Friday, January 31, 2014

Pete Seeger -- Musical Superman -- and the Super Bowl

When I think of Pete Seeger, I don’t think of movies. His impact was best felt in person: a guy with a banjo spreading the word about the dignity of work, the value of freedom, the horror of war, the desperate need to make the world a better place. Or, as one of his most famous songs would have it, to contribute to the “love between my brothers and my sisters . . . a-a-a-all over this land.”  

 Pete Seeger roamed the country, singing for whoever would listen, and encouraging folks to join in on the chorus. Some friends of mine once had a big adventure that speaks to Seeger’s creative activism. A New Yorker by birth, he was deploring the sorry state of the Hudson River. So in 1966 he commissioned a replica of a 19th century sloop, christened it the Clearwater, then gathered a group of young musicians to sail it up and down the river, singing traditional sea chanties along the way. The sloop still exists, as does Seeger’s annual music and environmental festival, the Great Hudson River Revival.

But though Seeger was best savored by live crowds, he couldn’t be everywhere at once (though he sometimes seemed so). Which is why many know him mostly through his media appearances. One such was 1967’s Festival, an Oscar-nominated documentary that chronicles performances at the famous Newport Folk Festival from 1963 through 1965. Seeger was very much in evidence, especially backstage at the notorious 1965 appearance of Bob Dylan, who chose to segue from traditional acoustic music to electric rock. The camera captures Seeger’s disapproval, though he may have been speaking more to the quality of the sound than to Dylan’s musical choices when he told audio technicians, “If I had an axe, I'd chop the microphone cable right now.” Dylan’s apparent betrayal of the folk music ethos adds drama to the documentary, which was soon followed by such major concert films as Monterey Pop (1968) and Woodstock (1970).

 Also in 1967, Seeger validated his anti-war credentials on the popular Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour by singing “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” a song obviously referring to the dangerous escalation of the Vietnam War. His performance was snipped by the CBS brass, not the first time Seeger was treated as a serious social threat. But years later he received a Kennedy Center honor, and led Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” at the inaugural concert of Barack Obama. I don’t recall him being mentioned in Inside Llewyn Davis, but every folk musician portrayed in that film would surely consider Pete Seeger a mentor and an inspiration.

Like Pete Seeger, the Super Bowl has owed much to mass media. It debuted in 1967, by which time most American households owned color TV sets. As we’ll surely see this Sunday, when Super Bowl XLVIII kicks off in New Jersey, the merger of sports and showbiz is part of the whole point. Among the elaborate commercials planned for this year, at least one will promote an upcoming movie, Muppets Most Wanted. (Presumably Pete Seeger was never asked to do a halftime show.)

 Personally, I prefer folk music to football, and so I have not seen many movies with gridiron settings. I do remember Alan Alda playing George Plimpton, the journalist who made an unlikely neophyte quarterback in Paper Lion, but I never watched Burt Reynolds’ Semi-Tough, nor the Friday Night Lights film and spinoff TV series. I’ve survived, though, the corniest football movie of them all, Knute Rockne All American, with a dying Ronald Reagan heroically urging his teammates to win one for the Gipper.   

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Beatlemania: A Hard Day’s Night at the Grammys

 I hardly pay close attention to the Grammy Awards. My passion is film, not pop music, and such groups as Daft Punk mean nothing to me. What struck me about this year’s ceremony was the appearance onstage of several icons of my own era. Carole King, of Tapestry fame, powerfully dueted with Sara Bareilles, almost young enough to be her granddaughter. In the pop instrumental album category, the victor was none other than Herb Alpert, whose Tijuana Brass provided a peppy soundtrack for my college days. But of course the big nostalgia moment came when Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr performed together.

It was, all in all, a Beatles year. Not only did both McCartney and Starr receive lifetime achievement awards but Paul picked up a statuette for co-writing (with the surviving members of Nirvana) something called “Cut Me Some Slack,” voted 2013’s best rock song. It turns out we’re closing in on the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first appearance in the United States. On February 9, 1964, they rocked the Ed Sullivan Show, and my generation has not been the same since. To celebrate, CBS has just taped a two-hour tribute that will air on February 9, 2014. I wonder exactly who’ll tune in.

The Beatles became famous as musicians, of course. But at one time they also made serious waves as the stars of their own movies. Much of the credit must go to Richard Lester, a young TV director from Philadelphia. Lester attracted the attention of the madcap British actor Peter Sellers, who was looking to translate the exuberant goofiness of The Goon Show into visual form. In 1960, Lester shot The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, a black-and-white short featuring Sellers, Spike Milligan, and other zanies romping through the English countryside, armed with eccentric props. No one spoke, but there was the occasional outlandish sound effect, as well as a bouncy jazz score.

The Beatles, particularly John Lennon, enjoyed the offhand eccentricity of Lester’s work, which is how he came to direct the low-budget film first intended by its Hollywood studio, United Artists, to be mostly a tool for promoting a soundtrack album. Instead, A Hard Day’s Night -- now considered one of the best rock ‘n’ roll films of all time -- is a cheeky look at four appealing young men trying their best to elude their own fame. Lester’s hand-held camera and frequent jump cuts capture the hyperkinetic mood of the era, and contribute to the sense of the Fab Four as literally running away from their fans and handlers to seek their own form of freedom. Their on-screen personas (John as a smart-ass; Paul as sweet and sensible; George as shy; Ringo as endearingly awkward) seem real, and remain lodged in our brains, as does Lester’s much-imitated quirky style (see below).

Lester’s second Beatle film, Help!, is in color, and has an actual plot. It’s a spoofy comic adventure story with certain James Bond echoes, plus Ringo (of course) as the Beatle who almost gets sacrified by an evil eastern cult. Of the foursome, only Ringo went on to pursue an actual acting career, almost always playing eccentric roles (like the Mexican gardener in Candy). He has also done his share of whimsical children’s television shows, such as Shining Time Station.

As for Richard Lester, he ultimately went mainstream in a big way, directing everything from The Three Musketeers to Robin and Marian to 1980’s Superman II. Oscars have eluded him, but last year the Los Angeles Film Critics honored his career achievement. What took them so long?

Speeaking of musicians, a fond farewell to the ageless Pete Seeger, whose eventful life has just ended. I never met him, but he felt like a favorite musical uncle. His music will never die, so long as there’s a campfire to sing around.  

Friday, January 24, 2014

A Hymn for “Her”

A highly entertaining post from presents forty movies that define L.A. Included on the list drawn up by Buzzfeed staffer Louis Peitzman are selections that are tawdry (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), scary (Pulp Fiction), goofy (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), and baffling (Mulholland Drive). Though L.A. films tend – for some reason -- to focus on the grotesque side of life, there are even some entries that are downright romantic, with (500) Days of Summer earning top honors in that department. Of course I noticed some serious omissions. Where, for instance, is The Graduate? In any case, a new release that just won a Golden Globe for best original screenplay deserves some attention as a romantic, though quixotic, L.A. film. I’m talking about Spike Jonze’s latest, Her.
Her, as everyone knows by now, chronicles the love between a young man and his computer operating system. I knew in advance that Joaquin Phoenix, surprisingly convincing as a gentle and sensitive soul, would fall hard for the OS of his smartphone, bewitchingly voiced by Scarlett Johansson. What I didn’t expect going in was a fascinating view of L.A. as the city of the future. The world of Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly is hardly the dystopia we see in L.A. science-fiction flicks like Blade Runner. Instead, it’s quite lovely, and in many ways familiar to a longtime SoCal resident like me. Downtown L.A., where most of the story is set, includes such familiar landmarks as Disney Hall, the Biltmore Hotel, and various iconic high-rises. But these features of the current cityscape are dwarfed by much sleeker, much taller buildings, like the one in which Theodore lives. (The filmmakers went to Shanghai to shoot a number of that city’s fanciful skyscrapers, then used CGI to incorporate them into today’s L.A. skyline.) 

