a new low in topical enlightenment

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Issue #4 (July 29, 2009)

Photo by Glen E. Friedman

From Amy Annelle
Subject: a sister from the very same pasture:


I met woody guthrie's sweet baby sister mary jo guthrie
at the Okemah Shamrock gas station.
she god blessed me and said she loved me and all musicians
and sat with me a minute and gave me a little card
with woody's photo and her address and a red heart
and on the back was a version of the Optimist Creed.
"my father raised all us kids on this," she told me,
and that she passes it on to folks she meets.

now i believe the Optimist Creed was written in 1912
but i don't know much of it's history or politics
and i don't really want to know.
i just want to take ms. mary jo's words to heart
and follow the straight line they make to a certain place:
the guthrie family kids getting raised up in hard times
in a house on a hill in okemah.

here's what it says on the back of the card ms. guthrie gave to me:

TO BE so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind.
TO TALK health, happiness and prosperity to every person you meet.
TO MAKE all your friends feel there is something special
in them.
TO LOOK at the sunny side of everything.
TO THINK, work, and expect only the best.
TO BE just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are
about your own.
TO FORGET the mistakes of the past and look to the future.
TO WEAR a cheerful countenance always and give every living creature
you meet a smile.
TO GIVE so much time to self improvement that you have no time to
criticize others.
TO BE too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear
and too happy to permit the presence of trouble.

The Little Sandy Review and the Birth of Rock Criticism
by David Lightbourne

Toward the end of 1959, from an off-campus rooming house at the University of Minnesota, in a strange little corner of Minneapolis across the Mississippi from Saint Paul called Dinkytown, came a small magazine without money or a marketing plan, ready to begin printing articulate monthly record reviews and pithy cultural commentary to a tiny readership. Initially quite inauspicious and eccentric-looking – a loving or caustic survey of current LPs from the rapidly accelerating folk, country, and blues Revivals – over the next half-decade The Little Sandy Review would gain recognition, influence, and notoriety in gross disproportion to its size – and even acquire near-scholarly authority – without ever losing its links with the main currents and common currencies of early-60s bohemia.

From the first mimeographed, pamphlet-size pulp issue in the winter of 1960, The Little Sandy Review brought its readers a new and refreshingly provincial overview of the commercial folk music establishment, a subculture of colorful and odd little record labels, mainly in the East, with inchoate and Quixotic strategies for promoting this new category of record albums – 10” and 12” 33 1/3rpm records that were just beginning to impact the 78 and 45rpm singles dominant market. Writing with one voice and co-authorship for their shared enthusiasm and mutual evaluation of the best traditional American music on vinyl over the previous five or ten years, co-editors Jon Pankake and Paul Nelson began their journey forward into the new decade shaped by the immediate past.

As the late Paul Nelson remembered in a January 2000 interview, “Jon and I had gone to see Pete Seeger at a concert in Iowa that previous summer, and we talked to him afterward and told him about our plan to start a folk music magazine, and asked him what he thought of the idea. When Seeger talked to you it was like he was looking right through you the whole time, as if addressing the masses or something. It was very disconcerting. We didn’t get an answer.” Jon Pankake, a longtime Seeger admirer, remembers the conversation slightly more charitably. As he recalls, “Pete said, ‘Hey, it’s a free country. You can print anything you want in America.’ We followed Pete’s advice.”

A tiny speck on a remote, distant, icy cusp, Pankake and Nelson, along with Tony Glover and Barry Hansen, had no idea where their modest expression would lead as they moved inexorably, rapidly, and individually from that obscure cusp to the epicenters of newly-dawning 1960s social ferment, political turmoil, radical movements, and cultural revolution.

“I was listening to Chet Baker records – I actually still do – when folk music came along,” says Nelson. “We heard these amazing records. It was an exciting time. New terms like ‘citybilly’ and ‘folknik’ started filtering back to Minneapolis and you had these different factions.”

Ostensibly a fan magazine in thrall to select elder statesmen, icons of the 50s folk revival like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Leadbelly, reviews of new records its essential content – almost immediately, in feisty columns, side-bars, and a sporadic Letters section, Little Sandy assailed and soon took incoming fire from a luckless parade of nightmare-variety, predictably uncomprehending, unhip musical, political, and personal adversaries. Indeed, from the sanctuary of their north country redoubt, kid gloves sometimes seemed unnecessary. When the Broadway singer and actor Harry Belafonte, principal beneficiary of 1957’s pop “Calypso” fad, released an album of chain gang songs set to orchestral accompaniment, Little Sandy could not resist calling him Harry Belaphony, and right away the handwriting was on the wall.

Belafonte’s handlers, of course, had not crafted his bizarre new musical persona in a vacuum. With the commercial success of The Kingston Trio as their flickering beacon, other record companies had immediately attempted to imitate the Trio’s pop formula in every way possible, pouncing in their time-honored pattern of initial exploitation and ultimate trivialization that always proceeded from their perception of a new “trend” – to them, fad – with potential sales legs. Hadn’t rock ‘n roll itself seemingly proved a fad circa 1960?

Thus, from 1957 on, as “folk music” records suddenly multiplied, countless other pop artists acceded to this marketing bandwagon and rushed to record blatantly dubious “folk” albums of every conceivable description. Obliged to acknowledge these ersatz offerings and in the same breath dismiss them forever, Pankake and Nelson located their first enduring neologism at the intersection of genuine “folk” and carnival “hokum.” “Folkum” meant just what it sounded like it meant, and in its utter brevity implied far more. Readers never knew when the next howls of empty-calorie outrage would carry all the way to Minneapolis from some professional schlockmeister sitting on a stack of cheese-ball musical arrangements on the east or west coasts.

In the end, dustups and skirmishes furnished a continual long-running source of irreverent humor – reliable, proven, patented riffs for the shared amusement and righteous satisfaction of Little Sandy’s most sympathetic and devoted partisans. From all of this came a legendary reputation for hardball and an image of irascibility which often ignored their larger editorial purposes.

Just as they began, Nelson discovered the 1952 edition of The Anthology of American Folk Music, which had been assembled by Harry Smith and released for libraries by Folkways. This collection was eye-opening in ways that are hard to imagine today, because what Smith had assembled were commercially released 78s from some of the largest record labels of the twenties and thirties. This put something like a lie to the accepted idea of folk music as having been discovered by Alan Lomax out beating the brush amongst the primitives.

Mainly, Pankake and Nelson in tandem wrote critical pieces informed by contemporary ideas in the arts which lent depth and perspective to their central focus, the quality and enduring vitality of American roots musics. Over time, the value of these reviews grows more apparent as the recordings themselves – re-packaged and re-issued multiple times by now – gain increasing stature as landmarks in the emerging consensus on a formal American roots canon. For all of this to happen, though, the editors of The Little Sandy Review first had to invent, essentially from scratch, the foundations of modern rock journalism.

In truth, LSR (as it called itself) had no interest in rock of any kind. At the precise moment of its birth, early 1960, commercial American rock had utterly tanked, flat-lined, bought the old Dick Clark farm, a case of self-immolation from flying terminally close to the monolithic pop flame. More and more rock and roll’s original mid-50s explosion seemed long ago, far away, well past, exhausted, gone forever. Writing for a collegiate and young-adult audience consciously and aggressively alienated from adolescent mass-Pop hardly required stating the obvious.

Early on, for instance, readers received a caveat about John Lee Hooker’s new releases on the Vee Jay label increasingly featuring a ‘rock’ backing, a minor qualm for rabid Hooker fans and for anyone not aware of the great bluesman’s earliest raw Detroit singles. Among other things, however, “rock” surely meant cheapened.

Nonetheless, as Pankake and Nelson, soon joined by Barry Hansen, developed growing interest and expertise in, respectively, old-time string music, contemporary folk performers, and acoustic or electric blues, each unwittingly held strands of the American nerve which would soon fold back into and weave transformations in the greater tapestry of rock and roll itself. And in Dinkytown they were not alone.

Surrounded by a tree-lined neighborhood of aging, inexpensive, multi-story wood-frame housing in the city’s Cedar Riverside riverfront university district, by 1960 Dinkytown’s well-named tiny retail crossroads gave just slight evidence of a nascent local bohemia – such bare obligatory late-50s beacons of the underground as a small radical bookstore and a coffeehouse with a stage for live performers. On the threshold of the new decade, blues and folk music had insinuated their away alongside jazz as the preferred choice of younger beats and older hipsters; and while modern jazz maintained its hegemony on Twin Cities FM and in dorm record collections, on the stage at the Ten O’Clock Scholar, Dinkytown’s lone hang-time café, live jazz wound up stepping aside.

For as luck had it, the local acoustic music underground already demonstrated its own strong, decidedly-unusual bent for traditional styles of playing and delivery. Five-string banjoist Pankake joined with Willie Johnson and other Folksong Society of Minneapolis players, forming Uncle Willie’s Brandy Snifters and putting their collective stash of old string-band 78s on reel-to-reel tape to real use on stage.

