Thursday, June 26, 2008

"For What It's Worth"

Perhaps one of the best-known songs of the decade of the 1960s is Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” released as a 45 rpm single in January 1967 (not included on the first pressing of the band's first LP, it became such a huge hit that later pressings of the album replaced one track and included it instead). It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that "For What It's Worth" appears on the soundtrack of just about every documentary one can find about that tumultuous decade. I think a good, concise interpretation of the song--the complete discussion of which can be found here--is as follows:

The . . . song . . . manages to warn of increasing polarization and violence in American society, without taking any stand other than that of acceptance of diversity and free speech. In other words, it comments on politics without itself being political.

I believe this to be a standard interpretation, but I find the claim that the song "comments on politics without itself being political" to be extremely revealing. Interestingly, the historical origins of the song don’t especially shed light on its meaning, although it clearly partakes of what was referred to at the time as “youth culture.”

The song was inspired by an event in November 1966, the year during which Buffalo Springfield started playing as the house band at the famed Whiskey A Go-Go on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. At the dawn of the psychedelic era, on Saturday, November 12, 1966, near a club at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights named Pandora’s Box (pictured), supposedly 1,000 youthful demonstrators (I say “supposedly” as the number strikes me as dubiously high) erupted in protest against the perceived repressive enforcement of recently invoked curfew laws. As I understand it, these curfew laws were passed in order to get a handle on underage drinking going on at some of the Sunset Strip clubs catering to a youthful clientele (a painfully banal explanation, to be sure). Apparently some business owners wanted the authorities to pass laws that would help rid the Sunset Strip of vast numbers of loitering teenagers as well as the growing number of "hippies," the pan-handling presence of which were discouraging patrons from attending their drinking and dining establishments.

Referred to as the “Sunset Strip Riot”—inspiring the movie Riot on Sunset Strip (1967)—apparently the event was characterized by some rather typical youthful expressions of outrage: rock throwing (where did the rocks come from?), an attempt to set fire to a city bus filled with terrified passengers, and various other acts of destructive vandalism. The event was referred to in the L. A. press as a “riot,” perhaps to link the disruptive moment to the more destructive and socially significant Watts riots of the year before. The net result was that within the year—by August of 1967—Pandora’s Box was demolished and paved over to make an easy access road to Crescent Heights off of Sunset Boulevard. That's one way to solve a problem.

As is widely known, the so-called “Sunset Strip Riot”—and perhaps the Watts Riots the year before—inspired then Buffalo Springfield band member Stephen Stills to write “For What It’s Worth,” recorded about three weeks after the so-called "riot," on December 5, 1966. The lyrics are so well known it hardly seems necessary to reproduce them, but I do so below for the sake of convenience:

There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Gettin’ so much resistance from behind
It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

What a field day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
inging songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side
It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
You step out of line, the Man come and take you away
We better stop, hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down

Although famous, and strongly associated with the decade of the 1960s, I find this a hard song on which to get a critical handle, especially as any sort of trenchant "social criticism." For one thing, what’s the level of intellectual commitment to the so-called issue of freedom of expression (a value that is, of course, never actually named)? It seems more like a sum of commonplaces strung together rather than expressing any deeply felt social outrage. The title, especially, doesn’t help: the colloquial expression, “For What It’s Worth,” offers only a minimal commitment to an idea; it seems a strangely noncommittal title for a song that putatively contains acute political insight. A better title might be, “My Two Cents’ Worth,” as that phrase more accurately suggests the level of extent of the emotional engagement with the issue(s). No doubt it was influenced by the overt political protest characteristic of 1960s folk music, but it lacks the clear statement of a political position that these songs make explicit. In this sense, we can see that it positions itself somewhere between outright polemic and disinterested social observation: “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” The line reminds me of something a fence-riding high school guidance counselor told me in response to the Kent State campus shootings in 1970. If it is considered, narrowly, merely as a response to the so-called "Sunset Strip Riot," then it amounts to nothing more than an argument insisting that teenagers ought to be able to have fun when they want to have fun.

In retrospect, the whole song smacks of fence-riding. In Canto III of Dante’s Inferno, the fence-riders—named "Neutrals" in J. D. Sinclair's translation to desribe those who never took a position in life—are situated in the vestibule to Hell, Hell refusing to let them in because they never made a decision on anything during their lives.

