It's early Saturday morning and I am standing in the living room of a home that's been converted, for the day, into a porn set. Heavy light rigging, cables, crates of colored gels and video monitors now dominate what had been just another unassuming suburban home at the end of a cul-de-sac. In addition to worrying about all the usual concerns confronting a porn shoot--will the talent show up, will they be hung over, will they have all their paperwork in order, will some boyfriend or agent decide he's the director--I now have other matters to consider.
While I am safely nestled in the hills beyond La Canada Flintridge, 3,000 miles to the east George W. Bush is being sworn in to the presidency. And as he lays his hand on that Bible held by the very Chief Justice who helped install him into office, the power players in LA's fabled Porn Valley are hearing thunderclaps in the distance. The Perfect Storm has broken in the Beltway, they believe, and life preservers are now being passed out.
I know this because I'm a pornographer. Well, sort of. I originated and for the past several years have moonlighted as a producer on the Jail Babes video series, which launched Larry Flynt into the booming adult-video business. I have in that time been treated to the inner workings of a business that continues to fascinate libido-driven Americans. And recently Flynt's producers and our peers at other companies have been briefed in meetings and memos as to just how we are to react, given the new President and incoming Attorney General.
Fourteen years ago, of course, Reagan's Attorney General Ed Meese launched a celebrated (and reviled) antiporn crusade that included a bevy of busts; but since then the LA-based industry has grown into a multibillion-dollar business reaching into nearly every corner of America, culturally, politically and even economically. Consider that an estimated 25,000 video outlets across the nation stock adult material and that more than 10,000 new adult-video titles are released each year; last year there were 711 million rentals of hard-core sex films. Porn is a $10 billion industry--$4 billion of that in explicit video sales--that even has links to corporate parents like General Motors and AT&T. (Whatever collective pain and persecution the industry suffered during the Reagan and Bush the Elder years, when Bill Clinton rolled into the White House with a social agenda that did not call for the outright destruction of smut, pornographers in the San Fernando Valley--Wicked Pictures, Vivid Video, VCA and Hustler Video are the biggies--saw eight years of relative green lights and blue skies.)
In an effort to head off any potential anti-porno jihad by the Bush Administration, some of the major porn outfits have reached a common conclusion and issued sweeping new guidelines to producers and directors--rules that are supposed to make even the most eager prosecutor think twice before filing charges. Anxious to sanitize their product to the point where it passes muster with compassionate conservatives everywhere, especially those living on Pennsylvania Avenue, major producers in the industry are proposing to discard or ban a host of sexual acts and scenarios that have in some instances become staples of the genre.
Welcome to the era of kinder, gentler smut.
"Everyone has grave concerns," says Jeffrey Douglas, a lawyer who specializes in First Amendment issues and has represented the adult industry since the early 1980s. "Most of us on the legal side have advised those in the industry to assume, no matter who got elected, that the environment [read Justice Department] will be less sensitive to First Amendment issues."
While the focus on Attorney General John Ashcroft has to date been on his positions on civil rights and abortion, little attention has been paid until now as to how--and how effectively--the former senator from Missouri might weigh in on the culture wars surrounding the First Amendment.
Porn sage William Margold, who now runs a support organization for porn performers, says Ashcroft "casts a shadow" across sexual expression and that the industry may be in for some "radical attempts to clean us up." In fact, Bush asserted during the campaign that "porn has no place in a decent society" and vowed to "insist on vigorously enforcing" antipornography laws. Bush's comments should offer cold comfort to liberals who oppose commercial porn based on the exploitation that can and does occur in the industry (just as it does in many other industries, not slated for demolition). "Most people only deal with bad news when it is knocking at their door," muses Douglas. "George Bush and John Ashcroft are a really loud knock on the door."
Anticipation that the knock will be followed with a shout of "We have a warrant!" is what has led the porn companies to issue what at least in Hustler's case proved to be a twenty-four-point set of guidelines. We producers have been provided with what might better be described as a Just Say No List, for every line starts with a No (it can be viewed online at Inside.com). The list, which reads like material generated for a classic Lenny Bruce or Dick Gregory routine, discards everything from fetish rituals found on the fringe to some of porn's most signature sex acts.
First and foremost, producers and directors are no longer to shoot any material that depicts a female model who appears to be suffering "unhappiness or pain." Ditto for "degradation."
Food can no longer be used as a sexual object, obviously sparing carrots, cucumbers and bananas from further degradation and heading off a full-scale investigation from the Department of Agriculture.
Blindfolds are also out.
So is wax-dripping.
So is sex in a coffin.
So is urinating on camera, unless it is done "in a natural setting" such as a field or roadside.
No male/male penetration can be shown.
Bisexual encounters are also out, as are scenes involving transsexuals.
Other verboten activities include fisting (an act sometimes featured in Penthouse), "menstruation topics" or spitting or saliva passing mouth to mouth.
A self-imposed ban from the late-1980s on subjects of adult-age incest (i.e., college-aged guy is seduced by middle-aged mom) will continue during the Bush Administration, despite the fact that mainstream theaters project the topic with such films as Spanking the Monkey. Ironically, this forbidden fruit is the subject of the 1980 film Taboo, which the industry trade publication Adult Video News recently reported as one of the all-time bestselling adult videos, with sales topping a million copies.
The new guidelines also state: "No black men, white women themes." Perhaps in a tip of the hat to Thomas Jefferson, producers can continue to feature white men having sex with black women. (In other words, maybe the new Administration won't view scenes of white men screwing blacks as out of the ordinary.)
Perhaps the most surprising item on the list is a prohibition of the until-now obligatory facial "money shot," in which a male performer ejaculates on the face of the female performer, a staple long before Deep Throat brought porn out of the basement. This brought a howl from Margold when he read it. "Facials are the crowning achievement of this industry," he proclaimed, only half-joking. "It's what we built this industry on!"
The new rules do allow a male model to ejaculate on a female model, with the caveat that the "shot is not nasty." Lawyers will now be able to jack up billable hours to determine if the semen on a left breast is "nasty" but the semen on a right elbow is to be approved. Douglas is equally derisive in his assessment of the new guidelines: "That list is complete horseshit," he says. "It's probably a third generation of someone's interpretation of what a lawyer suggested."
For all of Margold's humorous dismissal and Douglas's disdain, the new guidelines are no laughing matter for the major porn companies. For these firms and those who run them, the adult-entertainment business is no longer about making an artistic statement for sexual freedom. It is about making money. Getting busted is not in the business plan. While there is a consensus that trouble is brewing, there is disagreement about just how effective renewed prosecutions will be and even whether attempts at self-censorship will do anything to stop them.
Roger Jon Diamond, a Santa Monica- based lawyer who has been defending adult material since the late 1960s, and whose cases have gone to the Supreme Court, feels some of the worry may be overblown. "I don't think Bush or Ashcroft can successfully bring us 'Meese II,'" he says. "Too much material is already out there in too many places. How are they going to prove community standards [a central requirement of the 'Miller standard' the Supreme Court set in determining obscenity] now? You can't unring the bell."
While Douglas notes that the chances of the Bush Administration killing off an industry that has survived every President (and Attorney General) since Nixon are slim, he warns that the government would be just as happy to inflict some serious pain on it. And here, Diamond notes that the industry's will to draw a line in the sand and fight prosecutions may well determine how much damage is inflicted. "It's like soldiers landing on the beaches. You know you are going to take the beach, but some guys up front are going to have to take some bullets for everyone else. So the question becomes, who is willing to take some bullets?"
"Irrespective of Ashcroft, the Bush Administration brings very dangerous forces into play," Douglas says. "Unable to influence Congress, to satisfy the religious right they are going to have to take action outside the legislature, and the area they have the broadest discretion in is the prosecution of crime. And Congress will not be outraged. Bottom line: There will be aggressive obscenity prosecutions." If the previous two Republican administrations are any indication, Douglas says, the industry can expect at least thirty or more companies to be targeted by the Justice Department. That's about how many were put in the crosshairs under both Reagan and Bush Senior.
Douglas maintains that the real question confronting the adult industry is how the expected prosecutions will take shape. "It will depend on whether [prosecutors] want to grab headlines and simply appease the religious right," Douglas says. "Or do they really want to change content?"
If they seek a purely political nod to the hard right in the GOP, prosecutors are likely to seek prison sentences and wage a no-quarter battle to that end. Douglas says that tack was taken by prosecutors under the Reagan Administration--an era that he darkly notes was marked by Justice Department attorneys who signed their official correspondence "Yours in Jesus Christ."
If prosecutors want to shape what the industry creates rather than exact a blood tribute through prison time, Douglas says they are likely to hew to the tactic the previous Bush Administration employed: levying huge fines that will cripple the targeted companies.
"It was a hell of a lot more fun to film in this town when it was illegal," Margold adds, noting that he went to jail a half-dozen or more times as a result of working in porn. "But the industry can't return to its outlaw roots, because there are no more outlaws. The guys who run the companies now are sheep complacently chewing on their dollar bills. If they get busted they won't fight, they'll crack."
Douglas has seen that happen firsthand. "You have to be emotionally prepared as well as financially prepared to fight the government. It's easy to say, 'I believe in what I do and I'll fight for my right to do it,'" he says. "But you find that a lot of big talkers will plead out real quick."
The real danger, Douglas says, "is that professional censors may well be brought in and will have the awesome powers of the Justice Department at their disposal. Guys who think, 'I am an agent of God, and God says in order to keep Satan from rising we need to destroy the porn industry.'" Perhaps the question isn't whether a Justice Department filled with zealots can destroy porn but whether the industry--once defined by a rebelliousness that the Sexual Revolution imbued it with--can salvage anything of its former self.
It's hard to remember at times, but there was a brief, shining period when the concept of what was being filmed actually mattered. Stepping out of society's closet in the early seventies, American porno was a bastard art form that offered directors real freedom from conventional standards and restrictions. Filmmakers like Jonas Middleton, Robert McCallum, Cecil Howard, Henri Pachard and Kirdy Stevens explored the rich mines of human sexuality. Those men were joined by women like Helene Terrie, who wrote and produced Taboo, and Ann Perry and Maria Tobalina, both former presidents of the Adult Film Association of America. There were a lot of busts, trials and pain along the way. Now the question arises, Why were those sacrifices made? Did those people sit in jail and prison just so others would censor themselves into depicting officially sanctioned sex? Was that the point?
George W. Bush and John Ashcroft have won half the battle simply by showing up. Some in the business feel that even those of us shooting under the new guidelines will be targeted. As one producer noted, "They hate us all, and they'll come after the whole industry."
The silver lining to these storm clouds is that censorship, even the self-imposed kind, usually backfires, eventually creating only more of what it tried to suppress. If the past and human nature are any indication, that will be the case here, especially given the size of the market today. While producers for big companies are forced to shoot under new rules, the outlaw element in porn, provocateurs like Rob Black and Max Hardcore, will likely rise (or sink) to the occasion and do the necessary dirty work to keep porn, well...dirty.
The way it should be.
SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
The Sundance Film Festival has been dominated for so long by a circus of cell phones, models, agents and celebrity-hunting media hounds that it has become difficult to locate worthy films amid the crush of tabloidesque media coverage. Adding to the problem has been the spread of indie films aimed at
industry standards, a subset dubbed "Indiewood." This year, thanks perhaps to dotcom crashes and economic sobriety, the streets of Park City, Utah, were lined with a bit less gold, and Sundance reclaimed its birthright as the soul--not merely the platform--of independent film, delivering a full slate of entries concerned with meaning, truth and real-world issues. Over and over, films rejected formula in favor of new styles, production tools and narrative strategies. There were even political broadsides on Main Street, courtesy of the Guerrilla Girls and "Alice Locas." Agitprop messages targeted the film profession: The U.S. Senate Is More Progressive Than Hollywood, proclaimed one; Female Senators: 9%. Female Directors: 4%. The stickers were a welcome addition to the usual huckstering aimed at getting folks to a movie.
As usual, some of the most thought-provoking and soul-stirring work was found in the World Cinema section. The Back of the World ("La Espalda del Mundo"), by the Madrid-based Peruvian director, Javier Corcuera, is a trilogy of injustice that takes its time getting to know, and introducing us to, its central characters: a child laborer and his family and friends in Peru; a Kurdish exile in Stockholm; his Turkish village; and death-row inmates and their families in Texas. They all have names, details, faces. Tilting at the windmills of child labor, ethnic repression and capital punishment, Corcuera wisely favors the individual over the polemical. Utterly free of didacticism, The Back of the World brushes its subjects with the luminosity of an oil painting. It's impossible to exit the theater unmoved.
Far different is the dramatic film Without a Trace ("Sin Dejar Huella") by Mexican director Maria Novaro. She's concerned with freedom, not restraints. Her fanciful script follows two women on the run across Mexico, from Juárez to Cancun. A red car is after them, but is it the angry drug dealer or the corrupt policeman at the wheel? In this breezy road movie, Novaro finds plenty of opportunities to poke delicious fun at the state of affairs in her country, from Vicente Fox's cowboy style to the idealization of Subcomandante Marcos. Its shared Sundance award for best Latin American film should help the movie in the United States, where it's bound to be compared to Thelma & Louise; after all, they were heading for Mexico when they ran into the Grand Canyon.
Of the US films, the most audacious and risk-taking was Waking Life, an extraordinary animation from Austin-based director Richard Linklater, whose previous films (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise) hardly prepared the audience for this foray into philosophy and psychic phenomena (he was represented by a second film in the festival as well, of which more later). Linklater teamed up with Bob Sabiston and Tommy Pallota to make a live-action film with digital footage of seventy-five people--actors, academics and experts--walking and talking, then engaged a team of artists to animate the footage using Sabiston's new type of software. The result is a film peopled by remarkable hybrids that look like cartoons but move and speak like real folks.
Waking Life's protagonist, a drawn-upon Wiley Wiggins (Dazed and Confused's long-faced star), meanders through town looking for the meaning of life, the nature of consciousness, the difference between dreaming and being awake. People give him advice. "So whatever you do, don't be bored. This is absolutely the most exciting time we could have possibly hoped to be alive. And things are just starting." Stuff like that. Meanwhile, colors and lines mutate on screen. Nothing is as it seems. Linklater and his animation collaborators have clearly had a lot of fun, morphing characters into their own conversational subjects, destabilizing their environs, throwing the material world into question. To extend the fun, the film's promotional packet was a coloring book. Get it? Color outside the lines, or something like that. A fervent tour de force, Waking Life augurs well for the new technologies. If it becomes a hit on college campuses, it just might spark a revival of existentialism, which one character insists has been unfairly pegged as negative when it's actually quite an optimistic philosophy.
After years of seeing juvenilia touted as hip, it was a treat to discover dramatic films made with maturity and restraint, performed by splendid actors at the peak of their careers, written and directed by filmmakers who knew just what they were doing because this wasn't their first time out of the gate. The Deep End by Scott McGehee and David Siegel and The Sleepy Time Gal by Christopher Münch were two such films, prompting their viewers to think hard about both film and life itself.
The Deep End was inspired by Max Ophuls's classic noir, The Reckless Moment. McGehee and Siegel went back to the original source, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's novel A Blank Wall, and made it their own. In their version, the brilliant Scottish actress Tilda Swinton plays a mother who will do anything to protect her gay son--even if that entails confronting a sleazy Reno gay-club proprietor, disposing of a corpse, diving into Lake Tahoe and standing up to a blackmailer. Finessing all her actions with a stunning display of spunk, Swinton carries the film lightly on her shoulders. The Deep End easily deserved the award for cinematography that it won, too: One shot, an image of Swinton reflected upside down in a drop of water falling from the kitchen faucet, aptly captures the watery universe dragging her down.
Writer/director Christopher Münch's task in The Sleepy Time Gal is considerably harder, as he deliberately places his film outside the confines of genre. Much of the pleasure of viewing The Sleepy Time Gal lies in the transcendent performance of the great Jacqueline Bisset, who plays the eponymous heroine, a onetime radio DJ fascinated by the early history of New York City, where she grew up and where she takes her son (Nick Stahl) on a nostalgic visit to upper Washington Heights near the start of the film. As the story proceeds, Bisset's character discovers she has cancer. No, she doesn't find any miracle cure; it's not that kind of movie. No, the daughter she gave up for adoption (played by the undervalued Martha Plimpton) probably won't show up in time for a sobfest finale; Münch isn't that kind of filmmaker. Instead, the film is about what matters in life, what we can and cannot do or undo, the difficulties and mistakes in relating to one another. Ultimately, it ponders how death rearranges all our certainties. Bisset's deathbed scene takes the breath away, especially for anyone who has ever sat vigil watching a loved one breathe their last.
Both The Deep End and The Sleepy Time Gal are evidence of a new intelligence that, given half a chance, could reanimate American independent cinema. Will they be seen? The Deep End was picked up by Fox Searchlight and will certainly be coming to a theater near you. The Sleepy Time Gal still lacked a distributor by festival's end.
The festival's Grand Jury Prize for best dramatic film was awarded to The Believer, a traditional but well-made examination of one Danny Balint, a disgruntled yeshiva student turned skinhead thug. "Love your enemy" is his reply to those who question how he happens to know so much arcane Judaica. In one scene, the increasingly confused Danny is busy simultaneously trashing a synagogue and rescuing a Torah from his gang's defilement. Inspired by the true story of a neo-Nazi unmasked as a Jew, director/writer Henry Bean peoples his tale with a frightening cast of characters meant to compose a right-wing salon of New York intelligentsia, elegant yet all too happy to deploy messengers like Danny.
Judaism turned up in documentary, too. Where The Believer gave us a character torn between faith and ideology, Sandi Simcha DuBowski's Trembling Before G-d documents real-life characters torn between religion and sexuality as they struggle to combine their faith as Orthodox Jews with their identities as gay men and lesbians. Happily, the film has a hero: Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, whose joyousness stands in marked contrast to the pervasive suffering. In what has to be a Sundance first, DuBowski and Rabbi Greenberg invited believers and nonbelievers, Jews and gentiles, to a Sabbath dinner. Some fifty Sundancers took time out from chasing the next hot title to break bread and discuss something other than movies. It was to its credit that the meal felt more like a spiritual respite than a promotional tie-in.
If the search for truth, faith and life's meaning surfaced early in the festival, another, more specific subject soon presented itself. The theme of rape showed up in a number of films--another festival first. While the act of rape is unfortunately nothing new in Sundance offerings, the exploration of rape as a brutal experience demanding investigation and even retribution is very new indeed.
The Business of Strangers, a tense chamber-piece starring Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles as unlikely business associates thrown together by a plane cancellation, uses rape as a crowbar to pry open the psyche. Channing is terrific as a tough businesswoman whose defenses crumble when she thinks she's been fired. She hasn't been, but the momentary vulnerability sets her up for an encounter with Stiles, playing a wild-card beauty who's captivating and unreliable. Writer/director Patrick Stettner focuses his story on an allegation of rape and enactment of revenge. But did a rape ever occur? That's a question that soon comes up again.
Richard Linklater conceived Tape, a much smaller production, as a low-budget exercise in using the new digital cameras. On his one-room set, one man confronts another with his memory of a long-ago rape, and they thrash out their arguments with Beckett-like intensity. Linklater manages to make us pay attention to the story, perhaps because stars are involved: Ethan Hawke as the accuser, Uma Thurman as the alleged victim who refuses victimization and Robert Sean Leonard as the accused rapist turned, yup, filmmaker. It's a wonderfully tense tale, played out with humor and sarcasm.
Unlike Business, with its lush 35-millimeter look, Linklater played up the digitality: His camera swoops and pans all over the room while camera angles stretch the limits of what we're used to seeing. Why? Because he can. Tape was one of the films brought to Sundance by InDigEnt, a new outfit established to finance low-budget films ($150,000-$200,000) shot with digital cameras and intent on exploiting the cutting-edge styles and basement economics that the so-called digital revolution keeps promising. Like it or not--and many filmmakers and critics don't--digital production is already a reality and was ubiquitous at the festival. The documentary category is almost completely converted, as many filmmakers in that world have long since been forced by economics as well as production necessity to give up film for video.
The theme of men confronting one another over rape reappears in Things Behind the Sun, the new opus of Allison Anders (Gas Food Lodging, Grace of My Heart), which draws on her own experience of rape at age12 to create a powerful film detailing how such an act can deform everyone involved for years to come. Actress Kim Dickens is sensational as the promising singer-songwriter driven to self-destruction by a rape in her youth. A young rock critic tries to remind her of what she's tried hard to forget, then goes on to confront his imprisoned brother, the perpetrator. Anders takes a hard look at questions of memory, guilt and recuperation. Anders shot her film, too, in digital video and credited the intimacy of the medium with achieving such emotionally powerful scenes.
The most controversial rape debate centered around Raw Deal: A Question of Consent, a documentary that makes the fictions look tame. Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman look at an infamous 1999 University of of Florida incident: A Delta Chi fraternity party went bad, and the exotic dancer hired for the night, Lisa Gier King, went to the police charging rape. After viewing videotapes of the night in question, though, the cops arrested King instead of the frat boys and charged her with filing a false report, claiming the tapes showed consensual sex [see Jennifer Baumgardner, "What Does Rape Look Like?" January 3, 2000]. The Campus NOW chapter argued that the tapes proved rape. The state attorney sold the gamey videos for $20 to anyone who was interested. Once Raw Deal played Sundance, the New York Post splashed it all over its front page, further blurring the hazy line between investigation and sensationalism. In the film, the explicit footage is so rough that voyeuristic pleasure would seem unlikely; Raw Deal is sure to spark debates about date rape, coercion and the limits of individual responsibility. At least as scummy as the alleged rapist is the sanctimonious fraternity brother who speaks contemptuously of King, disses her social status, then is seen engaged in sex acts with her. It's a dark, dark view of both frat life and contemporary morality.
It took a fiction film--Series 7: The Contenders, by first-time director Dan Minahan--to top that toxic level of contamination, this time in the form of parody. Minahan learned the vocabulary of the new "reality" TV so well that Series 7 is a pitch-perfect satire of the genre: It takes the form of a TV show that selects contestants at random, arms them and instructs them to fight to the death. In its Darwinian universe, the survivor is, well, the winner. Series 7 is brilliant irony, complete with television-style promos and wild video-camera chases (yes, digital again) meant to convince viewers that it's "real." At least this year, for once, Sundance itself didn't look like a franchise of just such a program.