Meanwhile, early LSR reviewer and blues harpist Tony Glover, along with Dave Ray and John Koerner, performing around Minneapolis and Saint Paul in various combinations, would soon win wide acclaim for elevating white acoustic “coffeehouse blues” into an intense, driving, near-surreal evocation of archaic styles almost recalling the West Virginia “white blues” artists of the 1920s (Frank Hutchison, Clarence Greene, and Leonard Copeland).

In years hence even The Doors would acknowledge their debt to the Koerner, Ray and Glover albums produced by Paul Nelson. And years before Bob Dylan hit the Village, Dinkytown singer nineteen year-old Bob Zimmerman heard his first Ramblin’ Jack Elliott records, rare 10” British records, in the Spartan quarters of a little local folk music magazine.

Beyond their regional outpost, out across the wide but narrow folk diaspora, subscribers on Little Sandy’s miniscule mailing list soon included, as Jon Pankake recalls with wonder and real pride, “an unusually large proportion of record company owners, label presidents, producers, agents, and industry insiders. It went to influential people.” When both Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman and Vanguard’s Manny Solomon corresponded with the magazine, they gave the little publication immediate credence and gave its editors much private comfort. More letters soon followed, including a rare correction of a Barry Hansen blues review by none other than Moses Asch of Folkways Records, august and legendary eminence grise of the entire 1940s and 1950s folk music Renaissance.

Among LSR’s other early subscribers, Jon Landau in Boston, later Bruce Springsteen’s guiding guru, would cut his teeth on all five years of Little Sandy’s sporadic output before beginning his own career writing record reviews for fledgling Crawdaddy! magazine, the first serious rock journal and initially stapled together in the fanzine manner. Landau’s editor at Crawdaddy!, founder and author Paul Williams, well remembers LSR’s pioneering precedent: “The Little Sandy Review was a kind of forerunner of Crawdaddy!, in a sense. It was strictly a folk music magazine but it had that fanzine kind of feeling to it.”

Indeed, the model or prototype for a publication like Little Sandy barely existed, with all its closest possible antecedents – distant cousins at best – falling well below the horizon, all but invisible among the nation’s many well-established and widely-circulated periodicals. Sing Out!, the only national magazine devoted to “folk music,” founded in 1950 and with a readership in the thousands, had been a venue almost exclusively for song lyrics espousing fleeting Leftist political causes. Nearly always derived from old songs and familiar melodies, the newly re-written versions, cursed with an evanescence and an atomic half-life in fatal milliseconds mostly demonstrated that even preaching to the converted had its pitfalls.

In fact, two years before LSR’s first issue, Sing Out! had finally bowed to economic reality and invited Folkways Records to purchase a 45% share in its ownership, thus providing a source of virtually in-house advertising revenue – formerly non-existent – while allowing the editors to retain those vestiges of the publication’s political past corresponding with Folkways’ own idiosyncratic agenda. To expand its readership, Sing Out!’s editors looked beyond topical songs, letting the extensive Folkways catalog inspire a far wider frame of reference calculated to embrace the rising sales of records, guitars, and banjos for an audience utterly oblivious to its original ideological mandate. As Sing Out!’s sole constant, its one important point of continuity, Pete Seeger’s long running “Johnny Appleseed, Jr.” column remained in place, anchored by Seeger’s new 10% interest in the magazine and expressing the pitch-perfect tone of Seeger’s own, newly-generalized crypto-didactic social idealism.

Beyond Sing Out! – at that point a quarterly – both Caravan in New York City and later, Broadside in Boston regularly printed issues with general articles on the emerging folk music subculture. But like other small folk ‘zines around the country, even these big-city efforts contented themselves with promoting and supporting their lively local scene, its performers, retailers, live venues and hometown readership in general ignorance of everything beyond an economically and editorially circumscribed, entirely regional preoccupation.

On the subject of Little Sandy’s prototypes, both Pankake and Nelson point to the late-50s phenomena of small, specialized “fanzines” devoted to subjects like chess or specific types of jazz, as their most obvious source of inspiration. Describing these publications in detail, Jon Pankake drew the closest points in common with LSR at a symposium in 1991:

“Several characteristics define the fanzine. It is always the product of one or two voices. That is, the fanzine speaks in a personal voice – like getting a letter from someone…. The defining characteristic of the fanzine as a form of journalism is that it conveys a strong point of view on a topic of interest to the publisher. “Fanzine” is, of course, a portmanteau word – a shortening of ‘fanatic’s magazine.’ It is published by a writer who feels very strongly about a subject….”

The somewhat oblique, convoluted connection between LSR and, in this case, larger, mass-pulp movie star and pop record fanzines actually begins with its very name. “In the late 50s,” Pankake explains, “in lower level courses at the university, you would see these young co-eds sitting down in the front of the class – blond pony-tails, sweaters, gold circle pins – and they all carried current issues of fan magazines with black and white and color photos of their favorite stars, and a surprising number of these girls were named Sandy. We were starting a magazine about our own favorite music and our very own stars, so Paul and I decided to name it after all those little Sandys and call it The Little Sandy Review.

(to be cont.)

[Photos, in order: Little Sandy Review Vol. 2, No. 1 (July 1966) front cover, photo by Marina Bokelman; Little Sandy Review No. 27 front cover, photo by Paul Nelson (left-to-right: John Koerner, Tony Glover, Dave Ray); Little Sandy Review No. 17 front cover, drawing of Reverend Gary Davis by Jon Pankake; Little Sandy Review No. 17 back cover]

David Lightbourne performed with Mike Bloomfield at Mother Blues on North Wells in 1963, and plays every Sunday at the Buckhorn in Laramie, and every August at Centennial, Wyoming’s Upland Breakdown.

Lightbourne performing at the 2008 Upland Breakdown, photo by Mike Safran

Drawing by James Fotopoulos

From the desk of Joe Carducci:

Richard Meltzer on three Beats tomes. Irate publishers on lines one and two.


Pretty good two-part ABC News doc on the Meat Puppets ups and downs and ups; did this air? If so, network television is now officially over.
Part 1
Part 2


More on Death, 70s Black Detroit Punk Rock


The Phenomenology of Punk Metal Crossover


Joe Rees on Target Video, SF and LA.


Screamers film addendum


Note from our Prishtina correspondent: debut country's debut Kosovo Film Festival


Coming in Sept from Her Majesty's subject, Stevie Chick. Might be pretty good:

(thanks to jay babcock, andy schwartz, steve beeho, valbona shujaku for headsups)


The Sun-Times' Lynn Sweet on Chicago's 51st ward

Sweet mentions Milton Rakove's oral history of RJ Daley's era, but here's the relevant Rakove, from his Don't Make No Waves... Don't Back No Losers - An Insider's Analysis of the Daley Machine, 1975 (Indiana):

Ch. 7 - Government and the Machine

"The most dangerous threat to the Chicago machine's existence is the power of government to curtail or eliminate the activities of the machine by legislation and regulation. Imperative to the machine's continued existence and prosperity is the ability to fend off, control, or block such regulation by governmental agencies at the three levels of American government....

"One possible danger stems from the legislative power of Congress.... With seven staunch Democratic congressmen from the city representing the local machine's interest in Washington, with one Democratic senator in the United States Senate... the Chicago machine has had little trouble in keeping congressional investigations into local political situations to a minimum.

"A second source of possible federal involvement in local politics is the executive branch of government. Administrative agencies like the Department of Justice with its prosecutive powers and the Internal Revenue Service with its investigatory powers are the major potential sources of trouble from within the administrative bureaucracy in Washington. Other executive agencies such as the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Health, Education and Welfare, and Transportation, which disburse federal funds to local communities... can also affect the fortunes of local politicians. The key to dealing with these agencies and keeping them from involving themselves in local political situations is a good relationship with the president of the United States."

Midnight on Hollywood Boulevard, Friday, July 24, 2009

Photo by Chris Collins

To receive a weekly update notice for the NV, send an email to newvulgate[at]sbcglobal.net with SUBSCRIBE in the subject line. To stop receiving notices, do the same with the word UNSUBSCRIBE.

• The New Vulgate
• Joe Carducci, Chris Collins, James Fotopoulos, Mike Vann Gray, David Lightbourne
• Copyright retained by the writer, artist, or photographer

Monday, July 20, 2009

Issue #3 (July 22, 2009)

In the waters off San Blas, Mexico

Photo by Doug Cawker


mister versatility
has turned to pedalling
since the prose
he was riding
got taken apart
by the pros
volcanic vales
oceanic blues
foundered vessels
and atolls for thee

a different prayer
for every sailor
lost at sea

(Chris Collins)

Cinematic Bits:

Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904)

French physiologist and pioneer of photography and cinema. His motion picture work primarily focused on bird and animal locomotion. See his film on blood circulation -– achieved by adapting his motion picture camera to a microscope.

We can’t have blood and not have some insects.

Dimitri Kirsanoff (1899-1957)

Born someplace in Estonia and started making films in Paris in the early 1920s.
Watch the opening axe murder from his most well known film Menilmontant (1926) –- told through all images, no titles. Superimpositions, abstractions, montage -- an interesting early experimental narrative.

