The Explanation
(for those who require one)

And, of course, that is what all of this is -- all of this: the one song, ever changing, ever reincarnated, that speaks somehow from and to and for that which is ineffable within us and without us, that is both prayer and deliverance, folly and wisdom, that inspires us to dance or smile or simply to go on, senselessly, incomprehensibly, beatifically, in the face of mortality and the truth that our lives are more ill-writ, ill-rhymed and fleeting than any song, except perhaps those songs -- that song, endlesly reincarnated -- born of that truth, be it the moon and June of that truth, or the wordless blue moan, or the rotgut or the elegant poetry of it. That nameless black-hulled ship of Ulysses, that long black train, that Terraplane, that mystery train, that Rocket '88', that Buick 6 -- same journey, same miracle, same end and endlessness."
-- Nick Tosches, Where Dead Voices Gather

Movie of the Week #4


Now!
(Santiago Alvarez; 1965)

Using morgue photos, newsreel footage, and an amazing (if slightly over-arranged) recording by Lena Horne, Cuban filmmaker Santiago Alvarez fired off Now!, one of the most powerful bursts of propaganda rendered in the 1960s. Not intended as a work of great subtlety, Alvarez wields other people's images with perhaps more artistry than those who created them, and builds a remarkable piece of rhetorical cinema in the process. It's target -- the then-current racial conflagration in the United States -- is an easy one. But it is perhaps this very fact that most fuels the scorn and rage in the marrow of this film. If there was any room for nuance, he might have gone a little easier.

Now! is strident, yes; but breathtaking.

15 comments :

Mike D said...

powerful stuff indeed. still packs a punch as this was only 'yesterday' relatively speaking

Anonymous said...

If you are looking for nuance here, you probably can find it in the choice of music. It is a traditional Jewish melody and the filmmaker and his claque are making a not too subtle attack on Jews, not whites. Puts the whole thing in a new light, eh?

Tom Sutpen said...

So this song -- obviously based on the melody of 'Hava Negila' written specifically for Lena Horne (not for this film; which was made two years after the recording was released) by Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green -- when coupled with these images, somehow constitutes an anti-semitic statement?

I don't get it.

Mind you, I'm not saying you're wrong, and I'm not being overly contentious . . . though knowing Alvarez's work as I do, I can say this is going to come as quite a shock to me should you prove your point . . . I'd just like to hear how you arrive at this.

Anonymous said...

To paraphrase an old joke, Lena Horne hated Jews so much she married one!

(Obviously, I'm not the same "anonymous" who posted that earlier, ridiculous assertion.)

Anonymous said...

The following are two accounts from the net on the origins and meaning of the song. Lena Horne was not involved. Nothing I said accused Lena Horne of anti-semitism. Note the significant "used as a metonym for Judaism". It is utterly naive to treat the filmmaker's use of the melody as a coincidence.

"from Wikipedia:

Hava Nagilah is a Hebrew folk song, the title meaning "Let us rejoice." It is a song of celebration, especially popular amongst Jewish and Roma communities. In popular culture, it is used as a metonym for Judaism, and is a staple of band performers at Jewish festivals.

Though the melody is an ancient one of folk origin, the commonly used text was probably composed in 1918 to celebrate the British victory in Palestine during World War I as well as the Balfour Declaration.

The punk band Me First and the Gimme Gimmes performed the song on their album "Ruin Jonnys Bar Mitzvah".

from website "Dylan & the Jews":

Who wrote Havah Nagilah?

This simple question seems to have a complicated answer. The most common answer -- at least among experts on alt.music.jewish -- is Moshe Nathanson.

But Barry Cohon has weighed in with a strong counterargument for Abraham Zevi Idelsohn.

Since Idelsohn and Yudelson could well have been the same name in the Old Country, my vote is for Idelsohn, at least until I'm able to research the matter for myself.

Meanwhile, here is Cohon's history of Havah Nagilah:

The man largely responsible for the song's existence in its present form is Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, and he was the father of Jewish Musicology.

As a young cantor, he left his native Latvia, worked in Germany and South Africa, then went to Jerusalem early in this century to pursue his dream of collecting the oral traditions of his people and making them available to the world of music.

In the course of his research he visited a group of Sadigura Hasidim there, in 1915, and wrote down some of their Nigunim. This was one of them. It was a wordless "bim-bom" melody, a mystic chant.

Then came World War I. Idelsohn became a bandmaster in the Turkish Army.

Three years later he was back in Jerusalem again, leading a chorus in a victory concert. The Turks were out, the British were in, there was a Balfour Declaration, and the yishuv (Jewish community) was celebrating. He needed a good crowd-pleasing number to end his concert, and he didn't have one. But he had a file. So he browsed, and as luck would have it his hand fell on this Sadigura Nigun.

He arranged it in four parts, put some simple Hebrew lyrics to it, and performed it. The rest, as you know, is history, as this became the best-known Jewish song in the world.

Tom Sutpen said...

None of which, I'm sorry to say, proves anything. For the record, I did not say that you implicated Lena Horne in any anti-semitic intent (since I don't believe it's there how could I?), nor did I deny that the melody is based on 'Hava Nagilah'. My question was one of how anyone could divine anti-semitism in Alvarez's film; and I would argue that the question still stands.

The only people who 'used' the ancient melody were those who wrote the song in 1963, Jules Styne (who composed the melody for the introduction), Betty Comden and Adolph Green (who co-authored the lyrics). Santiago Alvarez 'used' the recording in 1965, almost certainly without permission, and I daresay he did not do so for its melody but rather its lyrical content; also the fact that it was a somewhat notorious recording back in '63 (radio stations refused to play it because they thought the line "No one wants to grab your sister" incdendiary).

You've yet to establish (and, again, my mind remains open on this since anti-semitism is quite real and quite alive in this world) that Santiago Alvarez's coupling of this recording (Jewish folk melody and all) with images of racial strife has any content that implicates Jews.

Anyway, I want to thank you for going to the trouble to address this at length (and, yes, I'm serious about that).

SomeNYGuy said...

God save us from the folks so determined to "expose" anti-Semitism on the left, they'll ignore the actual right-wing Nazis beating down their doors.

Anonymous said...

So, your position is that the use of a melody which is "a metonym for Judaism" is an accidental choice by the filmmaker, because he "liked" the melody? Perhaps the use of the "Internationale" by Soviet filmmakers is similarly a coincidence?

Evidently the proof you requested falls on deaf ears since you do not refute a single point I made, but continue to accept on faith that the filmmaker is a simple innocent guilty of using, of all the melodies he could used, the single one which summons up Judaism in peoples' minds. Leni Riefesntahl chose her music very carefully - so did John Ford and John Wayne. But, despite the fact that your initial premise was that the film was "crude", you persist in turning a blind eye to what, by any fair standard is as plain as day.

Tom Sutpen said...

So, your position is that the use of a melody which is "a metonym for Judaism" is an accidental choice by the filmmaker, because he "liked" the melody?

*****
No. My position is that Santiago Alvarez was drawn to using that recording in 1965 on the basis of its lyrical content (and possibly the recording's notoriety). The melody those who wrote the song in 1963 appropriated was incidental to his intentions. And I see nothing to suggest otherwise.

Perhaps the use of the "Internationale" by Soviet filmmakers is similarly a coincidence?

*****
No. But 'Hava Nagila' is a Folk Song with no ideological underpinnings. 'The Internationale' was a Socialist anthem perverted by a totalitarian state. I don't think Soviet filmmakers, even if they so desired, were in a position to object to the use of that piece. Though he was a Castro partisan, Alvarez made films with a freer hand than they.

Evidently the proof you requested falls on deaf ears since you do not refute a single point I made

*****
But that's because I don't dispute your points. I simply disagree with the conclusion you draw from them.

, but continue to accept on faith that the filmmaker is a simple innocent guilty of using, of all the melodies he could used, the single one which summons up Judaism in peoples' minds.

