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Popular perception notwithstanding, the theory of natural selection was
accepted by every serious evolutionist long before Darwin. Earlier
scientists interpreted it as the clearest possible evidence for
intelligent design of the universe. William Paley's Natural Theology
(1802), for example, employs the famous image of the "great watchmaker" to account for the perfect adaptation of creatures to harmonious ecosystems. Darwin's innovation, which may appear small but is in fact immense, lay in his claim that natural selection is the only cause of evolution.

In one sense, this was merely a change of emphasis: The impulse of
pre-Darwinian evolutionists, faced with incontrovertible evidence of
natural selection, had been to ask why it occurred. They sought after
the "final cause" of evolution, and they found it in the proposal of an
intelligent designer. But one of the essential principles of modern
science is that such final causes are unknowable. Science must limit
itself to "efficient" or "material" causes; it must not ask why things
happen, but how. Darwin applied this principle to evolution. Whereas his
predecessors had seen the adaptation of organisms to their environment
as the effects of design, Darwin saw the physical development of
creatures as the sole cause of evolution. The great watchmaker had been
overthrown.

As Stephen J. Gould (who died as this issue was going to press) shows in
The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Darwin's breakthrough was
essentially methodological. Darwinism is what you get when you focus on
the micrological details, resolutely refusing to lift your eyes to the
level of the whole. Over the course of the nineteenth century, this
methodological sine qua non for scientific investigation was imposed on
every discipline, but it originated in the "dismal science" of
economics. The "political economy" of Adam Smith began from the material
actions of individuals in pursuit of their own selfish ends, and
extrapolated from this micrological level to abstract generalizations
about the economy as a whole.

What Smith calls "the economy" is thus an amalgamation of all the
self-interested actions of individuals, and precisely the same is true
of what Darwin understood as "evolution." In fact, Darwin consciously
and deliberately imported Smith's economic methodology into biology in
order to refute natural theology's argument from design. As Gould baldly
puts it, "the theory of natural selection is, in essence, Adam Smith's
economics transferred to nature." He is reluctant to dwell too long on
this kinship, no doubt because he understands the severity of the threat
it poses to Darwinism's pretensions to objectivity. Gould's ally and
sometime collaborator Richard Lewontin has criticized him for such
reticence in several exchanges first published in the New York Review
of Books
. Lewontin has called Gould's work "curiously unpolitical"
for failing to draw out the implications of "the overwhelming influence
of ideology in science." For Lewontin, "Darwin's theory of evolution by
natural selection is obviously nineteenth-century capitalism writ
large," and attempts to press it into the service of psychology are
"pure reification."

The distinguishing theoretical characteristic of both Darwin and Smith
is reductionism--they reduce all knowledge to the level of the
individual. As Gould notes, "The rebuttal of the former centerpiece of
natural history--the belief that organic designs record the intentions
of an omnipotent creative power--rests upon the radical demotion of
agency to a much lower level, devoid of any prospect for conscious
intent, or any 'view' beyond the immediate and personal." Today,
technological progress has enabled evolutionists to carry Darwin's
reduction a stage further. The smallest individual Darwin could study
was the organism, but it is now possible to analyze the behavior of the
gene. People like Richard Dawkins now claim that evolution is driven not
by competition between individual organisms, but by struggles among
genes.

Many evolutionary biologists keep a guilty silence regarding the ethical
implications of their theory, but Dawkins positively revels in
dehumanization. His imagery dwells lasciviously on the mechanical--our
bodies are merely "lumbering robots," or "survival machines" for genes.
His infamous book The Selfish Gene (1976) abounds in brazen
antihumanist provocations: "I am treating a mother as a machine
programmed to do everything in its power to propagate copies of the
genes which reside inside it." Nor does mechanization stop with the
body; evolutionary psychology views the mind itself as a machine,
reducing our thoughts and ideas to the chemical reactions that accompany
them. Dawkins has even propounded a theory that the history of ideas
follows rules analogous to competitive gene selection, reducing
dialectic to a tedious and pointless struggle between what he calls
"memes." Lately he has taken to writing letters to the British press,
suggesting that Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush will be enlightened
if they "study memes."

The idea that genes determine all social behavior, that human beings are
machines, evidently strikes a chord in the Western popular mind.
Postmodernist works such as Donna Haraway's "A Cyborg Manifesto"
celebrate the "posthuman" from what their authors apparently regard as a
radical perspective, while the theoretical texts of Michel Foucault and
Jean-Francois Lyotard advocate a micrological materialism that excludes
on principle any interest in "totalizing grand narratives." As John
Dupré has recently remarked, this "tyranny of the microscopic"
really constitutes an "intellectual pathology" whose significance is
sociological rather than scientific. Gould swats Dawkins away easily
enough--sardonically appropriating his vocabulary to dismiss his theory,
cruelly but fairly, as an "impotent meme"--but he does not explain why
such theories have come to seem plausible to many in the general public.
To examine that, we have to back up about 65 million years.

Reptilia served as Exhibit A then. Imagine Triceratops glancing
up from its grazing to notice a seven-mile-wide asteroid descending
rapidly toward its head. Triceratops had not expected this.
Nature had prepared it for the expected; it could expect to spend a
great deal of time fighting with Tyrannosaurus rex, for example,
and was formidably well-equipped for that purpose. But natural selection
had not prepared it to withstand a direct hit from a piece of rock a
league long.

The lump of stone that crashed into what is now the Yucatan Peninsula
ended the Cretaceous Period by showering the earth with fire and
brimstone, thus destroying 70 percent of living species, including
almost all the dinosaurs. This was something of a spanner in the works
of natural selection, from which it may not recover. The implications of
this catastrophe, conclusive evidence for which was discovered only in
1980, have yet to be fully assimilated by evolutionary theory. For most
of the twentieth century, orthodox Darwinists held that natural
selection--the competitive adaptation of individual organisms to their
environment--was the exclusive motor of evolutionary change. Now they
must qualify this dogma, but it is proving a laborious process.

Many scientists remain convinced that catastrophic change is the
exception. If it weren't for that pesky asteroid, they gripe, natural
selection would have continued unabated. They note that natural
selection will always work ceteris paribus--that is, other things
being equal, under the controlled laboratory environment in which modern
scientists conduct their experiments. It will work, that is to say, in
the absence of the unexpected. But don't we know from experience that
the unexpected happens all the time, and occasionally with catastrophic
consequences?

The "K-T event," as the asteroid strike is known, casts suspicion on the
doctrinaire claim that evolution is solely the result of the competitive
adaptation of individual organisms to their environment. It indicates
that the external constraints under which adaptation occurs must
inevitably exert an influence on the course of evolution. And it raises
the possibility that random, "chance" events play at least as
significant a role as the incremental, purposive process of natural
selection.

Although it represents a mortal threat to mainstream Darwinism, the
theory of catastrophic evolution is quite consistent with Stephen Jay
Gould and Niles Eldredge's epochal discovery of "punctuated
equilibrium." Punctuated equilibrium, or "punk-ek," holds that evolution
does not take place incrementally but rather in spurts that are divided
by long periods of stasis. It departs from Darwin by implying that
natural selection by competition among individual organisms cannot be
the exclusive cause of evolutionary change, since such competition does
not pause for periods of equilibrium.

Darwin is often thought to have rescued the history of life from the
superstitious fantasies of religion, by basing his theory on good,
solid, empirical evidence. But, as Gould and Eldredge noticed, the
empirical evidence does not indicate that evolution proceeds by
incremental, incessant natural selection, as Darwin claimed. In fact,
the empirical evidence indicates quite the opposite. When we look at the
living species around us, we do not find a continuum of creatures in
infinitesimally graduated stages of evolution. We find, instead, clearly
distinct species. We find the same when we look at the fossil record;
paleontology testifies that evolutionary stasis is the norm, and that
change takes place in abrupt bursts, as though suddenly spurred forward
by some external stimulus.

One of the many fascinating questions raised in Gould's The Structure
of Evolutionary Theory
is why Darwin did not see this. Why did he
insist on attributing sole determining power to natural selection in
defiance of the evidence? His own explanation was that the fossil record
gives a false impression because it is radically incomplete. But this
does not alter the fact that natural selection is an imposition on the
available evidence, a bold reading against the grain. Did Darwin nod?
Why was he so convinced that all evolution is caused by natural
selection among individual organisms in competition with one another?

