By The Law

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“The theme of the picture By The Law is alien to our viewer in script and essence. Considering the instances of pathology and hysteria [in the film], it is a sick phenomenon in our cinematography which harmfully affects our Soviet screen.” — A.R.K. (Association of Revolutionary Cinematography), 1926.

“We may be accused of being morbid or misanthropic, but please do not forget that our film is about the modern English middle class–surely the most inhuman of all.” — Lev Kuleshov, 1926.

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It is strange when a 92-year-old Soviet film can say so much about the contemporary world. Class violence, retribution, environmental chaos–all are active ingredients in Lev Kuleshov’s “constructivist Western” By The Law (Po Zakonu). Viewing it today, from what some geologists are calling the Great Acceleration period of the Anthropocene, is like peeking into a creepy apocalyptic window of past and future. Like Marx, the Soviets believed that capitalism would destroy humanity; and lo and behold, here we are, on the way to our own Easter-Island party, with investors buying up escape-pod properties in New Zealand to ensure that this model survives for their entrepreneurial offspring, who will presumably sell shares in the Norwegian Seed Vault.  /communist_rant

The coming of Russian film coincided with the creation of the U.S.S.R., the world’s first modern worker state. It provided the opportunity for a clean break from the literature and drama of the 19th-century, both of which the Soviet intellectuals rejected as bourgeois tools of domination controlled by the aristocracy. With 80% of the Russian population illiterate, it was believed that this new visual medium would usher in a transformative era of avant-garde modernity, offering a conduit through which the nascent nation could educate and galvanize the people. Like rail lines and power grids, film would connect the disparate corners of the Soviet together. It would create social cohesion between ethnic groups and help authorities overcome the huge communication hurdles of time and space.

But things got weird. The period of genuine openness and experimentation was over fast and in steep decline after Lenin’s death. Anything avant-garde suddenly became elite, epicurean and subject to suspicion. Film plots were required to be both entertaining (without being “too American”) and reflect deeper socialist worldviews, a concept called Socialist Realism. Many in the industry, particularly directors, screenwriters, and cinematographers, struggled between these two worlds. Their continued employment and access to funding meant keeping the cultural commissars satisfied with works that met this criteria. As if it wasn’t hard enough making wheat quota subplots stimulating, the films should also be exportable abroad and appeal to international audiences.

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Kuleshov Collective practicing on a rooftop

It was within this confused climate that the Kuleshov Collective, a close-knit group of actors and technicians started by director Lev Kuleshov, set to work on a new project in 1926. (Kuleshov pioneered several techniques of early film montage theory that today would be taken for granted; one is called the Kuleshov Effect, which asserted that one shot placed beside a second can alter a human’s emotional interpretation.) The Collective’s biggest success thus far had been in 1924, with the brilliant satirical comedy The Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, which lampooned both American and Soviet stereotypes equally. But the group was now on shaky ground after its disastrous follow-up, when a long and confusing sci-fi film called The Death Ray was thoroughly hated by everyone. Kuleshov knew that the collective’s next project had to come in on the cheap and be a hit. While it would have been easy to fall back on the safety of West’s comedic formula, he happened across a gloomy story by American socialist writer Jack London called “The Unexpected” and decided to adapt it with screenwriter Victor Shklovsky. Finishing the script in 12 hours, they started scouting locations outside Moscow that could serve as the Yukon. They spotted the “huge and forlorn” pine tree first, near the Tsaritsino ponds. Then the Collective built a small shack on the banks of the icy Moskva River. The majority of the film would be just three actors inside this claustrophobic interior. It would be the cheapest Russian production of all time.

Ultimately, it’s the performances of Aleksandra Khokhlova (as Edith) and Vladimir Fogel (as Dennin) that make By The Law so exceptional. Aleksandra Khokhlova was Kuleshov’s spouse and creative partner. Like the others in the Collective, she had starred in most of his previous films; but unlike the men, she was mercilessly mocked and insulted by critics for her angular looks and skinniness. Lev Kuleshov hit back, saying “The commercial pursuit of beauties and names is none other than hidden pornography or psycho-pathology for which there is absolutely no place in Soviet cinematography.” The best English write-up of the film belongs to American poet Hilda Doolittle, better known as “H.D.”, in the 1928 issue of the film journal Close-Up. Watching the German version Söhne in a Switzerland theater, she described Khokhlova’s performance:

The gestures of this woman are angular, bird-like, claw-like, skeleton-like and hideous. She has a way of standing against a sky line that makes a hieroglyph, that spells almost visibly some message of cryptic symbolism. Her gestures are magnificent. If this is Russian, then I am Russian. Beauty is too facile a word to describe this; this woman is a sort of bleak young sorceress…Her face can be termed beautiful in the same way that dawn can be termed beautiful rising across stench and fever of battle…This sort of raw picked beauty must of necessity destroy the wax and candy-box “realism” of the so much so-called film art. It must destroy in fact so much that perhaps it does “go”, as one of our party said, “too far”.

This notion of “too far”-ness echoes a similar comment made by Cinema Front critic Viktor Pertsov, as noted by scholar Denise Youngblood in her Soviet Cinema in the Silent Era 1918-1935. Pertsov criticized Kuleshov for not guiding the viewer to moral judgment or providing a social key with which to decode the film, which he described as “hermetically sealed.” While meant negatively, today this hermetic sealing is precisely what makes this movie so radically accessible to new viewers. Unlike other Russian films from the period, it ties itself to no historical event or revolutionary act but merely works its way through its own myopic microcosm of greed and madness, close-up by close-up, breakdown by breakdown.

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Aleksandra Khokhlova’s “hieroglyph”

Kuleshov was known for making dangerous physical demands on his actors, although the confined interior of By The Law theoretically made for safer working conditions. The shoot was carefully timed to overlap with a spring thaw and flood event. Actors would freeze, be submerged, and have off-screen airplane propellers blow snow and sleet into their faces. Kuleshov described the expereince in Fifty Years In Films:

Spring came, the ice on the river broke. We went on shooting, but suddenly it became apparent that we were having quite an unusual flood: the river water was inundating the cabin, its level steadily rising. The wet cables produced electric shocks whenever one inadvertently touched them, but Khokhlova affirmed that “electricity made her feel more intensely”. While a close shot was being made, Fogel lay bound on ice in the fire-hose rain and airplane wind for two and a half hours. (p.228-229)

Vladimir Fogel was better known for his comedic roles in hit films like Chess Fever, where his neurotic performance shows his gift for physical comedy. But today, it is his portrayal of the exploited and embittered Irishman in By The Law that stands as his highest achievement. Kuleshov wanted extreme states of being from the faces of his actors. This is why the Collective practiced incessantly using still photographs and études, trying to move beyond the cliched facial expressions so common to the stage. Truly extreme states of being, they believed, could never be attained through psychological immersion. In that sense, they rejected theater theorist Stanislavski’s approach as a mere dressing-up of canned Victorian melodrama. Actors were mechanical beings subject to the laws of science. Ana Olenina summarizes this well in her article “Engineering Performance: Lev Kuleshov, Soviet Reflexology, and Labor Efficiency Studies”:

Kuleshov’s explorations were driven by his conviction that the performer must exploit the abilities of his or her body to the maximum extent and create corporeal spectacles that would strike the audience with their unusualness, dynamism, and perfection in every detail. Thus, the acting études and films created by Kuleshov’s troupe in the 1920s were marked by a clear tendency on the one hand, toward tragicomic grotesque and buffoonery, and on the other hand, toward extreme physical performances (p.300).

