Wednesday, February 29, 2012

THE DREAM IS not OVER

    Stars: Three of five.
    How easy it remains to mock the things that hurt us the most. 
    John Lennon Plastic Ono Band remains one of those recordings that is so easy to forget because the feelings it evokes get pushed back into the crevices of our awareness, the tender, quivering spots on our brains where all the pain and fear hide. Then one day we are sitting alone at a computer, or television, or book, and from an open window come the death knell bells of "Mother." Never was so simple a song done with such naked conviction, such artful agony, that all these years later we can rediscover ourselves crying along as we marvel at the reach of that vocal, twitch at the repeating edge of the piano notes, moan at the pulse at the bass as it bleeds onto our desk. 
    A child is born, he cries out at the pain of birth, and he notices in his total awareness that he has been abandoned. "Mother, you had me, but I never had you." Then "Father, you left me, but I never left you." And the revelation: "I couldn't walk and I tried to run."
    With that song the dream that was The Beatles began to dissolve. By the time of the low-fidelity "My Mummy's Dead," the dream retains nothing but the force of exhaustion. The fade out of the guitar suggesting that you have been somewhere with this singer, somewhere important, wonder where, who is this man who sings for my nightmares?
    Plastic Ono Band is an album. It is not a movie. Someone at VH-1 decided it would make a nice fifty-three minutes for one of their "Classic Album" segments. That person was correct.
    If the subject of this album matters to you, chances are good that nothing "revealed" by the biopic will be informational. Of course, that is also true of the recording itself, yet some of us return to that time and again. And so this very gentle short film is well worth seeing once, twice, however many times, not because it aids in our unending collecting of post-Beatles trivializations but quite properly because it helps break down the emotional equivalents for us in ways that only people who were there at the time have the capacity to do.
    One of the most annoying aspects of any type of look back is always some teenage expert rambling on about what Duane Allman was really like or how Cobain understood Schubert or some such nonsense. This film features the people who were there, those who, if not directly responsible, certainly played a role in getting it together, be it Jaan Wenner recalling from his "Lennon Remembers" interviews (which are sampled liberally here), or bassist Klaus Voorman plucking out musical lines as if he'd developed them day before yesterday rather than back in 1970, or Ringo Starr, who is actually quite loquacious here, even discussing intelligently about drum fills and about his friendship with John. 
    As I mentioned at the outset, anything as honest as this album sets itself up for some nasty satire. The National Lampoon did one hell of a funny version of this album all in one song, recalled below:
    In order for anything this savage to retain its humor, you can bet the original has to be real art and that is absolutely correct. I have two parrots, Gilligan and Blue, both of whom go completely insane every time any of the songs from Plastic come on. They don't give a shit about Madonna or Britney or anybody else, but put the needle to the record by Lennon and the bastards call out as if their tails were on fire. 
    So, yes, you should watch this fine movie because it will motivate you to glorify the present so that the past does not dry up, to toy with a Bono-ism. Quite contrary to the idea that the past is dead, this film helps us realize the past is no more than one or two breaths back in the memory, breaths to which we owe the future. 


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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE

    Stars: Five of five. 
    Most motion pictures that involve extended dreams are not particularly entertaining. In fact, many are quite annoying. I can think of only three that ring true: The Wizard of Oz, 3 Women, and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. This last film, directed by Luis Bunuel, is a true gem, easily on a par with the other two. 
    Six middle-class twits try to eat a meal. That's the entire premise. The emphasis, of course, is on the word try. If Freud was correct about dreams being in part wish-fulfillment, then this is the movie that makes his point for him, as long as you are willing to concede that wishes are devised to be frustrated.     The Discreet Charm posits three couples who haven't one scruple among them, each trying to give into various urges, whether making love with a friend's wife, killing one's father, mating with one's mother, or getting a decent leg of lamb in these days of violent insurrections. 
    For years writers wrote and speakers spoke about the influences upon the first cast of the creators and performers of the TV show "Saturday Night Live." Much appropriate credit was given to The Bonzo Dog Band, Monty Python's Flying Circus, and Second City, but anyone who enjoyed the interactions of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd will instantly recognize the inspiration this Bunuel picture imbued their comedy with, if you'll pardon my ending the clause with a preposition. The influence may not be direct and it may not have been conscious. It is nonetheless real.
    And that is a very good thing because this is the type of comedy that has very much been missing in contemporary society. One of the disappointing aspects to much of modern humor is the way it has (a) shifted much of its focus from satirizing hypocrisy into ridiculing the weakest members of society, and (b) it's attempts at substituting mimicry for wit. Impressions of Sarah Palin or Mitt Romney do nothing to point up the absurdity of their pronouncements. The world views of these and other current leaders remain as pliable and easy to purchase as were those of three generations ago. The Discreet Charm is timeless. It is timeless because of its emphasis on the reality of dream content, even to the extent of having one character's dream pop up in that of another character, or of a group of hungry diners finding themselves together on a theater stage being served a meal they will never finish, or a young man who interrupts three women at a cafe that only serves water, the young man having the temerity to interrupt the trio to tell them about a dream he has had, a dream the three women are quite happy to hear out.
    The imaginative elements of this movie are sufficient to have earned the Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture of 1972. Taking matters gloriously farther, the visual elements radiate in the mind long after the final credits, especially the recurring vision of the six primary members of the stable class strolling down the highway on foot, intent on going nowhere.



Monday, February 27, 2012

AIM

   Stars: Three of five. 
   During the winter of 1972-73, hundreds of Oglala Sioux commemorated the massacre at Wounded Knee by staging the second siege at the Pine Ridge Reservation. Adding to the pre-existing militancy of the Oglala Sioux was the behavior of a tribal leader picked for them by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This leader, Dick Wilson, was a law and order enthusiast who was determined to keep the peace no matter who got hurt. Into this political fray marched the American Indian Movement, the members of which had a few years earlier led an occupation of the island of Alcatraz and in 1972 had initiated the takeover of the BIA offices in Washington. At Pine Ridge, the Oglala Sioux invited AIM to join them.
     In retaliation, the FBI, federal marshals, state troopers, BIA police, and the U.S. military occupied the reservation, demanding that AIM surrender. The Native Americans responded that they wanted public hearings on the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, a probe of the BIA, and criminal indictments brought against Wilson. The Nixon government made a counter offer: the freedom fighters at Pine Ridge could lay down their weapons and surrender and nobody would get hurt. When this proved unacceptable, Nixon ordered his troops to withdraw, knowing that without confrontation, the media would soon depart.
    Leonard Peltier, in 1977, was improperly and inexcusably convicted of the shooting deaths of two FBI agents, Ronald Williams and Jack Coler. 
    Peltier is not a saint, at least not yet. That is only because he is still alive, despite the United States government's best attempts in securing his ruination. He was extradited from Canada with perjured affidavits. Witnesses were bought and intimidated into testifying against him, and the Federal Bureau of Investigations has mounted an unending campaign to coerce a number of U.S. presidents into denying him clemency. 
    Okay. With that out of the way, we enter the 1992 documentary film Incident at Oglala: The Leonard Peltier Story, a movie in part financed and certainly narrated by Robert Redford. You know that when Bob comes to the defense of someone, that someone has to be a deserving sort of guy. I'm being sarcastic, but in this case, Redford's support could hardly hurt matters.
    Except--
    The most persuasive parts of this documentary come from Peltier himself during prison interviews and from attorney William Kunstler, regrettably deceased. 
    If someone wanted to make a persuasive case for Leonard's release--which most recently was scheduled for 2040; his next parole hearing doesn't come around until 2024--it might be good to place the incidents occurring between 1972 and 1977 in something of an historic context and then argue that even if Leonard did shoot the two agents--which no one can reasonably concede at this point, but we're just supposing here--then a fine defense of that action would be the one that was offered for the original two defendants in this investigation, Robert Ribideau and Dino Butler, that being the defense of self-protection. Peltier has admitted that he returned fire at the two agents, although he maintains that he was not responsible for the close-range head shots that actually killed the two men. 
    Was Nat Turner a murderer? Was John Brown? Or were they men who saw and felt the institutionalized hatred and racism against a holy people and decided to become instruments in the hands of God? If the latter, that kind of deeply held belief is one reason I'm an agnostic. But I believe Turner and Brown believed it. 
    Incident at Oglala: The Leonard Peltier Story is a story that deserves, at a minimum, an updating, one that places the events stipulated by both prosecution and defense into an accurate historical context. The Redford project is not that movie for the same reason that any number of documentaries have tried and failed: it does not aim high enough. It is much easier to admire a cinematic failure for being too ambitious than for not being ambitious enough. 

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