Friday, November 22, 2013

Film Friday: Recording and Re-presenting JFK

On the 50th anniversary of his assassination, I wanted to reflect a bit on the many different ways we have seen John F. Kennedy on the screen, in his lifetime, his assassination, and in countless fiction films and documentaries ever since.  It's not especially a comprehensive discussion; if you want an interesting book on the subject of the assassination, you can check out a copy of my friend Art Simon's Dangerous Knowledge: The JFK Assassination in Art and Film. But this is more or less just what has come to mind as this anniversary has approached. 

"We all killed Kennedy."

"I shouted out 'who killed the Kennedys?'
 when after all, it was you and me."

The first quote comes from Doug Hall of Ant Farm, a radical art/media group that created a series of challenging independent video art works about media culture.  The line comes near the end of a video collaboration with T.R. Uthco (get it?), called The Eternal Frame.  The video involves the group recreating the motorcade that went through Dallas -- except with only one car, carrying the President and Mrs. Kennedy, and Texas Governor Connolly and his wife. After the final recreation is completed, with people watching the car go by and crying as they conflated present and past, an obviously fake reproduction with the real thing, Doug Hall, who played Kennedy -- referred to as "the Artist-President" because he's not the real thing and because he seems very aware of his and Kennedy's own existence now only as an image -- is being asked to reflect on the exercise, and also on Kennedy's death.  When asked if he knew who killed the President, he responds: I don't care anymore.  It doesn't matter.  We all killed Kennedy.

The second quote you probably know very well; it's sung by Mick Jagger, in one of his most notorious guises, in the Rolling Stones classic "Sympathy for the Devil." (Jagger said the phrase came from a line from French symbolist poet Baudelaire.)   I don't think I'd fully appreciated the implications of the line until after Princess Diana's tragic death: it was the obsessive desire the public had for images of the Princess that led to the circumstances that put her in that car being chased by tabloids, leading to a terrible accident that left her dead.  And that, I think, is what Jagger meant by those lines.  Because Kennedy and become a media icon, the first Television President, and because the public had such a strong desire to see him and be close to him, Kennedy was more exposed in Dallas than he should have been.  (His increased visibility also was likely a source of anger for his enemies, inspiring at the very least the contemplation of killing him -- I'm no conspiracy buff, but let's face it, most leaders draw the ire of people who wish to kill them.)

Kennedy began to make a name for himself in the midfifties, even challenging Adlai Stevenson for the Democratic party nomination in 1956.  The media love affair with Kennedy began even before the famous tv debates against Richard Nixon (who had been pretty good at using media prior to these debates).  In 1960, a crew from Time-Life began following around the two main candidates seeking to win the Wisconsin primary election for the Democrats, Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey.   What made this crew different was that the equipment was innovative, having created the ability to record images with synchronous sound but still using lightweight cameras.  The result: Primary, a film that not only helped Kennedy, but helped put a new group on the map: Drew Associates, led by Robert Drew and with camera work by some of the legends of the American Direct Cinema movement.   (Go here for a short clip that helps situate the film in its specific context.) Drew and his team -- Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker -- made numerous films, broadcast either on ABC or on local stations that Time-Life owned, after Kennedy entered the White House.  The most notable one was Crisis: Behind a Presidential Committment , which concerned the integration of the University of Alabama.  (JFK is not the real star in the film; his brother Bobby, as Attorney General, is, along with his aide working in Birmingham, Nick Katzenbach.) Kennedy admitted, "we would be nowhere without [television]." 

 It was JFK's enormous popularity, created in no small measure by television, that allowed him to be put in the cross-hairs in Dallas.  And his death at a young age has led him to become even more of an icon of the tragedy of youth, alongside Marilyn Monroe, James Dean,  and others who leave us to fill in the blanks as to what their lives could have been.  The eternal frame, indeed.

Obviously, the most famous images of the assassination came from the camera of Abraham Zapruder, because it gives us the horrific shot that Kennedy took to the head that without question killed him. (You can click here to see what comes up if you put a search of "Zapruder film" at YouTube.)  As Simon observes in his discussion of the film and its use by Time-Life, by the Warren Commission, the New Orleans trial of Clay Shaw (dramatized in Oliver Stone's controversial film), and in other contexts, that these few frames were once thought to be an "unimpeachable" witness to the murder, but ultimately, we are unable really to come to any conclusions about what happened.  This film became the most famous home movie ever made. (Yes, even more famous than Justin Bieber's early videos.) And in a sense because of that, the images of the assassination don't lead us to the truth. We project too much of what we want to see in them.  The irony of Stone's film is that he very carefully manipulates the viewer even as he shows how the public could be manipulated in 1963. 