Although the end product was criticized for its “Americanism,” it was a big enough hit to prove the end of the Kuleshov Collective, as Fogel and others departed for the stable paychecks offered by the larger Soviet film factories. Fogel would soon play the proletariat couchsurfing homewrecker in Bed & Sofa, followed by The House on Trubnaya. Tragically, he killed himself in 1929, although likely not for the reasons stated by Kuleshov in his memoirs (because of “uninteresting work”). On the other hand, his suicide did coincide with the coming of sound film, a difficult time for all actors but especially international ones. Aleksandra Khokhlova, failing to meet Soviet beauty standards, could only get work in Kuleshov projects. Soon, she would turn to directing films herself, including an adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s An Affair of the Clasps (1929), Sasha (1930), and a documentary called Toys (1931).

In closing, the score of this particular DVD restoration deserves mention. The majority of silent films have no remaining soundtrack notes with regard to what should be played during a screening. This is true for By The Law. Most restorations go the safe route and commission a solo piano score, or something orchestral from the time period that fits. Luckily, the Austrian Film Museum decided something different was needed and went with electronic composer Franz Reisecker, who had previously worked on a score for Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin restoration. His dissonant and fractured tones work brilliantly alongside Kuleshov’s images. “I was fascinated with actress Aleksandra Khokhlova, because of her very particular expressive style, and then with the montage and Kuleshov’s highly artificial visual language,” Reisecker said in an interview. “It reminded me of Spaghetti Westerns. I went back to Ennio Morricone’s music for Sergio Leone’s films and developed some sounds based on the bell motif. Then there is a sequence that almost has the character of a dance track when they find gold…and despite the groove there is a hint of threat in the sound.”

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Cast/Crew shot from set of By The Law; Khokhlova in scarf, Fogel in glasses, Kuleshov center left.

 

 

Drugstore Cowboy: Workprint

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“It wasn’t me, pal, I ain’t hit no poison shops in years!” – Matt Dillon as Bob, Drugstore Cowboy: Workprint

No film ever shot in Portland has come to personify the city like Gus Van Sant’s 1989 breakthrough feature Drugstore Cowboy. In fact, it holds such a place of prominence that the impatient are already gearing up this month to celebrate its 30th anniversary based on production instead of release date, with screenings, walking tours of locations, etc. The only screenings scheduled so far are for the normal 101-minute version. Van Sant seems to have little interest in re-visiting other cuts of the film, which is understandable. Editors exist for a reason. Anyone who has ever had to sit through an awful “restored” director’s cut understands this. Most works are harmed more than they are helped. In interviews, the sole editorial point of conflict mentioned by Van Sant was his absolute unwillingness to cut William S. Burroughs from the film, as requested by the studio. There were also several moments in his commentary for the 1999 DVD release, done with Matt Dillon, in which he questioned the necessity of a few edits or changes to the shooting script. But overall, he sounded content with his first big-budget Hollywood experience and did not come across as having compromised his vision for the sake of a larger budget.

While the original is a classic now in its own right, a rare alternate videocassette version does exist. Its provenance is sketchy. I’ve owned it for 27 years but have never been able to tell for what purpose it was originally created, and there’s no record of its existence online. It was likely a “workprint” VHS transfer of an early proposed cut, intended for editing. Or maybe it was a rejected alternate version submitted to the studio for review. Whatever its function, it adds around 20 minutes to the film’s running time, while also eliminating or using alternate takes for many scenes that were included in the final Avenue Pictures release (for clarity, I’ll call the two versions Avenue and Workprint from here on). Calling this “Van Sant’s version” would be presumptuous, since I do not know him and have no idea how he feels about the removed content. That being said, the Workprint does feel a lot more like Mala Noche–his previous feature, also shot in Portland–and makes for a grittier and rawer Drugstore Cowboy experience, with no special effects, no sophisticated jazz score, no drug paraphernalia optics, not even credits. Appropriately, the grainy print takes on the aesthetic characteristics of a 16mm afterschool TV parable about the black hole of addiction, shedding the Hollywood glamour sheen for a look that’s pure street, but still saturated in tones of green.

(SPOILERS: Remainder contains details about the added scenes.)

Before I get into the specific differences, a bit of background on the source material. James Fogle was an infamous Pacific-Northwest drug addict and pharmacy thief, and the shooting script was based on an unpublished manuscript of his, which was picked up by Delta only after the film’s success, in 1990. The book is loaded with dialogue, with some passages ridiculously long, stilted, and unnatural sounding. Van Sant and Dillon, in the original DVD commentary, discuss the copious amounts of colorful text written by Fogle and the attempts at condensing that into script form, while retaining some of his key phrases, like “poison shops,” “dope fiends,” and “T.V. babies.” I did a quick analysis, and all of the removed major scenes, and most of the dialogue therein, are present in Fogle’s novel. With the Workprint just passing the two hour mark, in an era when films were rarely over 90 minutes, the cutting of entire sequences was likely to tighten the pace. The same can’t be said for the inclusion of alternate takes and the differences in tone created by those. It seems that at some stage in the editing process, Drugstore Cowboy began to drift somewhat from Van Sant’s comedic intent. These nuances can be subtle and hard to spot; for example, a line delivered by Matt Dillon in Workprint will be hilariously paranoid, while the Avenue cut would utilize an alternate take of the same scene, but with Dillon conveying anger or hostility. Overall, there is an increased 1st-person viewpoint for the Avenue cut, while the Workprint includes more scenes for which Bob’s character would not be present, such as conversations between pharmacists and supporting characters.

Second, there’s the music. Since the videotape lacks credits, for years I struggled to find out what the songs were, and there is still one Hawaiian slack-key guitar piece that I’m unsure about. It’s unclear why some of the Workprint songs were removed from the Avenue cut. Perhaps licensing issues, or maybe they were always intended as placeholders for Elliot Goldenthal’s dissonant jazz cues, which comprised half of the original soundtrack. One sequence in particular deserves mention since it’s the best music-driven montage Van Sant has ever filmed. It occurs halfway through the police’s duplex raid, as Detective Gentry and the cops hunt for the hidden dope stash. Instead of Bob answering Gentry’s question “What’s it gonna be?”–as in, “Will you give us the drugs or will we trash your home?”–there is a long silent pause of apprehension. Then, instead of an answer, Elis Regina’s voice drops from nowhere, and her duet “Águas de Março” with Antonio Carlos Jobim continues over a montage of furniture demolition, the knifing of sofas, the emptying of cereal boxes; there is a brief exterior shot of the shadows of axes coming down in the duplex windows, then a slow pan up a landscape of leftover debris: Coca-Cola bottles, Fidel Castro’s photo, furniture legs, insulation. Van Sant takes his time; nothing is rushed. Brazilian beats and alternating staccato voices are stretched lovingly over the canvas of junky culture. In the Avenue cut, there is just a fade to black after Gentry’s question and a truncated debris shot, without music, ending with the cast sitting nude and covered in blankets for reasons that are vague (since the preceding scene of cops shredding their clothing was removed.) Approaches like this epitomize the difference between the two versions. Maybe it was Hollywood, with one eye on the editing clock. Just as they wanted William S. Burroughs removed, perhaps they trimmed all bits tangential to the storyline. But for this “Águas de Março” sequence, it’s as if, for Godard’s Band of Outsiders, a decision was made to eliminate the dance because it offered little with regard to plot progression. Other great songs forever associated with the film, like Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites”, are still present, albeit less prominently in the mix and as source music in apartment interiors, not incidental cues.