Chips from the woodshed of Chris Collins:

Reviews written upon the release of a well regarded film are typically more illuminating. Vincent Canby's negative assessment of the Godfather Part II (1974) points out its main fault: the novelty of its twin narrative structure can't substitute for the relentless chain-of-events momentum which was original's great virtue. Beyond that, it doesn't have much to add. The moral transformation of Michael Corleone, the heart of the story, is for all meaningful purposes complete when the first movie ends.

"Lunch? This is bigger than lunch!"

The cinematic medium -- so capital- and manpower-intensive -- is not kind to the wholly impractical-minded. Director Michael Cimino's film Heaven's Gate (1980), conceptualized as something like the ultimate western, was hamstrung from the shooting stage by bad word of mouth and Cimino's cost-indifferent style. The final product, visually lush and dramatically slack, was purely his baby, and its quick, fruitless theatrical run pushed United Artists, the studio then considered most hospitable to ambitious filmmakers, into bankruptcy. The documentary Final Cut (2004), based on UA vice president Stephen Bach's book of the same name, is the story of one auteur's dream, one auteur's profligacy.

The Soviet Heaven's Gate?

Osvobozhdenie [Liberation] (1969), a little seen war epic, narrates -- over several hours -- the whole of World War Two from the Russian perspective, and looks to be as brash as Heaven's Gate is torpid. The battle scenes have the iron-and-diesel-fumes power of laborious pre-CGI cinema while the soundtrack mimics the crashing gigantism of Shostakovich. The clunky acting may not necessarily detract from the effect. Which sunk the Soviet economy, the arms race or this movie?

Here's a sample depicting the 1943 Kursk Offensive (Operation Citadel), Germany's failed bid to regain the upper hand following the debacle of Stalingrad. Watch, and consider the fact that many of the German officers and men captured in the war still languished in Russian captivity while this film was being made. They would never be released.

Drawing by James Fotopoulos

From the hard-drive of Joe Carducci:

The history of non-professional actors is right there alongside the accepted official history of hall-of-fame Great Thespian Portrayals in the films as they run on TCM, at MoMA, the Siskel, and the Cinematheque. But as a tradition it’s invisible, completely swamped by Broadway gush about the Barrymores or Frank Langella, by Off-Broadway’s counter-history of Brando and Dean, and by studio nostalgia in all flavors of corn: MGM’s James Stewart and Clark Gable; Warner’s James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart; 20th Century-Fox’s Henry Fonda and Spencer Tracy; Paramount’s William Powell and Randolph Scott; RKO’s Cary Grant and Robert Mitchum…. At least the nostalgists know the work of the players I’m talking about.

As film critic Otis Ferguson put it in 1940:

The movies had the means and the press-agent flamboyance to screen-test anything that could get out of bed and walk. They didn’t have to develop a school of acting. They accumulated, from all the fields of entertainment, including real life, a gallery of natural types such as was never seen on the face of the earth.
(Accent, The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson, Temple)

Each studio had its own gallery of types. Universal made their comedies and romances but their gallery included star Boris Karloff to play the monster or madman, against support type Maria Ouspenskaya whose job it was to play spooky old hags from the Carpathian Mountains. Fox didn’t need one of those; they had Will Rogers so they needed Hattie McDaniel and Stepin Fetchit. Walter Brennan famously had one question when he was cast in a film, “With or without?” Brennan needed to know whether he was being cast with teeth or without teeth. Of course there was more to it – he set the standard playing helpless humanizing side-kicks to hardened heroes like Bogart in To Have and Have Not (1944) or James Stewart in The Far Country (1954), but he also excelled at playing frightening villains who drove the plot in films like The Westerner (1940), and My Darling Clementine (1946). Not bad for silent era stuntman.

Walter Huston, a lead on Broadway who came to Hollywood with sound, played more interesting characters for possessing a harder, older look than typical. He slipped to support roles but nevertheless resisted his son John’s entreaties to play the old prospector in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) without his false teeth. He finally agreed and the adaptation of B. Traven’s novel was a great success. That bit of visual truth that changes the look of the face, the sound of the voice, that makes a character look and sound as if he’s lived a life that’s taken a toll, is not duplicable by mere method chops or make-up. Huston had played impressive, forbidding figures in excellent films like The Virginian (1929), Abraham Lincoln (1930), The Criminal Code (1931), The Beast of the City (1932), and Dodsworth (1936), but all it took was taking out the teeth and he’s cackling away at the existential absurdity as it drives the younger characters (Bogart, Tim Holt, Bruce Bennett) mad.

I recently saw The Bad Man (1940) and its rogues gallery of types schtick their way through lines adapted to them and further polished by each actor: Wallace Beery as the bandido, Lionel Barrymore as the wheelchair-bound ranch owner, Henry Travers as the craven banker, Jack Conway as the swindler from the city, Laraine Day as the upstanding beauty, Nydia Westman as the homely ranchgirl who’d like nothing better than to be abducted to Mexico by Beery, Ronald Reagan as the man of the American southwest, Chill Wills as his trailhand, Chris-Pin Martin as the bandido’s henchman, and Charles Stevens as his second. Of course it’s not a real western, it’s MGM and based on a Broadway hit. But the Porter Emerson Browne play, filmed twice before, gives the stock character hokum smart shape as Beery not only heads off both the banker’s and the oil-man’s swindles, he also repairs the various crossed lovers to their proper mates. And the players work it for all its worth. All director Richard Thorpe has to do is match the exteriors to the sets and connect the dots in rhythm. It ends with Beery racing on horseback to stop Travers from filing the mortgage, and hauling Barrymore in his wheelchair behind him across the desert. No masterpiece but no-one asked for a refund.

One of the best summary descriptions of silent era film production as nickelodeon novelties became feature films is the Allan Dwan interview that Peter Bogdanovich conducted in 1968. Here the question is about casting:

I remember the first actor I ever knew was a fellow named King Baggott. He was a good movie actor in his day – a very third-rate actor in the theatre – but thoroughly ashamed of being in pictures. Yet he was a star and making good money. Finally he relaxed and said, ‘I guess this is my forte,’ and he stayed in. But our actors came from anywhere – we picked them up and trained them. They’d come to your gate in the morning to see if there was any work, and you’d bring them in. You’d ask one to do a little bit of business and he’d do it pretty well, and first thing you know there’s a fellow who’s intelligent, so you’d keep him in mind. He might turn into quite an actor. Girls were a natural. Children are great actors because they’re always making believe. As a rule women could make-believe more readily than men. A man gets embarrassed. But they learn and if there’s money in it, they’ll try. And, of course, our cowboys were cowboys, and they were very natural, very real. Nearly 90 percent of the Western actors in all pictures are fellows who at one time or another were associated with cattle.
(Who the Devil Made It, Knopf)

Russian director-writer-actor-film theorist, Vsevolod Pudovkin, lectured cinematographers in 1933 on his use of “non-actors” and considered that unlike on the stage, in film their performances “at times can serve as an example to be followed by experienced actors.” (Film Technique & Film Acting, Bonanza) The Soviet cinema had a cult for authenticity as well, at least until Stalin the cinephile stamped out formalist experiments for a “realism” that resurrected the hoariest stage-bound dramaturgy.

The writer Lillian Ross was a friend of John Huston’s and grabbed the opportunity to cover the entire production of The Red Badge of Courage (1951), starting at the shoot on Huston’s ranch in the San Fernando Valley, then to MGM in Culver City, and finally on to its parent company Loew’s offices on Broadway. It’s a fine book called Picture (Andre Deutsch) that was first a multi-part New Yorker essay titled “Production Number 1512” that ran in May and June of 1952. But the prime evidence of Huston’s bold vision, his cast (Audie Murphy, Bill Mauldin, Royal Dano, John Dierkes, Arthur Hunnicutt, Andy Devine, Smith Ballew, Glenn Strange…) did not much interest her. Odd, given Ross’ other successful book, Player – A Profile of an Art, is nothing but profiles of 56 actors, again spun from her work in the magazine. Those profiles are naturally come from a New Yorker’s idea of actors – from the stage… song-and-dance men…. Had the film been one of the Huston-Bogart productions one imagines Ross would not have ignored the cast. Audie Murphy had no pretense that he was an actor; he wrote author Charles Whiting, “As an actor, I’d make a good stunt man.” (Hero, Scarborough House) But Murphy was inspired by John Huston here and later in The Unforgiven (1960). Ross manages to catch Huston comparing Royal Dano to his father Walter (they’d just made Treasure), but her book’s one bit of insight into Murphy, the most decorated soldier of WWII, then in the third year of his film career, occurs in the MGM commissary:

Drawing deeply on his cigarette, [Huston] looked down through the smoke at the table and brushed away some shreds of tobacco.

Murphy fixed his gaze on the windows along the far wall.

Huston looked at him. "Excited, kid?" he asked.

"Seems as though nothing can get me excited any more – you know, enthused?" he said. "Before the war, I’d get excited and enthused about a lot of things, but not any more."

"I feel the same way, kid," said Huston.

