WHEN AMERICANS STILL WENT TO PARIS…(Sunday Reading: 2/3/19)

…for something besides vacations.

I’m finally getting around to reading The Dud Avacado, Elaine Dundy’s 1958 entry in the madcap-American-heroine-loose-in-Paris genre. I suspect a lot that is cliched now was fresh, perhaps even innovative, when she wrote it. I’m liking it all the same because Dundy’s style doesn’t grate and hasn’t aged. No one under thirty could play the part convincingly now, but that only proves how fast the culture has collapsed. A generation ago, Meg Ryan or Reese Witherspoon or Jennifer Aniston could have had a field day with it. Renee Zellweger did, in fact, have a field day when Helen Fielding recast the attitude and nationality for working-class Brits in the Bridget Jones series (thin disguises all, I now realize).  It would have been a career-maker for a different kind of career if Christina Applegate had been the right age in 1958 (or if somebody in Hollywood had the wit the write a good script for her in 1998).

The chance is flown now, but the book, at least, remains, and it’s a good one that might turn great before it’s through. Dundy will be familiar to Elvis fans as the author of Elvis and Gladys, one of the best books on Elvis and the best on his relationship with his mother.

There could be few better ways to spend a Sunday than relaxing with this:

In an atmosphere of open hostility, I gobbled up my sandwich and hot chocolate as fast as I could; the hot chocolate burning my tongue, a revelation burning my soul. I had always assumed that a certain sense of identity would be strong enough within me to communicate itself to others. I now saw this assumption was false. Tout supplement, in a tarts’ bar, I looked like a tart. I tried to cheer myself up by thinking that after all this was really a very good thing for an actress. But it was depressing, anyway. Not so much for the thing of looking like a prostitute. I mean, except for the inconvenience of the moment, I found that rather thrilling, but the whole episode was forcing me to remember something that I’m always trying to forget and that is, that in a library as well, I’m always being taken for a librarian.

(The Dud Avocado, Elaine Dundy, 1958)

ONE COUNTRY? (Segue of the Day: 11/18/16)

Well, time for a little journey…

First, here’s a link to a list of recommended movies posted at (estimable blogger and resident New Yorker) Sheila O’Malley’s place (I’ll get to the significance of this in a bit):

2016 Movies To See

Next, a tweet from a despondent Mark Harris (estimable film critic/historian and also resident–and native–New Yorker) from Nov. 9:

“Every day, I’m exposed to people of different races, classes, and ethnicities. So is any New Yorker who has ever been on a subway.”

And, finally, a quote from Cali-raised Matthew Bright, director of Freeway, a 1996 movie starring New Orleans born, Nashville raised, pre-stardom Reese Witherspoon, on the DVD commentary track, (re: a long kiss between Witherspoon and her black co-star, Bokeem Woodbine):

“I’m a big fan of screen kisses and there was no way I could make a movie without a great screen kiss, and here is my contribution to the screen kiss. Here we go….It’s comin’…Oh, now it’s the exchange of gifts….She’s so happy….And here it is….Young love….Reese is from the South, too!….I hope she doesn’t take any heat back home!”

Goodness…

Leaving Sheila aside (she’s simply putting out a list of good movies to see, though it ties in indirectly with the main point here), one sometimes wonders if the Yanks ever realize it’s not 1963 anymore.

Oh, I suppose in some ways it is, simply because some things never change anywhere, but the modern South imagined by Bright and at least implied by Harris (even though he’s including the rust belt as well) has changed a great deal.

Harris’s tweet was part of a series on his twitter feed where he seemed to be attempting some kind of defense/explanation of why a place like New York voted massively for Clinton and so much of the rest of the county did not. He was apparently responding to accusations that people like him (a gay New Yorker who writes about Hollywood and is married to a famous playwright) “live in a bubble,” i.e., are out of touch with “reality.” But his response was curious. He clearly thinks being “exposed to people of different races, classes, ethnicites” on the New York subway system is an experience that both lifts him out of “the bubble” and places him in a more worldly context than the hicks in the sticks–who are thereby confined to a bubble of their own–can possibly imagine.

