THE AMERICANS….WHERE IT’S ALWAYS WINTER, WHETHER OR NOT IT’S EVER AMERICA (What Impressed Me This Week)

The Americans: Season Three

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For those who aren’t familiar with The Americans, now entering its fourth season on FX, it follows the lives of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, both superb and now married in real life),  an attractive, All-American couple living in Falls Church, Virginia, in the 1980s. They have a travel agency, a lovely house in the suburbs, two kids and every outward appearance of respectable normalcy.

They’re also deep-cover Soviet spies.

As I’ve mentioned before here (often, on the order of a broken recorrd), I haven’t kept up with much modern television. Generally speaking it’s just too much time and money for too little reward. Among those who do keep up, several whose opinions I respect, including Steven Rubio, count The Americans as one of, if not the best, shows going.

I can believe it.

For starters, it doesn’t have any major weaknesses, something I can’t say for 24, Deadwood, Justified or even Homeland (to mention the “serious” shows of recent vintage I’ve seen at least a fair amount of…you can catch my various thoughts here, here and here) and can’t imagine ever saying for The Sopranos, The Wire or Mad Men (all of which make my ears bleed and eyelids droop whenever I try to attend them for more than five minutes). The casting, acting, writing, direction, visual style, story, conception and just plain Zeitgeist in The Americans are all compelling and have sustained beautifully throughout three full seasons, with some key elements actually improving over time. I don’t know how the show would fare on a revisit–I’ve basically binge-watched each individual season after it became available on DVD–but on first acquaintance it has the additional pull of being a thriller that is actually thrilling. A near disastrous cock-up at the end of Season One might be the most gut-wrenching “action” sequence I’ve encountered on-screen, movies included, because, for once, the danger is both palpable and personal. It wasn’t until that very moment I admitted to myself I didn’t want the protagonists, who are, after all, cold-blooded killers working for a monstrously evil cause, to be caught–not a common reaction to a car-chase.

Having scaled that height, it seemed almost inevitable that a drop-off would follow.

Instead, the series has only gotten better and better. Every potential trap that has snagged other similarly compelling sympathy-for-the-sociopath narratives around the ankles at some point has been avoided. That’s in part because somebody on this show–presumably creator and overseer Joe Weisberg–has a real feel for narrative structure which, remarkably, has not so far given way, even for an instant, to the usual crippling demands of cliffhanger plotting. It’s also in part because the cliffhanger plotting has not been undermined, even for an instant, by the considerable demands of the narrative.

Pulp narrative to be sure. This ain’t War and Peace. But true narrative just the same.

I can’t say how rare this actually is in television. I simply don’t watch enough to know.

But I can say that, until I encountered The Americans, I didn’t think it was possible at all on television, where too many cooks–producers, writers, directors, stars, show runners, network suits–are forever spoiling the stew. For me, part of the tension that set in around the middle of Season One, when I had accepted the far-fetched elements of The Americans as part of a legitimate really-no-stranger-than-life vision (much like 24, which, albeit in often entertaining ways, began falling apart almost immediately thereafter, with only Season Five managing any kind of transcendence), was in wondering just how and when it would all go wrong this time.

It hasn’t. And, after three seasons of what is apparently going to be a five-season run, I’m now convinced there’s a real chance it won’t.

One of the very smart elements that has given the show this kind of space–the key element I think–is the extent to which, in a show called The Americans, America itself is felt in every frame while being barely glimpsed visually, and then in only the most obvious and superficial ways. Since the protagonists are the spear tip of a sleeper cell which has essentially infiltrated the American security state and, with the Cold War raging under Reagan, are under intense pressure to act, the audience is drawn into a claustrophobic world which really does present itself as the unseen reality while everything going on around it, including what’s beaming forth from the ubiquitous televisions playing in background after background, is reduced to a series of illusions.

Add to that a nuanced view of the KGB which never devolves into romanticism, or lets us forget that some secret police forces really are worse than others, lots of first-rate acting (this is the kind of show where even Frank Langella doesn’t stand out), and an editing style that actually creates its own tension (any scene you enter might last thirty seconds or ten minutes and, unlike any other show I’ve actually watched, there really is no way to predict) and you can maybe begin to understand why this highly praised show has a lot of frustrated followers, now including me, who feel it hasn’t been praised nearly enough. It’s just possible that, narratively speaking, it asks too much of a world which has been preconditioned, especially and specifically in the matter of narrative, to accept much, much less from shows that rate far more chatter.

