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Friday, January 9, 2015

Zabriskie Point: A Fever Dream of a Movie

(I am reposting this 2009 story in memory of Rod Taylor, who died this week. While he did much fine work, his participation in this movie stands as a highlight to me. -- SR; 1-9-15)

Zabriskie Point: A Fever Dream of a Movie

Zabriskie Point: A Fever Dream of a Movie
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
Warner Home Video
By Steven Rosen

(Published 7-31-09 in

During what most people consider Hollywood’s last golden era -- the early to mid-1970s -- so many good movies true to their times came out they couldn’t all be assimilated by the culture at the time.

Like America, they were hip, sexy, druggy and rebellious, but also downbeat, violent, soul-searching and (fitting for the Watergate era) political.For every celebrated All the President’s Men, Five Easy Pieces and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the New Hollywood also gave us an unjustly overlooked Cisco Pike, Blume in Love or Friends of Eddie Coyle.

In today’s active retroculture, we’ve been kept busy with rediscoveries, restorations and revivals of films of that era that got missed the first time around.But Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, which has just been released by Warner Bros. Pictures on DVD, is a different case. It got plenty of attention upon its 1970 release -- and was so roundly rejected by audiences and critics alike that it has become one of the New Hollywood’s most celebrated turkeys, like Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie or William Friedkin’s Sorcerer.

The movie went into hiding.Yet seeing it today, one realizes Zabriskie Point’s bad rep is largely a bad rap. Cinematographically, it is a visionary, hallucinatory interpretation of the fever dreams of the era’s counterculture. It finds poetry in the California of desert road-trip lore, while also finding ugliness in the Los Angeles (any city, really) of industrial clutter and sprawl. Seeing it now, with America struggling with a recession so deep many doubt the possibility of a return to normalcy as we know it, one realizes what the film is: a requiem for our lifestyle, ahead of its time.

One with great music, by the way -- as an expanded soundtrack put out by Rhino in 1997 already proved.

Today, Antonioni’s ideas of the America of that time seem artfully sharp if intellectually dispassionate. He saw the country locked in a war of ideas and values, maybe a shooting war. But he was more interested in looking at it as in creating a polemic about it. The resultant film is fascinatingly original yet mysterious, like a David Lynch movie.

It would be dishonest, however, to call it a masterpiece -- Antonioni wanted unknowns for his leads, and their lack of acting experience shows in their stilted line deliveries. This was the first American movie for Antonioni, the Italian director whose films had a sexy, existential flair and who in his 50s had discovered youth culture, rock ‘n’ roll, swinging London and full-frontal nudity in his previous film, 1966’s classic Blowup. Like Blowup, Zabriskie was an MGM release, and the company had high hopes for it.

The principals are an alienated college student, enamored of revolutionary ideas, named Mark (Mark Frechette), and the cheerfully beatific hippie Daria (Daria Halprin), who works among “straights” as a secretary at a development firm. They meet in the desert and make love at Zabriskie Point, which overlooks an ancient lakebed in Death Valley National Park.

The symbolism seems evident -- however empty America had become, youth could still find beauty in its “death” throes. Kids may have thought Zabriskie would be Antonioni’s Easy Rider, but they had never seen his earlier Italian films, especially Red Desert and L’Avventura. So they were confused by the enigmatic way he let his camera, rather than his characters or his story, be the film’s star.

There was also a political problem. The film begins with protests at “California State College” in L.A. in which a policeman gets shot and killed by a student. It appears that Mark is the student who shoots the cop, although it’s not absolutely clear. Antonioni doesn’t seem to care much about it, one way or another -- it’s just a way to get Mark out of L.A. and toward Daria. It gives the film (and Mark) a coldness the hot desert just can’t melt.

Antonioni got credit for the spare, minimalist screenplay along with fellow Italians Franco Rossetti (aka Fred Gardner) and Tonino Guerra. American playwright Sam Shepard and Clare Peploe, Antonioni’s assistant who later married Bernardo Bertolucci, also contributed.

Some of the dialogue is pithy. For instance, when police book college activists after a violent confrontation, one arrestee identifies himself as an associate professor of history. “That’s too long,” a cop says. “I’ll just put down ‘clerk.’”

Plenty of movies that have been set in Los Angeles see the city’s beauty: the beaches, the hillside homes that overlook the glittering lights below, the Hollywood neon and the glamorous people it attracts. Antonioni and cinematographer Alfio Contini see, however, the mundane clutter and detritus. There’s a revealing montage of industrial-related signage and junkyards. The film does feature a lovely view of the Richfield Tower, a black-and-gold downtown L.A. Art Deco treasure demolished at about the same time as the film was made. Seeing it makes one bemoan all that has been lost in L.A. -- or any American city where “progress” trumps preservation.

Zabriskie Point follows two parallel stories for awhile. Daria, on a mission to deliver material for a conference at the desert retreat of her boss (Rod Taylor), gets waylaid en route. The sun is bright and the people and buildings are both colorful, folkloric relics -- an old-timer in a roadhouse smokes as “Tennessee Waltz” plays on the jukebox.

