Friday, October 29, 2010

Andy Warhol: Genius

I believe that Andy Warhol was the last true American genius. He takes his place among the others who saw America in a new and different way that was ultimately visionary and prophetic. These people are few in number but stretch back far in terms of tradition: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Louis Armstrong, and Martin Luther King, Jr., to name some of who I consider the key members of this elite group.

Andy Warhol takes his place alongside these other people because, like them, he had a complete and unique vision of America -- and it's one that proves truer with every passing year. It is, in a word, Pop. Long before the advent of reality television or up-to-the-second Twitter updates, Warhol envisioned a country that was paradoxically fueled by its emptiness, taking the lowest byproducts of modern mass consumer culture -- advertising imagery and endless reproductions of glamorous pop culture stars -- and elevated it to the level of high art. It was a land in which image is everything, fame is fleeting, and surface is depth. In other words, America as we know it today.

One only needs to walk into a supermarket or turn on the television to see the affects of this. Often when I go by checkout lines or newsstands, I'll think about what a shame it is that Warhol did not live to see what I can see. All over are bright magazines -- celebrity rags like Us, Life & Style, OK!, and Star -- promising up-to-the-minute "news" about the current "It" children of Hollywood, each of which are so overlapping in style and stories that they all just seem to blend into one big magazine with repeating pictures and printed on cheap paper.

Like the New York Dolls reached for a punk audience they knew must be there, Warhol seemed to sense this phenomenon, launching his own celebrity magazine, Interview, to celebrate celebrity with its trademark star-on-star interviews. Last time I checked, Interview was still going along, but it's usually kept with the "lifestyle" magazines as opposed to the celebrity weeklies. It is, for lack of a better word, quaint -- an oversized glossy magazine featuring famous stars interviewed by slightly less famous stars, one man's vision of how the national obsession with celebrity would play out in a future in which everyone becomes famous for 15 minutes.

But there is another thing that separates Interview from the celebrity weeklies: Interview usually focuses on established, glamorous stars who most can agree have some amount of talent, while the weeklies focus on the current pick-of-the-month wild child or self-destructive media whore who often does not seem to have any real talent. In fact, many of them come from reality television -- the other great media in which Warhol's vision plays out every day -- as quasi-famous people appear on disposable reality television shows (some people can remember the members of the first Real World cast, American Idol winner, and Bachelor contestant, but how many can name the second, third, or seventh?) By applying the lowest-common denominator of fame to the reality television participant (that is, that they appeared on television), the celebrity magazine and television show depend upon each other, creating an endless cycle of hype and validation that is most clearly seen on online blogs, where the magazine and television essentially become one instantly and constantly-updated beast.

The most important television shows in America today are its reality shows. I've come to believe that all of America can be measured on a scale with MTV's Jersey Shore at one end and A&E's Hoarders on the other -- young and old, beautiful and ugly, public and private, outdoor and indoor, mindless and probing, comic and tragic, naked and mad, beautiful and damned, muscular and weak, sexy and sterile, alive and dead. They are the benchmarks because they each take the hallmark of American's global identity -- mindless consumerism -- to its two logical extremes: the young and superficial scene-maker whose world proudly revolves around gym, tanning and laundry and divides their time between the beach house, the beaches, and the dance club, and the older and reclusive depressive who has spent decades literally buying everything they can, beyond the point of logic, safety, or sanitation, often in a house that is falling apart all around them. Both add up to the same effect: They are both trainwrecks -- try as you may, you cannot look away.

But perhaps even more importantly, they both are examples of one of Warhol's central maxims that surface could be depth. Describing the desired effect of his groundbreaking multimedia Up-Tight show from 1966, where the Velvet Underground played savage, avant-garde rock and roll at a deafening volume, over which Warhol would project his mind-numbingly boring films of people sleeping or sunlight slowly changing over a building, Warhol explained that "The more you look at the exact same thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel." Emptiness, he seemed to be saying, was not a sin, it was a virtue. And so the mundane became profound, and the trash became beauty.

Driving Warhol's vision was a unification of opposites similar to his emptiness-as-virtue philosophy: The notion that the very lowest culture can be the flipside of the very highest of culture. He first did this with his early Pop paintings of cartoon characters and retail catalogue imagery, which he saw through his signature silkscreen prints of celebrities, wanna-bes, and cultural icons, and even on such late-period activity like when he appeared on an episode of The Love Boat. This paradox has infiltrated virtually every part of our popular culture, from films like Pulp Fiction to television shows like Jersey Shore, musicals like Rent, and virtually the entire sweep of post-modern rock and roll music, which Warhol himself helped to ignite with the Velvet Underground (it would peak a decade later with the Sex Pistols).