Gould does not explain this, almost certainly for a very interesting
reason: He has often been accused, by sociobiologists and orthodox
Darwinians, of handing ammunition to creationists. There is no room for
an intelligent designer in a universe formed entirely through relentless
competition between selfish individuals, but because it allows that
external factors may influence evolution, the theory of punctuated
equilibrium is not incompatible with theories of intelligent design--a
fact that has caused no small embarrassment to its authors. The charge
of neocreationism is deeply unfair--Gould testified against creationism
in landmark court cases and ridiculed it mercilessly in his writing. He
opposed intelligent design on the grounds that it is "theology" and not
"science." In this book, obviously intended as his legacy to scientific
posterity, Gould repeatedly and emphatically protests that no matter how
many revisions and qualifications he may impose upon Darwin, he remains
a faithful follower of the great man. In a rare and revealing mixed
metaphor, he claims to have retained "the guts of the machine," and he
uses a cumbersome simile involving a piece of coral to argue, again and
again, that his own work is merely an "addition" to Darwin.

That is rubbish, and Gould must have known it. The Structure of
Evolutionary Theory
is an "addition" to The Origin of Species
in the same sense that Capital is an "addition" to The Wealth
of Nations
. Gould certainly built upon Darwin's work, assuming its
premises as his own and erecting his own theory on the foundation of a
meticulous analysis of the original texts. But there comes a stage in
the construction at which, in fulfillment of the dialectical law,
quantitative change becomes qualitative change, and the extension to the
edifice deserves to be called a new building.

Despite (and because of) his vehement denials, I believe that Gould
reached that stage. His theory is more than a supplement to Darwinism,
it is an alternative view, a paradigm shift. Gould has deprived natural
selection of the exclusive role Darwin assigned to it, using the most
unimpeachable logic and the most scrupulous empirical research.

Gould obviously liked to limit the destructive impact of his criticism
to distortions of the founder's aims. But Darwin cannot so easily be
exonerated--Gould himself admits that the work of Dawkins constitutes "a
furthering and intensification of Darwin's intent." Indeed, Gould often
refers to theorists of gene selection as "ultra-Darwinists" or
"Darwinian fundamentalists," because they take the master's reductionist
method to the logical conclusion permitted by modern technology. Gould
would have been mortified to hear it, but his own interpretation
suggests that, were Darwin alive today, he might be Richard Dawkins.

Traditional creationism is based on a literal reading of Genesis and
represents no intellectual danger to Darwinism. The recent advocates of
"intelligent design," however, demand to be taken a little more
seriously because of their recent political and pedagogical successes;
they admit to the apparent age of the earth as established in the
geological record, for example, and accept the fossil record as evidence
of species change. Hard-fought cases involving the boards of education
of Kansas (1999) and Ohio (2002) have established a new beachhead for
intelligent design in the public mind, while simultaneously throwing a
shadow on natural selection's claim to be the exclusive motor of
evolutionary change.

The idea that schools in Kansas might depart from Darwinist orthodoxy
induced apoplexy among the commissars of science. John Rennie, editor of
Scientific American, urged colleges to be skeptical of applicants
from Kansas: "If kids in Kansas aren't being taught properly about
science, they won't be able to keep up with children taught competently
elsewhere. It's called survival of the fittest. Maybe the Board of
Education needs to learn about natural selection firsthand." In an
edition of the American Spectator, a leading theorist of
intelligent design, Michael Behe, professed to be mystified at Rennie's
outburst: "What is it about the topic of evolution that drives so many
people nuts? Why does a change in a farm state's high school examination
policy call forth damning editorials all the way from London, England,
and have normally staid editors threatening children?"

The answer is obvious, blindingly so. Behe does not see it because he,
like most advocates of intelligent design, approaches the issue from a
socially conservative point of view. Much scholarship on intelligent
design is sponsored by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based
foundation that describes itself as "dedicated to exploring and
promoting public policies that advance representative democracy, free
enterprise and individual liberty," and whose mission statement commits
it to boosting the "common sense" of the "free market." It is this
commitment, I suppose, that distracts Behe from one of the reasons the
American establishment goes "nuts" when the educational privilege of
natural selection is threatened: A threat to the exclusivity of natural
selection--individual competition--is a threat to market ideology.
(Although he tactfully pays it less attention than it deserves, Gould
acknowledges the full extent of Darwinism's complicity with Adam Smith.
But the alterations Gould introduces into evolutionary theory do not
depend on its ideological kinship with classical economics.)

Neither Behe nor his book Darwin's Black Box rate a mention in
The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, and Gould's silence on the
subject of intelligent design can be regarded as extremely eloquent. He
would have denied it, but this book really charts Gould's arduous
passage through Darwinism and his emergence on the other side. This
breakthrough seems to have been facilitated by his discovery of the
literature that Darwin was writing against. Gould blithely informs us
that "I had never read [Paley's] Natural Theology straight
through before pursuing my research for this book." Lay readers may find
this an astonishing confession from the world's leading Darwin scholar,
but those familiar with scientists' undiscriminating rejection of
metaphysics will be unsurprised. Having forced himself to pick up the
book, Gould finds that Paley's primary observation is "undoubtedly
correct," and largely accepted by Darwin--nature does indeed indicate
exquisite adaptation to environment. The difference lies in the reason
Darwin gives for this order in creation. Paley thought it bespoke a
benign creator, but Darwin "seems to mock the standard interpretation in
a manner that could almost be called cruel" when he introduces the
micrological economics of Adam Smith:

as the cruellest twist of all, this lower-level cause of pattern seems
to suggest a moral reading exactly opposite to Paley's lofty hopes for
the meaning of comprehensive order--for nature's individuals struggle
for their own personal benefit, and nothing else! Paley's
observations could not be faulted--organisms are well designed and
ecosystems are harmonious. But his interpretations could not have been
more askew--for these features do not arise as direct products of divine
benevolence, but only as epiphenomena of an opposite process both in
level of action and intent of outcome: individuals struggling for
themselves alone.

Read that last sentence again. What might bring about the triumph of the
"opposite process" to "divine benevolence"? Clue: It is not the blind
indifference of nature. The history of human thought is hardly silent
concerning the struggle between a benevolent deity and a cruel mocker.
But Gould shies away from considering the theological implications of
his theory with the standard get-out clause: "This book cannot address
such a vital issue at any depth."

Many readers will be tempted to respond: "Why on earth not? It's 1,400
pages long!" But Gould was not eager to incur again, in his magnum opus,
the tired charge of neocreationism. He does begin to speculate about why
the homologous visions of Darwin and Smith should complement each other
so conveniently, and he also raises the question of why this connection
has come to seem so glaring in recent years. But his uncharacteristic
hesitancy reveals his discomfort away from scientific terrain: "I
venture these ill-formulated statements about Zeitgeist because I feel
that something important lurks behind my inability to express these
inchoate thoughts with precision."

Indeed it does. Later in the book, Gould remarks that "the exclusivity
of organismal selection...provides the punch line that allowed the
vision of Adam Smith to destroy the explicit beauty and harmony of
William Paley's world." Absolutely true. But the exclusivity of
organismal selection is what Gould denied, too. Is it really accurate,
then, to continue calling him a "Darwinist"? At one point, Gould demands
that creationists throw in the towel and acknowledge Darwin as "the
Muhammad Ali of biology." Ali was undoubtedly a great champion, but his
present condition renders Gould's image rather ambiguous. And then, too,
the reader is left in some doubt as to whether Gould saw himself in the
role of Angelo Dundee or Joe Frazier.

You may recall Insomnia as a Norwegian film made on a modest
budget--do I repeat myself?--about the inner life of a morally
compromised police detective. The picture enjoyed a small but
respectable run in the United States a couple of years ago, thanks to
the shambling presence of Stellan Skarsgard in the lead and to the clever use of locations. The director, Erik Skjoldbjaerg, set the action in the north of Norway, during summer, so that this film noir played out almost entirely in daylight.

