WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (End of Empire and, As It Happens, Everything Else…Dame Helen Presiding)

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[NOTE: This post contains spoilers for Prime Suspect, Season 7)

A few years back, I saw Christopher Hitchens and Salman Rushdie having some sort of sit-down chat on C-Span and, among various other topics, they fell to discussing British vs. American politics. One thing that struck them in particular was the phony lip-service American politicians are forced to pay to religious belief.

In England, they both agreed, such cow-towing never even crosses any politician’s mind.

I don’t recall either man mentioning why he nonetheless so much preferred living in America, but I do remember thinking they needn’t worry.

Being no fan of phony lip-service (to religion or anything else), I’ll still bet that when America is sufficiently like their England, there won’t be an America.

And there won’t be an England.

If a British television series like Prime Suspect was all anyone knew of England (and bear in mind that, for many of us, it is precisely that), then it would be logical to conclude that England, as either a meaningful historical identity or a sustainable political-economy, has already vanished.

The show ran in seven different, not-always-consecutive, seasons between 1991 and 2006. It was groundbreaking in all kinds of ways with its hyper-emphasis on forensics, emphasis on teamwork as opposed to the brilliance of a single detective, realistically gruesome corpses, the persistent elongation of the good old-fashioned mono-syllabic word “shit” into anywhere from and two to five syllables (though in one instance, I heard a s-s-s-s-s-s-hit, which I take to be seven), and, of course, an admirable but genuinely prickly female detective at the center.

Except for a handful of episodes, I didn’t see the show when it aired. By the time I became aware of it in the mid-nineties, the I’ll-wait-for-it-on-video mode was already prevailing at my house. When I first gathered up the whole series and watched it several years ago I thought it was a genuinely great series (“great” being an honorific I rarely find applicable to any TV series as a whole, though I frequently find individual aspects I like), but I didn’t think much about its possible socio-political import beyond the obvious (but, alas, necessary) feminist point that “women could do the job as good as men.”

Based on the DVD commentary and what I’ve been able to find on-line, I’m not sure the makers thought much beyond that either. And, of course, I have no idea what England was/is really like, circa 1991, 2006, or today. But I do know what the collapse of culture and politics in America feels like and, what with so many of their intellectuals preferring it here (a reverse of the old days when, if we produced a Henry James, he was likely to head straight over there and stay for a lifetime), I assume England really might be in worse shape than we are.

Certainly Helen Mirren’s DCI Jane Tennison begins the series in the familiar position (amidst all the then unfamiliar “realities” I mentioned above) of defending civilization from the monsters. And certainly there are monsters throughout the fifteen-year-run.

But, perhaps because, for entirely whimsical reasons, I watched seasons six through one in reverse order this time around, saving seven for the last, I was struck by England’s absence.

The upper classes with whom we Americans, at least, associate royalty and posh affluence (anything from Buckingham Palace to Downton Abbey), is barely glimpsed. But the middle class (presumably filled with all those Austen and Dickens and LeCarre readers) is even less in evidence. If not for occasional forays into Tennison’s private life it would be completely missing.

Essentially, then, and more so as the series progresses, Jane Tennison is defending an England no longer worth defending. The world of the series looks, sounds and most significantly, feels, like a police state which is kept from complete savagery only by the still barely perceptible presence of a liberal, common law, tradition.

It’s an England overrun by slums at the low end, and deep-set corruption at the high end. Nothing feels permanent, or even multi-generational. And by nothing, I mean nothing–not just buildings or roads or hairstyles or belief systems are decaying or putting up false fronts, but order itself.

What we have is a fifteen-year run through a nation that will produce no more glory. No more Shakespeares or MIltons. No Austens or Brontes. No Gladstones or Churchills. No Beatles or Stones.

Hell, no Clash or Sex Pistols.

Even they had to have something more than a black hole to rail against.

But, perhaps more to the point, this is an England that will produce no more Jane Tennisons.

In case anyone had kept such faith as the show permits (that is, in case anyone might assume my reading is, as the Brits say, daft), the final season gives us a younger version of Tennison herself. We don’t need to guess at this. She says as much herself and more than once.

It’s so much a younger version of herself (presented by the fresh-faced presence of Laura Greenwood), that, for once, and on the verge of her own retirement, she’s blinded to the sort of reality that she’s made a career of shoving in other people’s faces.

They’re bound together by intelligence, slash-n-bob haircuts, black coats worn as protection against the ever falling rain, a love of art, a deep-seated rebellious streak.

