Sunday, February 28, 2010

St. Louis Blues March

Although a fragile form of interracial dialogue had been established within the pre-war swing subculture, after the end of the Second World War—and with it, the end of the swing era—the color line was firmly re-established. There were a couple of post-war Hollywood films featuring an integrated cast exploring the history of jazz music (New Orleans, 1947, and A Song Is Born, 1948), but perhaps the most revealing evidence of the post-war period’s resumption of the color line is in the rise of the white jazz biopic. A biopic about George Gershwin with Robert Alda playing the role of the famed composer, titled Rhapsody in Blue, was released in 1945, featuring Al Jolson as himself. The following year, it was Jolson who became the subject of what was a highly successful biopic (more so than Rhapsody in Blue had been), The Jolson Story (1946), the success of which inspired a sequel, Jolson Sings Again (1949). A biopic about Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, The Fabulous Dorseys, was released in 1947, while a film starring Kirk Douglas that was loosely modeled on the life of white jazzman Bix Beiderbecke, Young Man With a Horn, was released in 1950. By the time The Glenn Miller Story was released, early in 1954, the World War II era had become strongly associated with the famed trombonist and his orchestra, and with songs such as “In the Mood.”

Predictably, the biopic of Miller concludes with the bandleader’s death, his disappearance over the English Channel in December 1944. His band seems to be America in microcosm, the proverbial melting-pot, with, for instance, Germans, Russians, and Jews, but black musicians, who’d played such a crucial role in the development of swing, are conspicuously absent among its members. Gary Giddins observes about the film,

It was James Stewart who created a suitable posthumous personality for Miller, in “The Glenn Miller Story,” the 1954 film that inaugurated a genre of musicals about white bandleaders. These pictures, though basted in conformity, flattered the taste of the nineteen-fifties audience by recasting them as young radicals braving ridicule. Miller was depicted as an innovator hunting for an elusive sound, and Stewart had to recite breathtaking inanities like “To me, music is more than just one instrument. It’s a whole orchestra playing together.”

The film shows an integrated military during a sequence in which a general is reviewing the troops, but this was historically untrue, as there was still a Jim Crow military during the war. Miller’s hutzpah is dramatized in this same sequence, in which he instructs his band to play “St. Louis Blues” at march tempo, a bit of deliberate recalcitrance for which he is later upbraided by his commanding officer (see a video clip of this important sequence here). But perhaps the more revealing sequence of the film, illustrating the segregated lives of black and white jazz musicians, occurs in a studio while Miller and his band are recording “Tuxedo Junction.” As the song is being played, two black dancers appear merely as images being projected onto a screen. Black and white, in other words, exist in different spaces.

Saturday, February 27, 2010


Some time ago, I wrote about the phenomenon of the one-hit wonder, a designation used within the music industry to refer to a musician or band known almost exclusively for one hugely popular hit single. The phenomenon of the one-hit wonder undermines the Romantic image of the artistic genius, supplanting it with the image of the idiot savant, an individual with an extraordinarily narrow area of expertise or brilliance. Hence, the existence of the one-hit wonder is a postmodern phenomenon, destabilizing the traditional understanding of what constitutes genius, (re)defining it by the vagaries of consumer culture.

Although occasionally one-hit wonders can be considered “novelty songs,” some do not display such ad hoc characteristics. One-hit wonders have no identifiable characteristics other than they must conform to the material requirements of the 7” 45 rpm single—that is, the time restriction. In its more pejorative formulation, one-hit wonders are characterized as “flukes,” that is, anomalies, the evidence being an empirical one: the individual musician or band was never able to repeat its success. Hence one must conclude Time is the final judge, but certain one-hit wonders have shown a remarkable durability, remaining as popular as songs by bands whose work consumers have endorsed repeated times. The late, lauded auteur Ingmar Bergman—always uneasy with fame—once remarked, “No one remembers those who built Chartres,” by which he meant, among other things, the thing that endures is the art, not the artist, and while the names of the artisans who built that grand cathedral are not remembered, their artwork is, a testament to their resilience, their commitment, and their dedication to an idea greater than themselves. One-hit wonders are proof of the same idea, that the work remains long after the artist is forgotten.

“Best of” lists are, of course, merely an expression of individual taste and aesthetic judgment, and as such they cannot appeal to any sort of empirical verification. The keyword here is taste, and with that in mind, here’s my current and updated list of the ten best one-hit wonders, confined, arbitrarily and capriciously, to hits in the United States during the years 1960-82. Ask me to repeat this exercise in six months, my list most likely will be different. As Ralph Waldo Emerson one remarked, “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Ten Top One-Hit Wonders:
10. The Undisputed Truth – Smiling Faces Sometimes (1971)
9. Danny O'Keefe – Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues (1972)
8. The Seeds – Pushin’ Too Hard (1966)
7. King Harvest – Dancing in the Moonlight (1972)
6. Jonathan King – Everyone’s Gone to the Moon (1965)
5. Wall of Voodoo – Mexican Radio (1982)
4. David Essex – Rock On (1973)
3. The Sanford Townsend Band – Smoke From a Distant Fire (1977)
2. Walter Egan – Magnet and Steel (1978)
1. Sniff ‘n’ The Tears – Driver’s Seat (1979) (check out the very cool video here and the later video redux here)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Wholesome Behavior

