Saturday, May 16, 2015

Concert Review: Bob Dylan at the Ohio Theater

As Bob Dylan took the stage at the Ohio Theater in Columbus on Saturday night a full house waited in wide eyed anticipation.  And he did not disappoint. He opened with his Oscar winning song "Things Have Changed" and never looked back.

Dylan's recent material dominated the evening with six songs from his 2012 album Tempest, two from his 2015 release Shadows in the Night, including cuts from Love and Theft (2002), Modern Times (2006), and Together Through Life (2009).  The prevalence of his 21st Century work speaks directly to the quality of the material, Dylan's no oldies act.

The concert also showed off Dylan's musicianship and the unique sound he's honed for decades with his band.  Their style ranges from country, bluesy rock, ballads, folk rock, and rhythm & blues.  Dylan seemed to savor every line of the rocking "Pay in Blood."  He's a wounded romantic on "Forgetful Heart" and "Spirit on the Water." A harsh wisdom is expressed on the Homeric "Scarlet Town."

As the show winded down Dylan performed two Sinatra songs "Autumn Leaves" and "Stay With Me", adding a touch of class to the evening.

From the moment he walked onto stage to the moment he walked off Dylan had the crowd in the palm of his hand. A Great Performance!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Book Review: Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class by Jefferson Cowie

Cowie, Jefferson.  Stayin Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. New York: The New Press, 2010.

Jefferson Cowie's informative and provocative history of working class America does what a good history book should do - enlighten the present.  For the book traces how Americans discarded their class identity and embraced cultural identity.  Culture remains the buzzword of the 21st century; it's a highly prized commodity. Look at any progressive leaning online magazine such as Slate or Buzzfeed and the cover page will showcase articles on the newest trends in racial, gender, and sexual identities.  Class, in most cases, plays a peripheral role in these discussions. 

Economists overwhelmingly agree that the wealth gap in America widened considerably over the past decades. While the economic collapse in 2008 brought class issues back for a brief period, reaching its apogee with the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the moment ended with a whimper. Cowie, a history professor at Cornell, who I'm sure is sympathetic to the left, does take the left to task for abandoning the working class to their fate. This is a complex story.

When the 70s kicked off the time seemed right for a rejuvenated labor movement, one poised to build upon the triumphs of FDR's New Deal.  A new generation of workers brought a "Sixties" attitude into the ranks of labor, often putting them at odds with post-war labor leaders who maintained a patronizing attitude towards their fellow members. The leadership believed workers were content simply with higher wages and benefits. And yet a restlessness grew among laborers. Blue collars wanted more control over the means of production, chances for advancement, and most important of all - dignity.  

In 1968 the political fault lines shifted dramatically. Robert Kennedy's intrepid presidential campaign envisioned a broad alliance between blue collar workers of all races.  RFK understood the dependable New Deal coalition, of which blue collar workers were the foundation, stood on shaky ground.

Meanwhile a resurgent conservative movement took advantage of the new political situation.  George Wallace and Richard Nixon both managed to channel the subterranean rage of the working class. Wallace, longtime governor of Alabama and champion of State's Rights, attracted national support in the 1968 race for his opposition to a big government of elitist liberals.

Nixon played a more complex game. His patriotic appeals and racially encoded language of restoring law and order to the streets spoke directly to his "Middle Americans." Nixon promised a "peace with honor" in Vietnam as half the country still supported the war. His narrow victory in 1968 turned into a landslide one in 1972. Republicans realized they were building a new majority.

As always with Nixon, the contradictions multiply.  Despite his divisive rhetoric many historians consider him the last liberal to occupy the White House.  His plans for welfare reform and affirmative action at least showed a concern for the working classes, specifically the working poor.  An admirer of the British statesman Benjamin Disraeli who brought conservative reforms during the Victorian era, Nixon envisioned something similar for America. Not ignorant to the challenges facing the working class, he at least tried to do something. Despite his cultural conservatism, his domestic programs would be considered progressive in 2015.

Cowie also integrated pop culture into his analysis, specifically the changing representations of working people in TV and film. If the 1930s found working class heroes in Tom Joad and Woody Guthrie; the 1970s had Archie Bunker, the lovable bigot of the CBS sitcom All in the Family.  Archie as portrayed by Carroll O'Conner personified the workingman's blues.

Movies in the 70s turned the white working class male into a dangerous, often violent figure. In the 1970 film Joe, Peter Boyle played a racist machinist who turns vigilante, ending with him joyously mowing down hippies. Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, features the repressed and terrified Travis Bickle who decides to clean up the streets of New York. Although not mentioned, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre took things even further: the dispossessed rural folk are inhuman monsters. 

