…The only show in TV history that never had a chance of living up to its theme song:
Or it’s star’s hair (apologies to Laika and the Cosmonauts, whose equally immortal “Jack Lord’s Hair” ain’t on YouTube right now…darn you YouTube.):
…The only show in TV history that never had a chance of living up to its theme song:
Or it’s star’s hair (apologies to Laika and the Cosmonauts, whose equally immortal “Jack Lord’s Hair” ain’t on YouTube right now…darn you YouTube.):
Wag the Dog (1997)
D. Barry Levinson
[Wag the Dog is a brilliant, disturbing, watershed film which never fails to reduce me to helpless giggling like the Marx Brothers did when I was twenty, even as I hear the Wolf growling in my ear–something about if you see me running you know my life is at stake. David Marcus’ brief essay is pulled-punch pablum, but it’s the first semi-coherent affirmation of points I made all last year that I’ve seen appear anywhere near the mainstream. I’m linking it because its platitudes were knowable, even obvious, twenty years ago. Until everybody done went and forgot. Read it by all means, but don’t worry, Trump’s still not the Devil you don’t believe in. He’s not even the first sign that Devil you don’t believe in has turned ’round (for that, see Wag the Dog below). He’s just the latest sign that it’s the Devil who has his hand around your throat and he doesn’t care whether you believe in him or not.]
For twenty years now, two kinds of people have existed in America (and perhaps much of the rest of the world). There are those who have seen Wag the Dog and kept it continuously in mind and those who haven’t.
The latter seem to be continuously surprised. There is always some bar or other–cultural, social, economic, political, even military (as in “surely we can’t lose this one”)–which they are shocked and saddened to learn has been once more lowered.
They’re always certain, it seems, that the last time was the last time.
The film’s director, Barry Levinson (one of America’s best for a generation when this was released, a nonentity since), refers to the film as “cynical” in his DVD commentary, which is, among other things, an interesting exercise in ass-covering.
He’s joined on the commentary track by the film’s star, Dustin Hoffman (who, like his co-stars Robert DeNiro and Anne Heche, was never better, and, like Levinson, a nonentity since), who insists “this was never about Bill Clinton.”
Because, well, his good friend Barry would never do such a thing.
Which is bull hockey and Hollywood-speak for “I’d like to keep working.”
The entire world knew it was about Clinton–and what a hapless, helpless tool he was–the minute it was released. It was about that, even if Bill Clinton never crossed anyone’s mind from first conference to final wrap. That’s how art works. sometimes, even in Hollywood.
All concerned saved their careers (such as they’ve been) by distancing themselves from this reality soon and loudly, then rinsing and repeating as necessary. Self-denial is a privilege of the self-deluded and Levinson and crew started practicing a version of what they had so acutely pilloried–wiping the blood off the knife–as soon as what was left of decency permitted.
Too bad. Because either the film is on the money–in perfect concert with the observable reality it dismembers with a surgeon’s skill–or it’s nothing.
I just watched it again last night.
Believe me, it’s not nothing.
The quality that struck with extra force this time around (the pantsing of fake news and Heche’s pixie face, whether in deep background or loving closeup, contorting into every possible nuance of sycophancy, including self-contempt, still registering mind you) was the completeness with which Levinson and his principal screenwriter, David Mamet, limned the real crisis point, which is the separation of the movers and shakers from anything and everything except the art of moving and shaking.
The back rooms and underground bunkers in Wag the Dog are so far back and so deep under that their inhabitants are cut off from any reality except their own desperate desire to maintain their status in the only world that matters: theirs.
They’ll do literally anything–just don’t banish them to the sunlight. Their only angst–which can be pitied or sneered at according to taste–is the thought of failing, punching the dread ticket out, which is why Hoffman’s signature line “This is nothing!” keeps getting funnier when it should be getting tired.
After all, what happens to people like this when they lose their agency?
It doesn’t bear thinking about.
Better to laugh…harder.
The narrative trick that keeps bringing me back, though, is that somebody–Levinson? Mamet? Hoffman? The God of Hosts?–gave an unexpected poignancy to Hoffman’s Stanley Motss (the “t” is silent!), forever worried about the one thing the inhabitants of the secret world (which, out here in the real world a generation later, everybody has taken to calling “the deep state”) cannot worry about, which is proper credit. (In this way, he’s predictive of James Comey, a man who couldn’t draw sympathy from his mother.)
And the effect is all the more powerful for being called down by a character you would hate if you met him in real life and your religion didn’t require you to seek the good in him.
The beauty of Hoffman’s performance is that his character has somehow retained the innocence Heche’s Winifred Ames, who starts out thinking she’s going to learn the little bit she doesn’t already know, spends the movie losing with astonished gusto, and De Niro’s Conrad Brean lost a thousand years ago.
Wag the Dog moves like music. You could probably watch it twenty times in a row and still hear new things in it, like picking up a bass line that moves a bridge after you’e heard a favorite record a hundred times. I don’t know if it’s the best movie made in the last twenty-five years but it’s the best movie made about the last twenty-five years. Or the next twenty-five.
After that, it’ won’t matter, and whether Trump fails to survive the summer or cruises to a 2020 landslide won’t either.
The boat has sailed.
The only fault this movie has is they didn’t know which tune to close with. But, hey, that’s what I’m here for…
Happy 4th of July!
Interviewer: Now growing up in that house (in Tucson), you had a very, very good friend, who taught you a lot–
Linda Ronstadt: The radio.
(YouTube interview with Dan Guerrero, Northridge, CA Sept. 29, 2015)
One of the YouTube rabbit holes I go down most frequently is the “Linda Ronstadt Live” rabbit hole. She could be stiff, she could be sing-songy…or she could be electrifying. Sometimes all in the same song. What she never was, was anything less than professional or perfectionist. You’re guaranteed a certain quality, then…but you have to search for more.
So, with Greil Marcus’ long ago mention of being “knocked out” by a version of “Back in the U.S.A.” in front of a big audience (30,000) in Oakland, (he doesn’t mention the venue), wandering around in my head, I thought “Live in Concert Linda Ronstadt San Diego, CA” sounded intriguing.
The performance Marcus mentions isn’t available, alas. But you can probably bet some idea of what he heard by listening to (and, just as importantly, watching) this, where she finally gets all the way inside “Heat Wave”…
…in front of the whitest audience ever assembled in any venue that wasn’t featuring Bruce Springsteen or Lawrence Welk (can’t any of these people clap on the beat?)…and leaves the stage with the happiest look I’ve ever seen on her face in however many hundred hours I’ve spent down her rabbit hole.
It’s almost like she has discovered…something.
Maybe just that the chubby girl from the back row, who only got through high school by “keeping a record player going constantly in my mind”…a record player that no doubt received many recommendations from her friend the radio, could no longer disbelieve in her ability to hold a stadium (the size of which is more evident in the only other available video from that concert) in the palm of her hand…
..singing a song she never had the least trouble getting inside of.
I touched back down in Florida this afternoon and, near the end of my six hour, post flight, drive home from the airport, I had run through my personal programming (about which more later if I can find the time and energy…there was a lot of free associating to a soundtrack of Van Morrison involved), I started trying to find my regular radio stations (which invariably get switched around when I drive as long as six hours).
Before I found my usuals, I was stopped by this…
which told me I was listening to a station specializing in country’s back pages…which told me I was back in the South…and which was followed by this, which I had somehow never heard….
…and which, as I listened close, trying to figure out how I missed it, reminded me that the only thing that kept Martina McBride from being both the best and bravest country singer of the last quarter century was the existence of Patty Loveless….who might have sounded perfect if she had come next, but probably not as perfect as what actually did, which was this…
…which brought home very close, and reminded me that North Dakota, from whence I had just returned from two weeks of, among other things, eating in an old-fashioned diner where the owner keeps the Statlers in heavy rotation, probably has stations that play combinations like this.