(Picture, Andre Deutsch)

Murphy grew up dirt poor in the large family of a drunk in east Texas; he rationed bullets by never missing the squirrels needed for dinner. He thence shot over two hundred fascists in Italy like they were squirrels. His boyish countenance was somehow convincing when claiming he’d never felt young, or when softly threatening a drunken, much larger Laurence Tierney at a party in Bel Air. In his book, To Hell and Back (Henry Holt) he boiled his strategy down to “Destroy and survive.” Fame hit him after he was incapable of excitement for deeds one doesn’t dwell on. From his one letter home: “I like the army fine so far, they let you sleep till 5:30. On the farm I had to get up at 4.” (No Name on the Bullet, Penguin)

In Hollywood he slept with a gun under his pillow, and gambled away his money just slightly faster than he made it. His friend Budd Boetticher told me he didn’t think Murphy’s 1971 death was an accident. They had both recently finished what was to be the last film for each of them, A Time for Dying (1971), which was in part a deal-within-a-deal to make good on Murphy’s debts; the film bombed, the plane crashed. Doesn’t seem likely, but given Murphy’s richness as a character himself, its testament to the need for this book, that Ross, even as a friend of Huston, did not understand there was anything to Murphy, or the rest of the cast. Instead her book details with New Yorker insouciance, the absurd world of the studio system already fretting about television. It is funny to hear the MGM-Loew’s apparats and majordomos trying to make sense of this Americana art film that Nick Schenck had let Dore Shary allow John Huston to make over the objection of Louis B. Mayer. Si Seadler, Loew’s eastern advertising manager is quoted,

The picture was beautiful but it was just a vignette. As soon as Mr. Schenck saw the picture, we knew it was a flop. Let’s just say it was a flop d’estime. I guess that’s the way Mr. Schenck would put it.
(Picture, Andre Deutsch)

And yet all male actors in the post-WWII era, when playing serious, somber, sober scenes are doing their best to channel the untrained authenticity of actors such as Carey, Wayne, Murphy…

Acting as metaphysical transcendence is easily overblown by voluptuaries like the Actor’s Studio’s James Lipton. CNN’s Larry King and PBS’s Charlie Rose fall off the deep end regularly too. TCM’s Robert Osbourne seems intimidated to have an actor before him on the set though he is best prepared. Public Radio’s Terry Gross is impertinent enough to get more out of her interviews for all her ignorance. Still I prefer how one of Raymond Pettibon’s screenplays channels or maybe tunnels the metaphysics of stardom. In the script, now the basis for a minor motion picture, a Cary Grant-type tells a young actor:

It felt funny, sitting there, front row center, getting studio-head head, while I’m watching myself from the screen. I was so nervous, it felt so eerie, that it took me forever to come, and when I did I left my body and entered the screen becoming my screen image, the stupid Canadian Mounties uniform and bright lipstick and all. I became him, it, myself… and with all my soul. I can still see myself up there, larger than life, and I can also see myself through those screen-eyes, pupils a foot in diameter, eyes perhaps… my best feature, but seeing eyes, too, and staring back into that screening room, lit by a projector I could feel my screen heart, a warm glow, like for one’s own umbilical, found somehow, reclaimed from the scrapings and heapings and reattached, too, like a lost button, by some fawning Dr. Frankenstein and what I saw I saw clearly, which was myself, dripping and blushing as I stared back at myself self-consciously, embarrassed, to be sure, more than a little, no doubts about it.
(Untitled – Relax. Get In.)

The power of film is metaphysical and it is the actors who most seem to give off this power. Often directorial touches and trademarks seem conceived in jealousy of the power actors possess. Flash concocted from behind the camera distracts the guileless audience, while pandering to those who watch films at a remove. One might learn a lot about film directing from Citizen Kane (1941), but really, whose need is pathological, the fictionalized William Randolph Hearst or the peripatetic Orson Welles behind the camera? Welles was a genius, but that is often a problem. However, Welles’ tragedy was that he was smart enough to correct for Kane in artistic terms, but not in terms of Hollywood career politique: The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) as it survives gives evidence that Welles was immediately backing off of the busy fracturing of film space and attempting an organic if novelistic portrayal of characters in a place and time. But Ambersons was taken from him and re-cut and apparently cannot be put back together now for the profit of the destroyer’s corporate descendents at TimeWarner. It was to be a dark, determinist tragedy, but the set up is too bright to be fully Marxian about it. You like the Ambersons and their turn-of-the-century Indianapolis more than its possible to like anyone or anything in Kane.

The coldness of Citizen Kane is an imposition on the raw story material if you believe Louise Brooks’ account of her time flitting in and out of various Hearst beach-houses and mansions with her friend Pepi Lederer, Marion Davies’ niece. Brooks writes,

Mr. Hearst was not the ogre depicted by Marion. He did not devour pretty girl guests; he loved them. At San Simeon, I had run away from him twice – once when he came upon me drying my hair by the pool, and once when he found me looking at a rare edition of Dickens in the library – because his marked attention would result in banishment by Marion from the ranch and from Louella Parsons’ powerful movie column.
(Lulu in Hollywood, Knopf)

It wasn’t Kansas out there, but surely Brooks would’ve been among the last women to respect a home-wrecker’s mansion on principle – her own Kansas eden had had a snake lurking in it. But it was as if Welles worked from Marion’s worst nightmare – and she was basically a so-so comedienne whose tractionless career was juiced by Hearst’s favors. The talented Welles then, took the P.O.V. of an actress’s high suspicion of her own worthlessness in order to indict one of the more talented press barons of the age, presumably for his very dabbling in cinema. (If only he’d taken on pere Kennedy, another cinema dabbler, he might have done us all a favor.)

Welles’ use of his “Mercury Theater of the Air” radio actors is another error of his early films. Radio actors were a special breed, largely forgotten now. An actor’s voice coming over the radio worked best when it ladled inference onto ham. All the scenery-chewing of a Broadway blow-hard, only crooned into a microphone. Real bad. Something like a part being played by an announcer; any realism undercut at every syllable by unnaturally perfect timber and resonance of the voice. I guess this argues for just how good the singers who acted were since from Bing Crosby on, they all crooned into ribbon microphones, rather than keening to the rafters. And yet Bing, Dick, Frank, Dean and even Elvis did well in important films.

Silent films are gone but thanks to the comedians Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin if no-one else, they’ll never be fully forgotten. Far more forgotten are the sound-only radio dramas that were once so prominent. Often the original casts of Hollywood feature films re-recorded one-hour adaptations of their current films, but most radio dramas were unique productions and in their heyday before televisions were in every house, they were ubiquitous in homes. There is an intense collector fandom that has organized surviving radio dramas and production information but compared to film history it’s a medium that seems to have just vanished from the pop culture memory.

Actors whose first starring roles were in radio dramas include Reed Hadley, William Conrad, and Jeff Chandler. Their too-fulsome, perfectly modulated Stradivariuses-of-a-voice could never quite convince as mere human in a drama no matter their talent. Tall thin Hadley might have had a more notable movie career but for that voice; in Dark Corner (1946) director Henry Hathaway actually seems to try to keep seventh-billed Hadley’s face away from the camera in his scenes, though this was a step up from merely narrating Hathaway’s House on 92nd Street (1945). Hadley played Zorro in the serial Zorro’s Fighting Legion (1939) and then “Red Ryder” (1942-44) on radio – maybe his best acting though its total kidstuff. Hadley spent the fifties as a lead in television (“Racket Squad” 1950-53, “Public Defender” 1954-55), both shows naturally featuring his deep dulcet narration as well. He was notably Sam Fuller’s idea of Jesse James in I Shot Jesse James (1948), though it’s Bob Ford’s story and Jesse gets back-shot at the twenty-five minute mark. Hadley also narrated Dept. of Defense films.

Wide-load Conrad had been able to play Matt Dillon on radio. For television the part required getting onto an actual horse without breaking the poor animal’s spine, so James Arness got the part. (“Gunsmoke” ran on radio from 1952 to 61, overlapping the television series which ran 1955-75, then intermittent made-for-TV films.) Conrad did bits in well-known movies, guested on television dramas, skillfully narrated both the cartoon “Rocky and his Friends” (1959-61) as well as “The Fugitive” (1963-67) and even directed films and television, but he didn’t become a star until the baroque phase of detective shows in the 1970s allowed him to play a fat detective in “Cannon” (1971-76) running from his car to pounce on bad guys in between fine dining experiences.

Jeff Chandler’s voice got him into radio dramas, first under his real name, Ira Grossel, then as Tex Chandler in “Frontier Town” (1952-53). He looked good in a fit, swarthy, gray-haired, gleaming, nostril-flaring way but his career was cut short when back surgery later judged malpractice led to hemorrhaging, more surgery, transfusions and blood poisoning.

The point is, however, these guys with their howitzer voices destabilized any movie scene they were in. Especially in a police drama where the mundane patter of professionals going through their motions is supposed to impress the viewer with a world far more dramatic than, though as routine, as their own workaday reality. Strictly speaking, I’d argue that the same went for radio, but I suppose radio was more forgiving since the voices and a few sound effects had to carry the load. What radio drama I’ve heard could’ve used less in the way of effects as fight scene noise and other effects seem to break the spell the actors struggle to achieve with their voices. But radio drama conventions were developed quickly and they worked for a long time.

