Impeachment inquiries begin and we shouldn’t be surprised

We’ve entered the most historic (thus far) and dangerous phase of Donald Trump’s presidency, with Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats finally finding the moral and political wherewithal to begin an official impeachment inquiry into The Donald’s aberrant, un-presidential behavior. I say dangerous because Trump is becoming increasingly unhinged, spewing profanity on his preferred forum of choice, Twitter, calling for various retaliatory actions against Democrats, etc. There is no telling what he will do to fend off impeachment or distract the public from his dire position.

For the record: a whistleblower has let it be known that Trump used the power of his office to withhold aid to Ukraine in hoped-for (and verbally requested) exchange for dirt on Joe Biden, Trump’s likely opponent in the 2020 election.

Yes, this is illegal, yes, this is a betrayal of Trump’s duties, no, we shouldn’t stand for it, yes, we should have done something about Donald a long time ago, yes, he should be impeached.

But here’s my question — did ANYONE seriously look at or listen to Donald Trump in 2016 and NOT BELIEVE that he would commit the greatest crimes of any president once installed in the White House? Wasn’t it obvious that he would? Is this any surprise? Is the fact of his impending, can’t-miss trial in the Senate only the mere embodiment of what we all knew would happen — the manifestation of something that was only a matter of time? Isn’t this all inevitable? Whether it was Mueller or Comey or Russia or grab-em-by-the-pussy or “good people on both sides,” we all knew this shit was coming, right? Wouldn’t you have to be a moron to have believed otherwise?

Even Trump’s awful, vile, wrong-headed, potentially traitorous supporters — and I’m talking about regular citizens here, not just Senate Republicans — would have to agree that Trump’s criminality would have eventually surfaced in the White House. That’s probably part of what turns them on about Trump, because they have only ever been interested in fucking the country over in the name of “whataboutism.” “BUT WHAT ABOUT OBUMMER?” “BUT WHAT ABOUT KILLARY?” These are the mantras of people who have traded their true patriotism for fear, racism, xenophobia, and outright spiteful hatred of everything our government and Constitution stand for.

There should be no surprise whatsoever that Trump would get a foreign leader on the phone and say something so irrefutably egregious. Yet here we go, with the usual suspects decrying anything that might so much as land a glove on their Teflon-coated pussy grabber. Here we go with the cries of “fake news,” “bullying,” “coup,” et cetera. I loved it when Trump bleated that he should be “entitled” to interview the whistleblower (whom he has already falsely accused of treason). ENTITLED is the one word Trump understands, right? So naturally he feels he should be. After all, he didn’t win the election — the fucking Electoral College GAVE IT TO HIM.

Large chunks of the electorate must be under some form of hypnosis. How could they ever have believed that Trump would not do the worst thing? How could anyone have expected anything other than such behavior, knowing as we all did that Trump was thick with Russian ties, tight with mob lawyers, and known to be a New York City scam artist, whose own autobiography was ghost-written by a hack who now calls Trump a psycho? There is something wrong with US, as huge swaths of the population have apparently swallowed the greatest con job of the 21st century.

BUT BUT KILLARY, BUT BUT OBUMMER.

These people who parrot these lines should have their voting rights revoked. Oh, and while we’re permanently scrubbing them from the rolls due to making a hideous error that might cost us our country, if not our very lives, let us also cancel, permanently, the Electoral College, so that our avowed enemies — Russia and North Korea — will no longer have a useful fool who can be so easily manipulated into doing their will. (Let us not discount the possibility that he is still a Putin asset — what information is contained in Trump’s tax records, and why is Putin so concerned about Democrats releasing the contents of his private phone calls with Trump, which have been placed in that “top secret” server? Hey, we’re paying for all this shit. Don’t we have a right to know?)

More as it develops.

 

 

JW3: Third best

Occasionally — once in a very, very great while — I revisit a book or film or piece of music and recalibrate my judgment on it. This rarely rises to the level of discussion, but I think now might be a good time to explore a few new ideas pertaining to John Wick: Chapter 3.

