Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Pax Pacifica: Donovan’s Reef

This post is part of the John Ford Blogathon, hosted by Krell Laboratories and Bemused and Nonplussed. Oh, and there are spoilers.

John Ford turned fifty-five in 1949, and if his contribution of that year to the all-time roster of cinema classics, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, is any indication, retirement seems to have been on his mind. It’s hard to imagine him not seeing something of himself in Captain Nathan Brittles, the august and honorable but curmudgeonly and slightly antiquated commandant of Fort Starke, whom Ford gives an exalted sendoff, courtesy of Brittles’ extended U.S. Cavalry family.

In 1953’s The Sun Shines Bright, often cited by Ford as one of his personal favorites among his own films, he puts noble, patriarchal old Judge Billy Priest out to pasture as a parade of admirers—Priest’s extended family—passes his home in his honor. A parade of a different type passes the defeated Mayor Frank Skeffington in Ford’s The Last Hurrah in 1958. Unlike Brittles or Priest, Skeffington does have an immediate family, a son. Yet, besides a nephew, his cadre of political cronies—brothers in arms through many campaigns, as it were—comprise his real family . . . not unlike Ford, whose Field Photo Farm he used as a gathering place for former members of the Field Photographic Division of the Office of Strategic Services (a forerunner of the CIA), who had served under Fords command during World War II

The overarching mood in each of these films is elegiac, melancholy.  

Five years after Hurrah, at the age of sixty-nine, Ford was considered by just about everybody but the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd to be a spent force, a former purveyor of beloved, if sentimental, historical fare and Westerns, despite his well-received, reflective elegy to the Old West and scathing exposé on western myth of the previous year, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. By this time Ford—once one of Hollywood’s elite directors, with six Academy Awards to his credit—needed the star power of his perennial leading man and alter ego John Wayne (whose career Ford had set on its upward course with 1939’s groundbreaking Stagecoach) to guarantee box office success for, and studio interest in, a film project. Yet he seems to have come to terms with his own perceived antiquity in the generally upbeat Donovan’s Reef.

Often dismissed as a brawling romp (which it is, up to a point), Donovan’s Reef unfolds much like Ford’s The Wings of Eagles, with liberal doses of broad, free-for-all slapstick, transitioning into a serene, if not sober, reverie. Ford’s image of the dustbin of history, the purgatory of social impotence into which old soldiers are relegated, however laudatory their sendoffs (think of Spig Wead in Wings and Marty Maher in The Long Gray Line), has morphed into permanent residency in a tropical paradise, albeit a flawed one (as will be discussed below)—a Valhalla of sorts. The mood is lighthearted, especially for later Ford. The mortal enemies of Liberty Valance, John Wayne and Lee Marvin, have become friendly combatants who are bound by a shared birthday (significantly, December 7th) and having fought side by side in the Pacific in the Second World War. 

Ford and Wayne on location for Donovan's Reef.

The film opens with “Boats” Gilhooley (Marvin) diving off a merchant ship after realizing he’s been shanghaied, and swimming to the nearby island of Haleakaloha, French Polynesia, which, we come to realize, is his annual destination on December 7th, where he carries out the time honored tradition of a birthday brawl with his old Navy buddy, “Guns” Donovan (Wayne). Later it is revealed that, following World War II, Donovan and his (and Gilhooley’s) former commanding officer, “Doc” Dedham (Jack Warden), made their homes on Haleakaloha, which they had defended against the Japanese, guerilla style, during the late war. Doc’s wife passed away while he was overseas and, though he had a young daughter back home in Boston, opted to stay in the island chain, where his physician’s skills were desperately needed by the natives. Donovan built a saloon—the Donovan’s Reef of the title—and Doc married Manulani, the granddaughter of the last hereditary prince of the islands. He had three children with her; she died giving birth to the third. His daughter by his first wife, Amelia (Elizabeth Allen), now an adult, stands to inherit enough stock from her great aunt to give her a controlling interest in the family shipping business if she can prove her father—to whom the shares were bequeathed—to be of less than acceptable moral character, “by Boston standards.” Donovan and Gilhooley get wind of her coming to Haleakaloha to meet her father.

As in all of Maine native Ford’s works, Boston is a breeding ground for all manner of screwballs, and it is presumed by those close to Doc that Amelia is a racist. Thus, a plot is hatched—unbeknownst to the doctor, who is currently on the outer islands ministering to the sick—by Donovan, Gilhooley, the local Catholic priest, Father Cluzeot (Marcel Dalio), and the governor of the island, Marquis Andre de Lage (Cesar Romero) to lead Amelia to believe that Doc’s children by Manulani belong to Donovan until Doc returns and can tell her in his own way that they are his. The kids and their belongings are removed from his house and are taken, in an almost funereal procession/parade, to Donovan’s living quarters above his saloon.

