THE LAST TEN MOVIES I WATCHED….AND WHY I WATCHED THEM (April, 2018)

April 15-Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski, Umpteenth Viewing)

To see how I felt about this chilly masterpiece in the first age when Hollywood, at least, would have to be circumspect about celebrating its statutory rapist director. I feel pretty much the same. It’s chilly and it’s a masterpiece. One thing I noticed, though, is that Faye Dunaway brought a human quality it’s hard to imagine coming from any other actress of the age–just like she did in Bonnie and Clyde. Two Egg strikes again.

April 16-Patriot Games (1992, Phillip Noyce, 4th Viewing)

To see if Harrison Ford–even Harrison Ford–could improve how I feel about the CIA. He couldn’t. Not even in this helluva entertainment (the thing moves) where he has at least one brilliant moment that transcends craft or star power. His response when he finally kills the rogue IRA terrorist (a menacing Sean Bean) who has been after his family is worthy of a Golden Age western. Too bad nobody thought to remake High Noon with him.

April 16-Robin Hood (1991, John Irvin, Umpteenth Viewing)

To be reminded of how superior this nearly forgotten take is to the contemporaneous box office smash with Kevin Costner. To revel in Patrick Bergin’s definitive Robin Hood. To marvel at the strong cast and excellent direction and script overcoming poor Uma Thurman (is she the only actress to have been both Weinsteined and Tarantinoed?) being so badly miscast as Marian. And, of course, to hear Friar Tuck greet the worst of the villains with a hale and hearty “Welcome….to Hell.”

April 17-No Name on the Bullet (1959, Jack Arnold, 5th Viewing)

To see Audie Murphy play, without a wasted word or gesture, a man who killed more men than Audie Murphy.

April 18-Midnight Run (1988, Martin Brest, Umpteenth Viewing)

To see a modern comic masterpiece (and perhaps be reminded that making a comedy is the only way to make a masterpiece in a fallen culture–absent absurdity, the old tropes required for any kind of drama or heroism or mythos simply don’t hold). And, however great DeNiro and Grodin are (neither was ever better), the whole cast is operating at the same level. Dennis Farina you’ll have remembered, even if you only saw it once…but don’t sleep on Yapphet Kotto’s FBI agent. He’s like a slow-burning cigarette that can’t quite be extinguished. Only if that were funny.

April 19-The Searchers (1956, John Ford, Umpteenth Viewing)

Well, I don’t need a reason to watch The Searchers for the fiftieth time. But here’s a challenge: Try picking one image, just from what’s available online. Is is even fair that every frame of the greatest narrative film looks like a classical painting? Or that you can take a frame like this one and spin a hundred stories out of it that have nothing to do with what actually happens in The Searchers? Or that, in this one frame, the doll, the dog, the rocking chair and the child’s dress will all play a vital part in the story that does get told? Or that you might have to watch it fifty times to notice this?

Just asking.

April 22-Life of Crime (2013,  Daniel Schechter, 4th Viewing)

For what I’m starting to think might be the best adaptation of one of Elmore Leonard’s crime stories (not prepared to go all the way there yet–the competition is tough). This is the first time I really understood it as an absurdist comedy first and foremost. I gave myself permission to laugh out loud five minutes in and then I couldn’t stop. Every performance is a comic gem. On the commentary track the director says he asked Jennifer Aniston on the set why she didn’t do more movies like this. He didn’t record her answer so I’ll give it for her: Because it’s not the seventies anymore. I don’t know whether recognizing how far out of her time she is should make her accomplishments as the last true persona actress more impressive, or just make us all sad.

April 23-Rob Roy: Highland Rogue (1953, Harold French, 3rd Viewing)

Mostly to see if this entry was worthy of inclusion in a potential “Handy Ten” of Disney Adventure films. I was lukewarm on past viewings. This time, I started to think it just might make the cut. The action scenes aren’t all they might be–French was clearly no Ken Anakin. But there’s a scene of a Highlands wedding that would be grand even if the bride and groom were less fetching than Richard Todd and Glynis Johns. And there’s another of a Highlands funeral that might have been just as striking if Sir Walter Scott hadn’t insisted on it being broken up by the bloody English. Also, I hadn’t quite caught how much better the backbiting politics were played than the battle scenes.

Worthier than I thought then.

And it’s always refreshing to recall that, from the beginning of Hollywood to the toadying present, Disney was the only studio that wasn’t afraid to kill Redcoats–or pretend to forget that the British Empire was the first in history upon which–as the proverb and the wag had it, respectively–the sun never set and the blood never dried.

April 23-Heat (1995, Michael Mann, Umpteenth Viewing)

For the action scenes. For the way two of the three main “family/personal” angles work, mostly because of sensitive, convincing performances from a pre-Weinsteined Ashley Judd (Appalachian girl playing an L.A. street tough) and Amy Brenneman (New Englander playing an Appalachian transplant, so far adrift in the L.A. wilderness it’s really not that unlikely DeNiro’s brooding sociopath could win her over with simple acts of kindness–or that she could transform him with kindness in return). For the way Judd’s street tough refuses to give up her powder keg of a husband (Val Kilmer) because she knows he would never give her up.

For all of that, I’ll put up with a lot of Al Pacino chewing scenery in between not insignificant stretches where he reminds you he can also act.

…Til next time!

JOHN FORD’S WOMEN….A HANDY TEN

This is a rare photograph of John Ford without either his eye-patch or trademark dark glasses. It was taken in a military setting (1951 in the Philippines according to the on-line source I copied it from), but it’s appropriate for this post because the old line about Ford wearing those dark glasses to hide his vulnerability is in line with today’s subject…and fully evident here.

