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:


“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:


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

Third voice:


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

That is, she picked this guy:


Over this guy:


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.


(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!



“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.


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.



I’m still debating whether to do a full review of Greil Marcus’ latest, which I posted about here. If/when I do, I’ll doubtless be speaking yet again of the good and the bad.

For the good….

The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in Ten Songs has a lot of the best sustained writing Marcus has done in years. The piece on Buddy Holly and the Beatles ranks with his best ever. The essay on “Money/Money Changes Everything” had me hearing new things in Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual after years of obsessive listening (and deepening my long-held conviction that it was the finest album released in the eighties and likely the greatest debut released by a solo artist in the rock and roll era). It turned me on to John Kaye’s The Dead Circus, which is the most fun I’ve had reading a modern novel in I don’t know how long.

He even admitted to now knowing Marge Ganser was long dead when he and Robert Christgau slandered her a few years back (see the link above) in the notes for a fine essay on Amy Winehouse and the Shangri-Las.

Then, for the rest….

Following up on my George Goldner post, there’s this:

“There would have been no rock & roll without him,” Phil Spector said when Goldner died, in 1970. Just months before, Goldner told the Rolling Stone writer Langdon Winner the story of how he got Arlene Smith, the seventeen-year-old lead singer of the Bronx quintet the Chantels, to do what she did–to go into the depths of doo-wop ballads like a maiden sacrificing herself to volcano gods. Winner had published a retrospective review of The Chantels, issued on Goldner’s End label in 1958, raving about Arlene Smith: “What’s so great about her voice? Well, to be frank, it starts where all the other voices in rock stop…When she reaches for a high note she just keeps going. There is never a hint of strain. Nothing drops out. Her tone expands in breadth to match the requirements of high pitch…Like a three-thousand dollar stereo system playing Beethoven’s Ninth, the highs, lows and mid range extend into infinity.”

“Shortly after the review appeared,” Winner wrote me in 2013, “I received a telephone call from George Goldner, legendary New York City record producer and businessman who’d recorded a number of early R&B, doo-wop and rock groups including the Chantels. He said he was coming to San Francisco on business and invited me to dinner. During a two-hour conversation, Goldner told a number of marvelous stories about Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Crows, the Flamingos, and other groups he’d produced over the years. It was clear that he was happy to be getting some notice in the pages of Rolling Stone and wanted to make sure he was receiving sufficient credit for his contributions to rock and roll. At one point, for example, he proudly explained that the ‘boy’ celebrated in the Ad Libs 1965 hit ‘The Boy from New York City’ was actually he himself.

“Eventually,” Winner went on, “I asked Goldner about the extraordinary intensity in Arlene Smith’s vocals. ‘Obviously, she has great natural ability and control of her voice,’ I said. ‘But she sings in a way that often seems right on the brink of emotional break down. Where did that come from?’ ‘You see,’ he said, ‘the Chantels were always very well prepared and sang beautifully. The first take of any of their songs was usually just about perfect. But I realized what a phenomenal talent Arlene Smith was. I wanted to push her to reach for something more. My strategy was to record two or three takes of a song and then storm out of the booth and start ranting. “This is horrible! Your singing today is lifeless, sloppy. Haven’t you been rehearsing? We’re just wasting our time here! What the hell’s the matter with you?” I’d look Arlene right in the eye and yell at her until she was nearly in tears, and then finally say, “OK, I give up. Let’s try it again.” The next cut was always the one I was looking for. The edge you hear in her voice, the tone of desperation approaching hysteria is what I was trying to pull out of her. And sometimes I succeeded.”

Marcus seems to swallow this version of events whole and–to some extent at least–view it with some approval.

That Arlene Smith herself might have a different view (as evinced in the link I provided in my last post, which has an hour-long interview with her from 2009 where, among other things, she goes to some lengths to stress that, while Goldner was sometimes present at her sessions, Richard Barrett discovered her, actually ran the sessions and approved final takes), seems to have never occurred to either Marcus or Langdon Winner.