A few points about the movie troubled me on seeing it for the first time and haven’t gone away. Keep in mind, I think it’s a good action film — but I am no longer convinced that it’s on the same high level as John Wick: Chapter 2, which remains as good a film of its genre as I’ve ever seen.

Story problems plague JW3, and no amount of re-viewing can explain them or make them go away. I hope the screenwriters will write a better script next time, one that ties up loose ends instead of creating quite so many. I’ll go through the problems as succinctly as I can.

  • The movie tries too hard to resolve all possible questions arising from the end of Chapter Two, without developing a strong enough plot on its own. It is useful to think of the two sequels as one long movie chopped in half, similar to the two Matrix sequels (which the John Wick series increasingly resembles).
  • The beginning both takes too long and feels too rushed. There’s a chase between John on horseback and two assassins that ends too abruptly and is handled kind of clumsily. Maybe they should have jettisoned it? There are enough fights and chases already, including another motorcycle chase later in the film. Too much is too much.
  • The fight scenes are long and repetitive. A couple of them — the fight in the hall of knives, the library fight — are absolutely fantastic, but the climax, set on multiple levels of some kind of glass tower containing sarcophagi of crystal skills, goes on too long, has too many fights and too many bad guys. Again, too much is too much.
  • Not enough Adjudicator, though she is an interesting character. Not enough of the Director, played by Anjelica Huston. Maybe they’ll come back for Chapter 4 (already promised).
  • Sofia, the character played by newcomer Halle Berry, is a pointless character in a part of the movie that feels needlessly inserted in the screenplay for no reason other than to give the director something else to cut to besides New York. I just don’t feel that she’s necessary. Hence …
  • The big gunfight in the middle of the movie, featuring Halle Berry and two attack dogs, feels too long and basically kills the momentum of the story.
  • The guy in the desert isn’t clear enough in his goals and intentions. Why is he in the desert? What role does he play in the High Table? Why does he give John yet another black suit?
  • There’s no way … in hell … John Wick could have survived the fall from that building. Put it this way: if a bad guy had taken the same header, he would have gone splat and died. John just wakes up with a headache. My suspension of disbelief has been stretched too thin.
  • Likewise, the Bowery King SURVIVED the 7 Cuts? No way. Just … we saw him die!

I am hopeful that the fourth film will dial down the bullshit factor just a tad and return to the lower-key revenge antics of the first John Wick film. Long may the character rule, but JW3 is definitely third best in the series.

Outlaw Women

Hank Williams Jr.’s “Outlaw Women” is a haunting song. It’s very simple and straightforward but very catchy and highly dangerous.

It’s an example of the outlaw country period from the late-1960s to early 1980s, a period that is more than over and done with, but worth revisiting in light of what can only be referred to as contemporary country. Outlaw music was defined by such luminaries as Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings (among myriad others), and Hank Jr. was certainly of their ilk.

“Outlaw Women” is a slow, quiet, contemplative song about a “kind of woman” that seemed to “arrive” on the scene in the late Seventies … honky-tonking, pleasure-seeking women “riding high in 79.” Williams adopts a sing-speak style of vocal, soulful and world-weary, the voice of someone who’s seen it all and appreciates the loose-living attitude of these female outlaws.

The lyrics find these ladies “in the bank or in the store,” marking them as “rich girls or poor.” Williams’ character loves them all, and respects them. There’s a word he won’t bring himself to use to describe women who like to “listen to the band” and “make love with their kind of man.” There’s no point in my using it here, either, but it’s pretty obvious what he’s talking about.

Williams identifies with the ethos of the outlaw woman. “She’s a lot like me,” he croons. “She don’t give a damn about society.” Vows of matrimony and other ethical boundaries dissolve; both Williams and his women are “out for fun.”