In Friedrich A. Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter war occupies a central place, serving as a crucial factor in media transformation. Kittler argues that modern storage and transmission technologies were developed primarily for purposes of warfare. Employing a rather witty aphorism, Kittler claims the entertainment industry constitutes “an abuse of army equipment” (111). There’s perhaps no better illustration of his point than the World War II war movie, which recreated war as a series of clichéd or stereotypical actions, for instance, unshaven, grim-faced but keen-eyed soldiers in soiled uniforms creeping stealthily with fixed bayonets through clouds of smoke toward the enemy’s stronghold (that is, Certain Death), the very image of authentic war. (In contrast, in Hemingway’s war fiction, soldiers spend most of their time in the trenches flat on their stomachs.) During the Second World War, Paul Fussell observes in Wartime, Hollywood films such as Bataan and Guadalcanal Diary (both 1943) “established the paradigm of the ideal infantry situation the audience was expected to credit” (190). (“Credit” became one of the oft-used means of maintaining morale among the various branches of the military.) The ideal infantry unit represented America in microcosm, the “melting-pot” metaphor employed as an agent of ideology, representing what Fussell refers to as the “universal platoon” (190). The typical platoon, or America in microcosm, was represented as follows:

·      The Experienced Leader (the Moses figure; doesn’t make it)
·      The Inexperienced Youth (makes it)
·      The Comic (think “Private Joker” of Full Metal Jacket)
·      The Cynic (the Saul of Tarsus/St. Paul paradigm, transformed by the idealistic and selfless sacrifice he witnesses into The True Believer)
·      An African American and/or Hispanic
·      One Private Each From:
1.     Brooklyn
2.     Texas
3.     The Middle West

Although there were various plot permutations in the Hollywood war movie, as indicated above The Leader always died (strictly adhered to even in post-war war films such as 1949’s Sands of Iwo Jima, in which the John Wayne character is, unfairly, killed by a sniper after the battle is over). The Inexperienced Youth always survived (validating youthful idealism as opposed to cynicism), while the various other emblematic characters would survive at the screenwriter’s whim. Fussell observes about Guadalcanal Diary (still above) that there’s so much choral music “it functions as a virtual musical”—songs include “Sweet Genevieve,” “Rock of Ages,” “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” and “Home on the Range.” In addition to the music, the members of the universal platoon are all “crazy about sports,” all having deep loyalties “to various baseball teams” (190-91). The narrative dictates that American stoicism prevails, of course, and the jokes and wisecracks are unremitting. But there’s more, relevant to Kittler’s quip about “the abuse of army equipment”:

Because no film company could be expected to possess its own tanks, bombers, or warships, the services’ had to be used, and the services refused to co-operate without approving the screenplay in advance, insisting on changes to make sure that little remained but the bromides of wholesome behavior and successful courageous action. (191-92)

The trouble is, for propagandistic purposes, these wholesome representatives of the American “melting-pot” had to relish, with obvious sadistic delight, in “the pain and death of others” (192). Good triumphs, which is the Hollywood equivalent of the success story. But as film historians Koppes and Black observe, “Few pictures . . . dared breathe what everyone knew but found hard to voice aloud—that death was random and success only partly related to one’s deserts” (qtd. in Wartime, 191).

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The "Segregated Musical"

By 1940, both America and the rest of the world recognized swing music as America’s “most distinctive contribution” to world musical culture (David W. Stowe, Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America 142). After Pearl Harbor, or around the beginning of 1942, perhaps not surprisingly, Stowe observes, “swing found itself transformed into a galvanizing symbol of national purpose” (142). In the years preceding the war, beginning around 1935, swing had accrued a distinctive and highly functional ideology, representing the values of “American exceptionalism . . . ethnic pluralism and democratic equality,” and therefore was seen as an ideal weapon with which to fight fascism (Swing Changes 143). Hence, like jazz, swing functioned as an agent of ideology. “It repeated,” as Michael Jarrett has observed, “on an aesthetic level, myths of identity-through-integration. It naturalized and helped shape a social regime, state apparatus, or, more kindly, values we hold dear.” (Drifting on a Read: Jazz As a Model For Writing 31). In short, swing embodied the utopian impulses of pluralism, ethnic inclusiveness, and racial tolerance.

