The Last Detail, Francis Ford Coppola, and the Market Forces of New Hollywood

The Last Detail

Last night I watched the movie The Last Detail staring Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, and an extremely young Randy Quaid.  The movie is about two men in the Navy (Nicholson and Young) who are supposed to take the character played by Quaid to a military prison.  Not liking the task they are given from the beginning, and growing to like it even less as the movie progresses, they take longer then they need to complete it.  As the task at hand grows more distasteful, they decide to show Quaid’s character a good time, taking him out drinking and to a whore house, among other things.  The movie was directed by Hal Ashby and written by Robert Towne.

I found out about the movie by reading Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.  This is a book that examines New Hollywood, a period that runs roughly from the late 60’s with Easy Rider and up through the 70’s.  Ashby was one of the directors who came up during this period, along with Paul Schrader, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and others.

This movie is a good example of the character driven films being made during this period.  The camera barely moves compared to modern filmmaking.  Other than a few scuffles, there is very little action.  Most of the movie revolves around the personality of the characters and the dialogue, which is fantastic.  There is also a strong anti-authoritarian streak running in this film and others from this period.  Watching this film is closer to, if not reading a novel, at least reading a well written short story.  The language is realistic for the time, in markedly different contrast to older Hollywood films.

I wanted to mention the movie, as I believe, if you are interested in well written character driven films, that it is worth seeking out.  However, this isn’t a review.  I would just feel amiss if I didn’t mention it.  Although I was at least aware of many of the movies in the book, this is one that I had never heard mentioned before.

I’m always interested in why certain forms of art flourish in different time periods.  Although there are many reasons why the 60’s were great for music, the 70’s for film, and modern times have been described as the golden age of television, I think that the economics of a given era are always something to be considered.  The more money that flows to creativity, the more interesting and creative things we will see made.  Not only will those in a given field have more resources to give birth to their dreams, but more creative people will seek out a given medium.  Again, although this is not the only thing that influences culture, this is a big factor that has been proven time and again.  Biskind even talks about this near the end of the book:

Could another group of directors have done it differently, broken the back of studio power, created little islands of self-sufficiency that would have supported them in the work they wanted to do?  Could a hundred flowers ever have bloomed?  Probably not.  The strength of the economic forces arrayed against them was too great.  “We had the naive notion that it was the equipment which would give us the means of production,” said Coppola.  “Of course, we learned much later that it wasn’t the equipment, it was the money.”  Because the fact of the matter is that although individual revolutionaries succeeded, the revolution failed.  The New Hollywood directors were like free-range chickens; they were let out of the coop to run around the barnyard and imagined they were free.  But when they ceased laying those eggs, they were slaughtered.  

The book goes on to talk about how the directors, even the truly great ones like Coppola, were selected by market forces.  However, another interesting point is that the directors that were able to marry the personal with the commercial lasted longer than the ones that were making strictly personal films.  Success seems to be dictated by those that had the strength to create something personal, melded with a flexibility to bend to the commercial forces.  The Godfather is a perfect example.  It was a studio picture that Coppola took, even though at the time he would have rather been making movies that were even more personal to him.  However, he was able to infuse that studio film with enough personality to make it popular and unique for its time.

I don’t know if I have reached any definitive conclusion in all of this.  But I think these things are interesting to think about.  Another thing to consider is now, with so many people wanting intellectual property and artistic products for free, how does that affect the kind of culture around us?  Many people lament the fact that films and music aren’t what they used to be.  Why is this?  Is this simply nostalgia for a time that didn’t exist?  Or have we simply devalued things to the point where they can’t be created at the rate that we would like?

P.S.  I couldn’t help but think that the movie, which I don’t want to spoil, is in some ways a great commentary on this whole period of creativity in Hollywood.  (Even though the movie was created during the middle of this period.)  If you watch it, pay close attention to the relationship between freedom and authority.  


Was Anyone Surprised Yesterday?

I want you to think about the world we live in for a moment:  We live in a society where money is worshipped above all else.  Yet income inequality is increasingly obscene.  While healthcare and mental healthcare are slightly better due to recent laws, we still lag behind many developed nations.  We have a mainstream entertainment culture that is largely vapid and meaningless.  Schools are often not what they should be, especially when you consider that we live in an information age where critical thinking is more and more essential all of the time.  Although technology can connect us to people far away, it can also isolate us.  People can see with the push of a button, or a tap of the screen, all of the things that they lack.  Change is happening faster than ever.  Old orders are dying without anything viable to take their place.

