Suppose – just suppose – Orson Welles had made The Magnificent Ambersons in 1941 and followed it with Citizen Kane in 1942 instead of the other way around? A Booth Tarkington tale about Midwestern gentry at the hinge of the 19th and 20th centuries may have lacked the without-a-net audacity of an epic inspired by the life of a powerful media lord. But one guesses that Ambersons would have been just as innovative and, over time, just as influential as Kane turned out to be.
Welles still might have gotten into the same amount of trouble with William Randolph Hearst and his friends over Kane. But maybe Ambersons, assuming it was successful enough, would have smoothed the director-impresario-genius’ path at the outset, making smear campaigns or other potentially nasty dustups less damaging over the long haul.
Think of what an empowered, professionally secure Welles could have done throughout the subsequent decades…
Of course, such “might-have- beens” and “should-have- beens” are littered all over Welles’ life story. (I still think Welles, who by that time had little else going on, should have run in his native Wisconsin against “Tail Gunner Joe” McCarthy for the U.S. Senate in 1946. Talk about a real might-have-been…)
Anyway, here’s what really happened: Welles’ control of The Magnificent Ambersons‘ final cut was taken out of his hands by the same RKO Studios that had all but given him the keys to the castle a few years before. The movie’s original 2 1/2-hour and 12-minute running time had been whittled down to 88 minutes. (The whole time this surgery was taking place, Welles was spending a lot of time in Brazil directing the visual potpourri whose surviving fragments would surface in theaters decades later as It’s All True.) When the dust settled, The Magnificent Ambersons, which many, including Welles, have contended to be an even greater movie than Kane, was regarded as a noble fiasco and marked the beginning of Welles’ wilderness years.
If you’ve never seen the movie before, prepare to discover, one of the most hauntingly
beautiful American films ever made. It transfigures elements of Tarkington’s novel into a vision of lost time. It tells of dreams literally squirming away from the grasp of its well-heeled characters.
There is, first and foremost, Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotton), an auto tycoon who returns to his Hoosier hometown with his vivacious daughter, Lucy (Anne Baxter), partly to win the heart of Isabel Amberson Minafer (Dolores Costello), whom he’d loved and lost as a younger man. With her husband’s death, Isabel seems poised to fulfill Eugene’s long-withheld yearnings – except that her son, George (Tim Holt), a spoiled, insolent brat, stands in Eugene’s way. Forced to choose between Eugene’s promise of love and financial security and George’s petulant, inchoate neediness, Isabel opts for the latter, with dire consequences.
As you watch this film, you’re so enraptured by its visual sweep, narrative detail and resonance that you wonder what its lost 44 minutes could have added. Or is one’s knowledge of irretrievable scenes and dialogue part of what adds to The Magnificent Ambersons aura? I’m still trying to figure it out.
But there are some things I do know for sure: for instance, the scene of Eugene and Lucy stepping out of a winter’s night into a luminous, festive parlor that seems to swallow us all in a welter of gaiety and promise. Generations of filmmakers would break their necks trying to match that set piece, and few have even approached its magic.
And then there are the actors. Holt, whose only other movie role of lasting consequence came in 1948’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, has been viewed as a surrogate for Welles himself as George, but the director wisely thought it would be best if he sit this one out. He couldn’t have done better than Holt. Cotton is grave, sad and unassumingly noble as Eugene, while Baxter shows precocious control of her character’s unsettled temperament. Most of all, there’s Agnes Moorehead as George’s Aunt Fanny, who may well be the most romantic dreamer of the family and feels the most pain from forsaken hope.
As with Kane, one is always aware of what Ambersons is transmitting, through the code of the subconscious, about its director’s personality and long-range future. The “comeuppance” that townspeople are awaiting for George Minifer looms larger with every rash act of hubris. And when it comes, hardly anyone is around to notice or appreciate it.
If you know anything at all about what happened to Welles after this film was made, this is the kind of detail poignant enough to sting your eyes.
Each of us who loves Billie Holiday in all her mercurial variations favors the one we saw first. For me, it was a clip from the TV recital she gave in 1957 for the nonpareil CBS special, “The Sound of Jazz.” It was the kind of show my parents would have watched attentively with their friends in our living room if only because there were so few TV shows of any kind in those primordial days that featured so many black people in one place playing music. And I was the kind of five-year-old who’d have stopped and stared at it while all the grownups alternately chattered and listened. But I don’t remember much about the show’s first telecast and didn’t see Holiday’s performance until ten years later when her segment was excerpted on some black history special on the same network. And what I saw, however fleeting, haunted me forever.
For starters, I never heard a voice like hers before – and this was about the time that, according to conventional wisdom, that voice was less powerful, less robust and more frayed than it had been in its earlier bloom. It still sounded special to me; so much so, that I couldn’t find the words to characterize it. Even now, I feel myself groping for adjectives like “sultry,” “pliant,” or even “delicately spiced.” (Wince.) With any force of nature, to describe is to diminish its power.
Yet the voice was for me the least of it at that moment. What hit me in a deeper place was what my older, wiser self would now call her sang-froid. The composure, regal and raw, was a compound I’d seen before in dozens of singers, black and white, old and young, male and female. But never before had I been aware that such commanding presence could be as inscrutable as the main character in a mystery story; a master thief, say, blithely slipping into a dark alley concealing gilded swag, or a cynical detective who’d stumbled onto a solution she wished she hadn’t, but wasn’t going to let its horror trip her up — or keep rough justice at bay. She was fire and ice, calibrated with a perfection that I’d dimly suspected was harder to achieve than it looked.
And by “harder,” I am not speaking of the legendary tribulations of Holiday’s life. For too long, her heartbreak and (sometimes self-inflected) pain have been placed at the center of her story at the expense of her craft. Her 1956 memoir, Lady Sings the Blues, provided the lens through which people continue to view Holiday’s life and work, even if the intervening years have disclosed many flaws and inaccuracies, beginning with its memorable first sentence. I now believe that book has a lot in common with her rendition of a pop standard. They share many of the same attributes: dramatic timing, pungent lyricism and rueful wit coated with honey and bitters. Others may have used her music to wallow in their own sadness. She did not. The troubles were tools in her paint box along with all the other things at her disposal.
I`d rather hear her now. She`s become more mature. Sometimes you can sing words every night for five years, and all of a sudden it dawns on you what the song means. I played ‘My Funny Valentine’ for a long time – and didn’t like it – and all of a sudden it meant something. So with Billie, you know she’s not thinking now what she was in 1937, and she’s probably learned more about different things. And she still has control, probably more control now than she did back then. No, I don’t think she’s in decline.
“She sings way behind the beat and then brings it up – hitting right on the beat. You can play behind the beat, but every once in a while you have to cut into the rhythm section on a beat and that keeps everybody together. Sinatra does it by accenting a word. A lot of singers try to sing like Billie, but just the act of playing behind the beat doesn’t make it sound soulful.
“I don’t think that guys like Buck Clayton are the best possible accompanists for her. I’d rather hear her with Bobby Tucker, the pianist she used to have. She doesn’t need any horns. She sounds like one anyway.”
— MILES DAVIS ON BILLIE HOLIDAY, Jazz Review interview, 1958
I’m with Miles on this. I always have been. One’s first Billie, as I said earlier, is one’s best Billie. And it was with the later, presumably less vital Billie that I fell in love. For those like Nat Hentoff, with whom Davis was giving the interview, the younger, more buoyant Billie Holiday who broke into public consciousness in the mid-1930s singing with the likes of Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, and, most especially, her musical soul mate Lester Young, was the best by far. And I get that. The Columbia recordings from that period attest to a sense of joy and discovery in Holiday’s singing that burst through even the tiniest reproductions of “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” or “I’ll Never Be The Same.”
As she became older and life got tougher, the joy receded and something more acerbic and world-weary crept into her singing. Yet I now believe what many regarded as decline was more like adjustment, realignment and even growth. Cops and cabaret owners may have pummeled the swagger out of her. But in all her performances, including her book, Holiday never came across as someone who took shit indefinitely. The struggle toughened her. That’s what struggle tends to do. And she used what she learned to get a better handle on what she was doing. The worse it got, the better she got. That’s what Miles Davis was talking about. It’s how I prefer to think of her, whether she’s deep in thought listening to a playback, as in Milt Hinton’s mesmerizing photographs from the 1958 Lady in Satin sessions or making her way through an especially tricky passage across a song’s bridge.
And the joy never really went away. Look again at that clip from “Sound of Jazz.” Notice how her head shakes when she’s listening to the other musicians and how her eyes shimmer as each soloist cruises by. And When her once-beloved Prez steps to the plate and blows what I and many others believe to be his last great solo, her face glows brightest, the years fall away and you could swear you can feel the same energy she had in her 20s when everything that happened to her, good and bad, was still ahead.
Why am I handicapping the Oscars yet again? Because I still can’t afford to buy live ammo, live trout and a barrel thick enough to withstand the former and big enough to carry the latter.
That’s how easy this game is, despite mass media’s insistence on playing it over and over and over, year after year after bloody year. It’s gotten so that even when there’s the prospect of suspense, as there was a year ago, the evening itself ends up being about as suspenseful as a congressional Electoral College vote. Even the things I was wrong about last year, didn’t surprise me; notably “12 Years a Slave” winning Best Picture, though I was mildly surprised to have been right about its screenwriter, John Ridley, winning one.
Anyway, since I think this year’s crop is even easier to forecast than usual, I’m going to do to try making things interesting (at least, for me) by adding a For Whatever It’s Worth (FWIW) section beneath sundry categories. Mostly, I’m going to suggest missing contenders. Otherwise it’ll just be whatever pops into my jejune lil’ head.
Oh, and my projected winners, as usual, are in bold.
