GOOD GOD…..

I usually enjoy Greil Marcus’s “Ask Greil” feature on his website (linkable at the right). But this jawdropper is from one of his responses a few days ago (4/13/17):

   I liked a lot of the Bee Gees’ early singles. “New York Mining Disaster 1941”—now there’s a sure-fire pop hit title—was stranger, thematically, to find on the radio in 1967 than, say, “Memphis Blues Again.” “To Love Somebody” and “Words” had great lift. But with “I Started a Joke” I began to tune out. I think that was about the time I first got a look at them. There’s something off, not quite human, part horse, about their features.

I guess I should be relieved. Here I was, thinking Barry Alan Crompton Gibb (now 70), must be carrying a great burden, having outlived three younger brothers: Robin Hugh (dead at 62), Maurice Ernest (at 53) and Andrew Roy (at 30).

Turns out I need feel no sorrow.

In horse years, even Andy was Methuselah.

By the way, “not quite” is Newspeak for “less than.”

Always.

This is worse than making up stuff about girl group singers by a measure of a thousand.

And I’d be afraid to ask how he felt about this guy….(dead at 58…it costs).

WHAT IS POLITICS?

Here’s three post-election attempts to understand “those people” through a pop culture lens:

From Observer:

How Bruce Springsteen cost Hillary the Election.

Key quote:

“Imagine this:

“What if Bruce Springsteen had gotten into a van and trailed Donald Trump to every campaign stop over the last four weeks (or even the last two). Imagine if every time Donald Trump set up to speak, Bruce got out of his van, strolled to a street corner or park a few blocks away, strapped on an acoustic guitar, and began to sing. Maybe he would sing songs about the working men and women who have always been his constituency, or maybe he would sign songs of Boardwalks or Vietnam, or maybe he would sing the old songs of freedom and unity that Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger sang.

“Imagine that.”

From Slate:

How Miranda Lambert could save us all.

Key quote:

:If you have any curiosity about what Trump-voting white women in Midwestern and Southern suburbs and small towns might cope with, how they become jaded day by day, Lambert can tell you.”

From The Federalist:

When the ghost of Ronnie Van Zant stalked New York.

Key quote:

Libby and I both stopped and looked at each other. “Seriously?” said my wife, a very disappointed Clinton supporter. She started gripping her soft Tomme Crayeuse a little too hard. By the time Ronnie Van Zant’s drawl started in with “Big wheels keep on turnin’,” everyone in the store was standing in shock. Brows were furrowed, people mumbled to each other. The song seemed to get louder as one of those New York moments happened, when everyone was thinking the exact the same thing.

One reason I’ve always tried to read across a broad spectrum of political views is so I don’t forget anyone’s existence. If I keep myself sufficiently up-to-date, I find the world holds very few surprises.

So none of this is surprising.

But boy is a lot of it dumb. I linked the full articles. You can read them and make your own judgments.

My take:

For starters, if Bruce Springsteen ever really was the voice of the working class that Tim Sommer seems to think he still is (and I’m not saying he wasn’t), he traded that status for standard Limousine Liberalism a long time ago. That no one ever worked harder at resisting the change (well, except maybe Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger) is proof of how seductive–maybe just plain inevitable–some changes are.

For Springsteen to connect with Donald Trump’s voters, would have meant sounding a lot like Donald Trump, no?

And who would trust him then?

Maybe Miranda Lambert’s fans?

Maybe. But who’s to say they aren’t Springsteen fans (i.e., not Trump supporters!) already?

If the audience Carl Wilson is writing for at Slate had any real “curiosity about what Trump-voting white women in Midwestern and Southern suburbs and small towns might cope with” they would have made Miranda’s idol and dear friend, Patty Loveless, a crossover superstar twenty years ago. And if the Country Music Association has lauded Lambert with six Female Vocalist of the Year awards (which is six times more than they awarded it to Loveless), it’s precisely because its voting members know that she goes down well at The Village Voice and all the other organs of hipsterism that the people who buy most of Lambert’s records don’t give a rip about. Right or wrong, everybody at Slate is pretty sure they know who Miranda Lambert voted for. With Patty Loveless–the singer who caught the spirit of the “White Death,” which drove Trump’s support more than the next ten factors combined, two decades before it started showing up in statistical studies–who could ever tell?

I mean, could you trust her to toe the line?

May-y-y-y-be.

But then you never really know about these hillbillies, do you?

Which brings me to Ronnie Van Zant. The Federalist writer, David Marcus, attempts to explain that he personally gets it. There’s the usual stuff about how the origin of “Sweet Home Alabama” is way more complicated than is usually understood, etc. and more of the stuff you’d expect from someone who is more enlightened than his fellow good liberals because he thinks maybe the hicks have a point here and there, or that, at every least, the idea should be entertained. It’s all very familiar.

What Marcus does not quite do is admit–or perhaps understand–that Ronnie Van Zant would never be easily pigeon-holed into any neatly composed narrative. Not the way Bruce Springsteen and Miranda Lambert, for all their fine personal and artistic qualities, have been. Missing that, he’s really just substituting one easy formula for another. A really political moment in that Brooklyn boutique grocery store he’s describing would involve telling at least one person–his wife maybe–that you should listen to Ronnie Van Zant, the real life Huck Finn, a little more, not because it will help you understand Trump voters, but because, like listening to Bruce Springsteen or Miranda Lambert, it will help you understand the world.