Now comes a new, American Insomnia, made to the costly standards
of a Warner Bros. release. Directed by Christopher Nolan in the wake of
his surprise hit Memento, this remake transposes the action to
rural Alaska and replaces the not-quite-stellar Skarsgard with Al
Pacino. A few paragraphs from now, I will recommend this picture to your
attention. First, though, let me talk about a modestly budgeted American
movie, The Believer, since it has the distinction of being a film
of ideas--in contrast to Insomnia, a film of idea.

I care about The Believer, first of all, because its
writer-director, Henry Bean, has noticed a truth that escapes most
American filmmakers: People think about things. For most of us, of
course, at most times, our notions of the world amount to a
discontinuous, self-contradicting jumble; but it's a jumble on which we
may stake our lives. That's why the disorderliness can be dramatic in
itself--provided, as Bean knows, that the ideas trouble the mind of a
compelling enough character.

So here is young Danny Balint, played unforgettably in The
Believer
by the whiplike Ryan Gosling. Think of him as Robert De
Niro in Taxi Driver, only leaner, more delicate in features and
infinitely more articulate. Danny hunches and glowers and struts and
slinks through the streets of New York City, his close-cropped head
buzzing with mutually incompatible versions of Jewish identity, his
brain bursting with arguments about God and against God. Danny wishes
with all his heart to be someone other than a young man of ideas--but
it's his fate to be cerebral, which is what makes him so moving and so
horrible. He is a yeshiva-educated Jew who wants to live in the blood,
as a Nazi activist.

Now, I've hesitated to write about The Believer, in part because
I happen to know Henry Bean and in part because I was never sure when
the picture would get into theaters. The Believer won the Grand
Jury Prize at the Sundance festival in 2001 but then failed to find a
theatrical distributor. (According to The Independent magazine,
the phones stopped ringing after a preview audience at the Simon
Wiesenthal Center felt The Believer might be bad for the Jews.)
The filmmakers decided to go straight to cable and signed a deal with
Showtime, which announced a television premiere in late September
2001--not a propitious air date, as it turned out, for a movie about an
intense guy in New York City who plans to blow things up. But since
Showtime has gotten around to presenting The Believer (in March
of this year), I want to say a few words about the picture, now that
audiences may at last face Danny in the public space of a movie theater.

Those who choose to do so will discover that The Believer starts
in two locations at once, on the subway and inside Danny's skull. In the
exterior setting, Danny is a twentyish skinhead, who when first seen is
methodically harassing a bespectacled, yarmulke-wearing youth on the
elevated train. Danny crowds the prey, crunching his Doc Marten boots
all over the guy's wing-tips. Then, when the victim behaves like a
victim--avoiding eye contact, fleeing the subway at the first
opportunity--Danny pursues him onto the street. "Hit me! Please!" Danny
howls. The less resistance he gets, the more enraged he becomes, till he
stomps the timid, book-toting Jew.

Meanwhile, through cross-cutting, we also get access to Danny's memory,
in which he's forever the pale student with big eyeglasses. We
see Danny in the yeshiva at about age 12--just another of the boys,
except for his rage against the patriarch Abraham, who was willing to
slaughter his own son as an offering to God. None of the standard,
moralized readings of this tale will assuage Danny. He insists that
Abraham's sacrifice made the Jews into a race of willing victims,
perpetually crushed by a God who holds them to be worthless.

You see why this stuff can make people nervous. It's not just that Danny
takes Jewish self-hatred to its ultimate conclusion--he takes it there
theologically, argumentatively, with a foul-mouthed, spray-the-room
exuberance that will offend every moviegoer. Zionists, for example, will
object when Danny says the Israelis aren't real Jews--they have soil,
and the kind of manliness a fascist like him can respect. Supporters of
the Palestinians, on the other hand, will cringe to hear Danny denounce
the massacre at Sabra and Shatila. (With friends like this...)

But I'm making The Believer sound like a string of provocations,
and it's not. It's a modernist tragedy, meaning one that's realized with
equal measures of sympathy and irony. When Danny tries to enlist in an
"above-ground, intellectually serious fascist movement," its leaders
(Theresa Russell and Billy Zane) welcome his anti-Semitic tirades but
dismiss his offer to kill Jews. Instead, to his horror, they make him
into a fundraiser, with a suit and a cell phone. When Danny hooks up
with a dreamily masochistic young Aryan (Summer Phoenix), it isn't long
before she decides to study Hebrew, hangs a mezuzah on the door and
starts wearing ankle-length dresses. Yes, hit me! Please! The harder
Danny tries to be a Nazi, the more ineluctably he's a Jew.

I begin to think of Hazel Motes, the protagonist of Flannery O'Connor's
Wise Blood, who is a Christian preacher in spite of himself.
According to O'Connor, Hazel's integrity lies in his not being able to
rid himself of Jesus: "Does one's integrity ever lie in what he is not
able to do? I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean
one will, but many wills conflicting in one man." In the same way, many
wills conflict in Danny, with that of the faithful Jew refusing to die
away. At one point, in fact, Danny secretly wraps a prayer shawl around
his torso, much as Hazel wound himself in penitential barbed wire. Then,
like any good yeshiva boy, Danny lets the fringes dangle beneath the
T-shirt, which in his case is emblazoned with a swastika.

It's good to see someone take such care with his appearance. Most
American movies these days are little more than fashion statements--and
yet the characters are shockingly thoughtless about their clothes.

So we come to Al Pacino's leather jacket.

It plays quite a prominent role in Insomnia, a movie whose
premise goes like this: Someone in the remote town of Nightmute, Alaska,
has murdered a high school girl. The victim clearly knew her killer, and
the local population is neither large nor highly mobile. Nevertheless,
the Nightmute police feel too humble to work the case on their own. They
send for help--though not from Nome or Anchorage, nor even from Seattle,
Portland or San Francisco. They go all the way to Los Angeles, whose
police department immediately agrees to dispatch two of its top
detectives, despite their being under investigation by Internal Affairs.

I tried explaining all this to my friend Ben Sonnenberg, who seemed
puzzled. "But what about Eddie Murphy?" he asked. "Was he too busy to
come from Detroit?"

Reassure yourself, Ben. Eddie has answered the call, in effect if not in
person. That's the point of the leather jacket.

It's hard to imagine Pacino's character, Detective Will Dormer, going
out and buying this item for himself. It's a little too heavy for the
climate in LA, a little too pimp-chic for a cop who's supposed to be an
agonized moralist. With its supple new leather, the jacket looks more
like something that was recently issued to the guy--which, of course, it
was. The filmmakers decided this was just the thing to signal "cool, hip
and streetwise" for Pacino. In much the same way, they imposed a
symbolic costume on the murderer, Robin Williams. Although the script
says he's vain and attracted to luxury, Williams is draped in something
that says "phony, out-of-touch intellectual": a corduroy jacket.

Don't worry, by the way, that I've revealed the killer's identity. You'd
be able to figure it out for yourself, by process of elimination, no
more than ten minutes into the movie, which is about twenty minutes
before Williams comes into the open. The mystery of Insomnia has
nothing to do with discovering he's the murderer and everything to do
with his somehow being able to deliver a restrained, nuanced,
convincingly chilling performance. There's Robin Williams, taking care
of business, while everybody else is goofing off.

Pacino behaves ridiculously, as he typically does when the script's a
laugh. Hilary Swank has no such history of egregious mugging; but now,
in the role of a local cop, she bounces onto the screen like a young
squirrel on its first day of acorn school. Who allowed these
performances, or maybe even encouraged them? Christopher Nolan, that's
who. He was so intent on dolloping pizazz onto this story that he didn't
notice the visual syrup was drowning a six-inch stack of toaster
waffles.

I'm sure Insomnia will have its champions, even so. They'll claim
the picture is About Something, namely the importance of never, ever
breaking the rules. That's the one, big idea of Insomnia. As we
may learn from life and better movies, it's wrong.

Screening Schedule: Speaking of people who broke rules, Lynne
Sachs has made a fine, artful documentary about the Catonsville Nine,
the war protesters who walked into a Selective Service office in 1968,
grabbed as many files as they could carry and burned them with homemade
napalm. She's got the surviving protesters down on film, Philip and
Daniel Berrigan among them; and she's got other interested parties too,
including the district attorney who prosecuted the Nine and one of the
jurors who convicted them. The juror weeps now, out of respect for their
courage. The film is titled Investigation of a Flame, and it's
showing in New York at Anthology Film Archives, May 29-31. The
distributor is First Run/Icarus Films, (800) 876-1710.