Best Picture American Sniper Birdman Boyhood The Grand Budapest Hotel The Imitation Game Selma The Theory of Everything Whiplash
Boyhood seemed ahead by many lengths at the start of this season; not so much, now, even though some still believe its BAFTA prize keeps it in the game. They’re wrong – and this says as much as (and far better than) I could as to why this is now a foregone conclusion. The only thing I might add to Mark’s diagnosis is that Hollywood narcissism is as much a device for denial as it is for self-congratulation. Editors and pundits, especially those who have no idea what movies are about, believe that controversy and buzz are all a movie needs to become anointed Best Picture. You’d think that, by now, they’d know that’s the LAST thing the Academy Awards want unless – and only unless – they can somehow exalt themselves by recognizing the controversy and embracing it. But all the money American Sniper‘s raking in isn’t going to make these people any braver about such things. Not in this century, folk. At least not yet.
FWIW – Overall, a good-but-not-great list appropriate for a good-but-not-great year. Only Lovers Left Alive, for those who keep asking, was my number one movie of last year and, similar to what one of its characters says about Detroit (where it’s set), it is the one 2014 movie I think is best equipped to endure and ultimately prevail through 2064.
Alejandro Innaritu, Birdman Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game
For reasons already mentioned, I’m less sure about this one than I was several months ago, though Best Picture/Best Director splits have at least since the century’s turn gone from being a rarity to a semi-regular occurrence. Innaritu’s winning the DGA prize boosts his standing, though it doesn’t necessarily make him inevitable. I’m still inclined towards Linklater because just his investment of time and effort is too impressive to ignore, no matter how you may feel about the result.
FWIW – The omission of Selma’s Ava DuVernay from this category caused an outcry of such breadth that it came across like the pop-cultural equivalent of Ferguson/”I Can’t Breathe.” In terms of racial profiling (as in raising of profiles as opposed to diminishing races), I don’t think things are as bad in Hollywood as they once were, say, fifty, thirty, even ten years ago. But as this shortsightedness proves, they could still be a lot better. And the movies better recognize that on this and many other matters, TV is way out in front. The Unbearable Whiteness of this year’s Oscars will, I think, end up as an anomaly, but can we talk sometime about Dear White People’s complete absence, too?
Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game Michael Keaton, Birdman
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
It’s essentially a race between the last two names on this list and as impressed as Hollywood can be with actors who go through the kind of physical transformations Redmayne does here, it’s the larger, deeper transformations embedded in Keaton’s weathered visage that will make more of a difference with voters.
FWIW – Lots of MIAs here; notably Timothy Spall in the title role of Mr. Turner and Ralph Fiennes’ embattled concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel. The first is something you’ve never seen before while the second is a polished exemplar of Mannered Screwball reminiscent of movies made in the decade its movie purports to chronicle. Though Philip Seymour Hoffman wouldn’t have won for A Most Wanted Man, a posthumous nomination would have been a nice gesture. And while I wasn’t a huge fan of Gone Girl, I was sure Ben Affleck’s wry, limber rendering of sad sap Nick Dunne would get a nomination, especially given his previous snub for a Best Director nod two years back for Argo. He wouldn’t have won here either. But his absence points to the kind of harder-than-it-looks acting style that the Academy routinely overlooks in favor of the Big Bravura Effect.
Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon, Wild
Done deal. And she deserves it…
FWIW – …but Cotillard, the most compelling film actress in the world, deserves it more for a performance that is (once again) too subtle and contained to satisfy the Academy’s inclination towards the aforementioned Big Bravura Effect (hereafter known as BBE). Here’s a little irony to put in your tea: Seven years ago, Cotillard’s grand, eerily detailed rendering of Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose won this award over the favored Julie Christie, whose performance as an Alzheimer victim in Away From Her that year was a much rawer depiction of the disease’s ravages than Moore’s, which, as noted, has unsettling graces of its own.
Best Supporting Actor
Robert Duvall, The Judge
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Edward Norton, Birdman
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
As with Christopher Plummer a couple years back, he’s so inevitable that he’s already sweeping up the foam packing peanuts that came with the statuette’s advance delivery to his home. But as long as we’re here, let’s idly speculate. What if Simmons’ performance had been placed where it properly belongs: In the lead actor category? Would he have been as decisive a shoo-in as he is here? Let’s go even crazier. Since Denzel Washington is the only living actor who could have matched Simmons volt for volt in this role, would HE have been given a lead actor nod because of his relative professional standing? Or would he have likewise been nominated for supporting actor? Keep in mind that my comparison with Denzel doesn’t shortchange but, if anything, amplifies the dimensions of Simmons’ work here and I can only hope that the good vibes continue for him well beyond awards season.
FWIW – Some people consider Norton the runner-up while I think Hawke’s work in Boyhood is every bit as committed and resonant as that of the woman who’s a lock for Best Supporting Actress. (See below.) The guy who got screwed here is Josh Brolin, whose gonzo LAPD cop in Inherent Vice, was inspired, magnetic daffy-duckiness.
Best Supporting Actress Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Laura Dern, Wild
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Emma Stone, Birdman
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods
As with Moore and Simmons, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where this doesn’t happen. And Arquette’s pitch-perfect evocation of a smart, decent woman seemingly condemned to making foolish choices in life partners stood out in her movie even more than its twilit reveries.
FWIW – I’ve already mentioned Affleck’s understated comedic turn in Gone Girl, whose one great performance belonged to Carrie Coon. As Nick’s sister, she was the beating, breaking heart of that movie. She didn’t get a nomination, but she’s now got my attention, and deserves yours.
Best Adapted Screenplay American Sniper The Imitation Game Inherent Vice The Theory of Everything Whiplash
I could imagine any of these walking away with the statuette, but I can’t imagine Harvey Weinstein’s typically robust campaign on behalf of his leading entry coming away from this thing empty-handed.
FWIW – Any script that would even try to adapt a Thomas Pynchon novel for the screen, even one as relatively accessible as Inherent Vice, is worthy of a party favor, even if the result bemused as many people as it amused.
Best Original Screenplay Birdman Boyhood Foxcatcher The Grand Budapest Hotel Nightcrawler
Birdman is Wes Anderson’s only worry here. That’s more of a director’s movie. Which is to say Wes Anderson has nothing to worry about.
FWIW – There were some who believed Whiplash belonged here and would have won easily if it had been in its rightful category. Simply put, yes and no.
Best Animated Feature Big Hero 6 The Boxtrolls How to Train Your Dragon 2 Song of the Sea The Tale of Princess Kaguya
This has already won an “Annie” in this category and nothing else here seems to have the legs to beat it.
FWIW – Always easier to handicap when Pixar has an entry. Except they don’t this year. (Whaaaat?)
Best Documentary Feature Citizenfour Finding Vivian Maier Last Days in Vietnam The Salt of the Earth Virunga
You ignore currency and/or vitality in this category at your peril, as recent winners have proved. Nothing else in this year’s group has both in such quantity.
FWIW – Still, I was beguiled by Vivian Maier’s one-of-a-kind story and wish there was still room for such quirky, gnomish movies to finish with the gold. We – most of us, anyway – don’t live in a quirky, gnomish world.
Best Foreign Language Film Ida Leviathan Tangerines Timbuktu Wild Tales
Ida has swept most of the critics’ awards and will likely continue its run here. It’s an austere, beautiful piece that mostly lives up to its hype.
FWIW – But, I dunno, I preferred Leviathan’s overall weight and power; the kind that usually mugs austerity in Oscar’s back alleys. Wouldn’t be an upset if it won here.
Best Cinematography Birdman The Grand Budapest Hotel Ida Mr. Turner Unbroken
Any of these would be a legitimate winner, but I’m guessing the voters will prefer the one that makes sure you can see an almost-naked man walking through Times Square.
FWIW – Mr. Turner, Mr. Turner, Mr. Turner, Mr. Turner, Mr Turner (If I say it often enough, will they come to their senses? I’m pressing on, anyway!), Mr. Turner, Mr. Turner…..
Best Original Score The Grand Budapest Hotel The Imitation Game Interstellar Mr. Turner The Theory of Everything
Alexandre Desplat finally wins one. But for which one? Competing against yourself in the same category seems a formula for canceling yourself out. But Budapest’s music is far more striking than Imitation Game. So Desplat beats Desplat here by a length.
FWIW – I, too, would have liked seeing Antonio Sanchez’s trap-set dynamics for Birdman in this group. But there’s no way Hollywood tradespeople give props to a lone musician inventing a score as he goes along. The Oscars go to…people who help make more work (and money) for everybody in the industry, whether in ensembles or orchestras.
Best Original Song
“Everything is Awesome,” The Lego Movie “Glory,” Selma
“Grateful,” Beyond the Lights
“I’m Not Going to Miss You,” Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me
“Lost Stars,” Begin Again
No one, not Joe Califano, not Harvey Weinstein, not Maureen Dowd, is going to stand in this one’s way…
FWIW — …though “Everything is Awesome” may yet become the anthem of the next collectivist revolution. (As if.)
Every damn year we go through some overheated foofaraw over whether a movie up for an Academy Award is somehow — how to put this — LYING about history, or History. This year’s chew toy is Selma; mostly, so far, over whether Lyndon Johnson is fairly, accurately depicted as a roadblock to Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign against voting restrictions. Just for starters: Couldn’t such time be better spent assessing and attacking those now responsible for dismantling what King and others (including, dammit, LBJ himself) fought for a half-century before instead of showing off our erudition and/or grievances? Seems to me that’s a far more urgent matter and a FAR more productive use of one’s time than being aggrieved over who gets dissed in a dark room that smells like melted butter.
Well, the counterargument goes, for the great masses of people, movies ARE historical fact; becoming fairly or not the means through which all our history gets filtered and then hardened into something jocularly known as Collective Wisdom. At the risk of boring those who’ve heard me say such things before. especially me, I counter the counterargument for what I hope, in vain, will be the last time: If you really think that something as loose, baggy and relatively undernourished in nuance as a fictional feature film based on true stories is a plausible substitute for History itself, then you not only get the History you deserve, but the government and culture you deserve, too.
