The Criterion Collection releases Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd”

A Face in the Crowd
Directed by Elia Kazan and featuring Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Tony Franciosa, and Lee Remick
Written by Bud Schulberg
Warner Brothers, 1957, 125 minutes

4 Stars  for the film itself.

3 Stars  for this Criterion Collection DVD release.

A couple of weeks ago, I received my copy of the Criterion Collection’s new DVD release of director Elia Kazan’s 1957 film, “A Face in the Crowd.”

I reviewed “A Face in the Crowd” at length a couple of years ago (see here) as part of my series on Kazan’s nineteen films, so I’ll just note a few thoughts I have about the movie and this DVD release:

“A Face in the Crowd” was a box office flop in 1957, but has garnered an increasing number of admirers over the decades. The reason? The film’s warning of the manipulative power of television and marketing in relation to politics was eerily prescient. More than a few contemporary commentators have cited this film in relation to president Donald Trumps’ populist appeal, which is no doubt the main reason why Criterion selected it.

Most people are familiar with actor, Andy Griffith, who became a national celebrity in his 1960s television role as the friendly sheriff of Mayberry. Few people are aware of Andy’s strikingly contrasting film debut in “A Face in the Crowd” in which he played an ornery drifter turned power hungry, megalomaniac and political kingmaker. Griffith is a hoot and Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Tony Franciosa, and Lee Remick also played excellent parts. The film’s ending falls a little flat, but that’s a minor criticism,

I’m pleased Criterion selected “A Face in the Crowd” as one of its premium releases and I appreciate now having the film in Blu-ray high-definition. Criterion normally provides a large number of bonus features with its releases, but, unfortunately, that wasn’t the case with “A Face in the Crowd.” I did enjoy the new interview with Ron Briley, author of “The Ambivalent Legacy of Elia Kazan” (see my review here), as well as the new interview with Evan Dalton Smith, author of the forthcoming biography, “Looking for Andy Griffith.” Also included is the documentary short, “Facing the Past” (2005), featuring interviews with Griffith, Neal, Franciosa, and screenwriter, Bud Schulberg, but this extra was previously included in the Warner Bros. 2005 DVD release. I enjoyed the DVD package booklet featuring an excellent essay by film critic April Wolfe, excerpts from Kazan’s introduction to the movie’s published screenplay, and a 1957 New York Times Magazine profile of Griffith. However, I’m disappointed that an audio commentary from a film critic/historian was not provided. That’s a major oversight.

Justice League (and a Legionnaire) vs. The Fatal Five

DC Comics pulled the plug on the Legion of Super-Heroes’ own comic book series back in 2013, but the teen heroes from the 31st century have been busy making cameo appearances in a variety of other venues, including the very recent…

Justice League vs. The Fatal Five
Directed by Sam Liu
Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment, 2019, 77 minutes

4 Stars

Plot

In the 31st century, three members of the galaxy’s most powerful crime team, the Fatal Five, break into the Legion’s headquarters in Metropolis, and abscond with a time-travel sphere with Star Boy clinging on for dear life. Their destination? 20th century Earth. But Star Boy is able to place the villains in state of stasis before the vehicle crashes. Superman recovers the sphere and brings it to Justice League of America’s headquarters.

Meanwhile, the stranded Star Boy has some big problems. He suffers from a form of schizophrenia and his medication is back in the 31st century. His increasingly erratic behavior results in being sent to prison.

Mister Terrific of the Justice League inadvertently releases the three members of the Five – Mano, Tharok, and the Persuader –  and they immediately search for Jessica Cruz, one of the Green Lanterns, who has some mental health issues of her own. What do Mano, Tharok, and the Persuader want with a Green Lantern and where are the other two members of the Five; Emerald Empress and Validus?

The unstable Star Boy breaks out of prison using his impressive mass-altering powers and defends Jessica from the villainous trio. The Justice League – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Mister Terrific and trainee, Miss Martian –  soon join in the fray and the crooks are forced to flee.

The JLers set up a mind-meld and ascertain from Star Boy’s memories that Emerald Empress and Validus were apprehended by the Legion in the 31st century and sent to the 21st century to be imprisoned in the only facility strong enough to hold them; the Green Lantern Corps’ impenetrable Sciencells on the planet Oa. Ah, so that’s it! The villains need Green Lantern Jessica to lead them to their imprisoned comrades.