Later in the book, Marcus says that Shadow Morton’s later history with the Shangri-Las sounds srikingly similar:

In the obituary (Morton’s) “Yeah, Well I Hear He’s Bad…” the journalist David Kamp recalled a conversation with Morton in the 1990s. “He kept talking about ‘the Ba-CAH-di’ that did him in…[He] seemed especially remorseful about his behavior towards Mary Weiss, the striking lead singer of the Shangri-Las; he said the Ba-CAH-di made him do some things to her so terrible that he didn’t want to go into them”–to my mind, the kind of things George Goldner did to Arlene Smith.

If, as seems likely, Goldner was feeding Langdon Winner a lot of hooey in 1970–doing what a lot of record producers (and movie directors) have done when a young woman is involved and transferring most of the credit for any magical results to himself–then, of course, it is not impossible that he patterned his memory after what he observed going on between Morton and Weiss (which Weiss, incidentally, has pushed back on to some degree on other occasions–not so much as to what happened [she did cry in the studio] as to why–personal pain, not harassment).

But what’s key here is that Marcus swallows the narrative he finds most appealing–does not question it or do due diligence in finding out whether this version of the story might be false, or at very least, incomplete. It’s not the first time he’s been guilty of same (I wrote about another instance here). But this time, it’s springing from a mind set that’s uncomfortably close to the one he evinces in the next quote– a sort of dark continuum from Goldner to his most famous protégé, Phil Spector:

Since 2009, when he was convicted of second-degree murder in the 2003 shooting death of the nightclub hostess, unsuccessful actress, and sometime blackface Little Richard impersonator Lana Clarkson at his mansion in Alhambra, California, Phil Spector has been serving nineteen years to life at a division of Corcoran State Prison. Amy Winehouse has been dead since 2011. If you listen to the Teddy Bears’ record now, and ignore what Spector did with the rest of his life, or even what he did in the few years after he made “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” his fate may not seem like such a tragedy. If you listen to Winehouse sing the song, you can hate her for what, as over a few July days she drank herself to death, she withheld from the world.

Now we’ve gone from the dubious to the unconscionable. From swallowing George Goldner’s brag about making Arlene Smith cry (for her own good of course–isn’t it always?), to Lana Clarkson being the cause of a tragedy that belongs not to her, a murder victim, but to her murderer–who wouldn’t have been a tragedy either if he hadn’t made such great records.

And, of course, to “hating” Amy Winehouse, for what “she withheld from the world.”

Bear in mind that this is what passes for serious discourse–and it’s nested rather casually inside writing that actually is serious discourse, like a snake hiding in the garden. The two things become indistinguishable, redolent of a spirit that is searching for some sort of emotional high and doesn’t care where it finds it.

If it can be found in the mystical link between Buddy Holly and the Beatles that’s wonderful.

If it can be found by de facto blaming Lana Clarkson for her own murder, because she was “unsuccessful” and did a bad Little Richard imitation, or hating Amy Winehouse for her suicide, while reserving the word “tragedy” for Phil Spector’s fate….well, evidently, that will do just as well.

All of which leads us, in a rather roundabout way, to the Ninth Maxim:


No, not even if the murderer once lived the rock and roll dream so transcendently that he transformed himself from this…


to this…


And, no, not even if, in the last moment before his genius gave way to his monstrous demons, he was responsible for this:




“My own hope is that it somehow moves the mountain and convinces the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that if it can sacralize de facto one-hit wonder Percy Sledge and the noble yet overrated Stanley fave Del Shannon, perhaps it can conquer its own hidebound chauvinism and make room for the Cure, New Order, and the Pet Shop Boys.”

(Source: “Anti-Rockism’s Hall of Fame” Robert Christgau, BarnesandNobleReview.com, July 24, 2014)

“‘I love to sing a tearjerker,’ he (Sledge) told annotator David Gorman. ‘Like them ol’ country ballads.’ And that sums up this child of nature, who was country not as in Acuff-Rose, but as in going to town means picking up provisions at the general store. Saddled with a classic that transcends soul itself, Mr. Miserable never equaled ‘When a Man Loves a Woman.’ But neither did Mr. Pitiful, whose own songbook could have accommodated half these selections. The reason Otis Redding is an artist while Percy Sledge is a phenomenon is that Redding would have made ‘Out of Left Field’ sound happy, which is how it reads–a trick Sledge couldn’t have conceived with ‘Happy Song.’”

