News and Features
Frederick Wiseman has spent a lifetime piecing together sounds and images captured from the daily flow.
"I remind myself that much of television is now comic strip," Ralph Ellison told TV Guide in 1988. It is not surprising that the author of Invisible Man would be uncomfortable with the cool medium. After all, Ellison's only completed novel repeatedly attacks the vulgarity of literal representation to the point where even the novel's hero is famously nameless. Ellison directs us away from appearances and keeps his hero running, from white cops, black nationalists, hypocritical Communists and corrupt academics, only to find himself nestled in the Dostoyevskian underground of the written word. Regardless of much of its politics, the literary Modernism of Mann, Eliot, Joyce, Faulkner and others provided Ellison with an unlikely harbor from racism; representing that literary process on television is a little like disobeying Kafka's instructions and drawing the insect of The Metamorphosis.
Yet in that same TV Guide interview, Ellison acknowledged that television "while very fleeting, has its permanent side, too, which allows you to go back." Poised somewhere between comic strip, permanence and VH1's Behind the Music, writer-producer-director Avon Kirkland has served up Ellison for middlebrow America in Ralph Ellison: An American Journey. At its worst, Kirkland's documentary stages melodramatic depictions of Ellison's triumphant novel, reducing its hallucinatory nuance to earnest television. At its best, the documentary stages melodramatic depictions of Ellison's disappointing life, and it is this haunting story that makes for a compelling made-for-TV biopic.
Since there is still no published biography of Ellison (there are two in the works, by Lawrence Jackson and Arnold Rampersad), Kirkland has the advantage of telling a story that has never been told in public before, at least not in any sustained, ostensibly objective way. Ellison may have told the story of hopping a freight train to enroll in Tuskegee as a scholarship student in an essay; but until you've seen his bandaged student ID and heard the narration of the story with a montage of trains, hobos and predators to the strains of Howlin' Wolf, it's not quite real in the way that TV makes events seem real. And unless you've dug through his archives at the Library of Congress, happened to be watching when, say, he was being interrogated by Bryant Gumbel on the Today show or had the opportunity to actually speak with him in person, Ellison's TV persona--with his halting, Oklahoman elegance and stammering, reticent speech--may seem at first a great contrast to the defiant iconoclast you would find in his writing. Instead, whether you see him recount how he modestly resisted Richard Wright's suggestion that he try his hand at fiction writing, humbly insist why he thought T.S. Eliot and Louis Armstrong were similar in their approaches, or listen to his own readings of his unfinished second novel--looking simultaneously bewildered and amused by the cadences of his own voice and the eccentricity of his own prose--he is the image of a man haunted. One photograph shows him hunched over the typewriter, with whiskey decanter ominously prominent, as the narrator gives us Ellison's account of his lack of productivity in the 1960s. Referring to the mounting attacks on his integrationist vision from the kind of black nationalist voices he had already dreamed up in the figure of Invisible Man's Ras the Destroyer, Ellison said simply, "It's hard to write with a clenched fist."
Audiences have thrilled to rise-and-fall stories from Oedipus to VH1's Behind the Music. But unlike the self-destruction of kitschy pop stars, Ellison's supernova is a genuine tragedy; the stakes presented are nothing less than high art and racial understanding, and it is these stakes that are so at odds with a medium that favors sensationalism over sensation, and sentimentality over sentiment. "Why do I write, torturing myself to put it down?" asks the narrator of Invisible Man. Ellison answers with another question: "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?"
Ellison was particular about the way he did speak for us, and he made it clear that his own prose would be the only truly acceptable medium for this representation. The Modernist who retreated from the superficial expectations imposed by racism into the perfection of his own art would probably have been troubled to see key episodes in his novel--the grandfather's deathbed speech, the Battle Royal episode, the revelation at the Liberty Paints factory--transformed from literary phantasmagoria into searing teleplay, in which Ellison's ironies are turned into pieties and his jokes are transformed into obvious slogans. This is what television usually does, of course, but the very reason Ellison the documentary subject becomes a hero is that his achievement is in the less-than-telegenic activity of spending long hours in front of the typewriter.
But even if Kirkland's documentary reduces Ellison's novel to comic strip, the medium serves him well to provide the cultural context so crucial to Ellison's reading of America. The sights and sounds of Ellison's early life--complete with baby pictures, Tuskegee footage and Jimmy Rushing clips--are expertly captured, and anyone who wants to understand Ellison's world would have to confront this context. Kirkland also succeeds by producing useful soundbites from commentators, including Robert O'Meally, Morris Dickstein, Farah Griffin, R.W.B. Lewis and especially Cornel West--who delivers his riffs like a Baptist preacher with borscht-belt timing and a Marxist liturgy. A word that many of these commentators use repeatedly is "complexity," a favorite of Ellison's. Yet sometimes complexity can be sacrificed for storytelling, especially on television.
This disparity is certainly evident when Henry Wingate tells a famous story of Ellison's confrontation with a black nationalist at Grinnell College in 1967. According to Wingate's version, when Ellison was called an Uncle Tom, he "became unglued and began to cry, repeating, 'I'm not an Uncle Tom, I'm not an Uncle Tom.'" Wingate, a federal judge, should be taken at his word, but the late Willie Morris, in his memoir New York Days, allowed Ellison to retort, "What do you know about my life? It's easy for you. You're just a straw in the wind. Get on your motorcycle and go back to Chicago and throw some Molotov cocktails. That's all you'll ever know about." Kirkland's version, corroborated by Morris's son, paints Ellison as the kind of helpless victim his own work avoided depicting. Morris's version allows Ellison to fight back--perhaps a little less congenial to a PBS tearjerker.
Of course, even a tragic TV documentary needs an optimistic denouement, and Kirkland provides it with the 1999 publication of Juneteenth. Ellison's inability to produce a follow-up to Invisible Man was the bane of his existence, and perhaps the most frustrating literary waiting game in recent memory. We see Ellison lose more than 350 pages of the manuscript in a fire, retreat from public appearances at the horror of having to answer yet another question about the book, and become an alcoholic hermit, obsessively poring over manuscripts. What the documentary doesn't mention is the quite legitimate argument leveled by many scholars, including Louis Menand in the New York Times Book Review, that Juneteenth isn't really an Ellison novel at all but a dubiously edited and spuriously marketed attempt by Random House to collect on its advance. Instead, we are shown a mellifluous reading by Toni Morrison of a passage from the book, with Robert O'Meally asserting that the passage seemed, "for that day, the greatest thing that had ever been written." We also see GQ writer-at-large Terrence Rafferty acknowledging that while Juneteenth may not have achieved its vast ambitions, it is, "like America, forever a work in progress."