Nevertheless, as we are now less than 24 hours away from this year’s Academy Awards nominations being announced, I’m almost 99.9 percent certain than someone’s going to ask me to write about this and other similar controversies over this year’s crop of Big Movies That People Will Forget By Summer as well as those of the past. I don’t expect what I’m about to post will in any way innoculate me from such assignments. Nonetheless, since I bring this movie up every time the matter rises from the muck, I figured now was the time to make a pre-emptive strike.
So here’s something I wrote some years back on one of my favorite westerns, included in a journal listing the greatest of the genre. It says just about everything I have to say about fidelity to facts in historical movies — and how little it matters in the very long run.
MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946)
Director: John Ford
Cast: Henry Fonda, Victor Mature. Linda Darnell, Walter Brennan, Tim Holt, Ward Bond, Cathy Downs, John Ireland.
Even the least conscientious historian can get the bends accounting for the historical inaccuracies in My Darling Clementine. And you don’t have to get very deep into John Ford’s version of events leading to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral to find them. The movie opens with the Earp brothers herding cattle to Tombstone, Arizona in 1882 when the youngest brother James is shot dead (in the back, of course) by the rustling Clanton family.
So what’s wrong with this picture? Let’s see:
1.) James was the eldest of the Earps, not the youngest,
2.) The Earp brothers never had any cattle either heading towards or ensconced within Tombstone’s city limits and …
3.) Though James death is depicted as the spark that eventually led to the Earps’ confrontation with the Clantons at the OK Corral, that famous gunfight actually occurred in 1881 – if you’re scoring, that’s one year earlier.
We could go on and on and on, cataloguing Ford’s blatant manipulation of fact throughout this movie, which credits Stuart N. Lake’s biography, Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshall, published two years after Earp’s death in 1929, as its principal source. But fact never mattered much to Ford, whose attitudes towards historical veracity were pithily summarized by a journalist in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence: “This is the West, sir! When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!” This gnomish sentiment both tickles and irritates the American psyche: We know something’s wrong with it, but how much do we care?
In the case of My Darling Clementine, probably not much, because the movie has over time proven more resonant and more powerful than any other about the Wyatt Earp story, no matter how historically faithful those films are.
Begin with its visual graces. Few black-and-white movies have ever conveyed such stark contrasts between the illuminated prairie landscape and the twilit corners of so-called civilization where savagery is ready to swallow innocence whole. Within this panorama, Ford orchestrates not a factual account, but his own mythic vision of history. His set pieces are adhesives to a movie lover’s memory: the town dance in an unfinished church, the woozy Shakespearean recitation sharpened by Mature’s tubercular Doc Holiday (looking as if he’s perpetually staring at his own wake) and Fonda’s Wyatt Earp in varied states of wary repose, whether in a barber’s chair or rocking jauntily in front of the “Mansion House” as Darnell’s Chihuahua hectors him.
Indeed, Fonda’s insouciant balancing act hints at mischief burrowed beneath Ford’s decorousness. It doesn’t emerge often enough to qualify as irony, but you have to wonder (as generations have) about this “say what” exchange that takes place between Earp and the saloon’s barkeep.
WYATT: Mac, you ever been in love?
MAC: No, I’ve been a bartender all my life.
At moments like this, one remembers that My Darling Clementine was made after Ford, Fonda, and co-screenwriter Winston Miller had returned from World War II military service. Comparing Fonda’s depiction of a ramrod American icon in this film with that of 1939’s Young Mr. Lincoln (also directed by Ford), one detects a serrated edge applied to the solitude and resolve in the pre-war portrayal of Lincoln. With Fonda and Ford, wartime experiences inspired in both a need for traditional American values of community, honor, and law and a lingering perception that traditions were ready for tweaking, even bending here and there.
Put another way, it is possible to claim that My Darling Clementine provides a definitive model for the standard Western film while it discloses clues to undermining that model. The willful disregard for fact is arguably part of the subversion. OK, whatever. In the end, the best way to watch this movie is just to embrace its evocative dream of a past that never was.
Because I don’t have to, I’m not going to bother with a Top-Ten movie list this year. This is also because there wasn’t a whole lot I saw at the multiplexes in 2014 that got me as wound up as the stuff I’m listing below. And if I bothered to enumerate the movies that did, I’d likely end up with a list that more or less looks like everybody else’s, which precisely none of us wants.
Instead, I’m going to pull together a rag basket of items that for various reasons made the most resounding connections with my frontal lobes through the prevailing media din of weapons-grade white noise and free-styling schaudenfreude. Most came out this year; some didn’t, but I got around to them for the first time this year, so they count. (My list, my rules.)
Quite likely, I’m forgetting, or blocking some stuff. It’s been that kind of year. And there were some things I couldn’t bring myself to include, whatever my absorption level. Scandal, to take one example, remains for many people I trust an irresistible sack of Screaming Yellow Zonkers. But outside of Joe Morton’s righteously Shatner-esque scenery chewing and the mad electricity vibrating in Kerry Washington’s eyeballs, I’ve found that its live-action anime antics can go on without me for at least a couple weeks at a time.
The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks –Brooks made his name mythologizing the walking-dead (World War Z, The Zombie Survival Guide). But he proves himself just as conscientious in rendering factually grounded savagery in this fire-breathing graphic (in every sense) novel about the legendary all-black 369th Infantry Regiment that roared out of Harlem to fight in World War I, the hinge between post-Reconstruction’s legally-sanctioned terrorism of African Americans and the gathering pre-dawn of the civil rights movement. Though the Hellfighters’ passage from raw, often humiliated recruits to take-neither-prisoners-or-shit-from-anybody warriors is rousing, the visual depictions of squalor, disease and violence (thanks to the classic-war-comics élan of illustrator Canaan White) deepen the many ironies layered onto this saga; not the least of which was that it was only through the horrific, demeaning process of war that black men could begin proving their worthiness as American citizens – and even that wasn’t enough. To establish its own validity as historical fiction, Brooks’ account brings in such real-life badasses as James Reese Europe, Henry Lincoln Johnson and Henri Gouraud for colorful cameos. Of course, a movie is planned. Good luck trying to top this
Scarlett Johansson –I’ve already waxed rhapsodic about the commanding way she works the alien-enigmatic in the polarizing Under the Skin. By contrast, the art-house crowd showed relatively little-to-no-interest in Lucy in which she played a hapless, sponge-faced drug mule accidently injected with a drug transmuting her into a time-distorting, matter-altering, ass-kicking wonder woman. But Luc Besson’s acrylic pulp fantasy proved that few, if any movie actresses today are as cavalierly brilliant at throwing down wire-to-wire magnetism in such nutty eye candy. Manny Farber would have wallowed in the termite splendor of it all. Even her by-now borderline-gratuitous Black Widow turn in support of yet another Marvel money machine (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) retained enough droll slinkiness to make one suspect that giving the Widow her own vehicle might be a bit of a let-down. Then again, Ms. Scarlett never let me down once this year, so why dwell upon the purely speculative?
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot By David Shafer – This novel took me by surprise as it did several other critics this past summer. Up till that point, it hadn’t occurred to me that the legacies of both Richard Condon and Ross Thomas could, or even should be filled. Nevertheless, anyone whose familiarity with these authors’ works extends beyond Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate or Thomas’ The Fools In Town Are On Our Side will recognize Shafer’s sardonic humor, crafty plotting and humane characterizations as reminiscent of both authors – which is another way of saying these qualities aren’t what readers of contemporary techno-thrillers are used to. Also, much like Condon, Shafer knows, or strongly suspects, what we’re all afraid of, deep down, and finds a surrogate for this fear that’s both outrageous and plausible; in this case, a sinister cabal of one-percenters planning to seize total control of storing and transmitting information worldwide, thereby making recent abuses by the NSA, or whoever has it in for Sony Pictures, seem like benign neglect. This premise scrapes somewhat against territory controlled by what used to be called the “Cyberpunk School” as well as Thomas Pynchon, except that Shafer’s three 30-ish hero-protagonists are at once unlikely and recognizably human: an Iranian-American NCO operative who stumbles into the conspiracy so haphazardly she’s not sure what it is until it goes after her family, a self-loathing self-help guru in debt to his eyeballs who’s recruited by the cabal to be its “chief storyteller” and his estranged childhood friend, a substance-abusing misfit with a trust fund as thick as his psychiatric case file. They are all swept into an underground movement called “Dear Diary” which knows what the cabal is up to and is deploying its own secret network to bring it down. Social comedy, political melodrama and digital menace don’t always blend as well as they do here. And this is only Shafer’s first novel, meaning, as with the other masters cited above, he can only get better at this stuff from here on.
Get On Up & Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown– The former is a feature biopic; the latter an HBO-exhibited documentary. Both told me things I didn’t know about their shared subject – or, maybe more to the point, framing what I already knew about James Brown’s story in a manner that showed him as far more than an unholy force-of-nature. If I lean more towards the documentary, it’s because the revelations are more striking (not just the spectacular “what” of Brown’s showmanship, but the painstaking “how” of its components along with its savvy adjustments over time). And its testimonies are altogether more enlightening (Mick Jagger, who co-produced both, sets the record straight on how the “T.A.M.I. Show” sequence of acts really went down) I loved listening to band members let loose on what they really thought of their sometimes thoughtless boss as well as what second-generation Fabulous Flames as Bootsy Collins learned on and off the road from Brown. Tate Taylor’s biopic has a different agenda, but it strives to be just as faithful, if not always to the facts, to the facets of Brown’s fiery, hair-trigger temperament. Maybe it tried too hard. (As far as B.O. was concerned, Get On Up…didn’t.) But Chadwick Boseman’s, conscientious rendering of Brown’s tics and turbulence is almost as breathtaking to watch as one of the Godfather’s actual Soul Train appearances. Now that Boseman’s successfully portrayed two historic icons, I remain anxious to see what he can do with a Regular Guy role sometime between now and Marvel’s Black Panther movie.
