I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Steve James, a filmmaker I've long admired, at the 52nd Chicago International Film Festival. You may read the interview at CINE-FILE Chicago, here.
On September 14 I took in the "Snowden Live" event, which featured a screening of Oliver Stone's new paranoid thriller about the man who alerted Americans they were under mass surveillance by their government. The movie was followed by a good-natured live Q&A session. Moderated by a dapper, buoyant Matt Zoller Seitz, editor-in-chief at RogerEbert.com and TV critic at New York Magazine, the panel featured Joseph Gordon-Levitt (spot-on as Snowden), Shailene Woodley, and a nicely disheveled, slightly uncomfortable Oliver Stone in New York. Snowden himself was piped in from Moscow. Zoller Seitz, who has a new book out on Stone, The Oliver Stone Experience, asked good, intelligent questions while not letting the proceedings become somber, despite the serious human rights issues at stake. The playful affair even ended with a cake and a "happy birthday" singalong for the director's 70th. "Happy birthday, dear Oliver," I sang.
Stone characterized his approach in the film as an attempt to humanize Snowden, and so a lot of it details his relationship with his girlfriend, Lindsay (Woodley). Some critics have found the movie a bit less than thrilling. It is overlong, and the Hollywood thriller elements feel a bit shoehorned in. It plays like the commercial movie it was very much made to be. (With less of an imperative to entertain, Laura Poitras' documentary on Snowden, Citizenfour, is spookier.) Still, I thought it a well-crafted, absorbing story about a thoughtful, gentle young man who did something very brave. What it reveals makes you shiver. And it's about something, which you can't say of a lot of what comes out of Hollywood. (In order to get access to Snowden, the filmmakers had to agree to buy the rights to, and base the film on (but not really), a potboiler novelization of the Snowden story called "Time of the Octopus" by Snowden's Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena.) I do wish the whole thing had the zip and humor of the pre-movie PSA, where Stone cautioned us to silence our cell phone, because there's enough on it "to burn your life to the ground." This was followed by a winking disclaimer where a voice assured us that the theater did not necessarily endorse the views of Olive Stone, and we were welcome to turn our phones back on after the movie.
Stone is a product of the 60s, yet he's a bit of a Hollywood classicist at the same time. In some sense his stories really aren't that removed from, say, Frank Capra. Not in tone, of course, and I don't say he has that touch. Still, his hero begins as a patriot, sometimes played by an actor associated on a meta level with American values (think of Kevin Costner in JFK). Then, he finds the principles were all just pretty words, and in fact are regularly violated. (Snowen's friend calls him "Snow White" for his innocence.) The Snowden we first meet is a genial, tolerant, conservative young man, who believes he is serving his country by working computers for the CIA and NSA. He is increasingly appalled by what he sees behind the veil--mass spying, drone strikes. He warms to Obama under the tutelage of the liberal Lindsay, believing the new president will staunch the abuse. Of course, he does not. Such violations turn American values into lies, and those who believed in them into dupes. Whereas Snowden began with blind faith, he comes to learn the government lies. It's an arc traced by Stone's generation, forged in the crucible of Vietnam. I wouldn't say his heroes come to question their patriotism, exactly. Rather, they tell truth to power as a way of insisting the country live up to its creed. Like Snowden, they won't have the pretty words become lies.
In the Q&A afterwards, Snowden came across as wry, reflective, soft-spoken, and self-effacing. He drew our attention to the whistle-blowers who had gone before him, and paid the price, such as Thomas Drake, who was in the audience in New York. A former NSA man, the government hit him with the Espionage Act.
A few words of Snowden's especially resonated with me. He was asked to comment on how he'd respond to someone who reasoned, well, I have nothing to hide, so why should I worry? Snowden began to talk about what privacy means to him (and here I paraphrase):
Privacy means you get to share with the world the part of you that says, this is who I'm trying to be. And in turn, you get to protect the part of yourself you're still experimenting with. It's a right to the self, and if we don't have that, we have nothing.
These words hit home with me, as a writer. Imagine not being able to keep private your works in progress, the experiments on the page where you're letting yourself think those thoughts you might not even want to think. Before deciding for yourself whether it's something you want to share with the world.
I pulled my Andre Bazin volumes down off the shelf. My collection includes his critical study of Jean Renoir (Jean Renoir, 1971). Edited by Francois Truffaut, the book was unfinished at the time of Bazin's death in 1958 at age of 40. Truffaut assembled the 1971 edition, including a filmography begun in 1957 by a team including Jacques Doniol-Valcroze (co-founder of Cahiers du Cinema), Jean Luc-Godard, Eric Rohmer, Jaques Rivette, and Truffaut himself.
I also had before me What Is Cinema? Volume 1 (1967) and Volume 2 (1971), which collect essays written from 1945 to 1957 and first published in places like Cahiers du Cinema, Critique, and Esprit.
Reading the books for probably the first time since my college days (long ago and far away now), I found Bazin's arguments engaging and lively. Straightaway in the Renoir study, in a chapter devoted to the silent films, he notes how blown away Renoir was by von Stroheim's Foolish Wives, then begins to wax rhapsodic about Catherine Hessling, if intimating that her bewitching effect on the director was not all to the good in terms of his growth.
Bazin writes, "Renoir's silent work is dominated by his principal actress, Catherine Hessling. It was to set off her extraordinary personality that he made Une Fille sans Joie (produced and written by Renoir, directed by Albert Dieudonne), La Fille de l'Eau, Nana, Charleston, and La Petite Marchande d'Allumettes. One cannot help but wonder how much of the credit for Jean Renoir's work belong to this woman, who was both his wife and his favorite actress. It is true that this remarkable doll-faced girl with the charcoal circles under her great bright eyes, and the imperfect but strangely articulated body reminiscent of the figures in certain Impressionist paintings, was an extraordinary incarnation of femininity. She was a curious creature, at once mechanical and living, ethereal and sensuous. But it seems to me that Renoir saw her less as a director than as a painter. Enchanted by the unique beauty of her body and her face, he worried less about directing the actress in her dramatic role than he did about photographing the woman from every possible angle. This more of less conscious aim is clearly discernible, for example, in Charleston, whose thin and whimsical scenario is little more than a pretext for an incoherent but charming exhibition of Catherine Hessling."
Here is Charleston (1927), my first exposure to Hessling.
Her charms are abundant. I found her every bit as fetching as Bazin advertised. The slow motion photography of the human body in motion is mesmerizing. It's interesting to think of this short in terms of the recently released Pioneers of African-American Cinema five-disc set, as well. Dennis Grunes notes, "the visitor is played by Johnny Huggins, a black man, in white man’s blackface, except for his painted-white lips, all of which create a truly unsettling image that sardonically comments on a store of racist minstrel history. Renoir is being very brave here."
Of Le Petite Marchande d'Allumettes (1928), Bazin writes that it's common to think of it "as a fairy tale and to classify it as a work of the French avant-garde. But if this judgment is correct historically, it is hardly so from an aesthetic point of view. More precisely, Le Petite Marchande d'Allumettes represents an intrusion of Renoir's realism into the themes and techniques of the avant-garde. The source of the still radiant charm of this little film is apparent today: it is the very realism of Renoir's fantasy. It is not Andersen's tale but Renoir's fascination with technical effects--the almost sensual pleasure he derives from the originality of his fantastic images--which is the basis of the film's poetry...From this Scandinavian fairy tale, Renoir has made a tender and sensual, bittersweet poetic fantasy in which even Death becomes a friend and acquaintance."
His pre-1930 years were a period, Bazin writes, in which Renoir "sought to cultivate the realism, the authenticity, which he had found in the popular American productions [of the 1920s] and in von Stroheim's work through the proper direction of his actors." He quotes Renoir speaking of how he made a study of "the movements of a scrubwoman, of a vegetable vendor or of a girl combing her hair before a mirror," of "French gesture as reflected in my father's paintings."
It was time for Karolyn and me to hop on a plane bound for the Mississippi Delta, touching down in Memphis (the "northern tip of the delta"), then pointing a car down Highway 61 towards Clarksdale, the "home of the blues." We meant to roll into town in time for the Clarksdale Film Festival, January 28-30, billed as "great Southern films, music documentaries & more." It's always a bit heady when one is in Clarksdale to tread in the footsteps of the likes of the Kings of Rhythm, Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller), Pinetop Perkins, Son House, Robert Johnson, W.C. Handy, Robert Nighthawk, Honeyboy Edwards, Big Jack Johnson, the Jelly Roll Kings, Bill Howl-N-Madd Perry, Super Chikan, and many more. The place where Wade Walton cut Allen Ginsberg's hair while Harry Smith looked on; where Bessie Smith passed away. Looked at one way, we were doing Muddy's journey in reverse, journeying from Chicago to Clarksdale instead of the other way round.