Somebody’s record collection.

Whether that last is Tennison’s, her dying father’s or some mixture of both is unclear, but it yields, for a start, Mirren’s lonely Jane dancing to Dusty Springfield’s “Stay Awhile” and, for a finish, a matched, bracketing sequence of Greenwood’s lonely Penny dancing to something else but clearly lost in the same past.

Of course, it’s really just Tennison’s past, a remnant of the middle class/middlebrow world her middle class/middlebrow father provided for her to rebel against, and perhaps flee from, by becoming the top-flight detective she wanted for herself instead of the artist her father, who we know from an earlier season was a liberator of Nazi death camps, wanted for her.

Penny’s a product of the new middle class. Her dad’s a statutory rapist who slept with one of her friends. By the time she’s dancing to the old records in Tennison’s dad’s house, she’s already a murderess and working up to a second try. She’s completely lost and, in the environment the series has built, not just in the final season (when Tennison is ravaged by alcoholism and so separated from any semblance of a normal life that she can’t even be in the same room with her surviving relatives without making an ass of herself, the last vestiges of middle class civility having been erased by her own choices), but in the entire corrosive atmosphere built up over a decade and a half, that primitivism is getting back its own and fresh-faced murder feels at least as natural as anything else.

This is an England where the air is permanently poisoned. And, long before the “reveal,” you can see and feel the inevitability of it all.

You don’t need plot-points or exegesis or the best role the actress of the age–definer of the wild child, the gangster’s moll, Morgana Le Fay, the first Elizabeth, the second Elizabeth–is ever likely to have, to know there’s no more England.

You just need to look, long before the aforementioned reveal, at the body language of the girl who will never have anything to defend.

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Yes, by all means. Let’s be more like England.

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

Rio Grande DIrector: John Ford (1951)

American Sniper Director: Clint Eastwood (2014)

Sergeant York DIrector: Howard Hawks (1941)

Zero Dark Thirty Director: Kathryn Bigelow (2012)

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This sort of thing usually starts innocently enough.

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

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

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

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

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

Not with the world on fire and everything.

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

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

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

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

Don’t worry. No one has.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So–o-o-o?

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

Killing is terrible.

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

There’s one big difference, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He ends by understanding what she understands to begin with:

Shadow Wars produce Shadow Warriors….and Shadow Results.

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

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

We’re all Shadow Warriors now.

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

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

 

 

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Selma…the Movie…and the Flap)

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For me, Selma the movie called to mind Pauline Kael’s astute line about another “black experience” film, the Civil War film Glory….not a great movie but a good movie about a great subject.

And I’ll add that I think Selma is an even better movie about an even better subject.

That being said, the flap about its relative lack of Oscar love this week–and the possible reasons behind it, which involve the mindset of a few thousand people who are about as representative of an average citizen’s perspective as, well, the few thousand people who are in the profession of judging the significance of such things–is more than a bit overdone.

I haven’t seen too many of 2014’s serious award contenders (basically just this and Boyhood). But it wouldn’t shock me, for instance, if there really were five performances better than David Oyelowo’s Martin Luther King, or five better directorial efforts than Ava DuVerney’s.

That’s nothing against either Selma‘s lead actor or director (or screenwriter, etc). They’re plenty good enough that it also wouldn’t at all surprise me if they were among the year’s best.

But I didn’t feel I was in the presence of some landmark in the history of cinema. Twenty years from now, when we are all once more re-hashing the Academy’s greatest oversights, I doubt this film or its makers are going to join Citizen Kane or John Wayne’s performance in The Searchers as consensus-makers on the standard list of “travesties.”

Basically, Selma is a movie that tries to do a whole lot and–especially by the standards of modern Hollywood–succeeds admirably. It’s got a fine cast, a sturdy script, sure (and occasionally inspired…that Birmingham church bombing scene is everything you’ve heard) direction and, with one very big exception, a riveting, well-chosen soundtrack.

If it keeps threatening to go off the rails, that’s only to be expected when a film is striving for so much while also being true to its vast historical subject–the story of the Selma marches and the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act told not simply as cantankerous, skillfully crafted political actions rooted in deeply moral causes (well done as those aspects are), but as a culmination of three hundred and fifty years of Black America’s suffering through the long night and dreaming of a brighter day.

That’s a lot for a movie to take on–almost certainly more than any other American film attempted this year–and for that reason alone, yes, it probably deserved more than just a Best Picture and Best Song nomination (if only because, if it now wins Best Picture, as it might, it will likely be seen as the Academy acting from a sense of White Liberal Guilt, rather than rewarding the film on its considerable merits–like I say, it’s very good, but not the rare film that could make all of that not matter, either now or in hindsight).