Next to the Governor, who is not much more than a scheming Lothario and a comic, benign descendant of Raymond Massey’s martinet of an island governor in Ford’s The Hurricane, Amelia is the nearest thing to a villain in Donovan’s Reef. But before all is said and done we, and the plotters, eventually realize that our/their presumption of racism on her part was unfounded. She and her eccentric, haughty assemblage of relatives are certainly no match for the controlling, bigoted WASP brain trust of the “New England City” of The Last Hurrah.

De Lage (Cesar Romero) attempts to charm Amelia 
(Elizabeth Allen) onto his list of conquests.

Nevertheless, other forms of racism do exist within this island community, a quasi-paradise at best: remnants of French imperialism, racism toward “half-castes,” de Lage’s Amherst-educated Chinese assistant’s prejudice toward his own “barbarian” countrymen. Ford also reminds us, through Amelia’s substituting “Donovan” with the first Irish name that comes into her head—a motif that would show up the following year in Cheyenne Autumn—that Irish-Americans were discriminated against for many years. There is jealousy: Miss Lafleur (Dorothy Lamour, another callback to The Hurricane), sees Amelia as a threat, and treats her with disdain. There is nepotism: the pampered, pompous Governor de Lage is cousin to the French minister of foreign affairs. It is a microcosm of society, warts and all.

Yet “pax” (a running gag between Donovan and Amelia*) can be achieved there. At a time when the world was in the deepest throes of the Cold War and religious unrest was beginning to rear its head in the Middle East and Northern Ireland, there is coexistence between various races and religions in Ford’s paradise. Catholicism lives peaceably alongside traditional Polynesian beliefs and rituals. One of the markers in the church graveyard bears a Star of David. Multiple races, cultures, and nationalities inhabit the islands, and all are allowed to live as they choose. While the white, Western minority is unmistakably the ruling class, according to the then-accepted post-WWII model, it rules with a soft touch, with benevolence and tolerance. 

* Pax Americana is a term that was used by then-sitting President John F. Kennedy. Amelia mentions the Kennedy family late in the film.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

That You May See the Meaning of Within: Deconstructing Revolver

At the end of “Lady Lazarus,” an episode from the fifth season of the superb cable TV period drama Mad Men, set in the 1960s world of Madison Avenue, ad man Don Draper is urged by his wife to listen to a specific track on the new Beatles album she’s just purchased. After she leaves their chic Manhattan apartment to attend her evening acting class, Don places the LP on the hi-fi turntable, drops the tone arm onto the last track, and lies back in his Danish lounge chair as the distinctively unconventional sounds of “Tomorrow Never Knows” fill the room. Before making it halfway through the song, he abruptly jerks the stylus across the grooves and off of the record and walks silently out of the room, apparently having had enough.

Small wonder, as this positively avant-garde recording must have sounded bizarrely foreign to the ears of anyone over the age of 30 in 1966, let alone 40, the age of the Draper character at the time (his wife, Megan, was in her twenties). Nevertheless, after a few moments of silence, the Mad Men credits roll and the song picks up where it left off on the soundtrack. The already rapidly changing world of the 1960s will move forward at an even faster pace than before, with or without the Don Drapers who inhabit it.

“Tomorrow Never Knows” is the most adventurous and experimental composition on an album filled with envelope-pushing music that has proven over time—more so than Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, as will be discussed—to be the creative apex of the Beatles’ career: Revolver. It took a while for the virtues of this inspired work to come into worldwide focus, mainly due to the fact that the U.S. issue, as was the case with all of the group’s albums up to that point, had been truncated prior to its release (three of its John Lennon-penned songs were preemptively lifted for placement on the patched-together “Yesterday”. . . and Today), thus preventing Stateside fans and critics alike from hearing the LP as it was intended, in many cases until the band’s catalogue was initially released to CD in 1987.

Following the magnificent, atmospheric Rubber Soul, Revolver—by turns edgy, poignant, lovely, whimsical, gritty, challenging, and always dynamic—completed the most overwhelming one-two punch of any musical artist of the rock era. Both have stood the test of time, sounding as fresh and inspired nearly 50 years later as when they were first released. Revolver, while maintaining the universal listenability* that had become a Beatles trademark, raised the stakes artistically for all of rock music like no album before or since.

* For the most part; as the Beatles ventured into uncharted musical territory they were a little apprehensive that some fans might not follow.

The three composing Beatles were firing on all cylinders. Lennon’s contributions were more richly compelling and cumulatively potent than on any other album. Paul McCartney broke new ground with deeply poignant lyrics (particularly with “Eleanor Rigby”) and more elaborate melodies than on any of his previous compositions, transcending his already well developed pop music sensibilities. George Harrison reached a new level and a personal best, not only contributing three numbers to a Beatles album for the first time, but even the one chosen to lead off the LP (the acerbic, funky “Taxman”)—despite the heavy competition for disc space from Lennon & McCartney at their peak.

The iconic cover art for Revolver was created by Beatle buddy Klaus Voormann.

