CITIZEN KANE ON CAMPUS (And Then There Was Hollywood: Tenth Rumination)

Citizen Kane (1941)
D. Orson Welles

Notes on attending Kane on campus last night….

1)   Watching it for the first time in a while–first time in decades with an audience–I was struck by how little its prescience has been noted by the crit-illuminati and/or their journo-politico fellow travelers re our recent political upheavals. I’ve seen Donald Trump compared to Adolf Hitler, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln (by himself), P.T. Barnum, Huey Long, Ross Perot, Ronald Reagan, Calvin Coolidge, etc. Never once have I seen him compared to Charles Foster Kane. I’m sure it must have happened. But, as closely as I’ve been following along, I have to believe such comparisons have been few and far between. Now why would that? Hold on, I think I may have an answer way, way further down…

2) The main reason I go to watch classic movies on college campuses whenever I can is to participate in–and gauge–audience reactions. This was one of the rare times FSU’s Student Life Center was running a film in 35mm, so it was extra treat. (The Center, incidentally, is named for Reubin Askew, former Florida governor who was the only Democrat my mother ever considered voting for. In the end, she didn’t, citing her contempt for his running mate, though I always suspected she just couldn’t make the leap to the idea that the “New” Democrats were anything more than the Jim Crow scoundrels who had ruled her Southern childhood dressed up in sheep’s clothing. She was wrong about the thoroughly decent Askew–but had she lived just a little longer she would have spotted Bill Clinton for the smooth, duplicitous son of Pitchfork Ben Tillman he was right off, and taken some gently sardonic satisfaction in noting which one rose to the White House.) Re Kane, though:The reactions this time were….interesting.

3) The film was introduced by a couple of genial, slightly goofy student-age dudes, one of whom was evidently in charge of the theater’s programming, the other the projectionist (this being a rare modern occasion when one was required). They gave us an entertaining five minutes, during which I kept thinking “If this was Moore Auditorium in 1983, these guys would be chum for the sharks.” We won’t win any more wars, but the world was meaner then.

3) The main new thing that struck me in the movie–it’s one of those movies which will always reveal new things–was that when Joseph Cotten’s Jed Leland returns his copy of Kane’s “Ten Principles” (along with a $25,000 check torn to pieces), it’s not a comment on Kane’s journalistic or political honor (Leland was the first to know he didn’t have any), and therefore must be meant to strike at his betrayal of his marital honor–the only kind he’s really broken faith with. I don’t think the college kids around me quite got this (though they knew it was a big deal of some sort–it elicited the only gasps and “o-o-o-h-h-h-s” of the night). There’s no reason they should have, of course, marital honor no longer being a thing. But I was ashamed of myself for not noticing years back, when it still was a thing.

4) When it was over,  a girl in front of me turned to her friends and said “It was good.” They all nodded along. The relief was palpable.

5) There was a moment during the film, when the kid behind me said “This is going on right now.” I honestly can’t remember which scene he reacted to, because I was pretty much thinking that about every scene.

6) It became obvious to me for the first time during this viewing that Welles didn’t screen Stagecoach forty times while he was making Kane so he could understand more about deep focus cinematography or how to film ceilings (those being two of many theories, some endorsed by Welles himself, of what he was after). He screened Stagecoach forty times so he could learn how people move and talk on screen and to understand film-rhythm.

7) For all that–and all its technical perfection (one understands why it knocks ’em over in Film School)–it still doesn’t pack the emotional punch of Gone With the Wind or The Searchers, the reasonable competition for Hollywood’s greatest film. It might be a greater film from a purely technical standpoint and it’s certainly formidable as a Narrative. But if Narrative is the prime value of story-telling–and it should be–it still comes a little short. I should add that this says more about the other films than it does about Kane, which is still a moving experience on every level. And more so, I find, with age.