Now here’s a subject. Ford has been accused of every bad thing–he might be unique in the degree to which he is suspected of bad-think by progressives and reactionaries in about equal measure–and there are plenty of people who consider his treatment of women regressive at best.

As usual, this view tends to say more about those who hold it than Ford’s actual films. Not more than a handful of directors across the world–forget Hollywood–gave as many good actresses as many good roles. The list of those who delivered breakthrough and/or career-defining performances in Ford films (often against the grain of everyone else’s expectations*) includes Hattie McDaniel, Anne Shirley, Jean Arthur, Claire Trevor, Shirley Temple (as child and young woman), Maureen O’Hara, Donna Reed, Jane Darwell, Sara Algood, Anna Lee, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly, Olive Carey, Constance Towers and Vera Miles. That’s not even including all the performances listed below (Henrietta Crossman did not, alas, become a big star), the great performances he got from established stars like Claudette Colbert and Anne Bancroft, or the legion of small parts that deepened some of Ford’s best films (see Marjorie Weaver in Young Mr. Lincoln ** or Beulah Archuletta in The Searchers for prime examples).

It’s true that giving great roles to women was not the first thing worth remembering about Ford (as it was, perhaps, about George Cukor), but I suspect the criticisms that have come from the Left (in Ford’s day and ever since) and often been verified by the Right (that’s what “conservatives”  mainly do…accept, and therefore conserve, whatever Narrative emerges, be it true or, as in this case, false), have more to do with disapproval of the kinds of women Ford valued (pretty much all of them, so long as they had a spark of honor and didn’t represent one of Hollywood’s plethora of easy ways out), than the sensitivity and nuance he, almost alone, accorded them.

Even in westerns.

Even in war movies.

The depth and breadth of the women he did portray, and the broad spectrum of actresses he hired to play them, did not really permit a “type” in the manner of Hitchcock or Howard Hawks. There was no room for fantasy creatures, however beguiling, in a canon devoted to understanding how civilizations are built and maintained.

For that you needed a gallery like this one, where Ten hardly scratches the surface.

Henrietta Crossman as “Hannah Jessop”
Pilgrimage (1933)

Knowing Crossman only from Pilgrimage, Ford’s first great narrative film of the sound era, it’s almost shocking to come across pictures of her that prove she was once young and occasionally even smiled. None of that is evident in her harrowing, embittered performance as Hannah Jessop a rural southern woman who signs her son up for the draft in WWI rather than see him marry a local girl of whom she does not approve. In early cinema, this is as striking and unsettling a performance as Renee Falconetti’s title role in The Passion of Joan of Arc, except Crossman’s character is not at odds with either history or herself.

Not, in other words, for the faint of heart.

Claire Trevor as “Dallas”
Stagecoach (1939)

The girl Hannah Jessop didn’t want her son to marry, cast back to the Arizona frontier of the previous century. On one level, it’s a Hooker With a Heart of Gold cliche (though it had much to do with defining that cliche). But it’s also a sound representation of the travails faced by women on the frontier. The life John Wayne’s Ringo Kid is determined to save her from flits in and out of her expressions for an hour and a half.

Then they take a walk into the heart of it, side by side, and, the first or fiftieth time you watch it, you can feel that life closing back around her.

Trevor (and Ford) got that the cliche not only had a foundation in reality, they understood that the reality involved a great deal of self-loathing, which needed only the tiniest scratch on the surface to show through This is one of those performances that seems all about that surface at first, until you realize that’s just how such a person would be forced to live, just the masks they would be forced to adopt–unless, as here, a miracle arrives.

She gets that part–and all that such a miracle would mean to this woman–as well.

Edna May Oliver as “Mrs. McKlennar”
Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

Supporting role or not (I wrote about Claudette Colbert’s lovely performance as the lead, here–it shouldn’t be overlooked that Ford often had two or more strong female performances in an era when one was nearly always enough for his competition), this is one of the towering performances of pre-war cinema.

Oliver captures for all time a type that was invaluable on the frontier and still recognizable in the neighborhoods where I grew up in the sixties and seventies. Bawdy, prickly, judgmental, generous to those worthy of her respect, ready with a tongue-lashing for those who weren’t, level-headed, good-humored, nobody’s fool and a rock in any crisis.

Except for here, she never got full representation in our movies. I haven’t seen her around lately and I hope she’s not really gone. Because if she is, we are too.

(Oliver lost the Oscar to Gone With the Wind‘s Hattie McDaniel, who had her breakout role in Ford’s Judge Priest five years earlier. I don’t want to call that one. It’s one of those years I wish there had been a tie.)

Jane Darwell as “Ma Joad”
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Iconic. The only actress to win an Oscar in a Ford film (there should have been others–starting with Crossman–but that’s a topic for another time).

As Darwell portrays her, Ma Joad is broad, sentimental, prone to bouts of emotion (except when there’s a real crisis). Again, the wrong kind of woman to appeal to our “modern” ideas. And, again, a type familiar from my childhood (Ford’s films are virtually the only place the people I grew up around have ever found sympathetic representation).

Florence King had the best line about the women Darwell’s “Ma” embodied: “They got their name in the paper three times. When they were born, when they married and when they died.”

Growing up, I took the permanent presence of such women for granted.

More fool me.

More fool us.

Donna Reed as “Sandy Davyss”
They Were Expendable (1945)

Reed’s breakout role, as a WAC caught in the Philippines after Pearl Harbor.

This is one of those characters who might seem rote at first, like all any good actress needed to do was hit her marks.

Until you realize how much Reed has to convey–the full weight of a first record of how American women bore up under the existential crisis of the twentieth century–and how easily and naturally she does every last bit of it. Then you start thinking of who else could have done it as well….and the mind blanks. Then the mind laughs.