The spare, laidback production and Williams’ deep baritone set a dark, sensual tone. In the final stanza, we hear the most explicit reference to the word he refuses to use. Some folks call these outlaw women “ladies,” Williams tells us, or there are “other names.” The song closes on a warning: “you won’t ever call her that around me and my gang.” It’s a threat: Williams loves these ladies and their lifestyle and is protective of them. I’m not sure who is his “gang,” but it’s a helluva way to end a song. I’ve never heard anything quite like it. If you’re going to listen to country, this is the country to listen to. The rest of it is just Easy Listening.

 

Why not play Willie at your wedding?

My wife and I recently photographed a wedding, and while we of course wish nothing but the best for the newly-married couple, I couldn’t help but notice the music selections for the pre-and-post-ceremony events.

These are young people and they chose for the site of their wedding not a church or chapel or public hall or living room, but an open hay field, adjacent to a deer camp. While this presented challenges from a photographic perspective (bald sunlight, little shade, heat, stubbly mown grass), it was also a challenge in terms of convenience. But somehow, the party managed to get a DJ station set up, complete with lights and speakers. And the music chosen to score the entire event was country.

Not just country, but contemporary country. Now, I don’t wanna sound like Old Guy talking, but I have to say I am not an admirer of today’s “contemporary” country. It’s a cross between party pop of the 1980s and “Today’s Christian,” which means it is a nauseating mixture of “Hey boy, ain’t we having a good time, pass the beer” and “ain’t it swell knowing Jesus loves me?” You can’t have a party without loving Jesus, and parties involve the usual mixture of country-fried sex and booze.

It’s a loathsome scene, and I have to say I would have preferred a much different genre of music for a wedding. Why not something more traditionally romantic? Why not a good ole mix of pop and rock songs? Or, why not some traditional country?

To investigate further, I delved into some Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings over the weekend, and came away with a much deeper appreciation of what I’m going to call “real” country music. “Real” country is about, well, real human emotions — the “teardrops and the laughter,” to quote Mr. Jennings. You can’t find country that is any more meaningful or just plain genuine than Willie and Waylon, and I would love to direct our newlyweds to this version of the genre. (Though it is highly likely that they are already familiar with it.) First off, I would suggest that “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” be a selection at EVERY wedding where the groom fashions himself a would-be modern cowboy, complete with the hat, boots, Levis and buckle. It’s a message that needs to be heard. And it’s a real country song, sung by the two greatest desperadoes who ever picked a guitar.

Digging deeper into the catalog, I discovered Willie’s Red Headed Stranger, which I just played in its entirety for the first time. I was struck by the spare, uncomplicated, straightforward beauty of the entire recording, Willie’s voice, which captures the essence of every song, and the invisible production, which more of today’s so-called “country” artists (and their writers and producers and managers) should learn more about. Because ultimately, it’s about the song, not the flash and dazzle, and no one ever taught that lesson more effectively then Mr. Nelson.

Maybe the old songs just aren’t as much fun as the new ones, and maybe old-school country just doesn’t appeal to the 20-something-set these days. But if nothing else, I’ve found some great old music to listen to, as I transition from what I once found indispensable into a new stage where things are a little slower and perhaps just a tad more meaningful.

You had me at ‘the money’

I’m not typically big on movies where the guy gets the girl or the girl gets the guy or whatever combination of elements constitute what we think of as the “chick flick” (though there are a couple of filmic Jane Austen adaptations I enjoy.) But Jerry Maguire, a romantic comedy disguised as a sports movie, is a big ole exception to the rule. Is it as good as I remember it from the Nineties? Yes, yes, yes — in fact, it was one of the best movies of the Nineties.

It’s also one of the best, if not the best, movie of Tom Cruise’s career, and it’s a standout for director Cameron Crowe, whose films have been hit-or-miss for me. This is a genuinely sweet (as in non-saccharine), heartwarming (but not in an icky way!) and frequently hilarious A) comedy first and B) romantic film second, that in no way falls into any of the usual rom-com potholes.