8) I’ve never bought that it was one of the great Hollywood blunders for John Ford and How Green Was My Valley to have won Best Director and Best Picture for 1941. All in all, I might pick Welles and Kane, but it’s a close run. He was robbed of the acting Oscar, though. Gary Cooper–almost inevitably with war clouds looming, then breaking, during awards season–won for a fine performance in Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (Ford’s own stated choice for best picture and director). But Welles gave one of the half-dozen signature performances in film. The only greater injustice in the history of the acting category was John Wayne being denied so much as a nomination for The Searchers. Welles was at least nominated.

9) Did I mention kids are so much nicer now? In the bathroom afterwards, three guys were talking about how “It wasn’t bad for 1941.” And another said, “I mean, it’s not something I’m gonna tell my friends they have to see.”

10) I was otherwise occupied, and thus robbed of my chance to share my Citizen Kane story with the younger generation. Had I been able to leave the stall a little sooner, I was planning to say something like this:

So I was sitting with my Dad about fifteen years ago, a few years before he died, and he puts down his newspaper and says ‘John, what is the significance of “Rosebud?”‘ I then proceeded to explain to him that it was a reference to the movie Citizen Kane (of which he had vaguely heard–my dad saw a movie about once a decade). I told him some of the plot and the presumed symbolism of it turning out to be the name of Charles Foster Kane’s childhood sled, the one he was playing with when he was taken from his parents.

My dad listened patiently to all of that, and, when I was finished, he looked off into the distance for a minute and finally nodded and said “Oh yeah. Old Hearst’s mistress.” Then he went back to reading his paper.

Mind you I hadn’t said a thing about Kane being based, in whole or in part, on William Randolph Hearst, let alone anything about Rosebud being his pet name for Marion Davies’ private parts and that being the more or less real reason Welles got more or less run out of Hollywood.

The only thing I could ever figure was that in Dad’s Carny days, perhaps through his friend and business partner “Cy,” who was an intimate of Red Skelton’s (they having grown up together in the mob-owned night clubs of the Midwest–there were certain towns in Illinois from which it was necessary for Cy to absent himself from the show for a week or two), he had picked up some piece of stray gossip that stayed with him all those years and flashed to the top of his mind as the shortest, straightest way to sort out all the nonsense I had been babbling on about.

I’m not sure how much of that I would have had a chance to share with my fellow bladder-emptiers last night. But if, by chance, they hadn’t fled, I was going to finish with a flourish and say:

“Now you should probably go watch it again and see what you missed.”

Ah well. Their loss.

And I still can’t blame them because, for all its purported “modernity,” Kane’s fall is straight out of the oldest trope in Western Civilization: Pride goeth before a fall.

Today’s twenty-somethings could be forgiven for thinking that’s all a lot of hogwash.

[Addenda: To answer the earlier question….The crit-illuminati and journo-politicos will catch on to the similarities between Donald Trump and their “fictional” Welles-ian hero when the Security State arranges for The Donald to be found in Mar-a-Lago, with a snow-globe falling from his dying hand as he lies on his big brass bed and Melania is discovered by a maid, locked up in the bathroom, murmuring, “I never wanted it. He wanted it for me!” The reports of the event won’t suffice to awaken them, but the note from the boss will do the trick. You know, the one that begins “Our friends at CIA have requested…”

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (June, 2017 Edition)

As before….reverse order…catch as catch can. 20 days, 10 movies.

June 1-Return of Sabata (1971, Gianfranco Parolini, 1st Viewing)

Because I keep hoping there’s more to spaghetti westerns than Sergio Leone. Perhaps there is. The Sabata films aren’t it. Recommendations welcome.

June 4-The Far Country (1955, Anthony Mann, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the most narratively complex of Mann’s western outings with James Stewart, all of which are fantastic, narratively and every other way. This one has more politics, more death and a great John McEntire villain. I used to count it least among the Mann/Stewart collaborations. If Corrine Calvert’s shirttail kid ever grows on me the way Ruth Roman’s saloon mistress has, it just might become my favorite.

