Friday, June 15, 2007

The Politics of Portraiture: 'This is how it goes DOWN.'

14 June 2007

Before I post the back postings, please indulge me while I rant and rave for a couple minutes. First the rave: I just came from a screening of Robbie Cavalino’s and Ian McCrudden’s documentary, Anita O’Day: The Life of A Jazz Singer, at LACMA – and I’m flying. Or swinging. Or bopping. (Or nodding? Soon enough, no doubt.) It’s simply fantastic. It’s real, it’s dynamic, it’s down, it’s lighter than air. It scythes through the bullshit about O’Day and the jazz life and somehow, almost ineffably – beneath the text, the commentaries, which are alternately insightful and slightly off-point but still relevant, connected to the stream of O’Day’s unpredictable trajectory – manages to penetrate to the core of what made her keep ‘traveling light’ – fantastically – the entwined strains of pain and pleasure, the amazing rhythmic and musical genius at the foundation of her talent, the staccato of serendipity and external provocations that propelled her forward. I keep thinking of this fantastically funny line of Anita’s about her first taste of heroin – she was on the stuff for 16 years – I didn’t take notes, so this may be slightly off – but it was something like: “Hey – this is way better than scotch (that might be me – I think she might have said, “this is better than booze”); this is better than sex.” Margaret Whiting and Annie Ross comment very insightfully on what a pervasive (and persuasive) temptation heroin was for so many in the jazz demi-monde. (I love the way each of them look on the film, too. It’s harsh – it’s almost painful on a certain level – to see Whiting’s visage, in somewhat heavily but clearly hastily applied make-up, reflecting on the harsh actualities of the jazz life. Ross looks blowsy and wind-blown, the asymmetry of her features emphasized by her (much lighter thank goddess) make-up and the lighting and photography. In her lifetime, O'Day was a difficult interview (which gives some indication of how difficult she might have been on a business level) – but some squares fared better than others. (Musical intelligence trumped whatever shortcomings she perceived: she was always alert to a fresh or unique musical voice or talent, especially those with an innate jazz sensibility.) The film excerpts hilariously an interview with a hapless, rudderless, clueless Bryant Gumbel (indication of his spinelessness??) As he attempts to cross-examine (and push her towards regret or second-guessing) her pharmaco-checkered career, she cuts him dead with a dead-pan Piaf moment: “That’s the way it went down.” She was best (almost always) in her musical moments – the more spontaneous, the better. Maybe that overstates it a bit – the footage of her singing in Tokyo in 1963 is sublime (she’s flying high on smack and “Honeysuckle Rose” flows out like honey) – but spontaneous improvisations reveal her musical genius to advantage, the more challenging the better (and breath-taking). The film swings (and I do mean swing) freely over the jazz chessboard score of her career, and zigs and zags (graphically, too) between jazz dweebs like Phil Schaap (any relation to Dick? – gee I miss him) and a very intense James Gavin, and the personalities who figured in her career, some geniuses in their own right (e.g., Billy Taylor, Johnny Mandel), many no longer with us – e.g., a sketchy portrait of John Poole, the drummer and percussionist O’Day discovered doing the warm-up strip show for Lenny Bruce, and with whom she shared her life – and addiction – for more than 15 years. In addition to the clips from her Tokyo tour, her audacious (and spectacularly self-styled) rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown” at Newport from Bert Stern’s Jazz On A Summer Day, which she builds from a staccato, almost accidental music, improvisation, to a soaring jazz sinfonia (one of those priceless genius moments); the film of her equally audacious (at the time) duet with Roy Eldridge, “Let Me Off Uptown,” and many brilliant television clips and other invaluable filmed performances – all brilliantly whipstitched together by Robbie Cavalino’s genius art direction and editing – make Anita O’Day the simultaneously searing and soaring documentary it is – as well as a searing exposition of la vie de la Bohème – jazz style.

A mild disclaimer: Robbie is an acquaintance – we have several mutual friends. But this should in no way diminish the praise he is due for this amazing gift of a film.

