Richard Widmark, R.I.P.

I forgot to mention this at the beginning of the week. I happened to see Kiss of Death on AMC a few weeks after seeing the misbegotten 1995 remake; I was on vacation, and the movie was so gripping I didn’t leave the room until I finished it. Widmark’s Tommy Udo is one of those few movie villains that can still frighten you awake years later, thinking of that giggle escaping through those huge vulpine choppers, and it wasn’t even his best performance. In the era of the Method he was refreshingly unactorly. For a while in the early to mid fifties he showed an impeccable talent for picking good scripts, a lot of which used sadism and cruelty in an non-exploitative manner. If you think tossing wheelchair-bound Mildred Dunnock down a staircase in Kiss of Death was terrifying, wait till you see Jack Palance hurl plague victim from several flights up in Panic in the Streets, one of Elia Kazan’s least mannered movies. Seek No Way Out, Night and the City, and Pickup on South Street; they’re easy to find, and probably coming to TCM in the next few weeks.

The camera loved Widmark’s face: those eyes set deep into their sockets, the hollow cheeks that expanded and contracted in angst or glee, the thin expressive lips. Even in quiet moments his sexual charge had a spark of perversity. In a 2001 Film Comment profile unearthed in the last few days, Kent Jones notes how Widmark works his spell on Jean Peters in the opening scenes of Pickup On South Street: “he builds a careful, subtle gradation of sexual intensity beneath an appearance of nonchalance.”

That profile shows a welcome unsentimental side of Widmark’s too: his preference for film over theatre (“In movies, you don’t do anything, and you’re a great actor. The less you do, the better”), his thoughts on Ronald Reagan, who scored the single greatest role for an actor since Vivian Leigh was cast in Gone With The Wind (“When I knew him, he was an affable, boring fellow. Now he’s an icon. It’s incredible”).

The denouncing-renouncing game

This excellent column by FIU faculty member/New York Times columnist Stanley Fish denounces and renounces the denouncing game the media and the talk-radio racket love to play:

In politics, and in much of the rest of life, being held responsible for your own words comes with the territory. Once you’ve opened your big mouth, others have a perfect right to ask, “Do you really mean that?” or “What did you mean by that?” or “If you say that, would you also say…?” (a question that usually has you frantically disassociating yourself from Hitler). But why should you be held responsible for words spoken by someone else, even if that someone else is a person you work with or share a bed with? I frequently say things that make my wife cringe, but whatever blame attaches to my utterances certainly should not be extended to her, and it would be entirely inappropriate to ask her to denounce me or to fault her if she didn’t.

As usual, Marcello makes me giddy with shared recognition, i.e. he loves this song that no one else much does. Donna Summer’s “This Time I Know It’s For Real,” her last Billboard Top Ten hit, may be the titan’s greatest vocal performance. Fans will likely cite “Love To Love You, Baby,” “Dim All The Lights” (with its sustained note before the disco chorus), “No More Tears (Enough is Enough),” or any number of Morodor-Bellotte collaborations, but these are sonic settings in which Summer was most comfortable. In the hands of Stock-Atiken-Waterman, the late eighties British songwriting/producing trio whose sound was as boilerplate as a deposition, Summer refuses to yield to a context created and defined by white, nubile youth-flesh. She sounds reborn, burnished by experience but ready for new ones; she’s fucking buoyant, like a divorced woman reaching orgasm with a man who finally understands her. The rinkydink arrangements SAW tossed at indentured servants like Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue suit Summer; it’s not often that we much like who our friends date.

I need to point out that the non-hit followup “I Don’t Wanna Get Hurt” is almost as wonderful; it may be the only recorded instance* of SAW being influenced by genuine admirers Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe.

* That I know of. SAW scored 4,000 chart hits between 1985 and 1990.

Worst presidents in U.S. history

This utterly predictable list challenges no orthodoxies; the American History class you slept through in high school taught you that Buchanan, Harding, and Hoover were three of our most incompetent Chief Executives. But textbook history, so fond of the soundbite and the generalization, gets awfully fuzzy. Sure, Andrew Johnson was a jackass, and was in the singularly unenviable position of succeeding our greatest president and one of our best writers, but my high school teacher said he sucked because he almost got impeached, as if creating this causal relationship was enough. Reality is, of course, more complicated: he was served articles of impeachment for violation of the wholly un-Constitutional Tenure of Office Act (that Andy got hammered on corn whiskey and railed at crowds helped his case not a whit).

The real villains are the ones praised for idealism or revitalized by contemporaneous notions of “strength” and, as that wily schemer and too-easy scapegoat Richard Nixon used to say, “making decisions from the gut.” With the exception of Eisenhower, I find every Chief Executive of the last 50 years appalling or worse, unable to extricate themselves from covert foreign policy shenanigans begun by their predecessors or beholden to cadres of loyalists for whom the goldleafed paens of Peggy Noonan and the triangulations of dedicated toe-suckers like Dick Morris substituted for Washington’s Farewell Address or Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Gore Vidal’s boogieman is Harry Truman, the Republican Party’s favorite Democrat. My own pick for worst is Woodrow Wilson, who always ranked high but was recently rediscovered by neoconservatives; they never took Nixon seriously, otherwise they’d have known that the Trickster used the former Princeton president’s desk as the perch from which he barked orders to Erlichmann and Haldemann, et al, a tribute to the man he considered one of our greatest presidents (Garry Wills’ Nixon Agonistes posits the notion that Nixon was a secret liberal, who suffered pangs as closeted gay men do when they see Congressional pages). We’re taught that Wilson got the U.S. into World War I to make The World Safe For Democracy. What we’re not told about is what an insufferable prig this man was, who for a time thought he was Jesus Christ. His record, as shown on this thread:

* getting us involved in a rather sordid quasi-war with Mexican guerrillas;

* personally assuring that black Republicans were purged from the federal payroll. When challenged about segregation, he wrote, “It is as far as possible from being a movement against the Negroes. I think if you were hereon the ground you would see, as I seem to see, that it is distinctly to the advantage of the colored people themselves.”

* maneuvering, with considerable subtlety, to bring the U.S. into World War I while looking aggrieved. Violating our loudly professed neutrality, we essentially entered the war to assert our right to travel on belligerent ships (i.e. England) and trade with belligerent nations (i.e. England);

* signing the Espionage Act of 1917, which grievously curtailed the reach of the First Amendment during wartime and was a handy precursor to a certain something passed by our current president;

* pointedly refusing to pardon onetime presidential rival Eugene V. Debs, arrested for violating the Espionage Act (and Wilson was not one to ever forget a perceived blow to his divine right);

* the invisible hand behind the priggish, quixotic idealism that’s defined American foreign policy since 1945;

* the Fourteen Points.

The pluses are real too: Federal Trade Commission, Federal Reserve, eight-hour work day, supporting women’s suffrage (after vehemently opposing it). History, unlike politics, resists untoward arbitration.

Worst presidents in U.S. history

This utterly predictable list challenges no orthodoxies; the American History class you slept through in high school taught you that Buchanan, Harding, and Hoover were three of our most incompetent Chief Executives. But textbook history, so fond of the soundbite and the generalization, gets awfully fuzzy. Sure, Andrew Johnson was a jackass, and was in the singularly unenviable position of succeeding our greatest president and one of our best writers, but my high school teacher said he sucked because he almost got impeached, as if creating this causal relationship was enough. Reality is, of course, more complicated: he was served articles of impeachment for violation of the wholly un-Constitutional Tenure of Office Act (that Andy got hammered on corn whiskey and railed at crowds helped his case not a whit).

The real villains are the ones praised for idealism or revitalized by contemporaneous notions of “strength” and, as that wily schemer and too-easy scapegoat Richard Nixon used to say, “making decisions from the gut.” With the exception of Eisenhower, I find every Chief Executive of the last 50 years appalling or worse, unable to extricate themselves from covert foreign policy shenanigans begun by their predecessors or beholden to cadres of loyalists for whom the goldleafed paens of Peggy Noonan and the triangulations of dedicated toe-suckers like Dick Morris substituted for Washington’s Farewell Address or Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Gore Vidal’s boogieman is Harry Truman, the Republican Party’s favorite Democrat. My own pick for worst is Woodrow Wilson, who always ranked high but was recently rediscovered by neoconservatives; they never took Nixon seriously, otherwise they’d have known that the Trickster used the former Princeton president’s desk as the perch from which he barked orders to Erlichmann and Haldemann, et al, a tribute to the man he considered one of our greatest presidents (Garry Wills’ Nixon Agonistes posits the notion that Nixon was a secret liberal, who suffered pangs as closeted gay men do when they see Congressional pages). We’re taught that Wilson got the U.S. into World War I to make The World Safe For Democracy. What we’re not told about is what an insufferable prig this man was, who for a time thought he was Jesus Christ. His record, as shown on this thread:

* getting us involved in a rather sordid quasi-war with Mexican guerrillas;

* personally assuring that black Republicans were purged from the federal payroll. When challenged about segregation, he wrote, “It is as far as possible from being a movement against the Negroes. I think if you were hereon the ground you would see, as I seem to see, that it is distinctly to the advantage of the colored people themselves.”

* maneuvering, with considerable subtlety, to bring the U.S. into World War I while looking aggrieved. Violating our loudly professed neutrality, we essentially entered the war to assert our right to travel on belligerent ships (i.e. England) and trade with belligerent nations (i.e. England);

* signing the Espionage Act of 1917, which grievously curtailed the reach of the First Amendment during wartime and was a handy precursor to a certain something passed by our current president;

* pointedly refusing to pardon onetime presidential rival Eugene V. Debs, arrested for violating the Espionage Act (and Wilson was not one to ever forget a perceived blow to his divine right);

* the invisible hand behind the priggish, quixotic idealism that’s defined American foreign policy since 1945;

* the Fourteen Points.

The pluses are real too: Federal Trade Commission, Federal Reserve, eight-hour work day, supporting women’s suffrage (after vehemently opposing it). History, unlike politics, resists untoward arbitration.

Anthony Lane does his usual mellifluous corrective to David Denby’s chapter-length ponderosities on canonical filmmakers, this time on David Lean, to whom I alluded rather snarkily in my Anthony Minghella obit post last week. I mean, so what — we can use more ambitious middlebrow directors (I like Soderbergh, but no). My own favorite of his work is 1955’s Summertime, starring a still in-bloom Katherine Hepburn as a spinster romanced by Rossano Brazzi in a sparkling Venice that bears no trace of Thomas Mann. Lane’s right that plot and sex mattered less to Lean than shattering the carapaces of really uptight Britishes (Pauline Kael on Lawrence of Arabia: “If you went to see it under the delusion that it was going to be about T.E. Lawrence, you probably stayed to enjoy the vastness of the desert and the pleasures of the senses that a huge movie epic can provide”); but if art is in large part representation then Lean’s films showed the English — the rest of the world even — how they wanted to see themselves. You can’t say it was a generational thing either: David Bowie obviously studied Peter O’Toole’s epicene moos.

Anthony Lane does his usual mellifluous corrective to David Denby’s chapter-length ponderosities on canonical filmmakers, this time on David Lean, to whom I alluded rather snarkily in my Anthony Minghella obit post last week. I mean, so what — we can use more ambitious middlebrow directors (I like Soderbergh, but no). My own favorite of his work is 1955’s Summertime, starring a still in-bloom Katherine Hepburn as a spinster romanced by Rossano Brazzi in a sparkling Venice that bears no trace of Thomas Mann. Lane’s right that plot and sex mattered less to Lean than shattering the carapaces of really uptight Britishes (Pauline Kael on Lawrence of Arabia: “If you went to see it under the delusion that it was going to be about T.E. Lawrence, you probably stayed to enjoy the vastness of the desert and the pleasures of the senses that a huge movie epic can provide”); but if art is in large part representation then Lean’s films showed the English — the rest of the world even — how they wanted to see themselves. You can’t say it was a generational thing either: David Bowie obviously studied Peter O’Toole’s epicene moos.

Cachao – R.I.P.

What a week for deaths. I’m not terribly sad — he lead a life rich with acclaim and, towards the end at least, financial renumeration — but it’s a blow nonetheless. For those who known little about the bassist, bandleader, and composer, who for all intents and purposes invented the mambo, Israel “Cachao” Lopez made some of the most sheerly gorgeous dance music I’ve ever heard. Those rolling bass lines burrowed under arrangements of astonishing density and exuberance. I mean, Sylvester and New Order level of beauty, the kind in which you want to bask were it not for your shaking hips. I’m not a fan of Andy Garcia, but he deserves every plaudit for his stewardship of Cachao through the man’s sunset years, especially for his production of Master Sessions Volume One and Two (for a while I couldn’t go to a family party without hearing the damn thing blasting from a stereo). Get yourself a copy.

Cachao – R.I.P.

What a week for deaths. I’m not terribly sad — he lead a life rich with acclaim and, towards the end at least, financial renumeration — but it’s a blow nonetheless. For those who known little about the bassist, bandleader, and composer, who for all intents and purposes invented the mambo, Israel “Cachao” Lopez made some of the most sheerly gorgeous dance music I’ve ever heard. Those rolling bass lines burrowed under arrangements of astonishing density and exuberance. I mean, Sylvester and New Order level of beauty, the kind in which you want to bask were it not for your shaking hips. I’m not a fan of Andy Garcia, but he deserves every plaudit for his stewardship of Cachao through the man’s sunset years, especially for his production of Master Sessions Volume One and Two (for a while I couldn’t go to a family party without hearing the damn thing blasting from a stereo). Get yourself a copy.

Etc…

The Mountain Goats – Heretic Pride

With drums mixed high and more songs about monsters and girls, this represents an advance from the terrifically calibrated, awfully dull Get Lonely. The metaphors aren’t getting any less ornate either. Darnielle’s very human voice renders them crystal clear, though — when he says his heart’s an autoclave, I’m convinced he knows exactly what this means, without getting smug about it.

The Magnetic Fields – Distortion

I’ve never given Stephen Merritt his due because so many of my colleagues have. As my patience for Tin Pan Alley moon-june precision ebbs, I value performers able to put over those verities more than a guy content to imitate a morose Phil Oakey. Of course these songs are clever and occasionally moving; the triumph here is strictly formalist, with the guitar feedback a fitting substitute for the malnourished murk of the earlier recordings. Merritt’s been listening to Psychocandy, the press release says. Imagine the Brothers Reid with brains and a sultry ironic sense, and limited just as much by vocal and conceptual limitations (the Brothers Reid sound like exactly the kind of raw trade on whom Merritt would spend songwriting capital). Just because I like the best songs here as much as their 69 Love Songs cousins doesn’t mean he won’t fuck the next one up; even Phil Oakey understood that concepts only go so far to mitigating the effect/affect of tuneless vocals and moon-june rhymes. Still, I’ll allow Merritt his triumph. “California Girls” might actually be more moving if he’d sung it instead of a girl; someone with such a high opinion of himself needs more Jimmy Somerville stridency in his life.