Culture Notes: Jarre, Soundtracking, Obama Burana

If you love movies, you know that movie music can take on its own life outside the film, following you around and joining the soundtrack going on inside your head. Maurice Jarre, who died on March 29, was a composer whose melodies inhabit my own cranial orchestra hall. Not my favorite composer, more than a little fond of largeness and corn, Jarre nevertheless created some indelible examples of melody merging with image — most famously in the movie that made his career, Lawrence of Arabia, where David Lean’s decision to go with Jarre’s monumentally sweeping desert themes indicates Lean’s strategy of our total immersion in Lawrence’s experience.

Jarre certainly responded to Lean’s approach in those four big projects they worked on together. I think Doctor Zhivago is seriously flawed for a variety of reasons, and absurd at times, but Jarre’s music sort of makes it for me, confirming the suspicion that Zhivago is a warm bath into which we can somewhat guiltily sink. (And not just the inescapable “Lara’s Theme,” but the other stuff, too — the opening credits music is a deft arrangement of the various themes, and in the small shiver of chimes it locates the poet’s vision within the epic story.) Jarre’s score for Rene Clement’s Is Paris Burning? is another inescapable soundtrack for me, a vigorous scoring of a not-very-good movie; Jarre’s melody, “The Paris Waltz,” has become something of an unofficial retroactive anthem of the French Resistance. I know it’s unabashedly cheesy, indeed full of fromage, and I fight it. But I can’t help it; music is a powerful drug.

omen2The over-use of music in otherwise good documentaries is a current pet peeve. And these thoughts lead to the most visible, or audible, manipulation of music in recent days, the drenching of more than one Republican-produced anti-Obama piece with music from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana — the “O Fortuna” section, where the frenzied choirs are chanting with alarming urgency. This first came through on a Sean Hannity montage counting down Obama’s first 100 days in office (quickly ridiculed on The Daily Show). The average viewer might not know from Orff, but they recognize something that sounds like the music from The Omen, and the connection is clear: Obama is the devil’s spawn, sent to assert his dominion. (That kid in The Omen had some controversy surrounding his birth circumstances, too; his mother was a something-or-other.)

As with everything else in the world, some people hear music with a critical ear; some don’t. That the Hannity video might not be entirely laughable to every single person who sees it is evidence of the latter. I love music and images together, but it’s too powerful a combination not to see, or listen to, carefully. Including when it’s in your favorite movies.

Incidentally, as some religious expert explained on Fox News a while back, Obama can’t actually be the anti-Christ, because of various technicalities detailed in the book of Revelation. He’s merely a sign of the end times. So let’s all calm down.

A piece on David Lean here; I talk about Jarre here. Sean Hannity’s invocation of the demon, here.

Culture Notes: It’s De-Fascist

It is gratifying that the recent Republican push to shift its criticism of the Obama administration from “socialist” to “fascist” has been exposed as a laughably calculated strategy. Saul Anuzis, who ran for the Republican Party chairmanship and has recently joined a Newt Gingrich-led group called American Solutions for Winning the Future (in the future, all men may have at least two divorces and still preach family values), flatly admitted the cynical nature of the strategy. “We’ve so overused the word ‘socialism’ that it no longer has the negative connotation it had 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago,” Anuzis said. “Fascism — everybody still thinks that’s a bad thing.”


Cole Porter: I Get a Kick Out of Benito?

We will ignore the probability that there are undoubtedly people who think fascism is a good thing. As head-bending as it is to equate socialism with fascism, and even though it seems to erase all the decades of devoted effort by conservatives who regularly branded liberals as communists, this strategy has been around for a while. It has been popularized in Jonah Goldberg’s book Liberal Fascism, and picked up by the Fox newsies thereafter. The absurdity of it was anticipated long before that, in the opening newsreel of Citizen Kane, in that moment when two outraged commentators brand Kane as a communist, then a fascist.

Naturally, Fox’s Glenn Beck, the pride of Mount Vernon, Washington (where the tulips come from), has taken up the cause of re-branding. The resulting slams against the current administration are expected, and maybe you can even understand conservatives trotting out their old resentments of (in Beck’s April 10 program) Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. But when Goldberg and Tulip include Cole Porter in their fascist-trolling nets, I have to draw the line.

