Thursday, June 16, 2016

Fundamental Notions Of The Hive

The quality of our lives matters.

We don't have the political clout to change economic policy in our favor.  We have to adapt to economic conditions that will favor the rich for a long time.  If we can't become wealthy ourselves, we have to learn to think like the wealthy think, to anticipate their moves.

Debt is not a good thing to have.

Find a cheap, warm place to live.  Stay close to clean water.

Try to think of yourself as a producer.

Cooperate.  Contribute.  Serve.  Hold fast.  Don't fall through the cracks.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Culture Of Dissent

Back in 2011, the establishment media made a stab at coping with protests outside of the political process they control.  The venerable New York Times ran an opinion piece by Charles Blow that reminded me of the way one of Kubrick's monkeys worked his courage up to touch the monolith in 2001 A Space Odyssey.

Blow's Hippies and Hipsters Exhale ranged from making fun of the Occupy Wall Street protest -- pointing out that the protesters amused themselves with face-painting and pillow fights -- to fretting about the idea that the protesters on Wall Street might represent the avante garde of a completely disillusioned American majority.  Blow's "sage" advice to the protesters?  Join the political process.  Come be co-opted.  Step right up.

Of course, Blow completely missed or chose to ignore the point to protests like Occupy Wall Street.    The protesters had rejected politics.  They were wide awake.  They no longer believed a political solution to America's problems was possible.  They were determined to win or lose in the streets, and they were committed to the notion that culture trumps politics.  (Think about the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war, anti-draft movement that ended the Vietnam War and the Johnson Presidency at the price of undermining The Great Society and opening the door of the Oval Office to Richard Nixon.  The way, we used to say, the cookie crumbles.)

When I came home from the Army in the late Sixties, I spent a lot of time lounging around and arguing with a good friend -- a Marcusian who had ditched his Swiss name for "Baptiste" -- about whether everything was politics -- his idea -- or everything was culture.  I've never been more convinced I was right.  Politicians, like everyone else, swim in the sea of mass culture.  Political movements emerge and ride the wave of mass culture for a while, then sink back into the sea.  It is impossible to imagine the New Deal outside a culture that valued people and the idea of society, just as it is impossible to imagine the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war protests that followed outside the Counter Culture of the Sixties and Seventies -- precisely the culture Blow derided in the title of his essay.

The real question is: Can the emerging protest movements stay alive in the absence of something like the Counter Culture of the Sixties?  Has enough work been done to build a culture of dissent to sustain them?

When I was a graduate student at the University of Texas, the UT School of Communication, together with Stanford University, hosted a week-long seminar every year at Pebble Beach.  The schools brought a handful of graduate students and professors to Pebble Beach to spend a week with the leaders of the mainstream media.  The kicker -- the brainchild of Stanley Donner -- was that the "leaders" who were invited to the seminars were the number two men and women of the broadcast industry, the men and women UT and Stanford figured had the best shot at grabbing power and doing something different when they did.  The theory was that the last people in the world who would shake things up were the people in charge.  If you wanted to talk to somebody in the industry about doing something better, the person you needed to get to was the heir apparent.

The problem with the American political system now is that not only the leaders, but all of the possible pretenders to positions of leadership -- to political office, you see -- have been vetted by an establishment process that has eliminated the possibility that any anti-establishment -- read anti-Wall Street and anti-Corporate -- idea will work its way into the political process.  The culture just isn't there to sustain it.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Grey Gardens Revisited

There is an element of the hunt in documentary films, a delicious kind of trophy hunting at its lightest, but, at its heaviest, a predatory savaging of people and events that exposes the dark side of subjects and the exploitative nature of documentary film.

The Maysles brothers' Grey Gardens (1975) is a film portrait of Big Edie and Little Edie Beale. It’s a film about eccentrics and eccentricity, about marginal people whose living conditions reflect the condition of their lives.



Film lends itself exceptionally well to the substitution of one thing for another when two things regularly appear together. Over the course of the Maysles brothers' film, the Grey Gardens estate comes to stand for the lives of the Beales in the same way the American flag has come to stand for America and the White House for the President. If there were nothing more to Grey Gardens (1975) than that – and there is – it would still be an important work of art, because it’s a wonderful example of film as sympathetic magic. It gives us the illusion of power over the world by reducing complicated people and situations to a manageable size.

The genre the Maysles brothers chose to work in had rules, and they were accused from time to time of breaking them, of manipulating events, of straying outside the boundaries of direct cinema and cinéma vérité, particularly in the case of Gimme Shelter (1970), a sensational film that features the murder of a black Rolling Stones fan at Altamont.

