Saturday, December 12, 2009

It Don’t Worry Me

For most Americans, the Bicentennial celebrations in 1976 suffered from lousy timing. In April, the prior year, Saigon fell to the Vietcong. If it's anything Americans hate losing, it's a war. If that wasn't bad enough, there was Watergate, the energy crisis, stagflation. New York City was nearly bankrupt, Elvis was weird and boogeymen were putting razors in Halloween apples. Drugs. Crime. Herpes. Yup, America was turning 200 and it was all grown up, pimple scars, STDs, baldness, skeletons in the closet— looking in the mirror maybe we didn’t like what we were seeing all that much.

Robert Altman’s film, “Nashville” holds that mirror up and never drops it. This is a movie very much about time and place, which means it is about crossroads. Nashville, the city, is located on the Cumberland River in northeast Tennessee, an historic middle point, halving the country between North and South and until the railroads reached California, lay betwixt the settled Eastern seaboard and the Mississippi frontier (it was a “border” state that fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War).

Made at a troubled junction in time (post Vietnam and Watergate), the film is curiously tied together by the pervasive presence of a roving electioneering van. It plays the prerecorded voice of Hal Phillip Walker, a fictional candidate of the Replacement Party railing against the system in populist rhetoric, articulating the era’s disenchantment with taxes, cronyism, the job market. This demagogue’s blabbering matter-of-fact rationale goes mostly unnoticed by the characters of “Nashville,” many of whom are too self-absorbed to consider politics as something worth their commitment. The 1960s are over and anyways this isn't California, this is Nashville. (Jeff Goldblum's weird motorcycle man riding around in his Haight Ashbury duds on a low riding 3-wheeler is just about the only hippie and no one takes him seriously-- the Easy Rider generation at this point was more of a caricature than a threat to the lifestyle of good o' Southern boys, who have grown their own hair long anyways.) The characters of Nashville are not interested in what might make America a better country and they certainly wouldn't want to think about logistics: these are Me Generation people with personal agendas. In their various pursuits of power and satisfaction they are sexually promiscuous, high-strung, opportunistic, and yet, often, unfailingly idealistic about one’s possible place in the world. Thus, the American Dream, for all its nasty surprises and disregarded caveats, is very much alive here.

Made with the signature Altman flair, “Nashville” has no genuine hero (“heroism:” a troubling concept in this time anyways) but follows two dozen characters in the city of Nashville during a spirited five days of music, sex, and politics. The film is populated by country music stars, political kingmakers, aspiring singers, and this being about the music industry, groupies. These are imperfect men and women, but this isn’t a bad thing, necessarily—it’s honest and most of the time men and women are doing whatever they can to get ahead. This, the system may not condone but it has always looked the other way. Too rarely does a filmmaker suggest with his characters that the audience should watch their judgment, as in, “What about it? You think you’re better?”

To make it anywhere in America, talent may not be as crucial as ambition. You might even say it is more important to be than to do as in, “I’m a singer” rather than, “I sing.” Identity politics is the unconscious game as it conveys our usefulness to others. There are plenty of “celebrities” in Nashville, to whom an audience projects its sense of destiny. In Nashville this means we want to flatter them, fuck them and even murder them. Power is one of the most slippery slopes. The made-it country music stars understand that fortune fluctuates and that today’s hit is tomorrow’s oldie. They may sing sentimentally about love, but there’s not much of it to go around. Sex is about as far as the promise goes…

Typical of Altman, with so many characters to pick through, plot, at least in a classic conflict/resolution structure we’ve been weaned on, fails to materialize. There are performances at the Opry, political fundraisers, major traffic accidents, bedroom scenes. His touch is subtle. What seems unrelated, isolated, or random may be superfluous if plot is one’s goal but Altman is exploring ideas. As a result, the performances feel extremely natural, so that the experience becomes as voyeuristic as it is thoughtful. In spite of it being about the capricious and malleable quality of power, the theme never slips into darkness, for the film is too clever and humorous to make us feel awful about things. In other words, there is no “good” or “bad” in the film, there’s just humanism, which may be about doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, but surviving somehow. You may not identify with these kinds of characters but you can certainly sympathize with them.

As good as the acting is, “Nashville” may be most significant for its songs. This is the last great era of country music before Nashville as a sound became glossy, sterile, and trite. These are songs embodying the last years in which country music sounded ‘country’ in the way that it was “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Today, one rarely hears the human touch on a country music record. It sounds like music by committee, programmed for suburban Sony stereo systems.

In the opening credits Henry Gibson is recording an amusing patriotic ditty, drawling, “We must be doing something right to last 200 years.” Keith Carradine sings, “I’m Easy” to an audience that includes multiple lovers, each of whom fancy the song is a personal love letter. Ronnie Blakley plays Barbara Jean, a diva inspired by Loretta Lynn, a convincing cult of personality portrayed as a troubled angel, for whom fame is fated to be tragic.