Mark, meanwhile, flees the campus shooting by hijacking a pink airplane, lifting off over the traffic-clogged, smoggy sprawl as a snippet of the Dead’s “Dark Star” jubilantly plays. In the desert, he sees Daria driving and goes down low to buzz her, again and again. The widescreen cinematography turns this into a maniacal mating ritual, plane over car, that provides a rush both scary and erotic.

But it’s nothing compared to the Zabriskie Point lovemaking. The dusty, dry landscape suddenly sprouts a mirage of young people, in various couplings and stages of undress. The fight, claw, laugh, and have sex to a dreamy guitar piece by Jerry Garcia. (The Open Theatre of Joe Chaikin provides the bodies for this site-specific “performance.”) It’s a poetic way of externalizing the internal -- when in love; Daria and Mark feel as if the whole world is, too. Even in the desert.

It’s a pretty radical scene for a movie that appears, up to that point, to be naturalistic. But there’s more to come. Mark flies back and is promptly, matter-of-factly shot to death by police. Antonioni films it as fait accompli, not worth romanticizing. Daria learns of it while driving in the desert; the radio interrupts John Fahey’s “Dance of Death” to announce it.

She then arrives at the company retreat, a modernist home nestled into rocks on the side of a cliff, while executives are planning a new subdivision. She goes outside, looks back and -- boom -- the house explodes. Not once, but repeatedly, from different vantage points. As the camera studies in slow motion the “dance of death” of all the material inside it -- a newspaper, lawn chairs, even a loaf of Wonder bread -- Pink Floyd’s screaming “Come In Number 51, Your Time Is Up” (also known as “Careful With That Axe, Eugene”) plays.

The explosions are apocalyptic and mesmerizing, mournful and beautiful. They leave you stunned and weirded-out. And then the movie is over with a long gaze into the Western sunset.

Incidentally, MGM tacked on a kitschy romantic ballad, “So Young,” sung with soaring heartache by Roy Orbison. His career was stone cold at the time, and MGM -- his label -- may have wanted to give him a hit. According to the liner notes of the Rhino soundtrack, Antonioni hated it.

Today, even given its faults, Zabriskie Point is invigorating. And it leaves you wondering, after all these years, if Antonioni looked at America at that time and found hope…or hopelessness. Whichever, was he right?
— 07/31/2009

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Hartman Rock Garden's Restoration: From the Archives

Restoring Hope

Hartman Rock Garden celebrates a historical piece of folk art and a struggling Midwestern city

Springfield, a smaller city some 75 miles slightly northeast of Cincinnati, has lost plenty during the post-industrial era. So it’s important when it can reclaim, restore and celebrate something that once made it so special — an outdoor folk-art environment known as Hartman Rock Garden, created during the Great Depression. And the way it did so is a good lesson for much larger cities struggling with urban-preservation issues.
There will be an “open house” for the garden on July 23, although it’s already open every day dawn to dusk. Admission is free, and donations are accepted. “We’ve had people come from Germany, even,” says Ted Vander Roest, president of Friends of Hartman Rock Garden as well as executive director of the nonprofit Springfield Foundation. “It is a significant site for people interested in outdoor folk art and outdoor rock gardens.”
Much else great about Springfield’s past is gone. During the first years of the automobile, the city rivaled Detroit as a center for car manufacturers. The Kelly-Springfield Tire Co. was founded there. International Harvester had a big plant there. And its downtown was a lot denser and busier than now — so much so that in 1890 it built a massive three-story, 56,000-square-foot stone-and-brick Richardson Romanesque landmark to house city offices and a farmers’ market. (It now houses an excellent local-history museum.)
Yet the city, refusing defeatism, is developing an impressive track record for art/architecture preservation. In 2005, after a long fundraising campaign, a nonprofit foundation was able to restore and open to the public a 1908 Frank Lloyd Wright mansion known as the Westcott House. And last year Wisconsin-based Kohler Foundation purchased and rehabilitated the endangered Hartman Rock Garden. A “grand reopening” was held last summer. 
Like a blue-collar-Americana version of Antoni Gaudi, H.G. (Ben) Hartman created this fantastical place in the backyard of his modest home from 1932 until his death in 1944. It was the Great Depression, and, according to a story reported in the Springfield News-Sun, Hartman had lost his iron-molding job. So he decided to put his hands and time to good use, collecting some 250,000 individual stones and rocks from around the country to build his own dream world.
It was like nothing else in the quiet southwest Springfield neighborhood, at 1905 Russell St.
His imaginatively landscaped, one-of-a-kind backyard has scale replicas of famous American buildings, as well as a castle with moat, houses, a cathedral and more. He populated his virtual village with smaller stone decorative objects, like a cactus, as well as 100 or so concrete figurines that comment on both the real-world culture of the time — Mae West, the Dionne Quintuplets, boxer Joe Lewis — and the animals, historical and religious subjects that charmed Hartman. (Those figurines are in storage until the July 23 open house.) He planted flowers amid his creations and even built a concrete “picket” fence around the yard to mark the garden’s boundaries. 
It eventually became a tourist attraction within Springfield, and the family sold plants to visitors out of a backyard greenhouse. After he died, his family preserved it as best they could. But after his son died in 2007, the future of the property came into doubt while relatives worked to settle the estate. Nervousness about its future set in. 
But so did the Kohler Foundation, which was contacted by a family member. Started by the family who founded the Kohler plumbing-related manufacturing company, it is independent of both that company and the Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, known for its folk-art collection. 
Since the 1970s, the foundation has preserved outdoor art sites in its home state, Wisconsin, plus one outside — the mysterious Chauvin Sculpture Garden deep in Louisiana’s Bayou country. After discussions, and aware of Hartman’s reputation in folk-art circles, the foundation bought it sight unseen.
“We would love to see every example preserved, but there are not enough resources to do that,” explains Terri Yoho, Kohler Foundation’s executive director. “But here the pieces fell into place. The art itself is interesting and exciting, it’s something a lot of people can relate to, it’s in an accessible place, the people who owned it were good stewards, and it’s just a treasure in Springfield.”
After buying the property — which also included the house and a vacant parcel across the street — the foundation assigned two conservators to Springfield to painstakingly work on restoration. They became celebrities in their own right. 
“Springfield is economically challenged at this point, and this is in a modest neighborhood,” Yoho says. “But the people who live there have done so for generations, and they feel an ownership in what’s there. So the people would have our conservators over for dinner and bring treats.”
After finishing the work, Kohler turned stewardship over to three Springfield organizations — the art museum and two nonprofits, the Springfield and Turner foundations. They created the Friends umbrella group, and the two local foundations agreed to contribute $5,000 annually for upkeep. An artist-in-residence — currently photographer Rod Hatfield — lives in the old home and offers tours to visitors. 
There are big plans for Hartman Rock Garden — for plantings that exactly re-create Hartman’s original landscaping, for monthly guided walking tours, printed guides, even outdoor broadcasts of Depression-era radio shows like Orson Welles’ famous “War of the Worlds” from 1938. Maybe even using the vacant grounds for a Folk Art Fair. 
“We’re just the getting the word out. We’re just starting,” Vander Roest says. 