June 7-Deadpool (2016, Tim Miller, 1st Viewing)

Visiting with friends, so off my beaten path. Not without its charms, but its own idea that its faux-nihilism is “edgy” (shared by many a critic last summer) is by far the movie’s funniest element. When I heard twenty f-words in two minutes, I kept thinking about an average kvetching session at my office breaks ten years ago (when I still occasionally hung around an office) and all I could hear was Rooster Cogburn saying “This is like women talking.” Which leads me to wonder: Is it that the scriptwriters know….or that they don’t know? It does have Morena Baccarin and a sappy ending straight out of 1939, so there’s that.

June 15-Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016, Gareth Edwards, 1st Viewing)

Still visiting. But not quite so far off the path. I do try to keep up. I suspect if I’d seen it in the theater I’d have enjoyed it more than any Star Wars since The Empire Strikes Back, though that’s not saying a whole lot. As usual, the best and liveliest character was a droid. Shouldn’t that be telling somebody something by now?

June 17-The Dirty Dozen (1967, Robert Aldrich, Umpteenth Viewing)

Home. Can you tell? Time for a palate cleanser to get the road dust out of my mouth. But, besides that, for the care which so many good actors took to etch something memorable out of what could have been rote or even cardboard characters. Everybody who gets any time is perfect–Jim Brown every bit as committed to getting it right as John Cassevetes, and vice versa–and Aldrich always did know his stuff. Is it a good sign that I never can remember exactly who gets out alive? I can’t say, but I still hold my breath.

June 18-Dawn at Socorro (1954, George Sherman, Umpteenth Viewing)

For it’s subtle foregrounding of the saloon life that’s hanging around in the background of hundreds of westerns and shoved to the front in dozens more with far less effect. For some of the most beautiful technicolor cinematography, inside and out, of any western (meaning any film). For the precision and economy of a deceptively languid plot (which fooled me into thinking not much was going on the first time I watched it). For Piper Laurie, stopping the barroom buzz for the length of a held breath the first time she walks into the saloon that’s going to swallow her. For the best use of a train station between High Noon and How the West Was Won. For the way Edgar Buchanan’s desiccated sheriff reads the script’s funniest lines as though he’s daring somebody–anybody–to laugh. And for the way Rory Calhoun’s trying-to-go-straight gunfighter says “My past. Every dark, miserable day of it.” when he’s asked if he knows who’s coming for him, just before he steps into the street to find out how many more men he has to kill to save a girl he met on the stage twenty-four hours earlier from ever having to say the same.

June 19-The Fighting Prince of Donegal (1966, Michael O’Herlihy, Umpeenth Viewing)

For Disney’s last great swashbuckler–and, unless you count Star Wars (which owed more to Disney than anyone likes to admit), Hollywood’s. And for being no worse as “history” (upon which it is loosely based) than a lot of films which had far less excuse for taking liberties. Highlighted by Peter McEnery’s burning intensity as the lead. Even if we was English-playing-Irish, he looks, sounds and moves like the sort of charismatic lad who would inspire deep loyalties among friends and deeper hatreds among enemies (the latter portrayed nicely here by a memorably snake-like Scottish-playing-English Gordon Jackson). The duels and sieges are on a human scale and there’s a rare moment in the final assault when the burning, age-old hatred between Irish and English can be viscerally felt as the Irishmen try to retake a castle where their women are being held hostage. I might have fonder memories than most because this is the first “new” movie I can recall seeing in a theater, just before my sixth birthday. I don’t pretend to objectivity. But I’ve seen it many times since–the first time after one of those thirty-year searches which are bound to raise unreasonable expectations–and it’s never failed to make me smile.

June 19-White Heat (1948, Raoul Walsh, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the only film that’s definitive as noir, gangster and prison flick without being limited by the conventions of those or any other genre. For Jimmy Cagney’s Psycho, Edmond O’Brien’s undercover G-Man, Virginia Mayo’s Two-Timing Moll and Margaret Wycherly’s Ma Barker spin, all definitive as hell. If the finale doesn’t go right through your spine, you probably ain’t alive.