The limp connection is that a few years ago somebody wrote something suggesting that Porter’s brilliant song “You’re the Top” included the couplet “You’re the top/You’re the great Houdini/You’re the top/You are Mussolini,” which is not actually part of the song’s official lyric. That was enough to declare Porter a fascist sympathizer. Googling around, it appears the line might have been in an early draft of the song (which, like a number of Porter tunes, has endless variations on the central wordplay idea) or possibly added by P.G. Wodehouse for a British production of the show, as many of Porter’s references are U.S.-centric. Or it might not have been part of the lyric at all, since there doesn’t seem to be any evidence.

It would not have been odd, or inappropriate, if Mussolini had been in the 1934 song’s litany. Porter’s zany cascade of metaphors includes Ovaltine, next year’s taxes, the tower of Babel and (a favorite rhyme) the pants on a Roxy usher and the steppes of Russia. (Check for possible socialist sympathies on last point — the steppes, not the pants).

If we really have to get explicit about it (and nothing kills wit like over-explanation), the song doesn’t list “good things,” but things that are, you know, at the top. Thus Garbo’s salary, broccoli, and Jimmy Durante’s nose are among the items listed as the opposite of de trop. To muddy the ideological waters, Porter also name-checks the “Coolidge dollar” and the G.O.P. itself. The real requirements are the sound of the word and its rhyme (thus, Fred Astaire and Camembert).

“Saul Anuzis” would have found an amusing place in a Porter lyric, come to think of it. (To go with “whoozis”?) “Glenn Beck” could’ve been fitted into the existing lines about “I’m a worthless check/A total wreck” etc.

Of course Glenn Beck’s researchers, if not Tulip himself, already know this, as does Jonah Goldberg. But it was more convenient for them to throw a celebrity name into their story about “leftists” who worshipped Mussolini. (That intelligent people were once optimistic or at least intrigued about Mussolini — who came to power in 1922 — is true, although most of those people were on the right, politically.)

Since the majority of Fox News viewers are too busy worried that Obama is stealing their guns to note the slander against Cole Porter, this is a minor bit of hoo-hah, but it deserves to be answered. It gives a handy measure of how wrong-headed and corrupt Beck and his kind are. You might say Beck is a toy balloon that is fated soon to pop, but Porter’s been quoted enough. 

You can read the Anuzis story here. Transcript of Beck’s show (where he says, “Like it or not, fascism is on the rise” — like it? Calling Dr. Freud!) begins here.

Culture Notes: Leave it to Beaver

Alison Bechdel’s review of Jane Vandenburgh’s memoir A Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth Century appeared in the New York Times Book Review in comic-book form in the March 29 edition, a witty approach that not only shows off Bechdel’s crisp style but surely gave the Book Review editors a break from printing yet another review of yet another coming-of-age-in-dysfunctionia memoir. (It’s here.) One complaint, though.

Bechdel refers to “the tranquilized ‘Leave it to Beaver’ conformity of the San Fernando Valley in the early 1960s.” You know what she means; I know what she means. Various shorthand terms have represented that idea of the late Eisenhower/early Kennedy era, the era of Revolutionary Road: the Organization Man, the Gray-Flannel Suit, the Lonely Crowd, the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. My own favorite summary of the era is an Alan Sherman song, “Here’s to the Crabgrass,” which contains the immortal stanza, “Here’s to mosquitos/Clam dip and Fritos/To golf and bridge and scuba there./Men wearing knee pants/Women in Capri pants/Discussing what’s with Cuba there.”

beaver5Invoking Leave it to Beaver is one of those shorthand references, and it’s an easy one, and I’m afraid I have used it myself. You can see why: the show, which ran from 1957 to 1963 and was created by Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, depicts a safe, white-picket-fence world in which the family unit is not only intact but beyond any intimation of divorce or scandal. It has few, if any, ripples of subversiveness, not even in the duplicitous form of Eddie Haskell, who in any case is regularly tamed by the show’s ethical rounding-offs — not that he seems to learn anything from them. (Eddie Haskell, played by Ken Osmond, is nevertheless one of TV’s greatest characters, a Dickensian figure along the lines of Uriah Heep.)

