ABC Chats with the Star of Project Pennsyvania Ave

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Somebody Tell Him This Isn’t a TV Show

This is starting to get really scary. The current inhabitant of the White House does not belong where he is. He’s too small for the suit. He knows what he knows and it isn’t much. Not much more than what the star of a reality TV show knows … ratings, reviews, how he stacks up against the competition.

He is possessed of alternate facts. Which is a short distance from saying he hears voices the rest of us can’t hear, he has delusions. However, his delusions are not the usual ones of grandeur, but their opposite. He knows he has no business being President (he is utterly unequipped for the job) and he wants to pretend that his only real job is to give “home run” speeches and bring home the ratings bacon. Something he used to know how to do.

He signs things that are put in front of him without reading them. He leaves it to lawyers to handle stuff when there are words involved he doesn’t understand such as emoluments. He is around – but barely involved – in a kind of Government by Committee involving Mike Pence, the rest of the GOP leadership, his top advisors (who tend more to his image than to policy), his daughter and her husband.

This can’t possibly end well. But it does have to end and hopefully sooner rather than later. It’s unsettling to have someone this out of touch – with this much power – nursing resentments and fostering hates.

It’s dangerous.

You Can Fake It After All

ordinary-people

When I read this morning that Mary Tyler Moore had died, my first thought was not of the TV series bearing her name, but of Ordinary People (1980), the extraordinary debut feature film by Robert Redford about repressed middle-class white Americans who find displays of emotion difficult and expressions of love nearly impossible.  In it, Moore gives the performance of a lifetime as Beth Jarrett, a beautiful, brittle, relentlessly positive Midwestern housewife who carries a not entirely healthy torch for her dead older son and who can’t forgive her younger son for still being alive. Donald Sutherland as her kind but unassertive husband, Timothy Hutton as the surviving son Conrad, and Judd Hirsch as Conrad’s shrink are also extraordinary.

I can manage happily without ever again seeing Moore as Mary Richards throw her hat slow-motion in the air to the strains of the relentlessly positive The Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song.  Not that I hated the show or thought ill of it. Quite the contrary. If I watched more TV and ranked it, it would score high. For TV, it was fairly close to life at times and a good place to start if you want a gentle introduction to 1970s America.

But it was TV – in the 1970s – and a “comedy” – so the characters are “survivors,” none of whom wind up in recovery or the mental hospital or jail, all of whom really love each other under the gruffness, whose darkest days are never that dark or last too long. And my viewing relationship with TV is an odd one. I look below the surface of the show to the writer’s well from whence it sprung, listen not to the actors’ words but to their subtext. In my distorted world, The Andy Griffith Show is about small-town loneliness. People in Mayberry are so lonely it aches. And – to my twisted mind – The Mary Tyler Moore Show was one of the saddest shows ever aired, every single one of whose characters is hanging on by their fingernails, unwilling to think too hard about anything, afraid to feel. Mary saddest of all.

And it is a small leap, really – barely a hop – from the almost real Mary Richards to the painfully real Beth Jarrett, hiding her hate and terror behind the makeup of normalcy, holding tight by her lacquered nails until they finally break – or her tortured son Conrad breaks them – and she can’t go on. Not one more step. Not in the company of her husband and surviving son, who have found their way to the real – and decided to live there – leaving Beth to run away, find others around whom she can pretend again, toss her hat in the air.

There Was Nobody like Gene Wilder (1933 – 2016)

silver-streak

The word unique gets misused a lot. You can’t be a little bit unique or more unique than someone else. Unique means one of a kind.

There was nobody like Gene Wilder before Gene Wilder. And, while I’m sure many tried, no one has ever been able to copy him. Do Gene Wilder. Have a Gene Wilder-like career.

He was in a number of good to great movies, including ones you forget he was until you see them again. Such as the 1974 film version of Rhinoceros that co-starred Zero Mostel. And, of course, Bonnie and Clyde.

But I think I’ll remember Gene Wilder tonight by watching Silver Streak (1976), not his best movie certainly but loads of fun and I haven’t seen it in a very long time. In it, He makes a credible romantic lead opposite Jill Clayburgh. While also holding his own comedically with Richard Pryor.

How many actors could do that? And both in the same film? Only one that I know of. Who is gone now.

Unique can’t be replaced. It can only be missed. I will miss Gene Wilder.

The word unique gets misused a lot. You can’t be a little bit unique or more unique than someone else. Unique means one of a kind.

There was nobody like Gene Wilder before Gene Wilder. And, while I’m sure many tried, no one has ever been able to copy him. Do Gene Wilder. Have a Gene Wilder-like career.

He was in a number of good to great movies, including ones you forget he was until you see them again. Such as the 1974 film version of Rhinoceros that co-starred Zero Mostel. And, of course, Bonnie and Clyde.

But I think I’ll remember Gene Wilder tonight by watching Silver Streak (1976), not his best movie certainly but loads of fun and I haven’t seen it in a very long time. In it, He makes a credible romantic lead opposite Jill Clayburgh. While also holding his own comedically with Richard Pryor.

How many actors could do that? And both in the same film? Only one that I know of. Who is gone now.

Unique can’t be replaced. It can only be missed. I will miss Gene Wilder.

I Know Which Brothers I Like Best

The ones who always made me laugh. (Instead of cry over the state of our nation.) In the late Sixties, the short-lived The Smother Brothers Comedy Hour revolutionized the TV variety show by making serious political issues of the day (such as civil rights and Vietnam and drugs) the brunt of sharp-witted sketches and by filling the musical slots with counterculture rock and pop acts.

Future Seventies comedy greats like Steve Martin and Albert Brooks were staff writers on the show and one can imagine Jon Stewart (who would have been seven or eight at the time) watching the Smothers Brothers with his parents and taking notes.

If you need help deciding which pair of siblings you prefer, I recommend these two books.

Woody Guthrie Writes “This Land …”

On this date – in 1940 – Woody Guthrie pens lyrics to “This Land Is Your Land”

Guthrie wrote the lyrics of his signature song (to an existing melody) at the Hanover House, a cheap New York hotel for transients where he had just rented a room. He had arrived in New York the week before after hitchhiking across America, a coast-to-coast trip that helped shape both the words to the song and Woody’s thoughts on the country he loved. He also wrote it in partial response to the Irving Berlin hit, “God Bless America,” which Kate Smith was then belting from every radio he passed. And which Woody – given his experiences – found to be a bit on the fatuous side and somewhat less than persuasive.

Guthrie_May_5_1940_NYPL_AdjWoody would make his home – off and on – in various parts of New York City for the next 26 years. But the Hanover House was his first residence and the composition place of his most famous song, which would not be recorded until 1944. It would be published the year after in a booklet of ten songs with Guthrie’s hand drawings that he sold for 25 cents.

2012-07-14-WoodyThisLandPageAs far as I can tell, there is no truth to the rumor that the Koch Brothers are planning to record a cover of Guthrie’s song entitled, “This Land Is My Land, This Land Is My Land.” But, just in case, I hope someone locates Woody’s famous “machine” and uses it on them.

It’s Not Easy Wearing Green

Molière ( 15 January 1622 – 17 February 1673)

On this date in 1673, the great French theatrical hyphenate Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (aka Moliere) was performing the lead role of the hypochondriac in his last play, The Imaginary Invalid, when he suffered a coughing fit, hemorrhaged, collapsed, then insisted on continuing to the end of the show. Moliere died at home – a few hours later – from the tuberculosis that (legend has it) he’d contracted while being imprisoned for debt. Argan, the character Moliere was playing in his final performance, was clad in green.

Debtor’s prison (or its moral equivalent) remains a standard job hazard for anyone attempting to make a living from theater or any of the Arts. Especially these days. In this place. And the irony of Moliere dying during a production in which he plays a hypochondriac has not been lost to history. It is also emblematic of the principal theme of  his profoundly comic plays – including his first The Learned Ladies, The Misanthrope, The Miser, and Tartuffe – which could be summarized as, “We are not who we think we are.”

Several highly effective treatments for tuberculosis have been developed since the 17th century; although not wiped out – and occasionally threatening to make a comeback – tuberculosis is not the hazard it once was. No such luck, however, with the human strains of hypocrisy and self-delusion. They are more prevalent now than ever. There would appear to be no cure. And they ensure that Moliere’s plays never date.

gop debatersActors are a superstitious lot. They say “break a leg” instead of “good luck” (which is considered bad luck). When appearing in a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, they live in terror of speaking the play’s name and refer to it only as “The Scottish Play.”  As an occasional actor myself, I share that fear and it scares me just writing Macbeth. (Twice now!  I think I peed a little!) And, because of Moliere’s death costume in The Imaginary Invalid, we actors don’t like appearing onstage wearing green. Costumers, beware!

I don’t know exactly why actors are superstitious.  I’m sure it has something to do with being present – in our bodies, live – while we practice our art, thereby risking the also-live slings and arrows of outrageous audience members. Or of slipping on our own flop sweat and falling to our deaths, metaphorical or otherwise. I do know, however, that if I’m ever lucky enough to perform the role of Argan in Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid, I’ll insist on a red costume and – just to be on the safe side – call it “The Hypochondriac Play.” I hope I break a leg.

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.

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.

Felliniesque

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

Felliniesque
/fəˈliːnɪˌɛsk/
adjective
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.”

amarcord2

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.

Fellini-Directing

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.