Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Review: Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads by Griel Marcus

In 1965, Bob Dylan wrote his greatest and most memorable song, "Like a Rolling Stone." It was his first major hit, which peaked at #2 on the billboard charts. It ran for nearly seven minutes, something unheard of at the time - or even today. The book puts the song in its historical context and asseses its continuing influence on American history. Marcus's writing takes some getting used to with its improvisational style that seems to mimic a Dylan song. Nevertheless it is a fine homage to a remarkable time period.

1965. The British Invasion had conquered the airwaves. The Beatles were at the peak of their powers. The Rolling Stones mix of blues and sarcasm gave a new edge to rock music. At the center of it all stood Bob Dylan. In early 1965 Dylan released Bringing it all Back Home, his first foray into electronic music. He then toured England where he grew continually bored playing his old material on acoustic guitar. According to Marcus, Dylan considered retiring from music to write novels. In June 1965, he assembled a amazing set of musicians and recorded "Like a Rolling Stone." The song redefined Dylan's sound and pushed the boundaries of popular music.

Marcus reflects on the song's influence on American culture and its connection to American history. He also discusses its effect on Dylan's career and how it became the song that defined him. Dylan still performs the song and is always a highlight of ongoing "Never Ending Tour." For the listener the song takes on a different meaning every time it is played. It is simultaneously an angry song about alienation, but also a celebration of freedom and liberation. Dylan fans will enjoy this book, but I would recommend listening to the classic 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited to make the book easier to understand.

First ever live performance of "Like a Rolling Stone" at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Film Review: "Why We Fight"

Perhaps the great paradox of this age it that more information is available to more people than at any time in history and yet the nature of power remains a mystery. Eugene Jarecki's documentary,Why We Fight, is an attempt to understand post 9/11 foreign policy. It is on one level an examination of the military-industrial complex and on another level a critique of the American empire. The right questions are raised but it takes on a little too much - not necessarily a bad thing.

The title is a play on the Why We Fight propaganda series produced by Frank Capra during the Second World War. America's contribution defeating fascism is celebrated as the last "good war." Because every war since remains shrouded in moral ambiguity - to the "Forgotten War" in Korea (1950-53) to the Vietnam War (1965-73) all the way up to current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan - it is a relevant question. The Iraq war and reasons for the invasion are the film's primary focus. While never straying into Michael Moore Fahrenheit 9/11 territory, it is highly critical of the Bush administration (2001-09). And that may date the film somewhat since Iraq appears to be heading towards stability. Few will remember the imbroglio over weapons of mass destruction, but the film dwells on it. History will be kinder to Bush and Company, as is often the case with polarizing presidencies.

But it's all part of a much larger and complex story. Let's start with the military-industrial complex. On August 6, 1945 the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and the world changed. The use of a weapon with the ability to destroy an entire city marked the culmination of America's transformation from an industrial juggernaut to a military superpower. Historians refer to this as the birth of the National Security State, a nation on a permanent wartime footing, ready for war anytime, anywhere, or anyhow. So far for five decades America competed with Soviet Union and pushing the world to the brink the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis - that was the Cold War.

Dwight Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States, is the film's unlikely hero. Unlikely in the sense that in the 1950s Eisenhower was viewed as the incarnation of bland conformity of that decade. Cultural critics, most notably the historian Richard Hofstadter, ridiculed Eisenhower's apparent lack of intellectual curiosity in his classic book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Hindsight has proved his critics wrong on most counts. For eight years he kept the peace and negotiated an end to the Korean War. In 1957, Eisenhower ordered the 101st airborne to enforce school integration laws in Little Rock, Arkansas, a milestone in the Civil Rights Movement. In his farewell address he issued a warning about the growing ties between the military and financial establishments and their influence on congress.
Now to jump ahead to 2010. The Cold War is over. We now live in post-Cold War age and no one really understands it. At millennium's end American seemed untouchable and at the height of its power. Then came the 2000 election, 9/11 terrorist attacks, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and finally economic collapse. So, what happened?

