We’re knee-deep in the El Nino season of 2015-16. I have a love-hate relationship with it: I love El Nino during hurricane season and hate it during the winter. The New Orleans metro area had a hellacious storm front last Tuesday. The city wasn’t impacted directly but there were nine confirmed tornadoes in the area that wreaked havoc in the outlying communities of Convent and LaPlace. It was like being an Okie for the day only without Jim Inhofe as your Senator. Of course, I have a whore monger and an empty suit as my Senators. so who am I to judge?
Before being uprooted for six weeks in 2005, the weather wasn’t a frequent topic of conversation in my house. For obvious reasons, I am now obsessed with the weather; so much so that I had twinges of PSTD when the wind was howling outside my door. Unlike Della and Oscar, I can’t hide under the bed when the weather sucks. I wouldn’t fit. Time for a brief meteorological musical interlude from the Brothers Finn:
I don’t really have a dog in the hunt in this year’s Oscar races. I suspect that wearing a beard and looking dirty and smelly will win Leonardo Decaprio his first Oscar. Handsome leading men have to ugly themselves up to be taken seriously viz George Clooney in Syriana. It’s a pity that Leo’s star turns in The Great Gatsby or The Aviator weren’t Oscarworthy but his duel with a bear in Revenant is. Of course, tangling with a bear did wonders for Daniel Boone’s career. Oh well, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and Paul Newman won their Oscars for the wrong movies too. It’s a funny old world, y’all.
This week’s theme song, All The Things You Are, was composed in 1939 by Jerome Kern and features lyrics by his Show Boat writing partner, Oscar Hammerstein. It was long a favorite of Jazz musicians because of its melodic and harmonic complexity. Here are four distinctive takes on the song from some Jazz greats:
Now that I’ve provided you with a Kernel of substance, it’s time for the break after which I plan to Hammerstein it up some more.
We begin with a glossy piece from the glossiest magazine I read, Vanity Fair:
The Newman Family Business: David Kamp has the details on how Randy Newman glided from a career as a sardonic singer-songwriter to one of the leading composers of movie music. Hint: it’s in the genes:
Big arrangements came naturally to Newman; his uncle Alfred, the oldest of his father’s six brothers, had from 1940 to 1960 been the musical director of Twentieth Century Fox, overseeing what was widely regarded as the best studio orchestra in Hollywood. Two other uncles, Emil and Lionel, were also composer-conductors. Why not wed that heritage to contemporary pop songs? For Randy and a few young compatriots in his native Los Angeles, including his fellow singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson and the two men who produced Randy Newman, Lenny Waronker and Van Dyke Parks, the late 60s were a time of open-ended pop possibility.
The L.A. art-pop movement described in the article also included Brian Wilson but things didn’t quite work out as planned for Newman, Nilsson, or Wilson. Newman eventually retreated to the family business to make a living but I’ll always have a special place in my heart for his solo albums, especially those with references to the Gret Stet of Louisiana in songs like this one:
We move from Randy Newman’s nostalgic look at his wartime childhood in the land of dreams to a gritty story of Reconstruction era South Carolina:
Robert Smalls: From Slavery to Capitol Hill– It’s Democratic primary day in the Palmetto State, which is one reason to post Baynard Woods’ look at the remarkable life of Robert Smalls. Another is that I have a Guardian quota to meet and this piece fits the bill. I, of course, made that last bit up but not this:
Robert Smalls was a slave who stole a Confederate ship during the civil war and brought it to the Union fleet, gained his freedom, managed to get elected to the state legislature, and ultimately served five terms in Congress.
I just wanted to give you a sample of the piece, which includes the less than shocking revelation that Smalls’ one-time owner was, more likely than not, his biological father. Unless Skip Gates commissions a DNA test, we’ll never know.
It’s time to go up North and visit Wisconsin. I promise not to make any beer or cheese jokes in this segment but it will take will power. This is not a joke: I love beer *and* cheese.
The Shame Of Wisconsin: I was late to Making a Murderer. I was in Krewe of Spank prep mode when it popped up on Netflix, plus I was finishing up Sons of Anarchy. I have mixed feelings about that biker show; it was full of great characters and performances but became too repetitively violent in its final seasons. It did give me a chance to spend time with Katey Sagal, Jimmy Smits, Maggie Siff, and Dayton Callie so it can’t be all bad. Dr. A refused to watch it except for a few minutes of Walton Goggins as Venus, the tranny hooker. Now *that* was must-see teevee.
