Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Films of Warren Beatty: "Promise Her Anything," starring Warren Beatty, Leslie Caron, and Bob Cummings (1965)

Lobby card for "Promise Her Anything."
Warren Beatty’s first attempt at film comedy was the dreadful “Promise Her Anything,” from 1965, which co-starred his then-girlfriend Leslie Caron. Beatty’s attempts to star in “What’s New, Pussycat?” had failed, and Peter O’Toole ended up playing the part that Beatty had wanted. (“What’s New, Pussycat?” would have been a much better first comedy for Beatty than “Promise Her Anything.”) Perhaps the sting of not getting “What’s New, Pussycat?” inspired Beatty to seek out another comedy project. Unfortunately, the only thing the two movies have in common is that Tom Jones sings the theme songs for both movies.

“Promise Her Anything” may have been doomed from the start. Right before the film was shot, Caron’s husband, British theater director Peter Hall, filed for divorce from her, naming Caron’s affair with Beatty as one of the reasons the marriage failed. The case brought a lot of negative publicity to Caron’s romance with Beatty, and it turned into an ugly custody battle over Caron’s children with Hall. Because Caron’s divorce was happening in the British courts, “Promise Her Anything” was filmed in England, even though it was entirely set in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Like most movies not filmed where they’re set, you can tell it’s not New York City. 

The plot of the movie is rather ridiculous, as Caron plays a young widow with a small toddler who moves into the apartment building that Beatty lives in. Beatty plays a filmmaker who makes “girlie movies,” schlocky films of girls stripping or dancing in very little clothing. But he has more serious aspirations as a moviemaker. Like all of Beatty’s characters, he is a dreamer. In an interesting reference to the real world of 1965, it’s obliquely referenced that Caron’s late husband died in Vietnam. There’s a picture of him in a military uniform, and Caron says something about him “just being an advisor,” which was the term used for military personnel in Vietnam before Lyndon Johnson expanded the war in 1964-65. Beatty’s character is very interested in Caron, and he offers his services as a babysitter to her. Of course, Caron doesn’t know what kind of movies Beatty makes-which will make things awkward later on in the movie. Caron works for Bob Cummings, a famous child psychologist who doesn’t have any children of his own. Cummings is the best thing in the movie by far, as he was a great comedic actor, and this material is right in his wheelhouse. Because Cummings doesn’t actually like children, Caron has kept her own son a secret from Cummings, as she wants to date him, but fears that he will be put off by the fact that she has a child. This is just one of the many ways in which Caron’s character behaves like a typical annoying character in a romantic comedy. You have a son; he’s going to find out that you have a son sooner or later. If he finds out later, he will probably be very upset that you lied to him about a pretty basic fact. The lies keep increasing as Beatty brings Caron’s son to Cummings for observation-and still Caron doesn’t tell Cummings that it’s her son! It occurred to me while watching the movie that Cummings’s character might be gay. He’s never been married, he still lives with his mother-albeit in a very fancy New York high-rise, and he doesn’t make out with Caron when he visits her apartment and she greets him wearing sleepwear that is basically just a bikini. After all the predictable outrage when it’s discovered that Beatty makes girlie movies, and that the toddler is actually Caron’s son, Caron eventually chooses Beatty over Cummings because of Beatty’s bravery in saving the toddler when he climbs onto a crane-which leads to some very obvious fake shots of Beatty and the kid on the crane. Oh, and by the end of the film Beatty’s producer (the great Keenan Wynn) has set him up with a deal to make an artsy movie in Italy. So Beatty and Caron get married and go off, cue reprise of Tom Jones theme song. 

And that’s pretty much the movie. Beatty does as good a job as he can with the material, and he is his usual charming self, but there’s only so much he can do. It’s obvious even from such a crummy movie that Beatty has a gift for comedy. It was wise of him to try and branch out into comedy, as at this point in his career he had only been in dramas. And while Beatty and Caron make a very photogenic couple, it’s Cummings who gets all the laughs. If you see “Promise Her Anything,” look for a very young Donald Sutherland as a father who gets his books signed by Cummings after a lecture. Behind the scenes there’s not too much interesting to report. Beatty said in an interview on the set that “I’ve not had a quiet romantic life and I feel embarrassed about it.” (Quote from “Warren Beatty: A Private Man,” by Suzanne Finstad, p. 340.) Whatever embarrassment Beatty felt about his private life being too public in 1965 certainly didn’t stop him from continuing to lead a very public romantic life for the next 25 years! By 1965, he had already had very public romances with Joan Collins, Natalie Wood, and now Leslie Caron. Beatty was getting a reputation as a male home wrecker, as he was widely seen as having broken up Wood’s first marriage to Robert Wagner and Caron’s marriage to Peter Hall. Caron and Beatty broke up shortly after “Promise Her Anything,” and Caron eventually said that Beatty had asked her to marry him, “but he was a difficult customer. I couldn’t have survived.” (Finstad, p. 340.) “Promise Her Anything” failed to set the box office on fire, and the film’s failure further instilled a need in Beatty to come up with a hit movie, as his career seemed to be in a downward spiral.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Book Review: "Idiot America," by Charles P. Pierce