But the real shame is that all of this is overshadowing the film’s greatest strengths, and actually obscuring any meaningful debate (as least so far as I can find) of its weaknesses.

Case in point to the latter is the film’s portrayal of Lyndon Johnson. Though the decision to make his relation with J. Edgar Hoover (a genuine scourge of the Civil Rights era who basically gets a pass here) a bit cozier than it was, is curious and wrong-headed, he’s hardly scripted as the “villain” some have suggested. The more fundamental problem is that Tom Wilkinson, the fine British actor who plays him (and has received near-universal plaudits), doesn’t give him any dimension–he captures LBJ the strong-armer pretty well, but has none of Johnson’s unctuous charm or casual way with obscenity or resemblance to a force of nature. Any time Wilkinson was on screen, I felt like I was watching yet another Brit play yet another Southerner–a trick that hasn’t been pulled off with any panache since Vivien “I understood Blanche but I shouldn’t have played her because it cost me my mind” Leigh literally drove herself bonkers investing a little too much in A Streetcar Named Desire.

And, yeah, it’s a problem elsewhere, too: a big problem with Tim Roth, playing George Wallace as a flat piece of cardboard who couldn’t have gotten himself elected dogcatcher in Eufala; a smaller-but-still-nagging issue with Oyelowo’s King (every bit as Southern as Johnson or Wallace, lest we forget) and Carmen Ejogo’s Coretta Scott King (ditto), who are both excellent in general, but lack a certain elementary ease, as if they can’t quite overcome the distance between flesh and iconography. [As Andrew O’Hehir pointed out, in one of the more even-handed reviews of the film on Salon.com, it’s become a rather strange situation when such significant, and specifically American, roles (same thing happened with last year’s 12 Years a Slave, which was even directed by a Brit) keep not being played by American actors….just what, if any, deeper significance there might be, I’ll leave to others to debate, though if the track record of Americans, including actual southerners, playing southerners, is any indication of future performance, we certainly aren’t any worse off for having the Old Country’s exquisitely trained thespians shoulder the burden.]

Against all that, there’s an awful lot that goes right. The film has politics (extremely rare), it has heart (just as rare), it has nerve (even rarer). It doesn’t beat its chest or shirk its basic responsibilities. It handles potentially tricky subjects like King’s infidelity with both finesse and power.

Heck, its even got a good Elvis joke, told at the expense of Selma’s notorious sheriff Jim Clark no less.

So much to the good and credit all around.

But the real force in the movie–what keeps it on track and sears it in the memory even after an inexplicable mistake like playing a piece of bland modern music under the climactic final march (nearly killing the scene itself and effectively obliterating the earlier chills and echoes raised by inspired period picks like Otis Redding’s “Ole Man Trouble” and Duane Eddy’s heavy metal version (from 1965!) of “House of the Rising Sun”)–lies in the faces of the older black American actors: Oprah Winfrey (superb as Annie Lee Cooper); Wendell Pierce, (so right as Hosea Willams I’d pay twice regular if somebody made a movie about that monumental character and had Pierce play him) and, especially, Henry Sanders, pictured at the top of the post.

As Cager Lee–the grandfather of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young activist who was murdered by law-breaking “law enforcement” during one of Selma’s early protests–Sanders, a seventy-two year old native of Houston (and, therefore, perhaps the only member of the main cast who experienced Jim Crow both first-hand and at length), collapses the distance between himself and the then eighty-two year old Lee so thoroughly that he punches a hole in time.

When he’s on screen, its not history anymore….or a movie anymore.

We’re there. Not inside his skin–considering what such a man is bound to have endured, that would be presuming far too much–but looking at his face in the room.

Looking him in the eyes and knowing he would give up anything–not only his right to vote, but any chance to avenge himself for every wrong that’s ever been done to him–if he could only have his daughter’s boy back.

And knowing all the while–telling us all the while–that the best he can do now is push forward. That the only possible good that can be wrung from this and a million other horrors is the marker of progress the “movement” that his son died for is trying to achieve.

If the Oscars really meant anything, this is the kind of performance (hardly mentioned in any reviews and certainly not “nominated” for anything) they would exist to reward. So I’m not going to get worked up about what all else Selma might have gotten, or even what it might have deserved.

