Sunday, August 20, 2017

Working The Street Corners-With The Blues Singer Blind Willie McTell In Mind

By Zack James

Seth Garth, the fairly well-known music critic for the American Folk Gazette, had always been intrigued by what he called the “blinds,” not the old railroad jungle hobo, tramp, bum use of the term “riding the blinds” but his own personal shorthand way to describe the large number of old blue men, mainly country blues guys who made a living on the streets mostly on the towns down South who were blind. Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Earl Avery, Blind Amos Morris, you get the point, get the picture. Get the picture too of guys hanging on the street corners, hat in hand or maybe in front of them on the sidewalk a guitar at the ready. Guys, and gals still do that today on urban streets and in subways although Seth never remembered any of them being blind, at least not really blind although he had run up against a couple of con artists working a grift faking that blind deal. 

He often wondered, and wonder is all he could do since all those august names had passed beyond well before he came of age, before he became old enough to appreciate the blues tradition that he got hopped on as a kid after accidently hearing Blue Blaine’s Blues Hour out of Chicago one fugitive Sunday night when the airwaves were in just the right seventh house position in his growing up town of Riverdale just west of Boston. Or something like that since even though a science wiz in high school, a guy who went on to be a weather man (not Weatherman like in the 1960s SDS split-off leftist action of whom he had known a few of them as well after a series of articles he did on the theme of music and politic using Bob Dylan’s phrase “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”) tried to patiently explain that it was not some voodoo magic but had to do with airwaves and wind currents. Whatever had caused that intersession that hooked him for good even though he did not hear anything by any of the previously mentioned blues artists that night. That would come much later after he became an aficionado and became, maybe as a result of those fugitive airwaves, a folk music critic back in the day for several then thriving and authoritative alternative folk and blues publications.

According to ‘Bama Brown, the great harmonica player for Johnny Boy William’s blues band who was the last living link to those “blinds” the reason that they were able to survive on the streets is because even in the Jim Crow South a blind black man posed no direct threat to Mister. That they could walk the streets with their hats or little tin cups, maybe with some black sister to aid them (true in the cases of Blind Willie and Blind Blake), maybe sing harmony in an off-hand minute, maybe play a little tambourine to draw a crowd, to give the word since preaching on the white streets, the streets where the money was on say a drunken sot Saturday, by a black man was frowned upon. Whites had their own set of holy-rollers to patronize and did not need any blacks to draw away from their purses. That would get a black guy, blind or not a swift kick back to Negro-town, to the cheap streets.    

That was ‘Bama’s story anyway and it sounded plausible, and probably was as close to a reason that the blinds survived as any but later after some research, after listening to some precious oral histories provided to the Library of Congress by the Lomaxes, father and son, Seth started to question whether ‘Bama had the deal down pat as it seemed at the time (and as he had written about in an article about ‘Bama as the last living link to a  lot of the old country blues singers, especially the Delta boys from where he had hailed before heading north to Chicago and fame with Johnny Boy). 

Seth had been particularly struck by one oral interview given by Honey Boy Jamison, a great slide guitarist in the mold of Mississippi Fred McDowell, who before he passed away in the late 1940s told Alan Lomax, the son, that the real reason that the “blinds’” were left alone was that in their heyday, the late 1920s and early 1930s before the Great Depression hit hard and nobody had spare change for records or for giving alms to anybody, even blind men was that the record companies from New York and Chicago mainly would sent scouts out to the small towns of the South looking for talent. Looking for a sound for their ‘‘race” labels and in the process those agents would get word out that there was dough to be had if anybody, anybody okay, could find some talent. Obviously the roughnecks and hillbillies were as anxious to get dough as anybody else and the only way they could grab some was listening to the black guys on the streets, on Mister’s streets. And the only guys allowed on Mister’s precious streets were the “blinds.”               

Seth found that piece of news interesting but he was more than a little pissed off that old ‘Bama whom Seth had good cash to for his interview had “forgotten” to tell him about that possible explanation. Especially since ‘Bama at that very time was with Johnny Boy when RCA came looking for a new black sound and had been scouted by Mac Duran, a well-known white record agent in Memphis at the time. Damn.  