As the culture wars turned hot in the 70s over abortion, women's liberation, school integration - conservatism made further inroads. Labor's influence subsided with competition from abroad leading to massive layoffs and plant closings throughout the Midwest.

Intellectuals observed a shift towards a hyper individualism. Tom Wolfe in his epochal article "The Third Great Awakening" argued too much prosperity and purchasing power made workers selfish and more than willing to cast aside ideas of solidarity. Christopher Lasch in The Culture of Narcissism took issue with cultural elites for their obsessions with the self.

Late 70s pop culture and beyond further chronicled the descent and the eventual disappearance of the working class.  The 1977 box office hit Saturday Night Fever, followed Tony Manero, a working class kid in Brooklyn who lives for the disco to escape from his gloomy family life. Unlike his "going nowhere" friends, Tony's able to escape.

Paul Schrader's crude and perceptive 1978 film Blue Collar follows three auto workers in Detroit, two black and one white, who find themselves at odds with their union and management. In the end they turn against each other. Schrader enclosed workers in an existential rat maze.

At least The Deer Hunter, best picture winner in 1978, offered a compassionate portrait of steel workers in Pennsylvania during the Vietnam era.  In time, however, blue collar characters with any depth vanished from popular mediums.

Bruce Springsteen did bring a working class authenticity to rock.  Unlike other rockers who dabbled in blue collar personas, Springsteen actually lived it.  In 1975 Time and Newsweek put him on the cover with the release of Born to Run, an album celebrating escape.  On "Thunder Road" Springsteen declares, "It's a town full of losers and I'm pulling out of here to win."  

Springsteen's next album Darkness on the Edge of Town, shifted focus to the losers, those who never escaped. What happens to them?  How will working people find meaning in a culture that ignores them?  Few albums evoked the dashed hopes of the 70s more - an elegy if you will, especially with the lyric "I walk with angels that have no place."

The "Reagan Revolution" cranked up the politics of resentment. A growing chorus of talk radio personalities attacked welfare moms and minorities as leeches on the system. The new ethos worshiped a market oriented world view. Corporations began to downsize in a big way as documented in Michael Moore's era defining documentary Roger and Me

The Red State/Blue State dichotomy of the 2000 election pertained directly to cultural definitions. Republicans continued preaching the gospel of guns, capitalism, God, and national defense.  Liberals, thinking John Edwards "two Americas" speech, offered rhetoric, but little action. Barack Obama's offhand comment about Red State Folk clinging to guns and religion, had a grain of truth, but also sounded like the armchair analysis of a detached academic.

When Obama encountered Joe "the Plumber" he politely explained why working people stood to benefit from his tax plan. Then Joe parroted right wing radio dogma about high taxes being bad for small business owners.  The exchange went viral and the McCain campaign cynically used Joe for campaign purposes. Joe quickly disappeared after the election. The media turned him into a punchline, indicative of how far working people had fallen in the eyes of pop culture.  As Cowie explains, the cultural discussion needs a new dimension:

The problem was not simply that other aspects of social identity- race, gender, sexuality, religious faith - were eclipsing class as points of reference in political life, but that working people, having transcended basic material deprivation of the sort they had struggled against in the 1930s, faced a form of class conflict more internal and psychological, pivoting on social power and self-worth rather than outward contests with powerful forces. (216)

As I wrote earlier Stayin Alive tells a complex story - raising as many questions as it answers.  I agree with Cowie's main argument that any new labor movement must be inclusive and put democracy at the center. America's a far more tolerant country than it was 50 years ago, and yet remains static on wealth distribution.  Stayin' Alive tells how we arrived in the current predicament and points to the possibility of an alternative path.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

What Kind of President is Francis Underwood?

Now in its third season, the Netflix juggernaut House of Cards now has the ruthless protagonist Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in the White House. Spacey's fictional presidency begs comparison with the real ones - so here it goes.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-45)  The shadow of FDR looms heavily on the modern presidency. A New York aristocrat who believed in the power of people and government, he envisioned a compassionate society based on economic justice. But don't be fooled, FDR also mastered the art of intrigue. On House of Cards, President Underwood launched his own quasi-New Deal program entitled "America Works." FDR and Underwood are both Machiavellian to the core and live by the following quote from The Prince, "The Lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves.  One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves."

Harry Truman (1945-53)  They share little in common, except a humble background and a belief in hard work. Although Truman never attended college, he was a voracious reader of history and biography. The knowledge served him well as President in the heady years after WWII. Truman would've seen right through Underwood's facade of integrity - for such figures often appear in history.

John F. Kennedy (1961-63) Coincidentally, Spacey once appeared as a Kennedyesque politician on the 80s TV show Crime Story.  JFK, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his history book Profiles in Courage, personified the cool intellectualism of the early 60s. In season 3, Francis invites a famous novelist named Tom Yates (Paul Sparks) to write a book about his "America Works" program. Underwood appreciates the power of the written word, but is too much the political animal to be considered an intellectual, symbolized by his passion for violent video games.

Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-69)  Could Underwood be the bastard son of LBJ?  Both honed their political acumen in the House of Representatives through flattery, intelligence, even physical intimidation (Underwood keeps a portrait of LBJ in his office).  LBJ, like Underwood, came to power under dire circumstances and rumors of his complicity in the JFK assassination remains gospel among conspiracy theorists, an idea Oliver Stone suggested in JFK.  Robert Caro's masterful multi-volume biography of LBJ remains unmatched in its description of American politics, thus making the books an excellent companion piece to House of Cards.

Richard M. Nixon (1969-74)  As Howard Hunt observed in Oliver Stone's Nixon, "Richard Nixon is the darkness."  The same could be said of Underwood. While Watergate continues to loom over Nixon's place in history, even his harshest critics concede he changed the course of American foreign policy. Much of the fireworks in season 3 comes from Underwood's shaky relationship with the Putin-like Russian President.  His pursuit of personal diplomacy meets with mixed results at best; he desperately needs a Kissinger for guidance.

Gerald Ford (1974-77) The one president Francis doesn't want to emulate. Ford came to the presidency after Nixon's resignation, but lost his own bid for the presidency. Underwood recoils at the thought of being a footnote to history.

Jimmy Carter (1977-81)  Unfortunately, Carter's something of a pariah among the modern presidents. Carter's plainspoken honesty and unpretentious attitude seemed right for the Post-Watergate era, but his unassuming style quickly wore thin.  On July 15, 1979 in his "crisis of confidence" speech he actually took Americans to task for their consumerism.  A different era. Underwood and Carter do share a Southern heritage (Underwood prefers to downplay his white trash origins).

Ronald Reagan (1981-89)  Ronnie and Francis understand the power of rhetoric. When Underwood comes into conflict with his hired writer Yates, it resembles the debacle between Reagan and his official biographer Edmund Morris.  Morris, known for his erudite biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, grew so bored with his subject he wrote a fictional/post-modern interpretation of Reagan's life.  Yates favors a similar approach to writing about Underwood.

Bill Clinton (1993-2001) Spacey and Clinton are good friends. Do they discuss the show? Could it get awkward? The marriage of Francis and Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) recalls the Clinton marriage in obvious ways.  The Underwood marriage almost manages to humanize the characters. And Wright's brave performance really anchors the series.  As President, Francis appoints her as UN ambassador as he prepares to make his own run for the presidency.

Barack Obama (2009-current) - President Obama is a big fan of House of Cards. How does the show reflect the contemporary political environment?  Of course there's polarization, a situation ripe for a charismatic sociopath like Underwood to achieve power.  And yet something about the presidency has diminished despite the media's attempt to frame every election as the most important one in history.  Presidents now devote much of their time to fundraising and wooing their corporate sponsors.  Perhaps therein lies the appeal of Underwood, no one owns him and he does what he wants, proof the show is pure fiction.

Darth Vader - Darth and President Underwood are known to be demanding of their subordinates and not above killing anyone who gets in their way.  If Underwood could apply the "force choke" on his cabinet, he'd do it in a heartbeat.  Nevertheless, House of Cards does provide a plausible scenario where a tyrant could come to power.  Will the constitution stop Francis Underwood?


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Book Review: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind

Peter Biskind's chronicle of 1970s Hollywood Easy Riders, Raging Bulls remains a classic. It tells the story of the "movie brats" and their failed attempt to take over Hollywood. Few details are spared in an assortment of raw portraits of all the major players including Coppola, De Palma, Friedkin, Scorsese and many others.

Biskind paints a colorful picture of the era.  By the mid 60s, studios were still making big budget musicals with zero appeal to anyone under thirty.  The release of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 marked a shift in the zeitgeist.  Directed by Arthur Penn and starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, the film glamorized the Great Depression outlaws and made law enforcement officials the villains. Old guard critics voiced outrage at the film's violence. But young people identified with the anti-establishment message as well as the gritty realism.

