Monday, August 3, 2009

Rock On Film

According to Thomas Doherty, in his book Teenagers and Teenpics, it was the use of “Rock Around the Clock” over the opening credits of Blackboard Jungle—released March 1955—that revealed to Hollywood producers rock music could heighten the appeal of a movie (p. 76). However, early on, movies featuring rock music and rock musicians are largely an undistinguished lot, and command little interest anymore, except that of an historic kind. I recently tried to watch the Sam Katzman produced Rock Around the Clock (released in March 1956 according to the IMDB, that is, precisely a year after Blackboard Jungle), featuring Bill Haley and His Comets as well as Alan Freed, and found myself dozing off after the first thirty minutes. Its most interesting feature was the way it demonstrated how the jive talk of jazz culture was quickly imitated by early rock ‘n’ rollers—the word “bebop,” for instance, was used early on to refer to rock music. This feature is revealing because it shows how early (white) rockers tried to manage their relationship to black (masculine) culture.

This historic hindsight allows us to see that a fundamental problem of early movies about rock music was how to handle the complex negotiation of white forays into black culture. Certainly this problem was often displaced, as it is, for instance, in Rock Around the Clock, in which the underlying dynamic is between competing forms of music. Little Richard and Chuck Berry each appeared in a film in 1956 (Don’t Knock the Rock and Rock, Rock, Rock, respectively) but the figure—the transitional object—that eventually allowed such white forays was, of course, Elvis Presley, who burst onto the national stage in 1956. And yet, with few exceptions, Elvis’s channeling of black male sexuality was largely confined to his stage performance, and virtually absent from his cinematic performances, revealing how rock culture and cinematic culture had radically distinct racial orientations. This disparate orientation explains, I think, why virtually no rock films of this era now have little intrinsic interest beyond their historic (documentary) value. Elvis’s rise to fame coincided with the huge increase in the number of televisions in American homes; the estimated number of viewers who saw Elvis on television in 1956 reveals as much about the sheer number of TV sets in America at the time as it does Elvis’s dynamic stage presence. However, the key point is that what was perceived as so threatening in Elvis’s TV performances is largely absent in his cinematic performances; the same disjunction explains why so many early rock films are so lifeless.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Mirror, Mirror

In Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein’s creation—the “monster”—eventually sees his reflection in the water, and is shocked by it, understanding at that moment why others find him so hideous. There’s a similar moment in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) too, when the monster (Boris Karloff, in his last appearance as the monster in a feature film) sees his reflection, and has a similar reaction. It’s a great moment, one that hearkens back to Shelley’s source novel. In the horror film, as in Gothic literature, the mirror is an instrument of truth—it cannot lie, and therefore can only reveal to us the terrible truth. The mirror shows us the real, and it is for this reason why so few of us wish to gaze too long at our reflection in it. Jean Cocteau said, “We watch ourselves grow old in mirrors. They bring us closer to death,” by which he meant, mirrors do not lie, and serve as constant reminders of our mortality.

The mirror figures in blues great Robert Pete Williams’ song, I’ve Grown So Ugly, included on the album Free Again (1961), recorded soon after Williams had been released from Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, where he’d spent the previous several years of his life. The years in prison have been hard and long, and Williams sings about a moment of (mis-)recognition similar to that of the Frankenstein monster in Shelley’s novel. He sees himself in the mirror, but doesn’t know himself anymore: “Oh baby, baby this ain’t me. I’ve got so ugly I don’t even know myself.” Years have gone by, and he has grown old while locked away in prison, and can no longer recognize himself.

Captain Beefheart covered “I’ve Grown So Ugly” on the album Safe As Milk (1967), as Grown So Ugly. His electrified version of the song, interpreted as if it were being sung by Howlin’ Wolf, is perhaps most significant because it allows us to decipher the role of the mirror in Beefheart’s music. There is, of course, the album Mirror Man, belatedly released in 1971, but there’s also “Son of Mirror Man—Mere Man,” on Strictly Personal (1968). The homonymy of mirror/mere reminds us of Cocteau’s insight, the link between the mirror and mortality (“mere man”), but “Son of Mirror Man” also happens to be an enticing link to SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. Surely your imagination is not so impoverished as to think that “Son of Mirror Man” refers only to one particular “take” or version of the song. The link explains why Beefheart's music has often been characterized as “gothic blues.”