I recently read Charles P. Pierce’s book “Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free.” It came out in 2009, and it has a lot to say about the current state of public discourse in the United States. I firmly agree with Pierce’s main thesis; that the public conversation in America is getting dumber and dumber. And I also agree with him that the right wing is largely to blame for this dumbing down of the public conversation. In my opinion, the right wing’s complete inability to deal with scientific facts of any kind is very troubling. 

Throughout the book Pierce presents Founding Father James Madison as the voice of reason and moderation. I’m a huge fan of James Madison, and I think he doesn’t get as much credit as he deserves, so I’m a big fan of this literary device. I think Madison’s brilliance often gets overshadowed by Jefferson’s. This isn’t fair to Madison, as pretty much anyone’s brilliance would be overshadowed by Jefferson’s. Pierce also focuses on Ignatius Donnelly, who was a 19th century author and politician from Minnesota who helped start the Populist Party. (Donnelly was also Minnesota’s second Lieutenant Governor, and represented Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional district in the U.S. House.) Pierce holds up Donnelly as the model of the quintessential American “crank.” I’m not quite sure why Pierce romanticizes the idea of the American crank so much, but it annoys him that now cranks are fully within the political and social mainstream. 

One thing that “Idiot America” makes very clear is the idea that everyone is now an expert about everything. All you need is someone to anoint you as an expert, and you’re all set. And facts seem to all be weighted equally now. There are no more “big facts” and “little facts.” Because everything is weighted equally, we need to give both sides their proper respect, even when it’s clear that the facts on one side outweigh the other. Intelligent design needs to be taught alongside evolution, even though there is way more evidence in favor of evolution. In general, I think it’s fine and admirable to present both sides of an issue, but there are times when one side is clearly more correct. Like evolution. 

Pierce covers many different things during the course of “Idiot America,” from the theory of intelligent design, global warming and climate change, the intelligence failures during the buildup to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the rise of talk radio. His chapter on talk radio is probably the best in the whole book, and for my money, shows where much of the blame for the relentless dumbing down of America comes from. 

Perhaps the biggest problem with Pierce’s book is that his 3 main ideas were basically brought up by Stephen Colbert on his show “The Colbert Report.” Pierce never mentions Colbert in his book, which I think is a gross oversight. Pierce’s 3 great Premises of Idiot America are:
Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units. 
             Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.
Anything can be true if someone says it loud enough.

This is pure Colbert, who says pretty much the same thing every night on his show. Colbert is mocking those conservative pundits who stick to these 3 ideas on their own talk shows-of course, on the actual conservative talk shows any sense of irony is removed. But it’s very true of America these days that whoever shouts the loudest is believed. This is one reason why the right wing has been so successful in setting the political agenda for the past decade or more. 

In order to fully engage with his material, Pierce really needed to address Colbert’s ironic take on modern punditry. Pierce even talks about thinking with the “gut” instead of the mind, which is again one of Colbert’s standard bits. Colbert hit on this topic on his very first “Colbert Report,” coining the term “truthiness,” which basically means that the truth is what you feel it to be. As Colbert says, “Truthiness is what you want the facts to be, as opposed to what the facts are.” This is central to Pierce’s whole book, and yet he never mentions it. 

Pierce talks about conspiracy theories being good for America because they engage the imagination. He mentions the various conspiracy theories about the assassination of JFK, but he doesn’t dig deeply enough to fully explain why people might believe in these conspiracy theories. I think there is a certain amount of comfort in believing that a massive conspiracy of some kind was responsible for JFK’s assassination. However, I also think there is comfort to be had in believing that JFK was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone. Because whichever version of JFK’s assassination you accept negates the truth of the other version. 