Millions of words have probably been written about the Beatles over the years, possibly hundreds of thousands about Revolver, so I’m not going to even attempt to critique this masterpiece. Since I’ve practically grown up with it, I’m too close to it, and therefore incapable of doing it justice. Not only has Beatles authority Robert Rodriguez done just that, he has also placed the landmark album within the perspectives of both its own time and ours, while collecting all that is known of what went down in the actual recording sessions, in Revolver: How the Beatles Reimagined Rock ‘n’ Roll.  

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Looking for the Veedon Fleece

If anyone has earned the right to belt out the Sinatra anthem “My Way,” it’s Van Morrison, though to my knowledge Van has never publicly uttered a stanza of those Paul Anka-penned lyrics. Whether howling the blues, evocatively crooning a soulful ballad, immersing himself in a jazz workout, cranking out a cynical, seemingly obligatory paean to the music biz, or plumbing the depths of his Celtic soul to meld all of those disciplines into some kind of empyrean sound of his own creation, he seems to have done exactly what he has wanted to do, while ignoring or outflanking the conjecture of critic and fan alike at every turn. As one expositor, who has as much of a handle on Van as anyone, Greil Marcus, has said, “Morrison remains a singer who can be compared to no other in the history of rock & roll, a singer who cannot be pinned down, dismissed, or fitted into anyone's expectations.”

Taken as a whole, there’s practically nothing to which the music of George Ivan Morrison can be likened. Alternately defined by critics as rock, pop, blues, folk, jazz, jazz fusion, soul, blue-eyed soul, Irish soul, or Caledonia soul, it has always, throughout Morrison’s nearly fifty years of recording, defied any specific genre classification. He came by this ability to evade pigeonholing naturally, as his musical influences (thanks to a father who could boast of the most expansive record collection in Ulster, Northern Ireland in the 1950s) ranged from itinerant bluesmen Lead Belly, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters to Scottish skiffler Lonnie Donegan to country and western troubadour Hank Williams to original soul men Ray Charles and Solomon Burke to divine gospel wailer Mahalia Jackson—all of whom, incidentally, Van would eventually either refer to in song or perform with in person. Consequently, his music has influenced the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, U2, Sinéad O'Connor, and several others.

And there’s that voice: both guttural and celestial, piercing the air and stirring the soul while soothing it at the same time . . . a matchless force of nature. Again, Greil Marcus put it best: “As a physical fact, Morrison may have the richest and most expressive voice pop music has produced since Elvis Presley, and with a sense of himself as an artist that Elvis was always denied. ”

For my taste, Van as spiritual, soul-searching Irish mystic—an incarnation he doesn’t seem to be able to assume at will—has produced his most resonant works: Astral WeeksSaint Dominic’s PreviewVeedon Fleece, Common OneNo Guru No Method No Teacher. Of these scattered, transcendent few, Veedon Fleece stands out. Recorded in 1973 and ’74 after his divorce from his first wife and a visit to Ireland, it is one of the most richly ethereal, metaphysical creations of any artist in any musical genre you’d care to name.

Van performs Bulbs live at the Montreux Jazz Festival, June 30, 1974.

When broaching the prospect of discussing Veedon Fleece, one comes up against the same difficulties as with attempting to discuss Pet Sounds, or the works of Terrence Malick: one finds oneself pondering the imponderable, and words simply don’t cut it. Nevertheless, it is worth the effort, even if skirting the fringes is the best that can be hoped for. A wistful, stream of consciousness song cycle, there is a haunting, impenetrable mystery to all of the pieces, which are all of a piece.

The album itself seems to ponder the imponderables of human existence. What exactly is the Veedon Fleece of the title, referred to in the contemplative “You Don’t Pull No Punches But You Don’t Push the River”? Is it a tangible thing, like the Golden Fleece of Jason’s quest? Or is it the object of a quest for spiritual enlightenment? The latter is a subject explored often in Morrison’s later work, and it’s part of a continuum of pastoral images and essences, characters and places, that flow throughout this album and the rest of his oeuvre. “You Don’t Pull No Punches” gives the impression, musically, of floating inexorably down a river, an elliptical piano prologue eliciting images of swirling eddies before the tempo changes and we are set on our bass-driven, violin and flute-augmented course. Never one to shy away from literary, cultural, or religious references, Van evokes William Blake and the Sisters of Mercy, who are indeed “looking for the Veedon Fleece.”  

Monday, September 24, 2012

Peckinpah is in the Details: Junior Bonner

Steve McQueen and Robert Preston as father and 
son in director Sam Peckinpah's Junior Bonner.

America, if not the world, was in a state of flux in 1972, as the alternative values that had made their presence unequivocally known in the 1960s began to slowly but surely weave themselves into the fabric of daily life. At its most superficial and visible level, this transition was evidenced by the disappearing ears of traditionally conservative types—then called “squares”—as they became increasingly obscured by steadily growing hair . . . with previously nonexistent sideburns keeping pace. On the female side, less was the new more when it came to wearing makeup, and pants were replacing skirts as the norm as closet feminists began pushing their own personal envelopes. New was supplanting old at a rapid pace; generations-old Victorian storefronts and other building exteriors were being hidden like family skeletons behind more simple, modern-looking façades.