That’s largely because of Cruise, who can do lots of things but doesn’t do gooey-sweet romance. He starts the movie as a shark in a suit and ends it as a regular guy who’s found a way to balance his personal life with his work. Along the way, Cruise gives what I can only describe as a tour-de-force, hitting all kinds of notes as he charts Jerry Maguire’s transformation from a shallow sports agent to a devoted (step-) dad and caring husband.

He’s ably assisted by Cuba Gooding Jr. (who won the Oscar) as ace Arizona Cardinals running back Rod Tidwell and Renee Zellweger, who made her debut here as Jerry’s lovely, frazzled, single-mom love interest, Dorothy Boyd. There’s also Regina King as Mrs. Tidwell, Jay Mohr as Bob Sugar and Bonnie Hunt as Dorothy’s wiser older sister. Everybody is not only good, but stellar, and everybody gets at least a handful of memorable lines.

With the exception of the prevalent use of faxes and beepers, the movie doesn’t seem to have aged a day. It’s not all that great of a sports movie — the climactic ballgame, in which Rod basically manipulates his fans into “loving” him — is pure bullshit, but on an emotional level it feels real, and that’s about all that matters.

What we invest in are the characters, and watching Cruise ping off of Zellweger and Gooding is the movie’s biggest pleasure. Rod and Jerry are doubles, each trying to find his own personal “kwan.” Their exchanges, which range from passionate bro-mance to testy personal clashes, are exceedingly well-written and acted. This was lightning in a bottle and I’m sure neither Cruise nor Gooding could repeat themselves in a sequel.

The movie has five or six lines of dialogue that have entered into the lexicon (“You complete me,” “You had me at hello,” and, of course, “Show me the monnneeeeeeeee!”) but none of them feels forced when uttered by these actors. Cruise delivers his final monologue with such low-flame conviction that you wonder how on earth he didn’t pick up an Oscar himself. And Zellweger is so beautiful and warm that you root for her to find happiness.

It’s too bad Cruise will probably never do another movie like this. His career is too big and the risks are too great. Jerry Maguire came along at a time when movie stars weren’t afraid to take chances, and it looks like Cruise will spend the remainder of his career making Mission: Impossible and Top Gun sequels (not that there’s anything wrong with that). That only makes the movie that much more special.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God

Aguirre, the Wrath of God turned up in my Amazon Prime queue this week, and I had no choice but to sit down and watch the damned thing. I hadn’t seen it in a good 20 years and even wondered if I would still find it the least bit interesting. I did, perhaps more so than ever.

The 1972 film was directed by Werner Herzog, who literally traveled to the ends of the earth to shoot it. Filmed entirely on location in the jungles of Peru, Aguirre tells the story of a Spanish expedition (ca. 1560-61) to find the lost city of El Dorado. Led by the famed conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro, the explorers are obsessed with gold, and have traveled deep into the heart of the rain forest in search of it. Herzog’s story has been fictionalized, of course, but his camera records not only the travails of the explorers but those of the film crew. As the characters traverse vast rivers, mountains, and steaming jungles, so, too, does the crew, and it is amazing that anyone made it out of the project alive.

The movie is justly celebrated (or perhaps just plain infamous) for Herzog’s death-defying attempts to film it. It is headlined by actor Klaus Kinski, a mercurial sex addict in real life, with a talent for playing mercurial, dictatorial villains like Aguirre. Kinski is great in this, the only role I’ve ever seen him play, and you won’t soon forget him as the gimpy, paranoid, murderous traitor who seizes control of Pizarro’s expedition for his own deluded purposes.

This is not what you would traditionally think of as an “entertaining” film. Though short at only 90 minutes, it is comprised of long takes in which Herzog’s camera gazes thoughtfully into the void — and sees evil staring back. As the conquistadors venture further into the heart of darkness, they begin to lose their minds, driven as much by fear and hunger as their unvarnished greed. (Even the priest, Gaspar de Carvajal, is corrupt, stabbing his own men in the back and ultimately rebelling against the Crown for his own interest.) But they are led by — and choose to follow — the traitorous Aguirre, whose motivation consists solely of A) greed and B) a particularly virulent form of megalomania.