(Source: Robert Christgau “Consumer Guide Reviews,” Village Voice, 1998)

For the purposes of this post, I’m gonna leave Del Shannon and the Cure and New Order and the Pet Shop Boys out of this and concentrate on Robert Christgau and Percy Sledge (with a little bit of Otis Redding thrown in).

The first quote above is from Christgau’s recent, mostly laudatory, review of Yeah, Yeah, Yeah: The Story of Pop Music From Bill Haley to Beyonce (which evidently proffers yet another take on the tired old Rock/Pop argument which has been irrelevant since Elvis backed up “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel” with “Love Me Tender” and spent four months at the top of the “Pop” chart in the summer/fall of 1956 and exploded the whole false paradigm, but, hey, the crit-illuminati are nothing if not persistent).

The second quote is from his review of Rhino’s single-disc The Very Best of Percy Sledge.

I confess I got to the second quote from the first. One nice thing about Christgau is that he’s been so prolific for so long, you can just about bet he’s commented on whatever he’s commenting on now somewhere before, even if–as here–it’s only indirectly.

Which means if you’re of a mind to disagree with him, you can always dig down and find something else to disagree with. (Same for agreement, by the way, but where’s the fun in that?)

What got me fired up in the first quote was the abuse of language–which isn’t nearly as routine for Christgau as it is for most critics who write way too much.

Sorry, but there’s no such thing a “de facto” hit. Hence there is no such thing as a “defacto one-hit wonder.” I mean, a record is either a hit or it’s not. And the artist who has it has either had more than one or he hasn’t.

Percy Sledge had more than one hit.

If white oldies’ stations and rock critics’ memories can’t accommodate anything beyond “When a Man Loves a Woman,” that’s their loss.

But, however many hits Sledge had (14 in the Hot 100 and 4 in the top twenty–if you want to know how impressive that last number was for a southern soul singer, consider that Otis Redding himself only reached the top twenty once and that was posthumously) calling him a one-hit wonder (de facto or otherwise) isn’t nearly as nonsensical or far afield as insisting he’s not an artist.

Because you can come short of Otis Redding–which I’m not even sure Percy Sledge does–and still be that.

Percy’s problem–which I know is a problem because this is hardly the first time he’s been one of the first names mentioned when someone wants to run down the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for being “hidebound” in its unwillingness to induct yet another group of white boy “faves” (the fundamental wrongheadedness of which I discussed at length here)–was that he traded in subtlety and specialized in ballad singing.

These are not qualities that tend to get you admired at the top of the critical food chain, where the demand for novelty is forever outstripping the supply, not to mention all other artistic virtues.

Here below, we’ve all got our own definitions of what makes an “artist.” The biggest part of mine is this: An artist should have a vision of the world that’s worth living up to.

On the fourth disc of Rhino’s Percy Sledge: The Atlantic Recordings, a distance at which plenty of great artists start showing some real strain, there’s a run that includes Percy’s covers of Dolly Parton (another artist who could tell you how falsely conceived that neat distinction between “Acuff-Rose” and “picking up provisions at the general store” really is), Gordon Lightfoot, Swammp Dogg and the O’Jays. He adds a little something at each stop along the Countrypolitan/Canadian Folk/Wild-Ass Soul/Philly International journey–and coaxes them all into a singular world-view that, if you decide to listen close, can’t be mistaken for anyone else’s.

Sounds like an “artist” to me.

And, lest that be considered some kind of fluke, the next batch of songs are from a live show that has him out-stomping Eddie Floyd on “Knock On Wood” and out-crooning the mighty Fleetwods on “Come Softly to Me.”

In Johannesburg.

In 1970.

In Johannesburg, they got the message.