If you believe that Kennedy was killed by a massive conspiracy, it’s comforting because what you are saying in essence is that it took numerous people with unlimited power to kill him and cover it up. The conspiracy worked because it was so big, with the full power of the Mafia/CIA/FBI/J. Edgar Hoover/Lyndon Johnson/whoever behind it. And that’s why Kennedy’s assassination was never solved, because the conspirators had enough power to fully cover their tracks. It doesn’t matter which particular conspiracy theory you believe in, the idea behind it remains the same, that this was a crime that involved many powerful people. It was not just a lone nut with a rifle. Kennedy’s death also has more importance and more meaning as part of massive conspiracy. With a conspiracy, there was some reason why Kennedy was killed. Again, it doesn’t matter which particular conspiracy theory you adhere to, the idea is the same, that there was a reason why Kennedy was killed. With a conspiracy theory, you’re saying that Kennedy died for something, that he was killed because of his beliefs. It wasn’t just Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone for mysterious reasons. If you believe in a conspiracy theory, what you are really saying is that you don’t believe that a malcontent loner armed with a mail-order rifle killed the President of the United States in broad daylight in the middle of a major American city. Because that’s an extremely unsettling idea. 

William Manchester, the author and historian who wrote the 1967 book “The Death of a President,” one of the most thorough accounts of JFK’s assassination and the days following it, came to the conclusion that Oswald had acted alone in killing the President. Manchester had this to say about conspiracy theories: “If you put the murdered President of the United States on one side of a scale and that wretched waif Oswald on the other side, it doesn't balance. You want to add something weightier to Oswald. It would invest the President's death with meaning, endowing him with martyrdom. He would have died for something.” 

Conversely, if you believe that Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone, then you can take some comfort from the fact that Kennedy’s death was more or less random. There was no grand meaning behind the assassination; it was merely the inexplicable act of a madman. If you believe it was Oswald, that means that you don’t believe that shadowy parts of our own government were in any way involved in the killing of the President. If it was Oswald acting alone, then there were no shadowy cabals meeting in secret to plan the President’s death. And that’s a source of comfort, that our President was not killed by rogue elements of our national security apparatus. 

Part of the enduring mystery of the Kennedy assassination is the fact that Oswald himself remains such an enigma, as he was shot and killed by Jack Ruby less than 48 hours after Kennedy was shot. Because Oswald did not fully explain whatever reasons he might have had for killing the President, (or an alibi for not killing the President) he becomes a tabula rasa, a blank slate on which we can put any information we want to. Oswald could become the ruthless killer, or the hapless patsy upon which the killing was pinned. You could even split the difference between the two theories and believe that Oswald did fire the shots that killed Kennedy, but that he was a part of the conspiracy. There’s so much here that Pierce just didn’t get into, which is unfortunate. 

I think that “Idiot America” is certainly a worthwhile read, and Pierce makes a lot of good points in it, but it has some limitations, and he could have dug deeper into this material.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Concert Review: Ramsey Lewis and his Electric Band at the Dakota Jazz Club

Ramsey Lewis at the Dakota, 5/20/12. (Photo by Mark Taylor.)
Last night I saw Ramsey Lewis in concert at the Dakota Jazz Club. It was a terrific show. I’ve seen Ramsey in concert once before, at Orchestra Hall in 2009. The concert at Orchestra Hall featured Lewis in the familiar piano trio setting that made him famous. Last night’s show featured his “Electric Band,” with Tim Gant on keyboards, Henry Johnson on guitar, Joshua Ramos on bass and Charles Heath on drums. The band was incredible, providing great solos and also great support for Lewis’s playing. Despite the name of the band, Ramsey himself played mainly a Steinway grand, and a little bit of Fender Rhodes electric keyboard. Lewis, who will turn 77 next week, still has an amazing touch at the piano. His playing sounds so effortless and is so easy to listen to. Lewis brings a lot of things to the piano when he sits down to play. He started playing music in church at a very early age, so there’s a lot of gospel in everything he plays. He was classically trained, and he brings a very impressive technique to his ballad playing. As evident from his 1960’s hits like “The In Crowd,” and “Hang on Sloopy,” Lewis knows how to play rhythm and blues and pop/rock material. All of these different elements come together in his piano playing, and they often manifest themselves in the same song. It’s wonderful to hear him play, and after seeing him in concert twice, I would say he is definitely underrated as one of the all-time great jazz pianists. 

It’s clear that Lewis still really enjoys playing, he has a big smile on his face most of the time, and I could see him reacting a lot to what his band was playing. Henry Johnson on guitar had a great solo on the opening song, “Wade in the Water.” Johnson’s smooth tone and style are reminiscent of Wes Montgomery’s playing. In fact, “Wade in the Water” brought so much blues and funk heat that I wasn’t sure where Ramsey could go next. He played a softer ballad for his next song, which was a wise choice as I’m not sure much could have topped “Wade in the Water.” There were a few times during the concert when Ramsey played solo, or accompanied by just Joshua Ramos on bass, and these were lovely, quiet moments to hear. Lewis played an interesting medley of the John Coltrane song “Dear Lord” and his original song “Blessings,” which was very lovely. Lewis also played a medley of gospel songs that was wonderful, and ranged from quieter, more moving pieces to hard-driving blues. The gospel medley also featured a lot of interplay between Lewis and Charles Heath on drums, as they traded “fours” back and forth. Eventually Heath got to play a lengthy drum solo, which was very fun to hear. For the first encore Lewis played a very long version of his 1974 pop/R&B hit single “Sun Goddess.” He played it mostly on the Fender Rhodes, and man, was it funky! Lewis brought a lot of heat to his playing, and it was definitely funkier than the original version. It was really fun to hear the whole band dig in to this song. Lewis clearly enjoyed the warm reception he got at the Dakota, as he and the band came back for one more encore, “The In Crowd.” Lewis and his original trio, bassist Eldee Young and drummer Redd Holt, scored a surprise hit single and album in 1965 with this version of Dobie Gray’s hit single. “The In Crowd” was both a Top Ten single and album, and it was the rare jazz cover to outsell the vocal version of the song. In his original version, Lewis played “The In Crowd” as a more up-tempo song, and he found the groove in it. His version last night was great, and it’s clear he still enjoys playing the song.

Ramsey Lewis has great style, both in how he plays the piano and in how he dresses. One thing I noticed last night is that whenever Ramsey got up from the piano to say something, he would button his jacket. Which is exactly what you’re supposed to do when you’re wearing a jacket. Lewis has aged very well; he looks like he’s about 50, not 76! It was a really wonderful show, and it’s great to see a jazz veteran still having fun on stage and being energized by the music he’s playing and the musicians he’s playing with.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Concert Review: Loudon Wainwright III at the Cedar Cultural Center

Loudon Wainwright III
Last night I saw Loudon Wainwright III in concert at the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. It was a really fun show, as Wainwright is a very engaging performer to see live. I’m not familiar with very much of Wainwright’s work, but I think last night’s concert was a good introduction. Wainwright sang a lot of new songs from his latest album, “Older Than My Old Man Now,” which just came out in April. The album focuses on mortality, and it was specifically inspired by the fact that, at age 65, Wainwright is now older than his father ever got to be. (Loudon Wainwright II was a longtime editor and writer for Life magazine who passed away in 1988 just days shy of his 64th birthday.) The songs that Loudon sang last night were a mixture of funny and sad. Some were serious meditations on aging; others were humorous songs like “My Meds,” about all the prescription medications Loudon now takes. 

On stage, Wainwright is a very funny, engaging performer. He really acts out his songs as he sings them, which makes him very fun to watch. It’s clear that he still enjoys performing, as he smiles most of the time he’s onstage. Performing solo, he had the audience in the palm of his hand from the beginning of the show. Many of Wainwright’s songs focus on family relationships, whether it’s the relationship between him and his parents or himself and his own children. Wainwright performed most of the songs from “Older Than My Old Man Now,” but he also mixed in some older songs like “Red Guitar,” and “Five Years Old.” (No, he didn’t play “Dead Skunk,” his one hit single.) Wainwright is able to take simple ideas and make a song from them, which isn’t as easy to do as it might sound. He sang one song about an older man taking his dog for a walk which was very funny and silly. It’s a simple idea for a song, but he made it entertaining. His song “In C,” from “Older Than My Old Man Now,” mixes humor and sadness very well. Loudon starts the song by joking that when he plays piano it’s always in the key of C. But the song turns into an eloquent meditation on family relationships, and at the end of the song Wainwright sings the funny and heartbreaking line, “And if families didn’t break apart/I suppose there’d be no need for art.” 

I enjoyed seeing Loudon live, he’s an artist I’ve heard about for a long time but haven’t investigated yet. My wife is a big fan of Loudon’s son Rufus, and I’ve started to get into Rufus’s music through her. I’m looking forward to exploring more of Loudon’s music. I bought “Older Than My Old Man Now” at the concert and got it signed by Loudon after the show. He’s a really funny guy off stage as well, and he was very nice to talk to.