Sunday, May 08, 2005

The Last Waltz (1978)

An evening IN

Tedious work the last two days cleaning my workspace.

So I was happy to come downstairs for dinner, an excellent pasta prepared by Blair, who admitted as I opened the TV cabinet that she was still off-balance every Sunday night without her favorite TV show, Alias, which has moved to Wed. I took the remote and started to scroll through the movie channels. The TV came to life on the Food Channel, Blair's lunchtime companion. I quickly turned it to TCM, and "Patton," which didn't interest me (seen it already lots, yeah, fine, who wouldn't want to be "ol' Blood 'n Guts"--I mean, that's what it's about, isn't it?), moved up to that block of channels from 500 to 514, the Encore to IFC family, which is typically a row of disappointments, (esp. the first 8 channels, which concentrate on recent movies which enjoyed broad release, and very especially the last two channels, the annoying Sundance and IFC (that's Independent Film Channel, natch'), where “indie” films that craved broad release go to brood. Or crow.

IFC was screening “The Last Waltz,” a film I’d never seen. Martin Scorsese directed this documentary of the band The Band's last concert. I remembered Martin Scorsese describing in a book how, as director overseeing the editing, he convinced some old-time editors to create a traveling matte effect to erase the prominent cascade of a coke rock from Neil Young’s crimson nostril. Despite this fascinating image, I was reluctant to watch, as I am not being a big fan of Southern Rock, (dudes with the Confederate flag hanging somewhere in their home studio) (and sure enough they obliged me with just such a shot midway through the pic—yikes!), nor that mid-70's period where rock's self-mythologizing had ballooned so intolerably. But Blair said she loved this music in college, and looked happy as The Band rolled through their first couple of numbers. They sounded good. So we watched.

To my ear, music recorded live is always preferable to studio music, and the sound these guys were making was excellent. But I really got excited by the longish shot that accompanies the opening credits, camera hanging low out the window of a car, tracking and traveling through an impoverished stretch of urban roadway to windup at the concert venue, the Fillmore East (wasn’t that what it said? Was this THE Fillmore East?). The few minutes of spliced together rolling seemed exactly the opposite of that celebrated shot staged in “Goodfellas” ; the throwaway artistry they were excited to enlist in aid of The Band in ’76 (when the flick was shot), bloats to total self-conscious fabrication in the gangster film of, what, '89? Doesn’t Ray Liotta’s chummy stroll thru the kitchen just ache with staginess when compared to the stark beauty of abandoned cars pointed the wrong way along the curb, abandoned or in various states of active repair (or dismantlement) in a cooling sunset. The figures at the side of the road don’t feel like extras coached to “act natural,” or submit to the chummy kidding of a star strolling through a virtuoso take lasting two minutes and costing $300,000 to shoot. I prefer “The Last Waltz” because the artistry is immediate. Everyone knows Welles did it in “Touch of Evil,” (as a throwaway bit), and the self-consciousness that inevitably creeps into almost every “long track” scene that's come since is burdensome. Goodfellas. The Player. Even that nausea-inducer in Silence of the Lambs. I prefer “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek,” an unnoticed tracking shot of great complexity undertaken only to sustain the emotional mood. And fourteen years BEFORE Welles.

(It was "Miracle," wasn't it, and not "Hail the Conquering Hero"? In my mind I can see Eddie Bracken clearly, strolling along dusty streets, but I can't tell if that's Betty Hutton or Ella Raines strolling next to him...some film buff!)

OK. Las Last Waltz.

We watched, and I kept awaiting the arrival of the Man from Crazy Horse. No sign 30 minutes in, so I jumped up for dessert--I was in the kitchen when Neil Young's voice suddenly wafted out of the TV speakers--CRAP! I had missed the pre-song banter and harmonica prologue. I ran back into the livingroom with my strawberries and kept my eyes peeled for anything suspiscious around his nose. But I missed the great moment (must have, unless they REALLY hid it--I guess that's the magic of Hollywood)!! His nostrils looked consistently rimmed with a kind of irregular crust prominent/emanating/crumbling here and there, but any tumbling particle went unseen. The big screen would probably show what our modest TV couldn’t. Frustrated, I planned to rent the film and take a closer look… Neil Young sang “Helpless“, with backstage backing from a mystery Joni Mitchell? Beautiful, truly moving.

