As of this Friday, Charlie Haden will have been off the planet for two weeks. Yet I’m still tripping over him in unexpected places. Earlier this week, for instance, I put on an ECM compilation of Carla Bley’s work and all of a sudden, this voice pours out of the speakers that sounded a lot like Linda Ronstadt’s from her daisy-fresh Stone Poneys days. Turned out that’s exactly who it was: Ronstadt doing lead vocals on Bley’s “Why?” from the 1971 jazz opera, Escalator Over The Hill. And who should be vocally harmonizing with her on this track, in what sounds like the bluegrass idiom of his childhood professional days, but Haden, who also played double-bass for Bley’s orchestra. A day later, I finally caught hold of Last Dance, the recently-released ECM album with Haden and one of his old bosses, Keith Jarrett, performing classic pop standards. Though these duets were recorded in 2007, the album’s ruminative tone and sepulchral title, augmented by having “Every Time We Say Goodbye” and, then, “Goodbye” as back-to-back concluding numbers, seem to emit melancholy prophesy. Except I don’t feel in any way saddened while listening to these intimate conversations between two veterans who, though working with traditional chord progressions and stone-ground rhythms, find new ways to make these warhorses enrapture and inspire. Which may be another way of saying that nothing much has changed and Charlie Haden will somehow always be with us, letting his romanticist’s gospel of Beauty and Truth filter through the world where, through most of his 76 years, he spread this gospel broadly, but never thinly. We could be spending almost as many years wandering through and assessing his prolific contributions as sideman, leader, composer, collaborator and movie director. You read right. Movie director. And while you wont find his name listed as such on the Internet Movie Database, Charlie Haden excelled at making movies of the mind, even when he wasn’t trying. Born in 1937, Haden was a child of both motion pictures and the radio and, thus, instinctively understood how the former so robustly fed people’s imaginations, which were comparably stimulated by the latter. Just as the movies could make you want to get up and dance, orchestrated sounds could make you lie back and dream. By the 1950s, the movies would help dictate how we listen to music. (Think of all those set-the-mood-for-making-out LPs of the era with lush strings.) And Haden became one of the auteurs of concept albums that, openly or otherwise, borrowed their tropes from cinema. Most especially, what became known as the Hollywood noir movies of the forties and fifties became a recurring motif with Haden’s Quartet West albums on Verve, beginning with 1986’s eponymous album introducing the quartet – saxophonist Ernie Watts, pianist Alan Broadbent and drummer Billy Higgins, Haden’s onetime band mate with Ornette Coleman, replaced with Larance Marable on 1988’s In Angel City. The other Quartet West Verves – 1990’s Haunted Heart, 1993’s Always Say Goodbye, 1995’s Now is the Hour and 1999’s The Art of the Song – were more or less pastiches of movie soundtracks, vintage recordings by such diverse artists as Jo Stafford, Jeri Southern, Chet Baker, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins and Django Reinhardt. (In the last entry, a full orchestra and singers Shirley Horn and Bill Henderson joined the quartet in the studio.) Critics were mostly enchanted with these discs when they were first released, even though you could hear grousing from some corners that Haden was squandering his considerable energies on studio gimmickry; a kind of “sampling” for nostalgic grownups. But Haden had earned wellsprings of credibility that began to collect around his name in the late 1950s when he’d helped rearrange the furniture in listeners’ heads for all time as a member of Ornette Coleman’s epochal quartet. He’d also put his music where his progressive politics were as founder-leader of the Liberation Music Orchestra and burnished his reputation by helping enhance those of such diverse artists as Geri Allen, Kenny Barron, Hampton Hawes, Abbey Lincoln, Hank Jones, Paul Motian, Bley and Jarrett by sitting in or collaborating with them, live or on record. Whether you dug Haunted Heart or Always Say Goodbye depends on how much you happen to be into the same old movies that Haden was. And Haden’s affinity for Raymond Chandler and other SoCal literary lights was genuine enough to give added integrity and sturdiness to his dreamscapes. Unlike a lot of actual filmmakers, Haden didn’t see those crime melodramas as excuses for ironic reinvention or post-modern hijinks. He thought Chandler and his ilk were funny, incisive and, most of all, relevant enough for whatever present-day reality you inhabit. His perpetual sense of wonder with the sunset-infused landscape of modern jazz and tarnished dreams was infectious – and you were motivated as he seemed to be to imagine your own movies sequences to match the music. As fond as I am of the Quartet West discs, I’ve come to believe since his passing that Haden’s greatest achievement as a moviemaker-for-the-mind lies somewhere beyond its body of work. It took me a long time even to appreciate Beyond the Missouri Sky, Haden’s 1996 session with guitarist Pat Metheny as anything more than a decorative collection of spare, wide-open-spacey duets. I am now one with the eighth edition of The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings, which places Missouri Sky among its “Core Collection” rankings. Even as a studio artifact, this album handsomely rewards re-listening with its overdubs and harmonic tracks. Haden’s melodic tone on the bass achieves depth and richness that coax greater fluidity and fineness from Metheny’s playing. The landscapes they evoke have big skies and gilded shadows. The mind movies here are less rooted in genre and more reminiscent of Rohmer or Antonioni in an avuncular mood. The latter didn’t make Cinema Paradiso, but there are nonetheless two pieces from that movie’s soundtrack along with Henry Mancini’s poignant theme from Two for the Road. And it gets even more personal than usual here: Roy Acuff’s “The Precious Jewel,” the mountain folk song, “He’s Gone Away” and Haden’s haunting original hymn, “Spiritual” are clearly intended to be tributes to the bassist’s parents, with whom he’d performed bluegrass and country ballads on radio when he was a little boy. Beyond the Missouri Sky was the first thing I thought of playing when I’d heard he’d died – and the sun was actually setting by the time “Spiritual” had run its course. It was less a funereal experience than a healing one. And I suspect it wont be the last time it will help ease the sting of bad news. After all, the movies he made weren’t distractions. Charlie Haden intended for his music – all of it — to be of use. What else are Truth and Beauty for?
July 23rd, 2014 — jazz reviews
May 16th, 2014 — movie reviews
Spider-Man, amazing or not, can wait. So can Godzilla and Seth Rogin. I can afford to let them all wait because I’ve been out of the weekly movie-reviewing routine since Obama’s first term and the best part about NOT being tethered to professional routine as a moviegoer is that you can go wander at will into something that’s already been thoroughly hyped or strafed without having to organize your own 400-500-word reaction as you’re watching it. Trolling and fishing away from the mainstream makes up one of the arcane, old school joys of cinephilia; one that’s completely lost in this marketplace of shiny new toys that often shatter or wither minutes after being unwrapped. I didn’t want bright and shiny and obvious. Those will wait. I wanted oily and murky and subtle. Which never do.
And darkness was where I most wanted to go this past week to catch up on what I missed…and to do so before some of these movies went away. DC is a good movie town, but as with all markets smaller than NY or LA, the theaters in Your Nation’s Capital tend not to let smaller, relatively under-the-radar stuff linger too long in their rotation. So this was, mostly for the better, how my week went:
Blue Ruin – Did I recognize Eve Plumb towards the end of writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s spin-dry variations on the vigilante-movie formula? I did not, remembering her mostly as a little person on “The Brady Bunch,” whose early 1970s heyday was somewhat past my use-by date for family-friendly sitcoms. Seeing the artist-formerly-known-as-Jan-Brady’s name scroll by in the cast credits, however, was enough to trigger my one misgiving about this otherwise foxy thriller about revenge-obsessed Dwight (Macon Davis), whose parents’ murder years before apparently led to his becoming a wan, accident-prone dumpster diver haunting Delaware shore parking lots and bathing in vacant summer homes. When the man jailed for his parents’ murder is released, Dwight hunts for and eventually stabs the ex-con to a gruesome death in a public rest room. So begins a rat’s nest of mutual retribution as the man’s family comes after Dwight and his sister (Amy Hargreaves), a single mother of two, who’s way too level headed to hang around this story for very long. “I’d forgive you if you were crazy,” she tells Dwight before taking her little ones off to Pittsburgh for safety’s sake. “But you’re not. You’re weak.” So much for the broad-shouldered verities of Walking Tall and Kicking Ass, which Sauliner’s script deflates with such delicacy that Dwight’s seemingly inexhaustible luck and pluck look more pathetic than heroic. Still, Davis’s doe-eyed intensity and well-oiled anxiety keep you from writing Dwight off as emphatically as his sister does.
Blue Ruin’s espresso-edgy inversion of the revenge fantasy genre along with the movie’s backwoods strip-mall ambiance has aroused comparisons to Blood Simple. That alignment’s somewhat off, I think; for one thing, Ruin somehow manages to be both leaner in execution and richer in design than the Coen Bros. 1984 neo-noir. But I also wished there were maybe a little more wit in Saulnier’s script beyond the throwaway admission from one of Dwight’s nemeses (Kevin Kolack): “Yeah, well, killin’ the mother wasn’t the brightest move on our part, I’ll give ya that.”
And while the inevitable chaos at the end buttresses the movie’s point about revenge’s pointlessness, seeing Plumb as the matriarch of Dwight’s equally vindictive (and unhinged) antagonists made me wonder whether Saulnier’s point would have been sharpened by making that family as smooth-faced and as all-American polished as…the Brady Bunch. Maybe you risk unsettling and confusing audiences by making such moves, but isn’t that what’s supposed to happen along the cutting edge? That aside, I’d still take Blue Ruin over the next serial-killer melodrama a big studio tries to put over on us.
