Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Mississippi Marsala

In Mississippi Marsala (1991) director Mira Nair examines racism, both in the American South and elsewhere, through a different lens. The South in this film provides a landscape known for a history of difficult racial relations. We see elements of this racism in the film, mere hints, really. The primary focus is on relations between African Americans and South Asian Indians. By focusing on these groups, Nair views race in a new and unfamiliar context that sheds light on more familiar discussions of the subject.

Nair parallels the experiences of an Indian family in Uganda and in Mississippi. The family regarded Uganda as its home. Meena, the daughter, has never even visited India. She knows no other country but Uganda. When Idi Amin foments racial discord in Uganda, and when Meena's father Roshan Seth makes comments critical of Amin in a BBC interview, the family is forced to leave, along with all other non-Africans. As Roshan Seth's African friend explains to him, "Africa is only for Africans now, black Africans." As a result the family moves to Greenwood, Mississippi, to run a hotel while Roshan Seth pursues law suits against the Ugandan government, seeking the return of confiscated property. Part of the reason why Roshan Seth and others like him were expelled is that they had become wealthy and had been accused of a certain clannishness—Indian families did not, for example, allow their children to marry Africans.

In Greenwood, Meena grows up. At the time of the story, she is 24. Her parents expect her to marry an Indian. In a minor car accident, Meena runs into the van of a carpet cleaner named Demetrius Williams, played by Denzel Washington. Demetrius, with the assistance of some white citizens in the town, has secured a bank loan to start a carpet cleaning company. He has been successful with the company and always pays his bank notes on time. After the accident, he and Meena begin to see each other and fall in love. When their relationship is discovered (they are found sleeping together in a hotel room by one of Meena's relatives), there are extreme reactions in the community from both sides of the racial fence. Meena's father forbids the relationship, though he rationalizes his opposition by saying that he does not want his daughter to suffer racism in the same way he did.

In a scene shortly after the car accident, one of Meena's relatives, a successful businessman in Greenwood, urges Demetrius not to file suit against his family because of the collision. He tells Demetrius that all non-white people are "colored" people, the point being that they all suffer racism and therefore share a common bond. On the basis of this common plight, he appeals to Demetrius, who assures him he has no plans to sue.

After Demetrius' relationship with Meena is discovered, however, the common bond disappears. The Indians unanimously oppose her relationship with a black man. The same relative who appealed to Demetrius not to sue in turn goes to white business owners in town and asks them not to do business with Demetrius' carpet cleaning company. He quickly loses all his clients and the bank threatens to repossess his van. White citizens of the town complain and joke about Demetrius' relationship with Meena. Meena's father decides to move back to Africa to prevent his daughter from involvement with Demetrius.

Demetrius receives criticism from family and friends, from the African American community in general, for his relationship with Meena. His sister accuses him of rejecting black women. His father accuses him of causing trouble. His father, whom Demetrius loves, has spent his life working in subservient roles. He appears to believe in the necessity of playing it safe, of not antagonizing the white power structure by any action or word that would seem to offend prevailing racial codes. In a sense, Demetrius by developing his carpet cleaning business has done the same—it is a service-oriented business, one involving manual labor, not one that threatens to upset the racial order in Greenwood.

Both sides—the Indians and the African Americans—reveal their racial clannishness and their own racist attitudes in reacting to Meena and Demetrius' relationship. Several short scenes show white citizens in Greenwood reacting to the fracas. One old man gleefully remarks on the problems that the Indian family is experiencing with the African American Demetrius.

The parallels that Nair has set up in the film—between Uganda and Greenwood, Mississippi, and between the Indians who have never been to India and the African Americans who have never been to Africa—work well. Both groups feel that where they are—Greenwood—is their home. Yet both groups experience conflict with other groups who see a specific racial identity associated with their citizenship in Uganda or in Greenwood--Uganda is for black Africans; Greenwood is for African-Americans, or for whites, but not for Indians.

