News and Features
LOUIS ARMSTRONG AT 100
In 1927 a young cornetist led his band into a meticulously hilarious version of a classic composition Jelly Roll Morton had made famous, "Twelfth Street Rag." The recorded track sounds like the opening shot of a revolution--except that the revolution had already been in full swing in Louis Armstrong's head and hands for years.
Unlike most revolutions, though, from the first this one displayed an ingratiating, inviting sense of humor and charm. "Dippermouth," as his early New Orleans pals dubbed him, used the rag as a flight vehicle: As his horn fractures the tune's familiar refrains, the precise, cakewalking rhythmic values of ragtime suddenly coil and loop and stutter and dive, the aural equivalent of a bravura World War I flying ace in dogfighting form. Every time Armstrong comes precariously near a tailspin, he pulls back the control stick and confidently, jauntily, heads off toward the horizon, if not straight into another virtuosic loop-de-loop. The cut is from an astonishing series of recordings Armstrong made in 1925-28 that amount to the jazz-creating legacy of his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, a succession of studio groups that virtually never performed live. And now, in time for his centennial--he claimed he was born in 1900 but wasn't--it's all been reissued.
The relentless joy brimming in the sound of young Satchelmouth's horn, the glorious deep-blue and fiery-red Whitmanesque yawp of it, has an undeniably self-conscious edge to it. Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray first pointed out a half-century ago that it is also the sound of self-assertion, a musical realization of the double consciousness W.E.B. Du Bois posited for African-Americans. Within this compound of power and pain, a racial revisitation of the master-slave encounter in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, Du Bois explained that African-Americans were inevitably alienated, stood both inside and outside mainstream American culture and its norms, prescriptions, hopes, dreams. Such alienation, Du Bois pointed out, could cripple black Americans by forcing them to internalize mainstream cultural values that held them to be less than human, but it could also liberate the brightest of them. The "Talented Tenth," as he called this group, could act on their perceptions of the contradictions between the high ideals grounding basic American cultural myths (for example, that society believed "all men are created equal," as the Declaration of Independence puts it) and gritty daily reality, where blacks were not exactly welcomed into concert halls, schools, restaurants or the front of buses.
In the bell of Armstrong's barbaric (which means, in the sense Whitman inherited from Emerson, non-European) horn is the sound of a new, all-American culture being forged from the stuff of the social sidelines. In 1957 Ellison wrote to Murray,
I've discovered Louis singing "Mack The Knife." Shakespeare invented Caliban or changed himself into him. Who the hell dreamed up Louis? Some of the bop boys consider him Caliban, but if he is, he is a mask for a lyric poet who is much greater than most now writing. Man and mask, sophistication and taste hiding behind clowning and crude manners--the American joke, man.
Armstrong himself was no naïve artist; he certainly wasn't a fool. From his earliest days he saw race as a key issue in his life, his art and his country, with a wit and understanding evident in his music. As he wrote of the composer of "Twelfth Street Rag" and jazz's self-proclaimed inventor, "Jelly Roll [Morton] with lighter skin than the average piano players, got the job [at New Orleans's leading whorehouse, Lulu White] because they did not want a Black piano player for the job. He claimed he was from an Indian or Spanish race. No Cullud at all. They had lots of players in the District that could play lots better than Jelly, but their dark Color kept them from getting the job. Jelly Roll made so much money in tips that he had a diamond inserted in one of his teeth. No matter how much his Diamond Sparkled he still had to eat in the Kitchen, the same as we Blacks."
In The Omni-Americans, Murray explains how Armstrong's music limned human talents needed in the frenetic, fast-changing twentieth century. Drawn from the pioneer, Indian and slave, the key American survival skill was improvisation, the soloist's ability to mesh with his surroundings. Ellison's Invisible Man uses Armstrong's version of "Black and Blue," a tune from the 1929 Broadway play Chocolate Dandies, to demonstrate the Du Boisian nature of improvising as epistemological tool.
This was the lesson Armstrong started teaching in the Jazz Age, when flappers reigned and sexual emancipation knocked at the door of mainstream culture, when the Harlem Renaissance redefined African-Americans, when Prohibition created a nation of outlaws who, thanks to associating with booze and gangsters and the demimonde's jazz soundtrack, saw that Negroes, as they were called, were subject to legal and extralegal restrictions and prejudices more arbitrary and inane than the constitutional amendment forbidding booze.
The elastic rhythms and fiery solos on the sides by the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens spoke to these people. On tune after tune, Armstrong cavorts and leaps and capers over and around his musical cohorts with the playful self-possession of a young and cocky top cat. Nothing can hold him down. He traverses keys and bar lines and rhythms with impunity, remolding them without missing a step.
"Black and Blue"--originally written as a lament by a dark-skinned gal for her man, who's attracted to high-yellow types--made him a star. Armstrong's brilliant, forceful reading renders it as mini-tragedy, the musical equivalent of Shylock's speech in The Merchant of Venice. "My only sin," he sings in that growl that compounds the earthy humanity of the blues with an unflinching dignity (this is no grovel), "is in my skin/What did I do to be so black and blue?" The short answer: in America, nothing. The color line did it all.
Subversive and powerful, Armstrong's music was the fountainhead of the Jazz Age and the Swing Era, when jazz was America's popular music and the sounds of syncopated surprise filled the nation's dance halls while young folks skittered and twirled and flounced and leaped and broke out of lingering Victorian constraints to loose-limbed beats and blaring horns that emerged from America's Darktowns in New Orleans, New York and Chicago.
One of Armstrong's 1936 recordings is "Rhythm Saved the World." Like many, this banal tune is transformed by his syncopating personality. Its idea still echoes across America's teeming subcultures: Decades later, Parliament Funkadelic sang, "Here's my chance to dance my way out of my constrictions."
If Armstrong claimed he was born on July 4, 1900, who could blame him? As one of America's primary declarers of cultural independence--and interdependence--he should have been. But in his rich biography Satchmo, Gary Giddins (who insists that all American music emanates from Armstrong) proves that Louis's birth date was August 4, 1901. Armstrong and his sister were born in a hard district of New Orleans; their father left before either could remember him. In his early years Armstrong was raised by his grandmother, whom he credited with the Emersonian values--hard work, self-reliance, artistic daring coupled with personal amiability--that guided him. His mother may or may not have been a prostitute for a while; Louis returned to live with her when he was 5.
At 7 he quit school and went to work for a Jewish family, the Karmofskys, and picked up his first instrument--a tin horn. He'd been dancing and singing on the street for pennies with other kids, but working coal wagons with the Karmofsky sons, he learned to blow the cheap horn by putting his fingers together in front of the tube (he'd pulled off the mouthpiece). The boys encouraged him, their clients loved his melodies, and Little Louis, as he was known, had found his calling.
On January 1, 1913, he was busted for firing his stepfather's pistol, and sentenced to the Colored Waif's Home. There he joined the band and got his first musical training, which he characteristically never forgot. According to clarinet great Sidney Bechet, who in the 1920s was Armstrong's only peer as a virtuosic improviser, the cornet-playing young Louis mastered the chops-busting clarinet solo for "High Society" before his teens--an astounding feat that only hinted at what was to come.
Little Louis danced in second-line parades, following cornetist Joe "King" Oliver in the Onward Band as they wound through the Crescent City streets. Oliver was a catalytic force for Armstrong, who always insisted he learned his stuff from Papa Joe. When Oliver left for Chicago, following post-World War I black migration from the South to Northern and Western cities, he left Little Louis his slot in the Kid Ory band, which led the young cornetist to Fate Marable and the riverboats plying the Mississippi in 1920-21.
Marable, impressed by the young hornman's dazzling facility and ear, hired him for his riverboat band, and one of his sidemen trained the youngster to read and write music. What they played was a mix that would confound the Dixieland revivalists who decades later took Armstrong as their figurehead: adapted arias and classical overtures, quadrilles and other dance music, and the like. (Historian Dan Morgenstern has pointed out the suggestive influence of classical music on Armstrong.) At Davenport, Iowa, when the riverboat docked, a white kid named Bix Beiderbecke first heard Armstrong with Marable and decided to make the jazz cornet his life.
In 1922 Oliver sent for his protégé, who kissed his mother goodbye, packed the fish sandwich she made for him and headed north to Chicago. When he got to the Lincoln Gardens Cafe, where Oliver's band was wailing, he looked like a rube and was so shy he stayed by the door to watch. He couldn't believe he'd be playing with these masters of jazz. Yet in a very short time, first in recordings with them, then with his own Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, he would make them all sound like musical relics.