We had three nights in town, and we meant to fill the days with film, music, and barbecue (three of my favorite things). Of course, the first thing we did upon hitting Clarksdale was make it over to Abe's Barbecue, out by the crossroads, to savor some good ol' barbecue. As always, a tremendously gratifying experience.
The question on my mind was, would seeing these films about Southern music and culture in their cultural context alter the experience, so that the movies would enhance what we were seeing out in the streets, and vice versa?
Back at the Shack Up Inn, where the walls of our great little tin top shack, the Cadillack Shack, were covered in graffiti (juke joint style), amongst all the lovers' memories and encomiums to the blues, someone had scrawled something along the lines of, "This shack is a monument to exploitation." Now, I love the Shack Up Inn, a converted plantation where you can stay in the cotton gin or in sharecroppers' shacks, yet I think our writer's argument is one that any thoughtful person must grapple with, so I continued to muse. It's a wrongheaded argument, but why? Staying at the Shack Up, you are at ground zero for the kind of place blues came from, ground zero literally, so staying there has the effect of causing you to reflect about the exploitation that led to the blues. It's the old Hopson Plantation, where Pinetop Perkins worked and played, and where the mechanized cotton picker was introduced, which eventually drove the sharecroppers away from the fields. Cotton was king in the delta; there is a cotton field out front. I understand the writer's point, but blues music itself is a monument to exploitation, if you choose to approach it that way. It's also the life force, not just an expression of misery but the fiery joy and steely core, even of resiliency and finding ways to have fun and enjoy life even amidst hardship, as humans do. And it all happened not in spite of these oppressive conditions but as an almost chemical reaction with them. (While the inn's site makes the distinction that these were sharecroppers' shacks, not slave shacks, we know increasingly that sharecropping was, in a sense, "Slavery Part II.") I guess in the end I just think things are complex. It's a dynamic, a dialectic. Sharecroppping was exploitation, yes, but it was work. People needed it. Capitalism is exploitation of others by definition. The inn is a lot of funky fun, the textures and colors endlessly pleasing to the eye, a text full of signifiers wherever you look, a synedoche of the blues, a metonym. Rusting trucks, bottle trees gleaming when the sun hits them, all deep blues and emeralds. (In the Southern landscape the bottle are there, I read, to keep ghosts bottled up.) Fading Coca-Cola signs. Any tourist site is going to be slightly stage-dressed for you, and today Mississippi's economy depends on blues tourism (and, depressingly, casinos). It's full of details and nice touches like the prop guitars they make available; I love sitting on the porch of the Cadillac Shack pretending to play (while, doomed as always to think, I worry slightly about minstrelsy). Besides, would you rather stay at a soulless, flavorless place like a Hilton? In the end, I think it is a life-draining argument, whereas the Inn itself is joyous and life-enhancing.
Thursday, January 28, 2016
Every night there was a reception in the lobby of the Delta Cinema. Trays were piled high with meats and cheeses, peppers and garlic-stuffed olives. Free box wine flowed, and while cheap wine may be a false economy, no one was complaining. In a corner near the popcorn counter, the great bluesman Terry "Harmonica" Bean blasted out live music. Bean spends almost as much time telling stories as he does playing music. I read in his bio that his father had been a sharecropper. He jammed on "Got Love If You Want It" and traditional downhome blues, as well as Hill Country blues, the distinction of which from Delta Blues we would learn later from one of our films. The Delta's lobby is lined with real movie theatre seats, bolted in for just this sort of live performance/reception.
We repaired to the cavernous, shambolic old theater. Owner Bruce Elis needs $70,000 to "go digital" (as I gleaned another day when I overhead Roger Stolle, owner of Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art, discussing the matter: it sounds as though Stolle, a tireless booster of Clarksdale and the Delta Blues, is considering helping spurhead a drive for thee funds), but for now the theater is dank and smells of mothballs; its stillness is occasionally shattered by the roar of some kind of dehumidifer or air conditioner. The jerry-rigged projector is propped up on a theater seat. It's a funky place.
The first film of the festival for us was "Crossfire Hurricane," a superb Rolling Stones documentary. We watched it up until the death of Brian Jones and the advent of Mick Taylor, before we had to beat it over to Ground Zero blues club to tuck into some catfish and fried pickles. It features footage of the unbelievable violence that greeted the Stones wherever they played during their intial tours in the mid-60s. Riots broke out. They were part of the zeitgeist of the 60s, the general rejection of the older values and the "petty morality" of the older generation. The film's spine is audio of interviews done with the Stones for their 50th anniversary. Crucially, no cameras were allowed into the interviews. Thus, we hear but do not see the Stones, and the film finds a creative way around becoming another "talking heads" music doc, a format (or formula) that becomes a bit wearying when you see a lot of them back-to-back. Thus, the footage has the effect of illustrating their memories. The montage creates a centrifugal force, the nucleus or center of which is the incredible live footage of the band at their peak, almost unbelievably exciting and bracing. Keith's guitar roars like a concord, Charlie kicks hard and fast, and as Keith says, when you get two guys playing guitar together and you do it right, it can sound like an orchestra. Anyone who loves rock 'n' roll must respond. Images spin out from that core, colliding to create ideas. Brett Morgen, the director, has also made innovative docs like "The Kid Stays in the Picture," "Chicago 10," and "Cobain: Montage of Heck." Interesting: Keith and Mick both feel they were playing out roles thrust upon them externally: by Andrew Loog Oldham, by the cops. These rather posh English blues-loving boys found themselves cast as the "bad guys" to the Beatles' white hats. Speaking of the infamous pot bust, Keith avers the cops turned him into a outlaw, feeling he might as well live up the role if they were going to hang it on him. Jagger talks explicitly in terms of acting, and you can see him feeling the waves of energy of the audience, slightly startled by it as a young man, then learning to absorb it, to play the audience, sensing what he could potentially set loose, flirting with the darkness in it.
Theo "Boogieman" Dasbach, founder of the local Rock & Blues Museum (see more below) was on hand to introduct the film. Dasbach's love for music is contagious. He'd brought along items from his cherished Stones collection and he talked about what this band had meant to him as kid growing up in the Netherlands. He has an original edition of the single "It's All Over Now": that title felt pretty catyclysmic, he told us. He brought along a copy of the first album and he emphasized for us that the Stones's early material, before they moved to originals, was all blues and R&B.
Over at Ground Zero after the film, we heard a blues jam open mic with David Dunavent, during which Clarksdale elder statesman Razorblade sang a few numbers. A talented teenage band from Iowa was in town, thrilled to be in Clarksdale and playing Ground Zero: they'd won some kind of regional blues band challenge. Curiously, both bands that night had female drummers, still a relative anomaly. In fact, the guitarist for the teenage band commented that until that night, he'd never seen another female drummer except the one in his band. We were served by our favorite server, Temeara, who treated us to a beer flight gratis. I found I liked the Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan, and it would become my quaff of the trip.
Friday, January 29, 2016
After a pleasant morning rocking in our rocking chairs on the porch of the Cadillac Shack, we made our way back to the Delta Cinema, once again parking in our favorite spot along the Sunflower River.
Despite the heroic efforts of boosters like Stolle, Clarksdale remains an economically depressed area. In America the first thing they cut is education, says Theo "Boogieman" Dasbach puts it in "Cheesehead Blues: The Adventrues of a Dutchman in the Delta," as he and man he's showing around town encounter a homeless, mentally ill woman out at the mythic crossroads of Highways 61 and 49. It doesn't take much to see that a lot of our economic and social problems are down to lack of education. ("How many is in a half dozen?" I would later overhear a woman ask her lunch companion at Hick's Tamales.) This film was made by a fellow Dutchman, Jan Doense. I mused on how Europeans often seem to appreciate our American heritage more than we do ourselves, but then that's an old story. (Think of the Stones and their generation: it took the British, as Bob Dylan has noted, to reawaken Americans to our own heritage).
We met Dasbach in 2015 when we toured his excellent Rock 'n' Blues Museum, which he first put together in his native Amsterdam and later brought with him when he moved to Clarksdale. It occurred to me that having come from the Low Countries, the delta country around Clarksdale would seem familiar to him. I've been to the Netherlands, and indeed, driving up Highway 61 and regarding the marshy wetlands, I mused that it might remind Theo of home.
"Cheesehead" is populated by colorful local characters like Super Chikan and Watermelon Slim. The film is not going to win any awards for its straightforward camera, but it was fun to see our Clarksdale friends up on the big screen, including Stolle, "Red" Paden of Red's, and even the gent who'd checked us in at the Shack Up Inn, a co-owner. He gives a bit of background of the Inn, and Theo is shown hanging out there. The film walks you through Theo's museum as well, useful if you can't get there yourself, and it becomes interesting when it shifts to talking to blues women like Chicago's own Liz Mandeville.
After the film about Theo, we wanderd down Sunflower Avenue in a search for legendary Hick's Tamales. We passed the historic Riverside Hotel on the banks of the Sunflower River, haunt of the likes of Robert Nighthawk and Sonny Boy Williamson II, where Ike Turner invented "Rocket 88," where Bessie Smith died after a wreck on the highway. When Sunflower Avenue hit highway-like State Street, we crossed a bridge over the river and found Hick's. At first we found the door locked, but then Eugene Hicks himself, who's been at it since 1960, opened the door and and greeted us warmly. Shortly we were tucking into some of the hottest tamales I've ever had, as well as an order of rib tips slathered in the world's zingiest BBQ sauce, so good we bought a styrofoam cup full of the stuff for the road.
After the lunch we wandered over to the New Roxy, in front of which stands the Sam Cook Mississippi Blues Trail marker. It's across the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley railroad tracks in the historically African-American side of town, dubbed "the New World," the one-time "red light" district. We enjoyed two films there that afternoon. (You started to see some overlap. Bill Luckett, mayor of Clarksdale and co-owner of Ground Zero, turns up in a lot of these documentaries.) The current owners of the New Roxy have converted it into a kind of loft, with a ground floor bar and screening area under a mezzanine. It's still under construction, but the effect is of multiple levels and rooms to climb around and explore. Scramble out one door and you arrive in a partially open-air enclosed concrete lot running up to a stage, with all sorts of funky things strewn about like bicycles, pink flamingoes and old space heaters, a bit like a Southern amphitheatre.
We made it about a half hour late for "Very Extremely Dangerous." I sidled up with another Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan (thanks, Temeara!) as the film rolled. America loves its outlaws, its Wild West characters, and here's one: Jerry McGill. As if to illustrate the point above, you could gaze up and see hanging from the loft a tapestry of the pistol-packin' mama herself, Annie Oakley, pointing her six shooters at you. The film, an unflinching, unforgettable spectacle, is a portrait of a 70s-era "cowboy" McGill, a sometime Memphis musician, one-time running buddy of Waylon Jennings, and fulltime outlaw and maniac. It's a disturbing portrait of a true wild man, drug-fueled, gun-waving, and it refuses to offer any redemption. It incorporates footage of the young McGill, as charismatic as a Rolling Stone, shot by the great Memphis photographer William Eggleston (and culled from the same raw footage, titled "Stranded in Canton" by Eggleston, which the Big Star documentarians drew upon). McGill really is a mad, don't-give-a-fuck kind of guy, mean as a rattle snake, violent, abusive. I won't forget the spectacle of elderly, frail McGill cooking his (prescription!) medicine, then shooting up in the backseat of the car on the way to this hospital, his head bobbling maniacally on his wrecked frame. The camera gazes on as he slides the needle into the deep mauve, angry bruise (Eggleston's unflinching aesthetic might have influenced the filmmakers, Paul Duane and Robert Gordon). But then there's footage of a gig at a club towards the end of McGill's life where he plays heartbreakingly, beautifully. You'll wince, you'll laugh, you'll occassionally wonder why you are spending time with this asshole.