Under the Skin – Maybe Jonathan Glazer should consider switching the title of his 2000 crime thriller, Sexy Beast with this one. The title’s unavoidable when you see Scarlett Johansson’s laconic, dark-haired predator cruising the streets of Edinburgh at all hours asking male strangers for directions or slowly stripping off her clothes as some of the poor saps who decide to ride home with her sink naked behind her into an inky pool of oblivion. Who or what Johansson’s character is and what she and her peripheral motorbike-racing enablers do with the bodies of her captives are subject to interpretation, though what little you’re permitted to see will likely make you wish you hadn’t.
In a way, Johansson’s austere, elementally restrained performance (the kind that never ever gets recognized at awards time) is a companion piece to her invisible, all-vocal and just as sensitively-realized performance in Her, another SF movie that annoyed almost as many people as it engaged Some reviewers, for instance. have complained of an overabundance of implication in Glazer’s SF-horror chamber piece. Their grousing is another reason to be depressed since, once upon a time, even mainstream audiences would have been more than OK with leaving blank spaces open for interpretation. (And not just in foreign product – or doesn’t anybody besides me like to stay up on weekends to watch Val Lewton movies like The Seventh Victim?)
Anyway, what matters in Under the Skin is what happens to Johansson’s alien invader and not to her victims, one of whom is a shy, physically deformed recluse who is almost as icily reserved as she is. Somehow, this encounter sets off a nascent curiosity within her about the nature of this earthly form she inhabits, whether checking out the voluptuous contours of her naked body or chucking up a slab of chocolate cake she tries, and fails, to consume. She’s trying to figure out what being human means. In the process, we’re trying to figure that out along with her. Some people say that theme – which is the basic raison d’etre of any science fiction worth your time – is neither original nor interesting. This beef against SF isn’t original either. But Under the Skin is, especially when framed against more hi-tech, in-your-face techno-fantasies. I wish there were more movies like it, the more obscure, the better.
Only Lovers Left Alive –Jim Jarmusch isn’t the first art-house icon whose work acquires greater definition when it tethers itself to genre – and with any luck, he won’t be the last. While I find something to like about all his movies, even when, as in 1989’s Mystery Train or 2009’s The Limits of Control, he rambles and wanders his way around, or past, resolution, I think he is at his most arresting when his insouciant, deadpan imagination is taken up with the western (1995’s Dead Man), the crime thriller (1999’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai) and even the escape-from-prison subgenre (1986’s Down by Law).
He’s finally taken up with vampires and you wonder what took him so long, especially when Only Lovers Left Alive turns out to be, all at once, his wittiest, zestiest and most touching film ever. This is the vampire movie as a hipster hang – and little else. Its two protagonists, Adam (Tom “Loki” Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda “Orlando” Swinton who’s never been as beguiling and cuddly as she is here), are as deeply addicted to each other as they were when they met each other a century or two ago. They are also addicted to blood and lead fairly routine lives, maintaining their habits from mostly different spots on the globe; Eve wanders the curvy streets of Tangier, sheathed in silk, checking in on her vampire mentor Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who despite his disheveled state looks pretty hale for someone who was supposed to have been murdered at 29 years old in 1593 while Adam, a musical genius old enough to have given Schubert a hand, lives the gloomy-glam life of the reclusive rock legend inhabiting a ramshackle house in Detroit and collecting vintage guitars secured for him by a credulous idolater named Ian (Aaron Yelchin). Whenever Adam needs a supply of vintage O-Negative, he dresses up in surgical green, complete with mask and antique stethoscope, and sticks wads of cash in the hands of his connection (a droll Jeffrey Wright).
When Adam and Eve get together, life is nocturnal bliss with late-night tours of the city’s blasted streets. (“Detroit has water. It will survive when the cities of the south are burning,” Adam tells Eve with the airy assurance of someone who’s watched History’s wheels turn several dozen times.) But then, Eve’s voracious little sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) flies in from L.A. with none of the older couple’s restraint in taking a bite with her beverage. Still, nothing, not even Ava, can harsh Adam and Eve’s mellow and you never want the hang to end, especially if those two keep their collection of 45’s rolling on the turntable. For a movie that’s bathed in shadows, Only Lovers Left Alive is as radiant as the sound of Denise LaSalle’s voice
April 25th, 2014 — jazz reviews
On the occasion of what would have been Ella Fitzgerald’s 97th birthday, I’m posting this mildly-annotated tribute I wrote for Newsday shortly after she died in July, 1996. Some of the questions raised in this piece remain open, except for whether she still matters to people today. She does. SIXTEEN DAYS have passed since Ella Fitzgerald died, and I still find prevailing among people of several generations a deep sadness over the loss. There’s wistfulness about Fitzgerald’s passing. I can’t recall encountering so many people in so many places who have spontaneously expressed their sense of loss for a departed jazz-pop icon – and I don’t expect to hear as many until we say farewell to Sinatra. (NOTE: Two years afterward, we did — and I did.)
What makes such an outpouring of grief more remarkable is that Fitzgerald spent most of her last years in the shadows of public life, stripped of her eyesight and physical mobility by several bouts with diabetes-related illnesses. In 1993 both of her legs were amputated. Yet, this slow fade seemed crueler than someone of Fitzgerald’s majestic effervescence and unfailing grace deserved. Which, in the hearts of many, only magnified the poignancy of her death. Now that tears have begun to dry, it seems time to assess the Ella Fitzgerald legacy.
I’ve encountered at least one skeptic in recent days. The opinion of this educated fellow – an exception to the widespread sentiment toward Fitzgerald following her death – is that she is a candidate for the century’s most overrated jazz singer. His reasons, roughly summarized: Don’t tell me how innovative she was as a scat singer! She did the same scatting on every song! Betty Carter is so much better! Ella was predictable by comparison! And don’t tell me she was a true artist! She was an entertainer at best! She never invested any song with true sensibility or meaning, like Billie Holiday! She just reached into the same bag of crowd-pleasing tricks. And you can’t deny that her vocal range wasn’t all that wide. She sounded like a little girl most of the time. People love that! No wonder she was popular! But greatness isn’t a popularity contest . . .
Well. Where does one begin to hack away at such ferocious revisionism? Probably by saying that none of his arguments are all that new.
I know this, because not so long ago I agreed with many of them, especially the stuff about Fitzgerald’s investing no true sensibility or meaning into a song. The technical proficiency that dazzled me as a child, the bubbly warmth she put forth in both her live and recorded performances seemed – as I grew older and compared her to other singers – to be manifestations of an emotionally evasive personality. Frequently, I wanted to shout back at the record player, “Come on, Ella! Give it up! Show us your scars!”
It didn’t help that there was much about her personal life that was mysterious, starting with her date of birth. (Though Fitzgerald’s age at the time of her death was reported by many to be 78, court records in her Newport News, Va., birthplace confirm that she was born April 25, 1917, making her a year older.) There was real drama in her meteoric rise from poverty to 1930s stardom with the Chick Webb orchestra, in her taking command of the band after Webb’s death and in her slow, steep ascension to international stardom. But if there was any trace of emotional tribulation or hardship that accompanied Fitzgerald on her life’s journey, forget about finding it in her music – or, for that matter, in anything written or published about her life. (British critic Stuart Nicholson’s 1993 biography, “Ella Fitzgerald,” available in DaCapo paperback, is the best available source – and even he had trouble breaking through the barrier of privacy that was diligently maintained by Fitzgerald practically to the very end.)
Fitzgerald’s limited vocal range is a point I’ll readily concede to our revisionist friend. I never quite bought the claims of those old Memorex recording-tape commercials that Fitzgerald could break a wine glass with the ballistic surge of her voice. Sarah Vaughan could, for sure. But Ella? Yes, she had perfect pitch, a clean, clear delivery and air-tight rhythmic control. But her voice never threatened the edges of outer space like that of a great soprano or contralto.
And so what? In jazz music, what matters is not what you bring to the table, but what you do with it when you arrive. Fitzgerald drew upon a seemingly inexhaustible supply of enthusiasm and ingenuity and, in the process, fashioned a persona that kept her concert audiences on the edge of their seats, wondering what turn of phrase or cheeky reference she’d throw out next. Such gifts, as critic Martin Williams once wrote, may belong more to melodrama than genuine tragedy. But not even Williams’ imperious standards could withstand the assaults of Fitzgerald’s dynamism.
“For me,” Williams wrote, “hers is the stuff of joy, a joy that is profound and ever replenished – perhaps from the self-discovery that, for all her equipment as a singer’s singer, she is absolutely incapable of holding anything back.” (Italics mine.) Even the “little girl” characteristics cited as grievances against Fitzgerald’s artistry can be used to support the case for her staying power.
As long as there is curiosity about the classic American popular song of the 20th Century, there will be listeners who want a singer who can convey their appeal of that music with a child’s unadorned sense of discovery. Many of us who grew up loving the songs of Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart and the Gershwins did so because of Fitzgerald’s inviting, affectionate and solicitous interpretations. Years from now those songbooks will be consulted about the great songs the way the dictionary is used to look up words.
So while I once wondered about Fitzgerald’s depth of passion or range of resources, I now believe there is emotional transcendence to be found in her euphoric invention. (A memo to our revisionist friend: Ask Betty Carter sometime whether she thinks Ella is overrated. Chances are good she’ll tell you no . . . and then rip your head off for suggesting otherwise.) Yet, this virtue, along with many others, doesn’t account for the widespread lingering sadness that people feel about Fitzgerald’s departure.
So what does? Nostalgia? We’re getting warmer, but the word alone doesn’t quite fit. I suspect what we mourn is more than the loss of a singer. Fitzgerald’s death is just part of our steadily eroding connection with the very notion of song as an ordered pattern of melody, harmony, emotion and intellect, expressing who we are and how we feel at any given moment. Nowadays, just a heavy beat with a few vague chords seems enough to satisfy those who want emotional and physical release – or, worse yet, simple gratification.
