Sunday, February 3, 2008

Tuesday, January 12, 1960: Parisian Romp

I've never been able to shake the impression that Elvis's year and a half in Germany (October 1958-March 1960) while a soldier in the U. S. Army had a sort of surreal quality to it. Arriving in Bremerhaven on October 1, 1958 and met by approximately 1,500 unruly fans, Der Elvis must have experienced a sense of deja vu, believing for a moment he was back in America. Soon after his arrival, he boarded a train to Friedberg, northeast of Frankfurt, where he and the other members of the Thirty-second Tank Battalion, Third Armored Division, were installed in the austere, grey-bricked Ray Barracks which, about twenty years earlier, had been the barracks of Hitler's S. S. troops.

"I'd like to meet Brigitte Bardot," Elvis had said while still in America, on the day he departed for Germany, and perhaps he'd meant it, because twice he used the opportunity that extended leave gave him to visit Paris. Apparently he never met Brigitte Bardot, but in addition to meeting lots of cute German girls, while on leave Der Elvis also met many cute French girls. Peter Guralnick, in Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley (Little, Brown, 1999) said that while in Germany Elvis had other sorts of encounters as well, having met "pills that a sergeant had introduced him to when they were on maneuvers at Grafenwöhr" (p. 21). Guralnick goes on to write on the same page that one time one of Elvis's service buddies observed Elvis exchange some "'large bills'" for "over four quart-size bottles of amphetamines....When Elvis returned to the car, he said with a wink, 'Rexadus, it ain't what you know but who you know that counts in this old world.' And Rex couldn't help but think, 'And if you got lots of money it helps.' "

Albert Goldman, author of the much-maligned (read: mythbusting) biography Elvis (McGraw-Hill, 1981) isn't quite so sure that Elvis was first introduced to amphetamines in Germany, believing that this explanation is nothing but an expression of the old "innocence corrupted" myth--the inevitable Platonic apocalyptic sequence of deviation from the Good--that fans hold on to about their cherished King. I tend to agree with Goldman: there's no evidence that Elvis did not use amphetamines prior to entering the Army--his mother's use of "weight loss" pills is well documented--and well-known Memphis figures Elvis knew before entering the service, such as Dewey Phillips, allegedly got by with a little help from their friends.

According to Peter Guralnick and Ernst Jorgensen's Elvis Day By Day (Ballantine, 1999), on Tuesday, January 12, 1960, Elvis traveled with his friends Joe Esposito, Cliff Gleaves, and his new found friend and recently hired karate instructor, Jurgen Seydel--"the father of German karate"--to Paris. Required to return to the base by Sunday, Guralnick reports the second trip to Paris was "much the same" (p. 49) as the first trip to the city of lights, meaning an amphetamine-fueled nighttime trip fantastic, in which Der Elvis careened "from one improbable fantasy to another" (34). The Parisian romps anticipated his life-to-come in America after returning from exile in Germany:

They woke up late in the day to have their one full meal, a huge 8:00 p.m. breakfast. Then they would catch the first show at the Carousel or the Folies Bergère, and from there go on to the Lido, where the statuesque chorus line, the Blue Belles, were all English girls eager to make Elvis Presley's acquaintance. After the Lido closed, they would proceed to Le Bantu, a late-night club which didn't open until 4:00 a.m., bringing with them as many of the Blue Belles as wanted to come along. At the end of the evening Elvis would take his pick from among all the girls, leaving the rest for [the others] to choose from. (34)

Returning from his second trip to Paris on Sunday, January 17, Elvis had just about seven weeks left in the Army. He would return to America late on the evening of March 2, and three days later, on March 5, the King would be formally discharged from the service. Hence, on January 12, his army nightmare was just about over, but Elvis's image would be irrevocably altered (perhaps intentionally) during his absence, and his cultural influence effectively over. As John Lennon is supposed to have remarked upon hearing of Elvis's death in 1977: "Elvis died the day he went into the army."

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Monday, January 11, 1960: Cold Shower

According to author Stephen Rebello, in his extremely interesting and well-researched book, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (St. Martin's Griffin, 1998, p. 138), on January 8, 1960, director Alfred Hitchcock sent a memo to his sound men, Waldon O. Watson and William Russell, giving them explicit instructions about the role of sound in the shower scene. Surprisingly, no mention is made of music. We can safely assume, I think, that the (now famous) shower scene of Psycho was being edited--though was certainly not completed--on Monday, January 11, 1960. The premiere of the film was slightly over five months away.

The title of Rebello's book about the film is carefully worded, because it is clear that Alfred Hitchock cannot take full credit for the success of Psycho--indeed, his role in post-production was virtually non-existent. Revealingly, after screening a rough cut of the film, Hitchcock himself thought the film was terrible, and considered cutting it down and salvaging it by showing it as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The achievement of Psycho, such as it is, seems in retrospect to have been the result of two factors: the extremely talented artists with which Hitchcock surrounded himself--first and foremost, film editor George Tomasini, the aforementioned sound designers, Waldon O. Watson and William Russell, and composer Bernard Herrmann--and the first generation of American critics (e. g., Andrew Sarris) who had adopted the assumptions and perspectives of the auteur theory. The achievement of the film itself is largely a technical one; its status as a "classic" is largely a discursive one, Hitchcock having pride of place as the first movie director bestowed the imprimatur of auteur. What was Romanticism in the nineteenth century was called Modernism in the twentieth, and like all Modernists, Hitchcock took to heart the principle of the self as art, and ran with it. (I highly recommend Robert E. Kapsis's book, Hitchcock: The Making of a Reputation, University of Chicago Press, 1990.)

The French New Wave critics who had disseminated and promoted the auteur theory through the journal Cahiers du Cinema—Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard—had one primary champion, and that was Alfred Hitchcock. Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol's Hitchcock was published in 1957, shortly after the release of Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956), and was an early important work of auteur theory (although it remained untranslated into English for many years). The reason for Rohmer's and Chabrol's choice to champion Hitchcock most certainly was because they perceived him to be much like themselves: Catholic, politically liberal, intelligent, and Modern. However, since auteurists (at least the French ones) always had trouble with what they called a "Tradition of Quality," the auteurist position tended to champion directors who sometimes made bad films (e. g., besides Hitchcock, Otto Preminger) or were not very nice (e. g., Sam Peckinpah) or were not very intelligent (e.g., name omitted). And as one might expect, the hallowed pantheon of auteurs was also always a boy's club--the offices of Cahiers du Cinema had pin-ups on the walls well into the 1960s.

My friend Frank Mazzola, who grew up in Hollywood and eventually became a respected film editor, told me that while he was an apprentice editor in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was a "gofer" at Universal while George Tomasini was editing Psycho and Bob Lawrence was editing Spartacus (the films were released about three months apart in 1960). Tomasini's offices were at one end of the floor and Lawrence's were at the other. Saul Bass, who created the title sequences for both films, was also there, moving between both sets of offices. While Frank saw Kubrick, he never saw Hitchcock, although Hitchcock had a office/bungalow at Universal. The famous shower sequence in Psycho was created not by Hitchcock but by Tomasini, sound designers Watson and Russell, by Bernard Herrmann's strings--and, according to Stephen Rebello, by Mrs. Hitchcock, who in her screening of the sequence was the only one of them all to notice that although she's presumably dead when she falls to the floor, Janet Leigh blinked, forcing Tomasini to insert a brief cutaway to the shower head.

I should note that Tomasini was Hitchcock's editor of choice for a decade, from Rear Window (1954) through Marnie (1964). After Tomasini's early death in November 1964 at age 55, Hitchcock made only four more films in a period of twelve years, none of which are very interesting. For whatever reason, it would seem that Hitchcock lost interest in making movies after Tomasini's death.

In retrospect, the major contribution of the French auteur theorists is that they invented film studies (and directors such as Alfred Hitchcock as well), for without the notion of the director as writer, film courses never would have been able to be offered in university English departments, which is where film studies courses were first offered. Of course, there are other reasons that contributed to rise of film studies--the collapse of university enrollments following the abolition of the draft in the early 1970s being one, but nonetheless the auteur theory was an extremely important factor in the development of film studies in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Has the significance of the shower sequence been over-emphasized in critical discussions of Psycho? For interesting discussion of that question, go here. For an excerpt from Rebello's book, as well as contemporary film reviews in addition to critical interpretations and re-assessments of Psycho, see Robert Kolker, Ed., Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho: A Casebook, Oxford University Press, 2004).

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sunday, January 10, 1960

The crucial role of television to promote presidential candidates and their agendas is now an accepted truism. If this commonplace bit of wisdom is indeed true, then it should come as no surprise that three future U. S. Presidents were television personalities in 1960: John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, of course, were presidential candidates, but perhaps the most popularly-known figure of the three was Ronald Reagan--but not because of the "obvious" reason, that he was a movie star. In fact, at the time, Reagan was host of the highly successful television series, General Electric Theater. Broadcast by CBS on Sunday nights in the 9:00-9:30 p.m. Eastern time slot, after The Ed Sullivan Show and before Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Ronald Reagan become program host of General Electric Theater on September 26, 1954; with Reagan as host, by December of that year--three months later--General Electric Theater had entered Nielsen's Top 10 among all television programs as the most popular weekly dramatic program.