Familiar ways of life were receding into the sunset as well, only on a more permanent basis than fleeting haute couture and temporary, cosmetic architectural fixes. The landscape was changing, literally and figuratively. It is this reality that is layed out in the background tableau of Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner, the story of an aging rodeo champion—played by sixties icon Steve McQueen in a quietly inspired performance—who is dealing with the dissolution of his family as he continues to age in a young man’s business.  

Peckinpah, for all the slow motion violence and carnage he splashed across the screen in his influential and lauded The Wild Bunch, for which he is best remembered today, also had a markedly serene, bucolic side. This undercurrent of tranquility showed itself in the spiritual high road he took in Ride the High Country, a sadly forgotten 1962 masterpiece, and again in the quirky and personal The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970). It is revealed in all its pastoral, pensive glory in Junior Bonner. In this starkly scintillating, reflective film, Peckinpah’s camera records the world of the American Southwest of the early 1970s in a strikingly realistic manner, often using local folk from the Prescott, Arizona filming location as actors, and incorporating an actual Fourth of July parade that took place during shooting.

Junior’s father, Ace, a former rodeo champion himself and a local hero in Prescott, is basically a sixty-something boy who refuses to grow up, drinking in the residual adoration of the community with the same gusto one imagines he did in his prime. Yet his world and his family are deteriorating under his nose; his home has been bulldozed to make way for a trailer park that’s being developed by his other son, Curly, and he and his wife have long since parted ways, thanks to his cavalier improprieties through the years. Richly played by Robert Preston with his usual charming bravado, Ace is for all practical purposes an older version of Professor Harold Hill, the character he had immortalized ten years earlier in the film version of The Music Man, which Peckinpah admired. 

Junior’s ostensible Moby Dick is a bull named Sunshine, a nemesis which earlier—revealed in snippets of flashback—prevented him from winning a bulldogging competition, and which appears to be the device that drives the plot forward. Reading between the lines, one can surmise that Junior sees a successful repeat ride on Sunshine as a way of maintaining his hometown hero status, as well as staving off the encroaching end of his rodeo career—and a perhaps inevitable descent into his father’s irresponsible lifestyle. Yet the denouement occurs almost as a throwaway; Ace and his estranged wife (Ida Lupino) are enjoying one last hurrah together before Ace leaves for good for Australia, and Junior’s real estate developer brother (Joe Don Baker), himself an instrument of change, is off somewhere else as well. It is in the alternately rapid fire/invisible editing by Frank Santillo and Robert L. Wolfe that Peckinpah’s theme is revealed: an America in transition, as old ways and traditions become things of the past.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

It’s a Family Affair: There’s a Riot Goin’ On

When I was growing up, in the pre-Internet/Wii/Netflix/iPod/satellite era, the main source of entertainment for a small town kid, besides television (only one channel if you had “rabbit ears” like we did, three with a rooftop antenna), was Top 40 radio. It was an airplay format based on the popularity of songs recently released on 45 rpm records, the more popular ones being played more frequently per hour or two than those further down the list. Every major U.S. city had its own Top 40 station, usually on the AM dial, and each city had its own top forty most popular songs, though they weren’t necessarily limited to forty. WLS, the 50,000-watt powerhouse station located in Chicago, for instance, migrated from forty, to thirty, to sometimes twenty-five songs on its weekly survey over the years, and every New Year’s Eve would count down the top 89 hits of the year, to coincide with its number on the dial.

Billboard magazine, just as it does now, maintained a nationwide weekly ranking based on sales and surveys. Unlike now, there were only three main music categories to speak of: Country and Western, Rhythm and Blues (R&B), and Popular (Pop). The Pop charts were considered the barometer of the nation’s tastes, and the goal of most artists, regardless of their musical style, was to top that chart, “with a bullet” if possible. With the advent of FM radio and album oriented rock (AOR) in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the previously unchallenged institution of Top 40 became a target of derision for everyone from musical elitists and audiophiles to various proponents of the ‘60s counterculture, and it was often held up as a symbol of everything that was wrong with mainstream society. My main beef was the maddening amount of repetition inherent in such a limited playlist, and when I was thirteen I started listening almost exclusively to what was then an oldies station, WDZ in Decatur, before discovering, and succumbing to, FM.

