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Thursday, October 20, 2016


The third debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is over, and there is three weeks to the election. Unless there is severe polling errors, everyone but the most die-hard Trump supporters know that Clinton has the election wrapped up. Trump did himself no help at last night's debate, leaving us with two more negative statements--"Such a nasty woman," and "I'll leave you in suspense."

The former comes on the same night that he said, to titters, that no one respects women more than he does. He respects them so much he tries to kiss and grope them whether they like it or not. But the latter statement is what had everyone in a tizzy. Moderator Chris Wallace wanted to know if Trump would accept the election results. He implied he might not concede.

Let's think about this for a second. The pundits, particularly on the left, but even many on the right, found this outrageous and anti-democratic, that America has always been about a peaceful transfer of power. But I think it's about something different. Trump does not have any power right now--it's not like he's an incumbent who could call up the army to prevent a successor. All this does is show how immature he is. He's a man-child. Clinton made the excellent point that he whines about everything--nothing is his fault. He called the Emmy voters corrupt, and when she pointed that out he smirked and said, "Should have won that one."

Trump, as I've said before, is a raging id. A spoiled brat, who though seventy years old, behaves like the obnoxious rich kid in the old movies. A man who calls Clinton Crooked Hillary but is facing two trials--one for racketeering and one for child rape--but when those are brought up it's because the system is out to get him. I find it amusing and horrifying that the anti-Clinton people believe every conspiracy about her, all the way up to having her enemies killed, but they don't believe Trump is capable of fondling women or ripping off seniors in a university scam.

Furthermore, concession is not needed. The people vote, the secretaries of state of each state certify the votes, and the electoral college votes. Trump's stamp of approval is not necessary. He can bitch and moan, and if there is a state that falls within the state's law for an automatic recount, that could happen, but based on the way the map looks, that would have to happen in an awful lot of states, for Hillary has an impregnable firewall.

On election night, look for three states--Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania. If Trump loses any one of them, it's over. His path to 270 electoral votes needs all of them. And he's well behind in the polls in all three. He won't get annihilated like Mondale or McGovern--there's too many deep red states out there who would vote for John Wayne Gacy if he were a Republican. But it will be a bruising loss. He may never give a concession speech, but Hillary will form a transition team, name a cabinet, and be inaugurated on January 20, 2017. What Trump will be doing that day is what will keep us in suspense.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

And Yes I Said Yes I Will Yes.

The nominees for next year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame election are out, and the arguments about them are more entertaining even than the ones about the Baseball Hall of Fame. I mean, baseball has statistics. Music is completely subjective.

How else can we explain that Journey is nominated, but not the Moody Blues? That Nine Inch Nails was on the ballot for a few years, but not this year, and suddenly Joan Baez, who has been eligible since the Hall was founded, suddenly is on? Baseball's hall at least has transparency--we know who is being voted on, how many votes they get, and they only drop off the ballot when getting below a certain threshold (or run out of years). The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is much murkier. Did Nine Inch Nails get so little support last year they fell off the ballot?

There are 19 nominees this year, and the two most obvious to get enshrined are the first-year eligibles Pearl Jam and Tupac Shakur. Of course, Shakur was not a rock musician, anymore than Joan Baez was. But that's a stale argument. There are plenty of hip-hop artists already in, and many folkies. Rock is an extremely large tent according to the Hall (my definition is that there has to be an electric guitar involved). You see comments every year that such as such "never rocked, never rolled" but that's barking at the moon.

The arguments to be made are about the capriciousness of it all. There has been a decided reluctance against progressive rock--Yes is on the ballot this year, but has been ignored repeatedly. I know Yes has their haters, but really, if Journey--a corporate rock band that sounds like their songs were written by computer--gets in ahead of Yes, my head will spin. One writer on these two bands, both of which he hates, is that their lead singers are terrible. I guess he doesn't like high-pitched male voices.

Others that have a reasonable shot of getting in are The Cars, MC5, and Kraftwerk, who basically created a genre of music. I don't personally enjoy Kraftwerk, but one can't ignore their place in rock history. The same goes for MC5, a pre-punk band from Detroit that gave us "Kick Out the Jams," one of the seminal recordings in punk history. Other bands, like The Zombies and Steppenwolf, had minimal output. Should Steppenwolf get in for "Born to be Wild" and "Magic Carpet Ride" alone? The Zombies only made two albums, but one of them, Oddesey and Oracle, is a masterpiece. Is that enough?

My personal favorite this year is Electric Light Orchestra, although I don't think they'll get in. ELO was one of those great post-Beatle bands of the '70s, like Queen, that used sophisticated studio work. Jeff Lynne is one of the great arrangers of all time, and the use of orchestral music in rock has always gotten my juices flowing. They had a lot of great hits but I fear won't be taken seriously for the final vote.

I have heard of all nineteen nominees, but a few of them barely, like Bad Brains and Joe Tex. Some commenters like to say "Who?"which only highlights their ignorance rather than makes any kind of cogent point. On the other hand, there are some very famous artists here who may or may not get in--Janet Jackson comes to mind. I'm not a fan of hers, but she was a major part of '90s music, but so was Mariah Carey, who has not been nominated. And speaking of the '90s, what about Smashing Pumpkins?

The Susan Lucci of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is Chic, who are up for nomination for the eleventh straight year. Clearly they have their supporters, but not the enthusiasm of the entire voting body. Chic is associated with disco, which is definitely not rock and roll. But if any disco band should get in, it's them.

We'll know the inductees in January, just about the time that baseball announces theirs.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation is not a perfect film, but it is an important and necessary one. For whatever sins first-time director Nate Parker makes, and it's not many, I think of the seemingly endless number of black people murdered by police, the clueless TV idiots who say that slavery wasn't so bad, or that black people should get over it, or the morons who proudly wave a Confederate flag.

I haven't read that many reviews of the film, so I'm not sure where the vitriol comes. Is it because of Nate Parker's past? I don't review people, I review films, and if Parker isn't a great person I don't know, but he's made a good film. The weak box office probably hurts it for Oscar consideration, but it does deserve a few nominations.

Parker reclaims the title of D.W. Griffith's racist masterpiece in telling the story of Nat Turner, a slave in Virginia, played by Parker. Nat is owned by a relatively kind family. The matriarch (Penelope Ann Miller) teaches him to read, and he becomes a lay preacher. When his owner dies, his son (Armie Hammer), whom he played with as a child, is almost like a colleague. When they pass by an auction and Nat realizes that the woman on the block is going to be sold as a sexual plaything, Nat gets Hammer to buy her. He will end up marrying her.

It's his calling as a preacher that starts to turn Nat. Hammer is hired by neighboring plantations to have Nat preach to their slaves, reading carefully selected parts of the Bible that pertain to slavery. But Nat sees that he has it easy--the slaves he sees are treated worse than animals. Hammer starts to drink and is in debt, and begins to see Nat as rebellious. He loans out another slave's wife as a whore for another white man, and then the final straw comes when Nat baptizes a white man. Hammer has him whipped.

Nat then, with just a few men, organizes a rebellion, and kills 60 white people. It is a short-lived revolution, though, as soldiers end it when the slaves try to steal munitions from an armory. But Nat Turner has lived on as a symbol (there were other slave rebellions, notably by Denmark Vesey), and in this movie he's a guy who just can't watch and take it anymore.

This should be required viewing for those who say that slavery wasn't so bad. Of course, right-thinking people know it was a horror and a permanent stain on the American psyche, but even seeing such outrageous things as a man having his teeth knocked out so he can be force-fed through a funnel can only hint at the terror. We do see the dichotomy between the field slave and the house slave, as Hammer's valet (Roget Guenver Smith), a light-skinned black, prefers to keep the status quo and tells Turner that by his actions he has killed them all. But the film captures the anger that can only stay welled up so long.

As a director, Parker makes some great choices and some dubious ones. I thought his inclusion of an anachronistic song, Billy Holliday's "Strange Fruit," which was about lynching, was great. Other decisions, such as the obvious placement of a stained glass cross in an important scene, or a butterfly gently flapping its wings on a hanged black man, were straining things. I can't blame him for placing the armory in the appropriately named town of Jerusalem--that was true.

He was helped greatly by cinematographer Elliot Davis. Much of the film takes place at night, a time when slaves could more freely move about, but also be abused more easily. Davis uses natural light often, and some shots are stunning, as when Turner, still tied to the stock at which he was whipped, is surrounded by candles put out by his compatriots. A beautiful day-time shot is a seemingly endless field of cotton, shown to young Nat when he is introduced to field work.

I don't know enough about Turner to know how much is true. I suspect that a character played by Jackie Earle Haley, who bedevils Turner from when he was a child, is a fictional character meant to be a composite villain who reaches a satisfying end. But that's the way of historical films--they are never one-hundred percent accurate, or they might as well be documentaries. I would like to see a PBS show or something on the real Nat Turner just to see what was true and what was not.

Parker is fine as Turner, and he surrounds himself with a good supporting cast, especially Mark Boone Junior as a preacher who likes to take a drink. What is disappointing is that he doesn't spend much time developing the female characters. His wife, played by Aja Naomi King, is really more of a plot device than a character (she is beaten and raped, by Haley, of course). Gabrielle Union, who plays the slave pimped out to a white man, doesn't even have a line. This was apparently a decision shared by Parker and Union, but it reinforces a stereotype that black women have no power (the story goes, when black women joined The Black Panthers back in the day, they were mostly asked to make coffee).

But still I was moved by The Birth of a Nation, and was glad Parker had the gumption to make it (he also wrote the script and produced). It's a must-see.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Heiress

Olivia de Havilland won two Oscars. Her first was in 1946, for To Each His Own, which seems to not exist on any home consumption platform. Her second was three years later for The Heiress, which is available on DVD and one of many classics directed by William Wyler.

Based on a play which was in turn based on a novel by Henry James, The Heiress concerns a homely, socially awkward woman who is the son of a rich doctor in New York society. She is swept off her feet by a handsome but penniless man, Montgomery Clift. But her father (Ralph Richardson) suspects that Clift is only after her money. He threatens to cut off her inheritance, and what Clift does when he finds out devastates her.

de Havilland deserved her Oscar if only for the sharp turn her character takes. At the beginning, she is scared of her own shadow, preferring embroidery to parties. Clift's interest in her makes her giddy, and they plan to marry after only knowing each other a few days. Her father (Ralph Richardson) takes her to Europe to see if she will forget him, but it doesn't work. But things reach a breaking point when Richardson tells his daughter that Clift couldn't possibly love her--she has no redeeming qualities, other than neat embroidery.

She realizes her father never loved her, and she turns cold and cruel. The ending is quite famous, and even though it's a nearly seventy-year-old film I hesitate to spoil it, but it involves Clift banging on her front door, while she callously (or perhaps rightfully, depending on your point of view) ignores him.

The film is slow to build but that last act is a doozy. I particularly enjoyed an exchange between Richardson and Clift when they have it out--they insult each other in such sophisticated ways. Richardson tells him, "You are being impertinent," and "You are beneath contempt." Those swells that lived on Washington Square were so polite, even when arguing! And then when de Havilland lets Richardson have it, that's her Oscar-winning scene. Gone is the meek little kitten, and out comes the lioness.

This is a terrific film, a true classic, and so far it's my favorite of de Havilland's performances. I still have to see The Snake Pit, though.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Harry James

This year marks the centennial of the birth of Harry James, one of America's great trumpeters and a popular band leader during the swing era of the 1940s. I happen to have a certain affection for the big band sound, even though I was born well after it was not popular any more. Listening to a two-disc CD of James' best music is pure bliss.

James first worked for Benny Goodman and then started his own band. Until Miles Davis came along, we was probably America's most famous trumpeter--his sound is so pure and smooth that, as Linda Richman would say, it's like butter. What he does with "You Made Me Love You" is three minutes of heaven.

As a bandleader, he discovered Frank Sinatra (he wanted him to change his name to Frankie Satin, but no dice). Sinatra went on to work for Tommy Dorsey, and he does not appear on this CD. But Helen Forrest does, who was James' main female singer. She sings "I've Heard That Song Before," among others. It should be noted that Woody Allen fans will immediately conjure up Hannah and Her Two Sisters, because he used James music throughout.

James was also famous for marrying Betty Grable in 1943, who was the most prominent pin-up girl of World War II. James played trumpet on the soundtrack for the Kirk Douglas film Young Man With a Horn.

Of course, being a great bandleader meant finding the right musicians, and listening to these recordings you can't detect a false note. Buddy Rich, one of the world's greatest drummers, worked with James, and he's heard to best effect on a number called "Blues for Harry's Sake."

If I had been a kid during this era (and big bands were the music of teenagers back then) I would have wanted to play the trumpet like James and discovered that I was lousy at it. Though Davis revolutionized the instrument, I can't say that anyone played it better than Harry James.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Wright Brothers

As school children we knew that the Wright Brothers invented the airplane. Some of us even knew details like Kitty Hawk, or that it happened in 1903. I toured their long-time home and bicycle shop (although they were no longer in Dayton, Ohio, but in Greenfield Village in my home town of Dearborn, Michigan). But I wonder if kids today know who the Wright Brothers were, or that in the space of one of the brother's lifetime, he would hear of a plane traveling faster than the speed of sound?

Popular historian David McCullough, who revived the reputations of John Adams and Harry Truman, has taken on the mild-mannered brothers who changed the face of transportation in The Wright Brothers. They make for a challenging subject, because while what they did was momentous, they weren't that particularly interesting. They and their younger sister, Katharine, who was much involved with their careers, seemed to have no other life than the airplane business. Wilbur and his younger brother Orville never married, and when Katharine did, at the age of 52, Orville felt betrayed (Wilbur was dead by then).

But what makes the story is the improbability of it. As McCullough writes: "From ancient times and into the Middle Ages, man had dreamed of taking to the sky, of soaring into the blue like the birds. One savant in Spain in the year 875 is known to have covered himself with feathers in the attempt. Others devised wings of their own design and jumped from rooftops and towers—some to their deaths—in Constantinople, Nuremberg, Perugia. Learned monks conceived schemes on paper. And starting about 1490, Leonardo da Vinci made the most serious studies. He felt predestined to study flight, he said, and related a childhood memory of a kite flying down onto his cradle."

By the late nineteenth century many were attempting to become the first to conquer the air. Hot air balloons were around, and many had built gliders that worked, but no one had managed to go aloft by engine power. But, "the most prominent engineers, scientists, and original thinkers of the nineteenth century had been working on the problem of controlled flight, including Sir George Cayley, Sir Hiram Maxim, inventor of the machine gun, Alexander Graham Bell, and Thomas Edison. None had succeeded. Hiram Maxim had reportedly spent $100,000 of his own money on a giant, steam-powered, pilotless flying machine only to see it crash in attempting to take off."

Therefore, "the fact that they had had no college education, no formal technical training, no experience working with anyone other than themselves, no friends in high places, no financial backers, no government subsidies, and little money of their own," makes the entire thing seem like fiction.

The brothers were always tinkerers. The sons of a bishop in Dayton, they opened a bicycle shop, but had always been fascinated by the prospect of flying. Over the course of a few years they traveled to the Outer Banks of North Carolina because of the wind, and on a December day in 1903 they accomplished what they set out to do. The photo of that flight is on the cover of the book, with Orville at the controls and Wilbur running alongside.

But the story doesn't end there. They would continue to experiment at a large field near Dayton, and then in France. The U.S. government wasn't much interested in their invention, but the French were. Wilbur stayed there for almost a year, stunning spectators with long flights. Orville survived a serious crash, but his passenger was killed, the first fatality in an airplane. The brothers became very rich and soon the possibilities of the airplane became apparent to everyone. Unfortunately, they also became war machines.

McCullough hits all the right notes, such as calling out the skeptics: "an article in the September issue of the popular McClure’s Magazine written by Simon Newcomb, a distinguished astronomer and professor at Johns Hopkins University, dismissed the dream of flight as no more than a myth. And were such a machine devised, he asked, what useful purpose could it possibly serve?" He also manages to stress, without hyperbole, that what the brothers did changed the face of history, and I think he likes that it was done by two straightforward, scandal-free men.

Wilbur died at 45 years old, and as previously stated, Orville died in 1948, long enough to see planes turned into delivers of atomic bombs and go faster than the speed of sound. McCullough appropriately ends the book: "On July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong, another American born and raised in western Ohio, stepped onto the moon, he carried with him, in tribute to the Wright brothers, a small swatch of the muslin from a wing of their 1903 Flyer."

Friday, October 14, 2016

Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate

A bit of a bomb rocked the culture and academic worlds yesterday when the Swedish Academy announced that Bob Dylan, of all people, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. It is perhaps the most controversial choice they have ever made--usually it's to some Albanian poet who no one has heard of and people say, "How about giving it to someone I actually have read?" This time they gave it to the most famous recipient ever (Dylan is certainly far more famous than Hemingway was when he won, for example) and some people don't know what to think.

First of all, is what Dylan does literature? The simple answer is that if that's what the Swedish Academy thinks, then the answer is yes. But to us folks who can argue this endlessly, what exactly is literature? Dictionary definitions all seem to point to "printed matter," and those who decry this decision say that Dylan is a musician who makes music, not a poet. He himself didn't dare call himself a poet. So some say he is unqualified, and if the Academy wants to make a special category for music, let them. But others I've been reading broaden the definition of literature. After all, the works of Homer and Virgil pre-date mass printing, as does Chaucer and Shakespeare, for that matter.There works were meant to be heard, whether sung, recited, or acted.

The second major argument against Dylan is that since Americans only win this award about every twenty years, a lot more deserving people got passed over. The usual suspects, like Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, Joyce Carol Oates, Thomas Pynchon and the like will probably be dead the next time they give it to an American. There is some poignancy in this argument, but the Swedish Academy shouldn't get caught up in playing this game. It's true that Americans don't win this award but once a generation, but it they think Dylan deserves it, so be it. The worst argument I heard was that Dylan doesn't need the prize money. The Nobel Prize is not Queen for a Day, and shouldn't be based on financial need.

How you feel about this is likely to be based on your level of fandom. I love Bob Dylan, and dare think he is a poet, whose lyrics can be read like poetry, and who has shaped the voice of America like few others in the last fifty years. If you hate Dylan, then you cry foul, coming up with all sorts of arguments against it, some specious, like the money thing, and others more cogent, like that he's not what is usually considered a writer. But the Academy seems to be more interested in the big picture, and are not concerned with always having to dredge up some Latvian novelist out of obscurity.

Dylan, as a lyricist, is unparalleled in the rock music medium, perhaps in any music medium. Sure, Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer--they were all great, but I don't think any of them came up with lines like these

"Ain't it just like the night to play tricks when you're tryin' to be so quiet ?
We sit here stranded, though we're all doing our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain, tempting you to defy it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there's nothing really nothing to turn off
Just Louise and her lover so entwined"

Dwight Garner, in today's New York Times, posits that Dylan deserves to be considered alongside Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson as unique American voices. A course taught by a Harvard professor, simply called "Bob Dylan," points out his antecedents in Joyce, Yeats, and the Greeks and Romans. Certainly "Desolation Row" is full of literary allusions:

"Cinderella, she seems so easy, "It takes one to know one, " she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets Bette Davis style
And in comes Romeo, he's moaning. "You Belong to Me I Believe"
And someone says, "You're in the wrong place, my friend, you'd better leave"
And the only sound that's left after the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row"

Here, in one stanza, is a reference to a fairy tale, American pop culture, and Shakespeare. His lyrics are flooded with literary allusions, such as the dig at "Mr. Jones" in "Ballad of a Thin Man:"

"You’ve been with the professors
 And they’ve all liked your looks
 With great lawyers you have
 Discussed lepers and crooks
 You’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books
 You’re very well read
 It’s well known"

He has also given us some great one-liners, such as "You don't need a weatherman to know when the wind blows," or "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there."

What the Academy seems to be saying, and I wholeheartedly agree with, is that no matter how one expresses words, it's literature. I remember having a discussion back in college about whether Ingmar Bergman deserved a Nobel Prize. I thought so, and still think the right filmmaker could win one. There's many ways to tell a story, and Dylan told many of them brilliantly.