Wednesday, July 30, 2014

30 Years after the Rain: Nostalgia without Misogyny?

This past weekend marked the 30th anniversary of the release of Purple Rain, Albert Magnoli's nearly two-hour-length music video that made Prince an enormous star to go with his enormous talent.  I often show it in my Rock and Roll Films class, and I did in fact do so the other night. Just coincidence.  I hadn't realize the anniversary was coming up.  It was a student in the class who e-mailed me a link to this NPR piece remembering the film with fondness. 

I discuss the film with some clear memory of the Summer of 84, for me the Summer of Movies, as I probably saw more in those two and a half months in the theaters than I ever have since.  I joke in my presentation about how many virginities were lost either in the theaters or at parties or in cars where the film's hot soundtrack was playing. The film is vibrant, exciting, the music performances dynamic (though the acting is pretty lame) and very sexy.  NPR's Michelle Norris recalls what the film meant to her home town of Minneapolis, where much of the film was shot, and you can see this incredible, diverse music scene at the famous First Avenue club.  Critic Eric Deggans tells of how the narrative of the film actually had happened to him and his band. 

But what we cannot ignore -- and Jon Lewis in his review of the film for the journal Jump Cut certainly pointed it out -- is the film's relentless misogyny.  As Lewis notes, Prince's character, the Kid, can get away with being an asshole, including slapping his girl hard, just as his father beats his mother, because he's just such a musical genius.  He shows little respect to Appolonia, who clearly likes him, making her undress and jump into a cold lake.  The female members of his band, the lovers Wendy and Lisa, get mocked for complaining that the Kid won't even listen to the songs they are writing. But all is forgiven when he performs their song in the film's final music sequence at First Avenue, even giving Wendy a kiss on the cheek as they near the end of the title song.  (It reminds me of a more chilling moment in a film made years later, Brian Gibson's What's Love got to Do with It, when Ike Turner, after having demanded that a tired, post-partum Tina go out on stage with him, leans over to her and kisses her just before they begin to play. It's a horrific moment illustrating the abuse dynamic.)  And Appolonia, who wants a career, too, who is momentarily taken under the wing of the Kid's rival (which earns her the Kid's slap, and a mocking of her as he performs "The Beautiful Ones" as she and said rival are at the club together), is there crying at the beauty of the song, and in the montage of other images that are shown as the band plays "I Would Die 4U," she's there, helping him clean up the mess he's made of his house, the rage he went on after his father has shot himself in a failed suicide attempt. 

The film's sexism isn't limited to the Kid.  Morris Day, the rival, treats women like objects, quite literally; as one woman accosts him on the street, asking him where he was last night, Morris's henchman, Jerome, picks her up and tosses her in the dumpster.  This is funny.  Seriously.  You're supposed to laugh; you've never seen this person before, her acting is crappy, she sounds annoying, so why the hell not just put her in the trash?  (Except of course for the obvious reason that you don't treat anyone like garbage, you know.)  His attitude to his dancers is pretty much the same. 

Just as most music videos still do, and certainly did in the days when MTV showed videos, Purple Rain is essentially an adolescent male fantasy.  It says: you can be a jerk and mistreat women but if you can sing and play and dance (he's a great dancer; he took more than just his sound from James Brown), you can still triumph.  Despite its R-to-X-rated lyrics (which helped to create the Parents Music Resource Center, the "Wives of Big Brother" who sought to slap labels on record albums),its "wild" fashion sense, and its erotic drive, Purple Rain is just as symptomatic of Reagan-era conservatism as more obvious films of the period like Top Gun (another feature-length music video).  If you read film critic Robin Wood's chapter on fantasy and ideology films of the Reagan era, from his book Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, you realize that much of Wood's characterization of films like the Star Wars trilogy and other forms of "Reaganite entertainment" fit Purple Rain.  The film, like so many "classics" of the eighties, puts women in their place.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Obviously: Creativity, Madness and the Brain

In this month's Atlantic, Nancy Andreasen, a noted neuroscientist AND former professor of Literature, writes about her recent research on the creative brain.  Andreasen's early work on the subject, beginning in the sixties, focused on writers with whom she was in contact while teaching at the University of Iowa, home of the famous Iowa Writers Workshop. (One of her subjects was Vonnegut.)  For her current research, she's covering not only writing, but other arts (George Lucas is a subject this time around) and several geniuses in the sciences.  

