Rah rah: Notes on a football film

Breakfast of champions

Two football players (Nick Nolte and Mac Davis) steel themselves for the day ahead. Screen photograph from original cinematography by Paul Lohmann.

Because Thanksgiving means football, I watched North Dallas Forty yesterday. It was released in 1979; after all these years, I’m still unsure what the title means. It vaguely suggests the 40 acres and a mule that was promised, but never given, to freed slaves after the end of the Civil War. Given the film itself, the idea seems to be this: what awaits football player Phil Elliott (Nick Nolte) if he ever frees himself from the servitude of his contract with the North Dallas Bulls team? He’s halfway to the 40-acre ideal: he has managed to buy 20 acres of land somewhere outside of Dallas. And he has a girlfriend, a woman named Charlotte (Dayle Haddon), though she doesn’t correspond to the mule; she has money, doesn’t need to work, and belongs to no one. Alternatively, maybe the title evokes “the north 40,” a piece of land to be worked; read that way, the issue is what Phil is working and what he gets out of it.

The script, based on a novel by a former Dallas Cowboys player, sometimes seems simplistic, and the budget looks to have been pretty modest, but the film nonetheless pulls off a substantial critique of high-level American football and more. Charlotte is rather a bird in a gilded cage; she has little with which to occupy herself beyond books, seems to want both love and marriage, gets something short of love from Phil, and has no better option for marriage than the brother of the team’s owner, who, like all the other men in the film (even the monsignor), is totally caught up in football. Phil doesn’t know how to love her, and his pal, the star quarterback (Mac Davis), admits he’s never even been in love. The all-consuming sport has eaten their lives like it’s doing to their bodies. Tellingly, very little of the film takes place on the field during a game. The dialogue often discusses football as a business and the game-playing that the corporate structure demands. Phil has been benched as punishment for his anti-authoritarian attitude; the head coach relies on computer-based statistics in evaluating everything (when we meet him, his eyes remain fixed on a screen for much of his talk with Phil). An assistant coach is regularly seen swigging a bottle of Maalox. Godly talk is dispensed like tape and bandages; among the players, no one takes it seriously except the upright and uptight backup quarterback. The team management expects the players to rely on drugs to numb their pain but condemns a bit of pot use when it serves their purpose. Injury is a constant threat but also a tool. In the guise of a lightweight comedy-drama (look at the poster), North Dallas Forty serves up a picture etched with acid. To my knowledge, nothing made before or since has matched it.


Police in America: Wild in the streets?

A leader in the new edition of The Economist, discussing race in America, reports, “Around 500 people were killed last year by the police—though since nobody counts, nobody really knows.” More information would help. But surely this isn’t what we want. What we want, first, is for unarmed civilians, belligerent or not, to emerge alive from an encounter with police. Second, the ideal ought to be for anyone suspected of a criminal offense, even those with guns blazing, to be neutralized, arrested, and (if need be) tried in court, not subjected to the justice of the street. That this ideal is hard to achieve doesn’t mean we have to accept “collateral damage,” as if our cities were another battlefield. Better training and nonlethal weapons for police could help; so could fewer weapons of any kind in the hands of criminals, as the Economist leader suggests.

Lately, every time I’ve seen a report on police violence, I’ve seen comments suggesting that this is the necessary alternative to police deaths. Let’s get something straight: the police should not be routinely acting on an us-or-them, kill-or-be-killed principle. The expectation that our constabulary forces should “protect and serve” does not mean that the police should first of all protect and serve themselves. Properly conceived, the alternative to civilian deaths is civilian lives.

Working with Mike Nichols: A reminiscence

They were shooting a movie in town, but no one was saying much about it. Which was odd. Dallas in the summer of 1983 was a movie-minded place. It had a film school and a film festival, and Texas, a right-to-work state, drew enough film shoots that a real-estate mogul had built an entire set of soundstages just outside of Dallas proper. Mike Nichols and Meryl Streep were shooting out there. Where were the news reports on the production, the society talk about who hoped to get Nichols at a party, the gossip about sightings of Streep?

I think there were two reasons for the lack of talk. One, there’s never that much to say about a film in production, unless it’s one of those mammoth, troubled undertakings like Cleopatra, and Silkwood, as I came to find out, was the opposite of that. It was small, it was quiet, it aimed to do its work quickly and get out of town. Two, Silkwood was a little story that could’ve gotten in big trouble if it drew too much attention, because it dealt with safety problems at a Kerr-McGee nuclear plant. No one involved wanted it to be talked about in the press. So they played it down as a movie being made for TV. Maybe I missed something, but that was about all I heard, except from friends in the acting community, who were angling for jobs. Continue reading

Laura Kipnis: Notes on a provocateur

Author Laura Kipnis, listening to a comment during the Q&A after a reading at BookCourt, in Brooklyn. (Photography by me.)

Author Laura Kipnis, listening to a comment during the Q&A after a reading at BookCourt, in Brooklyn. (Photograph by me.)

I discovered Laura Kipnis in a 2003 New Yorker review of a book called Against Love: A Polemic. A line that stuck in my mind was this:

Kipnis, alighting upon the psychotherapeutic bromide that relationships take work, asks, “When did the rhetoric of the factory become the default language of love?”

