Friday, January 15, 2010

Wild Civility

The soundtrack to the film Pretty Woman (1990) contains Christopher Otcasek’s cover version of Johnny O’Keefe’s 1958 hit, “The Wild One” in its retitled form, “Real Wild Child (Wild One).” The serendipitous linkage is highly revealing, as it suggests that “wildness,” as opposed to “civility,” concerns the projection of proper social behavior, that is, decorum (social appearance), or what we now call “image management.” For the dramatic intrigue of Pretty Woman revolves around the issue of how to behave properly, socially speaking. The special problem of the film is how the Julia Roberts character, a prostitute, must learn proper social decorum from below. Rather like Eliza Doolittle (My Fair Lady), she must make the difficult transition from an ill-mannered street waif (low) to proper lady (high). But the story demands she make this complex negotiation from (private) individual goodness to (public) spiritual elegance (conferred by exposure to “high” culture, such as opera) look easy, and eventually commit to a higher love (monogamy).

Robert Herrick’s much-anthologized poem, “Delight in Disorder,” from which the expression “wild civility” comes, is a poem that interrogates Neoclassical assumptions of decorum—that is, the management of social appearances, the courtier’s emulation of correct models of behavior as set forth by Castiglione (and others). Herrick expresses a certain erotic interest in women who exhibit a “wild civility,” or, in modern parlance, engage in “double articulation,” speaking two different messages to two audiences using one (symbolic) utterance. “Wildness” as such therefore might be understood as a form of Bakhtinian “carnival,” mocking and subverting the mainstream culture rather than a form of “harmless” fun. Hence being “wild” isn’t just about having fun, but about mockery and subterfuge.

What Some Wild Things Are:
.38 Special – Wild-Eyed Southern Boys
The Beach Boys – Wild Honey
Brook Benton – Walk on the Wild Side (from the motion picture)
Donald Byrd – Wild Life
Marshall Crenshaw – Little Wild One (No. 5)
Duran Duran – The Wild Boys
The Escape Club – Wild Wild West
INXS – Wild Life
Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch – Wildside
Paul McCartney & Wings – Wild Life
Mötley Crüe – Wild Side
Johnny O’Keefe – The Wild One AKA Real Wild Child (Wild One)
The Peddlers – Walk on the Wild Side
Lou Reed – Walk on the Wild Side
Dan Seals – (You Bring Out) The Wild Side of Me
Slaughter – The Wild Life
Steppenwolf – Born To Be Wild
Talking Heads – Wild Wild Life
Hank Thompson – The Wild Side of Life
The Troggs – Wild Thing

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


French filmmaker Eric Rohmer (1920-2010) has died, at age 89, and has been widely written about and eulogized, even by commentators who obviously have seen only a handful of his films. This article by Agnès Poirier, for instance, gets the biographical details correct, although she overemphasizes his contribution to the French Nouvelle Vague, calling him the movement’s “father,” when in fact Rohmer was neither revolutionary in his aesthetics, as was Godard, nor audacious in his film criticism, as was Truffaut—after all, Rohmer didn’t make his first film until he was almost 40 years old. She is no doubt correct, though, in her observation that Rohmer “always followed Rimbaud’s mantra: ‘One must be absolutely modern’,” but then the same also could be said of Godard and Truffaut. Rohmer’s first film that actually showed an active interest in exploring the lives of adventurous young moderns, La Collectionneuse (filmed late 1966, released 1967), was made when he was 46. Featuring Haydée Politoff (pictured left), Patrick Bauchau (right), his wife Mijanou Bardot, and painter Daniel Pommereulle, one would be hard-pressed to say his film unequivocally embraced the sexual mores (and, in one instance, drug use) of hip Parisian bohemians (at least as Rohmer saw them) of the 1960s. According to Sally Shafto (in her important monograph, The Zanzibar Films and the Dandies of May 1968, published 2000), Rohmer cast La Collectionneuse with individuals he perceived to be at the forefront of the “Sixties Generation,” in their behavior, attitude, and sensibility. A revealing fact is that Rohmer refused to cast the painter Frédéric Pardo in the film because he thought his hair was too long.