Lost in the jungle, Pizarro opts to split the expedition into two camps, one of which is to range farther ahead in search of either civilization or El Dorado (whichever comes first). These men are put under the leadership of his second-in-command, the aristocrat Don Pedro de Ursua, and tasked with building rafts to float downstream. If they aren’t back with viable intel within a week, they will be presumed dead, and Pizarro will return the way he came. In other words: it’s do or die, with a heavy emphasis on “die.”

Aguirre, the snake in the grass, is Ursua’s second in command; he’s never seen when he isn’t plotting against his superiors. This sub-expedition takes off down a treacherous river, each raft loaded with men, materials, and animals (there is a small, frightened horse). The first disaster strikes when one of the rafts hits an eddy and cannot escape; its passengers spin hopelessly through the night, unable to free themselves. The other members of the party watch from the opposite shore, wondering what to do next.

The answer is revealed when Indians strike — indeed, the entire party is besieged by cannibalistic tribes who never quite reveal themselves (except to fire poisoned darts into the Spaniards). There is a quiet coup, and Aguirre emerges as the new leader. He appoints an “Emperor” (read: fall guy) to continue leading the expedition, but no one has any illusions: Aguirre is in charge, manipulating everyone and pulling all the strings.

The film becomes kind of a strange metaphor for the Trump administration: Aguirre, driven by his own private obsessions, charismatic in the worst possible way, and a bad leader, takes his men (and even his own daughter!) down the prim-rosed path to hell, even as he’s giggling about how wealthy he’s going to make them. He concocts phony-baloney “documents” to be read aloud, “legalizing” his treachery, while enforcing “loyalty” at the point of a sword. (In one scene, he quietly suggests that a potential enemy “is a head taller” than him, leading to a brutally logical solution to the problem.) Aguirre struts, stalks, whispers, and cajoles, promising his followers riches that are always “out there,” somewhere.

In fact, there is nothing to be found in the jungle but death. The party members are picked off one by one, murdered by Indians, or, in the case of one unfortunate character, by their own countrymen. All the troubles and corruptive influences of civilization are on those rafts and do not change with the environment. Meanwhile, Herzog shows us what the local tribesmen are capable of, especially in one scene where the expedition comes up against a village of cannibals. It’s a scary moment … but Aguirre himself is even scarier.

This is not the kind of movie where there is an expensive action scene every five minutes. It is slow and contemplative, and for the most part, Aguirre works from the shadows, setting up his puppets and then letting them fail. But the movie makes the point that he could not have seized control without the express approval of his subjugates. People want to be made rich, and they will follow any madman into the jungle as long as they think he can deliver on their whims. What Aguirre ends up delivering is disaster, as the film’s final shot unforgettably demonstrates.

 

 

Mindhunter on Netflix

There’s nothing new about binge-watching shows on subscription-service streaming channels, and I certainly have streamed more than my share of them. “Bosch,” “Fleabag,” “Goliath,” “Bodyguard,” NBC’s “The Office” (OK, this counts, as I’ve watched the whole series), “Luther,” and probably a few others that I’m missing were all viewed in as close to a single sitting (or single week) as I could manage. When I find a great show and know that all the episodes have already been filmed and are available, one after another, well, there’s almost nothing more fun than sitting through three or four hours’ worth.

“Mindhunter,” streaming on Netflix, is such a show. It was masterminded by director David Fincher, a Hollywood director who also does some great work on television. His movies all have a distinctive flair, and he brings that same signature to “Mindhunter,” which, so far, exists in only two seasons. I’ve binged both of them and can say without hesitation that it’s a great show.

