MY FAVORITE BOOK OF FILM CRITICISM (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

The Hollywood History of the World: From One Million Years B.C. to Apocalypse Now (1988)
George MacDonald Fraser
Okay, the competition is not exactly fierce. I respect their work ethic and even their skill with language, but, for ideas and insights, I’ve never been moved much one way or the other by Farber, Agee, Kael, Sarris. I counted Roger Ebert a genial dolt and Richard Schickel something less than that. Stanley Kaufman seemed like a nice man who was so cautious and judicious in his judgments that I could never remember what he thought of a movie ten seconds after I finished his review.

David Thomson? Don’t get me started on the clodhoppers.

Graham Greene was clearly slumming.

I like Molly Haskell a lot and I need to read more of her stuff.

Even so, I doubt anything she’s done would replace this. It’s the only book of film criticism I really like–and I like it a lot.

It probably helps that film criticism was the least thing Fraser did. Before and after that he was a novelist, essayist, memoirist, historian, screenwriter and all around exemplar (one of the last) of that old-fashioned breed: The Man of Letters.

It helps, too, that among Men of Letters, he was one of the best–not least because he took himself and the world less seriously than almost anyone else who ever earned his way into that club where no legitimate membership can ever be given.

And he was uniquely qualified to write his one book of criticism. The list of first rate novelists (he’s justifiably famous for his incomparable Flashman series, but don’t sleep on Black Ajax, a superb historical novel which recounts the rise and fall of Tom Molineaux, the ex-slave who, in the early nineteenth century, was the first great African-American boxing champion), who are also professional grade historians and accomplished screenwriters (he did Richard Lester’s Musketeer films and a personal favorite, Crossed Swords, among others) is not long.

Like a lot of his other writing, The Hollywood History of the World occupies a space all its own–in this case, defending Hollywood’s take on history. That’s not something I’m sure anyone else has ever even attempted, but I have a reasonable confidence that it has never been carried off so well.

For starters, Fraser knew that History itself is contested, often hotly so. For closers, he knew how to write it–so it’s not surprising that he knew how to write about it. The Hollywood History of the World then, works on three levels: as straight film criticism, as a back way into a historical worldview (the author’s own) and as a front way into the manner in which Hollywood, from the silent era to the 1980s, presented history as both History and Mythos.

That’s a lot to take on, but Fraser did it elegantly and forcefully, without coming off as being too full of himself. The book’s a great read–and it did for me something no other book of film criticism has done. Similar to the way Lester Bangs, alone among music critics, made me hear with new ears, Fraser made me see with new eyes.

Fraser wisely sequenced his book as a history of film itself, proceeding chronologically from the prehistoric era to Viet Nam, pairing up films from different eras by their subject matter, not their production chronology.

Along the way, he showed his grasp of the large scope of history without short-shrifting his own tastes and biases, both cultural and cinematic. Of course, not being a Leftist made him stand out. (Fraser once described his politics as whatever was dead opposite of the most recent attempt to convert him–a true kindred spirit.) But that never helped John Simon, or anyone else who was no better or worse than the competition.

Fraser stands out because he said things no one else said, and said them with the authority of someone who knew of whence he spoke. Perhaps most significantly, he spoke in the voice of one who was not concerned that others might have got it wrong and needed correcting.

In that respect, he really stands out from the crowd.

Hence…

From the introduction (a concise explanation of what film really does do better than any other art form):

It is worth remembering that the often-despised film moguls were the greatest patrons of the arts since time began; Hollywood employed more scholars and experts and diverse talents than any philanathropic or learned institution—and, incidentally, paid them better. They gave, and got, their money’s worth, and in the process they built us old Baghdad, new and shiny, and the Pyramids, and the Colosseum; they refought Trafalgar and Thermopylae for our benefit, and sent Columbus to the sands of Watling Island, Marco Polo to the courts of Cathay, Major Rogers to St. Francis, Rowan to Garcia, Drake around the world, and Stanley in search of Livingstone (to the tune of ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’, which hadn’t been written then, but sounded wonderful); they brought Clive and Zola, Lincoln and Saladin, Buffalo Bill and Catherine the Great, Wellington and Dick Turpin, Florence Nightingale and Calamity Jane, to life again; they showed us Argonauts and Mountain Men, Vikings and Jane Austen’s ladies, gladiators and Roundheads, Chinese warlords and Pilgrim Fathers, Regency bucks and Zulu impis. Really, it was the greatest show on earth.