It is true that textual scholarship does not usually make for good television, but there might have been another way to end the show on a triumphant note without making inflated claims for a highly disputed book. What the documentary could have shown was the rise of overtly Ellisonian institutions like the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard, where founder and chair Henry Louis Gates has done considerable work in restoring Ellison's reputation while using Ellisonian criteria as a curricular model, and Jazz at Lincoln Center, where Ellison's vision of jazz has been a guiding principle for his confidant Albert Murray and his disciples Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis.
Fifty years ago, Ellison's notions that Louis Armstrong was an icon of artistic independence; that white and black culture were interdependent; and that there was more than a unicausal explanation for the rise of black American culture were the product of an original, idiosyncratic and routinely attacked individual. In the past few years alone, Ellison's afterlife has been more prolific than the last forty years of his life: Philip Roth's The Human Stain successfully used the theme of passing that Ellison struggled with throughout the writing of his unfinished novel. Spike Lee's Bamboozled, filled with overt references to Invisible Man, was also a perverse riff on Ellison's integrationism, portraying whites and blacks as equally complicit in a common cultural phenomenon. And Ken Burns's Jazz demonstrated how Ellison's reading of Louis Armstrong as a transcendent genius who could "bend a military instrument into a beam of lyrical sound" could provide a significant basis for another PBS program. The frequencies of that station may not have been able to pick up on the full range of Ralph Ellison, but a rereading of his prophetic writings will continually remind us that, on the lower frequencies, he speaks for us more than ever.
Despite an initial drop in attendance in the uncertain aftermath of September 11, and the changing of the guard at three major institutions, the London theater scene has rebounded with determination. Across the Thames at the Royal National Theatre, there's a bracing revival of Harold Pinter's chilling No Man's Land. Considered his most enigmatic work (playwright Patrick Marber calls the play "unknowable"), it's the one that is least revived among his many celebrated plays (The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Homecoming). In fact, Peter Hall's original production of No Man's Land in 1975 at the National, starring Ralph Richardson as Hirst and John Gielgud as Spooner, was so widely praised that only Pinter himself ventured to take on the role of Hirst thereafter.
Today, after twenty-six years, this darkly powerful play returns to the RNT under the author's direction, and the moonscape of Pinterland has never seemed starker. Critics have hailed its masterful cast, with Corin Redgrave and John Wood giving tour de force performances as Hirst, the debauched writer, and Spooner, the destitute poet he's met in a pub on Hampstead Heath and taken home to his elegant digs in a desperate search for companionship. There, Spooner is imprisoned in Hirst's sepulchral study by a pair of sinister servants, where Hirst invites him into an elaborate fantasy that they were once Oxford schoolmates. The scene of outrageous self-delusion--with Redgrave delivering one of Pinter's most mesmerizing monologues--is hilarious. But ultimately, No Man's Land is a harrowing portrait of failure, loss of memory and the past--a Lear and his Fool on yet another heath, suffering the terrors of loneliness and old age. It's also about the inability to write, a fear that plagued Pinter himself in the early 1970s. This is a landmark production of an elusive masterpiece, a haunting, menacing piece of theater that Marber (director of the 2000 revival of The Caretaker, starring Michael Gambon) describes as "clear and lucid as a dream, and like a dream it resists our need to know its meaning.... I'm not entirely sure I know what's going on in No Man's Land. But I'm not sure I want to know."
The writer's fear is a theme of another revival in London's season as well--Faith Healer, by the Irish poet-playwright Brian Friel (Philadelphia, Here I Come!; Dancing at Lughnasa), which premiered at Dublin's Abbey Theatre in 1980 and is now being given a luminous production at the Almeida Theatre. This gentle, elegiac play features four monologues by three characters--Frank, an Irish faith healer, part charlatan, part artist, played with self-deprecating charm by Ken Stott (award-winning star of Yazmina Reza's Art); Grace, his ruined wife, played by Geraldine James (of the BBC's epic Jewel in the Crown); and Teddy, the seedy talent agent who loves them both, in a remarkable performance by Ian McDiarmid, Almeida's joint artistic director. These three characters narrate the story, Rashomon-style, of the faith healer's return to Ireland after years of fruitless one-night stands in Scotland and Wales (he once allegedly healed a group of ten), where he attempts to restore his faltering powers. There he meets his tragic end. Under the delicate direction of Jonathan Kent, a tattered curtain sweeps across an empty stage and works theatrical magic, wiping away one monologue, revealing the next, as these stories interweave into a tapestry of three lives touched by tragedy. Like the faith healer whose powers are fleeting (and, eventually, self-destructive), so too Friel raises questions about the unpredictability of the writer's gift. In the end, only the gift of faith itself (whether miracles happen or not) and steadfast love abide, as the powers that can heal lives and artists.
In the midst of these distinguished revivals, a combustible new work on stage at the RNT's Cottesloe Theatre has exploded like a stick of dynamite. Gagarin Way is the first play of a 32-year-old Scottish writer named Gregory Burke, introducing a raw new world to the English-speaking stage and placing new Scottish theater at the table alongside the Irish and the impressive young voices of Conor McPherson (The Weir) and Martin McDonagh (Beauty Queen of Leenane).
Newly arrived from the Traverse Theatre, where it was the hit of the 2001 Edinburgh Festival, Gagarin Way is a fierce black comedy set in the storeroom of a high-tech computer factory in the industrial Scottish county of Fife. A frustrated factory worker, Eddie, and a hapless security guard, Tom, await the arrival of Eddie's accomplice, Gary, who is executing a scheme to kidnap a visiting multinational executive. Gary arrives with their prey, who is bound and hooded, and as the would-be thugs ponder his fate, they enter into an outrageous philosophical debate on existentialism, globalization, Marxism, anarchy and nihilism to express their disillusionment. The opening discussion on the relationship between Sartre and Genet is especially memorable: "The last thing you need after a hard day's gibbering pish on the Left Bank about how we're all subjects among objects is finding out you're a subject among no as many objects now you've got fucking Jean Genet out ay the jail."
