Wednesday, August 31, 2011

FIve Easy Pieces and the tone of the times

Before the 1992 release of A Few Good Men in which Jack Nicholson delivered the much quoted line, "You can't handle the truth," his most famous screen moment was probably in 1970's Five Easy Pieces, the first film in which he claimed top billing since being noticed with his supporting role in the previous year's Easy Rider. It's the chicken salad sandwich scene that was chosen to represent the film during the clips from the best picture nominees at that year's Academy Awards.

Nicholson and Karen Black, as his sort-of girlfriend, stop at a diner with two hitchhikers they've picked up. Nicholson orders toast which is not on the menu, and a contentious exchange follows in which he explains to the waitress how she can fill his order without breaking the rules that she insists on following.

"You have bread, and a toaster of some kind?" he tells the frustrated woman, then instructs her to "hold the chicken," bring him a check for the chicken salad sandwich "and you haven't broken any rules."

"You want me to hold the chicken?" she asks in a tone of defiant sarcasm.

"I want you to hold it between your knees," he sneers.

With that remark, the waitress orders Nicholson and his companions to leave, and points to a sign that states the management's policy ("We reserve the right to refuse service").

"Do you see this sign?" Nicholson says, then violently clears the table of its glassware and metal utensils.

More than 40 years later, Nicholson's character looks more like an obnoxious boor than the rebel he may have seemed originally. He's a rude bully abusing a low-wage employee who is, after all, only doing her job. In 1970, when the film was released, it played a little differently, its rage colored by the tone of the times. To the young people of what would have been called the "counterculture," Nicholson's character wasn't merely abusing a waitress, but taking on Nixon, Vietnam, the assassins of JFK, RFK, and MLK, along with all the pointless rules of our straight-jacketed repressed society. He was "stickin' it to the man," challenging the "system," kicking the Establishment's ass, and putting down the whole rotten "scene" (add a "man" after "scene" for added hipness, 1970's style).

Nicholson's character was the rebel seizing his freedom and ignoring the "sign" that the waitress points to in her defense. A hit song by a group called the Five Man Electrical Band titled "Signs" that hit the airwaves in summer 1971 ("Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign?") may have even been inspired by the scene. Once Nicholson and his companions leave the diner, one of the hitchhikers praises his miniature act of rebellion. He's less impressed with himself than she is, and recognizes the futility of, shall we say, fighting the system. In regard to that toast without the chicken, he says, "Well, I didn't get it, did I?"

A movie, like any creative work, does not exist in a void. It reflects its time, but time moves on while the work of art is static, frozen on canvas, on a page, or on frames of film. If its truths are universal, the art transcends the time in which it was made and communicates as effectively to its own generation as it does to those that follow. Five Easy Pieces, like that previous Nicholson movie with "easy" in the title, is probably a satisfying film to watch even now, four decades after its release, but its power has almost certainly diminished. In 1970, some of its strength was in its symbolism, which may not have even been deliberate, but what it symbolized for many members of its original audience has changed. Nixon is gone, Vietnam is over, and our government, though actually more oppressive than ever, is seen as less corrupt and authoritarian, certainly by filmmakers, most of whom lean left politically and are inclined to see a democratic president as a man in a white hat, especially when he's black.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Saturday, August 27, 2011

The end of the world is not being televised

As of 3:48 p.m., the end of the world is not being televised. Maybe there’s a network on cable that successfully negotiated with God - or the devil - for exclusive rights, or maybe Hurricane Irene’s arrival on the east coast has been delayed, or maybe it arrived on schedule but had already weakened once it reached New York. All I know is that life goes on, or television does, and there’s been no mention of cataclysm on NBC where golf is being televised, or ABC which is presenting the Little League World Series (I’m not kidding), or Fox where a Major League game has just concluded. The digital convertor box on my analog TV set isn’t picking up the signal from the CBS affiliate, so I have no clue what’s going on there.

When I went to bed this morning, I was fully expecting to wake up to live news coverage resembling the tornado sequence in the Kansas prelude to The Wizard of Oz, and now I’m wondering if, like Dorothy’s stay in Oz, it was all a dream.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Elvis Remembered

Thirty-four years ago, August 16 also fell on a Tuesday. A hot, muggy day throughout most of the Midwest, by afternoon the news went forth that Elvis Presley had died. The hip-shaking Southern boy who made rock 'n' roll an international sensation that would soon become the dominant force in music, was found on the floor of his bathroom at Graceland, the gaudy mansion in Memphis, Tennessee that is now on the National Register of Historic Places, visited yearly by fans from around the globe.