I think the ideal actor’s voice for film is one that indicates a lack of self-consciousness by way of an “out-of-tune” delivery. You wouldn’t say it was actually out-of-tune, unless you’d call Johnny Cash’s voice out-of-tune as well, but the voice with a flat casual delivery is sure of itself and functional and not built up for dramatic effect. Not acted. And this helps the smart writer and director and sound engineer infer reality subtly by indirection. Actors who possessed ideal voices were Ben Johnson, Richard Farnsworth, Harry Carey, Jay Silverheels, Fess Parker, John Wayne and Charles Bronson. Just beneath them, slightly more tuneful, would be Jock Mahoney, Clint Walker, Jim Brown, Sam Elliott and others. Such voices can be heard as a special kind of music. Music is an encultured abstraction of speech over heartbeat. The speech of these men, over their even breath, communicates a certain frontier or rural, American ideal. I’m guessing the level speech patterns of the American Indians of the plains, mountains, and deserts might be the origin of this kind of flatted music, and that may be why it seems quintessentially American and works so well in westerns and other action-film settings.

In this country of immigrants there’s a lot of remaking of personalities as kids look around and see more and different types – geographical, class and ethnic – as they grow up. Within America people move around a lot and so there are a number of ways a man might arrive at such a persona. Of that first list of actors I think John Wayne and Charles Bronson are so constructed, whereas the others are probably more naturally occurring. Wayne grew up in Los Angeles and gophered and extraed his way into acting, taking decades to get larger parts and star vehicles. Bronson grew up in a large family of Lithuanian immigrants in a company-owned mining town in Pennsylvania that was so isolated he had to shake an accent just to feel he could pass for American in his own country! He later used that accent in The Great Escape (1963).

Tom Milne, in his book on Carl Dreyer, writes of “the perfect harmony between actors, setting and narrative,” which he judges Dreyer managed with The Parson’s Widow (1920), Mikaël (1924), Vampyr (1932), Gertrud (1964) and others, but not with The Passion of Jean d’Arc (1927), Day of Wrath (1943) or Ordet (1954), where he believes “the narrative… takes the upper hand, dictating the somber texture of these films, and crushing the spectator into submission instead of winning him by persuasion.” Milne means to defend Dreyer against his dour reputation based on these better known but more narrowly religious “narratives.” It’s interesting that for Milne it is the narrative, rather than the actors or the setting out of balance. Perhaps Dreyer has flushed out his critic’s discomfort with religion generally, or maybe it’s proof of an auteur that the story would be wrong while acting and setting were balanced. Dreyer began as a screenwriter in 1912.

Today only the directors believe they are auteurs. But it’s usually an act designed to push back against producers and get things done easier. Film settings are as grande guignol as affordable. The scripts are unwritten though over-edited, as in polishing a turd. Surprisingly, it is often the actors holding today’s films together. They make up their own backstories and walk through city streets and urban offices looking urgent and intense. As novelist and film writer Brian Garfield saw it in 1982:

Movies after the 1950s began to call upon actors with less and less experience and ability to do work of more and more demanding precision. The new fashion, influenced by the Cahiers attitude and the techniques of television commercials, required the sketchiest of screenplays with the emphasis on very brief scenes and rapid jump-cuts. Dialogue was minimized…. No longer is it used to reveal character; film becomes the medium of the meaningful silence, the pregnant pause, the ‘beat.’
(Western Films, Da Capo)

Mere pretense, in other words. Garfield finished his book just after the release of Heaven’s Gate (1980), that sprawling graveyard of the auteur theory and the counter-culture western. Those silences, written and directed by Michael Cimino, ended United Artists' independence (founded in 1925 as a quest for artistic autonomy and more money by D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks) but they didn’t kill arty emptiness, though these have subsequently been produced at a fraction of the cost.

Actors obsess on the wrong acting school but in the moment only the worst of them attempt to dominate the setting and story. And they aren’t often to blame for the screenplays. Clint Eastwood will produce and direct Mystic River (2003), an acting nightmare that I guess he relates to as east coast ethnic realism which he is smart enough to keep himself out of. But that film’s Industry prestige-style success helped set him up for the smaller stuff to come, most recently Gran Torino (2008) where Eastwood plays opposite a largely non-professional cast of Hmong immigrants, a film the old New York Film Critics Circle of, say, 1970 might’ve had aneurisms over trying to decide who can’t act worse.

The problem with screenplays today is harder to see. I think the writer is treated no more contemptuously in Hollywood than before, but the studio-as-factory had a roster of writing talent braced against the cruel whimsy of studio-fate, but together getting some novel or play or first draft hammered into star-vehicle shape. The screenwriter Leonard Spigelgass discussed the thirties MGM m.o. at a 1971 AFI seminar:

[T]here were six of us writing Shearer, six of us writing Garbo, six of us writing Ruth Chatterton, six of us writing Robert Montgomery, and six of us writing Clark Gable. Which one would they choose? It was a great lottery.
(The Inquisition in Hollywood, California)

The lottery was for who got the onscreen credit, important to them and to anyone trying to write about who made these films, but what’s relevant here is Spigelgass’ off-hand description of writers working the line in a gilt-edged Hollywood factory.

Today only the big summer event screenplays might have six or more contributors. Most scripts today have the author of the source novel, then two credited screenwriters, plus an uncredited script doctor or two. But still they don’t often manage to contrive a dramatic center. They are merely polished voids. Nothing is wrong with them except there is no life in the writing.

One of my favorite films is The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). It plays like a spooky tone poem set in rural Spain after the civil war. It’s about a young girl whose miscomprehension of things around her come to be shaped by seeing the movie Frankenstein (1931). I’d rather have bought just the film on DVD but given Criterion it was only available “complete” with the-making-of disc, so I ended up watching the extras with director Victor Erice, producer Elias Querejeta, writer Francisco Querejeta, and the actors and I was struck how inorganic and mechanical was their process of story construction. They really just hammered the elements together. The parade of images nevertheless has the intended effect on the viewer, perhaps in part because of the censorship of Franco’s Spain that eliminated all overt righteous political intent. Censorship is not always an enemy of art, see Iranian and Chinese cinema as well. Or conversely, see today’s Hollywood productions.

The void today is left for the actors, the music, the steadi-cam, the fifty-to-one shooting ratio, the cutting, the CGI to fill. The hope being that stray resonances to older, better movies will occur often enough to keep the viewer engaged. Writers can’t direct and most of them know it. But the auteur theory leads directors to believe that their adaptive abilities qualify them to write, but they can only write around in the vicinity of a story. And their narrative sense, such as it is, develops in advertising, music videos or television. The producer has to throw the script at one of the handful of re-write men who have their hands on everything but credits on nothing. These are the best-paid writers, the ones whose credits ended years ago. Their number one job is to get the story told in under two hours – that is to lop an hour off the director’s inefficient formless meanderings.

Cimino did great work with Eastwood and Jeff Bridges in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974); he directed his own script for Eastwood’s Malpaso company. And he earlier finished the script for Magnum Force (1973) when John Milius had to leave to direct Dillinger (1973), so Cimino had strangely enough been schooled in the Eastwood m.o., and Richard Schickel’s biography, Clint Eastwood (Vintage), recounts that production as a smooth one with no foreshadowing of trouble to come. But Cimino was no product of the depression. The Deer Hunter (1978) was bad enough in terms of being overblown and false, Heaven’s Gate was ridiculous. Here’s producer Steven Bach’s description of the early casting ideas:

Cimino termed his casting "extremely optimistic" but added "not impossible."

John Wayne was suggested for the part eventually played by Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges for the Walken role, and as the female lead, Jane Fonda. The minor characters… included as mercenaries Henry Fonda, Burt Lancaster, James Stewart, Rod Steiger, Burt Reynolds, and James Caan. As immigrants, Cimino suggested Ingrid Bergman, Gene Hackman, George Kennedy, Richard Widmark, Jon Voight and Kirk Douglas, reserving the role of a U.S. Marshal for Joel McCrea, that of the governor of Wyoming for Randolph Scott, and that of a U.S. cavalry captain for William Holden…

(Final Cut, Morrow)

Bach, who died in March of this year, was head of production and senior vice-president at UA but he was a cultured person and his involvement in and enabling of the disaster gave him perspective on it. Of course there’s plenty of witnesses in Hollywood but there’s rarely the honesty to tell the story; what books come are more often ass-covering whitewash re-writes. But Final Cut, like Lillian Ross’ Picture is a classic study of the making of one film and the books stay in print.

I’m embarrassed to say I recognize half-baked post-sixties youth culture movie myopia when I see it. Cimino’s playing fast and loose with the historical truth of Vietnam and the American west was done with an intent to counter Hollywood’s own formula evasions and, these casting ideas suggest, redeem Hollywood. It was no simple arrogance, not if he expected to have the likes of John Wayne, Randolph Scott, and Joel McCrea participate. My dumb teen-age idea was to remodel Fritz Lang’s M (1931), where the law and the underworld in Berlin unite to hunt down Peter Lorre’s lone pedophile. I thought to have Eastwood the cop, Bronson the gangboss, and the pedophile changed to a Weather Underground-type bomber played by somebody like Peter Fonda. There was a lot of penny-ante terrorism at the time and it was common then to think of them as fighting the good fight. I consider myself fortunate not to have been indulged.