To properly understand the song, I think, we need to focus elsewhere than on politics, and recognize that it owes something to the ideas in Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), and Kesey’s use of the mental institution as a metaphor for everyday life: “You step out of line, the Man come and take you away.” Think of the 60s novelty song “They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!”—that was, incidentally, released in July 1966, four months before the Sunset Strip Riot, and about five months before Buffalo Springfield recorded "For What It's Worth." One of the novelty song’s lyrics refers to the “funny farm,” which is, of course, a colloquial reference to an asylum. The narrator of Cuckoo’s Nest, Chief Bromden, uses the phrase “the Combine” to refer to the large, invisible system of coercion that society uses to control and manipulate individuals. I’ve written a great deal, recently, about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, so I don’t think that his fame and notoriety during this period in the 1960s needs rehearsing. The way authority is referred to only in the abstract--"man with a gun," "resistance from behind," "the heat," the Man"--also supports the idea that the song refers to the repressive operations of "the Combine."

If nothing else, a close analysis of the song warns against any attempt to transform pop songs into agitprop.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Pinch of Ridicule

In yesterday's blog, I said that nothing could appear a less promising topic than the movie career of Elvis Presley. Observing that movies in general have always been culturally ambiguous because they blur clear distinctions between art, commerce, and mass communication, I then immediately suggested that the films starring Elvis Presley are an exception to this culturally ambiguous status: they are not considered ambiguous at all, but rather as artless mass entertainment. In its most negative formulation, they are used as an example of Elvis’s tastelessness, made simply for crass commercial reasons: although nothing but tripe, they remain, nonetheless, quite profitable. What I didn't discuss yesterday are the reasons for this widespread cultural perception, and it's not clear to me that the reasons are due to the actual films themselves.

The reasons for this perception are best explored in a remarkable essay written by a former teacher of mine, Linda Ray Pratt, titled "Elvis, or the Ironies of a Southern Identity," which can be found in Kevin Quain, Ed., The Elvis Reader (St. Martin's Press, 1992). In one of the best pieces ever written about Elvis, in the essay, writing as a Southerner herself, she discusses Elvis with the kind of understanding and empathy that those outside the culture often lack. I remember having brief conversations with her about Elvis--this back in the early 1980s, just a few years after his death, probably while she was thinking about the issues that ultimately emerged in this particular essay. She makes so many acute insights that it is impossible to list them all here, but here are a few insights that may help explain why Elvis's films are held in such widespread contempt, even by those who perhaps have never seen but one or two of them, and perhaps even by those who have never seen them at all--to see them would demonstrate a noticeable lapse in taste. Writing about Elvis in the context of Southern culture, she says:

C. Vann Woodward has said that the South's experience is atypical of the American experience, that where the rest of America has known innocence, success, affluence, and an abstract and disconnected sense of place, the South has know guilt, poverty, failure, and a concrete sense of roots and place.... These myths collide in Elvis. His American success story was always acted out within its Southern limitations. No matter how successful Elvis became in terms of fame and money, he remained fundamentally disreputable in the minds of many Americans. Elvis had rooms full of gold records earned by million-copy sales, but his best rock and roll records were not formally honored by the people who control, if not the public taste, the rewarding of public taste.... His movies made millions but could not be defended on artistic grounds. The New York Times view of his fans was "the men favoring leisure suits and sideburns, the women beehive hairdos, purple eyelids and tight stretch pants".... (96-97)

Observing that Elvis "remained an outsider in the American culture that adopted his music," she goes on to say:

Although he was the world's most popular entertainer, to like Elvis a lot was suspect, a lapse of taste.... The inability of Elvis to transcend his lack of reputability despite a history-making success story confirms the Southern sense that the world outside thinks Southerners are freaks, illiterates . . . sexual perverts, lynchers. I cannot call this sense a Southern "paranoia" because ten years outside the South has all too often confirmed the frequency with which non-Southerners express such views. Not even the presidency would free LBJ and Jimmy Carter from the ridicule.... And Elvis was truly different, in all those tacky Southern ways one is supposed to rise above with money and sophistication. (97)

Regarding the deification of the dead Elvis, she observes:

The apotheosis of Elvis demands . . . perfection because his death confirmed the tragic frailty, the violence, the intellectual poverty, the extravagance of emotion, the loneliness, the suffering, the sense of loss. Almost everything about his death, including the enterprising cousin who sold the casket pictures to National Enquirer, dismays, but nothing can detract from Elvis himself.... Greil Marcus wrote in his book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music that Elvis created a beautiful illusion, a fantasy that shut nothing out. The opposite was true. The fascination was the reality always showing through the illusion--the illusion of wealth and the psyche of poverty; the illusion of success and the pinch of ridicule; the illusion of invincibility and the tragedy of frailty; the illusion of complete control and the reality of inner chaos.... Elvis had all the freedom the world can offer and could escape nothing. (103)

Her final, acute insight is painfully true: by saying that Elvis could escape nothing, she means escape Southern mythology, both what he inherited as a Southerner by birth, and what someone from the South is perceived to be by non-Southerners (think: Deliverance). In a sense, his movie career failed because he was never allowed by the general culture to be a movie star. Even Jimmy Carter as president couldn't escape the stigma of being from the South: the mass media was brutal on him, his brother Billy, and even his daughter Amy. Although Dr. Pratt corrects an observation made by Greil Marcus in his essay "Elvis: Presliad," Marcus nonetheless cited portions of the above passage in his scathing review of Albert Goldman's biography Elvis (1981), a biography I've cited on a few occasions. Her essay helps immensely to explain why so many were offended by Goldman's biography of Elvis: his (perhaps unconscious) contempt for the South and for Elvis's Southern identity taints almost every page.