On top of all this we have an insane amount of weapons.

When you add this all together, is it any surprise when someone goes on a killing spree?

I don’t mean to belittle what happened yesterday.  It’s sad and troubling.  But one thing it is not is surprising.

I want to try to drop politics for a moment.  No matter how you feel about gun control, the simple thing is this:

We either need to address the amount of weapons being given out, or we need to address the underlying causes that lead to violent behavior.  We either need a society that is more just and meaningful, where we take care of all of our community, or we need to prevent people from having the tools to live out their troubled inner lives.  Otherwise the violence is just going to continue.  The one option that I know will not work is to add even more killing machines into this modern cauldron of anxiety, created by all of the above issues.  Although there are many people that are able to navigate the extreme absurdity of our modern world and keep it together, we shouldn’t be surprised when this same absurdity pushes those without the proper coping mechanisms over the edge.

Normalizing the Absurd

Last night I watch Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, and John Oliver.  All three of them were accurately portraying some of the absurdity of our current political system.  One of the things I find so troubling about the media is that they still act as if a lot of going on is normal, as if it should be treated with reverence.   After the last debate, a circus sideshow at best, the usual talking heads spoke of the debate as if it were a conversation between sane, responsible adults.  The truth was right there in front of our eyes, but they described a different reality.  You would have thought that there was a scholarly debate going on where the participants were using reason to get their points across.  If the talking heads don’t go that route, they will talk in sports terms.  So and so got so many jabs in, or scored points, etc.  What kind of world do we live in when the comedians tell serious truths and the “serious” people help perpetrate a farce?  In a better world the news would help us seperate fact from fiction.  Instead, it normalizes the absurd, until modern life becomes but a waking dream.

Why Do Movies About Music Leave So Much Music Off Screen

Why Do Movies About Music Leave So Much Music Off Screen


An extremely fascinating article about a recent run of well received movies with music at their core.  Why do movies about music often focus more on the salacious aspects of musicians lives?  Why do they often ignore the larger musical communities that musicians are a part of?  Why do they often fail to give viewers a real glimpse into the creative process?  The writer does a great job of combining film, music, and cultural criticism here.

Love & Mercy Review

Love and Mercy Posters

I finally got around to seeing Love & Mercy, the movie about Brian Wilson.  I had every reason to believe that I might not like it, but I found it to be excellent.  I am not a fan of biography movies in general, as they often follow a predictable formula.  Also, I have been a long time Brian Wilson and Beach Boys fan.  I have watched several documentaries about Wilson and I have read the biography Heroes and Villains.  (The Beach Boys’ documentary Endless Harmony is a must-see film for anyone that is even slightly interested in the band or pop music in general.)  Even if the film was able to shake the conventions of a typical biography, I was afraid it would be a cliff notes version of the Brian Wilson story, or that it would not be able to present the music in a way that was compelling.

However, by focusing mainly on two periods of Wilson’s life, and hopping between them, the movie doesn’t fall into the usual pitfalls of the genre.  If you have ever taken a history class, you know that the more specific the focus, the more interesting the class usually is.  This is because it allows one to dive into the interesting details of a period, instead of just dealing with an ever changing list of names and dates.  Although there are no rules, I think the same usually applies to movies that deal with someone’s life.  By narrowing the focus, the moments are allowed more room to breath, more small details enter, providing the scenes with a greater sense of realism.

Also, credit must be given to director Bill Pohlad.  There is a real sense that the movie is being guided by someone that really understands the music.  The music not only sounds great, but the studio performances are filmed with an immediacy and realism that not only gives one a sense of the magic involved, which is apparent to anyone listening to the final product, but also the hard work and craft that it took to get those recordings.  This movie is filmed in the style of cinema verite in many of the scenes, a style that can can go either way as far as I’m concerned, but here it really works.  It gives one a sense of sitting in on the sessions.  There is one scene particularly I remember when the camera is filming from around a corner, the shot partly obscured, but it gives one the sense they are in the room watching events unfold.  Great attention seems to be paid to detail in this film, which helps to create a fully realized world.