Good luck with that.

WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS (Thirteenth Maxim)

This was almost going to be an update to The Story That Never Ends. Recent inductee Steve Miller’s call for more women artists to join him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has evoked a few responses here and there which makes me hopeful there is a groundswell developing that might ultimately benefit some long overlooked artists.

Then again, with friends like these….

Rolling Stone‘s contribution to the conversation is under a title-only-a-committee-of-future-commissars-could-conceive: “Fifteen Women Who Could Be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” (I think we’re about two elections away from whoever came up with that being put in charge of inducing famine in the northern plains’ states…but I digress.)

No, it doesn’t really name “fifteen women”–rather fifteen female acts (several being groups). But we’ll let that pass.

No, it doesn’t limit itself to redressing the legitimate grievance–that a number of actual “rock and roll women” have been given short shrift. It’s littered, instead, with crit-faves from other forms (Joan Baez from folk, Patsy, Dolly and Loretta from country–all good candidates for my recommended category of “Contemporary Influence” but not really credible as rock and roll performers). But we’ll let that pass.

And it does make a pretty good case for the Shangri-Las. That’s always welcome news around here. Admittedly, this phrase is passing strange: “…they’re perhaps the girl group most beloved of critics and rock fans.” I don’t know about fans, but if critics, who make up most of the nominating committee, loved the Shangri-Las more than any other girl group, they probably would have nominated them some time (as they have the Shirelles, the Supremes, the Ronettes and Martha and the Vandellas, all Hall members, or the Chantels or the Marvelettes, both at least nominated in the past). Of course, they should have done just that, but they haven’t, so that part in an otherwise not entirely incoherent paragraph, is gibberish.

But we’ll let that pass.

Have to, for now, because the very next entry is for Dionne Warwick and it reads like this:

Kicking off her career with the wounded, yet stalwart “Don’t Make Me Over,” the voice of Dionne Warwick defined the sound of R&B. Her delicate phrasing and gospel-inspired power resulted in some of the catchiest songs of the Sixties, including a series of collaborations with Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and she became the first African-American woman to perform for the Queen of England in 1968, the same year that the Bacharach-David composition “Do You Know The Way to San Jose” scaled the charts. Warwick had her ups and downs during the Seventies, but her 1985 smash “That’s What Friends Are For,” which she cut with high-powered pals (and Hall of Fame members) Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder, was one of pop activism’s higher points in an era filled with cause-minded tracks. 

I don’t normally do interpretations of cluelessness and Bad English, but since no one can be expected to swallow that whole, I’ll take a shot.

the voice of Dionne Warwick defined the sound of R&B…

Well, no one voice ever “defined the sound of R&B,” not even Fats Domino’s or Little Richard’s or James Brown’s or Otis Redding’s or Aretha Franklin’s. Dionne Warwick came pretty close to defining supper club soul, an honorable, if much derided sub-genre, which she more or less invented and which gave both soul and rock much wider audiences than they otherwise might have expected during the heart of the era when those forms dominated both the charts and whatever part of the culture still had meaning. So why not just say that?

Her delicate phrasing and gospel-inspired power resulted in some of the catchiest songs of the Sixties, including a series of collaborations with Burt Bacharach and Hal David…

Her phrasing and power had nothing to do with how catchy her songs were. The catchiness was provided by the aforementioned writers (Bacharach did the melodies, David the lyrics). She inspired those songs and provided their heartbreak. So why not just say that?

…and she became the first African-American woman to perform for the Queen of England in 1968, the same year that the Bacharach-David composition “Do You Know The Way to San Jose” scaled the charts.

This is what’s called a non sequitur. Actually, since it finishes the sentence begun by the previous phrase, it’s at very least a double non sequitur. It could be a triple non sequitur, since the previous phrase quite possibly contains its own non sequitur (power and phrasing having nothing to do, strictly speaking, with the catchiness for which she was not responsible anyway), but my head already hurts so we’ll leave that alone, too. In any case, the catchiness of her songs has, in this purely linguistic context, nothing to do with her being the first African-American woman to perform for the Queen of England (which, in turn, has nothing to do with why she should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as the same honor might easily have befallen, say, Ella Fitzgerald or Nancy Wilson or any number of others who also sang catchy songs and exemplified the various ways in which African-American women could be supper club classy without coming anywhere near “rock and roll,” lest you think I was kidding when I said Dionne invented the “soul” part of that equation or that I failed to clarify that it’s the precise reason she should have been in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame long since), which, in turn, has nothing to do with “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” coming out the same year (that’s best called a coincidence, I think, though other descriptions might apply as well).

[Note: There was a time, not that long ago, when writing like this in a high school English class would have drawn a bunch of red marks and the student would have been required to write it over. There was a time, not that long ago, when the same thing might have happened at Rolling Stone….But we’ll let that pass.]

Warwick had her ups and downs during the Seventies, but her 1985 smash “That’s What Friends Are For,” which she cut with high-powered pals (and Hall of Fame members) Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder, was one of pop activism’s higher points in an era filled with cause-minded tracks. 

Okay, I don’t really know what any of that has to do with Dionne Warwick’s worthiness for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (except that the writer(s) may have had a nagging suspicion they had somehow failed to clinch the case with their previous points of emphasis). But I think what it basically means is that they believe “That’s What Friends Are For,” godawful even by the standards of “cause-minded tracks,” is greater than this…

…one of the greatest records–and greatest vocals–ever waxed.

