Society’s Children

September 5, 2013

Is not each one us a society’s child?  Society made Eddie a killer, and then crucified him for it.

You Only Live Once (1937) is the second film by Fritz Lang after he came to America, and a pretty bleak job it is.  Yes, I’d call it early noir, but it is also drenched with religious imagery.  Henry Fonda plays Eddie Taylor (E. T. – that’s important in the film) and Sylvia Sydney looks gorgeous playing his faithful, too faithful, wife, Jo.  He’s a good guy who’s gone wrong, and paid for it.  Now, he wants to go straight, Jo waited for him during his three-year stretch in the joint, but society won’t give an ex-con a break. They’re doomed, and you know it.

Jo’s friend is a good-hearted lawyer who gets Eddie a job as a trucker when he’s freed, and he also carries a torch for Jo.  In the film, he seems to be a direct mouthpiece for Lang’s views, sometimes lambasting the authorities for their brutishness and prejudice.  He hopes for the best for Jo, when she and Eddie tie the knot on his release.

Eddie is a romantic, and of course that will screw him up good, but first he and she have a delightful honeymoon at a cozy motel, which has a lovely garden.

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The lovebirds are watched over by two frogs who don’t appear to be mating themselves.  At one point in the story, when Jo believes Eddie is on his way to the chair for a crime he did not commit, she sends him a message – “I still remember the frogs.”  Only Fritz!

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Those impassive guardians of the night watch as Eddie picks her up, kisses her, and mounts the steps to Calvary…oops, I mean their bedroom.  It’s a foreshadowing of the final sequence when he carries Jo through the woods, both of them riddled with bullets, to their final rest.  Pietas come to mind, as well as the finale of Farewell to Arms.

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Eddie is late on a truck run because he makes a detour to take Jo to look at a house, a real fixer-up-er, that he and Jo can live in now that they are married.  Naturally, his boss is not understanding, and he humiliates him with insults when he begs for another chance, telling the boss that his friends tempt him with easy money from safe bank heists, but he wants no more of that. No dice – the boss fires him, after forcing him to wait while he has trivial phone conversations with his wife about social arrangements.  “Straight society sucks,” is the message.  Eddie delivers a knock-out blow to the boss’ chin and says, “And I wanted to go straight!…

That scene is the set-up for one of the most outrageous plots twists I can remember, at least of those that work!  Eddie appears to have caved in, returned to the life of crime because society just won’t give him a break.  Once a con, always a con…  He’s arrested for a deadly bank job in which six men died from poison gas used to incapacitate the armored car guards.  His hat, with his initials, was found on the scene, and was used to identify him since the robber wore a full gas mask.  He is sent up, and sentenced to die.

Jo believes in him, and she carries a heavy load because she urged Eddie to turn himself in, believing he would get off with a fair trial. We figure she is just taken in by Eddie’s lies because she loves him:  so taken by love, that she agrees to smuggle in a gun to him. The plot is foiled by a crude metal detector, but the good Father takes the blame to get Jo off the hook.  He takes her aside and chides her:  that arch looks like it’s ready to crush them with its institutional weight.

We too are taken in, but by Lang’s audacious plot twist that makes us complicit in society’s unfair pre-judgement.  Until it’s too late, we believe Eddie did it.  By then, Eddie, caged like an animal for slaughter, has lost all ability to judge the odds, let alone right and wrong.

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With the aid of a friendly con, he makes a daring escape, using the fog and the all-too-bourgeois prison doctor as a shield.

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Eddie reunites with Jo, who, this time, won’t urge him to turn himself in, not when she learns he shot Father Dolan on the way out.  She figures she’s as guilty as he is because it was she who urged him to surrender in the first place, when he wasn’t guilty! They run for it, like those Gun Crazy kids, like Bonnie and Clyde, and even, maybe, like the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath.

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They have a brief rest, before journey’s end.  Idyllic…

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Eddie knows they’re doomed.  How could it be otherwise?  He’s serene, and she loves him.  They’ll go together.

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They hit a roadblock, take some heavy fire from Tommy guns, and crash.  Eddie stumbles into the woods, carrying Jo in his arms.  The trooper lines up his gun with the two in his sights…  Is it just me, or is that not the cross I see there, completed by Eddie?  He is the sacrificial lamb for our social sins.

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Jo, dying, tells him she wouldn’t have had it any other way.

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He knows what he must do.  He must kiss her dead lips, and then he will be free.

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He sees the gates to freedom opening before him, and he hears the voice of Father Dolan repeating what he said during the breakout, when Eddie shot him – “You’re free!  The gates are open!”

The title of this post is a reference, of course, to Society’s Child, a hit song from 1965 written by Janis Ian when she was fourteen (!!) and performed live on TV when she was sixteen.  It’s the story of a white girl in love with a black boy, forced to break off with him because of her parents’ disapproval and peer pressure.  She knows it’s all wrong but what can she do? She’s just society’s child.

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Rodriguez, Detroit Sugar Man

September 4, 2012

Before I left to go to the Detroit area for the Labor Day weekend, I read a review [tepid] of a new novel, Say Nice Things About Detroit.  Well, the city has one hell of a FREE jazz festival over the holiday weekend, and I heard some excellent music there.  The whole thing is presided over by the weird Minoru Yamasaki building (he designed the original WTC in NYC) seen in the background of the photo on the left, below.  This band, Papo Vazquez and his Pirates Troubadours was wild, with their Afro-Puerto Rican Modern Jazz blend.

Detroit Jazz Festival

The cultural high point of my stay was seeing the movie, Searching for Sugar Man.

Sixto Rodriguez was a folk-rock singer and songwriter in the late 1960s:  he put out two albums, but they were flops.  The people who knew him are in awe of his talent, and mystified as to why he never caught on.  But he did catch on in South Africa during its anti-apartheid period, and his records were wildly popular.  He never knew anything about it, and after his brush with the music industry, went back to ordinary life.

Rumor had it that he had died in spectacular fashion, an on-stage suicide.  Two South African fans decide to get the real story, and they find to their amazement, that he is alive and well, living in Detroit.  (Right near where I was that weekend, in fact.)  He is incredulous at their tales of his South African super-stardom, “You’re bigger than Elvis there!” but he agrees to go on tour.  He sells out stadiums.

This movie is weirdly enchanting in many ways: The tale of a man returning from the dead;  the fan-turned-detective’s thrill; a fairytale of  a man ignored finally getting recognition for his work; perhaps another sorry tale of the music industry stealing from an artist, but that’s not completely clear; and the man himself.  This last bit is what fascinated me the most.

Rodriguez is an very unusual man:  that come through clearly.  He is deeply non-materialistic.  When his fame falls upon him, he is totally uninterested in the perks, the limos, the hotel suites, the papparazzi.  He is unfazed by the cheering throngs, serenely responding with joy to their love of his music.  That’s what he’s about – his art, his poetry, his music.  He seems like a Buddha-type.  When the detective-fans finally meet him (they are in a daze of disbelief that this is happening) he is living in a completely rundown apartment in Detroit, making his living, as he has for years, working as an hourly interior demolition worker.  (He also earned a degree in Philosophy, and raised three daughters.) It reminded me of Alexander the Great finally meeting his hero, Diogenes, whom he found living in a tub.

His music is really good, though I prefer it more or less acoustic-solo, rather than with the string arrangements.  Why didn’t he make it?  He’s clearly not the type who would stress and strive to do the things one must do to make it in the business – that has to be part of the story.  He’s touring now, though.


Jerry Leiber, R.I.P.

August 23, 2011

Jerry Leiber, of the fabulous song writing duo, Leiber and Stoller, died yesterday.  They wrote a huge selection of tunes that became hits and have stayed in the popular imagination through endless covers and recycling in soundtracks, commercials, and ‘classic rock’ playlists.  The most famous was their “You Ain’t Nothing but a Hound Dog,”  made a huge hit by Elvis, in an interpretation they reportedly did not like, but originally created for the Blues singer, Big Momma Thornton.

How two Jewish guys, one from New York, one from Los Angeles, got together and learned, loved, and exported to the world the essence of American Black music is one of those mysteries and wonders of American cultural history.   They were funny guys, too.  In a TV documentary series about the writers of the legendary Brill Building, they quipped when asked about their socializing with African-Americans at a time when that was not at all a common thing for white people:

“We didn’t believe in interracial dating:  we only dated black girls.”


