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Saturday
Feb062016

Clarksdale Film Festival, 2016: A letter from the Mississippi Delta

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. 

Monday
Oct192015

A book review: "Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry"

It's a great title, Flickering Empire, evoking not only celluloid running through a projector but a flame, capturing the evanescent nature of Chicago's early film industry.  It burned for a brief, bright moment, then was snuffed out. (Not to say there's not a fine film industry in Chicago today, but that's another story: this book the story of how the center of the film industry came to shift, once and forever, from Chicago to Hollywood.) The subject of this fascinating book is what historian Susan Doll, who also wrote the book's foreword, reckons is "Chicago's best-kept secret": the city's history as "the original Hollywood." As the subtitle indicates, the book promises to explicate how Chicago "invented" the U.S. film industry. Penned cleanly and with dry wit by two Chicago locals, film teacher/filmmaker Michael Glover Smith and historian/tour guide Adam Selzer, the book successfully prosecutes its case for Chicago's "pioneering roles in the production, distribution, and exhibition of motion pictures in the United States." In one swoop it intertwines two of yours truly's main interests: Chicago history and film history.
 
In fact it was at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago that Thomas Edison had hoped to give movies their great roll-out. However, he couldn't get "his" invention, the "Kinetoscope," an individual peep-show machine, on-line in time for the fair. It seems his right-hand man (and the Kinetoscope's real inventor) W.K.L. Dickson, had suffered a mental breakdown under the whip of taskmaster Edison. (Dickson would soon defect to form what became the Biograph Company.) Thus, Glover Smith and Selzer disabuse us of a scene in Erik Larson's Devil in the White City where the murderer Holmes watches a movie on the Kinetoscope. This was apparently one of the novelistic flourishes that brought Larson's Chicago classic to life. Glover Smith and Selzer speculate that the scene was likely inspired by Edison's pre-Exposition publicity posters, which did in fact promise the machines would be there.
  
Nonetheless, the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago still played a major role in movie history. It featured what the authors reckon "probably deserves to be called the first commercial movie theater in the world": Eadweard Muybridge's Zoopraxigraphical Hall. Muybridge, utilizing his invention, the Zoopraxiscope, "a sort of primitive movie projector," did in fact make images appear to move on a screen. (Prior devices like the Kinetoscope had only allowed for individual peeping). Unfortunately, as the authors wryly note, Muybridge's imagination was limited to using the Zoopraxiscope to illustrate principles of animal locomotion, and the Hall was "a total flop" with fairgoers: "Given the choice between watching Little Egypt dance the hootchie coo and seeing Professor Muybridge present a lecture on animal locomotion, nearly everyone went with Little Egypt." A much bigger hit elsewhere at the fair was Otto Anschutz' "Tachyscope," a device similar to the Zoopraxiscope.
 
Many of the men who would go on to found the Chicago film industry were first turned on to the possibilities of film at the Columbian Exposition. One man mightily inspired by seeing the Tachyscope was a young George Spoor, who would go on to team with an inventor from Waukegan named Edward Amet to pioneer the film exhibition business in the 1890s and, in 1907, to found, with partner Gilbert M. Anderson, what will always be Chicago's most famous contribution to film history: the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company. (Spoor was the "S" in "Essanay," Anderson the "A".) 
Co-founder Anderson was a multi-millionaire cowboy, better known by his stage name "Broncho Billy," "cinema's first true cowboy star." Broncho Billy's fame was soon eclipsed by Tom Mix, the biggest discovery of Colonel William Selig, Essanay's chief Chicago rival. There's a fun photograph in the book of Mix, one of the few movie cowboys with real cowboy experience, entertaining children with a lasso during a performance at Soldier Field. (The book is well illustrated throughout, with a fine collection of images from the Chicago History Museum and other archives.) Anderson would live a good long life anyway, staging many comebacks before dying in 1971 at the age of 90.
 
Even the film pioneers who weren't at the World's Fair in person had links to it. This brings us back to Colonel Selig, the man who some historians, including his biographer Andrew Erish (as cited by Glover Smith and Selzer), have called "the man who invented Hollywood." Selig founded the first-ever Chicago motion-picture studio (and one of the first in the world) when he set up what would eventually come to be called the Selig Polyscope Company in 1897 in Chicago's 'brothel-strewn 'tenderloin district'" down on East 8th in between State and Wabash.  
 