There is a difference it used to make,

seeing three swans in this versus four in that

quadrant of sky. I am not imagining. It was very large, as its

effects were. Declarations of war, the timing fixed upon for a
sea-departure; or,

about love, a sudden decision not to, to pretend instead to a kind

of choice. It was dramatic, as it should be. Without drama,

what is ritual? I look for omens everywhere, because they are everywhere

to be found. They come to me like strays, like the damaged,

something that could know better, and should, therefore--but does not:

a form of faith, you've said. I call it sacrifice--an instinct for it,
or a habit at first, that

becomes required, the way art can become, eventually, all we have

of what was true. You shouldn't look at me like that. Like one of those
saints

on whom the birds once settled freely.

As if the back streets of our local city

might dispense with their pyrrhic accumulation of dust and wineful
tonality,

offer a reprise of love itself, a careless love

rendered grand and persuasive

by its own shy handful of hope, some ballast such as this

on a summer afternoon when the air smells of slaughtered chickens,

and other problems, like the estranged spouse of a good friend,

holler from the passageway. It's always conclusive

in the bungled moment after you try to accomplish something irreducible.

So you say as you return empty-handed from the store,

having forgotten everything--your money, the list.

Almost everything that is wrong with Washington Post foreign
editor David Hoffman's new book about Russia's transformation into a
capitalist system, The Oligarchs, can be discerned in one small
and apparently meaningless passage on page 91. In it, the erstwhile
Moscow bureau chief of the Post (1995-2001) describes former
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais's reaction when, as a
young man, the future and now infamous "father of Russian privatization"
first read the works of Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek:

Many years later, Chubais recalled the thrill of reading Hayek and
instantly gave his own example of how Hayek's theory worked in practice
in the United States. "One person is selling hamburgers somewhere in New
York," he told me, "while another person is grazing cows somewhere in
Arkansas to produce meat that will be used to make those hamburgers. But
in order for that person in Arkansas to graze cows, there needs to be a
price for meat, which tells him that he should graze cows."

Now, the reaction a sane person is likely to have when reading a passage
like this is, What kind of maniac experiences a "thrill" when reading
about hamburger distribution? A corollary question that occurred to me,
as I imagined this 20-year-old Soviet dreaming guiltily of Arkansas
cattle, was, Were there no girls at all in the Leningrad of Anatoly
Chubais's youth?

It's a given that the answers to questions like these are not to be
found in the seminal analytical work of one of the Moscow journalism
community's most notoriously humorless foreign correspondents, but this
problem is less inconsequential than you might think. For it is
precisely Hoffman's inability to write honestly and perceptively about
ordinary human experience that makes The Oligarchs miss as badly
as it does in its attempt to describe the changes in Russian society
over the past decade or so.

By the time Hoffman took over as the Post's Moscow bureau chief,
I had been living in Russia for about five years. First as a student and
then as a freelance reporter, I'd watched during that time as Russians
became increasingly disillusioned with democracy and capitalism. Kids
I'd studied with who had brains and talent found themselves working twenty-four-hour
shifts in dingy street kiosks or lugging feminine hygiene products door
to door, while the only people from my class who ended up with money
were morons and thugs who took jobs with local "biznesmen" (read:
mobsters) doing God knows what.

That was the reality for the Russians young and old who had the
misfortune to live through the early 1990s, when the inefficient old
planned economy was dismantled and something--I hesitate to call it
capitalism--was installed in its place. Honest, hard-working people were
impoverished overnight, while swindlers and killers quickly rose to the
top. The insult was exacerbated for Russians when they began to hear
that the rest of the world, America and the American press in
particular, was calling this process progress.

What America called a "painful but necessary transition," most Russians
saw as a simple scam in which Communist functionaries and factory
directors reinvented themselves by swearing oaths to the new democratic
religion and cloaking themselves in fancy new words like "financier" and
"entrepreneur." The only difference from the old system appeared to be
that the villas were now in the south of France instead of on the Black
Sea. The ordinary Russian also noticed that his salary had become
largely fictional and that all his benefits had been taken away--corners
had to be cut somewhere in order to pay for all those new Mercedes in
town.

At the national level, this process was symbolized by the rise of the
oligarchs, a small group of rapacious and mostly bald men who were
handed huge fortunes by their friends in government. Eventually, they
were to take the place of the Politburo as the ruling coterie of the new
elite.

Men like bankers Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Alexander Smolensky and Vladimir
Potanin, industrialist Boris Berezovsky and media magnate Vladimir
Gusinsky became Croesus-rich seemingly overnight in those early years of
the 1990s. By the middle of the decade, they owned or controlled much of
the media and held increasing influence over Boris Yeltsin, a weak
autocrat who had grown dependent on their wealth and power to fend off
his political enemies.

The Oligarchs purports to tell the story of the rise of these
men. It is an exhaustive book, impressive in scope, that contains
extensive interviews with all of the key figures. But it misses because
Hoffman does not know what it is like to sleep in a street kiosk during
a Leningrad winter, nor does he particularly care to know; he writes
like a man trying to describe the dark side of King George from a
trundle bed in a guest room of Windsor palace.

Not that this is surprising. In his tenure as a reporter in Moscow,
Hoffman was notorious for being an unapologetic ideologue, the hardest
of hard-core cold warriors. The basic structure of a David Hoffman
article was generally to lead with a gloomy flashback to some grim
Soviet-era scene and then go on to describe how, with the help of
American aid, the courageous leadership of the democrat Boris Yeltsin
and the heroic efforts of Western-minded reform economists like Chubais,
things had since changed spectacularly for the better.

In other words, lead off with a picture of a groaning, overweight
housewife at the end of a long line to buy shoes that don't fit, and
close with a shot of an apple-cheeked cashier at Pizza Hut using her
salary to buy Nikes. That was Russia Reporting 101 during the 1990s, and
no one was better at it or more devoted to its practice than David
Hoffman.

That said, it is surprising, even shocking, that Hoffman would employ
that technique in this book, given the subject matter. Hoffman begins
his book by focusing on the Soviet-era experiences of a characteristic
"ordinary Russian," a schoolteacher named Irina, and describing her
humiliating search for toilet paper on a summer day in 1985.

Use of these images made a kind of sense in the wake of the collapse of
Communism, but in Hoffman's book, published ten years after the fact,
the decision to spend the entire first chapter (titled "Shadows and
Shortages") describing the hardship of product-deprived Soviets in the
1980s can only mean one thing. Hoffman is setting up his reader to
understand the phenomenon of the oligarchs in terms of their eventual
benefit to society.

That benefit, in Hoffman's view, is clearly a Russia full of available
products and the triumphant building of a "rapacious, unruly
capitalism...on the ashes of Soviet communism."

That the vast majority of Russians could not and cannot afford those
products, or even earn enough to feed and clothe themselves, does not
concern Hoffman. The opening of the book, set in the old USSR, is full
of portraits of ordinary folks grasping for Beatles records and VCRs and
other Western delights (Hoffman even sinks so low as to use the
heavyweight champion of Russia-reporting clichés: the Soviet
citizen sitting despondent at the sight of a full refrigerator in a
Western movie). But those same ordinary people are conspicuously absent
from the middle and later pages, when the cracks in the new system--the
stalled salaries, the collapsed local industries, the crime-- begin to
show.

In one particularly telling section, Hoffman describes Yeltsin's
surprise when he learned in early 1998 that his popularity figures in
poll ratings had dropped below 5 percent. According to the book, media
mogul Gusinsky and some of the other oligarchs discovered that Yeltsin,
kept insulated from the truth by his KGB aides, had no conception of the
depth of his unpopularity:

"Before the meeting, they agreed that someone would try to deliver the
raw truth to Yeltsin that he was no longer popular, a painful
realization that, according to [Yeltsin's chief of staff, Viktor]
Ilyushin, the president had not absorbed."

This passage is ironic because Yeltsin's surprise at this juncture of
the story is nearly identical to that of the uninitiated reader
traveling through Hoffman's book for the first time. Until he informs us
a few sentences later of Yeltsin's meager poll ratings, the pain felt by
the overwhelming majority of Russians during the early reform years is
completely concealed.

