HISTORY MOVES…(Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #41)

…not always in a straight line.

MUGWUMPS2

(The Mugwumps, circa 1964: Zal Yanovsky, Jim Hendricks, Cass Elliot, Denny Doherty)

“We had already played The Bitter End and around New York as ‘Cass Elliot and the Big Three.’ This was before the Beatles, before ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ came out, we had gone electric. And it wasn’t because of The Beatles, it was because of The Springfields and Dusty Springfield; we were lookin’ more like that. They were a studio group, and they used bass, drums and guitar. ‘Silver Threads and Golden Needles.’ We used to do that on stage, as a matter of fact. It was in our repertoire; Cass sang it.”

(Denny Doherty from Go Where You Wanna Go: The Oral History of the Mamas & the Papas, Matthew Greenwald, 2002)

The Beatles did not step into a cultural or musical vacuum. They raised the game–considerably–less because they had a radical new vision than because they were better at what a lot of folks were groping towards. Certainly way better than the Mugwumps or the Springfields. And, of course, whatever was bubbling underneath that they didn’t bring to the surface is lost to us. We couldn’t possibly listen to some other not-quite-there approach (of which there are surely many…most of which never saw the light of day because their former members didn’t go on to become Dusty Springfield, or join the Mamas and Papas or form the Lovin’ Spoonful) and imagine any jump similar to the one from this (lightly electrified folk)…

to this (lightly electrified rock and roll)…

or this (folkies doing Bo Diddley)…

to this (rockers doing Chuck Berry)…

or this (what Dusty got up to next, the first major British hit in America after the Beatles’ arrival)…

or, later on, this (with John Sebastian, some time Mugwump who did not record with them, sounding an awful lot like the lead singer of their cut above)…

and, ultimately, this (which, yeah, might have happened without the Springfields..or without Denny giving Cass those love bumps that rhymed with Mugwumps…but who really knows!)…

Scenes probably have this much talent now. Scenes always have talent.

The talent doesn’t always have somewhere to go. Somewhere the suits and machines aren’t fully in control. Without that, you’re stuck being a cult act. Or giving in.

But, hey, at least we’ve got the internet.

For now.

More later if they let me!

I promise.

STUPID STUFF PEOPLE SAY ABOUT ELVIS (Quote the Seventeenth)

[Program Note: Neal Umphred and I are scheduled to continue our Elvis discussion over at his place some time in the next few days. I’ll link over when it begins and periodically when we update. Meanwhile….]

“But my modest suggestion is that this may be where the first wave of rock broke and fell back, why in its first great push it never quite reached the shore to cover the earth; there was no unifying talent complete and obsessive enough to work the transformation it made its fan desire.