Kennedy's assassination generated many historic images, as did his funeral.  It was covered nationwide, and in a sense paved the way for the ways that the networks covered the funerals of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy in 1968.  The funeral gave us young JFK junior in that legendary pose, saluting as his father's casket passed him. 

Since 1963 there have been numerous considerations of the assassination.  Obviously, there have been numerous news stories about possible conspiracies leading to Kennedy's death.  The publishing world is loaded (as it were) with books about the assassination, and the internet has been a boon to the buffs, who can connect to one another much more easily now than ever before.  Oliver Stone's JFK is probably the most notorious film from Hollywood, but the assassination also was used by the avant-garde.  I mentioned Ant Farm; also, noted avant-garde film-maker Bruce Conner presented images of Kennedy for his film Report. In this film, Conner intersperses images of Kennedy arriving at Love Field with other images of that day with a sound track of a news broadcast covering Kennedy's assassination.  The film ends with an earlier report of what happened with Kennedy at Love Field, including an eerie moment when Kennedy has, impromptu, gone over to a crowd of supporters to shake their hands, much to the surprise and dismay of the Secret Service. The word "report" does not just refer to news reports but also to the sound of gunfire, a clever pun. 

Why so many images of Kennedy, of his death? I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that so much of the information collected by the authorities over two separate investigations -- the Warren Commission and the House Select Committee on Assassinations in the late seventies -- is sealed up, and no plans have been made to release them.  When you keep things in secret, invoking whatever excuses governments use, you just play right into the hands of Conspiracy Theory Guy. We can never know the truth of those events because too many people question everyone's evidence.  There's no real trust established.  The assassination ushered in a new era -- no, not just "THE Sixties," as many aging boomers like to tell ya -- but one in which average citizens were able to try producing a counter-narrative to the Official Story.  As marginalized as the assassination buffs may have been, they are the early wave of those interpreting mass mediated images critically, especially those that support an assessment of a crime that the critics deem improbable.  Nowadays, everyone has a forum to share unsolicited opinions, and everyone can break down other discourses to try to seize the ole talking stick, but such a practice existed in crude form fifty years ago. 

Like I said, this is no definitive consideration.  But amid the saturation of anniversary specials all over mass media, it's worth understanding what all these images really mean.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Film Friday: Who You Gonna Call?

About a  month ago (or was it yesterday?) I finally got to show my kids Ghostbusters.  Now they understand half of what I say. 

The movie came out in what for me was the Summer of Movies.  I don't think I've ever been to movie theaters as much in one season as I was then. I wasn't working much, and I had enough allowance money to pay for what was then probably about three or four bucks a ticket.   A lot of pretty awesome movies came out that summer, and a few crappy ones, but Ghostbusters is the one we all go back to, the one we quote obsessively.

It was one of many projects Dan Ackroyd had conceived for himself and John Belushi before Belushi died.  (Another one was Spies Like Us.)  Once Bill Murray was signed on, Ackroyd and Harold Ramis (who'd directed Murray in Caddyshack and co-starred with him in Stripes) re-worked the script, with probably a little help from director-producer Ivan Reitman.  It was one of the first comedies to use bigger-budget special effects, which were pretty cool in 1984 (and impressive enough for my kids nearly 30 years later).

The story is engaging if completely silly.  It probably is of a piece with Reagan-era entertainment, as the left-leaning critics of the old British film magazine Movie maintained, with interdimensional apocalypse standing in for the nuclear one that pop bands were writing about, and a pretty crude, boyish sexism to boot.  But of course what matters is the personality of Bill Murray, and the way his cohorts feed off him.   After that, it's all about the classic lines:

(i know some of these are from the inferior sequel, but what the hey.) 

And of course the most important advice anyone has ever given anyone in the movies:

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Oh, How, I Miss Him: Lou Reed (1942-2013)

So this is what I have to write about after nearly three months away.  That Lou Reed is dead and that that fact totally sucks.  

I mentioned in my last blog post that I was in quite some agony, thanks to a badly pulled back, followed by not properly taking care of it, followed by an acupuncture treatment that eased the muscle pain by touched the sciatic nerve and left it impossible for me to sit for more than five minutes at a time.  (More about all that some other time.)  I had figured that, when I got better, I’d tell the whole saga, you know, write about a movie or two, etc.  But the pain has subsided enough only recently, and then this old bastard dies on us.  

Okay, let’s be fair: for someone like Lou, 71 is a pretty good run.  And also to be fair: I feel kinda crappy that he had a liver transplant in the same way that it was probably crappy that Mickey Mantle got one near the end of his life.  Not only did they do much of the liver damage to themselves, but they were probably on the outside age range of liver transplant recipients, and I wonder might someone else have benefitted from the donated organs.  (I am fully aware that organ transplants are complicated because of tissue matches and all that, and it’s probably true that the recipient lists were not rigged, but still.  I understand the feeling that somehow guys who damage their livers are less deserving of a new one than those who have lead cleaner lives.)  