When Ella Fitzgerald or, indeed, any other icon from a more romantic and optimistic era leaves us, we feel abandoned – and a little panicky. We look around and wonder who’s able to connect with our emotions as they deepen and ripen to uneasy maturity.
Meanwhile, we’ll have the imposing pile of recordings Fitzgerald left behind. We’ll lose ourselves in them over and over again, while harboring the suspicion that she may have taken all the depth and most of the possibilities of American pop music with her to the grave. I was wrong about Ella. I hope I’m just as wrong about this. Copyright 1996 Newsday, Inc.
March 21st, 2014 — movie reviews
I don’t know whether the new Veronica Mars film passes the acid test cineastes give for “theatrical film.” I do know that it was a pleasure to sit in a multiplex theater and hear an audience laugh repeatedly at snappy, clever dialogue exchanged among human beings as opposed to, say, digitally animated rodents. I have nothing whatsoever against animated rodents. But why should they get smarter things to say in movies than action heroes and the sidekicks who love them?
Anyway…Watching Veronica Mars’ Chandler-esque comedy of manners on a big screen sort of made me feel as though I were back in college when I went to the UConn Film Society’s weekend screenings of vintage screwball comedies and noir whodunits. It’s one thing to laugh at smart banter when it’s just you and a few others in a den or rec room staring at an appliance. It’s somehow more gratifying to hear your delight with brainy bon mots validated in a dark room filled with strangers. I’d almost forgotten what it was like to go to a Hollywood studio movie that delivered a slam-bang narrative drive without an accompanying discharge of exhaust, metal shavings and concussive noise.
To put all this in another way: Veronica Mars has all the modest graces and arcane charms of what we used to know and love as B-movies, whose once-secure niche was long ago ceded mostly to series television by the entertainment-industrial complex. Maybe it was inevitable and just a wee bit ironic that a big-screen revival of a prematurely cancelled TV series would evoke such lost qualities. But we’re also in this upended age where cultural arbiters are wondering whether TV series are better than feature films – and as far as most influential pundits are concerned, there is no longer a “whether.” So why shouldn’t Veronica Mars herald a return of the termite-crafty B-movie?
Much of the movie’s craftiness comes in its up-to-the-minute and (thus) close-to-the-bone depiction of all-American class conflict. The original series managed to nail down the slimier aspects of SoCal social snobbery within a YA-novel-worthy context of a button-cute teen smarty pants who fell hard from her school’s in-crowd due to a scandal that unjustly disgraced and ostracized her dad from the town sheriff’s badge to a private-investigator’s license. It’s an educated guess that many who were passionately devoted to the show – and contributed much of the funds needed to make the movie happen – identified with the marginalized status dropped upon both Veronica (Kristen Bell) and her dad Keith (Enrico Colantoni); likely believed that pulling the plug on the show after just three seasons was another personal affront from the alleged “cool kids” who ran the networks.
The movie doesn’t just retrieve its source material’s antagonism towards predatory elites, but ramps up the edginess with outrage, even (on Veronica’s face) horror upon seeing her hometown police department’s storm-trooper tactics against what appear to be minority members of an ethnic motorcycle gang. Keith’s willingness to capture this extreme-stop-and-frisk ritual on his phone camera is the kind of offhand heroism one sees in a big-screen movie about as rarely as post-Millennial police brutality is depicted in a Hollywood feature.
What’s even rarer – and in many ways, even more of a throwback to classic Hollywood days – is a movie that places in its center an ingenious, funny woman who’s neither a helpless victim nor a dour paragon (looking at you, Divergent and Hunger Games). If the Veronica Mars movie does nothing else but show America how good Kristen Bell can be when she’s given something worthwhile to say and do in front of a camera, then it will have achieved a minor miracle. On the TV show, Bell showed the kind of grit, sass, avidity and timing reminiscent of thirties screwball comediennes such as Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard and Irene Dunne. (Look at that jawline. Tell me you don’t think Dunne could have been her great-grandma.) But in just about every major motion picture she’s been in since her show discontinued in 2007, Bell seems to barely exist on screen, with the possible, if dubious exception of 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall. And the only other movie she’s been in that was as successful as that was last year’s Frozen – and she was providing voice for…a digitally animated person. In Veronica the movie, she’s magnetic and feisty once again, not letting anyone shove her around, or aside. And how we missed her facility with comebacks! Where were all the writers and directors who could have brought that out? I don’t expect answers to that question any time soon.
After a week in limited release, Veronica Mars has made back roughly $2 million of its $6 million budget. It’s still too early to declare the fan-funded initiative a success or failure, given that Warner Bros still seems stingy towards its distribution. As was the case a week ago, I can count on one hand – and two fingers – the places in the DC metropolitan area that now have a Mars sign on their marquees. The studio is still offering the movie to its fans through downloads, though there have apparently been glitches in the transactions. In whatever form the movie is handed out, I’m rooting for it to succeed over the bombast and white noise of generic multiplex distractions. I’m not (necessarily) expecting Veronica Mars to make moviegoers more civilized in their expectations; nor do I anticipate that it will revive film noir or screwball wisecracks on the big screen. I’m just another fan – a “Martian”, please, not a “marshmallow” –hoping to see the cool kids proven wrong again.
February 17th, 2014 — movie reviews
Ellen DeGeneres has nothing whatsoever to be nervous about. The show will spillover past midnight and nobody will be completely happy with the overall results. Oh, and somebody will dare to tell a Seth MacFarlane joke that dies a horrible death with the audience – which didn’t hate him last year nearly as much as some of you did. So much for what I’m sure will happen. What follows is what I suppose will happen. (Predicted winners are in bold.)
“12 Years a Slave”
“The Wolf of Wall Street”
“Dallas Buyers Club”
It’s axiomatic that whatever the Producers’ Guild goes with as best-in- show grabs the Big One at the end of Oscar Night, no questions asked. But this year’s producers’ vote ended with both 12 Years a Slave and Gravity in a dead heat. In case you’re wondering, or scoring, that’s never happened before. So in at least this case and, maybe, one other below, there’s some genuine suspense invited to this year’s barbecue.
At times like this, Past History is your only guide. And what Past History tells you, with its arm around your shoulder and an avuncular, if apologetic intimacy, is that given the choice between voting its hopes or its fears, Hollywood always – always – chooses hope.
Those who insist on seeing moviemakers as unilaterally hard-core liberals have good reason to suspect 12 Years a Slave will be awarded Best Picture if for no other reason than as a corrective to decades of demeaning, evasive depictions of antebellum slavery in American cinema. I’d like to think so, too, even with my own guarded enthusiasm for the movie itself.
But for those who believe Hollywood carries an impregnable missionary spirit either to right historic wrongs or to reward scathing socio-political criticism, I give you, from many available and appropriate examples, 1976: A year that submitted for the academy’s approval the following Best Picture nominees: All the President’s Men, Bound for Glory, Network, Rocky and Taxi Driver. Quite a list, you’ll agree, even from this vantage point; each of these movies, even the still-relatively undervalued Bound for Glory, can be viewed today as exemplars of what American movies can do when they reach beyond convention, which is why they all have lasting value almost 40 years later.
So given the choice between, in order, a recapitulation of a newspaper’s role in bringing down a U.S. President, a biopic of a leftist troublemaking troubadour, a scathing (and, in retrospect, prophetic) takedown of the commercial television industry, the feel-good story of a South Philly leg-breaker who wills himself to the threshold of boxing immortality and a feel-bad (and, in retrospect, prophetic) story of a sad little New Yorker who enlarges himself into a deluded would-be assassin…well, even if you weren’t alive at the time, you either know or already guessed how this turned out. Rocky was the eventual and (as Past History will acknowledge with a melancholy nod) inevitable winner.
You know what that means this year? I do. I’m pretty sure I do, anyway.
Granted, both Gravity and 12 Years a Slave feature protagonists who eventually survive, if not exactly triumph, over seemingly hopeless odds. Both movies are, in their respective manner, harrowing, riveting, well conceived and wonderfully acted. But few, if any, have accused Gravity of turning history into a horror movie as some have criticized 12 Years for. Moreover, as much as Hollywood constantly yearns for a do-over on its historic mistakes, it doesn’t always like to stare directly at what its evaded or shortchanged. It knows, Lord, how it knows what needs to happen – and sooner rather than later. But does it have to be, like, right now? This minute? The movie’s out there; it’s had an impact. We’ll do more. We promise. And next time, we’ll have a full-scale blowout and really celebrate…
Blah. Blah. Blah…
I should add that a Gravity win wouldn’t break my heart at all. It was an even better, braver movie in terms of narrative tactics than most critics have acknowledged. Its director (see below) has been one of the world’s best for some time now and the movie’s anointment would be a worthy acknowledgement of his previous best. And besides, the movie’s theme — that somehow, no matter how scary things get for us when there’s no air or weight or light, we’ll figure something out – is the kind of bolstering we can use in this present-day miasma we call The New Normal. So fine, Hollywood, vote your hopes and we’ll gladly take them to heart, too. But you’d better greenlight Nat Turner and Kindred, like, yesterday. A promise is a promise.
Steve McQueen — “12 Years a Slave”
David O. Russell — “American Hustle”
Alfonso Cuaron — “Gravity”
Alexander Payne — “Nebraska”
Martin Scorsese — “The Wolf of Wall Street”
Whether his movie wins Best Picture or not, Cuaron’s had this one sewn up since last summer when the world first beheld Gravity through 3D glasses. I could spend a few seconds of my allotted time complaining that he should have received such recognition for Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Children of Men and even Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. But I wont. Virtue and virtuosity are usually their own rewards. And, for a change, both of these are given proper acknowledgement at the right time in a director’s career.
Bruce Dern — “Nebraska”
Chiwetel Ejiofor — “12 Years a Slave”
Matthew McConaughey — “Dallas Buyers Club”
Leonardo DiCaprio — “The Wolf of Wall Street”
Christian Bale — “American Hustle”
What looked at the outset to be this category’s widest-open race in decades has by now nestled into a predictable groove. Oh, there were scattered scowls let loose into the digital ionosphere because of McConaughey’s loopy Golden Globes acceptance speech – which ultimately was, in Ralph Kramden’s deathless expression, “a bag of shells.” Dallas Buyers Club is the kind of Oscar candidate whose virtues are best absorbed through the small screen. (See Argo, if you can remember that far back.) However dazed-and-confused McConaughey comes across off-screen, you can easily imagine how his touching, physically invested on-screen rendition of a shabby-hustler-turned-impassioned-crusader captured voters’ hearts on all those DVD screeners. As Hollywood prefers to see itself as a mob of hustlers-with-hearts-of-gold, do you really think its citizenry will bypass this opportunity to pay tribute to its own self-aggrandizing heroic fantasies? It never has before, and it wont now.
Amy Adams — “American Hustle”
Cate Blanchett — “Blue Jasmine“
Judi Dench — “Philomena”
Sandra Bullock — “Gravity”
Meryl Streep — “August: Osage County”
By contrast, what seemed a mortal lock in this category, even as early as last summer, has within the last few weeks morphed into something terribly, even poignantly vulnerable. The re-energized furor over Farrow-v-Allen may have subsided for the time being. But no one can really know how it affected voting until The Envelope is opened, which all of a sudden makes this disclosure worth staying awake for on Oscar Night. I’m going to presume that nothing changes — mostly because, whatever academy voters feelings about Dylan Farrow’s open letter and/or Woody Allen in general, they don’t like to be put into a corner. My onetime Entertainment Weekly office mate Mark Harris’s spider-sense is strong enough to intuit what might contribute to these voters’ collective grievance – and resentment:
“Oscar voters are, ludicrously, being asked to serve as jurors in a trial by op-ed: Is a vote for Blanchett to be treated as de facto indifference about the nightmare of child molestation, since Dylan Farrow has publicly contended that for a long time, she felt that any awards for Allen’s films “were a way to tell me to shut up and go away”? More to the point, is there any conceivable way to ask or answer that question without acknowledging that something horrible is being inappropriately trivialized and something trivial is being inappropriately transformed into a crisis of situational ethics? (ITALICS MINE) I’ve heard people say they think this controversy is useful because it opens up a larger discussion. I hope that who should win Best Actress isn’t the discussion they mean.”
To repeat, I’m betting it isn’t Still, the foofaraw went on just long enough for many pundits to pose the heretofore unthinkable question: If not Blanchett, then who? Given my own misgivings towards Blue Jasmine and, to a lesser extent, Blanchett’s performance, I would lean towards Adams if I had a vote. There’s even been some chatter about Dench’s crafty (in all senses) work in Philomena. But I suspect if anyone would benefit from a backlash against Blanch…I mean, Allen, it would be Bullock since she’s so widely beloved, and so was her movie. It’s still Blanchett’s to lose. But not by as much as was once believed. Whatever happens, it’ll be a chew toy for all media to deconstruct and, quite likely, dismember.
Best supporting actor
Barkhad Abdi — “Captain Phillips”
Bradley Cooper — “American Hustle”
Jonah Hill — “The Wolf of Wall Street”
Jared Leto — “Dallas Buyers Club“
Michael Fassbender — “12 Years a Slave”
Always the wildest card on the table, unless there’s a veteran involved who’s never received his due – and none can be found anywhere in this quintet. Leto was the early favorite and despite what some believed to be a more inappropriate Golden Globe acceptance speech than McConaughey’s, still owns the edge. (Again, think of how easily his movie hums into a living room with a home video player.) Still, there’s always a chance a newcomer like Abdi will repeat the precedent set by the late Haing S. Ngor in 1985 for The Killing Fields. (In both cases, there was a sense of heroism above and beyond the movie itself.) BAFTA did surprise Abdi (and us) with its own Supporting Actor prize. Then again, I’m not sure Dallas Buyers Club has crossed the pond yet. Fassbinder, for whatever it’s worth, would have been my pick. But if DiCaprio’s sadistic slaveholder in last year’s Django Unchained didn’t win (and it was a more magnetic performance than Christoph Waltz’s winning turn as the sympathetic bounty hunter), then neither shall this far more unhinged variation.
Best supporting actress
Jennifer Lawrence — “American Hustle”
Lupita Nyong’o — “12 Years a Slave“
June Squibb — “Nebraska”
Julia Roberts — “August: Osage County”
Sally Hawkins — “Blue Jasmine”
J-Law, a.k.a “Our Brando”, retains the post-position, and it’s well deserved. Nyong’o’s poised, yet assertive campaign, however, appears to have wowed academy members and watchers alike. And I’m starting to get the vague feeling that, whatever good will it carried at the season’s start, 12 Years a Slave could very well walk away from this thing empty-handed – and she’s lately been the most visible beneficiary of whatever love remains for the movie.
Best original screenplay
“American Hustle” — David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer
“Blue Jasmine” — Woody Allen
“Her” — Spike Jonze
“Nebraska” — Bob Nelson
“Dallas Buyers Club” — Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack
Even before Dylan Farrow’s letter landed in the New York Times’ website, it was apparent that Allen ‘s script had little chance in this crowd of worthies; the most “writerly” of which is the romance between a man and his machine, which is kind of how writers see their lives these days. To repeat what historic precedent suggests: When in doubt, always go for the one that most aligns with its voters’ self-image; besides which, there happens to be some gorgeous passages in Her…so to speak.
Best adapted screenplay
“12 Years a Slave” — John Ridley
“Before Midnight” — Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater
“The Wolf of Wall Street” — Terence Winter
“Captain Phillips” — Billy Ray
“Philomena” — Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope
As we do not live in a perfect world, Delpy, Hawke and Linklater will be unacknowledged by the academy for fashioning the most corrosive and incisive dialogue of any romantic comedy of the last twenty years. The Writers Guild has already rewarded Billy Ray, which makes him the logical favorite. But here, as elsewhere, I’m going with my gut and insist that in this instance, the writers who vote in this category will want to make a statement, if not a stand, by rewarding an African-American writer for delivering a bleak, trenchant and hauntingly effective script about antebellum slavery. It’s more hope than prophecy, but then so were black American civil rights once upon a time. (Oh, wait…)
Best documentary feature
“The Act of Killing”
“20 Feet From Stardom”
“Cutie and the Boxer”
In what it risked and how it succeeded, Act of Killing was, as far as I was concerned, the Movie of the Year. In an era more open to broad adventure and intellectual range than ours, it would have been a cult classic. It’s done well enough during awards season. But I guess we had too many other things on our minds to pay close attention to the repressed memories of Indonesian death squads. I’d be delighted if it won here, but somehow I’m thinking the academy, as with the rest of The America, is looking for something to feel good about itself, even the long-deferred emergence of backup singers from the shadows of time and neglect.
Best animated feature
“The Wind Rises”
“Despicable Me 2″
“Ernest & Celestine”
How I wish Hayao Miyazaki would be able to have a Mariano Rivera retirement moment on Oscar night and receive the award (and the standing ovation) he deserves for both his valedictory feature The Wind Rises and his lifetime achievement! But Frozen’s success, creative and fiscal, is like one of those large obstructions on a narrow road that you’ll just have to endure before being waved along.
Best foreign feature
“The Hunt” (Denmark)
“The Broken Circle Breakdown” (Belgium)
“The Great Beauty” (Italy)
“Omar” (Palestinian territories)
“The Missing Picture” (Cambodia)
Since I’m almost always wrong about this category, I figure, WTF, I may as well go with my heart on this one. I loved La Grande Bellezza for both rational and irrational reasons and will entertain the even crazier hope that its success in this venue will jump-start American appetites for discursive, leisurely and philosophical storytelling. Once more with feeling: WTF.
Best music (original song)
“Frozen”: “Let it Go” — Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez
“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”: “Ordinary Love” — U2, Paul Hewson
“Her”: “The Moon Song” — Karen O, Spike Jonze
“Despicable Me 2″: “Happy” — Pharrell Williams
“Alone Yet Not Alone”: “Alone Yet Not Alone” — Bruce Broughton, Dennis Spiegel
No idea whatsoever. The dart lands on Frozen. Any of the others could win. I guess. How did they come up with five nominees anyway?
Best music (original score)
“Gravity” — Steven Price
“Philomena” — Alexandre Desplat
“The Book Thief” — John Williams
“Saving Mr. Banks” — Thomas Newman
“Her” — William Butler and Owen Pallett
Isn’t Saving Mr. Banks sort of leaning on an older musical score and…No matter, because it won’t win anyway. Her’s music was as lyrical as the rest of its soundtrack.
“Gravity” — Emmanuel Lubezki
“Inside Llewyn Davis” — Bruno Delbonnel
“Nebraska” — Phedon Papamichael
“Prisoners” — Roger Deakins
“The Grandmaster” — Phillippe Le Sourd
Each of these boasted striking visual conceptions. But as my faculty club friends often say to each other at odd hours of the day: “Duh.”
