Sunday, December 16, 2007

Action Gender Studies

I like “Action” movies. I don’t say that as some sort of guilty pleasure confession; I just like the genre. I think it’s the kind of thing that cinema does better than any other medium. Drama and musicals work best on the stage and comedy is well suited for TV. But a semi-truck chased by alien spacecraft leaping over an exploding skyscraper… I want to see that on the big screen.

I like Bruce Willis. I like how he “gets” what his action-movie-star counterparts don’t seem to get, that once you’ve been paid $20 million dollars four or five times for movies in which pretty much everything you don’t actually shoot still explodes, the pressure is off. You can do community theatre if you want. You can take odd little roles in odd little movies for the minimum salary just because it looks like it, too, might be fun. Consider what Lamberto Maggiorani was paid for Ladri di Biciclette in1948 and get over any notion that connects salary to quality.

The original Die Hard movie is a classic. Well-written and very well-made, it defied the convention that required all “action heroes” be muscle-bound masters of martial arts, i.e., super heroes. Instead, it introduced the action hero as everyman. Willis’ John McClane is not a man of extraordinary skills and abilities. He is a NYC cop on vacation that gets caught up in circumstances beyond his control. In every film in the franchise, the character gradually has the hell beat out of him to be left at the end of the film, bullet-riddled, cut to pieces, bloody, but the last man standing.

Nineteen years after the original film hit the theatres and twelve years after the last and weakest installment in the series (Die Hard with a Vengeance) Willis decided to bring John McClane back in a fourth film, Live Free or Die Hard.

The story is about an attack on the country’s infrastructure by cyber-terrorists who hijack control of transportation, communication and power systems by typing really, really fast.

Who knew, growing up, that in the future battles between good and evil would be represented by a clash of the typists?

In one scene in his basement “command center” Kevin Smith, a “digital Jedi” named “Warlock” has a keyboard on his lap and his fingers dance across it in a manner that makes you ask “What could he possibly be typing?” Most of what the characters actually DO with their computers are things that would mostly involve mouse clicks. Lots of mouse clicks. I have to think that the dilemma must be that, no matter what you do, it’s just impossible to infuse dramatic tension into a mouse click.

Typing then becomes the visual “action” associated with computers.

In science fiction films (e.g., Minority Report) one of the first things to happen is that keyboards disappear and people find new physical ways to interact with computers. In contemporary settings the best we can do is come up with cooler keyboards like the one used in many action sequences here, a full size keyboard that rolls up into the size of a Cuban cigar. In the 21st Century size still matters, but smaller seems to signify better.

And Willis plays McClane as a man out of time. The film’s theme song – CCR’s “Fortunate Son” – is an interesting pick. Fogerty wrote the song in response to Richard Nixon’s attempt on his life (ala the draft and Vietnam). Willis’ John McClane “ain’t no senator’s son, no.” No.

The film’s politics are rather odd. In the current political climate one might expect the villain here to be a crazed jihadist with a computer science degree. But the enemy, though clearly constructed as the “bad guy” by the number of people killed without hesitation for simple convenience sake, is domestic; an insider, self-described patriot determined to demonstrate the country’s vulnerability to this kind of attack.

In the Roderick Thorp novel Nothing Lasts Forever, the basis for the original Die Hard film, the hero was trying to save his daughter (rather than his ex-wife) and the addition here of Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Lucy Gennero is a kind of slight nod to the book.

John McClane was introduced to feminism the same way that most of the blue-collar men of his generation were, by way of their daughters. We first see Lucy in the front seat of a car necking with a young man determined to get to first base. As Lucy peels his hand from her breast a second time the car door opens and the kid is yanked from the car by John McClane whose first spoken line in the film is: “No means no, jerk-off.”

But McClane hasn’t missed the point of those “Take Back the Night!” marches he was probably assigned crowd control duties at in the late 70s, and his daughter has her father’s left hook. The film never takes Lucy to the magnificent heights of Bridgette Wilson’s Whitney Slater, Jack Slater’s daughter in the misunderstood and brilliant Last Action Hero (1993), but she definitely establishes herself as something more formidable than helpless movie victim girl throughout the film.

One of the best lines is an exchange between Lucy and good-guy hacker Matt Farrell when she tells him “Maybe you’re just gonna have to reach way down and find some bigger balls” to which he replies, “Wow… I know that tone. I’m just not used to it coming from someone with, you know, hair.”

The other major female role here is that of the head bad guy's lover-henchwoman, Mai Lihn (Maggie Q), a mixed racial martial artist who engages McClane in the longest fight scene of the film in which they both beat each other senseless repeatedly until her demise in an exploding SUV at the bottom of an elevator shaft (you have to see it).

A pre-feminist McClane would have had serious reservations about “hitting a girl.” The post-feminist McClane, not so much. I was explaining to a friend just the other day that one of the triumphs of feminism is that my opposition to Senator Hillary Clinton’s candidacy can have absolutely nothing to do with gender.

The film, set during a 4th of July Independence Day holiday in Washington, D.C., engages in so little manipulation of post 9/11 iconography that it might actually be the first example of a post-post-9/11 action movie.

We can only hope.

By the way, I watched both the “theatrical” and “unrated” versions and oddly I would strongly recommend the “theatrical” version. There aren’t many differences other than a few lines of dialogue that are better in the theatrical version and a very odd increase in a specific kind of violence. In the theatrical version when McClane shoots a bad guy he shoots 3 or 4 times. In the unrated version he shoots 11 or 12 times, which just seems both unnecessary and ill-advised for a cop with limited ammunition.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

I'm Not There....

Cover of Italian bootleg, You Don't Know Me

Heath Ledger as Robbie the actor in I'm Not There

Restored to bright and vibrant color, The Beatles second film, Help!, has just been reissued on DVD. I bought a copy a week or two before I saw the new Todd Haynes Bob Dylan anti-biopic I’m Not There. I mention the two films together because I remembered that among the ideas kicked around for the third Beatles film was one that called for the four Beatles to play four different aspects of one character. At one point the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni was supposedly connected to the idea – most likely apocryphal given that Blow Up is the most critical film even made about “the sixties” generation – but nothing ever came of it.

Without question however, the most bizarre third Beatles film that never happened involved a plan to have Stanley Kubrick direct the four Beatles in a film version of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings with George as Gandalf, Paul as Frodo, Ringo as Sam, and John as Gollum.

Dennis O’Dell, the head of Apple Films had worked with Kubrick on the production of Doctor Strangelove. In The Beatles film Magical Mystery Tour (which I think represents a home movie more than a follow-up to Help!) there is a sequence for the lone Beatles’ instrumental “Flying” in which O’Dell took some aerial footage shot for Doctor Strangelove but never used, and colorized it, giving it a sufficiently psychedelic look. Amazingly, when the film debuted on British TV on Boxing Day 1967, Kubrick watched it at home, recognized his pilfered footage and called O’Dell.

Around the same time someone gave John Lennon a set of the Tolkien books which he read during those moments when the acid wore off long enough for the letters to stop swirling around the page. Needless to say, John was hooked. O’Dell took the idea of a Beatles’ Lord of the Rings to United Artists who said they were interested, but because of what would be a sizable budget, required that a “name” director be part of the deal.

You can see where this is going.

O’Dell met with Kubrick who said he was interested but that he’d never read the Tolkien books. Stanley had booked passage on a ship back to the US and said he would read them on the trip. When he returned he called O’Dell and announced that the books were quite good but completely unfilmable and bowed out of the discussion. By that time Lennon’s attention had already moved on to the next batch of shiny bright things and the idea was quietly abandoned.

I love this story because it reminds me of something I can easily forget when I listen to The Beatles. By the time the band was reduced to nothing more than a room full of lawyers in 1970-71 not a single Beatle had yet turned thirty years old. The idea of the four of them tripping their way across Middle Earth is the perfect LSD-fueled fantasy of twenty-something young men.

But I digress….

Before I tell you what I think about I’m Not There, let me say that I think you should see it. Unlike most films playing as I write this, it’s worth your time.

I don’t believe you have to be a "fan" of Bob Dylan to see this film.

Dylan occupies a place in the culture comparable to the one occupied by The Beatles. A person who owns no Beatles albums, who would fail a “name that tune” round of Beatles songs, who might not even be able to successfully match “John “Paul” George” “Ringo” to the four photos that came with The White Album, would still have absorbed enough information about The Beatles through his skin in the process of walking through the world by this point to watch a documentary on The Beatles and make sense of it.

The idea here was to not make the standard biopic in which the actor playing the “young Bob” would have some conversation with his mother in their Hibbing, Minnesota kitchen over oatmeal about following one’s dream before a slow dissolve turned him into the actor playing the “older” Bob walking up the steps of the Brooklyn State Hospital on his way to meet Woody Guthrie.

If that sounds like a film you’d like to watch, well, WHAT THE HELL IS YOUR PROBLEM?!?!?

Sorry. I just hate “biopics.”

And where I’m Not There develops problems is in the degree to which it actually fails to escape the gravitational pull of the standard biopic for all it’s cleverness in casting six actors to play Bob Dylan.