Direct cinema captures real events as they happen, without interfering with them in any way. There is no direction in direct cinema, no “do this” or “do that again.” No questions. No staged scenes. Nature documentaries are perhaps the purest example of the form. The film makers witness horrific events, but never interfere. Cinéma vérité, another style of modern documentary, has some latitude. It’s more about truth than about reality, and, as long as the film conveys the truth, it may wander away from real events.

In the case of films like Grey Gardens (2009), a historical drama that HBO has run off and on since its triumph at the Emmies, neither the rules of direct cinema nor cinéma vérité apply. The intention of the producers is simply entertainment, and they're free to pick over the bones of the Maysles' kill any way they can.  HBO doesn't broadcast Grey Gardens as part of it's regular schedule anymore, but, in a move that harkens back to the days when movies were all glitz and glitter to brighten the lives of the little people, they put it up on HBO On Demand over the Christmas holidays.  "They were steeped in affluence and privilege," the HBO promo proclaims.  "Yet their lives in East Hampton became a riches-to-rags story that made national headlines."  There is a metaphor lurking around there somewhere.



A cottage industry has sprung up around Grey Gardens and the Beales since the Maysles first documented the squalor and decay of the Beales’ lives. Since Grey Gardens (1975) the documentary, we’ve had Grey Gardens the musical, Grey Gardens the book, Grey Gardens the web site and, finally, HBO's version of the Beales' story.  But I doubt HBO will have the last word.

Over the years, the Beales have attracted a cult following: people who know what it’s like to live on the fringe. But the audience for works based on the lives of the Edies is more general than a cult. It includes any of us who have ever slowed down to look at the scene of an accident. 

The story of the Edies coincides with the long, downhill slide of American society, the decay of the American dream, and the slow stratification of America into two cultures, one affluent and above ground, the other underground, it’s people trapped in poverty.  If it could happen to the Edies, it could happen to anyone.

American capitalism has always had two spurs to keep us moving up the steep hill of success. One boot prods us with the promise of fortune and fame, the other with the specter of disaster, with the threat of losing all we have suddenly or, like the Beales, gradually, as we get older. The Beales’ story is frightening and fascinating. It’s hard to look at it, but it’s harder to look away. 

The Maysles brothers had an eye for the wounded straggler, for the animal ready to die. Perhaps it’s because their subjects knew they were damaged that the Maysles brothers were able to stay above the people and events they filmed, to appear to be superior to their subjects, to have the upper hand. Their contemporary, D. A. Pennebaker, seemed more respectful, more deferential to his subjects – even, as in the case of the War Room (1993) when Pennebaker’s camera grovels at the feet of James Carville and Mary Matalin, obsequious.

Pennebaker had a knack for getting in on the beginning of things: Timothy Leary and the counterculture; Bob Dylan; Joplin and Hendricks at the Monterrey Pop Festival; and, finally, the Clintons. The Maysles brothers, Al and David, had a knack for being there at the end of things, the final acts, the death throes of the traveling salesman and the Counterculture, the unraveling of Camelot. 

By the time he filmed Grey Gardens (1975), Al Maysles was one of the best cinematographers in the world, and the Maysles brothers had mastered the art of manipulating subjects and situations. They had developed a gift for narrative unmatched in documentary film. No one tells a story the way the Maysles brothers do.



“Once you’ve lost that push, you’ve had it,” Paul Brennan, the "Badger," tells the camera in Salesman (1968). Brennan suffers from too much awareness. He knows he’s a dead-ender in a dying profession. Negativity is the unpardonable sin of Brennan’s world, and Al Maysles patiently and carefully documents Brennan’s descent into negativity during Brennan’s last days as a bible salesman.

“We can get it together,” Mick Jagger tells the crowd at Altamont, just before a shot of what appears to be the Hell’s Angels killing a black fan who pulled a gun on them. Earlier in the concert, when Grace Slick, watching the Hell’s Angels beat her fans with pool cues, said: “People get weird, and you need people like the Angels to keep people in line,” she was, at that spaced-out, sappy moment, more in touch with the direction of American society than the slightly confused Jagger who believed Altamont was going to set an example for America about how to behave at large gatherings.



The Maysles brothers persuaded Jagger and the Stones to let Al film them watching a rough cut of Gimme Shelter on a Steenbeck editing table, ostensibly to provide a gimmick to structure the film. The brothers’ real reason was to make the apparent knifing of a fan by the Angels the central point of the film. Without the knifing and the opportunity to make Jagger eat his words, the Maysles brothers would have had a mediocre, though beautifully photographed concert film, whose high points were scenes of Jagger expressing his androgynous sexuality and young Tina Turner fellating her microphone. The violence and the obvious naiveté of the Stones and Grace Slick gave the brothers a chance for something much bigger, a chance to take down the Stones, Slick and the Counterculture at the same time. Eerily, Jagger’s helicopter exit from the Altamont speedway foreshadowed America’s final exit from Saigon, and, by the end of Gimme Shelter, Jagger’s stare was as vacant as the barren landscape in the last shot of the film.