Meena and Demetrius ultimately resolve their problems by breaking with their families and with Greenwood. They decide to move away and to work the carpet cleaning business together. The suggestion is that, given the racism both of Greenwood and of their families, this is the only way they can find satisfaction and happiness. This film therefore seems to argue that the solution to racial conflict does not lie in adherence to past traditions and beliefs but rather in living in the present, in accommodating oneself to present-day circumstances and situations.

In a sense this film is not so much about the South as it is about two groups of people who live in the South—Indians and African Americans—and specifically about Mira and Demetrius' families.

Mira Nair has an incisive sense of comedy and satire that comes through especially in her portrayal of various Indian characters in the film, especially one character in particular who covets his car and dresses and acts like a 1950s style Memphis hipster, with greased back hair, in the Elvis style. She's more careful not to satirize African American characters—perhaps she feels her identity as an Indian woman allows her a certain license in satirizing Indians, but not in satirizing other races. Yet she also has a genuine fondness for the humanity of all her characters —African, African American, Indian, or white. She recognizes the comic as well as tragic consequences that can arise from human conflict rooted in racial divisions.

Sharky’s Machine

In 1981, Burt Reynolds was approaching the end of the most significant decade of his career. It began in 1972 with the release of Deliverance, in which Reynolds played a straight role, one of the two most important roles in the film. It was a role that many thought could be his breakthrough into film—previously he had been mostly a television actor. Numerous films followed Deliverance, such as White Lightening (1973), W. W. and the Dixie Dance Kings (1974), At Long Last Love (1975), Gator (1975), Semi-Tough (1977), Hooper (1978), The End (1978), and of course Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and its first sequel (1980). In these films we see Reynolds in a number of roles--as an action hero, a comedian, a romantic lead, even a musical star. But the roles for which he is best known are those in which he plays a boisterous comic Southern prankster—a fool-killer with a moralistic desire to upend corrupt authority and in general to run amuck. Reynolds has been trying to live down this persona, and at the same time to take advantage of it, for much of the rest of his career. He's shown an impressive flexibility in the kinds of roles he is willing to take, and at the same time a resilient energy that led to the renovation of his career beginning with Boogie Nights and more recent films. He's even been willing to parody roles that made him famous—see Without a Paddle (2004) and The Dukes of Hazzard (2005). Although everyone knows his name, he did not ever become the great actor and star he aspired to become—there is a difference, of course, between acting and being a star. Reynolds was a competent actor and for a time a big-name star but in neither case a name for the ages.

Sharky's Machine (1981) may be the film in which Reynolds sought to alter the stakes of his career. Not only does he play a big city detective, but he also directs the film, based on the novel of the same title by Georgia writer William Diehl. I haven't read the novel and so cannot consider the film in relation to its source. The film on its own grounds is a mess, wavering back and forth between gritty police drama, character study, and romantic potboiler. Demoted to the vice squad at the beginning of the film because of a shooting that killed a civilian—Sharky is a highly skilled detective who wants to redeem himself and who is naturally disposed to rebel against authority. He and other members of the vice squad (all of them suffer from an inferiority complex because the vice squad is the least desirable assignment for a police officer) become involved in investigating a high-class prostitute who is murdered before their eyes. She is having an affair with a candidate for governor, and also with an Italian crime boss (played by Vittorio Gassman) who controls the city's power structure, and much of the police station. The plot grows increasingly dense and complex, and the film is not up to the complexity. There is a moment in the film when two Ninja assassins attack a police informant—you know at this moment that the film is floundering. Ninja assassins have little to do with the rest of the film--except for a final encounter with Sharky on a boat in the middle of (presumably) Lake Lanier. Ultimately, as Gassman's hitman brother kills off Sharky's colleagues, the film resolves all these complexities by transmogrifying into a film about Sharky's love for (some might say voyeuristic obsession with) the high-class prostitute apparently killed before his eyes.

The film has the quality of a 1970s era TV crime drama. Kojak comes specifically to mind. The cast includes actors who often appeared in such dramas (Charles Durning, Earl Holliman, Henry Silva, Brian Keith).

Sharky's Machine is set in Atlanta. Reynold's choice of this film based on a Georgia book, the name of his production company (Deliverance Productions), and his use of Atlanta seems a deliberate effort to capitalize on his regional connections. Oddly, the film seems almost a deliberate attempt to reconceive Atlanta as a big national city with no regional distinctiveness. There is, of course, no reason why a film would need to adhere to preconceptions about how a regional city should be portrayed. What the film does for the most part is treat Atlanta as if it is just another version of Chicago or New York or Los Angeles. The music is decidedly non-regional—the brassy sort of music you would expect to hear in a film set on the strip of Las Vegas. Few characters speak with Southern accents, and the few who do are glaring, almost awkward exceptions. Reynolds himself underplays his accent—it's hardly apparent. One reason may be that many of the characters in the film may have moved to Atlanta from somewhere else. Even in 1981 Atlanta was beginning to take on its current character as a city of national and international dimensions (hence the Ninja assassins), but few people in 1981 would have thought of the city in that way, though many complained that it was losing, or had lost, its regional character. A few scenes are specifically tied to Atlanta—one in a night club where a blues band is playing (Atlanta is not known as a center of the blues, but at least the scene ties the film to the South), another set in the infield of Atlanta Stadium, where the Braves play. For the most part, Atlanta is presented as simply another big American city. The film as a whole is bland and without distinctive character. This may be a result of the director's failure to take advantage of the regional aspects of the city where the story takes place—doing so would at least have given the film a sense of place and a specific geographical identity. It might also have helped to emphasize what may be a theme of the film, with its Italian henchmen and Ninja assassins and police officers and bad men who seem to come from all over the nation—that the world is coming to Atlanta and one thing the world brings with it is big-time crime and corruption. (This is not to suggest that Atlanta did not already have enough crime and corruption of its own).

In 1982, Reynolds starred with Dolly Parton in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. It marked, in my mind, the end of his great decade. The South that provided the location for his most successful films had lost its commercial and cultural appeal (Ronald Reagan had whipped Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential elections), and Reynolds had demonstrated the extent and limits of his talents. He was at his best as the Southern prankster and good ol' boy, and neither Hollywood nor (apparently) Reynolds himself was interested in further incarnations of that role. The nation moved forward. Better romantic character actors made their way onto the scene, and Reynolds as a comic hero was no longer fashionable—a later generation of comedians replaced him. He would struggle for another fifteen years until appearances in such films as Boogie Nights (1997) and Mystery, Alaska (1999) brought about a resurrection of his career, though probably on the basis of terms he would not have chosen for himself.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Tiny Ship upon the Sea, by Robert Cooperman

Robert Cooperman's new collection of poems A Tiny Ship upon the Sea (Greensboro, NC: March Street Press, 2007) tells the tale of two brothers, Sean and Liam O'Flynn, who become highwaymen after killing two British officers that try to impress them into the British army to fight the French. Written in a mild Irish dialect, the poems follow the usual pattern of a Cooperman narrative cycle: tracing through the voices of characters events that lead towards some important conclusion. Suffused with references to Irish history and folklore, and with hostility to priests (a familiar theme for Cooperman) and to the British, the poems relate how Sean and Liam hide out with prostitutes after killing the officers. When they quarrel, Sean leaves, taking their money with him. Liam, without money or food, seeks shelter and help from a woman names Mary living alone in the countryside. She takes him in, they become lovers, and she becomes pregnant. When she has a difficult time delivering their child, Liam goes for help and is stopped by another group of British soldiers looking for recruits. When they try to impress him, Liam shoots one of them, is imprisoned and condemned to hang.

Much of the book relates Liam's thoughts, impressions, and memories as he waits in his cell for death. These are the most interesting poems in the book. In them Liam remembers the first girl he loved, his career with his brother as a highwayman, his love for the woman in the cottage, his memory of his drunken father and of the mute sister who has incestuous designs on him. Several poems recount in minute but telling detail Liam's thoughts on the day he is to be hanged, on the scaffold as he feels the rope placed around his neck. When Liam is hanged, the rope (improbably) breaks and the man who was ministering to him as a priest reveals himself as Sean. They escape on a stolen horse. Although Liam has been told that Mary and her child died, he goes to see the cottage where she lived and discovers them both alive. They all flee, escaping the soldiers once again, and steal a boat to sail to a remote island off the Irish shores where they meet Gaelic speaking countrymen. Once islanders learn that Liam and Sean are fugitives, they send them away. In the last poem Liam, Sean, Mary, and the child are sailing out into an empty ocean, hoping to find a place to put safely in.

The collection ends abruptly. The purpose may be to give the collection an air of uncertainty, mystery, and irresolution—we don't know what happens: Liam and crew may die or live. The conclusion suggests that Cooperman is following the outline of an Irish folktale or poem, or that he is trying to end the collection with a sense of suspension (cf. "The Eve of St. Agnes"), but the real effect is abruptness and disappointment—the collection prepared us for something more tangible in the way of an ending, and it is not Cooperman's habit to leave matters unresolved in this manner.

A sub-current in the poems is Sean's desire to sail to the American colonies. He believes he can be free in America, even though the colonists like the Irish are subject to the rule of the British. This motif of escape and the desire for a life in a distant land underlies many of the poems. The collection is set during the early days of the American Revolution, and even though Ireland is the location of the story the poems tell, the principles for which the Revolution is fought—freedom, opportunity, independence from the British—are ones that mean something to Sean and Liam. This motif is more an unrealized potential in the collection, a series of hints and inferences, than a fully realized theme.

As with Cooperman's other narrative cycles—stories about the Colorado gold mine country, about Byron and Keats, about the story of the long black veil—Liam speaks with a passionate and rhetorically urgent intensity. He must tell his story. It is his very nature to do so, though we don't know to whom he speaks or where he is when he tells the tale. He is like the narrators of some of the poems of E. L. Masters and E. A. Robinson—an inveterate and essential teller of his own experience.

Despite the ending, these poems in a minor key attest to Cooperman's skill with narrative poetry. Above all else, the increasingly desperate and plaintive voice of Liam O'Flynn, as he approaches what he believes will be his death on the gallows, dominates the book.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami

In Norwegian Wood (1987) by Haruki Murakami men and women talk endlessly about the most trivial and ponderous subjects. One character obsesses over the mushrooms she cooked for a folk music group that were found unsatisfactory. The main character Watanabe goes to visit the apartment of a girl he met in one of his classes. Since they are going to her apartment alone, there is suspense—will something happen, will they sleep together? They talk endlessly, especially the girl, of the most trivial matters. At the end, they kiss, and the girl tells our hero that she has a boyfriend. That's it. There are several more such prolonged encounters, one of them in the hospital room of the girl's dying father. The highpoint comes when Watanabe and then the girl's father eat a cucumber. It is as if such talk is an entrée to some deep knowledge about these characters and their lives.

Watanabe's conversations with the girl he loves, Nakao, are different, but the novel brims with what seems to be shallow conversation. In addition to the long passages of trivial description and apparently shallow talk, the novel uses letters written between Watanabe and Nakao to trace the progress of their relationship.

The title, an allusion to the Beatles song, is evoked when Nakao's roommate Reiko plays the tune on her guitar during Watanabe's visit to the sanitarium where they are living. It's also a more general allusion to Watanabe's enthrallment to Nakao. The novel is an enactment of the song, in a sense, and of the Keats poem "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" on which the song is at least partially based. Nakao is a beautiful girl unable to recover from her boyfriend's suicide. Gripped by depression and deep psychotic trauma, she asks Watanabe to wait for her recovery. She gives him glimpses of her beautiful naked body, which she promises to him when she recovers, and he does wait.

The present time of the story is twenty years after the main events of the novel. We first meet Watanabe as a man of 37 remembering a girl whom he once loved deeply. In fact, the novel begins with Watanabe at an older age remembering himself at the age of 37, sitting in a 747 preparing to land, hearing the song "Norwegian Wood" and being prompted by it to recall his love for Nakao and his friendship with another young woman, Michiko: "I . . . looked out the plane window at the dark clouds hanging over the North Sea, thinking of what I had lost in my life: times gone by, friends who had died or disappeared, feelings I would never know again." (These words recapitulate another Beatles song, "In My Life.") Thus as is the case with this kind of retrospective novel, tension builds as we move towards the climactic revelatory events that will reveal why Watanabe lost the girl, what happened to her, what sent him to his current state of affairs in the modern world. At other points the narrative seems merely to be marking time, moving nowhere, mired in trivialities and endless talk, putting us off until those revelatory events occur.

While he waits for Nakao to recover, Watanabe meets Michiko, a student in one of his classes. Gradually a relationship develops, but it's complicated by Watanabe's love for the ailing Nakao. Will she recover? Will he realize that he really does love Michiko? Will he decide to commit himself to Michiko before she decides she can't wait any longer?

There are at least four suicides in this novel. Two characters have major nervous breakdowns. Mizuki's father and mother both die from brain tumors. This is more than melodrama—it is a way of suggesting the dissatisfaction, the inner angst, the alienation of these lives that in this novel express themselves faintly through banal and trivial talk and flirtation.

Watanabe is a remarkably passive soul. Things happen to him, but he rarely has a role in making them happen. He does seek friends out, on occasion. Be he is so caught up in waiting for resolution of Nakao emotional problems that everything happens around him.

This novel was a best seller that gave national fame in Japan to its author, Haruki Murakami. It is decidedly unlike the other Murakami novel I read, Kafka on the Shore (2006), though the layered retrospective narrative of Norwegian Wood, the unusually high incidence of depression and suicide (which creates an almost otherworldly sense of unreality in the novel), Nakao's elusive, ultimately disappearing character, and the final paragraph are of a piece with the style and method of the later novel.

Sunday, October 21, 2007


The novel Eragon (2006) is quite an achievement for a seventeen or eighteen-year-old author—an achievement of persistence, talent, ingenuity, and even vision. But these do not add up to genius. Nor does the film based on the book succeed in any way other than one of derivativeness. For me one of the main entertainments the film offered was in being able to identify potential influences and sources. In Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy human beings are linked from birth to their daemons. When the human dies, so does the daemon. In Eragon, when the dragon rider dies, his dragon always dies with him. The
Lord of the Rings has Aragorn and Gandolf, Star Wars has Ben Kenobi, Aragon has Brom, the former dragon rider. Along with the Harry Potter novels, all these sources have young protagonists who find themselves suddenly called to serve a noble purpose, one they didn't choose for themselves. They have to face down dark villains, difficult challenges and physical obstacles, terrible monsters. There is always a young girl, somewhere. Some of the scenes in Eragon, especially several that show the hero silhouetted against a beautiful sunset sky, specifically recall scenes in the first Star Wars film. Like Luke Skywalker, Eragon is an orphan of mysterious parentage who lives with his uncle. Both Luke and Eragon long to escape their dull lives on the farm. The uncles of both heroes are slain when evil forces come looking for their nephews. All of this is to say that there is not much original about the film Eragon.

There's not much tension or uncertainty in this film either. Instead there is a kind of random arbitrariness in the various turns of plot. We move from one scene to another. Once one challenge is overcome, another, often unrelated one, presents itself. The digital effects are good if not groundbreaking. The dragon Saphira is probably the best character in the film, if only for the voice of Rachel Weisz.

The film is flat. It lacks depth. It's like an empty box enclosed in saran wrap. Ed Speleers as Eragon is winning, but he can't act, in a profound way. Jeremy Irons as Brom is mysterious and dark, but he pretty much stays that way and dies too soon. Sienna Guillory as Arya is a welcome breath of sensuality and life. John Malkovich as the evil king Galbatorix has little to work with. Most of all the film lacks the mythic resonances of The Lord of the Rings and even the Philip Pullman and Harry Potter novels. It's a flat comic book story.

The end of Eragon clearly sets us up for a sequel, but judging from reviews and ticket sales, there won't be one.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Dark Materials Trilogy, by Phillip Pullman

The Dark Materials Trilogy by Phillip Pullman is a series of fantasy novels, ostensibly for children. They are well written, with a polish and a sense of narrative form lacking in the Harry Potter novels. In his New York Times review of the last Harry Potter novel, Christopher Hitchens recommended this trilogy, which I subsequently discovered on my son's bookshelf. The central character is a young girl named Lyra, ostensibly an orphan who lives under the supervision of the master of one of the colleges at Oxford University. Lyra begins the novel as a deceptively normal orphan—though adventurous and rebellious. She is constantly hiding in closets and running across the roofs of the college buildings with her daemon. Oh, yes, her daemon. The world Lyra inhabits is not exactly our world, but one parallel to it, similar in many respects to our own, but different in other ways. The inhabitants of this world all have a daemon, an animal of some sort that is linked to them through a special bond that the novels never quite explain. In childhood, the daemon can change shape at will—from cat to hawk to fish—but when its owner reaches puberty the daemon settles into one shape that is set for life. When the owner dies, so does the daemon. The daemon is akin to the soul. In some worlds, a person's daemon is invisible.

Lyra's simple life at Oxford soon begins to grow more complex. She secretly watches as the headmaster of the College tries to poison a visiting dignitary, Lord Asriel, a scientist of sorts. She overhears a conversation about a special child, who she realizes is herself. A beautiful woman, Mrs. Coulter, appears at the College and decides to adopt her. Lyra becomes aware that children in the town are disappearing, never to be seen again, and there are ominous rumors about their fate. She learns that Mrs. Coulter is involved in the disappearances. She also learns that she does have, after all, a mother and father. She runs away to live with the gypsies, becomes friends with a balloon pilot and a talking polar bear named Iorek Byrnison (with his own set of armor), travels to the frozen North, learns about the possible existence of other universes, and so on and so forth.

Pullman imaginatively populates these novels with all sorts of fantastic creatures and parallel worlds. The first novel, The Golden Compass, is full of surprises and is ingeniously put together. The latter two novels, The Subtle Knife and The Ambler Spyglass are quite readable and usually entertaining but also less satisfying, in part because Pullman forces them to serve a particular agenda and framework involving quantum mechanics, parallel worlds, anti-Catholicism and anti-institutionalized religion of any kind, and Paradise Lost. As the novel develops, and we learn of the roles that Lyra and her friend Will are fated to enact, events seem increasingly prescribed and limited.

Still, there are delights, such as the elephant-like mulefa that appear in the third novel. They have evolved to ride on wheels fashioned from the seedpods of a particular tree. The mulefa are highly intelligent, possessed of their own language, and have as enemies large swan-like birds that occasionally attack from the nearby sea. Less successful is the world of the dead, where Lyra and friends travel. It's too imprecise and unbelievable, with harpies and an emaciated boatman and millions on millions of ghosts. The afterlife in this novel, reminiscent of the afterlife in Homer's The Iliad, and also of a prison camp, is not a happy place.

As the books progress, the fantasy grows more forced, less plausible, less convincing. Lyra's character loses her distinctiveness, as she compliantly adheres to the role the novels create for her, and finally, in the third book, the climactic events are described with an imprecise, abstract, faintly eroticized language that is sentimental and ineffective.

A key component of the novels is Dust, an indefinable substance that is generated when a species becomes sentient, self-conscious. It's a kind of dark matter. It goes by various names, depending on which world you are in: in our world, Dust is Shadow Particles. Dust gives human life its joy and vigor. It animates the universe. Children don't have it, but as they grow older and mature they become covered with it. The novels revolve around the efforts of various characters in the novels to destroy Dust as well as to save it. Lyra's life is in danger as a result of the struggle.

The Dark Materials trilogy is well written and often highly imaginative. Much more literary and intellectualized than the Harry Potter novels, it is, in the end, less engaging. The Harry Potter novels are full of bad writing and rough edges, contrived plot turns, and other sorts of baggage, but Harry Potter and his friends, even at the height of the crisis in the final book, remain interesting and real as human beings, while Lyra and Will become more and more like pieces of an edifice that Pullman struggles too diligently to force into place. The smooth edges of his seamless trilogy are what bring it down.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Monterey Pop

What Monterey Pop (1968) lacks in sound quality it makes up for in high-power, classic performances. Four performances are the heart of this concert film, produced a year before the more famous Woodstock (1970). First is Janis Joplin, performing "Ball and Chain" with Big Brother and the Holding Company. She reinvents this song. It's doubtful one could recognize her version of the song next to more conventional performances of "Ball and Chain." She croons, screeches, screams, contorts, murmurs. She wholly possesses the song. It's a career-making performance, and the best in the film. Then is Otis Redding with "I've Been Loving You"—this performance less than a year before his death in a plane crash. Redding sings this song straight, pretty much as he does in the recorded version, but in this live performance reminds us of what a powerful and distinctive performer Redding was. Third is Jimi Hendrix and "Wild Thing," a performance that ends with the incineration of his guitar. Although this isn't the best performance of his career, it is a good one, and visually it is hard to exceed—Hendrix is all over the stage, and in complete control of his guitar, which he treats in more ways than one might imagine a guitar could be treated. Finally, there is Ravi Shankar, playing a raga so frenetic, controlled, and powerful that you want to take a cold shower. His music is distinctively different from, and at odds with, the music in the rest of the film, but on some level it's of a piece with the other great performances, all of which show that performing and listening to music is a spiritual exercise.

There are other good performances in the film, especially by Jefferson Airplane and Canned Heat. The Mama and Papas, whose guiding spirit John Phillips had much to do with the staging of the festival, performs twice, and their singing, along with their appearance, reminds us of what a limited phenomenon, locked in a specific cultural time frame, they were.

It's interesting and sad to watch the young people in this film—both in the audience and on stage—and to think that forty years have passed since the 1967 Monterey Pop Festial. Many who appear on stage are dead—Mama Cass, John Phillips, Redding, Joplin, Hendrix—others have simply faded away—some brain damaged by alcoholic or narcotic self-abuse, others simply faded. The people in the audience are now in their 50s and 60s, and if they're anything like me they don't walk with the lightness we see in this film, their faces don't glow with joy and optimism.

Woodstock captured the spirit and self-promoting frenzy of the three-day rock festival that remains the most famous and self-defining moment of the late 60s. It's a much clicker film than this one, and the sound quality is excellent. It's an entertaining film, but it shows us how some of the great acts of the day were already becoming self-parodies—how could anyone see anything but self-parody in Joe Cocker's wonderful performance of "I Get By with a Little Help from My Friends." Perhaps we see notes of self-parody in Monterey Pop too (why it's necessary for both The Who and Jimi Hendrix to destroy their guitars, I don't know), but it offers four great performances the equal of the best in Woodstock. The success of the film owes partially to its director and pop music documentarian D. A. Pennebaker and the excellent photographers with whom he worked.