Where was I? Oh yeah, there’s an interesting piece about Making a Murderer by Lorrie Moore in the high-toned New York Review of Books. I never expected to read about a true crime anything in the NYRB but Ms. Moore throws some culture at us while getting all grisly and gruesome:
More recently, Wisconsin is starting to become known less for its ever-struggling left-wing politics or artistic figures—Thornton Wilder, Laura Ingalls Wilder—than for its ever-wilder murderers. The famous late-nineteenth-century “Wisconsin Death Trip,” by which madness and mayhem established the legend that the place was a frigid frontier where inexplicably gruesome things occurred—perhaps due to mind-wrecking weather—has in recent decades seemingly spawned a cast of killers that includes Ed Gein (the inspiration for Psycho), the serial murderer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, and the two Waukesha girls who in 2014 stabbed a friend of theirs to honor their idol, the Internet animation Slender Man.
The new documentary Making a Murderer, directed and written by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, former film students from New York, is about the case of a Wisconsin man who served eighteen years in prison for sexual assault, after which he was exonerated with DNA evidence. He then became a poster boy for the Innocence Project, had his picture taken with the governor, had a justice commission begun in his name—only to be booked again, this time for murder.
Even though I’m a true crime connoisseur, I had a hard time getting into the first few episodes of Making a Murderer. I’m such a city boy that I’m more used to stories of the urban poor as opposed to Midwestern white trash; a harsh term but true in this case. Eventually, the genuine injustices and the salt-of-the-earth decency of Avery matriarch Dolores wore me down. The trial scenes were gobsmackingly good as well.
Moral of the story: NEVER TALK TO THE POLICE without a lawyer present if you’re a potential suspect. Avery’s dim nephew, Brandon Dassey, got a life sentence because the cops wore the befuddled youth down. Shut your gob, zip your lip, and keep ’em shut.
In the end, I liked Making a Murderer but I prefer true crime documentaries that let the viewer decide whodunit and why as opposed to advocacy pieces. That’s one reason I want to recommend The Staircase; a true crime documentary that presents Michael Peterson’s case in all its complexity. It also helped get Peterson a new trial even though director Jean Xavier de Lestrade is not convinced of his innocence. (I *am* convinced that he has a great name.) It’s currently showing on Sundance OnDemand and online. Check it out.
I give Making a Murderer 3 stars, an Adrastos grade of B, and a skinny Siskel thumbs up. As for The Staircase, it merits 3 1/2 stars, an Adrastos grade of B+, and a hefty Ebertian thumbs up.
We move on to a story about the historical roots of American gun-nuttery. It has something to do with a guy who often had difficulty telling the difference between life and the movies:
Gangsta Gipper? I somehow missed Rick Perlstein’s piece from earlier this month about Ronald Reagan and the pernicious “good guy with a gun” myth. I guess it had something to do with Carnivaling and shit. It turns out that Ronnie was just as delusional as many of his followers and packed a pistol in his briefcase whilst the Oval One:
Reagan’s longtime body man Jim Kuhn reported seeing the gun in Reagan’s briefcase (but only once). Biographer Craig Shirley, on the other hand—a conservative movement activist who has established an identity defying Washington insiders who’d seek to clean up what history might judge as Reagan’s extremism—said he’d already confirmed it with the head of Reagan’s post-presidential Secret Service detail. Shirley also reports that Reagan had begun the practice after John Hinckley’s 1981 assassination attempt, that he “routinely” brought the gun aboard flights on Air Force One and Marine One, that he’d defied both Nancy and the Secret Service to do so (“Who’s going to say no to the President?”), and that, though Alzheimer’s-ridden, he continued the practice until the Secret Service finally took the gun from him in 1994.
I’ve written about how Reagan was instrumental, in the 1970s, in promoting the ideology of the newly emergent hard-right faction in the NRA. “Guns don’t make criminals,” he said on his radio show in 1975. “It’s criminals who make use of guns. They’re the ones who should be punished––not the law-abiding citizen who seeks to defend himself.” (In 1980, the hard-right faction having taken over, the NRA endorsed Reagan for president, the first time it had endorsed a candidate for the presidency.)
We’re paying for Reagan’s “life is a movie” mythos and the politicization of the NRA to this very day. It never occurs to these people that today’s good guy could be tomorrow’s bad guy or that introducing a gun into any situation is perilous and potentially deadly. Malakatude, pure and simple.
Finally, let’s circle back to Randy Newman:
Saturday Classic: We’re still stuck in the 1970’s this week but I could not resist posting one of Randy Newman’s finest albums 1972’s Sail Away, which addresses many of the themes we’ve touched on today. Additionally, it has some of Newman’s wittiest lyrics and finest melodies. What’s not to love about an album that has a song whose narrator is God?
That’s it for this week’s marginally amazing journey. We’ll be back with more stuff and nonsense next Saturday. For now, it’s time for the woman who played Catwoman on the big screen, Lee Meriwether, to bid you a fond adieu:
Now that’s wether worth taking everywhere you go. What a purrfectly dreadful pun…