*****
I believe Alvarez innocent of the stain of anti-semitism, yes. To say 'of all the melodies he could have used' implies that there was a wealth of similar recordings he could have chosen from; and in '65 that was simply not the case. He merely used a recording which appropriated that melody, nothing more. Any other inference is simply unsupported by the substance of the film. There's nothing in any of the images, set to that recording, that resonates with a statement, implied or not, positive or negative, on Judaism. Whereas every lyric in the song directly, unambiguously, corresponds to the visual component.

Leni Riefesntahl chose her music very carefully -

*****
True.

so did John Ford and John Wayne.

*****
That's not true. I'm not sure you understand how filmmaking in Hollywood worked during the Studio System epoch. Only rarely in those days did a director have any say on matters such as music scoring. Outside of using 'Red River Valley' on a few occasions at 20th Century-Fox (a song that's as political as 'Hava Nagilah') Ford had zero influence on what music would be used in his films.

I'm at a loss to understand your inclusion of John Wayne. He had even less say in those matters than Ford did.

But, despite the fact that your initial premise was that the film was "crude", you persist in turning a blind eye to what, by any fair standard is as plain as day.

*****
I'm sorry, but to me it's anything but plain (by the way, I did not say the film was crude. I said its point was made with no subtlety . . . and of what successful Propaganda work can this not be said?), and if what you say is in the film truly was there, then I think it'd be a little more self-evident.

SomeNYGuy said...

What's as "plain as day" is that "Anonymous" is a rabid neocon whose real objection to this film is that it was made by a Cuban filmmaker, so he uses anti-Semitism as a club to beat him with. But maybe that's just sour grapes on my part, since my own bar mitzvah didn't result in an invitation to join the International Jewish Conspiracy and I've been miffed about it ever since.

Anonymous said...

..That's not true. I'm not sure you understand how filmmaking in Hollywood worked during the Studio System epoch. Only rarely in those days did a director have any say on matters such as music scoring...

Save your condescension. I know a great deal about Hollywood filmmaking then and now. As a producer of many of his films, Ford had absolute control over the musical scores of his films as did Wayne in the many films his company produced during the era of which we are speaking. In fact, certain themes by Alfred Newman from his Fox films occur with regularity in his RKO and Warner films. Check out Bogdanovich's documentary for many examples.

..To say 'of all the melodies he could have used' implies that there was a wealth of similar recordings he could have chosen from; and in '65 that was simply not the case. He merely used a recording which appropriated that melody, nothing more. Any other inference is simply unsupported by the substance of the film. There's nothing in any of the images, set to that recording, that resonates with a statement, implied or not, positive or negative, on Judaism...

The point of using that particular theme was precisely because none of the material had anything to do with Judaism. The ironic counterpoint of the music is itself the message, hence my complaint. It is certainly well-known that the modern left has engaged in systematic anti-semitism largely because of the Israeli/Arab conflicts, which were far more likely to have influenced the filmmaker than some obscure piece of American musical theater!

By the way, Tom. I appreciate your integrity and intellectual honesty, which is why I read this blog. And I know that you cannot influence your "allies" here, but "somenyguy" is a textbook example of the pitfalls of universal internet avilability. "Neocon" indeed!

SomeNYGuy said...

Actually, I'm a "textbook example" of someone smart enough not to confuse anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism. I also manage to be a member of the "modern left" and proud of my Jewish heritage at the same time.

If you're looking for Jew-haters, you should find a hell of a lot more to fear on the modern and not-so-modern right.

SomeNYGuy said...

...and by the way, I'm not Tom's "ally" -- I don't even know him and I'm speaking only for myself. I'm just a fan of this site who was appalled by the tone and content of your posts.

When you become the arbiter of internet availability, do let us all know!

Tom Sutpen said...