For big-game hunters like the Maysles brothers, who already had bagged the "Badger", the Stones, Grace Slick and the end of the Counterculture, two eccentric ladies in a run-down mansion were sitting ducks.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Escape To Reality

When the world gets to be too much for me, I pull out one of my video collections and escape for a couple of days.  I have Angels In America, all of The Sopranos, RomeLonesome Dove, and a ton of Bergman.  Most of the time they'll do, but, when things get really rough, I turn to my John Cassavetes Criterion Collection.

More than any other director, John Cassavetes is about people at their limits, bound up, boxed in by their marriages, their friends, their sex, their race, their age, the limits of their talent, and any other cage or corner Cassavetes can cram them into. And they usually don’t get out. They find their salvations, if they find them, inside their cages. Even if a Cassavetes character appears to escape, we can’t be sure. When Cassavetes and Peter Falk leave Ben Gazzara in London at the end of Husbands, it doesn’t feel like Gazzara has slipped out of his cage. It feels like his friends have left him on the battlefield to die.

Although it doesn’t include Husbands, the Criterion Collection’s boxed set of five Cassavetes films provides an easy, though expensive, way to acquire a taste for Cassavetes. The set has Shadows (1959), Faces (1968), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Opening Night (1977) and the 2000 documentary, A Constant Forge: The Life and Art of John Cassavetes. Or you can order most of Cassavetes’ films and the documentary individually from Netflix.

Cassavetes was, arguably, the father of American independent film. His first film, Shadows, was made at about the time French directors were creating the New Wave. It's a beat film.  Cassavetes, like the French, subordinated plot to the mise en scene. His films weren’t about the narrative. The story was often beside the point; just something to hang the film on. To Cassavetes and the French auteurs, film was synthesized experience, and the story was just an occasion for that synthesis. The French bought the rights to dime store novels for their plots. Cassavetes invented situations. His films have beginnings and ends, but they are, like direct cinema and cinema verite documentaries, essentially situational and episodic. The end of each episode and the way it’s resolved are determined, not by the requirements of a plot, but by the inner workings of the episode itself. Affairs end. Men go home to their wives. Women who have nervous breakdowns come home to their families when they get out of the hospital. They put their kids to bed, clean up the dishes and go to bed with their husbands. Strip joint owners who get mixed up with the mob get killed. And the play must go on.

To the cinema verité style and structure, Cassavetes added improvisation.  He worked out scenes in collaboration with his actors instead of forcing his view of the scenes on them. Cassavetes’ approach to directing let his actors bring their own life experiences to situations and allowed him to add their sense of what is authentic and what is not to his own. The tension between rigid direction and improvisation, between conformity and self-expression, is a recurring subtext in Cassavetes’ films, from Shadows to his Pirandellian masterpiece, Opening Night.

In Shadows , Lelia is a young, black artist, cornered by race, gender and family. She’s the kid sister of Hugh, a singer who can’t sing, and Ben, a horn player we never hear play. Hugh and his agent, the only person who can stand the way Hugh sings, tour second-rate clubs in the Midwest. Ben listens to jazz from the corners of rooms; cruises New York City bars and cafes with his friends, trying to get laid. Lelia hangs out with Ben and his crew, and with artists and intellectuals, older guys who know things Ben and his friends don’t know. She falls for a good-looking white boy, who dumps her when he meets brother Hugh, because, unlike Lelia and Ben, Hugh is obviously black. Lelia ends up on a dance floor in the arms of a middle-class black man she meets at a party, the kind of man Lelia and her brothers think of as a square but others might call solid. Cassavetes leaves her there, moves on to watch Hugh go off on another road trip, and to watch Ben and his pals get beaten into unconsciousness in the men’s room of a bar when they try to pick up the wrong women. Cassavetes crammed that action and the feeling of the beat Fifties into one black-and-white box in 1959. It was ten years later before he was able to make his next independent film, Faces, a portrait of a marriage on the rocks.