For all the grief leveled at the phenomenon that was Top 40 radio in its heyday, by the late ‘60s-early ‘70s it nevertheless reflected popular tastes that were capable of simultaneously embracing the likes of Al Green, Johnny Cash, The Temptations, Engelbert Humperdink, Bob Dylan, Glenn Campbell, Bobby Goldsboro, Louis Armstrong, The Rolling Stones, The Jackson Five, Aretha Franklin, Ferrante and Teicher, Isaac Hayes, The Carpenters, Edwin Starr, Tammy Wynette, Neil Diamond, Carole King, Harry Nilsson, Tom Jones, Janis Joplin, Frank Sinatra, Santana, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, John Denver, the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar, The Partridge Family, Marvin Gaye, Joan Baez, Perry Como, The Doors, The Osmond Brothers, Led Zeppelin, The Bee Gees, Barbra Streisand, James Taylor, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Cat Stevens, Diana Ross, Elvis Presley, and The Beatles. Ponder for a moment what all those names could possibly have in common, other than the fact that they all performed some type of music, and you get the point.

It’s safe now to admit that the musical pulse of the American public was being taken from a more culturally diverse sampling under that much-maligned system 40 years ago than any of the myriad current genre-based measuring sticks—bastions of isolationism that they are—manage to do today. In retrospect, the Top 40 of four decades ago could be described not as the whirlpool of homogeneity that AOR hipsters would have us believe at the time, but rather as a fountain of tolerance and heterogeneity. For all of our current penchant for self congratulatory back patting based on the canard of “how far we’ve come,” what do we have today that compares to the original concept of Top 40 as a celebration of, and showcase for, diversityboth musical and cultural? If you think American Top 40 with Ryan Seacrest fits the bill, then you may as well stop reading this right now.

No stranger to Top 40 radio in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s was Sly and the Family Stone, itself a model of diversity—not only in the music which that aggregation created, but also in the physical makeup of the group. It was one of the first racially integrated rock groups (only the Del-Vikings and Booker T. & the MG’s come to mind as precursors), as well as being multi-gender. This thanks to the band’s founder and front man, Sylvester Stewart, a.k.a. Sly Stone, who cut his musical teeth with multi-racial groups as a gospel- and doo-wop-singing youth, later going against the grain by occasionally spinning discs by white artists as a disc jockey for the San Francisco R&B radio station KSOL. 

Everyday People. Left to Right: Greg Errico, Rose Stone, Sly Stone, Cynthia 
Robinson, Freddie Stone, Jerry Martini, and Larry Graham.

The name itself suggests brotherhood/sisterhood. In addition to the fact that the group was comprised of, in part, Sly’s actual siblings, the implication was that even non-relations, including the two white members, Greg Errico and Jerry Martini (despite Black Panther demands that they be replaced with black musicians) were brothers and sisters as well, part of a utopian family of man. And the music lived up to the name. Hits like Dance to the Music, Stand!, “I Want to Take You Higher,” “Everyday People” (which popularized the phrase “different strokes for different folks”), “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” and “Everybody Is a Star” perforated racial barriers at a time when race riots were a not infrequent fact of life.

By late 1971, though, after having taken up residence in the LP and singles charts for a solid couple of years, and after sealing their place in the pantheon of rock’s superstars with a knockout performance at Woodstock, Sly and company had not produced an album of new material in nearly two and a half years. This was pop music suicide at the time, hit singles notwithstanding—Sgt. Pepper and FM radio had recently made the LP the standard currency in the business—and their record label, Epic, resorted to the stopgap measures of repackaging their first album and releasing a greatest hits collection.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Entertaining Angels Unawares: Hail the Conquering Hero

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: 
for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
- Hebrews 13:1-2

Our attitude toward our fighting men and women has fluctuated dramatically over the years. Since the first Gulf War we’ve freely given the respect, admiration, and honor rightly due our homecoming professional soldiers, despite whatever our feelings may be toward the conflicts they’ve willingly answered the call to participate in while leaving behind their homes and families. A generation earlier, troops returning from Vietnam were alternately ignored, spat on, or slandered to varying degrees for following orders and fighting what ultimately became an unpopular war.

During the Second World War, the GIs—“our boys”—constantly had their praises sung by the public and the media. Nearly an entire generation of men were called to duty, and they were the sons, uncles, fathers and cousins of nearly every one of us . . . so it was personal. As a result, Hollywood, though its intentions may very well have been honorable and the cause just, produced a lot of flag waving drivel to promote the war effort at home and on the fighting front, especially during the early years of the war.

Enter Preston Sturges who, along with John Huston, became one of the first screenwriters to make a successful transition to directing feature films in the sound era. Sturges, who is recognized as a genius of cinema comedy, with at least seven masterpieces of that genre to his credit in the 1940s, was too clever a character—and also a trifle too sardonic—to dally in the jingoism that was in vogue at the time. Nevertheless, he showed his admiration for, and paid his respects to, the American fighting man in no uncertain terms in Hail the Conquering Hero.  

Hail the Conquering Hero is a comedy, but it forgoes much of the slapstick visual humor that Sturges spread liberally across most of his other signature films, including The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels, both from 1941. In its place Sturges, who really authored no visual cinematic style to speak of prior to Hero, utilizes crowded compositions of wall-to-wall people to match the snappy, inventive, wall-to-wall dialogue he was known for. The film moves along briskly, with abrupt, well-timed cuts, as he propels his plot nimbly forward. 

