Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Bob Dylan at Covelli Centre, Youngstown, Ohio August 28, 2012

Bob Dylan performed for nearly two hours without a break at the Covelli Centre in Youngstown, Ohio last night. He didn't have an opening act and didn't need one. At 71, the bard can still draw a big crowd (most of the 5000 or so seats were occupied), and put on a damn fine show, one that I found superior to his excellent concert at Nautica a year ago.

It helped that I had better seats (only 10 rows from the stage) and was also equipped with a pair of small binoculars. The man refuses to chit-chat, speaking only when introducing his band, but he sure appeared to be enjoying himself, smiling often and blowing the shit out of his harmonica (the highlight of the evening, judging by the rapturous applause). He spent almost as much time at center stage, singing at the microphone, as he did at the organ, sometimes kicking his feet in the air and gesturing with his hands. His upbeat mood may have also influenced his choice of songs. He opened, as he often does, with "Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat" from 1966's Blonde on Blonde, and also performed, as expected, "Tangled Up in Blue" and "Simple Twist of Fate" from 1975's Blood on the Tracks. But he also tossed in a trio of tunes that have not been staples of his most recent tours: "Love Sick" from 1997's Time Out of Mind, "Sugar Baby" from 2001's Love and Theft, and, most surprisingly of all, Blonde on Blonde's epic "Visions of Johanna." He closed with a trio of powerful classics - "Ballad of a Thin Man," "Like a Rolling Stone," and "All Along the Watchtower" - before encoring with "Blowin' in the Wind" from 1963's The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.

The voice is cracked and sometimes resembles a gargle, but nobody can sing (or write) a song with more conviction than this man.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat (Blonde on Blonde)
It's All Over Now, Baby Blue (Bringing It All Back Home)
Things Have Changed
Tangled Up In Blue (Blood on the Tracks)
Rollin' and Tumblin' (Modern Times)
Sugar Baby (Love and Theft)
John Brown
Love Sick (Time Out of Mind)
Summer Days (Love and Theft)
Visions Of Johanna (Blonde on Blonde)
Highway 61 Revisited (Highway 61 Revisited)
Simple Twist Of Fate (Blood on the Tracks)
Thunder On The Mountain (Modern Times)
Ballad Of A Thin Man (Highway 61 Revisited)
Like A Rolling Stone (Highway 61 Revisited)
All Along The Watchtower (John Wesley Harding)
Blowin' In The Wind (The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Remembering Elvis

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. To commemorate the occasion, here are two blasts from the past. The first, "I Want to Be Free: Elvis in Hollywood," is a look back at his mostly lamentable film career. It was written in 1990 when Elvis had been in the grave only 13 years. The second is a review of Flaming Star, one of the King's better films, written in 1999 and originally published at a site called Movienutz.

I Want to Be Free: Elvis in Hollywood
This week marks the thirteenth anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. There are those who insist that the King is still alive, having fabricated his death, but they have yet to be heard from. They tend to be more vocal on the more important anniversaries - the fifth, tenth, and no doubt the upcoming fifteenth and twentieth. Elvis’ movies won’t be hard to find, however. Several are being unspooled on TV this week.

Channel 19 kicks off the Presley fest this afternoon with a colorized version of 1957's Jailhouse Rock, while channel 5 is offering 1958's King Creole in untainted black-and-white. It will be followed later this week by G.I. Blues, Roustabout, and Paradise, Hawaiian Style. The best is certainly not being saved for last.

Paradise, Hawaiian Style is a dreadful disaster that only the least discriminating Presley fan could tolerate. Little more than a retread of 1961's Blue Hawaii, it makes that film look like Citizen Kane. While Blue Hawaii was essentially a travelogue with a skimpy plot, it at least had some memorable songs, most notably the classic “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” The 1966 rehash has some memorable song titles - “Queenie Wahine’s Papaya” - but otherwise it’s a barren beach.