By way of example, we need only examine the element in that narrative that was most fraught with peril, which is the character development of the Jennings’ daughter Paige, who is first drawn to, then immersed in, evangelical Christianity.

Normally, even a hint of Hollywood using evangelicalism as a plot device just makes me sigh and roll my eyes. I’ve never seen anything remotely resembling a fair or accurate treatment of the world I grew up in on screen, and, to be clear, that’s not exactly what happens in The Americans either. If the show does have a weakness it’s in the portrayal of “Pastor Tim” (Kelly AuCoin). He’s a kind of reformed hippy type which was, in fact, pretty common in evangelical churches during the seventies and early eighties. But either the casting or the conception is off base. As played by AuCoin, Pastor Tim is pretty much a Hollywood idea of the type. He has none of the charisma or feral intensity (often fueled by self-doubt which was not infrequently compensated for by the loudest “halleluahs” and “amens” in the hall) that was typical even for youth ministers and choir directors (the more common positions an ex-hippy was likely to hold), let alone the occasional leader of a flock.

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This fly in the ointment is redeemed, however, by Paige Jennings’ own character and the remarkable performance of Holly Taylor who has caught, or perhaps just embodies, a certain fresh-faced American type–so at odds with her cynical, devious parents and with the ridiculous parodies of teen angst that have frequently undermined narrative in 24 and Homeland–to a tee.

For all she talks about Pastor Tim, it’s pretty evident Paige is really caught by the message, not the messenger (in that sense, Pastor Tim’s drab qualities may be a narrative strength, though I have to believe it’s accidental). Since Christian ethics are the elephant in the room in the fight going on at the heart of The  Americans, the never-to-be-admitted, two-thousand-year-old reason why some secret police forces are better than others even if it all leads to the same place in the end, Paige’s ever-greater certainty that something is rotten in Falls Church (and the KGB’s nagging insistence that her parents start training her as a second-generation agent, which presumably will mean subjecting her to the same soul-killing horrors they endured during their own “training,” of which the show offers occasional chilling flashback glimpses), it’s hard to believe this is merely a plot device. It might have started out that way–but it hasn’t stayed that way.

And so, as I watched Season Three, it became more and more evident that Paige was coming to represent something more than youthful innocence. I have to admit that, based on the seeming superficiality of the “Christianity” on display in the first two seasons, and the show’s usual concessions to graphic sex and violence (tame by modern standards but still plenty strong enough to offend what’s left of the church crowd), I assumed some serious missteps would accrue.

Not only did that not happen, but the handling of the Paige element made an already strong show measurably stronger. I won’t give away the details–no spoilers–but seeing an American teenager presented so ably and credibly on American television (let alone a devout Christian, let alone one who is now in a place where the moral shield of her faith is likely to invite real physical peril, let alone in a show that takes place in the eighties and is very definitely about the way we live now and how much cultural time has stopped and stagnated since the period in question) is refreshing to say the least.

The quality and quiet depth of Taylor’s vulnerable performance, though, presents another possibility, one that will have me on the edge of my seat a year from now when I catch up with Season Four. I don’t want to oversell the likelihood of this happening, but I wouldn’t be caught entirely by surprise if the resolution of Paige Jennings’ character arc were, at some point, to match the power and poignancy of Judith Hutter going among the British at the end of The Deerslayer, or Caddy Compson being glimpsed among the Nazis at the end of the revised edition of The Sound and the Fury.

The Americans is that good. And that unexpected.

SAM SPADE AT THE MULTIPLEX (What Impressed Me This Week)

The Maltese Falcon
(John Huston, d. 1941)MALTESEFALCON1

Whenever classic films make it out to the hinterlands I make an effort to see them, partly in hopes that theaters will book more of them. I don’t know how much good it does. I paid double the usual matinee price for this one this week and saw it in the company of exactly one other patron.

But I’ll keep going anyway, if and when I can, because of the good it does me.

