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REDISCOVERING HAMLET

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?"

A review of Sol LeWitt's Autobiography.

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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.

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