“Its geniuses could not do all it took. Elvis was early rock’s godhead and figure of broadest appeal; though his audiences remained segregated, he was the first to suggest such a broad comity of taste among people who presumably had nothing to say to one another. But from the start there was lard at the heart of his judgment (the ersatz jazz of “Heartbreak Hotel”), schmaltz in the boil (“Love Me Tender”), and aside from two aberrant skirmishes with need and doubt in later years (his 1968 comeback music, side one of How Great Thou Art) he did not extend his pioneer moves into music of psychological complexity.”
(Source: Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History, Devin McKinney, 2003)
 Let me start with a little disclaimer. I think I’ve made the point before, but “stupid stuff” said about Elvis isn’t always said by stupid people. Frequently, it’s said by very smart people, Devin McKinney being a prime example. I’m about half-way through this book and I was led to it by McKinney’s more recent book on Henry Fonda, which is excellent and which I reviewed here.
On top of all that, Magic Circles, being about the Beatles, is mostly superb, and always provocative, when it sticks to the Beatles. I’m sure I’ll have something extensive and every likely quite positive to say about it when I’m finished.
That said…
There’s a style of rock criticism (I’d call it the dominant style) which feels the need to slay the Elvis Dragon so that the Beatles-as-God-Theory-of-Everything might live. This style, unsupported by evidence or rationality, has lasted so long, acquired so much real depth and nuance, and taken such deep hold on so many fine minds, that it should probably be labeled a syndrome and have its own pseudo-scientific name. I’m not in a creative mood right now so I’ll pass on the opportunity but if anyone else wants to jump in with a suggestion, feel free.
One element of the syndrome–if syndrome it be–is that the Beatles were somehow “bigger” than Elvis, here exemplified by phrases like: They “covered the earth”  (as he did not). They were “a unifying talent complete and obsessive enough to work the transformation,” i.e., the transformation the syndrome deems valuable (as he was not). And while “His audiences remained segregated”….theirs did not.
And, oh by the way, (merely implied here but made explicit in the main text of the book) they were unquestioned musical geniuses with real vision.
His music and vision were suspect “from the start.” Any  later, lasting, achievements were, of course, “aberrant.”
(Yes, this is all old stuff around here, but there’s a twist: While McKinney expends the most print on Elvis, he is even more dismissive of the other fifties’ giants. At one point he describes the Everly Brothers–the most important harmony singers of the twentieth century and, oh-by-the-way, the most significant specific musical influence on the Beatles after, you know, Elvis–as “minor.”…but we’ll leave that for another day.)
For the record: 
There’s no objective evidence that the Beatles were “bigger” than Elvis. What we can say with certainty is that they held much greater appeal for the intelligentsia.
Outside of academia and its attendant, late-sixties, branch-n-root in the counterculture, there’s no part of the earth he didn’t cover that they did cover. One rather significant part of the earth that he reached and they did not was Black America, which rejected the Beatles completely, (that is, if we’re to go by the only somewhat objective measure we have, which is the record charts, where they never placed a single record on any R&B chart, while Elvis, somehow appealing to his segregated-in-southern-concert-halls audience, was the second ranked R&B performer of the fifties’ after Fats Domino, who, as it happens, McKinney also thinks was no big deal). Another rather significant part of the earth he covered quite a bit more thoroughly than the Beatles was Hillbilly America, which at the time, was still quite a large chunk of the population and the culture, but we’ll give that a flyer, since Elvis had the distinctly unfair advantage of being one of them.
Later in the book, McKinney has to strain quite a bit to give the Beatles some relevance to black people and the civil rights era and I mention it only because, once his false premise is out of the way, he doesn’t strain much. Basically his argument there amounts to the Klan outright despising the Beatles, especially after John Lennon’s “we’re bigger than Jesus” moment (which, ironically enough, McKinney writes about with real verve and insight).
Upshot: they were important to Black America even though, on the evidence, few black people bought their records and they weren’t prone to demonstrating much public zeal on the matter.
The logic, so far as I could follow it, is that the Beatles had to be important to the burning issue of the day because…well, because they were the Beatles. And hence, by definition, way more significant than Elvis, a product of the segregated south who had smashed the race barrier ten years earlier in an unprecedented and wholly unpredictable, but nonetheless absent-minded and rather accidental fashion, which didn’t require any “music of psychological complexity,” then or later.
Or something like that.
To which I can only say, yet again, that among the people who realized there were no Beatles without Elvis were, you know, the Beatles.
From Liverpool, England.
A part of the earth the lard-hearted Elvis had evidently covered after all.
You don’t even need John Lennon’s “Before Elvis there was nothing,” to prove it.
You could just go with this:
“I didn’t have any. The only root I can think of is one day riding my bike down a street in Liverpool and hearing ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ playing out of an open window.”
(George Harrison, asked about his musical influences in George Harrison: Living In the Material World, 2011)
 Or maybe this:

 

 

WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM ARTISTS…THE ONE AND ONLY REALLY IMPORTANT MAXIM

“Christgau is the last true-blue record critic on earth. [He’s] pretty much who I make my records for..” —Questlove (leader of The Roots)

This is a quote from the blurb section at Harper Collins’ page for Robert Christgau’s new memoir. Given Questlove’s position as a kind of eminent statesman in the rap/hip hop world, it gives us one explanation for how we’ve reached a day when popular music is in roughly the position it was in 1954. On the sidelines. Irrelevant. Nerveless. Unheeded.

In some ways it’s worse now. Because the white music often dominating the hip hop charts these days is spiritually descended from the Crew Cuts/Pat Boone aesthetic, not the Elvis Presley/Carl Perkins aesthetic (which led the charge the last time this happened).

So no I’m not going to start a new category, because if I did it would just be this and nothing else (and nothing, incidentally, to do with Christgau personally):

Please, please, please do not make your art for a critic. Any critic. Ever.

