"People are ambivalently amped-up on celebrities. They wildly worship them. They aim their adolescent adoration at them and get bupkis back. It's depressingly dissassociative. It's idiotic idolatry. Fan magazines fan the flames of fatuous fancy and reinforce the fact that your favorite stars will never fuck you. Scandal rags rip that reinforcement and deleriously deconstruct and deidolize the idols who ignore you. It's revisionistic revenge. It reduces your unrequited lovers to your own level of erratic eroticism. It rips the rich and regal and guns them into the gutter beside you. It fractiously frees you to love them as one of your own."
-- James Ellroy
Gallaher Cigarettes card (No. 12 in a series of 48)
My Favourite Part(For some reason, the back of the card has Flynn's birthplace as Ireland, rather than Tasmania. Studio mythbuilding at work?)
"My favoutite part so far has been 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' because when I was a youngster, I remember revelling in the exploits of that legendary hero, and visualised myself as him. Now the film has turned out so splendidly that I continue to get a thrill out of seeing myself leading my merry band through Sherwood Forest, and fighting those bad barons!"
I confess this would not have occurred to me were it not for the extremely generous plug Video Watchblog's Tim Lucas rendered a day or two ago, but I realized that if a lot of people are visiting this blog to find the individual entries in the Hitchcock/Truffaut series we've been running, it behooves us to make the task easier than a protracted search through the archives. So from here on, I'll be adding a link to each new entry, as it is posted, on the sidebar.
Part Seven will be posted . . . when I gots time to crank out the introductory remarks.
Part Seven will be posted . . . when I gots time to crank out the introductory remarks.
Every artist of worth at one time or another finds their work subject to a form of critical attention that gives them pause to reflect and wonder why they didn't do something else with their lives. Not surprisingly, one finds a lot of this in the realm of cinema (Robert Benayoun's obsession with Jerry Lewis, for example; or Peter Bogdanovich and his troubling pursuit of every washed-up movie director in America during the 1960s). In the main, these are not what one could safely call intellectual enterprises; they are, if anything, extravagant manifestations of hero worship given the lie of scholasticism, or journalism. As I say, you see a lot of this with film, but every now and again you find a case in another realm; which brings us to today's offering.
I guess you could call Alan J. Weberman a radical, given that his political stance has always been far to the left end of the spectrum. To read even his most recent writings . . . their breathless conclusions, grammatical pot-holes, their relentless surge of New Left argot . . . is to see all time stand still. If anyone can be called a veteran of the wresting social transformations of the 1960s it is he. And like many such children of its societal disorientation, Weberman found (or, that is to say, thought he'd found) much succor and perhaps the sign of a kindred spirit in the songs and recordings of Bob Dylan.
It was obvious. Surely the man penned hair-raisers of the Folk Revival such as Masters of War and Only a Pawn in Their Game, who joined hands on stage at Newport with the likes of Pete Seeger and the SNCC Glee Club, for God's sake, just had to be immersed in the cause of ending the blight and injustice his songs railed against as every other man of conscience, right? Who would dream of questioning it? He may have said odd, slightly negative things in interviews about songs not being able to change anything, but to jump from that and conclude that the only authentic element in his songs of social protest was their immense anger, why that was unthinkable. To merely conceive of something that cynical was to engage in it.
A lot of people got very angry at Dylan when he finally cast off all pretense, all that Folkie fraudulence, and made his great leap from writing broadsides about times a-changing to entering the marrow of the American soul itself with sublime, death-dealing emanations about brand new leopard-skin pill-box hats and a Buick 6. Chimes of Freedom gave way to Visions of Johanna . . . and it pissed a lot of people off mightily. One need only hear the hideous, impenetrably thick sonic roar that attended the second half of his performance at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium on August 28, 1965, or the rage he encountered night after night during his 1966 World Tour to gain small measure of the absolute sense of betrayal people felt. If you were a Dylan fan, it was a truly unenviable time for prioritizing. You either stayed behind, hungering for The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll (which now . . . only two years past, seemed very very old), or you moved forward with him, swept into the true majesty of Queen Jane Approximately. It was your choice, and he really didn't give a rat's ass which way you chose.
But while most Dylan admirers went one way or the other, A.J. Weberman sought a middle path. He maintained that Dylan's new soul-stirring thunder was just a more densely poetic form of topical songwriting. Nothing had changed. Behind those fine black shades he'd traded in the latter-day Okie threads for, he was still a Protest Song racketeer, only now he was disguising the messages behind torrents of wordplay. To decipher the true socio-political dimensions in Dylan's art, Weberman developed his own species of scholarship, Dylanology.