Okay – I’m hearing the guffaws in my head: “Are you through yet?” Okay let me shut up about Anita O’Day for a second (hey, I’m excited; so sue me) and focus on, hmmmm – something that Bert Stern would have understood, especially on a commercial level. I’m talking about a certain style of photography. I don’t really know what to call it: creepy-dignified; majestic-robotic; get-real-or-get-replicant; I just don’t know. Alright let me tell you what I’m getting at? I’m sure you took in the cover of last Sunday’s (yeah – I should have posted this days ago, I know) New York Times Magazine, with that photograph of John Edwards. (This really doesn’t have much to do with my personal politics; I’ll confess I lean towards Obama – but all of this is really irrelevant, as I’ll make clear in a second.) The photographer is Robert Maxwell; but I’m not really sure this has to do with Maxwell himself (though obviously he’s ‘in’ on the presentation of his subject). (It occurs to me that the magazine cover shot of Hillary Clinton – the one taken around the time she published It Takes A Village (by now a very well known portrait of HC)– makes an interesting contrast in terms of the way political players (and, by implication, power) are photographed.). We notice first, the stance, the posture, the positioning – the head seems just ever-so-slightly upturned, the eyes narrowed in a near squint, the nose that much more bulbous looking (not that it’s really bulbous), the mouth, however, comfortably set, not to firm or rigid. The blue of the tie is a little too blue, too bright, not dark or saturated enough. The hands are comfortably set at his sides, set well, almost perfectly, but they’re not particularly graceful or elegant (but maybe that’s okay for a politician, who knows?) You realize by now that the shot is positioned just a bit lower than the median, the angle lowered just slightly, just enough make Edwards – not monumental (certainly not) exactly, but just a bit stony. Not stiff – because he’s clearly not stiff here – but, uh, strange? Part of it is the squint – the lighting is clearly a bit harsh, particularly the high light set. Now we focus again on the face. What is wrong? – the eyes know. Oh yeah, the eyes always know – or show. What is that square of light circumscribing the pupils of the eyes? The light source? Why isn’t this corrected? It’s so fucking obvious. Now we know what’s a little strange here – or maybe a lot strange. Let’s face it – the last time you saw a look like this was in Village of the Damned. He’s one of the Children of the Damned. Game over – we think – but first we page over to the feature. (Hey – I’ll cut the Times some slack. Why not?) Over to page 66 – a solid black bar over the center of the page (the graphic rubric), the title is simply “The Poverty Platform” (the article was written by Matt Bai). No shit – have a look yourself – we’re already set up for the facing portrait – essentially the headshot from the cover – this time a properly centered 8x10 (or 10x12 – whatever it is) glossy – the bright white ‘square around the pupils’ are now forceps – or maybe fangs (the nose looks better though). This is Dracula with a tan. The article is actually pretty interesting – the focus is economics (not only as a campaign issue, but with the campaign as focus), inequality, wealth disparity, imbalance, the check for globalization, populism, etc., etc., Edwards’ beliefs, strategy, viability, etc., etc. – I could spend another half hour discussing it – but that’s not my point here. My point is the visual manipulation and what that manipulation sets us up for – notwithstanding our awareness of it.

Let’s set aside for a moment that the system is rigged. We already know that (we’re not ALL morons – much as this White House treats us so). This is about the way our expectations are conditioned by the landscape of imagery – including the quasi-official portraiture — around us. It’s yet another filter imposed by the mainstream media gatekeepers in alternatively willful and passive complicity with the country’s political power-brokers and plutocrats. No matter that these people – e.g., Edwards, Obama, McCain, Romney, etc. – are already players on one level or another, power-brokers on some scale in their own right; no matter what or who their constituencies are – or even the raw power of the numbers (which can be and are always manipulated). Some of these guys just aren’t getting through. Go ahead and call in the stylists; call in the money-men and women, call in your own political chips and alliances. For chrissakes call Rupert Murdoch and Warren Buffett if it makes you happy. The choices open for your voting pleasure will shortly be made – take them or leave them.

Do you remember the portrait of John Kerry that appeared in The New York Times the Sunday a few weeks before the last election? I knew then and there it was over (in spite of the assurances of my hyper-informed Washington journalist brother that Kerry really had a decent chance). I only wonder now whether Kerry himself wasn’t complicit in his own defeat. (I confess I wondered the same thing about Gore in 2000. But at least his campaign carried the case to the Supreme Court with no less than David Boies taking the leading oar.)

It occurs to me that there is one solid argument against my thesis: George Bush almost always looks like a moron no matter who photographs him, or where or under what circumstances he’s photographed. Then again that describes almost half the electorate. Well – there you are.

A contrasting example – and I have to wonder why and to what effect ultimately. Only a couple of days later, I was sitting in a waiting room and picked up a TIME Magazine. Mitt Romney is on the cover. Have you seen it? (No, I don’t routinely read it either – outside the supermarket line; it’s still essentially the elementary school Economist. So ask your kid or your neighbor’s kid for theirs.) Once again, there was an interesting gap between the cover portrait and the feature’s contents (which, again, were actually pretty interesting – there I go contradicting myself again). I have to give them some credit. They (editors, publisher) get it about Romney. But really – did they have to be so obvious about it? Harry Luce would have had quite a giggle over it – and frankly I don’t think he would have approved; regardless of his politics, he wanted the magazine to be current and above all, to sell. But – without addressing its aesthetics, which of course tell their own story – that portrait harks back to something out of 1936 – or at the latest, 1952. What, you have to wonder, were they thinking? Right now it really is too early in the season to make any predictions – but what do you think Romney’s chances are right now?

Smile for the camera. The fix is in. MORE in a few hours.


Dan B (no, not Bennett, think harder) said...

Speaking of Anita O'Day, there is an exciting new group on Yahoo called The Judy Garland Experience. The group features ultra rare audio files, amazing photo's, lively discussions, and the most eclectic bunch of Judy fan's you will find anywhere.
The membership includes Garland family members, historians, authors, film makers, other celebrities, and fans of all levels. The only person missing is you!
This week in our audio section we are featuring Judy's November, 1968 concert at Lincoln Center where she tenderly pays tribute to Harold Arlen, Her complete performance in 1953's psychological musical, Lady In The Dark, and some other odds and ends including an oh so rare concert performance by Judy's friend Anita O'Day. Please stop by our little Judyville and check it out, you may never want to leave.

Annica said...

Robbie's Art Direction is brilliant. The Editing, done by Ian McCrudden and Cavolina, is also well done.