Talking to the enemy

The greatest challenge for a documentary film also happens to be its primary asset — its connection to real life.

Real life is complicated. It’s fuller and richer, if less theatrical, than any drama fictional cinema can typically produce. But it comes at the expense of easy answers and satisfying conclusions.

Documentaries constitute a sizable portion of my viewing habits, but I understand that their purpose tends to be informational first and entertaining second. I can accept that, as I see almost any artistic venture as an opportunity to learn and grow. Also, as a journalist, I don’t want facts sugarcoated. I don’t insist on happy endings to consider a film screening a worthwhile experience. But I admit there are times when the cold, sober truth gets to be too much. War. Hunger. Displacement. Racism. Alienation. Enough already. There must also be some uplifting elements to the real-life human experience.

Enter Daryl Davis. The subject of an Independent Lens film titled “Accidental Courtesy,” currently showing on PBS as part of Black History Month, Davis’ story is unique to say the least. An accomplished rock ‘n’ roll musician in his younger days, Davis has spent the last two decades reaching out to various leaders and foot soldiers of the American white separatist movement. Davis is black.

The premise seems quite ludicrous until you meet Davis and see how he operates. The son of a Foreign Service officer, Davis grew up all over the world, exposed to an assortment of racial, ethnic and religious environments, and consequently is at ease with people different from him. As an adult, Davis approaches those who would hate him — Ku Klux Klan members, American Nazis and other assorted white supremacists — with a simple proposition: “How you can hate me if you don’t even know me?” His worldly background informs his diplomatically oriented posture: If you want people to listen to you, you have to listen to them, no matter how objectionable you may find them to be.

It’s hard to judge how effective Davis’ quest has been. He boasts about two dozen KKK robes and hoods given to him by former members who left the organization as a result of their friendship with Davis. He maintains cordial relations with many others who remain active in the white power movement. Of one of them, he earnestly proclaims “I consider him my friend,” something that can be difficult to reconcile given the disturbing ideological tenets set forth in their conversations. But his method is one of gentle persuasion. Early on in the film, Davis offers the analogy of losing weight as a gradual and persistent process. He insists he’s not out to convert people; he simply engages them in a respectful and — most importantly — two-way dialogue, after which they may or may not decide to convert themselves. This measure of grace toward hatemongers no doubt raises eyebrows within the civil rights community, but Davis maintains a message of inclusion, that all Americans — even white racists — are countrymen and as such must find common ground.

The discussions are unexpectedly low-key and in some cases lighthearted — as much as they can be when they broach concerns over racial purity and the justification of violence. In one instance, Davis and a Klansman establish a bond through their love of rock ‘n’ roll music, even playfully disputing its original purveyor: Chuck Berry or Elvis Presley. That a claim so ridiculous can get caught up in a racially categorized worldview is distressing, if not comically so. Later, Davis secures another Klansman’s commitment to attend his wedding. The marriage would be an interracial one — blasphemy for white separatists — but the Klansman insists that if his “friend” wants him there, he’ll come.

Considering the volatile potential of Davis’ meetings with white racists, it’s surprising then that the most explosive exchange takes place in Baltimore, where several Black Lives Matter activists express their frustration with race relations in that city and offer a bitter reproach of Davis’ engagement tactics. After unleashing a scathing monologue — during which one of them questions the value of collecting two dozen KKK robes in over 20 years’ time — they deny Davis a chance to respond by storming out of the room, refusing even to shake his hand. It’s the only time in the film when his jovial charm fails him. He shrugs off the encounter with the observation that most people, black or white, reserve their bitterest vitriol not for the enemy but for members of their own group deemed to have sold out the cause.

Undeterred, Davis continues his mission. It’s clear that he takes the long view of history, holding firm to the belief that all people, no matter how twisted and hateful their ideology, given time, patience and a friendly ear, have the capacity to change. Whether they do is up to them. While a cynic can look around this country in 2017 and point out the lack of progress, Davis’ faith in his fellow Americans — even the worst among them — is a sentiment that’s hard to dismiss. He has the robes to prove it.

