Sunday, June 18, 2006

Saturday Night at the Movies (again)

1. Just watched the movie Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, in which musician Jim White drives around the deep south looking for Guess Who. This entails trips to church services, bars, a prison, several service stations, and lots of swamps. Every several minutes there is a deliberately awkwardly staged musical interlude by someone like Johnny Dowd, the Handsome Family, or David Johansen. The fact that these folks hail from Ithaca, Chicago, and New York City, respectively, is never brought up. White does mention that he is originally from LA and doesn't feel entirely comfortable identifying as a southerner, but that doesn't seem to stop him from pontificating at length on the nature of religion and class below the Mason-Dixon line.

Pardon my skepticism, but the first hour or so is set in my home state of Louisiana, a place I'd like to think I know a thing or two about--although, I must now point out, I have not lived there for the last quarter century, which is one impediment to my own desire to address a camera from the wheel of a moving car spouting wisdom about the area.

This is a very frustrating movie, to put it mildly. The subject matter is fascinating, particularly in this era of supersimplified Red State/Blue State dichotomies (oddly, though, electoral politics is barely mentioned), and I was excited to see and hear all the musicians I named above, including White, and a bunch of locals I didn't know. Plus the film looks pretty. But it's just so damn contrived and condescending, and far too much of the dialogue feels scripted, and the end result feels like a bunch of big-city yankee hipsters slumming in the Exotic South for the amusement of others of their kind. (Hey, it caught my eye.)

2. It is possible that I found the movie even more annoying than I normally would have because I had just finished watching Celebration at Big Sur, a 1971 documentary about one of the many rock festivals that followed in the wake of Woodstock, and as flawed as it is, I still found it extremely moving on many levels. It's dated, in the best possible ways: truly a document of its time, from the headlining acts (Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, CSNY, John Sebastian) to the trippy camera work and editing. There are some really intriguing juxtapositions, like the point when a CSNY number ends, then Steven Stills gets into a near fistfight with a clearly stoned and obnoxious heckler, then there's a cut to someone saying the single word "money," then Stills in a calmer mood explains how wearing a fur coat onstage doesn't make one out of touch with The People.

The most striking thing about the movie when you watch it 35 years after the fact is the way it documents an event that could and would never happen today: the bands play on the grounds of the Esalen Institute, and the only thing separating the performers onstage from the crowd is ... a swimming pool. The acts hang out in the crowd watching the show when they're not playing, and almost everybody seems to sit in on each other's numbers. You really get the feeling a lot of them are making it up as they go. The whole affair feels more like a big party than a concert or festival. Needless to say, there are no corporate sponsors.

Gospel singer Dorothy Morrison and her group get several numbers; at one point Baez leads them on a mini-parade through the crowd. Seeing Morrison's music so prominently featured--and seeing the film end with everyone onstage singing a trancelike version of "Oh Happy Day"--it struck me that nothing like that would likely happen today, either.


Otherwise Unavailable said...

I have a complete Don Lennon show on my blog.

Ron said...

Thanks for the tip! And for the mp3s. I wish I'd discovered your blog while it was still active--but I'll certainly check out the archives.