THE HARTMAN ROCK GARDEN is located at 1905 Russell St. in Springfield, Ohio. For more information, call The Springfield Foundation at 937-324-8773 or visit

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Remembering Ian McLagan

(Because his Cincinnati show in October was on such short notice, there was no space in the printed issue of that week's CityBeat for this interview -- so it went on the Blog. The concert drew about 40 people, and McLagan was just as enthused and spirited as if there were a couple hundred. And he played a great set. After the show, he stayed and talked with us for an hour or so. We all vowed the next time through, he'd get the crowd he deserved. R.I.P., Ian McLagan -- SR)

An Interview with Ian McLagan 

Rock & Roll Hall of Famer with Small Faces/Faces plays Southgate House Revival this Wednesday

By Steven Rosen; Cincinnati CityBeat, Oct. 27, 2014
soundadvice_ian_mclagan_photo_ t. dimennoIan McLagan - Photo: T. Dimenno
Ian McLagan, who performs at Southgate House Revival on Wednesday, is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee. And for good reason.

In 1965, he replaced one Jimmy Weston as keyboard player in Small Faces, one of the two great Mod bands (the other was The Who) who captured the youthquake mood and sense of liberation that swept the Swinging London of the mid-1960s.

In Britain, Small Faces had hit after hit featuring vocalist/guitarist Steve Marriott — “Sha-La-La-La-Lee,” “All or Nothing,” “Tin Soldier,” “Lazy Sunday,” “Here Come the Nice,” “The Universal” and more. Their one U.S. hit, the psychedelicized “Itchycoo Park,” has been a Rock-radio staple from the day it hit the charts in 1967.

When Marriott departed, the remaining group members — McLagan, bassist Ronnie Lane and drummer Kenney Jones — decided to carry on by recruiting two members of The Jeff Beck Group, singer Rod Stewart and guitarist Ronnie Wood. Called Faces, they became one of Britain’s most successful bands of the early 1970s with their rough-hewn, pub-friendly style of rowdy-yet-tender acoustic-electric Rock. Among their classics are “Stay With Me,” “Cindy Incidentally” and “Ooh La La.”

With all the talent in that band, it didn’t stay together too long. Stewart’s concurrent solo career got too big, while Wood was wanted by The Rolling Stones and Jones by The Who. McLagan, whose vocal duties were limited in Small Faces and Faces (who were simultaneously inducted into the Rock Hall in 2012), became an in-demand session and touring keyboardist for Bonnie Raitt, Billy Bragg, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and many others.

He also began occasionally releasing his own mostly small label albums, solo and with The Bump Band, that showcased his ruggedly naturalistic voice and songwriting talents. He has lived in Austin, Texas, since 1994, after moving to the U.S. from Britain and living in L.A. for 16 years.

At the time of his Austin move, Lane was also there. But the latter’s worsening multiple sclerosis soon prompted a move to less-humid Trinidad, Colo. In fact, Lane already was planning that move when McLagan told him he was coming to Austin. So their time together in the same town only lasted for one and a half months. Lane died in 1997.