Friday, August 18, 2017

Once Again On Jane Austen- Gwyneth Paltrow’s “Emma” (1996  )-A Film Review

DVD Review

By Film Critic Sandy Salmon

Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam, based on the novel by Ms. Jane Austen, 1996    

Recently in a review of another one of the film adaptations of Jane Austen’s romantic novels, Northanger Abbey, I mentioned that what got me started on reviewing some of Ms. Austen’s novels was a film review of The Jane Austen Book Club a modern day look at romance via the prism of her six major novels. I also mentioned in that review that the works of Jane Austen when I was young, when I was in high school say, growing up in a rough and tumble working class neighborhood dominated by a corner boy culture were tightly wrapped in seven seals. No self-respecting corner boy would read, or admit to reading, such “girl” books short of some classroom command. I was in the former camp since I never read her material not was commanded to do so again my will. Those reading experiences came later when I was much more serious about investigating the great works of English literature-and not under the gun either.       

Another point made in that review was that once I got onto some subject, literary or otherwise, I tended to play out my hand, tended to grab everything I could by an author or as here in this review of Ms. Austen’s  Emma  film adaptations of those works. Here’s what’s what, here’s why many generations of girls, and hopefully, now hopefully, boys, enjoyed reading her books and equally hopefully after reading the books viewing film adaptations as well.  

Ms. Jane Austen had a razor sharp sense of the customs, mores, and foibles of the country gentry from whence she came. The mating rituals as well. In Emma, here played by fetching Gwyneth Paltrow, she takes a tongue and check yet romantic look the matchmaking among the young country set in early 19th  England just as the Industrial Revolution is beginning to shift England from an isolated rural society to king of the hill world industrial power. Emma is by turns very smart, very well brought and something of an incurable romantic once she takes a funny stab at matchmaking among the younger set. Her “victim” her friend Harriet, sort of country bumpkin, female version whom she tries to match up with several eligible young men, including Mr. Knightley, played by Jeremy Northam. The film then revolves around the mishaps and errors of judgment by Ms. Emma in her chosen profession up to and including encouraging the relationship between Harriet and Mr. Knightley. Oops. As it turned out Emma was mad for Mr. Knightley when she thought she was losing him. Not to worry everything works out in the end. Pure Jane Austen but read the book first-okay.      

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Globalization 101-With Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks “Larry Crowne” (2011) In Mind

DVD Review 

By Film Critic Sandy Salmon

Larry Crowne, starring Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks,  

It was bound to happen. Long after the world has seen the fall-out of both the international financial crisis of the last decade and the long-term trends toward globalization (and Internet-ization if there is such a word I know there is such a concept) Hollywood has come up with a cinematic idea about how that process is affecting the average Joe (or Jane but this film centers on a guy) in America. Long gone are epics about the plight of the family farm which bit the dust in 1980s and films about average working stiff Joes done in by the de-industrialization of America in the Rust Belt which has had current political repercussions with the bizarre and odd-ball Presidency of one Donald J. Trump whose moves since his inauguration are making room for him to take over James Buchanan’s place in the cellar of American President ratings. (James of that last gasp before the Civil War when he bent his knees to the Southern wing of his Democratic Party). The new look is how the average non-college white collar Joe has taken the fall in the latest phase of the race to the bottom. While the plot of this vehicle, Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks’ Larry Crowne, that crown with an ‘e’ as he is at pains to explain, is rather thin in places as social commentary of the times there are some points, a few comic, which are worthy of talking about further.     

Here are some specifics to think about. The title’s Larry Crowne (remember with an ‘e’ and this is the last time I will say it) was a middle-level management type who was pursuing a second career in the retail corporate world at a Wal-Mart wannabe. In his first career he had been a twenty year lifer in the Navy (as a cook). Basically Larry is the go-getter type which every large company is looking for to oversee operations down at the base. Problem: Larry is stuck in that storefront job having been overlooked for promotions losing to lesser employees. Reason: Larry does not have a college diploma in back of his name which the corporate eagles deem a requirement for advancement.

In the cutthroat world of retail that means Larry is out. Hell let’s not be gentle about this. Larry is fired, out, on the street, unemployed. Yeah, I know most large companies, maybe all large companies, would be thrilled to lower their bottom lines by having cheap go-getter labor but we will let that pass. As we will with the idea that a college degree is now required in order to advance in the lower reaches of the corporate world. Just ask those kids with high student debt loans working as wait staff and Uber drivers if I am lying.

Of course Larry had built his life around that second career. Or had wanted to before his firing and his divorce. The long and short of it was that Larry’s assets, his house mainly, were “underwater.” What to do? Well after many rebuffs in the job market (he didn’t want to go back to that cook’s life business) he decided to go to college, to get some new white collar skills in the age of globalization’s new standard of several retraining processes in one’s working life. Obviously Larry was not going to some high-end elite Ivy League school (although they are looking for diversity these days and Larry’s resume might get him some play) but to the more practical junior college system (as it exists in California the scene of the action in this film). So staid middle-aged Larry (although if memory serves Tom Hanks first came on the horizon as a closet cross-dresser in television’s Bosom Buddies which making comic plots about such behavior was not so political incorrect-and insensitive making him very much the high, high side of “middle-aged”) goes to college, takes some courses which will make him globalization marketable in the new international economy.    