When Hoffman first showed us the schoolteacher Irina, she was a Soviet
citizen deprived of toilet paper, and this was apparently worthy of
note. But if she remained a teacher through this Yeltsin poll moment in
the middle of the book, in 1996, Irina also saw her health benefits
taken away, her salary slashed to the equivalent of about $50 a month
(and possibly delayed for months in any case) and funding for her school
cut so severely that she would have to buy chalk out of her own pocket.
This is not considered noteworthy, in Hoffman's estimation.

The determination to keep the telling of the oligarchs' story within the
context of their eventual salutary effect on the country leads Hoffman
into some grievous oversights and contradictions. None of these are more
important than his insistence upon painting his oligarch subjects--in
particular, Khodorkovsky, Potanin and Berezovsky--as self-made
entrepreneurs who bucked the state system to make their fortunes. The
fact that he connects the rise of these men to the encouraging fact of a
Russia full of products on its shelves is even more misleading.

The reality is that none of these men produced anything that Russians
could consume, and all benefited directly from tribute handed down from
the state. Bankers like Smolensky, for instance, made fortunes through a
collusive arrangement with state insiders who gave them exclusive
licenses to trade in hard currency during a time when prices were set to
be abruptly freed. When hyperinflation set in (naturally) and the
population frantically scampered to convert their increasingly worthless
rubles into dollars, the currency-trading licenses became virtual
spigots of cash.

Furthermore, the oligarchs really became a ruling class only after the
"loans for shares" auctions in late 1995, a series of privatizations
that underscored the incestuous relationship between the state and the
new tycoons. The state "lent" huge stakes in giant companies (in
particular oil companies) in return for cash. Implemented and organized
by Minister Chubais, the auctions ended up being one of the great shams
of all time, as in many cases the bidders themselves were allowed to
organize the tenders and even to exclude competitors. In some cases, the
state actually managed to lend the bidders the money to make the bids
through a series of backdoor maneuvers.

Hailed at the time as the death knell of the state-controlled economy
and a great advance of the privatization effort, the auctions were
actually a huge quid pro quo in which bankers were handed billion-dollar
companies for a fraction of their market price (a 78 percent stake in
Yukos, the second-largest oil company in Russia, valued at least at $2
billion, was sold for just $309.1 million to Khodorkovsky's Menatep
Bank) in exchange for support of Yeltsin in the upcoming 1996 election.
Many Russians today consider loans for shares one of the biggest thefts
in the history of mankind. Hoffman, incidentally, didn't bother to cover
loans for shares as a reporter, either.

One final note about Hoffman. Many reviewers have lauded The
Oligarchs
for its "readability." They must have been reading a
different book. If there is a worse descriptive writer in the journalism
world than Hoffman, I have yet to come across him or her. In those
passages in which he goes after the "breezy" conversational style of
David Remnick's Pulitzer Prize-winning Lenin's Tomb (Hoffman's
Remnick inferiority complex is grossly obvious in this book), he
repeatedly breaks down into crass stupidities that reveal his lack of
knowledge about the country he covered for half a decade.

At one point, for instance, he describes the young Chubais as having had
a penchant for driving his Zaporozhets automobile at "terrifying
speeds." As the owner of two such cars, which feature 38-horsepower
engines and can be lifted off the ground by two grown men (or maybe four
Washington Post correspondents), I can testify that terror is not
and has never been in this machine's design profile.

Hoffman's atrocious Russian, a subject of much snickering in the Moscow
press community, also shines through in this book. He consistently
mistranslates Russian expressions and fails to grasp lingual/cultural references. For instance, when he talks about Chubais's habit
of spending long hours in the Publichka, which he says is what
"young scholars fondly called the [public] library," he appears not to
grasp that the "fond" nickname is a play on the term publichniy
dom
, or whorehouse.

This might be because Hoffman is the only American male to have visited
Moscow in the 1990s and escaped without personal knowledge of the term.
Whatever the explanation, it seems clear that Hoffman is not the kind of
person one would normally consider an authority on the nontycoon Russian
experience.

That's particularly true given the ironic fact that prostitution was one
of the few real growth industries during the reign of the oligarchs, the
one feasible financial option for the modern-day Irinas of Russia.
That's modern Russia in a nutshell: plenty of toilet paper for the
asking, but no way to afford it except...the hard way.

If The Oligarchs is simply a wrongheaded book, then Building
Capitalism
, by Carnegie fellow Anders Aslund, is legitimately
insidious. Aslund throughout the 1990s was a key adviser to reform
politicians like Anatoly Chubais and Yegor Gaidar, and as such his
assessment of the success of the privatization era is obviously
self-interested. He claims in the book that "populations have gained
from fast and comprehensive reforms," and that "economic decline and
social hazards have been greatly exaggerated, since people have
forgotten how awful communism was."

This is typical of Western analysis of Russia over the past ten
years--an academic who grew up in Sweden and lives in Washington,
telling Russians that their complaints about reform are groundless
because, unlike Western experts, they do not accurately remember what
life was like under Communism.

Aslund, who helped to design the privatization programs in the middle of
the past decade, goes on in the book to defend those blitzkrieg
liquidations of state industries on the grounds that such formal
privatizations were more equitable than what he calls "spontaneous
privatization."

A major aim of formal privatization was to stop spontaneous
privatization, which was inequitable, slow, and inefficient. Reformers
feared it would arouse a popular political backlash against
privatization and reform, as indeed happened all over. Especially in the
[former Soviet Union], the saying "what is not privatized will be
stolen" suggested the urge for great speed.

It's not clear from this passage to whom this "great speed" idea was
suggested. Those "equitable" formal privatizations Aslund helped design
left billion-dollar companies like Yukos and Norilsk Nickel in the hands
of single individuals (Khodorkovsky and Potanin, respectively) for
pennies on the dollar. They were so corrupt and unfair that for most
Russians--the majority of whom were left impoverished by the
changes--the word "privatization" became synonymous with theft. Indeed,
Russians even coined a new term, prikhvatizatsiya (or
"grabitization"), that perfectly expressed their outrage over the
private commandeering of property they considered public and their own.

It should be admitted that the extent to which one finds success in
Russia's capitalist experiment--and the worth of the oligarchs who
administered it--is largely a matter of opinion.

If you believe that capitalism is about destroying a country's industry,
handing over its wealth to a dozen or so people who will be inclined to
move it instantly to places like Switzerland and Nauru Island, and about
humiliating the general population so completely that they are powerless
to do anything but consume foreign products and long for the "good old
days" of totalitarianism (polls still consistently show that 70 percent
of the population preferred life under Brezhnev to that of today's
Russia), then you have to judge the Russian experiment a success.

But if you believe that people are more than just numerical variables in
some dreary equation found in an Adam Smith reader (or perhaps numbers
lumped together with cows in Anatoly Chubais's dogeared Hayek text) then
you'll have a hard time finding any true capitalism at all in today's
Russia. Or in either of these coldhearted books, for that matter.

Our most cherished national symbols--from the Pledge of Allegiance to "America the Beautiful" to Lady Liberty's poetry--are rooted in liberal ideals.

One of the things we do not do well in this country is learn from our mistakes. This is particularly true in the strengthening and rejuvenating of cities.

For more than a century, a recognizable pattern existed among those
migrating to New York City: They came first either through Ellis Island
or up from the American South, and more recently via JFK. As the
newcomers quickly helped build larger communities, they began to occupy
distinct places in the mental and physical geography of the city.

Yet the fastest-growing migration of the past few decades into the city
severely complicates the demographic pattern to which most New Yorkers
are accustomed. Mexican migrants, whose (counted) ranks nearly tripled
to 275,000 between 1990 and 2000, are indeed coming in significant
numbers, but they are staying for quite varying amounts of time and
inhabiting quite varying parts of the city. Spatially, there is no
Mexican equivalent of the Puerto Rican neighborhoods of the Bronx, or
the Dominican enclave in Washington Heights. That the vast majority of
those who come across the Rio Grande are undocumented also suggests that
it may be a while before the Mexican community will have a direct voice,
either politically or via organized labor, in city affairs.