According to William L. Bird, Jr., in an article on the program that can be found at the Museum of Broadcast Communications website,

By the time General Electric Theater concluded its eight-year run in 1962, Reagan claimed to have visited GE's 135 research and manufacturing facilities, and met some 250,000 individuals. In later years, Reagan's biographers would look back upon the tour and the platform it provided for the future President of the United States to sharpen his already considerable skill as a communicator.

The last General Electric Theater program was broadcast on May 27, 1962; four years from that date, Ronald Reagan was about five months away from being convincingly elected Governor of California (1966). Although defeated in his 1960 presidential bid, Richard Nixon would return to politics as well, and be elected President in 1968. Perhaps it is not ludicrous at all to consider the possibility that politicians and their handlers learned something from Col. Tom Parker, who used television to catapult Elvis Presley from regional success to national sensation in 1956. Indeed, the rise of Elvis corresponds to a transitional moment in media technology--the rise of television. So, too, would the political careers of future presidents correspond to the new technology of television.

Saturday, January 9, 1960

A week earlier, on January 2, 1960, then Senator John F. Kennedy announced his candidacy for President of the United States, ending several months of speculation about his intentions. JFK was the first to introduce "speed" into presidential politics, as he was the first presidential candidate to use a private aircraft as his primary means of transportation--"the soaring 60s" indeed (see my blog entry for January 5). According to the page devoted to JFK's airplane at the National Air and Space Museum website, the aircraft was a Convair 240 that had been purchased several months earlier by Joseph Kennedy in preparation for his son's Presidential campaign. According to the NASM webpage:

Historians credit this aircraft with providing Kennedy with the narrow margin of victory for it allowed him to campaign more effectively during that very hotly contested race. The "Caroline," named after President Kennedy's daughter, revolutionized American politics; since 1960 all presidential candidates have used aircraft as their primary means of transportation.

Following his successful bid for President, for security reasons the aircraft was seldom used by JFK afterwards, although it was used by members of the Kennedy family until 1967, when in September of that year Senator Edward Kennedy, recognizing its historical significance, offered to donate the airplane to NASM. Following a formal ceremony in November 1967, the plane was flown to Andrews AFB and then trucked to Silver Hill where it was dismantled and left outside to deteriorate for the next twenty years. In the late 1980s, a curatorial crew and the conservator cleaned the filthy interior of the aircraft, and finally it was moved indoors to safety.

Certain material artifacts of historical significance, such as JFK's Convair 240, have a curious circulation in our culture in their "afterlife." Unlike most quotidian (manufactured) objects, they are transformed into "found objects," capable of being contemplated as works of art, but unlike found objects they often also become excessive signifiers, quasi-magical objects with demonic powers. Think of the myths surrounding James Dean's Porsche 550 Spyder for instance, or the custom-built 1961 Lincoln Continental in which President Kennedy was assassinated. While I could provide many other examples of this sort of fetishization--visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to get an idea of what I'm talking about--this sort of preoccupation is a peculiar characteristic of the so-called "Baby Boom" Generation (of which I am a member), which has detailed and catalogued every last compartment of Baby Boom Culture. While the preservation of such objects serves to connect us in a material way to previous generations, and thus provides the important function of continuity from one generation to the next, the transformation of these manufactured objects into excessive signifiers seems to me to be a recent historical phenomenon, perhaps because the recent hundred years or so seems so characterized by the disaster.

In the Middle Ages, superstitious religious pilgrims often purchased holy relics such as saints' bones, duped by unscrupulous merchants into buying them. The value of the contemporary equivalent of the holy relic is largely determined by that particular object's excessive signification. About a year and a half ago I visited the Titanic exhibit in St. Louis, where a portion of the hull was displayed under plexiglass. A small round hole had been cut into the display, allowing visitors actually to the hull. The hull of the Titanic, JFK's Convair 240, James Dean's Porsche 550 Spyder--even Graceland itself--are all examples of excessive signifiers.

Did I reach through the hole in the plexiglass display and touch the hull of the Titanic? Of course.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Friday, January 8, 1960

"...But there ain't no cure for the summertime blues..."

According to the webpage, on January 8, 1960, rocker Eddie Cochran--perhaps most famous for "Summertime Blues"--completed his last formal studio recordings, at Goldstar Studio in Hollywood. The next day, he left for an extended tour of the UK, arriving there on January 10th in order to join up with the Gene Vincent Show. Several popularly successful television performances featuring Cochran and Gene Vincent were broadcast in the UK over the next several weeks.