In some ways this concert and movie are a survivor’s raft, at that last moment before the raft finally beaks apart from everyone’s combined weight. Yet another "Last Gasp of the Sixties" moment, again conveniently captured on film (wasn't it Altamont? Kent State? Watergate? Disco?). Everyone on stage seems to be saying their goodbyes as they get swept into the sea and away from each other. To see these last survivors from music's most creative era (surely you'll grant me that, and note that I write this not as a revivalist), is to think of those that didn’t survive. With all this heavy rock-blues and vocal individualism afoot, you think of Joplin; with Clapton, you think of Hendrix; with Van Morrison, you think of Jim Morrison. Some of the lost are mentioned by Robbie Robertson, and I have to wonder again how differently the stage may have looked, if there were more survivors, or if indeed the show would have happened, because really, wasn’t this a creation of the vacuum left by those missing?

But I am being unfair. I continue watching and see these people emerge as giants on their own. As a man forced to skitter to and fro' between the impoverished radio programing on offer in my city, the formats of which offer a panorama of derivates and celebrities who, on the whole, seem totally cowed by the music that has gone before them, and driven only by the will to become famous, I openly admit that I hold the popular rock scene of now, circa 2005, to be uninteresting. To be boring. And over time, I have begun to imagine it was ever thus, that music, rock music, has always been peopled by similarly mediocre players. So I was appalled to see this film, to witness so many singers come out and each share their distinct voice, (including four different members of The Band, all assigned at least one solo turn!); to hear such striking, individual artistry. Even this mid-to-high level gathering of secondary stars from the sixties practically blows away anything we’ve got now. They come across as bracingly original. They come across as THE originals. I am not schooled enough to know if this assertion is historio-musicologically accurate, but the glare of total authenticity was blinding, and threw into relief my assumptions about musicians then and now. This wasn’t even Janis or Jimi or Jim—it’s Joni, Eric and Van; and it’s not Lennon and Richards, either: it's Ringo and Young. But it feels just as big as if it were a consortium of the annointed demi-gods of the era.

Joni Mitchell came on, someone, like almost everyone in this film, who I’d never seen in action before; she seemed like a hippie Katherine HEPBURN to me. But she’s so shy, you say; so retiring and inward compared to Miss Hep. Yes, but I wonder if they weren’t just the same inside; and that being born and raised as she was, when she was, Mitchell manifested the same ambition to set a certain strong, feminine art before the world, but dressed it in a wholly different package, one suitable to the form her art required—namely, hippie, quirky, intense, earthy, poetic girl rejecting female stereotypes while creating a new one. Just as Hep did. Ambition and popular artistry, and a sense of which way the wind was blowing, and which way it should blow.

Neil Diamond appears! I imagined his number, “Dry Your Eyes,” being covered by The Mountain Goats—it would be a natural fit (how's that for contemporary rock citations?).

Clapton, a guy I’ve never been a big fan of from my early days in music (it’s Jimi, dammit!), grows on me. A sense of proportion and pace to his playing that really got the goods across in the plain song he plays here. And his oh-so-laid-back demeanor, the confident, “I’m just the guy playing guitar,” sort of unflappable, above the fray aura—he was like that in “Hail Hail Rock n’ Roll,” when Chuck Berry and Keith Richards are yelling at each other. He comes into the room with two guys that are legends and he seems like the regal one. Perhaps they’ll knight him, too and the Sir-name will be less of a stretch ferr him than any other white rocker I can think of (doesn't "Sir Little Richard" or "Sir Muddy Waters" paint a much more convincing picture?). Instead we get Sir Elton John? I saw Clapton in person once, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, at the mammoth John “Swinger” Sargent Retrospective, where he was anxiously taking in the sights. It has cemented my vision of him as a man on his vast estate, in his manor, contemplating a diminutive still life by Fillipo Lippi.