Among the most interesting portrayals is one by the young 11 year-old African-American actor, Marcus Carl Franklin, as “Woody Guthrie.”

Before single-handedly forcing a redefinition of “authenticity” in folk music by the sheer power of his will and talent, Bob Dylan entered the stream of the folk revival understanding (1) that there were “authentic” lives and (2) that his wasn’t one of them. What an odd notion, that authentic people could never be Jews from Minnesota whose fathers owned appliance stores.

Bob Dylan would have never survived in the media culture of 2007.

Having developed a reputation as an engaging performer with albeit limited appeal, he’d lucked out and gotten a good review in the NY Times that brought him to the attention of John Hammond, Sr. who signed him to Columbia and produced a debut LP that sold fewer copies than any record in Columbia’s history. It was when he began to write that he began to attract an audience.

Befriended by the reigning Queen of Folk Music, Joan Baez, Dylan wrote “Blowing in the Wind” a song that, totally unlike the rest of his massive catalog, resembles “Amazing Grace” and “We Shall Overcome,” songs that sound as if they have no authorship, as if they were delivered on stone tablets or first heard rising from a burning bush.

But Robert Allen Zimmerman from Hibbing, Minnesota, had crafted a fictitious biography for himself. His parents were dead, or had been carnival folk, or both. He was raised in a traveling carnival that roamed across the southwest, or by wolves in South Dakota. He learned songs first hand at the knee of Blind Snake Oil Roberts and Old Sorrowful and Lightning Hopkins and Blind Boy Fuller.

One of the best bootleg recordings of early Bob Dylan is a radio program called “Folksinger’s Choice” hosted by Cynthia Gooding which aired in New York sometime in 1962 (I have seen both November and March dates listed). Dylan performs fourteen songs, a mix of early originals, traditional songs, and songs by Hank Williams, Bukka White, Howlin’ Wolf and Woody Guthrie. The performance is incredible, but the interview, also extensive, is amazing. If Gooding had asked Dylan his belt size, the date or the time I am certain he’d have lied about those too!

CG: When I first heard Bob Dylan it was, I think, about three years ago in Minneapolis, and at that time you were thinking of being a rock and roll singer weren't you?
BD: Well at that time I was just sort of doin' nothin'. I was there.
CG: Well, you were studying.
BD: I was working, I guess. l was making pretend I was going to school out there. I'd just come there from South Dakota. That was about three years ago?
CG: Yeah.?
BD: Yeah, I'd come there from Sioux Falls. That was only about the place you didn't have to go too far to find the Mississippi River. It runs right through the town you know. (laughs).

When I say that Dylan wouldn’t have survived the media climate of 2007 I mean that the story that broke sometime in, I think, 1964 in which a reporter tracked down Dylan’s (still living) parents and his High School year book photo played out fairly quickly. Dylan mostly refused to comment on it and the world moved on. A world that didn’t have 300 24-hour cable news channels looking for “stories.” In today’s world, Dylan could have easily been tarred as the Vanilla Ice of the folk revival.

I suspect that after the interview Dylan went home with Gooding, stayed for a couple weeks, ate all her food, stole her record collection and moved on.

I’m not joking about the record collection either. The young Bob Dylan was one of the original “turn table artists.” Until Dylan’s generation, musicians learned their craft at the feet of other musicians who came before them. Ramblin’ Jack Elliot (a Jew from Brooklyn born one Elliott Charles Adnopoz in 1931) really did run away from home and join a rodeo and learn his first guitar chords from a rodeo clown. Jack heard Woody Guthrie, tracked him down and traveled with him throughout the western US for years learning his craft.

But Dylan, like almost everyone who followed him, would learn his craft on the edge of a bed sitting by a turntable playing records, sometimes slowing them down to figure out guitar parts. Among the stories told about Dylan’s early days in New York is one about his theft of a stack of records from someone who’d been nice enough to offer his couch and the friends of that guy who showed up one night intent on retrieving the records and putting a beating on the voice of their generation.

One of the purloined records was the Rosetta Stone of the folk revival, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. A compilation of recordings of American folk and country music commercially released as 78 rpm records between 1927 and 1932, the anthology was released in 1952 on Folkways Records as three two-LP sets. This was the document that brought the works of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt, Dick Justice, The Carter Family and Clarence Ashley to the attention of this new generation of performers. In the liner notes to the 1997 reissue, the late Dave van Ronk wrote that "we all knew every word of every song on it, including the ones we hated.”

As early as 1927, Carl Sandburg understood that “A song is a role. The singer acts a part . . . all good artists study a song and live with it before performing it . . . . There is something authentic about any person’s way of giving a song which has been known, lived with and loved, for many years, by the singer.”

Robert Cantwell, in his book When We Were Good: The Folk Revival, writes that by 1965 “the folksinger’s persona had evolved into a loosely conventional form, that of the casually road-weary traveler in jeans and boots or peasant frocks, clothes rumpled as parents would allow, erratic hair, one who speaks a pidgin idiom neither south nor west but vaguely regional and proletarian, that non-regional dialect of the Shangri-La West that Bob Dylan and Jack Elliot hailed from, that mythical nowhere where all men talk like Woody Guthrie and are recorded by Moses Asch.” (pp. 328-329)

“Whoever Bob Dylan was, Columbia’s high-fidelity micro-grooves brought his callow voice, wretchedly overwrought, his stagey panhandle dialect, his untutored guitar and harmonica – all of his gallant fraudulence – into dormitory rooms with shocking immediacy. And when, in the spoken preface to his shattering ‘Baby Let Me Follow You Down,’ he waggishly reported that he had learned the song from one Rick Von Schmidt, a blues guitar player from Cambridge, whom he had ‘met one day in the green pastures of. . .ah. . .Harvard University,’ the folk revival had met one of its own.” (p. 345)

“The folk revival, then, is really a moment of transformation in which an unprecedented convergence of postwar economics and demographic forces carried a culture of personal rebellion across normally impermeable social and cultural barriers under the influence of authority of folk music, at once democratic and esoteric, already obscurely imbued with a spirit of protest. This passage across social lines, again, transformed it, endowing it with new expressive forms, and with a legitimacy both wonderful and terrible – terrible because the massively politicizing issue of the Vietnam War, beginning in 1965, would swell it to a tidal wave of protest that swept destructively over the cultural landscape, leaving behind it deep racial, class, gender, and other moraines.” (p. 346)

By 1965 Dylan’s emerging persona became the source of a self-contained “authentic” self. The more other songwriters scrambled to write “Bob Dylan” songs, the more authentic Bob Dylan became in contrast.

But, I digress….

Pretty much everything above lies in the subtext of Marcus Carl Franklin performance as “Woody.” Later in the film, in the odd and disjointed old western town of “Riddle,” Franklin reappears dressed as Charlie Chaplin with Chaplin moustache and cap and cane, only for a moment before disappearing back into, well, the “Riddle.”

Haynes says there was a seventh Dylan in the original screenplay, a Chaplin character created to represent the Dylan of the folk coffeehouse scene in New York whose performances were – and people just coming to Dylan today will find this incomprehensible – funny. But the character was cut for length, and length is the other problem I think the film suffers from. Just as Chaplin Dylan was reduced to a cameo, I think dropping the lion's share of Ben Whishaw’s Arthur Rimbaud Dylan could have helped the problem of the film’s length.

In a traditional narrative, there is a feeling you get as a story proceeds; a sense of where you are – beginning, middle or end – at any point. When a film that really tells no story is long, the feeling that this may never end is not a particularly pleasant one. Cutting most of the Rimbaud Dylan and trimming the Woody Dylan – what’s up with the big whale in the river anyway? – would have been a good step in cutting some length.

Walking out of the theatre, I wasn't sure what to make of Christian Bale’s performance as both the Protest Dylan and Gospel Dylan. After a few days of letting them resonate, I think he does a superb job of playing a man who is more uncomfortable in his own skin than anyone I think I’ve ever seen.

It’s here where a mini tsunami of Dylan iconography is unleashed in the form of famous photos, still images that spring to life, concert posters, and a spot-on perfect performance by Julianne Moore as Joan Baez. I’m not sure it’s even possible to explain how impressive her performance is to someone unfamiliar with the various stages of Baez. The Bale/Jack Rollins/Protest Dylan is, at times, uncomfortable to watch which is, I think, the point.

Bale’s later transition into the Gospel Dylan is extraordinary as well. Here again we get the underlying shift in the Dylan persona, done in a way that side-steps the standard biopic very well. This Rollins/Dylan is an ordained minister. Unlike the “real” Dylan, this Dylan never came back from his conversion, and in the end is reduced to preaching a dire “last days” message to a room of maybe 8 people. The fact that he even plays music seems inconsequential.

The film has a point of view - it doesn't like this apocalyptic evangelical variant of Christianity. It is very clear on this point.

What Haynes has done with Heath Ledger’s Robbie the Actor Dylan – who we first see as he becomes famous for his portrayal of the Jack Rollins/Protest Dylan in a “biopic” is, along with the idea of the Woody Dylan, to create the most successful attempt to fracture, shatter, and generally screw with traditional biopic conventions.

