Page Two: Personalizing the Mythic
A former president's understated decency and the hectic birth of rock & roll electrify Toronto screens
Characterizing these films as two of the best at Toronto actually underplays my enthusiasm. Friends were involved in making both films, as I've noted – but I have lots of friends who are filmmakers, so I'm very conscious about trying very hard not to confuse my critical sensibilities with the polluting effects of personal affection. These unique and powerful films blew me away.
As a composer, performer, and bandleader, Alejandro Escovedo contributed to the score for Man From Plains, Jonathan Demme's superb and deeply moving new documentary about former President Jimmy Carter. The movie is so shockingly powerful because it is so lovely and quiet in its presentation. Carter's presence is gracefully charismatic, but the film is also accentuated by the absence of the current mainstream's excessively vehement, yet breathtakingly empty, political dialogue. Escovedo's contributions to the score empower the whole movie with an additional gracefully eloquent but forceful enunciation.
The movie focuses almost exclusively on Carter's latest book tour for Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, his very controversial work that has excited abundant controversy and strong opposition. The genius of the film is not in overarching statements or powerful, dramatic moments but instead in the film's weaving together of mostly relatively simple scenes from the book tour. Eventually, the film proves unshakingly startling, an effect it achieves not through delineated explosions or overly robust, exploitative high notes, such as those one finds in the films of Michael Moore, but instead by maintaining an honest and modest tone.
When I first heard that Demme was doing a documentary on Jimmy Carter, to put it politely, I was less than excited by the subject. I had not read the book but was aware of the controversy, though that had little impact on this hesitation. Mostly I couldn't imagine how a film focused on Carter could be exciting, revelatory, explosive, or powerful. Okay, so I couldn't have been more wrong.
Whereas I find the current actions of the Israeli government outrageously excessive and inexcusable, I strongly believe in the existence of the state of Israel. Along with that, I believe just as strongly in the necessity for a Palestinian state. Still, I am too well aware of and sensitive to the motivations of many of Israel's most vocal critics. Just as I'm certain that all criticisms of Israel's policies and actions are not inherently anti-Semitic, I'm just as conscious that all too many of them are exactly so viciously prejudiced. Making the statement that one is not anti-Semitic does not sanitize statements based on religious prejudice and long-established bigotry. Unfortunately, too much of the criticism of Israel seems based in such beliefs rather than in genuine concerns over international law, human justice, and world peace.
Obviously there are many deeply hostile anti-Semites who hypocritically pretend to want a compassionate, universal justice. Israel has also become an all-too-comfortable target for liberal Americans who are desperate to find good guys and bad guys in any situation. Anyone who champions one side in this tragedy while dehumanizing the other worries me, regardless of his or her motivation. This is a topic to go into at far more length at some later date.
Although Carter brings a fierce morality, combined with an all-consuming passion for peace in the Middle East, the power of ideas is in his reasonable compassion and genuine lack of partisan preferences. He convinces and/or invites dialogue not by ideological stringency or hyperactive arguments but by consistently and evenly approaching questions with a deep sense of common decency. Carter's very strength is his belief in dialogue, that minds can be changed by being reasonable, even in these most unreasonable times. Carter is not out to celebrate heroes or chastise villains but rather operates out of a deep hope for a mutually respectful peace.
Carter's continually understated decency is what absolutely electrifies the screen, especially when considered in the context of the overcharged partisanship of most others involved in this discussion. Add in the insane, irrational, myopic nationalism championed by the current administration, and Man From Plains seems like a brilliant haiku rising above a mass of Edwardian English poetry. In fact, the biggest presence in the film is that of President Bush, though he is hardly ever mentioned. Carter's intelligent, deeply felt, and morally centered concerns serve as the most resoundingly deep and meaningful rebukes of this administration's intuitive, happily ignorant, inherently racist, unbelievably naive, self-righteous world-view. This film is so unbelievably loud and ringingly resonant because it is so quiet.
Austin's Gary Clark Jr. is one of the stars of John Sayles and Maggie Renzi's new film, Honeydripper, which celebrates the birth of rock & roll as a "just grew" style of the people's music. The most straight-out entertaining of Sayles' recent films, it harks back to the humanist legend-relating of The Secret of Roan Inish. Set in Alabama during the 1950s, Honeydripper personalizes the mythic, reflecting music's birth by offering up a tapestry of characters, moments, relationships, and ideas. The film knows that, as a form of celebration that is also almost inherently rebellious, musically rock & roll came out of gospel, jazz, and blues.
This being Sayles' movie, it honors how the music was a metaphoric and defiant response to the world from which it emerged. Blacks in the American South of the Fifties were an oppressed people living with near-crippling economic limitations at the bottom of an unjust power structure. The exuberance, sexuality, power, and fireworks-light-up-the-sky explosiveness of the music rests on these ideas, but they do not dominate or overwhelm the film. Instead, the film offers up a joyful, stinging-electric-guitar-licks celebration of the passion, emotion, and spiritually healing power of early rock & roll.
Clark turns in a beautiful performance, easily holding his own with the brilliantly talented ensemble cast featuring Danny Glover, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Charles S. Dutton, Vondie Curtis Hall, Stacy Keach, and the exquisite, much cherished (in these quarters, at least) Yaya DaCosta, among others. UT ex Eric L. Abrams shines in a feature role in the film.
Musically, Clark shone at the afterparty, playing with the Honeydripper band. The group includes several legendary players, all of whom showed their appreciation of Clark's talent. Among them were musicians both known and relatively unknown.
In the film, Arthur Lee Williams, Eddie Shaw, and Mabel John have featured roles as well. Harp player Williams played with Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Hound Dog Taylor, and Eddie Taylor. Howlin' Wolf bandleader Eddie Shaw was also in Muddy Waters' band and later joined the Otis Rush band. Over the years, Shaw played on recording sessions with Howlin' Wolf, Magic Sam, Freddie King, Jimmy Dawkins, and others.
Mable John stole the evening show, as clearly as she owns the movie when she is singing in it. Older sister to Little Willie John, she was a protégé and friend of Ruth Brown's and, as a Raylette, sang backup on many Ray Charles hits. She had a long solo recording career but left secular music in 1973 and began managing Christian gospel acts, before occasionally returning as a singer.
As many of you are all too well aware, this is barely the warm-up for what is sure to be a lot of coverage of both films in this column. Ignore my words, but make sure to see these films!