Friday, September 29, 2017

Hefner after Dark

Just popping in for a bit - another obituary, I suppose - Hugh Hefner, of all people. I had,I fear, forgotten he was alive - well... He has, I suppose, what one might call a mixed legacy. Mainstreaming porn - is that good or bad, actually? He supporting civil rights and LBGT rights. He was a skeevy old man (after a lifetime of skeeviness) - he exploited women all his life. He published great writers and writing. He - he was - all that and more.

I wil leave it to others to figure him out. I will say that when he pushed other people's culture - he didn't mess around. When he ran a TV show, he brought in some really good guests - some of the best late 60s music clips come from that show. Like - Ike and Tina Turner (speaking of mixed legacies...) on Playboy After Dark, doing Sly and the Beatles, CCR and the Stones. (Plus Doug Kershaw in a purple suit? oh, the 60s...)

(Speaking of which - nothing to do with Hef, but here's Kershaw, flying the velvet and fiddling his ass off...

Friday, September 15, 2017

Grant Hart

Though I hesitate to big foot my own post, I have to here. It is Friday, when I usually try to say something about music - and god damn it - there's another obituary to write about. Two actually, though one in front of the mics and one behind....

Grant Hart is dead. He was 56. He had cancer. It's still too soon. I've written about Husker Du - it's probably true that I've listened to them less, thought about them less, than the other bands I loved in the mid-80s - but that is praising with very faint damns, since I go back to all those groups a lot. Replacements and Meat Puppets and Butthole Surfers and Feelies and REM - and Husker Du. I could praise them with faint damn by saying they were the third best band out of Minneapolis in the 80s - you know, after Prince and the Replacements.

That's trivia, I guess. I sure liked Husker Du. I started buying their records when they came out; a friend of mine who knew them gave me a tape of a bunch of their early stuff, singles, maybe, pus Metal Circus, and I gave that, along with tapes of some of their newer records, to another friend, and we wore them out (we wore out a lot of tapes), driving around the South Shore. (That reminds me - he bought New Day Rising on his own, maybe because I hadn't bought it yet...) So yeah.

I have to admit as well, I always liked Hart more than Mould. He was a better singer, and he had a better way with melodies - and, I think, usually a better way with words, though both of them seemed to be slipping by the end... Mould talked about how much he loved the Beatles, but Hart's songs were the ones that sounded like the Beatles - at least like the early, direct, Beatles impersonators, like Badfinger and ELO. (Not coincidentally, the guy who kept their tapes in his car was a huge ELO fan; and I have always adored Badfinger. Everyone loves the Beatles, obviously.) So - all right. A sad day.

The other obituary is for Paul Hamann - who, following his father Ken Hamann, was a major studio force for bands like Pere Ubu - and thus, another rather important person in my world.

So: here's Hart solo, singing So Far From Heaven, from his recent Paradise Lost album:

And here he is with Husker Du in full flight, doing Books About UFOs:

And Hart solo, singing one of those magnificent ballads from Candy Apple Gray:

And here is a Pere Ubu video for We Have the Technology, produced by produced by Paul Hamann:

Monty Python's Flying Circus

(Another TV post, cross-posted from Wonders in the Dark, part of the TV countdown.)

This is very near and dear to my heart. For my money, Monty Python's Flying Circus is the best show ever on television.

What was it? A sketch comedy show, made by a group of writers and performers (and a doctor) from Cambridge and Oxford, plus an American animator, aired at the end of the 1960s and the early 70s on BBC; some of it was recorded in front of a studio audience, but this was augmented with material shot outside the studio, as well as animation. It ran 3 1/2 years, 45 episodes in total. After it ended, the troop continued to work, together and separately; they made a compilation film from reshot versions of some of their best sketches, a way to distribute the material in those pre-video tape days (and before the show went into syndication, in the US at least); a couple years later, they made an original film, a spoof of King Arthur tales (and Eisenstein), that became much more of a success. Somewhere in here, the show was picked up by PBS in the United States, and soon became a hit, which encouraged PBS to start picking up other British comedy shows. They also made records, right from the start, and went on to make more films, to perform live and so on, generating a fair amount of product. However these things were received when they were made, by the mid-70s they were part of the culture, and easy to find - on radio, syndication, by word of mouth. By the end of the decade, and into the 80s, Monty Python had sunk very deep roots in youth culture, here in the USA at least. For me and most of my pals, anyway: you walked around high school and college quoting them and stealing their jokes, you watched the reruns on PBS and you scrounged up the VHS of the Holy Grail and watched that, over and over and over, you wore it out, you bought the records and listened to them, you sang the songs (sit on my face and let my lips embrace you!), you learned the names of philosophers and cheeses and many, many synonyms for death, you heard of things like Watney's Red Barrel and Biggles and Algy that might not otherwise have jumped the pond, you made jokes about your idiom, you learned what litotes was, you picked up many excellent insults (sniveling little rat faced git), and years later, you saw Godard's Weekend and recognized half a dozen Monty Python bits. Well, I did.

That kind of adoration doesn't always hold up. Things get into the culture (some part of the culture, large, small, who cares), they become cults of a kind. And later? Some of them you outgrow; some stay the way they started out - shared jokes and references and the shared memories they can point to. These things can be fun, smart, perfectly good works of art or entertainment - but they never really go beyond that; their quality never quite surpasses the joy of sharing a fun secret with people. I've felt that way with, oh - watching Star Blazers with the physics majors back in college; or with a few films - Better off Dead or Reanimator and From Beyond or watching early Beavis and Butthead or South Park. But then there are things, things that start the same way, as a shared reference among your friends, that you look at later, or over time, and realize they are better than your love of them. They are just as good from a distance as up close. They are as intellectually stimulating as they are amusing. You realize, this thing is great. I've seen films make that move, for me, and in the culture - The Big Lebowski might be the best example, which went from being dismissed, to become a cult favorite, to being seen as something like a masterpiece. (That's my trajectory for the film, and not just mine I think.) Monty Python started at that cult favorite stage for me, but every time I come back to it, the deeper, smarter, more comprehensively brilliant it becomes.