But I bet they don’t close with this…
….just as the station passes out of range.
Pretty sure that only happens here.
(NOTE: I’ll be answering any outstanding emails or comments in the next day or so, once I catch up on my sleep.)
I Know Where I’m Going (1945)
Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
A Man for All Seasons (1966)
Wendy Hiller, now virtually unknown to anyone but film buffs, was one of those periodic Brits (they were common in her day, but Helen Mirren, for instance, continued the practice well into ours) who preferred the stage to the screen. In the case of the actors who went that route, I never thought the best of the men–Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson–were much of a loss, fine as they sometimes were.
The never-were performances of the women, however–Hiller, MIrren, Vivien Leigh– amount to a cultural gap.
Hiller was perhaps the most devoted stage-hound of them all. She was in some Hollywood productions, but there were no West Coast sojourns. She forever preferred the West End and was thus content to be the first British actress nominated for an Oscar in a British film (1938’s Pygmalion, her second film, where she was a luminous and definitive Eliza Doolittle and for which she likely would have won by acclaim if the film had been an American production, such as the following year’s Gone With the Wind), star in a mere 21 films over a 55-year career, and go for long periods without appearing on film at all.
I Know Where I’m Going, which captures perhaps her greatest performance (I say perhaps only because I haven’t seen them all), was only her fourth film. It came four years after her second and seven years before her fifth. I suppose if you are only going to do something once in a decade you might as well be indelible.
it took me a long time to get around to this one and Hiller, not the film’s famous writer/director team, who in my handful of brief encounters elsewhere have seemed more impressed by their own eccentricities than anyone who isn’t an Anglophile could be, was the main attraction.
This was my second viewing, and it was lovely and romantic and breathtaking all over again with the added touch that I got past the magic sparks Hiller and Roger Livesey keep throwing off just enough to notice that it’s also one of the great weather-and-landscape movies. Coming from 1945–a year that still has powerful resonance for anyone with a sense of history (let alone History)–the two leads serve as literal embodiments of the national character, a character that is now lost (to the world anyway, I can’t speak for how the Brits feel about themselves).
I can’t recall any other film where True Love is so closely tied to, and complicated by, not only to traditional notions of honor, but the very landscape and its most brutal elements. The plot, such as it is, revolves around Hiller’s attempt to reach a remote Scottish island where her conveniently rich and doltish fiance awaits and Livesey’s attempts to “help” her. She’s continually cut off by a series of obstacles–howling gales, rising seas, whirlpools. obstinance thicker than the Scottish accents–and finally risks her life, and those of others, not so much to reach her fiance, as to get away from Livesey, who has begun to suspect as much, but dares not hope she’ll act on either his wishes or hers, and dares even less to smash his sterling character by actively pursuing a woman who is spoken for.
Both characters–and both actors–reside within a mindset which firmly accepts that, if there will always be an England, it will be because people like themselves will finally do the right thing. Just what that right thing is, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out and, even if you aren’t surprised, the final scene is still likely to thrill anyone harboring a trace of romance in these days when no dates ever resonate but we simply drag endlessly and remorselessly on, toward the place where England is no more.
Which makes Hiller’s supporting-but-still-indelible presence in A Man for All Seasons--seven years after her previous film—all the more poignant in hindsight. Filmed barely twenty years later, set four hundred years earlier, she might be fifty years older.
There’s a reason they call it acting I guess.
The England that would always be is just coming into being on the screen, mid-wifed by the conflict between Henry VIII and Thomas More over the matter of Anne Boleyn (defined variously by Robert Shaw, Paul Scofield and Vanessa Redgrave, all proud products of the England that would always be and was just beginning to be no more). But while all the more famous characters are products of their time and breeding (it’s among the best cast and acted movies within the realm of human ken), it’s Hiller’s Alice More–illiterate, intemperate, unromantic, sensible, everything her earlier embodiment of the National Character was not–who knows best what’s really at stake. It’s as if she’s the only one who sees that an England built on Henry’s sand, rather than her husband’s rock, will be doomed to come a cropper in the end, even if the end will come out the other side of an Empire upon which, as the old saw had it, the sun never set, and, as a late-arriving wag riposted, the blood never dried.