Turning the world on to feminism

It’s a fair assumption that Mary Richards and early feminism had a complicated relationship. The “Mary Tyler Moore Show” character was perhaps a little too refined, a little too feminine (quick to cry, always stylishly dressed) and only a few years removed from its earlier incarnation as the model of urbane, wifely domesticity in the “Dick Van Dyke Show’s” Laura Petrie. Feminism, meanwhile, took on a militancy in the 1970s that contrasted Richards’ (and Moore’s) sunny outlook.

But make no mistake: The “Mary Tyler Moore Show” made an immeasurable contribution to the feminist cause. Through television’s vast influence on the popular culture, Americans were exposed to a female archetype that was nothing short of revolutionary. Men saw a woman in the workplace other than a receptionist — a woman whose considerable responsibilities included supervising other men. Both men and women watched an over-30 single woman proceed through life with no particular desire to be married. This was a time when most women were married in their early 20s and had several children by 30. And most importantly, women were shown a new world of possibilities for themselves, their sisters or their daughters. You could get a job in a male-dominated industry. You could advance, and it was OK to be ambitious in your career. And, unthinkable for many at the time, you could be happy as a single woman. But it helps to bring a smile.

Ah, the famous smile that turned the world on. It was that smile that made “Mary Tyler Moore” so deceptive. Who could object to such a radiant intrusion into the workplace? As her naive optimism wore down gruff male co-workers, it also won over America. This wasn’t a rowdy street protest of butch extremists demanding equal rights. It was Mary. She smiled her way into a producer job for a Minneapolis TV news broadcast, then made the job made her own by countering male bluster with quiet competence. She wasn’t selling out the cause but advancing it with a Trojan horse of charm offensive. Behind the smile, Moore was producer of the show. She was the star — the only actor credited in the introduction via the show’s title — and led a cast that featured three strong (even dominant) female supporting characters. She had an array of female writers posing unique storylines that hadn’t been considered by male contemporaries.

But here’s the thing — it wasn’t exclusively female writers. It wasn’t an all-female cast. It was a vision of real life that, in terms of gender, gave a more balanced presentation than anything TV viewers had seen before. And it did so without compromising quality. The “Mary Tyler Moore Show” remains one of the most acclaimed and beloved series in TV history. Because for a half-hour, we got a peek into a world in which women and men lived and worked in relative harmony, and we found it fun, even comforting at times, and, oddly, not all that threatening.

A brief shining moment: A “Mary Tyler Moore” scene to remember

 

A change in tune

In his 2012 autobiography “Who I Am,” Pete Townshend relates a revelatory tidbit from the recording of the Who’s breakthrough hit “My Generation.” According to Townshend, the song’s multiple key changes were added at the suggestion of a producer who felt it would otherwise be too monotonous.

That’s saying something for a cut that’s 3 minutes, 18 seconds long. But it shows a canny understanding of the lightweight nature of pop/rock hooks. Good ones immediately catch the ear (and hopefully produce a sale) but often lack staying power. A key change — or in the case of “My Generation,” three key changes — can enable recording artists to extend the 10-15 second essence of their song to a marketable 2-3 minutes.

In most pop music, the general idea of a key change is to elevate emotional impact. It’s not so much a change in tone (from talking to shouting, for instance) as a change in landscape. It’s like staging the scene of a film on a busy city sidewalk, then having the actors recite the same lines in the middle of a forest. While conventional filmmakers typically don’t have that option, songwriters do. After a key change, a song will move through the same chord structure but at an altitude that sheds a different light on the vocals or instruments. Done well, it forwards a sentiment that other songwriting techniques can’t. It can convey new levels of joy — think The Carpenters’ “Close to You” — or profound sadness, as in Classics IV’s “Traces.” Either way, the effect on the listeners is liberating. The first two verses establish a set of parameters before the third shifts them to a new plane. Limits, once comfortable but quickly confining, suddenly become possibilities.