As is well known, Eddie Cochran never left the UK alive, having been killed slightly over three months after his arrival, the result of an automobile accident that occurred near 12 midnight on April 16th, 1960; he died from his injuries the next afternoon. (I note in passing that author Albert Camus was killed in an automobile accident on January 4, 1960.) In an improbable twist, according to, the name of the cab driver that fateful night was--George Martin . . . not the George Martin who would later, famously, produce The Beatles, but the serendipity is startling. Perhaps especially so, since one of the earliest known recordings of The Beatles (or, more precisely, three-quarters of the band that would become The Beatles), found on The Beatles' Anthology 1 (1995), is virtually a note-by note copy of Eddie Cochran's "Hallelujah, I Love Her So," recorded by the future Beatles sometime during the spring of 1960.

"Hallelujah, I Love Her So," released in the United States in October 1959, was the last single released in the UK during Cochran's lifetime, released in the UK in January, 1960, no doubt in order to coincide with his UK tour (although I strongly suspect that such extended appearances would not have called "tours" in those days). No doubt John, Paul, or George--or all three--picked up the single sometime soon after its UK release; one strongly suspects that while Cochran didn't appear in concert in Liverpool during his last tour, he made concert appearances (e. g., Manchester) that would not have been impossible for the young lads to attend.

Although John Lennon was always forthcoming about being an Elvis Presley fan, at the time Elvis wasn't doing much recording: he was in the Army--and, on January 8, 1960, Elvis was in Germany, celebrating his 25th birthday. His Army service was coming to an end, but he still had a few weeks left.

Happily, Eddie Cochran was, deservedly so, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Thursday, January 7, 1960

"Marina found herself thinking, how odd, that when Khrushchev visited Minsk while she was living there with Lee, there were strong rumors of an assassination attempt."

--Don DeLillo, Libra (Penguin, 1991), p. 451

According to Norman Mailer's Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery (Random House, 1995, p. 64), on January 7, 1960 Lee Harvey Oswald left Moscow by train for Minsk, Belarus, where he would be employed in a factory. Hence Oswald, living in Russia at that point for about three months, probably didn't have any knowledge of the fact that five days earlier, on January 2, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy had announced his intention to run for President of the United States.

Until the publication of Mailer's book, not much was known about Oswald's time in Minsk, but it is a fascinating tale (indeed, as is Oswald's tale in general), and Mailer devotes almost the first two hundred pages of his book to Oswald in Russia, referencing interviews consisting almost entirely of Oswald's Russian friends.

It was in Minsk, while he was employed there in a factory, that he would meet his future wife, Marina Prusakova, on March 17, 1961 ("...a girl with a French hairdo and red dress with white slippers" wrote Oswald about her in his journal, qtd. on p. 167). If it weren't for the fact that his name is Lee Harvey Oswald, his and Marina's story would by now have formed loosely the basis of a stormy, steamy Hollywood Romance. Having met her in mid-March, by April they are going steady; when she refuses his attempts to seduce her--"to put him off" in colloquial American English--he proposes marriage to her instead--which she accepts. They were married on April 30, 1961, six weeks after they'd met (the picture above was taken in Minsk a month or so after they were married). Marina soon became pregnant, but way before that, Oswald had already decided to return to America.

Of course, Mailer would, I think, caution against "fitting Oswald into one or another species of plot. Perhaps it would be more felicitous to ask: What kind of man was Oswald? Can we feel compassion for his troubles, or will we end by seeing him as a disgorgement from the errors of the cosmos, a monster?" (p. 197). Has any modern historical figure been the subject of so much speculation? Has any figure been so carefully studied, had so much written about him, had so many narrative emplotments constructed, so many hundreds of details scrutinized and re-scrutinized, as Lee Harvey Oswald? I have no idea of the number of websites devoted to Oswald and Kennedy assassination conspiracies, but they must number in the dozens. I'm not a believer in the conspiracy theories, all of which, as is well known, received renewed interest after Oliver Stone's JFK (1991). I for one think Mailer is right: rather than ask, Who killed John F. Kennedy? the more difficult and more daunting question is, What kind of man was Oswald?

"Who among us can say that he [Oswald] is in no way related to our own dream?" Mailer asks at the end of his long and disturbing mystery (p. 791), a reminder to us that the Other is not entirely different than ourselves. And as the story of Lee Harvey Oswald also reminds us, some mysteries are even more disturbing to us because they have no reassuring answers, no comforting revelations.