The end, that is, that the Wendy Hiller who marched to bagpipes toward a curse-ridden castle and whatever fate awaited her in the final frames of I Know Where I’m Going would just live to see….and perhaps mourn.
In 2008, Collector’s Choice put out a collection of Jan & Dean’s Liberty singles. More on that later.
As a listening experience, I doubt any comp has matched the old 2-record vinyl Anthology everybody had back in the day (and, yes, some of us still do), which looked like this:
That was one of the great album covers as well (designed by Dean Torrence himself if memory recalls)–the group, the scene and the era, all summed up in six panels and a color scheme.
There have been numerous “expanded” versions on the same theme in the CD era. I recall this one (which got away from me in the Great CD Selloff of 2002), being plenty good:
But the one I have now, the aforementioned Collector’s Choice set, is this one…
…which has its own lesson to teach.
Minus the energy of the weird doo-wopping, I-can-but-hope-these-are-parodies, “Jennie Lee” and “Baby Talk” (which were on Dore), and rendered in crystal clear remastered sound, the A and B sides of their first five Liberty singles seem to exist as proof that Jan Berry was the lamest singer of the entire rock and roll era–and no great shakes as a writer or producer either….it all culminated in this….which was actually a small step up from some of what they had been up to previously.
Be sure to make yourself listen to every second. Then imagine nine other tracks on that level or worse.
Then know that their very next record was this…conceived after a certain someone who was about to become King of L.A. gave them a half-written song to finish. Short of getting hold of the album yourself and listening all the way through (which experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone) there’s no way to convey the shock of the transition from all of that, to all of this:
Gee, it’s almost like Brian Wilson was some kind of transcendent genius or something.
Okay, that we all knew.
But what’s weird is that this particular interaction seems to have turned Jan Berry into Chuck Berry….because the rest of the first disc of the Collector’s Choice set rolls out “Honolulu Lulu,” “Drag City” “Schlock Rod” “Dead Man’s Curve” “The New Girl in School” and their all-time killer “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena” in such short order it’s almost a relief that they throw in a couple of B-side mediocrities to let you catch your breath.
Clearly, there was some kind of trade-off. Whether Brian Wilson sprinkling pixie dust on Jan Berry in return for Jan introducing him to the Wrecking Crew (whom Dean Torrence has long credibly insisted were put together by Jan) was a fair trade is a matter to be adjudicated on the Last Day.
I just hope the vote is by secret ballot.
I wouldn’t want to give anything away. Especially then.
[NOTE: Brian Wilson lost interest in finishing “Surf City” (and gave it to Jan & Dean) because he was intent on another record called “Surfin” U.S.A.” which became his own band’s first top five record around the same time. Years later, one Chuck Berry successfully sued Wilson for copyrght infringement, claiming he lifted the melody for “Surfin’ U.S.A.” from “Sweet Little Sixteen.” Years after that, Chuck Berry’s piano man, Johnnie Johnson, sued Berry for a portion of his entire catalog—again successfully–for failing to give him a composer credit on virtually everything Berry had ever written. There’s some kind of karma operating there somewhere. That too, will be adjudicated on the Last Day,, no matter who gets paid for what under U.S. Copyright Law the meanwhile..]
On the way back from errands yesterday….
taking a break from the right-wing radio meltdown following the Security State’s first major win in their nearly two-year war with Donald Trump (we bombed Syria in case you missed it….John McCain’s death-mask grin and Chuck “they’ve-got-six-ways-from-Sunday-of-getting-back-at-you” Schumer’s sad, sad capitulatory eyes told all the Establishment tales worth telling, their words being, as always, post-warning, irrelevant)….
I flipped over to the Classic Rock station….
Which, in the hunt for survival, no longer confines itself to Classic Rock…
And they play Blondie….”Heart of Glass” (not just Blondie, but disco Blondie)….and I think “I’ll just listen to see if they play the ‘pain in the ass’ version….