Strange, then, that a wartime film such as Cabin in the Sky (completed late October 1942, released April 1943), would be, as Thomas Cripps observes in Slow Fade to Black, a “segregated musical.” It is true, as Krin Gabbard observes, that as part of the war effort “Hollywood was trying to pay more attention to African Americans, largely because they were fighting and dying in World War II” (Jammin’ at the Margins 178), but as an “all-black film,” despite its rather obvious purpose—to call attention to the lives of African Americans and to fight long-established attitudes toward the participation of blacks in the work force—it nonetheless was evidence of the state apparatus supporting segregation, as was, at the time, the Jim Crow military. Therefore, the fact that the musical was made, but made with an all-black cast, reveals one of the ideological stresses of the war, the great divide between the symbolic content of swing and the actual social realities of the time: it was made, but rather than having been made with an integrated cast, it was made with an all-black cast—Cripps’ “segregated musical.” Hence Cabin in the Sky duplicated, but within the culture industry and therefore on an aesthetic level, the ideology that supported a segregated military. For instance: Kenneth Spencer, who plays the Reverend Greene character in Cabin in the Sky, also plays in the film the role of the heavenly emissary addressed as “The General.” He would also play the role of the token black soldier in Bataan, also released in 1943, appearing just a couple of months after Cabin in the Sky. While Krin Gabbard argues that the sequence in Cabin in the Sky featuring Duke Ellington and His Orchestra performing “Goin’ Up” serves “to gently sabotage the film industry’s racial stereotyping” (184)—hence revealing the existence of an ideological crack or fissure—the film nevertheless suggests the way that war, and wartime behavior, serves to naturalize other cultural behaviors and practices.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Hard Bop

An oft-repeated tale in the annals of modern jazz has it that bebop was born at Minton’s Playhouse in New York City in 1940, where the house band included pianist Thelonius Monk, drummer Kenny Clarke, trumpeter Joe Guy, and bassist Nick Fenton. (See, among other sources, David H. Rosenthal’s fine book, Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music, 1955-1965, Oxford UP 1992.) Rosenthal quotes at length a passage about bebop from Ross Russell’s novel The Sound (1961), in which Russell writes, “It [bebop] seemed to reflect the turmoil and insecurity of the war years. At the same time it implied a profound contempt for those who had been foolish enough to become involved with the war” (13). If bebop was connected to the wartime mood of the 1940s, and (following Amiri Baraka) with frustrated black hopes in a desegregated America which adhered to the principle of “freedom for all” as well, the post-bebop form of jazz referred to as “hard bop,” emerging in the early years of the Cold War, was influenced by the post-war rise of R&B. Incorporating blues and gospel elements, hard bop, according to jazz expert Michael Jarrett, “combines the melodicism and crisp rhythm attack of r&b with harmonies and minor modes associated with bebop” (Sound Tracks: A Musical ABC, Volumes 1-3, 239). Largely associated with jazz musicians such as Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Cannonball and Nat Adderley, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, and with labels such as Blue Note and Prestige, hard bop “provided bohemians with a soundtrack for living” (239). The first important hard bop recordings roughly coincided with the popularization of rock ‘n’ roll, and 50s hipsters found in hard bop records an alternative soundtrack to the music of pop-oriented Top 40 radio. For those such as myself born in the 50s, hard bop (and cool jazz) formed the soundtrack to many of the television shows that form my earliest memories. For hard bop signified, in the words of Michael Jarrett, “fast cars, loose women, hard drugs, shady deals, and weak or addled minds” (239).

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Common Cause

In my last entry I wrote about Casablanca (1942) as an example of wartime propaganda, about how the film enacted the ideological need to value (public) duty over (individual) desire, which corresponded to the wartime need for sexual abstinence and fidelity. I don’t claim any originality in this insight, as I think the film’s ideological purpose, given the virtue of “20/20” hindsight, is rather “obvious” in this regard, as many critics have observed. However, it occurred to me that it is probably worth mentioning that the film, seen also with the clarity of hindsight, also enacts America’s wartime sense of ideological purposelessness. Historian Paul Fussell, in Wartime, argues that the reason why Americans fought the Germans was even less clear than why they were fighting the Japanese (the reason for fighting the latter was revenge against the attack on Pearl Harbor). Although Victor Laszlo refers to Nazi concentration camps when addressing the Nazi military commander, Major Strasser, the death camps were not widely known about in the late summer of 1942 when the film was made, as the U. S. government had downplayed the brutality of Nazi anti-Semitism before the war. Hence there’s no clear sense of the nature or extent of Nazi criminality in Casablanca—they are, simply, the villains. Major Strasser seems confident that the victory of the Third Reich is inevitable. He and his fellow officers sing one (traditional) German folk song in the film, and his villainy is defined by whatever sort of (undefined) act of brutality he perpetrates on his captive, Ugarte (Peter Lorre). Victor Laszlo is wanted by the Nazis because he is a resistance leader fighting Nazi tyranny, and hence is a figurehead (but not a Jewish one). He has been tortured (as indicated by his reference to the “more persuasive methods” used when he was a prisoner in a concentration camp), but the word “torture” is never used. (The question of whether Ugarte is tortured is unclear, but his death is highly suspicious. He was murdered, but was he tortured? We're never explicitly told.) When Rick has finally made his decision to help Laszlo (and Ilsa) escape from Casablanca by giving them the "Letters of Transit" to board the plane to Lisbon, Laszlo praises Rick’s return “to the fight”—they are now fighting on the same side, for the same cause. In his chapter in Wartime entitled “The Ideological Vacuum,” Fussell argues that since Americans didn’t have a positive reason for fighting the war, they fell back on sheer pragmatism—the belief that “common cause would somehow substitute for formulation of purpose or meaning” (139). Hence Rick is told by Laszlo, “this time I know our side will win,” meaning they are now fighting together for a common cause. They are now on the same “side,” but there still remains, to use Fussell's phraseology, an “ideological vacuum.” Outside of common cause, there remains no clear purpose or meaning in fighting the war.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Hill of Beans