To Anonymous:

First, I apologize if I seemed condescending, for that is the last note I wished to strike. I'll concede the point on Ford which, admittedly, I made in haste. However, Bogdanovich's documentary is worthless for the purposes of gaining fact-based insight into Ford. True, he was a fine filmmaker once (at times more than that), but as a critic he was one of those hero-worshipping auteurists who rather recklessly attributed everything in a movie to its director, thereby demolishing whatever credibility he might have had.

It did strike me after my last response that you were referring to the films John Wayne produced. That being said, I can't think of a single memorable piece of music any of those pictures carried outside of Dimitri Tiomkin's godawful theme from The High and the Mighty, which is a little too memorable.

I think you're making a bit of a leap in assuming that Alvarez was shooting for the condition of 'ironic counterpoint' in his use of this recording, as though he were following in the tradition (if it can be called that) of certain sequences in Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising and Kubrick's use of 'Try a Little Tenderness' in Dr. Strangelove. My contention, knowing Santiago Alvarez's work as I do, is that he was never that kind of filmmaker; but even if he were, whatever irony is created by the counterpoint of melody and images is far too subtle for the purposes of Propaganda, and is totally overwhelmed by the very direct statement produced through the lyrics and images.

You might be onto something if you see this film as somehow resonating with the ongoing Arab-Israeli struggle but, like SomeNYGuy, I think you're somewhat impermissibly confusing anti-Zionism with anti-semitism. The two are not the same (though they can be). Outside of some isolated and very crude examples (some of the really ugly Black Panther Party literature, for instance) the Left has been pretty good at keeping them separate over time.

But if Santiago Alvarez (who, though it's a guess, was probably anti-Zionist) wanted to make a film on the Arab-Israeli conflict, he would have made one that addressed it without ambiguity. He would not have disguised it as a film about something else.

By the way, thanks for your comments at the end. I've actually enjoyed this exchange, and even if you'd been totally disagreeable throughout, the very last epithet I would have tarred you with is 'Neocon' (he said, by way of ironic counterpoint).

To SomeNYGuy:

We're probably in total agreement here, but I would like to say that I'm not apalled by the Anonymous poster's position (puzzled, yes; apalled, no). He could have, after all, drawn an even more severe nexus and accused me of anti-semitism for presenting this film. He did not. I totally disagree with his conclusion, but I don't think he behaved unreasonably.

Thanks to ye both!

Anonymous said...

...However, Bogdanovich's documentary is worthless for the purposes of gaining fact-based insight into Ford....

And yet, in the matter under discussion it contains documentary evidence of Ford's use and reuse of music (both original and traditional) to underscore his ideological points.

....That being said, I can't think of a single memorable piece of music any of those pictures carried outside of Dimitri Tiomkin's godawful theme from The High and the Mighty, which is a little too memorable....

Once again, we are not speaking of "memorable" music here, but music used "metonomically" for ideological reasons.

...he was never that kind of filmmaker; but even if he were, whatever irony is created by the counterpoint of melody and images is far too subtle for the purposes of Propaganda, and is totally overwhelmed by the very direct statement produced through the lyrics and images...

The fact that it is not particularly effective here is not the point, as I'm sure you know. Although to those who are ideologically in tune with the message, the effect is painfully clear. However, our exchange does demonstrate that the possibility of it certainly does exist.

Upon re-viewing the film, it seems clear to me that the filmmaker is making more than one point in this film. Clearly his main point is an anti-racist one, which I believe everyone does indeed see. However, I think you are being stubbornly blind to the subsidiary irony in using that particular theme in such a context. In 1965, black rhetoric had turned against Jews and so had the doctrinaire Left. Remember this was just before the 1967 attacks on Israel and the beginning of the modern tilting toward the Palestinians by the International Left (of which, by the way, I proudly remain a member but for this one issue).

I am not given to confusing anti-semitism with anti-zionism, nor am I suggesting it here. However, as you have pointed out, there is an overlap that is impossible to ignore.

Forgive me, but I also feel that since you have a horse in this race (as an admirer of the filmmaker), to me you are taking a particularly blinkered view of the matter by not even considering the possibility that things may be precisely as they seem here.