I’ve seen The Maltese Falcon well over a dozen times and read the book three or four times. This was even the third time I saw it on a big screen, (more than any Golden Age film except Gone With the Wind which I’ve seen four times in theaters). I can’t say I’ve always learned from it, though I’ve certainly always enjoyed it. But this time, it definitely stretched me, not entirely in pleasant ways.

One thing that’s always pleasant–and rewarding–is watching Humphrey Bogart’s face, and that’s probably the most important way the big screen enlarges the experience. Even the biggest televisions can’t offer the same opportunity for nuanced scrutiny of a performance like the one Bogart gave here, the one that truly shaped his lasting star persona. Remembering the masterful ways he deployed and varied that persona over the next decade and a half, in Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, The African Queen and even The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (where, to tell the truth, he went a tad self-conscious, though the overreach probably created the space where he found his take on Dix Steele in In a Lonely Place), it can become easy to forget the degree to which every bit of it–hence every shade of his celebrated modernity–was on display in The Maltese Falcon.

It’s not so easy to forget it when you’re watching the movie. Because it’s all there. The sardonic wit, the heroic (or, if you prefer, antiheroic) stoicism, the edge of pure sadism (including large doses of misogyny and homophobia which, were they anywhere near as prevalent in the iconic performances of, for instance, John Wayne, would surely be routinely excoriated by a left-leaning illuminati which has both insisted that the performance is the man and idolized Bogart for those very same qualities for half a century and counting), the assurance of the beast in the urban jungle who operates as a law unto himself, and the inability or unwillingness to separate any of these qualities from the rest, to regard any of them as less than absolutely essential.

Writing in the early seventies, Pauline Kael famously observed of Dirty Harry that “this action genre has always had fascist potential and it has finally surfaced.” But whether fascist is the right word for that potential (I’d argue not quite but that’s a long, interesting debate), there was no “finally” to it. The only meaningful distinctions between Sam Spade and Harry Callahan are the hare-vs-tortoise speeds at which their respective brains work and whatever dime-size wedge can be put between Spade’s sort of private eye serving the inept police and Callahan’s sort of policeman serving the even more inept public.

What Kael might have been getting at was that Clint Eastwood’s Callahan made it impossible to continue either missing or dismissing the above-and-beyond-the-law dynamic that Bogart’s Sam Spade had hardly concealed, though he at least made you swallow it with a smile.

It could all be very seductive.

Dorothy Parker, who I’d rate as an even sharper knife than Kael, may have started the whole “white knight” school of lit-crit that became so curiously bound up with the rise of the hard-boiled detective genre when, in her review of Dashiell Hammett’s source novel for TMF, she declared that Spade had made her go spoony in the same way that Sir Lancelot had when she was a wee lass.

That’s a dangerous spell for any man to cast. Especially when he’s casting it while slapping around women and gardenia-scented queers on such a regular basis and insisting “you’ll take it and like it.”

It’s the liking it that marks the first step into the danger zone. You know: It’s not enough for me to slap you. It’s not even enough for you to accept it. What really matters is that you like it.

That certainly sounds like an idea waiting for a definition and fascism is certainly one that springs to mind.

Sitting in a quiet movie theater all these decades later and marveling at the glory of it all–the perfection in casting, direction, lighting, mood, dialogue woven into an indestructible plot–it’s still easy to miss the road to hell at the center of both Spade’s troubled conception and Bogart’s thrilling execution.

You can learn a lot about a society by studying its heroes. I’m not sure Hammett quite intended for us to take Spade into our national mythology in such an uncomplicated manner. Whether the lethal mix of bravery, hubris and cruelty generated by Bogart and John Huston struck so deep because it carries a touch of naivete that Hammett, having been both a Pinkerton and a commie, surely did not possess, I don’t know.

All I know, all I was reminded of this week, in between the news-channel marathons that are carrying on blithely, cluelessly, while the country that once produced all these things so imminently worthy of devotion circles the drain, was what a dangerous man this Humphrey Bogart still is.

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I hope he’s also still on our side.

THE RAMBLIN’ MAN REACHES OUT….AND TAKES HOLD (What Impressed Me This Week)

Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave
David Acomba, Director (1980)

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Serendipity and fair’s fair.