In my blog entry yesterday, I wrote about the effect of World War II on jazz music, and how it rendered the modernist values jazz had come to represent in the 1920s and 30s—“individualism”—unfashionable. As a consequence of the need for personal sacrifice during the war (personal sacrifice was required to win the war), individualism was no longer as highly valued as group cohesion and communal harmony. I referred to Paul Fussell’s observation, in his book Wartime, that the most popular songs during the war were about sexual depravation or pleas for fidelity—think of the Glenn Miller Band's “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me).” Fussell also noted that if the songs were not about sexual abstinence and the virtues of self-denial, they were about nothing at all (“Little Brown Jug”).

The opposed values of individual expression and group cohesion were often enacted, dramatically, as duty vs. desire. A classic wartime film in which the tension between duty and desire is dramatically enacted is, of course, Casablanca (1942). In the film’s climactic scene, Rick is faced with a choice that also happened to correspond to the need to resolve an ideological contradiction: should he allow Ilsa to go with her legal husband, Victor Laszlo, or keep her with him in Casablanca? The film demands the audience choose between love and romance (desire) or duty to a higher cause (getting Laszlo to Lisbon).

RICK: Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.
ILSA: But what about us?
RICK: We’ll always have Paris. We didn't have. We lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.
ILSA: When I said I would never leave you—
RICK: And you never will. But I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that.

It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world—in other words, the woman must be sent away. Rick’s “hill of beans” line is a virtual restatement of the quotation by Eileen M. Sullivan that Fussell cites in Wartime: “There was no room in this war-culture for individual opinions or personalities, no freedom of dissent or approval . . . .” (195). Interestingly enough, the ideological need to value social duty over individual desire corresponds to the wartime need for sexual abstinence and deprivation, yet another form of personal sacrifice that was needed to win the war.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Sing-Along

The effect of World War II on jazz music was to render the modernist values jazz had come to represent in the 1920s and 30s—individualism and spontaneity, represented by the improvised solo—unfashionable. The individualism represented by popular personalities such as Louis Armstrong, for instance, was devalued, while the virtue of “tightness,” represented by Glenn Miller’s big band, was highly prized because it represented group cohesion and communal harmony. His Army Air Force Band cemented the relationship between self-effacement and subservience to the group, or unit. In Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (Oxford UP, 1989), his revisionary history of World War II, Paul Fussell discusses the popular music that was played in Allied factories, “instrumental music only,” suggesting that instrumentals were associated with the wartime values of conformity and mindless labor, the values of the machine and assembly line. Fussell notes that the most popular songs during the war were about sexual depravation or pleas for fidelity, for instance, the Glenn Miller Band's “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)” (recorded by other bands at the time, of course):

Don’t go walkin’ down Lover’s Lane with anyone else but me
Anyone else but me, anyone else but me, no, no, no
Don’t go walkin’ down Lover’s Lane with anyone else but me
Til I come marchin’ home

I just got word from a guy who heard from the guy next door to me
The girl he met just loves to pet and it fits you to a T
So, don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me
Til I come marchin’ home

Fussell also notes that if they were not about sexual abstinence and self-denial (individual desires, as were personal opinions, counter-productive), they were about nothing at all, e.g., “The Beer Barrel Polka,” AKA “Roll Out the Barrel.” Most of the hit songs containing vocals were communal or intended as sing-alongs, such as “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” To make his point clear about the function of music during the war, Fussell cites Eileen M. Sullivan: “There was no room in this war-culture for individual opinions or personalities, no freedom of dissent or approval; the culture was homogeneous, shallow, and boring” (195).

Friday, February 12, 2010

Stuck In The Muck-O

The late Robin Wood’s Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan (Columbia UP, 1986) contains what I believe to be an extremely valuable discussion of the “ideological shift” that characterizes the American cinema of the 1960s. In Chapter Two, “The Chase: Flashback, 1965,” Wood argues for the significance of Arthur Penn’s The Chase (filmed 1965, released 17 February 1966) as “one of the most complete, all-encompassing statements of the breakdown of ideological confidence that characterizes American culture through the Vietnam period and becomes a defining factor of Hollywood cinema in the 60s and 70s” (23). The Chase was one of those big, epic-length Sam Spiegel productions featuring a “major Hollywood cast”: Marlon Brando, Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, Angie Dickinson, E. G. Marshall, James Fox, Robert Duvall, Miriam Hopkins, and other well-known figures. Wood admits The Chase is rather “crude and obvious” in its socio-political commentary (its critique of racism, bourgeois hypocrisy, conflicted attitudes toward the law, etc.), but nonetheless finds its special strength in being “the first film in which the disintegration of American society and the ideology that supports it (represented in microcosm by the town) is presented as total and final, beyond hope of reconstruction” (23). While I agree with him in his view of the film’s historic importance, and think the film extremely worthy of critical scrutiny, I think his claim that The Chase is “the first film” to represent the American ideological disintegration characteristic of the Sixties is debatable. I’d make a case for George Axelrod’s Lord Love a Duck as the first such film, but since it and The Chase were released virtually on the same day in February 1966, I’m unable to do so. The two films share few features in terms of story elements or characters, but like The Chase, Lord Love a Duck is also a representation of American ideological disintegration, and equally as compelling as The Chase, but is more contemporary in style. (Penn didn’t adopt a contemporary style until 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde). Interestingly, both Penn and Axelrod were born the same year, 1922, and were virtually the same age, Axelrod being the older by slightly over three months.