I can’t help wondering if the world might be a better place today had the rest of us done the same.

And that leads me to Maxim #8:

“Never look down when you really should be looking up.”

And here’s Percy, being all visionary….owning Buffalo Springfield in a style Acuff and Rose would have very much approved if he had been another color, and looking forward to the day when “corner store” types–who hadn’t been as worried about his skin color as some might have hoped–would welcome him with open arms on the oldies’ circuit:



No maxim–just an excuse to rub my hands and cackle with life-affirming glee!

I guess it’s one of human nature’s moderately perverse traits: The satisfaction to be had from finding a perfect example of a pet peeve. (My just-found example of this one can be read here, if you have sufficient patience.)

One of my very major pet peeves happens to be book reviewers who insert their own opinions about the subject of a book in place of what they are presumably being paid for, which is their opinion of the book itself. (This happens a lot with biographies in particular: i.e., “I’m a huge fan of Olivier (or Churchill, or whoever) and here’s what I know and love about him. Oh, by the way, so-and-so has just written a book on the subject, which makes me very happy because it gives me a chance to share with you what I, myself, happen to think about the eminent significance of this very book-worthy subject.”)

One of my other very major pet peeves is book reviewers who simply recite information they have gleaned from the book itself as filler in place of actual analysis concerning the general value of this information or the manner in which it has been presented by the author of the book in question.

Now, Philip French’s recent review of Mark Harris’ Five Came Back (which I found while I was scouring the net for general opinion after my own review was published at Broadway World) may not be a truly “perfect” example of these two peeves: He does mention Harris’ name three times in a 1,000 word review and I suppose real perfection would involve reaching a point where absolutely no mention of the author is deemed necessary at all. This name-dropping (in a review of an author’s own book) is no doubt a sacrifice for French’s sort. After all, there are at least three words here he could have used putting forth his own views of the whole affair had he not felt obligated to mention the book’s mere author a time or three.

Still, I think it’s likely as close to this kind of peeve-fulfillment as one can hope to get. (Just for comparison’s sake, incidentally, I counted up my own stats and found I mentioned Harris sixteen times in 2,300 words, which I think means I can, at least this once–and laying aside my pet peeve concerning those who investigate themselves!–absolve myself of blatant hypocrisy….Okay, I better move on. I suddenly feel like a government agency.)

However, French has gone the usual nonsense one better.

He turned up yet another major pet peeve–one which I didn’t even know I had because I had not previously run across such a glaring example of it.

This involves inserting one’s own opinions on the book’s subject by supplying a quote which is not actually in the book and pretending that it is–and doing so to make a false point.

To wit:

“None, however, made a real success as an independent producer, and this excellent book is ultimately a tale of disappointment and disillusionment. But there is a heartening moment in 1950 at the height of the McCarthy era, as vindictive rightwing investigators descended on Hollywood. The deeply conservative Cecil B DeMille and his reactionary cronies from the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals attempted to depose the liberal Joseph L Mankiewicz as president of the Screen Writers Guild and impose a loyalty oath on all members. Wyler, Ford, Huston, Stevens and Capra came together in a grand reunion to oppose the move and they carried the day. This was the famous meeting at which Ford stood up and began by identifying himself: ‘My name is John Ford and I make westerns. I don’t think there’s anyone in this room who knows more about what the American public wants than Cecil B DeMille–and he certainly knows how to give it to them… But I don’t like you, CB, I don’t like what you stand for, and I don’t like what you’ve been saying here tonight.’

“None made a more direct and subtle statement about the prospects before them.”

[NOTE: I’ll refrain from twisting my fragile mind and spirit in knots trying to suss out the possibilities of a single statement being both direct (which Ford’s statement certainly was) and subtle (which it certainly was not). There’s a lot of that sort of evil genius at work in this review, but I’ve got more important fish to fry just now. So….]

To put it bluntly, the Ford quote–quite famous in its own right–is not in Harris’ book.