This is a ferociously funny satire of terrorism and its bungling misguidedness (they kidnap the wrong person; Gary refuses to buy bullets as a cost-saving measure)--which takes a sudden, horrific turn and ends in heart-stopping violence. Written in colorful (and profane) Scottish dialect, and directed at dangerous speed by John Tiffany, Gagarin Way is a riotous, unpredictable and ultimately frightening ninety-minute ride of powerful, provocative theater.
An interview in the Daily Telegraph described Burke as a "barely literate dishwasher from the back end of post-industrial Scotland who had never written so much as a postcard, and who had to have 'who Harold Pinter was' explained to him when they ran into each other during rehearsals." This makes the accomplishment of this young, self-educated, first-time playwright all the more striking. Burke comes from a corner of Scotland that was staunchly communist in the 1960s, where streets in the village of Lumphinnans were named after heroes like Yuri Gagarin (hence, the play's title)--a region that took its politics seriously, with its coal-miner strikes in the 1980s and struggles against multinationals in the 1990s. A "prolapsed Catholic," as he describes himself, Burke dropped out of Stirling University after two years and "fulfilled a variety of vital roles in the minimum-wage economy," washing factory floors, working on assembly lines, etc. "I wanted to write a play about economics, it being the dominant (only?) theme in modern politics, and the source of real power in our increasingly globalised times. And I wanted to write about men and our infinite capacity for self-delusion." An inveterate humorist and storyteller, a keen observer of human behavior and an astute political thinker, Burke--who wrote his play well before September 11--offers terrifying and timely insights into the psychosis of terrorism and obsessive political ideology. His is a new and unique voice, for unique times. A tempest has blown down from Scotland onto the London stage, reminding us that the theater can be a place of prescience and prophesy as well as entertainment.
For those who prefer dry martinis at the theater rather than Molotov cocktails, there's a sparkling revival of Private Lives at the Albery Theatre on Charing Cross Road. This delectable drawing-room comedy by Noel Coward, crown prince of the genre, premiered in the West End in 1930, starring Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, and then went on to Broadway in 1931. It was one of his most popular and widely produced plays; Coward attributed its lasting success to "irreverent allusions to copulation...causing a gratifying number of respectable people to queue up at the box office." This comedic gem (written, legend goes, in four feverish days holed up in a Shanghai hotel) is celebrated for its insights into marital manners and mores, as well as its scintillating dialogue ("Don't quibble, Sybil") and unparalleled wit (playwright Christopher Hampton praises its portrayal of "bickering as sex pursued by other means"). Currently, it is enjoying a sleek revival with the sophisticated duet of Allan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, under the smart direction of Howard Davies.
Another revival from that glittering era also graces the West End. Director Peter Hall has resurrected The Royal Family, the George Kaufman/Edna Ferber valentine to New York's roaring theatrical twenties. This delicious old chestnut evokes all the glamour of Broadway's famed 1927-28 season when it premiered, which also included Dracula (starring Bela Lugosi), the Gershwins' Funny Face (featuring Fred and Adele Astaire), Rodgers and Hart's A Connecticut Yankee, O'Neill's Strange Interlude, Helen Hayes in Coquette, Mae West in Diamond Lil and the Hammerstein/Kern Show Boat. Sir Peter's revival of The Royal Family is its first London production since Noel Coward's in 1930, when Laurence Olivier starred as the flamboyant Tony Cavendish. The Cavendishes are of course meant to be the Barrymores, the First Family of the American Theater, with its gifted siblings Ethel, John and Lionel (Drew, Hollywood's current Barrymore, is John's granddaughter). The colorful Cavendishes are played by members of Britain's own theatrical royalty--including the charismatic young Toby Stephens (son of Dame Maggie Smith) and the commanding Dame Judi Dench (whose performance in the newly released film Iris confirms her regal reputation). The star of this showbiz revival, however, is a golden era in the Broadway theater. There is also a bouquet of musicals, including the elaborate (if controversial) South Pacific at the RNT, directed by Trevor Nunn, in commemoration of the centennial of Richard Rodgers's birth. In the West End, there is the RNT's pleasing My Fair Lady starring Jonathan Pryce, and Peter Nichols's irreverent Privates on Parade (a musical satire on the postwar British military in the Far East) is diverting audiences at the cozy Donmar Warehouse (where the current Cabaret now playing in New York was born).
Challenging, moving or simply entertaining, it's a season of healing and faith in the theater.
You may have read, in these pages and elsewhere [see Danny Goldberg, "Harvard Raps West," February 4], about the flap that Harvard University's president, Lawrence Summers, kicked off in a meeting with Cornel West, a professor of African-American studies and philosophy. Among other things, Summers implied that hip-hop had little street cred at the university--West had made a rap CD--and suggested that some serious scholarship was in order instead. West, miffed, mused about leaving for Princeton, and other prominent scholars in his department--Henry Louis Gates Jr., the chair, and Anthony Appiah--seemed ready to follow suit. While subsequent meetings have apparently tempered tempers, we thought a look at the CD itself might prove illuminating.
Whatever Cornel West's Sketches of My Culture (Artemis Records) is (or isn't), this experiment in hip-hop and homily doesn't warrant a stuffy fusillade of rabbit punches and groin kicks to West's academic standing. Harvard University is still in America, where an educator, at whatever position in relation to her nation's cultural elite, has the right to throw down, shout out, make a joyful noise and/or public display (if she does no serious psychic or physical harm to others) without being hassled about it by her boss.
Well, wait a moment. Let's try to step into this mess with, you know, a "positive" attitude, as the uplift posses like to put it.
"The Journey," the opening track on Sketches of My Culture, is also the only one whose words aren't conspicuously flattened against a throbbing beat. And thus it's the only track that foregrounds what Cornel West does best: Preach. As anyone who's heard him speak can attest, West can bring the raucous intimacy of a storefront church into the toniest lecture hall. The slashing cadences, rolling timbres and freewheeling alliteration that are standard equipment for the fiercest pulpit orators cleave to West's rhetorical style as crisply as his three-piece suits cling to his frame. He is never more a rhythm master than when he sermonizes with the abandon of a cocktail-lounge organist playing blues-funk variations after midnight.