Axelrod, who died in 2003 (biographical details here), came to prominence as a consequence of writing two Broadway hits of the mid-50s, The Seven Year Itch and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?; both were later made into successful Hollywood films. He wrote the screenplays for, among other films, Bus Stop (1956), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and, perhaps most famously, The Manchurian Candidate (1962). He was therefore not primarily known as a director, directing only two films during his career, both in the late Sixties: Lord Love a Duck (1966) and The Secret Life of an American Wife (1968), the latter sharing a family resemblance to Luis Buñuel’s Belle de jour (1967), in which a housewife (Anne Jackson, who played the child psychiatrist in Kubrick’s The Shining), in order to prove to her husband that she’s still sexually desirable to other men, begins an affair with a famous movie star. Neither one was critically nor commercially successful, and sadly, their failure brought an end to Axelrod’s motion picture directorial career. Too bad, because I think Lord Love a Duck to be one of the very best films of the 1960s; in fact, I would place it near the very top of my “best of” list of the decade.

According to the IMDB, The Chase was released theatrically on 17 February 1966, although it also indicates a different date for its New York premier, which occurred on 19 February. Serendipitously, Lord Love a Duck was released, this again according to the IMDB, on 21 February 1966—four days after The Chase, and while this may lend credence to Wood’s claim that The Chase has pride of place as the “first film” to represent a disturbance in American ideological confidence, the matter of a mere four days is irrelevant. While I haven’t done an extensive analysis, I suspect both films were being shot simultaneously, during the summer of 1965. I do know that The Chase wrapped by mid-August 1965, because I recall reading, in one of the many biographies written about the Fondas, that soon after the film's official wrap, Jane Fonda married Roger Vadim, the wedding occurring on 14 August 1965. I have no definitive filming dates for Lord Love a Duck, but it had to have been filming roughly at the same time as The Chase. The crucial point is, however, that there doesn’t seem to be any possible influence, of the artistic sort, of one film on the other; it’s therefore a matter of thematic convergence rather than direct influence, and that is what is important. I must also mention that both films were based on previously written material, The Chase on an unsuccessful 1952 Broadway play by Horton Foote, while Lord Love a Duck was based on a novel by Al Hine published in 1961.

In order to demonstrate how The Chase enacts, in dramatic fashion, the collapse of essential American ideological values, Wood, ingeniously, compares features of Penn’s film with those of John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), a film made roughly 25 years earlier during the pre-World War II days of Hollywood’s so-called “Classical” era. Following E. H. Gombrich, Wood calls these features “schemata,” and they serve to reveal the changed cultural and historical conditions in which each film was made. I make no claim to have invented these schemata—I take them from Robin Wood’s enlightening discussion of The Chase, borrowing them from him in order to reveal the ideological collapse Lord Love a Duck dramatically enacts in a similar fashion. Relevant pages in Wood’s book are pp. 20-23. Note that these pages refer to the 1986 edition of Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan. The book was later revised, updated, and reissued, but I have not had the opportunity to read the revised edition.

1. “The male authority figure, the symbolic Father, repository and dispenser of the Law, combines myths of individualism and male supremacy that are central to capitalist democracy, enacting the functions of control and containment.” In Young Mr. Lincoln, it is, of course, the figure of Lincoln that embodies these values. In Lord Love a Duck, there are no commanding male authority figures. The authority figures are inept, ineffectual, and seemingly perverse. Barbara Ann Greene’s (Tuesday Weld’s) father, Howard, (Max Showalter), in one of the film’s most perverse moments, is revealed to have incestuous desires for his daughter, shown moaning, growling, and snarling as his buxom daughter models for him various cashmere sweaters. The high school principal, Weldon Emmett (Harvey Korman), is a masochist who can scarcely conceal his sexual interest in Barbara Ann, fetishizing her by means of her cashmere sweater, the color of which she tells him, provocatively, is “Peach Put-Down,” suggesting the masochistic nature of his desire. In Bob Barnard’s (Martin West’s) case, the Father is dead. And Alan “Mollymauk” Musgrave (Roddy McDowall), the film’s anti-hero, has no family, living here and there—“around,“ he says—in various places. “I stay with people.“