Cimino was so indulged over The Deer Hunter at the Oscars that for his next groundless airy masterpiece, when history in the form of the 1894 eyewitness account, The Banditti of the Plains – Or the Cattlemen’s Invasion of Wyoming in 1892 (The Crowning Infamy of the Ages) (Oklahoma), by A.S. Mercer, didn’t provide a massacre of innocents – the invasion never actually occurred – he just made up his own calumny where dozens, hundreds, a thousand civilians are beautifully shot down by the cattlemen’s hired guns in the magic hour just before dusk. (James Stewart was going to mow down farmers?! Rod Steiger, maybe…)

Anyway, the routine impugning of American businessmen, cops, soldiers, politicians, et. al., in the more seriously-intended movies is just displaced kvetching about Hollywood itself, made by people who know and care about little else. Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), Nixon (1995), and W. (2008), are not about their title characters at all. Shocking, I know….

(adapted from the forthcoming book, Stone Male – Requiem for a Film Style)

[Inset photos, in order: Ben Johnson, Audie Murphy, Jock Mahoney, Richard Farnsworth]

Work on this book includes watching a lot of films. Not everything turns out to be relevant but it’s all of some use, especially given the strangely impressionistic way the mind tends to “remember” films. Film study is a lot easier now, but there may be no less misremembering of details today than there was when you had to see the film when and where it was being shown, or else have a research budget to order up a screening at some museum or film library. When the “Ford at Fox” collection (21 discs, 28 films and extras) came out I bought just the five-film silent sub-collection (Just Pals, The Iron Horse, 3 Bad Men, Four Sons, Hangman’s House) for reasons of economy and filling in the more gaping holes in my knowledge first. They are great films, well restored, and confirm Ford’s talent. They star Buck Jones, George O’Brien, Victor McLaglen, and in the last we see John Wayne visible as an extra circa 1928. If anything, these are more consistent than his sound films.

But John Ford began directing at Universal in 1917. He followed his older brother Francis Ford to Hollywood where Francis was a successful filmmaker in the teens and twenties, directing, writing and starring in hundreds of films, almost all of which are lost. John changed his last name from Feeney to Ford as his brother had done, and handled props and did stunts for him. Harry Carey had been part of Biograph’s roster of actors before moving to Hollywood and becoming a western star in the mid-teens. Carl Laemmle suggested John Ford begin directing for Carey. These films are mostly lost as well, although one can see Straight Shooting (1917) which was the first feature-length film they made together.

Straight Shooting stars Carey in his ‘Cheyenne Harry’ character and it features striking framing effects that underline themes or relationships; something John Ford evidently had an eye for from the beginning. He was only twenty-three and so that might explain the one trick too many where he shoots point-of-view blurriness to indicate tears at a burial scene. Ford and Carey made about twenty more films before Ford left Universal for Fox in 1921.

I’ve seen many of the sound films in the Fox collection, the best of which are Judge Priest (1934), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Tobacco Road (1941), How Green Was My Valley (1941), and My Darling Clementine (1946). I’ve been able to borrow a number of those I don’t have on tape from Jon Boshard, with whom I ran the Thermidor record label. Of these my favorite is Steamboat Round the Bend (1935) which stars Will Rogers at his peak. The film begins as if Rogers and Stepin Fetchit are just going to make a movie up out of nothing but then the screenwriters, Dudley Nichols and Lamar Trotti, begin to earn their pay as the leisurely plot gets in gear and Rogers offhandedly subverts every hierarchy that threatens to establish itself along the banks of the Mississippi. The worst one is no doubt When Willie Comes Marching Home (1950), which stars song-and-dance man, Dan Daily. It’s not even clear that it’s a farce until halfway thru as it’s so unfunny; and as the three deleted scenes are songs, it was intended as a musical comedy at that. Weird. Surprises in the set include Edmund Lowe’s interesting performance as an Italian gangster in Born Reckless (1930), the silent-era sentiment of Pilgrimage (1933) with its tougher-minded twist on motherhood, and Seas Beneath (1931) which features beautiful and expensive looking sea scenes of WWI-era sailing ships and submarines.

John Ford did notable work thru his Fox years on loan to other studios, and then in the fifties he left 20th Century Fox and worked project by project with the other studios. So as massive as “Ford at Fox” is, it isn’t everything by a longshot. But it does remind one that the image of John Ford as a director of westerns isn’t half the story. He made a discreet bunch of film that are Southerns, a bunch that were set in Ireland and Wales, his WWII documentaries, and then productive runs of titles with quite different male actors as hero variants (Harry Carey, George O’Brien, Victor McLaglen, Will Rogers, Henry Fonda, John Wayne) surrounded by his wider company of actors: Ben Johnson, Ward Bond, Hank Worden and others.

In Harry Carey, Jr.’s memoir, Company of Heroes (Madison) he writes of seeing John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) with his father: “He hadn’t watched for more than five minutes before he leaned over and whispered to me, ‘Christ, Dobe, I did the same goddamned thing in Hellbent!’ And he kept that up until the end of the movie. ‘We did that in Straight Shooting; we did that in Cheyenne’s Pal.’” Carey was no longer a star in the sound era but he managed to appear in a number of good films (Trader Horn, Law and Order, The Last Outlaw, Kid Galahad, Souls at Sea, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Shepherd of the Hills, Among the Living, Angel and the Badman, and Red River). Ford cast Carey only once in the sound era, in The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), but after he died in 1947 Ford began to cast his son, Harry Carey, Jr., in most of his films. Ford always cast his older brother Francis in small roles and bit parts until he died in 1953. Francis’ son Philip Ford directed films starting in the late forties and moved to TV work. John Ford died in 1973.

[Inset photos, in order: Francis Ford, Harry Carey, John Ford]

Attn: Ari
Thought of you, re this, since your brother Zeke is MD onboard health care nationalization. Their agent would have to do their thinking for them tho. First Hamas burned all five movie theaters in Gaza, then they produced a feature film.

It would be nice to believe this is the Mossad talking, but the calculus sounds about right, considering.

Something crooked me about New York
That bubbling babbling hell
I couldn't take the Bronx much longer
Some static in the air
Nearly cracked my neuroshell

On the streets of Burbank, California

Photo by Chris Collins

To receive a weekly update notice for the NV, send an email to newvulgate[at]sbcglobal.net with SUBSCRIBE in the subject line. To stop receiving notices, do the same with the word UNSUBSCRIBE.

• The New Vulgate
• Joe Carducci, Chris Collins, James Fotopoulos, Mike Vann Gray, David Lightbourne
• Copyright retained by the writer, artist, or photographer

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Issue #2 (July 15, 2009)

By the Cuyahoga River, Kent Ohio

Photo by Mike Safran.

From the drawers of Joe Carducci…

Something odd about the reporting from Urumqi that lines up with what I’ve noticed generally about news coverage of conflicts overseas. There’s no racism involved. No matter the bodycount: None. The newsmedia seems to reserve the term “Racism” for America. It doesn’t seem to matter what the Han think of the Hui, the Uighurs or the Tibetans, or how heavily they sit on their cultural or national aspirations, or how many of them they kill. “Ethnic tension,” well that‘s to be expected. You can say the Hutu and the Tutsi in Rwanda aren’t racist for what that’ll get you. But the Chinese, as contemporary citizens of a classical civilization, do have the cultural arrogance -- a wounded one at that -- that can lead to what you’d have to call racism. But it’s not called that by the American and British press because I suppose that in and of itself could be considered racist. And though they don‘t echo the Chinese press’s blaming of exiled Muslim terrorists, the NYT, WSJ and others did dutifully ID Xinhua’s Dalai Lama-of-East Turkestan, Rebiya Kadeer, a mother of eleven who in her spare time became the richest woman in China doing laundry.

The best known Chinese cultural export, the film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000), tracks with the outlines of old Hollywood cross-race romances -- the Manchu princess kills herself at the end, leaving her lover -- a Xinjiang bandit likely a Hui or Uighur -- to grieve. The western twist, courtesy of James Schamus and Ang Lee, is to have the “high race” character sacrifice herself, although in the original novel she only fakes her death. In the classical Hollywood narrative it was the “low race” who died to save the “high race” lover who was left to fully relish his nobility reflected in the low lover’s submission to it.

Today there is motion in Chinese culture and the new middle class has interest in travel, and ethnicity, but there is still a hair trigger xenophobia that is stoked by the state as often as it is suppressed. My sister has studied, worked, and traveled in China since 1986, and her Chinese friends in Shanghai and Beijing couldn’t comprehend her interest in seeing Tibet or Xinjiang. They considered those people “dirty.” Her Fudan U. room-mate move to the U.S. and after fifteen years here understands that interest.

The original trigger of a supposed rape of a Han woman by a Uighur man certainly sounds familiar to Americans as the classic pretext of a riot or lynching. The Chinese media found the woman and she claimed she merely stepped into a room occupied by Uighur men and let out an involuntary cry and left -- I bet that sounds familiar to black men in American -- but the Han men who heard her did beat several of those non-rapist Uighur men to death.

Monday’s FT reports on India’s fear “that Beijing is extending its power to control shipping lanes in the indian Ocean and Arabian Sea -- waves that it prefers to rule.” Like Russia, China is just not a good neighbor; Russia lost many of its internal colonies when the Soviet Union collapsed, but China still has its internal colonies, and covets Taiwan and, if certain Chinese academic mapmaking historiography is to be believed, North Korea and parts of Mongolia and Siberia. Excuse me but I didn’t finish college, is this all in post-colonial studies’ purview?

Iranians are the inheritors of a similarly classical civilization. And yet they make up barely half the population; other groups are Azeris, Arabs, Turkmen, Baluchis, and Kurds. Perhaps there’s some ethnic tension here too. The reporting about their election that turned into street demonstrations and repression, doesn’t even broach the subject. One is left to wonder whether the split is rural/urban as in Thailand and Italy, or tribal as in Kenya and Ukraine, or is it something unique? If its unique that might be because sophisticated Tehran is largely Shi’a which is a pre-modern blood-line vision of Islam, in contrast to Sunni’s clerical meritocracy. I foresee further trouble.

In Ukraine, the east has been so Russified that those votes might just as soon vote to secede and join Russia. And so the dynamic there has the eastern vote blocking western votes for integration with Europe and NATO. The Orange revolution was achieved by round-the-clock street demonstrations which succeeded in reversing an election apparently stolen by Viktor Yanukovych with the connivance of Putin and the FSB who recommended vote-fraud when they failed in their bid to kill his opponent, Viktor Yushchenko, by poison. I thought that first handshake between Putin and Yushchenko after the reversed election was great theater; I imagine Putin was doped up on every known antidote from the FSB medicine cabinet.

The violence that followed the election in Kenya was initiated by the Luo tribe whose candidate Raila Odinga had the election stolen by the sitting President, Mwai Kibaki from the Kikuyu tribe. The theft was obvious and in dramatic disconnect with the parliamentary results that favored Odinga’s party. The Luo were left with having to lump it, or dramatize that the cost to the Kikuyu would be high, even if it would be paid largely by themselves. This violence might be said to have been in necessary defense of democracy. It succeeded in forcing Odinga into a coalition government but those who got him half his victory will now be named by Kofi Annan to be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court. Good thinking by the Right-Thinking folks at your U.N.

Saturday’s WSJ describes “China’s Ethnic Fault Lines” and how the regime cooks the official statistical breakdown, claiming that 91% of China’s population is Han -- the rest split between 55 minority groups. Dru Gladney writes, “The supposedly homogenous Han speak eight mutually unintelligible languages…” Linguistically speaking, China is a Europe, rather than a single country. Europe was held together by Rome and the Pope until wrenching wars tore the empires apart, and then with the collapse of the Soviet Union evolutionary changes began to pull the nations back into supranational formation. But the EU overreaches when it does anything more than streamline trade. Its technocratic center in Brussels is not politically accountable and so gets into trouble in country after country as it grabs for state-like prerogatives. China does reveal evidence of its latent “Warring States” constituent pieces when Beijing steps in whenever local provincial corruption gets exposed by horrific disasters like such as the Aids-tainted blood scandal, earthquakes, poisoned baby formula, mine explosions, etc. Maoism no longer holds this supranational entity together and the Party seems to be encouraging religion, especially Christianity, as Islam is tied to Xinjiang, and Buddhism is tied to Tibet and the now outlawed Falun Gong.

When it looked like Iraq was going to fly apart I thought that maybe the realists were right to advise investing nothing in democratization projects, even when they seem to serve our national interests. But a nuclear arms race in the Islamic world might be something worth avoiding at any cost. It’s a little too tempting a form of martyrdom for them to resist, I’m thinking, and since as Al Gore states our number one concern is global warming and any nuclear exchange between or betwixt Shi‘a, Sunni, Jew, Hindu, and/or Chi-com might raise temperatures another 0.114C in Tennessee we may are being called on to stop it now.

The United States in any case is put on the hook for these calamities by elements of the left and right, as well as by the news media -- both CNN and Michael Jackson pulled us into Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia in 1985 though they were Soviet bloc basket-cases. I’m agnostic on American involvement in these rescues and wars, but its no surprise that its us on the hook. We are the isolated neutral; the only possible trusted arbiter. The British, France, Russia, India, China, are all distrusted by neighbors or ex-colonies. This is resented and so a kind of anti-American bluff is touted loudly, but it isn’t real, or to the point anyway. France’s third-way was vaporized at the fall of the Soviet Union. They began to speak of the American hyper-power during the Clinton administration. That was only the geo-political surface of their unease. Underneath that was their truly frightening sense that America had got its act together on race. All the proud European nations that had to accept American aid for decades after WWII, took a covert, or not so covert, satisfaction in the brutal racism of America. The news through the fifties and sixties seemed to confirm Soviet propaganda which trumpeted incidents of racism in the south and in northern cities as proof of the terminal sickness of capitalism.

But the dynamism of the American economy, where new players and new sectors rise quickly to challenge or eliminate seeming behemoths (ITT, IBM, GM…), has a cultural impact as well. The achievements of black individuals sink roots and get marketed and their examples mainstream quickly. The integration of sports and military service probably accomplished the most in the modern era and then the history of American music in the twentieth century is a further train of accommodation. The American left credits the Supreme Court above all as if all progress was top down from the point of 1954. But there wasn’t that much more work to be done after four hundred plus years of living together, or at least next to each other, in the new world. Perhaps the heavy immigration of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century actually retarded racial progress as the country accepted large numbers of Catholics and Jews from Ireland and Eastern and Southern Europe. It took these new Americans of recent European heritage fifty years to even accept European intermarriage. My parents marriage was a form of rebellion for each of them and their parents (his Italian, hers German) took it for that I’m sure, despite both families being Catholic.

When I moved back to Chicago from L.A. in 1986 I watched and read the local news including the Defender. I also listened to Lu Palmer’s radio show on WVON. Palmer, more than any one individual had convinced Harold Washington to run for Mayor. Once in office Washington had to distance himself from Palmer because he wanted to administer City Hall as something more than a black machine. Palmer used to reject the circumlocution “African-American” for his own construction, “I am an African in America.” This he’d pronounce calmly in the most patient voice imaginable. When one of the black activists went round-the-bend over the Jews, Washington distanced himself further from these street pols of the south side. Palmer explained over the radio that he couldn’t tell whether there was hate in the heart of Steve Cokely but that he could stand by his brother. Cokely lost his job in the city administration as I recall.

I saw Palmer get off the bus outside of the Huddle House diner at North & Ashland one morning. The Rostenkowski ward was now majority Hispanic and the Washington forces were working to take it from the Vrdolyak 29 and finally take control of City Hall. (It was damn hard to avoid being registered to vote in Chicago back then!) I asked if he was Lu Palmer, and he looked over and saw me wearing a Blackhawks sweatshirt and answered guardedly, “Yes,” as if he expected God-knows-what to follow. I said, “You do a good show.” and he nodded and smiled and said, “Thank you.”

Today in America, racism suffers a kind of inflation, because there is so little of it. This inflation will be on display this week as the Sotomayor nomination hearings proceed. The racism she and her backers will talk about wouldn’t raise an eyebrow outside our borders where they still dream of final solutions and redrawn borders. Here, thankfully, its a question of etiquette or respect. Meanwhile it’s become clear to the French that they are where America was decades ago, and they do not have a way for immigrants to become Frenchmen and women. It’s true of the rest of European nations as well. And they hate us for that, and though they were all for Barrack Obama last year, they hate us for our President today as well. We’ve set the bar quite high.

The newsmedia in this country is conflicted, and as they take their cues from the BBC and the Economist they aren’t likely to figure it out anytime soon. It takes Dorothy Rabinowitz of the WSJ to say something as called-for as, “We must face the truth about ourselves, no matter how pleasant.”

[First inset photo: US Embassy Commercial Section, Beijing, May 15, 1999. photo: Chris Carlsen]


And speaking of race, Brett Ratner, film producer and director, has launched a boutique publishing company with one of the better car-wrecks of what might be called white-negro lit, James Toback’s “Jim: The Author’s Self-Centered Memoir on the Great Jim Brown”. Toback (noted film producer, director, writer, actor) was a classic early seventies male libertine in the years before feminism got traction, and his book is dated in a good way. It’s a nice little book production, though expensive. When the movement’s best white allies were this self-absorbed over blackness you really have to marvel at the patience of black folk. ((Caution: Never mind the ‘N’ word, Toback loves the word Spook.))


Meanwhile, in Alligator, Mississippi...


Mike Hynson of “The Endless Summer”; the rest of the story.
When surfing isn’t buzz enough.


Economist Robert H. Frank wrestles with Adam Smith and Charles Darwin from Sunday’s NYT. He doesn’t mention Marx or Kropotkin but I think Freud might say that brain-workers feel threatened by body-workers, intellectuals by businessmen, and everyone but Jesus took what he could get.


