BIG BAD LOVE AND DONALD TRUMP COMETH (And Then There Was Hollywood: Sixth Rumination)

Big Bad Love (2001)
D. Arliss Howard

I’m not prepared to bet on it yet, but Donald Trump’s election and subsequent administration may end up being the kind of watershed that will make the future ask how this came to be. A lot of art that’s been made in the last few decades might wind up being viewed through the lens of whether it had its finger on those elements of the American pulse–traditional and modern—that made Trump not so much possible as inevitable.

If that comes to pass, Arliss Howard’s Big Bad Love, based on some short stories by the dissolute Southern writer Larry Brown (Mississippi Division, and I know, “dissolute Southern writer” is a serial redundancy), might be an interesting place to start.

I first heard about the movie when Greil Marcus praised it in one of his Real Life Top Ten columns just after its 2001 release. It stuck in my memory because Marcus wrote of Rosanna Arquette (an ongoing concern of this blog, see HERE,  HERE and HERE) that she was “alive on the screen as she hasn’t been since long before the black hole she hit with Desperately Seeking Susan, the passionate woman of The Executioner’s Song and Baby It’s You stepping out of a 20-years-older version of herself.”

Now that I’ve finally seen the movie, I can say that Arquette is certainly more alive than anyone else around her–just as she was in The Wrong Man, Black Rainbow, After Hours, Pulp Fiction (where Tarantino’s choice of Uma Thurman in a role Arquette auditioned for represents his biggest failure of nerve in a career that’s been defined by cowardice) and, come to think of it, Desperately Seeking Susan (where Arquette was touchingly vulnerable and Madonna was saved by the chance to be herself, something no other film, including her various vanity projects, has offered to date).

Except for Madonna being herself, and John Lithgow in The Wrong Man, though, she never had much competition.

Here, the competition is fierce. Howard, Paul LeMat, Debra Winger and especially a revelatory Angie Dickinson make up a spectacular ensemble. If the writing had allowed them to breathe, they might have turned this into a great movie.

As it stands, we have what we have, which is a well-wrought, but finally empty version of an oft-told tale, the standard dissolute Southern writer’s take on his own southernness, dissolution and writerliness, filtered through the travails of trying to find a combination that will impress a Yankee editor. There’s a near-tragedy thrown in. Then a full-blown tragedy. Howard, playing the lead, is especially impressive in his ability to allow a man who is no more damaged after the near and full tragedies than he was before. Less lively maybe, but no more damaged. Dickinson, unfortunately, does not get much chance to show us how the damaged man’s mama responds to his near and real tragedies, which is disappointing because they’re written in her face before they happen.

All of which leaves us with a series of moments, some quite brilliant, all finally devoid of hope or meaning.

It is, however, the kind of world where Donald Trump might become President some day, even if none of these folks (observed? or dreamed up to please the Yankee editor? even the late Larry Brown may not have known). I mean, hell, if this is what they think of us, why not bite their ankle just once and vote for somebody who will pee on their heads too?

I’m not saying I approve, just that I understand.

As for the movie itself, and taking it strictly as a movie and nothing else, it does lead to the question of whether Arquette’s character–the only one who will ever have a lease on anything you would call a life, new or otherwise–is an expression of the writer, the actress or the moment. It’s her meat. Weird stuff has never thrown her (heck, when she worked for Scorcese and Tarantino, she was the only one who wasn’t thrown, not that I didn’t enjoy watching some others give it a go and maybe even convince themselves they had turned the trick, at least after the reviews came in). She gives brief flickers of life to the movie in the same way that her character would give life to those of such dreary, interesting characters as we meet here, or even to their real life counterparts if anybody this dreary was ever really interesting.

Debra Winger, for instance, doesn’t get lost here. We’ve always known that she–Winger, not her character–is capable of nearly anything. But even Debra Winger can’t resolve the contradiction between the kind of grounded realism her character represents and the existential despair a dissolute Southern writer (in this case her character’s husband–based, of course, on the writer himself) must practice twenty-four/seven if he’s to gin up the blend of authenticity and sympathy-for-that-fella-who-knows-the-devil that will create the space for near and real tragedies to occur without costing him his chance at twenty pages in The New Yorker. Arquette–playing a character who is just as recognizable–sails past all that, out into a world of her own, the very one she would have to create if by chance she were ever stuck in the world the movie can’t quite bring itself to convey, let alone the one it invents as a replacement.