How did Ford know, in 1945, that the mousy little contract player taking bit parts on the lot would be Donna Reed? (And I’m not saying he knew it in casting, because I don’t even know if he was responsible for casting her–but you can bet he knew it by the time the camera rolled.)

Well, that’s just the sort of thing Ford always seemed to know.

(FYI: Based largely on this role–a model, witting or unwitting, for Dana Delaney in China Beach, one of the three or four best characters in the history of television–Reed received hundreds of letters from servicemen. She read every one, answered every one, kept every one, told no one. Her daughter discovered the letters only after her mother died.)

Joanne Dru as “Denver”
Wagon Master (1950)

A hooker who doesn’t come close to having a heart of gold…but she might be persuaded to settle down.

Ford’s dreamlike ending leaves the question of whether she does less settled than you might think and Dru’s performance (her best for my money, though she was also excellent in Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Hawks’ Red River, on which she claimed Ford gave extensive editing assistance) is filled with glances and expressions and lost looks that don’t give away so much that you can ever feel like you know her all the way through.

Just well enough that you’re rooting for her. Again, the right choice for a woman in her position. Given the 1849 setting she might be the mother who was massacred and left Stagecoach‘s Dallas an orphan who was forced into the same trade.

If she settled down, that is….

Maureen O’Hara as “Mary Kate Danaher”
The Quiet Man (1952)

O’Hara starred for Ford five times (more than any other leading lady in the sound era), including her breakout role in How Green Was My Valley and her defining role here.

My own favorite is her Cavalry wife in Rio Grande, but there’s no gainsaying this. It’s the most iconic role any woman had in a Ford film (edging Darwell in Grapes of Wrath as it’s a lead). And O’Hara is brilliant. She and John Wayne made every other screen romance look contrived and Ford was able to hang anything he wanted on the combustible chemistry they created.

He got carried away here and there, but every time the camera swung back to Mary Kate Danaher–which was often–the film was back on track. In some ways, it was the director’s chance to prove he could do the things so many claimed he couldn’t–mainly sex and romance.

Those people were already wrong. Here, with the Irish redhead’s fiery assistance, he made them look silly.

Ava Gardner as “Honey Bear Kelly”
Mogambo (1953)

And if that hadn’t done it, this would have.

This is a fairly straight remake of Red Dust, a pre-code sizzler from Ford’s buddy Victor Fleming. Gardner has the Jean Harlow part as a show girl stranded in the wild (here, Africa), hoping to hang her hat on the local big cheese (here, as in Red Dust, Clark Gable, only now graying at the temples).

Somewhere along the way, it turns from lust to love. For her at least. Again a pretty standard part…but Gardner does wonders with it. I love Harlow and Red Dust might be her very best. But Gardner’s Kelly feels like she has miles on her and knows there’s one chance to shed them before they add up to a weight she can’t throw off….and an empty life.

You never felt Harlow’s character was on the verge of breaking, that she was walking all the way up to a line that couldn’t be re-crossed.

You can feel Honey Bear Kelly doing just that.

Watch this on a triple bill with Stagecoach and Wagon Master some time for a master class in how to pick up the same stone and draw blood from it three completely different ways.

Vera Miles as “Hallie Stoddard”
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

There are actually people who profess not the get either Miles or her character in this movie.

I wonder if it’s just possible they get her all too well.

This would be one of the great performances if only for her reading of the greatest passage in American fiction: “Look at it. It was a wilderness. Now it’s a garden. Aren’t you proud?” (You have to run some to beat “You don’t own me!” which, two years before it showed up in Lesley Gore’s demo pile, is also here, also hers–and perfect.)

But it’s not comforting. It doesn’t permit the space modernity demands for cuddling up.

Miles wasn’t so much the aging Ford’s perfect muse as his perfect match. Every other western he made after The Searchers–all of which featured fine actresseswas diminished by her absence.

All she had to do here was hold her own in the middle of a triangle formed by John Wayne, James Stewart and Lee Marvin, all at their best. She made it look easy, which is probably why, like a lot of Ford’s women, she’s never gotten credit for it. Either that, or it’s the character people are afraid of–a woman who chose the only way she could and lived to realize that she will never be granted the comfort of knowing whether she chose wrongly.

One of the ten best performances given by an American actress–and I’m not sure you need the gender distinction.

Had it not been given by a woman in a John Ford western this would be nowise controversial.

Anne Bancroft as “Dr. D.R. Cartwright”
7 Women (1966)

Ford’s final completed film.

The frontier has moved to a Chinese mission post, where Bancroft’s D.R. Cartwright–doctor and skeptic–arrives as the emergency medical assistance.

There’s probably more debate about the quality of this film than any of his others. I lean toward the positive, though I’d like to see a quality print before I die (with Ford, the visuals comment on everything else, so being forced to watch a washed-out bootleg is even more of a handicap than usual).

But most people agree on the quality of Bancroft’s performance, which is on a par with her iconic work in The Miracle Worker and The Graduate. Ford was a devout Catholic but his films are filled with bristling critiques of both religious fanaticism and false piety–never more than here. A mission post isn’t as far from his usual concerns as you might think and Cartwright is as representative of his world view as any character could be.

That Ford didn’t like Bancroft’s performance (she was cast after Patricia Neal had a stroke a few days into the shoot) was probably indicative of his capacity for self-loathing. This is one of those times when it’s best not to take him seriously.

There’s never a time when we shouldn’t take his great films seriously.

Certainly not now.

I won’t give away the ending, but D.R. Cartwright’s final scene still has a lot to teach us.

[NOTES:

*One of my favorite Ford anecdotes, which I really hope is true, regards Grace Kelly, not considered “box office” enough at the time for the role Ford wanted her to play in Mogambo (where she would have to hold her own against the established star power of Ava Gardner and Clark Gable).

The honchos were not impressed by either the films she had done (including High Noon) or her existing screen tests, all of which were in black and white.

“Shoot her in color,” Ford said. “She’ll knock you on your ass.”

They shot her in color. Mogambo–unjustly neglected these days–became the biggest hit of Ford’s career and made Kelly a star. Alfred Hitchcock and the Prince of Monaco were among those suitably impressed.

**Mary Tyler Moore’s performance on television is, to my mind, the definitive Mary Todd Lincoln. But it’s a shame Weaver never got a shot at a full-length portrait. In Young Mr. Lincoln she has to convey a Mary Todd who was rarely, if ever, seen elsewhere in history or fiction–the one who Abe Lincoln either fell in love with or simply regarded as his likeliest portal into the good graces of the polite society which would be required for the fulfillment of his political ambitions. Weaver–who has perhaps ten minutes on screen–does not neglect either possibility, or the perils lying within.]

 

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…”

MY FAVORITE WESTERN THEME (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

Movies only…we’ll leave this, by a long ways the best TV western theme, aside…

..and stick to the cinema entries.

First, a little history:

Narration: Though High Noon opened to universal praise in late July, 1952, one of its early previews has proved disastrous. 

Fred Zinneman, Jr.: What was wrong with the preview was that there was wall-to-wall music in it and what people were responding to was the amount of music. After it was over, people–all the executives–were forming into little groups, whispering, and I just went into the bathroom, where two other executives were, and I heard one of them say to the other, “Well, what does a European Jew know about making westerns anyway?”

From Inside High Noon (50th Anniversary DVD edition of High Noon, Frank Langella, narration)

Stanley Kramer:  He (Columbia studio head, Harry Cohn) said “What difference does it make? So I ran it. It’s a piece of junk anyway”

Narration: Now, in fairness to Harry Cohn, the print that he saw of High Noon was missing a crucial element: music. You don’t have to be an expert to know how much music can add to a movie. But in this case the music was so unusual, so revolutionary, in fact, for its time, it added a whole dimension to the picture. Most movies of the 1950s opened with a fanfare, a big orchestra. Here’s what you heard at the beginning of High Noon…as spare and low-key as the film itself:

(From The Making of High Noon (50th Anniversary DVD edition of High Noon, Leonard Maltin, narration)

Not that those sometimes fanfares went away entirely….either from not so famous movies…

or extremely famous ones…

Or that you couldn’t split the difference:

Still, the makers of High Noon–having gone with too little music and too much–were onto something when they found the right mix. In the western, at least, vocals added something.

But there were only a few great ones. Some spare and low-key, some operatic.

And some of them didn’t make it to the movie. Well, one of them anyway:

Sometimes, a shoulda’ been didn’t make the movie either…

…that’s from the cutting floor of Rio Bravo, which, if it’s missed, is not as missed as it might have been, thanks to what is there.

This couldn’t have been a theme, exactly….

But this actually was…(well, a piece of it was, anyway)

So you can see (or hear), where they might have had a hard time choosing. And why they had a high bar to meet when they “remade” it (fanfare and all)…

And, by the late sixties, there was even at least one instance of a theme that blossomed out into a soundtrack (i.e., an ongoing ballad that ran through the whole movie, with endlessly witty variations, the gist of which are barely hinted at up front):

But, really, when it’s all said and done, there are three that stand head and shoulders above the rest.

One has the advantage of being from the greatest movie ever made:

One has the advantage of being both the greatest vocal and the best song ever recorded for a western theme.

But, down at the end, there’s something about the ground-breaker…Tex Ritter’s proudest moment, and one which he knew how to deliver more ways than one. My favorite is the one I played first, but this is a great variation. And there’s no more elegant or mysterious phrase in the English language than…”Wait along.”

 

OLD GODS, NEW GODS, DEAD GODS, LIVING GODS…THEY GOT MY HEAD SPINNING ROUND (Segue of the Day: 10/29/16)

A couple of mind-blowers…

Marketa Lazarova (1967)
Director: František Vláčil

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Sign o’ the Times (1987)
Director: Prince

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I happened to watch these back to back this week, not entirely on purpose but not entirely by coincidence either. They’ve both been sitting on my shelf for a while, waiting for a mood and, after watching Marketa Lazarova, as grim and compelling a visual and narrative experience as the human mind can touch without suffering immolation, I thought a Prince concert film might offer a little relief.

Maybe in some other context it would. But Marketa opened up so many doors to the long view of history there was probably no way to detach it from whatever came next. I certainly couldn’t detach it from a world of Dionysian hedonism where absolutely everything–including the god-like qualities of the  writer/director/performer at the center–is taken for granted.

The Czech film (voted the nation’s greatest in 1998, and, for once, I can believe it) takes nothing for granted, maybe because the thirteenth-century world it depicts is devoid of all security, all modernity, all comfort.

Though the plot is byzantine, the underlying narrative has a fable-like simplicity–thirteenth-century Czech warlords and their attendant clans anticipating the Hatfields and McCoys by six hundred years.

I suspect only someone who had come through the immediate experience of a war-torn land (Vláčil, a Czech native, was twenty-one when WWII ended and in his early forties when Marketa was filmed, apparently under physical circumstances not far removed from those of the story he was telling), could have brought such immediacy to a pre-civilizational world. God is present, but His ways are even more mysterious than usual and He seems in no mood to perform wonders. The Church is protected by forces less abstract than the Creator, and therefore weak and morally compromised, even within the walls of the nunnery that represents its presence in both the film and the world the film brings so unerringly, unnervingly near.

I suspect that going much further–making sense of it all–would require dozens of viewings, even for someone versed in the Czech language (one commentator after another on the extras provided by Criterion’s typically excellent package insists that the novel upon which the film is based is brilliant but untranslatable). But its primal power shines through, burning like a dark light hovering over one of Marketa’s endless snow-strewn vistas. It’s as full of “unexpected” turns as The Searchers, the only American film to which it bears a passing resemblance, and similarly driven by the force of an internal logic that, in the mind of those paying close enough attention, subsumes every “but would they actually do that?” objection before it even half-forms. (That resemblance would be more than passing if Debbie Edwards’ experiences–doubtless similar to what the title character in Marketa Lazarova suffers before our eyes, right down to “bonding” with her captor/rapist–were as fully fleshed out as her uncle’s….Ethan Edwards would have been perfectly at home in the thirteenth century).

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All of this served to remind me, as I watched Prince cavort through his meticulously self-constructed Utopia, just how near the wheel is to turning, how close we are to seeing the Devil turn round no matter who we “elect” now or in the future. The skids are greased. If the present election cycle has been nothing else, it’s been a reminder that our current raison d’tre, a national mission now resisted by exactly no one, is to move Paradise from the future (where it had been so securely and imaginatively placed by the Reformations–Catholic and Protestant–that kicked off Europe’s emergence from the all-against-all darkness Marketa Lazarova so memorably depicts, and set it on the five-hundred-year winning streak which the war František Vláčil lived through put to an end) to the present.

Paradise–represented by Prince’s imagination or anyone else’s–is always supposed to be transcendent, post-civilizational, the place where there will be no more crying. In the real world all men and all nations have to pass through on the journey to Perfection, the search for it always ends by discovering new realms of suffering.

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We had best enjoy the vicarious thrills of experiences like Sign o’ the Times (staggering by the norms of ordinary concert films, and, oh by the way, a beautifully complete refutation of the searing, unsettling album with which it shares a title and much of the same music–not for nothing do we call the man from Minneapolis a genius), while we can.

We are now flying very close to the sun. The world of Marketa Lazarova–which many now living in, say, the Middle East, would recognize as a mere nod to current events–will, via Paradise, return for the rest of us soon enough.

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THROWBACK (Curtis Hanson, R.I.P.)

I somehow missed ever seeing Wonder Boys or 8 Mile, both of which look as though they are right up my alley. And, despite some fine acting, I didn’t care for his inevitable Oscar winner, L.A. Confidential. There was no way to root out James Ellroy’s fundamental fasciscti stench (I’m not speculating, Ellroy owns it and thinks anyone who doesn’t agree with him is an idiot), without taking the juice out of the thing.

But Hanson made his reputation with a trio of superb modern thrillers–The Bedroom Window, Bad Influence and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle–all made between 1987 and 1992, and all neo-Hitchcockian in the best sense. They had plenty of modern edge and even nastiness, but somehow avoided the nihilism that has bedeviled the genre since just about the time of the Master’s own demise. The Bedroom Window has been on my shelf for years and never wears out. I’ve been meaning to revisit the other two for a while and this will give me a spur to get on with it.

Perhaps even more than that, however, I value his thoughtful, civilized commentary in the documentary feature that accompanied the 50th Anniversary DVD edition of The Searchers. As Hanson himself noted, it was a measure of how far John Ford’s influence reached that it touched so deeply on a filmmaker who made films which, superficially, could not have been more different. I’ll be watching that tonight in his honor. One can only wonder if his streak of obvious decency kept his filmography smaller than it might have been, here in this paradise we’ve made.

Hope he’s found better tonight.

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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.

MY FAVORITE HARMONY GROUP SINGER: ROCK AND ROLL DIVISION (Not Quite Random Favorites…In No Particular Order)

First I better offer up my definition of a “harmony group,” which is any group that tends to privilege harmony over lead-and-support. That’s tricky. In rock and roll, lead and support groups almost always had formidable harmonies, even if they just amounted to Keith leaning into Mick’s mike. And, in fact, one of my two favorite rock and roll vocal arrangements (I’m leaving black and white gospel and bluegrass out of this) is Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia” which is just about the definition of a lead and support group finishing each others’ breaths. My other favorite is the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which is so purely harmonic it sounds like it couldn’t possibly have been “arranged” any more than breathing is.

With those for logical extremes, there’s a lot of room in between. I’d place the midpoint somewhere in the neighborhood of the Rascals’ “Good Lovin’,” which weaves a lot of fantastic  and surprising harmonies into a classic lead and support structure. Start asking which sub-category the Rascals, or that record, fall in and we could be here all day.

So, to keep it simple, I’ll just list all the rock and roll aggregations I think of as being true harmony groups of the first order (no matter how many great leads they may have featured):

The Everly Brothers (from whom all else flows); the Fleetwoods; the Beach Boys; the Beatles; the Hollies; the Byrds; Simon and Garfunkel; the Mamas & the Papas; the 5th Dimension (at least until somebody figured out they could sell a lot more records by putting Marilyn McCoo out front); Spinners (a close call but I put them just this side of the divide); the Persuasions; ABBA; The Bangles.

That’s a nice baker’s dozen. I’m leaving out a lot. I’m counting Peter, Paul and Mary as folk. Doo wop is very confusing in this respect as is reggae. Groups as diverse as the Four Seasons, the Shangri-Las, the Jackson 5 or the Staple Singers (just to name a very few) had consistently fantastic harmonies, but were finally dominated by their principal lead singers. And a group like the Searchers made plenty of fine records without quite sustaining the heights of those I mentioned.