I didn’t care that, as reviewer Rebecca Mead pointed out, Kipnis doesn’t answer the question. What really resonated was Kipnis’s questioning of the whole situation of love and marriage. George Bernard Shaw had done something of the kind in Man and Superman, such as here (this is Don Juan talking, in the “Don Juan in Hell” section):

Those who talk most about the blessings of marriage and the constancy of its vows are the very people who declare that if the chain were broken and the prisoners left free to choose, the whole social fabric would fly asunder. You cannot have the argument both ways. If the prisoner is happy, why lock him in? If he is not, why pretend that he is? Continue reading

Briefly noted: A novel from the Siren

If you love old movies, you should know Farran Nehme, who blogs about American film in the persona of Self-Styled Siren, and who has become known in certain circles simply as “the Siren.” James Wolcott describes her as “sophisticated and yet not stuck-up about it.” Like a good actor, Nehme has a broad range. Two examples: her recent post on Jack Carson, and her examination of Pauline Kael from a few years ago.

Nehme recently wrote a novel called Missing Reels, which was published yesterday. What’s it about? Well, gosh, it looks like old movies are involved. Read a bit about it here.

Hearing Marlowe’s music: Tamburlaine at TFANA

Warrior bling: Tamburlaine (John Douglas Thompson) and Techelles (Keith Randolph Smith) in TFANA's Tamburlaine.

Warrior bling: Tamburlaine (John Douglas Thompson) and Techelles (Keith Randolph Smith) in TFANA’s Tamburlaine.

Marlowe’s ghost keeps turning up, like Marley’s but a lot less often. Christopher Marlowe’s afterlife on this earth (he believed in no other) finds him turning up as a character on occasion, while his dramas appear before us only a little more frequently. He was the subject of a freewheeling play by David Grimm called Kit Marlowe, which New York’s Public Theater premiered in 2000, and his most recent appearance (to my knowledge) was in the delightfully droll and offbeat film Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), set roughly in the present, in which he’s not exactly even dead. (Wikipedia lists the latter along with a few other cases here.) As for Marlowe’s plays, when’s the last time you had a chance to see Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus, Edward II, or The Jew of Malta?

While granting that wishes count for little, we can still ponder what to wish for in seeing one of these rare birds. Consider it this way: If Shakespeare’s Hamlet were not routinely read in schools and routinely performed but were instead barely known to us (for example, in one of those dystopian futures that everyone is writing about—imagine Shakespeare in the world of The Hunger Games), and if someone were going to produce it, would you be content with a cut-down version, or would you want to see the whole play? Even in our world, with Hamlet fluttering frequently into view, we seldom get a full look. At 3,776 lines in one reckoning, Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest text and is usually shortened for performance; when rendered uncut, as in Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film, it runs four hours. For whatever reason, theater audiences appear reluctant to sit for that long. Is it because we know the play and expect to see only the best parts?

Opera audiences seemingly have more patience. Operas are often trimmed, with variations, cabalettas, and entire arias going by the wayside, but it’s often to lighten the singer’s load, not the audience’s. Yet the Metropolitan Opera, in its current season, isn’t shying away from presenting Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (among the longest in the repertory) at an estimated running time of five hours and 50 minutes. Continue reading

Looking backward: Maya Beiser’s Uncovered

My take on Maya Beiser in her "Uncovered" video. (My original image is on Flickr, at https://www.flickr.com/photos/photogrammaton/14716099122/.)

My take on Maya Beiser in her “Uncovered” video. (My original image is on Flickr, at https://www.flickr.com/photos/photogrammaton/14716099122/.)

Maya Beiser has made her cello into another of those vessels that, as Emily Dickinson said of books, can take us lands away. She’s always crossing boundaries, evoking other times, places, and cultures, calling up memories, dramas, reflections. Though this is an obvious thing to say about a lot of music, and it risks painting her work as a travel documentary, it has its truth. Kinship (2000) carries whiffs of the Arabic Middle East, Georgia (the country), Cambodia, and Bali. The lyrical plaint of “Mariel,” an Osvaldo Golijov piece on World to Come (2003), can be taken as depicting a person, the city in Cuba, or even the boatlift, but to me it sounds just as much like music for an imaginary film scene. Instead of merely crossing boundaries, though, Beiser manages to speak from two places at once. In all of her work (that I’ve heard, which is hardly all of it), there’s a sense of the familiar crossed with the foreign, though sometimes what we recognize is only the basic sound of her instrument.

Her most recent album, Uncovered (a collaboration with arranger Evan Ziporyn and a handful of guest performers, which was released in August), devotes 10 tracks to another hybrid form—treatments of classic rock songs. “Summertime,” in Janis Joplin’s rendering, is here; Beiser really tears it up, as Joplin’s vocals did, but the piece also has reminders of Joplin’s backing band, Big Brother and the Holding Company. Beiser’s wordless version of “Epitaph,” originally performed by King Crimson, is more mournful, layered, and elegiac than the band’s version, as if the singer’s fear that “tomorrow I’ll be crying” has now come to pass.

Unsurprisingly, Led Zeppelin songs appear twice, framing the rest of the album. The band’s mixed meters and other influences were Beiser-like to begin with, and she has already done a pretty rockin’ version of “Kashmir,” on Provenance (2010). That number appears again here, along with “Black Dog.” The latter opens the album, casting all these pieces as a kind of interior experience: traces of the music and the words come back like a memory finding its subject across time.

My first reaction on hearing Uncovered—I played it in the background while working—was to want to hear the originals again. A second, more attentive hearing convinces me that the album lives fully on its own.

Uncovered (2014). Performed by Maya Beiser, arranged by Evan Ziporyn. Innova Records 900.

Uncovered (2014). Performed by Maya Beiser, arranged by Evan Ziporyn. Innova Records 900.