Rube or not--and his mode of dress quickly became Chicago-style sharp--Armstrong got the girl. His second wife, piano-playing Lil Hardin, married him while they were both playing with Oliver. Hardin was conservatory-trained and middle class, and for the next few years her ambition would drive the modest genius she married to make his mark in the rapidly exploding Jazz Age. Convinced that Oliver kept Louis in his band to keep him from fronting his own, Lil persuaded her husband to grab Fletcher Henderson's offer to join his New York-based big band. When Armstrong arrived in the Big Apple in 1924, Henderson's band was, as Morgenstern notes, "designed for Roseland's white dancing public...rhythmically stiff"; when he left fourteen months later, both arrangers and soloists were extending his sound.
It was Lil who persuaded Armstrong to go back to Chicago after scarcely more than a year in New York, and there he joined her band, then Carroll Dickerson's, and rocked the town. The night he returned, he was greeted by a banner she had unfurled over the bandstand: world's greatest trumpet player. Armstrong later told Morgenstern the reason he left Henderson's band was that the "dicty bandleader," college-educated, light-skinned and prone to look down on dark blacks, wouldn't let him sing, except occasionally for black audiences or for novelty and comic effect. Armstrong had been singing before he ever picked up a horn--it was a fundamental part of who he was and what he had to say. Ultimately, his vocals would make him a world-famous star. More immediately, they were another virtuosic tool he used to change jazz and, in the process, American culture.
Armstrong pioneered so many firsts in jazz and America that a list seems implausible. Here's a sample: He invented the full-fledged jazz solo. He invented scat singing. He introduced Tin Pan Alley and Broadway tunes as jazz's raw material. (When Armstrong replaced New Orleans standards and blues with Tin Pan Alley tunes in the 1930s, he forged the model followed by swing, jazz's most successful invasion of American pop music. His model was followed literally: Key arrangers like Don Redman, who worked for many bandleaders, including Benny Goodman, adapted Armstrong's runs and rhythmic moves to section-by-section big-band arrangements.) And Armstrong performed in interracial settings. Once, in New Orleans, when a bigoted announcer refused to introduce his band, he did it himself--so well that the radio station asked him to do it for the rest of the band's stint.
His voice engulfed America. Among his major disciples was Bing Crosby, who called him "the beginning and the end of music in America." His influence rippled across American popular and jazz singing like an earthquake. As he reconfigured pop tunes, the apparently natural force of his voice's cagey dynamics and loose rhythms seized the imagination of talents like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, Crosby and Frank Sinatra.
With his last Hot Sevens recordings for Okeh in 1928, in which tunes like "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" were issued as B-sides, Armstrong had moved closer to the new American cultural mainstream he was inspiring. When he started recording for Decca in 1935, the impetus accelerated. A couple of interim managers gave way that year to Joe Glaser, a thuggish, mob-connected scion of a well-off Chicago family. He and Armstrong shook hands on a deal that lasted till they both died. As Armstrong put it, "A black man needs a white man working for him." It was the beginning of his big crossover into mainstream American culture--another Armstrong first in undermining de facto segregation in America. And his years at Decca were his workshop in change.
He fronted a big band, which critics hated and fans enjoyed. The outfit was run by Glaser, since Armstrong, who occasionally hired and fired personnel, didn't want to shoulder a bandleader's nonmusical burdens. And he agreed with Glaser on a new musical direction: setting his solos off in sometimes inventive, sometimes indifferent big-band charts; smoothing his blues-frog vocals into a more sophisticated sound without losing their rhythmic slyness--something he was also doing with his trumpet solos, reshaping his early frenetic chases after strings of high-altitude notes into less eye-popping, more lyrical solos.
Physical damage to Armstrong's lip and mouth from high and hard blowing forced the issue. Joe Muranyi, who played with him years later, says, "Part of the change in Louis's style could be attributed to the lip trouble he had in the early thirties. There are tales of blood on his shirt, of blowing off a piece of his lip while playing. This certainly influenced the way he approached the horn; yet what we hear on these tracks has at least as much to do with musical development as with physical matters." Limitation was, for Satchmo's genius, a pathway to a matured artistic conception. As Giddins argues forcefully in Satchmo, Armstrong had never separated art and entertainment; jazz for him was pop music. And if his bands irritated critics, there were plenty of gems, and besides, people loved him.
By World War II, his audiences were more white than black.
The war years broke the big bands. The culture had changed: Singers and small groups were hip. It was the era of a new sound, what Dizzy Gillespie called modern jazz and journalists dubbed bebop. Bop's frenetic, fragmented rhythms restated the postwar world's rhythms, and it deliberately presented itself not as entertainment but as art. The musicians forging it, like Gillespie and Charlie Parker, were fully aware of the stirring civil rights movement. World War II had fostered widespread entry of blacks into industry and the American military. Not surprisingly, after the war, they weren't willing to return to the old values of accommodation and deference. Instead, they demanded equality and freedom. In this context, boppers and their followers saw Armstrong's lifelong mugging and entertainment as Uncle Tom-ism rather than artistic expression.
The Dixieland revival, based in Chicago, occurred at about the same time. The (mostly white) revivalists needed an artistic figurehead. With a healthy historical irony they ignored, they chose Armstrong--the very soloist who blew apart old-style New Orleans polyphony, their idea of "pure" or "real" jazz. By 1947 Satchmo reluctantly abandoned his eighteen-piece outfit for the All Stars, a New Orleans-style sextet that included Jack Teagarden and Earl Hines. Though they often made fine music, the group was seen as a step backward by boppers. They jabbed at Satchmo, he jabbed back, and the split between revivalists and modernists escalated into a civil war that, in different stylistic and racial modes, still divides the jazz world.
Sadly, it was another Armstrong first. And his audiences began to turn lily-white. Giddins deftly shows Armstrong's world-famous onstage persona--the big grin, the bulging eyes, the shaking head, the brandished trumpet, the ever-present handkerchief, the endless vaudevillian mugging--to be an organic conception of the artist as entertainer. Still, from the 1950s until just before his death in 1971, Armstrong had to deal with accusations and slurs.
But if he never forgot who he was, while retaining his characteristically modest manner and only privately protesting how much he'd done to advance black civil rights, he could still be provoked, as President Eisenhower and the public discovered in 1957. Armstrong was poised to go on the first State Department-sponsored tour of the Soviet Union, a cold war beachhead by jazz. He abruptly canceled it because the Southern states refused to integrate schools, and he publicly excoriated Ike and America.
Early jazz musicians often refused to record, because they felt competitors could steal their best licks from their records. This was why the all-white Original Dixieland Jass Band made jazz's first records; black New Orleans trumpeter Freddie Keppard refused, fearing for his originality.
No one knows for sure how many recordings Armstrong made during the course of his half-century recording career. All agree, however, that he helped create both the art and the industry. After all, "race" records, especially Armstrong's hits, were as important as Bing Crosby's in saving the fledgling record companies from collapse during the Depression. (And there was more to it than that. Through the phonograph Armstrong made infinite disciples, shaping what jazz would become.)
During the 1950s and 1960s, when he was largely considered a period piece, Armstrong recorded important documents, like his meetings with Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. The best thing about them is their apparent artlessness, the easy, offhand creativity that was as much Armstrong's trademark as his trumpet's clarion calls. The pleasure is doubled by the response of his disciples.
Ella fits that description easily, since her trademark scat singing owes so much to Armstrong's. Yet she made it her own, purging scat of its overt blues roots. Producer Norman Granz supported them with his favorite Jazz at the Philharmonic stars--Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis and Ray Brown. The results: Both Ella and Louis and Ella and Louis Again are incandescent yet low-key, full of generous pearls (from "Can't We Be Friends" to "Cheek to Cheek") that can almost slip by because of their understated yet consummate ease.
The 1961 session with Armstrong and Duke Ellington was hasty and almost haphazard, a simple melding of Ellington into Armstrong's All Stars; and yet it produced a wonderful, relaxed, insightful album. After all, Ellington had shaped his earliest bands around trumpeters and trombonists who could serve up Armstrong's New Orleans flair.