Some of it was historical nonsense; most of it was not. If some of the images were blemished, they were better than no images at all. Samuel Pepys has given the most brilliant and finely detailed memorial of Restoration London that could be imagined–but imagined in the word; we must form our mental pictures from what he tells us, and from artists like Lely and Kneller; is it sacrilege to suggest that Forever Amber, Frenchman’s Creek, and Hudson’s Bay add something worthwhile, if it is only a visual impression? All the world knows that when the Light Brigade charged in the San Fernando Valley, it was as the climax to a film that had no more to do with Raglan, Cardigan, and Balaclava than with “Little Women”–but even Lord Tennyson might have had his imagination enlarged by the most spectacular recreation ever seen of cavalry going neck or nothing into cannon fire. Bette Davis or Flora Robson could play only an imaginative personation of the Elizabeth, but they gave us something that the historian cannot. Personally, I always doubted that an army could be stopped by flashing polished shields until I watched it on the screen; I envisaged the Gordian knot as a vague tangle of rope until Richard Burton was confronted with something that looked like a spherical doormat. What the beginning of the Exodus was like, no one will ever know–Demille brought it to life. The sight of old Vladimir Sokolov perishing in the snow while Charles Boyer made sympathetic noises, conveyed some sense of what the Retreat from Moscow was like; the scene in which Jack Palance pulls on his glove while Elisha Cook stands wary and angry in the mud is art of a high order; it is also as true an impression of a Western gunfight as we are ever likely to get.

There is something else that the costume picture has done. I have lived long enough in the world of historical fiction to know how strongly it can work at turning readers to historical fact; Hollywood, by providing splendid entertainment, has sent people to the history shelves in their millions.

And, on specific movies:

True Grit

Having seen True Grit my one regret is that John Wayne never had a shot at Falstaff; Rooster Cogburn, the boozy, disreputable old rascal of a marshal hired by an adolescent girl to track down her father’s murderer, is his best performance, possibly because the script is quite the most authentic ever written for a Western picture. Whether the principal credit should go to the screenwriter, Marguerite Roberts, or the original novelist, Charles Portis, (NOTE: For the Record, Portis, though Roberts also got off several wonderful lines that weren’t in the book). I don’t know, but for once the voice of the Old West is heard strong and clear; its splendid imagery cries out for quotation, but I will cite only Rooster’s final raging challenge to Ned Pepper (Robert Duval)–not “Reach!” or “Draw!” or “Go for your gun!”, but: “Fill yore hands, you son-of-a-bitch!’ Never mind the plot, listen to the characters–not only Rooster and Pepper, but the game little bantam of a girl (Kim Darby), the Texas Ranger (Glen Campbell), the renegade Chaney (Jeff Corey), and the superbly articulate outlaws encountered along the way; actors seldom get the chance to speak so well, and they rise to the occasion.

The Wild Bunch

..a foul film which for some reason received enthusiastic reviews. One critic wrote of it: ‘The bloody deaths are voluptuous, frightening, beautiful’, and described it as an ‘imagistic epic’. I don’t know if that critic has ever seen bloody death, but it is not beautiful at all, and there is nothing clever or artistic or worthy about its portrayal ad nauseum. (NOTE: The critic was Pauline Kael…and, no, she hadn’t.)