And then there is Barbara Harris, who plays Winifred, a down-on-her-luck wannabe who is fleeing her husband. She has holes in her tights, lugs a big bag of laundry, poaches sandwiches at catering events. Moving like an animal, twitching, instinctive, looking by all conventional wisdom, a crazy. Yet, in the end, it is she who gets her big break on a stage before thousands in the most dramatic fashion possible. In a magnificent soprano backed by a black choir, she rehabilitates a traumatized audience, getting them to sing along with what might as well be a chain gang work song, whole-heartedly embracing lyrics that are upbeat, celebratory, earnest, yet completely absent of irony, “You might say I’m not free...It don’t worry me.

There, before a political rally masquerading as entertainment, the violence of American life strikes and when it does, it does not need to be explained. It just feels inevitable. Yet in the ashes of gun smoke, a star is born. The audience applauds its appreciation. The Stars and Stripes flutters gracefully in the wind. The American Dream lives for another day. This “dream” may seem stingy to most of us but when it does strike for an individual, it gushes, like a geyser in a Texas backyard.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

What We Don't Talk About At Dinner or When We Go to the Movies

In America, good dinner etiquette entails avoiding certain contentious topics while suppering on Mom’s meatloaf and potatoes. Although for many Americans, it’s never the appropriate time to discuss politics or religion (at least in a manner that suggests some degree of dissent or irascibility), as a rule it’s an especial faux pas to wax your views with cutlery in hand. Whether it has more to do with possible digestive disorders that may develop from unpleasant –isms or a communal tendency towards harmonious dining, I do not know. If one diatribes too long, the pea soup gets cold. Politics—it may be more offensive to dining than putting your elbows on the table or licking your plate.

It’s fair to say that unless your politics fall within a certain spectrum accepted by the majority, audiences are not going to want to see it in a movie. Usually, only when a delicate subject has evolved into a moot point does Hollywood venture to encapsulate with academy award performances and a melodramatic score by Hans Zimmer. Exploring a hot-button issue while it is contemporary is a no-no but criticizing America is generally the nightshade in what constitutes “box office poison.” Going further, if you intend to take a stand against American hypocrisy and frame your frightening dystopian hypothesis within a pseudo-documentary format, you'll really be pushing it— in the case of Punishment Park, you’ve pushed your release date thirty years, which was how long the film was banned in America.

Made in 1970, the film is very guilty of being of its time. We’re talking now Weather Underground, Black Panthers, COINTELPRO, Vietnam, the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, Kent State shootings, the hyper-politicization of America’s youth and minorities and the great divide that stretched between those who thought America was the best of all possible worlds and those openly advocating social revolution. There were no two ways of seeing— there was one or the other, and the other was immoral. Were kids who forcibly shut down a draft board office heroes or traitors? In such hotheaded circumstances, objectivity was the last thing on anyone’s mind.

Punishment Park takes a real deal piece of legislation— 1950’s McCarran Internal Security Act, which authorizes detention for disloyal or subversive persons in times of war or internal security emergency— and examines the theoretical consequences should this law be enforced. As the narrator of the film explains in the opening shot of an American flag flapping in the desert:

“The President… is authorized without further approval of Congress to determine an event of insurrection within the United States and to declare the existence of an internal security emergency. The President is then authorized to apprehend and detain each person as to whom there is reasonable ground to believe probably will engage in certain future acts of sabotage. Persons apprehended shall be given a hearing without right of bail, without the necessity of evidence and then shall be confined to places of detention.”

This narrator is a member of a West German/ British documentary filmmaking team covering the trial of accused subversives as well as the punishment of another group. Over the course of three days, defendants are brought before a citizens’ tribunal where they attempt to justify the morality of their actions (there being no tangible evidence they are a genuine, violent threat, their charges are based on words, ideas, abstracts) and are even offered in some instances to recant their beliefs by signing loyalty oaths to the government.

Scenes from this trial are intercut with coverage of a group of prisoners struggling through ‘Punishment Park,’ an area in the California desert, where prisoners can win their freedom if they “capture the flag.” The flag they are to reach is 53 miles from their starting point. If that weren’t challenging enough, the detainees are sent into the desert with no food or water in stifling meteorological conditions, all the while being pursued by police and National Guard troops, hunted if you will. The park serves a two-old purpose: it becomes a training exercise for troops as well as a “punitive” trial for “subversives.” Moreover, if some dissidents are killed in pursuit, their deaths save the taxpayer money and keeps prisons a little less crowded. If convicted, they are “criminals” and thus their worth as human beings has become negligible.

The accused standing trial is a motley bunch, white and black, male and female, hairy, bearded, bell-bottomed, yet bespectacled and somber, suggesting intellectual habits. In fact these defendants are not garden-variety hippies or Sunday afternoon activists at all; rather they represent the philosophical voice of protest. Leroy Brown is an author, broadcaster, and political activist. Jay Kaufman is Cofounder of the Committee Against War and Repression. James Arthur Kohler is a conscientious objector. These people are thus organizers, pamphleteers, and pacifists. It is they who provide the intellectual arguments of protest. Prosecution makes perfect sense in this context. Cutting off the head is pure Machiavelli.