I watched a lot of Leave it to Beaver in my childhood, as it was on every afternoon in re-runs, but it wasn’t until seeing it in adulthood that I appreciated to what extent the show does not merit its reputation as a phony part of a repressive Fifties monoculture. Yes, it depicts a world that probably never existed, and yes, like most of what was on television at the time, it under-represents diversity. There are no homosexuals (although who can be entirely sure about Mr. Rutherford?), few black people, and very limited controversy. Within its contained world, however, Leave it to Beaver promotes honesty and personal responsibility over the values of social status or self-interest. It also overturns (usually, anyway) the assumption that dishonesty is an accepted, and even expected, mode of behavior; think of how many sitcoms, following in the frantic path of I Love Lucy, are built on tiresome spirals of lying.

Hypocrisy of any kind is frequently the target of Beaver‘s scripts, and its basic set-up — bestowing as much attention and point-of-view on the kid world as the adult — guarantees the skewering of various kinds of foolish “grown-up” behavior. The show’s gentleness is embodied in the gloriously serene (but hardly spineless) performance of Hugh Beaumont as Mr. Cleaver, which establishes the series’ moral center but also its sense of play; Beaumont is almost Dalai Lama-like in his measured good humor. It’s also worth noting the warmth of the parental relationship between Beaumont and Barbara Billingsley, which distinguishes them from the plastic figures of so many sitcoms. In short, there’s a great deal more than nostalgia to love about Leave it to Beaver, certainly much more than an easy association with the domain of Pat Boone and Velveeta.

Culture Notes: Vanishing Reviewers

kane22In March two longtime — very longtime — movie reviewers for local newspapers ended their runs. When the Seattle Post-Intelligencer gave up the ghost earlier this month (going to a stripped-down online-only version), it marked the end of a 35-year-plus tenure for William Arnold. (A group of longtime freelance reviewers, including Sean Axmaker and Paula Nechak, also saw a regular gig end; Axmaker, at least, will continue to write for other outlets, including the Parallax View site.) Yesterday marked the last day for Soren Anderson, who spent more than two decades in the Tacoma News Tribune‘s movie-reviewing perch. Soren opted for a severance package in the paper’s third round of layoffs.

The News Tribune is a McClatchy paper. You might recall that in 2006 McClatchy bought the larger Knight Ridder chain in a disastrous multi-billion dollar deal that plunged McClatchy into debt and sent their stock price on its way through the cellar. Ah yes, 2006: the days when the stock market just kept going up and everybody just kept making money and the rivers ran with chocolate sauce and lollipops grew on trees, because that’s the way the world is. The days when an otherwise responsible newspaper company would make such a wrong-headed deal.

Along with its dire implications about the future, this round of layoffs marks the definitive end of an era as far as newspapers and movie reviewers is concerned. Seattle in particular had two long-serving reviewers at the Times and the P-I from the early 1970s until recently; which is to say, writers who were hired to write about movies, not newspaper guys shifted over from another desk (which had been the custom before 1970 or so). The Times‘s John Hartl, whose first Times piece ran in 1966, ended his run in 2001, although he still freelances for the paper, and Arnold came a little later to the P-I. There will never be another era of such long-serving movie reviewers at newspapers (just as such a thing never really existed before 1970 or so, except at the New York Times and a few very big-city newspapers). That chapter exists only in the bubble of the late 20th century, and won’t ever come again. Defining what will come, not merely for people who write about film but for the function of newspapers, is a task people have been thinking about, and failing to solve, for at least the last ten years. Nobody has a clue.

Culture Notes: Paint Your Wagon

paint4This week the Northwest Film Forum’s yearlong series of films from 1969 picks up again with a marathon pairing of The Wild Bunch and Paint Your Wagon. One is a masterpiece and the other is not, but it is worth noting the rarity of having a 35 mm. print of Paint Your Wagon on view, although locally such rarity was not actually noted. I introduced the showings of both films last night and it led to some thinking, not at all deep, on the subject.