Preston Sturges

The professed hero is one Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken, who also starred in Sturges’ brilliant The Miracle of Morgan's Creek), a chronic hay fever sufferer rejected by the Marines, who was born on the day—at the very moment in fact—that his genuine Marine hero father was killed at the Battle of Belleau Wood during World War I. Consequently, he’s had enormous shoes to fill his entire life, and can’t summon the nerve to return home to face his mother, his town, and the music (literally, as it turns out). To make matters worse, he’s written his mother that he’s a Marine, and has been fighting in the Pacific for the past year. 

But the real heroes of the film are six tapped-out, battle-hardened leathernecks fresh from Guadalcanal, who emerge from the evening mist on a city street, stopping to bicker with one another outside the tavern in which Woodrow happens to be drowning his sorrows. Woodrow buys them sandwiches and a couple of rounds of drinks, winning their respect by way of his fidelity to The Corps, and their sympathy by way of his unenviable position: an inability to make the grade in his perceived birthright branch of the service. (During WWII, soldiers were routinely held up as examples of America’s finest, and it was the goal of every male from schoolboy to young adult to be one, or else suffer derision and raised eyebrows.)

Through a series of well-intentioned ruses perpetuated by his new, uniformed buddies, Woodrow returns with them to his hometown a conquering, decorated hero. His long-suffering mother (who keeps a shrine to her late husband with his photograph prominently displayed), as well as his former girlfriend (who has become engaged to marry the hapless, buffoonish son of the conniving, windbag mayor, wonderfully played by Sturges stock company favorite Raymond Walburn) and the whole community welcome him at the train station with open arms and several marching bands. Things have clearly gotten out of control, and not only does the town pay off the mortgage on his mother’s home and propose a statue of him and his father, they ultimately nominate Woodrow as a candidate for mayor, solely on the basis of his military exploits, which in reality never happened.

None of this sits well with Woodrow, who tries tirelessly to tell the truth to anyone who’ll listen, but the entire town is swept away in a rapture of pride and patriotism, and is deaf to his exhortations. Even if they wanted to they wouldn’t get the chance to hear his side of the story, as Sergeant Heppelfinger (William Demarest), the leader of the small group of Marines, constantly adds to the tangled web, building on Woodrow’s legend at every turn.

It’s here that Sturges sets himself apart from the pack. He deftly yet nearly invisibly pokes fun at blind hero worship and even exploitation of the military, while at the same time paying tribute to our men in uniform who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf. And he fulfills in spades the number one requirement of a Hollywood movie in the heyday of the studio system: he entertains us. “Laugh and the world laughs with you, frown and you frown alone,” says a character in the film, echoing a line from Leo McCarey’s Going My Way, released earlier that same year (1944), and likely a mantra for those on the home front during World War II.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Rosetta Stone of Modern Holiday Music: White Christmas

Bing Crosby’s Merry Christmas album has been in print for over six decadesthe title was switched to White Christmas a few years ago for its most recent CD incarnationsurviving several changes in format. 

Its a little annoying that, despite his monumental and pioneering achievements in the recording, film, and radio industries, Bing Crosby’s musical legacy has become more or less restricted to the genre of Christmas music, at least from the perspective of the general public. But lets face it, nobody does Christmas better than Bing. Admit it—the holidays just dont feel like the holidays unless youve heard Bing croon “White Christmas” at least once. The fact is, anyone whos ever recorded a secular Holiday song since World War II—from Perry Como and Johnny Mathis right up through Josh Groban and Michael Bublé—owes a debt to Mr. Crosby. And it all began with the White Christmas album.

Actually, Merry Christmas was its original title, and it was first released in the form of a multiple 78-rpm record set in 1945, later making the transition to a box set of 45s, then a 33 1/3-rpm LP (with four additional songs). It eventually became the very first million-selling Christmas album, and as recently as December 2010 the White Christmas CD topped Amazon.com’s Pop Vocal Holiday Music, Classic Broadway Vocalists, and Nostalgia Music charts simultaneously. What other album do you know of that has even been in print for over sixty-five years, let alone is still topping sales charts?

The album that started it all.

Bings 1935 recording of Silent Night (his 47 version is included in this collection) was, in fact, the first Christmas record to become a huge hit. Ironically, Bing had been reluctant to record a religious song for the purpose of commercial gain, and he only agreed to do it if the proceeds went to a Catholic charity.

Irving Berlin's “White Christmas,” on the other hand, was not only the first secular holiday tune to do well on the charts, Bing’s rendition of it ultimately became the biggest selling record of all time*, and it opened the floodgates to a deluge of annual postwar Holiday recordings by major artists that continues to this day. The recording’s initial success was attributed to its striking a chord with homesick GIs in the sweltering Pacific Theatre of Operations during the Second World War, but that somehow spilled over onto the home front and continued long after the troops had returned. So much so that it cracked the Billboard pop charts an amazing twenty separate times over the ensuing couple of decades and reached the #1 position in three different years (1942, ’45, and ’46)!