Enter Jimmy Breslin. Yes, the same pugnacious figure familiar to New
Yorkers for his four decades as a muckraking columnist, and to national
audiences most recently for his intro to Spike Lee's Summer of
Sam
. Could there be a better guide to the new pattern of immigration
than Breslin? From a scholarly standpoint, the answer would obviously be
yes--the recent work of Arlene Dávila and Agustín
Laó-Montes, Nancy Foner and others is a good place to start. Such
scholarship shows that the current wave of immigration fits no one mold,
with some groups, particularly Mexicans, establishing a transnational
pattern of going back and forth to their home countries, thus making it
impossible even to identify a single unified process of Latino
immigration. But from the perspective of gritty, everyday, street-level
New York, or at least that fast-disappearing world of tough talk and
no-nonsense reporting, Breslin has no match as a firsthand observer of
the newcomers' place in the city's social hierarchy. Ultimately, the way
Breslin, an older, working-class Irish-American, grapples with the new
migration tells us more than a little bit about the changing meaning of
the American dream.

Breslin's new book, his eighth nonfiction work, tells of The Short
Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutiérrez
. Gutiérrez, an undocumented Mexican
laborer, died in a 1999 construction accident in the Hasidic
neighborhood of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. For Breslin,
Gutiérrez's story not only typifies the hardships that Mexican
migrants face in coming north but shows how harsh the working conditions
are when they arrive. Gutiérrez, in other words, hardly lived the
life of a latter-day Horatio Alger. Instead of fortune, the city
provided only loneliness and a gruesome but entirely preventable death
in a cement foundation.

Gutiérrez's tragic demise sets Breslin on course to discover the
origins of what would otherwise have been yet another mostly forgotten
existence. Breslin goes to central Mexico, to the small town of San
Matias (near Puebla), to recapture Eduardo's life and surroundings
there, and then follows his tortuous journey north across the border,
before arriving in Brooklyn. In the process, Breslin accomplishes twin
goals: to show how Mexican migrants are increasingly making their way
well beyond the Southwest, steadily transforming the demographics of
Midwestern and Northeastern cities; and, more dramatically, he
illustrates how that migration probably has more in common with the
Middle Passage than with any of the heroism now accorded to the
immigrant journey through Ellis Island.

Breslin opens with a series of outsider's observations of life in
impoverished San Matias. Ninety percent of Mexican children will never
go to school beyond the sixth grade, and instead go to work, which in
places like San Matias is sporadic and pays almost nothing. Thus, as a
result of stories told by relatives and others within their community,
the young of San Matias live their lives with pictures of American money
in their heads. And "such poor, dark-skinned children," Breslin
observes, soon become the young adults who are migrating along with
counterparts from India, China and elsewhere to become New York City's
new majority, by which he essentially means people of color.

Getting here from San Matias is no mean feat. After hearing from his
girlfriend Silvia's brother-in-law of construction work in Brooklyn that
paid $6 or $7 an hour (to undocumented Mexicans), less than one-third of
what unionized American workers receive, Eduardo was tempted to go
north. After Silvia, only 15, told him that she was headed for Texas,
Eduardo, four years older, had even less reason to stay home. Breslin
then vividly re-creates both journeys, supplementing the two stories
with documentation of parallel dangers that Mexican migrants experience
every day: dangerous coyotes (smugglers), rattlesnakes, heat exhaustion,
drowning in the Rio Grande, suffocation in a tunnel leading to Tijuana,
getting hit by a train in Texas or a car in San Diego, local police,
airport security and, above all, the Border Patrol. Thus harrowed, both
Silvia and Eduardo nevertheless do land safely: the former in Bryan-College Station, Texas, where she works at both the Olive Garden and a
barbecue joint; and the latter initially at JFK, only after being
delivered COD by a coyote on a flight from Los Angeles.

Sympathetic as the author is to the courage and struggles of those who
endure such hardship in coming north, there are still some troubling
dimensions to Breslin's account, particularly in his somewhat simplistic
choice of terms to describe the process. He so often uses "the Mexicans"
as the subject of his sentences that one begins to fear Buchananesque
calls for big walls along the border (fortunately, they are not there).
Breslin also far too simplistically refers on many occasions to how
Mexican migrants are lured by The Job, and at one point riffs: "They
come across the riverbanks and the dry border, those people who want to
work, who want to scrub floors and clean pots, or mow lawns." Yet as his
own telling of Silvia's double shifts in El Paso and of Eduardo's later
job-hopping in New York suggests, the specific work matters much less
than the simple fact of a paycheck. Migrants seeking wages who will
accept the least-desirable work is surely more accurate than talk of
Mexicans who want "The Job," but then again, drama is Breslin's primary
concern.

Once away from the airport, Eduardo enters a frighteningly impersonal
city, and here Breslin emphasizes the changing meaning of the
contemporary immigrant experience: "Once, they came in dreadful old
ships, from Magilligan in Northern Ireland, from Cobh in southern
Ireland, from Liverpool and Naples and Palermo and Odessa.... Those able
to stand always scoured the horizon for the first look at a city where
the streets were decorated, if not paved, with gold." The numbers of
subsequent nonwhite migrations, particularly those of Puerto Ricans and
Dominicans, are missing from Breslin's litany, which illustrates the
degree to which the traditional mythology of immigration into New York
City needs to be rewritten continually. But here as elsewhere, Breslin
should be indulged, for the experience of Mexican immigrants in New York
is skewing more than a few familiar demographic patterns.

Eduardo's experiences in Brooklyn illustrate some of the unique features
of contemporary Mexican migration. He settles with a handful of others
from San Matias in Brighton Beach, an area whose Eastern European Jewish
identity grew rapidly with the influx of Russian and Ukrainian
immigrants in the early 1990s. On a few occasions, he and a friend would
go to Sunset Park, an increasingly Latino neighborhood and one of the
few areas of the city with a visible Mexican presence. Indeed, as the
ongoing research of John Mollenkopf and others demonstrates, even though
their ranks are growing rapidly, Mexican migrants are tending to favor
heterogeneous ethnic neighborhoods rather than grouping together.
Breslin's re-creation of Eduardo's life in the city may help explain one
of the reasons this is so. As Eduardo and his roommates drink a few
beers after a long day's work, they reminisce of home and discuss plans
to go back. That so many do go back and forth, perhaps, diminishes the
necessity for those who stay to form distinct neighborhoods of their
own.

Those working here as undocumented laborers also face conditions hardly
conducive to sticking around. Despite repeated building-code violations
elsewhere in the neighborhood, a slumlord named Eugene Ostreicher was
able to continue building in South Williamsburg, using undocumented
Mexican laborers like Eduardo. While working for Ostreicher in November
of 1999, Eduardo poured cement on the third and top floor, which was
supported by only three flimsy, improperly fastened beams; the structure
soon collapsed, and Eduardo drowned in cement three floors below.
Breslin thus takes aim at a variety of targets: Ostreicher, who was slow
to face punishment, and whose cozy relationship to City Hall (via Bruce
Teitelbaum, ex-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's liaison to the Hasidic
community) had allowed him to keep building despite past violations; the
city's Department of Buildings, a bastion of frightening corruption and
inefficiency; and, to a lesser extent, the construction unions, which
allow the use of nonunion labor. Some of Breslin's examples do seem
tangential, like his discussion of a phony Pell Grant scheme run by
Ostreicher's Hasidic neighbors, or of Mayor Giuliani's war on sex shops.
But there is no doubting Breslin's crusading spirit, and he's always
good for a memorable barb or two--as when he reminds us that pre-9/11,
Giuliani did "virtually nothing each day except get into the papers or
to meet girlfriends."

As the book closes, with Eduardo dead and Ostreicher facing minimal
punishment at best, the meaning of the former's sweet dream is
uncertain. He came to New York with a desire only to make enough money
to go home, perhaps with Silvia. But now he is sent home in a casket
paid for by the Red Cross and the Central Labor Trades Council, the
latter doing so to "get into the newspapers." Though by no means the
first group to come to America with the primary goal of making money in
order to take it back home, Mexican migrants find a labor market that is
increasingly transient, unregulated and brutal. Still, despite the
hardships, they are helping to create a new, transnational version of
the American dream. It is a story that we all need to consider, and
Jimmy Breslin has successfully helped open the door.