After you read my books, read Bruce’s novel, Sub-Hollywood;
with luck he’ll finish another one.


Short list of words to avoid: Notion… and, uh…, Notion.

Drawing by James Fotopoulos

Along the Crest of the Verdugo Mountains

Photo by Chris Collins

To receive a weekly update notice for the NV, send an email to newvulgate[at]sbcglobal.net with SUBSCRIBE in the subject line. To stop receiving notices, do the same with the word UNSUBSCRIBE.

• The New Vulgate
• Joe Carducci, Chris Collins, James Fotopoulos, Mike Vann Gray, David Lightbourne
• Copyright retained by the writer, artist, or photographer

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Issue #1 (July 8, 2009)

An Introductory Note
from Chris Collins

The New Vulgate is the weekly digital journal of a small consort of individuals flung across the continental United States which hereby arrogates to itself the authority to ruminate on a variety of topics which will include but not necessarily be limited to:

literature. cinema. technology. politics. philosophy. music. media. international relations. metaphysics. culture. humor. time. geography. sex. physics. communication. arts. human relations. cosmology. photography. psychology. education.

as well as the authority to present largely visual objects of possible aesthetic and/or entertainment value including but not necessarily limited to:

photographs. paintings. sketches. film stills.

and to offer links to objects and websites of possible interest from various corners of the internet.

That being established, let transmissions begin.

Still from Harry's Passion (2004), video by James Fotopoulos


From the desk of Joe Carducci

The new issue of The Big Takeover (64) has a good Pt 1 piece on The Controllers, and one on their label What Records?‘s Chris Ashford. Waxpoetics (35) has the Mahavishnu Orchestra story in nice detail. Punks get along, and hippies hate each other, I think I can boil those stories down to that.


The New York Times sent their rehabbed media columnist David Carr to write up rehabbed grainbelt rocker Jeff Tweedy and the Wilcos. Like most winners in these days of not-overnight success, it turns out Tweedy is competitive and ambitious, at least according to some guy who used to be in Soul Asylum that Carr knows from his Twin City Reader days. Jeff married the second most important club manager in Chicago, Sue Miller so there could be something to that. (The most important club owner, Joe Shanahan turned him down I guess.) Tweedy was the better half of Uncle Tupelo -- Jay Farrar always sounded like the dude from They Might Be Giants to my ear -- not very downstate.

But there are two other bands that really did the job on midwest country psychedelia that the rock press and public radio authorities keep crediting to Jeff. Those bands would be Souled American, from Chicago and now downstate Franklin, and Grandpa’s Ghost, from Pocahontas, Illinois. If there was all this “progress” and “transgress” on the Wilco albums you certainly wouldn’t have the tastemakers Carr calls up like Rita Houston of WFUV and David Dye of WXPN touting them. Souled American last got attention in The Believer as a trigger for some writer’s fantasy piece about his idea of them as band-phantom -- kind of like that genius’s remake of the “Damaged” album from memory by numbers. No-one writes about Grandpa’s Ghost even though they have released more albums than the rest combined in the last ten years. (And that doesn‘t count hours of work you must risk eyeball trauma watching Fotopoulos video to hear.)
[Inset image from Scene of the Crime video by Fotopoulos (2004), soundtrack by Grandpa's Ghost]

David Fricke, who might just know better, claims in the new RS that Wilco’s been running from the obvious for most of this decade. I guess if you frame the obvious as the Jonas Brothers (on the RS cover), or Rob Thomas (the feature review this issue) you aren’t fully dead wrong. Speaking of dead the MJ issue of RS is probably out tomorrow. The best thing I read about Jackson was Jim Fusilli’s piece in the WSJ July 1st, How Jackson Did It. It was about his best music.


The media and the diplomatic strata worldwide has allowed the worst regimes to norm their rhetoric to the point President Obama thought he was going to sit down and reason with them. When the Ayatollah ordered up a victory for God and the losers objected, that plan blew up. Big media was about to bury the Bush doctrine once and for all and crown the Obama doctrine for delivering proper hard-nosed, goo-goo, geo-green results in Lebanon and then Iran. Columnists and editorials touted the defeat of Hezbollah in Lebanon and then ramped up for Iran. NY Times editor Bill Keller dispatched himself to Tehran to handle the crown, and Joe Klein of Time was there for same. Instead the story was told by tweet, text message, email and cellphone video by people in the streets.


Thee Graydon Carter, who stitched his Vanity Fair Editor’s Letters together in a book called What We’ve Lost (the text most experts credit with heading off the otherwise immanent Bush-Cheney coup) which was published as a favor by Farrar Straus & Girroux, winning the coveted “Recommended for Public Libraries” rating from Reed Business, seems to have lost out on both the Iran and Michael Jackson stories. Luckily Carter focused like a laser on stories ripped from last year’s headlines: Sarah Palin (Final Days!), and Heath Ledger (The Lies, the Meltdowns, and the Moose-Size Ambition!). I’ll miss Vanity Fair.


On Sunday June 19 at 1:45pm Eastern over CNN's GPS progrum, Professor Sree Sreemivasan of Columbia University described the Cable News directors as having to "curate" the video and pictures coming out of Iran via the web. He must've been trying to impress host Fareed Zakharia, or maybe he thought he was on George Stephanopoulos' program -- neither’s feet touch the ground. I thought I was listening to New York rock critics discuss the Grammys on Charlie Rose. The Curating Must Stop!


Lee Abrams formatted FM radio in the early seventies; now watch him get paid to feed his fat face coast to coast on WGN America. I prefer the old WGN of Diver Dan, Ray Rayner, and dubbed Bergman movies at 1am on schoolnights. Abrams is the Tribune Company’s Innovation Chief. He flies himself to cities to check out their municipal cuisine atrocities. Wind-shear can be a beautiful thing. Maybe Lee knows why suddenly we have to listen to Bush and Foo Fighters all over again in all rock and pop formats.


Minutemen Double Nickels on the Dime 25th Anniv event is becoming an official event with at least Mike Watt attending. It‘s put together by Mike Fournier who wrote the Continuum volume on the album.


Roctober mag’s Black Punk rundown is expanding online.


For those entering the Albany Country Fair Demolition Derby July 25th in Laramie, Wyoming, I have been asked to underline Rule #2: No alcohol allowed in the pit! Just because the whole point is to smash into other cars does not mean you may drink. See you at the Junior Meat Breed & Market Goat Show.

Drawing by James Fotopoulos


In the Verdugo Mountains above Los Angeles

Photo by Chris Collins

In the waters off Los Angeles

Photo by Mike Watt

From the desk of David Lightbourne

So there’s Stephanopoulos asking Delaware’s former Permanent Senator and provisional Friend of Imus what he makes of Sarah Palin’s resignation. George has already suffered decades of Biden non-answers -- elaborate, unctuous, ornate, inexorably in motion toward a self-serving flourish. Joe has a kind of telegenic charm not even false teeth and hair plugs can entirely diminish.

He putters around in the political clutter Palin drags around behind her like a series of kitchen spills. The vice-president has no dog in this hunt and can now relax right there in the Kleig-light glare of this pro-forma inquisition.

Joe ends a chain of cliché, conventional wisdom, palaver and nonsense on nothing less than a Palin-scale high plateau, cleaving all but the heart of the artichoke. He observes that, to a significant extent, Gov. Palin’s announcement had been “a personal decision… and I think we have to respect that.”

Biden undoubtedly knows that Todd Purdum the author of Vanity Fair’s recent scurrilous slash-and-burn feature on Palin will appear next right there on Meet the Greek. He has no dog in the hunt but has a dog’s nose and detects numerous noxious scents. He suffers constant duress from handlers forever cautioning him not to step in it.

Indeed, the level of vituperation in Vanity Fair’s hatchet attack would force certain “personal” decisions on any politician, though the context be as personal and non-public as a Wal-Mart parking lot. The hatchet only narrowly missed and Palin now has an even larger Eskimo Spitz in this hunt, coincidentally a public crusade for all that is good about America. (Always cunning, Sarah has not yet declared publicly whether Vanity Fair is good for America.)

What Biden fails to realize are their shared traits of innate character. Overripe phrases spill from Sarah’s bee-stung flip-flopping lips as from a drain-spout into a rain barrell. Joe might have to duck her next water balloon. His sin and her sin are identical -- both doomed species of metastatic hypocrisy.

Biden insists we ought to “respect” the situation Sarah Palin found herself in last week -- in fact a landscape of ad hominem vilification hauled down from the high regions of Graydon Carter’s legendary intellect and judgmental prudence. Yes, Joe, we have to respect that if every bone in our head could can achieve that level of chickenshit. Joe, you continue to never change.


In the Snowy Range Mountains of Wyoming

Photos by Joe Carducci

To receive a weekly update notice for the NV, send an email to newvulgate[at]sbcglobal.net with SUBSCRIBE in the subject line. To stop receiving notices, do the same with the word UNSUBSCRIBE.

• The New Vulgate
• Joe Carducci, Chris Collins, James Fotopoulos, Mike Vann Gray, David Lightbourne
• Copyright retained by the writer, artist, or photographer