Maybe it should have been. French certainly seems to think so. But to pretend that it is, so that one can also pretend that the five directors Harris wrote about, in his “excellent book” concerning their war experiences, came back to lead lives of “disappointment and disillusionment,” in which the only really memorable event was not any of the numerous Oscars they subsequently won or classic, era-defining films they subsequently made, but a single political meeting which Harris mentions only in passing and does not quote from at all (as French clearly implies), or attach any singular importance to (as French also implies), is, well….




A quote–on Howard Hawks, as it happens, the irrelevance of which is parsed below:

A filmmaker of such varied skills also affected the outcome of a game played by my friends and me while waiting for our Film 101 course to start. We’d ask: “What was the best private eye movie ever made?” and “What was the best gangster film?” And so on till we had covered every genre from westerns to science fiction to screwball comedy. Then we’d vote and total up the score. The final list usually included these titles:

Best gangster film: “The Godfather,” “The Godfather II,” “Scarface” (the original).

Best private eye film: “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Big Sleep.”

Best western: “Red River,” “My Darling Clementine,” “Rio Bravo.”

Best screwball comedy: “Bringing Up Baby,” “The Lady Eve.”

Best comedy: “Duck Soup,” “His Girl Friday,” “A Night at the Opera.”

Best science fiction: “The Thing” (the original). (We could never decide if “2001” qualified.)

Six categories, 13 titles; six of the films belong to Hawks, who also directed our list’s fourth-best Hollywood musical, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

(Source: Allen Barra, “Deep Shallow Enigma” Los Angeles Times, July 13, 1997)

Now, this is nothing to do with Howard Hawks* or movies generally because I’d say the same about any list a bunch of college kids came up with regarding pretty much any subject.

But, please, critics everywhere–including those who don’t share pure delusions like “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” being the “fourth-best Hollywood musical,”** or Barra’s “six categories” covering “every genre,”***–do remember this, the Seventh Maxim:

“What happens in college should stay in college.”

*(Another silly game people like to play is the “What movie can you sit down and watch any time?” Mine is El Dorado. Like I say, this isn’t about Howard Hawks.)

**(Though I do love it and actually prefer it to “Singin’ In the Rain,” which is regarded as the best by general consensus. But fourth best?….Uh, no.)

***(Barra’s categories are pretty much the ones regarded as important by collegiate sensibilities. Especially male collegiate sensibilities which tend to automatically reduce everything to the level of sports statistics. As someone who used to be trotted out in the pre-internet age if somebody wanted, say, to know who won the World Series in 1912 or the American League batting title in 1926, believe me, I know. Among the categories Barra and his friends left out: Horror, Women’s Pictures, Swashbucklers, Social Melodramas, Epics (Biblical and otherwise), Thrillers, Noir and War Movies. Not to mention that, as with other art forms, really great movies tend to defy genre anyway. Which is doubtless why, for instance, that most transcendent of all collegiate movies Citizen Kane is conveniently missing.)



You don’t need to wait for the mainstream media to catch up!

Scott Mendelson at Forbes has more specific detail (and a nice take) on the Jennifer Aniston box office numbers I parsed here (you know, before We’re the Millers, of all things, conveniently changed the conversation) and what they really mean.

For the record, I don’t believe a single one of the writers/actors I quoted in my piece were the least bit fooled about Aniston’s real box office power when they provided their particular bits of insight.

They were just counting on fooling you. And on their like-minded brethren to cover for them.

I don’t call ’em the crit-illuminati for nothing.

NOTE: And don’t worry. The coming narrative–which is bound to pop up the next time any Aniston vehicle can be perceived as under-performing, either critically or commercially–will be something along the lines of:

“Well, America’s women got tired of hearing Jen bashed so they all decided to just periodically show up and give her a hit!  Probably cooked it up on Facebook. ‘Cause, you know, women are tricky!”

Count on this. I know people.

If it doesn’t happen, it will just mean the conspiracy runs even deeper than I think it does.

Insert maniacal laughter here.



Jennifer Aniston has a movie out this week. A couple of years back, when The Switch opened, I rounded up a few typical quotes from the media’s heavy thinkers. And even though We’re the Millers is pretty clearly headed for “hit” status, nothing has really changed.