Nick Bromell is a brave man. At a time when "zero tolerance" is inscribed on the national currency, when you can go to prison for twenty years if some jailhouse snitch says you were part of a drug-selling operation with him, Bromell argues that "there was something rigorous and instructive in getting stoned and listening to music as if it really mattered." He points out that millions of people have listened to rock music with the help of psychedelics, and that this is something that remains unresolved in American culture, something at the heart of today's culture wars and the war on drugs. Rock and psychedelics together, he argues, mark "the crossroads where the sixties meet the present."
Bromell, who teaches English at the University of Massachusetts and whose previous book was a scholarly study of "Literature and Labor in Antebellum America," is one of those people who grew up in the sixties, convinced that something important happened then--and he's still trying to figure out what it was. (I'm another.) We have many good books on the events and movements and ideas of the sixties, most of which agree that the music was important in expressing the spirit and energy of the times. Bromell wants to do something else--to put the music of the sixties at the center of the story. Moreover, he doesn't focus on the musicians who created it--as does the current bestselling Beatles Anthology volume--or on critics' responses. Instead, he seeks to recapture what he calls "the primal scene" of listening to rock music: in the dorm room or the bedroom, alone or with friends, listening with intense concentration--smoking dope or dropping acid--seeking to understand loneliness and injustice and the fundamental instability of everything.
He readily concedes that there was a lot of foolishness and hedonism in that era but insists that those young people were also involved in a serious quest to understand themselves and their times--when the "times" were sometimes thrilling, sometimes terrible. "So much life, so much death; so much possibility, so much impossibility" (that wonderful line comes from the documentary Berkeley in the Sixties). Music and psychedelics, he writes, "could help you make sense of the senselessness of it all by helping you come to your senses, heightening them."
Millions of kids are still turning on today. The best research shows that in 1997, 14 percent of all high school seniors had tried LSD and 50 percent had tried marijuana. The figures have been surprisingly consistent since 1975. For young people then and now, marijuana and LSD are much more popular than heroin, cocaine and crack cocaine. Bromell asks a question the war on drugs fears: Why these drugs? That question leads him to another the drug warriors cannot ask: How does it feel?
"How does it feel? To be on your own?...Like a complete unknown?" Bob Dylan asked those questions in his glorious and ruthless song "Like a Rolling Stone" in 1965. He had taken LSD, given up explicit protest and begun considering the explosion of consciousness, and his Highway 61 Revisited, more than any other album, spoke to the quest of the emergent counterculture for meaning. And he was only 23. Dylan's answers were not comforting. With all the songs on Highway 61 Revisited, Bromell says, "we tumbled down the side of a ravine, falling from safe, distanced, middle class awareness of wrongdoing 'out there' to knowledge of something more terrifying 'in here.'"
The next year--1966--the Beatles released Revolver. They had already established an "uncanny rapport" with their fans; they "affected...the quality of life--they deepened it, sharpened it, brightened it," Bromell writes, quoting Greil Marcus. They didn't repeat themselves; as Warren Zevon said much later, "everything new they did was supposed to challenge you. The Beatles continued to be new as long as they were the Beatles." Revolver was the "breakthrough experience" for taking psychedelic drugs seriously--especially the last three cuts. First George Harrison sang "I Want to Tell You." This echoed "I Want to Hold Your Hand," but it was something else they wanted to do now--in Bromell's words, "to break the codes and the bullshit, to make genuine contact."
Then came Paul McCartney singing "Got to Get You Into My Life." At first it seemed like a song of typical teenage passion, but on closer listening the lyrics spoke unmistakably about LSD: "I was alone, I took a ride/I didn't know what I would find there./Another road where maybe I/Could find another kind of mind there." And then came the blissful part: "Ooh, did I suddenly see you?/Ooh, did I tell you I need you,/Every single day of my life?" Bromell's gloss: "McCartney isn't satisfied to be a solitary, misunderstood mystic. He's a showman to the core, not a shaman"--so he wanted to tell us about his breakthrough in consciousness.
Then came the culmination: Lennon's "Tomorrow Never Knows"--which Bromell made the title of his book. At the time it was an enigma, nothing like pop music, something that took many listenings in those dorm rooms. The lyrics provided explicit instructions for tripping: "Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream/It is not dying"--sung in what Bromell describes as "an incredibly far-away" voice, "compressed almost beyond recognition" and emerging from a "thicket of incomprehensible noise." "Tomorrow Never Knows" presented an electronically distorted swirling sound mixed with tape loops and sound running backward (including, we now know, parts of McCartney's guitar solo on "Taxman" slowed down and played backward).
This music might be understood as an evocation of the psychedelic experience, but Bromell hears it differently--the song represents a decision to "explore and exploit the electrical essence" of rock music, which after all started with the electric guitar and Elvis's voice in an echo chamber. It represented precisely the opposite of the view that the natural was the authentic and thus the best. This new product of recording technology was radically unfamiliar. The Beatles wanted to turn away from the comfortable and reassuring familiarity that is the essence of pop music and stardom, and instead confront their audience with strangeness and a kind of depersonalization. Psychedelics gave them the vision and the energy for this effort.
The phrase "Tomorrow Never Knows" is rich with meaning. On the one hand it conveys the tragic sense that back in 1966, we didn't know that "tomorrow" would bring not liberation but two decades of Reaganomics. But "Tomorrow Never Knows" can also be understood in a very different sense: Now that it is "tomorrow," we must concede that we don't really know what happened in the sixties--we are stuck with distorted ideological images. In particular, we tend to view the sixties with ironic detachment, consider the utopian hopes of the decade with embarrassment or with "a sardonic smile." In thinking about the sixties, Bromell wants us to resist the "irony-plated armature of academic discourse"--a wonderful phrase in its own right.
Of course, many writers have resisted ironic detachment. Historians and others have described the sixties as an explosion of democracy, a youthful challenge to established authority in the state, the university and the family, a renewal that, in its sweep and intensity, ranks beside the eras of Andrew Jackson and the New Deal. SDS occupies the center of this history for many because it articulated the crucial concept of the decade, "participatory democracy." But the personal quest for a meaningful life is typically not emphasized in these studies--a quest that Bromell suggests was often experienced not simply as liberation from traditional restrictions but as a burden, a weight.
"The Weight," the song The Band sang, is also full of meaning in Bromell's reading. The song concludes "She put the load right on me." But what was this weight? Was it the consciousness of the historic responsibility young people had taken on to speak truth to power, to throw themselves against the gears, to stop the war machine and the machinery of racism? Bromell suggests that it was also something deeper: the weight of the discovery that psychedelic drugs weren't necessarily so benign and blissful--that they unearthed, in Bromell's words, "something fundamentally malign at the very heart of things."
Jimi Hendrix, we are told, spent weeks working on his version of Dylan's 1968 song "All Along the Watchtower," another key to the era--especially the opening line: "There must be some way out of here." The line referred of course to Vietnam, but more broadly to many evils in the world: "businessmen they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth." It's tempting to conclude that "life is but a joke," but Hendrix and Dylan didn't want us to--instead they said "let us not talk falsely now, the hour's getting late." That sense of urgency is not unique to the sixties--today, Bromell writes, teenagers still feel trapped in an evil world they didn't make; they still yearn for a meaningful life; they "still stand there on the watchtower and wait and wonder."
Luckily for his readers, Bromell is a historian, and he knows that young people in many generations have asked similar questions. Emerson, for example, described youthful slackers in the 1840s, who dropped out of "common labors and competitions of the market" because they had had a private experience that transformed their consciousness. Emerson quotes one saying he realized "I had played the fool with fools all this time" and had been "a selfish member of a selfish society." He realized that "my life is superficial, takes no root in the deep world." And he concluded, "I wish to exchange this flash-of-lightning faith for continuous daylight."
What made the 1960s different from earlier generations, Bromell observes, is the tremendous broadening of the number of participants engaged in this quest. This broadening--facilitated by the commercial world of rock music--was fundamentally democratic. Just a decade earlier Allen Ginsberg spoke of "the best minds of my generation," but they were only a handful of people. Now Bob Dylan sang with warm good humor, "Everybody must get stoned"--and tens of millions asked how to transform a flash-of-lightning insight into continuous daylight.
Of course, cultural conservatives have devoted considerable energy to attacking this cultural politics. Allan Bloom thought Woodstock resembled Nuremberg; Francis Fukuyama argued that the counterculture did the most "harm" to "the weakest members of society...the black community"; and Daniel Bell wrote that rock music, like the Beatles' later work, made it "impossible to hear oneself think, and that may indeed have been its intention."
At the same time the forces of commercial culture continue to colonize the sixties. VH-1, the music video cable channel owned by Viacom, just named Revolver the greatest album in the history of rock. Sixties rock provides the soundtrack to countless TV ads--I still haven't recovered from Michael Jackson selling the sound of John Lennon singing "Revolution" to Nike for a sneakers commercial more than a decade ago, or from Bob Dylan himself selling the rights to "The Times They Are A-Changin'" to the accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand. (We do have a few holdouts: Springsteen, R.E.M., Tom Petty, Neil Young, U2, Pearl Jam, Phish and Tom Waits--here's hoping they never "stare into the vacuum of his eyes/And say, do you want to make a deal?")
Meanwhile, in academia, Emerson and Whitman have been admitted to the pantheon, but you better not write a serious book about Dylan until you're tenured. Nick Bromell's Tomorrow Never Knows brings us closer to the heart of what we call the sixties than any other book I know.
When, halfway through Hamlet, the prince proclaims that the purpose of playing is "to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature," the players listen. As have generation after generation of theater artists returning to the play, and the character, to seek a reflection of their own age. "Hamlet is played everywhere, all the time," writes theater visionary Peter Brook. "As a tramp, as a peasant, as a woman, as a hobo, as a business man, as a movie star, as a clown, even as a marionette. It's inexhaustible, limitless. Every decade offers us a new interpretation."
Take the past decade, for example, during which there has been a veritable parade of distinctive Danish princes across the English-speaking stage: In London, there was the sensitive Daniel Day Lewis at the Royal National Theatre (1989); the dark and dazzling Ralph Fiennes at the Almeida (1995); the nightshirted Mark Rylance at the Globe (2000); in New York, the erudite Kevin Kline (1990) and the stalwart Liev Schreiber (1999), both at the New York Shakespeare Festival. On film, there was the intense Mel Gibson (1990) and the charismatic Kenneth Branagh (1996). To name only a select few.
But there is something special about the recent "rash of Hamlets," as acclaimed British actor Simon Russell Beale calls the three princes in this, the "true millennium" year. Something arresting. He's referring to Brook's The Tragedy of Hamlet, with Adrian Lester, now playing at Brook's celebrated Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris but due to come to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in April. He's also referring to his own Hamlet, directed by John Caird, currently at the Royal National Theatre in London but also set to sail to the United States this spring. And then there is the film Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke, adapted and directed by Michael Almereyda, recently playing on both London and American screens. Three startling productions, that provide us with the rare opportunity to rediscover the play and the prince anew. And each one accomplishes this in a markedly different way.
"It is only by forgetting Shakespeare that we can begin to find him," writes Brook, theater director and theorist. Brook is a master at making us forget the classics and experience them anew. He's been reimagining them his entire career, with his innovative A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest, as well as with the operas Pelléas et Mélisande, Carmen and Don Giovanni. In the case of Hamlet, it's a play he's been exploring for almost half a century, beginning with his traditional rendering in 1953 with Paul Scofield; next, with a deconstructed "Theater of Cruelty" version during the sixties in collaboration with Charles Marowitz; and decades later, in 1995, with Qui est là? ("Who is there?"), a theater étude, named after the opening line of Hamlet, at his International Center for Theatrical Creation in Paris. Brook explored how the play might have been approached by a number of noted theater theorists, including Stanislavsky, Brecht, Meierhold, Artaud and Gordon Craig. "It was really about the mystery of the theater, and where theater comes from," explains Bruce Myers, one of the permanent members of Brook's multinational troupe.
From this journey, Brook arrives today at The Tragedy of Hamlet, the name he gives his challenging new chamber play. (It's performed in English to preserve the poetry, as Brook explains in recent interviews.) Still, if you've cut your theatrical teeth on the traditional Hamlet, you too will be wondering "Who's there?" along with Horatio, who now speaks the opening line of Brook's boldly deconstructed version. The regular retinue of more than twenty-five characters in the court of Elsinore has been radically reduced by Brook and his collaborator, Marie-Hélène Estienne, to thirteen, played by a tight troupe of eight actors. Gone are Fortinbras, Marcellus, Osric, among others; gone, the opening sentinels' scene; gone, the salutatory Claudius/Gertrude scene; gone, Laertes's leave-taking scene with Polonius's famous fatherly advice (Laertes appears, eventually, to exact his revenge, but almost at the play's end); gone, "The Murder of Gonzago" (in its place is a scene in ancient Greek). And there's not only deconstruction but also reconfiguration.
Where is "To be or not to be"?! (I panicked, but it turns up later in this revised text.) Act V closes with a speech from Act I: "But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad..." And the very last words of the play reprise the first: "Who's there?", articulated again by Horatio as the corpses strewn across the stage slowly rise to their feet and face us. Under Brook's direction, this Hamlet, now playing at two hours twenty in contrast to the traditional four, cuts straight to the chase. So pared, so spare, so severe it is, that at first you'll think you're watching Ibsen or Albee. Yet, halfway through, it happens magically, just as Brook intends it to. You're seeing the play. You're rediscovering Hamlet anew.
So "though this be madness, yet there is method in't." Brook's method, of course. All the familiar features are there--the essentially empty stage (save only a floor covering, with a few brightly colored cushions and a table or two), designed by Chloé Obolensky, an exposed, crumbling theater wall, a familiar instrument stand (Toshi Tsuchitori stands off to the side, a range of primitive instruments at his fingertips). No props, save a pair of skulls and a bamboo pole. Bare, spare, elemental, the Brook theatrical vocabulary. "The joy of creating from very little," as Bruce Myers puts it. The result? A pure, clear, crystalline new play, The Tragedy of Hamlet.
"We pared it down for the French audiences, for clarity's sake. So that they'd understand it," says Myers, who doubles deftly as Polonius and the gravedigger. "We went straight to the heart of the play." At that heart, of course, is Hamlet himself, and as portrayed by the charismatic young British actor Adrian Lester, he's as vibrant as the orange-colored carpet beneath his swift, slippered feet, upon which he commands center stage. Dressed in black pull-ons and tunic, the lithe, dreadlocked Lester is a supple Hamlet, dazzling in his range from philosophical to physical, from preppy to pantheresque, from petulant to powerful, from witty to weepy to warrior-like. "A notion of character deadens character," said Lester in an interview about the rehearsal process. "So I live in the moment." And it shows. He's poetry in motion, morphing from one body image to another, now mincing in gait and words, now crouching, snarling, feigning madness to Polonius & Co. And no matter what his stance, what his guise, Lester's is the rare Hamlet who is, above all, in control. Of himself and of the play.
Brook's celebrated company of English, Caribbean, Indian and Asian actors clearly underscores the universality of this theatrical event, most notably Jeffrey Kissoon, who doubles as a stately Claudius and Ghost, Natasha Parry as a dignified Gertrude, and Shantala Shivalingappa as a delicate Ophelia. Ultimately, with its multi-national cast, its minimal mise en scène and text, and its metatheatrical stylistics, Brook's could just as soon be called The Ritual of Hamlet--reimagining a myth, restating it, celebrating the ceremony of theater and its power to move, enlighten, startle us from our complacent conceptions.
Lester's is not the only Hamlet to take the stage in this season of revelations. Across the channel, at London's Royal National Theatre, the versatile, award-winning actor Simon Russell Beale has defied casting conventions and claimed the prince for his own. Short and stocky, Beale was acclaimed for his recent Iago as well as for other character roles at the Royal National Theatre and with the Royal Shakespeare Company. "The readiness is all" for his startling interpretation, which defies the tradition of sleeker, self-obsessed Hamlets in decades past. "'Am I capable of doing it?!' I asked myself," he told me in an interview. "Can I inhabit him?" His recent Evening Standard Award for Best Actor is the answer. "It was a big surprise for me," Beale said, of the role. "He's a sweet prince."
In contrast to the somberness of Tim Hatley's severe steel setting ("Denmark's a prison," and that's what's on the deep, dark Lyttelton stage, dimly lit by church chandeliers and scored by solemn sacred music), Beale's luminous, human Hamlet is a beacon of light. Playing against the grim world he's given, he's radiant with intelligence, clarity, wit and charm. And more: He's gentle, warm, magnanimous, affectionate, playful, light on his stockinged feet (he fairly leaps with joy when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear). Sensitive, sincere, vulnerable, too. "Hamlet's greatest strength is his sense of humor and irony," Beale continues. "And his sense that he isn't competent, that he can't do it [meaning, take revenge]." This Hamlet is full of surprises: His "get thee to a nunnery" to Ophelia is articulated with tenderness and care; he spends the entire closet scene consoling Gertrude instead of assaulting her, as it is traditionally played. Humane, compassionate, real. A rare, lovable prince, indeed.
Beale is supported by a distinguished RNT cast, featuring a compassionate Gertrude in Sara Kestelman and Denis Quilley, who doubles as a rambunctious Polonius and a delightful gravedigger. Under John Caird's astute direction, there is a rare and heart-stopping moment when both his parents (mother and ghost-father) flank Hamlet, a hand caressing each cheek, and you see straight into the heart of this family tragedy.
And still, there are more things in heaven and earth that are dreamt of in (our) philosophy. Michael Almereyda's ingenious film adaptation shows us the infinite possibilities for future Hamlets, still maintaining (though again reducing) the poetry while setting it in a contemporary forest of steel and glass on Park Avenue. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark Corporation, and Ethan Hawke, the son of the slain CEO, is called home from college to set it right. Hawke's hip Hamlet, in ski cap and shades, sees his world through a digicam. As he wanders through the Blockbuster Video's action aisles, taping his own "to be or not to be," we catch a vivid glimpse, in his lens, of millennial man hopelessly alienated by technology and a menacing, monolithic corporate culture. The all-star cast is hip, too, with Kyle MacLachlan as a cunning Claudius and Diane Venora as a stunning Gertrude, driving around town in a black stretch limo (Venora once played Hamlet herself at the New York Shakespeare Festival in the 1980s). Bill Murray's Polonius is droll, Liev Schreiber's Laertes is affecting, Sam Shepard's ghost is beguiling and the ubiquitous Julia Stiles, as Ophelia, drowns sensationally in the Guggenheim Museum pool. It's a slick, spectacular Hamlet, with a proud, vulnerable pop-culture prince at its epicenter.
Comparisons? Similarities are more illuminating. Both stage versions eliminate Fortinbras completely, forsaking the political for the metaphysical world of Hamlet (the film cleverly announces Fortinbras's arrival on CNN). Neither the plays nor the film adopts the Oedipal interpretation so popular in the past century. Above all, none of these three millennial Hamlets is mad. Lester may be unpredictable; Beale may be ironic; Hawke may be angry. But they are all clearheaded, charismatic, capable of action. Hampered by grief, perhaps. Despair. Frustration. But not by inertia. "I want to be sane," declares Beale. "I want to die standing up." A stunning similarity to Adrian Lester's Hamlet, who sinks slowly to his knees but never fully drops, and dies seated, erect. A choice both stage actors mention with pride. "What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties!"
At the end of our interview, Russell Beale remarked with pleasure that the actor Paul Rhys had just been to see his performance; so have Michael Bennington and Ralph Fiennes. "There's a community of Hamlets," he smiled. New ones will join this community, along with Hamlets of the past (Gielgud, Guinness, Olivier, Burton, David Warner, Ben Kingsley, Derek Jacobi). For, as Brook explains, "we are in front of something which we cannot ever finally understand." The magnificent mystery of Hamlet. And yet, says Brook, "we can always rediscover this play, make it live again, embark anew to seek out its truth."
Meanwhile, Beale's Hamlet is to tour Boston, Phoenix and Minneapolis this spring while Brook/Lester's arrives at BAM. Angela Winkler's Hamlet (from Hamburg's Deutsches Schauspielhaus) tours Europe. Sam West's begins at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford this summer. And so on. "Who's there?"
About halfway through the installation of Sol LeWitt's art on the fourth floor of New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, a small alcove gallery is given over entirely to Autobiography, a work from 1980. Autobiography consists, by my calculation, of 1,071 simple black-and-white photographs, arranged in 3x3 square grids. The pictures are of an almost striking banality, with a degree of photographic distinction near zero, and they show, for the most part, the most ordinary of objects: tools, balls of twine, shoes and articles of clothing, kitchen utensils, snapshots, books, houseplants. Except for the flat-files and drafting instruments--triangles, T-squares, templates, protractors, rulers and the like--their counterparts would have been found in most households of the Western world at the time. The inventory defines domestic normality for persons of a certain class--not too wealthy, not too poor. More metaphysically, the objects participate in what Heidegger designates as Zuhandenheit--the "Ready-to-Hand"--the kinds of things one notices only when they are not ready to hand, their absence impeding the smooth flow of daily life. Their inventoried presence accordingly testifies to the orderliness of this household, in which everything is present and accounted for, and to the organizational disposition of Sol LeWitt, whose household it was.
The personality itself, of course, is not a further item in the inventory. We know from external sources that LeWitt was about to vacate his living space in 1980 and move to Spoleto, Italy; and that he wanted to photograph each object with which he lived. In a video interview, Sol LeWitt: Four Decades, on continuous view outside the lobby gallery, the artist tells the exhibition's curator, Gary Garrels, that a far better picture of him can be gotten from the photographs of all the things he lived with than from an ordinary portrait. The question has been raised as to why he did not then title the work Self-Portrait. My sense is that it is because "autobiography" implies the concept of a life, and a life is something lived. The ordinariness of the objects inventoried further implies that there is nothing out of the ordinary in LeWitt's life, that it could be the autobiography of Whoever, Wherever. It may be remarked that there is no photograph in Autobiography of Autobiography itself--though it would be philosophically daring to have included the representation of the life as a further item in the life represented. I cannot forbear observing the philosophical significance of the fact that Autobiography fails to include a photograph of LeWitt himself. "When I enter most intimately into what I call myself," the philosopher David Hume once wrote, "I always stumble on some particular perception or other.... I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception." There is no experience of the self, Hume concludes, and so the term is without meaning.
Still, not everyone would photograph each of his possessions, as if for a yard sale, and organize them into a set of 3x3 grids. Nor can the work be rid of one's own subjectivity by organizing its components meticulously. If anything, character and disposition are revealed through the order or absence of order in one's life. In a way, the LeWitt exhibition could itself be titled Autobiography. It is difficult to believe that someone who took and arranged the photographs as compulsively as LeWitt appears to have done would leave the content and organization of a life's worth of his art to another. "If you require a monument," Sir Christopher Wren inscribed in St. Paul's Cathedral in London, "look around you."
The relevance of this to LeWitt's oeuvre, in whole and in part, lies in the philosophy he articulated in a crucial text, "Paragraphs on Conceptual Art," first published in Artforum in 1967. In the late 1960s there would have been relatively little to appreciate in the work other than the way it exemplified the theory. In its own right it was what the Italian critic Achille Bonito Oliva recently called "minimalial," even if it was not Minimalist in the strict ideological meaning of the term. It is true, however, that as LeWitt's art has evolved it has become decreasingly important to know much about that philosophy in order to respond to the work. Stand near the elevators at the Whitney and observe the expressions of sudden pleasure when the doors open and visitors see the marvelous wall painting Loopy Doopy behind the airy wooden structures in front of it. Few of those stepping out can be veterans of the theoretical debates to which "Paragraphs" belonged or know much of the subsequent history of Conceptualism as an artistic movement. For all its genesis in theory, LeWitt's work affords such instantaneous pleasure that it must appeal to an innate aesthetic sensibility that really does belong to Whoever, Wherever. This, together with the fecundity of his invention, is part of LeWitt's greatness as an artist. But even if the philosophy enters less and less into the content of what we experience, it belongs to the historical explanation of even the most recent, least apparently theoretical work.
"When an artist uses a conceptual form of art," LeWitt wrote, "it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair."
The implication is that the work of art is the transcription of an idea, in the medium its idea specifies. In 1967 it would have been LeWitt's practice to transcribe his own ideas; but later, when he began to do the wall drawings that were to become the genre most distinctive of his work, he more and more left the transcription of his ideas to what he terms "draftsmen." In a text from 1971 he wrote, "The artist conceives and plans the wall drawing. It is realized by draftsmen. (The artist can act as his own draftsman.) The plan, written, spoken or a drawing, is interpreted by the draftsman." It is fairly clear that between "artist" and "draftsman" there is a functional distinction involving different skills, and that it is in no sense necessary that a single individual incorporate both functions.
An example of a work for which the plan can be spoken is Wall Drawing #51: All Architectural Points Connected by Straight Lines. Blue snap lines. A "snap line" is a length of chalked cord, tautly stretched along a flat surface. It is plucked, like a violin string, leaving a straight line, the color of the chalk. The number of vectored lines will be a function of the number of "architectural points" the lines connect. Wall Drawing #51 was done in 1970 and "installed" that year in the Museo di Torino in Turin, Italy. Its latest installation, done in 2000, can be seen on the extreme north section of the east wall of the fourth-floor gallery, where the viewer will initially register it as a network of pale blue straight lines connecting corners with corners. It may have been done at other times, on different walls, and one hopes it will go on being installed, transcribed by different draftsmen, when we are all long gone. The installations themselves can be painted over or destroyed in other ways, but the plan itself has only the reality of a concept. And it need never have existed in the form of a drawing. It would have been enough for it to be a plan, scribbled down as an instruction to the draftsman or communicated by phone or on a tape, and so need no more resemble the set of its embodiments than a set of scrubbed floors need resemble the injunction "Scrub the floors!" Neither must the transcriptions resemble one another, as long as they comply with the plan. The distribution of "architectural points" will differ from actual wall to actual wall. I find it delicious that there are lines that connect the corners of the room with the corners of the alarm systems that happen to be placed in the wall chosen for the present installation of #51--and perhaps chosen to illustrate the point. In the catalogue illustration of the same work, the lines densely converge on the electrical outlets near the floor. It looks like the maps of airline routes one sees on in-flight magazines, shown radiating out from hubs.
There is an unmistakable skill in using snap lines to make nice, clean vectors on the wall, and there is no reason to suppose that LeWitt himself has such skills. The aesthetic of #51 is really inconsistent with casual, smudged marks, and part of the pleasure of the work derives from the impeccability of its execution. Compare it, though, with a 1972 work that shows a page from a publication about art, and indeed the art of certain of LeWitt's contemporaries--Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Morris, Jasper Johns and several others. It addresses the topic of "human control," which of course plays a central role in LeWitt's philosophy. I don't know who the author is. In any case, the plan of the work is in effect its title: From the Word "Art": Blue Lines to Four Corners, Green Lines to Four Sides, and Red Lines Between the Words "Art" on the Printed Page. My hunch is that the draftsman of this work was LeWitt himself, using colored ink and pencil, and perhaps one of the straightedges we see in Autobiography. But anyone possessing the minimal skills required to execute diagrams in high school geometry class could do this work. Who but LeWitt, however, could or would have formed the concept of connecting the word "art," as an isomorphic set of physical entities composed of ink molecules, with the perimeters of the physical surface on which they are deposited, as well as with one another? The work is witty, slyly deflationist of the concept of art as well as some of its theories, and exceedingly arch in the way it refers, as work, to the content of the text it unites with its page. The pleasures here, as with #51, are only marginally sensuous. They are largely conceptual pleasures, and perhaps best appreciated by those who belonged in the same intellectual atmosphere to which the works themselves belong. (I have to say that I love these works!)
But let us return to LeWitt's credo, and to the polemical atmosphere in which it was composed. What is actually implied by the severe disjunction between conception and draftsmanly enactment? First, it implies that art is a form of mental thought. "Mental thought" may seem redundant, but in the era in which "Paragraphs" was written, there was an overall philosophical tendency to deconstruct the idea that thinking is something that takes place exclusively in the mind. It was argued that painters, for example, or pianists, think with and through their hands and fingers--that a carpenter thinks with the saw and hammer, a dancer with his or her body, and that it is through the body that these people express themselves. Certainly, it might have been said, dancing does not transcribe through movements a terpsichorean plan in the dancer's mind! Certainly the clarinetist riffs in public space, and does not mechanically perform a privately inscribed score! Indeed, when this position was being argued in such philosophical texts as Gilbert Ryle's magisterial The Concept of Mind (1949), artists, especially those of the New York School, were expressing themselves in sweeping gestural movements on canvases laid on the floor or pinned to the wall of their studios. Painting was something that happened out there--not something that takes place in here. One begins with a mark, another mark, a third mark--a splash, a smudge, a drip--until the whole work energetically completes itself and the artist can then see what has been achieved. It was not something in which "all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand" with "the execution a perfunctory affair"! How could Pollock's Autumn Light have been planned? Or de Kooning's Woman I! In Abstract Expressionism, hand and eye were everything, and for those who can remember that era, the intellect could hardly have been more suspect. The painter's studio and the philosophy seminar room were at one in repudiating the "ghost in the machine."
LeWitt, by contrast, was an unabashed mentalist. "It is the objective of the artist who is concerned with conceptual art to make his work mentally interesting to the spectator." And, on a note that must have been infuriating to those who saw it as the aim of painting to express and arouse feelings of the most visceral order, LeWitt adds that conceptual artists would "usually want [the art] to become emotionally dry." It need not be boring--"It is only the expectation of an emotional kick, to which one conditioned to expressionist art is accustomed, that would deter the viewer from perceiving this art." Wall Drawing #1, first installed in the Paula Cooper Gallery in 1968, is not in the Whitney show, but you can see the plan for it in the catalogue. It is a composition made up of four rectangular areas, overlaid by a network of vertical and horizontal lines, drawn with graphite sticks, which would have had the visual exhilaration of window screens were it not for the superimposed diagonal lines, drawn at 45-degree angles, forming an overlay of nested diamonds. Wall Drawing #1: Drawing Series II 18 (A&B)--to give it its full name--is, one might say, almost aggressively dry. But it would have had great contextual excitement in 1968. It is often said in retrospect that Abstract Expressionism as a movement was finished in 1962. But it still tended to define what one expected to experience in galleries in the later sixties. Pop Art used the brash, lurid colors of commercial logos clamoring for the attention of consumers. So it would have been astonishing to enter an avant-garde space like Paula Cooper's and see something that is "perceived first as a light tonal mass...and then as a collection of lines." From the perspective of its historical moment, Wall Drawing #1 has to have been seen as provocative--a feeling that has faded with the evolution of the art to which LeWitt has so greatly contributed: We are living in a conceptual art world. On the evidence of Autobiography, meanwhile, one cannot but feel that there is an aspect of LeWitt's personality present in the neatly drawn, evenly spaced, repeated uninflected lines. It is a disposition transformed into an aesthetic, to be found throughout his work--though it is by no means the whole of the LeWittian aesthetic, which has become increasingly sensuous (as in the marvelously interlaced red and purple of Loopy Doopy) and hardly calculated to give pleasure to those with what the great logician W.V.O. Quine--who died on Christmas Day at age 92--once spoke of as a "taste for desert landscapes."
One cannot imagine Loopy Doopy as having been done by LeWitt in 1968. He has penetratingly observed that "the difference between the sixties and now is that those years were a time of very strong ideology, politically, aesthetically, and every other way. In order to break with the past and make new things, you had to begin with some kind of ideological framework." The work, one might say, has become decreasingly ideologized, and though the same distinction between plan and execution remains in place, there would be little inclination to consider the execution "perfunctory." LeWitt rarely serves as his own draftsman any longer, but he closely monitors those who carry out his plans.
Consider in this light LeWitt's sculptural--or, as he would say, "structural"--works. His 1964 Standing Open Structure Black is one of the defining sculptural works of the twentieth century: a simple wooden structure, painted black, with nearly square cross-sections, ninety-six inches tall. It is like a three-dimensional diagram of a geometrical figure, since it consists only of edges and corners. It could have been selected as a furnishing for the house that Ludwig Wittgenstein built and designed for his sister in Vienna. Typically, LeWitt's structures are variations on cubes used as modules, painted black or white, and looking, I suppose, like skeletal models for pieces of architecture or perhaps for molecules. They do not always stand on the floor--sometimes they are hung from walls or even suspended from ceilings. They all give the sense of being reductions of complex objects to their elementary constituents. Speaking again of the sixties, LeWitt observes, "I could never have made a colored sculpture. It was something I just couldn't do.... But now I say, so what? If it seems to promise some kind of interesting result, why not do it?"
Perhaps he is referring to such works as Non-Geometric Form #8--more engagingly titled Splotch (color). It is a gaily painted, irregularly curved object, like a cartoon mountain range, which is in a side lobby on the ground floor at the Whitney, the walls of which are no less gaily decorated with bands and arcs. It is an example of what LeWitt's friend Lucy Lippard called Eccentric Abstraction, the greatest exponent of which was LeWitt's protégée, Eva Hesse, the young sculptor who died in 1970. For all the tragedy of Hesse's life, her work was full of mirth, and it is very much as though, in relinquishing ideology, LeWitt took her as his model. Splotch, Splat and Blob are names that LeWitt uses. They belong to the lexicon of comic strips, in one of which Loopy Doopy could be the name of a character. This is a joyful show, full of fun and beauty, a gift to the world. The Whitney looks as if it had been expressly designed with LeWitt's ideological work in mind. The later work will brighten the dour interior until February 25.