The sound design of the film is exceptional as well.  This not only clearly helps the music, but is also essential to understanding the growing mental health problems that Wilson faces.  He is someone that suffered from audio hallucinations.  Whether or not these hallucinations sounded exactly like that, they are created in a way that gives the viewer a sense of the dread that they created.

I think it was Quentin Tarantino that said that biography movies only existed to win actors awards.  Usually the performances are not the downfall of the genre.  But it should be noted that both John Cusack and Paul Dano are excellent as Wilson.  Even if Cusack doesn’t look exactly like Wilson, he does a great job at capturing his mannerisms and rendering greatly the combination of Wilson’s inner turmoil and innocence.  Dano, who plays the younger Wilson, is excellent as usual.  All of the supporting characters are greatly cast as well.

Wilson is one of the few people in modern music that can easily and rightly be called a genius.  This movie does a great job at showing the uninitiated why that is the case, and it also creates a vivid enough portrait of the times that someone who is already a fan should be captivated.

If you are interested in Wilson there are a bunch of great documentaries about him.  I would again highly recommend the documentary Endless Harmony, which is an thorough and deeply engaging overview of The Beach Boys.  The documentary that came out when Wilson’s version of SMiLE was finally released is also really good.  If you are interested in the players that played on The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, there is a really great documentary about the musicians on Netflix right now called The Wrecking Crew.  (The Wrecking Crew were a group of musicians that played not only on Pet Sounds, but on more hit records than you would believe.  It is a testament to Wilson that these players, as seen both in Love & Mercy and the documentary about them, all consider Wilson to be the greatest genius of that period.)


As a side note, I am always interested in why this particular time period created so much great music.  There are all kinds of economic, technological, and cultural reasons.  The market at that time provided someone like Brian Wilson, who was clearly a genius but also suffered from mental health issues, a great deal of money to realize his vision.  I have a slightly older friend that was in the music and now film industry.  We had an interesting conversation one night where he talked about how, when he was younger, it was mainly the outcasts of society that were in the music industry.  However, with the decline of revenue in the music industry, and the increased importance of social media, success is often more based on how many people a musician can get to support them early on.  Someone that is more popular and more socially adept at networking has a leg up in ways that are magnified by current social conditions.  Certainly networking and popularity were always part of the game, but I do think it is a valid point.  Everyone knows that the money is no longer what it was in the music industry.  However, would someone like Wilson thrive now, when social media and business sense plays such an increased roll in success?  (And I don’t mean in any way to paint Wilson as being completely naive.  He is a complex figure that was very dynamic personality during certain periods of his career.)  To end this, I don’t have any definitive answer.  I just think it is worth thinking about how the values of our society, and who we value and why we value them, influences the kind of culture that we end up with.


What Two Famous Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Popularity of Trump

What Two Famous Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Popularity of Trump

A friend sent me the above Washington Post article today, which is an interesting read.   The article uses the work of Adam Smith and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to try to understand Trump’s popularity among the working class conservative base.

What Planned Parenthood Really Does

Planned Parenthood

I can’t even begin to fathom the attack on Planned Parenthood by conservatives.  (Here is a brief article that details what Planned Parenthood does.)  How could an organization that does so much good for so many come under such virulent attack for something that only makes up 3% of its services?  Here too is the funding behind Planned Parenthood’s abortion services:

What does the law say on funding abortions?

Title X does not allow federal funds to be used for abortions. Medicaid, however, doesallow government money to be spent on them — in very restricted cases.

The 1977 Hyde Amendment dictated that federal Medicaid funds could only be used to fund abortions in cases of rape, incest or to protect the life of the mother. However, some states have expanded cases in which they will provide funds. Currently, 17 states allow funds to be used for “medically necessary” abortions. In those cases that these states count as medically necessary but that are not permitted by the federal guidelines, states cover the cost alone.

Clearly Planned Parenthood is a political football for darker forces that have nothing to do with people’s best interests in mind.  Distract, destroy, confuse, etc.  Planned Parenthood helps women in need, end of story.  Even if you are completely against abortion, why wouldn’t one try to change that aspect of Planned Parenthood instead of tearing down the entire structure?