Cause enough, all by itself, for this…

The Thirteenth Maxim: Learn English so that thou wilt not make thy reader’s teeth grind and, in true non sequitur fashion, bring about the End of Days!.

MEET THE NEW ATTICUS, ALMOST THE SAME AS THE OLD ATTICUS…UNLESS IT’S THE OTHER WAY AROUND (WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS BUT WILL NEVER GET, DUTIFULLY UPDATED)

WATCHMAN1

The initial cycle of anticipation-publication-reaction to Harper Lee’s long lost first novel Go Set a Watchman now being effectively completed, we can safely take stock of what we know about the three nagging questions surrounding its release.

The first is whether Lee, now in her late eighties, more or less inaccessible to the public for half a century, long ensconced in an assisted living facility and, for the first time in her career, without the oversight of her longtime literary executor and recently deceased older sister, was in any position to properly approve the book’s release.

The answer to that one is likely to remain elusive, in part because the other two questions–is the book worth reading and is it any good (given the unique circumstances, these two questions are, for once, not the same)–don’t have clear answers either.

Despite the awkward patches one would expect from an unedited draft by a young, first-time novelist with no previous publishing history (having now read the book, I don’t find any reason to question the public story of its provenance, though mysteries will likely remain about the separate legal and ethical questions surrounding its sudden “rediscovery”), it is also what one would expect from Harper Lee, even as she seems, more than ever, to exist separate and apart from Atticus and Scout Finch.

And what should we expect?

Well, a skilled, though yet unpolished, popular novelist, who had rejected modernism but was quite aware she couldn’t write like her pre-modern heroes (Austen, Twain and Hawthorne, whose “Young Goodman Brown” Lee likely plumbed for Watchman‘s structure and overall tone, though how consciously we’ll never know) and expect to be published in the 1950s.

To wit (and purely at open-to-a-page-and-point random):

Alexandra’s voice cut through her ruminations: “Jean Louise, did you come down on the train Like That?”

Caught offside, it took a moment for her to ascertain what her aunt meant by Like That.

Bang, bang. Crisp as you please. Maybe not so original now, when we have seven thousand young-woman-goes-home-and-deals-with-the-changes-in-herself-and-others novels and scripts floating around. But not bad for the fifties.

And, besides, that’s four sentences and two jokes in Twain, a full paragraph in Austen and half-a-page in Hawthorne, with a strong likelihood that nothing would be as nicely judged as that “offside” for a girl brought up in the region where football is a religion.

It’s also everything you need to know about Aunt Alexandra and her relationship to Jean Louise Finch.

There’s plenty of that throughout the book. Certainly enough to keep the pages nicely turning if the pleasures of literary economy are on your smile list.

Not surprisingly, there are also a fair share of passages that are nowhere near as succinct or as good, especially toward the end, when the homilies Lee would later be criticized for in TKAM itself, fall thick and heavy, more like bludgeons than To Kill a Mockingbird‘s gentle life lessons.

That said, there’s nothing standing between this and a really first rate novel that a good editor couldn’t have fixed.

Even as it stands, it’s perfectly respectable.

It’s as good or better than, for instance, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or Watch and Ward or This Side of Paradise, to name the first published novels of three men, Twain, Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald, rightly considered masters of English prose, all of whom presumably had the benefit of an editor (and all of whom, like Lee herself, lest we forget, went on to much greater things).

I haven’t read Hawthorne’s first novel, Fanshawe, but since he later made a serious effort to have every existing copy burned (he missed one, which is why we still have it), it’s probably safe to assume it wasn’t a masterwork either.

There are also plenty of first novels that are better than Watchman, some considerably better. But, on the whole, taken even as a rough draft, it falls somewhere in the middle of the pack.

Which leads to the one question I’ve found really interesting in all this.

What does Watchman tell us about the career Lee might have had, if Mockingbird‘s other-worldly success hadn’t set off a chain reaction so fierce it finally burned off her previously considerable ambition?

It’s all speculation, but I think we can make some logical assumptions:

Assume TKAM had been a strong but not iconic bestseller.

Assume that a movie was made but managed to cut no deeper than the perfectly fine version of All the King’s Men based on Robert Penn Warren’s novel (which won an Oscar for Broderick Crawford as Mockingbird did for Gregory Peck but otherwise left no mark).

Assume that Harper Lee’s spirit survived the visits to Death Row at the Kansas State Penitentiary. (That’s my own best, entirely unproveable theory for why both Lee and Truman Capote shut down for good. If you think it’s far-fetched, try imagining Jane Austen, just after she wrote Sense and Sensibility, deciding to spend long hours in gaol, confronting the perpetrators of a shocking, grisly murder. Then ask yourself if we’d have all those other fine novels had she done so? Food for thought, perhaps. Especially if, like me, you spent a few minutes here and there in the politest part of some prison yards with your missionary father and so know just a tiny bit about what the air is like in there.)

Assume Harper Lee could then have gone on writing and publishing, having some sort of normal career.

Then what?

I think it’s likely she would have fallen in with the Sane Southerners (Eudora Welty, her friend Horton Foote, perhaps the Agrarians) and been at literary, if not personal, odds with the Crazies (Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Capote himself, with whom she did eventaully fall out ….If you’re wondering about Faulkner, he straddled both camps, which is one of the reasons he’s Faulkner).

Given that Lee’s wit was as sharp and caustic as any of the rest, we’d have certainly had more gossip and an additional literary feud or two.

We probably would have had a series of well-written novels that gave us some nice insight into the life and times of Southern Alabama mid-century and later.

We would also have been certainly quite a different country, one that didn’t need To Kill a Mockingbird quite the way we do.

Since we’re the country we are, as opposed to the one most sane people wish we were, I’m just as glad things worked out the way they did.

The one thing that would have been missing from Go Set a Watchman if it had been published in its own time in anything like its present form, is a sense of why Jean Louise Finch, so cruelly betrayed here, felt as strongly about her past and her home–not just Atticus–as she did.

When Harper Lee’s editor suggested she explore Jean Louise’s autobiographical childhood flashbacks, I suspect that was really the question she was after answering.

If it wasn’t her question, it pretty obviously became Lee’s by some other means during the writing of TKAM.

Because for all the scant attention paid it in the current sturm und drang, the salient fact is that Watchman was written first.

To Kill a Mockingbird was an attempt to reconcile the Atticus and the Maycomb that Scout Finch/Harper Lee remembered from  her childhood with the air of fear and loathing that dominated the 1950s. Not the other way around.

I’m sure at least some reviewers have made this point. I’ve only read twenty or so and that’s a drop in the bucket. But I think I’ve read enough to say it hasn’t exactly been a common theme. Even those who insist, fairly enough, that the Atticus of Watchman is a logical extension of the Atticus of Mockingbird, don’t seem to quite grasp that the Atticus of Watchman is the one Harper Lee wrote about first.

For the shock Jean Louise feels at being Young Goodman Brown-ed in her own Alabama town to really register, you have to know that other, earlier Atticus.

Whatever its literary merits or lack thereof, Watchman is valuable at least this far: It clarifies that Atticus was/is a man of conscience. Not a saint or a Christ figure.

That, oddly enough, was the kind of English Major symbolism Lee left to the Crazies who are now beloved by the people they set out to please.

Yes, the Atticus Finch of Watchman is a segregationist. The scenes where Jean Louise actually confronts him on this aren’t handled particularly well, either as to placement in the plot (too late in the action) or exposition (way too talky and, dare I say, legalistic, even for a lawyer and his daughter). But, as the foundation, not extension, of Atticus Finch’s character, they’re neither contradictory, as some have claimed, nor perfectly consistent, as the usual suspects among the Sub-Texters insist.

As drama, the scenes don’t work very well. As exposition, they’re overwrought.

As an insight into how polite white southern families attempted to deal with the issue of the century among themselves and the impact such attempts were likely to have in the communities they were trying to preserve at all costs, they’re right enough.

There is nothing about the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird that says he would have let go of his world easily. Whatever else Harper Lee made of that fictional character based on her father, and the town where he raised both her fictional stand-in and herself, she didn’t play them false.

And, despite a hundred crit-illuminati claims to the contrary, she didn’t take the easy way out.

If Watchman does nothing else, it at least makes what should have been obvious all along, clearer still.

Not that I expect everyone to finally get it.

Too much of a leap after all. Atticus Finch has been an Official Liberal Hero for half a century. Gregory Peck played him in a movie for God’s Sake.

Let’s just all hope that the rumored third manuscript doesn’t contain the scenes where Atticus, who, in Watchman, holds the exact position on segregation in the mid-fifties that Lyndon Johnson did, explains to Scout why he’s changed his mind ten years later.

You know.

Like that too cussedly inconsistent and imperfect for fiction character Lyndon Johnson actually did.

Damn Southerners.

You can’t tell what they’ll do.

HARPERLEE3

 

STIRRING THE POT ONE LAST TIME (WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS…BUT WILL NEVER GET)

MOCKINGBIRD5

(Mary Badham and Harper Lee on the set of To Kill a Mockingbird)

I’ve been reading To Kill A Mockingbird for forty years and tracking lit-crit theory on it for thirty. I’ve read volumes of praise and damnation in about equal measure. I’ve read what is likely to be Lee’s definitive biography (by Charles Shields and quite good). I’ve seen the movie ten or twelve times, most recently a couple of weeks back in Birmingham’s restored movie palace, the Alabama Theater, with an enthusiastic full house on Father’s Day.

I’ve read reams of speculation about Lee’s personal life, numerous theories on why the book is so popular and its author so reticent, seen the relevant documentaries about book, film and Lee herself.

I’ve read an awful lot about why she never published again (until this week, of course), including her own theories, which were mostly what you’d expect (pressure of expectations, nowhere to go but down, etc.) and mostly interesting because, even coming from her, they were clearly never more than theories.

One thing I’ve never read is anything remotely intelligent about the book itself.

That lack of intelligence–the willingness to let emotion rule every single mindset, for or against, over half a century, bridging every conceivable cultural or political divide–is par for the course when an enormously popular, era-defining book touches the Race Nerve.

If you can’t explain it, put gauze on it. Kick the can down the road. That’s the American way.

It happened with Uncle Tom’s Cabin (better to fight one of history’s bloodiest wars than get at the root of the problem). It happened with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (which was finally bound to be turned into a tract for Good-Liberals-Who-Love-Them-Some-Negroes-and-Rednecks, no matter how many times Huck sold Jim down the river). It happened with Gone With the Wind (an insider’s thorough damnation of Confederate folly which naturally became the lasting touchstone for Lost Cause nostalgia).