The authors note that Selig used the money he made from Selig Polyscope to buy one of the original automobiles: these "horseless carriages" had been rolled out at the 1893 World's Fair. "The Colonel would use the carriage as a prop for chimpanzees in his popular animal pictures." In another link to the Columbian Exposition, Selig "would also use the replicas of Christopher Columbus's ships that had been built for the fair in a 1912 movie, The Coming of Columbus, which was among the first feature-length motion pictures." 
 
By 1894 there were 10 Kinetoscope parlors down on State State in Chicago's Loop, which is where Amet and Spoor first saw the machines. "Chicago was a central destination for many European immigrants who were constantly arriving and contributing disproportionately to the city's population growth. The movies, with their purely visual and universal language, were the best form of cheap entertainment for newly arrived immigrants who did not speak English."
 
Also knocking around in Chicago at the time was another key player in the tale, George Kleine, the "undisputed king of film distribution in the United States."
 
In 1895 Amet built a laboratory in Waukegan. The authors call this "the world's first film studio." (Unfortunately it was demolished in 1965). In fact in later years, Spoor and Amet would claim they were experimenting with projecting film in the Chicago suburbs as early as 1894, a full year before the Lumiere brothers' "invention" of the movies. This occurred on December 26, 1895, "the birth of the movies" in many histories. The Lumiere brothers in Paris unveiled their "Cinematographe," an event that is "believed to be the first time 35mm film projection occurred before a paying public."  
 
Back in the states, Selig can take credit for shooting the first narrative film ever made in Chicago. Made in Rogers Park (maybe in 1896, maybe not until 1899), The Tramp and The Dog, now lost, told the story of a tramp just barely making it over a fence before a bulldog got a big hunk of his pants. A massive hit, the film established both "pants humor" and tramp-themed films. Future Essanay star Charles Chaplin would take these forms to transcendent glory.
  
Meanwhile, Edison bought up the patent to a projector invented by others and called it the Vitascope, then patented that, "ostensibly forcing anyone who wanted to show motion pictures projected onto a screen to pay him a royalty...Almost all of the motion-picture production and distribution companies in New York and New Jersey, because of their close proximity to Edison and his patent-enforcing 'Goon Squad,' agreed to pay licensing fees to use and/or sell equipment that resembled any of the devices Edison had patented...That stagnation [in the northeastern U.S. film industry, thanks to Edison's monopolistic practices], in turn, allowed the Chicago companies, by virtue of being farther away from Edison geographically, to gradually build themselves up over the next several years."
 
The very first film review to appear in a Chicago newspaper, published in the July 7, 1896 edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, reviewed movies presented by "Edison's" Vitascope projection system. (You can almost see those "air quotes" around the possessive case of Edisons's name on behalf of Glover Smith and Selzer.)
 
In 1896, Alexandre Promio came to Chicago to make Chicago Police Parade for the Lumiere brothers. This film still exists. Reviewing it, the authors note wryly that all but three of the Chicago policemen in the parade sport big bushy mustaches.  
 
(The authors note that in that same year Promio "would become a major footnote in motion-picture history by effectively inventing camera movement when he took his Cinematographe to Venice and placed it on board of a gondola.")  
 
Smash hits with audiences of the age were the films Amet/Spoor made about the 1898 Spanish-American War. Denied permission to go to Cuba to film the actual battles, Amet recreated them. Thus, he "single-handedly invented the pseudo-documentary genre."   
  
A fascinating side-note: in 1903 Selig recycled war movie footage made in 1898 and passed it off as footage of the Philippine War, which, as the authors point out, "did not actually break out until a year after the movie was shot. To paraphrase Charles Foster Kane, Selig was providing the actualities and was content to let the United States government provide the war."
  
Almost every page of Flickering Empire contains a fascinating nugget or an amusing anecdote like that, such as the time Selig Polyscope was shooting a bank robbery scene in Oak Park in 1907 and the police turned up and arrested everyone.
 
Then there are nuggets like this, which somehow speaks to something in the very nature of film itself, something about communing with the dead: 
 
"To many believers, the phenomenon of mediums talking to the dead, a spectacle that emerged around the same time as the early motion-picture experiments of Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey, was the wonder of the modern age. It was while in Dallas that Selig first saw a true wonder of the age: Edison's Kinetoscope." 
 
Edison held the patents and the copyrights. In self-defense, his former employee, now foe, W.K.L. Dickson snatched up the patent to the Latham loop. When Edison and Biograph finally came together they founded the Motion Picture Patents Company (the MPPC) in 1908, consolidating all patents and establishing a licensing system. The MPPC now controlled not only the production of motion pictures (studios had to have a license from Edison to work), but even the stock with which movies were made (Eastman Kodak would sell film only to licensed filmmakers.) 
 
Selig and Edison had been foes, but a legal arrangement worked out with Edison on behalf of Selig by a legal team brought in by Armour and Company established a truce. (Selig had produced what amounted to very early commercials for the meatpackers, who'd recently been scandalized by Upton Sinclair's The Jungle). By 1907 both Selig and Essanay had joined up, and the Edison Trust was in place, ushering in the short-lived "golden age" of film production in Chicago. 
 
"It is hard to overstate how phenomenally popular motion pictures were in 1914," the authors note. This was the golden age of Selig and Essanay. Selig's brightest star, Kathlyn Williams, was as popular as any movie star of her time. Williams was "the Selig Girl," Chicago's answer to "the Biograph Girl," Florence Lawrence, who by 1909 had become what some historians have called "the first screen star." The Adventures of Kathlyn, for its part, was the first American cliffhanger serial. "Moving Picture World wrote of fans waiting in line for hours, even in the notoriously bad Chicago winter weather, to attend the latest Kathlyn serial." 
 
Selig also triumphed with its "landmark newsreel," the Hearst-Selig News Pictorial.   
 
Essanay had its own triumphs: "The most important surviving Chicago-shot Essanay film of [the golden age], and arguably the masterpiece of all of its extant movies, is From the Submerged, a drama released in November 1912 that was written and directed by Theodore Wharton and starred the beautiful Ruth Stonehouse."
  
Which brings us to our town's claim to cinematic fame that not even doubters can dispute: we are the city where Charles Chaplin's career was born, when Essanay signed him in 1914. The fact is, though, that while he liked hanging out at the Green Mill, Chaplin was miserable in Chicago almost immediately. He made one film here, His New Job, then promptly decamped for Essanay's Western studio in Niles, California. As the authors note, "Chaplin's entire Chicago residency lasted 23 days." We glean interesting details about Chaplin from his brief sojourn in Chicago that flesh out our view of one of cinema's greatest artists, such as that he was a truly cheap bastard, and that he went to see Birth of a Nation, which "forever codified the 'language' of movies," at least once a week. 
 
The authors are careful to ensure that Edison comes out of their book as a mixed bag. For all its repressive practices, the Edison Trust "regulated and stabilized the nascent film industry and provided the model for the Hollywood 'studio system' by merging its production and distribution companies." Also on the "plus" side of the ledger: Edison Studios produced 1896's The Kiss, a massive hit, as well as 1903's The Great Train Robbery, starring Gilbert M. Anderson, the future "Broncho Billy" and co-founder of Essanay, and directed by Edwin S. Porter, whom historian Lewis Jacobs credits with having invented film editing, "the basis of motion picture artistry." 
  
Edison's gravest mistake may have been not to understand that movies were to be, as the authors put it, "a business driven by creativity and talent." If anything, a man like Edward Amet emerges as the true inventor/visionary of the era.  
  
Flickering Empire provides a twin service in that it provides at once a more detailed history of Chicago film history than has ever been attempted, while at the same time providing a concise history of the birth of the movies. While general readers may tire of the details of the business machinations and legal wranglings in Flickering Empire--even as a student of film history, my eyes glaze over a bit at that side of things--the authors delineate developments in the film business of the late 19th/early 20th century, particularly in distribution, in a clear, linear way, unraveling a tangled tale, so you understand how the founding of, say, 'film exchanges,' led to the next step. (Klein's distribution of real French films from Pathé Frères in the United States, as opposed to Edison's duped versions, enraged Edison and might have spurred on his founding of the MPPC). The early Chicago film figures were entrepeneurs as well as inventors and scientists, so this is necessarily a business story as well. 
 
At the same time they give us a concise version of the birth of film. It's a story that film buffs will have encountered in sometimes unwieldly detail in other books. I'm thinking especially of Lewis Jacobs' The Rise of the American Film: A Critical History, as well as the first three volumes of the University of California Press' mammoth History of American Cinema series (Charles Musser's The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907, Eileen Bowser's The Transformation of Cinema, 1907-1915 and Richard Koszarski's An Evening's Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-1928).
    