As if to move a flexible sphere from here
to there with unassisted head and foot
were natural and obvious. As if
a dance could always bow to resolute
constraint and never be danced the same way twice.
As if whistles and cheers, the hullabaloo
of fervent gazers were all the music needed
to keep its players' goals in tune. So that
as they weave, dodge, collide, collapse in breathless
haystacks--and rise and fall and rise again--
we're made, if not one, then at least whole.

When I first saw The Last Waltz in 1978, I almost walked out,
although I was a fan of both director Martin Scorsese and The Band. I
admit I was one of the folks whose tickets for the original 1976 show at
San Francisco's Winterland were refunded by impresario Bill Graham in
light of the scheduled movie shoot, when he decided to have a Thanksgiving sit-down dinner precede the concert, which translated into a then-hefty $25 price tag.

Twenty-four years and a new DVD version have changed, or at least made
subtler, some of my reactions. But I still think two of Scorsese's
typical dynamics are in play: seeking out America's underbellies, and
monumentalizing or sacramentalizing them. And so The Last Waltz
teeters between grit and awe--perhaps unintentionally but tellingly,
like rock itself at the time and rock history ever since.

When it premiered, Pauline Kael famously dubbed The Last Waltz
"the most beautiful rock movie ever." As a formalist she had a point.
With seven cameramen, including Vilmos Zsigmond (later famous as a cinematographer) and Miklos Rozsa (who came to be known as a composer), Scorsese professionalized the deliberately
nonprofessional documentary sensibility of D.A. Pennebaker and the
Maysles. Now that seems a fitting sign of the times: Mainstream rock had
been professionalized, from the boring arena-ready music itself to the
new national distribution systems, while pop sputtered with the
industry's search for commercially viable trends, like disco. Almost in
answer, new forms of folk art appeared. Breakdancers hit urban streets
and Bruce Springsteen prowled stages toward apotheosis with shows that
exploded somewhere between Elvis, an r&b revue and West Side
Story
. It was another return to the do-it-yourself folk aesthetic
underlying evolutionary developments in American popular culture.

So now The Last Waltz gives me a kind of double vision: It's an
elegy to The Band that is also, perhaps unwittingly, an elegy to an era.
The sense of reverence toward the motley parade of music stars trooping
across its lenses is intercut with open-eyed realism during the best of
the connecting interview segments--though those too are frequently
tinged with Scorsese's romanticism.

When Music From Big Pink (Capitol) came out in 1968, its album
cover was a painting by Bob Dylan. Dylan had hired the quintet, then The
Hawks, renamed The Band, for his revolutionary 1965-66 tour, which they
spent making garage grunge of his songs while being booed by folk
purists who wanted acoustic Dylan rather than the post-"Like a Rolling
Stone" model. (Bob Dylan Live 1966 [Sony] is the official version
of long-available bootlegs.)

After his 1966 motorcycle accident, Dylan had pretty much disappeared
from view, and there were regular rumors of his death or disfigurement.
But the smartest word was he'd been hanging out at Big Pink, a
nondescript house at the foot of Woodstock's Overlook Mountain, jamming
and writing songs with The Band. (These would soon surface as bootlegs;
selections have been remixed and officially reissued on The Basement
Tapes
[Sony] intercut with material by The Band alone.) Dylan
encouraged them to find their artistic vision. No surprise, then, that
Music From Big Pink opened with one Dylan track, "Tears of Rage,"
and closed with another, "I Shall Be Released."

Dylan's near-invisibility only augmented his cultural aura, a marketing
lesson his widely disliked, thuggish, Svengali-esque manager, Albert
Grossman, absorbed and soon applied to his latest clients, The Band.
Inside their double-sleeved first album were pictures of the members:
Five guys dressed like extras in an early Hollywood western, visual kin
to the road-warrior hoboes and evicted tenant farmers who peopled The
Grapes of Wrath
and Guthrie tunes. Their mothers and fathers and
kids. Their house, Big Pink, every band's dream--a clubhouse to jam and
practice and record in, surrounded by a hundred acres of mountain
meadows and woods. The Band, though, like millions of post-Beatles and
post-Dylan American kids picking and singing in their cellars and
backyards, still had to keep the volume down for fear of riling the
neighbors.

Nestled in Big Pink, playing cards and getting stoned and writing and
working out new stuff, as well as tweaking old bar-band tunes and hymns
and pieces of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music,
Dylan and The Band forged a remarkable creative symbiosis. Thanks to
their Dylan-paid salaries and a rent that, depending on whom you
believe, was somewhere between $125 and $275 a month, The Band played
musical chairs with instruments as they groped for fresh ideas. As
Robbie Robertson, The Band's chief songwriter and guitarist, has
shrewdly observed, "Sometimes the limitation of the instrument can
provide originality."

Improvising was key to their artistic process, as their shortcomings or
imaginations prodded them from instrument to instrument, lineup to
lineup, to find what worked with the tune at hand. The result was
contemporary folk music, new-minted yet old-sounding, with strains of
Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta, rockabilly and soul. It wobbled
foggily somewhere between jug bands and Stax-Volt, surreal wet dreams
and revival meetings.

Robertson's guitar stayed mostly low profile, rearing for occasional
stabbing outbursts; he rarely sang. The three vocalists were startlingly
different, but found offbeat ways to blend. As Robertson has observed,
"A lot of the time with The Band they were somewhere between real
harmonies and, because of our lack of education in music, they would be
things that just sounded interesting--or they would be the only thing
the person could hit."

Levon Helm's singing was gritty and soulful and at times sardonic; he
doubled on drums and mandolin. Rick Danko had a clear, yearning tenor,
played bass that burbled like a McCartney-esque tuba, sawed a backwoods
fiddle and strummed guitar. Richard Manuel doubled on engagingly
ramshackle drums and pounded what has been described as "rhythm piano";
as for his voice, Robertson has said, "There's a certain element of pain
in there that you didn't know whether it was because he was trying to
reach for a note or because he was a guy with a heart that'd been hurt."
Garth Hudson was classically trained, said he learned to improvise from
playing at his uncle's funeral parlor and invented one after another
"blackbox," the kinds of soundshapers so integral to the era's musical
sensibility. Hudson didn't sing, but the sounds he made became The
Band's sonic glue, as they fitted parts together that breathed, leaving
spaces float, stepping into others, with the sort of interlocking
discipline found in, say, the jammed-out music of Count Basie, Muddy
Waters or Booker T. & the MGs. Not surprisingly, they cut their
first two albums mostly live in the studio. (See The Band [Rhino]
for an informative, if talking-head-heavy, video history of the making
of the group's first two records.)

"Tears of Rage," written by Dylan and Manuel, kicked Music at Big
Pink
off-kilter from the start. Manuel's eccentric r&b cry and
falsetto staggered dangerously, seductively around the confessional
lyrics; Robertson's treated guitar approximated organ tones; Hudson's
winding, churchy organ swelled and subsided; and a drunken Salvation
Army-ish horn section (courtesy Hudson and producer John Simon)
punctuated the flow over the spare, Booker T. & the MGs-style bass
and drums. Simon has observed of the distinctively moaning horn blend,
"That's the only sound we could make." The rest of the album was a bit
uneven but ear-opening, challenging, even wonderful. "To Kingdom Come"
bounced airily, blearily beneath Manuel's vocals; "The Weight" mixed
Curtis Mayfield guitar licks into a surreal gospel setting; "Long Black
Veil" tipped its classicist hat at Lefty Frizell; and "Chest Fever" was
an instant radio hit, with its swelling, skirling, gnashing organ and
nightmare-incoherent lyrics.

With Grossman behind them, The Band--or at least Robertson, who was
rapidly becoming primus inter pares--learned to use reticence and
image to enhance their music. Like Wynton Marsalis a decade later in
jazz, they self-consciously looked back to tradition. "We were rebelling
against the rebellion," Robertson has said. "It was an instinct to
separate ourselves from the pack." That instinct drew the attention of
the nascent rock press, which became their champions: Outlets like
Rolling Stone, co-founded by jazz historian Ralph J. Gleason,
fused the old fanzines and more critical and historical perspectives.
These new media helped make The Band counterculture heroes.