Like most postwar babies, I grew up knowing Louis Armstrong as the guy who sang "Mack the Knife" and, most famously, "Hello Dolly." It was only later that I'd discover the old blues stuff with singers like Bessie Smith, the Hot Fives, Ella and Louis, Fletcher Henderson and--one of my faves--Armstrong's accompaniment on early hillbilly star Jimmie Rodgers's "Blue Yodel No. 9." But even as a kid I felt strangely drawn to the little guy singing and grimacing on TV, wiping his perspiring brow with his trademark handkerchief. Although it all seemed corny, there was something, a hint of irony--though that wouldn't have been what his audiences, black or white, noticed unless they were old-timers who knew the ironic physical language or Satchmo fans or, like me, just a kid.
Why would a white kid in America catch a glimpse of Armstrong's abundantly joyful and potentially dangerous ironies? I'd love to claim precociousness, but it was a lot simpler. I could tell Armstrong was real because he filled the little blue TV screen so overwhelmingly that he made everything around him look, as it should have, fake.
Had Samuel Beckett written the script for a mud-wrestling contest, to be performed by the Pina Bausch dance troupe, the result might have looked like the scenes of warfare in Kippur. Co-written and directed by Amos Gitai, based on his experiences in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Kippur is a vision of rain and smoke hanging above a scarred earth, and of men who are either dead or else staggering about in physical and moral exhaustion.
The picture might almost be encapsulated in the indelible episode--shot in a single, seemingly endless take--in which four members of a rescue team struggle to carry an unconscious soldier out of a sucking, oozing wasteland. The rescuers move forward from an utterly void background, inching their way toward the camera by means of a progressive collapse. They heave the wounded man over their heads, take half a step, stumble, drop the stretcher into the mud, fall over one another trying to pick up the stretcher, stumble, drop the stretcher into the mud, fall over one another, pick up the stretcher, stumble, drop the stretcher, fall, pick up the stretcher, fall. At some point, the wounded man dies; and still the rescuers labor on with their mortal burden, open-mouthed, reeling, streaming with muck. You might wonder whether they're melting back into the earth or are trying to rise from it, to assume human form.
Kippur is long minutes of futile slogging, interrupted by bursts of terror.
Confronted by the film's pitilessly long takes, which are usually shot from the viewpoint of a participant in the action, I'm tempted to say that Kippur tosses the viewer headlong into a direct presentation of war. There's a little more to it than that. First, Gitai provides the buffer of a framing device; at the beginning and end, you see Weinraub (Liron Levo) engaged with a friend in lovemaking, in a ritual that involves their pouring paint onto a white sheet and rolling naked in the goo. Before the war, this pastime seems like a mildly kinky, Israeli knockoff of Yves Klein. After the war, it's more like a re-enactment of that struggle in the mud--which means the image is meaningful and memorable, besides reeking of art. Gitai also provides some respite in the middle of the film by having the rescue crew's helicopter pilot (Yoram Hattab) and its doctor (Uri Ran Klauzner) deliver monologues about their families. You fall back on the comforting illusion, which Gitai seems provisionally to accept, that people can explain themselves.
But these brief diversions are hardly enough to distance you from the principal action, which is conveyed as if through a fixed stare. Most viewers, having been stunned by the impact, will therefore want some context for Kippur. I can offer two frameworks: biography and filmography.
Biography: Amos Gitai, whose middle name is Weinraub, was studying architecture in his native Haifa when the Yom Kippur War erupted. He went off to serve in a rescue team; and after several days' worth of missions, his helicopter was hit by a missile above Tel Ahmal, in Syria. The date was October 11, 1973, Gitai's 23rd birthday. The co-pilot was killed and four other crew members severely wounded. The downed pilot who had been the goal of the rescue effort was never reached; he was to spend five years in Syrian prisons. Gitai, almost unharmed in body, walked away from the field hospital as the survivor and witness.
He completed his degree in Haifa, continued his architectural studies in Berkeley and then, upon returning home, launched a career as the most challenging documentary filmmaker of the Israeli left. After his early projects were funded and then censored by Israeli television, he went into self-imposed exile in Paris, where he circulated among the headiest film intellectuals and decided to expand his prolific output into features. He returned to Israel in 1993. Kippur is (more or less) his twenty-ninth film, and to my mind is the feature he's needed to make.
Filmography: Gitai's early documentaries had a stark, confrontational vigor. House (1980) exposed the various levels of society that overlapped, without meeting, at a house in Jerusalem: from the Palestinian laborers who were bused in from the West Bank each dawn to expand the building, to the present Israeli owner, to the elderly Palestinian doctor who had owned the house and been driven from it by war. Field Diary (1982) took the viewer into the occupied West Bank, in defiance of military authorities; its most common image, repeated throughout the film, was of a soldier's hand clamping down on the lens.
The features, beginning with Esther (1985) and Berlin-Jerusalem (1989), were far more studied. At the time, Gitai was devoted to the slow-moving, anti-illusionistic, playing-dress-up style that was then fashionable in certain art-film circles. I recognized that the style fit his subjects--a low-key restaging of the Book of Esther, using a Palestinian and Israeli cast; a reconstruction of the experiences in Mandate Palestine of the German Expressionist poet Else Lasker-Schuler--and I admired the ambition and intelligence of the work; but I didn't feel I was watching a movie. It was more like hearing about one, after I'd been heavily medicated for a cold.
The fog started to lift with Gitai's three-cities trilogy. In 1995 he brought out the first in the series, a version of Yakov Shabtai's extraordinary novel Zichron Devarim (Past Continuous). The book is impossible to film, and in a sense Gitai didn't try; in effect, he staged a number of tableaux from the story, as if to remind viewers of what they had read. But in doing so, he allowed his actors (including himself) far more freedom than in the past, and he also permitted himself the freedom of looking at Tel Aviv through a fictional lens. He went on to make features set in Israel's two other principal cities. Yom Yom (1998) was an entropic comedy, in which things fell apart around (and in) a Muslim-Jewish man in Haifa. Kadosh (1999), Gitai's first film to achieve commercial release in the United States, was a tragedy about women who struggle to escape--or don't escape--the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim section of Jerusalem.
Gitai was still practicing a long-take, medium-shot style, with the occasional camera movement (sometimes motivated, sometimes not) used for variety. The effect was distanced, even when (as in Kadosh) a woman was being raped and beaten by her husband. But to look at it the other way around, Gitai was now dealing explicitly with violence (and with explicit sex as well). His association with cinematographer Renato Berta was giving his films a richer, moodier look; and he was assembling a stock company of actors who were brilliantly naturalistic. (Hattab, Klauzner and Juliano Merr all worked with Gitai before their appearances in Kippur.) He had brought himself to the verge of a breakthrough; and I think he's achieved it in Kippur, the first feature with the urgency and immediacy of his best documentaries.
The slog through the mud is not the only scene in Kippur to come off the screen with straightforward power. First comes the approach to the war zone, as Weinraub and his comrade Ruso (Tomer Ruso) make their way north to join their unit. It's slow going in Weinraub's old junker of a car--he won't buy anything flashy or new, having read Marcuse--and it gets slower still when the reservists get caught in a mammoth traffic jam. You get your first view of war as chaos, shot in part from inside the car, in the manner of Abbas Kiarostami.
Then there's the first rescue mission, in which no one is left to rescue. Dropped into a still-smoking entrenchment, the crew discovers that all the bodies are dead--although this fact escapes one member of the team, who rushes about ordering charred corpses onto the helicopter. Much later in the film, after you and the crew have seen a lot of this kind of thing, Gitai provides your only comprehensive view of the war: a long, circling shot from Weinraub's point of view, as he looks down from the helicopter onto a ruined, rutted world, where the dominant life form seems to be the armored tank.
Nor are you spared the aftermath of the war: triage. The drama reaches its matter-of-fact conclusion in the field hospital, where one crew member after the other is examined and then sent off for someone else to deal with.
This is tough-minded, uncompromising filmmaking: the maximum action within the minimum framework. I believe that's always been an ideal for Gitai, as it is for certain other figures of international cinema--meaning the vital (though commercially minor) field of co-production and festival-based distribution that's generally known as "the art film." Now the art film has ventured strongly onto the terrain of the war movie--Gitai specifically credits as an influence Sam Fuller, who was among his mentors--which means that Kippur confirms the vigor not only of Gitai's filmmaking but also that of an entire segment of international cinema, which he represents.
So much for Kippur as art object. As testimony, it is beyond price--and unfortunately without time. Though utterly specific in its details, the film would have been relevant if shown anytime after 1914 and will remain all too meaningful into the foreseeable future. Its release at the present moment is telling, of course; but what it tells us is awful in its simplicity. "Do you plan to settle things by armed conflict?" asks Kippur. "Then this is what you get."