McLagan’s solo career took a great leap forward with 2009’s Never Say Never, filled with sometimes-rueful, sometimes-redemptive songs, melodic and rhythmic, prompted by the loss of his wife, Kim, in an auto accident. The songs have some of the majesty of Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed,” another high point of early-1970s British Rock.

That album, in turn, inspired the label Yep Roc — home to still-vital veteran singer/songwriters like Nick Lowe, Dave Alvin and Robyn Hitchcock — to distribute his follow-up, this year’s fine United States.
It’s been getting rave reviews and is helping McLagan finally emerge as a bandleader.

The album is bringing McLagan (with Bump Band bassist Jon Notarthomas) to Southgate House Revival in Newport Wednesday. As far as he can recall, this is his first show as a headliner in the Cincinnati area since his first solo album, Troublemaker, came out in 1979.

“This year I’ve toured as much as I have in last 10 years,” the affable, sunny-dispositioned McLagan says in a phone interview. “Now I have a record company that wants me to tour and that’s great.”

It’s also a little strange. McLagan, 69, is a member of British Rock & Roll royalty — of the same generation, and often friends with, those who have been arena-filling superstars for six decades and counting. Yet his Cincinnati area date is surprisingly low profile, with little advance publicity. (For a variety of reasons, Southgate House didn’t announce it until just two weeks before the show.)

It’s an odd situation. He’s been making music professionally for 50 years, yet is still establishing himself as a touring attraction.

“The funny thing is, if I’d made several albums in the 1960s and had some success, the people that like my albums now would have grown up liking them,” McLagan says. “I didn’t have that, and I realize I’m stumbling around this wonderful world trying to attract attention now.

“It’s pretty funny, really. But I just love what I do,” he says. “I am so blessed that all I’ve done in my professional life, since I was 17-18, is play music and somehow make a dollar here and there.”

One thing that remains constant in McLagan’s shows — in his psyche — is his love for his late wife. He met her when she was estranged from husband Keith Moon. He always performs several songs from Never Say Never.

“I sing to my wife; it helps me,” he confides. “She was my muse. I’ve written so many songs about her, to her, with references to her, and still do. She’s a big part of my life. We were together for 33 years. It actually does me good — she’s with me all that time in that way.”

Even though McLagan isn’t that famous as an individual, he was in groups whose records sold millions. So shouldn’t his royalties afford him such a cushion he can treat work like a hobby?

“Ha, ha, ha — you’re very funny,” he replies.

He explains Small Faces were on a modest salary that was paid by their manager, Don Arden, with knowledge of their Immediate record label’s head, Andrew Loog Oldham. They never got royalties during the band’s lifetime.

McLagan joined Small Faces in 1965 after original keyboardist Weston left following the group’s first British hit, “Watcha Gonna Do About It.” Although it wasn’t why original Small Faces keyboardist Weston left, he had been the only member of the original lineup who wasn’t actual small, height-wise.

McLagan, who was, had been gigging with more Blues-oriented groups, including one led by Boz Burrell (future King Crimson and Bad Company member).

“They got me because they read a review of a show I was in with another band that said I played Hammond organ and I was really good, and it had a photograph with my name under it," McLagan says. “But it wasn’t a photograph of me, it was of Boz Burrell. So when they saw me, they laughed and Steve picked me up because they hadn’t known I was short. How cool is that? They said, ‘He doesn’t look like his photograph but he looks all right.’ ”

Arden asked McLagan how much he was earning and he said five pounds (the British currency) a week, a very small sum. So he offered McLagan 30 pounds during probation and then an even split with the others.

“He was showing off,” McLagan says. “I was thinking, ‘Wow, I’m a millionaire.’ Eventually, I asked Ronnie Lane, ‘What’s going on? Am I still on probation?’ They knew nothing about it. We went up to the office and Ronnie said to Don, ‘Hey, Mac’s in the band, all right?’ My money went down to 20 pounds a week — that’s what they were getting! We never got anything other than 20 pounds a week for two years and then it was 50 pounds a week. Since 1997, we now get our royalties. Of course, Small Faces albums are not selling in the amount they were when we didn’t get paid, but we are at least getting something.

“But you know what? It didn’t fucking matter,” he continues. “I’m earning every day, Don Arden’s dead, Andrew and I have made up and we’re friends. The money’s gone so move on.”

As for the Faces, McLagan says their record label — Warner Bros. — does pay. But it’s been slow to release archival product. The four-disc Warner/Rhino retrospective Five Guys Walk into a Bar came out back in 2004.

“The Faces sell a little bit but Warner Bros. are such a bunch of idiots because they didn’t realize if we haven’t got records out we can’t make any money,” McLagan says. “It’s taken a while, but there should be a Faces live album … out next year.”

The album was recorded in the States during the Faces’ heyday.

“We’ve just discovered this recently,” McLagan says. “We recorded it and completely forgot about it. I heard a couple tracks and it sounds really good.”

McLagan then reveals an enticing possibility.

“Hopefully we’ll tour behind it,” he says. “Rod’s keen, I’m keen, Kenney’s keen and Ronnie Wood is keen, so I don’t see anything in the way of it.”