Another remarkable aspect of the L.A. of the future: apparently no one drives. Entering one of the city’s most colorful metro stations, Theodore hops a train to take his love (safe in his pocket) to the beach. The “subway to the sea” has long been a dream of certain L.A. politicians, so I’m glad this film proves that it will one day become a reality.

But my favorite futuristic detail about Theodore’s life involves his job. As a valued employee at, he sits in a cubicle, crafting emotional messages for clients who are too tongue-tied to express their own thoughts. (Shades of Cyrano de Bergerac, now that I think of it!)  The futuristic twist is that Theodore need only speak his artful words aloud: his computer screen automatically translates them into the handwriting of the ostensible sender. Perhaps in the future that’s as close as we’ll come to a from-the-heart personal letter. Which means that the handwritten thank-you note I received the other day from fellow author Pat Broeske is something I should definitely treasure.

Much of the publicity surrounding Her has detailed how Johansson’s entirely vocal role was originally played by the British actress, Samantha Morton. Morton was tasked with speaking her lines on set, hidden in a black plywood box, to create a sense of genuine interaction with Phoenix’s Theodore. It was only later that Jonze decided to substitute Johansson’s expressive voice for Morton’s. Somehow it seems most appropriate: in a story where human beings are so disconnected from one another that a man can fall deeply in love with a computer function, the actress around whose voice Phoenix built his performance gets replaced by someone entirely different. But entirely wonderful. No surprise that Theodore’s beloved OS is such a hit on double dates.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Goodbye, Jose Jimenez?

The recent passing of veteran actress Carmen Zapata, best known to the moviegoing public for playing a nun in Sister Act, made me think about the status of Latin Americans in Hollywood. Carmen, born in New York to a Mexican father and Argentine mother, had a longstanding gig as Doña Luz on PBS’s bilingual children’s program, Villa Alegre. Bilingual programming was very close to her heart. When I interviewed her in 1973, she had just helped found a Los Angeles theatre group, the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts. It still exists, providing training for actors, translating Spanish-language drama into English, and presenting plays in both languages.

My interest in Hollywood’s Mexican-American heritage was first piqued when I visited the LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a stone’s throw from Downtown L.A.’s kitschy Olvera Street. The Plaza’s splendid new museum colorfully illustrates the history of Mexican Americans in Southern California. The section on the movie industry points out that, in the era of silent films, Mexican-born actors had no problem finding acceptance in Hollywood. Ramon Novarro played Ben-Hur and other mainstream leading-man roles; Dolores del Rio, Lupe Velez, and the handsome Gilbert Roland became stars. When talkies arrived, though, Mexicans were suddenly limited to stereotypical parts: the Latin Lover, the charro, the seductress, the spitfire.

Years later, the great Anthony Quinn (born in Mexico, raised in East L.A.) enjoyed a major career, but one that tended to confine him to ethnic and outrageous roles. In the banner year 1956 he played Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and won an Oscar for portraying Paul Gauguin in Lust for Life. He was an Arab in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), danced joyfully on a Cretan beach in Zorba the Greek (1964), and often played Italian, as in The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969).  

It was in 1965 that Luis Valdez founded a farmworkers’ theatre, El Teatro Campesino, in rural Delano, California, as the cultural arm of the United Farm Workers. Early performances were strongly political, with a focus on Chicano issues. By 1978, the troupe had grown sophisticated enough to interest L.A.’s respected Center Theatre Group. Zoot Suit highlighted the racial injustice surrounding the infamous Sleepy Lagoon Murder trial of 1942. The production galvanized Los Angeles, and made a star out of Edward James Olmos, who played the iconic El Pachuco. When I met Olmos behind the scenes, he was friendly and soft-spoken, but he commanded the stage in a way that was unforgettable. His 1981 role in a film version of Zoot Suit led to a key non-ethnic part in Blade Runner, and then a Best Actor Oscar nomination for portraying gutsy teacher Jaime Escalante in 1988’s Stand and Deliver. (Valdez himself, six years after directing the Zoot Suit film, had his biggest Hollywood moment at the helm of La Bamba, the Ritchie Valens story.)  