Paint Your Wagon has withstood a lot over the years: bad publicity during production, a runaway budget, generally lousy reviews, weak box office, and a parody on The Simpsons. (Watch it here; it’s great.) To say nothing of its general neglect as that strangest of hybrids, the musical comedy Western. I saw the film, on the big screen, as a kid, and liked it very much. There is something ingratiating about it, despite, or possibly because of, its many incongruities.

I have occasionally pondered writing a piece on director Joshua Logan, an unusual guy and a king of Broadway. His debut film, Picnic (1955), is wonderful, and there’s something weird and interesting about many of his other pictures. In real life Logan was, as they said back then, a manic-depressive (he describes this in his entertaining autobigraphy), and his best films are “too much,” over-the-top, too rich. When he made the film of South Pacific, his Broadway triumph, he decided to use filters during the big songs and flood the screen with pure color. It flat-out doesn’t work, but it’s kind of intriguing that he felt so strongly about the moments that his only response was great swathes of pink or orange. And Camelot (like Paint Your Wagon, a Lerner and Loewe musical), which Logan made two years before this film, is a truly bizarre approach to a musical, full of passionate dewy close-ups and actors who can’t sing. In Paint Your Wagon, the most notable “over the top” element is the sheer physical production of the movie itself, which was mostly shot on a remote location near Baker, Oregon, where an entire small town was constructed. The way that town comes to life actually anticipates Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller in its evocation of a “Northwestern Western,” with mud and grime.

Incongruities: Logan threw out the script to the original 1951 musical and had Paddy Chayefsky — not perhaps the person you’d think of for either musicals or Westerns, despite some experience with the former early in his career — to write something new. Thus an interracial romance on stage became the movie’s three-way marriage. (Chayefsky’s script was re-written, in any case.) Then there’s the basic concept of taking an intrinsically stylized form, the musical, and trying to render it in realistic terms, as well as the notion of making a movie about scruffy cowpokes and gold miners and spending almost $20 million on it — and this was, as they say, when 20 million dollars was a lot of money.

According to Richard Schickel’s Clint Eastwood bio, Lee Marvin was drunk all the time, Eastwood and Jean Seberg had an affair on location as the shoot dragged on for months, and lyricist-producer Alan Jay Lerner tried to have Logan fired during the shoot, which is rarely a morale-booster on the set.

paint5The movie tugs in different directions: ancient comedy vying with some amusing new social attitudes, for instance.  So many movies of 1969 are straddling a line between Old and New Hollywood, and Paint Your Wagon stumbles across it — epitomized by the realistic singing of Marvin and Eastwood (Seberg’s voice ended up being dubbed) still being backed by professional choirs on the soundtrack. Those two are charming in their singing anyway. There’s a certain joy in watching non-singers go for it, just plant their feet and belt it out gamely (cf. Pierce Brosnan doing “SOS” in Mamma Mia!), and that giddy quality does lift Paint Your Wagon. The biggest song from the score, “They Call the Wind Maria,” was handed to an actual Broadway pro, future Fargo star Harve Presnell, who really puts his chest into it — but it was Lee Marvin that landed an unlikely #1 hit in Britain, muttering “Wandr’in’ Star” through his muttonchops.

A drinking game: in the spirit of Lee Marvin, take a drink each time someone says “Horton” in this movie. I apologize for the narcissistic reference, but it works, because this supporting character, played by Tom Ligon, doesn’t really play a big role until later in the film, so you won’t get drunk too quickly.

And: Lee Marvin singing “Wand’rin’ Star.” Click here. The aspect ratio’s off, but you get the idea.

Culture Notes: CPAC, Twitter

CPAC/Twitter: This week’s cable-news shows were marked by a very weird confluence: excerpts from CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference) and reports of rampant Twitter use, even during Obama’s don’t-call-it-a-State-of-the-Union speech. (Actually, one of Newt Gingrich’s tweets did call the speech a State of the Union message, a minor gaffe that exemplifies a pitfall of the instant 140-word analysis game.) The loonier eruptions at CPAC included a a lot of predictable comments about peculiar-sounding science projects, which for all we know could lead to a cure for cancer but are fair game for derision because they include words such as “swine” and “odor.” William Proxmire, you have a lot to answer for. In some ways the most representative speaker was Mitch McConnell, U.S. Senator from Kentucky, who piped up with, “Who wants to hang out with guys like Paul Krugman and Robert Reich  when you can be with Rush Limbaugh?” — a glorious sound bite that one hopes is being filed away for future election use. McConnell’s line is doubly revealing: it demonstrates how eight years of conservative leadership, with its aversion to reality-based thought, got us in the mess we’re in, and it reminds us that the current conservative message exists as a playground choosing-up-of-sides.