Junior colleges in California (and elsewhere) are really diverse operations, maybe more diverse than many four year college campuses so there is a serious mix of racial, ethnic, class and age factors in the student population. Our staid Larry though is something of a hidden gem since a group of younger student “bikers” took him under their wings. Practical Larry seeing that he would never get out from under his debt has abandoned his gas-guzzler SUV for a “bike” purchased from a neighbor who is running an on-going flea market out of his premises. That “bike” business should be explained. I am not talking about some “hog”, and the group he joined as some vision out of the late Hunter Thompson’s evil dirty Hell’s Angels who would put fear is every self-respecting citizen. No, these are motor scooter enthusiasts which after viewing this film will now become a “hip” fad among non-evil, non-dirty folk who want cheap transportation and to be “cool” at the same time.   

Now I have not said word one about Julia Roberts, about Tom’s co-star and her role in this whole plot. As it turns out one of the courses that Larry got a recommendation to take was an “informal remarks”- based speech class. Guess who is teaching the class (and looking ice queen beautiful doing so although she has lost a step or two in that beauty department despite those great high cheekbones)? Yes Professor Tinot, Julias’ role. The good professor though is not a happy camper, seems distressed by her job teaching too social media savvy kids the beauties of the English language (which are still consideration) and getting frustrated by their seeming indifference. Is unhappy with her martial life. Bingo along comes Larry and inch by inch he kind of grows on her (after she finally dumps her blocked, blocked many ways, writer husband) and she on him in the process of Larry becoming a grade A student. 

Yeah, I know, I spent all that time throwing dust in your eyes about Hollywood finally taking a look at what globalization has done to a poor middle-aged, middle-class poor white collar smucks and what they have given us is yet another boy meets girl (okay mature man meets mature woman although some of their actions seem sophomoric) saga wrapped up as a romantic comedy. So fire me. Although this pair, Roberts, Hanks, both have Oscars on their shelves and this film is nowhere near show-casing why they deservedly received them if you have a minute take a peek.  

Monday, August 14, 2017

On The 50th Anniversary- The Vagaries Of The Summer Of Love-“Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue” (2015)-A Documentary Film Review

DVD Review

By Associate Film Critic Alden Riley

Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue, a documentary about the life and times of blues singer Janis Joplin and the San Francisco rock and roll scene in the 1960s which nurtured her talent, 2015

On more than one occasion the now retired film editor in this space, Sam Lowell (still carrying the baggage of emeritus for all the world to revel in), would point to the fate of the Three Js as the price those of his generation what he called the Generation of ’68 for the decisive year in that turbulent time had to pay for that little jailbreak out that the better part of youth nation was trying to turn the social norm. The Three Js-Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin crashed and burned just when their stars were burning brightest and in a sense their fates wrapped up what many considered the ebb tide of those times when the slogan of the day was “drug, sex, and rock and roll” was followed by the slogan in the end “live fast, die young and make a good corpse.” Tough stuff to think about some fifty years later when evaluating the residue effects of those times on what ugliness is currently going down in America.    

The film, really a documentary, Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue, details the life and times of the third in the trilogy. Goes, as such bio pic usually all the way back to her growing up days in Port Arthur, Texas and gives us a picture through film clips and “talking head” interviews (standard in this kind of film so nothing untoward intended) of , well, Janis Joplin becoming blues singer extraordinaire Janis Joplin. Usually that look back to the roots is perfunctory, glancing at the early age when a celebrity showed promise. But the lookback in Janis’ case where she did not begin to shine until late teenage times gives a much better insight into the negative aspects, the harassment and taunts from unfeeling classmates neighbors and of her growing up that would follow her down the garden path for all her tragically short celebrity life.  

So nothing at first pointed to Janis becoming a blues star except a serious bout of loneliness and harassment growing up giving her plenty of personal blues which later she may have been able to feed off of when in performance. At a steep price as it turned out. All she knew was early on that she had to leave Texas and her family behind. There were many false starts including some early time in San Francisco trying to work the budding folk circuit. All she got from that was habit for drugs, for evil heroin above all. And shipment back to Texas.