But for me, nothing sums up the picture better than the whole "vintage T-shirt" craze of the late '90s and early '00s -- once the first wave of hipsters bought up the best ones in all the thrift stores, places like Urban Outfitters started making new shirts that looked vintage, and the younger hipsters didn't really care about the clothes' levels of authenticity; for them, looks were enough. Every time I walk by a sales rack in a fine clothing store with T-shirts that are made to look aged or jeans that are manufactured with holes, I think of Warhol and wonder what he would say about this.

My guess is he would have nothing to say and so he would say nothing.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Nick Drake, Emily Dickinson, and the Fruit Tree

Somewhere along the line it came to my attention that there is no known footage of Nick Drake performing. I found this surprising, given the amount of respect and importance he seemed to have, but more curious than unthinkable; when I learned the same thing about Big Star -- as I understand it, there is footage of them rehearsing, but it has no sound -- it didn't exactly throw me into a tailspin either.

It wasn't until my buddy Frank leant me a copy of Joe Boyd's killer memoir White Bicycles that I really gave this any serious thought. Boyd was a baby-boomer American, born in Boston and educated at Harvard, who went overseas to become the secret hero of the British underground rock, blues, and folk scenes. He co-founded the legendary UFO club where Pink Floyd and Soft Machine built their legends (Boyd produced Floyd's first single, "Arnold Layne," the wonderfully bizarre tale of a cross-dresser who's sentenced to the chain gang), recorded the original version of Eric Clapton's "Crossroads," produced the Fairport Convention's best records, and managed the Incredible String Band through their influential (though often tumultuous) career.

Oh yeah, and he all but single-handedly discovered and signed Nick Drake to Island Records.

Boyd's book fleshed out the Drake mystique: The tall, quiet child of privilege and learning with tobacco stains on his long fingers, which he used to play intricate folk-picking patterns while singing soft, melancholy melodies of haunting beauty. The songs often employed bizarre time signatures and cryptic tunings that only Drake seemed to know, which led to long, silent pauses between songs when he played for other people. For Boyd, Drake seemed to arrive fully-formed -- for all of his bizarre rhythms and complicated guitar accompaniments, Boyd never recalls Drake ever flubbing a guitar part or losing his way with a vocal; every performance felt full and complete, whether live or in the studio.

Drake's lack of stage banter and prolonged tuning breaks between songs made him a challenging live act, and after playing a few awkward shows to less-than-receptive audiences, he seldom performed live ever again. His was a sheltered, almost secret existence: Boyd produced his first two records, but it was not obvious the best way to flesh out this odd music, and one can hear him reaching for a sound. Employing members of the Fairport Convention and various string arrangers, Drake's first album, 1969's Five Leaves Left, employed a more folk-oriented sound, while his second, 1970's Bryter Layer, was the closest thing he came to rock music. (To my ears, Boyd's production of Drake's "Hazey Jane II" virtually invents Belle and Sebastian's signature fey chamber pop-with-trumpet sound roughly two and a half decades before the fact.)

Drake recorded his best-known and most celebrated album, Pink Moon, in the fall of 1971; this time, he chose to work without Boyd and instead made the album in two two-hour midnight sessions with producer John Wood. His prior albums' struggle with presentation was solved with a simple solution: Apart from a minor piano overdub here and there, Drake simply let his songs stand naked. As Island Records proudly touted in their media campaign, the first they learned of the record was when Drake delivered it to the label; indeed, it seems that no one outside of Drake or Wood (including Boyd) knew about this record until it was finished.

Pink Moon was released in early 1972 with little fanfare, in large part because Drake refused to do any promotion for its release. The one exception was that he agreed to do an interview for Sounds Magazine; it was the only one published in his lifetime (and one of the few contemporary press articles about his career, period). But Pink Moon failed to sell very many copies. In fact, compared with Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layer before it, Pink Moon sold the poorest of his studio albums -- none of which sold more than 5,000 copies upon their initial release.

In the months around the release of Pink Moon, Drake grew increasingly withdrawn and depressed. He suffered a nervous breakdown, moved back home with his parents, and the only income he received was a 20-pound weekly stipend from Island Records. He would disappear for days and show up randomly at friends' houses, stay a few days and be uncommunicative, and then leave just as suddenly as he came. Sometimes he drove his parents' car around until he ran out of gas. His appearance became increasingly disheveled and he acted in moody ways that worried his friends and family.

In the fall of 1974, he contacted Boyd and Wood to make a fourth album, but Drake's health had deteriorated to the point where he literally could not sing and play guitar at the same time. His personality was also much more unstable and he lashed out at Boyd for his lack of fame. The sessions collapsed after only four songs were recorded.

In November, Drake died of an overdose of antidepressants at the age of 26. The authorities concluded it was a suicide, but no note was ever found and many suspect it was accidental. Boyd, for one, claims that Drake was feeling better in the weeks leading up to his death and imagines that he took the drugs in a last-ditch effort to rid himself of all of the depression that plagued him. It's a tempting theory, but I'm not convinced. Drake had serious anxiety and depression issues, and it is not uncommon for a suicidal person to appear happier in the time just before their death because their decision to kill themselves has given them relief. Like so many other famous musicians' deaths, we'll likely never know the whole truth.

But Nick Drake was not a famous musician. He was a frustrated musician who sold only a minimal amount of records and was virtually unknown outside of a small network of British folk musicians and enthusiasts. But as what often happens with great artists, their work eventually finds an audience beyond anything they experienced in their lifetime. I for one first discovered Nick Drake the way that most people in my generation did: from the title track of Pink Moon being used in a BMW commercial. That perked my ears up and after reading several glowing reviews, I grabbed a copy. At first I found it a little dry, but then, after hearing it repeatedly while spilling late-night secrets in a coed's freshman dorm room, its subtle grace grew on me and I at last got the hype. Boyd's book inspired me to buy the rest of the catalog (I'm a sucker for short, condensed, and high-quality bodies of work) and fill in the cracks of my knowledge of him.

And yet, like so many other people who can call themselves fans of his music, listening to Nick Drake makes me feel more than just a little bit perplexed. I'm the first to admit that a large part of his draw for me is the romanticism surrounding his mystique and I make no effort to try and separate the myth from the music. (Indeed, similar mystiques around Robert Johnson and Jeff Buckley have drawn me into their bodies of music, and my life has been all the more richer for it.)

But Nick Drake's music demands more from us, if only because his existence was that much more isolated and the rediscovery of his music has proven it to be that much more striking and brilliant. His voice is just too pure, his guitar work just too precise to be believed. And yet, he plays the role of a ready-made martyr with his songs that obsess over fame and brood about death. For someone so keen on reaching music immortality, he sang as though he was already dead.

More than any other popular musician of the rock and roll era, Drake sounded completely out of his time; the only other music figures that come close are yodeling minstrel singer Emmett Miller from the late '20s and early '30s and outsider indie-trailblazers the Shaggs, a trio of girls whose bizarre sing-songy melodies and matching guitar lines -- not to mention the drums that keep an entirely random time than the song they're playing -- have to be heard to be believed. But neither can hold a candle to Drake because he has them beat in two major categories: Drake is immensely popular and well-known (nowadays, anyway) and he was prophetic enough to live out the greater story his songs implied.

For one thing that you hear about Drake again and again is how he didn't sound like anyone else. His music doesn't really exist in a greater context, it outright defies any greater context that tries to present itself -- just try to listen to Five Leaves Left alongside other albums released that year: The Beatles' Abbey Road, the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed, the Who's Tommy, the Band's self-titled "Brown Album." What is so remarkable about Nick Drake is that, unlike other albums released that year, his music isn't a defiant reaction to what's going on (like the Stooges' self-titled debut), a mockery of it (like Frank Zappa's Uncle Meat), a way out of it (Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band's Trout Mask Replica), or attempt to come to terms with it (Elvis Presley's From Elvis in Memphis). It is instead something that exists entirely outside of this music, on its own terms and in its own time.

All of this has led me to believe that in order to find an accurate and worthy parallel for Nick Drake, we must look beyond the world of popular music and into the realm of literature, where we find Emily Dickinson. Both are utterly unique in their respective creative fields, defying categorization with a singular, forward-looking vision. Both worked in virtual self-exile, moody, depressive, and cut off from the world, despite a privileged background and the support of family. And both worked secretly, pondering nature, death, and fame to an audience in their heads that would not exist in real life until decades after their deaths.

Dickinson of course is the more extreme of the two, rarely leaving her room for the majority of her creative life, and being so secretive that her family was surprised to find the neat bundles of the hundreds of poems she left behind. She lived her life like a phantom -- leaving us only one known photograph (although some people believe there is a second, although it hasn't been officially authenticated) and publishing only a couple of poems, anonymously and with severe edits, in her lifetime. Before long, the mystique becomes more real than the person it surrounds.

Music historian and critic Ian MacDonald (who himself committed suicide a few years back) writes in a lovely essay about Drake how fans born after Drake's death cannot believe that MacDonald met him when Drake played him and his friends a few songs in his college dorm room. MacDonald claims his latter-day fans asked if Drake could walk on water, shocked that anyone could have actually known someone whose life is so defined by their death. It challenges the senses and attempts to make the surreal real; I felt a similar way when I learned that a friend went to a party where a young Jeff Buckley was hanging around after a show, walking around randomly and plunking a two-string ukelele. And many Drake revisionists (at least some of who are his friends and former classmates) argue against the dour portrayal that's grown around his music and insist that he was outgoing and somewhat of a prankster. But of course, the actual historical record is mighty thin.

Which brings us back to where we began: There is no known footage of Nick Drake performing. The only known film of Drake is private family movies from when he was a child, and that's it. There is one phone interview I've heard online, but the sound quality is so poor (and Drake's voice is so quiet, as everyone always said it was) that I can hardly make out any of it. He left us no real personal writing or memoirs, no signed glossy pictures, not even any confirmed lovers. All we have of him are three LPs worth of music, all of it excellent, and some demos, outtakes, rehearsals, and various odds-and-ends that have been regularly reissued since his rediscovery. And that's about it.

What ultimately ties Nick Drake and Emily Dickinson together for me, then, is the unanswerable riddle of how they viewed themselves. Both were serious artists who spent years perfecting their craft, yet led such secret existences in which death was the only path to fame. Is this because death is safer than fame? One can spend their entire lives striving for fame, only to fail at achieving it again and again. But death -- once you get death in the picture, everything shifts; it puts a final cap on things that throws your chance at immortality into the hands of fate. Maybe you'll get famous, maybe you won't, but once you're dead it's entirely out of your hands.

As I already mentioned, both Drake and Dickinson explicitly dealt with fame in their art. Drake did so towards the end of his debut album in the song "Fruit Tree":

Fame is but a fruit tree
So very unsound
It can never flourish
'Till its stalk is in the ground

For Drake, it seems that the only element that could be considered essential to the creation of fame is time -- time to develop, time to gain popularity, time to prove one's own cultural or historical relevance.

Meanwhile, Dickinson characteristically summed up the whole concept of fame in twelve words of brevity, wit, and grace:

Fame's Boys and Girls, who never die
And are too seldom born --

The way she puts death before birth makes it feel backwards; the way she ends it with a dash instead of a predicate makes it feel incomplete. It gives the poem a sense of tension, a gasp of air that is never released, a tune that is never resolved. Fame is fundamentally incomplete, Dickinson seems to be implying on one level -- in order to be a true immortal, one must keep up their fame and posterity long after they have died, which would require some greater knowledge beyond what we know in this world.

Perhaps this is why Nick Drake envisioned fame as a Fruit Tree: It represented forbidden knowledge, tempted by the Devil and beyond what any human mind should be able to grasp. Death, on the other hand, is well within the human grasp, and if we are to believe that Drake's death was a suicide, one cannot help but wonder whether after admitting defeat in the face of fame, he saw death as the only alternative.

His music certainly sounded like he did.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Gone With the Slaves

So I finally bit the bullet and bought the few films that I consider "essential American films" that I already didn't own, since I was closing in on them anyway. The difference between these films and the other ones I've bought is that I've never seen them and/or I saw them and didn't particularly like them. It was a short but powerful list: Singin' in the Rain (never saw), The Wizard of Oz (never liked), The Godfather (never completely saw), and the great albatross of 20th century American film, Gone With the Wind.

For reasons that aren't worth getting into now, I somehow ended up seeing it two times within a two week period for two different classes in college, meaning that for some eight hours in one fortnight I was watching with fear and loathing while that crazy bitch named Scarlett O'Hara fiddle-dee-dee'ed herself from one petty, self-delusional situation to another. When I told my professor from the southern culture class I watched it for that I found Scarlett completely unsympathetic, he responded with all of the shock and dismay as if I had just shot his mother.

"But people love Scarlett," he reasoned in his thick southern accent. "Scarlett helps the wounded. She delivers Melanie's baby. She goes back to Tara and saves her family. Scarlett is a hero!"

Watching it again recently, I finally understood what he was saying. Being a complete bitch and doing what's right -- even when it's very difficult -- are not mutually exclusive entities. I guess I'm just predetermined to always face the film with two strikes against it: one, as a northerner, where everyone from my part of the country is treated as one big bad city-burning, carpetbagging enemy; two, as a historian, where the South is a thinly-veiled lost world of paradise, built upon delusion and lies.

It makes me think about something a different professor said about historical films: Any film attempting to depict a historical time ends up telling more about the time in which it was made than the time that it is trying to present. This statement has never been truer than in Gone With the Wind (okay, maybe Birth of a Nation, but I digress).

I once read the introduction to a classic film guide aimed at families. The whole impetus for the book arose from when the author was watching Gone With the Wind with his two young daughters, and the older one turned around and asked him why all of the black characters talked so funny. The question makes the author jump out of his skin for a moment and see everything fresh like it was the first time. He had never thought about those issues because he gave the movie a "free pass" for its extreme historical and cultural significance, but now a child's innocent question made him feel otherwise.

In our post-P.C. age of African American Best Actress winners and presidents, our instincts tell us to avoid the film as much as possible, and when it does come up, compliment its innovations and influence, while flatly dismissing it for its pie-in-the-sky depiction of the Old South and its slave system. The latter move is an attempt on the speaker's part to distance themselves from the world it creates; in this regard it can be seen as the social flipside of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry and George end every observation about gay people with the line, "Not that there's anything wrong with that..."

The problem for me with Gone With the Wind, then, is that the slaves are the most interesting characters in the film; and as I researched the actors further, it's probably is no coincidence that the actors who played them are even more fascinating.

Most famous is Hattie McDaniel, who plays Scarlett's no-nonsense Mammy (no other name for her is given, if indeed she even had one) is the most famous, taking what could have been a two-dimensional caricature and fleshing it out with real human emotion and depth. Much of this is done with her eyes -- at times thankful, at times sullen, and almost always wary -- which defy the hackneyed lines she is given.

Her performance was so strong that her peers couldn't ignore it, and she famously became the first African American to be nominated for and win an Oscar, beating out costar Olivia de Havilland among others. (And lest we think that the Academy can take one step forward without also taking one step back, it should be noted that the second African American to win an Oscar was James Baskett "for his able and heart-warming characterization of Uncle Remus, friend and story teller to the children of the world in Walt Disney's Sound of the South.")

She gave a heartfelt speech at the awards program, calling her Oscar win "one of the happiest moments of my life" and honor that has made her "feel very, very humble" and that she will "always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future." She continued: "I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel, and may I say thank you and God bless you." It was a moving speech and she cried through most of it; the fact that white studio execs wrote it for her to read tempts one to believe that this may have been her finest performance of all, but her emotion was real because she knew that the moment was bigger than the circumstances that may have surrounded it.

Hers was a hard-earned success; by the time she appeared in Gone With the Wind, she had already racked up dozens of the 300-odd films she would appear in (although she would only receive screen credit for around 80), appearing alongside a virtual who's who of the Golden Age of Hollywood: Katherine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Will Rogers, Shirley Temple, Jean Harlow, Lionel Barrymore, Ronald Reagan, and, of course, Gone With the Wind co-stars Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland, and Clark Gable.

Gable had worked with McDaniel before and fought for her to get the role of Mammy in Gone With the Wind. When the film premiered in Atlanta, the state's segregationist laws prevented the African American actors from partaking in the festivities; when producer David O. Selznick attempted to bring McDaniel anyway, MGM encouraged him not to since she would have to stay in a separate hotel and not be allowed to sit with her fellow white peers. When Gable learned of this and threatened to boycott the premiere himself, it was McDaniel who convinced him to go anyway.

She remained as active on the camera as off. She was instrumental in organizing a restriction covenant that would have forced African American actors (including herself) from the chic West Adams Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. Superior Judge Thurmond Clarke visited the neighborhood to see for himself and decided to throw the case out of court, declaring that "It is time that members of the Negro race are accorded, without reservations or evasions, the full rights guaranteed them under the 14th Amendment the Federal Constitution. Judges have been avoiding the real issue too long." Said McDaniel of the decision: "Words cannot express my appreciation."

McDaniel remained active, even as the stereotyped servant roles of her film career raised the ire of progressive groups like the NAACP. When they critiqued McDaniel's work, she answered with timeless wit, resolve, and grace: "I'd rather play a maid and make $700 a week than be one for $7."

McDaniel was truly a trailblazer in Hollywood; the other African American slave characters of the film by comparison did not come close to breaking through their two-dimensional roles. Oscar Polk -- born Christmas Day, 1899, the exact same day as Humphrey Bogart -- played the part of "Pork," the shuffling butler who was every bit as weak and whiny as Mammy was strong and out-spoken. But Polk cut a memorable image on the screen that countered his role and performance; when he is ordered by Scarlett to do some of the farm work, the way he moans in protest that he and Mammy are house servants (as opposed to field hands) is at once hard-to-watch and searingly memorable. Unlike McDaniel, who seemed to find a way to radiate her personal strength through her role, Polk seems to do the same thing despite it.

It turns out that Polk was an accomplished stage actor who appeared in at least ten Broadway shows, along with several others that were off-Broadway. In 1949, he was scheduled to make a comeback of sorts with a major role in the play Leading Lady, but was fatally hit by a taxi cab as he stepped off the curb in Times Square. The role went to a young Ossie Davis, who a hundred years later would tell Spike Lee's Mookie to always do the right thing in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing.

And then of course, there's Butterfly McQueen, who made her motion picture debut in the role of Prissy, a simple-minded childlike slave who was so over-the-top in her cringe-worthy performance that Malcolm X later wrote that seeing her performance onscreen as a child made him so feel such shame, he wanted to crawl under the rug. One only has to think of her most memorable line -- the shrill shriek of "I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies!" to Scarlett after assuring her earlier that she had lots of experience with this -- to understand just what Malcolm X was talking about; McQueen was a 28-year-old woman playing the role of a character that had been a 12-year-old child in the original book.

But like the others, McQueen found her way through the Hollywood machine, appearing in at least two stone-cold classics -- bit parts in Mildred Pierce with Bette Davis and The Women with Joan Crawford -- as well as much later appearing in The Mosquito Coast with Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren, and River Phoenix; in the meantime she worked all over the entertainment industry, taking roles on Jack Benny's radio show in the 1940s and in the groundbreaking (if also painfully stereotyped) television show Beulah in the 1950s, as well as appearing on The Dating Game in the late '60s.

She grew restless, and found herself drawn to politics, eventually earning a Bachelor's degree in poli-sci from the City College of New York in 1975, and then a few years later earned an Emmy for her performance as a fairy godmother on an ABC Afterschool Special. All along the way, she was a strong advocate against organized religion, likening her freedom from religion as akin to her ancestors' freedom from slavery. When she died three days shy of Christmas 1995 at the age of 84, it was a result of burns received when a kerosene lamp she was attempted to light exploded. Seeing through her atheist beliefs through the end, McQueen donated her body to science and contributed to the Freedom from Religion Foundation in her will.

These are the actors about which I was able to find out significant information, much of which I found fascinating. But for every actor that I could find information about, there were dozens more that remain lost to the ages. For example, I tried to learn about Everett Brown, who played "Big Sam," the field-hand foreman slave who literally saves Scarlett's life midway through the movie, but found next to nothing about him. According to the Find a Grave website, he was born on New Year's Day, 1902, and died on October 25, 1953; he also appeared in at least 28 films including classics like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Tarzan and His Mate, served in the Coast Guard during World War I, and is buried in the Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, CA. Otherwise he remains a phantom.

But for me, as much as I can marvel at the heroes like Hattie McDaniel and wonder at the phantoms like Everett Brown, it is the people in between -- the Oscar Polks and the Butterfly McQueens -- who keep me coming back for more. We know just enough to fill out a general sketch of who they are and what they did, yet enough blanks remain to give them a distance that is both odd and compelling.

Butterfly McQueen in particular has always fascinated me -- I remember seeing her for the first time as part of the Oscar's montage of actors who had died; if memory serves, she was one of the few who was given dialogue: her infamous "birthin' babies" line. I remember asking my mother about her and getting an unusual response that seemed to indicate that there was something forbidden and uncomfortable about her, something that gave Malcolm X so much shame he literally wanted to hide. It was ugly, but also strangely fascinating. This lovely young lady with an instantly-memorable voice, now a forgotten-movie star that many are happy to leave that way.

But as I piece together parts of her life -- her early career as a dancer, the way she fluttered her hands around while performing that earned her the nickname "Butterfly", the mix of pride and duty that may have led her to amend her autograph with "'Prissy' of 'G.W.T.W'" -- that, when taken into account with the Hollywood movie, radio, and television roles, the political science degree, and the atheism, only gets weirder and weirder the more you think about it.

For instance, one of the things I learned about her from this piece was that she appeared in a Technicolor western film from 1946 called Duel in the Sun -- an attempt by producer and writer David O. Selznick to outdo his own success with Gone With the Wind (it didn't) -- in which she appeared alongside Gregory Peck, Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Lionel Barrymore, and Lillian Gish. I can't help but wonder whether McQueen crossed paths with Gish, who had first made her name over thirty years earlier in that other great Civil War epic, D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, and if so, whether or not these films came up in conversation. Probably this is all too much to hope for -- I'm not even sure if they even appeared together in the film -- but I like how this half-forgotten cowboy-and-Indian romance picture ties together two actresses, one a legend and one an embarrassing relic, from two films, each of which were the biggest movie of their day, but now are swept under the rug in the name of historical inaccuracy and racial guilt.

Perhaps Gish and McQueen did meet and talk about the elusiveness of memory, the lines dividing great film and responsible storytelling, and how every historical picture reveals more about the time in which it was made than the time that it attempts to depict, but in my mind, the scene plays out best if the two women catch each other between takes, nod and smile and greet each other, and talk for a few moments about the frivolities of making Duel in the Sun while drinking Coca-Cola.

And then Butterfly would say something funny in her signature squawk that would make Lillian throw her head back slightly and laugh, and for a moment, all would be forgotten.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Mona Lisa

Today I did something I have never done before: I went to the Louvre and saw Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa in person.

I was prepared to be underwhelmed. My mom had seen it back when it did a U.S. tour in the early '60s --compliments of First Lady Jackie Kennedy -- and basically told me that it was a huge crowd standing around a tiny painting. But as a painting major who had only ever seen one da Vinci in person (that pale girl in the National Gallery, a.k.a. The Only da Vinci Painting in the Western Hemisphere), I figured I owed it to him and myself to see as much as I could. God knows I've spent enough time looking at his work. But then again, so would anyone else who gives themselves a month to paint a Last Supper of the United States presidents.

But I digress. The Louvre was every bit big and elegant as I figured it would be -- the obvious model for things like the Met in New York and, perhaps, the MFA in Boston. But there amongst its stately walls and grayed frescos were what looked like cheap xeroxed images of the Mona Lisa, with a no words or explanation except for an arrow under the image to let tourists such as myself know that we were on the right track. The entire rise of Western Art whizzed before me -- some Giotto here, some Botticelli there, now they are shading a bit, now they are figuring out perspective -- as I glanced at countless priceless masterpieces just to get to the centerpiece of the Western canon of art.

I saw it as I peered into a huge room filled with hundreds of people. There it was, towards the back, a painting that was at once overfamiliar and yet had an unexplainable mysterious power. The only thing that came close to this experience was when I saw Michelangelo's "David" in Italy; there was this bizarre mix of the ordinary and extraordinary -- oh, there's that huge icon of humanity, and it's right in that room over there.

I was singing Carl Mann's "Mona Lisa" to myself as I hurried up to it, a rock and roll cover of the Nat King Cole standard that became a surprise final-gasp hit for the legendary Sun Records when it reached #25 on the pop charts in 1959. By then, the magic was gone, as Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins had long since left Sun for greener pastures; the only legend who stuck around was Jerry Lee Lewis, but that was more because he had nowhere else to go after destroying his career the previous year by marrying his second-cousin teenage bride.

Mann's "Mona Lisa" has always been dumped on by Sun purists, and probably for good reason -- this was rockabilly only in the loosest sense, as Phillips now watered down his label's sound with back up singers and rollicking rhythms to try and reach maximum commercial potential. It was a sad ending: Sun Records had become so influential in the first place by bucking the trends and doing what no other label would do, and now, only a few years into the revolution, it was already admitting defeat by following the music trends. It's sorta like remembering that less than ten years after declaring themselves "The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World," the Rolling Stones tried their damnedest to make straight-faced disco music.

But I've always had a place in my heart for Carl Mann's record. He sings it with all of the dangerousness of Pat Boone rehearsing Little Richard songs in the bathroom mirror, seemingly swinging one arm that snaps its fingers to the beat like he was a post-Elvis teenage pretender on the Dick Clark show, making the teenage girls all swoon and scream until the next wanna-be idol comes down the pop music assembly line. But I hear something in Mann's song -- maybe it's an earnestness, maybe it's a deep comprehension of the lyrics, maybe it's just a kid who knows that this shot is his only shot -- but he swings it with an odd cocky confidence, riding the line about the smile possibly hiding a broken "hear-a-ar-a-ar-a-ar-eart" down with an awkward grace that pops out from the otherwise cookie-cutter studio musicians backing him.

Or perhaps it is simply because, for a brief moment, Carl Mann was able to do something that Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Billy Lee Riley, and scores of others were unable to before and after him: Have a Top 40 hit on Sun Records. I remember hearing the song in Colony Music just north of Times Square, with its faded signed photographs and overpriced back catalogue CDs, as though no one had actually thought to look at the store's wares since 1992, and recognizing what it was in my head right before I heard a couple of old guys swapping stories about it. Yep, it was Carl Mann, I got the original 45 of it at home. No kidding? I don't know if I ever heard this one. Well, if memory serves, that person was in for a treat as, for the first time, I heard Mann's other singles from Sun, almost all of which were rocked-up '40s standards that tried in vain to match the fluke success of "Mona Lisa." And, as I confirmed when I downloaded a batch of them earlier this year, they were all awful.

But then again, so was "Mona Lisa." But hearing it that day in Colony, it sounded wonderfully awful, no backwoods brilliance of hillbilly headed uptown of an Elvis or a Johnny Cash, only a kid singing the blues, sort of -- a white kid singing a black man's pop song, in the style of a white kid's version of a black man's blues music. And unlike Elvis or Johnny Cash (or Roy Orbison or Carl Perkins or Billy Lee Riley for that matter), Carl Mann is still alive and with us; sometimes I wonder if Jerry Lee Lewis (who seems as though he will never die) stays alive for the sole purpose of making sure Carl Mann is not the last hit Sun artist to be left standing. But unlike Jerry Lee, Carl Mann is not a legend -- as a "last man standing" or otherwise -- in fact, I don't believe he performs much anymore. His hit was his career -- dismissed by rockabilly purists yet still discussed by old guys at record stores, and just catchy enough to run into my mind as I approached the real "Mona Lisa."

As I knew I would, I had to push my way through several rows of tourists who were gathered behind the half-circle of velvet ropes like a bunch of lepers waiting to touch a shaman. This was no problem, I thought -- working my way up to see the Mona Lisa was not that much unlike pushing my way up to the stage of a Guided By Voices concert I saw at the Rosebud in Pittsburgh, nearly ten years earlier. It was a mess, but a loud, happy mess, a crusader making his way through the converted. They had been drinking as much and as long as they had been playing -- an epic feat for most bands, but just another Tuesday night for this one -- and after several hours of Robert Pollard calling out the GBV songbook and then singing them like the failed musician-turned teacher-turned, well, not failed musician that he was; at first I found him entirely repellant -- a cock rock version of someone burning through their own songs like what I'd imagine from a late-period Led Zeppelin show, but here there was an earnestness that defied any sense of irony, a beauty that challenged any detached truths, look though some may. By the time I made it up to the stage, the band was pretty drunk with beer cans and open coolers strewn all about, and Pollard began throwing in songs by the bands he had always loved as well as his own. He called out for "A Hard Day's Night," which was entirely unrehearsed: The lead guitarist literally didn't know what to play and was following the others as opposed to playing it in his own right. But the band held together and the confused guitarist was laughing through the whole thing; that was the kind of night it was and it was in that spirit that I did something I had never done before: I requested -- and got -- the lead guitarist's guitar pick (although, come to think of it, it may have been his spare pick from the top of his amp, but it was his guitar pick nonetheless), which I kept in my wallet until I bought jeans with smaller pockets and transferred my money to an Office Depot alligator clip and then realized one day my wallet had gone from discarded to missing.

But just as I had for Robert Pollard & Co., I made it to the front stage of the Mona Lisa, still about three feet back with nothing but air and bullet-proof glass between us. And I looked at it, trying to see it again for the first time, admiring all of the things that officially told me it was a great painting (for I had been skeptical at its greatness as a youth) -- the eyes that follow you, the impossible-to-capture smile coming out of or going into a smile, the sophisticated hands, the pyramidal composition, the ethereal, unrecognizable background suggesting an earth forming for the first time, the place where it must have been cropped by da Vinci, the places where it must have been hacked to pieces by a vandal, the place where it must have hung before now, open and exposed to the masses, ashes to ashes, dust to dust -- but happily still finding something that was seemingly of its own accord and new.

It was not too small for the wall, or too overrated for the history books, although it was definitely a tourist attraction. Countless bulbs flashed around me of a hundred snapshots that are probably now being put onto Snapfish or Facebook as I write this, or just as likely forgotten in the digital residue that is our postmodern computer-driven lives. I seriously didn't understand why people were taking pictures of it: No photo would come close to matching a professional postcard, well worth its price of one Euro in the gift shop. But people took not just the pictures of the painting, but themselves standing in front of it, like it was some fish they had caught, or perhaps more tellingly, some fish someone had caught 500 years earlier that they just happened to be in front of. As the great Ray Davies suggested in the Kinks' "People Take Pictures of Each Other," perhaps they do it "just to prove that they really existed." Maybe so, but the whole thing made me sick, but it also made me think a lot about humanity, in part because I felt like a bastard for thinking so lowly of those mindlessly taking pictures of the Most Famous Painting of All Time.

I consider the Mona Lisa to be, along with the David and the Last Supper and a few other things (Jefferson's writings and Lincoln's speeches, perhaps) to scale the height of human genius in a way that few things have ever done before or since. It is this clear and present genius that allows the Louvre to be mobbed whenever it's open -- at least in its Renaissance wing -- and it is this that draws people to the painting like lemmings, drawn to it as though by a holy force that they do not (and do not want to) understand.

It was, at least in my mind, humanity at its very highest and lowest. And yet, in my own pretentious, art student mind, I was just as guilty as the rest. I kept framing my thinking with Carl Mann, Robert Pollard, and Ray Davies, while the painting drew me into its mystique, a radiating sense of calm and peace I was not expecting nor had I ever experienced except at the end of a well-made movie or a particularly satisfying conversation. It was what the Easterners have supposedly been after all along, some form of Zen, the most elusive human ability of them all: To clear one's mind.

And clear it remained, until I felt as though I had received what I felt like I needed to receive and then turned back into the crowd and back to the early Renaissance painting from which I had came, only now with an unexplainable sense of peace in my heart and an old Carl Mann record in my mind.