Mano sends an ultimatum to the JLers: turn over Jessica or explosives will detonated in cities throughout the world. Metropolis is suddenly rocked by powerful blasts, forcing the JLers to flee, and Jessica is impelled to lead the villains to Oa and the Sciencells where Validus and the Emerald Empress and her powerful Emerald Eye are freed following a tussle with two Green Lantern guards. Jessica’s Green Lantern ring is destroyed in the melee, rending her powerless. The Emerald Empress then super-charges the powers of the Eye using the Green Lanterns’ Central Power Battery.

The Five return to Earth and the Princess initiates her plan to use the Eye to destroy the Sun, thus annihilating Earth and eliminating the Legion as future antagonists. The JLers intervene, but succumb to the power of the Five. Just when all seems lost, Jessica finds her nerve back on Oa and reassembles her Green Lantern ring and reclaims her powers. She returns to Earth and apprehends the Five. However, the Eye is already well on its way to a cataclysmic rendezvous with the Sun. Superman, Jessica, and Star Boy give chase, but it’s too late, the Eye plunges into the Sun and it begins to fracture. Star Boy sacrifices himself and flies into the Sun, knowing his powers to alter mass can reverse the fracturing process and save Earth.

In the final scene, the JLA members are joined by a contingent of Legionnaires from the 31st century to honor the fallen Star Boy.

Comments

Hey, I enjoyed this animated film quite a bit! It was a good story and I appreciated the LSH tie-ins. The inclusion of once-taboo mental health topics into the story-line was interesting. The “Clutch Cargo” animation was extremely stiff, but that’s what fans of DC’s low-budget, direct-to-video, super-hero animated films have come to expect. Last July, we reviewed the origin of the Fatal Five in Adventure Comics #352 (see here) and the sacrifice of Ferro Lad to save the Sun, so it was interesting to see another Legionnaire sacrifice his life for the same purpose, although this time the Fatal Five were opponents rather than reluctant allies. It was strange to see Mano portrayed as the leader of the Five in this film, when Tharok, with his half-computer brain, was the historical leader of the evil quintet. Good stuff. Lots of fun for an old DC Comics Silver Age fan. Legionnaires making cameo appearances include Brainiac 5, Chameleon Boy, Dawnstar, Mon-El, Saturn Girl, Shadow Lass, and Tyroc.

“See a movie, talk about a movie…”

The Oscars are coming up in six weeks and there’s quite a lot of buzz in the media because they can’t seem to find anyone with a politically-correct enough past who’s willing to host it. Movies (and entertainment in general) are such an important part of our culture. For many people, deciding on the next movie they’re going to watch is the opiate gets them through the day. Which brings to mind a couple of memories from the past:

My paternal grandfather died in 1967 when I was eleven-years-old. Back in those days, it was routine to have calling hours for the deceased at the funeral home for two or even three evenings in a row prior to the funeral service and burial. Our extended family gathered for the three-night wake at Felerski’s Funeral Home on Hudson Avenue in what remained of Rochester’s small Polish enclave. I wasn’t very close to my grandfather, who spoke very broken English and was 66 years older than me when he died. So I viewed the wake and funeral pretty much as an occasion to get together with our many first-cousins.

Anyway, while at the funeral home during one of the evenings, I was standing by my oldest sister who was carrying on a conversation with our cousin, Rick, who were both in their late-teens at the time. They were discussing the 1966 movie, “Fahrenheit 451,” which was directed by Francois Truffaut and based upon Ray Bradbury’s popular 1953 sci-fi novel. Very briefly, the story is about a futuristic society in which the government is so repressive, that “firemen” don’t put out fires, they START fires in order to burn “subversive” books. Okay, so back to my sister and cousin. It wasn’t that they were just discussing the movie, they were picking apart every little detail as if it was the most important thing in the world! I didn’t time it, but it seemed like the intense conversation lasted an hour. I thought to myself, “Sheesh, who could possibly care that much about a dumb movie? These teenagers aren’t so smart after all.”

Flash forward twenty-five years later to 1992. At that time, our two sons were seventeen and fourteen-years-old, respectively. There were three things the boys loved to regularly banter about; sports, music, and movies; especially movies! They would talk incessantly about movies. All of that chitchat reminded me of that endless and ridiculous dialogue between my sister and cousin. One day, in my scolding, fatherly tone, I interjected into their lengthy movie discussion, saying, “Boys, it’s all a big nothing. What does it all count for?” Right then and there, I coined that phrase that still reverberates in our family’s lore:

“See a movie, talk about a movie. Talk about a movie, see a movie, and round and round and round.”