George Washington takes place in a small, weedy, rusty city in the American South, where children conduct their affairs with adult responsibility and adults behave like kids. The grown-ups had fought wars and built machines, explains Nasia (Candace Evanofski), the little girl who narrates the film in voiceover, so "it was hard for them to find their peace." By contrast, the children dwell on problems of friendship, love and the care of small animals. These subjects lead not to turmoil but to the contemplation of "mysteries...all the mistakes God had made."
Nasia doesn't name these errors; but a moviegoer might draw up quite a list. God has allowed George Washington to be set in a city of empty storefronts, derelict factories, junkyards, railyards and tumbledown houses: places of abandonment and failure, which are lovingly photographed in warm sunlight and deep colors. Presiding over this America (at least in Nasia's mind) is her friend George (Donald Holden), whose skull God forgot to fuse. George's brain lies so near the surface that he has to go about wearing a football helmet. But despite his vulnerability--or because of it--George wants to be a hero, and Nasia sees him as one. The marvel of the movie is that you see George almost as she does, even while knowing that he's a poor, scared, guilt-burdened kid.
On the level of knowledge--of meanings that can be paraphrased--George Washington is a mounting pile of disasters. Parents are dead, imprisoned or crazy; pets are candidates for slaughter; friends are one slip away from a violent end. The survivors, while not yet old enough for high school, ache with a secret conviction of sin, or else go numb and blame themselves for it.
But the movie doesn't play at the paraphrasable level. As written and directed by David Gordon Green in his remarkable feature debut, George Washington is a languid series of impressionistic glances, many of them cast at subjects that seem lovely or droll. Scenes often fade to black, so they occupy their own little space. The performers (all of them nonprofessional) play-act with a sincerity (sometimes an abandonment) that makes each moment a piece of eternity. Music is used sparingly; and when it does come up, it's generally in the form of a slow, two- or three-chord pattern that isn't planning to go anywhere. Maybe a couple of the children want to skip town after their friend Buddy abruptly dies; but the sounds are content to cycle in the air, as if they feel what George and Nasia feel. The goodness that the kids hope to find, the love and heroism they seek, must be present here and now, if they exist at all.
Do they exist? The answer might be yes, if you smile when George puts on his superhero outfit--the football helmet, a uniform from the school wrestling team and a white sheet, tied around his neck as a cape--and pretends to direct traffic. Never mind that the traffic doesn't need direction. George apparently believes he's saving lives; and though his need for this belief is terrible, though circumstances have made the wrestling uniform a token of guilt, the camera nevertheless gazes up at him, admiring rather than belittling his solemn arm-waving.
This is irony reversed: a demonstration of the moral and imaginative strength of a character who is, in his material condition, weaker than the viewer. I might even say (to compare small things with great) that George takes on the role of Father of His Country much as Leopold Bloom assumes the mantle of Ulysses. For all we know, George's ancestors were owned by the Father of His Country. (Like most of the film's characters, George has African blood.) But in his own eyes and Nasia's, there's still freedom and glory to be found on Independence Day--though the parade, to us, may look comically shabby, though the city's grown-ups doze off before the fireworks begin.
"Smile," someone says to George as the film concludes. When a picture's this good, that's easily done.
By coincidence, October has brought another outstanding first feature about the sudden death of children in a garbage-strewn city. The setting of this picture is a slum in Glasgow, where a foul canal runs past row houses of brick, near the concrete towers of a housing project. The period is the recent past, when Tom Jones was the latest singing sensation, and a garbage strike had left the streets and lots heaped with vermin-infested rubbish. The title of the film is Ratcatcher; and the writer-director, Lynne Ramsay, promises to be a major talent.
She's had the courage to make the worst happen within the first five minutes of the film. Young James (William Eadie) is tussling playfully with his friend Ryan Quinn when the latter goes down in the canal and doesn't come up. James runs off in fear; and from then through the end of the film, he lives with his secret. You might even say that he walks around in the secret. Ryan's mother gives him the shoes she'd been buying for her son at the very moment of his death. James accepts the gift, having no alternative, then slashes the uppers with broken glass.
As that action suggests, Ratcatcher is a far less dreamy film than George Washington. While Green chooses a vibrant rust as his predominant color, Ramsay calls up all the shades of mud. While George Washington takes place in sunshine--even the most awful setting is shot through with shafts of light--Ratcatcher is so muted that it might have been shot underwater. The world is drained of sensual pleasure; when James's father brings home a can of pale blue house paint, which seems to have fallen off a truck, closer inspection proves he's got industrial gray.
Don't even think about seeing Ratcatcher if you dislike knowing that the film conforms to its title. But don't stay away if the prospect of unrelieved grimness is what's putting you off. The good news is that Ramsay has the idiosyncratic eye and mind of a young Jane Campion. She's always picking out odd but telling details--a wedge of nylon stocking between the mother's toes, a trickle of saliva along the slumbering father's cheek--and showing them from punchy angles. She also has a talent for opening windows in the daily grind, to reveal sudden vistas of the wondrous. Ratcatcher is hardly the work of a whimsy merchant; and yet, at one point, James discovers a green field that's as perfect as a picture on the wall, and is framed like one. At another moment, while witnessing one of the film's many rodent deaths, he imagines a pet mouse's trip to the moon.
Most important of all, Ramsay chooses to dramatize characters who are loving as well as damaged. James may have the low, dark hairline and bat ears of Franz Kafka (perfect attributes for a lad serving time in this penal colony); the young girl he falls for, Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen), may be used as common property by a gang of toughs, whose preferred love nest is an outdoor privy; and yet, in a scene at the film's heart, James and Margaret Anne can share a frolic in the bath, innocently enjoying one another and a rare body of nonlethal water. Even the grown-ups are granted such a measure of grace. Mother (Mandy Matthews) is at wit's end, coping with the chaos and dangers of poverty; Father (Tommy Flanagan) is a philandering drunk. But late in the picture, after a rough night, they put on a Sinatra record and dance in a single shaft of light, surrounded by utter blackness; and for that long moment, while they clutch each other, the screen is suffused with unembarrassed warmth.
Ratcatcher is about the surprises that crop up and the hopes that remain alive after the worst has occurred. Tough, dour and open-spirited, it's a welcome new entry in the smallest genre of cinema: pictures that become more interesting as they go on.
Noted with pleasure: My colleagues say that Bedazzled--Harold Ramis's remake of the 1967 comedy--is not a masterpiece, and surely my colleagues are right. This tale of a sniveling schlep who sells his soul to the Devil, having despaired of getting laid in any other way, was far more theologically sound in the original. For one thing, the 1967 version was written by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, who were known to have read books, and starred the innately sadistic Cook as the Devil and the innately floundering Moore as the schlep. For another thing, the original included a full-scale parade of the seven deadly sins, featuring Raquel Welch as Lust.
The new version dispenses with such medieval apparatus and casts today's Raquel, Elizabeth Hurley, as the Devil. She's a sport (as you know if you've seen the first Austin Powers movie) and seems to enjoy wriggling all relevant parts of her anatomy; but once you get past the sight gag, you realize she does most of her acting with her teeth. Hurley is a great biter and clacker.
But then there's the schlep. He's played by Brendan Fraser, who has become the pre-eminent big lug of contemporary American comedy. Bedazzled gives him the opportunity to play a computer nerd (the basic character), a Colombian drug lord, a New Age California simp, a loofah-brained basketball star, a hyperarticulate novelist in a great tuxedo and Abraham Lincoln, all of which roles he carries off with the ease and aplomb of George of the Jungle swinging smack into a tree. No, Bedazzled isn't a masterpiece. But it's a Brendan Fraser vehicle, and for that I'm grateful.
On Veterans Day, November 11, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt will appear on the Mall at a spot between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial to break ground for the long-delayed World War II Memorial. The grandiose, triumphal design of the memorial has been criticized widely on aesthetic grounds--it reminds many of the work of Albert Speer, Hitler's favorite architect. But there's a bigger problem: The memorial will break up the country's most important site for protest demonstrations.
This is where 250,000 people gathered to hear Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963. This is where half a million people gathered for the Vietnam Moratorium demonstration in 1969 to sing "Give Peace a Chance." This is where the AIDS quilt--the 40,000-plus panels covering the equivalent of sixteen football fields that commemorates people who have died from AIDS--has been displayed regularly since 1987. This is where the Million Man March met in 1995, the Promise Keepers gathered in 1997 and the Million Mom March against gun violence rallied this past May.