Then something happened, something she was able to grab onto when she returned to Frisco in the early stages of the Summer of Love. A new sound was being born under the sign of a particular Frisco beat and sensibility. Janis was able via contact with a group of young “hungry” musicians, Big Brother and the Holding Company, to make a big imprint of the scene. That combination of singing, shouting, screaming from a white girl found a home in the trendy, trend setting Bay Area (one black commentator/band member though she was black before he saw her in person). All you have to do is look at the whole series of poster art concert announcements which have been exhibited at the de Young Museum in its celebration of the Summer of Love to know that she and the band made every important concert in the area over a few year period. Decisive was the Monterrey Pops Festival (as it was for other up and coming performers as well) where she blew the house away.  

Eventually Janis broke with the band, with Big Brother probably a bad career move, and moved on to her own career as a solo artist. (In an interesting take one rock critic argued that she should leave the band after she did called on her to come back but that has more to do with fickle critics than career moves) And gained even more fame. Gained headlines and magazine covers. But the pain of that deep-seated Texas hard winds, that blue norther pain, never let her be and in the end the “fixer” man did his evil work and she fell through the hole at 27 in 1970.

During the one hour and forty-five minutes of the film though you get to know why she was an icon of the Summer of Love that dwindled into the dust some fifty years ago. Why she brought a new sensibility to rock and blues. Watch this one to remember what it was like when women, men too, played rock and roll for keeps. Whatever the price.   

Saturday, August 12, 2017

On The Great White Way-Broadway-The Indie Film “Opening Night”(2016)-A Film Review

DVD Review

By Associate Film Critic Alden Riley

Opening Night, starring Topher Grace, Alona Tal, 2016

I am totally fed up with and refuse to, except on an infrequent assignment, to watch any comedic offerings on commercial television, traditional or cable. Moreover most, certainly not all by any means but most, current comedic efforts on the big screen leave me cold. Then along comes an indie film, an indie comic film, Opening Night, centered on the trials and tribulations of opening night on the Great White Way, Broadway and for the ninety minutes of the production I witnessed what a good ensemble cast and a strong idea can do to restore my faith in the genre.     

The beauty of the film is simplicity itself. Go backstage live on the opening night of a Broadway musical comedy and work it out from there. Work it out through following, sometimes at high and reckless speed, what a production manager has to go through to get everything in order for the patrons out front who have paid too much money to get tickets and be amused. Nick, played by Topher Grace, a failed singer trying to hold his life together by being busy around the set plays the production manager and his estranged love, Chloe, played by Alona Tal, an understudy for the main female role who by chance gets to go before the bright lights are the central story around which all the antics and secondary stories are built. (Okay, okay I know the “real” plot in another version of the boy meets girl trope that has been hung on half the movies ever made but I will give that a pass this time)          

Along the way Nick not only has to deal with his suppressed feelings for Chloe and his disappointment that he is not among the working cast but fend off every imaginable “drama” from a touchy male lead to an “over the hill” female lead and a screwball producer who is desperate for a hit. All of this to present a musical comedy about the plight of one-hit wonders and their fates in the record industry (providing some very funny songs on that subject on stage). Naturally as is the seeming the trend these days every “intersected” gender, racial, ethnic, sexual orientation and class element has to have a play. For the most part all to the good effect. See this one.       
What Is In A Name-The Film Adaptation Of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance Of Being Earnest”(1952)-A Review

DVD Review

By Film Critic Sandy Salmon

The Importance Of Being Earnest, starring Michael Redgrave, Michael Denison, Dame Edith Evans, directed by Anthony Asquith, 1952    

No question the great late 19th century English playwright Oscar Wilde took a terrible beating from hypercritical late Victorian society for his little ‘vice’-“the act that dare not speak its name” to use the quant phrase used in polite society for homosexuality. (Victorian society hypercritical since as far as the upper crust and certainly in the literary and culture milieus there were plenty of closeted, and not so closeted in some places, homosexuals who were tolerated if not celebrated). Certainly today his activities would have drawn little attention in Western society anyway but then such exposure devastated his career.

Before Wilde’s fall, before he took his court room beating sending him to Reading Gaol and infamy he wrote and had produced the play upon which the film under review is based, The Importance Of Being Earnest. A play which was a humorous sent-up of all the hypocrisy, manners and tedium of upper-crust bourgeois society. There was not necessarily any great political message to the work but by virtue of the truly great use of dialogue Oscar was able to drive his spears in all the better. The film adaptation by Anthony Asquith is pretty fateful to the original play and the acting is of a high order so we get today a fairly decent sense of what was going on in some circles in those bygone days.             