As busy as he is these days, George W. Bush should take time out to see Traffic, Steven Soderbergh's new movie about the war on drugs. For, in coming days, Bush must name a new drug czar, and seeing this movie could--and should--affect his choice. Traffic contains the usual disclaimer about its characters bearing no resemblance to real individuals, living or dead, but it is in fact a thinly veiled attack on the drug policy of the Clinton Administration and its outgoing drug czar, Barry McCaffrey. (As he prepares to leave office, Bill Clinton has suddenly become a drug reformer, calling for the decriminalization of marijuana and the overhaul of federal sentencing guidelines for nonviolent drug offenders. Where was he when we needed him?) In the movie, the drug czar, like McCaffrey, is a military man, and as in Washington, the Office of National Drug Control Policy has been taken over by the military and law enforcement. And as in real life, the White House is preoccupied with stopping the flow of drugs from Latin America into the United States.
In Traffic, Soderbergh dramatizes the real-life futility of that undertaking. Having written about the drug issue for years, I expected the movie to take many Hollywood-driven liberties with the facts. At points, the movie does lapse into melodrama; overall, though, it depicts US counternarcotics efforts with dead-on accuracy. In making the film, Soderbergh gained the cooperation of the US Customs Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration. When a Customs official complained about aspects of the script, Soderbergh let him rewrite part of it. The DEA felt so comfortable with the director that it allowed him to shoot a scene inside the El Paso Intelligence Center in Texas--the first time a film crew was ever allowed inside the surveillance complex.
Often, access leads to co-optation, but not in Soderbergh's case. On the contrary, the input from law enforcement, by increasing the movie's verisimilitude, has added to the force of its indictment. One drug agent in the movie acknowledges that the traffickers have access to telecommunications devices far more sophisticated than anything the DEA has. A Customs officer concedes that for every drug shipment that gets seized, several others get through. A trafficker in a witness-protection program chides a DEA agent about the hopelessness of his effort to bring down a smuggling ring--even if he succeeds, others will quickly fill the gap.
Soderbergh's main vehicle for getting his message across is Robert Wakefield, a tough-on-crime state Supreme Court judge in Cincinnati (played by Michael Douglas). After being selected to become the next drug czar, Wakefield prepares for the job by going out into the field. At every stop, he is confronted by evidence of the drug war's failure. On a plane ride back from the border, the judge--surrounded by military officers--asks for new ideas in fighting the war. He is met by total silence.
What finally pushes Wakefield over the edge is his own 16-year-old daughter's descent into cocaine addiction--a subplot that's one of the movie's main weaknesses. Within a matter of days, the teenager goes from perky straight-A student to freebasing zombie who sells her body for drugs. Shades of Reefer Madness. Furthermore, the movie strongly implies that it is suburban whites like Wakefield's daughter who make up the heart of the nation's drug problem--indeed, every drug user depicted in Traffic is white and well-off. Of course, many privileged whites do abuse drugs, but so do plenty of poor African-Americans and Latinos. It's as if Soderbergh can't trust us to sympathize with drug-using minorities. This distorts the nature of the challenge facing drug policy-makers: The movie's addicts are all so well-heeled that they can pay for rehab out of pocket, but if treatment is a superior way to deal with drug abuse, as Traffic suggests, then the government will have to do much more in the way of providing it.
When Wakefield finally tracks his daughter down to a squalid flophouse in inner-city Cincinnati, he realizes that drug abuse is a deeply rooted social problem that cannot be fought with helicopters, guns or wiretaps. At the press conference to announce his appointment, the judge interrupts his prepared, cliché-ridden speech to ask, "How do you wage war on your own family?"
More and more Americans are asking the same question. Almost every time a drug reform measure has been put up for a vote, it has passed. In November, voters in California--tired of paying for ever more prisons--approved a referendum to treat, rather than incarcerate, nonviolent drug offenders. In Manhattan, increasing numbers of prospective jurors are being dismissed after expressing their reluctance to serve on cases involving low-level drug offenders. In early January, New York Governor George Pataki announced his intention to "dramatically reform" the notorious Rockefeller drug laws. The crowds lining up to see Traffic offer further evidence of the changing public mood.
How will Bush respond? On the one hand, he has repeatedly voiced sympathy for people dependent on drugs and alcohol. He has spoken frankly about his own drinking problem and how he managed to overcome it by religious faith. On the other, as governor of Texas, he presided over the nation's largest prison system, and he has seemingly never encountered a drug law he didn't like. Moreover, by invoking only the faith-based form of treatment, he leaves the impression that all addicts need to get well is to open their hearts to Jesus. Most troubling of all is Bush's nominee for Attorney General. Whenever he's had the chance, John Ashcroft has pushed for an intensification of the drug war. He belongs to a group of hard-core Congressional Republicans who have helped stymie all efforts at reform.
At a screening of Traffic in Washington last fall, Bill Olson, the staff director for Republican Senator Charles Grassley's drug caucus, walked out after Michael Douglas's bailout speech. "Shame on you!" he scolded Soderbergh--testimony to the strong emotions the movie is stirring and the stiff resistance its message is facing in Washington.
We're sorry, but we do not have permission to present this article on our website. It is an excerpt from Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World (Metropolitan). © 2000 by Eduardo Galeano. Translation © 2000 by Mark Fried.
Let's cut to the chase on Ken Burns's Jazz, which rolled out on PBS January 8, by invoking Wallace Stevens.
1) Is it entertaining TV? Mostly, in PBS fashion.
2) Does it leave out people and places and whole periods and genres
normally considered vital parts of jazz history? Yes.
3) Does it need more editing? Yes.
4) Does Louis Armstrong claim 40 percent of its nineteen hours? Yes.
5) Does post-1960s jazz claim 10 percent? Yes.
6) Does it tell an informed and informative story? Usually.
7) Does it identify the 500-odd pieces of jazz that serve as its soundtrack? Rarely.
8) Does it have rare and evocative pictures and film footage? Absolutely.
9) Is it good history? It's made-for-PBS history.
10) Will it satisfy jazz fans and musicians and critics? Seems like it already hasn't, and it hasn't even aired yet.
11) Will it save the jazz industry? That depends: CDs labeled Ken Burns's Jazz are bullish.
12) Will it make jazz a part of mainstream American culture again? Not likely, but it may help make it an official part of American popular history.
13) Is it part of the transition jazz has been making for three decades into the academic world? You bet.
Now let's dolly back and try to tell the story.
The numbers have to come first. The ten-episode, nineteen-hour series was six years in the making, and it sprawls: seventy-five talking heads, thousands of still photos and pieces of film, some 500 pieces of music and so on. Costing some $13 million, about a third of it from General Motors, it's the biggest documentary that's been done about jazz.
And yet a lot of jazz musicians and critics and fans, in print and on the web, have been complaining that it's too constrictive. It's easy to see why. It's certainly not comprehensive. For Burns and collaborator Geoffrey Ward, history unfolds in the textures of individual lives. (Ward won the Francis Parkman prize for A First-Class Temperament, one volume of his biography of FDR.) Jazz for them is the story of a few great men (and the odd woman) who changed the way Americans, then the world, hear and think and act. Chief among them: Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. There are places of honor for the likes of James Reese Europe and Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet and Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman and Count Basie, Artie Shaw and Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck. This sort of survey is easier to sustain until about 1929, because jazz musicians were few (though not as few or as limited to New Orleans, Chicago and New York as the series implies). But Burns & Co. can tell a credible story of jazz's first decades using a handful of pioneers.
One reason for the noise is that this overlaps the story of jazz according to the Jazz at Lincoln Center program, a flashpoint in the jazz world. JALC teaches that jazz is a clear-cut genealogy of a few outstanding figures, and it excludes many important artists, especially after 1960, often for ideological reasons. The basic plot for both: Taking its building blocks from slave music, marching bands, blues, the church, European dance and classical music, jazz began life as a mongrel in New Orleans, came up the river to Chicago, met up (via Armstrong) with New York proto-swing bands and Harlem stride pianists and exploded, drawing young white players into a black-developed music. This is true enough, though it ultimately means ignoring uncomfortable parallel developments (Red Allen and Armstrong) or scenes (between-the-wars LA jazz) or entire genres (Latin jazz, European jazz). But schematic history can be good TV, and Burns, like earlier PBS filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, makes long, long movies that depend on strong, heavily delineated characters and themes to keep them from dissipating.
His story's heart is Armstrong. Its head is Ellington. And its soul is the Jazz Age and the Swing Era.
In episode five, "Swing: Pure Pleasure (1935-1937)," writer Albert Murray declares, "Jazz is primarily dance music." Though that hasn't been true for nearly half the music's history, it's clear he's speaking for Burns: Three episodes, nearly six hours, discuss the big-band era, when jazz underpinned popular music, lifted Depression-era spirits, saved the record industry and dominated that new omnipresent technology, radio. Nevertheless, as the often-intrusive talking heads tell us, from Ellington on down the musicians knew the difference between the business and the music; stage shtick and chart slots were as important then as now. This is a bittersweet Golden Age of speakeasies, hoods, the Great Depression, squealing bobby-soxers, lynchings, jitterbugging, novelty tunes and early moves toward racial integration. It is described as a time of "adult sensibility" and is the series' gravitational center.
The great-man schematic creates escalating difficulty for the plotting starting with episode seven, which begins with Charlie Parker and spends nearly as much time on Satchmo as it does on bebop. By the mid-1940s, the musicians had multiplied and moved on--out of Harlem and swing time. And so jazz dissolves into hundreds of musicians searching for different sounds, styles, approaches, languages, multimedia formats. The last forty years of Jazz are a choppy and unreliable ride; a lot disappears, and what's left can be telegraphic or confusing and look exactly like JALC speaking.
Burns says post-1960s jazz is too controversial even in the jazz world to be history. Maybe he should have ended, then, with John Coltrane; Baseball, after all, stopped at 1970. For in less than two hours, faces from Charles Mingus's to Sonny Rollins's flash across the screen between inevitable reprises of Duke and Satchmo. Miles Davis's push into fusion shrinks to his alleged desperation for teen fans. Ornette Coleman is dismissed. Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea don't appear. The 1970s and 1980s are a quick-blur artistic wilderness until the arrival of Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and the film's senior creative consultant and prime talking head. And there, after a brief survey of new stars (Cassandra Wilson, Joshua Redman) and a recapitulation of key figures and themes, it ends.
The signal irony: If Burns had cut the final episode and billed this as Jazz: The First 50 Years, more of the discussion might be where it belongs--on the movie.
Until pretty recently nobody thought enough of jazz to point a movie camera in its general direction for very long. There are snatches of footage of Armstrong, Ellington, Fats Waller, Bessie Smith and the like from the early days. By the mid-1930s the popular swing bands cropped up in films and then in "soundies." But the video record of what fans like to call America's greatest art form is sporadic and discouraging.
This problem plays to Burns's strengths: He loves having his staff dig up old photos (for this, they turned up millions), and he loves working stills to make them kinetic. He pans across and slowly zooms in and out of a single shot to give it a movielike temporal depth. In one vignette about Harlem's Savoy Ballroom, where drummer Chick Webb held court and introduced Ella Fitzgerald in the 1930s, Burns intercuts shots of separate white and black dancers to hammer home the voiceover's point about its integrated patrons--a first in America. He assembles a deft mix of photos and film to re-create the stage-fright-to-triumph of Benny Goodman's 1938 "Sing Sing Sing" concert at Carnegie Hall.