January 3rd, 2014 — jazz reviews
If you heard my annual song-and-dance on the Dec. 26 edition of “The Colin McEnroe Show” on Hartford’s WNPR-FM, you’re aware of at least one of my “oopsie” omissions from my Best-of-2013 jazz recordings list. And since that particular omission gets more embarrassing every time I listen to it, I am obliged to start 2014 by elaborating upon my mea culpa – and mention at least one other omission at length. And since we don’t want to be too negative with a clean slate, I’ll add some spare change on the first new disc of the year that’s got my (mostly appreciative) attention.
Cecile McLorin Salvant, “WomanChild” (Mack Avenue)— Whenever a vocalist catches fire on the jazz scene, it often happens after he or she has been out in the world for some time. In the nineties, as in the case of Shirley Horn or even Abbey Lincoln, there was the phenomenon of rediscovering artists who’ve found a glorious second wind carrying them late in life to unexpectedly fresh levels of expression and power. Rarely do young jazz singers make your head turn at Jump Street the way Willie Mays raised heart rates with his first-at-bat. Which makes Cecile McLorin Salvant, at just 24 years old, an especially rare talent. To repeat what I said on Colin’s show, she is simply the most exciting young jazz vocalist I’ve heard in at least a quarter-century, which I suppose constitutes a generation. To move down the checklist: Tone: Check; Dynamics: Check; Phrasing: Check – and she has the ineffable qualities that in their rawest form we recognize as “soulfulness.” But even with all those attributes in her tool kit, Salvant makes her biggest impression on “WomanChild” with the intelligence and breadth of her repertoire. She makes a couple of customary stops on the standards tour (“I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”, “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”). But she also reaches waaaaay back to the less-travelled, but venerated pathways cleared by Bessie Smith (“St. Louis Woman”), Clarence Williams (“Baby Have Pity On Me”), Fats Waller (“Jitterbug Waltz”) and, most stirring of all, Bert Williams (“Nobody”). When someone so young can do so much at once, the immediate worry is that she’ll spread herself too broadly before she Finds Herself (whatever that means). I prefer to enjoy the rush of potential and possibility as she steps to the plate for another cut at history. I also want to shout-out to her comparably promising pianist Aaron Diehl, who flashes his own bright-burning composite of lyricism, eclecticism and dynamism.
Jane Ira Bloom “Sixteen Sunsets” (Outline) – You could more accurately title it, “Sixteen Ballads,” but “Sunsets” sounds more appropriate, metaphorically. And as with reach sunsets, each of these ballads enraptures in different ways. She uses what she loves about the classic melodists, including Gershwin (“But Not For Me”), Arlen (“Out of this World”) Waldron (“Left Alone”), Kern (“The Way You Look Tonight”) and Weill (“My Ship”) and brings their deceptively simple designs to her own compositions, including “Primary Colors,” “Too Many Reasons”, “Ice Dancing” and my own favorite, “What She Wanted.” Her soprano saxophone can make your skin tingle as few others on her instrument ever have. If this disc, as with Salvant’s, had arrived in my mailbox before I turned in my ballot to the NPR Jazz Critics Poll, my Top Ten List would have been very different.
Matt Wilson Quartet with John Medeski, “Gathering Call” (Palmetto) – What an pleasurable way to start the New Year: 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 happy – and hopeful – for the business itself.
December 25th, 2013 — movie reviews
Top Ten? Worst Ten? Ugly-But-Brilliant Ten? I don’t know. Like…why?
There’s more than one way to sum up a year. I should start this off by saying that, contrary to what some may say, this was one of the better overall years for moving pictures and I wasn’t expecting a whole lot, given the way episodic TV has been routinely eating cinema’s gourmet lunch for at least a decade. With TV having one of its more mediocre fall seasons in decades, it was inevitable that the movies would get better at about the same time.
But I don’t need to give you a list to tell you that. There are many more of these lists to argue with from people who are even busier (if not smarter) than I am. What I prefer to submit is a potpourri of impressions, observations and pronouncements that will give you a general idea of how I reacted to the movies I saw this year. I’m not fond of the role of critic-as-magistrate (which may explain partly why no one’s now paying me to do it.) I like to think about what I’ve seen and talk it over with others. Don’t you? I’ve already rambled about 12 Years a Slave under what one would call a separate cover. And you can probably figure out what I liked a lot from what you see when you scroll down.
One other thing to say at the outset: Women will likely dominate the forthcoming discourse, but that’s because women gave me more to talk and think about in the dark this year than men. Or children. Or aliens. I’m not necessarily making a point here. Just saying…
The Incredible Shrinking Bullock
Because movie reviewers tend to a.) be pressed for time and/or lazy and b.) not take science-fiction all that seriously as a literary genre, it was inevitable that most of the comparisons they made to Gravity, positively, negatively or otherwise, were to other “in-space-no-one-can-hear-you-scream” movies as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien. These aren’t inept or in-apt analogies, given all the heavy-breathing spacesuits floating and crashing through all three movies. They just seemed too obvious. The first movie I thought of as I tossed my 3D glasses in the bin outside Gravity’s screening room was The Incredible Shrinking Man, whose visual effects wouldn’t make anybody gasp now, but were pretty cutting-edge for 1957. Both that Jack Arnold classic (which holds up better than you’d think) and Gravity have protagonists forced to deal with overpowering, inexplicable forces squeezing them in tighter spaces and erasing their options for survival. The telling difference (maybe I’d better flash SPOILER ALERT here) comes at the end when, though both heroes are literally stripped down to almost nothing, Shrinking Man somehow feels larger and more consequential as a human being despite his rapidly-diminishing state while astronaut Ryan Stone, though out of immediate danger, staggers off into a world that somehow feels bigger than she is. And this, you ask, is significant because…? Think of the difference in calendar years: In 1957, we integrated Little Rock’s Central High and, weeks later, Russia launched a beeping toy into orbit. This year, as I write this, there are barely enough astronauts working on Christmas Day to patch up an ailing International Space Station. And don’t even ask how voting rights did in the High Court a few months ago. We’re a lot better at special effects, but as for the rest…As I say, think about it.
Movie Critics of the Year
I only this year discovered the HISHE Network on YouTube and I have now become their stalker, looming at their door in anticipation of their next animated shot at a studio franchise. (No Desolation of Smaug, yet? No Catching Fire? You guys slacking or what? I’ve got other things to not do, OK?) The acronym, BTW, stands for How It Should Have Ended and, as you wits have likely discerned, the site’s proprietors do their own version of a blockbuster’s ending that makes you laugh and often makes more sense than the “real” thing. Because the guys and gals who work the controls of this site are knowledgeable fans of these genres, their send-ups are mostly affectionate. And it’s this admirable deficiency of snark that only magnifies their impact. It’s like having emissaries of Geek Nation sending out dispatches to the major studios and telling them, in essence, “We love this stuff, but we’re not idiots!”
Meh Dancing, Amazing Dance
I may be biased in favor of Frances Ha over other Noah Baumbach movies (most of which I’ve liked) because the title character’s struggle to make it as a modern dancer in post-Millennial New York City hits close to home these days. Also, because I’ve been exposed to different forms of choreography, I tend to see the movie as a kind of extended dance piece. Not that Greta Gerwig’s actual dancing is anything special. (It isn’t.) But I love the way she moves throughout this movie whether she’s leaping for the hell of it through Chinatown to David Bowie’s “Modern Love” or trudging warily along Parisian streets to Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s a Winner.” That’s what made me happy about this movie, which is something audiences and critics didn’t expect from a Noah Baumbach movie. Maybe he needed the dancing element to take the weight off. Maybe he needs to do it some more.
And the Oscar Wont (But Should) Go To….
It’s still early but I’m not hearing a lot of people throwing around Adele Exarchopopolos’ name as an Oscar prospect despite her sharing a Palme d’Or at Cannes and winning a Los Angeles Film Critics Association prize for Best Actress. Nothing whatsoever from the Golden Globes, even though she is every bit as riveting and dominant a presence in her movie as Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchet are in theirs. The first and, often, last things people think of when they think of Blue is the Warmest Color are its NC-17 lesbian sex scenes. As lyrically enticing and obliquely suggestive as the movie’s English-language title may be, the literal translation of its French title, “The Life of Adele,” tells you everything there is to know about the story – which, prosaic as it sounds, is of a young woman’s education; sensual, yes, but also emotional and intuitive. She begins the narrative as a live wire who’s shy, moist and voracious at the same time. She comes out the other end, feeling…well, at the very least, drier. Sex may be explicit in Blue is the Warmest Color, but personality is not. And the beauty of Exarchopopolus’ performance is the way she instinctively gearshifts her character’s sensitivity, allowing us to infer what’s going on in her head while keeping us engaged with the unguarded emissions from her heart. Exarchopopolus will likely acquire greater dimension and skill as an actress. But I doubt she’ll ever again deliver anything as poignantly raw as this, and she at least should get something nice from Hollywood for her trouble.
And speaking of 20-something actresses…
Squares and aesthetes may have perfectly good reasons for decrying Jennifer Lawrence’s I’m-such-a-goofball talk-show appearances with their haphazard disclosures of butt-plugs and other adorable lapses in decorum. But I think these fluffernutter turns deepen her mystique more than shatter it. Public appearances are as much a performer’s art as screen acting and Lawrence is as foxily good at both playing to and subverting the hoary hype machine as she is at withholding her characters’ secrets in movies. Whether on the small or big screen, Lawrence keeps you on-edge. On the small-screen, you don’t quite know where her mouth is going next; on the big-screen, you don’t know what her face is going to do next. In neither case do these impulses feel calculated, though Lawrence is sure as hell is smart enough to know how to play both games better than anybody you can name at the moment. And that’s the real mystery: How does she know? How does any 23-year-old have the poise, the self-possession, the inner power to carry the multimillion-dollar tent pole that is The Hunger Games trilogy playing a teenage badass while simultaneously putting out back-to-back dynamo turns for David O. Russell as emotionally damaged older women? One imagines a similar frisson for audiences a half-century ago when Marlon Brando kept topping their expectations in movie after movie. The only difference is that Brando could never bring himself to create a user-friendly public persona the way Lawrence can. The more he ran away from celebrity’s power to diminish his artistry, the worse things got for him whereas Lawrence doesn’t seem to give a shit. She’s taking charge of her celebrity in ways that previous generations of actors can only envy and such confidence could help her dominate her era of movie acting as Brando, Nicholson or any male icon ever did. J-Law: Our Brando AND Our Cary Grant? Is that so hard to imagine? Forget the shticks with Conan and Dave. Watch the movies again and get back to me.