The memorial will occupy 7.4 acres. In that space a private organization headed by Bob Dole plans to build a granite plaza that will include two triumphal arches, each as high as a four-story building, and fifty-six marble columns, each seventeen feet tall and decorated with bronze funeral wreaths and huge eagle sculptures.
Stopping the plan now won't be easy. Originally, the American Battle Monuments Commission selected a site near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. But J. Carter Brown, the chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts, objected that it was "unacceptable" to "tuck [the memorial] away in the woods." The commission approved the Mall plan in late September, in a 7-to-5 vote.
Defenders of the plan argue that the site and design selection process have taken longer than World War II itself and that the memorial should be built now, before all the veterans are dead. But memorials like this are not built for the participants in the events that are commemorated. Memorials are supposed to help posterity remember and honor its forebears. The Lincoln Memorial wasn't even begun until 1914, half a century after Lincoln's death.
Babbitt has the power to overrule the commission, but that's unlikely, given the Clinton Administration's eagerness to please veterans. An organization called the National Coalition to Save Our Mall (www.savethemall.org) mounted a legal challenge in early October based on a historic-preservation argument. The suit refers to a 1986 law establishing criteria for decisions made by the Secretary of the Interior and other agencies, among them the requirement that plans for new historical monuments must "protect, to the maximum extent practicable, open space and existing public use." Open space for public use--where Americans can gather by the hundreds of thousands to address their government--is precisely what this monstrosity will destroy.
Since Spike Lee begins his new picture, Bamboozled, by giving a dictionary definition of satire, the least a reviewer can do is to open with a proper critical definition. Strictly speaking, Bamboozled is a Menippean satire; and because I'm unqualified to describe that form, I will defer to Northrop Frye. A few lines from his Anatomy of Criticism:
The Menippean satire deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes. Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds, are handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behavior. The Menippean satire thus...differs from the novel in its characterization, which is stylized rather than naturalistic, and presents people as mouthpieces of the ideas they represent.
Frye's catalogue of Menippean personages will serve nicely as a roll call for the characters in Bamboozled. "Rapacious and incompetent professional men"--those would be Dunwitty (Michael Rapaport), a full-throatedly boorish program executive at the CNS television network, and his underling Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), the network's only African-American staff writer. The story's "virtuosi" are a pair of starving, scuffling street performers, Manray (Savion Glover) and Womack (Tommy Davidson), who at first want nothing more than a chance to do their act and get paid. In them, Delacroix sees a vehicle for escaping his job, while at the same time exacting revenge on Dunwitty for endless slights and slurs.
"Enthusiasts" are the American people, God bless them, who fall in love with the variety show that Delacroix dreams up. Manray, now called Mantan, and Womack, renamed Sleep 'n' Eat, become the stars of Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show, a variety program set in an Alabama watermelon patch, featuring a full cast of coons, Toms, mammies, pickaninnies and chain-gang prisoners. To Delacroix's horror, viewers do not rise up in fury against this spectacle. Instead, they adopt blackface as the nation's latest fad.
"Cranks"--these are the members of a would-be-revolutionary hip-hop collective called the Mau Maus, led by a man who has named himself Big Blak African (Mos Def). The Mau Maus conform to the most noxious stereotypes--they're unlettered, inarticulate, unemployed, slovenly and very fond of malt liquor--so of course they declare war on the minstrel show for perpetuating such images.
"Parvenus"--a term that applies to most of the major characters. Once the minstrel show turns into a huge success, misbehavior becomes general. "Pedant"--that would be Sloan (Jada Pinkett-Smith), Delacroix's young assistant and his uneasy but ineffective conscience. She's the one who insists that if Manray and Womack are to wear blackface, they must use authentic burnt cork. She's also the one who protests against the show by collecting hundreds of antique coon figures, with which she fills Delacroix's office and home. To these, Spike Lee adds a collection of his own, appending to the movie an entire gallery's worth of film clips of Toms, mammies, pickaninnies, etc. In such a manner, writes Frye, does the Menippean satirist demonstrate exuberance, "piling up an enormous mass of erudition about his theme."
Finally, we have the category of "bigots." It's enough to say that this is a Spike Lee movie.
And now, having anatomized Bamboozled, I must pass on to the tougher question: How good a Menippean satire is it? Or, to phrase the question more precisely: How does the movie play? To answer, I'd better begin again, starting this time with the bizarre figure of Delacroix.
Who is this man with the shaved head and pencil mustache, who keeps his voice locked in his sinus cavities and speaks English as if he'd learned it from 78 rpm records? (I mean, who is he other than another brilliant characterization by Damon Wayans?) We know that Delacroix is the narrator of Bamboozled and the instigator of its plot. We also discover, fairly quickly, that he's a postmodern, post-civil rights, post-affirmative action type, who calls himself a Negro and takes pride in dressing like Duke Ellington on a Savile Row spree. But behind all his preening and posing--pinching the air while he talks, pretending to believe that his co-workers respect him--who the hell is Delacroix?
Two aspects of his life--his apartment decor and the script for his TV show--combine to answer for him. The lavish apartment is located in a Manhattan tower, right behind the face of a giant clock. It's the perfect home for a man who, as they say, doesn't know what time it is. As for the TV show: One of the minstrel routines it revives is a doubletalk bit, spoken by a man whose family ties are so complicated that he seems to be his own grandfather. Says the minstrel, who might as well be speaking for Delacroix, "I don't know who I is!"
He's not the only one. The Mau Maus, too, live in a riot of self-misapprehension. Lee shows them in constant, jostling, purposeless motion; you get the impression of a many-headed, many-limbed being stuffed into a single baggy sweatshirt. "Know what I mean? Know what I'm sayin'?" they sputter at one another, without anyone's actually having said anything. They, too, seem to be echoed by the minstrels in an old routine--the one where two buddies converse unintelligibly because they never bother to complete a sentence.
Of course, the characters not of African descent have their own deficit of self-knowledge. Michael Rapaport, who has developed a specialty in playing big but sweet-natured imbeciles, here brings out a more bullying side of himself, making Dunwitty into a loud, tall, sputtering fount of vulgarities. "Yo! I'm the only black in this room!" he shouts at the grimly self-controlled Delacroix, before launching into a supposedly genial chant of "Nigger nigger nigger nigger!" But because of the privilege that comes with his pale skin, Dunwitty gets to enjoy his ignorance. The film's African characters suffer for theirs--and, in the end, make each other suffer.
This is hardly the first time that Lee has looked coldly at the popular culture of denigration (another word to look up in the dictionary), seeing in it a source of confusion and misery. His treatment of the subject has ranged from the rhetorical (in Malcolm X) to the intimately dramatic (in Crooklyn). But he's never before made this problem the main focus of a film--and when you think about it, you may realize that for all his coruscating wit, he's never before made a full-blown satire, either.
So how does Bamboozled play as a movie? I will cite, in descending order of merit, the performances, which are vivid; the themes, which are coherently developed (despite what you might have heard); the settings, which are reasonably varied but not strong in themselves (except for that clock tower); the videography, which is undistinguished; and the pacing and editing, which might have been improved had Lee emulated those minstrel routines he's revived.
The movie's dirty secret, which Lee has the courage to reveal, is that those bits really can be funny. You might expect to enjoy Bamboozled when Savion Glover gets to dance--how could a movie go wrong with him?--but the big surprise is to see how Tommy Davidson, as Womack, works those corny old jokes. Never in my life did I expect to hear an actor call out that legendary punch line, "Ain't nobody here but us chickens!" Is the moment humiliating for Womack? You bet. Did I laugh? You would, too.
Spike Lee has applied his erudition to this American tradition and discovered not just how it wounds but also how it entertains. With the intellectual acuity of the Menippean satirist, he's shown that the entertainment is the wound--the louder the laughter, the worse the damage. It's understandable, then, that he would want to drive home the lesson by strategically killing the fun for his own audience. I can imagine the gesture's being made swiftly, so that your throat would be slit in midlaugh. But Lee seems to lack the resolve for such savagery. Past a certain point in Bamboozled, when he might have declared a grand refusal, he instead falls into a semi-puritanical sulk, leaving the movie to clunk and clatter along. This is the satire of the passive-aggressive personality: someone who withdraws into a show of indifference, as if we should apologize to him and beg for a livelier picture.