Monday, July 27, 2009

Chess Game

Cadillac Records (2008) probably should have been a TV mini-series, which would have allowed the filmmakers to sort out what is now essentially a jumbled mess. There is a great film in here somewhere, but not in the form it currently exists (why no extended “director’s cut” of a film that desperately needs it?). Although titled Cadillac Records, the film is, more accurately, about the rise of Chicago-based Chess Records and its founder, Leonard Chess (Adrian Brody), who founded the blues label in the early 1950s along with his brother Phil (what happened to his character in the movie?). (The title is inspired by Chess’s habit of paying his artists with Cadillacs.) The film also features Chess Records’ first major recording artist, Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), as well as other artists who began or established their careers at Chess, including Little Walter (Columbus Short), Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Chuck Berry (Mos Def), and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles). The ensemble cast gives fine performances (Beyonce gives a notable performance as Etta James), but we get only brief glimpses into their individual lives, and, astonishingly, by the film’s end it remains unclear why Chess Records should be the subject of a film in the first place. Apparently biopics of the individual artists represented are not a viable option.

Of course, the soundtrack has good music, but then again, it should. But outside of some Number One hits on the R&B charts and the occasional cross-over hit, though, we learn very little about these artists’ contributions to American music or about the importance of the individual albums released on the Chess label in the late Fifties and early Sixties. Nor do we learn much about so-called “Chicago Blues” or “electrified blues,” and why the sound was, and has been, found so compelling by so many blues enthusiasts. At one point, the Rolling Stones show up and give proper obeisance to their idol, Muddy Waters, although historically one of the songs they recorded while at Chess in 1964 was the Willie Dixon-penned “The Red Rooster” (issued by the Stones as “Little Red Rooster”), first recorded by Waters’ rival, Howlin’ Wolf, on his famous and highly influential second album, Howlin’ Wolf (1962), often referred to as “The Rockin’ Chair Album.” Howlin’ Wolf’s album includes many songs that helped shape rock ‘n’ roll in the Sixties and after. In addition to “The Red Rooster,” it includes “Wang Dang Doodle” (recorded by Savoy Brown, The Grateful Dead, Charlie Watts, and others), “Spoonful” (Cream, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Ten Years After, and others), and “Back Door Man” (The Doors; others). It’s very easy for me to say what the movie “should have done,” of course, but I would have liked to see the movie explore the motives for amplification in greater detail (touched on in the opening moments, and in the early key sequences featuring Little Walter), and why Leonard Chess pushed the music in that direction. (He was obviously aware of what Sam Phillips was doing in Memphis; it was Sam Phillips who recommended Howlin’ Wolf to Leonard Chess.) The film’s contention that the (white) music industry exploited black people is a valid point—of course. While the fact is undeniably true, the film nonetheless works a rather tired idea, namely the antithesis between “authentic” music (the outpouring of real feeling, authenticity as understood as the proximity to the blues) and “commercial” music (rock ‘n’ roll in this case). The fact is,“authentic” African-American music was an effect of industrialization (by which I mean it was supported and marketed by institutions such as radio, authorized by music publishing and licensing, and affected by developments in recording technology). Chicago blues helped shape the direction of rock ‘n’ roll, to be sure, but the idea that rock ‘n’ roll is the “commercial” imitation of some Real Thing (commercialization as corruption) is simply a myth, the result of a confusion, as Simon Frith has pointed out, “that music is the starting point of the industrial process—the raw material over which everyone fights—when it is, in fact, the final product.”