G.I. Blues, the first film Presley made after his discharge from the Army, is considerably better but it’s the movie that may have sounded the death knell for Presley’s aspirations to become a serious actor. The rebellious rock and roll persona so vividly captured in Jailhouse Rock and still present, if toned down, in King Creole, was gone now, replaced by a clean-cut Elvis who was now finding favor with the very guardians of good taste who denounced him when he first appeared on the national scene in 1956. Songs like the weepy “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” and the operatic “It’s Now or Never” did much to win them over, and Blue Hawaii sealed the deal, making Elvis a mainstream entertainer that mothers could love as ardently as their daughters.

Presley’s new softer approach on both vinyl and celluloid helped bury rock and roll, and ultimately gave rise to the Beatles who, influenced by Elvis and other American rockers like Buddy Holly and Little Richard, revived the genre in the 1960s. Elvis turned “square,” donning suits and ties and keeping his hair above the collar in movies like It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963) and on records like “Surrender,” while the Beatles, along with Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, brought the music that Presley popularized and all but abandoned back from the dead. The man who paved the way in the ‘50s and all but single-handedly brought about the revolution in culture and society that made the Beatles possible, was now churning out cinematic rot like Tickle Me and Harum Scarum.

But as the quality of his films declined, Presley’s economic fortunes grew. He remained a huge superstar, becoming not only the highest paid entertainer in the world but also the highest paid actor, commanding a million dollars per picture and 50% of the gross. He was, along with John Wayne and Richard Burton, one of the top 10 box-office draws of the decade. It’s interesting to note that in 1964, probably the Beatles’ most lucrative year, Presley’s film Viva Las Vegas, one of three Elvis movies that year, made more money at the box-office than the Fab Four’s A Hard Day’s Night.

The fact that Presley was so well-paid for his movies undoubtedly influenced the studios in their decision to make them as cheaply as possible. Up to and including Viva Las Vegas, Presley’s films were generally well-mounted productions. Even though most were given mass distribution - playing in more than one theater to make back the financial investment as quickly as possible (standard practice now, but once reserved for exploitation films) - they were competently made and often featured such acting luminaries as Angela Lansbury (Blue Hawaii) and Barbara Stanwyck (Roustabout) in supporting roles.

Later films like 1965's Tickle Me and 1967's Clambake were slapped together like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and fobbed off for quick but profitable engagements at second-run theaters and drive-ins. A few Presley features were high class A films, most notably 1961's Wild in the Country with a screenplay by Clifford Odets. But if Presley’s fans only wanted to see Elvis, why hire first class writers, directors, and co-stars when bigger bucks could be generated without such fuss?

Wild in the Country and 1960's Flaming Star, both of which gave Presley an opportunity to show his dramatic skills, fared poorly in comparison to the scenic Blue Hawaii, and neither succeeded in establishing the star as the serious actor he longed to be. This turn of events enabled his manager, the tacky, uncultured Colonel Tom Parker, to wrest away all control of the Presley film career. Parker’s only interest was money, and if he could make ten cents more by having his client appear in Girls! Girls! Girls! instead of The Fugitive Kind based on Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending (a role offered to Presley that Marlon Brando played instead), then Girls! Girls! Girls! (or something similar) it was going to be.

In his few good movies, Presley clearly demonstrated not only a strong screen presence but definite potential as an actor. He was excellent as the half-breed in Don Siegel’s underrated western Flaming Star, and showed a flair for comedy in 1962's modest Follow That Dream. But instead of more vehicles along those lines, he became trapped in the kind of movies that were more suitable for the likes of Frankie Avalon and Tommy Sands than for a performer whose accomplishments transcended the domain of mere “show business.”

Presley films improved in 1968 when he starred in Stay Away, Joe, a slightly more adult film than the bilge that preceded it. Elvis played a wheeling dealing Navajo in a role that was a sharp turn from the bland, overweight bozo he played in Spinout and Easy Come, Easy Go. Stay Away, Joe came under attack for its stereotyped depiction of Native Americans but otherwise stands out as one of Presley’s better films.

The four films that followed were also a notch above the Spinout type turkey if only because they presented the star in a more flattering light. Live a Little, Love a Little was trash but it wasn’t embarrassing. The few songs were genuine songs, and there were no scenes of rock and roll’s biggest and greatest star being backed up by a band consisting of such non-musicians as Gary Crosby (Bing’s son) and Jack Mullavey.