It is the best. But what makes it the best? I think to answer that, we must go to the tape:

(Makes you wonder, by the way - I wonder where the Semi-final of Part 3 of Kierkegard's Journals, starring Richard Chamberlain, Peggy Mount and Billy Bremner would come in this poll?)

Let's start with the obvious - it is very funny, as funny as anything on TV. That is especially true of its peaks - The Piranha Brothers, the Dead Parrot Sketch, the Upper Class Twit of the Year, the Ministry of Silly Walks - any of those are as good as any 5 or 10 minutes of television anywhere. But it is also true that over 45 episodes, with half a dozen skits a show, and maybe another half dozen bits every week, it is hard to maintain the high points. There are bad skits, there are bad episodes - but not a lot, and "bad" is definitely relative. There is almost always something to hold on to - a turn of phrase, a visual gag, a half-serious idea - to make everything at least a bit interesting. And those peaks are very high peaks. Taken just as comedy; and it is remarkable what a range of comic styles it offered. Over-educated verbal play to be sure, but also plenty of physical comedy, plenty of satire - political, social, cultural, parody and other cultural references, plenty of low humor - bawdiness, toilet humor, it is irreverent, scatological, sometimes very nasty (cannibalism jokes abound), and often deliberately, and knowingly, offensive. Racial, ethnic, gender stereotypes abound, sometimes rather nasty ones. But part of what makes it so good is that all these comic modes get mixed up relentlessly - The Royal Philharmonic Goes to the Bathroom - and never seem to stand still. What exactly is being made fun of doesn't stay the same very long - usually because everything is being made fun of at once.

All that, I suppose, is what might make it the best comedy ever aired on television; there's more, and that's what makes it the best show. It's not just how funny Luigi Vercotte describing Doug Piranha's way with words is - it's that it is almost beautiful. The words themselves, in their best verbal sketches, are beautiful, as words, as performances. The way Palin lists off Doug's literary tropes; the way Cleese declares that parrot dead; the way Palin says of the space alien out to win Wimbledon, "he wasna so much a man as a blancmange!" - the images are absurd, and the words flow. And the ideas behind the jokes swerve and twist, shift registers, like the way the satire shifts from Dinsdale's ultraviolence to Doug's sarcasm, or the way the mostly verbal comedy of the Dead Parrot sketch turns into something bit different when Cleese walks into what is supposed to be different pet shop, to see the same guy behind the counter, the same cage on the floor. Along with everything else going on in the sketch, the show has just made a joke about generic props on TV - but here, Cleese's character notices, is startled by it - for him, the world is changing shape. Everything has shifted a bit further into surrealism, beyond the verbal absurdity, to a surreal world. Only to completely break the illusion, with Cleese stepping out of character and Chapman coming in to break it up before it gets any sillier. That fluidity is fundamental to the show , it;s always there. The comedy shifts registers, sketches break in the middle, turn into something else, characters in one walk off into another, the world changes around them. Most episodes maintain this kind of protean world - there can be a kind of continuity, but it's continuity of jokes, or words, or performers, who find the world swirling around them like they were Buster Keaton in the Playhouse, or agent Cooper at the end of Twin Peaks.

(Speaking of fluidity - look how that clip starts with comedy about language, shifts to satire about greedy doctors, then to film parody, and jokes about TV interviews, then a joke about adaptation - spinning always everywhere at once.)

There is always philosophy running just under the comedy in Monty Python's Flying Circus. It's there in the show's consistent deconstruction of comedy - explaining their jokes, dropping (or mocking) their punchlines, showing the process of writing the joke, or introducing the writer ("Eric wrote a sketch"), or making up a a whole sequence out of writing a joke (The Funniest Joke in the World.) Even more, though, it's in the linguistics of the show - the magnificent verbal comedy, and all the verbal play, the puns and anagrams, the love of names, titles, phrases, words, all the jokes about words, all the jokes about figures of speech (it's a pun! no, not a pun, what you do call it when it's the same backwards as forwards?), all the sketches that hinge on some kind of linguistic problem. TV presenters indicating pauses and punctuations with gestures; semaphore versions of Wuthering Heights; a talk show host making his speech first in a normal voice, then in a high pitched comic whine; policemen who can only hear you when you speak in a certain register; people who only speak the beginnings, middles or ends of words; people who multiply every number by 10; people who speak differently in alternating sentences - this list could go on a while. But it adds up - the use of language (use and abuse) is always there, thematically. It's funny - but it's informative, too - it is philosophy; some sketches come close to being as much concrete enactments of philosophical (or linguistic) problems as Dekalog is. (Though here the philosopher is more likely to be Wittgenstein.)