Without Greil Marcus going on about this back in 1990 (when it re-aired on the Nashville Network and Marcus evidently thought it was new) and me reading about it in his newly collected Real Life Rock columns and then, mere days later, coming across a cheap copy in the dollar store just down the road that I only started going to a few months back because I discovered they sold the hydrocortisone salve I occasionally use on an unspeakable rash for a quarter less than the one right next to my house this never would have found it’s way to my DVD player and I’d be a poorer man without even knowing it.

Without benefit of either looking or sounding much like the original, Canadian country singer Sneezy Waters, who had played the role on stage for years, inhabits Williams the same way Philip Baker Hall inhabited Richard Nixon in Secret Honor a few years later. As with Hall, I spent the first minute thinking “this is never gonna work.” Then the second minute arrived and the meaningful distinctions between actor, role and role model disappeared. I never concluded whether this was more reassuring than disorienting but I was riveted either way. Five minutes in, I knew there weren’t going to be any bathroom breaks.

The setup is simple enough (and enough like Secret Honor to make me wonder if Robert Altman saw this when it first aired). Hank is taking his famous last ride through an Appalachian night (he died in the back seat of his chauffeured car somewhere between Bristol, Virginia and Oak Hill, West Virginia), and, drifting in and out of consciousness, he dreams of stopping off and giving a show in one of the small town bars where, by chance, his band is already set up and waiting in front of a small but enthusiastic crowd who could probably never afford a trip to the Opry.

You can watch movies a long time and never find anyone walking a tighter wire than Waters, director Acomba and playwright/screenwriter Maynard Collins do here. Part of the tension in a first viewing of something like this is in wondering if/when somebody will set a foot wrong. When it never happens, there’s an almost palpable sense of relief, because the slightest slip, the one that always feels like it’s coming any second now, would wreck the mood.

It never happens here.This is one of those instances where even the technical limitations work entirely in the movie’s favor. That scene pictured above is just about what the movie looks like and while some of that is probably due to a low-grade transfer I had a feeling a pristine copy wouldn’t look much better. It certainly wouldn’t work any better, because anything clearer wouldn’t let you smell the smoke and whiskey.

Most remarkably, it’s all in there. The Hank Williams Story. Between his songs, the stories he tells to set them up, the bitter remonstrances of his waking moments in the back seat of his Doom-mobile, you get a  distillation that touches everything essential and has a feeling of completion, as though he (Williams himself, more than the actor or the filmmakers) is scripting his own life and planning to live just long enough to reach the only end that was ever possible.

And the biggest part of that story isn’t the alcoholism or the Dr. Feelgoods or marriage or divorce or fatherhood or spats with the band or even the Death’s Head hanging over his shoulder. No, the biggest part, and the part the movie catches so well it’s literally breathtaking is the connection to his audience, the final quality that made him the standard country singers–and country lives–were measured against for half a century.

Until, that is, very, very recently.

The people who clap and dance and fight and “Hallelujah!” their way through this film’s imaginary show aren’t represented as characters, but they aren’t reduced to types either. They have a collective life and three-dimensionality that goes beyond even the air of lives being lived that deepens John Ford’s universe.  And, whether seen as extras in a low-budget movie that started filming the day John Lennon was assassinated, or literal ghosts of the audience Hank Williams must have sometimes felt he had dreamed into being, there will be a day in the not too distant future when they’ll be unrecognizable. A twenty-year-old might have trouble recognizing them now. Living in a world where it’s always Saturday night has not only robbed Williams’ principal themes of longing and regret of the force they had for the audience that swirls back and forth between him and you while this film is running, it’s also taken the fun out of Saturday night itself.

Whether it was possible to self-consciously articulate this lost world’s distance from the present in 1980, I don’t know. But the feelings inherent in the loss must have at least been available to the senses, because without even calling on “Lost Highway” or “Ramblin’ Man” (there is a chilling version of “Alone and Forsaken”), Sneezy Waters and company managed to write themselves into the Hank Williams story and enlarge an already legendary life it in a way I’ve seldom encountered in any movie, let alone a “biopic” that consists entirely of a car-ride and a fake concert that never happened.

I’m sure it’s possible to see this and write it off. It’s not Citizen Kane. On some level, it’s barely even there.

But I’d advise approaching it with caution

If it gets you, it might not let you go.

 

NUGGETS’ ADDENDA…

Normally, if I overlook or forget something in a post, I just leave it at that. But I would be remiss if I didn’t revisit last night’s post long enough to mention a couple of additional thoughts.