The series boasts tours de force. The evocative segment called "The Road" strings out a head-turning daisy chain of wondrous footage: bands on trains and buses and touring cars, chugging 500 miles a day, six days a week, making whoopee and changing tires, riding high onstage and coping with breakdowns and prejudice offstage. The recently deceased bass and photography great Milt Hinton recalls how at band stops his wife would head into town to look for black homes where the musicians could eat and stay, how musicians were people of prestige in the community. Readings from journals and newspapers and diaries sample big-band life's dizzying ups and downs, while the film rolls from impromptu baseball games to a couple of female jazz fans puffing fake reefers while hugging the sign of a town named Gage.
And in the background rolls out more jazz by far than 99 percent of America has heard. Much of the time, it's as snippets in the background when one after another talking head pops up. The heads are duly identified time after time. The tunes aren't, unless they're keyed to a biographical or sociological set piece. Why not flash a subtitle to tell the audience what's playing?
Because jazz is the soundtrack for this series as much as or more than it is its subject. To put it another way, this isn't really a movie about jazz history. Think of Burns as PBS's Oliver Stone. Like the Civil War and baseball, jazz for Burns and Ward is a lens to focus on basic questions: Who are Americans, and how do they manage to get along--or not? And their central query concerns race.
So they film jazz as the tale of black redemption in and of America, a narrative of conversion and triumph whose shape recalls St. Augustine and Dante. From the days of slavery through the humiliations of Jim Crow and minstrelsy to the assertive freedom of the blues and jazz, Burns's movie resounds with the apocalyptic ring of apotheosis, as it examines a few crucial candidates for cultural sainthood. For it wants both to carve jazz greats into the American pantheon and to underline jazz's pivotal centrality to twentieth-century America as an affirmation of African-American creativity and endurance.
This, coupled with Marsalis's camera-savvy polish as a spokesman as well as his insistent championing of jazz education over the years, explains why a filmmaker like Burns would feel drawn to JALC's version of jazz history. (Actually, Dan Morgenstern, the respected head of the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies, was the film's senior historical consultant and vetted the script; there were twenty-three consultants in all, so until the final episode there are inevitable points of similarity, but not identity, with Lincoln Center's tale.) But dramatic necessity also helps explain why some characters, like Armstrong and Ellington, are the story's recurrent focus.
Swing, you might guess, is a buzzword in this series, and you'd be right, even though the film itself doesn't swing much. The earnestness that suffuses PBS cultural products won't let it float for long. At times, the music's lilting ease and fire contrast vividly with its deliberate, self-conscious pace. That's exacerbated by Burns's seventy-five talking heads: Watching can be like sitting through a course team-taught by the UN.
Besides Marsalis, Burns's other main soloist is writer Gary Giddins, and Giddins swings: His wide-ranging erudition rides his love for jazz easily. Other commentators--Stanley Crouch, Albert Murray, Artie Shaw, Gerald Early, James Lincoln Collier, Dave Brubeck--give good camera and consistent historical edutainment. But too many proffer vague impressions, clichéd memories, breathless interpretations and warmed-over anecdotes. They could easily have been edited or edited out. Then there are periodic pileups. In episode seven Joya Sherrill, Mercedes Ellington (Duke's granddaughter) and a few others repeat that Duke and Billy Strayhorn were a rare and wonderful match. In episode five, the same two dancers appear twice with virtually the same observations about Harlem's Savoy Ballroom.
Sometimes the anecdotes are fun or fabulous, sometimes they're bad history. Take Jon Hendricks, who in episode four retails the disproven mythic origin of Armstrong's scatting (sheet music fell off his stand at a recording session). Or director Bertrand Tavernier, who gushes about Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli introducing the guitar-violin combo to jazz, though they themselves would have fingered Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti. Ballplayer Buck O'Neil rambles good-naturedly about Billie Holiday giving listeners "the greatest moments" and "the saddest moments," demonstrating how a tighter edit could have sliced out the lapses into vacuity.
Marsalis's starring role has several sides. He delivers very effective musical glosses and explanations, polished by years of shows and clinics with adults, teens and kids. His knowledge of and passion for the jazz he loves, and his conviction that it represents American life in full, are infectious, if sometimes hyperbolic. But when he holds forth about Ellington and Armstrong and the semilegendary Buddy Bolden as if he knew them intimately, it's TV, not history.
History can be light-fingered instead of heavy-handed, and Jazz could use more humor, more of the "light" Marsalis ascribes to the best jazz musicians. It has some fabulous vignettes from Crouch, the third-ranked talking head. Except for the last two hours, Crouch swings. In one priceless bit he mimics pre-Armstrong pop vocalists and then Armstrong himself, and asks why anyone would want to revert. "That would be a bad choice," he deadpans. Anybody who makes that choice, he adds, should be deported--count a beat--"to somewhere." Another beat. "Maybe Pluto." It's impossible to disagree, especially when you're laughing.
To some extent, Burns has himself to blame for the unjoyful noise in the jazz world. In conversation, he tends, rightly, to underplay his work's ambitions. It's not the history of jazz, he says. Viewers will get to know a handful of musicians, meet another dozen or two and brush past a few dozen more. He can't possibly compete with books like Giddins's Visions of Jazz or jazz histories like those of Ted Gioia or Marshall Stearns; he's made a movie that tells an educational story for a mass audience. This is reasonable, accurate and no small feat. And, in fact, the movie is steeped with rich human detail of the sort most music historians rarely touch on. But the PR bombast trumpets him as jazz's Joan of Arc, and once he's on-message he can't stop selling. Jazz, like academia, is small and marginal with plenty of defensive, combative types; "the music" is a secular religion. Burns's perceived power inevitably lights the territorial fuses.
As it happens, the jazz industry, now down to about 1 percent of US music sales once you exclude Kenny G and his clones, looks like a Victorian maiden lashed to the tracks awaiting her hero. Burns's movie is a mantra, as record labels crunch despairing numbers and weed out personnel and artists after the latest wave of megamergers and Internet terrors. For his well-designed five-CD companion set (subtitled The Story of America's Music), the filmmaker brokered a deal between Sony and Verve (Universal), bitter corporate rivals, then brought in other labels; all are hoping for sales like the companion book's, which had a first printing of 250,000. This is mind-blowing if you're a jazz-label head used to dealing in niche sales (Marsalis himself rarely moves more than 10,000 CDs) and waiting for the next guillotine stroke.
Potential audience numbers get tossed around fervently: 40 million viewers for Baseball and The Civil War, and Jazz will probably draw less, but... It fascinates me that few of the film's critics address that. Why not consider an America where 20 million more people--or 3 million, or however many finally watch--know something, anything, about Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Davis and a few others? Where, if they survive the overstatements, talking heads and pacing, they learn some hidden history?
Am I a Pollyanna? Maybe. Reality check: This is a made-for-TV movie. But I too think race is America's central issue, even more multifaceted in the twenty-first century. What holds this joint's pasted seams together, beyond the Founding Documents, is the frequently intangible glue called culture. TV is a major place American culture gets made. Can anyone measure what it meant to have Bill Cosby playing an upper-middle-class dad-next-door for a generation? What it means now that there are black and Hispanic and Asian and gay and you-name-'em channels filling cable and satellite TV? Can anyone guess what it might mean in five years to have Jazz, whatever its warts, playing over and over to a country as terminally divided and in search of itself as this one?
These are not delusions of grandeur about the power of jazz or Ken Burns. They are possibilities written in the history of jazz in America. Take Burns's vignette about Charlie Black, a white Texas teen who saw Armstrong perform in the 1930s. It changed his life. He joined the NAACP's legal team working on what became Brown v. Board of Education. The sociology of jazz is full of such stories. And they are very real.
For instance, no one with a brain disputes that jazz was initially an African-American creation. But as Marsalis, Giddins, Crouch, Murray and Early point out over and over, jazz was welcoming, inclusive, open. It replaced minstrelsy with a cultural site where all Americans could participate, speak to one another, override or ignore or challenge or slide by the society's fixations on racial and ethnic stereotypes. Black Americans (and other ethnic outsiders) could use it to enter mainstream society, white Americans could flee to it from mainstream society, and the transactions created a flux and flow that powered American cultural syntheses.
Jazz, the theme goes, represents America at its best--the dream of America. In the Depression, as Early reminds us, it rivaled MGM musicals in lifting the country's spirits. Of course, since jazz is a human activity, it also reflects the deepest divisions as well as the ideals at America's core. Race, sex, money, power, capitalism, creative freedom, the interaction of the individual and the group--these are all questions embedded in jazz history. They're the questions Burns and Ward are truly interested in. At its best, Jazz gets us interested in them too.
Burns admits he never listened to jazz until he started considering it as a subject. Ward became an Armstrong fan at age 10, when he was hospitalized with polio. Jazz is lucky they're interested in it.
Right now, jazz's commercial future is murky. The major labels are mostly wreckage. Marsalis, who used to get $1 million a year to make niche-market records in the hope that they would turn into catalogue gold, doesn't have a label; neither does Redman. High-profile jazz promoters are hemorrhaging. The Knitting Factory is reportedly in the hole for $2 million, after luring a big entertainment firm to take a stake, opening a club in LA and losing its annual jazz-festival sponsor. The Blue Note chain is said to be spurting red ink from expansions into Las Vegas and midtown Manhattan. Nor are jazz's nonprofit arms thriving. The Thelonious Monk Institute, so closely aligned with the Clinton/Gore Administration that its head was reportedly hoping for an ambassadorship if Al won, is looking pale. And the long-dormant board of Jazz at Lincoln Center has just fired executive director Rob Gibson in a swirl of intrigue: changed door locks and computer codes, fired and rehired personnel, amid persistent rumors of financial malfeasance, bullying and drug abuse.
Jazz has been on a commercial slide since the 1970s, when it racked up 10 percent of retail music sales. At the same time, it began entering the groves of academe. Today most jazz musicians are trained at schools; jazz history is laced through American studies and music curriculums.
This process has already fundamentally changed jazz itself and its relation to American culture, though how isn't always clear at first. As a colleague reminded me recently, in the jazz heydays celebrated by Burns's Jazz, musicians fashioned their own idiosyncratic solutions to musical problems, drawing on oral tradition (which varied considerably) and their own ingenuity and needs. This meant finding individual creative solutions to problems--how to finger this note or sequence, how to get that timbre, how to connect those chord changes. Now, a professor distributes computer analyses of famous solos, templates for solutions that are shared by hundreds and thousands of students. This has a paradoxical effect: It raises the general level of and standardizes jazz training, but it also tends to vitiate the individuality traditionally at the music's heart. This is why older musicians routinely complain that younger schooled players all sound alike. On the other hand, they're well suited for jazz repertory programs like JALC.
That is part of jazz's changing contemporary dynamics. So is Ken Burns's Jazz.
In the aftermath of the Iran/contra crisis, one of the networks decided to make a docudrama about the life of Ollie North, loosely based on a biography by Ben Bradle Jr. Its problem was that once North joined the Reagan National Security Council staff, the story lost both its moral compass and empathetic value. The producers could not find a single real-life character among the top Administration officials who displayed the slightest concern about the moral implications of North's drug- and gun-smuggling, hostage-buying and terrorist-supplying enterprises. They solved this problem by simply inventing someone.