Today, of course, there’s more opportunity for Latino actors like Salma Hayek, Oscar-winner Benicio del Toro, America Ferrera, and Andy Garcia (who got some of his training at Carmen Zapata’s Bilingual Foundation of the Arts). But old stereotypes die hard, and plenty of Latin-Americans are still stuck playing gardeners and maids. A young Broadway actress with Mexican roots recently appeared in a new musical production, in the role of a beauty queen. The part required her to be ditzy, but ethnically neutral. Then the producers asked for a change: could she lay on a thick Chica accent? She could and did (a featured role is featured role!), and the shift generated a lot of laughs. Still, though, it didn’t feel good.   

Friday, January 17, 2014

Rita Moreno: SAG Honoree, Survivor, Sucker?

When I was in high school, Rita Moreno was an icon to all of us. In the hugely popular film version of West Side Story, she played the character that we girls most admired. Few of us would want to emulate Natalie Wood’s Maria, who was a little too nice and a little too sad for our tastes. Moreno’s Anita, though – that was a woman!  She danced up a storm in those terrific ruffled dresses, sang passionately about her mixed feelings for “America” (we had mixed feelings too), and had the best-looking on-screen boyfriend, bar none. Moreover, you had to love her spunk. No wonder she won the Oscar for best supporting actress of 1961. And no wonder SAG is giving her its 2014 lifetime achievement award.

Born in Puerto Rico, Moreno was the rare member of the West Side Story cast who actually matched the ethnicity of her role. (By contrast, George Chakiris  is Greek American, and the late Natalie Wood had Russian roots.) The perfect embodiment of the Latin-American spitfire, Moreno often found herself in roles that reinforced the familiar stereotypes. (For instance, she played Señorita Delores in a 1958 episode of the Red Skelton Show titled “Clem the Bullfighter.”) Which is why I was later surprised to realize she’d also played very different parts, including significant roles in two of Hollywood’s best musicals. In Singin’ in the Rain, she was Zelda Zanders, a cute but thankfully non-ethnic starlet. Four years later, she played Indochinese  as the tragic Tuptim in The King and I.     

After her Oscar win (followed by an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Tony award), Moreno never got offered another film role that was worthy of her talents. I remember her making a brief appearance in Carnal Knowledge, and playing the lurid part of a drug-addled stewardess in one of my least favorite movies of all time, The Night of the Following Day. In this turgid 1968 film, a young heiress flying to France is kidnapped by a chauffeur -- the bizarrely blond-haired Marlon Brando -- and taken to a beach house where some ill-assorted thugs do unspeakable things to her and to one another. I will not reveal the twist ending (though I’m not sure why I should be so kind to a film so annoying). Suffice it to say, I was sad to see Moreno in a role thoroughly lacking in dignity.  

Her appearance in that film made slightly more sense when I glanced at her eponymous 2013 memoir, which devotes many pages to her tempestuous eight-year affair with Brando. When she met him, at age 22, she fell hard: “To say that he was a great lover --­ sensual, generous, delightfully inventive --­ would be gravely understating what he did,  not only to my body, but for my soul. Every aspect of being with Marlon was thrilling, because he was more engaged in the world than anyone else I’d ever known.” So deeply was she in thrall to Brando that she endured countless infidelities, plus an illegal abortion. She tried dating others (including Elvis!) in a vain attempt to make him jealous. Ultimately, when he abandoned her to marry his Tahitian co-star from Mutiny on the Bounty, she tried suicide. The Night of the Following Day came much later, briefly rekindling a relationship that seemed doomed from the start.

Given that she continues to perform with élan on stage and screen, I guess you can say she’s the ultimate survivor. Sorry, Rita. I’d much rather salute you for your achievements than read about you degrading yourself for someone who never recognized your worth.