Apart from music, there are several noteworthy added sequences from the novel. Diane’s sister arrives to bring clothing and belittle Bob, which explains their ill-fitting clothes in the Avenue cut. The sister sequence also stands as a nice-if-brief antidote to Bob’s misogyny, and it’s too bad it wasn’t retained. In two other deleted sequences, Diane attempts to score drugs from a doctor, and Diane and Rick establish a plan to continue stealing following Bob’s departure to rehab. Of the alternate takes, the one at the rehab clinic when Bob is being asked questions by the social worker (brilliantly played by Beah Richards) is altogether different, with a slow French New Wave-ish back-and-forth pan as he answers her questions. Another vastly improved sequence is when Nadine asks if the crew can get a dog, thus starting the hex spiral. Canned dramatic music is inserted here, which fits the film’s aesthetic perfectly. “It’s over. We ain’t going to the coast. We ain’t going anywhere,” Bob mutters behind horns, strings, and crashing percussion that sounds like it’s ripped from an old crime procedural. Such incidental music comes up repeatedly throughout. It injects ironic humor, which is fitting since, again, Van Sant has referred to the film as a dark comedy. It’s clear that many funny elements did not survive. Odd lines from the novel that are admiringly goofy in Workprint (“Hot dawg!” is a keeper) are gone from Avenue. It seems that at some point in the editing, as the film became hyperfocused on its protagonist, the decision was made to emphasize his patriarchal toughness and redemption at the expense of junky weirdness and paranoid melodrama.

This shaky redemption is mainly conveyed through the bookending device that both begins and ends the original film. From the outset, in the ambulance, we hear Bob’s half-dead and/or mellowed-out opinions about everyone on his crew as we watch their home-movies running through his brain. We are not allowed to be introduced to the characters through their actions. We must first hear Bob’s impressions of them and how he has come to define their identities, which assigns him an omnipotent God-like quality from the beginning. Conversely, the linear Workprint cut starts in a more egalitarian manner, loud and fast with aerial car shots of the crew en route to the “epilepsy routine”, using an anachronistic Skinny Puppy song that is very far in tone from Abbey Lincoln’s “For All We Know.” It ends cold-stop, in the ambulance, with the celebrated head-shot of Matt Dillon said to be modeled on Andy Warhol’s short film Blowjob. Unlike with the Avenue cut, there’s no rehash of the home-movie at the film’s concluding credits over yet another rehash of “Israelites,” a sequence which always felt to me like a tired Hollywood editing trope, the equivalent of a blooper reel designed to uplift any audience members who may have become depressed after hours of addicts. Interestingly, according to Dillon and Van Sant, the handheld home-movie sequence was shot by the cast post-production and was designed to be used for promotional purposes. (A photo from that day, taken against the famous Lovejoy columns, became the main image on the one-sheet poster). Which begs the question: if this was done post-production and intended to provide advertising fodder, why was it edited into the final release cut? In Workprint, there is no nostalgia, no redemption, no resolution. The end is abrupt and arbitrary. In the book, Bob is dead-on-arrival. The TV Babies win. The hat hex is complete.

NOTE: Workprint version is not available in Watzek’s circulating collection. Screening restricted to Lewis & Clark College community.

Essential Nigerian Afrobeat & Disco: The Women

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No doubt many social factors prevented women artists from being recorded in Nigeria during the emerging 1970s pop scene. One was the disreputable view of musicianship for women, the fact that it was viewed as bordering on prostitution by a traditionalist Nigerian patriarchy. By and large, women were relegated to backing vocals, often transforming good records into great ones in the process; see William Onyeabor’s “The Moon and The Sun,” The Wings’ “Someone Else Will,” or N’draman Blintch’s “Cosmic Sounds.” If they assumed a headlining role, it was often through collaborative partnerships with supportive musician spouses (Grace and Jack Ekpeyong) or through family connections in the industry (Lorine Okotie, younger sister of Kris Okotie). Via education gateways, Josephine Mokwunyei was already a young academic when she recorded her landmark Boys & Girls LP in 1979, under the moniker Joe Moks. Many point to the success of Oby Onyioha’s breakthrough I Want To Feel Your Love in 1981 as the big tipping point. From the pre-80s era, the most well-known Nigerian female singers are probably the Lijadu Sisters and Christiana Essien. Essien was a teenage T.V. star when she recorded her first LP Freedom for Anodisc in 1977. The Lijadu Sisters were perhaps culturally acceptable because harmonizing sisters often get a societal pass. By their own account, gender bias and exploitation played a role in their acrimonious split from Decca’s Nigerian subsidiary label Afrodisia, in 1980. Colonial habits die hard.

Biographical details are scarce to non-existent. We have linked to YouTube rips when possible and noted any worthy reissues, most of which are held in Watzek Library’s music collection; if so, they are linked within the entries.


Sandra Smith Izsadore

fela-sandra-400x400It’s ironic that women artists are so absent from Nigeria’s early afrobeat scene given that it was an African-American woman in California, Sandra Smith (now Izsadore), who had such a profound impact on its most renowned male figure, Fela Kuti. According to drummer Tony Allen’s autobiography, when they toured America for the first time in 1969, it was she who turned Kuti on to the importance of black nationalism, colonial history, and cannabis (Fela was straight-edge up to then). Sandra was a turning point in Kuti’s sense of political identity, the one who, in his words, “Africanized” him. After her influence, his records became sonic attacks on western dominance, augmented by Ghariokwu Lemi’s anti-imperialist art design. And it is Sandra’s voice that forms the centerpiece of our favorite Kuti side, 1976’s Upside Down, credited to “Sandra Sings With Fela & Africa 70” and recorded during her 6-month stay at Kuti’s commune, Kalakuta. LISTEN


Bola Onagoruwa & Ukachi “Ukay” Ofurum

R-8077500-1491251589-1788.jpegSome contributions by women on records headlined by men were absolutely transformative. Such is the case with the first LP from Grotto, At Last…, which was issued in 1977 by EMI Nigeria. According to its liner notes, Bola and Ukay were classmates of Grotto’s guitarist and composer Martin Amenechi, at St. Gregory’s College. During a second session of vocal overdubs in December 1976, the girls were invited to participate, recording over the previously laid-down men’s vocals. Bola’s classic lead on “Come Along With Me,” the album’s opener, is a mesmerizing collision of musical influences. Likewise, Ukay’s contributions to “Grottic Depression II” and “Change of Tide” helped elevate this LP to a new plateau of afropop greatness. Check out “Funk From Mother,” where both Bola and Ukay trade off lead vocals with male members of the band. Original pressings rarely surface and fetch hundreds of dollars when they do. Luckily, At Last… was just re-issued by Odion Livingstone, a Nigerian label run by Odion Iruoje, the original producer, and Temitope Kogbe, a record collector and DJ. Highly recommended. LISTEN