The main point of this article concerns the thin border that barely separates many creative thinkers from mental illnesses, especially schizophrenia.  The idea that such visionaries are also mad goes back centuries, but the hardcore neurological study of this correlation is very much a recent phenomenon.   Andreasen's studies have looked not only at brain patterns but also family history, seeking to find issues of genetic "genius" and also the role of nurture in encouraging creativity and/or madness.   (I wonder if she thought of trying to study the brain of Allen Ginsberg, whose visionary poetry is often mad and about madness; recall the first line of Howl.)  The studies are fascinating for what they show about the brain, and also what they tell us about family dynamics.  And indeed, one of the crucial aspects of the creative brain is that the same vision that can lead to scientific, mathematical, or artistic breakthroughs that can save and inspire millions can also lead to totally irrational behaviors, depression, breakdowns, and suicide.  (Andreasen closes her article with a reference to the noted John Nash biography A Beautiful Mind, where Nash makes this exact point.)

But for me, one of the most intriguing points made in the article is almost an aside: that creative thinkers don't see their ideas as extraordinary.  "I've been struck," she writes,  "by how many of these people refer to their most creative ideas as 'obvious.'"  A creative thinker sees the world in such a unique way, but that way is unique to others, not to the thinker; as one artist being studied puts it, you are kind of blinded to your talent, because it stuns you that no one else sees it as you do.  Such a capacity can lead to all kinds of frustration. (I'm thinking of Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes, who can't comprehend what it's like to be of an ordinary thought process.)  One of those frustrations is a lack of confidence because you can't seem to get people to see things the way you do.  (As William Goldman's Butch Cassidy put it in George Roy Hill's classic film starring Newman and Redford: I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals.)

The notion of things being "obvious" took me back to the writing of my dissertation  I remember that as I read late drafts of my project it seemed like on every page I used the phrase "of course."  It was embarrassing! I was assuming that my readers -- and when you write your dissertation, you're only thinking of your committee members, not whatever audience you might have if a publisher accepts your diss -- knew the points I was making, since they were self evident to anyone who had taken enough graduate coursework in the field, but that "of course" was also a reflection of my humility, my inability to accept that I was becoming an expert in this area, and that my argument was original and worth sharing.  The diss still sits on my shelf, having been successfully defended, with a few articles from that research scattered about academic journals and one textbook.  What I was saying seemed so obvious to me that it couldn't be all that worth paying attention to! I had to cut out pretty much every "of course" phrase; it probably trimmed the final draft by about a tenth!

The same thing happened when a saw a call for proposals for a submission on a collection of essays on Sex and the City back in the early 2000s.  Dirty little secret: I had not watched the series when I first saw the CFP, but in my Media Criticism class, several students had attempted a formal analysis of the show, and I was curious enough that I decided to watch some of the episodes on DVDs I rented from Blockbuster. (Yes, I'm old. Obviously.) I submitted two proposals, and it was the one I thought was ridiculously obvious -- that the series owed some formal and thematic debt to Woody Allen's seventies films --  that the editors of the anthology liked, and so I went on to finish the chapter, after several tortured revisions.   Even here, recently, when I wrote about Harold and Maude, I had to make the point that I was certainly not the first one to note the film's influence on Wes Anderson.  I mean, it's not like I'm suddenly discovering that Apocalypse Now is a remake of Heart of Darkness  in a Captain Obvious sort of way; my ideas are a bit past that point, but still, it's one of the things that I have to make drive me forward as a thinker, a writer, etc.  I have not to shut down ideas just because I think they are too obvious as to need no comment. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The New Sexualities: Giving the Teens their Voice