FX– The third, and best, season of Veep; the harrowing, jaw-dropping single-take night scene in True Detective; Billy Crystal’s astute, heartwarming 700 Sundays; Girls and its discontents; the sheer how-can-it-possibly top-itself-again-and-again momentum of Game of Thrones…There was so much to love about HBO this year that I feel like an ingrate for professing my affection for a rival, even though there are things in both FX and HBO that I’ve neglected (American Horror Story, Boardwalk Empire) or shortchanged (The Strain, The Leftovers). Nonetheless anyplace I can find Louie, Archer, The Americans and (for me, especially) Justified is a cozy, stimulating home for my mind. Add to this the deep-dish pleasures of Fargo, whose greatness sneaked up on me the way Billy Bob Thornton’s meatiest, slimiest character since Bad Santa slithered through the frozen tundra, and of The Bridge, whose shrewd and nervy evolution from its first, somewhat derivative season went mostly unnoticed by the professional spectator classes and I’m not sure FX doesn’t have a deeper bench, pound for pound, than its bigger rivals., I prefer a lean, mean FX that takes so many worthy, edgy chances that it can be forgiven for something as lame and sad as Partners. (Never heard of it? Good. We shall speak no more.)
The Oxford American “Summer Music Issue” – I, along with many of my friends, have lots of reasons for being mad at the once-and-future Republic of Texas. But I still love its literary heritage and, most especially, its thick, spicy blend of home-grown music, which takes up C&W, R&B, Tex-Mex, swing, funk, hip-hop and even some avant-garde jazz courtesy of native son Ornette Coleman. They’re all represented on a disc accompanying a special edition of this always mind-expanding quarterly. Compiled by Rick Clark, this CD provides the kind of kicks your smarter buds used to slap together on cassette as a stocking stuffer. Besides the aforementioned Ornette (“Ramblin’”), there’s some solo Buddy Holly (“You’re the One”), early Freddy Fender (“Paloma Querida”), priceless Ray Price (“A Girl in the Night”) and the unavoidable Kinky Friedman (“We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to You”). The left-field surprises include an especially noir-ish take of Waylon Jennings doing his signature “Just To Satisfy You,” a deep-blue rendition of “Sittin’ On Top of the World” by none other than Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, Ruthie Foster’s espresso-laden performance of “Death Came a-Knockin’” and Port Arthur’s own Janis Joplin fronting Big Brother and The Holding Company on a “Bye, Bye, Baby” that swings as sweet as Julio Franco once did. I don’t want to shortchange the actual magazine, which includes James Bigboy Medlin’s reminiscences of working with Doug Sahm, Tamara Saviano’s portrait of Guy Clark and Joe Nick Patoski’s story about Paul English, Willie Nelson’s longtime drummer. It doesn’t beat a spring-break bar tour of Austin, but it’ll do until I get a real one someday.
A strange year, an exasperating year; maybe even an ominous one for jazz music’s already diminished stature in the marketplace. First this happened, followed closely by this. And then this came up and so did all the resulting cawing and cackling on the social media sites. When you add the very public, free-falling disgrace of the nation’s leading — or, at the very least, most famous — jazz devotee, you may as well shrink wrap and label 2014 as a bummer despite the varied finery listed below.
And I know what you saner, stoic ones are going to say: That a list such as mine, or anyone else’s, represents the best possible counterargument to the signifying-nothing that is sound-and-fury, on- or offline. Art doesn’t care what the Washington Post or New Yorker says or does – or mostly doesn’t. Art walks its own serene path through the fire towards high ground. Art is a ninja-warrior aristocrat with two layers of body armor and an unrelenting poker face. Art would assure me, in firm, modulated timbres, that just because some people think jazz stopped being cool doesn’t mean it has.
Knowing all that, however, doesn’t improve my end-of-the-year mood; one that can’t be quantified as good or bad, but is, all at once, restless, melancholy, somewhat manic and predominantly wary. All told, I’m just a little anxious to see what’s coming next – in jazz and everywhere else.
You ask: Dread or hope? I say: Turtles are cool.
1.) Ambrose Akinmusire, “The Imagined Savior is Far Easier To Paint” (Blue Note) – As with its illustrious Blue Note predecessors from fifty years ago, Akinmusire’s second effort for the label meshes with the subconscious fabric of its turbulent times without needing to be explicit in its content (except when it chooses to do so). Just as Donald Byrd’s “A New Perspective,” which brought this into the world, is still redolent of all that America was going through in the early sixties, so do the somber, mostly minor-key soundscapes in “The Imagined Savior…” reflect present-day sorrow, regret and barely-contained anger with thwarted possibilities. The anger breaks into full, unfettered view in the sepulchral “Rollcall for Those Absent” on which the voice of young Muna Blake, backed only by Akinmusire’s keyboard and Sam Harris’ Mellotron is heard reading the names of young black men shot to death by police, including Amadou Diallo and Trayvon Martin, whose names are intoned more than once. That more names could have been added to this roll since it was recorded only enhances the disc’s up-to-the-minute capital. Adding to this Tapestry of Now is “Our Basement (ed)”, written and sung by Becca Stevens, which is told from the perspective of a homeless man. What counters the ruminative gloom and anxiety of these and other pieces is the vigorous musicianship displayed by Akinmusire as both trumpeter and bandleader. In both capacities, he has a fluid command of phrase that comes across the way electricity would if you could hold it in your hands. Whether letting fly with his regular combo, including front-line partner Walter Smith on tenor sax, or blending with a string quartet, Akinmusire’s horn reaches for and often achieves attributes of the human voice, a quality that clearly marks him as one with all the greats on his instrument who preceded him. If you wonder (as my erstwhile colleague and friend A.O. Scott does) if there are artists who can speak directly and indirectly to the Way We Live Now, look in this corner of the room and get to know its dimensions. Be advised: They can only get bigger from here on.
2.) Allen Lowe, “Mulatto Radio: Field Recordings 1-4 (or: A Jew At Large in the Minstrel Diaspora”)(Constant Sorrow 101) – In the 32-page liner notes accompanying this package, which constitute some of the finest music criticism I’ve read all year, Lowe begins by talking about his “strange encounter” with fellow classicist/bandleader Wynton Marsalis, with whom he dared discuss “the modernist implications of minstrelsy,” which Marsalis pointedly refused to engage since he’s predisposed to regard hip-hop in general and ”Gangsta Rap” in particular as “neo-minstrelsy” catering to racial stereotypes. Which was far from the point that Lowe was attempting to make in the first place. In the six years since that brush-off, Lowe, a polymath who’s as incisive with his shtick as he is with his sax, dove headfirst into what some would consider the mongrelized, or creole-lized foundation of 20th century popular music where shotgun-shack juke joints and free-swinging black vernacular found communion with the tunesmiths piecing together their slick contraptions on Tin Pan Alley, or in the Brill Building. The result of Lowe’s restless search for a proper response to Marsalis is this four-disc omnibus of mostly home-cooked sessions (Lowe lives in Maine) in which several traditions – gutbucket, gospel, early New Orleans, ragtime, bebop, stride, avant-garde, nightclub swing, noir soundtrack, beat poetry and backwoods country – are probed, prodded and often pulled inside out (so to speak) with an eclectic array of musicians from saxophonist J.D. Allen, trumpeter Randy Sandke and clarinetist Ken Peplowski to saxophonist Noel Preminger, pianist Matthew Shipp and singer Dean Bowman. Along with other reeds, horns and rhythm players, there’s also a tuba (Christopher Meeder), a fellow musicologist (Lewis Porter) who plays wicked piano, alone or accompanied, and – of course, what else? – a novelist (Rick Moody). Even some of the titles of these pieces – “Jim Crow Variations”, “The Discreet Charm of the Underclass,” “When My Alarm Clock Rings on Central Park West” (Lowe’s variation of “When it’s Sleepy Time Down South”) – are provocative, mischievous throw-downs to whatever passes these days for dialogue about jazz. And after a year such as this, the prevailing conversation can use some spritzing and shaking-up. (Don’t try to get this through Amazon or I-Tunes. You’re better off ordering it this way.)
3.) Sonny Rollins, “Road Shows: Volume 3” (Okeh/Doxy)– I’m well aware that we who worship at the Altar of the Colossus often get carried away. My own effusions are tempered by what a fellow patron said about the GLTS (Greatest Living Tenor Saxophonist): that he’s a lot like Mickey Mantle because their strikeouts can be just as spectacular as their home runs. Still, you have to believe me when I tell you that this third installment of recent live Rollins feels richer, goes deeper and is altogether more rewarding than its predecessors. And I say this as somebody who tried, at first, to distract myself from its lure by doing…well I don’t remember exactly. But I do remember feeling my head swivel sharply upon hearing Rollins’ variations on “Someday I’ll Find You,” the album’s second track, from a 2006 performance in Toulouse. This Noel Coward ballad begs to be crooned in the grandest of tenor styles. Rollins never croons, at least not here. He asserts the theme while veering ever so modestly off its edges to let you know what’s coming as soon as he retrieves center stage from guitarist Bobby Broom. When it’s his turn to speak, Rollins slides into the first bars of the melody, pulling at its corners before he really gets to work somewhere around the third chorus. (Or is it the fourth? Never mind.) He’s clearing away open spaces for whatever direction he wants to go. At one point, he’s playing with the harmonies in the grand modernist manner of pulling them apart and rearranging them in different patters; maybe he’ll become fond of a riff and run with it to see if it opens still more territory, making just enough room for one of his licks to leap into the sky if only so he can find out where it lands. He’s trying to figure it all out as hard as we are. That’s why we’ve borne witness all these years: To collaborate in his process and share his potential surprise with what’s disclosed. There’s plenty more enlightenment to be found on these arias. And, jumping back a couple metaphors, there’s not a strikeout in the bunch.