Ostensibly, it’s about serial killers and what motivates them, but in actuality, it’s about a team of forensic investigators who, in the early 1970s, establish the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI. Remember the basement offices used by Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs? That’s Behavioral Science. “Mindhunter” shows us — in a fictionalized manner, of course — how the BSU got started, and the toll that such horrifying work takes on its primary agents.

Horrifying in that FBI agents Ford and Tench (Christopher Goff and Holt McCallany, both excellent) take it upon themselves to interview imprisoned psychopaths who have committed atrocities. These include Ed Kemper (the “Co-Ed Killer”) and Richard Speck, among plenty of others. In season two, our protagonists enter Vacaville Penitentiary to interview none other than Charles Manson. The insights gained from these interviews form the basis of psychological profiles that today are used to analyze and, hopefully, prevent serial killings. Where Clarice Starling puts these tools to good use in Silence, Ford, Tench and their team are figuring out how to put all the pieces together, and stay sane in the process.

The show delves deeply into the lives and psychologies of all its characters, each of the 20 total episodes spending an astonishing amount of time getting to know Ford, Tench, and Dr. Wendy Carr, an academician who joins the BSU early in season one. These characters are all well-written, believable, and extremely sympathetic. The performances are all outstanding across the board, with McCallany proving himself time and again the MVP. This guy has been in tons of movies and TV shows (you probably noticed him in Fincher’s Fight Club as the mechanic who sprays a priest with a hose), and here displays his full acting chops.

Fincher’s own signature is all over the series. From the lighting to the photography to the careful editing, this is the work of a master. It reminds us of his best work in Se7en, The Social Network, Zodiac, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, devoting itself to the toil and drudgery of real-life investigative work. There is absolutely nothing sexy about the job of the BSU, but Fincher and his team of directors shoot it with smooth efficiency, making this the most entertaining and beautifully-photographed show out there.

Another great quirk of the show is that it allows our own imaginations to run wild, as the murderers (many of them still alive and in prison) recount in slow, grisly detail how they carried out their horrific work. Kemper discusses the physical challenges of screwing a human head, while another caged killer, recalling the sexual gratification achieved at his crime scenes, gets off on a woman’s shoe. There are no graphic scenes of blood or death; there are no “recreations” of infamous murders. (We also hear from survivors, including one poor boy who had his teeth blown out.) These are fictionalized interviews, of course, but the actors chosen to play these satanic monsters are so low-key and realistic that it’s hard to believe they aren’t the killers themselves.

It’s impossible to single out the best episode in a series where almost every moment stands out, but I’d have to say the Manson episode (number five, season two) would be hardest to forget. Played by Damon Herriman, Manson immediately takes control of the interview, flicking his tongue at the agents and leaping atop a chair back to “preach” in his crazy confessional style. We see the psychological manipulation at once as Manson proceeds to dodge all questions, throwing all blame for his crimes back on the questioners and society at large. The portrayal speaks volumes about Manson’s effect on his followers. (Herriman, I might note, is so good in the role that Quentin Tarantino cast him to play Manson in his own Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.)

It’s a great series and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

 

 

 

Hit the road with Easy Rider

I am willing to admit I might not be the demographic for Easy Rider and might be, well, too young to fairly review the film. My mother was pregnant with me in 1969; I was born in January of 1970. So though I am technically (I suppose) a “child of the Sixties,” in reality, I am not one. (If you want to get real about it, I am more of a child of the Eighties.)

However, my interest in the year (and culture, and politics) of 1969 has been revitalized by such artifacts as Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (which dazzlingly recreates the period) and documentaries like “Woodstock,” which aired on PBS and is available on Netflix. You can’t revisit 1969 without at least taking a gander at Easy Rider.

