Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell

In The Wordy Shipmates (Riverhead, 2008) NPR commentator and humorist Sarah Vowell discusses the early history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans. At first in the book she comes off like a stand-up comic. Her style is chatty, self-referential, replete with ironic quips, allusions to contemporary issues, and so on. This is not the prose one expects in a book about Puritans. It irritated me for the first chapter or so. But it grew on me. After a while Vowell's intelligent mind, along with the considerable research and reading and her deep understanding of and appreciation for her subject, won me over. She confesses to fascination with the Puritans and their era. At its best, in The Wordy Shipmates, her enthusiasm is infectious and highly informative.

The main actors in her story are John Winthrop, Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and others. These are familiar names, but Vowell manages to uncover the human stories beneath the legends. Whatever one may say about the rebellious integrity of Hutchinson and Williams, in their resistance to the rigid Puritan faith, they were equally extreme and rigid. Winthrop himself was capable of duplicity as well as self-deception. Although he participated willingly in the hearings that led to William's expulsion from the Colony, they remained correspondents long after Williams' departure. Winthrop relied on Williams for information about the local Indians.

In her discussion of Winthrop's "city on the hill" sermon, Vowell examines Ronald Reagan's appropriation of the term. She believes that by the time of the Reagan administration the nation had lost the meaning of the phrase and that Reagan himself had no idea of its significance—in fact, she believes his administration epitomized the opposite of what it means.

Vowell's main criticism of the Puritans, aside from their fanatical rigidity about certain issues and principles, concerns their treatment of the Indians. She gives a disturbing account of the annihilation of the Pequot tribe. The Puritans may have loved one another and God, but when it came to the Indians they didn't hesitate to abuse, mistreat, and murder—the annihilation of many of the Pequot tribe, 300 in all, including children, in an event where they were all herded into a tent that was set afire (anyone who tried to escape was shot) is Vowell's main case in point. The Puritans never wavered in their determination to wipe out or at least subjugate the Indians. They believed they were God's chosen people, on a sacred mission to create a new settlement, Winthrop's fabled "city on a hill." Vowell suggests that their belief in their own special and unique calling infiltrated American culture and that it continues to influence American foreign policy and our treatment of other nations and peoples, especially ones who do not share our lifestyles and values. This notion is hardly new—Vowell is only the most recent among a long line of historians and commentators who have made the argument.

From an intellectual as well as entertainment perspective, The Wordy Shipmates is a satisfying book and as good a way as any for the average reader to learn about the early Puritans.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (2008), by Jon Meacham

In American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (2008), Jon Meacham portrays Jackson as the first "democratic president," by which he means the first president who was not one of the Founders and not of the upper-class, well educated stock that produced Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison. He also portrays Jackson as ambitious for power and sometimes ruthless and vindictive. Known as a hothead in his younger days, Jackson carried a bullet in his body from a duel that he did not have removed until he was in the White House. Jackson could not tolerate disagreement. When he could not persuade cabinet members to his point of view, he fired them—his secretary of the treasury, who opposed his campaign against the National Bank, is an example. When Emily Donelson, the wife of his close advisor and protégé Andrew Donelson, would not treat the wife of the secretary of war John Eaton (her name was Margaret) in a way that was agreeable to Jackson, he sent her home to Nashville with her husband, and although he later recalled Donelson it took him longer to recall Emily. Jackson spent much time, especially in his first term, trying to resolve this controversy, which affected his administration all the way to the vice presidency (Calhoun's wife Floride was a main opponent of Margaret Eaton). Jackson was sympathetic to Margaret because of the way in which his own wife Rachel had been criticized during the 1828 presidential campaign.

Jackson significantly consolidated and increased the powers of the presidency. Before Jackson, the president was constrained in what he could do. The veto was used sparingly, while Jackson used it often. The president could not act independently of Congress, while Jackson made a habit of doing so. The president was not supposed to speak directly to the people, while Jackson did so with the deliberate intention of securing support for his programs and plans.

The level of political rhetoric and factional bickering seems far worse in Jackson's presidency than it seems today. Personal issues were allowed to become factors in political campaigns. Rumors that Jackson had married his wife Rachel before she was legally divorced from her first husband, that she and Jackson had adulterously cohabited, played a major role in the campaign in 1828. Although he won the election, the strain and humiliation of the campaign wore heavily on Rachel. She died, perhaps as a result, before he was inaugurated. Because of his rustic background, and because he defeated John Quincy Adams and was widely regarded as intemperate and ambitious, because he changed the nature of the presidency and did not follow established ways of doing things, he was subject to constant attacks during his presidency. He was often accused of trying to destroy the presidency and wreck the nation.

