On mad kings, Mueller’s report, and Altman’s Secret Honor

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 20, 2019)

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It’s been déjà vu all over again this week. In my 2008 review of Frost/Nixon, I wrote:

There’s an old theatrical performer’s axiom that goes “Always leave ‘em wanting more.” In August of 1974, President Richard Nixon made his Watergate-weary exit from the American political stage with a nationally televised resignation soliloquy and left ‘em wanting more…answers. Any immediate hopes for an expository epilogue to this 5-year long usurpation of the Constitution and Shakespearean tragedy were abruptly dashed one month later when President Gerald Ford granted him a full pardon. Like King Lear, the mad leader slunk back to his castle by the sea and out of public view. […]

[Actor Frank Langella] uncannily captures the essence of Nixon’s contradictions and complexities; the supreme intelligence, the grandiose pomposity and the congenital craftiness, all corroded by the insidious paranoia that eventually consumed his soul, and by turn, the soul of the nation.

Speaking of the devil, on Sunday CNN premiered the concluding episode of Tricky Dick, a 4-part docuseries about Nixon’s life and political career (recommended-CNN always repeats broadcasts, so don’t despair if you missed it first time around).

It was followed by an hour-long panel discussion about the lessons learned, hosted by Anderson Cooper and featuring journalist Carl Bernstein (who famously broke the Watergate story for the Washington Post with Bob Woodward), former Nixon White House lawyer John Dean, presidential historian Timothy Naftali and former Watergate Special Prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste. When Cooper asked him about the legacy of Watergate, Ben-Veniste said:

“As I said in my book, written shortly after I left the office [as Special Prosecutor] …For the future, the lessons of Watergate are wonderful, in that the system worked–in this circumstance…but they almost didn’t work. For the future, does it take something more than what we have experienced in Watergate [regarding] the type of evidence: demonstrative, incredibly powerful evidence of criminal wrongdoing for a President of the United States to be put in a position of either resigning, or certainly [being] impeached and convicted?”

That was a loaded question, coming as it did 4 days prior to the official (belated) release of the (almost) full Mueller report to the United States Congress and the American people. Of course, everyone on that panel was fully aware that the exhaustive 2-year investigation looking into possible foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election, possible collusion with the Trump campaign, and possible obstruction of justice by Trump and/or members of his administration after the fact was about to come to a head.

Carl Bernstein was more succinct, offering this take:

“The system worked in Watergate. But it worked ultimately because there was a ‘smoking gun tape’. It’s very questionable whether the system would have worked without that gun.”

Bernstein was referring to Nixon’s self-incriminating statements regarding a coverup and obstruction of justice…captured for posterity via a secret recording system the President himself had arranged to be set up in order to document all his Oval Office conversations.

And so here we are, 45 years after Nixon resigned, and the media, members of Congress and concerned citizens find themselves poring over the 400 pages of the Mueller Report (replete with “limited” redactions) as they ask themselves the other $64,000 question:

Is there a “smoking gun” buried somewhere in here…or a reasonable facsimile thereof?

At least one Congressperson has stepped up to the plate and said (in so many words) “Smoking gun?! Try a field howitzer!” Taking an extraordinarily fearless and principled stance amid the disappointing backpedaling and hand-wringing angst emanating from many of her colleagues, senator and presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren was interviewed Friday night by Rachael Maddow on MSNBC, and did not mince any words:

 “This is about point of principle […] This isn’t about politics. This isn’t even specifically about Donald Trump himself. It is about what a President of the United States should be able to do and about the role of Congress is in saying: ‘No. A president does not get to come in and stop an investigation about a foreign power that attacked this country, or an investigation about his own wrongdoing.’ Equal justice under law, no one is above the law; and that includes the President of the United States. It is the constitutional responsibility of Congress to follow through on that. […]

Because it matters, not just for this president, it matters for the next president, and the next president after that, and the next president after that. I get it…in dictatorships, the government coalesces around one person in the middle and does everything to protect that one person. But that’s not where we live. We live in a democracy, and it is controlled by a constitution. And the way we make that democracy work is with checks and balances. And a president who says, “I don’t have to follow the law, and nobody can touch me on criminal acts” -that’s not right.

The Constitution says that the House and the Senate can do this. […] And every member of the House, and every member of the Senate should be called on to vote: Do you believe that constitutes an impeachable offense? I do believe that the evidence is just overwhelming that Donald Trump has committed these offenses, and that means that we should open proceedings in the House. And then the House can take a vote.”

Nixon famously stated in the David Frost interviews, “I’m saying that when the president does it…it’s not illegal.” Mind you, he made that statement several years after he had resigned from the office of the president in shame, ending a decades-long political career in the most humiliating manner imaginable. Yet he never publicly apologized for any of the questionable actions he engaged in while serving as the President of the United States.

If that pathology reminds you of somebody else…perhaps a specific “somebody” currently occupying the White House, you will not be surprised to learn that there is a disturbingly prescient link between Richard M. Nixon and Donald J. Trump, in the form of this letter:

 

December 21, 1987

Dear Donald,

I did not see the program, but Mrs. Nixon told me you were great on the Donahue show.

As you can imagine, she is an expert in politics, and she predicts that whenever you decide to run for office you will be a winner!

With warm regards,

Sincerely,

(signed) Richard M. Nixon

 

Nightmare fuel.

How ironic that Nixon, the man who many historians posit lost his 1960 presidential bid because he was not as telegenic as JFK and never did get the hang of the medium (even once he eventually became the leader of the free world) was nonetheless canny enough to recognize a master manipulator of the idiot box when his wife saw Trump on a TV show.

Howard Beale: “Why me?”

Arthur Jensen: “Because you’re on television, dummy.”

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Which brings me to why I felt this was the perfect week to pull out my dusty DVD of Robert Altman’s brilliant (and underappreciated) 1984 film adaptation of Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone’s one-man play Secret Honor (****) to take it for a spin on current events.

Originally titled as “Secret Honor: The Last Testament of Richard M. Nixon” when it opened in 1983 at Los Angeles Actors’ Theater, the film is a fictional monologue by Nixon, set in his post-presidential New Jersey office. Part confessional, part autobiographical, and (large) part batshit-crazy postcards from the edge rant, it’s an astonishing piece of writing; a pitch-perfect 90-minute distillation of Nixon’s dichotomy.

Philip Baker Hall (most recognizable from the Paul Thomas Anderson films Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia) pulls out all the stops in a tour-de-force turn reprising his stage role.

His Nixon is at once darkly brooding and explosively feral, pacing his claustrophobic office like a caged animal, swigging Chivas Regal and alternately pleading his “case” before an unseen Court of Public Opinion and howling at the moon (not dissimilar to how late night TV satirists envision Donald Trump pacing the Oval Office, wolfing cheeseburgers and unleashing Tweet storms from the Id).

Nixon, who is taping his monologue on a cassette recorder (in a blackly comic reference to his purported technical ineptitude, he spends the first several minutes of the film fumbling and cursing while trying to figure out how to work it) largely speaks in the first person, but oddly switches to the third at times, referring to his “client” whenever he addresses “your honor” (it’s no secret Trump often refers to himself in the third person).

The word salad soliloquies Nixon utters as he prowls the long dark night of his soul in arctic desolation share spooky parallels with the word salad soliloquies that Trump bellows as he prowls podiums in the full light of day at his public rallies.

Nixon frequently rants at his “enemies”. He is particularly obsessed with “those goddam Kennedys”. This is one of the more revealing insights into Nixon’s psychology contained in Freed and Stone’s screenplay; Nixon, ever self-conscious about his modest Quaker roots, is obviously both resentful and envious of the Kennedys’ privileged patrician upbringing, Ivy League education, movie-star charisma, and physical attractiveness.

He also lights into the other usual suspects in his orbit: Henry Kissinger, President Eisenhower, liberals, “East coast shits”, Jews, the FBI, and the media (you know…the “deep state” and “fake news”).

In rare moments of lucidity, he sadly recalls the untimely deaths of his brothers (Arthur, who died in 1925 at age 7, and Harold, who died in 1933 at age 23, both from TB) and speaks tenderly to the portrait of his late mother (although it gets weird when he refers to himself as her “loving dog”…and promptly begins to bark).

Hall is mesmerizing; while he doesn’t physically resemble Nixon, he so expertly captures his essence that by the end of the piece, he is virtually indistinguishable from the real item. It takes substantial acting chops to carry an entire film; Hall has got them in spades.

Film adaptations of stage plays can be problematic, especially in a chamber piece. But since this is, after all, Robert Altman…not to worry. He cleverly utilizes the limited props to his full advantage; for example, the four CCTV monitors in the office pull double duty as both a metaphor for Nixon’s paranoia and a hall of mirrors representing his multiple personalities (shades of the symbology in Pete Townshend’s rock opera Quadrophenia).