Let's take the poet McTeagle:

There's a good deal of fun being had here with the pretensions of modern art; there's a joke on the idea that calling something art makes it art. But then again - Ewan McTeagle's "poems" are not that far from being poetry after all. Note their economy, their rhythms, their directness: "If you could see your way to lending me sixpence. I could at least buy a newspaper. That's not much to ask anyone." The Pythons are poking fun at modern poetry, maybe at William Carlos Williams ("I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox..."), but they're doing it by writing lines that get most of what they need to have to be poetry. They almost sound right, even if the material is a joke. And the sketch is packed with jokes - making jokes about Scotsmen, mocking pretentious critics, and of course parodying a real historical figure, the poet William McGonagall. And that joke has some layers to it: McTeagle's joke poems are probably genuinely better poetry than McGonagall's was. (Especially if you like modern poetry.) But the joke shifts again - it might start by taking the piss (from McGonagall, maybe the likes of Williams, definitely the critics it is mocking), but it gets harder as you go to dismiss the idea behind it - if you say you are making art, that's art. Or maybe, the admiration in the sheer bloody mindedness it takes to persist for someone as bad as McGonagall. And there is no getting around the fact that, whatever these poems are as poetry, they are hilarious as comedy - and as verbal comedy. And that good verbal comedy is not far from being poetry itself. I offer as evidence:

A nod's as good as a wink to a blind bat!
It's the old stockbroker syndrome, the suburban fin de siecle ennui, angst, weltschmertz, call it what you will.
Oh, we use only the finest baby frogs, dew-picked and flown from Iraq, cleansed in the finest quality spring water, lightly killed, and sealed in a succulent, Swiss, quintuple-smooth, treble-milk chocolate envelope, and lovingly frosted with glucose.
Someone whose boots I would gladly lick clean until holes wore through my tongue, a man who is so totally and utterly wonderful, that I would rather be sealed in a pit of my own filth, than dare tread on the same stage with him. Ladies and gentlemen, the incomparably superior human being, Harry Fink!
He used... sarcasm. He knew all the tricks, dramatic irony, metaphor, pathos, puns, parody, litotes and... satire. He was vicious.
I'll do what I like, because I'm six foot five and I eat punks like you for breakfast.
Oh, I've had such a morning in the High Court. I could stamp my little feet the way those QC's carry on.
Listen, I gotta fight the lion. That's what that guy Scott's all about. I know. I've studied him already.
Well there are three things we can do with your mother. We can burn her, bury her, or dump her.
Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.
I wandered lonely as a crab.

Look how serious I've gotten.

I love how the show flows, all those changing registers of comedy, its all-consuming appetite for culture - pop culture, high and low culture, anything, everything. I love its parodies, and how easily it switches from making fun of a pretentious TV talk show to Mummy references, to a ridiculous musical interlude, to chicken fighting archeologists. I can't make anything like a list of the cultural references in the show - but I can suggest the range. Art films (Pasolini, Godard, Visconte), Hollywood prestige films (Hitchcock, Peckinpaugh), Hollywood epics (David O Selzer! 20th Century Vole!), B movies (monster films and westerns and noir and spy pictures etc), even underground films (parodies of stag films and the like) - they hit everything. Usually in a way that is both very funny in itself, and makes you want to go watch a low budget Mummy picture, or something with Rock Tree and Doris Dog. They get the same range in literary references (the poet McGonagall to Shakespeare's Gay Boys in Bondage - wait: how many types of literature is that parodying at once?), art references, jokes about history, the law, politics, sports - anything. (Anything goes in, anything comes out - fish, bananas, old pyjamas, mutton, beef and trout.) (Thus mocking Cole Porter, World War II documentaries, censorship, and making a modestly serious anti-war statement.) (Etc.)

Finally, let me talk about the men who made this show. It's rather unique in being almost completely self-contained: the 6 principals wrote and performed it, supported by a very solid crew, including some excellent supporting actors. (Carol Cleveland and Connie Booth, the Fred Tomlinson singers, in particular.) The fact that they wrote and played all of it gives it a lot of the unity it has: its fascination with language, history, films, art, literature, its surreal, absurdist tone, all remain through the series, and come up immediately in the work the members of the troop did later. They have thrived afterwards - John Cleese maybe the most, as writer and performer - though Eric Idle and Michael Palin had long, interesting careers as actors, and Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam both turned to filmmaking. Gilliam's work on the show contains a lot of the things I've been harping on about - most of the imagery is found imagery, old magazines, cartoons, high and low art, as well as his own drawings, all of them combined to create worlds that are capable of anything. Nothing in fixed - everything can turn into anything. He's followed those ideas through his film career. Graham Chapman might have had the most disappointing post-Python career, struggling with alcoholism and never living up to his promise as an actor. He was good - maybe better out of the sketch comedy of the show - Arthur and Brian are almost well realized characters in the films. He didn't have Cleese's comic virtuosity, or Palin's versatility, or Idle's ability to find a Type he could embody. (No one does smarm better than Eric Idle: another word I learned from the Pythons, by the way.) He was always a fine part of the ensemble, but only really seemed to emerge as an individual performer in those later films - especially Life of Brian, where he excels.

In any case, the fact that the 6 of them made the show - wrote it and played most of it and maintained significant control of it, is surely how it stayed as good as it did. It gave it the unity it had - and it meant that it was easier for them to stop, when they started to run out of ideas. 

So to finish this off - I am going to make two lists. First - my favorite sketches - then, my favorite episodes. Because it's not enough just to run yourself over in a car - you have to get through the course and shoot yourself, to become twit of the year! Best sketches:

1. Piranha brothers (Season 2, Episode 1)
2. Upperclass Twit of the year (1.12)
3. Dead parrot (1.8)
4. Science fiction sketch (Scotsmen and a Blancmange at Wimbledon) (1.7)
5. The Ministry of Silly Walks (2.1)
6. Election Night Special (the very silly party seems to have risen quite far since those days) (2.6)
7. The Argument clinic (3.3)
8. Scott of the Antarctic (2.10)
9. Archeology Today (2.8)
10. Lifeboat (How long is it? that's a rather personal question!) (2.13)

And episodes: the show tends to be thought of first through its skits rather than the episodes - but some of them are quite strong. There are a few with complete narratives (the Cycling Tour, in particular), and others where one or two sketches take up the whole show. Those, I admit, tend to be the ones near the top.