Next up was "You See Me Laughin': The Last of the Mississippi Hill Country Bluesmen." Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside: these are the Hill Country bluesmen, not from the Delta but the surrounding hills. The film takes us to Junior Kimbrough's juke joint, the late, lamented Junior's Place. The late, great T. Model Ford tells the horrifying story of how he only has one nut--his daddy beat him between the legs--and the story of the time he killed a man in a knife fight; earlier the same morning we'd seen the T-Model in "Cheesehead Blues," made in 2014 when he was in his 90s, and he was still telling the same stories, 12 years after this film. We meet relatively unsung figures like Asie Payton and Johnnie Farmer. CeDell Davis, who plays with a knife due to early polio's mangling of his hands, and whose startling music initially sounds out of tune until you get used to it, was championed by the late, great blues critic Robert Palmer, who shepherded Davis's recordings for Fat Possum records. We follow Fat Possum's founders, Matthew Johnson and Peter Redvers-Lee, for whom Palmer was a bit of a compass (he produced Kimbrough's "All Night Long" for the label) through the hills as they valiantly attempt to discover and curate these North Mississippi guys' music. For some of them it was their first time making proper albums, even though they were at relatively advanced ages. We meet Kenny Brown, a white guitarist who was R.L. Burnside's "adopted son," and we see fun footage of them performing together at a juke joint in the 70s. While the label always struggled, they had a big hit with R.L. Burnside's album with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (and that was a remix of a R.L. Burnside your heard over the opening credits of the "Sopranos.") Iggy Pop is on hand to wax rhapsodic about Fat Possum artists like Kimbrough, although he's a bit baffled by Cedell Davis's tunings. Iggy loved Kimbrough's music enough to invite the great man to tour with him in the mid-90s. "You See Me Laughin'" celebrates a too-often unsung corner of the blues world.
From the New Roxy we strolled back over to the Delta for what was becoming a habit I didn't want to break: hors d'oeuvres time in the lobby, this night digested to the exciting Junior Kimbrough-influenced blues of Sean "Bad" Apple. Having just come off the Hill Country documentary, it was eerie to hear him play Kimbrough's "All Night Long" with its keening "Junior, I love you...." refrain. He played a little R.L. Burnside as well.
We then repaired again to the downstairs cinema (we never did get to the upstairs one) to see Hank Bedford's 2015 narrative feature, "Dixieland." A faded, wilted American flag is this poetic, powerful drama's signifier of the state of the American dream, and this fated film stands as a portrait of how some of us live in America today. The tone reminds me of a Southern Soderbergh, with moments of lyricism evoking Malick with a Southern accent. Interweaving its fiction with interviews with real-life people from the margins, the film features Chris Zylka is a good-hearted ex-con called Kermit, just sprung from jail for running his mom's boyfriend, sleazy strip-club owner Larry Pretty (Brad Carter), out of her hot tub with a shot gun. Riley Keough's electric, blank expression puts one in mind of Kuleshov's famous editing experiment, though Jonathan Rosenbaum has written about the sexism of critiques of the "blank" performance in women and not men (it's considered tough when Clint does it). Riley Keough is Elvis's granddaughter, and she plays the young woman who lives next door to Kermit. Her gaze is fascinating, with no choice but to wear all that history haunting her cheekbones. Faith Hill, the country star, is memorable as Kermit's good-hearted mother, who is loving and, in her way, innocent, and whose sartorial choices evoke prostitution. You get the sense she might have had Kermit early. "So we grew up together, my mother-child and me." She wants him to stay away from his goofy buddies, who sell drugs. He'd like to cut hair, and he's good at. Steve Earle is on hand as a crusty, good-hearted uncle who lives around the way, and who owes the local drug dealer money. In Pearl, Mississippi, where you grow up fast, where there's no employment, poll dancing is work if you are a woman, with intimations of prostitution; drug dealing is a good business if you are a young man. In the writing and performances, the movie works like a well-turned short story, or even a Springsteen song. These feel like real people--really just kids--who happen to sell drugs, not "drug dealers." There are beautiful, effusive, sun-drenched shots of swimming holes where the young lovers loll. We meet them at those moments when they are forced to take certain decisions, action moments, life-or-death decisions. Kermit should know that "one last job" never ends well. One scene jars: at the strip-club where Riley dances, Kermit saves her diffident, embarrassed turn on the poll from boos and disaster by impulsively borrowing cash from his drug dealer and making it rain for her. (Now he's into the drug dealer for the loan.) The problem with the scene is how it's shot: it's fully intoxicated with the moment, like a hip-hop video, whereas it should have been shot to drain the moment, to distance us.
Over post-movie pizza at the Stone Pony, where we were regaled by Taylor Bailey, we beat it over to Red's Blues Club to see a treasure of a set by 83-year-old Leo "Bud" Welch. We ran into the writer/director of "Dixieland," Hank Beford, at Red's, and we told him he'd made a powerful piece.