But there are some things….like this (cut in the Stax studio in Memphis, one of the few places in the film’s contemporary South that was actually fully integrated)…

…or this (the purest words of the prophet Curtis Mayfield)….

…that I’ll never hear quite the same way again.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (John Mellencamp Walks the Walk)

I spent Friday night watching back-to-back PBS broadcasts of ceremonies honoring the last two Gershwin Award winners. First up was this year’s honoree, Billy Joel, being feted at Constitution Hall. Second was a re-broadcast of an earlier shindig thrown for last year’s winner Carole King at the White House.

The star of King’s tribute was King herself, equally affecting whether she was beaming at the other performers from her front row seat, giving her acceptance speech, or rocking the house.

Joel’s tribute was, er, nice.

Amongst the stuff you always have to put up with at these things, there were genuinely nice performances from Boyz II Men, LeAnn Rimes, Natalie Maines, Joel himself.

All very apropo.

And, right in the middle of all that, John Mellencamp dropped by, wearing his Down-From-the-Mountain coat, which has been hanging on his shoulders–literally and figuratively–for so long it’s apparently turned into a second skin. I mean, I sure as hell couldn’t tell him from Woody Guthrie and that’s saying a little something, because Woody never got invited to this sort of thing.

Has he earned that sort of status?

Well, he was there to remind a room full of swells that the purely economic blight that settled over the land in the “go-go” eighties is with us still. I don’t know whose idea that was–Billy Joel, John Mellencamp, Jehovah. But, if the point was to emphasize the ultimate emptiness of all that pomp and circumstance, somebody knew what they were doing.

There’s no way to gauge the full impact of this outside of its context: the singer striding into the hall, saying his piece, ripping the heart from underneath a song that, on record, was, frankly, as slick a piece of pure product as ever came down the pike, holding it up for all to see, then–having cut the applause in half–walking off without looking back (apparently he walked straight out of the building, because he was noticeably absent from the standard-issue big finale where everybody gets on stage at once and sings the honoree’s signature tune)

But I think this answers the question.

Yeah, he’s earned that status.

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Burt Kennedy and James Garner Look at the Future Looking at the Past….Or Something Like That)

Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) (Burt Kennedy, director; starring James Garner, Joan Hackett, Bruce Dern, Walter Brennan and a cast sent from God.)

I mean, except for a nice Christmas and all, it’s been a dreary, slogging couple of weeks. So, with depression hovering, I did what I oft-times do and fired up a couple of westerns.

First up, was The Tin Star, Anthony Mann’s superbly balanced town-tamer from 1957, with Henry Fonda’s old school flint sparking Anthony Perkins’ whet-stone Methodology. This was my umpteenth visit and it never gets old.

Then, just by coincidence, my eyes roamed the shelves and alighted on this:

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Now, if anything, I’ve seen this even more often than The Tin Star…but I don’t think it ever made me laugh until I stopped breathing before (believe me, I’d remember, because not much ever does).

It may have just been the burden of the times being lifted for a few moments, but I suspect another element was the proximity (in my personal viewing lexicon) to this.

I mean, Support Your Local Sheriff is a specific kind of spoof–not only of westerns but of the “town-tamer” tropes in particular (there are plenty of direct references to Rio Bravo, My Darling Clementine and High Noon, among many others).

But, take all the elements…a reluctant sheriff:

SUPPORT5a wide open town…

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with muddy streets and, er, “construction issues”

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touchy moral dilemmas…

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shady back room deals…

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a winsome, “complicated” heroine…

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a bemused sidekick…

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villains who embody consummate evil…

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spine-tingling showdowns…

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further moral dilemmas…

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and a sort of happy ending…

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..and what have you got, but Deadwood with all the “realistic” dreariness supplanted by gut-busting laughter and touching human drama!

Not to mention a tight script, a dream cast (every one of whom would have served the “seriousness” of the later project better than their modern stand-ins) and a fine sense of the absurd.

A spot-on parody of the past is one thing.

But parodying the future forty years before it gets around to “revising” that same past?

That’s genius.

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Tommy James Goes Deep as the Ocean)

In prepping for a Vocal History of the Naked Truth (about which more later), and reading Mr. James’ autobiography (about which also more later), I’ve had the second disc of Rhino’s 2-disc Pop Collection in heavy rotation.

I always thought Tommy James was great, but, as usually happens when I dive deeper on practically anybody from this period….I find out I sold him short. This was #23 Pop in 1970 and previously unknown to me, which makes it the sort of half-hidden gem I’m especially drawn to.