But rather than fixate on the mote in our neighbor's eye, perhaps we ought to examine the sources and motivations for our own perceptions, in this case why Elvis's films are widely considered jokes, even by those who may have never seen them, or seen very few. To extrapolate a bit on Linda Ray Pratt's essay, we might say that those perceptions may largely be determined by factors that have nothing to do with the films themselves.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Harder They Fall

Movies are so familiar to us that they are widely considered nothing more than “entertainment.” Naïvely, we assume that movies are easier to understand than literature--literature being regarded as "serious," and therefore "art." The fact is, movies are entertaining . . . and they are also complex. As a result, they are culturally ambiguous, because they blur simplistic distinctions between art, entertainment, and mass communication.

Strangely, though, movies starring Elvis Presley are the exception to this culturally ambiguous status of the movies: they are not considered ambiguous at all, but rather as artless, and therefore mass (as in “mind-numbing”) entertainment. In its most negative formulation, they are used as an example of Elvis’s (or the Colonel’s) tastelessness, made because of his (or the Colonel’s) desire for the “fast buck.” Because they are considered tasteless, they are, therefore, as a consequence, benign, an exception to much of the writing about Hollywood that focuses on Hollywood’s (bad) influence on American life and values. Elvis's films are nostalgic, innocuous (formulaic), and therefore harmless (non-controversial).

As a topic, therefore, nothing could appear less promising than the movie career of Elvis Presley. But, as Robert Ray writes, the

situation probably has less to do with Elvis’s own contributions to his movies that with the films themselves, most of them specious, formulaic representations of what the pre-rock generation of producers, writers, and directors who made them thought was “youth culture.” (“The Riddle of Elvis-the-Actor,” p. 102)

Of course, the general criticism of Elvis’s movies is largely directed at the films he made in the 1960s, after his stint in the U. S. Army: G.I. Blues (1960) through A Change of Habit (1969). So, for the sake of convenience, let’s consider the four films Elvis made in the 1950s: Love Me Tender (1956), Loving You (1957), Jailhouse Rock (1957), and King Creole (1958). The year 1956, of course, marks the year Elvis emerged as a powerful cultural force—in America and elsewhere (think of John Lennon’s remark, “Before Elvis there was nothing”).

Jean-Luc Godard’s one explicit film about the influence of American culture on the rest of world is Masculine-Feminine (1966), the famous film exploring the lives of "the children of Marx and Coca-Cola." But long before Masculine-Feminine, there was, of course, Breathless (1960). Regarding Breathless, I’ve always wondered why, given Michel Poiccard’s (Jean-Paul Belmondo’s) apparent age (Belmondo was 26 at the time the film was made, although he looks younger), he idolized Bogart, when the more obvious figure, it seems to me, should have been Elvis. (Belmondo was born in 1933, Elvis in 1935.)

For many critics, the key scene in Breathless that is structured to reveal how Michel Poiccard imitates the character (“image”) of Humphrey Bogart is the moment when he encounters Bogart’s face on a movie poster. Here, Poiccard approaches the large poster:

The poster in which Bogart’s image appears is the French poster of The Harder They Fall (1956), Bogey’s last film (he was to die in January 1957), set in the boxing world. After studying the poster, Poiccard moves to his left, to study a display of 8x10 movie stills:

In particular, he studies an image of Bogart . . .

. . . captivated by it, the cigarette hanging from his lips just as the cigarette does from Bogey's in the large movie poster. Meanwhile, he continues to study Bogey's image:

. . . as Bogey returns his gaze . . .

The cigarette, of course, is a signifier closely associated with American culture, particularly the American G.I. during WWII (and Bogey in Casablanca). The scene concludes with Poiccard's imitation of Bogey's characteristic gesture, the thumb raking across the upper lip, indicating contemplation, and, occasionally, indecisiveness:

The standard interpretation of this scene is that we are to understand Michel Poiccard consciously models his life on the figure of movie star Humphrey Bogart—he wishes to live a life like his (or at least, his life in American films noir). For some critics, Michel Poiccard’s criminal behavior serves as a sort of Godardian self-inscription, given that Godard, apparently, was a delinquent as a youth. But what happens to this sequence if we substitute the more obvious (at the time) figure of American cultural influence, movie star Elvis Presley in this sequence? Poiccard approaches the marquee . . .