1. Dinsdale (2.1) - silly walks and the Piranha brothers, in the same show?
2. Spanish Inquisition (2.2) - Spanish inquisition and courtroom charades, as well as those semaphore classics
3. Man's crisis of identity in the latter half of the twentieth century (1.5) - confuse a cat, police raids, a nightmare job interview - this is the 5th episode of the show, and probably the first great episode. They started slowly, started to get up to speed around the 3rd and 4th episode (Idle's Nudge, Nudge sketch is in episode 3) - but this one is the one that really nails what the show can be.
4. You’re no fun anymore (1.7) - This one has the science fiction sketch, scotsmen, tennis and a blancmange.
5. Cycling Tour (3.8) - a complete narrative, in which Mr Pither attempts a tour of Devon and Cornwall - only to rescue Clodagh Rogers who turns into Trotsky, le revolutionaire, then Eartha Kitt....
6. Royal Episode 13 (2.13) - this has some fine linguistic games (men who only speak the beginning, middle or ends of words), historical jokes (13 reasons why Henry III was a bad king), and then the lifeboat and undertaker cannibalism sketches, just in time for the Queen to tune in...
7. Scott of the Antarctic (2.10) - “I played Mrs. Jesus Christ in a geological siscline!”
8. The Naked ant (1.12) - this one has Mr Hilter in Mineshead, the upperclass twits, etc.
9. Archeology Today (2.8) - has archeology today, of course, but also the judges, Mr. and Mrs. Git, hunting mosquitoes with a bazooka, and so on.
10. The Ant, an Introduction (1.9) - llamas, lumberjacks, hunting films, and a quiet evening at home ruined by unwanted guests - "what's brown and sounds like a bell?"... Though as it should be, the scatology gives way to a cheerful Christmas carol as the credits roll - "Ding Dong Merrily on High," obviously, after that bell joke...

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Dekalog (For Wonders in the Dark)

(Cross posted on Wonders in the Dark, part of the television countdown.)

Dekalog is a 10 part television series, made in Poland in 1988, directed by Krzystof Kieslowski, written by Kieslowski and Krzystof Piesiewicz, his frequent writing collaborator. Each episode in the series is dedicated to one of the Ten Commandments, though the links are often quite free. The series is, in practice, more like a film cycle than television series - each episode is self-contained, linked only in their relationships to the commandments, and the setting, a large apartment complex in Warsaw. (And the filmmakers and crew.) Kieslowski conceived of the films as 10 separate films. He did not conform to TV conventions: recurring characters in an ongoing story; the need to pace the stories to match the way TV is watched, in the home, with the phone ringing and tea boiling and so on. Indeed, since 1989, Dekalog has been treated more like a film, or group of films, than as television. This is understandable: the films were distributed theatrically outside Poland, and Kieslowski himself was an established filmmaker when they were made, and his subsequent works made him a major art house figure internationally in the 1990s. He is a filmmaker first, and so Dekalog is treated as part of his film career. This is probably even more the case for Dekalog than for other TV shows made by people established in the film industry. David Lynch and Twin Peaks comes to mind - a series made by an established film figure a year or so after Dekalog, that, however congruent with Lynch's career, is still seen primarily as a television show. Of course, Twin Peaks did play by the rules of television - a continuing series with characters and a through-plot and so on - which certainly helps explain the difference. But the fact remains, Dekalog's origins in television is seen as somewhat incidental to what it is.

I don't really mean to dispute that - Kieslowski’s own remarks and ideas about the show push criticism in that direction; I have certainly always thought of these films that way myself. But it is interesting to consider how they do relate to television, as an art form, as a social force, as technology. The strongest link to television, I think, is the way Dekalog is structured around the home, the family, the domestic space. Television is a domestic form of entertainment and art - it exists in the home, to be watched in the home; Dekalog is centered around the idea of home. Far more than other Kieslowski films, which are often about individuals making their way in the world, or at least about how people live in public, outside the home, Dekalog is almost entirely rooted in domestic spaces. When it leaves the domestic sphere, it either brings it in through other means (as the ways the domestic ethical problems of Episodes 2 and 8 are discussed in a class in Episode 8), or makes the loss of the home a felt absence in the story (Episode 5 can be seen this way.) The apartment complex where the series is set may seem to be just the device linking these stories - but in fact, those homes become central to the stories being told. The importance of children in the series, and the importance of relationships between parents and children, is an obvious theme - but these themes are themselves part of the series' emphasis on the home. Home as family, as social space; home as physical space, actual buildings and rooms; home as symbolic space - a place of safety, rest, protection. Almost everything in the series hits one of those themes.

Kieslowski and Piesiewicz present a complex vision of the domestic world, as well. Homes (as physical spaces as well as domestic spaces) are complicated - sheltering and protective, but also dangerous, often broken. They promise protection but don’t deliver, neither the physical space or the social one of families. Homes do not protect you from bombs - they do not protect you from being spied on - they do not protect you from being pulled out in the middle of the night on a wild goose chase - they do not protect you from being stolen by your relatives - they do not protect you from thieves. When they do offer protection, that protection is not guaranteed - you can be refused shelter. You can be banished from your home. And even when you seem to have a stable, safe home, there is no guarantee that what you have is what you think you have. Your wife's child may not be yours; the man you thought was your father may not be; you sister can be your mother. Someone could be listening in on the phone; and if you think going back to your mother's house will offer you protection, be careful - you never know who's hiding in the closet. Home promises stability but it is never there.

In many of the episodes, this instability is shown through a significant absence. So in Episode 1, the mother is out of the country; in Episode 2, the husband is in a coma; in 3, Ewa's husband is missing, so she pulls Janusz away from his family on Christmas eve; Episode 4 is structured around the dead mother; Episode 10, a dead father. Episode 9 has a more symbolic version of this - first, in the husband's very Freudian lack, that his wife tries to fill with a young lover; later, by shifting to the more abstract idea that they are missing a child, which they hope to fill by adopting. These absences create many of the stories - certainly 2, 3, 4, 9 and 10 work that way - the thing that is missing drives the plot. The story itself, of course, can go a couple different ways - it can end up destroying a home and family (as in 1), it can end up restoring a home and family (2, maybe 9, even 10, in a sense) - but  for all of them, the status of the family, the home, is what is at stake in the story.