In the meantime, McLagan’s Wednesday show at Southgate House is a rare chance to see this great Rock & Roll musician in an intimate setting. (Click here for ticket info.)

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Forgotten Bob Dylan Film Projects from the 1960s: From the Archives

By Steven Rosen
Denver Post, 10-17-98

(When I first wrote this story, the angle was that the newly released Bob Dylan Live 1966: The 'Royal Albert Hall' Concert album might prompt some of this long-unreleased film footage to get out there. It didn't, but maybe now the new Basement Tapes packages will prompt the same thing -- even if the Basement Tapes period is a little later, it's still Dylan in the 60s and demand is great. -- SR)
   It's 1966 all over again in the world of pop music - and the
Denver International Film Festival, which just concluded, was in
the center of it.
   That's because the record "Bob Dylan Live 1966: The ‘Royal
Albert Hall' Concert'' was just released this week - some 32
years after the performance.
   It was instantly hailed as one of rock's great live
recordings. And the publicity surrounding the long-delayed
release has interested old and young music lovers in the story
of how folk singer Dylan switched to amplified rock 'n' roll in
1965 and 1966. He changed pop culture forever.
   Actually taped at the Manchester, England, Free Trade Hall on
May 17, 1966, the new album reveals Dylan and his band playing
majestically loud in response to hecklers who wanted to hear him
solo, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar and harmonica. In
July, after the European tour was over, Dylan was seriously
injured in a New York motorcycle accident and for many years
retreated from touring.
   The story of "Dylan goes electric'' has become contemporary
myth on the order of Arthur finding Excalibur and becoming king.
Now, after all these years during which bootleg tapes circulated
among collectors, a wide audience can hear a concert recording
from that time.
   But few people know there are still two never-released films
of Dylan's 1966 European tour, where he and his band members -
including Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard
Manuel of the Hawks - played blistering rock 'n' roll to a
sometimes-resistant audience. (Dylan opened shows with an
acoustic set.)
   But two people who do know about the movies were at this
year's Denver film festival - directors D.A. Pennebaker and
Harry Rasky. Both were involved, to varying degrees, in trying
to make a movie of the tour.
   "It is rather strange,'' Pennebaker said. "You go for a
long period of time and there's not much interest in it and you
think, ‘Well, it's not as great as I thought it was.' And then
suddenly something starts it back up.''
   Pennebaker is one of the pioneers of cinema-verite
documentaries. He was in Denver with his wife and filmmaking
partner of some 20 years, Chris Hegedus, to show their latest
work, "Moon Over Broadway.'' They also received the festival's
John Cassavetes Award.
   In 1965, Pennebaker filmed Dylan's solo tour of England,
which occurred just before the musician's shift to rock. That
movie became the now-classic "Don't Look Back.'' Dylan called
him in early 1966 to help film his upcoming European concerts.
Dylan had contracted with ABC to produce a television special
about his tour.
   "We had a meeting in Los Angeles and Bob said, ‘You got your
movie and now I want you to help me make mine.' And I said
‘sure,''' Pennebaker said.
   Dylan's plan, apparently, was to create a film that was both
structurally and emotionally confrontational and radical - just
like his music of the period. (A spokesman at Dylan's record
company said he was unavailable for comment.) But ABC had other
ideas, and hired Harry Rasky to be the director.
   Rasky, who now produces documentaries for the Canadian
Broadcasting Corp., was in Denver to show his new "Christopher
Plummer: King of Players.'' He recalled his Dylan '66 experience as
"one of the great traumas of my life.'' He had just completed a
program on Fidel Castro's Cuba, including a rare Che Guevara
interview, when ABC called him.
   "It seemed to me they chose me as a free-minded guy,'' Rasky
said. "But the minute Dylan found out I had been asked by ABC
to do the film, he thought I was the voice of authority.
   "He said, ‘OK, you can make the film but I won't listen to
direction.' I thought I could ingratiate myself to him. So we
all went to London and stayed at the Mayfair Hotel. Dylan said,
‘We're going to do things my way.'''
   After a week, Dylan's manager paid him a full salary to
leave. But he did have one unusual experience - attending a
private late-night screening of "Don't Look Back'' with Dylan
and the Beatles. When it was over, he said, he discovered the
Beatles asleep.
   Once the tour began and filming started, Pennebaker recalled,
Dylan intentionally tried to keep people around him on edge.
   "He was getting a big pot boiling, with everybody kind of at
odds and uncertain and confused and even a little ... (annoyed)
and then film that condition in various ways,'' Pennebaker said.
  "It's a way for people who aren't filmmakers but are
consummate dramatists in one way or another to create a kind of
scene for a film,'' he said. "They're not writing; writing
scenes is an art in itself. So Bob just simply said, ‘I'll get a
lot of people together and we'll see what happens.'''
   Pennebaker, who, along with Howard Alk, was filming selected
concert dates, doesn't recall crowd response because he was
watching the musicians. "The music was wonderful,'' he said.
"They were some of the best concerts I ever shot. It was
wondrous. And I was taken up with how to film them.''
   In particular, he wanted to get close - right on stage, if
necessary - to film the musicians. "Dylan and Robbie (guitarist
Robertson) really were into it, and cut themselves off from
everything else, as if they weren't even aware there was an
audience there. It was an amazing thing to watch.
   "Always up to that point, when Dylan would go out acoustic,
he was completely aware of the audience - he dominated that
audience,'' he said. "He almost dared them to make a noise or
get out of line. And in this case, it was as if he didn't ...
(care) what they were doing or thinking. And in order to get
that, I began to think we couldn't film that with long lenses.
   "I had to get out on stage, put a wide angle lens on the
camera and get into it, myself. That was a big decision. It
meant the first time Dylan came out on stage and I was standing
there with a camera, he almost flipped. He laughed because he
hadn't expected it, but it made it possible to get the kind of
performance we couldn't otherwise get.''
   In June, after the tour concluded, Pennebaker said, Dylan's
management found itself with no movie and facing an ABC
deadline. So at management's request, Pennebaker edited his
footage into a 45-50 minute "rough sketch'' called "You Know
Something Is Happening.'' (The title comes from a phrase in a
Dylan song.)
   "It would be like a continuation of ‘Don't Look Back,'''
Pennebaker said.  "‘Don't Look Back 2' - what happened when the
electricity was turned on.''
   But Dylan didn't like it and, with Alk, used different tour
footage to construct his own anti-documentary called ""Eat the
Document.'' ABC rejected it, and both movies have been more or
less forgotten.
   But with the release of the new record, there has also been a
revival of interest in "Eat the Document.'' The Museum of
Television & Radio branches in New York and Los Angeles are holding
special screenings of the film. There are no plans, however, to
make "Something Is Happening'' available.
   Rasky meanwhile said he still regrets not having the chance
to help Dylan make the kind of film he wanted - one that
explores a highly regarded, singer-songwriter's personality and
relationship to his audience while also featuring music.
   "But I made it up a few years later by making that film with
Leonard Cohen – ‘The Song of Leonard Cohen,''' he said.
   That, too, has remained virtually unseen seen since its
Canadian TV broadcast.