The main controversy during Jackson's administration was the Nullification crisis. A number of slave-holding states, most notably South Carolina, opposed the authority of the federal government to pass laws that affected them. They contended that if a state did not like a federal law, it could simply nullify the law and not be governed by it. Slave-holding states feared the power of the federal government—they worried that one day the government might try to limit or prohibit slavery. South Carolina threatened to secede from the union. Troops began preparing for battle. Large rallies in favor of states' rights and of war took place. Jackson strongly favored preserving the union and the power of the federal government to pass laws that governed the states. What made this controversy especially difficult for him is that one of the main advocates for nullification was John C. Calhoun, Jackson's vice president. Calhoun resigned as vice president (before Jackson could announce his decision not to have him on the ticket for the second term) and returned to South Carolina, where he was elected to the Senate and then returned to Washington to oppose Jackson.

Jackson managed to defuse the Nullification furor by standing firm in his opposition to Nullification, and by engineering legislation that, although it preserved the government's right to enforce the tariff through military force, removed some of the offensive aspects of the tariff that South Carolina and other states opposed. Had South Carolina seceded, other states might have followed, and the Civil War could have taken place three decades earlier.

Among Jackson's main opponents during his presidency were Nicholas Biddle (president of the National Bank), Calhoun, and Henry Clay. What Jackson is primarily remembered for today is his engineering of legislation that removed Creek and Cherokee Indians from lands they had lived on for centuries in Georgia, Alabama, and other states. The Indian Removal Act passed in 1830, and Jackson made removal of the Indians an important element in his political campaigns. Jackson essentially regarded the Indians as obstacles to American expansionism. He worried that they might conspire with the British and Spanish to weaken or attack the American nation. Although his public statements to and about Indians claimed concern for their safety and welfare—one of the primary reasons he cited for their removal to western territories—it was clear that his primary motive was to ensure security and freedom for white settlers. When he addressed Indian leaders, he did so with a paternalistic and condescending rhetoric that from modern-day standards is difficult to swallow. Jackson's reputation as a military leader rested not only on his spectacular victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans, but also on his victories in the Creek and Seminole wars. It's possible that had the Indians not been removed, they would have assimilated and offered little resistance to white expansion. And it's possible they could have been wiped out in confrontations with white settlers. But the historical fact is that they were expelled from their native grounds, a sad and tragic episode in American history. Jackson never wavered in his determination to see the Indians removed.

Although slaveholding states saw federal power as a threat to slavery, Jackson himself, who owned slaves, believed in slavery as a foundational American institution. He viewed abolitionism as a threat to American prosperity and moved forcefully to deny abolitionists the right to distribute printed materials through the mails.

Meacham's biography is well written. Although it follows Jackson's life from his birth on to the point of his election as president, it is mainly about Jackson's presidency. It takes Meacham only 20 or so pages to cover the decade before Jackson's death following his departure from the White House. Although Meacham clearly acknowledges Jackson's ambition, his role in the Indian removal, and his support for slavery, the one major flaw in the biography is that he likes Jackson a little too much. The biography is not hagiographic, but it is written from a perspective favorable to Jackson, so that it lacks a certain objectivity. Perhaps I don't find the book sufficiently critical of Jackson's attitudes towards Indians and slavery and his own autocratic inclinations. Nonetheless, the book is interesting and readable.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Cadillac Records

Cadillac Records (2008, dir. Darnell Martin) is the somewhat fictionalized story of how Leonard Chess founded a Chicago record company devoted to recording the music of talented African American singers from the Deep South and elsewhere: Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon, Little Walter, Etta James, and others. Chess, played by Adrian Brody, is an ambiguous and problematic figure in the film. When we first meet him he is having money problems and vows to the woman he wants to marry that he will make money and buy her a Cadillac. He plans to open a night club for African American patrons. Money is a motive for Chess from the start, and it's never really clear in the film whether he's more interested in the talent and music of his artists than he is in their money-making potential. He rewards them for their success by giving them Cadillacs, or renting houses for them to live in, but he doesn't offer much in the way of regular pay, and this becomes an increasing issue of concern for the musicians.

Cadillac Records takes the position that talented black singers such as Muddy Waters and Etta James paved the way for the rock and roll revolution of the 1950s, but that because they lived in pre-Civil Rights America, their options were limited. Their music was marketed as "race music." They could perform only in venues reserved for black patrons. Even when Chuck Berry breaks through with music that isn't immediately categorizable as "race music"—some think it is country music—he is forced to perform to white and black audiences who are kept on separate sides of the room. Cadillac Records like other films about this era suggests that music became a way of dissolving racial barriers. But these singers often had to pay the price–Little Walter was beaten to death, Chuck Berry sent to prison. And none of these singers initially realized great financial rewards for their music.