It also helps that Hall’s performance is anything but static; he moves relentlessly about the set (in a supplemental interview on the Criterion DVD, Hall recalls the original running time of the play as 2 ½ hours…I can’t begin to imagine the mental and physical stamina required to deliver a performance of that intensity night after night). DP Pierre Mignot deserves major kudos for his fluid tracking shots.

Watching the film again in context of all the drama and angst surrounding the release of the Mueller report, I was struck by both its timelessness as a cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked power and corruption, and its timeliness as a reminder of what democracy looks like at its lowest ebb-which is where we may be now. Time to wake up.

As Oliver Stone reminded us in the closing credits of JFK: What is past is prologue.

Often inclined to borrow somebody’s dreams: Wild Nights With Emily (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 13, 2019)

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Do you like poetry? Do you like song mashups? Here’s an interesting mashup for you:

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,

I never realized the lengths
I’d have to go
All the darkest corners of a sense
I didn’t know

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here –

Just for one moment –
Hearing someone call
Looked beyond the day in hand
There’s nothing there at all

Two of those verses are taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson (circa 1861). The other two verses are lyrics from a Joy Division song (circa 1980). Can you tell which is which?

Well…if you are more cultured than I (which is highly likely) or know anything about poetry (which would be more than I know) it’s plain as the nose on your face that verses 1 and 3 are from a 19th-Century poem, and verses 2 and 4 come from a 20th-Century song.

I made this association while conducting extensive background research for my review of Madeline Olnek’s Wild Nights With Emily (OK, I Googled “Emily Dickinson poems”, and that was one of the first search results. Happy now?). I was struck by Ms. Dickinson’s magnificently dark and timeless…Goth-iness. I mean “Wrecked, solitary, here”? I could totally hear (the wrecked, solitary, and late) Ian Curtis crooning the words.

Who was this intriguing woman of letters who toiled in relative obscurity for the 55 years she strolled the planet (1830-1886), seeing only a dozen or so of her 1,800 poems published during her life, but is now revered and studied and mentioned in the same breath as Whitman, Frost and Eliot? Was she really (as legend has it) the brooding, agoraphobic spinster who wears a Mona Lisa expression in that lone Daguerreotype portrait-or did she feel life was a banquet, and most poor suckers were starving to death?

Luckily for those of us who flee in terror at the prospect of sitting through a scholarly cinematic treatise soaking in the mannered trappings of a genre that a longtime friend of mine dismisses with a snort as “hat movies”, Olnek concocts kind of a mashup herself by mixing material from Dickinson’s poems and private letters with a touch of spirited speculation regarding details of her private life (think of it as well-researched fan fiction).

This lighter tone is assured by casting SNL veteran and comic actor Molly Shannon, who tackles the lead role with much aplomb. Her performance suggests an Emily Dickinson who indeed may have spent most of her adult life house-bound and somewhat socially isolated, but perhaps not so completely bereft of passion and joy as historically portrayed.

Most of that passion and joy manifests itself in the scenes depicting Emily’s longtime “close friendship” with her sister-in-law Susan (Susan Ziegler), the woman who some biographers and historians have theorized to be the key romantic figure in Dickinson’s life; confidant, mentor, muse, and (assumed) secret lover. This is complicated by the fact they live next door to each other (at least in the film), adding door-slamming “Oh no! Your husband/my brother is home early-get dressed!” bedroom farce to the proceedings.

There are echoes of Comedy Central’s costume drama parody Another Period throughout, exacerbated by an appearance from Brett Gelman-one of that show’s more recognizable cast members. Gelman does a nice turn as Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an early advocate of women’s rights and prominent staff member of The Atlantic Monthly who was a mentor (of sorts) to Dickinson (oddly, even though they formed a long friendship and exchanged many letters-he never pushed her hard to get published while she was still alive; but he did co-edit the first two posthumous collections of her poems).

Another key figure in Emily’s orbit is Mabel Loomis Todd (well-played by Amy Seimetz). Mabel is an interesting character; the de facto heavy of the piece, she also serves as the film’s narrator. Mabel Todd was the longtime mistress of Emily’s brother Austin (Kevin Seal), who (if you’ve been paying attention) was married to Susan, Emily’s longtime secret lover. Todd was also an editor and writer, who ended up co-editing the aforementioned posthumous collections of Dickinson’s poems with Thomas Higginson (which is a bit weird considering that Emily and Mabel never met in person).

This is about as far from an Oscar-baiting prestige biopic one can get, but as movies about writers and poets are a hard-sell to begin with (not enough explosions, car chases, CGI characters or Marvel superheroes to capture the general movie-going public’s attention) Olnek made a wise choice to think outside the box. Wild Nights with Emily may not be the flashiest film in theaters now, but it’s the only one with poetry in its soul.

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Loud love: Thoughts on Cobain, aging and a top 10 list

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 6, 2019)

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In my 2007 review of A.J. Schnack’s documentary Kurt Cobain: About a Son, I wrote:

It’s virtually impossible to live here in Seattle and not be constantly reminded of Kurt Cobain’s profound impact on the music world. Every April, around the anniversary of his suicide, wreaths of flowers and hand taped notes begin to cover a lone bench in a tiny park sandwiched between the lakefront mansions I pass on my way to work every morning. Inevitably, I will see small gatherings of young people with multi-colored hair and torn jeans holding silent vigil around this makeshift shrine, located a block or two from the home where he took his life.

This past Friday marked the 25th anniversary of Cobain’s passing. It’s funny how your perception of time recalibrates as you get older. My memory of attending a spontaneous memorial at the Seattle Center along with thousands of others on the day the news broke in April 1994 makes it seem like relatively “recent” history to me. However, when I stop to consider I was 38 then-and that I’ve just turned 63 (not to mention that Cobain has been dead nearly as many years he was alive) …25 years is a generation ago. Even on a good day, Time is cruel. From my piece on Kerri O’Kane’s 2008 documentary, The Gits:

In the fall of 1992, I moved to Seattle with no particular action plan, and stumbled into a job hosting the Monday-Friday morning drive show on KCMU (now KEXP), a mostly volunteer, low-wattage, listener supported FM station broadcasting from the UW campus with the hopeful slogan: “Where the music matters.” I remember joking to my friends that my career was going in reverse order, because after 18 years of commercial radio experience, here I was at age 36, finally getting my first part-time college radio gig. I loved it.

I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to cue up whatever I felt like playing, as opposed to kowtowing to the rigid, market-tested “safe song” play lists at the Top 40, Oldies and A/C formats I had worked with previously. A little Yellowman, Fugazi, Cypress Hill, Liz Phair, maybe a bit o’ Mudhoney with your Danish? Followed by a track from Ali Faka Toure, some Throwing Muses, topping the set with an oldie like the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” to take you up to your first coffee break? Sure, why not? I was happier than a pig in shit.

What I didn’t realize until several years following my 7-month stint there, is that KCMU was semi-legendary in college/alt-underground circles; not only was it literally the first station in the country to “break” Nirvana but counted members of Mudhoney and Pearl Jam among former DJ staff. I was just a music geek, enthusiastically exploring somebody else’s incredibly cool record collection, whilst taking my listeners along for the ride; in the meantime, I obliviously became a peripheral participant in Seattle’s early 90’s “scene”.

Reminds me of a funny story. Within a few weeks of moving to Seattle, I went to see Cameron Crowe’s Singles, which had just recently opened. If you’re familiar with the film, you are of course aware that it is a romantic comedy about a group of (wait for it) young singles living in Seattle, incorporating the city’s contemporaneous music milieu as a backdrop.

At one random point during the film’s opening sequence (a flash-cut montage of various Seattle neighborhoods and landmarks) the audience literally exploded into cheers and applause. I felt sheepish…I didn’t “get” it. What did I miss, I wondered?

Years later, I happened to watch the film again on cable…and that’s when I caught it. Only then I noticed that during that montage, there’s a momentary shot of a movie marquee. It was the Neptune, the very theater I’d been in when the audience freaked out. I suppose that my point is…sometimes, you can’t see the forest for the Screaming Trees.

In retrospect, I feel blessed to have moved to Seattle at that point in time, as the city was the nexus for a paradigm shift in rock. As Hua Hsu wrote in The New Yorker this week:

The success of Nirvana and other Seattle bands, including Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains, changed the music industry. The breakout rise of “Nevermind” suggested that so-called alternative bands and niches could be commercially viable—not just as steady, low-risk earners but as the proverbial next big thing. Major labels began showering loads of money on tiny, Nirvana-esque bands that played a similar kind of “grunge” rock. The “grunge gold rush,” as the journalist Steve Knopper termed it, created boom-or-bust trajectories for bands that might have once settled for modest regional fame. It was no longer hard to find alternative sounds; major labels were desperate to pitch everyone as the next Nirvana.

[…]

After his death, there were articles and nightly-news segments about Cobain’s nihilism, and what his choice suggested about the younger generation. Mostly, I remember listening to “Nevermind” over and over—not as a search for clues (for that, you’d listen to Nirvana’s last studio album, “In Utero,” and its many references to despair and illness), but as a reminder of how unlikely his trajectory had been. It was the first time I’d wondered how you could work both inside and outside the system—whether you could be critical of, say, the corporations underwriting your art while making art that aspired for worlds beyond those realities.