My eldest has a subscription to One Teen Story, a lit magazine out of Brooklyn, from the publishers of One Story.  The titles describe the magazines: every couple of weeks, a single piece of short fiction.   She wanted us to read Claire Spaulding’s “Helen,” which she liked.  One of the story’s themes is sexual identity, and how teens cope with their feelings.  The narrator is a male homosexual, his friend is male but seeks to identify as female. There are numerous temporal shifts that address the issues of bullying that is associated with coming out as any sort of deviant from the traditional male/female/straight checkboxes; the struggle to accept the title character is not just those of her classmates, but from the narrator, who desires Helen in her “original,” or shall I say, “birth” state, a male, but cannot desire that same person as Helen. Spaulding, a high school student, tells a tale that is probably very familiar for those in her generation, though I must admit that her style does show her limited experience as a writer (quite a few clich├ęs, for example). 
I’m writing about this story not simply for whatever worth it might have to its young audience.  I’m thinking about my daughter and her generation and how they seem to be responding to the cultural shift concerning what I will call sexuality politics.  (My daughter is just a few years younger than Spaulding.)
What I admire about my daughter is that she seems to get it.  She understands that human sexuality is fluid, that bullying people because of their “deviance” is wrong, that love is love.  There’s not even any confusion for her, though I suspect that once she begins to have strong feelings for another person, there will be much of that, because love is confusing, and teens are crazy to begin with.  I hope that mine is among the last generation to find sport in “fag-hating,” to oversimplify things a bit.  Despite being born just a couple of years before Stonewall, I grew up in a society that was, to use the great phrase from Harvey Milk, “fiercely heterosexual.”  That revolution was also taking part among my peers, as I would later know, but as kids we were perfectly comfortable making gay jokes and laughing at gay stereotypes in films and tv shows.  I was exposed (so to speak) to the usual products of “GUY” culture: football, Playboy, heavy metal.  But though I can see, thinking back, that my late high school and my college years saw in my own views a wider perspective; I suppose the term would be “tolerance,” but as my former boss – a Catholic nun,  I  should note! – said at a meeting a few years ago, that word implies that a person is doing or being something that “we” dislike but “put up with” – and that’s condescending and doesn’t get us any closer to where we need to be for a more just social order.  I certainly think I carry fewer prejudices than my parents do, and as is often the case, my children will carry fewer ones than I do. 
The story told in Helen is not so straightforward; I wish I could blame its temporal shifts, but I know that it’s because I’m half a step behind the youth culture that will shatter all these boundaries for good.  (It’s not going to be so easy; ask any Black male whether or not we are really a post-racial society. ) When I was in graduate school, the term “queer” became the catch-all term for homosexuals and bisexuals, but now it is one letter in the alphabet soup we call “LGBTQ.”  I don’t mean to complain here – except to note that “queer” is easier to speak than “LGBTQ” – because language is always a matter of power and control.  (This is why the society moves from “Negro” to “Afro-American” to “African American,” etc.)  As a person of a culturally privileged class, I can take my own identity somewhat for granted, though of course my male-ness, my white-ness and my straight-ness is defined as against my not being female, not being brown, not being queer.  (Go back and look at the use of the word “deviant” in this post.)  To those who speak about LGBTQ as a “lifestyle choice,” I ask: when did you choose to be straight?    

I'm glad I've lived in a time where so many doors have been been torn down.  At the institution where I work, in the middle of suburbia, the campus's class valedictorian was president of the LGBTQ club and was active in more campus communities than should be allowed by the sheer time commitments she had to have.  She helped make the campus a better place for those who will follow, and I wish we could have found an excuse to flunk her, just to keep her there! 

As much as cyberspace may be creating more opportunities for bullies to do horrible things, I see the youth of my daughter’s age as becoming increasingly more expansive in their cultural mindset.  While there still can be a massive blowback at any time, I hope these kids are strong and will not tolerate any more closets and other straightjackets.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Film Friday: Kenneth Anger's "Scorpio Rising" and the Film Canon

I've been teaching a course in "Rock and Roll Films" for nearly twenty years.  It's been pretty fun to do, though there are some summers where I feel more distracted (when my kids were very young).  Looking back, it's kind of cool that I was able to turn what was initially a paper I wrote as a freshman in college into a small percentage of my lifetime income.  (I hope the paper has long been buried somewhere in my parents' backyard.  The genesis of the paper came from Greil Marcus's essay on the subject from the 1980 edition of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, and while he is duly cited, as I remember it, the paper wasn't much more than a distillation of that article.)