I was slightly perturbed by the way the film distorts history (and does so on several occasions), but perhaps the most egregious is the way it suggests, falsely, that Elvis had a hit from Little Walter’s “My Babe” early in his career. Most any detailed Elvis discography will show that Elvis didn’t record “My Babe” until August 1969, during one of his Las Vegas shows, by which time Little Walter had been dead for almost a year and a half (Little Walter died in February 1968), and—who knows—perhaps Elvis performed the song as an homage (it was not a song he performed often, suggesting this may be possible). The film also portrays Little Walter’s death as occurring before Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon travel to England in 1967 rather than after, and also suggests that Muddy Waters was slightly surprised by the reception of blues music in England in 1967, but in fact he’d toured there previously in 1958. Beyonce Knowles’ performance as Etta James is quite good; it’s unfortunate that the film has little else to recommend it. Would that I could say otherwise.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

On Being Bored

The nightmarish scenario of Philip K. Dick’s short story, “A Little Something For Us Tempunauts” (1975), depicts time travelers (“tempunauts”) stuck in a time loop. In Dick’s novel A Maze of Death (1970), a group of space travelers is stuck forever in an orbit around a dead star, unable to break free of its powerful gravitational field. And in Dr. Bloodmoney (1965), an astronaut is forced to remain in orbit around the earth, doomed to die alone in his space ship, unable to return home because the world has been destroyed by a nuclear war. Dick’s idea of Hell as being stuck in a loop (time, or an endlessly reiterated orbit) was plundered for comic effect in Groundhog Day (1993), perhaps the most truly Phildickian film ever made, although ironically it doesn’t bear his name. (As T. S. Eliot once observed, “Strong poets steal; weak poets imitate.” The filmmakers obviously recognized a good idea when they saw one.) Once, after having shown the film to the students in one of my classes, a nonplussed student asked me to say exactly how many times Bill Murray had lived through Groundhog Day. Ask a silly question, get a silly answer, I say. So I replied simply, “a lot.”

Personally I thought the question itself demonstrated a colossal misunderstanding of the movie, on the order of, say, someone having seen Citizen Kane and then asking what “Rosebud” meant. In other words, she didn’t “get” it. While stuck in the loop, we see Bill Murray—a Dickian hero if there ever was—go through several phases, among them a suicidal one, a prankish one, and, of course, one in which he is profoundly bored. But his boredom is a kind that comes not simply from repetition, but from the recognition that the repetition will never end. Of course, for Philip K. Dick, the loopiness I’ve remarked upon is more of a metaphysical nightmare than the sort of crushing spiritual effect of boredom known as ennui.

But Philip K. Dick wrote about that, too. In perhaps his greatest novel, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Martian colonists seek escape from their dreary lives through the ingestion of a drug, Chew-Z, that enables what we would now call “virtual” experience, fantasies that are almost impossible to distinguish from actual reality. The irony is that while the colonists presumably live in an exotic locale like Mars, and presumably are enacting the nineteenth-century American form of individualism known as “pioneering” or “settling the frontier,” they suffer from profound boredom, from ennui. Their lives are very much like those of the space travelers in A Maze of Death: stuck in an endless loop, with no hope of escape, escape in this case being returning to Earth. The world of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is, of course, uncannily similar to our own: the spirit of the Martian colonists is crushed because the colonists live in a world that claims it prizes and values individualism, yet is really dominated by mindless, unrewarding labor.

Walter Benjamin observed over seven decades ago, in his famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” that mechanically reproduced art had rendered obsolete aesthetic concepts like “the Beautiful” and “the Sublime” because they both depend upon the idea of aura—that there is just one of a particular art work, an original. (In other words, most of us encounter the reproduction of a work of art before we encounter the actual thing, e.g., we know the Mona Lisa because we’ve seen a reproduction of it, not because we’ve actually been to the Louvre to see it.) While our so-called “entertainment industry” is premised on individualism—the “artist”—it is actually premised on reiteration and redundancy, on immediate recognition—what we call “genre” or “type.” But if our system of artistic evaluation no longer employs concepts such as “the Beautiful” and “the Sublime,” it no longer employs “the Boring,” either. Critics avoid using the term if at all possible. Thus in the same way that the modern world prizes individualism while the life of most people is comprised of mindless labor, modern critics laud originality in the form of generic innovation (the same, only different).