There’s a sort of bittersweet aftermath to this story. “Nevermind” has since been absorbed into the rock canon. Just as kids a couple of years younger and older than me at school had wildly different opinions about whether Cobain was a saint or a sellout, every generation has their own version of the Nirvana legend. Nowadays, Cobain has become a fashionable reference point for musicians across genres, from pop to hip-hop, who want their music to seem brooding and emotional. Dr. Dre and Jay-Z today express admiration for the cultural rebellion that Cobain represented, describing his music as powerful enough to have briefly “stopped” hip-hop’s ascendancy.

Maybe that’s the paradox of alternative culture that’s always been true, only it was our turn to realize it: pop culture is born anew each time an outlaw is discovered. Your pose lives on, even if the seeds of your own rebellion are forgotten.

Saint or sell-out, I don’t care…it’s the music that matters. Nirvana was but one fraction of the “Seattle Sound”, and I think a lot of it has held up rather well. With that in mind, I’ve selected my top 10 grunge-era songs by Seattle-based bands. In alphabetical order…

“Come As You Are” (Nirvana) – Yes, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is iconic, and a fantastic song, but this has always been the most compelling track from Nevermind for me. I find the band’s “MTV Unplugged” performance of the song particularly haunting.

“Hunger Strike” (Temple of the Dog) – Sadly, the history of Seattle’s grunge scene is full of heartbreak and shooting stars. Such was the impetus for this “one-off” supergroup, formed by Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell as a tribute to Andrew Wood. Wood, lead singer of early Seattle grunge outfits Malfunkshun and Mother Love Bone (the latter band featuring future Pearl Jam members Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament) OD’d on heroin in 1990. Cornell recruited Gossard, Ament, their Pearl Jam bandmate Mike McReady, plus Soundgarden/future Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron. Eddie Vedder added vocals on some tracks, including this gem. Vedder and Cornell singing together is beyond sublime.

“Jeremy” (Pearl Jam) – Still one of the most powerful and moving songs of the era.

“Loud Love” (Soundgarden) – The late Chris Cornell had one of “those” voices; a force of nature. There was a raw immediacy in the band’s early recordings, nicely encapsulated by this standout track (and single) from their 1989 sophomore album Louder Than Love.

“Man in the Box” (Alice In Chains) – While this ominous yet compelling dirge has become a classic rock staple, it still doesn’t sound quite “right” coming out of your car radio…as in “how in the fuck did they ever sneak this one into the Top 40?” All I can say is, whatever dark regions of the human soul this tune sprang from, I daren’t even go there to snap a quick picture. Weirdly enough, lead singer Layne Staley tragically died of a drug overdose on April 5th, the same date as Kurt Cobain (but a different year…in 2002).

“Nearly Lost You” (The Screaming Trees) – Another early grunge outfit (formed in the mid-80s) the Screaming Trees got their first major national exposure in 1992 when this catchy number was featured on the soundtrack for Cameron Crowe’s hit movie Singles.

“99 Girls” (Young Fresh Fellows) – OK, they are not super well-known outside of Seattle, but I have a soft spot for the album this cut is taken from, because it was the Fellows’ “latest” when I worked at KCMU in 1992, and my introduction to the band’s quirky goodness. Originally formed in the early 80s, they had a college radio hit with their tune “Amy Grant”, which was a parody of Contemporary Christian Music. Their “sound” is sort of a mix of garage and punky power pop, frequently with cheeky lyrics. This song is a bit of clever wordplay referring to a stretch of Highway 99 (AKA Aurora Avenue where it runs through Seattle city limits) that is infamous as a sex worker haunt.

“Second Skin” (The Gits) – One of the Seattle scene’s greatest tragedies was the loss of this band’s dynamic and talented lead singer Mia Zapata, who was raped and murdered in 1993 at the age of 27 (thanks to the advent of DNA technology, her killer was eventually arrested, convicted and jailed 10 years later). This song was released as a single in 1991.

“Touch Me I’m Sick” (Mudhoney) – I love the amplifier buzz in the intro. Says it all.

“Tribe” (Gruntruck) – This band, which featured members of seminal Seattle grunge outfit Skin Yard leans closer to hard rock, but sometimes…I just wanna fly my freak flag.

‘Roids R Us: Screwball (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 30, 2019)

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Did you know there is now a popular aggregator website called Florida Man, created to keep track of a seemingly endless stream of bizarre news items from The Sunshine State?

There is a possibility that the site is satirical. That said…the stories seem plausible to me.

It is in this spirit that one must dive headfirst into Screwball, the newest “is he making this shit up?” documentary from film maker Billy Corben (perhaps best known for his Florida drug trade trilogy-Cocaine Cowboys, Cocaine Cowboys 2 and Square Grouper).

I had some trepidation going in. On the upside, the film involves one of my favorite things (drugs). On the downside, it also heavily involves my least favorite thing (sports).

The subject of the film is Anthony Bosch, a Florida man (heh) who gained notoriety from his involvement in the Biogenesis “performance-enhancing drug” scandal back in 2013. Biogenesis was the name of Bosch’s clinic, where he “consulted” (“dispensed”, mostly) for a wide-ranging variety of clientele, from parents looking to juice up their kids’ performance on the school team to some very high-profile names in professional sports.

Bosch’s clinic had a shaky start. From a 2013 Miami New Times expose by Tim Elfrink:

Biogenesis’s history really begins in 2009, when Bosch started a firm, called Colonial Services, based in Key Biscayne.

That same year, on May 7, Major League Baseball suspended L.A. Dodgers slugger Manny Ramirez after he tested positive for HCG — a women’s fertility drug often used at the end of a steroid cycle to restart testosterone production. Ramirez, who lives in Weston, issued a statement that a “personal doctor” had prescribed a medication he didn’t realize would violate the drug code.

Reporters at ESPN quickly identified that doctor: Pedro Bosch, whose son, Anthony, was “well known in Latin American baseball circles,” the network reported. “His relationships with players date at least from the earlier part of the decade, when he was seen attending parties with players and known to procure tickets to big-league ballparks, especially in Boston and New York,” ESPN wrote.

The DEA was “probing” both Bosches for their role in getting Ramirez the medication, ESPN reported. MLB President Bob DuPuy also confirmed he was “aware” of the investigation and cooperating.

Tony Bosch never responded to the allegations, but in a letter to ESPN, Pedro lashed back two weeks later, claiming that Ramirez was never his patient, that he’d “never prescribed” anyone HCG, and that there was no federal investigation. No charges were ever filed.

(Pedro Bosch was a defendant in an unrelated federal civil case that same year. The U.S. attorney accused him, along with more than two dozen other doctors and a similar number of lab owners, of running a kickback scheme to inflate drug costs. The government withdrew the claims two months later.)

While father and son both dodged a bullet in 2009, it’s a telling prequel to where Corben picks up the story; it also gives you an idea of what types of characters are involved. It is quite the tale, told by Anthony Bosch himself (along with some of his former associates).

Corben employs an interesting variation on the usual docudrama tropes. He uses child “reenactors” throughout the film. At first, it was distracting; it felt “gimmicky” and borderline precious. However, as the story gets wilder, the reenactments accrue more entertainment value (it’s the same quotient that makes Drunk History so funny). Bosch is quite the entertaining raconteur himself (as most bullshit artists and con men tend to be).

In fact, I was so entertained I nearly forgot how little I care about sports. Joking aside, the film is not so much “about” sports, as it is about the business of sports. It’s also about that peculiar obsession homo sapiens have with “winning”. In my 2013 review of Rush, I wrote this:

I’ll admit up front that I don’t know from the sport of Formula One racing. In fact, I’ve never held any particular fascination for loud, fast cars (or any kind of sports, for that matter). If that makes me less than a manly man, well, I’ll just have to live with that fact.

However, I am fascinated by other people’s fascination with competitive sport; after all, (paraphrasing one of my favorite lines from Harold and Maude) they’re my species. There’s certainly an impressive amount of time, effort and money poured into this peculiarly human compulsion to be the “champion” or securing the best seats for cheering one on; even if in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t mean shit to a tree.

There is an interesting political sidebar to the story. Turns out, Anthony Bosch is related to Orlando Bosch. From my 2007 review of the documentary 638 Ways to Kill Castro:

The most chilling revelation concerns the downing of a commercial Cuban airliner off Barbados in 1976 (73 people were killed, none with any known direct associations with the Castro regime). One of the alleged masterminds was an anti-Castro Cuban exile living in Florida, named Orlando Bosch, who had participated in numerous CIA-backed actions in the past.

When Bosch was threatened with deportation in the late 80’s, a number of Republicans rallied to have him pardoned, including Florida congresswoman Ileana Ross, who used her involvement with the “Free Orlando Bosch” campaign as part of her running platform. Her campaign manager was a young up and coming politician named…Jeb Bush. Long story short? Then-president George Bush Sr. ended up granting Bosch a pardon in 1990. BTW, Bosch had once been publicly referred to as an “unrepentant terrorist” by the Attorney General. (Don’t get me started.)