The Sonics still sound like a group of guys who went straight to the recording session after downing a quart of Drano apiece (and they also give me a nice excuse to post this extremely mad video)…

And my personal all-time favorite garage number, which looks forward to the Go-Go’s in  its ability to sound like everybody and nobody at once (though the way they pronounce grass (grah-ss) at least suggests they were trying to fit in by sounding English)…

 

NUGGETS (What Impressed Me This Week)

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My arm still feels like it’s going to fall off. The pain medicine isn’t touching it and it will be at least a couple of weeks before I can see a specialist so meanwhile, short some miracle recovery I’ll be listening to lot of music (it’s about all I can do) and posts will be short and sweet.

Nuggets is a four-disc box set released by Rhino Records in its glorious nineties’ heyday (a heyday now long departed alas) and based on Lenny kaye and Jac Holzman’s original concept comp–the greatest concept comp of all time–which was released in the early seventies and looked like this and makes up the first disc of the box…

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So, being flat on my back this week, I had time to listen to the whole thing straight through for the first time since I reacquired it five or six years ago (the original box having been swept away in the great CD selloff of 2002). What I was left with when it was all said and done were impressions:

–That box cover up top is terrible. I don’t like to give out “worst ever” demerits because the minute I do something will come to mind that tops it. But it’s in the running. (The original album cover I kind of like.) Too bad, because the graphics for the booklet are fantastic.

–The Lenny Kaye who programmed the original had a real genius for it. It was a little unclear to me how much he had to do with the additional three discs in the box, but, despite having just as much great music, they don’t flow the way that first one did…and still does.

–Nuggets=Garage Rock=Frat Rock=Proto-punk=”Real” punk=I guess “White Boy Stomp” was out of the question?

–Make that Middle-Class White Boy Stomp. Some of these guys were genuinely unstable…

…but none of them looked or sounded like they’d ever missed a meal, or lived in a house that didn’t have a garage. Quite the opposite in fact. Nobody yearning for middle class acceptance ever sounded this much like they didn’t give a rip.

–Which begs the question of whether they were collectively naive…or visionaries who saw the end of Europa’s five-hundred-year reign o’er the Earth coming and decided to party like it didn’t matter.

Maybe a mix?

–And if not White Boy Stomp, maybe Sound-Alike Rock? The Knickerbockers take the prize with the greatest sound-alike record ever (and that includes Gene Vincent’s “Be Bop A Lula” which fooled Elvis’ mother and his band).

And then there are Mouse and the Traps sounding like Dylan and Count Five sounding like the Yardbirds and some band I missed the name of (pain makes cowards of us all and pain medicine makes dope-heads of us all, meaning I never got around to looking at the track list while it was playing) sounding like the Rolling Stones without the professional polish and specifically like early Mick Jagger without the phonetic relationship to American English he had to sell his soul in order to transcend (Satan got paid back, along about 1973).

Then there are the real one-off gems galore: the Swingin’ Medallions sounding like the drunken frat boys they played for; the Remains’ Barry Tashian sounding like the era’s great lost voice; the Hombres sounding like one of Jack Kerouac’s narrators; the Turtles sounding like the Turtles,

Mostly though, over the last three discs there seemed to be literally dozens of guys who sounded exactly like another guy who is actually on the set. Namely this guy:

Begging another set of questions: Were they all imitating him because he and his band were the great success story of the ethos? Or was he the most successful because he was the best of a common type?

And are they not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame precisely because they had been doing this for years, since long before the British Invasion was a gleam in John Lennon’s eye? Or just because they weren’t British, too, and had the costumes to prove it?

I only ask because I care!

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Wait Until Dark on Campus)

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i had occasion here to write about the last time I watched Wait Until Dark, the 1968 thriller starring Alan Arkin and Audrey Hepburn. I’ll stand by everything I wrote there, but this week brought another interesting experience with the same movie.

FSU has a very nice Student Life Center, with a stadium-style movie theater on one side and a smaller theater in a room across the hall with folding chairs, DVD projection, crappy sound and, as of this visit (I hadn’t been in a couple of years) two separate screens, side by side in the same room.