Two years later Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider romanticized the 60s counterculture. The narrative of two hippies on a motorcycle odyssey across America accompanied by a rock and roll soundtrack took the anti-establishment message even further.  Hopper himself personified the era's contradictions: a fierce creative energy combined with a dangerous and sometimes drug fueled grandiosity, a grandiosity unique to the time period.  Here's a quote from Hopper shortly after Easy Rider:

I want to make movies about us.  We're a new kind of human being.  In a spiritual way, we may be the most creative generation in the last ten centuries.  We want to make little, personal, honest movies . . . The studio is a thing of the past (75).

Even more than Hopper, Francis Ford Coppola actually tried to destroy the studio system. In the late 1960s, Coppola created Zoetrope Studios in San Francisco, as an alternative to the Hollywood system, a place for experimental filmmakers to work (including his protege George Lucas).  Meanwhile, he kept a foot in the studio system as a screenwriter and occasional director.  In 1971, Paramount offered him the chance to adapt Mario Puzo's crime novel The Godfather.  And the rest is history. When The Godfather Part II earned him the Oscar, Coppola pursued his dream project, Apocalypse Now.

He spent three years making the film.  Shot on location in the Philippines, the production went way over budget with all sorts of behind the scenes conflict (as captured in the documentary Heart of Darkness). Biskind describes Coppola's descent into megalomania. One day during post-production he locked his editors in a screening room and pontificated for hours about his plans to revolutionize cinema.  Apocalypse Now left Coppola in deep debt and he spent the next decade as a director for hire, at one point he told a friend, "What are you worried about? I owe 50 million dollars!!"

Meanwhile George Lucas changed the film industry in 1977 with Star Wars.  Known for making experimental films at UCLA, Lucas won accolades for his innovative use of sound and editing. When his first feature THX-1138 flopped with audiences he followed it up with the nostalgic and popular American Graffiti. Then he wrote a space opera based on Flash Gordon serials. Quiet and introverted, Lucas barely survived the hectic shoot in London and the lengthy post-production process.  Against all odds, Star Wars broke box office records and became a cultural phenomenon.  Ever since then, studios threw their money at special effect extravaganzas.

Biskind saves most of his vitriol for Steven Spielberg, who's portrayed as a geeky opportunist interested in making money with special effects driven movies.  In the 1980s, Spielberg built an empire in Hollywood while his old buddies from the 70s languished in the new blockbuster driven system.    

Here I don't agree at all, in time Spielberg has proven himself a great director with a number of historically relevant including Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan.  Any fan of Spielberg will recognize special effects only work well with a strong character driven story, Jaws being an example.

As the 80s beckoned, excess and hubris brought down the new Hollywood.  Of course many other factors go into this, namely, another shift in the zeitgeist with the election of Ronald Reagan.  Audience tastes changed as well.  Movies were marketed for the mall going suburban masses.

The end finally came when Michael Cimino's historical epic Heaven's Gate nearly bankrupted United Artists.  From then on, directors lost their freedom and Hollywood, according to Biskind, reverted back to making crowd pleasing, but irrelevant junk.

Unfortunately, women are for the most part left out of the narrative, revealing deeply ingrained sexism of the time.  Few know Lucas's first wife Marcia edited many of the iconic films of the 70s such as Taxi Driver and Carrie, and that she literally saved Star Wars from being an incoherent mess.  After they divorced in 1983 no one hired her.  As a result, she's been mostly erased from the history.

Easy Rider, Raging Bulls never gets boring.  Although Biskind makes some dubious conclusions and indulges in mean spirited gossip, it will get you thinking about where movies have been and where they are going.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Book Review: Silver Screen Fiend by Patton Oswalt

Patton Oswalt's wistful new memoir, Silver Screen Fiend, revisits his days as a young comedian.  During the mid 90s, Oswalt emerged as a comedic voice on the L.A. scene. He also developed an obsession with watching movies. Oswalt splits the difference between how movies influenced and stifled his creativity, while also providing some insight into the 90s alternative comedy scene. Silver Screen Fiend wistfully recalls the wonder of experiencing great films and the challenge of finding one's own voice.

Oswalt confesses he always dreamed of being a film director so he set out to watch as many films as possible, sometimes going 3-4 nights a week, while holding down a day job at Mad TV.  At the legendary New Beverly theater in Los Angeles Oswalt viewed a Billy Wilder double feature, Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole and never looked back. Thus began four years of obsessive film going.

As his obsession grew he alienated friends, lost his job, and let his health suffer. Through it all he continued working as a stand up and gained some acting roles.  After four years of compulsive film going, Oswalt gained an insight:

Movies, to [a] majority of the planet, are an enhancement of life. The way a glass of wine enhances a dinner.  I'm the other way around.  I'm the kind of person who eats a few bites of food so that my stomach can handle the full bottle of wine I'm about to drink.