Platoon

Platoon is terrifying. Not because of its horror and violence, but because I suspect it is a true picture, and that makes me tremble for the safety (to say nothing of the good name) of Western civilisation. I would prefer to believe it is a grotesque fiction, but good authorities have claimed it an honest portrayal of the Vietnam war, and if it is, then there is no doubt why America lost. On this showing, they didn’t have an army….like all the blood, carnage, and pretentious talk with which the film abounds, the danger is that audiences may regard it as typical of all warfare, and the conduct of the principals as acceptable, even excusable. They may even tell themselves that Barnes, with all his beastly faults, is a darned good soldier; he isn’t. He is a rotten soldier, and I wouldn’t bet on his platoon to beat the Band of Hope..

…I am reluctant to believe Platoon, because the Americans of 1942-45 (NOTE: with whom Fraser, a Brit, had served in the Pacific theater) were not like this; they were good soldiers.

Even within this small sampling, I don’t agree with all of Fraser’s assessments. I would not, for instance, fault the soldiers in a badly led army and leave any criticism of their leadership implicit. There is much else in the book I would dispute more strongly.

But every assessment made me think–and not just about movies.

They still do.

As a historian, Fraser understood that, at a certain point, events consist not merely of the facts (whether agreed upon or disputed) but of the stories we make from those facts. As a first-rate novelist and screen writer, he understood film has become, for better or worse, the principal means of conveying those stories.

His best quality, though, was that he kept his head, and stuck to what his extraordinary life had taught him.

As a result, his criticism had the sting of moral authority, astringently applied.

And, in an age when the theater at the strip mall is filled every weekend with “imagistic” violence that makes The Wild Bunch look like Renoir’s Impressionistic Paris, his warnings about allowing our worst instincts to run free were prescient.

THE LAST TEN ALBUMS I LISTENED TO (Summer 2017, Countdown)

10) Stevie Wonder Talking Book (1972)

Primo Stevie and a high point of both his career and the Rising. Highlights are many, including “Superstition,” a valid entry in the Greatest Record Ever Made sweepstakes.

And, at this distance, even its mellow, meandering cuts talk louder than they did in the seventies, when Hope was still a prime ingredient and Anger was still righteous. And, of course, it still goes out on the smiling note of “I Believe,” a side which has me thinking about my Favorite Album Closer.

But what speaks loudest today is “Big Brother,” which still says I don’t even have to do nothing to you, you’ll cause your own country to fall, after he’s already told you why.

9) Patty Loveless (1986)

Patty’s eponymous debut. It was basically a collection of mid-charting singles and their B-sides from the early days when Nashville wasn’t quite sure what to do with or make of her.

If it were all there was, it would be remarkable enough to make you wonder why she didn’t quite make it. Sort of like wondering why Kelly Willis or Mandy Barnett or Shelby Lynne didn’t quite make it. As is, it’s still a fine entry. No weak cuts (she didn’t know how to make weak cuts), though only a hint, albeit a strong one, of why she would not end up being cast aside. As usual the simplest explanation is the best. She was Patty Loveless and they weren’t.

8) Glen Campbell The Capitol Years 65-77 (1998)

Just a reminder of how good he was and for how long….and how many directions his career could have gone. His last big hit was from Allen Touissant after all. “Galveston” (reportedly Glen’s own favorite) hits especially close to home these days, when it is clear some poor schlub will always be cleaning his gun until the Empire collapses.

And the “Rhinestone Cowboy”/”Country Boy” one-two punch will always be a knockout.

But he really could have been a Beach Boy, too…Or a folk rock stalwart.

Or both.

7) Free Molten Gold: The Anthology (1993)

A superb two-disc comp that doesn’t quit and showcases Paul Rodgers at his best. For me, this hits the just-right sweet spot between the populist (think Rodgers’ next group, Bad Company, who I still love) and arty approaches (think John Mayall or even Mike Bloomfield, who I also love) to white blues that proliferated in the “molten” decade between 1965-75. This, I could listen to all day, because everything is in place, but nothing feels forced.

