred era of childhood Boomerdom, was photographed while shrouded in so much imposing darkness that I kept waiting for him to recite The Hollow Men and explain his plan for winning the Vietnam War to Martin Sheen.

Feller was different: his interview footage, and the quotes and feats ascribed to him, seemed cherry=picked and carefully assembled, to make him come across as an asshole. While other stars who enlisted during World War II were seen to comport themselves with a becoming modesty, Feller was seen telling the camera, "I thought there were more important things than being a baseball player" in a tone that implied that he thought his image belonged on Mount Rushmore. When Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson--a moment that, in the arc of the series, represents a great leap forward and the game's promise to represent our nation finally coming true and meaning something--the narrator, John Chancellor, can be heard saying that it was Feller who let it be known that he didn't regard Robinson as fit for the majors. A little later, after describing a much-celebrated play executed by Willie Mays, the show cuts to Feller chortling, "It was far from the greatest catch I'd ever seen" and condescendingly saying that "Willie's a great showman." But my favorite moment comes at the end of the episode devoted to the 1930s. That segment devotes a good deal of time to celebrating Hank Greenberg, not just as an athlete but as an inspirational figure for Jewish Americans who were thrilled to have a mighty, massive baseball star to call their own; it quotes Greenberg himself as saying that, every time he distinguished himself on the field, he felt that he'd struck a modest blow against Hitler; and, finally, it gives a huge buildup to the day that Greenberg was widely expected to set a new home run record. "But facing him on the mound that day," says Chancellor, "was Bob Feller." Feller struck the Jewish man-god out. Then Chancellor says something like, "The next day, German tanks rolled into Poland."

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Now Available: Burning Ambulance #3

Just in time for Christmas, the third issue of Burning Ambulance is out, in downloadable and old school print magazine form, featuring:

• a cover story on Anthony Braxton by noted jazz journalist Kurt
• a feature on trumpeter/bandleader David Weiss by Clifford Allen
• a feature on saxophonist Jon Irabagon by Time Out New York writer Hank Shteamer;
• an essay on the Moritz von Oswald Trio by writer and DJ Justin Farrar;
• an essay on composing for orchestra by composer, classical music
critic and professor Steve Hicken;
• a chapter from Jeff Wagner's book Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Metal.

Also included, and deeply flattered to be seen in this company, is my own piece on the time capsule that is the new Criterion Collection box set America Lost and Found: The BBS Story. If you've ever wondered what I thought of The King of Marvin Gardens, here's your chance.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Guilty Bystanders

During my November hiatus, I happened to see, almost back to back, a couple of documentaries shown on TV: Jonathan Hock's The Best That Never Was, part of ESPN's 30 by 30 series, and John J. Valadez's The Longoria Affair, which was shown on PBS's Independent Lens. Hock's film is about Marcus Dupree, a name that I remember from the local Mississippi news of thirty years ago; Dupree was a teen phenom as a high school football player in Philadelphia, Mississippi, whose graduation in 1981 had college recruiters parachuting into town. At the time, it wasn't just local news; Willie Morris, then American literature's automatic go-to guy for serious nonfiction with a Magnolia State zip code, got a book deal out of it. But Dupree, for all his talent, was unable to find a way to fit comfortably into the major leagues, and after a weird, stop-and-restart career, today he resides back home in Philadelphia, where he drives a truck for a living and was happy to get his license to do it. Dupree is black, and his athletic ability made him the local hero of a town best known for the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Longoria deals with something that happened sixty-five years in Three Rivers, Texas that lit a fire under the Mexican American civil rights movement in the southwest. Both films are interesting on their own, but taken together, they sketch a bigger picture of the evolution of racial morals in the past several decades, especially as seen through some of their stories' supporting characters.