   Steven Rosen's e-mail address is

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

L.A. Museums Honor "Masters of American Comics" -- From the Archives

(note -- am posting this now because Zap Comix is now coming out as a $500 hardcover boxed set -- Nov., 2014)

Byline: Steven Rosen Correspondent 
Los Angeles Daily News, 2005

For a museum exhibition that's a guaranteed crowd-pleaser - who doesn't like ``Peanuts'' or ``Popeye'' or Mad magazine? - ``Masters of American Comics'' is surprisingly controversial. 

Not among the public, which is flocking to two art museums - Westwood's Hammer and downtown's Museum of Contemporary Art on Grand Avenue - to take it all in. (The show runs through March 12.) And not among critics, who are praising it. 

Oddly enough, the conflict is between the two independent curators and comics scholars who organized it. They are Brian Walker, a newspaper cartoonist (``Beetle Bailey'') and co-founder of New York's Museum of Comic & Cartoon Art, and John Carlin, co-founder of media-development company Funny Garbage. 

At the Hammer, the show features drawings, page proofs and cartoons from eight artists whose work established the golden age of newspaper comics - daily and Sunday funnies and action-adventure stories by Winsor McCay (``Little Nemo in Slumberland''), Lyonel Feininger (``Wee Willie Winkie's World''), George Herriman (``Krazy Kat''), E.C. Segar (``Popeye''), Frank King (``Gasoline Alley''), Chester Gould (``Dick Tracy''), Milton Caniff (``Terry and the Pirates,'' ``Steve Canyon'') and Charles M. Schulz (``Peanuts''). 

At MOCA, the focus shifts to the darker side - first the tough postwar comic books and then the adult-oriented (and sometimes highly sexual) work of the late 1960s underground-comics graphic artists and their successors. The seven featured here are adult-oriented newspaper cartoonist Will Eisner (``The Spirit''), Jack Kirby (``Fantastic Four,'' ``X-Men''), Harvey Kurtzman (Mad magazine, ``Little Annie Fanny''), R. Crumb (``Mr. Natural,'' ``Fritz the Cat''), Art Spiegelman (the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel ``Maus''), Gary Panter (``Jimbo'') and postmodern conceptualist Chris Ware (``Jimmy Corrigan - the Smartest Kid on Earth''). 

In general, Walker disagrees with the intellectual thrust of the show - that the artistic energy and creativity in comic art deserted mainstream American newspapers for countercultural alternatives in the late 1960s. So, too, did the cultural impact of comics. That overlooks the storytelling and societal impact of newer strips like Garry Trudeau's ``Doonesbury,'' Walker said. Or the impact of a strip that has crossed over from the counterculture to daily newspapers, like Bill Griffith's ``Zippy,'' or of something new like Patrick McDonnell's ``Mutts.'' 

(Walker got involved in this show's curating process after Carlin had decided on the overall theme and approach - mini-retrospectives on significant comics artists rather than a broader overview.) 

``Part of the story I feel John and Art (Spiegelman, the graphic artist who advised on the show's content as well as being in it) are trying to tell is that, in some way, innovation shifted into comic books and then eventually into independent comics,'' Walker said in a phone interview. ``Whenever you try to tell a story, you generalize. It's like if someone were to say hip-hop has replaced r&b, it's not really true. There are still r&b singers today, and there are guitar bands going on simultaneously. 

``I think there was a weighted importance (in the show) put upon formal innovation - artists who experiment with the format of the comics,'' Walker said. ``But as for myself, not just as a historian of comics but also as a cartoonist, I think content is also very important. Story lines.'' 

During a separate interview from his New York office, Carlin emphasized the rationale behind his approach. ``This show is about the aesthetics of comics in the context of a museum art-historical point of view,'' he said. ``I don't think anybody who has published in a newspaper since the 1960s has made a tremendous technical or formal innovation that has expanded or changed the language of the medium. That was the criterion I used to select those artists. 

``This isn't a knock on Trudeau,'' he continued. ``It's just like with jazz. I love to listen to Wynton Marsalis, but he hasn't yet innovated in the way of Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Ellington or Armstrong. They are masters. He would be a spectacular practitioner, like a Garry Trudeau in my mind. 

``This is where my background and Brian's arrive at different results,'' Carlin said. ``I don't see this exhibition as being about the history of comics. I see it as being about 15 artists who chose to use the medium to express themselves and say something about our society. There are a lot of great cartoonists not in the show. There are icons people will miss - 'Spider-Man,' 'Superman,' 'Batman.' '' 

Indeed, the technical innovation on display at the two museums is amazing. And yet, nevertheless, this is a show one reads as much as gazes at. 

Early on, newspapers gave full-color pages - even sections that wrapped around the actual news - to blockbuster strips in the early decades of the 20th century. They made comics as big a deal as the new ``King Kong'' movie is today. (Or, for that matter, as the original one was in 1933.) 

Cartoonists responded as if rules were only for breaking, playing with space and perspective, realism and surrealism, as deftly as Salvador Dali did in the world of fine art. The phantasmagoric, groundbreaking work by McCay from the 1900s and 1910s set the standard, quickly followed by Feininger (also a painter) transforming whole pages into 3D-like landscapes for his ``Kin-der-Kids'' and ``Wee Willie Winkie.'' 

But the Hammer portion of the show ends with ``Peanuts,'' which is very different from everything else at Hammer. Started in 1950, it - like its characters - hasn't aged a bit. Schulz's clean, uncluttered drawing style and droll, philosophical humor seems as much a part of midcentury modernism as Julius Shulman's architectural photographs. 

The second half of the exhibit explodes when it gets to Crumb's artwork. Sexually graphic and twistedly expressionistic, with an attitude about the American society of the time that was bitterly satirical, it marked a break. It was controversial at the time and still is potentially offensive - closer to Lenny Bruce than to Schulz or even Kurtzman. 

``That would never have been published in a newspaper,'' Carlin said of Crumb's early work in underground comics. ``There was this distribution system, basically head shops and alternative music stores, that sprung up. The first comic I bought was (Crumb's) 'Zap' in the early '70s - part of the same impulse that led to buying my first Velvet Underground album. It was a cultural thing: 'Oh, there's an alternative culture, isn't that interesting?' '' 

From Crumb, the show moves on to artists who now assumed comics were art but also strove to make it accepted as literature. Some of the work here, especially the original drawings for Spiegelman's ``Maus'' and ``In the Shadow of No Towers,'' have the impact of manuscripts of famous novels. Which they are. And his black-on-black New Yorker cover of the vanished World Trade Center, done for the Sept. 24, 2001, issue, has the impact of Picasso's ``Guernica.'' 

``To a lot of people, comics already are art,'' Carlin said. ``Having these museum shows just plants the flag. It's the official notification of something that has already occurred. It's important socially to have these markers. If somebody wanted to teach a course on comics, there's now a textbook.'' 


Where: Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood; Museum of Contemporary Art at Grand Avenue (MOCA), 250 S. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles. 

When: Through March 12 at both locations. 

Tickets and information: Hammer: Hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays; closed Mondays. Admission is $8 for adults; free on Thursdays. Call (310) 443-7000 or visit 

MOCA: Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and Friday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; closed Tuesday and Wednesday. Admission is $8 for adults; free 5 to 8 p.m. Thursdays. Call (213) 626-6222 or visit 

What else: Visitors buying a ticket at one museum get $2 off admission to the other for the course of the show. 

(photo is of Robert Crumb from 2010)

Monday, November 10, 2014

Tom Wesselmann: Retrospective of the Pop Artist Opens at Cincinnati Art Museum

Larger Than Life

Tom Wesselmann’s Pop art gets its chance to astound

ac_stilllife60-wesselmann-700x615Wesselmann’s “Still Life No. 60” was reproduced as an ArtWorks mural at Eighth and Main streets downtown. - Photo: Jeffrey Sturges
As the long-awaited Beyond Pop Art: A Tom Wesselmann Retrospective prepares to open Friday at Cincinnati Art Museum, there is much to discuss about this native son’s controversial career as one of the original Pop artists.
But the first thing to say is, “Wow!” That was my response upon seeing what may be the show’s signature work, “Still Life No. 60,” from 1973.

I already knew this work was big — almost 30 feet long and 10 feet high — and somewhat epic in its painted depiction of objects likely to be found on a woman’s bedside table (lipstick, sunglasses, matches, nail polish, a ring and more). It’s been reproduced as one of ArtWorks’ Cincinnati Masters murals; it’s downtown at Eighth and Main streets and will be dedicated Wednesday.

But the original isn’t just the monumental painting I was expecting — although Wesselmann considered it a painting. It is a sculptural installation, an intricate set design. It’s a veritable landscape of these giganticized and spectacularized colorful objects.  

The work is a “shaped canvas” in six sections, five of them freestanding. It’s a tour-de-force visit to the land of everyday consumer objects — the great obsession of Pop artists. Wesselmann had earlier worked with smaller shaped canvases, but nothing like this. 

“If it can be one shaped canvas, why can’t there be many shaped canvases [in a work]?” asks Jeffrey Sturges, the Wesselmann Estate representative supervising the installation of this exhibit. “So this is a whole still-life arrangement. This is the largest thing he ever did.” 

Sturges also relates it to Wesselmann’s earlier work adding collaged elements to his paintings. “Instead of it being pieces of paper, here you have these shaped canvases layered in space,” he says. “It’s a painting in many parts.”

Beyond Pop Art has so far traveled to Montreal and Richmond, Va., where it was organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts with the estate’s assistance, then Denver and now here, where the Cincinnati Art Museum has organized it. It contains about 75 objects total, from major works like “Still Life No.
60” to sketches and correspondence. This is the most important painting show the museum has had in years, for its scope and its artist’s reputation, as well as for the way the artist fought to stretch the definition of painting. (The exhibit will be up through Jan. 18, 2015.)

Wesselmann made a big impact when he first showed his Great American Nude paintings/collages at New York’s Tanager Gallery in 1961. He was the first of the Pop artists to have a solo show, and collectors and critics instantly recognized he was doing something new and important. These were paintings, yes, but the actual nudes were closer to jazzy, colorfully decorative drawings (often erotic ones) than fully fleshed-out, realistically depicted women. 

They were beautiful, but so too were his paintings’ images of objects collaged from billboard advertising and magazines. And as he soon began creating his Still Life series, actual objects sometimes began to appear, too, in his paintings. A favorite in this show is bound to be the large, four-panel “Still Life No. 35” from 1963, with a collaged six-pack of Royal Crown Cola, open loaf of bread, Pan American Airline plane and Parisian cityscape. 

“He saw no difference in him using a Coke bottle or a Brillo Pad image in a painting than Picasso would have thought of using bottle of wine in his,” Sturges says. “This was his life, his everyday.”

He had a busy career and regular shows right up until he died in 2004, restlessly but resolutely shifting in subject matter and mediums, including painting on cut-out aluminum and an exploration of pure abstraction. But his reputation — his fame in the greater culture — did not hold up the way, say, those of Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein or Cincinnati native Jim Dine have. 

While alive, he had no major U.S. museum retrospective (although there was one in Europe and Japan). With the rise of feminism in the 1970s, his Nudes work was criticized for objectifying women. So this show is out to reestablish his reputation among art devotees and introduce him to those who may not know the name.

“What I see as a strength of his work, the inventiveness and the constant changing, can be a detriment in terms of being famous,” Sturges says. “Not everybody wants to follow along the whole way.” 

The criticism of sexism confused Wesselmann when it arose in the 1970s, Sturges says. “He gets criticized for no eyes and no nose [on some of his Great American Nudes], but his explanation is those details take away from the picture he’s making,” he says. “Matisse has a whole series of faceless nudes that he’s done. This is Tom’s presentation in the 1960s. If you look back at his work [during] the 1970s, maybe you’re not so happy about that.”
Jessica Flores, the art museum’s former contemporary art associate curator, thought about this topic when the Wesselmann show was being planned. “The common knee-jerk reaction is that Wesselmann’s depictions of women are sexist, which is a terribly uninteresting statement,” she says via email. “Far more exciting would be a discussion of his use of art genres to comment on gender, or what his ‘sexist’ images say about masculinity for his generation.”

Wesselmann was born in Cincinnati in 1931, and transferred to University of Cincinnati from Hiram College to study psychology, but was interrupted by the military draft in 1952. He became interested in cartooning while in the army and, after returning to UC and graduating in 1954, entered the Art Academy of Cincinnati. Using the GI Bill, he enrolled at Manhattan’s Cooper Union in 1956 and became exposed to the world of Contemporary fine art. 

Abstract Expressionists like Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell were a key influence, but not in the expected way. “In the beginning when Tom is going to make work and thinking about things he loves, he thinks of de Kooning,” Sturges says. “His work is big, so he’ll work small. It’s abstract so he’ll work figurative. It’s messy, so he’s going to work neat. He’s trying to define himself by negating what he loves.”

He was trying — and succeeding — to be a Great American Original of his time.
 © From Cincinnati CityBeat, 10-29-14

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