But enough about the messiness of death and the efforts to prolong life.  I’m trying to explain here why Lou Reed matters.  At least to me, if not to any other soul.

That was always part of the point of Lou’s recordings: it’s not always the kind of music you play at parties, but rather the kind you take home and listen to privately, connecting to it (or not) the way one relates to reading a novel.  It was the immediacy that Lou was always after, the one-to-one effect on his audience. (That’s why he mixed the third Velvet Underground LP in such a way that made it seem like you were listening in a closet -- that mix was rejected by Verve, but in the box set from the nineties, it’s Reed’s “closet mix” you hear.)   His best stuff was not something to be glossed over quickly, like the disposable songs he wrote for Pickwick Records in the early sixties. You took the record home and played it, over and over.  

Though I was a kid in New York in the Seventies, I hadn’t heard much of Lou’s music; much of my musical taste was shaped by my dad’s record collection -- a collection Lou probably would have approved, with its emphasis on doo-wop.  I was too young to fully comprehend the punk scene itself, let alone realize who the “Godfather of punk” (and glam) (and electronica) (and metallica) (and grunge) (and New Wave) (and who knows what else) was. In my teen years, the radio it doth play one of the greatest triumphs in the history of the charts: a song where a character stays cool even during oral sex, a song that somehow gets into the top twenty.  (I’m still trying to figure that one out.) Lou was about to embark on a pretty successful run during his final years at RCA: The Blue Mask, Legendary Hearts, New Sensations, and the import Live in Italy. And subscribing to the usual magazines of the day, I knew all those records got four- and five-stars and A-minuses and B+’s.  What made me pick these records up was hearing that rapid minimalist beat that begins by quoting from the Contours’ “Do You Love Me” and proceeds to  tell the same basic point: you do what you wanna do, but I loves ya, Suzanne, which was a staple on college radio stations.  

While New Sensations , featuring a video-game console cover and a user-friendly sonic interface (“My Red Joystick” perhaps overdoing things), was another attempt by Lou to make the charts (cf Sally Can’t Dance), the fact is he made his records the way he wanted to. No compromises.  Take no prisoners.  Once, feeling quite arrogant in conversation with (I believe) the legendary critic Lester Bangs, Lou said, “my shit is better than most people’s diamonds.”   He was not all that off the mark, really, though it does depend on your definition of shit.  If  you’re like most people, who can’t stand the noise of Metal Machine Music (and lots of fans can’t), then there are a lot of diamonds out there for you to point out.  (I’ve listened to MMM straight through only once; it’s not for the faint of heart.)  Was it a joke on RCA?  Or his fans, the way that Dylan deliberately made Self-Portrait? Who knows.  But Lou was never one to care all that much about what anyone thought.  

And Lou was so fucking cool that in the middle of the 1980s, when critics were bashing rock stars for selling their songs to be in soda and beer commercials (and Neil Young got in on the act, too, mocking everyone with his hilarious “This Note’s For You”), Lou did an ad for Honda scooters that used “Walk on the Wild Side” and was the coolest commercial by a long shot.  There he is, at the end of a montage of streetlife scenes, telling us, “hey -- don’t settle for walking,” in that Noo Yawk accent of his.   We might have bashed Clapton and Brian Wilson and Steve Winwood for being whores, but Lou could do whatever fuck he wanted and that was okay by us.  And this weekend, visiting my parents’ house, I found this in a box of my old stuff: the print Honda ad, with Lou standing so cool next to the scooter, the tag line printed below as a caption.  Lou is standing near the docks in Brooklyn, and behind him is another New York legend no longer with is: the World Trade Center’s twin towers.  

I was in college when i bought the Velvet Underground catalog, playing them with a passion normally reserved for my Stones records. They were more cohesive than most of Lou’s solo work, and even Lou came to understand that, that being in a band -- even when you’re its leader -- is really magical.  something special happened When Lou, John, Sterl, and Moe laid down those first two records. I hate to repeat old truisms, but dammit: what makes the VU’s career so amazing is that each of their four studio albums was brilliant on completely different terms.  The Nico album is a stunning mix of gorgeous but weird pop songs and arty epic noise/poems.  It should have been a hit, but no one got it.  the west coast scene called the band “the virus from new york.” (Never trust a hippie! Even Frank Zappa -- fellow doowop fan -- told us that.)  White Light/White Heat is the prototype for all metal machine music to come. Then that third record, with Doug Yule: god, what beautiful ballads, softly sung.  “Pale Blue Eyes.” nuf said, except there’s that great experiment “the murder mystery” and Moe’s first vocal, “after hours.” and Lou’s rhythm guitar on “What Goes On.” And the poetry of “Some Kinda Love.”  You get the idea. And then the last album, made when the group was fragmented, without Moe on drums (unofficial maternity leave), but songs that are rock and roll standards.  “Rock and Roll” is about me, Lou famously said.  and for a lot of us, too.  
So it’s no dishonor if Lou could rarely match the glory of the Velvets.  He certainly had a more productive solo career than John Fogerty, who was even more dominant in Credence than Lou was in the Velvets. And except for Plastic Ono Band and maybe All things must pass, the Beatles’ solo work was rarely compelling. Entertaining, yes, but necessary? Not really. The Blue Mask is necessary.  Transformer is necessary. “Street Hassle” is totally fucking necessary.   And New York is vital. And the live records are pretty damn awesome too. Everyone knows the raucousness of Rock and Roll Animal, but the Lou-Quine exchange on Live in Italy may be the closest Velvets sound Lou ever made after  1970. And Perfect Night, with Lou using a beautiful sounding acoustic guitar amped up and so clean that it sounds electric, contains devastating versions of a range of hits, esp. “New Sensations” and “Dirty Blvd.”

Speaking of “Dirty Blvd,” I was in college in Pittsburgh when New York came out.  I was already accepted into grad school back in Brooklyn when I bought the record.  The sound of course is classic Lou -- like he says on the back of the jacket -- you can’t beat two guitars, bass, drum. But those great images, starting with the first song: “a diamond crucifix in his ear/is used to help ward off the fear/that he has left his soul in someone’s rented car.”  The moving tribute to the Village characters of the “Halloween Parade,” and how AIDS has created such bittersweetness. (When I did move to New York, friends of friends were having parties when their tests came back negative. It was a scary decade or two.)  Some of the lyrics betray what one critic called Bono-itis -- a little social consciousness stuff that’s less cohesive, no doubt an influence of being on the Amnesty International tour with U2 in 86 -- but he nails his targets hard. “There’s no such things as human rights/when you walk the new york streets.”  The multiple references to “the Statue of Bigotry” still resonate the age of stop and frisk laws and stand your ground laws and a War on Poverty turned-War on Poor People.  Do The Right Thing was released that summer; things got ugly.  But I was thrilled to come home.  (studying with a famous poet who’d bared his brains to heaven under the El was a nice deal, too.)

As I said, the records carry personal meanings for each of us, like a great novel or poem. “Dirty Blvd.” -- in its live version from Perfect Night -- was a song I played relentlessly loud, in my headphones, the night that the cops who shot West African immigrant Amadou Diallo in front of his apartment building were acquitted in  Albany.   “Did you ever have RAGE in your heart?” Lou asks us.  Goddamn I did. Diallo was just another Black man whose life was not worth shit.  Defenders of the cops -- who fired 41 shots at Diallo -- point out that it was a split-second reaction, since Diallo (they say) was reaching into his jacket pocket for his ID but of course might have been going for a gun.  But the problem was far worse than this: the cops thought he resembled a rape suspect -- which he did not, except that both had dark skin.  it pointed to an underling assumption of many cops in new york -- and the carte blanche they felt they had under Mayor Rudy Giuliani. (Ironic, perhaps, since he fought tooth and nail with the cops over contracts every year.  I taught cops at John Jay College, and they often were pissed that Rudy exploited the cops for his Law and Order tough-guy rhetoric but didn’t want to pay them what they deserved.)  and this is why I believed that Giuliani was the one really responsible for Diallo’s death.   But all I could do, after listening to Lou over and over and over, was write a poem, out there somewhere on the web if you hunt for it.  

I could blather for hours about Lou, and probably should.  But I’ll finish with one last personal story.  When I was tutoring at the Writing Center, a fellow tutor was trying to explain to another student she was assisting about the idea that New York City is sometimes spoken about as another kind of Rome-in-decline.  I wasn’t working with anyone, so I listened in, and not being able to help myself, I just quoted: “Manhattan’s sinking like a rock.” And she heard me and finished the line: “into the filthy Hudson what a shock.”  (“They wrote a book about it, said it was like ancient Rome…”)  And that’s how a dear friendship began and has continued for over 20 years, over lots of drinks and smokes and a few tears over loves gone sour but many more joys over families -- she’s got a great son, and I’ve got two great kids, and facebook and Lou keep us all close. I haven’t stopped thinking about Lou Reed since I heard he died.  But maybe that’s all right. Despite all the amputations.

I’m not linking anything: he’s everywhere right now.  Just google him your damn self.