Mary Afi Usuah

image10Classically-trained singer Mary Afi Usuah released several beat singles for the Italian market, as Mary Afi, before returning to Nigeria to record two highly-regarded LPs. She is one of the few artists here who has received a topnotch reissue, courtesy of archivist and former pupil Uchenna Ikkone; all should seek out Ekpenyong Abasi, her first LP with the South Eastern State Cultural Band. She later released African Woman on Clover, which we have yet to hear. From the first record, the slow escalation of “From Me To You” is six soulful minutes of power, strength, and sadness. LISTEN


Joy Nwosu

Nwosu-JoyLike Mary Afi Usuah, Joy Nwosu studied voice in an Italian conservatory, initially researching African cinema and writing a book on the topic in 1968, entitled Cinema e Africa nera. She then returned to Nigeria and began recording a mixture of her own compositions and new arrangements of folk songs, which became Azania on Afrodisia, her only LP. The A-side of a 7” single released just prior was included on an anthology called Nigerian Blues 1970-76. Nwosu later became an academic in ethnomusicology and now lives in New Jersey. LISTEN


Christy Ogbah

image4Christy Ogbah recorded three stellar LPs in her career that we know of: two for Duomo (pop) and a third for Mosokam (highlife), which is credited to Christy Ogbah & Her Melody Group. While best known for her westernized wall-of-fuzz dance track “Advice”–her only English-language song–Ogbah excelled at slower synth-heavy pop, sung in Ishan, that was strictly neither disco nor funk but a far more fascinating mashup. Her best songs, like “Iyiye” and “Iyebhado,” become plodding loops of multi-tracked vocals and melodic Moog accents, a sort of hypnotic boggiedrone. The 1980 LP Advice, packed side to side with deep hooks and indelible vocal phrasing, remains the most satisfying record that Duomo ever released (three tracks are on Odion Livinstone’s 2017 Duomo compilation.) Its follow-up, Iziegbe, shows Ogbah further exploring intersections of highlife and Lagos disco, melding the hybrid sounds found on her first two recordings. LISTEN


Josephine Mokwunyei (Joe Moks)

image2Comb & Razor put the song “Boys & Girls” on their superb Brand New Wayo anthology, which led to its rapid spread through DJ disco sets around the world. The track was taken from Joe Moks’ LP of the same name, released on Afrodisia in 1979. Like Ogbah’s Advice, it is a synthy dance bomb from beginning to end, meticulously sequenced and arranged by Moks and Tony Okoroji, without a bad track. “Being In Love Is Being Involved,” “Closer Than Skin,” and “Insure My Love” are all particularly outstanding, and check out the country closer “Just Like Me.” Today, Dr. Mokwunyei continues her teaching and research at the University of Benin, specializing in subsects of Nigerian musicology, most recently among the Anioma and their use of a woodwind instrument called the akpele which serves as a melodic surrogate for the human voice (article here). LISTEN


Grace Ekpeyong (Grace Jackson E & the Galaxy)

image7We haven’t heard her debut Morning Prayer, but the three EMI records that followed–Don’t Treat Me Like A Fool (1979), Woman Needs Love (1979), I Need You (1980)–are all full of addictive melodies and electronic sounds. DTMLAF is arguably the best of the three (Mike Umoh on trap drums!) and includes the trancey title song, the conflict-resolution epic “For Better For Worse,” and “Give Me Your Love.” Woman Needs Love was targeted for the reggae market, being simultaneously released in Nigeria on EMI and France on Pathé. I Need You is a ballad-centric and melancholy record with great use of Moog accents, as with DTMLAF, courtesy of keyboardist Caullins Jonas. What happened to her after that recording is unclear. In 2014, the lead cut from WNL, “I’m Gonna Get You,” was bootlegged onto a 7″ by Ximeno Records, albeit in edited form. This link is to the full LP version. LISTEN


Commy Bassey

image8It was South Africa’s Miriam Makeba whose beats exploded refreshingly into the European market in the 1960s, with her world hit “Pata Pata” being covered by female artists from Italy, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and France. She became a pan-African source of pride and inspiration for women, as evidenced on the lead track “Great Miriam Makeba” from Commy Bassey’s first LP, In Solitude, released in 1978 on Clover. Bassey wrote and composed all but one song, with Original Wings guitarist Charles Effi Duke helping out with the arrangements. Although it suffers somewhat from Clover’s claustrophobic production sound, the tunes themselves are solid straight through. “Pretty Angel” and “Smiles” punctuate rhythm with silence, with Bassey’s unique drawl stringing the musical bits together, but it’s the lead on Side 2, “Looking For My Man,” that really moves. Anodisc’s Let’s Dance, released two years later, saw Bassey finding her niche in the disco scene and offers up such essential clap-heavy grooves as “Now That I’ve Found You,” “I Need Someone,” “We Want Togetherness,” and “Let’s Dance.” LISTEN


Eme Ballantyne

Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 9.19.29 AMFrom all accounts, Afrodisia had a bad habit of signing artists, releasing one LP, and not offering much in the way of follow-up, promotion, or helping them get established. This might have been the case with Eme Ballantyne, an obscure singer for which we can find no information. Her sole LP is called Remember Me, which came out in 1981. The piercing timbre of her double-tracked voice as it repeats “My life is like a rainbow in the sky” throughout the opening ballad “My Life” often generates questions from curious listeners when we play the record out, since her haunting phrasing somehow manages to sound both old and contemporary at the same time. Unfortunately, the only existing YouTube rip of this song was recently removed.


Carol Bridi

R-1625693-1232991322.jpegCarol Bridi’s synth-groover “Shake The Dust” comes from her debut LP called One Family, which was released on an indie label called Otto Records at the height of the Lagos boogie explosion, in 1984. Other standout tracks include “Where You Are” and “Soul On Fire.” The crisp spacey sound owes much to the wonderful engineering and production of George Achini and Remy Njoku, who also worked with such greats as Esbee Family, Bassey Black, Christy Essien, and Oby Onyioha. LISTEN


Christiana Essien

image11The lack of legit Christy Essien reissues is particularly odd given her popularity at home, and the fact that DJs have sampled her songs so heavily over the past fifteen years. She started out with the perfectly-realized Freedom in 1977 on Anodisc, our personal favorite. Patience immediately followed, before a move to the Blackspot label for Time Waits For No One. Decca then picked her up for her two most popular records, One Understanding and Give Me A Chance on Afrodisia. Her sixth release, Ever Liked My Person?, was the biggest success of her career and saw her moving towards a more polished (but less funky) AOR sound. She later became the founder and first female president of the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria and was involved in social advocacy causes for women, including female circumcision. A consummate professional whose business acumen was legendary, Essien passed away too young, in 2011. Check the swinging rhythmic groove between band and voice on “Feel So Good Sometime.” LISTEN


Doris Ebong

image1Apart from her music, we know next to nothing about Doris Ebong. She recorded one colossal LP for Phonodisk in 1982, All I Need Is Your Love, produced by Tony Essien and with songwriting credits split between the two of them. Ebong’s own contributions, or the ones that she co-wrote–like the frenetic “Disco Drive” and the groundshakingly fantastic “I Won’t Let You Down”–are the album’s shoulda-been megahits that today fill dancefloors worldwide. The Shirley-Ellis-meets-Catfish-Collins instructional “Boogie Trip” is probably the best known song on the record since it earned a spot on the Lagos Disco Inferno compilation a few years back. Put on your blotter and dancing shoes! LISTEN