It's a bit mind-boggling to realize that Elvis has been a dead icon for much longer than he was a living one. By the time of his death in 1977, he had spent twenty-one years in the spotlight, and now thirty-four years have passed since he proved he was always as mortal as the rest of us. It would also be difficult for the generations that followed to realize the impact Presley had on the world way back in 1956. A clue can be found in the complete episodes of The Ed Sullivan Show, released on DVD several years ago and reviewed below:

Elvis: The Ed Sullivan Shows (2006)

Elvis Presley made no less than nine network television appearances before performing on The Ed Sullivan Show the evening of September 9, 1956, but most of America first saw him then. Despite a stiff demeanor and tendency to pronounce show as “shoe,” Sullivan was the ringmaster of American entertainment. His Sunday night variety program was an institution in the days when television was still a three channel proposition. Appearing on his show was an important break for any entertainer. It was tantamount to receiving the show business seal of approval.

But Sullivan originally did not approve of Presley and vowed he wouldn’t touch the singer with a ten-foot pole. Despite selling more records faster than any recording artist in history, Presley was more than hot. He was scorching. The swivel hips that earned him the nickname “Elvis the Pelvis” (which he despised, calling it “childish”) and his expressive singing style made him a lightning rod of controversy. One journalist compared his stage act to that of a stripper. However, when Presley appeared on The Steve Allen Show which was scheduled opposite Sullivan on Sunday nights, the ratings went through the roof. Sullivan reversed himself and offered Presley a then record $50,000 to make three appearances on his show.

Just how shocking Presley was in 1956 was never apparent in the frequently recycled clips of his performances. Now, thanks to Image Entertainment’s 3 disc DVD set, Elvis: The Ed Sullivan Show, his performances can be seen in their proper context.

Ironically, a car accident prevented Sullivan from being present that first night. Charles Laughton, the brilliant British stage and screen actor (and husband of Elsa Lanchester, The Bride of Frankenstein), was the guest host that night, kicking off the proceedings by reading some poetry followed by limericks. The Brothers Amin, an acrobatic act, came next, then Dorothy Sarnoff performed a song from Broadway’s The King and I. After a commercial, Laughton, standing before a wall of Presley’s gold records, introduced the man whom a record 72 million views tuned in to see.

Wearing a plaid jacket and a guitar slung over his chest like a machine gun, Presley blasts his way into “Don’t Be Cruel” and it’s a little like Moses parting the Red Sea. Prior to Elvis, entertainment didn’t have to be rated with letters signifying what age group should be permitted to watch. Families watched TV and listened to music the same way they went to the movies: together. Now Elvis came to drive them apart.

Teenagers love him, of course, especially the girls, and what was there not to like? Handsome, but in a way men had not been before; threatening, yet still somehow tame, as if his mask of menace was only meant to conceal a wounded heart. He is, after all, very well-mannered, saying “Yes, sir” and thanking “Mr.” Laughton. What was one to make of this guy with the unusual name, the pompadour, and the long sideburns?

“He just does this,” Ed Sullivan would say while shaking his body on the October 28 show, “and everybody yells.” Presley looked a little more sinister this time in his dark suit, and he offers reprises of “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Love Me Tender,” and “Hound Dog” while also introducing one of his sultriest numbers, “Love Me.”

What did Dorothy Sarnoff think? And Senor Wences, who was on the bill the same night Presley appeared a second time?

Clearly, show business had been rocked into a new dimension.

His third and final appearance for Sullivan came on January 6, 1957 on a show that also featured Carol Burnett, one of the few stars on these episodes whose wattage would increase in future years. By now, the country was clearly divided into two camps: those who championed the King of Rock and Roll, and those who condemned him. Sullivan was now in the former, surprising audiences and Elvis himself by proclaiming him a “good, decent boy.”

But there was no turning back. Soon, people would be talking about the “generation gap” and, later, “youth culture.” The gap would widen in the ‘60s with even Presley taking his place among the old guard, but the gap started here. With the release of Elvis-The Ed Sullivan Shows on DVD, it’s now possible to properly assess the earth shaking impact Presley had in the more innocent era of the 1950's.

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks


Other posts on Elvis:
Remembering Elvis
August 16, 1977
Elvis Is Everywhere

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Bob Dylan at Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica (Saturday August 6, 2011)

It was pretty exciting to catch a glimpse of that hat Bob Dylan wears as he climbed the stairs in back of the stage of Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica where he performed Saturday night. You suddenly realize that he's really here, and then . . . HE'S THERE, in front of you, at the organ and singing "Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35," the boozy kickoff to his classic Blonde on Blonde album. The audience let out a roar, and they cheered again when, after "To Ramona," he moved to center stage, stood before the microphone, and sang "Things Have Changed," his Oscar winning song from the 2000 film, Wonder Boys. He followed that with an even more famous song, "Tangled Up In Blue," from 1975's Blood on the Tracks, but with a radically different arrangement than the original. Occasionally, he'd strap on a guitar, and he thrilled the audience every time he blew on the harmonica. For the most part, though, he was behind the organ, leading his incredible band through a diverse sampling of his massive songbook..