Why haven't I mentioned Muddy Waters? The profound pleasure of his presence had all the aura of the royal come to grace the bourgeois gathering. Old money among the nouveau riche. He's a MAN. And it comes across. I am without the tools as a writer, the insights or the confidence to examine his appearance and the relationship to those around him in any further detail.

The giant of the whole production is Dylan, and he is saved for the grand finale sequence, deservedly so. Unexpected that his presence should be the most shaky, technically, because weren’t he and The Band a band together for a long time? But that just adds to the myth, Bob turning to Robbie with a confused look on his face, trying to mouth what they should be doing, or shrugging his shoulders to the musician on his left. It makes for damn good theater, their private conversation, the interaction of giants, standing in the clouds and deciding what powerful experience they will provide for the assembled masses before them. Should we make them weep, or scream in ecstasy?

Understand, I own no records by Bob Dylan. I taped "Homesick Subterranean Blues" the song (I think) off the radio while in High School--the one with the lyric, "The pump don't work 'cuz the vandals stole the handle." I am describing his film persona, his film reality, which is what we know of him generically combined with what we see of him on the screen.

Funny to see Bob Dylan, the guy most serious-minded rock scholars point to as a rival to those gods of generations ago, the Great Romantic Poets. This celestial reputation of his, yet here he is, dressed like the squirley kid that pushes dope at 17, in a Panama Hat and wishful moustache. He looks like the tackiest, most insincere, artless sort imaginable. But Dylan looks like this kid at 37, without ever having changed from 17—which kids like that at 17 always do—not for the better, necessarily—they just change. They become the hollow-eyed speedfreak, they become the smarmy but more maturely attired air-conditioning man. I think a 37 year old dressing like that is a poetic tribute to that transitory moment of being the worst dressed, worst deported, shiftiest motherfucker in your high school. A moment and a look unsustainable for the mere mortal, but triumphal on the back of an artiste.

The final concert song enlists every star present, and allowed me to compare the effects of intoxicants on each performer. Clapton seemed like the only straight one, a certain low-key lucidity in his eyes as he walks off stage, past the camera. The hopped-up, the blitzed-out, the fuzzy-eyed, the red-faced and hyperactive all swayed back and forth and kept it together under Ringo’s beat—Ringo, who did great, but unnerves me just the way he moves his arms—it looks hesitant, unsure, as if he’s just taken too many verbal lashings from Lennon and too many snubs from McCartney to ever properly recuperate. Neil Diamond and Neil Young but a scant 10 feet away from each other, Diamond looking like nothing so much as an elderly, Jewish, Elvis impersonator (in shades!). And the music was damn good.

After the bows we fade out of the concert hall, and into a new scene, a pipe organ playing, and Robbertson is holding a strange, electric zither/guitar combo (oh, those guitar artists of the 70’s!), and we’re on a dim stage somewhere else, with an exotic, moody waltz beginning. What a great way to end the film, I think, with this funky instrumental (was it a waltz ?I had a hard time counting 3), and in this poetic, empty sound stage, the camera tracking back, away, away…. the credits begin to roll over this building music and—the music is cut, the image is suddenly compressed to the top half of our TV screen, and the IFC voice-over cuts in announcing how their channel isn’t like all those other Hollywood Mainstream Channels—it’s committed to bringing us artists and their personal visions, visions you can’t find anywhere else. The bottom half of the screen has been divided into two segments—one announces: COMING NEXT: Escape from Hollywood The Slums of Beverly Hills. The other section of the screen is alive with rapidly edited scenes of violence, tits and ass, a girl tied down to a bed, a car exploding, a gun being pointed at us. Half the time the actors are unfamiliar to me, half the time it is someone I recognize. The voice over is continuing to describe how different Independent Cinema is from Hollywood, stay tuned for our Escape from Hollywood feature tonight (a very quick escape, if it is only to Beverly Hills); a car blows up in the corner of the screen, and up on the top the credits for “The Last Waltz” are allowed to roll out mutely, compressed to illegibility, the soundtrack eliminated, silent.

I hate. Fucking IFC. Hypocrites.