While there is perhaps more than one grain of truth in Weberman's contention that Dylan hadn't changed . . . he'd merely gotten it backward: the topical songs were always the disguise; the rage and nihilism that render their power even today was more real and abiding, and cool, than what most artists have on offer, then or now . . . Dylanology was just plain nuts; academicism gone beserk. Weberman taught classes in it. Words were parsed; pronunciations analyzed; lyrics transformed anew. To hear him tell it, everything became clearer. Dylan was speaking to his audience directly; calling them to action . . . only he was using very indirect means. To prove his case for Dylan the Activist, Weberman went to such tortured interpretive lengths that one can only conclude the essential madness of it overtook him. And he soon began doing the strange and outlandish things that gave him his brief season of notoriety.
Bob Dylan, as we all know, disappeared from sight in the summer of 1966, began to raise a family of his own and remained in a semi-reclusive state for close to two years. By the time he returned to America's stereo cabinets with that wondrous creation, the timeless and beautiful LP John Wesley Harding, Dylanology itself, almost as a by-product of the souped-up trauma of '68, had taken on an activist edge. Rather than Dylan taking a few years off to live as a normal human being after the marginal achievement of bending American culture to his will, on his own terms, Weberman saw nothing but sinister implications both in Dylan's respite and return.
It all got very personal. Within a short span of time he had Dylan going from being the most Progressive voice since Christ (a prophet in winkle-picker shoes) to an agent of the oligarchy, a sell-out, a scag junkie, all kinds of horrors. He was a reactionary Pied Piper; leading the children of the 60s away from the barricades and into his own narcotized haze of blissful domesticity (yuck!). An album of lovely, if largely conventional songs, Nashville Skyline, seemed to convince Weberman that he was onto something. He had to nail this fraud down good and proper, so he sounded his own call to action. He formed the DLF (the Dylan Liberation Front), staged demonstrations outside Dylan's Greenwich Village abode, shouted through bull-horns, chanted, demanded negotiation, scared the bejesus out of the neighbors.
Then he started stealing, and analyzing, Dylan's garbage. Through a process he later termed Garbology, he claimed he could derive valuable insight and defining proof for his theses among the discarded cigarette butts, soup cans and Blimpie wrappers Dylan and his family consigned to oblivion. Their waste rendered unto A.J. Weberman his glory, as the national press began to take notice. Of course, they wrote it up as an amusing stunt pulled by some counter-culture fruitcake (these hippies . . . I tellya), but fame is fame, whatever its character. And who can say but that Weberman deserved it, much as he might have made a harassing pain-in-the-ass of himself to his one-time idol. After all, he did inspire the Washington D.C. columnist Jack Anderson to render a Garbological study of his own on the contents of J. Edgar Hoover's trashcan. True, Anderson didn't find very much other than a lot of empty Scotch bottles and Noxzema jars, but at least he proved the FBI Director was mortal (in case anyone was still wondering). If A.J. Weberman's ambitions had been more modest, he could have claimed a similar achievement with like justice.
Instead, he just kept hammering away. What he really wanted, at the bottom of it all, was for Bob Dylan to write protest songs again. Underneath the Dylanological theses and the Liberation campaigns, all that schoolboy vanguardism, he was just another one of those screaming fanatics at Forest Hills. He wanted Dylan to go forward . . . yes, please; forward . . . but into the past.
These recordings date from June of 1971 (not, by my understanding, January), just at the tail-end of Weberman's public campaign, and consist of two phone calls to Dylan he recorded and later issued as an LP on the Broadside label before a Mercury-swift Cease & Desist order pulled it off shelves. After this excessively long introduction (for which I apologize), I must confess I have not the talent, or the time, to do their contents much justice here. To listen is to believe.
Bob Dylan turns 65 today, and while that used to be the mandatory retirement age in this country, the favorite son of Hibbing, Minnesota endures as we all must; his larger tour as neverending as the Neverending Tour he's on now. We here at If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger . . . extend to him our most sincere salutations and wishes on this auspicious day.
Introduction (A.J. Weberman)
First Phone Call (June 6, 1971)
Second Phone Call (June 9, 1971)
Second-guessing the stated intention of an artist during an interview is always a dodgy proposition, especially when the subject is one as famously deliberate and methodical as Alfred Hitchcock. Having no way to confirm or, for that matter, disprove the subject's testimony, an interrogator is left a choice that no one who's interested in good journalism would envy. He or she either accepts what they're told, no matter how outlandish or illogical, or pursues their skepitcism by nailing the subject down (a potentially suicidal course for the fortunes of the discussion). As an interviewer, François Truffaut not only held true to the non-adversarial, passive character of the former course, he seemed blissfully unaware that any other method was possible.