Of all the Dylans here, Ledger’s looks more like the Woodstock-Self Portrait-era Bob than even Blanchett does the 65-66 Bob. And Ledger performance is aided enormously by Charlotte Gainsbourg playing a character assembled from biographical bits of Suze Rotolo and Sarah Lowndes-Dylan made into a French painter. In offering this next-to-impossible-to-sort-out jumble of truth and fiction Haynes simultaneously gives us the “real” (i.e., unreal) “Bob Dylan” and shines a light on new directions in the biopic. For me, these are the peak performances in the film.

I’ve read one criticism of the push for a “Best Actress” Oscar for Cate Blanchett that argues that she only merits “Best Supporting Actress” because she plays the same part played by five other actors in the same film. This sounds like it was written by someone who read a synopsis but hasn’t actually seen the film; Blanchett’s “Jude Quinn” (I don’t know either, maybe some weird weld of “Hey Jude” and “Quinn the Eskimo”) totally dominates the movie. She has more screen time and the combination of her skills – she is the “best actor” here – and the unavoidable novelty of casting – like Travolta in Hairspray ratcheted up by the power of ten – allow her to, at times, disappear into the part.

But it is in these sequences, shot in black & white so as to resemble D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back, that I’m Not There downshifts into an almost conventional biopic mode. We get great performances by David Cross as Alan Ginsberg and Peter Friedman as Albert Grossman/Morris Bernstein and Bruce Greenwood as the journalist-cum-inquisitor/Mister Jones/Pat Garrett. We even get the Bobby Neuwirth-Bob Dylan-Edie Sedgwick (“Co-Co Rivington”) love triangle. The Jude Dylan sequence comes closest to the “dumping the notebook” phenomenon in which Haynes finds so many period factoids so interesting that he seems to squeeze one in at every opportunity.

The scene that almost saves this sequence is the meeting by the river where Dylan arrives with The Beatles in an explosion of the visual comedic style of A Hard Day’s Night as they tumble and roll on the grass. The four exit through the gate to the rear, first herded to the left by a bowler hat-wearing Brian Epstein, to remerge in the background a moment later running to the right chased by a small crowd of screaming fans. As Jude Dylan enters he is immediately waylaid by Max Walker playing a perfect collection of tics that comprise every fact-obsessed Bob Dylan “fan.” This was the one moment I laughed out loud in the theatre.

Haynes' intent seems most obscure in the film's last sequence with Richard Gere as a Billy the Kid Dylan living quietly in the old western town of Riddle. The Charlie Chaplin Dylan makes his brief appearance here, a band plays "Goin' To Acapulco" and the visual style of the cover of The Basement Tapes album is heavily referenced in the various characters and still life's on display. Modernity is about to destroy the old ways of the town; when Billy Dylan protests, an ancient Pat Garrett imprisons him. He escapes and hops a freight train heading out of town where he finds Woody's guitar, dusts it off and strums as he watches his dog run after the train but not quite make it.

That last bit, Dylan abandoning the dog rather than jumping off, getting the dog, and catching the next train I read as Haynes' quiet little reference to what a self-centered jerk the "real" Bob Dylan is, cutting off friends and lovers and never looking back. One person I discussed the film with saw it more as a reference to sacrifice, but it seems more like the dog's sacrifice than Bob's so I'm not sure what that means.

The whole Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid period is a minor footnote in Dylan's biography and I'm not really sure why it's elevated to play the role it does here. Nor am I clear on why Dylan, who played a character named "Alias" in the Peckinpah film, is recast now as one of the leads. The entire Billy the Kid Dylan sequence has this other narrative imposed upon it with its own characters and its own drama, but the drama is more dream-like than anything else. The sort of dream you have that makes perfect sense until you slowly wake up, your rational mind kicks in, and all the "sense" your dream made blows away like so much smoke.

The "sense" to be found in Dylan's best work is more like that dream sense; a kind of non-rational connect-the-dots of imagery and the play of language across the surface of the texts (think "Visions of Johanna" "Desolation Row"). So it is with most of this film; and that may well point to a fundamental structuring device here as one of a series of dreams.

In the end, it is the longest sequence, the only black & white sequence, the one that everyone who will write about this film will write about - as if the casting of Cate Blanchett to play the androgynous Dylan of 65-66 is somehow more novel than casting an 11 year-old black actor to play the 20 year-old Dylan - is the one that comes most dangerously close to the very film Haynes set out not to make.

Real Lives

In the middle film in George Romero's "Dead" trilogy, Dawn of the Dead, a handful of survivors of the plague that has turned most of the world's population into flesh-eating zombies take refuge in a large Midwestern shopping mall. One of the reasons I like the film is for the images of people wandering through a mall, shooting brain-dead zombies with assault weapons.

I hate malls. My hatred of malls probably has a clynical name I would know were I to seek help and a proper diagnosis. After two or three minutes at most I find it difficult to breathe, I start sweating and, if I can't immediately start for an exit, things could get ugly. But, rather than seek treatment, I simply stay away from malls. Look Ma, no Prozac.

The plastic world that drove the young Benjamin Braddock to the deep end of the pool and into the arms of Ann Bancroft is upon us and, except for Aimesville, Ohio, and some remote parts of Pakistan, there's not much getting away from it.

The greatest danger we face is that a justifiable cynicism (the final refuge of the true romantic) might generate a noise loud enough to drown out the sound of our own compassion.

The news media flocks to events like the Nebraska mall shootings like so many carrion birds to fresh road kill, and with a similar degree of thoughtfulness. In the furor and frenzy of the coverage I have been able to find some actual information that helps create some sense of the real lives of the eight people who were murdered by the gunman (who was sufficiently self-aware to understand that he was about to become "famous").

Ten years ago around this time I was sitting in a train that was about to pull out of the station at Oxford and head to London. The platform was full of people and I remember a remarkable moment when I looked out at the crowd and it exploded in my mind and every single individual seemed to tunnel backwards into a line of their ancestors and forward into a possible future and sideways into the lives of the people they knew, around each of whom similar tunnels appeared.

It's impossible to describe, it was like what suddenly being able to perceive the fourth dimension might be like. It was over quickly, with the first movement of the train, but it left the impression that it had lasted forever.

But I digress....

The material below is taken from Associated Press reports that appeared in the Washington Post and on the CNN web site.

Gary Scharf was on his way home to Lincoln after a business trip in Iowa when he stopped at the Von Maur store.

"I'm sure he got in front of other people" and took a bullet that might have hit someone else, said his ex-wife, Kim Scharf. "There's no doubt in my mind, I promise you. That's who he is, to a fault."

Scharf, 48, sold agricultural products and was devoted to helping people, she said. Recently he helped a single mom get her car started, then got her address and delivered a package of groceries and blankets to her doorstep, she said.

"I called him my Dudley-do-right," Kim Scharf said. "I'm not kidding. You'd never meet a more honorable and loyal man."

Raised in a small Nebraska town, Gary Scharf graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Kim Scharf said the couple divorced about three years ago, but "he followed me out of divorce court and said we'd remarry in six months." They saw each other every day and were planning to get married.

Beverly Flynn, a gift wrapper at the Von Maur, also had been a real estate agent for NP Dodge Co. since last year.

Whenever she closed a deal, the 47-year-old Omaha woman planted a rose bush in the yard of the new homeowners as a move-in gift, company spokeswoman Susan Young said.

"That was her way to put her style on the whole transaction," Young said. "She was a very warm individual."

Shot in the chest, Flynn was taken to Creighton University Medical Center, where attempts to resuscitate her failed.

"All we know is that a fine human being has been taken from us prematurely, and that she and the other victims will be greatly missed," said Sandy Dodge, president of NP Dodge, in a letter to employees.

Angie Schuster had planned to teach elementary school after graduating from college, but when she couldn't find a job in the field, she started working in retail, said her older sister, Donna Kenkel.

Schuster, 36, of Omaha, was a manager in the girls' department at Von Maur, where she had worked for nearly 10 years, Kenkel said. The department is near the third-floor elevator, which Kenkel said meant "she probably didn't have any chance, any warning" against the gunman.

"They said he got off the elevator, and she would have been right there in his way," she said.

The sisters were born 11 months apart and lived about a mile from each other. They last saw each other Sunday, at a child's birthday party at the Omaha zoo.

"She was in a very happy place in her life. She met a man," Kenkel said. "They were so happy."

Dianne Trent, a store employee, spent warm evenings tending to the flowers on her porch, drinking tea and chatting with her neighbor, Errol Schlenker.

"A very incredibly sweet person," Schlenker said. "She was a middle-of-the-road American, a dedicated worker. She was just a decent person who lived a good life here." Divorced many years ago and with no children, Trent, 53, lived in a northwest Omaha town house with a small dog and two cats, Schlenker said.

"She called me a couple times when she was afraid of something, when she heard noises outside," he said. "I know she was always concerned about her safety as far as the way things were going in society and being a single woman."

Janet Jorgensen, a longtime employee in Von Maur's gift department, was popular with co-workers and customers alike, her daughter-in-law said.

Almost everyone who shopped there seemed to know the 66-year-old Omaha woman because of her friendly, outgoing personality, said the daughter-in-law, who didn't want her name used.

