The 60's in Soft Focus
Not so long ago, the counterculture was being celebrated as heralding the birth of a new and better world. But judging by some new American films, in Hollywood, as elsewhere, a radical revision is under way. The Rose, drawn from the life of Janis Joplin, the rock star, and Heart Beat, the “true story” of Jack Kerouac and Carolyn and Neal Cassady, the founding parents of the Beat Generation, suggest that the counterculture may be destined for a far humbler position in popular history, and that the 60′s (almost ignominously for those who attributed to them such messianic significance) may be taking their place alongside the Gay 90′s (“You’ll look sweet, upon the seat, of a bicycle built for two”) and the 20′s (“Chicago, Chicago, that toddling town”) as historical periods best remembered by the general public for their entertainments, as times when “people had fun.” Janis Joplin, in short, has gone to meet the shades of Scott and Zelda and Bix Beiderbecke, while Woodstock—far from being the birthing of a new nation—is now remembered by John Entwistle of The Who, which played such a prominent part at the festival, as just “a big gig.”
On the face of it, the historical Janis Joplin would not seem to be an irresistibly engaging character. Coarse, loud, aggressive, foul-mouthed, abusive, quarrelsome, egomaniacal, she was addicted sequentially to a series of drugs, the last of which, heroin, did her in, and she was alcoholic all the way. Her notion of keeping her alcohol consumption “under control” was to start drinking early enough in the day so as to pass out during the afternoon, come to, and get an hour’s worth of invigorating whiskey into her before her evening performance. She boasted stridently and in prolific detail about her gargantuan sex life, claiming she had “gotten it on with a couple of thousand cats . . . and a few hundred chicks,” although one friend guessed her sexual score to be more like a third of what she claimed—in itself a revealing detail.
Dressed always in stage attire, in feathers and satins and bracelets and bells, she was so drunken and unruly that often she could not get served in department stores or fashionable restaurants unless she was accompanied by a more sedate friend. A helicopter pilot, taking a look at her and saying it was against an FAA ruling to transport persons in her condition, once refused to fly her to a stadium where thousands of fans were waiting for her to give a concert. She admired the Hell’s Angels, dedicated one of her albums to them, and gave a special concert for them in San Francisco—which didn’t stop her, while weaving her way to the stage to perform, from getting into a down-to-the floor slugging match with the girlfriend of one of the group’s members over a bottle of Southern Comfort.
In October 1970, Janis Joplin died of a heroin overdose in the Landmark Hotel in Los Angeles. The whole epic, from her explosion into major stardom at the Monterey Festival in the summer of 1967, had run its course in only three years. But her potential as a death-cult figure became clear immediately, when her last album, released posthumously, sold better than any of the records she put on the market during her lifetime.
The authors of The Rose are at pains to state that their film is not the life story of Janis Joplin, but is a “synthesis” of the stories of “a number” of rock singers of the period. No doubt they have their reasons for this disavowal (libel, copyright, greater freedom with story line), but it is disingenuous. The movie is not only inspired by the life of Janis Joplin, it is unquestionably intended to be taken as her story by the public. Transmuted, shifted, most often drastically toned down, all the notorious themes of her life are there: heroin, alcohol, sexual promiscuity, lesbianism, scurrilous language, gaudy attire, even the disastrous results of her occasionally attempting to mix in with the general population.
I must make clear at the outset that, in The Rose, we are dealing with a very handsomely made film. It is by far the best work of Mark Rydell, the director, and he is helped by stunning photography by Vilmos Zsigmond (who did The Deer Hunter) and a startling phalanx of extra hands for the big spectacle scenes of some of the greatest names in American cinematography, including Haskell Wexler, Laszlo Kovacs, and Owen Roizman. But all would have been for naught, of course, if not for the remarkable presence of Bette Midler, who, in her first movie, reveals herself as an actress of formidable power and range, not to mention—less surprising—an accomplished popular singer. Other performers are of a comparable calibre: particularly Alan Bates as Rudge, Rose’s Svengali-like pop-cockney manager (a character quite unlike Janis Joplin’s manager, the stern Albert Grossman), and Harry Dean Stanton, an actor of truly peculiar authority, as a puritanical country singer. But with all the sumptuous camera work, the very high level of performance of the cast, and even the impressive authenticity of detail in portraying the rock world, what has The Rose given us?
The opening scene of the film is a quarrel between Rose and her manager. High-strung, intemperate, she rages against the conditions of her life. “I got no fuckin’ life, Rudge! I can’t get laid! Nobody wants me! That ain’t all. I got to sound good! And I don’t! I don’t! I can’t dredge up the sincerity any more!” She pleads for a year’s respite from the soul-destroying grind. Rudge bullies her vociferously. “Three million dollars worth of dates we’re talking about cancelling here! This is a fuckin’ business! Just like Chevrolet and Sara Lee! So don’t give me any ‘tired artiste’ bullshit!” There is an interesting ambiguity in their relationship throughout the scene, and throughout the picture. Is Rudge a satanic character, the cause—or one of the causes—of Rose’s suffering? Or does Rose have a masochistic strain, wanting in fact to be bullied, needing to have someone to bully her, incapable herself of fulfilling the most routine professional obligations without Rudge? Rudge is not, however, or is no longer, one of Rose’s lovers.
Following the first concert we see, where Rose exuberantly greets the audience, “Hiya, motherfuckers!” and sings up a storm to thunderous ovations, she is taken to meet the country singer (Stanton) who insults and humiliates her, and, as if to console herself, she picks up a man, an army deserter. He becomes the boyfriend in residence, traveling with the company, but Rose has dalliances with other men as well.
This is all very “tastefully” suggested. Nothing is crudely put. When a beautiful lesbian from her past approaches her plaintively, Rose is kindly but indifferent, as if to indicate that at some mad moment, who knows what this excitable woman might have gotten herself into out of sheer impetuosity, but surely she isn’t a real lesbian. We are shown a whole series of scenes in which Rose, spunky, voice perhaps a trifle too high, is ill-treated by the outside world. “We don’t serve hippies here!” When she returns to her home town in the poor rural area of northern Florida (Janis Joplin was actually a middle-class renegade from Port Arthur, Texas, her father an oil-industry engineer and graduate of Texas A and M), she is roundly insulted by the locals. We are given, in short, an extremely subdued and prettified version of the real Janis Joplin.
The character played by Bette Midler in the movie is highly colored, no doubt, but sensitive, vulnerable, surely more sinned against than sinning. She is abused by her manager, abused by a country-singer colleague, abused by envious home-town locals, abused by callous, compassionless “straights” everywhere when all she wants to be is a free spirit, all she lives for is her art.
Five years ago, The Rose‘s co-producer, Marvin Worth, produced Lenny, in which Dustin Hoffman played the late comic, Lenny Bruce, who also died of a heroin overdose. Throughout this strangely humorless film (very odd in that Bruce was nothing if not funny), the comedian was portrayed with remarkable insistence as a saint and a martyr. Bruce was right; society was wrong; and society killed him for telling the truth. Now Lenny Bruce was not Janis Joplin. The 50′s and early 60′s were a far rougher time to be an iconoclast than the heady late 60′s (when it was usually rather safer to smash an icon than to revere it). But the tone of the saintly Hoffman-Bruce was nothing like the breezy, sardonic Lenny Bruce I remembered, and who can still be heard on records. All was surrendered by Bob Fosse, the director, to the objective of showing Bruce as a revolutionary social critic who paid the grisly price for his heresies.
Since Lenny and The Rose had the same producer, and the producer in this country is the director’s boss, I looked very hard for the same “saint-and-martyr” treatment in the Janis Joplin story. But in the five years since Lenny appeared, things have changed.
In 1979, for example, United Artists released the movie version of the musical Hair, and although it was only a decade since the stage version had been a worldwide sensation, I have rarely seen a film so antique. Deliriously joyful throngs of hirsute youths flying banners emblazoned with symbols of peace and making “V” for Victory signs with their fingers in response to the American defeat in Vietnam seemed hardly an appropriate comment on boat people and starving Cambodians fleeing their new Communist rulers. Evidently I was not the only one who found the “Let the Sunshine In” ethos of Hair grossly out of touch with the realities of the late 70′s. Despite the fact that many audiences can enjoy any drivel set to music and sung and danced by pretty people, the film did not even make the list of 1979′s fifty most successful films, finishing even lower than such failures as Oliver’s Story and John Travolta’s embarrassing Moment by Moment.
The makers of The Rose seemed to have judged the changing temper of the times more shrewdly. They evidently sensed that revolutionary martyrs (no less than the hippies in Hair) have gone out of style since Lenny and that it is time again for Isadora Duncan and Judy Garland and the credo of Edna St. Vincent Millay, who “burned her candle at both ends” (“. . . It will not last the night, But, ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—It gives a lovely light”), for ladies consumed by the very intensity of their fervor. Romantic heroines, if you wish, but certainly not to be emulated, in fact cautionary tales (Duncan and Garland) of what happens to those who seek to fly too high. The fashionable myth is no longer Prometheus but Icarus.
I accept as an apt expression of The Rose‘s essence the words of Jack Kroll of Newsweek: “A fevered, fearless portrait of a tormented, gifted, sexy child-woman who sang her heart out until it exploded.” In other words, what causes Rose’s destruction is not the evils of a society bent on destroying anyone who challenges it, but her devotion to her art, a determination to give herself, generously, for the benefit of others, lighting up the world with the glory of her music. And if the idea is mawkish, the film is mawkish too, especially when measured against the real Janis Joplin, who was a psychopath marked for self-annihilation before she ever took up singing. The suicidal drive was hardly concealed. When she was on “speed,” she went from fat to a frightening eighty-eight pounds. When on “downers,” she ran around smashing her head into walls and trying to get run over by automobiles. When she took heroin, she was told by a competent medical authority that if she continued she would die. She continued. She died.
Like The Rose, the new movie about Jack Kerouac and Neal and Carolyn Cassady, Heart Beat, seeks to recycle the rebels of the recent past by presenting them in a less political and more “aesthetic” light. On the evidence of the movie, I would say that John Byrum, its director and scenario writer, and perhaps also Nick Nolte, its principal star (last seen as the raffish, alienated wide-receiver hero of the highly successful North Dallas Forty), still feel a bond of allegiance with these proto-beatniks of the post-World War II years. But there is a dying fall. The movie does not invite us to emulate the stark refusal of its heroes to compromise in any way with the canons of conventional morality. They are valiant, yes. Exhilarating to contemplate, surely. But what the movie seems to tell us is that those who aspire to such great purity are destroyed—not so much by society as by the very nature of the world.
Jack Kerouac underwent more than one radical shift in reputation in his own lifetime. In the late 40′s, Kerouac (played in the film by John Heard), an aspiring novelist from Lowell, Massachusetts, set out across the country in the wake of Cassady (Nolte), a young delinquent for whom he had conceived the most intense admiration. “The only truly fearless man I ever met,” he called him. Cassady, in fact, seems to have been little more than a feckless rowdy and petty thief, his conduct unmarred by the slightest idealism or even loyalty to his friends. He did not, in short, suspend a conventional moral sense in the interest of some cause, but only to feed his appetites. Kerouac, naturally, thought even this was wonderful. (It was not the first time, of course, that a thief-hero made the reputation of a writer. In another time and another place, in prerevolutionary Russia, Chelkash, the literary portrait of a very bold thief indeed, and one who also scorned the material goods he stole, made an overnight celebrity of the young Maxim Gorky.)
In any case, Kerouac wrote the story of their adventures in novel form in On the Road—which remained unpublished for six years while its author lived in poverty. When the book finally saw the light, due largely to the efforts of the poet Allen Ginsberg, it was just in time to make Kerouac and the Cassadys heroes of the Beat Generation of the 50′s, and Kerouac enjoyed an intense, if brief, celebrity.
Unfortunately for the purposes of myth, Kerouac and Cassady and Carolyn Cassady did not die at twenty-seven like Janis Joplin but all lived on into early middle age, Kerouac falling out of fashion again, and Carolyn, her face marked by crow’s feet now, surviving the two men with whom she lived in a ménage à trois to write the memoirs on which the film is based. (The film, by the way, grossly falsifies the sexual side of the story by reducing Kerouac’s and Cassady’s homosexuality to the merest hint.)
Improvident sybarites do not age well, but it is not merely that John Byrum got himself trapped with a triad of youth heroes who didn’t have the good taste to obliterate themselves before their first wrinkles appeared. After all, he could have ended Heart Beat on a note of triumph. But Byrum seemed to want to tell the whole story, positively dwelling on the characters’ decline: Kerouac neglected again and sick; Carolyn (played by Cissy Spacek) aged and lonely, making her claim to significance with sweet sadness, “We did it first.” Hardly a call to the barricades.
Interestingly, the best and most truthful representation in the cinema of the social turbulence of the 60′s in Western society is Britain’s Quadrophenia, the story of the ugly clashes between “Mods” and “Rockers” that broke out in Britain in 1964, culminating in an epic riot on the beachfront of the historic Channel resort of Brighton. Produced by one of Britain’s leading rock groups, The Who, the movie takes its title from one of their hit albums, which also provides the film’s driving musical accompaniment. (The “quad” refers to the group’s four members: Roger Daltrey—who played the lead in Ken Russell’s pyrotechnic film version of Tommy as well as his Lisztomania—John Entwistle, Peter Townshend, and the late Keith Moon, still another victim of a drug overdose.) But Quadrophenia, in which the members of the group do not appear themselves, could hardly be farther from an attempt to glorify or romanticize the period: it is a profoundly serious effort to understand it.
It has never been properly appreciated in the United States that the rock cultures of America and Britain—despite the to-ing and fro-ing of individual artists and groups—represented quite distinct sociological phenomena. The rock revolution in America was overwhelmingly an expression of the affluent middle class. Bob Dylan’s father was a pharmacist, Janis Joplin’s a petroleum engineer, James Taylor’s a professor of medicine and member of the social register, Carly Simon’s a famous publisher, Joan Baez’s an official at UNESCO (the list could be extended indefinitely). Their ballads of alienation and romantic vagrancy were listened to by college students unhappy at having to study for their midyear exams. In Britain, by contrast, both performers and audience were overwhelmingly and quintessentially working class. When I once asked Ringo Starr of the Beatles how he felt about the endless round of concerts and motels, considered such “hell” by the American rock musicians, he answered, amused, that it was “better than workin’,” by which he meant operating a power lathe or cutting sheet metal.
When the rock craze hit Britain, it fell on working-class youths who had never before had money for anything but the most meager necessities but now, thanks to rising standards of living, could buy motorcycles, fancy gear, records, intoxicating mobility. As one can imagine, these young people did not go about maligning materialism and the affluent society, but proceeded instead to use these flashy new consumer goods to express the all-too-genuine antagonisms and tribal hatreds of working-class life. “Rockers” wore leather jackets and rode motorcycles; “Mods” wore spiffy narrow-lapeled suits and parkas and rode motor-scooters. The differences were merely of style, like nothing so much as the rival Greens and Blues of the Byzantine empire, but Mods and Rockers met to do battle at Margate, and again at Brighton, and they smashed and trashed and blood ran into the sands all the same.
Quadrophenia is a grim, grittily realistic recounting of these events (as opposed to Saturday Night Fever, which, despite its brio, thoroughly romanticized and condoned what it ostens’oly set out to condemn). Franc Roddam, Quadrophenia‘s director and co-screenwriter, says cautiously, “If there’s any morality in this film, it’s that being in a group can be dangerous,” citing the IRA, “football hooligans,” and the destructive nature of mobs and gangs in general. Since the movie was made, Roddam and The Who were given even further reason to ponder the madness of crowds when eleven people were killed in the crush trying to get into a concert The Who were giving at the Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati, Ohio.
The audience for rock music has changed somewhat over the last decade, but those who still attribute the exaltation and energy of the audiences of the late 60′s entirely to the love and idealism of the “Woodstock Nation” must wonder how in the space of only ten years the saints of Woodstock could have become the brutal mob of Cincinnati. (Of course, there was a killing at a Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway in California as early as 1969, the same year as Woodstock; and even at the end of the 60′s, with the image of the beautiful, idealistic young still at its height among the nation’s thinkers and seers, rock promoters—practical men—were already abandoning mass rock festivals as inducing uncontrollable violence and vandalism.)
Whatever their faults, The Rose and Heart Beat (like Quadrophenia) are “quality” films made by people who aspire to artistic seriousness. An irony of the present situation in American motion pictures is that just as the authors of such films as these seem to be responding to a sharp shift in the national mood by clearly taking their distance from the counterculture, movies aimed at the mass audience—which in the glory days of the counterculture tended to be apolitical or often markedly conservative (The Exorcist, Jaws, The Poseidon Adventure, Towering Inferno, Love Story, Airport)—are just beginning to disgorge attitudes fashionable among the elite a decade ago. A whole spate of these films is now appearing. I offer only one example, Meteor, starring Sean Connery, who only yesterday was defending us all from the Red Peril as Ian Fleming’s James Bond, the Rover Boy of the West, locked in mortal combat with our totalitarian enemies.
In Meteor, Connery plays some kind of ballistics genius who has designed a satellite-based missile system, pointing away from the earth, to protect our planet against the possible intrusion of a giant meteor. He has quit work in a rage, however, on learning that the dastardly Pentagon has turned his satellite-based missiles inward so as to be able to attack the Soviet Union. Lo, the feared meteor appears. But the plot is so constructed that, even with Connery back in harness, and our missiles turned outward again, we need Soviet cooperation to destroy the oncoming meteor. The Russians oblige with the lovable Dubov (Brian Keith) and his fetching assistant Tatiana (Natalie Wood). An American air force general commanding the missile-control center is incensed at their arrival and adamantly refuses to let them help us in our attempts to escape annihilation (the meteor is headed for the United States, of course). Connery gets the better of him, however, and Russians and Americans together, hand in hand, save America.
Now a movie like Meteor does not attract a very discriminating audience. But it is nonetheless rather remarkable that a mass-market American film, in the most routine way possible, should serve up for a vast, popular, presumably at least minimally patriotic audience a story whose didactic precepts are the following: (1) that the main threat of nuclear war is from the U.S. military; and (2) that Russian officialdom is benign, cooperative in all things, and wholeheartedly devoted to the well-being of the United States and its citizens.
It may seem odd that such blatantly pro-Soviet agitprop material should turn up in a movie aimed at the mass American market, especially since there is an impression that American radicals of recent decades have at least made a “clean break” with Moscow. Yet in my own dealings with radicals in the artistic and intellectual worlds, I have often found condemnation of the Soviet Union to be perfunctory at best. Among those with an “artistic temperament,” particularly, I have encountered a widespread tendency to place on the same footing, as injustices of an identical level of iniquity, the Hollywood blacklisting of a handful of wealthy screenwriters in the McCarthy period and the death of millions and millions of Soviet citizens in Stalin’s Gulag.
Interestingly, the recent mass-market movies taking their intellectual lead from yesterday’s radical attitudes are meeting a decidedly mixed commercial reception. Meteor, for example, has gone over quite dismally. (The Rose, with no big stars and production costs a fraction of those of the Sean Connery film, has done much better at the box office.) Yet as I write, more anti-patriotic films are in the Hollywood pipeline.
Mencken’s famous aphorism notwithstanding, large numbers of men have gone broke underestimating the intelligence of the American movie public. Whole companies have been wiped out or forced into other lines of business. We may now, an interesting novelty, see other men go broke underestimating the American public’s elemental nationalism. We shall see.