Most of us experience what we call “boredom” much like the Bill Murray character in Groundhog Day, the same, in an endless loop, day in, day out. One must recognize that the entertainment industry is premised on this sort of reiteration. The repeat, the re-run, the second run, the golden oldie, the classic, classic rock—all of these institutional practices are based on redundancy, and in fact, encourage repetitive behaviors such as “fan favorites” and, in radio, for instance, “make a request” programming. I’m not sure about you, but my idea of Hell would be to hear endlessly looped Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” the scenario Bill Murray endures in Groundhog Day. The trouble is, with no concept like “the Boring” anymore, there’s no way of making the simple aesthetic observation that what was a bad song then is a bad song now. Nostalgia, often understood as the longing for an earlier and hence simpler time, is actually a peculiar expression of boredom, a consequence of having forgotten the monotonous redundancies of an earlier age. If you don't believe that, put on “I Got You Babe” and hit the repeat button, promising not to stop the process, minimally, for at least 36 hours.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Man on the Moon

July 20, 1969: As Bogey says in Casablanca, “That was so long ago I don’t remember.” Actually, I do remember where I was, at least, when Neil Armstrong placed his foot onto the moon: in a trailer house, on a horse ranch, about twenty miles or so west of Wichita, Kansas. I was fifteen years old, just barely, and I remember the moon being full and bright that night. I was younger than my son John is now, who will turn sixteen years old in slightly under two weeks. I can’t remember the brand of television on which I watched the moon landing, but it was a small 13” or 14” black and white with “rabbit ears.” I remember the startling contrast between the technological leap the moon landing represented and the moonlit ranch surrounding me, an image straight out of the nineteenth-century American West. It happened that just a few days ago, Walter Cronkite died at 92—would that he could have lived a few days longer in order to celebrate this momentous 40th anniversary of the landing on the moon. The nightly news has replayed his reaction to the historic event many times the past few days, his rubbing his hands together in joy and saying, “Oh Boy!,” like a little kid. I think his child-like expression of glee captures my reaction as well: in order to recover what I felt, I simply have to watch that small piece of footage depicting Walter Cronkite’s response.

Mythology about the moon is vast, of course. I remember as a little boy being asked if I could see the man in the moon—of course I could. In one of his early shorts, fantasist Georges Méliès spoofed the mythology of the moon being made of green cheese (pictured). But perhaps more importantly, the moon is heavily romanticized. Traditionally, it is associated with the Romantic Other—Romantic in the sense of lovers, yes, but also in the sense that it sparks the imaginative faculties. There’s the image of “man in the moon,” but actually the moon is more strongly associated with the feminine. “Happily the queen moon is on her throne,” Keats wrote, suggesting that the moon is an image of calmness and serenity—and didn’t the first moon landing occur in the Sea of Tranquility? But Juliet, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, instructed Romeo not to swear by the moon, because the moon is “inconstant,” meaning that its phases imply an incapacity for steadiness and a tendency to change. The inconstant moon gave rise to the metaphor of the “lunatic,” someone whose mind is unsteady and erratic, too heavily influenced by the either waxing or waning moon. And there’s the phenomenon of “moon madness,” the association of the moon with an increase in erratic, often criminal human behavior, which possibly influenced Curt Siodmak’s famous couplet from The Wolfman, “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night/May become a wolf when the Wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

Some great pop songs have been written about the moon, of course, and hence I dedicate the following playlist to both to the inconstant moon and the 40th anniversary of humankind’s first step upon it.

Two Dozen Or So Tunes Of Inspired Lunacy:
Walking on the Moon – The Police
Man on the Moon – REM
Moondance – Van Morrison
Dancing in the Moonlight – King Harvest
Mr. Moonlight – The Beatles
Moon River – Henry Mancini
Mississippi Moon – Jimmie Rodgers
Blue Moon of Kentucky – Elvis
Blue Moon – The Marcels
Blue Moon Baby – The Cramps
Everyone’s Gone to the Moon – Jonathan King
Fly Me to the Moon – Bobby Womack
Moon at the Window – Joni Mitchell
Mad Man Moon - Genesis
I Don’t Know A Thing About Love (The Moon Song) – Conway Twitty
Moonlight Becomes You – Bing Crosby
Moonlight Feels Right – Starbuck
Moonlight Mile – The Rolling Stones
Moonlight Drive – The Doors
Marquee Moon – Television
The Killing Moon – Echo & the Bunnymen
The Moon of Manakoora – Dorothy Lamour
Other Side of the Moon – Moon Men (with Link Wray)
Bad Side of the Moon – Bo Diddley
Bad Moon Rising – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Eclipse (from Dark Side of the Moon) – Pink Floyd