I've been careful not to allow the course to ossify, easy enough to do for any academic on any subject.  The first few years I taught the course, I went pretty much with a chronological approach, but for the most part I work around about six or seven different themes, usually covering four in any given term. I think I offer a range of film titles when I teach it as well, and the corpus grows with new films that are worth exploring.  The mid-2000s spate of biopics (Walk the Line, Ray, Beyond the Sea) opening up an avenue back to earlier titles like La Bamba and The Buddy Holly Story.  When I started the course, there was only one Sex Pistols film, The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, a cheesy exploitation of the group financed by their former manager; the Pistols -- with the same director, Julien Temple -- produce a more "conventional" documentary in 2000, The Filth and the Fury, which works much better in the context of what I want to get across in the course. When I decided to show Curtis Hanson's 8Mile, featuring Eminem, I was fascinated at the parallels between it and the early Elvis movies -- especially King Creole. A friend of a friend recommended Rusty Cundieff's mockumentary Fear of a Black Hat as a hip-hop Spinal Tap: not quite a classic, but at times quite brilliant. (The discourse surround the L.A. riots of 1992 is devastatingly brought to bear in the song/video "Guerrillas in the Midst." Truth ain't always funny.)

Despite the course's evolving -- new biopics on James Brown and Jimi Hendrix coming very soon! -- there are a handful of films that are canonical, ones that I have shown every time I've taught the course in the summer at Queens College. I always show an Elvis film, one or two of the early ones (King Creole , Jailhouse Rock, Loving You).  I always show A Hard Day's Night, which always leads to at least one episode of The Monkees. I always show the Pistols films, and, of all things, the first Beach movie with Frankie and Annette. (The theoretical spine of the course is Hebdige's classic Subculture: the Meaning of Style. You can't really avoid the Pistols films then, and Beach Party marks an interesting counterpoint.) And you can always count on seeing Kenneth Anger's avant-garde classic Scorpio Rising, from 1963, perhaps the ultimate rock film.

Anger's film is not really possible to describe in a short piece like this.  It's not a narrative film, and has no dialogue.  The bulk of the sound track consists of a dozen pop songs, most of which were recorded in 63.  The imagery centers around a biker subculture that Anger had become friendly with in Brooklyn.  There is footage of the bikers working on their machines,  getting dressed to go out (set to Bobby Vinton's version of "Blue Velvet"), hanging out in Coney Island, and attending a bizarre costume party, featuring glimpses of gay sex (and I think a glimpse of hetero-sex, too but I'm still not sure after twenty-five years) and an initiation ritual of sorts involving mustard.  Anger also mixes imagery of nazis, an old religious film about Jesus, James Dean, and footage of The Wild One, the famous Stanley Kramer-produced biker flick starring Marlon Brando as the leader of the pack. The music is used to powerful and also funny commentary on the images: "He's a Rebel" is played over the shots of the Jesus film and the Brando film; "Party Lights" plays not just over the party sequence, but also as Jesus and his followers enter the temple to confront the moneychangers. "I Will Follow Him" features shots of the Jesus film but also the nazi imagery and again Brando.  The conclusion, perhaps predictably, is over the Safaris' surfing classic "Wipeout."  (But with the nazi imagery around
the film, I can't help think: Wipe Out?) I repeat: there's no story here.  The imagery is overwhelming. In my teaching, Scorpio is for my film class what Howl is for my literature courses: it blows many students away. As one student said of the Anger film, "it freaked me to my soul."  That's what it's supposed to do.

I was a senior in college when I first saw the film, a slightly sepia-toned 16mm print. Over the years of showing it, I've switched from 16mm to a VHS copy I'd rent from Kim's Video, to a copy of a copy I'd made one year (using my old digital videotape camcorder), to links to the film on YouTube to a well-restored DVD copy. It's still the music that makes it, yes, but it's nice to have a clean image to work with, too. I kind of take it for granted that academia has it as part of its canon.  The professor who showed me the film when I was an undergrad earned her doctorate from NYU, as I eventually did. At the time of the film's release, there was a closer relationship between the film-making program and the film studies program at the University, and films like Anger's were being seen by students like Martin Scorsese. (Go watch Mean Streets again if you don't believe me.) As the PhD's began to find work outside the city, they took Scorpio Rising with them.  I more or less assume that you can't get an undergrad degree in film or media studies without having seen it. When I ask my students if they've seen it before, a few hands usually shoot up, though not all (which is good, because you do want to have some shock value).