I haven’t seen this movie come up in anybody’s Ten-Best Lists.
Or this one either.
three four five favorite lines quotes from 2013 movies:
“I feel like you’re breathing helium and I’m breathing oxygen.”
“Everything is not everything. There’s more.”
“When you’re in the middle of a story, it isn’t a story at all but rather a confusion, a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood, like a house in a whirlwind or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard are powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all, when you’re telling it to yourself or someone else.”
–Stories We Tell
“We’re all on the brink of despair, all we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little… Don’t you agree?”
–The Great Beauty
“Welcome to Heaven, mothafuckas!”
–This is The End
December 20th, 2013 — movie reviews
Can anybody make a serious, imaginative movie about slavery without being either ignored or picked at? Quentin Tarantino spent almost as much time shaking off flak for his flamboyant genre goof Django Unchained as he did taking bows and counting money. When Jonathan Demme made Toni Morrison’s Beloved into a far-better-in-hindsight movie in 1998, not even the Great and Powerful Oprah’s approbation of, and involvement in its production could make black people assemble en masse to see it when it was released. (Or anybody else. The cost was about $58 million; the movie made about $23 million, at best.)
At least, nobody’s ignoring 12 Years a Slave. It’s at or near the top of just about everybody’s year-end list of best movies. As of the second week of December, it’s made more than $35 million in American ticket sales with more expected around the bend in advance of Oscar season. Still, the movie has attracted its own high-visibility flak from such critics as Armond White, who believes Steve McQueen’s often-graphically violent rendering of Solomon Northrup’s testament as “torture porn” and “less a drama than an inhumane analysis.” David Edelstein, though he believed the movie “smashingly effective as melodrama,” is less fond of McQueen’s “cold, stark, deterministic” approach to the material.
For the record, I admired 12 Years a Slave far more than I loved it. An American/Hollywood director, no matter how smart or savvy, wouldn’t have trusted as much visually as McQueen does here. (In case you didn’t know, he’s black and British.) He isn’t afraid of stillness, of the tension and energy that reside in the act of waiting, as in the first frame, which in just showing the barely contained anxiety in the faces of slaves, gets the movie moving. That said, I doubt very much I will want to see it again. Do I need to watch, once again, a thin young woman getting whiskey tumblers thrown at her head and then having her back stripped of her ebony skin the way you strip a tree of its bark? I do not – and part of me wonders who would, or who needs to.
Still, because the movie is directed by a black man and is written by another (novelist John Ridley), 12 Years a Slave doesn’t get the same mauling Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997) received in some precincts for making ciphers of its mutinous African slaves and using their rebellion as a vehicle for white nobility. And I doubt very much the contrarian attacks on McQueen and his film will keep it from winning more awards; any more than Django’s critics kept Tarantino from collecting a screenwriting Oscar.
But no amount of gold statuettes will stop the haters from jumping on the next filmmaker who wants to take yet another hard, idiosyncratic shot at America’s Original Sin. The only solution: Take more shots, make more movies, go as odd, off-base, strange, funny, stern, cold, hot or heavy as the market can bear – and then, if you’ve got the gall, go further than that. There’s no dearth of material to draw upon, from the still largely undiscovered country of slave narratives to contemporary fiction by African American writers who are claiming autonomy over their ancestral experience through daringly imaginative means.
You like lists. Here are places to go for such material:
William and Ellen Craft – True story: They were married in bondage in 1846 and escaped two years later from Georgia to Philadelphia in disguise; she (above) as an invalid white man and he as “his” valet. It would take someone with an equally attuned ear for both injustice and comedy, but it could be done.
The Good Lord Bird – Being this year’s surprise National Book Award winner, James McBride’s picaresque comic saga of a young slave boy mistaken as a girl by abolitionist John Brown has likely attracted a few cautious glances from Hollywood. Sophisticated historical satires aren’t exactly meat-and-potatoes fare for multiplexes, no matter who’s involved. But it would be funny, again, if the right tone is struck.
Flight to Canada – An Ishmael Reed seriocomic pastiche that’s never received the credit it deserves for initiating a wave of black novelists claiming imaginative autonomy over their ancestral past in daring, often incendiary fashion. I can’t begin to imagine who would make a movie out of it or what kind of movie it would be. But whenever or however it’s done, it’ll be different from anything that came before.
Robert Smalls Steals a Rebel Ship– Another true story; this one about a slave (above) who in 1862 commandeered a cotton freighter with a crew of 17 fellow escapees and managed to hide his identity from Confederate checkpoints, even Fort Sumter, towards the open sea until he was able to raise a white flag to Union blockaders. That alone would be a good movie, though it was just the beginning for Smalls, who later became one of the few African Americans to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives during Reconstruction. (Speaking of which, don’t you think that by now, some great movie about black folk during Reconstruction could be made to counter that damned Birth of a Nation? Just add it to the wish list.)
The Known World – Edward P. Jones’ award-winning novel about blacks owning black slaves already made readers’ heads spin off their necks. A movie version could magnify the shock-and-awe and I’m being REALLY optimistic when I say it could be done. But I’m betting it wouldn’t cause nearly as much trouble as…
The Confessions of Nat Turner – And, yes, I mean William Styron’s version, which has been cherished and despised in near-equal measure by black and white readers alike. America wasn’t ready for Turner in the 1830s and they still aren’t ready for him in whatever form he’s presented or imagined. Which doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted.
Middle Passage and Oxherding Tale – A pair of thinking-person’s ripsnorters by Charles Johnson; the former, as with 12 Years a Slave, puts a freed slave in harm’s way as he finds himself aboard a raucous slave ship heading back to Africa to pick up more “chattel.” The latter chronicles the adventures of a half-white-half-black slave negotiating his way through both worlds with philosophic insight and canny resourcefulness.
Kindred – Let me quote from an Amazon review of the late Octavia Butler’s breakthrough SF novel: “Dana, a black woman living in Los Angeles in 1976, is inexplicably transported to 1815 to save the life of a small, red-haired boy on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It turns out this small boy, Rufus, is one of her white slave owning ancestors, who she knows very little about. Dana continues to be called into the past to save Rufus, and frequently stays long periods of time in the slave owning South. The only way she can get back to 1976 is to be in a life threatening situation.” How is this NOT a movie waiting to happen? Why hasn’t it happened by now?
And on and on and…
December 6th, 2013 — jazz reviews
Of the assorted cans of worms pried open among jazz heads on the Internet in recent years, my favorite comes from Branford Marsalis who has been calling out his peers (and, by implication, critics like me) for embracing virtuosity and harmonic invention at the expense of melodic content, which in turn was pushing more and more listeners away. “Harmonic music,” Marsalis said back in 2011, “tends to be very insular. It tends to be [like] you’re in the private club with a secret handshake.”
From that same interview: “When laypeople listen to records, there’re certain things they’re going to get to. First of all, how it sounds to them. If the value of the song is based on intense analysis of music, you’re doomed. Because people that buy records don’t know shit about music. When they put on ‘Kind of Blue’ and say they like it, I always ask people: What did you like about it? They describe it in physical terms, in visceral terms, but never in musical terms.”
The argument over whether jazz is hermetically sealing itself by being absorbed with invention-for-its-own-sake is as almost as old as jazz itself. Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, for all their worship of literary modernism, snarled over most of the boundary-busting jazz music that came after the swing era. (People of varied generations and races are always shocked to find that Ellison disliked Charlie Parker almost as much as Philip Larkin.) Even Miles Davis at some point in the early1960s admitted that he didn’t buy jazz records of his era because “they make me too sad, man.”
I don’t get sad with what I hear lately. Once in a while, I even like being sad, and so do what Marsalis calls, “laypeople.” But there were times in the last several months when I was getting impatient with the new discs I was listening to. I was, like, OK, I’m impressed. But I’m not aroused. So you can make chord changes sit up, roll over and swim across a pond. But my question is the same one Lester Young asked long ago, “Can you sing a song?” I’ll throw another one out there: Can you handle a groove?
Maybe that’s why, even in a better-than-average year for product, I was drawn to those albums that gave me a bit more of what Marsalis describes as “physical” or “visceral” pleasure. I admit that in Larkin’s famous tautology, I still lean a little more towards intelligence-without-beat over beat-without-intelligence. But most of what I choose to venerate this year came close to achieving a balance between the two. The needle’s still stuck at the low end as far as jazz music’s presence in the marketplace is concerned. But maybe some of these will help nudge it a little higher and attract more people who search the clouds, or Cloud, for sounds that both please and challenge. Baby steps, I suppose; dance steps, I hope.
