Thursday, November 28, 2019

Black is Beautiful in the Smithsonian's Newest Museum

Thanksgiving is, of course, a time for gratitude. I just returned from our nation’s capital full to the brim with a sense of well-being. No, I can’t say I’m grateful for the quagmire aspects of contemporary politics. The recent impeachment hearings have certainly not lacked for entertainment value, but I take no pleasure in contemplating the blows afflicting our venerable system of checks and balances. So while I was in Washington D.C., I tried to avoid thinking too hard about what was going on in the White House, and on Capitol Hill.

But if you strip Washington of its political dynamics, there’s a great deal to enjoy. One of the city’s treasures is the multi-branched Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian, founded by a philanthropic Englishman in 1846, now encompasses some nineteen museums, not to mention the National Zoo. I’m particularly grateful that admission to all these locales is completely free, so you can dip into the various collections at your leisure, without worrying about shelling out a lot of hard-earned cash.. The Smithsonian’s museums, most of them housed in imposing buildings rimming the National Mall, cover such diverse areas as American history, natural history, Native American culture, and the history of air and space exploration. But it took until 2016 for the Smithsonian to open its newest branch, the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is still so new that visitors must line up to enter (and on weekends still need to reserve their spots in advance). Housed in a strikingly cantilevered building whose outer skin manages to look like basketry, it occupies a prime spot not far from the Washington Monument. Naturally, the heart of the museum is its sobering history section, which lays out how black slaves oh-so-gradually evolved into full-fledged citizens. It’s an evolution that has often stalled, needless to say. I’ll only mention here the painful and eerie corner devoted to the memory of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who in 1955 was brutally murdered for apparently whistling  at a white woman while visiting relatives in Mississippi.. Here’s one place where video footage has the power to smack us between the eyes, as we realize what cruelty was visited upon the fresh-faced young boy from Chicago.

Upstairs, for a complete change of pace, there are exuberant galleries celebrating the highlights of African-American achievement in sports, in music, in popular culture, and in the entertainment field. In the area of television, I enjoyed the tribute to the late Diahann Carroll, who by way of the gentle sitcom called Julia showed that a black woman could be a full-fledged part of middle-class family life. (Carroll later, in Dynasty, got to be an All-American vixen.) The museum addresses the more problematic history of African-Americans in movies by acknowledging the bad old days when “colored folk” were automatically considered sex-crazed villains (Birth of a Nation) or loyal retainers (Gone With the Wind.) But the vast majority of film clips on display feature black performers in power roles, up to and including Pam Grier as a tough vigilante in Coffy. Sidney Poitier, revered in mid-century films for making nice to white men (and women) in such box-office hits as The Defiant Ones, Lilies of the Field, A Patch of Blue, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, is instead shown in a powerhouse scene from A Raisin in the Sun. The one love scene on display features two gorgeous black performers, Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones. And  even Hattie McDaniel, “Mammy” herself, is seen showing a white soldier who’s boss.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

A Shortcut into the World of Raymond Carver

Robert Altman has never been accused of artistic cowardice. The director (and often the writer) of such films as MASH, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville,  and Gosford Park, liked nothing more than gathering stars of all persuasions into stories that require ensemble acting. Perhaps his most remarkable achievement along these lines was taking the body of cryptic short stories by American master Raymond Carver and organizing nine of them (along with a narrative poem) into a complex, multi-faceted narrative. The film, called Short Cuts, made its debut in 1993, five years after Carver’s death.

I didn’t know much about Raymond Carver until I tackled the major biography published in 2009 by a colleague I met through BIO, the Biographers International Organization. The very talented  Carol Sklenicka  (whose upcoming biography of writer Alice Adams comes out December 5) spent more than a decade talking to everyone in Carver’s orbit. In her Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life, I learned a great deal about a guy from a blue-collar family in the Pacific Northwest who put his writing ahead of just about everything else. His characters are hard-scrabble folk, some of whom (like Carver himself) are all too fond of booze. They can be crass and crude, especially to those who love them, but they’re also subject to moments of surprising tenderness. The stories are realistic in the telling: there’s little in the way of heroics, and no literary fluff involved. Fans of the Oscar-winning Birdman may remember that Michael Keaton’s character, eager to shrug off his superhero persona, is desperate to stage a kitchen-sink Broadway production of Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

In the course of a thirty-year writing career, Carver made several stabs at screenwriting.. Over time, some of his own stories were turned into short films by others, but Robert Altman was far more ambitious in his approach. Moving the Carver stories to gritty Southern California neighborhoods, he carefully interwove them, so that the driver of the car that hits the little boy in “A Small Good Thing” is the waitress with the jealous spouse in “They’re Not Your Husband.” And the men who ogle that waitress in that story’s diner are headed for the fishing trip that’s central to “So Much Water So Close to Home.”