Things are hectic just now. With or without period video, it’s good to be reminded that rock and roll is bottomless. Peace.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Memphis Boys’ American Vision)

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This actually came in the mail in time to accompany me to Memphis last week and it made such a strong impression that even a new level of appreciation for Otis Redding (via Rhino’s old box set, which I’ve had for a while…and, yes, I’ve always liked Otis Redding, but I’m starting to connect with him more and more) didn’t lessen the impact of Ace’s superb selection and sequencing.

Although, Chips Moman’s studio’s output cries out for a box set, this sampler does give a real taste of his vision, which was something like: Come one, come all.

Which might mean he had the most appropriately named studio of all.

Where else would you find garage band classics next to deep soul singers (including the blue-eyed version), next to country rock next to straight Top 40 pop next to late period girl group hits next to, you know, the greatest sessions of Elvis Presley’s career?

In all of that, nothing struck me–either in the twilight gloaming of South Alabama or (upon my return), the late night comfort of my den, quite like the genius segue of this…

into this..

I know, I know. Music and Things are just as good now…

Except, you know, really they’re not.

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (Patty Loveless at the Opry)

Patty Loveless (with Vince Gill): Grand Ole Opry, 2013.

She hasn’t released an album in five years. It wouldn’t surprise me if she announced one tomorrow or never recorded another. She’s always walked her own path.

But I do know this.

If she decides to leave it be, it won’t be because she’s lost her voice or her commitment:

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (James Brown at the Multiplex)

Get On Up–2014 (d. Tate Taylor)

(Photo: Imagine Entertainment)

I managed to catch Get On Up this week and it was more than well worth the wait, the price of the ticket and the after-dark flat tire I got on the way home.

As a biopic of James Brown–musician, tyrant, savant, striver, mystery–it’s excellent.

As an essay on “the funk”–the man’s music from across several decades woven seamlessly into the compelling story up top while creating and sustaining its own steadily rising pulse underneath–it’s brilliant.

As a mirror-filled, winding journey through the traps that reside inside Black America’s mighty attempt to both belong to the American Experiment and retain a meaningful personal or collective identity separate and apart from it, it’s genuinely scarifying.

Chadwick Boseman’s performance has been widely praised and, even so, probably not enough. I haven’t seen all of the musical biopics based on rock/soul musicians (Ray being the biggest gap in my viewing). But I’ve seen a lot of them, and nothing–not even the fantastic double-team Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix did on June and Johnny–matches what Boseman does here, which is fix this nonlinear journey (Robert Christgau, whose positive review finally got me to the theater, called it time-traveling, referencing Jonathan Lethem’s take on Brown from several years back–I’d call it time-warping) firmly around his center, while withholding just enough of Brown’s essence to preclude the usual easy assumptions such a narrative generally fails to avoid in any context, let alone a Hollywood film.

I spent the movie waiting for Boseman to either fall off his high-wire or give in to cliche, so certain it was bound to happen that the failure of any such to arrive came as slow relief rather than exhilaration. Not saying I didn’t also have fun, but I’ll enjoy it better next time around, knowing that neither Boseman or the film ever give in.

To the extent that the film has any conventional structure, it’s centered around the love story between Brown and his long-time sideman Bobby Byrd. Playing Brown’s alter-ego–the brother he never had–Nelsan Ellis matches Boseman’s quality and commitment step for jagged step. At least one of their scenes on stage (recreating a show in Paris) matches the excitement Brown and Byrd created night after night in real life and Ellis’ quiet evocation of the joy and pain a performer experiences at the moment when he realizes he isn’t going to be the man because his best friend is going to be the man is as heartbreaking a scene as any I can recall.

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So much being to the good, the film’s one real weakness is the portrayal of all white people (including those pictured above, which by itself is fine, especially since Mick Jagger produced and is probably responsible for this being made at all, the best thing he’s done in decades) as clueless, shuck-and-jive minstrels. Reversing history’s bad taste (and depriving it of any of the subversive elements real minstrels, from Stepin Fetchit on back, often brought to the table) gets us nowhere. The notion that one race–any race–defines virtue at the expense of another isn’t so much ridiculous as dangerous, summoning as it does the false comforts that derive from a matrix of deadly assumptions: that the worm White America once rode to glory has turned, that it can never turn back and so what if it did.

Whatever his faults as a man (and one reason Get On Up isn’t likely to generate much Oscar buzz is that it does not skimp on those genuinely disturbing faults) James Brown the artist certainly knew better–knew the way to oneness is oneness, not cheap corn or, among other things, misrepresenting The T.A.M.I. Show as an all-white venue where Brown was the lone soulful interloper.

That being said, until somebody has the nerve to do a two-man show where Elvis (sadly absent here) and James sit in a hotel room (maybe in Vegas) talking for two hours–ending with a coda where James says goodbye to E’s corpse–this will remain definitive, and more than fill the cup.

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Stones Prep for Altamont)

 The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus–1968

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According to Pete Townshend’s interview (included on the DVD extras), this television show came about because he and Mick Jagger were tinkering with the notion of having a rock and roll tour that traveled around like a circus…ah, the ideas the lads came up with then! That particular idea didn’t really get off the ground and, for that, we can probably all be thankful. But Jagger was intrigued enough to pursue it down another avenue with this “live” television show being the result.

The show is passing strange for most of its length. Music Hall humor, touches (generally heavy-handed) of sixties-style cine-art, celebrity-spotting crowd scenes–all the qualities that generally make for a train wreck.

As usual, any redemption comes from the music. There’s plenty of that–music, anyway, if not quite redemption–and most of it is fine. Jethro Tull is surprisingly (to me anyway) good. Taj Mahal is solid as always. There’s good stuff from an all-star band led by John Lennon (and then Yoko Ono, in a number that’s mostly interesting for demonstrating just how infatuated Lennon was–backing her, he looks like every goofy-eyed schoolboy you ever knew and it’s genuinely endearing). The Who smokes the room, though, being as how they had just entered their arty phase, maybe not quite as thoroughly as usual. And Marianne Faithfull, doubtless on the bill only by virtue of being Jagger’s current squeeze, is good enough to have me looking up the cost of her greatest hits on Amazon.

But, of course, it’s the Stones show to steal and they were at an especially interesting place. Brian Jones, the band’s founder, was on the verge of being shown the door (this was his last appearance with them), and would find the grave not long after. And, coincidentally or not, the Stones were on the verge of eclipsing the Beatles. One way to view this entire special, which is dated from December 11, 1968, is as a passing of the torch–a passing that wasn’t at all obvious in the moment, but which comes into clear relief when Lennon’s loopy presence is contrasted with Jagger’s growing assurance.

And, of course, there was the whole question of whether Mick had met the devil down at the crossroads somewhere south of Carnaby Street and forked over his soul.

Let me just say that I’m ambivalent about this. On the one hand, having gone a round or two with Old Scratch (turned down his deal myself–nasty bugger), I’m not readily impressed by the fakers. And Mick could be a fake. Sure he could. Easy enough to fool the world, after all, if you’re just a clever lad. No need to call on the Prince of Darkness for that task. and, if anyone has ever been more down with the notion of one being born every minute than Mick Jagger, they’ve passed beyond my notice.

And yet…

They begin a touch stiffly. “Jumping Jack Flash” without  the jump. But it’s still “Jumping Jack Flash,” in the end, and by the time they lock onto the groove, they start to get….comfortable.

Then they get good. “Parachute Woman,” “No Expectations,” album cuts from Beggar’s Banquet in lieu of familiar hits and gaining power every second.

After that, a teaser–“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” minus the choir and orchestra which, as it turns out, it needs.

And then, just when it looks like things might wind down, that classic, “is the deal real yet?” intro to “Sympathy For the Devil” and they’re off. Mick in full flight. Contrasting him on stage with Lennon in the crowd, you can just about believe that Jagger–fake satyr tattoos and all–really did have that meeting at the crossroads and the deal went something like, “Well, I’m not sure about my soul…but I might be able to hand you a Beatle.”

You can laugh, but when I watched this the first time that’s what it felt like. An advertisement for the disappearance of John Lennon, to be replaced by his friend Michael Jagger. Primal Scream Therapy and imagining no possessions (except one’s own) straight ahead for the one (all disguised as an escape from “Hello Goodbye” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” and really who could blame him?). Let It Bleed and “Honky Tonk Women” and Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street for the other.

Oh, and Altamont–where Jagger would be haunted less by deaths resulting from his lack of judgment than by unfailing recognition that his business acumen (the thing he clearly valued most) had its limits.

That plus the “end of the sixties.”

And forty subsequent years of not mattering, even to yourself, except as a human cash register.

That’s what happens when you take the deal–even if it’s for somebody else’s soul and you get to play Satan on TV for the back end. No matter how slick you think you played it, Old Scratch always gets his in the end.

Like I said. Nasty bugger.