2. “In Young Mr. Lincoln Ann Rutledge dies but lives on as the protagonist’s spiritual support (it is “her“ decision—the stick falling toward the grave—that sends him to study law. The myth of woman as man’s supporter/inspiration/redeemer is of course long-standing.” In Lord Love a Duck, Barbara Ann’s parents are divorced. Her mother, Marie (Lola Albright), is vain, alcoholic, and promiscuous, indiscriminately picking up men at her place of work, a bar, where she works as a waitress dressed rather like a “Playboy Bunny.” In the scene in which she’s first introduced in the film, she drunkenly arrives home with a man whose name she can’t remember; the man also evinces an interest in Barbara Ann, hinting at a ménage involving himself, the mother, and the daughter. Barbara Ann later, tearfully, admits the truth to herself that her mother is a “prostitute.” Marie provides Barbara Ann no emotional support of any kind because she is completely absorbed in the drama of her own life. Her narcissism is represented visually through the device of having her constantly studying her own mirror image. Similarly, Bob (“Bobby Bear”) Bernard’s (Martin West’s) mother, Stella (Ruth Gordon), is portrayed as highly critical (“My son is . . . a total idiot. He takes after his late father”) and domineering. The Mother figure does not offer support, inspiration, or redemption, and therefore I suspect it is no coincidence that the hostile psychiatrist administering the Rorschach (“ink blot”) test to Alan, early in the film, is a woman. I should add that the film is pathologically harsh on women, more so, I think, than the male symbols of authority.

3. “In Young Mr. Lincoln the innocence of the young accused is unambiguous: the brothers, representing simple “manly” virtues, are central to Ford’s idealization of the family, the celebration of family life being central to the film.” As I indicated above, in Lord Love a Duck, Barbara Ann’s parents are acrimoniously divorced (he’s behind on his payments, too), and Stella Bernard’s (Ruth Gordon’s) husband is dead (“We . . . don’t divorce our men, we bury ‘em”). Later, in order for Barbara Ann to achieve her secondary goal (the first being a Hollywood actress) of marrying Bob “Bobby Bear” Barnard, the film’s demiurge figure, Alan Musgrave (McDowall), arranges for Barbara Ann’s mother, Marie, to have an “accident,” overdosing on sleeping pills. Alan’s arranging Marie’s death is never overtly stated, but we are strongly encouraged to make the connection, as he himself says to Barbara Ann that her death must seem an “accident” (rather than to be seen as a cleverly orchestrated murder, committed by him). We are therefore led to believe that Barbara Ann will be complicitous in murder if it is a necessary step for her to achieve her primary and secondary goals. Hence the nurturing role and function of the American family, so idealized in films of Ford, is entirely absent.

4. “Ford presents the lynch mob as essentially good citizens whose energies . . . get temporarily out of control. They need to be reminded of what is “right”—of a fixed and absolute set of values ratified by biblical text—whereupon their basic soundness is reaffirmed.” Although it is not made entirely clear whether the “student body” of Alan’s new high school—“Consolidated”—is composed of children of the dominant classes, it is strongly implied that they are. They are all white, affluent, cliquish, and have clearly internalized the values of extravagant financial expenditure, as indicated by the girls’ awareness of the invidious distinction bestowed by wearing cashmere sweaters, as opposed to the sweater made of inexpensive “synthetic” fabric that Barbara Ann wears early on. After Alan disrupts the graduation ceremony by destroying the staging platform with the tractor—presumably killing “Bobby Bear” (Barbara Ann's first picture is titled Bikini Widow) as well as the members of the school administration—the students and faculty are transformed into a lynch mob that chases him into the school building. He manages to escape their wrath by locking them out (his many keys again suggesting his status as demiurge), and the police gain admittance only by smashing the glass door, thereby allowing them to unlock it. (The police, as authority figures, are also depicted as inept.) The eruption of mob violence would seem to be a “natural” consequence of Alan’s violent actions—the link between violence and male sexuality is implicitly confirmed—but unlike what is often the case in Ford’s work, which as Wood observes is often preoccupied “with the ways in which ‘excess’ energies can be safely contained,” the energies, some destructive, some sexual, shown unleashed in Lord Love a Duck can only be contained, precariously, by a deep act of sublimation, as when Alan, cornered on the roof of the high school building, surrenders to the police. He first orders the police to “stop,” then adopts a sort of Zen-like pose, extending arms to them in an act of submission. Although time and space do not allow me to fully explore the subject, the necessity to sublimate destructive energies seems to me to be one of the film’s preoccupations. As an example, Stella Barnard’s (Ruth Gordon’s) sudden keen taste for alcohol seems to blunt her highly negative and destructive energies. The female psychiatrist’s aggressive attitude toward Alan is blunted, temporarily at least, when she is smoking; principal Emmett’s energies (sexual and otherwise) are blunted by the pencil he’s always putting in his mouth and holding like a dog holds a bone, and so on.

5. “Ford’s idealization of motherhood is central to Young Mr. Lincoln and to the ideology it embodies. The mother is reverenced as the rock on which the family, hence civilization, is built . . . .” In Lord Love a Duck, as in The Chase, the “collapse of confidence in the figure of the Mother . . . points directly to a collapse of confidence in the family structure and, beyond that, in traditional sexual relationships generally.” This latter insight is true of much of Axelrod’s work in general.