Why We Fight blames the Neoconservatives for just about everything. To their credit, they interview prominent Neocons like Richard Perle and William Kristol to give the opposing view. So, just what do Neoconservatives believe? In a nutshell, American foreign policy must foster the spread of democracy - even through war if necessary. They were the primary advocates of the Iraq war and were later blamed for the chaotic months after the downfall of Saddam Hussein. That angle may date the film since the situation in Iraq has changed dramatically in the past five years.

Despite its somewhat biased viewpoint the film raises some pertinent questions. The viewer hears multiple viewpoints from a diverse group of people. Jarecki calls for a more informed public that is more engaged with politics as the only way to preserve democracy - and that is sound. That is preferable alternative to falling into the abyss of conspiracy theories that only confuse people by their easy answers (but I will admit they are creative). It remains unclear, however, just what the film sees as America's proper role in the world - leave everyone alone? Despite all the anti-Americanism prevalent at home and abroad, America will always have its ideals and it is troubling to imagine a world where no nation carries those values.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Movie Review: The Sorrow and the Pity

The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) is about the elusive search for the truth in the midst of history and memory. Marcel Ophuls 4 1/2 half hour documentary is about the German occupation of a French town during the Second World War. Produced in the late 1960s, The Sorrow and the Pity has an irreverent sixties spirit: a no nonsense approach to the past. At the film's heart is the question: What happens when society collapses?

The history of 20th century France is tragic. The First World War (1914-18) made a wasteland of their countryside and killed off a generation of its young men. In four years of war they fought the Germans to a stalemate, with the aid of their British and American allies. In the interwar period the French built the Maginot line, a series of fortifications along the German border designed to prevent another invasion. Before its completion the Second World War began (Sept. 1 1939) and the German army and forced the French to surrender, thus beginning an occupation lasting from June 1940-July 1944. After the allies liberated the new French leaders formed the Fifth Republic and were determined to preserve their empire. This led to two costly wars in Indochina (1946-54) and Algeria (1954-62) that divided the French people and created further political instability.

After the occupation ended a mystique grew about the heroics of the French Resistance and that the majority of the French, except for a minority of "collaborators," bravely stood up to the Nazis. The reality was far more complicated. In the 1930s the French people were bitterly divided over politics between extremists on the left (communists) and right (fascists). The polarized political situation led to mass apathy and cynicism about their system - and democracy itself. The Germans installed a puppet regime based in Vichy under the leadership of Phillipe Petain (1856-1951), the French hero from the First World War, an octogenarian who was only worked a few hours a day. The film implies that a majority of the French people supported the regime and turned a blind eye to its anti-Jewish laws (the most explosive charge in the film). But many joined the resistance.

Marcel Ophuls, the film's director conducted several probing interviews. His long interview with a German officer of the occupation who still wore his service medals provided the occupier's viewpoint. Anthony Eden, Churchill's foreign minister, is asked difficult questions about British policy during the French downfall, most notably on the infamous attack on Mers-El-Kebir. On July 3, 1940 the British destroyed the French Mediterranean fleet to prevent the Germans from capturing it - killing 1200 French sailors during the bombing. 

Ophuls most moving interviews were with two French farmers who bravely fought in the resistance - their quiet dignity is the backbone of the film. They saw injustice happening around them and decided to do something about it. The Sorrow and the Pity is not a "finger pointing" film, but rather one about empathy and understanding the choices people make under perilous circumstances.

The Sorrow and the Pity tells us history is messy. And that's a refreshing departure in an age of the condensed, user-friendly history fed to the public by the History Channel. The textbook versions of history are no better and are usually misleading, ephemeral, and bland. In the end such treatment does a disservice to those interested in history and for our own political discourse. The price of avoiding the complexity is grave. A first rate documentary.