I think of the sign that Delacroix places on top of his television set, to spur himself on in his work. Feed the Idiot Box, it says. How little regard the man must have for himself, when he feels such contempt for his job and his audience! Do I detect a touch of self-portraiture in Lee's picture of this fellow satirist? Would Bamboozled have been a better movie had Lee believed that we--and he--were worthy of it?
Short Take: Moviegoers who are willing to risk having their hearts warmed might take a look at Billy Elliot. Directed by Stephen Daldry from a script by Lee Hall, it's an amiable example of the working-class-uplift picture--the uplift, in this case, involving the ability of a coal miner's son to execute a grand jeté.
In Durham, England, in 1984, young Billy sneaks off from his boxing class to study ballet with Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters). Bad enough that he's the only lad, amid all those tutus. Worse still, his father's union is in the process of being crushed by Mrs. Thatcher, so the 50 pence he misappropriates each week can be ill afforded. His dad (Gary Lewis) wants him to spend that money on learning to fight his way through a hard world--not on leaping about like a poofter.
I might have enjoyed Billy Elliot a bit more if the film hadn't insisted so often that Billy is not, I mean not, repeat not a poofter, just because he loves to dance. All right, back off. It also might have been useful to address the mineworkers' strike substantially, rather than use it as mere background, and to have made Billy's ultimate triumph something less of a foregone conclusion. Then again, Jamie Bell, who plays Billy, is a marvel. The kid knows how to dance; what's more, he knows how to pretend to dance less well than he really can, which is amazing in such a young actor. Let him and the character he plays have their triumph. It's harmless enough--and I'm pleased to say it's accomplished through public financing.
The sound of Wrecking Ball (Elektra), Emmylou Harris's 1995 album produced by former Brian Eno/Neville Brothers associate Daniel Lanois, drew me back toward her. But it was her fiercely energetic if unevenly recorded live disc, 1998's Spyboy (Eminent), and the tour that followed with her postpsychedelic power trio that made me want more for the first time since Harris started singing trios with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt in 1987. I went back and listened to Elite Hotel and Pieces of the Sky (Reprise) and Luxury Liner (Warner Bros.), her early country rock-outs with the Hot Band, which she mostly inherited from the late Gram Parsons (who'd mostly stolen it from Elvis Presley). And even 1972's GP and 1973's Grievous Angel (both Reprise), the two albums on which she duetted with Parsons. Parsons, of course, is the man who turned the Byrds (and subsequently all of Los Angeles) toward what became country-rock, founded the Flying Burrito Brothers, partied (and co-wrote songs) with the Rolling Stones, elevated Harris to national attention and in 1973 was found dead (of coroner-ruled "natural causes") in a motel in Joshua Tree, California. Friends stole his body and burned it in the Joshua Tree National Monument.
How rock and roll can you get? Parsons, never widely famous, became a cult figure. Harris went on to conquer Nashville, continuing the vector Parsons had sketched in his crossover country lilts like "Hickory Wind," "Wheels" and "Sin City" ("On the 31st floor/A gold-plated door/Won't keep out the Lord's burning rain"), all of which became minor classics. She went deep into it, performing at the Ryman Auditorium and so on. Her pretty, soulful, folky voice with the surprisingly resilient country-meets-blues cri de coeur got under my skin less as it settled into Nashville's more predictable contours. I was waiting for the shakeup, for the rock in country-rock to re-emerge and maybe even, with luck, take over.
That's what happened on Wrecking Ball and Spyboy. Fired first by Lanois's Eno-inspired wall-of-sound approach, then by her interracial power trio (guitar whiz Buddy Miller, bass monster Daryl Johnson, agile drummer Brady Blade), Harris didn't so much tear up her country roots as reinfuse them with another set of musical ideas. It was the sound of a perceptual door opening.
And now there's Harris's first studio disc since Wrecking Ball, this time via arty Nonesuch Records, home of the sleeper hit Buena Vista Social Club. Yeah, there may be ironic hay to be made by somebody (not me) out of the fact that Nonesuch has made its bucks as the trendy yuppie label of the eighties and nineties, marketing leather-and-lace Eurotrash hits like the Gypsy Kings. The label's stock in trade is (justly) its critically ratified, near-automatic intellectual heft and its consequent ability to target boomers who scan the Sunday Times each week for what to absorb.
They could do a lot worse than Harris's Red Dirt Girl, most of which--rarely, for her--she wrote herself.
It's a cliché that most people in America want someone else's life. Ever since the Gold Rush was augmented by Hollywood and John Steinbeck's Depression, California has been the golden wet dream for Americans' imaginings of new identities, the place where you could retool yourself and ditch the nasty nagging past you might someday have to answer for--or to.
Yet Harris has been a kind of bellwether of pop music's directions partly because she's so rooted in her past; she's aware of where changes of direction are likely to blow in from. When she started singing with Parsons, country and rock hated each other; over the past decade, as her boomer generation has settled comfortably into middle age, country stars have sounded like the Eagles, who were glossing pages from Parsons's book. Before the current refashionability of bluegrass and that already gone moment of alt-country, Harris was there. On Red Dirt Girl, she connects the dots between the sixties, Springsteen and the post-Hendrix production style that Lanois has refined.
You could argue that Red Dirt Girl updates Hendrix by way of electronica, but with a (relatively) conservative ear cocked backward, for the boomer audience's sake. The entire album is a potpourri of styles, somehow overstuffed and lavish and rippling with suggestive overtones even when it's spare. On the title track, for instance, wisps of overdriven guitar leak almost discreetly into the corners of the soundstage, a sympathetic echo of successive dislocations in the lyrics. Multiple basses rumble and snort through "I Don't Wanna Talk About It Now," reflecting the disoriented but overwhelming focus shaping the singer's emotions. Every cut finds sounds spurting, drifting, poking or sizzling into the deeply textured stereo image, with unexpected and sometimes unsettling results: bits of shock, humor, recognition. Repeatedly, jigs and reels, the staples of Appalachian-descended country, get bushwacked and overlaid or saturated with fuzz and wah-wah washes and distant, jangly electric piano and guitars--of course, always guitars, of every aural hue and cry.
The guitar, rock and roll's conceptual anchor, is the symbol that links Harris and Springsteen. Consider her in-concert staple, "Born to Run": Not Springsteen's song, it takes an angle on male-female relationships that puts the woman in the rock-and-roll driver's seat. In fact, the title track of Red Dirt Girl is a very Boss-like tale of doppelgängers, one of whom gets stuck in the old hometown:
Nobody knows when she started her skid
She was only 27 and she had five kids
Coulda been the whiskey, coulda been the pills
Coulda been the dreams she was tryin' to kill
But there won't be a mention in the News of The World
About the life and the death of a Red Dirt Girl
Who never got any further across the line than Meridian.
Like Springsteen and Tom Waits, Harris often imagines the characters in her songs as people (or aspects of herself) she's left behind. But in contrast to America's standard-issue California dreamin', she doesn't want to erase her past or disappear beneath each new persona. Which is one of several reasons Gram Parsons hovers, never far, from her music.
"Michelangelo," the CD's second cut, is yet another in a long line of Harris tunes that invoke his ghost, the tragic figure of the flawed genius surrounded by his past choices, via a melody that could have come out of Leonard Cohen and a spare but textured aural background speckled with rumbling bass and acoustic guitar strums and jet-stream wisps of overdriven feedback. "Tragedy" sets its tensions between industrial drumming, a clutch of guitars (including a floating pedal steel) and Springsteen and wife Patti Scialfa on backup Everly-Brothers-go-rhythm-and-blues-flavored vocals after the Boss-ish opening: "Some say it's destiny/Whether triumph or tragedy/But I believe we cast our nets out on the sea/And nothing we gather comes for free."
That sense of responsibility is why Harris doesn't erase history, no matter how she may recast it in literary or imaginative terms. ("Bang the Drum Slowly," a eulogy for her father co-written with Guy Clark, is unabashedly sentimental and biblical, for instance, with an e-bow winding through it like a church organ.) It's also why, along with the likes of Springsteen and Waits, she has struggled with the theme of redemption time after time, whether singing refurbished old hymns in her soaring vibrato or switching to more profane journeys taken from her own and others' searching. Understanding, guilt, salvation and love are bound together in lines like these from "The Pearl": "Like falling stars from the universe we are hurled/Down through the long loneliness of the world/Until we behold the pain become the pearl."