June 20-Guilty as Sin (1993, Sidney Lumet, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the absence of illusions about where the world was heading when it was made. Released a year before the O.J. Simpson murders and two years before the trial, it has a lot of the more cynical elements nailed in place. I think it hasn’t gotten more credit because it deals in class rather than race and race is what a lot of people still think the Simpson trial was about (it’s much easier that way). Also for Lumet’s use of sound….I’ve watched this, at times, with my eyes closed and it makes a fantastic radio drama. But it’s hard work not watching, because Don Johnson and Rebecca DeMornay have what they used to call chemistry…only it’s hate chemistry and when two people that attractive have that going you have to conclude either something’s going on off-screen or they’re much better at this acting thing than they’ve been given credit for. Be careful of this one. It seems conventional–like civilization hasn’t necessarily run off the rails–but it’s liable to sneak up on you.

June 20-Stagecoach (1939, John Ford, Umpteenth Viewing)

What, you think I need a reason to watch Stagecoach? Not hardly. But if you need a reason, watch for the way Ford introduces practically everyone pictured here in the space of about eight minutes and never lets you forget them. Orson Welles screened it forty times while he was filming Citizen Kane, just so he could make you remember half that many people half as well…and he just about got what he needed for his greatest film from what might not rank in Ford’s top ten.

…Til next time!

FOOT SOLDIERS, PART TWO (And Then There Was Hollywood: Second Rumination)

Three films:

The Longest Day (Daryl Zanuck, Ken Annakin, Bernhard Wiki, Andrew Marton, 1962)

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Zulu (Cy Endfield, 1964)

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Gettysburg (Ron Maxwell, 1993)

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One theme:

“Tich ‘as ‘ed it! Fook me!” His face was purple, running sweat. “That shows ye w’at air strikes an’ tanks is woorth! Fookin’ ‘ell!”
“Will we go in again?”
“We’ll fookin’ have to!”

(George MacDonald Fraser, recounting a conversation with his Border Regiment’s old hand, Grandarse, during the Battle of Meiktila, fought between the British and the Japanese in Burma, 1945. From Quartered Safe Out Here, 1992)

I hope to be reviewing Fraser’s book soon. That will give me an excuse to look up his quote about the value of “special forces.” For now, suffice it to say Fraser and his mate were hardly alone in their disdain. Infantrymen who have served in combat tend to have a jaundiced view of the things which most impress their betters.

That’s because, from the dawn of warfare until yesterday, war only had a very limited set of real meanings.

Take the ground.

Hold the ground you’ve taken.

Don’t give up the ground somebody else is trying to take.

Until yesterday, war’s hard rules–and history’s–were well and universally understood.

Don’t lose.

If you lose, expect to bear the consequences.

When the men with the hardware meet the men with the belief, the men with the belief will end up owning the hardware.

These meanings, and yes, one might call them rules, were best and most clearly understood by those who were asked to do the hardest, dirtiest work–and the overwhelming majority of the killing and dying.

They were called various things in various languages at various times and places. All of which boiled down to a simple concept: Foot soldiers.

Important battles–or portions thereof–have been fought throughout history on horseback, at sea, in the air.

Every existential battle has come down to foot soldiers. You can win an important, history changing battle at sea (see the English defeat of the Spanish Armada for a prime example). But to take and hold ground–the final essence of war–you have to put boots on it. And those boots have to stay put.

The English could have lost to the Spanish Armada (or at Trafalgar, more than two hundred years later, or the Battle of Britain, fought in the air over a century after that) and still not lost.

You only really lose, existentially, when your foot soldiers lose.

Now, this foot-soldiers-holding-or-taking-ground seems like an inherently dramatic situation, the telling of which would lend itself most readily to film, the most visceral story-telling medium. And so it does. That being the case, there are surprisingly few movies devoted to straightforward depictions of foot soldiers doing their dirtiest work.

A lot of movies have battle scenes, and these battle scenes are often riveting. They frequently form some important role in a larger story. Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998), ostensibly about the same subject as The Longest Day, has a memorably harrowing opening sequence devoted to taking the Normandy beaches. After which, in typical fashion, it spends an additional two hours being about something else, namely saving Private Ryan. Such sequences are highlighted in almost any film that concerns itself with war.

But I only know a relative handful of such films where the clash of foot soldiers is the primary focus.

Of those, I only know three really good ones.

I don’t think any of them reach the last level of greatness–no one’s going to mistake them for Citizen Kane or The Searchers or even Paths of Glory (another film where foot soldiers figure prominently but the actual fighting is not quite the point). But they’re the best we have, in the English language anyway. And they have lessons within them that we have spent the last half-century forgetting.

We have convinced ourselves that no powerful army will ever again be in striking distance of our own national capital…or the capital of any valuable ally. We have convinced ourselves that we will never again have to throw the full weight of our own mighty army onto the outer edges of a foreign continent and fight for every inch of ground just to get a foothold. We’ve even convinced ourselves that the defense of an empire’s lonely outposts (and God knows we have more of those than any empire which has preceded us) will never come down to hard fighting against overwhelming odds.

We have convinced ourselves that any victory worth having can be won by special forces and air strikes and, at a stretch, tanks.

We have entered a safe zone where none of this….

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or this…

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or certainly this…

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will again be necessary.

These are now ancient anachronisms. Not useful to our enlightened age, never mind that our age and our “enlightenment” were built upon ten thousand years worth of such.

And it’s true that even the most improbable victories do not necessarily bear final fruit.

More or less faithfully depicted in Zulu, the stand a hundred and fifty British regulars made at Rorke’s Drift in present day South Africa, on January 22-23 of 1879, against four thousand Zulus whose fellow tribesman had wiped out a command ten times larger at Islandlwana literally hours before, kept the earlier battle from being counted a disaster on the order of Custer’s Last Stand, fought with similar odds to those faced at Rorke’s Drift, three years earlier, half way around the world. It greatly enhanced the British army’s ability to quickly and efficiently mount a re-invasion of the Zulu Kingdom (the attacks on Islandlwana and Rorke’s Drift were a response to the first invasion). And it gave the Brits a stirring mythology (the best “myths” are always the ones based in hard truth) that may well have served to stiffen more than a spine or two in the dark days awaiting in the century ahead.

Still, in the long run, the victory at Rorke’s Drift meant no more strategically than the defeat at Little Big Horn. We’re still in charge of the lands where the Sioux and Cheyenne once roamed. The Brits are long gone from South Africa.

Which ought to give us a clue about our tendency to continually poke hornets’ nests and be forever surprised when we are stung and stung and stung again.

In case that doesn’t happen–in case we insist on both fighting “wars” and not winning them–there are other lessons to be learned from the films that give us the most realistic glimpse of what the dirtiest work of not just empire, but civilization, looks and feels like.

One of the lessons is civilization’s fragility–the nearness of Chaos and its attendant darkness. Cast aside Rorke’s Drift, with its junior commanders (played by Stanley Baker and Michael Caine), the senior of the two an engineer, who had seen no action previously and would never again distinguish themselves in battle or anywhere else, if you want to.

But we’ll do well to ponder Joshua Chamberlain  (Jeff Daniels in Gettysburg) holding the far flank at Little Round Top after having been told that retreat was not an option, or a crippled Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. (Henry Fonda in The Longest Day), landing on the wrong Normandy beach and deciding “We’ll start the war from here.”

They and their men, and thousands of others doing equally dangerous and difficult things around them, turned tides that might well have swept over western civilization had they given way. And none of those men sprang from a vacuum. Certainly none sprang from the kind of vacuum we have created for ourselves now, when military units are valued, if at all, more for their all-well-and-good-if-they-work social laboratory aspects than their ability to do the elementary things every single empire before us has forgotten at its peril when the weight of battle turned their laboratories back into yet another real war zone, where chariots or tanks or social experiments were never enough by themselves.

What elementary things?

Once more with feeling….

Take and hold ground. Whatever ground Fate and the moment have deemed vital to personal, national, civilizational, survival.

Believe that the effort was worth something.

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zulu4 longestday6It’s possible we won’t need to remember the basics, of course.

There’s always the chance that the hard and fast rules of human history and human nature really were made for others.

But if I could lay odds on the future I won’t live to see, I know which way I’d bet.

ROCK AND ROLL SCREENINGS (Take #5: Grace of My Heart)

Grace of My Heart
Allison Anders, director (1996)

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(Warning: As usual for my reviews there are SPOILERS! so please beware if you haven’t seen it.)

Having not seen Grace of My Heart in seventeen years, what I carried with me was one scene and Illeana Douglas’ smile, which managed to be both sly and vulnerable in a self-reinforcing manner that was unlike anyone else’s slyness or vulnerability.

I first saw the movie a couple of years after it was released, so, back then, I already knew it wasn’t going to make her a star. I also knew if that role didn’t make her a star, nothing could.

Our loss.

The common line on Douglas in Grace of My Heart is that she’s playing a version of Carole King and that’s certainly true. But, watching the movie from this distance, it’s a little clearer that she’s also playing something like the secret spirit of the sixties, the lynch-pin of an era as re-imagined by director Allison Anders, who, being a decade older than Douglas herself, could work at least partly from memory.

Fortunately, neither woman restricted herself to the memory of what actually happened, interesting as that might have been. Grace of My Heart is more like the memory of what might have been. Hence its unique ability to slip the bounds of docudrama or even film a clef and cast a warm glow that lingers even through the scene I remembered and which I’ll get to directly.

“Might have been” works so well here in part because it’s not really an escape.

Carole King really did survive and triumph in much the same way Douglas’ “Denise Waverly” does here (the name is made up on the spot in a recording studio by John Turturro’s Joel Millner, a Phil Spector-like hustler/producer, and serves to conceal the character’s “Edna-Buxton-of -Buxton-Steel” ruling class background). So that part’s both true and more or less factual.

Phil Spector, on the other hand, did not turn out to be a hustler-with-a-heart-of-gold, as the movie imagines, but a twisted sociopath.

NVE00120And Brian Wilson, represented here by Matt Dillon’s Jay Phillips, did not take the path so many ghouls wished for him (to ease his pain of course–the ghouls always have their reasons) and walk into the Pacific Ocean.

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Taken only as a clef, then, the movie can throw you. It certainly threw me the first time around,  mostly because I was seeing it only as “The Carole King Story,” on which level, thanks to lots of genuine love for the period exhibited all around and Douglas’ mesmerizing performance (not to mention presence, that indefinable quality which even Hollywood can’t quite kill in the very few people who really have it), it worked.

It just didn’t quite work all the way.

I mean, it got saved in the end. It got saved by that scene I mentioned and which I’m still gonna get to. But I kept thinking it might have been better if it had stuck closer to the facts.

Well, things change.

In the years since, Phil Spector–the one we have, not the one we wish we had–actually killed somebody and went to jail for it.

In the years since, Brian Wilson has had a career resurgence and a lovely, mostly factual, movie made about him.

In the years since, Carol King has become a well-feted institution and Illeana Douglas has become a character actress on television.

Suddenly this thing looks more like a miracle and the choices Anders made with her vision (a vision that started out as an attempt to do a film about the Shangri-Las, which we can all still dream she, or somebody, gets to do some day before all the dreams fade) have been validated.

The movie was/is really not so much about King or Spector or Wilson (or Eric Stolz’s Howard Cazsatt, standing in for Gerry Goffin, or Bridget Fonda’s Kelly Porter, standing in for Lesley Gore or any number of other stand-ins you might have fun spotting) as about the dreams the audience once shared with the people who ended up defining those dreams, definitions no audience has really shared with any dreamers since (given that having enough bling to look good at the club and surviving the work week aren’t really dreams, just impulses).

I mean, somebody might be living this…

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or this…

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or this…

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or this…

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or this…

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or this…

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or this (where, let me just say, appropos of nothing, Douglas does more for hip-huggers and bare midriffs than anyone since Helen Reddy pulled it off singing “I Am Woman” on The Midnight Special in the dream-clinging seventies)….

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or this…

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or this…

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They might even be living this…

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or this….

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or this…

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or this….

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Or, at long last, making the complete journey from this…

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to this…

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…Yes indeed, somebody might be living some or all of that. Every bit. Taylor Swift, maybe, God love her.

But wanting and dreaming are not the same thing and, whoever’s wanting and getting some or all of those things now, they’re not really dreaming it.

Neither are we.

And, even if we are or they are, we’re not dreaming it together and nobody’s dreaming it with us.

There’s a reason there have probably been more biopics, clef and otherwise, about rock and rollers than all other musicians (and maybe all other entertainers) combined. And it’s not because boomers rule the box office. That hasn’t been true for a long time. It wasn’t true when Grace of My Heart was in theaters, which is why even some cinephiles haven’t seen it. And yet they keep coming, good, bad and indifferent.

Hard to let go of an old dream when there are no new ones.

Which leads me, finally, to the scene I remembered.

It’s near the end and it’s completely fake and completely real.

“Denise” has taken to some sort of communal living. Evidently, it’s the sort that isn’t entirely resistant to royalty money (or maybe Buxton Steel money) because she’s got a really nice pool to mope by while she’s communing with her lost soul mate (the dream Brian Wilson having done the decent thing and offed himself, leaving the dream Carole King to contemplate the cosmos and dig turnips when the California sun is out).

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It’s that digging turnips that gets to Phil Spector in this particular dream, and instead of holing up in his mansion and watching Citizen Kane every night with his imprisoned wife, he comes to comfort the grieving and the lost, to do, in person, what the real Phil Spector’s music once did.

The scene is beautifully played by two exceptionally fine actors. But it’s also far beyond craft.

He kneels down, pointedly, almost monk-like, refusing the lotus position or any other comfort.

Then he starts jabbing her.

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The real Phil Spector might have done God knows what. Pushed her in the pool? Stabbed her with a lit cigarette? Who knows?

But the dream Phil Spector can settle for talking it out. As long as he gets to keep jabbing. What’re ya’ doin’ with yourself? Why are you throwing your talent away? The guy’s dead. Move on. Like that. The exact dialogue hardly matters. It’s the tones that are really clashing. She’s Zen. He’s New Yawk, come to the coast just for her, even if he knows there might be something in it for him, too.

And, finally, he jabs once too many, and she lets loose.

Not just with what “Denise Waverly” or Edna Buxton has been holding in the whole movie, though, or with whatever Illeana Douglas might have been holding in her whole life, but everything the distaff dreamers had held in for the entire rock and roll era until somebody named Carole King sold ten million copies of an album called Tapestry and stepped out of the shadows.

And then kept right on holding in.

Right up until the moment the dream Carole King, who has smiled through everything, death, betrayal, dreams broken and fulfilled, lets loose on the dream Phil Spector and burns a hole in the movie and the dreams…

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It’s the strongest scene I’ve seen in any movie made in the last twenty-five years (a shade stronger than Michelle Williams’ truly frightening “I can’t bear it” moment in Me Without You, because it’s just as raw and connected to something much larger than any individual performance or film or even life, something that stretches straight back to whatever Arlene Smith and Darlene Love and Mary Weiss and a hundred others had tried to let out, sometimes with the real Carole King’s help, in the years just after Anders was born and just before Douglas was, and for which those singers-in-the-shadows had long since paid every kind of price, dream-wise).

“FUCK YOU!” she screams, over and over, and for the only time in the strictly narrative history of the modern collapse, it actually means something.

There was a reason the scene stayed with me for seventeen years, you see.

The same reason it took me seventeen years to watch it again and to actually get it this time around. To have the rest finally sink in while I was just waiting for that scene where the movie doesn’t end, just the common dreams.

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In the dream, we should be just about ready for life to begin by now.

Wonder how long before that part happens.

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.

RECORD MAN (Bob Crewe, R.I.P.)

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(Bob Crewe, left, with Frankie Valli in the recording studio. Bob Gaudio, Crewe’s frequent Four Seasons’ writing partner with the beard in the background, circa 1960s)

If the particular style of writer/producer who emerged in the late fifties/early sixties were to be judged only by the quality and importance of the records he made (as opposed to the will and ability to self-mythologize), Bob Crewe would be as well known and respected as Phil Spector.

Alas, he never managed to lock his wife in the house for five years and make her watch Citizen Kane every night or, better yet, commit a murder, so Crewe’s death this week at age 83 did not elicit the kind of front-page headlines Spector’s will when he shuffles off this mortal coil.

That’s a shame, because as a record man and talent scout–as the things that should matter–he was pretty much Spector’s equal.

Whatever modern notoriety Crewe had attained at the time of his passing was by virtue of being a minor–if flamboyant–character in Jersey Boys, the story of the Four Seasons that was lifted off the ground a decade back by beat cops and waitresses, unused to having what they cared about celebrated, who took to paying Broadway prices to see it ten and twenty times and has been running ever since. Evidently in real life, Crewe–besides being adult, urbane and sane (Mortal Sins all, in the eyes of the crit-illuminati)–was actually pretty discreet about being a gay man in a macho industry. Discreet enough that I certainly have no idea how he felt about being so often criminally ignored. (And I know I sound like a broken record, but, no, he isn’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)

Perhaps he felt the records themselves were the best revenge.

It’s certainly interesting to note that his genius productions with the Seasons are more likely to annoy the right people these days than anything the Beatles or the Stones ever did.

I perhaps owe him a special debt. The Four Seasons were my way into rock and roll and it takes nothing away from their own genius to admit they wouldn’t have been anybody’s way into anything without him.

And they were only a small part of his achievement, which–as writer, producer, or both, covered everything below and much, much more. Phil Spector need not be ashamed that he didn’t best Crewe’s achievements.

Few did.

As writer (warning, the second one might make your head explode):

As producer:

As writer and producer:

And his signature achievement…as co-writer and producer…As I like to say…Hey, Time? You think you caught Bob Crewe?….Catch this:

Hope freedom’s ringing wherever you are man, because you sure left a lot of it here.

(NOTE: Regarding the link in the text above, I’m always looking to add lifetime memberships to the Dead Brain Cell Count Brigade. Anyone who prefers the Tremeloes to the Four Seasons certainly qualifies. Welcome Kathy Shaidle!)

WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS (Seventh Maxim)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happens in college should stay in college.”

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

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

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

 

DON’T WORRY, NOTHING TO SEE HERE, MOVE ALONG PLEASE…THOUGHTS ON CITIZEN KANE BEING DETHRONED

The headline being attached to Sight and Sound’s latest list of the “greatest films” is that Citizen Kane–which topped the once-a-decade poll five straight times from 1962 to 2002–was displaced by Vertigo.

Studying the top 50, we find that the real news, as usual, is that nothing has changed.

Existentialism still trumps narrative. Concepts still trump people.

Directors still count (and conceptual, existentialist directors still count most of all). Performers still don’t count even a little bit.

A lot of people are lamenting the absence of Luis Bunuel or Howard Hawks or Erich Von Sternberg or Douglas Sirk or whoever and, in at least some cases, I see their point.

But I miss Vivien Leigh and Barbara Stanwyck and Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant a lot more. Not to mention Anne Bancroft and Humphrey Bogart and, heck, Gloria Grahame. (That’s GWTW and/or Streetcar, plus The Lady Eve, Notorious, The Miracle Worker, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Heat and/or In A Lonely Place for those keeping score at home….and, incidentally, shifting the focus from directors-only, to great-directors-collaborating-with-great-actors would also redress the diminution of women’s-importance-in-film discussed, albeit without much insight, here)

Interesting and serendipitous that Vera Miles, the astringent, oft wrongfully-dismissed muse of both Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford’s last great periods–and the woman Hitchcock never forgave for backing out of Vertigo after he had already built his story-boards around her irreplaceable profile (he knew what had gone missing even if his now-triumphant acolytes didn’t and don’t) is the only American lead besides Brando who made the list twice.

So at least they got that part half-right.