And, just when you think all they/he can do is stomp, he/they pull back just a touch…and the sun shines through something other than a  pair of legs in a short dress.

6) The Cars Just What I Needed: Anthology (1995)

Grand overview of history’s most successful Power Pop band (unless Blondie counts). Yes, they go down easier at album length and easier still at single length. And yes, you could argue they never really broke, or needed to break, the mold of their early singles.

But there were an awful lot of great singles in there and it’s nice to have them all in one place so you can just let them roll over you.

How you have a two-disc comp, though–one complete with outtakes, B-sides and previously unissueds which don’t even come close to breaking the momentum–and leave off “Bye Bye Love,” one of their greatest and still in regular rotation on Classic Rock radio, I’ll never know.

5) Cyndi Lauper She’s So Unusual (1983)

The greatest album of 1983…or 1984 (when its five hit singles were all over the radio), or the entire 80s…turns out to be the greatest album of 2017, too. I’m thinking of doing a longish piece on either the album or one of the individual cuts so I won’t go on at length here. Suffice to say this was the last time anyone–including Cyndi–was both willing and able to pull off a vision that incorporated nearly everything rock and roll had been up to that point (including Byrds’ guitar, which I finally heard tolling under the maelstrom of “Money Changes Everything” just the other day. (Live link…if you only click on one, etc….no Byrds guitar, just a reminder that she was the era’s greatest live performer, too.)

Then, it was possible to hear it as a direction the future might take. Now, it sounds more like rage against the dying of the light. And anyone who thinks it quits on what used to be the second side just hasn’t been paying attention all these years.

4) Johnny Rivers Secret Agent Man: The Ultimate Johnny Rivers Anthology (2006)

Well, there’s definitely an “anthology” theme developing here (don’t worry, it’s not done yet).

This was released fifteen years after Johnny’s Rhino two-discer and, as such, includes generous helpings from his later rockabilly throwback albums.

It seems Johnny was always throwing back to something–he broke out with a Chuck Berry cover in the teeth of the British Invasion, after all, when everybody else was just playing lip service (that’s what an album track amounted to in those days). But across four decades he never failed to add those things that came only from him. The plaintive timbre (never parlayed more effectively than on his jumping “live” cuts). The sharp-edged, no-nonsense guitar lines (ditto). The sense that time keeps turning back on itself, never resting. Not sure how anyone could listen to this all the way through to “Let It Rock” and argue that he doesn’t belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but then life is full of mysteries.

3) The Spinners A One of a Kind Love Affair: The Anthology (1991)

The Spinners are one of the few acts who have been blessed with great comps at every level. Their 1978 Best of is as essential as anything Rock and Roll America produced. Their 2003 box set, The Chrome Collection, contains revelations galore (one of which I wrote about here). And this, a two-disc tweener, is perfect in its own way, since, unlike the other comps, it includes a lot of 12-inch versions of their hits, all of which sustain and satisfy because Philippe Wynne was the greatest improv vocalist to ever stand in front of a microphone (and no, I haven’t forgotten Louis Armstrong).

They made great albums, too. How could they not? They were the greatest vocal group of the 70s, and in the conversation with the Temptations, the Beach Boys, the Everlys and the Mamas & the Papas, as the greatest vocal group of the rock and roll era. There’s no way even a box set could fully contain them. But if there were only going to be one Spinners’ comp in the world, I’d have to pick this one, which catches the aspirational aspects of Black America–the still radical notion that black people belong here–like nothing else.

2) Rod Stewart Reason to Believe: The Complete Mercury Studio Recordings  (2002)

Staggering. 3 discs containing Stewart’s first five solo albums (plus an album’s worth of mostly killer extras–only “Pinball Wizard,” which must have seemed a natural for him, falls flat).