I guess the extra seating is courtesy of the place getting more popular. On my two previous visits, there was one screen and maybe twenty people in attendance. Both sides of the room were packed for this one, maybe a hundred people total.

I didn’t learn anything new about the movie itself and the viewing experience was, as I expected, less than ideal. But the time I spent trundling down there, hiking from the nearest parking lot (no sense expecting a government institution to do something logical like stick parking spaces near the campus movie theater and, as a long ago habitue of the previous rat-trap theater I can assure you it was ever thus), was nonetheless well spent.

What I was mostly interested in was finding out how an audience of college kids would react to an old fashioned thriller.

They reacted alright. In spades.

That wasn’t entirely a positive thing, mind you. Apparently, the new kids are conditioned to respond to every strong emotion with a single emotion: Laughter.

Terror on the screen? Good excuse to laugh.

Rage? Psychosis? Romance? Unexpected plot twist?

Ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto.

I may have forgotten a turn or two, but, trust me, the response was the same.

Laughter.

Frankly, the movie’s strongest element, which is Hepburn’s nuanced portrait of a women being subjected to gradually mounting terror, was completely lost. If I hadn’t seen the movie before, I would have walked out having no idea how she handled the part because, every time she emoted, there was…laughter.

Up until the last ten minutes.

During the last ten minutes, they started screaming because they were having the be-jesus scared out of them. I don’t exactly know the reason the response was so intense. I mean, it’s a good movie and an effective chiller, but I didn’t expect any reaction to be that extreme and that universal (I might have been the only person who wasn’t screaming). But I suspect it had something to do with seeing a real person actually terrorized. It’s not something that’s ever happened much in the movies and I doubt very seriously it’s happened at all in the lifetime of today’s twenty year old college kid.

I don’t put a lot of faith in anecdotal evidence. If I did, then I’d have to conclude, for instance (on the basis of an opening day viewing of The Break-Up with a theater full of black women), that Jennifer Aniston has cachet in modern Black America on a par with James Brown in the sixties. Maybe she does, but based on everything else I know about that subject, I’d have to say that it’s more likely there are times when an audience is just in the mood.

This felt like more than that, though.

It felt like the kids who have been socially conditioned to laugh at everything were afraid for Audrey Hepburn.

So maybe her performance got through after all.

I may not have to entirely give up on the future. And, believe me, that’s a relief. Because with ten minutes to go, I was ready to do just that.

Tuesday night is Psycho, incidentally. In the big theater.

Can’t wait for that.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Temptations Fill In the Blanks)

MEETTHETEMPTATIONS

At the end of his first published “Record Guide,” which came out in 1981 and was devoted to the seventies, Robert Christgau added a list of his “essential” albums of the fifties and sixties. The lists were heavy on comps because, in Christgau’s words, “outside of the fab five–Beatles-Dylan-Stones-Who-Redding–great albums-as-albums were rare before 1967.”

When I first read that in the early eighties, I already knew it was a little hidebound not to at least include the Beach Boys and the Byrds. In the decades since, I’ve realized I would also, for starters, add James Brown, the Impressions, Elvis, Charlie Rich, the Everly Brothers. Once you get to that number, the whole concept of pretending great albums were the province of a benighted few in rock’s “rock and roll” phase, is pretty silly. Christgau was both parroting and shaping conventional wisdom so he was hardly alone in his assessment–he just had an unusually high profile. Effectively parroting and shaping conventional wisdom, i.e., telling us what we want to hear, is maybe one of the ways we collectively decide who gets to set the standards. For better and worse–and I can definitely see it both ways–nobody was more suited to standard setting than the Dean.

So, with that for a long-term back drop, this week (or rather, since I’m a day late posting this, last week), I was able to add the Temptations.

I found their first five LPs in a package on Amazon for fifteen bucks and decided even my budget could accommodate that. I certainly thought I’d add a few stellar tracks to the storehouse and I needed long time favorite The Temptations Sing Smokey on CD anyway.