Our youngest son then turned to me with a quizzical look on his face and responded, “Well, what else is there?” I knew the answer to that question deep down, but I had walked away from the Lord the previous year so I kept my mouth shut. Sad.

There’s nothing wrong with having hobbies and interests. I’ve been known to spout off at length about a few topics myself (including some lengthy posts about movies directed by Elia Kazan!). But believers need to do a self-check and see if the Lord is sovereign over every aspect of their life. Entertainment, in all of its various forms, isn’t the be-all-to-end-all, but for many people, that is exactly what gets them through the day. Our sons still love their sports, music, and movies, but now I’m able to let them know that there is something, no, Someone, who is so much more than all of that.

Digging deep into the corruption that inspired Kazan’s “On the Waterfront”

On the Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York
By James T. Fisher
Cornell University Press, 2009, 370 pages

Director Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront,” is widely recognized as one of the top twenty American films ever made. It’s probably my favorite of Kazan’s nineteen films (see my review here). In this book, historian James Fisher documents the corruption on the docks of New York City and New Jersey that inspired the film. I’d been aware of this book for quite a long time and finally borrowed a copy from the library. I’ll always remember it as the book that kept me company during my wife’s recent 24-hour hospital Emergency Department visit.

In nineteenth-century New York City, Irish immigrants were consigned the very dangerous and strenuous work of physically loading and unloading ships. Over time, the Irish eventually usurped control of the docks. In the mid-twentieth-century, Joe Ryan and his corrupt union, the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA), ran the piers with an iron fist. Ryan ultimately reported to “Mr. Big,” Bill McCormack, who controlled a variety of industries in the New York City metropolitan area including all of the stevedore companies. McCormack, Ryan, and their lieutenants were in cahoots with local politicians and the Catholic prelates. Everyone benefited from the symbiosis except for the rank-and-file longshoreman, who were beholden to the union bosses each day for a chance to work a ship. Ryan and McCormack, devout Catholics, attended daily mass in the early morning and authorized intimidation, violence, and murder the rest of the day.

Jesuit priest, John “Pete” Corridan, was frustrated by the corruption on the docks and launched a one-man crusade against Ryan, the ILA, and McCormack. Investigative journalist, Mike Johnson, became aware of Corridan’s fight with the syndicate and wrote a series of exposés for one of the New York dailies. The articles came to the attention of novelist and screenwriter, Budd Schulberg, who acquainted himself with Corridan and the fight against corruption on the docks and eventually fashioned the script that became “On the Waterfront.”

Serious students of “Waterfront” and Kazan will definitely enjoy this book, but it’s not for the casual fan. Fisher’s history is extremely detailed and gets into quite a bit of minutiae. Jesuit priest Corridan’s work on the piers of New York was a precursor of the Jesuits’ propagation of “Liberation Theology” in Latin America and elsewhere. Corridan was the inspiration for priest, Pete Barry, in the film, played by Karl Malden, while the corrupt union boss character, Johnny Friendly, was somewhat based on Joe Ryan. For more on “Mr. Big,” Bill McCormack, see my previous post here. It’s interesting to note that shortly after “On the Waterfront” was released, the need for longshoreman would rapidly decline with the introduction of mammoth container ships.

Director Elia Kazan talks about his films

Kazan on Kazan
By Michel Ciment
Cinema One Series #26
Secker & Warburg Limited Publishing, 1973, 199 pages

I felt the need for some light reading material recently so I purchased a used copy of this book from Amazon. “Kazan on Kazan” may have been the first book I ever read about director, Elia Kazan, after having borrowed a copy from our local library way back in the 80s or early-90s. I enjoyed re-reading Kazan’s personal insights into his nineteen films. This is a short book, but there are many others available that cover the director and his films in far greater detail.

I’ve previously mentioned that I became interested in Kazan back when I was a young teen after watching the very unconventional ending of his 1961 film, “Splendor in the Grass.” Over the years, I became very familiar with all of Kazan’s work and even reviewed his nineteen films here at WordPress over the course of 2017 (see here). I haven’t I posted anything about Kazan since then because I needed a break following that marathon.

Kazan (1909-2003) was a remarkable fellow. At the high point of his career in the mid-1950s, he was considered America’s finest director, both in Hollywood and on Broadway. He revolutionized film and the theater by popularizing Konstantin Stanislavski’s method of training actors (i.e., “The Method”) and brought a level of realism to his productions that was unlike anything seen in America at the time.