Despite my sense that Scorpio is part of academia's film canon, I don't see quite as much  discourse about the film in scholarly articles. (You can find a fair share of books about it, but it still seems limited.)  You can read about it as a canonical text of "queer cinema"; as a major example of underground film; even some pieces about representations of motorcycle culture.  Yet it still seems a bit thin.  Maybe it's one of those films critics and scholars do take for granted, something that we feel we've said what there is to say about it already so why bother?  

Outside the academy, I suppose I can understand why the Library of Congress has not yet added Scorpio Rising to its National Film Registry, though I must admit I was surprised that it wasn't already, given the reputation it has.  It was the subject of a famous case of censorship (like Howl was), and just as in the case with Ginsberg's poem, Anger won.  (By the way: I used to think Anger had trouble because of copyright issues with the songs he used, but evidently he did pay the copyright holders to use them.)  It is a landmark film, and one deserving of the attention I think it gets anyway. 
But what is shocking to me is that the film is not even on the list of suggested films that people might nominate for inclusion in the Film Registry.  The list is not exclusive; you can nominate any film you like, but the fact that Anger's film isn't on the suggested list stuns me. The deadline to nominate films is September 1.  I certainly encourage those of you know do know and admire the film to put it on your lists. 

And here is the film, linked from YouTube. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Goodbye "Rockfish": Remembering James Garner

"I haven't been to a movie since the Duke died." 

That's what Murphy Jones says to Emma Moriarity as they leave a theater showing a typical eighties slasher film. The film is Murphy's Romance, from 1985, six years after John "Duke" Wayne had died of cancer, and Murphy is played by James Garner, who would receive his only Oscar nomination for his role. 

I may not want to watch any more tv or go to a movie now that Garner has died, at the age of 86, of natural causes. 

I don't know if I can articulate how much the roles Garner embodied meant to me.

I can talk about a lot of the things I admired about Garner the actor: his willingness to fight the networks when he knew they were screwing him (NBC tried doing so twice); his then-unique ability to move successfully and effortlessly between the big and small screen (can you come up with any other names who moved between the two like he did in the sixties and seventies? Maybe Rock Hudson, but once he got to tv in the seventies he more or less stayed there, and Clint Eastwood never went back to TV after the Spaghetti Westerns); his self-deprecating humor; hell, even the fact that his marriage lasted nearly sixty years.

But what mattered so much to me, and I think a lot of guys my age, was Rockford.   (I am using "guy" in the sense that Lili Taylor uses it in Say Anything: the kinda immature, young heterosexual male who's still trying to figure out how to get out of his own way.)

I think it was Kenny Fitzpatrick who first turned me on to The Rockford Files when I was about ten.  The show had just begun being syndicated, I think, and NBC was still showing new episodes; I was too young completely schedule my life around watching it, but I tried hard.  However it happened, Rockford's life was the life I wanted to have.  Or at the very least, his car was the car I wanted to drive. 

Jim Rockford, a Korean War vet (like Garner), ex-con (pardoned after serving five years in Quentin), and truck driver's son, was a private investigator who lived in a trailer in Malibu, in an area called Paradise Cove. He got paid two hundred bucks a day, plus expenses.  Somehow, he managed to hang onto his property, and to his gold Pontiac Firebird, despite the scrapes he found himself in.  While Jim was big and strong, he often took a punch in the gut from various goons, thugs, and punks.  Unlike some of the classic detectives of he hard-boiled school, he rarely ever stayed in control of every situation; what allowed him to survive was his improvisational skill, and his wit. (And his brilliant driving:  his spinaround move has been adopted by the LAPD for heaven's sake.)

And hell, it was L.A.  You could live on the beach, catch fish, play poker with your dad, meet pretty gals, crack wise with your cop-friend's boss, and still pay the bills.  I so wanted to be Jim Rockford.  I check from time to time to see how much a gold Firebird circa 1977 goes for on e-bay. Nothing more awesome to be driving that thing chasing a bad guy (or being chased by bad guy), Mike Post's great rock theme blaring out of the 8-track deck, some celeb guest star (like Rita Moreno or Lauren Bacall) sitting in the passenger seat half-scared, half-thrilled.   Rockford was the man.

He was so cool.  The mini-printing press in the back seat where he made up business cards, so he could pretend to be from this or that office in order to find out information.  The .38 in the cookie jar. The West Texas (or Oklahoma) cowboy outfit he's wear as Jimmie Joe Meeker, a guise he used in order to help him run a couple of big cons.  His independence. Have I mentioned the Firebird?

But he was not so cool that he was out of reach.  His criminal past, his struggle to make ends meet, his propensity for getting beat up, all made Rockford a sympathetic character. We loved him for his charm, but also for his human imperfections.   He was a believable image of masculinity in ways that Wayne or even Eastwood could not be, because they were too big on the big screen. 

Garner's personality was a big key to the success of The Rockford Files, as is often the case with tv shows.  But the team around the show were also terrific.  The people responsible for the show gave Garner a great supporting cast -- Joe Santos as Jim's cop buddy, Sgt (later Lt.) Dennis Becker; Gretchen Corbett as his lawyer (and sometimes girlfriend) Beth Davenport; James Luisi as Becker's boss Lt. Chapman; most hilariously, Stuart Margolin as Angel Martin, one of Jim's old buddies from San Quentin; and most affectionately, Noah Beery Jr as Joseph "Rocky" Rockford, Jim's dad. And the writers gave them generally top-notch scripts: Juanita Bartlett, co-creator Stephen Cannell, and most famously for this generation, David Chase, who co-produced the show for most of its run and wrote many an episode, include a pair of shows with low-level mobsters from New Jersey.  (Yes, the germ of The Sopranos can be found in The Rockford Files.)  And then there was the opening gem: every week, the phone rang, and Jim's answering machine -- kids look that up -- would declare, "this is Jim Rockford, at the tone leave your name and message, I'll get back to you." After the beep, someone would leave a hilarious message about this or that bureaucratic matter, or sometimes Rocky or Angel would ask for a favor (with Angel, it was usually money for a horse race).  They did become a curse for the writers, who had to come up with something new every week, but as the various YouTube collections of those opening messages shows, it was very much worth their time.

The show's popularity allowed the producers to get a lot of big-name guest stars, though from the first some noted people can be found: Joseph Cotten is there right in the first episode, for example.  I've mentioned Bacall and Rita Moreno; veteran character actor Strother Martin guested; Alex Rocco, fresh off his success as Moe Greene in the first Godfather, also made an appearance. Pop stars also sneaked in: Isaac Hayes appeared thrice as ex-con Gandy Fitch, who gets out of stir to collect some money from Jim, whom he calls "Rockfish." In the third episode, Fitch has a singer whom he likes romantically and professionally; the singer is played by Dionne Warwick.  I could go on and on. 

Garner's masculinity largely conformed to many conventional norms of postwar America, no doubt.  And as an academic I can analyze how idealized that image of Rockford/Garner is.  In the early eighties, People dubbed him "the Last Real Man." The persona is a popular American icon, that of the...yes, Maverick (lest you think I forgot about Garner's first success on tv).  It's appealing because it's outside the boundaries of the law, yet working to help good people get justice.  (In a two-part episode largely influenced by The Sting, Rockford helps a colleague's dad get the real sale value for his business by running a con on the man who basically beat up the dad to take the business from him for a tenth of what it was worth.) This is the kind of thing that Cannell would bring to a show he created a few years after Garner's health forced the end of RockfordThe A-Team, a show about a team of on-the-run-for-a-crime-they-didn't-commit Vietnam Vets.  (Arguably, the A-Team spreads out the Jim Rockford personality onto four different characters.)   I get all of those aspects of the Rockford mystique.  (I'd also point out something fairly progressive about the show's representation of gays, but that's another story.)

But at heart, I'm still a twelve-year-old, reaching for my brown jacket, flipping through my phony business cards, ready to drive crazy into the Malibu sunset.  Goodnight, Rockfish.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Film Friday: How Much DID Wes Anderson Learn from Harold and Maude?

Last week, I watched Harold and Maude, Hal Ashby's 1971 cult classic, with my eldest, who is fourteen, fairly goth in taste, and possessed of a pretty morbid sense of humor.  I had intended to make a post about it for my first film friday in ages, but I let time slip, and then, as you probably read, death kind of took a hand and made me write.

