Sometimes it was flawless

Watch enough old movies and you'll start running across the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots, and other vocal groups that thrived just before and during WWII. Today, their music sounds as anodyne as anything by The Four Freshmen. But a few months ago, I sold a bunch of records to a New York record store, and walked out a compilation of RCA & Bluebird-label vocal groups, c. 1939-1952. The Four Clefs, The Four Vagabonds, The Deep River Boys, The Delta River Boys - the stuff was uneven, but at its best, it was rougher and tougher and a lot more alive. The best of the bunch - a quartet - was called The Cats & The Fiddle.

Their music was remarkably swift, smart, self-assured. These are two early recordings: Austin Powell and Jimmie Henderson singing and playing guitar, Chuck Barksdale playing and singing bass (bass being the "fiddle" in question), and Ernie Price playing the tipple - a sort of ten-string ukulele that no one's played in a generation or two.

Henderson died of meningitis in 1940; his replacement, Tiny Grimes, played a four-stringed guitar, and left TC&TF; to play with Art Tatum and Charlie Parker; in 1946, he recorded "Tiny's Boogie" - a hip mention when the "First Rock and Roll Song" conversation came up. A few years later he formed the Rockin' Highlanders, who performed in kilts with a young Screamin' Jay Hawkins on vocals. The Cats themselves broke up in the the early fifties, when Powell joined Louis Jordan's touring band and took the drummer they'd eventually acquired along.

Enough is enough

In college I majored in PLO Studies, so, when Passover came around, I held liberation seders for my comrades in the struggle (kefiyyas optional). These days, I'm drawn to cultural conflicts closer to home, like the love-hate relationship between blacks and Jews, and I'm throwing a party for Pesach in a Black Judah frame of mind. "Go Down Moses" is best-known as Harriet Tubman's signature theme; it also nicely summarizes a chunk of the Passover haggadah (and beats the hell out of Dai-dai-yenu, let me tell you). Louis knows from Daiyenu: growing up in pre-WWI New Orleans, he worked for a Russian Jewish family as a delivery boy and occasional shabbos goy. In 1969, writing his memoirs from Beth Israel Hospital, he reminisced pointedly about the Karnovskys - the point being, the basic got-it-more-together-ness of Jews over blacks.

Armstrong's childhood years were the early days of the NAACP (founded and funded by Jewish philanthropists), when blacks and Jews were still "just friends." By the 30s and 40s, the heyday of the Old Left, they'd fallen in love and were thinking long-term. Richard Wright met his second Jewish wife through the American Communist Party (his first was a Russian ballerina). And Paul Robeson sang this Kaddish in Moscow and at rallies for the new state of Israel, introducing it as an anti-imperialist song. My, how times have changed.

But before the '67 war and Black Power tore the happy couple apart, blacks and Jews went shoulder to shoulder in the civil rights movement. Old Left networks helped the movement expand; Jewish kids like Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman joined James Chaney and Medgar Evers on the wrong side of KKK bullets. Bob Dylan did his part, opening for MLK in 1963 and writing a spiritual of his own,"I Shall Be Released," in 1967. Nina Simone, no slouch in the protest song department herself, summons the last shreds of necessary hope, singing as if deliverance might be shining out, just over yonder. Within five years, disgusted by the persistence of racism and despondent over the collapse of the civil rights movement, she'd exile herself from the States for good.

In the "Hassidic Chant," Robeson sang

And an end let there be

To all this sorrow and suffering

To which the women respond, enough is enough, already! Disco is a genre built on black women's voices and there's more than a little of the Sophie-Tucker-in-blackface vibe to this Gloria Gaynor knock-off, released the year after "I Will Survive" made female empowerment safe for the dance floor. But my mom is a huge Streisand fan, and when Barbra picked Donna Summer to sing one of the jasmin live songs from Yentl at the Oscars...well, in the decade of Meir Kahane and his Jewish Defense League, a Jesse Jackson on his way to Hymietown and a pre-Mendelssohn Farrakhan, this might count as one of very few diplomatic successes in black-Jewish relations.

Al Green isn't Jewish, but he could be. If you saw his name in a phonebook in Newark or Harlem, how could you tell? "Belle" is the Song of Songs of our times: that unbearable hybrid of the sensual and the divine, the language of sufis, Hasids, and mystics everywhere. This is post-reform Al Green, returned to his gospel roots and the rapture of divine love, expressing the kind of anguished, ecstatic longing that most of us only experience in the carnal realm. Teach on, Reverend. Everything is everything, and maybe some things are universal after all.

Take, for instance, the romantic comedy

Today's post is an homage to my long-time editor (wait, is two-plus years long?) Chuck Eddy, who was unceremoniously dismissed from the Village Voice a week ago. Perhaps to contest the allegations that his recent unemployment stems from his 'musical tastes,' here are a few selections of artists that Chuck has upped in the past, which could very well support or deny the claims, depending on the model of ears attached to your head.

While I do not have Chuck's classic book, Stairway to Hell, in front of me, here are a few choice selections from The Accidental Evolution of Rock'n'Roll, which trolls through the dollar bins of western society's junked musical culture like a homeless man looking for an unfinished hot dog bun. At times heinous, other times juicy and delish, I can only hope to one day again have the honor of writing for Chuck again. Or at the very least, grab a dog with him on the street.

Once upon a time in California, a trivial, technologically driven art form became a vessel for America's most delicate outpourings of affection. Free of adrenaline highs and the terrible burden of having something Terribly Important to say, films driven solely by the torque and traction between dialogue and character emerged. They were pure in a way that nothing seems pure anymore. At their best, they allowed screenwriters, directors, and chaturbat actors the freedom to revel in the sheer pleasure of filmmaking, and audiences their best chance to forget themselves in it. Don't get me wrong: Double Indemnity was conversational kung fu of the highest caliber. But in the great romantic comedies - The Palm Beach Story, The Shop Around the Corner, The Philadelphia Story - talk was a dance, wit was an engine, and conventions existed to court and toy with, rather than to fall back on or fling oneself against. Whatever happened to them?


American sweetheart Julia Roberts tells the interviewer. "It's almost impossible to find a good romantic comedy script... Really, I make as many good romantic comedies as I can find. But people talk as though I avoid [the] genre." Actually, Roberts goes beyond the call of duty; so intent is she on not avoiding the genre that she often ends up with the treacly, incontinent, or just plain terrible. Who can blame her? Today's best scriptwriter seems, when she turns to romantic comedy, incapable of approaching even the middling work of a 1930s hack. The audience seems incapable of telling the difference. Somehow our hearts have lost a good deal of their sweetness.

When intimacy is the agenda, young stars of our independent cinema - Todd Solondz, Neil LaBute - turn cynical and sour beyond their years; their films are the emotional equivalents of Jerry Bruckheimer blockbusters. But they've got the right idea: black comedy as black hole. A vindication, for the Hollywood suit, that for all the flack he catches for grinding out one vapid movie after another, the independents aren't producing anything more resonant. American Beauty, the year's "best" studio film, is a pastiche of such indies, and wildly successful, because given the grotesque cynicism of a movie like You've Got Mail (whose very title is a marketing pitch), its misanthropy seems genial and lyrical. Meanwhile, the genuine lyricism of a Noah Baumbach, or the screwball whimsy of an Emma-Kate Croghan, goes unnoticed. [Or did six years ago, when I wrote this.] Director, don't deal with intimacy in earnest! It's no longer viable as either a cultural or commercial commodity.

Which isn't to say we've grown shallower as a people, or that our need for intimacy has somehow diminished. Rather, it seems that intimacy - the space two people create to ward off the trespasses of the world at large - now runs counter to the interests of the people who shape the tone and tenor of our lives. Fifty-odd years ago, Orwell predicted a world in which the individual's bond to a state negated the possibility of any other relationship, and though it seems absurd to stack the demise of romantic comedy next to the collapse of democracy, Orwellian isn't a bad adjective to use if you want to describe what happened to it. It's not that the conventions changed, but that the space in which these films thrived - a space American audiences were invited to share and dream about for the price of a nickel - no longer exists. Meanwhile, another genre, which has only the most superficial relationship to comedy, and none at all to romance, has risen to take its place. I'm thinking, in particular, of deposition movies like Erin Brockovich and A Civil Action; films which take the grit of the depression years and transpose it into a language today's audiences can understand, and today's studios can stomach: that of tying individuals directly to a mass, or a movement, and creating a space which resembles intimacy, but doesn't quite provide it.

It's all about money

These are the first words you hear in Pretty Woman, which launched Julia Roberts' career as a star (her actual career in Hollywood began three years earlier, when she played second-fiddle to Justine Bateman in a film called Satisfaction). It's a telling start. In Pretty Woman, which relaunched the moribund genre of romantic comedy as a blockbuster form, Roberts' trajectory can be measured in one of two ways. In terms of narrative drive, we watch her character's value rise from twenty dollars an hour to a hundred, then to three thousand per week, and finally, as she metamorphoses from whore to princess bride, to "priceless." In terms of Pretty Woman as a career-maker, we see the star-making apparatus establish Roberts' own cultural currency through a series of implicit connections to a series of cultural signifiers - Carol Lombard, Carol Channing, Lucille Ball, and Audrey Hepburn. (More specifically, Audrey Hepburn in Charade. If Roberts doesn't quite acquit herself, it's Richard Gere that suffers more for the comparison to Cary Grant.)