But there's nothing in the content of "The Journey" that's original or provocative--unless it's news to you that people of African descent have managed to create a profound musical tradition against tremendous odds. The information conveyed on this track and those that follow is intended to comfort, to reinforce, to (you know) be positive and bring uplift to African-American listeners.
West and his collaborators have fashioned a serviceable black product, the digitally mastered equivalent of one of those needlepoint samplers that grandmothers kept--still keep?--on their kitchen walls. If this be insurrection, then I want an extra marshmallow in my hot chocolate before I take a nap.
Public Enemy's Chuck D once proclaimed that rap music is the black community's CNN. Riding this analogy, you could say that Sketches of My Culture transmits its news along frequencies that are practically threadbare from overuse. Once the overdubs, beat machines and vocal riffs settle in for the disc's duration, the obsolescence of thought, the repetitiveness of sentimentality become more pronounced, skating the edges of embarrassment.
Take (or leave) "3Ms" as an example. Now it's possible, though unlikely, that the memories of Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X have become wispy and frail more than thirty years after their murders, especially to 20-something-and-under citizens of Hip-Hop Nation. But if "Martin, Medgar and Malcolm/Keep on keeping on/Keep on staying strong" is the best that these martyrs can expect as a chorus on a tribute presided over by one of the leading African-American public intellectuals of the present day (and the rest of the track is barely less banal), then consider yourself challenged to make yourself a better T-shirt.
As the chairman of Artemis Records, the company that released Cornel West's CD, Sketches of My Culture, I considered criticizing Cornel for his association with Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard. Without ever listening to it, Summers attacked West merely for having released a CD, dismissing the entire universe of recorded music as being "unworthy of a Harvard professor." But like most record executives, I'm more tolerant of unorthodox associations than Summers, so I'll continue to judge West by his work and the inspiration it provides.
Among the flurry of press reports sparked by the controversy--most of which alluded to the alleged "rap CD"--quite a few couldn't get the facts straight. The New Republic claimed that West "has spent more time recording a rap CD and stumping for Al Sharpton than doing academic work." In fact, West has canceled only one class in twenty-six years of teaching, and that was several years ago, to deliver a lecture in Ethiopia. West recorded the CD during a leave--a long-established privilege in academia. (Summers himself took a leave from a professorship at Harvard to work for the World Bank.)
A Summers aide has said that the confrontation with West was a "terrible misunderstanding," but it's possible that Summers knew exactly what he was doing, using West the way Bill Clinton used Sister Souljah: to placate conservative elements of his constituency. Not only did Summers harshly criticize West's published work, he acknowledged that he had not read any of it or listened to the CD. Moreover, it's obvious that what disturbs Summers is not the notion of a Harvard professor engaging in political activity but West's particular beliefs: He criticized West's involvement with Bill Bradley, Ralph Nader and Al Sharpton, but Summers himself supported Al Gore (as did West's friend and supporter Henry Louis Gates Jr., head of the Afro-American studies department). Summers has been silent as his supporters have misrepresented West's record and called him names. Two examples: The National Review's Rod Dreher referred to West as a "clownish minstrel" and the New York Daily News's Zev Chafetz called him "a self-promoting lightweight with a militant head of hair."
West's decision to record a CD is in keeping with a commitment to spread his ideals and ideas as far and wide as possible. His book Race Matters has sold more than 350,000 copies and is one of the most influential books on race of the past couple of decades. His other works are used as texts in college classes around the world. There is no other public figure who is welcome in academia, in the media, in both conventional and activist politics and in the religious world.
By the way, Sketches of My Culture is not a "rap" CD. West, like most contemporary music critics, acknowledges that hip-hop is a vital cultural language. But Sketches itself is a concept album that is predominantly spoken word surrounded by r&b music, a montage that includes limited and focused uses of hip-hop language. Like any work of art, it's open to legitimate criticism, but it is clearly a serious attempt to use a modern art form to grapple with the themes that have animated West's career: black history, spirituality and political morality. There is not a word of profanity on it.
The indefatigable West has reached out to poor communities, moderating the crucial final panel at a recent "Rap Summit" and appearing on urban radio shows that had never been graced by the presence of an academic. I have seen the faces of young people inspired by West's linking of their own aspirations to the civil rights struggle and to the great philosophical and religious traditions. He urges them to live up to those examples. It has said something to the broader American community about Harvard that Cornel West is a professor there, and it will say something about Harvard if he is not.
A review of Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul.
When The Majestic was about to be released--it's the movie, you will recall, in which Jim Carrey plays a blacklisted screenwriter who suffers from amnesia--someone asked me to tote up the other films that touch on the Hollywood inquisition. I eliminated the allegories, such as Johnny Guitar, and the pictures that deal with other branches of show business (the music industry in Sweet Smell of Success, television in A King in New York and The Front) and calculated that all of two features--The Way We Were and Guilty by Suspicion--pay attention to the blacklist.
The number is also two with The Majestic included.
Talk about suffering from amnesia! Of course the movie industry feigned ignorance when the witch hunt was on--among its other unmentionable traits, the blacklist was illegal--and you can see how a certain forgetfulness was convenient afterward. But as Hollywood moved into the 1970s and '80s, with new corporate masters taking over the studios and old decision-makers dying off, the subject of the blacklist might have seemed ripe for exploiting. The industry has always loved to dramatize itself; and here, lying unexplored, was an episode that had convulsed all of Hollywood, and much of America with it.
Two films--if you feel generous toward Carrey, three. But now the count has risen significantly with One of the Hollywood Ten, the most honest movie of its very small group and arguably the best. It is not, however, an American picture. To our shame, it has taken a Welsh writer-director, Karl Francis, and producers based in Britain and Spain to film the true story of a blacklisted couple, Herbert Biberman and Gale Sondergaard, and their making of that remarkable movie, Salt of the Earth.