* Current estimates have it at over 50 million units sold, and that number increases annually with a high volume of digital downloads during the holiday season.

Holiday novelty songs are still a part of our world, and “Christmas In Killarney” and “Mele Kalikimaka” have to be categorized as such—or are they an Irish tune and a Hawaiian tune, respectively? Either way, theyre so darned warm and infectious one can't imagine this collection without them. Another one of my favorites is “Its Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas,” which unfailingly elicits an almost Pavlovian reaction of childlike anticipation of the Yuletide season every fall when it first wafts, post-Halloween, through the prematurely-decked malls.

For my money, Ill Be Home For Christmas is the real gem of this set. Could the troops stationed overseas have felt any less wistful upon hearing this breathtaking recording in the winter of 1943 than they had with “White Christmas” the year before? Bings voice floats flawlessly, hauntingly, over the opening guitar strains as were drawn, for a few fleeting moments suspended in time, into a pensive, somewhat melancholy realm . . . until being lulled gently back to our own time and place on the wings of an exquisitely sustained final note, a warm but mournful glow of remembrances of Christmases past lingering after. Maybe it’s a taste that’s acquired with age, but to me (while acknowledging the obvious sentimentality), this is pop artistry of the highest order, and the perfect marriage of singer and song. Anyone who only remembers the venerable Bing Crosby of the leisurely TV Christmas specials of the 1960s and ‘70s should give this performance a serious listen.

The 1955 LP, belatedly certified Gold by the RIAA in 1970.

Theres a lot more to enjoy here, particularly Bings workout with the inimitable Andrews Sisters on bandleader-arranger Vic Schoen’s jazzed-up version of “Jingle Bells” (recently ripped off, note for note, harmony for harmony, and pause for pause, by Barry Manilow), but Ill leave the rest for you to discover. Or rediscover, since these songs and carols are all practically a part of our collective unconscious. If theyre not, or if youre too young to have heard this collection before—well, trust me, its essential holiday listening. 

And it is, as they say, the perfect stocking stuffer.

© Jon Oye, 2011

Thursday, August 11, 2011

John Ford to be Honored Forever by USPS

John Ford's image will reportedly be the first to grace a "forever stamp" in a series commemorating great American film directors next year, according to the Los Angeles Times, with illustrator Gary Kelley doing the visual honors. It's appropriate that Ford—arguably the finest and most influential of American auteurs, and the first recipient of AFI's Life Achievement Award, in 1973—is to be the first director honored. 

For the uninitiated, Ford 's body of work is a veritable must-see list of classics: How Green Was My Valley (Best Picture and Director Oscars, 1941), The SearchersThe Quiet Man (Best Director, 1952), My Darling ClementineYoung Mr. LincolnThe Man Who Shot Liberty ValanceThe Grapes of Wrath (Best Director, 1940), Fort ApacheShe Wore a Yellow RibbonRio GrandeThey Were ExpendableThe Informer (Best Director, 1935), to name a few of the most luminous, in no particular order. 

It would be well worth your time to Netflix any two or three of the above the next time a free weekend crops up. Though accessibility levels vary, all reward more richly with repeated viewings. 

You'll thank me someday. 

© Jon Oye, 2011

Friday, July 1, 2011

Walking the Line

       We were a family. How'd it break up and come apart, so that now we're turned 
       against each other? Each standing in the other's light. How'd we lose that good 
       that was given us? Let it slip away. Scattered it, careless. What's keepin' us from 
       reaching out, touching the glory? 
                                                                   - Pvt. Witt (in voice-over), The Thin Red Line

It’s difficult to do justice to the works of filmmaker Terrence Malick. How can one begin to describe in words, let alone analyze, what can only be grasped in a cinematic experience, and sometimes only fleetingly or partially at that? It would take a book to adequately explore all five of Malick’s films, each of which is as enigmatic as the J.D. Salinger-like director himself. If we limit ourselves to a more manageable number, like, say, onethen which one do we choose? Beginning with Days of Heaven, his second feature, up through The Tree of Life, all are of a piece, steps in the forward progression of Malick’s apparent search for the presence of God in nature, in the universe.

The sublime The Thin Red Line, unjustly overshadowed at the time of its release in 1998 (though nominated for the Best Picture Oscar) by Steven Spielberg’s war-film-by-the-numbers, Saving Private Ryan, released earlier that same year, finally received the home video treatment it richly deserved last year, courtesy of The Criterion Collection. So let’s go with that one.  