Another important moment arrived when, after four years of attending the New Beverly, Oswalt decided to start writing his own screenplays.  After watching the premiere of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Oswalt recalled spending hours with his friends discussing how much they hated what Lucas had done to Star Wars, after which he gained another epiphany: 

I [failed]  to see that the four hours of pontificating and connecting and correcting [Lucas's] work could be spent creating two or three pages of my own.

A useful insight for any critic: write your own stuff instead of tearing other's work apart. Since then Oswalt's career has taken off with a recurring role in The King of Queens and dramatic acting roles in Big Fan and Young Adult.

Oswalt shares many hilarious anecdotes about the comedy scene in the 90s.  A group of comeptitive comedians trying to distant themselves from mainstream comedy. Many notable comics make cameo appearances including Louis CK, Marc Maron, Andrew Dice Clay, and Bob Odenkirk.

Although we are still waiting for Patton to make his Citizen Kane, reading the book will make you want to seek out the great films and revisit the ones you love.

Oswalt, Patton.  Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life From an Addiction to Film. New York: Scribner, 2015.  222 Pages

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Farewell Mr. Spock

Last week I was saddened to hear about the passing of Leonard Nimoy.  It's hard to imagine modern Science Fiction without him.  As Mr. Spock on Star Trek, Nimoy created one of the most memorable characters in television history. While William Shatner as Captain Kirk played the more traditional hero, Spock offered a different type of heroism: one based on using logic and reason to resolve conflict.

Star Trek aired on NBC from 1966-69 and Nimoy went on to revisit the role in seven feature films.  In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Spock sacrificed himself to save the USS Enterprise.  Of course, he returned in subsequent films, proving a great fictional character never really dies.

Nimoy also directed Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986).  In the The Voyage Home, the crew traveled back in time to the 1980s, where Spock is perplexed by all the profanity he hears in the 20th century - and hilarity ensues.  Spock always got the best laughs.

Although Nimoy never quite shook off the "Spock" persona, he appeared in many other roles on film and television.  He wrote two autobiographies, I am not Spock and I am Spock, both about his life in and out of Star Trek. From 1976-82, Nimoy hosted the cult TV series, In Search Of, a documentary dedicated to investigating all sorts of mysteries.  

Nimoy delivered a memorable performance in Phillip Kaufman's 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. As a devious self-help guru who proselytized a bland "I'm ok, you're ok" type message, Nimoy created a memorable villain.

Few actors have left such a distinct mark on the cultural memory.  He will be greatly missed. Live long and prosper.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

In Search of . . . DVD Review

From 1976-198 In Search of ran on syndication, a half hour TV documentary exploring various mysteries involving "strange phenomena."  With Leonard Nimoy as host, each show featured expert talking heads, eyewitness testimonies, and even reenactments.  For what it lacked in production value, it did something television should do more of - stimulate the viewer's curiosity.

Many of the shows were unintentionally hilarious. Their "investigation" of the Bermuda Triangle hinged upon an obvious prank call to a radio station.  Many episodes also dealt with ancient civilizations, conspiracy theories surrounding historical conundrums, or New Age trends like talking to plants.  The most informative ones speculated on the future of science and foresaw the coming of cloning and stem cell research.  

Some of the subject matter dates itself.  Remember the coming ice age?  A Killer Bee Invasion from Mexico?  I believe they also predicted a fire ant invasion.  Thankfully we are not having snowstorms in July or living in domes to escape the bees!  NOT YET ANYWAY!!

In Search Of is not only a splendid time capsule of its era, but a forerunner of the future shows like The X Files and the ever popular late night radio show Coast to Coast AM (night owls know what I'm talking about). In its own unique way, In Search of played a crucial role in inventing an entirely new genre of popular culture.

Leonard Nimoy made for the perfect host.  Who better than Mr. Spock guide you through all the strange mysteries?   His calm and detached narration brought calming effect to the program.  

Episodes often weaved between real science with pseudo-science. Each show made it clear the producers were only suggesting solutions, not definitive answers.  Many of the topics still recur on mystery/documentary shows such as UFO's, ancient prophecy, and crypto-biology.  For a sort of cult history of the late 70s and early 80s, In Search of provides plenty of intriguing subject matter.

Thankfully, the show never took itself too seriously.  Usually In Search of gave equal time to believers and skeptics alike.  At the end of the day it was great fun.  Also, there's nothing like the theme music, such sounds could only emanate from 1977.

A brief revival appeared in 2002 on the Sci-Fi channel with Mitch Pileggi as host, those episodes are included in DVD package as well.