Since even Nation readers might be unaware of these events--and since truthfulness is a large part of Francis's merit--here's a quick synopsis:
Biberman was called before HUAC in 1947, among the committee's first group of unfriendly witnesses. Until that time his work as a writer and director had been so sparse, and so lackluster, that no one could have rationally accused him of transmitting ideology through the movies. That he had an ideology was unquestionable; Biberman was a committed Communist. But his greatest distinction was his marriage to Sondergaard, a hard-working, Oscar-winning actress.
Citing his First Amendment rights, Biberman refused to testify before HUAC, whereupon he was charged with contempt of Congress and sent to prison. When Sondergaard insisted on standing by him, she too was blacklisted. She found herself, upon his release, running a household of the dual unemployed.
It was at this point that their friends and fellow blacklistees Michael Wilson and Paul Jarrico came up with the idea of making an independent film about a labor uprising in New Mexico. The members of Local 890 of the Mine-Mill Workers, most of them Mexican-American, had gone on strike against Empire Zinc, demanding the same pay and conditions as Anglo workers received. The company's response was to get an injunction against the union, forbidding the miners from picketing. But the injunction said nothing about the miners' wives. In a brave and ingenious improvisation, the women came forward to walk the line, and did it so effectively that Empire Zinc finally settled.
Wilson turned this episode into the screenplay for Salt of the Earth. Jarrico took on the producer's duties, and Biberman signed on as director. Sondergaard had expected to play the lead--she was the cooperative's only bankable property--but at Biberman's request she stepped aside in favor of a Mexican actress, Rosaura Revueltas. Most of the other parts, including the male lead, were also cast with an eye for authenticity (and budgetary restraint), with the people of Local 890 playing themselves.
I said that One of the Hollywood Ten is a rare movie. Salt of the Earth is unique. It would have stood alone in its era just for having been made by movie industry veterans, but shot on location and acted by a largely nonprofessional cast. But, even more extraordinary, Salt of the Earth was a story about the problems of Mexican-American workers, as told by a Mexican-American woman. You'd have trouble finding such a movie today, when independent filmmaking is well established in America. Salt of the Earth was released in 1954.
Of course, neither unique nor pioneering is a synonym for good. And though the filmmakers faced extraordinary hardships, those, too, must remain external to any judgment of Salt of the Earth. The government deported Rosaura Revueltas in the midst of production, discouraged labs from processing the film, accused the crew of wanting to spy on atomic secrets at Los Alamos, kept theaters from booking the completed Salt of the Earth and warned projectionists away from showing it. This was an impressive show of force to mount against one little movie; but the harassment, in itself, doesn't justify what you see on the screen.
Biberman and his many collaborators justified Salt of the Earth. They managed to imbue the film with the feelings of a living community: at house parties and on picket lines, in the saloon and the church. Scenes percolate with the natural interplay of friends and neighbors, giving rise to a barely suppressed boisterousness. (The ruckus breaks into the open after the women are arrested for picketing. They mount a protest in their cell, with undisguised glee.) The ease of the group interaction makes up for the occasional awkwardness in individual performances--an awkwardness that at any rate has its own charm. And no excuses are needed for Revueltas, with her finely nuanced movements toward self-assertion; for the pace of the film, which keeps building and building; or for Biberman's eye, which seems to have been delighted with every face, landscape feature and stick of furniture in New Mexico.
To the eyes of present-day viewers, who may be accustomed to strains of neorealism developed everywhere from Italy to Iran, Salt of the Earth looks surprisingly good. It is not a based-on-a-true-story movie but something more valuable: the chief American prototype for those films that are simultaneously fiction and documentary. As for the virtue of its uniqueness: Doesn't a special honor accrue to the one film to have done something that was well worth doing?
I believe One of the Hollywood Ten has earned a similar distinction--though its internal, cinematic merits are entirely different. That's as it should be. The two films take entirely different approaches to their medium.
Biberman and his partners made a movie that barely acknowledges the existence of the entertainment business; the only evidence of pop culture in Salt of the Earth is a radio, bought on the installment plan. One of the Hollywood Ten, by contrast, reminds you at every turn that you're watching a movie, and that movies are (among other things) a business and a site of ideological contest. Francis opens his film with a prologue set in 1937, in which he tosses up two opposing forms of movie politics: the opening in New York City of Triumph of the Will, and the announcement by Gale Sondergaard (in the midst of the Academy Awards broadcast) of the formation of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. Once Francis jumps into 1947, he continues this theme, showing the HUAC hearings as newsreel fodder (which they were). Everybody in One of the Hollywood Ten is playing for the camera and the microphone.
It's fitting, then, that Francis's movie should feature three star performances. The biggest of them is Jeff Goldblum's, as Biberman. Much of the usual Goldblum shtick is in evidence: the talking with dark eyes unfocused, the bursting forth of little phrases after unpredictable, Miles Davis pauses. But, also as usual, Goldblum feels his way deep into the character. He shows us Biberman as a chronic empathizer, someone who's always draping his big hands reassuringly over anyone he talks to. The voice is low, patient, thoughtful; and then, when Biberman doesn't get his way, he jumps without transition to a full bellow.
Greta Scacchi, as Gale Sondergaard, makes good use of a certain brittleness in her screen personality. Here she's playing a Hollywood star of the old school--a woman with perfectly groomed vowels, who keeps her well-powdered face turned toward the key light in any room--which allows her to find authentic feeling, even gutsiness, within her pose. But the movie's biggest star turn, the one that steals One of the Hollywood Ten, is Angela Molina's performance as Rosaura Revueltas. Molina looks older than Revueltas did in Salt of the Earth; whereas Revueltas had smooth, freckled features, Molina's face is lined and sunken. When Molina begins to play Esperanza, the central character in Salt of the Earth, her eyes take on the outsize look of hunger. And the voice! Molina puts a weariness, and a wariness, all her own into Esperanza's lines, using intonations that cut into your bones.