Faces was Cassavetes’ film for the Sixties, and the first Cassavetes and Rowlands collaboration. It was the beginning of a body of work that eventually exhausted the themes Cassavetes took up in Shadows: women on the edge, the way families and friends tie us up but make us strong, the life and death struggle to be authentic and spontaneous instead of phony. Faces is Cassavetes' least successful film, although it's his most accessible and appreciated effort.  It's his least filmic and most photographic film.  In Faces, an L.A. executive leaves his wife for a prostitute, played by Rowlands. His wife, Lynn Carlin, tries to commit suicide after a one-night stand with Seymour Cassel, a hipster she picks up in a club. The executive goes home to his wife and, in a scene that breaks the static, monotonous repetition of faces that dominates the film, chases the hipster out of the house.  In addition to Rowlands, Carlin and Cassel, the cast of Faces included Fred Draper, Val Avery and Elizabeth Deering, actors Cassavetes worked with for the next ten years. Faces was Rowland’s first shot at portraying a woman on the verge of a breakdown. Her second shot came six years later in A Woman Under the Influence.

There is something almost unbearably edgy about the young Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence. It’s as if somebody has jammed a 220v wire into her brain. It takes her about two minutes to convince me she’s the most troubled woman I’ll ever see. Her relationship with Peter Falk is tense. There is an acceptance of violence against women in the film I find deeply disturbing. And yet, A Woman Under the Influence is about the kind of people I know well. Working class people. Never enough living space. Not much education and culture. Sometimes not enough money. They fight at the dinner table. But there is redemption in the physicality of these Cassavetes’ characters, in their muscle. It’s a punch, a roundhouse right, that brings Rowlands down to earth and restores her to her family. To her kids. To the dirty dishes that, when all is said and done, have to be taken from the table to the sink. In A Woman Under the Influence, Cassavetes shows us a family coming together, closing the doors on the outside world and making what they can of their lives. A Woman Under the Influence added Lady Rowlands and Katherine Cassavetes to Cassavetes’ troop of actors.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, the fourth film in the Criterion set, is Cassavetes’ film noir classic. It’s the darkest of Cassavetes’ films, not just visually – most of it was filmed at night with available light — but emotionally as well. It’s Cassavetes’ most bitter film. When the mob decides to kill him for his club, escape is never an option for Cosmo Vitelli. He has no real family or friends. His girl friend is a stripper. The most important thing in his life is a third-rate floor show he created for his tawdry strip joint. Vitelli, played by Ben Gazzara, gets shot in the gut while he’s trying to murder a Chinese bookie to pay off a debt to the mob. He manages to kill most of the mob, but he ends up bleeding to death, slowly, while he paces the sidewalk outside his club.

In Opening Night, the last of the films in the Criterion collection, Gena Rowlands plays an aging actress, struggling with her age, her relationship with her co-star, played by Cassavetes, the demands of her director, the limits of the script, and the death of a young fan who gets hit by a car while she’s watching Rowlands leave the theater. Rowlands is haunted by the girl’s ghost. On the verge of breaking down, Rowlands kills the girl’s ghost and her own youth. Playing a scene with Cassavetes, she saves the show and her career with an improvised performance on opening night. The film is a triumph for Cassavetes. As the writer and director of Opening Night, he can do what he was never able to do in the real world. He can direct the play’s audience and their reaction to him and Rowlands.

The audience loves them, of course .

I guess I do, too. The easy explanation for that is to say I like melancholy moods, dark streets, and the rain. I like redemption. I like to see the old order brought down and to see chaos reign. I like reluctant heroes and the kind of women who work retail. And there’s plenty of that in Cassavetes. But it’s more than that.

Cassavetes knew that it’s not what you see, but what you remember that counts. It’s the way films live in our memories that matters. And he gave us a lot to remember. He gave us close-ups, and he gave us enough time with his characters to get to know them well.

I remember Ben Carruthers in Shadows, walking down the street in a coat that’s too light for New York City in the wintertime; Seymour Cassel fleeing down the hill in Faces; Gena Rowlands dancing, Peter Falk climbing a hill with his crew, Katherine Cassavetes guarding the stairs to keep Rowlands away from the kids in A Woman Under the Influence; Ben Gazzara in the dark, getting his orders from the mob, and Gazzara in the light, standing in the spotlight with Mr. Sophistication and his strippers in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie; Rowlands beating her youth to death in a hotel room, crawling toward her dressing room, putting her dukes up when she’s improvising with Cassavetes in Opening Night. And I remember John Cassavetes, laughing and bounding around the stage in Opening Night, while the audience laughs out loud and applauds.

When I watch Cassavetes’ films, I feel I’m in the presence of myths.

Can I identify the myths? Can I say who Cassavetes’ characters remind me of, who the major and minor deities are in Cassavetes’ pantheon? Who is that with the wound that will not heal? Who is that, chasing the suitor from his house? Who is that, leading his men out to work? Who is that, leading the women out to dance? Can I name them? Not a chance. It was Cassavetes’ achievement to create a pantheon of characters who suggest mythic figures without names. I could no more name them than the Greeks, gathered around the hearth to listen to the poet spin his yarns, could say who Achilles and Odysseus reminded them of.