Monday, April 26, 2010

Welles' Magnificent Encore

I don't know if Harry Truman actually said this. It was a line from "Give 'Em Hell, Harry!" the play that earned great reviews for James Whitmore on both stage and screen back in the 1970s.

Truman didn't actually say all the things that Whitmore did in his one–man play. But if he didn't, he should have.

Like, for example, what Whitmore/Truman said about finding something to do after you've been president.

"It's hell for a man trying to find work when he's been president of the United States," Whitmore/Truman told his audiences. It's a great line — and it sounds very Trumanesque — but I have seen no confirmation that Truman ever said it.

And when you think about it, he probably never did. He was nearly 70 when he left the White House. I doubt he spent much, if any, time looking for something to do after his presidency ended.

But the point is well taken — and applicable to many fields, not just the presidency, although I'm sure Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both of whom were in their 50s when they returned to private life, knew all too well what Truman may have been talking about (if, indeed, he ever said it).

I'm sure Orson Welles would sympathize. He was in his mid–20s when he made "Citizen Kane," which has often been named as the greatest film of all time.

Now that brings me to a question. When you're 26 and you've just made the greatest film of all time (although it wasn't widely acknowledged then to be the best ever made), what does one do for an encore?

In Welles' case, he made a movie that was shown on Turner Classic Movies Saturday night — "The Magnificent Ambersons," which was a film adaptation of the middle novel of Booth Tarkington's "Growth" trilogy.

I didn't realize it was being shown Saturday night until I was doing a little channel surfing and came across it just as it was starting — a little late to spread the word. But it isn't too late to recommend that you put it on your "must–watch" list. I just can't tell you when it will be shown again.

If you have ever seen "Citizen Kane," you will recognize many of the cast members. They belonged to the Mercury Players company that Welles founded with John Houseman. Folks like Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead (who may be best remembered for her role on TV's Bewitched) and Ray Collins (who may be best remembered for his role on TV's Perry Mason) appeared in both movies.

And, once again, Welles wore many hats. He directed and produced the film, wrote the film adaptation and provided the narration (but, unlike "Citizen Kane," he didn't star in it). Tim Holt, who later played Humphrey Bogart's sidekick in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," portrayed the Amberson grandson who eventually got his long–anticipated "comeuppance."

Making that movie was a different kind of experience for Welles. "Citizen Kane" had been his project, but he lost control of the editing of "The Magnificent Ambersons." Ultimately, more than an hour was cut from the film and the ending was changed.

Nevertheless, it is recognized as quite an accomplishment. It doesn't have space–age special effects, but the movie is about the 19th century, and its special effects solutions seem appropriately old–fashioned for the subject matter.

For example, there is a scene set in the outdoors during the winter that illustrates the conflict between the automobile and the horse–drawn sleigh. To give as much of a realistic flavor as possible, Welles filmed the scene in a Los Angeles ice house. That is why, when you watch the movie, you will see the actors' breath.

It's a lesson that should not be lost on today's filmmakers. Too often, 21st–century filmmakers seem to believe that "special effects" should be splashy explosions, dazzling light shows, etc.

If that is what a film requires to tell the story, that is fine. But special effects are not just visual effects. They can be sound effects, too. And if they are visual effects, they can be something as simple as seeing a character's breath when he/she is outdoors in the winter.

It was that kind of attention to detail that made "Citizen Kane" the great movie that it was and remains, nearly 70 years later.

And that same attention to detail made "The Magnificent Ambersons" a worthy encore.

If you didn't see it, I sincerely hope you do the next time it is on.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

That Little Ol' Band From Texas

I have a confession to make.

I was a somewhat superficial youth. At least, it seems that way to me now.

Oh, I got that the Beatles were something special even though I was a small child when they arrived in America. But I didn't always pick up on some of the other talented singers and songwriters of those days until after they had been in the public eye for awhile.

Maybe it's because there were only two children in my family, and I was the oldest. If I had had an older brother or sister, I'm sure he or she would have introduced me to some artists who I didn't really appreciate until later.

At least, that is how it seems to have worked with my friends who had older brothers and/or sisters.

(Of course, the flip side of that is that I would have been the middle child — which, I am sure, would have introduced a whole new set of issues into my sibling relationships. But that is a topic for another discussion.)

Anyway, for whatever reason, I came to ZZ Top later than most of the kids my age.

I don't know why. I saw ZZ Top once in concert when I was in college, and I love to listen to their music today.

But when ZZ Top released their first album and the group was just beginning to get some airplay, I must have been in my Three Dog Night phase. That was the hot group at the time — in my circle of friends, at least, and they were the ones from whom I tended to take my cues.

Oddly, though, those friends weren't the ones who introduced me to ZZ Top. They may have been aware of ZZ Top, but, if they were, they didn't share their discovery with me. Perhaps I learned about ZZ Top from the same person or persons who told me about Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers — the Southern musicians who were so important in my teen years and beyond.

To be honest, I can't say that I really remember if anyone was responsible for that. Maybe I just started to notice ZZ Top after hearing their songs on the radio so much.

Perhaps the first ZZ Top song that I picked up on my personal radar was "Just Got Paid." That was quite popular. Could have been "Waitin' for the Bus" or "Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers." Or the mega–hit "La Grange."

But, by the time they released their fourth album, "Fandango!" 35 years ago tomorrow, I knew who they were. I had heard their music many times.

I have a distinct memory of sitting in the bleachers watching the older boys do their sound checks prior to a talent show. While they were moving their equipment around and talking among themselves, they had a record playing on a stereo. It was "Fandango!"

And when "Nasty Dogs and Funky Kings" started, some boys on the stage picked up their guitars and started playing along. At that moment, it became my favorite ZZ Top song. In some ways, it is still my favorite ZZ Top song.

I guess "Tush" has always been my favorite studio song from that album. It was the big hit — and a worthy successor to "La Grange."

But I still love me some "Nasty Dogs ..."

Friday, April 09, 2010

Standing for Something

Spencer Tracy gave this memorable speech at the film's end.

Of the Nuremberg trials, many Germans were dismissive. It is simply a case of the victorious exacting their revenge on the vanquished, they said.

Perhaps there was an element of that. I have written in this blog about the dearth of films about the Nuremberg trials, and it's possible that thinking played a role.

I wrote about the absence of such films nearly a year and a half ago, and I still think it is appalling that so few attempts have been made to tell that story — the story of how the Allies brought the surviving Nazi leaders to justice after the war in Europe — when so many attempts have been made to tell the story of Hitler's life, his rise to power and his brutal application of that power.

There are some valuable things to learn from Nuremberg. Sure, there were some mistakes. There always are. If anything, the Allies probably overdid the tribunal thing, working their way down from the justified trials of the men who really were responsible for the Holocaust to the generally unjustified trials of those who really were following the orders of their superiors.

But the Allies' intentions were good. Their motivations were noble. And their verdicts were appropriate.

Am I wrong to feel that somehow we're glorifying the bad guys and de–emphasizing the accomplishments of the good guys?

Maybe I am. I wish more filmmakers would examine that period in history. Then, at least, we could have a debate about differing impressions.

But only a handful have even tried in the last 64 years — and, sad to say, some of the results have been abysmal.

The very best one — in my opinion, anyway — wasn't even a re–creation. It was a fictionalized account of the Nuremberg trials, in which the judges who enforced the anti–Semitic laws of Nazi Germany were charged with crimes against humanity.

The film was 1961's "Judgment at Nuremberg," and the story did a great job of discussing issues surrounding the war crimes trials in the years after the Nazi leaders were convicted and executed.

And you can see it at 7 p.m. (Central) tomorrow on Turner Classic Movies. Don't miss it. Record it if you must and watch it later. Or make a note to yourself to see it the next time it is on.

But, please, don't miss it.

The story worked, even though it was largely devoid of action, as courtroom movies are apt to be. And just about everything in the movie took place in the courtroom. That works if a screenplay has great dialogue, which "Judgment at Nuremberg" had. But the story might not have worked if it hadn't had Stanley Kramer directing and producing, and it certainly wouldn't have succeeded without its all–star cast.

In what was certainly one of the great performances of all time, Maximilian Schell won Best Actor for his portrayal of the shrewd defense attorney (he beat co–star Spencer Tracy, who was equally memorable as the American judge).

"It is easy," Schell's character declares, "to condemn the German people, to speak of the flaw in the German character that allowed Hitler to rise to power — and at the same time ignore the flaw that made the Russians sign pacts with him, Winston Churchill praise him, American businessmen profit by him!"

Counterbalancing Schell's impassioned defense is the judicious demeanor of Tracy.

"There are those in our country today, too, who speak of the 'protection' of the country," his character says before announcing the verdict. "Of 'survival.' The answer to that is: 'survival as what?' A country isn't a rock. And it isn't an extension of one's self. It's what it stands for, when standing for something is the most difficult. Before the people of the world, let it now be noted in our decision here that this is what we stand for: justice, truth and the value of a single human being."

There were other big names in the film as well. Some, I have been told, believed so deeply in the project that they worked for only a small portion of their usual salaries.

Judy Garland was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in what was certainly a noteworthy performance, but so was Marlene Dietrich's portrayal of the widow of a German general.

And there have been few figures in American movies who were as tragic as Montgomery Clift, who was unforgettable as the victim of politically motivated sterilization. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

But, as Tracy's character says in his verdict speech, one of the defendants was a tragic figure as well — a German judge played by Burt Lancaster.

I've always felt that Lancaster's performance as the guilt–ridden judge was one of the best of his career. When he spoke of presiding over the "Feldenstein case," it was a fictional treatment of a real case, the Katzenberger Trial, in which an elderly Jewish businessman was convicted and sentenced to death for having an improper relationship with a young Aryan woman, even though no credible evidence of such a relationship was ever presented.

I guess the real greatness of the movie is that, while it was filmed in black and white, the characters were subtle shades of gray. No one was purely good. No one was purely bad. There was more than enough guilt to go around, a lesson the Allies learned a bit belatedly.

But the Nuremberg trials were necessary and important. Until more filmmakers give us re–creations of the actual Nuremberg trials, I recommend this fictional version if you want to learn more about the lengths to which the Nazis went to consolidate their power.

We must learn — and continue to learn — from that very dark chapter in human history if we wish to avoid repeating it.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Ravi Shankar Is 90

My father was a religion professor when I was growing up.

And I figured out early that his musical tastes differed from the fathers of my friends. In the central Arkansas town where I was raised, the fathers of most of my friends seemed to like country music. There were a few who liked the popular music of the day, but most of them were country boys who listened to country music on AM radio stations.

But Dad always liked ethnic music, which made his musical tastes unique among the grown men in my life. As a child, I always more or less assumed that was kind of an occupational hazard. My father taught classes about all religions, and he had recordings of music from places like Israel and Egypt, music I tended to associate with programs I had seen about the Holy Land.

There probably wasn't anything particularly religious about those recordings, just an association I made as a child. And I'm sure there was no Hindu significance to any of the music recorded by Ravi Shankar that my father had in his collection.

Shankar is 90 today. And, even though he is generally considered a sitar player, many folks fail to give him due credit for his influence on mainstream popular music.

I don't know how Dad found out about Ravi Shankar. I've never asked him. Dad likes classical music, too, and he may have learned about Shankar through violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who Dad admired. Menuhin had enjoyed quite a bit of success long before he collaborating with Shankar.

Popular music fans became familliar with Shankar through the Byrds and George Harrison of the Beatles. Harrison used the sitar on his song "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" and "Within You Without You." Later, Shankar appeared at the legendary Woodstock festival and joined Harrison in the famous benefit show, "The Concert for Bangladesh." Shankar got a Grammy for his contribution.

A decade later, Shankar was nominated for an Academy Award for his music in the film "Gandhi."

If today's audiences are familiar with Shankar's name, it is probably because he is known to young listeners as the father of singer–songwriter Norah Jones

I actually got to see Shankar once. And I saw him with Dad. When my brother and I were young, my father went on sabbatical in Nashville, Tenn., and the family went with him. We had the opportunity to see Shankar perform at Vanderbilt University while we were there.

I guess I was too young to appreciate the differences between the compositions he played. But that is an evening I will always remember with fondness.