One of the Hollywood Ten thrives on these performances, and on Francis's fascination with movies themselves--how they're made, how they work on their audiences. (In one of the picture's truest moments, Biberman bubbles over with enthusiasm at his own cleverness, talking about the best way to shoot and edit Salt of the Earth.) Where the movie strays from these strengths, it also falters. Among its several glaring faults, One of the Hollywood Ten gives us an FBI agent who is so monotonally nasty that he seems to have strayed in from a bus-and-truck tour of Les Miz, and a Gale Sondergaard who is indomitably firm, except when she's not. When her husband tells her she won't play the lead in Salt of the Earth--her husband, who wouldn't have gotten to direct the picture without her intervention--she needs only a brief walk on the beach to calm her down. And, of course, there's music on the beach. There's music everywhere in One of the Hollywood Ten, poured out of a can of creamed corn.
This is merely to say that no one has yet made a masterpiece about the Hollywood blacklist. Karl Francis has made a good, intelligent movie about the subject, and a largely truthful one. Let's see somebody try to top him.
One of the Hollywood Ten has just been shown in the New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
The first Arabic music I heard was in its native habitat, while riding on gaudily painted buses through Turkey, Morocco and Syria in the 1960s. Before the drivers thrashed their busted-out transmissions into second gear, they were popping in cassettes of Lebanon-born Fairouz or Egypt's Oum Khalsoum, the sirens who serenaded the entire Arab world.
The propulsive beat went with the bad roads, wild driving and free-form mix of human and animal passengers. Even the chickens, tied together at the feet, seemed to sway in time. The singing was rich and highly emotive, but what really captured me was the hypnotic pulse of the oud, the Arabic lute. With its short neck and deep body, the ten-to-twelve-string, plucked oud looks like a sawed-off, overweight guitar, but its beginnings--it might have originally been Sumerian, Egyptian, Persian or even Jewish--are shrouded in mystery.
It was certainly Arabs who popularized the oud and placed it front and center in a musical tradition that was, until recently, best appreciated in America as the soundtrack to belly dancing. But its potential for crossover appeal was soon apparent in the West. Like rock, Middle Eastern music--in infinite variations ranging from exuberant Algerian räi (a rough-hewn, boisterous and often-topical street music) and Egyptian shabbi (meaning "people," an irreverent, rhythmic folk music with working- class origins) to meditative qawwali (the devotional Sufi music of India and Pakistan, exemplified by the late singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan)--had a good beat and you could dance to it. In Arabic, the word tarab means state of ecstasy or enchantment, and it's what the best musicians try to capture. Small wonder, then, that LP copies of Port Said: Exotic Rhythms of the Middle East Captured in High Fidelity, Music on the Desert Road and The Seventh Veil brightened the otherwise drab scenery in many a 1950s suburban rec room.
A decade later, John Berberian, an accomplished Armenian oud player from New York, helped penetrate the consciousness of the Woodstock generation with Middle Eastern Rock, a 1969 fusion album that included studio pro Joe Beck on amplified rock guitar and fuzz. But Berberian was thirty years ahead of his time.
Peter Gabriel's World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) tours, launched in 1982, also helped make Arabic music "cool" in the West, particularly by presenting young artists like the London-based Transglobal Underground, which mixes dance beats, tape loops and samples into a world music stew. Also helping the crossover and performing on WOMAD was the onetime Top of the Pops performer Natacha Atlas, a self-described "human Gaza strip" of a singer and belly dancer who is half English, half Sephardic Jew and was raised in a Moroccan community in Brussels.
It is, arguably, sad that Arabic music has to be adulterated with pop influences to be palatable to Western audiences, but the artists themselves--many of whom live in France or the United States--are enthusiastic participants. Khaled, the Algerian räi singer who is among the most popular Arabic performers in the United States, rocks it up with production help from British progressive rocker Steve Hillage. Cheb Mami, another räi star, goes into the studio with producer Nile Rodgers to record "Le Räi C'est Chic."
Aside from Peter Gabriel, the rocker with the biggest influence in promoting Arabic music has been Sting, who was introduced to räi by his manager, Miles Copeland. In 2000, Sting recorded the song "Desert Rose" as a duet with Cheb Mami, and toured with him. The song, which even made it into a Jaguar commercial, was a huge hit, and the collaborations continued. That's Sting singing backup on "Le Räi C'est Chic," and the rocker's endorsement is stickered on many a current Arabic music album.
Just a few months ago, there was considerable optimism that Arabic music would "cross over" in a big way, like Latin pop, country, cajun or any number of other styles. As producer and kanun player Ara Topouzian points out, movie soundtracks--from The Crow and Dead Man Walking to Gladiator--use the duduk, an Armenian wooden flute, for a taste of the exotic, and pop stars from Gloria Estefan to the Colombian singer Shakira give Joe Zeytoonian a call when they want some oud on their records.
But then September 11 happened.
Dawn Elder, vice president of Miles Copeland's label, Ark 21/Mondo Melodia, was in Egypt, on her way to the airport with eighteen musicians "about to embark on an almost sold-out ten-city US tour with Khaled and Hakim, who's known as the Sheik of Egyptian shabbi," she says. "It was stunning, surreal. Obviously, the tour had to be canceled." Simon Shaheen, who lives in Brooklyn and is one of the world's foremost oud players, troubled over going on with a September 22 performance at the Chicago World Music Festival. In his case, the show went on, to standing ovations; but Shaheen, born in Galilee and educated in Jerusalem, says many of the musicians he has worked with regularly have had trouble getting visas since September. "This horrible event has nothing to do with Arabic music or musicians," he says. The Taliban, of course, banned all music, even though Shaheen points out that the Koran calls music "the light for the heart."
Shaheen, who was nominated for no less than eleven first-ballot Grammies for his album Blue Flame, went on Politically Incorrect to, as he puts it, "talk about American foreign policy. I think the United States needs to put pressure on the repressive Arab regimes it supports. These countries have to let the people breathe and express themselves."
Many Middle Eastern musicians are Armenian or Lebanese Christians, or non-Arab Turkish Muslims, or even Greek. The problem, of course, is that Americans have trouble telling Arabs from Sikhs, so they're unlikely to appreciate fine political distinctions of the type Shaheen makes. Arabic music can sound like an ecstatic expression of deep humanism or it can be perceived as the soundtrack to terrorism. Fears of the latter led to cancellation of many bookings at the club level. Live Arab music almost disappeared from New York. (Sadly enough, the club scene in Dearborn and Detroit, home to the largest Arab population outside the Middle East, died out long before September.) According to deejay Addis Pace, some New York clubs that had featured Arabic dance music simply stopped spinning it after the World Trade Center attacks.
Moroccan oud player Brahim Fribgane now lives in Arizona, but as of September he was part of Boston's tight-knit Arab music community. A regular with Hassan Hakmoun's ensemble who has toured with Peter Gabriel and recorded with Morphine, Fribgane was numbed by the attacks. "For the first few days, I couldn't play at all," he says. "I had to break through this idea that I couldn't play music because I'm an Arab. But on September 14, I had a gig in Boston with Atlas Soul, a UN-type of North African funk band with a Jewish-French sax player, a German drummer and an American bass player, and I found I could perform again." Fribgane is a regular at Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs, and loathes the idea that Arab music could in any way be associated with hate or terrorism. He hopes that it can be seen as a healing force instead. "Music is about love and peace, right?" he says.
That view is common among Middle Eastern musicians and producers. Dawn Elder calls September 11 "a setback, a step backward" for Arabic music, particularly after there had been an August 11 cover story in Billboard ("Arabic Music Moves West") and big spreads in the Los Angeles Times and Rhythm. "We were waylaid. But this awful time has also reinspired me to spread the word about this music," she says. "It's not just about having a good time or a great cultural experience. It's truly a much-needed healing force."
Oud player Shaheen expresses the hope that Americans will want to learn more about Middle Eastern culture "because of this event that happened." Shaheen is himself an educator, lecturing regularly about the music at colleges and workshops. He is also the founder of the Arab American Arts Institute, which organizes an annual Arabic Music Retreat at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. Kay Campbell, banker by day and oud player by night, helps administer the retreat, which brings together amateur and professional musicians from around the world. Campbell says she could sense "a door opening" before September 11, that "people from all over were getting into the groove of Arab music. The attacks were, obviously, devastating to the progress we were making. There is seething and justifiable anger. But this is also an opportunity to educate people about this culture that has fabulous music, great food, wonderful poetry and true joie de vivre."
Reports of the death of Arabic music in America would be premature, however, despite the sense of setback. Deejay Addis Pace, who doubles as the head world-music buyer at a major New York record chain, says, "This has been a very robust year for Arab music, and we were very worried about a backlash after the attacks. But it hasn't happened. Sales have maintained. Four of our top five world-music sellers right now have a connection to the Middle East. I guess people want to understand that part of the world."
Fabian Alsultany, manager of the Moroccan gnawa virtuoso Hassan Hakmoun, says the the cross-pollination among world performers has opened arms wide to Arabic music. Alsultany is himself half Iraqi and half Cuban, so crossing over between cultures is natural to him. Alsultany also deejays in New York, and he says people are still asking for Natacha Atlas and such unique fusions as MoMo, an electronic band from Morocco, and Badawi, Israeli desert music with a reggae dub overlay.
The crossover music is so strong, and so popular, that it threatens to swamp the modest movement that is attempting to preserve traditional Arabic performers. The Egyptian classical composer Mohamed Abd el-Wahaab, who died in 1991, viewed the western pop influences in shabbi and räi as a distressing development. "The new wave singers have damaged the music scene with their songs," he said. "In Europe, they are not attempting to replace the 'old with the new,' or classical with modern, as is happening now in Egypt."
But purity is hard to find in any musical tradition. Perhaps surprisingly, John Berberian, despite his having given birth to the first Middle Eastern fusion album, is frequently cited by traditionalists as the oud player with the truest sense of kef, or Armenian soul. Berberian, now living in Massachusetts after many years in New York and New Jersey, is still doing what he has always done, playing ethnic club dates, performing at Armenian and Greek dances, parties, weddings and anniversaries. "I'm still working," he says. "One club where I play, the Middle East in Cambridge, suspended operation for a couple of weeks. The name above the door was not very attractive for a while. But they're back in commission." Most Middle Eastern musicians are hoping that they'll have a similar experience. A pause to reflect and heal, then back to the seriously peaceful business of making music that is "the light for the heart."
Scattered chunks of films littered the theaters this holiday season. Except for The Royal Tenenbaums, which I've told you about, there wasn't a whole movie to be found. Or, to speak more precisely, no movie except The Royal Tenenbaums gave me the impression of wholeness, by which I mean the pleasure that arises when the mind can play back and forth through a picture, discovering how the details enrich one another.
No doubt I value this pleasure so much because I've been trained, as a critic, to look for it. Surrealists, post-structuralists and the average moviegoer do not. Even so, I believe that when artists aspire to wholeness, they put into their work a kind of sustained intelligence that we might call integrity, care or love. When I claim that this quality is missing from most movies nowadays, I of course say almost nothing. Maybe a slightly higher percentage of today's films are hash, compared to the run of productions in the 1930s; but that's for the cliometricians to decide. The critic's challenge is to find some response to the present year-end Oscar contenders, when there's no object of criticism among them.
Should I solve the problem by jumping outside the film world? Then, from a safe distance, I could belabor the politics of Black Hawk Down for being simple-minded, and the politics of Iris for being absent. Many useful comments could be made on these subjects. They just wouldn't be useful to someone who already reads The Nation.
So I suppose I'll have to do what moviegoers have always done: ignore the pictures and watch the stars. I won't talk about The Majestic and Ali, Monster's Ball and A Beautiful Mind. The subjects of this column will be Jim Carrey, Will Smith, Halle Berry and Jennifer Connelly. Let me begin with Connelly, who in A Beautiful Mind has finally achieved recognition as an actress, and in so doing has given the film a large part of its merit.
As you may know, A Beautiful Mind offers a loose approximation of the story of John Nash, a highly gifted mathematician who has struggled all his life against delusions and compulsions. The film, too, suffers from some mental confusion--screenwriter Akiva Goldsman and director Ron Howard somehow got Nash's biography mixed up with Jack and the Beanstalk--but once you get past that problem, you may appreciate the cleverness of this quasi-fairy tale. To begin with, the filmmakers have invented some briskly effective ways to suggest that Nash has a miraculous talent for pattern recognition, and that such a talent can be dangerous. Even when there's no order to be found, his mind keeps searching for one; and since the cold war provides great material for paranoia--the film begins in the late 1940s--Nash has a world of troubling data to sort. In a risk that's bold by Hollywood standards, the film presents its hero's blossoming delusions as if they were real--that is, as he would experience them. You're well into the story before you can sift the facts from the hallucinations, a process that's made compelling by Russell Crowe's performance in the lead. Awkward, shuffling, aggressive, witty, exasperating and vulnerable, he's altogether credible as someone who thinks in abstractions for a living.