As did the lyrics, which were increasingly written by Robertson.
Enigmatic and vaguely religious and poetic, full of questions and
retorts that didn't necessarily mesh, painting realistic scenes and
Dadaist laments, they clearly owed a great deal to Dylan. Robertson had
also been reading Cocteau, thinking in terms of movies, wanting to
replicate what he's called Dylan's disruption of song forms.

The look and sound, the entire presentation of The Band, evoked a notion
of authenticity that has underscored writing about them ever since,
usually to contrast them with the countercultural rebellion. As
Grossman, who knew show business, surely understood, this was both an
iconic extension and an ironic inversion of the folk revival's would-be
purity. For the counterculture, and show business, were The Band's home.
They were outriders on Dylan's panoramic influence, mountainside avatars
of the Jeffersonian "back to the land" ideal that recurred in the
Woodstock generation's ideology. As Greil Marcus rather romantically
noted of their early music, "It felt like a passport back to America for
people who'd become so estranged from their country that they felt like
foreigners even when they were in it."

When The Band (Capitol) followed Music From Big Pink in
1969, it cemented the group's reputation and enhanced their Dylanesque
mystique of invisibility: Refusing to tour, partly because of Band
members' car crashes and flipouts, they watched promoters' offers climb
from $2,000 a show to $50,000.

The Band were in the midst of recording their second album far from the
Catskills, in Hollywood at Sammy Davis Jr.'s pool house, which they'd
converted into a studio, when they decided to resist no longer. But
before they debuted onstage at Winterland in April 1969, Robertson got
such a bad case of nerves (he has always claimed he had the flu) he
stayed in bed for three days of rehearsal, and had to be hypnotized to
go onstage.

Since they'd been musically weaned in roadhouses and spent such care on
recording live, it's always been one of the odder ironies of The Band's
career that they were erratic, often uncomfortable performers.
Unconsciously extending the folk revival's ideology, reviewers tended to
explain their unevenness as an emblem of honest authenticity, which, in
the ways of do-it-yourself, folk-culture amateurism, it sometimes was,
though this was somehow also the culture The Band was posited to be
different from. "A lot of mysticism was built up around The Band,"
Robertson has said. "These guys up in the mountains...." At any rate,
the quality of their concerts was as fully unpredictable as that of
their putative opposite numbers, the Grateful Dead.

From Winterland they hit the Fillmore East, where I can testify they did
at least one good show; then they finished recording at the Hit Factory
in New York City. The Band still stands as their masterpiece.
Loosely built around a harvest-is-in, carnival-is-in-town feel, it's
incredibly consistent and divergent at the same time, the strength of
their studies and abilities ramifying its depth and breadth. Their brand
of self-consciousness of sources and sounds marked one key difference
between rock and earlier roll and rock.

From "Across the Great Divide," with its bouncy rhythms, yearning Manuel
vocal, bleary horns and slippery guitar fills, to "King Harvest (Has
Surely Come)," the surprisingly downbeat rural closer that cuts in
snapshots of union struggles, it has a rare scope and power. "Up on
Cripple Creek," with its bump-grind rhythms and allusion to an old folk
tune, was all over FM radio, as were the hoedowns-in-your-basement "Rag
Mamma Rag" and "Jemima Surrender." "The Unfaithful Servant" gave Danko's
aching tenor a Dylanesque vehicle, while "The Night They Drove Old Dixie
Down" told a moving tale of one Southern family's Civil War hardships.

After this album, the madness and musical unevenness accelerated. In
early 1970, The Band made the cover of Time--a rarity then. The
group's substance abuse, especially Manuel's and Danko's, deepened,
particularly when they were off the road, as they were for months at a
time. Robertson had become the dominant figure--embarking on
self-education, dealing with Grossman, writing first most, then all the
songs, disciplining the others into rehearsing and recording. The
relatively equal distribution of ability at the heart of The Band's
music was coming unbalanced.

Perhaps they'd just hit the natural limits of their talent. Or maybe
they were trapped by the ghosts of folkie authenticity they and Grossman
had conjured. Whatever the cause, most of their later albums sound more
airless, stale, fussy, strained. It was as if they were confined
conceptually to an inelastic, increasingly romanticized and nostalgic
space and mode. (To Kingdom Come [Capitol] offers two CDs that
cull much good and some indifferent material from all their recordings.)

But they didn't go straight downhill. The music they made when they
rejoined Dylan onstage in 1974 was fierce, as if he once again sparked
their creative fires. Their several tours with the Grateful Dead, though
the pairing confused many reviewers, was a study in similarity and
contrast that sometimes sparked great things. (In 1970, Danko told Jerry
Garcia, "We thought you were just California freaks, but you're just
like us.") And on the albums, individual songs--"The Shape I'm In,"
"Stage Fright," Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece"--displayed the old
dexterous touches. Overall, though, creatively everyone but Robertson,
whose muse was drying up anyway, seemed content to coast--after all,
women, booze and money were plentiful. The ambitious songwriter, who'd
begun producing other artists' records and thinking about movies,
finally decided to pull the plug in high style. Hence The Last
Waltz
.

There are beautiful sequences in The Last Waltz, and the best are
those of The Band itself. Scorsese's desire to work tight means fewer
establishing shots than some (including me) might want, but the
aesthetic does reflect The Band's subtle, intimate music. At its best,
the film can be stunning. "Stage Fright," for example, shoots Danko from
almost 360 degrees, lit only by an overhead spot, creating gorgeous
interplays of shadow and light, heightening the song's lyrics. "Mystery
Train," to which Paul Butterfield adds harp and vocals, has a similar
self-conscious beauty, which jars with the raggedy unison singing. The
Staples Singers joining on "The Weight," in a sequence filmed after the
show itself, aurally demonstrates The Band's vocal debts to them. For
Emmylou Harris's turn on "Evangeline," another postshow scene, Scorsese
fills the soundstage with blue-lit smoke, which feels hokey but redeems
it a bit visually with arresting camera angles that frame the stark,
lovely geometries of Hudson's accordion, Danko's fiddle and Helm's
mandolin.

A concert film is ultimately about the music, however. The Last
Waltz
translates The Band's broad tastes into a narrative punctuated
by interviews and special guests onstage. But the frame is only as
strong as its content. Eric Clapton? Ron Wood and Ringo Starr? Dr. John?
Neil Diamond? Joni Mitchell? Even Muddy Waters? Broad-based roots,
far-reaching sounds, all spokes in the wheel of the 1960s rock
resurgence that Scorsese's narrative contextualizes and justifies via
the interviews. But there's little about the performances of these
artists that is special. No particular chemistry emerges to make this a
moment--except that it's The Band's Last Waltz. I found myself wondering
if part of The Band's artistry consisted of its ability to disappear
musically. (The companion four-CD set, The Last Waltz [Rhino],
has state-of-the-art sound and a bunch of added music--most of it,
unless you're a completist, better left unheard.)

Certainly The Last Waltz makes clear why The Band ended. Though
Scorsese tries to balance his time with the five members, Robertson's
hooded eyes enthrall him. It's palpable that Robertson is surrounded by
good-timey, undisciplined mates who have trouble articulating or
finishing their stories, and often steps into the breach. (Helm is
incisive talking about music and cultural roots; the others work in a
haze of fractured sentences, bits of cynicism and mysticism, and defer
to Robertson.)

Robertson had become the group's de facto manager, its public face, more
and more the businessman, the guy who had the vast bulk of the
publishing income and royalties from all that collaborative imaginative
work that made the songs timeless. He was also the sole producer of
The Last Waltz. He wanted out; if the movie is unclear what the
others wanted, the fact is that the rest, minus Robertson, re-formed in
various configurations over the years.

Aside from The Band's own sequences, the best moments in The Last
Waltz
belong, fittingly, to Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, the two
front men who helped catalyze their chemistry. Hawkins is wonderfully
unselfconscious during his rave-up version of "Who Do You Love," cueing
and teasing The Band as if a dozen years hadn't passed between them.
Dylan, at the film's end, leads The Band through "Forever Young," making
it their gentle envoi. Watching him goose them through his abrupt
transition to the snarling reworking of the Rev. Gary Davis's "Baby, Let
Me Follow You Down," one of the electric tunes they'd rattled audiences
with in that now-legendary 1965-66 tour, offers us a glimpse into the
chemistry of their fruitful relationship, and the perfect closing
bookend to The Band's career.

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