Because nobody who has mattered ever, ever did.

And nobody who will matter ever, ever will.

You don’t need to listen to me. But you should listen to those who laid the cornerstones.

WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS (Tenth Maxim)

A little addenda to Lesley Gore’s passing….dedicated to the inner workings of the illuminati:

“‘It’s My Party’ not only put Gore into the spotlight, but also jump started the career of Quincy Jones, who would go on to be one of the most celebrated and prolific producers of all time. ‘Party’ was one of Jones’ first big hits, and it would lead to him being one of the most sought-after producers in the industry. He wound up composing all four of Gore’s top ten hits, as well as dozens of other memorable tunes. Some of his more famous works include Michael Jackson’s Thriller album (still one of the best-selling single albums of all time), as well as records and singles for everyone from Donna Summer to Frank Sinatra. [italics mine]

(Hugh McIntyre, Forbes on-line, Feb. 16, 2015)

As it happens Quincy Jones did not “compose” any of Lesley Gore’s four top ten hits. And, yeah, I know nobody goes to Forbes magazine for accuracy-in-media regarding anything, let alone rock and roll.

But this stuff doesn’t just come from nowhere. A young-turk-trying-to-make-a-living doing quick hits on a blog for Forbes doesn’t just dream up the idea that Quincy Jones must have written all of Gore’s hits…and then consider it a given beyond fact-checking….all on his own. He does it because Quincy’s the big, powerful name attached to those hits whom even Forbes’ audience might recognize.

And that comes from a mind set.

I think it’s worth mentioning that this particular mind set, the one that predetermines the relationship between male svengali (even if, God forbid, he’s black) and female puppet (in the course of making rock and roll records at least), was established by a crit-illuminati made up almost entirely of Liberals-Who-Do-Not-Liberate.

We should not be surprised when the Conservatives-Who-Do-Not-Conserve play merrily along with their spiritual collaborators.

Still, I reserve the right to plead, as the Tenth Maxim:

Don’t just go making stuff up!

Anyway, here’s Lesley, big heart that she was, being more forgiving of the “Hugh McIntyre”‘s of the world than the maxims allow:

IN THE GHETTO REPRISE!

Neal Umphred, one of my readers who I’m just discovering is also one of the world’s foremost record collecting experts, has been kind enough to feature one of my posts at his site Elvis A Touch of Gold.

I’ll be adding Neal to my blogroll in the next week or two (by which time I should finally have the speed issues that have been nagging my computer for the last six months resolved). Meanwhile, please click over and check out what he’s done with the piece by adding some great visuals and trenchant commentary.

ME AND DYLAN GET TOGETHER…COSMICALLY SPEAKING (Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #41)

Back in 2009, on the occasion of Mary Travers’ passing, I wrote an obit for her where I argued, among other things, for her (and her group’s) singular importance in the history of folk music and especially, topical protest music.

One significant piece of the argument, rarely acknowledged by others anywhere, ever, was PP&M’s now taken-for-granted ability to put the radical young Bob Dylan high on the charts a full two years before the “folk rock” boom and to do so specifically with one of his protest songs…which was relevant to the Civil Rights movement in that year’s headlines and also to the escalation of the Viet Nam war, still two years away. Unspoken in all that, was the notion that not even the rise of Bob Dylan was inevitable.

I’m sure others have made this point, but, if so, I’ve never actually heard or read about it. So I’m especially happy to note that, as of now, I know of at least one other person who agrees with me.

I feel like this is pretty good company.

On Peter, Paul & Mary’s early hit version of “Blowin’ in the Wind”:

“I didn’t even think of myself as writing songs for others to sing, but it was starting to happen and it couldn’t have happened to, or with, a better group. They took a song of mine that hadn’t been recorded before that was buried on one of my records and turned it into a hit song. Not the way I would have done it — they straightened it out. But since then hundreds of people have recorded it and I don’t think that would have happened if it wasn’t for them. They definitely started something for me.”

(Bob Dylan, on the occasion of his accepting an award from MusiCares: L.A. Times, Feb. 7, 2015)

Lengthy excerpts of the speech can be found here. Highly recommended reading. And listening, of course….

UPPITY WOMAN SLAPPED DOWN…L.A. STYLE…(Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #40)

MICHELLEDENNIS

First, Michelle Phillips, recalling the period of the Mamas and the Papas’ demise:

“You know, I came back from Peru, when I went there to do Dennis Hopper’s movie (The Last Movie) in 1970. I had met a young songwriter….whom nobody had ever heard of. I came back and I asked to have a little meeting with John (Phillips) and Lou (Adler). I went to the meeting with my guitar, and I played them two songs. I told them, ‘I just want to do a single. I’ve got two sides to a single.’ They said, ‘Let’s hear ‘em.’ and I sat down and played them….They both sat there and this is exactly what they said: Lou said, ‘Don’t you think it’s a little country Mitch?’ I said, ‘Well whatever it is, I think they’re hits.’ And John said, ‘Well, frankly, Mitch, I think you’ve lost the thread of things.’ So I got up and said, ‘Never mind!’”

(Michelle Phillips from Go Where You Wanna Go: The Oral History of the Mamas & the Papas, Matthew Greenwald, 2002)

Then….facts in evidence:

The unknown songwriter was Kris Kristofferson. The two songs in question were “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and “Me and Bobby McGee.”

Then…a few random thoughts on the subject:

To be fair, Michelle was a decent singer but she wasn’t Sammi Smith. And she sure wasn’t Janis Joplin. Maybe she had no prayer of making either song a hit.

Then again, the only song she had recommended to the group which actually got recorded (with her on lead vocal) was “Dedicated To the One I Love.” It was the last of a long line of early rock ‘n’ roll standards she pitched, none of which John Phillips had previously ever heard of (he was evidently a true, hermetically sealed folkie in the “Creeque Alley” years). It also became their second biggest hit.

So who knows?

I mention it only because it occurred to me that John Phillips’ and Lou Adler’s responses might have amounted to making the Michelle Phillips pictured above pay for her sins.

Not being married to Dennis Hopper for eight days, but, you know, that other stuff.

Sleeping around on John and not sleeping with Lou at all.

Oh, and not inspiring any more great songs for John to write and Lou to produce. Trying to think for herself.

Be interesting to know which one wanted to kill her career worse on the day she almost discovered Kris Kristofferson.

STANDING TALL (Lesley Gore, R.I.P.)

LGORECOVER

“Tom Doniphon, you listen to me. Where I go and what I do is none of your business. You don’t own me!”

(Vera Miles to John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance–1962)

“Don’t tell me what to do/And don’t tell me what to say”

Lesley Gore “You Don’t Own Me” (1964)

DI: Fans have always told you how important song has been to them. Are you making “a statement” even today?

LG: No question about it. It’s the one song – after some 40 years, I still close my show with that song because I can’t find anything stronger, to be honest with you. It’s a song that just kind of grows every time you do it. It might mean one thing one year and “boom,” two years later, boy it can mean something else.

(Digital Interviews with Lesley Gore, May, 2003)

When the late Charlie Gillett published the first important history of rock and roll in 1969, he dubbed the flood of hit records by young women from the early and mid-sixties “Girl Talk.” However problematic that phrase was, it was positively enlightened compared to the “girl group” moniker which gained currency soon after and has been used as short-hand ever since by everyone from the boys’ club that re-defined rock ‘n’ roll’s quasi-official narrative in Gillett’s wake in strict accord with their own needs to those doctrinaire feminist scholars who are so often in the habit of accepting all the wrong things.

One group that never accepted the term was a number of the “girl group” participants themselves.

I don’t know how Lesley Gore felt about it, but Arlene Smith (14 when she basically invented the concept with the Chantels), Mary Weiss (15 when she defined the apotheosis with the Shangri-Las) and others always saw themselves as a vital part of a larger tradition and always understood that the term was meant, consciously or subconsciously, to segregate them from that tradition.

As it happened, it worked to separate them by more than gender.

Make of it what you will, but no other “genre” name in rock and roll or any other form of music has ever needed to not only cordon off its practitioners by gender, but also further subdivide them by race, age, number and anything else that can be brought to bear.

This was made somewhat easier by an odd circumstance. With the exception of Weiss, all of the concept’s signature lead group voices, were black (Smith, Shirley Owens, Ronnie Spector, Martha Reeves, Gladys Horton, Diana Ross, Darlene Love). Meanwhile, except for Dionne Warwick and Mary Wells, the signature solo voices were white (Brenda Lee, Connie Francis, Dusty Springfield, Lulu, Petula Clark, Jackie DeShannon, Nancy Sinatra and, of course, Lesley Gore). So just in case gender wasn’t handy enough on its own, some of these voices could be conveniently cut from the bunch by race…or age…or number…or just vocal inclination.

Further divisions were managed by siphoning off various groups or singers into some other category (anything would do).

Wells, The Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas and the Supremes were “Motown.” Clark, Springfield and Lulu (along with Cilla Black and Sandie Shaw, big stars in England who had limited success in the States) were “British Invasion.” Warwick was “Supper Club Soul” or “Adult Contemporary.” Lee and Francis were “Teen Idols” (or “Countrypolitan” or just “Pop”) and so forth.

None of this was exactly untrue. I make the distinctions myself at times.

But the trick to the official rock and roll narrative was that, once separated from the already hidebound ethos, these outliers were never let back into their moment.

I mean, if you wanna start a fight with a Rock Critic, try calling Dionne Warwick (twenty-one when she recorded her first big hit) or Brenda Lee (fifteen when she recorded hers) a Girl Group singer.

The effect, when used in tandem with the “male-producer-as-svengali” syndrome I’ve addressed pretty relentlessly on this blog, was and is to blunt the force and magnitude of the first mighty surge of cultural power ever spear-headed by a collective of young women in the history of American music.

Or, for that matter, pretty much any age women anywhere.

In any cultural (as opposed to social or political) context.

Ever.

The effect of the “girl talk” moment, both as symbolism and underlying reality, was of that part of the audience which had fought their way to the front rows at Elvis and Jackie Wilson concerts in the fifties (and, yes, fainted at Frank Sinatra concerts in the forties, though in those days they mostly stayed in their seats), literally stepping forth from the audience and taking the stage themselves.

Few of them wrote their important hits (Smith and DeShannon were rare exceptions). Even fewer produced and none ever received proper credit. So, mostly, they seized the moment by singing.

Sing they did. Brenda Lee, Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, Darlene Love, Arlene Smith, Mary Weiss, Ronnie Spector, Jackie DeShannon. No genre, style or sensibility, however named, was ever graced with greater voices, and, amongst that cacophony, it fell to then seventeen-year-old Lesley Gore, she of the perfect pitch and Sarah Lawrence pedigree, to sing their anthem, the one record that most assuredly marked the future off from the past, even as the storm of the British Invasion (a genre, like any but the one Lesley Gore was slated into, where no distinction needed to be made between groups or individuals, men or women, teens or twenty-somethings, no matter how many of its acts were four or five guys with guitars) seemed to wash every other future away.

‘You Don’t Own Me,” (it’s title and ethos copped from a John Ford movie even in the unlikely event the songwriters never saw it) wasn’t her biggest hit.“It’s My Party” made #1, while “You Don’t Own Me” was stopped at #2 by the symbolic-as-hell and real-as-hell phenomenon that was “I Want To Hold Your Hand”. It may not have even been her greatest vocal. I’m partial to “She’s a Fool” myself and there’s plenty of other competition.

But it’s the one that truly escaped time and found a life that was not and is not in any way bound by its original moment.

My memory plays tricks on me and I’ve never been able to track the quote down, but I’m willing to swear on anything you want that, somewhere, there’s an interview with Gore where she said it was also the one song she knew would be a hit.

When she was asked how she knew, she had a simple answer:

“Because I read my fan mail.”

Call her anything you want. Can’t mark the future off any plainer than that.

Time came for Lesley Gore today at 68.

Well…not really….

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Holding Patterns and Subterranean Connections Generate Mild Disturbances in My Brain…I Strive to Move Forward)

Rio Grande DIrector: John Ford (1951)

American Sniper Director: Clint Eastwood (2014)

Sergeant York DIrector: Howard Hawks (1941)

Zero Dark Thirty Director: Kathryn Bigelow (2012)

RIOGRANDE1

This sort of thing usually starts innocently enough.

I’ve been taking a break from Ford. For me, that means going maybe three months without watching any of his movies for the umpteenth time. So this week I got back around to Rio Grande, the austere, black-and-white finishing touch on the Cavalry Trilogy, made on the quick as the price for getting Republic Pictures’ famously penurious Herb Yates to back The Quiet Man, which Ford had been nursing for years, if not decades.

As always, when I’ve been trying to push Ford to one side, half-convincing myself that some of those lean, mean, craftsman-helmed westerns from the Golden Age that make the genre so bottomless (recent go-to’s include Rawhide, Yellow Sky, The Law and Jake Wade….one could go on) are so good Ford can’t really be all that much better, I’m shocked all over again once I let him back into the center.

Rio Grande has to run fast and hard to make it into Ford’s top fifteen…one of his “jobs of work.” But, as always the jump from everybody else’s top drawer to Ford’s middle ground is dramatic, like going from a set of finely wrought short stories to a great middle-length novel plucked from a shelf full of even greater novels. I know there are people who think short stories are a higher, purer form than novels and all I can say is, well, everybody has a right to be wrong.

But even as I was noticing new elements in Ford’s way with narrative, all the obvious things he chooses to leave out not merely to speed things along in the usual style or even to evade obviousness but to validate the breadth of his canvas, to effectively say, “I can go anywhere with this and even if I don’t, it’ll feel like I might have,” my rock ‘n’ roll mind, forever at work, suddenly churned up the notion that Ford was Bob Dylan (stark, jagged, dissociative, barbed, weird)  and Howard Hawks was the Beatles (clever, puckish, organized, forthright, orderly). Or, if you like, Dylan and the Beatles were Ford and Hawks brought forward.

Now, you can kick something like that around until you kick it to death or you can leave it alone and let it sit until it either hangs together or falls part under persistent intellectual mastication disorder. For now, I’m leaving it alone (though the notion of Ford and Hawks as twinned engines pulling in opposite directions has been on my mind for a while), but since I finally made it to a theater at a time when American Sniper was playing (third try, long story, my own stupid fault, let’s move along) and since, in my heart of hearts, I suspect Clint Eastwood would be John Ford if he possibly could and that maybe he hasn’t even quite given up on the idea, I can’t leave it entirely alone.

Not with the world on fire and everything.

AMERICANSNIPER1

I had some awareness of the “controversy” surrounding American Sniper and any relation it might have to how we’re all supposed-to-feel, are-feeling, might-feel, do-feel, can’t-feel, don’t-dare-feel, don’t-dare-not-feel about the “Iraq War” or the “Second Iraq War” or the “War on Terror” or “The Mistake” or whatever that particular phase of our quarter-century and counting conflict in the Middle East that happened to coincide with Chris Kyle’s tours of duty is being called this week.

I also had a strong sense that the controversy was breaking down along the usual lines.

You know how it works: the Right believes we’ve finally got a pro-American Iraq War film on our hands and the people are proving their support for the war that was by flocking to the box office, while the Left believes the Right just might have a dreadful point so let’s all go to our respective corners and come out shadow-boxing until our arms get tired and weasel-honor is satisfied. It’s all okay.

I mean, as long as nobody threatens the pre-existing assumptions.

Don’t worry. No one has.

Look. Ford always matters. A decade or so back, the great critic Molly Haskell wrote about fretting over a showing of The Searchers organized for inner-city kids. Living in a world where lots of film school profs at elite universities report kids being bored by Ford or even (per Tag Gallagher) getting angry and walking out of class, she worried they wouldn’t like it, wouldn’t get it, wouldn’t connect, etc.

Her fears were, perhaps unsurprisingly, unfounded. Turned out kids who had been raised on Biggie and Tupac got Ethan Edwards, Chief Scar and ten-thousand-year-old male honor codes quite well. I suspect they would have had no trouble understanding Rio Grande, either, with its main theme of a single mother willing to go any length to protect her only child from a world defined by violence.

Still, it might have only been serendipitous that I started thinking specifically about Ford and Hawks while watching Ford during the week I happened to catch American Sniper (and, incidentally, also happened to catch Sniper star/producer Bradley Cooper and screenwriter Jason Hall on Charlie Rose, where Hall said the whole thing clicked during an early conversation where they thought of it specifically in terms of a western).