I found it highly disturbing in the Republican debate when Carly Fiorina lied boldfaced into the camera about a video that doesn’t exist.  In her own way she is as shameless as Donald Trump.  She only disguises it behind a more reasonable facade of corporate doublespeak.

If you care about people and women in particular, supporting Planned Parenthood is a no brainer.  Even if you are morally opposed to abortion there is a good argument to be made that Planned Parenthood actually decreases the number of abortions that would exist otherwise.  The conservative attack on Planned Parenthood is a fake outrage, and a particularly ridiculous one in an age full of them at that.

Climate Change Nightmare

Climate Change Nightmare

This article over at Salon is worth reading.  It not only holds the Republicans accountable for their denial of science,  but points out the Democrats timidity in dealing with the issue.  It gives a brief and vivid overview of the problems we are already facing and are likely to face if we do nothing.

Another Look at the Republican Debate

The more I think about the Republican debate the other night, the more the insanity of it seems to ratchet up in my mind.  It was like some kind of propaganda rally in Stalinist Russia, or like something out of the book 1984, where the ministry of defense was called the Ministry of Peace.  Everything was backwards.  It was so vulgarly absurd I found myself laughing out loud while watching it.

Look, I have friends of all political stripes.  A couple weeks ago a conservative friend told me a negative statistic about the Obama administration and the War On Drugs that I didn’t believe, because of the overall decriminalization of weed over the last few years in some states.  However, this friend’s fact was correct.  I am happy to listen to people I don’t see eye to eye on if they argue with reason.  It’s good to be challenged and to be forced to think outside of your comfort zone.  We need people in our lives to shake up our very human desire to feel comfortable intellectually.

But this debate wasn’t like that.  This wasn’t people with a different set of beliefs trying to appeal to reason to get a point across.  These were people that were alternating between ad hominem attacks and magical thinking.  This was performance art.  Pseudo-science, bigotry, and warmongering were all pandered to.  Cut the budget, build a wall, tear up an agreement, demonstrate strength, belittle diplomacy, demonize minorities, and worship money were the themes that were brought up over and over.  And this is the party that is always waving the Christian flag!

Holy fuck, it was amazing!


The Replacements ‘Portland’ Vs. Lifestyle Music

On tour in Sisters, Oregon.  Monday night I’ll be in Portland.  This is a song about the city which I have liked since I was a kid.  It’s Portland by the Replacements.  It’s melancholy, but with just the right amount of defiance to give it an emotional complexity.  (That complexity is what many of those that have been influenced by the Mats have failed to achieve.  There is always a wit that comes through in Westerberg’s songs.  Even if he sounded down he saw the humor.  Even if he was having fun he sounded slightly guilty about it.)  Word has it that this song was an apology to the city for something they did when they were there.  Westerberg even says, “sorry”, at the end during the fadeout.  But who knows such things.  They are certainly a band with many myths at this point.

When I travel I like to spend part of the time listening to music that has some connection to the scenery and landscape.  It usually brings out new things in both the scenery and music, both gaining added dimensions in the imagination.  (At least until I’m so fucking exhausted that only the sounds of the insane seem to make any sense.  Hence me putting on Samhain all day!)

Though this is quite different when I live somewhere.  Often I’ll get regional music overkill.  I quite often need to take a break from Texas music when I’m at home in Austin.  The same can be said of anywhere I have lived.  (Although an exception might be music from the past, which is its own unique destination.  There is another exception, which I’ll get to.)  Music is also a way to be transported far away from your current physical existence.  It’s a way to get a feel for places you have never been, to experience emotions more deeply than you might be at the time, or to relate to people with different experiences.   I want to go to new lands or have a new insight into a land I’ve already been.  I don’t get people that want to hear their own mundane everyday lives sung back at them, unless a writer has the power to infuse the everyday with a sense of mystery, therefore making it new.  (Current songwriters like James McMurtry and Ramsay Midwood can do this in Texas.)  I have no use for lifestyle music, music that is trying to appeal directly to the biases and prejudices of a certain culture.  I like a little bit of mystery in my art, a little poetry.  Just writing a list of things that exist in a certain place is, to use a term that Werner Herzog uses for cinema verite, “the truth of accountants.”  I don’t need to hear a song about so and so that I did last weekend.  I was already there and it wasn’t that fucking great…