And it happened, most intensely of all, with To Kill a Mockingbird, a warning shot across the bow of the then-ascending Civil Rights movement. That movement crested with a series of legal victories that had begun with Brown vs. Board of Education, several years before Lee took an editor’s advice/command to heart and started revising the book now being released (Go Set a Watchman), and would end with Lyndon Johnson signing a Voting Rights Act and a Civil Rights Act which, between them, amounted to the Federal Government’s century-in-coming solemn promise to finally start enforcing the Fourteenth Amendment.

It’s a measure of both our collective reading comprehension and how little we expect of ourselves that Atticus Finch came to be regarded (by worshippers and skeptics alike) as “saintly.” Evidently, the mere presence of a conscience is enough to give a man such qualities, because the Atticus of the book certainly possesses no others that could be called extraordinary and, despite some previous reservations, after having finally seen the movie the way it was meant to be seen, I have to say, neither does Gregory Peck’s film Atticus.

It’s true that Peck’s Atticus is loftier than Lee’s original conception. He’s Gregory Peck. How could he not be? But the nuance he brought to the role is a lot more evident when his face is writ larger than life. Make him thirty feet tall and the human element emerges. The movie is, in every respect then, excellent. There’s a reason I’ve watched it a lot. A reason I was willing to drive five hours to finally see it the right way.

But the movie still misses the book’s essence. Narratively, it doesn’t change anything vital, but, in pursuing a necessarily streamlined narrative, it does leave something else out.

What it leaves out was defined in another context before the sixties were done.

What it leaves out are hearts and minds.

It’s hard to change the law, Harper Lee essentially said, over and over, as she gave matchless dimension to the small town Alabama she meant, in her own words, “to be the Jane Austen of.”

It’s a lot harder to change people.

That message went missing from fifty years of snark and praise.

It’s still missing.

Fifty million people read her “children’s book.” A few hundred literati took occasion, year by year, to sneer at it for its “obviousness” and simple-mindedness.

But I keep wondering.

If it was all so obvious and all so simple, how was it we failed so thoroughly to look under its New Testament message and heed its Old Testament warning?

I have no idea whether an aging, infirm Harper Lee knew what she was about when she approved the release of Go Set a Watchman (with what all the folks who misread the first novel for half a century are assuring us is a very different Atticus). I ordered the book today so I’ll find out soon enough whether it’s worth writing about.

But whatever its worth is, it won’t change the long-misidentified import of Mockingbird itself.

Fifty years ago, Harper Lee had a better handle on the future than any of her celebrated southern colleagues who have Library of America volumes dedicated to them.

Despite the disappointment she later expressed over the failure of the Civil Rights era to finally do much more than put yet another band aid on America’s festering wound, (a failure some of her friends have speculated was perhaps another reason for her writer’s block), she wasn’t really Atticus, looking up from his paper for a moment and wondering aloud if maybe some day we’d get it right, if maybe the trial he’d lost was a small stepping stone in the right direction.

She knew better.

She knew Atticus hadn’t changed a thing.

Then, of course, she had an advantage. Believe it or not, the writer always does.

She already knew the Atticus of Go Set a Watchman, a fact that seems to have been lost in the “what’s-this-now!” hornet’s nest the book’s fifty-something-years-in-coming release has now stirred up as we sit and watch some more cities burn.

And which kind of hornet’s nest might that be?

Oh, you know.

The kind the chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking, church-going Methodist lady from Monroeville always did such a fine job of avoiding herself.

What else are you gonna do, when you’re surrounded by the very fools who set the world on fire just so they could watch it burn?

HARPERLEE1

…Okay, I better quit now. Before I get all emotional.

WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS (Twelfth Maxim)

So this week I got kicked in the head by what I can now say was a far-too-long-in-coming re-visit with John Sayles’ 1983 film Baby It’s You. I’ll be writing in depth about it as soon as I get my new computer updated with the software I need for providing my own screen caps. (UPDATE: I eventually wrote about it here, sans caps.)

Meantime I went looking around the internet for any thoughts that others might have had about the film in general and Rosanna Arquette’s remarkable performance in particular and found this little gem (which isn’t about Baby It’s You but that’s how things go when the old net-surfing impulse kicks in):

“Ellison’s shots of Rosanna Arquette (taken before, to use Greil Marcus’ phrase, “the black hole of ‘Desperately Seeking Susan,’ ” that numbskull movie that effectively ended her career)”

(Charles Taylor: “Way Back When” March 15, 2002, Salon.com)

And yes, Greil Marcus (who lavishly praised Baby It’s You), did say that about Desperately Seeking Susan (which came out two years later).

And he did sort of mean that it killed his idea of what Rosanna Arquette’s career should have been.

But what about her actual career? The one to which Taylor makes it really clear he’s referring?

Well….

I saw Desperately Seeking Susan when it came out in the theaters in 1985. I remember moderately enjoying it, though not so much I’ve gotten around to seeing it again. I remember that Pauline Kael took a strong dislike to it…and that she was a generally reliable barometer of what the intelligentsia felt comfortable smacking down in those days.

None of which matters a whit to how and why Taylor could feel comfortable saying that particular movie “effectively ended” Arquette’s career.

What’s interesting is his definition of career. That is, his particular abuse of the language, rote and familiar as it may be.

Because what he means is: “Before Desperately Seeking Susan, Rosanna Arquette was somebody me and my fellow members of the crit-illuminati considered worthy of our attention. And after Desperately Seeking Susan, this was no longer the case.” (2nd UPDATE: Which is probably how so many people missed what happened here.)

In a way Taylor was just being more honest than Marcus. Letting the cat out of the bag so to speak by giving the illuminati’s starkest warning.

Don’t let us down!

Else we’ll write you and your silly “career” (actually one of the busiest of her generation and hardly without subsequent high points–a fair number, even, considering how few opportunities to do something more than stay busy Hollywood has offered to any actress in the last forty years) out of history.

I mean this must be what Taylor meant….because otherwise we’d have to assume Desperately Seeking Susan, a big hit that won Arquette a BAFTA and, well, put her on the cover of Rolling Stone, killed her career. You know…”effectively.”

desperately_seeking_susan6

So let’s ask the Charles Taylors of the world to think a little less of the joys of sweatily embracing Stalin-esque memory dumps that others have merely hinted at and a little more of themselves.

And, yes, let’s lay down the Twelfth Maxim:

Bootstrappers beware!

(NOTE: You can link to Taylor’s full piece, about a book of photos by Nancy Ellison, here. And speaking of “sweatily,” I decided to stay classy and not get into the creepy part about Arquette’s “lovely breasts” and “wide, generous mouth.” That seems beyond the scope of our strictly spiritual and intellectual pursuits here, though it does lead one to wonder if, in being written out of her own history, Arquette has merely joined many another comely female in paying a high price for being the intense object of some future critic’s inevitably frustrated college dorm fantasies.)

Happy Easter ya’ll.

WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS (Notes on Narrative in True Grit and the Breathlessly Awaited Eleventh Maxim!)

[NOTE: This is an update of a piece I roughed out for my own amusement back when the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit reached theaters in 2010. I love both film versions and think the novel is a masterpiece. But, for the sake of this piece, that’s actually neither here nor there…I was more fascinated by two other, not entirely unrelated elements. First, the Coens’ ability to hoodwink the media in much the same fashion that politicians do, namely by relying on a mindset that is both lazy and servile. Second, by just how hard true narrative is to really master….Since it fits some themes I frequently visit here, I finally got around to putting it in shape….Well, good enough for a blog post anyway!]

First….True Grit, in whatever form, is Mattie Ross’ story. so here she is, saying her piece in three voices:

First voice:

TRUEGRITCOVER

“He (Rooster Cogburn) directed LaBoeuf to take his horse and find a position up on the north slope about midway along one stroke of the V, and explained that he would take up a corresponding position on the south slope. Nothing was said about me with regard to the plan and I elected to stay with Rooster.”–from Charles Portis’ novel, True Grit.

Second voice:

truegritdarby1

“I go where Rooster goes.”–Kim Darby, from the 1969 film version.

Third voice:

True_Grit_steinfeld2

“I picked the wrong man.”–Hailee Steinfeld, from the 2010 film version (choosing LaBoeuf over Cogburn).

That is, she picked this guy:

TRUE GRIT

Over this guy:

TRUEGRITBRIDGES3

Not for a date mind you, but to kill the bad men.

As Hailee Steinfeld’s folks might say: Oy vey.

And so, with all that in mind for starters…a little rumination:

It’s a testimony to just how great a character Mattie Ross is, and how many valid interpretations she might be able to bear, that the choice Hailee Steinfeld’s “Third Voice” Mattie makes in the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit does not sink their very fine film.

By all rights it should.

Having already violated the impeccable narrative structure of their source considerably by, among other things, having Matt Damon’s LaBoeuf leave the scene once (to be brought back by some not overly reasonable coincidence), the Coens have him not only leave it a second time (for no better reasons and to be brought back under a circumstance that is, if anything, even less likely than the first), but leave it with Mattie begging to be taken along!

That’s about as far from “I elected to stay with Rooster,” or “I go where Rooster goes,” as anyone can get.

Naturally, the chorus of those who insisted the Coens were “truer” to the book, in form, spirit or both, was loud and long–not merely an echo of what the Coens’ themselves had been very publicly insisting ever since it got about they were re-making True Grit, but, by the time the film was released, a rising crescendo.

The most egregious example of that crescendo was probably Dana Stevens at Slate.com, who, a whole day after admitting in one of the website’s podcasts that she had never read the book or seen the original film, blithely wrote:

“…this version of True Grit hews more closely to the cult novel by Charles Portis than the 1969 adaptation starring John Wayne.”

Granting that anyone who uses the word “cult” to describe a million-copy bestseller (which has subsequently inspired two major hit movies, one of which merely won that obscure cult figure, Mr. Wayne, an Oscar, plus a sequel and a network television movie, all before becoming a #1 New York Times bestseller again upon the release of the second movie) probably cannot be considered an intellectual titan, there’s no reason to pick on Stevens.

Allen Barra (writing for the Daily Beast), after noting how “surprising” it was that so few reviewers actually knew Portis’ novel, then gave an example of how closely the Coen brothers had stuck to the source:

“The Coens’ script preserves the thumbnail description of the marshals available to her:

‘The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear does not enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now L.T. Quinn, he brings in his prisoners alive….Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best that they have.’

‘Where,’ Mattie wants to know, ‘can I find this Rooster?’”

Well, actually, the description of Cogburn, and Mattie’s response, were preserved in the Coens’ version. But the description of Quinn is considerably altered…enough that it deflates the clear punch of Portis’ prose, a mistake the original film never made once and which the Coens made, if not frequently, then at least far more than they needed to.

Incidentally Barra, having declared himself a fan of both Portis and this newer version of the film, is no fan of the original, which he describes as “sloppily made.”

Detailing the sloppiness of Barra’s own review would require a small essay of it’s own (that described above is the least of it), but at least he’s not Tom Shone.

Shone, a former film critic of the London Sunday Times who did not have a paid outlet at the time, but perhaps merely wanted to give Dana Stevens a full run for her money, wrote about the film on his website. He complained of a “plot robbed of forward thrust by fidelity to the meandering byways of Portis’ plot (is there a limit to the number of times Le Boeuf can change his mind about whether he wants to be with the other two or not?)”

Gee, if he had left out the specifics of his complaint, I might have been able to conclude he had actually read the novel and just wasn’t very perceptive.

But, no, he needed to go the last mile and prove himself something worse (because, of course, the “meandering” to which he so disapprovingly refers is all the Coens and none of Portis).

If only I could believe that the Sunday Times had sacked him for such.

As it is, I’m stuck leaving my faith in human virtue to the side yet again and am thrown back on purely philosophical questions such as whether Mattie Ross would have any more truck with me than with thee?

See, I’ve never been too sure.

My first acquaintance with Mattie was in the first film. I saw some piece of it on television some time in the vaguely remembered seventies. My viewing was in black and white, on a 19-inch rolling screen (there used to be a thing called vertical hold, children, and in your poorer households, it did not always “hold”). I remember being struck by how little Mattie, and the actress playing her, cared for whether she was liked.

In fact, I’m pretty sure I had never encountered anyone in life or (discounting villains) the movies, who cared so little.

Brave choice by Ms. Darby and she’s still paying the price.

John Wayne, thankfully, will always have defenders, and so opinion was fairly evenly divided among reviewers. the blogosphere and the general public, as to the worth of his performance as Rooster Cogburn. But in the wake of the Coens’ version, I didn’t find a single mainstream defender of Darby (who was instead retrospectively slagged and slandered for being “perky,” “adorable” and “crush-worthy,” not to mention far too old to be playing a fourteen-year-old and a pain in Henry Hathaway’s neck).

As I’ve written elsewhere, I rate Darby’s performance in the original True Grit as the second best ever given by a woman in a western (just behind Vera Miles in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance…don’t worry she never got the credit she deserved either).

You don’t have to agree with me or even think Darby was any good at all to attend further. Such things are purely subjective. But If you found her “adorable,” please check yourself into some government facility. I’m depressed enough as it is. I don’t need to see my tax dollars being further wasted not helping you.

There’s no such thing as an “adorable” Mattie and no such thing as an intelligent actress, writer or director who would ever want to see her portrayed that way. Whatever one thinks about the people playing those various roles in the versions of True Grit that now exist for the world’s perusal, none of them were or are stupid.

And that gets to the heart of what’s really, really good (I’d even say great) about the newer version…and also what’s rather problematic about it.

It gives us not only a Rooster Cogburn who is vastly different than the original film (but still perfectly valid in terms of the novel’s structure and themes), but a vastly different Mattie.

These differences have been variously noted–Cogburn more than Mattie, if only because John Wayne cannot be readily dismissed even by a brain-dead intelligentsia (which I believe I have fairly represented above). But because no one took Darby seriously, the only thing that has been left to say about Steinfeld is that (take breathless pause here) she really is the age Mattie is recalling in the novel (narrated from old age), and she’s not Kim Darby.

Bad luck her, I thought after seeing the ubiquitous trailer in the months leading up the Coen version’s release.

But you know what? Breathless reviews aside, Steinfeld’s Mattie quickly won me over and she did it the only way (given my history with both the book and the earlier film) she could have.

That’s by giving a performance that ranks high on the list of women in westerns all by itself (just off-hand, I’d say top ten and pushing for a spot in that top five I listed).

This is perhaps even more than usually impressive because she’s got so much working against her at the start.

She might have been thirteen (only a year younger than the Mattie of the novel’s principal action and eight years younger than Darby had been, though it should be noted Darby was not really playing fourteen but probably more like sixteen or seventeen, an age for which she was more than credible and which, unlike having LaBoeuf ride off a couple of times for no good reason, does no damage to the story), but she was also a lot of other things.

truegritdarbysteinfeld

(Kim Darby and Hailee Steinfeld)

First off, tall (5’8″ according to the publicity at the time and you can believe it when she stands next to the sheriff Barra refers to above and I can’t be the only one who found myself thinking she could take him three falls out of five) where Mattie was short (“no bigger than a corn nubbin” according to Rooster in all versions including, rather incongruously, this one).

Also drop-dead gorgeous where Mattie was plain (in the book) or at least not gorgeous (in Darby’s case);

Not to mention an arrow-straight force of nature with no hint of sorrow touching her face outside one very brief (and well-played) scene when she is given her murdered father’s possessions, and no feminine quaver touching her voice (Darby made quietly and deeply effective use of both).

And, oh yeah, Steinfeld was in a Coen brothers movie and not just any Coen brothers movie but one where they’ve made a reach for the brass ring and invested themselves emotionally and narratively to a very high degree.

Somehow, Steinfeld–and, to be fair, the Coens as well–made all that work for the character.

I never quite bought the Coens’ repeated story (always couched as supremely ironic serendipity) that they scoured the country in general and the south in particular and, at the last possible moment, miraculously found the one girl in America who could, in their oft-repeated phrase, “handle the language.” Let’s just say I’m not surprised that when two Jewish guys from Minnesota who have spent most of their adult lives making movies decided to re-invent Mattie Ross, they searched the world over and finally settled for a tall, gorgeous, Jewish kid from the movie capital of the world.

And nothing wrong with that by the way.

As I say, Steinfeld really is all that. Nothing much resembling Charles Portis’ Mattie Ross, maybe, but the sort of humdinger who makes it very easy to think she could have got the job done her own way had she by chance been set down in Fort Smith in the 1870s!

The Coens deserve credit for more than a slick marketing campaign, though. They made a relatively complex narrative film (brave enough) and, for once, laid their own joke-ridden quasi-nihilism largely to one side (all but unheard of for anyone as invested in po-mo cynicism as they are).

Of course, such things take practice and whenever they left Portis to one side and struck out on their own, they tended to get lost.

Steinfeld’s Mattie, for instance, is an accomplished rider and horse-trader, but is strangely ignorant of a pony’s eating habits. Having been told by a young hand who is as confused by her ignorance as the viewer might be, that a horse likes apples (who knew!), she steals a supply of them from a bowl at the boarding house where she is staying (an action Portis’ Mattie would never contemplate and the Coens’ Mattie, still capable of telling Rooster, “It’s all stealing” in a later scene, is not sufficiently re-imagined to accommodate).

These are small things but they demonstrate how easy it is to lose track of narrative essence if you don’t have the requisite habits of mind and are rather accustomed to using bits of business and cheap “irony” for connective tissue instead of meaningful human behavior.

Even more problematic, the Coens’ needless departures from Portis’ structure, are not fully fleshed out. Hence we have Mattie, not LaBoeuf, questioning Rooster Cogburn’s morals when he announces his intention to shoot one of Ned Pepper’s gang in the back. And Rooster putting Mattie, not LaBoeuf, in danger when they encounter their first bandits (something Portis’ Rooster would never have done). The reason Mattie has to behave thusly, against her own grain, is that the Coens’ re-imagined story has LaBoeuf elsewhere. Unfortunately, for all the changes they’ve rung in Mattie’s character, there’s nothing to indicate their Mattie would be likely to have a moral–as opposed to practical–qualm as to whether vicious outlaws were shot in the back or that their Rooster would put Mattie in unnecessary danger (at least not while he’s sober).

Again, these are small things, but annoying because needless–and probably a mistake the Coens could have avoided reflexively by this point in their careers if they had spent the last twenty-five years making films worthy of their considerable talents instead of the modestly amusing (or modestly disturbing) time-killers which they have chosen to produce instead.

But I digress. If you can either ignore these sort of things or leave them to one side–and I confess I saw the movie five times in the theater and have seen it at least as many more on DVD, so yes, I have to admit it is certainly possible–this is at least within shouting distance of being a great western and the most worthy addition to the form’s screen-canon since the original Lonesome Dove miniseries (which in turn was the most worthy addition since 1962, the year of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Ride the High Country, though there were certainly some good ones in between).

I don’t think it rates quite as high as those landmarks but that’s no shame. John Ford was film’s greatest narrative master and Valance was the decades-long culmination of habits the Coens were trying out for the first time. Ride the High Country was one of the few times Peckinpah would ever keep things simple enough to make an emotionally complicated film that didn’t actually require a more than basic narrative. So coming only a little short of those marks still ranks as a fine achievement.

As impressive as their actual film was, though, it could never hold a candle to the Coens ability to control the other narrative….the narrative the intelligentsia (such as it is) would be bound to accept and perpetuate unless they wanted to go completely off-script and do something besides carry water for the cool people.

Fat chance, that. Hence, the one thing the Coens most assuredly didn’t do–stay true to the book–was bound to be the thing they most consistently got credit for doing.

Just like they planned it.

And, maybe not surprisingly, the next time I caught up with them they were doing this. Nothing to do with developing any more complex narrative then, and small wonder.

So for an Eleventh Maxim, I suggest borrowing a simple rule from politics (one which we mere citizens need not cast aside in our quest to understand either politics or art merely because virtually all political “journalists” do), and suggest to critics that they resist their own worst instincts and insist on treating artists thus:

Never listen to what they say. Only watch what they do!

 

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:

WHAT IS ART?…OH, THAT AGAIN (Why I Still Need Rock and Roll: Lesson #12)

Terry Teachout had a piece a couple of weeks back, basically lamenting the state of the Kennedy Center honors and the falling standards at the Library of America. The full piece is behind a firewall, but the part I’m getting ready to complain about is here.

So it’s the barbarians at the gate again. Well-l-l-l…

I’m for standards, too. But I think their maintenance is a lot trickier than Terry lets on here (at least in this part I have access to, which does seem to correlate with other things he’s written…I”ll leave aside the time he specifically complained about the Kennedy Center not putting in enough country singers, because I took it for granted he was just scoring ideological points).

I’m reading the Elmore Leonard volume for review now, so I’ll wait a while to say a word about the Library of America’s choices for inclusion.

As to the Kennedy Center:

Well, I love this:

And, I really love this:

But they aren’t better, or “higher” than this….because nothing is:

If honoring Sting, say, (or Tom Hanks, or Lily Tomlin, who’s worthy anyway) is the price for making sure the tent is big enough for Al Green, then so be it.