That being said, I'm not quite certain how anyone would react if they'd been confronted with some of what Alfred Hitchcock says in Part Six of The Hitchcock/Truffaut Tapes. For instance, he would have Truffaut (and by extension us) believe that one of the chief intentions in his approach to Secret Agent (1936) was remaining true to its Swiss setting; that he deliberately constructed the film to better integrate the story with its soundstage Switzerland, in other words. On its face this sounds reasonable, but Hitchcock stretches the point to such absurd lengths (virtually all of which was cut when the book was put together), one can sense that even Truffaut isn't a hundred percent certain whether or not his subject is serious. Along similar lines, Hitchcock soon describes a scene he tried and (by his account) failed to work into his 1959 film, North By Northwest that would have hurled the entire piece into the realm of the surreal if he'd actually included it (in fact it directly anticipates a sequence in Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Henri Roger's 1970 film, British Sounds). Truffaut, to his credit, makes a tiny step towards questioning the logic of the thing in context. Hitchcock, perhaps sensing he'd better not push it, cuts him off and says "Let's get back to Secret Agent."
It's instructive to note, by way of an aside, that in the book generated from these interviews, Truffaut not only omits this screwball digression, he attributes the 'let's get back' admonition to himself (not the first sign that Hitchcock/Truffaut was a more carefully crafted work than anyone could have imagined, and not the last).
When the subject turns to his 1936 masterpiece Sabotage, something curious happens: Hitchcock begins to speak of a "grave error" he committed by violating the audience's expectations at a key moment in the film; thereby making them, in his words, "resentful". There is genuine regret in his recollection. Truffaut, not surprisingly, agrees (what else); adding only that by utilizing a child in the sequence, Hitchcock was engaging in an abuse of the medium's power (whereupon he recounts what he says were similar problems he confronted shooting Les Quatres cents coup; a long excursion that has to be heard to be believed). It makes for one of the more revealing moments in these recordings.
If Alfred Hitchcock had a diminishing flaw as an artist, it lay in repeatedly measuring the success or failure of a given work entirely in terms of how skillfully he was able to manipulate its audience; an incapacity to trust and surrender to the moment that resulted in the somewhat arthritic style that weighed down too much of his later work (save for the odd exhilarating moment or two). No artist in cinema, certainly none of his caliber, was ever so obsessed with the psychology of audiences; almost making of them a collaborator in his art. He did not regret this undeniably disturbing sequence in Sabotage because it subverted their expectations . . . that was something he did countless times in his 50 years as a filmmaker . . . but, by his account, because it happened unintentionally; as if that fundamental control, the ability to lead a viewer in whatever direction pleased him, was central to his own identity as an artist and the focus of deeper intentions no one would second-guess.
Then they talk about cartoons.
"American life is not a work of art!"
This observation by Dwight Macdonald could be the most foolish utterance ever made by a critic, regardless of his or her discipline, but it's also one of the many highlights in the recording we offer you today.
Alas I cannot tell you the exact date or the location where this took place, for I do not know either. But the year is 1963, and at that moment in time film criticism was so far along in its development as a cultural phenomenon . . . something one could observe as well as read . . . that a gathering of this character could actually attract a crowd as sizable as the one you'll hear.
This so-called symposium . . . as always this is a blinkered term in the context of film; revealing far more about those who use it than it ever could about its nominal subjects . . . was initially broadcast over KPFA, Pacifica Radio's flagship station in San Francisco, and features three film critics about whom the term 'legend', for once, can safely be used: To wit, the aforementioned former Partisan Review editor and recidivist Trotskyite, Dwight Macdonald; Pauline Kael, then a freelance art-house veteran and latter-day flapper; and John Simon, someone whom a friend of mine once referred to rather unkindly as the Slobodan Miloševic of arts criticism (unkind and also unfair; to the best of my knowledge, Miloševic was never heard to exclaim "Gays in the theater! I can't wait until AIDS kills them all!"). Of the three, two have gone on to their great reward; the other has inspired many to wish he'd made that trip long long ago.
With no great prodding from the moderator, Roger Rosenblatt, the three rush headlong into a lively and altogether jovial session of Let's Find Out, offering the assembled spectators a detailed glimpse into their methodologies of watching, 'reading' and writing about different modalities of cinema. In order to maintain the cultural lie that one form of expression in this realm is quantitatively different from another (thereby sanctioning an artificial segmentation and . . . dare I say it . . . segregation of the filmgoing audience), three films are selected for the panel to hash over: Martin Ritt's Hud, Fellini's Otto e mezzo and Alain Resnais' Muriel. What insight one can wrest from this event's format is anyone's guess, but it brings out the best in its three principals. And that's not a minor accomplishment.
By turns comic (Macdonald and Simon's chiding of Kael for her preoccupation with the American Experience as it is reflected in our cinema; Kael's flat-out dismissal of any film that bores her), vicious (Simon's brutalization of Satyajit Ray) and well-targeted (Macdonald launching a tactical assault upon Andrew Sarris's critical approach a good four decades before beating up on the guy became fashionable), this is a phenomenal document from that heady first decade of American Cinephilia, when film critics could engage one another before the public without either coming away diminished; before Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert went on television and turned the whole thing into a demented sitcom whose final episode we shall not live to see.
My deepest thanks to David Oberman for providing me with this recording.
Part One (40:05)
Part Two (33:32)