Jorgensen, who worked at the store since it opened about a dozen years ago, is survived by a husband, three children and eight grandchildren.

John McDonald, 65, and his wife, Kathy, of nearby Council Bluffs, Iowa, were getting Christmas gifts wrapped when the shooting broke out, AP reported. He was fatally wounded as they tried to hide behind a chair.

"He was one of the greatest people anyone could hope to meet," Kathy McDonald told AP. "He had a fantastic sense of humor. He was so accepting of people."

John McDonald's brother P.J. is the chaplain for the Clive, Iowa, police and fire departments.

"People enjoying their Christmas shopping on a pleasant afternoon, and then to have nine lives lost -- one of them my brother. It's a terrible thing," P.J. McDonald told CNN affiliate KCCI in Des Moines, Iowa.

"My brother was a gentle soul. If there was one thing that would be a characteristic of his, it was the fact that he did not like violence."

Despite his training, McDonald said he can't minister to himself.

"I can be a chaplain for other people, but on my own behalf, I am useless. I am devastated by this horrible turn of events," he told KCCI. "When I heard it, I had no response. I sat there and cried. That's all I could do." McDonald said he hopes the Omaha tragedy will make people everywhere stop to look at their own lives.

"I again invite people observing this to take some time and think about where we are with some of our violent acts that we no longer need to entertain, and just softening of the heart."

Gary Joy's mother, Inez Joy, told KETV her son visited her often at her retirement community. She said he loved to write stories and poetry and was pursuing a degree in literature at Bellevue University.

She said her son's decision to donate his organs was typical of the way he always helped others.
"I've been through tragedy before," his mother said. "You hurt. There's not a thing you can do about it."

Joy, 56, was a Von Maur employee who had homes in Omaha and in Denver, Colorado, AP reported.

Maggie Webb, the youngest victim at 24, came to the Omaha Von Maur store this year from one in Chicago, according to AP.

The Moline, Illinois, native had a degree in business administration, according to AP."One of my staff commented to me about Maggie, saying, 'She was one of the good ones.' They paused, and said, 'No, one of the great ones," ' Moline High School Principal Bill Burrus told the Quad City Times, according to AP.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Four Freedoms....

What happened to my war, the war I volunteered for?

My war is the mother-of-all wars, the root cause of pretty much every social ill we face here and abroad.

The War on Poverty is the name for legislation first introduced by Lyndon Johnson during his State of the Union address on January 8, 1964. This legislation was proposed by Johnson in response to the difficult economic conditions associated with a national poverty rate of around nineteen percent.

The War on Poverty speech led the United States Congress to pass the Economic Opportunity Act, a law that established the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to administrate the local application of federal funds targeted against poverty.

And here’s the thing….

The path to the White House in 08, and the greater path back through the ruins of Bush & Co. neo-conservatism and back toward something that resembles the America my father shot at the Germans over is through the restoration of the traditional values of the Democratic Party. It is these very values that ARE the "traditional American family values" the right loves to preach yet fails so miserably to practice.

Twenty-three years earlier, on January 6, 1941, Franklin Roosevelt delivered a State of the Union Address to the 77th United States Congress in which he articulated four fundamental freedoms people "everywhere in the world" ought to enjoy:

Freedom of speech and expression.

Freedom of every person to worship in his own way.

Freedom from want.

Freedom from fear.

His inclusion of the latter two freedoms went beyond the traditional American Constitutional values protected by the First Amendment, and endorsed a right to economic security and an internationalist view of foreign policy that have come to be central tenets of modern American liberalism. Roosevelt’s internationalist view must be understood in the greater historical context of the rise of German and Japanese aggression and the inevitable entry of the US into World War II.

Here’s what he said in that address:

“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression--everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way--everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want--which, translated into universal terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear--which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor--anywhere in the world.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.”

It is that last bit that reaches out and grabs my attention with both hands; that this vision, “…is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.”

Maybe it’s just me, but doesn’t that sound more inspiring than “Stay the course”?

When I say that the War on Poverty is the mother-of-all-wars I mean that the answer to gun violence isn’t gun control and the answer to the drug problem isn’t a “war on drugs” and the answer to the decline of America’s cities isn’t building more prisons and the answer to illegal immigration isn’t a big-ass fence and the answer to the instability of the Middle East isn’t the invasion of Iran.

If you fight a war on poverty you fight on all these fronts simultaneously. And you fight the only war capable of victories in each of these areas.

Address the mind-numbing hope-destroying dark chasm of poverty here and around the world then this vision of a better tomorrow becomes no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.

* Painting by Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Want (1943) The Saturday Evening Post, March 6, 1943 (story illustration). Oil on canvas 45 3/4 x 35 1/2 in. The Norman Rockwell Museum of Stockbridge (Massachusetts)

Monday, November 19, 2007

Cottman and The Boulevard

A month or so back the cover of the Sunday New York Times magazine had music producer, Rick Ruben, sitting on some grass wrapped in a white blanket. Seeing it reminded me of a photograph I have in a drawer somewhere of my best friend at the time, Bob Colella, taken in the Summer of 1967 on the front lawn of the house at 7339 Roosevelt Boulevard in Philadelphia.

We’d been to the Spectrum to see The Beach Boys open for the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who was on tour across the US in the wake of the notoriety he gained when The Beatles became momentary devotees of transcendental meditation. The Beach Boys were resplendent in their pure white suits and had a big horn section with them and played songs from their two recent albums, Wild Honey and Friends, two of my favorite Beach Boys records to this day. The Maharishi spoke seated on a platform on a stage inundated with flowers, thousands of flowers, to a crowd of about 12,000 people including me and Bob.

It was my idea to take photos of us in Maharishi-like poses, wrapped in my parent’s white bedspread, sitting on the grass, careful not to get anything but grass and bushes in the photo so it would look like we were sitting somewhere in Rikikesh; John Lennon and Donovan were just outside the frame.

It was the mise en scène of the Summer of Love.

My first memories of Philadelphia are of our first house on Levick Street, another neighborhood off the Boulevard in the Northeast, a few miles closer to downtown. What I remember is confirmed in the photos of the period – wallpaper and upholstery of deep dark greens and covered with huge yellow, red and pink flowers.

The era was summed up in one of Eisenhower’s State of the Union speeches when he said, “Things are more like they are today, then they have ever been before.”

Cowboy shows on TV and cap pistols in the back yard. One of the neighborhood kids was an albino and the proud owner of a complete Hop-along Cassidy outfit, all black with black cowboy hat, black leather gun belt and pearl-handled six shooters. Think of "Albino Bad Bob," Stacy Keach’s character from John Houston’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean; now imagine him six years old.

I don’t really remember the period before Levick Street when we lived at my Grandmother’s at 22nd and Girard Avenue. I do remember staying for a week here and there with her and her second husband, Albert, a kind old man who – both in my memory and in family photos – looked remarkably like Albert Einstein. I remember meeting the black kids whose families had begun to take over the neighborhood as the white people fled toward the suburbs and playing in back alleys few Philadelphia police officers would venture into today on a dare.

In 1958 I was five years old and I can just remember the new house, brand new, all white, hardwood floors, in that section of Philadelphia known as “the Northeast.” According to the 2000 Census, the Northeast has a sizable percentage of the city's 1.5 million people — a population of between 300,000 and 450,000, depending on how the area is defined. The neighborhoods that make up Northeast Philadelphia include Lawncrest, Rhawnhurst, Tacony, Frankford, Holme Circle, Holmesburg, Mayfair, Morrell Park, Oxford Circle, Bustleton, Torresdale, Parkwood, Somerton, Fox Chase and Pine Valley.

Our neighborhood was Mayfair.

There is no rhyme or reason to the things that memory discards or retains. For some reason I can still remember the phone number I had as a kid living on the boulevard, back when phone numbers started with letters; Devonshire 3-2349 (dialed as 333-2349). Most people my age who have had to decide among 9,308 long distance plans have felt the nostalgic pull of “The Phone Company.” I don’t think it is as much affection for corporate monopolies as it is an expression of feeling unsettled by the near-fetish status of “choice” in the contemporary world. Menus the size of encyclopedia will always make me lose my appetite. I still find rotary dial phones strangely attractive, and I still seek out diners where you can choose the meatloaf, the chicken, or the fish.

The Mayfair, the movie theatre at the corner of Cottman and Frankford Avenues, was the center of the neighborhood, and the shops that lined Frankford Avenue in both directions were the center of local commerce. First established in 1929, Mayfair featured several groundbreaking concepts for city dwellers: bigger row-homes with yards in the front and parking garages in the back. The automobile became the primary mode of transportation and shopping retail centers became available close to home, as shopping districts developed along Roosevelt Boulevard and Cottman Avenue. Development also served to connect the surrounding neighborhoods of the Northeast that had previously been isolated. In these regards, Mayfair was a forerunner to American suburbanization, an early part of the population shift from the inner city to its outer regions.