Which would be a fine defense/analysis of Harris’s point if it were true.

But if I want to be exposed to all those different types, and many more besides, I don’t need to descend into a New York subway terminal (where, hick though I be, I have ventured a time or two, all by my lonesome, no less). I  just need to drive to a mall in Tallahassee, Florida or Dothan, Alabama, or, I imagine, pretty much anywhere in America. Neither Harris nor anyone else is absolved of “living in a bubble” because he has walked the big, bad streets of the city where he was born. And I’m not saying that he does live in a bubble, just that the example he chose to prove he doesn’t proves nothing.

Which makes me wonder. Does he?

I’ll stay tuned.

I don’t think there’s much chance Matthew Bright doesn’t live in some kind of bubble as it seems he’s spent his entire adult life involved with Hollywood one way or another. (I’m not entirely sure, because his internet bio is sketchy beyond his being a lifelong friend of famous film composer Danny Elfman and his brother, which doesn’t exactly improve his “just folks” cred.)

Based on that one comment I quoted above, I’d say he’s lived a very sheltered life indeed. Those malls I mentioned feature plenty of interracial couples and have done since at least the eighties, by which time they had long ceased to turn heads.

And Reese Witherspoon has never taken “heat” for an interracial kiss. Her star waned when she had a drunk driving incident that involved her verbally baiting a cop on video, but her career lost momentum long before. when the producers of Sweet Home Alabama failed to pony up for the rights to Skynyrd’s version of the title track and went with Jewel (yes, Jewel!) instead. Believe me, I was in the theater the weekend it opened and an audience that was ready to erupt (the movie had been entertaining) went flat as a pancake when the riff they had been set up to hear for the last hour and a half didn’t come out of the speakers and Jewel came out instead. The movie was a decent-sized hit, but whoever made that decision gave up a hundred million profit and the chance to turn Reese into a superstar who could guarantee box office for a generation. Never let them tell you Hollywood is all about money. Sometimes it’s about stupid.

Short version of all of the above: Some a’ ya’ll need to get out more.

Which brings me back to Sheila’s post.

I live next door to a mid-size college town in the Florida Panhandle. That college has a first rate film and drama school that has produced its share of both major stars (Burt Reynolds, Robert Urich,) and character actors, plus behind the scenes folks, etc.

Of the forty movies Sheila is recommending, three are streaming/TV (O.J.: Made in America being the most famous). Of the remaining thirty-seven, exactly four have played in my market (or anywhere nearby…this is the big market for two and a half hours in any direction).

Of course, it’s possible (now or in the future) to track the rest down on DVD, but who will do that who is not already a dedicated film fan with a sizable entertainment budget and/or a very well stocked local library?

One country?

Not quite, and in, oh, so many ways. But then, what country really is?

If you really want it to be one country–as much as any country can be–remaining willfully ignorant of all the places you don’t live, in the manner of Harris or Bright, probably ain’t the way.

[NOTE: For the record…Harris’s Five Came Back is one of the finest books ever written about either Hollywood or World War II. I reviewed it at length here. Bright’s Freeway is a mind-bender and Witherspoon gave the kind of scarifying performance that has to be seen to be believed and then basically covered up and swept under the rug for anything like stardom to remain attainable. Bridging the gap was either her biggest success or her biggest failure, depending on whether we, the grasping audience, value her happiness/sanity or ours. There’s room for argument there. We all contain multitudes.]

Here’s to that one country, still out there, waiting….

(With apologies that the version I heard sung and accompanied by an acoustic guitar, coming from a dorm window in the early, pre-dawn hours of May 4th, 1998, on the campus of Kent State University, is available only to the memory of those present for the occasion.)

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

Get On Up–2014 (d. Tate Taylor)

(Photo: Imagine Entertainment)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JAMESBROWNRSTONES

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

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

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