Oh, what a tangled web you weave, Florida Man.

Desperate housewife: Criterion reissues Barbara Loden’s Wanda (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 23, 2019)

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Wanda Goronski: I don’t have anything. I never did have anything. Never will have anything.

 Norman Dennis: You’re stupid.

 Wanda Goronski: I’m stupid?

 Norman Dennis: If you don’t want anything, you won’t have anything, and if you don’t have anything, you’re nothing. You may as well be dead. You’re not even a citizen of the United States.

 Wanda Goronski: I guess I’m dead, then.

That remarkable exchange is from the 1970 character study/road movie/crime drama Wanda, an underseen indie gem written and directed by its star Barbara Loden. Previously hard-to-find, a restored edition of the film is newly available from Criterion.

Wanda (Loden) is an unemployed working-class housewife. It’s clear that her life is the pits…and not just figuratively. She’s recently left her husband and two infants and has been crashing at her sister’s house, which is within spitting distance of a yawning mining pit, nestled in the heart of Pennsylvania’s coal country. We don’t have an opportunity to get a sense of her home life, because as the film opens, she’s on her way to family court.

A protracted long shot of Wanda daintily traipsing through the bleak obsidian moonscape of the coal pit as she heads for court with hair in curlers, white tennis shoes, white stretch pants, white floral blouse and carrying a white purse is…not something you see every day. It’s also an indication you’re in for a narrative with deeply existential subtexts.

When the judge scolds her for being late, the oddly detached Wanda shrugs it off, telling His Honor that if her husband wants a divorce, that’s OK by her; adding their kids are probably “better off” being taken care of by their father. Shortly afterward, Wanda splits her sister’s house and hits the road (hair still in curlers), carrying no more than that white purse. This suggests that either a.) she’s a dim bulb, or b.) freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

The first third of the film is episodic; Wanda wanders aimlessly, stopping at a tavern for a drink. A traveling salesman with a Vista Cruiser buys her a beer, she sleeps with him at a cheap motel. She busts him trying to sneak out the next morning, and just makes it into his station wagon. When they stop for an ice cream cone, he peels out and abandons her.

Nonplussed, Wanda kicks around some dull burg and drifts into a movie theater for a matinee and a nap. When she awakens, the auditorium is empty, and she discovers someone has rifled through her purse and stolen what little money she had been carrying.

Now officially broke, Wanda heads for the nearest tavern. The suspiciously furtive man behind the bar is less than friendly; he tells her to beat it, they’re closed. Nonetheless, Wanda asks him for food and drink. Giving her an incredulous look, he serves her (sort of). Through all of this, Wanda either doesn’t notice or doesn’t give second thought to the sight of the unconscious, bound and gagged man lying on the floor by the cash register.

Her “bartender” is a petty criminal (Michael Dennis) who has just knocked over the joint. His name (as we come to learn) is Norman Dennis, and the ever-malleable Wanda is soon on the lam with “Mr. Dennis”. The couple become a sort of low-rent Bonnie and Clyde.

Wanda is Terrance Malick’s Badlands meets Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA; like Malick’s film it was inspired by a true crime story and features a strangely passive female protagonist with no discernible identity of her own, and like Koppel’s documentary it offers a gritty portrait of rural working-class America using unadorned 16 mm photography.

The verité feel of the film (mostly shot using available light) was no accident; in a 1980 documentary by Katja Raganelli included on the Criterion Blu-ray/DVD, Loden explains why she ultimately decided on cinematographer/editor Nicholas T. Proferes (who had worked with documentary film maker D.A. Pennebaker). Of the various cinematographers’ work she had been looking at, Loden felt “[Proferes] really has some feelings for people, and he knows how to show ugly things without it appearing ugly…the ugly side of life.”

In that same interview, Loden also discusses how the project had been percolating for some time strictly as a script, and why she ended up deciding to direct it herself. “I sent it to some directors who liked it,” she recalls, “…they were all men, which wouldn’t necessarily make a difference, but they didn’t seem to understand what this woman was about. I would not take it to studios […] I wanted to make it my own way.” So…she did.

Although she could not have known it then, that decision has been since acknowledged as a groundbreaking move. The number of female auteurs in American film at that time could have been counted on one hand (Ida Lupino is the only one I can think of ).

Wanda also bridges an interesting cusp of second wave feminism’s effect on early-to-mid 70s American cinema. While its protagonist shares characteristics with Shirley Knight’s runaway housewife in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People (1969), Ellen Burstyn’s widowed single mother in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), and (in a more tangential sense) the steadily unraveling suburban housewives played by Carrie Snodgrass in Frank Perry’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) and Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974), I could see how modern audiences might scratch their heads over how such a passive character who allows men to objectify her and generally treat her like shit could possibly qualify as a feminist heroine.

In a 2003 issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, Marguerite Duras interviewed director Elia Kazan about Loden’s legacy (Kazan was married to Loden from 1967 until her death from cancer at age 48 in 1980). Kazan offered some unique insight on her character in Wanda:

“In this movie she plays a character we have in America, and who I suppose exists in France and everywhere, that we call floating, a wanderer. A woman who floats on the surface of society, drifting here or there, with the currents. But in the story of this movie, for a few days the man she meets needs her; during these few days she has a direction […] Barbara Loden understood this character very, very well because when she was young she was a bit like that, she would go here and there. She once told me a very sad thing; she told me: ‘I have always needed a man to protect me.’ I will say that most women in our society are familiar with this, understand this, need this, but are not honest enough to say it. And she was saying it sadly”.

So perhaps the sense of empowerment emanates not from the protagonist, who simply “is who she is” (i.e. a character, portrayed by Loden the actor), but the act of creation itself by Loden the writer and director of the piece (and the very personal place it comes from).

In an essay included as a booklet with the disc, Amy Taubin offers this take:

I thought it remarkable [when Taubin saw it in 1972], in part for the very reason many in the audience dismissed it: Loden’s Wanda was anything but a feminist role model. Rather, she was a version of the characters Loden had been playing on and off Broadway, on television […] She had been typecast as the kind of all-American beauty who believes that male desire is the only measure of her value, and necessary to her survival. […] Responses to the film when it was first released were mixed, with two prominent critics (Pauline Kael and Rex Reed) referring to Wanda as a slut and expressing their annoyance at having to spend time on a movie with such a negligible protagonist. […] Thanks to the feminist energy that has continued to evolve as it has seeped into the culture in the decades since the film’s release, Wanda can now be appreciated as a portrait of a kind of woman who, being no man’s fantasy, had almost never been seen on the screen before.

Hopefully, this release will help give this fine film the wider appreciation that it deserves.

Man of 1,000 dances: R.I.P. Hal Blaine

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 16, 2019)

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I nearly had a Curb Your Enthusiasm moment at the 2008 Seattle International Film Festival. I attended a screening of The Wrecking Crew, a music documentary profiling a group of legendary studio session players. This guy sitting right next to me began talking back to the screen halfway through. The house was packed, so I couldn’t move to another seat. I almost shushed him but thought better of it (you never know how someone is going to react these days). Lights came up, and my chatty neighbor turned out to be… Wrecking Crew drummer Hal Blaine, who was there to do a Q & A after the screening.

I only share that memory now because Hal Blaine passed away this week at the age of 90.

In a scene from a 1995 documentary about Brian Wilson called I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times, his daughter Carnie talks about a period of her childhood where she recalls being startled awake every single morning by the iconic “bum-ba-bum-BOOM, bum-ba-bum-BOOM…” drum intro to The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” blasting from her dad’s stereo system. Apparently, Brian was obsessed at the time with trying to suss how producer Phil Spector was able to achieve that distinctive “wall of sound” on his records.

Carnie may or may not have been aware that technically, the man disturbing her rest was Hal Blaine. In a 2015 Guardian article, Blaine confessed that his drum intro was a fluke:

I was like a racehorse straining at the gate. But [Phil Spector] wouldn’t let me play until we started recording, because he wanted it to be fresh. That famous drum intro was an accident. I was supposed to play the snare on the second beat as well as the fourth, but I dropped a stick. Being the faker I was in those days, I left the mistake in and it became: “Bum-ba-bum-BOOM!” And soon everyone wanted that beat. If you listen to me in Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night”, I’m playing the “Be My Baby” beat, just very softly.

Yes, Blaine also played with Sinatra. His services were also requested for the Pet Sounds sessions by the Phil Spector-obsessed Wilson. In fact, from the late 50s through the mid-70s, Blaine did sessions with Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, The Righteous Brothers, Henry Mancini, Ike & Tina Turner, The Monkees, The Association, Nancy Sinatra, The Fifth Dimension, The Byrds, Sonny & Cher, Petula Clark, Mamas and the Papas, The Grass Roots, and countless others. Not to mention myriad TV themes and movie soundtracks.

Blaine was a member of the “Wrecking Crew”, a moniker given to an aggregation of crack L.A. session players who in essence created the “sound” that defined classic Top 40 pop from the late 50s through the 70s. With several notable exceptions (Glen Campbell, Leon Russell and Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack) their names remain obscure to the general public, even if the music they helped forge is forever burned into our collective neurons.

Blaine may have been the most recorded drummer in pop music history. Remember that one time at band camp, when I almost told him to shut up? I remember him telling the audience that he was then in the midst of compiling his discography; he said at that time he’d been able to annotate “only” about 5,000 sessions (some estimates top the 10,000 mark!).

That’s quite a legacy. Condensing a “top 10” list from such a wondrous catalog is likely a fool’s errand-but that hasn’t stopped me in the past. So here you go, in alphabetical order:

“Any World (That I’m Welcome To)” (Steely Dan) – One of the better songs on Steely Dan’s 1975 album Katy Lied, “Any World” is essentially a musical daydream featuring compelling chord changes and wistful lyrics about quiet resignation and wishful thinking (“If I had my way, I would move to another lifetime/Quit my job, ride the train through the misty nighttime…”) You know – a typical excursion into Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s willfully enigmatic and ever-droll universe (“Any world that I’m welcome to/Is better than the one I come from.”). The famously picky duo only used Blaine for this cut.

“Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” (The Fifth Dimension) – James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot’s groundbreaking 1967 musical Hair was such a pop culture phenomenon at the time that it yielded huge hit singles for several artists who were not associated with any of its stage productions; namely Oliver (“Good Morning, Starshine”), Three Dog Night (“Easy to Be Hard”), and this epic two-song medley, which was covered by The Fifth Dimension. Bones Howe produced it, and The Wrecking Crew provided primary backing. The complex instrumental arrangement is by Bill Holman. Released as a single in 1969, it was not only a chart-topper, but picked up two Grammys.

“A Taste of Honey” (Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass) – Man, I heard this song a lot when I was a kid. Whipped Cream and Other Delights was a staple of my parents’ LP collection; I recall having a particular…fascination for the album cover (I’m pretty sure I stared a hole in it). Written by Bobby Scott and Ric Marlow in 1960, the song was covered by quite a few artists (including The Beatles), but Herb Alpert’s #1 1965 instrumental version is pretty definitive. Blaine holds it down tight with that bass drum!

“Be My Baby” (The Ronettes) – Just like Ronnie say. Produced (bigly) by Phil Spector, with Blaine’s unmissable “mistake” kicking things off quite nicely, thank you very much.

“Cecilia” (Simon & Garfunkel) – Featured on the duo’s outstanding 1970 swan song album Bridge Over Troubled Water, this jaunty Caribbean-flavored number was one of several cuts that hinted at Paul Simon’s burgeoning interest and future forays into world music. The song is very percussion-oriented, which makes it a good showcase for Blaine. Simon adds additional percussion on xylophone (although the overall effect gives the number a steel drum vibe very reminiscent of Bobby Bloom’s 1970 hit “Montego Bay”).

“Drummer Man” (Nancy Sinatra) – Blaine famously played on Nancy’s biggest hit “These Boots Were Made for Walkin” (1966), but this lesser-known cut from her 1999 album How Does it Feel? gives Blaine lots of room to stretch and really strut his stuff.

“Galveston” (Glen Campbell) – In a touching memoriam to Glen Campbell that Blaine posted on his Facebook page in 2017, he wrote “Everything that Glen recorded, with the Crew or with other musicians, were all hits. As for personal favorites, Glen always had a special place in his heart for the great song “Galveston”, and I guess we all did.” I will happily second that emotion. Blaine and the Crew are all in fine form on this beautifully crafted Jimmy Webb composition, which says all it needs to say in 2:41. Pop perfection.

“Kicks” (Paul Revere & the Raiders) – This single (which peaked at #4 on the Billboard charts in 1966) was produced by Terry Melcher and written by the Brill Building hit-making team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”, “On Broadway”, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”). Solid drumming from Blaine, a memorable guitar riff, and a great growly (almost punky) lead vocal from Mark Lindsay.

“That’s Life” (Frank Sinatra) – When you’ve loved and lost like Frank…well, you know how the song goes: “Ridin’ high in April/Shot down in May…” Released in 1966 as the B-side to “The September of My Years” the song was written by Dean Kay and Kelly Gordon and produced by Jimmy Bowen (it went to #1 on the Easy Listening chart). Blaine, Glen Campbell and several other Wrecking Crew “regulars” are featured on the cut. The bluesy Hammond organ flourishes were played by Michael Melvoin. “My, my!”

“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” (The Beach Boys) – A great opener for a damn near perfect song cycle (if it weren’t for that loopy throwaway cut “Sloop John B” that has always ruined the otherwise consistently transporting mood of Pet Sounds for me…mumble grumble). Co-written by Brian Wilson, Tony Asher, and Mike Love, it features an expansive production by Wilson and a transcendent vocal arrangement with lovely harmonies. The Wrecking Crew are in full force on this cut, with Blaine holding it steady.

 

Broken wing: Birds of Passage (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 9, 2019)

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There have been myriad articles, books, series, documentaries and films recounting the tumultuous history of the Colombian drug trade, but nothing I have previously read or seen on the subject prepared me for Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage.

Spanning 20 years from 1960 to 1980, the film (based on true events) is equal parts crime family saga and National Geographic special; The Godfather meets The Emerald Forest. On paper, this may seem like a familiar “rise and fall of a drug lord” story- but the filmmakers tell it through the unique cultural lens of Colombia’s indigenous Wayuu tribe.

The Wayuu people have dwelt in the desolate La Guajira Desert (which overlaps Colombia and Venezuela) for nearly 2,000 years. They have managed to keep many of their cultural traditions remarkably intact…considering. In other words, I’m not saying that they haven’t gotten their hair mussed once or twice throughout the millennia; from 18th-Century invasions and persecution by the Spanish, to a veritable laundry list of discriminatory and exclusionary edicts by the Colombian and Venezuelan governments.

Considering all the limitations historically placed on them (which includes having little control over and restricted access to raw materials on their own land) it is not surprising that the Wayuu have relied heavily on farming and trading as the chief means of survival.

Birds of Passage begins in 1960, right around the time the Wayuu discovered there was some easily cultivated local flora becoming quite popular with the alijunas (their word for “foreigners”) and ripe for commodification. From a 2018 Global Americas article:

It was the 1960’s in La Guajira, the northernmost tip of Colombia and Venezuela, and the indigenous Wayuu were used to trading as a way of life.  It has long been part of their survival in this harsh desert environment.

They were first courted by the new Peace Corps volunteers that President Kennedy had set up to fight communism in the region.  As they spread pamphlets and advised the indigenous people to “say no to communism,” they also asked to buy marijuana. Soon, the young Americans introduced the Wayuu to their North American connections, who opened up small drug runs in propeller planes between Colombia and the United States.  At the time, marijuana was a controlled but legal substance in the United States. However, the Wayuu quickly discovered that it was much more profitable than coffee, whiskey and the other commodities they usually traded to eke out a living in this remote area.

The film’s opening passage is an intoxicating immersion in Wayuu culture; a beautiful young woman named Zaida (Natalia Reyes) has “come of age” and is commanded by her rather stern mother Ursula (Carmina Martinez) to don a resplendent red outfit and perform what appears to be a “mating dance” at a village gathering (the first of the film’s numerous avian metaphors). Several eligible suitors cut in to display their wares; ultimately one is left standing. His name is Rapayet (Jose Acosta) and vows to marry her.

However, there is the matter of a dowry (cows, goats, a few other sundries) that Rapayet is required to deliver within a specified time. Like most Wayuu, he’s a little short that week and needs to scare up some coin pronto if he wants to win his bride.

He turns to his best friend Moises (Jhon Narvaez) a non-tribal Colombian and free-spirited hustler who tells Rapayet he knows some American Peace Corps volunteers who happen to be in the market for some fine Colombian. This relatively benign, small-time dope deal plants the seeds (so to speak) for what eventually evolves into a Wayuu drug empire, with Rapayet at the helm.

As inevitably ensues in such tales, it is greed, corruption and avarice that sends the protagonist hurtling toward self-destruction, but Maria Camila Arias’ screenplay sidesteps usual clichés by introducing the complexities of cultural identity into the mix. What results is a parable that’s at once overly familiar, yet somehow…wholly unfamiliar.

Another year for me and you: 10 essential albums of 1969

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 2, 2019)

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Well, this is it. 2019-last chance to celebrate a “50th anniversary” from the 60s (did I just detect a mass sigh of relief from all the Generation X and Millennial readers out there?).

2019 also marks the 50th anniversary of Woodstock…so you eye-rolling hipsters best batten down the hatches and prepare for a surge of tie-tied, acid-fried, and dewy-eyed peace love ‘n’ dope c’mon people now smile on your brother everybody get together try to love one another right now dirty filthy hippies wallowing in the mud nostalgia…MAN.

In my 2009 review of the Ang Lee film Taking Woodstock, I wrote:

“If you can remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there”. Don’t you hate it when some lazy-ass critic/wannabe sociopolitical commentator trots out that old chestnut to preface some pompous “think piece” about the Woodstock Generation?

God, I hate that.

But I think it was Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane who once said: “If you remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there.” Or it could have been Robin Williams, or Timothy Leary. Of course, the irony is that whoever did say it originally, probably can’t really remember if they were in fact the person who said it first.

You see, memory is a funny thing. Let’s take the summer of 1969, for example. Here’s how Bryan Adams remembers it:

That summer seemed to last forever
And if I had the choice
Yeah, I’d always wanna be there
Those were the best days of my life.

Best days of his life. OK, cool. Of course, he wrote that song in 1984. He’d had a little time to sentimentalize events. Now, here’s how Iggy Stooge describes that magic time:

Well it’s 1969 okay.
We’ve got a war across the USA.
There’s nothing here for me and you.
We’re just sitting here with nothing to do.

Iggy actually wrote and released that song in the year 1969. So which of these two gentlemen were really “there”, so to speak?

“Well Dennis,” you may be thinking (while glancing at your watch) “…that’s all fine and dandy, but doesn’t the title of this review indicate that the subject at hand is Ang Lee’s new film, Taking Woodstock? Shouldn’t you be quoting Joni Mitchell instead?”

Patience, Grasshopper. Here’s how Joni Mitchell “remembers” Woodstock:

By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration.

She wrote that in 1969. But here’s the rub: she wasn’t really there.

There was a point in there, somewhere. Somehow it made sense when I was peaking on the ‘shrooms about an hour ago. Oh, I’m supposed to be writing a movie review. Far out, man.

Now it’s been 10 years since I wrote that piece regarding Woodstock’s 40th anniversary, so I’ve had some additional time to smoke a couple of bowls and further reflect on what my point was. After careful consideration, I believe it was: “You had to BE there, man!”

Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale?

Anyhoo, going on the assumption that the next best thing to “being there” would be immersing yourself in the music of the era, I thought I’d mosey over to my record closet-where I hope to pluck some dusty jewels for your consideration. To wit-my picks for the top 10 most essential albums of 1969. As usual, my list is alphabetical-not ranking order.

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Abbey Road – The Beatles

Let it Be (1970) may have officially been the Beatles’ “final” studio album, but as it was recorded several months before the band’s penultimate 1969 release, it is Abbey Road that truly represents John, Paul, George and Ringo’s swan song as creative collaborators.

Are there any other recording artists who have ever matched the creative growth that transpired over the scant six years that it took to evolve from the simplicity of Meet the Beatles to the sophistication of Abbey Road?

After a momentary lapse of reason to allow gifted but increasingly manic enfant terrible Phil Spector to (infamously) botch production for Let it Be, the Fabs wisely brought George Martin back on board. Martin, the band, and recording engineers Geoff Emerick, Phil McDonald and Alan Parsons are at the top of their game here (if you decide to pack it in, you might as well go out on top).

Choice cuts: “Come Together”, “Something”, “I Want You (She’s so Heavy)”, “Here Comes the Sun”, “Because” (my god, those harmonies), “You Never Give Me Your Money”, “Sun King”, and (of course) the remainder of that magnificent Side 2 “suite”.

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Chicago Transit Authority – Chicago

While I’m not fond of their schmaltzy (if chart-topping) descent into “adult contemporary” territory from the 80s onward, there is no denying the groundbreaking nature of Chicago’s incredible first three double albums, beginning with this 1969 gem. The formula established here, which would continue through Chicago II and Chicago III (or what I like to call their “Roman Numeral Period”) was (for its time) a bold fusion of hard rock, blues, soul, jazz, and Latin styles, fueled by the late Terry Kath’s fiery guitar and accentuated by a tight horn section (and I’m not normally a big fan of horn sections).

Choice cuts: “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”, “Beginnings”, “Questions 67 and 68”, “Poem 58” (great Kath solo) and a cover of Steve Winwood’s “I’m a Man”.

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Crosby, Still, & Nash – Crosby, Stills and Nash

One of rock’s most enduring “supergroups” sort of fell together (as the story goes) after an informal jam at a house party in 1968. The trio may have never agreed as to who’s house this seminal event occurred at (it vacillates between Joni Mitchell’s and Cass Elliot’s place), but millions of fans have since concurred that something truly sublime and greater than the sum of its parts occurs when David Crosby (originally from The Byrds), Stephen Stills (The Buffalo Springfield) and Graham Nash (The Hollies) sing three-part harmonies (occasionally joined by Neil Young…when they’re not all fighting). Their flawless debut LP has stood the test of time.

Choice cuts: All of them!

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Five Leaves Left – Nick Drake

Look in the dictionary under “melancholy” and you’ll likely find a picture of Nick Drake.

When the day is done, when the night is cold
Some get by but some get old
Just to show life’s not made of gold
When the night is cold

When the night is cold, I like to cozy up with a good pair of headphones, a cup of chamomile, and a Nick Drake album. Yes, his music was melancholy (and likely to blame for inspiring “emo”) but it was also beautiful; spare, haunting, unforgettable. He died much too young. If you’ve never had the pleasure, this debut is a fine place to start.

Choice cuts: “Time Has Told Me”, “Three Hours”, “River Man”, “Day Is Done”, “The Thoughts of Mary Jane”, “Fruit Tree”, and “Man in a Shed”.

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Hot Buttered Soul – Isaac Hayes

Singer-songwriter-musician-producer-arranger extraordinaire Isaac Hayes’ second album is, in a word, epic. Containing only 4 songs, it blew a lot of minds and set a new bar for soul music.

Before recording sessions commenced, Hayes demanded, and received full creative control from Stax Records (who I’d speculate were chagrined that there were no potential singles to mine from 4 tracks…at least not without extensive editing). I suspect Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye were paying close attention, as they would make a similar push for creative independence with execs at Motown several years later.

Choice cuts: Hayes’ impeccably produced cover of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Walk on By” is a 12-minute master class in song arranging and may very well be the inception of the “slow jam” that artists like Barry White would later build their entire careers on.

But the truly groundbreaking cut here is Hayes’ 18-minute deconstruction of Jimmy Webb’s “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”. He takes Webb’s 2-minute pop song and turns it into a cinematic tone poem, with a 9-minute spoken word preface that adds poignant backstory to the protagonist’s already heartbreaking narrative.

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In the Court of the Crimson King – King Crimson

It’s safe to say there was nothing else that sounded quite like this seminal prog-rock masterpiece in 1969.

Led by avant-garde guitarist/producer Robert Fripp, the group featured vocalist/bassist Greg Lake (who would later hook up with Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer to form you-know-who), keyboardist/woodwind/sax player Ian McDonald (later of Foreigner), percussionist Michael Giles, and lyricist Peter Sinfield (also cryptically credited for “illumination”…their dealer, maybe?).

Many iterations of the band have followed over the years (with Fripp as the mainstay), but this remains my favorite conglomeration of personnel. Lake (with his cathedral pipes) was their finest vocalist.

Choice cuts: Pretty much all of them…from  the startling  proto-metal/jazz fusion opener “21st Century Schizoid Man” to the dreamy “I Talk to the Wind”,  the melancholic cautionary tale “Epitaph”, ethereally beautiful “Moonchild”, to the album’s appropriately magisterial closer “In The Court of the Crimson King.”

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Led Zeppelin II – Led Zeppelin

Despite legions of loyal fans (the author of this post among them) and the countless musicians they have inspired and influenced over the past 50 years, there’s just something about these seminal English rockers what really pisses off snooty music critics.

As an out and proud middlebrow, I’ll call this a “classic” without reservation. It was tough choosing this or their very strong debut album, which was also released in 1969. I could have cheated and just counted them both as one choice (which would have made my list “go to eleven”) but I’ve got principles (stop snickering).

Led Zeppelin’s unique blend of Delta blues, English folk, heavy metal riffing and (on subsequent albums, beginning with Led Zeppelin III) Eastern music has been oft-imitated but seldom matched… inviting us to tune in, buckle up, and ride a sonic roller coaster that takes you (as Jimmy Page described it) “from the whisper…to the thunder”.

Choice cuts: “Whole Lotta Love”, “What is and What Never Should Be”, “Thank You”, “Heartbreaker”, “Livin’ Lovin’ Maid” and “Ramble On” (best “wanderlust” song ever).

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The Stooges – The Stooges

Well it’s 1969 okay
All across the USA
It’s another year for me and you
Another year with nothing to do

Last year I was 21
I didn’t have a lot of fun
And now I’m gonna be 22
I say oh my and a boo hoo

They sure don’t write ‘em like that anymore. The composer is one Mr. James Osterberg, best known by his show biz nom de plume, Iggy Pop. Did you know that this economical lyric style was inspired by Buffalo Bob…who used to encourage Howdy Doody’s followers to limit fan letters and postcards to “25 words or less”? True story.

