I didn’t buy The Fighter much as a boxing movie and I had a hard time believing some of the characters and scenarios in Silver Lining Playbook but I also enjoyed both movies. Sometimes you aren’t irritated by things that would normally bug the hell out of you. That’s the only way I can figure it–it’s a matter of taste.
Almost everything in first few minutes of American Hustle–a protracted take of Christian Bale gluing fake hair to his head, a slow motion montage set to classic rock music, showy period decor and outfits not to mention everybody’s hair, oh, that hair!–would usually annoy me. But in this case, it didn’t. In these first minutes the mix tape is rolling–from the movie’s signature tune, Duke Ellington’s 1958 recording of “Jeep’s Blues”, to America’s “A Horse with No Name’, to “Dirty Work,” the moody and vibe Steely Dan record. The two rock songs are as obvious (“On the first part of the journey…”) as the hairstyles but they made me happy regardless.
Christian Bale hides underneath an elaborate combover and a big gut. He fidgets with his glasses and at times seems to a pastiche of mannerisms from other actors (Alec Baldwin’s cackle, Robert De Niro’s body language). It’s hard not to be aware of his acting and yet I found this to be the most sympathetic performance. He deadpans his way through many of his scenes and he’s easy to root for. So is Bradley Cooper who plays his nemesis, a slick, ambitious climber, whose sadism in a few scenes suggest Peter Seller’s Claire Quilty. (He’s also funny, like when he does a quick impersonation of his boss–played by an effective Louis C.K.)
Amy Adams is terrific as Bale’s partner and Jennifer Lawrence continues to brighten any movie in which she appears even though her role is small and underwritten (she can’t quite seem to decide on an accent but otherwise gives her part great credibility). The showdown scene between Adams and Lawrence is not something I’ll soon forget. Russell likes women and he takes care to treat them with respect. In one crucial scene, Adams gives an pointed speech and leaves Bale with something to think about. The scene ends with her walking out of the room. As she walks away her full body comes into frame. I waited for Russell to show her ass–the wiggle, to punctuate things–but he cuts just before the wiggle. A subtle choice.
Jeremy Renner ( more good hair) is strong in a supporting role and Robert De Niro is frightening in a cameo. It’s been a long time since I recall being moved by De Niro but I thought he was really good.
American Hustle is a feast of over-the-top moviemaking (anxious, luxuriant). You can’t get away from the movieness of it. The comparisons to Good Fellas might be superficial but they aren’t far-fetched. This isn’t just a 70’s nostalgia movie like Carlito’s Way, or The People vs. Larry Flynt or Candelabra, it belongs to a specific sub-genre that began with Good Fellas and continued with Boogie Nights and Blow. The technique is familiar. Russell’s camera is constantly moving, pushing in, tracking, panning. I’ve read that Russell likes to be in close proximity to his actors, often calling out lines to them as they improvise a scene. The camera is never far away from them, either. You can almost feel Russell in the scene with them. I like how they recorded the voice overs, especially here–there is a breathiness to it that heightens the sense of intimacy.
Much of Russell’s style comes from Scorsese. But if Russell grew up on Casavettes and Altman and Scorsese he’s closer to Preston Struges. His for screwball comedy, especially between men and women, is his most winning trait. For all the yelling and screaming that goes on in his movies, things turn out okay for everyone in Russell’s world. There isn’t one sequence that has the kind of nervy tension of the Alfred Molina scene in Boogie Nights. Russell never makes you that uneasy. For some people, this is where he falls down. I’ve talked to a lot of people who think American Hustle is phony. And I can see that. But I respond to the pleasures he offers up. They win out.
…A residue of disappointment clings to go to these pages: Ellington was an elegant man but not a very nice one, Teachout concludes, exploiting the musicians he gathered and held so close. He used his musicians (not to mention his women) often quite coldly, and his romantic-seeming life was really one long cloud of shimmering misdirection. Teachout reveals that Ellington was rarely the sole composer of the music associated with his name. Nearly all of his hit songs, Teachout explains,”were collaborations with band members who did not always receive credit—or royalties—when the songs were recorded and published.” It’s long been known by fans that many of the most famous “Ellington” numbers are really the arranger Billy Strayhorn’s, including “Take the A Train” and “Chelsea Bridge,” and that the valve trombonist Juan Tizol wrote most of “Caravan.” But most of “Mood Indigo” was Barney Bigard’s, while “Never Know Lament” (which became the hit “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”),”I’m Beginning to See the Light,” and” I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” began as Johnny Hodges riffs and then became songs. “Sophisticated Lady,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” and “In a Sentimental Mood,” in turn, are melodies originally blown by, and rarely credited to, the alto-sax player Otto Hardwick.
None of these are obvious, all-purpose riffs, or simple blues phrases. They’re rich, melodic ideas, as complex as anything in Gershwin or Rodgers. Ellington owned them, but they didn’t start in his head, or take form under his fingers. Teachout says all the right things about how, without Ellington’s ear to hear them and his intelligence to fix and resolve them, these might have been butterflies that lived a day, fluttered, and died. But you sense that he’s shaken by the news. It seems like theft. It certainly bothered the musicians. Hodges used to make a sign of counting money when Ellington was playing the medley of his tunes.
One might be a touch more defiant on behalf of the Duke. Ellington really did take other men’s ideas and act as if they were his own. But he did this because because he took other men’s ideas and made them his own. There are artists whose genius lies in exploiting other people’s talent, and we can recognize the exploitation as the genius. It is the gift of such artists to be able to energize and paralyze other people and do both at the same time. It may be true that Herman Mankiewicz wrote most of “Citizen Kane,” scene by scene and even shot by shot. What is certainly true is that nothing else that survives of Mankiewicz’s is remotely as good as “Citizen Kane.” That’s because he was writing “Citizen Kane” for Orson Welles. Johnny Hodges spent many years on his own, with every chance to keep his tunes to himself. No other standard ever emerged. Suppose Billy Strayhorn had been liberated instead of “adopted” and infantilized. Would he have had the energy and mastery to form a band, sustain it, recruit the right musicians, survive their eccentricities and addictions, give them music they could play, record it, and keep enough of a popular audience alive to justify the expense of the rest? It is painful to read of Strayhorn desolate over having credit for his music stolen by the Duke; it is also the case that Ellington had the genius not to have to cry.
Ellington’s ear, his energy, his organizational abilities, the shortness of his decisions are a case study for management school.(Consider the way he fired Charles Mingus for fighting with Tizol, fondly but with no appeal: “I’m afraid, Charles—I’ve never fired anybody—you’ll have to quit my band. I don’t need any new problems. Juan’s an old problem…. I must ask you to be kind enough to give me your notice.”) These are not ordinary or secondary gifts. They were the essence of his genius. Ellington had an idea of a certain kind of jazz: tonal, atmospheric, blues-based but elegant. He took what he needed to realize the ideal he had invented. The tunes may have begun with his sidemen; the music was his. This is not a secondary form of originality, which needs a postmodern apologia, in which “curating” is another kind of “creating.” It is the original kind of originality.
There is a reason that Duke’s players mostly complained of being cheated only of the dough. Originality comes in two kinds: originality of ideas, and originality of labor, and although it is the first kind that we get agitated about, we should honor the second kind still more. There is wit, made by the head and spun out into life; and work, created mostly by fingers engaging tools as various as tenor saxes and computer keyboards. It is an oddity of our civilization, and has been since the Renaissance, to honor wit more than work, to think that the new idea “contributed” by the work matters more than the work itself.
What Johnny Hodges was doing in making those new melodies may have been more like copying errors in ceaseless cell fission then like premeditated decision: as he set to playing the same chord changes over and over, night after night, a lucky error in a note may, one night, have touched another and become an innovation. It was a happy accident produced by hard labor. But that it reflected effort as much as inspiration should only increase its value. No author really minds, too much, seeing his or her ideas “out there,” to be recycled, and even a conceptual artist has a slightly guilty conscience trading in that commodity alone. (That’s why Jasper Johns fans insist that it is the finish, the touch, that really matters.) What artists dislike is having their effort recirculated without we recompense. It is our sentences, not our sentiments, that we ought to protect. The Duke’s men grasped this. They were glad to concede to their self-made duke all of his preëminence—indeed, his royalty. They just wanted him to hand over their royalties first.
What mattered was the band. Duke Ellington was a great impresario and bandleader who created the most stylish sound, and brand, and American music, and kept the company of musicians going for half a century. That this description seem somehow less exalting than calling him a “major American composer” or a “radical music innovator” is a sign of how far we have to go in allowing art to tell us how to admire it, rather than trying to make it hold still in conventional poses in order to be admired.
Let’s get “classy” shall we?
An American Master…
Interesting piece on Duke Ellington’s music and race in America by Claudia Roth Pierpont in The New Yorker:
What did he feel about—what did he contribute to—the mire of American race relations during the last century? Harvey G. Cohen’s “Duke Ellington’s America” (Chicago; $40) attempts to get under the skin of this apparently most imperturbable of men, and the results, if hardly conclusive, are fascinating. One of Ellington’s few confidantes, his sister, Ruth, believed that he concealed himself under “veil upon veil upon veil,” and Cohen is not the first Ellingtonian to treasure the smallest telltale sign of his subject’s human susceptibilities. There is, for example, an uncharacteristically angry letter to a white business associate with whom Ellington wished to break (which is nevertheless signed “with great respect,” and turns out not to have been sent). Cohen’s extremely intelligent and formidably documented book—a welcome change from much that has been published about Ellington—is not a standard biography; Ellington’s personal life and sexual mores are officially beyond its scope. Nor is it a critical work, since it contains no musical analysis and not a great deal of musical description. Cohen’s long hours in the Smithsonian’s huge trove of Ellington papers were devoted to the business records and the scrapbooks, and, as his title suggests, he has broad social issues on his mind. Even Ellington’s professional life is examined in circumscribed areas, almost all of which touch at some point upon race. The question is whether, sooner or later, everything did.
Early in the book, Cohen quotes Ellington’s longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn objecting to a movie project about Ellington that Strayhorn was told would have a racial theme. “I don’t think it should be racial because I don’t think he’s racial,” Strayhorn protested. “He is an individual.” But Strayhorn concluded, in a line of thinking that seems emblematic of the era and of the personalities involved, “You don’t have to say the darn thing.” Cohen keeps Ellington’s individuality firmly in sight, while detailing such targeted subjects as his relationship with Mills, the white man who has been lauded for launching Ellington’s career and—both before and after they split, in 1939—accused of exploitation; Ellington’s travels with his band in the harshly segregated South of the nineteen-thirties and forties; the overt, if often forgotten, racial programs of much of his music; and his sometimes contentious relationship with the civil-rights movement of the nineteen-fifties and sixties.
A different set of subjects—Ellington’s musical development, his band members, even his women—might have yielded something closer to the post-racial portrait for which Strayhorn argued, a portrait more in accord with the high personal horizon on which Ellington’s sights were set. But “the darn thing” will not go away, and race remains unsurprisingly essential to the story of America’s first widely recognized black artist, and of what he had to say.