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Don't Look Back

Son of the god Apollo (proficient on the lyre) and Calliope (Muse of epic poetry), Orpheus was a richly gifted musician admired for his immense skill with the lyre as well as his lyrical acumen. Orpheus is thus largely seen as an archetypal figure for the poet and musician. Legend has it that soon after he married Eurydice, his young bride, she died. The inconsolable Orpheus descended into Hell in order to get her back. Improbably, he charmed the gods of the underworld into accepting his demand that she return to the land of the living with him. His demand, though, was subject to one fundamental condition: he had to walk ahead of her from Hell, and must not look back until both of them were safely in the sunlight. But, alas, Orpheus looked back at the very last moment, and Eurydice vanished. (Milton: “I woke, she fled, and day brought back my night.”) Having lost his beloved wife twice, Orpheus vowed never again to touch a woman. His swearing off women earned him the wrath of the Maenads, devotees of the god Dionysus, and as a consequence he was torn to pieces. His dismembered body parts were gathered by the Muses and buried, and his lyre became the constellation Lyra. (In J. W. Waterhouse’s famous painting, “Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus,” his head and lyre are discovered floating side by side.) The figure of Orpheus is thus more than the archetype of the artist as poet and musician, but also the figure of the artist who has the power to exorcise death by his song, the power to descend into Hell—and return. As a figure unafraid to confront the darkness—and more importantly, to conquer it—Orpheus is a figure for immortality.

I’m by no means the first to observe that the blues is Orphic in the sense that it confronts the darkness and conquers it. Understanding the blues is much like understanding jazz, which reminds me of the famous line of Louis Armstrong, “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.” In “Sonny’s Blues,” James Baldwin characterized the blues as “the only light we’ve got in all this darkness,” while Langston Hughes observed, “For sad as Blues may be, there’s almost always something humorous about them—even if it’s the kind of humor that laughs to keep from crying” (qtd. in Saadi A. Simawe, ed., Black Orpheus: Music in African American Fiction From The Harlem Renaissance to Toni Morrison, p. 66). The existential theme underlying the blues—I can’t go on, I will go on—is one that Samuel Beckett recognized: the hope that emerges from recognizing one’s despair. Freud observed that the feeling of anxiety couldn’t be questioned because it is absolutely and unquestionably real: one doesn’t “doubt” the feeling of anxiety because it is indisputably true. Despair is also real, in the sense that it can’t be doubted. But it can be fought, which is what I take to be the meaning of the injunction at the center of the Orphic myth, “don’t look back.”

In “Run Through the Jungle,” a song I take to have been inspired by Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on my Trail” (as was Creedence’s “Bad Moon Rising”), John Fogerty sings:

Thought it was a nightmare,
Lo, it’s all so true,
They told me, “Don’t go walking slow
‘Cause Devil’s on the loose.”
Better run through the jungle,
Better run through the jungle,
Better run through the jungle,
Don’t look back to see.

The Devil, the Hellhound, “the voice of rage and ruin”—these are all tropes for the darkness that the music serve to dispel (or at least ward off, like apotropaic magic), and why Orpheus’ singing is capable of transformation, why he allegedly could charm nature itself.

A Few Songs With the “Don’t Look Back” Theme:
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, “The Lyre of Orpheus”
Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Run Through the Jungle”
Charlie Daniels, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”
Don Henley, “The Boys of Summer”
Madonna, “Jump”
Robert Pete Williams, “Prisoner’s Talking Blues”

This article explores the Orphic theme that informs the Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds album, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (2004). There’s also Belle & Sebastian’s “Like Bob Dylan in the Movies” that references D. A. Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back (1967), an orthographically incorrect title that is apparently a deliberate reference to the Orpheus myth. The early Bob Dylan was also inspired by Johnson’s “Hellhound On My Trail”: “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” owes as much to Johnson’s surreal, apocalyptic image of “Blues falling down like hail” as it does to metaphorical nuclear fallout. Later Dylan songs such as “Man in the Long Black Coat” also strike me as being influenced by Robert Johnson’s demonic Hellhound as well.