The peace ‘n’ love ethos was still lingering when Iggy and the Stooges stormed straight outta Detroit with their aggressive proto-punk sound, undoubtedly scaring the shit out of a lot of hippies.

While this debut album didn’t exactly go storming up the charts upon initial release, it is now acknowledged as a profound influence on punk’s first wave (the Sex Pistols paid homage on Never Mind the Bollocks with their sneering cover of “No Fun”).

Choice cuts: “1969”, “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, “No Fun”, and “Real Cool Time”.

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Then Play On – Fleetwood Mac

I’ve got nothing personal against Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham; they are obviously very talented folks in their own write, but…as far as I’m concerned, Fleetwood Mac “Classic” died the day they joined up with Christine McVie and stalwart founding members Mick Fleetwood and John McVie. This 1969 release is my favorite Mac album.

Guitarist and lead vocalist Peter Green would depart the band following this release (briefly rejoining later for a few live dates), but it features some of his finest work. The bulk of the songs for this outing were written by Green and newly acquired guitarist/vocalist Danny Kirwin (a gifted player and songwriter who would stay on board until some unfortunate personal issues forced him out in 1972). Very bluesy; those who prefer the more pop-oriented Buckingham-Nicks iteration may not find much to relate to.

Choice cuts: “Coming Your Way”, “Closing My Eyes”, “Underway”, “Although the Sun is Shining”, “My Dream” (gorgeous Kirwin instrumental),“Before the Beginning” and the classic “Oh Well”.

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Tommy – The Who

There was a time (a long, long, time ago) when some of my friends insisted that the best way to appreciate The Who’s legendary rock opera was to turn off the lamps, light a candle, drop a tab of acid and listen to all four sides with a good pair of cans. I never got around to making those precise arrangements, but I’m always up for spinning all four sides. Not only one of 1969’s finest offerings, but one of the best rock albums of all time.

Choice cuts: “1921”, “Amazing Journey”, “Acid Queen”, “Pinball Wizard”, “Tommy Can You Hear Me?”, “I’m Free”, and “We’re Not Gonna Take It”.

Bonus tracks!

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10 more 1969 releases worth a spin:

Beck-Ola – Jeff Beck
Blind Faith – Blind Faith
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere – Neil Young & Crazyhorse
It’s a Beautiful Day – It’s a Beautiful Day
Kick Out the Jams – The MC5
Santana – Santana
Stand Up – Jethro Tull
Stand! – Sly & the Family Stone
Tons of Sobs – Free
Trout Mask Replica – Captain Beefheart

Pre-Oscar marathon: The top 10 “Best Picture” winners

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 23, 2019)

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I’m sure you are aware that the (host-challenged) Academy Awards ceremonies are coming up this Sunday (broadcasting on ABC). As an alleged “movie critic”, I will sheepishly admit that I have only seen 3 of the 8 nominees for 2018’s Best Picture. Then again, it’s been years since Academy voters and I have seen eye to eye as to what constitutes a “best picture”. Either my aesthetic has changed, or the Academy has lowered its standards. And I don’t think my aesthetic has changed, if you catch my drift.

At any rate, this is my way of explaining in advance why you may notice only one “Best Picture” winner from the last several decades made my list, which I have culled from the previous 90 Academy Awards. Perhaps it’s just my long-winded way of saying “they don’t make ‘em like they used to”. And I wish you kids would stay the hell off my lawn.

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You Can’t Take it With You (Best Picture of 1938) – 81 years on, Frank Capra’s movie version of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s stage play (adapted for the screen by Robert Riskin, who was nominated) still resonates in light of our current economic woes.

A Wall Street fat cat (Edward Arnold) comes up with various nefarious machinations to force a stubborn but happy-go-lucky homeowner (Lionel Barrymore) and his eccentric and free-spirited family to sell him his property, in order to make way for a new factory he wants to build in a prime metropolitan location.

Complications ensue when Barrymore’s granddaughter (Jean Arthur) falls in love with Arnold’s son (James Stewart). Hilarity abounds, fueled by contrasting worldviews of Arnold’s uptight, greedy capitalist and Barrymore’s fun-loving non-conformist. There’s tons of slapstick, and in accordance with the rules of screwball comedy, nearly the entire cast eventually ends up standing before a judge (en masse) with a lot of explaining to do.

Although this is one of Capra’s more lightweight films, he still folds in social commentary about the disparity between the haves vs. the have-nots; in some respects it seems like a warm-up for It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra also picked up a Best Director win.

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Casablanca (Best Picture of 1943)-Romance, exotic intrigue, Bogie, Ingrid Bergman, evil Nazis, selfless acts of quiet heroism, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Rick’s Café, Claude Rains rounding up the usual suspects, Dooley singing “As Time Goes By”, the beginning of a beautiful friendship, the most rousing rendition of “La Marseille” you’ve ever heard, that goodbye scene at the airfield, and a timeless message (if you love someone, set them free). What’s not to love about this movie-lover’s movie?

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From Here to Eternity (Best Picture of 1953) – Even though James Jones’ salty and steamy source novel about restless GIs stationed at Pearl Harbor was sanitized for the screen, Fred Zinnemann’s film was still fairly risqué and heady adult fare for its time.

Monty Clift was born to play the complex, angst-ridden company bugler (and sometime pugilist) Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt, a classic “hard case” at constant loggerheads with his superiors (and his personal demons).

And what a cast-outstanding performances abound from Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra (he won Best Actor in a Supporting Role), Jack Warden, Ernest Borgnine, and Donna Reed. At that point of Reed’s career, it was considered casting against type to have her playing a prostitute, but it paid off with a Best Actress in a Supporting Role win.

Zinnemann won Best Director, screenwriter Daniel Taradash picked up a Best Writing (Screenplay) for his adaptation, Burnett Guffey won for Cinematography (Black and White), and William A. Lyon took home a statue for Best Film Editing. A true classic.

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West Side Story (Best Picture of 1961)-You know, there are so many Deep Thoughts that I have gleaned as a result of my many, many viewings of this fine film over the years; and since I am holding the Talking Stick, I wish to share a few of them with you now:

  1. When you’re a Jet, you stay a Jet.
  2. Something’s coming; don’t know when…but it’s soon.
  3. I like the island Manhattan.
  4. Breeze it, buzz it, easy does it.
  5. It’s alarming, how charming I feel.
  6. Deep down inside us, there is good.

You’re welcome.

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Lawrence of Arabia (Best Picture of 1962) – Until you have viewed David Lean’s masterpiece on a theater screen, you can’t really comprehend how big the desert is. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. Or how commanding and charismatic 29 year-old Peter O’Toole was in his first starring role.

O’Toole delivers a larger-than-life performance as T.E. Lawrence, a flamboyant and outspoken British army officer who reinvented himself as a guerilla leader, gathering up warring Arab tribes and uniting them in a common cause to oust the Turks during WW I.

Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson based their literate screenplay on Lawrence’s memoirs, sustaining a sense of intimacy throughout. This was no small feat, considering the film’s overall epic sweep and visual splendor (DP Freddie Young and editor Anne V. Coates more than earned their Oscars).

Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Claude Rains and Jose Ferrer round off a fine cast, and you can’t discuss this film without acknowledging Maurice Jarre’s magnificent “Best Score”.

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In the Heat of the Night (Best Picture of 1967) – “They call me Mister Tibbs!” In this classic film Sidney Poitier plays a cosmopolitan police detective from Philly who gets waylaid in a torpid Mississippi backwater, where he is reluctantly recruited into helping the bigoted sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve a local murder.

Poitier nails his performance; you can feel Virgil Tibb’s pain as he tries to maintain his professional cool amidst a brace of surly rednecks, who throw up roadblocks at every turn.

While Steiger is outstanding as well, I find it ironic that he was the one who won “Best Actor in a leading role”, when Poitier was the star of the film (it seems Hollywood didn’t get the film’s message).

Sterling Silliphant’s brilliant screenplay (another Oscar) works as a crime thriller and a “fish out of water” story. Director Norman Jewison was nominated but didn’t score a win. Future director Hal Ashby won for Best Editing. Quincy Jones composed the soundtrack, and Ray Charles sings the sultry theme.

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Midnight Cowboy (Best Picture of 1969) – “I’m WALKIN’ heah!” Aside from its distinction as being the only X-rated film to ever win Oscars, John Schlesinger’s groundbreaking character study also helped usher in a new era of mature, gritty neo-realism in American film that would reach its apex in 1976 with Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (one year before Star Wars ushered that era to a full dead stop).

Dustin Hoffman has seldom matched his character work here as the Fagin-esque Ratso Rizzo, a homeless New York City con artist who adopts country bumpkin/aspiring male hustler Joe Buck (Jon Voight) as his “protégé”. The two leads are outstanding, as is the supporting cast, which includes John McGiver, Brenda Vaccaro, Barnard Hughes and a teenage Bob Balaban. Also look for cameos from several of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” regulars, who can be spotted milling about here and there in a memorable party scene.

In hindsight, the location filming provides us with a fascinating historical document of the seedy milieu that was “classic” Times Square (New York “plays itself” very well here). Schlesinger won an Oscar for Best Director, as did Waldo Salt for his screenplay.

In hindsight, the location filming provides us with a fascinating historical document of the seedy milieu that was “classic” Times Square (New York “plays itself” very well here). Schlesinger won an Oscar for Best Director, as did Waldo Salt for his screenplay.

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The Godfather (Best Picture of 1972) and The Godfather, Part II (Best Picture of 1974)-Yes, I’m counting them as one; because in a narrative and artistic sense, they are. Got a problem with that? Tell it to Luca Brasi. Taken as a whole, Francis Ford Coppola’s two-part masterpiece is best summed up thusly: Brando, Pacino, and De Niro.

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Annie Hall (Best Picture of 1977) – As far as his “earlier, funny films” go, this semi-autobiographical entry ranks as one of Woody Allen’s finest, and represents the moment he truly found his voice as a filmmaker. The Academy concurred, awarding three additional Oscars as well-for Best Actress (leading lady Diane Keaton, in her career-defining role), for Director (Allen) and for Best Original Screenplay (Allen again, along with co-writer Marshall Brickman).

Part 1 of a triptych (or so the theory goes) that continued with Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, it is also the film that neatly divides the history of the romantic comedy in half. So many of the narrative framing techniques and comic inventions that Allen utilized have become so de rigueur for the genre (a relatively recent example would be The 500 Days of Summer) that it’s easy to forget how wonderfully innovative and fresh this film felt back in 1977. A funny, bittersweet, and perceptive look at modern romance.

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No Country for Old Men (Best Picture of 2007) – The bodies pile up faster than you can say Blood Simple in Joel and Ethan Coen’s masterfully made neo-noir (which also earned them a shared Best Director trophy). The brothers’ Oscar-winning screenplay (adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel) is rich in characterization and thankfully devoid of the self-conscious quirkiness that has left some of their latter-day films teetering on self-parody.

The story is set among the sagebrush and desert heat of the Tex-Mex border, where the deer and the antelope play. One day, pickup-drivin’ good ol’ boy Llewelyn (Josh Brolin) is shootin’ at some food (the playful antelope) when he encounters a grievously wounded pit bull. The blood trail leads to discovery of the grisly aftermath of a shootout. And yes, being that this is Coen country…that twisty trail does lead to a twisty tale.

Tommy Lee Jones gives a wonderful low-key performance as an old-school, Gary Cooper-ish lawman who (you guessed it) comes from a long line of lawmen. Jones’ face is a craggy, world-weary road map of someone who has reluctantly borne witness to every inhumanity man is capable of, and is counting down the days to his imminent retirement (‘cos it’s becoming no country for old men…).

The entire cast is outstanding. Javier Bardem picked up a Best Supporting Actor statue for his unforgettable turn as a psychotic hit man. His performance is understated, but menacing, made all the more creepy by his benign Peter Tork haircut. Kelly McDonald and Woody Harrelson are both excellent as well.

Curiously, Roger Deakins wasn’t even nominated for his outstanding cinematography, but his work on this film easily ranks among his best.

In plain sight: The Invisibles (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 16, 2019)

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There has certainly been no shortage of historical dramas and documentaries about The Holocaust and the horror that was Nazi Germany from 1933-1945 (on television, stage, and screen). It’s even possible that “WW2 fatigue” is a thing at this point (particularly among post-boomers). But you know, there’s this funny thing about history. It’s cyclical.

You may remember this little item? From an August 30, 2018 Washington Post article:

Ian M. Smith, a Department of Homeland Security analyst who resigned this week after he was confronted about his ties to white nationalist groups, attended multiple immigration policy meetings at the White House, according to government officials familiar with his work.

Smith quit his job Tuesday after being questioned about personal emails he sent and received between 2014 and 2016, before he joined the Trump administration. The messages, obtained by The Atlantic and detailed in a report published Tuesday, depict Smith engaging in friendly, casual conversations with prominent white supremacists and racists. 

In one email from 2015, Smith responded to a group dinner invitation whose host said his home would be “judenfrei,” a German word used by the Nazis during World War II to describe territory that had been “cleansed” of Jews during the Holocaust. 

“They don’t call it Freitag for nothing,” Smith replied, using the German word for “Friday,” according to the Atlantic. “I was planning to hit the bar during the dinner hours and talk to people like Matt Parrot, etc.,” Smith added, a reference to the former spokesman for the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party.

Hot funk, cool punk, even if its old junk…it’s still Reich and roll to me. Cyclical.

With Mr. Smith’s sophomoric wordplay associating “judenfrei” with “Freitag” being a given, there is nothing inherently amusing and everything troubling regarding his friend’s casual resurrection of the word “judenfrei”. It’s a word best relegated to its historical context; I can otherwise think of no reason it should otherwise pop up while shooting the breeze with friends.

One could surmise that the lessons of history haven’t quite sunk in with everyone (especially those who may be condemned to repeat it). So perhaps there cannot be enough historical dramas and documentaries reminding people about The Holocaust and the horror that was Nazi Germany from 1933-1945, nu? Or am I overreacting and being judgmental about Mr. Smith and his friend? After all, I don’t know these guys personally.

Perhaps the email exchange was an anomaly. Okay-so it’s documented that at least one of the people Mr. Smith pals around with is “a former spokesman for the Neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party.” Still-should I give them the benefit of the doubt?

Could it be true what President Trump said when asked why he never condemned the Neo-Nazis who incited the violence in Charlottesville in 2017 (resulting in the death of peaceful counter-protestor Heather Heyer) -that there were/are “…very fine people on both sides”?

After carefully weighing all the historical evidence put before me, I can only conclude that…there were no fine Nazis in 1920 (the year the party was founded), no fine Nazis since 1920, nor are there likely to be any fine Nazis from now until the end of recorded time.

That said, every German citizen who remained in-country throughout the 12-year Nazi regime was not necessarily a card-carrying party member. There were Germans who were quite appalled by Hitler’s strident (and eventually murderous) anti-Semitic policies from day one.

In fact, some Germans were so sympathetic to the plight of the Jews to the point of assisting them to remain “hidden in plain sight” for the duration of the war, at great personal risk to themselves and their families. In that context, you could say that these particular Germans were (in a manner of speaking) “very fine people” (with Oskar Schindler being the most well-known example).

In 1943, following a mass roundup and arrest of the city’s remaining 30,000 Jews (who were already suffering forced labor) Berlin was officially declared “judenfrei” (last time I’ll use that ugly word in this piece…I promise). Or so the Nazis thought. 7,000 Jews managed to evade arrest and go into hiding; out of that number, 1,700 survived the war.

For his 2017 docu-drama, The Invisibles (currently making its U.S. debut in limited engagements) director Claus Räfle was able to track down four of those 1,700 persevering souls and convince them to get in front of his camera to share their stories for posterity (and none too soon; two of the four have since passed away as of this writing).

Räfle inter-cuts the contemporary witness interviews with dramatic reenactments (a la the films of documentarian Eroll Morris), voice-over narration, and archival footage of wartime Berlin to a (mostly) good effect (the acting vignettes do fall a little flat at times).

Still, as previously evidenced in Claude Lanzmann’s shattering 1984 Holocaust documentary Shoah (recommended, if you’ve never seen it), there is no amount of skilled writing, acting, or historical recreation that matches the power of a simple close-up as someone shares their story. And each of these witnesses (Hanni Levy, Cioma Schonhaus, Ruth Gumpel, and Eugen Friede) offers a survival tale you couldn’t make up.

There is not only considerable drama and suspense in their stories, but a certain amount of irony and dark humor. For example, one of the women recalls how she dyed her hair blonde, to pass as a “regular” German on the street. While this cosmetic revision undoubtedly saved her life from the Nazis, it nearly got her killed when Russian troops reached Berlin (the soldiers didn’t initially believe her when she insisted, “Please don’t shoot me! I’m Jewish!”).

It saddens me to think that within the next 25 years, all the voices of the Shoah will be forever silenced by the inescapable scourges of time and human biology; as I pointed out earlier, only two of the survivors profiled in Räfle’s film are still with us (Levy and Friede). A cynic might say the stories of these two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, but I for one am grateful for the privilege of hearing them told.

As for those who still insist there is no harm in casually co-opting the tenets of an evil ideology that would foist such a horror upon humanity, I won’t pretend to “pray for you” (while I lost many relatives in the Holocaust, I’m not “Jewish” in the religious sense, so I doubt my prayers would even “take”), but this old Hasidic proverb gives me hope:

“The virtue of angels is that they cannot deteriorate; their flaw is that they cannot improve. Humanity’s flaw is that we can deteriorate; but our virtue is that we can improve.”

Amen.