6. “It follows from Ford’s veneration of the mother than nothing in Young Mr. Lincoln questions the rightness and sanctity of marriage.” In contrast, nothing in Lord Love a Duck validates the rightness and sanctity of marriage. It is not clear, moreover, that Barbara Ann’s marriage to “Bobby Bear” is ever consummated, and his behavior is often portrayed as Oedipal toward his mother.

7. “In Young Mr. Lincoln the bible . . . is the ultimate sanction, and Lincoln’s authority is seen as God-given.” As Wood points out, in The Chase religion “is reduced to the helpless, absurd and annoying mumblings of Miss Henderson, who is represented as mad.” In Lord Love a Duck, religious services are held at the “First Drive-In Church of Southern California,” where one can “Worship in the Privacy of Your Own Automobile.” We happen to overhear the sermon on the Book of Leviticus, which the minister tells his parish (all in automobiles, parked as if at a drive-in move theater) is “long, confusing, and even boring.” Conventional religion is so marginalized it has ceased to be culturally relevant.

8. “The link between violence and male sexuality, which is implicit and probably unconscious in Young Mr. Lincoln, is fully explicit in The Chase.” Likewise, too, in Lord Love a Duck, as I pointed out above.

9. “Lincoln’s progress in Ford’s film is stimulated by his learning from the books passed on to him by the Clay family: he is guided toward his destiny as President by Ann Rutledge and Blackstone’s Commentaries, by women and nature, law and learning.” In Lord Love a Duck, the concept of progress through learning is debased by technology and economic necessity, as revealed by the brand new “Consolidated” high school being chic, having the latest technology, such as a PA system throughout the school, and elevators. The new technology is also mocked during a scene in which Barbara Ann provocatively raises the principal’s, Mr. Emmett’s, phallic PA microphone to her mouth and blows (into) it, causing Mr. Emmett’s to giggle and wiggle in his chair like an adolescent school boy. Moreover, the school’s very name, “Consolidated,” suggests that the new school was built out of a need for economic “efficiency” by the fictional school system of the film. The aphorism excerpted from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism and quoted (incorrectly) in the opening title sequence (as “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” rather than “A little learning…”) also foregrounds the role of education, but Pope’s famous aphorism is reinterpreted as, “Go To School/Get A Little Knowledge/Live Dangerously.” The meaning of the reinterpretation suggests that true knowledge comes only from experience, as opposed to what is sometimes pejoratively referred to as “book learning.”

10. “Hollywood’s emblems for a lost innocence/happiness suggest a steady descent into disillusionment.” In Young Mr. Lincoln, Wood sees Ann Rutledge, although she is dead, as the “spiritual support” for Lincoln’s career. He also mentions emblems such as Kane’s “Rosebud” and “the river” of Written on the Wind, both emblems representing a lost innocence. There is no comparable image in Lord Love a Duck representing lost innocence, no nostalgic emblem. The only moment remotely suggestive of a kind of childhood innocence is when Alan and Barbara Ann inscribe their names in the wet concrete on the roof of the new “Consolidated” high school. Actually, Alan doesn’t sign his name at all, but rather the name “Mollymauk,” accompanied by the outline of the bird “thought to be extinct, but isn’t.” Indeed, rather than lost innocence, we get the name “Mollymauk,” which uncomfortably rhymes with “muck,” as in the lyrics in Neal Hefti’s title song to the film, with the lines “down on my luck-o/stuck in the muck-o,” referring to “muck and mire,” that is, filth.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Illegal Smile

Last night I watched Ron Mann’s documentary Grass (1999), not so much a social history of marijuana in the United States as an exploration of the government’s attempt, over a roughly 70-year period, to make marijuana possession (and therefore, presumably, its use) a criminal offense of ever-escalating severity. His film is a marvelous compendium of newsreel footage, clips from educational scare films, period music, and feature film excerpts with references to the herb, from the largely unknown (at least to me) High on the Range (1929) to the well-known cautionary tale, Tell Your Children (1936) AKA Reefer Madness. While Mann, to his credit, reveals the extent of the government’s systematic propaganda campaign against marijuana, for which it has, apparently, spent billions upon billions of dollars over the past century or so, the question that remains unexplored in the film is why—why has the U. S. government spent billions and billions of dollars attempting to discredit an rather benign drug, certainly no worse in terms of wasteful cultural expenditure than alcohol?