When I watched the film, for the first time in perhaps decades, I was struck by its composition.  The story line is so funny of course, and when you watch it the first time -- I was probably fourteen -- you are fascinated by the odd couple, by Maude's eccentric joie de vivre, her almost Zen-like approach to other people's property, and her crazy driving, teaching Harold, whose obsession with death manifests in driving around in a hearse and staging fake suicides, to celebrate life and living.  And let's face it, the story is wonderfully funny, touching, and occasionally thought-provoking.  But pay attention to the choices Hal Ashby makes in how he frames his shots, and you realize how much of a specific type of world he is creating, especially the world associated with Harold's life.

One of my favorite early shots is from the first time we see Harold at a psychiatrist's office:

Here we see first of all Harold's subversion of the traditional position of the patient.  But we also notice that Harold is directly imitating the psychiatrist in clothing, manner, and even pose. (The actor playing the doctor is G.Wood, known for his appearances in both the film and tv versions of M*A*S*H, looking purposely ridiculous with a rug on his head.)

(I know this image doesn't show Harold in the exact same pose, but I'm too lazy to screen capture my dvd, so I'm just google-imaging. forgive.)

Harold's home is the perhaps stereotypical mansion of the bored/boring well-to-do.  Vivian Pickles' performance as Harold's mother is a brilliant portrayal of the society woman who has absolutely no idea who her son is and what he needs. Here's a shot from the first suicide Harold presents:

It is a castle filled with things, Harold's home, but there is no soul to it, just Mummy's overbearing, self-absorbed personality.  Yet Mrs. Chasen never becomes a caricature, like, say, Matilda's mom in the stage and screen adaptations of Roald Dahl's children's book.  Credit Ms. Pickles for that.

Maude is an intrusion into straight society, the society that holds on to rituals and to principles like private property.  In perhaps an obvious manner, Ashby shows this when Maude leaves a funeral that Harold is attending.  (For those who don't know the film, going to strangers' funerals is one of Harold's hobbies, and it is in so doing that the two meet.)

Maude refuses to accept the conventions -- easier to do of course when one is attending a total stranger's funeral.  Her home is warm, and full of living things and life, unlike the sterile stiffness of Harold's mansion:

One of the most famous tracking shots in the film occurs during a picnic the two friends have in a cemetery.  As the couple chat about life and death, the camera pulls slowly, as Cat Stevens' "Where to the Children Play" accompanies the shot, until we are in a sea of white stones:

Consider also the use of Stevens' "Trouble," during the "hospital montage," as Maude tells Harold at her 80th birthday celebration that she "took the pills" and will die at about midnight, and again the shots of Harold waiting and waiting for news if the doctors could save her.

The use of Stevens' music has contributed to the film's cult classic status, and here we might as well bring in the obvious point: how much Wes Anderson has "stolen" from Ashby's film.  The careful framing of Anderson's shots is the most apparent.  There are too many one can choose from, but here's one from Rushmore I love:

There he is, Max Fischer, against all odds, the genius misfit.  This is of course another element of Anderson's films that owes something to Harold and Maude.  His main characters are usually of the well-to-do, the disaffected wealthy rich who can't find their place in the world.  And  has anyone used music the way Anderson does that is so clearly influenced by Ashby's use of Stevens?  (As if to make the point, Rushmore features a Stevens song, though not one of his early-seventies folk-rock classics, but one of his sixties shiny pop tunes, "Here Comes My Baby.")