On the other hand, the tribune is entirely white with but a single woman affecting the demographic singularity. None of them are elected officials. They are amateurs working in a jurisprudential capacity wielding indiscreet judgments on lifestyle choices eminently unfamiliar to their own, in effect running a kangaroo court or star chamber in which the game is fixed before it’s even started. It is true that they are generally older, though it's not necessarily a generational gap thing— whether Frank Sinatra is more of a man than Jimi Hendrix, say-- but rather has everything to do with preferred paradigms. After all, the soldiers and police who enforce the decisions of the establishment are the dissidents’ contemporaries and are very much of the opinion that the “criminals... get what they deserve.”

In the deliberations between the court and the accused, everyone’s talking, no one’s listening. The exchange veers dangerously between philosophy and churlishness. Generally, the prisoners are derided for their immorality, as to the tribunal minds a crisis of conscious is intimately connected to the repudiation of American “values.” More than an authentic trial, the back-and-forth reminds one of bitter family spats, summed up perfectly when one tribunal member complains the kids could have used “less Spock and more spank,” a hit against the baby boomers’ parenting guru Benjamin Spock (who, incidentally, was a major figure in the anti-war movement and was arrested for attending numerous demonstrations). Because of their emotions they cannot rise to their responsibilities nor realize how hypocritical it is that they should imprison those who deny America’s claim to being a “free” country.

You could argue this is the filmmakers’ polemic. Or you might say Main Street is being defensive. Whatever the case, their inane remarks become fodder for the accused to define their dissent in very strong, if not poetic language. Leroy Brown, the black author comments, “America is as psychotic as it is powerful and violence is the only thing that can command your goddamn attention.” Allison Michener, an activist elaborates on this during her session, arguing, “People become violent when they are deprived of their basic human needs.”

In the field, the prisoners running for their freedom are tailed by the documentary cameramen who query them on their condition, disposition, attitude. A young man in a ragged shirt, dirty, bruised, asks, “If they kill me now what difference does my politics or any politics make? I’ll be dead.” Another prisoner on the run clarifies, “My view is not committed to revolution…it’s committed to sanity.” Was this sentiment not famously reconstituted by comedian Stephen Colbert when he suggested, “Reality has a liberal bias.” It is one of the field’s pacifists that puts the plight of the accused in the most accurate moral context when he says, “Right now, the honorable thing to do is to be a criminal.” It is a fair extrapolation: if the government’s laws are unjust and it cannot justify its wars or violation of civil liberties, then individuals who break those laws whether it is draft evasion or persuasive agitprop are arguably the moral example.

When the dissidents are running for their lives in Punishment Park, the narrative of survival becomes a treatment on the various approaches to protest. The prisoners quickly disperse into factions choosing very unique survival techniques: basically they can meet the system with violence or nonviolence. Thus philosophy materializes in a simulated environment with real consequences. What is the right way to reform society evolves into a matter of life and death. In very tense scenes in which police and National Guard troops apprehend the activists in various stages of flight, the answers prove disastrous. These are probably the very best moments of the film as they are rife with confusion, anger, desperation, and madness. The cameramen too, cannot remain neutral. They become hysterical at what they perceive to be injustice and spar with the police.

One speculates on the casting— these are non-professional actors working from an outline rather than a screenplay— were they chosen for their beliefs? The acting, if amateur, is good. It never feels put-on, even when the dialogue is occasionally outrageous (the character of Leroy Brown has two of the best lines in the film: “How the fuck are you gonna overrule the constitution, man?” and “You just want to sit on your fat dividend-drawn ass and draw dividends!”) Did the director play off the actors’ beliefs in order to maximize tension? (The Stanford Prison experiment was conducted around the same time.) There is an us-and-them feeling to the actors that is hard to fake. As far as pseudo documentaries go, Punishment Park feels frighteningly historical.

In his closing statements, the defense attorney reads a quotation that best illustrates the inherent dangers the tribune is engaging with conviction and arbitrary sentencing. The speech seems straight out of Richard Nixon’s playbook: “The streets of our country are in turmoil. The universities are filled with students rebelling and rioting. The communists are seeking to destroy our country. Russia is threatening us with her might. And the republic is in danger. Yes, in danger, from within and without. We need law and order or our nation cannot survive.”

But it’s not Nixon speaking in 1970, it’s Adolf Hitler in 1932. Once a country begins cutting civil liberties in the name of national security, the consequences of compromise are far-reaching. As one of our founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, so aptly put it, “Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.”

What does it all mean now? Quite a bit, actually, even in the post-Bush years. The drama of Punishment Park is very much alive today, nearly forty years later. Even in the age of Obama, Guantanamo Bay remains open and an escalation of troops in Afghanistan is called a “surge.” And a “terrorist” is still very much a catch-all phrase for those who might try to fight the system, whether through violence or otherwise.

The director of Punishment Park is Peter Watkins, an Englishman. A number of individuals were offended that a foreigner had the gall to dramatize our society in such critical terms. But someone's gotta do it if we won't. There are some very important problems in our country. We would do well to talk about them, if not at dinner, at least over dessert and coffee.