Still, even whittling the definition down to the bone, I’m left with Phil and Don, Gary Troxel, Brian and Carl; Paul and John; Allan Clarke; Gene Clark (with a nod to Roger McGuinn, who shared Sly Stone’s uncanny ability to be the dominant force in a group where he was far from the best singer); Paul and Artie; Denny and Cass; Marilyn and Billy; Bobby Smith and Philippe Wynne; Jerry Lawson; Agnetha and Frida; Susanna Hoffs and the Peterson sisters. (Update: Of course, I was bound to overlook a few. A day later, I already see the Impressions and the Turtles are inexcusably missing. Make ti a baker’s dozen plus two, then and my sincere apologies to Curtis and Howard and whoever else it will turn out I forgot. But it doesn’t change the final answer! 2nd Update: Also forgot the Bee Gees. Oh, yeah, them! Sorry Barry. Sorry Robin.)

If I had to pick a “greatest” I wouldn’t.Not even with a gun to my head. I’m a little thick but I’m not stupid.

As for a favorite?

Well, sometimes it’s easier than you think it will be.

You just have to think of a little test.

Like, who, of all those great singers, could make me listen to this tripe all the way through, every single time it ever came on the radio, just to hear a four line chorus which featured maybe your fiftieth best vocal?

You, Carl. Only you.

I’ve said it before, but there’s a piece of me that will never accept him being gone.

[Next Up…yet another fool’s game: My Favorite Dylan Cover]

 

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.

SOUTHERN MAN (Vocalist of the Month for 9/14: Ronnie Van Zant)

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(NOTE: This is getting to be more like “vocalist of the six months”….It’s been a busy year on a lot of fronts and I’m just getting back in the blogging swing so I hope to start picking up the pace, here and elsewhere. Meanwhile….This is a sequel to the piece I posted here.)

I suspect every white boy who was born around 1960 (like I was) and grew up in the South (like I did) has at least one Lynyrd Skynyrd story.

Most of us have a lot more than one. Sort of a routine litany.

Stories like mine.

There’s the “Come to think of it John, I never have seen you drunk on your ass,” story and the “You better not let any of those Alabama boys hear you say that” story and the high school talent show story and the “girls cried when Elvis died and boys cried when Ronnie died” story (now there’s one common to all!) and the speakers blasting “Sweet Home Alabama” in the softball field parking lot story and the “My second husband never listened to nothin’ but country and Lynyrd Skynyrd” story and probably a few others I’m not calling to mind just now.

But I’ll leave those aside and let one story suffice.

It’s the summer of 1979 and I’m working in the girls’ camp at the Southern Baptist Convention Center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina. Nice social experience, dreary job. There were five of us on that particular assignment (all college boys), plus two camp cooks.

The cooks were brothers–Texas born and raised, worldly, early thirties, mostly-reformed rowdies, a year or two apart in age. The older one was a Type B, cool, calm, collected. The younger was a Type A, charming, witty, talkative, possessed of a temper which he worked hard at keeping in check. (The one day he lost it, he took a swing at his brother, missed, then let go an animal yell and ran out the door. He came back about five minutes later, soaking wet. He had jumped in the lake where the campers took canoeing lessons, shirt, shoes and all, as we used to say. He apologized all around. Seemed to have gotten it out of his system. Us younger lads–when we got over our mild shock–sort of looked at each other and nodded rather sagely. No word needed to be spoken. He was clearly what we had suspected all along–even before we knew he and his brother had played in rock bands and once opened for the Animals in front of ten thousand people somewhere in Texas. He was, undoubtedly, a product of The Sixties!)

Type A going off and Type B’s modest reaction–“He gets a little belligerent some times but he’ll be alright”–were pretty definitive elements of their respective characters.

But what really defined them was that they had been intimates of Lynyrd Skynyrd–part of the inner circle via their friendship with Skynyrd’s last drummer, Artimus Pyle. The only way they could have been any cooler was if, say, one of them (Type B, naturally) had been asked to be the road manager of the band’s next-to-last tour–the one right before the one that ended in a plane crash that killed Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, backup singer Cassie Gaines.

Naturally, we all wanted to know why Type B didn’t take the gig.

There were two simple reasons.

Reason One was that his daughter had just been born and he wanted to spend time with her.

Reason Two was that he was told one of his main duties would be keeping Ronnie out of fights.

The way he told it, it was pretty clear Reason Two would have been enough, if Reason One hadn’t existed.

If he had been around enough to be asked to be their road manager, he had certainly been around enough to know that–at least some of the time–Ronnie Van Zant was who we all thought he was.

*   *   *   *

When Lynyrd Skynyrd released their first album in 1973 (Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd‘), Ronnie Van Zant became an instant, virtually official, representative of a part of the population which had been judged by the content of its character for at least a century before Martin Luther King said we all should be and been found permanently wanting by everyone but themselves.

Hillbilly, Redneck, Cracker, White Trash. Hard to find an honorific in there.

And that was just the neighbors talking.

By the time Van Zant died in a plane crash four years later, he and his band had managed to demonstrate just how difficult such stereotypes are to shake. Deepen them, shred them, laugh at them, live for them, die for them and still, your most devoted fans and your bitterest detractors will insist on thrusting them right back on you.

When the music was playing, though, Skynyrd transcended such contradictions again and again. Then and now.

Ronnie himself was the essential reason for the transcendence. And his singing–Chuck Berry’s sly intonations riding in, around, over and under the moral undertow of a Delta man, with the mythic weight resting now on the former, now on the latter, often within the context of a single line–was the reason within the reason.

Not to say that the whole package wasn’t definitive. We live now in an age when the likes of the Who or Led Zeppelin are routinely going around accepting things like Kennedy Center Honors. If Elvis Presley, or even Hank Williams, had lived long enough, it’s not hard to imagine them racking up similar signifiers of middle-brow acceptance.

I can even imagine a future where “hard-core” rappers get the same treatments. Ice Cube maybe. Or Chuck D.

And why not? Heck, George Jones made it that far, whiskey bones and all.

You can be sure, though, that if that airplane had somehow stayed in the air, no such accolades would have ever been in the cards for Ronnie Van Zant. Not even if he had tried.

Which he wouldn’t have.

*   *   *   *

Evidence?

Well, it’s always courting danger to ponder alternative universes, but, all in all, I’d say at least a few assumptions are safe.

First off, if your plane goes down the week you are releasing an album where you sing lines like “you won’t find me in an old folks home” and “whiskey bottles, brand new cars, oak tree you’re in my way,” and you are fond of telling anyone who will listen that you won’t see thirty, then a plane falling or not falling hardly means the fate you are courting won’t find you some other way.

Of course a lot of so-called punks, from Pete “Hope-I-Die-Before-I-Get-Old” Townshend on down, used to brag about being on the same sort of journey, and some still do. Some even follow through. But none of them were/are really philosophical (or any way off-hand) about it. Their brag came from a place Van Zant never thought of visiting. He didn’t say he wanted to die before he got old, just that he would–big difference, and, if you don’t want to admit it, wait til the next world comes and you can be sure that if the Void don’t care to explain it to you, then either John Calvin or Lucifer will be waiting to step up for a word with you please.

So much for “first off.”

Second off–and more significant–is that Van Zant grew up in my world.

Just the other side of the tracks I was just this side of, maybe–but my world all the same.

And I know this much.

You can run away from it. You can never really leave it.

It was a world where everybody had a more than sneaking suspicion that the Devil decides–and, if everybody carries certain sneaking suspicions around with them every single minute of every single day, then the habits of suspicion (and the beliefs those habits both spring from and reinforce) are bound to linger.

You can run away from all of that. Sure you can. Plenty have.

But you can never really leave it all the way behind.

Ronnie was definitive–definitively “us” even when “us” was me, who never did get drunk on his ass and learned to turn the other cheek when he was nine–because he never tried to leave anything behind–never once tried to run away from who he was, even though he knew what he was up against.

He had liberal views but none of the Liberal’s version of arrogance (condescension). And, lacking bluster (the Conservative’s version of same), he had no place to hide away.

So he was never going to be “home.”

Maybe that was why home worried him so much–became the source of his two great themes.

Home as haven. Home as trap.

In an age when nihilism was already running rampant everywhere except the middle of the road (which meant it wouldn’t be long before it was there, too–1980 to be exact), he clearly expected to pay for his sins.

Pay he did, ultimately.

Here’s what else he managed along the way.

*   *   *   *

In a little over four years, between 1973 and 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded five studio albums plus an epic live double and another album’s worth of out-takes and demos.

All were worthwhile, most were great. That string of rapid-fire greatness made them virtually the last mainstream rock and roll artists to work at such a white-hot pace while sustaining both a creative vision and a wide audience. The difference between their dozen or so radio staples–a number matched or exceeded by only a handful of bands in any form but especially in the “classic rock” format, where only Led Zeppelin (the Beatles of the form) produced so many in such a short span–and whatever you think their worst side is, was minuscule. The vision could seem narrow, no doubt.

But once you stepped inside it–once you got past the cracker facade–it was bottomless.

They set the parameters of that vision, and primed the expectations of their core audience, on the first two tracks of their first official release (Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd). “I Ain’t the One” was hard rock at its slyest (and hardest). “Tuesday’s Gone” was a wistful ballad, nearly as mythic as it was mournful and mysterious. Plenty of fine bands have lived on much narrower turf for decades. Skynyrd would be pushing and shifting and re-setting their turf–digging ever deeper–until almost literally the day they went down (in a plane Aerosmith had refused to fly in) and Ronnie’s death ended the band’s meaningful existence as anything other than a cash cow being milked for the very qualities–cheap nostalgia, boogie-for-its-own-sake–he had always disdained.

That urgency–the sense of constant movement within what seemed, on the surface of the very loud, often spine-rattling noise, to be such obvious restrictions–sprang almost entirely from Van Zant’s genius as a writer, bandleader and, especially, vocalist.

*   *   *   *

The writing part was, by all accounts, pretty mystical itself. Van Zant’s band-mates have described composing sessions as often amounting to them working up a riff while Ronnie wandered down by the lake and, at some point when they were getting on toward an arrangement, he would walk in and have the lyric in his head, ready to go. Working, in other words, the way Quincy Jones has suggested is more typical of jazz musicians and rappers, though, if you substitute arrangements for words, and the parking lot for a lake, it also sounds like a typical Elvis session.

There’s some significance to that, I think.

There’s a point at which this sort of “process” becomes well known and can be self-consciously imitated. In jazz, this had probably happened by the mid-sixties or so. In rock, it had certainly happened by the late seventies. In rap, maybe a decade later.

It might not be a coincidence that stories of loosely run sessions are found most frequently when the musicians spring from America’s two traditionally despised demographics–blacks and poor Southern whites–or from someone who is specifically trying to imitate them.

These are also the demographics where concepts like the posse, the gang, the crew, the extended family (which might be based on blood relations or simply communal associations, generally developed no later than high school), take their strongest hold. Among these two groups, that hold tends to trump everything that tries to break it–including fame, fortune and common sense.

That’s probably because they are the two groups who are most purely and deeply defined by a physical and psychic space they are bound to defend, generation after generation, in order to retain any cultural identity at all.

Better a cultural identity that catches you in a trap, the reasoning goes, than none at all.

Once an “out” group accepts that it can never really be “in,” then “we are who we are” tends to be the most reliable fallback position. Once the acceptance becomes truly ingrained, then you don’t even need to fall back, because the wall is something you learn to keep your back against to begin with.

Out of that, what are you going to get except the far edges of the blues, honky tonk, rockabilly, gangsta rap and, for the purposes of this particular discussion, Southern Rock?

And inside each of those concepts (yeah, they’re musical forms, too, but, at their furthest reach, never just that) you get an occasional genius.

Ronnie Van Zant ended up being the principal genius of Southern Rock in part because his singing brought so many vital elements of those other concepts together in one place to a degree that was matched by very few others–all of whom (Bessie Smith, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Merle Haggard, James Brown, Al Green) have received far more accolades (not only from places like the Kennedy Center…and not only because most of them lived a lot longer).

That’s how it is with genius and concepts.

The concepts you can predict. The genius not so much.

It goes its own way.

*   *   *   *

Of course, as with all the others I mentioned, hanging a label on Ronnie Van Zant and his great band is a bit of a trap in itself. The labels end up being technically correct and fundamentally ridiculous in the manner of calling Romeo and Juliet a teen romance or The Searchers a western or Adventures of Huckleberry Finn an especially fine example of Southwest Humor.

Some artists are just born to turn the cliches of form and formula on their heads and, inevitably, to put new ones in their place.

The way Van Zant went about practicing his particular acts of subversion was always rooted in a voice that was a perfect match for his lyrics–lyrics that, like the now-lilting, now-growling, now-shouting voice, held edges that were forever cutting both ways. So “Lord knows I can’t change,” (from “Freebird,” the career-defining closing track from their first LP) seems almost mock-ably straightforward until you actually listen to it being sung, after which it becomes impossible to tell the difference between the brag it so obviously seems to be on its face and the somewhat (though only somewhat) bitter confession of loneliness and isolation it surely is underneath. And that’s before you get to the next album’s second cut, “I Need You,” which plays like a sequel that promises everything “Freebird” denied, unless, of course, it’s denying everything “Freebird” promised.

And all of that is before you even get around to singing, you know, “In Birmingham they love the governor–boo, boo, boo,” and having the folks who love you without reservation completely agree with the folks who hate you the same way that you must be a big fan of “the governor.”

So it goes

One thing you learn, hanging out in Calvinist air–love and hate never do much nuanced listening.

So what can a genuinely poor boy do?

Become the only white blues singer whose voice carried no hint of either strain or homage? Claim the music in the off-handed way that a dozen or more singers leading equally fine blues-based bands–singers as great as Gregg Allman or as committed as Eric Clapton, fronting bands as great as the Allman Brothers or Cream–could only dream about? Cry for home every time you hit the road and cry for the road every time you come home? Maybe at the very same time make it sound like you never cried in your life? Make it sound like you’ve lived every single moment in the moment and never regretted a thing….unless it’s every single moment you weren’t thinking about the past or the future?

Celebrate with warnings?

Switch sides in the middle of a song?

Make it sound like “oak tree you’re in my way,” is you talking back to somebody (some preacher’s kid maybe) who is trying to make you see the error of your ways and then make it sound like “one hell of a price for you to get your kicks,” is you talking to somebody you are tying to save–somebody who may or may not be your own self?

Well, you could do all that. If you happened to be one poor boy in particular.

It’s not something that could have been easily predicted. With “art” you only know what’s possible once somebody reaches the limits.

We know what a “western” can be because John Ford existed. That’s true whether you like John Ford or not. We know what “country blues” can be because Robert Johnson existed. Ditto and so on and so forth.

We know what a poor white boy can actually do with what he himself called “the black man’s blues” because Ronnie Van Zant existed.

Ditto.

And so on and so forth.

*   *   *   *

He couldn’t have come from anywhere else. God knows we know, because we know how many others–from here, there and everywhere–have tried.

He couldn’t have come from anywhere except the only part of White America which never expects to assimilate and the only part that knows that whether they just don’t want to or just don’t think it’s possible isn’t a secret they are likely to share even if they come to some conclusion about it themselves.

I don’t know whether Ronnie Van Zant came to any conclusions or not and I won’t pretend I could have found out by asking him in some parallel universe where he did live to see thirty and I used my contacts with the camp cook who almost managed one of his tours to meet him somehow. I doubt his ever-supple management of his own duality–the relationship that had to exist between man and persona that was probably necessary for him to get as far as he did, to claim any audience at all in his own moment or have any claim on the future he knew he wasn’t going to live to see–would have been set aside for my sake.

You live with your back to the wall and–live or die–you give up certain things to gain others. You can’t sing the blues the way Ronnie Van Zant did–the epic, eternal way–and retain your ability to let down your mask so you can explain things to the preacher’s kid.

Or live to see thirty.

*   *   *   *

The manner and timing of Ronnie Van Zant’s death worked to ensure that the element of caricature which clung to him in life–clung no matter how diligently he tried to shed it, how deftly he put it to use as necessary camouflage–clung ever so much tighter once he wasn’t around to be diligent and deft and nuanced about it.

You want a single, reliable watchword for the deep, abiding contempt that college radio, or hip commentary, or thousand-dollar-a-plate fund-raising dinner attendees for either political party or just plain old Liberals-Who-Aren’t feel for the great unwashed?

“Lynyrd-Skynyrd” is all you need.

You need a similar word for the “nostalgia” of second husbands, or Conservatives-Who-Aren’t, or for anyone who thinks they’ve found comfort for the world view that truly believes this world would be a better place if, for starters, black people and “pencil pushers” just learned to stay in theirs?

Say the same.

I suspect no amount of asking people to listen closer will ever change this.

The need to be better than someone else is deeper than any ocean and, sometimes, being the voice who warns ignorance against itself and turns every easy assumption on its head doesn’t mean you are going to reap any easy reward.

Sometimes it just means there is only going to be one of you.

And, sometimes, being the only one means there is no safe haven, even in death.

So forget the “punks.”

If you really want to know what it’s like to never quite fit in–and to know you never will–then Ronnie Van Zant’s your man.

Rest in peace if you can, brother.

Rest in peace if you somehow found a place where they’ll let you.

RONNIEVANZANT3