Presley’s 31 films (not including documentaries) break down into three categories: the good (Jailhouse Rock, King Creole, Flaming Star, Follow That Dream, Viva Las Vegas, and Stay Away, Joe), the acceptable (Love Me Tender, Loving You, G.I. Blues, Blue Hawaii, It Happened at the World’s Fair, Kid Galahad, Wild in the Country, Live a Little, Love a Little, The Trouble with Girls), and the godoffal (Spinout, Clambake, Speedway, Tickle Me, Harum Scarum, and on and on and on).

For my money, Presley’s best movie is Jailhouse Rock. More than any other Presley film, or for that matter, any rock and roll movie of the 1950s, it captures the image, if not quite the essence, of both Elvis and the cultural revolution he started which would blossom in the next decade. It also includes one of his most memorable songs, “I Want to Be Free.” It’s a sentiment he probably understood better a decade later after years of toiling in the wasteland of Hollywood trash.
August 12, 1990

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks

Elvis Presley, Steve Forrest, Barbara Eden, Dolores Del Rio, John McIntyre, Richard Jaeckal, L.Q. Jones
Directed by Don Siegel
* * * * out of * * * * *

After his discharge from the Army, Elvis Presley was at a crossroads. Having served his country with honor, he was suddenly seen as a decent American kid by many of the same parents who condemned him earlier as a pied piper leading their children down the path to Hell. To appeal to these newly won fans, his hips now swayed more than they swiveled and the raucous rock and roll that brought him fame gave way to maudlin ballads ("Are You Lonesome Tonight?") and finger snapping pop songs ("Stuck on You").

Nothing reflected the change in his public image more than his movies, though. Whereas his first four films found him playing rebels both sweet (Loving You) and sullen (Jailhouse Rock), 1960's G.I. Blues put him back in the military uniform he was relieved to have been freed from, and had him singing to babies in a role that could have easily been played by Establishment god Bing Crosby two decades earlier. A monster hit, its acceptance by the public did not dampen his enthusiasm for a serious acting career, and his next film, Flaming Star, suggested that this goal was not beyond his reach.

Returning to the western genre in which he made his film debut, Presley is effectively cast as Pacer Burton, a half-breed torn between two peoples.

When the Kiowa Indians launch an attack on the neighboring white settlers, burning homes and savagely murdering the people, the Burton homestead is spared. Though the family is headed by a white man, his wife is a Kiowa. One son is white, but the youngest is a half-breed. Suddenly, the whites, who had accepted the family and welcomed them into their homes, turn against them, threatening to shoot the half-breed should he set foot on their property. Meanwhile, the Kiowas hope to enlist Pacer in their cause. "If a half-breed white leaves his father's people to fight for his mother's people, it will make the strongest magic I have," the chief tells the troubled lad, but he refuses to join their battle. When his mother is shot by a white man and dies after being refused treatment by the white doctor, Pacer's long held but hidden feelings that he never belonged in the white man's world suddenly surface. He abandons his home and joins his mother's people on the warpath. But he remains an outsider, painfully aware that as a half-breed, no matter whose side he takes, he is always fighting himself.

With a literate screenplay by Clair Huffaker and Nunnally Johnson, based on a novel by Huffaker, and the customarily tight direction of Don Siegel, Flaming Star is a meaningful drama potently performed by a strong cast. As Pacer's father and mother, there's the always excellent John McIntire and the lovely Dolores Del Rio. Steve Forrest capably plays Clint, the white son in the Burton clan, and there's a supporting cast that features Barbara Eden, Richard Jaeckal, and L.Q. Jones. Though it's not a shoot ‘em up by any means, there's plenty of exciting action well staged by the masterful Siegel, who later went on to direct Clint Eastwood in such films as Dirty Harry and Escape from Alcatraz.