In the years since its release, The Thin Red Line has come to be considered one of the best War movies ever made, but it’s an injustice to pigeonhole it into any one genre. Malick deals in the profound, and in Red Line, as in Days of Heaven, The New World, and The Tree of Life, he reflects on the entry of sin—of the Cain slew Abel variety—into Eden, and the ensuing desecration and devastation. While showing many of the gritty, gruesomely disturbing realities of war, both mental and physical, he nevertheless detaches the viewer to a certain degree by employing a point of view that’s simultaneously omniscient and intensely personal. Screenwriter-director Malick, who studied philosophy at Harvard and Oxford, and taught it at MIT, allows us to hear the innermost thoughts of several individual characters while giving us a more serene overview of the whole, the Steinbeckian “one big soul,” and the indifferent but breathtakingly beautiful natural world in which it exists, as we hover over these men who are dealing the best they can with being in harm’s way. It recalls not so much John Ford’s They Were Expendable—another brilliant, fundamentally serene and reflective film about the sacrifices of war—as Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. It is perhaps even more closely related to The Human Comedy, a World War II picture set on the American home front, which examines with a patient, empathetic, all-seeing eye the lives, deaths and longings of the people of a small town affected by the war. In it, as in Red Line, death is everywhere, and is ultimately embraced.

Malick has a distinct advantage over his precursors in spirit who worked within Hollywood’s old studio system. Nowadays, independent-thinking directors are highly regarded in many circles, practically worshipped in others; “indies” have been given their own film festivals, even their own cable TV channel, which makes walking the thin green line between commercial success and art for art’s sake a relatively common occurrence. Not so back in the days of maverick auteurs like Ford, Orson Welles, and a few others, when original thinkers had to bring their visions to fruition within the confining structure of the system, packaging their art in the guise of entertainment, pleasing to not only bottom-line-eying executives, but to the lowest common denominator of the paying public. Directors, like actors, were under contract to the movie moguls, if they wanted to work at all, and they had to meet quotas stipulated therein.  

The notoriously reclusive Malick, by contrast, had made only two films in twenty-five years at the time of Red Line. Yet his reputation, based not only on the strength of those two transcendent works (Badlands and Days of Heaven), but nearly as much on his elusiveness, had Hollywood A-Listers lining up to work with him, even if it meant only a bit part. Nick Nolte, John Travolta, George Clooney, John Cusack, Sean Penn, and Woody Harrelson all appear in Red Line, willingly occupying widely varying amounts of screen time.  Penn reportedly told Malick, regarding his salary, “Give me a dollar and tell me where to show up.” Scenes with Martin Sheen (Badlands’ co-star, with Sissy Spacek), Bill Pullman, Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patrick, Mickey Rourke, and Gary Oldman were cut from the finished film, while Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew McConaughey, Kevin Costner, and Johnny Depp all either took part in readings, were auditioned, or met with the director to discuss prospective roles in Red Line.

James Caviezel in The Thin Red Line.

When all was said and done, relative unknowns Jim Caviezel and Ben Chaplin were given the lion’s share of substantive screen time, and their voice-overs—which provide the primary stream of consciousness the film navigates—are the most deeply compelling. Both actors were more than up to the task, and proved to be wise choices for the linchpin roles, as known entities’ celebrity likely would have distracted viewers. Nick Nolte, on the other hand, who was certainly a well-known star, utterly transcends his celebrity and gives the bravura performance of his life as an aging Colonel, passed over when more than a few promotions were handed out, who sees a victory at the Battle of Guadalcanal (the historic event that is the ostensible focal point of the film, and the James Jones novel on which it is based) as the opportunity of a lifetime, no matter how many lives it may cost. 

Malick’s cache also earned him seeming carte blanche with producer Bobby Geisler, Pioneer Films, Phoenix Pictures, and 20th Century Fox, all eager to cash in on his magic touch as they backed his painstaking, laborious, and expensive process of researching and adapting a screenplay, and scouting locations in Central America and the South Pacific.

The importance of cinematography and music in Malick’s films is immeasurable, as they preside over most of the frequent interludes and passages that have no dialogue as completely as would a strong, fully realized main character. He utilized to full capacity the considerable talents of legendary directors of photography Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler in the stunning “magic hour” sequences of Days of Heaven. Lingering in the memory are such well-chosen music pieces as Carl Orff’s Musica Poetica, which features prominently in Badlands, and Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Aquarium,” from Carnival of the Animals, over Days of Heaven’s opening credits. The eminent composer Ennio Morricone provided the ethereal soundtrack music for Days of Heaven, with notable contributions from guitar virtuoso Leo KottkeRed Line features a mesmerizing score by Hans Zimmer and John Powell, as well as such borrowed pieces as Gabriel Faurés celestial Requiem in Paradisum, Charles Ives The Unanswered Question,” and a beautiful Melanesian choral chant, God U Tekem Laef Blong Mi” which perfectly complement the lush and atmospheric cinematography of John Toll, and eloquently serve Malick's statement to Zimmer that the soundtrack music must be part of “a river leading to a destination.” 

Malick remains an enigmatic but vital force in the film world. With his current release, The Tree of Life, he continues his quest through nature, via introspection, to touch the face of God. This time around he seems to have polarized critics and audiences alike. Just like Orson Welles did with Citizen Kane.  

© Jon Oye, 2011