"The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" was given a dramatic reworking, and he also hauled out "The Ballad of Hollis Brown." There were a couple of songs that I couldn't identify, probably from Modern Times and Together Through Life, which are not as implanted in my brain as securely as the others, but there was "Mississippi," "Highway 61 Revisited," "Simple Twist of Fate," and the climactic "Ballad of a Thin Man" whose ominous intro, now powered by Charlie Sexton's guitar, elicited another roar from the crowd. After addressing the clueless Mr. Jones for a final time, Dylan and his band left the stage to a thunderous ovation. The ovation continued until he returned and ripped into "Like a Rolling Stone" before concluding with "All Along the Watchtower."

In between his final two numbers, Dylan introduced the band, the only time during the 90 minute show that he spoke. He's often criticized for his refusal to chit-chat. "What the hell is there to say?" he told Rolling Stone in 2009. "That's not the reason an artist is in front of people." His message is in those songs, so take it or leave it. Dylan isn't known for his stage movements either. He did, however, dance a little, kicking his feet in time to the music. He seems pretty spry for a 70-year-old man, but I never think of Dylan in terms of his age. Even when he was young, he seemed to be a thousand years old, a time traveler who has inhabited many periods of history and whose songs report on the times that never really change at all. It's not hard for me to imagine Bob Dylan strumming his guitar and singing any of his songs at a fairground during the Civil War, or even entertaining an emperor in Ancient Rome with a ballad or two.

Yes, that damn eye was projected on the black curtain behind Dylan and his band during the final numbers. Dylan once said it "don't mean nothin'," and I read somewhere that it was designed by an artist in his employ. Having had kind words to say about Masons on his radio show, he must know that the symbol is tied to that secretive sect. Maybe he dismisses the belief that the symbol, like Freemasonry in general, has its origins in the occult. It's supposedly the all-seeing-eye of God, but which God? The God of the Old Testament in whom Dylan has always professed belief, or the lowercase god of this fallen world?

Leon Russell, riding the wave of his recent comeback, was the opening act. He didn't speak either, but sort of waved to the crowd with a finger as he walked on stage supported by a cane. During his 45 minutes on stage, he ran through a batch of songs without pause, including the Beatles' "I've Just Seen a Face," the Temptations' "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," and a pair of classics from the songbook of the Rolling Stones: a funky "Wild Horses" and a rocking "Jumping Jack Flash." In a mellower vein, he offered "A Song for You," the ballad that was once covered by The Carpenters.

Dylan's set list from

1. Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35 (Blonde on Blonde)
2. To Ramona (Another Side of Bob Dylan)
3. Things Have Changed (The Essential Bob Dylan)
4. Tangled Up in Blue (Blood on the Tracks)
5. Beyond Here Lies Nothin' (Together Through Life)
6. Mississippi (Love and Theft)
7. Ballad of Hollis Brown (The Times They Are A-Changin')
8. The Levee's Gonna Break (Modern Times)
9. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll (The Times They Are A-Changin')
10. Highway 61 Revisited (Highway 61 Revisited)
11. Simple Twist of Fate (Blood on the Tracks)
12. Thunder on the Mountain (Modern Times)
13. Ballad of a Thin Man (Highway 61 Revisited)

14. Like a Rolling Stone (Highway 61 Revisited)
15. All Along the Watchtower (John Wesley Harding)

I'm really not much of a concertgoer. I prefer to listen to music the same way I would read a book - alone, without distraction, where I can really "listen," which I think one must do to fully appreciate Bob Dylan. Of course, those whose tastes run more to American Idol, KC and the Sunshine Band, Aerosmith, or (insert the name of almost any "pop" or "rock" group that you'd like) might be mystified by that approach. So, this was my first Dylan concert, and, yes, I was there more to see the "LEGEND" than to hear the songs. Observing the behavior of some of the audience was a reminder why "concerts" are really not my thing, and why it takes an artist of Dylan's stature to bring me out for one. Some of the audience struck me as unworthy of being in his presence. They included the folks who left early, before the encore, and even before "Ballad of a Thin Man." They were probably in a rush to get to their cars and beat the traffic on the way home. It's a little rude, I think, but I guess fairly typical of Joe Average who goes to the movies and chats throughout, and is racing toward the exit before the closing credits. If getting home is your priority, why not stay there?

I had to chuckle, silently, when visiting the men's room before the ride home. A guy made a reference to a drunk woman who was walking around in front of the grandstand, pointing an accusing finger at no one in particular. The guy said something about how ironic such behavior was while the guy on stage was "singing about peace." Hmm. Of course, Bob Dylan will never escape his association with the 1960s, and for many people that era brings to mind flower children and psychedelia, a world of which he was never really a part. He was more likely to sneer at such nonsense. Still, he's the most potent symbol of the "Sixties" that we have, so those who haven't really followed his music through the years don't know that he is more than a symbol, but a living, breathing, still vital artist. And he most definitely does not sing about "peace." "You can reload your rifle," he once said, "and that moment you're reloading it, that's peace." He doesn't need a rifle. He's got those songs. One of the most potent is "Ballad of a Thin Man," and it's appropriate that he still sings it. Many in his audience don't know what's happening any more than Mr. Jones did.

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks