a new low in topical enlightenment

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Issue #7 (August 19, 2009)

At the end of Santa Monica Pier, on the western rim of the Americas

Photo by Chris Collins

Read ‘em and Weep – Two Books on Film
by Joe Carducci

Warren Oates – A Wild Life, by Susan Compo (2009, Kentucky)

Lately I’ve taken to explaining to young-uns that if they want to get a fix on the golden age of 1970s Hollywood they should forget about Scorsese and Altman and Coppola and just get a look at every film made by two actors, Warren Oates and Jeff Bridges. It’s that simple.

When I was last in L.A. and going through Book Soup, I was amazed to see a stack of a new hardcover biography of Warren Oates at the checkout counter. Who on today’s earth was smart enough to produce that book?! Oates was from Kentucky and the University published this nice tracing of the kind of acting career which doesn’t happen anymore. The author is a USC professor and though it’s always got the information, it’s written rather awkwardly on Oates’ early years until he’s in the swing of his film career when the telling improves.

That career included small parts in notable films like Yellowstone Kelly (1959), The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960), Ride the High Country (1962), The Rounders (1965), and Major Dundee (1965). Then there are some mysterious independent productions directed by Leslie Stevens that I’ll have to track down, Private Property (1960), and Hero’s Island (1962). But it’s the Roger Corman production, The Shooting (1967) that sets Oates on his distinctive path. Still he followed that with a string of awkward studio productions before his seventies really begin in 1969 with The Wild Bunch.

Not everything that followed was excellent but these are the markers that chart the career from 1971 to 1978: The Hired Hand, Two-Lane Blacktop, Kid Blue, Dillinger, Badlands, The White Dawn, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Cockfighter, Race With the Devil, 92 In the Shade, and China 9, Liberty 37. What’s striking about Susan Compo’s narrative of this period is that Warren Oates basically, simply accepted what he was asked to do. His agent is mentioned in the sixties period when he’s just migrated from New York and his stage and live television beginnings, but come the 1970s he seems to be asked to do parts in the most interesting films by people who know him personally. He was forty-two in 1970 and had become something of a psychedelic redneck, a lover not a fighter, a conservative anarchist, a prude in some ways who measured manhood first, before his career, by William Boyd and later by Ben Johnson who he came to know and did his best to hide his pot-smoking from.

Oates didn’t see himself as the western man but he’d stumbled onto what he called “hip country” in his character on Stoney Burke (1962-63), the TV rodeo drama, where he was third-billed after Jack Lord and Bruce Dern. He played heavies and leads and curious combinations well-grounded in a reality that he kept in touch with moving around the country in an RV. Millie Perkins says, “Warren would have been great in silent films. There’s something in him that was longing.” Monte Hellman, “He pretended not to be an intellectual, he pretended to be just a very simple person. He was a very complex person and approached his role from thought and then as it became him, as he became the character, the emotions would take over. He would forget about all the thought.” Oates said, “Actors aren’t citizens, they’re observers, the freest people in the world because of that. They’re above politics.”

He loved working with non-professionals whether they were Georgia crackers in Cockfighter or James Taylor and Dennis Wilson in Two-Lane Blacktop. On that road movie director Hellman moved the production down highways from Arizona to Tennessee, doling out just the scene to be shot that day so the actors didn’t know where they were heading. Compo quotes a crewmember, “If it wasn’t for Warren, we’d wonder if we were really making a movie.”

She quotes Oates on his confidence in young directors, “You need a scorecard, but it’s more exciting to work with the rising generation. At a time when major studios are afraid, young filmmakers are breaking old rules, making new ones. Which is why, I suppose, I throw in my lot with the Peter Fondas and the Mike Laughlins.” He described himself, Jack Nicholson and Monte Hellman as “the tail end of the Beat Generation” characterized by “an enormous tenacity and individualism.” It is interesting that the hippie era’s leading men were slightly older 1950s characters. After Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson “arrived” their presence warped the films they appeared in, whereas the less imposing Warren Oates played along within his films, which allowed their odd, subversive air to fill the movie theaters. These films are the best Hollywood representations of the counter-culture as it was in its true unfashioned adult sense.

That makes this book pretty important.

Sergei Eisenstein – A Life in Conflict, by Ronald Bergan (1999, Overlook)

I’ve seen his films but didn’t know much about him. Bergan tells Eisenstein’s personal and professional stories well. Turns out his father Mikhail was a well known art nouveau architect and his work gives much of Riga, Latvia its turn-of-the-century character; he is better known there than his son. Hardly the bourgeois philistine his son made of him. Bergan guesses “his anger towards him was, in part, fuelled by his inability to express his anger towards that other ‘fearsome and strict’ father who was to control his life from then on.” In 1918 Sergei joined the Red Army as an engineer while his father joined the Whites as an engineer, winding up exiled in Berlin two years later. Reason enough to rail against him soon enough.

Many anti-human currents ran through that era and so it isn’t a simple matter of Eisenstein’s style as “a cold-blooded montage maniac” as Bergan puts the stereotype he wants to dispel. Adam Smith, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Ivan Pavlov, Sigmund Freud and others were all contributing schema to be abused politically and contribute to the twentieth century’s all-time record body-count. Lenin’s contribution was to use and abuse the newly established bourgeois institutions (just beginning to tread on the Tsar’s prerogative) to weaken them from within. This end of the culture, foretold by Dostoevsky, was then released in the cultural revolution that followed the political one.

Suddenly Russia like Italy – another laggard in the industrial revolution – was in love with machines, and speed, and drunk on the future. The resulting art was abstract, inhuman, and formalist. There was much contempt for the old regimes across the continent and art experiments were often cold and formal but for the glee with which they tore at earlier forms and foundations.

Bergan writes that Eisenstein as a boy hid his enthusiasm for the Circus’ clowns to echo his father’s study of the equestrians on display. In Russian the word for ‘clown’ is ‘eccentric,’ and the influential FEKS (Factory of the Eccentric Actor) founded by the filmmakers Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg brought certain formal concerns directly into a new political mainstream. Eisenstein explained that his first film, The Strike (1925) “brought collective and mass action onto the screen, in contrast to individualism and the ‘triangle’ drama of the bourgeois cinema.” His professor had been Vsevolod Meyerhold whose theory of ‘bio-mechanics’ involved “translating dramatic emotion into archetypal gestures, the abolition of individual characterizations, and the emphasis on the ‘class kernel’ of the dramatic presentation.” And though Eisenstein himself was highly cultured, including popular film currents from Italy, France, Germany and Hollywood, he was also of German Jewish derivation and a homosexual, and his nature fought to be circumspect. Maxim Gorky, the poet of rural Russia was now a commissar formulating what would be socialist-realism; in 1934 he’d declare, “Destroy homosexuality, and Fascism will disappear.”

Bergan is rightly quick to remind his reader that much of what Eisenstein said and wrote, even in his diaries, may have been for show to Stalin’s KGB, or for use in vicious careerist battles within the All-Union of Cinematographic Workers for the red Commissar’s green light. Meyerhold’s slogan was “October in the theatre!” In the mid-twenties the campaign was for “the Proletarianisation of the Screen!” Dziga Vertov’s Kultkino studio’s slogan was, “Only documentary facts! No illusions! Down with the actor and scenery! Long live the film of actuality!” Eisenstein, Alexandrov and Pudovkin denounced the realistic use of sound in film in 1928. Then in March 1928 the All-Union Party Conference on Cinema lowered the socialist-realism boom on the revolutionary aesthetics-era.

Eisenstein now spun from the commemorative, October (1928), to his The General Line (1929) by exclaiming in the declarative mode now suddenly turned reactionary, “The time has come to make films directly from a slogan.” Unfortunately he began the film under one agricultural policy and on finishing Stalin ordered the Party to “liquidate the Kulaks as a class,” and the film had to be re-written and partially re-shot and Eisenstein left reality even further for theory, though even that was not safe.

Eisenstein left for Europe and Hollywood where more films were started, none finished, and his return to the Soviet Union was as a penitent. He wrote insane, groveling celebrations of what Stalin had done to the arts for Pravda and then got to work on what were, perversely, his greatest films, Alexander Nevsky (1938), and Ivan the Terrible Pts I & II (1944-45). In the forced classicism of these historical bio-epics, the most turgid of genres, scored by Sergei Prokofiev, another prodigal radical now tamed and returned, Eisenstein ate his old critique of Kuleshev’s Hollywoodism and used montage to build monumental narratives that moved their lead characters through a dramatic procession of striking tableau, subtly informed by all his own formal experimentalism had taught him about putting pieces of film together. Eisenstein intended to be a theory-based free-associating genius-comedian, but his was another Russian tragedian’s tragedy.

Illustrations of Oates and Eisenstein by James Fotopoulos. Film stills from Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and Ivan the Terrible.

Drawing by James Fotopoulos

Thoughts on Record Collecting
By Spot

Rare, valuable and highly collectible vinyl items (and assorted paraphernalia) from the "collection" were sold on eBay in a series of auctions starting in late October 2002. I've never been a record collector and have never really cared about it. Most folks are wrongly convinced otherwise. But whatever the case is, anything that I may have had is now gone. It had become a usual thing to get calls and emails from people seeking certain heady punk rock vinyl items from "that period." No, I either never had them, or if I did have them, they're gone now. I made the damn records and that's all I cared about and, naturally, I ended up with a lot of test pressings, etc. That was par for the course but touché! You had your chance to own some of them but it's too late now.

Y'see, at this point in my life any pleasure I could have derived from owning such a collection was marginal at best. I didn't listen to 'em, didn't show 'em off, they were stuck away in boxes that just gathered dust. Hell, I COULDN'T listen to 'em! Haven't owned a turntable since about 1972! The pleasure was THEN in the NOW of recording the music and creating the product. There has never been glory in drooling over artifacts from the past.