Kazan quit the American Communist party in 1936, but remained a Marxist and atheist the remainder of his life. However, he would earn the unceasing ire of the American Left for his friendly testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. Kazan had been brought up in the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, but ultimately rejected the ritualism and legalism of institutional religion.

Why do I continue to value Kazan’s films? There was no such thing as the “good guys” versus the “bad guys” in Kazan’s later movies. The most notable characteristic of Kazan’s later work was the ambivalence of the main characters. They were motivated by both “good” and “bad” ideals, unlike the other American films of the time, which always portrayed the main character as a stereotypical “good guy.” Kazan’s characters were deeply flawed and that mirrored the reality that I knew. The director had fantastic insights into humankind and American society and wasn’t afraid to rub his audience’s noses in it, even as his films drew smaller and smaller box office.

So, Kazan stated the problem correctly; people are flawed, people are sinners. However, as an atheist, he could offer no solutions to man’s dilemma. He had no Gospel, no Good News to present to his audience.

“Kazan on Kazan” is strictly for Kazan aficionados.

Gordon’s Bible and a low-budget horror film

I never met my father-in-law (photo left, in 1941 at age 27). He died in 1961 at the age of 47 when my wife was only six-years-old. My wife grew up missing her father terribly.

Gordon was raised in a small, country town about 35 miles southeast of Rochester. He was an athletic kid and loved sports, especially baseball. He used to worship on Sundays with his large family at the small Methodist church in town. Curly, as his friends called him, entered the Army as an infantryman during World War II and served in Europe and the Pacific. But when he returned from the war, he found out his wife had been unfaithful, leading to a divorce.

Somehow, the country kid purchased a Red and White store in Rochester’s upscale East Avenue neighborhood, specializing in fine steaks and chops for his “discriminating” clientele. He soon met up with my mother-in-law. They married in Las Vegas and had a little girl, my wife. Gordon eventually developed heart trouble and had a heart attack. Back in those days, there wasn’t much they could do for heart patients besides prescribe bed rest. Against his doctor’s orders, Gordon went out on a hot day in September 1961 to play a round of golf, but wouldn’t return home to his wife and daughter.

Gordon lovingly doted on his daughter. She has many pleasant memories of her father even though she was so young when he died. The shock and sorrow of losing a parent at such a young, vulnerable age never leaves a person. The only keepsakes my wife had of her father were his Army dog tags and the worn Bible he carried with him throughout the war with its dog-eared pages marked with tiny notes.

My wife and I were both raised in Roman Catholicism and didn’t know Jesus Christ as our Savior. We were married very young and didn’t have two nickels to rub together for many years. I don’t remember who babysat for our son, who was one-year-old at the time, but in the summer of 1976 my wife and I went to see “The Omen” starring Gregory Peck and Lee Remick. It was a film about the coming of the anti-Christ and was actually very well-done despite its low budget. Well, that movie REALLY unnerved my wife and I with its references to the anti-Christ and his number being 666 as mentioned in Revelation 13:18. Neither of us had ever read the Bible before. We rushed home from the theater and my wife dug up her Dad’s old Bible, it was the only one we had, and we fumbled through it until we were able to locate the reference to 666. There was something about that event that gave us a new perspective on the Bible. I had previously dismissed it as a dusty collection of semi-myths and parables irrelevant to “real life.” But these references to Satan and the anti-Christ in Revelation triggered my curiosity. Although my wife had never read the Bible, she respected it because her father had carried it with him and read it throughout his extremely perilous stint in the Army.

Providence? A Christian can look back at their life before they accepted Christ and identify some of the people and things the Holy Spirit used to draw them to the Savior. It would be another seven years after seeing “The Omen” before we accepted Christ, but that movie and Dad’s Bible played a part.

Convent horrors: From the frying pan into the fire

While searching our county library’s database for items listed under “Roman Catholicism,” I stumbled across this very interesting French film:

The Nun (La religieuse)

  • Directed by Guillaume Nicloux
  • Based on Denis Diderot’s popular 18th-century novel, “The Nun (La religieuse),” and adapted to the screen by Guillaume Nicloux and Jérôme Beaujour
  • Featuring Pauline Etienne as Suzanne Simonin, Isabelle Huppert as Supérieure Saint-Eutrope, and Louise Bourgoin as Supérieure Christine
  • Distributed by Le Pacte (France), 2013, Running Time: 100 minutes

Plot

In mid-17th-century France, a 17-year-old girl, Suzanne, is placed in a convent by her parents for supposedly only a limited period of time. Suzanne subsequently learns from the friendly mother superior (Francois Lebrun) that her parents intend for her to remain in the convent and become a nun. The girl rebels against the rigidity of convent life, refusing to take her “final vows” at the last second, and is sent back to her parents.

Suzanne’s mother reveals to the girl that she is her illegitimate child and that she will not be sharing in the family’s dwindling estate. Suzanne is sent back to the convent, much to her displeasure, but sadness turns to terror when the friendly mother superior dies and is replaced by the harsh Supérieure Christine, who is determined to crush the girl’s rebellious spirit. Suzanne manages to smuggle out a plea for help to sympathetic parties, and Supérieure Christine retaliates by relentlessly punishing the girl to the brink of death.

Suzanne’s outside benefactors are able to arrange her transfer to a different convent, which initially appears to be much less harsh. However, it’s soon revealed that the nun in charge, Supérieure Saint-Eutrope, is a lesbian who preys upon her younger charges. Saint-Eutrope makes several advances upon Suzanne, but the girl is able to rebuff her. Suzanne reveals the sordid goings on within the convent to a visiting priest confessor, who then works in league with her benefactors to stage her escape.

After traveling all night, Suzanne awakes inside a sprawling estate. She learns her wealthy benefactor, who had saved her from the horrors of the convent, was her biological father, who had died during the night. She can look forward to a secure future on the estate with her half-brother.

Commentary

It’s disturbing to follow Suzanne’s horrific experiences within the two convent hell-holes. However, this fictional story is an excellent portrayal of the real abuse that routinely took place within Catholic convents, rectories, seminaries, and the palaces of prelates century after century. Suzanne’s character represents the millions of women and men, girls and boys who were physically, emotionally, and/or sexually abused over the course of a millennia by the “celibate” Catholic clergy. Sadder still are all of the Roman Catholic souls who have been misled by their church’s false gospel of salvation by sacramental grace and merit.

Actress Pauline Etienne does an excellent job in her portrayal of a young woman caught in her religion’s legalism, ritualism, and extreme asceticism, which all veiled the unspeakable corruption at its core.

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Supérieure Christine devises another “discipline” for the rebellious Suzanne.

The Byrds and the “Ballad of Easy Rider” – Resurgence or Hype?

It’s the first day of the month, so once again we take a break from theological discussions (for the most part) to review the next Byrds album…

Ballad of Easy Rider
The Byrds
Produced by Terry Melcher, Columbia Records, Released November 10, 1969, Length 33:55

The Byrds’ prospects appeared to be rather dismal after the very disappointing “Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde” album, but help was soon on the way from LA-scene hipsters and friends, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. Their counterculture film, “Easy Rider,” hit the screens in July, 1969 and quickly became a national sensation. The Byrds were featured prominently on the soundtrack with “Wasn’t Born to Follow” from “The Notorious Byrds Brothers” album, along with Roger McGuinn’s interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” and the closing tune, “The Ballad of Easy Rider” (see the YouTube video at bottom), written mainly by McGuinn with a little help from Dylan. Unbeknownst to the film audience, the music wasn’t the only Byrds connection. Fonda and Hopper later revealed they had based their characters, Wyatt and Billy, on McGuinn and ex-Byrd, David Crosby.

McGuinn and his faux-Byrds hired hands – Clarence White, Gene Parsons, and John York – had already begun recording the eighth “Byrds” album on June 17, 1969 and sessions would continue through August 26 under the direction of Terry Melcher, the producer of the Byrds’ first two albums.

Columbia Records and the Byrds were eager to exploit the band’s connection to the popular movie. The album cover featured a clumsy photo of Parsons’ father astride a vintage Harley clutching a rifle along with rambling liner notes from Fonda declaring “whoever the Byrds are is just alright. OH YEAH!” The marketing promo declared, “The movie gives you the facts, the Ballad interprets them.” Despite the hype, the album had absolutely no connection to the film outside of the title song. Due to the misleading marketing, many consumers would purchase the album thinking they were buying the film soundtrack.

“Ballad of Easy Rider” was released on November 10 and peaked at a respectable #36 on the album charts thanks in large part to the publicity connecting it to the popular film. The single, “Ballad of Easy Rider”/”Oil in My Lamp,” was released on October 1 and peaked at #65. The second single, “Jesus is Just Alright”/”It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” was released December 15 and peaked at #97.

Surprisingly, McGuinn contributed only the title song. York and Parsons each wrote one song apiece while the rest are covers. Bassist York would be fired from the band shortly after the sessions concluded. Clarence’s pickin’ is both brilliant and annoying at the same time with too much emphasis on the B-bender. Parsons’ drumming is distractingly subpar. Melcher’s production certainly resulted in a crisper sound than “Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde,” but the material is no better and may even have been a step down. Most of the songs are very slow and melancholy.

Over the years, many Byrds fans have bought into Columbia’s original hype, hailing “Ballad of Easy Rider” as the band’s return to respectability. However, objective Byrds enthusiasts eagerly disagree with Fonda; the band and the music were not “just alright.” Regarding the post-Sweetheart recordings, McGuinn stated in a 2013 interview, “When we did studio albums, I think I was too democratic. I allowed too many of the guys (hired hands Clarence White, Gene Parsons, John York, and later, Skip Battin) to have their own songs on there.”

Side One:

  • Ballad of Easy Rider (McGuinn, Dylan) – One of the better songs on the album although the orchestration is a bit overdone.
  • Fido (York) – Yech. Parsons is sometimes noticeably behind the beat.
  • Oil In My Lamp (traditional arranged by Parsons and White) – The Byrds follow up Fido with another dog. Clarence demonstrates his unique, nasally singing style.
  • Tulsa County (Polland) – York brought this song to the Byrds. Ho-hum.
  • Jack Tarr The Sailor (traditional arranged by McGuinn) – McGuinn would feature sea shanties throughout his career. Somewhat entertaining.

Side Two:

  • Jesus Is Just Alright (Reynolds) – A catchy number suggested by Parsons. Listen to the Art Reynolds Singers’ original 1966 version here. This song would be a hit for the Doobie Brothers three years later in 1972. This song is a good example of how Jesus gets His digs in through some amazingly unconventional means. In addition to many other contributing factors, the Holy Spirit used this song and the other Gospel-themed songs in the Byrds’ repertoire to help me start thinking about Jesus Christ and eventually motivating me to read God’s Word.
  • It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (Dylan) – The original Byrds attempted this tune during their sessions for “Turn! Turn! Turn!” McGuinn tries again in slo-mo.
  • There Must Be Someone (I Can Turn To) (Gosdin, Gosdin, Gosdin) – I kind of like this slow, sad song with Parsons singing lead. McGuinn was absent for the recording of this tune as well as for “Gunga Din.”
  • Gunga Din (Parsons) – Nonsense lyrics but a very nice melody.
  • Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos) (Guthrie, Hoffman) – Zzzzzzzzzz.
  • Armstrong, Aldrin And Collins (Manners, Seely) – McGuinn continues his fascination with space travel.

1997 Reissue Bonus Tracks:

  • Way Beyond The Sun (traditional arranged by McGuinn) – York sings lead on this mediocre bluesy number.
  • Mae Jean Goes To Hollywood (Browne) – Jackson Browne is a brilliant songwriter but this tune disappoints. Almost sounds like one of the later Battin/Fowley novelty numbers.
  • Oil In My Lamp (traditional arranged by Parsons and White) – Alternate version. Parsons’ vocals are given more emphasis on this one.
  • Tulsa County (Polland) – Alternate version. York sings lead on this one.
  • Fiddler A Dram (Moog Experiment) (traditional arranged by McGuinn) – Country meets 60s technology. Mildly entertaining.
  • Ballad of Easy Rider (McGuinn, Dylan) – Long version. Clarence’s solo is included in this take.
  • Build It Up (White, Parsons) – Instrumental.

 

Would the ersatz Byrds be able to continue their positive momentum after unabashedly cashing in on their connection to the popular “Easy Rider” movie? Find out next month when we review the Byrds’ ninth album, “Untitled.”

George Harrison: Lost and without a shepherd

George Harrison: Living in the Material World
Directed by Martin Scorsese
HBO, 2011, 208 minutes, available on Netflix

I was driving to work this past week, listening to (c)hristian radio, and Greg Laurie (not recommended) mentioned he had recently watched “Living in the Material World,” a documentary about ex-Beatle, George Harrison, on Netflix. So I set aside some time to watch this 3.5 hour documentary.

My five older sisters were big fans of the Beatles and I grew up with their music playing constantly from the family phonograph from 1964 until 1970 when they disbanded. Harrison (1943-2001) was the shy, quiet Beatle who eventually embraced Hinduism (particularly the Hare Krishna sect) with a passion. See my earlier post on Harrison and his influential Hare Krishna song, “My Sweet Lord,” here.

Scorsese’s documentary is an interesting and entertaining look at Harrison’s journey. He was brought up in a Roman Catholic family (as was fellow-Beatle, Paul McCartney), but finding no fulfillment in that impersonal, ritualistic religion, he got mixed up in Eastern “spirituality” through the music of Ravi Shankar. Of course, he didn’t find any real fulfillment in Krishna Consciousness either and regularly fell back into substance abuse and marital infidelity. After having been run ragged by the Beatles’ celebrity steamroller, Harrison sought “spiritual peace” and meaning in all the wrong places.

I enjoyed the many archived photos and videos of the “Fab Four,” along with the interview clips from Harrison, Pattie Boyd, Eric Clapton, George Martin, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, and Ringo Starr, along with many others.* But in the the end, this is a sad story of an unbeliever desperately trying to find spiritual meaning outside of Jesus Christ.

“I was brought up in the kind of Catholic situation up until I was about eleven years old, which was that God is this thing that we’re never going to see, we’re never going to meet, but you still have to believe in what we say. It’s like this blind faith in something that they can’t show you.” – George Harrison

The impersonal and ritualistic religion that Harrison grew up in was/is not Christianity. But you CAN know God through salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit!

“And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” – John 17:3

“When (Jesus) saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” – Matthew 9:36-38

*I learned from this documentary that Harrison was a major financial backer of Monty Python, the British comedy ensemble. There are times when Christians can be overly dour and humorless, but I found the clips of Monty Python’s satire of Jesus’ crucifixion and a mocking reference to His sermon on the mount in this documentary to be repulsive. It’s understandable why ex-Catholic and passionate Hindu, Harrison, would have found this anti-Christian humor attractive. It’s also obvious why Monty Python never filmed a skit goofing on backer Harrison’s Hare Krishnas with their shaved-heads and saffron robes, chanting incessantly and begging for money at airports.

Netflix’s “The Polka King,” an unlikely-but-fact-based dark comedy

The Polka King
Directed by Maya Forbes and featuring Jack Black, Jenny Slate, Jason Schwartzman, and Jackie Weaver
Netflix, 2018, 1h 35m

This dark comedy is based on the tumultuous life of Polka band leader, Jan Lewan(dowski) (photo right).

Plot

Polish immigrant, Jan Lewan (Jack Black), struggles to achieve the American dream. His Pennsylvania-based polka band and Polish gift shop teeter on insolvency, but Lewan has BIG plans and devises a pyramid investment scheme in order to finance them. Many of his polka fans are lured by promises of a 12% return on investment. Lewan’s “empire” appears to be on the rise, but cracks soon appear in the foundation. Try as he might, Lewan can’t seem to satisfy his wife’s (Jenny Slate) insatiable expectations that come with their nouveau riche lifestyle. As some investors begin to cash out, Lewan finds it harder and harder to make ends meet. Federal agents finally topple the house of cards and Lewan is imprisoned for five years. During that period, his throat is slit by his disturbed cellmate and his wife divorces him. Lewan was released from prison in 2005 and is still liable for the $5 million dollars taken from investors.

Commentary

This film is both comical and sad. Director/writer Maya Forbes and writer Wallace Wolodarsky have done a great job of translating this unlikely-but-true slice of Polish-Americana to the small screen. Jack Black’s performance may seem a bit “over the top” to the uninitiated, but those familiar with the Lewan story will agree that he catches the essence of the naively exuberant polka band leader. “The Polka King” premiered on Netflix on January 12th.

Additional thoughts from a believer

Covetousness is a sin we don’t hear too much about, but it drove Lewis into prison and it drives us as well. There may not be a European American ethnic group that’s more Catholic than Poles. This movie is saturated with symbols of Lewan’s and Polish Americans’ ritual Catholicism. As part of his growing financial “empire,” Lewan began conducting tours to European cities and Rome/the Vatican. An example of the band leader’s naiveté is when he arranges his first excursion to the Vatican and pays off a church official with a suitcase full of cash to secure an audience with pope John Paul II for his customers. Maybe he wasn’t so naive after all.