Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune

Fate is cruel to those who tell the truth. There are few better illustrations of this than the short life of Phil Ochs, the folk singer — he preferred “topical singer” — whose incisive songs, sung in his plangent tenor, are indelible anthems to the tumultuous ‘60s and early ’70s: the JFK assassination (“Crucifixion”), the Civil Rights movement (“The Ballad of Medgar Evars,” “Here’s to the State of Mississippi”) Vietnam (“I Ain’t Marching Anymore” “Draft Dodger Rag”), the lies of Lyndon Johnson (“We Seek No Wider War”), the hypocrisy of liberals (“Love Me, I’m a Liberal”). Disillusioned by the failure of his ideals to change the world, drinking heavily and suffering from bipolar disorder, Ochs hanged himself at his sister’s home in Far Rockaway, New York, on April 9, 1976. He was 35.

Unlike Bob Dylan, with whom Ochs had a friendly but rather heartbreaking rivalry (he desperately wanted Dylan’s approval), the brilliant and prophetic Ochs is remembered, except by leftists and diehard folkies, as a musical footnote. “It must have been hard to be Marlowe in the time of Shakespeare,” remarked director Kenneth Bowser at a screening of his new documentary, Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune. But while Dylan’s music was more wide-ranging, it was the activist Ochs who was the genuine heir to Woody Guthrie, a crown Dylan coveted as he sat at the ailing Guthrie’s hospital bedside. Bowser’s film, an expert collage of archival footage, photographs, music and interviews with friends, contemporaries and family members, will bring renewed recognition to Ochs, who was sometimes described as “Tom Paine with a guitar.” (Paine, too, died alone in obscurity in New York.)

Through interviews with people like Peter Yarrow, Van Dyke Parks, Billy Bragg, Tom Hayden, singer Judy Henske, Pete Seeger, the late Abbie Hoffman, and Ochs’ former wife, brother, sister and daughter, a biographical portrait emerges of a young man, born in Texas who took refuge from family problems in music — not folk music, which he would discover later, but country artists like Lefty Frizell — and the movies, idolizing heroic Americans and imagining himself, throughout his life, the hero of his own movie.

At Ohio State University, his roommate introduced him to left-wing politics and the Weavers, and Phil devoted himself to writing songs, singing and playing guitar, moving to New York City to join other musicians who believed they could make a difference. The songs, based on the headlines of the day, poured out of him, forthright, honest, ironic and idealistic. He was singing songs against the Vietnam War as early as 1962, years before most Americans were even aware of the burgeoning conflict.

His songs illuminated hard truths; unlike those of Peter Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio, they couldn’t be sung holding hands and sitting around a campfire, which is a likely reason the fame he craved eluded him. Unlike Dylan’s more obscurant songs, like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Ochs’ songs got directly to the heart of the matter, with insights into issues that remain unchanged today, like the corporate interests that drive the wars that are sold as defending freedom. “Now the labor leader’s screamin’/When they close the missile plants/United Fruit screams at the Cuban shore/Call it Peace or call it Treason/Call it Love or call it Reason/But I ain’t marchin’ anymore/No, I ain’t marchin’ anymore.” He didn’t just write songs about the issues he cared about; he was committed to change, and performed at countless benefits, routinely passing up a paid gig to play at a labor rally for miners.

Though he sang of events of the day, he was no mere singing journalist; he was capable of a soaring poeticism. Listen to the haunting “The Highwayman,” based on Alfred Noyes’ narrative poem, the lovely “Changes,” or “When I’m Gone,” so sad in retrospect, about a man’s determination to go on living (“Won’t see the golden of the sun when I’m gone/Can’t be singing louder than the guns when I’m gone/“So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here”). That his songs are as relevant today as when he wrote them is evident in Jello Biafra’s statement that he scarcely had to change the lyrics for the Dead Kennedys’ 1980 cover of “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.” As the President talks of sending CIA “analysts” into Libya as part of its latest bombing adventure, we realize how little things have changed since Ochs sang “But the boy in the swamp didn’t care that he was killed by advisers/So please be reassured, we seek no wider war.”

After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, Phil, like many other activists, lost his way. “He stopped looking outward, and then he got sick,” says one friend, and a family history of manic depressive illness caught up with him. The “manic” side may have fueled his incredibly prolific songwriting, while the bottom end left him in a black fog, isolated and, at the end of his days, living with his sister, watching endless television and playing cards.

After Ochs’ death, it was discovered that the FBI had kept a nearly 500-page file on his activities. Ochs, often misspelled “Oakes” in Hoover’s files, was considered “potentially dangerous,” as are all public truth-tellers. This film suggests that negative responses to Ochs weren’t limited to the government; its lens reveals a surprising negativity, as friends recall the less flattering elements of the famously funny, smart Ochs’ personality: his ambition (“He really, really, really wanted to be famous,” says singer Judy Henske), his “ridiculousness” (never explained, as Ochs seems anything but ridiculous) and, of course, the “arrogance, drunkenness and recklessness” of his later years, which began with his ill-conceived onstage appearance in an Elvis-style gold-lamé suit (it was meant ironically, but elicited audience jeers) and included aimless travels to Haiti, Chile and Africa, where street robbers attacked him and strangled him, permanently damaging his vocal cords (Ochs, paranoid but not without reason, suspected CIA involvement). His friends were at a loss about what to do with Ochs, who was unraveling, wildly wandering, getting arrested.

The film suffers from certain omissions and oddities. The talking-heads approach, much favored by this director (who has made documentaries about movie directors Frank Capra, Preston Sturges and others), makes for elliptical narration and the elision of certain details, such as the ending of Ochs’ marriage. You might also question the inclusion of certain commentators (Christopher Hitchens?) and the absence of others (where is Ochs’ friend Tom Paxton, and his moving song of remembrance, “Phil”?) For all the talk, we come away feeling we never really got to know Phil Ochs. Nevertheless, it is a necessary and worthy tribute to the visionary Ochs, who would have preferred to be famous in life rather than in death.

Arthur Redux

By Pamela Zoslov

British comedian Russell Brand is known for his history of debauchery, chronicled in his memoir My Booky Wook. Having parlayed his dissolute persona into roles Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek, Brand was a natural choice for a remake of the 1981 Dudley Moore hit Arthur, about a drunken libertine who is forced to change his lifestyle to avoid losing his inheritance. Setting aside whether a remake was necessary at all, a surprising level of creativity has gone into this remodel, directed by Jason Winer.

Rather than recasting Hobson, John Gielgud’s acerbic valet, the movie’s Hobson choice is the estimable Helen Mirren as manchild Arthur’s tart but loyal nanny, and the affection between them is touchingly conveyed in Peter Baynham’s script. In another smart departure, the ineffably charming Greta Gerwig (Greenberg) plays the quirky, working-class love interest of Arthur, whose tycoon mother (Geraldine James) is forcing him to marry a rapacious heiress (Jennifer Garner). The screenplay is nimble, with a good deal of Brand’s characteristic verbal wit, so it’s easy to forgive the sappy Hollywood-pop soundtrack, broad physical humor, and the fact that unlike the short and cuddly Dudley, Brand’s angular dishevelment makes him a rather unlikely object of affection.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Review: Win Win

By Pamela Zoslov

In his excellent films The Station Agent, the Visitor and Up (for which he wrote the story), director, actor and screenwriter Thomas McCarthy displayed a flair for the finely detailed character study of a loner whose life is changed by the unexpected appearance of an outsider. McCarthy applies the theme to the story of a family man in Win Win, an enjoyable, if imperfect small comedy set in McCarthy’s native New Jersey.

The story centers on Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), an attorney with a struggling practice and a family he’s having trouble supporting. His practice focuses on helping the elderly, and when he learns that his kind but increasingly confused client Leo (Burt Young) needs a legal guardian -- a post that pays a $1,500 monthly commission – Mike has himself appointed. Though he tells the court he’ll respect Leo’s wish to stay in his own house, he stashes the old man in a home for the aged and pockets the extra cash.

Things get complicated when Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer), a taciturn teenager with bleached-blond hair, shows up at his grandfather Leo’s doorstep. Mike and his wife, Jackie (the superb Amy Ryan, of Gone Baby Gone) take in the boy, initially labeled “Eminem” by the wary Jackie, integrate him into their family and enroll him in high school. Mike, who along with his CPA officemate Vigo (Jeffrey Tambor) moonlights as a high school wrestling coach, discover that in his native Ohio, Kyle was a championship wrestler (shades of The Blind Side or, in this case, The Blond Side; Shaffer is, in real life, a state champion high school wrestler). Kyle helps the foundering team win matches, and begins warming to life with the Flahertys, until his abusive mom (Melanie Lynskey) appears, fresh out of rehab and seeking her estranged son and father (or more precisely, her father’s money). Her return exposes Mike’s subterfuge, angering the unsuspecting Jackie and enraging Kyle, who had grown to trust him.

The movie suffers a little from “writer-director syndrome,” whereby director Thomas McCarthy is too faithful to the words of writer Thomas McCarthy, and fails to rein in his excesses. The movie is heavy on plot, but is never quite certain whether it’s a domestic comedy, a drama or a high-school sports movie. It also devotes a lot of screen time to characters of only marginal relevance, such as Mike’s friend Terry, though he’s played so vividly by Bobby Canaveral that he’s not unwelcome. A number of story elements strain credulity: Mike’s fraud upon the court and breach of duty seem to carry no major consequences (attention, New Jersey bar association), and Kyle’s violent behavior suggest more serious problems than a change of venue could resolve.

But the movie’s plot is not the main attraction of this earnest, well made film. McCarthy etches the characters with finely observed detail: Mike, under stress, habitually buying a pack of cigarettes, extracting one and tossing the rest of the pack away; Jackie, explaining to Kyle her “Jersey Girl” devotion to Jon Bon Jovi, down to her proudly displayed “JBJ” ankle tattoo; Kyle, quietly encouraging an awkward teammate to compete in a match. Giamatti is wonderfully naturalistic, far more persuasive as this beleaguered character than he was in the misbegotten Barney’s Version. Mike is misguided but essentially well-meaning -- much like this film, which, though flawed, has a lot to offer.

[Also posted at the Cleveland Movie Blog.]

Review: A Woman Like That

The 17th-century Italian Early Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1652) has been embraced in recent years by a raft of novelists, filmmakers, playwrights and art historians who have pressed her into service as a feminist heroine. The first female painter to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence, Artemesia overcame numerous obstacles – including a rape by her tutor, which led to an infamous trial – and painted bold, Caravaggio-like canvases of strong women in Biblical and mythological settings, like Judith Beheading Holofernes, which depicts the Biblical decapitation in a bold and bloody manner unusual for its time. Her life story – what is known of it, as much of the biographical data is lost – has for many years inflamed feminine imaginations and inspired two novels, several plays by Sally Clark, elements of the Wendy Wasserstein play The Heidi Chronicles, and a 1997 film, Artemesia.

The story of Artemesia, who under her artist father’s tutelage began painting at 17, seems to have caused Ellen Weissbrod, an experienced documentary filmmaker (Listen Up: The Lives of Quincy Jones), to completely take leave of her senses. Weissbrod’s Artemesia obsession, which began when she read about the artist, has resulted in A Woman Like That, a film that tries to parallel Weissbrod’s own experience, as a vaguely unsatisfied, insecure woman approaching 50, with that of Artemesia, who lived 400 years before her. In Weissbrod’s mind, their lives are so comparable that “What would Artemesia do?” is a useful mantra for everyday guidance. Pedaling her bicycle around town, Weissbrod muses about her I-Am-Woman determination to make a film about Artemesia. “I’m finally getting it together. I’m ready to go. I’m making it happen.” (She calls to mind Andrea Martin’s Libby Wolfson character on SCTV, with her play “"I'm Takin' My Own Head, Screwing it On Right, and No Guy's Gonna Tell Me it Ain't.”)

What she makes happen is less a film about Artemesia Gentileschi, painter, than a rather embarrassing diary about Ellen, filmmaker — a hodgepodge of shaky undercover camera work (after a St. Louis art museum, perhaps forewarned about Weissbrod, forbids her to film an exhibition of Artemesia’s paintings), travel footage of Italy, disorganized biographical nuggets from art historians, four-way split screen effects, home movies of Weissbrod as a child, dramatic readings of Artemesia’s letters that resemble nothing so much as a community-theater production of for colored girls, and costumed re-creations of the settings of Artemesia’s paintings by high school students in Paducah, Kentucky (seriously!).

Throughout the film, Weissbrod highlights phrases from Artemesia’s letters or spoken by the commentators that she considers useful in her personal journey of self-development, rendering them in graphic lettering in the style of an Infomercial or corporate recruitment video. From these selected phrases, Weissbrod extracts a manifesto for her life. “Artemesia wouldn’t take no for an answer. I’ve gotta find a way to be a woman like that.”

Actually, very little is known about what kind of woman Artemesia was, apart from the character projected on her by latter-day admirers. Her surviving letters, mostly routine business correspondence to commission clients and benefactors, suggest that she was acutely aware of the disadvantages she faced as an artist because of her sex, and her forthright testimony at the rape trial of Tassi, her attacker (some say seducer) suggests that she was nobody’s fool. Another life lesson for Weissbrod. “I would kill to write letters like Artemesia,” she gushes with adolescent enthusiasm.

The film devotes a lot of time to the rape case, which has been widely discussed and dramatized, chiefly because it’s the most thoroughly documented episode in Artemesia’s life (the trial transcripts, in crumbling ancient books, can be paged through by historians and obsessed American filmmakers). Following its lengthy disquisition on the rape, complete with dramatic readings of Artemesia’s explicit trial testimony, the film claims that Artemesia’s life was not defined by the rape. The rape is, however, what defines Artemesia’s legend. A chorus of voices, including several women filmed on the street, praise Artemesia for her “pluck,” her “courage,” her “guts.” The encomiums suggest, disturbingly, that some people derive a peculiar gratification from Artemesia’s graphic account of grabbing her attacker’s penis and yanking so hard it tore the flesh.

While there is some discussion of the qualities of Artemesia’s paintings (the only negative note being sounded by a man who pronounces it “second-rate Caravaggio”), Artemesia’s oeuvre, while undeniably accomplished, is not overwhelmingly exceptional for its time, save for the fact that it was created by a woman and depicts violence and female nudity forthrightly. “The real story is her painting,” says one art historian, but it seems that the legend of Artemesia is based less on her work — how many people today are genuinely excited by Baroque painting? -- than on the indelible symbol of castration in Artemesia’s life and paintings of vengeful women beheading their attackers. This film, and the latter-day legend of Artemesia, prompt the question of whether it’s the vicarious fantasy of physical violence — interpreted as “strength” and “heroism” — that really inspires her legion of contemporary admirers.

Also posted at the Cleveland Movie Blog.