In showing the film to my eldest, I had hoped to impart some kind of "lesson" about enjoying life, something she has a hard time doing.  (I realize now, as a parent, that it's what being a teenager is.)  I also thought she'd find Harold's fake suicides gloriously sick, especially that involving his last computer-date, since she participates with Harold, and re-enacts Juliet's farewell speech. (The kid is a big Shakespeare fan, for which I am eternally grateful.)  Perhaps the film will grow on her, much like it has on a generation.  It's important to remember that the film was a disappointment at the box office, and that it was over time that it achieved cult status, due to art house screenings and of all things cable tv services; I recall seeing it for the first time on PRISM, which was the local cable tv's version of HBO at the time, only showing movies, uncut and commercial free.  (And that was all it showed: this was before such networks decided to produce original programming and cover live sporting events like boxing and MMA.)  That was about ten years after its theatrical release; for those of my era, who grew up very much in the shadow of the boomers and their culture, it felt like a real doorway into that world.  And at the time, I preferred that world to the one I was currently living in.  (I tended to avoid the John Hughes films at that time, though there were exceptions, and even as my kids now love The Breakfast Club and Ferris Beuller's Day Off, I must caution them that that's not how it was then.)  My eldest does see herself as a misfit, but I hope she can see the light at the other side of this tunnel of adolescent angst. And in the wake of my friend's death, it seemed somehow fitting that I would have been thinking of this film and its celebration of life just before finding out about the loss of one who really did live.

Maude is a Holocaust survivor; witness the tattoo on her arm.  She had everything taken from her, and perhaps that's why she "borrows" people's cars and takes a tree from a public building and give it more room to breathe by re-planting it in a field.  Some psychologists refer to two broad types of Holocaust survivors: those who did not die and those who lived.  The former were unable to fully get past those traumas, but the latter somehow managed to recover their spirit and would not give into the misery and evil they suffered.  Maude clearly is someone who lived.  And I want my eldest to understand that.

That said, she's still bummed at what Harold did to the Jaguar-hearse at the end of the film...

Note: I'm not the only one who sees this film's influence on Anderson.  It's pretty obvious, I suppose, but I hadn't seen Asbhy's film in ages, and it just struck me. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Don't Give Up. Don't EVER give up. V Foundation auction today on ESPN

Today is ESPN’s auction day for the V foundation for cancer research.  I’m sure if you’ve listened at all to ESPN Radio you’ve heard the neat stuff you can bid on, and how all the dollars you donate will go directly to fund research projects into beating this bastard. The foundation was started by ESPN in conjunction with the late Jim Valvano, former men’s basketball coach at North Carolina State and ESPN analyst who died in 1994.  Valvano announced the formation of the foundation at the 1993 ESPY awards when he accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.  The speech has become legend for a number of reasons, and to suggest that you are tired of hearing it is to suggest you’re tired of watching It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas.
I was thinking how different in personality Ashe and Valvano were.  Ashe called his book Days of Grace for a reason; that’s the way he carried himself on the court and in his battle with AIDS.  He was a many of great dignity and character.  Valvano was a character all right, a paisan from New York who coulda been the next Pat Cooper if he’d tried.  He was manic, energetic, talking with his hands like we who came from the neighbuh-hood do. And always willing to laugh at himself.  (The most famous image of Valvano as coach comes from the seconds after his team pulled off the great upset of the University of Houston in the 1983 National Championship: amid the craziness of celebration after Lorenzo Charles put back Derek Wittenberg’s desperate heave into the basket for the win, the CBS cameras caught Valvano running on the court looking for someone to hug.) It seems like you could not have chosen a more different person from Ashe to win the first ever award in his name.
But both men were competitors.  Both men fighters to the end.  Valvano used the ceremony to urge for more funding of cancer research, which amazingly had been stagnant for years, even as the many foundations created to fight AIDS had achieved so much success in funding research.  He was determined to change that, and he did.  He almost didn’t get to attend the ceremony, let alone deliver the speech. He was in such pain from the bastard, that it was really touch and go.  But he managed to get to the stage, and with the help of his friends in the coaching fraternity, especially Dick Vitale and  Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, got down from the dais after draining himself with the passion to share his love of life.
The speech is memorable for many reasons, especially the moment where he tells everyone that there is a guy on a screen telling him he’s got 30 seconds.  I got tumors all over my body, you think I’m gonna care about a guy telling me “30 seconds! 30 seconds!”  He follows it with a classic Italian curse that makes the guyz from Brooklyn laugh and cry. He went on for another three minutes, insisting that we all enjoy every second we have to live, quoting Emerson, and announcing the foundation he was creating in his name, with its logo: don’t give up…don’t ever give up.
On this day, for my friend Jane, who like Jimmy V. lived a full joyous life in half the amount of years most of us get, I made my donation, and I hope others will too, if not to this foundation, than to whatever charity moves them.  Let’s beat this bastard.