Saturday, January 30, 2016
After a good Southern breakfast at the Bluesberry Cafe (I still think of that pork chop), we hopped on the Movie History Bus Tour trolley. Our guide was Robert Birdsong. Not only did he take us by the historic movie theaters, but he took us up into the grand Tennessee Willliams part of town, which we'd never seen (frankly, we didn't know it existed.) We rolled past the Tennessee Williams park and into the mansion district. During the Tennessee Williams Fest, Birdsong told us, plays are performed on the grand porches, and you can wander the neighborhood from play to play. As we rolled around the historic neighborhood, Birdsong pointed out where the real-life characters who inspired characters in Tennesse's plays and movies lived. A bully who beat him up he would later cast as a homosexual in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." We saw the Cutrer Mansion, which Birdsong told us was the real-life "Belle Reve," the lost ancestral manse for which Blanche and Stella pine in "A Streetcar Named Desire." He pointed to the neighborhood spots where once played and walked the real-life models for Maggie the Cat and Baby Doll and the Glass Menagerie's Amanda Wingfield. If you squinted, you could almost see them.
He mentioned that Jack Cutrer, husband of Blanche Clark Cutrer (the daughter of Clarksdale's founder) and a bit of a rascal from the sounds, knew "everybody in movies," all the B-western actors like Kit Carson and Lash LaRue.
Back in "The New World," the African-American side of town, Birdsong alotted a good deal of time to talking about Aaron Henry, a pharmacist and head of the Mississippi branch of the NAACP, who rode with the Freedom Riders in '61, and was a founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democrats. As we lingered in front of the site where Henry's pharmacy once stood, Birdsong told us the story of the struggle to get the freedom delegation seated at the '64 convention, instead of the all-white delegation. He served in the Mississippi House for 14 years (1982-96).
Passing an empty field, he evoked for us the days when it hosted "tent shows," passing around a photograph of such a show, boasting attractions such as Bessie Smith and "The Prisoner of Zenda."
It was fun to get Birdsong's perspective, as someone who'd grown up in Clarksdale, who presumably still remembers segregation. As we passed the New Roxy he talked about how they could show more risque films because it was on the black side of the tracks. You could picture him sneaking over.
We rolled past the ship-shaped building along the Sunflower where Jim O'Neal, blues scholar, had started Rooster Records.
Actually, taking this tour gave me a dramatic feel for Southern life I hadn't had before, these grand mansions, churches and schools for the "cotton-rich" just a few minutes from the part of town where their broke, pushed-down, black cotton-pickers lived and worked. The contrast couldn't have been sharper to the rest of crumbling, funky Clarksdale.
Back at the Delta, we saw a terrific film about the Rev. Gary Davis, "Harlem Street Singer." In one of the rare instances of one of the greats being rewarded in his own lifetime, when Peter, Paul and Mary recorded Davis's "Samson & Delilah," they made a point of insisting that the Reverend get paid, even bringing him in to sign an affidavit saying he'd written it (this was initially a hiccup, in that Davis insisted he had not written it so much as it had been revealed to him by God). Thereafter, and for the rest of his life, he was set. (Peter, Paul, and Mary's records made good money). This revealing documentary is important for establishing Davis as a true original, and a beloved teacher to a generation of guitarists (Bob Weir, Jorma Kaukonen). An innovative picker who never played a song the same way twice, he played like no one else; listeners could not pigeonhole him. Was his music blues or gospel or ragtime (his influences included march music)? The film's footage of Davis performing, including stretches of his appearance at Newport '65, are a spine-tingling delight. I enjoyed watching his fingers. His spectral music was covered by the Dead ("Death Don't Have No Mercy" and "Samson and Delilah") and the Stones ("You Gotta Move," though they might have been doing Mississippi Fred McDowell's version.) The film's emotional climax is footage of a warm recording session celebrating Davis's music, organized specifically for the film, featuring guitarist Woody Mann (a co-producer of the film) and the stirring voice of Bill Simms, Jr. Actually, for me, Simms, Jr. was the great discovery of the Fest. I made a note to purchase immediately any album made of this music (and I find the session has been released under the name of the "Empire Roots Band.") Simms, Jr. sings Davis's music absolutely gorgeously, and these scenes depict the joy of musicians discovering music together in a way that put me in mind of "Once."
After the film we repaired to the lobby once again for my new favorite ritual: hunkering down over that table groaning with trays of meats and cheese, the flowing wine. Other musicians passing through would ask Sean "Bad" Apple, once again laying down the reception's music, if they could sit in and wail. This night, a man wielded a melodica, tickling Bad Apple, who was all for it. It was an instrument I'd never seen used as a blues harp, not, that is, until Thursday night, when we'd seen this same man take the stage at Ground Zero as part of the open mic/jam night. The strange instrument delighted all in attendance that night as well.