Leave it to Altman to come up with an amazingly potent cast, one that includes Lily Tomlin as that waitress and Tom Waits as her hubby, Others in on the action include Julianne Moore, Buck Henry, Matthew Modine, and Frances McDormand,. To put a SoCal spin on the stories, Peter Gallagher plays a medfly-spraying helicopter pilot named Stormy Weathers, while Robert Downey Jr. is a make-up artist with a kinky streak. The meshing of so many stories mostly works, but I have my gripes. One story wholly invented by Altman, involving a classical cellist with severe mental issues, seems too baroque and show-offy for Carver’s world. And though the meshing of plot lines leads to some hilarious moments, it also works against the richest of the Carver stories. The climax of “So Much Water,” involving a woman’s ambiguous grief over the death of someone she doesn’t know, doesn’t seem nearly as strong on film as it does on the page. And though the gut-wrenching loss within “A Small Good Thing” (in which Andie MacDowell and Bruce Davison keep a bedside vigil for their young son) may be enhanced by the sudden appearance of Jack Lemmon as Davison’s oblivious father, the story’s heart-tugging coda lacks force. Still, if Short Cuts leads viewers to Carver, who can complain?

Friday, November 22, 2019

Capturing Old Hollywood by Way of “Western Portraits”

Cowboy hats. Bolo ties. Natty vests and fringed jackets. Silver belt buckles studded with turquoise. This was the garb of choice last Tuesday at the Autry Museum of the American West. In my everyday street clothes, I certainly felt underdressed.

We were all there to honor Steve Carver, whom I’ve known since he directed Big Bad Mama for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures back in 1974. After racking up more than a dozen feature film directing credits, Steve returned to his first love: still photography. Just in time for holiday gift-giving, he has published Western Portraits: The Unsung Heroes and Villains of the Silver Screen. It’s a carefully curated book of art photography, featuring well-known character actors from Steve’s Hollywood days decked out in western regalia. The cover is emblazoned with an unforgettable portrait of Steve’s longtime friend, the late David Carradine, complete with cigar and Stetson. Carradine solemnly stares out at the viewer with a tough-guy look that won’t be denied.

The power of Steve’s portraits grew out of his fascination with nineteenth-century photographic techniques. The pioneering work of Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) in chronicling the Old West has influenced Steve’s own methodology. He uses slow speed film that requires his subjects to hold a pose for a long few seconds. And—actors all—they are given the opportunity (through a series of conversations with Steve) to chose their characters and settings, within a wide range of Western environments. Buddy Hackett, for instance, is depicted with part of his collection of antique firearms. As Steve puts it, for his subjects this was “not just a snapshot. This was an experience.” He also insists that the stillness required for his very special photographs results in the subjects’ sharing of themselves. These are, he says, “pictures of their souls.”

To round out the volume, there’s a detailed filmography of all the western movies in which these actors have appeared. And Steve’s close friend, the novelist and screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner, has contributed essays based on his interviews with those of Steve’s subjects who are still with us. A sad number of those who have posed for Steve’s camera over the years are gone now, including R.G. Armstrong, Horst Buchholz (best known for The Magnificent Seven), Karl Malden, and—within the past year—both Morgan Woodward and Robert Forster.

What I hadn’t quite realized when Steve first mentioned this project to me, many years back, was how many enthusiasts there are for anything connected with the Old West. I saw that enthusiasm for myself at the Autry, where Western Portraits was the featured attraction of Rob Word’s long-running interview show, A Word on Westerns. Decked out in a jacket designed by the famous Nudie, Word was on hand to interview both Steve and Courtney with cameras rolling. And many of the book’s still-living subjects (actors like Bo Svenson, L.Q. Jones, Jesse Vint, and Fred “The Hammer” Williamson) came forward to pose for a group photo, as the audience in the packed auditorium cheered them on.

Clearly, it’s a tight-knit community. Attendees, hugging copies of Steve’s book, sought autographs from their favorites. And even some TV western stars who weren’t included in the book showed up for this very special occasion. Johnny Crawford of The Rifleman fame was there, now (alas) in the throes of Alzheimer’s disease. Tommy Nolan, who once starred as Jody O’Connell on a series called Buckskin., reminisced about his long-ago showbiz past.  Nolan, now a biographer-friend of mine, had left his Stetson at home. But not his passion for the Old West, as seen through Hollywood eyes. 

 Dedicated to the memory of Indiana