Two Criminal Tales

March 1, 2011

Le Trou, is a film from 1948 about a prison break in Paris. Goodfellas, need I say it?, is a film from 1990 about the mob in NYC.  I watched these two films over the last two days, and it was like visiting two alternate universes.

First, let me say that Le Trou (Jacques Becker) is a fantastic movie.  Spare and incredibly suspenseful, it pulls off the amazing feat of turning the hardened criminals into …not quite the good guys, but exemplars of humanity.  Homo faber, man, the maker, with incredible ingenuity, patience, and perseverance they plan their escape from a fortress in the center of the city.  Loyalty to one another is what makes them go, and betrayal stops them. The film has virtually no music score.

Goodfellas, well…it is based on fact. (In fact, both films are based on accounts of actual events.) The reason I watched the entire flick after seeing bits of it on TV, where it is played endlessly, was because of the part about the biggest heist in American history at JFK, but that is hardly treated in the film. Many say it is realistic, and Scorsesee said he wanted to show what the mob lifestyle was really like, what the violence was really like, cold, brutal, disgusting. Oh well…the millions of young men who love the film probably have a rather different take on Martin’s masterpiece.  They love it. It’s an entertainment, giving away the store by using an endless soundtrack of contemporary music.  How seriously can you take a mob movie that has Hendrix and The Stones rocking out as guys get whacked?

Nothing in Goodfellas compares to the one scene in Le trou in which the two cons peer at a Paris street from a manhole, watch a taxi drive by – freedom! – before going back inside to retrieve their comrades for the big escape.

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Phil Ochs redux

April 10, 2010

In an earlier post, I mentioned how Phil Och’s ‘prophecy’ fell flat, but at a tribute concert to him tonight, I was struck by this lyric from the Power and the Glory:

But our land is still troubled by men who have to hate
They twist away our freedom & they twist away our fate
Fear is their weapon and treason is their cry
We can stop them if we try

Fear is their weapon, and treason is their cry…  I was thinking about Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, featured in Gail Collins’ column today.  Those words certainly apply and could have been written about American politics today, but Phil Ochs is not here to sing about it.  He foresaw that too:

And I won’t be laughing at the lies when I’m gone
And I can’t question how or when or why when I’m gone
Can’t live proud enough to die when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

Oh yeah, I guess we should change it to men and women, or people who hate…


Phil Spector Resurrected…*

August 28, 2009

This song (Se telefonado)  may be the quintessence of European pop music, but for American Pop, I’d go with this one:

Ronnie of The Ronettes was married to Phil Spector at the time he was making this and other songs hits with his “Wall of Sound” style.  Now he’s in jail for murder, not likely to rise yet again.

*I been Phil Spectored, resurrected.
I been Lou Adlered, Barry Sadlered.
Well, I paid all the dues I want to pay.
And I learned the truth from Lenny Bruce,
And all my wealth won’t buy me health,
So I smoke a pint of tea a day.

Paul Simon


Help me stop listening!

November 12, 2008

Pop songs are supposed to have a “hook,” that irresistible little jingle part that you can’t stop humming, that keeps you playing it over and over. But what if the entire song is a hook?! That seems to be the case with Mina Mazzini singing “Se telefonando.”

How many times can I listen to this before I start jabbering madly?

Mina is a type of pop star that is no longer with us, I think. Can Celine Dion compare to this? I guess her fans think so, but this elegance, classy sexiness, and joyful delivery…I dunno.

Rock ‘n’ Roll is great, but something was left behind too.  And clearly, Mina is riding a wave here.  Look at her face around tracking 1:47 – “Uh huh,  you bet I’m singing this song..!”  I read that when she heard the first few notes played to her she grabbed the sheet music and sang it like crazy as if she’d been singing it all her life.

The song seems to repeat the same notes endlessly, the same phrasing, though the words change. If only I could find a decent translation – but really, does it matter?

Thanks to the indefatigable Jahsonic for bringing this song and singer to my attention.  I don’t always get why he likes what he likes, but often enough, I like it too!