Maybe Twitter doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with that level of behavior, yet it does seem perfect for the Gingrichian sensibility. To question the value of Twitter is to instantly be tarred with an old-fogeyism of the Clint Eastwood/Gran Torino variety, but still: a measured, thought-through response to events — any event — is something we ought to expect and demand, at least from our leaders, if not from my thousand closest friends on Facebook.

Culture Notes: Coyote; NEA; Obama Almost Too Awesome

coyote2Coyote: Reviewing the Natalie Wood Collection, I watched the 1964 Roadrunner/Coyote cartoon War and Pieces, directed by Chuck Jones, which is included as an extra on the Inside Daisy Clover disc. I have no special love for animation in general, but I make an expection for Wile E. Coyote, one of the great tragic characters in movies. War and Pieces is splendid, and shows the series to be so exquisitely refined that the payoffs to jokes don’t even need to be onscreen. And the absolute logic of the gags is maintained even when the results are surreal, like burrowing through the Earth’s core and coming out in China. Plus, this one has Acme Invisible Paint.

NEA: Republican lawmakers who oppose the stimulus package are rolling out their usual red flags, those words or phrases they know will fall on the ears of Sarah Palin’s “real Americans” as code for godless-homosexual-communist-terrorists. One such red flag is the National Endowment for the Arts, which gets a ludicrously small amount of funding from the government, but which is nevertheless at the top of the list in the GOP talking notes about the stimulus package. As though people in the arts aren’t workers who — in that awful, now inescapabale phrase — actually do help “grow the economy.” (Tax breaks for churchs, of course, are secure.) As though the New Deal hadn’t funded an extraordinary program of arts projects, many of which are still gloriously with us today.

Obama: I grew up with LBJ and Nixon, I have watched ’em all closely since. The greatest moment I’ve ever seen from a president was Barack Obama’s exasperated response to GOP warnings of “spending” (one of their red-flag words for years now). Especially the “no, seriously.” It is so rare to see a politician say something authentic — can this possibly go on? In case you missed it, with Rachel Maddow sitting in:

Culture Notes: Updike, Tinting, Super Bowl

Updike: Just two months before John Updike died the British magazine Literary Review anointed him (you should pardon the phrase) with their first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award for bad sex writing, a knock against Updike’s approach to a favorite topic. Putting aside for a moment the thought that the British should be lecturing anybody on the subject of sex, this award seemed churlish at the time, and now seems really jerky. If you’re going to write about sex, you might as well try to blend bluntness (as in, this is what people do, so why not use the words that match the body parts and the actions?) with lyricism, which Updike did.

I recommend one book I didn’t see mentioned in the obituary notices I saw: Updike’s 1992 novel Memories of the Ford Administration, a gloriously-titled story about an academic recalling the wide-open 1970s; mixed in is the professor’s scholarly project on that most stupefying of U.S. presidents (well, until recently), James Buchanan. A very witty book. With a little sex in it.

Tinting: I have been watching a lot of silent films lately. I am tired of tinting. I know that a lot of silent films were tinted at the time (changing colors, to lend mood and visual variety), and that a lot of DVD companies take care to follow original notes on when and how scenes were tinted. I’m still tired of it. The process darkens the image, in general, and can really blow out entire scenes — in the early going of Kino’s otherwise admirable version of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, for instance. I find myself craving good, clean black-and-white. So enough already.

Super Bowl: Don’t care, but it would be nice to see the Steelers get screwed on a last-minute bad call by the officials — payback for their bogus “win” over the Seattle Seahawks three years ago. Bitter? Not at all.