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So far I’ve only listened to the first three albums in the set (the fourth and fifth are a live album and The Temptations In a Mellow Mood, which is one of Motown’s supper club LPs). I’m sure I’ll like the others, but three is enough to set me straight on the old “Motown doesn’t do albums” canard. Thirty-six original tracks plus two bonus cuts and there’s nothing resembling a weak or pedestrian side. I mean, not everything can be this…

or this (my own favorite Tempts, with the quiet man, Paul Williams, out front)…

But the rest doesn’t ever fall much below something as semi-obscure as this…

or completely obscure as this…

And, as fine as any individual tracks may be, what’s really remarkable is that all of this “product,” despite the Smokey LP being the only one that is anyway thematic or even more than a grab bag, coheres beautifully.

That shouldn’t be really surprising. It’s not like Berry Gordy or Smokey Robinson (who wrote and/or produced most of the tracks on all three albums) were exactly devoid of the Vision Thing.

But what really struck me, listening to all three albums in succession, with about an equal mix of familiar-as-familiar-can-be and completely-new-to-me tracks, was how much some of the expansive vocal groups of the mid-sixties are still slighted as creative entities.

Let’s face it, even the critical love given the Beatles or Beach Boys or Byrds, is mostly rooted in their songwriting or some level of hip iconography.

But nothing was more important to rock’s exploding cultural and musical reach in the mid-sixties than the incredible expansion of the great vocal traditions, an expansion which repeatedly reached limits that have not been challenged in the five decades since. And it’s obvious on these three LPs that the Temptations, along with the Impressions, were changing and challenging the black gospel and doo wop traditions just as radically and thrillingly as the Beatles and Beach Boys were the pop tradition, the Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas were the folk tradition and the Four Seasons were the bel canto and white doo wop traditions.

Sorry, but that’s as “creative” as anything that was happening on Highway 61 Revisited or Happy Jack.

Of course, the received point of singing this good is that it sounds so easy and natural it couldn’t possibly have anything like a thought process behind it. I mean, after all, you can’t even copyright it, can you?

Too bad. Because, believe me, every one of these sounds is built from years of sweat. And every one of them is something no one could ever steal.

TEMPTINTEMPTATINOS

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Edge Moves Across 110th Street)

Across 110th Street (1972)
Director: Barry Shear

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Like a lot of people my age or younger, the first I heard of Across 110th Street was in Greil Marcus’  Sly Stone chapter in Mystery Train. And, although I’ve owned Bobby Womack’s haunting title song on a handful of comps over the years, it took me until last night to see the film.

I haven’t been avoiding it. Marcus made it sound like it was worth seeing and, until his obsession with punk came along, I usually found his recommendations worth tracking down (still do, when his obsession with punk doesn’t get in the way). It just never cycled to the top of the list.

It’s a strange kind of blaxploitation film, so strange I’m not sure it even fits the genre, strictly speaking. I’m no expert. Except for the Shaft films and Superfly (all enjoyable on a spaghetti western level) I’m clueless. With the local video stores out of business and me at least as allergic to streaming as I ever was to video games I’m likely to remain so.

But I’m glad I finally caught up with this one. I don’t know where it stands in blaxploitation but it’s a great gangster film, on a level with the original Scarface and White Heat at the top of the American heap. (Once more for the record, I’m no great fan of the Godfather movies. Though I admire the enormous skill with which they were made, I’m not really interested in seeing psychopaths being anything but offed, which I guess means I’m the rare person who has seen the films and wished the body count was higher.)

The body count in Across 110th Street isn’t just high, it’s personal. The “edgy” or “extreme” or “gory” violence which impressed Marcus, Leonard Maltin and pretty much everybody else in 1972 no longer stings. As I’ve occasionally noted before, that’s the problem with the edge. It keeps moving. Today’s stomach-churner is tomorrow’s yawn.

But this one strikes home anyway, because it’s mixed up with people and their dreams. Those dreams are crystallized in a single scene. The three black men who ripped off the mob to start the plot rolling have been hunted down one by one, each tortured until he gives up the others. The remaining survivor goes on the lam and heads back to his hold neighborhood, which is abandoned.

The journey only takes a few seconds of screen-time and most of it looks like this:

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That’s when the film’s underlying question comes into focus.

Just what would you do, to escape from this?

The man in the picture racks up a body count that is somewhere north of a dozen, with mobsters and cops falling in about equal measure.

He doesn’t make it. But he leaves the world with something you would have bet a million souls he couldn’t possibly possess in the film’s opening sequence. Call it Honor and, however curiously achieved, it’s by no means certain anyone left standing can make a similar claim.

The whole movie is exciting, in step with its own time and with ours. But it’s anchored in that single image. Without it, for all its other fine elements, including superb performances all around, it would just be cops and robbers, well orchestrated and ultimately empty.

With it, it has what you might call an extremely rare kind of seventies’ edge.

It still cuts.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Summers of Our Discontent)

John Adams (2008)

This is actually a bit of a cheat since I watched it a couple of weeks back but it doesn’t fit any other category around here so let’s call it poetic license!

The 8-hour-plus miniseries prizes feeling over form, telling detail over narrative sweep, and that’s basically to the good, even in the second part, which highlights the inherently sweeping narrative of the Continental Congress of 1776 and plays like a somber doppelganger of 1972’s lively, near-boisterous film of the musical 1776.

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Maybe timing really is everything. This is one of the weightier moments in 1776. In John Adams it would pass for comic relief.

However much one or the other is or is not about the actual events of 1776, it’s certain that, even more than usually, these particular “histories” are very much about their own moments.

The America of 1972 (when 1776 was released), was, for all its recent and ongoing tribulations, still connected to the old can-do optimism that was a crucial part–I’d say the crucial part–of the founding dream.

We’re not connected anymore.

Oh, we’re still connected to history. It would take a lot more fire than we’ve passed through yet to burn that bridge all the way down even assuming it could happen at all.

But we’re not really connected to the dream.

Like 1776, Part 2 of John Adams (by far the most dramatically compelling of the series) hinges around the conflict between Adams and Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson.

Unlike the earlier film, made within the lifetimes of most people likely to have seen either, John Adams does not take the final answer to the question that was burning through the summer of 1776–whether independence was truly the best, or even most “patriotic” option–for granted.

Not only does it not take the question for granted, it no longer assumes the answer has been entirely settled.

Since neither source biographer David McCullough nor anyone associated with the miniseries is likely to have been after any sort of revisionism, it’s probably safe to assume that the question is now hanging in the air (for a lot of summers before 2008 and every summer since) because the history is intact but the dream is severed.

Once that happens, the air is bound to be rearranged.

And it’s one thing to hear the rearrangement on the radio–the empty ranting across every music, talk or news format except NPR (as ever, wrapped in gauze) striving to fill the empty space–or see it played across nihilism-on-the-cheap movie screens or pay TV channels forever blurring the distinction between pro wrestling and “highbrow” navel gazing.

But when it affects the middle-brow comfort zone John Adams is so squarely aimed at, and affects it so profoundly, well, that’s when we can all say…this is serious!

How serious?

Let’s just say it’s possible that John Dickinson…

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or John Adams…

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the defeated man..

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and the triumphant man…

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..wore just such expressions in 1776.

But they were inconceivable to the world of 1972.

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Hope we don’t still need that dream.

Because we’re surely back to first things.

And forget John Adams. I’d be happily surprised to find a John Dickinson among us these days.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Go-Go’s Go to High School)

At the moment of their national breakout, in late 1981, the Go-Go’s played a concert at Palos Verdes High School. The concert was released on VHS and Laser Disc and, in an age when few people yet had VCRs, went straight to the cutout bin, where it became a collector’s item, priced well beyond what I was ever willing to spend for anything as technologically dubious as a VHS tape.

A few days ago, I finally found it here…Clear, complete, uncut:

Unless you’re a Go-Go’s fanatic, of course, you probably won’t want to watch the whole thing. But for followers of this blog, I do recommend at least fast-forwarding to the final song of the final encore, where you can see and hear West Coaster Belinda Carlisle (she’s the singer and, until this moment, as beyond awesome as the rest) committing spiritual murder by attempting to render “Remember (Walkin’ In the Sand)” as pure camp.

You can also see and hear the proof that East Coaster Gina Schock (she’s the drummer) was sent by God to drive demons from holy places. Really, you can just turn the sound down if you want, because the whole story is in their faces.

Since I did watch the whole thing (and will certainly do so again and again) I can report that my long-standing suspicion that The Final Battle of the Bands, which I have on secret authority will definitely be taking place at the conclusion of the Great Sock Hop at the End of Time, will come down to the Go-Go’s and whichever three guys Keith Moon decides to show up with has been confirmed.

I did glean one new piece of information.

Now I know who wins.