The role of Pacer Burton was originally intended for Marlon Brando. As an actor, Presley may not be Brando (just as Brando could never be Presley in the recording studio), but by 1960 Brando wasn't Brando much anymore, either, and Presley gives an excellent performance that even Mr. Method Actor could not improve on. Presley's performance may have even been inspired. The situation his character faces is not unlike the one confronting him at the time. Just as Pacer is torn between two divergent cultures, Presley, with the resumption of his career, stood uncomfortably between two different worlds: the rock and roll culture in which he had been the White Negro, the rebel king whose music terrified the guardians of middle class morality, and the whiter than white, white bread world of mainstream showbiz where, with his new more respectable image, he seemed to be headed. The modest reception given Flaming Star and the complete failure of the Clifford Odets scripted Wild in the Country may have sealed his fate more than any Faustian pact he had made with Colonel Tom Parker. Before long, Presley was exiled to another world all together - that strange Twilight Zone nightmare known as the "Elvis Presley movie."

Ah, but Flaming Star is not an "Elvis Presley movie." It's a thoughtful, intelligent western drama, and a good one, that happens to star an actor named Elvis Presley.

© 1999 Brian W. Fairbanks


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

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The plastic world of "The Graduate"

I was recently watching The Pumpkin Eater on Antenna TV. A black-and-white drama about a disintegrating marriage, it stars Anne Bancroft and Peter Finch. I was thinking less of that particular film than I was of these two formidable actors, both of whom have since passed on. Finch knocked around the international film scene for three decades before winning a posthumous Oscar for his role as the TV anchorman who whipped the audience into a frenzy (“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”) in 1976’s Network. He was 60 when he died in 1977. If he had lived, where would his Oscar have taken him? Maybe if he had been younger and his belated success had come even later, he might have had as full a career as Anthony Hopkins who followed his Oscar for Silence of the Lambs with a variety of meaty roles: Picasso, C. S. Lewis, John Adams and Richard Nixon.

Bancroft was best known for playing the seductive cradle robber, Mrs. Robinson, in 1967’s The Graduate. The biggest grossing movie of 1968, it was also critically acclaimed and a contender for the Best Picture Oscar. It’s a movie that proves that context is everything. In the late ‘60s, Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock was the hero, a recent college graduate who spends the summer after completing his degree aimlessly drifting, completely unprepared for the future. Mrs. Robinson, a middle-aged alcoholic friend of his parents, seduces him and they carry on their clandestine affair in assorted motel rooms. But the clueless Mr. Robinson insists Ben take his daughter out on a date and the two fall in love. As Roger Ebert observed when revisiting the movie years later, Mrs. Robinson, seen by most viewers as the villain when the film was released, seems more sympathetic today. You see, in the era of the film’s original release, the “Generation Gap,” one of the effects of the Baby Boom following World War II, was at its height, with young people growing their hair, smoking dope, and opposing just about anything that their parents supported (Nixon, Vietnam, conservative attire, the idea that one should be respectably employed). Na├»ve little Ben was portrayed as a wounded puppy being dragged on a leash into a world of savage, immoral pit bulls. At a party in his honor, one of his parents’ friends whispers some career advice into his ear: “Plastics.”

Plastics indeed. The world of his parents is plastic: their affluence is merely a symbol of their cheap values, their double standards, and hypocrisy. The whispered advice is as much a seduction as Mrs. Robinson’s sexual overtures. One of those cheap values is obviously their religious beliefs. What those beliefs involve is never stated, but, at the end, the Robinsons’ daughter is being married to the blue-eyed blonde All-American jock that is the antithesis of Ben. The setting is a church and when Ben disrupts the ceremony and drags his true love away, he uses a large cross to beat back her enraged family. A cross is used to ward off vampires, and, in a sense, that’s what the older generation represents in The Graduate: vampires, the undead who feed on the blood of the living. They appear to be alive themselves, but they’re dead in all but the most literal sense. They’ve sold their souls to the crass materialistic society that America has become, and inhabit a series of coffins: the big cars they drive to the big office in the big corporation then return in their big car to the big house at night before rising from the dead to face another soulless day. Ben will have no part of it. He is, indeed, The Graduate, but not only from a four year college. He has graduated beyond the smoothly corrupt life of his parents.

That was in 1967. By the 1980s, The Graduate was already looking a little dated. The young people of the ‘60s had cut their hair and taken their place in the same society they once protested. Some of them never made it out of the ‘70s alive, but those that did, though paying lip service to rebellion and embracing “progressive” politics simply traded their parents’ plastic world for an equally plastic world of their own. Their children, however, helped elect Ronald Reagan to the White House, and armed with degrees in Business Administration, set out for Wall Street to begin a new wave of soullessness. And, to use Kurt Vonnegut’s pet phrase, so it goes.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Thursday, August 2, 2012

The age of (expletive deleted)

I tuned in to Nightline on Wednesday night thinking the ABC News program might remember Gore Vidal. The days when mainstream media took any interest in a famous and controversial man of letters are far behind us. Nightline covered the Olympics (snore), and also previewed a spot about some bosomy babe who is currently attracting notice, maybe after hitting it big on You Tube. I switched to PBS. After Tavis Smiley concluded the first of a two-part show with lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman (“You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” “The Windmills of Your Mind”), it was time for Charlie Rose on whose show Vidal had been a guest. I thought Rose would repeat his last show with the legendary author or present a compilation of clips from his various appearances, as he did when William F. Buckley passed on. If Vidal’s death was announced early enough on Tuesday night, perhaps Rose had already done such a memorial, but there was no Vidal last night. I turned off the TV, which is usually the only sensible thing to do short of throwing it out the window, and turned on the radio.

There was a time, in the 1960s and 1970s, when Vidal and other authors with a point of view were a frequent presence on television, and not only in such an obvious place as The Dick Cavett Show. Vidal was a regular visitor to The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, and even welcome on such temples of blandness as the afternoon shows hosted by Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas. In the ‘80s, the welcome mat was withdrawn. Cavett was cancelled, and though Vidal still appeared on Carson, the great dumbing-down of American culture was in progress.

Who can we blame? Ronald Reagan? MTV? David Lettermen? (Vidal was so disgusted after his sole appearance on the gap-toothed comic’s show that he vowed never to return.) It was a ridiculous decade full of horrid hairstyles (the mullet made its debut and is now immortalized in such movies as Lethal Weapon), abysmal music, and atrocious fashion (does my memory deceive me or do I recall seeing even Bob Dylan wearing leather pants in concert?). Things improved a bit in the ‘90s, but the rot had set in and could not be reversed.

One of Vidal’s later novels was The Golden Age, but the title certainly referred to the past. This is the age of shit. This is the age of the Kardashian sisters and reality shows (all of them scripted and as real as Chaz Bono’s penis – if he has one). If these aren’t the end-times, well, can you blame anyone for hoping they are?

POSTSCRIPT: The Charlie Rose Show has a program dedicated to Vidal scheduled for Friday.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Gore Vidal 1925-2012

In his memoir, Palimpsest, Gore Vidal refers to the "tyranny of sex," and of how he was finally free of it in his old age. And soon, he said, he would be free of the greatest tyrant of all: life itself. Freedom came to Gore Vidal on Tuesday at age 86. In Psalms 14:1, we read ""The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God." To his discredit, Gore Vidal was not a believer in God or an afterlife, but he was certainly no fool. His novels, and, even more so, his brilliant essays, the finest ever written in my opinion, make that clear. A wise man, and a brave one, he was, until his passing, the man I called my favorite "living writer." Now, I guess he has moved up to become my favorite writer, period. Of course, he has no heir.

Unlike most writers, Vidal loved to be on camera, had, in fact, expressed a desire to be a movie star, his idol of the screen being Mickey Rooney (a revelation made in the superb - and, alas, out of print - Screening History). In a documentary titled Profile of a Writer, Vidal appeared without voiceover commentary from a narrator and without a single glimpse of his interviewer. It was nothing but Vidal offering a monologue from Rome where he lived at the time. Oh, he could be pompous, alright, and aloof, possessing an icy detachment that I saw as a protective device. For all his wit and intelligence, he was undoubtedly a man who had been severely wounded by life, obvious in his description of his mother as someone who married, several times, for money. That, he told John Kennedy, is why the family from which both he and Jacqueline Bouvier were sprung was a disaster (Bouvier, a.k.a. Jackie Kennedy Onassis, was Vidal's step-sister through one of his mother's marriages). The "disaster" led Jacqueline to become a "professional widow" and led Vidal to become a professional writer. Did Vidal see a need or desire to write as a symptom of an emotional or psychological disturbance? I think he did. One writes to impose meaning on life, to, in a sense, control it.