In 1945, the body of Felix Longoria, a Mexican-American native of Three Rivers who was killed while serving in World War II, was shipped home only to be denied burial in the town's sole, racially segregated cemetery by its operator, Tom Kennedy. Irony fans will be pleased to learn that Felix's father had been a laborer who worked on the project of setting up a Mexicans-only section "to give", as a fellow named Richard Hudson explains, "the Mexican people the opportunity to be buried with their own kind." The story made the national papers and forged an alliance between an activist named Dr. Hector Garcia and then-U.S. Senator Lyndon Johnson, who pulled some strings and arranged for Private Longoria to become the first Mexican-American buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Everyone in the film, Tom Kennedy's daughter and Richard Hudson, who takes the camera crew on a tour of the cemetery and points out the distant, untended edge of the area where Felix "should have been buried," and who might have been pulled out of an open casting call for a belligerently clueless redneck fuckhead, sees it as regrettable that Longoria was interred so far away, where his family couldn't walk down to his grave whenever the spirit moved them and leave fresh flowers. But whereas some of us might see this as a complicated situation, Hudson and Kennedy's daughter are sure they know exactly who the bad guys are in this story: it's the "outsiders meddling in the community affairs" who broke poor Mrs. Longoria's heart just so they could get some press attention by making Three Falls look bad to small-minded people who don't appreciate the importance of keeping the dead in their proper place.

These people are really angry about it, still, and as they see it, this is a story about how troublemakers and Washington elitists destroyed a good man who was just trying to follow the rules: Tom Kennedy. According to the movie, Kennedy wasn't a comfortably bigoted good ol' boy but a recent transplant to Three Rivers who had taken over the funeral parlor and automatically rejected Mrs. Longoria's request that her late husband be treated with more respect than a sack of rotten potatoes thrown over a fence because he was bending over backwards to observe the local rules as he'd been made to understand them, so as to fit in and not alienate the white community he lived among and hoped to make his living from. His daughter grunts that, while what he did may not look "politically correct" to us today, it was "politically correct" by the standards of the time and place--a remarkable thing to say, because in one sentence she manages to use the term "politically correct" the way it's almost always been used, to suggest that something oppressive and unreasonable has been imposed on her and her loved ones, while also invoking the phrase to justify an unjust act by stressing that it's the way things were done. Apparently Kennedy was so upset about being known as a national villain when the story got out that he took to drink and died young, a broken mess. Whether he would have been half as upset about having done something his daughter implies he knew damn well was wrong, just to keep some racist shitkickers happy, if it hadn't been in The New York Times is something we will never know.

As a transplant trying to accept the values of those around him, and destroying his life in the process, Kennedy's story makes an intriguing contrast with that of Cecil Price, the deputy sheriff who won himself a place in history that night in 1964 when he turned the civil rights workers he'd picked up on the road over the local Klan to do with as they would. Price was born in 1938, and died in 2001, and the four and a half years that he spent at Sandstone federal penitentiary in Minnesota after his conviction for "violating the civil rights" of the murdered men were probably his biggest sojourn away from Neshoba County. Here's the thing about Cecil, in connection to the Marcus Dupree story: his son, Cecil Junior, played alongside Dupree in high school. Interviewed in the documentary, he recalls that his dad thought the world of Marcus, was delighted about having the big local sports star as a guest in his home, and that many years later, he was in a position to be instrumental in helping Marcus get that commercial trucker's license that he's so grateful for. I grew up surrounded by men like Price, and I have no doubt that he was also delighted to be of assistance to those Klansmen in eradicating three prime examples of what Richard Hudson would call "outsiders meddling in community affairs", and that he never lost a minute of sleep over it for the rest of his life. I also have no doubt that he never had any bad feelings towards Marcus Dupree, and i certainly don't think that he ever thought about killing or helping to kill any black people for, say, the last twenty-five years or so of his life.

It was okay to do things like that in 1964, because then, in Neshoba County, it was, as Tom Kennedy's daughter would say, "politically correct"; at some point later, things changed, and it wasn't okay anymore. For guys like this, the whole point of life is not to wonder about why but to keep up with the shifting tides and not get found with a dead black man in the back of your pickup truck after the change has come. (And in case you think that this kind of thinking is exclusive to small-town Southerners, ask yourself how many of the people who would now give an unhesitatingly "No!" if you asked them if Muslims should have all the same rights as practitioners of other faiths, or laugh in your face if you said that Arabs shouldn't be treated any differently than anyone else at airport boarding lines, would have reacted differently on September 10, 2001.) Price had no trouble living with what he'd done, and then shifting into a different mindset about how acceptable it was to kill blacks and Jews, because his morality was defined by what everyone around him thought, and he was hardly a freak because of this. Tom Kennedy was destroyed by what he did to Felix Longoria's family, not because what he did was worse than what Cecil Price did--obviously, it wasn't--but because, to take his later-day defenders at their word, he was decent enough to know that he'd done something very, very wrong. He did it because he thought he'd catch more hell if he did the right thing, and it was only by the barest chance that he was wrong. If this was an episode of Fat Albert and I was Bill Cosby, I might now bore you by spelling out the lesson of all this, which unless I'm mistaken would appear to be that if you're tempted to do something wrong because you think it's the simplest, most pain-free option available, you should first ask yourself if you'll be able to live with yourself if you turn out to be that one person in a thousand who finds himself accountable for his actions.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Post-Halloween Scary Movie Roundup Report

[I do realize that, by now, it's a lot closer to being post-Thanksgiving than post-Halloween. The thing is, I keep seeing scary movies, whereas I can't remember the last time I saw a movie that had a pilgrim in it. And if I did see one, it probably also had a zombie in it.]

One of the best reasons I know for staying alive another day is that you never know when they're going to find another few feet of METROPOLIS. The two-and-a-half-hour "complete" version that Kino has just released on disc, after the usual post-restoration victory lap (festival circuit, Film Forum, TCM), doesn't make Fritz Lang's masterpiece any less silly; maybe nothing could, except an intertitle in which the juvenile hero apologizes for his appearance, explaining that he'd been letting the laundry pile up and had to roll a drunken rodeo clown for his clothes. The twenty-five minutes' worth of rediscovered material doesn't substantially alter the film's narrative shape, but it's funny to see how much smoother and polished the epic feels with the proper reaction shots and establishing footage re-pasted back in. With the full measure of Lang's directorial confidence restored to the movie, it's easier than ever to see what parts of the movie retain their charm as a record of what theater artists were doing almost ninety years ago to suggest a possible future and what still works like gangbusters on its own terms. In his classic Illustrated History of the Horror Film--now in print, with an unfortunate still from The Invisible Man that looks like a burn victim enthusiastically sniffing someone's nylons, as a Da Capo paperback with the "corrected" title An Illustrated History Of Horror And Science-fiction Films, to mollify geeks unhappy about any blurring of the genres--Carlos Clarens made the case that what holds up best about it falls solidly on Dracula's side of the street: "That science fiction ages fast and horror remains timeless is demonstrated by the most effective sequence... in which Rotwang chases Maria with a flashlight through the underground tunnel until the terrified girl is ensnared like a moth by the beam of light." Overall, the film remains a dazzling experience. Metropolis always was and always will be a lumpy epic, but trying to be more dismissive about its faults than exultant about its glories is like telling King Kong that it's just not going to work out between him and the little blonde. Sometimes the true mediator between the head and the heart is the eyes.

I have always known people who tried to laugh off Lang in general and Metropolis in particular, citing the movie as pure style without substance. I imagine this has something to do with our all having made it through the 1980s, when Metropolis was so in sync with the retro-futurist vibe that was going down then (and that was captured for future generations in such movies as Blade Runner and Brazil) that Lang's eye-popping spectacle was the silent classic of choice for many a pinhead. I have no idea how many of them actually saw the movie, but there were pieces of it all over MTV, and in one horrifying move that helped set the summer of 1984 in stone as the low point of Western civilization, Giorgio Moroder supervised an 80-minute color-tinted version, set to a score featuring contributions from the likes of Pat Benatar, Billy Squier, and Loverboy, essentially turning the movie itself into MTV. All that seems like a distant nightmare now. It's true that Lang himself was later very dismissive of the movie, telling Peter Bogdanovich that "The main thesis was Mrs. Von Harbou's [i.e., his screenwriter, A.K.A. Mrs. Fritz Lang at the time], but I am at least 50 percent responsible because I did it. I was not so politically minded in those days as I am now. You cannot make a social-conscious picture in which you say that the intermediary between the hand and the brain is the heart...It's very hard to talk about pictures— should I say now that I like Metropolis because something I have seen in my imagination comes true, when I detested it after it was finished?" But if you make a movie that's intended to have a serious cautionary political message and ends with a pitch for universal brotherhood and it gets you invited to become head of propaganda filmmaking for the Nazis, and busts up your marriage to boot because your wife thinks it's a pretty sweet offer, you probably have good reason to feel a little frustrated.