But back to Connelly. She plays Alicia Larde, the woman who courts, marries and helps to rescue Nash. The filmmakers turn A Beautiful Mind into her story, almost as much as it is her husband's, and that's as it should be. Alicia is the one who gets scared witless, calls in the shrinks, strives to keep the household together and howls in the bathroom at 2 am. Connelly deserves full credit for carrying off the role.
It's a credit that's long been denied her. Although she's done some good work in smaller productions--Keith Gordon's Waking the Dead, Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream--Connelly has suffered till now from the Elizabeth Taylor syndrome. Like Taylor, she started young in show business and was quickly turned into a physical commodity, cast for her dark hair, blue eyes, smooth face and a buxom figure that she exposed very freely, arousing both sexual interest and condescension in a single gesture. The condescension came all the more quickly because Connelly, like Taylor, seems submerged in her beauty. It tends to separate her from other actors, as a rare fish is held apart in an aquarium, with the result (among other things) that she's a bad choice for comedy. Connelly can play at being amused by someone, but she isn't funny in herself--in contrast, for example, to her near-contemporary Shannon Elizabeth, a wonderfully silly person who shares her looks like a good joke.
Connelly has so far been incapable of such lightness; but she's right at home with the intensity of suffering that's called for in melodrama. Now her reputation is taking an upward turn similar to Taylor's at the time of Suddenly, Last Summer and Butterfield 8. Heaven knows, I don't want to go on to Cleopatra; but as someone who respects the tradition of melodrama, I think American cinema would be stronger if producers created more roles for Jennifer Connelly.
Having just seen Monster's Ball, I will also say the same for Halle Berry. She, too, has based her reputation on being absurdly gorgeous, with this distinction: Berry treats her looks like a loaded gun, which she can and will use. Of course, the danger varies; there was a lot of it in Bulworth but not much, somehow, in The Flintstones. Now, in Monster's Ball, the sense of risk suddenly leaps to a higher order.
Berry plays a wife and mother in a present-day Southern town--wife to a man on death row, mother to a boy who weighs 180 pounds and has not yet reached puberty. Through a series of catastrophes--or perhaps I should say wild coincidences--she eventually finds herself on the sofa late at night with Billy Bob Thornton, the racist white prison guard who led her husband to the electric chair. Grief, fatigue and booze are weighing heavily on her. She needs to wriggle free of them; everything that's still alive in her demands it. And so, in a scene that becomes a tour de force, she laughs in reminiscence about her husband, insists to herself that she's been a good mother, philosophizes starkly about the lives of black men in America and ultimately pours herself into Thornton's lap, demanding, "Make me feel good."
The screenwriters of Monster's Ball, Milo Addica and Will Rokos, might easily have based this scene on an acting-class exercise. A pair of students are assigned random emotions and must then improvise their way through them, making up the transitions as they go. What Berry does with the scene, though, has no whiff of the classroom. She doesn't just bob along on the swells and troughs of her feelings; she remembers at all times that these emotions have welled up because of the stranger next to her, this oddly quiet man to whom she addresses the whole monologue. She seems half-blind when she looks at him, but only half. She pushes against his self-possession, moment by moment; and the steadier he holds, the further she plunges in.
I wish the rest of Monster's Ball could live up to this scene. There are several fine sequences in the movie, which Marc Forster has directed with admirable restraint; but the picture is entirely too eager to flatter the audience. Monster's Ball is a machine, designed to make Billy Bob Thornton think and behave just as you believe he should. By the end, there's nothing to cut the good intentions except the memory of that smoky, greasy, overpowering scene where Halle Berry risks everything. It's almost enough.
The opening fifteen minutes of Ali are so good that they, too, come close to justifying the picture. In a virtuoso montage, which shows director Michael Mann at his very best, this sequence takes young Cassius Clay up to his first fight against Sonny Liston and his declaration of allegiance to the Nation of Islam. After that, you begin to notice that four screenwriters have labored over this production. Plot points are made with the galumphing literal-mindedness of Bob interviewing Ray. What's worse, these same points, from Liston I through the Foreman match in Zaire, were touched on in the 1977 film The Greatest, written by Ring Lardner Jr., directed by Tom Gries and Monte Hellman and starring (in the role of Muhammad Ali) Muhammad Ali.
Condemned in advance to being third best, after the real-life figure and the original movie incarnation, Will Smith can do little more than look good. It's what he specializes in; I've loved him for it. Here his innate cockiness takes him a long way in the role, as does his rapper's enjoyment of Ali's rhymes. So why does he keep getting upstaged by his supporting cast: Jamie Foxx, who makes something glorious of Ali's sidekick Drew "Bundini" Brown, and Jon Voight, who lives and breathes the role of Howard Cosell? The answer, I think, is that Smith does best when he floats along at a slight remove from his scenes, commenting on the action as if he might at any moment call it a day and go home. Ali makes him earnest; and earnestness, even more than the need to mimic a living figure, makes Will Smith disappear.
I wish Jim Carrey would disappear when he becomes earnest; but instead he latches into the movie like a tick, gorging on sentiment and perpetually, monstrously sucking in more. The effect is all the worse in Frank Darabont's The Majestic for the cinematography. It turns Carrey into a pastel-colored tick.
In this insufferable fantasy about good old-fashioned movies and good old-fashioned Americans, Carrey plays a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter who (through a wild coincidence) loses his memory and is welcomed into a small town. It's a wonderful life, except for the FBI. I needn't point out to Nation readers how The Majestic makes a hash out of the blacklist period. (Carrey figures out, in a climactic burst of inspiration, that he can plead the First Amendment before HUAC. Gee!) What really concerns me is the demotion of this anarchic genius to the status of All-American Nothing. Carrey can play comedy like nobody else alive; so why is he pushed into melodrama?
My conclusion: American cinema is taking its actors too seriously, and its actresses not seriously enough. Happy new year.
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