Most troubling of all was that these singers didn't receive the rewards and respect their music should have earned them. The Beach Boys steal the melody of one of Berry's songs, and he sues them (successfully). Elvis Presley rises to fame performing music in the style that Waters and others popularized. So too do the Rolling Stones. The idea here is that white singers appropriated the music of African American singers. Undoubtedly, that contention is true. But what is arguable is the question of theft. Although there were clearly some instances of theft (see the Beach Boys above) most often, I'd contend, what was happening here was influence. Singers like Presley loved the music they heard on black radio stations. They loved and wanted to sing it themselves. And because American society in the 1950s was what it was, white singers had a better chance of succeeding in the music industry than black singers, who had a limited audience.

The actors in this film are effective. Beyoncé is outstanding as Etta James—her performance of James standards are remarkable (apparently, James herself is not happy with the praise Beyoncé has received for these performances, or for her performance of "At Last" at the Obama inaugural balls). Jeffrey Wright is good as Muddy Waters—in imitation of Waters, he mumbles many of his lines, and his acting is mannered. My favorite of all in the film is Eamonn Walker, who played Howlin' Wolf—there was not enough of him here.

As Harry Chess, Adrian Brody plays the character who becomes the symbol of white exploitation of black singers—more specifically, of white Jewish exploitation—in the film. It's difficult to know what to think of him, or of the view the film takes towards him. He appears to enjoy the music of the singers he discovers, but he never adequately compensates them for their records. What he is most interested in is a "crossover" singer, whose work can sell to and appeal to a white audience—he had found that in Chuck Berry before he went to prison--finally he discovers the crossover artist he dreamed of in Etta James, in whom he appears to be romantically interested. When he dies, she is the only one of the singers to whom he leaves anything—a house. Does Chess truly love Etta James, or is he simply deeply grateful to her for her success as a crossover singer?

Singers are often shown struggling for control over their music and how it's recorded. Muddy Waters, the first singer to sign with Chess, is relatively compliant. He's literally discovered in a cotton field, by folklorist Alan Lomax, and the image of a young Waters working away in the fields is repeated several times in the film, as if to suggest that in moving from the cotton fields of Mississippi to the studio of Leonard Chess in Chicago he is trading one life of subjugation for another. He's slow to develop resistance to Leonard's controlling influence, though ultimately he does, and in the end confronts him openly. Little Walter is clearly troubled when Chess tells him how to play the harmonica or turn off his amp. Howlin' Wolf, on the other hand, makes clear to Chess that he will control how music is played when he is recording it. In the end, when Chess has Etta James recording music to a lush string accompaniment, the suggestion is that he sacrifices the integrity of the music to the cause of profit. A similar issue is displayed in a quite different way in the film Ray (2004), when Ray Charles decides to record a country and western album, and when he records other tunes that are decidedly in a mainstream, easy-listening genre, rather than the rhythm and blues music from early in his career. Fellow black musicians, and his largely black audience, feel betrayed.

It's difficult to assess the arguments this film seeks to forward—the theft of the African American musical tradition by white producers and performers, and the exploitation of black musicians by white Jewish Americans. The film implies the latter argument but largely avoids examining it in any candid detail. This is unfortunate. The uneasy relationship between Jewish Americans and African Americans needs careful study. A problem with the film is the question of accuracy—it leaves out Leonard's brother Phil entirely, who helped run Chess Records. It also oversimplifies the recording history of some of the performers before they signed with Chess Records, and entirely omits their careers following Leonard Chess' death. Basically, this is a filmic treatment of historical characters and situations, but it is not a documentary—it is a fictionalization of facts. It works better as an entertainment, a film about music, than it does as a study of the popularization of the Chicago Blues, and of singers like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Woody Allen has always viewed human relationships as ephemeral, short lived, changeable. His early great films Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979) are studies in shifting relationships, couples who pair up for a time and then go their separate ways, looking for other partners. The nostalgia of love lost drove these early films. Allen's view of such relationships darkened significantly in the 1980s and 1990s with such films as Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), and Husbands and Wives (1992).

So we come to the question of why we should find interest in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008). It is not a comedy. It is not really a romantic film either. Maybe the best way to describe it is as a character study.