Perhaps the answer lies in the sort of behavior with which marijuana has been variously associated during the decades explored by the film, for instance, jazz and swing in the 1930s (racial “mixing,” or miscegenation), R&B in the 1950s (juvenile delinquency), psychedelic rock in the 1960s (“free love,” or sexual promiscuity), and the cults of the 1980s (Satanism and goth rock). In other words, the government's campaigns were as much about attacking marijuana as they were attempts to discredit or proscribe certain social behaviors, broadly understood as youthful insolence. As a Victorian—who held the key government position of “drug czar” for over 30 years—Harry J. Anslinger’s campaign against marijuana seems to have been motivated out of a hatred of the anti-Victorian forces and forms of modernism, of which the popular expression in the 1920s and 1930s was jazz and swing, represented by the Afro-American musician. It was therefore motivated out of racism (toward the black jazz artists of the 20s and 30s, but also toward the rock musicians of the 50s and 60s, e.g., Little Richard, Chuck Berry). It would seem that the government’s anti-drug campaign during those decades is roughly analogous to the idea of censorship. While censorship can operate at the level of production (as in the case of “prior restraint,” the prohibition of certain behaviors or practices, for instance), it can also operate before the production stage, meaning it makes certain thoughts literally unthinkable. Racial mixing, or miscegenation, is an example of such a forbidden thought during the swing era. In the rock era, John Prine’s song, “Illegal Smile,” is a wry critique of the sort of censorship that outlaws certain thoughts. Prine has said that the phrase, “illegal smile,” refers not only to the bemused look on a stoned person’s face, but also the “knowing smile” one exchanges with another when each one understands that a joke or reference has violated certain proscribed thoughts—the silent, non-verbal communication, in the form of a smile, that occurs between individuals living under the threat of punitive action. A video of his performance of the song is available here.

13 Sonic Celebrations Of Grass:
Louis Armstrong, Song of the Vipers (1934)
Black Sabbath, Sweet Leaf (1971)
Black Uhuru, Sinsemilla (1980)
Brewer and Shipley, One Toke Over the Line (1970)
Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, Reefer Man (1932)
Bob Dylan, Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 (1966)
Fraternity of Man, Don’t Bogart Me (1969)
Lil Green, Knockin’ Myself Out (1941)
John Prine, Illegal Smile (1971)
Bessie Smith, Gimme a Reefer (1933)
Steppenwolf, Don't Step on the Grass, Sam (1968)
The Toyes, Smoke Two Joints (1983)
Muddy Waters, Champagne and Reefer (1981)

Saturday, February 6, 2010

"The Music of Savages"

As Ted Gioia observes in The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture (1988), in the early years of jazz studies, the first important critics were European, all of whom employed the discourse of “primitivism,” i.e., they were heavily influenced by the writings of Diderot, Rousseau and the idea of the “noble savage.” As he rightly points out, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “primitive” and “exotic” art started attracting the attention of Western artists and became the sources of new ideas and artistic forms; les choses Africaines “began appearing with great frequency in Paris around 1906” (21). “The idealization and theorization of primitivism in French culture was soon followed by an equally enthusiastic . . . reception for another import from foreign soil,” he writes—American jazz, which arrived in Europe toward the end of World War I, in the form of jazz records brought over by American soldiers (21). In other words, primitivism and exoticism became both a fashion as well as a source for “high” art. Gioia provides an illustration in the form of a quotation by the French critic Charles Delaunay, an early pioneer of jazz studies: “In fact, certain masterpieces of Negro sculpture can compete perfectly well with beautiful works of European sculpture of the greatest periods” (27). Or, in the words of Hugues Panassie, the jazz critic known as “the venerable frog”: “In what way would the music of savages be inferior to that of civilized man?” Many scholars have observed, “Jazz, in particular, has provided the raw material for a critique of the attitudes of white musicians, critics, and listeners drawn to black music culture” (see Georgina Born, Western Music and Its Others, 22). She points to an article by Amiri Baraka published in Downbeat in 1963, titled “Jazz and the White Critic,” in which he points out that one of the distortions of jazz resulted from the treatment of jazz as “natural” and “primitive.”

One need look no further than the work of Belgian critic Robert Goffin, who, in his early work Jazz: From the Congo to the Metropolitan (1944), observed about Louis Armstrong, for instance, “[he] is a full-blooded Negro. He brought the directness and spontaneity of his race to jazz music” (167). Gioia argues that it was Goffin who was the first to formulate the stereotype which has lingered with jazz “until the present day,” the stereotype “which views jazz as a music charged with emotion but largely devoid of intellectual content, and which sees the jazz musician as the inarticulate and unsophisticated practitioner of an art which he himself scarcely understands” (30-31). Gioia calls this “the primitivist myth,” a stereotype which rests upon a belief in the primitive’s unreflective and instinctive relationship with his art. But lest one think the primitivist myth is exclusively European, I should point out that the association of jazz and primitivism was uncritically accepted by American jazz critics once the works of the first European critics reached American shores. Few insightful works were written by Americans in the early years of jazz, primarily because it was generally perceived as both passing fad and as the musical form of a decadent race.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Comments Disabled

For some reason, after a couple of years of existence, my blog is now being targeted for random comments from a location (or locations) overseas. This morning, for instance, I had to go through several past entries, a time-consuming process, and remove the comments, which had absolutely nothing to do with the subject of the blog entry itself. Therefore, reluctantly, I am, for the time being anyway, changing my settings so as to disable comments by anonymous readers. I'm loathe to do this, as normally I learn something from the comments readers take the time to post. However, those who wish to contact me can do so by clicking on the "Contact Sam" link to the right, as well as through my university email address, also listed on this site. After a month or so I'll change the settings back to allowing anonymous comments, but for the time being I'm deactivating it.