Page Two: Masters and Commanders

Meditations on moving forces

Page Two
A few weeks back I wrote a "Page Two" that seemed quite convoluted, even given the always-extended boundaries of focus characteristic of this column. The point of the column was that the Feelies' first transcendent recording, Crazy Rhythms, is available now on CD (I was going to say "available again," but I'm not sure if this is the first time it's been released in this format or not). Since that column was a trail hacked through the nightmare swamps of my language, overgrown with random thoughts, this column needs to cut away that excessive foliage. In just the short time I've had the CD of Crazy Rhythms, I've listened to it endlessly – as much as I used to listen to it on vinyl, over and over again. A second copy was purchased for the office. It is, as it always has been, magnificent: fresh, pure, clean, propulsive, and ever driving forward – pretty much everything the prose in this column is not.

Jody Denberg has left KGSR, both as program director and as a deejay. I was going to write "retired" from KGSR, but Denberg is way too young for that word to feel comfortable, and the parting was far more amiable than the word "resigned" would imply. The weekend before the information was made public, I ran into Jody at the Doug Sahm tribute at Antone's. We talked a bit about burnout (one of my favorite topics of late). Jody talked about how long he had been at KGSR (after first being at KLBJ) and said that he was thinking it might be time to hang up his spurs.

Always the diplomat, I responded, "But do you have enough money to retire?" – cutting to the chase, as usual, though, typically, exactly what the chase was after remains a bit mysterious. The always warm and graceful Denberg will be missed in so many ways. Over the years, along with his merry band of fellow KGSR deejays, he's been one of the major forces for music in Austin. We wish him the very best in whatever he decides to do next. Gracious as always, Denberg decided it was better to leave the field than to rust.

The cover story this week is about Richard Linklater, his new film Me and Orson Welles, and his career. I wrote it. For a sidebar, I suggested selecting some films by Linklater and by Welles and annotating why they were of interest, but I never followed through by writing it. Well, here it is:

Some Recommended Films by Richard Linklater

Slacker (1991): If you have lived in Austin any length of time and have not yet watched Slacker, probably nothing I'm going to say is going to change your mind.

Dazed and Confused (1993): When I first saw Dazed and Confused, I felt that it was in American Graffiti country, even though I thought some people might argue that statement was going way too far. Rightly regarded as one of the classics of American cinema (and my favorite George Lucas film), Graffiti had always seemed the definitive portrait of that time when, after graduating high school, one's adolescent self accelerates the uneasy but unavoidable transition to adulthood. After that early viewing, I thought Dazed might be its generation's Graffiti. My appreciation of Dazed has only grown every time I've watched it, to the point where I've now come to regard Graffiti as its generation's Dazed and Confused, though not nearly as mature, ambitious, or sophisticated.

The School of Rock (2003): Maybe Linklater's most mainstream film, it's still subversive on its own terms. If nothing else, unlike all too many Industry films about rock & roll, School gets it right. Even if this were not evident throughout the film, when Jack Black lays out the rock family tree with chalk on a blackboard, the logic, relationships, and chronologies really work and make complete sense. Inspired and inspiring, it is a terrific film. Recently, I revealed to Linklater that, despite my ever-growing fascination with Nickelodeon's iCarly series, I had not realized it stars Miranda Cosgrove, so brilliant in The School of Rock, until that fact was pointed out to me. Even before I launched into an explanation of how fascinating I find the character of Samantha "Sam" Puckett (Jennette McCurdy, Carly's best friend and co-host), I realized that clearly I was diving off a deep end yet again. By no means for the first time in the decades we've known each other, Linklater was looking askance at my rapture. I shut up.

Before Sunset (2004): When dealing with love/sex/affection, too often Hollywood films buy into the mythic, offering two main variants. The more positive ones present romance as transcendent, with the lovers being more fantastic ideals than humans. The much darker "serious" films that deal with romance (those that receive critical praise and win awards) most often indulge in the now half-century-old Hollywood genre of dollar-store realism, conveying a convenient fatalism by which love leads only to disappointment, doom, and despair. There are a handful of films that take the myth to its celestial glory but then go back to earth, where the characters go from being beyond real to just being people. Among these are Last Tango in Paris, The Palm Beach Story, In a Lonely Place, and Linklater's Before Sunset.

Me and Orson Welles (2009): Of course.