We even met a young girl who'd drawn careful, skillful copies on her shoes of John Teniell's wonderful drawings from "Alice in Wonderland," drawings I've always loved.
Once again we decamped into the theater for "America's Blues," a new music documentary which feels a bit undigested, though it is clearly a labor of love. We had encountered its young director, Patrick Branson, earlier that day on the trolley tour. Someone struck up a conversation, and he explained that while there had been a lot of films made about the blues, his was different in that it showed the impact of the blues on American literature. Would that it had focused on that issue. In fact it flits over it, talking about how the language of Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison were influenced by blues, as it flits over a head-spinning array of other subjects, never alighting on any one long enough for a theme to emerge. And at the same, it does tread some by-now quite familiar ground. This is a young man's film: he seems to want to include every little tidbit he and co-writer Aaron Pritchard found during their research. They are clearly excited about their subject and eager to convey the excitement, to show the impact of the blues on every aspect of American life, but by the time the films arrives at "Peanuts" and the contention that Schroeder is one of the great jazz pianists, our heads were spinning. Still, there is a tremendous amount of good material here. The talking-heads sections, while flatly lit and framed, feature some interesting commentators making provocative points (Lonnie Johnson's biographer Dean Alger theorizes that the birthplace of the blues might actually be New Orleans; Jimbo Mathus from Squirrel Nut Zippers has some interesting things to say, and I always enjoy hearing from Terrence Blanchard). I liked it when it touched on blues women like Samantha Fish and Chicago's own Sharon Lewis. To their redit, Branson and Pritchard underline and put in bold print America's ugly history of vitriolic opposition to "race mixing" (we see protestors with placards calling it "communism"). Also admirably, they bring hip-hip into the mix, enlisting Drumma Boy, and country music as well, a nice and rare touch (Jimmie Rodgers is shown singing "Blue Yodel"). We get more performance footage of my new find Bill Simms, Jr., as well as Leo "Bud" Welch and Big George Brock. Branson and Pritchard will go on to make many good films, I am sure, and they will learn to marshall their material. If they get a bit lost here, the detours themselves are pleasurable. You should see it if you care about the blues, but it shouldn't be the first blues documentary you see.
That evening we stayed in at the Shack Up Inn, where we ate at the Inn's restaurant, Rust (good pulled pork sandwich and fish tacos) while listening to live music at the Juke Joint Chapel from Frankie Boots (two gregarious and talented musicians, a guitarist and a stand-up bass man who also plays a nice trumpet). We got to chatting with them after the set and we told them we though they'd go over big in New Orleans. We then wandered next door to the Hopson Commissary to hear more music, which turned out to be not the blues but a fun rock cover band. Karolyn requested, and they played, a nice version of "She Talks to Angels" by the Black Crowes.
The Clarksdale Film Festival is a pretty thoughtfully organized experience that enhanced my appreciation of the blues, an immersive experience of blues, BBQ and films. The answer to that question I posed near the beginning of this report turnred out to be a resounding "yes." Clarksdale itself, as a town, often seems like a labor of love. It's dotted with people who chucked in what they were doing before, sometimes good white-collar jobs, to follow and express their love of the blues. These are my kind of people. In one of the fest's films, we hear a man lament the "Disney blues" and worry that blues might become essentially a "novelty" music, a bit like traditional New Orleans jazz. By this I suppose he means something beautiful, but no longer a living language. At least as practiced in Clarksdale, blues is alive, breathing. At the Shack Up Inn, you may feel that ghosts are alive, if you happen to be sitting on your rocking chair on the porch looking over the plantation at just the right time, when the sun hits the blue bottle trees just right. You feel the sun and wind on your face; you may just feel the spirit of the blues wafting by in the breeze.
A few postscripts:
*There was at one time a large community of Syrian immigrants in Clarksdale and the Delta, an interesting historical tidbit in light of the current climate.
*Do see Roger Stolle's "M for Mississippi: A Road Trip Through the Birthplace of the Blues" if you've a chance, in which Stolle and Jeff Konkel are bemused characters tracking down their blues heroes. It was playing at the fest, but we'd already seen it.