It's a story older than that of Piers Plowman, but it may seem quaint in a day when the word "character" has been vastly reduced in meaning, when the world seems like a welter of wannabe victims lining up for a camera shot. The process of living leaves us scarred, as it did Michelangelo, but that's the price. Cameos come relatively cheap. On the other hand, there's always the twilight solace of Prozac Nation.
Startlingly produced by Malcolm Burn (who engineered and mixed Wrecking Ball), featuring a dozen or so musicians (also including Dave Matthews and Jill Cunniff), Red Dirt Girl is roughly two-thirds dynamite, one-third breathing space. Sonically, it never stops pushing into those post-Hendrix wah-wah soundscapes, including telephone rings and background conversations, tunes starting with the whirr of a tape machine being turned on--a deliberate carelessness of sonic references from outside the soundstage that paradoxically underscore that stage's fierce integrity. Conceptually, the album does what the best country music (which it only vaguely is) has always done: tells us stories about where we come from and warns us to look twice about where we're going.
For Harris never forgets for long our only inevitable destination--which is one big reason you might call this music for grown-ups. Sure, it's boomer music, so there's inevitably some nostalgia, but in Harris's capable, determined, ironic hands, the disc raises more questions than it settles neatly down to bed. And you can hum nearly all of it through the jabs at the job and downers from your parents and/or kids and adrenaline rushes of joy and outbreaks of road rage and those late, ominously clear and sparkling nights when everyone else is finally out cold and you're rhapsodically wishing you had a telescope.
Harris is on tour now. Don't miss her.
Now that Karyn Kusama's much-heralded Girlfight has opened, I figure it's time to catch up with the 1999 releases and review On the Ropes. And since I've been so slow to write about this documentary, which has long since vanished from theaters, the first thing to say is that you shouldn't hesitate to watch it on video. That's how On the Ropes was shot, by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen: with a handheld Sony, which the filmmakers carried through the streets and courtrooms of Brooklyn and into the New Bed-Stuy Gym, where a deeply impressive man named Harry Keitt was devoting himself to training amateur boxers.
The second thing you should know about On the Ropes is that these boxers were not living the easy life. One of them in particular, a young woman named Tyrene Manson, was destroyed right in front of Burstein and Morgen's camera, not by a ring opponent but by the police and the court system. Since Manson is real--whereas the young Brooklyn boxer who is the heroine of Girlfight springs from Kusama's imagination--let me explain the case in some detail.
Manson, a tough and wiry piece of work, was training at the time for the Golden Gloves, and going at it with extraordinary good cheer, considering her less-than-ideal circumstances. When not sparring or doing roadwork, she was busy caring for two young nieces, since her crackhead uncle couldn't be bothered. Unfortunately, Manson had no place to live except in this same uncle's house. Credible evidence suggested that she'd been trying to relocate herself and the girls; but there she was when the cops broke in. As expected, they found illegal drugs lying about, along with any number of Uncle Randy's friends and colleagues. And so, on the grounds that she'd been breathing the same air as these people, Tyrene Manson was arrested for possession with intent to sell. A few shufflings of paper by a court-appointed lawyer, a grunt or two from the judge, and off she went to prison, on the very day she'd been scheduled to fight in the Golden Gloves. Watch On the Ropes and see it happen.
It's certainly possible for fiction to convey the horror of such a situation--the messiness, the outrage, even the element of self-undoing. (Much to Manson's detriment, the controlled aggression she used in the ring became flailing belligerence in court.) For an example, I turn to the opening chapters of Tolstoy's Resurrection. But I don't think of Girlfight, a well-acted and well-directed feature with a screenplay written on tissue paper. Dab your eyes with it, if you will; but blow your nose with caution.
The one substantial element of Girlfight is its lead actress, newcomer Michelle Rodriguez, who grabs your attention and holds it from the minute she comes onscreen. She's first seen in an effective dolly shot, as she leans against a locker in a busy high school corridor. As the other kids go by, crossing left and right, the camera pulls closer and closer to the immobile Rodriguez, whose head is lowered but whose attitude is plain to read in the combat fatigues she's wearing. At last, when she's in close-up, she lifts her face and glares straight into the camera, her eyes steady and dangerous beneath the parapet of her brow. The expression is reminiscent of the young Muhammad Ali; and the framing of the shot, from chin to forehead, brings out the resemblance between one pretty, round-faced, pouty-lipped fighter and another.
Rodriguez is here to play Diana Guzman, a young woman who's about to be kicked out of school for throwing too many punches at her classmates. Chronically enraged by her beer-guzzling father, chronically furious at the world's flouncy women, Diana doesn't need the Board of Regents curriculum. What she wants is a school for her anger--and she finds one at last when an errand takes her to a local gym, where Hector (Jaime Tirelli) trains young men to box. Will he train her? Ten dollars an hour, growls the stubbled, straw-hatted Hector, with a gruffness that will grow avuncular over the next 90 minutes, just as surely as Diana's talents will prove to be natural.
The liveliest moments that follow are those in which you see Diana training. Kusama has a sure instinct in these scenes for camera placement and editing--in that sense, she's a natural--and she knows she's got two great subjects in the craft of boxing and Rodriguez, whose every movement seems powered from the pit of her stomach. When Rodriguez is called upon to get gooey with a fellow boxer (Santiago Douglas), she's convincing; but she's fascinating when she bobs and weaves, works the speed bag, practices her combinations or walks into the room with an insolent roll to her left.
All this makes Girlfight a thoroughly watchable picture, right up till the closing shot, in which Diana, who is taking comfort in an embrace, is photographed so the calluses stand out on her knuckles. A nice touch; I just wish the screenplay had a few calluses of its own.
I didn't expect Kusama to make Hector as sorrowful, patient and determined as Harry Keitt, the trainer in On the Ropes; I didn't think she'd make Diana as compelling and doomed as Tyrene Manson. But does a boxing picture--especially one that's focused on a woman--really need to tie itself up in a pink bow? All of the viewer's presumed wishes are fulfilled: Diana gets to be a warrior, her brother Tiny gets to be an artist, the brutal father gets his comeuppance and the sensitive hunk gets to prove himself a better kind of man. Had Kusama done any more to flatter a liberal audience, Girlfight would have ended with a November victory rally for Nader.
I wish Kusama well; with a lot of toughening, she might be a contender. But on my scorecard, I give the decision to On the Ropes. Reality wins every round.
And now, for a different kind of girlfight:
Jeff Bridges and Gary Oldman have so much fun with their roles in The Contender, a new inside-the-Beltway movie, that I sometimes imagined I was having a good time, too. Bridges, playing President Jackson Evans, uses his biggest, most blustering manner to give the character the sort of person-to-person skills for which Lyndon Johnson was famous. When dashing another politician's career hopes, President Evans signals his indifference by idly lighting a cigarette and blowing smoke rings. When staging a sensitive meeting, held in the White House bowling alley, he tests his guests' mettle by giving his shoes a sniff. Such is the liberal Democratic hero of The Contender. The conservative Republican villain is Representative Shelly Runyon of Illinois--in Oldman's interpretation, a small, nervous, owl-eyed man with a sparse fringe of curly hair. Runyon looks like a desiccated Roberto Benigni, talks in hiccups and grins like Fred Leuchter, the engineer of execution machinery who was the focus of Errol Morris's Mr. Death.
But as it happens, neither of the big guys is meant to carry The Contender. That unhappy task falls to Joan Allen, in the role of Laine Hanson: a Democratic (formerly Republican) senator from Ohio who has been nominated to replace the recently deceased Vice President. Runyon, catching a whiff of affirmative action in this nomination, commandeers the confirmation hearings, vowing to do everything possible to stop Hanson. Everything, in this case, includes an Internet-launched smear campaign, accusing the nominee of having courted popularity in college by accepting the sexual advances of an entire fraternity. When shown the photos, Joan Allen compresses her lips and says she won't dignify these accusations with a response. And that's the end of the fun, for her. Allen spends the rest of the picture with her spine frozen and her mouth locked in frostbite.
A strange torture for the filmmaker to impose--to constrain the lead actress's every move, while letting the men run free--when the ostensible purpose of The Contender is to advocate greater career opportunities for women. But then, muddle-headedness seems to be the very method of this picture. The smallest exchange of dialogue yields confusion. (According to one of Runyon's aides, "We have to gut the bitch in the belly." Where else would you gut her? In the foot?) The longest speeches may cause headache, dizziness and fatigue, and should not be listened to while operating heavy machinery. There are two of these doozies--one apiece for Hanson and Evans--each accompanied by a swell of patriotic music; and if you can make sense of the political program they announce, in ringing Capra-corn fashion, then you might be the right therapist for Al Gore's multiple-personality disorder.