The first film by Rohmer I actually saw in a movie theater was The Marquise of O (1976), which I found utterly fascinating and have always found to be his best film. Ironically, although it is perhaps his most feted film behind My Night at Maud’s (1969)—which I didn’t see until its home video incarnation well over two decades after it’s release—it’s typically neglected in favor of the films that comprise the Six Moral Tales, privileged by critics, I suspect, because they themselves were ambivalent about the provocative sexual lives and sensibilities of young people in the 60s. Although compared by some to a painter, it was actually Robert Bresson—who died just over ten years ago, in December 1999—who’d studied to be a painter, and with whom Rohmer most closely identified, even if Bresson was the better filmmaker. As a consequence of his death, many writers have written rhapsodically about his films, but it seems strange to me that they ignore what was his most significant contribution to film studies—the formation of the auteur theory. For it was the book on Alfred Hitchcock that he co-authored with Claude Chabrol, titled simply Hitchcock and published in 1957 soon after the release of Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), that not only bolstered Hitchcock’s critical reputation but was a foundational work of auteur criticism—but not the Nouvelle Vague (they are not synonyms). Hence I would like to see Rohmer’s contribution to the formation of the auteur theory acknowledged every bit as much as his films, for in a very real sense he made the important contribution of making modern film studies thinkable in the first place.

I have found this article by Dave Kehr to be the most balanced of the many obituaries to be found on the web.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Hey! Ho! Let's Go!

Songs with nonsense syllables serve to remind us that American music since the jazz era always has been more a matter of sound than sense—scat singing is perhaps the prototype in this regard—but the more important issue is the privileging of sound over sense. These types of songs also reveal the difficulty of writing about music, since those critics who find it difficult if not impossible to write about music as music tend to overappreciate the lyrics, especially those lyrics having a so-called “political” theme. Of course, rock was political—but not because of what it said (think of Elvis appearing on the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show in 1956 singing “Flip Flop & Fly,” which prompted any number of critics to condemn rock as the sort of music enjoyed by cretinous goons), but because of its revolutionary sound. Indeed, early on, people didn’t even know what to call rock music. As is well known, it was Alan Freed who popularized the use of the term “rock and roll,” but before that the music was often called “bop” (as in Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula”), after the postwar rise of “bebop” or “rebop” to describe the contemporary form of jazz, these latter words probably derived from “Arriba! Arriba!” (essentially, C'mon! Let’s go!) used by Latin American bandleaders to strike up their bands. The R&B mutation known as “doo-wop” also popularized the use of nonsense syllables, but there are many instances of its use—Lionel Hampton’s R&B hit “Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop” from 1946 is an example—in the years prior to Elvis’s popularization of rock ‘n’ roll in 1956. We musn’t forget Frank Sinatra’s famous scat singing consisting of “dobedobedo,” of course, nor should we forget Scooby Doo’s immortal, “Scooby Dooby Doo!”

Hey! Some Blitzkrieg Bop:
Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke – Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious
The Beatles – I Am the Walrus
The Crystals – Da Doo Ron Ron
The Edsels – Rama-Lama-Ding-Dong
Shirley Ellis – The Name Game
Lionel Hampton – Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop
Little Richard – Tutti Frutti
Barry Mann – Who Put the Bomp (in The Bomp, Bomp, Bomp)
Manfred Mann – Do Wah Diddy Diddy
The Marcels – Blue Moon
The Merry Macs – Mairzy Doats
Roy Orbison – Ooby Dooby
The Police – Da Doo Doo Doo, De Da Da Da
Slim and Slam – The Flat Foot Floogee (With The Floy Floy)
Frank Sinatra – Strangers in the Night
The Ramones – The Blitzkrieg Bop
Gene Vincent – Be-Bop-A-Lula