Which they did….
…and, as it winds down, I reach for the button, prepared to be let down, thinking Alex Jones in full freak-out will probably be better than what’s coming next…
But the dee-jay says the Who are next…and, of course, if the Who are next on a day like this one, it can only be this…
…(and I flash on my Godchild, circa 2005, saying “I thought the Republicans were supposed to change all this”….appropo of which betrayal I don’t recall…what I do remember is saying ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’…and then pointing to his parents (he was a he then) and saying, ‘they got their politics from Star Trek, I got mine from rock and roll, you’ll note which of us is never surprised’….and, for once, I get Daltrey’s final scream just right)
Which puts me in such a good mood, I’m prepared to put up with the Police, even though it’s not “Roxanne”….but instead the only song it can be, if it’s playing on a day like this one and it’s by the Police….
…from 1983…and, on a day like this one, I can’t help but finally get it.
I didn’t stay in the car to find out if Hot Chocolate’s “You Win Again” was up next.
Because, hey, I got my politics from rock and roll….so I can’t possibly get fooled again, no matter who “wins.”
Weird thing was, the song that really caught the vibe of the deadened air all around….
Was the first one.
North by Northwest (1959)
D. Alfred Hitchcock
For a Few Dollars More (1965)
D. Sergio Leone
I’ve seen these many times, but never in tandem. I snuck out to the multiplex to catch a screening of North by Northwest last night and for some reason woke up this morning in a Sergio Leone mood.
They do kind of speak to each other.
One thing Hitchcock and Leone had in common was a belief in “the language of film.” The term might have been developed by critics, but plenty of filmmakers believed in it first–who needs a story when you have great scenes!
Certainly not these two.
Hitchcock wasn’t entirely adverse to story. Only when it got in the way of his Visual Imagination. And as his career ripened, it got in the way more and more. By the time he made North by Northwest–a straightforward commercial pictured designed to make up for his failure to rope in audiences with the Art of The Wrong Man and, especially, Vertigo–he had no more use for continuity than he had for brunettes. Hence, the most famous scene in the movie, with Cary Grant being chased by a crop duster, isn’t even internally cohesive. There’s no reason for a plane to fly into the side of a semi-truck, even if there’s a reason for bunch of killers to use a plane to chase down a solitary, unarmed man they’ve drawn into the middle of nowhere when pulling up in a car and popping him with a couple of well-placed bullets would be much more effective….just not as Cinematic.
Of course, all of that pales next to the movie’s real message, which is an early assurance from the Security State: Trust Us.
Oh, we may get a few details wrong now and again but you must admit we are well intentioned and, what with not being able to keep you properly informed about all those things that wold only worry you and make our job of protecting you even more difficult, you must admit it isn’t easy to keep you from putting yourself in harm’s way every now and then, perfect innocent that you are.
Nobody says those words exactly, of course. But, seen from this distance, the paternalism not only can’t be missed, it lend the whole enterprise a whiff of badly needed sulfur. If only Hitch’s famous paranoia had extended to the Real Enemy–or if Cary Grant had been able to develop a more than professional interest in a lightweight like Eva Marie Saint, the way he was with Audrey Hepburn a few years later in the crackerjack Hitch imitation Charade (the first of many that have proven more durable than all but his half-dozen best)–I might have kept from nodding off a time or two.
I fell asleep twice during A Few Dollars More, but that was just because I was tired. The one night stand between Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef is way more compelling than the romance in North by Northwest. Comes to that, it’s the only thing holding the picture together. Where will whichever one isn’t on screen at present show up next?
In between it’s standard Leone. Great scenes held together by location, location, location and a fierce, principled commitment to sadism. Taken in the abstract, I love every stylized moment. Watching Leone’s films, one never need worry about nonsense, because his dreamscapes are honestly presented as such.
But as I get older, I can’t escape the feeling that I’m participating in an act of destruction.