4.) Kenny Barron & Dave Holland, “The Art of Conversation” (Blue Note) – Barron has proven to be such a compelling partner in previous recorded colloquies with Stan Getz, Charlie Haden and Regina Carter that it’s a wonder it’s taken this long for him to have a sustained sit-down with the indefatigable Mr. H. To say their meeting doesn’t disappoint would be understating matters to a felonious degree. They engage in an organic, mutually respectful flow of ideas and storylines with each man giving leeway to the other seemingly by intuition more than design. They hit all the lights on such standards as Parker’s “Segment” (which, for this occasion, should have worn its alternate title, “Diversity”), Monk’s “In Walked Bud” and, especially, Strayhorn’s “Daydream.” The revelations are more pronounced when it comes to each player’s compositions: Barron’s “Rain” opens vistas of lyrical expression for Holland while the latter’s “Dr. Do Right” craftily indulges Barron’s affinity for the Latin beat. I’m especially partial to the opening track, Holland’s “The Oracle,” because it is so reminiscent of one of my all-time favorite trio albums of the same name led by the late great Hank Jones and featuring Holland and the also-now-departed Billy Higgins. That album is out of print. This one more than compensates for its absence.
5.) Marc Ribot Trio, “Live at the Village Vanguard” (PI) – I have for decades challenged those who love hard rock, but hate progressive jazz to imagine, when listening to an outer-limits tenor sax solo, that there’s an electric guitar laying down the same pipe. I’ve urged jazz heads to do the reverse for heavy-metal speed runs. No takers at either end. But who’s going to listen to me anyway? Better that they should all listen to this, because when guitarist Ribot, drummer Chad Taylor and bassist Henry Grimes Go Outside as did John Coltrane (“Dearly Beloved,” “Sun Ship”) and Albert Ayler (“The Wizard,” “Bells”), they don’t merely make my point. They drive it home like a high-performance car going down on a steep hill at top speed. This unit’s been mining such territory for some time now and the revelations burn hotter within the hallowed confines of jazz’s Holy Dive. Oddly enough, though, it’s when Ribot and company do a 180 and apply their eclectic chops to light-footed, more conventional renditions of “Old Man River” and “I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You)” that they really seem to be taking chances; each man carefully spreading their range onto these chestnuts without unnecessary spillage. Their solicitousness within the body of each song gives greater magnitude to what they do outside the lines. Just to re-emphasize: Anything that’s done to amplify the enigmatic, yet persevering legacy of Grimes’ old boss Albert Ayler is worth the investment of energy; theirs, and yours.
6.) David Weiss, “When Words Fail” (Motema) – Most of the music here is so buoyant and luminous that you would never guess that the project is haunted by sadness and loss. Trumpeter Weiss, whose myriad activities include leadership of The Cookers, a septet formed in tribute to Freddie Hubbard, composed most of the pieces on this disc and writes in the liner notes of a full year of sudden, deepening tragedy beginning with the death of seven-year-old Ana Grace Marquez Greene, daughter of saxophonist Jimmy Greene, in the December, 2012 Sandy Hook School massacre. The father of the Motema label’s founder passed away during the ensuing year as did such jazz luminaries as Jim Hall, Donald Byrd, Mulgrew Miller, Butch Morris, George Duke and Cedar Walton. And just weeks after this session was completed, its bassist Dwayne Burro, died from pneumonia. The title track, named for the beginning of a Hans Christian Anderson quote that ends with “music speaks,” is dedicated to Burro while “Passage Into Eternity” was written with the Greene family in mind.. Here and elsewhere, you expect something somber and funereal, but instead find lively, propulsive small-group jazz that gives off warmth while staying resolutely cool. When the world keeps saying, “No,” music as joyfully rendered as this insists on saying, “Yes.”
7.) Mark Turner Quartet, “Lathe of Heaven” (ECM)— Somewhere in the alchemic Ursula K. Le Guin novel that gives this disc its title, there’s a quote from Victor Hugo that describes dreaming as “nothing other than the approach of an invisible reality.” As with the book, much of the music on this album, Turner’s first as a leader in 13 years, shifts time and space while somehow remaining self-contained and grounded. Not since the passing of Joe Henderson has there been a narrative artist on tenor saxophone such as Turner, who, as with Henderson, makes his statements through stealth, cunning and patience, his phrases cohering into shapes that are at once familiar and esoteric. He finds in trumpeter Avishai Cohen a worthy harmonic partner in thematic expression; Cohen bringing a fiery, full-bodied tone to compliment Turner’s cool, dry musings. The overall pace seems locked in neutral, the better to allow the mercurial front line to simulate invisible realities, though the rhythm section of bassist Joe Martin and, especially, drummer Marcus Gilmore execute throughout a slipstream swing compatible with weaving dreams. You couldn’t call this a comeback since Turner’s been quite busy in many venues and combos. But having him return out front, so to speak, affirms the hopes he inspired a decade-and-a-half ago as a tenor player skating to a softer drumbeat.
8.) Steve Lehman Octet, “Mise en Abime” (PI) – Though not packaged as such, Lehman’s latest series of experiments in sound mosaics represents a kind of deep-space 90th birthday party for Bud Powell, given that at least two of the tormented bop genius’s pieces, “Glass Enclosure” and “Parisian Thoroughfare,” are so drastically reinvented as to be barely recognizable, except for the angular dynamics Lehman applies to their abstract designs. Because his intellectual qualifications are part of Lehman’s hype, you’re tempted to think of his work as composer, arranger and altoist in purely cerebral terms. But given his all-star lineup of some of the brightest young players (trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, trombonist Tim Albright, saxophonist Mark Shim vibraphonist Chris Dingman and drummer Tyshawn Sorey among others), Lehman has too much firepower at his disposal to leave listeners on ice, so to speak. He’s so creative in his harmonic combinations and electronic enhancements that I’m a little curious to see what he does in more specified contexts; Christmas, say, or 1940s rhythm-and-blues, or the Sun Ra Songbook.
9.) Matt Wilson Quartet with John Medeski, “Gathering Call” (Palmetto) – I’ll just repeat what I posted back in January since a whole lot’s happened since then: Hard bop, late-1960s/early 1970s vintage, played without apologies and with an open-hearted joie de vivre that can make even the hardest of hard-core progressives wonder why they ever thought the genre was old news. I suppose some would still think it old news, even if they liked it. But there’s nothing musty or creaky about Wilson’s easygoing command of the trap set in all situations or his group’s saucy renditions of such Ellingtonia as “Main Stem” or “You Dirty Dog.” The quartet also pays homage to the recently departed bassist Butch Warren by playing the latter’s “Barack Obama” with the delicacy, wonder and cautious optimism you suspect the composer had in mind as he wrote it. You’re happy for the leader, one of the perennial Good Guys in the jazz business, which in turn makes you hopeful for the business itself.
10.) The Microscopic Septet, “Manhattan Moonrise”(Cuneiform) — Where in their 1980s flowering they suggested, as a perspicacious observer put it, a “wedding band from Mars,” these wily retro sharpies now look on the inside-cover photos of this disc like a weathered, motley council of wizards from a Tolkien homage hiding out from Sauron on a band bus touring the Dakotas in the winter of 1939. Yet even with added snow in some of their membership’s facial hair, the Micros still sound airtight, agile and ready for anything co-founders Joel Forrester and Philip Johnston toss into their playpen, whether it’s a funk stomp a la Johnston’s “Obeying the Chemicals,” a Monk-ish pastiche from Forrester, “A Snapshot of the Soul” or the snap-brim eminently danceable swinger, also from Forrester, that gives the disc its title. Cards on the table, I’m at a loss to explain what “MM” by TMS is doing here since it doesn’t exactly break new ground either for the group or for its genre. But it’s a genre that they, and they alone, own: Microscopic Septet music at its most proficient, inquisitive and enjoyable. There may have been more significant and ambitious albums I heard or missed out on this year, but few that had as much trouble staying out of my machines as this. Long Live The Micros! And Long Live Jazz – whatever the heck that means!
HONORABLE MENTION: “Frank Kimbrough Quartet” (Palmetto); Tyshawn Sorey, “Alloy” (PI); Regina Carter, “Southern Comfort” (Masterworks ); Omer Avital, “New Song” (Motema); Ron Miles, “Circuit Rider” (Enja); Keith Jarrett & Charlie Haden, “Last Dance” (ECM); Randy Ingram, “Sky/Lift” (Sunnyside); Jason Jackson, “Inspiration” (Jack & Hill); Matthew Shipp, “I’ve Been To Many Places” (Thirsty Ear); Richard Galliano, “Sentimentale” (Resonance); Aaron Goldberg, “The Now” (Sunnyside).
BEST VOCAL ALBUM: Kendra Shank and John Stowell, “New York Conversations” (TCB)
BEST LATIN ALBUM: Arturo O’Farrill & the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, “The Offense of the Drum” (Motema)
BEST REISSUE: John Coltrane, “Offering: Live at Temple University” (Impulse!)
HONORABLE MENTION: Charles Lloyd, “Manhattan Stories” (Resonance)
It’s Sunday afternoon in the Universe and one of the appliances in my apartment insists on telling me that football is back. I change the channel to make it stop, but there are at least several other voices on other channels screaming the same thing. I flip over to Turner Classic Movies, which is showing Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, and I could swear Cary Grant is telling Joan Fontaine that football is back. (Probably trying to make her crazy or paranoid or something…)
Once upon a time and not all that long ago, I would have been tingly and warm all over with the idea of football being back in my life. But I’m not feeling it so much now. Given what’s been happening with professional football over the last few years, I can’t imagine any sentient being with any degree of empathy embracing block-and-tackle football with unconditional love and abandon. Fear and loathing may be closer, but still too extreme in the other direction.
Speaking of fear and loathing: Hunter S. Thompson once characterized pro football as “a hip and private kind of vice to be into.” He was, at the time — 1974 – applying those words in the past tense since by that time, then-commissioner Pete Rozelle had already been referring to professional football as “The Product.” Thompson yearned for his version of the good old days of watching the 49ers play at decrepit Kezar Stadium in the mid-1960s “with 15 beers in a plastic cooler and a Dr. Grabow pipe filled with bad hash” while trying to avoid the mean drunks looking for reasons to punch somebody out, especially if the Niners were losing, as happened frequently in those days.