Other episodes approach it from different angles. The protagonists may have lost their homes, or at least their connections to others, as in Episodes 5 and 6; they may be expelled from the home (or expel themselves) as in Episode 7; they may be denied the shelter of a home as in Episode 8. Or home itself may disappear, as literally happens in the Doctor's backstory in Episode 2. It is interesting that Episodes 5 and 6, the most famous episodes, both expanded into feature films, feature protagonists who are the most isolated. The characters of 6 are all alone, separated from any family, and most companionship. Magda has lovers, but they are not very reliable or satisfying; the landlady's son is on the other side of the world, and though she sometimes treats Tomek as a surrogate son, she and he are both intensely solitary figures; Tomek has no family, and has even lost the closest thing he had to a friend. We usually see these three in their apartments, in their homes - but these are places that offer very little solace. Their living spaces give them no privacy, no protection - they all spy on each other, interfere with one another, often with very dire consequences. They all look for a connection - and you can almost imagine the three of them forming a kind of family of their own - but it doesn't come, and the connections they form are imaginary ones, existing only in the own heads.

Episode 5, and A Short Film About Killing, is even more extreme. (One of the harshest films ever made, frankly.) Of all the films in the cycle, it spends the least time in anyone's home - none, that I can think of. It all takes place in public. Despite the story occurring out in the streets, Jacek and his victim are almost perfectly alone in the film, living completely in their heads, hostile to everyone around them. Even in this episode, though, home operates as a structuring absence. The end of the film, with Jacek telling the attorney about his sister's death, reveals, probably, the reason why he is here, alone in the city. Having helped kill her in a drunken accident, he has lost his family and home. We have less information about the cab driver's isolation, but we see it played out. He treats his neighbors with contempt (leaving Andrej and pregnant Dorota in the cold, rather than giving them a ride); we get a hint at how his neighbors treat him, when someone drops a dirty rag on him. He lives in the apartment complex, but he rejects it - and it rejects him. Unlike the other characters who live there, we never see him at home - all we hear of his family are his pleas with Jacek that his death will leave his wife alone, and the possibility that the woman in a wheelchair in the courtroom scenes is his wife. The attorney, meanwhile, is only seen in either public places - school, the court, prison - or alone. We do, though, get a glimpse of his family life when a colleague congratulates him on his child. That is all.

The double edged significance of home, though, probably comes out the most starkly in Episodes 7 and 8. In 7, a girl in her early twenties kidnaps her 6 year old daughter, who has been raised as her sister. It's notable that this is almost the only episode in the series to show a complete, intact family (we get a glimpse at one in 3, though the poor father is pulled out in the middle of the night) - and because this is by far the most poisonous family in the series. Majka's parent's home may contain the entire family, but it is a family based on deception, on the exploitation of children - the younger Majka as much as her daughter Ania. Even here, though, Majka is driven as much by the desire to find a home as the desire to leave the one she is in - she takes Ania and seeks out the child's father, a teacher who seduced (to put it as kindly as possible) her when she was 16. She doesn't say so, quite, but she seems driven by the hope that she can find a new home, a real home, uniting her child with its true parents. It is a vain hope, even though Woytek seems to regret losing the same thing - and has turned to making teddy bears, as if in compensation for losing his child. They come together, sharing a space sharing a shot briefly - but they can't even look at one another, and their child is asleep, buried by teddy bears....

And it ends. He calls Majka's mother, she leaves - that is all. In the end, her mother finds her, takes Ania back, and Majka rides away alone on a train. She loses everything - her mother keeps the semblance of home, but it is one based on a lie, and it's hard not to see Majka's absence becoming the fissure that destroys that home in the end.

Episode 8, finally, is structured around the notion of home as shelter, and shelter denied - as well as raising the stakes, by setting that drama in the midst of the holocaust. It is also the most metafictional part of the series - discussing its own backstory in a class, along with the plot of Episode 2; containing direct comments on the apartment block, the idea of all the stories going on in that space. It brings the themes to the foreground: children in peril, what adults owe children, the notion of a home as a refuge, a chance to live - though also the possibility of betrayal. (The real backstory of the backstory - the false information that the family intended to shelter Elżbieta were collaborators - raises that image: home as false security.) Though this is not about a family in the present, or even really about homes in the present, these images permeate the film. The home Elżbieta is denied; the house where she met Zofia and her husband during the war, which they return to, and Zofia finds herself turned away; the tailor's home - which was denied its possibility of saving a child.

Episode 8 might also be seen as a model for the series as a whole. Zofia's class is a seminar about ethics - from what we see of it, it seems to operate by posing ethical dilemmas, that are then filled in by the class. That's not far from the structure of the whole Dekalog: take 10 situations suggested by the commandments and tell them as stories, rooted in lived human experience. That is what Kieslowski and Piesiewicz do - and indeed, the sense of lived experience elevate them. It is also important, I imagine, that episode 8 is also both explicitly based on an actual story from World War II, and brings politics and history explicitly into the series. Grounding these things in the lived experience of 2 specific women, yes - but also implicating them in the overall history of Poland in direct, inescapable ways.

All together, then, Dekalog is a magnificent piece of work, as film, as television, however you want to slice it. It is a very rich text, for its stories, for its ideas, and certainly as filmmaking. There are many ways to look at it - taking it as a meditation on the idea of home, family, on how they work as both shelter and menace is just one to look at it, though it's an important element. And one that links it more strongly to television - an art form made for the home, about home. It has to rank very high.

(Let me offer a quick recap of the episodes: it may help.)

1. Father and son live happily, though his wife is gone; they work work with computers, waiting for the pond to freeze; father and sister differ, one religious, one rational. The father calculates that the pond is frozen, then tests it – but the boy goes skating and disappears, leaving his father and aunt desolate.

2. A man is in a coma, his wife has had an affair and gotten pregnant - if the man lives, she needs to abort the child, but if he is going to die, she will keep the baby. She nags the man’s doctor to know if he is going to live or die. He refuses to answer, she insists - he finally tells her the man will die. The man of course lives,and is pleased to have a child, even if it is not his.

3. Christmas eve, a man’s former lover comes to his house, saying her husband is missing and asking for help finding him. He goes with her, and they search the city and replay the end of their affair. In the morning she admits her husband left her long ago - she just bet herself she could keep this man out all night, or she would kill herself.

4. A man and his daughter are happy together - but there is a letter from her mother that she finally can't resist reading. She looks at it, and may or may not open it - she makes up a fake version and reads it, saying she is not the man's child. She then makes a pass at him, but he resists. In the morning, she repents - they end up burning the original of the letter, except for a bit of it, which says the same thing she wrote in the forgery. (Assuming it was a forgery.)

5. Follows a young lawyer, a bitter taxi driver, and a young man, the lawyer through his exams, the young man looking for a cabbie to kill. He kills this one, a brutal, horrific murder. Then cut to the end of the trial, then the execution, with the lawyer trying to comfort the killer, and railing against the system.

6. A postal worker spies on a woman; when his stalking starts causing her problems, he confesses. Later they go out together, but she ends up humiliating him - she immediately repents, but not before he tries to kill himself.

7. A woman kidnaps a child who has been raised as her sister but is really her daughter. They are found, though and she leaves alone in the end.

8. A professor has a visitor in her class – a woman who tells a story about a jewish child who was refused by a Polish family who said they could not bear false witness, to claim she was Christian. It was the professor of course, and the woman who tells the story was the child – the professor had good reasons for her actions, but has hated herself since anyway. She takes comfort in the child’s survival.

9. A doctor is impotent - he half tells his wife to have an affair, but when he finds out that she did have an affair, he becomes wildly jealous. He also treats a girl who needs major surgery to be able to sing, professionally - she would rather not, but her family, and the doctor get her to do it. In the end, the man and wife are nearly reconciled, but the lover hangs around, leading to a near crisis.

10. Two brothers discover that their father was one of the country’s most important stamp collectors. They get tied up in a scam to trade a kidney for a crucial stamp, but this is a ruse to allow someone to rob their father's apartment and take all the stamps. In the end, after many trials, they forgive each other and bond over having picked up their father's bug for stamps.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

The Civil War (TV Series)

[Cross posted from Wonders in the Dark, part of their Television countdown.]

(I'm sorry this is going to look like a homework assignment - but this is a show that feels a bit like a homework assignment, a textbook at least. That isn't a bad thing, of course - it's meant to be informative as well as moving and entertaining, and it is, all of those things.)

What is it?

A historical documentary about the American Civil War, broadcast on PBS in 1990, and a huge success. (Largest ever audience for PBS, apparently.) It made Ken Burns a household name, and elevated Shelby Foote, in particular, to new levels of fame. There are 9 episodes, about 10 hours altogether, with around two hours devoted to each year of the war, with an hour for the build up and an hour of aftermath. It is straightforward history, using primary sources (period photographs and texts by contemporaries) to provide the base for narration and commentary. It digs into the primary sources - Burns' method of showing photographs, panning and zooming around the photo, to pick out details, became iconic, and has entered the language (thanks to photo and video editing software). Texts are read, with similar attention and care, by actors, many well known (Jason Robards Jr., Sam Waterston, Morgan Freeman, etc). The show was very effective as well as popular, and for a while, seemed to be the definitive historical documentary. That, I am sorry to say, isn't quite the case anymore - I will return to that a little later.

How is it as History?

It is quite good. It is essentially an introductory overview of the Civil War; it would make a good textbook in a basic history class. It is, to start, actual history - primary sources and commentary; everything is rooted in those sources, and in analysis by people who root their work in primary sources. It's clear about what is sourced and what is not, and what the sources are, as clear as a television show is going to be. It is a good introduction to the war - it tells what happened, it explains it well, it covers a wide range of experiences of the war. That is important. It is not strictly military or political history: it works in the home front, the day to day lives of solders, technology (of war, medicine, communication, and so on), it covers the role and place of women in the war, it attends to the experiences, attitudes and actions of blacks - slaves, ex-slaves, and free blacks. It is quite good at conveying the lived experience of all these people, on both sides of the war. It is an introduction - if you want details on the technology of killing, or the state of medicine, or the political machinations north and south and overseas, or details about campaigns and battles and strategy and tactics, you will have to go elsewhere - though often, you can go directly to the writers and books being discussed. You can do worse than go to the sources the show presents - read Frederick Douglass or Abraham Lincoln or Mary Chestnut or Grant's Memoirs. And there is certainly an abundant literature dealing with the Civil War.

Still - it is a good introduction. The historical analysis tend to be conventional, reflecting the historical consensus - which is fine, for a survey. But that is where things start to become complicated. It isn't that the show gets the history wrong so much as that arguments about the history of the Civil War are indissociable from the history of the Civil War. More on that later, for sure; for now - let me say that the show came out at a time when the historiography of the Civil War was, itself, changing. You can see this in the emphasis on the social aspects of the war, the emphasis on the lived experiences of the participants - that wasn't new in 1990, but it had not been the consensus on how to do history for very long. And the interpretation of the war had also changed. Burns doesn't wriggle around the question of slavery - that was the cause of the war, and he says so. That is the consensus historical view of the war today, and was in 1990 - but it has not always been. The show's narration gives us the consensus - but leaves out the historiography, leaves out the dissent, and the history of dissent. This is a point I will definitely come back to.

How is it as a film?

What is it as a film? Archival materials, photos and texts, mainly, with added narration and commentary; the photos used both as background and as explicit illustrations of the elements of the story, and "animated," particularly by the famed Ken Burns Effect. The primary texts are themselves animated by being read by expressive voice actors. Over the photos and between the texts are narration and commentary, sometimes as voiceover, often by experts, usually shot in fairly neutral situations - sitting in their office, or front porch, or such - there is not much movement anywhere in the show. There is very little filmed material besides the talking experts - the 1860s were too early, of course, for contemporary film; there is some fascinating footage of veterans gatherings and parades, from much later. Burns also uses a few a few inserts of empty fields, cannons, battlefields and the like, but strictly as background - there aren't even modern shots of the battlefield and locations, that I remember. Few if any. Finally, there are a few recordings of survivors and the children of survivors speaking - these are often quite marvelous.

It is, then, a relatively sober and conservative style of documentary - though one well suited to the material. The Civil War was one of the first large events to be heavily photographed - it is right to use those photographs as the basis for the work. The war left a rich visual record - photographs, drawings, engravings, paintings - Burns uses them to all good effect. It was also fought by a very literate nation - so the collection of texts is also very rich. All kinds or texts, from all levels of society, are here: letters, diaries, memoirs, speeches, political and legal documents, newspaper accounts and editorials, everything, from all levels of society, all types of writers. Private soldiers and their families, officers, politicians, slaves, ex-slaves, free blacks, ministers and essayists, newspapermen, foreign observers, and writers from the barely literate to Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln. The scope and variety of texts is wonderful indeed. Finally, all of it is set against music - mostly contemporary with the war, but with some pieces written in the 19th century style  ("Ashokan Farewell", notably). The music, too, is sometimes illustrative (all those ballads about the longing for home), but usually used to set the mood. Maybe sometimes too much for mood and not illustrative enough: you'd think they'd have managed to find some kind of recording of people singing "John Brown's Body" - hard to get more primary a source than that. All of this adds up, sometimes, to a style where the mood overpowers the content - sober, a bit folksy (sometimes more than a “bit” folksy), mournful, though with a celebratory undertone - look what we survived, look what we did, but look what it cost us. Sad but uplifting.

For a while, this style felt like the very model for the Serious Historical Documentary - though even in those days, it was sometimes more of a whipping boy than a model for other filmmakers. (Back in the 90s, I seem to recall a fair amount of this, from both sides.) It's seriousness, folksiness, nostalgia, could all be attacked by political or personal documentarians; and its sobriety, documentary purity, its lack of spectacle, could be attacked by filmmakers looking to liven up the genre. It has not had many imitators. Today, even serious educational documentaries - the kinds of things aired on American Experience, say - lean heavily on reenactments. This isn't an improvement, I fear. Reenactments are incredibly stupid for 20th century documentaries - how can a reenactment match the power of actual footage from WWI or WWII or Vietnam or Chicago 1968? But even 19th century history gains little from the newer styles. How is a show like PBS' The Abolitionists better for having actors pantomiming Garrison and Douglass than it would be if it just read their words and Ken Burnsed over their photographs? I admit that Burns' nostalgia can run a bit thick sometimes, but that is a fault of the tone and sometimes the content, not the devices - change the music (why not use Charles Ives, or the Band? vary it up, but also pull the story forward - show how current the Civil War has remained through the century and a half since it ended), change the narration, and you would have a very different work - but you would still have history. Drop the photos for guys in funny hats play-shooting guns, and you have - what? why not just make a feature film? 

It's hard to think what reenactments add in any case. What stays with you from The Civil War are the photos and the letters, the power of the words written in middle of the war. The primary materials are extremely powerful - resenting them respectfully, with the full emotional power a fine actor can bring, is enough.

And what about its politics?

Politics: well - there's no avoiding politics. There is a line at the very end of the show, when the experts are considering the legacy of the war, who won, what it meant and all. Barbara Fields (who might be the real star of the show, in the end), cites William Faulkner, to the effect that "history is not 'was', it's 'is'" - and adds that the results of the Civil War are still up for grabs. The war has never been resolved. She was right then - she is right today. The Civil War is still in the news, and not just incidentally, but very close to the center of contemporary American politics. We are, as a country, still arguing about what the war meant, what it did - what it was, even - and how to talk about it. It has always been so - the shooting stopped, and the debates began (though the shooting didn't stop for long, and in some ways still hasn't), and they are still going on. (Sometimes, alas, so is the shooting.) The issues coming out of the Civil War are still up for grabs - are we a democracy? are we going to treat everyone in America as Americans? Who will run this country, and for whom?

The history of the war has always been tangled up with politics; political debates have always been tied to historical interpretations of the war. I said earlier that the show appeared at a time when the historiography of the Civil War was changing - at least, at a time when the historiographical changes were filtering into the mainstream. There was a time, as late as the 70s, maybe the 80s, when you could get through high school, maybe even college, and still think the war was fought over state's rights and tariffs, that slavery was a side issue, exaggerated after the fact by northerners looking to make themselves look better, that the whole affair was a terrible, inexplicable tragedy - an act of god, imposed on the country by some impersonal external force, like a terrible storm. That was an interpretation of the war that came from the south, after the war, especially after Reconstruction. It is partly a way to shift blame away from the former confederates - but also part of the political struggles after the war, to undo the results of the war. There is no way to separate Lost Cause history from the reinstatement of legal white supremacy in the south - it is all tied to the that.

One of Shelby Foote's most famous remarks is that the war changed the grammar of how the United States was referred to. Before the war, people said, the United States ARE; after the war, they said, the United States IS. It is an excellent point - but it leaves out a lot. It obscures the fact that one side of the war was fighting explicitly against that IS. But it also hides a more sinister meaning (which I don't think Foote intended) - the meaning Dixon and Griffith made explicit in The Clansman/Birth of a Nation. It is that the story of the post-war years was the story of forging a nation of whites against blacks. Civil war history after the war, especially southern history, was directed toward reconciling north and south, but at the expense of reestablishing and strengthening the difference between Black and White. The Lost Cause version of history downplays the role of slavery, erasing the confederates' own acknowledgment that slavery was the cause they were fighting for; downplays the role of freeing the slaves in the north. (How could it be? the north fought to preserve the union, emancipation wasn't part of the plan until 1863, and it was always controversial.) Making slavery secondary to the war also makes the post-war amendments (#13, 14, 15) secondary - they become technical changes to the constitution, not the radical reimagining of democracy they might be taken for. It stresses the heroism of the south, and the soldiers on all sides; stresses the shared suffering of the war; stresses the processes of reconciliation after the war. But it is always a reconciliation of north and south, blue and gray - Joseph Wheeler serving in the Spanish American war. And it's all too often, reconciliation of north and south at the expense of black and white.

This interpretation of the Civil War was something like orthodoxy for most of the 20th century. That began to change in the 1950s and 60s, though mainly among academics - it took a while for the new historical consensus to reach the mainstream. The Civil War reflects the new consensus - Burns and company leave no doubt that slavery was the cause of the war, and that the accomplishment of the war was abolishing slavery, making possible, at least, a new birth of freedom. If the show has a problem, it's in leaving out the historiography of the Civil War. Maybe that is beyond the scope of a TV series about the war - but it is important. It is easier to understand why it is important to acknowledge that slavery started the war when you know the history of why slavery isn't considered the cause. The confederates knew it was the cause - they said so - and Burns is sure to cite their articles of secession, the speeches by men like Alexander Stephens, that stated as clearly as you like that they were fighting to defend slavery. Leaving out an account of how that changed leaves room for misinterpretation of the show. The show has a melancholy, but celebratory tone, that contains many of the elements of the old Lost Cause history. The sense of war as an act of god - the celebration of the country's ability to come back together - many of the personalizing anecdotes Shelby Foote tells in the show. These things are good - the show does include southern voices and perspectives, apolitical voices, north and south - it should. And it's a reminder that there is plenty in the Lost Cause version of history that is not wrong - but it's also why I think it is crucial to explain the history of the debates. Without the historiography, you can't separate the lies of the Lost Cause (denying the role of slavery in the war, denying the role African Americans played in the war - denying, ultimately, the radical and - let's not mince words - completely admirable importance of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments) from what is true. (The human experience of the war in the south; the importance of reconciliation after the war and so on.)

In the end?

How does it end? I don't know how I should end. The war hasn't really ended - how can a show about it end, or an essay about the show about the war? "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past." Ken Burns ended - twice, right? With Barbara Fields invoking Faulkner's "history is is" - then with Foote talking about making the war the most important war ever, and reading an old soldier waxing nostalgic for the war, over footage of a 1938 reunion at Gettysburg. The juxtaposition is odd when you think about it - Fields expresses the view that the war was about what the country would be and that the fight is still going on; Foote, himself, and quoting Barry Bentson, confederate soldier, puts is squarely in the past, romanticizes it, dreams of reconciliation under the two flags. Foote's ending feels satisfying - sad, but celebratory, a story of a country breaking itself apart and bringing itself back together again, through terrible cataclysm - but it also feels false. Or - a reconciliation explicitly at the expense of the people the war was in fact, fought over (slaves, blacks), and at the expense of the result of the war, those post-war amendments. The show as a whole sometimes is still seen as being too devoted to Foote's version - tragedy and reconciliation, not revolution and (thwarted, but still powerful) liberation - though as history, it hews closer to Fields' views. Maybe this would have worked better if they had been willing to let her have the last word: reverse those last two clips - because old soldiers dreaming of reconciliation is something to value; but understanding that the war was the central event in American history, and still is, is more important. The past is not dead; it's not even past.

Here is Foote's ending:

And here is Fields':

Friday, September 08, 2017

Yachts and Krauts and Rocks

Hello again, another Friday - and, well - another bunch of obituaries? Yeah, that's the way it goes when you start getting old. Your heroes - etc.

So - I have some actual substance coming to this humble blog soon, so I won't make this one all that long. Just check in to say goodbye to Walter Becker and Holger Czukay. Representing a couple different angles on the rock/jazz intersection, but a fine one. These are two bands I should have put in my Band of the Month series - Can is hard to fit, because they are hard to fit to that 10 favorite songs format - they are an album band, and their songs are themselves long, complicated things - they don't fit the conceit so swell. Steely Dan - is more a matter of being one of those bands like Dylan or Bowie - bands you heard all your life on the radio, so maybe didn't by as many records by; bands I took a bit for granted when I was younger, and liked more and more as I went along. Now, to write about them, I feel like I need to dig into the rest fo their catalogue, move past the hits. Not that the hits ever stop.

All right - here's the Dan, with Becker doing a long ramble in the middle of Hey Nineteen:

And live on Letterman, doing Josie - with some tasteful guitar work from Becker in the middle..

And - since I have some oddball Can stuff below - here's the Dan on American Bandstand, miming to My Old School. Fagan and Skunk Baxter are hamming it up, but Becker seems unimpressed:

And also passing this week, Holger Czukay - the second member of Can to die this year, after Jackie Leibzeit. Start with something quirky - Cool in the Pool, by himself:

And - disco era Can - miming, too, if I am not mistaken... a, uh.... something...

I have to get closer to the roots for this - here's Mother Sky: