Tom Paine: Not Invited to the Tea Party

Thomas Paine (January 29, 1737 – June 8, 1809) – America’s 1st Democratic Socialist?

Contemporary America’s sunshine soldiers and Tea Party patriots like to occasionally drag out Thomas Paine quotes – accompanied by an airbrushed drawing of his ravaged, dour, pockmarked face – and pretend like Thomas Paine would have been their buddy if he’d only lived another 200 years. The quotes are usually along the lines of “no taxation without representation” and government “being a necessary evil at best.” Stuff like that. Never mind that Americans have taxation with representation (at least they did, before most of Congress and the majority of state legislatures got completely bought off by the filthy rich and the big corporations) and that the government Paine was usually talking about – in his Revolutionary propaganda pamphlets – was the government of England.

(They stop short of claiming Paine as a fundamentalist Christian, one of the founders of the Christian Nation, because … you know, The Age of Reason.)

The most vehement pretend-populists among American conservatives also like to talk a lot about “common sense” – sometimes ascribing their deep meditations on the subject to Thomas Paine or was it Thomas Jefferson? … somebody named Tom – and they like to say how common sense is the only qualification a person really needs to do this government stuff. The inference being, I suppose, that Joe the Plumber could have written the Declaration of Independence if he’d just gotten around to it and hadn’t been so busy doing real American work like unclogging toilets and drinking beer.

(Speaking of which, where is Joe the Plumber this election cycle? Shouldn’t Trump and Cruz and company be vying for his endorsement to go along with Sarah’s? Is he Joe the Senator now and nobody told me? Is he the Fox News American history correspondent?)

But I don’t want you to think I have anything against plumbers … when my drain is clogged, they’re the first people I call … I don’t just stop some guy off the street at random and pay him to fix it. Because knowledge and experience actually do count for something. And you need more than common sense to unclog a drain. Uh-oh, does that fancy opinion make me an “elitist”? Sacre bleu, does it make me French?!

Let’s consider this common sense stuff a moment longer … what dictionaries say it is, what some folks mean when they say it, and what Thomas Paine meant. Here are three general dictionary definitions of common sense:

  1. The ability to think and behave in a reasonable way and to make good decisions.
  2. Sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts.
  3. Sound practical judgment that is independent of specialized knowledge, training, or the like; normal native intelligence.

You get the idea and I think you’ll agree with me that when Sarah Palin or Trump or Cruz or some other pseudo-populist Republican talks about common sense, their idea most closely resembles definition 3 and they broaden its application to just about everything. All that book learning just screws you up. Messes with your common sense. We were all born knowing more than Barack Obama. And Trump was born knowing more than everyone else.

When Thomas Paine used the term common sense, however, he was mostly referring to definition 2 and he was also joining a philosophical discussion that dates back as far as Aristotle. And the judgment that Paine thought common sense would assist his fellow Americans in reaching (based on a simple perception of the situation and facts) was that Britain was in violation of the Colonists “natural rights” and, not to put too fine a point on it, had to go.  I hasten to add, however, that Paine believed there was a learning curve attached to simple perceiving and that it was necessary to use your brain to reason your way toward a conclusion. You couldn’t just “know” stuff. You had to learn the situation and facts. You still had to think.

Based on this analysis, I conclude that, if Thomas Paine’s drain had ever been clogged, he would have called a plumber (i.e., someone with specialized knowledge and training). Maybe Joe the Philadelphia Plumber in waistcoat and powdered wig.  Which I guess makes Paine an elitist. And possibly means he is French.  He did, after all, journey to France to foment revolution there – Paine was sort of the Che of American liberty – but landed in prison and nearly ended up on the guillotine because he opposed the Reign of Terror.

Activists participate in a tax revolt rally in Santa Barbara, CaliforniaHere are a few more of Thomas Paine’s beliefs that would disqualify him from Tea Party membership.  I present them in no particular order and imagine that a few might come as a surprise, particularly if you think Paine was a no-tax nut or an antigovernment guy:

  • A maternity benefit for poor children that amounted to a kind of Head Start program
  • Public education for all up to and including higher education
  • Public assistance and training for young people seeking work
  • Health benefits for the poor
  • Other welfare programs that amounted to a guaranteed minimum income
  • Extensive veterans benefits, starting with veterans of the Revolutionary War
  • Social security (beginning at age 50, but people died earlier then)
  • Public burial (and we’re not talking a plywood pauper’s coffin in a kiln)

And how did Tom Paine propose that we pay for all this stuff? Uh, by taxes. Specifically by heavy taxes on the rich and propertied classes.  And, as far back as the American Revolution, Paine proposed a federal tax to pay for the war and its expenditures.

Thomas Paine had done his research on his “social agenda” for America – he’d thought long and hard about his ideas – but he also decided they made good common sense.

To which the Tea Partiers don’t have a whole lot to say … except maybe “Oops.”

Charlie Starkweather Goes to the Movies

Spree killer commits three murders – on this date in 1958 – in Lincoln, Nebraska

For some reason, one of my bookmarked “this day in history” sites published the above blurb about 20-year-old Charles Starkweather – who (accompanied by his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate) went on a murderous 500-mile rampage across Nebraska that lasted nine days and claimed 11 innocent lives – as its lead item.  I was halfway through writing this when I realized that it’s tomorrow’s date – January 29 – when the last murder was committed and, later the same day, when the only event in this pathetic saga worth celebrating (Starkweather’s arrest) had occurred. But here I am today, with half the text written and my photos picked out, so I may as well finish what I started.

The Starkweather (with Fugate) killing spree was sensational news in 1950s America, receiving media coverage and social commentary at a level and volume similar to what the Columbine tragedy generated in more recent times. And the sex & death tale (I hesitate to call it a “love story”) of Charlie and Caril on the road has been the basis for numerous movies, TV movies, books, and songs including Terence Malick’s first film Badlands (1973), the number “Nebraska” off Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album of the same name, and Oliver Stone’s super-duper gore-fest extravaganza Natural Born Killers (1994).

First, the sad facts, sanitized to reduce the extreme gruesomeness to outline form.  Late on the night of November 30, 1957, young Charles Starkweather robbed and subsequently killed a gas station attendant, who had refused to let him buy on credit a stuffed-doll for Caril Fugate.  He confessed the robbery to Fugate but told her someone else had done the killing, then about two months later – on January 21, 1958 – he argued with Caril’s mother and stepfather, who ordered him to leave her alone. Starkweather killed them both with his shotgun, then murdered Caril’s two-year-old sister with a knife. Fugate wasn’t there when the murders took place, but did help bury the bodies and fled with Starkweather several days later.  Seven more killings would follow, including the three deaths that occurred on this date of industrialist C. Lauer Ward, his wife, and their maid. Starkweather also killed the Ward family dog.

Dead people are all on the same level. – Charles Starkweather

Why did these things happen? Well, prior to further investigation, I think we should take Charlie Starkweather at his word. He got mad at people – in a general way – especially folks whom he thought were better than him or who acted as if they were. Their perceived superiorities – and his own manifold inadequacies – had Starkweather in a nihilistic rage that could only be relieved – he thought – by bringing down the objects of that rage. By putting them all on one level. By making them dead.

Like most serial killers – and I believe so-called “spree killers” are basically disorganized serial killers in a hurry – Charles Starkweather wasn’t 100% certain that killing someone would make him feel better. But then he murdered the gas-station attendant – the poor young man’s name was Robert Colvert – and, afterward, he felt great. Greater than great. Like a new man.  In an interview about the first killing, Starkweather claimed – I’m paraphrasing – that he had “transcended his former self to reach a new plane of existence in which he was above and outside the law.”

Yeah, okay, Charlie. I also think – again like serial killers – he got off on it. He shotgunned the males, but stabbed the women and girls up close. And he attempted, unsuccessfully, to rape the one young woman he killed. He also stabbed two of the victim’s dogs.  Which all sounds like something Richard Ramirez would have done.

Which brings us to my utter mystification that anyone – several anyones, some of whom are deeply talented – could think that a piece of shit like Charles Starkweather was a worthwhile subject for a film, a TV movie, a folk ballad, etc.; that he should be accorded antihero status; that his criminal, sick, coercive “relationship” with an adolescent girl (Fugate was 13 when they met) could responsibly be elevated to a “love affair.”

Let’s take Malick’s Badlands first.  In my memory, it is a great if emotionally sterile film. Visually, it looks more like America than almost any Seventies film I can think of; long lyrical stretches of it have me imagining that it was shot in Kodak color by photographer William Eggleston and his still pictures somehow made to move. Thematically, it is a quieter Breathless (1959), the Godard film that lies behind so many American New Wave flicks, and it also evokes, of course, Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which was directed by Malick’s mentor, Arthur Penn, and which announced said New Wave’s arrival.

If the real-life Starkweather/Fugate connection wasn’t specifically referenced at the time Badlands came out, it was certainly something Malick – at 27 – had thought about long and hard. He sought permission to do the film from Caril Fugate, who was still in prison at the time, as well as from her lawyer; and he offered to delay release of the finished film if they felt it would adversely affect Fugate’s chances for parole. But Malick had already sanitized or left out the worst aspects of Starkweather’s crimes, beginning with the murder of Fugate’s family. In Badlands, Kit (the Starkweather character played by Martin Sheen in one of his better young performances) only murders Fugate’s father and does so in partial reprisal for his killing the family dog. Left out is the murder of her mother and little sister. And, in real life, it was Starkweather himself who killed her dog.  The Fugate character, Holly (Sissy Spacek in a superb, aptly banal performance), is 15 not 13 when she hooks up with Kit, two years that make no difference in the law but do affect the ability of the audience to come along for the ride. And having adult actors playing Kit and Holly soon banishes the memories of Caril and Charlie, replacing them with Spacek and Sheen.

Bruce Springsteen’s acoustic album Nebraska has an understated, essentialist quality to it that seems to evoke Malick’s film more than the real life events. I liked it well enough when it came out, bought it, listened to it repeatedly. And I believe that the only line I might object to came from the film not from life. Springsteen has the Starkweather character sing: “I can’t say I’m sorry for the things we done/but at least for a little while we had us some fun.”  Which is what Martin Sheen says in his faked suicide record in the film. I don’t like the implied permission and enjoyment of the Fugate character, who I see as more of an additional victim of Starkweather than fellow perpetrator. She was so young when she came under a psychopath’s sway, was a model prisoner during her 17 years of incarceration, and has led a good and respectable life upon release.

I’ll save the filmic can of peas known as Natural Born Killers, which most decidedly would have affected Fugate’s chances at parole – not that Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone would ever ask permission or care – and which helped usher in an era of hyperkinetic ultraviolence that I (and American movies) could have done without.

In a postscript, and despite what I said just above, I don’t blame movies and songs for violence in the culture. There might be some connection between one movie or song and a heinous act, but we can’t establish that connection with any certainty or censor works in general on the hope of preventing all such acts in the future. Charles Starkweather copied his hair and clothes – and some of his manner – from James Dean, whose character in Rebel without a Cause would have been appalled by Starkweather and his behavior. James Dean as Cal in East of Eden might have been slightly more amenable, but that film is the Bible story of Cain and Abel filtered through John Steinbeck’s novel and Elia Kazan’s lens.

And we can’t very well go around blaming the Bible for murders, now can we?

“Tell Mike it was only business”

Abe Vigoda (February 24, 1921 – January 26, 2016)abe vigoda as tessio in the godfatherActor Abe Vigoda was fifty years old when he was cast as Salvatore Tessio, a crime family capo, in The Godfather (1972). In that film, Vigoda’s long face and mournful eyes appeared to conceal a world of thoughts and feelings that were rarely so much as hinted at, which seemed nearly impossible to read.

We believed Tessio’s long years of faithful, unprotesting service to the first Don. But we also – like Tom Hagen in the movie – received without surprise the revelation it was Vigoda’s character who had betrayed the new Don, Michael. We weren’t surprised because in the moment of revelation, we remembered Vigoda’s growing weariness in the part and knew it derived from the feeling of not being given his due. Yes, it was the smart move, as the character Tom Hagen said. And “it was only business,” as Tessio himself told Tom. But Vigoda’s weary expression and stooped shoulders gave us the deeper truth: Tessio had simply grown too tired not to be brave.

Abe Vigoda’s life as an actor had a similar beginning to the man he portrayed in his first widely noticed role. He had spent decades acting in New York theater and doing bit parts in TV and film, managing somehow to support his wife and child. But the part in The Godfather suddenly made him – in middle age – a recognizable name and all but seven of his 94 film credits were still to come. Vigoda was probably best known – in later work – for his role in the popular TV series Barney Miller and its spinoff series Fish. The other thing that long face and those mournful eyes had concealed was a wonderful sense of humor, put on full display in Vigoda’s comedic TV work.

The son of a tailor, Abe Vigoda grew up working class in Brooklyn. News of his death have been greatly exaggerated – and erroneously reported – since as far back as 1982, when CNN mistakenly referred to him as the “late” Abe Vigoda. While there is no reason to believe this most recent report is a hoax,  one can always hope. Vigoda is 94 years young.

Paul Newman – Director

Paul Newman (January 26, 1925 – 2008)

paul newman directingI might not feel compelled to write something about Paul Newman’s intermittent career behind the camera if it weren’t for Rachel, Rachel (1968), a criminally neglected “Sixties movie” that is also Newman’s first and finest as director. I saw it in the theater all those years ago and never forgot it. And, when it finally came out on DVD, I bought it and watched it twice straight through. It’s that good.

Newman’s second feature was Sometimes a Great Notion (1970, based on the Ken Kesey novel), which is only one of two movies Newman both directed and starred in. There are terrific scenes in that film, but overall it’s the kind of highly competent but mostly  uninspired work that you would expect from a director such as Stuart Rosenberg, who – not coincidentally, I would imagine – directed Newman in Cool Hand Luke and other studio features. Harry & Son (1984) – the second Paul Newman film in which he acted – is a likable mess. And his remaining three films are stage plays turned into movies starring Joanne Woodward, which one is tempted to assume were viewed as opportunities for husband Paul to spend time with wife Joanne and to remind the world what a great actress she can be.

If you need any reminders of Woodward’s talent, you couldn’t find a better place to start than Rachel, Rachel, which also stars Woodward as Rachel Cameron, a “spinster” schoolteacher who appears utterly incapable of asserting herself emotionally or of reaching for any kind of life she wants. This has the sound of standard fare, but not the way Newman directs it (from a script by Stewart Stern based on the novel by Margaret Laurence). And I think Newman entitled the film Rachel, Rachel because half the time his camera is on Joanne Woodward and the other half it’s inside her character’s head, where a goodly amount of rich fantasizing takes place. And since this is the Sixties, after all, Rachel (both of her) ends up going on a fairly wild ride.

Rachel-Rachel-WoodwardThe movie stands on its own – Rachel, Rachel is one of the finest and most emblematic American films of the 1960s – but it is also a love letter par excellence from husband to wife. Newman can’t take his eyes off Woodward and we can’t either. Comparisons are invidious, but other performances by American actresses from the same period that I liked as much although not more include Anne Bancroft in The Pumpkin Eater (1964), Barbara Loden in Wanda (1970), and Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence (1974).

That Time Aretha Sat Down to the Piano

Aretha Franklin records in Muscle Shoals, Alabama  – January 24, 1967

No, not that time.  Yes, it was great to see Aretha perform at the most recent Kennedy Center Honors and to watch Barack and Michelle bop along. Those two have earned a fun night out if anyone in America ever has, the shit they’ve had to put up with these past nearly eight years. Although – in terms of the show itself – I could have done without all the cutaways to Carole King waving her arms and acting amazed, just amazed!

(Amazed at what, Carole, that Aretha’s still alive, still bringing it? I mean, she hasn’t been in exile in a faraway land, she didn’t just get released from stir. But I’m being petty. And I shouldn’t blame Carole. I should blame the cameraman, who I’m guessing was on loan from CBS Sports, where he’d covered archery and darts. Or the producers, who think they have to “build a narrative” for everything, so all the folks at home know what they’re watching and how they should feel about it. Will we ever again just have basic coverage of an event, of the thing itself, so we can just, like, watch it? Instead of watching people in the crowd wave their arms? And act amazed.)

No, the time Aretha sat down to the piano that I’m talking about was nearly 40 years ago, in 1967, when Aretha finally got free of Columbia and was able to sign with Atlantic Records instead. Columbia Records then was run by Mitch Miller – of insipid “Sing Along with Mitch” fame – but, at Atlantic, her producer would be Jerry Wexler. Among other things, Wexler had coined the marketing term “rhythm & blues” to replace the execrable “race music,” which had ghettoized black American composers and performers since the beginning of radio play. So there was at least a chance Aretha’s new equally-white producer would be more in tune with her than Sing-Along-with-Freaking-Mitch.

What Wexler suggested to Aretha was a session at FAME Studios in tiny Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  The recording studio – with its tremendous roster of backing musicians – had scored rhythm & blues hits for local artists such as Arthur Alexander,  Jimmy Hughes, and the Tams, but it was Wexler (and the Atlantic artists he brought in) who would help it reach the next level. If you haven’t seen the wonderful documentary about FAME Studios called Muscle Shoals (2013), treat yourself. Not the least of its many pleasures are the present-day interviews with Aretha Franklin.

muscleshoals1000v2When Aretha arrived at Muscle Shoals, what Jerry Wexler suggested she do was sit down to the piano and play. Where Columbia had cut off her gospel roots and tried to mold and popify Aretha into someone she wasn’t, Atlantic was interested in hearing what Aretha herself wanted to be. By Aretha’s own account, the music poured out of her.  They settled at the session on “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)” as her first recording in Muscle Shoals. Sadly or understandably (depending on who’s doing the telling), it would also be her last.

Something happened at that recording session – something besides the obvious thing of an incomparable artist finding her true voice – and its mostly agreed-upon lineaments include a) a horn player getting fresh with Franklin; b) her husband at the time insisting that the horn player be fired; c) the horn player being fired but that proving insufficient redress for the husband, who insists Aretha leave Muscle Shoals; and d) Aretha leaving.

I’m good with that version. Or any other version that someone cares to put forth. It’s all water under the bridge at this faint remove and, besides, FAME had done its work – or rather Aretha had been able to do her work there – and the greatest period in one of the finest careers in American music history was underway. The single recorded at Muscle Shoals became the title song of Aretha Franklin’s first album at Atlantic. And that album, among its other great songs, included covers of Otis Redding’s “Respect” – Aretha’s first monster hit – and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

Chew on that last a moment.  The newly confident Aretha not only took on Otis Redding and made one of his signature songs her own – but also recorded a thrilling, hurt-you-down-to-the-bone version of Sam Cooke’s last and most personal song. Which song, by the way, just happens to be one of the greatest American protest songs ever written.

Chew on that and … so long as the cameras aren’t rolling … go ahead and wave your arms.

aretha on tour uk

Arthur Miller’s Fall from Grace

On January 23 – in 1964 – Arthur Miller’s After the Fall Opens on Broadway

I don’t require artists to be good people in order to admire their works – any more than I need inventors to be nice before I’ll utilize their inventions. If I found out tomorrow that Thomas Alva Edison was the biggest asshole who ever lived, I wouldn’t go back to reading by candlelight and never listen to another LP or watch another film.

That having been said, the ideal state of knowledge regarding the life of a great writer, actor, painter, etc., is total ignorance. Which is the approximate state of our knowledge about William Shakespeare, minus a few drinks he reportedly had with Ben Jonson and that “second-best bed” he left to his wife. But it’s human to want to know stuff about the lives of people whose work we admire and all too human for us to feel a twinge or two of disappointment (even anger) if those lives don’t quite measure up. Guess what? They rarely do. And, for even the most stalwart among us, curiosity can kill the cat.

marilyn-monroe-arthur-miller3I am not blissfully ignorant of playwright Arthur Miller’s life. Or of Marilyn Monroe’s. Or of their life together as a married couple, possibly the most famous pairing in American history of marvelous movie star Beauty with bespectacled intellectual Beast. I know a bunch of stuff about both of them – and their marriage – and while, as I’ve said, I’m usually pretty good at divorcing work from creator, Miller’s 1964 play, After the Fall, is an exception. I find it hard to disentangle the play from the lives depicted – not to mention their depictor – the play still pisses me off. And I don’t think that’s entirely my fault.

After the Fall portrays a successful Jewish lawyer named Quentin (bearing a remarkable resemblance to a successful Jewish playwright named Arthur) looking back on his life and loves and feeling guilty. One of his wives is named Maggie, a sexy secretary at Quentin’s law firm – gimme a break! – who is depicted as a drunken, pill-popping, self-hating slut who kills herself and who (to Miller’s surprise, he said, at the time) most people took to be Marilyn Monroe. Arthur Miller’s friend, Jackie Kennedy (pre-Onassis) – who was all about loyalty and not talking trash about the ones you’ve loved – saw the play and never spoke to Miller again. Fifty years on, it still feels self-serving, exploitative, more than a little smarmy.

It’s possible that After the Fall wouldn’t bother me so much if Miller had waited longer to write it, but the ink on their divorce was only dry a year, Marilyn’s ashes barely cold. Maybe if Miller had called the play something besides After the Fall … Eve made me do it, God, I swear, and she was the ultimate shiksha Eve to boot! … it would help. I think I might be less bothered, too, if he’d left his play merely personal … without the shadow of the concentration-camp guard tower in the background and the strained attempt to raise his own middle-aged, rather ordinary sins to the level of Mankind’s Fall from Grace.

All that having been said, I wish I’d seen the original Broadway production of After the Fall. Wish I’d been old enough to both appreciate it and be pissed off by it. The play was directed by Elia Kazan, another one whose life could color his work for me if I let it. It starred Jason Robards, Jr. (I miss him) as Quentin and Kazan’s future wife, Barbara Loden, as Maggie. Loden had been luminous three years before in Kazan’s movie Splendor in the Grass (1961) and she went on to write, direct, and star in Wanda (1970), one of the first great American films of the Seventies. See Wanda if you can.

Off With His Head!

On this date – January 21 – in 1793, Louis XVI is executed by guillotine.

louis xvi dies by guillotineThere had been executions during the French Revolution prior to Louis’s execution, but from the moment his kingly head left the royal body, rolling off the guillotine – only to be snatched up by a teen-aged executioner’s assistant and brandished for the crowd, which roared approval and dipped their handkerchiefs in Louis’s blood – it was game on in the Reign of Terror.

When the Reign of Terror was over – a year and a half later –16,595 French had died by guillotine and another 25,000 had been executed by other means. Among the dead were Saint Just and Robespierre – principal architects of The Terror – along with Marie Antoinette and tens of thousands of ordinary Frenchmen and Frenchwomen. That’s a lot of carnage in a nation with a population then of about twice the size of Los Angeles County now. Carnage carried out in the service of Belief.

Lynching-ReportWhen I read of something horrible happening – the latest ISIS outrage or the tragic Charlie Hebdo killings of a year ago, the Harrods bombing or the Munich Olympic massacre in more distant times – I feel anger and sorrow, of course, but I don’t find what happened “inexplicable” and I’m never especially surprised. I guess that’s because I know history. Human history. I think of the French Revolution or – closer to home – the behavior of small-town crowds at lynchings, crowds that were composed of my fellow Americans who worked and played and raised families during the time when my grandparents were alive. Crowds composed of one group of people who Believed a second barely-distinguishable-from-them group of people were Other, less than them, people to be feared.

And, while devoutly wishing that the perpetrators of the latest forms of Terror be caught and punished, I try not to demonize them. The way, for instance, that those perpetrators demonized their victims. It’s hard, but I try.

How sad, I think, that we humans still do these things. And still in the service of Belief.


Federico Fellini (January 20, 1920 – October 31, 1993)

1. referring to or reminiscent of the films of Federico Fellini.

By any measure, Italian maestro Federico Fellini was one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived. There was never anyone like Fellini before him – or any films like his films – and I’m not holding my breath for another Fellini to come along anytime soon. The best that Fellini’s meager successors have ever managed is “Felliniesque.”

Federico Fellini, of course, is not the only film director to have his name turned into an adjective – Wellesian and Godardian come to mind – but none of the other names-turned-adjectives seem as evocative of the movies they describe. Nor is their secondary meaning (“reminiscent of”) so clearly an insult, roughly translating as  “failing to live up to the original.”


Movies described as Felliniesque – featuring, perhaps, a self-absorbed and self-reflective male hero in a world of Amazonian women with cartoonish boobs, random circus clowns, unexplained bursts of surrealism, and a scene toward the end on a beach – not only fall short of Fellini’s scenically but they fail altogether to capture his visual poetry.

fellini-bus-scene-8.5.pngI like some of Fellini’s movies better than others of Fellini’s movies, but criticism of them seems almost beside the point. Especially now that their orchestrator is long dead and gone to that great Criterion Collection in the sky. Fellini’s movies created a world that is recognizably our world but also other somehow, existing alongside as a kind of running poetic commentary on our world, on our experience of living in it, and of our occasional attempts (generally unsuccessful) to fashion that living into art. Not to mention that virtually any complaint against Fellini we might care to lodge has already been registered by one of his surrogate characters (usually played, sublimely, by Marcello Mastroianni).  The best example is Guido Anselmi in 81/2 (1963), who confesses: “I really have nothing to say, but I want to say it all the same.”

I’m grateful that Federico Fellini went on saying nothing for another 30 years and I’m surprised at how often I find myself returning to his later films (such as Fellini’s Roma, Amarcord, Ginger and Fred) and wishing there were more.


The Pig from Port Arthur

Janis Joplin (January 19, 1943 – 10/4/1970)

joplin-janis-top shotAs a young teen, Janis Joplin was called “pig” because she was overweight, “pizza face” because of her acne, “freak” because she dressed different and liked the arts. It also didn’t help – in the 1950s in a place like Port Arthur, Texas – that Joplin refused to hate or hold herself apart from black people and counted some of them as friends. What is condemned in current social media as hazing and bullying would have been a good day for Janis in high school. And, in college, the frat-boy types voted her “Ugliest Man on Campus.”

Whatever all that cost Janis Joplin, she wasn’t saying, she wouldn’t give her youthful tormentors the satisfaction. She’d talk tough in interviews and act like it didn’t count. But we knew it did. We’d heard Janis sing.

And Janis Joplin wasn’t one of those ugly ducklings who became a swan. She stayed an ugly duckling in the world’s eyes and became a star. Dared us not to love her just the way she was. The way she’d always been, all the way back to Port Arthur. The way she would always be – her every gesture seemed to say – and “Fuck you, man, if you think I’m gonna change.”

Then Janis would sing.

When Janis Joplin sang, everything else went away. Her problems and your problems. Black and white. The world with its cruelty, its pat judgments of ugly duckling and swan.

And fuck you if you think it didn’t.

Scene in L.A. (Drive-thru Polio Clinic)

“Could you patent the sun?” – Dr. Jonas Salk

polio drive-thru jonas salk

Only in L.A. – where people live in their cars – was it possible to get vaccinated against polio at a drive-thru clinic circa 1960. I have no idea whether patrons could order fries and a shake with that, but I’m certain the clinic saved lives.  And the vaccine itself was free.

Which brings us – on this MLK holiday – to the subject of altruism. Which is a noun. And which is defined as “the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was familiar with the concept. And I suppose you can argue that his civil-rights work on behalf of others wasn’t entirely disinterested, since he was fighting for his own civil rights as well. But King had expanded his moral charter  in the 1960s to include opposition to the war in Vietnam. And on the day he was murdered, he was fighting for garbage collectors in Memphis, putting his life on the line so that they could have a living wage. And dignity.


Dr. Jonas Salk spent seven years developing a polio vaccine, which was donated to the world in 1955 and which has saved countless lives and limbs. Including any number saved because the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis didn’t waste time applying for a patent or trying to figure out the best ways to profit from saving lives. When asked in a TV interview who owned the vaccine, Salk replied, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” 

You will sometimes read in rightwing journals that lawyers for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis looked into the possibility of a patent (with the implication that they would have made money from it if they could), but Dr. Salk had already provided the vaccine to pharmaceutical companies and the idea of a patent was merely to protect against inferior imitations that others might try to profit from. Decades before Salk, Dr. William Roentgen had also refused to patent the sun – or, in his case, X-rays – and altruistically donated his new medical technology to the world.

Paul Ryan & Friends (inspired by their patron saint, Ayn Rand) will tell you altruism is for suckers. Or that it’s just a different form of selfishness, since giving to others and helping humankind provides the giver with pleasure. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather hang around folks being “selfish” by helping their neighbors or fighting for people’s rights or curing disease than hang around a bunch of GOP pols getting their jollies by cutting food stamps, gutting public education, trying to privatize Social Security, or making a big show of voting down the Affordable Care Act for the one-millionth time.

I wish there was a vaccine against Ryan & Friends. And a drive-thru clinic where Americans could get it. I’d be willing to pay – a lot – for that one. And you can hold the fries and shake.