See, you start by not caring whether the movie you’re watching makes any sense, as long as you get a thrill from either giving in to it or resisting it.
You end by…
Well, you see the news.
You know how it ends.
The way it was in ’65.
Those of you who have been following along for a while here know I’m fond of Time Life’s year-by-year surveys of music from the fifties, sixties and seventies.
The foundation for it all is a handful of CDs a fellow at work gave me about twenty years ago in lieu of sending them off to Goodwill. They survived the great CD selloff of 2002 because the record store wouldn’t take them. First among those were 1965: Classic Rock and its companion volume 1965: The Beat Goes On.
With oldies’ radio now a distant memory in my market, these are my closest proxy. (Somehow, listening to “radio” on the internet, or my satellite TV package just isn’t the same.) And, while I almost always learn something when I listen close to any given volume, these are the ones that still startle me the most.
With the Beatles, Stones and Dylan all missing (due to their catalogs being jealously guarded), you could still pick any couple of the forty-four cuts on these two discs, where there is nothing close to a pedestrian side, and write a short history of the Universe.
Relax: I’m not gonna do that.
I’m just going to talk about the Supremes and the Shangri-Las, two of my favorite subjects anyway, and paired here on tracks 16 and 17 of The Beat Goes On.
Funny enough, I had never really noticed it before: “I Hear a Symphony” and “I Can Never Go Home Any More” set back to back. This…
which, given Diana Ross’s gift for finding seduction in the saddest, most desperate breakup songs and melancholy in the most joyous love songs, could just as well be about the guy who left Mary Weiss in this…
…the most wrenching tale in the Shangs’ own little universe, which has more wrenching tales than any universe I know.
It’s not implausible to think that, if Berry Gordy had grown up in Queens instead of Detroit, Wiess might have had a dozen #1s and Ross might have had one or none.
But it’s probably not that simple. Alternative universes never are.
Diana Ross would have been driven by ambition wherever she was born. Even before she was famous–or Berry Gordy’s squeeze–it’s fair to assume that each record was part of a larger plan.
Weiss’s genius was for making every song she sang sound like it might be her last. That’s not exactly a surefire formula for building a career.
These two songs running together on a comp made her and Diana sound like sisters who never quite got along and thus walked different paths that only crossed at commitment to something larger than themselves.
They used to call that culture and rock and roll existed to extend it, make it larger, let new voices from places like Queens and Detroit sing out and express whatever special quality they possessed. Culture is supposed to make the world larger.
Except when we’re fooling ourselves, we don’t call it culture or anything else now, because the essential thing that made these records possible has vanished like smoke. Not the technology or the musical training or the will or even the voices themselves. Just the belief that it matters to something more than the bank account.
These days, everyone has an eye on their career from the cradle to the grave, so no one gives too much away in any single moment.
Once you start down that path–where Mary Weiss can’t exist–then Diana Ross can’t exist either, because there’s nothing for her to measure herself against.
If you want to know what that sounds like, now that even the 70s are becoming a distant memory, you can turn on your car radio any hour of the day and let it run straight from the lowest number to the highest.
And if you think that’s depressing, just be glad I”m not giving you access to what went through my head concerning the Roger McGuinn picking vs. Jeff Beck shredding guitars on “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “I’m a Man!” because, except through a pair of cheap headphones, we can’t go back there either.
I’ve been waiting for these particular Patty Loveless/Miranda Lambert duets to pop up on YouTube with audio to do the performances justice. They’re here at last. And while Patty Loveless can’t truly pass a torch any more than George Jones or Al Green could, Miranda Lambert is the performer who has benefited most–both artistically and commercially–from the ground she broke open, stone by stone, a generation earlier without Rolling Stone or the Village Voice paying the least mind. The way Nashville politics work, Miranda will probably make the Hall of Fame before Patty does. (Go ahead, Nashville, surprise me…I’ll eat crow from now til the Judgement if you do. Cross my heart and hope to die.) But there will never be any doubt about who walks in whose shadow….and they really should do a duet album.