Here’s the simple plotline on which the fast-paced dialogue rises and falls. A couple of free-wheeling gentleman, representing country and city, Jack and Algy having time on their hands and wicked senses of humor carry around some assumed names, Ernest for the former and Bunbury for the latter in order to brush off any untoward questions or people. They both have the same problem or aspects of the same problem. They long for female companionship, for proper marriages. Jack is in love with Algy’s cousin the aristocratic Gwendolyn and Algy is in love with Jack’s ward out in his country estate Cecily.Therein lies the dilemma. Jack is caught up in a bind because having under the assumed name Ernest he has caught Gwen’s attentions although she is fickle enough only to want to marry a man named Ernest. Cecily by a certain sleight of hand by Algy only wants to marry a man named Ernest as well.         

With that conundrum in mind the chase is on. Jack has to invent a younger brother Ernest whom he tries to kill off but who shows up at the country estate door but Algy posing as Jack’s supposedly late brother Ernest. Then Gwen, mother in tow shows up as well to find out whether Jack, who has willingly proposed to Gwen and she has accepted, has the correct lineage to betroth her daughter. Every social and cultural prejudice of the day gets a work-out as in the end love conquers all once Jack, who turned out to be a foundling, actually had been born with the name Ernest. Nice touch. A great sent-up and great fun if not a big time look at the foibles of late Victorian society.           

Friday, August 11, 2017

Romance-19th Century Style-The Film Adaptation Of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (2007)-A Review  

DVD Review

By Film Critic Sandy Salmon

Northanger Abbey, starring Felicity Jones, JJ Field, based on Jane Austen’s novel, 2007 

Those readers who have followed me in this space or in the American Film Gazette know as with my predecessor in this space, Sam Lowell, that we tend to go for broke when we get around an idea or that interests us and find every possible connection. That is the case here with the Masterpiece film adaptation of 19th century English novelist Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (not the original working title or published title but what has come down to us).Perhaps not so strangely the genesis of this review lies in a previous review of The Jane Austen Book Club a film which took a modern look at romance in all its various manifestations by mimicking Jane’s six major novels as part of monthly book club selections. That film automatically got me thinking that while I had read some of Austen’s novels (later in life because as a young man Austen’s work had the “knock” of being “girl books” and hence off-the-charts for guys, guys around my growing up working class neighborhood anyway) my main knowledge of her work was through various film adaptations. That got me on the road, what will be the continuing road, of reviewing all the film adaptations of her work, or at least the best versions. Northanger Abbey since it is based on Jane’s first novel (although not the first published which would not occur until after her untimely death) leads off here.         

That girl’s book author “knock” mentioned above at a younger age would have thrown me off this film completely (except if I had had a hot date with a girl who was seriously interested in Jane Austen novels and I would have played along feigning interest for obvious reasons but that is a separate story. This effort is centered on the romantic fantasies of a young well-brought up and educated country estate girl, Catherine, played by Felicity Jones and her devotion to the gore, mayhem and, well, sexual attractions of then popular Gothic novels. I would not have been able on my own to overcome Austen’s attempts mock the genre when younger and it was a close thing as I watched here as well.         

Here’s the thrust of what Austen was trying to get at in her never-ending look at the mores and social customs of early 19th century England when it was becoming a big-time world power. Young Catherine gets an opportunity to break out of the cloistered country estate life and head to Mayfair swells Bath along with a local magnate and his wife. While there she is introduced to all the charms and hypocrisies of upper-crust English life which puts something of a crimp in her vivid imagination of what such life entailed gleaned from the plots of those feverish pot-boiler Gothic novels her budding sexuality was forcing on her imagination. The long and short of the matter though is that she met one Henry, a younger son of the magnate of Northanger Abbey. They were almost immediately smitten with each other through a series of encounters. Encounters encouraged by Henry’s father a classic old-time gold-digger who believed, incorrectly it turned out, that Catherine had come from wealthier circumstances than was actually the case.             

That father’s search for “gold” and the increasing attraction between Catherine and Henry is what drives the major part of the film. Naturally as with all of Austen’s novels there are side stories, stories such as the one about a perfidious young woman who supposedly loved Catherine’s brother, the seduction and abandonment of that woman by Henry’s Army officer older brother and her eventual return to the brother. Naturally as well there are plenty of misapprehensions about motives and gestures as Catherine’s vivid Gothic novel-driven imagination draws conclusions about the possible murder of Henry’s mother by the father. It was a close thing but in the end Henry and Catherine are reunited and wed once it became clear that Henry’s father’s real motives toward his wife, and with Catherine, were to grab as much dough as possible from whatever arrangement could be made. A classic Romantic era novel with a close following of the novel storyline by the film.