Our house sat right on Roosevelt Boulevard in the middle of a block of doubles. In the late 1950s the boulevard was a six lane highway with three lanes on either side separated by a large field of grass in the middle, wide enough to play football on. By the late 60s that center section was turned into another six lanes of traffic. That expansion must have taken place sometime around 1965-67 as I can clearly remember when the road was almost finished but still closed to all traffic and we would take our bikes and ride as fast as we could on the virgin asphalt of a 12 lane highway that was all our own.

That was fun.

From the front window that looked out onto the Boulevard it was a straight shot into a new kind of retail shopping nirvana. Northeast Philly was never the suburbs, anymore than South Philly or West Philly or North Philly was. So this was an alternative to the congestion of Center City shopping. In the summer of 1967 if you walked across the Boulevard you would walk across a large parking lot into an S. Klein Department store. Behind that was the Roosevelt Mall, maybe 15-20 shops (with ample parking) that would end at Bustleton Avenue.

At Cottman and Bustleton was a large Gimble’s department store. Behind it was another mall of 20 or so shops that ran until Castor Avenue, where there was a Lit Brothers department store and another mall of shops. All of this ran along the north side of Cottman Avenue, the south side was also full of shops, tailors, realtors, auto parts, tuxedo rental, record stores, etc., all the way from the boulevard to Castor Avenue and beyond.

Before the growth of the Greater Northeast everyone who lived there would take regular shopping trips into downtown Philadelphia. By car you just hop on the Boulevard and head west; or walk a half block to Cottman Avenue and grab the B-Bus to the elevated train station at Bridge and Pratt Streets and ride the El into center city at 15th and Market Streets. From there, like Boston or Manhattan, most of the city is an easy walk.

Downtown was, like the centers of most large US cities in the 1930s through the 1950s, a brightly lit and exciting place to be.

In 1861 Justus C. Strawbridge first opened a store in Philadelphia and then partnered with Isaac H. Clothier in 1868. For the next 128 years Strawbridge and Clothier remained a family owned and run company known for its great relationship with its employees and customers. In 1876 Wanamaker's opened the first true “department store” in Philadelphia and one of the first, if not the first department store in the United States. In 1894 Gimbel’s opened their doors in downtown Philadelphia.

To understand Philadelphia you have to understand it in relation to New York City and the shadow it casts across it. Philadelphia exists in contradistinction to New York. Where New York grew vertically in a forest of skyscrapers, Philadelphia’s skyline was bound by a gentlemen's agreement that no building in the city could rise above the top of the hat on the statute of William Penn that stood atop City Hall.

And nothing would until March 1987, when a modern steel-and-glass skyscraper called One Liberty Place opened three blocks away. One Liberty Place dwarfed City Hall by 397 feet, soaring 945 feet in height compared to City Hall's actual height of 547' 11-3/4" to the top of Penn's hat, usually rounded off to 548', which coincidentally matches the career number of home runs hit by Phillies Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt.

The decline of every professional sports franchise in Philadelphia shortly thereafter created the “Curse of Billy Penn’s Hat." Philadelphia sports teams had just before then enjoyed an enviable run of success: the Philadelphia Phillies had won the 1980 World Series and the 1983 National League pennant; the Philadelphia Flyers had won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975, and were a regular presence in the finals; the Philadelphia Eagles had appeared in Super Bowl XV; and the Philadelphia 76ers had won the NBA championship in 1983. In a more ominous coincidence, the ground was broken for One Liberty Place on the same day as the MOVE tragedy that left numerous members of a radical "Back to Africa" group dead and burned down several blocks of West Philadelphia neighborhood.

But I digress.

Christmas in Center City was a memorable experience. Gimbel’s had a great toy department and their Santa was the "real" Santa, since we all had seen him in the parade. Lit Brothers had the Enchanted Colonial Village with 18 great scenes like the Toymaker, the Bakery, the Blacksmith and many more. Strawbridge and Clothier was the most decorated store and the employees were always friendly. Wanamaker's had their Christmas Light Show that we had to see every year, even though it never changed.

It is a box of memories of snow and lights and music, stuffed with the colorful iconography of the American Christmas.

By the mid 1960s the downtown was faltering. It seems so odd to me that America’s love affair with the automobile, a seemingly endless supply of cheap gasoline, and the desire to park, quickly, effortlessly, and for free, would be the death of downtowns across the country. Multi-screen multiplexes replaced the giant cathedral theatres, temples of brass and velvet, holdovers of the days before television. The Goldman Theatre at 15th and Market in the center of downtown Philadelphia was among the last of these to fall. Opened in 1946, the Goldman sat 1,300 people. This is where my father took me in 1962 to see The Longest Day, the film about D-Day, the battle that my dad had been part of. In 1981 I took my wife there to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. A year or so later the building was demolished and an office building built in its place.

Downtown Philly in the 60s was an amazing place. I started high school in 1967. In hindsight, that may have been the worst moment in history to enter a super-conservative all-male Catholic High School; more on that later. By the time I was a sophomore I was able to go downtown at night and go to concerts and clubs.

What many people forget was how very little alcohol had to do with the youth culture of the late 1960s. Of all the clubs in Philadelphia I wanted to go to I can only remember one, someplace on the Boulevard where Woody’s Truck Stop was the house band back when Todd Rundgren was their guitarist and a local guitar hero, that I wasn’t able to go to because it was 21 and older.

But Heacket’s Circle, a coffeehouse in Germantown where Sweet Stavin Chain was the house band, The Second Fret on Sansome Street where The Mandrake Memorial was the house band, The Electric Factory at 22nd & Arch (Philadelphia’s Fillmore), and The Main Point out on Lancaster Avenue were open to everyone. The Academy of Music at Broad & Locust was the home of the Philadelphia Philharmonic, led by Eugene Ormandy throughout the 1960s and also a venue for shows by Phil Ochs, Donovan, Melanie, The Band and many others. Some of the best concerts I have ever seen were on that stage.

And this was all from that home base at Cottman and the Boulevard.

About a month ago my father finally agreed that it was time to move and sold the house to a young Chinese family and moved into my sister’s home outside of Atlantic City.

For years now I’ve watched the way that, as we age, the world slowly and inexorably erases all traces of us having been here. The drug store in the old neighborhood is gone. The bar we used to go to, gone. The movie theatre… what movie theatre? Little by little, piece by piece. This is why so much of what we do we do with the hope that it will outlast us. We write books, make records, blog, some of us have kids who have kids. And the books and records go out of print, the kids have daughters who marry and sooner than we thought, we’re gone, daddy, gone. Real gone.

As I was describing the miles of retail shops across our house on the Boulevard I started to tell the story about "the kid who sucker punched lead singers," but I cut it because it deserves a post of its own. Next time.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Beatles' Second Album

My first memory of hearing the name “The Beatles” is an odd one. I was sitting in a classroom in Saint Matthews, the local Catholic boy’s school. I think I was in the 5th grade at the time. Occasionally the tiny public address speaker in the front of the room would crackle in anticipation of an announcement from the disembodied voice of Mother Superior, a figure not that unlike the character of Death in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal or the character of the Emperor in Star Wars. But above even Mother Superior in the pantheon of my childhood authority was the voice of the parish priest. It was the voice we would expect to hear shortly before the incoming Soviet ICBM’s struck the high priority target of the naval shipyards five or six miles from where we sat. It was as close as you could get in 1963 in Northeast Philadelphia to the voice of God.

“Boys…” the voice said. I think I grasped the edge of my desk expecting to hear “This is not a drill” followed by instructions containing the words “duck” and “cover.”

Believe it or not, but in 1963 children were regularly shown films of the effects of nuclear explosions – the shock wave obliterating the farmhouse, mannequins disintegrating at the table, the car engulfed in flames and spinning wildly through the air – and then instructed to dive beneath our small wooden desks for safety in the event of this nuclear fire. I don’t know if anyone has ever really charted the effects of this on the so-called “baby boom” generation. The corresponding rise in popularity of the “Theatre of the Absurd” may not be a coincidence.

But I digress….

The voice of the priest continued.

“I want to make it very clear that under no condition will beetle haircuts be permitted in this school.”

We sat, silent, uncomprehending, still behind the curve of new cultural trends. But while it was true that not a single kid in the room had any idea what the priest was talking about, it was also true that every kid in the room wanted one.

There are many different definitions of “THE SIXTIES.” Some put the decade in literal terms from 1960 to 1969. Some use the death of JFK in 1963 through the resignation of Nixon in 1974. Some trace it from the birth of The Beatles on Ed Sullivan to the death of Meredith Hunter at Altamont. A new academic journal on the era uses a “long sixties” of 1955-1975. Those of us who were around during those times each have a personal sixties; mine starts with that announcement.

All of this is documented in a million other places: The Beatles were signed to EMI in England which, even though it owned Capitol Records in the US, could not get Capitol to release the early Beatles recordings. The ones that were released appeared on small regional labels like Tollie, Swan, and Vee-Jay and registered no impact on Top 40 radio. Finally in late 1963, early 1964 Capitol could no longer ignore the success the band was experiencing across Europe and released the first US LP, Meet the Beatles.

Actually 1964 was a pretty good year for Beatles albums. In addition to Meet The Beatles, Capitol also released The Beatles’ Second Album, Something New, Beatles ’65 and a double LP, The Beatles Story, that collected news stories, interviews and snippets of live recordings. United Artists also released the soundtrack to A Hard Day’s Night, and Vee-Jay records released Introducing The Beatles compiling all the early tracks they still had the license for.

During the week of April 4, 1964 The Beatles occupied the first five slots of the Billboard Hot 100, #1 - "Can't Buy Me Love," #2 - "Twist and Shout," #3 - "She Loves You," #4 - "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and #5 - "Please Please Me," the only group in rock and roll history to achieve this feat. That same week they also had another seven charting records in the Hot 100: "I Saw Her Standing There," 31; "From Me to You," 41; "Do You Want to Know a Secret?" 46; "All My Loving," 58; "You Can't Do That," 65; "Roll Over Beethoven," 68. The Beatles had twelve songs on the charts that week, a feat never matched before or since.

In 1964, the Beatles had the never-matched total of 15 American million-selling records (9 singles and 6 LPs), representing US sales of over 25 million in 1964 alone.

In other words, 1964 was a very good year for the Fabs.

But it is The Beatles’ Second Album that fascinates me because it is this, and not “Revolution” that stands as the most political statement they ever made. It also rocks harder than any of their other records as it manages to avoid any of the pop ballads favored by Paul McCartney that usually slowed down the group's other early albums.

As Bruce Eder writing for the All Music Guide notes:

The Beatles' Second Album stands as probably best pure rock & roll album ever issued of the group's music. In the process of pulling songs from various British and American EPs, singles (including "She Loves You") and B-sides, as well as tracks left over from the editing of With the Beatles for American release, the compilers somehow No other long-player by the group featured them doing more covers of songs by black American artists or songwriters, including Little Richard ("Long Tall Sally"), Chuck Berry ("Roll Over Beethoven"), Smokey Robinson ("You Really Got a Hold on Me"), Barrett Strong ("Money"), and others, and just to show how rich a vein this all was at the time of its release, the version of "Roll Over Beethoven" here actually charted briefly as a single.

In his new book, The Beatles’ Second Album, Dave Marsh writes:

"The Beatles showed their allegiance to the principles of the civil rights movement when they refused to play any racially segregated shows on their 1964 concert tour. It was an unusual statement. The Beatles never again took a political stand as a group, and very few performers made such demands when they worked in the South. Making that choice did not endear them to many white American adults, Southern or Northern....

....I don't know what was in that teacher's conscious mind; I do know that everything he tried to teach us smacked of the message I got at home, which was that white was right and black needed to be kept back, or, since it was advancing, north and south, into territory that had been "ours," pushed back. That stuff about the Beatles being revolutionary is more than just talk. There was a war going on, and we were asked to take sides."

The racial history of US pop music up until The Beatles is Pat Boone covering Fats Domino and Little Richard, sanitizing the music, bleaching the color from it, neutering any hint of sexuality. But The Beatles covered these songs as triumphant celebrations of the original artists and every copy of the album that sold was an engraved invitation to an army of middle class white kids to go to the record stores and track down the albums of black America.

The White Southern Christian Citizens Brigades that were formed (along with some Northern ones) in the mid-1950s to fight the threat of race-mixing inherent in the records of Elvis, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Louis and Little Richard had been successful. Elvis was in the army, Berry was in prison, Jerry Lee in exile and Little Richard had found Jesus. Pat Boone and the legion of the one-named teen idol pop crooners (Frankie, Dion, Fabian, etc.) had fought back the Visigoths of pop culture.

But in 1964 the Visigoths were back at the gates and this time they had WMDs.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Masked and Anonymous....

Every so often I get into an argument over this 2003 film by Larry Charles. Since I am a fan of Bob Dylan I am accused of having my judgement clouded. I am accused of not being able to distinguish between a film that I "like" and a film that is "good." As I have been known to spend hours explaining why I think Pootie Tang is infinitely superior to American Beauty I recognize that this is a self-inflicted wound.

But this is not the case here. I will often explain how my wife, who is not a fan of Dylan in particular, has become a major fan of this film. When people she doesn't know come to visit she often shows them the film and, if they react like a typical movie critic (who until a week ago was reviewing restaurants) that's the last we'll see of her that evening. And, while I have never called this film a "masterpiece," I do believe it is better by far than the vast majority of the films that are lavashied with awards at what has come to represent the dark side of the force in independent film - Sundance.

Whenever I have to mount a defense of the film I am always sent back to the internet and a Google search for what I think is the most cogently argued defense I've ever read. Written by David Vest in the 20 September 2003 issue of CounterPunch, "Masked and Anonymous: Dylan's Elegy for Lost America" says everything that I could hope to say about the film. Rather than have to go look for it everytime I need it I've decided to archive it here. if you haven't seen the film check your library's database immediately. Here's the trailer to tide you over.

Bob Dylan's Elegy for a Lost America
By David Vest

Bob Dylan's new film, "Masked and Anonymous," has met with almost universal condemnation (or worse, condescension) from critics in the corporate media. According to most reviewers, in lieu of a plot the film offers "rambling incoherence" and "incomprehensible dialogue." It is "an exercise in self-indulgence." Several reviewers have actually worried in print that Dylan made the movie in order to have some kind of joke at their expense. Dylan's character, Jack Fate, has little or nothing to say, we are repeatedly told, and more or less just "sits there like a toad," in the words of Roger Ebert, who should be the last person to accuse anyone of that.

Could the movie really be this bad? It wouldn't matter if it were equal to "The Tempest" or "Julius Caesar," it has already been pronounced D.O.A.

Anytime the nation's media are this unanimous about anything, one would do well to be suspicious. After all, President Bush's decision to invade Iraq in search of "weapons of mass destruction" was met not with skepticism but with near-unanimous cheerleading and boosterizing in the corporate media.

Reviewers had already effectively killed Dylan's film by the time it arrived in Portland, Oregon for a perfunctory one-week run. Although attendance grew steadily during the week, it started sparse and grew toward respectable.

Not ten minutes after the opening credits I could see why the film had been marked for assassination by big newspaper media critics. They are the villains of the piece! "Masked and Anonymous" portrays the reporters who wrote the bad reviews as people who have to wear ankle monitors. Editors hold the keys that control them. Who owns the editors is pretty clear, too. The sight of superstar critic and Sixties specialist "Tom Friend" (Jeff Bridges) being beaten to death with Blind Lemon Jefferson's guitar must have been too much for them.

"Friend," obsessed with his own memories of the Sixties but oblivious to what is going on outside the window, never seems to notice that Fate, his quarry, answers none of his questions.

Officials of the "network" televising the "benefit" on which Fate is to appear see him as self-indulgent, too. They want him to sing "Jailhouse Rock," "Jumping Jack Flash" and "Revolution - the slow version."

He gives them "Dixie."

The infamous "rambling and incomprehensible" plot is in fact rather well-constructed and makes abundant sense. Although the project could have used some tighter editing and more attention to minor issues of continuity, anyone who couldn't follow this movie probably couldn't be trusted with a comic book. The storyline is no more "obscure" or "disjointed" than "A Hard Day's Night."

But it hits a great deal harder. When the camera pans slowly down a desolate L.A. avenue, and Dylan is heard singing "Seen the arrow on the doorpost, saying This Land is Condemned, all the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem," try to keep tears from welling. (Or sit there like a toad eating popcorn and stuff the feeling, it's your call.)

Whereas the concert finale of "A Hard Day's Night" is witnessed by screaming teenagers and an adoring TV audience, the concert performed by Fate in "Masked and Anonymous" is seen by no one except stage hands and extras because it is pre-empted by a presidential speech and interrupted by guns and bayonets.

In spite of what you may have read, the film is not "set in some imaginary third-world country at some point in the future," anymore than King Lear is about prehistoric England. Failure to recognize the true setting should immediately disqualify any reviewer. "Masked and Anonymous" is a spot-on accurate portrayal of what is going on RIGHT NOW, seen through the eyes of someone with vision and not just eyesight, someone who has looked through the eyes not only of Charley Patton and Elizabeth Cotton but also of Emmett Miller and even Daniel Decatur Emmett.

All America's chicken-hawk foreign wars have come home to roost. The horrors once visited upon El Salvador, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Somalia and Iraq are now rolling through the streets of California. All the electoral disgrace of recent campaigns has been compressed into one presidential speech. As for the major media as portrayed in this film, it is impossible not to think of Christiane Amanpour's recent admission that CNN "was intimidated" by the Bush administration and operated in a "climate of fear and self-censorship" during the invasion of Iraq.

When the new president (Mickey Roarke) concludes his "war-is-peace" oration at the end of the film with the sarcastic words "May God help you all," it is merely what anyone with a perceptive imagination can hear Bush or Cheney saying when they conclude their speeches with the formulaic "God Bless America." Certainly the administration portrayed in "Masked and Anonymous" is no more thuggish than the one currently rooting at the trough in Washington.

Or, as Uncle Sweetheart (John Goodman) puts it, "It's the dark princes, the democratic republicans, working for a barbarian who can scarcely spell his own name."

When a soldier (Giovanni Ribisi) tells Fate of fighting first with the rebels, then with the counter-insurgents, then with the Government, then with the rebels again, only to discover that some of the rebels are in fact funded by the very Government they're supposed to be opposing, how strange does that seem to anyone familiar with the betrayals and capitulations of contemporary politics, especially movement politics? It's like finding out who sponsors "Earth Day."

My favorite exchange: "I'm trying to be on your side, Jack," says Uncle Sweetheart, the promoter who is, naturally, "only trying to help."

"You have to be born on my side, Sweetheart," says Fate.

To be on the side of workers, of animals, of oppressed people, of love, of the truth is to court destruction. Before singing his final song and meeting his own fate, Jack Fate experiences a visitation by his ghostly forerunner, Oscar Vogel (Ed Harris), a banjo-playing entertainer who worked in blackface and who disappeared after raising his voice against the times. When Fate looks back to catch a last glimpse of Vogel, the vaudevillian has been replaced by a young Black man who could be a janitor, a Reggae artist or a rising Hip-Hop truth teller, next in the line of destiny, or line of fire.

This film isn't perfect. I have read the original screenplay and far too much has been cut out of it to try to make it acceptable to people who would have had none of it under any circumstances. But it is the only motion picture I have seen so far in this millennium that seems to have a clue about what is going on in America. Moviegoers will get it or they won't. Great pains have been taken to ensure that they won't even see it.

It is a tale of almost unbearable sadness and loss. When Dylan sings "I'll Remember You," as electrifying a performance as has ever been caught on camera (all the songs are performed live, there's no lip-synching in this movie) you feel that he may well be singing not merely about a person but also about that "lost America of love" that Ginsberg mourned in "A Supermarket in California," a work that in its visionary aspect and intensity "Masked and Anonymous" resembles. (Its ultimate antecedents are of course Shakespeare's history plays.)

When Dylan's character, Fate, is reunited with his lost/doomed love (Angela Bassett, magnificent in the role), she endeavors with great tenderness to console him for his losses, and without a word Dylan manages to convey that Fate's grief is inconsolable. It is a scene of considerable beauty and delicacy.

Dylan's performance has been called "inscrutable." But who else could have played this role? There are people who find his songs inscrutable as well, and I suppose arguing with them would be as pointless as trying to answer "Tom Friend's" interview questions. (These days, anything an idiot can't or won't bother to understand is "incomprehensible" and "inscrutable.")

The most daring (and intriguing) line in the film slips by almost unnoticed: moments after Jack Fate is arrested for a sudden act of violence committed by his sidekick Bobby Cupid (Luke Wilson), he thinks to himself, "Sometimes it's not enough to know the meaning of things. Sometimes we have to know what things don't mean as well. Like, what does it mean to not know what the person you love is capable of?"

Unlike D. A. Pennebaker's "Don't Look Back," which showed a young Dylan eating dumb but presumptuous critics alive, "Masked and Anonymous" depicts an aging Jack Fate with nothing whatever to say to them. "I was always a singer and maybe no more than that," he says.

So much for "self-indulgence."

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Johnny Rotten Just Doesn't Get It....

The article below comes from the 15 October issue of The Daily Mail and is written by Billy Bragg. When I read it I remembered the scene in the recent Stephen Frears film, The Queen, in which Michael Sheen, in the part of Tony Blair in a room of his supporters following his election to Prime Minister, explodes in anger at a cruel joke told at the Queen's expense.

After the photo above appeared there was an outcry not that different from the one following the debut of Bob Dylan's recent Cadillac Escalade commercial. Many on the left in Britain apparantly wanted Bragg to snub the Queen in a show of socialist solidarity. Without descending into a deep chasm of Marxist cultural theory, such reactions are best understood as the operation of cultural hegemony in late capitalism. Think of it this way.... In less advanced societies if an artist whose work takes a politically oppositional stance begins to rise in popularity, the powers that be send men in masks in the dark of night and the body of the artist is never found. But in advanced capitalist societies like the UK and US, when an artist whose works offers politically oppositional ideas becomes popular, men in suits come with TV news crews in the bright light of the afternoon and with them they bring steamer trunks stuffed with thousand dollar bills and solid gold record albums to lay at the feet of the artist who now has two choices.

He can refuse the money and fame claiming a desire to remain "one of the people" in which case the actual people will mostly see him as insane. "What kind of idiot turns down stacks of money?" In David Mamet's Heist, Danny DeVito's character asks "Why do you think they call it money?" (I can't think of a better example of a nonsensical question that makes sense to everybody who hears it.) Recast now as either crazy or eccentric, the legs are taken out from under whatever oppositional potential the art may have held.

Or, the artist can take the money, and be recast as "selling out" whatever principles he might have previously held.

I'm amazed by that particular phenomenon because what it really means is that money & wealth have a toxiticty to them that only right wing Republicans can survive.

But I digress.

Here's Billy Bragg's explanation:

"She was a small, grey-haired woman, smartly dressed in light colours to stand out against all the suits, and with a neat little handbag on her arm.

She worked her way down the line of dignitaries, nodding politely as they said their bit. It did make me laugh that both my neighbours in the line-up whispered to me as we stood together: 'Of course, you know I'm not a monarchist' - before dropping into a curtsey as the Queen came into view.

As I watched her approach, I couldn't help thinking that this is what it must be like to play for England, lining up to shake hands with the Queen before the big match.

My mind was drifting back to 1966 when suddenly there she was, offering me her hand with a look that seemed to say: 'Well, well. I didn't expect to see you here, Braggy.'

I found myself explaining how I'd written the new lyrics to Ode To Joy, and how fantastic it had been to hear Beethoven accompanied by my words. Earlier, I had noticed her in the Royal Box, following the lyrics in her programme. I had to smile.

I joked that I'd wanted to become the new Bob Dylan and had become the new Friedrich Schiller, the original 18th-century author of the Ode lyrics, instead. She laughed.

When she had gone, I spent some time speaking with members of the choir. They had done a great job with my lyrics, and I welcomed this chance to tell them so.

Later, I heard that the Queen's private secretary had asked if it would be possible to get a copy of the score - signed by me. That just about topped the evening off.

So I guess I have a bit of explaining to do. How could I - a life-long socialist who believes that God Save The Queen should be replaced as England's national anthem by Blake's Jerusalem - find myself shaking hands with Her Majesty?

After all, as a punk rocker during the Queen's Jubilee year back in 1977, I bought my copy of the Sex Pistols' anarchic God Save The Queen like all my mates.

Indeed, I woke up the morning after the performance to find columnists in the Mail wondering how a 'dyed-in-the-wool republican' like me could shake hands with the Queen.

The simple truth is that although I am a Left-winger, I have never described myself as a republican. I've always felt that campaigning against the monarchy distracts us from addressing the issue of where the power really lies in this country.

Back in the Eighties when I fronted the Labour-supporting movement Red Wedge, I had a spat with the band The Housemartins over this very issue.

They refused to join Red Wedge because we would not come out in favour of abolition of the monarchy.

I hit back with an article in Well Red, our house magazine, in which I argued that it would make a much greater contribution to altering the balance of power in this country if we abolished the House of Lords and replaced it with a democratically elected upper chamber - a view I still hold.

Ultimately, I'd like to see the monarchy removed from the political process. It's not just the charade of the Queen's Speech that I object to.

The Prime Minister has, in the form of the royal prerogatives, the power to declare war, sign treaties and appoint peers without recourse to Parliament. Such issues ought to be a matter for our elected representatives.

I believe the people should be sovereign in Parliament, not the Crown.

That magnificent gold throne in the House of Lords would look lovely in a museum.

Once that happens, I don't have a problem with having a monarchy that is symbolic. After all, the Queen already plays that role, especially for the generation who lived through World War II. They do seem to revere her more than the rest of us.

So I believe that while there are still those among us whose loved ones fought and died for king and country in that conflict, then we owe them a debt of respect, not only for the sacrifices they made during the war, but for the legacy of the Welfare State, which they created and handed down to us. By respecting the Queen, we respect them.

However, I don't think the respect that people have for Elizabeth II will automatically be extended to Charles - I know from experience that even ardent monarchists have trouble with the notion of Queen Camilla. And I just can't see the Aussies wanting to put King Charles III on their banknotes.

On the night of the performance, I certainly wouldn't have stuck around to shake hands with any other member of The Firm - and let's not even get started on the Queen's grandchildren, falling out of nightclubs with their braying Sloaney friends.

In contrast, just look at how our Queen comports herself. She does her job pretty well, playing the role of our national figurehead with diligence and decorum, giving us a sense of continuity in a world where change seems to be getting faster. My respect for our monarch is entirely personal - it is not vested in her office.

The Queen is going to be a very hard act to follow, if only because her place in our national life is unprecedented. After all, she is the only head of state most of us have ever known.

I sometimes feel very old, because I can remember having small change in my pocket which bore the austere profile of Queen Victoria.

But anyone under 40 will have known only one face adorning coins and stamps. When she dies, the monarchy as we know it will die with her. The institution itself may not survive her passing.

Up close, the Queen really isn't majestic, more like a grandmother in twin- set and pearls, but the dignity that she brings to the role of head of state utterly transcends the need for the flummery of majesty.