It’s a powerful songwriting tool, and the temptation to overdo it is natural. Last spring, as “research” for a feature I was writing on Barry Manilow, I listened to a dozen or so of his best-known love songs and found that every one of them employed a key change. Manilow was savvy at recognizing, like the Who, when the droning of a refrain needed a kickstart. Unlike the Who, the consistent need for that crutch did not spur Manilow into more sophisticated songwriting. It became a standard part of his playbook, and that of subsequent romance-heavy pop artists like Air Supply.

But it’s not just schmaltzy acts doing it. My Manilow experiment prompted me to monitor more broadly the music I hear at home, in the car, even at the grocery store, and it’s amazing how often key changes occur. Just last week I caught an episode of late-’70s TV sitcom “WKRP in Cincinnati,” and amazingly, the opening theme song climbs a half-step between the first and second of its two short verses. I have to admit, it works. And why wouldn’t it? After all, “WKRP” was a series dedicated to the classic AM radio era, an era defined by catchy pop hooks that, from “My Generation” to “Mandy,” made their way up the charts thanks to a boost up the scale.

Photo power

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes it speaks in a single scream.

Afghan photojournalist Massoud Hossaini shot just such a photo in the immediate aftermath of a suicide bombing during a religious festival in Kabul. Rarely have I seen an image so powerful that it immediately brought tears to my eyes, and the Pulitzer Prize Board agreed, awarding Hossaini the prize for breaking news photography.

Hossaini and several of his colleagues are featured in the 2015 documentary “Frame by Frame,” which looks at Afghanistan’s fledgling free press following the 2001 fall of the Taliban and its prohibition on photography of any kind. It’s not an easy job navigating a volatile political and social environment that is one of the most dangerous in the world. Insurgent attacks and government reprisals are common features of the daily news landscape. Female photographers carve themselves a niche in focusing their lenses on the nation’s women, taboo subject matter for their male counterparts, but that, too, comes with peril. When Farzana Wahidy brings her camera into a hospital burn ward to investigate the practice of self-immolation by women in the western city of Herat, officials balk at her presence, citing fears of Taliban violence.

The stories in “Frame by Frame” show a journalism community in its infancy, with its inherent optimism among the young crop of photographers determined to establish a free and vibrant Afghan press after decades of warfare and repression. True, much of that freedom relies on the dwindling U.S. presence in the region, without which the country could easily fall back under Taliban rule. But these photojournalists’ commitment to their homeland — as a Pulitzer winner, Hossaini could go easily leave the country for better, safer work — remains a beacon of hope that Afghanistan can reach its potential for a  peaceful, open society.

When a demo will do

Now our luck may have died and our love may be cold but with you forever I’ll stay

Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album “Nebraska” was a singular phenomenon. The release represented a thematic reversal for Springsteen’s career, both in its lyrics and sparse musical arrangement, but in a greater sense that arrangement signaled a stunning break from conventional wisdom with its rejection of traditional studio production techniques.

Springsteen recorded “Nebraska’s” tracks on a simple 4-track cassette device in his New Jersey home. The intention was to re-record these cuts with his band for the next studio album, but Springsteen decided to stick with the original demos, which would become the defining sound of a dark and barren album. It was a gutsy move for the Boss, who would quickly resume full-throttle studio productions with 1984’s  more commercially viable “Born in the U.S.A.” For one album, listeners were treated to a rarity in rock ‘n’ roll — 40 minutes of a man and his guitar (and harmonica) fully exposed against a stark and depressing lyrical landscape.

I’ve often wondered why albums like “Nebraska” are the exception rather than the rule. True, a demo recording is a first draft of sorts, but you could argue it’s the truest representation of the artist’s vision before a production team refines the song into something more palatable to public consumption. “Nebraska’s” rough edges comprise its greatest charms and in many ways outline the themes the album explores. The uneven mixing and flat instrumental and vocal tones exude a sense of loneliness and distance — and at the same time an intimacy — that fits the mood of the album, which is perhaps why Springsteen chose to go this route. A full album of, say, Britney Spears demos probably wouldn’t work out so well and would be better off in the hands of a skilled producer.

Occasionally I’ll hear demo versions of well-known pop hits that slip out of the vaults, either unintentionally or via official “stripped down” re-releases. Some leave me amazed at the voodoo that studio engineers do so well in turning a humdrum guitar-and-vocal piece into something truly remarkable. But more often than not, I’m disappointed at the intrusion of so much polish at the expense of the heart and soul of a song put forth in the artist’s original recording. When to turn on the studio magic and when to lay off is obviously the artist’s call, in consultation with his or her producers and/or collaborators. But my suspicion is that commercial concerns weigh heavily into these decisions, leaving me only to wonder how “Nebraska” would sound had Springsteen not had the audacity, and more importantly the clout, to follow his instincts.


Here’s an example of a highly polished, fully produced recording in John Lennon’s original studio release of the single “Woman,” from 1980’s “Double Fantasy.” The acoustic guitar is softened, presumably to suit the mood of a love song, and the voice is equally sweetened to puppy-love levels better suited to a high school dance.

Now listen to the “stripped down” version re-released in 2010. It’s technically not a demo, but a “remastered” version of the above studio recording that focuses on a simpler arrangement. The guitar isn’t so effected, and the voice, though not always in perfect tune, is pure John Lennon. This is probably more faithful to his original conception of the song, if not the demo he would’ve provided to the producer.

Tuning in

What can art teach us about politics? More than you’d think. Signals offered in creative expression can tell us a lot about the mood in the real world. But you have to be listening.

Clearly I wasn’t, and many of us weren’t, when Donald Trump pulled off his stunning victory in last month’s presidential election. Few pollsters, media analysts and pundits on the left or right saw it coming. Count me among them. Right up through the early evening of Nov. 8 there was no doubt in my mind that Hillary Clinton would be the next president of the United States.

Well, there was a small blip that, in retrospect, might have been a clue for me. That came in July, when rabble-rousing documentary filmmaker Michael Moore predicted a Trump win in what I dismissed as Moore’s typically outlandish political pessimism designed as a call to arms for complacent liberals. As an unapologetic partisan, Moore blurs the line between art and politics, but I’ve seen enough of his films to acknowledge his unique grasp of blue collar America. “Roger & Me” cataloged the human cost of Michigan’s disappearing industrial economy at a time when most of the media were focusing on the tech-driven economic revival of the 1990s. While terrorism and security dominated headlines in the early 2000s, “Sicko” called attention to what would become the defining policy debate of Barack Obama’s presidency — health-care reform. From the perspective of 2016 blue collar America, neither economic transformation nor crippling health care costs have been adequately addressed by leadership. Despite his annoying penchant for spinning the documentary form into screed, Moore has demonstrated an effective finger on the pulse of a disaffected constituency that was likely to buy into Trump’s vision and, as it turned out, was instrumental in delivering crucial swing states for the Republican.

In the aftermath of November’s election, Moore’s prophecy forced me to recalibrate my antennae for this constituency. It’s not an alien one, in fact quite familiar — generally (but not exclusively) white, lower educated, rural-based and highly vulnerable to the forces of globalization. It’s a group of people with whom I’m well acquainted through the music of John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen. Like Moore, both artists embrace liberal politics, and both have an uncanny understanding of the issues affecting this demographic. Listen to “Pink Houses” and you’ll hear the despair of people for whom America represents a failed promise. Given Mellencamp’s political leanings, I’d assumed his descriptions to be grounded in a liberal vision, but listening more closely, those lyrics outline a displaced class of people — high school educated industrial laborers and farmers — for whom a Trump presidency is a plausible alternative.

Springsteen has long billed himself as the voice of the working man, and nowhere was that voice more authentic than on his landmark “Born in the U.S.A.” album. The songs document the symptoms, on a human scale, associated with the demise of the manufacturing sector that once fueled the Rust Belt. But what they’re really about is a loss of a way of life. Where do people who took a union job out of high school at the local factory fit into an economy that suddenly requires new skill sets or new education levels? The hard answer, of course, is they don’t. They must adapt, and it’s those who haven’t who are susceptible to the Trump message. You can argue that it’s beyond the power of any president to control or roll back economic transformation, but it’s not a matter of choice for the characters in “Born in the U.S.A.” The world changed, and they feel abandoned. The implicit social bargain of blue collar America has been broken. As Springsteen says in “My Hometown,” “Foreman says these jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back.”

It goes without saying the clues offered here could never tell the whole story of the 2016 presidential race. There are too many complex forces in play in any election to lazily point to a few movies or songs as definitive social barometers. But after an event that many of us swore we didn’t or couldn’t see coming, let me be the first to admit that I missed — or disregarded — signals hiding in plain sight within the pop culture. After all, I’d been hearing it for years. I just wasn’t listening.

Defying convention

There was a time when television news was boring. When stone-faced, gray-haired anchors soberly announced, without any particular flair, the events of the day and then signed off. No commentary. No punditry or analysis. Just the facts.

It was not a particularly lucrative model for networks. In fact, it was a money loser but considered a public service duty as a condition of their FCC licenses. Johnny Carson and Dick Van Dyke brought in the profits, while the evening news was essentially a charitable write-off.

Today, television news is dominated by highly profitable cable networks who have developed a model that presents news as entertainment through a variety of programming innovations. We see younger, more attractive anchors. The coverage leans toward more sensational topics. And less sensational topics are presented with a sense of urgency (“BREAKING:”) that overhypes the subject. And finally, with 24 hours to fill each day, networks devote an increasing amount of airtime to reflection, analysis and debate. These three activities, and particularly the last, have given birth to what I’d call the punditry class — a group of people, typically ex-politicians, military leaders, scholars, authors, minor celebrities and other public figures who bring whatever expertise they have to the discussion at hand. And watching them hammer away at each other adds a uniquely entertaining flavor to what is otherwise an academic exercise.

The punditry phenomenon didn’t emerge as an epiphany from the offices of brilliant cable news executives. But you can bet they were paying attention when it was so skillfully demonstrated, long before the advent of cable, during the 1968 presidential campaign. It was then that relative news neophyte ABC, in a money-saving move, eschewed gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions and instead staged debates in what is now the classic left-vs.-right format.

Representing each side were the preeminent political thinkers of their time, William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, who agreed to a series of televised debates as a way of digesting the convention coverage. Featured in the 2015 documentary “Best of Enemies,” the conservative Buckley and liberal Vidal were intellectual giants, unmatched in any forum, until they met each other. Their hubris and arrogance was self-righteous at best, insufferable at worst, earning them devotees and critics alike who were all too happy to see either of them knocked down a peg on national TV.

The premise must’ve seemed tempting for viewers accustomed to the mindless minutia of a political convention, but the appeal only grew as the personal hostility between Buckley and Vidal became sharply evident. Throughout the summer the debates devolved into shouting matches of a particularly vindictive and, amazingly for such great minds, childish nature. Viewers became spectators, tuning in for knockout zingers rather than a succession of mental thrusts and parries. It all boiled over when Buckley, goaded by Vidal’s “crypto-Nazi” taunt, countered with a vicious tirade punctuated by a homosexual epithet and physical threat. The stunned network shut down the show, but as the lights came down, the smirking Vidal, presuming himself the winner, quipped to his still flushed rival that “we gave them their money’s worth.”

And that’s what it was all about. The debates earned ABC derision among its established, “proper” competitors, but the network got the last laugh. The experiment effectively ended gavel-to-gavel coverage of conventions, and plans for the 1972 campaign included enthusiastic nods to the Buckley-Vidal model. It was cheaper, less labor intensive and, most importantly, a ratings winner.

That’s the model cable networks have picked up on and what has since largely dominated television news. Is it a win for the viewers? Few of the pundits on the air today have the intellectual chops of a William F. Buckley or Gore Vidal, and with the substance of the discussion often getting lost in the shouting, the scale tilts heavily towards entertainment at the expense of information. But it’s not boring.