Time will tell if she lives up to it; Roberts is not Hepburn. But she's got talent and charisma to spare, and throws herself fully into even the weakest roles; grins and gams go a long way, but they alone don't get you to the top. Still, the intervening years have done nothing to dampen Roberts' head for figures. While Pretty Woman was all about money in a rather disgusting eighties sort of way, the emotional climax of Roberts' latest film involves her receiving a bonus check for two million dollars! As Erin Brockovich, a role which earned her twenty million dollars, Roberts crunches numbers in much the same way that Demi Moore crunches abs, or Arnold Schwarzenegger crushes skulls. Thus, we see the embattled Erin defending her research before a big-time lawyer:

Good recall isn't the same thing as intelligence, of course, but in a Roberts movie it does just as well, because Roberts isn't playing a character so much as a projection against the scrim of celebrity. By sheer virtue of having made it to the top of the acting heap, Roberts' work is free of the odor of ambition that taints the performance of an actress like Sharon Stone. With Stone, you get the sense that she isn't so much throwing herself into a character as taking and holding by force a position that Rebecca DeMornay or Demi Moore might otherwise occupy. Sandra Bullock's girls next-door are inadvertently pathetic, because what shows under the surface is Bullock's own ambition to become the girl living next-door to Julia Roberts. (Rene Russo, whose sense of self was developed long before she turned to acting is a much better actress for it; she plays with her roles, and against her costars. Actresses like Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Susan Sarandon are another story entirely, for their stardom is incidental to their acting ability.) But Roberts' presence and celebrity makes it hard, no matter how generously she plays, to share the screen with her, and she is left with only the membrane of her own fame to play against: Her performances resonate in direct proportion to how sensitively she gives in to, or subverts, the audience's expectations. Watching her recite a list of facts and figures is like watching a favorite daughter win a spelling bee.

Nowhere is this more explicit than in Notting Hill, the romantic comedy in which Hugh Grant plays a charmingly befuddled English bloke who falls for "the world's most famous movie star," played, of course, by Roberts. Roberts seems to have made the film solely to convey a message about movie stars being real people with real thoughts, or, at least, real feelings. In any case, the film is full of monologues about what it's like to live on the wrong side of the screen: "I've been on a diet since I was nineteen," Roberts' Anna says at one point, "which basically means I've been hungry for a decade. I've had a series of not-nice boyfriends, including one who beat me, and every time I get my heart broken, the newspapers splash it about as though it's entertainment. And it's taken two rather painful operations to get me looking like this. And one day, not long from now, they will discover that I can't act, and I will become some sad middle-aged woman who looks a bit like someone who was famous for a while."

What Anna has to say for herself in the end is that she is "just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her." Somehow, though, her admission seems besides the point. Perhaps it's because it's not "just a girl" we've come to see fall in love, it's Roberts, and because it's not really love we've come to expect from her, but victory. More like it is seeing Roberts, at the climax of Runaway Bride, fleeing the altar in a FedEx truck.

The anti-romantic

IS THERE ANYTHING more pernicious in today's cinema than that ever-present FedEx truck? Anything more cynical, and anti-romantic, than product placement? But approach a young director with the proposition that, for a certain amount of money, you will insert into her film a twenty-second spot that will single-handedly undermine the bond of good faith between the film and its audience, and her first question will be "How much money?" Romantic comedy, that most delicate of genres, which we flock to in order to recapture a sense of the intimacy today's monolithic culture destroys daily, has become the leading victim of the most indelicate intrusions on that culture's part, and seems, at this point, the most compromised. Are audiences not wounded by this? Is the moviegoer not thrust deeper into her loneliness and insularity? Are we not surprised to see her snatch up gossip sheets, which, with their own brutal intrusions into the lives of celebrity, are her only means of lashing out at the thing that wounded her?

If romantic comedy no longer offers a refuge, there's a form that does: The deposition film. A subset of the courtroom dramas Hollywood's been making for decades, the archetypal deposition film - A Civil Action, The Sweet Hereafter, and A Few Good Men are all variations on the genre - involves a muckraker who goes about collecting testimony from grievously wounded individuals and collating them into a single, staggering lawsuit against a faceless entity (the military, the government, the media, the utility company, the corporation, or a conspiracy between any and all of these elements). Erin Brockovich sticks closely to the template: The residents of a small town in California have been steadily poisoned by their local utility company (which is itself a local branch of a gigantic, national corporation). We never see an employee of the company itself, only a series of bumbling lawyers who represent it. We do, however, see the individuals it wounds, flung against a desert landscape, united only by the efforts of Brockovich herself, who visits each in turn, collecting depositions. Alone, they are sick, dispirited, dying. United they defeat the corporation and win the biggest settlement in American history.

This is a powerful, resonant, agon: A single, despotic force versus a group of individuals, hurt one by one, united to form an aggregate mass; a true democracy united by revenge, and money. The one time we see Brockovich's individual victims in a single room, they are assembled to vote (and the vote must be unanimous) on whether to accept a certain settlement. Their acceptance is a victory. Their individual wounds are subsumed into it - each is wounded differently, yet each agrees to raise or lower the value of his or her wound to fit the value of the single, collective wound. The collective wins, the wound is healed. Movies need a hero, of course, so certain individuals are allowed to remain individual: Brockovich and the lawyers. That is to say, the heroes remain to rescue the individual into the fold.