So…first a few quotes from back then:

“OK, something will go wrong, like Jennifer Aniston will have one too many total flops, but she’s still a member of that club. And she will still manage to … like a star forming in the universe, things will swirl around her and it will suddenly solidify into another vital tasteless rom-com, a little glitter next to the Crab Nebula,” (Rupert Everett, coherent as ever, 12/30/10)

“Overall Jennifer Aniston has been in as many movie flops as hits so Rupert Everett may have a point.” (Joe Dorish, Yahoo.com 12/30/10)

The Switch, a new movie in which Jennifer Aniston is impregnated by Jason Bateman and a turkey baster, grossed an abysmal $8.3 million this weekend, good enough for 8th place at the weekend box office, behind the likes of Lottery Ticket and Nanny McPhee Returns. Is this officially the end of Jennifer Aniston’s run as a major movie star? Or was she even one to begin with? The critics are turning against her.

“Marketing genius ESPN.com’s Bill Simmons was the first to put Aniston’s career under the microscope in his column last Friday. Noting that only two of Aniston’s last eleven releases have been solid performers at the box office, Simmons points to the ‘Angelina/Brad/Jennifer love triangle, which is like Brett Favre’s comeback/retirement/comeback routine multiplied by 10, but has been cruising along for twice as long’ as the crucial element to Aniston’s success. She may never have opened a picture on her own, but by staying in the tabloids she guarantees ‘built-in publicity buzz for every crappy movie she promotes.’ Personal strife, according to Simmons, is Aniston’s bread-and-butter. Without it, she would have already faded to the ‘B- and C-list obscurity’ of her former “Friends” co-stars.

“A Mystery For The Ages: Patrick Goldstein of The Los Angeles Times isn’t sure how Aniston’s movie career can be considered over when she never had one in the first place. ‘When it comes to enduring mysteries,’ observes Goldstein, ‘it’s hard to come up with something more mystifying than how Jennifer Aniston became a movie star…She’s made an almost-unbroken string of forgettable movies that have rarely made a lot of money.’

“Critic-Proof At Hollywood Elsewhere, Jeff Wells calls Simmons’ rundown of Aniston’s woes ‘the best piece of analysis I’ve read about any actor’s career in a long time.’ It was even more welcome, Wells suggests, since those inside the industry are plagued by Aniston-fatigue. ‘I could argue that the failure of ‘The Switch’ to make more than $8.3 million at 2010 location ($4125 per screen average) betokens or foretells the gradual collapsing of the Jennifer Aniston brand,’ writes Wells, ‘or I could just let it go. I’m glad that Bill Simmons didn’t.’

(Ray Gustini, The Atlantic 8/23/10)

“Overall Jennifer Aniston’s biggest rival in Hollywood and in real life is Angelina Jolie and without any doubt Angelina Jolie is a bigger celebrity and a bigger box office movie draw.” (Joe Doris, 12/30/10)


Jennifer Aniston’s actual career (not counting animated voice parts, cameos, pre-fame Z-budget appearances, etc.) (NOTE: Also not updated to include the most recent releases by either her or Angelina Jolie as there is not world enough and time…These are the stats as they stood when The Switch was in theaters three years ago):

Aniston–Total Number of movies: 24

Number which made back production budget on domestic box office alone: 17 (including 9 of her last 11….including The Switch)

Number which made an overall profit based on public accounting: 18

Angelina Jolie’s actual career (ditto):

Total Number of movies: 25

Number which made back production budget on domestic box office alone: 5

Number which made an overall l profit based on public accounting: 11

There are probably about ten thousand theories as to why virtually no one questions Angelina Jolie’s status as a “real” movie star even though she:

1) Has turned a profit well less than half the time.

2) Has earned back the production budget a staggeringly low 20 percent of the time on domestic box office (the best measure of whether the American public–which, believe me, is the only one any of these “pundits” remotely care about–actually goes for somebody).