But even in those funkier times, pro football had already become a “Product” with competing brand names (a.k.a. NFL vs. AFL) willing themselves toward merger through the irresistible might of television revenues. The outlaw mystique that Thompson pined for was by 1965 already being nudged aside for what would, by the country’s Bicentennial 11 years hence, become a family-friendly franchise of hype and muscle itching to spread its influence beyond the USA’s boundaries.
The astonishing rise of the National Football League from sandlot outlier to global money machine remains the prevailing narrative of American-style football, a bedtime story the management class loves to hear before drifting back to sleep. You can tell, though, that even the NFL begins this season more nervous and self-conscious about its own standing.
What’s been called “the health crisis” is the biggest factor and the cumulative effect of concussions on pro players’ lifespans isn’t the half of it. (The league’s ham-handed attempts to degrade, if not outright lie about the evidence are even worse.) But what that scandal has done most tellingly is widen the space for scrutinizing other discomfiting aspects of America’s Game that are killing or, at least, muting the buzz of unconditional fandom.
Against Football(Melville House) is written by Steve Almond, who describes himself as a long-time and, more recently, long-suffering Raiders fan. It’s probably a given that he writes this silken-swift j’accuse more from sorrow than anger; though he still sounds pretty mad at the NFL and, in equal measure, with “the two disparate synapses that fire in my brain that when I hear the word, “football”: the one that calls out, Who’s playing? What channel? and the one that murmurs, Shame on you.” This is from his introduction. He has me at “Hello.”
Almond goes on to debunk, among other things, the fallacy of the league’s “socialism” based on its revenue-sharing policy, which, through “a canny form of market manipulation” along with deft congressional lobbying allowed the NFL to circumvent anti-trust regulations. He also stretches open, to wince-inducing degrees, the homophobia, sexism and racism, conscious or otherwise, that fester beneath the sleek, supposedly more humane surface of 21st century play-for-pay tackle football. One chapter is entitled, “The Love Song of Richie Incognito,” which, given the story behind that name, sounds like a movie worth making, if not seeing. Another chapter title, “Their Sons Grow Suicidally Beautiful,” is taken from a James Wright poem about football (the best such poem from an American) and takes up the myriad ills of “amateur” football at all levels; not least of which the manner in which the collegiate game has become little more than a feeder system for the pro league in both manpower and added publicity, which, at this point, it can never get enough of. (I’m kidding.)
These and many other defects tabulated in Against Football aren’t exactly news to those old enough to have read the first-hand accounts of such renegade players of the sixties as Dave Meggysey, Bernie Parish and Peter Gent. But because Almond’s book is aimed as much as his own psyche as it is at ours, the passages that sting the most delve into the psychology of football fandom. He quotes, from Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, how the book’s autobiographical surrogate “gained…the feeling of being alive” from watching Giants games in dive bars. “His hero,” Almond writes of Exley, “looks to the Giants each Sunday to awaken him from the spiritual stupor of his life. That could be religion – or addiction.” (Italics added.)
I envision millions of people who hate the game but love a fan in their lives nodding their heads in rueful recognition of this phenomenon. And yet neither Almond nor I have easy answers as to whether being ambivalent about the game, but watching it anyway is a more destructive equivalent to substance abuse than loving the game while completely ignoring its moral and ethical lapses. That the question is posed at all raises this book above the level of a mere screed.
As trenchant as Almond is, he remains solicitous and compassionate throughout towards those whose devotion to football remains absolute. At one point, he quotes a close friend who, upon hearing of the book Almond intends to write, implores, “Please don’t take this away from me.” Towards the end, he’s utterly abased by a conversation he has with a young woman, a lifelong Philadelphia Eagles fan who tells him that football “was what kept her connected to her hometown, and to her dad especially.” Guess how low he felt when he answered her query as to what his book was about.
The Eagles. They do seem to inspire a river-deep-mountain-high devotion in their fan base. I spent eight years living and working in Philadelphia and though I was never converted to the Eagles cause (I do think you need to have grown up there to truly belong), I appreciated the city’s collective investment of passion somewhat more than those who from a distance view Eagles fans with varying degrees of alarm. Having interviewed those fans in full fury (and illumination) against their team, I can say that while they can be…how to put this…vivid in their expressiveness, I felt very safe in their company – as long as I never told them that I’d grown up in a Giants household. Such intense devotion along with a substantial historic legacy in professional football deserves more than one measly championship in the last 55 years to show for it.
Ray Didinger grew up an Eagles fan and spent most of his professional life writing about them for at least two local newspapers. He walks the walk, talks the talk of the true fan, but he’s so much more composed and rational about his engagement, which makes the second edition of The New Eagles Encyclopedia(Temple University Press), revised by Didinger from the 2005 edition he’d composed with the late Robert S, Lyons, both an invaluable tonic for the stressed-out Eagles follower and an absorbing read for anyone who savors colorful history and folklore, no matter where it’s from or what it’s about.
To pluck one example from many: Didinger’s chapter, new for this edition, about the team’s rivalry with the Dallas Cowboys. OK, OK…like, almost everybody has a rivalry with the Dallas Cowboys; at times, the Cowboys even hate themselves. But with the Eagles, it’s as if there are festering internal injuries that haven’t healed with time. And Didinger, who’s got the memory of an intelligence agency’s deep-background file system, reaches back to the mid-1960s when the two teams traded a series of wins and losses that climaxed with a jaw-breaking, teeth-severing clothesline tackle on Philadelphia running back Timmy Brown by Dallas linebacker Lee Roy Jordan. Eagle partisans maintain to this day that Jordan’s hit was late and cheap. Jordan insists otherwise. What Didinger characterizes as a “blood feud” was established from then on.
Brown, for what it’s worth, retained sufficient enough use of his oral equipment to have to a respectable career as a screen actor. (He’s in Nashville! Singing!) But in the context of this species of football book, physical injury is just the spoke on a wheel whose hub is the process of professional athletics itself. And even at a time when thoughtful people are coming to grips with their long-term affection for a brutal sport, Didinger’s book reminds you that devotion to a team and the people who live and die with its every game isn’t the only thing to think about when thinking about football. But for many people, it’s everything…and, much as some of us may disagree, enough.
Baseball books don’t need my help, or anybody else’s. There’ll always be waves of rhapsodists and elegists waxing year after year about the aesthetic virtues and time-tested verities of what used to be The National Pastime. Football books are another matter. For whatever reason, the literary/intellectual muse can’t get as revved up by what is now certified, for better and worse, as America’s Game.
A example, slight, perhaps, but mine own: In the 1992 Norton Book of Sports, edited by that would-be quarterback George Plimpton, there are roughly 70 stories, poems, essays and book excerpts covering baseball, boxing, basketball, horse racing and even skiing. Football, by my count, gets just three items. (Just saying…)
People give lip service to the idea of “beauty” emerging from the jolting, amoebic flow of a block-and-tackle football game. But most of the books published about that sport seem to have more to do with business than with beauty. The sport itself is often used as a metaphor for corporate culture with CEOs imagining themselves as the true legatees of Vince Lombardi and Bill Walsh, the heart and brain, respectively, of football coaching Valhalla. The push-pull collisions get taken as analogies for the rest of us working stiffs sticking our heads into the morass for the risk of reward and, as has become distressingly clearer in recent years, the reward of risk.
Rarely do I encounter a printed account of a breakaway run or a two-minute drill as lyrical as, say, John Updike’s oft-anthologized valedictory to Ted Williams’ final at-bat. But there may be built-in limits as to how best such moments can be persuasively rendered on a page. Baseball prose is allowed to bend and pitch to Mozart-ian levels; Prose about boxing, since we like stretching analogies till they scream in pain, can, at peak performance, surge ahead like a big-band swing orchestra blasting away in 4/4 time on a printed page.
The best, most evocative writing found in Football: Great Writing About the National Sport (The Library of America) comes across like vintage rock-and-roll with varied applications of blues, country and even a little gospel. Because I happen to know that the anthology’s editor John Schulian is a knowledgeable patron of blues and country music, I suspect he did as much reading with his ears as with his eyes when choosing selections. Even the elegies (Frank Deford’s homeboy-from-Ballmer memoriam to Johnny Unitas; Wright Thompson’s “Love Letter” to Ole Miss football; John Ed Bradley’s impassioned reverie about walking away from playing days at LSU) emit streaks of syncopated roughhousing. (“Unitas” Deford writes, “was some hardscrabble Lithuanian, so what he did made a difference, because even if we [Baltimoreans] had never met a Lithuanian before, we knew that he was as smart a sonuvabitch [sic] as he was tough. Dammit, he was our Lithuanian.”)
Schulian’s jukebox carries lively, varied selections that dare you to mix them around at will. You can punch up vivid reminiscences of pro football’s primordial days from gypsy leatherhead Johnny Blood (as rendered by the late Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope) or watch as Richard Price struggles to shake free of goddam-Yankee self-consciousness before entering the lair of Alabama demigod Bear Bryant. Coaches, generally, are the strangest of all the characters in this anthology, whether it’s George Allen, blustering and fidgeting his way through New Year’s Day 1968 after being ash-canned by the Rams (His daughter Jennifer is affectionate without being indulgent towards her dad’s fulminations) or Tom Landry, an oracular icebox of contradictions and piety who both bemuses and exasperates Gary Cartwright.
The editor’s own portrait of the greatest of Philadelphia Eagles, Chuck Bednarik is so richly textured that you stop regretting that he didn’t include the all-but-definitive description of Bednarik’s shattering 1960 tackle of Frank Gifford found in Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, a segment of which otherwise shares space in this collection with chapters from Paper Lion, the aforementioned account of George Plimpton’s adventures in training for exhibition football; Instant Replay, Green Bay offensive guard Jerry Kramer’s journal of the Packers’ last championship season under Vince Lombardi and Friday Night Lights, Buzz Bissinger’s by-now-canonical examination of playing out the fall season at a Texas high school.