Some Recommended Films of Orson Welles

Citizen Kane (1941): As with the comments above on Slacker, if you haven't yet seen this film, nothing I'm going to say will probably change your mind. The first time I watched it, I was looking for the reputation and not seeing the film. The next time was unexpected, so I just watched the movie that was on the screen. As far as I'm concerned, a great work of culture is somewhat different every time you encounter it; this is certainly true of Kane. Remarkably, the film Welles made at 25 is an old person's film, an end-of-career-and-life meditation. Maybe that's why he found it so difficult to follow it up.

The Lady From Shanghai (1947): Directed and starring an impossibly young Welles, who appears even more fresh-faced than in Kane, it's a terrific mystery with brilliant performances (Rita Hayworth, Everett Sloane, Welles) and a justifiably legendary climax.

The Third Man (1949): In this chillingly brilliant post-war film, directed by Carol Reed, Welles amply demonstrates that even if he had never become "Orson Welles," he still would have been one of the most respected actors of his generation.

Touch of Evil (1958): Welles gone to fat and ugly in every possible way – spiritually, physically, morally – and so completely that his role in the film is a metaphor for how I've felt on some of the worst mornings of my life. To say that in his role as police captain Hank Quinlan he is the villain of the piece actually understates the brilliance of his performance, which seeps out of the film. Marlene Dietrich, playing Tanya the fortuneteller, responds to Quinlan when he asks her to read his fortune, "You haven't got any." When he asks her what she means, she answers:

"Your future is used up."

Regarding Afghanistan: I envy those who are certain of what needs to be done there, regardless of what they think that is exactly. The certainty of all is admirable, from those who insist we must unilaterally withdraw immediately to folks who feel that we should withdraw as many troops as possible (though not all) to those who follow the president in feeling we must send additional troops in order to stabilize the Afghan government before leaving. The only opinion I'd insist that is absolutely wrong is that we have to stay until we achieve victory. Whatever "victory" may be (I have no idea), it isn't going to be achieved.

The major problem with invading a foreign country, especially one not contiguous with one's own and when there is no exit strategy, is not getting in, but getting out. Going into Afghanistan was not a "necessary" invasion, nor was it ever a "just" war. It was amazingly stupid, though not quite as much so as the so-far-beyond-just-stupid invasion of Iraq. There is no safe, logical, or easy way to exit the country.

Since I lack that sense of firm ground that others are secure upon, it seems to me that the biggest issue facing us is not just that of ending the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq immediately. Rather, it is to try to stack the deck so we never repeat this stupidity again – to leave in such a way as to engrave itself in the history and on the consciousness of the American people so we never go to war this unnecessarily and moronically again. Admittedly, I thought our tragic excursion in Vietnam had brought that one home for all time. I forgot the myopic sense of history and unrealistic nationalist bravado of the war lovers. In a way that makes tying one's sense of machismo and ego to the performance of a college or professional football team seem like a Little League allegiance, there are those who, deep in their souls, believe might makes right and that military victory is not just possible but necessary.

Those who love themselves as much as they love war seem to be without any personal doubt. Witness Karl Rove, without a hint of irony, stating that while it took Obama 80 days or so to make up his wishy-washy mind, the Bush administration successfully invaded Afghanistan in 55 days. If anyone wants to make the case that you can still be fighting a war years later that you've already won, I'd love to hear it.

The only thing I know is that the Afghanistan situation breaks my heart, and I really thank God that the future of what happens there is not my personal decision. It seems to me impossible to unequivocally state that there is only one choice that will allow us to leave in a way that will cost the fewest lives, provide any degree of safety for the Afghan people, assure even a hint of stability in the government, and leave this country in the position that makes it least likely that we will engage in any kind of invasion anywhere ever again.

Keep in mind that between 70% and 80% of Americans supported the invasion of Iraq. And forget the notion this was because they all truly believed Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. After 9/11, in order to get rid of this country's feeling of impotence, the administration could have presented its sad list of truly cockeyed reasons we needed to invade, and even if weapons of mass destruction were not on the list, the people would have bought it.

But I don't know what to do. I admire those who do. My confusion in and of itself is not an admirable state, though it might accurately indicate the quality of the possible choices. As soon as Afghanistan was invaded, this country was up the creek without a paddle, doomed to failure in that anything we subsequently did would be wrong. This was made much worse by the Bush administration's lack of concentration on Afghanistan, its failure to work on creating a representative government while also repairing and improving the infrastructure. Instead, it was on to Iraq.

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Richard Linklater, Orson Welles, Jody Denberg, Crazy Rhythms, Afghanistan war, Me and Orson Welles, The Feelies, KGSR

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