1.) Ahmad Jamal, “Saturday Morning” (Jazzbook) – You’re Ahmad Jamal and life right now couldn’t be more satisfying. You’ve outlasted almost all the pianists you’ve influenced since the 1950s who, fairly or not, received more critical approbation than you. You’ve also outlasted most of those critics who either demeaned or second-guessed your popularity and, in any case, never gave you the degree of respect you’ve received from audiences and fellow musicians. In the meantime, you’ve been putting out immaculately crafted recorded product for at least the last three decades. And at 83 years old, you’re playing with even greater vitality, invention and polish, submitting (for our approval) one of the crown jewels of your long career: A sweet-swinging session recorded at the Studio La Buissonne with the attentive support of bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Herlin Riley. As always, your trio keeps time like a handcrafted wristwatch. What broadens the package is the sparkling variety of tempo and mode. You seem even more engaged by the material, even with such familiar should-have-been-classics-long-ago as “The Line.” And though yours is the last such unit that would need extra percussion, the contributions of Manolo Badrena are seamlessly wired into your rhythm machine. You’re Ahmad Jamal and we’re just about as satisfied with your life right now as you are. (Thank you, Jimmy Cannon and may your own termite artistry soon be rediscovered.)
2.) Steve Coleman & Five Elements, “Functional Arrhythmias” (Pi) –And speaking of rhythm machines…First, though, a confession: Over the three or four decades alto saxophonist/composer Steve Coleman’s M-Base movement has been around, I could never cozy up to it; especially when it seemed intent on fashioning a kind of cerebral funk, as I prefer my funk to be pure and uncut. GIVE IT UP, PEOPLE, FOR BOOTSY’S RUBBER BAAAAAANNNND!!!! But I digress…If Coleman’s aesthetic principles have led to this ultra-sophisticated and fearsomely versatile aggregation of bassist Anthony Tidd, drummer Sean Rickman, guitarist Miles Okazaki and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, then I need to rethink, if not revoke, my earlier skepticism. As the titles of both the disc and its contents (e.g. “Sinews”, “Cerebrum Crossover”, “Cardiovascular”) imply, the intent here is to strike a polyrhythmic, harmonically complex connection with human physiology. It’s a smart idea (inspired, as Coleman says, by the example of drummer Milford Graves). But the intelligence behind the concept isn’t as conspicuous as its vigorous application. The band members are locked into each other’s frequencies and their interaction glides, strides, twists and meshes in the same manner as an abstract painting or modern dance piece. Coleman and Finlayson’s front-line conversations have a riveting yin-yang quality that places them at or near the high-end spectrum of such similar sax-horn confabs as Bird and Diz, Trane and Miles and Coleman’s namesake (if not relative) Ornette and Don Cherry. This disc has all the brains, and then some, of Coleman’s body-of-work. But it’s also got an unexpected surplus of — well, you know – heart.
3.) Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, “Brooklyn Babylon” (New Amsterdam) – Having spent twenty thrilling years inhabiting the Beautiful Borough as it made the awkward, irrepressible leap from hipster incubator to Promised Land, I can testify that one of the many things that fascinate even the most casual Brooklyn bystander is the ongoing tension between its gilded skyscraping aspirations and its wait-till-next-year past lives. This 17-part suite for an 18-piece orchestra conflates Brooklyn’s past, present and (potential) future into what amounts to a steampunk fantasy novel of the mind. Argue’s epic tells the story of a master carpenter named Lev who, in a dystopian future (or alternate present), is commissioned to build a carousel atop a tower whose immensity could obliterate whatever‘s left of Brooklyn’s old-soul romance. The music aims as high as that mythical tower and you can feel yourself ascending on its surging waves of energy. But the suite doesn’t just go up; it spreads out to encompass different cultures from Eastern Europe to Latin America to the Middle East, keeping a fingertip or two on all-American swing and/or rock. You could follow Argue’s story or project one of your own upon its volatile contours. As with the only science fiction that matters, “Brooklyn Babylon” is lavishly hypothetical, strangely familiar and recognizably human in the grandest and grubbiest terms.
4.) Etienne Charles, “Creole Soul” (Culture Shock) – Jazz’s grow-or-die imperative has found its most gratifying adherents among 30-and-under musicians willing to use what they’ve learned of the music’s basics as springboards to more adventurous or exotic compounds. Charles, who just turned 30 this year, is a Trinidad-born trumpeter who received much of his education at Florida State and Juilliard and was inspired by the examples set at both institutions respectively by Marcus Roberts and Wynton Marsalis in re-energizing the music’s mainstream traditions. He retains some of Marsalis’ sound in his horn. But it’s the multicultural, polyrhythmic setting of this zesty, spicy gumbo that makes Charles’ music sound like exactly no one else’s. With a formidable array of young instrumentalists and percussionists as backup, Charles immerses himself in the varied strains of Caribbean pop – reggae, mambo, conga, even Gulf Coast R&B – to put together an mélange of electro-boogie, calypso and funk. Traditionalists can growl, snap and dismiss it all as “slick” pop. But the music they cherish has a far better chance for long-term survival with a sensibility willing to invite Monk (“Green Chimneys”), Marley (“Turn Your Lights Down Low”) and Bo Diddley (“You Don’t Love Me”) to the same house party and give each of them the respect and elbowroom they deserve. And, by the way, he also serves up melodies that stick to your head like Post-It notes reminding you what music is for.
5.) David Weiss, “Endangered Species: The Music of Wayne Shorter” (Motema) –Weiss, who also holds down a trumpeter’s chair here, leads a 12-piece murderer’s row of first-rank instrumentalists that includes trombonist Steve Davis, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, saxophonists Ravi Coltrane and Tim Green, drummer E.J. Strickland and the incomparable pianist Geri Allen in celebrating the legacy and (though recorded live a year earlier at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola) 80th birthday of the Greatest Living Jazz Composer. They do not come to merely pay homage. That would be too much like church and the guy they’re honoring is far from finished. (See below.) Weiss instead leads his cadre on a reconnaissance mission probing the less-heralded (as in least-covered) pieces of the Shorter oeuvre as a means of illuminating its orchestral possibilities. The recital opens your eyes from the jump with “Nellie Bly,” which the always-surprising Mr. Weird wrote very early in his career when he was sitting in Maynard Ferguson’s reed section and now comes across as one of the more ornately conceived barn-burners ever lit. Even the most familiar of these selections, the inscrutably haunting ballad “Fall,” is given a rich, harmonically-layered treatment that inspires glistening fire-and-ice variations from Allen, Coltrane and, especially, Pelt. As widely acknowledged as Shorter’s writing brilliance has been over generations, it takes a classic setting such as this to reaffirm both the sturdiness and suppleness of Shorter’s melodies e.g., they endure and you can do almost anything you want with them.
6.) Matthew Shipp, “Piano Sutras” (Thirsty Ear) – If progressive jazz pianists carried the same renegade credibility in pop culture as heavy-metal rock guitarists, Matthew Shipp would be a biker’s tattoo by now. Twenty-something years is a long time to be an Angry Young Man. But the customary rules don’t apply to Shipp, who at age 53 can still wield a thorny club with swaggering panache, both on- and off-stage. His jazz-outlaw persona packs dual reserves of intensity and insolence; the latter, especially, gets him noticed in jazz circles when it’s directed at such elder statesmen as Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett – the latter of whom could, ironically enough, match Shipp on whatever Mr. Cranky meter that’s available. For whatever it’s worth, I think Shipp’s uncompromising, mostly unsung insurgency gives him better reason to complain than Jarrett. He even released a “Greatest Hits” compilation earlier this year that made an impassioned what-the-eff-more-do-I-have-to-do case for his artistry. Still, this solo recital, meditative, prickly and ingenious, is an even more persuasive brief on Shipp’s behalf. It literally stomps, like the step-master of an unruly fraternity, to its own beat, piling dense tone clusters and weaving thick harmonic passages into eccentric, arresting patterns. On such pieces as “Cosmic Shuffle” and “Uncreated Light,” Shipp indulges his combative impulses before giving way to lyrical rumination. Though he may seem at times to be an unrepentant churl, Shipp’s “Sutras” remind listeners that, whatever hard things he may have to say, or play, at a given moment, he’s not inclined to stay mad – or stay anything else – for very long. (I bet he’s still happy, though, that I ranked this disc ahead of the next one.)
7.) Wayne Shorter Quintet, “Without a Net” (Blue Note) –As I said (maybe) earlier this year, the more I’ve listen to it, the deeper its mysteries grow; almost to the point of making me wonder whether there’s anything more to this group’s colloquies than mysteries for their own sake. Then, I try to tell myself what Shorter, in his way, is telling everybody else: that questions and answers are often the same thing. And I’ll go, yes, but…This incessant give-and-take between my ears is why “Without a Net,” for all its insistence on keeping secrets, stays on this list, no matter what. Give me another month or two and it’ll likely be back in the top five, but for the moment….
8.) The Claudia Quintet, “September” (Cuneiform) – Because I am an easy mark for crafty historical gimmicks, I was piped aboard this vessel by a number called “September 29th, 1936: ‘Me Warn You’,” in which the voice of FDR, sarcastically chiding his Republican fat-cat opposition for their empty promises of out-dealing the New Deal, is carved up, sampled, mixed, mimicked and harmonized with throughout by this eclectic chamber ensemble led by percussionist John Hollenbeck and featuring Chris Speed on reeds, Matt Moran on vibes, Red Wierenga on accordion and either Drew Gress or Chris Tordini on bass. Once you get past the wonder of hearing instrumental correlatives to Roosevelt’s memorable pipes and recognize the sly contemporary references being made by this juxtaposition, you start to wonder if the joke is being carried a little too far – until, about seven minutes in, when the group, collectively and individually, starts laying down its own cheeky variations on the president’s joke. This open-ended interplay typifies the rest of the album – a series of sound mosaics and tone poems devoted to the month that Hollenbeck prefers to use as time for reflection and contemplation. There’s a witty birthday salute to the unavoidable Mr. Shorter (“September 9th Wayne Phases”), a deep-dyed autumnal ballad (“September 25th Somber Blanket”) and, inevitably, a 9/11 piece (“September 12th Coping Song”) that closes the disc on with introspection that never becomes maudlin. It’s taken me longer than it probably should to have climbed aboard Claudia’s bandwagon and I’m still not sure why this particular one did the trick. But I plan to check back with them.
