Friday, April 26, 2013

King of Sorrows: George Jones 1931-2013

George Jones is dead. Those words have been a long time coming. The country singer himself titled his 1996 autobiography I LIVED TO TELL IT ALL. In his book--which is excellent, by the way--Jones expresses surprise that he managed to hang on long after people had given him up for dead. If he'd died in a blaze of cocaine and booze in 1974 exactly no one would have been surprised.

But Jones didn't perish, he prospered. In the seventies, moreover, he solidified his standing as perhaps the greatest of all country singers. Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn were arguably greater artists, and Merle Haggard probably had more sheer talent than anyone else.

But Jones was the purest soul singer. Maybe because he lacked all theory and pretension toward art he was free to focus on his obsessions: heartache and drinking . Oh, he did the occasional hymn ("Cup Of Loneliness") or message song ("Whose Gonna Fill Their Shoes?"), but he was always his truest self singing about the disappointments of love and the empty solace of alcohol.

He was charting hits in the fifties, was already a legend by the sixties, but in the seventies--in the midst of personal turmoil brought on by his drug addiction and his tortured marriage to and divorce from Tammy Wynette--he created his finest work. It was as if the man had been worn down to one hot nerve--"A Good Year For The Roses," "We Can Make It," "A Day In The Life Of A Fool," "A Picture Of Me (Without You)," "The Grand Tour," "These Days I Barely Get By," "Memories Of Us"--the music flowed out of him.

Like most great artists, he needed a lot of help. He rarely wrote songs--indeed, in his autobiography he says he rarely ever even choose the songs he recorded. This put him at the mercy of half-assed ideas (see his career nadir "High-Tech Redneck" or, better still, don't), but working with producer Billy Sherrill he achieved a kind of perfection. This partnership reached its high point in the early eighties. "He Stopped Loving Her Today" was released in 1980 and for years afterwards was considered Jones's best song (and, some would argue, country music's finest single). It's a fine song, and Jones is in beautiful form on it--though one must admit that the production seems a little self-conciously grandiose. For my money, Jones actually nailed his best moment in front of the microphone a year later with "If Drinking Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will)." There's no distance here between the singer and the lyrics, which was always the case when Jones was at his best. He doesn't belt it out, he crawls inside of it. The story of a drunk man who's driven himself home from the bars at "four in the mornin'" it builds to perhaps the keystone lyric for the entire Jones canon:

If drinking don't kill me
her memory will
I can't hold out much longer
the way that I feel

There was always humor in Jones ("With the blood from my body/I could start my own still") because no matter how low he sunk he always seemed to regard his pain as something absurd. And I'm not talking about irony here, the kind you might find in Haggard or Roger Miller. Jones was too literal to ever give an ironic wink. No, it was more fatalistic than that. In "If Drinking Don't Kill Me" the drunk man stumbling into his home is bitterly amused at the absurdity of being left alone. The built-in brutality of existence, after all, is that all life ends in death. And this is mirrored in the way that love transmogrifies into pain in one way or another.

The ultimate irony, of course, is that by using his art to turn that pain into music, Jones ended up giving comfort to the rest of us. He helped us through breakups and disappointments and betrayals of one kind or another because he understood that the meaning of life is loss.  

The king is dead. Long live the king. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Three By Eastwood

As a director, Clint Eastwood has always been a little hit-and-miss. I supposed you could say this about almost any creative talent (unless you're talking about someone with a tiny body of work), but it seems especially true of The Quiet One. For every interesting film like THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES or MYSTIC RIVER you can find a couple forgettable thrillers like BLOOD WORK or dismissible would-be prestige dramas like INVICTUS. This imbalance owes something, I suspect, to a certain reflexive shallowness in Eastwood's thinking. Even in some of his successes a tendency toward oversimplification hampers the result (the most glaring example of this, for me, are the white trash caricatures who make up Hilary Swank's family in MILLION-DOLLAR BABY).

Yet when Eastwood gets it right--which he has done again and again over the course of a forty-plus year directing career--he achieves a kind of graceful simplicity.

The best work of his career were three films he released back to back in the early nineties: UNFORGIVEN, A PERFECT WORLD, and THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. This trio of films show him working with talented collaborators on smart material, but they also show him in total control of his craft.

UNFORGIVEN (1992) is the best known of the three, a film that most people consider Eastwood's single finest work. A Western about a haunted ex-gunslinger who signs up to do a couple of murders-by-contract for a group of prostitutes, UNFORGIVEN cast a long shadow over the genre. The film feels every bit like a final statement on the Western mythology that Hollywood helped to create and popularize throughout the 20th century. To have Eastwood--a living icon of that mythology--deconstruct it and, in a sense, disavow it, in some ways closed the book on the Western. This is not to say that there haven't been Westerns since UNFORGIVEN, but even the good ones like Kevin Costner's OPEN RANGE and the Coen Brothers' TRUE GRIT are forced to live in its shadow, forced to feel a little redundant. (Eastwood himself declared that the film would be his last Western. He was, quite literally, hanging up his spurs. And he hasn't made a Western since.)

His next film was an underrated collaboration with Costner, 1993's  A PERFECT WORLD. Eastwood plays a legendary Texas lawman in pursuit of escaped convict Costner, who is on run with a kidnapped child (TJ Lowther). When the film was released, Costner was at the peak of his fame (remember when Kevin Costner was the biggest movie star in the world?) and the press hyped the epic confrontation between two generations of laconic leading men...only to revolt when the actual film turned out to be a quiet character study shrouded in loss and regret. I guess that reaction was inevitable because A PERFECT WORLD may well be the most melancholy film Eastwood has ever made. In many ways it is an even deeper repudiation of the macho ethos than UNFORGIVEN. Costner's convict is a fractured anti-hero, doomed by childhood trauma, while Eastwood's famous lawman is revealed to be a man haunted by his mistakes--mistakes, it should be added, of the self-assured he-man sort that we rarely see questioned onscreen. Though it has been long overlooked in favor of some Eastwood's financial and critical hits, A PERFECT WORLD is a triumph and one of his very best films. (If you haven't seen it in a while, or if you've never seen it all, it will also remind you of what an incredibly effective actor Kevin Costner can be in the right role.)

Eastwood dismantled his own screen persona in his next film, THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. The film was a curiosity in its day, a prestigious adaptation of a widely successful bestseller that was almost universally considered a horrible book. Though the film was a big hit, in some ways it never really received the attention that it deserved, considering it was really nothing short of a masterpiece. If nothing else, it's a perfect example of how approach and nuance affect material. The story of a three day affair between an Iowa housewife and a traveling photographer could be the basis of a dirty joke or a cornball romance, but Eastwood, working with an effervescent Meryl Streep, takes that same material and creates a bittersweet mediation on sex, family, regret, and, yes, true love. Those moviegoers used to seeing Eastwood as a masculine icon (which is to say, really, all moviegoers) are often a little shocked to see The Quiet One playing a smooth-talking free-spirit--though people who know him have said that the character is in some ways the one closest to the real man. 

This role doesn't come as any surprise, however, to anyone who sees THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY as the third part of a triptych of films. There is a consistent style and perspective here, a unfying authorial voice concerned with notions of masculinity and regret, as well as an evolving sense of the possibilities for human connection.             

Saturday, April 20, 2013


A young mother arrives at a nursery school one afternoon to pick up her daughter, but the little girl is not there. The mother’s distraught, of course, but the teachers and the principal just stare blankly back at her. They say they do not know her. They say they have never seen her  daughter. Does the daughter exist? Is the young woman crazy? Or is something more sinister going on?

That’s the basic set up for Evelyn Piper’s novel BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING, and it’s the same set up that director Otto Preminger takes for his movie version of her book. Check out my new essay on the book and film over at Criminal Element for a discussion of the different ways these two artists interpret this story.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Asbury Pulp BOOKFEST

The Jersey Shore goes dark this weekend when the Asbury Park Bookfest kicks off Friday night with a showing of DETOUR, followed by a discussion between authors Wallace Stroby and Dennis Tafoya. Here are the details. Don't miss the chance to see the film that, perhaps better than any other, captures the doomed essence of noir.

The Bookfest continues through the weekend with more than thirty authors out on Saturday afternoon peddling their wares up and down Cookman Avenue--the main strip in Asbury Park. I'll be there, selling and signing copies of HELL ON CHURCH STREET and THE POSTHUMOUS MAN. I'll be set up around Gallery 13, 658 Cookman Ave. Feel free to contact me for more information.

Hope to see you there.