Darren Aronofsky is probably my favorite current moviemaker who nobody else likes. Clearly, enough other people like his work that he keeps getting to make more of it, but most people I know thought that Pi, The Wrestler, and especially Requiem for a Dream to be not just overwrought but sadistic, where I was caught up in and moved by the characters' suffering. His latest, BLACK SWAN, is a ballet horror fantasy about a repressed, unhinged dancer (Natalie Portman) who is cast in the lead of company director Vincent Cassel's super-edgy new production of Swan Lake and learns to access her kinky-dangerous side, with results that prove better for her art than for her life. The movie has a big, arty concept--the action, which basically consists of Portman "losing" herself on her way to opening night, is meant to mirror the story of Swan Lake, and the closing credits helpfully rank the actors according both the characters they play in the movie and those characters' doppelgangers in the dance, to provide a leg up to the slow-witted in the audience--but it's really just a replay of Repulsion set in The Red Shoes territory, with nothing much to do besides watch as Portman gets more and more batshit.

This time, I do think there is an element of sadism present, though it's tough to say if it's there by design or because Portman doesn't inspire much viewer empathy. You don't really feel for her, and you don't want to see her snap out of it and get her head on straight, because if that happened, there wouldn't be a movie. (Others have detected a streak of sadism in some of the casting, especially in Aronofsky's use of Wynona Ryder as the washed-up, self-destructive, high-strung dancer who Portman displaces. I wish I could think there was a non-sadistic reason for Ryder to be in the movie; most of the other people in it can act, so it's not as if she blends in.) Black Swan does confirm Aronofsky's talent, but in a funny way: it's so confidently directed that you're held by it, and don't fall off your seat laughing, even when Portman's dancer is so into her role that her toes become webbed and she sprouts feathered wings onstage. I've seen movies were there was enough of a gap between the directors' talent and his brains that I didn't see how dopey they were until they were over; with Black Swan, I did see it, and gave up hope that it would get any smarter, but kept watching anyway. I don't really mean that as a recommendation, but if you want to take it that way, feel free.

When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time watching old monster movies on TV, movies in which you had to put up with a lot of dull footage of boring people wandering around talking about nothing much in exchange for a few minutes of stop-motion monsters, whose brief appearances would be carefully rationed out over the course of a feature film's running time. Growing up means seeing all the things you used to roll your eyes and yawn at brought back and heralded as daring new creative breakthroughs, and that seems to be the case with Gareth Edwards's MONSTERS, which is set in an area of Mexico that has become infested with big CGI monsters, the aftereffect of an alien invasion six years earlier. A cynical journalist (Scoot McNairy) meets up with a wandering young heiress (Whitney Able) and makes a deal with her rich daddy, who in one of those older movies would have been played by Walter Connolly or Eugene Pallette, to bring her home safely. The idea is that, after half a dozen years, the monsters are just one more irritation of daily life to be groused about; the leads drift along, bickering with each other in the time-honored manner of characters who are going to realize that they're in love just before the final fade, and every so once in a very great while, a monster rears up at the back of the screen, roars a bit, and takes his leave. The stuff in between the monster stuff isn't just supposed to be dull, it's supposed to be influenced by "mumblecore"--, except in a low-key, "mumblecore" way--Edwards has acknowledged the influence of In Search of a Midnight Kiss--but it still feels like filler, even if boringness is now a recognized cinematic movement.

The most scarily disorienting movie I've seen lately is THE "TEDDY" BEARS, a thirteen-minute silent film from 1907 that Turner Classic Movies showed as part of a collection of early shorts from Thomas Edison's studio. It starts out as a full-dress version of the Goldiocks story, with three actors in furry costumes trundling about onscreen as Papa, Mama, and Baby Bear. Given the antique feel of the movie itself, it has a certain amount of charm. Hey, says I to the Missus, who does like herself some cute every so often, check this out. She puts down her knitting and checks it out, as Goldilocks, who looks a bit like Joe Besser in a wig and a dress, wakes up to find the bear family staring at her. They chase her outside, where she encounters a hunter, who, to our horror, blasts Papa and Mama Bear, then steps over their corpses, slips a leash on the trauma-stunned Baby Bear, and leads him off, presumably to sell him as slave labor to Montgomery Burns.