Of the articles from magazines and newspapers selected by Schulian, I’m especially partial to the flamboyant deadline artistry Dan Jenkins deploys in his wry dissection of the hype-deflating Greatest-Tie-Ever-Played between Notre Dame and Michigan State in 1966 and to the consummate reportorial chops Arthur Kretchmer shows in his 1971 account of an up-and-down season in the career of the Chicago Bears fabled middle linebacker Dick Butkis. All the game’s elements — the harsh drudgery of practice, the moments of grace emerging from the sloughs of serial bashings, the grim spoils of brutality and their stoic acceptance by players – are contained and elucidated in Kretchmer’s masterly profile, whose closest counterpart in baseball is Al Stump’s landmark account of Ty Cobb’s final desperate days (even if Kretchmer’s subject is far less psychotic, if almost as mean.)
One feels like an ingrate to submit a qualm or two. Still, I wish Schulian hadn’t locked out entries more fictional than Exley’s novelized memoir. It would have been intriguing to see how the climactic football game from Richard Hooker’s M*A*S*H* would have stood with this crowd along with that venerable warhorse from Irwin Shaw, “The Eighty Yard Run” and some metaphysical hors-d’oeuvres from Don DeLillo’s End Zone.
Also, speaking from a racially chauvinistic perspective, I would have liked some representation in this book from such influential African-American sportswriters as Michael Wilbon or the late Ralph Wiley, whose gaudily Kafka-esque examination of O.J. Simpson’s guilt or innocence (though it likely doesn’t belong here anyway) remains for me the most thorough and persuasive dissection of that sordid episode in American celebrity jurisprudence.
But as George Blanda might have said if he were doing a commercial for Football: Great Writing About the National Sport, I can’t kick about a collection whose rapture over the written word and romance with a endangered species of sports journalism don’t prevent it from acknowledging, as Schulian writes in his introduction, the “storm clouds hanging over both the NFL and the NCAA” that are “bigger than any before them.” The collegiate clouds, mostly having to do with both abuses of NCAA rules and the association’s often myopic efforts at enforcing them, don’t get taken up in the anthology. But the NFL’s clouds are resolutely explored in such pieces as Mark Kram’s 1991 study of veteran players’ physical deterioration and Paul Solotaroff’s 2011 coroner’s report on Dave Duerson’s melancholy post-career slide into psychological despair in which the one endeavor the ex-Chicago safety was certain would have lasting value was taking his own life – and making sure his damaged brain was left intact for scientists to continue their inquiry into long-term effects of concussions.
The more one is made aware of cases like Duerson’s, the more one wonders if there’s any point in looking at football at all, much less remaining a steadfast fan. In addition to Football, there are new books that embody both these variables and I’ll tell you about them in the next installment.
Back in the winter of 1993, I threw a newsroom tantrum over an article that appeared in Spy magazine under the title, “Admit It. Jazz Sucks.” Written by Joe Queenan, then riding the ascending curve as a go-to contrarian crank for major media outlets, the piece was a mordant rant against what he perceived as a stuffed-shirt conspiracy to shove jazz music down the zeitgeist’s collective throat.
Most readers, even those unsympathetic to Queenan’s sentiments (and no, he wasn’t kidding about those), found it relatively easy back then to take the whole thing as bilious faux-regular-guy philistinism and move on with their lives. But I’d come across this screed at a time when I was still struggling to convince my New York Newsday editors that jazz music deserved a broader, bigger regular presence in its pages. The last thing I needed to hear from a national magazine, ANY national magazine, was a brash, loud voice suggesting to the editors that, well, yeah, maybe we don’t need to deal with this intimidating, complicated, provocative music that isn’t even as popular as it used to be. In other words, I took the damn thing personally – and stomped my feet, bellowed out loud, pounded furniture, etc. to let everybody I worked for, and with, know of my purple-cheeked displeasure.
And another thing: How exactly did Queenan figure that jazz was this domineering entity imposing itself upon whatever culture he believed himself to represent? If anything, jazz was catching more hell from the mainstream than it was receiving. Why the hell didn’t Spy magazine pick on somebody/something its own size? On top of everything else, it wasn’t even funny. Or smart. Even one of my editors, a rock-and-roller who like to bait me with similar anti-jazz bombs, thought the piece was lame –and, therefore, not worth getting ulcers over.
Indeed, after I’d calmed down and realized that I was all alone not just in detesting, but even caring much about the piece, it occurred to me that the very lack of furor generated by the article was dismal proof that even if Queenan was right about this conspiracy, it was already failing.
So life did in fact go on: Spy eventually folded. Queenan wrote better, if more bilious pieces. Newsday ended its noble New York City-based experiment. And jazz still came out at the other end of the century barely breaking even in the music marketplace. So all I can say to all my friends and fellow-travelers in the jazz universe who’ve been seething since last week over what I’ve come to know as the “Unfunny Sonny” blog on The New Yorker’s web site is this: I been there already.
Briefly, for the rest of you: About a week ago (though it seems longer), a piece began circulating on the web under the New Yorker’s aegis under the title, “Sonny Rollins: In His Own Words.” Only it sure didn’t sound like Sonny Rollins; more like a whiny savant who likened the sound of a saxophone to a “scared pig” and doesn’t see the point of jazz and hates his whole life. “If I could do it all over again, I’d probably be a process server or an accountant. They make good money.” You get the idea. If you don’t, here’s the rest of it.
It now sounds weird, but more than a few people who first came across this thing on social media sites actually thought that this was Rollins’ voice. (I recall one musician first reacted by thinking that this outburst was the result of Rollins playing for too long with substandard backup musicians. Which was almost as funny – or not – as the piece itself.) As the civilized world now knows, a senior writer for The Onion named Django Gold wrote it and, as you’ll now notice, the blog now comes with disclaimers. Why? Partly because of this loud, resounding, universal outcry from the jazz musicians, fans and journalists that, collectively, made my office tantrum of twenty-one whole years ago seem like a sneeze in a noisy stadium. (By the way, after reading Gold’s piece again, make sure you watch this afterwards if only to make clearer whose voice is who’s.)
I suppose I, too, was more annoyed than amused by Gold’s little joke at jazz’s expense and the reasons are pretty much in line with those enumerated over the last few days. To wit:
1.) You mean The New Yorker no longer has the time or space to cover jazz on a regular basis and THIS is what they decide to contribute instead?
2.) Jazz is still fighting to hold on to its sliver of the music marketplace and here’s one of the leading publications in the country demeaning its greatest living improviser? How dare they! Would they do this to Tom Stoppard or Suzanne Farrell or anybody in opera?
3.) It’s not all that funny to begin with. Why waste the space, especially at jazz’s expense? I’m probably leaving out a few other complaints, but these three are among the more frequent, making it easier to take them each of them one at a time:
1.) That the New Yorker hasn’t bothered finding room for regular jazz coverage, especially after establishing a tradition for such through the late Whitney Balliett is, of course, an ongoing scandal. But no one else in the magazine world is bothering with it either. I can understand concerns among my fellow jazz lovers that the snide tone informing this parody will convince the music’s haters of their fine judgment and good taste. I don’t know. Outright jazz hate is annoying, but widespread indifference is worse. Does anyone besides me remember Stanley Crouch’s 2005 straight-ahead New Yorker profile of Rollins? Do I remember any profile of any jazz musician since then of similar heft and dimension? I do not. And whenever a newspaper or mainstream publication paid me to write about jazz, I often felt as if I were dropping pebbles down a deep, dark well waiting for the splash. I’d like to think the furor aroused by Gold’s prank would shame editors into changing this situation. I know better. They’d prefer more pranks. So does the Internet. So do the people who get caught up in the Internet. I play the sincerity card with jazz because I respect it too much to do otherwise. But when I praise Sonny Rollins, I’m basically telling people what they already know, whether they’ve heard him for themselves or not. Snide plays better than sincere. Or don’t you listen to “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” every week on NPR? Figured as much.
2.) Nevertheless, I, too, would rather read or write about the latest installment of Rollins’ “Road Shows” albums than see somebody reduce Sonny to the rough equivalent of a petulant preppie. I’ve often said that while critics sometimes pump up everything Rollins does with little discrimination, the public-at-large seriously underrates or altogether ignores his glorious inventiveness. (Those who wonder why everybody in jazz got so riled by Gold’s piece should immediately buy Road Shows, Vol. 3 or, to get it all over with, Saxophone Colossus.) On the other hand, Gold or his editors must already think that Rollins has the kind of heft and dimension as a figure to be poked at and hazed in the public square, which is kinda sorta a backhanded acknowledgment of his significance. Would somebody do the same to Tom Stoppard or Suzanne Farrell or anybody in opera? You bet your sweet ass somebody would, anybody would, early and often! To say that jazz can’t take even the most half-baked pies tossed at its kisser is to make it seem as reductive as snobs in the higher elevations of Culture Gulch believe it to be.
3.) Then, too, opera buffs and balletomanes in those higher elevations are often regarded as humorless wet blankets who can’t abide the cheap jokes as their expense. The jazz cognoscenti may even acknowledge the irony that its collective cri-de-coeur over Gold’s blog only confirms the outer world’s suspicions that we’re all a bunch of insular, thin-skinned spoilsports who can’t take a joke. But that the joke in question needed a disclaimer to chill out the complainers may prove that the joke in question wasn’t all that funny to begin with. For what it’s worth, it’s a helluva lot funnier than Queenan’s smug tirade, though, unlike Queenan, Gold doesn’t seem at all sure of what he’s skewering in the first place — and neither does the reader. It’s a piece interested more in striking a pose than making a point. It assumes an attitude about something that isn’t the least bit connected or concerned with what its satirizing; unlike Donald Barthelme’s New Yorker story, “The King of Jazz,” which was the kind of blithe-but-pointed mockery that only a true fan (which Barthelme was) could pull off. Nevertheless, given the new-school dynamics of media transactions, strike a pose conspicuously enough and most of the gawkers will believe you’ve made your point anyway. And while jazz fans are shamed by Gold, he’s not shamed at all. He’s hearing tinkling sounds – bells, coins — whenever somebody mentions his name. If taking Gold to task for demeaning jazz makes me look like a slow-burning Edgar Kennedy to his blithe Harpo Marx, I’d just as soon go back to bed and wait for the wind to die down.