Ask yourself who else could have opened the new National War Memorial in Staffordshire last week? Would a politician have made a better connection with the veterans? They stood in line to meet the woman who embodies to them the very things that they were fighting for.

Could anyone else signify to the families of the fallen how important we believe their sacrifice to be? Hers is a fame beyond the transitory celebrity which has become the debased currency of modern life. Posh and Becks fade into insignificance alongside her ubiquity and place in modern British history.

That's why the BBC found themselves in such trouble over the 'Crowngate' affair (in which film of the Queen for a trailer for a documentary was shown out of sequence).

It's pretty much standard practice for reality TV programmes to stitch up their subjects by editing the footage to create a sense of tension and conflict. The independent production company who supplied the show reel were just doing their 'job'.

What they didn't realise is that what might seem permissible when done to the poor souls who put themselves at the mercy of reality TV is just not acceptable where the Queen is concerned. Whether we like it or not, she is a special case, a national icon who has to be treated with respect. It's just a shame that we don't treat all our 81-year-olds that way.

I know I'll get lots of stick for shaking her hand - one of my fan websites, the Braggtopia, is offering a prize for the best photo caption for my royal moment.

My tour manager has even asked if we are going to have the full coat of arms on the side of our tour bus with the words 'By appointment, songwriter to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II'. And I'll probably get struck off Morrissey's Christmas card list.

Of course, some argue that the monarchy makes us all subjects, but take a look at your passport - mine says I am a citizen, of Great Britain and of the European Union. Clearly, being a subject is a state of mind.

There are those who will doubtless seek to portray my actions as some kind of a betrayal, but that sort tend to be narrow-minded people from both sides of the political spectrum who would prefer me to be a stereotypical Leftie. I guess they'd find that easier to deal with.

The fact is, you won't see me standing outside Buck House waving a flag at the Trooping the Colour any time soon; nor will you find me accepting any honours that might be dangled my way.

However, that doesn't mean I can't show some respect for a woman who clearly means a great deal to many of my fellow citizens. Surely that's what living in our multicultural society entails, isn't it - showing due respect for beliefs that you don't necessarily adhere to?

I could have been sniffy, I suppose, and refused to shake her hand, but she was good enough to come to my gig and follow my lyrics while they were sung. She even asked for my autograph.

Last Tuesday night was very special. I sat with my mother, my missus and my son while we listened to a great orchestra and a massive choir passionately sing my words to one of the greatest pieces of music ever written.

And afterwards, I got to shake hands with the woman who gave the World Cup to Bobby Moore. For a boy from Barking, it just doesn't get much better than that.

What can I say? The Queen charmed the pants off me."

• Billy Bragg's fee for this article has been donated to Jail Guitar Doors,

Friday, October 19, 2007

December 7, 1997 and August 28, 1963

I'm sure there are other reasons these dates are significant, but I find them interesting because on both days Bob Dylan hung out a bit with Charlton Heston.

Now, not to dive into the deep end of French literary theory but one favorite distinction gleaned from that work was Roland Barthes' notion of the writerly and readerly texts. Put simply, the meaning in readerly texts is fixed and rigid, but in writerly texts the meaning is more fluid, more open. Barthes said "In readerly texts the signifiers march; in writerly texts, they dance." As artists, the difference between Bob and Chuck seems pretty clear.

In 1997, Dylan and Heston were in the group of five artists honored by President Clinton at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In 1968, both men were also together in Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and a quarter of a million men and women marching together for social justice.

The March on Washington represented a coalition of several civil rights organizations, all of which generally had different approaches and different agendas. The "Big Six" organizers were James Farmer, of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); Martin Luther King, Jr., of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); John Lewis, of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); A. Philip Randolph, of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Roy Wilkins, of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); and Whitney Young, Jr., of the National Urban League.

Opposition to the march came from a number of quarters. President Kennedy originally discouraged the march, for fear that it might make the legislature vote against civil rights laws in reaction to a perceived threat. Once it became clear that the march would go on, however, he supported it. While various labor unions supported the march, the AFL-CIO remained neutral.

Outright opposition came from two sides. White supremacist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, were obviously not in favor of any event supporting racial equality. On the other hand, the march was also condemned by some civil rights activists who felt it presented an inaccurate, sanitized pageant of racial harmony; Malcolm X called it the "Farce on Washington," and members of the Nation of Islam who attended the march faced a temporary suspension.

Nobody was sure how many people would turn up for the demonstration in Washington, D.C. Some traveling from the South were harassed and threatened. But on August 28, 1963, an estimated quarter of a million people—about a quarter of whom were white—marched from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, in what turned out to be both a protest and a communal celebration. The heavy police presence turned out to be unnecessary, as the march was noted for its civility and peacefulness. The march was extensively covered by the media, with live international television coverage.

The event included musical performances by Marian Anderson; Joan Baez; Bob Dylan; Mahalia Jackson; Peter, Paul, and Mary; and Josh White. Charlton Heston—representing a contingent of artists, including Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Diahann Carroll, Ossie Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne, Paul Newman, and Sidney Poitier–read a speech by James Baldwin.

The two most noteworthy speeches came from John Lewis and Martin Luther King, Jr. Lewis represented the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a younger, more radical group than King's. The original text to his speech had circulated throughout the day and the march leaders were able to convince him to tone down his rhetoric and remove the most inflammatory portions. What he did deliver was still the most explicitly radical speech of the day. He said, in part:

The revolution is at hand, and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery. The nonviolent revolution is saying, "We will not wait for the courts to act, for we have been waiting hundreds of years. We will not wait for the President, nor the Justice Department, nor Congress, but we will take matters into our own hands, and create a great source of power, outside of any national structure that could and would assure us victory." For those who have said, "Be patient and wait!" we must say, "Patience is a dirty and nasty word." We cannot be patient, we do not want to be free gradually, we want our freedom, and we want it now. We cannot depend on any political party, for the Democrats and the Republicans have betrayed the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence.

Dr. King's speech remains one of the most famous speeches in American history. He started with prepared remarks, saying he was there to "cash a check" for "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness," while warning fellow protesters not to "allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. But then he departed from his script, shifting into the "I have a dream" theme he'd used on prior occasions, drawing on both "the American dream" and religious themes, speaking of an America where his children "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." He followed this with an exhortation to "let freedom ring" across the nation, and concluded with:

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last."

When I talk about the impact of Bob Dylan upon American culture in the last half century I always include the image of the 23 year-old folksinger on the stage in the shadow of the Washington Monument performing as, in effect, the warm up act for Dr. King's "I have a dream" speech.

Dylan sang his greatest protest song, "Only a Pawn in Their Game," about the murder of Medgar Evers on June 12, 1963 by Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the Ku Klux Klan. When he sang this song it was less than three months since that killing. In the film of the scene the camera pans the faces of the crowd and people appear to be listening intently to Dylan's words. The song is unique in the literature of protest music because it does not rally the troops by attacking the killer. Instead, it asks the listener to consider larger questions:

A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers' blood.
A finger fired the trigger to his name.
A handle hid out in the dark
A hand set the spark
Two eyes took the aim
Behind a man's brain
But he can't be blamed
He's only a pawn in their game.

A South politician preaches to the poor white man,"You got more than the blacks, don't complain.
You're better than them, you been born with white skin," they explain.
And the Negro's name
Is used it is plain
For the politician's gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game.

You can see the rest of the lyrics and hear the melody here; the song is from Dylan's third and most explicitly "protest song" album, The Times They Are A-Changin', which wouldn't be released until the winter of 1963, which means that the crowd in Washington was hearing it for the first time.

But the song and performance that never fails to make all the hair on my neck stand at attention is immediately before that. "When the Ship Comes In" (seen here in a slightly grainy video from the march) uses Biblical imagery to create a sense of justice marching through history, destroying all enemies in its path.

Then the sands will roll
Out a carpet of gold
For your weary toes to be a-touchin'.
And the ship's wise men
Will remind you once again
That the whole wide world is watchin'.

Oh the foes will rise
With the sleep still in their eyes
And they'll jerk from their beds and think they're dreamin'.
But they'll pinch themselves and squeal
And know that it's for real,
The hour when the ship comes in.

Then they'll raise their hands,
Sayin' we'll meet all your demands,
But we'll shout from the bow your days are numbered.
And like Pharaoh's tribe,
They'll be drownded in the tide,
And like Goliath, they'll be conquered.

I suppose it's something to do with age. To paraphrase Bob, "I was so much younger then, I'm older than that now." In 2007 none of the TV networks would cover that march; the audience research says people don't want to see "protests" and we would have instead investigative reports on the breaking scandal of Ellen's dog and Britney's inability to follow the instructions that come with panties.

But "When the Ship Comes In," as powerful as it is, makes no sense today. It is as if it's being sung in a dying language, one with only one or two living speakers. A language that somehow no longer fits the world it once described.

Aw.... I hate to be a buzzkill, but the question does occur to me whether it really makes any difference if Rudy or Hillary is wearing the Captain's costume as the last little bit of the deck rail disappears beneath the frigid waves of the North Atlantic.

* The section above on the March on Washington borrows heavily from the Wikipedia entry.