Mona Finnih

image6Mona Finnih recorded three collaborations with former Aktion and MonoMono guitarist Jimi Lee. The first and best, EMI’s A Stroll In The Moonlight from 1980, is a wonder to behold, packed with horn-heavy tracks like Lee’s majestic funky title cut, Finnih’s “People of the World,” and her pounding tour-de-force of empowerment “I Love Myself.” In 1984, they released Almighty on Afrodisia and Eni Ma Bimo on Emona. More highlife than disco, Lee’s “Iwa Ika” is the standout from the latter, a tight swirling mass of percussion, Hawaiian guitar, saxophone accents, and multi-tracked vocals. In 2014, Voodoo Funk compiled two of her best tracks from the Moonlight LP onto a 12” release. LISTEN


Eunice Mokus Arimoku

image5Like label-mate Christy Ogbah, Eunice Mokus Arimoku was affiliated with the early-80s Lagos club scene. Her first record was on Duomo, Onye Oni Me, while her second was self-released five years later on her own label, Unimokus Records, called I Am Glad You Are Mine. The track “Loneliness” from the latter is her big jammer, a loud echoey sprawl of voice and synth over a single looping guitar signature. From her first LP, “Ariro” is a standout, recently anthologized on the Duomo compilation from Lagos-based Odion Livingstone. LISTEN


Oby Onyioha

Screen-Shot-2018-05-30-at-2.11.32-PMOnyioha’s acclaimed I Want To Feel Your Love represented the launch of a new era for women artists in Nigeria. While industry prejudices remained, a steady stream of female pop artists nevertheless began changing disco conventions and embracing a more mellow 80s dancefloor sound. Time, Tabansi, Phonodisk, and Taretone all began to sign and record more women artists, like Stella Monye, Lorine Okotie, Julie Coker, and Martha Ulaeto. Onyioha recorded a second LP in 1984 on Sunny Alade, entitled Break It, but its success failed to match I Want To Feel Your Love. While you can’t beat the driving force of its title song, we’re partial to “Enjoy Your Life,” the smooth swinging side closer that includes a line about “humpty dumpty stuff” that we can’t ever really make out due to the cool jabby synth pan. Check out the indispensable compilation Doing It In Lagos from Soundway for this track and others. She’s now an anthropologist; see this YouTube interview where she discusses the importance of the pre-Gregorian African calendar. LISTEN


Lijadu Sisters

47fa1b37e5904d47a62990fdc6c6847aLastly, there isn’t much we can add to the story of Taiwo and Kehinde Lijadu. The talented twins toured the world and knocked out a string of flawless records during the latter half of the 70s: Danger, Mother Africa, Sunshine, and Horizon Unlimited. While Danger is usually the fan fave, be sure to check out “Set Me Free” and “Reincarnation” from Sunshine. Instead of a song, we’re linking to an incredible documentary clip from 1980 that finds them grappling with the exploitation they’ve experienced at the hands of Decca’s Afrodisia label, but also optimistic about the roles for women moving forward. “It’s only this industry that has a problem of a shortage of female artists…I wouldn’t be surprised in the next five years if we don’t have more females in this profession than men.” LISTEN

Essential Nigerian Afrobeat: The Wings, Original Wings & Super Wings

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(We are deeply indebted to original band member Manford Best for much of the information summarized below. See his book History of the Wings for additional information.)

In 1966, civil war erupted in Nigeria. Hostilities had been building since the bloody Kano riot of 1953, and the discovery of additional oil reserves reignited the conflict. The Prime Minister and his cabinet were killed in a coup by Igbo secessionists in the East who declared themselves the breakaway Republic of Biafra. “The perpetrators brazenly looted properties, raped women and committed unfathomable atrocities under the guise of a religious uprising,” Wings guitarist Manford Best recounts in his book, History of the Wings. “This exodus led to an influx of refugees and caused untold hardship such that hunger and starvation became the orders of the day.” Young men in Biafra were expected to fight for the survival of the new republic, but the safer gig was logistical support for the military. This included bands to perform at bases and official events, and to boost overall troop morale. Hence, the Biafran Air Force created a band called BAF Wings.

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Biafran Air Force, 1967.

BAF Wings consisted of two distinct units of musicians: a popular highlife section, led by established bandleader Adolf King; and a second smaller line-up geared towards the “beat” pop music of the day. This pop band consisted of Dream Lovell (Dan Ian) on lead guitar, Gab Zani on lead vocals, Jonathan “Spud Nathan” Udensi on rhythm guitar, Arinze “Ari” Okpala on bass, and Manford Best on drums, with Frank Moses Nwandu acting as manager. The military paid for instruments, amplifiers, and a bus for transportation between assignments. The two sections continued on until the collapse, as recounted by Manford Best:

“After Christmas 1969, it became clear that Biafra was about to lose the battle. When non-stop gunfire and mortar shells started landing everywhere indiscriminately, we knew that advancing Federal soldiers had finally broken through in several sectors. As people in general including the highlife section ran for their dear lives in different directions on foot, members of the pop music section decided to converge at Azia, which was Spud Nathan’s village. Despite the fact that there was no time for a thorough movement plan, we were able to salvage two amplifiers, three microphones, loud speakers, the drumset and two guitars as we fled. Thereafter, we went to our various villages to reunite with members of our families and for them to be aware that we survived the war.”

Following the 1970 ceasefire, Nigeria was divided into four states, and the renowned sounds created by the funk bands of the defeated Biafran insurgency quickly began to take hold and spread across the nation. The reformed band, now simply The Wings, decided to base themselves in Enugu, the new capital of eastern Nigeria, focusing on hotels as their mainstay. If you could get steady work at a hotel, you could become a sort of house band there, building a following and making enough to live on. Any spare income earned by the band was invested back into improved equipment (synthesizers and organs were notoriously hard to maintain), and through this process, they became regulars at the Dayspring Hotel on Sunday afternoons, playing primarily pop/soul numbers by The Beatles, James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, and Otis Redding.

A significant setback occurred when lead guitarist Dan Ian (later of Wrinkar Experience fame) and singer Gab Zani decided to leave the band, which effectively ended their tenure at the hotel. Just as the band was on the verge of splitting, their manager was approached with a fortuitous offer of a 1-year contract with 33rd Brigade Headquarters in Maiduguri. This meant a monthly salary, free housing, health care, all new musical gear, plus a new bus. The members of the band agreed that it was an amazing opportunity, despite the lack of autonomy that went along with being a military attachment; at least there was no war. They quickly grabbed two new members to flesh out the lineup: Okechukwu “Okey” Uwakwe, a lanky guitarist from a band called The Wavelengths; and Pius Dellin, a keyboard player from neighboring Kano. The band’s existing rhythm guitarist Spud Nathan, who had already been singing some highlife numbers during the band’s hotel sets, mainly to give vocalist Gab Zani a break, stepped in to lead vocals and began honing his voice.

It was now 1971 and pop music was making inroads on the African highlife scene. Fela Kuti and his drummer Tony Allen, inspired in part by Sierra Leone’s funk stars Geraldo Pino & the Heartbeats, are credited with coining the term “Afrobeat” to describe this new sound. EMI’s Nigerian subsidiary began scouting local talent to sign, as did Decca. When not performing for military functions, The Wings were free to gig around the city of Aba at will, and they quickly became a fixture in the burgeoning club scene, primarily at the Ambassador and Unicoco hotels, where they played with house band The Funkees. This led to their being signed by EMI.

“You’ll Want Me Back” b/w “Catch That Love”, 1972

In early 1972, the band headed to Lagos and recorded their first 7” single, entitled “You’ll Want Me Back” b/w “Catch That Love”. The release sold well and brought them nationwide radio exposure for the first time. This was followed within six months by “Afam Efuna” b/w “Had I Known” on the HMV label. At this point, due to increasing opportunities and regional fame, they opted not to renew their contract with the military, which resulted in a punitive confiscation of all gear and equipment which the military had purchased, including their bus. Once more, the band was destitute and on the verge of financial ruin.

Jake Sollo and The Funkees, looking to relocate to England, arranged for the sale of their instruments to The Wings through negotiations with EMI, the label of both bands. This enabled the recording of their third and most successful single to date, in October 1973: “Someone Else Will” b/w “I’ve Been Loving You”. Former member Dan Ian played guest rhythm guitar on the track while his two sisters, Callista and Meg Mbaezue, sang backing harmony over Spud’s vocal. The band’s popularity accelerated quickly, culminating in their appearance on the premier musical program on NTA, the Nigerian Television Authority.

Kissing You So Hard, The Wings, EMI, 1974

For reasons unclear but purportedly to strengthen the rhythm section, additional percussionists Emma Dabro and Dandy Aduba were hired. Manford Best moved from drums to rhythm guitar, replaced by veteran highlife drummer Joel Madubuike, who is credited only as “Noel” on the back jacket of their first LP. It was with this lineup that The Wings entered EMI Studios in Lagos in April 1974 to record their first and only full-length album, Kissing You So Hard, with Pal Akalonu producing. The album was a regional success and stands today as one of the finest Nigerian pop records of all time, starting with Spud Nathan’s anthem “Single Boy” and ending with Uwakwe’s prophetic and plodding groove “Gone With The Sun”.

The production sound is cavernously weird, with bursts of guitar and organ moving up high in the mix, disappearing, then surging back; check out “Make Me Happy”, with its two distinct passages of Uwakwe’s fuzzed-out guitar and Dellin’s organ breaks, punctuated with Madubuike’s precision drum fills. On the technical aspects of the recording process, Manford Best states that “while all the instruments were being played with the singing going on, the engineer skilfully recorded all the inputs at a go.” The album’s philosophical centerpiece is Spud Nathan’s cut “But Why”, in which he bleakly describes his “struggle to exist” when “emptiness drowns his whole life.” The song’s brooding spirituality would obsess fans for years, especially in light of what was shortly to come.

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(L-R: Dandy Aduba, Spud Nathan, Pius Dellin, Okey Uwakwe, Manford Best; photo, M.Best)

December 26, 1974. The band played a gig at Mbaukwu. Stories differ as to what went down from this point forward with regard to a disagreement that night within the band. According to Best’s recent account, it was an established practice to rotate a leader monthly between the band’s core four members (Spud, Manford, Ari, and Okey). Spud was supposed to hand over leadership to Manford on December 24th, but he refused to do so for reasons unclear; the latter theorizes it was because a lucrative show was coming up in Port-Harcourt, and Spud wanted to be the one to collect and distribute the money. Tempers flared but Spud ultimately agreed to hand over control to Manford and rode with him in his newly-purchased Toyota to the next gig as a conciliatory gesture. At 4:00am, the band departed in separate vehicles to the town of their next show. Spud and Okey rode in Manford’s car and slept. What happened, according to Manford, is as follows:

“At about 6:00am, two kilometers after crossing the notorious Njaba bridge, we reached Azara-Obiato village and I was turning a corner when suddenly I saw a woman crossing the road. I tried to avoid her by swerving to the left but on seeing an oncoming vehicle swerved back to the right, lost control of the car and knocked her down in the process. The car skidded over the embankment and somersaulted in the bush resting finally on its side. The noisy impact of the crashing car and the alarming cries of the injured woman attracted villagers to the scene. They turned over the car to its normal position, forced the door open and carried Okey and I out while others rescued the woman. When I regained consciousness I stood up and heard Okey moaning and saying some indistinguishable words. I tried to help him stand up but he could not. This was because of the excruciating pain resulting from his injuries. I looked around and could not find Spud so I started shouting.”

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Photo: M. Best

Spud Nathan had been thrown from the car’s window; his neck snapped. Okey, in excruciating pain and unable to stand, was placed on a bus and transported to two different hospitals, since the first lacked the expertise to handle the traumatic damage done to his spinal cord. The rest of the band, traveling in a different vehicle, would not learn of the crash until the following day. Word traveled fast throughout the region about the wreck and the circumstances behind it, feeding rumors and conjecture among fans and friends. Internally, between the bad blood from the fight beforehand, Best’s comparatively superficial injuries, and the mysterious unidentified “woman on the bridge”, suspicions arose immediately. Class rifts between the more-affluent Best and the other founding members, especially Ari Okpala, erupted. According to Best, an assassination attempt was made on his life shortly after the crash, which he attributes to either Okpala or Spud Nathan’s sister in London. Ari Okpala and the other members decided to dissolve the band for two years in honor of their dead friend.

True to their plan, in 1976, Ari Okpala founded a new outfit called Original Wings (sometimes called Original Wings International). Of the Kissing You So Hard lineup, only Okpala on bass and the hired percussionists, Dandy Aduba and Emma Dabro, remained. Johnny Fleming, who had briefly toured with an earlier pre-1974 iteration of the band, returned to replace Pius Dellin on keyboards. With Okey Uwakwe now paralyzed, Charles Effi Duke took over on lead guitar while Jerry Demua was hired to replace Spud Nathan on lead vocals. Drummer Joel Madubuike, who had already split to join the popular funk band The Apostles, was replaced by Emma Chinaka, a.k.a. Emma China.

Men of the People, Super Wings, Clover, 1976

Meanwhile, keyboardist Pius Dellin (also excluded from the Original Wings relaunch) alerted Manford Best of the brewing betrayal by their old comrades. Furious and feeling slighted, he immediately formed a rival band called Super Wings, with Pius on keys and three other musicians: John-John Duke on bass; Johnson Hart on drums; and George Black and Jerry Boifraind on vocals/percussion. Afraid of getting beaten to the punch and wanting to stake their claim to the name, they rushed into the studio to record a new album, signing to Lagos-based label Clover Sound, run by Ben Okonkwo. The resulting LP called Men of the People was, by Manford Best’s own admission, a bit of a mess, poorly mixed and engineered (a problem plaguing many Clover records), despite some ace performances, particularly the tracks “Lonely World”, “Trust Your Woman”, and Dellin’s shimmering “Sunshine of Tomorrow.”

Tribute to Spud Nathan, Original Wings, EMI, 1976

This mad dash to the marketplace backfired. Sales of the LP were flat, and their second-rate status was soon sealed, when, just weeks later in 1976, Ari Okpala’s Original Wings released their own LP, entitled Tribute To Spud Nathan, on Nigeria EMI, its cover sporting a photo of Spud, arms outstretched and in belled-sleeves, singing onstage at a University of Nigeria show. Starting off with the tribute song “Spud Nathan”, which acknowledged the acrimonious splintering and promised peace from this point forward, it is a meticulously crafted record from start to finish, every bit as good as its forerunner Kissing You So Hard. It was, by all accounts of the time, a major comeback in the Nigerian pop scene.

My Love Is For You, Super Wings, Clover, 1977

Super Wings would persevere for one more record, again on Clover and with Ben Okonkwo producing. Most of the lineup remained, sans Jerry Boifraind, who left to record his first two solo LPs for Anodisc and Love Day. Lessons were clearly learned from the rushed release of Men of the People, and 1977’s My Love Is For You is the band’s creative apex. Manford Best’s crisp, reverb-drenched riffs, mixed with Pius Dellin’s layered synth and new vocalist Allwell Opara’s strange warbly vibrato, make for a distinctive and powerful unifying sound throughout its nine tracks. In true competitive form, that same year also saw the release of the Original Wings LP You’ll Want Me Back, which featured a re-worked version of the first 7” release by The Wings. While a fantastic record (“Stoop To Conquer”, “Help Yourself” and “Anonymous Man” are high-energy standouts), the balance between Original Wings and Super Wings was now shifting a bit.

Change This World, Original Wings, EMI, 1979

But it didn’t matter. The market was changing. Nigerian Disco and the spinoff scene later codified as Boogie were on the ascent. Funk bands across the country began closing up shop, with some musicians shifting increasingly into arrangement and production work. Manford Best shut down Super Wings and recorded two solo records. Original Wings released a final LP in 1979, Change This World, before Ari Okpala decided to dissolve the band permanently.

Founding lead guitarist Okey Uwakwe’s eventual death in 1977, from spinal injuries sustained in the car crash years earlier, was the sad closing coda for both outfits.

Titicut Follies

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“Bridgewater, like any maximum security prison, is not the kind of place you parachute into and hide in the hills and make forays into the cell blocks when nobody’s looking…. It took a year for me to get permission to make Follies.”  — Frederick Wiseman

Although American censorship of cinema has fluctuated with shifts in morality, only one film has ever been subjected to a court-ordered injunction for reasons other than obscenity and national security.  That film is Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies; or, as it came to be known for decades within the judiciary, Commonwealth v. Wiseman.

Where is the line between social activism and exploitation for commercial gain? How does one balance the public’s right to know with patient privacy, particularly when violation of the latter is justified, at least in the mind of the violators, as an altruistic campaign for more humane living conditions? And to what extent can one individual bend the law to serve what they perceive as the “greater good”?….

The setting is Bridgewater State Hospital, a Massachusetts correctional institution for the criminally insane. A young Boston University law professor who had recently turned to filmmaking approached the superintendent and began discussions on the possibility of filming a documentary inside the facility. Wiseman was no stranger to mental health: his mother was a prominent mental health advocate and philanthropist in Massachusetts for years, and Bridgewater had long been a case of controversy within the state for its primitive conditions, being part asylum, part prison, and funded by two separate state agencies with differing agendas. Consisting of 139 buildings over 1,500 acres, Bridgewater served several distinct populations: a hospital for the criminally insane; a prison for alcoholics; a facility for “defective delinquents suffering from gross retardation;” and a treatment center for the “sexually dangerous.” (These differing populations, and the various levels of expectant patient privacy rights granted to each, would be a large part of the controversy when the case hit the courts.) Bridgewater was used as a threat, as bargaining leverage in job negotiations and to keep the state’s mental health employees in line: “Do what you are told, or we will reassign you to Bridgewater.” It was somewhat Soviet sounding and no doubt created the intended chilling effect on those who received it. Even more confusing was the merger of medical and penal. Security guards sometimes took orders from doctors but also directed them in certain situations. Conflicts of authority abounded; and patients were in the middle.

Follies is the textbook case of verbal contracts gone awry. On the surface, and from the reaction to the film afterwards by the agencies involved, it would appear to the casual observer that Wiseman used deceptive tactics to film inside the facility, that the administration was duped by a declaration of false intentions. But the official record shows that not to be the case at all. In fact, the superintendent with which he first initiated talks, Charles Gaughan, who held Harvard degrees in English and Psychiatric Sociology, was himself interested in bringing attention to the horrible conditions present at Bridgewater, in hopes of obtaining public support for additional funding. The meetings he held with Wiseman and his associates were extensive and involved detailed discussions on Wiseman’s philosophical and social activist approach to documentary filmmaking, as well as Gaughan’s explicit intentions. Wiseman was in no way undercover or clandestine in his actions, or even shooting where he was not supposed to: he was merely capturing average workdays, with average slightly-bored employees going through the motions, with average patients enduring treatment that was considered humane by state standards. When finished editing, he screened the film before Bridgewater’s administration, per their agreement prior to filming. They provided their unanimous approval to move forward with release. There were plenty of moments where someone at Bridgewater could have second guessed the wisdom of such a decision, or pondered public reactions to forced tube-feeding and naked men wandering in stark corridors. But amazingly, no one did.

The hows and whys of the legal disaster that followed are way beyond the scope of what can be covered here. Suffice it to say that there was a good degree of back-pedaling by Bridgewater, at Gaughan’s level and above, once the film premiered at the New York Film Festival and outraged reviews starting hitting the press (oddly, some critiques in the media focused on Wiseman’s decision to show an old man nude, apparently not bothered by the old nude man being subjected to humiliation and mistreatment.) Ultimately, Bridgewater pulled the violation of patient rights card to get a court-ordered injunction to prevent release. It was shelved in 1969, the Supreme Court denying to hear the case. Thereafter, Wiseman could only show the film to mental health professionals and had to obtain full documentation from all present that they were licensed and able to attend under the terms imposed by law. Suits brought against the state of Massachusetts by the families of several who died from neglect at Bridgewater cited the suppression of Titicut Follies as a significant contributing factor in their deaths. The fight continued, and the case was not resolved until 1992, when the courts basically ruled that patient rights were no longer an issue for the film since many of them were now deceased. It was only then that Titicut Follies could be publicly shown.

Today, Titicut Follies stands as a stark reminder of how corrupt, entrenched, and indifferent some institutionalized systems can become if left to their own devices. Equally, it exemplifies the power of those from without (Wiseman) and within (Gaughan) to challenge these systems and bring them before public scrutiny. Wiseman went on to found Zipporah and has made countless films now considered classics of the cinema verite documentary form. Thus far, however, none have ended up the meandering ethical and legal saga of the long-banned film that kick started his career.

Salesman

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“I forget who the poet is, but a famous English poet said something like, ‘There’s no sound more beautiful, whether it’s in the city or in the country, than the sound of a knocking on the door.’ …. To that I would add, ‘Unless it was a Bible salesman.'” — Albert Maysles on Salesman

If brothers Albert & David Maysles excelled at one point in documentary filmmaking, it was finding the quiet drama in the seeming banality of the everyday. And while their other subjects–the Rolling Stones in Gimme Shelter and the eccentric Beales of Grey Gardens infamy to name but two–are often better known, it is Salesman that has always affected me the most. Maybe it’s the simplicity, or rather, the complexity of something that on the surface seems so simple. After all, documenting Bible salesmen on their day-to-day peddling routes through suburban Boston could have been unbearably dull. But it isn’t. In fact, I would argue that what is captured–and importantly, brilliantly edited together–exemplifies a sort of quintessential Americanism: a fusion of huckster commercialism, quasi-religiousness, human frailty, and a good dose of sales guilt, all stretched over the classic Horatio Alger myth of “working your way up from nothing.”

Of course, this myth works out well for some, not so well for others. So it is here, where four men–all assigned animal names by the Maysles to describe their attitudes: The Rabbit, The Bull, The Badger, and The Gipper–have mixed success peddling overpriced Bibles to families that can ill afford their $50 price tag. Very early on, Paul Brennan, the Badger, is clearly different from the rest. Especially awkward are the scenes where all men are together talking about their day’s work, Paul clearly not cut our for the task. Despite his rationale for why the sales aren’t happening, and the caustic behind-the-scenes tone he takes on with regard to his clients, he seems almost too self-aware of the superfluousness of his job, of the fact that what he is doing is essentially meaningless and manipulative. The Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, their incredible editor, hone in on this pathos as the key to their narrative. They admitted later to developing a deep empathy for Paul and maintained a long relationship with him well beyond the filming. Paul is also Irish, and the Maysles, growing up in an antagonistic, anti-Irish Boston neighborhood and raised with those views themselves, saw this as an important peacemaking moment for them.

Today, Salesman could be seen as the film that introduced the term “cinema verite” to a wider audience. The term originates in the works of Soviet director Dziga Vertov and his idea of the “Kino Eye,” as seen in his radically experimental The Man with the Movie Camera. The lens simply captures life as it unfolds, without any intervention or narrative artifice from the director. Later this was taken up by french filmmaker and anthropologist Jean Rouch, who coined this term for “truthful cinema.” Nevertheless, it came to embody certain aesthetic ideals and little else, philosophically speaking. At this point in the study of film and media theory, no sane person would argue that the “cinema verite” style is any more “truthful” than that given by someone like Michael Moore. Typically, it is now often shorthand for a documentary that lacks narration or any clear framing devices or contexts for the viewer. Today we really take this form for granted, but in the mid-1960s, almost all documentaries used the newsreel approach, with the omnipotent voice over bringing down the narrative like a sledgehammer, not only providing context but also compensating for the fact that often no microphones were present for the subjects being filmed, with most sound done post production. The Maysles’s  “direct cinema” approach (both brothers hated the pomposity of the phrase “cinema verite”) built upon earlier, more subtle traditions, like Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) and the African documentaries of Rouch. The Maysles were “embedded” filmmakers–Albert on 16mm handheld camera, David on the mic and portable reel-to-reel–traveling with their subjects or, in the case of Grey Gardens, practically living in their homes. The Maysles’s reasoning for this was at the very core of their artistic vision: gain their trust, and the rest will follow. The philosophy worked remarkably well for their three essential films, SalesmanGimme Shelter, and Grey Gardens.

But in today’s “reality”-obsessed, media-savvy culture, Salesman is amazing for another reason: the lack of self-consciousness of its subjects. Somehow, no one seems to think it strange to have two men filming in their homes, nor do they think it appropriate to get the curlers from their hair, or put on an overshirt, or not smoke at the table with the baby present, or turn down the wobbly, blaring elevator music on the new hi-fi system. Granted, the brothers did work to get the trust of their main subjects, but there was no such trust with the working class families whose homes they entered; just a quick explanation of this being part of a “human interest story.” After all, it’s what the Maysles Brothers loved, getting at the realness of people in the moment, not in a mocking ironic sense, but in a humanistic and sincere way. And there is no film where this sincerity comes through stronger than Salesman.

(FYI, I was informed recently that David’s daughter Celia is a Lewis & Clark graduate and documentary filmmaker.  A great interview with her is available here)

American Dream

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One of the most devastating and shameful developments of postwar American society was the war waged on organized labor by corporations, in collusion with the Reagan Administration, from 1980-88. To assign an end date is deceptive, of course, since we continue to feel the waves to this day. The era began appropriately enough, with Reagan acting as a “mediator” in the air traffic controllers’ strike, where he “permanently replaced” 1,400 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controller’s Organization. This sent a clear and unmistakable message to companies from coast to coast: “Clean house, we’ve got your back.” They took it to heart too: Phelps Dodge in Arizona in 1983; Chicago Tribune in 1987; Caterpillar in 1989; and perhaps the most famous of all, Hormel in 1985, the subject of Baraba Kopple’s Academy-Award winning documentary American Dream.

After the stagnation of the 1970s economy, the horrible recession that hit in 1982 provided corporations with the perfect pretext to crush labor, an opportunity that had not presented itself since the 1930s. This was the beginning of what would later be codified as globalization, and economists Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison outline the situation quite clearly in their 1982 book The Deindustrialization of America: Plant Closings, Community Abandonment, and the Dismantling of Basic Industry. In the quest to remain “globally competitive,” companies were willing to do whatever it took, even destroying the very social fabric of communities that had devoted their entire working lives to the success of their firms.

It started in what is called the “Frostbelt” of the northeast, first with the steel mills, then spreading to other areas of manufacturing. Reagan’s public relations team were brilliant propagandists, pushing patriotism and national pride, the myth of the “home team” and language designed to foster illusions of equality, community and collective struggle (see Barbara Ehrenreich’s 1989 book Fear of Falling for a good discussion of this). Suddenly “union” became a dirty word. Unions were un-American, greedy, out for themselves. That this view was even embraced by large portions of an increasingly-conservative working class that unions had supported for decades is a testament to the efficacy of the smear campaign. Concurrently, the management consultant industry boomed as corporations looked for ways to increase their profit margins by slashing wages, benefits, and pensions. Factories moved in droves to the south, the “Sunbelt,” where labor was cheap and migrants plenty.

The packinghouse P-9 strike at Hormel in Austin, Minnesota showed how far manufacturing management was willing to go in this new era: they closed the old factory, built a new “hi-tech” one that resembled a prison (where worker injuries reached epidemic proportions), and demanded deep wage cuts. And this was during a string of double-digit record profits for Hormel, which was outstripping its competitors by huge margins. Several years earlier, at the behest of the United Food and Commercial Worker’s (UFCW), P-9 had already reluctantly agreed to a set of concessions that dramatically increased management’s power. So when a clause in this earlier agreement was invoked, demanding a unilateral 23% pay cut across the board, P-9 geared up for a fight. Tired of the UFCW selling them down the river, they brought in Ray Rogers of Corporate Campaign Inc., a consultant firm which specialized in high-profile media assaults on corporations, typically with boycotts and pressure strategies on banks and stakeholders. It galvanizes worker spirit but the impact on Hormel is minimal. As the months wear on, the International and UFCW withdraw all support and striker benefits, even encouraging P-9 members to be scabs and cross their own picket lines. Some choose to do so, burning bridges with their neighbors, their friends, their family members. Others block streets, get hit with teargas and arrested, refuse to give in. The destruction of the social fabric, as predicted.

On the bright side, American Dream highlights a new energy in labor, one that shows how out of touch the national labor leaders had become, with their exorbitant salaries and willingness to negotiate with unfair corporate demands. This new spirit is summed up well by one striker late in the film, when he realizes that the P-9 membership, even after months of pickets and civil disobedience, will ultimately have to pick between unfair concessions or unemployment: “Fuck ’em, we’ll find something else,” he says defiantly, walking away from the union hall mic.