The characters in Vicky Cristina Barcelona hold differing opinions about relationships, and they enact those views. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is a middle-of-the-road art history graduate student who believes that love is forever and has chosen as her future husband a bland, corporate drone. Cristina (Scarlett Johanssen—one of Allen's favorite actresses) has a more conflicted attitude. Although she says she doesn't believe in monogamy, she does believe in the possibility of finding the perfect partner, but she also chafes at the confinement of long-term relationships. For Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) relationships mean struggle—her long-term affair with the artist Juan Antonio Gonzalo (Javier Bardem) is a constant battle against and with a person she needs so much that she resents and resists him. Juan Antonio doesn't necessarily have a position on relationships. He goes with the flow. His easy attitude pays off for him. When Cristina tells him that she is not satisfied with their relationship and that she needs time to herself, he accepts her decision, while Maria Elena wants to attack her. One can view Juan Antonio's reaction as post-feminist male enlightenment, or as cynicism—I tend towards the latter view.

I suppose the interest of the film for Allen lies in the constantly shifting array of human connections. Cristina believes that in Juan Antonio she at last has found the perfect partner, but then she grows dissatisfied. Vicky resents and dislikes Juan Antonio but after sleeping with him discovers that she loves him—until Maria Elena tries to shoot her, whereupon she returns to her bland fiancé, who by the end of the film she has married. Even Vicky's aunt, who provides the house where Vicky and Cristina live while in Spain, is dissatisfied with her marriage. Nothing is fixed.

The setting—Barcelona—is beautiful, though it has no particular bearing on the plot. Maybe for the two young American women who go to Spain for a brief respite from their studies, it is an exotic place of adventure and romantic intrigue—they can dally there, experience freedom briefly—then leave. Are they changed? Does anything of importance really happen in this film? Are human destinies determined? The film ends in the middle of things. Nothing is resolved. No single character's point of view prevails. Rather, the film shows that people believe what they believe and that they tend to act on their beliefs, for better or worse. Life goes on.

There's a sort of clinical indifference in how this film treats Vicky and Christina and Maria Elena. Allen seems interested in what will happen to them, which choices they will make, how they will fare in their various entanglements—but there's no erotic or emotional or passionate engagement with his subject. Maybe for Allen, now in his 70s, romance is more a matter of clinical interest than of anything else.

Factory Girl

fFactory Girl (2006) depicts Edie Sedgwick as a plaintive victim of the 1960s and of exploitative males—Andy Warhol, her father, a well known but nameless (in the film) musician. She was definitely a victim, but a victim as much of her own noblesse oblige, her thirst for celebrity and fame, her self-destructive drug use, and her narcissistic self-absorption as of anything or anyone else.

Factory Girl at times seems made in the style of an avant garde documentary, but it is really little more than another biographical picture that never manages to explain or justify the importance of its subject. Edie herself (portrayed by Sienna Miller) narrates much of the film retrospectively, from the vantage point of a drug rehabilitation center in 1970, where she is being treated for addiction. (She died of an overdose in 1971). She is looking back at events, trying to assess her life and what might have gone wrong. The film focuses mostly on the year 1965, when Edie's star was in the ascendant, when she made her mark in Warhol's studio (known as the Factory), and when she had her love affair with Bob Dylan (known in the film as the "Musician"). Edie thinks of herself as an artist but the film shows little if any of her work, so that it is difficult to assess her artistic pretensions, if indeed they were pretensions to begin with. What we know is that Warhol was fascinated with her, gave her leading roles in his strange and aimless films, put her in his artwork, traveled with her to Paris, and then when he grew tired of her, especially after her romance with the Musician, rejected her, finding someone else to replace her, refusing to answer her phone calls or her increasingly desperate requests for money.

Warhol is the most interesting person in this film. Creepily and effectively played by Guy Pearce, he comes off as a narcissistic, self-absorbed poseur unable to comprehend the damage he causes Edie and others, especially after he casts them off. He is a man without guilt or a sense of human responsibility. The Dylan figure comes off better—he is not the one who rejects Edie, in this film—rather, he warns her of the empty nature of the Warhol enterprise and offers her an alternative to the Factory lifestyle, but she cannot bring herself to break away from what Warhol represents—celebrity, fame, stardom. Later, when she is in decline, the Musician tells his assistant to "give her what she needs," but he is not interested in further contact. Edie explains to her therapist in 1970 that her decision to stick with Warhol was the worst of her mistakes—the Musician, she says, was the only person who made her happy.

Factory Girl offers an interesting view of the Factory studio—it shows us an array of strange characters, creating extreme forms of art, but mostly it is interested in their eccentricities. We do see Warhol making films, creating paintings, and we see many of his works—the famous multi-portraits of celebrities, of soup cans, of commercial America—we hear from various characters that in America Warhol is undervalued and misunderstood—but the film makes little attempt to understand him or his achievements, whatever they might have been. From Factory Girl's perspective, Warhol was a conman—he conned Edie, he conned the American public—if there was more to him than that, this film offers no clue.


Traitor (2008) focuses on an undercover Muslim operative for an American intelligence group. Early in the film American intelligence agents believe he has gone over to the other side, the enemy side, because he's been out of contact for five years. The question of which side he is really on is not resolved until relatively late in the film. Don Cheadle plays the main character, Samir Horn, and as usual he does a fine job of inhabiting the role. Cheadle does most of his acting through facial expressions. His inexpressiveness becomes a source of expression—though in other films, such as Hotel Rwanda (2004)—he plays expressive, emotional characters.

Part of the difficulty for the American security agents in Traitor is the fact that Samir is a Muslim. It's easier for them to assume that he has thrown in his lot with the terrorists than it would be if he were a Methodist or Episcopalian. Only gradually, as they follow his exploits, do the American agents begin to realize where his true allegiance lies. Samir is a deeply devout Muslim who believes he should avoid the sacrifice of human life at all costs. He is a pacifist. When his actions through no fault of his own lead to the deaths of several workmen, he is horrified.

Samir has moral and religious principles. As an undercover agent he finds himself in situations where he must compromise those principles in order to prevent carnage and loss of life. The compromises cost him deeply, and at the film's end he has broken off both with the Muslim terrorists he had infiltrated and with the American intelligence agents.

The trouble with this film is the almost complete absence of tension or suspense. It should matter to us that Samir may or may not have betrayed his country. It should matter to us that terrorists are plotting attacks on the United States. Will they succeed? Intellectually, the film makes us interested in what will happen. But it does not really make us care. Traitor is a film that operates within the parameters of a suspense thriller, so it is a problem that there is no suspense.

The film was directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff, who cowrote the screenplay with Steve Martin, among others. Martin also coproduced the film. It's too bad that a film focused on such an interesting main character, played by such a fine actor, exploring such crucial issues as extremism, racial profiling, religious prejudice, and terrorism, cannot arouse more interest or concern in its viewers, at least in this viewer.

Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock

Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock? (2006) is an amusing documentary about a 72-year-old-truck driver named Teri Horton who buys for five dollars a large painting that may (or may not) be the work of Jackson Pollock. Much of the film takes place in a bar where Teri and her friends sit and drink and talk.

Human personalities are the main interest of this film. Teri and her conviction that she has discovered a work of art worth fifty million dollars (she turns down offers of $3 million and then $9 million dollars for the painting) versus art scholars and critics convinced that all the known Jackson Pollocks have been discovered and catalogued and that Teri's painting is a fraud.

The film interviews several experts on Pollock, all of whom for one reason or the other don't believe the painting is genuine. Yet a fingerprint on the back of the canvas, discovered by an investigator whom Teri hires, supposedly belongs to Pollock and matches his fingerprints on other paintings. Experts point out stylistic quirks in the painting that do not match Pollock's style. One notes that the presence of acrylics in the painting, supposedly created before acrylics were widely in use, means it is a forgery. But close-up images of the painting, as compared to other confirmed Pollock paintings, seem indistinguishable from the real thing.

Critics and scholars resist granting the painting status as a true Jackson Pollock because to do so would be to deny, to some extent, their own scholarly authority and expertise. How could a valuable Pollock painting escape their notice, especially one bought by an ignorant elderly truck driver at a flea market? One museum proprietor in particular is contemptuous both of Teri and of her painting. He comes off as an effete, over-stuffed, arrogant poseur, a fop.

The film resists taking sides on the question of whether the painting is genuine. Rather it highlights the controversy surrounding the painting along with Teri's efforts to confirm its identity and receive the money she thinks is due her. To represent her in her campaign to prove the painting's authenticity, she hires an art dealer who has recently been released from prison where he served time for art fraud. Asked why she would hire someone convicted of art fraud, she answers that everyone in the art world is a fraud, so what does it matter?

What is art? What makes one painting "great" and worth fifty million dollars and another an easily identified forgery worth $5? That's one of the big questions in the film. The more I looked at Teri's five-dollar painting, a huge and expansive canvas covered with whirling, dynamic colors, a flow of motion and image, the more convinced I became that, whatever its origins and whoever its creator, it was impressive. This film reminded me of The Moderns (1988), which investigated similar questions by focusing on young artist's involvement in art forgeries in 1920s Paris.