The book brings half-forgotten comedians and directors back to life. We meet Hobart Bosworth (The Count of Monte Cristo, 1908): he was the "Dean of Hollywood." Beverly Bayne was the "Queen of the Movies," and Francis X. Bushman was the "King of the Movies." They would go on to marry: the "first superstar screen couple."
 
Ben Turpin and Wallace Beery were Essanay comedians. Turpin, a former janitor, was the star of An Awful Skate, directed by Anderson, who simply strapped a pair of skates on Turpin and pushed him down a crowded downtown Chicago street, where he proceeded to wreak havoc and crash into pedestrians. (Turpin wasn't acting: he really couldn't skate.) The film was a massive hit, and after leaving Essanay Turpin would go on to achieve superstardom in 1917. 
 
These people are alive, so long as we read. 
 
Along with the little-remembered figures, we also encounter legends such as Gloria Swanson. Discovered by George Spoor, she left Essanay by 1915 and was ready to abandon the movie business altogether to travel the world. She was intending to just pass through Hollywood on her way abroad, but she stopped to say hello to old friend Wallace Beery and he showed her around. She became entranced by the "absurd" "freaks," the colorful characters in the brand-new movie town. (She and Beery were unhappily married for a few years, 1916-19). She got snapped up by Keystone, and by 1925 Gloria Swanson was a huge, huge star. Modern audiences remember her most for her unforgettable comeback performance as a former silent screen star, in 1950's Sunset Boulevard.
 
I love encountering the palimpsest of the past just under the surface of everyday life. Glover Smith went out and snapped photos for this book of both the "Diamond S" logo carved into the door over the sole remaining Selig Polyscope building in Chicago, abandoned only recently, and the exterior of the original Essanay Studios over at 1300 N. Wells, where the word "Essanay" is still proudly emblazoned on the flagstone over the door. I was chuffed to read that at the height of the Selig studio's expansion in 1908, Selig had several blocks over by Irving Park Road and Western, which is only a short jump from our home. "These new facilities included outdoor stages, artificial hills, a giant man-made lagoon, 'jungle trees' and an interior studio with a glass roof." Today Essanay Studio is part of St. Augustine College, and restoration efforts are underway. The old interior Essanay stage where Chaplin made "His New Job" is still there: today it is the Charlie Chaplin Auditorium.
 
As someone interested in the history of censorship, I found an unexpected late turn in Flickering Empire a treat: its history of Chicago censorship. In 1912 Chicago put its censorship board in place, with the post of chief censor going to one Major Metullus Lucullus Cicero Funkhouser, a former Chicago cop and veteran of the Spanish-American War. Within Our Gates by Oscar Micheaux deconstructed the racism of Birth of a Nation; in the wake of the Chicago race riots of 1919, the board banned it. In fact, they censored everything from footage of the 1915 capsizing of the SS Eastland in the Chicago River to an instructional film on how to do the 'hesitation waltz, the turkey trot and the tango." "Funkhouser's meddling repeatedly halted the regular flow of local distribution and exhibition."
   
We get two interesting post-scripts:
 
"One of the best-kept secrets of Chicago's secret film history is that the Second City was in fact first when it came to producing 'race movies.'" Selig Polyscope studio is where Oscar Micheaux, the great pioneering African-American filmmaker, shot his first film, in 1918. Based on his own 1917 novel The Homesteader, the film is lost today, sadly. Micheaux also made Within Our Gates (1918), the earliest surviving feature film made by a black director. Like Griffith, Micheaux's film "cuts back and forth between action occurring in separate locations in order to generate a suspenseful climax." As the authors note, "The Oscar Micheaux story deserves to be much more widely known, and his films deserve to be more widely seen."
 
The second postscript has to do with the Chicago origins of a titan: Orson Welles was a student at the Art Institute of Chicago when he made The Hearts of Age in Woodstock, a Chicago suburb. Though in later years Welles would claim his student film was meant as a parody of the avant-garde, the authors raise the possibility that it might have been an earnest attempt to work in that genre, with only defensive hindsight on the mature Welles' part. It's fascinating either way. "Like the early sketches of a master painter, the film in many ways points the way towards the greatness that was to come." I had seen this truly weird film before without fully registering that it was a Chicago production. As I recall, Criterion included it as an extra on its edition of 'F' for Fake (thus bringing together Welles' very first film with his last).
 
Of course it all fell apart. We're talking about Chicago, after all! As the Edison Trust felt the blows from independent producers and exchanges, and was simultaneously buffeted by lawsuits, the Chicago film industry began to decline. In part this was due to Edison's recalcitrance and myopia: for one thing, he refused to produce or release feature-length films. By 1920 Chicago was a "veritable cinematic ghost town." 
 
Ironically, the former independents the MPPC had tried to squeeze out--mavericks like William Fox, Carl Laemmle and Adolph Zucker--went on to establish the new Hollywood order. In 1906 Laemmle opened up one of the new storefront theaters called Nickelodeons in Chicago; thus, his Universal Picture empire had its roots in our great city. 
 
You could claim, I suppose, that the real story of the movies begins where this book leaves off. Certainly most prior film histories have proceeded as if this were the case. After Flickering Empire, though, it won't be as easy for historians to be so dismissive of Chicago's major role in film history. Glover and Smith's book amasses enough evidence and accumulates enough detail to make the case that, as the authors say, "so much came together in Chicago." 
 
*As a fun footnote, a film this book calls one of the "most significant Chicago-shot Essanay films of its era," Arthur Berthelet's 1916 Sherlock Holmes starring William Gillette (who had already spent a decade touring as Holmes with the theatrical production he co-wrote with Arthur Conan Doyle himself in 1899), is showing this month at the 51st Annual Chicago International Film Festival after being lost for almost a century! The authors write that it was "the first feature-length Sherlock Holmes movie as well as the first film in which the famed detective was portrayed wearing his soon-to-be-iconic deerstalker cap." As the Fest's program notes, the film "miraculously emerged last year from a French cinema archive." 
Tuesday
Dec092014

Notes on watching "Treme" and "When the Levees Broke" with my baby

Karolyn and I seldom catch TV shows when they first go out, preferring to go at our own pace and in our own time.  We catch up eventually, though.  Watching the series "Treme" was a special viewing experience for us.  We will miss following our New Orleans friends (LaDonna and Delmond and Toni, Albert and Antoine and Annie, etc.,) around as they rebuild and heal and begin again in the years following Katrina.  There is a palpable sense that these lives go on even now that the cameras are off.  Only today, I thought of Terry (David Morse), an honest cop, a good man.  Important to remember a good man too, in these times when we rail, and quite rightly, against police brutality.  And to remember how Terry was hounded out for challenging the department's culture of brutality and corruption.

The show deserves a salute for being itself an act of preservation and curatorship of New Orleans heritage. It's a show about rebirth, created, written and produced by people rooting that rebirth on: David Simon and Eric Overmyer.

"Treme" beamed New Orleans culture all over the country (the music, the food), so we could learn about it in Chicago. That's how we learned about Kermit Ruffins and his code of partyin', about Mardi Gras Indians and Big Chief, and so much more. When we started visiting New Orleans together, the show enriched our visits; in turn, our visits enriched our experience of the show. We'd be sitting there on the couch watching the show after returning from New Orleans and a scene would appear set at Lil' Dizzy's or Vaughan's or Cafe Du Monde or the Praline Connection and we'd exclaim, Hey! we were just there!

We went to the gigs and started meeting musicians who'd played themselves on the show, like Kermit and Glen David Andrews.

The show's heart and soul was in the "Treme" neighborhood, the country's oldest African-American neighborhood, where those hit hardest by Katrina lived. It celebrated Treme's street culture.

The show deserves a salute as well for keeping its characters complex and human.  Its people are sometimes weak but never really "bad," not even the councilman who finds himself wordlessly accepting bribes. As was true in Simon's and Overmyer's "The Wire," no one is ever merely an instance of a type. The excellent casting deserves a nod. Each character found his or her double in just the right actor.

The show's realism meant there were no false plot machinations (though plot was not the point, it's worth stating that the show's handling of multiple plotlines was deft).  To critics who didn't love lingering on the music and moments, as we did, I suppose they would say there was no powerful story engine.  For us, the story engine was all there in the rich Altmanesque tapestry, interwoven with real people and places, chefs and musicians, restaurants and clubs (Dr. John, John Boutte, Irma Thomas, Trombone Shorty, etc., etc.).

Every character gets a rich characterization.

Just one example sticks in my memory. I think of the encounter between Davis (Steve Zahn) and Nelson (Jon Seda). Davis is the groovy, slightly dysfunctional, stick-it-to-the-Man activist. He's a DJ, A walking encyclopedia of music, steeped in NOLA history, albeit a slightly fanciful version. He wants to preserve and protect NOLA's culture.

Nelson is the slick real-estate developer, a go-getter with an unsinkable personality. A carpetbagger, he comes into town from Texas after Katrina to siphon up some of the pork from all those rebuilding contracts flying around. Opportunistic, but likable for all that. His thing is get-'er-done efficiency. That said, he genuinely digs the local music, is genuinely interested in the people, curious about what makes them tick. He enjoys hanging out in the community, wants to learn. In final scenes he worries that he's never really made anything, anything except money. Both Nelson and Davis are are doing what they feel is right by their lights.

They first encounter each other as onlookers at a community hearing around plans for a new jazz center. Davis is there to support the community, Nelson as the "eyes-and-ears" for his developer boss. They strike up a chat; each is startled to find himself speaking with someone who sees the world so differently. The chat carries on over beers at local bars as Davis takes Nelson on a tour of the real New Orleans. It is fascinating to see the two of them kick around ideas and actually listen to each other. Each gives the other something to consider that maybe he hadn't thought of.

Not to belabor the point too much because the show doesn't, but it struck me that while the show's heart is with Davis, it does not dehumanize Nelson, the "suit." It seems to say that, going forward, NOLA is going to need the spirit of both of these guys. It is going to need all of the characters in this rich tapestry.

Then there is that final shot of the entire series. I won't give away it away; I will say that I think it finds the perfect image for funky, one-of-a-kind New Orleans. It's an image that says, here in this town we may not fix what's broken, not exactly. But we will make it into something beautiful, in its own strange way.

 

*                                 *                                                  * 

As a follow-up we also re-watched Spike Lee's heartbreaking, transcendent documentary on New Orleans and Katrina, "When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts."  It's no less a rich mosaic of humans. Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, a real New Orleans resident caught up in Katrina, is so vivid and funny and outraged that you can see why Simon thought she'd be great in "Treme" and would go on to cast her as Desiree.  Sometimes Spike Lee cuts between her and the great Wendell Pierce, who would go on to play her rascally, good-hearted, 'bone-playing husband on "Treme," and it's fun because we know that they will go on to play the tempestuous but loving couple, Antoine and Desiree.

"When the Levees Broke" can make you angry to see how carelessly a corporate-run society treats its people. What happens to a society when you have oil industry people running this show? How little regard we have for the poor who pay the price for decisions made in high places to cut corners for private gain.  How coarse is our ignorance of our country's true wealth: its music, its culture, its people. And yet we see good people too, people who behaved bravely in crisis and helped others. And we see resilience.

There are times when "When the Levees Broke" can restore your faith in humanity. Yet I think finally what it asks of us is just that we watch.  Watch, in the sense of bearing witness.  The tone finally is more elegiac, haunted, than angry. Not least because of Terrence Blanchard's haunting music.

Sunday
Jun232013

Jazz, Blues and Beyond

On a recent Saturday morning Karolyn and I hopped aboard the Chicago Detours “Jazz, Blues & Beyond Bus Tour,” a birthday present from her to me.  I’ve found on my trips to Europe that walking in the footsteps of the artists somehow enhances how you experience the art.  Wandering through the pubs and lanes of London where Shakespeare trod, say, you get a sense of his stomping grounds, of space and distances.  What was abstract becomes physical.  So to do this in my own town, Chicago, with, say, Muddy Waters instead of Bill Shakespeare, was a kick.        

We’d gathered on a Saturday morning at the great downtown record shop, the Jazz Record Mart.  As we pulled away from the curb our tour guide, Amanda Scotese, posited Chicago as a place of (productive) tension, a place where people came together (and not) over music.  In that sense, an alternate title for her tour could have been the “Jazz versus Blues tour.”  She set up a dialectic that was really just a fun framework for thinking about jazz and blues in terms of oppositions: north versus south, head versus heart, mood versus story, etc. 

Our bus featured video screens like on an airplane, so she could play us footage of the jazz and blues musicians she was setting in opposition.  What contrasts could we hear in, say, Mahalia Jackson versus Scott Joplin, spirituals versus ragtime? People volunteered some good stuff: soulful versus jaunty, rural versus urban, on the beat versus syncopated.  She gave us Charlie Parker versus Muddy Waters, leading to Tortoise and the White Stripes, respectively.  

All the while we were shooting up north, bound for Uptown, a neighborhood I pass through twice a day on the “El”.  On our way Amanda pointed out the building on Argyle that once housed Essanay Studios, where Charlie Chaplin made films. 

As we headed Uptown, Amanda explained that Chicago kept expanding:  you had to drive or take the streetcar to get to Uptown.  It was the “end of the line.”  The Green Mill, which once took up a whole Uptown block, was a roadhouse; “roadhouse” meant you had to drive to get there. 

She showed us a great clip of Gene Krupa with trumpeter Roy Eldridge and singer Anita O’Day doing “Let Me Off Uptown,” a very early integrated duet (circa 1941), playful with sexual innuendo. 

 

As an aside, we learned that “juke joints” were places that had jukeboxes, and jukeboxes played videos like this one.

We alighted the bus and stood studying the Aragon.  I admire it from my levitating El car every day (and in fact I saw one of Nirvana’s last-ever shows there almost 20 years ago).  Now we gave it a Rick Steves-like going over, admiring its Spanish façade with its swirling columns, the faces peering out of its crisscrossing brickwork, its shields and scalloped shells.  This was an exotic place for rural and working people who traveled great distances to come dancing in the big city.  (Bands were told to play faster so boys and girls wouldn’t dance too close.)   

We strolled over to the corner of Broadway, from which vantage point we had before us the Riviera, the Green Mill and the Uptown Theater.  Amanda asked us to imagine the scene as it would have been at the height of the Jazz Age, say 1926: this was Chicago’s Times Square, a neighborhood of glittering ballrooms and movie palaces.  It was the place to be.  Squinting, you could almost see gangsters stepping out of gleaming cars. 

We clambered back aboard the bus.  It was time to head down to the South Side to Bronzeville, that historic African-American neighborhood. 

As we rounded corners Amanda pointed to the site of Lincoln Gardens on 31st Street, one of the great “Black and Tan Clubs,” which welcomed blacks and whites to mingle, dance and hear music together.  Joe "King" Oliver's Creole Jazz Band kept ‘em dancing here in the early 20’s.  Those were the days when cats like Bix Biederbicke, a young white fella, would take the train to Chicago to sneak into speakeasies to hear some “hot jazz,” jamming with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. 

As an aside, I hadn’t realized how important New Orleans musicians were to jazz innovation in Chicago, all those greats like Mahalia Jackson coming up with the Great Migration.

We passed Olivet Baptist Church, the oldest African-American Baptist church in Chicago and itself a great catalyst of the Great Migration.  Amanda called it a “key to the neighborhood.”

As the bus rumbled down State Street between 31st and 35th, Amanda pointed out that this particular strip was once known as “The Stroll,” the vice district.  These were the days when jazz was associated with sleaze.  Today “the Stroll” is the notably unsleazy campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology. 

We came to a stop at an ACE Meyer Hardware Store.  What!? you exclaim.  Had this suddenly become “the Chicago Hardware Shop tour?”  Allow me to explain.  This hardware store was once the Sunset Café, a.k.a. the Grand Terrace Cafe, a very important "Black and Tan club” featuring Louis Armstrong’s big band (another son of New Orleans, of course).  Cab Calloway and Earl "Fatha" Hines came up here under Armstrong before becoming the bandleaders themselves.  In fact Hines would go on to lead the band there for twelve years.  On the way there Amanda had shown us a photograph of the Earl Hines band during this residency, featuring a young Sun Ra, no less! 

 

 

We went in and headed for the back.  A few at a time we climbed a few wooden steps.  We stepped into a narrow, cluttered office.  Lo!  We were onstage at the Sunset Café!  The original murals are still there, visible around the duct and piles of boxes.  A topless demon lady clawed the skin of a great drum.  Climbing back down to the floor, we stood amidst aisles of hardware supplies imagining the floor filled with tables draped in elegant white tablecloth.     

 

 

 

 

Back aboard the bus we passed Pilgrim Baptist Church, designed as a synagogue by no less than Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler, built in 1890-1891.  It was the “heart of Bronzeville,” one of the birthplaces of gospel music in the 1930s.  Thomas A. Dorsey, the "Father of Gospel Music", was its music director. 

Next up for our merry bus: the “blues” part of the tour.  That meant we had to talk about the Chicago Defender, the country’s most important black newspaper.  It was the catalyst for the black exodus, the Great Migration, which hit its peak in the 40s and 50s.  It wrote about Chicago as a place of hope for African-Americans, a place where housing and jobs could be had.  “Blues is hopeful music,” as Studs Terkel put it from our screens.  “I may be down now, but I won’t be down forever.”      

We rumbled up South Michigan Avenue, up historic “Motor Row,” past the great display windows which once showed off their proud auto showrooms.  We trundled up Record Row, grinding to a stop at 2120 S. Michigan, that address that rings out in music history.  This was Chess Records (today renamed the Willie Dixon Blues Heaven Foundation).  To some, this is the “birthplace of rock & roll,” Amanda told us, and quite right she was.  Interesting to think about which has the stronger claim as birthplace of rock & roll, Chess or Sun Records in Memphis (which I've also visited).  Hometown pride compels me to proclaim that Chess has as strong a claim as any. 

We didn’t go in.  Amanda offered that there’s nothing much to see inside, which is kinda true.  Still, as someone who’s been inside twice, it’s still pretty cool to stand on the same floorboards as Muddy and Jimmy Rogers, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.     

We had to finish up by taking a trip to Maxwell Street, ground zero for the Chicago Blues, once a teeming, communal place where people gathered around music (not unlike Grant Park today, Amanda offered).  Every musician had his or her corner, such as Blind Arvella Gray, who now appeared on our video screens.  Like the Stroll, the old Maxwell Street Market flea market is gone today, of course.  However, we stopped next to a statue commemorating the days when the blues rang out: a bluesman sitting on a box, with his harp by his side. 

We had one more treat in store: a harp lesson from Fruteland Jackson, a veteran bluesman who hopped aboard at Maxwell Street.  Each of us was issued a harmonica, and, wielding an acoustic axe and a harmonica rack, Jackson taught us to play a basic 12-bar pattern.  The trick: for the first bars you suck, and then you blow.  As we rolled back to our starting point, the bus resounded with the sounds of blowing, sucking, “dumping” (exhaling) and flourishing big finishes.  We got to keep the harmonica! 

Did I say one last treat?  There was one more.  When we got back to Jazz Record Mark, its legendary owner Bob Koester, happened to be there.  Mr. Koester was the founder of Delmark records in 1953, the oldest jazz and blues independent record label in America.  The great man stood listening as Amanda summed up. 

I’ve said it before: as long as I’ve lived in Chicago—20 years now--there’re always something new to discover around every corner.  Turns out there’s always something “past” to discover as well. 

Now when I’m on the commute home, I can pretend like I’m on that streetcar up to Uptown.  

Saturday
Apr062013

Roger Ebert's voice: companion, pointer to vistas on my own journey

Roger Ebert was my teacher. That is, his voice was, and by his voice I mean his writing (and TV as well). When I was a kid, that voice pointed me to what felt like a secret door opening onto whole new continents of film. Sometimes after we watched a film on home video I’d reemerge with one of his books and read aloud his review to my family and we’d consider the picture in that light. Not that I always agreed. But he did that uncanny thing that our favorite critics are somehow able to do: somehow he put into words something I felt but couldn't express.

That voice never really left me. Years and years later, his journal ("
The London Perambulator" article, one of my favorites) guided me on my very first walk around London. Funny, his voice almost came to mean more to me after he lost the use of it in the literal sense. On my first first visit to Venice, I kept in the back of my mind the name of his favorite trattoria. One morning I was out exploring and I suddenly looked up and there it was. What’s more, through the window I saw who I thought must surely be the character he’d described so vividly in his journal: Lino, the lively proprietor, busily preparing for the day. Though graying now, I recognized him from Ebert’s description.

I took the liberty of taking a picture. When I returned home I e-mailed Roger the photo, letting him know that I’d stumbled across his favorite trattoria, though I didn’t get to eat there because it was too early. I told him I hoped that this was his old friend Lino, still at it. I didn’t really think I’d hear back. He must get massive amounts of e-mail every day, I thought. Then the response came. He couldn't open the picture and asked me to re-send to his personal e-mail address. I did so, and shortly thereafter came the reply: “Ah, yes! The very place! The beloved man! Now you must go back someday.” There followed an extremely enjoyable e-mail exchange that still feels a bit surreal. Amongst other things, he told me about how beautiful Venice is in the winter, how that was his favorite time to be there.

This only begins to say how much I’ll miss his voice. On Thursday when I first heard the news I sat at my desk and wept.