So, on a first viewing at lest, I value the movie most for that. It provides another tiny bit of color in a mad mosaic–all her own–which Arquette has built, piece by piece, ever since The Executioner’s Song. One that adds up to a strange, alternative world where it never matters who the President is because no one remembers his name.

She’s Gloria Grahame, fifty years on.

Except it’s the crit-illuminati‘s job to notice such things and how can they when the new President is busy taking a leak on their heads and calling it tears?

I’m glad I got acquainted with this bit of Arquette’s journey. But I have to admit she’s the only reason I would ever subject myself to all those dreary, interesting people twice.

 

LAND OF THE PHARAOHS (And Then There Was Hollywood: Fourth Rumination)

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)
D. Howard Hawks

(NOTE: Contains mild spoilers)

Hollywood has never known quite what to do with the feral versions of Siren Sex. No woman who has possessed it in sufficient abundance to make ignoring it impossible has ever sustained major stardom without cloaking it under a serviceable veneer, usually The Comedienne (see Jean Harlow, Mae West, Marilyn Monroe) or The Actress (see Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Angelina Jolie…Monroe died trying to make the leap).

Lately, Jolie and Scarlett Johansson have been able to work a variation, Action Girl, where the Siren quality can be safely subsumed by Special Effects.

Pack enough CGI on the screen and the Sex can blend with the scenery.

Beside all that, you have the long history of women who couldn’t or wouldn’t shape themselves to fit what the world could handle. Hence a long list of actresses whose careers tend to be summed up by the crit-illuminati with some version of why do you suppose they didn’t amount to more, poor things.

Gloria Grahame and Marie Windsor were partially saved from this ignominy by the happy accident of having their prime years coincide with those of film noir. But later shoulda beens–Karen Black, Rosanna Arquette, Ileana Douglas, Rebecca DeMornay, to name only a few of the more obvious–were left stranded in the Brief-Flirtation-With-Stardom-Inevitably-Reduced-to-Working-Actress category.

It’s always been a fine line to walk, but the hard parameters have remained the same from the days of the Hays Code to our current enlightened state of Free Unlimited Porn on the Internet.

Sex, yes.

But please don’t radiate it.

Which brings us to this:

That’s just the black and white version. Of Joan Collins in 1955.

It doesn’t matter if she’s not your type, or that it’s the only still I could find from this Technicolor extravaganza (which the illuminati are universally confident can be dismissed as “camp,” a word they often deploy to dismiss anything they find unsettling….they’re prudes before they’re anything else, no matter how much porn they brag about watching) that comes close to matching the flesh impact Collins has in the film, where, with nothing vulnerable or modern about her, she seems to have been cast as the antithesis of the Hawksian woman.

Of course, she’d have to be something other than modern or vulnerable, given she’s playing someone who had to survive in a time and place where feral sex was one of the few qualities present that is still recognizable (if barely) in our own.

Here’s an attempt to understand it all, from The Guardian, circa 2013:

Khufu has her flogged. “Education is sometimes painful, isn’t it?” he gloats to her afterwards. This is the kind of line that makes a character permanently irredeemable, and the screenwriters (who included Nobel laureate William Faulkner) clearly couldn’t work out how to fix it. So the voiceover just says: “In the succeeding weeks, she became the favourite of the pharaoh. They were married and she became his second wife.” What? How? Why?

It’s nice, of course, that, for now, we live comfortably ensconced in a world where flogging a girl before you marry her is “irredeemable.” But I’m always a little bemused when someone who fusses over Wronged History–dates, places, English accents on Egyptian Pharaohs–because it doesn’t allow the properly educated to either close the distance or keep it at arm’s length (I’m never sure which), can’t bring himself to acknowledge the part that rings true.

Anyone who is really confused about what Pharaoh sees in Joan Collins’ princess–why she might become his favorite once he thinks a good flogging has tamed her–is too stupid to be writing for publication. Anyone who lies about it is….well, you can make up your own mind about those who pretend not to comprehend the obvious, whatever the subject.

But it was Hollywood’s problem before it was The Guardian‘s, and mankind’s long before it was Pharaoh’s.

Yes, Jack Hawkins is badly miscast as an Egyptian. That’s a hole in the movie even Collins can’t quite fill, though she might have with a director who understood feral sex, or a world that ran on it, as something other than perversion (the only time Hawks got the concept across was with Ann Dvorak’s incestuous sister act in Scarface, which was a long way behind him by 1955).

Instead, he–or Hollywood, or Faulkner the Laureate–knew no better than to reduce Collins’ princess to a standard issue shamed harlot in the final scene, when, having been reunited with Pharaoh’s boundless treasure for eternity, she should be in her element and smiling triumph over the peons who think they’ve tricked her.

It’s not a surprise, though.

Failing to punish her for greed, lust and murder in an “unenlightened” world that thrived on all three, would have required real sophistication on someone’s part.

Faced with a character–and an actress–who was nobody’s idea of a Good Wife, Hawks lost his nerve. That, his relatively lackluster hand with crowd scenes (a rather important deficiency in a Sword and Sandals epic filmed on location with the proverbial cast of thousands), and the absence of Yul Brynner, broke his twenty-five year run of commercial and critical success.

Though it lost money, Land of the Pharaohs was hardly a disaster on the first count. And it has gained defenders over the years, including some, like Martin Scorcese and me, who agree on little else. Hawks’ gift for interior scenes and memorable sets is intact and Collins’ performance is a rejection of camp, ferocious enough that it took a quarter-century, middle-age, and the damp squab of real camp on television, for anyone to find any version of it, or her, the least bit acceptable.

I’ll always revisit Land of the Pharaohs.

I’ll always wish it was a little bit better.

I’ll always get at little restless, waiting for the jolt of energy Collins’ entrance gives it and I’ll always marvel at how she sustains it in every scene until the false ending lets her down.

And I’ll always reserve a smile for those who think mankind–and Hollywood–not knowing what to do about Vulgar Sex is the same as having left it all safely behind.

THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED…AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (August, 2016 Edition)

…Not including Grease, which I wrote about here.

I’m not sure if I’m going to make this a regular feature or not, but some people liked the last one a while back so I thought I would look at my last ten every now and then and see if they made anything worth writing about.

Seemed to be the case this time. It wasn’t depressing at least. That must be worth something these days!

Anyway, here goes, again in reverse order (30 days, 10 movies):

(NOTE: “Umpteenth Viewing” means I’ve seen it more than five or six times and don’t feel like counting up exactly how many.)

August 29–Escape From Fort Bravo (1953, John Sturges, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For the strongest evocation of cavalry life in the west outside of John Ford…and for going places Ford didn’t.

For William Holden, at his hard-bitten best, becoming humanized by love and death. For Eleanor Parker being lovely and unique, yet again. For the role of William Demarest’s  lifetime, a lifetime in which he was never less than formidable and rarely less than perfect.

Also for John Sturges’ first foray as an action master. As iconography, that aspect of his career climaxed a decade later with Steve McQueen jumping a fence in The Great Escape. But, for pure mounting tension, he never bettered this. No one did. A good movie all around, especially for its rare look at Yankee/Confederate relations during (as opposed to after) the Civil War. In that, and most other respects, it’s about a thousand times better than Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee. But it’s most valuable, I think, for having what may be the best scenes ever filmed regarding the intricacies, terrors and pure hardships of actual Indian fighting.

So, at last: For its very Fordian reminder that the West was not won–or lost–easily. And that it was won–and lost–by people, not demography.

August 28–The Peacemaker (1997, Mimi Leder, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For its clear-eyed look at the pulp future we are now living in. Forget the absence of chemistry between George Clooney and his leading lady (in this case a snappy Nicole Kidman). Except for Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight (filmed in that serendipitous eye-blink when she could set a match on fire by looking at it), that’s been a given and here, for once, it doesn’t really matter. Just wait for the great action sequences (there are four of them–trains, cars, helicopters, a ticking bomb) and the burning climax, where this man…

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…says “It is now.”

For that, I’ll watch it until “now” is no more…which I know won’t be in my lifetime.

August 24–Kaleidoscope (1966, Jack Smight, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For Warren Beatty in a heist flick that’s almost as good as 1970’s Dollars (about which I’m sure I’ll have more to say some other time).  For an impossibly daft and gorgeous Susannah York, saying, “Oh no. You came out of nowhere in a little red sports car and no mummy and no daddy. I’d hate to find out that you were real.” For Susannah York saying  a lot of other things.

What else do you need? An ingenious and original plot? Scotland Yard mixing in? Jane Birkin trying on clothes? A crime lord who bonds with York over their shared Napoleon obsession?

Don’t worry. It’s got all that, too.

August 20–Gone With the Wind (1939, Victor Fleming (and others), Umpteenth Viewing)

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For the story of Scarlett O’Hara, which, believe it or not, is what the movie is about (I mention it because, the way the pearl-clutchers go on about all the “baggage,” you’d never know her story was worth telling). And for too many other reasons to count, the whole kit-and-caboodle deserving its own post some day.

For now, I’d just like to point out that Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett launches more assaults than Indiana Jones. I always start out promising myself I’ll keep count of how many times she punches or whips or dirt-clods or hair-pulls somebody. I always come up with some number between ten and fifteen. But, like the movie, and Leigh’s unmatchable performance, it never feels quite stable or exact.

August 13–Strangers on a Train (1951 Alfred Hitchcock, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For the two truly great scenes that open the movie, the first played between Farley Granger’s chump and Robert Walker’s psychopath, the second between Granger and Laura Elliot, playing the chump’s hard-bitten, soon-to-be ex-wife.

After that I always slog on, hoping it won’t all fall apart again. But the psycho always ends up killing the wife and that jars because, as played by Elliot, she’s the kind of girl who, in real life, would eat him for lunch and have the chump for a side. You get plenty of Hitchcockian dream-scapes after that, but these haven’t stood up as well as his best. I’ll lay aside the “logic” of trying to win a life-or-death tennis match in a certain amount of time (which can never be guaranteed) instead of losing it in a certain amount of time (which can). But I keep hoping The Master at least won’t have a policeman shoot at a carousel full of children this time around and kill the operator by mistake, with no discernible consequence except putting all the kiddies in mortal danger.

Alas, it seems to happen every single time.

I’ve usually enjoyed this, and I’m sure it’s some sort of formal “masterpiece.” But I have to confess that, each time around, it’s putting me to sleep a little earlier.

August 7–White House Down, 2013, Roland Emmerich, First Viewing)

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Caught it on TV and stuck with it to remind myself how worthless this world we made can be. I’m willing to bet Hollywood didn’t make a single major studio movie between 1930 and 1960 that was this bad. Today, I take its crappiness for granted and give it six out of ten stars or whatever. I mean, it didn’t make me kill myself. That’s something, right?

August 6–The Naked Prey (1965, Cornel Wilde, Third Viewing)

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For the glorious African landscapes, never bettered, even in documentary footage. For its stark reminder that civilization is a very thin veneer. For its refusal to accept that barbarism is civilization’s antidote and its simultaneous admission (in its slave-raiding scenes) that “civilization” is not always easy to define.

For Ken Gampu’s watchful, burning eyes.

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For the uninitiated, the story involves Director/Star Wilde transferring John Colter’s famous run from the Blackfeet to a white hunter’s escape from the Zulus. Not recommended for anyone sensitive to realistic scenes of animal slaughter, human torture or Man’s grasping nature.

August 6–Midnight Run (1988, Martin Brest, Fifth Viewing)

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For its reminder that I like De Niro better as a comic actor than a dramatic one (and I’ll grant that he’s a fine dramatic actor even if I don’t think he’s quite what others make of him…and I’ll also grant that I’m not one who thinks comedy is harder…but he’s still a truly great comedian). For making me laugh harder than any other movie made in the eighties….or anything else that happened in the eighties. For Dennis Farina’s best role. And for its one scene of heartbreak, played with De Niro’s estranged daughter, where the weight of all those Scorcese pictures lands gently, gently, without smothering the scene or letting anyone off the hook.

August 3–The Major and the Minor (1942, Billy Wilder, Umpteenth Viewing)

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For Ginger…at all ages. I especially like the way she swallows a cigarette.

Oh, and for Billy Wilder’s first Hollywood directorial effort. She got it for him. He thanked her the usual way. He didn’t.

August 2–5th Avenue Girl (193, Gregory La Cava, Third Viewing)

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This one wobbles a bit.

Still: For Ginger. For the Straight-From-the-Depression lessons in the ethics and ethos of New Deal capitalism.

And for: “Oh why don’t you mind your own business!”

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (The Last Spitfire….And What She Took With Her)

Paper Moon (1973, D. Peter Bogdanovich)

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When I was a boy and went to carnivals, my father used to spend a bit more time than the average dad explaining how each game was rigged and how not to get taken for a mark. I think this started when I was maybe seven or eight, which meant he was on this particular case even before he got saved and became a minister.

He was warning me against the sharpers, of course, but he was also warning me against a younger version of himself–the version that was on the other side of the short con before he was transformed by meeting the woman who would become my mother.

All of which means I’m apt to feel a little closer than most to the con-man’s world of Paper Moon–and perhaps respond to that world a little more viscerally.

This might not have ever been quite my life…

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Nor this…

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But, allowing for a gender change, this certainly could have been…

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Or this…

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Or, among many other scenes, certainly this (even down to a five being changed for a ten, though, to be fair, my brother never reported being driven down this path, a sign that my father might have had at least a few more “scruples” than Moses Pray, even if they still belonged to somebody else)…

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And that’s before you get into dropping twenties or selling Deluxe Editions of the King James to widows.

Paper Moon was released in 1973, near the end (1968–74) of the New Golden Age in Hollywood, which–at least according to the standard narrative–began closing down rather quickly when the blockbuster success of Jaws in the summer of 1975 transformed both the business and the art of making movies.

Well, you know how fond I am of “standard narratives,” even when they do have a grain of truth in them.

So I’d just add that it was probably the culture that was being transformed and Hollywood did what Hollywood does–follow along.

But, in any case, Paper Moon–which I revisited for the first time in years this weeknow plays like a story reflected in a double mirror. A razor-sharp, but loving look at the old, mostly economic, Depression (which ended with World War II, more or less) just before the new, mostly spiritual Depression (which is with us yet) fully set in.

However many directions it moves in, it’s a comedy with poignant moments. Not having seen it for so long, though, I found myself both laughing out loud (which movies rarely make me do anymore, not even when I know I should be laughing) and wondering where it all went.

Because this movie is very much about the can-do spirit. It’s purely American not so much because it couldn’t have been set anywhere else, but because it couldn’t have been set anywhere else for purely spiritual reasons.

Namely, no other culture ever made Spitfires quite like the American Spitfire.

And no Spitfire was ever quite as definitive as Tatum O’Neal’s Addie Pray is in this movie.

In 1973, she was part of a long line that stretched back at least as far as Jo March and ran straight through to True Grit’s Mattie Ross, with stops along the way for characters as otherwise divergent as Scarlett O’Hara, Scout Finch and the Disney version of the tomboy (usually played by Hayley Mills in her honorary American phase).

That line–like so much else–ended in the seventies.

Here, actually.

There have been plenty of subsequent attempts to carry it forward. The concept has hardly died off. But, except for Tatum’s own subsequent reprisal in The Bad News Bears, there’s been nothing since that even approaches either iconography or a new twist on the theme.

It was interesting to learn, in the DVD’s “making of” documentary, which I hadn’t seen before, that–contrary to another standard narrative (or at least a standard assumption) Tatum was cast first.

Director Peter Bogdonavich’s then wife, Polly Platt, suggested her because of her “whiskey voice.” Despite her never having acted, Bogdonavich was intrigued enough to meet with her and liked what he saw (and heard). That the subsequent deal included her dad, with whom the director had just shared a big success in What’s Up Doc?, (on the set of which Platt had first encountered that whiskey voice) was a bonus.

Serendipity then.

Not a lot of eight-year-old kids have white-hot movie star dads (with the attendant “bone structure,” which gets such a nice run in the script here), access to whiz kid A-list directors and whiskey voices.

That late in the Spitfire game, all those aspects were probably necessary.

And, even with all that, it wasn’t a given that any kid so young would produce such a staggering performance. It was/is so good that Bogdonavich–as a certain style of male is wont to do with women of any age who have got to some place he can’t quite fathom–spent a lot of years claiming more or less full credit for it, though his commentary here suggests age and experience have tempered hubris (though not his very justifiable pride in the film itself).

Of course it was also so good that it probably wrecked a few lives, including Tatum O’Neal’s own.

Her dad never really met any version of my mom I guess. At least not in time.

And winning a well deserved Oscar at nine years old leaves a long way to fall. Maybe longer if your white hot co-star father and that whiz kid director are so miffed at being left off the list of nominees they don’t even bother to show up.

Ryan O’Neal, Tatum O’Neal, Peter Bogdonavich and Polly Platt all seemed to have entered a charmed circle in order to make this miraculous thing. At its conclusion, they were all officially on top of the world, where they might very reasonably have expected to stay for a long, healthy run.

Instead, none of them were ever quite the same again. They all did good work, here and there. None ever again reached quite so high.

Strange then, that of all that motley crew who “transformed” movies just before–coincidentally or not–movies went away, it was Bogdonavich (often, and I think wrongly, counted among the lighter weights next to Peckinpah, Coppola, Penn, Scorcese, et al) who provided the images that, in looking back, best anticipated the bleak moral consequences of the coming age, when short cons would rule far more than just traveling salesmen, carnival midways and Hollywood dreams.

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ROCK AND ROLL SCREENINGS (Take #2: The Last Waltz)

The Last Waltz
Director: Martin Scorcese (1978)

During his days doing commentary for NBA games, I recall basketball great Bill Russell once being asked to compare the relative physical strength of two players. I don’t remember who the players in question were, but Russell’s answer has stuck with me: “Strength is like money. Once you have a certain amount, it doesn’t really matter anymore.”

“Greatness,” is sort of the same way. Once you reach a certain level, ranking it is pointless.

Like a lot of people, I think the first two official albums released by the Band reached that level.

Also like a lot of people, I don’t think they did more than occasionally flirt with transcendence thereafter. Fine music, yes. Immeasurable greatness? Not really.

The Last Waltz is an extremely famous, much-lauded documentary of the star-studded 1976 concert that effectively served as the group’s swan-song.

It’s a measure of just how great those first two albums (and their work backing Bob Dylan’s early electric phase and joining him on The Basement Tapes) were, that they were still hip enough half-a-dozen light years later–rock and roll time moved so differently back then that 1976 was very much further removed from 1970 than 2012 is from, say, 1984 (Orwell’s or Reagan’s)–to call on Martin Scorcese to direct the proceedings and also to have the concert itself attract an amazing array of talent.

Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Paul Butterfield, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton.

Like that.

I first saw the film some time in the eighties, then again on an intriguing VH1 double-bill with Abba: The Movie some years later.

Just recently I watched it a third time and had the same impression I had the first and second times.

A lot of good music, a lot of arty camera work, a sense of thankfulness that certain things had been preserved for the record–and the inescapable conclusion of having been asked to accept a very disturbing premise.

A kind of spiritual divide had been opening up in rock and roll’s relationship with the large and small screen at least as far back as A Hard Day’s Night–likely the first movie to take a stance that treated the music’s audience with as much suspicion as affection. In those heady days, some of the darker implications of that division were obscured because the Beatles’ female fan base took matters in their own hands, screaming and carrying on in theaters as though the Beatles themselves were present. (“Just in case you thought your band was cool,” Steven Van Zandt has said “the girls were running down and kissing the screen.”)

But Beatlemania had another, less effervescent side. It was the main catalyst for a sort of youth intelligentsia (hardly made up solely of young people) that developed side by side with the music. And that intelligentsia, along with the musicians who inspired and guided it, found itself confronted by a difficult question: How could the music be cordoned off from the malign aspects of mass acceptance?

This sort of quasi-reactionary thinking eventually reached its natural apex with Kurt Cobain’s suicide but it had represented a real dilemma all along. If there was going to be a rock and roll intelligentsia it was going to have to come to terms with two groups of human beings intellectuals tend to recoil from reflexively in all times and places: Young women and the insufficiently hip.

These were, alas, the two groups that just happened to give rock and roll its central place in the culture to begin with.

Problem there.

I discussed some aspects of this tricky relationship here but The Last Waltz is a more direct evocation of the problem.

It’s the first important concert movie to treat the audience watching and listening out there in the dark–whether of a concert hall or a movie theater hardly mattered–the way dorm-boys and other tribalists had done all along.

As both the unofficial enemy and an afterthought.

This latent hostility cuts deeper than it might have because it’s a fair bet most of the audience actually present for the filmed concert of The Last Waltz was made up of precisely the right sort of folks. Mostly white and–if not all boys–at least people who tended to read the right books (a point emphasized by the presence of beat poets on the bill).

I think I know this group pretty well because I am them–exactly the audience the film’s movers and shakers had in mind.

But the film’s inherent elitism still creeps me out a little. It presents the audience in the hall as an inner circle–and then presents the performers as a circle within the circle.

The general experience is as stratified as a frat house or a Wall Street bank.

Of course, for mitigation, there’s some wonderful music and a few truly electrifying performances (Muddy Waters and Van Morrison in particular). Heck, even the poets are entertaining. But the overall impression I’ve had each time I’ve seen it is along the lines of: “If you really mattered, I guess you’d be up here on the stage with us.”

How much of this attitude sprang from the Band’s own Zeitgeist, how much from Scorcese’s and how much from a meeting of kindred spirits, God only knows (the sentiments expressed by Scorcese and Robbie Robertson in the feature documentary about the making of the film are contradictory to say the least, but Scorcese does probably give the game away when he says he wanted it to be about “what was happening on the stage,” a clear implication that what happened in the rest of the hall was secondary at best).

No doubt some of this just came from the fact of Scorcese being a major film maker whose usual concern was with mastering and representing his art form’s fourth-wall abstraction–something an actual concert, which links performer and audience in ways film can’t, inherently denies. Still, looking at the film world that had preceded it and even the one that surrounded it in the late seventies, The Last Waltz stands–for all the wrong reasons–as a disturbing portent.

The landmark concert films that had come before–The T.A.M.I. Show, Monterey Pop, Woodstock–had all made their audiences central to the experience. So, for that matter, had Abba: The Movie, which came out around the same time. They derived their considerable power–a power The Last Waltz ultimately cannot lay claim to–from the assumption that we’re all in this together. That’s not just a basic rock and roll principle–exemplified not just by those films, but also by the important television appearances of Elvis and the Beatles, participatory dance shows like American Bandstand, and natural prime-time variants like Shindig and Hullabaloo!–it’s a basic human ideal. Music is, after all, the most inherently participatory art. There’s a cost for rearranging its hard-won, life affirming rituals.

And, to be fair, there are moments in The Last Waltz when it feels like those rituals are on the verge of being reaffirmed: in the loose, off-beat feel of the poetry readings; in the slightly abashed, honored-just-to-be-here smile on the face of Neil Young–the man whose priceless advice Kurt Cobain would eventually misinterpret–when he walks on the stage (and in the awkwardness of his departure, as if he knows he has given the only performance of the night that will feel like it came from something deeper than craft and isn’t quite sure he did the right thing); even in the ready-made video insert of the Band performing “The Weight” with the Staple Singers, where Mavis Staples makes a better vocal foil for Levon Helm than anyone in his own group ever could and Scorcese–here in his true element, with the audience being imagined rather than felt–creates a nice basic textbook for the next decade’s music video directors to study.

So the film has worth–the question is how much its very real strengths matter when weighed against the airless spirit its overall approach pioneered.

These days, I can rifle through my video collection and pull up concert items from all over the ensuing decades–Earth, Wind and Fire, Tom Petty, Lulu, Cyndi Lauper, Prince–and the wall The Last Waltz built between the stage and the first row feels ever-present and impenetrable.

The Band and Martin Scorcese had started their respective careers as promising extensions of an opposing spirit–leaving every indication that they were going to pick up where Chuck Berry and John Ford left off. This film feels, more than anything, like a retreat from that promise, a document of the moment when that oppositional energy entered a state of exhaustion and collapse.

Whether the Band and Scorcese were perpetrators or victims, whether the collapse itself was real or imaginary, cynical or sincere, a bit hokey or genuinely painful, are questions that are probably bound to blow permanently unanswered in Bob Dylan’s wind and I know I can’t entirely dismiss the film’s best moments.

But I can’t quite embrace its central ethos either.

It feels too much like it’s rebuilding the very tribalism rock and roll was always meant to tear down. And, in its core concert footage at least, too much like it succeeded.