. . . but instead of the poster of The Harder They Fall, it's the poster of Jailhouse Rock:

There's no cigarette of course, and there isn't the large image of Bogart's older, chiseled face, but there is the image of Elvis as both jailbird and as seductive sex symbol. In this revised sequence, Poiccard moves to his left, just as in the original . . .

. . . but instead of Bogey's image, it is Elvis's image from Jailhouse Rock:
He studies the image as before . . .

. . . while Elvis returns his gaze . . .

Without the cigarette, Poiccard's (Belmondo's) facial expression seems remarkably closer to Elvis's than it does Bogart's:

Of course, this imaginary sequence would conclude without the expressive gesture of the thumb across the lip to suggest the implicit identification Poiccard has with Bogey, and hence the loss of all the meanings compressed into the image of Bogart.The question is how and in what way the sequence is altered by the substitution of one American icon with another.

The gesture of the thumb across the lip recurs at different times in Breathless, but what if, instead of the lip gesture, Poiccard/Belmondo imitates, say, Elvis's gesture (sans hat) of flipping the head backwards to clear the hair from his eyes? He can't, because Poiccard is an anti-hero inspired by the characters of an older Hollywood than the Hollywood in which Elvis arrived for his first film in 1956. The fact is, Michel Poiccard is a doomed Hollywood anti-hero, but a charmingly nostalgic one. Elvis wasn't appropriate for Breathless because, ironically, he was too contemporary (a fear realized by the ambiguous figure of Patricia Franchini/Jean Seberg, the hip, promiscuous American girl who is also the film's femme fatale). The charm of Michel Poiccard is that he remains a comfortably familiar figure, even for French audiences. The irony is that in 1959, when Breathless was being made, Elvis, on leave from the U. S. Army, visited Paris. I like to imagine that in those cinéma-vérité scenes shot on the Champs-Élysées, Elvis was one of those figures standing in the background. Robert Ray argues that Elvis's style of acting would have been appropriate for Godardian cinema, imagining him, for instance, in a sequel to Masculine-Feminine. The idea is not as silly as it sounds: imagine the possibilities of Elvis starring in a Godard film. It would have been something to see.

Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin, 1937-2008

I heard the news this morning that comedian George Carlin died yesterday of heart failure at the age of 71. Although popularly associated with the so-called liberal "counterculture" of the 1960s and 1970s, it seems to me that comedians of the satirical sort like George Carlin always have to be fundamentally conservative, a theory born out by comments made by his friends in this obituary. The wicked humor of comedians like Carlin is premised on an acute understanding of his culture's fundamental hypocrisy. Example: his response to the question posed to him about the Super Bowl halftime show ending with Janet Jackson's breast-baring "wardrobe malfunction." Said Carlin: "On that Super Bowl broadcast of Janet Jackson's there was also a commercial about a 4-hour erection. A lot of people were saying about Janet Jackson, 'How do I explain to my kids? We're a little family, we watched it together ...' And, well, what did you say about the other thing? These are convenient targets." I couldn't have said it better, George: every weekday on the evening news one can hear repeated advertisements for drugs that might help solve "erectile dysfunction," but nary a word is raised in protest by the vast and so easily outraged middle-class, that great defender of bourgeoisie values and genteel sexual morality.

The greatest comedians have always been keenly aware of language, and hence it is entirely appropriate that George Carlin is perhaps most famous for his "Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV" routine, a sketch not so much about proscribed words--that is, obscenity--as it is about the Orwellian nature of the media to control both thought and reality. Carlin said he learned a lot about his craft by observing comedian Lenny Bruce, a comedian continually harassed by the authorities over charges of "obscenity" whose routines were also frequently premised on an examination of language; in this sense "Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV" owes much to Bruce's influence.

But while Lenny Bruce was clearly an influence on him, Carlin always said his idol growing up was comic Danny Kaye. Years ago on the radio I heard an interview with George Carlin in which he talked about how as a kid he very much adored and admired Danny Kaye, perhaps the preeminent comedian of his era. He said as a teenager he stood for hours in the rain outside a theater where Kaye was to appear, wanting to meet the great maestro in person and hoping to get his autograph. When Danny Kaye appeared, chauffeured to the spot in his grand automobile, Carlin (and others) rushed out to greet him--but the great comedian pushed by them and strolled silently on into the building, ignoring them and not saying a word, as if they were invisible. George Carlin's child-like silliness--a strength, actually--and his characteristic facial contortions no doubt owed a lot to Danny Kaye, but I think his iconoclasm, and the powerful hatred of hypocrisy so evident in his best comedy, came from that moment when he was so coldly pushed aside by his idol.

Because of that second or two of callousness, one of the best American comedians of his generation came into being. In any case, he and his idol are both equal now.