"Why", says the Missus in her best you-ain't-gettin'-none-tonight-boy voice, "did you want me to see that!?" The reason, of course, is that I didn't see that one coming; I figured that it would end with the Bears chasing Joe Besser off, and maybe tearing him limb from limb or roasting him on a spit over a slow fire, which would have been fine, but not with this Clive Barker nightmare of a human hunter giving the adorable humanoid bears both barrels and selling their grieving offspring into slavery. Seeing this thing magically transports you to a time before Disney, before filmmakers dealing in anthropomorphic animals understood what they were working with and how audiences would respond to these strange creatures. Nothing else I've ever seen, no blackface comedy or colonial imperialist propaganda film or sexist daydream, had given me as full and unsettling a taste of a sensibility untouched by the cultural effects that have been shaping us for the past century or so. It reminded me of Robert Klein's monologue about the old Raid commercials featuring kitchens full of adorably anthropomorphized vermin. They're partying, having a ball. "I love them!" said Klein. "And then walks this big fascist bottle..."

What Inadvertent Self-Knowledge Looks Like

From Republican party reptile P. J. O'Rourke's remembrance of Doug Kenney in Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Writers and Artists Who Made the National Lampoon Insanely Great by Rick Meyerowitz:

Doug was not primarily funny. Doug was primarily smart. And there's such a thing as being too damn smart. in order to make sense of life, it's necessary to be oblivious to a lot of things or to ignore them or to twist them around so they fit with your perceptions of everything else. Doug was unable to do this. He saw too vividly and understood too acutely everything that happened around him, everything that happened to him, and everything that he had caused to happen. Existence is grotesque. Doug had no blind eye to turn on it. This made his life uncomfortable at best and sometimes an agony...As to what else I remember about Doug, mostly I remember the kind things he did for people... And the kindest thing he ever did for me was to make me happy to be not too damn smart.

That Was Then, This Is Now

Say what you like about Barry Goldwater, he was the only person I ever believed when he said that his opposition to the Civil Rights Act was based on genuine principle. Goldwater may not have been a racist, but he also really believed that anti-discrimination legislation wrongly impacted on people's right to decide who they'd do business with; out of adherence to his core beliefs, he made the mistake of not recognizing that people's right to be assholes was outweighed by other people's right to not have their ability to buy houses in any neighborhood they liked, eat at whatever lunch counter was nearest their job, etc., shaped by the prejudices of others. (I believe that Rand Paul makes the same mistake, for the same principled reason, but his mealy-mouthed reaction to learning that other people are appalled by this undercuts his claim to integrity.) Twenty-five years later, Goldwater was officially a weirdo in Ronald Ronald's Republican party, because the same devotion to people's right to do what they hell they wanted meant that he supported a woman's right to abortion. He was ideologically consistent to the end; you knew where you stood with him, and why.

I don't have anything brilliant to say about the never-ending effort to repeal DADT, but now that John McCain has decided to go down in history as the face of this cause--the denial of military service to gay Americans--it's clear how much the image of the maverick Senator from Arizona has deteriorated since Goldwater's time. McCain used to try to drape his homophobia in friend-to-the-military colors; he was concerned about how using the service as a laboratory for "social experimentation"--as those who opposed letting black servicemen live and work among whites used to put it--because he loved the service and he loved our boys, and while it pained him to stand in anyone's way, it just seemed wrong to go all crazy and jump in at the deep end. Maybe after the next study, that was his mantra. Heed the wisdom of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that was his counsel to mere politicians. Now the studies are all in, the regular stiffs mostly say they'd have no problem serving alongside gays, the higher-ups don't see anything wrong with it, and McCain just sits there and squirms: seriously, guys, doesn't the thought of showering with a bunch of limp-wristers make you feel...icky!? The man who has worked harder than any former military man alive to have himself defined by his time in the military is now talking smack to officers who outrank his former self, asking if they really think they've rightfully won enough authority over the young men whose lives they have a part in shaping to suck it up and endure the presence of queers, and in case you see him as someone who's long since passed over into civilian life and has to answer only to people who outrank him the way we do things in the real world--i.e., those who have more money than he does--he's also spurning the advice of the wife whose personal fortune launched him into politics. There's the principle by which John McCain is content to have future generations judge him: the brother hates homos, that's all.