9.) Chucho Valdes, “Border Free” (Jazz Village) – I hope he wont take this the wrong way, but it must be said up-front: This man is a beast, a monster, an unstoppable force-of-nature – and, to be sure, a supreme virtuoso. But his is the kind of virtuosity that, rather than swooping down from thin air, blows the doors open to his listeners, making them run en masse towards him and scream for more. (Just listen to the first five minutes of “Congadanza” and you’ll know exactly what I mean. The last four are pretty “wow”, too.) Valdes is also a paragon among 70-something artists who seem to be gaining in raw power and messianic force with age. He and his Afro-Cuban Jazz Messengers aren’t just wearing down the all-but-fragmented barriers between hard bop and Latin jazz; they’re also expanding rhythmic horizons towards Native American (“Afro-Comanche”) and Andalusian (“Abdel”) sources of inspiration. He also takes time out to honor both his pianist father (“Bebo”) and his late mother (“Pilar”) in ways that make his Cuban homeland vivid and stirring. OK, so he gets a little carried away at times with the occasional Rachmaninoff reference and melodramatic flourish. So long as you can still keep up with the stories, what do they matter?
10.) Gerry Gibbs, Kenny Barron, Ron Carter, “Gerry Gibbs Thrasher Dream Trio” (Whaling City Sound) – If I had Barron, a grandmaster of jazz piano, and Carter, the greatest bassist alive, at my disposal, I bet even I could complete a dream trio with a frying pan, a crockpot and a pair of wooden spoons. But Gibbs, who’s been following in his vibraphonist father Terry’s footsteps by leading his own big band, brings his own aggressive sound, far-reaching chops and orchestrator’s instincts to this session, giving these two demigods a wide-open frame for their immense resources to roam like wolves. The result is a surprising rarity: a piano trio album delivering music with the heft and momentum of a larger ensemble, thanks mostly to the prodigious balance of power and flexibility coming through Gibbs’ trap set. Along with the usual stops (“Epistrophy,” “Impressions,”), the trio shines new light on works by McCoy Tyner (“When I Dream”) and Herbie Hancock (“The Eye of the Hurricane,” “Tell Me a Bedtime Story”). The biggest revelations, however, come from the pop book: that old mid-1960s warhorse, “The Shadow of Your Smile,” Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” and, most especially “Promises, Promises,” whose sleek mounting and seamless arrangement here showcase Carter and Barron’s mastery of tempo and changes while delivering what may be the most effective jazz take yet on a Burt Bacharach tune.
HONORABLE MENTION: Maria Schneider & Dawn Upshaw, “Winter Morning Walks” (ArtistShare) Marc Cary, “For the Love of Abbey” (Motema) Charles Lloyd & Jason Moran, “Hagar’s Song” (ECM) Joe Lovano UsFive, “Cross Culture” (Blue Note) Geri Allen, “Grand River Crossings” (Motema) Bill Frisell, “Big Sur” (Okeh) Carla Bley, Andy Sheppard, Steve Swallow, “Trios” (ECM) Wadada Leo Smith & Tumo, “Occupy the World” (Tum) Ben Allison, “The Stars Look Very Different Today” (Sonic Camera) Rudresh Mahanthappa, “Gamak” (ACT) Fred Hersch & Julian Lage, “Free Flying” (Palmetto) Art Pepper, “Unreleased Art, Vol. VIII: Live at the Winery, September 6, 1976” (Widow’s Taste) Matt Mitchell, “Fiction” (Pi)
BEST NEW ARTIST: Jonathan Finlayson & Sicilian Defense, “Moment & the Message” (Pi)
BEST VOCALIST: Gregory Porter, “Liquid Spirit” (Blue Note) HONORABLE MENTION: Youn Sun Nah, “Lento” (ACT)
BEST LATIN ALBUM: “Creole Soul” HONORABLE MENTION: “Border-Free”
October 9th, 2013 — TV reviews
So I watched last night’s PBS Frontline report on brain damage in the NFL and learned little that I hadn’t known before – except that things may be even worse than we now know, and that the professional football oligarchs are even less willing to deal with the ramifications.
Kids make up the relatively undiscovered country for those probing the causes and effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which afflicts hundreds, perhaps thousands of those who’ve played American tackle football. The frightening evidence emerging towards the end of “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” implies that even those who haven’t played football for very long or been hit in the head very hard are susceptible to CTE. The program’s producers and reporters are scrupulous enough to say such research is preliminary. Still, the idea of high school players becoming as suicidal or disoriented by CTE as veteran lineman who have battered each other senseless for decades makes you almost as queasy as watching human brains delivered and unpacked at laboratories for poking and gazing.
As noted, most of the details in “League of Denial” have been covered before, notably by HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, ESPN’s Outside the Lines, the recently-released documentary, The United States of Football and the New York Times’ Alan Schwartz (among those interviewed), who’s been growling and snapping at a recalcitrant NFL for almost two decades about the mounting evidence of CTE-related illnesses and deaths among retired and active players. As its title suggests, “League of Denial’s” real story isn’t about those who have suffered the effects of CTE, but the elaborate degrees to which the NFL has resorted to Cover Its Ass (CIA) against the revelations dislodged by Schwartz and others. That the documentary was aired on PBS and not on ESPN, which was pressured by the league to withdraw from a partnership with Frontline on the program, only buttresses the points put forth by reporters Jim Gilmore, Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada. You cringe more in anger than dread over how the NFL tried to discredit, sometimes to the point of humiliation, doctors and researchers trying to counter the arguments made by the league’s own research team – whose own findings were, saying the least, dubious, almost irresponsibly dismissive of any alarming trend.
But, as somebody somewhere once said, scrape an arrogant bully and you’ll soon reveal the squirming coward within. The NFL is wily enough to equivocate its way towards “improving safety” and other CIA gestures; it’s also smart enough to fear the consequences of inaction. The $765 million settlement the league made with players over concussion issues may buy enough time to figure out what to do next, especially since this furor has dealt mostly with long-term effects.
So far, anyway. But still…
I wonder if NFL commissioner Roger Goodell knows enough about boxing history to acknowledge what happened – or started to happen – to that sport on the night of March 24, 1962 when Benny Paret and Emile Griffith met again to fight for the welterweight championship. The fight was broadcast live on the ABC network back in a time when Friday Night Fights was as much of an American sports TV ritual as Sunday Night Football is now. The story of that ill-fated match and its lingering, dismal aftermath has been well and fully chronicled in a haunting 2005 documentary, Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story. For a long time, the story was simple enough: Paret taunted Griffith in the days leading up to their third and final bout as being a maricon, a derisive word for homosexual. Since then, others have speculated that it was the beatings Paret, as incumbent champion, had taken in his previous title defenses that made him more vulnerable to what would happen. Whatever the case, one thing is certain: During Round 12, before millions of viewers in addition to hundreds at Madison Square Garden, Paret somehow got tangled in the ropes and Griffith unleashed a vicious flurry of 29 successive punches, mostly to Paret’s head. Paret slumped to floor and never regained consciousness. He died almost ten days later. (The moment, horrific as it was, summoned the very best of Norman Mailer’s prose. I have had journalism students whose resistance to Mailer was worn down by his descriptive powers here.)
Among the myriad effects of that fight, the most immediate was the end of live boxing broadcasts on network television. A lot of people thought boxing itself would, or should end, too, especially after another fighter, Davey Moore, died in the ring a year later. But boxing didn’t quite die; indeed, it subsequently enjoyed a majestic decade-and-a-half dominated by such larger-than-life personalities as Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Leonard, Hearns and others stoking its momentum. It wasn’t until people saw what boxing had done to Ali that the once mighty and singular stature boxing once enjoyed in American life diminished to its more-or-less cultish following. The fight aficionados whom I know, love and respect may disagree with this assessment. But not even they can deny that Benny Paret’s death marked the beginning of the end of…something.
Imagine the nightmares Goodell must have these days about something similarly shocking happening to a football player on the field, especially in a nationally televised game. We’ve already seen career-ending broken legs and life-long paralyzing injuries transmitted through our home-entertainment centers. How could you not wonder about the percentages for or against a fatal collision with players getting bigger, faster and stronger? How much padding or protection is enough? Or, even, too much? And if an on-field death from tackling does happen, what next? Well, for starters, there will be howls for football’s banishment as loud as those seeking to outlaw boxing in the wake of Paret’s death. Football won’t end. There are as many waves of people who want and need to play the game now as there were generations of hungry young boxers waiting in 1962 for their Main Event. But what will happen is the slow erosion of football’s romantic allure, its cozy, family-friendly aura of escapist fantasy and high-wire adventure. The mystique, far more than the muscle, is what’s been raking in billions for the NFL since that twilight evening in December, 1958 when Johnny Unitas drove the Baltimore Colts offense on Yankee Stadium’s turf like a white-and-blue T-Bird to shatter a post-regulation tie. I’ll miss that mystique, but what could be put in its place is the kind of rakish, outlaw abandon once associated with pro football in its grayer, dustier days. Bye-bye, Pete Rozelle. Welcome back, Johnny Blood.
I’m still hoping it wont come to that. I think even the people behind “League of Denial” hope that, too. We’d all be damned fools to think it couldn’t.