The producers of Thirteen Days, the new Kevin Costner/Cuban Missile Crisis $80 million extravaganza, have done something similar. Instead of inventing a new character, however, they have invented a new history for an old one. Special Assistant Kenneth O'Donnell, who was responsible primarily for presidential scheduling in real life, does not even register in respected crisis histories. In the nearly 700 pages of transcripts from ExComm, the ad hoc committee dealing with the crisis, edited by Ernest May and Philip Zelikow and published by Harvard in 1997, O'Donnell rates exactly two insignificant lines. Yet here we see O'Donnell, played by Costner, saving the Kennedys from themselves and the world from self-destruction. One minute SuperKen is bawling out the President for going soft on the Commies, the next he's roughing up Mac Bundy for suggesting the same. A cross between an über-aide barking orders at quivering politicos and a shaggy dog who follows his master around with scotch-filled Waterford crystal, he instructs Adlai Stevenson to stand up to the Soviets at the UN and a fighter pilot to pretend he was not shot at in Cuba. Cynics looking for an explanation of this rather odd historical rewrite might point to the fact that the film was partially funded by O'Donnell's son, Earthlink co-founder Kevin O'Donnell.
Reviewers like the Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern innocently term the film "a valuable history lesson." In fact, the film takes countless liberties with the documentary record. For instance, Thirteen Days
§ conveniently skips Robert McNamara's initial arguments that Russia's placement of the missiles should be ignored because Soviet long-range missiles made them strategically meaningless, lest this comment undercut the film's entire rationale;
§ ignores the record of US efforts to destabilize the Castro regime, including contingency invasion plans being readied at the time of the emplacement;
§ explicitly whitewashes the Kennedys' unconscionable McCarthyite plot to discredit the dovish Adlai Stevenson, whose recommendations they largely--and secretly--ended up following;
§ sans evidence, attributes a column by Walter Lippmann that contained the seeds of a crisis-ending missile trade to a leak direct from Jack and Bobby;
§ places the Kennedys' meetings that decided in favor of a missile trade inside the ExComm, when in fact they deliberately kept these secret from the "Wise Men," fearing the same attacks they themselves had leveled at Stevenson.
Of course, the level of accuracy is not too bad for a film whose credits include six tailors and seven hairdressers but not one academic historian. (Former CIA analyst Dino Brugioni, author of a fine book on the technical aspects of the crisis called Eyeball to Eyeball, is listed, but one hopes he had nothing to do with its story line.)
My view is that anyone who takes Hollywood's history for scripture deserves whatever they get. As John Sayles has observed to Eric Foner, "Using [the word] 'responsibility' in the same sentence as 'the movie industry'--it just doesn't fit." Yet at the same time, Sayles noted, Hollywood can't help itself. Often the only way to sell a movie is for the ad to read "Based on a true story..." Sometimes they get away with it, sometimes not, usually depending on whose interests are served by the lies in question. When Costner and Oliver Stone offered up their loony version of the Kennedy assassination in JFK, the Washington media establishment reacted with such outrage the Capitol threatened to float away on hot air. No one wanted to see Stone's conspiratorial version of the assassination and the Vietnam War replace the official misinformation. On the other hand, some Hollywood lies are welcomed by pundits. Last summer, Mel Gibson and company came up with a version of the American Revolution in The Patriot in which the Americans, not the British, freed the slaves. No matter that the Southern revolutionaries fought to protect their "peculiar institution" while the British offered the slaves their freedom should they join the loyalist cause. William F. Buckley (surely a born loyalist if ever there was one) came forward to endorse Hollywood's fictional history. David Horowitz, displaying his patented post-Stalinist brand of hysterical ignorance leavened with personal dishonesty, complained, "Leftwing reviewers inwardly despising its patriotic themes have taken to faulting its alleged historical 'inaccuracies' as a way of dismissing its significance.... [But] isn't this what the American revolution was about--the promise that all men would be free? And didn't the new nation deliver on that promise in a generation and pay an even greater price in blood to do so?"
Well, no, Comrade Horowitz, it didn't. A generation after the Revolution, the slaves were still slaves, and Southern revolutionaries were still slaveowners. The Emancipation Proclamation (which freed only selected slaves) took nearly a century, and blacks were not given the right to a meaningful vote in the South for another hundred years after that. (Moreover, some, including quite a few thousand in Florida, are still fighting.)
Judged by the standards of JFK and The Patriot, Thirteen Days looks pretty good. At least it comes with a warning: "You'll never believe how close we came," its ad campaign promises. And I didn't.
You've got to understand what Sam Shepard meant to us.
There are those who know Shepard as a movie star and those who discovered him, earlier on, when he won the Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child; but for those of us who first watched his plays in tiny studio theaters above a bar or in converted churches when there was still a counterculture, he was our playwright.
Shepard's plays were like no others--fresh, hip, antiheroic, free from the tired old psychology of Tennessee Williams and the Actors Studio. By no means political, they nevertheless made us aware of the myths that shaped our behavior as Americans. And if you knew where playwriting had been, with all those precious attempts to repoeticize the drama, and knew what was happening with psychedelics--people beginning to listen to those half-heard perceptions passing through their heads--you knew he had created an inevitably right form of drama.
He also meant a lot to people in the Bay Area, where, in the waning days of the counterculture, he settled for the better part of a decade. That was about the same amount of time Eugene O'Neill lived here, and like O'Neill, Shepard wrote many of his best plays here. He's been quoted as saying his years as playwright-in-residence at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, where he premiered Angel City, Buried Child, Fool for Love and True West, were "the most productive time of my theater life."
But then, having given by his presence a certain validation to regional theater in the forever insecure "world class" city of San Francisco, he pulled up stakes and went to work as an actor in Hollywood movies. This at about the same time he was criticizing the hell out of the corruption of the creative process in La-La Land, in True West. And not only did he abandon our ever so artistically pure Bay Area for Hollywood, but he ended up making a long line of godawful movies, like Dash and Lilly, Purgatory and Baby Boom, pictures you wouldn't have thought a man of his literary sophistication and discrimination would touch.
In the past decade, Shepard seems to have returned to theater, though these have largely been years of successful revivals and very mixed and often not very warm responses to his recent work. The result is a lingering fear that Shepard, once the Wunderkind of American drama, has treated his tremendous gift far too carelessly.
Which brings us to The Late Henry Moss, the first premiere of a Shepard play by the Magic Theatre in seventeen years (at Theatre on the Square in San Francisco). The very best playwright of his generation was able to interest Nick Nolte and Sean Penn in the play--two of the very best actors in America, actors who time and time again have shown seriousness in their choice of material. That heightened expectations of the old exhilaration: a return of the real Sam Shepard, the poet, sure-footed, bringing you face to face with perceptions only half-acknowledged. And not only might Shepard be back at the top of his form, but this was an older and, one hoped, more deeply seeing Shepard, writing about the ultimate subject, death.
Shepard had left the Bay Area saying he was "no longer young," and now here we were so much further along. (Seventeen years; is it possible?) The golden boy is 57 and has lost both his mother and the father who was the source of so much of the anger and unhappiness in his plays. As he says at the end of Cruising Paradise, his 1996 collection of tales containing versions of both those deaths, "Everything was in place."
In The Late Henry Moss, the father's death is a mystery. One son, Ray (Sean Penn), seeks the truth about it and about his father and the family's past. The other, Earl (Nick Nolte), his opposite, seeks to hide the truth from himself and others. But from a cab driver (Woody Harrelson) and a concerned neighbor, Esteban (the delightful Cheech Marin), and in flashbacks, we discover that the father (James Gammon) went on a drunken fishing trip with a mysterious Native American woman (a very strong Sheila Tousey). Psychically tougher and more powerfully vital than any man in the play, she constantly throws it in the old man's face that he is dead in life. Ultimately she helps him really die. As she does, we discover Earl's part in that evening and his earlier act of betrayal when the family broke apart.
As the brothers, Nolte and Penn do what they do. Nolte drags on a cigarette, the tip just emerging from his fist, knocks down a shot, passes a hand through his hair and plays ravaged, weighed-down inner suffering with great naturalness. Equally real for the most part, Penn is intense, like a cat about to spring, and is ace, as you might expect, with Shepard's insolent threats and threatening silences. Both know to goose the energy with dynamic gestures, but both can also be a little small at times, as if they're expecting a camera to magnify the drama of facial nuances.
Unlike Woody Harrelson, who turns in a hugely inventive performance as the cab driver, finding fifty different ways to physicalize essentially the same action, what Nolte and Penn do ultimately begins to seem like more of the same. But here I think the problem is the writing, and with great disappointment I report that Shepard hasn't returned to his former powers with this play. He simply hasn't given Penn and Nolte sufficient material to work with. There's not a whole lot to the characters, and their relationship lacks the continuously rich evolution of True West. I suspect this underwriting is part of what makes the ending seem inflated and overwrought. The fact that what is revealed about the family's past isn't all that compelling doesn't help.
There are of course many joyously perverse, off-the-wall Shepard lines like "Every death has to be reported these days--unless you kill someone" and (to bumbling funeral attendants) "That's my father you just dropped." His typically audacious choices as writer and director are also very much in evidence, as when he leaves a giant, unsettling, unfurnished empty space in the set, stage right, or when Sheila Tousey picks Marin up and swings him back and forth like a doll, or when Harrelson leaps on top of a refrigerator, a meat cleaver in hand for protection.
Where most directors move actors about the stage to articulate relationships and tell the story of the play and create an overall mood with lights and textures, it's as though Shepard does all that and, with the help of designers Andy Stacklin (set), Anne Militello (lights) and Christine Dougherty (costumes), also creates pictures on stage that have the strange beauty of Edward Hopper's--only with a palette more like Wayne Thiebaud's. Shepard also moves into a more overt and equally beautiful surrealism, as when Tousey's head and arms appear otherwise disembodied over the edge of a bathtub.
In fact, Shepard seems to be trying to move into new territory. If Buried Child was Shepard's Ibsen play (and Ibsen parody) and Fool for Love his Strindberg, The Late Henry Moss may be a kind of Long Day's Journey Into Night, an attempt at closure with his father and his death.
The way he manages that attempt shows Shepard still of a countercultural bent, embracing the counterculture's characteristic antidote, inclusion of the Other. The setting is no longer a desert wasteland but the Southwest, the Latin/Native American West, New Mexico, where Shepard first moved when he left the Bay Area, and where a brooding primitivism makes you feel you've crossed into a foreign country.
After years of delineating the underside of macho, in Henry Moss Shepard brings onto his stage a Native woman, sensuous, with a mythic dimension and definitely Other. She brings with her clear vision, reverence for the dead, ritual, dance and a nonstereotypical way of being female. And it is she who--not maternally, but with great hardness--brings Henry to his death and closure to his suffering and macho failings.
Ultimately, however, this closure doesn't bring about a sense of reconciliation. The account of Shepard's father's funeral in Cruising Paradise is tender, full of pity and acceptance, and in it Shepard captures a very real sense of the grief that sneaks up unexpectedly (even when you harbor great anger toward the deceased). He chokes up reading the Bible over his father's grave and can't go on.
Henry Moss is a different work, and there's no reason Shepard should re-create the same emotional landscape, but given the subject matter there's a surprising lack of those feelings. Esteban is upset by Henry's death; Ray stands mutely by the corpse for a moment. In the final analysis, though, Shepard is extremely hard on his characters, father and sons. You might say, unforgiving. The failings and betrayals are a barrier he can't seem to get past. And in the end, the play never deals with the grief and pity that must be dealt with if reconciliation is to come from an encounter with the dead.