And punk rock? Shit! At best it's some latter day version of a Pet Rock? And the Beach Boys had a Pet Rock long before Iggy did! Don't forget that some digital kid is now playing Dennis the Menace to Brian's Mr. Wilson. Ha! And maybe it's what inspired Beck in the first place... Anyway, record collections just lead us farther from the truth.


Well, Virginia, the major failing of history is the fact that it is a reconstruction at best. The blues wasn't played by a buncha "deep and meaningful" men as some joker at a party tried to convince me one night. He was decrying the fact that contemporary country-blues picker Steve James had the audacity to inject a fair amount of humor into his performances. This, he felt, was an affront to dem bluesmen who back in the day sang about dat big leg woman. But hmmmm... it seems to me that dem ol' bluesmen were as likely to be pretty hen-pecked jokers as they were to be macho bohunks. Think about it. Songs are what you make up to chronicle as well as to escape reality. And dat big leg woman was likely to use dat leg to kick dem men in de balls if dey gets uppity. I can hear the Minnesota Lutherans quietly nodding, "yes, yes."

It's the same with record collecting and music criticism. There are only so many archives and archivable objects to go around. Beyond these are reissues and bootlegs; poetically, they become archivable themselves. Beyond these are unauthorized copies; at best, they become archivable to educated listeners caught up in the act of listening. Beyond these, however, are the rudimentary copies made by the great unwashed and uneducated who simply want something to conveniently listen to; nothing archivable here. Yet beyond these, in an ultimate declaration of use, is the free/soft/music-ware files that eliminate the need to "search and copy"; archivable? — therein lies the rub.

To wit: Jason Enright, the owner of Jupiter Records* (yes, Records!) in Austin, TX, one evening passed along a realization about the CDs he sells. In a nutshell, the actual music disc as well as the plastic case in which it is packaged are made of the same basic material, via the same basic chemical process, and they both cost exactly the same amount of money per unit. Are we talking about values here? Are we remembering that vinyl records were made from a material that underwent a process that was unique to the product thus manufactured? And perhaps one can argue the same about the jackets in which they were packaged? For historical reasons, yes, we can pursue that argument. For practical reasons, however — no, we're letting that discussion lie. This is not, after all, a "vinyl vs CD" diatribe.


If we thought the record collector/music critic mentality was bad now... wait til all the downloadable musicware and its potential archives gives rise to the "new critic" — an old, wrinkly, tattooed geek with sagging pierce-holes whose knowledge is so tedious, so detailed, so mind-numbingly reprehensible... we'll WANT to hear the worst of Eric Clapton and George Harrison if only for the relief of knowing that no one has to tell us how bad it is. And how many more Misfits outtakes will it take to keep granny awake? So consider — those deep musicware (holy shit!) archives may actually come to be the best friend of the concept of Copyright as Law. Those archives will have to be considered property since the collector/critic bases his knowledge, thereby his worth, on the rarity of the information/object he possesses. In this case, ironically, he will have acquired that information/object for free and at no risk to either his life or livelihood. Hence, once again the immutable rise of a system of values that must be regulated not by the possessor of the information/object but by the origin of its creation.

Although..... since most music creators of any worth never sell shit til after they're dead, what the hell does any of this matter? The only difference is that nowadays the graves can be robbed before the artist is in them.

*Jupiter Records ceased to exist sometime in 2003.

Spot, Centennial, Wyoming 2006, by Lindsay Olson

Spot can be heard here. Also, through myspace.

Photo of Black Flag with Spot at KUCR studio, 1981, by Jim Acomb; Photos of records by Mike Safran

Restaurant Review

Cafe Mingala
1393B Second Avenue, Upper East Side, New York, NY

Tea leaf salad: refreshing, crunchy with textures and tastes that complement each other with an intriguing sesame high-note to flavors. Trivia: although you can get chopsticks, it is recommended to use knife and fork since Burma was a British colony. Delicious but not as cheap as it used to be.

(Jane Schuman)

(Photos by Tan Nguyen)

For a free quizzical look, tell 'em the Vulgate sent you!

Saratoga, Wyom. is in its second year of its Wyoming Film Festival. It's on the other side of the peaks from Centennial. The opening night screens "Sky High" (1922), written & directed by Lynn Reynolds, starring Tom Mix bouncing around the Grand Canyon undercover to break up a crime-ring smuggling Chinese across the Mex border. Presented with live musical accompaniment by the Starting and Stalling Orchestra.


A friend thought my last piece crossed paths with this one by L.E. Ikenga, a Nigerian-American woman, from a couple months ago. Her African Colonial construction is an interesting one. Marxists were initially quite pitiless in their regard for time-honored folk cultural patterns, though Karl himself thought capitalism would do the job on them, and socialism would pick up the pieces from there.

(Joe Carducci)

South of Lake Marie, in the Snowy Range of Wyoming

Photo by Joe Carducci

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• The New Vulgate
• Joe Carducci, Chris Collins, James Fotopoulos, Mike Vann Gray, David Lightbourne
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