I get why the movie is considered a classic. I am even willing to agree that it is a classic film and deserves to be studied like an ancient text. But the act of watching Easy Rider is not, shall we say, my cup of tea. It is true that the film could be considered the first full-length “music video” (a’la MTV, which wouldn’t come along for 11 more years), but here’s the thing: the music is, for the most part, absolutely fucking terrible (“don’t bogart that joint/pass it on down to me”). And I doubt there’s anyone who would seriously argue that the movie “survived” the 1960s. It did not. It is stuck in its era like one of those fossilized mosquitoes in Jurassic Park. This is not what we like to call a “timeless” film — and that was, in a way, the movie’s point. It wants to be remembered for what it stood for at the time: an act of Rebellion with a capital “R.”

It stars, as you know, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson, among a few other famous names, and was directed by Hopper. It is the ultimate cinematic acid trip, the definitive “road movie,” an early example of the buddy comedy, and, as I said, the inaugural feature-length music video. It begins with a drug deal in which Fonda (as Captain America, no relation to Marvel Comics) and Billy (Hopper) sell some mighty-fine Bolivian Marching Powder to a dude in a Rolls-Royce and decide, I suppose, to take a rode trip (get it?) via motorcycle to New Orleans and Mardi Gras. I like the drug deal scene that starts the movie; the exchange is made literally beneath a runway at LAX, with the jets continually roaring overhead.

Then we see Captain America (or Wyatt) stashing the drug money in the fuselage of his bike, a tricked-out, Stars-N-Stripes-painted chopper, all gleaming chrome and rumbling engine. He strips off his gold watch and tosses it in the dirt, symbolizing all sorts of trippy shit — Freedom from the Man, coming Unstuck in Time — and he and Billy strike out for the open road. Cue “Born to Be Wild”! This opening sequence is pretty damned bad ass!

Unfortunately … the movie doesn’t stick strictly to the story of Billy and Wyatt. Well, it does, and it doesn’t. You see, in 1969, the concept of the hippie commune was in full flower, so to speak, and Easy Rider detours into these live-in/love-in communities, where all the people are white, all the women are doe-eyed sex kittens, all the men are Jesus freaks, no one washes, no one has any money, there is very little to eat, and the commune is just code for “squatting.” Wyatt and Billy spend much time in these filthy camps, which just happened to have been the true-life breeding ground for the Manson Family, not too far up the road in Los Angeles. Indeed, 1969 was the year of the Manson murders, which officially put an end to what we think of as the Sixties. Hopper could not have known that, but I do, and the knowledge taints his rose-tinted view of the hippie lifestyle.

This is why I am willing to suggest that my demographic could not and will not ever understand the concept behind “free love,” and that I might not be the most reliable critic of the type of society advocated by Fonda and Hopper. To me, the hippies were a bunch of creeps who did little to “change the world.” For the most part, their religion was drugs, and the hippie-dippie lifestyle was, generally speaking, a crock of shit. My own parents weren’t hippies, but they did sympathize with the idea of rebelling against “mom and dad.” (There is also, of course, the specter of Vietnam behind all these sorts of conversations, which played a huge role in the Flower Power movement.) But my own parents’ “revolution” resulted in a deeply flawed marriage and, in my father’s case, an addiction to alcohol. The Sixties didn’t work out all that well for everyone. And history has pretty much roundly rejected the notion that grass, dumpster diving, tie-dyed shirts and “groovy” VW mini-vans could somehow end all war and pull mankind together for an acid-soaked Kumbaya session.

But this is the scenario for Easy Rider, and one must roll with it. Our travelin’ heroes drop in on all manner of freaks, weirdos, hippies, druggies, et cetera, and I think the film’s biggest secret is that neither Billy nor Captain finds any of them particularly interesting. Indeed, the hippies are a vapid bunch, espousing “words of wisdom” that not only don’t add up, but are laughably simplistic. Dialogue is (perhaps wisely) kept to a minimum. It is hard to take any of it too seriously.

Billy and Wyatt are a strange pair. Though they are the film’s protagonists, they are, let’s face it, drug dealers, idealistic drifters whose idealism they are never quite able to articulate. Billy is a doofus — stoned, moon-eyed, given to those famous Dennis Hopper-esque laughing fits. (He was much better as a villain in future films.) We can neither understand nor comprehend where he has been, what brought him to this point in his life. He is a 1960s caricature, a stoner Bugs Bunny, a character who represents an era rather than a human being. There is absolutely nothing about Billy to recommend. For a dope-smoking biker, he is pretty much the final word.

Wyatt is even more of an enigma. Fonda has surprisingly little dialogue; it’s as if Captain internalizes everything, or simply rolls it up in a joint and smokes it. His goals are unclear, except to pursue freedom, whatever that means. Visually, he looks cool. I love that he’s wrapped himself in the flag, confiscating and re-branding America’s John Wayne-esque self-image. (What you think is America isn’t what America really is.) I wish the movie had given him more to do or say, because I actually think Peter Fonda was cool. Or maybe it’s best that he just remains enigmatic.

The film finally kicks into high gear when Jack Nicholson makes his appearance. Every scene he’s in is electric. I love the scene where he explains to Hopper the existence of UFOs, relegating Hopper and Fonda to supporting-actor status in their own movie. You can see so many of Nicholson’s future characterizations in this role — from Jack Torrance in The Shining to JJ Gittes in Chinatown to Joker in Batman — and it’s a blow to the film when rednecks show up to bludgeon him in the night. Nicholson doesn’t get much of a send-off (or a funeral) in Easy Rider, but then, his character was more of an idea than an actual human being, anyway. Why not just kill him off?

Bottom line is that I’m too young to truly appreciate this movie for what it is; certain aspects of its ideology I find appalling. But Easy Rider does embody a certain frame of mind that once existed in America, as well as any piece of cinema can, and for that, it should be remembered. I’m just not the right viewer to do it justice.

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s take the classic out of Classic Rock

I am developing a beef with Classic Rock radio.

There are five artists whose most respected and popular singles from decades ago should be BANNED from any form of radio. Yet they continue to provide the bread and butter for so-called Classic Rock radio (I’m looking at you, 98 ROCKS out of Shreveport). I am not here to downgrade the quality or basic craftsmanship of these songs, or to deny that they are “classic” (in the sense that they are, well, old). I am here to say that I switch off the radio — and, indeed, swear OFF the radio — whenever they start to play. They are so deeply ingrained in my musical memory that I only have to hear one, maybe two notes to A) recognize the song and B) turn the knob. My question is: what is the point in playing these songs any longer? It’s the fucking 21st century. Let’s move into it.

The five songs and their artists are:

“Pink Houses”/”Hurts So Good” by John COUGAR Mellencamp

“Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes

ANYTHING by 70s-era Pink Floyd

“Barracuda” by Heart

“Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd

All classic artists, all classic songs. They have been overplayed, overused and overexposed across decades by Classic Rock stations. Is there some mysterious form of payola at work here, keeping these songs on the radio longer than those of almost any other band or artist? What is the fascination?

The problem here is that nothing about any of these songs sounds the least bit “timeless.” They are all completely from and of their day. Tell me, did “Barracuda” EVER sound like anything other than Uncle Aaron’s favorite stoner-babe song? Did anyone OTHER than 1975-era rednecks ever really, truly enjoy “Sweet Home Alabama”? No? Then why are these songs still staples on the radio?

Sure, there are lots of other “classic rock” songs on Classic Rock radio. I’m singling out these ones because I WAS TIRED OF HEARING THEM 25-30 YEARS AGO. Any Bryan Adams song from the mid-1980s sounds fresher than any John Mellencamp song from the same era. And “Money” or “Wish You Were Here” or “Another Brick in the Wall” are virtual parodies of themselves in this day and age, the personification of Classic Rock. Were they old on the day they were released? Did anyone ever take one listen to “Owner of a Lonely Heart” and say, “Dude, that is SO cutting edge!”

I would also ban “Fly Like an Eagle,” “The Chain,” “Born in the USA,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” and ANYTHING by The Eagles. But that’s me. Others’ mileage may vary.

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