Of course, the grandest muddle of all is the premise. First The Contender tries to whip up some topical interest by evoking the richly pornographic impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton. Then the movie asserts that Laine Hanson's ordeal is unique, because sexual smears aren't used against men.
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe you can gut a woman in the foot.
The Contender was written and directed by Rod Lurie, who used to be a film critic. I don't know what this means to you; but for me, it's a lesson in humility.
I have two films to tell you about in this column, one of which I recommend to your attention because it's beautiful, absorbing, touching and droll. It will involve you in the choices its characters make, and it will probably make you think about how you live, too. I'm speaking about Yi Yi (also known as A One and a Two), written and directed by Edward Yang. As for the other film--Dancer in the Dark by Lars von Trier--I had to watch the thing, and now you're damn well going to read about it.
While you're getting braced, I will point out that I'm not the first to link these pictures. This past spring, at the Cannes festival, Dancer in the Dark won the top prize, while Yi Yi earned Edward Yang the award for best director. Now it's autumn, and the New York Film Festival is launching both movies in the United States. You might say the festival is showing us two major possibilities for film. You might also say that Martin Luther King Jr. and Huey Long represent two options in politics.
Of course, to some eyes, Yi Yi appears soft and safe--as does Dr. King, to people who don't look beyond that nice, chubby man who talked about dreams. I can understand the criticism. Yang has put a wedding at the beginning of Yi Yi, a funeral at the end and a birth right in the middle. That's enough in itself to set off a life-affirmation warning--and the alarm really starts to clang once you realize that the main characters, members of a single middle-class family in Taipei, span the ages from childhood through senescence.
Before you bolt, though, I'd like to mention the seating arrangement at that concluding funeral, where characters who ought to clump together prefer to be separated by a few crucial inches. Look from one side of the aisle to the other, and you understand that for all its buoyancy, Yi Yi dramatizes the breakup of a family and the withering of illusions, as experienced in a society where everyone's supposed to be rich and everybody's going broke.
At the film's heart is the paterfamilias, known as NJ (Wu Nienjen), a partner in a rapidly failing computer company. A slight man with the solemn, baggy look of a Taiwanese Buster Keaton, NJ quietly accepts every duty that arises, retreats into music when he can (using the portable disc player that's his favorite possession) and stares deadpan into the face of a hundred indignities. These begin at the wedding of his brother-in-law (Chen Xisheng), where the bride's advanced state of pregnancy is only the first of many breaches of decorum and escalating disasters. Among the others: NJ's first love, Sherry (Ke Suyun), suddenly materializes in the hotel lobby, after thirty years' absence; and his mother-in-law (Tang Ruyun) is rushed to the hospital in a coma. "Don't worry," cries the newlywed brother-in-law, arriving at the hospital roaring drunk. "Today is the luckiest day in the year. Nothing bad can happen."
But for NJ, a lot has happened. It's only a matter of time before he gives Sherry a late-night phone call from his darkened office--an innocent call, of course (she lives in Chicago), made just as a gesture of reconciliation, just to feel the thrill of connection. Then it's back to his highrise apartment, full of new life, to find his wife, Min-Min (Elaine Jin), weeping in the bedroom. She's been trying to speak to her comatose mother, as the doctors recommend, and has found she has nothing to say. Every day is the same; every day is nothing. "How can I have so little?" Min-Min sobs, opening and closing her hands as if her life had flown out of them. NJ shuts the door--he doesn't want to wake the children--and then makes a practical, well-meaning, thoroughly off-the-mark response: Hire a nurse, who will read the newspaper to Mother.
With that, the camera retreats to the balcony, to view NJ and Min-Min through a sheet of glass that's frantic with reflections from a nearby expressway. Lights skitter over the dumbstruck couple. From the next apartment come hideous shrieks and curses: the new neighbor, fighting with one of
Not every sequence in Yi Yi is similarly wrenching; but each has this startling degree of emotional and cinematic fluidity, which I thoroughly fail to convey. Scenes that focus on the 8-year-old son (Jonathan Chang) tend to serve as comic relief; but they also sketch out a kind of artist's manifesto, expressed in terms of a kid's candor and curiosity. Scenes centered on the teenage daughter (Kelly Lee) tend to be darker, since she blames herself for her grandmother's illness; but they also draw her into a romantic triangle of which she, quite miraculously, turns out to be the strongest leg.
I have heard a few people complain that Yi Yi is long. So it is; it runs almost three hours. And for me, those were three hours of deep pleasure: more time to watch a large and brilliant ensemble live and breathe on screen; more time to follow the intricate rhythms of a faultlessly constructed story. "I want to show people things they haven't seen," says the young son, as the tale comes to its inconclusive and satisfying close. I take that to be a statement of artistic purpose--though not, perhaps, of Yang's. The glory of what he's achieved in Yi Yi is to show us things that we've all seen, many times, and to make us feel how extraordinary they are.
Lars von Trier pretends to be interested in the everyday, particularly in its struggle with the visionary. So, to take pretense at face value, I will initially describe Dancer in the Dark as the story of Selma (played by the Icelandic pop star Björk), a single mother who works in a factory and is losing her sight. A Czech immigrant to the United States, Selma labors tirelessly for the sake of her young son, accepts her trials with sweet resignation and finds strength in imagination. A passionate fan of musicals, she makes up songs based on the rhythms and events of her life and visualizes them as big dance numbers. From time to time, life's muted colors intensify, the shooting style changes from hand-held tracking to quick montage and one of Selma's inner movies erupts before us on the screen.
Now, to take a second run at the description: Dancer in the Dark takes place in 1964 in Washington State, a heavily wooded area of Sweden populated by Scandinavian performers and Catherine Deneuve. As the film begins, the pop star Björk is pretending to be incompetent at singing and dancing, in the hope of fitting into a community-theater production of The Sound of Music. The seriously overqualified community-theater director Vincent Paterson (fresh from choreographing dance routines for Madonna and Michael Jackson) pretends not to notice that this young woman is awful--or that she's Björk, I'm not sure which--and casts her anyway. Then Björk and her best friend, Catherine Deneuve, go to work in a factory, where they break into a number presumably inspired by the 1997 documentary East Side Story, Dana Ranga's delightful compilation film about Soviet-bloc musicals.
But I'm forgetting about the blind shtick. It seems that Björk has passed on a degenerative eye condition to her son, who will surely lose his sight unless Udo Kier operates on him before the age of 13. That's why she's such a Stakhanovite (unless it's the influence of all those Soviet-bloc musicals). When the local American sheriff tries to steal her money--just like an American!--she sweetly and innocently shoots him dead, then insists on being hanged to death for the big finale.
Real life? No. Lars von Trier is interested in the preposterous--or rather in seeing how much of the preposterous he can get you to swallow without gagging. He admitted as much in The Idiots, a film that might be said to serve as his self-portrait. That picture was about a kind of avant-garde theater director, who goes about mocking people by feigning simplicity. In Dancer in the Dark (as in Breaking the Waves), it's the heroine who is simple and vulnerable (and long-suffering and self-sacrificing), and you, as viewer, are the one who is mocked.
Do you believe you're in the midst of reality, when the camera is darting back and forth and poking actors in the face? Then von Trier has the laugh on you. He's persuaded you to ignore his very obvious jump-cuts and swift changes of point-of-view, visible evidence that the scene was assembled from multiple takes. And are you a filmoid, eagerly following the doings of today's star directors? You will surely be grateful for von Trier's publicity machine, which has put out the claim that he shot his musical numbers using 100 digital video cameras. What a magical figure--100! Repeat it to yourself, and you can almost forget that von Trier's pop montage is outdone ten times each hour on MTV.
For what it's worth, Björk is a truly remarkable performer--if "remarkable" is the right word for a woman in her mid-30s who can make herself seem like a teenager, bubbling over with naïve, sexless joy. Call it fun, if you like. But when I think about the overture to Dancer in the Dark--a long sequence in which colored patterns dissolve into one another, to the accompaniment of a slow, rising brass chorale--the name of Wagner comes to mind, and I think of what's behind that show of vulnerable simplicity. This film is about power, and its victim is meant to be you.
Ben Katchor had been a bit of a cultural phenomenon for nearly a decade before he became a MacArthur fellow--a first for a cartoonist--this summer; is this the beginning of comic-strip artists being recognized as "real" artists?
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