As much as I admired Vidal, I did not agree with his every stance. He despised Christianity, seeing it as the first religion to insist its truths are absolutes. He could also be a bit of a hypocrite. During the impeachment proceedings brought against President Clinton, he defended Clinton and attacked independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr, claiming they had orchestrated a witch hunt based on nothing more than a sexual indiscretion on Clinton’s part. Like Bill Maher and others who came to Clinton’s defense, he claimed it was strictly “about sex.” But it wasn’t about sex. It was about Clinton’s having lied under oath. Sex was a sidebar. Yet in his Profile of a Writer segment, Vidal tells of how he was once approached by a Mafioso who knew of his intense dislike of Bobby Kennedy. Did Vidal want to stop Kennedy in his quest for a seat in the Senate? Yes, he did, so Vidal met the “tall, swarthy” hoodlum in a bar where the author of The Best Man declined to use knowledge of Kennedy’s affair with an underage girl because, as he said in his play, sex should play no role in politics. But the mobster knew of a woman whose “carnal knowledge” of the president (Bobby’s brother, John) led to her being threatened with deportation if she continued to pursue a lawsuit related to the matter. Vidal thought that this episode could be used fairly because “although sex is involved, this is an interesting story of how power is misused by a royal family." Vidal didn’t make use of this scandalous information only because it had been sealed by a judge. But that example of an abuse of power mirrors Clinton’s abuses of power. Vidal was an observer, but like any observer, he didn't always observe objectively. But nobody's perfect.

From 2006, my review of Vidal's second memoir, Point to Point Navigation:

When it comes to Gore Vidal's latest, and, no doubt, last memoir, Point to Point Navigation, the Publishers Weekly review gets it right: "readers' reactions will be determined by how they already feel about him."

I like Vidal. Even when I disagree with him, I can't help but be impressed by the wit of his arguments and the style in his writing. And I like Point to Point Navigation, even though it seems like something of a cheat, opening as it does with four chapters - 27 pages - recycled verbatim from 1992's Screening History, a small gem about the impact that movies have had on his life and society at large. Vidal explains his action by saying (in parentheses) that the book "has been allowed to go out of print and so now I reprise its principal argument."

The appearance of old material seems eerily prescient in some ways, as if Vidal, now 81, can't be bothered restating anew that which he has already said. After all, time is short. It also seems to be a testament to his recent admission that "I no longer find myself waking up every morning with the compulsion to put pen to paper.''

The specter of death hangs heavy over this volume, with Vidal devoting many pages to his late partner, Howard Austen, as well as reminiscing about Johnny Carson, on whose late night show I was introduced to this man of letters in the early '70s. There are times when his memory fails him (as does his proofreader). He tells us his father died in February 1969, yet claims he lived to see man walk on the moon, an event that occurred five months later. Elsewhere, he takes on his own biographers, dismissing Fred Kaplan's "authorized" account of his life as inaccurate, but expressing some admiration for recent books by Dennis Altman, among others. The general tone is one of a man attempting to set the record straight and to tie up loose ends.

Vidal is sometimes dismissed these days as an eccentric who no longer deserves to be taken seriously. He is, after all, a "conspiracy theorist" who has questioned, in such books as Dreaming War, the official story about the events that led to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But Vidal is unbowed. "Ours is a society riddled with plots of every kind. . ." he writes before delving, once more, into a conspiracy theory related to the JFK assassination.

Point to Point Navigation is rather scatter-shot, jumping from one subject to another without the benefit of nice comfortable segues, but that tends to be true of memory itself. If you like Vidal, you'll forgive the book its inconsistency, and be rewarded with a worthwhile read.

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks