Page Two: The Immersion Method
Dream double bills and the great and simple pleasure of film viewing
There are good movies and there are great movies. To some, there are "movies" and then there are "films," though this distinction has always struck me as pedantically crippled – much like saying there are "cars" and there are "automobiles." There are mediocre films and there are those that are offensively bad. Hours can be spent in making distinctions or analyzing films in ways that range from easy generalizations to those nitpickers who write 30-page essays on "Hegemony and Counter Hegemony in The Godfather Trilogy" or "Objecting to Objectification: Re-Viewing the Feminine in The Silence of the Lambs" (both real essays). Films meant to entertain are forced to ride through the hazardous white-water rapids of criticism, obsessive revisionist theorizing, critical obsession with just how negative writing can get, detailed ideological readings, and reviews offering consumer ratings based on the film's "enjoyment" factor. Often they get chewed up or torn apart for reasons not even of their own making.
Fortunately for me, although I've been writing on films for too many decades to enumerate without severe embarrassment, I've never lost the emotional immediacy of watching a film, even those I've seen any number of times. Any kind of critical appraisal or intellectual analysis happens later; when watching a film, I am in the film. Certainly the experience has changed: Having seen thousands of films, I find that those eureka moments of unexpected joy no longer spray forth like a firehose. Instead, they come rarely – though that often makes them more joyous.
What I'm trying to get at here is basic and simple. In the midst of assessing films, dealing with them qualitatively, or essaying their greater meaning within the culture they were created for, the true pleasure remains in watching movies – sinking into them, regardless of their quality or meanings, in a way that allows them to define the world that you are in for their duration. In abandoning oneself while ignoring critical standards or concern about meaning, there is the great and simple pleasure of viewing.
All of the above is by way of saying there has been a recent, coincidental confluence of events that brought to mind two of my favorite country music films.
Bud Shrake is a great writer and a Texas treasure. Whether penning novels, sports stories, films, or biographies, Shrake is a craftsman whose wit is matched by his keen observations about people. An anthology of great Shrake writing, Land of the Permanent Wave, has just been published. If you're not familiar with Shrake's work, quickly get yourself a copy. If you are, well then you've probably already gotten one.
Easily my favorite work of Shrake's is the 1984 film Songwriter, starring Willie Nelson (who is getting intense media coverage now because of Joe Nick Patoski's book and Nelson's 75th birthday – see last week's Books and Music sections for more on Shrake, Patoski, and Nelson), Kris Kristofferson, Melinda Dillon, and Rip Torn. It was shot in Austin; Richard Pearce started out directing but was replaced by Alan Rudolph. This is a film that regularly earns 2½-star ratings or is praised as a fine good-old-boy comedy or an interesting country music story. Treating it so lightly misses the many aspects of its greatness, from really capturing its characters and the country music lifestyle to what being on the road is like (regardless of musical genre) to its wonderful performances. The genius of the film, however, is Shrake's marvelous script.
Once I had to prepare a reel of great clips from Songwriter. Watching the DVD, I was planning on noting a couple of the best scenes that featured the strongest dialogue. I ended up jotting down notes on more than half the script. I kid you not. Proving the point, here are just some of those notes (this is just a small selection from that effort):
02:50 singing "Who do you screw to get out of this place?"
05:10 V.O. cont. "He did it for the love but was not above the money."
09:00 "Doc, you loved me about 10 percent of the time; hated me 10 percent of the time."
Willie: "I never hated anybody."
14:00 Rip Torn walking through house to wife: "I wish the vision of how beautiful you are could be painted on the Great Wall of China" ... continuing to his wife telling the baby "Some day you'll grow up and beat the hell out of ..."
27:00 Kris to Willie "Do you deliberately make it harder just so you can stay interested?"
34:40 Melinda to Willie "I bet you haven't picked up a guitar and written a song in so long you've forgotten how to."
44:20 Kris on phone in bed "Is there something weird there I should know about?" up to where he admires himself in the mirror although a sleeping mask covers his eyes so he can't really see himself.
53:00 Exchange between Kris and Willie "But you are a songwriter and you can't say you wrote something you didn't write unless you really wrote it."
1:01:20 Rip Torn goes into motel room. Finds his wife in bed with a band member (Stephen Bruton) ends with
1:02:20 Willie "I under estimated you"
Rip "All you sons of bitches do."
"All you sons of bitches do!" A truly great line that I use all the time – but you need to see the film to really get it.
The reason to evoke Songwriter now is not just because of the superb new Shrake anthology and the publication of Patoski's biography, Willie Nelson: An Epic Life. Both are notable and glowing achievements but not the root cause. As long as, if not longer than, I've dreamed about a double bill of American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused or showing Clutch Cargo cartoons with a Sam Fuller triple bill, I've dreamed of the perfect country music double bill. Obviously Songwriter would be one of the movies. The reason for this reverie is that the other, Daryl Duke's Payday, a 1973 film starring Rip Torn, has just been released on DVD.
Torn's performance as country singer Maury Dann is so on-target and brilliant that to try and explain the why and how of it would be foolish. Torn plays a George Jones/Merle Haggard-type country singer who plays the back-road and small-town honky-tonks. Traveling in a station wagon, he's hoping for his break: Some of his songs are getting some radio time, and he has a shot at a Grand Ole Opry appearance. But his life is the smoke, beer, pool, neon, other men's wives, and very loose groupies with which he lives out his motto: "You only pass this way once, so grab everything you can."
There may be film scenes as great as the one here in which Dann and band visit his mother's house to go hunting, but I doubt there are all that many that are greater.
One could go out on the road for months or read a lot of books to try to get some idea of what the working musician's life can be like. Far more entertaining and just as informative would be to watch a double bill of Songwriter and Payday.