All this said, I’m glad, and even proud, that jazz got on its hind legs and roared back at this squib. The furor wont raise the music’s profile any higher than it is now. Too many other things have to happen for that to change. But as with that Spy magazine assault long ago, the effects of which I think I’m finally over by now, jazz under whatever name in whatever state will go on, oblivious to whatever the lovers and haters say about it. As I said earlier: I been here before. So will the divine mysteries of music. And so, I trust, will writers who can riff, lick and even vogue better than…no, sorry. I’m not going to mention the name again. I’d rather give my remaining time to this guy -- and, just as I eventually did twenty years ago, move on.
So I watched The Maltese Falcon yesterday afternoon, partly in celebration of John Huston’s birthday, partly because I hadn’t seen it in a while. Its stock has risen and fallen with me over the decades, though never TOO low (or as low as it often fell with hard-core auteurists). Now I’m all grown-up and unequivocally accept it as a classic. But this time around, as I was watching Humphrey Bogart making his way from his office to his apartment and back again, I wasn’t thinking about him so much as I was thinking of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s star turn in A Most Wanted Man. And I realized, finally, why so many people who saw that movie are feeling even more desolated by Hoffman’s passing earlier this year.
Some perspective: Before Falcon, Bogart had been known primarily as a character actor specializing in bad-guy roles; most of them variations of Duke Mantee, the sneering fugitive killer from The Petrified Forest that established his name on stage and screen. As Sam Spade, Bogart carried some of the sinister aura he’d patented in his previous movies and was able to channel it into what Pauline Kael aptly described as an “ambiguous mixture of avarice and honor, sexuality and fear.” It was Bogart’s first “good-guy” role, though given Spade’s icy duplicity and casual cruelty one could more properly characterize it as anti-heroic, or “bad-good guy”. Nevertheless, the movie’s success made Warner Brothers and, by extension, the public regard this brooding, battered-looking fellow as someone who could be a romantic figure; a conflicted one at times, perhaps, but an enviably tough one for sure.
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s situation before Most Wanted Man was quite different from Bogart’s before Maltese Falcon. By the time he’d died of a heroin overdose this past February, Hoffman was regarded as one of our finest actors, perhaps, the greatest of his generation. His versatility won him acclaim, awards and a kind of stardom that hadn’t yet translated to heroic or romantic leads; mostly, he was cast as eccentric, sweet, awkward or malevolent characters. If Kael’s description of Bogart’s Spade could have been applied to any of Hoffman’s roles, it likely would have been Lancaster Dodd, the mercurial cult leader and title character of 2012’s The Master. It’s probable that after playing a such a magnetic composite of eccentricity, sweetness, awkwardness and malevolence Hoffman may have started wondering where else he could carry this trick bag and to what end.
So he began trying on some different wardrobe; first as a working-class mensch in God’s Pocket and as Most Wanted Man’s Gunther Bachmann, the rumpled German intelligence operative struggling to finesse the capture of a Muslim statesman suspected of funneling money to terrorists. Gunther is very much in the tradition of John Le Carre’s seedy spymasters; as with George Smiley, Gunther’s idea of getting results is to dig deep, stalk the edges, probe for soft spots and extract information as deftly as possible with no whistles and horns in sight. The strain of maintaining Gunther’s professional integrity shows in the way he wearily saunters into cafes and meeting rooms. Those working with or against Gunther’s tactics seem to have the edge because of their greater physical definition. Yet Gunther’s wooliness is deceptive, calculatedly so. Hoffman carries his character’s authority with a bruised, but stolid Old World dignity. You understand why his team will follow him everywhere and anywhere he takes them – and why his reluctant recruits end up trusting him despite their most urgent reservations.
As for the romantic part, there’s a moment, only a moment, where the possibilities make themselves apparent. It comes when Gunther, in an attempt to conceal his presence from somebody on an illuminated nighttime street, grabs his subordinate Irma (Nina Hoss) and embraces her in a faux-make-out clinch. When they break off, Irma’s hand lingers gently on Gunther’s back. The moment passes, but it’s one of the few times in director Anton Corbijn’s thriller where you’re aware of something going on just beyond the narrative’s whirring machinery.
You’re also aware of something happening with Hoffman’s screen image beyond his already-legendary chameleon chops. You think of the possibilities opened up by having someone as unkempt as a fraternity hall closet after a beer party somehow embody an heroic archetype that movie audiences throughout the world could embrace as cozily as Irma does Gunther. I’m not saying Hoffman’s performance in Most Wanted Man would have allowed him to pursue his own Casablanca or To Have and Have Not. But, putting it as painlessly as possible, it would have been great fun to see him go for it.
The recent death of James Shigeta at 85 evokes a different, but no less poignant sense of lost or forsaken possibilities. Shigeta, as many knowing and respectful tributes have mentioned, had a long and influential career as both dramatic actor and musical-comedy performer. Blessed with resonant, melodious speaking voice, Shigeta broke down racial barriers from the start of his career, playing a police detective in Samuel Fuller’s iconoclastic 1959 thriller, The Crimson Kimino, in which his character becomes romantically involved with Victoria Hall’s imperiled Caucasian witness.
It wouldn’t be the only time he’d played someone in an interracial romance or for that matter, someone in a romantic lead. And it seemed for a while as though his magnetism and grace would pay off in major stardom despite the compartments Hollywood still tended to place roles for Asian actors.
But Shigeta, though always in demand in movies and television, never became a major star; not even during a twenty-year span – the sixties and seventies – when the nature of what it meant to be a movie star was expanding enough to encompass the previously non-traditional likes of Sidney Poitier, Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman. Maybe the movies couldn’t do it, but television was, and is, a different proposition, more open to tweaking expectations in the name of getting attention – and ratings.
Knowing Shigeta was originally from Hawaii made me imagine a bit of alternative history that, had it actually come to pass, might have helped make a different world. It certainly would have made for an obituary different from the ones widely circulated late last month.
So let’s all imagine, shall we?
LOS ANGELES, July 29, 2010 – James Shigeta, the groundbreaking Asian-American leading man, who achieved his greatest success as star of the long-running CBS police series, “Hawaii Five-O”, died Monday of pulmonary failure. He was 85.
Shigeta, born in what was then the Hawaii territory of the United States to Asian American parents, achieved early success as both a movie actor and as a singer who performed in the 1960 film adaptation of “Flower Drum Song,” the Rodgers-and-Hammerstein musical comedy about arranged marriages among Chinese-Americans.
But it was the role of Detective Lt. Rick Kawakami on “Hawaii Five-O” that made Shigeta a household name in America and throughout the world. In the process, it accelerated the broadening presence of non-white actors on the big and small screens in roles that traditionally went to whites.
“I will always be grateful to Rick Kawakami and everything he gave to me,” Shigeta said in later years. “Once you’ve done TV for as long as I have, you’re never a stranger, no matter where you go in the world.”
It very nearly didn’t happen, according to the late Leonard Freeman, who created and produced “Hawaii Five-O.” Back in 1967, when the idea for a series about an elite crime-fighting unit based in Honolulu reached the development stage, Freeman recalls that while casting Asian actors as cast regulars was never in doubt, the notion of the team’s leader being Asian met with resistance from CBS executives.
“They were adamant,” Freeman recalled in 1971 when the series was in its third season. “But I kept at it, telling them that, after all, we were in a time when Bill Cosby was winning Emmys as a lead character on ‘I Spy.’ But the network was certain that people weren’t ready for an Asian cop leading a series. I kept telling them that just the curiosity of the idea, along with all that beautiful scenery, would give them everything they wanted.”
Shigeta, who jumped at the chance for steady work in the land of his birth, made his own pitch to CBS executives. Apparently that was all it took – and the rest was television history.
“Hawaii Five-O” ran from 1968 to 1980. Shigeta’s good looks, resonant voice and ramrod presence allowed Rick Kawakami to become as familiar to TV viewers as James Arness’ Matt Dillon from CBS’ comparably durable “Gunsmoke.” Backed by a team that included James MacArthur, Kam Fong and Gilbert Lani Kahui , whose professional name was Zulu, Kawakami’s often-impassive leadership style created what TV critic Ken Tucker would later characterize as a “paradigm of absolute cool” that actors of all nationalities would try duplicating with mixed results.
What helped seal Kawakami’s immortality was the way Shigeta would reliably intone, at or near the end of each episode, “Book ‘em, Dann-O!” to MacArthur’s Danny Williams with silken, yet icy resolve.
Shigeta was nominated for Emmys six times in the show’s 12-year history, winning in 1969, 1970 and 1973. Once the show achieved success, Shigeta used his growing influence to ensure that other non-white actors would be given roles that would not be denigrating . He especially made sure that all his co-stars received extensive screen time, even their own episodes. Kahui and Fong credit such exposure for securing roles in major motion pictures, including 1988’s “Die Hard” in which they played Asian businessmen who sacrifice their lives for hostages.
Shigeta recalled being exhausted by the time the series ended in 1980 and took a leave of absence from show business. Hawaii Democrats proposed that he run for governor in 1986. Though intrigued, Shigeta demurred, insisting that, however much he wanted to effect change for people-of-color, he could do the most good in his chosen profession. Instead, he agreed to ease back into the medium in a recurring role on “L.A. Law” as Judge Danforth Akiyoshi.
He admitted that it was “funny, at first” when actors on the series would insist on muttering, “Book ‘em, Dann-O” between takes. “I’d always tell them they didn’t quite have it right,” he said. “And they were always crestfallen when I did. Gosh, I didn’t think they’d take it so personally.””