These are the records that made the reputation he has lived on ever since, and, however unfortunate his life and legacy became afterwards, they’re plenty enough to justify four decades of self-indulgent posing and/or epic laziness (take your pick). Everything that stands between you and his decades of excrescence still disappears the minute he pivots in the middle of “Street Fighting Man,” which led his first album, and turns it from a straight country blues (some kind of attempt to reclaim both its musical and political origins) and shows he hasn’t forgot what he learned hanging out in the London Blooz scene….which was how to stomp.

Over these five albums, he never forgot. Over the few years left of the seventies, he mostly forgot.

After that, he permanently forgot.

These are still here.

There is much to forgive, Rod.

I forgive.

1) Burning Spear Marcus Garvey/Garvey’s Ghost (1975/76)

This natural pairing of Winston Rodney’s classic reggae albums (more high points of the Rising, arriving just as it became the Falling) is probaly now the natural way to listen…the vocal version of his celebration of the black nationalist, Marcus Garvey, flowing into the dub version.

Strangely enough, the music is stronger on the original album, where the strident lyrics/vocals sometimes serve as a distraction from what the music would say if the singer could only manage to get out of the way. Garvey’s Ghost, instead of drawing those unspoken (perhaps unspeakable–that might be the singer’s insurmountable problem) truths to the surface they bury them deeper. The dread dissipates and a kind of epic Jamaican make-out album emerges.

Was that the point? Was that the most subversive claiming of the New World’s space a Rastaman could envision? Or did I just dream it?

Sorry, I think I need to get back to listening now.

Til next time…

LINKS, LINKS, LINKS…

I don’t do this often (maybe I should) but serendipity demands it this week:

Please read Sheila O’Malley on Elvis the Actor….

Neal Umphred on Elvis at the Edge of Reality….

And David Cantwell, then and now, on Glen Campbell….

Believe me, you’ll be a better person.

And, for whatever reason, this is the Elvis song that’s been running through my head all week, so you might as well do yourself a favor and share some space in my head…

ONE MORE BEFORE WE GO…

In the five-plus years I’ve been doing this, I can’t recall a reaction on social media as strong and across-the-board from every quarter as the outpouring of love and respect for Glen Campbell in the last day-and-a-half. It probably says as much about our fractious times and the natural desire to reach for something–anything–that speaks to a common culture, as it does about Campbell’s remarkable career. I might have more to say about that later.

But there’s one story I haven’t seen referenced anywhere else that’s worth repeating. This is from the liner notes of his 1976 Best of...which happened to be one of the first LPs I ever bought.

“Hank Cochran and Jeannie Seeley were out here, and they happened to fall by the studio for a visit. I happen to have a fairly good vocal range, and I was kinda showin’ it off that day. I was cutting ‘It’s Only Make Believe’ for an album and did the performance live. The performance came off so well that I started carrying the dub of it around with me. I was following Elvis into Vegas, and I said, ‘Hey man, I want you to hear this old song. I think it’d be a gas for you.’ And he said ‘A gas for me? I’d release it just as it is.’ And I thought, yea, I just might do that. And wouldn’t you know it, the record went Top 10.'”

Pop, Country and UK. Deservedly so…

No idea if Glen or Elvis pegged the 1958 original (Conway Twitty’s first big hit and one of the greatest vocals ever waxed) as the sublime best-Elvis-ballad-not-by-Elvis it was–the vocal delivering everything the title denied.

More likely they just knew a good thing when they heard it.

In any case Twitty’s early career was one of the first splits Nashville imposed on its artists–forcing them to choose between country and pop, a barely told story, which resulted in the likes of Brenda Lee and the Everly Brothers, who were literally Children of Nashville, being shut out of country radio. That story still has its fullest explanation in Charlie Gillett’s The Sound of the City, originally published in 1970, where he outlined a divide which, in the long night between Elvis going in the army in the spring of 1958 and Olivia Newton-John punching through the wall as a true “outsider” in the fall of 1973, only Campbell was able to bridge consistently. (Conway, who hit the Pop Top 40 five times in the fifties–including three Top Tens–didn’t hit the country chart until 1966. After which he never stopped hitting it, but had only one Pop Top 40–1973’s “You’ve Never Been This Far Before”–the rest of his decades’ long career. Yes, the wall was real. Upon his return from the army, Elvis himself had scant country success until 1974. Don’t ever let anyone tell you Olivia Newton-John wasn’t a working class hero.)