3) Has had numerous major outright flops: At least seven by my count, and while no one can hold her directly responsible for all of them, you ultimately have to take the blame if you’re going to get the credit for the hits. (BTW: I clinically define “major outright flop” as any movie that lost what even Hollywood is likely to consider a whole lotta money.)

4) Has needed the foreign box office to lift her to profitability more than half the paltry number of times she’s managed to achieve it. (Granted foreign money is just as bankable as domestic, but I have a feeling that the “club” Rupert Everett seems to know so little about would rather have it be the gravy than the meatloaf.)

Leaving aside the hallucinatory quote above about the relative “celebrity” status of the two**, there are probably another fifty thousand theories as to why virtually no one (in the media at least) concedes that Jennifer Aniston is–or ever has been–a “real” movie star, even though she:

1) Has turned a profit 75 percent of the time (to Jolie’s 44 percent)

2) Has earned back the hard-core production budget (the number all business people care about first and foremost in every for-profit enterprise ever designed by man) on domestic box office alone 71 percent of the time (to Jolie’s 20 percent) in a career of almost exactly the same length.

3) Has had only one verifiable outright “flop” (i.e., Rock Star) in fifteen years (Note: you could add Wanderlust since, though neither was the sort of colossal flop Jolie has specialized in).

4) Has only once (Rumor Has It) needed the foreign box office to earn back the basic budget on her extremely high percentage of profitable movies (she’s otherwise strictly fallen or risen on domestic box office except for the break even Office Space, which I lifted to the profitable category on the safe assumption that its returns from DVD sales and rentals are somewhere close to obscene. For the record, I gave Jolie a break on several close calls as well and with far less reason.)

Since I haven’t seen my own particular theory laid down anywhere else in the course of my extensive (though by no means exhaustive) research, I’ll just say that this serious disconnect from reality might just possibly have something to do with the kind of movies Aniston makes.

By “kind of movies” I mean the genre (mostly romantic comedy) but also the actual plots.

Those usually involve her choosing a man over a boy (see Picture Perfect or Rumor Has It–where the boy is a fifty-ish Kevin Costner–for prime examples) or, more commonly, forcing a boy to become a man (see The Switch and The Breakup and, subsequently, both Wanderlust and We’re the Millers, not to mention the Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler vehicles).

Or, as she says in Office Space: “Come back when you grow up.”

Since she says some version of this in practically every one of her movies, I don’t think it’s an accident that a media dominated by arrested adolescents to whom these are probably the most frightening words in the English language (with “marketing genius” Bill Simmons being a poster-child example) consistently dumps on the movie star who, on screen at least, keeps insisting they should grow up, while giving a pass to the movie star–once heralded by many serious people as the actress of her generation, a judgment most of them would likely now rather have you forget–who has just as consistently pandered to teen-age fantasies (see Salt, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, the Lara Croft franchise, Wanted and Gone in 60 Seconds–a list which, oh by the way, accounts for every one of Jolie’s major American hits.)

Nor is it any way surprising that the schoolboys keep congratulating each other in print on their own tough-mindedness in rebelling against what is actually the prevailing narrative. That’s all very standard stuff.

And I’m not passing a blanket judgment on the movies themselves. I like having my teen-aged fantasies pandered to as much as the next Earthling and Aniston’s rom-coms, while collectively more worthwhile than her critics care to admit, are certainly a deeply mixed bag.

I’m just suggesting that the manner in which a conversation dominated by middle-aged white males clinging to eternal boyhood consistently cooks the books between these two is a convenient window into a certain collective mind-set.

And one more good reason why no one should ever trust the purveyors of said mind-set on this or any other subject.

**–I don’t recall the exact quote, but I heard Adam Sandler, who is at least as big a “celebrity” as Angelina Jolie, give an interview when he was doing the publicity for Just Go With It and he basically said: “If you’re under any illusion about being famous, go stand next to Jen for thirty seconds.”

….And just how Aniston has gotten away with being both Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor is a topic for some other day when I want to contemplate the cheap and gaudy possibility of Camille Paglia’s head exploding.