Then again, it might be a case of the bleeding obvious. I mean, the subconscious isn’t necessarily subversive or indirect or freely-associative just because it lies beneath. It might just be trying to tell you something. In this case, probably something like, “Hey, you’ve been trying to see American Sniper since it came out and you’ll probably actually make it this week, doofus, so it’s not exactly a stretch to assume that this is going to be a modern version of Sergeant York, which is one of the two attempts (Red River, which Ford helped edit, being the other) that Hawks made at being Ford-ian, so think about linking all that up will you?”

SGTYORK

Seriously, I was prepared to leave it alone, subconscious or no subconscious, but then American Sniper turned out to be, at least on the surface, a pretty straightforward modern take on Sergeant York.

Clint Eastwood trying to be John Ford by imitating Howard Hawks imitating John Ford.

So–o-o-o?

Well, like Sergeant York, American Sniper is a well-crafted-not-quite-great film about a war hero. Like Chris Kyle, Alvin York was a southerner raised on religion and hunting. Like York, Kyle was a freakishly superb shot and a bit of a roustabout. Both movies make a stab at tying each man’s heroics to the particulars of his upbringing and the moral conclusions each man reached (in their respective movies but, on the evidence, also in life) were markedly similar.

Killing is terrible.

The only thing worse is watching other men kill your friends because you failed to stop them. So both movies are fundamentally about men trying to define their honor through religion, courtship rituals, family loyalty and, finally, the cauldron of warfare.

There’s one big difference, of course.

Alvin York fought in an actual war, one which had the only object actual wars ever have, which is to take and hold all the ground that’s necessary for your enemy to give up hope.

Chris Kyle, who likely saw even more (and more intense) combat, fought in a shadow war, a sort of kabuki-theater-of-the-absurd where he was continually asked to supply the purpose the culture he volunteered to represent and the political leaders he volunteered to serve denied him with malice aforethought.

The sensible question to ask about Eastwood’s film then, is this: Does it capture what its like to fight in such a war.

In short, for any flaws it might have (and it certainly has them) it does this one essential thing superbly.

Whether or not they might have shared my experience of passing a television in the lobby of the theater on the way out that was tuned to CNN and showing the headline “Obama Asks for War Powers Against ISIS,” in front of Wolf Blitzer’s perpetually benumbed expression, anyone who emerges from this film thinking gee, I want a piece of that, is either seriously delusional or psychotic.

Because, in truth, any similarity to Sergeant York is superficial, just as any similarity between York and a Ford film is superficial.

1134604 - Zero Dark Thirty

A much better comparison is between Sniper and Zero Dark Thirty, a film which raised similar conversations (and similar evasions) on both sides two years back, though the roles were rather neatly reversed, thanks to director Kathryn Bigelow being perceived as reliably Liberal in the same way that Clint Eastwood is perceived as reliably Conservative.

However much Chris Kyle had in common with Alvin York, in life or on film, he had/has a much deeper bond with Zero Dark Thirty‘s heroine, Jessica Chastain’s “Maya,” a fictional character based on a real life CIA operative.

He ends by understanding what she understands to begin with:

Shadow Wars produce Shadow Warriors….and Shadow Results.

That’s what all those various pronouncements of “victory” that have linked Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and Obama really mean.

Nothing.

Well, that, and anybody who serves will be forced to play the Shadow Game one way or another.

Whether that’s what Eastwood meant, or even what Bigelow meant, is impossible to tell. Whatever they ever have or ever will talk about, it never has and never will be about that. War is not an option for either our culture or our political leadership. Neither is Peace.

That’s the difference between the No-Peace-No-Honor America we now all inhabit and the one Ford, the old-fashioned, out-of-step throwback, alone among Hollywood directors in forever looking backwards to better see around the corner, knew could so easily come to pass.

For what its worth, there’s a $300 million smash at the box office, which, knowingly or unknowingly, is carrying the same basic message all those “anti-war” flops carried.

We’re all Shadow Warriors now.

And even Clint Eastwood knows, as we prepare to retake some piece of Iraq yet again so we can give it back yet again, that we will win no more wars.

Which means there’s only one way for this week to end around here…a long way past the Beatles or even Dylan. Past everyone mentioned here. Except, you know, John Ford.