And, yeah, I still wish Elvis had cut it, too.

COUNTRY BOY (Glen Campbell, R.I.P.)

He came along at the right time. No previous era could have accommodated the full range of his gifts, no subsequent era has wanted them.

In the sixties and seventies, though, when going to the big city was still something worth aspiring to for a boy from Billstown, Arkansas, he was at home.

He probably leaves millions of fans, and not a few aficionados, unaware of the depth and scope of his achievement. His guitar playing lit up hundreds of sessions and mellowed out hundreds more. I’ve seen his fellow musicians on the internet here and there claim he was the real talent in the west coast Wrecking Crew that played behind every hit-maker who recorded in L.A., back when every American hit-maker did.

I don’t know enough to confirm or deny that. I know this. None of the others were among the scant number of artists who ever went on the record eighty hits of their own.

That wasn’t by accident. However great he was as a guitar player, he was at least as good a singer. He shone–usually quietly–in the greatest era of vocal music we’ve yet produced. And he shone by being one of the very few who could blend the lonesome quality of the great country singers who doubtless dominated the Arkansas air he grew up in with the laid back assurance of the saloon singers he kept company with in L.A. or Las Vegas as his fame rose high enough to land a variety show that was required viewing for everybody who had a television in my part of the world.

Oh, and he made a few movies. The one big one was only True Grit, where, no matter what you might have heard, he only held his own against John Wayne.

Guess he figured there wasn’t much that arena could offer for an encore after that.

Of course, some might have said the same about his first lasting hit, which was only this…

And they might have said the same about any number of even greater records that flowed forth, one after another, as the years went by.

“Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get To Phoenix,” “Galveston” “Try a Little Kindness,” “Rhinestone Cowboy,” “Southern Nights,”–all worthy of being signature songs for him, or anyone, and collectively only scratching the surface.

My own favorite was running up the charts in the months when I first started listening to the radio in the mid-seventies. I knew who he was–had seen him on TV. Even knew some of his songs. But this one served as a kind of sequel to “Rhinestone Cowboy” and was perhaps even more autobiographical.

And a kind of new introduction.

There’s nothing, after all, like the radio. And nothing now, like the radio was then.

Released at the last moment before the city overwhelmed the country and sucked all the life out at both ends, I still hear the final chorus as his finest vocal hour, dedicated to the small voice in all of us that wants to go back and knows it can’t–even if we found every dream we ever left home to search for.

And, oh by the way, he could pick…Like nobody’s business.

Not bad for Billstown, or a man who came to rest tonight….in Tennessee.

ALMOST (BUT NOT QUITE) TOO LATE TO DO THE RIGHT THING NOW…

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is about to induct Ringo Starr for “Musical Excellence.” This is a category they came up with a few years ago to presumably reward folks who didn’t fit any easy categorization (sometime hitmaker, longtime ace sideman, and all around general eccentric, Leon Russell, was an early and deserving beneficiary of the new approach).

David Cantwell has an excellent piece up on Glen Campbell and, though he doesn’t mention the Rock hall, it serves as a fine argument for why Campbell, stricken with Alzheimer’s in recent years, would be a much more deserving recipient than Ringo or just about anybody else who is likely to strike the nominating committee’s fancy. And I’ll just add that it would have been awfully nice to do it this year, when Glen, whose music meant so much to so many of us, might still be cognizant enough to appreciate it.

You know, if they were going to expand the category to guys who sold millions of records and all:

and speaking of people who should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame…

[NOTE: Glen is, incidentally, in the Country Hall of Fame…I’ll be posting a little tribute to its newest members in a day or so]